Keep Browsing

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As more and more collections go digital and bookstores switch to on-demand models, we will have to deal with what is lost when browsing is lost.

Austin Kleon, “Spontaneity is Learning and Browsing is Research

Sometimes, what you’re looking for isn’t what you’re actually looking for. It’s the next book, the next record, the next image. The one you weren’t searching for, but instead found you.

Reading to Love

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We might think that simply reading more would lead to informed discourse, a more educated populace, and more effective conversation. Alas, the counter examples are rife. Some of the most egregious tweeters are plenty well educated, products of the best schools, even voracious readers. Our society has often defaulted to the idea that we can educate ourselves out of sin (and make no mistake – much online behavior today is quite simply sin), but we rarely sin because we are dumb. We sin because we want to, because we find it, at least in the moment, gratifying and fun. In fact, reading on its own fixes nothing.

Echo chambers and tribalism are real. Whether our media are written – books, blogs, articles – or video – cable news, online videos, film – our society has quickly embraced separate self-referential echo chambers. As has regularly been noted in the past months, it is as if Americans are living not simply with political divisions, but with two separate epistemic realities, two opposite conceptions of even basic facts, the products of two entirely separate media ecosystems. Simply diving into a good book, with “good” being defined as one that supports everything I already want to believe, only deepens the self-referential hole.

We need to read the other, the author who comes from an entirely different cultural, political, and economic background, the author who has looked deeply at the issue in question and has concluded the opposite of what we are attuned to believe. We need to avoid not simply political tribalism but also religious, economic, and social tribalism. The beginning of the question is to read broadly, including those we find to be way “out there.”

Bill Fullilove, “Reading to Be Wrong

Fullilove argues that we should read “the other,” doing so with humility. Humility is a nice starting point. Hold a position on a given point of inquiry doesn’t mean that your position is right or that it is adequately supported by sound reasons. It is always possibly that “the other” is right, even if you doubt it. By reading someone with a different viewpoint, your position could be sharpened, or nuanced, and, as a result, strengthened.

Reading charitably requires a constellation of virtues. There is a temptation to read those of other viewpoints not in pursuit of understanding but with the a priori goal of ferreting out the ways that the other person’s viewpoint is wrong. Humility is a good place to start, but it might be helpful to think further of reading as an exercise in love. The loving person seeks truth not for the sake of winning an argument, but for the good of all parties involved. It can be fun to dunk on your opponents, and sometimes dunking on your opponents can even be easy, but that is not always the most loving action. While slamming a point home may energize your crowd, it might not be so compelling to the unconvinced.

A strong argument and a gentle answer can be had together, one and the same.

The “For the Safety of Everyone” Shibboleth

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Last week my family went on vacation, and upon return endured the safety protocols mandated by federal law that have been imposed on travelers in airports and on airplanes. Vaccinated or not, masks are required of everyone.

From the jump, it was clear the flight crew on the first leg of our return was vigilant about masking. One of the crew, let’s call her O., awakened me from slumber with an exhortation to another passenger to pull their mask above their nose. Her words were the polite ones, but her tone was the condescending one.

Later, O. told another passenger to mask between sips and bites. She was clearly agitated.

And finally, with about twenty minutes left on our flight, O. took to the intercom system and scolded all passengers about masking, declaring we had all agreed to mask when we purchased our tickets, that masking was federally mandated, that the flight crew was only allowed to warn us “so many times,” and that if we were eating, we should take a bite, replace our mask, or if we were drinking, we should do the same. Off. On. Off. On. If your mask is off, no respiration allowed. Only expose your mouth to nibble or sip.

I thought of elementary school, those moments when the teacher unleashed a tirade against the class when the intolerable offense was committed by one student. This was like one of those moments. We were collectively guilty, and thus collectively shamed, though we all knew who was at fault, that the treatment we received was unfair, and that this matter should have been handled one to one, in a more mature, just manner.

If a passenger refused to mask according to the crew’s liking, I wondered what would come next. Would they turn the plane around? Would they eject the offending passenger? Shove them down a garbage chute, and activate the compactor? Would they issue an arbitrary flight ban? Withdraw future flight snacking privileges? What would be the consequence?

And if a passenger objected to the collective scolding, what would happen to that individual?

The justification for our scolding was that these practices are “for the safety of everyone” and, therefore, must be observed.

That is simply not true. At this stage, these practices are for the relatively safety of some, not all. The vaccines have been available for months. Anyone choosing to travel without the vaccine has had ample opportunity to receive it and should be held responsible for their choices.

O.’s tone, in addition to the phrasing of her message, were meant to convey that vigilant maskers, like herself, are good. Those who do not comply to the crew’s satisfaction are bad.

Policy makers have asked the public to take specific actions because they think the benefits will outweigh the costs. But the reasons given for the rules have to make sense. It would have been better to say these measures are prescribed to help minimize the spread of the delta variant, to keep the airlines operative, and to prevent the cabin from becoming an incubator of contagion.

Back in 1994, Delta’s slogan was “You’ll Love the Way We Fly.” Not on this flight.

Thankfully, on the second leg of our flight, we didn’t have another O. I can put up with the mitigation policies. But the condescension I can do without.

The Common Law of Texas

A Colt Single Action Army Revolver, via Revivaler

Colt was also increasingly showing himself to be a gifted merchant, combining his natural flair for persuasion with a prescient grasp of mass marketing. He branded his guns not only with his name, but with engravings that were pressure-rolled onto the cylinders. The scenes he chose for these engravings–one showed a stagecoach holdup, men facing off with pistols, several on the ground wounded or dead–indicate how well he understood his gun’s appeal by 1840. Not only did the engravings associate his revolvers with self-defense and derring-do, they verified them as authentic Colts amid the onslaught of imitation revolvers he correctly assumed were coming. Nor did he neglect the presentation of the guns. Each came in a handsome mahogany box, lined in velvet, with a beveled lid and nameplate. An even better idea, which Colt arrived as later, would be putting some of the guns inside false books, a gimmick, but one that hinted knowingly at the future of these guns. Laws for Self Defense was the title on the spine of one of these books. Other titles included The Tourist’s Companion and The Common Law of Texas.

James Rasenberger, Revolver: Sam Colt and the Six-Shooter That Changed America

Here is an 1851 Colt Navy where you can zoom in on the cylinder and this link shows an 1849 model in the box.

You can learn a little more about Colt revolvers and Texas history here.

Institutions: Around Them, or Through Them?

Photo by Sangga Rima Roman Selia on Unsplash

Looking for ways to make a difference, younger Americans therefore tend to think in terms not of channeling their ambitions through institutions but rather of going around them. Because our politics has always rewarded those who can successfully claim the mantle of the outsider–now even more than usual–the temptation to approach our institutions antagonistically, or to avoid them altogether, has grown very strong. When we look for solutions, we tend to look not to institutions but to individuals, movements, ideals, or maverick outsiders.

Maybe what we resist most is the idea that we would need to be formed by institutions at all. The liberal idea of freedom, which has often been at the core of our political imagination, is rooted in the premise that the choosing individual is the foundation of our social order. Liberating that person–whether from oppression, necessity, coercion, or constraint–has frequently been understood to be the foremost purpose of our politics. Our parties have argued about how to do it and about what kind of liberation the individual most desires or requires. But they have agreed, at least implicitly, that once properly liberated, that person could be free.

Yuval Levin, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream

I feel these tensions, having been formed within them. I value institutions. I value individualism. I’m skeptical of institutions. I’m aware of their failures. Early in my ministry I was drawn more toward movements and mavericks, those seeking to reform or to build something new.

But as the years have gone on, I’ve become more skeptical of radical individualism. It can pull us away from community, history, or tradition. I’m wary of those who build their own cult of personality.

In A Time to Build, Yuval Levin makes the case for our institutions. Levin argues that we should recommit to them, highlighting the positive ways they can be formative. He’s right. They can be. As a child of a stable family, relatively healthy churches, and a vibrant university community, I’ve seen the positive effects institutions can have.

But as an observer of unhealthy institutions, I’ve also seen how difficult it can be to reform a decaying institution from within. There are moments when it is easier, better, healthier, and more generative to leave an institution and blaze a new path, begin a new movement, or chart a new course. A new church, college, university, or other association might be just the thing to renew an existing institutional form. Older institutions see it is okay to try new things, make certain changes, or launch new initiatives. Those who go around institutions and who begin to build new organizations are like a research and development division.

These breaks can be messy. Knowledge can get lost, overshadowed, or put aside. But new expressions of existing institutions can, at times, not only serve to bring forth new life in a new place with new people, but it can inspire older institutions to break free of their ruts and enact needed reforms.

I agree with Levin. We need more people to commit to our existing institutions, to be formed by them, and to make their mark through them. But I’m not discounting the fact that some will need to go around our institutions for the good of us all. We need mavericks, too, who help us not only see how we’re getting it wrong, but where we’re getting it right.

Thick Theological Anthropology

Image by Eak K. from Pixabay

But it’s obvious that thin communal commitments do not lead to, and are not even conducive to, a thick theological anthropology, and it would be foolish to expect people held together by such weak confessional ties to share views that only make sense within the robust account of human life generated by historic Christian orthodoxy.

Alan Jacobs, “thick and thin”

Jacobs is comparing his experiences at Wheaton College, which has a detailed Statement of Faith that guides their common life, and his experiences at Baylor University, which does not.

I work at Baylor and I love Baylor, and I am fully on board with our Christian mission. But Jacobs is right–if the theological commitments that define the community are thin, consensus is, too, and all the more difficult to establish, maintain, and sustain.

Generally speaking, it is important for any community to agree upon what a human being is, what a human being is for, what it might mean for a human being to live a good life, and in what way human beings are flawed. If these questions are largely left untouched, the divergences carry you far afield from one another, as each faction retreats to its corner with those holding a common opinion.

What Will the SBC Debate This Round?

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The Southern Baptist Convention will gather for their annual meeting this week. The headlines will likely stress points of contention, as they normally do. I’ve yet to encounter a media write-up of a denominational gathering that emphasizes an emerging spirit of unity and cooperation, a bold vision for mission and ministry, or an optimistic outlook for what the future might hold. These gatherings are framed a certain way by design.

It is helpful, however, to know what is going on.

Trevin Wax has written a summation of the issues as he sees them heading into this annual meeting. For the complete account of his opinion, click here. He cites three primary concerns, which I’m going to rephrase parenthetically:

  1. “Do Southern Baptist churches unite primarily around doctrinal consensus or missional cooperation?” (What is the basis of Southern Baptist unity?)
  2. “Should we engage secular sources of knowledge with a fundamentalist or an evangelical posture?” (What is the Southern Baptist criterion for knowledge, or what is a sound Southern Baptist epistemology?)
  3. “How politically aligned must Southern Baptists be in order to cooperate together?” (How should Southern Baptists vote?)

Denominations, including the Southern Baptist Church, have been in trouble as institutions for quite some time. Each denomination has its own reasons for decay, and its own narrative as to why they’ve experienced numerical decline. But the broader trend is that all institutions, religious and otherwise, are moving through a kind of crisis.

Trevin Wax ends his blog post by appealing for prayer for the Southern Baptist Church. I echo that appeal. No matter our denomination, we are all in need of divine help, and while it is presently en vogue to attack, critique, and tear down our institutions, that destructive impulse must be resisted. If our institutions are reduced to rubble, we will be poorer for it. Instead, we need renewal. We need to build. And if that is to happen, and happen well, we will not be able to do it on our own. We’ll need Providence, the guiding might of God’s hand.

Jesus Art Can Go Many Different Directions

When you bounce around the web like I do you can come across some pretty weird stuff. Some, I even share.

Stephen S. Sawyer has made plenty of Jesus art, including this piece, which I think is a play on cigarette packaging. Or maybe air filters? Tattooed Jesus and boxing Jesus, above, are by Sawyer. I’d really like to see Jesus go to work and pound someone with the mercy glove, perfectly tailored to fit his strong right hand.

Those muscles? They tell me fish from the Sea of Galilee have incredibly high protein content. Wow!

Did you notice the scar on Jesus’ side, where he was pierced? That’s a cool detail. But if you’re going to include that, don’t you also need his brow to bear the marks of the crown of thorns as well?

As for beefcake, pumped up, “Hans and Franz” Jesus, I don’t know the artist. Hear me now but believe me later: the theology is a mess. Jesus defeated death by going through it, not by overpowering it. He submitted himself to it, receiving it as the consequence of our sin, so that he might stand in our place and make atonement for us. The idea of Jesus breaking the cross with a mighty flex makes a mess of the whole story. We can receive strength because Jesus took our weakness upon himself.

Education: More Than Social Connections

Photo by Akshay Chauhan on Unsplash

This much discussed report by Bari Weiss, “The Miseducation of America’s Elites,” is worth a look. Her findings are troubling. Disturbing. Unsettling. But are they surprising? I don’t think so.

There’s a long debate that spans history about education–what it is, how it is done, who is responsible for doing it, and what its proper end should be. One end of education is socialization. The advancement, preservation, discovery and transmission of knowledge, imparting wisdom, and moral formation are other ends. Some educational traditions and institutions combine aims.

It is hard to read Weiss’ reporting on Harvard-Westlake, an elite private school in Los Angeles, and not conclude that socialization is of vital importance, if not for the school, then certainly for the parents. These parents choose to send their children to this school, even if their children tell them “they’re afraid to speak up in class.”

The parents are afraid to speak up, too. They’re concerned about the ideology that is being taught but not enough to go elsewhere. They’re willing to suffer discomfort to gain the connections. It’s a trade.

Weiss also reports on dynamics at a comparable East Coast school; the same logic holds.

These parents, who insisted on maintaining anonymity for this report, may not like what’s taking place at their schools. But they’re willing to accept it if they continue to believe that participation in these schools will help their children–and them–to benefit socially.

Ideological trends tend to continue until people find the courage to object. What is allowed will continue.

Alan Jacobs raises the right question, “But there’s one question that I think everyone reading such stories should ask: Will the students believe what they are taught?

Weiss reports, “The idea of lying in order to please a teacher seems like a phenomenon from the Soviet Union. But the high schoolers I spoke with said that they do versions of this, including parroting views they don’t believe in assignments so that their grades don’t suffer.”

They already don’t believe it; they know how the game is played.

Jacobs observes, “I suspect that such a system is less likely to produce True Woke Believers than to produce young people who are thoroughly cynical about education and about the dishonesty and hypocrisy of educators. And that might be a worse outcome.”

I think he’s right on both counts, concerning both what such a system will render and that such an outcome is worse.