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excerpts from my Sent folder: kids these days

The percentage of young people willing to entertain a genuinely countercultural Gospel has always been small. It hasn’t changed in my 35 years of teaching. I can introduce you to students who would make you despair for humanity, but I can also introduce you to students — Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, evangelical — who would give you great hope for the future of the Christian faith. 

Seriously, I don’t get these people: what planet do they come from? Do they really remember, thirty years ago, teaching to a roomful of rapt scholars eager to absorb the richness of Christian tradition? Not a world I ever knew. Most people — here, now, and always — just want to go along to get along. Those who are open to the risks of genuine education are rare, were always rare, will ever be rare. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. 

hi

one more note on motivated reasoning

This is something I’ve been worrying over, specifically as a Christian, for a long time:

… It seems to me that the people who are really wrestling with Scripture are the ones who are taking its authority seriously. After all, if you don’t believe that the Bible is the word of God, if you believe that these are just historic documents with no particular claim on you or on anybody else, that doesn’t lead you to wrestle with anything. You can just dismiss anything in it that you see that strikes you as being alien or that makes you uncomfortable or that you feel that you can’t endorse.

So it’s quite easy to read a passage of Scripture, decide that it’s not something that you buy into, and then put it aside, unless you have a commitment to the authority of that text. If you have that commitment, it actually pressures you. It puts the screws to you. It makes it very hard for you to have a simple response to it.

Jesus talks to a man who is always referred to in the biblical literature as the rich, young ruler. He tells him, “OK, if you want what I’m giving, if you want the kind of life that I have to offer, then take everything that you have, sell it and give it to the poor.” And this young man walks away sad, because he had great wealth.

I read that passage, and I have to struggle with that, because I’m thinking, “What is this passage demanding of me?” It says something to me, because I believe that Jesus is the Son of God. I believe that he is my Lord and my Savior. He says something like this. I have to ask myself, “What does it mean for me?” So far, I haven’t decided that it means that I have to sell everything I have and give it to the poor, but maybe that’s because I’m an inauthentic or disobedient Christian. Maybe I’m not taking my beliefs seriously enough.

So I can say this is the word of God for me. But that that’s only the beginning of my problems. That actually doesn’t solve problems. That creates a whole set of problems, because I have to work very hard to try to figure out what sort of demand this text is making upon me.

— from an interview I gave thirteen years ago.

on spears, throats, and motivated reasoning

Some really good words from Matthew Loftus here:

I want the BenOp to succeed because I do think that Christian communities in the West will need to implement the principles Rod talks about in order to remain faithful in the generations to come. I am pretty much in agreement with Rod on the dictates of human sexual morality as the Bible teaches it. Yet I (and many of my peers like me) are deeply sympathetic to Emma’s line of questioning because we have to find an answer to this question in order to live out the Bible’s commands in our daily lives, bear witness to non-believing friends, and teach our children how to do the same. Dealing with a world that hates us is nothing new, but every age will bring with it unique opportunities and challenges for how to do so joyfully. If the Holy Spirit is working in our world, then we have to ask where and how He is bringing about new life and testifying to Jesus in others – and being confident that we can participate with the Spirit in such a way as to even break “the tip of the spear at our throats”.

If Rod and other BenOp enthusiasts want non-Christians to parse between not wanting LGBT activists to drive Christians out of business and not wanting to get away from LGBT people, they’re going to have to start that parsing themselves because Christians have failed to do this over and over in the last few decades. If they don’t want journalists to make bad faith assumptions about their work, they’re going to have to stop making bad faith assumptions about every possible manifestation of LGBT activism. Most importantly, if we expect the Church to endure the threat posed by the Sexual Revolution (and thrive beyond it!), then explaining how Christians love and serve LGBT people – particularly under the regime which the BenOp anticipates – is inevitably part of bearing witness. A Benedict Option that isn’t good for LGBT people will not stand the test of time.

I say Amen to almost every word of this, but that last sentence leaves me uneasy. What I find myself asking is whether people who share Matthew’s views of sexuality can agree with many LGBT people, especially activists, about what is “good for LGBT people.” Isn’t rather significant conflict inevitable here? That doesn’t in any way abrogate or even compromise the commandment that we Christians “love and serve” those who, for whatever reason, mistrust us — even those who curse and persecute us. We don’t get to turn away in hatred of or even indifference to those who have declared themselves our enemies, much less those who are merely our fellow-citizens about which we disagree on some matters. But I do think we need to reckon straightforwardly with the costs. If we teach our children “the dictates of human sexual morality as the Bible teaches it” — and they accept that teaching, which, frankly, is not very likely — then they’re going to suffer for that, far more than most of us do.

I have some problems with the way Rod presents the BenOp — for instance, I really dislike the “tip of the spear at our throats” metaphor and all that it implies — and I’ve suggested alternative ways to describe the situation, for instance in this post. But I admit that I’ve given more attention to criticizing the critiques of Rod’s articulation of the BenOp — I am, as it were, consistently anti-anti-BenOp — and there’s a reason for that: I, and most of my friends and fellow believers who have been highly critical of the BenOp, have very strong motives for thinking that Rod’s diagnosis and prescription are both wrong.

We have an interest in accepting the general cultural consensus about sexuality and gender. And if we can’t manage to accept it, we have an interest in soft-pedaling our beliefs, both publicly and to our children. Accepting, explicitly or tacitly, that consensus may in some cases open doors of professional and social opportunity to us and our families; vocally refusing to accept it would certainly close doors. We have an interest in believing that we can continue to live more-or-less as we have lived, that it is not necessary to change anything radically, or put ourselves or our families at risk.

Now, to be sure, there are certainly people whose interests lie in the other direction: who might lose social position, or be cast out of church communities, or even lose their jobs, if they were to express doubt about the traditional Christian take on sexuality. But that’s not where I, or my friends and BenOp debating partners, are. So what I would really like from many critics of the BenOp — and by the way, I don’t mean Matthew Loftus here, who has a very nuanced response to the whole movement, as you can see, for instance, in this post — is a frank acknowledgment of the dangers of motivated reasoning and an account of what they’re doing to avoid it.

As for me, I don’t think I’m avoiding it very well. My particular situation, my particular personal and vocational path, leads me to want to be theologically conservative enough to be acceptable to the Christian institutions I love but not so theologically conservative that I can’t get published by reputable secular magazines and publishers. And lo and behold, my convictions perfectly match my interests! How remarkably fortunate for me!

And this is why I’m reluctant simply to dismiss the BenOp, even as formulated in Rod’s the-spear-is-at-our-throat mode. Such dismissal would be wonderfully convenient for me; and I think it is convenient for many of the BenOp’s critics as well. That doesn’t make them wrong, of course; but I’d like to see more frequent acknowledgment of the possibility that, like me, they’re prone to allow their interests to dictate their opinions.

Because the other possibility is that they’re just better Christians than I am. And that I definitely have an interest in disbelieving.

hate + stupidity 

Christians who want religious liberty only for Christians are managing the remarkable twofer of maximal uncharitableness and maximal stupidity. They are enthusiastically handing boxes of ammunition to those secularists who think that Christians don’t give a damn about religious liberty but are only clutching desperately at what little remains of their social power. Why should secularists value religious liberty when Christians don’t? — when Christians would rather eviscerate the First Amendment than allow Muslims the rights that Christians enjoy?  They are like the woman who, when faced with a great choice by Solomon, preferred that the baby she said was hers be cut in half rather than have it go to another woman. Let us all be chained rather than Muslims live free — that’s their position. 

unfair, unbalanced, and afraid

I admire British journalism and have always thought American papers should be more like the British. But it is startling to see how vicious the New York Times has become and a little unfair to Trump. If he is paranoid, you can’t completely blame him. There is also the argument that you help him by encouraging victimisation, the idea that the eastern media elite is out to get him.

Michael Kinsley. I think Kinsley is right about this, and as a result, though I think Trump is a nightmarishly terrible President, I no longer read anything in the NYT except Ross Douthat’s columns. In general, and with only the occasional exception, the Times does not care whether what its reporters say about Trump and his supporters is fair or not. Trump’s description of the major news media as his “opposition” strikes me as an essentially accurate description, and while on one hand I think he deserves all the opposition he gets, on the other hand I’d like newspapers, magazines, and even some television networks to be places where I can go to find out what’s actually happening in the world — rather than places to accumulate anti-Trump ammunition.

Eno’s rough drafts

An iTunes playlist of rough drafts contains 4412 tracks; the most recent of them, something called “Jubilant Hair Sad,” was made just the night before. “I can’t remember what it is,” he says. We listen to it for a moment: slow string pads—the kernel of an idea, maybe, but not much more. “That’s not very interesting,” he says, turning it off. Perhaps part of genius is knowing when to give up on a ho-hum idea and move on.

— A Conversation With Brian Eno About Ambient Music | Pitchfork

good to go 

My social media are either deleted or shut off in some way, but it’s not hermitage, because friends and comrades know how to reach me. I’ve just turned the volume control down on the world, and I focus on other things, in other ways. It brings me peace, and peace brings me clarity, and clarity brings me energy. Good to go.

Warren Ellis

on narcissism

Allen Frances writes:

Fevered media speculation about Donald Trump’s psychological motivations and psychiatric diagnosis has recently encouraged mental health professionals to disregard the usual ethical constraints against diagnosing public figures at a distance. They have sponsored several petitions and a Feb. 14 letter to The New York Times suggesting that Mr. Trump is incapable, on psychiatric grounds, of serving as president.

Most amateur diagnosticians have mislabeled President Trump with the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. I wrote the criteria that define this disorder, and Mr. Trump doesn’t meet them. He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.

Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy. It is a stigmatizing insult to the mentally ill (who are mostly well behaved and well meaning) to be lumped with Mr. Trump (who is neither).

This is surely a good cautionary word, but I have some questions, and the primary one is: How does Dr. Frances, who has not examined Trump and has probably never met him, know that Trump “does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder”? What empirical knowledge does he have about Trump’s distress or lack thereof? Frances claims that “Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it,” but surely it is possible for a person to cause and experience distress? It seems to me that if you can violate the Goldwater Rule by claiming that someone you have not examined definitely has a disorder, you can also violate it by claiming that someone you have not examined definitely does not have that disorder. Dr. Frances seems just as overconfident as the people whose letter he’s responding to.

The first two books of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy offered some of the most vividly, magnificently imagined fantasy I’ve ever read. Then the third book degenerated into an absurdly preachy, didactic, hectoring account of Wicked Wicked Bad Guys (anyone associated with the Church) and Blindingly Righteous Good Guys (anyone not associated with the Church). From the description Pullman has offered of the forthcoming Book of Dust — “at the centre of The Book of Dust is the struggle between a despotic and totalitarian organisation, which wants to stifle speculation and inquiry, and those who believe thought and speech should be free” — it sounds like he has decided to double down on the very worst features of his previous work. What a shame.

two descriptions of the university

It is not that I wanted to know a great deal, in order to acquire what is now called expertise, and which enables one to become an expert-tease to people who don’t know as much as you do about the tiny corner you have made your own. I hoped for a bigger fish; I wanted nothing less than Wisdom. In a modern university if you ask for knowledge they will provide it in almost any form – though if you ask for out-of-fashion things they may say, like the people in shops, “Sorry, there’s no call for it.” But if you ask for Wisdom – God save us all! What a show of modesty, what disclaimers from the men and women from whose eyes intelligence shines forth like a lighthouse. Intelligence, yes, but of Wisdom not so much as the gleam of a single candle.

— Maria Magdalena Theotoky

Lots of youth in a university, fortunately, but youth alone could not sustain such an institution. It is a city of wisdom, and the heart of the university is its body of learned man; it can be no better than they, and it is at their fire the young come to warm themselves. Because the young come and go, but we remain. They are the minute-hand, we the hour-hand of the academic clock. Intelligent societies have always preserved their wise men in institutions of one kind or another, where their chief business is to be wise, to conserve the fruits of wisdom and to add to them if they can. Of course the pedants and the opportunists get in somehow, as we are constantly reminded…. But we are the preservers and custodians of civilization, and never more so than in the present age, where there is no aristocracy to do the job. A city of wisdom; I would be content to leave it at that.

— The Warden of Ploughwright College

(Both quotations from The Rebel Angels, that wicked and wonderful novel by Robertson Davies. There may be found in the book a third description of what a university is, and who its ultimate patrons are. But that the enterprising reader may discover.)

resourceful Christianity

Rod Dreher has been asking lately whether various Christian traditions possess the resources that need to practice a genuinely countercultural form of Christianity — what Rod is calling the Benedict Option. He’s been getting different answers about different traditions from different people, but for what it’s worth, my answer is that every Christian tradition that is a tradition has all the resources it needs — except, perhaps, the one resource without which all the others are useless.

In today’s post he quotes a passage from his forthcoming book in which he asks Marco Sermarini, one of the leaders of an intentional Christian community in Italy, what other Christians can learn from what Marco and his friends are doing: “Start by getting serious about living as Christians, he said. Accept that there can be no middle ground.”

That’s it, I think. You have to get to the end of your rope, you have to come to the point where you can’t live any longer as everyone around you is living. If you come to that point, then every serious Christian tradition, from Pentecostalism to Orthodoxy, has what it takes to nourish and support you. But none of those traditions can, in itself, bring you to that point. (I am not yet at that point myself: I am too caught up in the various rewards that this present age has to offer.)

Depending on where you live, you might look around you and find charismatics who are faithfully seeking to make their own countercultural way, or Baptists, or Presbyterians, or Catholics — heck, even Anglicans. It depends on whether in a given place there is a critical mass of people whom the Holy Spirit has moved to say: Enough. Lord, now give us the living water.

Austin Chronicle: Where are you, in an office or a small room fielding calls?

Tom Waits: I’m out on my own recognizance in the day room, gluing pieces of macaroni on cardboard and painting it gold. After that I get to make a belt that says, “Whipped by the forces within me” on the back.

current status

Mr. Penumbra in Japan

Japanese cover for Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (via Robin on Twitter)

good times in Waco

I live in Waco, Texas, which is a relatively small city and a relatively poor city, a city with its share of problems both historic and current — but also a place where some pretty cool things are happening.  Last night, for instance, my wife Teri and I enjoyed an early Valentine’s Day dinner at Balcones Distillery — maker of some of the finest and most celebrated spirits in the world — where the distillers had teamed up with Milo Biscuit Company, a local food truck and caterer, to create a lovely dinner in the tasting room.

Each course came paired with a cocktail or a straight Balcones spirit — their Baby Blue corn whisky, their classic Texas single Malt, their wonderful rum-like spirit called Rumble.

It was quite peculiar having a fine dinner without wine! — and I probably wouldn’t want to do it all the time, but the pairings were really well-chosen and the food was delicious, right there next to some of the aging barrels.

I had fresh Gulf snapper, perfectly cooked, and Teri had duck breast, also perfectly cooked, but perhaps the best taste of the evening was the cheese course, a Delice de Bourgogne paired with a whisky aged in rum barrels (not yet released to the public). It was truly memorable. I meant to take pictures of the food but was too occupied with eating it until I got to dessert, a flourless chocolate cake with rose cream and raspberries.

And then when we were on our way out we were given a piece of salted caramel that the chef, Corey, had made with a touch of Balcones Brimstone, a whisky smoked with scrub oak. That was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

All in all, big fun here in Waco! Our hearty thanks to chef Corey and the rest of the crew.

 

What We’re Fighting For

If we choose to believe in a morally diminished America, an America that pursues its narrow selfish interests and no more, we can take that course and see how far it gets us. But if we choose to believe that America is not just a set of borders, but a set of principles, we need to act accordingly. That is the only way we ensure that our founding document, and the principles embedded within, are alive enough, and honorable enough, to be worth fighting for.

Phil Klay

dealing with lies

Here is what we are supposed to do: rebut every single lie. Insist moreover that each lie is retracted — and journalists in press conferences should back up their colleagues with repeated follow-ups if Spicer tries to duck the plain truth. Do not allow them to move on to another question. Interviews with the president himself should not leave a lie alone; the interviewer should press and press and press until the lie is conceded. The press must not be afraid of even calling the president a liar to his face if he persists. This requires no particular courage. I think, in contrast, of those dissidents whose critical insistence on simple truth in plain language kept reality alive in the Kafkaesque world of totalitarianism. As the Polish dissident Adam Michnik once said: “In the life of every honorable man comes a difficult moment … when the simple statement that this is black and that is white requires paying a high price.” The price Michnik paid was years in prison. American journalists cannot risk a little access or a nasty tweet for the same essential civic duty?

— Andrew Sullivan: The Madness of King Donald. If this admirable and wholly proper strategy were to be widely followed, I predict that President Trump and his advisors and advocates will simply stop speaking to the press. Which would make somewhat more urgent the suggestion I moot in this little thought experiment.

productive smudging

“Another thing he talked about that’s actually useful, and this is my favorite one, he said that blackboards smudge productively, which is just a great line. You know, you’re writing on a blackboard and oops, you make a mistake, you can rub it out with your hand, or you rub it out with an eraser. And it’s really easy to do. But it’s really hard to do it completely; you can’t get rid of it entirely. There’s always a little bit of a smudge and you write over it. And I’ve always thought that was a bad thing. And he argues that for mathematics, and particularly mathematics research, it’s a good thing because a lot of math research involves taking existing concepts and applying them in new ways. And so if you’ve written an existing equation everybody’s familiar with and then rubbed out a part of it and written something new over it, there is a visual sign that you have taken an existing concept and tweaked it, which is sort of like a reminder to the people in the audience that this is how you approach it. This is not some new thing you’ve brought down from on high, it’s an alteration of an existing one.”

Why Do Mathematicians Love Blackboards So Much?

New Atheist axioms

1) The progress of science will make religious belief less and less plausible; that is, science cannot develop in ways that would make religious belief seem more reasonable and attractive;

2) Nothing in the history of unbelief has any relevance to current disputes, because our knowledge today is absolutely secure in ways that our atheist predecessors’ was not.

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