Thursday, December 08, 2016

Who's In Charge Here?

President-Elect Donald Trump has all but declared that he will not appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton, as he promised during the campaign. The number of popular and energizing promises that Mr. Trump made before the election which are now being scuttled continues to rise. Some cynical political commentators might say that during the campaign Mr. Trump lied to get votes.

I don’t think Mr. Trump lied on the campaign trail. I think he was acting. Donald Trump was acting aggressive, mean-spirited, and vindictive because he knew (or intuited) that this fa├žade would gain him votes. Like a poker player acting calm with his straight flush in hand, or a negotiator acting like he has the power position, Mr. Trump broadcasts whatever is necessary to make the deal that he wants to make.

Take one step further into this semi-metaphor of acting. Actors do not make films. Writers compose the script, producers arrange the logistics. And directors, as the name implies, really guide the show. Even the best of actors, with poor direction, can turn a good script into a disaster. Actors are lost without a good director.

We have seen what a good actor Mr. Trump is. We know that he can follow the direction of a discontented citizenry who believes that they have been put last on the agenda. We know that he can follow the direction of the real estate market and international business interests. We know that he works well under the direction of reality television rubrics.

In less than two months, Mr. Trump will be the President of the United States. The question is not whether he will be able to act well in that role. The star actor has stolen the show already. The crucial questions are different. Who will his director be? Who in fact will be running the show?

~ emry

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

On Character

A dear friend recommended to me David Brooks' book The Road to Character (Random House, 2015), and she commended it with such strength that I put it on my short list.

Brooks takes up the centuries-old question of how to cultivate strong character. In the introduction he quickly gives up on the idea of teaching character, relying instead on the exemplar, the hero, as the font of maturity and goodness at which the rest of us may drink. In making this decision, Brooks destines The Road to be both intriguing and unsatisfying.

The book intrigues with its explorations of historical figures of deep character. Brooks offers brief but intense biographies of eight famous persons. The way he highlights the peaks and valleys of their lives reveals the vast amount of research and thinking he has done about these figures. His scope spans from the fifth century (Augustin of Hippo) to Bayard Rustin of the mid-1900s. (One could hope that Brooks had increased his geographic scope. He stays in the Western European stream, though examples of character like Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi present themselves readily from other parts of the globe.) Brooks reflects in great depth on experiences that shaped these heroes, whitewashing nothing but asserting that all parts of a person's life contribute to their character. Even without the goal of finding a path to character, The Road is worth a read for the fascinating discussion of these eight personalities.

His good-bad-ugly approach arises from Brooks' "crooked-timber" model of human nature. Throughout the book, he laments the loss of past generations' understanding of the self as deeply flawed, sinful, and in need of control. Though Brooks dodges a simplistic definition of "character," every chapter directly or indirectly shows that struggle with one's darkness gives birth to character. And without the struggle--as his critique of author Michel de Montaigne suggests--real character never comes to life. Beneath his writing is Brook's anchor-hold on "moral realism": Humans are complex creatures because there is, in fact, a right and wrong and we live between those sides. The struggle--within and without--to find the right in the midst of the wrong creates character.

The tone of The Road teeters dangerously close to nostalgia at many points. In the final chapter Brooks attempts to soften the charge against our present generation by saying that the cultural swing of 1950s America went too far. Self-esteem and affirmation are all right, he asserts, but too much has been forgotten. Whether The Road is a condemnation of or corrective to our current culture must be left to the reader to decide. Perhaps the struggle of that judgment will be character-building in itself.

The Road leaves the reader unsatisfied. One might expect from any book entitled "The Road to . . ." to provide some sort of map. And in the final chapter Brooks offers "the Humility Code": 15 things that attempt to summarize what the book has been getting at. The list is however bulky and awkward, perhaps because of its attempt to be inclusive, and offers none of the helpful "shall/shall not"s that we expect from a "code." This weakness in the text serves, on the other hand, to illustrate Brook's point.

There exists no code for the development of character. The stories of those who show good character--as famous as Frances Perkins and Nelson Mandela, or as unknown as my grandmother--are the instruction books for wisdom and maturity. And we ought not to neglect the great silent player, unmentioned in much of Brooks' book: the cause of suffering. Suffering itself comes up many times as the agent of character-building struggle, but the cause of suffering seems so often beyond summoning or control. Catastrophe, abuse, illnesses mental and physical, economic hardship--these all serve as crucibles in which character takes shape.

Perhaps great hope for Brooks' beleaguered generation comes from some impending suffering, some revelation of its own darkness, that will call forth the kind of struggle that brought character in the past. All is not lost: If we are indeed made from "crooked timber," then this hull of cultural positivism will soon breach and we will be cast into the tide of hardship to sink or swim. And in the swimming many more exemplars of good character will be born.

Thanks, Phyllis, for recommending this book!

~ emrys

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Expanding Legacy

Dois Rosser stands as an example of someone who uses immense giftedness for good. A seasoned Christian, capable businessman, and dedicated philanthropist, Rosser's life work has become helping small Christian communities in developing nations build worship buildings and spawn new congregations.

The 2011 memoir, The God Who Hung on the Cross: How God Uses Ordinary People to Build His Church, published by International Cooperating Ministries, presents the highlights of ICM's twenty-five years of Spirit-driven work. The fascinating and powerful stories of generosity, determination, and faithfulness reveal what an exciting calling it is to follow the God of Resurrection into unlikely places.

The book presents a series of vignettes from ICM's work which are poignant, funny, startling, and inspirational--at times simultaneously so. The weaving together of these stories creates the picture of a man--Dois Rosser--and his fellow Christians who will go anywhere, eat anything, and talk to anyone in service to Jesus Christ. With just a little money (by American standards) and a great deal of persistence and prayer, ICM gives Christian communities a hand up to creating their own houses of worship. Part of the "payback" is that these communities covenant to plant several new churches in future years. Thus, in the process of helping to construct hundreds of buildings around the world, ICM has helped to create thousands of new congregations.

Add to this the Mini Bible College translation program, which has worked hand-in-hand with ICM, and the dividends of blessing multiply to an even greater degree.

Even if we call can't be a part of International Cooperating Ministries, would that we all could use our talents to multiply God's blessings in such an intentional manner. This book leaves me wondering how I can be part of such a wonderful legacy.

Thanks to Nancy Croker, member of ICM's Board, for giving me a copy of the book!

~ emrys

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

After Reading Billy Collins' book: Aimless Love (2013)

Poetry Is

like a conversation with my physicist friend
whose eloquent descriptions of molecular interactions
leave me wondering
whether we speak the same language

until I realize
with a big silent bang
as I run to catch up with her words
that the results of her labor

have changed the way I tell time
and have put a global web of information at my fingertips
and in one Oppenheimerian flash
could change the course of civilization,

and I am struck by awe
not at how different we are
but at the eerie perfection with which
she understands the smallest parts
of me.

~ emrys

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Stand Up for Truth

I am fascinated by the current discussion--which description may be giving the participants greater honor than their words deserve--about athletes "taking a knee" during the playing of the national anthem. Though the great emotional charge of black citizens killed by police transfers easily to any event even loosely connected to it, that intensity is not what keeps my attention.

I am already convinced that race relations in our country require continued, sustained attention. I am already convinced that I am not competent to comment on the employer-employee relationship between athletes and their management (and the restrictions that may be there).

I keep chewing on the question of whether it is ultimately good for Megan Rapinoe, Colin Kaepernick, and their colleagues to express social protest in this way. Is their expression "disrespectful"? And, if so, what should I make of it?

Those following the story will be familiar with the response of--to name one thoughtful and outspoken commentator--Bill O'Reilly, which points out flaws in Kaepernick's protest. Most of the same observers will also be familiar with the response of Hrafnkell Haraldsson, which furthers the discussion by suggesting flaws in O'Reilly's argument.

I do not know whether Kaepernick's action was "disrespectful." I do suspect that this judgment arises entirely from personal opinion rather than arguable grounds. As for the goodness of the gesture, I am reminded of some words of John Stuart Mill, whose philosophical work On Liberty seems to resonate with the very ideals for which the American flag stands. He wrote:

"The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error" (On Liberty, Chapter 2, Leonardo's kindle version location 289).

Kaepernick's action will serve, I hope, to keep up the conversation about race relations in our country. It will also spark thoughtful conversations about the right ways and proper fora in which to protest: conversations that will ring in high school locker rooms, living rooms, and perhaps even on morning news shows. Some may decide kneeling during the national anthem is disrespectful; some may decide not to condemn it, but never to do it; some may be challenged to consider what problem might trouble them so deeply that the act would be worth the public scorn. And all those conversations, all those decisions, will touch on the matter of freedom, giving us a "clearer perception and livelier impression of truth."

Thank you, Mr. Kaepernick, Ms. Rapinoe, and so many others, for driving us to consider the issues that really matter.

~ emrys

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Certainty Craving Disorder

Now the commentators (not the journalists, I think--there is a distinction) are calling for both candidates to publicize their medical records.

Let's set aside for a moment (in a move similar to suspension of disbelief) that there is no law that in order to run for president a candidate must publicize his or her medical records.

What are the commentators looking for? When they blame imaginary "voters who want to know," what are they accusing voters (like me) of wanting? What information would help me to make a better (distinguish, please, from the vacuous "more informed") decision on election day?

Perhaps if I knew that one candidate had suffered pneumonia four times in the last fifteen years, I would deduce . . . what? Perhaps if I knew that one candidate was taking medication for high blood pressure (but that the numbers were presently "under control"), I would deduce . . . what?

I expect that, with medical records in hand, the commentators will parade before us medical experts (suitably vetted to deem the opposing candidate's cholesterol to be nearly fatal), and then it will fall to us not only to judge the candidate's positions on issues but also to judge their physical fitness for the next four-year term. As if I didn't have enough filtering to do already.

I can't wait until Congress passes a law requiring candidates to reveal the contents of their genome--I will be able to make a much better decision, then!

Privacy issues aside (see line 2 above), this frenzy grows out of an assumption that medical history is an accurate predictor of near-future vitality. This assumption is false. While individuals are wise to chart a life course based on the general trends of their medical history, an electorate that guesses whether its candidate will become physiologically unable to govern sometime in the next four years is foolish. There is no way that we can meaningfully predict the future health of our candidates, no matter how much medical information we have.

Your job, dear voter: Ignore it. Ignore the frenzy, attend to the issues, listen to the debates.

If you really are concerned about the candidates' physical durability; if you really do fear that your vote might go to someone doomed to the grave in the next four years; if you want to make sure that good governance will go uninterrupted through the next term; then make sure you vote for a good vice-presidential candidate.

~ emrys

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Clarifying Tool

Sometimes a little help to cut through the verbal clutter is in order. I found this quiz, which calls for me to get clear on my stance on issues first, helpful in aligning my issue choices with a presidential candidate:

Still much more reading to do, but this helps narrow the field a bit.

I'm hoping I can find a similar site for congressional candidates . . . though that may be too much to ask (given the number of candidates). We'll see.

~ emrys

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Frozen and Empty

Jessica Valenti's Sex Object: A Memoir (2016, HarperCollins): heartbreaking. Valenti recounts a harrowing, life-spanning series of encounters in which she is abused, depersonalized, and objectified. Even if her case is extreme, anyone in twenty-first-century American culture must encounter it with horror. A grotesque cavalcade of perverts, miscreants, aggressive boyfriends, and silent watchers--many of whom qualify as "normal people"--leaves the author of Sex Object empty except for fear, and frozen before the possibility of genuine love.

The world around Valenti is inexorably evil. That evil devours the souls of girls and women by making their bodies the expendable tools of self-satisfaction. The ubiquity of the darkness makes every relationship part of the spirit-killing trap: "If we have no place to go where we can escape that reaction to our bodies, where it is that we're not forced? The idea that these crimes are escapable is the blind optimism of men who don't understand what it means to live in a body that attracts a particular kind of attention with magnetic force" (kindle location 898).

I lived some of my life on the other side of this shadow, these crimes. I helped, over many years of my life, to perpetuate the objectification of girls and women with my own beliefs and actions. It has taken me a long time to realize the dark truth of Valenti's experience--which I'm sure is the experience of many more women than we can guess.

I am also struck with horror at the possibilities opened up by Sex Object for my children--a young girl and a young boy. I am terrified by the prospect that either of my children--and, increasingly, any of the children around me--might have to endure even a slight fraction of what Valenti has endured. My daughter could be a victim like Valenti; my son could be a perpetrator like so many she describes. I am now sitting with the question of how to illumine the darkness around us.

The end of Sex Object surprised me with its abruptness. I did not expect Valenti to end with a sure-fire prescription for change. I was not sure even to hope for a list of suggestions. I did expect encouragement, perhaps a plea, perhaps even a direct chastisement (consonant with the tone of the book) to fight for change: a "dear reader" challenge. Perhaps its subtitle, A Memoir, was supposed to exempt it from those expectations. Or, perhaps the book was intended to leave us in a dark and doubtful place.

Or perhaps I tend to look too much for hope. I heard almost none in Sex Object. The "endnotes," a profane litany of evil responses sent to Valenti's past work, provided the frost on a frozen and empty vessel. In my aching search for hope, I observed two things about the narrative of Sex Object.

First, I did not read about any positive community around Valenti. Family, friends, teachers, colleagues--and of course boyfriends--were sources of fear. If positive, supportive, consistent voices might have done something--no matter how small--to counter the vicious violence of her sexualized world, Valenti was deprived of that possibility.

Second, the seeming antidote to love's destruction--genuine, tender care and love--does not work quickly or readily. Valenti writes about encountering kindness after years of perversion: "Being treated nicely felt wrong somehow, as if we were acting out what a relationship should be rather than being in it" (location 1334). As I read along and got invested in Valenti's story, this stuck in me as an excruciating conundrum: to be so twisted by evil as to be unable to recognize good. (It reminds me of Jesus' blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.) Recovery from objectification must then be a long road--perhaps too long a road for this book to trace.

~ emrys

Friday, September 09, 2016

Things That Matter

The few times that I have been exposed to network news yielded the even fewer times that I have heard the commentary of Charles Krauthammer. But those few times have made me think more deeply about the topics at hand. So I borrowed my mom's copy of Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes, and Politics by Krauthammer (Crown Forum (Penguin Random House), 2013).

Krauthammer's duo of complimentary gifts is witty concision and brilliant incision. He cuts to the quick, as a physician of ideas and therapist of words, to find the core and source of the issue at hand. And though his book touches on various and sundry topics--science, ethics, and baseball for instance--the "driver of history" is, for Krauthammer, politics.

He is a dedicated, wise, and articulate conservative. "Conservative" here refers not to a sweeping desire to keep things the same, but holding fast the twin anchors of individual liberty and limited government. Krauthammer's conservatism draws from his pen--ever more starkly evident in this book as the pages turn--stinging criticism of the Democratic party and American Liberalism, especially the kind he sees in the Obama administration. (Given Krauthammer's clear capacity in the book to praise strong individuals, I am surprised at the lack of support for the Bush presidencies. Perhaps he did that more in other venues.)

Krauthammer's articulate demarcation of the boundaries and ideals of conservatism and liberalism have forced me to examine my own values. I don't know whether to call myself a liberal or a conservative (socially, politically, or academically). But now I must wrestle with Krauthammer's compelling arguments. They are arguments which, like all the best arguments, call attention as much to their premises as to their conclusions. And just as the assertion that "politics is the driver of history" is an article of faith, liberty as greatest good and American exceptionalism (historical and existential) are articles of faith. What do I believe about human liberty, and a nation's role with respect to liberty? Is the United States of America exceptional in a meaningful sense? What is the character of its exception? And how does that shape my actions as a citizen?

Most importantly for my current position in the global scene: For whom do I vote in November?

I am weighing a thought that occurred to me as I finished the last essay in Things That Matter: perhaps a good (or the best?) criterion I can use as a voter is not whether I agree with all the policy and personality traits of a candidate. Perhaps a better, or more fundamental, criterion is whether a candidate believes the way I do about what America is supposed to be.

These are beginning thoughts. More to come, I'm sure.

~ emrys

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Sharpening Your Roots

The September 2016 issue of The Atlantic (page 20) has a vignette about "Canada's ax-hurling renaissance": Backyard Axe Throwing Leagues. Besides the obvious genetic attraction I experienced reading the article, I was struck by the League's founder's description of its mission: "to show people the power of being good to each other, using the axe as a tool to build community inspired by our backyard roots."

"The power of being good to each other." I'm a fan of that. Ditto for building community.

Reading further into the article, however, I noticed a theme in the monikers and terminology used by this community. Ax-hurler nicknames seemed to run along the lines of "Arm" and "Killface." The attraction of ax-hurling amounted to "murdering a wood target for an hour" for catharsis. Montreal's Rage Axe Throwing "promises a violently good time."

Be good to each other . . . by venting rage and murder. Strange.

Perhaps these contradictory descriptions arise from ax-hurling's origins in an inarticulate "primal man," honored in the League's oath: "Remember primal man / who only had his hands / who forged in fire and steel / the tools to kill his meal." "Primal man" here refers back to the inspiration for the oath, Conan the Barbarian.

God help us if our model for community is the golden age of Conan.

And, while I'm wondering on this phenomenon: What does "our backyard roots" mean?

~ emrys

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Family Dialects

Moving from 1900 square feet in Harpursville, NY to 1000 square feet in Pagosa Springs, CO means opening a lot of boxes and doing triage on what to keep. Part of this process is, for me, unsealing boxes of records and memorabilia from my dad's estate (he died in 2005) and finally rifling through it.

My dad kept many letters from family members--including a host that were from his parents' storage. So I find myself reading letters from my great aunt Louisa to her brother, my grandfather. Grandpa Tyler's name was George (Horsley), but when writing, Louisa never addressed him as such. Her name for him was "Keats." It took me some time to figure out who the players were, because Aunt Louisa always signed her letters to him "Weed."

I think "Keats" stuck to Grandpa because he fancied himself a poet, or at least enough to have impressed his little sister. "Weed" stuck to Louisa not for the reasons one humorously suspects in 2016 Colorado, but probably because she was a younger sister but growing fast.

Weed signed her correspondence to Keats "Siempre, Weed"--reflecting another facet of the Tyler side of the family: a love of many languages. It is not uncommon in correspondence between my dad, his siblings, their parents, and their extended family, to find postcards written entirely in French or German. And it is very common to see phrases or sentences appear in any one of a number of foreign languages, certainly marking some inside family or personal experience.

I won't be saving most of these letters, but I hope to be able to savor them as I bring them out of the earth of storage. The process will be long--the Tyler family was known for its archiving ability. But c'est la vie!

~ emrys

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Vulcanized Angels

Maybe it was the excellent service rendered to me by local family-business mechanics in Harpursville for almost a decade, who also had a pretty relaxed attitude about worn parts. Maybe it was my suspicion that chain/franchise tire shops just want to sell tires. But I was skeptical when the mechanic at Firestone told me, "A few more minutes and you'll have cable sticking out of your tire. You need a new set."

If true, that's a little scary. I'm not a fan of tires blowing out under me.

So that you can judge for yourself, here's what my tires looked like:
See that bald strip on the inside? Close to the cables coming out?

I decided to bet on the rest of the tread and wait a little bit before getting new tires. So I drove it from New Hampshire to western Colorado: about 2200 miles. No flat tires, no blowouts, no cables sticking out.

Thank you Lord of vulcanized angels, keeping us safe on the road!

Now that we're here in Colorado to stay, I bought four new all-seasons. Chains for the mountain passes: coming soon!

~ emrys

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Tennyson's Idylls of the King

From The Holy Grail, as King Arthur addresses those few returned from the errant quest, of whom only a couple actually saw the Grail:

"For every fiery prophet in old times,
And all the sacred madness of the bard,
When God made music through them, could but speak
His music by the framework and the chord;
As ye saw it ye have spoken truth."

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Getting Played

My brother George, a gift-giving uncle extraordinaire, gave my daughter a book for her birthday. The book is about middle-school reading level, which is still a wee bit above my seven-year-old's abilities. But she'll get there soon.

So as to keep the book from languishing unattended on the shelf, I picked up Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game (1978, reprinted 2003). And I had trouble putting it down.

Thrilling, confusing, hilarious, strange, silly, and utterly compelling.

I actually pulled out pen and paper at one point, in an attempt to solve the puzzle at the center of this Clue-like mystery. I got one part, only to discover--like all of Raskin's characters along the way--that I had missed the point.

And when the point finally appeared, I was so intrigued that I went back and read the whole book again. And still:

Thrilling, confusing, hilarious, strange, and utterly compelling.

And through her strange style Raskin masterfully achieves the great goal of all novelists: I was so attached to the characters that I wept at our parting.

The Westing Game.

~ emrys

Friday, May 06, 2016

Renewing Biblical Interpretation

Renewing Biblical Interpretation (Scripture and Hermeneutics Series, Volume 1, 2000) was a challenging read. This collection of essays by academic theologians presents a great variety of material that was at times enlightening, obscure, and wandering, but consistently thoughtful. The unifying force of these authors' work was a sense of crisis in the world of biblical interpretation.

An academic text published in 2000 is old. Nonetheless, reading it in 2016 gave me a renewed appreciation for the bind of contemporary Western Christianity. 18th- and 19th- century historical-critical scholarship, and its sibling changes in philosophy, have together left the Western Church wondering how to interpret our 66 ancient texts. I knew about this difficulty, but Renewing Biblical Interpretation deepened my thought about how the Church handles her scriptures.

A few highlights of the book for me:

Al Wolters offered not only a theoretical 10,000-foot view of the crisis but also a process of interpretation (complete with example case) that included lexigraphical analysis, historical analysis, and "confessional discernment." From the stratospheric soaring of Cambridge academia Wolters' essay provided a refreshing visit to the earth and sea in which most faithful Christians live.

Karl Moller offers a helpful reminder that historical-critical scholarship can carry with it its own theological views and preferences. Rather than throw away historical-critical scholarship, Moller suggests (in harmony with several other contributors to this volume) that we "cultivate an awareness of our own subjectivity and cultural rootedness." He says that Christians need to allow "the text to criticize these and, by so doing, to contribute to . . . the reshaping of our own selves" (p157). My own understanding is that the Spirit through the text shapes and reshapes us, but Moller's point about the biases we bring to scripture is well taken.

Colin Greene's chapter (with the daunting title "'In the Arms of Angels': Biblical Interpretation, Christology and the Philosophy of History") provides an excellent overview of the rise and influence of historical-critical scholarship, and hence the rise of the crisis at hand. For any reader trying to grasp the sweeping historical moves in biblical scholarship, Greene's article is just the thing.

Stephen Wright draws a helpful distinction between the logos of the bible (what the words say), and the poiema of the bible (what the text does). He asserts that historical-critical work can benefit our listening to what the text does in the lives of believers and the Church.

I am intrigued by the references to (and short response by) Nicholas Wolterstorff. Wolterstorff seems to be a Christian philosopher focused on the import and effect of words, divine and human. Sometime I hope to get his kindle edition of Divine Discourse . . . .

Walter Brueggemann offers a reflection on the entire consultation (the gathering which gave rise to this book). A key insight from his piece is that though biblical interpretation has certainly been changing over time, the "crisis" has really come from the bible's place in society. For about 1500 years in Western society everyone was Christian and assumed that the bible was somehow the basis for our society. The ubiquity of assent to the bible is no longer true. Christians are no longer "preaching to the choir," but instead find they need to do "street preaching" (Brueggemann's term) with its concomitant heckling, disbelief, and challenges. I'm on board with his assessment.

The tap root to which this book delivered me was expressed in Brian Ingraffia's article, as he reflected on the work of Baruch Spinoza. From the latter's work Tractatus (15), Ingraffia quotes: "Revelation has obedience for its sole object, and therefore, in purpose no less than in foundation and method, stands entirely aloof from ordinary knowledge; each has its separate province, neither an be called the handmaid of the other" (p290). In my experience, this is still--and might always be--the cutting edge of biblical interpretation. As long as Christians believe that the most basic act of faith is to obey the bible, then they will be in conflict with all the other gods clamoring for obedience: reason, logic, and experience. We cannot serve two masters. If the bible, reason, logic, and experience (all refined by critical study) stand equally ready to serve God, the only master, then we have a hope of using all four in service to God.

I was disappointed to see only one female name in the grand list of authors for this volume. I was also disappointed in the silence of reflection from Latin American, African, and Asian theological perspectives. Perhaps the "crises" of those regions of Christianity would be very different from the reflections in this text; on the other hand, perhaps their crises and insights would be instructive to us Western European-derived traditions.

~ emrys

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Having It All

Neal Gabler authored an article for the May 2016 issue of The Atlantic with the cover title, "The Secret Shame of the Middle Class." In a piece that reads part confession, part expose, he describes the hidden plight of the so-called "middle class" in the United States. To wit: most folks trying to attain the U.S. Commerce Department's markers of "middle class"ness--"homeownership, a car for each adult, health security, a college education for each child, retirement security, and a family vacation each year" (p60)--also cannot afford an unexpected bill of $400-$2,000 without entering an enervating spiral of debt. In other words, most of America's "middle class" teeters on the edge of financial catastrophe.

Mr. Gabler describes his own flirtations with financial disaster, holding himself up as a representative case of this hidden "middle-class" problem. And the pairing of his personal experience with some unhappy statistics certainly suggests a cause of deep concern, perhaps especially during an election year when so many campaigns borrow on the political capital of the "middle class."

The mea culpas of Mr. Gabler invite a certain sympathy from the reader for their clear-eyed candor, even while they indict those peers who may be willfully engaging a similar neglect of financial wisdom. Such honesty is needed and welcome. The trend of honesty throughout the article did, however, make one omission stand out. That omission is set off starkly by a confession of commission:

"Basically, I screwed up, royally. I lived beyond my means, primarily because my means kept dwindling. I didn't take the actions I should have taken . . . . Maybe the 47 percent of American adults who would have trouble with a $400 emergency should have done things differently and more rationally. Maybe we all lived more grandly than we should have. But I doubt that brushstroke should be applied so broadly. Many middle-class wage earners are victims of the economy, and, perhaps, of that great, glowing, irresistible American promise that has been drummed into our heads since birth: Just work hard and you can have it all" (p62).

Feel the momentum of that last sentence: "victims," "irresistible," "since birth." Like an earthquake, lightning strike, or rare form of cancer, that "irresistible American promise" is a force of nature whose attraction relieves us of moral responsibility. Mr. Gabler omits the possibility that just as financial planning and wariness of credit ought to be part of our skill set, so desiring less ought to be part of our lifestyle. Poor financial stewardship does not comprise the full set of economic sin; the full set includes wanting to "have it all."

Mr. Gabler raises good questions about economics, financial practices, and the sustenance of "middle class" life. But especially if, as he hints, the current condition of the "middle class" is not just a "rough patch" but the new nature of our lives, we need to raise questions of the heart: how we define success, how we define needs and wants, how we define "enough." After all, no matter how much money I have, if my definition of "enough" is "a little bit more," I will always live in financial stress and court disaster.

The self-portrait painted in Mr. Gabler's article is agonizing. In its refusal of readers' sympathy it encourages the same, especially since so many seem likely to share its woes. And if the financial difficulties of the "middle class" are as widespread as this article suggests, all the more reason to discover not just an opiate but a cure. So what therapy can be administered for this epidemic ailment? That mysterious whirlwind called "the economy" is beyond my control; so I am left to effect only my own "eco-nomy"--the rule by which my household is run. And my household can be deliberately characterized by craving or by simplicity, by ambition or by gratitude. If, as Mr. Gabler put it, "my means keep dwindling," then I can scale back my life so that I am living within them. Easy? No. Heart-breaking? Perhaps. But if forced to make a choice (which force maybe the most offensive part to rugged self-made Americans), which is worse: Living with lower material expectations or living in the shadow of financial crisis?

If I want and need less, then it is easier to have enough. If I minimize the "all" that I want to have, then "having it all" becomes eminently possible.

~ emrys