There are answers

I have in mind a long post, probably for tomorrow, responding to a series of posts on Richard Beck’s blog this week. But I wanted something brief for today and started poking around this blog for inspiration. I came across something I wrote six years ago, a sort of a preliminary to the long post.

Most Christians know they are called to behave a certain way, and many are doing their best to answer the call, but they don’t seem to be enjoying it one bit. They are not content, but they don’t know why, and constant exhortation from the pulpit to just be content isn’t making it any easier. They don’t yet have the answers. But I think the answers are out there. I think that Christian thinking actually works, and it’s completely fair for someone to point out to the teachers that they can’t be telling the whole story if a Christian who honestly and diligently applies these teachings doesn’t experience joy and contentment as a result.

There are answers. But until we figure out how to (a) live them in our own lives, and (b) teach others how to live them in theirs, we don’t really have them.

Seems like I’ve been thinking about this problem for a long time. I don’t know if I’m any closer to a solution, but it’s helpful to me to keep looking for organizing principles, core assumptions under which the pieces easily fall into place. One more candidate coming up!

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Jonathan Franzen steps in it

This essay by Jonathan Franzen is a particularly good essay, if you mean by that an attempt to think one’s way through a matter by writing about it. And as Alan Jacobs points out in How to Think, those who engage in thinking take the very real risk of losing friends and alienating people. Franzen’s essay is about publishing an earlier essay he wrote a few years back where he took thoughtful exception to the common wisdom of his circle regarding climate change, resulting in huge amounts of blowback. His reflections here about the whys and wherefores of that earlier episode fit together nicely with many of the observations Jacobs makes in his book.

It’s the nature of Franzen’s heresy that resonated with me most, serving as a good example of why I’ve opted to no longer spend time thinking about political issues. Franzen’s point is a moderate one, and almost unquestionably correct: “our preoccupation with future catastrophes discourages us from tackling solvable environmental problems in the here and now.” His editor, Henry Finder, helped him reshape the initial version to make it more persuasive:

In an email to me, [Henry] gently suggested that I lose the tone of prophetic scorn. “This piece will be more persuasive,” he wrote in another, “if, ironically, it’s more ambivalent, less polemical. You’re not whaling on folks who want us to pay attention to climate change and emission reductions. But you’re attentive to the costs. To what the discourse pushes to the margins.”

Email by email, revision by revision, Henry nudged me toward framing the essay not as a denunciation but as a question: how do we find meaning in our actions when the world seems to be coming to an end? Much of the final draft was devoted to a pair of well-conceived regional conservation projects, in Peru and Costa Rica, where the world really is being made a better place, not just for wild plants and wild animals but for the Peruvians and Costa Ricans who live there. Work on these projects is personally meaningful, and the benefits are immediate and tangible.

So, a moderate proposal to his crowd: let’s consider the possibility that our obsession with climate change is sucking up all the oxygen in the room, suffocating efforts to confront more tractable but less sexy problems.

It didn’t end well.

In writing about the two projects, I hoped that one or two of the big charitable foundations, the ones spending tens of millions of dollars on biodiesel development or on wind farms in Eritrea, might read the piece and consider investing in work that produces tangible results. What I got instead was a missile attack from the liberal silo.

I’m not on social media, but my friends reported that I was being called all sorts of names, including “birdbrain” and “climate-change denier”. Tweet-sized snippets of my essay, retweeted out of context, made it sound as if I’d proposed that we abandon the effort to reduce carbon emissions, which was the position of the Republican party, which, by the polarising logic of online discourse, made me a climate-change denier. In fact, I’m such a climate-science accepter that I don’t even bother having hope for the ice caps. All I’d denied was that a right-minded international elite, meeting in nice hotels around the world, could stop them from melting.

This was my crime against orthodoxy. Climate now has such a lock on the liberal imagination that any attempt to change the conversation – even trying to change it to the epic extinction event that human beings are already creating without the help of climate change – amounts to an offence against religion.

I note that where Franzen says “change the conversation” he is speaking idiomatically. There is no actual conversation taking place, at most we have what Rebecca West called “intersecting monologues.” And this is why I have no interest in the politics of the day. To even begin to have a fruitful interaction on a political topic, I think the participants need to be both skilled at what John Keats called negative capability (“capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”) and devoted to staying there as long as it took to gain real understanding, even if only partial, even if it never comes at all.

While reading Franzen’s essay I found I needed strong applications of negative capability, since his political sentiments run much different than mine and much of his language was pushing my buttons—but at the same time I recognized that much of my initial reaction was visceral and I needed to tamp it down in order to hear what Franzen was saying. So I did, and I learned some things, both about climate change and the limits of my own knowledge of the topic. If there were a group of people commited to taking the same approach, I’d gladly join together with them to consider the political issues of the day. But that’s not how public “discourse” works anymore, if it ever did.

“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.

Done

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.

Backstory

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.