Leisure, chapter 1

Cindy Rollins’s collaborative reading group has decided to tackle Joseph Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture. I don’t know if I will be able to participate for the whole length of the book; usually my take on such writings is more disruptive than edifying, and although I expect to learn a lot from reading the book, I suspect that Pieper and I will end up disagreeing on a few fundamentals.

But here are some notes and reflections on the very short first chapter.

  • When I first began reading Cindy’s posts on how important leisure was to learning, the idea didn’t resonate with me at all, not because she was being unclear, but because she was speaking familiarly about some ideas I had never even thought about. As she continued to write about leisure, I decided I wasn’t ever going to understand this until I developed a clearer understanding of leisure.

    So I turned to the (online) dictionary, where the very first definition of leisure was “freedom from the demands of work or duty.” In my experience, that is a critical precondition for learning certain things, especially the most important things. There is no point of setting yourself the goal of learning such things, whether in a certain span of time or after a certain quantum of study; you may come to understand such things in a flash, or only after an indeterminate span of study, or not at all. The best you can do is point yourself in the right general direction and be satisfied that the study you do, although generally valuable, is not guaranteed to yield specific results.

    Given that, you must be free from the demands of work and duty in order to learn such things.

  • I agree with Pieper that modern society is mistaken to embrace the idea that “one does not work to live, one lives to work.” But I am also suspicious of Aristotle’s formulation that “we work (literally, are unleisurely) to have leisure.” If leisure is the goal, there is the danger that it will crowd out work, that we will end up sacrificing quality to get the work done more quickly.

    I’d rather see a more balanced formulation, one that establishes both work and leisure as essential aspects of life but also recognizes that neither is to be preferred to the other. Work provides us with leisure, leisure can inform our work; we need both, and can be grateful to God that He has set things up this way.

  • I think that Pieper (and Aristotle before him?) prejudices his case by contrasting the liberal arts and the servile arts. I looked up servile, and the definitions all centered around slavishness—most clearly in “characteristic of, proper to, or customary for slaves.” My problem with this is that there is no collection of tasks that is natural to slaves; they do what masters tell them to do, presumably because masters don’t want to do those things, not because it would be inappropriate for a free man to do them. This may be a classic basis for the work/leisure distinction, but I don’t think it is a good one, since it will likely end up defining work as “all those things I don’t like doing.”

A picture of the Father’s love

Take a look at this video that I found in a post on the Internet Monk’s weblog. Spencer’s observation is the sort that keeps me reading there. As he says, the video shows “a wonderful picture of the Father’s grace toward us. If you have been told that God is not like this, remember that in Jesus he is more like this than you could ever imagine.”

I was not as astonished at this as some people will be, because I don’t follow baseball and don’t really feel the affection for a caught ball that the man in the video clearly does.

But I do have children, and I can surely know that my love and concern for my own daughter would quickly and completely overwhelm my own reaction to her doing something similar. So, together, with Spencer’s comment, this video really did give me a deeper appreciation for what God has done for us, and continues to do for us every moment of every day,

Franklin Sanders interviews Joel Salatin

On his new weblog, Scott Terry brings our attention to this interview of Joel Salatin by Franklin Sanders. It covers mostly familiar ground, although Sanders asks the questions from his own unique perspective, and gets some unusually frank replies from Salatin. I recommend that you read it.

Please keep in mind that any quibbles I have with Joel Salatin are purely theoretical. As a practical matter, he has not only blazed new trails that others can follow to a simpler life, but he has demonstrated that his model works, and works very well. It is one thing to ponder the bad cultural decisions that got us into the present mess, or to speculate about what might lead us out of it; it is something quite different to find a practical way to live healthily and honorably in the midst of the mess. Salatin has done it, and lives it, and my admiration for that is immense.

Still, there were a few bits towards the end of the interview that worried me a bit, not about Salatin’s project in itself but in how he sees the “whole food” movement developing.

The food movement today is exactly where homeschooling was 20 years ago, when parents were being jailed for homeschooling. And that huge industrial academic educational establishment was just as daunting to those early innovators as Big Food appears today.

We need to take a lesson from those early homeschoolers, and communicate and network. We need to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves,” to be creative and make end runs around the system. We need to understand that we are in it for the long haul. Right now we are in the early stages, but if we continue producing the top quality product as Big Food endorses genetic engineering and irradiation and waxes worse and worse, it will simply create more demand until finally political power shifts to our side, just like the homeschool movement. [Emphasis added]

You can imagine that I am very sympathetic to the idea of making end runs around the system—but as a permanent way of life, not as a strategy to getting the upper hand politically. I agree completely that this is what has happened over the history of the homeschool movement—but I also think that it was a fatal choice, one that completely missed the point of why we should homeschool. Similarly, I can see that a whole food movement could eventually triumph over the current industrial system, but at the same time obliterate any possibility of confronting the wrong thinking that led us into this mess.

(I also think it might be advisable for Joel Salatin to take a closer look at the recent history of the homeschooling movement, considering in particular the different factions that are currently struggling to take command of it. There is a difference between engineering a political power shift, and ensuring that the political power shifts into hands you approve of.)

The next part I almost completely endorse. Almost.

It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. I get so frustrated when I speak at a seminar and the first question is “But is it legal?” Who cares if it’s legal? If it’s right, do it. We’ve raised a culture of people who want to ask permission to scratch their nose. We need to examine what is right, then we do it. If somebody doesn’t like it we change it and refine it, we fight for it, but until we do what’s right, we haven’t created any movement to bring meaning into the culture. Jesus said “Do the truth.” We want to define the truth, systematize the truth, identify the truth, talk about the truth, we want to do everything about the truth except just do it. [Emphasis added]

Those are powerful words for these cowardly times. And I think that Salatin is right on the edge of seconding Jacques Ellul’s claim that justice is not to be found in any system of laws, but only where just men are. I can only cheer to hear someone of Salatin’s stature come right out and say, “Who cares if it’s legal? If it’s right, do it.” Since the time of the judges, our history has been one of putting our faith in (or, more cynically, abdicating our responsibility to) kings and systems of law, and they have uniformly failed us. Let us instead begin to train our eyes to see the world as God sees it, and then do what is right in our own eyes.

Even better, let’s stop talking about our vision for society and begin to live it out instead. And I don’t mean let’s live it out as we continue to talk—I mean let’s stop talking about it, period. Our example speaks more powerfully, and more positively, than anything we can say about how life ought to be lived. Let’s simply do the truth as we individually understand it before a watching world, hoping to edify our neighbors as well as be edified by them.

Yet there are a couple of things about this very bold statement which bother me, and I hope they are just remnants of earlier thinking that will eventually be jettisoned. The catchphrase “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission” was born in corporate America, as a way of goading underlings into taking risks that a superior could take credit for if the risk paid off, or duck responsibility for if it backfired. I don’t think that is how Salatin means it here—it may just be a catchy slogan that he hasn’t thought through—but the important questions are: whose forgiveness? whose permission?

Most of the rest of the paragraph is a very strong exhortation to take personal responsibility, but there is still the nagging suggestion of some sort of external authority when he says “If somebody doesn’t like it we change it and refine it, we fight for it …” This is not individual action, it is democracy, and is exactly counter to the rest of what he is proposing.

The final paragraph is very wise, but still with a troubling trace of bowing to external authority.

Look, the government is out of money and can’t replace these retiring and elderly food inspectors, so if everybody would just go get started, we’d outnumber them. What can they do when you’ve got 100 people doing it and only 2 policemen? When somebody doesn’t like it, you will find out that they never fine you, they don’t throw you in jail they simply say, you can’t do this. When that happens, then you deal with it. And lots of time that doesn’t happen for a two to five years. By that time you have a nice nucleus of comrades who can write letters and go to a hearing and go to bat for you.

This is exactly the point raised by Franklin Sanders in his dystopian novel Heiland, the same point that is missed by George Orwell in 1984: the further the government reaches, the less able it is to grasp. It is one thing to declare that all citizens will be under constant surveillance, it is quite another to create, install, staff, and especially pay for the mechanisms that make such surveillance a reality. As Salatin says, “You will find out that they never fine you, they don’t throw you in jail—they simply say, you can’t do this.”

Which brings us to the key question: when They say “You can’t do this,” how do We respond? The institutional church gives an unvarying answer, but it is also an untrustworthy answer, because to answer otherwise would be to undermine their own authority (at least as they perceive it) over their flock. Joel Salatin is pointing us in another direction, one that I think is consistent with the Bible: external authority is not something to be either obeyed or defied, but simply considered humbly—and then often ignored.

This may lead to the occasional confrontation with external authority, and, as Salatin says, “when that happens, then you deal with it.” Deal with it—peacably, wisely, righteously. I’d be more comfortable if Salatin’s words leaned less towards fixing a broken system and more towards ignoring it altogether. But overall this is a very encouraging clarification of an important theme that has lurked in his writing from the beginning.

The Assembling of the Church

I haven’t become a subscriber yet, but more and more in idle moments I’ve traveled over to Alan Knox’s weblog and spent a few moments browsing through past entries. I like how Alan thinks in general, and I especially appreciate his calm, steady, relentless examination of some potentially contentious ideas.

One of his regular features falls into the funny yet too true category, where he revises various passages of scripture so that they are in accord with how we actually live our lives. Often the contrast he draws with a few carefully chosen words does a better job of highlighting the radically unworldly nature of a scripture passage than any sermon could ever do.

The feature is called Scripture … As We Live It, and there are seventy of them so far. Here are some of my favorites (deletions are struck out, additions in red):

#68: Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life persuasiveness of their teaching, and imitate their faith follow their instructions. (Hebrews 13:7 re-mix)

#61: And we urge you, brothers, let your elders admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. (1 Thessalonians 5:14 re-mix)

#49: You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra – which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. (2 Timothy 3:10-11 re-mix)

#48: What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things instruct others in these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:9 re-mix)

#38: You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life;and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life; and you are right. Just keep studying. (John 5:39-40 re-mix)

#17: I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ the theological system that you have been taught and are turning to a different gospel theological system – not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel only theological system of Christ. (Galatians 1:6-7 re-mix)

#7: So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind unless they’re wrong, having the same love unless they’re wrong, being in full accord and of one mind unless they’re wrong. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit unless they’re wrong, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves unless they’re wrong. (Philippians 2:1-3 remix)

#1: What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation find a place to sit, sing along with the band or choir, and listen to the preacher. Let all things be done for building up as prescribed by your leaders. (1 Corinthians 14:26 remix)

University of Texas, then and now

Interesting data comparing changes in income and expenses at the University of Texas between 1960 and 2009, courtesy of Clear Picture Online. The most striking changes are in president’s salary (!!!), resident tuition, scholarships, staff benefits, and adminstrative overhead.




1960 (inflated)

2008 actual

Resident tuition




President’s salary




Income per student


Tuition income




State Financial Aid




Student Fees




State of Texas




University Fund




Total Income




Expenses per student


Teaching salaries




Teach op. expenses




















Staff benefits




Administrative overhead




Total expenses




David Denby’s book about snark

Recently David Denby wrote a book called Snark, and got raked over the coals for it. I’m puzzled about snark as a phenomenon, and I wanted to think that Denby was excoriated because he hit too close to home for the many people who have incorporated snark into their rhetorical toolkit; when you go up against such a frivolous thing, you can’t help but sound like a pious fuddy-duddy.

Well, here’s an extended article by Denby on snark that I assume summarizes the main thesis of the book, and I have to say that he has made himself an easy target. The whole account is a mess. Part of the problem is that Denby seems to have a tin ear for flippant speech in general. Many of the examples he uses to support a point are just plain misinterpreted—not that they in fact justifiable, but that to make a point Denby gives them almost wooden readings, so that he can claim they are literally incoherent and thus said only for effect. Here’s an example:

“Even if you never met [Obama], you know this guy. He’s the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette, that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by.” (Words spoken by Karl Rove to Republican insiders at a Washington political club, 23 June 2008.)

[…] The third example, Karl Rove’s debonair moment could be interpreted as a coded put-down of uppity blacks (it turns out that when a black man gets a college education, he’s an "elitist"). At the literal level, it’s nonsense. Obama, whatever his faults, isn’t snide, and his beautiful date could only be his wife. The most generous interpretation of the remark is that Rove has been snarking for so long that he simply slipped into stupidity.

Contra Denby, at the literal level this isn’t nonsense at all. Just because Denby thinks that Obama is clearly not snide, that doesn’t mean that Rove thinks so. In fact, I think Rove could probably point to various celebrated comments by Obama such as this:

So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

This probably wasn’t said snidely at the event (pityingly would be more like it), but it is condescending enough that I can easily imagine the country club guy saying it to his date as some fat-tie guy walked by, and getting a knowing chuckle in return. I read Rove’s entire remark quite easily as trying to stir up a bit of class resentment, without a tinge of racism; he could have easily said the same thing about some young and dashing member of the Kennedy clan, and conveyed the same image.

So what does it mean when Denby says that “at the literal level, it’s nonsense”—because Obama isn’t snide, and he’s married? I can only figure that the image isn’t resonating for him, and he isn’t capable of acknowledging that Rove is trying to evoke a personality type, not give a literal description of Obama. As close as he can come is to figure that Rove is either trying to tag Obama as uppity, or that Rove is just stupid. This is what I mean by a tin ear.

The worse problem, I think, is that Denby begins with snark, which I think is a real but specific and limited kind of rhetoric, and tried to use it as an all-encompassing description of what is wrong with modern public discourse. Well, there are a lot of things wrong with modern public discourse, many of them incorporating a sort of flippancy, but they are different things that ought to be thought through each for their own sake, and Denby ends up seriously undermining his case by twisting everything he doesn’t like so that it can fit into his description of snark, however uncomfortably. The Rove quote, for example, is worth dissecting, but it isn’t snarky and by acting like it is Denby not only makes himself look like an unreliable critic, he is unable to talk about the things that are objectionable about the quote.

(For a stellar example of where something like snark is subjected to criticism that is generous, loving, and above all accurate, take a look at John Frame’s review of Doug Wilson’s book on satire, A Serrated Edge. This is clear thinking at its finest.)

Despite my disappointment, I have ordered a copy of Denby’s book (for $1), and plan to use it not for the arguments it makes but for the material it surveys; Denby seems to be irritated by the same range of things that worry me. And the more I think about when humor has positive value, where it begins to edge into unacceptable flippancy and sarcasm, how much further it can descend, and the different kinds of damage it can do—the more confused I become. My own writing is fairly humor-free, not because I don’t like humor and not because I’m incapable of wielding the blade, but because I don’t know where the boundaries lie, and my concern about unintentionally inflicting harm outweighs what value I think my jokes would bring to the party. So I’d like to straighten out my thinking a bit in this area.

Tip: accessing subscriber articles from the Wall Street Journal

Sometimes while clicking on a link it will take me to a Wall Street Journal article that is for subscribers only; non-subscribers get a teaser paragraph and an encouragement to subscribe. But this tip I saw somewhere nearly always works, if the article is very recent: copy the headline to the clipboard, go to Google News (news.google.com), paste the headline into the search box, and click the search button. It will come usually come up with a link to the same article on the WSJ website, but clicking on it will show the entire article. I assume Google News has some sort of arrangement with WSJ about this.