Blessed are the Unsuccessful

Whenever I can, I like to begin my 10th grade English classes like this: “Someday, you are going to die and no one is going to remember you. Whether you graduated from Harvard, became a successful businessperson, or worked as a janitor, the chances of the history books actually remembering you are slim to none. So what’s the point?”

My school prides itself on its accomplishments. The school mission statement encourages students to pursue excellence in all of their activities. As a result, our students have sent satellites into space, travelled to Scotland for theatrical performances, marched in the Rose Bowl Parade, and have won state championships in athletics. Our students are headed for the Ivy Leagues because they have learned the art of pursuing excellence.

Working with such motivated students, however, has reacquainted me with a problem, one that infects every area of our lives. We mistake excellence for education, muddling together appearances with reality.

Excellence is predicated on comparison by performance. Instead of attending to the proper formation of our souls, we are more concerned whether others find us impressive, attractive, or enjoyable. We work so hard at our excellent performances that we’ve become accustomed to a mode of existential exhaustion. Then, like my students, when we’re reminded that someday we’ll die and be forgotten by history, we’re left with a distressing question: “What’s the point?”

In his book Works of Love, Soren Kierkegaard addresses a similar problem. In an attempt to distinguish Christian love from worldly love, he drives a wedge between love itself and the performance of love. “For,” he says, “one is not to work in order that love becomes known by its fruits but to work to make love capable of being recognized by its fruits. In this endeavor one must watch himself so that this, the recognition of love, does not become more important to him than the one important thing: that it has fruits and therefore can be known.”

The desire for “recognition” is the desire for the appearance of love at the expense of love itself. In the same way, my students sometimes struggle for a perfect GPA at the expense of their education. As a result, grades don’t accurately reflect a student’s intellectual development; instead, they reflect a student’s ingenuity in manipulating the educational system.

For Kierkegaard, the only safeguard against the desire for recognition is obedience, a direct response to Christ’s command “Thou shall love…”

Obedience, unlike excellence, depends on my willingness to obey. Any other motivation encourages pride, which is itself a symptom of excellence. Pride, like excellence, needs comparison, because “it is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.” Without the comparison, excellence cannot assert itself as excellent.

Obedience, on the other hand, is a private act of the will independent of popular opinion. Obedience cares nothing for appearances because it’s primary concern is to be in proper relationship to the command. Every obstacle of excellence pales in comparison to the immediacy of obedience. It liberates us from the changing demands of comparison and ushers us into communion with God “in Whose service is perfect freedom” (BCP 1928).

Education, I try to tell my students, is the difficult process of learning to be good, conforming our hearts and minds to the will of God. The point is not that they earn an A in my class and go to a fancy college. The point is to become liberated, happy human beings.

5 Qualities You Treat like Virtues that Really Aren’t

At the heart of Christianity are absolutes. There are virtues which all Christians at all places at all times have known to be virtues. Then, there are the shifting sands around those virtues – areas of moral neutrality to which our culture may, at a given time, ascribe erroneous moral significance. When the pastor explains the shock surrounding the camel-through-needle remark, we think how foreign the ancient view is to our own. “In that age,” the pastor tells us, “the rich were assumed to have favor with God. People in that culture believed that their riches were a sign that they stood in God’s good graces. It was a shock to hear that those were the people in the most danger of hell.” This view of wealth is not our own, so the flaw is easy enough for us to see (unless you’ve fallen in with the prosperity gospel crowd.)

The exercise reminds us that we have similar lenses of our own. As Lewis notes in an introduction to St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” Like the ancients that attached virtue to wealth, we attach moral weight on occasions of moral neutrality more often than we realize.

This is my attempt to guess a few morally neutral qualities you treat like virtues if you’re an average American.

As a disclaimer – I’m not saying that these things are secretly vices; I’m only suggesting that they may be more neutral than we tend to treat them. If it ever comes down to either upholding one of these or pursuing a biblically mandated action, and we choose these, we’ve entered choppy waters.

1. Correct grammar is not a virtue. I’m a writing professor, now, so I get to say with authority: a misplaced modifier is not a character flaw. The rules of the English language were not penned on stone tablets by the finger of God. Grammar is fluid, language is human. (Yes, that was a comma splice; no, I won’t repent.) That isn’t to say that correct communication lacks advantages. Correctness allows people to know your meaning more certainly. Yet, I firmly believe that the student who says “should of” is using language better than the grammar nazi who shuts him down. After all, how is battering people over the head with a red pen until they are so afraid they cease to write at all going to improve communication – the sole purpose for which grammar exists?

2. Promptness is not a virtue. There’s a kernel of morality to it: punctuality shows care for those who could be affected by your lateness. Promptness helps the gears of commerce and culture turn more smoothly. It displays respect and preparedness. In fact, when I read that successful learning is not highly correlated to professors holding students accountable for due dates, I was shocked. Surely, encouraging promptness is the same as encouraging goodness, truth, and beauty – isn’t it? Apparently, not. Now, I’m trying to comply by the research. Like good grammar, being on time can be pragmatic. It can even be, according to occasion, loving. But, it can also be a way of simply saving face. And, we can hold others to it with a certain ruthlessness, treating a human being like a cog rather than a body and mind and spirit.

3. A good GPA is not a virtue. A professor said on the first day of class, “For some of you, getting an A in this class will be morally wrong. There will be something else in your life that requires something of you; to neglect it for the sake of this A would be a sinful choice.” Icky, but true. If your roommate is having a crisis of faith while you’re studying for a test, stop studying, love your roommate, and take the C+. We often assume our GPA and virtue are directly correlated, possibly even identical. The tendency we have to prize school accomplishments at the expense of other accomplishments is concerning. I value education, and believe grades demonstrate some good character qualities, yet they are not identical with those qualities. The GPA doesn’t always reflect the learning, and the amount of moral weight our culture ascribes to these arbitrary little points is a little creepy.

4. Wit is not a virtue. The ability to produce one-liners propels modern heroes into the spotlight. Steven Colbert is among the wittiest people on television, but his truest statements are rarely his zingers. It is a sign of my own folly that G.K. Chesterton, for all his virtuous quotations, regularly leaves me writing down those of his clever turns of phrase which lack substance (nothing against him – if a man writes that much, sometimes he’ll be saying nothing). Memes that smartly debunk strawmen make people who agree with them haughty, while the people who disagree remain oversimplified, maligned, and unheard. When we hear a witty phrase, we often feel a little ashamed if it supports the side opposite our own, even if there is no substance to the claim. But the clever shall not inherit the earth. The slow to speak may have just as much to contribute, or more.

5. Politeness is not a virtue. Like promptness, politeness can be a genuine way of demonstrating love. But, it can also be our cotton candy way of making others like us. This is an insidious one, since it shuts us up and makes us feel good about ourselves as we float gently toward the abyss of the status quo. Yet, our greatest example of good Christian behavior frequently throws politeness to the wind. Christ calls people vipers and tombs and Satan and ye of little faith. It’s simply not very polite. Why? If Christ is rude on occasion, there can be only one reason – because being rude can be more faithful and hopeful and loving than being polite.

Virtuous Eating, Part 1: Taking Food Seriously

I felt disappointed when I read Acts 15.

The rising action is thrilling. Empowered and united by the Holy Spirit, the great apostles discuss a question of freedom in Christ and the Christian’s relationship to Law. St. Peter and St. Paul, Barnabas, the apostles, and all the great men of the early church stand in conference and speak together in one voice, declaring what seemed good to them and to the Holy Spirit. That’s right: they speak with God. So important is the matter, they have the letter couriered by no less a man than St. Paul, that brilliant redeemed soul, the pride of the universe.

Then follows the letter. That’s where I get disappointed: it’s just about food. They extend four proscriptions: “abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:29). Well, at least they got somewhere important by the end there, but I’m a little disappointed that they wasted all that time on food.

Of course, finding myself disappointed by Scripture always precedes a realization that I have copious room for growth. Acts 15 is not a disappointing chapter; I’m just a disappointing person when I read it. Why do the apostles and the Holy Spirit write about food? For only one reason: it’s important. This opens the question – could eating, that most frequent interaction between myself and my world besides breathing, actually matter?

It’s possible. If Discovery Channel documentaries have taught me anything, it is that animals have two primary drives: hunger and procreation. Food and sex. Christians generally agree that sex matters to the spiritual life. By comparison, we seem sluggish to probe the interaction between eating and our spiritual life.

Inundated by secular messages about food, the average American Christian would be hard-pressed to explain the Christian understanding of eating. Yet the same Christian can give at least a shallow account of the biblical standard of sexuality, despite being surrounded by unbiblical messages about sex. We recognize that the secular explanation of virtuous sex and the Christian explanation of virtuous sex are aimed at different purposes. Science offers us a condom to defend our bodies; the Bible offers us chastity to defend our souls. Yet, the average Christian explanation of healthy eating would probably sound identical to the secular explanation of healthy eating. There are two possibilities: 1) secular science tells us everything we need to know about eating, or 2) our view of food may be missing something as important as the difference between a condom and chastity.

If these two drives – eating and sex – are the strongest instinctive drives of the human body, the average Protestant’s lack of a position on the more frequent one leaves me concerned about what ideas are floating around in our heads and where we got them. I suspect they aren’t from the Bible.

The biblical account of man, after all, turns quickly to food. The story of Adam and Eve is so familiar, it’s strange how surprised people get when you point out that eating plays a central role. Literature students rush to examine close-up the core of Milton’s apple, but fail to notice Eve standing there chewing on food. And, while we’ve thrown open the book of Genesis on the debate stand in science departments, we’ve closed it in the kitchen.

After Christians overcome their initial surprise at the role of food, they become skeptical. Surely, I’m being too literal. Surely it’s mere chance that we fell for food. It could have been anything – anger or sex or sloth. The heart of the sin isn’t food; it’s disobedience.

Of course, disobedience is the heart of the matter. But, we can’t forget that humanity’s first disobedience was the wrenching of our soul upside down by choosing appetites for earthly things over heavenly ones. Hearing the dinner bell the tempter rang, we did not reply “man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Where we should have answered with abstinence, we answered with appetite. Now, we live infected by our original decision to take care of our stomachs before our souls, to assume that we had to provide for ourselves, that we could provide for ourselves, and that God’s providence was not to be trusted. Our original disobedience is wrapped up in our disordered appetites.

We must take food seriously.

Thank God, one concrete link remains for most Christians between eating and the spiritual life! And, thankfully, in that single sliver of a link glitters the heart of our antidote. While the average Christian may find little spiritual guidance on when to eat and what and how much, we still know (by God’s mercy!) one thing about eating as American Christians: we know we give thanks to God before we do it.

Though the issue is complex, though we almost don’t know what virtuous eating means, at least we have not forgotten the most important antidote for sin: gratitude. Before eating, our great love for God flares out, overcoming our unschooled appetites with a moment of due thanksgiving. In this rightly-ordered action, we oppose ourselves to the Fall. Food, which Adam hoped would sustain us apart from God, is perennially subordinated to our acknowledgment that God sustains us. Food, which Eve was proud to pick for herself, becomes the occasion for our humility.

Though there remains more to examine in order to align our appetites with the Christian life, there is no more beautiful, hopeful place to start than in that simple prayer of gratitude.

(This is the first of a series of three posts on the Christian’s relationship to eating. Subsequent posts will examine the Eucharist, fasting, diets, eating disorders, and the cultural mythos around healthy eating.)

Cowardice is Virtue; How The Doctor Saved the World through Cowardice

Note: There are spoilers here if you haven’t seen Season 1 of Doctor Who (2005)

Let’s set the stage.

The Doctor (I find him amazing) is at a crossroads. The sinister Daleks (an ingenious race of genetically engineered aliens designed to take orders and exterminate all life) were not destroyed in the previous war that killed The Doctor’s race. They have been secretly harvesting humans and have returned in full force, ready to claim the Earth as it’s own paradise. They will exterminate all humans and then move on to conquer the rest of universe. All of The Doctor’s defensive forces have been eliminated and he sent his trusted friend Rose back to her own time, against her will, as a promise to keep her safe.

There is still hope! While his friends have defended (and sacrificed themselves for) The Doctor, he has been converting the space station in which they are trapped into a huge “delta wave” generator. This wave produces enough power to wipe out the entire race of Daleks in one single pulse. There’s only one problem. There hasn’t been enough time to focus the direction of the delta wave, so it has become more of a pulse or bubble. It will effectively wipe out the Daleks, the space station, and the entire planet Earth, which they are orbiting.

It is in this moment that The Doctor becomes surrounded by Daleks; even the Dalek Emperor has come to gloat in his triumph. The conversation begins:

The Doctor: You really want to think about this. Because if I activate the signal, every living creature dies.
Dalek Emperor: I am immortal.
The Doctor: D’you want to put that to the test?
Dalek Emperor: I want to see you become like me. Hail the Doctor! The great exterminator!
The Doctor: I’ll do it!
Dalek Emperor: Then prove yourself, Doctor. What are you? Coward or killer?

At this moment, I myself am stymied. What would I do in this situation? The Daleks have proven themselves to be a true threat. They will not alter their course and it is quite literally The Doctor alone who can stop this threat. He lost his entire race last time in the process; the war was that difficult. We know The Doctor is selfless, so it doesn’t matter to him if nobody else is there to witness how he saved things, it must be done. In light of all of life in space and time, this one planet of human beings here and now seems like a small cost. Surely it is drastic, but it must be done.

With his hands on the trigger, and a moment of hard thought and struggle, The Doctor makes his reply:

Coward. Any day.

I’ll admit I wasn’t quite expecting this decision. Earth, humanity, and even himself were all doomed to death and whatever horrible abominations the Daleks would  perform, yet he chose “cowardice” and let the Earth live, even for just a few moments longer. Placing myself in The Doctor’s shoes, this seemed foolish to me, in light of the greater good of space and time that would be spared.

And yet, that’s really just letting the ends justify the means. Even if it spelled certain doom, I wasn’t the one ending the lives of billions. I was not playing God, and I was not corrupting my soul in the extermination of so many souls. There are some things beyond the scope of my responsibility, or at least beyond the range in which I am capable of handling.

In that point I think The Doctor knew that virtue (and maybe even God) wins.

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Video Games, Intelligence, and…Happiness?

I was going through my usual blogroll, which includes the ever useful and interesting site Lifehacker, when I came across this post. A defense of video games? Being a gamer myself, I couldn’t help but click through, to see what sorts of arguments were going to be put forward. Continue reading Video Games, Intelligence, and…Happiness?