Friday, January 27, 2012

An Economy of Generosity

The other day at work, five of us worked the package line, putting completed units into sales cartons. Two people made (that is, folded) cartons; one person placed units in cartons; one person—me—placed rubber gaskets in cartons; and one person closed cartons to send them onto the case packer robot. One conveyor belt brought raw units in, and another conveyor carried packed units away.

I had the second easiest job that night, flipping a small rubber ring into a large target. I could daydream without hindering my job performance. But the conveyor moved fast enough that the closer inevitably fell behind and struggled to keep up. If she fell too far behind, she had to stop the conveyor until she caught up. But if she stopped the outgoing line, the incoming line kept bringing units, which formed a huge knot at the choke point.

Clearly my short-term interests were best served by letting the closer fight her own battles. I could shoegaze if I wanted, and what everyone else deemed a strenuous pace was, to me, pretty easy-going. But if she stopped the outgoing conveyor, we all had to deal with that huge knot. If I closed every fifth box, sacrificing my short-term interests, the closer could keep up, the knot would never form, and everyone was better served.

America’s political economy today is dominated by an attitude of “what’s mine is mine, and hands off.” Our tax laws and spending priorities reflect this attitude, as well as our charitable giving habits—while Americans donate more money than any other country in absolute terms, we have one of the lowest donation rates in the industrialized world. And we justify this in public discourse by appeals to capitalism and the free market.

But we forget that Adam Smith, author of capitalism’s foundational text, The Wealth of Nations, was no free market absolutist. He wrote that the wealthy had a moral obligation to pay greater revenues into the maintenance of society, making him an early proponent of the “Buffett Rule.” And he believed corporations, which manipulated massive volumes of what he termed “other people’s money,” were inherently untrustworthy.

There is simply no empirical reason to believe an absolute free market helps anybody. Indeed, by letting the rich hoard wealth while the poor pound sand, we create an aristocratic class and “everybody else.” But anthropology proves that poverty incubates crime, so a permanent poor underclass is a breeding ground for lawlessness. Thus the wealthy spend more money guarding their hoarded wealth, and enjoy less of it.

Lacking an empirical basis, defenders of self-interest manufacture moral arguments. They term taxes “theft,” insist they don’t want their hard-earned money given to “welfare queens,” and decry “socialistic” intervention. Unfortunately, most world value systems, including the Christianity which social conservatives claim, reject accumulated wealth without concomitant responsibility to serve those less fortunate.

If I focus on my short-term self-interest, and count myself blessed here and now, without planning for the future, I set myself up for catastrophe in the long term. Whether by befouling the atmosphere, or producing a customer base that can’t afford my merchandise, or by permitting raw units to accumulate in the choke point, pursuing immediate interests will exact a price I have to pay in the future.

Taking time to close every fifth carton is not easy. I have to break my rhythm with a simple task to perform one that is slower and requires fine motor skills. Essentially, I need to shift between two very different muscle actions, which is a nuisance. But it’s a smaller nuisance than having to keep up with the sudden influx from the choke point. And it’s an act I perform alone, which benefits everybody on the line equally.

Sure, something else could set me back. A carton maker could fold one improperly, get caught trying to straighten it, and send ripples down the line. Or the product placer might knock one carton over, sending others tumbling like dominoes. But that could happen. If I don’t extend myself to help the closer, the knot at the choke point will happen. I consider the risk worth the cost.

I don’t advocate a Soviet-style collectivization of risk. History proves that this fails. But if we all give a little of our short-term interest into a pool of public generosity, the long-term rewards, individually and as a society, should more than pay for that investment. And we could all use a little long-term security in this dangerous world.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Are Women On the Verge of Abandoning Christianity?

I once visited a Protestant church on the Sunday of their congregational business meeting. After the service, all the women filed dutifully into the kitchen to prepare the pot luck, while the men, who were few in number, stayed in the sanctuary to vote. In other words, while the scarce men undertook church “business,” the copious women actually got stuff done. I couldn’t help remembering this incident while reading Jim Henderson’s The Resignation of Eve.

Though Jesus called twelve men into his inner circle, he spent far more time around women than the Hebrews around him. He gave secrets to Mary Magdalene and the Samaritan woman at the well which he never entrusted to men. Though the world he lived in openly favored men, Jesus showed women a level of favor that, in his day, must have seemed downright scandalous. Henderson thinks this sets a standard for Christian gifts being distributed regardless of gender.

We run aground, however, in Paul’s epistles. 1 Timothy 2:12 says: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” This contradicts Paul’s own ordination of Priscilla and Aquila, but never mind; churches have used this scripture for centuries to keep women out of pulpits. This despite the fact that women outnumber men in pews, classrooms, liturgical programs, and—by a ratio of two to one—volunteer church jobs.

Backed by researcher George Barna, Henderson exposes a remarkable split among church women. While stats indicate that most women feel they have adequate influence in their congregations, the organized church is bleeding those most eager to teach and lead for Christ. This creates a two-tiered culture for women: those who accept their lot, to a greater or lesser degree, and those who bolt for more egalitarian denominations, or leave church altogether.

Even denominations like mine, which has ordained women for decades, don’t distribute authority equally. Most women pastors get relegated to subordinate positions or small rural congregations. My congregation has two women pastors, both under a male “senior” pastor. At various times in my life, I’ve been a member of three denominations that ordain women, yet never seen a woman holding the senior pulpit in a large urban congregation.

Henderson compiles fifteen interviews with women who react to the church’s power dynamic in different ways. Some agree with the idea that women should take a back seat; others balk at restrictions. Some choose to stick with their churches regardless of their quandaries; others rebel in overt or subtle ways. Some leave church, or even the Christian faith, altogether.

Henderson highlights that Evangelical Christian voters who propelled Sarah Palin to national prominence overwhelmingly attend congregations that don’t ordain women. Why would a woman make an acceptable President, but not a pastor? In fairness, one woman Henderson interviews wouldn’t vote for a woman. But overall, these congregations support a woman’s bid for secular authority, but not her more important bid to save souls and transfigure the world for Christ.

I have some problems with this book. Most stem from unbilled coauthor George Barna, whom I've questioned before. His stats and Henderson’s anecdotes clash, suggesting that one or the other is wrong—or, more likely, they conceal an unexamined subtext. This book could sustain more thorough, nuanced analysis. It makes a good introduction, and stakes out good territory, but I hope Henderson or another author has more work in the pipeline.

In my experience, unlike Henderson, I doubt American Christianity faces a mass female exodus. In my church, women overwhelmingly dominate positions of authority, although the pastor dubbed “senior” is a dude. If women are leaving the church, as Henderson (via Barna) asserts, it’s because people are leaving the church. Christians have failed to provide a viable counter-narrative for our fraught and tumultuous world.

Reading this book, I recalled David Murrow’s Why Men Hate Going to Church, which I have reviewed previously. Henderson and Murrow consider the same problem with the American church today, that while men occupy a thin veneer of nominal leadership, women actually make the place run. But by viewing this reality from different gendered standpoints, they draw very different conclusions.

I strongly recommend Henderson’s and Murrow’s books side by side. Gender in today’s church, like race and wealth, define how we relate to one another, and how we communicate Christ to the unchurched world. While these two books alone don’t resolve every difference, they stake out a debate I hope Christians consider well worth having.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Revolution Will Not Be Compartmentalized

Early in The Coming Revolution, Dr. Richard G. Lee drops a line that reveals his real thesis. Praising a soldier who gave his life protecting his fellows from an Iraqi insurgent, he extols “the true meaning of duty, honor, country, and all those fine virtues the mainstream culture loves to ridicule and disdain.” This idea, that all American goodness is besieged by mass wickedness, informs not only this book, but much recent populist hysteria.

Which is weird, on balance, because Lee claims “the overwhelming majority” of Americans are on the verge of rebellion against the oppressive social order. So apparently the “mainstream culture” isn’t made by, you know, people. And it’s certainly not supported by ordinary Americans who reward culture creators with their time, money, votes, and other sustenance. “Mainstream culture” must be a charity from the dark matter universe.

This underscores the problem I have not just with Lee’s book, but with a certain subset of political discourse. On the one hand, Lee wants to claim he speaks for the silent majority of American thought. On the other hand, he places all goodness, virtue, and truth within a fortress under attack from mighty forces of unimaginable depravity. And he backs both claims with evidence that shows an appalling lack of forethought or study.

For instance, Lee claims to speak for an unbroken political tradition going back to the framers of the Constitution, and even before. But his historical awareness doesn’t proceed beyond 11th grade American Civics. He ignores any historical facts which contradict his story. He claims to know the Founders’ intent beyond what they set in writing. And though he dedicates an entire chapter to what they wrote, he includes only what supports his position.

Dr. Richard G. Lee
Likewise, Lee’s knowledge of current events comes carefully pre-filtered. He cites opinion generators like Michael Medved, Glenn Beck, and Mona Charen as though they were scholarly sources. He uncritically quotes partisan journals like National Review and The American Spectator, presenting their reportage as unslanted fact. And he reduces complex, ongoing controversies to one-sentence bromides.

In my favorite example, Lee says that “in December 2009... a Vermont court ordered a Christian child to be taken away from her biological mother and given to a former lesbian partner.” No further details, not even the parties’ names, are forthcoming. This seems like a simple case of anti-Christian judicial overreach. But following his source notes to an overtly partisan website, I found he was referencing the unresolved Lisa Miller-Janet Jenkins case.

According to the New York Times, Miller and Jenkins were in a Vermont civil union and raising Miller’s daughter together, when Miller converted to Christianity. Miller believed exposure to homosexuality would harm the girl; Jenkins believed the same about Christianity. When a court awarded Jenkins parental visitation rights, Miller, aided by her pastor, fled the country altogether. Clearly this case resists the simple resolution Lee demands.

For obvious reasons, I take personal affront at Lee’s diatribes against higher education. While some professors push a radical agenda, I and most of my colleagues endeavor to maintain a respectful, nonpartisan learning environment. Moreover, many colleagues share my Christianity to a greater or lesser degree. My undergraduate mentor, now deceased, led the local Quaker circle. We are hardly the vanguard of godless socialism Lee claims.

The longer I read, the more Lee presents a ceaseless array of enemies beating drums against America around every corner. But he somehow still claims his position represents the silent majority. Then he insists that, if the 2012 election doesn’t go the way he expects, “who knows what could happen?” Though Lee disavows violence, his subtext sounds like a Mafia protection racket: give us what we want, or something bad might happen.

Lee, whose doctorate is in theology, has a long publishing history linking conservative patriotism with evangelical Christianity. To him, American Christianity is indistinguishable from laissez-faire nationalism. While he fairly represents a certain subset of public discourse, he discounts any patriotism or Christianity that doesn’t align with his particular view. Then he trumpets the product as an ascendant mass movement for which he will speak.

My problem is not that Dr. Lee is conservative. Conservatism is a legitimate political position with a long and noble history. And anyone who reads liberal political theory knows that anyone, of any political stripe, can wear the same blinders Lee does. Rather, Lee’s strange, contradictory, and even comical positions reflect what happens when opinion leaders start with the answer, and go in search of the question.

Friday, January 20, 2012

There Is No "I" in "God"

“Sadly, in Gospel music today seldom is proclaimed the God of liberation—just the God of escape. Seldom is heralded the God who will deliver us from evil, just a God who delivers us from reality.”

This quote comes from “‘I Am the Holy Dope Dealer’: The Problem With Gospel Music Today,” from Obery M. Hendricks, Jr’s newest book, The Universe Bends Toward Justice. An activist seminarian, Hendricks contrasts modern Gospel music as an expression of African American Christianity with the Spirituals of the slavery and Emancipation eras. As you may guess from the quote, Gospel music falls short. I suggest Hendricks could go even further.

Though Hendricks presents a very complex and richly nuanced thesis, I want to focus on just one part. Hendricks describes the change from Spirituals to Gospel as coinciding with the Great Migration. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, hundreds of thousands of Black Americans left their rural agrarian roots in the South in pursuit of better work and a more prosperous life in Northern cities. Instead they found slums, smoke-belching factories, and appalling alienation.

Hendricks says, “assembly line labor is, by definition, mind-numbing and disempowering.” I would say it doesn’t have to be; the factory where I work encourages creative engagement and a certain autonomy. But I can ascribe that to a management that sees itself beholden, in part, to its labor base. Not all companies share that ethos, especially not white-owned companies with black workers in a time of legally enshrined racism.

As African Americans increasingly adopted 20th Century urban ideals of radical individualism, the communitarian ethos of the Spirituals came to seem increasingly quaint. While Civil Rights leaders used the old plantation songs to stir up political engagement, a new breed of Gospel songwriters championed a “me and God alone” ethic in which the individual reigns supreme, and political concerns are at best secondary.

This results in a Black population largely unengaged in the fight to better its situation. While racism dare not show its face in public, it has not disappeared from America (I abandoned my favorite watering hole because of overtly racist banter against President Obama). But African Americans are no longer energized to address naked inequities in our body politic. Hendricks blames that on curtailed community, starting with worship songs.

Hendricks, African American himself, justifiably focuses his inquiries on questions of race and racism. But I contend he does not describe a uniquely Black problem. Loss of community as a motivating factor in Christian civic engagement has had lamentable consequences for American Christianity. And while multiple factors probably contribute to that shift, we cannot overlook our increasingly individualistic modes of worship.

Evangelical Christians formerly led the fight for social justice. Evangelicals held leading roles in Abolitionism, the Labor Movement, and Women’s Sufferage. But after Dr. King’s death, Evangelicalism fell under the sway of radical proponents of the status quo. While traditional “peace churches” like the Quakers and the Mennonites continue agitating for justice, Evangelicals have become notorious for reflexive conservatism.

Not coincidentally, this change has taken place at the same time as much music in Protestant churches has transformed. David Murrow notes that the great classic hymns are sung about God, where much Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) is sung to God. Moreover, where classic hymns encouraged communal singing and group harmonies, CCM’s syncopated rhythms and first-person-singular language reward soloists.

Music has long been the centerpiece of worship. Whether the Psalms of monastic prayer, the four-part harmonies of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, or the power pop of Christian rock stars and youth leaders, music has bound believers together into a body. But this “I” focus in the newest music subdivides that body. Christians talk to God, but not to each other, or to the world.

Hebrews 10:25-25 calls on believers: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Much current Christian worship habitually only encourages the self, and spurs singers on only to personal morality. Encouraging one another had fallen away in favor of individualism.

Christian leaders often complain about their perceived creeping irrelevance. If they hope to beat back this trend, they need to start by reminding their flock that we are in this struggle together, and only together can we bring forth the vision of the apostles and the prophets.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Graduating the Electoral College

Before you read what follows, please be aware it no longer represents the author's views. I wrote this article well before December 2012, when Republican legislatures in swing states tried to enforce the described practice on their own states. I assumed, falsely I now know, that congressional districts were delineated fairly, giving both major parties an equal chance. Sad to say, both parties have a bad recent history of gerrymandering, making the system I describe in the following article even less fair than the system we have now. Therefore, I repudiate everything you are about to read.

Nebraska made history in 2008 when, instead of giving all its electoral college votes to one Presidential candidate, it kicked one to the minority winner. Nebraska is one of only two states to use the “Congressional District Method” to apportion electoral votes (alongside Maine), though no state has split its vote in living memory. Until Omaha gave its electoral vote to Barack Obama, the “winner take all” system dominated voting cycles for generations.

Instead of celebrating a history-making event, registered Republicans in Nebraska’s nominally nonpartisan legislature began debate on a bill to reverse this law. As long as other states don’t practice this method, it’s not fair, they whined, that Nebraska gave up one vote that would have made no difference in the overall election. Though this method wasn’t overturned, Nebraska’s subsequent redistricting ensured a Republican majority in all congressional districts.

Yet this divided system seems desirable to me. Because Nebraska has such a system, Democratic candidate proxies like Chelsea Clinton and Michelle Obama visited a state that would otherwise have been a solid Republican lock. A state that was overlooked in the 2000 and 2004 election cycles was treated like its vote actually mattered. Even if one insignificant vote got diverted, the benefits to Nebraska voters seem inestimable.

More states could benefit from dividing the vote in this manner. Many states that seem secure for one party—like Texas, Louisiana, or Arizona for the Republicans, or New York, Illinois, and California for the Democrats—actually ended the last few election cycles divided by less than ten percent. What’s more, the respective voting blocs are generally concentrated in geographic regions: mainly cities for Democrats, more rural areas for Republicans.

In 2008, national media considered California, Oregon, and Washington such a lock for Democrats that they called all three states for Obama before any voting precincts reported in. But all three are dominated by large coastal cities with Democratic bases. The rural inland counties, as well as cities like San Diego with substantial military populations, trend significantly Republican in all three states. Rural populations stand hostage to rich urban centers.

America’s Founding Fathers created a bicameral Congress apportioned on two different standards so that large cities and populous states could not run roughshod over smaller agrarian regions. Yet giving a state’s entire electoral representation results in exactly this power imbalance. Republicans in Umatilla, Oregon, or Democrats in Austin, Texas, might as well not vote for President.

Imagine, though, if all US states divided their electoral votes like Nebraska does. Instead of taking entire states for granted, candidates would have to campaign by the congressional district, stumping for votes at ground level. This would make a Presidential bid much more labor-intensive for the candidates and their organizations, but since it would diminish the influence of statewide and national media blitzes, it would also help offset big money.

The last several Presidential contests have turned on “battleground states,” a list that has fallen significantly in recent election cycles. Most media agreed on a core list of thirteen swing states in 2004, yet by 2008, six states split narrowly enough to count as battlegrounds. This is a momentous drop-off since 1992, when seventeen states split narrowly enough to be worth fighting for. Too many states’ elections results today are foregone conclusions.

The same cannot be said for congressional districts. As Omaha proved in the last cycle, a city or region can shift suddenly when it feels its interests or regional identity are jeopardized. Omaha, a non-unionized industrial city, usually meets the Republicans’ core demographic. But with a growing minority population, and a labor base that has been decimated by offshoring less prestigious jobs, Omaha felt the McCain-Palin platform threatened its heart.

Despite perennial grumbling, America has never abolished the Electoral College. Considering the difficulty in amending the Constitution, it’s unlikely to ever be abolished. And small states like Nebraska, which sees its Presidential voting presence nearly doubled by the Electoral College system, gain from the continuation of the system. While far from perfect, the Electoral College certainly enhances the character of America’s federal structure.

Nevertheless, splitting the Electoral vote according to the Congressional District Method will advance America’s democratic principles. It will prevent Presidential candidates from taking entire states for granted. It will forestall hasty calls like we saw in Florida in 2000. And it will force candidates to meet voters where they live, instead of depending on corporate cash for media extravaganzas. In short, dividing the Electoral vote will unify America’s voting process.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Racism Versus Joseph Conrad's Mythology Gap

English teachers love and despise Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness because it resists simple interpretation. Students cannot “decipher” it like a crossword puzzle clue. This brief classic admits as many interpretations as there are students in a room—which infuriates teachers who relish control. But it also rewards the curious and inquisitive with its constantly shifting secrets.

Chinua Achebe’s essay “An Image of Africa” comes packaged with many editions of Heart of Darkness, accusing Conrad of overt racism in his depiction of African savagery. Achebe has a point, insofar as Conrad doesn’t bother understanding Africans, depicting them with any psychological depth, or even giving them names. But reading Heart of Darkness in light of what I know about modern mythology, I can’t quite accept that depiction.

Rather than celebrating racism, Heart of Darkness (hereafter HoD) reads like an exposé of failed imagination. Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, ascends an unnamed African river, which readers accept as the Congo, failing to see Africans as a true, but structurally distinct, society. He fails to see the Belgian colonial masters as attempting to build anything beyond themselves. And he fails to see Africa as anything but a consumable resource.

In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner advanced his “Frontier Thesis,” claiming we can only understand America through the lens of the frontier. Our egalitarian democratic ideals, and our trust in aggressive virility and innovation, rely on a frontier. Only at civilization’s boundaries can we reject constraints, test our abilities to the utmost, and become the persons we are meant to be. I've written about this before.

Even Turner failed to anticipate how important Americans consider the frontier. When the literal frontier closed, we created mythic frontiers. President Kennedy (and Captain Kirk) called space “the final frontier.” University researchers probe “the frontiers of science.” Boosters call the oceans, the Internet, Alaska, and the human mind “The Last Frontier.” We aggressively seek that which remains concealed, to prove ourselves to ourselves.

Conrad, in HoD, shares no such value. He mocks the thin veneer of colonial governance, and has little use for the Europeans who choose to live among the Africans. This attitude will seem familiar to anyone who has read the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet: only devolutionary yayhoos would leave the motherland to help occupy the expanding empire.

This bias only becomes more pronounced as Marlow treks upriver. Instead of stepping out boldly and proving himself in unknown territory, he brings a shawl of civilization with him on his boat. Even when he reaches his destination, he won’t venture far from the landing, instead watching the Africans from a distance, and describing them in terms that combine Halloween, xenophobia, and a witch hunt.

Anyone who has seen the most famous HoD mass media adaptation, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, will recognize this attitude. The boat on the Nung river is a footprint of America. Everything outside the boat is Enemy. Getting too close to shore, another boat, or even the water will result in tragedy. Here there be dragons, indeed.

In other words, where an American writer might make Africa a test of mettle (as Teddy Roosevelt would, years later), Conrad makes HoD a venture beyond safety, into a failed world. Africans, to Conrad’s Marlow, are not people to meet, or even to conquer. They’re just landscape for his version of Hell. Achebe accurately says that Conrad’s Africa is “the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization.”

But Achebe, whose classic Things Fall Apart provides a worthy counter-narrative to HoD, assumes Conrad’s attitude derives from race. The text scarcely supports that. Though Marlow repeatedly uses a well-known racial epithet against the Africans, he shows no more respect to colonial Europeans. Conrad disparages Africans, not because of their race, but because they are not like the good people at home.

Conrad could not know he was writing in the final glimmerings of European empire. The “great” nations that pushed across the world with virile purpose during the Renaissance had turned ingrown, like a tumor. The vigorous imagination that propelled their empires gave way to the incestuous mess that would precipitate two world wars. Conrad’s Marlow stood not at the cutting edge of empire, but on the fringe of its shed skin.

HoD remains worth reading, but not for any reason Conrad conceived. From our vantage, we know what Conrad and Marlow could not. This classic novella provides an accurate portrait of why empires inevitably fail, and why empire builders never realize their efforts are doomed.

Friday, January 13, 2012

If God Is Awesome, Why Is Christian Lingo So Tedious?

Since I started this blog, I’ve received several Christian books, many of which I’ve liked. But I admit, as Christian as I am, I’ve started to grow bored with many Christian books being published today. I wanted to keep my doubts to myself. But when I received Terry Smith’s Ten—How Would You Rate Your Life?, I couldn’t hold me tongue any longer.

Reverend Smith asserts that God made human spirits to live lives of courage, accomplishment, and meaning. Too often, we sit back passively, waiting for God to hand us an accomplished life, or worse, wait until we have our lives on track before turning to God. But if we step forth boldly, confident that God has commissioned us as partners in His creation, meaning will arise from our trust in God’s infinite goodness.

Smith repeatedly insists that “this is not a self-help book.” He emphasizes that we complete God’s mission when we place others above our own ambitions. We are called by God to love our neighbor and serve as God’s eyes and hands in the world. As we do that, we will discover who we are in God’s grand scheme, grow to fill the role God has picked for us, and lead others in the risky business of holy living.

I agree with everything Smith says. He in fact voices many concerns I’ve gnawed over in my private prayer. But his way of stating it is very, very... ordinary.

Smith structures his argument around an outline so straightforward that we can get the salient points by reading the Table of Contents. While I favor clarity, he only barely fleshes out this skeleton with orphaned references to Beethoven, Presidents Lincoln and Reagan, Waiting for Godot, and the New York Yankees. He treats these examples as mere ornaments on his core argument, which, stripped down, might make an energetic magazine article.

Somewhere around page 150, my problem with Smith’s style crystallized: this book feels like a really long Sunday sermon. With short lessons drawn from personal experience and various reading, very brief chapters highlighting sequential points, and his catchphrase of “better, best, and preferred life,” Smith treats us like parishioners in the pew. Unfortunately, reading is not church, and a book is not a homily.

Not that I object to Sunday sermons. I like a well-constructed and theologically sound sermon. But conventional homiletics are bound by the format: sermons are spoken aloud, to a diverse audience, who may or may not understand important concepts, and who expect the preacher to keep it lively and short. This context rewards short sentences, brief illustrations, and unwavering focus bolstered by repetition.

Books bring different demands, and more self-selecting audiences. Readers speed up or slow down to their comfort level. If readers miss a point, they can go back to double-check, or even research or Google it. This gives writers freedom to unpack a concept, rather than just illustrate it. Unfortunately, this also means that written articles sound stilted when read aloud, and sermons often read awkwardly when written down.

Many Christian publishers look for writers’ credentials as part of the publishing package. Pastors, particularly megachurch pastors, bring a certain cachet and a prepared audience. As the senior minister of a metro NYC “campus” church, Smith presumably made an appealing prospect for his publisher. And well he should, as he has successfully led a growing congregation for over two decades.

But the best writers are often not the best ministers. A researcher like Diana Butler Bass, or an engaged layperson like Donald Miller, often has a better sense of what works better on the page than a trained sermonizer. I’ve recently enjoyed works by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jacques Ellul, and Walter Brueggemann. These writers’ dense prose styles often make for slow reading, but their work never lags.

Smith is hardly the first Christian writer I’ve encountered whose message I applaud, but whose prose puts me off. Though I don’t want to name names, I have praised clumsy and inelegant books in this very blog, because I found the point worthwhile. I don’t know why Smith in particular elicits this reaction. I just know I can’t excuse clunky language any longer behind a solid point.

Let me repeat, I agree with Smith’s point. Many readers, both Christian and secular, could stand to learn from his message of boldness and purpose. My problem is his style, not his message. But in Christianity as in the rest of life, you cannot separate the spirit from the style.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Refusing to Live in Fear: the American Way

What follows is a coda to my prior review, The Sleek Black Glock and the American Dream. While this can be read as a freestanding essay, the two are meant as an integrated unit.

Buried deep in a late chapter of his new book, Glock: The Rise of America's Gun, journalist Paul M. Barrett describes participating in a shooting competition with award-winning firearms writer Massad Ayoob and his girlfriend, Gail Pepin. Ayoob and Pepin both carry loaded weapons everywhere they go. They consider bearing arms both a patriotic duty and a self-defense imperative:

“Like many gun owners who carry, they find last night’s local television news report of an armed robbery at the neighborhood 7-11 more compelling than the statistically small chance of being the unlucky customer paying for a Slurpee when a bad guy attacks.”

Barrett’s wording may sit poorly with avid gun rights activists. One early Amazon reviewer says this passage “makes Ayoob look silly.” Yet it reflects an important reality for many of America’s most outspoken gun owners today: Our world is dangerous, our fears are justified, and we have a God-given right to protect ourselves from the monsters who lurk just beyond the limits of our peripheral vision.

Paul Barrett (center) learns combat shooting with coaches
Massad Ayoob (in black) and Herman Gunter (in blue)
Trophy shooter and lifelong NRA member Michael Moore made this same point about fear in his film Bowling for Columbine. Other countries have a love affair with weapons similar to ours. Canada has a thriving sport shooting culture, but a violent crime rate closer to Australia, whose restrictive gun laws essentially make private sidearms illegal. But Canada does not foster fear in its populace, either.

Massad Ayoob, a former lawman, does not advocate firearms across the board. He stands up for responsible gun ownership, and has written about how to handle guns safely to keep them away from children, as well as how to survive the psychological trauma of a shooting. Barrett, in Glock, stresses that Ayoob initially opposed the Austrian pistol because it was too volatile in inexperienced hands.

Yet many people who will never need 9mm stopping power or a seventeen round magazine still want the Glock because they see it as necessary in today’s violent culture. The shooting competition Barrett attends features five scenarios, two of which he describes: a mad shooter in a mall, and a workplace stickup. Both are rare to the point of statistical insignificance, yet organizers and participants see these as realistic representations of modern life.

Gun control activists seize this fear. They assert that we are more likely to be injured by our own weapons than the bugbears we fear (though this is much less true now than just a few years ago). In the wake of the late-nineties school shootings, they advocated a prison-style lockdown mentality in America’s schools, until 2001, when the real threat proved to come from grown-ups with box cutters.

Instead of allaying fear, gun control activists amplify it. Barrett cites book titles like Every Handgun Is Aimed at You, backed with speeches and position papers portraying American cities as shooting ranges. These techniques tend to backfire, as gun owners respond to gun control campaigns by stockpiling weapons. America now has roughly one private firearm per adult citizen.

Gun control activists gin up fear of mishandled weapons and casual terrorism. Gun rights activists gin up fear of jackboots wanting to suspend the Bill of Rights. Yet violent crime in America has decreased as gun ownership has increased. And NRA alarmism notwithstanding, President Obama shows no interest in banning handguns. Both sides use fear to manipulate us.

Firearms are tools. Like power saws, they are useful in the hands of skilled workers who treat them respectfully, and dangerous in the hands of novices who mishandle them. Likewise, police officers are generally good people sworn to uphold the rule of law. Some may have totalitarian aspirations, but an engaged citizenry can hold such a minority to account. Both of these fears are misguided.

Sociologist Barry Glassner, in The Culture of Fear, describes America’s various paranoias. Monolithic media-generated fears leave us feeling powerless before ordinary challenges. Like Barrett, Glassner doesn’t take this as far as it could go. If regular Americans feel helpless in daily life, we inevitably relinquish control to activists, advertisers, and others who would sell us security in exchange for our democratic freedoms.

America does not need gun control; America needs fear control. We must cross our arms and rebuke anyone who would breed fear for political advantage, like various activists, or for profit, like the media. Because fear is a precursor to helplessness, fearmongers eventually want us to depend on them. Anyone who wants you and me to fear more does not have our best interests at heart.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Sleek Black Glock and the American Dream

For a weapon that has become iconic, it’s easy to forget that the Glock semiautomatic pistol didn’t exist thirty years ago. Gaston Glock, an engineer and machinist who made bayonets in his garage, started experimenting with firearms to snag an Austrian military contract that the army hadn’t actually offered yet. In Glock: The Rise of America's Gun, Paul Barrett describes how an experiment became a phenomenon, despite almost unprecedented opposition.

While established gun manufacturers like Steyr and Sig Sauer continued modifying existing pistols—many of which hadn’t changed significantly in decades—Gaston Glock experimented in his hobby lab. He tried avenues the big boys would never touch. His pistol had a larger magazine, fewer moving parts, and with its injection-molded plastic frame, weighed less than half as much as standard models. It could survive falling from a helicopter and still fire reliably.

In Europe, gunsmiths primarily manufacture for military and law enforcement. Even in countries with relaxed gun laws, private firearms ownership remains fairly rare. Gaston Glock, a suburban working guy who ran his factory part-time and spoke only German, had no other aspirations. That is, until a writer for Soldier of Fortune magazine almost accidentally introduced Glock’s pistol to the American gun market.

Karl Walter, an Austrian-born American gun retailer, proved a perfect conduit to get the Glock into American hands. He spoke German, which dovetailed nicely with Gaston Glock’s provincialism. He had business savvy and an awareness of America’s cliquish gun culture. And he had a plan that allowed his boss to turn a huge profit even if he sold very few of his lightweight, inexpensive weapons. Luckily for Walter, the Glock exceeded anyone’s humble expectations.

But American scaremongers, who have elaborate mechanisms in place to terrify the people, leaped on the Glock with unparalleled fury. Some said its plastic frame immunized it to regular screening, making it an airline hijacker’s dream. (The FAA and ATF roll their eyes at this claim.) Others said its large magazine and easy reloading system are custom-tailored for maximum casualty. (This claim has more basis, but still doesn’t withstand scrutiny.)

Moreover, Glock pistols suffered ridiculous media caricatures. While heroes continued packing Smith & Wesson revolvers, villains carried Glocks. The Glock’s Hollywood debut, in Die Hard 2, included a line of expository dialogue in which Bruce Willis got every claim of fact flat wrong. The Glock’s streamlined profile and matte black finish made it look natural in the bad guy’s hands.

Not surprisingly, to anyone who knows American gun culture, the bigger the scares got, the more people wanted this weapon. Every alarmist screed resulted in another mass run on America’s gun stores. And Bill Clinton’s ill-considered 1994 assault weapons ban, partially written to restrict the Glock, resulted in panic buying on an epic scale. Glock quickly surpassed Colt or Smith & Wesson as the emblem of firearms in America.

The more popular and diverse his pistols grew, the more autocratic Gaston Glock became. The unassuming suburban machinist suddenly bought a spacious mountain villa, travelled in private jets, and grew increasingly disdainful of his American market base. Men (and some women) who built his trans-Atlantic business, like Karl Walter and Phil Jannuzzo, got bulldozed by Gaston Glock’s monolithic presence. Even his own children felt like cogs in his machine.

Paul M. Barrett combines public record, remarkable connections with industry insiders, and a business journalist’s investigative skill to build a remarkable study of a gun. His intricate history and sociology make the Glock pistol come alive. And where many who have tried to participate in the American gun debate have been terrible pedantic bores, Barrett is an engaging storyteller who makes the Glock into a character in an involving drama.

Barrett maintains journalistic clarity, advocating neither gun control or gun rights. He simply acknowledges guns and gun culture as part of American life, to be treated like any other. And he examines both sides with dry wit. He finds if funny that gun control advocates’ quixotic campaigns have sold more guns than all the ads on earth. And he reduces gun rights advocates increasing Orwellian alarmism to a unique form of gallows humor.

Americans love our guns; no one should feign surprise at that. For good or ill, our national arsenal—roughly one weapon per adult—is part of American character. Rather than whine about guns’ ubiquity, or about Constitutional freedoms, Barrett coolly examines this part of our psyche. More importantly, he examines how a sleek Austrian import became a symbol of quintessentially American freedoms.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Christian Counseling and Biblical Healing

While secular America makes pop icons of therapists like Dr. Phil and Wayne Dyer, Christians have become remarkably resistant to introspection and analysis. We seem to think that if we have pains or grief, struggle to forgive, or need others’ help to overcome our past, we have lapsed in our faith. Church is the last place many Christians seek healing, because church culture evidently believes the faithful should heal like flipping a switch.

Therapist Stephen Arterburn isn’t having it. In Healing Is a Choice, he demonstrates how human beings heal, both alone and in community; and he exposes the lies we tell ourselves that prevent healing. He challenges Christians to lay down their burdens in ways both healthful and Scriptural. Most notably, he emphasizes ways psychology has recovered truths the prophets knew, but which church culture has suppressed for generations.

While ministers and evangelists try to resist this attitude, regular pew-dwellers have developed a guerrilla approach to mental health. People who struggle with grief and tragedy hear from fellow Christians that they must “forgive and forget,” they should stop dwelling on the past, and if they were strong in Christ, they would put trauma and loss behind them. Meanwhile, illnesses fester deep in troubled souls. Not surprisingly, many hurting people leave the church.

These attitudes persist even though both science and spirituality say that denying pain and resisting introspection only make the problems worse. Science has found that suffering denied does not go away. Time does not heal all wounds; indeed, infected wounds infected will get only worse until they kill their hosts. Refusal to forgive has catastrophic effects on human physiology, including fostering heart disease, nervous disorders, ulcers, and other measurable injuries.

The Bible has told us just these truths for millennia.

Why, then, do Christians persist in false dogma? We tell each other that real believers should have peace, no matter the circumstance. We cling furiously to the belief that if I have God, I need no human help. We await “Road to Damascus” moment before living the commandments. None of these positions have any biblical foundation. Human church culture impedes God’s promised healing and redemption.

Worst of all, Christianity has become a cozy escape from life’s hard challenges. Instead of urging us to change, to trust our trials to God, and to face life boldly, it inspires compliance and passivity. This hardly seems like the Living Water that inspired the Samaritan woman to share her joy with the village, or made the crippled man stand up and race around the Pool of Bethesda. Redemption should make us courageous, not isolated and languishing.

But therapeutic practice discovers, time and again, that Christian principles actually heal the sickened soul. Allowing ourselves to feel our griefs, like Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb, frees us to face what comes after. Trusting in the community rather than in our own wisdom, like the apostles, gives us greater depth of insight. And serving others rather than our own appetites, as the commandments repeatedly stress, keeps us from festering, and heals the wounded soul.

Arterburn’s Christian therapeutic practices don’t just come out of the air. This revised edition of his bestselling guide includes hard lessons learned when Arterburn, an advocate of preserving marriage, survived a painful divorce. He could only endure the suffering this experience forced on him by applying the principles he’s long advocated for others. So he knows that, hard though his principles are, they return exactly the rewards he promises.

Admittedly, Arterburn’s autobiographical passages run a bit long. But he supplements them with object lessons from patients, the news and media, and the Bible. I especially appreciate the integrated workbook, with specific exercises that apply the chapters to you as a person. Arterburn requires those seeking healing to practice personal inventory, compile resources, and specifically identify the justifications we use to wall ourselves off from others.

Where many self-help books tend toward principles and abstraction, Arterburn demands we search ourselves and take concrete action. This is a doing book. And in challenging Christians to search ourselves, he challenges us to search our church. By living out these principles, and helping our fellow Christians live them out, we can take a step away from contemporary church culture, and toward living Christ’s mission in this world.

Arterburn doesn’t make his principles easy. He pushes readers to change. But as he says, the same sick mind that created our pain cannot create our healing. We Christians need his challenge. And I for one welcome it.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

British Gypsies and the English Road

Leon Wood, a Traveling Gypsy, mainly hires London PI Ray Lovell to find the daughter he hasn’t seen in six years because Lovell is half Gypsy himself. Young Rose Wood proves a tough quarry, but Lovell finds a family so entrenched in its secrets that the line between reality and myth blurs to inconsequence. One Gypsy teen may hold the secret, if he can survive the struggle of discovering his own obscure ancestry.

Scottish author Stef Penney offers an unhurried literary mystery with The Invisible Ones. But the missing persons case proves less important than the identity issues that the characters’ culture clash produces. Ray Lovell is settled and intensely English, while the Woods and the Jankos live in Airstream trailers, beyond the fringes of British politesse. Both struggle with the limits of acceptance in a society that denies their legitimacy.

Britain has Gypsies like America has second-generation Mexicans: latecomers with a distinct identity and culture, but no land to call their own. They can’t go “home” to a nation they’ve never seen, but they just look different than the dominant population. So they drift, working where they can, weathering the scorn of settled whites, and struggling to remain distinct even as their language and traditions steadily erode.

Ray Lovell’s father abandoned that ship. He joined the army, married an English girl, bought a house, and became British. JJ Janko, the missing girl’s nephew, lives with a family dedicated to “purity.” Their circle of trailers forms their fortress against encroaching British assimilation, even as they send young JJ to state school, and chivvy work on the fly. JJ both covets and fears the British culture that surrounds his family enclave.

When Lovell and the Jankos move in on each other, each reminds the other what they are not. Lovell cannot return to the life his father abandoned, even though his peers always remind him that, as a Gyppo, he stands outside the British class system. JJ Janko sees Lovell as an example of the quintessentially British life he’d like, which he sees while standing outside his schoolmates’ brick houses and cultivated gardens.

The Jankos gradually accept Lovell, who starts to see them as a surrogate family. But their growing affection conceals a seething pot of conflict. Both JJ and Lovell, alternating first-person narrators, fail to see just how heated the situation has become beneath its superficial niceties. All the chumminess in the world can’t conceal how these two forces mortally threaten each other.

Beneath this conflict lingers Christo Janko, sickly son of Ivo Janko and Rose Wood. The Jankos blame Rose for fleeing her uninspiring marriage and weak child, whose illness gradually sucks his life away through most of the book. The Jankos pray for a miracle, literally, with a trip to Lourdes in the bargain. However, Lovell—settled, British, and secular—finagles Christio in with a cutting-edge London doctor who may hold the key.

Lovell doesn’t know, however, how Christo’s illness explains Rose Wood’s disappearance.

Stef Penney uses the trappings of mystery, but these are essentially ornament. This story really deals with identity and social role. Britain’s class-based society doesn’t allow many people to move on the scale, especially in this novel’s Thatcherite milieu. Everyone is trapped to a certain extent. But how much of this trap begins in the characters’ own heads? Could they change, if they wanted to? And can they accept what that change would entail?

Penney’s answers dribble out only very slowly. Some of her novel’s “secrets” are poorly hidden from readers who don’t share her class-based British expectations. But even as the characters, and their author, struggle with deeply ingrained prejudices, Penney’s characters create a rippling, dreamlike landscape of personal interation and psychological turmoil. This novel is worth reading for the characters’ struggles alone.

And in the end, that’s exactly what they do: they struggle alone. If Penney has one message in this novel, it might be that Britain’s tenacious retention of well-bred tradition into the modern era has created inevitable alienation. The people, whether Gypsy or English, must choose whether to retain their venerable ways, or embrace sleek modernity. Thankfully, Penney doesn’t provide a pat answer to this conundrum.

Penney’s career as a filmmaker comes across in this book. You can practically see the cross-fades and jump-cuts in how she sets her scenes. But that’s part of the voice that makes this such an eminently readable book. And her haunting characters, like Brontë or Tolstoy, will linger long after you close the covers.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The New Mystery Tradition—Charles Todd's Psychological Realism

Ian Rutledge, of Scotland Yard, has fresh scars on his heart from the trenches of World War I. He perseveres because it’s right, yet has seen more blood than he can stand. So when a dying man confesses to a murder before the War, Rutledge won’t just accept the claim. The confession turns flimsy under scrutiny; then the self-made suspect turns up in the Thames, with a bullet in his brain. Suddenly, a ready-made case proves thorny, and possibly fatal.

In The Confession, Charles Todd—actually Caroline and Charles Todd, a mother and son—dismantle the stereotypes of cozy British mysteries. The American writing team summons the faded gentility that propelled Agatha Christie’s novels, but where Christie used bodies as doors into clever puzzles, Todd brings a depth of psychological realism. This book could not have been written until after Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler rewrote the rules of mystery fiction.

Inspector Rutledge endures shell shock, often waking with nightmares and suffering flashbacks in the line of his duty. The voice of Hamish MacLeod, a friend he executed for insubordination, lingers at his shoulder, perhaps the most pessimistic Jimminy Cricket in recent literature. But because British culture equates shell shock with cowardice, Rutledge can’t admit his damage. So he pushes through his trauma, risking everything to hold it together one more day.

As Rutledge investigates an upper-crust youth’s putative prewar murder, he traverses a world bisected by memory. Britain’s upper crust has been decimated. Stately manor houses sit shuttered, and formerly posh London neighborhoods have been occupied by the desperate and the hungry. The underclass has inherited the nation, only to find that the supposed grandeur formerly withheld from them doesn’t run very deep. Fear has become the coin of the realm.

One crime uncovers others in quick succession. Rutledge exposes a world of ethical compromise that makes Hammett’s classically amoral Sam Spade look like a sedentary country parson. Guilt lingers across generations, and people would kill to keep a community’s secrets. But one person who still remembers what everyone else would rather forget gambles everything to show the world the rot beneath a mild surface—and loses.

American novelist Raymond Chandler, in his classic essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” grumbles that the classic British mystery lacks psychological realism. Characters like Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes, whom Chandler names specifically, don’t even pretend to have complete internal constitutions. Though Chandler’s sweeping generalizations may seem harsh, there’s something to be said for this condemnation.

But Chandler overlooks that we can pinpoint the period between the wars as the real birth of our understanding of human psychology. Sure, Holmes (like his direct inspiration, Poe’s Dupin) was a lopsided character, all exteriors and ostentatious cleverness. Poirot, however, could not exist without the German occupation of Belgium, and he always carries the melancholy of that history with him. Though not yet “realistic,” Poirot is more nuanced than Chandler admits.

Even Dashiell Hammett, whom Chandler admires, could not have created his masterworks if he had not survived the disillusionment of World War I. Sam Spade’s ad hoc morality, sleeping with a client before turning her over to the police, and promising to stand witness when she hangs, relies on the experience of a war in which human life proved cheaper than the bullets that ended it. The Victorians and Edwardians could never have written anything of such depth.

That makes Rutledge such a compelling character. He has the sharp edges of psychological depth in a world that would sand those edges off. Living on the cusp of the most profound changes his society has ever faced, he nevertheless can’t embrace his damage. He cannot seek help, even as he rushes to save everyone else from themselves. So he creates a second identity, one free to speak the truths he cannot bring himself to admit.

Combining Masterpiece Theatre dignity with the desperation of Pat Barker’s Regeneration, this novel plumbs the depths of human anguish from multiple angles. It treats criminals with the same respect as crime solvers. And it dares us to face the depths of human frailty without flinching. The resolution may seem pat to anyone who reads British mysteries. Though it isn’t obvious as such, it also isn’t as surprising as it should be.

But we don’t read a book like this one to outthink the detective. We outgrew Encyclopedia Brown years ago. This book invites us on a journey with a complex, fascinating character. And Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge fulfills that promise.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year's Revolutions

The delineation of the “new” year is completely arbitrary, based on calculations made by Vatican mathematicians half a millennium ago, adapting even older Roman numbers. Yet, based on the human desire to find patterns, it actually makes a good time to consciously evaluate the past, and plan for the future. Based on my recent personal inventories, let me invite you to join me in the following three self-improvement efforts:

1. I will build a specific place for creative work.

I have gone to museums in the past where I have stood amazed at recreations of spaces where our greatest minds have done their best work. Scientists like Charles Darwin, artists like Pablo Picasso, and writers like Virginia Woolf have always had dedicated spaces in which to create. Some, like Jackson Pollock, have had an entire dedicated building for their own. Others, like Jane Austen, had only a desk in a corner of the room.

No matter what kind of space they had, they shared a sense of dedication: this was the space they entered to create, and they only entered this space to create. Even Emily Dickinson, as she came to occupy only one room in her house, reserved a specific corner of that room for writing. Reserving that space as a “studio” creates a psychological bond, permitting the thinker to enter that space and immediately enter a creative state of mind.

By no means do all creative people have a dedicated space. René Descartes and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe reputedly did their best work sitting up in bed. But for people like me, subject to life’s distractions, a dedicated territory in space lets me stake out a dedicated territory in time, and a dedicated territory in my soul, for specific creative work. Like great minds of the past, a specific space will help me do more and better work.

2. I will not let fear of failure limit my horizons.

As an undergraduate, I spent an extra year in school studying art, not because I thought I’d ever be very good at it, but just for self-improvement purposes. That time spent exercising my senses and correlating what I see with what I create had a discernible effect on my writing. I really improved as a writer—and my stabs at painting, like Ball Lightning in Space (pictured here) aren’t half bad as art, either.

But I have scarcely touched my pencils or my paints since. I don’t know when I learned that failure was a worse consequence than not even trying; maybe in school, or maybe from parents who taught me to plan for failure more than success. Who can say? I still have all my art supplies, many still unopened and ready for me to apply myself. but my fear of failure has paralyzed me.

And not just as an artist, either.

Children, left to themselves, will take profound risks, challenge themselves, and learn. About the age when they enter school, they learn that risks are bad, because adults reprimand them for failure—and so, eventually, do their peers. But if fear of failure is a learned reaction, I believe it can be unlearned through effort and exposure. And only when I take that stab will I cross into the heights of accomplishment.

3. I will seek out a wider range of new experiences.

I produced my series on modern mythology after reading books applying Joseph Campbell’s principles to popular media franchises. That opportunity to see something new and different challenged me to see in new and more inventive ways. Likewise, accepting a factory job while continuing to teach part time at the university has encouraged dynamic new insights into what education should accomplish.

Now that it looks like my teaching career has temporarily ended, I have time to seek new experiences. I’ve recently confronted my fear of math, and begun self-guided study in spatial geometry. I would also like to learn new skills: for instance, as I approach forty, I will soon qualify for Masters athletic competitions. Now would be a good time to start training for the triathlon. That’s just for starters.

Diversity has the obvious advantage of making me a better artist. I can write better about humanity if I’ve lived a wider cross-section of experiences. But more important, as I venture forward into a complex and increasingly fractious world, learning a few new experiences will equip me to learn even more new experiences. I will simply be better prepared for our strange, innovative world.