Music: Myths, Meanings, Messages and Mediums

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

Music and the Early Church

As I’ve been reading Saint John Chrysostom’s On Marriage and Family Life, one of the things that strikes me is how concerned he was about the deleterious effects of pagan music on the Christian household.

Saint John Chrysostom (347-407) was not the only church father to share this concern. In his book A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church, Calvin Stapert shows that music was an abiding concern among many of the Patristics. This naturally included a desire to encourage the church to glorify God through hymnody, but it also involved warnings against the spiritual harm of pagan music.

This concern is not surprising. After all, the early church lived in a world where the line between Christianity and paganism was very real, very distinct and very palpable. One of the chief areas where the tentacles of paganism were most strongly felt was in popular music.

Paganism still makes inroads into the church through music, though sadly many Christians no longer believe music is an area where we need to exercise discernment. They have fallen prey to a number of music myths perpetuated by the godless philosophy of our day.

Music Has Meaning

Perhaps you think I’m exaggerating when I say the church has largely abandoned discerning thinking about music. If you think I’m exaggerating, try this little experiment. Go up to a Christian friend and start criticizing the type of music his or her church plays during worship. Nine times out of ten, the response you’ll receive is not that the criticisms are false, but that they are based on a category mistake since music is a realm regulated by pure subjective taste.

That is, instead of receiving the retort, “You’re wrong – this type of music is actually very appropriate for worship”, the person will often reply, “Who are you to say?” The subtext is often that because music has no intrinsic meaning apart from the words, any meaning we assign to the melody, harmony and rhythm is regulated by little more than personal subjective taste.

Earlier in the year I talked to Douglas Wilson about this. He observed that in most areas of life, Christians will agree with non-Christians that different types of music are better suited to various activities than other types of music. For example, we could probably all agree that it would be unfitting to play a funeral dirge at a barn-raising or rap music to help a baby get to sleep. It is only when it comes to the activity of worship that Christians tend to make an exception and say that any type of music is just as appropriate as any other type.

The non-Christian community has no trouble grasping this general point. If you were to go into a college dormitory and start asking young people to suggest a type of music to assist with meditation, to work-out to, to create a partying atmosphere, to invoke a melancholy mood, to create a condition of mind appropriate for seduction, to hype someone up before a fight, most people would be able to match certain styles of music to these activities with a surprising degree of consensus. But when it comes to worship music, many Christians hesitate to say that one style might be more appropriate for worship than another. While we are all ready to acknowledge that certain styles of music are appropriate or inappropriate for a barbecue, a birthday party, or a barn-raising, when it comes to worship Christians will deny that the concept of appropriateness even has coherence.

Now worship music probably shouldn’t be where we begin when we have discussions about music. One of the reasons we are so confused about music on Sunday mornings is because we haven’t first understood about the meaning of music from Monday to Saturday. We don’t understand worship music because we don’t understand “secular” music, having been influenced by the following interrelated music myths.

Music Myth #1: Only Words Influence the Soul

One of the ways Christians routinely misunderstand music is in thinking that only the words can have a formative influence on the soul.

The very idea that the unique combination of melody, harmony and rhythm that goes into any piece can contribute to the ordering or disordering of the soul, often strikes us as strange. It is almost an unquestioned axiom that only the words contain spiritual and ontological significance.

As such, we’ve failed to take seriously the warnings of Plato and Aristotle on the formative power of melody, harmony and rhythm. In this regard, it is we who are strange, for until the twentieth-century it was universally understood that music can affect the ordering of the soul in ways that are either conducive to human flourishing or which contribute to our disordering. Until recently, it never even occurred to serious thinkers (whether Christian or pagan) to suggest that apart from lyrics music is a realm of complete spiritual and moral neutrality.

Music Myth #2: It’s all in the Ear of the Listener

Ever since the Romantic era it has become increasingly common for people to talk about beauty being in the eye of the beholder with respect to visual art. The musical equivalent is to say that all objective categories we might predicate to music reside completely in the ear of the listener and not in the music itself.

This type of aesthetic relativism works to systematically remove all objective categories from the discussion of music. Christians whose worldview antennas shoot straight up when they encounter relativism in ethics or epistemology, easily embrace aesthetic relativism when it comes to music. This aesthetic relativism is usually always just assumed as an unquestioned axiom – something that is so obvious that it does not even warrant rational reflection.

Space prohibits me from interacting in depth with all the problems with aesthetic relativism, although I have dealt with it my article, “Music and the Objectivity of Beauty.”

Music Myth #3: the Medium is NOT the Message

Still another way we fail to appreciate the true nature of music is in thinking that there is no intrinsic link between form and content. It is routinely assumed that if we predicate qualities like “anger”, “aggressiveness” or “sensuality” to a song, we are either making truth-claims about the words of the song, or about the reactions of certain individuals – reactions that have no organic relation to the specifically musical elements of the work. As such, we fail to appreciate that in many respects, “the medium is the message.” While Christians are generally coming to understand the principle that “the medium is the message” in other areas of cultural analysis (i.e., communication technologies or eating practices), our thinking about music still lags far behind.

This was something that came up last year when Christianity Today asked Mars Hill Audio host, Ken Myers, about various Christian hip-hop artists. In his responses to Russell Moore’s questions, Myers asked us to respect the integrity of hip-hop as a style by recognizing that, as a vehicle, the style is better suited to certain types of words than others. That is, form and content are organically related in ways that Christians are often apt to ignore.

“Music sounds ‘like feelings feel,’ said Myers. That’s why no one could credibly suggest that Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ conjures ‘feelings of melancholy, humility, tentativeness, or ennui.’ And no one could claim that Gregorian chants are ‘brimful of arrogance, assertiveness, anger, or brashness.’

By contrast, Myers said, ‘Hip-hop is quite successful in [expressing] raw energy barely contained; it is a form that dares its hearers to contradict its address with a threat of escalation or retaliation.’ In other words, rap is anything but about ‘reticence, patience, self-giving, or submissiveness.’

‘Hip-hop with a bowed head (or a bowed heart) is hard to imagine; it would be unfaithful to the spirit of hip-hop, and to the spirit of reverence,’ Myers said as we continued talking over e-mail. One cannot, he said, rap the Sermon on the Mount without altering the fundamental meaning of either the text or the form, any more than one could easily perform ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ set to Fleet Foxes’ ‘White Winter Hymnal.’ To use “pious and humble” hip-hop lyrics would be to ignore or denigrate ‘the musical vocabulary of hip-hop,’ since it is a style ‘more at home with a confident swagger than with receptive poverty of spirit.’

Myers was not arguing that hip-hop is bad, or that it is incompatible with Christian practice. Rather, he was asking Christians to respect the integrity of hip-hop as a style by recognizing that its forms are intrinsically more suited to certain types of content than others.

Music Myth #4: Music is a Realm of Complete Spiritual Neutrality

When engaged in discussions with young people about music, I frequently run into the idea that music is a realm of complete neutrality. The very idea that music is a realm of spiritual neutrality would never have occurred to church fathers like Saint John Chrysostom, let alone pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. The fact that such an idea is so prevalent in our age should propel all Christians to think as carefully about music as we have thought about other areas of cultural life.

Part of the problem arises because of a pervasive false dilemma. When I try to talk to young people about the relationship between form and content, people tend to automatically “hear” me saying that certain styles of music are sinful. They think I want to legalistically ban certain styles of music when all I want to do is to invite reflection on music in the same way Christian young people are encouraged to reflect on other areas of cultural life. Sadly, the rich vocabulary for talking about music that has been handed down to us from over two thousand years of reflection is neglected as the entire issue is collapsed into a choice between affirming that certain music is sinful vs. saying that music is a realm of complete spiritual neutrality.

The problem with this false dilemma (musical legalism vs. musical neutrality) is the same one that I identified in my 2012 article about food. In that article I pointed out that there is a whole realm of inquiry that is prior to questions of sin, namely questions about what is most fitting according to the nature of a thing. To understand the nature of a thing, we must appreciate what is the end, or telos, for which it was created, and to respect that telos through the wise ordering of our practices. Too often we want to start with ethics when we should be starting with ontology, teleology and theological anthropology.

Christians often find it hard to embrace a theology of music for similar reasons. When it comes to both music and food, our nominalist presuppositions often rob us of the categories with which to talk meaningfully about the right ordering of nature independent to questions of right and wrong. That is to say, the only objective criteria many Christians recognize for making decisions about music is sin-avoidance, and since sin does not apply to musical choices in any type of distributive (categorically-general) way, thousands of Christian young people are ready to make the non-sequitur leap to the fact that music is an area of complete spiritual neutrality.

Don’t be scared off by all these big words I’ve been using. All I’m saying is that it is problematic the way so many Christian young people are quick to unthinkingly assume that where sin does not apply to musical practices, it therefore follows that the only criteria we should recognize is personal subjective choice. What gets lost in the process is all questions about how music contributes to the ordering of our nature as spiritual and physical beings. What gets lost is also questions about music itself: the nature, teleology, and purpose of music. If we could back up from reductionistic ethical questions to reflect deeply on these more rewarding philosophical questions about music, then a lot of our assumptions about music’s supposed spiritual neutrality would be seen to be suspect.

Where to Go From Here?

Okay, so I hope you’ve got my basic point: we need to start thinking seriously about music. But where do we start?

It is beyond the scope of this post to even begin to outline a philosophy and theology of music. However, I do want to close by pointing to some helpful resources that can guide us to developing a musical discernment:

Next Steps. Get together with a group of Christians and go through Robin’s discussion questions about music. Also, share some of the resources above to discuss in small-groups. When meeting together, consider playing different types of music and then asking everyone to discuss it.

 

Feminism, Commercialism and the War Against the Female Body

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

“And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:23)

“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31)

A number of writers have recently been alerting evangelicals to ways in which their thinking has become captive to Gnostic-type ideas about the body. Instead of treating the body as something good, which is in the process of being redeemed (Rom 8:23), it is easy for Christians to slip into the trap of talking about the body as if it is a prison from which we must ultimately escape. (See the ongoing series we have been doing on Gnosticism and Evangelicalism.)

But it is not only in religious communities that we find these types of pessimistic approaches to embodiment. A theme that keeps reemerging in the wider secular culture of the West is an underlying angst concerning the body. Indeed, if current trends in transhumanism, technohumanism and postgenderism continue, Christians who understand about the goodness of creation may soon represent the last hold-out in affirming the goodness of the body.

Troubled By Embodiment

In her book Eve’s Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body, Lilian Calles Barger shares some of the ways modern women are deeply troubled by the fact of their embodiment. She shows how the quest for a disembodied spirituality has left women strangers to their own bodies.

Influenced by feminism, women have been subtlety encouraged to see their body as a barrier to true fulfillment. A woman’s body, once a source of pride, is now often seen as a curse, a barrier to true liberation as we seek to construct identities independent from the fixities of material creation.

Barger illustrated this in a fascinating section of her book where she describes a conversation she had at a Midwest feminist conference, Barger attended some fascinating panel discussions about gender, sexuality and feminine identity. Afterwards, Barger had the opportunity to have coffee with a young lesbian, who had ‘come out’ at fourteen. Barger reflects,

“It was a pretty heavy conversation, I must admit. But the simplest question was the one that seemed to confound us the most. What I asked, and am still asking, was ‘Do our physical actually existing bodies matter in all this?’

…in our search for meaning and a more authentic identity, our bodies have become obstacles to be overcome. But as we seek transcendence, can we radically sever who we are from the body? It appeared that in the panel discussion about gender identity and sexual orientation, sex itself was wholly disembodied. No references to the body were made except as an appendage to the discussion. There was no questioning whether our sexed bodies provide any information regarding the nature of our sexual identity.

I asked the young lesbian whether she had ever considered her body as informing her identity. I wondered whether it said anything about her and how she was to live. She was ready to affirm that her race was important in informing her identity, but she hadn’t thought about her sexed body in quite the same way. She wasn’t sure she wanted to go there.

Like most people, I have trouble thinking about the body without thinking about the mess of it. It is a complex set of needs, yearnings, and assumptions, overlapping in physical and cultural space, that continually limit our possibilities. In our attempts to transcend our social situation, we do not want our body to define the content of our life whether by race, age, sex, or disability. But to talk about sexual orientation and desire without talking about the bodily field in which they are expressed is to engage in dualistic thinking that will forever keep us from having a coherent understanding of ourselves. As unfashionable as it may be, the reality is the my body informs me every day not only about my place in the world but about what is needful for my life to flourish. How we view the body and our own body ends up directly affecting what type of spirituality we will embrace and how we see our relationship to the Divine. The current formulation of how the body, specifically a woman’s body, is related to spirituality has set us up for disembodied spirituality.

In fairness, the type of feminism described above is only one type, yet it is gaining traction and is a powerful influence on young women. At best, it teaches them that the body is irrelevant to personal identity; at worst, it teaches that the body is an enemy to true fulfilment that must be overcome.

 A Body, a tomb

In hundreds of different ways, women today are pressured to see their bodies as a barrier to the liberation of their true self. Echoing Plato’s statement from the Gorgias (“soma sema” – “a body, a tomb”), they have come to look upon the material body as a prison house from which we must escape. This finds expression in feminists who see biological realities like pregnancy as the last frontier for feminism to conquer.

Even in more subtle forms, however, feminism has left women feeling like strangers to themselves. This state of affairs was articulated by Susan Bordo in her book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Bordo writes that “What remains the constant element throughout historical variation is the construction of the body as something apart from the true self…and as undermining the best efforts of the self.”

Commercialism and the War against Women

Feminism isn’t the only culprit to blame. Commercialism has also played an enormous role. Commercialism dehumanizes us through industries and technologies that democratize our concept of beauty. In the process, beauty becomes unattainable to the vast majority of women; if it were attainable, all women would be squeezed into a homogeneous mold since there is an increasingly limited range of options we are told can count as true beauty. In this way, the idolatrous claims of commercialism turn out to be a cheat: while promising to release our individuality and fulfil our self, these idolatries actually do just the opposite, removing our individuality and homogenizing us.

In Geoffrey Jones’ book Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry, Jones shows that the emergence of the beauty industry led to unprecedented homogenization of beauty ideals throughout the world. The industry thrives on sudden shifts in fashion and fads, which create new markets by disrupting incumbent positions on what is and is not beautiful. Entrepreneurs build brands and markets which define the aesthetic and ethnic boundaries of human beauty. These boundaries are reinforced by Hollywood.

The type of commercialist ethic that Jones describes in his book has led to the commoditization of the body. This commoditization implicates a subtle dualism in which the body is separated from the self. This Gnostic-type dualism turns my body into my natural enemy.

The crypto-Gnosticism of our age has done enormous harm to women, for it comes with a false, yet appealing, narrative of fall and redemption. If our ‘fall’ is represented by those aspects of our body with which we would rather change, then redemption is found in our release from the body’s limitations through products and services that promise to transcend our limitations.

Powerful commercial forces have an economic incentive to continue and perpetuate these false redemption motifs and the ongoing ‘cold war’ against the body that naturally results. The assumption behind these products is that if the body can be released from the constraints of creaturely embodiment, then the true self within can be saved. True individuality is thus seen as the ability to construct our identity for ourselves, to be completely autonomous, unconstrained by the fixities of outside reality, including the reality of the body.

Just think about it: if a girl doesn’t like the color of her hair, there are products that can fix that; if a girl doesn’t like the size of her breasts, there are processes that can change that; if a girl doesn’t like the size that she naturally is with a healthy diet and lifestyle, there are products that promise to fix that and make her unnaturally thin; if a girl doesn’t like her face, there are products and processes that can change that; if an elderly woman doesn’t like her age, there are products that promise to make her look young again. In short, the body becomes infinitely malleable under the dominion of raw will. The net result is that women are predispose to find their embodiment in time, space and flesh a hindrance rather than a gift.

Mass Produced Beauty

The problem with the commercialist ethic is not simply that it holds out unattainable goal posts regarding the quantity of beauty it is possible for real people to exhibit; it also offers a wrong qualitative understanding of beauty. Much of what falls under the stereotype of ‘the beautiful woman’ is a decontextualized, mass-produced idea of beauty that is disengaged from other aspects of personhood that have historically always been understood to play a part in contributing to a woman’s beauty.

Feminism and commercialism are not the only factors at blame in encouraging women to see their body as the enemy. All too often men have behaved in ways that implicitly linked physical appearance to moral worth. When this is combined with unrealistic ideals of female beauty, women are left deeply troubled about accepting the goodness of their own bodies. In the modern world this is finding expression in a growing number of women who do not even want their husbands to see them without any clothes on.

The Goodness of Creation

This state of affairs is lamentable, but it provides an exciting opportunity for the church. Building on passages such as Genesis 1:31 and Romans 8:23, Christians are able to whole-heartedly affirm the goodness of creation. And that includes our bodies. Indeed, the body and all that it involves—hands, eyes, legs, brains, bottoms and breasts—is genuinely good.

Christ could have been resurrected as a ghost, but he wasn’t (Luke 24:37-39). Christ’s physical body was renewed and transformed. Those of us who are united to Christ can expect that our physical body will also be renewed and transformed, not something to be cast off as a hindrance to true liberation.

 

Moral Order, and Wisdom (Nominalism 6)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.


Could God Have Been Incarnated As a Donkey?

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, Saint John declared in the opening of his Gospel. So far so good, but have you ever wondered if the Word could have become a donkey and dwelt among us? Or could the Word have been incarnate as a man and as a donkey at the same time?

This question is not as far-fetched as it sounds. In Stanley Grenz’s book The Named God and the Question of Being: A Trinitarian Theo-ontology, Grenz tells how the philosopher William of Ockham (1288-1347) declared that God might have come to earth an ox or donkey. Other medieval philosophers disagreed with Ockham, and the matter became one of intense dispute. According to accounts left to us by Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), by the fifteenth-century scholastic theologians had moved on to trying to work out more subtle details such as whether God could have been nailed on the cross and sacrificed for our sins if he had been incarnated as a donkey.

This wasn’t just an abstract question for medieval philosophers with too much time on their hands. Rather, it was a question that penetrated to the heart of an entire way of understanding the world and God’s relation to it. For William of Ockham, it was important to emphasize that God has no attributes apart from His freedom to be free from all attributes. Concerned—not without some warrant—that the dominant scholasticism of his day was domesticating God, turning Him into a civilized Aristotelian, Ockham asserted that God’s saving will-acts must be unconditioned by any factors outside the Divine fiat, including the past history of God’s works. Indeed, Ockham insisted that God could even produce in human beings knowledge of a non-existent past if He wanted to, although he never went as far as some of his contemporaries (particularly John of Mirecourt, Gregory of Rimini, and Pierre d’Ailly) in suggesting that God could actually undo the past.

Ockham hoped to combat stagnant views of God’s freedom, yet as Timothy Nonne pointed out in his article on Ockham in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages, “in several texts in his Sentences commentaries, Ockham allows that God could command the opposite of practically any act currently contained under his ordered power. Ockham’s reasoning on such occasions is that God cannot be disallowed from doing what seems to involve no contradiction.”

Is Reality Radically Contingent?

What was lost within the framework of Ockhamist nominalism was any sense of a moral order rooted in the teleological directedness of creation. The raw command of God—unconditioned by any factors outside itself—becomes the only mechanism by which we can assert a static moral order, however arbitrary that order might ultimately be.

This understanding doesn’t exactly leave us with a random world in which anything might happen, where vices might become virtues and virtues might become vices, since Ockham made clear that once God had freely exercised the Absolute Power to create the world in a certain way, He will continue to act consistently in that way. However, this system did imply a world in which the moral and teleological order that we find in creation is radically contingent, derived only from God’s will acts. Accordingly, if God had wanted to, He could have commanded that adultery, theft and murder to be right, while He could have ordered kindness, self-sacrifice and love to be sinful.

The Normativity of God’s Nature

In the first article of this series I offered an alternative to this radically contingent view of reality. Following the realist vision articulated by Alister McGrath in his Scientific Theology: Volume 2: Reality and by Oliver O’Donovan in his Resurrection and Moral Order, I have suggested that God’s will is not the ultimate source of moral values; rather, the ultimate source of moral values is the nature of how reality is.

The obvious objection to this realist conception is that it seems to push God to the margins by giving us a standard more ultimate than God Himself. This objection fails when we recognize that God’s own eternal character is the source from which this rational ecosystem derives its meaning and legitimacy. Thus, when we recognize that falsehood is disordered according to the nature and final end of speech, this is because reality has its source in a God whose very nature is truth itself (John 14:6). The reason God could not have made adultery virtuous is because God’s will, like reality itself, is rooted in the unchanging constants of His Holy character.

If we were to express the problem in terms of the classic Euthyphro dilemma, we could say that it is false that an action is good purely because God wills it, while it is also false that God wills an action because it is good, at least where goodness is conceived as something external to God himself. This is because neither the goodness of an action nor the will of God are related to each other as efficient cause and effect: rather both are effects of the same common cause: God’s own nature. John Frame articulated this in his essay ‘Euthyphro, Hume, and the Biblical God’:

“God’s nature is righteous and therefore normative. God loves goodness because he is good, and therefore he commands goodness in his revelation to man. Therefore in one sense, God loves the good because it is good; the concept is not arbitrary. Yet he does not need to look outside himself for a standard of goodness. That standard is his own character….

Because God’s commands are supremely normative, the self-expression of God’s supremely normative nature, they entail normative conclusions….

Some commands in Scripture could have been otherwise; indeed, some are changed in the history of redemption, such as the command to bring animal sacrifices to the Lord. But the fundamental requirements of the law (what the Westminster Standards call ‘the moral law’) are as unchangeable as God Himself.”


Wisdom and the Is-ness of Creation

In the Apocryphal text The Wisdom of Solomon we read that “the whole creation in its kind was fashioned again from above to serve Your commands…” (19:6). Think about that for a minute: all of creation serves God’s commands. Whatever else this may mean, it points to a basic congruence between God’s commands and how creation is.

Moral order flows out of the is-ness of creation, not the arbitrary command of God. This order of creation, in turn, is rooted in the is-ness of God’s eternal character which remains prior to, and the basis of, God’s will-acts. Since creation is an expression of God’s nature, there is a natural ordering to reality that we can observe and make appeals to. The world is an ecosystem of teleological and moral order, and that order is deeper than merely the sub-total of all God’s commands in the aggregate.

Only with this understanding is it possible to fully appreciate the structural dimensions of sin. Sin is not simply an abandonment of isolated commandments; rather, sin as disorder; a turning away from the intrinsic telos of our human nature.

Of course, one has to be careful when making appeals to the natural ordering of reality. Because we are fallen, our reason and our senses are not always ordered towards their true ends. God’s revelation is indispensable in our moral reasoning, and the danger of a natural law approach is that one can begin to think that Biblical revelation is irrelevant or an optional add-on. But in fact, it is only through scripture that we know that reality is ordered towards the Trinitarian God in the first place, and it is through scripture that we are given full insight on the ends towards which the world is ordered.

Precisely because of this, the task to those who would grow wise is to meditate on God’s commands and discern the order to them, rather than just memorizing lists of rules. Indeed, throughout the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament, we are told that the wise man is one who meditates on God’s laws long enough to discern their internal logic, the patterns by which reality is ordered, the principles which undergird and interconnect God’s various commands. This is a central precondition to being able to fully delight in God’s laws (Ps. 1:2; 119:97) since without this deeper understanding we are unable to fully appreciate the fittingness of God’s laws within the context of creational order.

Getting God’s Commandments under the Skin

An analogy should make my meaning clear. When I was doing my undergraduate studies in music, I had a professor who could sit down at the piano and improvise in the style of any composer we might name. My classmates and I would shout “play Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary [or some other familiar tune] in the style of Bach” and he would proceed do it without even thinking. After a minute or two, we would say “switch to a Beethoven style” and he would effortlessly switch to sounding like Beethoven. We could continue through all the composers and each time he would improvise flawlessly in the appropriate style. There were two things that made this so amazing. The first was that this professor had never played these tunes before in that style: he was completely making it up on the spot. The second amazing thing was that he actually sounded just like the composer whose style he was imitating. How was he able to do this? The answer is simple: by becoming so thoroughly familiar with each composer’s music, he could sit down at the piano and almost ‘become’ them.

If we consider how a person develops this skill, it provides an analogy for how wisdom works. Suppose my goal is to be able to sit down at the piano and “think” like Chopin, to be able to take contemporary songs and improvise on them in Chopin’s style like my professor did. In order to reach this goal, I need to do more than simply memorize all of Chopin’s works, although that would certainly be a start. I would also need to meditate on Chopin’s works, to analyse the patterns within them, to listen to them constantly, to continually practice adapting Chopin’s style to new melodic contexts. If I did that long enough, eventually I would start to notice the internal grammar by which Chopin organized his musical ideas. By being cognisant in Chopin’s unique musical logic, I could then apply it to new contexts and take songs on the radio and arrange them—perhaps without even thinking—to sound like Chopin.

In a similar way, to grow in wisdom involves more than just memorizing raw commandments: we need to meditate on God’s commandments long enough to notice their internal grammar, their fittingness for this world, the principles that undergird and interconnect the vast array of commandments. We must allow God’s commandments to get “under our skin”, so to speak, in a way that can only be achieved through the application of those commandments in our lives (i.e., holy living). Only in such a way are we fully equipped to apply God-like thinking to new situations not directly covered by explicit commandments, even as my professor could take the style of Bach and apply it to new situations never touched upon by Bach himself.

When the author of Psalm 119 declares that God’s commandments have made him wiser than his enemies, and that by making God’s testimonies His meditations he has gained more understanding than all his teachers (119: 98-99), he means more than simply that he could win a game of trivial pursuit about God’s laws. He means that God’s laws have become part of his whole system of thought so that he begins to see the world through the lens of God’s commands. He has hidden God’s word in his heart (Psalm 119:11) like the musician in my example took Chopin’s music into his heart.

How to be a True Theologian

To be a theologian one must give extended loving reflection to God’s laws, like a musician aiming to know a certain composer’s music inside and out. But to achieve that type of depth of knowledge, the theologian must make God’s laws part of himself on every level: head, heart, hands and body. Hence, a true theologian must also be a mystic. The true theologian is the man whose life is devoted to contemplation, prayer and ascetic disciplines like fasting, almsgiving, prayer vigils and sacrificial love. In short, the true theologian is one whose life is devoted so completely to loving the Lord that the workings of his intellect proceed out of an entire life of spiritual devotion. That is why Saint Thomas Aquinas’s ‘16 Precepts for Acquiring Knowledge’  are almost entirely concerned with practical external matters, and only secondarily with what we might think of us intellectual concerns.

One of the benefits of prayerfully meditating on God’s commands within the context of a life of obedience, is that we begin to see the fittingness of His laws instead of viewing them as arbitrary impositions on a neutral world understood separately from the Trinitarian God revealed in Jesus Christ. We begin to appreciate how God’s laws are the natural correlates to the is-ness of Christian. As a consequence, we are better able to take what the Bible says in one area, and apply the principles to other areas not directly addressed in scripture. This is because we are no longer simply looking at raw commands, but appreciating the moral order reflected in God’s commandments. This is essentially the task of wisdom as it has been practiced by saints and Christian mystics throughout history.

Aquinas argued that there is a reciprocal relationship between knowing and loving. If you really love someone you want to know them, but the only way to really know someone is to love them. In this regard, it is no coincidence that scripture describes the nuptial union between husband and wife in terms of “knowing.” Similarly, to truly know God, one must love Him – not in the sentimental feeling-based way that we have come to associate with the word ‘love’, but the type of love expressed in doing what God has commanded.

To summarize, the true theologian is a student of how reality is, and the eternal patterns disclosed in the teleological and moral order of creation. However, in order to truly discern these patterns, the theologian must allow God’s commandments to soak into every fiber of his being through living out the reciprocal relationship that exists between Being, Loving, Knowing and Doing.

Further Reading

A Very Big View of Redemption

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

When we talk about redemption, a lot of the time we focus entirely on what we are redeemed from, which is sin and death. If this is our main emphasis, then our focus is often on not sinning and we may even tend to think that anything that isn’t a sin is an open playing field.

However, we should also give attention to what we have been redeemed for.  But that involves taking an expansive view of redemption. Our view of redemption should stretch as far as the curse is found, which is to all of creation. That means that redemption and New Creation do not just cover our moral lives, as if the goal of Christianity were simply not sinning; rather, New Creation needs to be allowed to stretch into all the little nooks and crannies of existence, to change literally everything.

Abraham Kuyper appreciated this. In his Stone Lectures, Kuyper pointed to the example of John Calvin whose expansive view of redemption led him to introduce hygienic measures in Geneva during the plague.

During the plague, which in the 16th century tormented Geneva, Calvin acted better and more wisely [than Cardinal Borromeo], for he not only cared incessantly for the spiritual needs of the sick, but at the same time introduced hitherto unsurpassed hygienic measures whereby the ravages of the plague were arrested.

Calvin knew nothing of the spurious distinction between the sacred and the secular, nor did he erroneously imagine that any area that isn’t a sin is automatically an open playing field. Commenting on this in his book Engaging God’s World, Cornelius Plantinga wrote as follows:

At their best, Reformed Christians take a very big view of redemption because they take a very big view of fallenness. If all has been created good and all has been corrupted, then all must be redeemed. God isn’t content to save souls; God wants to save bodies too. God isn’t content to save human beings in their individual activities; God wants to save social systems and economic structures too. If the management/labor structure contains built-in antagonism, then it needs to be redeemed. If the health care delivery system reaches only the well-to-do-, then it needs to be reformed. The same goes for hostile relationships of race, gender, or class. The same goes for proud and scornful attitudes among heterosexuals towards homosexuals. Landlord and tenant, student and teacher, husband and wife—these and countless other roles and relationships may develop warped expectations and unfair practices. The same goes for certain forms of popular entertainment, with their tendency to violate taboos in order to gain an edge, draw a crowd, and make a buck.

Everything corrupt needs to be redeemed, and that includes the whole natural world, which both sings and groans. The whole natural world, in all its glory and pain, needs the redemption that will bring shalom. The world isn’t divided into a sacred realm and a secular realm, with redemptive activity confined to the sacred zone. The whole world belongs to God, the whole world has fallen, and so the whole world needs to be redeemed—every last person, place organization, and program; all “rocks and trees and skies and seas”; in fact, “every square inch,” as Abraham Kuyper said.

If redemption is really this big, then we should seek to find ways to bring redemption to bear on every area of life: art, economics, education, architecture, music, and even food. Thus, Plantinga continues:

“But God’s creation extends beyond the biophysical sphere to include a vast array of cultural possibilities that God folded into human nature. Thus, in the ‘cultural mandate’ of Genesis 1:28, God charges humankind to be ‘fruitful and multiply,’ to ‘fill the earth and subdue it.’ According to a widespread interpretation of this mandate (or is it a blessing?), God’s good creation includes not only earth and its creatures, but also an array of cultural gifts, such as marriage, family, art, language, commerce, and (even in an ideal world) government. The fall into sin has corrupted these gifts but hasn’t unlicensed them. The same goes for the cultural initiatives we discover in Genesis 4, that is, urban development, ten-making, musicianship, and metal-working. All of these unfold the built-in potential of God’s creation. All reflect the ingenuity of God’s human creatures – itself a superb example of likeness to God.”

 

Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (part 3)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

In the Mars Hill Audio Journal, Ken Myers once commented that “Indifference or indolence concerning reading is the occasion for many losses: a loss of capacity for sustained argument, for narrative engagement, for personal sympathy, and for the opportunity to lose oneself and then find oneself, in words.”

This observation is not new, as most thinking people recognize that the decline of reading has been concomitant with the loss of ability to produce and follow sustained argument and narrative engagement. However, what is less familiar is Myers’ contention that personal sympathy has also been one of the casualties in the decline of attentive reading.

Think about it. When we read books, especially quality fiction, we empathize with the characters in the book so that their experiences become our experiences. We enter into a world very different from our own but which, through imagination, begins to feel just as real as our world.

In my earlier article ‘Fiction and the Christian Faith’ I shared a study conducted at Washington University’s Dynamic Cognition Laboratory which found that attentive readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in the narrative as if it were really happening. This type of imaginative engagement with other people—in this case, fictional people—enriches the readers’ experience of the world outside the book. This is because the patient attentiveness required to read a literary novel, a play or a long poem requires us to exercise some of the same mental muscles that are employed when we are attentive to real people.

In both fiction and healthy relationships, we need to be able to extend ourselves into the thoughts and feelings of others, no matter how different those thoughts and feelings may be from our own. We also need a capacity to accept complexity and tolerate ambiguity. This requires the same type of imaginative attentiveness that reading literary fiction can help us to cultivate. This should become clearer after a brief rabbit-trial about communication.

Communicating with People

For relationships to be healthy, we need to know how to suspend what we think and put ourselves in the mind of our friend, even when we think our friend may be wrong. This doesn’t mean we have to pretend to agree with what the other person is saying, but at a minimum we should be able to appreciate where they are coming from, to listen to their heart, to imaginatively relate to experiences that may be far removed from our own. Empathy enables two people who are vastly different to share experiences, to participate in each other’s struggles, sorrows and joys.

To be empathetic requires imagination, creativity and what psychologists call emotional intelligence. One example of how imagination helps with communication is when it comes to refraining from assuming that what the other person means is what I would mean if I said the same thing; instead we should be able to imagine things from the other person’s perspective. We also shouldn’t be too quick to assume we know what the other person is trying saying, but should be able to say “Is this what you mean?” or ‘This is how I’m hearing what you’re saying, is that right?’ Above all, we should learn to listen non-defensively in a way that helps the other person feel that it is safe to open up.

John Gottman described this type of listening when discussing communication among spouses in his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fall,

“Nondefensive listening doesn’t mean you need to agree with your partner. Your mission is to try to understand your partner’s feelings—to accept them as legitimate even if you don’t share them. If you can send the message, “Gee, I don’t see it that way, but I can understand why you might, given your perspective,” you will have gone a long way toward repairing the damage of previous negativity. The highest level of nondefensive listening entails empathizing with your partner’s emotions and viewpoint. That means putting yourself in your spouse’s shoes and truly comprehending his or her feelings from within yourself.”

In other words, healthy relationships require patient attentiveness. Healthy relationships require opening ourselves up to another, getting outside of ourselves and entering into the other person’s mind. How many divorces could have been prevented if the parties had only been willing to slow down and work at listening, really listening, to what their partner is trying to say? Such attentive listening is hard work. It is hard work because it requires attentiveness, just like the rewards of reading poetry, listening to classical music, or learning Latin require a similar type of patient attentiveness.

A Culture of Instant Gratification

The general loss of attentiveness in our culture affects the set of expectations we bring to relationships, eroding our ability to empathize in the way described in the last section. From fast food, to instant messages to immediate downloads, immediate gratification has become the norm. This makes patient and attentive listening a cognitively unnatural activity. Instead our brain enters into a condition that some researchers have described as “continuous partial attention.” The result is that our listening skills become significantly atrophied.

Media such as the i-touch, the i-phone, the android and even the internet itself, encourage distractedness, impatience and the kind of hurried and scattered focus that finds attentiveness to anything—including people we love—laborious and boring.

In my Touchstone article ‘Scripture in the Age of Google’, I described some of the specific ways that being online encourages us to be constantly distracted from one thing to the next:

“From animations, to hyperlinks, to pop-ups, to audible email notification, to live feeds, the internet seems designed to be always distracting our attention from one thing on to something else. When we go online, we enter what Cory Doctorow has appropriately termed an ‘ecosystem of interruption technologies.’ Our attention is scattered amid a panoply of stimuli, and our minds inundated with rapidly dispensed, and often disconnected, bits of information. In short, the calm, focused, and linear mind of the reader is being pushed aside by what Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows, has descriptively termed “a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.”

The truth of these observations was impressed upon me earlier in the year when a friend told me that he was increasingly finding that the only ideas people will take seriously are those which can be packaged into a text message. I don’t do text messaging (I’ve only sent 3 texts in my whole life), but I have found the same thing when writing emails. When I was a boy I would correspond with a number of different pen pals, and we would normally exchange letters that were eight or nine pages, sometimes even longer. Now I frequently have people telling me that my emails are too long for them to read because their eyes glazed over after the second page.

It isn’t that people are busier now than they were before. We seem to have more time to watch television and play on the computer and browse the internet than ever before. But what we don’t seem to have time for is the type of sustained attentiveness I am talking about. We can have numerous simultaneous conversations on the computer without any apparent difficulty, yet find it incredibly difficult to have just one conversation if it requires prolonged attentiveness and patience.

Building on McLuhan’s insight that “The medium is the message”, we might say that the medium of text messaging, Facebook, instant messaging services and even email, favors communication that is bitty, disconnected and transitory. When the ‘message’ of these media spill out of their immediate context into face to face dialogue, what we find is the hegemony of the unconscious expectation that communication should be quick and fragmentary.

The paradox, of course, is that our digital devices make us constantly available for communication. We are available but not attentive, present but strangely detached from one another.

Reading Books and Reading People

Developing the habits of mind necessary for reading good literary works reverses the tendency of our digital distractions and cultivates some of the same cognitive muscles we use when empathizing with others. Conversely, cognitive scientists have found that spending too much time on the computer stunts development of the frontal lobes, the part of the brain involved in empathizing and identifying the meaning of other people’s facial expressions.

Aristotle once commented that the mark of an educated man is the ability to entertain a thought even when you personally do not agree with that thought. In my experience I have found that the type of people who can do that—who can put my thoughts in their own words even if they do not personally agree with those thoughts—are often people who appreciate literary fiction and the finer arts. By contrast, those who limit their reading to popular fiction, or to biographies and didactic moralistic novels, tend to be more mentally rigid and to lack the type of cognitive elasticity required for understanding others.

Having noticed this, it came as no surprise when a study was published last month showing that reading literary fiction increases the type of emotional intelligence needed to empathize with others. Summarizing the study’s findings in the New York Times, Pam Belluck reported that the study “found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking. The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.”

Interestingly, the same study found that reading shallow popular fiction didn’t yield the same results. This is probably because popular fiction allows the reader to be more passive. Popular fiction doesn’t require us to attend to the emotional nuance and complexity that we meet in literary fiction and—crucially—in real life. It is surely no coincidence that in the English language we speak about being able “to read people.”

Treating People as Objects

As our emotional intelligence is atrophied, we stop being able to read people. We may even treat people like objects rather than being attentive to them as persons. This can be seen in the normalization of various forms of semi-nudity that have become standard in our culture. A study by Princeton psychologists found that when men are shown pictures of a woman wearing a bikini, the region of the brain associated with tools and first-person action verbs lights up. “And in a ‘shocking’ finding,” the National Geographic reported, “some of the men studied showed no activity in the part of the brain that usually responds when a person ponders another’s intentions.” Lead researcher Susan Fiske commented, “The lack of activation in this social cognition area is really odd, because it hardly ever happens.”

The study had some methodological problems, but I suspect that more rigorous future studies will point in the same direction, namely that the mainstreaming of immodesty is correlate, and perhaps partially causative, to men being unable to view women as persons. Our passive assent to a culture that implicitly pressures women to undress in front of men is the natural correlate to our loss of empathy and compassion. For a man to be interested in a woman as a person is to be interested in knowing what she is thinking, in seeing reality from her perspective. To see a woman as a person is to try to empathize with how she is feeling, to be able to imaginatively identify with her experiences.

If the bikini seems to invite men to bypass a woman’s mind in approaching her body, the internet seems to invite us to bypass the body in approaching the mind. What is lost in both cases is engagement with the whole person.

Flesh and Blood Relationships

The lure of online relationships—or even real-world relationships in which the majority of communication occurs through texting—is that we can act as if we were disembodied and thereby suspend the vulnerability and fragility connected to our body. As Michael Heim warned back in his 1994 book The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality,

“Today’s computer communication cuts the physical face out of the communication process. Computers stick the windows of the soul behind monitors, headsets and datastuits… The living non-representable face is the primal source of reasonability, the direct, warm link between private bodies. Without directly meeting others physically, our ethics languishes. Face-to-face communication, the fleshly bond between people, supports a long-term warmth and loyalty, a sense of obligation for which the computer-mediated communities have not yet been tested.”

In its most extreme manifestation, the preference for disembodied relationships finds expression in men who do not even want to have sex since virtual girlfriends can satisfy all their needs. Even in less extreme forms, however, the ubiquity of virtual communication is making it hard to be attentive to real flesh-and-blood relationships.

The really scary thing is that the more time we spend in front of the computer, the more our brain structures change so that we become unable to relate to real flesh-and-blood people. As Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan explain in their book iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind,

“As the brain evolves and shifts its focus toward new technological skills, it drifts away from fundamental social skills, such as reading facial expressions during conversation or grasping the emotional context of a subtle gesture. A Standford University study found that for every hour we spend on our computers, traditional face-to-face interaction time with other people drops by nearly thirty minutes. With the weakening of the brain’s neural circuitry controlling human contact, our social interactions may become awkward, and we tend to misinterpret, and even miss subtle, nonverbal messages.”

In future articles in this ongoing series on attentiveness I hope to continue the discussion about specific ways that our digital devises are changing our view of community and ourselves.

 

Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (Part 2)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

In my earlier post on attentiveness, I lamented the decline in book reading that has become a regular feature of contemporary life.

Most people realize that reading is in decline, as distractions like the i-phone, Facebook and text messaging assert their hegemony over our mental spaces. Professor Katherine Hayles, who teaches English at Duke University, expressed the concerns of many when she confessed, “I can’t get my students to read whole books anymore.” When English graduates don’t even like to read anymore, you know things are getting serious.

What has bypassed most people, however, is that the main reading problem we face as a society is not simply that people aren’t reading enough; rather, the real problem is how we read. Increasingly, we find that when people pick up a book, they often come to it with the same set of expectations they bring to the internet. Activities like Facebook and Twitter exert their dominion over our minds precisely because they condition us with a certain set of expectations that become ubiquitous and which remain with us even when our computer or i-phone is turned off.

More specifically, our constant saturation in digital distractions is training us to be satisfied with triviality, to be content with dialogue that is shallow, brief and disconnected. In short, we begin to expect books to give us the same buzz that an i-phone provides, and when it doesn’t we quickly get bored.

One result of this is that the actual process of reading has undergone a shift. A study in 2008 by the group nGenera looked at the effect of the internet on the young.  They interviewed six thousand children who had grown up using the internet. The Lead researcher wrote that “Digital immersion has even affected the way they absorb information. They don’t necessarily read a page from left or right and from top to bottom. They might instead skip around, scanning for pertinent information of interest.” The thing that made this study so alarming was that it showed that the way we read webpages—skipping around, scanning, getting the information we need and then moving on to something else—is affecting our thought life even when we are not at the computer.

The internet is literally re-wiring our brains, making it increasingly difficult to sustain the type of thoughtful interplay between author and reader that gives book-reading its unique quality. When we do read books, it is becoming typical to take frequent breaks to check our phone for messages or to go on Facebook to see what our friends are doing. Indeed, everything about our digital distractions militates against the experience of patient attentiveness.

If you think I’m exaggerating, ask yourself or your friends the following questions.

  • Do you find books boring if they do not give you the same fix that things like text messaging and IM provide?
  • Do you find it hard to have a meal, or a long conversation with someone, without feeling compelled to check your messages in the middle?
  • If someone challenges you about your use of social media like Facebook and text messaging, do you feel defensive and find it difficult to engage in a rational conversation about it?
  • When you sit down to read a book, do you find yourself skipping and scanning for relevant information like you would do on a webpage?

The internet is hallowing out our habits of attention because our brains are coming to crave the type of triviality that the internet breeds and feeds. The algorithms that Google uses to prioritize search results and which are being replicated by social media sites like Facebook, are specifically designed to privilege information that is current over what is enduring. Consequently, it’s easy to let ourselves be trained into thinking that what is important is not what is enduring but what is current, fresh, up-to-date and transitory. Indeed, if we are not careful, things like text messages, comments on blogs and emails begin to exert more primacy over our minds than the books which point us away from the tyranny of the present to the stability of the past. (I discuss this further in my earlier article, ‘The Worldview of Facebook.’)

This doesn’t mean that the internet is bad, or that you shouldn’t use the internet to read good articles, such as the articles on this website. But we should try to learn how to use the internet in a way that doesn’t hollow out our habits of attentiveness. The Taylor Study Method recently published an incredibly helpful series of posts giving some practical steps on how to use the internet in a way that doesn’t detrimentally alter your brain. One of the main things they emphasize is the importance that we remain aware of the challenges we face in our digital age.

Again, the real challenges brought by the internet are easily overlooked, since it has nothing to do with what actually happens when we are engaged in activities web-surfing, Facebook or Twitter, but what happens when we are not engaged in these activities. Just as the problems caused by pornography sometimes only become evident when a man tries to have a relationship with a real woman, so the problems caused by social media may only become evident when one actually tries to read a book or engage in a normal conversation.

I was at a party last year where I was talking to a teenager, and a couple minutes into our conversation he began checking and reading his email on his phone. I was shocked by the rudeness of his behavior, and even more shocked when subsequent experience confirmed that this type of behavior is no longer even considered disrespectful. Since then I have angered people because I asked them to wait until we had finished our conversation before they started using their laptops to go online.

As our attention spans are being hollowed out, fewer and fewer people still read books for the sheer pleasure of doing so. As Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan wrote in iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind:

“Young people have created their own digital social networks, including a shorthand type of language for text messaging, and studies show that fewer young adults read books for pleasure now than in any generation before them…. After all, why spend time staring at a dull and stagnant string of words when they could be entertained and informed with fast-paced visual and auditory computer images instead?”

Not everyone avoids books because they prefer to be entertained. For many, books are avoided because they are perceived to be an inefficient use of time. In an age that tends to value efficiency above all else, our paradigm for learning tends to be based (often unconsciously) on the model of factory production in which everything has to have measurable benefits. Taking 20 minutes every morning to read from a book has enormous benefits, but they are not measureable. Thus, many people in the younger generation have concluded that it is better to save time by getting quickly getting the information one needs of the internet and then going on to the next thing. This was reflected in the all-too typical statement of a young man named Joe O’Shea, former president of the student body at Florida State University and a 2008 recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship. O’Shea said, “I don’t read books. I go to Google, and I can absorb relevant information quickly.” He continued: “Sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn’t make sense. It’s not a good use of my time, as I can get all the information I need faster through the Web.”

Maybe we can get the information faster on the web, but what is being lost is the type of enlargement of being that only books can offer. Through reading we are able to expand our souls beyond our own limitations and connect with the thoughts and feelings of others. Sadly, however, the current bestsellers suggest that this is not why people are reading books: the proliferation of self-help books, biographies of famous people and fiction that is pure escapism suggests that the majority no longer reads to cultivate the imagination or improve the mind.

In a society that values efficiency over depth and productivity over quality, it is becoming increasingly hard to let books work their slow and strange magic on us, to let them change us into richer and deeper people. Reading soul-enlarging old books becomes one of the chief casualties in this cultural shift to prioritize what is functional over what is beautiful, what is transitory over that which is permanent and what is entertaining over what is enriching.

The ramifications of a loss in quiet attentiveness also affect the set of expectations we bring to relationships, and our ability to empathize with those we love. But that will be the topic of a future post in this series.

 

Guns and Killing (Part 2)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.


“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:1-2)

Protection Against the Federal Government

In my previous article on guns and killing, I showed that the original intent of those who framed and ratified the United States’ Bill of Rights was to provide the means whereby citizens of America could defend themselves against an oppressive federal government. As Erick Erickson helpfully explained things in his recent article, ‘The Purpose of the Second Amendment

“The amendment is not about sports. It is not about recreation. It is not about hunting. It is only partly about defending yourself from a criminal.

The second amendment is about ensuring a ‘free state.’

On April 19, 1775, British regulars marched on Lexington and Concord to seize the guns of American colonists that had been stockpiled in case of revolution.

It may be an abstract concept for us. It may be distant. But when the 1st Congress of the United States met in 1789, the memory of 1775 was fresh. More so, what they saw as an abridgment of their freedoms in 1775, they viewed as an abridgment of their freedoms going back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688…. The 2nd Amendment, contrary to much of today’s conversation, has just as much to do with the people protecting themselves from tyranny as it does burglars.”

But how far should these provisions extend? When the Second Amendment gives us “the right to bear arms” does this mean I have a right to my own bombs and laser weapons? Does this give me a right to possess my own personal lethal drone? This is not the place to address these types of details, other than to say that if we are working within the original intent of those who framed and ratified the Second Amendment, then in principle the people of America have a right to possess whatever type of weapons are necessary to defend themselves against an oppressive federal government, provided the exercise of such rights does not clash with other obligations.

(As an aside, when I use the term ‘rights’ I am referring to legal rights and not, so called, “natural rights.” Legal rights are based on the contingencies of our current political system as regulated by the constitution. But is the right to bear arms also an inalienable ‘natural right’ given by God to all people at all times? Many of the founding fathers thought so, but I’m not so sure that inalienable natural rights even exist. I explain why in my blog post Natural Rights vs. Legal Rights.)

The need to take provision against the contingency of an oppressive federal government isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem, as there has been more than one occasion in the history of our nation when the federal government invaded—or, in the case of the Jackson administration, simply prepared to invade—one of the states.

Let’s also not forget that most of the major genocides of the twentieth century occurred when governments decided to kill their own citizens, or certain people groups within the nation. Such genocides typically occurred after policies of systematic disarming so that the citizens were unable to defend themselves. (This is a point emphasized in the graphic Innocents Betrayed video.) Throughout the modern age there has been an unvarying precedent for atheist governments to tyrannize and kill their own subjects. Given this precedent, it would be foolish to give up our only means to resist tyranny at precisely a time when militant atheism and secularism are again on the rise.

Do I expect genocide to happen on American soil in the near future? Absolutely not. Do I expect such atrocities to occur sometime in the distant future as America becomes increasingly statist, and as racial and religious tensions continue to polarize the nation? Again, probably not. However, it would be naïve to think that America is somehow immune to the types of genocidal atrocities that have happened in ostensibly “civilized” Western nations. Wisdom requires us to think ahead, not simply to what is probable, but also to what is possible.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I am against our President’s proposals to limit the private ownership of certain types of guns. I am even against the idea that firearms should have to be registered, which historically has been a slippery slope towards confiscations. But that doesn’t mean we should uncritically accept all the propaganda that is being put forward by the pro-gun lobby. My friend Brad Littlejohn has recently pointed out some of the really bad arguments being used by the right-wing community in defense of firearms. To those concerns I would like to add the sad observation that among the pro-gun Christian community, there tends to be a glorification of violence and even a trivial approach to killing, But that will be the subject of a future article in this series. Let’s wrap up by returning to the intention of the founding fathers when they wrote the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights.

Insurrections and Vigilantism?

Checks and balanced were crucially important to the founders. That is why they developed the system of government that they did, based on the division of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches. It should also be clear from the previous article that the founders also believed the power of the people was crucial in this dynamic political balance. They believed that the authority of an armed populace was a hedge against federal tyranny. An armed populace was necessary to prevent the Executive Branch from devolving into a dictatorship since it kept the power of federal officers contingent on, and accountable to, something bigger and more powerful.

Some who have recognized these historical facts have falsely assumed that this gives them a charter for vigilantism. However, the constitutional right to bear arms, and the theoretical possibility of defending ourselves against an oppressive federal government, does not legitimize vigilantism as soon as we think officials in Washington have overstepped their mark. The constitutional right to private gun ownership does not give us the right to start our own private wars.

When those who framed and ratified the constitution made provision for what Jefferson called “the spirit of resistance,” they did not envision situations where individuals would take the law into their own hands or participate in local uprisings, even to defend their liberties. That type of insurgency had already been tried during Shays’ Rebellion of 1786-87, and it was out of a desire to avoid similar catastrophes that the Constitutional Convention convened in the first place. During Washington’s administration a tax protest known as the Whiskey Rebellion took place in Western Pennsylvania in 1791–1794, and President Washington rode at the head of a group of soldiers to suppress the insurrection.

The right to resist a tyrannical federal government was a burden the founders envisioned resting with the states or other organs of local government. Private citizens were expected to keep arms for when the states needed a militia to protect themselves from threats, including the potential threat of a tyrannical federal government.

Let’s take a concrete example of how this might play out in practice in today’s world. Suppose the federal government suddenly decided to unconstitutionally confiscate a hundred homes in the middle of Idaho to turn that area into a national park. Would it be ok for the families to use force to defend their homes? Provided that the direct and immediate danger was only to their property and not their lives, the answer is no. To start killing federal officials in that situation would amount to a private war against the government and is incompatible with the scriptural admonitions to be subject to the governing authorities. (Romans 13:1; 1 Peter 2:13)

Now suppose that in the same situation, the state of Idaho, or even a county sheriff, decided to defend that land against federal encroachment, and then asked the people to form a militia to assist with that. Would that be legitimate? According to the founding fathers, the answer is absolutely yes.

The difference between the two situations is this: in the first case, citizens are taking the law into their own hands, which is rebellion. In the second scenario, citizens are working with the law and defending the institutions established by law. It is this second type of situation that the founders envisioned when they made provision for the people to defend themselves against federal tyranny. For example, in The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton noted that “It may safely be received as an axiom in our political system, that the state governments will in all possible contingencies afford complete security against invasions of the public liberty by the national authority.” (Federalist # 28). Similarly, James Madison noted that “The use of force against the [individual] state would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound.”

John Calvin made essentially the same point in his chapter “On Civil Government” in the Institutes, where he allowed that it is sometimes legitimate for magistrates or local officials to fight against oppressive overlords:

“I am so far from forbidding them [magistrates, or local officials, of the people] to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance.

The Lone Gunman and the Culture of Rights

If we do not appreciate this distinction between a local government’s lawful defensive measures against an oppressive authority, on the one hand, vs. anarchical uprisings and insurrections, on the other, then the intentions of the founding fathers will be misconstrued to legitimize a lone gunman mentality or vigilantism. Within the American mythos, the lone gunman is an archetype that runs deep and has a compelling attraction, especially to conservatives. One of the problems is that this archetype can be easily fuelled by the culture of rights that has become so pervasive.

We live in a culture of rights, where rights are no longer understood in the way our Christian founders understood them, having been collapsed into little more than personal entitlement to whatever I happen to want. The pervasive sense of entitlement leads to everything from our litigious society to road rage drivers feels their rights have been violated by another road-user. When this culture of rights is combined with the sense that government is the enemy, it produces a deadly cocktail that can lead to some people feeling they need to take the law into their own hands. The potential for quick conflict becomes heightened.

For this very reason, we should be concerned about those conservatives who have been threatening violence to defend their right to bear arms, or those who have taken up the fighting talk of Charlton Heston’s slogan: “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.” There were atrocities far worse than gun-confiscation that were happening in the Roman Empire in Paul’s day, but Paul didn’t write to the Romans and tell them to take up arms to defend their rights: he told them to submit to the governing authorities.

Once again, this doesn’t mean it would be wrong to participate in, or even to prepare for, a militia under a dully appointed representative of local government (i.e., a state governor, a county sheriff, a town mayor, etc). To be sure, it would have to be an extreme situation that would justify that type of civil violence, but the Constitution of our land (which is, after all, the highest authority in America) made provision for such situation when it gave American citizens the right to bear arms.

This also doesn’t mean that there is no place for quiet and discreet civil disobedience on an individual level. If the state were ever to require that we turn in our firearms, or participate in activities that would make future confiscations possible, there may be ways to quietly and secretly resist without involving ourselves in open, visible rebellion. All God-ordained authorities are limited, and these limitations are especially relevant when it comes to protecting those we love.

What If?

How should we behave if the above options are not available to us and the only way to stop the government taking our firearms by force is to openly fight as private individuals? In such a situation, would we be still required to submit to the governing authorities (i.e., Romans 13), or would we be called to imitate the example of Shammah the son of Asa, who stood and defended his lentil patch against invading Philistines (2 Samuel 23:11-12)? This is purely hypothetical question because none of President’s Obama’s proposals seek to confiscate firearms. Yet it is a question that we would still do well to consider. The answer would probably depend on how immediate the threat to our lives and safety was. However, even if we conclude that fighting would be justified in such a situation, this is something very different to the bravado of the “make my day” mentality currently prevalent in so much of the pro-gun movement, as scores of private individuals eagerly prepare to fight their own private wars against the government.

Behind the “make my day” mentality is often a wrong approach to violence that is pervasive even among Christians and is fuelled by our entertainment technologies. But that will be the topic of the next article in this series.

For further insight into this topic, read Robin’s other article ‘Why Vigilantism is a Sin.’ Also read The Providence Foundation’s article ‘The Right to Keep and Bear Arms. If you have children, consider buy With My Rifle by My Side: A Second Amendment Lesson from our online store. The book teaches gun safety through the experiences of a boy with his dad.

 

Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (part 1)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

In January 2009, the Washington Post announced that it would be dropping the stand-alone Book World section of the paper’s Sunday edition. Book World had been created in the 1960s and was one of the few remaining stand-alone sections for book reviews in American newspapers.

The trend had been in process for the preceding decade. In 2000, Charles McGrath, editor of The New York Times Book Review, commented, “A lot of papers have either dropped book coverage or dumbed it way down to commercial stuff. The newsweeklies, which used to cover books regularly, don’t any longer.”

A few months after McGrath penned these words, the San Francisco Chronicle decided it would no longer be publishing its Sunday Datebook of arts and cultural coverage, which had been based on the understanding that books are newsworthy. The Chronicle had to reintroduce the Datebook after protests from book lovers, but eventually reduced it to just four pages.

In 2001, The Boston Globe merged its book review and commentary pages. They Globe’s decision was followed by numerous other newspapers expunging their long-standing tradition of offering serious book reviews.

In 2007, Steve Wasserman reflected over the developments of the previous seven years in a fascinating article for the Columbia Journalism Review. Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, commented that

“Over the past year, and with alarming speed, newspapers across the country have been cutting back their book coverage and, in some instances, abandoning the beat entirely.”

“That book coverage is disappearing is not news. What is news is the current pace of the erosion in coverage, as well as the fear that an unbearable cultural threshold has been crossed: whether the book beat should exist at all is now, apparently, a legitimate question.”

“Other papers, including the Raleigh News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Cleveland Plain Dealer, also eliminated the book editor’s position or cut coverage. The Chicago Tribune decided to move its book pages to Saturday, the least-read day of the week.… In June, the San Diego Union-Tribune killed its decade-old, stand-alone book section, opting instead to move book reviews into its arts pages.”

We shouldn’t be too hard on the newspapers for dropping their separate book review sections. Newspapers, like any business, need to make money to survive, and that means giving customers what they want. The American public has gradually lost the interest it once had in reading, and hence in book reviews. This was confirmed by statistics released by the National Endowment for the Arts, which Wasserman cited in his article:

“In June 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts released the findings of an authoritative survey based on an enormous sample of more than 17,000 adults. Conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census and spanning twenty years of polling, it showed that for the first time a majority of Americans no longer had any interest in what, broadly defined, might be called literature. That is to say, 53 percent of Americans claimed, when asked, that in the previous year they had not read a novel, play, or poem.”

Why are so many people choosing not to read? Have people changed? Not really. In the eighteenth-century Samuel Johnson noted that “People in general do not willingly read, if they can have anything else to amuse them.” Although it has always been a problem that people will not read if they can be amused, throughout most of human history people have not had immediate access to amusing things, and so they read. This was especially true in America in the mid nineteenth-century, which I am told was the height of any reading culture in the history of the world.

Things have changed since then, and now anyone can have an internet connection in their pocket and instantly access an unlimited array of amusing things.

Wasserman hinted at these shifts when he pointed to “the profound structural transformation roiling the entire book-publishing and book-selling industry in an age of conglomeration and digitization… Today, the entertainment-industrial complex offers a staggering number of compelling alternatives. A substantial number of Americans—scores of millions—are functionally and seemingly happily illiterate. Many more can read but choose not to.”

He went on to observe that

“the…most troubling crisis is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument.”

“These crises, taken together, have profound implications, not least for the effort to create an informed citizenry so necessary for a thriving democracy. It would be hard to overestimate the importance in these matters of how books are reported upon and discussed.”

Wasserman’s observation that our visually furious culture is “hollowing out the habits of attention” remains central to understanding the decline in book reading. To truly appreciate a book requires many skills beyond mere literacy, including habits of attentiveness that seem to be under assault by so many different aspects of contemporary life.

As our habits of attentiveness are increasingly eroded, the interest in books and book reviews is lost. Yet I hope to show in future posts that much more is lost than simply an interest in books the disciplines necessary for reading them. What is also eroded is a richness of soul, a sensitive imagination and the type of listening skills that are necessary for healthy relationships.

 

Neuroscience and the Reductionist Temptation

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

What a Thing is

In C.S. Lewis’s book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there is a fascinating dialogue that happens after the company from Narnia voyage to an island at the beginning of the end of the world. The Narnians meet a star named Ramandu, who dwells on the island with his beautiful daughter.

When the company are told that Ramandu is “a retired star”, Edmund announces, “In our world a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”

Ramandu replies: “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

That’s an important distinction. What a thing is made of is not always the same as what a thing actually is.

The Brain-Plasticity Revolution

I thought of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader last week when I came across an intriguing article by Dr. Michael Merzenich, one of the leading pioneers in the burgeoning field of neuroplasticity.

Continue reading

Guns and Killing (Part 3)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.


This article is the third in Robin’s ongoing series about guns and killing. To read the earlier articles in the series, click on the following links:

Killing Wounds the Soul

A friend recently told me about an experience her daughter recounted upon her return from an Eastern Orthodox youth retreat. In response to a question about violent video games, a priest shared the experience of an Orthodox military chaplain who had served in one of our country’s recent military actions overseas.

Given the fact that there were numerous chaplains available from other Christian groups and very few Eastern Orthodox soldiers, it was a surprise to learn how popular the Orthodox chaplain had been among the soldiers stationed there.

These soldiers were gripped by the horror of taking human life, and the Orthodox chaplain was the only one who met the men where they were at and affirmed that grief was an appropriate reaction for what they had done. Though the soldiers were serving their country with honor, and though they were not sinning to kill enemy combatants, the Orthodox chaplain understood that taking another life still leaves a wound on the soul.

By contrast, I am told that the other Christian chaplains were content to merely assuage the soldiers by repeating they had done nothing wrong, reminding them that they were doing their duty and encouraging them not let be troubled by their experiences. Only the Orthodox priest had a clear understanding of the tragedy of our human condition together with an appreciation of the pain that death properly brings. By facing and identifying with the sorrow the soldiers felt, he able to help them grapple with the reality of our fallen humanity and experience the healing and redemption Christ brings.

Killing Is Never Unambiguously Good

I opened with that story because it highlights an important point that has tended to be overlooked in all the recent debate about guns and killing, namely that taking another life wounds the soul.

Speaking as a supporter of America’s gun lobby, I find that it is sometimes easy to get so swept up in defending the right to bear arms that we forget what a tragic thing it is to kill another human being. In situations where homicide is legitimate, and even in situations where it would be a sin not to kill someone (for example, if I have to kill in order to defend my family), the tragedy of taking another human life still leaves a spiritual scar on the soul and should never be taken lightly. This spiritual scaring is in addition to the psychological damage such as shock and trauma.

Again, this is something that Eastern Orthodox Christianity has generally understood, though sadly Eastern Orthodox lay people have not always put this teaching into practice throughout history (indeed, the history of Eastern Christianity is just as bloodthirsty as Western Christianity).

In his article ‘Orthodox Perspectives on Peace, War and Violence,’ Father Philip LeMasters writes that Orthodox canon law has maintained “the recognition of the spiritual gravity of taking life in war. St Basil the Great recommended that those who kill in war should abstain from taking communion for three years. Soldiers were not sanctioned with nearly the same severity as murderers, but were given time to repair the damage done to their souls by killing through a period of repentance before communing. This canon may never have been applied strictly, and clearly has often been ignored in the practice of the church. Still, it stands as a reminder that war is not unambiguously good; the taking of the life of a fellow human being is a grave matter that threatens to impair one’s relationship with the Lord, the church and one’s neighbours.”

We might legitimately question Saint Basil’s recommendations, since those Christians who have had to kill are probably in great need of the Eucharist to help facilitate spiritual cleansing. This may be why the church has never strictly applied this canon. Nevertheless, it stands as a reminder that all killing, even when it is ethically justified, leaves behind spiritual scar tissue.

Father Philip LeMasters went on to explain how the Biblical doctrine of deification (theosis) lay behind the Orthodox understanding that killing is never unambiguously good:

“The vocation of humanity is for deification, participation in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity. Human beings are to become by grace all that God is by nature. A common image for theosis is an iron left in a fire until it takes on the qualities of the fire. It then glows red hot and transmits heat to anything that it touches. Likewise, human beings are called to shine with the light and life of God, to participate fully in the healing and fulfillment that the incarnate Son of God has brought to the world. All are called to embrace and be transformed by the holiness of God, to become saints.

“In this light, it is not hard to see why warfare, and any taking of human life, is fraught with spiritual peril. Death comes into the world as the result of sin. Christ has come to conquer death, to raise humanity to the eternal life for which humanity was created. To kill a human being is to do the work of death, to involve oneself in a paradigmatic act of spiritual brokenness and of estrangement from God and neighbour. Granted, some instances of killing may be tragically necessary, such as the actions of a soldier in defending his or her nation from invasion by a conquering power. Killing in such circumstances may be understood in light of the Orthodox category of ‘involuntary sin’, which includes actions that damage the soul despite the fact that they are done without malice and out of necessity. The church knows that killing does not have to be murder for it to be spiritually damaging.”

Trivializing Violence

To affirm the damage that killing does to the soul is separate to the issue of whether killing is justified or sinful in any given situation.

As I talk to Christians about various ethical issues, one of the things I find frustrating (and which I wrote about last year) is that people are often unable to talk about the right ordering of human behavior outside the narrow categories of right and wrong or sin. The standard assumption is often that if a thing is not explicitly sinful, then it is fitting in every sense and can be unambiguously embraced.

When this simplistic approach to ethics is applied to the question of killing, this often results in Christian gun activists feeling justified in trivializing, and sometimes even glorifying, the tragedy of killing.  In the rest of this article I wish to examine three areas where I see this happening.

“Go ahead, make my day”

One area where individuals within the pro-gun lobby have been guilty of encouraging a culture of violence can be seen in the “make my day” bravado that I briefly touched upon towards the end of my previous article.

Ever since President Obama began discussing tighter gun control laws, numerous individuals have been threatening the government with a “come and get me” attitude, as epitomized by the slogan “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

If this type of approach is not sufficiently balanced with a proper understanding about the tragedy of killing, then it gives the gun lobby a bad name, for it suggests they are trigger-happy and rearing for a fight.

Sadly, I have personal experience with gun activists who adopt this trigger happy approach. Just last month I was at a meeting about guns and afterwards a friend told me that he had come within an inch of shooting a man he considered a threat, even though the man hadn’t actually pulled a gun on him or even reached for it. When I questioned my friend further about it, he said he would have been perfectly justified to kill this person because of a threatening email he had sent. I wish I could say that this trigger-happy approach is an anomaly, but sadly it is not.

Pacifism vs. non-violence

Earlier I made it clear that I am not a pacifist. But that doesn’t mean I am against non-violent solutions to problems. Just as a person need not be a vegetarian to recognize that it is sometimes preferable to abstain from meet, so a person does not need to be a pacifist to recognize that sometimes non-violence is the preferable option. This is because there is a difference between pacifism as an ideology and strategic non-violence.

In the early church, non-violence was widely practiced. Martyrs like Saint Ignatius, Saint Justin Martyr and many others looked upon it as an honor to die for Christ and they even turned down opportunities to escape or defend themselves. However, the early church never crystalized the practice of non-violence into a rigid ideology. If they had, then we would expect to see men like Saint John the Baptist and Saint Paul telling Roman soldiers to forsake the army. Instead, these teachers instructed soldiers to serve God within the army.

In American society, the opportunities to testify for Christ through non-violence will obviously be less than in the early church. This is because our society expects citizens to help keep our communities safe, and everyone has a statutory duty to intervene to protect law and order. While this is a blessing, it can make it easy to overlook the fact that sometimes the most powerful way to submit to Christ is to endure violence without resistance. At the heart of our faith stands the cross, where Jesus Himself willingly surrendered to his attackers instead of engaged in accts of self-defense.

Again, as I talk to different Christians within the pro-gun lobby, I find a reluctance to acknowledge the legitimacy of non-violence. This perspective was encapsulated by one Christian teacher who wrote on the internet that failure to defend oneself makes a person complicit in his own suicide. By that standard, Jesus Himself was a murderer.

Violent Entertainment Technologies

A final area where individuals within the gun lobby perpetuate a culture of violence is in the approach they take to violent entertainment, especially computer games.

I realize I am generalizing here, but in North Idaho where I live, being pro-gun often goes hand in hand with an ambivalence concerning the damage caused by violent computer games. Some Christian parents even encourage their sons to play violent first-person shooters in order to help toughen them up. But violent computer games do not simply make children tough: it makes them hardened, desensitized to the tragedy of death, and sometimes even brutal.

Kiku Adatto, author of the book Picture Perfect: Life in the Age of the Photo Op, recounted an intriguing incident that underscores this concern. In an interview with Ken Myers for the Mars Hill Audio Journal 96, Adatto related the following:

“Another very troubling point is a story that one of my students told me, somebody in their mid-twenties who was fighting in Iraq and he was leading a group of troops and he was very concerned that they would be afraid maybe to fire their guns, the horror of war. And he discovered just the opposite, that everybody was quite trigger-happy and quite eager to shoot. And he attributed that to the pervasive use of video games, and playing video games for this generation, watching these increasingly violent movies as well as violent video games.”

In a future article I will explore some of the specific evidence linking violent computer games to desensitization. For now, I’d like to simply suggest that the solution to all three of the problems I have explored (the “make my day” mentality, the rejection of strategic non-violence, and the uncritical embrace of violent computer games) is a recovery of the Orthodox teaching that killing is never unambiguously good and inevitably scars the human soul.