Archive for January 2011
Marshall McLuhan: “I read only the right-hand pages of serious books.”
It’s about redundancy, people.
In classes I teach we often puzzle through how to get and retain attention. As a nation our attention spans continue to shrink so that a block of copy seems too huge a commitment. Many readers move on. These old work-safety posters are a gory-wonder in gaining attention and remaining memorable.
On Tuesday the head of France’s national railroad apologized for trundling 20,000 Jews to Nazi camps in 1943-1944, as reported by the NYTimes and carried locally by the StarTribune. US Lawmakers, survivors and descendants had moved to block SNCF from winning US contracts had the company not acknowledge their role. The official word from the firm said the apology was part of “the company’s longtime effort to examine its past and denied that it was prompted by the company’s U.S. ambitions.”
There are at least three striking things about this story.
One: It defies logic to disconnect the company apology from looming loss of revenue from possible US contracts. To insist otherwise cheapens their communication. One clearly connects with the other.
Two: Applying economic pressure to force a company to tell the truth about their role in administering a great evil is a marvelous use of our capitalist instincts. There is a fair amount of both optimism and boldness in this move, especially since official spokespeople nearly always sidestep words that link their brand with anything other than blue sky, sunshine and happy smiling faces. Bravo, lawmakers, survivors and descendants!
Third: To think that a company has a “longtime effort to examine its past” strikes me as, also, beyond belief. Companies incorporate for economic muscle. They organize to move forward, they look for opportunity, hone in and exploit. Companies make money. Companies don’t sit at an outdoor café examining past failings. I’m hard-pressed to think of any introspective executive who would free a budget line item for “Company Introspection.” Please, please let there be such a leader in this world. But maybe French companies have a soul?
Hope on the Other Side of Doubt
If you’ve ever been made to feel like the alien, the other or the stranger, Anna Scott’s response in Patrol magazine (Life as a Leaver) will add fuel to your alienation/otherness/strangeness. Ms. Scott was responding in turn to an article in Christianity Today (The Leavers: Young Doubters Exit the Church). After dealing with the article’s pointing toward moral compromise, among other things, as the reason for leaving the church, the bulk of her argument is a cry to recognize difference. And not just recognize difference and set it aside, but to recognize and incorporate. To set a place at the table for those who would help re-imagine what it means to be a Christian and to be together—not just for the same old male faces that show up when the hierarchical-authority bell is rung. To set a place for women to lead, for instance. Or for divorced folks to be full-fledged participants rather than living with what many evangelical churches treats as an unforgivable sin. Or even just to cultivate listening to the folks in the pew.
She wrote from the perspective of a person immersed in faith—a “real” believer, as one might say. But the difficulties of life changed how she saw things. Ms. Scott’s article is worth reading, as is the original Drew Dyck article.
My point in highlighting this discussion is to say I resonate with her argument. The plight of young skeptics is more than skin deep. It is more than a matter of an easily dismissed people who are “morally compromised” and/or utterly self-focused. My point is that of agreement with Ms. Scott that the “world is complicated, unpredictable, volatile and tragic” and that the church needs to be immersed in many conversations that bring to light some of the mystery of this ancient faith, conversations that honor the shades of gray that disappeared during recent decades when we smugly thought we knew everything.
There is actually another entire category of “old skeptics.” Real believers who have been immersed in the system for decades and now sit idly by for many of the same reasons: the complicated, unpredictable, volatile and tragic world did a number on them, but the depths of their pain and experience have no place in the current sanitized conversations and full-throttle programs.
Conversations with skeptics could be very productive, because they could begin to unearth the concrete hope that can sustain real people living in a complicated world.
First: I wrote the words 40-some hours into a 51 hour project spread across a week and a half.
Second: I was desperate to capture the zeitgeist bouncing between client and agency principals.
As I wrote these two words I immediately moved to delete them. But something stopped me. Was it reckless whim? Had I given up? Why oh why did I pause over “Delete”? My self-editor should have been there, sitting beside me. He was still locked in the self-editor-dungeon where he has a cot and a Folgers can to pee in. He doesn’t get out much when I’m creating.
Oh, sure. They seem innocuous—even forgettable. But as a subhead for a component of this project, they were the stalled car on the track that derailed the train pulling boxcars of produce that needed to get through right now. Or: These words distracted the creative team and hurried them down a path and off a cliff.
So, my bad. Personal penalty: pulling my invoice and attacking it with scissors and fresh resolutions. It’s a matter of integrity. It’s also a matter of retaining relationships.
Floated or Finished?
It’s never just the words, of course. It’s the trust built between creatives as a project moves forward. With some team members you are free to say the really stupid stuff and let it sit for a moment between you, even as you all know some better idea is moving up an esophagus about to be uttered. But with other teams, and especially in hurry-up mode, words appearing on paper carry more weight: not of an idea floated but an idea finished. At this point in the project, my self-editor needed to be there with his “HIT DELETE” stamp poised. Because time was flying and next steps need to step up solidly.
My point? Conversations are never formulas that work in every case. And: while creating, the self-editor needs to dwell in the dungeon, but words making their way out in public need to meet his approval. Let him out sometimes.
My friend and I both worked for a long time at a very stable medical device company in Minneapolis. We both eventually left to form our own companies. About this up and down adventure of working on your own, she liked to say “the universe will provide” because her experience was exactly that: interesting clients sought her out with interesting work, she had opportunities for growth coupled with the opportunity to learn and earn for herself and her family. I had to agree that opportunities popped up all the time—especially with the eyes-open approach of a consultant.
My question has more to do with naming the source of these opportunities. Recognizing “the universe” sounds too happenstance. Don’t get me wrong: I am all for whimsy and also a great believer in serendipity. I just want to name the source. Why? Out of joy. Out of wonder. Also because naming the source honors the source. So I credit God as the originator of opportunity.
I’m a beginner at living in dependence on chesed (God’s lovingkindness).
Bodies are finite. Souls—not so much.
Our pastor is fond of saying “Death is not a natural part of living.” His statement is especially apropos when confronted with the death that seems so senseless and tragic: the death of a newborn child, or the death of some fresh young person moving through life powerfully with plans, ideas, momentum and devotion. Death seems so wrong. So unnatural.
I deeply lament with the parents of the child whose soul resides with God but whose body is has gone back to the earth. I pretend no knowledge of the knife blade of emotion behind such loss. I know God promises His presence—that He is as troubled and full of lament and weeping (remembering that Jesus wept at Lazarus’ death—John 11.35) as the parents. And that’s as far as I know.
My wife and I have a running controversy about whether sin brought physical death or some other kind of death. In other words, if Adam and Even didn’t disobey God in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), would they have continued living—perhaps forever? My position is that the human body has always been finite—even in that perfect place before sin entered the world. I maintain that the very limits introduced to us by our bodies speak incessantly to the deep dependence we have on God at every turn in life.
It’s not as easy a question as it at first seems. If you think back to the Genesis texts, there’s no question that sin introduced a world of pain: literal and figurative. Just read Genesis 3 for the list of pains to expect. But at the end of Genesis 3, it is clear that men and women could no longer live in the garden because they might eat of the tree of life and so live forever (Genesis 3.22). So, banishment.
Calvinists and other reformed folk tend to think of the pre-sin version of humanity as also immortal—at least that’s how Millard Erickson sums it up in his “Christian Theology.” And if you are a fan of the Apostle Paul’s writings (as many reformers were and are), you’ll likely agree. Paul seems to often equate sin and death, for instance, in his letter to the Romans: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned….” (Romans 5.12) Other verses share and expand that sentiment. But did Paul mean physical death? Did God mean physical death when we warned against the eating of the fruit of that particular tree (Genesis 3.3)? Because physical death—immediate physical death—was not the result. Yes, Adam and Eve did die physically eventually. But was there a kind of death that occurred at the moment of sin?
Why Does this Matter?
This matters because of the day-to-day conversations we were designed for. The human frame was, is and has always been a fragile and needy instrument. Powerful in many respects (as any history text will attest), but profoundly weak when it comes to aging and decay. Botox and plastic surgery are of limited use. Our very weakness, on display day by day, is the thing that reminds us of God’s awesome power and keeps us coming back to talk. Moment by moment.
So—to say that death is not a natural part of life takes something away from the power and grandeur of God. It takes something away from his glory and seems to prop up the notion that we could have been able to keep on without God.
The point is our limitations constantly call us back to the original and originating conversation with our Creator. Those limitations and finitudes are built into our fabric. Mostly we seek escape from our limitations: thus Powerball, casinos and our ongoing proneness to financial scams. But what if we focused more on the conversation with the limitless One and less on fixing our limits?
What do you think?
Ancient texts lead to surprising places. Jesus’ question to the rich young ruler in Mark 10.18 might have been rhetorical—not wanting to play into the man’s argument too quickly. Or it might have been a hint about the complexity of the character before the young man. It was certainly an invitation to think twice about the obvious stuff in plain view. Is cash a sign of blessing? Should I listen more closely to the important person or the stranger? Is death an end or a beginning?