Fairy tales and trigger warnings

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already.  Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey.  What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey.  The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination.  What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.  Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.

—G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (1909), XVII: “The Red Angel”

I thought of this quote as I read N. D. Wilson’s recent essay “Why I Write Scary Stories for Children.”  Wilson has much the same message, except that in his case, it comes as a product of his own experience as a parent.

I write violent stories. I write dark stories. I write them for my own children, and I write them for yours. And when the topic comes up with a radio host or a mom or a teacher in a hallway, the explanation is simple. Every kid in every classroom, every kid in a bunk bed frantically reading by flashlight, every latchkey kid and every helicoptered kid, every single mortal child is growing into a life story in a world full of dangers and beauties. Every one will have struggles and ultimately, every one will face death and loss.

There is absolutely a time and a place for The Pokey Little Puppy and Barnyard Dance, just like there’s a time and a place for footie pajamas. But as children grow, fear and danger and terror grow with them, courtesy of the world in which we live and the very real existence of shadows. The stories on which their imaginations feed should empower a courage and bravery stronger than whatever they are facing. And if what they are facing is truly and horribly awful (as is the case for too many kids), then fearless sacrificial friends walking their own fantastical (or realistic) dark roads to victory can be a very real inspiration and help. . . .

Overwhelmingly, in my own family and far beyond, the stories that land with the greatest impact are those where darkness, loss, and danger (emotional or physical) is a reality. But the goal isn’t to steer kids into stories of darkness and violence because those are the stories that grip readers. The goal is to put the darkness in its place.

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Presidential candidate Saruman J. Trump?

From Narnia to Middle Earth with Donald Trump, courtesy of The Federalist:

I’m the best at talking to Sauron, I really am.  Tough guy, tough negotiator but you really just have to have a man-to-man.  Not like the people running Gondor, they’re stupid.  I mean, how stupid are they?  Now, my tower – and let me tell you, it’s the biggest, classiest tower, great views of the whole ring of stone and the forest and the river – I can get him on the line.  Doesn’t answer anybody else, but when I want him, here’s there.  I’ll be so good at dealing with him, it’ll make your head spin.

Read the whole thing—it’s priceless.


Orthanc, tower of Isengard.  Public domain.

“White Witch / Fenris Ulf 2016: Vote for a Proven Winner”

If you ever doubt that C. S. Lewis was gifted with a prophetic voice, you need look no further for correction than Prince Caspian.

So writes Gina Dalfonzo on the First Things website, discussing the Black Dwarf Nikabrik.  Nikabrik was one of the allies Prince Caspian found after his escape from his uncle, the usurper King Miraz, but as an ally, he was highly problematic.

We first meet him inside the home of Trufflehunter, wanting to kill Caspian the Tenth against the wishes of the badger and Trumpkin. Nikabrik is angry at all Telmarines, bitterly remembering the injustices suffered by the old Narnians in their hands. In his defense, Nikabrik was born in hiding, grew in hiding and lived in hiding throughout his life, which must have been very difficult for any independent, freedom-loving dwarf.

When Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy (the heroes of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for those who might not be familiar with the series) reach Caspian, Nikabrik is speaking; they stop outside the door to listen.

“Either Aslan is dead, or he is not on our side. Or else something stronger than himself keeps him back. And if he did come—how do we know he’d be our friend? He was not always a good friend to Dwarfs by all that’s told. Not even to all beasts. Ask the Wolves. And anyway, he was in Narnia only once that I ever heard of, and he didn’t stay long. You may drop Aslan out of the reckoning. I was thinking of someone else.”

There was no answer, and for a few minutes it was so still that Edmund could hear the wheezy and snuffling breath of the Badger.

“Who do you mean?” said Caspian at last.

“I mean a power so much greater than Aslan’s that it held Narnia spellbound for years and years, if the stories are true.”

“The White Witch!” cried three voices all at once, and from the noise Peter guessed that three people had leaped to their feet.

“Yes,” said Nikabrik very slowly and distinctly, “I mean the Witch. Sit down again. Don’t all take fright at a name as if you were children. We want power: and we want a power that will be on our side. . . .

“They say she ruled for a hundred years: a hundred years of winter. There’s power, if you like. There’s something practical.”

“But, heaven and earth!” said the King, “haven’t we always been told that she was the worst enemy of all? Wasn’t she a tyrant ten times worse than Miraz?”

“Perhaps,” said Nikabrik in a cold voice. “Perhaps she was for you humans, if there were any of you in those days. Perhaps she was for some of the beasts. She stamped out the Beavers, I dare say; at least there are none of them in Narnia now. But she got on all right with us Dwarfs. I’m a Dwarf and I stand by my own people. We’re not afraid of the Witch.”

Nikabrik is so consumed by fear and hatred and the need to defeat the enemies of his people that he can see nothing else.  The White Witch was a cruel overlord who humiliated and crushed anyone who dared oppose her—but all Nikabrik can see is that she wasn’t too bad to the Dwarfs.  Dalfonzo observes,

His own people and their safety are all that matter to him now. Instead of being an important priority, this has become his only priority—and any attempt to remind him that other considerations exist brings only his contempt and anger.

This is how good people with strong, ingrained values—people who have invested time and money in the sanctity of life, religious liberty, and similarly noble causes—can come to support a man who changes his convictions more often than his shirts. This is how people concerned about the dignity of the office of President end up flocking to a reality-show star who spends his days on Twitter calling people “dumb” and “loser.” This is how some who have professed faith in Jesus Christ are lured by a man who openly puts all his faith in power and money, the very things Christ warned us against prizing too highly. As one wag on Twitter pointed out, “If elected, Donald Trump will be the first US president to own a strip club,” and yet he has the support of Christians who fervently believe that this country needs to clean up its morals.

As Joseph Loconte has observed, the Narnia stories offer us “a view of the world that is both tragic and hopeful. The tragedy lies in the corruption caused by the desire for power, often disguised by appeals to religion and morals.” How dangerously easy it is for the desire for power to take on that disguise—and how easily we Christians fall for it.

Tired of waiting for Aslan—who may be nearer than we think—we turn elsewhere. It doesn’t matter if our candidate hates, bullies, and exploits other people, the reasoning goes, just as long as he’s good to us and gives us what we want. Hatred is a perfectly acceptable weapon, as long as it’s “on our side.”

Read the whole thing.  Please.  And remember what happened to Nikabrik.

Photo © 2013 Gage Skidmore.  License:  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

Debunking the myth of the “Dark Ages”

I have another book to put on my Christmas list.  I’m not sure how I missed the publication of James Hannam’s book God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, or why it’s taken me this long to discover it, but from the review I just read, it looks like a fascinating work.  Usually, you hope a book is as interesting as the review says it is; in this case, I hope it’s as interesting as the review, and for that matter the reviewer.  The reviewer in question is an Australian medievalist named Tim O’Neill who appears to specialize in the history of medieval science and technology.  He’s also an atheist who gets as irritated as I do at the ways atheists abuse and misuse history to smear Christianity.  (Rest assured, I get just as irritated at the ways Christians abuse and misuse history.  In this area, my first allegiance is to the discipline.)

O’Neill writes,

One of the occupational hazards of being an atheist and secular humanist who hangs around on discussion boards is to encounter a staggering level of historical illiteracy. I like to console myself that many of the people on such boards have come to their atheism via the study of science and so, even if they are quite learned in things like geology and biology, usually have a grasp of history stunted at about high school level. I generally do this because the alternative is to admit that the average person’s grasp of history and how history is studied is so utterly feeble as to be totally depressing.

Perhaps it’s because I can’t think of any parallel consolation, but I’ve had to accept that the average person’s grasp of history and how history is studied is indeed so utterly feeble as to be totally depressing.  I’d like to believe that atheists and secular humanists are worse than Christians in this respect—but, no.  Indeed, as O’Neill notes in passing, the myth of the Dark Ages is as much the creation of Protestants attacking the Roman church as it is of atheists attacking Christianity in general.

It’s an excellent review essay because O’Neill has a fine eye for nonsense, a firm command of his subject, and apparently no use for people who value scoring cheap rhetorical points over getting their facts right.

In the academic sphere, at least, the “Conflict Thesis” of a historical war between science and theology has been long since overturned. It is very odd that so many of my fellow atheists cling so desperately to a long-dead position that was only ever upheld by amateur Nineteenth Century polemicists and not the careful research of recent, objective, peer-reviewed historians. This is strange behavior for people who like to label themselves “rationalists”.

Speaking of rationalism, the critical factor that the myths obscure is precisely how rational intellectual inquiry in the Middle Ages was. While writers like Charles Freeman continue to lumber along, claiming that Christianity killed the use of reason, the fact is that thanks to Clement of Alexandria and Augustine’s encouragement of the use of pagan philosophy, and Boethius’ translations of works of logic by Aristotle and others, rational inquiry was one intellectual jewel that survived the catastrophic collapse of the Western Roman Empire and was preserved through the so-called Dark Ages. . . .

Hannam . . . gives an excellent precis of the Twelfth Century Renaissance which, contrary to popular perception and to “the Myth”, was the real period in which ancient learning flooded back into western Europe. Far from being resisted by the Church, it was churchmen who sought this knowledge out among the Muslims and Jews of Spain and Sicily. And far from being resisted or banned by the Church, it was embraced and formed the basis of the syllabus in that other great Medieval contribution to the world: the universities that were starting to appear across Christendom.

Read the whole thing—it’s well worth your time.

“Acting white”/“acting girly”—whither men? (Part II)

In her Atlantic article “The End of Men,” which inspired this series of posts (the introductory post is here), Hanna Rosin writes,

The economic and cultural power shift from men to women would be hugely significant even if it never extended beyond working-class America. But women are also starting to dominate middle management, and a surprising number of professional careers as well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women now hold 51.4 percent of managerial and professional jobs—up from 26.1 percent in 1980. They make up 54 percent of all accountants and hold about half of all banking and insurance jobs. About a third of America’s physicians are now women, as are 45 percent of associates in law firms—and both those percentages are rising fast. A white-collar economy values raw intellectual horsepower, which men and women have in equal amounts. It also requires communication skills and social intelligence, areas in which women, according to many studies, have a slight edge. Perhaps most important—for better or worse—it increasingly requires formal education credentials, which women are more prone to acquire, particularly early in adulthood. . . .

Women now earn 60 percent of master’s degrees, about half of all law and medical degrees, and 42 percent of all M.B.A.s. Most important, women earn almost 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees—the minimum requirement, in most cases, for an affluent life. In a stark reversal since the 1970s, men are now more likely than women to hold only a high-school diploma. “One would think that if men were acting in a rational way, they would be getting the education they need to get along out there,” says Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. “But they are just failing to adapt.” . . .

This spring, I visited a few schools around Kansas City to get a feel for the gender dynamics of higher education. I started at the downtown campus of Metropolitan Community College. Metropolitan is the kind of place where people go to learn practical job skills and keep current with the changing economy, and as in most community colleges these days, men were conspicuously absent. . . .

“I recall one guy who was really smart,” one of the school’s counselors told me. “But he was reading at a sixth-grade level and felt embarrassed in front of the women. He had to hide his books from his friends, who would tease him when he studied. Then came the excuses. ‘It’s spring, gotta play ball.’ ‘It’s winter, too cold.’ He didn’t make it.” . . .

In 2005, [Jacqueline] King’s group conducted a survey of lower-income adults in college. Men, it turned out, had a harder time committing to school, even when they desperately needed to retool. They tended to start out behind academically, and many felt intimidated by the schoolwork. They reported feeling isolated and were much worse at seeking out fellow students, study groups, or counselors to help them adjust. Mothers going back to school described themselves as good role models for their children. Fathers worried that they were abrogating their responsibilities as breadwinner.

The student gender gap started to feel like a crisis to some people in higher-education circles in the mid-2000s, when it began showing up not just in community and liberal-arts colleges but in the flagship public universities—the UCs and the SUNYs and the UNCs. . . . Guys high-five each other when they get a C, while girls beat themselves up over a B-minus. Guys play video games in each other’s rooms, while girls crowd the study hall. Girls get their degrees with no drama, while guys seem always in danger of drifting away.

Clearly, some percentage of boys are just temperamentally unsuited to college, at least at age 18 or 20, but without it, they have a harder time finding their place these days. “Forty years ago, 30 years ago, if you were one of the fairly constant fraction of boys who wasn’t ready to learn in high school, there were ways for you to enter the mainstream economy,” says Henry Farber, an economist at Princeton. “When you woke up, there were jobs. There were good industrial jobs, so you could have a good industrial, blue-collar career. Now those jobs are gone.”

Since the 1980s, as women have flooded colleges, male enrollment has grown far more slowly. And the disparities start before college. Throughout the ’90s, various authors and researchers agonized over why boys seemed to be failing at every level of education, from elementary school on up, and identified various culprits: a misguided feminism that treated normal boys as incipient harassers (Christina Hoff Sommers); different brain chemistry (Michael Gurian); a demanding, verbally focused curriculum that ignored boys’ interests (Richard Whitmire). But again, it’s not all that clear that boys have become more dysfunctional—or have changed in any way. What’s clear is that schools, like the economy, now value the self-control, focus, and verbal aptitude that seem to come more easily to young girls.

The group dynamics Rosin is describing here have a worrisome parallel in recent American history, one described well in a review essay by Richard Thompson Ford posted yesterday at Slate:

Some black students in the 1990s had a derisive name for their peers who spent a lot of time studying in the library: incog-negro. The larger phenomenon is all too well-known. Many blacks—especially black young men—have come to the ruinous conclusion that academic excellence is somehow inconsistent with their racial identities, and they ridicule peers for “acting white” if they hit the books instead of the streets after school. The usual explanations for this self-destructive attitude focus on the influence of dysfunctional cultural norms in poor minority neighborhoods: macho and “cool” posturing and gangster rap. The usual prescriptions emphasize exposing poor black kids to better peer influences in integrated schools. Indeed, the implicit promise of improved attitudes through peer association accounts for much of the allure of public-school integration.

But suppose integration doesn’t change the culture of underperformance? What if integration inadvertently created that culture in the first place? This is the startling hypothesis of Stuart Buck’s Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation. Buck argues that the culture of academic underachievement among black students was unknown before the late 1960s. It was desegregation that destroyed thriving black schools where black faculty were role models and nurtured excellence among black students. In the most compelling chapter of Acting White, Buck describes that process and the anguished reactions of the black students, teachers, and communities that had come to depend on the rich educational and social resource in their midst.

Buck draws on empirical studies that suggest a correlation between integrated schools and social disapproval of academic success among black students. He also cites the history of desegregation’s effect on black communities and interviews with black students to back up a largely compelling—and thoroughly disturbing—story. Desegregation introduced integrated schools where most of the teachers and administrators were white and where, because of generations of educational inequality, most of the best students were white. Black students bused into predominantly white schools faced hostility and contempt from white students. They encountered the soft prejudice of low expectations from racist teachers who assumed blacks weren’t capable and from liberals who coddled them. Academic tracking shunted black students into dead-end remedial education. The effect was predictably, and deeply, insidious. The alienation typical of many young people of all races acquired a racial dimension for black students: Many in such schools began to associate education with unsympathetic whites, to reject their studies, and to ostracize academically successful black students for “acting white.”

Ford goes on, it seems to me, to largely dismiss Buck’s thesis on the grounds that other factors were in play; no doubt other factors were in play, and continue to be, but it seems to me that he really doesn’t offer any particular reason to doubt Buck’s argument that desegregation proved, in the end, to do more harm than good. As such, while it isn’t Buck’s point at all, I think we have strong reason to worry about a similar dynamic developing among many men, perhaps to the point where we might someday see a paragraph like this:

The alienation typical of many young people acquired a gender dimension for male students: Many began to associate education with unsympathetic girls, to reject their studies, and to ostracize academically successful male students for “acting girly.”

It’s a thought which anyone should find troubling, and it’s not that far-fetched; indeed, Rosin shows that it’s already starting to happen among some older boys and young men. It’s counterproductive, even destructive, but it’s also very human—if those people over there look down on me because they’re better than me at something, the easiest way for me to protect myself from feeling shame and hurt is to decide that what they’re better at isn’t really important. Just think of Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes: the fact that I didn’t get a good grade doesn’t really mean I failed, because I didn’t really want it anyway.

The possible concern, then, is that the growing success gap between girls and boys, women and men could be increasingly reinforced among many younger males by a rejection of academic success (and perhaps social and, to some degree, economic success as well) as “girly,” something “real” men don’t waste their time on. This, obviously, is something which could have dire consequences for our society if it becomes widespread.

Jesus Manifesto: for those who have ears to hear

Due to a combination of circumstances, I found myself this week filling in for my wife, who’s one of the book-review bloggers for Thomas Nelson (which now calls their review-blogging program, absurdly, BookSneeze), to write a review of the book Jesus Manifesto by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola. It’s a 179-page (plus footnotes) expansion of a ~2400 word essay they posted last summer, which I noted at the time when Jared Wilson flagged it. The essay was a powerful challenge to the increasingly Jesusless American church, but there was plenty of room to expand on each of their ten points; now, each one gets a chapter. The resulting book is not perfect, by any means—there’s room for criticism, as there is with any human work—but I’m grateful to Sweet and Viola for writing it, and to Thomas Nelson for publishing it and pushing it, because the church in this country badly needs to hear what they have to say.

I will probably come back to this book and interact with it more than once, because there’s a lot here; but for now, let me just post here what I put up on my wife’s blog. The best summary of this book comes from the authors themselves, in the last chapter, in words taken straight from the original essay:

Christians don’t follow Christianity; they follow Christ.

Christians don’t preach themselves; they preach Christ.

Christians don’t preach about Christ: they simply preach Christ.

The purpose of the book is to lay out why that’s so and what that looks like, in order to address “the major disease of today’s church . . . JDD: Jesus Deficit Disorder.”

Sweet and Viola do an excellent job of this; they have written a book which is truly centered on—indeed, saturated with—Jesus. Rather than resting on human wisdom, it rests solidly on Scripture, the word that contains the Word, “the cradle that contains the Christ,” in Luther’s phrase; this is not to say that they ignore the wisdom of Christians through the ages, but they only use it to expound and amplify the voice of the Scriptures as they speak of Christ. This book will make anyone who reads it with an open mind and heart aware of their hunger and thirst for Jesus; one hopes it will do the same for the American church.

Copyright, corporate shortsightedness, and the free market

I’d never heard of the group OK Go until a month or two ago when my brother-in-law played me the video for their song “This Too Shall Pass,” from the album Of the Blue Colour of the Sky. I enjoyed it, but the group didn’t really stick in my consciousness until they released a second video for the same song, featuring a most remarkable Rube Goldberg machine:

At first, the most interesting question to me was, did they really shoot that in a single take? (Answer: it took them over sixty tries, and apparently they ended up having to splice two of them together.) With that answered, I discovered that in truth, the most interesting question is this: why did they make a second video to the song when the first one (featuring the Notre Dame marching band) was perfectly fine? As Dylan Tweney wrote on the Wired website,

OK Go developed a reputation for making catchy, viral videos four years ago with the homemade video for “Here It Goes Again,” which features the band members dancing around on treadmills. The company ran afoul of music label EMI’s restrictive licensing rules, which required YouTube to disable embedding, cutting views to 1/10 of their previous level. Now, the new video is up—and it’s embeddable, so the band seems to have won this round with its label—and is already generating buzz on YouTube and on Twitter.

Actually, it’s not so much that OK Go won the round as it is that they cut ties with their label and went independent. As one commenter on another OK Go video (“We’re Sorry YouTube”) put it,

OK Go got into a huge fight with EMI and Capitol over how their viral videos were distributed. They wanted You Tube viewers to be able to watch the videos without worries about the labels coming down on people who posted. In the end, they ended up leaving EMI and Capitol and forming their own label. In fact, they were so mad that’s why they created a second video for “This Too Shall Pass” with the Rube Goldberg machinery. This video is just their humorous way of dealing.

In the cheap political calculus that floats around, it’s usually assumed that because conservatives support big business, big business is politically conservative—which in economic terms means in favor of deregulation and the free market. In truth, though, this is a long way off the mark; big business is very much in favor of regulation, because regulation is the simplest way of squashing competition. It’s certainly easier than actually having to outcompete people. Thus the approach of big companies like EMI to something like YouTube is generally to try to regulate it by one means or another so as to maintain as much control as possible over how their material is used; they want to ensure that nothing happens that they don’t approve, and that they don’t miss any opportunity to make money.

Now, I don’t want to minimize the importance of intellectual property and intellectual property rights; it’s morally wrong when people who create things don’t profit from their creations as they should, and I’ll even grant that the companies which connect musicians and authors and other creative types to those who want to buy their creations should also make an appropriate profit for their work. But the approach EMI took here is extremely short-sighted, because it treats the economic process as a zero-sum game; thus it assumes that if someone is able to, say, watch an OK Go video someplace other than on YouTube (i.e., someplace that doesn’t have an ad for EMI up right next to the video), that represents a lost profit opportunity which can never be recovered. That simply isn’t true.

Rather, what OK Go understands and EMI (like many other corporations) doesn’t is that giving things away can often be the best way to make money. The best illustration of this I know of is the success of the Baen Free Library at Baen Books. Baen, founded by the late Jim Baen, isn’t a huge publishing company by any means, but it’s a significant one in the world of science fiction; and spurred on by Eric Flint, one of their authors, they opted years ago to start making a significant number of their titles available free online. As Flint explained at the time,

Losses any author suffers from piracy are almost certainly offset by the additional publicity which, in practice, any kind of free copies of a book usually engender. Whatever the moral difference, which certainly exists, the practical effect of online piracy is no different from that of any existing method by which readers may obtain books for free or at reduced cost: public libraries, friends borrowing and loaning each other books, used book stores, promotional copies, etc. . . .

Any cure which relies on tighter regulation of the market—especially the kind of extreme measures being advocated by some people—is far worse than the disease. As a widespread phenomenon rather than a nuisance, piracy occurs when artificial restrictions in the market jack up prices beyond what people think are reasonable. The “regulation-enforcement-more regulation” strategy is a bottomless pit which continually recreates (on a larger scale) the problem it supposedly solves. And that commercial effect is often compounded by the more general damage done to social and political freedom. . . .

We expect this Baen Free Library to make us money by selling books.

How? As I said above, for the same reason that any kind of book distribution which provides free copies to people has always, throughout the history of publishing, eventually rebounded to the benefit of the author. . . .

I don’t know any author, other than a few who are—to speak bluntly—cretins, who hears about people lending his or her books to their friends, or checking them out of a library, with anything other than pleasure. Because they understand full well that, in the long run, what maintains and (especially) expands a writer’s audience base is that mysterious magic we call: word of mouth.

Word of mouth, unlike paid advertising, comes free to the author—and it’s ten times more effective than any kind of paid advertising, because it’s the one form of promotion which people usually trust.

That being so, an author can hardly complain—since the author paid nothing for it either. And it is that word of mouth, percolating through the reading public down a million little channels, which is what really puts the food on an author’s table. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise. . . .

The only time that mass scale petty thievery becomes a problem is when the perception spreads, among broad layers of the population, that a given product is priced artificially high due to monopolistic practices and/or draconian legislation designed to protect those practices. But so long as the “gap” between the price of a legal product and a stolen one remains both small and, in the eyes of most people, a legitimate cost rather than gouging, 99% of them will prefer the legal product.

Of course, some might be skeptical: is it really working? Well, about a year and a half after Flint launched the Library, he wrote an extended piece showing that the Library had actually boosted sales of the books Baen gave away—by quite a significant amount, actually.

The Library’s track record shows clearly that the traditional “encryption/enforcement policy” which has been followed thus far by most of the publishing industry is just plain stupid, as well as unconscionable from the viewpoint of infringing on personal liberties. . . .

Making one or a few titles of an author’s writings available for free electronically in the Free Library seems to have no other impact, certainly over time, than to increase that author’s general audience recognition-and thereby, indirectly if not directly, the sales of his or her books.

I believe it also—I leave it up to each individual to weigh this out for themselves—places such authors on what you might call the side of the angels in this dispute. For me, at least, this side of the matter is even more important than the practical side. It grates me to see the way powerful corporate interests have been steadily twisting the copyright laws and encroaching on personal liberties in order to shore up their profit margins-all the more so when their profit problems are a result of their own stupidity and short-sighted greed in the first place.

I will leave you all with one final anecdote. Napster, of course, is held up as the ultimate “villain” with regard to the so-called problem of online piracy. The letters I received as Librarian were addressed to the issue of books, not music. Yet I was struck by how often—perhaps in a hundred letters—the writers would mention their own experience with Napster. And, in every instance, stated that their purchases of CDs increased as a result of Napster—for the good and simple reason that because Napster enabled them to sample musicians, they bought music they would not otherwise have been tempted to buy because CDs are too expensive to experiment with.

Not enough? Well, check out what Janis Ian had to say. Or consider a personal anecdote: a few days ago, Ray Ortlund put up a blog post with a video of Quicksilver Messenger Service’s song “Pride of Man.” An embedded video, note. I’d never heard of the group before, and neither had Sara; we now own a copy of their “Best of” album, and I think there’s pretty good odds we’ll buy more before all is said and done. If the record labels had their way (or if, at any rate, they all operated like EMI), that sale would never have happened.

Yes, copyright is important. Yes, intellectual property is important. The laborer is worthy of his hire, after all. But using copyright as a club, seeking ever greater regulation of people’s behavior out of fear of what they might do, isn’t just philosophically problematic—it’s unprofitable, because it has a dampening effect and a chilling effect on the very market on which companies depend. A receding tide lowers all boats, but a rising tide lifts them. Just ask Eric Flint.

On art that can truly be called “Christian”

We in the church in this country tend to throw around terms like “Christian music” and “Christian fiction” pretty carelessly, without really thinking much about them, or what they mean, or even if they actually can mean anything at all. There’s a good argument to be made that only people can truly be called Christian.  W. H. Auden once declared that there cannot be “such a thing as a Christian culture” because “culture is one of Caesar’s things.” I’m beginning to understand what he meant, I think, and his point is one with which we must reckon.

That said—as Christians, as people made in the image of God, we are most definitely called to be culture makers; in Tolkien’s terms, we were made to be sub-creators working under our great Creator, and we have both the need and the responsibility to do so wisely and well, in a way that is true to our faith. As I wrote a while back,

Stories matter. They matter because they’re the stuff of our life, of our reality and our nature, and the expression of the creative ability we’ve been given by (and in the image of) the one who made us—and we matter. They matter because they affect us, moving our emotions and shaping our view of the world, both for good and for ill. And as a Christian, I affirm that they matter because everything we do matters, because the best of what we do will endure forever. And if they matter, then we need to take them seriously, both as readers and, for those of us so called, as writers—for our sake, and for everyone’s.

The same can be said, in a bit of a different way, for music, the visual arts, and for the other media in which we create; and if we want to call that “Christian art” as a shorthand, then the shorthand has value, assuming we realize that’s all it is. But that still leaves us asking, how do we do this—and when we do it, what exactly are we doing?

Among the folks who are wrestling well with this interlocking set of questions are the writers at the group blog Novel Matters; my wife pointed me this morning to a post there by Patti Hill that I think is particularly good. Of course, she has a real advantage because she starts off quoting Flannery O’Connor, which is always worth doing:

Ever since there have been such things as novels, the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty as possible.

To really understand where O’Connor is coming from in writing this, I think it’s important to add a couple other quotes from the same book:

Dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality. . . . It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight.

Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.

For O’Connor, then, I think we can fairly say that it’s our obligation as Christians to see the world truly and deeply, as it is rather than as we would like it to be—and that for those gifted and called to write or to create art in other ways (and if you are gifted, then you are called, in whatever way and to whatever degree), there is the further responsibility to represent reality in such a way that others can see more truly and deeply than they did before. Too many people (not just Christians, by any means) shy away from that, because as O’Connor says, it requires getting dirty—really digging into and dealing with the dirt of this world, because you cannot know this world and you cannot see it truly and you cannot portray it rightly without knowing and dealing with its dirt. There’s dirt all over the place, and in every human soul; you just can’t avoid it.

So then, how? Hill nails it, I think:

We look to Jesus.

No one saw the world more concretely than Jesus. A whore washed his feet with her tears. He not only made wine, he drank it. He touched leprous skin. He invited himself to a tax collector’s house for lunch. And, I’m thinking, he heard naughty words there. Caked with blood, spittle, sweat, and dirt he took the nails for us. Gruesome. Violent. Definitely off-putting. That’s crucifixion, the purest act of love.

To follow in the steps of Jesus, to write in a God-honoring, “dirty” way, we must see the world—as best we can—as Jesus sees it, with empathy, detail, and love. And so it is for the Christian writer to observe and portray the beauty and brutality and pain and suffering and redemption all through the eyes of love.

Yeah—that’s spot-on.

If it’s occurring to you that this all sounds like it’s not just about art, you’re right; after all, in a way, what we’re really asking here is how we’re supposed to create art as disciples of Christ—which is to say, how do we understand creation as discipleship—and that inevitably flips us around to the corollary: how do we understand discipleship as creation, as a process in which we stand under God our Creator as the sub-creators of our own lives, as the process of making our lives a work of art for God? As I’ve asked elsewhere, what does it mean for our lives to be poems for God?

Putting sin to death

I’ve read a lot of books on the Christian life over the years—that tends to be an occupational hazard of being a pastor, after all—and I can’t say I remember most of them; but one of the most important books I’ve ever read, one which has had a profound effect on my thinking, is a little book by the great Puritan pastor/theologian John Owen entitled On the Mortification of Sin in Believers. It’s a collection of sermons he preached on Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live”; Owen was a practical and pastoral theologian, and his concern was to lay out exactly how it is we may go about doing that.

It’s a splendid book, and of great value to anyone who wants to live a life pleasing to God, which is why I was pleased recently to discover two things. First, the full text of the book is available online through the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (which, by the way, is linked in the sidebar here; I’m not sure why it hadn’t occurred to me to look there for this book). Second, since Owen is a dense writer and no simple stylist, I was glad to find that Robert Thune has posted a brief outline of Owen’s argument, one which links in turn to a longer and more thorough outline of the book. I wouldn’t encourage reading either in lieu of Owen’s work, because there is so much good in the book, but they provide an excellent orientation to his argument. The longer outline in particular is a valuable reader’s guide.

What Owen is on to is a matter of great importance, and much neglected in the American church, which tends not to want to talk about the struggle against sin (or to take that struggle seriously); as such, his book may well be more important now than it was when it was written, for it provides a necessary corrective to our self-indulgent consumerist culture. It isn’t light reading, but it’s more than worthwhile, especially with Thune’s work to help, and I recommend it to anyone who’s serious about the Christian life.

The time that is given

In the great fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings, near the beginning of the first book, the wizard Gandalf tells the young hobbit Frodo Baggins, who will in the end be the great hero of the story, about the dark times in which they live, and the great challenges that lie ahead. Frodo, understandably, says he would rather live in happier times, times that aren’t fraught with such darkness; to which Gandalf responds, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

The time that is given. In modern Christianity, it’s almost an article of faith that C. S. Lewis was a very wise man; but it’s too easy for us to forget that his great friend J. R. R. Tolkien, the man who played the most important role in leading Lewis to faith, was also a very wise man—because we mostly know him for his fantasy stories. But there is very great wisdom in that line, wisdom rooted deep in Scripture, and particularly in the creation account. We are limited creatures. We are limited in our abilities—good at some things, bad at others—and while we can grow and develop, we’re limited in our ability to do so. We’re limited physically—I’d love to be able to play shortstop in the majors, but that was never even a vaguely plausible dream—and limited mentally as well. We’re limited by our gender, and to some degree by the societal expectations that go along with it. We’re limited in our ability to control or influence the world around us—we can only reach so far, and what is beyond our reach eludes us; our bodies stop at the edge of our skin, and everything beyond that is not-us, carrying on its existence apart from us.

And most fundamentally, we are limited by space and time—we are creatures of place, and of the time we have been given. We are creatures of the places we live and have lived, and we are creatures of our place in human history; we will never know the life of an English knight who fought with Henry V at Agincourt, or of a Russian revolutionary in October, 1917, or of one of the shoguns who ruled Japan in the 1800s. We were each born at a particular time, in a particular country, and have lived through a particular set of experiences; we know our life and no other.

This is how we are; and as Genesis shows us, we were created so. When God created the first human, he didn’t just drop him off to wander around, homeless; rather, he placed the human in a garden which had been created to be his home. God gave him a location, a home address, a neighborhood, even if his only neighbors had either four feet or wings, and he told the human, “Do your work in this place.” Today, he tells all of us the same: “Do your work in this place, the place where I have put you; follow me in this community, in the home where you live, in the family of which you are a part, in the relationships you have now.” As Eugene Peterson put it in his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, “All living is local: this land, this neighborhood, these trees and streets and houses, this work, these people,” and thus it is as locals that we must live out our faith, placing the word of God in the concrete reality of “this land, this neighborhood, . . . this work, these people”—and bringing it alive in our life in response to all the concrete frustrations, irritations, and problems that “this neighborhood, . . . this work, these people” bring us. It is this place on earth that gives our lives their shape.

It is also this place in time—and, more generally, time itself. As Genesis also tells us, we are creatures of time, our lives shaped and formed in every respect by time in its passing. We can see this in our bodies, which are a collection of rhythms—the rhythm of our breathing, in and out, in and out; of our pulse, the twofold beating of our hearts, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM; of sleeping and waking, as day succeeds night and night follows day in turn. We can see it in the rhythm of the seasons, spring-summer-fall-winter and spring again. We can see it in the music that threads its way through our lives, providing an ever-changing soundtrack to our existence, and in the flow of our movements as we walk, or run. And we can see it most fundamentally in Genesis 1, which shows us God creating the universe in time, in the flow of time, and shaping a rhythm: and God said, and God said, and God said, in six-part harmony—six parts to creation, and then a seventh part, the seventh day, the day of rest.

This is, by the way, true even if Genesis 1 isn’t talking about six 24-hour days; the point isn’t counting hours, it’s that this is the rhythm God built into creation, the rhythm for which we were created, of work and rest. Both are part of his design for our lives, and both are necessary if we are to live as he made us to live. Whether you’re still working for a living or you’re retired, God has work for you to do in this place; whether it’s necessary for you to support yourself or not, it’s a part of God’s plan for you, both for your sake and for the sake of others. He also has rest for you in this place, time set aside in his schedule for you to set work aside, during which we gather to worship him as one people; and together, together, they make up the base rhythm of life, the meter to which the poetry of our days is to be set. I should note, I am indebted to Cambridge theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie for that way of putting it, and more generally for his use of music to illuminate Christian theology.

The problem is, the world tries to convince us that limitations are a bad thing, and specifically that this limitation is a bad thing; but it isn’t. Think of our music, and I think you’ll understand, because in our Western musical tradition, meter is one of the standard limitations that gives shape and character to the work of composition. Think of 4/4—the time signature of a Sousa march, and many of our great hymns. “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” Or 3/4—I remember being told in elementary school that this was waltz time. I was, what, seven years old, I didn’t even know what a waltz was, but that’s what stuck with me—3/4 is for waltzes and Irishmen. “Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.” 6/8 is always fun—beat it in two, sing it in triplets. “In shady green pastures so rich and so sweet, God leads his dear children along.” And so on. The meter isn’t a straitjacket; you can vary the rhythms, throw in changes of time signature, whatever you will. But the meter provides the structure, the necessary base rhythm within which, and against which, all those other things can work to produce their desired effects. As another great Christian novelist, Flannery O’Connor, said, art transcends its limitations by remaining within them.

In the same way, God has given us this sevenfold rhythm of work and rest, of work and worship, to be the base rhythm of our lives. You don’t see too many songs written in seven, because that extra beat throws things out of the typical patterns, but I actually learned one this weekend. “What we have heard, what we have known . . .” It’s a setting of Psalm 78, and I don’t know if that’s why Greg Scheer wrote it in 7/8, but the time signature gives it a real sprightliness; the extra beat breaks it out of ordinary time into something else quite again. The same is true in our lives of the Sabbath, of the day of rest—it breaks us out of the ordinary time that our world and its economy would dictate, a straitjacket rhythm of work, work, work, work. That’s the driving beat of money and accumulation and more, more, more; it is, if you will, the meter of a life governed by nothing but material concerns and the desire for things. Think of it as 4/4 with never a change in tempo or stress and nothing but quarter notes in sight. But the Sabbath—the mere fact of this God-ordained day of rest throws us out of that meter; it fatally disrupts the profit-driven, consumer-driven, one-who-dies-with-the-most-toys-wins, all-about-me rhythms of this world, and shows us another way to live.

This is important, because as Genesis will show us in chapter 3, human sin disrupted the music for which God created us, and so the rhythms of our culture are now very much at odds with his will for us, and with the life for which he made us. As Dr. Begbie puts it, in calling us to focus on God and God alone, worship sets up a cross-rhythm in our lives—the rhythm of the cross, which runs counter to the pounding beat of our culture. God calls us to live very much across the grain of that culture, and we can’t just do that by main effort; our culture is too powerful. It’s like the big black SUV stopped next to us at the light with the bass cranked so high it’s shaking our car from the tires up. To overcome that overwhelming sound, we need consistent, steady exposure to the cross-rhythm of worship—to what Eugene Peterson, in his translation of the Bible, rendered as “the unforced rhythms of grace.” We cannot work our way into a truly Christlike life, because we learn to work from the world, and we learn to work in its way; but if we cannot force it, we can let God’s unforced rhythms of grace carry us along, as we learn to worship. We can focus our minds and hearts on him, opening our lives to his rhythm, and in so doing, allow him to transform us. Instead of trying to beat our own time, we can accept the time our great Conductor has given us, and let him direct us on.

(Cross-posted from Of a Sunday)