Friday, January 1, 2016

2015: In Memoriam

With the sole exception of Holy Week, there may be no other point in each year that I observe with more gravity and contemplation than the passage of the Old Year into the New. This time carries a solemn, sacred weight, a peculiar medley of thanksgiving, of sorrow, of joy, of expectation. Here, strewn throughout personal journals and diminishing memories, are the remnants of another Old Year which I did not deserve. Many have perished from this earth since the last time we celebrated this momentous midnight. Young and old alike have gazed upon the clock in anticipation of a new year that they never did fully see in all its pain and glory. And somehow I escaped that number, and live now to tell the tale. A boundlessly good and sovereign God, for reasons I may never understand, deemed it right that I should see another year, and here I am, through no merit or effort of my own. 

If ever a year by far felt like a personal friend of mine, it was this Year of our Lord 2015. Time is no friend to man; yet here I sit, the sound of fireworks bursting in the sky outside the house, and feel a ghostly sadness as though a friend were lying on his deathbed, slipping slowly away into the past. It was a good year, perhaps the best of my life so far. It was also my most solitary year; in no other year have I spent so much time alone. But the solitude was a gift from God, something I never would have sought on my own, in which I was driven to ponder my mortality and my insufficiency and the places of my trust and the objects of my worship and adoration. So then, 2015 was different. My Lord taught me more about the nature of trust and the proper inclination of a satisfied heart than I ever thought I needed to learn. 

And no other year has been packed with such a variety of experiences. I drank in 2015 like a desert wanderer arriving at a mountain stream. I sensed it all, I interpreted what I could, I pondered the meaning of all the rest, like a tale whose purpose will later unfold. I molded it into verses when I found melodies and I sang it to my soul when I had no words. I strummed my guitar in the spotlight and touched my piano in the moonless dark. I ached from the cynicism of those who demand good from fallen men, and I felt the joy of those who had the faith to see the hand of God making sinners righteous. I laughed when the presence of friends reminded me of life’s joys, I wept when the knowledge of my ephemerality crushed me into crippling sorrow. I walked through the chambers of power, I trembled in the bleary gaze of those who have nothing. I smelled the cedar hills of Kerrville and heard my tires whine through the tunnels of Pittsburgh, I felt the warm sand of St. Augustine under my feet and marveled at the snow-covered prairies of South Dakota. I ponder all these things in my soul as a gift that I never deserved. When I think of it all, it seems too wonderful and aching and beautiful to have actually ever happened.

But it did, and the LORD God is good forever, through the joy and the sorrow. He is making all things new. He is coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead, to bring an end to evil, to make all things right, to gather up His adopted children, to usher in His kingdom in all its fullness. As the fireworks light up the night, piercing the silence and thundering through the January air, let them cause us to meditate on that moment when the sky will rip open and we will fall on our faces as the Lord of Heaven descends upon the earth. He may do so in 2016. He may not. But for as long as He may tarry, let us wait with anxious expectation for the revelation of glory promised by our faithful Savior. 

Christ is coming, let creation from her groans and travail cease. 

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Friday, February 27, 2015


My God is not a figment of my imagination.

My God is not a slave of my temperaments and gut feelings, nor is He a psychological salve for my cries of desperation.

My God is not some force who willingly submits to my interrogations and inspections.

My cry of faith in Him cannot be constant if it is banished to the dark caverns of my mind, where it hovers not like the life-giving Spirit over the face of the waters, but as a quaking, trembling cripple, fearful of a world that might at any time draw blades against its dying body.

My cry of faith cannot be fully represented by the pen and paper, by words that crawl across a page. The ink gives me peace, as though the anguish of my heart were channeled through a sluice and released into a sea of placid waters. But this peace is temporary. Words will burn away; paper will be lost and forgotten.

My God, when He came and walked upon the earth, said that all men would know that we are His disciples if we have love for one another. My cry of faith must fuel my works, but works cannot do faith justice. They will pass away and be forgotten. They will be perverted by my soul as I seek acclaim in the praises of man. Only God can save. I am a blade of grass withering in the desert heat. I am a flower fading. Whatever God does shall be forever, and His word by no means shall pass away. I will not set my mind on things too high for me, nor seek contentment in any temporary peace that I might create for myself, nor seek to create a legacy that might increase my favor in the eyes of the world - but rather, I will trust in the sovereign mercy of my God.

For my God is alive, and He will not be silent. He delights in lavishing mercy and exercising justice. He knows that I am dust, that I will seek glory for myself. He sees that I am weary, that I will recline upon the whoring bed of temptation. He sees that I am sorrowful, that I will cheer myself with ephemeral treasures and transient joys. He is slow to anger, but His anger is but for a moment. He executes justice, but His justice purifies. He grants grace to the sinner, but also directs and renews him that he may need grace no more.

I will therefore think, but not set myself against my God. I will feel deeply, but refuse to fear. I will write, but not expect my words to last forever. I will create, but not desire my own glory above that of my Creator. I will serve, but not hope that I will be served in return. The Son of Man came to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many. The life of sacrifice that He lived is far too penetrating for me to flippantly acknowledge as though it were a mere trifle that happened to save my soul from everlasting condemnation.

Life may assail me with hardships and torture me with doubts, but on this I will stand: that I have been seized by a Love that so rages against sin and death that it has ultimately destroyed it; that God lives and reigns forever, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and that I am not my own, for I have been made new. Therefore I am never to use my security as a free ticket to glory, but bear fruit with it for the praise of Jesus' holy name.

Sunday, August 10, 2014


Note: As one who can easily become obsessed with the saving work of God and yet completely fail to love Him, I have contemplated what this cold response would look like in an earthly relationship. I am not making up words to put in God's mouth; these simply are ideas that would necessarily come from the heart of a faithful lover. 

I gave you everything. I poured myself out, I traded heaven for your company. You merely blinked, and you smiled a little, as if it pleased you. You inquired of me all my plans and the roads I traveled under bitter skies and over treacherous miles and the costs I suffered and where we will be when the final sun has set and the dawn is no more. Nothing I withheld, for I told you all. Unto you was made known the plans I had shaped and crafted so that you would forever be mine. Unto you was made known the unfathomable love I had for you. You sought to know and learn all my plans, you would rest at nothing until you had received all knowledge of the mystery. You were amazed. 

But you were amazed for a time only. You were fascinated only with complexity and detail, you were enraptured only by my stories. You knew them, you knew them very well. You recited them to your friends, you exulted over the beauty and mystery of the plan. You only were delighted with what was in it for you. After a time you grew tired of the story; you had heard it a thousand times. The sparkle and wonder of the first words from my mouth were more leagues away from you than the times you had recited the story to others. 

For you only loved what I in my love had revealed to you. You did not love me. You merely treated my love for you as a common thing, and you believed yourself to have graduated to higher pursuits than love - efforts that you could accomplish with your hands that I made for you, ambitions that you could chase, whose results would be tangible and measurable and able to give you what you believed to be glory. You grew tired of my love, for it did not give you what you immediately desired, longings chained within the bounds of time and human existence. 

Still I loved you, and was angry with you, because of my love. I hate anything that would dare come between us. Many that you admired said that if there ever was someone who loves you, he surely could not really hate, for he is known for his love and tenderness. Be not mistaken, one whom I love: for I hate mightily. I hate mightily anything that would struggle against me to keep your soul in its clutches, and I will stop at nothing to pursue it, though the fight take me to the depths of hottest fire or into the piercing brutality of winter. 

You may despair, and wonder if you really love me - but soon as you have thought it, the fear leaves you. And you become selfish and assured by the final answer of a finite mind. The miles I have tread, I still have not forgotten. The bitter cup I drank along the way, the parching thirst of the desert, the stripes laid upon my back by those who despised me - I have not forgotten the reason I endured them, nor would I scorn to bear them again if they lay between you and me. 

You may waver - and you will waver. You may lust after the costly delights offered to you by those who exalt themselves above the wonders I have bestowed freely unto you - and you will lust. I hate the evil of these tempters, and I will wash away the stain and the scars they have branded into you. You may howl in pain - but O love, it is for your good. I will wash you, I will melt away the anguish from your memory, for I love you too greatly to leave you in your suffering state. I will change your heart, and your soul will pursue the good and the beautiful and the true. 

For only a short time will you know me in my wrath. I will not always be angry with you. My wrath is for your good, and my hate is upon that which would destroy you. But my love, which I always have had for you, long before you ever knew, is for you alone, and we shall celebrate it forever and into eternity. For nothing can separate you from me. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Nagle Deluge of 2014

The rumbling skies were dark all day, and at about eight-thirty on a Thursday night the heavens opened up. It began harmlessly enough: a pleasant summer rainshower, a gift of El Nino arriving to possibly chisel a dent against the drought. The fountains of heaven soon threw open their floodgates with a relentlessly driving rain that gave the neighborhood a downright tropical appearance. Too many poets and wordsmiths have attempted to creatively describe thunder and lightning and their respective actions, so I shall bypass the usual pomp of ad-nauseated cliche and say that the presence of these natural phenomena was made abundantly known. 

As the Nagle Brethren stood watching in admiration from the safety of the front door, one bolt of lightning shot through the sky and struck a nearby electric pole with a pop, casting the House into utter darkness. The Brethren were prompted to find flashlights. The only electronic device still in operation, however, was the data recorder, which gave them updates every fifteen seconds concerning rain totals and inches an hour. The rain was increasing at an alarming rate, and el arroyo next to the driveway was progressively filling up. The driveway itself would be inundated soon. It was time to take precautionary action.

Jon, Andrew, and Stewart got into their cars and moved them up the street, where they parked them illegally in the parking lot of a neighboring apartment complex. Owen circled round the block in the Behemoth searching for a space, but after a fruitless effort he drove his giant vehicle straight up into the yard, up the slope, and in front of the dining room window, where he hoped it would be safe from the rising tide. The cars having been moved, the Brethren waded out into the driveway, where the water was over knee-high. There was much awe and felicity at this occurrence.

But more urgent matters soon superseded incredulity. Back in the garage, the Brethren began figuring out the best way to move Jon's motorcycle. As they did so, they watched the puddle in the middle of the driveway progress disturbingly into an unstoppable force with which to be reckoned. By the time the Brethren finally managed to safely situate the motorcycle on blocks, the water had moved into the garage and begun lapping at their feet. Gloves, packages of earplugs, bits of trash, quarts of motor oil, and other sundry items were floating about the garage as Owen scrambled to rescue the kickdrum and the bass amp. In the basement, the Brethren swept up all of Jadon L.'s belongings up onto his bunkbed (the couch seems to have been a loss, however). At a certain point, all perishable items were deemed to have been removed; the Brethren believed all course of action to have been maximally exercised. The garage door was locked (very much good that would do), and the Brethren abandoned the basement and garage to the forces of nature. 

The hard rain continued to fall. The Brethren accumulated in the living room and watched the downpour from the darkness of the electricity-deprived house. They were just considering releasing a dove to see if there was any dry land in the world outside, when suddenly there arrived police who blocked off Nagle St. to hinder any foolhardy drivers that might attempt to surge through the tumultuous floods with their Priuses. By now, the rain had decreased to a mere three inches an hour, and the waters, having washed through the basement and the garage, began to recede. As they waited for the power to be restored, the Brethren sat about the living room in the dark, plunking on guitars and wistfully drinking beer. 

No songs have been written about the Deluge yet, but the buds of creative energy are bound to blossom, much like the spores of mold that will erupt in the walls of Nagle over the next twenty-four hours. In the meantime, the Nagle Brethren add another Deluge to their history. It is preceded by the Deluge of 2002 (in which one of the Brethren swam about the driveway in a Speedo and the basement flooded with four feet of sandy water), the Deluge of 2012 (in which half the inhabitants were gone at a freshman/sophomore retreat and the flooding was only discovered after four of the cars had been flooded), and the Nagle Deluge of 2013 (in which Brother Danny innocently turned off the rising water alarm in the dead of night and went back to peaceful slumber while the House flooded, and seven of the cars flooded because most of the guys were at a retreat. There must be something magical about retreats.)

Tomorrow the cleanup efforts begin, and The Nagle House and its inhabitants, as time and time before, shall indubitably recover. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Bullets of Change

On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip fired his pistol and assassinated Archduke Franz Ferninand of Austria and his wife Sophia as they drove down the streets of Sarajevo. Though the ultimate consequence we now know as World War I would not officially break out until exactly a month later, Princip's shot sparked a series of events that irreparably exploded current tensions between Austria and Serbia and their respective allies. 

One hundred years later, the results from that assassination bear witness to the volatility of human events, as well as to the protean drama that is Europe. Anyone who has even casually studied the dynamics of the Great War will understand that its alarmingly rapid progression chiseled merely another chapter into European history. The angst found in every warring nation in 1914 echoed the bellicosity of nations, empires, states, and kingdoms that had been raising their banners against each other for the past thousand years and beyond. The Holy Roman Empire, Spain, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, Prussia, and England had all enjoyed the limelight over different periods, only to fall to the next imperial giant as it shook off the last stupors of its slumber. 

World War I and the following decades would replay this exact same scene---though this time, more empires than one would fall. In fact, it's remarkable that more powers than one even coexisted over the course of the 19th century: given historical international dynamics, Britain, Russia, Austria-Hungary, France, and Germany (arriving later on the scene) should have exploded into world war much sooner. Aside from the occasional conflicts like the Crimean and the Franco-Prussian Wars, the alliances forged at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 maintained a relative balance of power for the next several decades to come. 

But the advent of the Great War changed that forever. In 1914, the British Empire was a formidable power, industrially and militarily; by 1919, the ravages of the war had taken an irreversible toll on British clout. Germany heading into the war was a young, proud state, eager for gain and insuperable in its martial preparations; its image following the Treaty of Versailles was one of defeat and humiliation. Austria-Hungary, though it had been experiencing turbulence since the turn of the century, emerged disjointedly from the conflict as Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the Balkans declared their independence. In Russia, the tsardom was replaced by a brutal Communist regime, and the Ottoman Empire, long a source of befuddlement for the European powers, collapsed to become free game for any power that would claim it. 

Some historians have argued, quite reasonably, that the 19th century began in 1789 and ended in 1914 with Princip's bullet. I would have to agree with this assessment, with the possible extension of the era a few years into the war. The era that began with the French throwing off their shackles and prompting the other European powers to invent a system of balances ended with the final straw that brought the whole haystack tumbling down. The Long Nineteenth Century was an imperial age of European dominion, an industrial age of ingenious progress in mechanics and increasingly savage weaponry, and a philosophical age whose tranquility intellectuals used to explore ideas that would haunt the Twentieth. It was also the last era of world history before America would burst onto the geopolitical scene. From the hour of her first presidential inauguration to the day her doughboys landed in France, America was in a formative stage as a world power during the Long Nineteenth; the Twentieth catapulted her into the limelight as she came to the aid of her mother country and meddled in Europe's inner sanctum of peacemaking affairs.

However the century may be defined according to the Great War, the effects of this conflict are certainly no mystery to humanity; the virtually endless list of these effects conjures the proverbial metaphysical debate about determinism and the sequence of events. The war triggered unprecedented social change, as shell-shocked men returned home and women sought to continue their newly-found freedom; philosophical change, as a culture freshly laden with death pondered the meaning of existence; industrial change, as America led the way in world motorization; and, most importantly, geopolitical change. The British seized the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, and drew boundaries as they saw fit; Russia became the first Communist experiment overnight; Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Poland each gained their independence; and Germany, humiliated and driven into economic depression by the harsh tenets of Versailles, sought a leader that would revive its people and restore the lost days of glory. The changing boundaries of Europe were but a small indicator of the long-lasting reverberations produced by the Great War. 

Is it too early to commemorate these dramatic changes? Perhaps; Princip's bullets themselves did not, of course, immediately spark the war, and many of the historical changes did not take form until soon after the war ended in late 1918. But the news was shocking enough at the time that questions of its impact already were taking root in the minds of its observers. "What the effects of the tragedy will be, is at present impossible to say," wrote one American newspaper the day after the assassination. Nobody knew at the time what new and terrible chapter was about to take place in world history, but such an action from belligerents of one nation to a major power could not simply fade into the annals of yesteryear, especially considering the network of alliances that were in place.

*     *     *
So it is with solemnity that we remember the day that the fateful sequence was initiated. We do not know this side of Heaven why God in His providence allowed such evil to happen, even though we might observe a few good things that might have come out of it. We mourn over a world that has been corrupted since the Fall, and over a society that has seen murder since Cain rose up against his brother. We do not know what lies ahead of us or what chapters in world history are waiting to be witnessed. Yet in this present time, in the face of wars and rumors of wars, we may pray for the healing of this world through the One who has overcome it and promises to restore His Creation by His good and faithful plan of redemption, for in Christ alone our hope is found.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

I Need Burnt Marshwiggle

(If The Silver Chair reference was lost on you, I'd encourage you to go read the book. It's a great story about intellectual temptation.)

I think that Christians who are eager to defend their faith often overlook and underestimate the most dangerous kind of deceiver.

As a high schooler, usually drunk with whatever basic apologetics training I had received, I often fantasized about engaging some formidable, high-brow Dawkins-esque intellectual in a heated philosophical debate about the existence of God and (of course) emerging victorious from the rhetorical battlefield, banners waving and confidence bolstered.

And why not? Picking bones with those hardened academic types are (supposedly) as tough as it gets. They publish bombshells that vault to the top of the bestseller lists, and then they sit back and watch as evangelicals do damage control for the next ten years. Every other pastor/thinker/apologist in America lines up in a queue to tackle the legendary cynic head-on. And you can't forget all those absolutely true stories about that brilliant young college freshman at Atheist State University who challenges his nihilistic prof to a semester-long duel over absolute morality and then with a single dramatic utterance of Psalm 14:1 successfully pitches the hardboiled skeptic into the bitumen pits of humiliation. Every time. 

With the Newsboys thumping optimistically in the background, of course.

OK, I don't want to sound completely sarcastic. There are helpful debates out there between Christians and atheists in which truth is graciously proclaimed and the Spirit of God is at work.

But we shouldn't paint a caricature of the Enemy and get used to it. Satan loves the light. Satan loves sheep's clothing. 

Far more hazardous to my faith than the man who tells me I'm a backwards idiot for trusting in an ancient God-Man is the man who kindly informs me that I can believe what I want because it's just as true as anything else believed by any human being on the planet. 

One of my philosophy professors this semester was an older man who took enormous pride in his knowledge, personal connections, and universality. He took enormous care never to tread on anybody's toes.
  • Any mention of "God"—even for the sake of illustration---had to be preceded by thirty seconds of clarification: "Now, I'm not saying there is or isn't a God—it's perfectly fine if you don't believe in God - you may not have any religious convictions, and that is perfectly fine with me." 
  • Any assumptions of sexual preference merited a personal apology for even a glimmer of an appearance of disapproval: "Let's say, for example, that you ask your girlfriend out on a date—you might not have a girlfriend, you may have a boyfriend, now that's perfectly fine with me—you may prefer boys—there is absolutely nothing wrong with that." 
  • He posed as a credible Biblical expert—"Paul of course was a madman - constantly changing his mind from one moment to the next—he hated Peter and Peter hated him"—only to change his tune when he discovered I actually disagreed with him: "Oh, there's no question that Peter loved Paul as a brother..." And as a Greek scholar: "All of the Epistles are grossly mistranslated. I've actually translated the letter to the Romans myself, if you would like to read it" (I politely declined).

He would refer to extremely obscure aspects of high culture, act shocked and appalled when he discovered that nobody was familiar with them, and proceed to act sorry by blaming it on our education. He spoke often of his enormous knowledge of women—he'd had a host of girlfriends and was working on his fifth wife—and spoke fondly of the permissive sexual mores of Caribbean cultures. He was an egregious name-dropper and loved to inform us of his compassion, his involvement in social justice, and his universal appreciation of humanity. 

This man was pretty arrogant to be sure, and he certainly stated his own opinions as if there was no question to their obvious truth. But he wasn't one of those rabid atheists we're all familiar with. And that's where the danger lay. 

This was the sort of intellectual authority whose attitude, opinions, and demeanor said, plain as day: You're not stupid; you're just misinformed. I've seen a lot more in my years than you have, and if you don't believe me, you just need to get out more. You're not stupid for believing the things you do, but honestly, the longer you live, the more you'll see that a whole lot of it just really isn't true. If you want to discuss this, by all means let's talk after class. If there are any problems in your life, you can call me at any time.

Dr. B didn't crush ice, he used warm water. He was a kind man. He didn't straight up tell anyone they were wrong (unless they weren't in the room), he simply undermined their confidence about everything they knew to be true. I came into that class comfortably familiar with Biblical refutations of postmodernism, and every class session I left with my head spinning, wondering if maybe Christianity just isn't that realistic after all. Not false, mind you: just not that realistic. 

That's the kicker. We stuff ourselves with the right answers. We know what the Bible says. We know how to counter flimsy assumptions made by atheists. And then when we encounter the affable secular humanist, the agnostic universalist, the postmodern who embraces the full diversity of human experiences as equally valid (but who at the same time poses as a religious expert and doesn't refrain from criticism of the Bible in particular), we fall apart. It's these people who contribute to the high spiritual casualty rate of young Christians. 

My plea is that we cannot shut our eyes and prepare to combat the stereotype we have created in our heads. We cannot simply presume that falsehood will come only from the mouths of serpents. We must expect that it will come even from the mouths of doves, of sheep, of angels. We must anticipate not only the "not", but also the "probably not." We must realize that those we perceive to be our friends may speak more lies than those who are obviously against us. I am not calling for suspicion or aggressive antagonism, but for wisdom and verification in the light of God's sacred Word. I want to hold fast the faithful truth, that I may exhort and convict those who contradict, rather than be taken in by their gentle persuasion (Titus 1:9). 

I continually need the pungent, acrid smell of Scripture to pierce through the sickly sweet aroma of falsehood and unite my heart to fear the name of my LORD. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Duel

unblinking stare at fire massive boulder no river moves two forces one defeat one victory no middle road when faces change hidden muscles grind hands ahead a victor's flag waves hoisted flying joy disgrace none can know till the wink the scowl the surpise has halted and the air freed of ashy haze esther lifted the latch knox dared face the throne a thread between head and breast between law and life so easily severed like a single chord of the gallows' jewel

hands in the bowl buried in delicacy return to their mouths before the flies pervert the fragrance before the vultures circle the heavens for their daily bread but my hand will beat them all

the trestle cliff to cliff budge not the tusks meet entangled fighting for magnetic feet

thy will be done

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


When sorrows surge against us
And doubts our feeble hearts assail,
Thine ark shall grant us respite,
Thy hand shall hide us in the veil.
O God, our Rock of Ages,
Our ever present help in need;
Lord, when the tempest rages,
Thy steadfast hand Thy sheep will lead.

Though death and darkness seek us,
Thy blood is spread upon our door;
The Lamb hath suffered for us
And our transgressions all He bore.
O God, our great Deliv'rer,
Our shield and tower through the storm,
From snares of death release us,
And to Thine image us conform!

As Israel's host surrounded,
Before Thou rollèdst back the wave,
So now we stand confounded
And plead Thy Providence to save!
For Thou, our only refuge,
Our true Defender e'er hast been;
Be near, O Lord, to help us,
Deliver us from all our sin.

Behold, what love the Father
Hath granted unto us, His saints!
Let every tongue rejoice here,
Cast far all doubt and grim complaints!
O Christ, our good Redeemer,
Who ever makest all things new;
Grant thou strength to all Thy pilgrims,
And by Thy Spirit guide us through.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


when gold is silver
and haggard tremors blast
the willful frame:
a paradox dissolved
between two lamps
and welded back as one.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Break and The Beginning

Well, I'm back at it again.

As Syllabus Week draws to a close, I have figured (or remembered?) two things. First, that this is a personal blog as well as an all-too-often abstract and philosophical one. Not every post has to reflect the era before paragraph divisions were popularized for the sanity of humanity. Secondly, that it's time (after almost two months) to throw some semblance of an update up on the blog before academia smacks me full in the face and I surrender to it the other cheek. The spring semester has finally rolled around, that onerous dragon that's been lurking around the corner ever since class registration in November. If I thought the fall was a hike, the next few months will be a trek up Everest. Judging from a cursory inspection of the class syllabi, I'm guessing that my printer will be churning out somewhere between 70-100 pages of original material between now and May. 

And yet I've never been more excited to begin a semester. I take keen interest in all of my classes so far because they are finally all major- or minor-specific (namely, History and Philosophy, with Geography cast into the mix). Maybe it's just the first week and I'm brimming with an optimistic multiplicity of resolutions I won't actually keep. Maybe it's the adrenaline still left over from Finals Week last month. Maybe I'm  zealously applying the urgency of Tough Mudder training to academics as well. Whatever the case is, the daunting challenge before me inspires a sort of cautious energy. I only hope that a few weeks from now I will still be as minute-pinching as I have been over the last few days; the workload requires every hour to be accounted for. I despise ending paragraphs with prepositions; this is the only justification for the sentence in which you are currently indulging. 

Certainly Christmas break had something to do with this. Those four weeks refreshed and recharged me in a way that prepared me to tackle new challenges where I am. Not much happened before Christmastime (save some good down-time and the digestion of a few books), but the next two and a half weeks found me at different places in Texas and even out in California. The breakdown:

1. Finals Time. There's nothing exceptionally enjoyable about this final hurdle that looms at the back of every student's mind from the first day of class. One must cram night and day for tests that dominate the collective consciousness and distract us all from the joys of Thanksgiving break. Yet somehow I look fondly on those last few strenuous days of the fall semester, not just because of the camaraderie among fellow students who are also slogging through the same thing, but also because I discovered (after five semesters) the right way to study. First all-nighter studying (check), first energy drink (check), first penny on Sully (check---and I had to  convince my housemates I'm not superstitious. Come on, I thought it was an innocuous Aggie tradition.) I include this particular week because it magnified the bliss of Christmas break: the checklist is complete. 

2. DFW. Featuring the annual Christmas tour of the Metroplex, these three days involved quasi-nomadic travel to various North Texas family members. From Highland Village to Terrell to Watauga to Arlington, we covered some significant ground (as much as the awe-inspiring construction traffic on 820 and 635 would allow), and the five cousins spent much of the 28th playing Phase 10, frequenting coffee shops, moseying about Fort Worth, searching unsuccessfully for free parking, and hooting at cheesy '90s music bought from the clearance rack at Half-Price Books. 

In Fort Worth

3. 2013-14 Worldview Staff Retreat. That is, the official unofficial gathering of Worldview staff who worked the SE and NE coasts this past summer. The Southeast group stayed out in Driftwood at E. Penny's house all week, and from thence ventured several times into Austin (namely, Cavender's and P. Terry's), Gruene (Grist Mill and the oldest dance hall in Texas), Bastrop (for the best and most memorable New Year's Eve celebration ever at the Capos'), and Westlake Hills (where a select few of us spontaneously purchased a jar of pickled-pigs feet and sampled its contents with some sparkling cider and chocolate pudding). Staff from Washington, Arizona, Oregon, Wisconsin, Canada, California, and different parts of Texas came in for the week, and it was such a blessing to enjoy the company of these good friends once more.

In Gruene

4. San Francisco. From January 6-11, I was in San Francisco with Texas A&M RUF serving with City Impact, a Gospel-centered mission in the heart of the city's roughest neighborhood. To say that this was an eye-opening experience would be an understatement. We spent most of the week at SFCI's four neighborhood sites, serving at their rescue mission where drug addicts and the homeless receive physical and spiritual nourishment, working at the thrift shop that provides them with low-cost clothing, delivering meals to the isolated people in the local tenement housing, and evangelizing on the dark streets of San Francisco. What made the biggest impression on me was the people's receptivity to the Gospel, which is the only message that actually can proclaim hope in the midst of their brokenness and despair. On the side, our group spent the final day touring San Francisco, and though it is a considerably dark city spiritually, I must say that it is also a beautiful and fascinating place and I enjoyed touring it for the first time.

Jones St. in the Tenderloin

Now I'm back in College Station. I'm thankful for the rest the Lord enabled me to have over the course of the break, and now I'm ready to tackle the valley (or Everest, depending on the point of view). Spring semesters at school are always the best. And May---no matter what terrors the syllabi inspire---is just not that far away. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

C.S. Lewis: Working Both Ways

On the other side of the Atlantic from the mayhem in Dallas---several hours before, technically, but that's beside the point---one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century passed away during an afternoon nap. November 22, 1963 was the final day for three very prominent figures: John F. Kennedy, who ushered in a new era of American politics; Aldous Huxley, the writer-philosopher herald of postmodern civilization; and C.S. Lewis, the literary critic, theologian, and apologist who defended the truth and relevance of Christianity to an increasingly skeptical world.

I was first introduced to Lewis' works when I was almost eight, being amazed that there were more stories about Narnia than just The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (thanks 1988 BBC). Over the summer of 2001, I devoured the Chronicles of Narnia series and, like any loyal book fan, suffered a week of mourning after I turned the final page in October. I then got on this odd but harmless binge of buying and reading C.S. Lewis biographies, which I still have in my collection. As I got older, I read more of Lewis' classics, like Out of the Silent Planet, The Screwtape Letters, Till We Have Faces, and, of course, Mere Christianity. It was from these that I gained a greater appreciation for Lewis' gifted teaching and impact on Christian thought in the world as we know it.

What made Lewis such an effective communicator was his unique ability to blend literary creativity with his theological insight. He was a staggeringly brilliant academic, yet he wrote as a layman. He could communicate profound truths through very simple illustrations. Whenever I discuss Lewis' writings with some of my friends, we find that our favorite element of his style is his abundance of analogies. Lewis makes a point, clarifies it, provides an analogy, and weaves it into a sort of stylistic tapestry that catches the reader by surprise by the arrival of the final paragraph (see "The Weight of Glory").

There's more to that than just an approachable command of the English language. These stylistic approaches represent the dramatic impact that Lewis had upon the spread of Christianity in the modern world. Lewis presented Christian doctrines not as abstract theory without tangible application to reality, but as real and eternally relevant truths that held enormous implications for believer and unbeliever alike. At the same time, he also argued a respectable case for Christianity from an academic perspective, posing challenging questions that cut to the root of the atheistic presuppositions prevalent in his circles.

That, I believe, is what made C.S. Lewis truly remarkable. He worked, in effect, both ways at once. He presented to high-brow academia a Christianity that accounted for both faith and reason, and he showed to the common layman the relevance, consistency, and beauty of a Gospel often rendered highly abstract by theory and ritual. His prodigious reputation as a scholar provided him a significant platform for the defense of Christianity, and his personal experience and illustrative gifts allowed him to communicate timeless truth to ordinary people. One might easily say he was the first (or at least one of the first) modern apologists to present the applicability of Christianity to a postmodern society ravaged by catastrophic world war.

Christianity didn't depend on C.S. Lewis, of course (and he is disturbingly overquoted in our pulpits), but Christianity as a movement owes much to his work. Ultimately, it is God who gives the growth. God used this Oxford intellectual to reach academics and laymen alike with the truth of His unchanging Gospel, and as a result, thousands of people have come to faith in Christ thanks to Lewis' work and teaching. It is this legacy that we commemorate today.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Beauty In Music

I seem to be on a lifelong quest to find the Most Beautiful Song.

Not that I'm even sure how to describe it right now, of course---other than that, when I find it, it would be the sort that I might listen to ten million times without tiring of a single note or chord. And it's certainly not that I haven't heard beautiful music before. There are songs and compositions I have been listening to for many years now that are still as fresh and powerful as when their melodies first pulsed through my wide-eyed heart. But even these I play in intervals, giving them a few months' rest here and there. They do not experience continuous repetition.

Over time, I have loosely identified two basic categories of enjoyable music: that which makes memories, and that which soothes or stirs the listener with striking poignance. Both, of course, frequently overlap. In fact, both of these working together raise the very question of what makes music beautiful. Can a deep, heartfelt sense of longing and joy felt in a piece of music exist without past experience? Does the poignant power of music arise from appreciation of its technicality, the power of nostalgic sentiments, or the imagination of things that might one day come to pass?

For the first category: A host of songs exist that have served as soundtracks for different times in my life. Some of these represent chapters and seasons; some bring back days, events, and specific memories. They're the type that are enormously fun to belt out at the top of one's lungs when chilling with old comrades. Many of these I would never consider "beautiful", but if the nostalgia is especially strong, or if the music has a good catch to it, I might listen to it several times in a row till I get my fix. You get the idea; everyone has at least one song that carries connotation of the past or captivates their fascination with that one guitar setting, the sound of that snare drum, the timber of the vocalist's voice.

For the second category: There are songs and compositions that are so richly written that it is a crime to simply crank them up as background music. Much of classical music falls into this category; so do any stirring, poetic songs or pieces of music that demonstrate technical and creative ingenuity. If I am at work hammering out a paper, I cannot passively listen to Rachmaninoff's "Ты помнишь ли вечер" as it drifts through my earphones. We have Top 40 radio for that purpose. We have things like Russian harmonics for active listening.

So, what is the Most Beautiful Song? I regret that I cannot nail down one particular track for you, though on many occasions certain songs have captured my attention which I believed to be my favorite song of all time. I can possibly name my top three favorite songs and compositions for any given artist or composer, but I must rest the case if called to select one representative of all sonic history. Rather, if you want to really strike my ear, consider these characteristics:
  • Creativity. Don't give me just three basic chords, give me a unique variety. Or if you want to keep things simple (and multi-chord songs can definitely be overdone), stick with the three chords and give me a melodic riff I'll never forget.
  • Depth. Give me something I'll keep chewing on. Give me a lyric that poetically expresses an observation, story, or truth. The song needs to engage me just as much as I engage it. Every other pop song starts off with some variation of the word "tonight" and from there you know exactly what the rest of the song is about. Don't give me shallow cliche and shortsighted sensual exaltation, give me depth. I want at least one line over which I can scratch my head. Artists like Derek Webb, Josh Garrels, and Dan Haseltine (to name only a few) do an excellent job of writing songs with enigmatic clarity, and as a result I spend months chewing on their songs as they play on repeat in my car.
  • Arrangement. Many are the songs that are eloquently written and creatively crafted, but possess an arrangement either unfitting to the mood or undeveloped to the full extent of the lyrical requirement. This is a pretty subjective factor; different songs hit people's ears differently. But there's something to be said about the proper mood. Don't give me something upbeat and almost whimsical if you're singing about God's sovereignty as your anchor amid the confusing darkness of life's uncertainty (I have a song in mind that does exactly this, and it's wretched).
I will never find the Most Beautiful Song this side of Heaven, of course. I suppose that's part of the eternal longing within each of us. We want to be filled with delight over something that will never grow old. But while I sojourn on this earth, I want to take the gift of music God has given unto man and craft it into audible art that pierces the soul, portrays the world in all its beauty and brokenness, and points to His redemption of the universe.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

In Defense of Deserts (And Other Boring Places)

Deserts tend to get a bad rap. So do plains, prairies, and any other flat geographical terrains that fail to satisfy the observer's thirst for grandeur. If I had a dollar for every complaint I have heard about these places, I would be halfway to purchasing a banjo (yes, that's the first standard that came to mind). So I am mostly convinced by now that if these geographic doldrums abruptly vanished from Planet Earth, the majority of the human populace would be either glowingly happy or bovinically ambivalent.

I imagine that at some point in modern history, some heretic began propagating the doctrine that only mountains, large hills, forests, beaches, and rivers may be truly considered beautiful. I'll grant that these landscapes do provide more variation and diversity to be enjoyed by the human eye. But when did this enjoyment become dependent on geographic variation? Mountains, once upon a time, must have been a harrowing sight. They indicated treacherous passage to the traveler and infertile territory to the settler. If they evoked any aesthetic reflection from their beholders at all it might have been with what Schopenhauer called the sublime: that which is deadly and life-threatening, yet awesome to behold.

I have a few hypotheses for this aesthetic shift. 

First, as America moved from an agrarian to an urban society, society placed less emphasis on the value of "flat land" (although, since no one can actually grow cornfields in a desert, this could only really apply to plains, I suppose). 

Secondly, the advent of the automobile and its increased capacity for speed created an expectation of expedited travel, in which one could count on leaving a monotonous landscape within a few hours (though I cannot speak for wagon travelers back in the day as to whether they found weeks of unending prairie beautiful). 

Thirdly, the transcendental-conservationist movement, resulting partly from urban fatigue, inspired writers and romantics to live off the land and city-dwellers to enjoy the great outdoors. Since one may more easily live off the land in a forest than in a desert, people began to regard the woodland scene as more beautiful in this way. 

Finally, there is (and I fear this is weak, but neither can I omit it) the entertainment factor. The passenger must be as constantly diverted by the variation of unique landscapes as he is by visual media, because he is not content to observe the subtle changes that exist even within the plain lands. Western Kansas, for example, looks radically different from Far Western Kansas. One may easily tell the difference. But the passenger, in his hunger for Colorado majesty, looks westward for the first peaks to crack the horizon, yawning meanwhile at the plains which seem to roll on without end. It is easier to enjoy mountain scenery. It requires more concentration to fully appreciate the homely plain.

"Oh, I hated Texas," complained a traveler I once encountered in the mountains of Georgia. "So flat and ugly. Brown, and not a single hill. I couldn't wait to get out of it." (After further conversation it was found that she had simply traveled Interstate 40 across the Panhandle on her way to Albuquerque from Oklahoma City. She had seen very little of my state.)

I understand that flat terrain can be boring. But let us not slap "ugly" on to anything that fails to awaken our sense of adventure. The drive from Reno up through Winnemucca to Boise is a long, 6-hour drive through virtually uninhabited territory. Much of the scenery is the same: rugged hills dotting the salty desert, hundreds of miles of desert plains, sometimes scorched by recent fires. My fellow travelers called it "apocalyptic" and denounced it as the worst drive of the entire summer. It may not have been the most exciting journey, but the terrain was strangely captivating. The afternoon sun through the clouds, the wide open expanse of the deserts, the saltine haze in the distance, the sloping of the rocky hills forming a smooth bowl to cradle Interstate 80 --- there was something hauntingly majestic about this stretch.

Or take Western Kansas. This region also does not seem to be anyone's favorite, yet it possesses a simple beauty of its own. It is monotonous, and I believe that is what makes it more enjoyable. As Interstate 70 carries the traveler mile after mile westward through the lonely plains (which, even in the Midwestern drought of 2012, were shimmeringly green), one will learn just by observation how the inhabitants of this land settled and lived here. Two miles of corn fields pass by, and there is a small village about a mile off, distinguishable by the cluster of trees, a silo, and a small church. Two more miles pass, and here is another one. Two more miles, and there is a larger town, presumably a hub for the local hamlets. Two more miles and the progression repeats itself, while the simple power lines rise and fall, rise and fall between their teetering poles. The summer evening sun cast its golden aura upon the sight, and the fields stretch out unbounded for as far as the eye can see. These flat, humble lands remain fondly in my memory to this day; I could never call such a scene boring or ugly.

I love the idea Paul expresses in Romans 1 that God's divine nature and eternal power are clearly seen in His creation. We should never worship nature, but rather let it move us to worship its Creator. Mountains and green places do not somehow have a monopoly on this inspiration. God called His creation "good" when He had finished, and that means that every place He created bears the marks of His handiwork. Are New England and the Rockies beautiful? Absolutely. And so are Nevada, Kansas, the Texas Panhandle, southern Arizona, and many other commonly despised places. To say that beauty belongs to one region or terrain alone is to deny God's declaration of goodness over His creation. It's all right to have preferences. But before passing judgment on less desired scenery, let us not neglect two very important questions:

Can there possibly be any beauty in this created work, and how does it point to God's eternal power and divine nature?

In the meantime, I heartily look forward to my next venture through the Great Plains.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

In Praise of Print

A few days ago I was sitting in class, waiting for the handlebar-mustachioed professor to begin another lecture on 19th-century England. Midterm examinations were over---in this case, one of those timed essays that account for 50% of your grade---and my classmates, recovering from academic shell shock, discussed their respective performances on the test. The comprehensive nature of the examination, it seemed, had driven many of us to compile brief summaries and bullet points on specific events and figures. We wanted to be prepared for whatever topics might test our knowledge.

And that's when Wikipedia took a beating. OK, it might have actually been our collective nerdiness shining forth in all its book-loving glory; we were all history majors in that room, after all. But here, in the Civil Engineering building no less, were four early-twenties college students reminiscing about World Book Encyclopedia. That's right: reminiscing. That is, fondly recalling the days of the endless entertainment we had with the cumbersome, technologically inept, culturally outdated, wonderful old print encyclopedias that once graced the bookshelves of our homes and libraries.

This reminded me of a few complaints I have about online information sources, as well as my undying love for the encyclopedia on which I was raised. Here's some food for thought:

1. Wikipedia rambles. We're good students who take our assigned readings seriously. But there are times when we just need a quick summary of the basic details. Wikipedia doesn't have that. It's great if you're collecting interesting tidbits and anecdotes, but if you just need reference points in a pinch, you have to wade through a vomitous amount of well-meaning but cumbersome material. Publications like World Book, however, compile(d) information beautifully. Find an article, scan it, get what you need, and go on your merry way. You don't need to exert too much effort to learn quickly.

2. Outdated is OK. I grew up absorbing the 1992 World Book. Every other article ends with "The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991" because it was the newest Big Thing. It didn't bother me that the War on Terror, Hurricane Katrina, or the 1994 Republican Revolution were never mentioned. You have news services for current events; you have encyclopediae for hindsight. Plus, there's timeless information in these volumes---over the scope of human history, most facts just don't change in twenty years. If you want the newest perspectives on these facts, go read a book about them. The encyclopedia is the place for brevity.

 3. Print is educational. I would be a different person had I grown up reading Wikipedia instead of World Book. Wikipedia gets you into a niche of interrelated topics, which is fine---but it won't expand you in the way that an encyclopedia, alphabetically ordered, will introduce you to a host of independent subjects. The Ch volume teaches me about cheese, chemistry, and the origin of chess, with fascinating tables and pictures along the way. Wikipedia might do the same, but it will be less randomized: you click with intention instead of flipping open by accident.

I like Wikipedia. I use it enough that I get that twinge of guilt whenever Jimmy Wales starts pleading for more money. It's fun to fritter away the time learning useful information, and while I never cite Wikipedia in papers (of course), it's a handy way to trace the more reliable sources listed in the works cited section.

But I remain allegiant to the print encyclopedia. In its succinct, readable style, that 22-volume 1992 World Book at home taught me a wealth about history, languages, government, literature, prominent figures, science, culture, music, food, geography, and a dozen other subjects. From the age of eight onward, I was fueled with a sense of curiosity and a passion for learning, thanks to World Book. Could Wikipedia have done the same? I honestly doubt it, much as I appreciate that site. The print encyclopedia got to the point, presented me with the most important and timeless facts, and engrossed me in a randomized collection of fascinating topics. It was one of the best purchases my parents ever made, and I hope to pass the set on to my children someday. And for these reasons I defend the print encyclopedia, because it set me on a course for learning that I shall pursue for the rest of my life.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Chemicals & Compassion

By purely materialistic standards, compassion is an utterly illogical and unnecessary emotion. Its tug upon the heartstrings, its self-denying influence, the spurs it kicks into the apathetic soul---all of these collectively lead to one mysterious question: why? If all we see is a material world, why do we hate to see suffering? Why do we entertain some idea that once upon a time, the fragments of this broken world had a unified past? 

This is an intriguing question. The other day I was conversing with a French grad student who denied God's existence but was quick to admit the innate selfishness of every human being, including himself. When I asked him about his opinion on human origins, Éric responded (not surprisingly) in favor of evolution. "Would you then agree that we are all simply arrangements of chemicals, that we are simply material beings?" I asked. He agreed, so I pressed him further. "Why then do we feel compassion for others?" 

Having read some about scientific theories of morality, I had an idea of where he was heading from here. "If I help that person over there, I realize that he might somehow help me survive," he responded. 

Interesting. Just a few minutes earlier, this man had affirmed that (a) something is wrong with the world (b) because every human being is innately selfish. But now, Éric was essentially basing his entire concept of morality upon the necessity of selfishness, and in effect rooting his idea of good in his understanding of evil

I confess: I played the Africa card. "So what about people who are dying of malnutrition and genocide in Third World countries? It's not going to matter to you at all whether they live or die; they have no effect upon your survival. Why do you care about them, or at the very least sense the gravity of that situation?"

Éric was uncertain about this one question, but we continued to congenially debate the presence of meaning and purpose in life. I argued that without God, life would have no purpose and there would be no moral constraints or obligations for anyone. Éric disagreed.

"I would have to differ with that last statement," he said. "My purpose would still be to love other people and live selflessly for a better world."

"But why would that matter?" I responded. "If other people are simply material beings with chemical makeup, you would have absolutely no obligations to live selflessly. If there is not a God, nothing matters."

This was only a small snippet from a conversation that lasted at least half an hour. Éric and I had a great time discussing Blaise Pascal, Alexis de Tocqueville, Romance languages, philosophy, the problem of evil, the meaning of life, the purpose of man, and the unique claims of Christianity. This particular part, however, was particularly fascinating because it reminded me once again of the sheer life-changing nature of the Gospel and the despair of self-centered existentialism. Without God, there would be no purpose in life. There would be no meaning except that which you make for yourself. There would be no ultimate reason why we should make moral decisions or care about the other material blobs that surround us, no matter how much you might attempt a meticulously scientific explanation.

Flannery O'Connor profoundly captured this idea in her famous short story A Good Man Is Hard To Find, in which a serial murderer reflects on the claims of Jesus. "If He did what He said," says the Misfit, "then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can---by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness."

That may be drastic, but it's true. Remove God from the equation, and everything becomes permissible. Remove Jesus' atonement on the Cross, and life becomes a treadmill. Remove the Resurrection of Christ, and we become, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, "of all men most to be pitied." Remove God's sovereign act of Creation and His divine purpose for this world, and we are reduced to lumps of flesh that wander the earth rabidly seeking satisfaction for our ephemeral existence.

We do not live in a purely material world. We have this innate sense that the world is broken, and our homesick longings for shalom bubble frenetically within us. We make moral judgments and appeal to a standard of Right and Wrong. We have compassion on others, even though they may not enhance our survival value by any stretch of the imagination. 

We are sovereignly created by God to fear and adore Him and to love our neighbors as ourselves, not for our own survival. We live joyfully knowing that all things fit His purpose for our salvation. And that is the only truth by which we may live in certain hope that all things in this shattered world will someday be made right. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Compromise, Principle, and the Government Shutdown

I have recently been rather puzzled by the responses of Americans who observe the political world and pass ambiguous, if not remotely anarchistic, judgments on its proceedings. Two conclusions have I reached about these groups: either they are entirely disengaged from politics, appealing simply to a uneducated generalization about the state of things, or they are so intently focused on a solitary political extreme or issue that the legislative action of even the most partisan congressman may not remotely satisfy them. 

As the abortion battle raged at the Texas Capitol in July, I attended a hearing out of curiosity as to what opinions certain experienced individuals might have to contribute. The pro-abortion witnesses arose and gave their spiel. The pro-life witnesses arose and gave their spiel. Things were fairly polarized as usual, which is not surprising: there is no middle ground in a debate like this. But after some time, one bearded gentleman stood up and delivered one of the most useless testimonies ever heard in the underground chambers of the Capitol. I paraphrase:

"I am the president of a major non-partisan organization" (no specification as to the issue) "and I've been around the Capitol for over twenty-five years now" (so he must surely be a persuasive expert) "and I just want to say that I am absolutely disgusted by what I've been seeing around here for the past week" (oh goody, he's about to break his non-partisan mold and take a stance!). "I am incensed that all of you are here wasting your time and our money discussing this issue" (maybe not) "and I am astounded that this bill has even made it this far" (it's Texas, sir). "I am pro-life and I don't believe in interfering with a woman's right to choose" (that's a contradiction by the way) "and I am just disgusted that there's a whole special session about this, and I just wonder when our government is actually going to do something productive with its damn time" (he's sounding so mad he's about to cry). 

And there you have it---an utterly useless testimony. It didn't sound like this gentleman was doing anything productive with his, er, precious time either. He argued no case and offered no solution. He picked no side and defended no position, save his own personal disgruntled sentiments.

What were the premises of this fence-sitter's testimony? That all of the legislators were to blame for this mess, that compromise is always an option, and that convictions have no place. 

I am sensing the same premises reflected in the sentiments of the American public. As I write, our federal government is experiencing a partial shutdown, much to the inconvenience of sightseers, campers, and 800,000 government employees. As long as neither side budges, there is no end in sight. 

The national response to this rare phenomenon is intriguing. "We should just fire 'em all---they aren't doing their job," says popular wisdom. But I would in fact argue the contrary. 

First, I am reluctant to say that the shutdown is anyone's "fault", not because I wish to avoid treading on  someone's toenails, but because in this context the assignment of blame assumes principle to be a vice. A Republican can blame Democrats for not accepting the GOP plan. A Democrat can blame "the Party of No" for their staunch refusal of Obamacare in any shape or form. Either way, the blame cancels out. One might say that they are both at fault, but since both parties refuse to compromise on their convictions (or personal interests), such a description would be mildly pejorative. Regardless of which party is wrong or right, they are showing political backbone---and political backbone is hardly a vice. Backbone is the quality for which constituents always clamor to see in their representatives. Thus, while we do indeed always hope that the other side will eventually cave to our interests, it seems irrational to complain about congressmen sticking to their guns for at least once in American history. 

This means that your congressmen are finally doing what you elected them to do. You didn't put them in office so that they could compromise. You may not be happy with the government shutdown, but consider that the reason our government is in this pickle in the first place is because at least one of your congressmen is doing his job. 

If you are a conservative, you have probably spent the past several years railing against Obamacare. You have desired representation by someone who is against the healthcare overhaul and refuses to back down from his or her principles in the slightest degree. Now your congressman is finally refusing to compromise in his opposition to Obamacare, and you're angry at him for shutting down the government.

That doesn't make sense. 

Flip it the other way. If you are a liberal, you have probably spent the past several years rallying for health care reform. You have desired representation by someone who supports Obamacare and won't compromise in the slightest degree, and when he or she advocates bipartisanship and "reaching across the aisle", they really are talking at Republicans. You pray that your representative will never get in bed with the GOP on a serious issue. Now your congressman is refusing to compromise in his support of Obamacare, and you're angry at him for shutting down the government.

That doesn't make sense, either. 

So when you complain about the government shutdown and the goatheaded stubbornness of your congressmen, you can only be entertaining two ideas: you like compromise, or it's the other party's fault. I have yet to meet someone who elected their representative to office purely to cozy up with the opposition, and I have already explained the redundancy of assigning blame. To assign blame is to say that the shutdown is the "fault" of both parties refusing to compromise---and you don't like compromise.

Let me return to the two groups of dissidents I identified at the beginning of this essay. One is disengaged, the other is dissatisfied. To say "Let's fire 'em all" either reveals an ignorant preference for the circular logic I have just addressed, or places you squarely in a political position so extreme that even the most solidly conservative or liberal officeholder in Washington cannot appease you. If you are in the latter category, I have nothing to say---other than that I am flabbergasted that, in the thick of this political battle that for every American holds enormous implications, whether positive or negative, you cannot agree with either extreme in this one critical situation. 

I do hope that the conflict is resolved soon. And I do hope that liberty is upheld and that the Democrats will be the ones compromising on this issue (someone must, eventually). But I would want to fully understand the underlying assumptions at play before I use my breath to curse the backbone for which we have been clamoring for such a long time. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

In Defense of Original Thought

I take great delight in perusing (if not flat-out reading) the books and essays written by scholarly gentlemen over a century ago. They appear blissfully ignorant of the paragraph, that fairly modern invention; they use a varied, rhetorical sentence structure, in the assumption that the reader knew his grammar; and they produced a wealth of original material. That is, their writings were not stocked with block quotations to support their assertions.

Perhaps my readers have noticed that I rarely quote any sources in my posts. To put it bluntly, sources are overrated. I have no problem with the occasional quote or example from a book, but let these aids not become crutches for the writer. When one is first instructed in the rudiments of essay composition, or when the aspiring speaker is taught the elements of a good speech, he will be advised to pack his rhetorical delivery with extraneous material to boost his credibility. This is all well and good, and I have found it to be very true at times, depending on the subject. However, there is more to the great speech or the great essay than the use of lengthy quotations to establish authority. 

In other words, I am a firm believer in original thought. Let me first point out what this does not mean. "Original thought" does not mean crafting a special idea which has never before occurred to any mortal. "Original thought" does not exclude illustrations, anecdotes, or examples from mutual perceptions of the real world. "Original thought" is not in conflict with the contemplation of a given source and a subsequent reflection on its application. 

To consider an inclusive inverse of each of these qualifications, "original thought" entails a principled explanation of the author's beliefs as deduced or attained by thorough contemplation of a given subject. 

I suppose this whole thought process has ensued after reading various books in which the author quotes pages and pages of other thinkers in order to support his point. Some of these books have actually been quite interesting and helpful, but it was due more to the strength of logical argumentation than the abundance of quoted material. I should like to see more works in which the sheer weight of the author's original thought establishes legitimacy and trust from the reader. 

I have recently taken great enjoyment in reading a collection of G.K. Chesterton essays published as The Defendant. Within this slim volume are packed dozens of short musings on the most unusual topics: "A Defense of Skeletons." "A Defense of Nonsense." "A Defense of Baby-Worship." "A Defense of Rash Vows." "A Defense of Planets." What is most delightful about these essays is the manner in which Chesterton takes the most mundane subjects, inverts the reader's perspective, and exposes the faulty presuppositions popularly entertained by society. Particularly fascinating is Chesterton's appeal to common knowledge, ideas that, due to mutual understanding with the reader, need no further explanation or defense to hinder his line of argumentation. He makes bold assertions and feels no obligation to back these up with a whole book of another author's ideas. He presents his thoughts, makes his case, and leaves the reader to judge.

Why this shift in writing style? Why do we not find ideas as vigorously defended by original thought? I have a few theories. To establish credibility nowadays, one must quote until his work looks like a mere technicality (see the picture above). This could reflect a multitude of ideas. Could it be that, in the postmodern era, one must vigorously appeal to concrete evidence lest his convictions be dismissed by the premise of epistemological relativism? Could it be that, in an unprecedented age flooded by millions of publications, one must fight to separate himself from the literary rabble? Could it be that common ground is so scarce, and personal experience so varied, that the author and reader may no longer enjoy mutual understanding of things that might have once been common knowledge? Could it be that our individualistic culture has eroded any real sense of "common knowledge"? Could it be that readers are more gullible, quicker to fall for anything that claims authority and backs its position with city blocks of quotation? Could it be that they are more skeptical, slower to fall for anything that does not seem to offer substantial extraneous proof? Could it be that once upon a time, the author stated his case, defended his position with original thought, and trusted the reader to be intelligent enough to decide?

Assertions are glorious things. Let us make statements and defend them to the best of our ability. Let us be thorough and build solid arguments, leaving no stones unturned. I do not wish to be a slave to the postmodern presuppositions which have infiltrated society so deeply as to disrupt that pivotal communication between the author and his reader.