Monthly Archives: June 2009

How American Discourse Goes Awry

by Alan Gibson, guest writer

Newsweek magazine recently clouted me across the snout with a stark observation: “How utterly we fail at discussing culture in American.”

 OK, that hurt. I discuss American culture all the time. For example, my observation that Newsweek’s new format is about as exciting as the owner’s manual for a tractor. But let’s say Newsweek’s stark observation is true. Here are four suggestions as to how the American discourse can go awry:

 1. We shout at one another. There is a perception, abetted by tele-pundits, that the loudest voice wins the argument. The dignity of a completed thought is rarely permitted in televised debate. When asked if he’d please stop interrupting his guests, Bill O’Reilly said “No. My job is to conduct a spirited discussion.”

 2. We argue to advance an agenda rather than to learn. Good arguing is not a contest but a cooperation in pursuit of truth. And conversation is the search for essence. How are you, we entreat one another, sometimes actually wanting to know. To talk at leisure with a good person is to discover all manner of fine things.

 3. We opt for ideological consistency when the point is truth. Beauty resides – and danger lurks – all along the political spectrum. To loiter intellectually at either of the antipodes is to substitute formula for thought process. James Carville and Mary Matalin, the media couple, are engaging not when they recite talking points but when they transcend them, illustrating that competing ideologies can not only coexist but leaven one another.

 4. We don’t understand subtext, i.e., the mood and spirit of our behavior. Happiness is not the story of our lives but the mood. Carville and Matalin superficially are antagonists, but subtextually they are in love, which is why they don’t strangle one another. A fine meal in a glum atmosphere satisfies less than a celebratory can of pork and beans. If a churl instead of a charmer had first flown the Atlantic, it would have been merely an event. But Lindbergh’s aircraft was The Spirit of St. Louis, happily invoking the supernal subtext.

So, anyway, I’m going to go on discussing culture in American, however imperfectly. I hope you’ll join me, because when you and I shoot the breeze in a coffeehouse, we’re not just discussing America, we are defining it. Attempting to solve the problems of the world is not a pastime. It is our own nobility, saluting the wind.

Alan moderates a weekly events discussion group and writes a regular column,The Essential Bad Attitude, for the Jasper (Georgia) Pickens County Progress.
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Eponymous

Posted by Mike

Last night I was with a group of friends waiting for a table in a restaurant. One of the guys was talking, and he referred to an eponymous something. I jumped in and said “What does that mean? I seem to see that word all the time in magazine articles, have looked it up, but always forget what it means the next time I see it.” It is true that I seem to see eponymous at least weekly in a news or some other kind of magazine. However, what’s really striking about the incident at the restaurant is how real it all was, how current, yet it occurred in a dream. It’s true, though; maybe you too have run up against eponymous recently – and perhaps like me haven’t learned it yet?

Last year it was vet or vetting. People would say to me, “Where did that word come from? What does it mean? I’ve never heard it?” I did find it in the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD). They define it as “to examine or appraise expertly.” My New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD) advises that it means “make a careful and critical examination of (something).” And “investigate (someone) thoroughly, esp. in order to ensure that they are suitable for a job requiring secrecy, loyalty, or trustworthiness.” Yes, it appears to be an abbreviation of veterinarian. My impression is that the British have been using “vet,” “vetted,” and “vetting” for some time, maybe back to the 19th century.

I’m reading a book on international law, Lawless World, by Philippe Sands. It’s really interesting. He recounts the development of international law, especially since 1950 and recent developments, and discusses legal issues related to the Guantanamo detainees. On page 130 he writes, “There is no obligation for ICSID awards to be made public, although often they [are made public]…as samizdat.” When I saw that word it had a vague familiarity, but I couldn’t even guess what it meant. Looking it up, I said Ah hah! Yes, it was used in the late Cold War and means “The secret publication and distribution of government-banned literature in the U.S.S.R” (AHD). I then remembered having seen it from time to time during those years. It’s from the Russian, “sam+izdat”, self+to publish.

I guess that all new words that make their way into our vocabularies are useful, or they wouldn’t be used. But some do seem rather silly and pretentious – like eponymous. Eponymous means, “Of, relating to, or constituting an eponym” (AHD). Was that helpful? No? Then – the NOAD advises that eponymous is “giving their name to something: the eponymous hero of the novel.” Like, St. Francis is the eponym of San Francisco; in a sense, his name was his eponymous gift to the city. Eponym was coined in England in the 19th century, and is from the Greek “epi +onoma”  = upon+name.

I woke up this morning dreaming about having saved two people from drowning and then being in the emergency room of a mental health facility helping to admit these two people to a psychiatric unit. That dream seemed pretty real too. It was good also that I played a positive role in the whole affair.

I don’t think there’s anything here that would negatively affect any vetting of me. It’s certainly not samizdat. And I’m not the eponymous hero of a novel, like Tom Jones, or of even a short story! Have a nice day.

“It is of interest to note that while some dolphins are reported to have learned English – up to fifty words used in correct context – no human being is reported to have learned Dolphinese.”    –   Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

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Flipping Burgers in Love

Posted by David

My brow is furrowed. I’m staring at the computer screen trying to solve a problem with a Flash animation. Hours have passed and I’ve hardly moved. My wife walks in and asks me, “How are you?”

My focus is broken and I look up at her and take a moment to respond. In this condition, I’m sometimes a bit more terse, but this time, I think of Brother Lawrence first. “I’m just flipping burgers for the Lord,” I say.

We made up this saying from reading The Practice of the Presense of God, a short book printed over a century ago about Brother Lawrence. This man was known for his closeness to God, as well as his obscure and simple life. He worked much of his life in a kitchen at a Carmelite monastery in Paris.

Our saying, “Flipping burgers for the Lord,” is what keeps me going with the work and tasks that come to me within this society. If I didn’t have this purpose, I would care less to take part in the ongoing folly embedded within the depths and breadth of human civilization.

I’ve found that without God, everything in which our society endeavors is folly. What’s most important is how we go about doing our work. The way we do things colors all of the products of human creativity. So few of the products are colored in love. So many of the products are tinted and tipped with poison.

I remember once taking a bus in Peru. It wasn’t the lowest fare bus, maybe two up from the bottom. Afterward, I wish I had taken the lowest fare bus, the one that didn’t offer video service.

About 20 minutes after we departed from the Lima bus station, the bus driver’s helper put in a video for everyone to watch. It was a film clearly produced in the United States. It was a slasher-sex film. What was most alarming wasn’t the movie—I know the kind of things that humanity produces—but was the responses of the people in the bus. It seemed to me that everyone was watching this film as if it was normal. Even parents weren’t shielding their children’s eyes.

Eventually, I couldn’t take it any longer. I stood up and yelled to the passengers something like, “what are you doing!” But in my moment of righteous indignation, when only a few people broke their gaze and cast a glance at me, I realized, “I’m an American and this video came from my country. This is a product of me and my culture.” So, I just slinked back into my seat and tried to keep my half-wandering eyes off of the screen. I also learned that we can’t shield our ears. I suppose I could have hummed, “la la la , rum-tum-tiddle-um-tum, la la la…”

Over the years, I have come to think of human technologies as fruitless, whether it be our products, media, medical technologies, our even services. Humanity loves to glorify its creations. Look at the cover of any technology magazine and you’ll see a sales pitch that makes you glad you’re on board. But is technology really fruitless? Even though I am highly emersed in technology with my work, I still feel that technology is the manifestation of our pride and selfishness. But how then do I resolve the fact that I am clearly and deeply engaged with civilization and its technologies?

“I’m just flipping burgers for the Lord.” And not only do I just get it done, but for Him, I do it well. That’s not to say that I always will be involved with technology. I pray that one day God will extricate me from this line of work.

Solomon knew the purposelessness of man’s endeavors. He wrote all about it in Ecclesiastes, the Bible’s existential book. It’s no different today with our advanced technologies, our space exploration, or our health care than it was in his time.

And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also is striving after the wind. Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.

– Ecclesiastes 1:17-18

I still feel that the Kingdom of Heaven is more closely akin to what we think of the Garden of Eden, which as Genesis describes it, was pre-agricultural. I just love taking hikes in the wilderness for the simple purpose to marvel in the Lord’s handiwork apart from our technologies. But even this is missing the point that Brother Lawrence had to offer.

The most excellent method of going to God is that of doing our common business without any view of pleasing people but purely for the love of God.

We ought not to grow tired of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.

-Brother Lawrence

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Love: a perptual motion machine

Posted by David

I’ll be piggy backing on a theme written by Mike Mason—that love is a perpetual motion machine.

[T]here is only one true perpetual motion machine in the universe, and that is love. Love is the only energy that will keep on going forever, which is why it is the mainspring of eternal life. How can love keep working forever without getting tired? The answer is simple: because the way it works is by resting.”

-Mike Mason, the Gospel According to Job

Is love really an infinite process? Doesn’t love fade like a burning fire?

Alarm clockThe Death of Entropy

Over the years, I’ve abandoned entropy as a fundamental assumption in my understanding of how the universe works. To understand entropy, think of a wound-up mechanical clock. The clock is given energy during the winding process and it ticks down and finally stops.

But is this really the way the universe works? Are we, our universe and love just deterministic clockworks? If we look up at our majestic starry skys, we will see many seemingly endless cycles, whether it be the earth going around the sun or the solar cycle. Closer to home, we see cycles in geology, water and life. I love the life cycle of the tree, because it’s so simple: a seed grows into a tree, a tree makes seeds, a seed grows into a tree, and so on. One who believes in entropy argues that all of these processes eventually wind down. They may fluctuate or change state, but they don’t just vanish, do they?

It’s our modern understanding of death that gives birth to our human-contrived concept of entropy. We see death on the horizon for our bodies, so we apply that concept to the universe. But is this projection true? Is death really the end to all things?

In ecology, death is always a metamorphosis. Death is a transformation of energy from one form or state to another. The typical scientist will argue that there is always a net loss within a system to heat and this net loss is the slowing down of the system. However, the energy or heat is still there. The energy has just transformed. Something must happen to it. It’s doing something. I expect we think we see a loss because we don’t understand energy very well. It may also have to do with awareness and consciousness, but that’s another story.

I acknowledge that we do see entropy in our human inventions, like clocks. Human technology is the only entropic system in the entire universe, which is why I believe that one day, the energy put into our technology will finally be exhausted and it will wind down to a halt.

What does love have to do with it?

Everything. Unlike human technology and the power that drives it, love is the ultimate force in the universe.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth…Love never ends.

– 1 Corinthians 13:4-8

Admittedly, the more I understand what love is, the more I realize how truly blind I am to love, how unnatural love is to me, and how akin I am to the other love, the one that drives my lusts.

The irony is that God’s love—the perpetual motion machine—is enterable only through the cross of Christ. This may sound a lot like Theology-mumbo-jumbo, so I’ll clarify with a poem.

The Nobility of Love

When you put aside your task for mine,
You are diminished.
When you praise my work above yours,
Your ambitions fade.

When you swallow my anger,
You drink bit of poison.
When you swallow your anger,
You keep me out of harms way.

When you listen to my pain,
You take on my disease.
When my gossip stops at you,
You burn from the flames.

When you take my punishment,
You die a little more.
When you follow Jesus to his cross,
You die with him.

Through his narrow gate of love,
You live with him forevermore.

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.

– John 11:13-14

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I’m Just Saying…! Part One

Posted by Mike

June 7, 2009: So this doctor I work with asked me if I am an agnostic or an atheist. Obviously the question didn’t just come up out of the blue; I set it up by what I had said before – but as this conversation occurred several days ago, it so happens that I have completely forgotten how I had done so. You’ve noticed that I’ve referred to her as “this doctor.” Of course that’s not by accident either. That’s right. I’m trying to impress you. Like I know a doctor sort of thing. Yes remarkably I’m a doctor too – but not a real doctor. A PhD who doesn’t teach or do research – what kind of doctor is that? In any case I hesitated before responding – finally said something like You know I don’t like labels – and told her basically that I wasn’t sure what I was – but didn’t think that the labels helped or tell the whole story. After all, when you start categorizing things, you begin to leave a lot of things out. Abstractions are always like that; once you start doing that a lot of important things are left on the cutting room floor that are forever after ignored – to our peril, I say. Not that we don’t have to do it at times. When we talk or write or think we just can’t always deal with the objective and concrete and all the details – or the subjective for that matter – we have to summarize and categorize.  But sometimes – especially with important matters – we need to step back and look at where we’re coming from – maybe go back to the cutting room and take a careful look at what we’ve left out and what’s lying around on the floor that might be important!

I hope you know a little what I’m talking about because clarity obviously isn’t my first priority right now – although to tell the truth, I’m not sure what is. There I go – lying again; but I shouldn’t feel bad about it; we all do it; whether or not it’s part of human nature I don’t know – but we do it. It’s like we’re all sculptors – and in a conversation – if it’s really serious – we cut and chip and sand and smooth – until we get what we want. What we end up with may reflect what we think is really real – or it we may end up with what we think we want the other person to hear. It sounds narcissistic and manipulative and dishonest, doesn’t it? You tell me; aren’t we like that – at least some of the time – maybe a lot of the time. Deep down people are really so vulnerable; we want to be right; we want to be liked. These are really very big orders – and we can’t get either one cheaply, though one of our major problems – as individuals and in society in general – is that we generally try to.

So I told her that I think people have a strong need for the religious – I guess I was just vamping to give myself time; if you’re really thoughtful you don’t generally want to talk about these kinds of issues right away with just anyone – unless of course you’re sure about it.  My son is sure – or at least he seems sure. I see a lot of people who talk and act like they’re sure – but you know I just don’t trust them. Most of them are like the categorizers that I was talking about earlier. They’ve got it all figured out; actually what’s  happened is that someone else has told them what to believe and they have bought it  – hook, line, and sinker. It’s really much easier that way – you don’t have to sort out the difficult issues; you don’t have to live with uncertainty – or tentativeness; you don’t really have to think about it anymore; you can relax – because you know. You however probably know by now that I think that’s a lot of bunk. But despite all of that, I do understand it. Being human ain’t easy – so to speak. Let me correct that somewhat; actually, behaving or doing is fairly easy; it’s the meaning that’s the problem – the big picture: what’s it all about; is it okay to waterboard people who get in our way? is it all right to inject bad guys in prison with poison to kill them? is it right to have our young men halfway around the world who are killing and getting killed by people who don’t want us in their country – young men who are going to return home and have lots and lots of problems because they will begin to question why they went there in the first place – what were they doing? And why were they so naïve to believe everything they were told by their elders, whom they were taught and believed at the time that they could trust?

I’ve done it again – and I’d like to apologize; I’ve made this political – and I really didn’t intend to – but things happen sometimes – sort of like they’re out of our control. But then what I’m saying is that I’m out of my control; so that doesn’t sound so good does it? And then again maybe that’s just the way we humans are – at least that’s my take on it right now. And the truth is that my intention wasn’t to make a political statement, but my intention WAS to make a religious statement. So okay – maybe the young man needs to either put up or shut up! When I said that I think that people have a strong need for the religious maybe I meant a strong need for the spiritual. We’re using abstractions again – and clearly we’re in troubled waters; but I’ll try to explain what I’m trying to talk about. I mean that we humans – as I said before – are deep down really very vulnerable and insecure and fragile. Some of you may say that that’s just not true about  you. I admire your confidence, but nevertheless tend to think that it is true. Those people who don’t see it that way just take a little longer to reach that conclusion. That’s a belief, not a fact; I haven’t done any research on it, and obviously can’t say for sure. It’s just one of those things that we all think we “know” for sure – based on our own experience. For some such matters, we can really be dead wrong – and our  thinking never gets corrected. People just tolerate our aberrant notions, never really confront us – and we end up always being in lala land about whatever the issue is. Likely happens to most of us about some things. Most of us have generous friends who allow us our eccentricities in thinking. That’s nice, but perhaps more reality checks would help us all to be more in better touch with what’s really out there and  what’s really happening. 

But yes, I do think that we humans have a strong need for the spiritual. Most of us, if we were fortunate, grew up with somebody or somebodies who served as parents for us. Whatever their failings they provided some nurturance and protection when we were young. We felt relatively safe and secure. As grown-ups, we don’t have them any more. It’s up to us alone – and it’s pretty scary being out here by ourselves. We need security. Obviously we get security in lots of ways – some of which aren’t conducive to health and long life – but several important ones are through community, through our beliefs, and especially through our religious beliefs – and from the “spiritual” aspects of our personal or corporate behavior or practice.

I’m just saying….

“To believe in something is a necessary psychological function. Ignorance is intolerable. There are many theories, but it still remains to be seen what the facts are.”

“What you believe and what you know are different things, and it’s important to keep them separated.”

“The only happiness and security there is, is facing life as it comes and dealing with the realities.”

 –  Elvin Semrad

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The One Love: Friendship

Posted by David
Fraternal Love, William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1851.

Fraternal Love, William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1851.

Of all of man’s passions, human love is most certainly a bitter-sweet fruit.

I remember hiking with a friend in Death Valley a bit over ten years ago. We were exploring the stark, bright landscape examining the canyons, rocks and various living things that hid in the limited shade of this bleak world. Across a rocky field we walked wandering the arroyos that meandered out of the nearby mountain canyons. My friend asked me, “What do you think love is?” At that time in my life, I really didn’t know much about love, which was clear by some dreadful mistakes that I had already made in my life. But I responded to him by pointing down at two small dry streambeds that coursed their way together into one larger streambed.

“Love is like the ‘Y’ in that stream,” is how I responded. Was I correct in my response? Is love the moment of action where two become one, when the two parts have identity, yet there exists one larger, grander identity? Maybe there was some truth to it.

Maybe this is what love is, however, in human love most often it does not work this way. Love is often thwarted by selfishness—our ego. The existence of the ego depends on separateness. The ego cannot tolerate love and will fight endlessly to retain sovereignty over the will. The ego will defend, defraud, and devour any attempt at a true union, for if it does not, it will cease to exist. This is the great paradox of human love.

Therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden.

Genesis 3:34

The ego set foot on the planet when man chose its own path apart from God. Without God, in our separation from him, human love became no more than power lust, what Saint Augustine called libido dominandi in The City of God. This type of love is seen in the covetousness of some child’s play. “Give me your balloon,” says the two-year old. The two-year old takes other child’s balloon, bangs it around for a moment or two, and tosses it away in order to have the toy of which the other child has now become fond.

As adults we engage in these childish battles, but our methods are only slightly more sophisticated. This pernicious self-love takes on many disguises. We develop contracts with each other that bond us in unions of clandestine lust and power play. “What happened to our love?” some will say. It no longer feels like love for time has ripened the true fruit of their union.

The ego cannot allow its power to be shared in union. Operations will be developed to trump any bargain that was developed. In a union, the egos will battle for headship. This is why strife invariably occurs in marriage and any other union. The battle may take form of outward or passive aggression. To win the battle and remedy the paradox of human love, people take a variety of approaches, from disassociation to isolation and from detachment to distraction. Ultimately, all human-inspired solutions dig us deeper into the quagmire of the ego and its ever-isolating inward focus.

I’m tempted to think that the solution is selflessness and serventhood, employed to break the bonds of the ego. I’m tempted to think that this would do the trick. But it won’t. Through these actions in and of themselves, I will be consumed by the other power lust that seeks to control my will. Jesus says, “Never give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before pigs. Otherwise, they will trample them with their feet and then turn around and attack you.”

I found the only solution to the quagmire of the ego and the paradox of human love to be in bondage with the one love that God sent us in the person of Jesus. In this union, I reconnect to God and am reconciled from the ancient detachment that causes my ego to power lust. Finally, by knowing true love, I can love others in meaningful ways. And not only have I been transformed, but so are my relationships.

Of course, my ego still tries to thwart the all-consuming power of God’s love. But my ego is losing the battle. Less and less, I see myself engaging in the false-love of power lust. When this does happen, I sometimes see myself as if from a distance. It is as if my ego is detached from me. In some sense, my selfish ego is dying. But in reality, it cannot die. It will not let itself die. That’s the nature of the ego. But it is detaching from me. It is being consumed.

Jesus said, “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” This is where we let our selfish ego be consumed. When Jesus, my love and my friend, tells me to act counterintuitively to my ego, I do it. As these actions are performed as outlined in Sermon on the Mount my ego is eaten. My ego returns to the one whom it belongs.

Recently my wife and I were sitting at the dinner table across from each other. My hand was resting on hers. Our two-year old son remarked, “you all are friends.” Then he added, “Reid is my friend.”

When I think of true love, I no longer think of sex. I no longer think of male or female. I no longer think of human marriage. I think of friendship. “What a friend we have in Jesus,” the old hymn sings. Friendship is the highest love and we have been truly befriended by Jesus.

For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.

Mark 12:25

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The Two Loves

Posted by David
Cupid Delivering Psyche, Edward Burne-Jones, 1867

Cupid Delivering Psyche, Edward Burne-Jones, 1867

The question “what is love” has cycled in my mind since adolescence, as is probably the case with most people. But only in the past eight or so years have I looked at love systematically (if that is possible) due to my reading of C.S. Lewis’ book, The Four Loves, where Lewis describes love as having four manifestations: Affection, Friendship, Eros and Charity (Agape/Godly Love). I’m not in a position to argue these particular categories, but I will share some possible insight that emerged tonight at Marimba practice.

A member of our marimba band taught us a new song that she has written. She said it was about “love.” The song is a dynamic with a varied rhythm and is set among two chords, G major and A minor. It’s a very tense song, powerful in mood. There’s an unresolved tension that goes back and forth and never reaches a conclusion. It’s a haunting song.

At first, it said nothing to me about love. At this point in my life I see love as peaceful, joyous and complete, not tense and haunting. To me, love is the manifestation of God in the person of Jesus, where his disciples are connected to his love through the Holy Spirit. This love is of quiet waters.

As we learned the new song, it became clear to me that the song was indeed about love, but some other kind of ‘love’, one that I’ve known but have abandoned. This love wrestles for authority, seeks power over flesh and soul. It masquerades around us with tiptoes and with vigor. This type of love has tunneled at one time or another into all of our hearts and infested our being. This is the love of power. 

It’s no wonder that we should be awed and wooed by such a love, for it strokes our sensibilities and feeds our ambitions. It haunts us and we like it. This love is sensational. 

The new marimba song was then very true to its title. Varied, dynamic, and haunting, it’s chords and melody spoke about passions, tension and the unresolvable powerplay of love. I felt like a boat on the sea.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea.

Revelations 21:1

Saint Augustine interpreted the “sea” in Revelations 21 as “the surgings and restlessness of human life.” (The City of God, Book XX, p 377, Augustine.) This is the sea of love of our new marimba song. However, we must distinguish this love from the other one: Agape/God’s love. We mistake them all too often with devastating results.

Thankfully, God’s love is different. God’s love is exactly the opposite of the other love’s restless surgings.   God’s love is complete in the person of Jesus. In compassion, he healed. In mercy, he befriended us. In servitude, he went to the cross for the love of us.

This is a quiet love. It’s a love seen by faith and not by senses. It’s the perfect of the two loves.

No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends…

John 15:15

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