A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Category: On Life

Satire as a Narrowing Agent

“Does anyone know where my needle nose pliers are?”

I had not seen them since my children borrowed them. They had been making ornaments, I think–I don’t really know what they were doing but it involved wire and beads–and I hoped they hadn’t forgotten where they were.

“I put them away last time I used them,” my son declared with total confidence. He is eight-years-old and possesses an appetite for projects. I once walked into the garage to find wood and nails scattered across the ping pong table and my son far away, involved in something else. “This is not a work bench,” I explained after I caught up with him, speaking like a hotel clerk to a foreigner.

For this inquiry about the pliers, we were sitting at the dinner table, and in my disbelief at my son’s response my next words slipped from my lips as easily as unconscious thought. “Right. Like that’s ever happened.”

I mumbled the phrase quietly enough that he didn’t hear me, but his twelve-year-old sister did. She hears everything. And she remembers everything. And that is the problem.

Actually, the problem is multi-layered. The first problem is that my son is just like me. My primary difficulty with his taking and losing my things is that I am usually taking and losing my things; I don’t need his help at being foolish, and when he supplies it, I feel like I’m losing the game in a blow-out. Any frustration I harbor toward my son is frustration that, upon reflection, I harbor with myself. But even if I’m justified in my frustration toward him, even if I wasn’t carrying a log in my own eye, what does my comment accomplish? Does mocking my son motivate him to change?

So I’m ultimately wrong to complain and criticize him. But compounding my wrong is that while my son never even heard me criticize him, my daughter did. Thus, my complaint colored my daughter’s attitude toward her little brother, because she then knew he had frustrated Daddy, that his indifference about losing track of the pliers was Irresponsible.

I’ve been considering this exchange recently as I’ve contemplated the nature of criticism in our American moment, particularly our favorite style of criticism, satire.

It’s not possible to keep up with all the satirical barbs aimed at the current federal administration, though it looks like Americans are trying, since Stephen Colbert is riding his satirical wit to a resurgence, Trevor Noah is using Trump critiques to grow his audience, and The Atlantic is devoting repeated commentary to Saturday Night Live’s artistic choices for skewering the President and his administration.

It’s SNL that got me thinking, because Melissa McCarthy has begun portraying Sean Spicer. I know a bit about Spicer, but I have never watched him work with the press. I know lots of people have taken on watching news as a part-time job, as Tom Papa amusingly observes, but if I get to that point I will question what I’m doing with my life–what would Henry David Thoreau think of my watching a television with Sean Spicer on it? I’m not going to do it.

For me, therefore, SNL’s skits are coloring my perception of Spicer without my having engaged the real person. I’m consuming the satire without knowing thoroughly what is being mocked. And while the skit might also spur me to look into the man’s work, I admit it frames my view of him–will I ever see the real Spicer without feeling like he’s imitating SNL?

In his essay “On Satire,” Aaron Belz shares the insight of Henri Bergson, a French modernist philosopher, who points out that the context for comedy is “our ‘life in common.’”

What I wonder when watching McCarthy play Spicer or listening to Colbert’s live specials is how broad this common life is that I’m sharing. Is my absorbing the satirical version of reality without substantial reference to the original narrowing the breadth of my common reference? Am I cutting myself off from others via satire?

I’ve always been an apologist for satire, justifying Mark Twain’s work, for example, “as a corrective of human vice or folly” (to pull from M.H. Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms). In this sense, I realize I’ve portrayed satire as a tool for unity, describing satirical jabs as attempts to bring people back to a common and more virtuous vision.

I have therefore seen myself positively in Belz’s further explanation of Bergson’s idea: “One important way we know that we’re living life in common is that we laugh at the same things. We also recognize error together. The joke itself, the thing that causes laughter, is incongruous, but its very existence suggests deeper congruity and agreement.” In this way, the joke I share reveals my agreement with those laughing and those joking, so satirical jokes confirm our common vision and encourage unity.

But now I’m wondering what kind of unity it encourages. Is the satire I’m reading or watching reclaiming stray members through winsome persuasion or tightening the circle against infiltration?

Jordan Peele, a contemporary master of satire, suggests that the dark element inside humans gives us “the ability to scapegoat. Our fear can drive us to destroy somebody for fear of being on the wrong side of the mob.” What if our satire is, then, an act of sorting? Of setting borders of congruity and establishing the side of the mob? Are satirists encouraging wayward sheep to return to the fold or establishing which sheep are allowed in the flock?

While I admit satire makes me laugh, I need to ask if it is accomplishing good. Is it pushing me to love my neighbor, or is it pushing me to think he’s a moron?

With those needle nose pliers, I soon came to my senses and realized I should not be angry with my eight year old; I am sorry I was critical of him. My concern now is how my criticism affected the way my daughter thinks of her little brother. Have I encouraged her to love him? I don’t think so. Satire rarely accomplishes that.

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Bill Bilichick shows innovation isn’t always an upgrade

While I am conscious that, on principle, seeing others suffer should not bring me joy, it is difficult at times not to find solace in the suffering of those who are notably privileged. If they’re having problems with that too, the thought runs, at least I know it’s a universal experience.

Such is my thinking today in learning that Bill Belichick has given up using a tablet on the sidelines of NFL football games. An Associated Press story explains that Belichick has found the devices “just too undependable,” and observes how “Belichick was caught on camera slamming down a sideline tablet following a Bills touchdown.”The slam is a beaut: he’s not going full ballistic, but he causes the most damage possible, letting the tablet land on its corner. If it didn’t break the manufacturer of the case should use this clip in an ad campaign.

From my own experience in the classroom, I could have written the rest of the AP story. Belichick curses the undependability, swearing to go back to his old ways (in this case case, paper and printer); the tech folks defend the system, explaining they’re doing the best they can to improve its reliability; somewhere, a colleague declares he really likes the technology and it’s working great for him.

It would make sense that the NFL, which drips money, would utilize communications devices almost on par with the Navy’s, so when they can’t make this stuff work the way they want, I feel a whole lot better about the class periods I’ve wasted waiting for half of my students’ laptops to log on to the school’s wireless network.

But mostly, I think Belichick is exactly right on this. He is no luddite: he was open to the technology and its possibilities and he’s clearly using anything that will give him an advantage. But this innovation was not effective, so he’s dumping it (literally).

Each technology has to be evaluated against what it is replacing. If we have something that is working for us–say, occasionally asking students to write essays on paper, with pens, or maybe a landline with  no cell phone–then we shouldn’t feel pressured to move past it. Not every innovation is an upgrade.

Politicians Should Say, and Mean,”War Is Terrible”

Two weeks ago in an interview, the libertarian party candidate for President, Gary Johnson, was asked what he would do about Aleppo. Perhaps he did not hear the question well in the context, perhaps his mind went blank, but the question caught him off guard so much he asked, “What is Aleppo?” in response.

Given he is running for President of the United States and that Aleppo has been in the news as a center point of humanitarian crises in the Syrian civil war, Johnson was lambasted in the media for his lack of awareness of foreign policy. Certainly Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would have known what Aleppo is and answered the question.

But Johnson’s gaffe hints at a bigger problem in American politics, a problem that encompasses all three candidates for President.

In a column in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan suggests that politicians’ attitudes toward war in general is alarming. “They have their heads all screwed up about war,” she writes. “They approach the subject cooly, as a political and geopolitical matter, and . . . they see it through prisms of personal political need and ideological gain.” Johnson, then, may be pitifully uninterested, but in Noonan’s view the broader trend is for every politician to view war as a talking point, a required subject for advancing their cause or building political credibility.

Noonan’s concern is that such an indifferent point of view misses the great truth of war: that “war is terrible.” Noonan affirms her point by telling the story of Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy in Aleppo, Syria, who was pulled from the rubble of his bombed out home. By the time she describes a video of his rescue, where he “brings his left hand up to his head and touches around for the wound” and then “puts his hand down on his legs, as if not to call attention to his wounds,” any reader with a heart knows she is right: “You should hate war.”

Noonan’s theory of war as terrible is extremely useful in highlighting for us how politics are calculated and ultimately impersonal. She tells us how she asked a candidate for President if he hated war, and “He got the dart-eyed look politicians get when they sense a trick question.” It wasn’t a trick question, but any statement issuing from a candidate’s mouth is released only after considering how it will affect poll numbers—even Donald Trump’s seemingly say-what-I-want slips of the tongue aim to generate particular popular responses. Somehow, then, the nature of geopolitical conflicts has added so many layers for politicians to sift through that they’ve lost track of how to answer that simple question. They’ve exposed their calculations and missed the only right answer about war, that it is terrible.

Yet by focusing on the genuineness and humane feeling of a politician’s response, Noonan’s political test leaves us susceptible to the next talented politician. As Barton Swaim has pointed out, “Successful politicians are people who know how to make us think well of them without our realizing that that’s what they’re doing; they know how to make us admire and trust them.” In Swaim’s view, the most effective politicians have an almost instinctual knowledge of what people want them to say or do, which means that as soon as a few politicians understand how to project this humane response Noonan wants to hear, we are likely to trust them.

I agree with Noonan that “before the election is over it would be good if someone said [war is terrible].” It would certainly beat not knowing what Aleppo is. But wouldn’t it be best if the person who finally said it, actually meant it?

Human Touch in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

I read a lot of books and have forgotten more about them than I thought was possible, but some scenes stay with me no matter how many books intervene. Maybe because I’m a dad, the scene in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road when the father shoots and kills the man who has grabbed his son will not leave me. It’s not the only scene from the book seared into my brain (“the things you put into your head are there forever” (12) after all) but when I picked up the novel this year to re-read it, I was thinking about it before I’d even reached it.

It rose to the top of my thoughts with the first line of the novel, where the father reflexively reaches out to his son: “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping before him.” It occurred to me that in my previous readings of the novel, the only other person to touch the boy was the man his father killed. The contrast between the two men’s touching of the son struck me–they both aim to possess, but one is for the sake of consumption and one is rooted in love.

What role, I began to wonder, does touch have in this bleak world McCarthy creates for us?

Touch, I realized with this first line, has maintained credibility in a world where so much language is useless, its “sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality” (89)¹. At no time in the book does the father say I love you to his son, yet we never doubt through all their Okays that he loves his boy. How do we know this? How are we so convinced about this father’s love for his son?

No novelist wins a Pulitzer Prize by being sloppy, and having read a few of McCarthy’s other novels, and having read The Road a couple times, I knew nothing extraneous had sneaked into the text. Every letter and comma serves a purpose, advances some kind of idea. What if, then, I spent this year’s reading monitoring McCarthy’s use of human touch? What might I discover about the role McCarthy assigns touch in The Road? What insight might that deliver to me about the nature of touch?

I therefore read with a pencil close at hand and marked each referral to one person touching another person and then jotted on a note card the pages where I found those moments (I can therefore assure you that 99 pages of the novel contain instances of touch). Obviously, most of these depict exchanges between the man and the boy, and in that basic sense most of the touch connotes something positive. My next task–which I have yet to finish–is to categorize each incident in a chart so I can determine which kinds of touch are most common (is a touch of guidance more common than one extending warmth?).

But while I have not completed my chart, I can already see how this touch stands in direct opposition to the meaninglessness of the world the man and the boy inhabit. While the bonds between humans have burned like the landscape–the boy and the man’s primary mission, after all, is to check for and avoid contact with other human beings–and while concepts of goodness and love make no sense anymore², the primacy of human touch has defied reason and meaninglessness. So opposed to the mother’s argument that there is no reasonable defense for living, the man continues to kiss his son (e.g. 82), to hold him when he needs comforting (e.g. 62, 85), to intervene when the boy cannot do something for himself (e.g. 39, 66), to guide him (e.g. 61, 85), to warm him (e.g. 29, 36, 67), and to keep him safe (e.g. 67, 77). Thus, when this dragon of meaningless evil breathes its fire, burning every word of reason propelled at it to destroy it, this simple and fundamental sensory expression withstands its conflagration.

In this preponderance of love expressed through human touch–and, admittedly, the punctuations of hatred, also expressed through touch³–exists the concrete reality of love (and hatred). The abstractions of language and morality have burned away, but goodness and love exist. People can say what they want–can name themselves Ely if they want–but the boy carries the fire, and we know he carries the fire not because of what he says, but because of what he does; we have seen him and we know he is the one who worries about everything, who has to worry about everything because no one else will (259).

In the end, this human touch shows us what the man and the boy do, and what they do is good. If we agree that McCarthy’s portrayal depicts a true aspect of our world, then no matter how bleak our world appears at times, no matter how much evil pushes against the ideas of what we think is right, goodness and love still reveal themselves through their actions, like touch.

In this way, I’m convinced McCarthy’s novel is a parable for a reality I confront frequently. Its insight is stunning.  When darkness is overcoming the world and I can’t find words to confront it, I can hold my son, rocking him back and forth, and know in this is a spot of grace, a place where light shines in this world.


Notes

  1. Thus the man can say to his son, “I’ll be in the neighborhood” but to his son, born in the world after the incident that destroys it, the phrase means nothing (95). The same thing is true with his stories about heroism and even names–see the conversation with “Ely.”
  2. See the mother’s defense for suicide and her point that the man has no way to answer her because there is no reason to live (57). See also the depiction of “absolute truth” as “cold” and “relentless,” “darkness implacable,” and a “crushing black vacuum” (130).
  3. Hence the man the father kills and the father’s vow to kill anyone who touches the boy (77).

Considering how small groups can be an appropriate way to structure church

house to houseThrough the past few years I have come to believe that small groups are the best way for local churches to structure themselves for ministry in their communities, and my reading of Larry Kreider’s book, House to House, kicks off a bit of a formal study of how I might utilize the small group model with my own family and within my local church. I thought I’d share a few things regarding small groups I am increasingly convinced of, and Kreider’s book, while not perfect (particularly in his Biblical explication, which at times I found lacking), brought many of these things into sharper focus for me.

Small groups appear to be the church’s best bet for reaching out to unbelievers.

I have seen many evangelistic and outreach attempts and I admit to holding my breath and sighing inside for almost every one of them. The one I sigh at the most is Kirk Cameron’s Way of the Master, a strategy that guides believers to accost non-Christians in public places and corner them into admitting they are sinners in need of a savior. If the strategy has worked, then praise God, for ultimately I echo Paul’s conviction that as long as Christ is proclaimed, then so be it (Philippians 1.15-18), but I chafe at it because it seems to me a cheap rhetorical trap, not a way to guide a person into a forever-relationship with Jesus. It strikes me that what most people in today’s American culture want least is to be cornered by some “crazy Christian” and told they’re sinners. What they want, as far as I can see, is to see a faith that works before they consider it for themselves. In a world of scandals and hypocrisy, a world where people’s impressions of Christians are often defined by what Christians are against, politically, they need to see something different for themselves before they’ll come close.

Enter the small group, a place where people can enter and check out what these Christians are really like. If Christians are interacting with non-believers and loving them (which would mean, by extension, wanting them to know Christ), then the small group becomes a way to offer someone a closer look at what the Christian life is like. (As a side note, I appreciated Kreider’s firm comment about what a Christian should do if their circles of acquaintances are filled only with Christians: “When this is the case, steps need to be taken to develop new circles of relationships” (94).) Essentially, the small group gives a Christian a comfortable place to invite a non-Christian. A non-Christian might not want to go near a church—all that singing and preaching, all those memories of hating church as a kid or of not knowing what to do at the right time—but they might go to a small group gathering if someone they respect invited them over.

To my mind the small group is a better opportunity than some outreach event the church may conduct, like the classic Easter service where everyone tries to invite a non-believer. The small group’s consistent schedule allows a person to extend an invitation when it is natural and sensible, and it allows a guest to come and check it out on more than one occasion without having to feel pressure. The Christian, too, can relax and feel no pressure, as he doesn’t have the sense that this is his one chance to invite that buddy of his to an event.

When a guest does come, what she sees is not a room full of people listening to some guy talk about something she may or may not believe, but a group of Christians truly living the Christian life in connection, supporting and encouraging and praying for one another. That is what we believers wish people knew about when they judge us according to political debates, and the small group gives us a chance to show them.

Small groups are the best way to move people into living out their faith and holding them accountable for doing so.

Sitting in a church on Sunday morning for a service, attending Sunday school, helping at AWANA or youth group—these are a few traditional activities of church, but for most believers on this schedule, these activities never truly challenge us to live out the kind of faith that John and James describes as being full of clear, righteous fruit. Actually, that sentence doesn’t quite capture it: they challenge us to do so, but if attending those activities is all we do, the church is powerless to confirm whether we do so. When we attend a small group and within that group ask each other difficult questions and hold each other accountable for growing in obedience in our faith—then we are confirming whether each of us is living out the faith. But in the structure of church as we typically do it, this rarely occurs. We meet, we go out to lunch, and we listen a lot to teachers, but we have no vehicle to confirm response.

Further, when you read the New Testament, particularly the epistles of Paul, so you encounter a myriad of commands to encourage, love, care for, and submit to one another (and the actions go on and on). How many of these things can we actually accomplish by sitting in church singing and listening to a sermon? Very few. If we intentionally enter into committed relationships with one another (and in our culture this means we have to block out a slot in the week’s activity-filled agenda), we can actually live out the faith with each other in a way that resembles the commands of scripture.

Small groups can be done in many ways.

When you begin to think openly about small groups, you realize that the ways they are done are almost endless. Some can meet every week. Some can meet every other week, and on the off weeks the group can get together for something more informal, say to do yardwork for one family in the group. One week the women could go off by themselves and pray and talk in-depth while the men watch over the kids, and then next week it could be reversed. The group could have dinner together all the time, some times, or never. The group could watch a video series together and hold each other accountable to improving in such a way, or the group could simply discuss the week’s sermon in practical ways. Precisely what is done is flexible, as long as the group is focused on challenging one another to live out the Christian faith.

Small groups allow increased diversity in the local church body.

In a large church there are a plethora of opinions about how to do things, yet there is only one service each week, which means many people won’t have it their way or any way near it. That is fine—we must submit to one another—but when we separate for additional times together, it allows others a put their fingerprints on the ministry of the church in creative ways they otherwise couldn’t. Krieder, concerning the structure of the church, nicely points out the importance of this expression: “No matter what the structure, we believe the key is that the structure that is created must allow for the free expression of the creative abilities of God’s people within that structure. The most efficient and effective structures are those where the individual can be seen and utilized, rather than disenfranchised or ignored” (258).

Heck, I am even naive enough to hope that small group structure could be the way to move churches to become less racially segregated, as the small group settings could allow for understanding and respect regarding the vastly different ways we worship in our country.

Small groups must be held to the vision of the local church.

Kreider points out that, for him, (and I tend to agree with him), “The primary focus of each small group . . . should be outreach and discipleship, rather than fellowship. Fellowship, then, will be a healthy by-product of the small group that is constantly reaching out to others” (89). This is a particular view of small groups and can easily be ignored. Thus, if the church is attempting to use small groups as a tool of outreach and discipleship with a main aim at connecting with non-believers, then that vision has to be shared.

Only with that accountability can a goal of outreach be realistically held. Kreider is of the opinion that “to trust the Lord for at least two people or families to come to Christ through our small group or house church each year is certainly not setting a goal that is too high” (190). I am challenged by such a goal, and, to be honest, if I am not encouraged and reminded of such a vision, I too would stray away from it. Thus, my church would want to hold and remind me and my group of that vision, so we do not subvert our purpose. Without that vision being firmly agreed upon and enforced, the groups can easily turn into more entrenched cliques or groups of friends.

Small groups disable many of the structural restrictions to how we typically do church.

I have come to realize that one of the most important aspects of a small group is that it allows people to take on the real challenge of serving others. Too often we say there is work to be done in our church and we issue a call for volunteers, and the opportunities are things like constructing sets for vacation Bible school, attending budget meetings for committees and teams, serving sandwiches, and babysitting in the nursery. Even leaders are tapped for what might be called governing responsibilities rather than ministry tasks. These things need to be done, for sure, but it strikes me that spiritual gifts don’t exactly apply in many of the aforementioned activities. It’s like organizing a baseball team and then only having the players arrange helmets and set up the field—they never get to play. Why not extend a real challenge to people, a challenge of discipleship? A challenge of serving one another? Kreider makes a couple interesting points in this regard, and the first involves deacons. He observes that the responsibilities of a deacon, as conveyed in scripture, align quite closely with those of a small group leader. Thus he says with conviction, “We are fully convinced that literally thousands of deacons need to be released to prepare for the coming revival” (247). The deacons need to be released from governing and chores to minister, and leading small groups is something they can be released to.

A second point of Kreider’s regarding structure that I particularly appreciate is more general:

Karen Hurston, who has spent many years of her life studying churches, told me once that many mega-churches are more like teaching centers. This is a bold analysis, but in some cases she may be right. One of the difficulties that many mega-churches have is that many believers are bench warmers and never use the many gifts that the Lord has given to them because they get ‘lost in the crowd.’ (255)

I am not as restrained or soft as Kreider in my own thinking. When I think of a typical church—not just a mega-church—it strikes me that almost all of its activities consist of education. Education is important, to be sure, but when the church’s structured time consists only of education, it is an imbalanced picture of what the Christian life is.

In another era small groups likely weren’t necessary. A Puritan community apparently did not need formal small groups to encourage people to live out their Christian walks. But what one generation and community can take for granted, another has to intentionally create, and community is something our culture lacks. We put up fences around our yards and hide behind garage doors, and if we do not make an intentional effort to get behind these walls and invade these modern cocoons, we can’t encourage each other in the ways previous generations and other cultures of the church were able to.

I admit I am a bit daunted by the time and effort involved with small group ministry. I am intimidated by the idea of someone asking our group whether anyone has become a Christian in the previous year due to our loving ministry. Yet I am also excited by the idea of living out my faith along with other people, of working beside them instead of simply sitting beside them. I am excited to think that I could be involved in challenging, interesting, and important conversations about faith and not just chit-chat.

No matter what my hesitations, a small group structure is the best idea I’ve seen for a church to encourage believers to follow Jesus, and ultimately, that’s something I am excited about.

  • Kreider, Larry. House to House. Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image, 2008.

How my attempts at Advent spark liturgical longings

I really like my church. I go out of my way to say this because there is a sense in which I am not a great fit for it. If you were to sit me down and ask me to map out my ideal Sunday worship service, for example, I probably would not create something all that similar to the service in which I participate every Sunday. The general differences would involve what is often called liturgy–those scripted or formal elements of a service that are repeated or structured in a particular pattern. I’d utilize more of a formal liturgy than my church does, creating in all likelihood a service more similar to a Presbyterian or Anglican service than my Baptist church would ever desire.

This discrepancy between my ideal and my real church experience is okay, I am convinced, and I refuse to entertain thoughts of changing churches. My wife had ties to our church before I moved here and when I arrived to marry her I was quickly enveloped into the social fabric–or, more accurately and appropriately, into the fellowship–of what is our church. Once in that fellowship, I was part of the church, all preferences aside. These were people I had considered and been stirred by to love and good works, people from whom I had received and to whom I had given encouragement. Whether I particularly liked the service or not struck me as a lesser concern, so I held that preference at bay in favor of loyalty and fidelity to a particular group of people.

But like many preferences, this one lingers. Christmas is one time I tend to note my divergent views, as my church has never emphasized Advent all that much. I like Advent, with its weekly theme and Old Testament readings; I like the way the Advent journey reminds me about our world’s need for justice and judgment, about my need and longing for a Savior, before announcing the news of Christ’s arrival. Anyone can remember that Christmas is about Christ, but with an Advent focus I can better remember why I want to give back the song which now the angels sing.

advent candles

I should note, however, that my love for liturgy is not a love built from long experience. I did not grow up using the Book of Common Prayer, for example, and cannot navigate it competently; neither could I answer questions about morning vespers or other such exercises of corporate devotion. What this means is that when occasions like Advent come along I tend to strike out on my own to recreate a liturgical devotional structure–and what I create is a strange and inadequate amalgamation. Metaphorically, I would hope for the experience to be like my hopping out of a ship and independently exploring the waters nearby in a kayak, later to return to the ship in which I have committed to riding. Instead, my attempts are much closer to jumping out of the boat with no kayak or life vest and flopping around for a few minutes. After climbing back to the deck, wet and sputtering, I am forced to admit I am more a product of the boat in which I ride than I might think.

Thus, this Advent I thought I’d at least read Isaiah, which seemed like a good way to remember the anticipation of the Messiah.Things started out well, I think, as God’s words in Isaiah recalled to my mind how powerful and encompassing is the peace which the Messiah brings:

He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)

Later I shared with my children what I’d been reading in Isaiah 11 about the same radical peace of God, which, with the coming of the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” would bring about the impossible. Their favorite images of the impossible were these:

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. (v. 8)

But then my wife and I began staying up later and later getting ready for Christmas–cleaning the house for company, putting the lights on the tree, addressing Christmas cards–and I found reading Isaiah a bit more difficult. The words kept spinning on the page, sending my eyes rolling into the back of my head and me closer to the edge of sleep. I’d work with what energy I had and focus on particular images, like the imagery of God’s criticism of Assyria, that country that boasted of its accomplishments as if God had not been involved:

Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it,
or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it? (Isaiah 10:15)

Thinking on such an image was feasible, because I could hold it in mind and connect it to other scripture without having to focus my eyes, which in my exhaustion were close to useless. I recalled how I’d seen so often in Psalms that the Psalmist would praise God by telling others what God had done for him, and I realized that Assyria’s sin was essentially the absence of this praise. What a good reminder for myself, I thought, to speak clearly and gratefully about the ways God has blessed me. The devotional potential of reading Isaiah remained strong, as it always does in any book of the Bible when I read earnestly.

Yet the problem with such reading, Advent-wise, was that I certainly would not progress through Isaiah by Christmas. I’d be lucky to get half-way there, and the closer I got to Christmas, the slower my pace became; instead of reading four chapters a night, I was reading one, and some nights my reading was so useless and confused that I’d have to re-read it the next night. I read chapter 22 about the valley of vision three nights in a row and finally moved on with an embarrassingly low handle of the imagery.  It was not overly surprising, then, that I found myself the night after Christmas slogging through just the 28th of the 66 chapters in the book and becoming increasingly discouraged by my efforts.

At age 17 I began reading the Bible just about every day, and I am comfortable with the basic outline of the history it relates regarding Israel and Judah. I’ve read the entire Bible a number of times and studied it formally in a few contexts, including college. Yet my insight regarding Isaiah was laughable and my comprehension was dismal. What was going on in this text? I didn’t know.

This is probably how my literature students feel much of the time, particularly when we read poetry. I put Ezra Pound in front of them and they look at me as if to say, “I’m sorry, did you want me to know what this poem is about? Because I understand zero of it.” When I was their age I was determined to overcome that phenomenon. I wanted to pick up a poem or a book and “get it.” I wanted to not need a teacher to explain to me what it meant; I wanted to figure it out myself.

Thus I made a vow not to read the introductions to books. I’d just read the book and experience it myself and over time I figured I’d become capable of getting it. Plus, reading what other people said the book meant felt like cheating; it felt like reading Cliff’s Notes, and I had steadfastly resisted any hint of such a strategy. To read what other people wrote before writing my own interpretation for the ubiquitous essay smacked of scandal. To put a spiritual spin on it, I later heard some well-meaning Christians say they thought one should read the Bible without any commentary, that you should read the Bible and pray and find out for yourself what it means, and perhaps because this echoed with my other convictions about literature, I gave the idea more credence than it deserved.

Life is strange. Why I assembled these various tidbits of influence the way I did is a mystery to me, and why I followed them as advice the few times I did is also a mystery. What I do know is that I have become about as convinced as I can be that I was completely wrong about consulting outside sources. While reaching for commentary as a substitute for reflective reading is certainly objectionable, interacting with commentary is quite often essential for understanding.

For my students with those quizzical poems and stories, the reality is that they can understand them, and while sometimes all they need is a bit of prodding to read more carefully, oftentimes it really requires that I give them some background information. Mark Twain’s satirical focus in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, becomes clearer when we read an article about the honor code of the South. We don’t want to limit all Twain’s criticisms to the honor code, but knowing what the honor code was and how much it bothered Twain gives us access to his text; it helps us to orient ourselves and realize what spurred a few quizzical but emphatic scenes. Essentially, it gave us a clue.

A clue is exactly what I needed as I read Isaiah 28. Putting down my copy of the Bible, which is a basic English Standard Version with no commentary (I like it for most reading as it is thin and easy to hold), I borrowed one of my children’s study Bibles. A quick reference keyed me in to the nature of the chapter–Isaiah’s criticism was of Jerusalem’s confident reliance upon Egypt for protection and part of the chapter I could not understand was a parody or mockery of Israel’s gleeful reporting of their alliance. The next part of the section, I learned, described the Assyrian army coming upon Jerusalem. That knowledge and a further note helped me to understand seven verses at the end of the chapter that, to that point, had struck me as completely random; now they made sure sense.

Consulting the outside source takes time, of course. Reading in this way is more what we label studying than what we label reading. Yet to read well, and particularly to read challenging texts well, we have to do more than breeze over the words once. We have to study them.

Perhaps this is part of what I find beautiful about Advent and liturgy. There is a sense in which the liturgy and traditional, recurring structures are guides that give pilgrims like me a clue about what we are supposed to focus upon as we travel this road. Not that a clearer liturgy would have helped me to comprehend the 28th chapter of Isaiah; but perhaps my own foray into interpreting Isaiah is a bit of a metaphor for my own liturgy-less experience: I plowed through it on my own a few times and came up clueless, but a short consult with a trustworthy source transformed the text to a meaningful prophecy. In this sense, a liturgy strikes me as one way to place a framework upon our devotional life, a framework that can keep us from being quite so clueless. I have full confidence, of course, that my non-liturgical fellowship and I are traveling down the narrow road that leads to the small gate; sometimes I wonder, however, if we allow the journey to become more confusing than it needs to be.

Thanks for reading.

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Photo credit:

  • Penn, Leah. “Advent Candles.” Flickr. Yahoo!, 30 Jan. 2008. Web. 28 Dec. 2012.

The Livestrong Myth: What the USADA’s report means about Lance Armstrong’s legacy

There’s a scene in The Perfect Game that captures nicely what it is to be a little boy. The team, a Mexican little league squad from Monterey, feels discouraged and begins to doubt itself. To motivate them, the coach tells the kids they’re not a bunch of poor beginners, they’re the Brooklyn Dodgers. He then tells each of them to get back to their positions, one by one, calling them by the name of their Dodger counterpart. The kids eat it up and begin to play inspired baseball.

It’s tacky, but it’s completely true. I remember playing whiffle-ball not as a determined whiffle-baller, but as a mini-Dwight Evans, the Red Sox right fielder whose batting stance was a constant temptation to little mimics like me. Dare I admit in public that I thought it was okay to wear knee pads when I played basketball in fourth grade? How could I do such a thing? Because I was Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, and I lived in Celtic-territory, that’s how. We young boys operated in a world of fantasy and dreams: we clearly dreamed “that he is me” and we wanted to be like Mike.

As an adult I’ve not progressed too far beyond this pretending, though I have adapted it slightly. When I ride my bike, I admit to imitating the cadences and positions of particular riders; on steep inclines I’ll stand out of the saddle and pop the pedals like Alberto Contador, for example. Other times I’ll push myself to maintain a tougher pace on flat stretches, envisioning the determined time trials professional riders can call forth. It’s not quite the same thing as my childhood fantasies since I don’t consciously pretend to be these riders, but I certainly imitate and compare in an effort to bring out of myself a better performance. Of this I’m not embarrassed, as imitating masters is a time-proven technique for learning, whether it’s called apprenticeship or modeling or discipleship.

This cycling imitation is about the last vestige of my childhood imitations, though. I no longer see myself as comparable to baseball or basketball players, for I no longer play those sports. I can’t pretend to be Alexi Lalas scoring headers and stolidly defending for team USA. But I can ride my bike just like I could when I was 10 years old, when I would race it at warp speed around the Village Green, a quarter mile neighborhood loop; perhaps this is why I retain a boyish enthusiasm for professional cycling, an unadulterated fanaticism for road racing.

Since this obsession–let’s call it what it is, I suppose–is well known, a number of friends have asked me what my thoughts are about the Lance Armstrong revelations and allegations. In the end I’ve written quite a bit in emails, and I thought I’d compile some of my thoughts here, making my own public statement about Lance, a man whose riding I have loved to imitate but whose decayed character has finally turned me away.

I must say at first that I am convinced that people like me–that is, cycling fans–were so aware of the potential of all this that it’s hard to see it hurting the sport any more than the sport has already been hurt in the past; yet assuming that it’s all true, it’s amazing to me that Armstrong’s teams (from US Postal to Discovery to Astana) were able to keep all this system locked up so tight for so long. A student asked me the other day how the investigation got started and I realized I had no idea. That in itself is interesting–how does one get going on this? I suppose it begins with a rat like Floyd Landis, but there seem to be so many possibilities, and it is strange that it took this long for an operation so big to come to light. I remember many other teams getting busted during those years, French police raiding team cars and things of that nature, and Lance’s teams were going and going with it throughout it all. That’s amazing.

Regarding Armstrong himself, it has been years since I actually believed he was clean. A year or two back I read an article in Bicycling that convinced me he’d doped. In it Bill Strickland, a self-avowed Armstrong fan, takes us through his conviction that Lance cheated:

I don’t know, if you’re not already there, what might lead you to believe that Lance Armstrong doped. It wasn’t Floyd Landis for me, or the federal investigation, or any public revelation. My catalyst was another one of those statements that was never said by someone I never talked with. It was not from one of Armstrong’s opponents. It was not from anyone who will gain any clemency by affirming it under oath.

It was an admission that doping had occurred, one disguised so it could assume innocence but unmistakable to me in meaning.

I know it’s a “someone I trust told me and I can’t tell you who” admission, but since I don’t know Lance myself, it’s the best as I can do. Plus, it jived with my own judgment on Armstrong, an opinion I built from details I’d read about him, like the one slipped into an Outside article from 2003:

The Suburban’s doors open all at once and five man-boys clad in various hues of polyester pile out. Lance steps down from the driver’s seat—he can’t stand being a passenger, rarely lets anyone else take the wheel—and boosts himself into the back to change.

Perhaps I over interpreted, but I remember at the time I read the article that he seemed a bit impatient and controlling. That’s no big deal by itself, but it matched the feel I got from my reading of his book It’s Not about the Bike, which left me convinced he was exactly the kind of guy who would use performance enhancing drugs (PEDs)–a win-at-all-costs and to-heck-with-you-if-you-don’t like-me type, as I admitted here.

Yet even then, the things I’ve been reading about the doping ring that the USADA is saying his team ran . . . well that’s a whole new level of dirty. Not only are we talking every kind of drug or procedure available, but I’ve read articles this week (here’s an example) that detail how cycling has gotten into money laundering in order to help riders pay for all this stuff–Swiss bank accounts and the works–and it’s pretty clear that Armstrong’s teams took it all to a whole new level during his run at the Tour. The average person will not take the time to look at all these things, but one article at VeloNews tours part of the USADA document and shows how intentional the work of Armstrong’s teams was, particularly at the beginning of his time with US Postal. This quote from a representative portion of the USADA document is typical:

At the end of the 1998 season Lance had complained to Jonathan Vaughters that Celaya was too conservative in the way he dispensed doping products. Armstrong’s comment about Dr. Celaya was along the lines of, the team “might as well race clean, he wants to take your temperature to give you even a caffeine pill.”

The pressure for teammates to dope seems to have come primarily from Armstrong, which makes sense given that he was the one wearing yellow jerseys. Another article at VeloNews, a shorter one than the one linked above, gives some of the details about how riders may have been pressured into doping and how cycling  wasn’t a level playing field. I waver on my thoughts about the “poor rider” angle expressed in that article and elsewhere: sometimes I have a total lack of pity and and sometimes a real sympathy, depending on how sincere I think the stories are. The most important thing about the article, however, is that it undercuts the little justification for watching cycling that I have been using for the last few years. That is, I’ve told myself that since they’re all doing it, what do I as a spectator care? I might be watching strangely medicated bionic men, but at least they’re all strangely medicated and bionic. I figured, “Hey, they’re on a level playing field, it’s just not the playing field we think it is.” To that thought the article makes this point:

This idea seems laughable, even. The best riders — Armstrong — had the best doctors. Only certain riders on the team got the certain baggies of drugs, while others were rationed lesser tonics. Dope didn’t level the playing field; it created an entirely different game that only a few guys had tickets to.

“When everyone can dope, it becomes a contest of who has the best information, who has the best access, who has the best doctor, and who has the most money. That’s what this contest is — it’s a chess game of information, connections and money,” co-Author  Daniel Coyle told VeloNews just after the [The Secret Race‘s] release.

Obviously, I have to realize, my old justification is a self-deception.  Money and power wins and you can pretty well buy your way to the top. Of course, it’s clear that Lance still had to work hard to get where he did–I wouldn’t win this summer’s Tour de France no matter how many PED’s you pumped into me–but I’m not his competition. Plenty of Lance’s competitors were just as dedicated but not as connected, just as passionate but not as corrupt. Someone like me has to look at such a competition and wonder if what I am seeing is even sport anymore. It feels a little like rooting for a drug cartel. In a scenario like pro cycling during Armstrong’s run, it’s more like The Godfather than Rudy.

Whether this is sport is a crucial question for me, but it doesn’t even get into the Livestrong Myth: how Armstrong has essentially marketed himself as the good guy through his Livestrong foundation and drawn who knows how many millions in endorsements through the years by being the good-cancer-fighter. The whole country’s been taken in by the ruse but our very gullibility is tied closely with our lack of concern for how false the character was.

As far as what Americans will think of Lance, unfortunately I think the reality of our thinking is best captured by The Onion:

According to sources and basic common sense, now that the storied career of cycling’s most prominent and marketable figure has been revealed as a complete and undeniable fraud, there is no chance the sport will ever again receive even one line of coverage from any news outlet in the world.

In all likelihood, most folks aren’t interested enough to find out how bad Armstrong’s actions really were. Since we liked the Livestrong Myth so much, one has to wonder if  anyone even cares whether Lance was dirty or not; after all,it is so inspirational . . .

As an example of this attitude I turn to Rick Reilly, a guy who is usually high on moral uprightness but for some reason has been all too willing to give Lance a pass because of his non-profit work:

I don’t care. I’m wearing yellow just to say thank you. If he cheated in a sport where cheating is as common as eating, then I’m wearing yellow to thank him for everything he’s done since he cheated.

 I’m wearing something yellow for the way he changed cancer in this country from dread to hope. I’m wearing something yellow for everybody who got their chilling cancer diagnosis and said to themselves, “Lance did it. Why can’t I?”

 Want to join me?

I can comprehend Reilly’s sentiment, a sentiment expressed before the public got a look at the gory details of the USADA report, a report far more damning than most folks seemed to think it would be; but to those willing to reexamine the reality of it, the bulk of Lance’s charity work looks more like self-indulgent self-promotion than kind-hearted philanthropy. This old Outside article (also written before the USADA’s report) leveled some pretty heavy criticism of him:

“The issue with Lance Armstrong isn’t whether he has done good for cancer victims,” accounting professor Mark Zimbelman wrote on his blog Fraudbytes, in a post comparing Mortenson to Armstrong, “but rather, whether he first cheated to beat his opponents, then used his fraudulent titles to help promote an organization that appears to do good but also enriches a fraudster.”

I love the clarity of this paragraph:

Much of the foundation’s work ends up buffing the image of one Lance Edward Armstrong, which seems fair—after all, Livestrong wouldn’t exist without him. But Livestrong spends massively on advertising, PR, and “branding,” all of which helps preserve Armstrong’s marketability at a time when he’s under fire. Meanwhile, Armstrong has used the goodwill of his foundation to cut business deals that have enriched him personally, an ethically questionable move.

“It’s a win-win,” says Daniel Borochoff, head of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a watchdog group. “He builds up the foundation, and they build up him.”

Yet does anyone care? I’m not sure they do. The Livestrong Myth is too good, too simple, to deny: “After coming within an inch of death, Lance fought all the way back to become the world’s greatest athlete. You can battle back too!” It’s my boyhood role-playing all over again, but this time with cancer victims: “Like Lance, if I could be like Lance!”  And while the USADA report and the dropped endorsements may mean the myth will not be peddled so openly anymore, my hunch is it will not be deservedly eradicated. Like The Onion pointed out, people don’t actually care about cycling, which means the onslaught of reporting that went into exposing and debunking the myth of Joe Paterno (see here for an example) will never be unleashed upon Armstrong . . . and most folks won’t know any more than Rick Reilly told them back in September. They’ll never know that the real story of Lance, both as cancer patient and pro cyclist, is that it’s amazing what kind of medical treatment you can get with big money and power.

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