I’ve mentioned before that I teach at an online high school. Each year, my school has a number of graduation ceremonies (that number being 3), with a different speaker for each. This year I was very honored to be asked to deliver the commencement address at one of them. I felt that my speech is one of the best things I’ve written, so I decided it was worth sharing here, as well.
Also I’m kind of lazy and don’t like writing more than one thing per month.
Also also, if you want to watch me deliver the speech, you can do so here (start at around the 10-minute mark): https://livestream.com/dordtcollegewebcast/AlphaOmegaGraduation2017/videos/157039578. So far several people have told me I did a great job and one person told me I should take a speech course. Who’s right? You decide!
I’d like to start by saying congratulations to everyone in the class of 2017! Your accomplishment, which we celebrate today, is by no means a small one, either personally or as a cultural milestone. I hope you all get the chance today to enjoy this moment.
When our principal, Mr. Bakker, asked me to speak to the graduates at this ceremony, I was initially both honored and intimidated, and I wasn’t really sure what I had to say. I took some time to think it over, and I looked at some other graduation speeches. And I noticed a pattern: they usually began with a quote from a famous book or story, and ended with a charge to the graduates. And I think I found a way to work that to my own ends. But buckle up because we’re going to start in a bit of an odd place.
First the quote:
“Cool was I and logical. Keen, calculating, perspicacious, acute and astute—I was all of these. My brain was as powerful as a dynamo, precise as a chemist’s scales, as penetrating as a scalpel. And—think of it!—I only eighteen.”
While this may sound like something I found in one of my journal entries from my high school graduation, this actually comes from the short story “Love is a Fallacy” by Max Shulman. My guess is this may strike most people as an odd choice. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that, unless you read this story in your Short Story project your freshman year, or attended the online class I’ve taught on logical fallacies, you probably have never heard of the story or its author. If you did one or both of those, you may already be sick of both the story and its author. To anyone this describes, I apologize, but just a little.
Shulman’s story relates the plight of his narrator, who, as you can tell from the previous quote, fancies himself one of the great minds of his generation. At the start of the story, he’s determined that the only thing he needs in order to guarantee himself a successful future as a lawyer is the perfect wife. Someone who can be, as he says, “a proper hostess for [his] many mansions, [and] a suitable mother for his well-heeled children.”
As luck would have it, such a woman attends the narrator’s exact college, and just happens to be dating his roommate, Petey. Petey agrees to stop seeing Polly, the girl in question, in exchange for the narrator’s giving him a raccoon coat. The story takes place in the 1950s, and our characters inform us that raccoon coats had again become a massive fad. “Fads,” the narrator tells us, “are the very negation of reason.” I would submit that this is doubly true when the fad involves raccoons, but I suppose that’s personal preference.
With Petey out of the way, the narrator and Polly go on several casual dates. He gives her a course in logic, feeling he needs to make her more intelligent before she’ll be “worthy” of him. By the last scene, he’s deemed his task complete and asks Polly if she will “go steady” with him. But she refuses.
She had already agreed to go steady with Petey. He, at least, has a raccoon coat.
Again, it’s an odd story. Not particularly well-known, by an author who’s not particularly well-remembered. And yet, I chose it because it’s had a profound impact on my thinking. I still distinctly recall the day my older brother brought it home from school and read it to my family around the dinner table, and obviously it’s stuck with me through all these years. In part because it is quite useful for introducing the concept of logical fallacies—the narrator’s explanations to Polly on their dates are as humorous as they are helpful. But there’s another reason, I think, that the story has held such a significant place in my mind; a reason I sometimes wonder if Shulman even meant to incorporate.
“Love is a Fallacy.” That’s the title, and it’s obviously meant as a joke, in substance no different from the hundreds of other jokes hack comedians have told about love and marriage over the years. A character in a TV show I saw once said, “No creature would ever willingly make a fool of himself,” to which the other character replied “Obviously you’ve never been in love!” It’s tempting to view the title as merely a briefer form of this dialogue.
And yet, there’s something fundamentally true about that title, isn’t there? After all, love is a fallacy.
A fallacy, as we’re told in the story, is something that runs contrary to logic. And this certainly would be true of love. Logic says “I need to keep my eye out for what’s best for me.” Love says “I need to look out for what’s best for you.” Logic suggests we ask “What can I do to advance my own ends?” Love demands we ask “How can I serve you?”
We see the principle of illogical love at work in our everyday lives, as well. For example, there’s nothing logical about the way we see parents love their children every day. In many cases, the logical thing for parents to do would be to leave their children behind or to let them fend for themselves. And, indeed, we do see this at times across the animal kingdom. Groups of giraffes, for example, have been known to abandon their young if they can’t learn to walk fast enough. They have to. They have predators chasing them. It’s the logical thing to do.
Now, that’s not all animals, but it’s certainly more common in the animal kingdom than among humans, where you can find story after story of fathers, and especially mothers, ignoring all logic, risking their health, even their lives, for the sake of their children.
And then, of course, we have the Gospels, and the ultimate example of love that defies all human logic in the person of Jesus Christ. The logical thing for Him to do, from a human perspective, would have been to stand idly by, let us all condemn ourselves to Hell, not forsake His throne in Heaven, not subject himself to the pains, sufferings, and humiliations we read about, and, of course, not submit to death on the cross.
I imagine, in such a world, if we even had a Bible, John 3:16 would read a bit differently. Perhaps “For God so logically regarded the world that He gave not one iota of caring, that whosoever was born into it would have a miserable life and then enter into everlasting death.”
But thank God, literally, we know that “God is love,” and we know the verse reads quite differently.
Now to my promised charge.
When we started here today, I told you that high school graduation is a huge accomplishment, and it is. In many ways, it’s your first major milestone on the road to adulthood.
Many of you will soon be moving away from home, perhaps for the first time. Some going off to college, others out to the work force. And what you absolutely need to understand is that you are entering a world that is desperate and needy for this kind of love. Love that is self-denying, that is compassionate and unconditional. Love that is, in every way, a fallacy.
You’re entering a world where school shootings are no longer a surprise. Where we have averaged almost 15 per year, more than one every month, over the past ten years, just here in the United States.
A world where more people have taken anti-depressants than have not taken them, and where cries for help go answered less often, the more people there are around to hear.
You’re entering a world where torture and beheadings are recorded and played over and over again. Where executions and assassinations are admired and celebrated.
A world where reasoned discourse at times seems impossible to find, no matter the issue. Where people, of all ages, from all demographics, in all political parties, see those who dare disagree with them not as fellow humans, made in the image of God, but merely as enemies to be destroyed and ridiculed.
Where people gleefully join online hate mobs; where they make it their mission to hound and harass and abuse people they will never meet. Where they gloat at the downfall of these strangers, taking a sick pleasure in having played a role in dismantling a life.
This world, as the Apostle Paul tells us, is in “bondage to decay,” it “has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth,” needing the kind of self-sacrificing love shown to us by Christ. And, as you can see, this thirst, this insatiable need for that love is evident not just in the big events, or the places far away from the safety of home. It’s something we can see in every person, every day of our lives, no matter where we go.
This is the world you are now inheriting, and this is the world we all have created; and each of us has played a role in shaping it. But the good news is that each of us can also play a role in reshaping it.
When you encounter hatred, it’s natural to want to meet it in kind. In fact, I’d even say it’s logical to try to outdo the other person in aggression. “They deserved it!” is the refrain we hear so often from children excusing themselves for taking revenge on a person who wronged them.
But there’s a curious verse that’s particularly relevant in this regard. In Genesis 6, the Earth has become so corrupt that God has decided to start over again. He floods the Earth, with the only remnants of the human race being Noah and his family. And when the flood waters clear in chapter 8, and Noah has offered a sacrifice to the Lord, God says to him, “Never again will I curse that ground because of humans, for every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.”
If Shulman’s narrator had read that, I’m sure he’d inform Moses, the human author of this verse, that he was guilty of the fallacy “non-sequitur,” which literally means “it doesn’t follow.” Because the human heart is evil, God promises not to destroy us? There’s obviously something odd about the logic at work here. Our wickedness deserves destruction. Yet God, in His wisdom, knows if He delivered what we deserve, if we faced ultimate justice, it’d be the end of His creation. And because of that God promises not to give us what we deserve.
Once again, the wisdom and goodness, the love of God defy even the greatest human logic.
Brothers and sisters, it may be logical to seek to meet hatred with hatred. But let us never forget, we are called to live in a way that’s better than what is logical. And what’s more, we have the only thing that has ever reshaped this world for the better: Fallacious, self-sacrificing love. We have it demonstrated for us in Jesus the Christ, and, as John tells us in his letter, because of His love, we can show it to others.
Let’s look again at the quote from Shulman’s narrator. He uses some very specific terms to describe himself—“cool… calculating… perspicacious,” he describes himself in almost clinical terms. In fact, look at what he compares himself to: a dynamo, chemist’s scales, a scalpel—none of these qualities or comparisons are inherently bad. But there’s a distinct lack of humanity there.
And we see this in his pursuit of Polly, too. He loves her, or at least he insists that he does, but every action we see from him is so, well, so cool, and calculating. So logical. There’s no openness from him on their dates, no vulnerability or sacrifice in his attempts to woo her. She changes for him. He offers no such consideration.
Now compare that to the person of Jesus Christ, whose love goes so far beyond our understanding. Christ, who humbled himself so much, sacrificed so much, endured so much… And isn’t it fitting that, for all his planning and logic, the narrator lost his perfect woman. And Jesus Christ, by degrading and debasing himself, won not just a crown, not just the highest honors of heaven. But He won the Church, His perfect bride, and redeemed her with His very blood.
God made us logical creatures. He gave us a mind to use and logic to guide us. But before that and beyond that, He made us to show Christ’s love to the world.
May God grant us His all-sufficient grace to live out this love every day of our lives.
Graduates, let me again extend my sincere congratulations to you today on what you have achieved. And I’d again encourage each one of you to take some time today to celebrate this milestone. Because tomorrow, we have to get back to work. We’ve got an entire world to reshape, and plenty of work for each one of us to do.
I’d like to close now with the words of a praise song that has been particularly close to me for much of my life, and one I try to remind myself of frequently when I’m confronted with the world’s burdens.
I won’t sing it for you, because the last time I tried that there were no survivors. But the words are:
“We will work with each other, we will work side by side…
And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride,”
“And they’ll know we are Christians,” not by our voting record or political affiliation, not by our Twitter handle, the memes we post, or which email chains we join, but…
“They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
So this has been a weird week.
Between the inauguration, the first several (largely unnerving) acts of our new president, trying to make it to the Iowa’s Women’s March, getting lost and not making it to the march but instead calling the cops on a guy who was threatening a woman while several other people stood by, it’s opened up a… lot of opportunities for important political discussion.
So it was the other day I found myself in a Facebook discussion about philosophy and Trump, two topics I would never expect to find in a room together because one is an attempt to define truth, and the other wouldn’t notice if he accidentally signed an executive order banning it from Twitter.
Hang on, I can do better than that. One is an attempt to define truth, and the other wouldn’t recognize truth if he grabbed it by its unmentionables (which, statistically speaking, he probably has).
Okay, okay, give me one more try. One is an attempt to define truth, and the other’s top advisor honestly just used the phrase “alternative facts.” I’m getting distracted, hang on…
Sorry. Anyway, the important part is, there are a lot of people trying to link the rise of Trumpism with the rise of postmodernism. There’s this article, which kicked off our discussion (and which my brother described as reading like it came from someone who “learned [philosophy] from the back of a cereal box”). This one, which is much better-written and more informed, but seems to oversimplify things (something we never do here at The Total Depravity of Mannings especially not in this post in a few minutes). And then there’s this, which probably makes the best point and, quite frankly, made me question everything I thought I knew about MTV.
And yet, there’s just something about all of these that seems off to me.
Full disclaimer: my knowledge of philosophy comes almost entirely from a few things I read years ago in college and a few master’s-level essays I’ve proofread for a friend of mine. All of these writers (including Ernst, whose article I publicly mocked) are likely much better read on this subject and it would no doubt behoove me to stick to topics I know about (which I will totally do, as soon as I figure out what they are). But.
I don’t think this is a connection that can be made, for one (probably overly simple) reason:
Trump supporters seem largely the least postmodern group active today.
We’re going to be speaking in broad terms here, so please bear with (and forgive) me. The popular view of postmodern thought, that it holds that nothing is true and morality is dead, is very much false. Such a belief would be not only ridiculous, but also untenable.
While there are many schools of postmodern thought, and a lot of depth to all of them, one thing they tend to have in common is the value of the subjective experience. The idea that, because all of our experiences are subjective, none of us can ever claim to be an “objective observer.” So we need to listen to, and take seriously, the subjective experiences of others.
If I could sum up my understanding of postmodern philosophy in one sentence, it would be this: “My experience does not define reality” (which is a bit ironic because the popular understanding of it is the opposite).
And if there is one group who acts as if their experience does define reality, it would almost have to be those who practice Trumpism.
Now, those are, admittedly, four of the least charitable sentences I’ve written in a long time. Not all Trumpers criticized the WM/BLM; not all who criticized were Trumpers. But given that data on that sort of thing is difficult to attain, I’d be amazed if there wasn’t at least a strong correlation there.
So what do we make of this? Well, either I’m completely off in my understanding of postmodernism (very possible, though if true I will renege on everything I’ve said here and explain how “that’s just what postmodernism represents to you, man!”) or there’s something else at play in Trump’s historic rise.
I’m inclined to go with the latter. Philosophy is important (to paraphrase a wise man, if you don’t think philosophy matters, try to explain why, without using philosophy), but it feels unnecessary to reach for abstract explanations when there are far more concrete and immediate explanations for Trump’s… nuanced relationship with truth and meaning, or why a significant portion of the population followed along.
When the choices for explaining Trump are citing a shift in philosophical approach or accepting that 4 in 5 white evangelicals put their loyalty to party ahead of their loyalty to faith, it’s tempting to blame philosophers. But it’s probably more accurate not to.
Okay, bear with me…
Donald Trump inherited a lot of money, and has grown his brand largely through frivolous lawsuits and exploiting the powerless. Despite many of his companies and most everything he touched failing, he developed a nearly sterling reputation as a successful business man.
He then started a campaign that, by all rights, should have been dead in the water six weeks in. Over the course of the election, he committed roughly 3,741 gaffes (conservatively estimating, of course) that would have buried much better campaigns. Despite his best efforts, he wins.
Perhaps most impressively, he managed to be somehow connected to every single terrible decision the WWE made over the course of a roughly three year period. Despite losing the company millions, he ends up a WWE Hall of Famer.
So… is it too much to think that as a president he can maybe keep failing his way to success?
Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. And I needed a little humor right now, because my real thoughts are a bit darker.
I’ve seen a couple of my friends posting statuses on Facebook to the effect of “I’m so disappointed in this country,” and to be completely honest, I really can’t agree. Not because I’m happy Trump won. In fact, I said repeatedly before the election that I could stomach just about any of the candidates except him. But just because that’s the democratic process. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Much as I might want to, I have a hard time holding a vote against strangers, whose reasons for voting I sincerely don’t know.
What I am disappointed in is my brothers and sisters in faith. What I can hold against people is all the support for our president-elect from otherwise rational people who call themselves Christians. That, to me, is just incomprehensible. That is completely inexcusable.
You cannot call yourself a follower of the Prince of Peace and yet follow a man who says he would order his soldiers to kill the families of terrorists; whose solution to conflict is “bomb the shit out of them.” You cannot claim to endorse the man who said the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself, and then endorse the man running on a platform of hate; a man endorsed by the KKK and who has a history of practicing discrimination. You cannot claim loyalty to the God who said “Love me above all else, serve me above all else, trust me above all else,” and then cast your vote based on a handful of Supreme Court seats.
You cannot serve God and love power, and this election was about power, pure and simple. This election was about maintaining our stranglehold on power in this country, and the rhetoric reveals it. The “lesser of two evils” mentality confirms it.
I don’t care if you think Clinton was worse. I don’t care if you think this was our last chance to preserve America (or, more shamefully, the GOP). I don’t care if you think a third-party candidate couldn’t win. Relative morality is not who we are, preserving America is not our business, winning elections is not our priority. Our only purpose on this Earth is serving, living, speaking, and voting in a manner consistent with a good God and with His teachings.
You can’t honestly look me in the face—scratch that. This isn’t about me. You can’t look someone who is not me, someone whose place in society is more fragile than mine, someone who is a woman, who is black, who is Hispanic, who is disabled, who is gay, who is trans, who is Muslim, you cannot look that person in the face and tell them that your support of this man was loving them.
More importantly, you cannot look God in the face and tell Him that your support of this man was loving Him.
Because ultimately, while this election may be remembered for generations, even for centuries, our actions, our love for others, what we do for “the least of these” will be remembered for eternity.
Sometimes the truth hurts more than any lie could…
So I may have mentioned my emerging soccer fandom. Since the last World Cup I’ve become a fairly avid Seattle Sounders fan, but, let’s be honest, Major League Soccer is not exactly a good league (sorry, Mr. Garber), so naturally I’ve also kept an eye on some European leagues and a headline from the Spanish Primera División (La Liga) caught said eye.
The story details Cristiano Ronaldo, the star of Real Madrid, one of the richest and most successful teams in all of Europe, and his… less than charitable interview after he and his team were beaten by Atlético Madrid, specifically that he said his teammates were not as good as he was and that was the reason Real Madrid lost.
Now there’s a certain perception that most people hold of Ronaldo, one certainly not hurt by his behavior on the field. Basically that he’s a pathetic baby who can’t handle when things don’t go his way. So if you’re anything like me, you read that headline, thought ‘Same old Ronaldo’ and went back to what you were doing (beating his team on your copy of Fifa 2016 that you play on amateur difficulty because you still don’t understand how soccer works).
Apparently not many people are like me, because it would seem that most did not go back about their day. Ronaldo caught enough heat that, within hours, he retracted his statement, saying “I am not better than any of my teammates.”
And this is where the painful truth comes in, because… Yes, Ronaldo, yes you are. Specifically, you’re better than 99.99999% of people who have ever kicked a football, and no, not just on a physical level. There are 7 billion people on Earth right now, and you’re
definitively better at soccer than 6,999,999,999 of them, in every way, and on some days you might even be better than Messi. And what’s more, I refuse to believe you don’t know that.
I hate to admit that. It’s taken me a day and a half to get to this post, and most of it I spent convincing myself to actually write that paragraph.
Look, I’m not here to defend Ronaldo’s first statement. Airing your dirty laundry in public has never done any good for any team and it wreaked of childish frustration at losing to the crosstown rivals and being held goalless.
But why is the way to fix that false humility?
Once the second story broke, I went back and read in full the first article on Ronaldo’s post-game comments. Look at what he actually said there:
I don’t want to say that Jese, Lucas [Vazquez] or [Mateo] Kovacic are not good players — they are very good, but … to win a competition you need to have your best players.
Our best players are injured, unfortunately — it’s a fact, the reality.
And he also claimed “Real Madrid would be in first place if his teammates were on his level.”
Can there be any question that both statements are undoubtedly true? Barcelona currently lead La Liga by a wide margin with one player at Ronaldo’s level in Messi, two great complementary pieces in Neymar and Suarez, and… eight other people who I’m sure are very good (I said a kept an eye on European leagues, okay?). Every one in Barça’s starting eleven is a very good player, but undeniably ten of them are second-tier compared to Messi or Ronaldo, so imagine if Real Madrid actually did have 11 players that good? They’d dominate La Liga in their sleep. They’d roll over in bed and score more goals than most teams could in a month. While wearing rocket boots.
And as for the claim that the backups on his team aren’t as good as the players who would start ahead of them if healthy… I mean, they’re backups for a reason.
I’m reminded through all this, weirdly enough, of Terry Crews. If you’re not familiar with the man’s Facebook page, it may surprise you to learn he’s more than just the incredibly ripped torso from countless Old Spice ads. I highly recommend checking out the videos he’s posted, but one in particular that he’s titled “Humility?” He addresses the concept of
humility we’ve developed in our culture, saying:
People always tell you to be humble… But are you humble going into your house? Are you humble getting into your car? No! You go into those places boldly, because they’re yours!… Let me tell you, man: God gives you stuff… It’s yours. It’s yours to use.
And it’s easy to forget that. While Crews mentions only physical possessions there, his thoughts extend to gifts and talents, as well, and his video is a response to a stranger at the gym telling him to relax and not make the other people look bad.
Pride can be deadly. I know this, firsthand, and I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say it can eat away at you from the inside. But we see that, and we over correct, especially in the church. We take the command to “walk humbly with your God” and use it to mean that we can’t be proud of our accomplishments or skills. That we should deny the gifts we’re given. Ignoring that thinking poorly of yourself still puts the focus on yourself, and missing the point that some of the faith’s great heroes weren’t exactly shy about their gifts.
If I’m worried another patron at the gym is going to make me look bad, he’s not the one who needs to be humbled. It’s me.
Similarly, if the soccer-watching world bristles at the idea of Vazquez and Kovacic being told they aren’t as good as the players ahead of them on the bench, let alone Ronaldo, the fault is not with Ronaldo.
It’s in us.
Yes, Ronaldo’s first press conference was wrong-headed, and the context and medium of a message absolutely reflect on the message itself.
But the cure for wrong-headed impudence is not wrong-headed meekness.
Over the past couple of years I’ve been trying to figure out if there is any one, worst possible personality trait for a person to have. Call it a vanity project, I guess, a description that also fits because for most of that time I would have said that pride was that trait.
I started musing over this about seven years ago when I went with a group of people on a missions trip to Mexico. During my time there we exclusively studied the book of James. With all due disrespect to Martin Luther, I found the time spent in James incredibly enlightening and convicting. I was convicted of a number of things through the Word, but the one I remember most vividly and that has affected my life even to this day was realizing just how much I had let my arrogant pride take control of my life. And how thoroughly that sin was destroying my relationships.
While the Bible tells us that a small sin doesn’t make you any less of a corrupt being than a great sin, it does recognize different degrees of sin. Whether it’s Jesus talking about Judas Iscariot, or
Which is why for a long time I would have said that pride is the worst attribute to have. While gluttony, greed, envy, wrath, and lust are usually treated as equals to pride (though the exact list has changed over the years), it’s not hard to imagine any of them having pride as their underlying cause.
Still, as destructive as pride can be in that regard, recently it seems to me that there’s one even more destructive sin: Accidy, which is usually translated “sloth,” but in its original meaning would be better understood as apathy.
Apathy can be the motivation behind just as many destructive behaviors as pride, but it’s far more insidious for a very important reason. Whereas pride is an unrighteous attitude, apathy is the absence of a righteous attitude, or any attitude at all. Because of this it seems harmless and is therefore a far more deceptive personality flaw.
But the cancer of apathy goes deeper than just its insidious nature. Of the deadly sins, all of them can be categorized in at least one of two positive ways that apathy cannot.
First of all, each of the other deadly sins actually derives from an attribute of God. That may seem like nonsense at first, but there actually is a lot of logic to it. After all, human beings are created in the image of God, so we should naturally have aspects of His character reflected in our own. However, we’re also corrupt beings, and those character aspects, likewise, have become corrupt. We also see this reflected in scripture. God’s wrath is (hopefully) obvious, but most people I’ve talked to disagree with me about pride. After all, they’ll point out that Jesus, God incarnate, ate with the lepers and washed his disciples’ feet.
While this is certainly true and would reflect a high degree of humility on Christ’s part, it doesn’t, I would argue, represent a holistic interpretation of the Bible. It’s important to remember that Jesus is the same in person and character in the New Testament and the Old. This is, therefore, the same God who demands to be worshiped and served by all people at all times, and who, in response to Moses asking His name, simply responded “I AM,” as if His existence is a self-evident fact; as if the very existence of the universe were dependent on Him.
He’s right, of course; it is and it does. But that doesn’t make God humble, it only makes His pride not sinful. That’s the key: when God asserts those aspects of His character reflected in the deadly sins, he does so righteously. When we do so, we frequently do it unrighteously.
But because those traits are aspects of a good God, in and of themselves they cannot be bad. There’s a time and a place for them. Wrath is appropriately expressed toward injustice, just as lust is right to feel in the proper context.
There is no proper application of apathy. As Adam Ford has pointed out wonderfully in this comic, the very act of saying “I don’t care” is to say “This issue is not important enough to God that He would have me, as His representative on Earth, take a position on it.”
To serve God is to love what He loves, hate what He hates, and be indifferent toward those things He is indifferent toward. Unfortunately, there’s nothing God doesn’t care about. This is a God who, despite maintaining a universe billions of light years across, takes time to notice a dying bird. Who cares about me so much He knows how many hairs I have.
Okay, so in my case that last one isn’t very impressive, but the principle remains. If there is nothing God is apathetic toward, there ought to be nothing we are apathetic toward.
While that reason in itself should be sufficient for Christians, there is also another, more practical distinction between apathy and the other deadly sins. While apathy represents a lack of care, most sins are sins of passion. Although passion can cause problems of its own, any act of passion can be used to create. As a passionless sin, apathy cannot create, and therefore cannot improve anyone’s life in any way.
It should come as no surprise that it takes passion to create. After all, this too is a way in which we reflect our Creator, who, in contrast to most (particularly ancient) gods cares deeply for His creation. A passion for food (gluttony) can lead a person to discover new ways to prepare and enjoy food. A passion for money (greed) can drive a person to establish a successful company that becomes a mainstay of the economy… That sounded a lot less like right-wing propaganda in my head, I swear. Still, greed, while far from good, is a passion, and therefore a powerful motivator.
For all the time I’ve spent decrying pride, it’s very easy to see its potential influence here. I recall many times in school, for example, that I would receive a low score on a paper or assignment and use that shame to motivate myself to spend more time studying to do better in the future.
And I wouldn’t consider any of these to be (necessarily) proper applications of these passions. In my case I can definitely say it wasn’t. There was nothing righteous in not wanting my classmates to think I was dumb. But even my selfish motivations helped me get a better education, which I can now use to help my students.
Apathy can provide no similar motivation. It cannot be applied correctly, and when applied incorrectly it cannot be used to help anyone, in any way, in the present or in the future.
This may be just my own perspective, but in what I do every day, I don’t believe anything is more frustrating, damaging, or unproductive than apathy. It is the single worst character trait a person can have, and the world already has all the apathy it can stand.
For the love of God, be passionate.
“Anything worth saying is unsayable. That’s why we tell stories. Because life is too complicated to be explained any other way.” —Professor Peter Stine
Back in November, I said I was beginning a loosely-connected series of posts, which I didn’t follow up on until March, and I’m finally (sort of) wrapping up now, a month and a half later.
Three posts in six months. Slow and steady wins the race, right?
When I started, I acknowledged that I was beginning in a bit of an odd place, and, though I didn’t acknowledge it, I think I probably continued to an odd place, as well. In the English classes I teach, one of the concepts my fellow teachers and I try to drive home to our students is the “So what?” principle. If someone were to reader your thesis and their first question is “So what?” you probably need to choose a new thesis. So, if the thesis for my first two pieces was “These are two things I saw that didn’t tell very good stories,” I would agree that “so what?” would be an understandable response. So two stories were told poorly, why should anybody care?
Because, quite simply, the stories we tell (and the way we tell them) are very important.
And that’s a truth that’s been undermined in American society.
That sounds extreme, but I don’t mean it in the same way that, say, a Fox News anchor would say Obama is undermining our freedoms. I don’t think anyone is actively trying to make people believe that story doesn’t matter. But as a culture, we’ve largely forgotten the idea that it does, and are resistant to considering this idea.
Consider a few statistics. 90 million US citizens, 30% of the population, currently are functionally illiterate. That makes up almost one in every three people that you meet.
Similarly, in order to be considered an “avid reader,” a person only needs to read two books in a year. On average that comes down to roughly 30 minutes a week. Is there any other hobby that this would be true of? No gym is designed for someone who might log 26 hours in it over the course of a year. TV shows don’t need to fight over viewers who can only make time for one of them every other week.
But that’s the market that any writer is forced to target.
This is especially important, because the written medium can be especially influential. Reading a story, unlike nearly any other activity, causes you to enter into the mind of another person, to see the world from his or her perspective. However, stories can influence us through a number of media. Even though reading is influential by its very nature, other media, such as film, can be influential through the use of powerful images or music, and compelling characters and conflicts.
And as a counter example to all that, take this year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, a movie that is blatantly, aggressively uninterested in telling a story.
To put it succinctly, the central conflict of Age of Ultron is caused by Tony Stark messing with powers he’s too arrogant to realize are beyond him. He creates the main villain by putting a super A.I. in a robot body. And then he defeats the main villain by… putting a super A.I. in a robot body.
What, exactly, is meant to be accomplish in that? From a storytelling perspective? A character perspective? A thematic perspective? As someone much quippier than I has already quipped, what has Stark learned except to push the “NOT a genocidal monster” button this time around? For that matter, does any character in this film have anything approaching an arc? What does this film have to offer to our cultural conversation beyond robots and punching?
Not a damn thing. And God help us if we don’t love it for that. We love it so much that it’s the highest-grossing movie in the country this year, and one of the best reviewed to boot. It’s a bit uncommon to see critics and audiences agree. It’s a bit unsettling to see them agree on this.
By buying this schlock again and again, as a culture we’re telling our story tellers that this is all we want. That we don’t need to see characters struggle or learn anything. We don’t need growth. All we need are explosions and one-liners.
This matters. This isn’t me trying to be smarter than a comic book movie. I love silly comic book movies. But we need stories, even the silly ones, to take risks. To challenge their characters, and consequently their audience. To pose bold questions that don’t have pat answers. To push us to consider a viewpoint other than our own.
Humans need stories. If we didn’t, why would they be such an important part of every culture in written history? And stories impact people. If that weren’t the case, why did Uncle Tom’s Cabin inspire the Civil War? The proof is all throughout history. Cultures are always reflected in and defined by the stories they tell.
But the truth of this should be even more obvious when approached from a Christian perspective. Any number of examples could be used here, but quite possibly the most noteworthy comes from the story of David and Bathsheba. After David has impregnated Bathsheba, had her husband murdered, and taken her as his wife, he receives a visit from the prophet Nathan, who’s been sent to convict David of his sin. Reading the chapter, the natural expectation is for Nathan to lay the holy judgment of God on David’s head, which he does… but in an unexpected way. Instead of a sermon a la Jonathan Edwards, what we get is a story about sheep.
And yet, that story drives Nathan’s point home far more effectively than any argument, threat, or curse ever could. Just as Stowe did with her story, or Harper Lee and Mark Twain in theirs. Or even contemporary writers like Collins and Green, whose impact on culture has been undeniable in the short term.
This may seem far removed from where I started, with video game nerds in high school and, well, video game nerds in virtual reality. But I finished watching those series shortly after hearing Gary Schmidt deliver an explanation of the importance of story, and the three topics became intertwined in my mind. As he showed, stories need to be told, and they deserve to be told well.
And if there’s any doubt left as to the importance of story, I think one of Schmidt’s anecdotes can lay it to rest. He recently was asked to lead a writing workshop for teens in Michigan, and was warned before beginning that one of the kids had recently lost his father, who had taken his own life. During the workshop, Schmidt noticed this kid writing with more fire and passion than anyone in the room.
He was writing a story about a boy, who was lost and alone. He was looking for his father, but his father had disappeared. Everywhere he went, the boy was surrounded by monsters, “the Uglies,” and he didn’t know what to do or where to go.
But everything was going to be all right. Because his father had left him a magic sword. All he had to do was find it, and he could make all the monsters go away.
And I’m just going to let that thought hang there. Because I have no way to follow that up.
Here at the Total Depravity of Mannings, I am all about being a month behind the internet. So, in case you missed it, on April 1, NPR pulled a nifty little prank on the internet. Absolutely no one was surprised at the result because… well, that’s just what people do on the internet. No one has time for silly things like reading any more, we form opinions and go.
The thing is, as much as we might criticize and complain about this trend, for the most part everything we do online encourages it. News stories, blogs, and other works of writing are specifically titled to give you an idea of the main point without reading them. I realize the goal is to incite a reaction, thereby inflating their traffic, but that doesn’t change the fact that encouraging people to react and then read is counter-productive if you want to help them be informed, which is, in theory, the goal of these sites.
Fortunately I don’t need to worry about people reading my stuff. It’s obviously my goal, but not something my career depends on (or would even necessarily benefit from). So suffice it to say, when I come up with titles for my posts, my aim will be to give away as little as possible. You might need to do some reading to learn my whiny opinions and political biases. And I’ll probably lose some traffic.
And speaking of being a month behind the internet (and the importance of titles) I finally saw God’s Not Dead this week. I know the internet has already ripped itself to shreds over this, multiple times, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about the parts of the film I normally would. Besides, you know all of that stuff already (the dialogue is on par with a high school freshman’s fan fic of the Bible, only one actor [Sorbo] makes it through with any sense of dignity intact, the prof is closer to a professional wrestling heel than a character, and so forth). If my comments on these aspects ever mattered, I missed that window by a few weeks.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I hadn’t seen the film a few weeks ago, but the reason I stayed away is, I feel, still worth discussing. So gather ’round, y’all, it’s time to whine about: how darn trivial American Evangelicalism’s become.
It wasn’t always this way, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. When the movement started, it had a clear purpose, or at least that’s what I’d like to believe. I’m certainly far from the first disillusioned 20-something to critique the Evangelical movement, but for my money you’d be hard-pressed to find a
better representation of how wrong this movement can go than GND. And it’s not even that I disliked the film. It’s that the whole thing was just so trite, starting with that title.
The phrase “God’s not dead” is obviously meant to invoke two things. More directly, the Newsboys song of the same name, which makes an appearance in the film and pervaded the advertising. More significantly, both are derived from Nietzsche’s quote “God is dead,” and right away that’s where the trouble starts.
I don’t claim to be an expert on Nietzsche, having read regrettably little philosophy in my life, and almost none of his. I do, however, claim to have had a professor who was an expert on philosophy. As he explained it, Nietzsche’s quote wasn’t primarily a statement on religion as it was a statement on knowledge. The idea of God as the foundation of knowledge, as the shared root of all that we know to be true, is what he was saying was dead. And, for what it’s worth, Nietzsche was right. Religion and dogma are no longer the starting points of knowledge. What our culture holds to be true does not end with the church. For better or for worse, the “core” of our knowledge has shifted.
As an atheist, Nietzsche would obviously say that God didn’t exist, but that was not the focus of this particular assertion. For the film (and the song) to invoke that quote while merely asserting a belief in the existence of God indicates how little the film’s creators seem to have engaged their sources. Which raises a few questions on how well they researched the debate their film attempts to portray.
More importantly, though, is the fact that “God is dead” is a profound quote. Like it or hate it, agree or disagree, it’s a bold statement on knowledge and society. There’s a context to it. It’s connected to an argument that is both well-reasoned and invites discussion. And I don’t see how any of that can be said of “God’s Not Dead.” That’s not an argument, it’s a text message, a Facebook status, at best. It’s just disconcerting to think that, 130 years after Nietzsche’s statement, the most well-known response from the church amounts to little more than “Nuh-uh!”
Taking a deeper look at the film, though, there is one significant scene that demonstrates with troublesome accuracy how trite we Christians tend to be. Just after the second of their three debates, the evil, smirking Professor Radisson blows our hero Josh’s mind by revealing that, despite his atheism, he has, in fact, cracked open a Bible (side note: Shane Harper’s face when he hears this news is by far the worst and most amazing part of the film). At this point, we learn that Radisson only became a sad, evil atheist after he prayed his mother would be healed of her cancer, only to have her die anyway (truly a troubling backstory worthy of Heinz Doofenshmirtz, himself). I don’t mean to make light of cancer, or the difficulty of losing a family member to it, but the whole plot is so contrived.
But not nearly as contrived as Josh’s response. Because you already know Josh’s response. Because it’s the response we all go to, by default, when confronted with this situation.
“Sometimes the answer’s ‘no.'”
And that response sucks. I know it’s true. I know most any Christian has experienced it at some point. It still sucks, and it’s a response that we need to stop leaning on.
It’s a terrible response because it’s canned. It works for every situation, and every individual person. Consequently…
It’s a terrible response because it makes it so very easy for us to free ourselves from the burden of listening to or empathizing with the other person. What? You’re hurting? Well, y’know, sometimes God’s answer to our prayers is “no.” Now excuse me, I’m on to the next person’s problems. But most importantly…
It’s a terrible response because it’s an easy answer for a situation that has no use for such things. Death is a hard and complicated subject to deal with. Unanswered prayer is, too. Providing an “easy,” pat answer is not helpful.
It’s just trite. Especially when you compare it with a more genuine response.
In my first year teaching at my current school, we attended, as we do every year, a local convention for Christian schools. That first year, the keynote speaker was Dr. Joe Martin, a very passionate Christian who came out of a terrible childhood in the Florida Projects.
Joe was once asked by a young girl why God wouldn’t answer her prayers. Because every night she prayed that her parents would stop beating her.
He told her, “I don’t know. I don’t know, but I’ll tell you, when I was your age, I used to pray to God every night that He would get me out of the Projects. And for years, my prayer went unanswered. And I would get angry, and I didn’t understand why God wouldn’t answer my prayer, but I think I do now.
“If God had answered my prayer when I wanted, I wouldn’t be able to relate to you the way I can now.”
You may notice some subtle differences between what Josh said and what Joe said. A sense of empathy, of support, even of solidarity. Everything a response like “Sometimes the answer’s ‘no’” needs to have and utterly lacks. I don’t want to deify Joe, or his response, but it’s a notable improvement.
In the final scheme of things, God’s Not Dead is not an awful film; I can’t even really call it a bad film. It’s entertaining and it delivers what it promises. It’s a well-structured approach to postmodern film making. But it is a film that is uncomfortably too comfortable with the simple; simple ideas and simple messages.
It’s the type of film that we need to expect more of. Delivering on the promises it’s made isn’t enough. We need to demand that films like this make better promises, aim for higher goals, that they don’t settle for the low-hanging fruit. And then we need to demand that they deliver on those goals.
We can’t keep accepting the trite.