Back to the present: how future Americans will see us

When reading European authors from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one frequently runs across descriptions of America and Americans. Americans are either burly, uncultured, do-it-yourselfers or rich, ambitious, self-made men. As a nation America is emotional and reckless, but also courageous. Find an American in an Agatha Christie mystery, and it’s a pretty good bet he or she will either be the killer, the murder victim, or the ridiculously self-absorbed bystander.

G. K. Chesterton described Americans this way: “Americans have a taste for…rocking-chairs. A flippant critic might suggest that they select rocking-chairs so that, even when they are sitting down, they need not be sitting still.” Earlier, Alexis de Tocqueville characterized America this way: “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.”

Recently I ran across several such descriptions, and it started me thinking about how America might be characterized by its contemporaries or, more interestingly still, by its historians. How will some future Edward Gibbon depict present-day America and Americans?

Future thinkers will portray our America as overwhelmingly distracted. Citing the shocking statistic that as many as 50 percent of Americans felt overwhelmed at work, they may come to the same conclusion Tony Schwartz did in the Harvard Business Review: the cause is not overwork but the attempt to juggle too many things at one time.

Americans, a future historian might say, lived to be distracted. They constantly checked email, shopped online, channel surfed, dined out, and spent money. Affluence was measured by the ability to pay for distractions. Indeed, some future Gibbon may conjecture that had America taken a 24 hour respite from distractions, her economy would have entirely collapsed.

A future historian might also point out that in the early 21st century America was dominated by feelings. “Crushed” might be a better word. That historian would notice that Americans believed that feelings were the only authentic thing about them. To betray one’s convictions was no big deal, but to betray one’s feelings – that was totally hypocritical.

A discerning historian might connect the dots between this disproportionate emphasis on feelings and another distinguishing feature of the age: the magnitude of addictions. Early 21st century America is addicted, as is inevitable when life is governed by feelings.

A careful historian would uncover telling data: more Americans died from painkiller overdoses than from car accidents. The increase in overdoses rose by 132% between 2004 and 2011, and the illicit use of drugs more than doubled among people between the ages of 50 and 64. Nearly one in four Americans reported episodes of binge drinking. America was hooked.

Studying the early 21st century, a historian might be shocked by the degree to which America was sexualized. It’s most persistent debates – abortion, same-sex marriage, gender rights – all revolved around issues of sexuality. That historian would find countless pictures of sexualized little girls and boys, not just in illegal pornography but in mainstream advertising. He or she would find scholarly articles on gender dysphoria alongside tawdry gossip columns on the same subject. Evidence of sexual preoccupation would be found in almost every area of life.

Our historian would also find that early 21st century Americans lived in fear. The previous generation’s dread of “the bomb” was replaced by fear of: immigrants, terrorism, weather events, old age, wrinkles, lack of resources, genetically-altered foods, global warming, fat, and the loss of social security benefits. Our future historiographer’s working title might be: “Sex, fear, and addiction in early 21st century America.”

It’s not too late to change that title, though it will take a spiritual earthquake to do it. St. Paul’s counsel, given to an equally troubled age, is key. “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within.” Nothing less will do.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, September, 5, 2015

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A rose by any other name

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Those are of course Juliet’s lines in Act II of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. If only Romeo’s last name were something other than Montague, there would be no obstacle between them.

Juliet sees words (including names) as mere labels, attached for the sake of convenience. But like the Capulet’s and Montague’s, contemporary thinkers would beg to differ. Words frame our ideas and direct the way we think about them. People who study language and cognition know that thinking is shaped and directed by the words we hear and repeatedly use.

A proverb attributed to Confucius states that the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper names. But how is one to do that? What, for example, would the sage call today’s political wrangling – fidelity to principle or stubborn pride? Yes, the odor of the rose remains the same, whatever we call it, but so does that of cow manure. We must call it something and, as soon as we do, the words we use begin to shape the way we think about it.

Consider MSNBC and Fox News, for example. Were someone to conduct an analysis of word usage on their shows, particularly in regards to nomenclature, it would demonstrate the power of language to shape thought. Followers of these competitors frame the issues of the day in distinctly dissimilar, and sometimes irreconcilable, ways because of the power of words.

The ancient world was well aware of the power of naming things and people. To name something was, in some sense, to exercise authority over it. Any astute viewer of the news media will know this truth has not been lost on moderns.

A clear example of the power of words can be found in the social war triggered by Roe v. Wade. One of the critical battles waged has been over terminology. People who favor comprehensive abortion rights routinely refer to themselves as pro-choice, while those opposing them refer to them pro-abortion, or something yet more inflammatory. Both sides understand the power of language to influence thought.

Another idea from the ancient world is that knowing the true name (as in the Confucian proverb) of a person or thing gives one power over that person or thing. Many scholars believe this is the reason that biblical Jacob demanded to know the name of his opponent, who resolutely refused to give it, in the famous wrestling match of Genesis 32.

That same story also illustrates the intrinsic power of assigning names to people. Though Jacob’s opponent withholds his own name, he gives to Jacob a new one: Israel. In so doing, the man whose name meant something like “conniver” received a new identity and a new way of thinking about himself.

The power of naming was uniquely displayed in Hindu law, which required Dalits (“Untouchables”) to be given one name, which had to be pejorative. So little babies were given names like “Dung” or “Ugly.” Someone called “Dung” all his life has been conditioned to think himself incapable of challenging the cruel and unjust social structures that demean his people.

A more encouraging example of the power of naming is found in the Christian scriptures. There it is said that the Lord will give a new name to all who overcome. George Macdonald reflects on this idea: “The giving of … the new name is the communication of what God thinks about the man to the man … The true name is one which expresses the character, the nature, the meaning of the person who bears it.”

“Who can give a man this, his own name?” Macdonald asks, and then answers, “God alone. For no one but God sees what the man is.”

A rose may be a rose by any other name, but it’s different for people. A person has a true name, which is an invitation to vast and rich possibilities, an invitation to become all that one could ever hope to be.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/29/2015

BTW – I would love to see an enterprising grad student take on the challenge of conducting an analysis of language, particularly that of nomenclature, in regards to the respective news outlets mentioned above. Perhaps it could serve as a dissertation in philosophy or political science. Let me know if you take on the challenge.


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A rich and lasting heritage

I was a little anxious. I was guest speaker at our church’s youth group, sitting before a crowd of teenagers who had been encouraged to ask any question they wanted. They asked really good questions: Why does God allow suffering? How can we know if God is speaking to us? How can it be just to send a person to hell for eternity?

During free time, I joined a pick-up basketball game with some of the teens. I was easily the tallest, and arguably the best, player on the court. I got rebounds, made outlet passes, hustled down court and cut to the hoop or positioned myself on the blocks. But nobody ever passed me the ball.

That didn’t bother me. Teenage boys are notorious for being ball-hogs, and at first I shrugged it off at that. But then I realized the boys were passing the ball to other boys on the team, but not to me. I may be wrong, but it crossed my mind that they weren’t passing me the ball because they thought I was old (and probably unreliable).

I’m in my late fifties. My hair is thinning and my beard is white. I don’t look like a thirty-year-old any more, though as long as I don’t look in the mirror, I still feel like one. The realization that some (admittedly very young) people think that I’m old came as a surprise.

But the truth is, I have been on this planet for almost six decades. What have I been doing with all that time? Is the earth a better place because I’ve been here? Am I leaving a heritage for my family, friends and church? And, if so, what is it?

I frequently ask people about the heritage handed down to them by the important people in their lives. I usually introduce the topic by explaining the difference between an inheritance (what someone leaves you when they die – property, cash, stocks and bonds) and a heritage (what someone leaves inside you when they die – a strong work ethic, a thirst for knowledge, a sense of humor, a sense of responsibility, a love of family).

An inheritance can be directed to anyone, including a stranger, but a heritage can only be imparted to people to whom one is known. An inheritance can make a person rich, but a heritage can make him valuable. A heritage is more precious than an inheritance.

A few years ago it was common to see cars with bumper stickers that read, “I’m spending my kids’ inheritance.” (It’s less common now, because all those people spent their kids’ inheritance on new cars.) It is not difficult to imagine circumstances in which spending the kids’ inheritance would be the right thing to do, but it impossible to imagine a situation in which frittering away the kids’ heritage would be good. Yet people do it all the time.

Heritage is frittered away by people who do not connect genuinely and personally with those around them, especially family. While passing on heritage does not require words, it does require close and extended contact. People with the ability to pass on a rich heritage can fritter it away by isolating themselves from those around them.

Heritage can also be compromised. Just as an inheritance is compromised when inherited liabilities exceed assets, a heritage is compromised when as many (or even more) negative qualities are passed on as positive ones. What good does it do if I pass on to my children a strong work ethic, but along with it instill in them an indifference towards the feelings of others?

What can I do to impart a rich heritage to family and friends? I can stop thinking about heritage and start thinking about the people around me. What will be helpful to them? How can I use the gifts, passions and experience I possess to serve them?

Further, I can own the truth that the best way to give a life-enriching heritage is to give myself. Sensible words and wise counsel are not enough. Heritage cannot be imparted from a safe distance. I have to be present and involved. Nothing else can guarantee a rich and lasting heritage.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/22/2015

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The most difficult field of study

The biblical book of Psalms contains 150 poems or praises (151 in the Orthodox Church) and has often been referred to as the songbook of the Church. Indeed, in some times and places, the psalms were the only songs in the Church’s repertoire.

The Psalms have fired the imaginations of artists and musicians. Bach used lines from the Psalms in at least thirteen cantatas. In what is arguably Yeats’ best work, the poet makes extended use of the Psalms and other biblical passages. Shakespeare frequently alludes to the Psalms, and lines like “out of the mouths of babes” and being “at wit’s end” have made their way from the Psalms into common usage.

Psalm 19 begins famously with the line: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” This psalm’s author, King David, goes on to identify three fields of study: the heavens, the “law of the Lord,” and humanity. Today we might label them astronomy, biblical studies and psychology.

The first two fields of study, astronomy and biblical studies, are easier grasped than the last, human psychology. The heavens, the psalmist tells us, speak eloquently: “Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.” And the message they tell is all about God.

The English physicist Paul Davies read that message. In “The Mind of God” he wrote, “I have come to believe more and more strongly that the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as a brute fact. There must, it seems to me, be a deeper level of explanation.”

The great American astronomer Allan Sandage has likewise written, “I was practically an atheist in my childhood. Science was what led me to the conclusion that the world is much more complex than we can explain. I can only explain the mystery of existence to myself by the Supernatural.”

These men, and many more like them, reached this conclusion by reading the message of the skies. Others have come to the same conclusion by reading the message of “the Book” – the Bible. The benefits of this second field of study are stated this way: “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple.”

Because he understood the Bible’s unique ability to “make wise the simple,” President Woodrow Wilson once told an audience, “I have a very simple thing to ask of you. I ask every man and woman in this audience that from this day on they will realize that part of the destiny of America lies in their daily perusal of this great Book [the Bible].”

St. Paul, regarding the Scriptures, writes that they are “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Untold numbers of people, from all walks of life and every level of education, have again and again found the Bible to be “useful.”

The most difficult field of study the psalmist mentions is human psychology or, to be more precise, one’s own psychology: “But who can detect their errors?” he asks. Discerning others’ errors is child’s play. Discerning one’s own exceeds the ability of both scholar and saint, which is why a person must go outside himself to friends and to God, to truly see himself.

If we refuse to see ourselves, we will find that we are gradually robbed, in a kind of reverse myopia, of the ability to clearly see other things. Acuity will deteriorate, beginning with what is nearest us and working outward, until all our vision is clouded. The skies and the Book will continue to declare God’s glory, but we will neither see it nor join in their praise.

But God, it is said, is able to restore sight to the blind and speech to the mute. Even, we may hope, those who have blinded themselves and exhausted their own voices.


First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/15/2015

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Be careful not to stare into the wrong eyes

I was in the Istanbul airport this summer, standing at Passport Control, while a uniformed officer went through my papers. He was scowling. He looked at my passport picture, then at me, then back at my papers. I couldn’t tell whether his facial expression was the result of long practice or present dissatisfaction. He eventually verified my identity, and I moved on.

If only it were that easy in real life. In a study published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Lawrence M. Berger and Sharon H. Bzostek suggest that the different forms of “biological, marital, and coresidential ties” now common in U.S. homes has made it difficult for children to achieve what has been termed “identity verification.”

In the new social landscape where families are composed “of married and unmarried, opposite-and same-sex partners, and biological and social (nonbiological) parents,” the complexity of relationships can lead to identity distortions and even a failure to establish a stable identity, which “is associated with ongoing (dis)stress, anxiety, and internal conflict.”

Like the friend I know who once described herself as a “garbage can, full of rotting trash.” She formed this identity through her relationships with a sexually abusive dad and a criminally negligent mom, with teachers who looked right past her, and classmates who either mercifully ignored or maliciously teased her.

Then one day a school employee saw her – her pain and fear and sadness. She listened to her and, when she learned of the abuse she suffered, took action. Eventually the girl came to live in her home, where she was loved and cared for.

My friend slowly came to see herself differently. She stopped identifying herself as a garbage can and began to see herself through the eyes of others as a person of value and ability; a person capable of loving and being loved.

Personal identity is formed and then verified within a social matrix. No one establishes an identity on his or her own. It evolves in the context of relationships. People discover and then affirm their identities in the mirrors of the eyes of family, friends, acquaintances and even enemies. And sometimes the image those mirrors project is grossly distorted.

The process of “identity verification” doesn’t just happens with people like my friend, who in the funhouse mirror of her broken family saw herself as a dented and dirty trashcan. It happens with everyone. We discover ourselves in the eyes of others and—this is the scary part—we believe what we see there. So we’d better be careful not to stare into the wrong eyes.

Everyone we meet hands us, in effect, a mirror and says, “This is how I see you” or even, “I don’t see you at all; you’re not worth looking at.” This is expressed largely through non-verbal cues, which even infants take in. Within the frame of others’ responses to us, we see ourselves as loved, hated or ignored; valued, devalued or worthless; loveable, despicable or inconsequential.

Whether we accept or resist the image of ourselves we see in others’ eyes, it becomes a kind of baseline identity for us. We may rebel against it, shout that this is not who we are, and reject those through whom the image is projected. Or we may accept it, either comfortably or sullenly but, either way, the image we see reflected in others can dominate and direct our lives.

If staring into the wrong eyes can leave us with a distorted self-image, are there right eyes into which we can look and find a truer image? There are. The place to begin with is the Church. In a community of welcoming love I can slowly come to see myself as I truly am.

Even more importantly, I can look into God’s eyes. He alone sees me as I am and as I can be. There is no distortion in what he sees. He neither flatters nor abuses. In his eyes I find my true identity. I am the deeply loved child of a deeply loving heavenly Father: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him” (1 John 3:1). Nor will we know ourselves until we see our image reflected in his eyes.


First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/8/2015

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It’s up to us to change the political climate

It feels like we’re standing on the shoreline, watching a storm building in the west. Another general election is on the horizon, the rhetoric is heating up, and accusations are beginning to fall like thunderbolts on the talk shows and faux news channels.

And this is just the beginning. It’s going to get worse. The candidates are trading barbs now, but they’ll be getting out their swords soon. Oh, for the days when the worst thing a candidate called his opponent was “egghead.” (Adlai Stevenson took it as a complement.)

The political culture is degraded. Politicians are degrading. Everyone deplores the hostility and contempt in Washington, but the situation doesn’t get any better. In fact, it has gotten much worse. Courtesy and the respectful exchange of ideas has all but disappeared.

Where is the eye of the storm? It’s no longer in the Capitol. It’s on social media, where a nightmarish dust storm of accusations, fabrications, and malicious slander is constantly swirling.

Last year Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford University, published a paper on the polarization of the American electorate. His findings suggest that there is more political animus in this country than there is racial animus, a conclusion drawn by other researchers as well. In the light of Ferguson and Baltimore, that’s saying a lot.

Can anyone change the climate of the political sphere? Politicians could, but they won’t. They talk about cooperation but rely on negative campaigning and partisan news media, and in so doing destroy the very possibility of cooperation. The negative campaign ad is a sharp and effective weapon, and no one wants to be the first to lay down his or her sword.

The partisan news shows, both on the left and on the right, could change the climate, but they won’t. Their ratings, not to mention their earnings, are directly linked to the practice of demonizing their political opponents. The louder they shout, the higher their ratings.

Well, if the politicians won’t change the political climate of hostility and partisanship, and neither will the pundits, who does that leave? It leaves you and me. It’s up to us. But we’re not doing a very good job.

According to Stanford News, in issues like race and gender, “attitudes and behavior are constrained by social norms of civility and tolerance,” but “there are no similar pressures to temper disapproval of political opponents. People feel free to say bad things about their political opponents.” And they say them from the relative safety of their computer and their smart phone.

Of course, the person who professes to follow Jesus will not feel free to say bad things about others. Or will he? Unfortunately, he seems all too free, in spite of Jesus’s strong warnings to do no such thing: “I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

Only the most willfully ignorant enthusiast dares to say there are no brothers on the other side of the political fence. And yes, it still counts if you say it online rather than face to face.

Someone may counter, “Yes, but issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, African-American relations with the police, and first amendment rights are too important for us to remain silent.” I agree completely. But those of us who speak as followers of Christ had better do so as he and his apostles instructed us: with gentleness and without malice. We need peacemakers who sow their ideas in peace and water them with rational arguments, not with insults and affronts.

Where are the peacemakers whom Jesus blessed? One thing is for sure: they’re are not on Facebook calling their opponent “Raca” (Aramaic for “Numbskull”) or their political rival “Fool.” Yes, it’s time for Jesus’s people to stand up and speak the truth, but they must do it in peace. If they can’t, then they should sit down and be quiet—and pray.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/1/2015

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We were made that way

Lady Gaga sings about Mary Magdalene, the friend and disciple of Jesus. Katy Perry refers to the biblical hero Esther and writes about being called and chosen. The Clash refers to the floods of God, the walls of Jericho and believing in Jesus. Coldplay sings about St. Peter at heaven’s gate (and uses many other biblical or religious allusions).

Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (which John Legend called “as near perfect as you can get”) is full of biblical allusions from start to finish. Amos Lee sings, “Oh Jesus, can you help me now, ’cause I’ve never felt so alone,” and elsewhere prays, “Oh please Lord, deliver me to love.” U2’s “40” quotes Psalm 40: “I waited patiently for the Lord / He inclined and heard my cry.”

Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” begins with a reference to Psalm 23. It is a reworking of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” which refers to “the day when the Savior of love will come to stay.” The fascination with all things spiritual has been around for a long time.

Bob Dylan’s lyrics are full of biblical allusions. “Highway 61 Revisted” references the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac. In “Pay in Blood” he repeats, again and again “I pay in blood, but not my own.” According to Dylan, even his famous line, “everybody must get stoned” was not a reference to drugs but to the biblical book of Acts and the stoning of St. Stephen.

Johnny Cash is another artist who often referenced biblical passages or doctrines. “Ain’t No Grave” is an allusion to 1 Corinthians 15:55. “The Man Comes Around” calls to mind the four horseman of the Apocalypse. On “Redemption” Cash sang, “The blood gave life to the branches of the tree / And the blood was the price that set the captives free.”

Tommy James and the Shondells had “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” The Byrds made a giant hit of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which comes directly from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. Jackson Browne, in “Song for Adam,” alludes to the story of the Fall from Genesis with this line: “Now the story’s told that Adam jumped, but I’m thinking that he fell.”

Some of these artists (Cash, James and Dylan) claimed faith in Jesus at some point. Most have not. So why this fascination with the Bible and with spiritual ideas and themes?

The cynic might answer that spiritual allusions are an easy way to add depth to an otherwise shallow song. And the cynic might be right. Songwriters desperately want to be thought deep. But that doesn’t explain some artists continuing fascination with, and inquiry into, biblical and spiritual themes.

A more comprehensive answer might be that humans are fascinated and frightened by the transcendent. As a race, we cannot help but search for our origins and our destiny, and we sense that both lie outside ourselves, that we are coming from and are going to God. In every age, the search for human purpose and dignity has led serious searchers back to God.

The question might (and should) be asked, “From where does this relentless longing for God come?” Numerous answers have been suggested, including the materialist’s: the idea of God was useful in the early evolutionary stages of humanity, and as a race we (with the exception of the materialist) have not yet grown up enough to dispense with it.

But there is another answer I think more credible. God created humanity with a “homing instinct.” That was St. Paul’s answer: “God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” Why do we seek God? Because we were made that way.

The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal described human emptiness as a hole, an “infinite abyss [that] can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” Songwriters, like all the rest of us, are just trying to fill that hole.


First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/25/2015

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