I’m not a leader, I just play one on TV

It is strange how much our instructions to those seeking to become a better husband, wife, parent, or leader sound like those which might be given to a spy taking on someone else’s identity. “You’ll need to take a walk every evening at 6:00, because Mr. Johnson did.” “You’ll need to buy her roses, because that’s what a good husband does.” “You’ll need to take up woodcarving, because Mr. Johson enjoyed it.” “You’ll need to praise him when he does chores, because that’s what a good wife does.” “Try not to talk so much, because Mr. Johnson was quiet.” “Be assertive, because leaders are assertive.”

It is as if someone watched a good husband and recorded everything he did, then turned it into a checklist to be handed out to other men. “Do these things and you will be the man you ought to be.” Instead of, “Be the man you ought to be and you will do these things.” One doesn’t catch pneumonia from coughing.

As long as we act as if the key to success in life’s various roles comes from doing certain things rather than becoming a certain kind of person, we will continue to produce tired, frustrated people who wonder why checking all the boxes still isn’t getting any easier or more effective.

Who needs buttercups or bishops when you have broadband?

The Telegraph reports on the latest update to Oxford University Press’ children’s dictionary:

Oxford University Press has removed words like “aisle”, “bishop”, “chapel”, “empire” and “monarch” from its Junior Dictionary and replaced them with words like “blog”, “broadband” and “celebrity”. Dozens of words related to the countryside have also been culled.

The publisher claims the changes have been made to reflect the fact that Britain is a modern, multicultural, multifaith society. […]

“We have a certain Christian narrative which has given meaning to us over the last 2,000 years. To say it is all relative and replaceable is questionable,” said Professor Alan Smithers, the director of the centre for education and employment at Buckingham University. “The word selections are a very interesting reflection of the way childhood is going, moving away from our spiritual background and the natural world and towards the world that information technology creates for us.”

An analysis of the word choices made by the dictionary lexicographers has revealed that entries from “abbey” to “willow” have been axed. Instead, words such as “MP3 player”, “voicemail” and “attachment” have taken their place. […]

Anthony Seldon, the master of Wellington College, a leading private school in Berkshire, said: “I am stunned that words like “saint”, “buttercup”, “heather” and “sycamore” have all gone and I grieve it.”

A vampire gentleman

In an interesting review of the execrable Twilight series for The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan suggests that a major factor in the series’ popularity with teenage girls is the unique dynamic between Bella, the female protagonist, and her love interest Edward, who inconveniently happens to be a vampire. Flanagan writes,

Twilight centers on a boy who loves a girl so much that he refuses to defile her, and on a girl who loves him so dearly that she is desperate for him to do just that, even if the wages of the act are expulsion from her family and from everything she has ever known. We haven’t seen that tale in a girls’ book in a very long time. And it’s selling through the roof. […]

As he gradually explains, Edward has been avoiding and scorning Bella not because he loathes her but because he is so carnally attracted to her that he cannot trust himself to be around her for even a moment. The mere scent of her hair is powerful enough that he is in a constant struggle to avoid taking—and thereby destroying—her. […]

The erotic relationship between Bella and Edward is what makes this book—and the series—so riveting to its female readers. There is no question about the exact nature of the physical act that looms over them. Either they will do it or they won’t, and afterward everything will change for Bella, although not for Edward. Nor is the act one that might result in an equal giving and receiving of pleasure. If Edward fails—even once—in his great exercise in restraint, he will do what the boys in the old pregnancy-scare books did to their girlfriends: he will ruin her. More exactly, he will destroy her, ripping her away from the world of the living and bringing her into the realm of the undead. […] In the course of the four books, Bella will be repeatedly tempted—to have sex outside of marriage, to have an abortion as a young married woman, to abandon the responsibilities of a good and faithful mother—and each time, she makes the “right” decision. The series does not deploy these themes didactically or even moralistically. Clearly Meyer was more concerned with questions of romance and supernatural beings than with instructing young readers how to lead their lives. What is interesting is how deeply fascinated young girls, some of them extremely bright and ambitious, are by the questions the book poses, and by the solutions their heroine chooses.

It appears that young women are tired of a culture where being a gentleman means not forcing yourself on the girl after she says no. There is something wrong with a relationship dynamic where it is the woman’s role to persist in holding off an infantilized male bent on going as far as she will allow, and ironically enough, we have left it up to a moody, vegetarian vampire to remind us of that fact.

Things God cannot do

One of the most interesting speeches I assign to the students in my Intro to Logic and Rhetoric class is the question, “Does God’s omnipotence mean he can do absolutely anything?” Both Scripture and Christian tradition respond in the negative. There are, of course, several Bible verses that indicate things God cannot do:

  • He cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18).
  • He cannot be tempted by evil, or tempt anyone (James 1:13).
  • He cannot disown himself (II Timothy 2:13).

We could summarize these propositions by saying that God cannot do evil. There is also a second set of things God cannot do: he cannot do illogic. God cannot create a square circle, or make 2+2 equal 5. He cannot create another infinite being (because an infinite being that was created is logically contradictory). He cannot create nothing (since something must be created, if creation occurs).

Our initial response to this assertion may be a feeling that God’s sovereignty is diminished. After all, does this mean that the laws of logic constrain God? Certainly not, any more than the earlier list of things God cannot do implies that the laws of morality bind him.

If we say, “God cannot do bleh, bleh, bleh,” are we offending his sovereignty? No, because “bleh, bleh, bleh,” is simply a series of sounds without meaning. It is nonsense, an empty phrase. If we think about it, the idea of a square circle or a created infinite being is equally nonsensical. Our mind instinctively assumes it must be meaningful since the phrase consists of two words which both have meaning, but when we apply the modifier “square” to the idea of “circle,” we fall abruptly into meaningless. A square circle is a series of sounds that refers to… nothing.

The common thread that binds these two assertions – that God cannot do evil or illogic – is the fact that God’s omnipotence operates according to his nature. God acts morally because his nature is good. God acts logically because his nature is rational. God’s omnipotence means that he is able to do whatever he wills (which is in accordance with who he is), unbound by any external contraints.

Katharine Hepburn, Paris Hilton, and mystery

One of the ideas that I found most interesting in A Return to Modesty is Wendy Shalit’s suggestion that modesty is inherently more erotic than today’s overt sexuality. A quick mental comparison of Katharine Hepburn with Paris Hilton supports Shalit’s thesis that the blunt appeal of “nothing left to the imagination” sexuality does little to compensate for the accompanying death of mystery. We want dim, flickering candles – not a bank of fluorescent lamps – when we plan a romantic evening.

I am reminded of a passage from Quo Vadis in which a debauched Roman patrician glances at a floating barge of nude women and comments that a thousand naked women are somehow less appealing than a single one. In a sex-permeated culture, we have lost the mystery that makes sex anything more than a biological act. If you’ve already seen everything, and done most of it, sex becomes nothing but masturbation with a partner – certainly nothing to get particularly excited about, which might be why increasing numbers of otherwise-healthy young men are having trouble getting, err, excited.

Nudists insist that naturism isn’t about sex. One almost immediately becomes used to the nudity of those around you, they explain, and it ceases to be sexually appealing. Familiarity, it seems, does indeed breed contempt, or at least disinterest.

You should be ashamed if you are male. Or female.

Conservatives frequently lament the cultural attitude that it is a shameful thing to be male. It is certainly a sad thing when half of our population is ashamed of one of its most fundamental characteristics; when large segments of our society believe that men ought to cringe along through life, engaging in spiritual self-flagellation over the shame of being born with a Y chromosome.

A book I’m reading has convinced me that I have been underestimating the problem by half, however. A Return to Modesty is one of the most interesting books I’ve read recently, and I’ll likely be posting more about it in the coming weeks. Wendy Shalit argues that our society’s decision to discard the virtue of modesty is “no less than an attempt to cure womanhood itself, and in many cases it has actually put us in danger.”

A young woman today has basically two options open to her: to pretend she’s a man, or to be feminine in a desperate, victim-like way. There’s Rene Denfield; she’s a boxer, her book jacket announces. There’s Camille Paglia; she’s very tough and even has a taste for gay male pornography! “Take your blows like men,” she advises young women in Vamps and Tramps. Then there are the women whose femininity is expressed by sleeping with a lot of men and then lamenting how much they resent men. Whether a young woman should opt for man or victim, the message sent by our culture is clear: it’s not a good thing to be female.

If you are male, you should be ashamed. If you are female, you should be ashamed. If you’re keeping score at home, we just reduced the options for living without shame by 100 percent…

LTA Blog is a manly blog

This is pretty cool. GenderAnalyzer.com is an AI-powered website that will analyze any blog and guess whether it is written by a man or a woman. The conclusion for LTA Blog was a 84 percent probability that it was written by a man. Running the analyzer on friends’ blogs yielded reliable results with one significant and rather entertaining exception that I will omit for the sake of the author…

Thoughts on denominationalism

I recently completed a paper on my “Ecclesiological Identity” that afforded an interesting opportunity for thinking through my opinions on a variety of topics. The following is a modified and expanded excerpt on denominationalism.

In A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren writes, “After protesting Catholic excesses, Protestants started protesting each other. Whenever a Protestant group manifested a problem – complacency, confusion, weak leadership, whatever – a subgroup would arise from within and protest these failures. Then they would break away, often damning the group which they left, proclaiming themselves the truly reformed, truly protestant, truly pure, truly right, truly true, and so on… This competitive Protestant religious market eventually spawned a kind of infomercial mentality, where each group advertised its unique features, seeking loyal customers for their religious products and services.” The list of things upon which I disagree with McLaren is a long one, but on this topic, as on many others, he is an insightful commentator.

As a member of any Christian denomination, it is possible to divide one’s beliefs into two categories: Those shared with all other Christians, and those distinct to one’s own denomination. There can be only one reason for a denomination to exist, and it rests squarely on the latter set of beliefs; those its adherents hold in opposition to other Christians. Any apologetic for the denomination qua denomination must focus on those beliefs, and only on those beliefs. The more important and central a theological belief is, the less likely that it is crucial to one’s denominational identity, and vice versa. If I am asked why I am a Christian, I point to Jesus. If I am asked why I am a Baptist, pointing to Jesus is irrelevant, for any other Christian can do the same. So I point not to Jesus, but to baptism by immersion. If I am asked why I am a Presbyterian, I point not to Jesus, but to government by elected elders.

Does this mean Jesus is unimportant to Baptists, Presbyterians, or any other denomination? Or that one could not start from Jesus to explain one’s Christian faith, and then work back to more specific denominational distinctives? Of course not. However, by setting up a system in which disagreements with other Christians on matters of secondary importance form the basis for group identity within the Church, we are unavoidably disordering our priorities in a way that sets the stage for the “fleshly… jealousy and strife” that Paul criticizes among those in Corinth whose first allegiance was to Paul or Apollos, rather than Christ (I Cor. 3:3-4).

This is not to suggest that our potentials to be a good Christian and a good Baptist (or Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, etc.), are necessarily inversely related. It is certainly possible to hold one’s theological beliefs in a proper hierarchy of importance while using a denominational label as a shorthand description of certain of those beliefs. However, denominational identity so strongly pulls towards a disordering of theological priorities and a fracturing of Christian unity that it may not be worth the risk for a people who are called to remember that there is “one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:4-6a).

I will close by attempting to respond to one possible objection: “Disagreement is inevitable among Christians who are forced to squint ‘through a mirror darkly’ in this life. If I disagree with your belief about baptism, church government, or worship, why shouldn’t I join with other Christians who share my beliefs?”

I recently heard a Baptist professor talking about how much he valued the fact that Southern Baptists are able to amicably discuss issues such as the extent of the atonement, the proper place for church discipline, and proper modes of worship. Had I asked him why he didn’t mind disagreement among his brethern on such topics, he doubtless would have responded, “Why not? After all, we are all Southern Baptists.”

And we are all Christians. There is certainly a place for disagreement and discussion, with divine revelation as the final arbiter between varying opinions, but I have to wonder what the Church would look like if we were willing to extend to all those who have been purchased by the blood of Christ the same grace we extend those who share our denominational label. What if we were simply members of the Church seeking the truth together (and it must be the truth we are seeking, unless we want to end in jelly-spined ecumenism), rather than Baptists, Presbyterians, or Methodists defending our religious identity from those on the outside?

Worth reading: Boys Adrift

My earlier post on my most formative books reminded me of another book I read recently that didn’t affect my foundational worldview enough to warrant inclusion on the list, but which I nonetheless highly recommend. Boys Adrift by Dr. Leonard Sax is the best examination I’ve seen of the various factors contributing to, in the words of the subtitle, “the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men.”

Anyone who has spent much time around young men knows the problem Sax is describing, but he provides plenty of statistics to back up the anecdoctal evidence (only 42 percent of current college students are male; one in three men ages 22-34 lives at home with his parents). At a prominent seminary where I have taken some classes, faculty recently put out a request for missionaries. I am told they intentionally worded the appeal to emphasize the danger and excitement of the proposed mission, in the hope of attracting male volunteers. Seventeen students signed up. Seventeen of them were women. One professor explained the result by noting that it’s hard to power a Wii on the mission field.

Sax suggests five factors that are creating a generation of young men who don’t care that they don’t care, discussing changes in schooling, video games, medications for ADHD, endocrine disruptors, and a lack of male mentoring. It’s a fascinating and disturbing book, backed by copious references to peer-reviewed research. Well worth the read. (Also worth reading is Sax’ Why Gender Matters.)

My four most formative books

It struck me recently that I can easily list the most formative books I’ve ever read. I was surprised to realize how significant a gulf exists between these four books and any other competitor. I’ve been interested, affected, and challenged by many other books, but when it comes to the formation of my basic worldview, there are no close competitors. (With the exception of Scripture itself, which ought to be awarded pride of place in the ranking, but which I’m excluding in the interest of brevity.) The following books are listed chronologically, based on the first time I read them.

Orthodoxy, by the inimitable G.K. Chesterton, a man who could say more with an offhand witticism than some authors manage in a whole book. Chesterton’s brilliant mind combined with a slightly madcap passion and deep appreciation for life to create an unusual apologetic that reminded me of the appellation “Happy Warrior,” a title that has always held a peculiar appeal for me since I first read it years ago in some forgotten article. On an intellectual level, his defense of his faith offered a more organic compliment to the formal arguments with which I was familiar. (I heartily recommend anything else written by Chesterton, in particular St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox.)

Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. Though written as an apologetic, this book has influenced my theology more than any work other than the Bible itself.

Iron John: A Book About Men, by Robert Bly. It’s a mythology-filled book by a non-Christian based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, and anyone who wonders why men aren’t showing up on Sunday morning needs to read it (and then go watch Fight Club).

Existentialism and Human Emotions, by Jean-Paul Sartre. Before I am stoned as an infidel for including one of the 20th Century’s foremost atheists on my list, allow me to offer a quote in my defense:

But when the existentialist writes about a coward, he says that this coward is responsible for his cowardice. He’s not like that because he has a cowardly heart or lung or brain; he’s not like that on account of his physiological make-up; but he’s like that because he has made himself a coward by his acts… [A frequent complaint is] as follows: “After all, these people are so spineless, how are you going to make heroes out of them?” This objection almost makes me laugh, for it assumes that people are born heroes. That’s what people really want to think. If you’re born cowardly, you may set your mind perfectly at rest; there’s nothing you can do about it; you’ll be cowardly all your life, whatever you may do. If you’re born a hero, you may set your mind just as much at rest; you’ll be a hero all your life; you’ll drink like a hero and eat like a hero. What the existentialist says is that the coward makes himself cowardly, that the hero makes himself heroic.

We are the product of our choices. When I choose to look at that pornographic popup ad, when I choose to gossip, when I choose to dwell on bitterness, I am creating the person I will be tomorrow. While Sartre’s atheism yields only a fumbling in the dark, pointless choices creating meaningless men, our choices are made with Jesus Christ as both means and end; but we are shaped by those choices nonetheless.