Life before a watching world: other voices

Even before I’m able to get my act together writing the entries in this series, I find myself reading online friends who are writing more interesting things on this subject than I probably will, and a few good things that I wouldn’t have written at all. So, as a preliminary, let’s look at those.

Cindy at Dominion Family writes about the nature of online friendships. Her key observation:

In order to be successful, communities must be small. One reason is that we can only feel deeply about so many things.

True community only thrives when the members deeply care for one another. If we think that our online relationships are on the same plane, then we should probably rethink what it means to care deeply.

Myself, I don’t really view my online relationships as friendships at all. Some of them are potential friendships, i.e. I suspect we would get along well if we were in close proximity and regular physical contact. Some I am sure could never go any deeper than they go online. And some I would rather not put to the test.

One other category that may be worth thinking about: interrupted (or perhaps intermittent) friendships. We have a few good friends who are physically distant and who we see only occasionally; some of those friendships developed when we lived in physical community, and some developed over the distance. What I find is that while we are apart we make contact casually and infrequently. But on the rare occasion that we can get together, we are fully in the moment for as long as it lasts; years may have gone by since the last visit, and it may be years before the next one, but for the length of the visit it is as if we lived a few houses down. Much different that the constant but shallow contact that online technologies foster.

I recommend you read all the comments on Cindy’s post. One of them comes from the Deputy Headmistress, who expands on the comment on her own blog, describing her own approach to online life and adding some important cautions about how we conduct ourselves in this new medium:

I think we should think very carefully about how we speak about our families in public, and this internet medium is ever so much more public than public. It doesn’t go away. You can delete a page or a post, but it can be retrieved again through google’s cache or the internet archives, or somebody else will have saved a screenshot, or printed it out. Our children are going to grow up and see the things we said about them to hundreds or thousands of other total strangers, and they may resent it.

I see so many people publicizing things about their children or their spouses that make me cringe. I think about how I would feel if my children or my husband posted publicly about my most PMS of moments, telling the entire world and all our nearest and dearest strangers my most unlovely traits. That would be a painful betrayal, and the unkindest cut of all seems to me to be allegedly posting those negative things about our family members under the guise of ‘being real’ or ‘needing prayer’.

We should be ‘real’ with our REAL life friends- the ones who can see more sides than the one we choose to present in print, because however fair and honest we may try to be, we still are human and cannot help but be slanted in how we present details. We should be real with those real life friends who we can trust to be real back, to be honest and tell us, "You are not being fair," or "Yes, that’s true, but does it matter? Does it alter how you are supposed to be respond?"

As I suggested in my introduction to this series, there are new behaviors we need to develop and learn in order to live uprightly in these new contexts. But the principles that will shape these new behaviors are really older than dirt, the same ones that have forged our traditional understanding of how to treat others in real life.

Another good comment comes from Laura A, who points out that online acquaintances, while perhaps not friends, can help us in ways that our real-life friends can’t or wont:

A big reason I like to read online is to discuss books and ideas, or just ways of living, that don’t appeal to most people I know. I think it’s a decent compromise. Young moms don’t always have time to go across town to some special evening discussion group, so reading online helps them to discuss things when they have time, which may only be during a 15-minute break during the day.

Laura also mentions this recent article in the Wall Street Journal which points out that the nature of online life forces us to develop one uniform personality fit for global consumption, whereas in real life we can be appropriately different to different sets of acquaintances.  I’ve thought about this difficulty before, and my response is in some sense to define it away by investing my online presence with as little personality as possible.

By which I don’t mean an inhuman objectivity, but more a writerly detachment. I’ve read many excellent books where I think much of the excellence derives from the fact that the writer refrains from injecting much of himself into the writing. I finish the book admiring the ideas and the writer’s thinking, perhaps also his mastery of writing, but with no desire one way or the other to meet him. I’d like to develop a similar detachment with my own readers.

My hero and model for this is the late Neil Postman. I stand in awe of his thinking and nearly weep at the lucidity of his writing. And I suspect that in his personal life he was a good and decent human being. But I never especially wanted to meet him, or know about his family or daily life, and I couldn’t guess whether we would have enjoyed spending time together.

Music of Coal: the rest of the story

As promised, the other two Music of Coal videos. The performance of “Miner’s Prayer” is not representative (way too fast), but “Which Side Are You On?” is very much the way we do it every time; it’s Ron’s arrangement, and I think it’s pretty good.

Children of Light, by Robert Lowell

I don’t read much poetry, but I stand in awe of this one, which I stumbled across this morning:

Our fathers wrung their bread from stocks and stones
And fenced their gardens with the Redmen’s bones;
Embarking from the Nether Land of Holland,
Pilgrims unhouseled by Geneva’s night,
They planted here the Serpent’s seeds of light;
And here the pivoting searchlights probe to shock
The riotous glass houses built on rock,
And candles gutter by an empty altar,
And light is where the landless blood of Cain
Is burning, burning the unburied grain.

A bit different view of the American Puritan legacy than you’ll hear in conservative Protesant circles, don’t you think? At the time Lowell wrote this poem he was a Roman Catholic, apparently a fierce one.

Leave a comment if you like, but not about whether Lowell’s portrait is fair and balanced; why look to him for that? But the poet has leveled an accusation, and it’s worth thinking about how much truth it contains. I’m somewhat sympathetic to Lowell’s concise history of the U.S., and so I’ll spend some time thinking about whether the connection he makes with Puritanism is a home truth for agrarians, or just a partisan attempt to place the blame.

For further reading, I highly recommend this piece by Ron Rosenbaum about the poem, which does a bit of exegisis and a bit of historical investigation. (Warning: a particular obscenity appears a few times, but not in a prurient way.) Among other good observations, Rosenbaum points out that to read the poem properly you need to know what unhouseled means.

Music of Coal performance

A week ago Friday Chris and I played as part of the Music of Coal band, in Jonesborough, Tenn. A local cable TV channel recorded the show, and sent us copies of the recording. Here are two songs from the performance. I have two other videos to upload, when I get around to it.

Life before a watching world: introduction

You might think, given the title of this post, that I am about to write something about Christians living a visibly upright life. And that idea will come into play at various points along the line. But what leads me to write this post is a more general thought, namely that in this modern age it has become dramatically less likely that any of our actions or conversations will remain private. Stated so bluntly, that thought may be a scary one. But I think that is because we haven’t reflected much on privacy or its importance in our lives, and so I’d like to raise a few questions about privacy that have lately occurred to me. It will probably take me a few posts to cover them all.

Many of the questions spring from the reigning ethic of the moment: let no thought go unblogged. Or, more generally, anything you say or do is of potential interest to the world and as such should be recorded for later consumption by the public. Blogs started it, but the idea has spread in tandem with the technologies that make it possible, podcasting and YouTube and Flickr and MySpace and Twitter and Facebook. I’m having a hard time zeroing in on what motives unify this development, if any, but one practical result is that we are now engaged in crafting online versions of ourselves for others to consider.

In itself, I suppose there is nothing wrong with this. I’m not impressed with the idea that we have a true or natural self that is separate from the different public (and even private) selves we exhibit in different situations. I think that idea is generally used to deflect responsibility for the things that those constructed personas (personae?) do and say. Better to see those selves as just one self behaving differently in response to the circumstances at hand. And so an online persona would be just one more persona, deliberately constructed and shaped according to one’s online circumstances.

But as we construct a persona there is always the temptation to misrepresent for the sake of various unworthy goals—to make ourselves more attractive, to chuckle over the gullibility of others, to gain some advantage real or imagined. We have enough experience with people’s real life behavior to help protect us from these things in that arena (and these are definitely learned skills—I spend a lot of time teaching my own children about them as we discuss the behavior of people we encounter), but cyberspace has put a whole new set of tools at our disposal, tools whose use we aren’t all that familiar with, tools that can easily be wielded against us because lack of experience with them makes us credulous.

There is also the danger of doing damage to the reputations of others, intentionally or not, by publishing information about them that could be misinterpreted or misused. The techniques for controlling the spread of information that work in real life do not work very well on the internet, and in fact new techniques may be needed to speak kindly and thoughtfully in the new social contexts that the internet has created

As fraught with danger as cyberspace can be, I am strangely encouraged by the challenge that it presents to Christians, because I see it as an opportunity to set a thoughtful, coherent example for others. If it is true that Western civilization is livable because of its Christian foundations, because Christendom produced and stored up ample seed corn that a declining culture continues to sustain itself with, then perhaps Christians might minister to a fallen world by figuring out what it means to be civil in cyberspace, what protocols and habits and kindnesses are needed that online neighbors might live together peaceably. For if not Christians, then who?

As I’ve thought through various questions about how to live a visibly righteous life in cyberspace, I’ve come to a few conclusions, some more tentative than others, none of them definitive, all of them personal. In subsequent posts I will describe some of the ways I try to behave; I offer them not as standards I think you should adopt, but as examples that might spur you to think further about the issues they address.

Dave Black’s upcoming book

I don’t think I’ve been as eager to see a book released as I am for Dave Black’s The Downward Path of Jesus: From Cultural Conformity to Radical Discipleship. Dave tells us on his blog (which doesn’t have permalinks, so look for it at 9:50am on Monday, March 23) that it will be published soon:

I’m excited about this book. It’s been a long time gestating. I’m told that the book will be out sometime in July. Of this year. That would be a record for anything I’ve ever published.

I’m eager to see what happens next. There are many excellent books on discipleship written from the viewpoint of a philosopher or skilled debater. This is not one of them. I don’t offer the thoughts of a scholar or theologian. This is a book written out of my own experiences. It is written for anyone who is dissatisfied with cultural Christianity and who longs for greater unity in the whole Body of Christ. Its plea is that we get serious about following Jesus.

I draw great courage from the fact that a new generation of Christians is awakening to Jesus’ call to a sacrificial lifestyle. I see them everywhere I go. They are willing and eager to move from a "serve us" mentality to a "service" mentality. They are truly the great generation.

I know from having read the essays Dave has written on this topic that the book will provide vital practical help to all who yearn to apply a pure and simple understanding of New Testament ecclesiology to their own circumstances, what Dave calls “radical discipleship.” I agree that this is the need of the hour; not only Christians but those in the world are suffering because the things that fire us up as Christians tend to divide rather than unite us.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, however, insists that the essence of Christian community lies in transcending the things that divide us for the sake of the much greater thing that unites us, namely our bond in Jesus Christ. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1) As I read that verse, not only will the brethren experience joy and goodness when unity is achieved, but the watching world will behold it, and (I conclude) will themselves see Jesus more clearly in the result.

Later Dave elaborates his idea of radical discipleship (at 12:36pm on Thursday, March 26):

I argue in The Downward Path of Jesus that New Testament ecclesiology is much more than "doing church right." If we are to be true to the New Testament vision of the church as a family, then we must insist upon a more costly and participatory manifestation of the unity and diversity of Christ’s Body.

The patterns that I read in the New Testament lead me to conclude that a successful church is much more than an organization with a hard-working paid staff, a large and expanding membership, a growing budget, and a multiplicity of programs. The church, to me, is simply a group of radical Jesus-followers ministering to each other sacrificially and reaching the community about them with the Gospel in word and deed.

This kind of radical discipleship as taught by Jesus and modeled for us by the early church is, in my thinking, the great need of the hour. Being a citizen of Christ’s kingdom involves a commitment to a radical way of living that both rejects the corrosive influences of Christendom and embraces a citizenship status quite apart from political or official church structures in any given time or place. Christian discipleship means trading everything for the privilege of gathering voluntarily around the person and example of Christ and giving all for the cause of Christ’s mission in the world. That’s why I argue that restoration, not reformation, ought to be the goal of church renewal today.

As I mentioned to my publisher yesterday, nobody will really be happy with my book. It will please neither traditionalists nor emergents, neither red Christians nor blue Christians, neither age-integrationists nor age-segregationists (or any other -ists), neither those on the left nor those on the right. I hope, however, that it will appeal to anyone who is prepared to pay any price necessary to develop churches dedicated exclusively to life and faith under Jesus’ authority.

The Jesus way of life is a consistent lifestyle of sacrificial service rather than occasional acts of solidarity with people who cannot give us anything. We are called to be revolutionaries by acting (and not only thinking) like Jesus. Our only loyalty should be to Him and the Kingdom He is building. We cannot have two allegiances. We cannot serve two kingdoms.

Let anyone who thinks that radical obedience is not needed in today’s world come with me to Armenia or India or Ukraine and see the poverty and smell the dung and hear the crying of the people. Let those who champion upward mobility rather than the way of suffering love spend one week with me among the Burjis or the Gujis or the Alabas or the Amharas of Ethiopia. No, the church of Jesus Christ is not the equivalent of the "good life" of Western culture. It’s the exact opposite, in fact, and it alone offers a real-world alternative to the grasping and getting of American society.

The root of the problem? We Americans know the price of everything and the value of nothing. In the end, though, only servanthood and love are forces strong enough to break the grip of human sin.


Amen, Brother Dave. As usual, amen.

Eyes and ears wide open

I’ve linked to news about the economic crisis pretty steadily, but I haven’t expressed much of an opinion about where things are headed, how we ought to respond to it, or even why we ended up here in the first place. (At least I think I haven’t, and I’m too lazy to review postings from the last couple of years to make sure that is true.)

There are several reasons that I’ve held my peace, among them:

  • I certainly knew that the current situation was possible, but I had no idea whether it was likely. In fact, I’ve often been surprised at how quickly various trends took a turn for the worse.

  • I never have been and plan never to be in a position to influence the course of events outside my very small community. If the president asked for my advice, I would only suggest that he spend some time alone thinking through the assumptions he is operating on.

  • Since my model society is 1800 America adjusted to reclaim some of the benefits that were accidently left behind in 1400 England, I am not particularly interested in tweaking 21st century American society so as to get it back on track.

    (In fact, I think that even to dispute with modern society about whether it could benefit from re-adopting various traditional elements is to grant modern society a legitimacy it doesn’t deserve. I pray for the peace of Babylon only because I want my captivity to be a peaceful one, not because I want Babylon to thrive.)

Most important, though, when industrial society was ascendant (i.e. until a few months ago) and life was relatively stable, there was to survey the landscape, reflect on it, and offer some opinions before the ground shifted beneath one’s feet. Now I see things every day that I know are significant but have yet to find a way to integrate into my understanding of how things work. And, even better, I see people behave in ways I never expected and can’t yet explain.

Things have apparently gotten so weird that our worldview is no longer able to deflect the inconvenient data that stands at odds with our assumptions. This is not a time to draw conclusions. This is a time to sit and watch, to gather up facts that reek of significance without yet trying to determine what makes them so.

This is why, for example, that I recommend you not try to figure out what I’m thinking based on the articles and essays I link in my sidebar or highlight in a post. I am not thinking anything. I am deliberately trying not to think anything. I am mostly filing these things away, and in the increasingly rare stretches of quiet I look at them and poke at them and think about how they might fit together. I don’t expect to reach conclusions anytime soon.

In that spirit, here are a few things I noticed lately which I don’t know how to process. I began watching this bloggingheads dialog; I almost didn’t watch it at all, but they promised to begin with some observations about the economy. Those observations turned out to be quite honest and quite personal, since they involved the ongoing death throes of print journalism, which is how both the men make their living.

The first came when Bob Wright asked Tim Noah how the current crisis was affecting him personally, specifically the crashing stock market. Noah said that it had destroyed his plan for paying for his children’s college education, and Wright immediately responded that he was in the same pickle. What struck me as they discussed this was that they had the air of men for whom a fundamental assumption had just crumbled, and they were well aware of it.

It is quite possible for your life to have gone off the tracks without you even knowing it, much less understanding it. But I think these guys know, and they are struggling to understand. Since sending kids to college is much more real and pressing to a baby boomer than a distant retirement, I wonder if the sudden inability to pay for it will be an important factor in waking folks up to the new reality.

The other thing in the conversation that struck me was Noah’s account of a conversation with Virginia Postrel. She said that, because the printed news industry is coincidentally crumbling at the same time as the economic troubles are unfolding, it makes as much sense to listen to journalists crying doom about the economy as it would have to listen to steelworkers in 1982 talk about the Carter recession—meaning that journalists are likely to let their own unique troubles influence their view of the economic future in general.

Now, Postrel is very much a champion of modern industrial society, and so her comment has to be taken with a grain of salt. But I do think it’s a good point, and it explains something that has puzzled me over the past few months, which is: how come journalists seem to be seeing things so clearly for once, at leat from my own point of view?

Finally, in her latest column Peggy Noonan tries to put her finger on something I’ve been wondering about as well, a sense that we are all waiting for … something.

It is six months since Lehman fell and the crash (or the great recession, or the collapse—it’s time it got its name) began. An aspect of the story given less attention than it is due, perhaps because it doesn’t lend itself to statistics, is the psychic woe beneath the economic blow. There are two parts to this. One is that we have arrived at the first fatigue. The heart-pumping drama of last September is gone, replaced by the drip-drip-drip of pink slips, foreclosures and closed stores. We are tired. It doesn’t feel like 1929, but 1930. People are in a kind of suspended alarm, waiting for the future to unspool and not expecting it to unspool happily.

Two, the economy isn’t the only reason for our unease. There’s more to it. People sense something slipping away, a world receding, not only an economic one but a world of old structures, old ways and assumptions. People don’t talk about this much because it’s too big, but I suspect more than a few see themselves, deep down, as "the designated mourner," from the title of the Wallace Shawn play.

The key here, I think, is six months. The 9/11 attack was a shock, but it didn’t take anywhere near six months before the shock was replaced by plenty of brave, naive talk about how it had brought us together as a nation. No such talk has come forth about how we are going to respond to this either as a nation or individuals, no “we’re all in this together” or “we need to throw the bums out” or anything of the sort. There are plenty of candidates for things to unite around, but none has caught fire.

I asked a friend, a perceptive writer, if he is seeing what I’m seeing. Yes, he said, there is "a pervasive sense of anxiety, as though everyone feels they’re on thin ice." He wonders if it’s "maybe a sense that we’ve had it too easy in the years since 9/11 and that the bad guys are about to appear on the horizon." An attorney in a Park Avenue firm said, "Things look like they have changed and may not come back." He contrasted the feeling now on the streets with 2001. "Things are subdued. . . . Nine-eleven was brutal and graphic. Yet because there was real death and loss of life folks could grieve and then move on." But today, "the dread is chronic. . . . Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe were supposed to be invincible. The pillars of media were supposed to be there forever. The lawyers were supposed to feed through thick and thin. Not anymore." He quoted Ecclesiastes:  "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth." We are worried, he said, "about a way of life, about the loss of upward trajectory." [emphasis

A psychiatrist elaborates on the new lack of confidence in those in charge.

But he also detected a political dimension to his patients’ anguish. He felt that many see our leaders as "selfish and dishonest," that "our institutions have been revealed as incompetent and undependable." People feel "unled, overwhelmed," the situation "seemingly unsalvageable." The net result? He thinks what he is seeing, within and without his practice, is a "psychological pandemic of fear" as to the future of things—of our country, and even of mankind.

So perhaps people are beginning to ask themselves a question that would naturally occur to a staunch agrarian: what made us think it was a good idea to hand so much power and authority over to fallible, ordinary men? Unfortunately, part of the answer is: there is no way to create a centralized, globalized, complex, thoroughly modern society without handing someone the power.