The First 10 Years: Part III

Tomorrow I am going to celebrate the tenth anniversary of this blog.  I’ve been working up to it by reflecting back over the last ten years.  This is the third and last of those essays. It doesn’t seem all that likely that I will have another chance to look back over the last ten years of blogging—that would be 2020 to 2030—so I really should give this decade a thorough look. [1] Apart from politics, (the subject of Part II)I wrote most of the posts about religion in some sense and that is what this reflection is about.

The posts I tagged as “religion” posts were about three kinds of things. Most were about biblical exegesis. I am involved in several Bible studies and in preparing for them, I run into new and interesting ideas and I like to write about them. Some are theological. I am not entirely settled in my theology and every now and then, discrepancies show up and I fuss with them in print. I got to wondering in February 2017 what the re- in the word “resurrection” refers to, for instance. The third category involved some public issue. Lots of other people write about religion in the public sense of the term and I sometimes reply. Nicholas Kristof, one of my favorite New York Times columnists, interviews prominent Christian leaders from time to time and winds up the interviews asking whether they think he is Christian. Most of the answers to that question have been really bad, but I am still sympathetic. What would a good answer be based on?

There is a regular cycle to the religion posts that is entirely absent from the political posts. I caught that right away in January 2011 when I began “a new blogging year” just as Advent was wrapping up. The church calendar can be plausibly said to begin at Advent, so I thought it might be convenienCana 4t for me to do the same. To help in that, I invented my “Blogging Year (BY)” which runs from December 1 to November 30, taking the date of the ending year. So I am currently in BY 2020 and in December, I will begin BY 2021.

The regular cycle is caused by the regular recurrence of Advent and Lent. I hear a lot about those during those seasons so I think about them and read about them and write about them. Raymond E. Brown’s work has been very helpful in keeping that recurring emphasis. I read some part of his The Birth of the Messiah and The Death of the Messiah (2 volumes) each year. Always I find new and interesting things.

One of my favorite Advent posts was called “He Said/She Said.” in December 2013, so it was the first month of BY 2014. It had just occurred to me that the birth narrative Matthew tells is all about Joseph and that the story Luke tells is all about Mary. Mary doesn’t speak a single line in Matthew’s account and Joseph does not in Luke’s. I picked a title that I thought made it sound like a dispute between them, just for fun.

Every now and then, I hit some realization that is so clear and so persuasive that I am embarrassed I never saw it before.  I tend to write about those. One had to do with the first of the cycle of miracles recorded in John’s gospel. It is ordinarily referred to as “turning water into wine” and that is the spectacular part of the story, certainly, But I came to the conviction, eventually, that is what the availability of all that water that was the real significance. It is true that Jesus changed it into really good wine, but it was there for the ritual cleansings that were necessary and the point of the miracles was not the wine but why those cleansings were no longer needed. I had a lot of fun with that.

I can illustrate the theological emphasis with a post on a Christmas season campaign by the local atheists. They took out some billboard space in Portland to claim “you can be good without God.” I appreciated their bringing the question forward. It isn’t the kind of thing you can answer, of course, because of the terms to be clarified. I expressed my appreciation and raised some definitional questions that I thought would help.

Truman 2Wheaton College, one of my several alma maters fired Larycia Hawkins (left), a political science professor, for a very public, but ill-defined offense. (December 2015) The theological faculty voted unanimously that she had not violated her obligations to the college in anything she had said or had done. The crux of the issue was really, what do we mean when we say “God?” The face of the issue was this professor’s wearing a hijab in solidarity with her “sisters.” One of the things she did was, apparently, conduct unbecoming an evangelical.

I was surprised, in looking back over the ten years, how many movies pushed me in the direction of theological or biblical reflection. An example that has continued to affect me is The Truman Show (October 2010). The Truman Show is, actually, a TV show and Truman is, unwittingly, the star. When he catches on to the whole charade and decides to leave the set (the world in which he has lived his whole life) Christof, the director,truman 1 addresses him directly from “heaven” and urges him to stay. He makes every appeal he can, but every appeal shows that he has no idea what living Truman’s kind of life is like. He has never been there. And that brought the power of the Incarnation to mind. “He pitched his tent among us” is a claim that is central to Christianity and it is utterly unavailable to Christof.  Here Truman (Jim Carrey) makes one of the best exits ever.

I have no idea what the next ten years of blogging on religious themes is going to offer. I’m just going to let it surprise me. lL

[1] On the other hand, I don’t want to give it up entirely. There are quite a number of people at the Senior Center where I live who are the age I would be in 2030 and who are perfectly capable of writing such a retrospective.

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The First Ten Years, Part II

The first pass I made over my first ten years of blogging considered the foundational questions. Why blogging? Why the “dilettante” theme? Today I want to review what the political arc of the first decade has been. You wouldn’t think I would be surprised by it; I did write all of them, after all. And they all seemed appropriate to what was going on at the time.

Still, different things were going on at the time and there is an arc that has, as I look back along its shape, a predictability to it. Almost, but not quite, an inevitability. Looking back, I think, “Well of course I wrote about that; and then that; and now this.”

Part II, 1When I started in 2010, we were half way through Obama’s first term and I assumed, as most people did, that I was only one quarter of the way through his whole presidency. The first political blogs took the Obama presidency and the kind of politics in which it was set, for granted.

At the end of June 2010, for instance, I wrote a piece called “Obama’s Waterloo,” in which I took him to task for not making better use of the Gulf Oil Crisis and thereby violating Thomas Friedman’s maxim, “Never let a crisis go to waste.”

In August, I wrote “Good News for President Obama.” The good news was that the Republicans were looking like they were going to control everything for awhile, so it was time for the President to stop hiding out in the Congress—trying to get Obamacare passed—and come out in public again.

In November, right after a very discouraging election, I wrote “November 3, 2010: Day 1 of the 2012 Campaign” about how things were setting up nicely for Obama’s 2012 bid for re-election.

But then, the Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives didn’t go away as I Part II--2thought it would and it stymied the Speaker of the House, John Boehner and that was when I discovered Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book about the Tea Party. Strangers in Their Own Land helped me understand why “the Tea Party”—which was about to become the Donald Trump gang—wasn’t going to go away. [1]

At that point, I began to get seriously interested in how broad the support was for Donald Trump. Trump himself is just a flamboyant narcissist and for all his outrages, he never really interested me. It was the culture that produced and supported such a leader that interested me more. And that brought me to March 2016’s post, “The Donald is Just a Weed.”

The major metaphor there was that your lawn will produce what thrives best in that particular soil. You can treat what the soil produces, killing the weeds, but it will continue to produce what thrives best in that particular soil. It wasn’t a particularly subtle point. American society is constructed in such a way that candidates like Donald Trump are successful. To change that, you need to change the makeup of the polity itself. You simply cannot have high rates of poverty and high rates of immigration without producing populist resentment and Donald Trump is the expression of that resentment. That’s what the “soil” of the U. S. is like now.

Since that time, there has been a recovery of some of the institutions that will be necessary to oppose Trump himself and the political expressions of Trumpism. I am all for that democratic recovery, but nothing I have seen looks like an amendment of the soil that produced the Trump weed. It takes a great deal more than being anti-Trump to be anti-Trump-producing soil.

Since I realized that, I have become more interested in, and have written more about the soil. The soil has mendae (flaws) [2] in it and taking them out ex- mendae is “amendment.” We are more likely to think of “amending” as adding something to the soil than as taking something out, but you could argue that adding something is taking out the imbalance.

On February 6, 2019, I finally got around to proposing some amendments.

The first is the large value discrepancies in our society. The second is the completely inadequate system of economic distribution. The third is the “warring tribes” model by which the previous two inadequacies are translated into the governmental impasse I referred to above.

The value discrepancies were dealt with, briefly, in a post in May of 2019, which reflected on the work of Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, especially their Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism. They were willing to be specific about what kinds of attacks have been made on the values of white working class Americans. I had read a fair amount about the “backlash” without wondering just what “back-“ referred to. Backlash is a “hitting back” but there is almost nothing in the press I read that talks about what has been taken away from anyone, so the “back” of hitting back is mysterious.

That moved me to the question of social media, a way for angry people to pass around anonymously the most scandalous charges against their enemies. I get an article on my Facebook page and it alleges some awful thing that has the effect of justifying my anger, so I send it out to all my friends. I “share it” as we say. I don’t ask whether it is correct; it just stokes my anger so it must be right. In January 2019, I wrote a post called “Thou shalt not share false witness,” to protest against this practice. [3]

In the summer of 2019, Bette and I visited Scotland and I learned a lot about clan politicsdecade 3 that was new to me. There was nothing democratic about how clans worked. The clan chief was the principal legislative, executive, and judicial force. That is why clans worked, internally, and why there was always warfare between the clans. I learned while I was there that Clan Donald was one of the major clans of the period and it made me feel right at home. President Trump’s inclinations are all clan leader. He wants, in what is supposed to be divided government—that’s what Madison thought is was— to have in his government only “people he trusts fully.” What he trusts these people to do is not always clear, but it appears to have very little to do with the impartial administration of the law. That is why he has turned to firing inspectors.  Here, Dr. Amy Acton of Ohio makes a contribution to democratic politics.

But most of my thinking and writing have not been about the administration. They have been about the value discrepancies that are afflicting us and about the decline in the value of “truth.” Once, a hypothesis could be supported or not by examining the facts carefully and impartially. Global warming, for instance. Now that there are only “your facts” and “my facts” there is no way to resolve disputes. The old dispute resolvers—scientists—have been declared to be “really on the other team.”

This great flaw—summarized this week in the aphorism “truth is tribal”—is hard to deal with. Science is supposed to be the law and order of dispute resolution. Without law and order, it comes down just to firepower. But nobody wins a “just firepower” war. The armies just retreat to some safe place from which the battle can be continued by guerrilla means

The last decade seems to me to have been as long slow slide from government into social institutions and on into the free sharing of false information.

[1] I was enthusiastic about Hochschild’s book. The post in which I described it was called “Read this book!”
[2] The “amendment” series was built around the realization that the Latin menda means “flaw, blemish’ and and to amend ex + menda means to take out the flaws. I forgot about all that until this review essay.
[3] I liked the title because it identified “sharing lies” as lying, which I think it is. It also suggests the phrase “bear false witness” which is the way the King James Bible translates that particular prohibition.

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Strong women

Where I live, people want women to be “strong.”  That is the official sentiment, at any rate.  That seems to me to be asking for too little.  Maybe I can introduce my concern by coming at it from the other side.

For years now, I have misremembered a line from a poem by Charles Kingsley.  I am not embarrassed that I misremembered it; I am embarrassed by the fact that I like the wrong version—mine—better than the right version.  Here’s the way I have always thought it went:  “Only be thou good, sweet maid/and let who can be clever.” [1]

So…what are we talking about here?  We are talking about gender norms.  What kind of “behavior” [2] should we prize in women? [3]  It would be nice, one might think, to say that it depends entirely on the woman.  A woman “ought to be” what she wants to be and we should all root for her success.

That never works.  I have never heard of a society without gender norms.  It makes a contribution to the society, somehow.  Usually, what is meant, when someone says that a woman should be free to be whoever she wants to be, is that she should be free to be whatever kind of woman she chooses to be.  There is still, in this model, an “OK for women” space and this argument holds that a woman should be able to choose anything she likes from within that space.

strong 2So now that we have corralled the question to a certain extent, we can ask it more meaningfully.  What kind of traits—among the traits that are virtues in women [4]—should we emphasize?  The current choice, made by the staff of the Senior Center where Bette and I live, is that woman should be strong.  The Mother’s Day [5] featured a little card, along with a beautiful flower, that said this: “Here’s to Strong Women.  May we know them.  May we be them.  May we raise them.”

This emphasis, bracing as it is, violates most of the criteria set out above.  It presupposes, for one thing, that the women in question want to be strong women.  So it is a challenge to the individuality norm.  It presupposed that among the various traits women might have, strength is the most important one. [6]  It is more important than gentleness, for instance, or good humor, or good manners, or wit, of adept communication.

It will be protested against this indictment, that there is nothing about being “strong” that prevents it from being joined to any number of those other virtues.  That is true, in principle, but we are talking here about salience.  Some are more important than others.  We are not talking here about the best combinations.  We are talking about what is to be prized at the expense of what.  It’s a salience war.

Strong 3Let’s pause for an example.  In my political science classes at Portland State, I used to try to teach the importance of salience.  We can treat that, for today’s purposes, as “What is the question we are addressing.”  I began by noting that in what are now called “the abortion wars,” no one takes a position called Anti-Choice.  Similarly, no one chooses Anti-Life.  Why?  Because you will lose if you do that.

The argument proceeds, instead, as a conflict over which question is salient.  Is it “Should the life of the fetus be preserved?”  Is it “Should a woman be free to choose what happens to her own body?”  You tell me what the question is and I will tell you who is going to win.  Why?  Because salience is everything.

And that brings us back to strong women.  Strong rather than what?  If you establish “Should women be strong?” as the question, then I think “rather than weak” is the proper way to complete the question.  That makes it a pretty aggressive question:  “Do you want women to be strong or weak?”  Hint: there is a right answer.

In Julia Ward Howe’s original Mothers’ Day Proclamation, women were thought of as the sources of caresses and affirmation, something nearly any man would desire.  Here’s what she said:

Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage/for caresses and applause. 

The point there is that men should not be free to wage war, as they often want to, and then return to their wives for the hero’s welcome.  Absolutely not.  We mothers will save the caresses and applause for the times when the men do what we want them to do.  In this case, that is to forego war and pursue peace.

If you want to say something other than “strong and not weak” or “weak rather than strong 4strong,” you are going to have to change the question that is being asked.  Should women be praised for other traits as well?  Or is it just being strong?  Could we say, for instance: “Here’s to Smart Women.  May we know them.  May we be them.  May we raise them.”  As an exercise, I tried googling “nice women” and I got pictures like this.

Or could we say: “Here’s to Nurturing Women.  May we know them.  May we be them.  May we raise them.”

Or could we say: “Here’s to Resilient Women.  May we know them.  May we be them.  May we raise them.”

Or even: “Here’s to Beautiful Women.  May we know them.  May we be them.  May we raise them.”

Some of those traits are currently fashionable for women; others not so much.  But the objection would be likely to be one of two kinds.  Either it will be that all those are good and one should be simply added to another as “appropriate for women.”  Or it will be that each woman should be able to choose for herself what traits to emphasize in her own life.

Those are both good answers, of course, but they do not serve the proponents of the “strong woman” campaign, because they undercut their goals as well as all the others.  It’s not a problem with a solution.

There is one thing, however.  I am nearly panting with my enthusiasm over the trait that will be chosen for Fathers’s Day.  What is the current “virtue” for men?  Watch this space.

[1]As I looked it up, I discovered that the actual line is: “Be good, sweet maid and let who will be clever “

[2]  Including all traits here, including styles of cognition, intention, and emotion, as well as actual actions.

[3]  I think you ought to start getting ready for another post on Father’s day.  Gender norming, in the view from the trenches, is not for the faint of heart.

[4]I always savor the pun that is buried there.The word “virtue,”—meaning any virtue at all—derives from the Latin, vir, = man.So, etymologically speaking, every virtue is a “manliness” of some kind. This is most ironically true of the classic virginal maiden who, in preserving her virtue, is preserving her manliness. Etymologically speaking.

[5]  The placement of that apostrophe is of climactic importance.  The original choice was “Mothers’ Day,” the day of the mothers.  It was a call for peace, rather than war; for femininity, rather than masculinity.  The current style, “Mother’s Day” is the day dedicated to good ol’ Mom and especially in light of all the ways she helped us along when we were children.  You choose your apostrophe placement, you choose your battlefield.

[6]  Or, if not the most important one, the one most in need of praise and support.

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Rhetorical mastery

We have gotten accustomed to the kind of rhetoric we hear from Henry V before the battle of Agincourt.  It is gorgeous!  It is so stimulating that it is hard to pay attention to just how it works, but I would like to call your attention to just one part of the appeal.  Then I would like to pivot to Ohio’s handling of the COVID 19 crisis.

Henry 1The king promises his soldiers, mostly ragtag peasants, that in the future, some wonderful thing will happen to them.  There are two elements of this I want to point out. The first is that the reference point is in the future.  This is very comforting to soldiers confronting a battle; it imagines that they will have a future.  It doesn’t say so.  That would be cheap.  It just takes it for granted, which is much more powerful.

The second element is that is promises something they really dare not hope for.  A manhood that their social betters can only envy.  The king wants to promise them something they want, but that they can’t say they want.  Here’s that part of the speech.

This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Here’s where the power is, I think.  “Gentlemen” and “any.”  It’s easy for us to miss that because “gentlemen” has come to mean virtually nothing.  At its farthest reach, “good manners.”  But for them, “gentlemen” was the name of a class they dared not aspire to; a class that looked on people like them with disdain.  And these gentlemen will think themselves accursed (no damage done there) and hold their manhood cheap in the presence of “any” who fought in this battle.

Any of you, says the king, will outrank those gentlemen.  When any of you speak, they, your social betters, will fall silent, recognizing just who is the true man.  Any of you.

That is a powerful promise because it promised something that dare not be aspired to openly and it is powerful because it asks these men to look back on this moment from a time certain in the future.  You ask these men to look back in pride at deeds THEY HAVE NOT YET ACCOMPLISHED!


Now let’s look at Ohio’s response to the onset of the COVID 19 crisis and particularly at the work of Dr. Amy Acton.  The New York Times for May 5 has the whole story.  I want to excerpt just one scene from it.

Screen Shot 2020-05-05 at 7.08.11 AM.png

Ignore the colors for just a moment.  Look at this line first: “I know someday we’ll be looking back and wondering how it was we did in this moment.”  It’a nor Shakespeare, but it plants the flag of the popular imagination in the future, just as King Henry did, and asks you to remember how you did. [1]  This is the power of the future.  Put yourself there are look back at this moment.  What will you be glad you had the strength to do?

The second element, remember, is that the king promised them something they wanted.  It was comparative social standing in his case.  “Hold their manhood cheap while any speaks who fought with us.”  Dr. Acton promises, instead leadership, engagement, and community.  Does that seem a lot?

OK, now look at the colors.  The light blue “I” is leadership.  I am calling on you to do something.  Five “I’s” in quick succession and one more later.  Here’s what I want from you.  The browny-orange is “you.”  I want you, I need you, I want you.  In another context it could be a love song.  It’s personal and it’s powerful.  The rose color represents community; it represents all of us together.  Note the “our,” and the “all of us” and the “we’ll” and the “we.”

The commentator saw a strategy to the sequence.  Lead with I, follow with you.  Then, with those established, follow with “us.”  I’m not so sure about the sequence, but I am completely sure about the three elements.  And this same pattern of elements shows up in briefing after briefing.  It wasn’t a happenstance; it was a strategy.

I love it.  I don’t know if I have ever seen it done better.

[1]  Henry’s strategy is better, I think, because he presumes success.  Dr. Acton reminds us that when we look back, we will have two confront just how we did–whether we did well or poorly.


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Below the surface of Genesis

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time recently reading scholarly analyses of the first three chapters of Genesis. I will leave until later the question of whether this is the best use of virus-generated free time. What I would like to explore today is the mechanism that has made all this so interesting to me.  Why should it be interesting at all?

First, I read the way you do. I scan through a text about something new to me. I mustgenesis 1 have had some interest in it, but more likely, I found it in the places I ordinarily go for reading material and started into it by habit. If I don’t find anything that is of immediate interest, I move on. This is especially true of technical writing.  It seems, sometimes, that there is more below the surface of a text than there is right at the surface.

There seems, at the outset, no real reason to spend a lot of time on the methodology adopted in a public opinion survey. Or how to account for characteristically Greek forms of thought found in ancient Hebrew texts. Or whether the cited authors in an article, who are apparently “diverse” because they come from different universities, are, in fact, all part of the same school of thought—so…not diverse at all.

Who cares? Why? I don’t.  Normally.  That brings us to the mechanism question.

If you read books more than once or see movies more than once, you have observed, no doubt, that you notice different things the second time. Also the third time, etc. Why is that? For me, at least part of the answer is that the plot moves along and the dialogue drives it, and I put all my effort into learning what I need to know to follow the story. The next time through, I know much more about the story and I am free—I have disposable time—to notice other things. [1]

genesis 6For a story as fraught as the Genesis account of creation, there are other reasons. All my early exposure to the Genesis accounts—I am trying to remember to use a plural there—was in church. The preacher or teacher had lessons to impart and the lessons were much more important than the text. When you come to consider the text as a matter of interest in itself, you begin to stumble across things; really “obvious” things. And you wonder how you could possibly not have noticed that the first time through. Answer: you were busy with other things.  Of the many pictures of Adam and Eve, I chose this one because I thought she was kind of cute and it looks like she is in a sharing mood.

You don’t study the scholarly writings on Genesis without coming across the idea that different parts of the story were written (edited) by different writers. So you practice reading the first story—1:1 to 2:4a—as if it had a different author than the second story, which extends from 2:4b to the end of chapter 2. With that hypothesis in mind, you are inclined to notice differences in the two accounts and to attribute those differences to different authors.

When I began to presuppose those differences, rather than to stumble over them, I began to feel a little tickle over in some other part of my memory. Don’t I remember a justification used by the author of 1 Timothy that cites one of these two accounts as authoritative, while ignoring the other one? Nah..couldn’t be. Someone would have said something.

So here’s 1 Timothy 2: 12,13.

“I give no permission for a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. A woman ought to be quiet, because Adam was formed first and Eve afterwards…”

If you read that with the author’s question in mind—how can I justify controlling the behavior of unruly women in my congregation?—your mind is naturally drawn to the First Century, to early church organization, to the roles of men and women, and so on. But if you read it with the nature of the argument in mind, you find that different things are on the surface.  That is a “second time through” or “twenty-fifth time through” sort of thing to ask.

Here’s the young pastor with a problem. The women. He wants to deal with the problemGenesis 4 by citing scripture. So he turns to Genesis and he is undeterred by the 1st story/2nd story differences that have so captivated me. Presumably the two stories he is looking at say the same thing they do now. Chapter one has Adam and Eve created simultaneously by the spoken word of God. Chapter two has Adam created first, then Eve; and Adam was not created by a word of command, but physically, out of dirt. [2]

There is no reason at all why your attention should have been drawn, in your first dozen or so readings of Genesis, to the question of whether Adam and Eve were created simultaneously or sequentially or whether they were created by the same means. But now that we are looking at the question from the standpoint of an argument that uses one, but not the other, text and cites the chosen text as authoritative, it is hard to keep on not noticing. There stands the pastor of the church holding the Torah in his hands. He looks at Account 1 (simultaneous creation) and at Account 2 (sequential creation) and says that the one is authoritative, while ignoring the other.

Why is the convenient one “authoritative” and the inconvenient one just ignored? This is actually not a new question to me, since I have spent nearly all my life trying not to do that—mostly failing, I have to say—but it is not a question I have routinely asked of scriptural authors.

Why did I ask it this time? When I had read the Genesis accounts often enough under the presumption that the first story was edited by one school and the second by another, I learned to look through that hypothesis in the way you look through a lens. Not to look at it, wondering whether it is a plausible hypothesis, but through it at the data you can see with a new lens. Looking at it through the new lens, you see different things. And then you try to square these different things with the other areas of knowledge they affect. And when you come up with a real stunner, like the author of 1 Timothy choosing one account and ignoring the other, you think, “How in the world did I never notice that before?”

It seems obvious when you are there. But if you look back along the line of the changes I have just described, it is anything but obvious. You have to do a lot of work and refuse a lot of attractive detours to get to the place where it is obvious. And if for some reason—cultural or exegetical or theological—you dare not look through this lens, then it is more than “a lot of work;” it is wrong.

Let me conclude quickly by just touching on another reason. I imagined that it would be the other half of this essay, but the first “half” took longer than I thought it would, so I will just touch on this second reason. This is the second reason. If you are working on these texts with the same people week after week [3] you are the beneficiary of their questions. And very often, they are questions that you realize really should have come out of your own work with the text. And then you wonder why they didn’t.

And then you realize you really don’t are why they didn’t and you go back to looking for the answer.

[1] I have often suspected that I am particularly bad at seeing all the things talented authors or directors have put there for me to see. I don’t really care anymore. I get such pleasure out of finally seeing it—finally!—that I relish the feeling whether it comes at the sixth reading/viewing or the first. I know there are people who are more talented than I am, but I suspect I am in the top 10% of enjoyers.
[2] Ephaim. Avigdor. Speiser, who wrote the Genesis commentary for the Yale Anchor Bible Commentary series, points out that although the Hebrew word is sometimes translated “dust,” a more common usage is “clods of earth.” He offers examples. So…I note with amusement and pleasure, Adam was a clod. Even before the Fall, he was a clod.
[3] I am. It is a rare pleasure to meet week after week with people whose habits of mind you come to know. Thanks, friends in Bible 203-Z. (We had to add the Z when we began meeting via Zoom because of COVID-19).

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The First Ten Years, Part I

I posted my first blog on May 30, 2010. It would be fair to say, in some ways, that I have been just sitting here [1] writing essays ever since. Over the ten years, I have averaged about 180,000 words a year. That’s a lot of words.

My first blogging platform was Blogspot. I shifted over to WordPress, where I am still, on July 6, 2011. My first blog on Blogspot was called Blog 1. It was a little etymological rooting around in the word “blog.”  That was occasioned by the fact that I had no idea where the word came from and wanted to get a little more comfortable with it.  [2] That post was 263 words long, including the title and the date.

My first blog on WordPress was “We can make him better than he was.” It was a response to a New York Times article about how many “conditions” are being redefined so as to make them “treatable” by new pharmaceutical products. It was only 458 words long, but it did contain a hyperlink to the Times article.  As I look back, that seems pretty advanced for me.

Although I had no idea what kind of thing a blog would be for me. Bette proposed it asblog 2 the solution to a problem I was already acutely aware of. It was that I wrote essays from time to time and was curious about how this friend or that one might respond. I was reluctant to send these essays to people who might turn out not be interested and who might feel obligated to read them. So Bette said, “Why don’t you just start a blog? That way they can read it if they want and won’t feel obligated.”

So I did.

I had an early premonition of the weight a blog might become: the sense that there were things I “really ought to write about.” I chose the name—the dilettante’s dilemma—as a way of reminding me that I didn’t want to do it that way. I wanted to write about the things that caught my eye, the things that intrigued me for one reason or another. Odd posters, or obscure jokes, or wonderful new ideas [3] or quips or even grievances.

I chose “dilettante” partly because it is nearly always used pejoratively. “Only a dilettante; not really serious.” My idea was that if I claimed it as an aspiration, it would be hard for anyone to accuse me of it. But I also chose it partly because I learned that it derives from the Latin verb delectare, “to take delight” in something. I had in mind writing about the things that delighted me and I have done that. I have also expanded that “delight” to topics I am driven to write about and also to topics that are not clear to me. About this latter category, it would be fair to say that I write about them to see what I think.

dilettante 1.jpgAfter a few years, I changed my calendar. I invented “the blogging year” for myself. Because I spent some time around the legislature in Oregon, I got accustomed to different calendars for different purposes. So the January to December calendar was just a default setting. I started my blogging calendar (BY 2020 began in December 2019) so that I could more or less start fresh with the church calendar. So every year, I get to “turn the page,” in a sense, and start with Advent. I write a fair amount about Advent, so it was a natural place to start a new “year” of blogging.

Since then I have responded to a lot of momentary stimuli. I saw the names of the major virtues (framed and hung on the wall) held by the Providence Healthcare System. That tickled me so I wrote about it. I saw a picture of Liv Tyler, who played Arwen in the Middle Earth movies. She looked absolutely stunning in a modern—a non-Tolkien, non-Peter Jackson—outfit and hairstyle, so I wrote a post called “Man looketh on the outward appearance.” It was a reference to 1 Samuel 16:7a, but clipped out so as to mean something entirely different.

I have written a good deal about biblical interpretation because I have done a lot of it since 2010 and I have written a good deal about politics for the same reason. I have done a lot of it. And even a fair amount of political psychology, which is the field I claim for my own.

There are a few other topics, like “Movies,” , like “Love and Marriage” and like “Getting Old.” Really, whatever is going on in my life. In Part II, I’ll talk a little bit about some of those essays.

[1] Of course, “here” now means east of the Willamette River, a fraught designation in Portland, Oregon. I didn’t move across the river until 2016, but way back in 2010, I learned that you can’t put ordinary footnotes into a blog text. That is when I adopted this bracketed number style for footnotes.
[2] I discovered that it was a contraction of “log” in the nautical sense along with the b- from “web.” So…really…weblog.
[3] I learned two important things from writing about my new wonderful ideas. The first is that most often, they weren’t new at all. The second was that I got to keep all the elation that comes from discovering them myself because I did discover them. It was wonderful. I just didn’t discover them first.

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“Spiritual therapy”

I have no idea what spiritual therapy is.  I haven’t even consulted Wikipedia.  I do have some idea about physical therapy, however, and I want to approach “spiritual therapy” using that analogy.[1]

Physical Therapy

Here’s what my experience with physical therapy has been like. Some knowledgeable person—I am going to call her a physical advisor, just to prepare the way for the use of a “spiritual advisor”—diagnoses my condition and helps me learn some exercises.  The idea is that some muscle or some connection is too loose or too tight and the exercise will move it back to where it ought to be.

Some of these exercises come to make sense to me.  Those are the ones I want to spend most of our time on.  But there are some that do not.  The exercises they  gave me to deal with my vertigo did not.  I did them as instructed.  They may have helped.  It is hard to say.  One thing for sure is this: I never developed an experience of the therapy that gave me any independent control over it.  It never became something I could “do” when I needed to.

I don’t want to mean too much by “experience.”  If, when the fuzzy vision and the spatialtherapy 5 disorientation occurred, [1]  I had been instructed to look at a large letter A on the wall and to move the focus of my vision back and forth along the crossbar and if the symptoms receded as I did that—then I would be doing it still. That would be an “experience” as I am using the word.   I never quite concluded that the exercises didn’t help me at all.  I was never sure they did.  But most of all, I never had an internal referent for the value of the “therapy” to me so I didn’t continue doing the exercises.

On the other hand, my experience with the treatment of  Greater Trochanteric Bursitis Syndrome (just GTBS among us friends) was different in two important ways and it is those that I would like to use as I move to psychological/spiritual analogies.  The first was that the exercises helped lessen the discomfort.  Not always right away, but distinctly and relatively soon.  The second is that I learned to feel just what muscle the exercise was intended to affect.

I think I see what you mean

That makes a difference that is a little hard to describe, but since it is the central point of the analogy, I’m going to tell you a story that I think clearly illustrates it.  This is my wife, Bette, on our second date.  We were at the mall where the theater was and I had asked if she minded if I took some pictures.  She was fine with that. [2]

On this particuBette Pensive.jpeglar one, I tried to describe how I wanted her to be.  Hands like so, elbows like so.  It was hard to do and I wasn’t doing it very well.  Then she said, “I think I see what you have in mind” and did this.  It was exactly what I had in mind.  That was a very potent experience for me for several reasons, one of which has to do with physical therapy.

Phase I:  The GTBS therapy was a whole different thing, I found.  I am going to break it into four phases so I can keep track of how the analogy would work.  The first phase was the same.  She, my “physical advisor,”  says “Lie like this. [3]  Now keep your leg straight and raise it up to here 20 times.  Now bend your knee.  No, no; don’t roll over backwards on your hip like that.  You need to be angled forward.”

Phase II:  That brings me to the second phase.  When I am careful to roll forward on the hip, I can feel that it affects different muscles.  At this stage, I don’t know which particular muscles, nor do I know whether doing it one way or the other will help.  I can feel the difference, though.

Phase III:  Then, in the third phase, I can identify which muscle exactly that exercise affects.  And that means I can tell whether I have rolled forward “not enough” or “too much” or “just right.”  I can tell that myself.  At the clinic, she was eyeballing my posture and judging that I might not be far enough.  But if I know what it is supposed to feel like when I am doing it right, I can make that judgment myself and make it much more accurately (I have better data) than she can.  This is the crucial phase.  It is the one I know I am going to stumble over as I try to apply it to “spiritual things.”

Phase IV:  Finally, in the fourth phase, I do the exercises; I feel the stress on those muscles in particular; the bursitis (GTBS) recedes and then disappears.  I am now well.

The bursitis therapy is now a skill I “have.”  And I know what I am doing and why it works and what “too much” feels like.  The therapist said, “Be sure not to overstretch it,” but I didn’t know at the beginning what that meant.  I didn’t know what it felt like.  Now that I know, I am in charge of it.

Spiritual Therapy

If there were a “spiritual therapy” that worked in the same ways, by analogy, as physical therapy, what would it be like?  Let me point out that that long and seemingly pointless description of my physical therapy will now help us.  

Here is how it will do that.  First, I do not have to identify anything as “spiritual pain.” I can presume it as the basis for the analogy  And that is good, because the notion of “spiritual pain,” is not really a clear concept to me.

Second, I do not have to choose among “kinds” of spiritual advisers.  As a practical matter the array of therapy I would be directed toward is very broad if I call the problem I am experiencing “psychological” and even broader if I call it “spiritual.” [4]  By means of this analogy, I am presuming that both of those issues have been dealt with and I am working on the next step.

So I get to start the analogy with “doing the things my spiritual adviser tells me to do.”  This is naive obedience.  It is like Phase I of the physical therapy.  I have nothing to go on but my confidence in her abilities, or maybe only her reputation.  I have no experience of my own and no way to assess and evaluate the experience I will have.  So I do what I am told.

Therapy 1What might I be told to do?  I might be told to meditate.  I might be told to pray in a particular way.  I might be told that there is really no difference between prayer and meditation.  I might be told to take certain actions and not others because “spiritual therapy” is really “reflection on action.”  It is a reflection on practices.  I might be told that how I am feeling—exalted, depressed, fearful, gregarious—is the crucial thing to know and that each feeling is a clue to my “spiritual state” and I should pursue each feeling; I should lean into each one because that is how it will become clarified for me.  The array of things my spiritual advisor might tell me by contrast to what a physical advisor might tell me is strikingly large and I have no way, other than personal preferences, of choosing among them.  That is why it is confusing and why I am trying to follow the analogy.

Even worse, I might be told that it is the exercise of my personal preferences that is causing the pain in the first place.

Nevertheless, there has to be, in this way of making the analogy, a time when either: a) I experience some relief  (Phase IV) or b) I experience directly the effect of the prescribed therapy (Phase III).  Each of those leads to a kind of reflection.

If I experience the relief (Phase IV), my immediate concern is to figure out what caused it.  The relief is not the end of the story for me.  I need to know what I did that caused that relief.  I am presuming here that the relief is part of the spiritual therapy and that what I am doing naively at my advisor’s direction, is “the right thing.”

If I experience only the immediate effect of the therapy, (Phase III) my interest will be in whether that feeling is going to make my problem go away.  I now know how to do it correctly.  But will it solve the problem?  It’s an issue either way.  It’s a coin with two sides.

I am going to introduce “prayer therapy” in a little while.  I’m not proposing it or denigrating it.  I just want something as much like physical therapy as I can manage.

But before we get to this hypothetical “prayer therapy,” let’s look at what happens intherapy 3 Phase III of the spiritual therapy.  The spiritual advisor says what I should be doing (or thinking or feeling) and I try it and “feel” something distinctive that I can associate with the therapy.  At this point, I am in the position Bette was in when she said, “I think I see what you are getting at.”  Some part of my self is affected directly when I do what the therapist says to do.  I have not yet determined that it is going to be helpful.  I’ll have to do it a while before I find that out, but I do now have “control” over the nexus between the therapeutic intervention and the feeling I have.  If the spiritual advisor said, “Practice doing that this week,” I would know what she meant.

Or, in Phase IV, I can feel a very good effect from something.  I presume it is an effect of the spiritual exercises I have been doing.  But I need to know what it was.  If I don’t know that, I can’t do it again when the pain returns.  And continuing to do it without that understanding is just superstition.  So I am grateful for the relief, but I need to understand the mechanism.

The back door

Now, if you have any hesitation at all about this analogy, you are probably inching away from the whole project.  There is, indeed, a great deal that raises concerns and that includes me.  Physical pain is what it feels like, even if the source of it might not be obvious.  “Spiritual pain” is another kind of thing entirely. 

  • Is it the pain you get as a side effect of training? 
  • Is it the kind that “refines you” and “burns out the impurities.” 
  • Is pain, as C. S. Lewis said, “God’s megaphone” making clear a message that pleasure only obscured? “Spiritual pain” is just not clear to me as a notion.

And not only that, but I am an entirely satisfactory judge of whether the trochanteric bursa is hurting me.  I am not at all reliable in determining whether the values I hold  are the source of the problem or my hope for solution.  I don’t know and can’t know those things, yet who else will decide if the spiritual therapy is “working” or even what “working” means?

So let’s imagine that I have concluded that I am experiencing the psychological/spiritual analog of “pain” and that I have contacted a spiritual adviser, largely on the grounds that I had such good luck with my physical adviser.  The spiritual adviser gives me exercises to do and I do them in naive trust.  This very likely means that I am doing them poorly.  Since there is no beneficial effect at all, I am sustained entirely by my faith in the advisor.  

That isn’t going to last.  I will decide eventually that I am not good at this or that she is not good at it.  “It,” in any case, is not “working” and I will either try to adjust myself to a life with this level of spiritual pain or I keep on searching for another advisor.

The one thing that would save me from this round is the sense that I know what this exercise is supposed to do.  That is the point of the analogy with physical therapy.  When I directly experience the effect of the spiritual exercise, I can adjust it (more frequently, less frequently, more social contact, less social contact, etc.) so that I experience “the effect” more directly.  Then, when that happens,  I can take that part of the exercise—the part that I have determined to be associated with “success”—and focus on the effects it has.

Once I know what it is and why it works, I can recommend it to other people, telling them the first effects I experienced and then the first relief I got and encouraging them to adjust that account to their own lives.  “It” I will say, “works” but you have to learn to adapt it to yourself, just as I did.

So…a long trip.  Worth taking?  I think so.  I understand better now just what function is fulfilled by understanding “what worked.”  And I know I have come very near to claiming whatever gift God might grant [5] as the result of my own work.    That’s not really what I mean.  That’s an artifact of the analogy with physical therapy.  I do think that there is a time for naive obedience in my own spiritual life as well as a time for discernment and choice.  What this metaphor does for me, I think, is to pry those two moments a little further apart than they were and I like that.

[1]  That’s the way I experienced my vertigo; I understand it is different for other people.

[2]  This date with Bette was the end of my “dating experience” and I had had several times asked my date for the evening if she would mind if I took some pictures.  No one was happy about the prospect.  It made one in particular, angry.  Bette said, “Sure,” as if she could easily imagine why I would want to have a picture and/or to share it with friends.

[3]  Physical advisors as a rule, I have concluded, say “lay” when they mean “lie.”  It’s a really unfortunate verb to get wrong if you use it as much as physical advisors use it.

[4]  I am leaving resolutely alone the question, “What is it really?”

[5]  That would be the ultimate source of any relief I felt in my own picture of how the world works.

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