Slow weekend

This weekend we had a visit from friends traveling from their home in Iowa to see relatives in Massachusetts. They arrived in time for Sunday supper; we tackled a huge pot of chicken gumbo, followed with apple and peach pies, and then sat around and visited. Monday we spent about half the day at the park across the street, poking around in the creek and playing on the playground and visiting some more and eating homemade sub sandwiches. Later we came home to cool off and let the younger ones get naps, and visited some more. Supper was grilled chicken breasts marinated in Thai peanut sauce, and salad fresh from the garden, and homemade cookies. Afterwards we ran kids through baths and showers, put their five and our six to bed, and visited some more. This morning we saw them off as they headed north into Virginia.

And now today we’re tending to all the small chores we let slide during the visit. It’ll take a day to catch up, but it’s a pleasant reminder that even though it was a slow and relaxed weekend, we really did turn our attention from our everyday activities to our guests while we were here.

There’s enough left to do to keep me from writing at length today. I’m hoping to get back to it tomorrow.

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Weekend

I’ve fallen into the habit of posting something every day but Sunday. It’s a good habit to have, I think; sometimes when I think I have nothing to say one day, the pressure not to break the pattern is enough to help me think of something.

But I’ll be taking a short break this weekend. We’re scrambling to complete a large order. Chris and I will be playing music at a local restaurant tonight. I’m making gumbo tomorrow for some friends who are coming to stay with us for the Memorial Day weekend. And the next piece of writing looks like it will be longer and more involved than usual. So I don’t expect to post again until Tuesday.

Teachability

Let’s revisit a quote that is often attributed to Mark Twain:

When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.

I was certainly that boy at fourteen. But it took me longer than seven years to come to a proper appreciation of knowledge and wisdom. During my college career (all nine years of it), I maneuvered myself into positions where I could excel without applying myself—either the work came to me naturally, or the standards of excellence were very low. Unfortunately, I ended up the way most liberal arts scholars end up, with a collection of highly refined skills that the market had no interest in.

With the help of my thesis adviser, I found a job programming computers, something I had never done before but discovered that I had a natural aptitude for. Then a year later a classmate who had gone to work in the Texas Instruments research labs arranged to have me hired, again to program computers, but at a level that was way over my head.

That was the beginning of a long series of adventures which had one thing in common: I was in over my head. I got to work with some of the smartest and most experienced people imaginable, and all I could bring to the table was a willingness to learn how to do a new job. Which, it turned out, was enough. As long as I was willing to present myself teachable, I received the wisdom and guidance I needed to get my head above water.

Along the way I met many people who had similar opportunities but failed to seize them. Sometimes the problem was simple fear of failure. More often it was a prideful reluctance to put themselves in a situation where they had submit to the guidance of others in order to survive. Neither was true of me—I was never afraid of falling on my face as long as I had made an honest effort, and I always welcomed the chance to benefit from the oversight of wiser men—and so I’ve been able to develop expertise in quite a few areas.

Even as varied as my background is, it doesn’t come close to the breadth of experience that someone like Ben Franklin had before he turned twenty. Part of the reason we are moving in an agrarian direction is that I hope such a life will give our children the opportunity to avoid specializing, to develop a broad range of basic skills. Above all, I want them to have a teachable spirit, so that they will be able to develop those skills quickly and effectively under the supervision of those who already have them.

When I talk about teachability, I like to use the word “docile,” because people hate it; for them it conjures up the idea of submissiveness, a majorly bad thing in this modern age. But there is a sort of submission that is critical to being properly teachable; we need to start with the assumption that the teacher knows more than we do, and we need to hear him and understand him thoroughly before we begin to judge what he says.

In How to Read a Book, Adler and Van Doren write about how teachability is a virtue that is critical for effective reading:

We are discussing here the virtue of teachability—a virtue that is almost always misunderstood. Teachability is often confused with subservience. A person is wrongly thought to be teachable if he is passive and pliable. On the contrary, teachability is an extremely active virtue. No one is really teachable who does not freely exercise his power of independent judgment. He can be trained, perhaps, but not taught. The most teachable reader is, therefore, the most critical. He is the reader who finally responds to a book by the greatest effort to make up his own mind on the matters the author has discussed.

We say “finally” because teachability requires that a teacher be fully heard and, more than that, understood before he is judged. We should add also that sheere amount of effort is not an adequate criterion of teachability. The reader must know how to judge a book, just as he must know how to arrive at an understanding of its contents.

In this quote there’s a little too much “I’ll be the judge of that” for my taste, but they are right to emphasize the activeness of the teachable mind—questioning, drawing implications, working to fill in gaps, comparing to what is already known. This is the Berean attitude, open and eager, but diligent to test as well.

Cutting edge technology

At least some of my readers must think it’s ironic (maybe even hypocritical) that someone who spends so much time writing negatively about technology should earn his living in a way that is so dependent on the latest technological developments. Publishing a book, printing a catalog, becoming a small-scale bookseller, creating an internet-based business, recording and duplicating a Bible study or a conversation—all of these are activities that have only become possible for individuals in the past few years, and all of them have become possible because of recent technological developments.

I hope that most of my readers understand that my gripe is not with technology per se, but with our tendency to misuse it and to worship it. I can admire the technical accomplishment of, say, creating a small electronic device that contain one’s entire collection of recorded music, and still be concerned that such a device tempts people more than ever to opt out of public life by traveling through public space while enveloped in their own private audio bubble.

I’m old enough now to still be surprised at developments that many adults take for granted, and astonished by developments that others greet as merely the next new thing. Desktop computing still surprises me, since my first experiences were with computers that were large and expensive and shared among thousands of people. I remember being shocked to learn that someone had figured out a way that you could record your own audio CD using a home computer and a not especially expensive drive; the fact that it used a laser, a very high-tech gizmo, to melt parts of the CD made it even more shocking.

I tend to be most fascinated by cutting-edge technology at the low end. Right now I’m listening to our automatic CD duplicator slowly work its way through a very large job. It is almost a Rube Goldberg contraption. Someone figured out how to take a bunch of off-the-shelf parts—a CD-burning drive, an inkjet printer, a simple robotic arm—and combine them into a machine that can pick up a CD from one stack, plop it into the CD drive for burning, pick it out of the CD drive and put it onto a printer tray so that the label can be printed, pick it out of the printer tray and move it into a second stack of finished discs. The machine is slow and not totally reliable, but it is capable of automatically performing a task that either requires lots of manual intervention or a machine that costs many times as much.

So I listen to disc after disc travel through the machine, and I admire the ingenuity of the designer, and I appreciate the fact that I couldn’t otherwise afford to duplicate discs in these quantities. And I wonder about whether it is a good thing that a lecture or conversation can be distributed so trivially to just about anyone in the known world.

Defiance

Let’s revisit the anecdoete about the defiant little boy:

There’s an old story about a father disciplining his son. “Sit down,” the man says, and the boy refuses. “I said sit down,” the father demands, but the boy continues to stand. The father grabs the boy’s shoulders and forcibly puts him into the chair, whereupon the lad says, “I’m sitting down on the outside but I’m standing up on the inside.”

The question is: now what? The boy is sitting down; is that enough?

Let’s sharpen the point a bit:

“Sit down,” the man says, and the boy refuses. “I said sit down,” the father demands, but the boy continues to stand.

The father takes the boy aside, confronts him with his sin, gets him to admit that he was sinning, administers a spanking, takes the boy on his knee, asks him if he is sorry for what he did, receives the boy’s assurance that he is sorry, prays with the boy, then returns with the boy, who sits in the chair.

Whereupon the lad says, though not necessarily in words, “I’m sitting down on the outside but I’m standing up on the inside.”

I’ve been through variations on this story many, many times. It can be infuriating. After all, God put me in charge; He gave me both the responsibility and the authority for dealing with such situations. Unfortunately, He didn’t provide me with the means to change someone else’s heart. And so if that heart is set on defying my authority, even if only in private, then that particular sin—defiance—is by definition out of my reach, maddeningly so.

When confronted with defiance, I used to make a fairly common mistake—I refused to pronounce the situation resolved until the offender exhibited a sufficiently repentant and submissive attitude. And there was no clear, externally established standard for what was sufficient, just my own private judgment. This led to tense, lengthy standoffs which were usually resolved when the offender was willing to say words and assume a demeanor that could be interpreted as repentant and submissive. Of course, there was no necessary connection between the words or demeanor and the attitude of the heart; the same outward behavior could follow from both a truly changed attitude and a simple desire to say or do whatever it took to end the standoff. And, of course, my own private judgment on whether there was sufficient repentance and submission was greatly affected by my own desire to get the unpleasant situation over and done with.

I changed my mind on this when I saw what was coming. Early on it was possible to bend our children’s will to ours, to confront them with their bad attitude and push them to repent of it, but only because of their own youthful lack of guile. We used to laugh at how surprised our kids were when they were discovered doing something wrong; we always found them out, because they had no idea that stealth was an option. But we realized that it was all too easy to put a stumbling block in their way by making the consequences of being discovered so bad that they would be highly motivated to develop the skills that would help them to escape detection.

In the same way, repeatedly forcing an unpleasant confrontation over a bad attitude where the only way out is repentance and submission can provide major motivation for the offender to learn to simulate repentance and submission. Generally what keeps someone from doing this automatically is their pride, their unwillingness to acknowledge that they are under legitimate authority. But humility is not the only way out; developing a robust contempt for authority—in effect denying its legitimacy—will also work, since it is easier for us to mask and misrepresent our true attitude if we have no respect for the one who is demanding a testimony. The guidance and protection that a loving authority can provide is precious, and I can’t risk cutting off my children from the blessings of authority by hardening their hearts against it unnecessarily.

These days we generally don’t require repentance for having a sinful attitude. We will admonish a child who exhibits one, and we will counsel them at length about the dangers of cultivating a sinful attitude. And when sinful action was clearly motivated by a sinful attitude, the child will get an earful about their attitude while they are being disciplined.

But discipline in our house is focused on wrong action, not wrong attitude. I realize that a bad attitude is a sin and should be confronted, but I don’t have the wisdom necessary to do so without putting a stumbling block in the child’s way, to do so without provoking him to wrath, to do so without tempting him to even greater sin.

If you have wisdom of your own to offer on this matter, I’d be grateful if you shared it with me. Write me at saenz@cumberlandbooks.com.

Jacques Ellul

I own nearly fifty books by Jacques Ellul. I’ve only read a couple of them. But what I’ve read by Ellul has convinced me that he is a thinker of the first order, and so I’ve gradually tracked down copies of his works, which are nearly all out of print. Why haven’t I read more of them. Well, they’re hard.

Ellul devoted himself to the study of modern society, with a special emphasis on the role of technology. His conception of technology was very broad, encompassing such phenomena as propaganda and bureaucracy. His book Propaganda is very good, but it is also very dense reading (he doesn’t even define the term “propaganda” until page 78). He is most famous for his book The Technological Society, which I have begun a couple of times but never made much progress on.

Ellul was a Christian, a very public one, but he kept his theological writing separate from his sociological writing. For every topic he studied he wrote two sets of books, one theological and one sociological. His theological approach was derived from neo-orthodoxy, his sociological approach from Marxist dialectic, but his thinking is strictly original. Ellul is a bomb-thrower; his value is more in observations made and questions raised rather than solutions proposed.

Ellul has been on my mind lately, and so I started re-reading his very first book, The Presence of the Kingdom. It is a very unusual book; in 127 pages he sketches out a point of view that he spent the rest of his career elaborating, in fifty books and 1500 articles. The edition I have begins with a brief overview by Daniel Clenendin of Ellul’s life and thought, with some representative quotes from Ellul.

Clenendin writes of Ellul’s idea of the antithesis:

Contrary to advocating withdrawal from the world or urging a lifeboat ethic, Ellul challenges us to embrace and preserve the world. God alone will effect our separation in his own time. This resolute engagement requries a dialectical and agonistic style of life which remains very much in the world even as it rejects worldliness (cf. John 17). To be in the world also requires us to understand it in both its material and spiritual aspects, a task Ellul has undertaken in his sociological and theological works and which he challenges us to better. By rejecting the twin perils of spiritualization (which neglects material realities) and capitulation (which simply adopts one of the world’s many different options that appears to harmonize with Christianity), the Christian plays a truly creative role and gives meaning and direction to hsitory, which otherwise has no logic or certitude.

Furthermore, what is first required of the Christian is not action (although that cannot be neglected) but a presence, a style of life, an attitude, a special mode of existence. Few people, of course, will find this advice very heartening, but that only reveals our irrepressible predisposition for and enslavement to the alternative of absolute technical efficiency. Authentic Christian existence trusts in the power of the Holy Spirit to give our “presence” a revolutionary and explosive force in history. By incarnating their God-given identity as light, salt, and sheep, Christians effect a present reality of the Kingdom of God which will be culminated in the future.

And Ellul himself on the antithesis:

A Christian ought to understand his responsibility in this adventure, for Christianity (and God) will not act ipso facto in this sense. This adventure is not the course of history, which will go on, whether we wish it to or not. It may be realized, and it may not be realized. God may act, or He may not act, and when God wishes to act He ought to find instruments which are supple and obedient, ready for his use. We ought to remind ourselves constantly of the lesson given us in the Scriptures, that God rarely acts in a transcendent manner; on the contrary, as a rule He chooses a human instrument to accomplish His work. Now in this work of God, which is actually decisive, will God find the people He needs?

Our responsibility is not to effect change, or even to be the instrument that God in fact uses to effect change. Our responsibility is to be a proper instrument, supple and obedient, suitable to the task, whether or not God chooses to employ us. And wouldn’t that be glorious enough—to become a tool suitable for God’s use? Wouldn’t actually being used just be extra gravy?

Know what you don't know

During his trial, Socrates tells his listeners that the Oracle at Delphi had declared him to be the wisest of men—which surprised him, because he didn’t consider himself to be wise at all.

When I heard the answer, I said to myself, What can the god mean? and what is the interpretation of this riddle? for I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men? And yet he is a god and cannot lie; that would be against his nature. After a long consideration, I at last thought of a method of trying the question. I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I should say to him, “Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you said that I was the wisest.”

Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed to him—his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination—and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me.

So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is—for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know.

Society tells us that the wise man has something confident to say on any given topic; Socrates tells us otherwise. It is important to know the limits of your knowledge, to be as confident about what you don’t know as what you do know. Too often we reach a conclusion or offer an opinion without even stopping to think if we know the things needed to support it. We like the conclusion or opinion, and we can’t think offhand of any reason why it might not be true, and so we go with it.

There’s certainly something natural about being opinionated. I am often astonished to hear one of our children express an opinion on some matter that they are totally uninformed about, an opinion so brash and sweeping and unqualified that I would be embarrassed to make such a pronouncement even after long and careful study. The rebuke they get is harsher than usual, because I want them to instinctively shy away from behavior that is self-indulgent and misleading.

Even harsher is the rebuke they get when they thoughtlessly assure us that something is so which later turns out to be not so. We’re at the hardware store buying a new light fixture, and we know we’ll need bulbs for it, but we’re assured that there are still plenty of light bulbs at home. In fact, we later discover that there are no light bulbs at home. The excuse: “Well, I thought we still had some light bulbs.” Now, being out of light bulbs is a small problem, easily fixed. But a habit of answering questions thoughtlessly is not innocuous at all, but one that can quickly establish someone as arrogant, inconsiderate, and untrustworthy, and so it is a problem that needs to be taken very seriously.

When you are inclined to offer an opinion, here is a gauntlet I suggest that you run it past:

  • First, be reluctant to offer an opinion. Don’t do it merely for entertainment value. Don’t do it merely to take a side in an argument. Don’t do it simply to defend a friend. Don’t do it merely to rebuke a foe. Don’t do it merely to keep the conversation going. Don’t do it merely to demonstrate that you, too, have something to say about a matter under discussion.
  • If your opinion might edify a listener or move a situation forward for the good, then continue to be reluctant to offer it. Are you certain that offering your opinion will do more good than harm? Does your listener’s need for edification outweigh the risk of telling him something that might be biased or misleading or inflammatory or manipulative or an occasion for pride on your part? Is it possible that the situation will move forward for the good anyway, without an assist from you?
  • If you are still inclined to offer an opinion, be sure to do the work required to make that opinion worth offering. Revise out the parts that aren’t strongly supported by the facts you know, that might cause unnecessary offense, that might lead to unwarranted assumptions by the listeners, that might encourage your listeners to ooh and ahh over your courage or transparency or life experience or cleverness. Then go ahead and triple-check the stuff you’re basing your opinion on, so you aren’t reduced to answering “I read it somewhere recently ….” or “I think either Ben Franklin or G.K. Chesterton said something similar …” when someone asks you where you got your facts.
  • Once you have properly qualified your opinion to the point that is is solidly supported and irenic and fairly certain to make just the point you intend and will not be an occasion for pride on your part—then consider again whether it is an opinion worth expressing at all. Qualification may have reduced it to an observation that is much less compelling and not worth spending other people’s time on.
  • Even if you continue to find your opinion compelling, think again about the value of presenting it publicly. There are no shortage of compelling opinions available for the idle listener’s delectation. In fact, consuming opinions (and feeding one’s own back into the mix) has become a major source of entertainment. Even if your own opinion is true and good and compelling and relevant, consider the possibility that offering it will do more harm than good by giving listeners one more opportunity to hear a compelling case without letting it affect their own thinking.
  • If you do end up offering your opinion, say it like you mean it. Offer your opinions with the force of convictions, not as fodder for conversation or just one more point of view to consider. If you can’t get comfortable with presenting your opinion as a firmly held belief, then it probably needs more refinement and qualification.

It’s a gauntlet that I try to employ whenever I prepare my own thinking for public consumption, even this particular piece of writing. There are many, many subjects currently being discussed that I expect I will never comment on publicly. Some of them I am blessed to have little interest in, such as terrorism or the emergent church or the Federal Vision. Some of them I have been blessed to lose interest in, such as politics.

There are other matters that I follow with interest, such as Terri Schiavo and the growing tension between Christ Church and the freethinkers of Moscow. The issues they raise occupy my thoughts, and I get frustrated when I see my own conclusions go unrepresented in the public discussion, but even when the urge to formulate and express an opinion begins to bubble up, it never makes it past the gauntlet, and so I generally lie down until the urge passes.

Given the frequency with which I post, and the length at which I write, it may appear that I consider myself in the business of offering an opinion on just about any topic that comes along. I hope that someone who scans the archives will find that this isn’t true, that the topics I address are restricted to those where I think I know something for sure (a fairly small range), and that I try to confine myself to writing only those things I’m sure about. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to decide whether I apply my own standards strictly enough.