A failed intentional community

I mentioned earlier that I was reading More than Equals by Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice, a 1993 call to racial reconciliation, and Grace Matters by Chris Rice, a 2002 memoir of his time at Antioch, an intentional Christian community in Jackson MS he and Perkins (and others) formed in the late 80s and disbanded in 1998 after Perkins’s death. I finished the second book last night, and it turns out to be the more important one in most ways. (The first has a more thorough account of the harrowing late-60s experiences of the Perkins family, but goes on to do a lot of theorizing about racial reconciliation that was never tested and seems to have fizzled out as a possibility.)

Chris Rice gives a very honest account of his idiosyncrasies and the trouble they caused him both in the community and in his relationship with Perkins: jealousy, envy, insecurity, excessive concern for the regard of others, more concern for the cause than for the people around him. I say “idiosyncrasies” rather than “failings” because I never got the sense he saw them as failings, more like inconveniences, thorns in his side that he wished God would take away—but if God chose not to, then they must have a hidden sanctifying purpose. Perkins seemed to have a similar attitude, though he handled it differently, telling Rice that he knew he was bad, but was surprised that Rice was so obsessed with his own badness.

One thing that doesn’t surprise me anymore is the highly compressed time scale: ten years of groundwork, five years of public prominence, and then it all comes apart. There were accomplishments of a sort, but not lasting ones. I don’t dispute that good was done, but I’m guessing it’s mostly on the order of the butterfly effect, traveling along connections that are impossible to trace back.

John Alexander makes his appearance towards the end as a counselor, but Rice is vague about the counsel he gave—not too vague for the purposes of his story, but I definitely wanted more detail.

The story might have unfolded very differently if Chris Rice had been less hungry for credit. And Rice himself seems aware of this, mentioning how intrigued he was by Alexander, once very prominent in Christian circles but now deliberately obscure. But who expects that sort of selflessness of a Christian these days? Significance is the order of the day.

Three simple questions

I think sometimes we like to lose ourselves inside sophisticated analyses of social circumstances, not so much because they obfuscate uncomfortable truths but because they help us distance ourselves from them. Maybe this is why I like the aphorism I just found in a Theodore Dalrymple article: one anecdote is worth a thousand abstractions. Abstractions tend to obscure the truth by making you feel you’ve explained it away. Anecdotes—good ones, anyway—force you to stare a truth in the face.

Recently I discovered the writings of John Alexander, and devoured them. In his last, unfinished book Being Church he mentioned being asked to do a bit of unusual couples counselling—unusual because the couple consisted of two men, Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice, who had founded a ministry promoting racial reconciliation based on their own experience, Perkins being black, Rice being white, both living in an intentional Christian community that was 50% black, 50% white. The problem was that, increasingly, they couldn’t stand one another. Worse, much of the animosity was based on racial issues.

Alexander told a bit of the story of counselling these two men, but didn’t go into much detail. A footnote mentioned that Rice had later written an entire book about his troubled relationship with Perkins, who died in 1998. Well, I definitely needed to read that! And in looking for info on that book I found that Perkins and Rice had co-authored a book about racial reconciliation, so I wanted to read that as well. I ordered copies of both.

(Side note: one of those books was not available for the Kindle at all, the other for $10. Both were available as good-condition used paperbacks for $3.50 apiece from abebooks, shipping included. I ordered the used paperbacks, and the writers won’t see a cent of my money—which is a shame, because I’d rather be reading these on a Kindle, and I’m sure the writers would have liked some of my money.)

I just started reading the first book, More than Equals, which begins with Spencer Perkins recounting life as a high school student in a white school in northern Mississippi during the late-60s period of the civil rights movement. The stories are horrible—not overwrought, fairly matter-of-fact, and maybe even more horrible due to that. He ends one particularly gut-wrenching anecdote by mentioning he left at that point to go to college, and took with him three simple questions:

Over the next two years I struggled with these issue. I went off to college with many questions unsettled in my head. If Jesus says the essence of Christianity is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself, then is it possible to love God without loving your neighbor? As far as we could tell, no one in the white community loved us, but most claimed to be Christians. Was it fair to say they were not followers of Jesus? Did they read the same Bible as we did?

I love how simple these questions are. And yet they contain a universe.

Is it impossible to move on?

I don’t remember now why I first subscribed to The Urbanophile, a blog about urban planning. It’s one of several where I scan the posts quickly in hopes of occasionally finding a gem, something that happens often enough to keep me subscribed. Today was one of those days. The writer, Aaron Renn, considers a New Yorker article by Jill Lepore, which in turn challenges Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruption being the heart of innovative change.

I read Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma when it first came out in 1997. I thought Christensen was exactly right about the nature of the dilemma, namely that successful companies are too dependent on the strategies which made them successful to change them when the strategies no longer work (something that inevitably happens). And as far as I knew this was a fairly novel observation. But I didn’t think the book offered much in the way of a solution beyond the usual “Don’t be like that.”

Others apparently disagreed. It took ten years, but Christiansen’s theory finally caught on and is now ubiquitous. I see that the book is now subtitled The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business, and that Christiansen himself is an industry. This part I haven’t really followed, except to notice that I was hearing his name again after such a long time.

But it is definitely true that the times are ripe for the theory of disruption. Back in 1997 you had to study carefully to see it in business history, now there are examples lying on the sands all around—music, publishing, television, retailing, advertising, and many more. Journalism is an especially clear example. Which makes Lepore’s challenge to the theory worth studying, since she is a well-known journalist whose career is directly affected.

This explicit link to journalism, along with the general tone of offense that pervade the article, betrays something more than a professional interest in the topic. Indeed, she’s hardly a neutral observer as her paycheck comes from an industry that’s being disrupted. The impression I get once again is of someone in deep love with the culture and traditions of her trade, something I’ve noticed over and over again in the incredible resistance and even hostility newsrooms have shown over the last decade or so to change and innovation. There’s a reason that people who experience an involuntary rupture can often never get over it. There’s a reason, after all, the Israelites who saw the miracles in Egypt never got to enter the Promised Land.

The topic caught my eye, but it was the reference to the Israelites that got me thinking. I’ve always been wary of vested interests. One of my favorite quotes comes from Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” This is why I avoid discussing whether pastors should be paid with pastors who are paid, or the call to missions with missionaries, or the Great Commission with evangelists, or the nature of authority with those in authority. It’s simply too much to expect those people to be disinterested on those particular subjects. I may ask to hear their particular apologetic, but I don’t bother asking them to consider other sides of the issue.

But lately I’ve been wondering if vested interests might be rooted in something deeper than “salary,” i.e. livelihood. For nearly all my Christian life I’ve been pondering the nature of authority—and not as a skeptic. In fact, for the first ten or so years I hungered to be one under authority, and did several things to seek out such a situation, some of them foolish. Unending disappointments finally started me on the path of questioning authority, both the justification for it and the need for it.

Whenever I bring up the matter with people in authority, I am dished out a heaping helping of unreasoned pushback, hardly unexpected. But what surprises me (sort of) is that when I bring it up with those under the authority of others, I get the same unreasoned pushback, often even more vehement. (I should say here that by “unreasoned” I don’t mean that I’m not offered reasons, just that the reasoning is second-hand, a parroting of the party line.)

When I’m writing these days, I will often google a word or phrase to check that it means what I intend. A few minutes ago I googled “vested interest”, and found the usual—”conflict of interest, especially one that is hidden”, and “a special interest in an existing system, arrangement, or institution for particular personal reasons”—but I also saw this more general definition at Merriam-Webster Online:

a personal or private reason for wanting something to be done or to happen

I love this, because it clears away some clutter. There are many reasons we can want something to be true. Sometimes the “benefit” doesn’t fall neatly into the class of things we consider benefits, and sometimes the true nature of the vested interest can be obscured by the existence of other benefits. When questioning a pastor or Christian teacher or missionary or evangelist about whether their work is mandated or simply discretionary, it’s good to understand that you are not merely questioning their livelihood, but their calling. To even pose such questions is to ask them to put some fundamental assumptions back under the microscope. It’s too much to ask.

Still, I think it’s helpful to regularly re-examine your own assumptions, to root out those reasoned conclusions which are actually informed guesses you made in the absence of knowledge, even wisdom, you may have since gained. Or, worse, well-reasoned conclusions that have gradually expanded to encompass areas where you haven’t done the necessary homework. Or, worst, bits and pieces of received wisdom, eagerly offered to you by those in authority, eagerly accepted by you in a show of trust—or as an expedient for avoiding the hard work of thinking things through yourself.

Jill Lepore thinks she is called to be a journalist, and can’t conceive of a world where her brand of journalism was not in fact the logical endpoint of history. For those of us who aren’t so called, it’s easy to review the history of newspapers and see that her brand of journalism was a transitory thing, brought into existence and shored up by cultural trends which have shifted in such a way that we don’t need or want that sort of journalism any more. Would that someone as knowledgeable about journalism as Jill Lepore could see that! She might be able to tell us interesting things about what is likely to replace it.

Similarly, it’s a sad thing that the folks who are most knowledgeable about church matters tend to be those who have a vested interest in those matters, and can’t be expected to give others a balanced presentation of the issues. Well, maybe not sad. Maybe I’m just moaning about a lost opportunity to be lazy. Better to study but not rely on what those with vested interests have to say, keeping their interests in mind, and continuing to work out my own conclusions with fear and trembling.

“A pathetic parody of a moral victory”

Nice observation from Alan Jacobs about internet activism:

On a less charitable reading, people like policing symbols and discourses because you can do it from your computer without ever lifting a finger, or paying a cent, to alter the structural injustice that perpetuates the favelas. Signaling your outrage on Twitter does absolutely nothing to help anybody. Getting Google to take down their Doodle is a pathetic parody of a moral victory.

 

 

A thought for Fathers Day (or any day)

Good advice from Alan Jacobs:

Today I am hearing on the internet that it is insensitive to celebrate Father’s Day because such celebrations could bring pain to those whose fathers are dead, or whose fathers were bad, or who wish that they could be fathers but cannot. I heard the same arguments on Mother’s Day. I have also read recently that to express delight in an alcoholic drink is insensitive to alcoholics.

Basically, to give open thanks for anything, or to take visible and audible delight in anything, is a mortal insult to countless people. So don’t do it. Never praise aloud, never give thanks publicly, never honor or celebrate except silently, in your heart.

Confine all public discourse to what public discourse is really for: complaining.

Clickhole

Oh, my, I hope Clickhole sticks around. Sample article:

5 Iconic Movie Scenes That Were Actually Fake

1. The Temple Chase, ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark’ (1981)

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WordPress.com via GeorgesJournal

In the unforgettable opening of Raiders, Indy’s attempt to steal a golden idol left him running for his life from a crumbling temple—and one heck of a big boulder. Heart-pounding? Sure. But did it really happen?

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Via theraider.net

Turns out the boulder wasn’t the work of the gods, but was actually a prop made out of fiberglass and wood by film director Steven Spielberg and the special effects studio Industrial Light and Magic. Kind of takes some of the danger out of it, doesn’t it?

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

I don’t read much fiction because I like what I read to be thought provoking, and I find good fiction to be too powerful in that regard. Instead of reading new fiction, I spend my time rethinking (and sometimes re-reading) some good pieces I’ve already read, often many years ago. It’s been twenty-five years since I first read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and I still ponder it regularly.

Since I was a big science fiction fan in the 70s, I probably read Ursula Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” when it was first published. I surely didn’t understand it then—I’m only beginning to wrestle with it now—but the central image has stuck with me. The image is taken from a short passage in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, sometimes called the scapegoat passage:

Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?

Le Guin imagines just such a society, a utopia founded on the suffering of an innocent victim. Her description of the sufferer is hard to read, in part because it is so detached and clinical.

In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is.

The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room, a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes — the child has no understanding of time or interval — sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked; the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good, ” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.

But there’s a reason for the detachment—it mirrors the detachment of the citizens of Omelas, who have come to grips with the need for the victim to suffer so:

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

Le Guin is an anarchist, or at least a popularizer of anarchist ideas. I think she’s right that there is an intolerable, unconscionable sickness at the very heart of most institutions. For those who sign up for those institutions, some don’t reflect at all on the sickness, some rationalize it away, and a perceptive but cold-hearted few do the math and conclude that the benefits outweigh any qualms they might have about their source.

I’ve thought a lot about Le Guin’s parable as I’ve read through the recent outpouring of stories about abuse of authority in the church. And I remember that her story is called “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas,” and that the title characters aren’t mentioned until the very last paragraph:

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

“The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist.” There lies the problem. It is difficult to leave when you can’t even imagine the destination, or even know for sure there is one. “But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.” I think they do know where they are going—they are going away from Omelas, an unredeemable place.

Father’s Day

I’m in El Paso, Texas right now visiting my dad. It’s been a long visit, and I’ve found out a few things about him I didn’t know, one among them that he loves prime rib. Prime rib seems to be a food whose time has come and gone. I remember plenty of places specializing in it thirty years ago, but now you hardly see it mentioned. Steak houses dominate. But I looked around and found a place in town, the Cattle Baron, which not only serves prime rib but specializes in it. So after church on Sunday we’ll be braving the crowds (he says there aren’t any, that’s a Mother’s Day thing).

Recently I discovered the writer Matthew B. Redmond, who wrote a short book whose title I couldn’t resist: The God of the Mundane. I liked it a lot, and will write about it soon. Today I’d like to call attention to the Father’s Day “sermon” he just posted, based on Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Fathers, even though you may feel you are…

  • You are not condemned because you cannot take your family on a dream vacation. Or on any vacation at all.
  • You are not condemned by the sins in your past which haunt like unsatisfied ghosts.
  • You are not condemned by your need for rest.
  • You are not condemned by your inability to fix all the broken things.
  • You are not condemned by your lack of promotions.
  • You are not condemned by your child’s lack of abilities in comparison to others.
  • You are not condemned by the obscurity of your job.
  • You are not condemned by the check engine light.
  • You are not condemned by a dwindling savings account.
  • You are not condemned because you are divorced.
  • You are not condemned by your son’s lack of interest in what interests you.
  • You are not condemned by a lack of desire to play with the kids after work.
  • You are not condemned by your failures as a father, that repeat themselves like the days, themselves.
  • You are not condemned by your wayward daughter.
  • You are not condemned by being fired or laid off.
  • You are not condemned if you find it difficult to talk to your children.
  • You are not condemned by not being able to afford to throw the birthday party of the year for your kids.
  • You are not condemned by the size and state of your home.
  • You are not condemned by your introverted personality.
  • You are not condemned for not living up to the standards of your Father or Father-in-law.
  • You are not condemned by the debts hanging over you like death itself.

I have mixed feelings about this sermon—very specific mixed feelings, of a sort which I’ve experienced several times lately when reading words of encouragement from Christian teachers. On the plus side, these particular words are not only correct but are much-needed assurance for fathers who think they’ve fallen short in the areas Redford mentions. There is a lot of shameful pressure out there to live an exceptional life, and folks need to know that it is OK not to do that, whether one has tried and failed, or has just chosen to live differently.

On the minus side, I think such assurances leave a deeper question unaddressed, namely: is success/failure, i.e. how we measure up, a useful metric to apply here? Each item on Redmond’s list is relevant to me in some way, but in none of them do I find myself worrying about whether I’ve made the grade or fallen short. In all of them, I’ve both done some work and have work left to do. In some of them I’ve been diligent, in others I could have tried harder. In all of them God has rewarded my efforts far beyond their merit. This leaves me content (on my better days) but not complacent (on my better days).

I’ll examine other recent examples of this in days to come, hoping to get clearer about what is going on.