The Appeal of ISIS

August 13, 2015

You shouldn’t miss the NYT article on sexual slavery under ISIS. For me it demonstrates, even more than mass beheadings, the systematic evil of this would-be state. Sexual slavery is a planned, systematized, regulated practice—and a religious practice at that. It describes ISIS members praying before and after raping young girls they hold as slaves.

A complementary piece is Roger Cohen’s column musing on the appeal of ISIS. He notes ISIS’ “unquenchable appeal” to an international clientele. “It is clearly tapping into something deep,” he writes, and adds, “Perhaps that something is at root a yearning to be released from the burden of freedom.”

For some ISIS’ appeal may be sex and violence, the chance to be cruel and triumphant. But the West offers a fair opportunity for sex and violence too. Cohen is probing something deeper: a revolt against the West’s determined drive to extend near-absolute freedom to every choice: whom to marry, when to divorce, when to die, whether to have sex, and with whom, and so on. He quotes novelist Michel Houellebecq, who sees France facing “a crisis that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be.”

Right now the loudest voices (and the most successful politics) belong to two extremes: the advocates of order, such as ISIS, and the advocates of freedom. But I think humanity’s true home is in a bounded freedom. This is the image of Eden, in which a garden is set out in the larger world, which human beings are to keep and explore, while not coveting the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Even if you agree that we are meant to flourish in a bounded freedom, it’s no small thing to figure out how to set the boundaries. The politics are bound to be fractious. Whatever is done, is bound to be wrong sometimes. Nevertheless, it helps if we keep that image clear in our minds, and try to build our lives around it. We are meant for freedom—creativity, innovation, exploration. We are meant also to avoid the temptations of the absolute, set right in the center of the garden where we pass them by every day.

Another Take on Atticus Finch

August 5, 2015

A friend sent me this review of Go Set a Watchman. It’s really about what it’s like to live in a racist society after you become aware of how wrong racism is, and yet find yourself involved and implicated in it by the people and the society you love. This, the author Ursula Le Guin suggests, was the young Harper Lee’s subject, until an editor derailed her and set her to write a naive, white-liberal-self-congratulating book. She thinks the failed, earlier book (the one just now published) was actually a lot more truthful than the beautiful and famous later book.

Myself, I appreciate books written from a child’s perspective. That’s what To Kill a Mockingbird is: a child’s memory of her father, the epitome of goodness. Children see their fathers as heroes in a way they almost never do as adults, but the child’s perspective is a valuable one. We could do worse than to see the world through the eyes of a little child.

There is also a more adult tale to be told, far more complicated and troubling. As a matter of fact, no white man in Harper Lee’s society was ever as good as Atticus Finch. I say that having read a great deal of civil rights history. I am aware of only one or two candidates for the Good White. Almost invariably those who sought to be Good (and there weren’t many of them) got hounded out of town.

Today, when we have become alerted all over again to the persistence of racism in our society, we need both children’s tales and adult tales. We need to hope, and we need to deal with complex reality.

Creating Wealth

August 3, 2015

Can I register my disapproval of a phrase that crops up in business stories more and more? It’s “creating wealth,” as a description of what entrepreneurs (and business people generally) do. As in this story from The Guardian: “Creating Wealth: how artists can become inventive entrepreneurs.” Or an interview with New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, headlined, “Is specialized job training the key to creating wealth in New Orleans?” Or a recent story in The New York Times: “But if Mr. Modi is serious about creating wealth from India’s waste….”

There are some points in favor of the phrase: it emphasizes the creativity of capitalism, and it’s usefully generic, on the level of phrases like “building the economy.”

What I disapprove of, however, is its emphasis on wealth as the end product of business, instead of useful products and services. Granted that some people in business don’t care what they do so long as it makes them rich. But that is typically an attitude of people in non-creative service industries, like much of finance. It is what rentiers and speculators do. It makes some people rich by making other people poor.

If you want to be an entrepreneur, I doubt it serves you well to focus any large share of your attention on getting rich. You want to focus on a specific product or service that will make you rich by providing a concrete good. This is the business of entrepreneurs: creating Uber, creating the iPod, creating Amazon.

To focus on “creating wealth” is the King Midas mistake. You think you get rich by magically turning things into gold, but you discover that if the whole world is gold, you become desperately poor. Focus on useful products and services, and you may become rich; focus on becoming rich, and we may (societally) become impoverished.

So artists who want to get rich should focus on becoming better artists better serving art lovers; New Orleans should focus on streamlining business formation and providing good education and creating safer streets; Mr. Modi should focus on effective recycling policies. That’s the creativity of capitalism; wealth is a byproduct.

Os Guinness and the Art of Persuasion

July 23, 2015

Christianity Today has posted my interview with Os Guinness, talking about his latest book, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (InterVarsity Press). Guinness is a thoughtful man who has some worthwhile things to say.

Atticus Finch and Bill Cosby

July 21, 2015

I’ve been fascinated by the upset caused by Harper Lee’s new rendition of Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman, her followup to To Kill a Mockingbird. Evidently Atticus does not come off as quite so morally heroic, and that bothers people.

To which I want to say: Atticus Finch is a fictional character. Another novel that uses his name is just another novel, and another character named Atticus Finch has nothing to do with the first Atticus Finch. The character in To Kill a Mockingbird is his forever; it was complete when Harper Lee published the book.

I think this way because I’m a novelist. I love novels, but I know that they are illusions, carved out with careful intentionality by their authors. Novels may tell you some important truths—I believe they do—but they do not create lives. Only God does that.

My wife explains to me that people long to believe in heroes during these dispiriting times, and Atticus Finch is a hero. I take her point. How many characters in modern fiction can one see as genuinely heroic? I am having trouble thinking of a single one, besides Atticus Finch. Perhaps the upset over Atticus represents people who want heroes left alone.

Okay, I get that, but could we focus on defending heroes whom we know to be real people?

My thoughts about fictional heroes apply almost identically to the trouble with Bill Cosby. Of course, it’s upsetting that Cosby has turned out to be a wretch. (Or is that too kind a word to apply to a serial rapist?) But there are many serial rapists in the world. The particular trouble with the idea of Bill Cosby, serial rapist, is that we believed he was such a nice man. We believed, in fact, that he was our friend. Naturally we feel betrayed.

But that feeling of betrayal is based on a hopeless and willed naivete. I will contend (and here I rely on my experience as a reporter, not as a novelist) that the public figures we read about and see on TV—the athletes, movie stars, politicians, preachers and even scientists—are just as much fictional characters as Atticus Finch. Enjoy their performance, and draw inspiration from it, but resist the temptation to think you know anything about the real person behind the performance.

I’ve had a few experiences of this, with Christian celebrities who were widely believed to be wise and saintly characters, and whom I came to believe (from personal encounters) verged on the psychotic. Unless you know people personally, and know them well, you have no idea what they are like. Their public persona is an image, as carefully crafted as a character in a novel.

Bill Cosby of public life—let’s call him “Bill Cosby”—was a lovely old curmudgeon, funny and wise and delightful. “Bill Cosby” represented a projection of something that the real Bill Cosby wanted to be, and perhaps in small portions could be. But “Bill Cosby” has no more fallen than Atticus Finch. And you don’t know the real Bill Cosby, and Bill Cosby wasn’t your friend. Thankfully.

Disappointment with God: Naomi’s Story

July 13, 2015

Here’s an audio link to the sermon I preached on Sunday. It’s a sketch of Naomi (in the book of Ruth), her bitterness and disappointment with God, and the way in which God reached into her situation. The sermon lasts 23 minutes, and I think it’s pretty good!

Some Compensations

July 13, 2015

This is a nice piece from the Sunday New York Times about Alzheimers, written by a man whose mother is actually much more playful and fun than she ever was in her regular life.

“Nice piece about Alzheimers” may seem an improbable collection of words, but I was reminded of my own father, who died nine years ago. Please understand that it was an agonizing process to witness a brilliant man gradually lose all his faculties. There were some compensations, though. He said thank you, and showed genuine gratefulness, in a way that he had rarely done in his more competent years. A more tender and relational side came out. As his speech ran out, we had physical contact we had never known before: holding hands, touching, hugging. When I remember those years, I don’t recoil in horror. It’s bittersweet.

I think people generally are scared to death of Alzheimers, as though it’s the worst thing that could ever happen. It’s bad. I wouldn’t wish it on any family. But I’m sure it’s not the worst thing.

Self-Driving Cars

July 7, 2015

I feel a lot of interest in Google’s development of a self-driving car. The technology is certainly here, now. We could roll out a whole new regime of driving in five years, from what I can see. What hold us back are political and legal concerns. People are made very uneasy by something so new occupying such a central place in society. They are wary of large, heavy objects hurtling about without human guidance.

So my question is: what will push us past these concerns? What positive attractions will convince us to adopt this exhilarating, life-changing innovation?

There is the possibility of greatly alleviating traffic woes, as computer-driven cars need much less safety space between them. There is the prospect of much greater highway safety, as drunk drivers, distracted drivers, and poor drivers no longer put themselves and the rest of us at risk. There is the attraction of reading a book, playing a game, or watching a movie while you drive.

There is the ambition (of car companies) to sell millions of new, wonderful, expensive gadgets.

For my money, though, the force most likely to propel self-driving cars into orbit is my generation: aging baby boomers. Old people don’t drive as well. Old people ultimately don’t drive at all. They thus lose control of their lives: can’t shop, can’t go to the doctor, can’t go to a concert, can’t go to church. Somebody else has to drive them.

But with self driving cars, elders can remain independent much, much longer. When they (and their children) realize this, they will be hard to stop.

Are We Doomed?

June 24, 2015

My two favorite columnists, David Brooks and Ross Douthat, have now weighed in on Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, here and here. While both give Francis high marks for bravely tackling the subject, and both appreciate his wonderful personal qualities, neither one of them sees the encyclical very favorably.

Brooks approaches it more practically, noting that “Francis doesn’t seem to have practical strategies for a fallen world.” He’s consistently against any market-driven innovation and any technological advance. There’s no acknowledgement that market-driven economic growth (as in China and India) and technological advance (as in crops that grow more food) have led to a huge diminishing in world poverty and hunger in the developing world, and to environmental improvements in the developed world. Brooks concludes: “The innocence of the dove has to be accompanied by the wisdom of the serpent — the awareness that programs based on the purity of the heart backfire; the irony that the best social programs harvest the low but steady motivations of people as they actually are.”

I agree with that, but I thought Douthat’s comments were more penetrating. Douthat divides social commentators between “dynamists and catastrophists.” Dynamists recognize severe problems but have moderate hope that human society is capable of innovative solutions. They “see 21st-century modernity as a basically successful society.” Catastrophists are sure the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and nothing can stop it. They are “united in believing that current arrangements are foredoomed, and that only a true revolution can save us.”

These two are more rhetorical style and temperament than developed philosophy. You can find both liberals and conservatives on both sides. Living in Sonoma County, I often encounter liberals who see utter ruin just ahead: to the environment, to the economy, to education, to democracy. And being an evangelical Christian, I often encounter conservatives who also see utter ruin just ahead: to the family, to traditional values like love of country, to freedom of religion (or any other kind of freedom.)

Dynamists of the left believe in the power of governmental and technocratic solutions, while dynamists of the right believe in the power of market arrangements.

According to Douthat, Francis is a catastrophist. He sees nothing but ruin ahead for God’s creation, given our current political and economic relations.

As I say, I catastrophism is a rhetorical style, beloved of the prophets. Such doomsday verbiage captures the attention and the imagination. It may help motivate people to take global warming seriously, before it is too late. That, I feel sure, is Francis’ intent, and I suspect he is willing to pass by nuanced discussion of economics in favor of getting his message across. He is a preacher by nature and calling, it seems.

As Douthat suggests, however, there are other possible outcomes that could make Francis ultimately look as foolish as Paul Ehrlich and his population bomb. “It’s possible to believe that climate change is happening while doubting that it makes ‘the present world system … certainly unsustainable,’ as the pope suggests. Perhaps we’ll face a series of chronic but manageable problems instead; perhaps ‘radical change’ can, in fact, be persistently postponed.” Or perhaps we will settle into stagnation, unable to deal with our threats, but also unable to triumph over them.

“In that case,” writes Douthat, “the deep critique our civilization deserves will have to be advanced without the threat of imminent destruction. The arguments in ‘Laudato Si’ ‘ will still resonate, but they will have to be structured around a different peril: Not a fear that the particular evils of our age can’t last, but the fear that actually, they can.”

As I read the Bible, stagnation is not the main threat to worry about. Neither is ecological destruction, significant as it certainly is. I find the Bible offering no hint whether environmental degradation will destroy us in the end or not. I do find a clear warning that our sin—our selfishness, self-worship, arrogance, lack of concern for our neighbor, refusal to care for the poor and to steward God’s beautiful world—will lead us to be judged and found wanting by our creator. That catastrophism requires a different kind of analysis—not one based on our environmental survival, but on our standing before a God of love and power.

On the Pacific Coast Trail

June 23, 2015

I just got back from backpacking in the eastern Sierra. At least a dozen years had passed since I was last in the back-country for a solid week, and it reminded me that there’s a big difference between being out of civilization for seven days instead of three. We spent the whole week over 10,000 feet, climbing over four near-12,000-foot passes. I discovered that I can’t go as far or as fast as I once could. Six miles with a pack and I was thrashed. But that’s okay. You can take the Sierra slow.

That is decidedly not the theory animating those hiking the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). I was frankly shocked at how many of them we saw. They were easy to spot by the men’s (and they were mostly men) scraggly beards. They were young, tall and lean. They had very similar equipment. (I assume they all read the same guidebook.) And they were burning up the trail, traveling unbelievable distances each day. Of course, they had already hiked nearly 800 miles, so they were in pretty good shape!

One Kings Canyon National Park ranger said he heard that 4,500 PCTers had registered. Granted that many drop out, that’s still a lot of bodies traveling on one narrow wilderness trail. They start in roughly a one-month window, in order to make it from Mexico to Canada before the snow. You do the math. If half drop out, that’s 75 a day.

Another ranger told us that the numbers have been ratcheting up year by year for a long time. Apparently the movie and book Wild has stimulated a big increase. I suspect the numbers will ratchet back down. Who can spend upwards of six months hiking? Who wants to? (It’s not all scenic wonderland.) The ranger, however, was doubtful. He sees no end.

When I was a boy, backpacking was a niche phenomenon. After a two-week hike we would find people at the trailhead who had no idea that anybody did such a thing. They acted as though they had discovered Neanderthals still living in the remote reaches of the woods.

Then, during my college years, “nature” met its cultural moment. The trails grew so popular that the National Parks and the Forest Service had to implement daily trail quotas. But hikers went in mostly for short trips—weekends or weeks. They hiked to experience wilderness and see the mountains. Most of that died out, when we had children.

Today, the focus is on feats of endurance. It’s very impressive, completing the PCT. And anybody who has fought long and hard to accomplish a goal knows there are great personal benefits. But still it leaves me with questions. Is this what the mountains are for? A proving ground for our toughness?

I suppose it goes with the growth in extreme sports. Our time seems driven to test our limits—on an individual and personal basis, not as a society. (We seem allergic to sacrifice and goal-setting as a nation. We can’t even agree on how to fix our bridges and pave our roads. Maybe we’re balancing that out with demanding physical feats.)

I thought about John Muir, who wandered these same mountains. When you read what he did you are struck by his heroic and stoic endurance. The dude was tough and fearless. In that sense, he would have identified with the PCTers. But he wasn’t tough to prove himself; he was tough because that was the easiest way for him to be in the mountains. It was the wilderness he sought, not an affirmation of himself.

The mountains will outlast this cultural moment. They will speak for themselves. I wonder whether some of the PCTers will come back for a second look, when they can slow down. I bet they will.


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