The old way of singing

I am so glad I stumbled across this video.

I teared up at several points while watching it. For five years we had the privilege of gathering with an Old Regular Baptist congregation in south central Kentucky, and the singing … oh, the singing. No other element of corporate worship has ever transported me–not prayer, not conventional hymn singing, not sermons, not the Lord’s table–but the old way of singing did, which is why I never gainsay anyone who claims to be transported by those other things. Envy them, perhaps, but never assume they are leading me on.

Chris and I were first exposed to this kind of singing by Ginny Hawker. Here is Ginny singing one of the old songs.

As you’ll discover if you watch the first video, the history of this form of singing is mostly lost to us. One thing we know is that it was deliberately wiped out in churches by people who thought it was ignorant, undignified, and unmusical, wanting to substitute a form of composed European art-singing with four-part harmonies. Even shape-note singing, which superficially looks like a folk form, was something invented and promoted by commercial enterprises.

I can’t think about this too long without getting angry. But I’m grateful for the small taste we were allowed.

How to be polite

I read this essay a few days ago and enjoyed it, thought not quite enough to post about it here. Then I saw it referenced elsewhere, and noticed that it was written by Paul Ford, the programmer and essayist who came up with the fundamental question of the internet.

So OK, it deserves a recommendation. It not only offers an engaging account of how one man became polite and decided he likes it that way, it has some actual concrete advice that I heartily endorse:

Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”

Because nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult. I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson. She kept touching me as she talked. I forgave her for that. I didn’t reveal a single detail about myself, including my name. Eventually someone pulled me back into the party. The celebrity jewelry coordinator smiled and grabbed my hand and said, “I like you!” She seemed so relieved to have unburdened herself. I counted it as a great accomplishment. Maybe a hundred times since I’ve said, “wow, that sounds hard” to a stranger, always to great effect. I stay home with my kids and have no life left to me, so take this party trick, my gift to you.

The trick, of course, is having a reliable response ready. But the important part is responding with interest. Over the years I’ve gone from feeling painfully awkward in social gatherings to being able to make small talk with virtually anyone, simply by deciding that any conversation I strike up will be about the other person, not me, and that I will be interested to hear what they have to say.

Of course it helps if you can turn the conversation in a direction that will genuinely interest you. That’s what makes Ford’s canned response so useful—it will not only engage the other person, but they will likely tell you some very interesting reasons why their job is so hard. At some point you won’t really need a canned response, since you will eventually discover that other people really are worth your interest, and you’ll want to know about them enough to figure out on the spot what question can best allow them to open up about their life.

There is one other aspect of my politeness that I am reluctant to mention. But I will. I am often consumed with a sense of overwhelming love and empathy. I look at the other person and am overwhelmed with joy. For all of my irony I really do want to know about the process of hanging jewelry from celebrities. What does the jewelry feel like in your hand? What do the celebrities feel like in your hand? Which one is more smooth?

Ford also makes an important point about how politeness can provide an important buffer in a world where people are rightfully wary about letting down their guard.

This is not a world where you can simply express love for other people, where you can praise them. Perhaps it should be. But it’s not. I’ve found that people will fear your enthusiasm and warmth, and wait to hear the price. Which is fair. We’ve all been drawn into someone’s love only to find out that we couldn’t afford it. A little distance buys everyone time. […]

People silently struggle from all kinds of terrible things. They suffer from depression, ambition, substance abuse, and pretension. They suffer from family tragedy, Ivy-League educations, and self-loathing. They suffer from failing marriages, physical pain, and publishing. The good thing about politeness is that you can treat these people exactly the same. And then wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment. I know that doesn’t sound like liberation, because we live and work in an opinion-based economy. But it is. Not having an opinion means not having an obligation. And not being obligated is one of the sweetest of life’s riches. [Emphasis added]

We should reserve opinions and suspend judgment purely out of politeness—or, for Christians, to esteem others more highly than ourselves. But it turns out that this is also an unexpected kindness to them, allowing them to set aside their fear of being judged in order to open up to us. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment.


Speaking of using the right word, I’m all for neologisms that actually do some neglected work, and especially portmanteau words that I find clever.

I just ran across the term newsjacking, and I like it even though it was appropriated by (or maybe created by?) a marketing guy to describe a PR strategy he pushes, To newsjack an event is to somehow inject oneself into a trending story, in hopes of riding its coattails.

I think it points to a basic but unnamed impulse that has flourished along with the internet. For a long time I’ve noticed it primarily in comment threads on blogs, where people often don’t interact with the content of a post but simply use it as a springboard to talk about themselves. When I called the technique anything at all, I would call it (somewhat meanly) “That reminds me of … ME!” It is not the same as hijacking a thread, which involves redirecting the entire discussion somewhere the original post didn’t go. It is smaller and self-contained, a way of injecting oneself into a discussion without actually needing to address the topic at hand. Or, to be mean again, a natural result when the commenter finds their own experiences and opinions more worthy of comment than those of the blogger.

Hold on … memories are flooding in … aha, now I remember that there is a pre-internet precedent. I used to listen to a fair amount of talk radio, and I distinctly remember a shift in the late 1980s. Before that time call-in shows (Larry King being a prime example) would always answer the phone with “Hello, what’s your question?” … and the caller would always ask a question! Generally it was a question about the current topic, which either the host or a guest expert would proceed to answer. But at some point—probably when Rush Limbaugh revived AM radio—callers started opening their questions with long stretches of soapbox speech, and often never even got around to anything resembling a question. Soon enough the question charade faded away, and callers would begin by saying, “My point is …”

So talk radio apparently dredged up something that had been lurking in us all along, brushed it off, and put it on public display. (And monetized it.) Then the internet came along and saved everyone the trouble of getting in line to have their phone call answered. I’m not referring here to the impulse to publish, which may be related but at least requires initiative—to figure out what to write about, no matter how mundane. Commenting lowers the bar even further; now anything that comes to mind is fair game.

A couple of years ago I ran across an essay by Paul Ford which claims that every medium—print, radio, television, telephone, telegraph—is the answer to some fundamental question, and that we misunderstand the internet when we think that, because it can replace those media, it answers those fundamental questions. But Ford claims that the internet actually answers another, very different question.

“Why wasn’t I consulted,” which I abbreviate as WWIC, is the fundamental question of the web. It is the rule from which other rules are derived. Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.

Ford first noticed this as a web designer. The scenario he describes here is not just common, it is definitive:

I first wrote about this in 2007, after 18 months of isolating and frustrating work on a website:

Brace yourself for the initial angry wave of criticism: How dare you, I hate it, it’s ugly, you’re stupid. The Internet runs on knee-jerk reactions. People will test your work against their pet theories: It is not free, and thus has no value; it lacks community features; I can’t believe you don’t use dotcaps, lampsheets, or pixel scrims; it is not written in Rusp or Erskell; my cat is displeased. The ultimate question lurks beneath these curses: why wasn’t I consulted?

That line was tossed off, but since I wrote it I’ve seen the same pattern everywhere. I’ve explained it to many other web people, and they laugh, but then a few months later some say, “you know…” [Emphasis added]

Ford then points to this cartoon, which was the sole content of a comment on a blog post about computer pioneer Clive Sinclair marrying a younger woman:

I dearly love this cartoon, and I didn’t need to read Ford’s exegesis to know how right he was, that this is what the internet is about. But here’s how Ford explains it:

Consider what that cartoon means in that context: It implies that the commenter feels—with some irony and self-awareness, I’m sure—that his opinion, in some way, is relevant to the question of whether Clive Sinclair should marry a particular woman. This is, for many obvious reasons, completely insane. And yet there was an image already sketched and available to that commenter so that he could express this exact sentiment of choosing not to be outraged at a situation he read about on the Internet. WWIC in action. [Emphasis added]

"It is important you know I am not outraged by this." Exactly.

So, how does this relate to newsjacking? I think that in newsjacking, WWIC is simply bumped up a level. At the lower level we lazily inject ourselves into ongoing discussions, while in newsjacking we latch onto trending stories and inject ourselves by starting a discussion, asserting that it is important (and urgent) that we be consulted about what is going on in Iraq or Ukraine or Ferguson, or west Africa, or at Mars Hill Church. Not only important and urgent, but maybe even a vehicle to notoriety, which can then be somehow monetized.

Here are two recent examples of newsjacking, one entirely expected and one maybe not so much. The first is Ann Coulter’s recent column about the American missionaries who contracted the Ebola virus in Liberia. Coulter took some interesting questions about the worth of foreign missions, mixed them with her usual large helping of jingoism, and set the result loose on the internet—where it provoked a completely predictable and probably lucrative (for her) outrage. Was her purpose to begin a thoughtful discussion about foreign mission work? Not likely. In fact, the punches she landed in her original piece were completely disregarded by her critics, as far as I’ve read them. She points that out in her followup column—but tellingly, she doesn’t really complain that no one responded to her original points in any substantial way. I don’t think that matters to either her or her critics. What matters is that they were all spared the need to think, either about the original piece or their response. All that was required was a reaction to the initial outrage, which allowed for reactions to the reactions, ad infinitum.

The second is Matt Walsh’s post about Robin Williams’s suicide, which was shallow and provocative and ill-timed—exactly what is called for in a newsjacking, since if one of those qualities were lacking—if the post had looked thoughtfully at the social and moral issues surrounding suicide, or if Walsh had tempered his language to avoid unnecessary outrage, or if he had waited a decent interval to publish it—then the post would have had little or no impact. But because the post was accurately targeted to provoke outrage, it became one of the lucky ones—viewed more than 3 million times, the recipient of 10,000 comments before the system crashed. Walsh gained in notoriety, his critics (and defenders) all seized the opportunity to be consulted on a matter that everyone was talking about.

And then Walsh took the opportunity to spin the entire episode for the benefit of his (now presumably larger) fanbase:

Something happened yesterday.

It began with a post I wrote about depression and suicide called “Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice.”

When I clicked “publish” on that piece, I felt confident. I was sad that it had to be written, and upset about the circumstances surrounding it, but sure that I was saying something that needed to be said; something truthful but uplifting, frank but compassionate. I actually found myself getting emotional as I wrote it. I’m not suicidal but I have demons of my own, so I submitted that post to the public, praying others would find the same solace in the promise of hope and the power of free will.

But then things got out of control. Rapidly.

Out of control? Gee, that’s rough. But who could have anticipated such a thing?

It’s important to use the right word

I’ve been delving deeply into Dalrymple these days—not binging, but reading one or two of his essays at the end of every day. The man can write! But more importantly, he has the gimlet eye, an ability to make his case simply by recording his observations. When he does offer an opinion, he has already supported it so thoroughly that it can hardly be denied.

One of his better essays is called What is Poverty?, but right away he points out that moderns use the word wrongly, and there is a much better one available:

What do we mean by poverty? Not what Dickens or Blake or Mayhew meant. Today, no one seriously expects to go hungry in England or to live without running water or medical care or even TV. Poverty has been redefined in industrial countries, so that anyone at the lower end of the income distribution is poor ex officio, as it were—poor by virtue of having less than the rich. And of course by this logic, the only way of eliminating poverty is by an egalitarian redistribution of wealth—even if the society as a whole were to become poorer as a result.

Such redistribution was the goal of the welfare state. But it has not eliminated poverty, despite the vast sums expended, and despite the fact that the poor are now substantially richer—indeed are not, by traditional standards, poor at all. As long as the rich exist, so must the poor, as we now define them.

Certainly they are in squalor—a far more accurate description of their condition than poverty—despite a threefold increase in per-capita income, including that of the poor, since the end of the last war. Why they should be in this condition requires an explanation—and to call that condition poverty, using a word more appropriate to Mayhew’s London than to today’s reality, prevents us from grasping how fundamentally the lot of "the poor" has changed since then. The poor we shall always have with us, no doubt: but today they are not poor in the traditional way.

Dalrymple works at a hospital in a very rough part of town, one at which doctors from third-world countries often come to do a year’s work. He proceeds to build his case through their eyes.

Every few months, doctors from countries like the Philippines and India arrive fresh from the airport to work for a year’s stint at my hospital. It is fascinating to observe their evolving response to British squalor. At the start, they are uniformly enthusiastic about the care that we unsparingly and unhesitatingly give to everyone, regardless of economic status. They themselves come from cities—Manila, Bombay, Madras—where many of the cases we see in our hospital would simply be left to die, often without succor of any kind. […] Before very long, though, they start to feel a vague unease. […]  At first they assume that the cases they see are a statistical quirk, a kind of sampling error, and that given time they will encounter a better, more representative cross section of the population. Gradually, however, it dawns upon them that what they have seen is representative. When every benefit received is a right, there is no place for good manners, let alone for gratitude. […]

Dalrymple makes his case with the reader by recounting the experience of these foreign doctors in their ongoing encounters with the British underclass, occasionally stopping to take their temperature.

I asked the doctor from Madras if poverty was the word he would use to describe this woman’s situation. He said it was not: that her problem was that she accepted no limits to her own behavior, that she did not fear the possibility of hunger, the condemnation of her own parents or neighbors, or God. In other words, the squalor of England was not economic but spiritual, moral, and cultural. […]

Many examples are given in detail, He takes them for short walks from the hospital to the nearby prison, pointing out small things—fresh puddles of broken glass from stolen cars, trash-filled yards, fast food litter everywhere.

"Why don’t they tidy up their gardens?" asks a doctor from Bombay.  A good question: after all, most of the houses contain at least one person with time on his or her hands. Whenever I have been able to ask the question, however, the answer has always been the same: I’ve told the council [the local government] about it, but they haven’t come. As tenants, they feel it is the landlord’s responsibility to keep their yards clean, and they are not prepared to do the council’s work for it, even if it means wading through garbage—as it quite literally does. On the one hand, authority cannot tell them what to do; on the other, it has an infinitude of responsibilities towards them.

Dalyrmple is also a master of the understated punch line.

By the end of three months my doctors have, without exception, reversed their original opinion that the welfare state, as exemplified by England, represents the acme of civilization. On the contrary, they see it now as creating a miasma of subsidized apathy that blights the lives of its supposed beneficiaries. They come to realize that a system of welfare that makes no moral judgments in allocating economic rewards promotes antisocial egotism. The spiritual impoverishment of the population seems to them worse than anything they have ever known in their own countries. And what they see is all the worse, of course, because it should be so much better. The wealth that enables everyone effortlessly to have enough food should be liberating, not imprisoning. Instead, it has created a large caste of people for whom life is, in effect, a limbo in which they have nothing to hope for and nothing to fear, nothing to gain and nothing to lose. It is a life emptied of meaning.

"On the whole," said one Filipino doctor to me, "life is preferable in the slums of Manila." He said it without any illusions as to the quality of life in Manila.

You may think I’ve quoted the whole article at this point, but not so—Dalrymple writes at length, and what I’ve left out is the concrete detail he uses to make his case overwhelming. I encourage you to read the whole thing.

A devotion to authority that borders on insanity, pt. 2

A few weeks back I wrote about a sort of insanity that first blinds us to the wrong that surrounds us, next makes it very difficult for us to break free from the wrongful situation, and finally prevents us from identifying the cause of the wrong. As I wrote there,

I try to choose my words carefully, and I try to resist bolstering my case with over-the-top characterizations. So when I describe a tendency as “bordering on insanity”, I really do mean that I think madness is on the horizon. And in what follows, this joky definition of insanity may be applicable: doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.

The culprit, of course, is authority. In the previous post, the wrongful situation was the long, continuing history of sexual abuse in the church. This week it is ecclesiastical tyranny, or what David Chilton called Ecclesiastical Megalomania. This week’s maniac is Mark Driscoll, a celebrity pastor and head of an operation where the wheels are currently coming off.

Much has been written about Driscoll’s abusiveness, which in itself doesn’t interest me. But I’m very much interested in how thugs like Driscoll manage to create the circumstances in which they operate, and especially how they are often empowered by the very people they abuse. This recent blog post by a former colleague and best friend of Driscoll’s provides a reflective history of how the current Mars Hill Church came to be. I recommend you read the whole thing, since here I am only excerpting passages which illustrate how devotion to being “under authority” is the linchpin, and without it abusers would be unable to abuse.

To those who say that to be a Christian one must be under some sort of authority besides that of King Jesus, I hope that you are prepared to explain either (a) how the normal Christian in search of authority can discern that the authority Driscoll and his cohorts exercised was illegitimate and therefore can righteously be rejected or avoided, or (b) that such abuse is just par for the course, something to be expected and endured in the normal Christian life.

I remember you and Grace coming up to my house and challenging me to transition the awkward college-age ministry thing we had, and to plant it as a church.  I remember your assurances that you would walk beside us, and I remember distinctly how Grace said that “as long as we continue to give God the glory for whatever happens, He will continue to glorify Himself through what is happening”. That resonated with me, and for many years you walked beside me faithfully.  We were your first church plant, and for awhile, there was even some discussion about our church going with the name Mars Hill North.

I listened closely as you preached the virtue of Biblical Eldership, where men proven to be of sound character, pastor the church together and hold each other accountable, a supposed safe-guard against any one person lacking accountability or taking over. […]

I also remember when my brother-in-law Brian Kirkman went through the eldership process.  Brian, known to me as one of the most faithful, loving, gracious, godly men I know, and yet I believed your lies and how you characterized him.  He was unjustly removed and the way the Kirkman family was treated foreshadowed the shunnings that would occur with the Petry’s, the Meyer’s, and others. I have since gone to Brian and Liz to confess my complicity in how they were treated. It was so incredibly unjust. […]

But then I listened as you slandered and maligned the men and women we worked with behind their backs -who though we didn’t agree with some of them theologically- were wonderful people, and never deserved to be spoken of, or treated the way you did.  People who I know would have considered you a friend and have no idea how you really felt about them.  I have personally tried to go back and apologize to people who were “kicked to the curb”, along the way, and yes, I do feel I was complicit to your actions; guilty by way of association and being silent. […]

I remember during one of our conferences somewhere around 2002, sitting at the table with you there in Boca, when you interviewed Rich DeVos on how he structured his business model.  I remember soon thereafter when you started talking about how it wasn’t that important that you knew your people or led them yourself, but that you “led the people, who led the people, who led the people”.   Unlike the Chief Shepherd who knows all His sheep by name, knows their voice, and they, His, you distanced yourself from them.  In fact, I remember you bragging about how you had this back corridor between your office and the stage and you didn’t have to be interrupted by anyone before or after church.   I was so confused.  I bought in to the meaning, truth, beauty, mission thing.  I certainly didn’t buy into this. […]

Again, it is hard to express how much you helped us. Much of that influence however, was very unhealthy and systemically flawed.  It took me many years of distance and separation to truly gain objectivity and see just exactly how flawed. For instance, I was patterning my/our discipline process after what you were doing.  One of those situations was with a man in leadership named Dale.  I will always grieve over the heavy-handed way we dealt with Dale. Not only was it ungracious and unfair, it was hypocritical.  Again, something for which I’m profoundly sorry.

Add to all that, some significant personal weaknesses and sins of my own, and I/we needed serious help.   I asked you for that help, and in customary fashion, you dropped the hammer. When all of your recommendations on discipline weren’t followed, you came unglued.  You cursed me up one side and down the other.  You threatened and berated me.  I have never been spoken to the way you did to me then.  It was vicious and startling.  […]

Then you involved yourself in our Eldership in a most irresponsible and reckless manner.  In hindsight, it never should have gotten to that point, and I accept full responsibility for that, but what I needed was trustworthy, Biblical accountability, and instead I got slander, threats, and verbal abuse.  We had good elders who were caught between a pastor dealing with personal and familial sin, and an outside accountability that was reckless, irresponsible and ultimately had a destructive influence on a once unified eldership.  I know it all now. I’ve read the communication you had with the other elders behind my back.  Ugly, slanderous, defaming lies, Mark.  I thought you were my brother and you treated me like scum.

On March 17, 2005, I sent a letter of grievance to the Board of Acts29, asking them to address what I had come to realize over time, were serious character flaws of yours.   I made the case that Biblically you were unfit and disqualified as an Elder. A case based off long established patterns of pride, lack of self-control, sexually vulgar and slanderous speech, exaggeration that bordered on deception, gossip about others and confidentiality issues. An excerpt from that letter stated: “The fact that Mark is an incredibly talented leader and charismatic personality, cannot in any way substitute for the simple Biblical requirements of being Christ-like, much less the qualifications of being an Elder. I can make a Biblical case from Titus regarding his being overbearing, quick-tempered, self-controlled, upright, and holy, as well as 1 Timothy regarding being above reproach, self-controlled, respectable, not quarrelsome, and a good reputation with outsiders”.

Not surprisingly, we got a response letter from the Board of Acts29 informing us that they would accept our resignation from Acts29, as we had made our continued participation in the network contingent upon their dealing with your issues.  Apparently, they lacked the fortitude and resolve to deal with your out-of-control behavior, and so became complicit themselvesHow the board of Acts29 abdicated their responsibility in this, is beyond my comprehension.  […]

David wanted the Board to come help our church work through this situation, but you wanted to do it your way. That added to the growing conflict between the two of you.  He had said that the Board would be coming to meet with our Elders during the Reformission conference, and then suddenly, somehow, you took over as President of Acts29.  I remember talking to David on the phone afterwards and him being stunned at what just happened.  You somehow had enough support to vote him off of the board.  […]

For you, the ultimate endorsement was always driven by numbers, and we were like the Israelites of old who proclaimed to want a King like David, but were drawn to a King like Saul.  We all need to own up to the fact that we helped empower you to become what you have, through our willingness to eagerly endorse what you are, and you were more than happy to let us.

A community is responsible to all members

Community goes far beyond having one another over for dinner:

I remember Berry answering one question about the purpose of community by telling a story about a man whom we’ll call Fred. Fred was a known slacker, drunk, and thief in the town of Port Royal where Wendell grew up. He couldn’t hold down a steady job and more often than not, the sheriff would be called to haul Fred to the local jail to cool off after a bar fight and sober up. As time moved on, Fred moved on to petty crime and even some violence, which translated into longer stints in the clink.

As Fred’s actions became a larger threat to the community, the outcry to the sheriff increased. People wanted to get Fred put into a State penitentiary. Yet the sheriff refused, and his response—as Berry told us in his story—was simple: “True, Fred is a son of a ___; but he’s one of us.”

It’s far easier not to be in community with the troublemakers. As Robert Frost put it, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” And we all yearn to have such a place to return to—but who wants the responsibility of providing it for others, especially the difficult ones?

The sheriff’s understanding of his responsibility to the community is not simply a responsibility to the “good” members, but also to the misfits who exploit and even threaten the very community to which they so reluctantly belong. Giving Fred up to the powers of the State pen would remove the problem, sure, but only at the expense of turning one of the town’s members into a jumpsuited, anonymous number within the State’s cold glare. Fred would no long have to answer to anyone he knew, and no one he knew would have to answer to him. Looking at the bigger picture, the sheriff understood that cutting Fred from the membership would be the greater crime.

Can you imagine anyone volunteering to take on this sort of responsibility? Perhaps community can only come as a burdensome gift, bestowed by circumstances we find ourselves in, one we must decide whether to shoulder ourselves or to put off onto someone or something else.