Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Blue Collar Intellectuals by Daniel Flynn: A Book Review

Daniel Flynn’s “Blue Collar Intellectuals” tells the story of several prominent thinkers and writers of the mid-twentieth century who either came from working-class roots or who worked to make the life of the mind accessible to ordinary middle-class Americans.

He begins the book by offering a diagnosis of our current intellectual and cultural malaise, pointing out the prevalence of a vapid and vulgar pop-culture, a decreasing attention to reading and reflection among the general populace, an intellectual class that is more concerned with distinguishing itself from the world of ordinary people than speaking to them, and a shallow fascination with technological gimmickry even at erstwhile educational institutions. In short, the general populace is becoming dumber while the intellectual class is becoming more irrelevant to the life ordinary people live, and that is a bad thing for society. The people highlighted in this book did not see the intellectual life as a fashion accessory, but took pleasure in reading, learning, and thinking, and sought to share the joy they found in these pursuits with other ordinary people.

After the introduction, the book moves through chapters highlighting six public intellectuals including Will and Ariel Durant, Mortimer Adler, Milton Friedman, Eric Hoffer, and Ray Bradbury. The chapters contain a mixture of biography, highlights from the thought or writing of the subject, and Flynn’s own commentary. I was particularly excited to read the chapter on Ray Bradbury and it did not disappoint. I think the chapter I enjoyed and resonated with the most, however, was the one on Eric Hoffer. What’s great about a story like Hoffer’s and, for that matter, any of the characters in this book, is that it reminds you that anyone can develop a serious intellectual life just through taking the time to read and think. It inspired me to commit myself to more reading and writing.

Flynn’s writing style is straightforward without being boring, making the book an easy, enjoyable read. I appreciate the fact that he doesn’t engage in hagiography, but clearly shows his subjects as real people, both flawed and complex. If I had any complaint to make, it would be that occasionally Flynn throws a barb at intellectuals that comes across as unnecessarily defensive, even though I think much of the general criticism he directs at them is warranted. The book makes a good case for the importance of intellectuals who live outside the ivory tower and who seek to bring the life of the mind to ordinary people. I come from a blue collar background, and my own intellectual life was started by another blue collar intellectual of sorts, the late Francis Schaeffer, who played the same roll for many ordinary evangelical Christians that the individuals in this book played for mid-twentieth century middle-class Americans.

This book is important because at a time when our culture seems to be more and more inundated with mass media stupidity, and more and more people seem to devote less and less time to reading or thinking about things that matter, it serves as a reminder that the life of mind is not just some rarified club that only highly educated professionals can enter into. Anyone willing to devote the time and effort can participate in the great intellectual conversations of the ages. 

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

On the Need to Please Others

I have struggled my entire life with needing to please other people. At times this has placed me in situations of mostly unnecessary misery. I’ve really come to see this clearly in the past several months, which have been among the most acutely miserable of my life.

It all began just after I moved last September. I was working my first day on a new job, when I received a message on my cell phone from another potential employer. I had interviewed for both jobs on the same day and was almost immediately offered a job by the first. Now the second company was also offering me a job.

I thought the second company would be offering me a full time position with benefits, but the job they offered me turned out to be only a part-time position. I wanted to turn them down but felt almost obligated to accept the job offer from them, because I had told them I would rather work for them. To say no now would make me look bad. Instead, I ended up accepting the job from them, then attempting to work out a schedule that would accommodate both jobs. This was a mistake.

The next day, in part, I believe, due to the stress I put myself under trying to please what I perceived as other’s expectations, I became sick with a sinus infection. As I have already written about previously, in a former post, this sinus infection became a chronic illness that I am still fighting, although I am currently much better than I was for some time.

After two months, I finally determined, with the help of friends, that I should leave the second job, due to my chronic illness. I wrestled with this decision, in part because I was still concerned about disappointing other’s expectations of what I should do. I was afraid that some folks would see my quitting as irresponsible. Once again, I stressed myself out due to my fear of disappointing people. Thankfully, due to continued wise counsel from others, I stuck with the decision.

As time passed and I continued to be sick, I came to realize that even my failure to get better became an opportunity to feel I was disappointing other’s expectations. All of my friends and co-workers wanted me to get better and every time I saw any of them, the question of my health became a prime topic of conversation. I got tired of being asked how I was feeling since the answer was always negative. I felt I was disappointing other’s hopes for me by not getting better. This made me want to withdraw from people.

As I’ve reflected on this experience recently, I’ve come to realize just how deeply the need to meet other’s expectations controls me. I could give numerous other examples of this. I can’t help but wonder if it’s one reason that I like to spend so much time alone. Being alone, even when it’s painful, is often easier than being around people who you might upset or disappoint in some way.

So, the question that confronts me now is “Having become aware of this character flaw, what will I do about it?” It is easy to say that I will try to live differently, but it is difficult to break the hold of a mindset you’ve lived with your entire life. The short answer is that I don’t know, but I hope that I can begin to learn how to live my life without carrying the burden of having to please other people all the time. While making people happy can be a good thing, obsequiousness is not a virtue. It can paralyze us and inhibit us from becoming the people God has called us to be and from truly accomplishing what He has given us to do.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Reality vs Ideology

I recall my perplexity upon finishing Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” for the first time. I knew that the book had won the Nobel Prize for Literature and I believed (and still believe) that its author was one of the true heroes of the 20th century. I was interested in reading it partly because of its status as a work of great literature, and partly because I was interested in its critique of Soviet totalitarianism and ideology. When I finished reading it, I was confused because the book contained no explicit denunciations or critiques of communist ideology. Instead, in simple and straightforward prose, it told the story of a single day in the life of a concentration camp prisoner without ever making any direct commentary on the system that had led to his being present there.

What I recently realized, years later, is that that, in fact, is one of the main sources of the novel’s power. The critique of ideology present in the book is not in the form of an explicit theoretical treatise, but rather in the form of a simple exercise of bearing witness, in showing the reader a snapshot of what is, or was, albeit in fictionalized form. The character of Ivan Denisovich is not a cypher or a symbol of some larger ideal, he is exactly and only what he appears to the reader as in the novel's pages, a human subject attempting to survive and even thrive under conditions of ideologically imposed brutality.

The reason for this, I now see, is that the language of ideology is the language of theoretical abstractions. While theoretical language is an unavoidable and necessary part of writing and speaking, it is more easily detached from the reality of ordinary human experience and therefore, more susceptible to abuse. This is because formulating a set of beliefs about the way the world should be, always involves abstracting away from what is. The ideologue often becomes committed to this vision in a way that makes him or her impervious to the realities of lived human experience, attempting to force his vision onto the world at all costs. When given the power to force others to conform to its vision of how things should be, this fanaticism can lead to oppression and suffering.

It is easy to recognize the destructiveness of particular ideologies and the toll they take or have taken on human beings. Most of us recognize the evils of Nazi Germany or Communist Russia. What is less easy for some to recognize, is that even the critique of ideology can itself become ideological. In the words of Georgetown University professor Patrick Deneen, “Can the principled stand against a politics based upon the application of universalized principle avoid becoming universalized?” Or, as conservative thinker D. G. Hart observes when discussing the conservative critique of ideology,

Conservatism arose as a denunciation of theoretical (read: ideological) approaches to politics, such as the French Revolutionaries’ attempt to rationalize and even mechanize traditional French society. Of course, the temptation for conservatism is to respond with a rival theory of politics for the good society.

This leads us back to Solzhenitsyn’s novel. It’s strength lies precisely in its failure to provide a counter ideology to that of the Soviet system it exposes. It does not give us a theoretical tool that we can abstract and use to advance our own ideological causes. It simply shows us the human reality of life under an ideological tyranny. It presents us with a reality to which we must respond. This is the novel’s lasting power and genius. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Where I Am

About six months ago, I wrote here about my decision to leave my stable, decent paying job with health insurance in order to move 50 miles and participate in starting a church with friends. I talked about how it was an attempt to find and fulfill my life's purpose and calling, and how, for the first time, I was letting my sense of vocation determine my actions rather than the need to pay the bills. I said that even though some days I wondered if I was making the right choice, I had to believe that if God had called me, he would provide for me and make things possible. This was what it meant to live by faith, I said, to not be a prisoner of my circumstances. When I think about those words now, it nearly makes me sick to my stomach.

To put it bluntly, the last four months since I left my job and moved here have been among the worst of my entire life. In fact, I can only think of one other time in my life that things seemed worse than this. I have spent the last four months feeling like nothing so much as a prisoner of my circumstances. The truth is, right now, I have trouble seeing how it's possible to be anything else. All my former talk to the contrary now seems to me like a load of pretentious, self-deluded, spiritualized garbage.

Shortly after I moving here I got sick. Actually, it was a month to the day I had left my job and thus given up my health insurance. This was a scenario I had known was possible, and even feared on some level, but hadn't seriously entertained. I went to the doctor and paid out of pocket to be treated. I took the medicine I was prescribed and seemed to get better. But then, just as I was finishing the medicine, I caught a cold, and at the tail end of that I ended up with another sinus infection.

Of course I didn't want to believe it. But the symptoms were too clear (and too miserable) to ignore. So back to the clinic I went, to spend more money out of pocket. This time they put me on a different, supposedly stronger medication. Even before I had finished the course of medication, it became apparent that I wasn't getting better. I ended up on antibiotics a third time and didn't get better then either. By then I'd been sick for a month. 

On top of that, I was working two part time jobs, neither of which I really liked much. As a result of the time and energy consumed by the two jobs, I wasn't really able to participate in the life of the community I came to join either, a nice bit of bitter irony. I was discouraged, angry, exhausted, and overwhelmed.

To make a long story short, I ended up leaving one of the two jobs in the hope that the extra time to rest would help me get better. It didn't. Fearing possible pneumonia, I ended up going back to the doctor two more times, being put on antibiotics two more times, and I still didn't get better. Finally I was put on allergy medicine, which seemed to help some but didn't really make me better. I continued to feel lousy and exhausted all the time. 

Finally, I was able to take a vacation and go home over the week between Christmas and New Years. I was still feeling fairly lousy, but at least I was able to rest and enjoy spending time with my parents. My mom also paid for me to see her chiropractor, who gave me some supplements to treat my sinus problems. Leaving my parents on New Year's Day and returning to the miserable life I've been living here, was one of the saddest things I've ever done. I cried a lot that day and even the next.

After arriving back here, I began to treat my illness with an aggressive combination of home remedies and continued taking the supplements given by my mom's chiropractor. Over the course of a week, this seemed to help a lot. Then, a few days ago, with the help of friends, I had an appointment at a naturopath clinic. They put me on a restricted diet and gave me some more supplements to take. As of today, I am feeling much better, almost normal in fact. That is definitely something to be thankful for, but the story doesn't end there.

The whole time I was sick, I thought that if I could just get better, everything would seem fine, that I would be happy again. Now I'm feeling much healthier, but instead of being happy, I feel depressed. I made a big move and it was supposed to be a new start in life. Instead, it just feels like the same life I thought I was leaving behind, except worse. I'm working a job that I don't enjoy, the same kind of work as the job I left, except for far less money and with no health insurance. I'm living in someone else's house because I can't afford to live on my own. I'm nearly broke. I miss my family. I don't see a way forward.

A friend tells me that I lack faith that God is working in my life. That’s probably true. It’s hard to believe when life is so relentlessly painful and you don’t see a way out. God and His purposes seem like distant abstractions compared to the financial burdens I face, a job that makes me anxious and stressed all day, and my inability to see any way through these struggles. I'm tired of everything feeling like a continual painful uphill struggle towards nothing. I don't know what the answer is, but I feel like something needs to change, and soon. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Recently, I have done something insane, at least according to common wisdom. I have resigned my decent paying, secure, stable job with no guarantee of another one. I have done this at a time when the economy is bad and many people cannot find work of any kind. The reason for this is that I am moving in order to live in community with friends and to participate in starting a church with them. This is more than just something that I really want to do. It is an attempt to find and fulfill my life’s purpose and calling.

I have believed since the age of twenty-one that God called me to ministry of some kind. I have primarily felt that this calling was of an intellectual nature; that I was called to understand the culture I live in and how the Christian faith relates to that culture, and to help others understand that too. I pursued education to that end. Somehow, though, the opportunity to pursue that intellectual calling never seemed to come to fruition in the way I imagined it would, which is to say, through paying work.

As a result, I realized at some point that I would have to pursue this calling through unpaid work if it was ever to be fulfilled. This has been the story of my entire adult life, working jobs to pay the bills while seeking my true vocation outside the world of paid work. In that sense, what I am doing now is nothing different. The difference is that never before have I clearly allowed my sense of vocation to shape my actions and choices over and above the necessity of making a living in the everyday world. Prior to this, my reality has always been primarily defined by the need to have a job so I could pay the bills. This, of course, is conventional wisdom.

On top of that, despite my sense that I was called to ministry, I did not see myself as the sort of person who would be good at starting a church. It was, in fact, something I had no interest in doing whatsoever, and something I was sure I would be bad at. Yet the circumstances of my life lead me down this path and drew me into this group of people, and I formed relationships that I did not want to let go of. So I began to think about participating in starting this church. But that would mean having to move fifty miles from where I currently live, and that would make it too far for me to commute to my current job.

For a long time, I still believed I could not commit to quitting my current job and moving without first having another job to go to. Over the course of a year, however, the job did not materialize. I began to give up hope. Finally, after much struggling and soul-searching, and with the wisdom and guidance of others, I came to believe that this is what I should do.

So here I am, by all conventional accounts doing something that is incredibly foolish, leaving behind the safety and security of a stable paying job in order to pursue a calling that some people believe cannot even exist. It is simultaneously the most empowering thing I’ve ever done and the most frightening. Some days lately, like today, I wonder if I made the wrong choice. I think I must be insane. I have no idea what will happen in the months to come. But I have to believe that if God is real and he called me to this, that He will make it possible. And believing it means living like it’s true.

This, I think, is what St. Paul means when he says in his second letter to the church in Corinth, that we Christians walk by faith and not by sight. To walk by faith rather than by sight does not mean that we stick our heads in the sand and pretend like the realities of life in this world don’t exist. It means, rather, that though we are aware of those realities we don’t allow them to be the final word in defining our existence. We live as if life is more than necessity and mere survival. We are not prisoners of our circumstances.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Rob Bell, Dorothy Sayers, and Hell*

By now, most, if not all, people who have an interest in theology and who follow various ongoing theological debates and conversations are probably aware of the current dust-up over the new book "Love Wins" by well-known mega-church pastor Rob Bell. The controversy revolves around whether Bell's new book promotes universalism, whether universalism is a belief that falls within the acceptable limits of historic Christian orthodoxy (that is, whether or not it is heretical), and whether those limits any longer matter in our current cultural setting.

For those unfamiliar with the doctrine of universalism, it is basically the belief that, in the end, all people will be saved, no matter how they have lived or what they have believed in this life. It is a rejection of the doctrine of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment for those who have not embraced Christ as savior in this life and who have rejected living by God's revealed moral standards. In the end, somehow, God will save every person and all will enjoy the blessedness of life in the kingdom of heaven. Even if universalism is not heretical, it is a belief that has not been widely embraced in the history of the church.

It is easy to see the appeal of universalism. The doctrine of hell is nothing if not unpleasant. The thought of people enduring suffering without end is deeply disturbing to many people; it also raises a host of moral questions, which often seem to have no easy answers. How could a loving God sentence people to be tortured for all eternity? What about those who never hear about Jesus? What about those who have devoted their lives to doing good but who do not embrace Christian beliefs? What about all the jerks who claim to be Christians? The list of objections and questions could no doubt go on. My purpose here today, however, is not to try to answer all of these questions and objections, one way or the other.

I would like to take a slightly different tack on the issue than any I have heard so far. My approach to the issue comes from two different sources. One is my own concern about our reasons for accepting or rejecting any particular aspect of Christian belief. The other is from the writings of Dorothy Sayers.In a recent conversation with a friend concerning this issue and Bell's new book, I expressed a concern that many people seem to be rejecting the doctrine of hell based on the notion that because a belief offends us or makes us uncomfortable, therefore it should be discarded or changed. I noted that there often seems to be a mindset in our times that automatically says, "I have trouble with X, therefore X is wrong or should be rejected by all people of good faith," rather than one that begins with accepting the possibility that even when I have trouble with something, that doesn't mean it can't be (or shouldn't be) true. This view reduces the scope of acceptable beliefs and reality to that which makes sense to my own limited understanding of things. This, despite its obvious initial appeal, is ultimately a view of life and reality that I find rather small and constricting.

In her essay "The Greatest Drama Ever Staged," written over 50 years ago, Dorothy Sayers argues that,

Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as "a bad press." We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine -- "dull dogma," as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man -- and the dogma is the drama.

Sayers goes on to note that "Possibly we might prefer not to take this tale too seriously -- there are disquieting points about it." She then goes on to observe that in downplaying or dismissing the traditional dogmas of the church that, "We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him 'meek and mild,' and recommended Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies."

Though Sayers never directly addresses the doctrine of hell, her observations still ring true and seem relevant to me in our own times. Though the issue now has less to do with dogma being perceived as dull, and more to do with it being perceived as offensive, the general gist of Sayers point remains, I believe, salient. Those who are eager to do away with the doctrine of hell assure us that one of the reasons many people, especially younger people, cannot accept the Christian faith, is because the doctrine of hell is simply too, to use Sayers term, "disquieting" to them. But isn't it possible that in abandoning this doctrine, we are simply attempting to fit God into a narrative that makes life comfortable for us by demanding that God fit into our own limited understanding of reality and that reduces God to the equivalent of a house pet?

The Nobel Prize winning poet Czelaw Milosz observed that in contradistinction to the traditional Marxist observation that religion was like opium used to make people more at ease with their earthly situation, that in our time "we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death -- the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged."

The doctrine of hell, it seems to me, offers an assurance that our choices ultimately matter. What we do in this life has consequences that extend into eternity. Or as Milosz observed "All religions recognize that our deeds are imperishable . . ." The idea that our choices really matter is also a part of what makes good drama compelling. It is the belief that in choosing this path instead of that one or this action instead of that one, the character's life and the lives of those around him or her are affected and move towards certain destinations and that some destinations are preferable to others. If all choices lead to the same outcome, however, or no particular outcome is really preferable to any others, then no choice really matters and any action the character takes is ultimately meaningless. There is no drama. This, it seems to me, is at least a risk for those who embrace universalism. If, in the end, everyone will be saved no matter they have done or believed, then why does it matter what anyone does or believes? Life is robbed of its drama.

The Christian faith, by contrast, is one that has always called its adherents out of our own narrow perceptions and preferences. Instead, it has called us to lay aside those things and enter into a drama that is far larger than ourselves and our limited comprehension of reality. I recognize that this observation does not answer every difficulty raised by the doctrine of hell. I wonder, however, if at the very least, we can begin by admitting that God and reality are much larger than the limited scope of our personal preferences and understandings and that we might have to accept some things that initially seem offensive or that don’t make sense to us in order to enter into and participate in the larger reality that Jesus invites us into. Otherwise, it seems to me, we risk being left with nothing but the small and constricting world of our own choices and preferences, a world without drama, in which nothing we do ultimately matters.

*For those concerned, I am aware that Bell has explicitly stated that he is not promoting universalism. Though the controversy over Bell's book is one of the sources of inspiration for this post, I still think the issues I have addressed here are relevant apart from that specific controversy.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Politicized Christianity

As someone who grew up in conservative Evangelicalism and in a politically conservative home, I took it for granted that a basically conservative Republican perspective on voting was synonymous with a Christian one. As I got older, especially into my twenties, I began to question this due to a number of factors. After many years of wrestling with these issues I have come back around to a reclaimed conservatism with some leaning towards what might be called Christian anarchy. I do not think any earthly political party has a monopoly on Christ or is synonymous with Christ's kingdom or agenda in the world, though I do think it possible that one or another political party may be more closely aligned with a Christian perspective on things or more correct on issues of fundamental import.

In recent years, there has been a movement of many evangelicals, especially younger ones, towards the political left. I suspect that there are a number of reasons for this move, some of them better than others. One of the reasons, which seems to me to be a good one, is that many Christians have grown tired of the over-politicized Christianity of what is called "The Religious Right," and the narrowness, ugliness, and shrillness sometimes associated with it. Many of us have grown tired of seeing God's name too closely associated with a particular political party or agenda, and the often angry, defensive spirit that seems to accompany that association. We have been concerned about the way in which this politicized Christianity has been a turn off for many that has prevented them from seeing Jesus and which has made it more difficult for many Christians to love their neighbors, whoever they may be.

This brings me to the point of this article, however, which is the fact that a swing to the political left is not really a move away from a politicized Christianity. It is simply exchanging one set of issues or agendas for another, and then aligning our Christianity with them. The shape of the container remains the same, only the contents have changed. I fail to see how this is an improvement.

With the election of President Obama, there is much talk in the air of "change." While, on one level, I can understand the hope and excitement this has generated, I am, for the most part, extremely skeptical about this talk and wonder what it really means at a substantial level. I am particularly concerned about the life issues and the extremely liberal position Obama takes on abortion, which I view as fundamental to many other issues. If the weakest, most helpless and innocent among us are are not protected, and perhaps the most fundamental human relationship of dependence among us is viewed as essentially expendable, then on what basis can we argue for human obligations towards anyone else? This is just one example of how a swing to the political left among Christians does not seem to me to be an improvement over a too close association with the political right.

My point here, is that despite all the talk of "change," a swing to the political left, does not really strike me as a substantial change in any way. It still leaves us just as vulnerable to the dangers of a politicized Christianity, perhaps even more so, because there is the dangerous illusion that, having moved away from the politicized Christianity of the past we have somehow escaped it, when in fact all we have done is trade one task-master for another. Furthermore, as the abortion issue illustrates, it still leaves us just as vulnerable, again, maybe more so, to the dehumanizing forces at work in late modern Western culture. It can also become just as much of a constricting legalism and a possible hindrance to loving our neighbors as the Religious Right did.

What do you think?