Thursday, December 29, 2011

Best Books of 2011

Island of the World - Michael D. O'Brien

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society - Lesslie Newbigin

The Control of Nature - John McPhee

Lifesigns - Henri J. Nouwen

Bonhoeffer: Paster, Martyr, Prophet, Spy - Eric Metaxas

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Car Games

When I was a kid, I played lots of games with cars.

One game was played somewhere with a clear view of a busy street, preferably a donut shop.  Every player chose a color and counted how many cars of that color passed.  First one to 10, or 18, or 71, or whenever the donuts run out, wins.  The name of this game was "car-car color," and it's a fair sight more complicated than it sounds.  Car colors are not always immediately identifiable, leading to points being contested rather frequently, and for good reason.  The blue people were notoriously shady.

Another game was played in your imagination on a freeway at night.  The red guys (taillights) were the bad guys.  The white guys (headlights) were the good guys.  You're at the front of the column, chasing down the bad guys.  (I didn't know why all the good guys were heading the opposite direction on the other side of the road.  Neither did I know why when you passed someone they turned into a bad guy and when someone passed you they turned into a good guy.  I was only six, okay?)

(This game also worked the other way around, with the red guys as the good guys and the white guys as the bad guys.  In this scenario you're at the rear of a contingent of cohorts, struggling to escape.  All of the same plot problems of the first scenario still exist, only in reverse.)

While we're talking about imagination games, I might as well mention the invisible runner game, which is also played in the car.  First, look out a side window so the landscape is rushing past you horizontally.  Next, place your finger on the window.  This represents the invisible runner.  It's your job to help the invisible runner leap puddles, vault fences, get up and down hills and cliffs and generally stay alive.  This game is significantly more fun in mountainous California than, say, Nevada, but variations can be added as necessary (what about leaping telephone poles?).

(Do I use parentheses too much?  I'm sorry.)

I have no idea why I'm writing about this.  I guess I've been thinking a lot about childhood lately, and about how little we pay attention to - much less understand - the simple things that make us who we are.  This is more than mere nostalgia.  It's a way of trying to gain a clearer picture of how we view the world - some chunk that is buried deep in our subconscious, influenced by scores of experiences that we scarcely noticed.  It is complex, aromatic, personal.  It shows up in unexpected sights, familiar tastes, particular temperatures.

I remember very specifically the smell inside a small wooden box I had with a yellow metal rabbit affixed to the top.  The box had a sliding cover and was lined inside with green felt.  It wasn't any sort of spectacular smell and yet it was memorable somehow.  Like certain library books.  Whew!

Our senses and our knowledge keep piling up over our memories, obscuring our faces.  Time, meanwhile, is spinning down.  (I heard yesterday about a man who thought of his lifespan in terms of growing seasons.  There's some perspective.)  Most of us are on a long trek to find ourselves.  But identity is not something you will finally uncover if you search long enough and hard enough; identity is something that sneaks up on you.  The paradox is that you still have to go on the search.  Otherwise, when it does sneak up on you, you won't recognize it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Immersion and Creativity

Early yesterday morning as I was driving to a finish carpentry clinic, I started thinking about the relationship between creativity and immersion.  It occurred to me that intense devotion to or immersion in a subject can actually be counterproductive for creativity and work output.  Let me explain.

There is a frame of mind that is universally sought by conscientious professionals, both white-collar and blue-collar.   It is a rhythm, a clearheadedness, a zen.  It is a groove, or a zone.  Whatever your preferred terminology, once you've experienced it you know empirically that it directly impacts the speed, quality, and artistry of your work.

When you start out in a discipline, you know nothing about it, your output is shoddy, and your creativity is zero.  As you start learning more, your output improves both in quality and quantity and your creativity expands.   I expected this relationship was a continuous straight line as you head towards closer and closer identification with - or total immersion in - a discipline.

I'm not so sure now that this is true.

In my own experience as a tradesman and finish carpenter, I have traveled a portion of the immersive spectrum - at least enough to ask the question that this post is about.

What I noticed was that when I identified too completely with my work, my capacity for creativity plummeted.  I was no longer sufficiently detached to view the project or the task objectively - from the outside - and I was merely mimicking, or robotically implementing rote.  This is not only unproductive, it is unfulfiilling.

There is a big difference between being present in what you are doing and being lost in it.  (I don't mean lost in the positive sense in which it is sometimes used as a synonym for being in the groove, zone, etc.  I mean lost as in not knowing where you or anything else is.)  Consider the following diagram:
As immersion and familiarity increases, so does creativity and presence - to a point.  What I'm suggesting is that maximum immersion does not result in maximum creativity.  After a certain saturation point, creativity begins to fall off again.

Obviously it is useful to know as much as possible about something if you want to work productively and creatively in that space.  I am making a distinction between knowledge and immersion.  Let me give an example.

Suppose you have someone who is totally immersed in Twilight.  They believe Twilight is the best thing ever.  They think and read about it all the time.  It rather defines their life, and it acts upon their consciousness, instead of the other way around.

Now we ask whether this person will have anything objectively useful to say about Twilight.  At the risk of not showing my work, I think we can conclude that they won't.  Then we must ask: why?

Look at the diagram again and picture in your mind three stages along the immersion axis:

  1. Sitting on the beach: no immersion, minimum creativity.
  2. Swimming: partial, interactive immersion, maximum creativity.
  3. Drowning: total, passive immersion, minimal creativity.
Here's where it gets subtle, so we need to pay close attention.  We tend to think we're diving when we're really drowning.  Deeper is better, right?  Only if you have air.  If you don't, you're finished.  A sincere death, perhaps, but death nonetheless.

(There are those who can dive for several minutes, but they are rare.  Most of us are more or less confined to the surface.)

When you are swimming, you are interacting with the water (the discipline) and you are using it to get someplace.  The danger in drowning is that you may think you are going deeper into the water/discipline when you are just passively sinking into it and allowing it to act upon you and define you.    You are longer acting upon it, resisting, creating.

What we are looking for is this point where more raw information and deeper immersion starts to undermine your self-awareness.  You need to stay on top.  Interdisciplinary activities are essential in this connection - like muscle confusion for the intellect.  You have to keep crossing wires in your brain in order to stay aware.  James Krenov said, "Develop the habit of being aware almost without thinking."  He does not mean to lose yourself.  He means to find that elusive balance between discipline and dreaming, between focus and freedom, when you are there.   It's an intimate connection with the work that stops short of identification in order to preserve a detachment that keeps the door open for lateral problem-solving and self-expression.

It seems that historically people were naturally more diversified.  They had to have a basic working knowledge of a host of handcrafts and practical skills just to survive.  Our modern culture of intense specialization and supermarkets seems to result in this immersion and the accompanying blinders-effect we've been talking about.

I think this change has cost us something important in the way we work and live, and I think it's worth figuring out how to recapture it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Fencing with Feynman

It's not an ugly place to work.  There is dirt, pine trees, manzanita shards, the new steel building, and in the distance the air over town.  There is coiled steel wire, blue sky, poison oak, filtered sunshine. There is urine, mud, sweat, and blood.  There are even such things as determination and fatigue (and, on the part of the poison oak, malice).

I lift and ram the digging bar, jabbing jerkily at the unyielding earth.  It's a rod of steel with a rather dull edge, meant for breaking up ground.  It is heavy, and to dig a single hole one might lift it a couple hundred times.

I suppose the dirt is locked together in some atomic structure and it requires energy to break it apart.  Actually I don't suppose that second part.  It's a little easier when you can get a void opened up and break the dirt off into it, but this is a rare luxury with holes because you have to keep going deeper in a contained cylinder.  Hacking off the edge of a bank - or even digging out a trench - sounds like a vacation.

Once another layer of dirt is broken up, a post-hole digger lifts it out of the hole.  If you've ever used one (or seen one), you know how they operate: spreading the handles (squeak! crack!) brings the jaws together, and bringing the handles back together (screech! thunk!) opens the jaws and releases the bite.  As the hole gets deeper, it gets harder to spread the handles wide enough to grab the dirt at the bottom tightly, and that soil that was just moments ago stubbornly resisting separation now streams out of the jaws like so much sand out of a sawed-off hourglass.

I wish John McPhee were here; he might have something intelligent to say about this dirt - how it's the disintegrated crust of some ocean floor from deep time that was tectonically somersaulted two hundred and fifty miles inland one afternoon when the planet had indigestion.  To me it's just an enemy with no face and no anger, which is the worst kind of enemy there is.

The work is elemental, and not in a satisfying way.  There is satisfying elemental work - splitting wood, for instance - and there is maddening elemental work.   Thirty-four inches, and you hit hardpan clay at eighteen.  The two-cycle auger balks when it reaches the clay and just bounces around its rotation, not intending to do any more work and simply waiting for you to lift it out of the hole.  Sometimes technology dominates physics; sometimes physics dominates technology.

The formal definition of "work" has always bothered me, so I try not to think about it much. There must be some mathematical advantages afforded by defining it this way, because any day laborer working for cigarettes and a milkshake can tell you that it's a bunch of hooey.  If you carry a sack of concrete up a 100' hill and down the other side, you know for certain that you worked the whole time, no matter what your snobby physics professor says.  How would he know anyway?  He's certainly never done it.

Feynman is cut from another cloth.  He's one of those people who touches the world - tentatively at first and then in a full-on fight, a knock-down drag-out brawl with the cosmos.  (Fighting is an excellent way to get to know someone.)    Feynman inspires an almost military respect, a respect that he is oblivious to like a decorated general who keeps all the cute little buttons in a drawer so they don't weigh him down.  That is not what he cares about.  He cares about the mission, and the mission is finding things out, otherwise known as being alive.

For Feynman, knowing mattered.  It is an intellectual creed that becomes almost physical.  You can go out and try to understand how water flows through a pipe and die, or you can stay at home and lay on the couch and die.  Turbulence is so foreign and so hard to understand.  Are we going to remain cavemen?

Out here on the line, I think of Feynman to help me focus.  Breaking up this dirt is a physical process.  (clank, thud)  It's me and my puny steel bar vs. a few quadrillion muscular electrons.  (clank, clank)  I'm a pile of atoms, but I'm a pile of atoms to be reckoned with. (thud, clank)  I hope I don't get poison oak.  (clank, thud)  Why in blazes am I doing this?  (thud, thud, clank)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Mysticism, Witchcraft, and Discernment

"Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity." -G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, VII

There is much anxiety among Christian conservatives today regarding the New Age movement, the Emerging Church, and the alleged connections between the two. This essay is written in response to a presentation given by Johanna Michaelsen several months ago at the Community Center in Oakhurst along those lines in which she lamented the lack of discernment in the Church and disparaged large numbers of believers, many by name.

It may be helpful at the outset to define our terms. "Mysticism" I take to mean experience within the context of faith that transcends the natural. "Witchcraft" I take to mean the manipulation of supernatural forces for evil or trivial ends. "Discernment" I take to mean conducting an accurate spiritual evaluation of a given person or phenomenon, or knowing when there is insufficient information to conduct such an evaluation.

All three of these can be slippery concepts. Mysticism is difficult to pin down because it is not usually a significant part of our experience, and it is, well, mystical. To complicate matters, Michaelsen believes that witchcraft often masquerades as mysticism. While this is likely to be true to a certain extent, it seems fair at this juncture to point out that if witchcraft often masquerades as mysticism, fear often masquerades as discernment. Discernment is not drawing a line a couple miles away from the cliff edge so you can be safe. Discernment is knowing where the edge is so you can walk out in the open and feel the wind. "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind."

Some readers may be questioning whether mysticism ought to have any place in Christian thought and experience at all. While we can concede that this is a debated point, it would appear that the overwhelming majority of Christian writing, practice, and tradition presupposes the possibility of intersections - indeed transformations - that raise our natural experience into the supernatural realm. From Jesus to Paul to Francis of Assisi to Brother Lawrence, the Christian faith has a long and established legacy of mystical practice. Perhaps this makes us uncomfortable, but it certainly cannot be ignored.

"[God] will entrust you with revelation to the degree you will trust Him with mystery." -Bill Johnson

Michaelsen castigated the Emerging Church for promoting practices such as a "place of silence" and an "altered level of consciousness" (ALC). This seems odd, as silence itself is almost universally regarded as an unequivocal good; it is the purpose of silence that we ought to be concerned with. And I'm not sure what Paul meant when he said he was caught up into the third heaven and heard things that cannot be told, but that sure sounds like ALC to me. If you want to take the Transfiguration literally, there's even precedent for communing with the dead.

It is important here that we orient our thinking. We need to find North. If Christians are glibly mimicking occultist practices, it would be justifiable to feel alarmed. But if the enemy is crafting counterfeits of practices that originated within the heart of God, is that honestly all that surprising? Not really.

I alluded earlier to Michaelsen's criticism of a wide array Christian voices. The blacklist included Todd Bentley, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Rick Joyner, Mike Bickle, Thomas Merton, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Benny Hinn, Richard Foster, and John Wimber, all stirred up in the same soup. These men cover a tremendous spectrum in terms of spiritual viewpoints, ministry goals, and personal integrity. This is discernment gone to seed: fear.

There were also several instances of sloppy psychology that undermined discernment in the name of discernment. I will point out two.

1. To accuse someone of believing what they believe because it "feels right" is meaningless, because nobody believes anything that "feels wrong" to them. People may have deeper or shallower reasons for their beliefs, but everybody who is not wilfully violating their conscience will "feel right" about what they believe.

2. Nor is it useful to argue that someone's theology has been influenced and distorted by their experience, as this is once again true of everybody. There is no such thing as a pure theology that is free from the subjectivity and ambiguity of experience. This ought to be self-evident.

Leading into her conclusion, Michaelsen stated that "The fruit of doctrine is more important than the fruit of life." This I feel is the crux of the matter. In the New Testament, the way you live is your doctrine. They are one. If what she means by this is that beliefs are more important than actions...

Monday, August 1, 2011

Towards a Post-Doctrinal Church

Over the last while, I have been gradually coming to a realization that is changing the way I think about everything.

Christianity is not about issues.

Christianity is not about throwing rocks at society (or at each other) and defending our right answers. It's not about hammering out the metaphysical truths of the universe to the minutest detail (fun as it sounds). It's not even about ascertaining conclusively what every last verse in the Bible means.

I think the very nature of scripture itself is a revealing clue that is often overlooked. Whatever else the Bible is, it is not simple, clear, and harmonious, and it is futile to continue forcing it into a systematic, cohesive structure.

God could easily have written the Bible in such a way as to make all issues abundantly clear and forever staunch discussion, but He didn't. As Lesslie Newbigin writes in his book The Household of God:

It is true that Christ gave to His disciples His word and sacraments. But He did not give them naked. He left no written code which should keep inviolate for all time the essential message, and the essential requirements for the due observance of His sacraments. A vast amount of scholarly labour has been spent in trying to discover precisely that thing which the Lord Himself did not choose to provide. What He left behind was a fellowship, and He entrusted to it the task of being His representative to the world...

What this means is that we have to figure out together what it looks like to be the Church, in motion, with a pieced-together, ramshackle record of what God has said and done in the past. The truth is happening, and we need to find ways to participate in it. A living dog is better than a dead lion.

“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” -Jesus

One verse occasionally cited to indirectly justify theological narrow-mindedness is Matthew 7:14. However, this reading requires that "way" be interpreted as "system of thought," and it bears pointing out that the gate leads to life, not to mere correct-ness.

It ought to go without saying that this is not a thoughtless life. Anyone who knows me knows I bristle at anti-intellectualism. We should live a life that thinks, and even loves thinking. But first we should live. (See prior post: Truth is a Verb.)

Also, there will and should always be theologians ministering to the intellectual health of the Church, as well as apologists recommending the beliefs of the Church to those outside. I only reject the notion that this intellectual work is supposed to be the primary function of the Church.

What we need today is not more theological posturing and debate. What we need today is a post-doctrinal Church that is incarnating Jesus to the world.

Anyone interested in a stack of theology books, cheap?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Faith is Faith

"Even things that are true can be proved." -Oscar Wilde

There is a tendency among modern Christians to think of the Faith as something that can and should be proved and to undertake projects to do so. We use words like "evidence" and "verdict" and "incontrovertible" in an attempt to create some kind of coercive logical sequence to compel people to believe.

It is thought that once you understand the facts well enough, you will become a Christian.

I submit that this is not in fact the true case, and when it is represented as the true case, the effects are disastrous.

God always leaves a gap in the evidence - a place for faith to fill. Faith is defined in scripture as "the evidence of things not seen," i.e., the piece that makes up the gap. Without this gap there is no volition, no decision, and no personal responsibility. If the evidence is simply overwhelming, there is no need for faith.

The problem is that we have accepted the argument on the world's terms. And so we seek to justify faith at the bar of rationality. This is futile, for faith by it's very nature is designed to transcend rationality and access the ultimate. If rationality is granted to be the ultimate, the fight has already been lost.

It is vital that we are not embarrassed by this. Modern thinking only allows three categories of rationality: rational, irrational, and nonrational. Faith is superrational. Enlightenment thinking may have done more damage to the Church than Postmodernism will ever do.

Hopefully this realization will begin to inform our witness to those outside. Our witness is just that: witness. Demonstration. Incarnation. Persuasion. Faith is faith. Don't try to make it something less.

There is much the Church can do to make it possible to believe. It is when the Church attempts to make it impossible to disbelieve that she oversteps the wisdom of God and her offering becomes a strange fire. In an effort to make faith plausible, we may in the end make faith unnecessary.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


Understanding grows in obscurity,
in dark tunnels - catacombs;
truth of truth,
never speaking, never silent,
bartered, sold, and stolen,
(too near to be possessed,)
pursued to the limits of the earth
by villains and vagabonds,
their souls
a question mark on fire.

Friday, March 25, 2011

"All Art Is Quite Useless"

"The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass. The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.

No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.

Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor's craft is the type. All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.

Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless."

-Oscar Wilde, Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Hebrews 11:6

Whoever would
Whoever would draw
Whoever would draw near
Whoever would draw near to
Whoever would draw near to God
Whoever would draw near to God must
Whoever would draw near to God must believe
Whoever would draw near to God must believe that
Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he
Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists
Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and
Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that
Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he
Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards
Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those
Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who
Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek
Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Truth is a Verb

When Pilate asked his famous question about truth he had already missed the point. He assumed that truth was a noun.

Truth is something that is done, not just something that is known. Theology can easily become nothing more than a distracting hobby for the Church. Our discussions and speculations about truth are both essential and irrelevant. Description becomes a distraction if it doesn't take us to the point of incarnation and then castrate itself. (Selah)

We need fewer declarative sentences and more declarative actions. The gospel is not merely to know the truth, the gospel is to be set free to love God and incarnate God's love to the world. We must translate truth into a verb. We must be truth-doers - truthers.

This is because truth - in order to be Truth - must be incarnated and actualized. Truth is absolute* but not static. The possibility of the Kingdom of God is not "out there" to be studied and theorized about: it is within you. And I have a good source for that.

What you say or think or intend is not as important as what you do.

“What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you."

What makes a theory true or false? Is it what it contains or how (or whether!) it is carried out? You don't have to look far to see that "true" theories can be used for hate and destruction and "false" theories can be used for love and encouragement and reconciliation. Doing right is a lot harder than being right. Knowing all truth and explaining mysteries without love just makes you more annoying percussion, and the world doesn't need more annoying percussion. Truth is a package deal, which means we need deeper and more patient definitions of right and wrong. Woe to those who call good evil and evil good. Amen.

Having right beliefs is good, but that's not the point. Remember James and the demons. The fruits of the spirit are not theological merit badges; they are all qualities that are evidenced in actions. Knowledge of God is experiential rather than intellectual. You do not know God with your mind. Love knows God; non-love doesn't know God. And I have a good source for that too.

*What we can learn from the postmodern Church is that truth is absolute but we are not. Because we see through a glass darkly, our intellectual apprehension of truth is relative, shady, and imperfect. We cannot know all of the truth. But because of the Holy Spirit we can operate in a mode that is consistent with all of the truth. That is better.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Pablo Picasso

Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.

Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.

Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.

If there were only one truth, you couldn't paint a hundred canvases on the same theme.

I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.

Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.

The more technique you have, the less you have to worry about it. The more technique there is, the less there is.

Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.

You have to have an idea of what you are going to do, but it should be a vague idea.

Friday, February 4, 2011

We Know in Part, and We Prophesy in Part

You are awake, standing up to your shoulders in a sea of shredded paper under a clear blue sky. There is nothing else visible on the four horizons, except here and there other people, stranded as you are. A few are just within shouting distance.

The paper is loose, and yet you do not sink. A leisurely motion with your legs is all that is required to stay comfortably on top. You have no thoughts.

Picking up one of the bits of paper, you notice it has a word printed on it: "grey." You pick up another: "caboose." And another: "wedding." Every bit of paper carries a solitary inscription; as you look at each word its meaning is imprinted on your mind. "hoarse-wishbone-ulterior-upset-tangerine-froth-road-contents-bark-looking-incident-carryover-favorite..."

Gradually you start building a collection of the most interesting words, forming them into interesting combinations, and then interesting sentences. Occasionally a wisp of breeze disturbs your work and forces you to start over.

Your mind begins to quicken and expand. It is like playing with chemicals and fireworks - these sentences. You notice prepositions are in short supply and start keeping them folded in your right hand. Each sentence brings you closer to something - or somewhere. You do not know what you should achieve or where you should arrive but somehow you feel that trying is worthwhile. More words. The world swimming in black and white and blue.

"most houses are red"

"tangerine solve problems"

"future makes contents"

"nothing rightly sounds but never"

The wind confuses your sentences or simply blows them away. You wonder if you ought to feel perturbed about this, but somehow you sense it is how it should be. We look for the unknown; we accept arbitrary obstacles. It sounds noble.

You find an unusually long word: "prognosticative." You cup it in your left hand, feeling it must be useful; why else should it be so long? Heavy tools are for hard tasks.

Someone shouts to you over the rustling sea, cupping their hands around their mouth: "What words have?"

You do not have those words but you understand them when you hear them. You shout back: "tangerine - contents - prognosticative!" You are conscious of feeling envious that they have a "what."

Someone else shouts: "Where is land?" It is a good question. You wonder if they also are lacking a "what."

Someone else: "Who is iron horse?" The iron horse lives under the iron sea, or maybe under the iron fist. There are many fists. Maybe there are many seas. Maybe the world is just shredded paper. You wish you had more words.

Someone quite close to you: "Stapler nobody have?" He sounds excited.

The conversation continues through the afternoon. Sometimes there are many people shouting at once. This hurts something that is not your ears.

As the sky turns to rose and apricot colored tendrils around sundown, someone shouts excitedly from the South: "What meaning say is world?"


"I am hoarse."

Monday, January 31, 2011

Gigantically Insignificant

In a conversation I recently overheard at the local Starbucks, two high-schoolers were deploring the seeming inability of the Christian worldview - fundamentalism in particular - to accept the staggering insignificance of our position in the universe. They have a point. Here we stand on the head of a pin, waxing eloquent about eternity and epistemology and spiritual warfare with ourselves on the front lines. It sounds a bit cheeky.

Postmodernism is keen to point out this fact of our insignificance. This is valuable as a corrective to the sickeningly top-heavy attitude of Christian fundamentalism and American exceptionalism, but still not quite the whole truth. (Yes, postmoderns are interested in truth; I will explain this in another post.)

When I say this is valuable as a corrective, I mean that perhaps we could use to come down off our high horse of spiritual elitism. Perhaps we could admit that we have become a little over-zealous in using soap on everyone else's mouths and then upending the empty box to preach on. Perhaps we could use a reminder that while we serve a big God, we do not hold Him on a leash.

"Ours is an age of doctors, lawyers, and CEOs who must not appear weak. Americans think themselves capable of nearly anything, certainly of shaping the future. We are not particularly good at recognizing our nothingness in the face of the universe, though we know our world is a speck in a galaxy, our galaxy a speck in the cosmos."
- Rémy Rougeau, Introduction to Diary of a County Priest, Kindle Location 77

For Enlightenment man, man was everything; for Postmodern man, man is nothing. For the Christian, it is both-and, man is everything and nothing, we are gigantically insignificant. With Spinoza, we affirm that we can think meaningfully. With Derrida, we affirm that we can think wrongly. Man stands erect upon the two legs of faith and doubt. This humility (besides keeping us faithful to the example of Jesus) is the only way we will be able to talk to our contemporary culture about anything.

We are, after all, participants within this dilemma. The sky is not the sole property of postmodernism, and we find echoes of this bewilderment within our own tradition. The psalmist, observing the Milky Way in the pre-Edison darkness of the Judean countryside, wonders aloud: "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?" It makes no sense, but it is this very reversal of man's insignificance that gives teeth to the scriptural narrative and makes it surprising. To the skeptic, it is in-credible; to the believer, it is incredible. It is breathtaking to discover that you are breathing.

Now for the correction to the corrective. The argument from size, in its purely materialistic form, turns out to be palpably thin.

"[Herbert Spencer] popularized this contemptible notion that the size of the solar system ought to over-awe the spiritual dogma of man. Why should a man surrender his dignity to the solar system any more than to a whale? If mere size proves that man is not the image of God, then a whale may be the image of God; a somewhat formless image; what one might call an impressionist portrait. It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos, for man was always small compared to the nearest tree."
- G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Kindle Location 820

Though presumably Herman Melville would have been quite content to accept the spiritual supremacy of the whale, this rebuttal remains quite compelling. The strength of the materialist argument is not integral but conditional, like Samson's hair. It relies entirely on keeping us staring goggle-eyed at incomprehensible statistics about the solar system. Once the spell is broken and we realize it cannot prove a consistent value differential between large and small as such, it dissolves - not negating the awesome scale of creation, but making room for a spiritual interpretation.

Rather than being proud to be nothing, we are humbled to be something. God did not come looking for us because we are something, we are something because God has come looking for us. One more statement from the psalmist, a marvel in compactness and pronoun dexterity: "It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves." God makes us - not only as a rainy day makes puddles, but also as a cup of tea makes a rainy day.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Future of Forestry

How will the legend of the age of trees
Feel, when the last tree falls in England?
When the concrete spreads and the town conquers
The country’s heart; when contraceptive
Tarmac’s laid where farm has faded,
Tramline flows where slept a hamlet,
And shop-fronts, blazing without a stop from
Dover to Wrath, have glazed us over?
Simplest tales will then bewilder
The questioning children, “What was a chestnut?
Say what it means to climb a Beanstalk,
Tell me, grandfather, what an elm is.
What was Autumn? They never taught us.”
Then, told by teachers how once from mould
Came growing creatures of lower nature
Able to live and die, though neither
Beast nor man, and around them wreathing
Excellent clothing, breathing sunlight –
Half understanding, their ill-acquainted
Fancy will tint their wonder-paintings
Trees as men walking, wood-romances
Of goblins stalking in silky green,
Of milk-sheen froth upon the lace of hawthorn’s
Collar, pallor in the face of birchgirl.
So shall a homeless time, though dimly
Catch from afar (for soul is watchfull)
A sight of tree-delighted Eden.
-C. S. Lewis

Monday, January 24, 2011


If you write or aspire to write, there are several things you should be doing constantly: reading, writing, deepening your observation of the world, and searching for more insight on the writing process.

I've concluded that I write better when typing, and I believe I know why. My writing in typeface looks better, because it could be anyone's writing - Elie Wiesel's, Annie Dillard's, Wendell Berry's - and inspiration is unfettered to do it's work. My handwriting is only mine, and it looks very commonplace and homely and vulnerable, full of inconsistent lettering, stricken words, and clumsily constructed sentences that are too much work to change. It lacks the assurance and evenness of digital sentences, and perhaps most importantly, it lacks their inherent literary weight (whenever we experience literature today it is printed).

If I say I want to have literary weight, this only means that I want to write something that is clear, something that is passionate, something that is profound. It means that I want to write something that is useful because it is useless. It means that I want to trade freely with words and observation and thought and develop that singular skill of precisely articulated insight and detail that is the mark of the writer. (This mark, of course, is only an incidental insignia. The point is not to "be a writer" - the point is to write!)

In this endeavor I am perhaps rather vain, but I only want my life to mean something, and this is one thing I can do to give it meaning. When I don't write I feel I am in mortal danger of forgetting who I am, and when I use pen and paper I feel stilted and claustrophobic, as if my handwriting doesn't know enough words. My best writing has always been at a keyboard, and I suspect that will continue to be the case.

Another reason why I prefer typing to writing by hand is that it's hard to write fast enough with pen and paper to keep up with myself. My mental composition is slippery and fleeting, and once I hear the sentence right, I need to get it down quick. You can't beat typing for taking notes on your brain, which I suppose is a silent comment on how great must have been the minds that produced vast and intricate volumes of history or theology in ages past, all handwritten. Even if they used scribes, I am not at all convinced that dictation would be any easier. Chesterton in his Autobiography describes an acquaintance whom he admired for his ability to converse in complex, grammatically accurate, fully-developed sentences. One might think this is hardly worth noting, but I believe a bit of reflection will confirm that it is rare for people to talk in sentences, at least in normal conversation.

Maybe I'll write another post from the other side. Or maybe not.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Land Of My Sojourn

And the coal trucks come runnin'
With their bellies full of coal
And their big wheels a-hummin'
Down this road that lies open
Like the soul of the woman
Who hid the spies who were lookin' for
The land of the milk and the honey

And this road she is a woman
She was made from a rib
Cut from the sides of these mountains
Oh! these great sleeping Adams
Who are lonely even here in paradise
Lonely for somebody to kiss 'em
And I'll sing my song
Yes, I'll sing my song
In the land of my sojourn

Now the lady in the harbor
She still holds her torch out to these
Huddled masses who are
Yearning for the freedom
That still eludes them
The immigrants children see their
Brightest dreams shattered

Here on the New Jersey shoreline
In the greed and the glitter of those
High-Tech casinos but some
Mendicants wander off
Into a cathedral
And they stoop in the silence and there
Their prayers are still whispered
And I'll sing their song
Yes, I'll sing their song
In the land of my sojourn

Nobody tells you
When you get born here
How much you'll come to love it
And how you'll never belong here
So I'll call you my country
And I'll be lonely for my home
I wish that I could take you there with me

And down the brown brick spine
Of some dirty blind alley
All these drainpipes are drippin' out
The last sons of thunder
While off in the distance
The smokestacks are belching back
This city's best answer

And the countryside was pocked
With all of those mailpouch posters
Thrown up on the rotting sideboards
Of these rundown stables
Like the one that Christ was born in
When the old world started dyin'
And the new world started comin' on
And I'll sing His song
Yes, I'll sing His song
In the land of my sojourn

-Rich Mullins

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

I'm So Positively Encouraged I Can Hardly Stand It

Warning: This post is sarcastic. If you don't like sarcasm, you should stop reading here - ->.

K-Love is one of those embarrassing cultural representations of Christianity. You can get it all here, from Christian cruises to what the host had for dinner the night before. And if your commute isn't long enough, you can log on to for more.

Sometimes you get to go "inside the music." Once, accompanied by a bubbly female voice, we went inside the music of Jeremy Camp: "Jeremy Camp is back (!) with a simple message in his new song Jesus Saves." Translation: Jeremy Camp is out of songwriting ideas. But he has a whole new album that you can buy for $12.99.

Certain song themes are sure K-Love crowd-pleasers. One of the best is the "You're-trying-to-look-happy-but-I-know-you're-really-hurting" theme. I hope I never meet a Christian songwriter, because I just don't think I could smile convincingly enough to keep them from guessing that I'm hurting like hell inside.

Another popular theme is "Hold on." Whatever you're doing, wherever you are, just hold on. Keep holding on. Hold on more. Don't let go. Hold on. Don't give up. Keep on holding on. You get the idea.

Sometimes the more avant-garde artists try to branch out into new territory. Unfortunately, the result is usually just bizarre. [Start dance rhythm] "Lift your hands / Move your feet / Get your - get yourself at ease..." Say wha...? Oh, "ease" rhymes with "feet." I get it. (As an aside, if "love" didn't rhyme with "above," I'm convinced CCM would not exist.)

Fund drives are another major event. This is when you get to listen to K-Love ask you for money. Don't worry, God will provide for you - He always does. So give your money to us and watch the world be transformed through the miracle of Christian radio.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Land of the Sioux - Home of the Brave

This week I listened to several Christians lamenting the fact that Carlos Gonzales - an associate professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine with no Wikipedia profile - was invited to give a traditional Native American blessing as an introduction to President Obama's speech memorializing the Tucson shootings.

Time out.

What does "Native American" mean? It means a native of America. It means someone who was here long before the Puritans. That blessing was being spoken over this soil when Valley Forge was just a dim glint in the future. This is not an argument about the rightness or wrongness of anybody's prayer - this is simply to point out a claim that Carlos Gonzales and his people have on this land that most of us seem to have forgotten: precedent.

You probably think Jesus was appalled that a pagan was allowed to speak a blessing at a public event. I think he weeps for joy when things like this happen. That man represents a minority that this country has cheated, oppressed, abused, and trampled on, and we still begrudge him a measly little invocation and a feather. Fill ye up the sins of your fathers.

"I can see a people dispossessed
Broken and brave in the face of so much fear
Driven from their homes by the greed of a nation
Whose treaties were as good as litter along the trail of their tears"
-Rich Mullins, The Howling

Jesus is with the outcast. Jesus is with the dispossessed. And if we want to be where Jesus is, we should be there too. (That's a paraphrase from - no, not Family Force 5 - Bono.)

You can't talk out of both sides of your mouth about the separation of Church and State. Either they are joined, which means no religious freedom, or they are separate, which means your pet church is separate too. There is no special pass. (Really, the sacred/secular divide is somewhat artificial, as the state (because it is operated by people) will inevitably include some spiritual/metaphysical elements and motivations, however small and stunted. So the Christian Right responds by clamoring for the state to separate out every spiritual voice and influence but their own. Snap out of it. You're not in Kansas anymore. This is pluralism, Charlie Brown, and if you can't learn to respect people who are different from you then you shouldn't be preaching Christianity in the first place.)

Glenn Beck - that darling of the free and the brave - in November ridiculed another Native American, this time a Nevada college student, for her decision to sing a traditional tribal song in honor of American veterans and troops instead of the national anthem. He compared it to another incident in Colorado in 2008 where a black woman also sang "the wrong song." (How dare you sing an alternate song when you're supposed to sing the song about freedom?) If you put the Kool-Aid down for a second, it's Beck who sounds like the Nazi.

"That is 'power/knowledge,' not knowledge as power, but having the power to constitute what counts as knowledge."
-John Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? - Kindle Location 1359

Far from being a culture-toppling victory for secular* humanism, this is the type of positive gesture that promotes healing. Affirmation and respect - whether you smear them as mere "political correctness" or not - are still affirmation and respect.

Peace to Carlos Gonzales and the Yaqui.

*Yes, I heard the blessing attacked as "secular." It was secular like the Pope is secular.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Will Christianity Survive the Internet?

Of course it will.

But there are difficulties. I will name three.

#1: The Internet abstracts solidarity into slogans.

#2: The Internet makes possible complete anonymity.

#3: The Internet gives us the illusion of discharging our spiritual duty by "taking a stand."

This is a perfect recipe for presumptuous, self-righteous, unChristian rhetoric in the name of God. We have to internalize - accept in the accusative - the demands of truth. This is what is meant by the log in our own eye. The Christ-ian posture is humility, self-criticism, coming-under-others, believing the best.

It takes discipline and integrity to do this when no one can see you. Posting angry comments on the internet is like tailgating: you can safely send an aggressive message because no one knows who you are. Your engine will not fit in someone else's trunk, any more than your log will fit in someone else's eye. (This metaphor is particularly convicting for me; I don't like it any more than you do.)

Love is not rude; that is our starting premise. Ridicule and incredulity are uncivil - therefore unloving - therefore unJesus. And the rightness of what you say is immaterial if how you say it is wrong.

This goes for interaction with believers and unbelievers. Being Good Samaritans means we serve and affirm people we are culturally distanced from - people we disagree with. According to Jesus, this is the definition of neighborliness.

“If we feel the answers are too obvious to consider, then we have a worldview but we have no idea that others do not share it... What is obvious to us may be ‘a lie from hell’ to our neighbor next door. If we do not recognize that, we are certainly naive and provincial, and we have much to learn about living in today’s world.”
-James Sire, The Universe Next Door, Third Edition (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 18

The world is pluralistic. (John Caputo defines postmodernism as "the condition of irreducible pluralism.") People begin from multitudinous starting points in their search for meaning, (they may not even believe in the search for meaning,) and even Christianity is interpreted across a broad spectrum. To communicate effectively with someone you must use a mutually understood language, as well as appreciate the differences between what you take for granted and what they take for granted. It does not work to treat someone who does not share your assumptions as simply mistaken. We must dig underneath to the why together.

Most people are starting to recognize that a mature appreciation for the inherent limitations of internet communication is imperative. This does not mean we are somehow anti-internet, it only means we correctly assess it's capabilities, dangers, and mono-dimensionality.

To be faithful to our Master may require that we hold our beliefs looser and more generously. It may require us to repudiate the shallow, self-serving zeal of dogmatism. We need a zeal to be wrong.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Do Not Explain - Do Not Pass GO

Generally, I feel we have an obligation to use language that will be understood by our audience to mean what we intend it to mean. This seems a basic principle of good communication.

The above generalization, however, must be subjected to the question of motive. Is my purpose for explaining myself merely self-serving, a strategy of self-protection? Or is it truly altruistic, pursuing clarity for the benefit of those on the other side of the dialogue?

In John 2, Jesus issued a challenge to the Pharisees: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The text explains that Jesus was speaking of "the temple of his body," but the Pharisees had no way of knowing this; indeed the conversation took place at the temple, the context thus reinforcing the apparent (though incorrect) meaning. What are we to infer when we observe that Jesus does nothing to prevent or remedy this misunderstanding?

We generally take it for granted that it is within our control (and within our duty) to do whatever we can to prevent misunderstandings. Yet there are many instances in the scripture where we see Jesus leaving himself unexplained and open to misinterpretation, such as not correcting ambiguity regarding his birthplace, not defending himself at his trial, and not returning to the Pharisees after the resurrection for a little object lesson about the truth.

Jesus was frequently cryptic, secretive, obscure. He often left the burden of understanding with his audience. What he said only made sense when it was "mixed with faith" on the part of those who heard him.

Maybe we explain too much.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Boulder Dam

Milton turned off the road and hopped the fence. He had always liked this spot, partly because it was north-facing and cool, and partly because it commanded such a sweeping view of the gorge. He sat down and unwrapped a sandwich. It was a bright fall day, and the place was solitary. Cloud shadows floated on the canyon walls.

The first time he went to the overlook it had been gray and gloomy. He had turned in his application that morning and was feeling downright scared. The place was simply crawling with hopeful unemployed strangers and there were more arriving by the minute. He had been gold-fevered; he had been a fool.

Eight days later he got his work I.D., against the odds, as it seemed to him. It was printed on honey-colored paper and laminated.

Milton Landers C-Class Detonator

DOB:12/9/1904 Sex:M Height:5-11 Weight:175


There was no picture; not even a fingerprint. A child of nine could have forged it, but so what. He had a job.

It was 1932. Mohandas Gandhi was staging a hunger strike, the Sydney Harbor Bridge was newly completed, Bolivia and Paraguay had gone to war, the Mars Bar was introduced, and Josef Stalin’s second wife was found dead in her home with a revolver next to her subordinate hand. Back at home, unemployment had reached 33% and Herbert Hoover was packing to leave the Oval Office.
Hoover had reviewed preliminary plans for the dam 10 years ago as Secretary of Commerce. Congress authorized the project in 1928, awarding a contract for nearly $50 million to build a structure capable of holding back a new 250-square-mile lake and generating 4.2 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity every year.

For the next three and a half years, this was home for Milton. It was a parallel universe - filled with the din of machinery and the acrid smell of spent explosives And there was the dust. In Michigan, dust was something that you swept up off the floor every third day or so. In Nevada, dust was a food group. On windy days it was usually better, though not always. Working up on the cliffs was actually one of the more desirable places to be. This was the province of the high-scalers - men who rappelled off the canyon rim and worked with jackhammers and dynamite to bring the canyon walls down to bedrock. While other men were getting carbon monoxide poisoning in the stifling diversion tunnels, the high-scalers hung suspended in the free air, reveling in the intoxicating self-sufficiency that men feel who work closely with nature and rope.

It took about a week to get used to the exposure. The job quickly became a source of pride, even identity. As your personality shapes your career, so your career, in turn, begins to shape your personality. A man’s profession eventually shows on his face, sometimes in his walk. Within a few months, you could tell the high-scalers on the streets simply by the way they grinned and swaggered. They were, deservedly or undeservedly, the project’s heroes, as they played the most dramatic and therefore the most visible role.

Keeping his eyes on the river, Milton pulled an apple from his coat pocket. He bit it slowly. Even with all that, high-scaling wasn’t just a swashbuckling showcase for the ladies. In his time on the ropes he had seen a man killed, and heard of several others. Fatal falls were rare; the greater danger was being struck by falling rock. It was Chick who first took his cloth cap and dipped it upside-down in tar, letting it harden into a stiff shell. These came to be known as Hard-Boiled Hats, and were quickly in widespread use among the high-scalers.

It was also Chick who caught the Government inspector who managed to fall under the safety rope. Chick saw him sliding, let out a quick, fluid rappel, traversed a swift arc along the cliff, intercepted the tumbling uniform just before the cliff edge, secured the man to himself with a long prussik, and then swung back out so he could be hauled up. The whole rescue took about sixteen seconds. Politics was already a sore spot around the dam site, and the incident didn’t favorably influence the workers’ opinion of their bureaucratic visitors, falling into a canyon being generally regarded as undignified.

But not all dam politics were that simple. On weekends Milton would go to The Silver Spigot in Boulder City where he often found himself defending Hoover, who was continually being posthumously maligned. Hoover, Milton felt, was a man’s man. He had worked internationally as a mining engineer, spoke fluent Mandarin, and when the battle of Tientsin trapped him and his wife in Tianjin during the Boxer Rebellion, he personally guided U.S. marines to the front line. He was surprised at how many people didn’t know these things. He was also surprised at the number of people who expected the president to change the destiny of a nation in four years and faulted him personally when he didn’t. Perhaps the president was really nothing more than an effigy for the country to burn. The idea disgusted him.

Now here he was, back at his overlook with some savings and confidence in his pocket. The dam was built - a giant solemn gate to a still-empty lake - and Hoover wasn’t even present at the ceremony. What father is not invited to his son’s baptism? Politics certainly looked like a rough ride sometimes. But time erodes pretension, and greed and greatness will both haunt a man. Truth is like a cactus; it’s hard to uproot and carry around with you.

Milton threw his apple core into the canyon and knelt to cinch up his boots. The day was wearing. He flailed his jacket against the fence three or four times and put it on. Crunching sagebrush, he made his way back to the road and stuck out his thumb.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

An Amazing Piece of Writing

These are possibly two of the most evocative paragraphs on the desert ever written.
"The newcomers had been shown about the land by the family renting it to them and toward the end of the first day felt they had taken possession of it with all their senses. They had welcomed into their nostrils a rich assault of barnyard and plant odors, they had tramped the amply watered earth, fingering its bounty of vines laden with Mission grapes, they had knelt at the edge of a ditch and passed their hands through the water. Just beyond the vineyard was nature in a more armored, truculent mood: a vast solemn plain dotted with cactus and scrub, steeped in silence. They gazed out at the deep-blue sky and, as the sun hovered nearer and nearer the mountain's crest, feeling the need to absorb in quiet their surfeit of new impressions, with no more forethought than precedes sinking into a chair and staring at the ceiling or taking off for a stroll in a leafy park, they drifted apart, and one by one wandered into the desert
"No landscape, not even the swampy jungle of the Isthmus of Panama, had struck any of them as this awesomely strange. And they were not being borne through it, receiving it as a view, but walking in it, on it, for it was all pale surface, the sky so lofty and the ground so level, and they had never felt so erect, as vertical, their skin brushed by the hot Santa Ana wind, their ears lulled by the oddly intrusive sound of their own footfalls. Pausing, they could hear the hiss of skinny desert-colored creatures scurrying along the pebbly surface. Slithery fanged creatures (a snake!), but down there, speeding off. Hardly anything is near anything here: those slouching braided sentinels, the yucca trees, and bouquets of drooping spears, the agaves, and the squat clusters of prickly pears, all so widely spaced, so unresembling - and nothing had to do with anything else. Each alone, each separate. The sense of jeopardy that couldn't altogether be stifled (was that a scorpion?) quickened their pace for a while, as if they thought they might soon be arriving somewhere. In the clear air the mountains looked deceptively near. And how small, when they turned around for a moment to see how far they'd gone, their little green world. They walked on, lost in the brightness of their sensations, walked and walked: the mountains came no closer. Their fears had long since subsided. The purity of the vista, its uncompromising bleakness, seemed first like a menace, then an excitement, then a numbing, then a different arousal. Their real initiation into the seductive nihilism of the desert had begun. The soundless, odorless, monochrome landscape, so drastically untenanted, had the same effect on everyone: and intoxicating impression of aloneness, which gradually gave way to a more active assent to the experience of solitude. All were visited by a yearning something like Maryna's - to be alone, really alone (what if I, what if she, what if he...?) - and allowed themselves to imagine the disappearance, without drama, without guilt, of those nearest to them, somewhere out here, too. And isn't to imagine to desire? The surrender to the desiccating of feeling was swift but it palled almost as rapidly, as something, a deeper fear, made them pull away from it, purged, chastened, and then it was time to turn around and walk back to dampened land and their moist lives."
-Susan Sontag, In America (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000), 154-155

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


Writing Exercise #87: Make up a new word and use it in a sentence.

Neologisms are a way we burrow deeper into the language in our quest to signify meaning. When we truncate, combine, reorder, or otherwise modify words, we are creating space for meaning between the voids in the vocabulary. These voids will always be there, and good communicators will continue to exploit them.

Most neologisms are not truly "new words." They contain post-consumer content. A neologism usually borrows meaning from the word(s) it is crafted from. (Occasionally we do have truly new words introduced through avenues like technology or literature. In these cases the word is explained and given exterior context.)

Some neologisms are intended to contain several meanings, such as the neologism which serves as the title for this blog. Others pose provocative contradictions. All arrest the reader's attention; a new word is vastly more interesting than a word you merely don't know.

The language is full of unexplored possibilities. If you can't find the lightning-right word, maybe you can invent it.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Truthful Writing

Writing is having something to say. It may be prior or it may be discovered in-process, but it shows up at some point. Good writing is stating what you have to say - not just saying what sounds impressive. Readers can tell the difference, and smart writers will respect them for it.

Maybe these rules will help us understand the writing-editing process:

1. Identify What You Have To Say.
2. Say it.
3. Do not say other fancy stuff that is unrelated to What You Have To Say.

Now this is of course oversimplified, but I hope the point is clear. Most writers do not need encouragement to decorate their writing; they need encouragement to pare it down. Aspiring wordsmiths tend to treat writing like a parade competition: the float with the most streamers wins. Developing a sense of taste takes time and discipline.

This is also true in music. Less accomplished musicians are likely to play right up to the edge of their skill, whether it sounds good or not. We've all heard people like that. Mature musicians subject their skill to serve the aural experience of their audience. They've learned it's the music that matters, which means people enjoy listening to them, which means they are respected as musicians. When you lose your life, you find it.

Whether we are playing music or writing essays, simplicity is a form of honesty - a form of telling the truth.