“We should …”

I came across an essay by Alan Jacobs in which he grapples with “The Challenge for the Church in an Age of Distraction”, and no surprise that it’s really pretty good, even in its concluding prescription to the modern church:

When George Whitefield and John Wesley were preaching sermons that created the First Great Awakening, they almost always started by trying to arouse in their hearers a conviction of sin. […] But I don’t believe we can readily reach people today with the same sequence. The very idea that I am a sinner sends me groping for my smartphone to avoid unpleasant emotions. […]

But what if we tried to tell people that by disconnecting, however temporarily, they might be able to hear God? […] We need to put people – those who don’t yet believe, those whose belief is young, those whose lives with Christ have become attenuated in a “technogenic” environment where our thoughts are largely directed by engineers – in a position to “pick up clues.”

If I have read the signs of the times accurately, the first clues are likely to suggest the presence and activity of God; next, God’s love and grace. An awareness of sin is not likely to come early in the process. St. Paul tells us that the goodness of God leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4); that may need to be our watchword in these times. If people can come to know that divine goodness, then they may understand the flaws in their nature through contrast to it. And that may be the path by which people in our world can come to a right understanding of themselves.

All good so far, and what follows is good as well … but …

For Anglicans the major resource is, of course, the Book of Common Prayer, and more particularly Thomas Cranmer’s subtle and ingenious adaptation of the Daily Office for the use of laypeople. As vigorously as I applaud the centrality of the Eucharist to Anglican worship that has developed over the past 150 years or so, I think we may be at a point in our cultural history at which we need to turn more attention to the resources carried by our own versions of the Daily Office. In particular, we should place greater emphasis on contemplative services in the prayer book: Evensong, Vespers, Compline – but also Morning Prayer without music.

We should encourage parishioners to adapt these services for home use as well; and place special emphasis on training people in contemplative practices. Teaching about and reflection on technology should be a permanent and central part of church ministry, including pastoral understanding and regular conversation about the fears associated with silence and a lack of stimulation.

Who among us can resist the temptation of urging ideas on others that look good (to us) in theory but are untested in practice? Not even Jacobs, it seems. I don’t know that I’m any better at it, but some time back I set myself the goal of always backing up an abstract claim with several concrete examples from my direct experience–here’s what I did and how it worked out for me, or at least here are some folks who did and how it’s worked out for them. It helps keep me from launching into flights of fancy like this.

In the case above, as in so many other proposals of the kind, I see the germs of good ideas being buried by the need to cast a grander, more comprehensive vision. I mentioned in a comment a few days back that if a small group of folks were interested in stripping down their worship to a regular practice of unadorned Morning Prayer, I’d be there with them. I think it’s a good idea, enough to sign up for it in advance.

But in the space of two paragraphs Jacobs has conjured up a vision that has your average parishioner engaged in Evensong, Vespers, Compline, and Morning Prayer, both as gathered worship and at home … while also engaged in contemplative practices … while also engaged in study and reflection on technology (a permanent and central part of the church ministry!) … I suppose in addition to the already scheduled Sunday worship services, Bible studies, prayer meetings, potlucks, and the rest.

Is this a serious proposal? If not, how are we supposed to go about processing it?


The missing ingredient

Today Richard Beck wrote this:

I want to make an argument that the word I’m going to share is the most important word in Christianity in the sense that I’ve come to think of it as the critical missing ingredient for so many Christians and churches trying to live into the way of Jesus.

He doesn’t say the word yet, so I’ll offer my own suggestion: humility. I’ve written about that multiple times, and if Beck and I agree I’ll say something about what he says.

But what I really enjoyed about his post is how he portrays a church missing the ingredient (whatever it is):

A lot of us are just drifting. Personally, we’re drifting. Our churches are drifting. Often with catastrophic consequences to our moral witness. The Fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But are Christians demonstrably more loving, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle and self-controlled than our neighbors?

We know the Fruit of the Spirit is the telos, the goal, of Christian living, the mark of Jesus upon our lives. And yet, we make no serious progress toward that end. Year in and year out, we remain much the same.

True, someone will tell us that we need the spiritual disciplines here. But again, churches talk about the spiritual disciplines all the time. But year in and year out, people aren’t praying more or practicing Sabbath more. Year in and year out, our habits remain much the same. We remain just as busy and just as consumeristic.

Seriously, just take a look at your church. How many times have you heard the call to more Sabbath, simplicity and prayer? A bet a million times. Now ask: Is your church any less busy or stressed out than it was ten years ago?

We know the goal, and yet we make no serious progress toward it. Hm. Well, I do think that humility plays a role in this, but I think the impasse actually arises from a wrong mindset. The Christian nature is portrayed as something which is bestowed upon the believer at conversion, not as something that must be progressed toward through further work. We are now by nature loving or patient or kind or content, just by dint of having believed, and any lack of such things in our day-to-day lives is simply a failure to live up to those qualities now embedded in us, not an actual lack of them.

I view my own conversion differently, as a shift in potential and in allegiance. At that point it became possible for me to become more like Jesus, and I had allied myself with his example of what it means to be fully human. There were still long years of work ahead, more yet to go, and the job will never be done. But at least a path had been cleared.


The word “done” is becoming more important to me, nearly a guiding principle at this point. I’d like to prune my affairs to the bare minimum, partly to open up room for new things, partly to eliminate inertia, i.e. stopping doing the things I do only because I’ve always done them. I look at more and more things I’m engaged in, trends I’ve followed, practices I’ve continued, and ask myself: am I done with this?

A couple of years back, after a stretch of public discussion about the “nones”—those who claim to be affilated with no religion—Joshua Packard published his research into the “dones”, those who still identify as Christian but have given up on the institutional church. As a topic of discussion it never really caught traction, but that may be because the “dones” have simply moved on and are not compelled to make any noise about it. George Bernard Shaw tells this story:

I was about five at the time, and I was standing at my father’s knee whilst he was shaving. I said to him, ‘Daddy, why do you shave?’ He looked at me in silence, for a full minute, before throwing the razor out of the window, saying, ‘Why the hell do I?’ He never did again.”

I think we may be nearing a tipping point with churches. At the last few I attended there was a growing sense of “why exactly are we doing this again?”, and the standard answers were wearing thin. That may have been solely in my imagination, but I don’t think so. Over the past ten years both white evangelical and white mainline protestants have lost 25% of their numbers, white Roman Catholics 33%. Ten years! How many more yet attend who won’t have a good answer to the question when they get around to asking it?

I’m thinking about this because I finally made it to a meditation retreat this weekend, my first. Leading up to it I was vaguely hoping for an excuse to cancel, but decided to fight that impulse. The Friday evening session was fine, but on the hour-long drive home I was struggling with a feeling, still vague, that I didn’t want to go back. I did, though, and the first segment on Saturday was also fine. But during the silent portion I had a growing feeling: I do not want to be here. So at the first break I packed up my gear and left for home.

Now, there’s a lot that needs unpacking in there, and I need to be very careful as I unpack not to err on the side of self-justification or self-flattery. One of the basic instructions to novice meditators is to be prepared to unexpectedly dredge up powerful emotions, and that staying with them is the path through. There’s a strong possibility that I had encountered exactly such a situation, should have stuck with it, and am rationalizing my decision to leave.

On the other hand (and this is something I don’t see emphasized enough) one important aspiration for those doing this kind of work is to see things clearly and respond appropriately—even if the response looks self-flattering. The fact that you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. And the “easier” choice isn’t automatically the wrong choice.

As I mentioned, all this is tied up with my notion that I am simply done with some things. The first is this: I am done with being talked at while sitting in a group. I didn’t get clear on the wrongness of this (for me) until I finally stopped doing it regularly, but even while in the midst of it I thought that the model of learning was far from ideal (for me), accepting it only as a necessary compromise for teachers dealing with the diverse needs of the group, and doing what I could to redeem the time for myself, being grateful for the bits and pieces I found helpful. I am now done with spending my ever-more-limited time that way, and will spend the rest on my own learning the things I want to learn in ways I find effective.

(I should mention that this decision came in the midst of a pretty good talk. It wasn’t a reaction to the speaker, just the culminating response to a long series of experiences and reflections. Also, as the teacher outlined his plan for the weekend I learned that a lot of the work would be regarding stuff other than silent meditation, the one thing I had come to learn about, which started me asking in earnest: why am I here?)

The second thing I am done with is group activity where the group is some way visionary, by which I mean a set of people who gather in hopes of making concrete some imagined possibility. I won’t go into detail here, but the folks at the retreat were part of a movement which emerged during the late 60s, and although I’m eternally grateful for the work they did bringing mindfulness to the West I can’t help but note that they tend to be stuck in a certain time, place, and political philosophy. Nothing against them personally, but like all movements it has taken on the nature of a club, by which I mean a community which has to take you in as long as you agree to adhere to the rules, spoken and unspoken. The first night the teacher spoke about how to respond mindfully to the especially unsettled period we had entered, code language for Donald Trump’s presidency. I could tell that the group was entirely on that side of the divide, in that certain aging-educated-liberal way, but it didn’t bother me, having no politics of my own I don’t find it difficult to relate to such folks. But when the teacher asked for people to volunteer a word or phrase that described their reaction, and a totally expected collection bubbled up—dismayed, unsettled, apprehensive, scared—I realized that not only did my own word (“uninterested”) not fit in, but that there would be absolutely no exploration of the reactions on one side or the other, or of possibilities not encompassed by the two. At which point I realized: these are not my people, and my being here won’t benefit either me or them.

The third thing I am done with being in groups where I am not among the oldest. That may sound weird, but it has to do with detecting clubbishness and fleeing from it. As the retreat got underway I spent a lot of time wondering at the fact that, while not the youngest in the room, only a handful were younger and maybe 80% were older. And I realized that the group, and the larger movement it represents, likely has an average age that is rising at least one year per year. I noticed the same thing while attending Lions Club meetings with my dad—he had joined when everyone was young, everyone was now old, the only ones who ever joined were just as old. He said it was the same with all the service clubs, Rotary and Kiwanis and such. And I noticed the same thing at bluegrass festivals, audiences are aging with no young people coming in to take their place. And, of course, church.

Why do I want to be among the oldest? Just because I think it’s the only thing I have to offer at this point. My peer group isn’t especially interested in hearing what I have to say, but even if they were there wouldn’t be much point in saying it since we are all approaching the end of our journeys and shouldn’t be taking on new endeavors. Younger people may not be interested either, and I’m not saying they should be—but unless they’re listening I’m only flattering myself by talking, and should just save my breath.

Tracing Joseph Conrad’s Congo journey

I’ve written before that I don’t read too much fiction because for me it’s hard work—at least in essays and other nonfiction the ideas tend to float near the surface (when they’re not being shoved in your face), whereas with literary fiction I never built up the skills needed to extract what the writers bury down deep.

But occasionally I’ll stick with a piece until my efforts pay off. That happened with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which I re-read every few years and think about constantly. It has taught me a lot about civilization and its discontents, and I suspect it contains some Big Answers to questions that still haunt me.

This recent account of a journey along the Congo river is excellent reading. The writer, Maya Jasanoff, is about to publish a book-long exploration of Conrad’s writing and thought about what we now call globalism, and I’m tempted to pay the freight to read it.

I took a walk down the riverfront road, past a market of thatched stalls tumbling down the muddy slope and street vendors in the shadow of colonial bungalows, when I spotted something startling. Behind a whitewashed wall stretched a shipyard for Onatra, the national transport agency, and on the grassy bank sat the rusted-out hulls of four or five old steamers. I approached a group of men sitting in the shade outside the office and asked to have a closer look.

One of them led me to the craft that had caught my eye. The Yanonge, he explained, was a wood-fired, stern-wheel paddle steamer built in 1928 from pieces cast in Hoboken, Belgium, and assembled in Kinshasa. It had a 250-horsepower engine and traveled at nine kilometers (about six miles) per hour, the same speed as the faster boats now. It had electricity, showers, a kitchen and refrigeration.

I’d never imagined I would see something so similar to Conrad’s Roi des Belges, and the feeling of proximity to the past was electrifying. And then, just beyond the hull of the Yanonge, I saw the passenger boats of today, so overcrowded and so squalid they look like refugee camps.

Conrad was rightly skeptical about imperial promises of progress. I left the shipyard sickened by a hideous realization: Measured in relative terms, most people in Congo were probably better off 100 years ago.


It’s always an event in our household when Marvel releases another movie. The kids devour them, and then re-devour them. I appreciate what Marvel has accomplished but I am steadily less interested in spending my limited video time watching them.

Spider-Man: Homecoming was the latest, and overall I was disappointed, even though in theory it would be exactly the movie I wanted—scaled way back from the hugeness of the Avengers movies, Spider-Man as a real kid for once, examining the idea that superheroes don’t emerge fully formed. I liked the movie in pieces (Michael Keaton!), but it didn’t gel for me.

One thing I really admired about the movie, though, was its deliberate lack of attention to backstory. No details or comments regarding the extent of Spider-Man’s powers or how he got them, how Michael Keaton’s gang operated for eight years under the radar, why Peter Parker is living with his (single, and much younger than in the comics) Aunt May, how working class guy Michael Keaton ended up married to a black woman, and on and on. In media res with a vengeance!

And when I say lack of attention, I don’t mean that the writers are unconcerned with the backstory—just the opposite. There are huge stories that could have been told, and I’m sure the writers know them. But by letting only a few key details leak into the movie they keep the story being told very tight while also making it a richer experience, giving you something to think about later. When it’s done well I think it actually gives the viewer an opportunity to participate, to write parts of the story oneself.

Breaking Bad was excellent at this, and also excellent at not intruding on the viewer’s own imaginings about backstory. But I just stumbled across one instance where this wasn’t true, an interview where Vince Gilligan “explains” why Walter White left the startup company which later became a billion dollar operation:

In my mind, the interesting thing here — and I always kind of hate to nail it down so explicitly — but let’s put it this way, most viewers of ‘Breaking Bad’ assume Gretchen and Elliott are the bad guys, and they assume that Walt got ripped off by them, got ill used by them, and I never actually saw it that way.

I think it was kind of situation where he didn’t realize the girl he was about to marry was so very wealthy and came from such a prominent family, and it kind of blew his mind and made him feel inferior and he overreacted. He just kind of checked out. I think there is that whole other side to the story, and it can be gleaned. This isn’t really the CliffsNotes version so much. These facts can be gleaned if you watch some of these scenes really closely enough, and you watch them without too much of an overriding bias toward Walt and against Gretchen and Elliott.

I appreciate the confirmation that Gilligan and his writing staff put so much work into creating a backstory here, then later reduced it to just a few tantalizing details. But what’s more interesting to me is that my backstory regarding this is much different—and to my mind even better. So congratulations to them for writing a story that could suck me into writing parts for myself–and for leaving me the room to write my own story, not theirs.

Good writer alert

There are some writers I treasure for their ability to tip me off to other good writing. Alan Jacobs, a good writer himself, is one of those—I’ve probably bought thirty or forty books simply because he mentioned them in passing. One recent book is Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz. I’d never read her before, but she immediately shot into the upper reaches of my good-writer hierarchy. And I’ve only read about twenty pages of her so far!

Just one taste:

But before we can plunge into the experience of being wrong, we must pause to make an important if somewhat perverse point: there is no experience of being wrong.

There is an experience of realizing that we are wrong, of course. In fact, there is a stunning diversity of such experiences. As we’ll see in the pages to come, recognizing our mistakes can be shocking, confusing, funny, embarrassing, traumatic, pleasurable, illuminating, and life-altering, sometimes for ill and sometimes for good. But by definition, there can’t be any particular feeling associated with simply being wrong. Indeed, the whole reason it’s possible to be wrong is that, while it is happening, you are oblivious to it. When you are simply going about your business in a state you will later decide was delusional, you have no idea of it whatsoever. You are like the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, after he has gone off the cliff but before he has looked down. Literally in his case and figuratively in yours, you are already in trouble when you feel like you’re still on solid ground. So I should revise myself: it does feel like something to be wrong. It feels like being right.

It must be fun to write like this, and it must be really fun to peer into such subtleties with clear and unpretentious vision. Schulz is now a staff writer for the New Yorker, so I’ll be tracking down other longform pieces of hers.

The surveillance society

Googling the phrase “surveillance society”, I see quite a bit has been written about it in recent years. I don’t have much to add, or even a point of view to endorse. I’m only thinking about it because of a couple of things that happened one day a few days back.

The first was Google’s announcement of a home delivery system (Prime members only, natch) that consists of a smart lock for your front door and a video surveillance camera pointed at the door. When a package is delivered, the driver has a one-time code for opening the door, will slip the package just inside the door, and Amazon will email you a video clip of the entire process. This is just the tip of a more comprehensive infrastructure—you can give friends or repairmen codes to unlock the door, you can install more surveillance cameras and have Amazon store and manage the video footage for you, and so on.

My original reaction to home video surveillance was to be creeped out, but as time goes on I can see the point better, even though I can’t see myself ever installing it. For one, I would be comfortable enough to give other people access to my home if I knew (and they knew) they were on video. For another, video footage can answer reasonable questions. Twice now I’ve had to deal with neighbors who came to me about things they caught my kids doing on camera. Nothing serious—once involved walking off with some small toys left lying around, the other was simply walking across a piece of property—but fair enough for the neighbors to be concerned. (The delight they took in having caught the episodes on camera was disturbing, though.) And there have been a few times in our own history where surveillance footage would have provided answers we weren’t otherwise able to get.

The other thing happened when I was looking at a Google map of Frankfort and saw a pin labelled “St Paul Methodist Church, January 12, 10:30am”. I clicked on the pin and saw “Your event: Zaycon Fresh Order Receipt – ZCF139160X18, Thu, Jan 11, 10:30 AM”. Aha. True enough, I had ordered some bulk meat from Zaycon to be picked up then and there. I hadn’t told Google about it—but of course I had, by using their Gmail service.

This sort of thing happens more and more, and it doesn’t bother me much. I live my life as an open book, so when it happens I mostly marvel at Google’s ever-improving skills at extracting meaning from the sea of noise that passes through its pipes on its way to me.

To me, the bigger concern isn’t what surveillance will discover, but how we will adapt to ever-increasing surveillance. Technology doesn’t cater to us, we cater to it. As the machines become more capable of watching over us, we will change our ways so that they are more easily watched. In our hearts we wish to be all watched over by machines of loving grace, and will happily adapt as needed to live into that illusion.

The good news (!) is that the inescapability of surveillance is also an illusion—at least, it will never be difficult to keep important things from the watchers, only inconvenient … and the most important things can’t be seen by their cameras anyway.