A Reformed Sticking Point

Reformed churches are mostly fiercely dedicated to remaining with and in the Word of God.  This is commendable.  This dedication does however often extend to insisting on a necessity of preserving in all cases the exact wording of professedly uninspired documents.  We might call this linguistic legalism.  As an example, I want to comment on this condemnation issued by certain Pastors Bayly.  I do not have anything against their words of warning for those who try to use the Gospel 'for profit' (though St. Paul's other commentary on envious preachers comes to mind as a counter-warning against taking such condemnations too far).

But at the end of their pronouncement, the Baylys leave the realm of reasonable warnings.  They accuse Pastor T.D. Jakes – one of those preaching for gain, in their accounting (at least a plausible accusation, given the tone of his ministry's website) – of heresy.  How so?  On the basis of this statement:
"There is one God, Creator of all things, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in three manifestations: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
The offending word is "manifestations", with its overtones of the various kinds of essentially gnostic heresies throughout the church's history.  The Baylys particularly identify Jakes with the Modalists (that link is original to BaylyBlog: the possible irony of their using a Roman Catholic webcyclopedia amuses me).

To be sure, "manifestations" is not the accepted term "persons" used in the Western translations of the Church's creeds.  And as mentioned, to the historically literate Christian it has unfortunate overtones.  But the charge of heresy is concocted entirely on that poor word choice, with no regard for the rest of the statement.  Take for instance
"Further, [Jesus Christ] arose bodily from the dead, ascended into heaven, where, at the right hand of the Majesty on High, He is now our High Priest and Advocate."
"The ministry of the Holy Spirit is to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ..." (emphases mine)
Both these statements accept, even emphasize, even require the traditional and orthodox doctrine of the separate persons of the Trinity.  Nowhere does Jakes' church veer into clear heresy (at least on that score) in their statement.  The charge is ludicrous – and making it worse is that searching for departures from orthodoxy within the ministry of The Potter's House is easy: the Baylys might have started, say, in the church's inclusion of female pastors.  Instead, they appear to be clutching carelessly at any straw of accusation they can find.  That's careless rhetoric, if nothing else, but often is the hallmark of personal attacks – which I doubt either Bayly had in mind at all, but again is an appearance to avoid if possible, for rhetorical reasons if nothing else.

I might have just dismissed the post out of hand and ignored it, but I had been reading earlier today in Henry Osborn Taylor's The Medieval Mind, where in a footnote to an account of Patristic discussions he has this to say:
"... The Latin juristic word persona [is] used in the Creed.  The Latins had to render the hypostaseis of the Greeks; and "three somethings," tria quaedam, was too loose.... hypostasis would have been substantia; but that word had been taken to render ousia.  So the legal word persona was employed in spite of its recognized unfitness." (Chapter III, note 1)
Hypostasis might literally be translated an "under-standing-ness", or more colloquially a thing which stands by itself (while supporting another), thus translations such as "foundation", "substance" (derived from the Latin word with the same literal meaning as the Greek), and the philosophical sense of the English "essence".  Yes, even the "somethings" of quaedam are more definite, more material than Jakes' "manifestations", to say nothing of substantia, Taylor's (and by his account the Church Fathers') preferred word if had been possible.  But we have to recognize that persona – meaning legally approximately the same thing to a Roman that "persons" now does to us, I believe – is itself an approximation, and that makes the charge look even sillier.  "Manifestation" is a poor choice, given that it carries a connotation of appearance only – but none of us are perfect, and perhaps a friendly letter, rather than flinging down a gauntlet?


The Democratic Premise

Support for democracy can roughly be defined as a belief that experts are unnecessary in government.  Many people are not experts in anything, and we find those people who have acquired expertise of some sort in many different fields.  Even among the experts in the "correct" fields for government, the studies of law, politics, and the like, we find disagreements, to say nothing of character and personalities differences or problems.  This is to say, even if the people of a democracy were to listen to the scholars of government, which course they might choose to follow as the one handed down from the wise men is less than clear on most issues.  Further, by the very nature of the thing any argument for a pure democracy puts government among the things that most people know how to do, at least more or less: which is to say, among a list of things like raising children, helping the needy, finding work, settling arguments, and so forth.

By a corollary of sorts – the strict logical connection is difficult to draw, but the analogy is not hard to see – a democratic government will by nature be a fairly limited one in its functions.  After all, if most people know how to do the things government does, most people will already be doing them for themselves.  On the other hand, the extent of the government is by definition as great as possible.  The result would seem to be that in a democratic government – if any such beast were ever found – the line between the public and the private would be blurred.  By way of example, I might suggest the New England colonies, at least up to the mid-1800's.  I was deeply intrigued, reading the first part of de Tocqueville's Democracy in America earlier this year, by his observation that the majority of governmental functions, especially in New England, were carried out by each town separately: his account gives almost the impression that most of the citizens of any given town carried some governmental function, even apart from their votes.

Further, it is clear that any governmental action which begins to prefer some people's judgment to others – not in the natural way of listening in fact to the scholar for an opinion on the law, but by the artificial method of elevating some class into a special legal station – has abandoned the heart of democracy, which is equal voice in and treatment by the government.

Defining democracy is different from determining whether it is in fact a workable system of government.  The expert opinion, if I can still use the phrase without irony at the end of this piece, has tended to be that it in fact is not so possible, whether you look at Plato's philosopher-guardians or the American Founders' careful checks and limits and balances.  If I were to draw any immediate application – and this piece is meant as a definition and therefore a starting place, not an argument by itself – it would simply be this: given the meaning of the word it is strange that the modern states which claim to be "democracies" are characterized by huge governmental structures of regulations, and quite often preferential legalisms (whether we're talking earmarks or loopholes).


Medium and Maturity

One of the chief differences between the okay sci-fi and fantasy authors and the good ones is that the good ones have learned to spell.  As a sometimes-but-not-really aspiring author myself, I can attest that for almost anyone there is a desire to distinguish yourself, to be unique.  Not that this applies only to writing, of course, but in writing, and especially in SF/F, everyone wants to be Tolkien.  Unfortunately, most of us aren't, so the result tends to be mediocre authors naming things.  Badly.

Although I read the novel years ago, I finally read Orson Scott Card's short story Ender's Game last night.  The first thing that struck me was how young Card's style is in the story.  While it is recognizably Card's work, much of the later polish is missing. Many sentences are awkward by themselves, and the story does not flow very well.  And as I alluded to, Card couldn't spell.  Mazer Rackham is stuck with 'Maezr' – overly awkward-looking, just for the sake of uniqueness.

Compared to the novel, the focus is very different.  In the novel, Card focuses on Ender: in this original story, the focus is more abstract.  It feels as though the attempted orienting focuses what is happening to Ender – but not as Ender, more as "the one" of the story.  The story is almost more about the teachers.  The result, though, is a little unfocused: again evidence of a younger author.

If I had encountered the short story first, rather than the novel, I don't know if I would have the respect for Card that I do.  Fair?  Maybe not, but still an interesting thing to note.


The Death of CONVPOL (An Apology, in One Sense or the Other)

Edit: Due to an email I received expressing concern over his future career and certain other things, I have removed all named references to my debate opponent.  Hopefully no damage has been done – take this as a general anti-liberal screed, I suppose, really posted just to make me feel better and achieve closure.  We all know I post enough of those anyway.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a – now defunct – political debate blog going by the moniker CONVPOL, which I forget what it stood for and as it's been shut down I can't look up.  []Its ostensible purpose was to provide a forum to compare, contrast, and debate liberal and conservative views.  I replaced the original conservative writer; [a] shut-down followed as [the moderator] was unable (I assume) to find a second replacement.

The discussion terminated mainly over differences concerning what was appropriate: as those who know me are aware, I sometimes employ a more direct approach than might strictly be considered necessary, to say nothing of politic.  My last submission's premise was, in fact, little more than a more or less polite accusation that [my arguments had not yet been answered], which I followed by a restatement of my position.  I personally would have responded to that sort of a challenge – assuming it was actually answerable – with a detailed point-by-point analysis of how it was in fact a false charge.  I still think that I had made an accurate assessment: what I never meant it as was any sort of personal attack, though others I consulted on the fallout thought I was out of line.  My rational side (such as it is) suspects there may be a point there: on the other hand, I also consider that, by making the charge, I offered to the opportunity to hammer me flat if I were wrong – an opportunity most debaters I know would not turn down.

However the debate in fact came apart, I suspect it might not have lasted much longer due to [] my "anti-intellectualism".  Practically speaking, this seemed to mean two things: that I was not precise enough in citing sources, and that I showed little respect either for the (progressive) liberal mythos or for the [supposed] paragons of academia [].  Anyway, the first lack on my part is perhaps a fault; the second is my only real way to approach the question, practically speaking.  I am a politico neither by training nor profession: the interest I take in political questions is as a citizen first, and an amateur student of history second.  As bases for arguments, the general facts of history are well-enough known enough to go without citation – unless one is referencing a new theory or interpretation, or research on some little-known princedom in the Himalayas three thousand years ago.  I feel no need to take an academic who says something which appears to be refutable nonsense seriously, no matter how many doctorates he has, though I will try to refute the argument if it's actually presented as anything more than an appeal to The Grand Doctor Suchandsuch's authority.  (What is this, the Middle Ages?  Actually yes – but that's a whole different post.  Or book.)

Which brings me to Adam Smith.  While I read at least some of Smith's Wealth of Nations back in high school, and excerpts in college, I recently got it out of the library because I wanted to read the whole thing.  What I was immediately struck by – in light of this ongoing snarl, mainly – was that Smith's methods seem reasonably close to my own.  This is not in any way surprising: the modern researcher, with his citations and footnotes, is in fact very modern.  It's therefore not really a defense of my methods to say that older methods, likely more prone to inaccuracy, agree with me.  What I want to stress is that Smith used the same sort of argumentation I tend to employ: logical argument and practical – by which I mean relatively small-scale – examples to demonstrate his point.  For an instance, we can take the famous pin-maker scenario which details the benefits of division of labor.

Having taken this example, and said that it resonates with me, I want to come back to the subject of the nature of a political argument.  [] I believe if you follow politics nationally, you will notice the following distinction: the liberal is constantly pursuing a general utopia: an ideal pattern for a whole country or world.  The conservative generally is concerned more with specifics: I would say the practical specifics, but some might not agree.  The liberal case, for instance, for Obamacare, has been that it will cover everybody, or at least more or everybody than the current situation.  The conservative objections, while occasionally targeting the absurdity of trying to prescribe a solution that works for 300 million people, have mainly focused either on specific provisions, or specific results.  This section is too vague, too bureaucratic, or unenforceable; this requirement will put so many businesses out of business, or reduce available coverage under these conditions.  True to form, I will not cite either of those allegations, beyond linking to a thing I wrote two years ago that dealt with the various ridiculous things included in the two thousand pages nobody's actually read.

From my perspective, the biggest problem with the debate theoretically happening on CONVPOL was that [my opponent] kept saying, "We have to get here," and I kept saying, "But the way you're trying to get there doesn't actually work!"  A prime example was our discussion of 1984.  [He] alleged that Big Brother was conservative, essentially on the basis that Orwell was a socialist himself.  By analogy, he suggested that it has been the conservatives pushing for that kind of control.  In response, I pointed out the huge difference between conservative and totalitarian, and mentioned that the regimes coming closest to BB – the defunct USSR and the not-so-defunct modern Chinese government – were not conservative but, at best (for the liberal) corrupted socialists.  To say nothing (as I did say nothing) about the police surveillance state that, say, the United Kingdom has become under decidedly non-Conservative governments (for the most part).  Such actual examples – as opposed to the theoretical utopias of liberal visions – [were] brushed off.  This is not unique to our relatively private debate.  Liberal politicians regularly ignore such actual examples in favor of theory, some of it truly wonky when not actively refuted.  President Obama, for example. is campaigning for yet another "jobs bill", despite the fact that none of the measures passed and money spent by the Feds seems to have dented unemployment numbers at all over the last three or four years (and yes, that includes Bush's stimulus).

In a sense, I understand this.  After all, the fact of the Crusades has done little to nothing to make me question my Christian faith.  Assumptions are assumptions, and are hard to shake, let alone change.  But what infuriated me – and ultimately in large part drove my challenge which resulted in the blog's disbandment – is that [many liberals] seemed to be unable to admit that the ideal of a world where everybody has stuff and is free is not just a modern progressive liberal ideal.  I spent the majority of the two argumentative posts I was allowed to make trying to hammer that point home: the goal isn't really the question, but rather the methods.  Yes, there are differences, for example that liberals tend to consider the murder that is abortion to be "freedom", but in the most general terms – people being happy, free, and having stuff – we are agreed on the goal.  Once we accept this fact, the most distinctive mark of actual modern liberal policy is its employment of centralized government power to attempt to achieve this goal, which stands in severe contrast to the conservative ideal of minimizing state power and regulation, or localizing such power as much as possible.  (Not that the conservatives are always good at sticking to their ideals, but the number of liberals willing to admit that any given government regulation (except of the web, oddly enough) might not be a good thing you can probably count on one hand in any given town or college.)

[Adding a note here: my partner in the CONVPOL debate has expressed that one of the things he was dissatisfied with was my "continuing to push a false definition of democratic liberalism" and "false, possibly unintentional, misrepresentation of modern conservatism".  As for the latter, I said repeatedly while a participant on that blog that I was not interested in defending the reigning modern so-called conservative ideals (which are in fact mainly neoconservative, or "Big Government Conservative" as opposed to the more traditional model I support): the 'Tea Party' and its small-government goals is the best "mainstream" (as it were) representation of my sort of conservatism.  For the first, I am really not sure how I have a "false definition" of democratic liberalism (which I think is to be understood as what the Europeans call democratic socialism).  The best definition I got during the debate was the sort of generic utopianist thinking I've referred to above: peace and love and stuff for everybody, with government regulating things to keep people safe.  That's so vague as to be meaningless, and I do not think that – in the absence of tighter definition – I was completely unjustified in taking the liberal Euro-style superregulatory tendency as indicative of the desired direction.  If I missed better explanations in our debate, I apologize.]

This is the contrast: not between final goals – as though one side wanted everyone to be miserable – but between the methods championed to achieve these goals.  Between a theory of benevolent statism on one hand, and that of a free citizenry left mainly to its own devices on the other.  Neither side is actively promoting either extreme of total control or total anarchy, but at the same time the role and extent of government differs greatly between the ideals.  The political argument, at least on a theoretical level, can't be about which politician is a worse money-grubber  (the ad hominems possible if we fall into political score-counting would prevent anything ever getting done), but about which idea works better.  Any practical political argument has to assume at least some commonality of purpose, but I'm not sure that this is still recognized.  I'm not sure that the liberal recognizes that conservatives actually want a free society as much as they do.  I'm absolutely sure [most liberals I know mean] well and [aren't] actively trying to concentrate power in the hands of a tyrant, or even a Brazilian evil bureaucracy (even though I'm very much afraid that's what his championed policies would result in).  I'm not so sure [many of them are] willing to impute a similar benevolence of motives to conservatives in general – [even the ones] at least willing in some sense to debate issues, unlike those Washington types who thought it was reasonable to tell us to pass a bill to find out what was in it.  Only a government that's okay with authoritarianism thinks that sort of thing is okay, and which party was it that pulled that one?



Events in the Life of a DC Teacher

Today I encountered a child who I am pretty sure must be the happiest kid ever to ride on the Metro.  He cheered when we came out of a tunnel.  He cheered when we stopped.  He cheered when we started again.  He was still cheering, "Hurray!", when he got off with his dad.  I feel vaguely guilty that my sense of decorum prevented me from celebrating right along with him.

I also, almost accidentally, found at least one way to tell a joke effectively to high school students.  The key is contrast.  In Geometry, we've gotten to that chapter on basic logic – conditionals, propositions, negations, and so forth.  In defining negation, I offered the synonym "denial".

Then, unable to resist, I embarked on a highly speculative venture.

Says I, "There are two things you need to know about denial."  Blank stares.  "The first is kind of serious, and psychological: denial is considered the first step to acceptance."  More blank stares, and a few shocked looks from the few who have heard this before.

"The second is kind of silly, but everyone should know it."  A dramatic pause.  "Denial is a river in Egypt."

And the room erupted in laughter.  I've never gotten that kind of response to such a terrible – and well-worn – pun before, and I'm convinced the key is the set-up.


On Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings

When the recent Lord of the Rings movies first came out, I was a dyed-in-the-wool Tolkien purist who wanted nothing to do with them. My parents read The Hobbit out loud to me and my siblings when I was very young: I want to say seven years old but that might be early. By 6th grade at the latest I was reading Lord of the Rings at least once a year and had found The Silmarillion on our family bookshelves (along with the complete Sherlock Holmes in two volumes: big books hold a mysterious attraction for me). Persuaded eventually to watch the first two films, I spent more time making fun of inconsistencies – both between the book and the film, and in the internal characterization – than I did considering their actual artistic value. I particularly remember an impassioned objection to Jackson's representation of the Elvish arming, based on wild extrapolations from vaguely worldview-based artistic principles I thought I had divined from Tolkien's writing. (I still think I had a little bit of a point, but I also think now that I was overly impressed then by G.K. Chesterton's approach to symbolism.) My ardor had cooled off enough that I actually went to see The Return of the King in the theater, but Blazing Denethor was enough to put me off again for a good long while. Even now, watching the movies with similarly minded friends tends to dissolve into criticisms and arguments.

My acceptance, and even appreciation, for what Jackson did has grown over the years. I am prepared to accept that different artists working in different mediums will tell a story differently – even have to present it differently. But I still believe that Jackson's films are not, in spirit, true to the point of the story as Tolkien told it. In a simple metaphor, I might say that Tolkien presented a story perhaps with some gray, but told mainly in black and white. Jackson retells the story in shades of gray, which does happen to maintain some white and black at the ends of the spectrum. Tolkien created a tale of heroes, although one with a realism of characterization not found in lesser imitators; Jackson is fascinated by – and expands on – the imperfections implicit in the humanity even of the Elvish and Dwarvish characters.

Jackson's vision increases Aragorn's doubt, and this is the most excusable fault. After all, Tolkien at least wrote that into the original story. Less palatable is his presentation of Elrond as a pessimist, if not a defeatist, a far cry from Tolkien's vision of a kingly Elven prince. But where Jackson really loses a handle on the story is in his portrayal of Tolkien's most heroic characters. Frodo and Sam's unshakeable trust in each other – which even the Ring fails to subdue until the very end – is replaced by an object lesson in trusting your friends, for the sake of which the bond of friendship is disrupted by Gollum, of all people. The same thing happens to Faramir – in Tolkien's hands, a most perfect gentle knight if there ever was one – who falls to temptation, again in order to teach the lesson of trust, or honesty, or something.

In short, all that is left of Tolkien's struggle between good and evil is the struggle against evil. Gandalf, in The Hobbit, questions Bilbo's loose use of "Good morning!", but I do not think he would be much happier with Jackson's idea of 'Good', which seems to be defined merely by an opposition to 'Bad'. Lest I seem to be faulting Jackson too much, I should say that this tends to be a common fault of modern fantasy. The taste for 'realism' has lowered our expectations for artistic heroes, even when it doesn't degenerate altogether – as in much of George R.R. Martin's or Alan Moore's work – into dystopian nihilism. To paraphrase whoever you've decided to attribute the quotation to today, all it takes for evil to triumph is for 'good men' to be merely 'decent', to be nothing in particular.

Tolkien wrote that The Lord of the Rings was not to be seen as paralleling the events of the Second World War, and noted that if it were the Western alliance would have taken much more pragmatic measures. Tolkien was perhaps himself more influenced by earlier wars in his own life, primarily the First World War, where it seemed that some idealistic spirit still endured, even if the nature of the fighting and the new technology with which it was conducted was horrific in fact. But to us now – and I think to Jackson – the idea of the hero, of the good man, has been deeply influenced by the wars fought over the last century, with a nod perhaps to the "Great War", but really beginning with the 'Greatest Generation' that left ordinary jobs and lives to fight totalitarian expansion, and continuing through the sometimes pointless wars and interventions in Asia, in the Middle East, in Latin America...

If I seem to be wandering far afield from mere film criticism, forgive me. If I might be so bold as to pretend to look inside Peter Jackson's mind, he has seen all of these historical events unfold, and to him what rings most true in Tolkien's work is the narrative of the simple man doing what is necessary, because someone has to. Where I see the story as a heroic saga, with Aragorn, Faramir, and the rest as noble examples to emulate, Jackson hears most strongly the sentiments of desirable normality and to him the untouchable heights of Tolkien's Galadriel, Faramir or Imrahil are the artistic inconsistency. I do not think his narrative allows properly for the way in which even Sam – the most 'common man' of the Company – has as an ideal "the brave things in the old tales": praising the people who did the deeds (whom again even, or especially, Sam recognizes as being not that unusual) not exactly for being innately heros, but more for performing heroism: recognizing them not for innate goodness but for the deeds themselves, the Good done. We culturally are used to idealizing the Normal Person in all his humanity and calling that, good and bad together, "good" (or at least good enough), and I think Jackson's understanding of the story is diminished for lacking a view towards anything much higher.


Tax Math

I noted when I got my last paycheck that the combined Federal and Virginia income tax withholding came out to almost 17%. Intellectually, I knew this already, and as I have had paychecks before I've seen it before, but something about that number made me sit up and notice this time. Maybe it's because I've been actively teaching mathematics now, so the number-crunching part of my brain is in constant gear.

What I suddenly realized is this: that 17% number is a sixth of my salary. So, realizing that I actually only get five sixths of the total money, for every five people like me, we're paying the various governments enough to hire the sixth person in line. Does one out of every six workers actually work for some government? I was thinking no, initially, until I started counting up government positions: legislatures, police, public school teachers, military, etc. Suddenly that number seemed a lot more plausible.

Funnily enough, the most reputable source I can find on a quick search suggests it's actually... one out of every six. Which is to say, if everyone paid my 17% tax, we may pay the people but we have insta-budget-deficits from the fact that revenue isn't high enough to support the government's infrastructure.

Of course, I'm well aware that in fact people who make a bunch more money than I do pay a lot more in taxes, and that probably covers at least some of the overrun. (On the other hand, the deficits history suggests any large government magically acquires more than offset that.) But what really concerns me here is that we're at a point as a society where for every five private citizens we've got a sixth being paid to mind everybody else's business. I'm not sure what an appropriate number would be – I'm inclined to think every twenty or fifty or something as a maximum – but the actual number seems way too high.