The Beauty of Gridlock

(We the Fallen People 1)

Complaining about political gridlock is our new national pastime. Congress seems to get barely anything done. What would the Founding Fathers of the United States think about all this? They’d be delighted.

Why? Because it would mean that the Constitution was working as intended—making change difficult and slow.

How did they achieve this? By spreading out power among various groups nationally (the executive, legislative, and judicial branches) and sharing it with the states (which have their own executive, legislative and judicial branches, as well as city and county divisions). We call this a system of checks and balances, and separation of powers. The intentional result, sometimes, is gridlock.

Why did they do this? Because they didn’t trust human nature.

In this first of a series of posts, I will unpack this story and several others told by Robert Tracy McKenzie in We the Fallen People, one of the most important, insightful, and worthwhile books of recent years. This vital work not only gives us some fascinating history but also offers key observations and wisdom for our own day.

So why didn’t the Founders trust human nature? “The problem as they understood it,” McKenzie writes, “is not that we’re wholly evil; it’s that we’re not reliably good” (p. 17). “The Founders were realists. They exhorted Americans to revere and practice virtue. They didn’t expect it” (p. 42).

Checks and balances are especially important because they didn’t want one person or group to be easily able to impose its will on others. While they rejected the potential tyranny of king, they also rejected the potential tyranny of the majority—even a majority of white males who were the only ones who could vote.

Hamilton observed that “this is why we have government in the first place: ‘because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint’” (p. 54).

The Founders were not perfect themselves in avoiding this problem—witness the tyranny of the majority of white males over slaves and Native Americans, and the absence of political representation by white women.

It may sound strange that they distrusted democracy, but it explains why originally the Constitution called for senators to be elected indirectly by the state legislators. It’s also why they didn’t want the President elected directly but through the Electoral College.

How things have changed! Today most Americans as well as most Christians (according to polls) reject the underlying assumption of the Founders that human nature is driven by self-interest, often at the expense of others. We the people now believe in the goodness of human nature—at least the goodness of American human nature. And if not that, then at least the goodness of those we agree with!

We the people have no doubts about how good and noble and true are our opinions, our motivations, and our goals. The Founders believed we should be very suspect of exactly these things, and they built that understanding into the Constitution.

Remarkably, the shift about human nature from the realism of the Founders to the optimism of today did not begin with Oprah Winfrey or Thomas Harris’s 1960s bestseller I’m OK—You’re OK or Norman Vincent Peale’s radio show from the 1930s and his The Power of Positive Thinking. What David Brooks has labeled in The Road to Character as the age of “the Big Me,” McKenzie tells us, began two centuries ago with the election of Andrew Jackson.

We’ll look at that story from We the Fallen People in my next post.

Image by Wenhan Cheng from Pixabay

Dante and Darth Vader

With the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante this month, I read his Inferno for the first time. Much was as expected, yet I was surprised as well.

I knew that in the book Dante is taken on a tour of hell with the ancient Roman poet Virgil as his guide. The best-known line, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” greeted me as it greeted Dante on entering the underworld. There he found descending circles of the damned for such sins as lust, greed, violence, fraud, and betrayal.

Dante was not only a poet but a political figure in Florence around the year 1300. So he achieves a certain measure of revenge while in exile by writing his epic and describing the gruesome punishments of his enemies. He and Virgil also meet other political, financial, and religious notables from that era of Italian history.

What surprised me was that they also encounter not only those from ancient Greek history but also from Greek mythology. At first this seemed to be an odd syncretism, a strange mixture of two religions. On reflection, however, I think this was Dante’s attempt to integrate everything into his Christian world view. For him, even pagan myths must submit to the Christian story.

It would be like integrating the Star Wars universe or the world of Harry Potter into a biblical cosmology, where Darth Vader and Dumbledore both find themselves under the sway of a powerful Creator God who nonetheless uses sacrifice to resolve all storylines, reconcile all things, renew hope, and make everything right.

Christian theology, as it should, often sees history in God’s hands, how he oversees and guides events for his purposes. We also need to read, see, and hear artists tell stories that show how all the tales of human imagination reflect and bow to the Great Story.

That is a journey for which Dante acts as our guide.

Dante image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay; Darth Vader image by Voltordu from Pixabay

Reading the Times

For the last dozen years I have consistently avoided the news, and I feel I am a better person for it. In the spirit of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Jeffrey Bilbro goes even deeper in his literary, social, and theological analysis found in Reading the Times.

Bilbro hits his stride in Part Two with his penetrating comments on time. That may seem especially theoretical, but it makes all the difference whether we are beholden to chronos time (chronology; quantitative clock time) or kairos time (often defined as qualitative moments of significance). The news is imprisoned by chronos. It isolates and disconnects events from their meaning and leaves us barren.

The author goes even further, saying that with kairos time “history’s true meaning emerges in the light of Christ’s life.” Our lives are not empty, trivial moments that are doomed to be forgotten centuries and millennia hence. Rather, quoting Paul Griffiths, “the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus lie at the heart of time. . . . Time is contracted by these events, pleated and folded around them, gathered by them into a tensely dense possibility.” Every laugh, every tear, every act of love is caught up in the kairos of Christ for eternity. Death is defeated. In Christ, nothing is lost.

How do we apply all this to the dilemma of our current hyper-contentious news environment? Bilbro, perhaps surprisingly, critiques the conventional wisdom that we need more fact checking and that we need to diversify our news feeds. I’ll let you read the book to find out why, but here’s a hint: it has to do with forming community.

In this way Bilbro offers more ways forward than Postman. “Instead of allowing the news to create our communities, Christians should seek to help their communities create the news.” This can begin with the simple act of walking our neighborhoods rather than isolating ourselves in cars or behind screens. On another level we can, for example, pursue redemptive publishing by reading, he suggests, things like Civil Eats, American Conservative, The Atlantic, Commonweal, Hedgehog Review and more.

This book is so much more than about the news. It is a rich and profound book about life. And you can easily find the time to read it with all the free time you will have from not following the news.

Image by Q K from Pixabay

What’s So Funny About God?

With images of sober-faced priests, sour-faced Puritans, and stern-faced evangelists firmly embedded in our corporate psyche, it can be rather jarring to ask the question in the title of Steve Wilkens book, What’s So Funny About God?

Wilkens faces another challenge. The few books about humor and theology are decidedly unfunny. He combats this trend with a light, breezy style that enhances rather than hides his content.

Standard categories of humor are embedded in our theology. We have irony (the Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign right after he feeds five thousand), political satire (the gross excesses of the Persian Empire in Esther), reversal (the happy surprise of Easter), paradox (life comes from death; we are both saved and sinners).

Then there is the incongruity of the “high and low, animal and exalted” wrapped up in God’s most amazing creation—human beings made in his image. We are astounding spiritual beings who also poop. No wonder Gnostics didn’t believe Jesus became human. They had no sense of humor!

In addition, amidst his insightful comments, Wilkens liberally sprinkles in jokes (relevant to the points he is making). A few favorites:

Two cows are standing in the field. One asks the other, “Are you worried about this mad cow disease going around?” The other relies, “Why should I be? I’m a helicopter.”

Medium-sized church building for sale. Sleeps four hundred.

Saying “I’m sorry” and “I apologize” usually mean the same thing. Except at a funeral.

The book finds the funny in Christmas, Easter, everyday life, and the end times (“Does This Eschatology Make My End Look Big?”). The thing about comedy, which is also true of this book, is that it sneaks in deep truth when we aren’t looking. Among these is the discovery that not only can we love God, we can also enjoy him.

photo credit: Robert Owen-Wahl (Pixabay)

The Choices We Make

In Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, Nora Seed (single, unemployed and 35) is full of regrets. Every facet of her life has lapsed into failure. She decides to end it all, but unexpectedly finds herself in the Midnight Library. Here she has an opportunity to try a succession of different lives by reversing past decisions.

In one life she continues her teen swimming career instead of dropping out. In another she pursues rock music instead of university. Then she chooses science rather than philosophy. Once she accepts an invitation to coffee instead of declining.

In each life, however, she doesn’t go back to the point of decision. Rather she picks up that life at age 35 and sees where it has taken her. As a result she grapples with her life, with the nature of choices, the importance of relationships, the meaning of regret, and what she truly values and desires.

Matt Haig’s moving and thoughtful book highlights the significance of our decisions. They matter and truly make a difference. Helping an elderly neighbor, befriending a troubled teen—these can have life-changing consequences for us and for others. We are not trapped in eddies of meaningless. In addition, no matter what choices we have made (good or bad, wise or foolish), we can still make decisions in the life we have right now that can move toward redemption.

Haig goes too far, however, in embracing the uniquely American myth (though Haig is British) that anybody can be anything. We do not live in a world of infinite possibilities, as the book posits. I could never have been a professional basketball player regardless of the decisions I made. And millions can never become world famous who are locked in generational cycles of poverty with minimal options for education, career tracks, parental nurture, and health care. If a few can break out, the exceptions prove the rule.

Our lives will not be perfect. Nonetheless, we can grow wiser and more compassionate. And that is no small thing.

Vital Lessons from Countries in Crisis

Poet Steve Turner wrote, “History repeats itself. Has to. No-one listens.”

The tragedy is that smart people continually think they are exceptions to the rules. Ironically, people who don’t think they are too smart are better off because they believe they can benefit from the experience of others.

In Jared Diamond’s recent book, Upheaval, the author focuses on what we can learn from countries in crisis. He tells the fascinating stories of six countries over the last two hundred years who each faced a major turning point—some navigating those moments with great success and others with less. What makes Diamond’s book particularly insightful is that he has visited each of the countries dozens of times and speaks the language fluently in all but one.

We encounter Finland (Russia’s invasion, 1939), Japan (Commodore Perry’s arrival, 1853), Chile (Pinochet’s coup in 1973), Indonesia (the countercoup of 1965), Germany (postwar recovery, 1945-1990), and Australia (separation from England, 1940-80). Other than postwar Germany, I only knew the barest outline of the stories he tells, and found his tales absorbing.

What factors contributed to handling crises well? Among a dozen he names are facing reality squarely, accepting responsibility rather than blaming others, letting go of doctrinaire commitments, being willing to modify some elements of national identity while retaining others. In light of these, Diamond then considers the prospects for the unresolved crises today in Japan, in the United States, and in the world as a whole.

I found the chapter on Chile to be notably unnerving. Chile had a long democratic tradition, identifies with Europe rather than Latin America, and enjoys protection from invasion by significant geographic features. Yet when the left, right, and center parties in Chile all refused to compromise, the country descended into cruelty, violence, and oppression for twenty years, from which it has still yet to fully recovered.

Chile’s lessons of inflexible, extreme partisanship loom especially large for the present-day United States. Every government leader and concerned citizen should absorb the warnings and wisdom of this book if we wish to navigate our future together successfully.

The Fruit-Tree Structure

One challenge in writing a book is how to structure it. Putting all the material together in a coherent package is tough. Where to start, where to finish, how to best arrange things in the middle, and what to leave out(!)—it can all be rather daunting.

In Write Better I include a chapter offering a dozen common options for organizing a nonfiction book. But there are dozens more, and when I read a new book, I am always on the alert for effective ways writers use for presenting their ideas.

Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy is an important book on an important topic that also offers an interesting structure that could well work for others. The main focus is the story of Walter McMillian, an innocent man who was sentenced to death row in Alabama. His case and how Stevenson became involved is fascinating and dramatic.

But every ten pages or so Stevenson pulls back from this tale and gives background information regarding related aspects of the justice system—trying minors as adults, sentencing practices in different regions, the use of solitary confinement, the political history of Alabama. These topics branch off the main trunk of the memoir like branches of a tree laden with heavy, nutritious fruit.

Stevenson also includes flashbacks on his own story or tells how he was building his organization (as a subplot, if you will) in parallel to the McMillian case. If Stevenson had structured the book around these “side” issues, readers could have gotten glassy eyed when statistics are piled up or legal precedents are detailed. But since that information is wrapped in a compelling story—it makes all the difference.

In addition, that content is presented in an emotional package of his passion that we as readers get involved with, being incensed about the many outrageous stories of injustice that he tells along the way. As readers we end up caring and wondering what we can do too.

As you think about writing a book, then, consider whether or not you have a story that:

♦    you were personally involved with
♦    stretched out over a period of years
♦    had barriers and problems that needed to be overcome
♦    touches on a variety of substantive issues you are concerned about that could branch off of your main storyline, and
♦    has a narrative arc that builds tension, has setbacks, and perseveres to a resolution that gives hope

I think you could find this a very fruitful approach.

photo: Hans Braxmeier, Pixabay

Reading Camus in Time of Covid

Reading Camus in time of Covid with my fifteen-year-old grandson has been one of the many unexpected twists of this past year. Somehow he became interested in the existentialists. I thought Camus’s book The Plague might be the easiest way in since it is a novel (rather than dense philosophy) and because of its timeliness.

Much in the story resonates with our times: the denial, uncertainty, and fear when the plague begins; the fixation on daily death tolls; the frustration and anger with the constraints of the quarantine; the “feeling of exile—the sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past” (65*); the relief when after a year the plague finally begins to abate.

Ultimately, the book remains a parable for all human existence. “What does that mean—‘plague’?” asks one character. “Just life, no more than that” (277). We are locked down in this life with the random threat of death hanging over us. How do we make sense of it all when death takes so many young and old, rich and poor, good and evildoers—yet arbitrarily allows so many in each group to remain?

Early on a priest says he can make sense of it (as God’s judgment) though at the end his theology fails when he sees a small child die after prolonged suffering. A conman makes sense of it by taking advantage of the hardships of others only to revert to depression when the plague lifts. A writer plows ahead with his novel, day by day and month by month, yet never gets beyond the first sentence. A doctor seeks meaning by doggedly helping others even when his efforts often have little effect.

In this doctor, Rieux, we find Camus’s best model for “becoming a saint without God” (230). He makes courageous choices that assert the meaning and value of human life in the face of crushing absurdity. He lives as if he has hope without evidence to support it.

Camus has done us a great service by focusing our attention on the most basic and profound questions we can face. Where do we find meaning when life can seem pointless? If God exists, what kind of God is he? What is doing good? How should we live when the plague of death has infected us all?

*Page numbers refer to the Modern Library Edition, 1947. 1948.

Image: Conmongt Pixabay

The Vaccine Hero

This week I am scheduled to receive my Covid-19 vaccine. To mark the occasion I am republishing here my blog from June 23, 2016.

My sister died because of a vaccine . . . a vaccine she never received. On a September morning in 1952, at the age of seven, Lucy Rae Le Peau contracted polio and died that afternoon. The vaccine that would have saved her life would not be developed for another year.

It was a vaccine my grieving mother prayed for desperately, especially because her three other children, including me, were still vulnerable to the terrifying disease. Every year thousands of children across the United States were struck with it, peaking the year my sister died with over 57,000 cases, of whom 3,145 died.

Jeffrey Kluger’s Splendid Solution tells the captivating story of how a determined Jonas Salk, despite his junior status in the field and controversial approach, skillfully pushed through his inactive or killed virus vaccine. His rivalry with the intimidating Albert Sabin, who opposed Salk at nearly every turn, provides even more drama to a tale that has plenty of its own.

Another important subplot interwoven with the main narrative is how Franklin Roosevelt, himself a polio survivor, established the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation in 1927 with his friend Basil O’Connor. In 1938 this fundraising juggernaut was transformed into the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) still under O’Connor’s direction. Later it became the well-known March of Dimes. The foundation was instrumental in funding Salk’s team and others. O’Connor also facilitated collaboration in a somewhat competitive and secretive field, bringing leading scientists together to share results and provide overall guidance.

As a side note, the wife of IVP author Kenneth Bailey, Ethel (née Milligan), was a microbiologist working under Salk in Pittsburgh. She and the rest of the research team were among the first to receive the vaccine before it was tested on others to assure its safety. Then followed carefully monitored tests on several hundred children in the area.

With those positive results in hand, in 1954 the NFIP set up perhaps the most extensive field tests in medical history involving almost two million school-aged children. On April 12, 1955, exactly ten years after Roosevelt died, the announcement was made public. It worked. The press conference, one of the most extensively covered media events of the decade, was held at the University of Michigan which was tasked with analyzing the field results. President Eisenhower announced the formula would be given away free to countries around the world.

Within ten years less than a hundred cases were reported in the United States. By 2015 there were less than a hundred worldwide. Salk didn’t think of himself as a hero, but this vaccine pioneer was a hero nonetheless, saving tens of thousands of lives and preventing disability for over ten times that many.