31 July 2006

Peace in the Middle East

A great sermon just arrived in my inbox: John Piper preached "Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East" over two years ago but it lands rather aptly on my ears today. Here, Piper establishes a biblical argument for how to view the nation Israel--the political entity at war today as well as the spiritual entity whose story God has been telling for centuries--and he carefully warns against oversimplifying the issues involved into soundbytes. I hope you enjoy the read as much as I did.

Dive-In Movie

Thanks to the witty stylings of Rafe Semmes, a group of church buddies gathered poolside last night to watch Jaws outdoors. Someone jumped into the pool at most key moments; I just swatted away mosquitoes from my upper-deck chair. I had never seen the film before, so the whole thing scared me quite sufficiently--much to the delight of Myles, who sat nearby and giggled every time Lindsay and I screamed and jumped. Terrific.

A comparison with Moby-Dick would seem grandly appropriate: the sea, the big fish, the boat captain. But how wonderfully the town's mayor wears his seersucker jacket replete with embroidered anchors to the beach, insisting that shark attacks do more damage to the local economy than to real human beings; he has one costume change, into another seersucker jacket, but this time with multi-colored stripes as he urges tentative July 4th-ers to actually get in the water.

Our hero, the sheriff, cows to the mayor's political pressure at first but soon starts running the show, if only from behind. The sea inspires him to right fear, but he will not back down from real terror. He will have this place repaired if it means the destruction of his own fears, and even the potential destruction of his self.

Meanwhile, the shark almost seems more frightening when we do not see him than when we do. Spielberg masterfully alludes to the shark--using underwater shots from its perspective and showing various floating items it drags about--more often than images of the shark itself. I'm surprised I didn't have nightmares. Well, about big fish anyway. Brilliantly crafted.

28 July 2006

Culture at the Counter

Yesterday I had lunch at Counter Culture, home of the Humphrey Yogart. My mom took us there regularly for snacks on Tuesdays when I had group violin lessons; I had a medium plain with strawberries and chocolate chips so frequently that years later when the owner happened upon my mom somewhere else, he remembered.

But yesterday was just a turkey sandwich and small plain yogurt, with hormonal teenagers on the side. I'm talking with my lunchmate over the last crumbs of our lunches and the couple arrives. He is tall and blonde, wearing a Captain Shreve High School t-shirt. She is a petite and dark-skinned summer beauty. They look like Kelso and Jackie. They are clearly cool.

They barely let a sliver of light between them as they walk in the door. He walks to the far side of the counter, she keeps sidling up next to him and gives him several reaching pecks while they await their yogurt order. Then they select a table and sit on the same side together.

She licks a spoonful of the yogurt, feeds the boy a spoonful, kisses him. They repeat this pattern until I leave. The whole time, he looks out in the distance, paying no attention to the girl but not overtly annoyed by the public affection either. She seems to think this is the height of romantic activities; he looks like he only enjoys the display as a means to some other end.

27 July 2006

More on Lebanon, This Time From Britain

Sir Stephen Wall has written a scathing request for action from No. 10 Downing Street in New Statesman. In Monday's "Unhitch us from the Bush chariot" he calls heads of states and their citizens to simply watch TV and get riled up enough to act.

Indeed, why have the world's leaders failed to call Israel to task? Their claim to fight against a terrorist network that rudely captured two of their soldiers does not justify their unmerciful and relentless bombing of their neighbors, little regard for the innocent civilians who might be nearby Hezbollah centers. Didn't most of us learn this lesson on the playground? Just because your sister slugged you doesn't mean you have a right to pummel her in return.

And why does the American media favor Israel in its coverage of the goings on? Yesterday's New York Times plastered large yesterday's high of 14 total Israelis dead (all military), and today the lead photos cycling through the main page are of Israel bringing their wounded soldiers to hospitals. What of the 400+ killed in Lebanon, mostly civilians? That doesn't count all the bodies still trapped under rubble in towns yet bombarded. Those countless dead just get buried in articles that are really about Israel's mourning.

Sir Stephen Wall says it well when he notes how "sympathy for Israel and her suffering, the detestation of terrorist organisations such as Hezbollah and the desire to see a durable cessation of hostilities do not justify silence, or adequately explain the reasons for it." Peace is complex, but that doesn't mean we cannot cry out for it. Who will be "the restorer of streets to dwell in"?

25 July 2006

A Postscript to The Abolition of Man?

A new piece in Christianity Today has captured my affections this morning: "The Silent Human Conscience" comes from a Christian in Lebanon who wonders why the world's political leaders are not even symbolically decrying the many recent civilian deaths in his country. In the end, he returns to the question of how one responds to a young child who hears the destruction over and over:

What should I say to my daughter? "My daughter let us keep praying not just for peace, but for the awakening of the human conscience." Would you please join me in such a prayer?


Let's.

10 July 2006

The Unfortunately Fulfilled Prophecy, Part III: The Abolition of Man and Louisiana College

Well, the time has come for a good critical hack at Louisiana College, that fine Southern Baptist institution in Pineville, Louisiana. Where the smell is always the paper mill. Where a fun evening is driving the Alexandria traffic circle until you get sick. Where the administration has lost all its marbles.

I want to define here just a little bit of what I understand as the intellectual suicide happening at LC. I will not summarize the convoluted and complex history here, for you can find lots of reliable information about it (even proudly on their own website) online. Know for now that it is a veritable mockery of academic freedom and religious education, Truth and the liberal arts, faculty responsibilities and administrative power. And know that I am worried about it. Here's why.

In The Abolition of Man, CS Lewis critiques the authors of a certain composition book; with admirable academic restraint, he calls the text only The Green Book and the authors only Gaius and Titius. I have discussed that book's main philosophical problem earlier but want to focus on a particular aspect of Lewis' argument here as it may apply to recent policies at LC.

Early in his first lecture, Lewis claims that good literature is of utmost importance when teaching good writing and general discernment, but Gaius and Titus just show you the bad and complain about it, never showing the good. In fact, if they researched more carefully, they would find excellent literature (ie well-styled prose) committing the same "sins" (ie pathetic fallacies) their supposed bad prose does. They're missing the point they should make, instead hugely leaping to claim that all value judgments are unreasonable and contemptible (6-9).

Gaius and Titius may have done all this rather accidentally (Lewis gives them the benefit of the doubt and supposes they have), but they have nevertheless slipped into the teaching of philosophy when they aimed only to teach composition and literature. Lewis supposes they have done so for the following reasons: 1) literary criticism is hard, so they have done an easier thing unwittingly, 2) they have misdiagnosed the real educational need, which is not actually to temper the overemotional but to awaken the lazy and apathetic, and 3) they are in a peculiar educational moment that is moving outside the Tao (12-21).

No matter why they have done it, though, you cannot actually do what Gaius and Titius think they want to do: that is, you cannot say "quit making value judgments," then pump information into a student and expect him to respond well. That is brainwashing, not education. We need trained emotions (not vacuumed ones) in order to make good intellectual decisions, for we cannot convince others by reasonable arguments alone to be "good" (23-24). If we gain much knowledge and do not have trained emotions, we all turn into Weston and Devine in Out of the Silent Planet: "It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out" (Abolition 25).

And so we see that Gaius and Titius seem to have taken over Louisiana College.

Let us consider an example of LC's own prose: "The Integration of Faith and Learning at Louisiana College" as presented by Dr. Charles Quarles, LC's Vice President for Integration of Faith and Learning, at a chapel service last November. In this archly conservative attempt at pedagogical philosophizing, Dr. Quarles suggests that one cannot teach any subject without making an argument for its absolute truth or falsehood. He also suggests that every classroom experience is an exercise in belief. But he has gone too far, for comparing instruction about simple addition to instruction about world religions is simply ridiculous.

Now, I would agree (indeed in the Van Tillian tradition) that until by grace we resolve our right and humble position within the redemptive narrative that God is telling as our global history—particularly, until our fallen brains are redeemed into right logic—we do not think appropriately. Everything we do and think is tainted by sin. The unredeemed might as well think 2 + 2 = 5 because our thought processes are naturally and essentially that much off base.

And I, perhaps with Dr. Quarles, am concerned about the accidental and overt deconstruction that remains popular in many contemporary college classrooms—that is, the diligent attempt by some professors to make their students think that any belief system, especially any Christian one, they brought to campus is na├»ve and unintellectual.

However, I also remain committed to the liberal arts, believing that a liberal arts education is actually the best sort for a Christian, for in such broad interdisciplinary learning, we see and love the interconnectedness of God's world, the need for creative problem-solving in every corner of every heart and every jungle, and our obligation to be good temporary citizens of this globe.

Thus, I bristle at Dr. Quarles' claims. Fine if he wants to ensure a pristine Christian education for those precious LC students, but I would argue that educated and compassionate global Christians need to know about world religions as much as they need to know math. But presenting facts about other religions does not have to be followed by an apology for why they are or are not correct. No one ever apologizes for addition: most folks just take it as a fact that 2 + 2 indeed equals 4, just as we ought to take it as fact that there are Buddhists in the world and they believe and practice certain things. The value question, about whether or not one ought to be a Buddhist, is a quite separate question indeed. After all, just because I believe 2 + 2 = 4 does not make me a mathematician, and no one ever tried to make me one; so too, believing that Buddhists exist and do certain things does not make me a Buddhist or even the target of Buddhist conversion experts.

Part of the problem with Dr. Quarles' argument is that he does not recognize that the issues between math and religion are different; therefore, you cannot compare pedagogy about them in a value argument. If the Gospel is so powerfully correct (as Romans 1.16 claims), then we need not be so defensive about all this as Dr. Quarles would like.

Now, Dr. Quarles goes on to make other disturbing arguments—one about how Christian colleges should only teach texts that explicitly promote the supremacy of Christ (an affront to the critical study of religion but also an exclusion of any other discipline), another about the sufficiency of Jesus to teach us all truth (which may be correct regarding spiritual things but not, say, regarding poetic meter). But throughout, he compares apples and oranges, and all to the philosophical detriment of education at-large because he fails to understand that one can know something and not agree with it. In fact, I would argue that any educated person needs such knowledge. I have read plenty of books espousing positions I despise—from the unsubstantiated articulation of poor theology to the fictional celebration of licentiousness—and find such reading overall profitable. But the argument Dr. Quarles makes would drop most books from my bookshelves: no more Hemingway (some of his characters curse and run with bulls), no more Shakespeare (murder, drunkenness, wife-swapping, lying), and probably every contemporary novelist and poet would be out, plus who knows how many philosophers.

Furthermore, if you follow this argument, you must decide that education as a whole is really a bad idea, because the only thing we need is heart-felt evangelism. Thus, his philosophy is revealed as that same value-debunking and literature-despising mess we heard from Gaius and Titius. Remember that those authors of The Green Book erred because they accidentally taught philosophy instead of just composition, and they did so because what they should have done was really harder than what they did, which followed from misdiagnosing the real need in the first place. So too, Dr. Quarles has done the easier thing (label an enemy and tell people what to think about it) rather than the hard thing (compose a Christian educational philosophy that actually helps people learn and invite scholarly dialogue about it). And he has misdiagnosed the real need, which is to educate individuals to think in God-honoring ways, not withholding books out of fear that students might believe them but actually teaching books out of confidence that students might think and act better because of them.

Surely Dr. Quarles fears that he must temper overemotional students who might just blindly follow Scott Peck down some random road, when what he really needs to do is awaken the lazy and apathetic with invigorating truth and stimulating dialogue and active service. Just telling students "Buddhism is not true" and making sure they can regurgitate that on an exam will not make them good college graduates. And it will not make them lovers of Jesus either.

So, I think Dr. Quarles needs to read The Abolition of Man. But maybe he does not want to. In it, Lewis does not make a clear evangelical proposition but argues simply for an objective value-driven worldview, so that's one strike against it. Lewis obviously interprets the Tao through a Christian lens, but the book does not articulate the precise connection. And watch out for those other books where Lewis suggests that some planets do not need Jesus (because their creatures are not bent like we humans are), that heaven is a hard place, and that real friendship is about smoking cigars and drinking warm beer while talking mythology. Oh, and heaven forbid that LC should read that later Lewis book A Grief Observed, for there he acknowledges (from what I would argue is a position of faith, tough faith) that suffering is a terrible reality for which most of us are honestly tempted to blame God. Take away his wife and you get hard language from Jack. But don't tell LC. That alone would probably get the crusty Anglican banned from their bookstore.

07 July 2006

The Unfortunately Fulfilled Prophecy, Part II: The Abolition of Man and Contemporary Global Politics

After Lewis reveals the pedagogical scheme that aims to remove the Tao from our common conversation, he wants to investigate how such philosophy actually becomes popular. This is the subject of his second lecture, "The Way." He understands that we humans want to operate by Reason only, but he believes that will not work because neither social utility nor instinct will make us do anything. That is, we must also believe we ought to do whatever it is. His conclusion: though we keep kicking against the Tao, it clearly remains what we need.

So, Lewis makes a keen observation. We are not likely to submit to the real Tao, but we will probably create a bad substitute instead—because, after all, stuff must get done. Will this work, though? That is, do we really need the Tao, or can some individualized philosophical system do the job? Can a subjective set of values replace the Tao? Lewis decides to test it by setting this experiment: would anyone ever die for a good cause in such a world? He hypothesizes that two options exist: a man outside the Tao would only die for a good cause if he were convinced by social utility or persuaded by instinct.

Now, the social-utility argument fails, for even if someone agrees a death is best for society, no one will ever volunteer himself over someone else for that death. Remember the Monty Python sketch in Ypres, 1914, when a group of five soldiers discovers they only have rations for four. According to the social utility argument suggested here, the armless clergyman played by John Cleese is obviously the best volunteer. He cannot help in the fighting and must be cared for by the others. However, the others will not allow him to elect himself. So, they draw straws, and the ranking officer continually draws the shortest straw but refuses to relent. Not even random selection will convince a man to sacrifice himself for his fellows.

So too, the instinct argument fails, for no one ever determines he ought to be sacrificed rather than someone else for the preservation of the species. Instead, the smart one will determine that he ought to control who gets sacrificed and who does not, just as Weston in Out of the Silent Planet determines he is the only human capable of making such decisions for the rest of the species. Meanwhile, Ransom remains compelled by obligation to something outside of himself—it makes him go offer to help the old woman, and it makes him keep walking to that awful house, and it makes him wonder if he ought to evangelize the Malacandrians. He is a man attached to the Tao.

Lewis always returns to the same problem: neither a strong sense of social utility nor a compelling instinct (especially in the face of another oppositely competing instinct) will always drive an individual to act (29-38). So, he lands again on the Tao, the only is that admits any reasonable ought (40). "It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained" (43). And it cannot be recreated or renewed (44).

The upshot is this: in science or in politics or in the classroom, when we abandon the Tao, we steal men's chests and eventually abolish man altogether. We may live on, but we will cease to be real human beings, for we will have long before abandoned true humanity. My adept summer students suggested some contemporary practical applications: for instance, the mindset of suicide bombers, America's aggressive plan to democratize the entire globe, and (as a counter to that) the more just manner in which America conducts war. In one student's words, we could have ended this war a long time ago if we were willing to kill innocent children and other civilians, like "they" are, but we at least claim to adhere to the Tao and cannot permit such unjust warfare.

Interesting applications. Maybe we need to ship copies of The Abolition of Man to all heads of state across the globe, making sure a bookmark at the end of the second lecture points them to a footnote reading "Think global politics here."

06 July 2006

The Bean at 17 weeks

Kind of looks like Rodin's "The Thinker," except rolled sideways, eh?

The Unfortunately Fulfilled Prophecy, Part I: The Abolition of Man and Contemporary Higher Education

CS Lewis does not write The Abolition of Man as a crusty old man wishing for bygone days, nor as a hardened academic who cannot allow for shifts in pedagogical theory. Furthermore, he does not address these thoughts (originally lectures, which my students claim they would rather have heard than read) to those especially interested in literary criticism or orthodox theology. Rather, this book contains a general ontological critique: how we are in society and how we read society. Therefore, his claims should not merely concern those of us who claim to have walked uphill both ways through the snow to school, or those of us who teach; they ought to concern us all.

After all, Lewis proves himself a prophet of the postmodern age in his first lecture, entitled "Men Without Chests." When he describes men without the
Tao, the practical principles known to all by Reason (32), it is as though he somehow read today's newspapers 60 years early. Tao-less men have no moral innards, but they like to act moral; their hearts stripped out, society nevertheless expects them to pump blood.

Lewis
claims that we get such men when we deconstruct value judgments, suggesting (however subtly) that statements like "I think that landscape is lovely" are quite illegitimate, or at least useless, for what we really need to know is fact. Thus, we often teach "truths" while refusing to suggest how students might respond or think critically about or value such truths. In the world of composition pedagogy, this means we ask students to write "argumentative essays" but exclude any topics addressing religious or political values. Now, to be sure, most first-year college students are (in my experience) rather incapable of making good religious or political arguments, which is why I too avoid assignments about such topics. The incapability presents itself in two ways: they either resort to radical positions too abstract and complex to even start tackling in fewer than 100 pages (which means the students depend on generalizations and incomplete presentation of facts), or they resort to blind and blanket statements of belief that have no appeal except for "I think so, therefore it is." The postmodern mantra.

So is the contemporary educational problem how I choose essay assignments for first-year rhetoric? or is the real problem the educational milieu that bred those brains in the first place? Indeed, I believe Lewis has foreseen a philosophical problem that has pervaded our postmodern society: first-year college students are men (and women) without chests. And they don't even know it.

I
spend a lot of time in English 101 every fall convincing my students that using first-person pronouns in argumentative essays is okay, because in the ninth grade, Mrs. Henderson told them they never could write "I" anything, especially "I think" any position. Of course, this led to a whole lot of onerous "one believes this" kinds of phrases because Mrs. Henderson never taught them (perhaps Mrs. Henderson did not know this) that the reason ninth-graders should shy from claiming "I think something" is because human beings brought up on "Sesame Street" tend to assume that when they think something, they do not need evidence to back up their beliefs. That is, when they claim "I think that landscape is lovely," they should have some reasons for such a value statement: for example, "The trees are dropping all manner of bright-colored leaves, and I (along with a whole host of other people throughout history) think that the display of autumnal transformation has some objective aesthetic value, not to mention the fact that it just makes me feel more alive to see it."

H
owever, Mrs. Henderson does not really care whether or not her students have reasonable evidence for their beliefs. She does not even have some nuanced concern that the inability to articulate such evidence invalidates the value statement. Rather, when Mrs. Henderson tells her ninth-grade students they cannot use "I" in an essay, she is operating on the belief that the value statement itself does not matter. Now, just because some ninth-grade student "thinks" something does not make the statement automatically relevant to the real world, but when we act like it is not ever relevant and never will be, we create a world of grade-grubbing non-thinkers who nevertheless make policies that run our world.

That
is, we craft a society of voters and consumers who do not ask themselves "What belief has led him or her to assume that is true" when a politician or CEO says "This shall be." Rather, they just agree or disagree without any semblance of critical thinking about how someone might make such a claim. Here is the postmodern dilemma: high schoolers are not allowed to write value statements, so they never learn how to make good arguments about belief or policy that actually have evidence to back up those statements. Thus, they (and all the rest of us) talk like the individual has all power and authority from coffee shops to Congress.

M
ore on The Abolition of Man soon. . . .