At the risk of sounding colossally pretentious, I believe that an important part of being human is to live and think in narratives. We love stories, and not just stories. Everything about healthy human life is drenched in multiple layers of meaning. Early modern thinkers thought of the mind as a blank slate that received impressions; now we know that perception is an immensely complex feat of computation. Our minds are constantly receiving a flood of impressions and assembling them into an intricate internal mock-up or copy of the world. As I write this, I am telling myself, “That narrow yellow thing with a broad white thing on top to my left is a lamp. The bumpy clicky thing under my fingers is a keyboard,” and so on for all the hundreds of different objects in the cluttered room I’m typing this in. You might say I have never actually known the world I live in, strictly speaking; I experience it through the gigantic copy of it I am making in my head. Continue reading
I read somewhere–I can’t recall where exactly, to my regret–that there are two opposed forces within Christianity, constantly tugging it in two different directions. They might go by many names: conventional and unconventional, worldly and unworldly, fleshly and ascetic, or what-have-you. In Orthodoxy, they are roughly represented by the hierarchy and the monastics, respectively, though neither has a strict monopoly; there are “unworldly” elements within the first, and sedate, passive, and conventional elements in the second. And this duality, this push-and-pull division, is not unique to Christianity. There are austere Hindu ascetics and serene village Brahmins, Buddhist Lamas and Buddhist family altars.
Only one of the two forces can be dominant in a given area, in a given faith, at one time. A balance between the two is possible–and desirable–but not likely to occur, or to be stable when and if it does. We’re always drifting in one direction or the other, and back again, overreacting to an excess before we overreact to our overreaction. Continue reading
Before I start this post, a quick apology or proviso of sorts: in my last post, I held up typical Christian children’s books as an example of flawed “Christian” culture. I do believe it is true that presenting the world as divided between “Christian” and “Secular” cultural spheres, with the “Christian” as ostensibly superior (but really just a whitewashed imitation of the secular), is a losing bet. However, the problem confronting Christian children’s books is much the same as that confronting children’s books, and especially very young children’s books, in general: people tend to believe that, because small children are not mentally and emotionally sophisticated, you can foist off whatever doggerel you like on them, and they’ll love it. On the contrary, small children are as challenging an audience as any–perhaps more than others, even, because of their limitations–and people like Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein are their Shakespeares and Mark Twains. Little children only continue to have crummy fiction dumped on them because they are a largely captive audience, with little input into which books are purchased for them. But this is not an exclusively Christian, or “Christian” problem. See also Sturgeon’s Law.
With that said: there is a second major reason, in my opinion, why religiosity is fading in America today. Like the first, I think it grew out of the Sexual Revolution. Specifically, it developed in reaction to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. As I understand it, what we now call “socially conservative” religious leaders, fired up by a seven-judge majority essentially steamrolling over conventional morality, offered a pledge of mutual support to Reagan and other GOP leaders. The result was the prolonged disaster we know as the Religious Right. Continue reading
Religion in the United States isn’t doing so hot; study after study finds “unaffiliated” to be the fastest-growing religious belief here, especially among young people like (technically, sorta) myself. And there’s been plenty of hand-wringing about it too, on site after site. But I’ve never seen an honest attempt to understand just why this happened, from a religious or specifically Christian point of view: what went wrong? This is puzzling to me, because in retrospect, it seems rather obvious. We asked for this.
I think that, in general, militants and revolutionaries come in three types:
- Idealistic, intelligent men (no theoretical bar to women, but typically men), usually educated and from the middle or upper classes, dedicated to the achievement of their ideals, with some idea how to achieve them, and willing to sacrifice for them. The ideals are not always good–think Mao–but these folks know what they’re doing.
- Mercenary types clever enough to attain power, but not interested in any higher principle. Saddam Hussein comes to mind. The revolution ends when the leader is able to use tax money to build himself an art collection, or some palaces. The best you can say is that this type knows not to kill the goose who’s laying the golden eggs. They’ll keep their country together enough to continue sucking the lifeblood out of it.
- Violent, desperate men who have no particular skill beyond sudden, spastic outbursts of cruelty. At this they may be very skilled–they live from murder to murder, gaining momentum from the chaos they make–but, when and if they win, they have no idea what to do with their victory.
I think–I’m not certain, but I think–it was C.S. Lewis who coined the term “chronological snobbery.” It refers to our curious modern tendency to assume that, because our ancestors were less technologically, politically, and economically sophisticated than we are, they were necessarily quite stupid. I should add that we tend to apply similar reasoning, albeit unconsciously, to people in poor countries, and most of all to tribal peoples. Of course, there’s nothing logical about this assumption; if anything, it is substantially more difficult to survive in a low-tech, unstable society than in modern times, and so one would expect successful members of those societies to be more intelligent than our own elites, at least in terms of raw capacity. Continue reading
Don’t have much free time to type gigantic blog posts this week, so here’s something I wrote a while ago. Probably more polished anyway.
It’s one of the perverse ironies of modern life that Americans, living in the most individualistic society on earth, tend to be deeply uncomfortable with the actual exercise of free speech. Not openly, of course; in terms of legal accommodation, we’ll go to astonishing lengths to preserve the outward form of tolerance, to the point where a significant percentage of us thought it was in some sense wrong to keep the late Fred Phelps and his “church” from picketing the funerals of soldiers and politicians for free publicity. Continue reading