A Caution for Visionaries

Bedouin Tent, Syrian Desert

This will never do.

Or such was likely the first thought of an old desert tribesman on seeing the line of petitioners winding through the encampment.  The line ended at the tent of his son-in-law.

The younger man had done well for himself.  When they parted he was an exile.  He returned now as the leader of a people.  And the older man had heard stories about how this came to be.  But the younger man had little sense of his surroundings and the limits they imposed.  He grew up as the adopted grandson of a king, and accustomed to having slaves hanging about out of sight, anticipating and delivering needs and desires.  The upbringing also steeped him in stories that somehow elevated a mortal human king above the forces of earth and sky.  He consequently seemed to have a rather blurry sense of personal limits.

Bedouin Tent, Syrian Desert
photo by Kok Leng Yeo, Wikimedia Commons

The older man was Jethro, priest of Midian.  He was grounded in a way that his son-in-law was not.  On the one hand his position as a holy man brought prestige.  On the other there was the poverty of his situation.  When they first met Jethro lacked adult sons and his flocks were not large enough to support hirelings to tend them.  They were also too small to attract the interest of suitable matches for his daughters.  Jethro cultivated his prestige and was very careful how he used it.  His status protected his daughters from physical harm when they tended his flocks.  But it did not prevent intimidation when they brought the stock to water.  Water in the desert was life, which meant it was often wielded as a cudgel by the strong.  So Jethro lived in a balancing act between his position as priest and the limits of his actual power as the leader of his family.

But then a headstrong young fugitive waded into the midst of his daughters’ tormentors and beat them black and blue.  Jethro was quick to recognize the potential. The fugitive became a relative and grandsons were added to Jethro’s little family.

There was some understandable consternation a few years later when the son-in-law proclaimed an encounter with the I AM.  The encounter was followed shortly by a return to Egypt.  Jethro knew whispers of the I AM from his service to the gods.  But the vision of Moses dictated a confrontation with Pharaoh and survival seemed unlikely.  Fortunately Moses left his family behind in the relative safety provided by the Midianite tribes.  The children were the future.

And against all hope Moses returned.  Jethro found himself learning something new of the I AM.  But he also could see that the favor of the I AM did not apparently not bestow the good sense that comes with successfully navigating treacherous limits.  So, Jethro stepped into the problem to bring a bit of that good sense.  Again he was carefully trading on his status, this time as the family patriarch.

Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning to evening?

Jethro could see that this was not going to end well.

The thing that you do is not good.  You will surely wear away, both you, and this people that is with you; for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to perform it yourself alone.

Moses did not yet grasp the significance of divisions between what he must do, what the I AM must do, and what others must do.  Jethro brought his experience to bear on the divisions.

You represent the people before God, and bring the causes to God.  You shall teach them the statutes and the laws, and shall show them the way in which they must walk, and the work that they must do.  Moreover you shall provide out of all the people able men which fear God: men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.  Let them judge the people at all times. It shall be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they shall judge themselves. So shall it be easier for you, and they shall share the load with you.

Fortunately, Moses listened.  Not every visionary leader does.

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Quotations are from Exodus 18 in the public domain World English Bible.

Thoughts on Packard and Hope’s “Church Refugees”

I recently finished Church Refugees, authored by sociologists Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope.  It is a book about the exit from American churches of the talented and committed.  The book challenges preconceptions about the dynamics of this exodus.  Packard and Hope discovered something during their research that was rather different from what they expected to find, that “…the story of the dechurched was a story of modern religious organizations and institutions stifling people’s ability to engage with each other and their communities.”[1]  The dechurched encountered during the study aren’t done with God.  But as the book relates, they are “done with church.”

The discussions I have found about this book since publication appear to focus on what the “dones” expressed about why the left[2].  Commenters in online venues also had things to say about the theology of those doing the leaving – this was an aspect of the conflicted and frustrated space I was in when I heard about the book.

On reflection since it does seem clear that there are theological issues in play.  I don’t think that it is possible to compartmentalize our faith by separating loyalty to the risen Christ from loyalty to the community of his people.  Attempting to do so simply ignores what Paul has to say about the body of Christ and the bride of Christ.  But having said that, “dones” leaving churches might actually communicate very little about the theology of those doing the leaving.  It might instead say rather a lot about the actual expression of a professed theology in the place that is being left.

Beneath the surface of dissatisfaction with “church” are ways in which the insides of Christian organizations look unfortunately a lot like the insides of any other.  Which is why I think Packard’s comments are such a big deal.  What especially caught my attention was a comment on organization in Chapter 4.

“Existing research suggests that in any bureaucracy, power tends to become centralized, innovation is gradually diminished, and routines become cemented as the organization grows or simply continues to exist over time. The nature of the modern bureaucracy is to erase individual desire. In order to resist those forces, organizational leaders must be intentional and strategic.  It’s not enough to simply wish for things to be participative and innovative. How many pastors have lamented the slow pace of change in their own congregations? Even founding pastors often find that after only a few short months or years of doing church, they’ve largely lost the ability to move the congregation in a new direction. This is true of all modern organizations, not just churches. It’s the nature of bureaucracies, not a function of poor leadership, bad vision, a sign of the withdrawal of God’s grace, or unfaithful followers. It’s simply a part of living in the modern world.”[3]

Most of the comment online about this book seems to drive right past issues of  organization.

The last time I thought about the matter it coalesced into a rather fuzzy idea of how adoption of a specific organizational form might yield toxic byproducts.  Which I think is still the case but I’ve since begun to wonder if something far more fundamental might be in play.  I have had the opportunity to watch group dynamics from the insides of large organizations over the years.  My sense is that there is something hard-wired about us  that affects how large numbers of people behave when they are together[4].

We can’t do without organization except at very small scales —  any numerical growth beyond what will fit in the front room of an apartment necessitates it.  And more growth necessitates more organization.  It seems to me that, absent some critical thinking while our groups grow, the features of whatever organizational structure we adopt are going to come to define the way the groups work.  Which is likely to trump any theology we claim about the body of Christ.

If this is the case it will be true of any organizational form.

At some point nearly everybody rails about “the system.”  The problem is that, get enough of us together in one place and there will always be a system.  So rather than critiquing the “dones” who left, we ought to be thinking about how those of us who stay reflect the body of Christ when we meet.  And if we don’t reflect the body of Christ, we ought to be thinking about what it is about our particular group that gets in the way.

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[1] Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope. Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith. Group Publishing, Inc. 2015. Kindle edition, locations 86-87.  See also: https://dechurched.net/church-refugees/

[2] For some examples see the the following:

[3] Packard and Hope. Kindle edition, locations 1592-1593.

[4] I plan to explore a possible mechanism for this in a future post.

Mark Buchanan on Reconciliation

Reconciliation is what Christianity is supposed to be about.  Just over a year ago I posted about shredding the toxic lists we keep of the wrongs others have done.

Here’s another view of it.  I just listened to a podcast by Claire Perini and Mark Buchanan at Regent College in Vancouver, BC.  They unpack what reconciliation looks like at a personal level between individuals and within national movements.  Mark describes reconciliation as “…a father running down the road with his arms wide open…” and shares some personal stories of the “open embrace.”

The audio is about 45 minutes long and definitely worth the time.  What really caught my attention was Mark’s statement near the end:

…if you unpack them in the wider context what Jesus is saying is that things love and forgiveness are places you live.  ‘Dwell in my love.’  And if we refuse to live in that place, then not only can we not give love, or give forgiveness, we can’t receive it because it’s actually, it’s an abiding in Christ…not only are you not then going to be refusing to be an agent, you are actually refusing to be a recipient. Source: Regent College Podcast.

The lists we keep prevent our receiving love and forgiveness for ourselves.

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The podcast can be found here, as well, along with others from Regent: http://www.regent-college.edu/lifelong-learning/podcast

What Political Behavior on Facebook Might Actually Reveal

Politics has taken on a whole new corrosive aspect:

Turning friends into foes on social media is a new kind of political statement.   Source: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters are unfriending each other on Facebook – MarketWatch

Stuff seems to leak out in our behavior online that says things about us we did not intend.  And Christians need to take a good hard look at their motivations if cutting ties is wrapped up in severing a real relationship.  This latest manifestation of the political climate is not something we should be participating in.

There are valid reasons for severing social media connections, such as avoiding the spillover from someone else’s toxic behavior.  But if politics are at the bottom of this, your primary loyalties may be at issue.  Christian faith at its core is allegiance to risen Jesus.  It seems to me that this extends to how we treat his people — including those whose politics we find detestable.

Jesus gave the world the right to judge the authenticity of our claim to faith by our behavior toward one another.

Which might include how we behave in our political activities on social media.

How Twitter Is Changing Modern Warfare – The Atlantic

Here’s an eye-opening article from The Atlantic on the weaponization of social media:

Most of us did not associate Twitter with terrorism until the Islamic State stormed into Mosul. We have given similarly scant thought to what might happen if the wondrous tools of the 21st century are ever paired with the scale and intensity of the conflicts that defined the 20th.  Source: How Twitter Is Changing Modern Warfare – The Atlantic

The article lays out how bad actors exploit social media for propaganda purposes at large scales, serving up deliberate falsehoods to manipulate divisive national conflicts.

At least some of the trolls we encounter may not all be maladjusted losers living in their parents’ basements.

 

 

Not in Front of the Children

We are often more concerned with the appearance of our personal behavior than the actual substance.  So we hold grudges and carry on our personal warfare with each other out of sight.  Or so we think.  Not so fast, suggests this article from The Atlantic.  It discusses the effect of parental conflict on children:

“They aren’t fooled when one spouse gives another the silent treatment—the emotion is palpable.”  Source: How Passive Aggression Hurts Kids – The Atlantic

The article described how smoldering, unresolved conflicts between parents do damage to their children, and quoted psychology Professor E Mark Cummings as saying that  “‘…people underestimate the sensitivity of kids to their environments…'”

It might even be a step back from underestimation to a lack of awareness, which may be a broader feature of our conflicts with each other.  We seem to have little or no idea of the damage we do to those around us.

Silicon Valley Dystopia

“The new road to serfdom — actually, it’s more like a hyperloop — runs right through Silicon Valley.” via Silicon Valley has our backs

This post by Nicholas Carr at Rough Type references a recent New Yorker profile of venture capitalist Sam Altman.  I share Carr’s skepticism and the profile is worth reading.  If I understand correctly, Altman’s vision appears to distill down to the following:

  • Technological advancement will bring artificial intelligence and cheap energy.
  • This will bring limitless wealth, and drive down the cost of producing pretty much everything and put pretty much everyone out of a job.
  • Therefore governments should provide stipends to everyone so they can do whatever they want.

All of which sounds wonderful.  But there may be some fundamental dysfunction baked into this vision of technocratic utopia.  This statement by Altman suggests rather a technocratic myopia:

“People pay a lot for a great education now, but you can become expert level on most things by looking at your phone.”

Galaxy S6
Galaxy S6

Exactly which fields of study could one reach expert level via a smart phone?  Neuroscience?  Biochemistry?  Mathematics?  Structural Engineering?  Linguistics?  Philosophy?  Religion?

One of the bothersome aspects of some technocrats’ visions of the future is the apparent shallow appreciation for subjects beyond the range of their expertise.  Perhaps this would not be a problem if learning was merely the collecting of oversimplified and trivial facts, unencumbered by connection to any real context.  Or at least, whatever such info-bits content providers choose to serve up.

But as it happens, most of the really important stuff requires too much mental bandwidth and breadth of experience to fit on a three or four-inch screen.

(Lost in) Permanent Translation

The non-profit publisher Crossway is releasing what they are describing as a “permanent” English biblical translation.  I am having some difficulty with what I think I hear them saying:

“Beginning in the summer of 2016, the text of the ESV Bible will remain unchanged—in the same way that the King James Version (KJV) has remained unchanged ever since the final KJV text was established almost 250 years ago (in 1769). Thus, all present and future editions of the ESV reprinted and published by Crossway will contain the Permanent Text of the ESV Bible—throughout the life of the copyright, in perpetuity. This means that current readers of the ESV Bible—as well as their children and grandchildren—will be able to read, study, and memorize the ESV unchanged for generations to come.”[1]

Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed has some issues with the translation details.  I am not qualified to speak to his points as I don’t read any ancient languages.   My issue is at the conceptual level, with the notion of “permanent.”  Perhaps Crossway means they intend no further revisions.  But the way the King James Version is referenced suggests the English Standard Version will need no further revisions.  I hope I am misunderstanding this.

Permanent translations of anything are in principle impossible.  It really doesn’t matter whether we are talking about Paul’s letters to the Corinthians or Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War.  Language itself is not permanent.

Linguists use a concept known as “drift” to describe the impermanence.   Words come in and out of usage.   Sounds and pronunciations change.   Meanings shift.   Syntax changes.  I am told that use of writing slows this process down but does not eliminate it.   Which means writing that is “…unchanged for generations to come…” will become unintelligible to those generations, and rather quickly.   Writing from the 19th century is already hard going for most modern readers.[2]  Think about how many people you know that have actually read works by Herman Melville or Alexandre Dumas.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

If it were not for linguistic drift, English readers could still use the King James or Geneva bibles.   The texts could be cleaned up with current manuscript discoveries and they would good to go.  But since Crossway is presenting us with the permanent ESV those translations apparently were not sufficiently permanent.

The goal of translating any ancient text ought to be to make the original sense of that text available to a modern reader.  It really doesn’t matter whether that ancient text was written by Aristophanes or the Apostle Paul.

As it happens, the Koine Greek of New Testament is not the Classical Greek of Aristophanes, Homer, and Plato.   It eventually developed into the court and liturgical language in the Byzantine empire but its origin was the everyday marketplace Greek of the Hellenistic world.  A good bit of the New Testament was likely oral composition in this very ordinary language, dictated to an actual writer.[3]  It was then likely read out loud, to be heard and understood by groups of very ordinary people.

The problem for us modern ordinary people is that we lack the linguistic and cultural context of the ancient audiences.   Translation and the teaching and preaching that accompany it ought to be helping us engage that context, and hear what those ordinary people heard.  Without that help we are apt to read our own linguistic and cultural contexts back into the text.   And hear something quite different from what the author intended to communicate.

This is why linguistic drift is relevant.  Language shifts in meaning and our understanding of it is tethered to an advancing present.  And the shift will inevitably decouple our present understanding from the fixed written meaning anchored in an increasingly distant past.  Which means the success of any translation in accurately supporting a reader’s understanding of an ancient context is only temporary at best.

**
And an update.

It doesn’t appear to have taken Crossway very long to reverse course and and apparently drop the idea of “permanent.”  The text quoted above has been dropped and the following is from a statement by the publisher:

“Our goal at Crossway remains as strong as ever to serve future generations with a stable ESV text. But the means to that goal, we now see, is not to establish a permanent text but rather to allow for ongoing periodic updating of the text to reflect the realities of biblical scholarship such as textual discoveries or changes in English over time.”[4]

I am surprised it took a bit of controversy (see article) to figure out that inevitable changes in the language might be one factor necessitating updates to the translation.

But I’m neither a translator or a linguist so what do I know?

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[1]  About the ESV. Crossway, 2016.  Retrieved from http://www.esv.org/about/ September 19, 2016.

[2]  There is also a matter of shrinking attention spans that impacts on this, as well (see Eighteen Minutes).  But the linguistic drift likely makes the attention issue harder to overcome.

[3]  There are several probable reference to an author’s use of a writer in the New Testament (known in the ancient world as an amanuensis):  Romans 16:22, 1 Corinthians 16:21, Colossians 4:18, 2 Thessalonians 3:16, 1 Peter 5:12, and Galatians 6:11.

The practice is likely to have been far more wide-spread than is first apparent, even among the literate, which St. Paul clearly was.  We are the children of the printing press and formatted text — our modern text-saturated culture really has no sense of the cognitive demands of writing and reading in the ancient world.  For a related discussion see this earlier post.

[4]  Crossway Statement on the ESV Bible Text. Crossway, 2016.  Retrieved from https://www.crossway.org/blog/2016/09/crossway-statement-on-the-esv-bible-text/ September 28, 2016.

Thought Leaders

I’ve watched a bit of TED and there’s been quite a lot of good stuff on it.  As I’ve noted previously, the format of TED successfully makes use of the shrunken attention spans of modern culture.  But the packaging that makes TED work also suggests its effectiveness has very little to do with the actual content.

With that in mind, here’s a bit of Canadian satire from Pat Kelly of This is That.  It’s about how to inspire people and say nothing at all:

 

 

There is a very good chance that you could take any given TED talk, flip the content so it says the opposite of the original, and the audience engagement would be just as high.

 

A Faith of Trust, Allegiance, and Loyalty

Skeptics ridicule the truth of the Christian message because of the discontinuity they see between Christian belief and behavior. They may have a point. Modern Christianity seems grounded in cognitive experience, more or less anchored by formal theologies expressing ethics governing what we think and how we behave. The problem is that what we think often gets compartmentalized from how we behave.

We claim a transformative power but we seem to end up with a faith that seems to be mostly a matter of rules and propositional truth. It might help to step back a bit from our arguments with skeptics and think about what faith actually is. A book review by Kate Cooper recently caught my attention, in which she profiled Roman Faith and Christian Faith, by Teresa Morgan.

The review describes our primarily cognitive and ethical treatment of faith as anachronistic. In contrast, “…ancient moral writers tended to think of faith in the relational sense of trust, allegiance, and loyalty.” Cooper quotes from Morgan’s book, anchoring faith in an ancient context of “‘an exercise of trust which involves heart, mind, and action’”.[1]

I am looking forward reading the book to engage the historical context the book promises for the New Testament. It seems to square with my recent reading of Roman history and Roman authors.  But what Cooper calls modern faith might also have some quite ancient roots, courtesy of the Hellenic culture diffused across the Mediteranean and eastward following Alexander’s conquests.

Hellenism was under-girded by a world of ideas incubated in the life of the polis, or the Greek city-state. The clearest biblical connection with this was Paul’s encounter with Athenian aristocracy at Mars Hill,[2] when they brought Paul from the marketplace where he was preaching. They wanted to hear his unfamiliar ideas and proclamations of a foreign god, and to consider them within the business of the polis.

But the problem with this Greek world of ideas was its functional isolation. The city-states which gestated Hellenism were stratified into fairly rigid divisions between the activities of citizens (men), women, immigrants and their descendants, freedmen, and slaves. In the classical period citizens were the only ones who could own houses or land, or participate in public life and in the governance of the city. What this participation actually looked like might vary with the city but most of the actual work to support it was performed by someone other than citizens.

The result was that the Greek world of ideas was structurally disconnected from the practical and everyday. The intellectual heritage of the Western World owes a great deal to the ancient Greeks. But we may also owe them a tendency toward cooking down truth as a matter of bare cognition, separated from the activities of everyday life.

This does not mean faith operates in some sort of intellectual vacuum. Something must be true, and over the centuries Christians have done a fair bit of philosophy to engage this. But we used to also recognize that the truth statements within Christian creeds were never wholly reducible to propositions.

Unfortunately, some of our fine-grained modern theologies seem to do just that, resulting in a theoretical faith where the ethical content never reaches very far. It is a faith that has become very much like the philosophy of the ancient Greeks: positions to think about but that are mostly sectioned off from the ordinary day-to-day. And on those occasions we actually do drag them out of their boxes they are so wholly odds with that day-to-day as to discredit any message about Jesus.

It is a modern variant of something James was addressing in his letter to Jewish Christians dispersed throughout the ancient world.  He nails this in his discussion of faith and works (James 2:14-19).

What I have been told by someone who actually reads Greek is that the words translated as “faith” and “believe”[3] in English are really noun and verb forms of the same expansive word, encompassing a both a belief in the truth of something, as well as a far broader sense of trust and dependence concerning the fidelity of someone. The way the Greek word is heard depends on the context. James 2:19 is commonly translated in English as “believe,” and the context suggests a paraphrase:

You accept the truth that God is one. You do well. The demons also accept this and shudder.

A faith restricted to the cognitive and ethical can easily become a faith of bare facts — the faith of the demons.

In the preceding text, 2:14-18, the Greek word is commonly translated as “faith.” The context suggests something very different from 2:19.

And this difference would have been understood quite clearly by any Roman hearing the reading of James’ letter. The Romans who spread with their empire had some critical cultural differences from the Greeks of the city-states. Immigrants to Rome often became citizens, and sometimes this included freed slaves and their descendants. As Mary Beard has unpacked in SPQR, this making of immigrants and thousands of slaves into citizens is a major part of what enabled Rome to dominate the ancient world. And in their founding myths “…however far back you go, the inhabitants of Rome were always already from somewhere else.”[4]

As a matter of clarification I don’t want to convey any impression that this meant empire and the associated making of slaves was a good thing. It was not. A slave in a Roman mine was unlikely to live very long. And Romans were probably as exploitative, xenophobic and ethnocentric as anyone else.

But the point is that the Roman social stratification was somewhat less rigid than in a Greek city-state. It was more interconnected, with citizens bound together in patron-client relationships of mutual obligation. Roman citizenship did not inherently insulate everyday citizens from activities with outsiders, or from otherwise doing the everyday business of Rome. Ordinary Romans proudly put their ordinary occupations on their tombstones. And landless Roman wage laborers might find themselves working on the same project alongside of Roman slaves.

Commodus denarius – Wikimedia Commons

For the Romans hearing a reading of James’ letter, truth did not stand in a vacuum devoid of the business of everyday life. The context of James 2:14-18 would have been understood in the sense of fides, what Cooper’s review identifies as encompassing “trust, allegiance, and loyalty.”  Romans were accustomed to the sense of fides as found inscribed on coins and worshiped as a minor deity.[5]  It conveyed as sense of reliability, such as in the trust between two parties.

It is what a Roman would have heard when the Greek pistis was translated in Latin. In the ancient world these words appear to have been mutually intelligible. What we commonly translate as “faith” might possibly be heard like this by an ancient Roman:

Show me your trust, allegiance and loyalty, without works, and I will show you my trust, allegiance, and loyalty, by my works.

Our most common response to skeptics is to reach for some form of apologetic. Perhaps the proper response would be to recover a more ancient sense of faith.

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[1]  Kate Cooper.  Review: Teresa Morgan, ROMAN FAITH, CHRISTIAN FAITH.  I’ve added the book to my list to acquire and read.  It’s quite expensive which suggests it is directed at an academic audience.
https://kateantiquity.com/2016/05/12/review-teresa-morgan-roman-faith-christian-faith/.  Also at: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/by-faith-alone-3/

[2] Acts 17:16 ff.

[3] James 2:14-18, faith: πιστιν – pistin, πιστις – pistis, Strong’s G4102.  James 2:19, believe: πιστευεις – pisteueis, πιστευουσιν – pisteuousin, Strong’s G4100.

[4] Mary Beard. SPQR: A history of ancient Rome. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015. p78

[5]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fides_(deity)