Learning Plots as a Way of Understanding History (and Ourselves)

In an essay in his book, Stranger than Fiction, Chuck Palahniuk outlines two benefits of writing: 1) It can help you make sense, and take ownership, of your own life and 2) it can help you better understand history (which in turn can help you understand how history is shaped).

One of the money lines from the quote below is, “if we’re too lazy to learn history history, maybe we can learn plots. Maybe our sense of ‘been there, done that’ will save us from declaring the next war.” Aside from that, the idea that forcing yourself to unpack ideas and pictures of the world beyond the detail we’re accustomed to thinking about is helpful. Maybe you really should try to imagine what a happy version of yourself would look like (and thereby try to figure out what you’re lacking in the present).

Controlling the story of your past—recording and exhausting it—that skill might allow us to move into the future and write that story. Instead of letting life just happen, we could outline our own personal plot. We’ll learn the craft we’ll need to accept that responsibility. We’ll develop our ability to imagine in finer and finer detail. We can more exactly focus on what we want to accomplish, to attain, to become.

You want to be happy? You want to be at peace? You want to be healthy?

As any good writer would tell you: unpack “happy.” What does it look like? How can you demonstrate happiness on the page—that vague, abstract concept. Show, don’t tell. Show me “happiness.”

In this way, learning to write means learning to look at yourself and the world in extreme close-up. If nothing else, maybe learning how to write will force us to take a closer look at everything, to really see it—if only in order to reproduce it on a page.

Maybe with a little more effort and reflection, you can live the kind of life story a literary agent would want to read.

Or maybe . . . just maybe this whole process is our training wheels toward something bigger. If we can reflect and know our lives, we might stay awake and shape our futures. Our flood of books and movies—of plots and story arcs—they might be mankind’s way to be aware of all our history. Our options. All the ways we’ve tried in the past to fix the world.

We have it all: the time, the technology, the experience, the education, and the disgust.

What if they made a movie about a war and nobody came?

If we’re too lazy to learn history history, maybe we can learn plots. Maybe our sense of “been there, done that” will save us from declaring the next war. If war won’t “play,” then why bother? If war can’t “find an audience.” If we see that war “tanks” after the opening weekend, then no one will green-light another one. Not for a long, long time.

Then, finally, what if some writer comes up with an entirely new story? A new and compelling way to live, before . . .

Sorry, your seven minutes is up.

You can read the entire essay (entitled You Are Here) HERE.

The Anthropological Perspective and Crap Detecting

…We must have instruments that telling us when we are running down, when maintenance is required. For Wiener, such instruments would be people who have been educated to recognize change, to be sensitive to problems caused by change, and who have the motivation and courage to sound alarms when entropy accelerates to a dangerous degree. This is what we mean by ‘crap detecting.’ It is also what John Gardener means by the ‘ever-renewing society,’ and what Kenneth Boulding means by ‘social self-consciousness.’ We are talking about the schools cultivating in the young that most ‘subversive’ intellectual instrument – the anthropological perspective. This perspective allows one to be part of his own culture and, at the same time, to be out of it. One views the activities of his own group as would an anthropologist, observing its tribal rituals, its fears, its conceits, its ethnocentrism. In this way, one is able to recognize when reality begins to drift too far away from the grasp of the tribe.

-Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, pp. 3-4

Out of the culture and in the culture at the same time. This sounds oddly familiar.

John 17:15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.

The problem comes when you don’t have the grounding that follows in John’s Gospel:

John 17:17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.

I think the phrase ‘anthropological perspective’ is helpful. It’s a reminder that Christians are to serve, at least in some sense, as sociologists of the culture they find themselves in. Sociologists and tourists.

 

 

On Cultivating the Ability to Detect Crap

In the early 1960s, an interviewer was trying to get Ernest Hemingway to identify the characteristics required to be a ‘great writer’…

After several attempts to get a straightforward answer,

Hemingway replied, ‘Yes, there is. In order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.’

-Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, pp. 2, 3

Jesus himself was quite the Crap Detector: “But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25).

He warns us,  “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues…” (Matt. 10:16-17).

In other words, always have your Crap Detector at hand. Have your eyes open to the schemes of man. Beware (be wary) of them. But, at the same time, don’t be the kind of person who makes other people’s Crap Detector go off. Be shrewd, but never look to harm anyone when you see their crap. Plus, the example of Christ means that sometimes you will have to give yourself over to be hurt by such people. And you’ll have to do it willingly. Plus plus, your detector won’t always go off. When it doesn’t, don’t assume the worst. Maybe you’ve met someone who isn’t full of it.

 

When you plug something into a wall, something is getting plugged into you

When you plug something into a wall, [something] is getting plugged into you.

-Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, p. 7

Postman was fond of saying, following McLuhan, that when you add new technology to an environment, you change the environment. Hence the big idea of media ecology. If you add an XBOX to your living room, you don’t just have your old living room plus an XBOX. You have a new living room – a new environment. Something fundamental in the environment has changed that will affect the total atmosphere/ecosystem.

The idea that when you plug something in, it gets plugged into you, is a helpful summary of this concept. When you plug your smartphone in – when you put it in your pocket – you don’t have you plus a smartphone in your pocket. You have new version of you.

This is not always bad (and Postman never claimed it was), but awareness is key. I often quote the GI Joe PSAs I grew up watching – Knowing is half the battle.

Don’t Talk About it Unless You’re Excited About It

Recently I’ve started to change the first question I ask of my executive clients who want to become better communicators. In his last major public presentation, Steve Jobs said, “It’s the intersection of technology and liberal arts that makes our hearts sing.” So today I’ve replaced “What are you passionate about” with “What makes your heart sing?”

-Carmine Gallo, Talk Like TED, Kindle Loc. 280.

Is there anything you are so excited about sharing that you can’t wait until you get to that part of the message? If not, you aren’t ready. You don’t have a burden. You may have pages of information and it may all be true, but if you don’t have something that people need so badly that you feel compelled to share it, you still have work to do.

-Andy Stanley, Communicating for Change, Kindle Loc. 1498.

Note to self and to other preachers: if nothing in your sermon prep has excited you, then you’re not done with your prep yet. Keep digging until you find something compelling, then turn your primary attention to that.

 

Pastoral Counseling: Teaching People How to Think

My pastoral work of personal dealing, considerable though it is, has been greatly reduced through the years because the building up of people’s faith, by the ministry of the Word of God, solves so much in their lives. It enables those who receive it and seek to live by it to understand and solve so much in other lives, that instead of becoming a liability on my time and energy, they become pastors themselves. Indeed, one of the features of such a radical and total ministry of the Word is that it thrusts so many into spiritual and social work that I can hardly keep a congregation together on account of their scattering throughout the land, and indeed, the earth.

– William Still, The Work of the Pastor, Kindle Loc. 323

All this has to be faced in the ministry of the Word: nevertheless, it is that ministry which makes Christian character, so that healthy feeders need the pastor less and less. At last they need him no more as clinician or nurse. They have found the solution to their problems and, much more important, have learned to live with those which will only be fully solved in heaven. Now they are able to become, as I said before, pastors to others, to help them solve their problems through the Word (Loc. 448).

The goal for Still is to teach people how to apply the Word to themselves so that they can learn to counsel themselves and thus become less dependent upon you. The end result is that they will begin to counsel others effectively as well.

 

 

As Manure Belongs to a Fruitful Garden

Another thing: to minister fruitfully (and God does not call us to anything else) we must minister as those who have died. This is really the same point as the last, but it has total ramifications in the life. It is only out of a life that is dead not only to sin (obvious) but to self in all its various and subtle aspects, that God will bring resurrection to others. Death works in us, but life in others (2 Cor. 4:12). That is the profoundest and most practical principle in the Bible. Every time we essay to minister there must be a new death. ‘Deaths oft…I die daily,’ said Paul. It is the glorious agony of those who are used of God amidst the oppositions of the world, the church, and certainly the devil, that we are ever dying men and women…

You can see what a death this is to die to those who think you are nothing if not popular. If we are not prepared to suffer (and suffering is not fun nor is it meant to be fun), we shall not reign. The two belong together, as Peter says over and over again in his first epistle. Hurt and fruit, death and life, sorrow and joy. They belong together, as manure belongs to a fruitful garden.

-William Still, The Work of the Pastor, Kindle Loc. 1191, 1210

That’s great use of imagery. Suffering and joy, etc. go together as manure and a fruitful garden go together.

 

 

Little Things Please Great Minds

Sir Thomas Browne was an exalted mystic [whose mysticism] owed much to his literary style. Style, in his sense, did not merely mean sound, but an attempt to give some twist of wit or symbolism to every clause or parenthesis; when he went over his work again, he did not merely polish brass, he fitted in gold. This habit of working with a magnifying glass, this turning and twisting of minor words, is the true parent of mysticism; for the mystic is not a man who reverences large things so much as a man who reverences small ones, who reduces himself to a point, without parts or magnitude, so that to him the grass is really a forest and the grasshopper a dragon. Little things please great minds.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Little Things, from The Speaker, December 15th, 1900. Read it online HERE.

Seeing Your Ugliness in Others

I studied the man as he spoke; for all those years I’d handed my ugliness over to people and seen only the different ways it was reflected back to me. As reluctant as I was to admit it now, the only indication in my companion’s behavior was positive.

-Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face, p. 222

A pretty good principle: When you see bad in others, be careful that you’re not just seeing your own badness reflected back to you. We tend to lash out at our own sins when we see them in others, while at the same time failing to see them in ourselves. This is the old splinter/log principle.

Pastoral Visitation

1) Be what you are in Christ

As a pastor, will you be merely trying to do a job and fulfill a duty, or will you be letting Christ in human flesh through to the people you are mixing with? If the latter, then it is the easiest thing in the world. You simply be what you are in Christ, no more, and no less, and let that speak. If Christ is not concerned to be sanctimonious (and He certainly was not sanctimonious with the woman of Samaria), do you think you can do better by being self-consciously unctuous? If Christ has given you a love for people (and what are you doing in this work if He has not?), then the fact of it is the important thing, not the showing off of it. People have misunderstood me for years because I would not dance their evangelistic jigs and utter their clichés and shibboleths, and observe all their polite conventions. But when they were in real need, it was not a matter then of showing what was in me, or what I was made of, but of responding to their need as distinct from their conventional repartee, and being seen for what I was. Far better, surely, than being thought to be such a nice man, and then being found out! Grace and truth come by Jesus Christ.

-William Still, The Work of the Pastor, Kindle Loc. 606

2) Do not force Bible reading or prayer; Don’t hesitate to read or pray when asked

Far better that someone should ask for a word of prayer, or a reading, than that one should leave a trail of forced readings and prayers in a number of homes where it was not convenient, or where people were sorely embarrassed, or annoyed, and didn’t want them…I am never put out, although some who ask me hope that I may, by being asked to pray in a home. (Loc. 614-616).

3) Be conscience of whether or not your presence is desired

It goes without saying that one takes in the situation in any home when one arrives, and does not force oneself on people at an inconvenient moment, or stay on if one senses that one is interrupting plans or is really in the way (Loc. 623).

4) Ask questions that get to the heart of the situation

You must learn the art of asking leading, direct, even shock questions, perhaps catching the over-composed ones off their guard, and then, greatly daring, but with a sure, unerring touch, barging right in and cracking them open, as if to say ‘Come off it. There’s a bit of a muddle here. Why don’t you admit it, and let’s get on with the clearing up’ (Loc. 629).

5) Like a doctor, uncover the wounds and get to work

In certain company you dare not let people know what you are, but amongst Jesus-folk, within reason and in degree according to how Jesus-minded they are, you can and must. A true Christian fellowship is a place where stray cats and dogs can find a home. It is a hospital, where the only sin is to hide your wounds from the doctor and nurse. And the true pastor’s job is to strip all the fearful ones, however gently, patiently, faithfully, and all the hypocritical ones of their camouflage and cloaks (Loc. 642).