Entitled to the Truth?

I was with a group of friends recently who have known each other for years . . . ok, decades. Well, let’s just admit it all up front. We are a bunch of old codgers.

We have lived a lot of life together, seen our children grow and marry and have their own children. We’ve seen heartache and laughter. And we’ve stayed well connected.

Our age and stage of life came into sharp focus when Cooper, the twenty-something grandson of someone in our group, joined us for a get together. He had a sharp and active mind with an engaging personality. He listened a lot and then eventually began asking some incisive questions.

We were talking about the problem of fake news. Several voiced outrage at the challenges of discerning what was accurate and what wasn’t as well as at the ethics of those who intentionally put out twisted information.

Then Cooper said, “Can I ask a question? Do you feel you are entitled to the truth?”

Without hesitation everyone chimed in, “Yes.” “Of course.” “Certainly.”

“That’s interesting,” he responded. “Because I don’t think my generation believes that we are. This world of uncertainty is just the hand we have been dealt. Not being sure of what is true and of what isn’t is simply the way things are.”

The irony of Cooper using entitled did not escape me. We were now being gently labeled with a word that we had probably all used to malign people of his age.

I was also struck by the chasm between our generation and Cooper’s. Yes, it made me feel very old. But I appreciated the clarity that Cooper gave to our differences and the added challenges our children and their children have in the world.

My first reaction, nonetheless, when Cooper finished, was to blurt out, “Thank you, Cooper, for pointing out that we are all conservative here.”

Though we were a group of people with mixed political and religious ideas, at this one central point we were all united. We thought that Truth existed, that it was possible to find it, and that we deserved to know what it was. This is a very traditional, very conservative idea. It goes back millennia and permeates a wide variety of ancient cultures. And we all believed it, whether liberal or not.

I was encouraged that we held this important belief in common. Searching together for the truth was not a hopeless endeavor. It was worth us all pursuing.

Image by Hajnalka Mahler from Pixabay

Christmas in a Minor Key

Maybe you’ve noticed that a lot of Christmas music is in a minor key. Even many of our favorites.

  • What Child Is This?
  • O Come, O Come Immanuel
  • I Wonder as I Wander
  • Mary Did You Know

Every key has its own distinct color and mood. But since Christmas is a joyful time of year, we would think it calls for a solid, all-is-right-with-the-world major key, which it often does. Then why do so many carols make use of the sometimes mournful or uncertain tones of a minor key? Even something as cheery as “Carol of the Bells” is minor!

We can understand it for “O Come, O Come Immanuel” which focuses on the centuries that the people of Israel waited for a Messiah to come and rescue them from the oppression of other nations. A minor key can also convey a sense of mystery, which the story of God becoming human certainly contains.

But why does “We Three Kings” mix the minor-like Aeolian key with a chorus that is major? Is it to give the carol a Middle Eastern flavor in light of the magi coming from the east? Perhaps.

The text of this carol by John Henry Hopkins Jr. may also give us a clue. The five tightly constructed standard five verses include an introductory and closing verse. The three verses in the middle are each devoted to one of the three gifts, each in the voice of a different wise man.

“Gold I bring to crown him again,” declares this first. This verse is appropriately upbeat, noting how gold is associated with kingship and, in this case, a king whose reign will last forever.

The second gift, frankincense, is burned in worship, giving a pungent odor that reminds us both of God’s presence and of our prayers rising to God. As the second wise man says:

Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.

It’s when we get to myrrh that the minor key truly comes in to play. This spice was commonly used when burying the dead, including Jesus’ burial (John 19:39). Thus:

. . . its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

Here we find the reason a minor key is sometimes employed. Christmas carols often point out that the Incarnation is a necessary prelude to the cross. “I Wonder As I Wander,” for example, explicitly opens with the question of why the Savior was born only to die.

The last verse of “We Three Kings” doesn’t stop at the cross, however. It completes the story by looking forward to the resurrection even as it summarizes the previous three:

Glorious now behold him arise;
King [gold] and God [frankincense] and sacrifice [myrrh].

We rightly celebrate the joy of Christmas and the promise brought by the Prince of Peace. Yet it is a story that is deeply human as well as deeply divine, mixing both sorrow and joy. The mixture makes the joy much more than a superficial happiness, but something that is deep and lasting.

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

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.

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

Why Do We Hate Each Other?

Tomorrow, January 20, the United States will inaugurate its 46th president, Joe Biden. Given the contentious political year it has been, I thought it appropriate to repost my blog from February 8, 2019, about an important book by Republican Senator Ben Sasse (Nebraska) regarding the non-political reasons for our divides.

Why are Americans so at odds with each other? Why have so many people entrenched themselves in opposing camps, viciously vilifying each other? What has turned us into a nation of Us vs. Them?

Is cable news responsible? Did the Russians do it? Does it go back to Newt Gingrich or the Robert Bork confirmation?

In his book, Them, Senator Ben Sasse has a very unpolitical answer. It’s because, he says, we are lonely. We have fewer friends. We are more disconnected from our communities. So we grasp for a group to feel part of, to identify with. More and more that manifests itself in our political and social identities.

Since World War II single-person households have tripled to 26 percent. Technology has also pushed us into self-reinforcing corners where we just don’t encounter people as people who might have differing views. Other significant factors are at work as well.

Yes, cable news and radio talk showmen and show women have taken advantage of our situation. And yes, the Russians have fanned the flames too with more than 50,000 Russian-linked Twitter accounts fueling outrage by sending automated messages on both sides of issues. But these only feed on a pre-existing condition.

What’s the cure for our illness? The last half of the book offers several worthwhile remedies, from setting tech limits in our personal lives to building into a neighborhood or community to re-educating ourselves on how democracy works and what it stands for.

Sasse regularly says the book is not political in the sense of party politics or hot-button issues. He is right. The book is social and personal. When he does touch on political examples, he is to be commended for being very evenhanded–criticizing and praising as appropriate both right and left, both politicians and journalists, both Republicans and Democrats. Sasse models how we can treat each other as human beings, as fellow Americans who deserve our listening ear and our respect.

Favorite Day of the Year

December 21, the darkest day of the year, is my wife’s favorite. Why? Because it means that now every day will have more and more light.

Scholars don’t know and the Bible isn’t clear about what time of year Jesus was born. Nonetheless, December 25 is appropriate because (in the northern hemisphere at least) we are at the beginning of a period of increasing light each day. Jesus’ birth is associated with light in the Bible, and not just with the famous star the wise men followed. When the angels appeared to the shepherds, “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:9). But there is more.

A few days later, when Mary and Joseph present the infant Jesus in the temple, they were met by an old man named Simeon. God had promised him he’d see the Messiah before he died. When he saw the trio he took Jesus in his arms and said:

“My eyes have seen your salvation,
     which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:30-32)

The light to the Gentiles was a reference to the Servant of the Lord promised by the prophet Isaiah (42:6). Not only was he to be a light to Israel but to everyone.

John’s gospel makes the same connection, describing Jesus as “the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)

It is easy to focus on the darkness this time of year, especially with all the troubles we see around us. And those are real. Yet even in darkness we hold in Christ the hope that each day we will have more and more light.

Photo credits: Sunrise (Andrew Le Peau); Milky Way (Pixabay, Felix Mittermeier) 

Hope Seasoned with Humility

In a day when so many of us think we are RIGHT while so many others are WRONG, Reinhold Niebuhr’s neglected classic, The Irony of American History, deserves wide reading. Published the year I was born (1952), in the context of a world dominated by the sharply defined conflict between democracy and communism, its clear message is still important today.

As much as we would like to change the world (regardless of our ideals from the right or left), we inevitably bump into both our finiteness and our selfishness (or guilt, as Niebuhr calls it). When we ignore these limitations, trouble inevitably follows, sometimes tragically on a massive scale.

The problem is that in our idealism we are “too blind to the curious compounds of good and evil in which the actions of the best men and nations abound” (p. 133). Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn echoed Niebuhr when he famously said, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.”

The world is just immensely more complicated than we can imagine or give credit for. We forget, as Niebuhr says, that we are not just a creator of history but also its creature. Therefore, our overly energetic attempts to control it are sure to be met with disappointment or worse.

Throughout the book Niebuhr is a penetrating critic of communism’s flaws and failings, saying, for example, “Communism is a vivid object lesson in the monstrous consequences of moral complacency about the relation of dubious means to supposedly good ends” (p. 5). Yet he is also clear-eyed about how the American experiment can go haywire.

Free market thinking, for example, is very aware of the dangers of political and military power (especially seeking to limit the former) but downplays the reality of economic power, and sees little need to limit that. Part of the pragmatic virtue (and irony) of the American system is that we were able to recognize this and act on it at least somewhat. The labor movement and the New Deal of the last century created more financial equity and justice while still allowing capitalism to continue to dominate our theories.

Writing about the early 20th century he said, “The significant point in the American development is that here, no less than in Europe, a democratic political community has had enough virtue and honesty to disprove the Marxist indictment that government is merely the instrument of privileged classes” (p. 100).

America’s potential problems extend into other realms as well. “The American situation is such a vivid symbol of the spiritual perplexities of modern man, because the degree of American power tends to generate illusions to which a technocratic culture is already too prone. This technocratic approach to problems of history . . . accentuates a very old failing in human nature: the inclination of the wise, or the powerful, or the virtuous, to obscure and deny the human limitations in all human achievements and pretensions” (p. 147).

Niebuhr’s final chapter lays out what he means by irony—how two contrasting elements come together in a person or a nation with one arising from the other. A strength also contains a hidden weakness, for example. He goes on to highlight the foundation for this view of history, which comes from the biblical perspective of a “divine judge who laughs at human pretensions without being hostile to human aspirations” (p. 155).

Humility in spirit and modesty in ambition is not a message corporate kingpins, political powerbrokers, or even many humanitarian heroes want to hear. Such restraint does not suit them. Nor does pragmatism seem to rally a constituency as fervently as zealous idealism.

Yet his message is essential. That doesn’t mean we have no hope. Rather our hope and ideals are to be seasoned with realism about the world and with humility about ourselves.

Beautiful and Profound

Martin Schleske is a lifelong luthier (violinmaker) whose art has interwoven with his faith such that the two are one. His recent volume, The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty, is his meditation on both.

When a friend gave me his book, one of the most beautiful and profound works I’ve read, he wisely suggested I savor a few pages at a time. The depth of each page, of each paragraph, of each sentence made it worthwhile to do just that. Over the period of a few months I sojourned through this book.

I found myself copying over dozens of insights, slowing me down enough to ponder each. Here is one: “Humility does not lie in thinking little of myself but in thinking enough of others to serve them.” (115)

Then this: “What is faith? That which takes part in God’s adventure. What is love? That which takes part in God’s resolve. What is hope? That which participates in the world’s loving and faithful development.” (183)

And another: “The only thing that suffering has to say is this: Be there for each other!” (231)

And this: “Jesus did not say: ‘Listen to the following definition of God. It should be your faith. Blessed are those who believe that their doctrines are holy. They will give you rest.’ Instead he said: ‘Come to me, and learn from me, and you will find rest for your souls.’ ” (244)

And: “The difference between judgment and constructive criticism is mercy.” (272)

Yet this is not a book of aphorisms. With stories and a fascinating window into violinmaking which provides a rich metaphor tying it all together, we have a deep look at our life in God, and the art of God in us. The beautiful production of the book matches the content. Printed on heavy coated paper and accented with arresting photographs by Donata Wenders, I urge you also to savor this book.

The Problem with Talking to Strangers

The problem with talking to strangers is that most of us think we know how to “read” people. Gestures, tone of voice, facial expressions seem self-evident. As Malcolm Gladwell reveals in his book Talking to Strangers, they are not.

Both Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax met Hitler multiple times and thought him trustworthy. Why? Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of intelligent and worldly-wise people trusted the Ponzi King, Bernie Madoff, many losing their life savings. Why?

On the other hand, psychological studies show that people who are fidgety and say awkward things are often telling the truth. Why do we misread them so badly?

With his trademark story-telling abilities and riveting methodical style, Gladwell unpacks the dynamics that make us often trust people we shouldn’t and distrust those we should trust. The recorded interviews of the enhanced audiobook give it a dramatic podcast feel.

Gladwell begins and ends the book with the story of Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old African American who in 2015 was stopped for a minor traffic infraction, arrested, and committed suicide in jail three days later. He methodically unpacks the recorded July 10 encounter with State Trooper Brian Encinia.

In the course of subsequent chapters he goes deeper into the evolution of policing practices over the last fifty years. Misapplied conclusions from initially successful policing practices has led to unnecessary suspicion that has harmed the police and the communities they serve.

Talking to Strangers is perhaps Malcolm Gladwell’s most important book that should be required reading for many, especially anyone who supervises law enforcement officers.