Word Nerd Wednesday: Less is more

I’m still in the process of working out exactly what this weekly wrangling over words is going to look like. Last week, I took a very pointed look at a man who helped change the way we write words and their technical use. It was along the lines of what I initially envisioned. Now, however, I’m thinking that will be just one among many ways I discuss our daily use of words.

It is readily observed by anyone paying a modicum of attention that words, their evolving meanings, and how we use them in our current society are changing the cultural landscape at a rapid pace. That brings me to today’s discussion, inspired by the prolific writing of Joshua Gibbs. In a recent article, A Defense of Just Bottling It All Up, he asks his readers to re-examine the emphasis we place on talking it out as a way to resolve conflicts.

My skeptical stance toward the idea that interpersonal conflicts are best solved through conversation is chiefly derived from two things: first, a staggering amount of evidence and personal experience which suggests the contrary, and second, a staggering lack of biblical evidence to support the claim. Upon saying this, I suppose there is a certain kind of reader who will respond, “Oh, so you think it is better to fight?” However, such reactions only go to my second objection. Modern people have been trained to believe all problems are solved either by violence or by calmly, rationally sitting down to talk. To the contrary, Christian tradition suggests a rather wide range of much better possibilities— like doing nothing, for example.

People who make their living using words generally recognize that the power in using them sparingly. Our current ethos insists that if we could just talk more about our differences, we might be able to diffuse the polarizing atmosphere that has gripped our current social and political environment. Gibbs rightly questions this.

The age of social media has led to endless chatter about race and gender, nonetheless, I still regularly encounter people who claim, “Our problems with race will not go away and until we can openly discuss them.” The idea that we talk too much about important issues is blasphemous. Americans used to believe that throwing enough money at a problem would make it go away. We now believe that throwing enough words at our problems is the answer. Nonetheless, St. James says we should “quick to listen,” which does not mean “quick to engage in conversation.”

He also notes the admonition from King Solomon: When there are many words, sin is not absent.

The whole thing is worth a read, so click over to glean the appropriate context for what was offered here. This Word Nerd Wednesday, I’m pondering the admonitions from King Solomon and St. James. To give it a more modern spin:

When it comes to our words, less is definitely more.

So…what do you guys think about talking everything out as the ultimate method of conflict resolution? When do we accept the reality that words often fail?

 

 

 

 

The Wind in the Reeds

wind in the reeds

The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and a City That Would Not Be Broken, by Wendell Pierce (with Rod Dreher). Originally published in 2015. 352 pages.

I’ve read Rod Dreher’s recommendation of The Wind in the Reeds on more than one occasion, and a recent trip to the library reminded me that I had not read it. I’d always intended to, so I decided that now was as good a time as any to give it a read.

Wendell Pierce is a classically Julliard trained actor of stage and screen. He is best known for his role on a television show called The Wire. I am unfamiliar with the show beyond what he offers in this book, where he delves deeply into his passion for his craft and the importance of art -of all forms- in culture.

Wind in the Reeds is equal parts memoir, regional history, and racial commentary. The regional history is particularly interesting to me as my paternal roots are in Southern Louisiana, the region from which Pierce is offering his readers a history lesson.

The book begins as he flashes back to his 2007 benefit performance of the play Waiting For Godot, which was staged as a free outdoor event to benefit the city of New Orleans in the wake of its devastation from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

New Orleans is Pierce’s hometown. His family has deep roots there. After his introductory passages which expressed the depth and breadth of his emotions on the opening night of Godot, he pivots, taking the reader back in time with him. He recounts his family’s Louisiana history all the way back to a slave named Aristile who was sold away from his family in Kentucky and taken to a Louisiana sugar plantation sometime in the years preceding the Civil War. I’m going to pivot here; albeit briefly.

I have a bit of fascination with those rare numbers of black families who have a fairly reliable documented history. Whether it’s Pierce’s story, The Delany Sisters, or my husband’s maternal family, which actually has a family historian with a family tree going back nearly 125 years. It’s a short period of time in the grand scheme, but for slave descendants, it’s significant. Few Americans -of any race- know much about their families beyond their great grandparents. I have yet to meet an unsuccessful black family when those historical roots are watered generation after generation. It’s not that every member of such families is wealthy or fully successful, but there are recognizable strings of strong, hard-working, mostly intact families. Wendell Pierce’s family, as he describes it here, is no different.

After laying the foundation of his family’s Louisiana history, the book connects the industrial and racial history of Southern Louisiana as a region. I found that there were parts of Pierce’s commentary I fully agreed with and others where I strenuously disagreed. I am not, however, unfamiliar with this dynamic; the tension many successful blacks feel between their bedrock belief in personal responsibility and hard work and the idea that there is still so much work to be done on behalf of those who haven’t been able to make it in the same way.

In addition to his historical and racial commentary, Pierce uses two chapters to describe his journey to Julliard, the stage, and then the screen. As with the racial and social commentary, I was equal parts intrigued and equal parts unimpressed. Art is crucially important as Pierce rightly notes, but there is a wide chasm between the classic theater that he studied at Julliard and much of the drivel that passes as art today. His noble admonition for artists to eschew the temptation to allow businessmen and bottom-line concerns to trump their creative integrity isn’t a view that seems to be shared in his industry.

As he ends the book, Pierce turns back to where he started; with the devastation that his beloved city endured in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and his memories of the shock that awaited him as he flew home that very weekend, thinking that as the storm had hit and left Florida, the crisis had passed. What he didn’t know was that after hitting Florida as a Cat 1 storm, Katrina had re-strengthened to a Cat 5 and was heading straight towards the much more vulnerable basin city of New Orleans. He describes the storm, its aftermath, and its effects on his immediate family, who fared far better than most precisely because of his success as an actor.

This was a moving memoir, and its history was informative and interesting. Despite areas of divergent philosophy or politics, one thing was crystal clear: Wendell Pierce is a man who loves his family and takes great pride in the legacy into which he was born.

In honor of Veteran’s Day, which is only a few days away, I’ll wrap up this review with the same excerpt that Dreher posted over at the American Conservative. In 2009, more than six decades after the end of World War II, Wendell Pierce’s father, Amos Pierce, was finally to take possession of the medals he earned in the war but which were denied him when he returned stateside. You’d think a man who was so slighted by the country he fought and nearly died for would be more than a little bit bitter. Amos Pierce wasn’t, as exemplified by this moment Pierce recalled from his childhood:

This was the late sixties or early seventies, when the Black Power movement was in full swing. That ethos demanded that when the national anthem was played, black people protested by refusing to stand in respect.

That night at the Municipal Auditorium, the national anthem began to sound over the PA system, signaling that the fights would soon begin. Everyone stood, except some brothers sitting in the next row down from us. They looked up at my father and said, “Aw, Pops, sit down.”

“Don’t touch me, man,” growled my dad.

“Sit down! Sit down!” they kept on.

“Don’t touch me,” he said. “I fought for that flag. You can sit down. I fought for you to have that right. But I fought for that flag too, and I’m going to stand.”

Then one of the brothers leveled his eyes at Daddy, and said, “No, you need to sit down.” He started pulling on my father’s pants leg.

That was it. “You touch me one more time,” my father roared, “and I’m going to kick you in your f—-ng teeth.”

The radical wiseass turned around and minded his own business. That was a demonstration of black power that the brother hadn’t expected.

That was a powerful recollection that very few of us will be able to relate to as the years go by.

3 out of 5 stars.

Brave New World Revisited

brave new world ps

Brave New World Revisited by Aldous Huxley. Originally published n 1958. 144 pages.

When his classic novel,  Brave New World, was published in 1931, Aldous Huxley’s imaginary world was one he foresaw unfolding many years into the future. It was set in the 26th century, in fact. By 1958 however, the world he saw emerging little more than a quarter of a century after his book was published seemed to be hurtling toward his very grim, sterile vision. And so, he penned a postscript: Brave New World Revisited. To offer some context, let’s do a short recap on the plot of Brave New World.

Brave New World, set in a futuristic age,  largely revolves around the World State city of London, 2540 AF (After Ford). In this well, brave new world, war has been eradicated, biological human reproduction has been replaced by hatcheries, the sexual revolution has come to full fruition with the destruction of the family, and the masses are kept happy through hedonistic indulgences and addiction to a drug known as soma. Life without struggle has been achieved.

Of course, there’s always a wrinkle waiting to tear at the fabric of utopias, and World State London is no exception. There are pockets of the world where religion still exists, the struggles of life go on, reproduction still happens the old-fashioned way, and the messiness of family life continues as it always has. This bit of reality eventually invades World State London, and things get interesting.

However, it’s the state of things in 1958 that motivates Huxley to revisit his fantastical Brave New World prophecies. In Brave New World revisited, we note Huxley’s alarm at the exploding post-war population. He notes the difficulty inherent in trying to control the reproductive habits of humanity and he is concerned about the ability of the world’s resources to sustain this increasing population of humans. Wherever I may diverge from Huxley on that particular subject, he offers a lot of highly instructive commentary which is relevant to life in the 21st century. On the subject of the masses being overly entertained:

“A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it.”

He touches on the banal danger of some of the most popular music of the times:

“Nonsense which it would be shameful for a reasonable being to write, speak or hear spoken can be sung or listened to by that same rational being with pleasure and even with a kind of intellectual conviction.”

On the subject of wresting  control of the masses via the carrot rather than the stick:

“In the light of what we have recently learned about animal behavior in general, and human behavior in particular, it has become clear that control through the punishment of undesirable behavior is less effective, in the long run, than control through the reinforcement of desirable behavior by rewards, and that government through terror works on the whole less well than government through the non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women and children.”

There were certainly areas of thought where I found Huxley’s arguments wanting, but none of that changed the fact that he made some excellent observations about the current state of his world and the ultimate trajectory of ours.

Revisiting Brave New World was a welcome opportunity to explore these ideas in a very short book, easily read over the course of a leisurely weekend. The real question lingers:

How close are we to Huxley’s Brave New World? Will we eventually live in a world so unfamiliar that even reproduction has been taken over by what Huxley refers to as the Power Elite?

As for the book, because it induces the opportunity to think about the world in which we live, I give it:

4 out of 5 stars

 

 

 

 

On Books and the Unchanging Nature of Things

old and new

The wonderful thing about books is that if you’ve read a sufficient number, you quickly realize that King Solomon was right: There truly is nothing new under the sun. Cultural shifts occasionally offer the illusion that we’ve cooking up something new, but once you take a bite, it’s readily apparent that this just another case of, “New Look! Same Great Taste!”

I just started reading Dorothy Sayers’ Mind of the Maker, originally published in 1941. In light of our current political, social, and cultural trajectory, this quote from the first chapter stood out to me:

The more closely the moral code agrees with the natural law, the more it makes for freedom in human behaviour; the more widely it departs from the natural law, the more it tends to enslave mankind…

This corroborates what we already know, at least some of us. Our tendency to enforce utopian ideals by fiat, despite their blatant incongruency with the ingrained laws of the universe, is not a new one. It hasn’t worked before, and despite the technologies that have shrunk our world, it isn’t working now, for obvious reasons:

The moral code depends for its validity upon a consensus [8] of human opinion about what man’s nature really is, and what it ought to be, when freed from this mysterious self-contradiction and enabled to run true to itself. If there is no agreement about these things, then it is useless to talk of enforcing the moral code.

It’s not that we don’t know these truths. We do, but it sates the soul when those who have gone before, and are smarter, more articulate and presumably more wise than we confirm what we can see and sense in our hearts as true.

Behold the power of a great book!

* I’m still reading this particular book, but have learned that it is a part of the public domain in Canada. Ergo, although I’ve already spent money on it, there is online access to it. Weirdly, we are supposed to consult the laws in our country before reading it or something, so consider this your public service announcement.

Wokeness Threatens Students Opportunity to Study the Classics

We’ve discussed this topic here before, but a recent piece from Rod Dreher at The American Conservative has reawakened my interest in the subject.  The subject, of course, is the previously slow but accelerating tendency of woke scolds to attempt and purge from the public square anything that doesn’t conform to their perfect, utopian standard of cultural and racial diversity.

Mr. Dreher posted a picture of a now deleted tweet in which a literature teacher from a northeastern school district gleefully announced the district’s trashing of books which do not conform to the aforementioned standards:

book banning bins

There have always been the arguments raised about whether kids should be forced to read classic literature because it is “too hard” for them, they might find it boring, or simply because the kids don’t like to read old books for any number of reasons. Sometimes the teachers themselves might not enjoy sifting through the language and themes with students. Nonetheless, it was generally accepted that the benefits of reading and discussing classic literature added a level of intellectual and literary value that cancelled out most of those complaints.

Lately however, as our culture has become increasingly ideologically divided and more cultural battle lines are being drawn, educational consensus has given way to the kinds of rhetoric displayed above. The Western canon, at least the portion which is authored by European descended men, features traditional Western norms or considers religious mores in any way virtuous, are under severe attack. They are “unengaging, irrelevant, and lacking in cultural diversity” based on the above commentary.

Somehow, as this piece from The Federalist points out, there seems to be little hand wringing or hesitation about subjecting students to questionable content from books which are assumed to be more “engaging, relevant and culturally diverse” so long as they are written by approved, qualified authors.

After becoming familiar with the high school reading list that not only included “Beloved” and “Obasan” (a book about Japanese internment that contains descriptions of a little girl being repeatedly molested by a much older neighbor), but “The Bluest Eye,” another Morrison book, Murphy decided to make her concerns known to the school’s administration.

During a meeting with the principal and assistant principal, teachers, librarians, and the English Department chair, an English teacher told Murphy it was important to assign literary material written by best-selling, award-winning authors and if teachers publicly identified books containing sexually explicit material, parents won’t want their kids to read them.

“The principal said he didn’t feel he needed to make a change, and that I needed to go to the county level where my only recourse was to challenge a single book,” Murphy said. Murphy chose to challenge “Beloved,” losing each of three appeals.

Dissatisfied with the outcome, Murphy took her case to the Virginia Board of Education. When she attempted to email direct quotes from “Beloved” to members, the agency firewall prevented her communications from being delivered.

When parents are informed of these kinds of offensive material being assigned reading, they are often made to feel out of touch because the books in questions have won awards or were written by acclaimed authors:

Kim Heinecke, also a mother of four with two teenaged sons, is an Edmond, Oklahoma, mother who can relate to Murphy’s battle. After her son, a public school sophomore, was assigned the books “The Kite Runner” and “The Glass Castle” as required reading for English II and Pre-AP English II, Heinecke went to the principal and asked for a conference.

“He talked to the teachers [prior to the meeting] and the English teacher’s response to him was that it was an award-winning book and kids hear this kind of thing all the time. I felt as though I didn’t have a right to tell them I didn’t want my kid to read it. They made me feel stupid,” Heinecke said.

Some might argue that these books, which many parents are offended by, offer opportunities to discuss the themes and subject matter in ways that allow parents to reinforce their particular family’s moral or religious values. I believe this line of argument stretches the boundaries of credibility, but let’s acquiesce to it for a moment.

Using the above argument as a foundation, objections to classic literature and the lenses through which they’re written are baffling. Banning or otherwise removing those books from rotation robs students of valuable lessons about the lives and contributions of those who have gone before us. It robs teachers of the opportunity to discuss the history and cultural norms of the writers who authored them, and so juxtapose those norms and values (good and bad) against the norms and values of today.

Our children have all studied classic literature, and our younger children have only ever studied classic literature in school. Their teachers have done a masterful job of walking them through the times and places in which these authors lived and wrote. In the cases where we there was an opportunity to distinguish between what was culturally acceptable in a certain time and place between what is culturally acceptable today, they covered those subject with both the necessary seriousness and a respect for the literary work.

For example, in Rudyard Kipling’s classic Captains Courageous, there is a lot of racially offensive language, or at least language that most of us find offensive today. It wasn’t necessarily considered offensive at the time. Our child’s teacher was able to discuss those issues in class without disparaging the overwhelmingly positive message conveyed by Kipling’s work.

This is important to do because it is very easy for us, in 2019, to sit on a perch of moral superiority and judge the people of the nineteenth century for their ways of living and viewing life. Trashing classic literature in the name of diversity, cultural relevance, and political correctness is to throw out both the baby and the bath water.

I often think -at least I certainly hope- that 50 years from today someone will look back on some of the craziness of today and wonder aloud, “What WERE they thinking that they embraced such things?”

I don’t think that should mean burning every book written in the past 50 years, no matter how personally offensive I find many of them.

 

How to Be Unlucky, part 1

how to be unlucky

How to Be Unlucky: Reflections on the Pursuit of Virtue, by Joshua Gibbs. Originally published in 2018. 246 pages.

You can read a sample of chapter 1 of How to Be Unlucky here.

The year is young, from a reader’s perscpective, and I still have two Christian books in my queue for the fall (Sacred Pathways and Meet Generation Z), so this may be a premature pronouncement. Nevertheless, I’m going to make it: How to Be Unlucky is by far my favorite nonfiction read of 2018. More than that, and this is saying a lot, it has syrocketed to my top 10 list of Christian books worth reading.

Before I get too far into this, I should issue fair warning. As I have been breathlessly sharing my thoughts on this book with different people, and especially as I share posts penned by Gibbs at the Circe Institute’s Cedar Room Blog, I’ve come to appreciate that Mr. Gibbs is an acquired taste. His tone, idealism, and pull no punches rhetoric isn’t for everyone.

If like me, you like your Truth straight up, you’re tired of pussyfooting around hard things and weary of making excuses for your own shortcomings, then you’ll like this book. If you need caveats and heaping loads of grace poured onto your principled exceptions and extraordinary situations, then skip it. If you don’t like hearing that we do rotten things because of the rot that is in us, and because we take great comfort in indulging our pet sins, again,  I advise you to skip it.

The really cool thing about this book, if I may use such an irreverent term, is that it isn’t at all the Calvinist-sounding manifesto you might be anticipating based on my introductory description. Gibbs is big “o” Orthodox and a classical educator who teaches Great Books to high schoolers, and that, rather than Calvinist theology is what frames the philosophical arguments he makes in this book.

Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy is the source and backdrop which Gibbs uses to take his readers on a journey to prayerfully peel back the layers and examine what really makes us tick. There are several Biblical references, but like a true classisist and adherent of a very old traditional church of the Christian faith, Gibbs draws on the beauty and truth that has been passed down through ages; not as a replacement for Scripture, but as evidence that all expressions of truth are God’s Truth, and I had no trouble drawing clear lines of connection between what Gibbs offered from Boethius and the Truth as revealed in the Bible.

I’m almost done with my second reading of the book, and I’m already getting knee deep into reading The Scarlet Pimpernel along with my kids for literature class, so I figured I should stop mulling over how to review this book and just get to it.

On the first page of the book, Gibbs sets the stage for what to come when he confesses:

I was embarrassingly old by the time I first heard a robust answer to the question, “Why be good?”

Given that, if I am not mistaken, this author is not yet 40 years old, he’s certainly not embarrassingly old, but I do understand this sentiment. American Christianity (and yes, I know how that characterization sounds) is embarrassingly inconsistent is so many ways that it’s easy to see why one might be confused by things that shouldn’t be particularly confusing. At least if we believe, and I do, that our faith is not void of reason or logic.

The struggle to encapsulate what I gleaned from this book is the reason for my delay in reviewing it, so I’ll put a bow on this by offering my favorite quotes from each chapter, beginning with the chapter entitled, Death as a Practical Problem:

Every pursuit of maturity-made during any stage of life, whether made by a high school sophomore or a man in his retirement- is ultimately a preparation for death, there is no sense in preparing for anything else. p.71

This is from the same chapter but I liked it, so:

The oldest woman in the club is an embarrassment, but she is also the woman who was the second-oldest in the club last month, the third-oldest last winter, the fourth-oldest last year…and the three-hundred-twenty-ninth oldest on the eve of her 21st birthday, when she went out dancing for the first time. She had the cultural right to go out on her twenty-first birthday, but with every passing day, the ultimate unreliability of this right should be increasingly clear to her. The best way to not become the oldest woman in the club is to quit going to the club the moment you realize such a future is distasteful. p.70.

From the chapter Fortune, Luck, and Salvation:

The   modern man wants every proverb qualified, asterisked, and stated so tentatively that it has nothing to do with himself. Only a common man cares about what commonly happens, but ours is a generation of proud weirdos. For a proverb to be of value to a man, he must see himself as normal, ordinary, common. He must not see himself as special, atypical, excused from the law of averages. A proverb is not a law, but a description of the world right down the middle. Thus, the more unique a man thinks himself, the less open he is to the wisdom of the ages, for Solomon is not interested in describing the unusual cases, but the conventional ones. p.91

From the chapter Temptation and Besetting Sins:

That the wicked are “happier if they suffer punishment than if they are unrestrained” (p.97) [of The Consolation] is obvious to anyone who has tired of the anxiety which attends continually getting away with sin. Few men want to confess their sin, but they dream of how good life might be today of they had confessed their sin a year ago. A man wants to be done with his sin, but he doesn’t want to suffer the embarrassment of cutting himself off from it, for truly breaking entrenched sinful habits requires the help of others who then become aware of his struggle. Hence, a man tries to deal with his sin on his own. p.135

It wasn’t my original intent to analyze this post in parts, and it still isn’t, but I thinkit will take two posts to say everything I wish to about the book, so I’ll finish doing that in part 2.