The Paragraph Sentence and Other Horrors

I read a lot of books. I enjoy a lot of books. Because there are so many books to read in the world, I try to focus my limited time on books that are worth reading. That doesn’t mean I don’t read candy—after all, one of my favourite genres is fantasy and sci-fi. But there’s a trend I’ve been noticing lately that causes my eyes to roll and my blood pressure to rise, causes me to snort in disgust at authors and publishers alike.

I’m talking about the paragraph sentence.

It hangs there, alone, pregnant, the typesetting equivalent of those three notes that play after a big reveal on old television shows—dun dun dun! It suggests significance and meaning, but doesn’t deliver; tantalizes the reader, making a big claim that begs you to read on. A cliff-hanger by formatting, click-bait for readers.

Dun-Dun-DUUUUUN-penguins-of-madagascar

It has to stop.

It has to stop because it’s bad writing. It’s the formatting equivalent of excessive exclamation points, of SENTENCES IN ALL CAPS!!!!!!1! It shouts at the reader like a decrepit Facebook user, invites nuanced meaning with all the skill and talent of a lovestruck teenager who only speaks in txt. It’s becoming habitual in books, blogs, and stories on the net (did the bite-sized demands of an internet age contribute to its rise and acceptance?). Like italics and scare-quotes, it uses formatting to stress the “appearance” of being meaningful.

They’re not especially meaningful.

Sure, the words appear meaningful. Sure, their situation on the page, or altered font, invites a veneer of meaningfulness. But the truth of the matter is that their meaning is borrowed from the formatting. The sentence paragraph is a cheat which pretends that its contents are especially significant, in the hope that terse phrasing and special formatting will make up for a lack of creativity, insight, and ability. Instead of writing well, of leading the reader wisely through a given passage, the sentence paragraph exposes the temptation to make formatting do a special work for the writer—instead of utilizing the vast scope of powerful literary tools at hand, instead of serving up a dish of vocabulary, word order, description, evocation, metaphor, simile, sound, and rhythm, the lazy author retreats to a simple emotive trope.

And tropes should be avoided.

Edward_George_Earle_Lytton_Bulwer_Lytton,_1st_Baron_Lytton_by_Henry_William_Pickersgill

The man for whom the dark and stormy night was something fresh and original. Check out his wiki entry for other famous phrases he coined!

Tropes can be useful, of course, and I’ll be the first to admit that abuse does not negate proper use. Tropes can get a story started, can be useful, humourous, recontextualized, or subverted. When Edward Bulwer-Lytton opened his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with the words, “It was a dark and stormy night…” he had no clue what he was about to unleash on the world. The thing to remember is that when he said it, it wasn’t yet a trope. Now, the stuff of jokes, it takes on its own life and meaning and can be utilized to great effect. But when writers excessively rely on these canned features they betray a deep literary laziness, even a contempt of the reader.

It is we who should be contemptuous of them.

Orientalism–Some First Thoughts

Orientalism_CoverAs a side-track to my main research (on collective identity) I’ve found myself reading, and enjoying, Edward Said’s Orientalism. The book is both challenging and illuminating, and I thought that I might take advantage of a few blog posts to highlight things I am being driven to think about. Today I want to reflect on the power that questions have to shape a discourse.

One of Said’s central claims in Orientalism is that the concept of the “Oriental” is created by the West, then deployed in discourse with the Orient as a means, often enough, of political, moral, social, and economic change. To put this differently, in the historic dialogue between “east” and “west,” the west has traditionally held the power (for example, European domination), defined all the terms (for example, “oriental”), policed the discussion (e.g., by means of language and dialectic control), and even granted the right to speak—or proscribed it, as the case may be. In short, there has been an unequal relationship between East and West, and this inequality has been woven warp and weft into the Western conceptualization of what it means to be “oriental.” Untangling this weave is Said’s intended goal.

The very nature of discourse between Orient and Occident is, fundamentally, shaped by Occidental conceptions of discourse, and these forces are in turn shaped significantly by the West’s exposure to the Enlightenment with all the attendant clarities and ambiguities freighted by that watershed. Concepts like ‘rationality,’ the self, what constitutes a good, and the human relationship to the natural world, are not neutral givens in such a discourse. All the same, they are deeply held convictions which stand tacitly behind the Western identity—they don’t merely shape questions, they shape the shaping of our questions. Western identity not only generates a certain set of questions which it brings to something ‘outside’ the west, it shapes the how by which such questions are formed in the first place. A key difference between the west and the non-west is in this how by which questions themselves are formed.

What I am getting at is that these features in the western mind that shape the very shaping of questions in turn shape the shaping of answers. When the west, rich in power and self-possessed of its privileged position, queries an outsider culture, the query itself becomes a shaping power in that culture. First, because of the imbalance of power, the weaker culture is forced to provide an answer—and it must be an answer that satisfies the west’s terms. Second, if the weaker culture is incapable of providing such an answer, then the west (traditionally) provides its own answer. Either way, the answer is then retroactively projected on the weaker culture. Together, the answers given—or provided—come to shape the weaker culture’s sense of itself. This, broadly, is what has happened with the concept of “Orientalism”—it is a construct of the West, by the West, and for the West, which has in turn come to shape the self-perception of the East, often with unjust, flattening, distorting, and even violent effects.

Orientalism_Giulio Rosati The Dance

What I am wrestling with, then, is the concept that the type and manner of a given question can come to form and even alter the subject with which it is engaged. This, to me, raises a question about the etiquette of questions. And yet, perhaps such shaping is inevitable. At the quantum level, we are told, the fact that you have looked at and isolated a quantum element itself changes the quantum element. This means that at the most rudimentary level of relationships, our attention always has changing, shaping power over a given subject. If this is the case, and if I can justifiably extend this to bigger discourses, then there are no situations where I might ask a question which will not in some sense shape the answer. In the interplay between knowledge and power, the quest for knowledge will always, in some form, shape and be shaped by the dynamic of power—whether I am a scientist observing butterflies, a policeman querying a prisoner, or a social scientist examining a cultural phenomenon.

If no question can avoid shaping, then the only shaping that remains is the shaping of our etiquette when it comes to questions. How do we query in such a way that invites, opens, expands our mutual understanding, but doesn’t do violence, flatten, distort, or dehumanize? I’ve not reflected on this much, but I have a few intuitions. First among them is one that says listening will be a key component. Am I attending to the cues offered me by the subject I am questioning? Am I striving to really hear the answer offered—or not offered? Am I attentive to text and subtext alike? And am I shaping my own questions relative to the subject?

Another intuition says that I’ll have to think about the kinds of answers I will accept. Have I considered what qualities will constitute a satisfactory answer? Do I hold all the power in terms of granting whether or not an answer qualifies for a satisfactory rating? Am I in possession of sufficient wisdom to know the difference? Thinking about questions and answers in this way makes me think further about situations of public calamity and cries for ‘answers.’ Those who demand answers hold the power of satisfaction for a given answer, and the one who gives an answer, aware of this, is often afraid lest blame be assigned to them in the process. The questioner is not asking for information, but to assign your answer to a category. In such an ethics there are, without doubt, many more categories to examine and nuances to explicate.

Serpent_Le Peche Originel 2

Fascinatingly, the first recorded questions in the Bible exhibit this shaping power of questions. Following the narrative of creation Eve converses with the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The serpent asks a question: “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” The question shapes Eve’s perception—in this case, diabolically—from benevolence to distrust, from contentment to discontentment, from understanding to confusion. The data of Eve’s life to that point is now muddled by a foreign and dangerously imperious invasion, and in her newfound doubt she is susceptible to its argument.

Now note, especially, that when God appears on the scene He also asks a question. The Lord calls to Adam and says, “Where are you?” I like to remind people that God does not ask because He needs the information. He most certainly knows where Adam is, and yet in asking such a question is it possible that God is presenting a different kind of opportunity? That God does not ask for information, but asks so that Adam can reframe himself? Does God’s question shape the situation as well, offering Adam the opportunity to resituate himself relative to this new situation of disobedience? If so, then the right answer might have been, “I am standing outside of Your commandment.” We’ll never know, but the situation certainly bears thinking about.

Tragedy and Opportunity

The American phenomenon of the “school shooting” has begun to take on the aspect of a recurring tragedy. It plays with astonishing regularity across our screens and is beginning to manifest itself with an increasingly scripted set of responses: outrage, the appeal for change, gun-control lobbying, blame, witch-hunting, and so forth.

Protesters_Florida.image

Photo by Alan Alvarez, the Independent Florida Alligator

In recent months, amid these almost trope-like responses, one in particular has stood out to me. In the face of a surge of (justifiably) outraged people—calling for reform and real change—certain voices chastise, claiming that “Now is not the time for politics, but for grief.” A tragedy occurs, frustrated people call for change, and in response others call for silence, reserve. This chastisement begs an enormous question—if now is not the “right time,” then when is? When is the right time to get outraged over tragedy? When is the right moment to mobilize people to make a difference? Is a day enough? Two days? How about a week? What is an “acceptable” timeline for calling people to action in the face of public tragedy?

Controlling-Puppet-MasterIn a moment I’m going to argue that the best time to speak is when tragedy is fresh, but before I do that I want to be clear that there are good reasons to apply brakes to our cultural outrage machine. I suspect, for many of the people I know who called for “grieving” over against mobilization, that there was a fear of undue, or even nefarious, politicization. There is real wisdom in discerning who is operating the machinery of our collective outrage, and it is true that politically motivated entities are fully aware that public outrage is a powerful tool for political leverage. Caution in the face of such a potential circumstance is surely a course of wisdom. And yet, being over cautious can perpetuate injustice. The only solution is to ensure that, before giving vent to our outrage, we have surveyed sufficient data about the situation. Outrage on the basis of snap judgments is a recipe for stupidity. We ought to read multiple sources, try to gain a bigger perspective, and refrain from blaming ideologies (for example, Islam) until we’ve got a fuller picture.

But is fear of being used the only fear at play when individuals reject a call to political action? Is there not also an anxiety at work? In my experience, people don’t deal well with tragedy, and one of the ways that people don’t deal well with tragedy is by telling other people how they ought to respond to a tragedy. Humans habitually become controlling in the face of our own loss of control. Could it not be that the language of a “period of grief” is a projection of personal anxiety upon the situation? Could it be that anxiety motivates a host of other responses to public tragedies—for example, the desire for a complete explanation (how did he/she get the gun? where were the security services?), the impulse to scapegoat (laws are inadequate, if only we had more guns in schools, etc.), and the satisfaction of blame (he/she was mentally ill, a Muslim, etc.)? Each of these, and the satisfaction they potentially give to the thinker, arguably answers his or her own personal anxiety more than giving a reflective response to the situation.

Outrage is powerful. Public outrage, inasmuch as it unifies diverse people around a common cause, is always politically powerful. The truth of the matter is that if we don’t speak into it and seek to shape it, someone else always will. The appeal to caution, to silence, to anti-politicization, will fall not only on deaf ears, but will result in the judgment that we who call for it are inept and out of touch, that we have nothing constructive to offer, and that, summarily, we can be ignored.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., addresses crowd

Library of Congress. Dr. King addresses crowd at the state courthouse, Montgomery, AL (March 17, 1965)

Speaking as clergy, the moment of collective outrage is not to be missed as a moment for speech. It is precisely at such times that we must speak, and speak powerfully, and speak without projecting our own anxieties on other people. This is, fundamentally, a function of the prophetic office of the Church, where Godly speech shapes and gives meaning to difficult circumstances. Here, inspired calls to action seek to shape, and not suppress, the emotions of the masses. After all, if we in the Church do not strive to speak a Christian voice into our public discourse other voices surely will. If we do not offer a real meaning to the suffering, they will seek their meanings elsewhere. And together this means, as far as I can see, that the right moment to call Christians to action is exactly at the moment of tragedy. Is this opportunistic? Of course, in the same way that a harvest is opportunistic—in both cases it is a matter of not neglecting a clear and self-evident opportunity. Can it be abused? Of course it can, but abuse does not nullify proper use. The challenge is to use our speech rightly. To neglect such speech is to bury our talent in the ground.

So be outraged, and do not sin. Be awakened from complacency. Seek to embody a uniquely Christian solution to the tragedies of public gun violence. But for God’s sake, whatever you do, don’t do nothing.

State of Fear: A Bad Book with a Good Point

State of Fear_CoverI’ve been a Michael Crichton fan since I was in the eighth grade and read Jurassic Park for the first time. The experience was, to my thirteen-year-old self, life-changing. I never knew there could be books like this in the world, and Crichton’s inventiveness, plausibility, and capacity to generate thrills were addictive. I went on to read many of his other novels, enjoying them to similar effect—Sphere and Airframe, Eaters of the Dead and Prey. With that in mind, you’ll appreciate some context, and disappointment, behind my claim that State of Fear is the worst Michael Crichton novel I have ever read.

But not for the reasons you might think.

State of Fear is a novel about global warming—put succinctly, it is about a conspiracy of left-wing environmentalists who attempt to orchestrate a series of environmental disasters in order to bolster their position as global warming advocates. Catastrophic weather events are timed to coincide with global warming announcements so that people will ‘wake up’ to the looming danger of climate change. The novel contains many of the hallmarks of Crichton’s style—mysterious, business-like characters with unclear motives, stooges who die out of ignorance, a scientific ‘feel’ including diagrams, research, and charts, and so forth. However, it is seriously hindered by a farfetched plot, ham-fisted dialogue, and the strange interplay of Crichton-esque science-fiction and what appears to be his underlying message of suspicion about global warming. The main character is a man who begins as a full global warming supporter, is brought to question these convictions, and concludes as a sceptic. A main mechanism for this transition is a series of conversations that Crichton arranges between advocates and sceptics. Advocates, having drunk the global warming Kool-Aid, are universally foolish. They spout speeches about the need for saving the planet, all the while quoting dreamily from half-baked sources and displaying, overall, great ignorance of the real data about the natural world. Counterpoint to such figures, Crichton’s sceptics have wised up to the global warming façade. They preach (with footnotes) data-driven contradictions to the ill-reflected global warming rhetoric. Every single one of these conversations feels forced, and one gets the feeling that they exist as an excuse for Crichton to tell us what he thinks. They are artlessly executed. For these reasons it can be an infuriating book to read.

If you were to read some reviews of the novel you would quickly discover two camps of critics. On one side stands a group who love the book, and they love it chiefly for its suspicion of global warming. These readers are excited that someone as esteemed as Crichton would stand up publicly and publish such an unmasked critique of the global warming movement. On the other side stand the group who hate it for precisely the same reason. How dare Crichton, such an esteemed novelist, publish something so backward, regressive, and ignorant? (Very ironically, some of these critical reviews sound a great deal like the ignorant characters in Crichton’s novel. Do they prove his point?) Unfortunately, both groups are wrong, but not for that reason.

State of Fear is a bad novel because it is ham-fisted, awkward, far-fetched, and obvious. State of Fear is bad because it lacks the finesse, the tension, and the characterization that makes other Crichton novels great reads. State of Fear is bad because Crichton’s agenda—to raise questions about the role of climate change science in public policy—is so poorly executed that it interferes terminally in the telling of his story.

bill-clinton-nba-all-star-game

Photo Courtesy of William Jefferson Clinton.

However, within this bad novel Crichton has a good point to make, and he makes this good point most effectively in the two afterwords that follow the book. The first, consisting of a series of bullet points, articulates clearly Crichton’s concerns about both the ways that we as a culture are using science, and about the limits of our capacity to make judgments about said science. His broad point, put tersely, is that we just don’t know enough. The second afterword, titled “Why Politicized Science is Dangerous,” highlights the well-accepted role of eugenics some 100 years ago. Crichton notes how it was ‘accepted science,’ how it formed national policy, and indeed how it lead to extraordinary horrors. He also notes, with interest, how we conveniently neglect to mention this part of our history. In other words, about 100 years ago something that was considered ‘accepted science’ (which now nobody believes) was utilized to generate public policy. However, upon reflection, the science was wrong, and consequently the policies were detrimental—if not damning (eugenics formed a basis for Nazi extermination of ‘undesirables’).

Short History of Nearly Everything_BrysonThese are points worth sitting with. (It is also, we should note, a point which runs through much of Crichton’s oeuvre.) Recently I read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, a absolutely marvellous little book of scientific history. One of the keystone points of the entire book, however, centred on the limits of our human knowledge. Bryson points out again and again—to brilliant humorous effect—just how little we know. For example, we didn’t know about plate tectonics until about sixty years ago. Think about that—a generation of people alive today were taught in school that earthquakes are caused by volcanoes. A hundred years ago, we thought we knew pretty much everything there was to know about human origins. Again and again, we think we’ve got a great deal figured out, but in the grand scheme of things we’re still pretty much pea-brains. We could do, in our scientific pronouncements, with a good deal more humility.

However you may feel about global warming, Crichton’s State of Fear contains a really good point couched in an unfortunately bad novel: we don’t know enough, we deceive ourselves if we think we’ve got it all figured out, and we should be really suspicious of those things we don’t know when they are turned into issues of public policy. With that message, I find I am in full and complete agreement.

Guns and the 120th Psalm

The relentless spate of mass shootings in America lends itself to one grim, consistent conclusion: America is a violent place. And if there is any lesson to be learnt from one of these recent mass shootings—specifically the one at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas—it is that there is no place safe from such violence. It will enter schools, workplaces, and churches alike, without discrimination or fear.

sutherlandsprings-l

An act of violence inside the Church, however, especially foregrounds the Church’s response to violence. Violence brings cameras, and cameras highlight attention, and attention gives birth to talking points, dialogue, and diatribe. If for this reason alone, where the violence of America comes into contact with America’s houses of Christian worship, the very Christianity of the response must be abundantly clear. Few opportunities are provided to the Church where we can witness that are more profound than when we stand alongside the suffering.

The situation is ripe for a truly Christian response, a prophetic witness spoken in the very midst of a culture of extreme and senseless violence. And yet two dominant responses emerged from the shooting in Texas. Christians offered “thoughts and prayers,” and Christians talked about the need for more guns in Church. Neither is particularly Christian. Neither addresses a culture of violence.

It is clear, with regard to “thoughts and prayers,” that individuals who offer these are well-intentioned. They mean, by the phrase, to assert a kind of solidarity with the victims and survivors of such attacks. Solidarity is commendable in its own way, and yet it is also clear that there is little to distinguish “thoughts and prayers” from the more generic “positive thinking.” And when you think about it further, one begins to wonder if the sentiment of “thoughts and prayers” is properly Christian at all. A comic, making the rounds on social media, has captured this pointedly. The image is of the injured man on the road to Jericho, while an individual—either the Levite or the Pharisee—walks past without helping. The caption below cements the irony: he offers the injured man “Thoughts and Prayers!”

thoughts and prayers

There may be, admittedly, a hint of snide self-righteousness in the comic, it nevertheless makes a point worth taking to heart: that Christian help in the Scriptures is nearly always practical help. When Jesus praises the sheep in the great judgment, they are praised for feeding the hungry, giving drinks to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, and helping the sick. When Jesus condemns the goats, it is because they have failed to do these things. In the same spirit, James 2:15-17 is startlingly specific, “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” Thoughts and prayers, when they do not include physical, material assistance, are clearly in violation of James 2:15-17. More to the point for our purposes, how do “thoughts and prayers” offer practical assistance in challenging or bringing change to a culture of violence? Before you object, please note that I recognize that there are a host of Christians who are offering real, practical help to victims and families of victims from events like the shooting in Sutherland Springs. I am not questioning their piety or obedience in the slightest. What I do question is how our Christian responses to these acts of violence is working to change the culture of violence. To this query, the answer appears to be quite clear that thoughts and prayers are especially useless as mechanisms for changing such a culture.

The other dominant response I heard from Christians in regard to the shooting in Sutherland Springs was an appeal for more guns in the Church. The straightforward logic appears to be that, had there been guns in the Church in Sutherland Springs—armed membership, or armed security—then the congregants might have stopped the shooter before things got out of hand. They could have shot him before he shot them. And it seems clear that many Christians in churches across America think it is their Christian, and civic, duty to bear arms in the congregation of God’s people in order to protect God’s people from dangerous malcontents who might attempt what was accomplished in that Texas church. There is definitely a kind of logic to this—but once again we must ask, “Is it Christian logic?” Doesn’t Jesus clearly teach in Matthew (26:52) that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword?” And are we to conclude that more violence—or even the threat of potential violence—is really the answer to the problem of violence in America? Is self-arming the embodiment of a prophetic response to a culture of violence?

Guns in Church

Credit Pool Photo by Ed Reinke, New York Times

These realities made me think about Psalm 120—especially its final two verses: “Too long has my soul had its dwelling with those who hate peace. I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war.” This psalm seems to encapsulate what it means to speak both to and within a culture of violence. Consider the whole psalm for a moment:

1In my trouble I cried to the Lord,
And He answered me.
Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips,
From a deceitful tongue.
What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done to you,
You deceitful tongue?
Sharp arrows of the warrior,
With the burning coals of the broom tree.

Woe is me, for I sojourn in Meshech,
For I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
Too long has my soul had its dwelling
With those who hate peace.
I am for peace, but when I speak,
They are for war.

When I studied this Psalm in seminary I remember well Iain Provan’s comments on the text. He drew connections between the cities that are named, and the narrative the psalmist documents. For example, he noted that “Kedar had a reputation for archery (Isa. 21:17); while Meshech was the homeland of the Scythians, bowmen of proverbial cruelty (2 Macc. 4:47).” In other words, the narrative itself is designed to highlight the fact that the psalmist’s longing for peace is uttered in the context of a people who are steeped in traditions of war.

Psalm 120 presents some challenging questions. Does the Church fail to speak for peace because it is so inundated in a culture of violence? Has the American Church lost its ability to speak against violence? In the cry for more guns in the Church is the voice for peace drowned out by the voice for war? Is the American Church so in love with guns that it cannot imagine challenging them? Do words for peace, for change, fall on deaf ears because for too long we have dwelt among the tents of the gun owners, for too long we have sojourned in the company of the gun manufacturers? Has our American context become something that prevents our Christian witness against violence as a way of life? Have we had, for too long, our dwelling among those who hate peace? And, perhaps, have we even lost the ability to lament such a situation?

All of this, of course, is simply preamble to a more significant challenge: What would it look like for Christians in America to take a thoroughly Christian stand against a culture of pervasive gun violence? What are we going to do, not only to protect ourselves, but our homes, families, schools, and institutions? What are we going to do to seek the welfare of the city around us? How are we going to take a stand for positive change?

We have two options: we can strive to change people’s hearts (we can preach the gospel of peace), and we can labor to change our nation’s laws. And that, my friends, is going to look a great deal like gun control.

A Failure in Critical Thought–On Christian Support of Trump

There are two reasons to read the Babylon Bee, and the first is simply to enjoy the satire. Good satire, I might suggest, is a gift from God. It allows us to laugh at our sacred cows. Used in the right hands—much like the office of a court jester—it works to let air out of the balloon of our pretensions. It provides a necessary service in self-reflection and self-deprecation. At this game, the Babylon Bee has shown itself almost unmatched, and in some ways has assumed a near prophetic office in the church today. It speaks the truth, even when it hurts.

The second reason to read the Bee is to attend to what happens in the comments. The comments, when they encapsulate outrage and frustration at the satire, are potent mirrors for the inner beliefs of individuals. In other words, you learn a lot about people from their response to satire. If Acts 19 teaches us anything, it’s that if you want to start a riot, strike an idol. The Bee has an uncanny ability to strike our cultural (especially American) Christian idols, and consequently to arouse the rage of a surprisingly large body of Christians.

This was particularly in evidence in a July Bee post about Trump and the hemorrhaging staff from the White House offices. The headline was as follows:

Babylon Bee 1

As the picture faithfully indicates, the article suggests that the president holds himself in a position of trenchant rejection that anything significant is going on while the offices of the White House burn down around him—i.e., while staff are fired in ever increasing numbers. As an example of the Bee’s satire, it probably doesn’t rise above the “moderately funny” category, and yet the response to this piece is, as I suggested, highly illuminating. It was illuminating because it revealed serious flaws in Christian critical thinking—more specifically, the almost complete lack of it. For each of the following responses, we will detail the suggestion which seems to underlie the comment, then point out the problem in critical thought that follows. So, consider the following responses. (Please note–occasionally individuals respond with satirical comments of their own. To the best of my understanding, all the comments that follow are genuine.)

Example 1: “So tired…!”

Babylon Bee 2

Suggestion A: Christians ought to support the president. To be a faithful Christian means to show support for America’s president in some meaningful way.

The Critical Thought Problem: The Scriptures are filled with criticism of leadership—if you didn’t know that, I’d suggest you spend more time with the prophets—in fact, the Scriptures are critical not only of bad leaders, but even of the good ones! Remember that it is Nathan the prophet who calls out David for his sin with Bathsheba.

There is an additional problem with this suggestion, namely, that it exposes hypocrisy. I’ve got strong reasons to believe that the same Christians who are now calling for blanket Christian support of the President did not show the same support for President Obama. There’s a clear double standard at play here.

Suggestion B: If you criticize Trump, it means that you’d rather have had Hillary as president.

The Critical Thought Problem: Formally, this is a kind of non sequitur—it does not follow from my critique of Trump that I would rather have had Hillary as president. Critique of Trump is not support of Hillary, and it is a false equivalency to suggest that. This tactic is an all too common obfuscation in political debates. It’s like discussing the merits of a particular pizza (it’s too cheesy, not hot enough, flavourless, etc.), and in response you say to me, “Yeah, but would you rather eat arsenic instead?” No, no I wouldn’t. Arsenic wasn’t ever really an option for me. And furthermore, your suggestion that I eat arsenic isn’t really a meaningful advance in our discussion regarding the quality of pizza before us. What you seem to be saying is that, because I’m eating pizza, I ought to love the pizza no matter what and without criticism. There’s a name for the political system where you’ve got to support the leaders no matter what—it’s called Communism.

Example 2: “God Allowed It!”

Babylon Bee 3

Suggestion A: To criticize the president is somehow to criticize God’s work.

The Critical Thought Problem: This logic rapidly decays into absurdity, because God also “allowed” Manasseh, Herod, Shalmaneser, Pharaoh, Stalin, and Hitler. God’s “allowing” of these individuals to operate on the field of history has never meant that God-fearing people ought to posture themselves in an attitude of support for the agendas of those individuals. Far from it! We are called instead to postures of radical faith and criticism of these agendas—the fundamental Christian stance is one of prophetic dissonance to the world.

Suggestion B: Criticism shows lack of faith in God’s plans.

The Critical Thought Problem: I refer you again to the Old Testament prophets.

Example 3: “Economy’s doing great!”

Babylon Bee 4

Suggestion A: Benefits in one area mitigate concerns in another. If things are going well with respect to X, then stop complaining about Y.

The Critical Thought Problem: This seems to be advocating that we turn a blind eye to evil—very much like taking a bribe (which is expressly forbidden in Scripture!). Fundamentally, though, the Christian Scriptures instruct us to do justice and love mercy even at the expense of our financial position. We give an extra cloak if we have it, we don’t harvest to the edges of our fields so that others can eat. Economic benefits are at best of secondary importance to moral obligations. The very idea that interest is forbidden in the Old Testament suggests that we dare not make financial benefits the determining factor in our relationships and judgments. Proverbs 28:6 makes this explicit, “Better the poor whose walk is blameless than the rich whose ways are perverse.”

Example 4: “He wants to save unborn babies!”

Babylon Bee 5

Suggestion A: The ends (stopping abortion) justify the means (Trump).

The Critical Thought Problem: It simply cannot be true for Christians that achieving a given end (ending an evil) justifies the capitulation with evil. Under such circumstances, whatever good is achieved will be itself tarnished by the evil actions committed to achieve it. It will be a soured victory. If we succeed in overturning Roe v. Wade through the instrumentality of Trump’s presidency, then at what expense have we achieved our goal? At what expense to our Christian witness? What does it say about our relationship to power? Will we try to force other Christian values on people by means of political power? What meaningfully separates us from totalitarian states? And what will happen when the balance of power shifts, and those on the other side of the political spectrum begin to pass laws that dictate our livelihood? To sell everything in order to defeat abortion—especially by means of one such as Trump—seems to me to be incredibly short-sighted.

Suggestion B: If I criticize Trump, I’m not sufficiently pro-life.

The Critical Thought Problem: This is all or nothing thinking. It suggests that unless I concur with you tactically, we can’t possibly have the same objectives and goals. But this is also patently false. I am staunchly pro-life, but I also believe that if we have to do violence to our moral witness in order to achieve our pro-life agenda for others, then we’ve corrupted that witness in the process. I am also convinced that while we may win legal battles relative to our moral agendas, if we lose the battle for the heart in the midst of that, we’ve lost more than we’ve gained. Social change is certainly part of our Christian life in the world, but always at the service of witness, and never at the expense of it.

The long story short is this: if you are offended by satire, then you need to ask yourself why. There’s a good chance the offense might point to something amiss in your heart. And if you can discover that—well, then the satire will have done its job.

Show and Tell: A Critique of Public Rhetoric

Before I say anything constructive, consider the following four quotes—three taken from America’s Twitterer-in-Chief, and the fourth from C.S. Lewis:

“The media coverage this morning of the very average Clinton speech and Convention is a joke. @CNN and the little watched @Morning_Joe = SAD!” (@realDonaldTrump on July 29)

“Wow, CNN had to retract big story on “Russia,” with 3 employees forced to resign. What about all the other phony stories they do? FAKE NEWS!” (@realDonaldTrump on June 27th)

“Crowd is booing the hell out of that phony decision – place is angry and going wild. Fight was not even close! DISGUSTING.” (@realDonaldTrump on May 4th)

“Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.” (C.S. Lewis to Joan Lancaster, 26 June 1956 [Letters to Children, 64])

Lewis and Trump

I put these four quotes here to highlight what is a growing pet-peeve I have with public rhetoric. Labels such as “Sad,” “Fake News,” and “Disgusting” are appearing with increasing frequency, and what I dislike about them so very much is that they pretend to draw your conclusions for you. Rather than engaging in the work of thinking, evaluating, and then drawing a proper conclusion from a piece of information, these conclusions are ready-packaged right from the start. You don’t have to think your way through right and wrong, I will simply tell you how to feel. #Convenient.

It’s worth unpacking this problem further. First of all, we should note that a declaration is not an argument. Simply because I declare something to be “disgusting” doesn’t make it disgusting. I might dislike it a lot. I might think you will dislike it a lot. But nothing replaces the task of actually arguing for why a given thing, person, or place is “disgusting,” and then for you to consider those arguments and make a judgment. In fact, it is the very business of public rhetoric to try to convince you—through argument—that one thing deserves one categorization and not another. It takes arguments to determine whether Republicans or Democrats are right about the management of American government. It takes arguments to determine whether or not the Affordable Care Act is a good or a bad program. And declarations are insufficient arguments. #Truth.

A further problem is how this trend reflects on our critical thinking more generally. Label-based rhetoric is certainly a much easier task to perform than argument-based rhetoric. It’s far simpler to call someone “Loser” than to actually demonstrate his or her failure. And while it is possible that this is simply a by-product of the medium—140 characters do not lend themselves to particularly deep and critical thoughts—the labelling of emotional responses to a given event smacks more of laziness than of constraints. When I write a one-word conclusive label to cap off a point then I’m asking you to do my work for me. #Lazy.

Related to this, I am reminded of another Lewis quote—this time from his book on education, The Abolition of Man. He writes,

“Can you be righteous,” asks Traherne, “unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value.” St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought… The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeably, disgusting, and hateful. (The Abolition of Man, 28-29)

Looking at things this way, the activity of education is a kind of extended, grand, patient act of show-and-tell. The educator shows—for example in literature—an instance of the best, along with some instances of the worst, and permits the student to draw conclusions between the two. The best of education happens when the student is so sufficiently acquainted with the good that he or she can recognize it in other media. The conclusions will not have been drawn for you, you will be equipped to draw those conclusions for yourself. #Smart.

I think it unlikely that Trump will change his rhetorical habits. But that doesn’t mean everyone else is required to either ape his rhetoric, or cave to the lazy simplicity of labels. In fact, we have a civic (and indeed Christian) responsibility to act publicly with rhetorical dignity, honourability, and integrity. We must argue and not presume, and we must do these things with both respect for ourselves, and for our interlocutors. #Self-Respect.