Teaching in the Balance

classroomThis year at work I’m taking part in an instructional leadership group.  Every few weeks, I gather with co-workers to watch teaching samples, read a
ticles, and discuss best practices in the classroom in the hopes that
it be teachable and transferable.  And while I enjoy the time, I couldn’t help but chuckle when I read Carl Trueman’s recent First Things essay about teaching.  In “Teaching as Joyful Rebellion,” Trueman rues the reality that too often teaching is about anything but actual content.

Teaching—true teaching, not the mere imparting of techniques or earning potential—is perhaps the most delightful calling and privilege in the world. It has its challenges, but it brings incomparable joys. The second greatest joy I have as teacher is seeing that flash of light in a student’s eyes when a previously unknown or misunderstood concept suddenly becomes clear because of something I have said. And the greatest joy (albeit a rarer one) is the one I experience when a student writes or says something that indicates they have gone far beyond that which I, as a teacher, have been able to teach them. When they become greater, I delight that I become less. For such is the proper order of things, if teaching is truly about truth and not about power or making disciples. Yet neither joy is possible where there is no truth to discover and where the world is simply whatever the loudest and most aggressive among us care to claim that it is. Good teaching is a matter of metaphysics.

It’s a fair critique, I think.  At the very least, it’s the reminder that part of loving teaching means loving what you teach, perhaps even more than how you teach it.  You can read the entire post here.  It’s worth your time.

(image from epi.sc.edu)

Fall Break Journal: First Monday

Today was the day for easing into fall break.  The first (and short) quarter ended this past Friday.  I was out of town at a camp but gave a test in my absence, so today was about grading.  So it was up early for breakfast and reading downtown, a good Lebanese lunch, and then time spent at the state library and then at school getting grades finished.  Even topped it off with some good sushi from Ahi & Vegetable.

I’ve got big reading plans for the break: two novels left unfinished and an Amazon box full of non-fiction to get through.  So I swerved and started in on C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image instead.  I’ve had the book for a while now (since I posted a series of articles on Lewis’s reviews of The Lord of the Rings).  Something about taking some time to be immersed in some Inkling thinking, really.  It’s appropriate, as the book is an extended lecture on the “backdrop” of the medieval worldview.

Here’s a new Frazz comic that I think it’s pretty spot-on when it comes to the myth of multi-tasking.  Might have to show it to my students when class reconvenes in a couple of weeks.


(image from gocomics.com)

Still Getting LOST

This past weekend, composer Michael Giacchino gathered an orchestra and played some of the great music that made up the soundtrack for LOST.  The “We Have to Go Back” concerts covered two nights and six seasons of television.  Here’s a clip of the show’s finale, with scenes from the show’s controversial wrap playing to the side.  I dare you to get through the entire eight minutes and not shed a tear . . .

Sunday’s Best: The Pull of Autumn

A classic Calvin and Hobbes makes it to the stop of this Sunday’s four-color heap.  Ah, the pull of autumn . . .


(image from gocomics.com)

Season Premiere without Rival?

The new season of television is slowly trickling in (SHIELD and Survivor both returned this week).  The CW is waiting until the first of next month to bring most of its shows back.  The big one, of course, is The Flash, which enters its third season with an episode titled “Run, Devil, Run.”  We know a number of things about the episode: that it will be a version of on of my least-favorite Flash stories of all time (Flashpoint), that it will involve Wally West as Kid Flash, and that the clock will be ticking on how long Barry has to bring things back to normal.  And in the newest (and I’m assuming final) trailer for the episode, we get a glimpse of a villain, Rival.

Here’s hoping that the Flashpoint timeline doesn’t last very long and that we get some classic, yet-to-be-used Flash villains in the mix soon.

Sullivan’s Silence: Potential Solutions

silence-in-the-reading-roomPerhaps the most interesting turn in Andrew Sullivan’s “I Used to be a Human Being” essay takes place when he turns attention to religious tradition.  Silence, a potential cure for our digital addictions, has always had a home in places and people of faith.  More interesting, still, is his turn to Charles Taylor.

In his survey of how the modern West lost widespread religious practice, A Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor used a term to describe the way we think of our societies. He called it a “social imaginary” — a set of interlocking beliefs and practices that can undermine or subtly marginalize other kinds of belief. We didn’t go from faith to secularism in one fell swoop, he argues. Certain ideas and practices made others not so much false as less vibrant or relevant. And so modernity slowly weakened spirituality, by design and accident, in favor of commerce; it downplayed silence and mere being in favor of noise and constant action. The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn.

The English Reformation began, one recalls, with an assault on the monasteries, and what silence the Protestants didn’t banish the philosophers of the Enlightenment mocked. Gibbon and Voltaire defined the Enlightenment’s posture toward the monkish: from condescension to outright contempt. The roar and disruption of the Industrial Revolution violated what quiet still remained until modern capitalism made business central to our culture and the ever-more efficient meeting of needs and wants our primary collective goal. We became a civilization of getting things done — with the development of America, in some ways, as its crowning achievement. Silence in modernity became, over the centuries, an anachronism, even a symbol of the useless superstitions we had left behind. The smartphone revolution of the past decade can be seen in some ways simply as the final twist of this ratchet, in which those few remaining redoubts of quiet — the tiny cracks of inactivity in our lives — are being methodically filled with more stimulus and noise.

James K. A. Smith spent some time sifting through the thoughts of Taylor (particularly in How (Not) to Be Secular and then also in his Cultural Liturgies series).  We have definitely embraced a digitally-enhanced social imaginary, one where a world without digital things is impossible to comprehend.  Sullivan’s assertion that faith lost its hold because of a lack a healthy silence to combat the white noise of modernity is potentially the most spot-on and damning critique of contemporary Christian practices (if only we’d remove our earbuds in order to listen).

Sullivan continues a more religious train of thought from the Catholic Mass

From the moment I entered a church in my childhood, I understood that this place was different because it was so quiet. The Mass itself was full of silences — those liturgical pauses that would never do in a theater, those minutes of quiet after communion when we were encouraged to get lost in prayer, those liturgical spaces that seemed to insist that we are in no hurry here. And this silence demarcated what we once understood as the sacred, marking a space beyond the secular world of noise and business and shopping.

to the Judeo-Christian understanding of the Sabbath

That Judeo-Christian tradition recognized a critical distinction — and tension — between noise and silence, between getting through the day and getting a grip on one’s whole life. The Sabbath — the Jewish institution co-opted by Christianity — was a collective imposition of relative silence, a moment of calm to reflect on our lives under the light of eternity. It helped define much of Western public life once a week for centuries — only to dissipate, with scarcely a passing regret, into the commercial cacophony of the past couple of decades. It reflected a now-battered belief that a sustained spiritual life is simply unfeasible for most mortals without these refuges from noise and work to buffer us and remind us who we really are. But just as modern street lighting has slowly blotted the stars from the visible skies, so too have cars and planes and factories and flickering digital screens combined to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination.

And while I don’t believe Sullivan’s critique of the contemporary church is the point of the essay, you can’t help but see the challenge he presents to believers and church leaders today.

If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary. But the mysticism of Catholic meditation — of the Rosary, of Benediction, or simple contemplative prayer — is a tradition in search of rediscovery. The monasteries — opened up to more lay visitors — could try to answer to the same needs that the booming yoga movement has increasingly met.

And imagine if more secular places responded in kind: restaurants where smartphones must be surrendered upon entering, or coffee shops that marketed their non-Wi-Fi safe space? Or, more practical: more meals where we agree to put our gadgets in a box while we talk to one another? Or lunch where the first person to use their phone pays the whole bill? We can, if we want, re-create a digital Sabbath each week — just one day in which we live for 24 hours without checking our phones. Or we can simply turn off our notifications. Humans are self-preserving in the long run. For every innovation there is a reaction, and even the starkest of analysts of our new culture, like Sherry Turkle, sees a potential for eventually rebalancing our lives.

My hope is that Sullivan’s challenge will not get lost in the constant deluge of our digital world, though I fear that is simply “how it is these days.”  If you haven’t yet, I highly recommend that you read the entire essay.  It is well worth your time and attention (and your careful personal and institutional reflection).  You can read the essay in its entirety here.

(image from cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com)

Celebrating Birthdays and the Promise of Adventure

Today, September the 22nd, is of particular importance to fans of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, as it serves as the birthdays of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.  Thanks to the calendar work Tolkien did (that can be found in the appendices of The Return of the King) and of the work of websites like TheOneRing.net, fans can see that the date was also significant for being the day Biblo arrived by barrel at Laketown and that Sam would eventually leave for the Grey Havens.

Here’s the extended version of Biblo’s birthday party from Peter Jackson’s rendition of The Fellowship of the Ring.  It’s a nice way to spend a few minutes on this fine Thursday.

Sullivan’s Silence: Our Noisy Moment

Monday saw the drop of a raresmartphones essay from Andrew Sullivan, former blogger with the Daily Dish.  The essay, “I Used to Be a Human Being,” recounted Sullivan’s struggle with detoxing from digital culture, from blogging to smart phones.  The piece got lots of traction from all different corners, which is always cool, particularly as he referenced some of my favorite writers/thinkers (like Nicholas Carr, Alan Jacobs, and Matthew Crawford).  Thought I’d spend a couple of posts pointing out some favorite moments from the essay.

One of the things I like most about “I Used to Be a Human Being” is how Sullivan traces the quick ascendancy of our most recent digital culture.  While it didn’t happen overnight in our lifetimes, it did happen in the blink of an eye when you look at the big picture.

Since the invention of the printing press, every new revolution in information technology has prompted apocalyptic fears. From the panic that easy access to the vernacular English Bible would destroy Christian orthodoxy all the way to the revulsion, in the 1950s, at the barbaric young medium of television, cultural critics have moaned and wailed at every turn. Each shift represented a further fracturing of attention — continuing up to the previously unimaginable kaleidoscope of cable TV in the late-20th century and the now infinite, infinitely multiplying spaces of the web. And yet society has always managed to adapt and adjust, without obvious damage, and with some more-than-obvious progress. So it’s perhaps too easy to view this new era of mass distraction as something newly dystopian.

But it sure does represent a huge leap from even the very recent past. The data bewilder. Every single minute on the planet, YouTube users upload 400 hours of video and Tinder users swipe profiles over a million times. Each day, there are literally billions of Facebook “likes.” Online outlets now publish exponentially more material than they once did, churning out articles at a rapid-fire pace, adding new details to the news every few minutes. Blogs, Facebook feeds, Tumblr accounts, tweets, and propaganda outlets repurpose, borow, and add topspin to the same output.

What’s been frustrating about the trend is how few people pushing technology have spent much time looking at all of the angles of digital influence.  Sure, some of that could be chalked up to a sense of “the unknown,” but we do have all of our previous technological jumps to help us be a bit more critical of what we’re getting ourselves into.

And the engagement never ends. Not long ago, surfing the web, however addictive, was a stationary activity. At your desk at work, or at home on your laptop, you disappeared down a rabbit hole of links and resurfaced minutes (or hours) later to reencounter the world. But the smartphone then went and made the rabbit hole portable, inviting us to get lost in it anywhere, at any time, whatever else we might be doing. Information soon penetrated every waking moment of our lives.

And it did so with staggering swiftness. We almost forget that ten years ago, there were no smartphones, and as recently as 2011, only a third of Americans owned one. Now nearly two-thirds do. That figure reaches 85 percent when you’re only counting young adults. And 46 percent of Americans told Pew surveyors last year a simple but remarkable thing: They could not live without one. The device went from unknown to indispensable in less than a decade. The handful of spaces where it was once impossible to be connected — the airplane, the subway, the wilderness — are dwindling fast. Even hiker backpacks now come fitted with battery power for smartphones. Perhaps the only “safe space” that still exists is the shower.

Am I exaggerating? A small but detailed 2015 study of young adults found that participants were using their phones five hours a day, at 85 separate times. Most of these interactions were for less than 30 seconds, but they add up. Just as revealing: The users weren’t fully aware of how addicted they were. They thought they picked up their phones half as much as they actually did. But whether they were aware of it or not, a new technology had seized control of around one-third of these young adults’ waking hours.

This past week, I talked my students through the idea of a frog dying in boiling water because the temperature was turned up gradually and without much notice.  The science behind the anecdote is questionable (you can check YouTube for that), but the sentiment is clear and obvious.  It’s a different take on the opening story in David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College address, “This is Water.”  We are in the water, our culture, and the very temperature of the water has changed (thanks to digital technology, in a way).  It’s a bit of what Douglas Coupland was going for in his short work, The Age of Earthquakes.

For Sullivan, the solution was walking away from technology.  Much of the essay retells some of that story.  He traces the idea of silence from the Protestant Reformation to the annual Burning Man event.  It’s a long read, but it’s also a good one.  And while you may not agree with all of Sullivan’s many views, I do think he speaks truth on a vital issue for us today, we whose very brains are being continually rewired by the digital landscape around us.

You can read the whole essay here.  Tomorrow, I’m going to make note of some of the overtly Christian connections in the piece, which includes an indictment on contemporary Christian spirituality in America.

(image from comfortade.com)

Kristen Bell Goes to the Good Place

I wasn’t planning on watching (m)any new shows on television this fall season.  I got word at the last minute, though, of a new show by Michael Schur (of Parks and Recreation fame) called The Good Place.  The show follows the story of Eleanor Shellstrop, a super-selfish character played by Kristen Bell, who unexpectedly ends up in a version of heaven.  It’s all skewed (from an orthodox perspective), but it has some great moments that line up with the worldview questions I talk about in class throughout the year.  Here’s a clip where “the afterlife” is explained.

The folks at Entertainment Weekly interviewed Schur about the math behind the good/bad behavior calculations.  It’s a funny explanation that you can read about here.

Two episodes aired last night.  Kant and Aristotle had their names dropped in the second episode.  Some interesting approaches to ethics, morality, perfectionism, and the nature of the world around us.

I’m not sure how long the show will last (it’s a bit of a stretch for network television).  It’s sharp, though.  And it’s a perfect picture of the absurdity of an afterlife devoid of any real classical theology (Christian or otherwise).  It must be the heaven as rendered in moralistic therapeutic deism.


Today marked nineteen years since the death of Rich Mullins.  I am grateful to the high school friends who introduced me to his music and for the musicians who have kept his legacy of honest and contextual songwriting alive.  Just this weekend I was blessed in revisiting Brothers Keeper, an album that never gets enough airplay in my collection.

Here’s a clip of Mullins singing “The Breaks” recorded a couple of weeks prior to the accident that took Mullins’ life.