June 7, 2020

on Written Communication

A friend complimented my writing. She said I “say things that just make sense.” Clearly, this entitles me to offer you all five quick pieces of writing advice.

(1) Making sense in writing is about helping people make sense in their own minds. A lot of writers narrate their own experience of sense-making. I find that less effective than conveying each puzzle piece in a helpful sequence that facilitates your reading brain. In other words, I trust my readers to think and then I try to help.

(2) Whatever the topic, I try to keep my thoughts grounded within concrete dynamics that actually matter in real life. I don’t seek out ideas that seem interesting or relevant but I do try to focus on aspects of real world experiences that affect people profoundly.

(3) Every audience has subgroups within it, and my word choice and phrasing will affect each subgroup differently. Rather than taking two sides in one piece, I try to find the underlying angle that affects everyone, directly or indirectly. I’m not writing to express sympathy; I’m writing to make a point. (Admittedly, the category of prophetic rebuke has a remarkably unifying power all its own. At least, it should.)

(4) The purpose of *public* writing should always be to help people. When you see me criticize someone, it’s probably because I believe that person is hurting others. Ideally, shaming bad behavior is a last resort. Experienced lifeguards don’t yell, “don’t run!“ Experienced lifeguards yell, “walk!“ We highlight the positive alternative as often as possible, but in any case we always aim to make a positive impact.

(5) Teachers say good writing considers topic, audience, and purpose but that only helps students organize their own thinking. Constructing coherence is both elementary and subjective. The Next Level (TM) is transmitting a message successfully from point A to point B. It’s easy to share my own mind. It’s better when I can facilitate your active mental engagement.

I also really enjoy doing this. I hope you enjoyed it and I hope you feel encouraged to write down good thoughts more betterly.

Take care...

PS: This is not necessarily advice about *academic* writing. Without question, I am still struggling in that arena.

PPS: Edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, and edit.

May 22, 2020

Pressing on...

When you lack money and power, it's much easier to be high-minded about truth and love. So they say. For certain, however, prioritizing money and power makes truth inconvenient and love counterproductive. The history of the world follows dynamics that are not new. Nor should they be surprising.

Somehow, nevertheless, I am occasionally disappointed to realize yet again that picking and choosing in biblical interpretation is not the symptom of failures to contextualize narrative material. Rather, it is the will to abuse scripture's content which makes it necessary to ignore situational bearings. The willful ignorance of tribal commitments, the social need to support authoritarian pronouncements, all of this has been brought forth so intensively, so painfully, so embarrassingly, so distressingly, and to such a pathetic and regrettable crescendo. Aside from any illusions I ever held about the goodwill of conservative religious leaders, I have quite nearly lost all ability to suspend judgment, to give the benefit of the doubt. When I shamefully retreat to dismissing someone's intellect, that is because I can find no explanation that seems kinder or more generous.

For a long time, we continue to do what was comfortable once.

Likewise, also, I find myself to be so. Like Samuel Johnson confessing "but these were the dreams of a poet, doomed at last to wake a lexicographer," so I find myself increasingly distant from the grand sense of purpose which once spurred my efforts. The proper fix will not help things which are broken on purpose. Putting the horse back in front of the cart doesn't get anyone on board.

Still, there is always purpose in speaking the truth. Wycliffe stacked tinder and Huss built a bonfire. I feel far from the fire, at the moment, but I will keep felling trees for as long as I'm able.

Time passes. We do what we can.


May 7, 2020

The Synoptic Climax

Have in mind the things of God...

When Matthew 1:1 declares its subject is Jesus, it does not introduce him. The audience is expected to know something about him beforehand. How much did they know? I would estimate the minimum-- the least amount of information sufficient to identify Jesus and distinguish him from other famous figures--is that he was (1) a popular Galilean teacher (2) crucified in Jerusalem. If we assume that the audience is expected to know these two things already, during a "first read" (first hearing) of the material, certain things change.

For one example. anything formerly called a "foreshadowing" of Jesus's death, should now be recognized as "dramatic irony." Cueing your audience to "remember" the famous future (which their historical figure has not yet experienced as a literary protagonist) is almost unavoidable when constructing historical narrative. I have blogged here previously about dramatic irony in the Gospels and this topic is central to my Masters thesis, so I will leave that point there for the moment.

For another example, these two points of information define the basic temporal framework of Jesus's personal storyline. No audience member who can successfully identify Jesus as a distinct historical figure would ever fail to remember this necessarily teleological sequence. Obviously, the popular Galilean teacher is going to experience a phase of popularity in Galilee BEFORE he gets killed in Jersualem. Furthermore, the pivot point of the basic narrative structure (in all three synoptic Gospels) is the point of transition between Galilee and Jersualem.

This leads us to a third example, which is what I call The Synoptic Climax

The climax of the synoptic timeline--the moment at which the developing actions stop building up from their beginning and begin sliding down towards their end--is when Jesus announces that he is planning to go to Jerusalem and be killed. To be clear, the climactic point is NOT being told that Jesus is going to be killed. That is not our dramatic turning point because nobody in the original audience could have been expected to feel surprised by this revelation. The audience already knew: Jesus dies at the end. Rather, the dramatic surprise is that Jesus knew going in, announced it, and embraced it as God's plan for his life. When the Gospel writers sat down to communicate, THIS was one of the key talking points they were hoping to establish. THIS was part of their purpose in writing. THIS was their point. THIS was their spin.

I should quickly add, discerning that this was an authorial agenda does not necessarily imply that such spin was in any way contrived or non-factual. To the contrary, often times people spinning the hardest are doing so precisely because they believe passionately that their perspective--their own personal view of the facts--is helpful, insightful, and the proper bias that everyone ought to uphold. On the other hand, just as obviously, the earnestness or enthusiasm of political spin does not and cannot tell us that a version of past events *IS* necessarily accurate, either. We cannot separate "facts" from "interpretation" because, as my advisor Chris Keith and others have shown decisively, "There are no uninterpreted facts." Therefore, as a point of historical inquiry, we will never know for certain whether Jesus actually predicted his death beforehand and embraced it OR NOT... but our ignorance is not alleviated merely by observing this act of emplotment.

What we CAN do, instead, is enjoy and appreciate the drama. At least for starters, we can recognize that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are depicting a world in which Jesus made this dramatic revelation. Just as "Did Jesus expect his own death?" is an important historical question precisely because it notes the Gospel writers' agenda(s), so also "Jesus expected his own death" is an important aspect of the story to recognize, for the same reason: precisely because it strikes at the heart of an idea which the authors were aiming to convey.

The Gospels are ancient biographies that have been somewhat emplotted. Their purpose was not just to inform people about Jesus but to cast a particular light onto well known events of his famous existence. For the Gospel writers, it was high on their list of priorities to convey that crucifixion was not a mistake. They were passionate about communicating that Jesus's death was one event God intended to happen. The story of the Gospels is that Jesus, who had always embraced sacrificial living for the glory of his beloved father in heaven, at some point realized and embraced God's plan for the ultimate sacrifice. 

Personally, none of this is anything I prefer to argue about or try and prove.

This is the story of Jesus. This is the word of the Lord.

Believe it or not...

April 11, 2020

When Christians Gather

I can partly understand expository preaching from an educational standpoint, but the Sunday morning congregation as a one room schoolhouse has no individualized lesson planning, no exercises or seatwork, and no assessment or feedback... which makes it terribly ineffective education. A large lecture auditorium still has its uses--e.g., college and high school, even corporate development--but the audience for each lecture should be particular, not universal. Sunday mornings now require retooling.

Like most formal christian traditions, the practical dynamics behind pulpiteering are based in conditions from centuries ago. The stone cathedrals of Europe were cavernous megaphones, optimal tech in those days for mass communicating. The Greek amphitheater was the ancient equivalent of broadcast airwaves, now replaced again by the digital interwebs. If preaching in person is primarily meant to convey information, podcasts and YouTube work infinitely better than physical gatherings.

As an educator at heart, I fervently support the generation and dissemination of informative content, but the gathering of Christian believers provides us with a far more valuable opportunity. Scripture assures us that God can be found within God's word and within God's people. We need to learn better ways to bring these two things together. Sadly, just filling the time slot leads to "share your ignorance" sessions, and pentebabbleism that isn't pretentious veers toward superstition... but these are not our only options.

Christian education is essential for long-term community formation, but for regular spiritual encouragement we need participatory exercise. Fortunately, participation need not breed pointless nonsense. In both large and small groups, we do not simply need to have people fill the air with their own words and emotions. What we need is for THOSE WHO KNOW HOW TO SHARE OF THE LORD to learn how to TRAIN OTHERS TO DO SO. We need to edify one another by expanding our sense and awareness of God's being and presence.

If you and your fellowship don't know what I mean, or how to get there, or if you all simply lack prior expertise, then I can only recommend years of patient trial and error. By God's grace, time can be a blessing. There's a reason your Lord was called Jesus of Nazareth. That baby in the manger had not begun to experience God as a human, nor could he speak knowingly about spiritual wisdom. Jesus grew. Jesus learned. A non-famous day laborer spent thirty-ish years in one town, finding God, and figuring out how to share God with others.

If your congregation believes Jesus lives in you and among you, then I believe you can learn to do likewise, if you take enough years to keep trying. After that, once you know something, please teach us all.


March 26, 2020

Time in Memory, Series IV (in nuce)

Causality is not some special rule of narration. Causality is merely a popular convenience. A story is best defined as a coherence of dynamics, and no storytelling device settles that paradox so efficiently as a unifying chain of purpose, drive, and seemingly inevitable consequence. However, biography offers a strong degree of coherence despite encompassing radically arbitrary dynamics, and a travelogue allows geographic contingency to unify random episodic occurrences. Examining all this, we discover that narrative coherence is rooted in plot, character, setting, or some combination of all three.

These are the deep cognitive tools of mnemonic chronology, the informational leverage which enables our minds to compress data, elevating raw chronicles into focalized narratives. This is what I set out (tentatively) to define, years ago, in my blog series on Time in Memory.

There is a fourth memory tool which does the same job most powerfully. Conflict also lends coherence to story material (i.e., temporal representations), most famously as a grand framework surrounding the rest of the plot (or what passes for plot, a linear storyline of whatever middling coherence).

Consider the classic paradigm of great literature.

The introduced status quo represents a compression of long-term expectations based on standard human experience in a given locality. This is not a true "normal" but the perception of what is most common. The mnemonic indellibility comes from "redundancies" of lived experience, types and sets of encounters and observations that happen so frequently they define "standard" simply by cognitive default. The culturally shared worldview is derived from that which nobody could ever forget. The new, different, exceptional, and surprisingly interjected phenomena are actually the vast bulk of what truly occurs during daily existence... bits of noise cast aside as our brains craft a signal... because seeking informational coherence is a coping mechanism for psychological stability. In truth, the entire chaotic mass of this constantly churning reality--what we always are actually experiencing--is too vast a wall of data for human intellects to process, let alone grasp, let alone study, let alone understand. Our brightest minds spend decades actively chunking whole fields of study but the normal human experience is by far at the other extreme (and, honestly, most of us live somewhere near the middle).

Chaos is solid, but consciousness is linear.

Disruptions are the true normal but so is forgetting.

As memory theorists and cognitive scientists teach us, remembering is unusual. Forgetting is by far the default. Last year you interacted thousands of times with people who wore different clothes, used different words, engaged in different activities, moving in different places, and seeing you at different times and occasions. Of all this, you most often remember those peoples names and faces, the consistent aspects of those collected encounters. You might have one or two favorite people whose changing details you might collect in your mind but that is only because you focus intently on those special persons. Aside from them, you've forgotten most things you observed about everyone else. This is what I mean by the "true normal" of constant disruptions. These countless changes are each small and insignificant. Collectively, by far, they account for the vast bulk of what you actually perceive in the world, in a moment by moment accounting.

Our local world as we know it, as we remember it (which is to say, our perceived "normal") is based on a much smaller set of data, our few and precious familiar consistencies, from which we form this illusion of "status quo" (so to speak).

The bulk of phenomena are random bits of chaos (what cannot be compressed by our minds into the sense of a signal amidst all the noise) and those bits of chaos are, technically, disruptions. They are usually minor disruptions, immediately forgotten. Again, they are usually minor and they are usually forgotten.

That is, unless they are impactful.

Sometimes the coherent remembering of related dynamics is rooted in our brains by an impactful disruption. The great dramatic disruption or "conflict" which so often introduces the famous plots of classic literature is a stereotyped (schematized) construction, crafted from centuries of natural experience of hearing and telling stories of personal experience which happened to prove memorable and satisfying. The great paradox in the nature of what story is--a set of changes we somehow remember as one unit--can be most efficiently enabled by the grand framework of conflict.

The impactful disruption of expectations creates a NEW normal, establishing new patterns of familiarity which are tinged with the old world, as it was previously perceived and/or conceived. This new set of repeated experiences reminds you of the old world, but precisely because it is no longer that world.

That new chain restaurant you drive past every day keeps reminding you of the old neighborhood diner (which it replaced). Your new boss at work does a few things so differently than your old boss that his new differentness keeps reminding you of the gone away sameness. Being stuck in your home during a pandemic makes you think vividly about how much you miss all the daily routines you so recently took quite for granted. We could go on and on: a disappointing stepparent, the destruction after an earthquake, the changes to air travel which always make me remember a number of ways in which airports were different before September of 2001.

We could also ask these questions: Does washing your car make it rain, or does rain after a car wash become more memorable, almost painfully memorable, somehow? Does staking a prediction guarantee that you'll be proven wrong, or does a pattern of being proved wrong make you wary of staking predictions? Does hoping for something mean it's not going to happen, or does hoping for something remind you of times when your expectations were dashed by the negating eventuality?

As it happens, these examples illustrate more than my point. They illustrate two major principles of truth. First, they illustrate the dictum (in memory theory) that present needs and present experiences are what most often drive acts of repeated remembering. Second, they illustrate Aristotle's prescription that tragedy should revolve around a dramatic reversal. What I intend to argue (in future work, someday) is that this is no mere coincidence. Aristotle's insight was not merely based on observation of professional writers in ancient Greece, and it was not merely based on what works well for audience memory. The concept of the dramatic reversal was also based on an optimized experience of the way our human remembering sometimes achieves peak performance... particularly in regards to its capacity for remembering a large set of dynamic changes with impressive degrees of coherence.

When what is present reminds you of what is absent... When what you have reminds you of what has been lost... When your new status quo reminds you in this intensively negative way about your old status quo... When the whole world as it is reminds you of how everything changed...

When some newly introduced conflict--the original disruption, the underlying causality that eventually unmade all your previously normalized expectations--when that seems like the natural inflection point for talking about how you remember the world being unmade...

All of this... can be profoundly described in terms of both irony and trauma.

The dramatic reversal is not merely a literary device. It happens to describe a deeply human and widely common experience. The impactful disruption of expectations is a natural cognitive anchor for linking narrative content together, mnemonically. It just so happens that talented writers spent centuries observing, imitating, and modifying this experience until they had fashioned an artistic device. However, in both cases, in both art and life, this ironic-traumatic dynamic creates a powerful efficiency for remembering a large set of dynamics coherently.

Conflict (the disruption of expectations) is the fourth* element of Mnemonic Temporality, the fourth* root of what makes Narrative work, perhaps even the cognitive basis of narrativity itself.

There is far more to unpack about all this. I hope I get around to it someday.


*I have previously written about three similar mnemonic advantages for remembering stories: Causality (Plot), Biography (Character), and Transitions (Setting). Okay, I haven't written much (yet) about Transitions, but I hope to. At any rate, the index page for all such posts on these topics is here.

March 23, 2020

History, Text, and Prepositions

For a long time, although things have begun changing recently, the field of NT scholarship demonstrated an inability to differentiate between the narrative text and the historical past. I'm currently writing a thesis chapter about this (narrativity vs historicity and narratology vs historiography) so tonight's blog post is just a quick note.

History is neither behind the text, through the text, within the text, or on its surface. History is above the text. You can work your way through all the rabbit-log proximal relations and the proper phrase to use is neither on, in, through, behind, or within. History takes place "above" or "on top of" the text.

If we splice and decimate the text, transforming bits here and there, that critical judgment has been undertaken on top of the text. If we declare the text to be history, adding nothing and subtracting nothing, that non-alteration amounts to our critical judgment and it has been undertaken on top of the text. If we make the text our workshop or plaything, whatever we produce is on the basis of, literally working on top of, what it has already presented.

History is not what we read. History is what we write. That is, if we are scholars, then history is what we construct, not merely what we can see or discover. What we take from the text is a reading. What we put onto the text might be writing or reading. But if we are doing history, we are working above the text. If we are doing history, we must construct more than merely the text. We must produce our own hypothetical vision of sequential events to represent a phase or episodes of human activity.

History is not a judgment on the text. History is a vision of the past. Examining the text can inform your view of the past. Examining the text cannot alone define the past. Equating the text with the past was traditionally called positivism, the chief sin of which is not blind trust. The chief sin of positivism is a lack of imaginative, investigative, and/or extrapolating wherewithal. For example, even if you do trust the text, you should still realize that a representation of reality does not describe fully all that its presentation implies. (Cf. John 21:25)

Judging the text to be or not be the past is a far poorer and a far flatter endeavor than using the text while conducting an inquiry, and then constructing your own model.

History is not found anywhere. It is constructed. On top of the text.


February 1, 2020

Compromised Consciences

Imagine hell exists but has no fire or punishment. The torture then would be living with those who treat others most wickedly. By your own measure, it shall be measured to you also. If your strategies for living revolve around self-exaltation and punishing your enemies, the natural result is that you might wind up surrounded by those who would treat you the same way in a heartbeat.

A preacher once said sin is like a baby tiger. If you take that tiger home and keep on feeding it, that tiger keeps on growing, getting less small and less cute, until one day it suddenly eats you.

Condoning crime encourages criminals to keep breaking the law. Allowing abuse to continue unchecked is an invitation for evil ones to multiply their abuse. Abetting liars and cheaters invites more and more lying and more cheating. Darkness cannot cast out darkness. Only light can do that.

Do you think that it's okay for your team to break rules as long as you win? You will wind up with a team full of rule breakers. What happens the day they start breaking rules that you didn't want broken? If you cheered when they "took back" what belonged to your enemies, how will you protest on the day they decide to "take back" what you thought was your own? How can you protect yourself from a grown tiger when you're the one who took it in and taught it to eat?

Short-sighted ambition was the chief mistake of every fool who ever made deals with the devil. In literally all of those stories, the fruit spoils too quickly. The deal doesn't last long. The promised rewards wind up ruining the fool's expectation of happiness on earth, to say nothing of that disappointment being trumped by eternal damnation.

There was at least one person the devil could not tempt. After 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus was offered power over all the world's kingdoms. For that temptation to be viable, Satan must have thought Jesus would believe that such an offer was legitimate. Apparently, Jesus believed that his adversary was indeed able to offer him power over all the world's kingdoms. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against powers, against principalities, against the world rulers of this present darkness. 

Not only did Jesus not take that sweet offer... He changed the subject completely.

It is written: You shall worship the Lord your God. Serve Him only.


God's people do not protect God's kingdom by submitting to earthly kingship.

God's people do not seek God's desires by condoning and participating in corruption.

Repent. The kingdom of heaven is always at hand...

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