George Orwell’s 1984 reconsidered

I had to make a very long drive last Thursday, and the day before that I was in town, so I stopped by the library to see what recorded books they might have. There was plenty of stuff I had no interest in, but one caught my eye, George Orwell’s 1984. It’s been at least thirty years since I last read it, and my interest in Orwell has lately reawakened, so I checked it out.

First, I have to give a plug for listening to unabridged books on tape. When I’m reading a good book I suffer from some bad habits—I read much faster than I ought to, letting my eagerness get the best of my thoughtfulness; and occasionally I’ll scan along for awhile before realizing that I haven’t been paying attention, but I’m usually too lazy to go back and see what I missed. When a book is read aloud, though, it seems to unfold at just the right speed. I have the time to think about something profound that was just said, before the next thing comes along to crowd it out. And sometimes it’s delightful not being able to act on my eagerness, but to have to wait for the situation to unfold at the writer’s speed.

Back in the early 90s I listened to a lot of recorded books; we lived far out in the country, there was lots of driving, and so I kept one always at the ready. I favored the ones produced by Recorded Books, and in particular the ones read by Frank Muller, who Library Journal called “the first true superstar of spoken audio.” It takes a certain talent for underacting to be a good reader, to distinguish between the different characters in a dialog or to indicate mood or emotion without becoming a distraction, to let the writer’s words themselves provide most of the drama. This particular recording was by Muller, and I was pretty excited about that.

Well, thirty years on the story is just as powerful. More so, really; I think it takes a lot of living to be able to relate to Winston Smith’s physical cowardice, or O’Brien’s uncompromising cynicism, or the oppressiveness of Oceania society. Those all hit home very hard, especially without the distancing effect of the printed page, and I don’t know if I could stand hearing it read again.

Over the past thirty years there has been a lot written about the two classic dystopian novels of the twentieth century, 1984 and Brave New World. Usually the verdict on their predictions is that Orwell was wrong and Huxley was right. This is how Neil Postman introduces his 1986 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, and at the time he wrote it was an important observation; up to that time most folks had focused on the dangers of the overt sort of totalitarianism that reigned in Orwell’s world (and had so many real life parallels around the globe), but had failed to take much notice of what the modern media onslaught had done to enslave the public mind, as prefigured in Huxley’s book.

Well, that was then and this is now, and it seems to have become conventional wisdom that it is our own mindlessness that oppresses us, rather than a state-run thought police. Perhaps. But Orwell’s world, while so different in many particulars, shared so much of the spirit of our times that I’m wondering if maybe there isn’t all that much difference between Orwell’s vision and Huxley’s, once you strip away the superficial details. I’ll have to go back and re-read Brave New World, again thirty or more years from being fresh in my mind, before I can go further down that path.

Meanwhile, I have to wonder why, if Orwell’s vision was off the mark, that we have fallen into so many of the patterns that he thought would be imposed on us. I look around me and see an inner party, and an outer party, and a mass of proles. I see a true elite that seems to be enjoying privileges that far exceed what the vast majority enjoy, and a middle layer of elite wannabes enjoying fancified gruel that they persuade themselves is fine cuisine only by comparing it to the much worse rations of the great obese unwashed in flyover country. I see two-minute hates, and even Hate Weeks.  I hear tales of outer party members who hide their true thoughts for fear of being found politically incorrect and losing their jobs. I see the war is then against Eurasia, now against Eastasia—who even remembers that only recently it was Democrats winning points against Republicans by claiming they wanted children and old people to starve and suffer? I see that every facton has its Big Brother and its Goldstein. The only real difference seems to be that Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia have turned out to be cultural factions rather than geographical nations; the nature of the wars, and the motivations behind them, seems to be much as Orwell portrayed them.

The second most interesting idea in the book to me was O’Brien’s long explanation of the motivations of the inner party, the ones who have their hands on the true levers of power. The explanation rings true, and yet is so cynical that I haven’t decided if Orwell has truly identified a culprit, or simply filled the hole at the core of this mystery with a writerly construct so well constructed that it only looks true. Is power really its own self-justifying rationale? I can’t yet wrap my mind around that idea.

The most interesting idea is the concept of doublethink, from which all else flows, or so Orwell claims. Doublethink is the cultivated ability to sustain inconsistencies and contradictions in one’s thinking, primarily for the sake of expedience (in the case of the book, because the Party demands it). At least when Orwell wrote, it was a horrifying thought that one might be forced into such a mental state.

More than anything, the sustained effort to make my own thinking consistent and coherent has forced me to grow up, for lack of a better description. And I am always amazed at how many people, especially in this internet age, unashamedly set themselves up as authorities by applying rhetorical polish to sloppy, uninformed, inconsistent, and incoherent thinking. Worse, their fans don’t seem to care when this is pointed out to them. Worst of all, the authorities themselves don’t seem to care, either—a fan base is all the justification they need for their otherwise baseless high opinion of themselves.

Is this actually doublethink at work? Absent a Party to actively impose it on us, have we somehow managed to impose it on ourselves?

A life shaped by market forces

I’ve never understood how we made the leap from Adam Smith’s observation that we can sometimes serve the interests of others by serving our own interests, i.e. do well by doing good, to the idea that enlightened self-interest is sufficient to insure the best possible outcome for all involved, i.e. greed is good. Counterexamples are so easy to come by.

Here are a couple that cropped up in Andrew Sullivan’s series of reader-supplied stories of health care encounters. The first is from a surgeon [emphasis added]:

The story of $15,000 for a needle in a thigh touches a nerve with me. As a surgeon, I’d have tried to find it using local anesthetic, in my office, before escalating to an operating room. With luck — and since it was an insulin needle it couldn’t have been very deep and would have been near the entry hole — it’d have been a couple hundred bucks or so, including my fee and the use of a few sterile instruments. It’s possible, of course, that it would end up requiring xray guidance; even then, it’s hard to figure where the $15,000 went.

But here’s the thing: no one would have recognized the savings, or even cared, much less rewarded me for it in any way.

Likewise, when I did breast biopsies in my office, with local anesthesia and comfortable patients, happy at not having to go through the hassles of  surgery at a hospital or surgery center, I saved thousands of dollars each of the many hundreds of times I did it. Again: no recognition, no reward. I just did it because it seems right.

And then this from an emergency room physician:

I am a pediatric emergency room physician. I want to second what the surgeon said in his comments about saving the system money. In most health care situations, there is absolutely NO incentive for physicians to do so, and in many instances there are incentives to waste/spend as much money as possible.

For example:  when a young teenager comes into the emergency department with chest pain, there is something like a 1 in 10,000 chance that the pain comes from a serious cause in the heart or the lungs.  In almost every case these rare serious causes can be ruled out by talking to the patient and their family and by examining the patient. In the vast majority of cases no tests or specialists are needed. The visit can be brief, reassurance can be offered to the patient and their family, and the bill should be around $200. However, there is nothing to prevent me from ordering a whole battery of tests in this situation, and I have seen other physicians and emergency departments do just that.

EKG to rule out a heart attack, chest x-ray to look for pneumonia or a collapsed lung, chest CT scan to look for a pulmonary embolus, outpatient cardiac monitoring, referral to a cardiologist, lab work to look for infection or electrolyte abnormalities, etc., etc.  What started as a $200 visit is now closing in on $15,000.

I can tell you from experience this happens every day in ER’s around the country. Furthermore, if I order a lot of tests and give a lot of referrals to specialists, I make more money because I just made the visit more complicated and I bill based on how complicated the visit was, the hospital makes more money because they get to use all those expensive machines they invested in, and I generate business for my colleagues in cardiology. Often, the patients are happier with the "mega work-up" as well. There is absolutely no downside for me to ordering tons of unnecessary tests (the same is true for unnecessary and expensive medications). Rare exceptions to this are the best health care systems in the country (Kaiser, Mayo) that actually do give physicians feedback regarding their efficiency and outcomes. Not coincidentally, these systems spend less money per patient and deliver the best care in the country by pretty much any measure you can come up with.

Tradition and Innovation, Part 6

This entire series was inspired by a blog post from Michael Spencer, also known as the Internet Monk. Spencer’s writing intrigues me because he will occasionally offer a bald observation that most other writers on church culture are too guarded to make. This post was a particularly good example, and I will begin by pointing out the passages that struck me and why.

The premise of the post is that recent shifts in the common pattern of evangelical worship are likely to destroy the entire evangelical movement.

We have, within a matter of 50 years, completely changed the entire concept of what is a worship service.

This is true, but by itself I don’t know that it is especially remarkable. In the short 200-year history of modern American evangelicalism the understanding of what Christians should do when they meet has changed constantly, first as a reaction against the patterns of the traditional institutional church, and then soon enough against the patterns of earlier evangelicals. Even fifty years ago there were many, many different patterns for gathering, and taken together they had almost nothing in common, except perhaps the sermon.

We’ve adopted an approach that demands ridiculous levels of musical, technical and financial commitment and resources.

This is true, if you substitute ‘ever-greater’ for ‘ridiculous.’ But historically the levels of musical, technical, and financial commitment have run the gamut, from being deliberately set at zero by the Old School Baptists, to being ratched up by the more respectable churches in town that could afford such things, and then even further by revival-style gatherings. It is astonishing how many years and dollars are needed to prepare for a single Billy Graham crusade.

For Spencer, the levels crossed over into ridiculous territory sometime in the past fifty years; for others it did so when the first instrument was introduced, or the choir, or the seminary-educated pastor, or the overhead projector, or the sound system, or the band, or the auditorium. For some it has yet to become ridiculous, and may never reach that point.

We have tied ourselves to the Christian music industry and its endless appetite for change and profit.

This is true, but is it the first time that the Christian life has been tied to a money-making operation? How many dollars have been spent on buying learned books, attending conferences at which Christian celebrities lecture us, staging “revivals,” paying career men to fill our pulpits, building denominational organizations, paying people to minister in foreign countries?

Still, I will grant this: it may be only lately that we’ve tied ourselves to money-making operations where the models were developed and refined in the secular arena. Celebrity musicians and lecturers have always been with us, but only lately in sanctified form, and I don’t doubt that Christians are way more pliable and gullible as consumers than their secular counterparts, who don’t see their purchases as somehow pleasing to God.

We have accepted that all of our worship leaders are going to be very, very young people.

This is true, but how long has it been that we have expected anyone in church leadership to be old enough to credibly shoulder the responsibilities we place on their shoulders? Spurgeon became a pastor at sixteen, Jonathan Edwards was installed in Northamption at twenty-four, Calvin selected as pastor at twenty-eight. For the past couple of hundred years most men have begun their pastoral careers at a very young age—much too young to have exhibited most of the qualifications for elder, or to have become wise enough to shepherd a real-life flock.

Traditional worship—a la Tenth Presbyterian in Philly—is on the verge of becoming a museum piece.

I suppose this is the sentence that started me thinking at length about the entire post.  First, I commend Spencer for risking a concrete illustration of his thinking; most writers would have left it as “traditional worship” without providing an example, leaving it vague so as not to be challenged on the point. I could write lovingly about the “good old hymns” and the “great old hymns,” and without being more specific the reader will naturally fill in his own favorite understanding of these.

But if it turns out, as Leonard Payton writes, by “the good old hymns” I mean “any congregational song composed between 1850 and 1950, in a style fitting for the circus, reminding us of our parents’ and grandparents’ hokey churches,” and by “the great old hymns” I mean only A Mighty Fortress, All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name, and Crown Him With Many Crowns, then I have revealed a profound ignorance of church history that is worth challenging.

I think a similar thing is going on with Spencer’s notion of traditional worship. If we take a look at a Tenth Presbyterian order of worship (I am looking at the August 16, 2009 bulletin), we will see a pattern that is quite familiar to most of us: two organ pieces as prelude, announcements, call to worship, doxology (singing the Old Hundredth), invocation, hymn, responsive reading, Gloria Patri (sung), Apostles’ Creed (recited), prayer, scripture reading, hymn, offertory (with organ music), sermon, prayer, hymn, benediction, organ postlude.

Now, I’ve been in many different churches that follow exactly that pattern. But I’ve also been in others which hardly match up at all with that, even though their own pattern has been in place for one or two hundred years. The church we attend right now proceeds as follows: thirty minutes of songs (while seated), opening statement, song, prayer, then two or three sermons usually begun with a song, closing song, prayer. No special music, no instruments, no offering collected, no responsive readings or congregational recitation. Most of the churches in this area follow a different but very common and fairly old pattern: three hymns, handshaking, offertory with special music, announcements, and a sermon.

More important, of all the elements that appear in one or another pattern, many of them were obviously innovations introduced at some point beyond the first century, and many of the rest were possibly so. The sermon as we know it wasn’t firmly established for a couple of hundred years. The presence of instruments has come and gone at various times. Use of the vernacular is a relatively recent innovation. And I was surprised to learn the other day that the offertory (i.e. collecting money during the service), surely a tradition if there ever was one, was in fact a twentieth-century innovation.

So I think that Spencer is wrong to imply that there is somehow a single traditional pattern of gathering involved here—although understandably wrong, since just about everyone who deplores innovation in this area speaks of tradition in about the same way. Why? Aside from simple politics (in the mind of many people tradition automatically carries far more weight than innovation), there is something in us that yearns to adhere to the one true tradition, that pattern that will surely please God. Admitting that the pattern of meeting is grossly underspecified by scripture, and that consequently there are many equally valid patterns that could be followed, leaves too much of the responsibility in our own hands for choosing (or fashioning) a pattern.

But it is still a good thing to question the value of the innovations, and to worry about potential dangers, as long as we keep in mind the nature of innovation, and that these innovations that worry us are crowding out things that were likely innovations themselves at one point. And there may actually be good reasons that the new has come along to crowd out the old.

For convenience’s sake, I’ll repeat the three-fold observation about innovations that I made earlier:

  • Innovations are not additive, but transformational. Any innovation does not simply bring something new to the table, it changes the game. Some old options are closed off, and other options are opened up.

  • As activities adjust to the changes, further changes occur, resulting in further adjustments, and so on.

  • Because of the cascade of changes, the innovation is not reversible; undoing the original innovation will not undo the changes it caused but will instead lead to further changes, resulting in a new situation that may or may not resemble the original one.

Let’s look at a few of Spencer’s objections about recent innovations.

The reformed—of all people—have led the way in this revolution. I attended a seminar last week where a room full of reformed were instructed in why the optimum worship leadership option was “the band.” Not the choir, the worship team, etc. But “the band.” Does anyone realize what that means for public worship?

Diversity, generational compatibility, even simplicity are all being blown up.

I doubt that Spencer is surprised that the reformed would be leading a revolution in this area, since they spearheaded one of the most notable changes, namely switching the center of the service from the altar to the pulpit. Lately the reformed, or at least a small portion of them, have been active in buttressing liturgical worship, such as that practiced at Tenth Presbyterian, and pushing it ever further into the realm of mystery. And music, at least of the European high art variety, has always been an important component of Reformed worship when instruments are allowed.

I have to assume that Spencer is surprised that the reformed are leading the way in introducing and legitimizing a certain sort of music for use in worship, essentially a variety of CCM where the words pass doctrinal muster. I’m surprised as well—but I suppose I’m not surprised that the reformed gatekeepers determined that the problem with CCM was theological soundness, and were willing to grant entry once that was rectified, not concerning themselves with other possible drawbacks, such as the ones that Spencer mentions—diversity, generational compatibility, simplicity.

(Of course, we could also ask if the new trend has made worship any worse in these areas. Is, say, the worship at Tenth Presbyterian any more diverse, generationally compatible, or simple then the contemporary form? It seems to me that their formal, liturgical, high-art-music approach could alienate as many people as a contemporary service can alienate—just different ones.)

Spencer goes on to make an observation that is quite accurate, but at the same time is completely unreflective.

Worship is now a major audience event, led by skilled entertainers, aimed at a demographic and judged by the audience reaction.

Quite true. But when was traditional worship ever different? The worshiper at Tenth Presbyterian spends maybe 10% of his time participating (in a strictly controlled manner) and 90% watching/hearing someone else, the organist or the choir or the preacher, all of them specially trained and I’m sure very skilled. Ever since Protestants abandoned the parish model, churches (and denominations) have catered to demographics, with the mainline social ladder in many towns climbing roughly from Baptist to Methodist to Presbyterian to Episcopalian, and a scattering of independent churches catering to various tastes in enthusiasm, doctrine, music, or social custom. And all of those churches have stood or fallen based on how well they serve their particular niche, i.e. audience.

Treating the gathering of the saints as a performance event is a serious problem, and I am not trying to minimize that aspect of the new trend by pointing out that “traditional” patterns suffered from the same defect. Instead, I’m trying to emphasize that anyone who sees this as a newly introduced defect hasn’t spent much time thinking about this aspect of gathering, since it has been a central aspect of worship services for most of Christian history. Those who criticize the new trend on this basis need to be clear exactly where the threshold of unacceptability lies, since new and traditional only differ in degree.

Worship has now become a musical term. Praise and worship means music. Let’s worship means the band will play. We need to give more time to worship doesn’t mean silent prayer or public scripture reading or any kind of participatory liturgy. It means music.

I agree that this is a problem, but I think it is just a different manifestation of a problem that has plagued Christians for a long time now, namely a dissatisfaction with the meanings of “worship” found in scripture. Alan Knox writes that in the New Testament “worship” is used to translated two Greek words, proskuneō and latreuō, the first referring to devotion, reverence, or subservience to a deity, the second referring to serving a deity, primarily by serving other people.

Unfortunately, neither of these encompasses the kind of thing we like to do when we meet for cultic reasons, namely engage in formal, mystical rituals, rites, and ceremonies. So we end up structuring our meetings as we like, calling it all “worship” without being specific about where the worship occurs. Given that, it’s no surprise that some may think it means praying or singing corporately while others think it means hearing scripture read or a lecture delivered.

Even singing is getting lost in this. As the volume and the performance level goes up, who knows who is singing?

Again, this is a question of threshold. One of the major controversies in the early American church was whether to stick with what was called the Old Way (or Common Way, or Usual Way) of singing, where the singing was done in unison, was restricted to five or six melodies the congregation knew very well, with the words being fed to the congregation line by line by a chanter; or to adopt the Regular Way of singing, teaching the congregation to read music so they could sing many different complicated pieces in four-part harmony.

The primary objection to the Old Way was that it was not sufficiently artful. The primary objection to the Regular Way was that it required uncommon training and skills that would encourage those not trained or less skilled to not participate but simply listen. The Regular Way was chosen, and from that point on the artful quality of the performance has been more important than the active participation of each member. In fact, we might see the new trend as an improvement in this area, since volume and performance level may actually make it more comfortable for the average person to participate, knowing that their own performance won’t be evaluated by others because it won’t be heard by others.

And who can stand for 20, 30 or 40 minutes?

Some can, some can’t, some prefer to stand, some prefer not to. And we need to remember that pews themselves are an innovation. As Wikipedia teaches us,

Churches were not commonly furnished with permanent pews before the coming of the Protestant Reformation. The rise of the sermon as a central act of Christian worship, especially in Protestantism, made the pew an indispensable item of church furniture. Most Orthodox churches do not have pews; they have stands instead.

Spencer begins to wrap up as follows.

We have a lot of happy people right now. They have no idea what Biblical worship is outside of the context of their favorite songs played by a kickin’ band. They have little idea of worship in vocation, in family, in ordinary work or in silence. They credit their favorite songs as major spiritual events.

I have no objection to this, I only want to point out that this is historically true in general if you take “favorite songs played by a kickin’ band” and add to it “or hearing a stimulating sermon, or a stirring choral performance, or a dazzling organ performance, or smelling soft incense, or watching an elaborate ritual unfold, or reciting a prayer, or singing one of the great old hymns, or sitting in a beautifully appointed building, or …” None of those strike me as any more or less spiritual (or worshipful) as singing along with a favorite song.

We have goofed up. Simple, plain liturgy. Diversity and inclusion. Appreciation and full Biblical understanding. Cross generational intentionality and suspicion of the profit motive. Renouncing the spirit of competition. Hearing the prophetic warnings about God’s disgust with much of Israel’s “big show” worship culture. We need all of this.

We need Jesus shaped worship, and we need worship that promotes a simple, direct, uncompromising Jesus shaped spirituality.

Alan Kay once said that he was intrigued with the Macintosh because it was the first computer worth criticizing. It is the same thinking that has led me to look at Spencer’s post in such detail; it is one of the few writings on this topic that I’ve thought was worth criticizing.

But even Homer nods, and in these last two paragraphs the Internet Monk manages to lose me. I can’t disagree with what he says here, because I mostly don’t understand it. To the extent that I do understand, I don’t see how traditional worship has done any better at enabling the Jesus-shaped worship/spirituality that Spencer calls for.

Never mind. It may be coming in more detail in a future post. And even if it doesn’t, I still very much appreciate the good work Spencer has done speaking simply and plainly about what he sees as a real problem with how Christians meet.

I have a few more things to say about how to think about tradition and innovation in the context of Christian gatherings. I hope that I will be able to cover them in one last post.

Technical note: changes to this weblog

I’ve made a couple of changes to this weblog which should be relatively transparent. First, I moved it from my own server to a free account; however, anyone looking in the old location should be redirected here automatically. Second, I’ve switched the permalink style (the format of the URLs used to point to a post) to something more readable; however, the old ugly links should continue to work as well.

One other less obvious but more annoying change is the format of the Curiosities sidebar, where the entries are now crammed together and harder to read. I was able to tweak this on my own website, by changing some of the CSS formatting rules. Unfortunately, charges $15 per year to allow you to edit the CSS formatting on their site. If I can think of enough other reasons to have that capability, I may pay for it and then fix the problem, but for now it is what it is.

The smallest problem of all is the picture at the top of the page. I can change it to the old familiar image of our front porch, but only if it is cropped to certain dimensions. I haven’t decided what to do yet.

And, just to test that photos can be uploaded to the new site, here is one taken of some re-enactors at the Jane Austen festival in Louisville last month.