Final Lecture for Asia Center for Advanced Christian Studies

In which I take students through How to Think about Others’ Exegetical Fallacies and then talk through some portions of my dissertation that focused on ἀγάπη (agape) and what it “really” means. No, like, for real this time.

Review: John McWhorter’s Words on the Move

I’ve gone through two of John McWhorter’s Great Courses on language; I’ve read several of his books, and I’m a faithful listener to his podcast. When I picked up this book I suddenly realized, “I know just what he’s going to say. I get John McWhorter.” I put the book down after two chapters. But a testimony to his consummate skill as a popularizer and communicator is that I couldn’t help myself and I finished the book anyway. And then, particularly with regard to back-shifting, McWhorter managed to say something new to me that my own reading in linguistics hasn’t brought me to. I also collect many quotable quotes and fun illustrations from him that I can use in my own popularizing work.

McWhorter’s head is screwed on straight. He spends an entire book bemusedly observing the sometimes random changes in language (in both word meaning and pronunciation) and offering none of the moral judgments people expect about them But he knows readers want that judgment, and he gives it to them in a wise form. Listen to this:

For a linguist to hope that the public will give up the idea that some ways of speaking are more appropriate for formal settings than others would be futile—especially since all linguists agree with the public on this. Often we are asked, “If all these things considered bad grammar are really okay, then why don’t you use them in your writing and speeches?” However, none of us is pretending that a society of human beings could function in which all spoke or wrote however they wanted to and yet had equal chances at success in life. The linguist’s point is that there are no scientific grounds for considering any way of speaking erroneous in some structural or logical sense. To understand this is not to give up on learning to communicate appropriately to context. To understand this is, rather, to shed the contempt: the acrid disgust so many seem to harbor for people who use the forms we have been taught are “bad.” (220–221)

This is very practical wisdom. It would have saved me from asking a Singaporean friend what his first language was and (I’m so embarrassed by this) asking a Kenyan friend why he speaks English wrong. It would have saved me from mocking a teacher who had a Southern accent when I was eighteen. And even now, the implicit connection to class McWhorter makes (“equal chances at success in life”) is a good reason to be humble about whatever facility I’ve attained in the use of standard American English. The truth is that I’ve been schooled in it from infancy. I never, never had to labor to acquire it. (Thanks, English Major Dad.)

McWhorter also raises the question: “If the way so many people talk is okay, then what counts as a mistake?”

And he provides an answer:

When people are doing things on their own. I once knew someone who, for some reason, despite otherwise perfectly ordinary American English, used “nerfry” for nursery and “grofery” for grocery. That was, quite simply, off because no one else says the words that way; nor is there anything about their sounds that makes it likely that anyone ever will. (195)

Get it set in your mind that McWhorter isn’t giving the inmates permission to rule the asylum, only noting that they in fact do whether think they do or not, and you can quell your moral alarm at his sometimes nonjudgmental descriptions of language change.

And then there’s this, an idea I consider a significant advance in my own understanding:

The fury some harbor over language usage issues is incommensurate with the gravity of the issue. Does anyone genuinely fear that we are on our way to babbling incomprehensibly to one another when no such thing has ever happened among a single human group in the history of our species? One suspects more afoot than logic: rage over language usage may be the last permissible open classism, channeling a tribalist impulse roiling ever underneath.

The tribalist impulse has ever fewer officialized outlets in our society, in which open discrimination is increasingly barred from the public forum. The very pointedness of the rage behind so many comments about language usage suggests something exploding after a considerable buildup of pressure, denied regular venting. In this grand and tragic world of ours, it is rather unexpected, in itself, that anyone would experience anger in response to the construction of a sentence. A student can hand in their paper anytime after Thursday—this use of their is grounds for fulmination amid global warming, terrorism, grisly epidemics, and the prospect of a world without bees? (223–224)

I doubt this explanation will persuade anyone of (ahem) their guilt, but this is by far the best explanation I’ve seen for the furor people raise over language change—and the moral disapprobation I see on people’s faces when they find out I’m fine with particular language changes that have occurred. I have literally been told that I am a moral relativist, even after I have tried to explain with great care what I do and don’t mean. (It was during a Q&A in front of a large group of people; it was awkward.)

(And I’m not a moral relativist.)

Especially helpful for me was the fact that one theme in McWhorter’s book was identical to the major theme of my upcoming book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (in fact, I’m hoping to get my hero McWhorter to blurb the book for me!). The argument I apply to the King James he applies to Shakespeare. And the argument is this simple:

English has changed a lot more since Shakespeare than we think. (205)

The key there is “than we think.” People who don’t obsess over language change like McWhorter does just aren’t likely to notice all the subtle differences that make Shakespeare and the KJV bumpy sidewalks for modern readers. There are many words in each that McWhorter calls “false friends,” words that we still use today but that meant something different in Elizabethan times. McWhorter and I share the same value: we want people to understand what they read and hear. So he made precisely the call I’ve made: update the false friends. His words on this issue are exceptionally wise and deft—and I promptly added them to the manuscript of my own book.

Thank you again, John McWhorter. I owe you a great debt, I really do.

Review: Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family

Andy Crouch is among the first parents to have nurtured children from clearly-too-young-to-have-a-smartphone to now-old-enough, during a time in which smartphones were in fact available for that whole period. It’s only been ten years since the iPhone’s debut. And in that time Crouch’s eldest child went from eight (too young) to eighteen (old enough). So Crouch is able to speak from a place of not just wisdom but also experience. In fact, his “Crouch Family Reality Checks” at the end of most chapters, little sections that revealed how well his family lived up to his stated ideals, give the book a weight I haven’t felt in other writings on this topic. Even when he had to admit his failures to be fully wise in the formation of his family (and of his own soul), Crouch still had wisdom to offer me.

Keeping it simple in this review, I’ll just list off his family’s ten commitments:

Ten Tech-Wise Commitments

  1. We develop wisdom and courage together as a family.
  2. We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the center of our home with things that reward skill and active engagement.
  3. We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play, and rest together.
  4. We wake up before our devices do, and they “go to bed” before we do.
  5. We aim for “no screens before double digits” at school and at home.
  6. We use screens for a purpose, and we use them together, rather than using them aimlessly and alone.
  7. Car time is conversation time.
  8. Spouses have one another’s passwords, and parents have total access to children’s devices.
  9. We learn to sing together, rather than letting recorded and amplified music take over our lives and worship.
  10. We show up in person for the big events of life. We learn how to be human by being fully present at our moments of greatest vulnerability. We hope to die in one another’s arms.

Readers of Crouch’s other excellent works, particularly Culture Making, will hear Crouchian emphases, especially perhaps in point 2. That’s gold. Crouch manages to be perceptive in an arena full of platitudes, and I think he can do this because he’s a gifted and dedicated popularizer. His major books have all been teaching and applying the work of scholars to the needs of the church. This book is no exception. Highly recommended.

Review: The Passionate Preaching of Martyn Lloyd-Jones

The Passionate Preaching of Martyn Lloyd-JonesThe Passionate Preaching of Martyn Lloyd-Jones by Steven J. Lawson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Earnest, edifying, admirably brief. Doesn’t break any new ground or offer any new insight if you’ve already read Murray’s biography. But a great introduction for those unfamiliar with the Doctor.

Christian Audio provided me a free review copy of this work (no strings attached), and the reader was absolutely perfect: I’m pretty sure he imitated DMLJ’s accent, and I’ve heard the Doctor often enough that he brought me up short several times—I could almost believe I was listening to the man himself.

Review: 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You

12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The best way to summarize this book is probably to let the author do it.

In the last twelve chapters, I have warned against twelve corresponding ways in which smartphones are changing us and undermining our spiritual health:

– Our phones amplify our addiction to distractions (chapter 1), and thereby splinter our perception of our place in time (12).
– Our phones push us to evade the limits of embodiment (2) and thereby cause us to treat one another harshly (11).
– Our phones feed our craving for immediate approval (3) and promise to hedge against our fears of missing out (10).
– Our phones undermine key literary skills (4) and, because of our lack of discipline, make it increasingly difficult for us to identify ultimate meaning (9).
– Our phones offer us a buffet of produced media (5) and tempt us to indulge in visual vices (8).
– Our phones overtake and distort our identity (6) and tempt us toward unhealthy isolation and loneliness (7).

Sounds pretty dire. But Reinke is, at heart, a technophile, not a technophobe; and he doesn’t conclude from these dangers that every Christian needs to smash his smartphone. He offers positive practices in place of the negative.

Along the way, I have also attempted to commend twelve life disciplines we need to preserve our spiritual health in this smartphone age:
– We minimize unnecessary distractions in life to hear form God (chapter 1) and to find our place in God’s unfolding history (12).
– We embrace our flesh-and-blood embodiment (2) and handle one another with grace and gentleness (11).
– We aim at God’s ultimate approval (3) and find that, in Christ, we have no ultimate regrets to fear (10).
– We treasure the gift of literacy (4) and prioritize God’s Word (9).
– We listen to God’s voice in creation (5) and find a fountain of delight in the unseen Christ (8).
– We treasure Christ to be molded into his image (6) and seek to serve the legitimate needs of our neighbors (7).

A few more thoughts:

One question that really stuck out to me, toward the end of the book: do I deserve to spend time on social media trivialities right now? Sobering.

Another question Reinke pressed on me helpfully is one I have to ask all the time, especially in my line of work as a professional blogger: do I have an unhealthy interest in validation-through-social-shares? That one’s tough when your job description involves increasing social shares.

Chapter 11 was really excellent, about slander and “outrage porn.”

In an age when anyone with a smart phone can publish dirt on anyone else, we must know that spreading antagonistic messages online with the intent of provoking hostility without any desire for resolution is what the world calls “trolling,” and the New Testament calls “slander.”

I sometimes wonder how much of our society’s public worry (and public kvetching) over the dangers of technology will seem quaint to our great grandchildren—like those who worried around the turn of the 20th century that people wouldn’t be able to breathe if cars exceeded 10 miles per hour, because the air would be rushing by too fast. But we’re not our grandkids. We’re us. I can’t shake the feeling that the world really has changed, that the Internet has amplified our fallenness more than it has increased our virtue. The overall tone of Reinke’s book is one of gentle warning and instruction, and I think that’s perfectly appropriate.

This is definitely my new go-to book for wisdom on the use of consumer technology. (Dyer’s From the Garden to the City is a good complement to it.)

The reader in the Christian Audio production was smooth and serviceable, though (to be a little too frank?) a little too much like a male version of Siri for my tastes. This book called for reading with a little more feeling, a little more homiletical intensity. But I was able to go triple speed (is that ironic?) and understand perfectly.

I got this book for free for review purposes from Christian Audio, but they attached no strings to my opinions.