“Time for a Greek word study!”

Soren Kierkegaard:

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in this world?

Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament. 1

Douglas Wilson:

Depending on the issue and the text, liberals are sometimes more to be trusted with the message of the text than conservatives are. This is because liberals are not stuck with the results of their exegesis the way conservatives are. Because conservatives confess that the teaching of the text is normative, the conservative has to make a show of actually doing whatever he comes up with. The liberal can say that the apostle Paul prohibited women teaching in the church—ho, ho, ho—but there it is. At least we get an accurate summary of what Paul’s position was. The conservative cannot afford to say that Paul was wrong, and—because whether or not they admit it, conservative church are pressured by the zeitgeist too—he cannot afford to act as though Paul was simply straight-up right. What to do? What to do? Time for a Greek word study!” 2


It is, I must admit, quite a bit of fun to tell another Christian that you believe x (in which x is effectively a restatement of a passage from the Bible) then watch them squirm—or fight you on that point.3

However, in the interest of first addressing the log in one’s own eye, I can remember many occasions in which I have read some passage of Scripture, and said in my heart, “Surely not!”, then searched for some commentary to tell me that this passage doesn’t really mean that.

Now, it should go without saying that there are many passages of Scripture that truly will be misunderstood at first blush, if the context or the genre are not taken into account. That is a thing, I grant.

What I am taking aim at here is the little King Ahab in each of our hearts, who amplifies the voices of sycophants to drown out the sound of God’s word:

Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, four hundred men, and said to them, “Shall we go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?” And they said, “Go up, for God will give it into the hand of the king.” But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there not here another prophet of the LORD of whom we may inquire?” And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “There is yet one man by whom we may inquire of the LORD, Micaiah the son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but always evil.” And Jehoshaphat said, “Let not the king say so.” (2 Chronicles 18:5-7, ESV)

Let us consider, oh I don’t know, 1 Corinthians 11. Yes, the first bit of that chapter. And let us suppose that this passage, properly understood, truly doesn’t require a Christian wife in our day and age to wear a piece of fabric over her head when she goes to church. That being the case, it would be far, far better for a Christian wife to “misread” and “misapply” that passage by wearing a head covering to church with an obedient and joyful spirit, rather than saying what many of us have said in our hearts with that page of our Bibles open before us: “He can’t mean that! I wouldn’t do that!”

The impulse to get a second opinion about God’s word should be one of the central targets of our mortification. Instead, let us get in the habit of saying, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38, ESV).


  1. Soren Kierkegaard, Attack upon Christendom
  2. Douglas Wilson, Why Ministers Must Be Men (p. 41–42)
  3. Am I being Christlike in so doing? Yes, that’s where I got the idea: Luke 20:16-17.

 

Yes, but I didn’t give _enthusiastic_ consent to you collecting my data for advertisers

A peculiar kind of dismembering of reality

I confess to following the news (if I follow it at all) in a very erratic fashion, getting only bits and pieces of stories every few days. I tend not to commit too much time to knowing in detail things that don’t affect my sphere, or about which I cannot do anything.1

All of this amounts to a defence of why I don’t have much in particular to say about the American border separation business that is making the news at the moment. I don’t have all the relevant facts, nor do I have much insight on the issue of immigration that I could be of use to anyone else. (Add to this that I’m living all the way over in Australia, and we’ve got plenty of our own curly immigration questions already, thank you very much.) As a rule, though, I’m generally against traumatising children; I don’t know where that puts me on the political spectrum.DgN8dH3WsAA-Dzr

Of more interest to me is the meta-story about how the story has been presented.

Many of you will have seen the TIME Magazine cover featuring a two-year-old Honduran girl balling her eyes out in front of a less-than-empathetic President Trump. As it turns out, the little girl photographed hadn’t been separated from her family because of the policy, as the image suggest; her mother had momentarily put her on the ground while she was being searched at the border. As Rachel Stoltzfoos writes for The Federalist:

The photo and story made a big splash in the media war over the separation policy, which Trump has since ended, but both have now been completely dismantled by the press, resulting in a major correction.

“The original version of this story misstated what happened to the girl in the photo after she taken from the scene,” the correction reads. “The girl was not carried away screaming by U.S. Border Patrol agents; her mother picked her up and the two were taken away together.”

[…]

TIME defended its cover and its reporting Friday, essentially claiming the facts are irrelevant because of the propaganda value of the piece. The photo and story “capture the stakes of this moment,” the editor in chief told reporter Hadas Gold.

“Yes, it’s not technically true, but it tells the story very effectively.” Jiminy.

This struck me as an almost perfect instance of what Neil Postman discussed in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death over thirty years ago:

The photograph also lacks a syntax, which deprives it of a capacity to argue with the world. As an “objective” slice of space-time, the photograph testifies that someone was there or something happened. Its testimony is powerful but it offers no opinions – no “should-have-beens” or “might-have beens”. Photography is pre-eminently a world of fact, not of dispute about facts or of conclusions to be drawn from them. But this is not to say photography lacks an epistemological bias. As Susan Sontag has observed, a photograph implies “that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it”. But, as she further observes, all understanding begins with our not accepting the world as it appears. Language, of course, is the medium we use to challenge, dispute, and cross-examine what comes into view, what is on the surface. The words “true” and “false” come from the universe of language, and no other. When applied to a photograph, the question, Is it true? means only, Is this a reproduction of a real slice of space-time? If the answer is “Yes”, there are no grounds for argument, for it makes no sense to disagree with an unfaked photograph. The photograph itself makes no arguable propositions, makes no extended and unambiguous commentary. It offers no assertions to refute, so it is not refutable.

The way in which the photograph records experience is also different from the way of language. Language makes sense only when it is presented as a sequence of propositions. Meaning is distorted when a word or sentence is, as we say, taken out of context; when a reader or listener is deprived of what was said before, and after. But there is no such thing as a photograph taken out of context, for a photograph does not require one. ‘In fact, the point of photography is to isolate images from context, so as to make them visible in a different way. In a world of photographic images, Ms Sontag writes, “all borders… seem abitrary. Anything can be separated, can be made discontinuous, from anything else: all that is necessary is to frame the subject differently.” She is remarking on the capacity of photographs to perform a peculiar kind of dismembering of reality, a wrenching of moments out of their contexts, and a juxtaposing of events and things that have no logical or historical connection with each other.

The term “post-truth” has been thrown around quite a bit in recent years, but Postman is pointing out that the medium in which propositions are subjugated to the image is necessarily beyond truth, not in the sense that every image the media shows you is misleading, but that the true-or-false taxonomy that you can use about a proposition doesn’t neatly apply to images in the first place.

Is TIME’s magazine cover true or false? Well, I don’t understand the question.


    1. I don’t hold this to be a hard rule, as though the goal is to shut out any information about things outside my own life; rather, the goal is to focus on areas where I can exhibit some agency, rather than spending inordinate amounts of time picking up ever-changing tidbits of information merely for their own sake. (This, incidentally, is also something I learned from Neil Postman: “the information-action ratio”.)

      I have been challenged on this position by other Christians who have pointed out that the more I know, the more I can pray about. This is quite true: Paul prays for the good news and bad news in other churches as he hears about them, and shares news between churches so they can act and pray, with prayer itself being a form of action: 2 Corinthians 8:1; Colossians 1:3-4. However, I don’t think that this argument makes the necessary step of showing why I ought to commit to finding out an unmanageable amount of extra information in the first place.

      I don’t think it’s unduly cynical to suggest that, if we’re honest with ourselves, this amounts to an after-the-fact justification for our habit of scrolling endlessly through feeds and streams. We rather like the feeling of “being informed” and knowing what’s going on for its own sake. As Postman also points out, our opinions about the news are useful fodder for newspolls that themselves can be turned into news for us to know about.

 

When your hints are not taken

“Will you please let me go?” said Jane. “I want to get home. I am very tired and it’s very late.”

“But you’re not going home,” said Miss Hardcastle. “You’re coming to Belbury.”

“My husband has said nothing about my joining him there.”

Miss Hardcastle nodded. “That was one of his mistakes. But you’re coming with us.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s an arrest, honey,” said Miss Hardcastle.

C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (p. 91)

It’s been lovely to see so many people feign reverence for the institution of marriage over the weekend. Let’s do this again sometime!

The dimly-lit streets of our discourse

Edwin H. Friedman, from his book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix:

But the most important ramification of the herding phenomenon for leadership is its counter-evolutionary effect. In order to be “inclusive”, the herding family will wind up adopting an appeasement strategy toward its most troublesome members while sabotaging those with the most strength to stand up to the troublemakers. The chronically anxious, herding family will be far more willing to risk losing its leadership than to lose those who disturb their togetherness with their immature responses. Always striving for consensus, it will react against any threat to its togetherness by those who stand on principle rather than on good feelings

The effects show up in language usage, in the administration of justice, in education and welfare policy, in divorce settlements, in the emphasis those who specialise in conflict resolution put on compromise, in the conduct of public meetings, and even in the world of sports. And in some institutions the togetherness forces put such a premium on inclusivity that those who do not agree with making it the overriding principle of the organisation are isolated or rejected, thus creating Orwellian “Animal Farms” in which diversity is eliminated in the name of diversity.

It has been my impression that at any gathering, whether it be public or private, those who are quickest to inject words like sensitivity, empathy, trust, confidentiality, and togetherness into their arguments have perverted these humanitarian words into power tools to get others to adapt to them.

Note well that Friedman died in 1996. The tolerance police have been patrolling the dimly-lit streets of our discourse for much longer than I realised.

Microsoft Office is a boyfriend that treats you real bad because he knows you don’t have the courage to leave him.

It is getting quite late, but my rowdy neighbours are making their demands clear:
1. They want to dance with somebody;
2. They want to feel the heat with somebody.
(“Somebody” is specified as “somebody who loves them”.)

I am disinclined to help them.

We live in strange times. Nobody wants to assume that I’m a man, but almost everybody assumes that I’m from the UK.

One Whole Minute of Bliss

Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights1

‘Forgive me if I again say something not quite… But here it is: I can’t help coming here tomorrow. I’m a dreamer; I have so little real life that I regard such moments as this one, now, to be so rare that I can’t help repeating these moments in my dreams. I will dream of you all night, for an entire week, all year long. I will come here tomorrow without fail, exactly here, to this very spot, exactly at this time, and I’ll be happy as I recall what happened yesterday.’

I owe it to myself to sit down one day and figure out exactly why I keep coming back to the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky, but suffice it to say that I’m very very fond of them.

White Nights bears many family resemblances with other members of the Dostoevsky oeuvre: grandiose speech, unrequited love, someone retreating from the world in shame, and dreams. (I ask that you refrain from psychoanalysing me for the moment.)

The narrative involves our hero “the dreamer” who, while terribly alone in Petersburg one night, rescues a young woman named Nastenka from an unsavoury encounter with a potential attacker. Their initial conversation that night leads to more conversations in the subsequent nights, which in turn leads them quite naturally to love, or at least something very much like it. As it turns out, Nastenka has another love interest, who was expected to return to propose to her by now but hasn’t. The dreamer daren’t hope for much from this woman of his dreams, but finds that he cannot but fall for her.

Dreams

The major theme of the novel is, if I may be so bold, dreams. These dreams are not only an escape from reality for the dreamer, but a necessary part of how he processes that reality. The dreamer describes himself seeing Petersburg by “another, different new sun […] and it shines on everything with a different, special light”.

Without the light that these dreams bring for him, the world (and the future in particular) promises only inescapable loneliness. In the dreamer’s discourse about himself to Nastenka, it is suggested that he was deeply humiliated and hurt in some previous attempt to connect another person.2 As a result, he has disengaged as much as he can from the real world, sealing himself up from the inevitable loneliness. When Nastenka asks about his life, he goes so far as to say that he is “absolutely without stories of any kind”. He has no meaningful engagement with reality; only the dreams are real for him.

Nonetheless, as he watches others live successfully in reality, the dreamer has some sense that he is supposed to leave dreams behind. Indeed, the dreams themselves are “finally growing tired”, and the dreamer is outgrowing them. So not only is reality unbearable, but his dreams are also fading, leaving him with nowhere safe to hide:

‘Sometimes I am overcome by moments of such anguish, such anguish […] Because at those moments it begins to seem that I will never be able to begin living a real life; because it already seems that I have lost all sense, all feeling for the genuine, the real; because, in the end, I curse myself; because after my fantastic nights I am visited by sobering moments that are horrible!’

The arrival of Nastenka, then, has “pierced his breast with all its wearisome torments”: she holds out (intentionally or not) the possibility that he can come out from his white nights to reality. Nastenka is, so to speak, a dream come true. She is something real to cling to that will rescue him both from these fading dreams on one hand and horrible loneliness on the other. She is, indeed, better than his dreams: “What will there be for me to dream about when I have already been so happy in real life beside you!”

Of course, the dreamer cannot cling to Nastenka in the end; she also fades, like all the other dreams. Nastenka’s vanishing is not merely a withholding of love from the dreamer; rather, the entire frame through which he can live in the world is crushed and he has nothing left.

The tragedy of this story surrounds the decisive exit from the world of dreams for “one whole minute of bliss” in the real world, only for the dreamer to find himself suddenly abandoned, and everything he feared most becomes his eternal and very real fate.

The dreamer can no longer retreat to his dreams, which were already beginning to die out. At the same time, neither can he live in reality. The awful loneliness he so deeply feared is now what he must live with for the rest of his life in exchange for this fleeting moment of real happiness:

‘He thinks that this is a poor, pitiful life, not anticipating that perhaps some day the sad hour will strike for him as well, when for a single day of this pitiful life, he would give up all of his fantastic years, and give them up not for joy, or for happiness, and without wishing to choose in this hour of sadness, repentance and boundless sorrow.’


White Nights is all at once surreal, beautiful and sad, and I must say that I really loved it.

Perhaps this is what I love about Dostoevsky: In his best moments, he plunges you down to the bottom of the ocean of another’s suffering until you start to taste the water in your mouth. I have found often that his characters, in their bold declarations of their own suffering, have even expressed to me what I feel, with words that I likely wouldn’t have had the genius to put together nor the courage to say, even to myself:

‘You shake your head and say: How quickly do the years fly by! And again you ask yourself: What have you done with your years? Where have you buried your best days? Did you live or not? Look, you say to yourself, look how cold the world is becoming. More years will pass, followed by gloomy solitude, and then doddering old age will come on a walking-stick, to be followed by anguish and despondency. Your fantastic world will grow pale, your dreams will wither, die and scatter like yellow leaves from the trees… Oh Nastenka! It will be sad, you know, to be left alone, quite alone, and not even have something to regret – nothing, absolutely nothing… because all that I have lost, all this, it was all nothing, a stupid, round zero – it was merely a dream!’

  1. Or “Dostoyevsky”, if you prefer.
  2. In any case, I read the translation by Ronald Meyer. One can see strong parallels to the mental breakdown of Golyadkin in The Double, and the Underground Man’s decisive descent into self-loathing in Notes from Underground.
  3. (The dreamer, in telling his own story here, refers to himself as “our hero”, which is also the narrator’s ironic nickname for Golyadkin in The Double.)