Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Searching for the scriptures

 Review and reflection: Karen Armstrong, The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019) 

The Bible is generally regarded as the most influential book in the world, and is consistently among the best-sellers. Whether that is for good or ill is less certain—it may sell well, but it doesn’t seem that all of the buyers read it, as this meme reminds us. And when it is read, disputes about how to understand it are nothing new, as church history tells us. Many forget the principle of starting from the larger view and moving on to the details, and get lost in the proverbial forest because of the trees. 

Armstrong takes a larger view in this book, first by including the other scriptures of the world, and linking them to historical developments. This method of surveying of Hebrew, Christian, Greek mythology and philosophy, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and Chinese writings produces fascinating insights and parallels. This approach views sacred texts not primarily as instruction manuals, but as prods to seek that which is behind our great questions. In this, she would seem to agree with the classic view that divine matters come to us as an enigma, understanding comes from seeking truth, imbued with a sense of wonder (Plutarch, De E Apud Delphos 384, 385). 

book cover -  Karen Armstrong
This quest to pursue an enigma engages both sides of our mind. Failure to understand this, along with the role of each of the two sides, leads to an imbalance that is literally killing us. It is multiplied when listening to those who cherry-pick completely non-representative passages from scriptures and use them to characterize their prejudices in a way that leads to increasing strife and misunderstanding. 

Regaining the balance of the two sides gets a lot of attention here, and to me, it’s the best part of the book. Neurology tells us that the truth behind Plato’s cave parable (Republic 514a-520a) is reasonably accurate: we don’t have direct contact with the world. What we do have are perspectives gained from our senses, which are only representations of reality. Our mind’s left side senses linear, scientific ideas, while the right side deals with relationships and a desire for justice, as well as unity. The right is also more attuned to “other” and “Other.” Armstrong maintains that the right side is where prophets, speaking poetically, expressed their scriptural insights, and that the prophets have been among the few to integrate that with the practical left side. However, in today’s world, a scientific mindset has upended the balance, and seeks to define (i.e., set limits to) the infinite, thereby containing it. 

Scripture, in all faiths, is a product of civilization, which is also a science (a body of knowledge which requires specialized skills and training), but it is also an art. As a sacred text, often divinely revealed, it is authoritative. But it is also something that lives in the right hemisphere of the brain, the land of music and poetry. It does not “mean” anything as such, but is meaning itself (just as, some theologians state, God is being itself)—and as Armstrong writes, like all religious language, it “must eventually segue into the silence that is an expression of awe, wonder and unknowing” (68). 

The origins of scriptures are not in writing, but in performance—singing, reading, acting, and liturgy, and thus it requires interpretation, the same as a musical score. It is not intended to confirm a stance, but to challenge and call for transformation. A note on writing: as Armstrong notes, while known in the ancient world, writing was unwieldy and used as a memory tool or for records. It was not intended for daily use or, and it was understood that one who studied the stories knew them by memory (Plato, Phaedrus 274c-275b). We can also note that this approach, evidenced by quoting the first lines of a passage, is found in the Gospels and Epistles. 

However, since the Enlightenment, especially in the West, everything, including scripture, is increasingly read with a scientific approach instead of a spirit of wonder and enigma. Its byproduct, the Reformation, celebrated the written word and sought clarity and definition.  Armstrong doesn’t note the irony of the “law of unintended consequences” here—the Reformation spawned not only this attitude, which has befuddled the meaning of scripture, but also set off demands for personal and political freedom which came to haunt religion and the governments that established churches supported. 

Armstrong concentrates on a shift from scripture as a prod to radical change to using it as proof-texts for what becomes an increasingly smaller view of the world. One of the casualties of this search is the insistence of Augustine (among others) that scripture taught only love of neighbor. She notes that the Chinese philosopher Fang Yizhi (1611–71) wrote that this misleading, mechanistic approach created a West that is “detailed in material investigation … [but] deficient in comprehending seminal forces” of the ineffable (390, Fang Yizhen, Wu li xiao, 1.25a, 1.6, 12a). As the doctrinally-centered approaches which this pursuit results in increase, there is a loss of transcendence, which leads to self-serving justifications that are cruel, divisive, and complacent. In this regard, Darby is little different from Qutb or many others today: scripture is read to confirm one’s views rather than to seek transformation. If more people read the scriptures with a seeking attitude, there would be a lot less disability exclusion and a lot more acceptance in a shared, inclusive journey. Scripture is incomplete when, as the United Church of Christ suggests, we place a period where God places a comma. 

 

 

Thursday, August 6, 2020

A theology of diversity

A review and reflections on Theodore Hiebert, The Beginning of Difference: Discovering Identity in God's Diverse World (Abingdon Press, 2019).

In the wake of the 30th anniversary of the ADA, as well as recent movements for racial justice, we have heard a lot about acceptance, accommodation, and diversity. Engagement of these ideas is more than toleration, and a crucial presumption of disability as well as racial equity. It’s also more than being an ally; it requires inclusion at an equal level for all. It also requires accommodation of difference without discriminating against some ability or trait that reflects a culture, whether ethnic, linguistic, or of a subgroup. And it requires understanding how these factors form identity for individuals and groups.

Often, such acceptance and understanding fails due to being unaware. How often has someone mentioned an access problem and the reply is “I never thought about that”? Although this is not the only cause, many times, generating awareness is a major step toward resolution. Thus, a critical factor is the response to difference when one becomes aware of it: is there acceptance, or is there an effort to impose one’s own norms on another? Does one honor differences, giving others dignity, or deny them, thereby seeking to eradicate, or worse, act as if they do not even exist? 

These are the questions which Hiebert raises in a study of Genesis and Acts. He begins by sharing his own growth in awareness of difference, and then considering how storylines in both books parallel actions of recognizing difference, seeking to understand the difference, and fostering respect for those who are different. The book is, as the title states, an exploration of the growth of identity through cultural factors in Genesis, and then how this growth is repeated in Acts. This, in turn, leads to reflections on how this understanding affects other factors--in our case, principally disabilities.
Cover of book: black with white title and author, and a small color wheel

Beginning with the Babel story, Hiebert follows through with Noah and his descendants, focusing on Abraham’s line. As a story of origins, Genesis is important for this quest, because exclusivist readings and questionable translations have led to misleading interpretations. Although his result is a radically different understanding, it is also a conservative one, for it “seeks to go back and recover the original views and values of biblical text” and to listen to what the writers of Genesis said, and then extend those understandings to today’s world (xxix-xxx).

Hiebert contends that Babel should be read as a story about reconstructing the world after the Flood. The Flood is an interruption of the story of humanity and a new beginning, but the first efforts of humans in this effort are not much different than the first. In response, God creates difference—but not as a punishment. This is often obscured by faulty translations and lexicography: the root problem faced by God is to confound empire building by royal figures who would impose their culture on others. God’s action is to “mix,” as one would ingredients for a cake, rather than “confuse” (20).  

Genesis then proceeds to tell the origin of the world’s family tree in a series of narratives about interaction of different cultures, by which the writer seeks to instruct us in how maintain an identity while also engaging others. Thus Abraham’s family teaches us how to respond to differences. The same plot repeats: conflict arises, rivalry drives a reaction, followed by a response of harm, then a path to survival. Yet while Cain and Abel told us about a failure to engage, we now see responses that bring about separate, diverse cultures. To the attentive reader, these stories also offer a critique of the rigidity of patriarchal structures and tell us of the conflict and consequences of this system, coupled with how an imaginative response of generosity leads to a realistic path forward.

Hiebert then turns to the Pentecost story, where he finds a parallel to Genesis: the first Christians, rooted in Judaism, move from a single culture, language, and place to reaches out for diversity as they go “to the ends of the earth.” But not only do those followers take this message, they adapt it to the receiving cultures. The linguistic diversity of Pentecost illustrates this adaptation as it validates the distinctive identity of other cultures. Then in Acts 10, after some prodding, Peter realizes a call to reach out to other cultures. This outreach offers a charter for the church, a charter which Hiebert calls on us to follow through by celebrating and living with difference. 

An outreach to cultures in general would certainly an outreach to people with disabilities. We can recall that “mixture” is a call for genuine inclusion. In disability and other ministries, this can be summed up in the phrase “ministry with.” This would gather people as partners and equals who would teach everyone with their own gifts. People with disabilities are not simply an unreached group to be objectified (as in the phrase “ministry to”). This approach is true for all: honor the culture, use that honor to respect and learn about God’s gift of diversity, and join as included partners.

Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, and promised to return it in three weeks. The promise was fulfilled.


Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Why isn't this in history books?

Recently, I’ve seen a lot of memes detailing an obscure incident involving minorities, followed by something along the lines of “why isn’t this in the history books?” I’m not surprised. There isa problem here, but we also need to note the popularity of the line “don’t know much about history” and realize that we have both a book-content problem and a paying-attention-in-class problem.

For a starting point, let’s start with a quote that doesn’t often make history books—maybe because it’s in a theology book:
The actual history of every country is full of shabby and even shameful doings.  The heroic stories, if taken to be typical, give a false impression of it and are often themselves open to serious historical criticism. Hence a patriotism based on our glorious past is fair game for the debunker…. The image becomes dangerous in the precise degree to which it is mistaken, or substituted, for serious and systematic historical study (C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, HarperOne, Kindle edition, 32).
Textbooks are not “serious and systematic” historical study. They are a product designed to certain specifications, and those specifications often have more to do with general outlines than understanding how the field works. James Loewen’s writings about racial history and teaching provide a good source to understand this. Read his book Lies My Teacher Told Me and visit his website and pay attention. Loewen has also recently done an interview with Katie Couric that provides a good summary.

Reading a textbook tells you what someone else thinks is important. A frequent complaint is that books leave out important things. Indeed, they do. But there simply aren’t enough books, writers, or reading time to cover everything. The historian Barbara Tuchman commented of The Proud Tower that she could have written the book three times without repeating anything. This is simply something one has to be aware of--few of us have time to read everything!

Human nature is also a factor. Reinhold Niebuhr, for one (and most forcefully), argues that pride springing from the ability of self-transcendence is humanity’s original sin, and is what lies behind the story of the Fall in Genesis (The Nature and Destiny of Man, Scribner's, 1943). Pride works all kinds of mischief, and looks for hooks to hang its tenets on. After reading Loewen, you may come to understand better how this links to an often-repeated statement by Jim Wallis that racism is America’s original sin.

Aside from pride, we must also consider that history is not simply some set of facts that one pours into their head. In Practicing History, Barbara Tuchman gives an excellent look at how historical writing is done (and how it ought to be done), and concludes with:
If history were a science, we should be able to get a grip on her, learn her ways, establish her patterns, know what will happen tomorrow. Why is it that we cannot? The answer lies in what I call the Unknown Variable—namely, man…. History is the record of human behavior, the most fascinating subject of all, but illogical…
(Barbara Tuchman, Practicing History, New York: Ballantine, 1982, 147-148).
History is much more about understanding what sort of mistakes people make (along with, perhaps, the occasional good decision), reading and evaluating sources, and grappling with human nature so one can put together an understanding of what has happened across a span of time. If you have a favorite era, such as the Civil War, it’s fine to read within those bounds, but expanding your horizons will give greater insight. In this respect, Tuchman’s The March of Folly is an example of how an idea seems to keep recurring throughout history

As you consider these points, also keep in mind that any story has at least two sides. Someone who is trying to mislead will often push a false dichotomy—the notion that there are only two choices. In history, two sides is usually the starting point for a good count. And we turn again to Tuchman, who proposed a principle in A Distant Mirror that is often known as Tuchman’s Law: “the fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five-to-tenfold,” implying that bad news captures our attention more than good news, and is more likely to persist in memory and reporting.

Related to this, I’ll ask if you have seen the memes prattling about how slavery wasn’t all that bad, that others have been enslaved, and so forth? As is often the case, one needs to define the terms at hand. “Slavery” is not the same everywhere and at all times. An understanding of how American chattel slavery, based on race, and its pseudo-intellectual underpinnings is important to the current context. This is where the list you may have expected comes in: 
  • The New York Times 1619 project
  • Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black (a review with notes here)
  • Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (just what it says)
  • Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (an anthropological approach to history, looking at neglected factors in historical developments)
  • Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (a grass-roots view--keep this in mind when someone tells you it's terrible)
  • Since there's usually something about religion in here, church history has often been bowdlerized in the same ways. That may require more work, but this one is a good start.
Finally, it’s important to understand the limitations of humans (Niebuhr again), of historical record (Tuchman again), and that all of this is simply the best reconstruction we can offer. Trying to put yourself into a position of someone you read about is a good exercise, but before you do, look at these and remember that we’re not perfect:
and be better informed!


Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Riding the ADA bus at 30


A series of recent discussions on the 30 anniversary of the ADA has led me to review and re-review a piece which I wrote for a now-defunct publication in 2013: Rachel Simon, Riding the Bus with my Sister: A True Life Journey (Tenth Anniversary Edition) (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2013).

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
I'm diffrent! I'm diffrent!”

In her opening pages, author Rachel Simon quotes these words spoken by her sister Beth “as if she were hurling a challenge . . . beyond the limits of the sky.” A challenge, for that's what we alway face. But I also wonder, might they be something else?

Could they be words of rejoicing, a celebration of finding oneself despite a lack of role models?

Might they reflect years of frustration with a world that congratulates a few who conform to a popular, comforting model that praises us for overcoming the obstacles placed in our way?

Could they be about a world that does not seem to understand what is really going on, one that does not care to understand, but is always ready to pronounce judgment?

Beyond the limits of the sky-- recalling the Psalms that long for justice, and asking where God is now?

Or might they be all of these at the same time?

The book tells the story of an older sister visiting her younger sister with a developmental disability. Beth spends her days riding the buses in her town, and the as the story unfolds with its details, so does the story of a life changed. The details of change range from Rachel's decision to make time to visit, to the problems of lodging, to the events on the bus, talking with Beth there and elsewhere, as well as the drivers and others. We ride along as each visit (about once a month) tells a different aspect of the story. The story of each month also provides the base for a time of anamnesis, remembering and reliving the events that brought the two sisters to be so close and yet so far apart.

As the story begins, there is a deep sense of not knowing, despite wide-ranging searches. Rachel is at a point in life where she should be satisfied, but that is not the case. Exploring this feeling, the present becomes a reminder of days when, after a series of medical tests on Beth, a doctor delivers the diagnosis “she's retarded.” It seems dismissive, as if she will never attain personhood, but the family fights back: Mommy says, “People used to hide mentally retarded kids in back rooms. We will always have her as one of the family.”

That Beth will be part of the family has consequences, of course, and they reach beyond Beth's life. Rachel recalls seeing her sister in the hall at school, with the other members of her “special” class, and writes of how she feels like shouting a hello, so that “everyone who knows me will spin around the see her and understand that these two separate worlds aren't two separate worlds at all.”

Some of the language may be shocking; as the author explains, that is part of the story and a deliberate choice. The story of Riding the Bus with my Sister is not only that of learning to accept self and others, but the story of the forces and ideas in the 1960s and 1970s that brought together those often separate worlds. Early legislation, such as the Rehabilitation Act, and then the Americans with Disabilities Act have opened doors for people with disabilities. I also grew up in a world of “special needs” and segregation. Change did not come overnight, and there is still a way to go, and some who ought to know better are still in the way, but we now claim the same world.

Changing the world did not end with the ADA. Remembrances and reflections show that however well-intentioned it is, legislation does not change hearts. Recounting a practical problem that surfaced frequently while riding the bus, Rachel recounts a conversation with Beth:  

            “They don't always want us in here.”
            “Us?” I ask. “Who do you mean?”
            She frowns, and opens a bathroom door.
            “Anybody who's not them,” she [Beth] says.

Another time, in a restaurant, where people are watching the pair (joined by Beth's friend Jesse), she remarks that there is “so much separateness in this almost empty room that I can't breathe.” Is difference a cause for separation, or can it be a cause for understanding that we are all different, a new challenge to be celebrated? This is all the pertinent as “I can't breathe” has gained added importance as a statement of the need for equity in all of human life.

book cover, a tree with the title in the bough, and a bus on a street

Language carries with it a raft of baggage, and separation in space becomes separation that reinforces difference. Decried by some as “political correctness,” a shift from identification by diagnosis to person-first language signifies a change from object to subject. No longer called a “retard,” the “person with a developmental disability” becomes a living being. As a person first, Beth and others are no longer separated from the world, but become someone who joins in our struggles—in my field, the difference between ministry to and ministry with.

As Rachel's attitude begins to embrace this change in language, she recalls her own past again. There's the sadness of a mother whose life becomes clouded by depression. In a day when no one spoke of such things, she left the family for a time. It is a reminder that we often create our own monsters by trying to avoid reality, to hide it away, and not allow it to be part of the family.

It is a tale that makes one think of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein as, instead of a series of letters to a sister, we join in a series of trips with a sister. These trips unmask the reality and call us to learn about humanity. Like Frankenstein's creature, Rachel Simon finds the world to be an inhospitable place to anyone who seems to be different. As one driver comments of the sisters, “you're both shocked at the intolerance in the world.” To that, he adds, “maybe it's the price you pay to be more human.” That realization leads Rachel and Beth to conflict, but it also leads them to change.

The subtitle of Frankenstein is The Modern Prometheus, reflecting on the Greek Titan who shared fire, making humanity come alive. After reading Simon's book, I am again reminded of Teilhard de Chardin's words that “the day will come when, after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire." The transformation could not be more complete in this book.May it be so in our lives.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Singing a world

Walter Brueggemann, A Glad Obedience: Why and What We Sing. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019.

The Psalms are a perennial favorite—even among those who don’t read the Bible. However, one must admit that some are more of a favorite than others. Many struggle with the implications of the final lines of 137, for example. Of course, many more of the collection offer hope and comfort, which accounts for their popularity. And the collection doesn’t hide from reality, thus the humanity of all befits what most regard as a hymnal for the Temple in Jerusalem.

In one of his typical short but thought-filled topical books, Walter Brueggemann offers insights into the lasting value of the Psalter. He is not unlike a classical prophet, addressing the people of his day to offer comfort, strength, and prods to improvement. His approach deconstructs social attitudes from a perspective that stands outside of political boundaries. In this book, he writes that singing is a way of celebrating our humanness as a gift of God (xvi). Further, anthropologically, we are engaged in “world construction” when we sing hymns, because the world that we sing about is rooted in yet very different from the one that  regularly stands before us (1).

cover of book, a row of organ pipes


As I write this, two trends are prominent in the news. First, a pandemic has closed most of our churches to public worship, and thus removed singing together from many lives (although there are some well-done technological solutions). So it seems appropriate to think about what singing in worship means to us. Second, we are becoming forcefully aware, often in a disturbing manner, of many levels and forms of discrimination in modern society—as well as how their persistence is abetted by often-unrecognized social structures.

As I wrote this, I remembered classes I’ve taken and taught that deal with music in worship, studies that contain significant portions about African-American communities. There is a sense of these roots, whether singing Psalms, the unique slave songs, or modern expressions, of the promise of a very different world. We come to understand, through music, that among these ancient songs are also protest songs, and that in protest there is hope. (Anyone wishing to learn more about the role of music in the Black church and it social role should look into Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans). These factors are all a good indicator that, as Brueggemann writes, we sing because life is given by, sustained by, and claimed by God. We sing because we refuse to have our lives be any less—or more—than that (2).

Singing is an act of resistance—whether protest songs, laments, spirituals, prayers, or others. The Psalter, whose Hebrew title םילהת means “praises,” includes all of these forms. The Psalms are also a gift. And they are a reminder, as we sing or recite them, that the impulse to value everything according to its monetary value, to make all of life a commodity to be bought, sold, or traded, is not new, and constant vigilance is required to affirm life first (14).

With these thoughts, Brueggemann moves through selections of the Psalter, where he finds many, diverse voices. This diversity is also why the Psalms endure through time and cultures. The constant is the divine pledge of דסֶחֶ (hesed, steadfast love), and this is a pledge of solidarity and fidelity to Creation (177).

And this leads to disability, especially the implications for social and medical models. Lives of disabled people are often compromised by judging them according to various notions of economic value, such as the ability to produce inside a discriminatory system, or the costs of care. This kind of thinking reached a peak in Nazi Germany with the Aktion T-4 program of mass murder. Today, while no one openly advocates such actions, disabled people join with other groups as assistance programs are routinely threatened with less-than-subsistence funds, insufficient health care, and restricted access in the name of economics. Filicide of disabled children often receives little or no attention or punishment. Correcting accessibility violations requires private lawsuits, and nearly 30 years after a law requiring access was passed, still brings opposition. Rather than accept diversity, solutions are often equally unrealistic and demeaning: (involuntarily) submit to prayer for healing, or some medical approaches that treat people as if they were machines, requiring enduring “a series of technological fixes” (195). We don’t need labels like “special needs,” we need the same acceptance that others expect and whether realizing it or not, regard as their privilege.

Welcome to Psalms of Praise (front), Psalm 150 (back)
Cover and back pages of the program book for presentation at First UCC, Xenia.
Computer technology has advanced since then.

I would like to thank William Crowder for working with me on a project, The Psalms of Praise, which we presented at his then-pastoral charge, First United Christian Church of Xenia OH, which provided an unparalleled opportunity to first gather my thoughts and reflections on the Psalms.

I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, promising in return to return it within three weeks. I have fulfilled that promise.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Traveling with an atlas


Mark V. Hoffman and Robert A. Mullins, Atlas of the Biblical World. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2019.

It was in second grade, I think, that everyone in my class received a state map. We didn’t do much with it, but it was a fold-up wonder that opened a new world. Looking at it, I saw where we lived, places nearby that we sometimes traveled to, and places further off that sounded fascinating. Thus began an interest that developed as I pursued historical studies—learning how geography has had an integral role in shaping events, and growing in understanding how others live.

As I moved into a major of religious history, it seems natural to say that Bible atlases were along for the journey. More so than for many other books, one is needed here—its events take place in a generally unfamiliar land, there are often varying accounts of an event, as well as different names than other sources use, and other problems that challenge a reader. Bible publishers have responded with maps bound in with the text, but they are often dated and require flipping pages, so a stand-alone version that can sit next to one is a useful resource. Mine received a lot of use; I suspect I’m not alone in wearing out copies of the Oxford Bible Atlas just in time to buy a new edition.

While the Oxford atlas remains a good choice, this recent offering from Fortress provides worthy competition. In general, each page has a section outlining the text references, books or chapters and background on one leaf. Opposite that is a map illustrating the geography and movements involved. There are five sections that flow chronologically: Beginnings, The People of Israel in Canaan, A People Divided, Invasion and Occupation, and Jesus and the Emergence of Christianity.


I mention this organization to remember one of my seminary professors who remarked of one paper that simply being aware that the book of Jeremiah is not in chronological order is useful. The Hebrew Bible is organized by themes – Torah, Prophets, and Writings. While the role and places of the prophets are often missing here (which I see as the book’s greatest lack), the whole does a good job of helping make the storyline of the Hebrew Bible clear.

The Christian scriptures start with five books that are only vaguely in chronological order (like the Hebrew records, a trait that often frustrates modern western readers), and often alludes to events that are obscure. It then pries into someone else’s mail, often conjoining the letters and obscuring the background of events. Here the layout and background are again useful.

Overall this approach is helpful as the authors relate the biblical stories to other historical events, thus removing some of the “bubble.” It’s easy to forget about the wider world, one that is only tangentially mentioned most of the time. Another helpful feature is reference to archaeological findings and what they tell us about the story. Archaeology doesn’t “prove” the Bible, but it does tell us a lot about the background of the stories, and thus help us understand it. The section “Invasion and Occupation,” dealing mostly with the inter-testamental period (when much of the Apocrypha were composed) is particularly good in helping to understand the political movements which led to the tensions, situations, and parties of the Gospels.

cover of atlas

In summary, then, this a very effective tool for understanding. It’s not the most comprehensive, but that isn’t the goal. It’s factual, which means that some of the popular legends aren’t included, but that’s fine with me. Mark Twain wrote in the conclusion of his rollicking book The Innocents Abroad that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” It also is fatal to fakery (something Twain remarks on a lot in that book!) and expands horizons and knowledge. You may well find me online, looking at Google maps (especially with the new accessibility features, but stretching our boundaries also includes a good book of this sort.



Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Devil of Details


One of the most challenging aspects of teaching history comes when students are half-listening (if they're listening at all) until a phrase passes their ears that produces a knee-jerk reaction. "Socialism" is one of these words. 

Some perspective on this term comes from the ostensible topic here, a book by Kenneth Barnes, Redeeming Capitalism (Eerdmans, 2018). Barnes outlines the history of economic systems, surveys both good and bad effects and developments, and suggests some theologically-based corrections to the way things are today (most of these center on restraining rampant greed). 

Along the way, he notes: "Since the end of World War II, and the beginning of the Cold War, one word above all others has been anathema to US politicians, socialism. Among the many reasons for this, perhaps the two most obvious are a general confusion about what socialism actually is and a widely-held conviction that socialist experiments in Europe and elsewhere have not been successful. Confusion over what socialism actually is may be traced to deliberate and, some might say, cynical attempts by its opponents to convolute Democratic socialism with it totalitarian Marxism" (83).

Eugene Debs campaign poster for socialist party, 1912


With the costs of being disabled, economic systems are always in the mind of people with disabilities. Hearing someone opine that wheelchairs are only around $300 (reality check: my last one came to $21,000, and we had to pay about $4000) should prove that. But economics, and Barnes, are also about what we value. Jesus of Nazareth stated that trying to serve both God and wealth would lead to cognitive dissonance (Matthew 6.24). The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas argued that those who would raise the price of an item because of its advantage to the recipient commit a sin of deceit (Summa Theologiae 2b.77.1,4). The Archbishop of Canterbury, announcing that John Swinton's Dementia: Living in the Memories of God was awarded the 2016 Michael Ramsey Prize, stated that the failure to value people as something other than economic units was "one of the most profound failures of our society." 

A recently-concluded round of campaign commercials and reading this article from History News Network brought Barnes, my wheels, Aquinas, and Swinton together for me. 

It also reminded me of repeated efforts to get students to pay attention to that place where the devil lives--details. Or could we say, it's a reminder of the need for understanding history and practicing careful discernment (a.k.a. critical reading) of what we read. In this case, "socialist" has a variety of meanings and distinctions. It also originated in a particular historical setting, and, as is usual in everything from religion to politics, not all who claim the label or oppose it are using it accurately.

Being able to sort this out is one of the purposes of education (especially if you wish to distinguish "education" from "training," which I'll probably get into sometime). Before we proceed, I'll add that another purpose of education is learning to express what you've found in a clear manner. When I was in grad school, one day one of my advisors and I had a great conversation about students who responded "that's not what I meant" about their papers. It may be (and we can often figure that out) but it is what you told us!

I've seen a lot of memes lately that mention "socialism" but clearly don't have any idea what it's about.This is why I dislike the memes that are so prevalent on Facebook. Beyond their general inaccuracy and one-sidedness, they don't invite discussion, their purpose seems to be reinforcing one's pre-existing notions without thinking. But then, thinking is what killed Socrates.

Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library and promised to return it within three weeks. I fulfilled that promise.