“Back Row America”

I’m so glad to see a new book coming out by Chris Arnade, whom I haven’t seen online in at least a couple of years. Right around when Trump was elected was when I discovered him, and that was also pretty close to the time that he took a break from online life. I can see why he did so now.

His reflections on rural, poor communities are unique because of his own professional background. Before traveling around America to photograph and document the lives of those whom American culture has deemed “back row,” he was a trader on Wall Street.

Here’s an excerpt on First Things from his upcoming book, Dignity: Seek Respect in Back Row America:

With a great job and a great apartment in a great neighborhood, it is easy to feel we have nothing for which we need to be absolved. The fundamental fallibility of humans seems outdated, distant. It’s not hard to imagine that you have everything under control.

On the streets, few can delude themselves into thinking they have it under control. You cannot ignore death there, and you cannot ignore human fallibility. It is easier to see that everyone is a sinner, everyone is fallible, and everyone is mortal. It is easier to see that there are things just too deep, too important, or too great for us to know. It is far easier to recognize that one must come to peace with the idea that we don’t and never will have this under control. It is far easier to see religion not just as useful, but as true.

Forsaking Christianity for the “Greater Good”

3:16: How would you summarize Kierkegaard’s Socratic point of view?

PM: I think that Kierkegaard saw himself as trying to help the citizens of nineteenth-century Copenhagen in much the same way as Socrates had helped the citizens of fifth-century Athens. He seems to have aimed his writings at a particular group of people who, under the illusion that they were leading Christian lives, had to be addressed in a specific manner so that they might overcome this illusion and change their lives accordingly. But while Kierkegaard held a lifelong interest in Socrates and selected his life as a model for his own, he also sometimes worried that relating to others as Socrates did might be incompatible with living an authentic Christian life. He worried that in playing the role of philosophical midwife for his fellow citizens, he himself might be sidestepping difficulties that every Christian must personally confront. If the Christian is to model his or her life after the life of Christ, then, Kierkegaard thought, doing this will include being open about the sort of life one is trying to live regardless of what others might think. In fact, he thought Christians should expect the world to reject what they believe (to find Christian beliefs absurd or ludicrous or perhaps even blasphemous) and, in many cases, to persecute them accordingly. Yet, in order to play the part of Socrates, he would sometimes have to be personally elusive, employing various forms of indirection to shine a light on others’ lives while keeping his own life an enigma. Withholding or concealing oneself is thus sometimes a Socratic requirement, while revealing or disclosing oneself seems to be an essential feature of an authentic Christian life. So I think Kierkegaard sometimes felt a tension within himself, between a Socratic part of his nature and that part of him that placed his trust in Christ.

From the “Pursuing Kierkegaard” interview with Paul Muench on 3:16 AM, emphasis added

I am no Kierkegaard, and no “philosopher” (If by philosopher we mean some genius with academic and perhaps cultural clout, which is often how we use the term — wrongly. But I digress.). But I have sometimes wondered whether my own desires — to “be” a philosopher or a theologian, to be a teacher, to write and to think and to be someone who does those kinds of things — are actually just a way for me to avoid the difficult, internal work of what it means to “become a Christian” (as Kierkegaard would say). Kierkegaard was truly brilliant, but I think he struggled with this in ways that I get but can never fully comprehend. It’s almost as if he forsook his personal religious conviction in order to bring to light the peculiar religious situation of nineteenth-century Denmark. It’s a remarkable way to live, and a remarkable choice to make.

Twitter and the Shape of Our Knowledge

From Yascha Mounk’s piece at The Atlantic, “The Problem Isn’t Twitter. It’s That You Care About Twitter.”:

Being active on Twitter has practically become part of the job description for some of the most influential people in the country. Any politician, journalist, or CEO who does not engage with social media gives up a precious chance to shape the conversation. And any public or semipublic figure who fails to monitor what is happening on the platform risks missing attacks or accusations that can quickly find their way into the headlines of national newspapers and the chyrons of cable-news shows.

Obligation breeds habit and habit addiction. The most active Twitter users I know check the platform as soon as they wake up to see what they missed. Throughout the day, they seize on the little interstices of time they have available to them—on the way to work, or in between meetings—to follow each new development in that day’s controversies. Even in the evening, when they are settling down to dinner, they cheer attacks against their enemies, or quietly fume over the mean tweet some anonymous user sent their way. Minutes before they finally drift off to sleep, they check their notifications one last time.

I’ve been off Twitter for a while now. My posts still go to a Twitter account, @cdbaca, but I do not have access to the username and password, because I know the dangers of Twitter for my own personal well-being. But I’m not here to toot my own horn about my digital habits. I have enough other bad habits that prove I am no internet saint.

This piece at The Atlantic made me think of Neil Postman’s claim that new technologies bear new epistemologies. In other words, the technology that we use make us all think differently about two things: (1) what we can know and (2) how we know those things. In Technopoly, he writes,

new technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop. (20)

Postman was no technophobe — he’s just relatively hesitant about the uncritical use of new technology that’s so prevalent in our society. We should be wary, in other words, of uncritical engagement with technology, because the use of technology often (always?) comes with its own way of framing how we picture the world. The same is true for language, which is maybe the postmodern insight.

Twitter is really interesting in this regard, and I think — I hope — that some of us are coming to our senses about the way that heavy Twitter use forms our sense of what we can know and how we know it. Limiting ourselves to short, pithy sentences that attempt to convey religious, political, philosophical, or existential meaning will absolutely have an effect on how we view those spheres of human life.

And ultimately, I wonder if that means that we ought to extend Postman’s thought about the effects of new technology. New technologies don’t just bear new epistemologies; after we accept that new epistemology (or framework of knowledge), we are led towards a new metaphysics (what reality really is), and ultimately a new way of understanding values (aesthetics and ethics).

Done Teaching (for Now)

Friday will constitute my last day teaching the combination class for seniors on philosophy in the fall and personal finance this spring. A couple of things I learned while teaching:

  • Teaching a subject is an amazing way (and maybe the best way) to learn something. This was especially true in the philosophy course, which allowed me to explore various topics by working them out vocally with my students.
  • Teaching a subject is also a great way to show you just how much more learning you have to do about something.
  • Teaching in general is really hard. I only had one class I taught at a time, and lesson planning became pretty difficult to keep up with by the middle of the school year. I can’t imagine how public school teachers do this full time. Full-time teachers deserve far more respect than they are given in our culture, and that includes K-12 and higher education.
  • Teaching (along with coaching cross country, which I have done for the past two years) feels like the most meaningful work I have ever done in my professional life. I’m not naïve enough to think that I’m making some dramatic change in my students’ lives, but the fact is that you can’t spend a whole year with a group of students without affecting one another.

Unfortunately, I’m unable to continue teaching in the high school next year. There are too many other things going on in my full-time job preventing my pursuit of teaching for now. I’m slated to teach a freshman orientation class next fall, but that’ll be it next semester. Hopefully that will change in my near future.

What’s Worth Doing Every Day?

I really dig Austin Kleon‘s attitude regarding creativity, writing, and productivity. His advice is usually simple, easy to follow, and ultimately probably for everyone (even if you aren’t creative).

Recently, he was interviewed about his routine (which seems to be a recurring theme in his work) on Extraordinary Routines. A few gems:

I think routine is so important, especially when you’re getting started creatively, but for me right now, I almost need checkboxes and rituals more than I need routine…

Whether in the form of checkboxes or a routine, this process makes the morning hours crucial to his creativity. “The most important thing for me to do is to write my diary and to write a blog post. If I have done that, then the day in some ways is a success.”…

Instead of aspiring to perfection, we can learn to accept and nurture our imperfect tendencies. We don’t need to sand off our edges, as Austin puts it. “We’re so obsessed with life hacking and with becoming these productive, shining examples of ourselves, but so much of good creative work comes from being a person that has tensions in their life.”

That’s helpful advice, especially considering my post yesterday. By becoming obsessed with good quality productivity, life-hacking, and perfection, I’m forcing myself into inaction on the things that I want to be doing. Checkbox-thinking and routine-thinking forces us to take action, regardless of our perceived faults.

And that makes me wonder, what’s worth doing every day? What’s “checkbox worthy” in my own life? Theoretically, I’d want them to be as simple as possible:

  • exercising for at least five minutes a day
  • praying or meditating for at least five minutes a day
  • reading at least one chapter of a book
  • writing something on the blog, even if it’s just a few words

That’s probably not the whole list, but perhaps it would be beneficial to me to start thinking through to help me overcome my desire for control and perfection when attempting something new.

I Take Myself Too Seriously

I’m not super into things like the Enneagram, but I kinda get it. I’ve taken the test multiple times, and I usually fall somewhere in the Enneagram Five range. That type is usually labelled as “The Observer,” “The Investigator,” or something along those lines. Honestly, I actually think the type matches my personality pretty well — better than any other personality test I’ve taken (except for the scientifically-validated “Big Five” test, which is generally accurate over the course of someone’s lifetime, and does a good job of predicting success in certain areas).

Assuming we take my Enneagram type as valid — or at least as a true story that I tell myself about myself — I think it accurately captures something about my personality that frustrates me. You see, as far as I can tell, fives are generally the kinds of people who are planners. In order to protect ourselves from the chaos of life, we research, attain as much knowledge as possible, and plan as much as possible before taking action (especially long-term action). I would think that’s probably associated with risk-aversion, meaning I’m not likely to simply make a big life change without attempting to understand the potential impacts of the decision as much as possible ahead of time.

To be fair, there is some good here. I have a family, and risk-aversion has probably helped us to be relatively steady financially. It has helped maintain my family’s feelings of security, and we’ve been (mostly) free of any real challenges that we couldn’t manage up to this point.

The problem, however, is in my daily life. My risk aversion only allows me to take action on decisions about which I feel like I completely understand. I’m not likely to simply jump in on a project, work on a new idea, or start a new venture without an excessive amount of forethought. I’ll spend weeks or months turning an idea over in my head and researching before I decide to just “go for it” (and even then, it still feels like “going for it,” instead of a long, drawn out process to me; it never, ever feels like I know enough when I finally do come to a decision).

This problem shows itself in even the smallest places in my life. I love running, for example, but struggle to maintain a consistent routine because there is so much conflicting data out there about what my weekly workouts should look like, how I should prevent injury, and how I should ultimately plan out a training regimen if I’m going to tackle, say, a marathon. The same can be said for something like blogging. I love that blogging is something simple and easy. I can just open up a browser window, throw some words on the screen, and call it good. Unfortunately, my brain wants a plan for the blog. I want to have some series of things I’m writing about. Some weekly goal that I should be meeting. Maybe the blog’s ultimate purpose should be a space for the book I’ll write some day, etc., etc. And on top of that, when I do sit down to write a blog, I feel inadequate to address whatever topic it is that I’m attempting to write about, because I almost never feel like I know enough about the topic to say anything at all. Objectively, I know that’s probably wrong. The fact is, to anyone who even takes the time to read this, I know more about Søren Kierkegaard than any of you ever will. The same can be said for certain areas of philosophy and theology.

In other words, I think I take everything I do just a little too seriously. It’s like without the affirmation that my work is going to take in all of the available context and that I’m likely to not be wrong about what I’m saying, I don’t want to pursue that action, because I don’t want to take on the risk of being wrong.

And that’s a flaw that I think I need to work on.

Jordan Peterson’s Rules vs. the Gospels (#1)

After giving it much thought, I felt like it was time to delve into Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I gave this a little time because of all the fanfare/backlash associated with Peterson’s name over the last 12-18 months, and I didn’t want my feelings (which admittedly came from one YouTube video, a few articles, and the social media monster) to affect my read of the book.

I am currently on chapter two, but I felt it best to write my thoughts out instead of letting them swirl around in my head. I think I may end up writing responses as I read Peterson’s “rules” in order to better understand the kind of worldview they function under and how that worldview can be compared and contrasted with a more fundamentally Christian understanding of the world and of human beings. Or at least an understanding of these things compared to how the Gospels present them. We’ll see

At the outset, I’ll say that Peterson is much more reasonable than I anticipated. I’m only into the preface and chapter one, but it’s clear to me that he’s touching on something that many people in (post?)modernity are grappling with, even un- or subconsciously. It is unsurprising that people are latching on to Peterson’s “rules” for life, which provide a kind of harbor for creating meaning in a world that seems more and more fractious and fraught with tension than has ever been the case historically.

Peterson’s first rule is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” By this, he means:

To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. It means adopting the burden of self-conscious vulnerability, and accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood, where finitude and mortality are only dimly comprehended.

Chapter one jumps between several different concepts — chaos and order, an evolutionary model of human beings and our place in the animal kingdom, and dominance/hierarchy/social structures. He weaves these concepts together into a model that gives a foundation for why “standing up straight with your shoulders back” is a key to human growth, meaning, and existence.

I won’t go into all the details of his examples, but I will delve into the evolutionary model a bit. Peterson uses observations of animal hierarchies and social structures — particularly lobsters — who have been around, according to him, for 350 million years. He seems to think that the age of lobsters in evolutionary terms lends credence to the idea that their social structures feed into human social structures. Perhaps this is a fair point, but I don’t know. It’s certainly a powerful example. Ultimately, he indicates that the lobster social structures of dominance and territorial control explain human behavior.

He writes:

The part of our brain that keeps track of our position in the dominance hierarchy is therefore exceptionally ancient and fundamental [like lobsters]. It is a master control system, modulating our perceptions, values, emotions, thoughts and actions. It powerfully affects every aspect of our Being, conscious and unconscious alike.

Because of this, he goes on:

If you slump around, with the same bearing that characterizes a defeated lobster, people will assign you a lower status, and the old counter [that places you within your own social hierarchy] that you share with crustaceans, sitting at the very base of your brain, will assign you a low dominance number. Then your brain will not produce as much serotonin. This will make you less happy, and more anxious and sad, and more likely to back down when you should stand up for yourself. It will also decrease the probability that you will get to live in a good neighbourhood, have access to the highest quality resources, and obtain a healthy, desirable mate. It will render you more likely to abuse cocaine and alcohol, as you live for the present in a world full of uncertain futures. It will increase your susceptibility to heart disease, cancer and dementia. All in all, it’s just not good.

Peterson isn’t dealing with absolutes here, or so it seems to me. He’s speaking in terms of likelihood and statistical probabilities. He’s saying that if we act defeated, it’s likely that we’ll be defeated. When lobsters lose in a battle over territory, they are more likely to be defeated in future battles too, because of the reduced serotonin in their brains. The loss of serotonin leads to some kind of depression, which decreases their likelihood of success in the future, both in terms of gaining territory and gaining access to quality food and mating choices.

The same is generally true, Peterson says, of human beings. If our defeats lead us to droop downward (physically and emotionally), we are less likely to think we can be successful in the future. This may lead to a lack of willingness to take risks for the purpose of gaining greater rewards, which in turn means that opportunity simply won’t present itself. Ultimately, this becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. Peterson quotes here Matthew 25:29 (although I’m not sure that this is ultimately the point of the passage): “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.

Peterson is walking a fine line here, and I can appreciate what he’s doing. The ultimate point of rule #1, it seems to me, is that truly living life means facing the challenges that life brings head on. If we are to live (and live meaningfully), it’s important that we “accept the terrible responsibility of life.” I don’t take any issue with this. In fact, I agree that this is part of the human task. Suffering, death, tragedy, and the mundanity of everyday life are challenges we simply must face up to if human lives are to be meaningful in any real sense.

However, the other side of the line he’s straddling is a somewhat implicit affirmation that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, face life head on, and opportunity will more than likely present itself. Further, if we face life in this way, we’re less likely to suffer in tragic ways, less likely to become terminally ill, and less likely to live in squalor and poverty. To that I say: maybe, maybe not. The Jesus I read about in the Gospels has a lot to say about social hierarchy, and it’s not always positive. “The last shall be first” is a hard saying, and is likely a critique of Peterson’s point. Perhaps the reality of social hierarchy is that those who have will be given more, and the strongest (mentally and physically) are the ones who ultimately prosper. But Jesus also seems to be saying that the state of things is not and indicator of how things ought to be. We get it wrong when we think the strongest are the ones who are the winners.

My evaluation of rule #1: it’s a good starting point, although I think Peterson may be fundamentally wrong about why it’s a good starting point. Standing up straight with your shoulders back, in Peterson’s view of the world, is just a little bit different in its aim than Jesus’ call, say, to “Take up your cross and follow me.”

Inerrancy is a Loaded Term

In a recent episode of the Ask N.T. Wright Anything podcast, N.T. Wright discusses the idea of biblical infallibility and his discomfort with the use of terms such as “inerrancy” and “infallibility” to describe what Scripture is and what it is meant to be. Basically, he doesn’t like any of the “in-” words. Instead, he prefers to use words such as “trustworthy” — as in, Christians ought to regard Scripture as trustworthy in all of its writings.

This is an important shift, in my opinion. He never technically denies that “inerrancy” is an accurate description of Scripture, only that it is a weak descriptor. Technically, describing a set of writings as inerrant is to say that the writings are incapable of being wrong. But in practice, we understand it to mean something different — that is, we take calling Scripture inerrant to mean that it is always historically accurate in all of its writings unless it explicitly says otherwise. The problems with this are twofold:

  1. We are separated from these writings by thousands of years. Do you know how difficult it is to discern an author’s purpose from this historical vantage point? When we read the creation account, for example, how are we to accurately determine whether that account is meant to “literally” recount historical events? And what do we lose by saying that it doesn’t?
  2. The whole reason that we are concerned about historical accuracy is because, at some point, the Western philosophical world decided that “inaccurate” historical retellings automatically discount the authority and trustworthiness of the writing/document in question. This is especially true for religious Scripture — somehow, we determined that we needed to defend historical accuracy so that we could also defend the theological trustworthiness of Scripture. This is specifically because of some epistemological concerns that were borne out of debates from 300-400 years ago!

That means that concerns about Scriptural inerrancy are all bound up with philosophical concerns that the writers of Scripture themselves were not concerned about. Thus, N.T. Wright’s comments. He doesn’t ever deny that Scripture is inerrant, but he takes issue with the term because of its cultural and philosophical baggage. Instead, he wants better descriptors (trustworthy, authoritative) that will help Christians to encounter the text that we have anew. Because when Scripture is described as trustworthy, it changes our own stance towards what we are reading. No longer are we concerned about whether an event could possibly have happened literally or historically (and, therefore, concerned about whether that could discount its trustworthiness in our minds). Instead, by regarding it as trustworthy, we can come at the text asking what it might teach us about God, about human nature, and about our ability to relate to God.

Knowledge is Not Equal to Possession

To know what a human soul is, what this means, is still a long way from beginning to gain one’s soul in patience, and it is a knowledge that exhibits its difference from that gaining inasmuch as it does indeed grow in impatience. And even though this knowledge may have its significance, it often deceived a person the very same way the world does, in that he thought he possessed it, whereas it was his knowledge that possessed him.

Søren Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, “To Gain One’s Soul in Patience”

SK here is reflecting on Luke 21:19: “In your patience you will gain your souls.” (Side note: this is the weird Scripture reference in That Thing You Do! when Guy asks his uncle when the records they just recorded will be made. He responds “Luke 21:19,” and the bass player simply responds by quoting the verse (in what I think is KJV) — “In your patience possess ye your souls”)

Whether Kierkegaard and I seem to have the same concerns about knowledge, or whether reading him has formed how I personally think about knowledge and its temptations, I do not know. This particular discourse was difficult to read, but the gist of it was simple. He reflects on the fact that we gain our souls in patience. For SK, it is the act of being patient itself that is the way in which we gain our souls. The “in” here is key for him — he doesn’t think it is “through” or “by” patience, for that would indicate that we can practice patience, gain our soul, and then be done with patience. No, quite the opposite. It is, in some ways, the act of patience wherein our souls are gained.

Near the end of the discourse, he flips over to those who come at this discussion by asking what a soul is in the first place (which is where the quote above comes from). The question of knowledge is simply another way of being impatient for SK. And, in some ways, it’s an even more devious form of impatience, because it covers itself up by being distanced and seeming wise by asking the question. Those who ask such questions are simply delaying the requirement of the verse itself. It’s another way of attempting to turn what should be subjective knowledge into objective knowledge.

This is probably the ultimate temptation for academics like myself. I want knowledge, and as much of it as possible, before making a decision about how I ought to live. But that’s not really the point. The point is that in some cases, the doing is the knowing.

Anderson .Paak

I’ve been a little bit into Anderson .Paak ever since I saw his NPR Tiny Desk Concert:

I just love how funky the whole set was, and that he brought a full on drumset into the tiny desk area.

Recently, I also downloaded his interview with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast. Two things struck me in the interview:

  1. First, he came across like he was just having such a freaking good time. Like he is constantly thinking “I can’t believe I get to do this!” He seems extremely happy, chill, and just excited to be making music and interacting with the people he’s interacting with.
  2. Second, I found out he got his start playing music at church! I wonder how many artists that have sort of made it big got their start in the local church. I think the church often functions as a sort of egalitarian musical landscape. If you’ve got even a little bit of chops, and you want to give it a shot, then come on. In a lot of these environments, there seems to be the idea that if you’re interested in being here and using what you’ve got, we want to have you.

And then, of course, the interview turned me on to some of .Paak’s older stuff. The gem I’m currently listening to now is his Cover Art album with the Hellfyre Club band. You can listen to the whole cover mixtape here. Notable songs so far: “Such Great Heights” (originally by The Postal Service) and “Seven Nation Army” (originally by The White Stripes).

It’s really cool to see an artist doing what he loves and loving what he’s doing.