October 9, 2010

Spurgeon on Sluggards

Category: Ethics,Theology - Pastoral :: Permalink

I’m greatly enjoying Charles Spurgeon’s John Ploughman’s Talk.  Here are a few choice bits about lazy people:

The ugliest sight in the world is one of those thorough-bred loafers, who would hardly hold up his basin if it were to rain porridge; and for certain would never hold up a bigger pot than he wanted filled for himself.  Perhaps, if the shower should turn to beer, he might wake himself up a bit; but he would make up for it afterwards (10).

Idleness is the key of beggary and the root of all evil.  Fellows have two stomachs for eating and drinking when they have no stomach for work.  That little hole just under the nose swallows up in idle hours that money which should put clothes on the children’s backs and bread on the cottage table (13).

I like leisure when I can get it, but that’s quite another thing; that’s cheese and the other is chalk: idle folks never know what leisure means; they are always in a hurry and a mess, and by neglecting to work in the proper time, they always have a lot to do (14).

Men ride stags when they hunt for gain, and snails when they are on the road to heaven.  Preachers go on see-sawing, droning, and prosing; and the people fall to yawning and folding their arms, and they say that God is withholding the blessing.  Every sluggard, when he finds himself enlisted in the ragged regiment, blames his luck, and some churches have learned the same wicked trick.  I believe that when Paul plants and Apollos waters, God gives the increase, and I have no patience with those who throw the blame on God when it belongs to themselves (18-19).

Oops!  My wife just got home.  I’d better get busy with my Saturday projects!

Posted by John Barach @ 8:59 am | Discuss (1)
October 6, 2010

Sports Stars and Sports Writing

Category: Miscellaneous,Sports :: Permalink

In his essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” David Foster Wallace talks about his (and, by extension, our) obsession with sports autobiographies.  We read the things, he says, because

we want to know them, these gifted, driven physical achievers.  We too, as audience, are driven: watching the performance is not enough.  We want to get intimate with all that profundity.  We want inside them; we want the Story.  We want to hear about humble roots, privation, precocity, grim resolve, discouragement, persistence, team spirit, sacrifice, killer instinct, liniment and pain.  We want to know how they did it….  and of course, we want to know how it feels, inside, to be both beautiful and best (“How did it feel to win the big one?”) (143).

And yet, when sports stars tell their own stories, they are almost always disappointing.  In fact, they are often banal, whether they appear in books or in interviews:

Turn on any post-contest TV interview: “Kenny, how did it feel to make that sensational game-winning shoestring catch in the end zone with absolutely no I mean zero time remaining on the clock?”  “Well, Frank, I was just real pleased.  I was real happy and also pleased.  We’ve all worked hard and come a long way as a team, and it’s always a good feeling to be able to contribute.”  “Mark, you’ve now homered in your last eight straight at-bats and lead both leagues in RBIs — any comment?”  “Well, Bob, I’m just trying to take it one pitch at a time.  I’ve been focusing on the fundamentals, you know, and trying to make a contribution, and all of us know we’ve got to take it one game at a time and hang in there and not look ahead and just basically do the best we can at all times” (152).

So these stars are stunningly inarticulate, especially right after a demanding game (which is something Wallace doesn’t factor in: ask me a detailed, heavy, challenging question right after a sermon or a lecture and I may not be as articulate as I’d like either; ask me how it felt to give that lecture and I’d probably say something banal: “Um … fine”).  But the inability to articulate and the tendency to the banal pervades the autobiographies, too, which are not composed on the spur of the moment after the game was won.

Are these athletes dim?  Hardly.  Their sports require “extraordinary mental powers”:

Anyone who buys the idea that great athletes are dim should have a close look at an NFL playbook, or at a basketball coach’s diagram of a 3-2 zone trap … or at an archival film of Ms. Tracy Austin repeatedly putting a ball in a court’s corner at high speed from seventy-eight feet away, with huge sums of money at stake and enormous crowds of people watching her do it (153).

Where most of us, under such circumstances, would freeze up, overcome perhaps by our own internal voices, great athletes aren’t.  Wallace suggests that these great athletes aren’t analyzing what they’re doing or what they’re supposed to do; they’re bypassing the mind and acting:

The real secret behind top athelete’s genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself.  The real, many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player’s mind as he stands as the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all (154).

He adds:

It may well be that spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able truly to see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied.  And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it — and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence (155).

The same, it occurs to me, may be true not just of sports, but of a lot of work.  I spent a week out in the wilds of British Columbia planting trees when I was in college and I wasn’t good at it at all.  Part of the problem, it seemed to me, was that I was bored; I couldn’t turn off my mind and I couldn’t entertain my mind.  Where others simply got out there and planted, climbing every mountain and fording every stream in their way, I thought about it all and couldn’t get the job done.

One thing that’s going on here is what is sometimes called “poetic knowledge”: the knowledge that comes from experience, not from analysis.  What Tracy Austin could do with a tennis ball wasn’t the result of analyzing the game of tennis, let alone analyzing what she herself was doing, but was simply something she did.  So, too, with an experienced carpenter: Where I have to think about where every nail goes and how exactly I ought to hold it and what force I ought to swing the hammer with, a carpenter simply bangs in the nails — and he may not be able to explain all the questions I’m thinking about.  He just does it.

Another thing to consider in this connection is that, as Wallace illustrates throughout his essay, a high degree of poetic knowledge does not necessarily correspond to a high degree of analytical knowledge.  Put another way, just because you can’t talk about your touchdown — let alone about how you felt about it, when feelings are notoriously hard to put into words and harder still to put into words that are not banal or cliche — doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re stupid.

What’s particularly impressive, though, are those people who manage to achieve both great technical prowess and a great ability to think things through and communicate.  I’ve met several in churches, men who can work hard in construction without having to analyze everything they do (as I would) and who can then come to a Bible study and grapple with the text of Scripture or go home and read a book and follow a complex argument.  They’re the really impressive ones.  But apparently, if Wallace is correct, they aren’t writing sports autobiographies.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:03 pm | Discuss (1)
October 5, 2010

Promiscuity

Category: Ethics,Family,Marriage :: Permalink

I’m currently reading Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.  It’s not at all a good book, for several reasons, which I won’t go into here, though it is helpful in making very clear the direction McLaren is going on a number of issues  — though McLaren still seems to present himself as more interested in questions than answers and often fails to come straight out and say what he thinks the church ought to believe and teach and practice.

But in spite of the serious problems I have with McLaren’s books, starting with his approach to Scripture, I almost always find something worth thinking about in them somewhere and this was no exception.  His seventeenth chapter is entitled “Can We Find a Way to Address Human Sexuality?”, and most of it deals with homosexuality and calls for (well, McLaren doesn’t often “call for” things so much as suggest or imply them) greater openness to homosexuals, less emphasis on heterosexual marriage, and so forth.

But in the midst of this discussion, the gist of which I do not agree with, he talks about how “being a human being at this time in history makes it all the more difficult to navigate our sexual lives.  The opportunities for promiscuity may never have been greater, and the supports for chastity and fidelity have seldom if ever been weaker” (187).

I wonder if that’s really so.  I suspect that there has been little support for chastity and fidelity and great incentive for promiscuity in many pagan societies.   Be that as it may, McLaren goes on to provide a helpful list of various “realities” that we ought to consider when thinking about today’s bent toward promiscuity:

We’ve moved from villages where “everyone knows your name” and where nearly everyone is committed to the same moral standards to cities where we’re all virtually anonymous and where anything goes.  So sex and community are less connected than ever before.

We’re the first human beings to have low-cost, readily available birth control, making sex and pregnancy less connected than ever before.

We’re the first humans to have condoms and antibiotics readily available, making sex and disease less connected than ever before.

We’ve created an economic system that increasingly requires both men and women to work outside the home, in company with members of the opposite sex, thus increasing the possibilities for extramarital attractions to develop and become sexual.

We’ve created an economic system that rewards education and punishes early marriage, pushing the average age of marriage higher and higher.  As a result, we’ve put the biological peak for sex and reproduction further out of sync with the cultural norms for marriage than ever before.

Meanwhile, a number of factors are bringing the average age of puberty lower and lower, leaving more years than ever during which sexually mature people are likely to be single and therefore likely to engage in sex outside of marriage.

The Internet has made pornography ubiquitous, the advertising industry continuously exploits on-screen sex to sell everything from hamburgers to lawn mowers, and the entertainment industry uses sex to sell movies, books, TV shows, magazines, and related products and services.  As a result, sexual stimulation has become increasingly virtualized and universalized.

The print, on-screen, and online ubiquity of “perfect” bodies in “virtual reality” — partially or fully exposed, often cosmetically and digitally enhanced — can create images of sexual perfection copared to which nearly all actual partners will disappoint, thus increasing sexual tension in actual relationships.

The combination of poverty, unemployment, and life in refugee camps or slums puts millions of people together with literally nothing to do, day after day, increasing the likelihood of casual sexual contact among people without the resources to raise the children they conceive (187-188).

Posted by John Barach @ 1:28 pm | Discuss (0)
October 4, 2010

English Usage

Category: Language,Literature :: Permalink

David Foster Wallace’s essay “Authority and American Usage,” in spite of problems you can find discussed at various sites online (this essay sparked something of a firestorm and some of the criticisms seem just), was quite helpful.  Ostensibly a review of Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, which Wallace praises highly, the essay wades into the stormy waters of the debate between those who believe that grammar ought to be prescriptive, laying down rules that speakers and writers ought to follow, and those who think that grammar (and dictionary definitions, for that matter) merely describe how English is being used today.

Wallace criticizes some of the rules laid down by the prescriptivists.  He defends, for instance, the expression “Where’s it at?”:

For a dogmatic Prescriptivist, “Where’s it at?” is double-damned as a sentence that not only ends with a preposition but whose final preposition forms a redundancy with where that’s similar to the redundancy in “the reason is because” (which latter usage I’ll admit makes me dig my nails into my palms).  Rejoinder: First off, the avoid-terminal-propositions rule is the invention of one Fr. R. Louth, an 18th-century British preacher and indurate pedant who did things like spend scores of pages arguing for hath over the trendy and degenerate has.  The a.-t.-p. rule is antiquated and stupid and only the most ayotolloid SNOOT [Wallace's term for a grammar-stickler -- JB] takes it seriously.  Garner himself calls the rule “stuffy” and lists all kinds of useful constructions like “a person I have great respect for” and “the man I was listening to” that we’d have to discard or distort if we really enforced it.

Plus, the apparent redundancy of “Where’s it at?” (a redundancy that’s a bit arbitrary, since “Where’s it from?” isn’t redundant [mainly because whence has receded into semi-archaism]) is offset by its metrical logic: what the at really does is license the contraction of is after the interrogative adverb.  You can’t say “Where’s it?”  So the choice is between “Where is it?” and “Where’s it at?”, and the latter, a strong anapest, is prettier and trips off the tongue better than “Where is it?”, whose meter is either a clunky monosyllabic-foot + trochee or it’s nothing at all (99; I moved the parenthetical comment from the footnote into the main text ’cause I’m not footnoting this blog entry).

I was told in university that I shouldn’t start a sentence with “hopefully” (as in “Hopefully, I’ll be home by 6:30 tonight”), because “hopefully” is an adverb and therefore this sentence means that I will be home, full of home, by 6:30.  Well, no.  Wallace explains:

And Hopefully at the beginning of a sentence, as a certain cheeky eighth-grader once (to his everlasting social cost) pointed out in class, actually functions not as a misplaced modal auxiliary or as a manner adverb like quickly or angrily but as a sentence adverb (i.e., as a special kind of “veiled reflexive” that indicates the speaker’s attitude about the state of affairs described by the rest of the sentence — examples of perfectly OK sentence adverbs are clearly, basically, luckily)…. (100-101).

So he’s not an old-school prescriptivist, imposing alien and Latinate grammar on English.  But he points out that it’s still important for English-speakers to learn, at least alongside their various colloquial ways of communicating, Standard Written English.  He helpfully compares usage rules to the conventions of etiquette: when you speak or write, you are not simply communicating the particular information found in your sentence; you are also communicating a lot about yourself — and how you want people to view you — not to mention how you regard the person you’re speaking to.  If you want people to take you seriously in certain settings, you need to communicate in Standard English, even if that’s not the way you speak at home or with your friends.

On the other hand, the kid who speaks only in Standard Written English — imagine a child who never uses contractions or “whose response to striking out in T-ball is to shout ‘How incalculably dreadful!’” (102) — is going to get a lot of wedgies (a word Wallace mysteriously, and incorrectly, capitalizes) from his classmates, because he’s “actually deficient in Language Arts.  He has only one dialect” (104).

This is one of the longest essays in the book and probably the densest.  Wallace crams a lot in here, and, not surprisingly, this is one of the essays that has Wallace’s trademark footnotes-to-footnotes and interpolations, the result of which is that I can’t possibly summarize what he says.  But I can say that I found a lot of what he says here helpful in thinking through how we teach grammar and, perhaps more importantly, why we communicate the way we do.  It’s not just a matter of following rules because some Language Legislature imposed them in the past and language must never change.  Instead, Wallace says, it’s a matter of communication and the rules of Standard Written English, for the most part, help us do that a lot of the time.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:32 pm | Discuss (2)
October 1, 2010

Humility & Education

Category: Education,Miscellaneous :: Permalink

In September, I lectured for the Bucer Institute on “Genesis and the Future,” focusing on what Genesis teaches us about eschatology and our hope for the future.  But I also got to speak at the Institute’s convocation banquet, and there I talked about humility and education.

Much of what I said was probably obvious.  Humility includes recognizing that we all have a lot to learn and that God puts us in certain environments — such as the Bucer Institute — to learn from others.  That learning may start with being silent.  As Anselm says in his “Duties of Clergy,” “Now what ought we to learn before everything else, but to be silent, that we may be able to speak?”  And so we must humble ourselves to learn from our teachers and to recognize that they are, in some way, superior to us.  Likewise, we must also humble ourselves to learn from our fellow students, not just to learn but to learn together.

In fact, sometimes shyness can be a form of thinking too much of ourselves (though I am not saying that this shyness is necessarily the sin of pride): “I don’t want to ask a question and have people think I’m stupid.”  Or: “I don’t want to raise my hand and interact with the prof as if I think my opinions are worth his time.”  On the contrary, I said: Humble yourself and ask in order to learn.

But I also wanted to speak about something perhaps less obvious, namely,  humility before the subject, putting the subject ahead of yourself.  If your goal at a particular school is simply to use it as a stepping-stone to advance yourself, if your focus is on your marks or on impressing teachers or on impressing future employers or whatever, you will not learn the way you could if you were really interested in the subject.  I’ve often said that I would rather teach someone who is interested than someone who is simply intelligent.

And what’s the mark of that sort of humility, that sort of fascination with the subject that puts it ahead of yourself?  Perhaps one mark is that you sometimes bore people by talking about the subject.  Which brings me to G. K. Chesterton and to the following quotation, which was, in fact, a major impetus behind my entire talk:

Neither in public nor in private life … is it all true that the man who talks a great deal is necessarily an offensive person.  It is an entire mistake, for instance, to imagine that the man who monopolises conversation is a conceited fellow.  The man who monopolises conversation is almost always modest.  The man who talks too much   generally has a great deal of humility.  Nay, even the man who talks other people down, who argues them down, who shouts them down, does not in the least necessarily think himself better than they are.

It may seem a contradiction, yet the truth and reason of it are really very obvious.  The man who talks too much, talks too much because he is interested in his subject.  He is not interested in himself: if he were he would behave better.  If he were really an egoist he would think of what effect his ego was producing: and a very mild degree of mental perception would enable him to realise that the chief effect his ego was producing was a unanimous human aspiration to hurl him out of the window.

A man who fills a drawing-room for two or three hours (say) with a monologue on bulbs, is the very reverse of a selfish man.  He is an unselfish hero, courting the scorn and contumely of men in the great cause of bulbs, objects which are hardly likely to offer him in return any active assistance or even any animated friendship.  He is a Martyr, like Stephen or Joan of Arc: and we know that the blood of the martyrs is the seed (or bulb) of the Church.

No; the really selfish men are the silent men, those wicked and sinister fellows.  They care more for their own manners (a base individualistic asset) than for conversation, which is social, which is impersonal, which is divine.  The loud talker is humble.  The very phrase you use about him proves this.  If a man is rude, and bawls and blunders, the snub given to him would be “You forget yourself.”  It is the very ecstasy of altruism — an impersonal apotheosis.  You say to the cad, “You forget yourself.”  What better, what higher, could you say to the saint than that “You forget yourself”? — Collected Works 27: The Illustrated London News, 1905-1907132-133.

If you never bore someone with any subject, then you have a problem: either nothing in the world fascinates you (how sad!) or the thing that matters most to you is how you appear to others.  But if things do grip you, you’re going to end up boring your wife or a friend or someone at church by talking too much about them from time to time.

On the other hand, as I went on to add, if you don’t forget yourself and the subject you love in order to love others — which in this case means to shut up about your subject and talk about what interests them — you also will not excel in your learning, because truly learning anything means learning how to use it to serve others.  The goal is not just to be so full of your subject that you forget yourself and spill out onto others from time to time, important as that is.  The goal is, with your love of the subject subordinate to the love of others, to be the servant of all.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:40 pm | Discuss (1)