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Essays to Live By: Smart Guys on Diverse and Sundry Topics

November 30th, 2006 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

I spent the last hour reading a few very, very good essays and interviews. I was only intending to spend 15 minutes or so, but the more I read the more I was edified.

Steven Pinker has come under fire recently for his comments about the proposed change in Harvard's core curriculum. In this essay, Theodore Dalrymple, a retired doctor takes on Pinker's view of language. Not only is Pinker ridiculously inconsistent in his rejection of the notion that one language can be superior to another, but the possibility of rising out of lower social classes rests upon that very notion. In other words, accept Pinker's position, and enslave inarticulate individuals to their current station in live. Dalrymple writes,

Pinker’s grammatical latitudinarianism, when educationists like the principal of my friend’s daughter’s school take it seriously, has the practical effect of encouraging those born in the lower reaches of society to remain there, to enclose them in the mental world of their particular milieu. Of course, this is perfectly all right if you also believe that all stations in life are equally good and desirable and that there is nothing to be said for articulate reflection upon human existence. In other words, grammatical latitudinarianism is the natural ideological ally of moral and cultural relativism.

And:

As I know from the experience of my patients, there is no reason to expect [an inarticulate girl's] powers of expression to increase spontaneously with age. Any complex abstractions that enter her mind will remain inchoate, almost a nuisance, like a fly buzzing in a bottle that it cannot escape. Her experience is opaque even to herself, a mere jumble from which it will be difficult or impossible to learn because, for linguistic reasons, she cannot put it into any kind of perspective or coherent order.

Dalrymple's case is not only compelling: it is downright stirring.

In a piece of news, Suzanne Lindgren highlights the new direction people are taking the internet: funerals and mourning. It was only a matter of time. It does raise the all-important issue, though, of internet propriety and whether there are boundaries to its uses.

Thirdly, I have been extremely impressed recently by the new online journal, The Other Journal. Search through the archives, and you'll be impressed too. They've added a special section of young evangelicals--or Post-evangelicals, in some cases--answering the question, "Do I want to be an evangelical?" (See the introduction here). I was particularly impressed by new Torrey professor Matt Jenson's piece in defense of staying evangelical. Jenson is very much in touch with the difficulties young evangelicals face in wrestling with their identity--difficulties at points worked out on the pages of this blog. Jenson's critique--or rather, caution--of evangelicals who cease to claim the mantle is worth considering:

And perhaps, just perhaps, part of the vocation of North American evangelicals is to submit to Heidelberg, to actually take comfort in our non-self-sufficiency by, of all things, staying put. There is something decidedly, well, evangelical about being "post-evangelical" or defining myself in terms of the free choice I have made to not be what I used to and to be something else. That’s conversion language ("I once was blind, but now I see"), and it is too easy to adopt it even in the midst of doing profoundly "un-evangelical" things. That is, even in explicitly eschewing affiliation with Evangelicalism, we often enough do so for nothing but "evangelical" reasons. Furthermore, identifying oneself as post-anything threatens to invalidate what came before. Result? Rather than telling our story as one of ever-deeper rootedness in the faith, we tell it in such a way that it looks like we weren’t really Christians at all until we "saw the light" of post-whatever. And that is simply ingratitude.

Having been tempted at points to walk the road he maps out, Jenson's analysis resonates. He has, I think, correctly identified one of the chief difficulties of evangelicals who go down the Canterbury, Constantinople, or Rome trails. Near the end of his piece, though, Jenson outdoes himself:

What concerns me, though, is its uncritical abandonment, what amounts too frequently to a sophisticated disguise for a rather sophomoric rebellion. Now, my friends are twenty- and thirty-something evangelicals who like theology and liturgy and don’t like altar calls or seven steps to anything. We are tempted in the direction of higher ecclesiologies (fine and good in and of themselves), which invite lame, flat-footed critiques of all that we’ve know and yet don’t yet know how to love. Familiarity continues to breed contempt. But, familiarity also happens to be the midwife of faithfulness. It is in the very contempt which we have developed for the everyday, simply because it is everyday and therefore not quite as sexy as it used to be, that we learn the faithfulness that befits covenants.

Indeed. Read the whole thing.

Finally, The Matthew House Project--another online journal about the intersection of religion and culture--has this conversation between Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio Journal and the erudite (and deeply British) Nigel Cameron about the relationship between emerging technology and culture. I will avoid descending into hyperbolic salesmanship and simply commend the entire piece to you as necessary reading. And I'll leave you with these choice treats:

NC: In Europe, you have much more of a sense of the philosophical issues, what is the meaning of technology, people of all face and none, will sit around talking about those questions, it doesn’t tend to happen here. You are either gung-ho for it, and you say, "This is wonderful, got to do it", or, if you are in a very small minority, maybe you say, "We’re against technology and we want to go back to nature." But you don’t have any context for serious technology policy discussions. I think the lack of that is really very serious for how we’re going to manage these things in the future...

KM: Why is it, do you think, that Christians by and large have not attended to these things? To what do you attribute the apathy on these?

NC: I suppose the key thing is pietism, a sort of withdrawal from the culture. This is characterized by much of Evangelicalism and some Catholicism. Christians have tended to view this in terms of one or two key issues. Currently they are abortion and the question of gay marriage. Beyond these, we will attend to spiritual activities, we will evangelize and so on. Much of the blame lies with pastors and with our seminaries. There has been no real preparation for engageing the 21st century agenda.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.