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.

The “Church of Social Justice” and the Inner Ring

Years ago, my wife read Boundaries, that classic book on interpersonal relationships by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. As often happens in marriage, my lovely bride wanted me to understand her more fully, and so she asked me to read the book as well. The opening chapter described a “day in the life” of an un-boundaried person, and I will never forget my incomprehensible response to that description: “Why would anyone live this way?” I was overwhelmed with a tragi-comic sense of disbelief that anyone would struggle to say ‘no’ in a way that so catastrophically inconvenienced his or her life.

I recall that experience because I had a similar reaction to an article I encountered this past month, called “Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice.” The piece, written by one Frances Lee, a self-identified QTPOC (Queer Transgender Person of Colour who prefers the personal pronoun “they”), documents the angst and anxiety of life within the social justice movement. That piece had, to me, the same tragi-comic flavour—tragic, because the account of the insider life of a social justice advocate sounds horrible; comic, because I simply can’t imagine ever choosing to live that way.

Mexican Vegetables_Rogaz Gugus

Photo by Rogaz Gugus, from Flickr.

“It is a terrible thing,” Lee writes, “to be afraid of my own community members.” Why the fear? Lee is formally an insider by virtue of his/her/their gender and sexual identity. Furthermore, Lee is clear about his/her/their formal alignment to the critical list of modern causes, expressed in a desire to “obliterate white supremacy, anti-blackness, cisheteropatriarchy, ableism, capitalism, and imperialism.” What is the source of the fear, then? Lee writes:

It is the fear of appearing impure. Social death follows when being labeled a “bad” activist or simply “problematic” enough times. I’ve had countless hushed conversations with friends about this anxiety, and how it has led us to refrain from participation in activist events, conversations, and spaces because we feel inadequately radical.

It is, then, the fear of inadequate radicality—the fear of misalignment at the core of a given issue which is, de facto, defined by the experience of the other who holds all of the markers that define the cause. It is, presumably, the fear that generates strings of letters like LGBTTQQIAAP (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual)—which seem grounded in the horror that a category might possibly be left out. In response to this fear, Lee writes, “I am always ready to apologize for anything I do that a community member deems wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate—no questions asked.” This is a horror to me, simply because it doesn’t describe a relationship so much as a tyranny—the tyranny, in this case, of the self-identity of the offended which produces not so much a relationship as a hostage situation.

Neglecting these declarations bears real repercussions, such that “Punishments for saying/doing/believing the wrong thing include shaming, scolding, calling out, isolating, or eviscerating someone’s social standing.” You are either in, or out, and this is primarily because, Lee suggests, “dogmatic activism creates an environment that encourages people to tell other people what to do.” The end result, Lee reflects, is that “The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous. Activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included.”

Wild Swans CoverAs I read—and as I’ve thought about it over the past few weeks—my mind has gone to two places. The first was to remember Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, which is the story of her life, her mother’s life, and her grandmother’s life as they span the events in China from before the revolution to the present day. Poignant in my memories from that book are her descriptions of her mother’s life during the Cultural Revolution, when everyday citizens had to labour to prove themselves sufficiently proletarian, to mask all vestiges of bourgeois identity. She documents how Chinese under Mao plucked grass by hand from outside their homes because grass itself was considered excessively bourgeois. In the midst of these horrors Chang recounts the system whereby one citizen could denounce another with an accusation of bourgeois sentiments or activities and destroy that person’s home, family, and livelihood in the process.

The second place my mind has gone is to C.S. Lewis’s essay, “The Inner Ring.” There, Lewis describes the social phenomenon of insiders and outsiders, and especially insiders and outsiders where the key identity markers of a group is that “we” exist by virtue of a “them.” And yet within this the boundaries for what marks inside and outside are not necessarily clear. A given individual has a clear sense that certain people are “in the know,” that he is not one of those in the know, and that he must do all he can to get himself in the good graces of those in the know so that he can be part of the inner ring himself. And yet even these boundaries are unclear, because there is always a ring within the ring, a circle within the circle, where the mystic source of true power lies. It is an image of community that is in fact a pure expression of hellish divisiveness. It is also a picture that Lewis puts to powerful effect in his novel, That Hideous Strength.

The correlation between Mao’s China, Lewis’s Inner Ring, and Lee’s “church of social justice” are hopefully clear. They are also ironic. In all three situations, groups with the ostensible purpose of coming together for some greater good (political, institutional, social) by virtue of their subjective nature in fact perform the opposite of that good. In the process, the mechanics by which humans collaborate are utilized hellishly, so fellowship collapses into fear, understanding gives way to uncertainty, and identity into fractiousness. To further this irony, Lee’s title suggests that his/her/their experiences of insider activist life correlate to an experience of the church, and this is teased out with references to dogma, purity, and the like. However, if you read the article (and I think you should), I think you’ll find that the metaphor simply doesn’t play out. Lee’s experience correlates to no church that I’ve ever known or experienced, and perhaps only marginally to some churches I’ve heard about in certain horror stories. And yet, Lee’s experience within social justice activism (as testified by comments on the piece) appears to resonate strongly with a broad range of likeminded people. Lee’s experience, while apparently normative for social justice, is abnormal for the church (and when it does happen the church has recourse to call it out and correct it).

Fractured Glass_Brenda Gottsabend

Photo by Brenda Gottsabend, from Flickr.

I suspect that the key difference between the church of social justice and that of Jesus Christ is one of subjectivism and objectivism. On a subjective scale of values, the “other” always holds the cards of self-definition, issue-definition, and, of course, authority on a given narrative of pain or injustice. On an objective scale of values, a given thing external to both you and me becomes the standard by which actions and persons are judged. For Christian communities, this external thing ought to be the Scriptures and Tradition, and it seems clear that when churches slip into the kind of aberrant inner-ring, witch hunting relationships, it does so by ignoring the objective standards and projecting a subjective one on others.

“This is what the Lord says,” cries Jeremiah (6:16), “Stop at the crossroads and look around. Ask for the old, godly way, and walk in it. Travel its path, and you will find rest for your souls.” For a given issue, I have my marching orders—seek the ancient, godly path and walk in it. I need no anxiety, no nail-biting, no fear that I am conforming to the subjective projections of my peers, because, fundamentally, they too are called to seek those ancient paths, and, in fact, we are called to walk them together. In that mutual walking, we have common recourse to our text and tradition; these sources help us to adjudicate any and all disagreements. Of course, we can always ignore God’s ways—something that Jeremiah goes on explicitly to say in the very next phrase. He finishes (or rather the Lord finishes), “But you reply, ‘No, that’s not the road we want!’”

I’m grateful, for what it’s worth, to have been given the opportunity to see the inside of Lee’s world for this short time, if only because our world is increasingly divided and siloed. In this, my intention has not been to pass judgment, but simply to reflect upon and identify what is the tragic, strange world which many of my more liberal friends appear to inhabit. I find in them an admirable, rich desire for justice. And yet, to their desire, a question remains: “Which Justice?” If you give an objective answer—one that stands in judgment over both you and I in equal measure—then that objective judgment has become in that moment tyrannical and oppressive, if only in regard to the injustice of our previous thoughts and actions. There can be no justice, in other words, without power, some kind of domination, and without an objective standard with which to negotiate these activities. And this, for my liberally minded peers, may be the greatest tragedy of all—that the further they move from the Author of justice, the further their desire extends beyond their reach.

Dear James (D)–The Slanted Gaze of Envy

Dear James,

There are two errors against which we must maintain our vigilance. The first is in rejecting outright the insights of Medieval Catholicism—to do this is to commit the “chronological snobbery” of which our friend Lewis wrote so eloquently. But the other, and opposite, error is to over-romanticize the medieval period. It seems to happen, often enough, that once a person gets a taste for a different worldview—one that can challenge his own with some effectiveness—he can begin to uncritically accept the whole of that other worldview and become blind to its inherent shortcomings. What I’m saying is that we’ve got to resist the urge to label certain time periods as “golden eras.” No such times exist—there are only present moments, and while we ought to view these present moments through the corrective lens of the past, we must never permit our love for old things to take us away from our duties in the present.

The whole idea of golden eras seems to me to be rooted in Envy. When I long for another time period I am commonly “looking over the fence” at some other era, which from the light of my present circumstances appears far greener and more lush. Perhaps I like the 1940s-60s, especially because it was a heyday for publishing. Or maybe I favor Pre-Reformation Europe simply because the reality of Christendom was an undisputed fact. Or perhaps any era but our own for how clergy were viewed by congregants and society alike! But the thing to note about such envious gazes is that we always choose the favorable and ignore the difficulties. Our sight is slanted. Perceiving a present difficulty (for example, in publishing, Christian identity, or clergy relations), some other era appeals on the simple basis that, to my understanding, in that era there was no such difficulty. What this ignores is that the figures from those eras were troubled by other, significant problems! Envy, in these circumstances, is tantamount to grumbling about my present problems.

I am reminded that the Israelites grumble when coming out of Egypt—they’re free from slavery, but they aren’t happy because they don’t have the cucumbers of Egypt! They’ve taken a present difficulty (a certain kind of hunger), and are looking now slant-eyed at the past (at least we were full, there!). Envy involves a distortion of vision—we no longer look at the world properly. In Envy we are blinded to the goodness of God in the present because we’re too busy longing for the things of the past, or the things possessed by others. In this way, Envy and ingratitude are the same. Envy also destroys our practical obedience. We’ve each got tasks to do in the present—a call, a vocation issued by God and determined by where we’ve been planted in faith. In Envy, I ignore the needs and duties that surround me while daydreaming about other needs, other duties. I preach badly to my congregation because I wish I was preaching at another, larger, more attentive, more Berean church up the road. I care poorly for the child who is interrupting me at the moment because I’m busy writing something that I perceive will be enjoyed by thousands. I fail to enjoy the simple meal in front of me because it isn’t as rich as the meal of my neighbor. And yes, I think the enjoyment of what is before me is an act of obedience, while the pretended enjoyment of what is not before me would necessarily be an act of disobedience!

That isn’t to say that we can’t think about the past, or look at other people’s lives, or even compare grasses across the fence. I think there is actually a more Godly form of Envy—not sinful, of course—which is one of our natural human emotions. It is the pleasure we ought to feel at another person’s success. Did you hear about X’s raise? I’m so pleased that God has blessed him in that way. Did you see Y’s new car? What a blessing for her! When someone we know experiences an accomplishment or a blessing which we haven’t, then it ought to be our response to celebrate with that person. In such celebration, I think it perfectly reasonable to piggyback our own desire for success upon their actualized success—not in imitation of theirs, but in the hope that we can achieve what is rightly our own. When someone wins a book deal, the response of wicked envy would be to wonder why it was not my book deal, or to complain about that person’s qualifications, or to generally grumble about the situation. The response of Godly Envy, however, would be to celebrate and rejoice with what God has done for that person, then prayerfully double-down on my own call. I have personally found this process to be one of the best tonics against Envy (the wicked kind)—to celebrate the successes of my companions and to pray actively for God to increase their successes. There is a great sense of joy in being released from the bondage of my own opinions regarding what is meritorious!

Fundamentally, the human creature is made to desire greatness, and yet not all of us will experience greatness in the same capacity. Envy creeps in and takes root when we begin to compare greatnesses and fixate on our own perceived deficiencies. The slanted gaze of Envy, thus, interrupts our call to the present moment. It will do no good to deny the existence of greatness or of merit, however. Some people will always be better than me, have more than me, and so forth. But they cannot fulfill the task which God has given to me to perform. Therefore a corrected Envy—the pleasure at another’s accomplishment—ought to reinforce my call to the present task.

Despite our summons to greatness, it is remarkable how quickly we can descend to the most astonishing pettiness, and hunger’s ability to bring us to such a place is unmatched. Envy at the fact that other people get to eat! But by God’s grace, the intentionality of fasting helps to expose our absurdity, and we are given fresh opportunities to pray through our focus on self, even going so far as to bless the Lord for the food others get to eat! Truly, a grateful heart is one in which envy can find no footholds.

Your mention in passing of a great church service has my interest piqued. Do tell me more in your next letter.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

Six, or Maybe Eight, Devotional Books I’m Taking to Scotland

The absolute worst part about moving overseas—worse than saying farewell to friends, or uprooting from favorite restaurants, or even dealing with the stressful immensity of the transition—is choosing which books to take with you. For readers like me, the forcible separation from the one’s library is the most violent and unpleasant of changes. I have loathed it.

libraryOf the many hundreds of books we own, I will have to choose a mere handful to take with us. The selection process itself is painful. Is this a book I will need, or one I merely want? Will I really read this again within the next three years? Will a library substitute suffice? Are there books that I will want to read in the UK simply because I’m in the UK (like Barchester Towers)? What books give me comfort when I wish to be consoled? It is a staggering set of considerations.

One is forced to divide the library into categories, and choose from each of those categories volumes which warrant the expense of traveling with you—Literature, Nonfiction, Fantasy, Theology, Pastoral Theology, Counseling, Commentaries, C.S. Lewis books (yes, he gets his own category), Poetry, and so forth. Some whole categories get axed (I can use the library for things like Theology and Commentaries), while from others I will select a few books at a time (Do I bring Gerard Manley Hopkins? Which Lewis books do I bring?).

For some months I’ve been thinking about the category of Devotional Literature—those books which I dip into daily alongside my reading of Scripture. The process has forced me to pick my absolute favorites. For me, to qualify as a Devotional the book must reveal deep reflection, resonate in striking ways, and regularly improve with time. Also, such a book is typically consumable in small portions (making it suitable for daily devotion). The books that rise to the top for me are books that form me in an ongoing way, books that I have read, and re-read, and plan to re-read again and again. Each of these books has been part of my personal formation in Christ, so I thought I would take a few minutes today to recommend them to you as well.

imitation-of-christ_cover1. The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis
One of the most famous devotional books of all time, à Kempis’s fifteenth century meditations on the heart and its work to imitate Christ are timeless. Often austere, he calls the believer to remember that following Jesus is a full-time job. It is a book that I find calls me, in particular, to greater holiness.

“No man can safely mingle among people save he who would gladly be solitary if he could. No man is secure in high position save he who would gladly be a subject. No man can firmly command save he who has learned gladly to obey. No man has true joy save he whose heart shows him to have a clean conscience. No man speaks surely save he who would gladly keep silence if he might.” Book I.20.

Diary of an Old Soul_Cover.jpg2. Diary of an Old Soul, George MacDonald
Eighteenth century Scottish author and pastor George MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul is a series of daily devotional poems. I find, when reading them, that their subjects haunt me throughout the day. C.S. Lewis considered George MacDonald his spiritual father—it isn’t hard, reading MacDonald, to imagine why, because to read MacDonald is to swim in the depths of his meditative thought.

How many helps thou giv’st to those would learn!
To some sore pain, to others a sinking hear;
To some a weariness worse than any smart;
To some a haunting, fearing, blind concern;
Madness to some, to some the shaking dart
Of hideous death still following as they turn;
To some a hunger that will not depart.
~ June Sixteenth

letters-to-malcolm_cover3. Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis
Lewis, one of the great lights of 20th century Christianity, penned this series of fictional correspondence between himself and his friend “Malcolm.” Written at the end of Lewis’s life, these letters reflect his studied and honest ruminations on the meaning and significance of prayer. In some ways, the marriage of style is also highly appropriate—because prayer, also, is like writing letters to a friend. When I read Malcolm, I find that my thoughts about God are expanded.

“The prayer preceding all prayers is ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to. Infinitely various are the levels from which we pray. Emotional intensity is in itself no proof of spiritual depth. If we pray in terror we shall pray earnestly; it only proves that terror is an earnest emotion. Only God Himself can let the bucket down into the depths in us. And, on the other side, He must constantly work as the iconoclast. Every idea of Him we form, He must in mercy shatter. The most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking ‘But I never knew before. I never dreamed…’ I suppose it was at such a moment that Thomas Aquinas said of all his own theology, ‘It reminds me of straw.’” Letter 15

revelations-of-divine-love_cover4. Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich
Julian of Norwich’s series of visions, and the meditations that accompany them, are often striking in both their simplicity and resonance. It enriches faith to encounter, in this fourteenth century passages, a woman who so clearly knows and loves Jesus. More, perhaps, than anything else, Julian’s meditations call me to listen more carefully to the Lord.

“Our Lord is greatly cheered by our prayer. He looks for it, and he wants it. By his grace he aims to make us as like himself in heart as we are already in our human nature. This is his blessed will. So he says, ‘Pray inwardly, even if you do not enjoy it. It does good, though you feel nothing, see nothing. Yes, even thought you think you are doing nothing. For when you are dry, empty, sick, or weak, at such a time is your prayer most pleasing to me though you find little enough to enjoy in it. This is true of all believing prayer.’” #41

centuries_cover5. Centuries, Thomas Traherne
Written in the 17th century but lost and unpublished until the 19th, Traherne’s series of meditations (in collections of 100 at a time—hence, a century) see in all the dappled glory of the earth opportunities to glorify God. His conception of nature as an avenue for worship have changed how I look at the world.

“Is not sight a jewel? Is not hearing a treasure? Is not speech a glory? O my Lord pardon my ingratitude, and pity my dullness who am not sensible of these gifts. The freedom of thy bounty hath deceived me. These things were too near to be considered… O what Joy, what Delight and Jubilee should there always be, would men prize the Gifts of God according to their value!” Century 1, #66.

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Note: This book is very rare.

6. Look to the Glory, Richard Meux Benson
Benson was founder of a group of Anglican monastics called the Society of St. John the Evangelist (one of the members of which was C.S. Lewis’s spiritual director). Benson combines depths of understanding about God with compassion for the everyday human creature. The combination, for me, has called me to greater personal devotion.

“Patience is most perfect when the visible result is least encouraging. Its efficacy entirely within. By patience, the soul acts upon itself, exerting self-control and forming itself so as to find a tranquil joy in the adverse appointments of God’s providence.” “Seeking Holiness.”

Bonus: These six books are all devotional in nature—they are deep, powerful, and good for short readings. However, there are a couple more books that I’ll be bringing to Scotland that fall more into the category of “spiritual reading.” So, here are two books that don’t quite qualify but I’ll be bringing anyway.

derkse-cover7. The Rule of Benedict for Beginners, Will Derkse
I’ve already written a review of Derkse’s book, but the reason I’m taking it with me is because his steady prose and consistent call to obedience reminds me to be attentive to the tasks at hand—whether they be devotional, familial, or related to my work.

“Listening has its complement in grumbling. Just as obedience is a positive attitude, wanting to listen before anyone has spoken, grumbling is a kind of negative speech before attentive listening, or also because listening has not been done attentively.” 34

 

 

telling-secrets_cover8. Telling Secrets, Frederick Buecher
In this personal memoir, Frederick Buechner speaks of the secrets of the heart and of the soul’s journey toward healing in God. Buechner, perhaps more than any other modern author, has his finger firmly on the pulse of the heart that longs for God.

“As I see it, in other words, God acts in history and in your and my brief histories not as the puppeteer who sets the scene and works the strings but rather as the great director who no matter what role fate casts us in conveys to us somehow from the wings, if we have our eyes, ears, hearts open and sometimes even if we don’t, how we can play those roles in a way to enrich and ennoble and hallow the whole vast drama of things including our own small but crucial parts in it.” 32

Choosing which books to bring is a hard decision. And yet choosing these books is not hard at all. May you, in reading some of them, discover something fresh, deep, and enriching for your own spiritual life as well.

The Imitation Danger

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Look at those robes! If I had robes like that, I’m sure I could preach like him.

I’ve been slowly reading through Phillips Brooks’s Lectures on Preaching, which thus far has been an experience both brilliant and enriching. Originally delivered at Yale in 1877, the series of lectures examine the life of the preacher and the construction of the sermon. Whether or not you are a preacher, Brooks’s insights into the ministry and the nature of formation bear fruit in many areas. If you are a preacher, I don’t know that I can recommend it highly enough.

In one chapter on how to construct a sermon, Brooks warns sternly against the danger of imitation in preaching—the unique pitfall of copying the style, mannerisms, and delivery of another preacher. One of the chief criticisms he offers is that, essentially, we are bad at measuring what makes someone successful. He writes, “that which is worst in any man is always the most copiable. And the spirit of the copyist is blind. He cannot discern the real seat of the power that he admires. He fixes on some little thing and repeats that perpetually as if so he could get the essential greatness of his hero” (167). We hear one speaker who tells great stories and conclude, “I ought to include more stories.” We hear another who exposits the text verse-by-verse and think, “I ought to go verse by verse.” One minister reads a manuscript, while another memorizes a manuscript, while yet another preaches extemporaneously. Each model is attempted as an avenue to a certain kind of success. In each case we miss the real point, and in imitation we are perpetually wont to ape secondary, rather than primary, things.

This is as true of church growth models as it is of preachers. Studies are performed which analyze and decode the elements of success which mark churches that grow—the casting of clear vision, administration, the humility of the members, healthy organization, buy-in, etc. Other churches, wanting to succeed, strive to imitate these elements. But in copying, they miss the heart of what brought growth to the church. In essence, all those features are secondary. Churches don’t seek humility as an end in itself, they seek Christ and are made humble in the process. Churches don’t seek good administration in itself, they follow Christ and are forced to learn administration as they follow. Churches don’t invent vision, they seek God’s vision and follow it as it pertains to their particular location, people, and needs. I remember reading about a minister who attended a Willow Creek conference. Returning, and energized, he announced to his church that he knew what they needed to take the church to the next level: they would remove their pews and replace them with Willow Creek style theater seats.

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Brooks admonishes, “if you really reverence a great man, if you look up to and rejoice in his good work, if you truly honor him, you will get at his spirit, and doing that you will cease to imitate his outside ways” (169). If we would truly grow our own ministries, or our own pulpit service, then our imitation must be in seeking the same spirit as those we admire, and not their accidentals. We must become adept at discerning between what C.S. Lewis once called in an essay “First and Second Things.” An application of Augustine’s Ordo Amoris, Lewis observed that we must love in the proper proportion those things which are most worthy of love. If we love second things first—an incidental rather than an essential—then we are on a path to losing out on both the first and the second thing. But if we love the first thing first, then we are likely to get the second thing thrown in as a bonus. Ape the style, and you will miss the soul. Great preachers are great not because they have great style, but because they are marked by a great and convinced love of Jesus. Great churches grow not because they are well organized and manifest all the fruits of the Spirit, but because they have sought and are pursuing a vision of Jesus in their midst.

All in all, you can never put on another preacher’s, or another church’s, success as your own. The clothes will not and cannot fit. At best, they will provide a temporary surge of energy. At worst, in distraction you will lose sight of your true call—which is not to attend to the success of others but rather to obedience to Christ where you are. Brooks has this to say as well, “The temptation of imitation is so insidious that you cannot resist it by the mere determination that you will not imitate. You must bring a real self of your own to meet this intrusive self of another man that is crowding in upon you” (169). The preacher must be true to himself—an individual exhibiting the transforming power of the Gospel as it is filtered through his personality, not the personality of another. In the same way the local church must be true to itself, manifesting the transforming power of grace to its people, in its location, in the flavor and aroma of its city. To do less is to cheat both ourselves and our neighbors of the power of the Gospel.

There will always be shining lights among both preachers and churches. Brooks, of these, says somewhat sardonically that, “There are some preachers who have done noble work, of whom we are often compelled to question whether the work that they have accomplished is after all greater than the harm that they have innocently done by spoiling so many man in doing it” (166). It falls then to individuals and churches alike to ward against the danger of imitation—not by ignoring God’s work done through these bright stars in ministry, but by connecting ourselves with their true source for success: our vine-tapped life into the living work of Jesus Christ.

tree-from-cliff

Why I’m Wary of Civilization and Why You Should Be Too

I just finished reading Leonard Wibberley’s hilarious, poignant, and eminently readable The Trouble with the Irish (Or the English, Depending on Your Point of View). At one point in the tortured history of Anglo-Irish relations, Norman invaders had invited an Irish lord to a parley where they betrayed and killed him. Wibberley had this to say about the episode:

The explanation for this ungracious behavior, so surprising to the Irish, is simple. It lies in the fact that Irish were regarded by the Normans as barbarous people. It has for centuries been recognized as the duty of civilized people to slaughter those whom they hold barbarous, this being a method of spreading civilization. This tenet was held quite as strongly in the nineteenth century as in the twelfth. The Normans, if they thought of the matter at all, felt they were civilizing the Irish. [The Trouble With the Irish, 48]

Assyrian Foot on Enemy - Enlarge

Tiglath-Pileser III, Assyrian King, subjugates someone under his foot (The British Museum)

Wibberley is, of course, right. A vast portion of the history of society—not only in the West but in the East and South as well—is the history of civilization pitted against non-civilization. One group, more organized, more resourced, cleverer, takes advantage of a weaker, more barbaric, less organized, or less clever group, and “civilizes” it—that is, incorporates it forcefully into its own construct. The weak are made to serve the stronger, and the strong continue their march toward destiny, or progress, or whatever. We could better laugh at such antiquated perceptions if they did not continue to operate so insidiously today.

Ironically, it is in the agenda of modern Liberalism where this idea of forcible civilization is most entrenched today. To the adherents of this mindset, the future is an inevitability of progress and is represented, among other beliefs, in an increased role of government oversight, unlimited contraception, abortion on demand, sexual mores defined solely by consent, redistribution of wealth, and with all of these the ridicule and dismantling of any and all opposition. As card-carrying ambassadors of tolerance and diversity, they quite readily vilify any opposition to their enlightened agenda. Above all else, such liberalism views antiquated Christianity with enraged intolerance, and demands the purgation and “civilization” of any vestiges of Christendom. They believe they are doing the Christians a favor.

Not long ago I was seat-mates on a plane with a lovely young woman working in the tech industry. She, an ideological vegan, was passionately working to develop a veggie burger that truly tasted like meat. Her primary motive was ecological (the cattle industry is a big contributor to environmental change in many nations). Later, our conversation ranged to a number of other subjects, and as often happens when she found out I was a minister the subject turned to homosexuality and gay marriage. She found it incomprehensible that a Christian would deny another person the right to love whom they choose. We had a lovely conversation, but she seemed blissfully unaware of the double standard in her thoughts—she was perfectly happy to make choices for others when it comes to the environment (you shouldn’t eat meat), but completely in defense of people’s rights to make choices for themselves in other areas (you should love whom you choose). The view that progressivism is completely natural, while Christianity is utterly backwards, illustrates merely one way that Liberalism is remarkably blind to its own contradictions as it projects onto the world its own peculiar brand of “civilization.”

Veggie Burger

The deep and fatal flaw of this thinking—expressed both in Liberalism but also in the idea of “civilization”—is rooted in progressivism. Progressivism is the belief that society is getting better and better. Maybe not people, of course, but generally speaking, progressivism holds that the world is moving towards a better and better state. If you have doubts about this, consider how desperate are the vast technological pressures of our day—to become better, to release new products or else. Consider the idea of planned obsolescence, which holds that a thing should be built to last only until the next, newer model comes out. Consider the tacit belief that we are searching for other habitable planets in the universe in the hope that one day we can colonize them (presumably so that we can wreck them just like we are wrecking this one—as Albany says to Goneril in King Lear, “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well”). Consider the roots of this thinking in how we perceive evolutionary theory—the core of our modern societal belief about the human self. Species change over time, but the implied, unspoken assumption is that they are always changing for the better. But why should this necessarily be the case? If evolutionary change is indeed grounded in random mutations, doesn’t that mean that sometimes species will change for the worse? Furthermore, if this universe is all there is, and if it is slowly dying out, what does the idea of “better” even mean? If life is as meaningless as such an outlook suggests, aren’t the best adapted life forms those which have already died?

When you think about it, our whole outlook is shaped by the idea that civilization is advancing—few are asking towards what. I am reminded of Ian Malcolm’s criticism of scientific advances from Jurassic Park—words that might be lost in the flashy effects and pure excitement of seeing dinosaurs on screen—“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” We are very much moving without thinking, without reflection; moving, as it were, without direction at all. C.S. Lewis speaks to this situation with his usual perspicacity,

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. [Mere Christianity, “We Have Cause to Be Uneasy”]

Ian Malcolm Jurassic Park

Liberalism, blinded by progressivism, is in love with its own agenda—and yet it is an agenda without roots. Why should we follow it? Where does it lead us? Precisely how does it make humanity better? Why should this vision of “civilization” be privileged over any other? To stand on any solid ground Liberalism has to give answer—Where is it going? What is the human person? What is the purpose of the human person on earth? And how does such an agenda facilitate pursuit of that objective? To do this it must appeal to categories of good and evil, of truth and falsehood, and so engage with decidedly old and nonprogressive ideas—it must engage, in short, with Christianity.

Richard Weaver in his 1948 book Ideas Have Consequences paints a vivid and prophetic picture of the necessary solution and imminent dangers:

Hysterical optimism will prevail until the world again admits the existence of tragedy, and it cannot admit the existence of tragedy until it again distinguishes between good and evil. Hope of restoration depends upon recovery of the “ceremony of innocence,” of that clearness of vision and knowledge of form which enable us to sense what is alien or destructive, what does not comport with our moral ambition. The time to seek this is now, before we have acquired the perfect insouciance of those who prefer perdition. For, as the course goes on, the movement turns centrifugal; we rejoice in our abandon and are never so full of the sense of accomplishment as when we have struck some bulwark of our culture a deadly blow. [Ideas Have Consequences, 11]

Until an acknowledgement of good and evil, of truth and falsehood, has reasserted itself in our public discourse, no motion towards progress can be faithfully made, and no advance of “civilization” can be faithfully trusted. Until we know what we’re doing, and where we’re going, and why we’re going there, we are traveling blind. And that is a very dangerous state in which to be.

In The Trouble with the Irish Wibberley recounts how in time the Irish were forced to become a kind of cultural underground—disenfranchised from all cultural rights they preserved themselves through hidden schools, language preservation, and secret religious practice. This was the only way to survive the onslaught of “civilization.” By God’s grace such extremes won’t happen to Christians today, but if it does, then God give us strength to be faithful until the agenda of the world, and of its civilization, and of this kingdom set so firmly in opposition to God’s, collapses under its own perverse and twisted weight. In the words of the Psalmist (11:3-4), “If the foundations are destroyed, What can the righteous do?” The answer is clear: “The Lord is in His holy temple.” If the foundations are destroyed, God’s people are to look ever more closely to Him.

Some Thoughts about C.S. Lewis and “Spiritual Direction”

Yours, JackFor the last several months I have been enjoyably working my daily way through Yours, Jack, a selection of C.S. Lewis’s letters edited by Paul F. Ford. From the vast quantity of Lewis’s personal correspondence, Ford has made a selection of letters which he believes focus on “Spiritual Direction”—whether in the context of friendship, of Lewis seeking direction, or of Lewis offering direction. I enjoy almost all things Lewis, so these letters have been a pleasure to read, and while the experience warrants a few brief reflections on Lewis, at the same time it reminded me of some growing concerns I have about our present approaches to things labeled “spiritual direction.”

What stands out first when one reads Lewis’s correspondence is simply its sheer vastness. This was a man busy with work as a professor, busy with work caring for invalids at home, busy with his personal writing, and yet taking time out of each day to maintain his letter writing—writing that followed him almost to the day of his death. Linked to this, and something possibly overlooked when we think about Lewis, is his extreme patience. Lewis makes the time to write everyone back, and some of those people most certainly didn’t really deserve it. Of special patience in this volume are the forty or so letters to Mary Willis Shelburne (also published as Letters to an American Lady), which tax even my patience when reading Lewis’s responses. Another factor that stands out about these letters is Lewis’s preparedness in matters of the soul. I work as clergy, and it is simply impossible to answer the needs of the soul which people bring to you if you do not know your own soul. Lewis’s self-knowledge, and capacity to illustrate from his own experiences in walking alongside others, is both admirable and worthy of imitation. I am also reminded that Lewis’s unique brilliance is not that he knew so much (although he did), but that he thought so clearly about everything. From that clarity he labored to bring clarity to the darkness of other people’s thoughts. It is that ongoing clarity, I suggest, that contributes most significantly to Lewis’s longevity as an author. The book is worth reading if only to be exposed to his clear thinking.

Walter Adams St Stephen's House

Fr. Walter Adams, remembered on the wall of St. Stephen’s House, Oxford.

While I enjoyed the book, I also had some reservations while reading it—not reservations about Lewis, but reservations about how we view “spiritual direction.” Above all else, I find that there is something decidedly fuzzy in how we talk and think about “spiritual direction” (and the scare quotes are there to highlight my reservation). I’m not sure we really know what it is, and it has become such a plastic term that it covers quite a variety of divergent concepts. Lewis himself, of course, visited a spiritual director (Father Walter Adams), and participated in regular confession. He speaks about these things helpfully in several of the letters. But when we are looking to Lewis for spiritual direction then something feels a little off. It is off, to my mind, in three critical ways. First, it is off because a relationship of spiritual direction (such as the one in which Lewis was involved) is a relationship of exchange. One believer sits under the supervision of another, trusting that older, wiser Christian in the direction and shaping of your soul. Lewis certainly fits the older, wiser category, but true direction requires a personal relationship and personal listening. The Director will listen to your life and make suggestions according to his/her perception of your needs. A key quality in the directee is obedience, and when we are reading a book for spiritual direction there is a danger that our own sense of power and control will override the process. Put simply, it’s a lot harder to say no to a person than it is to a book. A second reason it is off is because it neglects, to my mind, the role that friendship and collegial association played in Lewis’s spiritual formation. The letters selected in this volume are largely those which are overtly spiritual, and yet some of Lewis’s chief formation and enrichment as a Christian came about through his association with friends. By looking at only one kind of “spirituality,” I fear the reader can miss the broader spirituality of Lewis’s life and experience. This taps into the third reason the book felt off, which is with what material is cited in footnotes. Ford has faithfully footnoted every Bible reference he could detect in the book, but almost no literary references at all. Where Lewis references a book, or a poem, or a famous thinker, or some other literature, these items are not notated for the reader. This is a somewhat gross oversight, since one of the primary areas which opened Lewis to the Christian faith was literature itself. I find this to be a curiously evangelical approach to spirituality (made more ironic since Ford is himself a Roman Catholic)—that we only value Scripture to the neglect of other sources of information.

None of these concerns negate the overall value of the book—and in fact the book is well worth reading!—and yet they might raise some concerns about why we, as readers, are approaching the book. When we engage, we ought to be aware that the editing of this particular volume shapes our perceptions of what “spiritual direction” might be, and I am suggesting that it does this somewhat narrowly and inadequately. Because of this, we as readers can easily miss the breadths of Christian spirituality, the call to practical obedience, attentiveness to influences outside of the expressly sacred, and especially to the role that friendship plays in spiritual development

Above and beyond all of this—and perhaps above and beyond this particular volume itself—is with a kind of danger in how we, today, approach Lewis. Lewis, indeed, is a great Christian thinker, a giant of 20th century faith and well deserving the attention he has received. But when we are looking at Lewis, rather than along with him, then we are not only doing something Lewis would personally despise, but we are missing the greatest gifts he might offer us as readers—the exposure to the worlds and vistas which had opened his eyes personally to the greatness and majesty of God. This, indeed, might be the ultimate goal of all spiritual direction—to direct the heart toward a greater apprehension of, and obedience to, God.

Lewis with Pipe