Monthly Archives: October 2018

A Critique of Criticism

The problem with criticism in the arts is that it often performs the opposite of its intended purpose. There are many ways that this can happen. Most brazen are the outlets which exist only to sell albums and assure consumers that their mediocre choices are worthwhile. This is why we are told again and again that dreadful albums receive “generally favorable reviews from music critics.” This is how Marvel movies never fail to get a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Criticism then becomes an extension of advertising.

But there is also a problem for any critic, however principled: if you label something mediocre, you are still giving a mediocre work your attention and calling others’ attention to it. But if you don’t address it and judge its flaws, will the masses not proceed to feel pleased about consuming schlock? Unconscionable! The critic’s most noble task is to encourage readers to take up great works and to teach them how to interpret. The corollary to this is discouraging them from wasting their time on the vacuous. This task is more important than ever when our leisure time is so vast and constant that any individual can devote hours and hours every day to passive consumption of media, especially film, television, and music. You used to have to go to a specific place to watch a film. You used to have to go to a concert to hear music! Yet we have music and films and pornography in our pockets at every waking moment. What will choose to do with all of this time on our hands?

I would hope a small portion of that otium could be spent attending to the murmurs of critics, because criticism is the only thing that keeps culture descending into pornography. A little leaven leavens the whole loaf, as it were. (Of course when the Apostle Paul says this in Galatians and Corinthians, he refers to false teaching; let us hope that we referring instead to the kind of leaven Jesus calls the kingdom.) But by the murmurs of critics, I mean not just the words of professional advertisers disguised as critics or even highbrow tastemakers but the murmurs of everyone in their critical aspect.

Truly criticism is the job not just of an elite few in New York, but of the masses. Word of mouth is a kind of curation, and so everyone is their own curator, and a curator for their friends and family. You find out about the best works of art because of who you are friends with and who you listen to. Within this there can be specially appointed representatives who have the most insightful opinions, and we might even pay them for it. Now someone who we pay for their opinion is simply a teacher, or a counselor.  Imagine yourself a god-king of old, with sages kneeling at your throne! (But no, rather, we are all counselors in the court of the great king, the consumer, who is at once each of us and none of us.) One specialization of the counselor is a critic. A critic is there to announce to the world: pay attention to me, because I can recommend the best music, films, literature, and I can show you how to interpret and enjoy them.

All well and good. But how can you write reviews of the mediocre without inadvertantly drawing attention to works that should be shunned? The best thing to do would be to just ignore it entirely, it seems. But then you would never be read by those who need to hear what you have to say the most. At its worst this would result in an elitist enclave where wealthy white people pontificate on the carefully arranged thoughts of elegantly dressed singer/songwriters who go on cruises and write memoirs. The material in question may or may not be valuable, but the community built around it is one deeply insulated from the real community, the pulse of the times, and more interested in cultivating an aesthetic of thoughtfulness than actually being thoughtful. It’s a tricky thing to advocate for canonical works and excoriate the mundane without becoming an appendage of this subculture of simulated refinement. Isn’t that what the highbrow critics are for, anyway? As an auxiliary to the wealthy class which needs to pose as dignified and wise? Perhaps.

The conundrum is that now the middle class has the leisure time which in the past only the aristocracy had. Just as the upper class is insulated and isolated from the toil and struggle of survival within nature by their wealth, the middle class now is just as disconnected from the front lines of domination over nature. It’s taken for granted. But trampling down nature makes the path that much faster. So we end up having all the time and opportunity in the world, but because we generally lack the inheritance of generations of good education and best practices when it comes to cultural navigation, we proceed in a much more dowdy way. Middle class people don’t have to eat and dress and consume media in the lazy way that they do; it simply doesn’t occur to them to do otherwise. But those are the kinds of advice that I am trying to seek and then pass on as best I can. Things can be shared now that could never before. All the classic works of art and literature are on the internet now. There’s nothing stopping a diligent person from accessing true treasure. This is a great gift. But they need someone to convince them that it’s worthwhile and help them along. Are we going to take true advantage of the opportunities that our generation has to study more deeply and widely than past generations, or are we going to spend every night in the stream? I need garbage so that I can unwind, says the lazy consumer. If you continue down that path you may wake up one day to find yourself a raccoon.

I say this not to try and foist elitism on people. I am concerned with actual dignity and actual wisdom, and the artifacts we integrate into our lives form our sense of dignity and wisdom in many ways. In ways that might be overstated sometimes, to be sure, but more often understated, I believe. It is fair to say that the words and images of our cultural artifacts are deep tributaries into the subconscious as well as our common sense. I want others to dream well. I want the common sense of the whole world to be better. I want my neighbors to be more inspired. I want members to be more informed about the great body of society that they constitute. I want buzz and word of mouth to be about events and works that are truly edifying instead of indulgent and vapid. There are artifacts which are evil, which make you less informed, more confused, more complacent. But individuals will not change their habits without someone to convince them otherwise. Wise judgment of texts requires teaching, and teaching requires a community. Therefore a critic ought to be someone willing to teach, and subject themselves to the standards of teaching. As a critic yourself I invite you to join me.

Although many works are evil and wasteful to engage, that’s not to say that a critic needs to like everything he reviews. But everything he reviews should be worth reviewing. Whether I like Hemingway’s prose style or not, he is still worth scrutiny. Many things are not worth scrutiny at all, and I am still unsure of how best to convince others of this.
You see, the critic ought to be convincing his audience not to watch a bad movie, or read a worthless book. But to do that in the form of a negative review, he has to have seen it himself. Does this make him a hypocrite? Not necessarily… but not necessarily not.

The critic can be seen as a sort of scapegoat, taking on our entertainment burdens and suffering for the rest of us. But I feel that most times, when dealing with a subject receiving popular attention, we know what we are getting ourselves into. Books can be judged by their covers, and movies by their trailers, and albums by their reputation… sometimes. Sometimes – and perhaps this is getting rarer and rarer – we truly can be surprised by treasure hidden within a seemingly mediocre shell. It is in this nebula of uncertainty that the critic must exercise prudence. We are all critics and curators for ourselves and for one another, and so we must all learn prejudice wisely. Truly, truly I say to you: every kind of food comes with its nutrition label.

When Jesus returns and judges the world, it is hard to imagine he will place a high priority on our films and records. But our deeds in general do matter and we must judge and criticize them ourselves lest we find ourselves without excuse before the celestial tribunal. So many of our deeds these days seem to take place not out in the fields or on the streets but before a screen. I want all of the deeds of my fellow man relating to his own entertainment to be righteous ones, for his own benefit as well as mine.

One righteous deed that immediately comes to mind is that we all ought to be consuming less art. So much more could be gained from more active hobbies! Somehow we can’t stop making new movies and watching them. But let us assume we are all disciplined and healthy already. Still we will find ourselves reading or listening to something and recommending it to others. Wanting to be a professional critic is a dangerous thing. You are saying ‘I ought to be paid to spend all day on my ass, and then give my opinion about it.’ Yet the critic ought to be (and they never are) an advocate and practitioner of moderation in media consumption.

How can this be possible? In order to keep up, it seems they must be reading, watching, listening constantly, gorging themselves. It is their job after all. It makes one wonder what it would be like if we could see the mental self of the average critic. They might be thin and neat in their appearance,  yet their mind is bloated with the wreckage of artworks that have never fully digested during their decades long buffet inside the imagination of others. Good and bad, they have tasted of every dish. The opinions they offer might be crisp and rhythmic but deep in their soul they waddle around petulantly, looking for more interesting nonsense to sate their brain. This isn’t the kind of person you want to learn from. But I need to gorge myself for my job, they say. And yet here we all are, unpaid critics.

What Is It Like To Be A Woman?

“I assume we all believe that women have experience. After all, they are mammals, and there is no doubt that they have experience than that mice or pigeons or whales have experience. I have chosen women instead of wasps or flounders because if one travels too far down the phylogenetic tree, people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all. Women, although more closely related to us than those other species, nevertheless present a range of activity and a sensory apparatus so different from ours that the problem I want to pose is exceptionally vivid (though it certainly could be raised with other species). Even without the benefit of philosophical reflection, anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space with an excited woman knows what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life.

I have said that the essence of the belief that women have experience is that there is something that it is like to be a woman. Now we know that most women perceive the external world primarily by sonar, or echolocation, detecting the reflections, from objects within range, of their own rapid, subtly modulated, high-frequency shrieks. Their brains are designed to correlate the outgoing impulses with the subsequent echoes, and the information thus acquired enables women to make precise discriminations of distance, size, shape, motion, and texture comparable to those we make by vision. But woman sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine.

This appears to create difficulties for the notion of what it is like to be a woman. We must consider whether any method will permit us to extrapolate to the inner life of the woman from our own case, and if not, what alternative methods there may be for understanding the notion.

Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one’s arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one’s mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a woman behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a woman to be a woman. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications.

To the extent that I could look and behave like a woman without changing my fundamental structure, my experiences would not be anything like the experiences of that animal. On the other hand, it is doubtful that any meaning can be attached to the supposition that I should possess the internal neurophysiological constitution of a woman. Even if I could by gradual degrees be transformed into a woman, nothing in my present constitution enables me to imagine what the experiences of such a future stage of myself thus metamorphosed would be like. The best evidence would come from the experiences of women, if we only knew what they were like.

We may ascribe general types of experience on the basis of the animal’s structure and behavior. Thus we describe woman sonar as a form of three-dimensional forward perception; we believe that women feel some versions of pain, fear, hunger, and lust, and that they have other, more familiar types of perception besides sonar. But we believe that these experiences also have in each case a specific subjective character, which it is beyond our ability to conceive.

If anyone is inclined to deny that we can believe in the existence of facts like this whose exact nature we cannot possibly conceive, he should reflect that in contemplating the women we are in much the same position that intelligent women would occupy if they tried to form a conception of what it was like to be us. The structure of their own minds might make it impossible for them to succeed, but we know they would be wrong to conclude that there is not anything precise that it is like to be us: that only certain general types of mental state could be ascribed to us (perhaps perception and appetite would be concepts common to us both; perhaps not). We know they would be wrong to draw such a skeptical conclusion because we know what it is like to be us. And we know that while it includes an enormous amount of variation and complexity, and while we do not possess the vocabulary to describe it adequately, its subjective charater is highly specific, and in some respects describable in terms that can be understood only by creatures like us. The fact that we cannot expect ever to accommodate in our language a detailed description female phenomenology should not lead us to dismiss as meaningless the claim that women have experiences fully comparable in richness of detail to our own. It would be fine if someone were to develop concepts and a theory that enabled us to think about those things; but such an understanding may be permanently denied to us by the limits of our nature. And to deny the reality or logical significance of what can never describe or understand is the crudest form of cognitive dissonance.

One might also believe that there are facts which could not ever be represented or comprehended by men, even if the species lasted forever-simply because our structure does not permit us to operate with concepts of the requisite type. This impossibility might even be observed by other beings, but it is not clear that the existence of such beings, or the possibility of their existence, is a precondition of the significance of the hypothesis that there are humanly inaccessible facts. (After all, the nature of beings with access to humanly inaccessible facts is presumably itself a humanly inaccessible fact.)

Reflection on what it is like to be a woman seems to lead us, therefore, to the conclusion that there are facts that do not consist in the truth of propositions expressible in a human language. We can be compelled to recognize the existence of such facts without being able to state or comprehend them.” – Michael Thomas Nagel

Zapata

A dream is the origin of all things—the first creatures, the first man, the first story ever told.

Last year, my older brothers wanted to climb a mountain with me. We are all in our old age now and some of the ones between have since passed. The idea came from our father, really, who wanted always to climb a mountain with his sons. The time never came, unfortunately, because people are stubborn and the imagined and the ideal is rarely preferred over practical matters.

But this, and this is why I am writing this, is the saddest thing about dreams. Who will be there to tend our dreams when we have stopped tending them? It is hard to believe in really anything when we stop blowing life into the fires of the invisible worlds inside of us. I for one have in my old age decided to hold fast to the dreams inside me, hold fast for dear life. When my dreams perish, I am afraid my belief might perish with them.

So this is why we went. We were far into our hundred years and admittedly it was quite a surprise to all three of us that we had made it this far. The other family members for some reason did not have built in them this stubborn durability that, long after the moment I preferred dying, kept me here on earth.

The mountain chosen was Mount Ébrus which formed over Boston for some complex geologic reason during the earthquake that shook the whole world. It is a new and popular mountain to climb for the younger generations of Americans, especially because the rocks on the northern slope form very natural steps. Before climbing, I asked David if we should scout the route digitally.

“It’s constantly updated by younger climbers,” I said.

“No, man” he said, “that’s lame. We got to forge a path ourselves!”

He made me nervous. In fact, it was the tendencies of my older brothers that made me nervous about the entire thing. There was nothing for me to fear about climbing a mountain with natural steps and that had as its track record no fatalities. I had hoped to provide myself at least some assurance by seeing the route virtually on my computer, but even that was denied me.

Nathan was silent, because those we have discovered who live longer than all the rest suffer from strange processes. Nathan’s mouth had slowly been covered over by a thin layer of skin which unfurled from his lips like drapery untied. He communicated with writing and mumbles that were easily understood as either “yes” or “no.”

If you wonder why he did not get some surgery to fix this, like all the rest of the young Americans seem to be getting these days, he had. He had gotten the surgery and his lips like drapery were tied back up again, only for them in his sleep to fall back over his mouth and bind with one another in the center as a hard, keratin knot. I will spare you remaining details about this anomaly, as well as the biological errors incurred by me and Dave’s protracted senescence. It is not a testimony for nature but a testimony against nature that with decline we gain bonus features that in no means supplement our functionality. We have known this about age for a long time, but it is always presented to us as some natural fixture. In fact nature acts quite unnaturally in my mind and in the case of Nathan’s lips, overrides the purpose of a structure once invented.

Mount Ébrus and Grant State National Park

In order to go get to Mount Ébrus—may it live long, that mighty giant that with its heavy base swept the floor clean of human accretion—we had to go through the swamp that is Grant State National Park. Now Grant State National Park, a nature preserve managed jointly by the state of M———- and the Big State, used to be one of the most beautiful parks in America. It still provides a tremendous view of the Atlantic. And we saw the green waters rise in pyramidal waves as if someone had slammed a fist on the table and shaken the water in the cup of the ocean.

Now Grant Park is a swamp because of the waters that rose after the earthquake that shook the whole world. People do not go there anymore, except zoologists to inspect the zapatas that have overrun the place.

People did not know zapatas existed before the earthquake, nor now that we know do we know where they came from. I have a personal fondness for the things and our trek through Grant Park was the first time I had ever encountered them.

The swamp water of Grant Park came up to my shins and I had to wear rain boots over my hiking shoes in order to get through. But the zapatas were everywhere in the water. I was afraid of stepping on them. You could not see all of them, because of the yellow of the water. The oaks and the maples shook their dying branches above us. Their half-naked branches provided little shade and the zapatas hid under the shade provided by the combovers of submerged long grass.

Natural History of Zapata testimoniensis

No one knows the real origins of Zapata testimoniensis. They just showed up in the park one day. They have no real predators besides the feet of hikers making their way to Mount Ébrus. You really do try hard to be careful and not smash the things under your feet, but you also think to yourself, “The loss of two or three zapatas never hurt a fly.”

Indeed, it would do the flies some good, because that is their primary diet.

Zapatas look like little winged turtles. They have four long, transparent wings that come from under the curve of their shell which resemble those of a dragonfly. They are, however, quite longer and make a huge racket. When they get water on their wings, it’s no big deal. The water is cast quickly off their wings during flight, spitting droplets everywhere.

Zapatas take flight from under the water, or rather, they jump out of water for a moment and immediately begin their zinging zip into the sky. It is lovely to hear one or two take flight, but to hear hundreds take flight ceaselessly, like it is in certain parts of Grant Park, is a terrifying and loathsome thing to witness.

A mature zapata can weigh a little over one pound, but sproutlings might weigh when they are birthed a mere ounce. Male zapatas are longer than their female counterparts and are about three inches long. Females, on the other hand, never get longer than two inches. The main body of a zapata is like a long, scaled lizard, but with a big shell resting on its back in apparent comedy.

Males are darker in color. A deep gold goes down their backs from their beaks to the ends of their stubby tails, surrounded by a dirty brown. Their shells are dark brown, almost black, and have little red spots on them as if someone had flecked a bunch of red paint at them from a distance with a brush. White markings in humanlike geometry define the segments of their shells.

Females have smaller shells that are much less interesting. They are plain old brown, but their bodies however are a gorgeous white, whiter than any mom on earth could bleach them. When they fly, males and females alike, they make their tails rigid and extend their squat fingers outward.

Their beaks are elegant, but short. No one has seen a zapata hide inside its shell. As a result, we do not know if it is possible for them to get their bodies and their wings to fit inside their shells. It might merely be that zapatas are not as shy as other turtles, or as defensive. They have no need to hide inside their shells, because they are never threatened and to be frank, as I mentioned, their only predator of human feet will not very much be stopped by their thin shells.

It is a terrible sound to hear the crackle of a zapata’s shell when you step on it. The guilt that washes over you is unlike anything else I have ever experienced. I feel so bad about it. I never look down, because I fear what I will see, but I do always apologize. It is typical for young climbers going through Grant Park to cross themselves whenever they hear that crackle.

Nevertheless, even though we feel guilty about it, zapatas themselves are not pitiable and weak things. They are quite aggressive. Of course the personalities will vary even within a given population, but in general, zapatas go out with much gusto in pursuit of their primary food of flying insects.

Zapatas can chomp with their beaks, which hurts like hellfire, but they catch their food primarily with their long, quick, sticky tongues. The tongues of a chameleon. This is why it is customary for climbers going through Grant Park to wear full masks and long sleeves, because there is nothing like the lash of a zapata tongue against your skin. Many climbers have come out of Grant Park partially blind because some tongue stabbed their eye. You really have to go into Grant Park wearing the getup of a beekeeper, though you are not keeping bees, but trying not to step on turtles. Unfortunately, there is no other way to get to Mount Ébrus unless you got flown in.

Like I said, not much is known about zapatas. We do know even at a glance is that they have a kind of symbiotic relationship with the picnic tables in Grant Park. They use the tops of the picnic tables as communal nurseries where all the little sproutlings with their thumbtack-sized shells bask and grow from the sun rays and where they are easily accessible to their parents who feed them. They crawl all over each other and, though they cannot fly with their curled preemie wings, can get across the table with rapid movements.

I made a huge mistake in the first few moments we got into Grant Park. I really did not want to step on them, but I could not see just how many of them were in the water. Luckily, zapatas seem to recognize the presence of approaching feet and so it is usual that dozens of zapatas might take flight right in front of you. Others seem to be more stubborn, or don’t care to move anyway, and those are the ones you step on. If you were really careful, you might splash the water in front of you in hopes that they all get out of the way, but you really can never be too sure. For they dig themselves under the soft mud of the swamp and are hid quite well with their dark shells.

Anyway, a zapata flew right towards me bit me on the arm. I jumped onto one of the picnic tables, not knowing that the little ones were there, and stepped on a number of them. That only aggravated the zapata mommies. They had apparently been watching in scores from the water. All the sudden, I was surrounded by them and they were shooting their rigid tongues against me. The bruises they left were extraordinary.

I finally jumped off the table and the mothers left me alone, but that is a story I will never forget.

Zapata testimoniensis is so named by the natural theologians.

I do want to mention before I leave what I feel is the lesson Zapata testimoniensis teaches us. And that is that they are not a testimony of nature, but a testimony against it. For nature seemed to say, “Turtles cannot fly.” And the first zapata said, “Watch this.”

It seems like God formed them not out of the dust of the earth, but out of swamp itself. God seemed to say, against nature, that this simply must exist.

It is strange how nature seems to be against itself, how it presents to us some general pattern for our consideration and then in other moments those within nature, the zapatas and humans and all the others who shock us, say, “No, not this time.”

But I need to go now, it is time. May someone contemplate the significance inherent here and may this entire story be a testimony to the potency of dreams.

Moscow, Idaho and the Internet

CALEB JOSEPH WARNER

Earlier today, I got coffee with Toby Sumpter, my previous pastor, just to catch up. There was no agenda on the table or anything, which makes small talk with anyone a difficult and awkward business. Next time with anyone, I’ll try to remember to have some questions ready.

I wanted to meet, because we had met for coffee in the past, as in months ago, and he knows me and I know him and I feel it is important to reconnect threads even if you now have different daily life patterns.

Anyway, a few days ago, I was putting out the sign for the consignment store I work at, The Storm Cellar, only to see Toby walk by. So on a whim I said, “Let’s get coffee.” Toby works just two buildings down from where I work most days.

We got coffee at One World Café on the corner of the same street we both work on. A friend came by and interrupted us for a moment, which was good, and then another friend came by and interrupted us for a moment, which was good, too. Five or six people walked by and we both waved at them. One of the people was Douglas Wilson, who like these other people, are the kinds of people that seem to have their assigned paths in downtown Moscow as a sort of rotating menagerie of personalities.

This might all seem like random information, but let me paint the picture. Toby and I have a good hourlong conversation. We succeed in catching up! When I go back to Bucer’s Coffeehouse to finish my remaining copyediting work that I am behind on for the day, I log into Messenger. There in Messenger, a group of friends are dialoging about some spat that happened between Toby and Austin Storm, co-owner of The Storm Cellar, on the internet.

“Crap,” I say, because I hate it when things like this happen. I have no idea what my friends are talking and making jokes about, but it is falling in line with patterns of past arguments. Arguments not between Toby and Austin exclusively, but arguments that exist on the internet between small town folk that have an insane amount of emotional charge to them that result in talking about what was said and why for the next week—depending on the charge loaded into the battery of words.

These internet spats have always been a discouragement to me. Maybe that means I am weak or that I can’t handle the heat. What I think it means more is that there is some systemic failure at play with how we do discussions. And these systemic failures seem inextricably woven into small town dynamics.

For me to make a blog post like this might smack of small town tabloid, but so be it. I am trying to help myself and others in treading as wisely as possible what seem to me systemic failures of how people speak about each other in Moscow. I am dead to emotion about this. My only emotion is tiredness and exasperation when I have for the fifth time someone ask me, “So, did you see what *blank* said?”

May it be so that my response can always be, “No, I didn’t.” Yet what happens on the internet does not stay on the internet.

For posterity and for the sake of a future fruitful discussion, let me record what was said here. Toby tweeted publicly on his Twitter:

We’ve been paying premiums for decades for ripped jeans and torn looks. It cannot come as a great shock when we begin paying doctors to try to rip our genes with hormone therapies and genital mutilation. Ripped & torn, nipped & tucked, we hate the image of God.

Austin publicly replied on Twitter:

I’m stupider for having read this. It’s apparent the pun came first and then you felt obligated to moralize with it. You’re binding the conscience about distressed jeans? This is profoundly unfitting of a minister of the gospel. Please stop.

Toby replied:

Pretty sure there are support groups out there for folks distressed by pastoral puns. And no, not binding consciences at all, but definitely trying to poke hard hearts with whatever sticks the Spirit sends my way.

Austin said on facebook:

Moscow’s most precocious thought leader strikes again!

It’s abundantly clear that the “jeans / genes” pun came first, and the obligation to moralize with it came after.

If we must pontificate on the meaning of distressed jeans, we might say they represent taking shortcuts to get the signs of age, care and hard work. I do not see the connection to hormone therapy.

The end result of the tweet, for anyone who takes it at face value, is binding the conscience about distressed jeans of all things. This is profoundly unfitting of a minister of the Gospel. I feel stupider for having read this, but it also has the potential to be destructive for those who approach it seriously. As Toby recently said to Kyle Howard, “Please stop.”

Pre-emptive answer to frequently asked questions:
1) Why do you pay attention to Toby? Because he is the head of the board of NSA, and its de facto mouthpiece through his role with Crosspolitic. He has been hired by CC (as best I can tell) to do social media full-time, and his output influences my friends and neighbors.
2) Why don’t you talk to him in private, where the demands on ego are less and he might better receive your critique? I did this for five years, and not only was I not a help to Toby but the end result was him inadvertently gaslighting me. He’s being an idiot in public, and the fact that more people don’t call him out on it is a communal failure. Either people have written him off or they don’t want to embarrass the institutions who have given him a platform. Neither approach is good.
3) You’re just going to take this post down in a few hours, aren’t you? Yes I am.

First off, Toby, you COMPLETELY were out of line with how you used an ampersand. Typically, ampersands are only used for titles of books and such. You should be ashamed. And Austin in your final reply, you neglected to observe the oxford comma in your list of three. It reads “signs of age, care and hard work,” which is not a list of three, but rather a list of two things—age and care and hard work. This is a clear indication of rejecting a powerful grammatical tool.

Oh, how unhelpful it is when someone like Josh Gibbs, who doesn’t even live in Moscow, references the “Bill Hader eating popcorn” GIF to show that he is armchair-entertained by the argument. Plenty of other people do this. It is precisely the wrong kind of levity. An argument between two good people would be entertaining if it was done well.

I am baffled, really am baffled, at the complete strangeness of having a good conversation with a friend while my other friend is working on telling me that I am failing if I do not say he is stupid. “He’s being an idiot in public, and the fact that more people don’t call him out on it is a communal failure.” That means I am failing if I don’t call Toby an idiot publicly. But what does calling Toby out look like?

Talking in person is not the end-all-be-all solution to social media fracas. I appreciate that Austin engaged with Toby’s point publicly and did not feel bound to engage a public claim privately. That is a helpful impulse and I hope he doesn’t delete his post. If an individual wants to delete his facebook post, he should feel free to give into that very natural, but somewhat unfortunate, impulse to make a follow-up post.

Which is why it all the more behooves us to walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time and to let our speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that we may know how we ought to answer each person. This speaks buckets to how we ought to speak to each other in publicTo speak publicly is to walk with outsiders and to speak publicly requires that we make the best use of our time by seasoning our speech with salt. 

Beyond disdain for certain rhetorical practices or the prudence of speech, there is still the question of how we ought to speak to each other.

What I mean to say is that these Moscow sprats—I mean spats—often become arguments about rhetoric and tone and all that jazz. But we have been here before, haven’t we, so why should we go back?

Because the command to season your words with salt is for you, not for you to have another stick to measure the righteousness and potential public imprudence of another person. Let them speak without salt, let the fool be the fool. But how you ought to walk is with wisdom.

What does walking with wisdom look like in a small town where individuals discuss issues with one another online?

Forgive me if it has taken me too long to get here or if I have been vague because I know I have been. But we need to reconsider how we discuss matters publicly. What does being gracious look like when discussing matters publicly?

Being gracious means offering people grace and to extend grace is to bestow on someone, a la the classic definition of grace, a gift freely given. A wonderful way to be gracious in public discourse is to not freight your replies with past grievances. Everyone has failed to speak wisely in the past and has failed to speak wisely to one another in the past. But do not take the opportunity of another’s folly to point out how they have failed in the past or how they have harmed you in the past. Not only is it unforgiving, it is also beside the point.

And the main point is a particular claim, not the rhetorical packaging it comes in. In order to best answer someone in their folly, you must look beyond their lack of salt and their ungraciousness and engage with their point presented. If you need to, ask a follow-up question. Do not assume that you know the point they are making.

If Toby’s main point in that tweet is muddled by imprudent rhetoric, it does us no good as listeners to point out the muddled rhetoric. It does us all a heap of good to ask the speaker what he means. The next thing that ought to happen in a discussion is to not obsess about the way someone failed to communicate, but to aid in making them make their point better than they could have made it themselves. And once their point is clear, respond to that point.

If someone has been a real fool in their speech, if they spoke imprudently, if someone is a fool, you can let them be a fool. When it comes to this blog post of mine and whether or not I am being a hypocrite by levying my concerns about Austin’s rhetoric, and whether or not I am being a fool by doing so, I would say that my concern goes far beyond this particular shindig. I am addressing instead a pattern that occurs in this small town with a rotating cast of characters, sometimes me being one of them.

Proverbs says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.”

Proverbs says, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”

What this means is that there is a way to answer a fool that makes you like him yourself. There is also a way to answer a fool that reveals to him that he is not wise.

You become like a fool only if you speak like him, without grace and without salt. You reveal to a fool that he is not wise by asking him what he meant and being passionate about the truth. You reveal to a fool that he is not wise by essentially following the due process of discussion, which a fool does not do. A fool does not ask the right questions or speak clearly or care to be clearly understood. A fool has other goals in mind when he speaks. A fool is looking to appear wise. You prevent him from appearing wise by with patience uncovering through due process what was his folly.

If you really think that someone else is being a fool, that is the moment to become very careful about how you are talking to them. Put in your mind that hypothesis. Dialog first with yourself. Say, “I believe I am talking to a fool.”

With that hypothesis in mind, perform the experiment of extending them grace. If they do not receive that grace, they are a fool. If you with your patience do not receive patience in return, they are a fool. If you discover they are a fool, you are not obligated to call out their folly. Let the discovered knowledge of their folly govern your replies.

If you are wrong about their folly, but assume you are right, you will become a fool. If you are right about their folly but do not follow due process in uncovering their folly, you become a fool. What is due process?

Due process is being gracious. Being gracious means giving them in basic parlance the benefit of a doubt always—which is the Dollar Store version of forgiving your brother seventy times seven times.

I cannot with how I am speaking now get any closer to what I mean, so let me give you an example of how I think discussion should be done. I have in mind the kinds of discussions that occur at Evan and Leslie Wilson’s Big Haus. We are to follow godly examples and I believe that the Big Haus provides us a godly example with how to discuss with one another, yea verily, even in Moscow, Idaho.

I have felt this for a long time, but there has always been in my mind two examples of doing discussion in Moscow. There is the way of speaking to one another through blogs with freighted rhetoric and subterfuge, it seems, about speaking about one another instead of speaking to one another. There is then the way of talking to each other in person surrounded by other people.

The latter kind of discussion occurs at the Big Haus. The Big Haus is the primary ministry of Evan and Leslie in the model, however loosely, of Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri. And what is their primary ministry? People live there, yes, and they give drinks and food to people, yes. But the greatest ministry offered is talking to whoever walks into their door. Of providing the means and venue and hospitality and couch for anyone who wants to come and speak their entire mind to someone else.

Here’s the thing. People say stupid, tremendously stupid, things at the Big Haus. I have said stupid things at the Big Haus.

What is so beautiful about their library or their porch is that stupidity is weighed rightly. Grace is extended to the stupid. Sometimes the stupid are even called stupid, if it is fitting, and in the semi-public venue this is, I have never seen it result in a fracas.

People, men and women of all ages, have serious and stupid conversations alike at the Big Haus. They have heated discussions. And even if these conversations are not fruitful, heck, they are done with grace extended.

Fools speak at the Big Haus. I have seen it many times. But when a fool speaks, the conversation does not immediately get ruined by a further fool (not always, anyway). The culture of discourse there is such that when a fool speaks folly, people respond to him with graciousness. They give him the benefit of a doubt, they make jokes with him, they ask him what he means, they reveal his folly by not being fools themselves, but by being wise in their treatment of him.

The discussions that happen at the Big Haus do not happen online. This is a strength. Why? Because the kinds of discussions that happen at the Big Haus at times, were that they were on the internet, would divulge into exactly the kinds of conversations that result as seen in the comments section on facebook.

If Toby said what he said on twitter at The Big Haus and Austin was there, and three or more other people were there, that would have been fruitful.

Maybe I am not the best person to write this blog post, however, because I cannot exactly pin down the difference between the two kinds of discussion. I know that it is not just the fact that one takes place on the internet and the other takes place in person. I do know that both take place in a small town where everyone knows each other.

And I fear that when we speak to one another online, we do not use the public opportunity to extend grace. For some reason, there is this insanely unhealthy cycle of remaining silent for long periods of time while someone speaks online and then this heated flurry of replies all of the sudden. Would that we were talking to each other more, more consistently and with much more grace. We would be able to have tremendously fruitful discussions if we only had them more often and had them with far more patience for one another, not using a bad turn of phrase to take control of the righteousness of someone else, but using our right turn of phrase to turn someone gently in the right direction.

Endless forgiveness reveals folly. Sometimes forgiveness must be extended for what you feel is imprudent rhetoric. Beyond this forgiveness is the extension of grace to one another. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. These are guidelines for discussion. The question I have is how much of this gets lost in digital translation.  

I love you and I love the people I do life with here in Moscow. You’re likely one of them. I may not have made my point as clearly and succinctly as I could. I kind of fear that this entire blog post was an exercise in vanity, which I guess is fine, because ultimately everything I do and say is going to waste away. May our folly die out before we do.

October 1, 2018

CALEB JOSEPH WARNER

The past few months has been a rediscovery of my ambitions and the equal discovery that I do not feel ready to make anything happen.

I will just say this and say it clearly: it is depressing to be in the same place you were five years ago. Not just in the same location, but in the same economic and cultural status. Despite the fact that I have graduated college with a pretty but questionably functional degree, I do not feel like I am going anywhere. If I am going somewhere, it is certainly not fast.

At this point in many of my peers’ lives, they have climbed higher mountains. I aspire to climb mountains like this and in this recognition there is no envy on my part at all. It is convicting. It forces me to ask which mountains I am going to climb.

The fear that this realization puts in me has not yet spurned on activity and diligence. And I will just say this clearly: being in the same place I have been for half a decade is a temptation for me. It is far too easy to be comfortable and to close my eyes and sleepwalk here.

All this being said, I am getting the clear message from Reality that it is time to move on and maybe in all these past blog posts that I have written, this is the bush that I have been beating around.

I feel like I am still in the camp at the base of the mountain, sipping beer and taking naps. But one by one, people are climbing up the mountain. And there is never going to be a time when it is time to go. The innkeeper will never say to me, “Isn’t it time you headed out?” I’m keeping him in business with my dawdling.

Oh, if only I can just come out with a book, I would maybe feel ready to move on. Even if it is bad, which it is. And how on earth can I make it better? I will be stuck in the cycle of bettering my craft for ever if I do not come out with a book soon.

The difficulty of climbing the mountain is that all the guides left before I even arrived here at this inn, at this camp. There are a few people in the corner, smoking and playing card games. Maybe I could convince some of them to come with me, but undoubtedly they will not climb at the same pace as I might. Maybe that additional struggle to climb with others would be good for me, but the fact is that climbing the mountain itself seems like a task insurmountable.

It is good to climb with others, but who are these others? And what comfort are others when they also do not know the way?

Maybe it is time to reclaim the terminology of Jesus as friend. For Jesus to be our friend does not come with a clear meaning or message. It is an ambiguous claim. You think that it means that Jesus is like a good friend you are comfortable with.

But to call Jesus our friend is to call the Lord of all creation our friend. That makes me far from comfortable. It shocks me. Imagine, trite though this sounds, that the Queen of England—that final vestige of royal demonstration—came to your home and kicked up her feet on your coffee table? Would that make you comfortable, or would it be confusing and unclear about how to best relate to her?

Not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord,” will have this kind of relationship with Jesus. I find that the mystery of Jesus being our friend is a mystery akin to Jesus being the Son of David and his Lord simultaneously. What is Jesus to me?

He is a Lord who I can call friend and if you doubt the biblical basis for the term, remember that Jesus had a best friend. Remember that Jesus is before but like us, son of God. Remember that Jesus is called your brother. The equality we share with Jesus is a privilege suddenly bestowed.

This is not what our earthly relationships with brothers and friends are like. With brothers and friends on this earth, we share a comfort of familiarity and undefined origins. This is especially true with siblings. When did the comfort with them begin? It began when you both began. And how many good friendships start unclearly? This is a quality they often take on, though good friendships are not defined by their ambiguous origins. I remember some first conversations with friends. I do not remember when I began to feel like I shared a secret knowledge with them, the mystery of being knit together. That takes time. How many friends do we carry with us in life because it was declared, “You will be friends now?”

I can point to times when my parents wanted me to be friends with certain kids. My mother would declare, “Go and play with him.” Playing with him was the last thing I wanted to do. I could see in his eyes that he felt the same way. As soon as friendship was declared by a higher authority, friendship died. Friendship takes being knit together in love, even though it might be wordlessly the life situation that pits you both together in some dark wood.

But our friendship with Jesus is something declared and from there, we must learn what this means. Friendship with Jesus at first is something rightly to be feared. It is good to watch your words in the presence of the living God. It is good to weigh the seriousness. But even before we were friends, Jesus knew my every thought and ambition and desire. How can you reveal too much, how can you misspeak in front of the one who knows already what it is you want to say?

Yes, it is good to fear this. But from there we learn to no longer fear the one who himself gives the weight to our thoughts and ambitions and desires. Perhaps we fear what we might say, because he is the one who gives substance to our every living breath. And we want to please him, we want to make a good impression. We know that it is possible to pray and plead in vain. We can ask for the wrong things.

Friendship with Jesus means that we must claim for ourselves the comfort of his presence, despite all the sin that once clung to us. To be friends with Jesus is to be purified. To fear what we are going to say is the beginning of the broken and contrite heart he asks for.

The world despises this knowledge Jesus has already of us. The world despises that he knows our every thought. If only the world knew that Jesus no longer condemns where there is no sin. Jesus changes our thoughts and desires.

Did Jesus associate with tax collectors or did Jesus associate with tax collectors who feared him? Did Jesus associate with whores, or did Jesus associate with whores who feared him? Does Jesus associate with you, or does Jesus associate with you who fear him?

Jesus is not friends with anyone. He is friends with those who first call him Lord and by calling him Lord, his servants are welcome to join his table like the most important guests. The servants are the last who expect this privilege.

I did not expect this privilege received by calling Jesus my Lord. But when I am sitting in the inn at the base of the mountain wondering who I might climb with, I know that I will never have to climb alone.

Our friendship with Jesus is not some invisible replacement of real friendships. If friendship with Jesus meant only that we have a spiritual connection to heaven, it would be as if Jesus said to us, “Go in peace, be warm and filled,” without giving us any food or clothing. We have asked Jesus for companions and will he give us no one? We would be fools not to be satisfied with divine communion, but communion with God means communion with the ones possessed by God bearing his name.

This companionship is not what it looked like before friendship with Jesus. Friendship with Jesus is enmity against the world. And so those smoking and playing cards in the corner of the inn, I need to ask them, “When and where are you going?” And even if they might walk at a different pace than I am used to, if they are going to the same place, they are my people.

And so the prayer should be, “Reveal to us our companions and reveal to us where we are to go.” This is my prayer right now and I have another prayer, too. “Show me how you have already crucified my ambition and resurrected my desires, so that I can confidently move on from this place. Prepare for me a path and remove me from the temptation of being too comfortable.”