Friday, February 27, 2009

How Times Have Changed

So my wife looked at the calendar, and decided she'd better start preparing curricula for next year's homeshooling efforts.

(No, really--she's serious, and she has good reason. For one thing, we started the Pillowfight Fairy's first grade year in early July, instead of late August or early September; and if we keep with that schedule, it means the next school year begins in just four months. And besides, with Tonya pregnant--and pregnant with a Trisomy 13 baby with severe developmental abnormalities--it's likely that May, and possibly June, are going to be Really Bad Months. She figured it would be best to get all this planning out of the way now, while life is still fairly normal.)

So she has lots of educational materials scattered around the place. And, on a lark, I picked up McGuffey's Second Eclectic Reader from a pile of stuff yesterday and started flipping through it. And there was one story in there that caught my attention, which I'd like to share with you and comment upon.


In case any of my readers aren't familiar with them, the McGuffey Readers were a set of books used as reading texts, which have been around in one form or another since 1836, and later versions were still in regular classroom use into the second half of the Twentieth Century. Even though they aren't used in the Public Schools anymore (as their literary passages have a strong religious/moral component to them), they are still not infrequently used in the homeschooling community. I wrote about them at length here.

Although there's some debate among homeschoolers about the exact reading levels, most estimates I've seen put the Second Eclectic Reader (1879 edition, which was the latest one) at about a third- or fourth-grade level. Since the Fairy is reading a bit above her grade level, we're thinking that it's about right for her.

So, curious as to what kind of moral lessons Mr. McGuffey was going to teach our little girl, I opened it up at random, and read the following.
Lesson XIV


1. Henry was a kind, good boy. His father was dead, and his mother was very poor. He had a little sister about two years old.

2. He wanted to help his mother, for she could not always earn enough to buy food for her little family.

3. One day, a man gave him a dollar for finding a pocketbook which he had lost.

4. Henry might have kept all the money, for no one saw him when he found it. But his mother had taught him to be honest, and never to keep what did not belong to him.

5. With the dollar he bought a box, three brushes, and some blacking. He then went to the corner of the street, and said to every one whose boots did not look nice, "Black your boots, sir, please?"

6. He was so polite that gentlemen soon began to notice him, and to let him black their boots. The first day he brought home fifty cents, which he gave to his mother to buy food with.

7. When he gave her the money, she said, as she dropped a tear of joy, "You are a dear, good boy, Henry. I did not know how I could earn enough to buy bread with, but now I think we can manage to get along quite well."

8. Henry worked all the day, and went to school in the evening. He earned almost enough to support his mother and his little sister.
So, what do you think?

Well, by modern sensibilities, this story is something of a heavy-handed morality tale. Not that our modern sensibilities are against heavy-handed morality tales, but they tend to be heavy-handed about different things (ethnic diversity, the environment, healthful diet, acceptance of alternative lifestyles, et cetera).

But the moral lesson of this tale seems, well... simplistic to us. A young boy (by the looks of the picture, a pre-teen), who's lost his father, who spontaneously decides to start working to support his family, while going to school in the evenings? And he actually succeeds at paying most of his family's bills? And we're supposed to believe this stuff? We're supposed to give this really, really contrived story to our children, and expect them to accept such a moral lesson when the world depicted in the pages of the Reader is so different than the one our kids inhabit?

Well, um... yes.


As I said above, modern sensibilities also thrust heavy-handed, highly-contrived morality tales on our kids. That hasn't changed; all that's changed is the set of values that's being pushed. And one of the reasons that the above story seems so contrived upon a first reading, is that our values regarding childhood are so different now than they were in the late 19th Century.

What is childhood? What are children supposed to be doing with their time? What are children supposed to have accomplished by the time they turn 12? 16? 18? 22? 29?

I present for your consideration two different schools of thought on this question.

Here's the way people thought of childhood back when America was primarily a rural, agricultural society--back when Mr. McGuffey was writing his books. Childhood was, simply stated, training for adulthood. Kids are born without the survival skills they need--they don't know how to raise (or kill) their own food, they don't know what activities are safe and what are dangerous (and there are plenty of things on a farm that can get you killed), they don't have the moral fiber yet to get up and keep working even when they'd rather stay in bed (behavior which, in subsistence farming, will eventually cause you to starve). If a kid is going to set out on his own at age 18, then that 18-year-old must be fully-formed, fully-adult, fully mature; he can't be lazy, he can't be incompetent. He must know everything about growing and raising food, about caring for animals (and then slaughtering and butchering them), about how to survive winter, about binding up wounds, and so forth. By the time a girl reached adulthood, she needed to know everything there was to know about clothes-making: sheep-shearing or cotton-harvesting, spinning, weaving, dyeing, sewing, and mending. She also had to know all about food gathering, preserving, and preparation--starting with, say, a cow.

(Here's a cow. Now use it to feed your family....)

So from a very early age, these kids were faced with very immediate real-world problems and harsh realities. Farm kids knew the facts of life from a very early age--after all, they often, um... lived with their parents and siblings in small farmhouses without a lot of privacy. And they watched the livestock mating, and knew exactly what was happening. These kids knew about death; most kids in large families lost at least one sibling before they reached adulthood. And people didn't go away to hospitals or nursing homes to die; kids watched their elders grow to senescence and dependence in front of their eyes, and then when the time came, they helped bury them.

In this environment, children had tremendous responsibilities put upon them starting from very young ages: as soon as you were old enough physically to do some task, you had to do it--no shirking. Even very young children had to go fetch water, or fetch wood for the fire, or feed the animals. And as the kids got older, their responsibilities grew, until kids as young as what we would consider Junior-High age were capable of running the farms.

But in this environment, adulthood is a state greatly to be wished. Children have nearly as many responsibilities as the adults do, but they do not have much freedom; because they have not learned fully to control themselves yet, the adults had to maintain discipline. But as the child matured and learned to do the work on his own, he was granted greater freedom and independence. When kids became adults, they still had all the responsibilities, but they had the self-control needed to live up to them without needing a disciplinarian.

So under this paradigm, childhood had many very heavy responsibilities but few freedoms; as the child matured into adulthood, the freedoms increased. Adulthood was thus seen by children as something to be desired, and it came (by our standards) relatively early.

That view of childhood isn't very prevalent today.

What has replaced it is a view of childhood as unspoiled innocence; the idea that childhood should be a time of wonder and exploration, that should be enjoyed as (in many ways) the best part of a person's life. Children's responsibilities in the modern world are often limited to schoolwork and household chores--and the latter of these is often only sporadically enforced. The idea that children need to learn to pull their weight around here is seen not only as outdated, but as downright barbaric.

How dare you, a big, strong parent, demand that your kid do all this work? That's your job, not his! By making your kid do all this stuff, you're stealing his childhood.

In contrast to the other childhood paradigm, this one sees responsibility as something that comes with age. As you enter adulthood, at that time you have responsibility put upon you--the responsibility to earn enough to keep a roof over your head, the responsibility to earn enough to keep yourself fed, the responsibility of caring for children and for elders, the responsibility of finding and pursuing a vocation.

In this paradigm, responsibility is a mark of adulthood. Freedom, on the other hand, comes earlier. Now, even in this paradigm, freedoms tend to grow as the person ages--we don't let young kids drive, for one example. Nevertheless, we do tend to give out the freedoms before we assign the responsibilities; people often learn to drive before they can pay the car insurance.

And, for that matter, it is generally acceptable in our broader society for people to become sexually active long before they feel ready to accept the "adult" responsibilities of marriage and family.

In fact, under this new paradigm, we've developed a rather disparaging term to describe the process of accepting the responsibilities of adulthood: we call it (often with a hint of wistfulness in our voices), "settling down".

So the life trajectory of our kids has changed. Childhood has become a time of play, of wonder, of experimentation, of learning--ideally isolated by loving parents from the harsh realities of life. For a kid to be expected to shoulder real responsibilities, like the children of 1879 were, would be "stealing their childhood", and would be considered child abuse.

(I remember reading a news article once about the Duggars, that Arkansas family that has 18 kids--with no intention of stopping, so long as God keeps giving them more. The story asked them how they managed to take care of all of them; and part of their answer was that the older ones were expected to shoulder some of the responsibility to take care of the younger ones. The reader comments at the end of the article were instructive: they were full of self-righteous anger at how the parents were "stealing the childhoods" of their older kids by giving them this kind of responsibility).

But after childhood, there's a gap before "Settling Down" into adulthood. The teenager, or early twenty-something-ager, has new-found, new-won freedoms, but (understandably!) doesn't exactly want to jump into the world of mortgage payments, income tax, and PTA meetings. He or she wants to sow wild oats! Wants to travel the world, wants to try out different relationships, without committing to any (not yet at any rate), wants to try out different jobs for a while, without necessarily committing to a career.

And this thought leads onto a tangent that isn't exactly where I'm trying to take this essay, but fits in very nicely with my earlier post on Bristol Palin, here.


My point is, we have a tendency to judge the moral vision of childhood as presented in the McGuffey Readers, through modern eyes, and we don't necessarily like what we see. After all, how would you respond if you heard about this family:
  • The father is nowhere to be found.
  • The mother is unable to find a job that supports the family.
  • So the pre-teen boy of the family drops out of regular day-school, and
  • Starts taking whatever odd jobs he can find.
  • His mother collects the money he earns, to pay off the bills.
  • The boy continues his education at night school.
Egads! The Child Protective Services would be on this family in an instant. While within the scope of the story, the boy is voluntarily working to support his family, in real life we would sarcastically snark, "A likely story," and blame the mother for putting the boy to work when he should be in school! We would say that if she was really having that hard of a time making ends meet, she should talk to the state or county governments to see what kinds of public assistance are available. If (as in the story) the father was deceased, they would qualify for Social Security benefits, as well. There is no reason that mother should be suffering material deprivation. There is no excuse to be stealing that kid's childhood. And there is absolutely no reason that the kid should be working!

...except that working to take care of one's family is a thoroughly noble thing to do. It is a sign of adult-level maturity. And it is ennobling; far more than any academic work, it gives the person who's doing it a sense that I Matter. Real work is not a curse, or a chore; real work, of the kind that enables a person to meet his needs and those of his family, is a gift. There is no greater builder of confidence in a young man, than for that man to look back on the tasks he has accomplished (real tasks of real benefit to someone--not academic makework), and to be told, "good job".

And I suspect that the converse is true as well. There is nothing so disempowering, so emasculating, as being denied the opportunity or ability to do real work (again, I'm not talking about academic make-work here). Sure, a person may not like doing the work, but there are benefits (like self-esteem and self-confidence) that the work will impart anyway.


So yes: I fully concur with my wife's decision to have our daughter read the lessons from the McGuffey Readers, and I fully hope that she takes the moral lessons to heart. Between the two paradigms of childhood, I agree much more heartily with the early-responsibility, early-maturity model than the one more in vogue today. I understand that, yet again, we'll be swimming upstream culturally--but then, we're non-TV watching homeschoolers, so what else is new?


A few credits are in order, I think. One of the commenters to my earlier post on Bristol Palin and marriage, Theocentrica, sent me a link to an article entitled In Defense of Marrying Young, and some of the thoughts there--and other articles linked to from there--figured heavily in what wound up in this essay, especially this one by Frederica Matthewes-Green.

I've also written before on the topic of kids and work, here.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Another Example of Music I Like

Here's another example of the kind of sacred music that I'd like to hear more of. :-)

Now, this music is a setting of the Ave Maria; and being non-Catholic, we're thus not likely to get it in our church anytime soon. Nevertheless, it's absolutely gorgeous. I first learned it when I was in the Choraliers at San Jose State University in the early '90's, and it's been rolling around in my head ever since.

Interestingly enough, although it sounds like really old music on first listening, it's not. The writer, Franz Biebl, lived from 1906 until 2001, and wrote his Ave Maria in the mid-'60's. Originally it was for seven male parts--and in this form was picked up by the Men's chorus Chanticleer; but after it became popular, Biebl himself arranged it for seven-part mixed double chorus. This was the version that I learned with the Choraliers, and it's just as gorgeous. (And you need some serious sopranos to do it right).

The text of the piece combines the Angelus Domini texts, sung as plainsong chant:
Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariæ.
Et concepit de Spiritu Sancto.

Maria dixit: Ecce Ancilla Domini.
Fiat mihi secundum Verbum tuum.

(The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary.
And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.

Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord.
Be it unto me according to your Word.)
with the Ave Maria, presented as a gorgeous seven-part double chorus:
Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus.

Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostræ. Amen.

(Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.)
And while this music--and the liturgy and doctrine it's based upon--isn't part of my faith tradition, I still have to marvel at just how powerful and lovely this music is, and how elevated the sentiments are that led to someone composing such a thing. And from personal experience, I can honestly say that learning and singing it was--despite my not-entirely-compatible religious background--still a powerful worship experience for me. And even though I occasionally become jaded about Christian music--after a while, it all sounds the same for me--something inevitably reminds me of this piece and breaks through my cynicism.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy. This is Angelus Domini, by Franz Biebl, sung by Chanticleer.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bad People Only

Ok, so when I came home last night, there were a whole bunch of new pictures taped to the wall. Apparently the Pillowfight Fairy was inspired by those books we've been checking out from the library, about "Life in Roman Times" or "Life in Aztec Times" or the like. So she decided to present a number of pictures about life in the times of some imaginary kingdom of hers.

And among those pictures, there was one that made me laugh out loud when I saw it.

I'm taking a copy of this one to work to post up somewhere.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Another Moment to Make a Daddy Proud

I've talked at great length on this blog about how I come from a musical family, and how I hope to pass on our family tradition of musicality to my children. Well, today I got some signs that I'm on the right track.

My eldest daughter has been working her way through the John Thompson piano series. She has finished this book and is now working on this one. And she's doing pretty well.

But she tends to learn the same way I do: by rote. She plays something over, and over, and over until it is completely in her muscle memory. It thus takes her a while to learn things (though I have noticed that it's not taking as long as it used to--her ability to learn is advancing, too, and I like that a lot).

And she hadn't been picking up much of the theory. So I decided to add a little something to her homeschooling schedule, and we picked up copies of these three books. Now, these books are intended to be used concurrently with the piano practice, but independently of it; you can choose to read the exercises at the piano to see how they sound, or you can sight-read them at the writing table--whatever works.

So we started off with the first of the three books, the Note Speller. We're not all that far into it yet--but the Pillowfight Fairy has taken to it like it's been missing all her life. So far she has learned how to draw a five-line staff, with bass and treble clef symbols; she has learned the time signatures of 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4, and what they mean; she has learned about quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes, and how many beats each one gets (at least, when the time signature has a "4" on the bottom"); she's learned about bar lines, and how many beats have to exist between the bar lines; and she's started learning how to count out the time by looking at the notes.

On this last one, we put the book out in front of us on the table; and while we count "One, Two, Three, Four, One, Two, Three, Four" evenly, we use a pencil to point at whichever note we're supposed to be on at the moment. The Fairy has started to get pretty good at it, even when the rhythm is a more complicated one, like quarter-half-quarter in a 4/4 time measure.

But after finishing the exercise in the book, I felt we needed a little more practice before going on with the next page. So I got out the staff paper, and started doing a little one-line composition.

The Fairy watched me write it, with a level of interest that bordered on impatience--because she wanted to write some music too. So I finished my four measures of hastily-composed music, and had her draw in the bar lines (which requires her being able to count and add up the note values). Then I had her count it out, pointing at each note as we reached it. She did it well. So, I let her have the pencil--and she started writing a line of music, just like Daddy did.

Then I did another line, this time in 3/4, and then the Fairy wrote one of her own. Then I did one in 2/4, and she did another. By the time we were done, the page looked like this:
I daresay, my girl draws prettier treble clefs than I do.

And I started showing her how to put fingering numbers over the notes, and I had her do one line--the top one--herself.

So after we were done with each pair of lines, we'd go over to the piano, and I would play the line so she could hear what it sounded like. This part absolutely fascinated the Fairy! And I have to admit, when I was learning music theory in college, that was the part of the class I absolutely loved the most: the teacher would collect all our assignments, take them to the piano at the front of the class, announce who wrote each paper in turn, and play them all for us--so we could hear what our work, and those of our classmates, sounded like.Well, it seems the Fairy has gotten the bug too. After our six lines, she wanted to keep on writing, and I would have been more than happy to let her, had bedtime not been fast approaching.

Now, the Fairy doesn't know in advance what her music will sound like. At this point she's just putting semi-random notes on the page. But I started to give her a little advice, which (judging from the noodling she started doing at the piano immediately afterward) she immediately took to heart: If you want happy sounding music and don't want to use any black keys, start and end your music on "C" or "G". I didn't explain to her the reason, but of course this would put the song in either the key of C Major or G Mixolydian. And I told her that if she wanted to make sad-sounding music without using any of the black keys, you should start and end your music on "A" or "D" (again, corresponding to A Natural Minor and D Dorian). After I mentioned this, she started noodling around, trying to start and end her playing on C, G, A, and D, in turn.

So she doesn't understand in advance what the notes sound like together. But she is experimenting, and doing so enthusiastially--and that's what gets people eventually to understand this stuff. So again, I'm very proud of her.


One more thing: her selection of notes may be random, but even random selections of notes occasionally do something. If you have a piano handy, take a look at the last line the Fairy wrote--the one in 2/4. She started and stopped it on the high A, and it just happens that the notes in the middle correspond pretty closely to the primary chords of A minor. Play that line out, if you will, perhaps accompanied by an A-E open fifth in the bass hand.

I did this at our piano after the kids all went to bed... and found myself noodling around for a good 20 minutes on that one line: exploring what kinds of counter-melodies would go with it, thinking what kinds of variations would work with it, transposing it into other modes (Major, Dorian, Mixolydian, etc), inverting it, imagining how it would be worked into a larger piece. In the hands of a J.S. Bach (or even a P.D.Q. Bach)--that melody would be turned into an entire cantata, or a symphony, or a tone poem. Those eight notes have some serious potential--and my only advice to her when she was writing them, was to try to get it to end on the same note as it started.

Anyway, I'm rather happy about all this tonight.

My Six-Month Pregnant Bride Muses About Exercise

As my loyal readers no doubt already know, my wife has decided to start writing up systematically all those ways in which she feels that our broader society has gotten something wrong.

So for the second post in what is sure to be a very long series, I direct my loyal readers this way, to where my wife, who is developing a positively lovely late-term waddle, sounds off on the way we think about exercise.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Profundity From the Four-Year-Old

So as I was getting ready to go to work this morning, I looked over and saw the Adrenaline Junkie (age 4). She had poured a bunch of water from her cup onto the dining-room table, and was finger-painting in the puddle.

This shall not stand. So I went over to her with a bunch of paper towels, and scolded: Why did you pour your water out?

Her answer was a profound one. In a dreamy, almost mystical voice, she spake: "Because I wanted to know."

Wow. Profound. That's as good a reason as any, when you come to think of it.

Ok, kid, now you know. Now clean it up.

Meet the Pillowfight Zombie

So just as I was about to leave the house this morning to go to work, I did what I always do--I gave each of my kids a kiss on the forehead. Now, because they're usually at the breakfast table, it's a little awkward--I have to come up behind them, and bend over from above them, and kiss them upside down.

I'm a daddy, after all--we don't do things the normal way. The abnormal way is usually more fun. Mommies do normal--daddies do fun.

And I don't just give them a little peck; no, I want to give them a kiss that will last all day. So it's usually a big ol' noisy smackeroo, that lasts long enough to set them giggling.

Well, this morning the Pillowfight Fairy was running a little sluggishly (do slugs run?), so she was still sitting on the floor of her room, with a pile of the day's clothes (and the nights pajamas) strewn about her. So I came up over her from behind, bent over her, and left a big, sucking, highly-persistent smooch right in the middle of her forehead.

And when I was done, the Fairy said--with no warning to me, and without a hint of pretension:
I know, intellectually, that she must have gotten it from either mommy or me, and most likely me. (Mainly because mommy doesn't go around declaring, "Braaaaaaaains!") Nevertheless, it still caught me way off guard, and put a big, wide smile on my face as I went off to work this morning.

I love this girl. Just thought I'd share.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

In Which I Sympathize With Bristol Palin, Part 1.

No, really. Hear me out on this.

If you're not familiar with the story, here it is: shortly after Sarah Palin was selected as McCain's running mate, the news broke that her unmarried daughter Bristol was pregnant. This set off a media feeding frenzy, of course; Sarah was the favorite candidate of the social conservatives in the last election, and Bristol's pregnancy became a mocking front-page story.

Well, recently Bristol was interviewed by Greta van Susteren on Fox News (hat tip to And in this interview, Bristol makes a noteworthy comment:
No, I don’t want to get into detail about that. But I think abstinence is like … I don’t know how to put it, like … the main … Everyone should be abstinent, but it’s not realistic at all.
There were a number of other things in that interview that were interesting--like the fact that having and raising a baby is really hard work, and that teens would be better off "wait[ing] ten years" (which would have put Bristol at 28 instead of 18):
I think everyone should just wait ten years. Just because it's so much easier if you're married and if you have a house and a career. It's just so much easier.
Funny thing is that when I look at these comments, I find I agree about 80% with one of them, and I disagree about 65% with the other, and...

...well, they're not the ones you think.


For your consideration I'd like to present you with a trilemma.

What the heck is a trilemma? You ask. Good question, because it's a nasty sounding word. But in my defense, I can honestly say that I didn't invent the term. Here's an example of a trilemma that we face in engineering: if you're trying to hire a bunch of engineers to build something, you may be able to get it fast; you may be able to get it cheap, and you may get them to do a good job; but you rarely if ever get all three. At most, you can only expect two: if you want a good product at a low price, it will take a long time. If you want a good product fast, it will cost a lot of money. And if you want something fast and inexpensive, expect it to be poorly designed and built. Fast, Cheap, Good: pick any two.

(And we engineers sometimes snicker when we think of NASA's philosophy of the 1990's: Faster, Cheaper, Better. Wrong answer. It wound up producing a lot of probes quickly and inexpensively that went off course after the software neglected to convert between miles and kilometers....)

Well, when I think of the way our society handles issues of sex, abstinence, marriage, family, and faith, it seems to me that we Christians are up against a pretty major trilemma here.

Pick Any Two:

1. First, as Christians we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, and this includes what it has to say about sexuality. This means that a husband and wife are pretty much free to do what they want with each other, so long as they are acting in love and with due consideration to the other's needs. However, the Bible at various places rules out any sexual act that does not fall within this approved context. Sex between unmarried people is ruled out; sex between same-sex partners is ruled out; sex with a prostitute is condemned; and so forth.

I won't go into the book/chapter/verse at this time (though if pressed on the matter, I will be able to provide them in the comments). Suffice it to say, it's in there, and anyone who's read the Bible has read them.

Now, the Bible doesn't give a really strong closed-form explanation of why sex is to be restricted to within the Marriage relationship, so anyone who attempts to give one is speculating, and their explanations must be accepted as speculation. My own guess--which I concede is just a guess--is that, because sex is the mechanism by which the next generation comes into existence, the sexual mores of a society have a huge impact on the next generation. You talk about who is having sex with whom in a society, and the circumstances under which it is happening--and I can tell you how big the next generation will be, and whether those children are brought into the world in families that can raise them properly and pass on their values. From that, I can pretty well predict whether the society will be stable over time, or whether it is prone to cultural drift and ultimately cultural collapse.

Well, I don't claim that this is the only reason that God gave the rules that He did, or even that this is his primary reason; He may have had totally different reasons for the rules he gave. Still, I suspect that there truly is a natural law regarding the exercise of sexuality in a society. Societies that get it right (or, are at least in compliance with that natural law) survive to future generations; while societies that get it wrong lose the ability to pass on their values and institutions, and thus go into decline.

Nevertheless, while it's not harmful to speculate about why God said what He did, we should never confuse our speculations with His words. The reason we obey God's commands on sexuality are precisely that they are God's commands, and we trust Him.

So, this is the first horn of the trilemma: we need to be abstinent until marriage, and then faithful within marriage.

2. The second point relates to biology. Our bodies were designed to become fully sexually mature, starting sometime during the late teen years.

This point is key: people are entirely capable of falling deeply, passionately in love, well before they reach the age of 20. And this is not necessarily just "puppy love"; these are real, adult-strength emotions. In fact, one of the reasons that the teen years are such a tumultuous time is precisely that the "kids" (who are, biologically, no longer kids) are facing these adult emotions for the first time, full force, without all those years of experience to guide and temper their actions.

And it isn't just their emotions, either. Teen-agers, both male and female, are hard-wired to start competing for mates. In the case of young men, this often involves aggressiveness, risk-taking, and various attention-grabbing stunts. In the case of young women, there is often a strong urge to make oneself as physically attractive as possible, through dress, dieting, make-up, or flirtatious behavior.

And physically, young men and women are reaching their reproductive prime when they hit their late teens and early twenties. This is not merely the age when our bodies hit (note the past tense there) their point of greatest physical attractiveness and athletic prowess: that is also the age when the human body is best able to get pregnant, to handle the pregnancy without complications, to deliver healthy babies, and chase them around when they become toddlers.

In comparison to the late-teen or early-twenties mother, women who put off their pregnancies until later face a host of problems. Consider my wife's history (shared with her permission):
  • We married in 2000, when Tonya was not quite 33. We wanted at least two (and preferably more) children, so we did the math, and decided we needed not to wait long before trying.
  • First pregnancy: Tonya got pregnant at 34, after 7 months of trying. Pillowfight Fairy came along when Tonya was 35.
  • Second pregnancy: Tonya got pregnant at 36, after 8 months of trying. Adrenaline Junkie came along when Tonya was 37.
  • Third pregnancy: Tonya got pregnant at 38, miscarried shortly thereafter.
  • Fourth pregnancy: Tonya got pregnant a few months later, and the Happy Boy was born when Tonya was 39.
  • Fifth pregnancy: we're not so sure about this one. At age 40, Tonya started having all the pregnancy symptoms. But after a few weeks, it stopped, and Tonya's body took several months to get back into a normal routine. Tonya is convinced it was an early-term miscarriage.
  • Sixth pregnancy: Tonya got pregnant at age 41. The baby has the Trisomy-13 chromosomal abnormality, which is much more likely with older mothers than with younger.
So from six pregnancies, we've gotten three healthy kids, one unhealthy, and two miscarriages. And, Tonya is now having to chase around a very active two-year-old boy while she's six months pregnant. She is absolutely beat when I come home from work.

Now, we wouldn't change the way we've done things; after all, we got married when we did because that's when we were both ready for it. Still, we would hardly describe the above sequence as ideal. And sometimes I wish that we'd been ready for each other sooner, so we could have enjoyed being married while we were both still in our twenties, and so that our pregnancies would have been healthier.

I look at all the stuff I've mentioned here, and I have to conclude that there is a natural law at work here, as well: God designed us to become sexually mature in our late teens and early twenties. The reason that our young men and women have such a hard time remaining celibate, is that they were designed to pair up and start making families at that age. That's what their bodies were designed to do, and that's what their hormones are trying to get them to do, and that's the time of their lives that they are physically best capable of doing it. Sure, they can wait and start families later, but it's not optimal, from a biological standpoint.

So that's the second horn of the trilemma: Humans were designed to find mates, make love, and start raising families--in the late teens and early twenties.

3. The third horn of the trilemma involves social attitudes on age and marriage.

My parents were married at ages 23 and 22, and this was normal--even a touch late--for their generation. My in-laws were born a few years earlier, and when they married at 22 and 20, that was definitely considered late. Of course, my in-laws were married in the 1950s, and that decade was a bit of an outlier in our country's history; even back in the colonial days, it was rare that our average marriage age got down to what we had in the 1950's. But viewed historically, there's nothing really out of the ordinary with the ages at marriage of either set of parents.

But for a couple living today, to get married at 23 and 22--let alone 22 and 20--would be considered downright irresponsible. That is widely seen as too young. Why, they're right out of college! They're barely out of high school! They haven't established their careers, they haven't established their own life paths, they haven't figured out who they are yet. It would be so much better for them to wait to get married until they have the life experience necessary to handle the challenges of marriage responsibly, right?

And it needs to be said, there's a good deal of truth in this argument. The fact is, marriages between people in their late twenties and early thirties tend to be much more successful (measured in terms of lower divorce rates) than marriages between late-teens or early-twenties types.

This fact has worked its way into Christian pre-marital counseling. Tonya and I took a class at our old church entitled "Finding the Love of Your Life", developed by Dr. Neil Clark Warren (founder of This class was all about finding a good marriage partner (or, rather, identifying and rejecting those that wouldn't be good marriage partners) and about preparing oneself for marriage. They brought out the statistics I mentioned above; marriages that were started when the bride and groom are in their late twenties or early thirties, tend to be much more successful than those that start when they're younger.

And there are plenty of reasons why this would be the case. Younger people tend to have more financial struggles, they still have issues with immaturity that haven't been worked out yet; they often have unrealistic expectations about themselves and their mates, that haven't been worn down yet by age and experience; they tend to be at earlier (and less stable) phases in their careers; and so forth. Certainly, I've known several people who got married young; and they had more trouble making it work than those who got married later.

So here's the third horn of the trilemma: marriages--at least in our society--work best when the people get married when they're good and mature. That means, say... no earlier than 25. 28 is better. 30 or later is best.


To sum up the trilemma:
  1. God expects us to abstain from sex, outside of marriage.
  2. We are physically designed to reach full reproductive maturity in our late teens/early twenties.
  3. In our culture, marriage is increasingly put off until age 28.
Pick any two.

Our secular society has recognized the fact of item 2, and has recognized the wisdom of item 3. And because of that, it has by and large rejected item 1. After all, if:
  • people were designed to become sexually active in their late teen years
  • if their late teens and early twenties are the time when they are most attractive to the opposite sex, and most attracted to the opposite sex,
  • if that's when they reach their physical maturity,
  • if marriage works best when they get to age 28
  • if young marriages end in disaster at an alarmingly high rate
  • if people aren't deemed mature enough to handle the demands of mature relationships until they've had several years of experience they can bring to the marriage
then it follows that sex before marriage is a good thing. It follows that there's something unnatural, even cruel, about our prohibition against sex before marriage. And I think I'm on solid ground when I state that there are many people in this country--including in places of authority, like schools--who think this way.

But, if you wish to have a society that obeys God's commands, and where marriage is put off until age 28, you're going to have to figure out how to put a cork in it from the time our young men and women become sexually mature, for a full decade. And they have to do it while their hormones are raging, while their bodies are screaming at them to pair up (the way they were designed to!), in a culture that has pretty well rejected the first tenet of the trilemma and is encouraging them to explore their feelings (and their bodies). In short, you have to suppress number 2. Bristol Palin just described this option as "not realistic at all"; and I think we should at least consider that there may be some truth in what she says.

So the third option: if you wish to have a society that obeys God's commands, and simultaneously recognizes that we have a strong sex drive and a desire to find a mate, beginning in the late teens, then we have to dispense with the late-marriage paradigm, and figure out how to make the earlier marriages socially acceptable again. And, among other things, this will require that we figure out how to make them work.


I have further thoughts on this, which I'll need to expand upon sometime in the future when it's not so late.

("Sometime in the future when it's not so late." Now there's a fun paradox....)

But one last comment to head off some of the remarks I know I'm going to get: I recognize that you will occasionally find people out there who have the strength of character (and the strength of will) to abstain all the way until age 28 or later. I am by no means saying they don't exist. And to those who do, more power to you. I'm not sure, however, that these people form anything like a majority, even of the children of Christian families. And I suspect that if we continue expecting our children all to be like this, we're going to be sorely disappointed. We need to confront the trilemma head-on, because I fear that we Christians are the ones fighting Natural Law here.

More thoughts to come....

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Another Brace of Posts From My Lovely Wife

Well, my recent spate of Windmill-Tilting has appears to have inspired my wife to do a little of her own.

She has decided to start identifying all those little ways in which society's attitudes and values are completely out-of-whack with hers. Then she will start writing up long, detailed theses about how everyone else is messed up.


So tonight's windmill has to do with her views on Television, and how and why we came not to have one in the household. Now, being a TV-free household puts us in a very, very small minority; but we can definitely say that there are some benefits to this lifestyle choice, and Tonya and I would love it were more people to choose to go this route.

So, her thoughts on this are here.


On a not-so-confrontational note, she also had a post a few days ago about planting our vegetable garden. Trouble is, you can never quite tell around here when the last winter frost is going to come; but if you wait until after you're sure you're not going to have another one, your planting is too late for all the cold-weather crops. So you sometimes just have to pick a date, plant, and pray for cabbage. I liked the title of her post: Garden Roulette.

Check it out. And if there are any experienced gardeners/farmers in the Sacramento area reading this, feel free to let us know what you do. Thanks!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Are We Sure We Want To Go There?

Many of my readers will no doubt be happy to know that this will most likely be my last post on Religion and Economics for a while. Others of you may be thinking, No! Give me more! I must have more! But you probably need to have your heads checked or something. No, I think after this one, my recent line of thoughts on the topic will be played out.

At least until someone else says something at Church that's worthy of a highly-raised eyebrow. Then, my dear Internets, you will be the first to hear about it. Or something.


I mentioned in my last post about a couple of comments that were made in class last Sunday. My first reaction to these comments was to think, "I can't believe they said that! Do they even realize what they are saying?"

And then, I started following out the ramifications of what they were saying, following the white rabbit down the hole to see where it led. And, um... it really did lead to Wonderland; and I don't think the original commenter realized it.

Here's the context. We are discussing the concept of Stewardship. Now, when churches usually talk about Stewardship, it's nearly always a euphemism for handling money, and is often presented in the sense of, "You need to hand more of it over to Us." But this class is a little different; it regards stewardship of the other things--our health and our bodies, our families and relationships, the stewardship of the land, stewardship of our time. All these things are of course given to us by God, and we need to use all these things wisely.

(And incidentally, I do appreciate that when our church does talk about stewardship of money, it really does cover the discipline of money management comprehensively--it's not about making people feeling guilty for not giving more to the church.)

As part of our study, we've been going through the Mosaic Law to see how God commanded the ancient Israelites to handle these things. And there's a lot there: laws on cleanliness and hygiene, on public safety, on land use and land ownership, family law, inheritance law, laws on debt, and on and on. Most people find this stuff pretty dry. I do not. After all, God himself gave these laws to help turn a collection of former slaves into a prosperous, stable, secure, healthy nation. Isn't that a fascinating concept? Wouldn't you think the are things we can discover about the mind of God, and about our own human nature and how we fit in society, by looking at how God told the Israelites to order their affairs?

Well, we got to the concept of the Sabbath Year, which you can read about in Leviticus 25. Basically, every seventh year:
  • All debts were to be forgiven.
  • All fields were to lie fallow.
  • No planting or systematic harvesting could be done. You could gather the food you needed from what grew by itself, but only as you needed it. And anyone else could gather it too as they needed.
And then, every fiftieth year--after the seventh Sabbath year, which came on year 49 in the cycle--you would have a Year of Jubilee:
  • All the rules of the Sabbath year applied--so, basically, you had to go two years in a row with fallow fields. In addition:
  • Any property (outside walled cities) that had been sold during the last 50 years, would return to its original owner (or his heirs). Thus, the land never permanently left its original family of origin.
  • All (Israelite) bound servants were to be released as free people.
So anyway, we were looking at all the things in these passages, when someone started talking about what an economic stimulus it would be if we would just accept these laws today. Specifically, "Wouldn't it be nice if all the banks would just forgive all debts? Just drop them, wipe the slate clean? Wouldn't that cause a huge surge in economic activity, if people suddenly didn't have to worry about their mortgage payments, or car payments, or credit card payments? Here our government is preparing to spend trillions of dollars on economic stimulus; just think of the economic stimulus that widespread debt forgiveness would cause...."

Well, the hair on the back of my neck was standing up at hearing this, but there were several nods of assent and mutterings of general approval around the classroom.

Then one of the braver souls in the class raised his hand, and tried to explain briefly what some of the ramifications would be. Such an action would of course ruin the lenders and depositors, and this would itself hurt the economy. But the near-consensus response in the class came back: well, it might, but the economic surge caused by those people who didn't have to pay their debts anymore would more than compensate for the damage to the lenders....


My first reaction was one of dumbfoundedness.

The way banks operate--the way they have always operated--is to take their depositors' money, and lend it out at interest. When the loan is paid back with interest, the bank passes some of that extra on to the depositors in the form of payments or banking services, and pockets the difference. The money you put in your bank account isn't currently in the bank; most of it went to some guy who used it to buy a car. In a sense, if you have any money in the bank at all, you are the lender. You have lent it to the bank. When you withdraw it, the bank is, in effect, paying off its debt to you.

So if we were to cancel all debts, that, um...

Includes your bank account.

After all, if the bank has lent out your money to some guy so he can buy his car, and then we declare that all debts are null and void, then the bank can't recover your money. So the bank owes you right? But if the bank owes you, then that's a debt, and it got cancelled with all the other debts.

Now, I suspect that many of us, if we were given that chance, would make the trade. Yeah, I'd give up my bank account, and my Fidelity account, and even my 401(k), if I got to burn my mortgage. After all, my mortgage is bigger than all of those things combined. If I made that trade, I'd be in a better financial state afterward than before. So for me to wish for across-the-board debt cancellation would be a little self-serving.

Now suppose I was instead one of those guys that stayed out of debt, kept my consumption to the bare minimum, and saved every penny I could get so that, say, I could provide something to my heirs. Then what? Well, debt cancellation would hit me hard--and would hit me hard precisely because I was responsible.

My wife was considering this point, and came up with an interesting connection: We get in the habit of thinking of God's Forgiveness as a light, easy thing. God has the power just to wish away our sins, right? But no: When a debt is canceled like this, that's not cheap to the one doing the canceling. Someone always has to eat the loss. For someone to forgive your debt, that someone has to be willing to shoulder the consequences of your responsibility, and eat the cost himself. Tonya's note is that this is exactly what Christ did on our behalf. So while we as Christians have the promise that our sins are forgiven, that knowledge isn't something to accept lightly and easily; we need to remember that in order for my sins to be forgiven, someone else had to eat that cost, and that cost was terrible.

Debt cancellation is a serious business. It represents the trumping of mercy over justice; the one who lent his money loses, and the one who spent the money--often irresponsibly--is permitted to get away without paying it back. This is not something to be taken lightly. And when it does happen, the one who is forgiven the debt should approach the event with an air of gravity and thankfulness; not with a sense of entitlement.


Now, thinking on all this raised another difficult thought.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I'm a committed free-marketer. I happen to think that, for the long-term economic health of a nation--and for the long-term maintenance of the liberties of the people--a policy of government non-intervention in the economy is wise. A few exceptions may be made here or there when non-economic concerns (say, national security) are more important than the economic ones; but by and large, we are better off when people are allowed to make decisions among themselves about their economic activities, without third parties putting restrictions on them that they don't want themselves.

And yet, when I look at the Laws that God gave the Israelites, he did not give them a "free market". God's laws include all kinds of prohibitions, all kinds of restrictions, all kinds of mandates, and all kinds of conditions that don't fit a free market-model in any way. Consider:
  • No land could be sold in perpetuity; it would always eventually revert to the family of the ancestral owners.
  • All outstanding debts would be forgiven automatically in the Sabbatical year.
  • They were repeatedly warned against lending to each other at interest (Ex. 22:25, Lev. 25:36-37, Deut. 23:19-20)
  • There were all kinds of restrictions on what could be used as collateral (Ex. 22:25).
  • There were restrictions on how efficiently you could harvest your crops; this was so the poor could glean the fields after you were done harvesting. (Lev. 19:9-10).
  • If family members got in financial trouble and had to sell either their land or themselves to pay their debts, you had obligations to pay the money and do the redemption. (Lev. 25:25-28, Lev. 25:47-55)
  • If your brother died, leaving his wife childless, you were required to marry her, and father children with her; these children would become the legal heirs of the deceased brother, and would acquire his property.(Deut. 25:6-6).
And so forth. No way you could describe that economy as a "free market".

Now, let's just take a couple of these: the ones having to do with debt. The people of Israel were forbidden to lend to each other at interest. They also couldn't lend for a longer period than the time until the next Sabbatical year. From a purely economic standpoint, what would this do?

Well, it would have a number of impacts. On the plus side, you wouldn't have people going into debt and staying in debt for decades and decades. Every few years, the slate would be wiped clean. But...

A banking establishment like what we have now couldn't exist under these rules. One effect the taking of interest has, is to entice more people actually to lend. If interest rates are pushed lower than what the market will bear, people stop lending money and look for other ways to invest it. And if all debts are automatically going to be canceled when the next Sabbath Year comes around, it means that the payoff term of the debt will be limited to 6 years--or less, if the next sabbath year is sooner than that.

There are no more thirty-year mortgages, that's for sure. If you can't pay off your house in six, you won't be getting a loan to buy your house.

Just gaming out the ramifications of this, it becomes pretty apparent that credit is much easier to come by in our society than it would be if we followed the rules that God gave the Israelites. We can finance much greater sums now. And if we are responsible in paying it back, this allows us a much greater standard of living--I can afford a much more expensive house with a thirty-year mortgage, than I could afford on a five-year mortgage, that's for sure.

What gives? Why didn't God give His people the freedom to make these decisions for themselves, knowing that this freedom--if responsibly handled--would make them more prosperous than they would otherwise have been?

And what does this say about free markets as an economic model? If God didn't give them to the ancient Israelites, is it because there's something inherently immoral about them?

Am I wrong to be a supporter of the free markets?

Tough questions, and I'm not sure I know the answers to them. But here are some further thoughts.


First, it should be recognized that any liberty contains within it the potential for abuse. If you permit a large enough population to do some thing, there will almost inevitably be some people in that population who will use their liberty for destructive ends.

And there are plenty of destructive things that can happen in a free market, if the people choose to use their freedoms irresponsibly. I saw this article lately at TCS Daily, which describes Plato's thoughts on the way Republics destroy themselves:

Read along from an excerpt of Plato's Republic (Book VIII, 550d-566), and see if any of it sounds familiar. It's the tragic tale of a declining republic, a tale of war, money, and politics all gone wrong through a combination of bad judgment and disordered cravings. We begin with moneylenders who have a nasty habit of lending money to people they know will use it irresponsibly, especially to youths whom they encourage to fritter it away on useless luxuries. They prefer that their money be wasted on frivolities; the more of it is wasted today, the more they can charge in interest tomorrow.

But their clients are just as bad, if not worse. By spending others' money on frivolities, they fail to take responsibility for themselves. A group of people recklessly spending other people's money soon becomes a leech on society: a class of those who have ruined themselves burning through borrowed money.

The class of bitter, bankrupt borrowers finds it has a friend—or what looks and talks like a friend—in a group of politicians who promises them honey, served in a silver bowl at the expense of the moneylenders who got them into trouble in the first place. Their alliance only lasts until one of the honey-tongued politicians stirs up the bankrupted class, whips them into a frenzied mob, and makes war against the wealthy class, seizing their money by force. This politician emerges as a tyrant, and the old republic has died.

Say what you will about the purely economic wisdom of the Mosaic Law; but if followed, it would absolutely prevent this scenario. Those irresponsible lenders would quickly discover, every seven years, that they've lost their investments. Those irresponsible borrowers would soon thereafter discover that no one wants to lend to them anymore. And those irresponsible politicians would have to find some other issue to demagogue.

God knows human nature. He knows that we humans do dumb things. While wise, moral, upright people may be able to handle the freedom of a free market, it may be that He decided that there weren't enough wise, moral, upright people around among those former slaves from Egypt, to trust them with a free market.

So their society may well have been poorer, due to the economic effects of these laws, but it may also have been more stable.


Second, I suspect the very concept of wealth worked very differently back then. After all, we moderns think of wealth in terms of money. But money only has value when you can exchange it for the stuff you want. In a semi-nomadic agrarian society living nearly 3500 years ago, there weren't many stores out there. They used precious metals as currency, but it wasn't yet in the form of coin; they measured it out by weight.

But the stuff of value was, well, the stuff.

You had a piece of land, that was in the family for generations. Even when you sold it, it would still eventually return to your family in the Year of Jubilee. This land would have houses on it, which would be built by one generation and handed down to the next. One generation would plant an orchard; the next would plant a vineyard; the next would dig a well, and so forth. Over time this family would come to be known as wealthy--not necessarily because they had amassed a large quantity of gold and silver, but because they had--through careful management of resources over generations--built up large flocks and herds, built several sturdy houses, planted orchards and vineyards, tilled and fertilized large fields for crops, slowly accumulated tools and machines needed for household work (looms, olive presses, etc.); and so forth. The wealth of these families was built up, over generations, by the work that the people did.

And it seems to me that the laws that God gave are designed to preserve this wealth, to prevent it from being lost through bad financial transactions. You can sell your land, but not forever; it will eventually return to your heirs. You had to redeem it if your relatives lost it somehow. You had to produce heirs for your deceased brother, so that his share would not be lost (and so that his wife/wives would have sons to support them in their old age).

Furthermore, the laws appear to be designed to give people who are destitute a fresh start. After all, if you were an Israelite, even if you were dirt-poor, you were descended from someone who was allotted a share of land back when Joshua divided up the conquered territory; so you had a share, somewhere, that you could lay legal claim to. And once you had that land, you could start over, working it from scratch, in the hope that you could one day pass it on to your children; who would improve it, and pass it on to theirs, and so on, with your descendants one day being wealthy and prosperous.


Third, there are some differences between the Old and New Testament worlds. Certain laws that were given by God to the ancient Israelites don't appear to be mandated among the Gentile Christians.

For one example, there are the Kosher laws. When Paul writes to the Corinthians that they should eat whatever was sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, I think that's pretty conclusive that some of the old laws about cleanliness in diet are not bound on the Gentile Christians. After all, the Jews were required to butcher their food animals very carefully--making sure to deliver the killing blow in a specific way, and making sure to drain the blood from the carcass completely. Meat not butchered in this way was unclean. But in Gentile meat markets, there was no guarantee that any of this meat was properly prepared; much of it had been used in Pagan sacrifices, and had been butchered any which way but how God had told the Israelites. So for Paul to tell them it was OK to eat without any issues of conscience, means that the Kosher laws did not apply directly to them.

Indeed, the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) dealt with exactly the question of how much of the Law was binding on Gentile Christians, and concluded that very little of it actually was. And following up with the letters of Paul, he treats the Law as a "Pedagogus"--a schoolmaster (close, but not perfect translation), designed to train children. When the child was fully grown and fully trained, though, he no longer needed the Pedagogus; Paul's argument appears to be that the role of the Law has been similarly fulfilled, thus we are not required to bind Gentile Christians to obey all the commands of the law.

And indeed, much of the Law appears to be intended specifically for that group of semi-nomadic agrarian ex-slaves who lived 3500 years ago.

Does this include the economic stuff? I mean, even Jesus made reference to the taking of interest, in a non-disparaging context: in the parable of the Talents, the Master of the three stewards berates the third for not providing him a return on his investment. He says that even if the steward hadn't felt confident investing it, he should at least have left it with the bankers and gotten some interest on it. I'd have a hard time imagining Jesus telling this parable like that, if he didn't consider at least some taking of interest acceptable.

So I think it's at least conceivable that the Mosaic Laws on economics can be counted among those laws that were specifically intended to apply to the ancient Israelites, as opposed to being among those that are intended to apply to all people for all time (like, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength").


Where does this leave the Free Market?

Well, I still think it's the system that will produce the most widespread wealth in a society. It tends to be better than most systems at rewarding hard work, innovation, and responsible decision-making; and punishing sloth and irresponsibility. A nation that implements a free market will generally become much wealthier and more economically dynamic.

But like any system made up of humans, it won't be without problems. Given liberties, there will always be people out there who will misuse their liberties, and in the context of a free market, that will bring disaster on them--or on the people around them.

I think the fact that God gave the non-free-market rules he did to the ancient Israelites, should be taken by us as a set of warnings:
  • The full blessings of a free market only accrue to the society made up of wise and compassionate people. Leave out either of those conditions, and the result can be unpleasant. A society can even destroy itself....
  • There are other concerns out there than the purely economic. Sometimes we're better off poorer, at least in the short term, so long as we're keeping our culture strong.
  • God cares about the poor so much, that he was willing to inflict an entire non-free market economy on His people to make sure that they were never left with nothing. So if we wish to enjoy the blessings of the free market, we need to accept some personal responsibility for the well-being of the poor--even if this only involves helping people identify and grab the opportunities that are already around them.
What does my readership think?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Follow Up Thoughts on Public Policy and Pulpits

Well, it seems that with my earlier post I either touched on a topic that everyone has strong feelings about, or what I wrote made everyone think, "I've got to set this guy straight." Hey, that's what the internet is for, right?

Good comments, all. Going back over my little essay, I'm thinking there are a few points I want to clarify. Also, there was another little interesting exchange in one of our classes at church on Sunday that both illustrates what I was talking about, and provides fodder for more thought.


So, as is usual in cases like this, I'd like to go back to first principles. One of the things that the apostles wrote a lot about was the need for unity in the Church. And--as is necessary to secure that unity--Paul warned us to avoid disputes on questionable matters. Where differences of opinion exist, we are to avoid giving offense wherever possible, and--so long as it's not on a matter that could threaten someone's salvation--to let things slide. Examples of this from scripture include Romans 14:1 through 15:6, 1 Corinthians 3 and 6:1-8, pretty much the whole book of 1 John; and there are a bunch of other places besides.

This is absolutely crucial, because the Church is designed to hold people who are radically different from each other, who wouldn't normally associate with each other if it weren't for their religious fellowship. Consider that Jesus himself had, in his own hand-picked group of apostles, one guy known as Simon the Zealot. Now, the Zealots were religious Jewish radicals who were actively working toward rebellion against Roman rule, including through violent means. But Jesus also had as one of his apostles Matthew, the tax collector. The Romans would recruit tax collectors from among their subjugated peoples, including the Jews. Tax collectors would collect money from their countrymen, making their pay by collecting taxes above and beyond the share Rome demanded and pocketing the difference. These guys were, often with justification, widely regarded as parasites and traitors by their countrymen. Zealots hated them.

So you've got Simon the Zealot, and Matthew the tax collector, rubbing elbows within Jesus' inner circle. The Bible doesn't mention any political conversations around the apostles' dinner table, but boy, I bet it got interesting....

But this is precisely the point about unity! The church must be big enough to handle people who, outside of the church, would be diametrically opposed to each other. Christ died for the Army colonel, and the banker in pinstripes, and the university professor, and the hippie chick; and His church must be able to accommodate all of them, at the same time!

And the only way to make the tent that big, is to eliminate any restrictions, any commandments, any expectations beyond what the Lord asks of us. If a church starts to advocate any position beyond the mission that Christ gave it, it will eventually--inevitably--become something that needlessly drives people away. People have a hard enough time just living righteous lives according to what the scriptures define as righteous; when we start expecting more from people than this, it will only serve to drive out someone or another lurking near the edges--precisely the kinds of people we're supposed to be hanging onto the hardest.

This is the main reason that I feel my shields start going up whenever I start to hear politics or economics from the pulpit. Fact is, elections are divisive things. There are a lot of people who were absolutely overjoyed about the latest presidential election, and there are a lot of people who think it's an absolute disaster for our nation. And these people have to share a church. That is, they have to share a church if they hope to obey the will of God.


So, all that being said, here's why I dislike the term "Social Justice".

Within the Christian worldview as I understand it, Jesus expects me to take care of the sick, and the orphaned, and the widow, and the impoverished, and the imprisoned. And I see no evidence in scripture that Jesus is willing to let me off the hook by supporting any political program to take care of "the poor" for me. This isn't a task that I can delegate away; I am responsible for the people around me, and will be held accountable. It's a big task, and one that I don't particularly feel up to. Nevertheless, this is all a big part of the Christian mission.

Now, within the Marxist worldview, which has strongly influenced a big chunk of the pop political culture, all these problems that Jesus talked about--poverty, imprisonment, disease--are merely symptoms of underlying socioeconomic factors which are themselves driven by our fundamentally unjust economic and political systems. To the Marxist, the way to solve these problems is a wholesale reordering of our society; the elimination of private property in favor of collective ownership of the means of production; centralized government management of the economy, for the benefit of the people; elimination of gender roles; and the like. The Marxist tends to disdain charities, because they make the current unjust situation tolerable; it keeps the poor content enough to prevent them from rising up to overthrow the system, and it soothes the consciences of the wealthy and lets them think they're good people, when they're really the source of the problem in the first place.

Is there common ground between these two worldviews? Well, yes--a little. They both recognize the fact that there are needy people in the world, and they both demand that we do something about it. And when the Marxist claims that Jesus was in fact an early socialist, he points to these similarities, and says, "See! Jesus was for Social Justice. You Christians, if you really understood what Jesus was about, would be throwing your lot in with us."

The difference is that the action Jesus advocated was in no way a political program. Jesus explicitly said, "My kingdom is not of this world"; he didn't make any attempt to drive out the Romans, or to seize power; he never attempted to validate any other political group. His teachings were all about holy living, and our personal responsibility to one another.

I mentioned George Orwell's famous 1946 essay on politics and language in my post Sunday, and what Orwell was saying about catch-phrases and jargon applies very well here, too. The phrase "Social Justice" is exactly the kind of thing that Orwell was talking about. Fact is, no one knows quite what it means. Or, rather, it means different things to different people, depending on their political indoctrination. To some people, it includes Affirmative Action; to some people, it includes race reparations; to some people, it includes the abolition of private property; to some people, it means appointing judges of a certain activist bent. You might hear this term and think primarily of concern over poverty or lack of health care, and you might say, "Yes, I support Social Justice"; but the person listening to you may well hear something you absolutely did not intend to say.

Did Jesus support "Social Justice"? That depends entirely on what you mean by "Social Justice".

The trouble is that once people accept the term "Social Justice", this language itself tends to push us toward the political program of the Leftist. Once we have accepted that Jesus was all about Social Justice, then the Leftist starts saying things like, "Jesus told people to give money to the poor. Therefore, if you oppose wealth redistribution in our country, you're being un-Christlike," and "Jesus told us to take care of the sick. Therefore, if you oppose Socialized medicine, you're being un-Christlike," and "Jesus told us to take care of the orphans and the widows, so to be Christlike you must support these Welfare programs...." The sleight-of-hand here is of course that Jesus' commandment for us to take personal responsibility for the care of others, is being subverted to a political program. The very fact that we're using the term "Social Justice" to refer to both these things tends to obscure the difference between them in our minds.

As I suggested in Sunday's post, I think this has happened in many Protestant churches, and in many Catholic dioceses, to the point where the political mission has come to dominate all others. They've lost sight of their spiritual mission because they're so busy pursuing the political one.

And, as I said at the beginning of this essay, this is bad for Christian unity--not to mention, it's bad for the long-term health of the congregation. After all, there are people all across the political spectrum, with all kinds of views on economics; and Jesus died for all of them. When you have a church that has bought into the political "Social Justice" view of Jesus' teachings as I described above, it isn't going to be big enough to accomodate those whose political leanings lead them to reject the political advocacy. It will drive such people away--even when such people would be entirely receptive to Jesus actual teachings on personal responsibility for others.


Man, I had no idea this column would go this direction. I still haven't gotten to that little exchange from Sunday. Well, on the bright side, I still have fodder for another column. :)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Eureka!!! Um, I Mean, Ewwwww...

Ok, I'll warn you right here at the beginning: we've been teaching our eldest daughter about the digestive system lately. And, um... teaching about the digestive system to six-year-olds leads to some serious bodily function humor. If you're squeamish about bodily function humor, you probably shouldn't read too much farther.

Of course, if you're squeamish about bodily function humor, you probably shouldn't be raising kids, either.


One of my old math teachers had a phrase he used on occasion: When you have been trying to learn a new concept, but you just haven't been getting it; when you've been thinking about it until your brain hurts; when you've been working out problems and examples; sometimes, eventually, it suddenly all makes sense. One second, nothing; the next, the light comes on, the heavens open, the angels sing; and you suddenly understand how to factor polynomials. You get it. My math teacher described this kind of experience as the "Aha" experience. He said it was very like Archimedes' shouting "Eureka!", except that you don't usually jump out of the bathtub and run naked down the street immediately afterward.

Now, when you ask homeschooling parents why they homeschool, you get many answers; but one of the more common ones regards the "Aha" moments. There is tremendous joy in watching one's own kid, who's been struggling with some concept, suddenly get it. Not only is there tremendous joy, but (especially for new homeschooling parents) there's also a sense of affirmation, even a sense of relief: Yes, I'm actually able to do this! I now have evidence!

Well, the Pillowfight Fairy had an "Aha" experience the other day.

As I earlier said, the Fairy has been learning about the human body lately. And we think that a lot of what she's been learning is actually sinking in and staying there: when she saw Grandpa yesterday, she remembered that he was on those crutches because he had broken his tibia, which is a bone in the lower leg. And she's started to use the word esophagus in regular conversation.

Yup, the esophagus. We've lately gotten to the Digestive System. And let me tell you, there's something a little funny about trying to explain the Digestive System to a kid.
Well, kid, first you take a bite of your food, and then you start to chew it, and it looks like this. ("Ewwww!") And then your saliva mixes with it, and starts to break it down, even as it goes around and around and around in your mouth and turns into this mushy stuff. ("Ewwww!") And then you swallow, and it goes past the epiglottis and down into the stomach, where it gets mixed with bile from the liver and it gets broken down further, and sent into the small intestine, where it goes back and forth and back and forth and back and forth... Oh, and did you know we use the small intestines of sheep and pigs to make sausage casings? ("Ewwww!") Oh, yeah, and wait till I tell you what they used to do with pigs' bladders....
Actually, the Fairy already knows that one. We just finished reading Little House in the Big Woods.

So Mommy picked up this book from the library, and the Pillowfight Fairy happily read through it last Friday.

The book, entitled What Happens to a Hamburger?, is all about what happens at the various stages in the digestive process. It has lots of diagrams, and even some photographs ("Ewwww!"), and it traces the process of digestion from even before you take that first bite, all the way until, ahem:
Your body cannot use all of the food you eat. The food it cannot use is stored in the large intestine. You get rid of the unused food when you go to the toilet.
And this text is of course on a page that shows the cartoonish hero of the book, the one whose digestion we have been contemplating, happily running to the restroom carrying a roll of TP.


Now, all of that is just a set-up for the real point of this essay. I think we adults get squeamish at certain topics, so we tend to bury them in euphemism when we speak of them. I've already written about this phenomenon, regarding the illustrious literary genre of potty time-books. (By the way, ever write something, and then put it aside for a while, and then read it later after you've forgotten all about it? When I re-read this post of mine earlier tonight, I found myself thinking, Man, I wish I could write like that.)

The trouble is that you can't actually teach a topic when you're speaking in euphemisms. In that earlier essay of mine, I noted how we say "letting nature take its course" to refer to certain bodily functions that we don't actually want to talk about. But suppose you speak like that around a kid? The kid doesn't know that you're talking about, um... waste expulsion (there's another euphemism!). What does the kid think?
Oooh! I like nature. Waterfalls are part of nature. Deer and elk and bison are part of nature. Big pine trees are part of nature. I get to let all of this happen! How blissful.
Well, it turns out that even this book, What Happens to a Hamburger?, which is otherwise so well written, turns to euphemism when it comes to describing the, um... end stages of the digestive process. And Mommy developed a suspicion.

"[Fairy], do you know what that 'undigested food' is that the book keeps talking about?"

"Um... Soup?"
Ok, when she starts guessing like this, it's pretty apparent that she isn't getting it. And that was largely because the book didn't actually tell her! It was presumably trying to save the sensibilities of the parents by burying the ugly, stinky truth under an unoffensive euphemism that makes perfect sense to the parents, but means nothing to the kid.

So Tonya pointed out the oddly-shaped brown mass of "undigested food" in the picture, and tried to get the Fairy to guess what it was. No dice. So ultimately Tonya gave up, and just blurted out the answer:

"It's poop!"

Now, most of the time when a kid has an "Aha" experience, it's a joyful event that causes the spirit to soar and the heart to sing. But then, most of the time your "Aha" experiences don't involve learning where poop comes from.

"Eeeeeeeeeeewwwww! Ew! Ew! Ewewewew! Eww! Ewwwwww!" and so forth, et cetera, et cetera, for about the next two minutes.


So let's talk about George Orwell.

Good grief! You say. Where in the world did that come from?

Well, given the way my semi-coherent mind works, as my wife was describing to me the aforementioned set of events, and we were laughing ourselves silly, I was actually being reminded of a very important essay that Orwell wrote back in 1946.

You see, Orwell was very, very interested in our tendency to bury unpleasant concepts under impressive-sounding language. His concern was that, by using impressive-sounding official language filled with long, technical words, we hide the true meaning of what we're saying--sometimes even from ourselves.
Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so." Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

"While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement."

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.
This is an excellent essay, and I strongly recommend that anyone--schoolteacher, or homeschooling parent--attempting to teach writing style to a student of junior-high age or older, should read through it. The essay concludes with a set of simple rules intended to foster clarity and quality in writing. I myself refer to this essay from time to time to evaluate my own writing style--and I usually come away cringing at how wordy and cliched my style actually is, compared to what it should be.

Of course, Orwell himself criticizes his own writing in the essay, so at least I have some good company there.

If you have the opportunity, go ahead and take the time to read the thing. If you take it to heart, it may well help you notice where your own writing is vague and imprecise, and where this vagueness and imprecision comes from obscurity in your own thought processes.

And that's especially important, should you ever decide to start writing potty-time books.

Ok, Now This Takes Some Audacity

Well, my father-in-law was passing around this video, and I thought I'd share it with all of you.

I had a big dopey grin on my face through the whole thing. It takes some serious audacity to play one's harmonica...

At Carnegie Hall.

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.