Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Few Things God Is Looking For . . . and Why Occupation Probably Isn't One of Them

A few months ago I finished a doctoral thesis on a man named Mansfield French. In the nineteenth century, mostly in Ohio, New York, and South Carolina, French was an educator who founded and served institutions of higher learning; a pastor and traveling revivalistic evangelist; a leading magazine publisher in what is called the Holiness Movement; and an abolitionist who ministered among former slaves as a missionary supervisor, army chaplain, and Freedmen's Bureau officer, lobbied the federal government on their behalf, and ran for U.S. Senate. I called French "a model of multivocational ministry," and I examined what enabled him to engage in such a diverse array of activities over a single ministry career.

Because of this study, vocation has been on mind a good deal in the past year. There are a good many people, including a good many Christians, who think nothing of the meaning and implications of what they do for work. I should note that this neglect is not always bad—it is much better to be godly at work and never think about what you're doing than it is to think much about vocation but not actually to be godly. But for some of us, Christian and otherwise, we just can't help thinking about it. The question, "What am I supposed to be doing?" is an itch that does not go away (unless we can confidently answer, "What I'm doing right now," as some of us can at times), so we keep trying to scratch it.

This restlessness also is not always bad, in particular if it drives us to listen to God and get to know him with persistence, patience, and humility. But it is worthwhile to keep this vocational question in proper perspective.

For some of us, the question of "What am I supposed to be doing?" (or "How much?" or "Where and with whom?") can loom over us with what seems like epic significance. We might be very afraid of making the wrong choice (of occupation, workplace, college major, etc.) that will doom us to frustration, failure, and/or meaninglessness. Or we might continually be roiled within where we are currently planted, unsure if we are missing out on what we are supposed to do or instead frustrated at the closed doors in the direction that we think we are supposed to go. We think that if we are not set right then we will get to the end of our life having wasted it uselessly with nothing to show for it.

That right there is the problem hidden under the surface of our yearning to do the right work, even if that yearning is mostly genuine, mostly composed of love for God and people and not of lust for self. The stakes seem enormously high because of our faithlessness. Deep down, we do not really believe in the age to come. Like any worldly person (most consistently a physicalist) we believe that this life is all there is: we really only have one shot at it.

If we are truly Christians, however, we know that this is not all there is. While most Christians (would that it be all of them) recognize that what we do in this life is terribly important because of its ramifications for the world to come, not only for ourselves but for all those around us, we still must be careful not to blow certain details out of proportion. For some of us, occupation may be one of those details.

I understand this by means of my one and only experience as an athletic coach, when I coached my son's teeball team of four- and five-year-olds. I did not stop coaching because it was a bad experience—far from it. In fact, it taught me a valuable lesson: God is really not expecting much from us.

When I say that God is not expecting much, I do not mean that God has low standards. I mean that he has very high standards about only a very small number of very basic things. Other than those few things, I don't believe that he is terribly concerned.


Coaching four- and five-year-olds in teeball requires one to teach extremely rudimentary things, because, by and large, they know NOTHING. A number of my players literally could not throw a ball, period. That's not to mention knowing how to catch a ball and how to swing a bat (and how and where to stand when swinging a bat). And then the rules of the game itself and what to do in what situation in the middle of play (for example, after you hit the ball, RUN—no, THAT WAY)—that was as obscure as quantum mechanics to these kids.

So imagine yourself in your first-ever coaching experience, and you're with a group of four- and five-year-olds, and you're beginning to figure out what you've gotten yourself into. What are you looking for? What do you want from these kids?

Only a few simple things. Will they do what I say? Will they do it when I say it? Will they have a good attitude when they aren't allowed to do what they want to do? When told to do something they can't do, will they try? Will they learn?

Notice that athletic talent is not on this list. At this point, at this level, it does not matter. At this level, no one is keeping score. There are no wins and losses. (Who would watch it if there were?) Also, these kids are small—they are going to grow a great deal before they are really playing at a high level, and we cannot tell now who will be a good athlete then.

Consider further that the things that you tell the kids to do and how they respond in that first practice have no bearing on what position any of these kids will be playing when they are eighteen or twenty or twenty-five, if they are still playing at all. Moreover, these kids do not even know what baseball is, not really. Even if you told them, "When you're in varsity, you'll be a shortstop," they would have no idea what that means. (They might ask, "What's 'varsity'?")

Now imagine that on this teeball team, the first practice is actually a tryout. At the end of practice, there will be a cut—some will continue on to play baseball for many, many years, while others will never play again. Now you are beginning to grasp what this life is in comparison to the world to come.

This entire life that we live in these bodies, however many years that we have, is no more than the first teeball practice of a group of four- and five-year-olds. It is the beginning of a series of practices and games that lead eventually to a major-league-caliber season that never ends. All God has been looking for for these thousands of years of human existence is who really wants to play. I can only come up with five simple questions that he is asking, five things that he is looking for in people:
  • Do they recognize me?
  • Do they want me?
  • Do they love what I love and hate what I hate?
  • Do they trust me?
  • Will they do what I say?
Each of these questions is profound and the manifestations of them in our lives are enormously complex. I do not mean to offer a reductionistic, half-inch-deep view of religion. I merely assert that at root, these things are the few that God wants from people. Anything and everything else, any other command or instruction, derives from them.

Notice that what we do for a living is not on the list. Not directly, anyway—it can be strongly affected by loving what God loves and hating what God hates and even by doing what he says. My point, however, is that if God has us spend this whole practice throwing a ball against a wall, it does not mean that we will be a pitcher in the major leagues. We might end up a designated hitter instead (except that in eternity there will only be the National League, so forget I said that).

If you are privileged to look back on your life one trillion years from now, your profession today, no matter how important for God's kingdom even, will not be what you see. You will be serving then in a vocation that is absolutely incomprehensible to you right now, and far more important as well. All you will see is what God is looking at today: can he coach you?

I should also point out that the default answer to each of God's questions for each person on earth is "No." Fortunately, God is not satisfied with that answer, so he intervenes to alter people's dispositions so that the answer might be "Yes." Are you altered? If you want to be, it may already be happening. Make sure.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Contrasting Approaches to Reading the Bible

I have observed two basic approaches that people take to reading the Bible. And the more learned and scholarly the people are who read it, the more pronounced these two approaches appear and the higher the contrast between them.

One approach is like a prospector searching for gold nuggets amid a welter of silt and rock. The reader sifts through the material, discarding the impurities, accretions, and distracting substances to find the comparatively few precious elements in the texts.

The other approach assumes that the entire thing is pure gold. The problem is that the reader is visually impaired and handling the material in a dim room. Therefore the gold is sometimes hard to see—the luster of much of it is not bright, and sometimes it does not look like gold at all, but the reader believes that it still is.

In the first approach the defect is in the material handled. In the second the defect is in the handler and the environment (the world) in which it is handled.

In the first approach, the reader critiques the word and alters it. In the second the word critiques the reader and alters her.

One might posit that both are possible, that one could approach the biblical texts as imperfect things read by imperfect people in imperfect situations. In that case the critique and alteration goes both ways.

That is logically possible, but in practice I believe it to be rare if it ever happens at all. At least one reason for this is that human beings powerfully oppose being altered deeply. (Even the most flexible and adaptable of people, for example, oppose any attempt to make them inflexible and nonadaptable on certain matters.) Therefore, when the text demands something tough—a major behavioral sacrifice, or an even more imposing relinquishment of one belief or opinion for another—the option of identifying that text as impure (textually obscure, culturally bound, politically motivated, from an unreliable source, self-contradictory, etc.) is too alluring. The path of least resistance is impossible to resist.

I take the second approach instead. The reasons for this are complex, and I do not intend to get into them here. But you can find part of them in this old post.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Leave It to Satan

Last month a bill called the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act emerged out of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee with unanimous support from Republicans and Democrats. The bill would bolster law enforcers' tools against perpetrators of human trafficking—the horrendous, outrageous modern-day slavery that majors on child labor and prostitution—and create a fund to help those rescued.

Two weeks ago, however, as debate on the Senate floor was about to begin with the bill assured of easy passage, some Democrats challenged a provision in the bill that prohibited money from the fund to be used to pay for abortions for five years. This language, known as the Hyde Amendment, has been included in a variety of laws passed by Congress for the last four decades (and, according to some, has loopholes wide enough to drive a truck through).

In previous legislation, however, the prohibition runs on a one-year renewable term, but in the current bill the term is five years. This expansion was enough to send Democrats to the barricades, accusing Republicans of surreptitiously sneaking the language in, despite that the wording had been in the bill from the very beginning. With Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women whipping the Democratic caucus into shape, forty-three senators voted successfully to block the bill from coming to the floor for a vote, effectively killing it unless Republicans removed the abortion-related language.

We are at a point in history where no Democrat on the national level is allowed to depart from pro-choice orthodoxy (just as no Republican is allowed to raise taxes) if they don't want to be exiled by the party to electoral Siberia. But for many Democrats, their antipathy toward the Hyde Amendment comes from deeply held principle.

Take California Sen. Diane Feinstein, for instance. She grieves over vivid memories of the sentencing of women who went to abortion doctors or even mutilated themselves before abortion became legal because they believed they had no other recourse. Feinstein, like many a 1970s-era feminist (and others of later vintage), generalizes the plight of those women to half the human race. "It is our reproductive system. In a sense this has been a battle for our identity," she said in debate. "There are many of us who believe this is one small step for womankind."

Republicans immediately went on the defensive, believing that to give in to the Democrats' demand would grant a victory to the most radical of pro-choice partisans. Many refused to remove the Hyde Amendment on pro-life principle; seemingly all refused on the grounds that it would give the Democrats an easy victory. Accustomed to hardball, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell announced that the confirmation of Attorney General appointee Loretta Lynch, which has already been languishing for months, will not receive a vote until the trafficking bill passes—in the far-fetched hope, presumably, that President Obama will therefore intervene to change Senate Democrats' minds.

Isn't this just like Satan. All senators oppose the oppression of slaves, so he exploits the fact that half hate the oppression of women and half hate the oppression of the unborn, with the result that all of them—women, the unborn, and most of all slaves—remain just as oppressed as they were in the first place. One can only imagine how the Evil One gets off on this stuff.

For the record, I believe that Senator Feinstein is sincere. I believe that I might even learn something from her about sexist oppression. I also believe, however, that her reasoning is morally grotesque. I fail to see how it safeguards women's reproductive systems to annihilate girls' reproductive systems (and the rest of their bodies) before they are born. I fail to see how an oppressed woman becomes liberated by oppressing the person inside her. And I fail to see how a woman (or a man, for that matter) achieves her identity by winning the power to have sex without having children. In the case of women who are forced by wicked men to have sex by blunt or subtle pressure (like sex in exchange for food), there is indeed a screaming need for liberating justice, but abortion does not accomplish it. If anything, abortion compounds the oppression.

That does not mean, however, that the GOP ought to fight Feinstein and the Democrats tooth and nail. Their fear that it gives the pro-choice lobby a victory that will make it even harder to roll back the slaughter of innocents is legitimate, but it plays right into the Devil's hands. There will not be less injustice in the world because Senate Republicans refuse to strike the Hyde Amendment. There will only be more—more women and children sold into slavery and violated in every imaginable and unimaginable way.

I think if you're a Republican senator in this situation, you vote for an amendment to remove the abortion language from the bill even while you publicly excoriate the Dems for having to do it. And I think if you're a Democratic senator, you vote for the bill as is and start looking for work for when your term ends (or try to make lots of friends by bringing home lots of pork).

You do it not because you like it and not because you can't think of plenty of reasons why it's a bad idea. You do it because you recognize a ploy of the Father of Lies when you see it and you refuse to let him win.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Greatness

First, I'm back. I have written very little on 1st Corynthians for several months, because my writing capacity has been maxed out on a doctor of ministry thesis that blew way beyond what it is supposed to be. You can learn more about that project in a prior post (which does not perfectly describe either my subject or the project as it turned out, but it comes close), and I am sure that I will talk about it here at some future point(s). Meanwhile, two hundred thousand words later, I am trying to find myself again, and apparently that includes finding this blog.

I have never known how many readers I have had, but periodically I have been humbly gratified to get positive feedback from someone. If I have been useful to regular readers, please accept my sincere apology for the silence, if there's anyone still out there. We'll see how much I put out in 2015.

Enough of that. During my desperate struggle to finish my thesis I put off many things large and small. One of the small ones was deciding what to do with a free six-month subscription to Christianity Today. Now, many people (I assume or at least hope) read CT to get out of it . . . well, whatever good things they get out of it. I don't really know, because historically the main thing that I get out of it is a prodigious catalog of successful American evangelicals whose abiding flaw is that none of them is myself.

I don't suppose—no, I do, I just feel guilty for supposing—that the magazine exists to define a list of important people by making them subjects of articles and interviews, quoted sources, and bylines. To me, however, CT (and a lot of other things) becomes what my beloved friend Ted Kluck calls "ego porn"—perfect artifices that excite covetous lust, fantasies not to be realized in one's own life. One masturbates to it by posting something in the comment feed that everyone will love or by tweeting to one of the important people hoping for a response. Like masturbation, it doesn't "work," and even when it does, there is no substance and no afterglow, only an empty hunger for more.

Not that I know from experience or anything.

I got to thinking about greatness today, specifically about where I would wish to be great if I could. I remembered something about becoming great in the kingdom of heaven, so I decided to check into that again.

Jesus said in Matthew 5:19 that "anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." So if I really want to be great, my ambition must be to do everything the Bible says as Jesus and his apostles frame it for "the Israel of God" and to teach others to do the same. Interesting.

Later in Matthew (11:11-12) Jesus talks about John the Immerser and calls him at least as great as anyone else "born of women"—pretty impressive, since the greatest person in that category is Jesus himself. But then Jesus points out (as I translate it) that John is so great "although the one who is inferior in Heaven's government is greater than he is."

This isn't a remark about John being the best of the Old Covenant, but the least participant in the New Covenant is better than he is, although many have interpreted it this way. Rather, it is a sad observation that as lofty as John is in God's government, people who are of no importance in the coming age appear to be superior to him in today's ranking system. That is why, Jesus goes on, "the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it." People are the kingdom, and those in so-called high places forcibly took away the kingdom when they threw John in prison and led Jesus to the cross and persecute our brothers and sisters around the world today.

Point? Human beings are horrible judges of greatness. This disturbs me about American evangelicalism. (Note that by the modifier "American" I am referring to a sociocultural entity, not the abstract beliefs and values that this group shares in common with other groups.)

The evangelical subculture's proximity to the center of cultural power in my country has fluctuated over the centuries. Evangelicals have never quite dominated (although in the 1840s and '50s they came close), and therefore big shots in the evangelical subculture have rarely been big-time in the wider culture. According to what Jesus says about greatness, that's quite all right.

But, people being people, it comes naturally to us on the periphery of cultural influence to form an alternate, ingrown pecking order centered on basically the same things that the world values—power, reach, comeliness, charisma, and close acquaintance with others who have them—instead of obedience. That's not to say that the people whom we consider important are not obedient—I hope and (want to) assume that they are. It's just that their obedience is not why we consider them important.

The overwhelming ease with which humans do this comes home to me in Jesus' third remark about greatness in Matthew. "At that time the disciples came to Jesus saying, 'Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?' He called a child, had him stand among them, and said, 'I tell you the truth, unless you turn around and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven! Whoever then humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven' " (18:1-4). The phrase "turn around" is actually passive—you are turned around, or as the NASB renders it, "converted." You have to be turned into a little child even to enter the kingdom of heaven, much less to become great.

I automatically think of my youngest child, a four-year-old, when I read this. Don't misunderstand: he is not a moral role model. He can be willful, destructive, and violent. But in one area he is perfect: he is utterly unpretentious. He is totally unaware of who the greatest is and he never thinks about it, and he certainly does not wish to be the greatest himself.

And that is where I am stuck, because I am acutely aware of greatness and have oodles of ambition to be the greatest. Jesus tells me that if I want to slake my thirst for greatness, I must be so altered that I am unconscious of greatness. And then, when greatness is foreign to my psyche, when I don't care or even much notice, then I will become great in the one valuation that matters, that of the kingdom of heaven.

I haven't decided yet whether to get Christianity Today (and I don't want advice about it, by the way). But I know that if I was like a little child it would be an easier decision to make, since it would be neither a trap nor a training. It might just be a great magazine, and I might just be great.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Gun Control: A Conversation with a Friend (5)

This series of posts is a conversation about gun control between me and an American friend living in Canada. Today's, the last one, comes from my friend Jeremy. The first, second, third, and fourth posts are here.



Thanks, Cory.

One of the things that troubles me so much about the proliferation of guns is that even people that you might ordinarily consider the "good" guys have bad days, or more likely moments of bad judgment. Just a couple examples from Florida recently: the former cop in the movie theater who killed the young father sitting front if him for texting . . . during the previews. Here was a guy who had trained and practiced for his entire career who had a serious lapse in judgment. And, unlike a lapse if judgment when you're playing baseball, when guns are involved there is a loss of human life. The other case was the guy at the gas station who confronted some kids about their music, thought he saw something, and unloaded a weapon into the car. No gun was found in the car, but more people were dead. I think it's just too great a responsibility to expect people to make life-and-death decisions in a split second depending on if they "feel threatened." In the home is a different matter: except if someone believes in Santa, I can't think of a good reason that someone would be trying to break into another person's house. The idea of keeping the military in check is one that doesn't really resonate with me (maybe I need to watch Red Dawn). I always assumed that if the military really felt like it, they possess weapons so far beyond what the average person can acquire that resistance would be an exercise in futility. A friend of mine who is at Penn State worked on some naval projects a few years back and told me that if I knew what the military had, I would be freaked out. If it ever got to that point, I think we'd all be up the proverbial creek.

One last thing: we do have a real life example of a one-time gun-owning society that went cold turkey. Australia severely restricted gun ownership and require everyone to register their guns after what I think was a school shooting in the 90's. The only result has been that Aussie kids don't have to practice lockdown drills. I know that would never fly here, but I wonder if the death toll will ever change people's minds.

Jer

Monday, September 1, 2014

Gun Control: A Conversation with a Friend (4)

This series of posts is a conversation about gun control between me and an American friend living in Canada. Today's comes from me. The first, second, and third posts are here.



I agree with you overall and with most of the details. I think that background checks should be universal. There are probably other policy adjustments that ought to be made that people better informed than I am know about. But there are still some sticky points.

Your analogy here . . .
Adding more guns to a gun-saturated culture in order to reduce gun violence sounds to me like the alcoholic who wakes up with a hang-over and decides to have a stiff one to feel better rather than to consider consuming less alcohol.
. . . is powerful. That is, it’s powerful to me, but that’s because I, like you, am comfortable looking at the big picture, at the undifferentiated mass of guns floating in the undifferentiated mass of society, and I agree that things have run amok. But that argument will never work with the people who need to be persuaded.

The answer I always hear to this argument is, in essence, “But how will keeping me from getting another gun prevent someone else from committing a homicide?” You either have to give a clear and compelling explanation of how that will work, or you have to convince the person that he or she (or his or her live-in family member) is the one who is likely to commit the homicide with his or her gun. Unless you can persuasively explain how the policy adjustment will save lives on an individual, personal level, many people simply will not believe it. And that frame of mind is not going away.

You are right that sinfulness is pervasive, of course, and also that for very many—probably overwhelmingly most—Americans, “freedom” boils down to an unalienable right to gratify greed, lust, or power on a tiny scale. The freedom to bear arms is no exception.

But this principle operates on two planes. It operates at the level of the individual, self-reliant, power-drunk gun owner, and it also operates at the level of the corporate, institution-reliant, power-drunk governmental security force. The philosophical question is, where do you expect sinful power and violence to be more manifest: among armed-to-the-teeth individuals or in armed-to-the-teeth governments?

Philosophically, my answer is, neither—sin is equally likely to manifest itself at both levels. But that leads to the practical question, are each presently able to keep the other in check, or is one more liable to run away with sinful power than the other?

I really don’t know the answer to that question right now. I wish I did.

Obviously the government is not all-powerful, because it’s unable to stop or deter fully the terrible number of criminal homicides that Americans commit every year.

On the other hand, let’s think again about this analogy:
weapons that are as removed from the muskets the founding fathers had access to as iPads are to feather pen and ink.
No doubt. However, the musket that the average American farmer owned was more or less equal in power to the muskets that the most advanced armies in the world armed their infantry with. Otherwise the Revolution would never have happened. The Founders knew this.

Is there any comparison to today? Is even the most powerful weaponry on the market today anything like the firepower that our military and even the state police have at their disposal?

Don’t get me wrong—I DON’T WANT civilians to be able to arm themselves like the 82nd Airborne! I don’t know how a citizenry like that could be held accountable for their use of their weapons without free-for-all massacres. We’d be Somalia. Indeed, your observation about how we’re inadvertently arming Mexican druglords shows how poor our accountability is already.

And yet, and yet . . . I find myself increasingly doubtful that the democratic governments of a nation this large can be held accountable either. (At least at the state and federal level here; municipally here and perhaps all over in Canada they are more manageable.) I am more and more uneasy that our electoral process is a sort of mass participatory theater that yields outcomes tightly delimited by a silent few elites (and a mammoth bureaucracy) that are far more powerful than voting citizens—the legal system likewise. Does this constitutional democracy work well enough to prevent the government from abusing its lethal power? I am skeptical.

Does that mean that our military should be scaled way back, that not only the citizenry but the government should be disarmed? Certain liberals (including peace-loving Christians) strongly argue for this, and I think that they have great points. The industry and culture of violence is of a piece on both individual and governmental levels.

On the other hand, to the extent that our national government is already taking small steps in the direction of disarmament and withdrawal, we seem to be persuading Putin that the time is ripe to employ Hitler’s foreign policy strategy of the 1930s. Who knows how far he’ll take it.

So Russia, North Korea, and Iran are threats, so therefore we have a colossally powerful military to protect us (and everyone else) from those threats, and then (in the eyes of some) we have a rifle-toting populace to protect us from the threat of our powerful military. It’s madness. But I don’t know a way out of the madness until the millennium.

Meantime, we balance one threat against another. Which threat is the most threatening is not always an easy judgment to make. You may be right that our governments are less threatening and more responsible with their lethal power than private citizens are. I used to be confident of that. I don’t deny it yet, but I’m just not sure anymore.

Cory

Monday, August 25, 2014

Gun Control: A Conversation with a Friend (3)

This series of posts is a conversation about gun control between me and an American friend living in Canada. Today's comes from my friend Jeremy. The first and second posts are here.



Hi Cory,

Thanks for the thoughtful reply and the link to that article. The issue of gun control (or the nearly complete lack thereof) is one that riles me up a bit. While understanding the significantly differing cultural views towards violence helps to make sense of why there have been no real changes in gun laws (and why there won't be for the foreseeable future) except to actually make guns more prevalent in public, I think that the "more guns as deterrent" idea simply goes against reason. The US is already, by a good margin, the most heavily armed country in the world (the runner-up is that other beacon of democracy and freedom: Yemen). Adding more guns to a gun-saturated culture in order to reduce gun violence sounds to me like the alcoholic who wakes up with a hang-over and decides to have a stiff one to feel better rather than to consider consuming less alcohol. To me, the overarching problem is accessibility. I think I read that something like 40% of gun purchases are at shows where background checks are famously not required, allowing anyone, convicted felons included, to purchase weapons that are as removed from the muskets the founding fathers had access to as iPads are to feather pen and ink.

There's also the issues of stand your ground laws (which seem to me to simply allow an aggressor to claim victimhood and then rub out the only potential witness to a murder) and the fact that so many easily obtained US guns are being used in the Mexican drug wars (a link I will try to dig up is about US weapons being melted down, turned into musical instruments, and toured with, performed on by Mexican musicians). Ahh, easy guns and border security wrapped up in one, but this is a rabbit hole that gets deep and twisty so I'll stop.

None of this has anything to do with hunting and home defense, which I think are perfectly legitimate functions for guns. But the way the floodgates have opened up in places like Florida, Georgia, Texas are disturbing.  I think the Charlton Heston quote provides a window in to why gun control is so necessary but also unobtainable: when he talks about the exhilarating sense of freedom that comes from gun ownership, I think he really means the intoxication that comes with the realization of possession of power, wrapped up in wood and blue steel. And two things I think are 100% certain in life are man's basic sinfulness, and how power corrupts people. Open-carry + stand-your-ground + average-sleep-deprived-American = I'm not sure, but I don't think it's good.

Jeremy

Monday, August 18, 2014

Gun Control: A Conversation with a Friend (2)

This series of posts is a conversation about gun control between me and an American friend living in Canada. Today's comes from me. The previous post is here.



This is very interesting. Thanks for sending it. I think that there’s a lot of truth to what he says, but I think that the two most important elements of the story of how the U.S. got to where it is with guns is missing from the author’s narrative, except obliquely. Those elements are American regional cultures and technology as symbol.

This must-read article describes numerous regional cultures in North America and their contrasting attitudes toward guns. These cultures were planted by colonial settlers from different places in Europe (including different places in Britain alone) with different objectives, different values, and different ways-of-being. Some of these American cultures became seedbeds that synthesized with each other in the Western United States to spawn second-generation cultures.

There were and are two predominant cultures in the American South, one in the lowland and one in the upland. They are pronouncedly different from one another, but one thing they have in common is a tolerance for individual violence. The Lowland South was settled by proud men with big egos and a fierce determination to defend their honor. Dueling was prevalent. The Upland South was settled by despised, exploited, paranoid people with thick family ties and profound suspicion of outsiders. Feuds were prevalent. The Lowland elite ruled their families and slaves like on manorial estates like kings and set that example for the Lowland poor. Most Uplanders were terribly poor but fiercely protective of their right to do what they wanted on their own land.

The North also had two predominant cultures (notwithstanding the outsized cultural power of Greater New York that skyrocketed through the nineteenth century to the present). Yankees and Middlers were and are also profoundly different from each other. But one thing they have in common is a strong disinclination toward violent personal revenge.

Today, persistent violence is unsurprising in the Lowland South, where colonial and antebellum elites set the standards for the rest of society. These men fought in single combat to avenge public disrespect and used savage beatings to impose their will on subjugated people.

As for Appalachia and its westward settlements, it is indeed a violent place per capita. But it has also been shown that if you manage to avoid committing adultery, it is as safe a region as any other in the United States with the added bonus that there is almost no personal theft, so you can leave your door unlocked when you’re not at home.

It should be noted that Upland Southerners were the predominant bloc of settlers in Texas and Arizona. The linkage of lethal weapons and racist anti-foreigner sentiment didn’t start after NAFTA. Some of these people hated and feared invading Northerners during the Civil War. At least as many hated and feared Confederate state governments and fought for the Union! They hated and feared invasive British during the War of 1812 and the Revolution, and before that coastal British Americans. And before that they hated and feared the distant kings of England and Scotland who savagely used and abused them as pawns in their political machinations. And all along each clan hated and feared the clan that lived over the next hill.

You’ll note that these two Southern cultures are by far more evangelical than the two Northern cultures and Greater New York. How that came to be is an even more complex story, as it was not so until after the Civil War. But rather than tell that story I want to make my other point, and that is about technology as the bearer of symbolic meaning.

I’ve lived in Dorchester, Mass., an African-American- and Irish-dominated neighborhood of Boston. One morning I woke up to discover that a teenager was shot dead by a rival at a corner two houses away from where I lived. My pastor had a long history of crusading to get guns off the street, dissolve gangs, and dispel drug dealers.

I now live in Blair County, PA. School is closed on the first day of buck season. And targets are shot with as much enthusiasm as game. One Sunday morning the demure, 100-pound-soaking-wet church pianist came in giddy with excitement. She found out that her husband was getting her her own AK-47 for Christmas. He already had one.

Unfortunately, most Americans have not had my experience. They have not been privileged to see firsthand how guns mean different things to people in different cultures in different places. This is true of all technology: it is morally neutral, but it can bear awesome meaning and shape people’s minds and hearts. If it didn’t, 80% of advertising agencies would go out of business.

Furthermore, technology is a huge component of culture, both shaping it and being shaped by it. Naturally then, different cultures define the same technological implement in different ways.

In Canada, a gun is a tool for a hobby or an economical means to harvest meat. In a Northern city, like on an antebellum or colonial plantation, a gun is a means to protect one’s reputation by asserting power over others. In Appalachia and its westward dispersion, a gun is a defiant totem of cultural integrity for a people whom distant elites despise, mock, and exploit and rapacious strangers invade. It is one physical object, but its meaning is wildly relative.

These Southern cultures are not mine—I am Middler-bred and Yankee-reared. Nevertheless—and this may be the Middler in me—I have sympathy toward Appalachian people. Part of it is proximity, as I live where Middle America and Appalachia coalesce. But there are other reasons too. I cannot read about what their ancestors suffered on the border between England and Scotland, going for centuries devastated by war every generation or two, without acknowledging that the sad reasonableness of their inherited xenophobia. I hate that “rednecks” are the only cultural group in our politically correct age that may be reviled without mercy—in fact, bigotry toward them is viewed a sign of enlightenment.

I also find myself increasingly admitting that paranoid, government-hating Upland Southerners have a point: it is good for us that so many of them were trained in the military, and that the government knows that there are lots of guns in public hands but does not know who has them. As many of the Founders believed, a government over such people would think twice before imposing its will on the mass of its citizens by force.

On the one hand, I felt sick when I learned that local gun stores here sold out of their ammo when Barack Obama was reeelected. On the other hand, his administration’s campaign to force Christians into uniformity with the national current by paying for abortifacients and laying track for similar pressure vis-à-vis same-sex marriage makes me think that before I die I and others like me will be considered public enemies. How “paranoid” Upland Southerns and Westerners seem has much to do with one’s faith in government to stay within certain boundaries and do the right thing. I think that they truly are paranoid because they think that no government will. But I sympathize with them because I fear that this particular government won’t.

Also, I am more liberal on immigration than any other issue, and I deplore the xenophobia of Upland Southerners. I appreciate their cultural baggage but that doesn’t make it right or reasonable for present circumstances. Non-stop, knee-jerk anxiety is dysfunctional even if it’s explainable. And I think that an interpretation of the Second Amendment that does not have to do with organized, drilled citizen-soldiers is a ridiculous violation of the principle of authorial intent that Supreme Court conservatives claim to revere. But it doesn’t mean that Upland Southerners are completely out to lunch with respect to guns, especially within the inner logic of their own communities.

In the end, the answer to the Post writer’s question of why there isn’t a similar gun-fetish in Canada is fairly simple: American Southerners don’t live there.

Cory

Monday, August 11, 2014

Gun Control: A Conversation with a Friend (1)

This series of posts is a conversation about gun control between me and an American friend living in Canada. Today's is the first, from Jeremy.



This actually comes from the conservative national newspaper in Canada. Aside from the of linking gun-love and Evangelicalism at the end, it nearly had me break into a spontaneous chorus of "O, Canada."

http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2014/08/02/jonathan-kay-u-s-firearms-culture-forged-by-paranoia-racism-and-civil-rights-unrest/

Jeremy

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Three Kinds of Young Inquirers

In the past couple of years I have encountered several intelligent, approximately college-age people who want to talk about religion or the Bible. They have good questions, and they really appreciate and enjoy getting answers from someone who has thought their questions through. The conversations are vivacious and stimulating both to the inquirer and to the mentor, whether that is myself or someone I know. But I have learned that not all inquirers seek answers for the same purpose, and eventually that shapes where the conversations and even the relationship go.

There are at least three different kinds of religious inquirers in this stage of life.

One kind of person (I hope that this person exists) inquires because she really wants to know the truth. She is dissatisfied with what she has been told to date, and she is willing to pay a price to get the real stuff. Her stated interest in getting answers is also her actual interest.

A second kind of person already believes that she knows what is true. In fairness, she may be genuinely interested in learning more and getting confusing matters cleared up, but underlying those interests are certain core principles that she holds sincerely and is not seriously considering giving up. But she has a problem: if she expresses her settled beliefs boldly and lives accordingly, she will face criticism, tension, and even rejection from people that she loves. This might come from two sides at once from people who disagree with each other, one side taking issue with this belief and the other with that. Though she is asking questions as if to seek truth, what she is really seeking is an intellectual silver bullet that, when fired, will convince everyone in her life to affirm all her core beliefs and everything that she wants to do—and also, at least as important, to get along with each other.

A third kind of person also already believes that she knows what is true, but she is presently pretending to herself that she does not. She anxiously trying to flee what she believes to be true, because it causes her pain and/or because she is not living according to it. When she asks questions, she is only interested in answers that might quiet her own conscience, justify her departure from what she is afraid is true, or refute what she fears might be true of herself and her place in existence.

These types may not be exclusive; it is probable that a person may fit more than one description, perhaps going one way in one area and another way in another.

When these three kinds of inquirers approach me, at first they all look the same. I am an eager guy, so I naturally assume that they are all of the first kind. But if the person has the stuff of the second or third kind in them, that eventually becomes clear. We exhaust the extent of their interest in the truth for the truth's sake, and we hit a limit. Telltale signs include the same question over and over even though I've already answered it, endless debate that goes nowhere and serves no purpose, an incessant drift toward relationship problems and advice, and general staleness.

I am learning that I need to pick up on the signs earlier so that I may address the thing that the person actually wants from me even if he or she has not put it into words. This is for the inquirer's own good as well as preserving my time. I believe that for many seekers, the thing that they need first is not theological truth but to be honest with themselves about their true intentions and motives. A good deal less self-deception would go a long way. They might discover then that they are not really all that interested in what I have to say. But if they are truly interested, then what I have to reveal about God and his ways might actually do them some good.

Jesus had a knack for this. He did it with an outcast woman at a well, which went one way, and with a wealthy young community leader, which went another. Not surprisingly, he knew what he was doing.