By the book

A book’s a funny place to look for answers. If customer support took that long to answer my question, I’d hang up.

Some books make the Bible into an answer book. On supermarket displays back by the butcher’s and druggist’s counters, you may pick up books of Bible verses, helpfully categorized by issues. Spin the display, and the cookbooks appear.

When I was younger, many of my Jesus friends made decisions by closing their eyes, opening the Bible, and pointing to a verse. They honed their prophetic sense by learning how to read the sometimes-opaque tea leaves.

I’m not reading much differently if I’m still reading just for answers. I’m not living by the book; I’m limiting my reading to my narrow questions. Michael Casey puts it better:

Anything that feeds into our current concerns is accepted as relevant; everything else is dismissed as of lesser importance. . . . As a result, we do not build the infrastructure on which “relevant” insights will depend.

My reading must, at least, broaden an issue until the original question becomes, in retrospect, a fillip, and now an afterthought – maybe even irrelevant (ironically). But I must not set out on my more important reading to find anything relevant to the day’s exigencies. Casey:

Not everything is immediately relevant. Sometimes we have to juggle two apparently divergent themes in our minds until some sort of connectedness links them.

Living by the book means, in part, carrying the word around and watching it shape life. Casey:

Perhaps we hear the word and understand it intellectually. Because we do not carry it around, bridges are not built between the text and daily life.

Seek wisdom, the Bible says. But wisdom may not have answers.1 Maybe wisdom isn’t even only the expansion of a question into a broader, more comprehensive issue, though that’s often important. Maybe wisdom is God’s fellowship.2

Answers are overrated.

Am I like Saul, going to the prophet Samuel to find my donkeys?3 “Blah, blah, blah, and your donkeys have been found.” I won’t find the “blah, blah, blah” on supermarket carousels.

Reflections on reading “Irrelevance,” a paragraph on page 74 of Michael Casey’s Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina.

  1. Maybe a “word of wisdom” redirects my inquiry – points me to a better path.
  2. Or maybe God himself. The book of Proverbs personifies wisdom as a woman (chapter 9). And Paul says, with little explanation, that Jesus is our wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:30).
  3. 1 Samuel 9 & 10.

Slow reading on a Kindle

3PictureMarja-Leena-Rathje-paperwhites2014I live out essentially two notions of slow reading. One focuses meditatively over a verse’s or small passage’s phrasing. The other digs into an entire book through marginalia and multiple reads. One is meditation and the other is study, though, happily, the lines blur.

Over the past seven months, I’ve tried both kinds of close reading on the latest Kindle Paperwhite. Each morning I’m reading a psalm, or part of a psalm, depending on its length and how things are going, from an unfamiliar translation.  I’ve also tried to wear out two larger Kindle books. In the process, I typed 178 margin notes in one Kindle book and 452 margin notes in the other. (I love marginalia: my best writing is in my margin notes.) This post reflects on my experience of close reading these three texts on the Kindle.

By the way, the psalms translation is Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary. The first of the two larger books is Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, and the second is Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies.

While I was reading Niebuhr’s book on my Kindle, I was also alternately “reading” it by listening to an unabridged recording of it on my phone’s Audible app. I’d stop this performance on occasion to record notes, and a transcribed version of my recorded notes would collect along with my typed margin notes when the phone’s app synced.

I wasn’t reading these books just to test the Kindle, of course. But I was curious, as I went along, to see how close reading on a Kindle stacked up against close reading a physical book. I also wondered what a well-lived-in Kindle book would feel like. Here’s what I’ve discovered in terms of both function and feel.

1. Typing margin notes on a Kindle is slow, but that’s not all bad. More ideas sometimes occurred to me as I used a single finger to press the tiny keys at the bottom of my Kindle. In a way it was more tactile than writing notes with a pen in a paper book. I found that I reflected more on what I was writing.

2. With 452 margin notes in Open Society, I need a way to search them. The search function on the Kindle and on the computer’s Kindle app doesn’t search my marginalia; it searches only the book’s text. To search my notes, I log into on my laptop and click “Your Highlights.”

3. The “Your Highlights” page produces my few thousand notes on a single, slowly loading page. To search the page, I type Command-F, as I’d type to find something on any web page. Amazon hasn’t developed a serious research tool for Kindle yet, though any search function beats searching for marginalia in paper books, of course. Continue reading

Can the scientific method save democracy?

3PictureKarlPopperAs I mentioned in my recent post, “A framework for political moderation,” I’ve been searching for a foundation for modern American democracy that tries to solve problems out of expediency with piecemeal legislation. I wasn’t searching for it here, though, in twentieth-century, Anglo-Austrian philosopher Karl Popper’s political science magnum opus, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Instead, I picked up Popper to learn what the originator of the appellation “historicist” had to say about that Hegelian juggernaut of a philosophy.

I’ve spent six months reading Popper’s book, mostly a few pages a night. Now that the school year’s over, I’ve had time to finish the book and to concentrate on what it is teaching me. I’d like to examine Popper here both for his take on historicism and for what I have come to recognize as his contribution to a modern, moderate political philosophy. I’ll start with historicism and meander into Popper’s broader philosophy.

Popper and historicism

Historicists, you may know, explain away claims to universality in scientific or political standards by pointing out these alleged standards’ subjective, historical contexts. (Subjective sociological and psychoanalytic contexts have since been advanced, too, of course, and Popper addresses them.) I’ve written a bit about Southern secessionists’ central historicist argument against the Equality Clause: all men are not created equal because (1) no man has an existence outside of the context of his tribe (or race) and (2) each race must earn its rights over time in the judgment of history.

Popper defines historicism this way:

[They believe that it is] the task of the social sciences to furnish us with long-term historical prophecies. They also believe that they have discovered laws of history which enable them to prophesy the course of historical events. The various social philosophies which raise claims of this kind, I have grouped together under the name historicism. (xliii).

Popper hates historicism as much as I do, but he cedes more ground to it than I do, though with little loss of effectiveness. He concedes to historicists that there are no a priori, or self-evident, truths. I like seventeenth-century Locke, who believes in self-evident truths. Popper likes eighteenth-century Kant, who doesn’t. But both of us have a faith in reason in common, and both of us dislike nineteenth-century Hegel, who overturned reason in favor of historicism.

Faith in reason or faith in equality?

Popper’s faith – or a priori political starting point – is not in equality, as mine is, but in reason. Popper believes that historicists such as Hegel undermine mankind’s faith in a universally understood reason, a faith necessary for advances in science and self-government. Like Popper, I find a faith in reason to be vital: our ability to reason about something like what Aristotle calls first principles permits us to have a chance at governing ourselves. But to me, “faith in reason” feels too much like “faith in faith” or, speaking from a Christian standpoint, too much like “faith in prayer.” It doesn’t feel like rock bottom. The Bible teaches faith in God, not faith in prayer; likewise, Locke and the Founders’ faith in equality is more fundamental than their faith in reason. The backbone of equality is its inherent hierarchy among God, mankind, and nature, and God’s absence or his ineluctable wrath, if accepted, creates a political vacuum that demigods fill, making equality impossible. I’d rather start with equality as the beginning (the standard – the individual in the state of nature) and the end (the goal – the realization in society) and reason as the means from the beginning to the end.

I don’t think Popper would call his faith in reason a priori, but I would: reason presupposes a certain metaphysical understanding of human nature. My assertion of mankind’s essential equality is no more metaphysical at its core than Popper’s assertion of mankind’s ability to reason. To affirm reason’s universal application – to assert that all men can reason enough in a democracy to effectively hypothesize about social problems and to work together toward possible solutions to them – is an affirmation and an assertion about human nature. Continue reading

Psalm 39: next to nothing

3PictureJobByzantineManuscriptRobert Alter finds a neat way to end Psalm 39, the psalm that most focuses, in semantics and structure, on man’s evanescence.

Alter’s notes for Psalm 39 demonstrate (1) the predominance of “breath” (e.g., “Mere breath is each man standing”), (2) the echoes from Job (e.g., “You . . . melt like the moth his treasure”), and (3) the contrast between the psalm’s triadic lines (psychological tension) and dyadic lines (symmetry). Alter’s last verse confronts these components.

I’m used to the psalm ending on something like the Revised English Bible’s simpering:

Frown on me no more; let me look cheerful
before I depart and cease to be.

But Alter likes how Raymond Scheindlin translates Job’s end for its chapter 10, rendering the “disputed verb avligah” as “catch my breath”:

Let me alone so I may catch my breath

before I go on my way, not to return
into a land of darkness and deathgloom

Psalm 39’s final verse uses the same verb. Alter adopts Scheindlin’s strategy, giving the last verse’s dyadic structure something of the roundedness of the previous triadic lines:

Look away from me, that I may catch my breath
before I depart and am not.

Based on these lines alone, I just ordered a copy of Scheindlin’s Job – a used, hardcover copy for next to nothing.

The illustration is from a Byzantine manuscript in Rome’s Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. You have to love how it depicts who I guess are Job’s friends: all mouth.

Tribalism and true identity

Every school day for ten years, I’ve walked through our high school’s tall foyer. Most days, I lift up my eyes high above the foyer’s display cases and banners to the large abstract nouns stenciled on the foyer’s walls. But I’m not there today, and I can’t tell you for certain which abstract nouns are there. I think two are “integrity” and “excellence.” Maybe.

Abstractions put most audiences to sleep. I’ve learned this by bitter experience, so when I teach an abstract concept, I often use a narrative because a narrative makes my students perk up. Good speakers, as we all know, use stories.

The tribal advantage.

3PictureGerman-football-supporters-giving-the-Nazi-salute-during-the-international-match-against-England-at-White-Hart-LaneStories demonstrate the enduring appeal of what Austrian philosopher Karl Popper calls “tribalism,” a political danger he says has become active again after lying dormant for two millennia. Why stories? The inherent advantage stories have over abstractions is also the inherent advantage tribal societies have over open societies.

Tribal societies have narratives – specifically, myths – to understand what philosophers and scientists in open societies understand through observations, abstractions, models, and reason. Philosophers and scientists explain with narratives, too, but the narratives are usually only a strategy for teaching what is otherwise found to be reasonable.

But in a tribal society, the myth is both the medium and the message. The myth takes the place of the open society’s reason as a tool to discover moral and scientific truths. The tribe’s taboos amount to state-enforced virtues that prevent the development of individual morality, according to Popper (107, 164). And primitive tribal myths about natural phenomena keep members from distinguishing between tribal laws and universally applicable scientific laws, such as the law of gravity (164).

A brief history.

Tribalism first broke down in Athens a generation before Plato. Popper’s book The Open Society and its Enemies charts the rise of the open society from tribalism in Athens beginning with Democritus, Pericles, and Herodotus, who were among the first Western philosophers and rulers to insist on mankind’s essential equality. But democracy struggled following Pericles’s “Great Generation” and Athens’s defeat at the hands of Sparta.

Plato lived through Athens’s defeat, and his political philosophy aimed to return Athens to a tribal, or closed, society, which he thought would make society more stable. Plato advocated measures that are similar to some totalitarian tactics over the past several decades: the murder by doctors of political dissidents and of the physically weak, the banishment of poets, the destruction of families, the worship of rulers as demigods, the free use of lies and deceit by rulers in furtherance of a greater truth unfathomable by lower classes (Plato admitted that his famous Myth of Blood and Soil was a propaganda lie (133)), the guarantee of a pure ruling class through eugenics, and the deliberate acclimation of children to war. Popper even takes a chapter to examine the reactionary elements inherent in Plato’s ideas of the Good and of the Philosopher-King. Plato hated democracy, and he advocated these policies to move Athens away from democracy and back to tribalism.

During the next couple of millennia after Plato, the world experienced some returns to tribalism, but multi-ethnic empires, feudalism, limited monarchies, and increasingly open societies were more prevalent in the West.

Tribalism today.

Twenty-four hundred years after Plato, tribalism is growing again. Popper explains how the early nineteenth century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in the service of Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III, made Plato’s political philosophy and his return-to-tribalism agenda accessible to a modern world. Continue reading


Somewhere this room
a gizmo chirps not
twice an hour, maybe,
someone calling him
who’s not here. Or not
a call, but a notification
by someone a group
he joined once, someone
not thinking him, exactly,
and he not thinking the group
neither now nor as long as he’s
not been here, the gizmo
not making as much of it
as I am here.

Bad writing instruction: the first-paragraph thesis

3PictureBookNewkirkSchoolManifestoHere’s a worthy little book to get you caught up on the sorry state of school essay instruction. I got The School Essay Manifesto: Reclaiming the Essay for Students and Teachers to find out some better ways to write first drafts before shaping them into literary analysis essays. Thomas Newkirk, the author, does describe three excellent methods for writing essays, and two of them involve close readings of texts. But I was pleased to discover that his essays weren’t only the first drafts. They were the subsequent drafts, too, and the finished products.

Newkirk starts off arguing against the mind-numbing structure of the first-paragraph thesis and the five-paragraph essay. But he ends up suggesting that the literary analysis essay itself should lose its prominent place in American high schools. In this respect, his book tracks the development of my argument in “The Tyranny of the Secondary School,” a post I wrote seven years ago.

I’m surprised that Newkirk, a University of New Hampshire English professor and one of these writers-workshop-for-grade-schools Heinemann Books authors, didn’t turn in a more erudite performance. I often think that, because the literary analysis essay came from the universities over a hundred years ago, our deliverance from it will come from there, too. (And, in fact, some colleges are beginning to show more interest in nonfiction texts and rhetoric and less interest in literary analysis.) Don’t get me wrong: he argues well. But Newkirk, who also taught at-risk high school students in Boston, mostly talks like one of us high school teachers. And that gives me hope: maybe we English teachers, despite everything, can really rid ourselves of some of these major impediments to good writing instruction.

Newkirk’s means of persuasion aside, all three of his essay ideas are worth the price of this slim volume.

In This Place: Tom Montag’s spare, sweeping retrospective

3PictureBookMontagInThisPlaceA week before I visited the National Gallery’s new Andrew Wyeth retrospective, I had gotten my hands on Tom Montag’s new In This Place: Selected Poems 1982 – 2013. In This Place is a retrospective of sorts, too, though by a man who is sometimes called a “minor regional poet.” Montag’s regionalism, though, is like Wyeth’s – a particular window on human conditions and feelings. I thought of Montag’s poetry often while walking through the show.

Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In concentrates on Wyeth’s windows, and most of the show’s studies and paintings are of windows from only two houses, the Kuerner Farm in Pennsylvania and the Olson House in Maine. The inexhaustible subject matter Wyeth finds in two houses reminded me of the cover photograph of In This Place: the front of “the big red house” where Montag and his wife Mary have lived for upwards of forty years in their Wisconsin farming village. Like Wyeth, Montag finds unlimited inspiration from a handful of things within a fixed geographic radius. He has written over a thousand pages of observations, for instance, for his blog, The Middlewesterner, just from things he observed during his daily drives to and from work.

Five years after Wyeth’s death, the NGA show asks, have we begun to see beyond his realism and beyond his insistence on a limited, regional subject matter? Part of the narrative of Wyeth’s show is the universalism in his regionalism as well as the renewed critical appreciation for the “detachment and nonbeing” undergirding Wyeth’s realism, as Charles Brock puts it his essay “Through a Glass: Windows in the Art of Wyeth, Sheeler, and Hopper” appearing in the show’s catalog (66). I hope In This Place generates a similar appreciation for the universalism and detachment in the corpus of Montag’s poetry.

The partly negative connotation of “regional” persists, of course, and Wyeth would have sympathized with Montag becoming known as a regional poet. In her essay “Wind from the Sea: Painting Truth beneath the Facts,” also published in the show’s catalog, Nancy K. Anderson quotes Wyeth as saying, “People like to say Robert Frost is a bucolic poet. Just as people say I’m a painter of rustic scenes – that has nothing to do with it!” (26). Wyeth and Frost were great artists, Anderson contends, not because they were regionalists, though they were, but because they effectively used the natural world to suggest significant feelings and thoughts that moved their audiences. Explaining the name of the Wyeth retrospective, Anderson writes that, as “a keen observer of the natural world, [Frost, like Wyeth,] used exterior prompts for interior purposes – looking out triggered looking in.” The same is true of Montag. Continue reading

Soccer and Our Founding Document

3PictureTimHowardGeorgeWashingtonIt’s the Fourth of July. In today’s Washington Post, Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist, urges Americans to get over “their nagging emphasis on nationality” and to find a team to root for among the remaining eight World Cup countries.

Independence Day, with impeccable timing, is here to help.

But hold that thought. First, let’s take in the biggest news ever for American soccer: this week, the entire country seemed riveted to a soccer match. At its end, Team USA was eliminated from the World Cup in a 2-to-1 loss to Belgium. This excerpt from a New York Times article is typical of the American media’s euphoria over the way our team played:

Trying to figure out where soccer fits into the fabric of America is a popular topic but, for one afternoon at least, there was this unexpected truth: All around the country, from coast to coast and through the nation’s belly, sports fans of every kind were inspired by the performance of a soccer goalkeeper. In a loss.

The key to figuring out “where soccer fits into the fabric of America,” of course, has always been figuring out where America fits into the fabric of the world. The key is coming up with an alternative to mere tribalism, to what Jenkins calls our “nagging emphasis on nationality.” To restart that figuring, we might look into why we find ourselves celebrating this loss.

We are celebrating because our goalkeeper, Tim Howard, broke a World Cup record for saves. I’ve seen an Internet meme conflating Tim Howard with George Washington, and for good reason: General Washington was a master of that most defensive of tactics, the retreat. His resilience at our end of the field won us the world’s respect. Howard’s resilience did the same thing.

We are celebrating this loss because, deep down and to the surprise of many – including ourselves – we still care what the rest of the world thinks. We cared when we fought the Revolutionary War. We had a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” back then, to borrow the Declaration of Independence’s famous noun phrase. That respect, in fact, drove us to write the Declaration.

The Declaration’s respect for world opinion isn’t just a throwaway line. Grammatically speaking, the word “respect” is the sole subject of the Declaration’s introduction. If that weren’t enough to raise its profile, “respect” comes at the end of the Declaration’s opening sentence, a periodic sentence that dramatically highlights its point by saving its subject for the end:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Aristotle taught us that every speech or writing has an audience that shapes it. The Declaration’s explicit audience is mankind. We owe the world an explanation, it says. The Declaration, which reached England, France, Italy, and even Poland by the end of 1776, was our first apology tour.

The Declaration doesn’t declare our independence from the world or its opinions. It declares our independence from Britain, but in the process, it declares also our “separate and equal station” with the rest of the nations. And it expressly solicits those nations’ opinions.

In fact, the Declaration of Independence never calls itself that. I think a better name for it would be the Declaration of Interdependence. Independence, after all, is just a necessary stage between dependence and interdependence. This progression from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is true also for highly effective nations. We have a lot to offer other nations, of course, not the least of which are the rights enumerated in the Declaration. But for other nations to benefit from us, we must understand that they still share an “equal station” with us. For other nations to adopt our rights, we need to be willing to respect theirs.

Lincoln knew that other nations would not adopt the Declaration’s abstract principles – equality and the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – through American military might. He countered Stephen Douglas’s version of Manifest Destiny with an understanding, as political scientist Harry V. Jaffa has it in his book Crisis of the House Divided, that America’s “primary action upon the international scene was to be moral, not political” (85). We need to get our house in order because other nations need us.

The reverse is also true. Long after France helped us bottle up Cornwallis at Yorktown, we still need other nations. We don’t need them to form another “coalition of the willing,” as George W. Bush called the nations that supported America’s invasion of Iraq. Instead, we need mankind’s culture, its fellowship, its perspectives. (How obvious this is; how sad to feel the need to write this.) We need its candid opinions, as the Declaration claims. In his 1939 essay “The Indispensable Opposition,” Walter Lippmann argues that the foundation for freedom of speech is our need to learn from one another. The same need is the foundation for diplomacy.

The Framers believed in a “candid world” – the final two words in the Declaration’s famous preamble. “Candid” back then didn’t mean “forthcoming” but, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, “free from bias; fair, impartial, just.” Do we still believe in such a world?

Our reaction to this week’s World Cup loss suggests we might. Despite the dismissal of world opinion that has characterized our politics and even our foreign policy this young century, we may have rediscovered a truer understanding of ourselves this week on the pitch. There, for at least ninety minutes, we remembered what it was like to be respected rather than feared.

Today, and hopefully for ages to come, the Declaration of Interdependence can help us more fully adopt that perspective.

And so can the Post, though for a limited time. It put together an assessment of each remaining World Cup team – why you should root for each, and why you shouldn’t. So adopt a team as well as the Declaration’s perspective, and for the remainder of the Cup, celebrate our nation’s interdependence!