Digital Limitations

If you’ve never heard of the Art of Manliness, you need to head over and check it out. It’s one of the best sites around. Thanks to a culture that demeans masculinity more every year and devalues fathers and husbands, we really need content like the Art of Manliness provides.

The AoM Podcast (which you should subscribe to) recently featured a book by David Sax called The Revenge of the Analog. I haven’t read the book, but the interview was thorough, and I got the impression that author has a pretty good idea of the situation he is describing. The essential point he makes in the book is that, despite the benefits of digital technology, people are increasingly moving away from digital approaches to doing things that can be done by hand. A few examples he offers are:

  • A demand for vinyl records that has caused a rebirth of the record pressing and distribution industries.
  • Paper planners, calendars, and pocket notes.
  • Physical books dominating an industry that was “fated”, according to experts several years ago, to be entirely digital by now.

He made the important point during the interview that these things aren’t simply an example of hipsters wanting to differentiate themselves. Most of these things are being purchased and used by all kinds of people, and the industries making them are growing; a sign that this is a mainstream phenomenon. It’s also a phenomenon the author discovered first-hand.

David Sax relates a story during the podcast about how he and a roommate had set up a digital music system through their home to stream audio from a computer. They suddenly had access to any music they wanted at any time in any room they wanted it with a couple of clicks. Within a few weeks, the amount of music that was actually played had dropped to almost nothing. There was something about the digital approach that made listening to music lose its appeal.

The interview shifted from descriptions of the phenomenon to explanations early on, and I agree with several of the points the author made. First of all, the move away from digital products isn’t caused by a single force. There are all sorts of different reasons and they vary depending on who you talk to. Second, very few people are interested in giving up every digital luxury they have. Instead, it seems that people want a balance that doesn’t exclude physical objects, and that in many cases (but not all), physical objects are preferred.

The motivations for these preferences were described as irrational, which was about the only thing I disagreed with. It’s true that people give up some convenience and features by choosing physical objects instead of digital replacements, but I think the choice is rational. In fact, I think the choice is spiritual. This was an element that I didn’t hear in the interview, but which may be in the book.

From a Christian perspective, I can affirm the tangible benefits of reading a physical book over a digital book, for instance (it’s easier to remember the content when you can imagine the book; books allow for note-taking; books don’t require power). But there are certain intangible benefits that I think are spiritual in nature that I think the Christian worldview can account for.

God created the physical world and He called it Good. It’s His Creation, after all. There’s something in our human natures that makes us appreciate physical objects. There’s something in the nature of men especially, I’ve found, that makes us appreciate collections of physical objects and their maintenance and organization. In a fallen world and with our human nature corrupted so that we can fall into sin by coveting what others have, by being inordinately proud of what we own, by thinking ourselves better than others for our possessions, or by thinking that physical things are ultimate. These are terrible things and we need to carefully avoid each of them. But these are sinful precisely because they corrupt something good. And what is good is human beings creatively making things like their Father before them and maintaining Creation. There’s something about physically sensing a book through sight, touch, and smell which reminds us of the creative process and which lets us maintain Creation itself in a small way. That isn’t to say that digital incarnations are somehow bad or not a result of human creativity, but that physical objects have a benefit that can’t really be transferred to digital counterparts.

I think the “revenge of the analog” is a small symptom of a larger desire that our civilization has to move back to something more concrete, universal, and objective. People have been jaded by promises that we can control everything about ourselves and our natures which aren’t true. The same movement is seen in the increased interest in liturgy in churches, in Christianity in philosophy departments, in more interest being generated for trades than graduate degrees, and even in a booming board game industry.

It seems like we’ve reached the tipping point in our world where enough people are ready to move back to more permanent things that even people not paying attention to them are starting to notice the effects. And this is a good thing.

Beauty and Difficulty

One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.  – Psalm 27:4

I once overheard an artist who, while looking at a detailed and realistic painting done by someone else, remarked that it “was probably very easy to make”. The context of the comment implied that things were more beautiful – or more artistic – if they are harder to make.

There does not seem to be a real causal relationship between difficulty and beauty, though. In fact, the inverse seems to be true. This isn’t limited to art and beauty either.

As an experienced software developer, it is easy for me to write software that works, is easy to understand, and is easy to maintain. It’s objectively better software in every important way to something written by someone who is just entering the field. That makes sense; I should be getting better at what I’m doing over time, making it easier to do.

If this is the case, then the fact it is easy for me to create is not a comment about how good the product is, but how much skill and experience I have. The same seems to be true of any job you can think of. A skilled architect will have an easier time designing a house than someone who has never designed anything.

At the same time, just because the creation of a piece of art was difficult, time-consuming, or tedious, there’s no reason to think the art is beautiful. It takes a long time to write your name 500,000 times; much longer than writing it once. Is doing one rather than the other really more beautiful? It’s certainly more difficult, but I think this is an obvious example where a thing being difficult doesn’t cause it to become beautiful.

Aristotle’s description of ethics is along the same lines. He argued when you want to find a good person, you don’t look for someone who struggles to do good things and, by his will, overcomes the struggle in the end. This effort is admirable, but a good person will not struggle to do good things and avoid evil things. It will seem effortless for him. In neither case is the definition of goodness related to how easy it is for a person to do good things. In the same way, beauty is not related to how much people struggle with it.

We also don’t know how difficult it was to make a piece of art unless we know more details than the art itself gives us. If we are experienced in the technique used, we might know how hard it is to learn the technique and how much effort was applied in using the technique. But we can’t know how hard it was for the person who created the art. That would require us asking them. But it seems we can figure out whether a piece of art is beautiful even if we don’t know the artist or can’t ask him how hard it was to make. Again, beauty doesn’t seem related to how much people struggle with making beautiful art.

So what does make something beautiful?

In looking up the verse I intended to put at the beginning of the article, I found this quote on the generally good Bible Study Tools website when searching on the topic of beauty:

The saying “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,” goes to say that defining beauty can be tough. However, God’s words can lead us to discover what our individual meaning of beauty truly is and should be; that is deter from looking at physical appearance for God looks at the heart in all people and things. Use these Bible verses to find the real beauty in yourself, others, and what surrounds us.

I think this is incorrect for several reasons, and interestingly, not Biblical given the verses that follow.

The expression “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is less than 200 years old. If beauty is difficult to define (specifically: define), and I agree that it is difficult to do so, it seems strange it would take thousands and thousands of years of human experience to arrive to this insight. In reality, the quote came at a time when beauty had been relativized, in part thanks to the same leveling forces that eventually relativized truth and goodness, too. The quote is intended to make beauty subjective. “In the eye of the beholder” means “according to the subject”. This in contrast to the object.

Biblically, God is beautiful. He is the source of beauty. This means that beauty can’t possibly be subjective – even though our experience of it necessarily is, like all experiences. The quotation from Bible Study Tools is correct in saying that our definition ought to conform to Scripture, and that we can be wrong about what beauty is (this affirms the objective nature of it). However, it is misleading to say that beauty at the physical level is superficial because God searches our hearts. He might search our hearts and know us more deeply than we know ourselves, but He also created our physical bodies and the physical world we live in and all the beauty we can see and hear. This physical world won’t last forever, but it isn’t superficial. It’s particularly misleading when people aren’t concerned with creating beautiful art or with looking as best they can. I don’t think a person can be fully trusted with getting at the inner beauty of things if they don’t even have the right idea or skill at getting to physical beauty.

If you aren’t a Christian, it is still strange to try and say that beauty is subjective. We have art schools training artists all around the world. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then are these schools just teaching popular techniques? What are the techniques for? Why does anyone need technique? As popular as postmodernism and relativism is at art schools, I think the administrators know better than to push this to it’s reasonable conclusion. If they did, the students might realize their time would be better spent not spending tens of thousands of dollars improving their technique at creating things that are totally subjective.

Similarly, it’s strange that we have art museums and art galleries if art is subjective. Why is some art worthy of hanging on the wall in an art museum? Given some of the horrible, insulting pieces I’ve seen (solid-color canvases with a single bar of another color shoddily painted on top), it doesn’t seem much thought goes into determining what should hang on an art museum wall and what should be thrown in the trash. But what really qualifies some pieces and not others? Is it a democratic process? Who says? And where do I get to vote?

As I said earlier, beauty is difficult to define. But it isn’t difficult or impossible to describe. Beautiful things have a symmetry to them. This doesn’t need to mean things are identical when split in half; it is more in terms of weight (e.g. a house could have wide room on one side and a tall room on the other). Beautiful things have emphasis on the important elements, with other elements receding into the background while they complement the foreground. Beautiful things are true; they don’t mislead or glorify evil.

With the issue of difficulty addressed, I’d like to address the issue of ugliness in modern art sometime in the future. I think modern art, in general, is intentionally ugly and insulting. It would be good to talk about it in detail, but it deserves its own post.

Misconception Monday – Christians Shouldn’t Try To Make People Good

“Christians shouldn’t try and make people good; they should preach the Gospel.”

This is a declaration I’ve read many times in many forms, and since it’s the subject of today’s Misconception Monday, you might have already deduced my thoughts about it. Before I criticize the motivations people have for using it and some of the thinking behind it, I want to say that on the surface, I actually agree with it. Christians are commanded to make disciples, not merely people who don’t sin as much. The purpose of life, after all, is not to start doing more good things than bad things, but to know God. If this is the intended meaning of the expression, then it is a misleading way of saying a good and true thing. It’s the misleading elements and the motivations behind it that are worthy of some criticism.

There seem to be at least three reasons why Christians might try and encourage, incentivize, or impose morality on others. It’s important to realize that all legislation, executive action, and judicial decision-making is moral in nature. That means if it isn’t Christians imposing their morality on others, it’s someone else. I believe Christianity is true, so I have no problem with Christianity guiding this work. In fact, the founders of the United States and the progenitors of English Common Law all saw their work as reflective of Christianity.

The first reason has to do with society as a whole. If Christianity and God’s moral laws are true, it follows that the best way to order a society is to encourage obedience to those objective moral rules found in God’s moral law. While human beings break laws and do evil no matter what laws exist, the law is still a teacher and not just a reflection of culture. We should want to have the most perfect law in place to guide our society. It ought to result in better lives for everyone, just as acknowledging the laws of nature – like gravity – we are all forced to obey will result in less pain and suffering.

Secondly, it seems obvious that while none of us can please God except through Christ and that all of our own righteousness is worthless, it is still better not to sin and instead to do good. Doing evil makes our consciences less effective, insults the Image of God in each of us, and angers God. While the only way to truly know God is to come to Him by faith through Christ, it still seems right that it is better for those who have not accepted Him to do good instead of evil. Not just for the practical reasons identified above, but because sin really is bad, and it really is better not to do it, whether a person is a Christian or not.

Third, and maybe most importantly, has to do with Salvation itself. In order to become Christians, a man needs to repent of his sin. If he is convinced he hasn’t done anything wrong, then there is nothing to repent from. Living in a society governed by Christian virtue, however, means that he is confronted with his sin frequently (instead of ours, when many – even Christians – seem to actively discourage this confrontation). Additionally, if his own subjective understanding of right and wrong matches the objective standards found in God Himself, this is the best possible comparison he can have to demonstrate his need for Christ through repentance.

One of the roles of the Holy Spirit in the world is to convict the world of its sin. As Christians, why would we want to deliberately sabotage this effort? Why not seek to help? We can’t convict people in the same way as the Holy Spirit (and attempts to do it explicitly will probably have the opposite effect). But if we can help order our society in a way where the existence of sin is apparent to everyone, we certainly aren’t going to hurt anything. I’d argue we should actively try and do this. As I said previously, someone is going to impose their morality on everyone else. Why shouldn’t the laws we have come from the source of all objective morality in the first place?

Why would Christians oppose this? I think part of it is simple misunderstanding. There are Christians who think that pursuing a just and god-fearing society is a mutually exclusive goal to winning people to Christ because both require effort and the effort must be spent on either one or the other. This isn’t the case, however, and I’d argue that the two are complementary.

Another issue is one of character. Some Christians are lazy and hide behind the expression as a way to avoid doing work. Others are afraid of what might happen if they followed through.

Many Christians (and people in general) are sloppy thinkers. They don’t think about any of this stuff and just accept what is handed down to them from others whom they trust. This is inexcusable, but unfortunately common.

I think the most insidious reason is that many people who profess to be Christians actually despise Christianity. They hate God’s moral law and they completely embrace our culture’s anti-Christian standards. This happens often, and usually involves people in leadership positions. When I hear these sorts of people use the expression “Christians shouldn’t try to make good people; they should preach the Gospel”, I think it’s best to understand their meaning as “Stop making people feel bad and start telling them what they want to hear.”

If you are a Christian, you should know that if Christianity were all about telling people things that made them happy and comfortable, Christ wouldn’t have been crucified.

The Purpose of Fatherhood

My oldest when he wasn’t so old

“It is difficult for the father of a family not to regard as a personal enemy the author of a bad book that brings corruption into the hearts of his children.” -Louis de Bonald 

Less than two years ago, I met my oldest son for the first time. Since then, I’ve also met his younger brother and in the future, I hope to meet his younger brothers and sisters, however many of them there may be.

Until the day I was able to see my oldest son for the first time, I did not think myself ready for being a father. I was convinced that fatherhood was something that was years down the road (despite being in my mid-twenties). It quickly became obvious that a lot of this misconception was rooted in my own immaturity. It turns out that becoming a father forces an adolescent boy to become a man, and it illuminates the selfishness and childishness that were easy to hide before being forced to take care of every need and want of a helpless human being.

I say all of this as a preamble. I am not an “expert” in any meaningful sense about fatherhood when compared to men who have been fathers for twenty or thirty times longer than I have. It was only recently that I began to think about any of this stuff. Despite my lack of experience, I think I’ve discovered a few of the things that give fatherhood purpose.

First, fatherhood forces men to realize how selfish they are. This has already been mentioned, but I want to emphasize that this is a positive thing, and something for which it is difficult to think of an equally powerful substitute. Certainly the Apostle Paul, as he spoke of forgoing marriage and fatherhood to focus on God, had in mind that Christian men – whether they were married with children or not – would die to themselves and their own selfishness. And while there are unmarried or childless Christian men today who pursue this with success as God provides other methods, I can’t help but think that many men (of which I was one until recently) are more selfish than they know, and have no mirror to see it.

Second, fatherhood forces men to give up their selfishness to a degree. Knowing you are selfish is required to fixing the problem, but fatherhood goes further than conferring knowledge. Seeing your child sick or injured or hungry or frightened is enough to make you reorder your priorities, but it goes further than this. Until I had children, I went to work every day with the sensation that I was acquiring money so my wife and I could enjoy ourselves now and in the future. Once we started having children, my concern became with their well-being. It didn’t happen all at once, but within the past two years, I’ve started taking work much more seriously and have pursued side-work and overtime (things I hated in the past) just to find the extra money to provide for my children. Given the abysmal results of America’s public schools and the hellish indoctrination that flows down from the Department of Education, I want my children to attend private schools or be home-schooled. Fun careers doing hobbies part-time aren’t an option anymore.

Lastly – and maybe most importantly – fathers shoulder the innumerable horrors of the world so that their children can have innocent wonder and, by having wonder, come to know God. War, disease, natural disaster, human evil, demonic forces, and sin abound in a world which children enter with a certain innocence that they lose as they get older. All people – children included – are part of a fallen race, but children begin untainted by the extreme evil outside of themselves. This is what we mean when we talk about “losing one’s innocence”. It isn’t that someone suddenly begins to do wrong (my toddler can be a master at selfishness and disobedience, especially when tired). It’s that children naturally have an innocent wonder at the world around them. They see things without the taint of the rest of the world corrupting their thoughts and tempting them. They are civilians who eventually need to enter spiritual combat, but who are not ready to do so.

The world hates children. It destroys them through abortion, it corrupts them through media and increasingly through public education, and it tries to break apart families through divorce. At root, it seems clear that the world hates children because children are innocent, and it causes even those with dead consciences to feel guilt and shame to see an innocent child.

As a father, it is my job to shield my children from the world. I know that someday they’ll be old enough to teach and to train, and eventually even to go out into the world on their own. But until that day actually comes, I want them to be able to have innocent awe and wonder at the good things in the world, and by through this, know that this world has a good and awesome God intuitively.

All of these things combine to form one cohesive whole: Fatherhood is sacred. It is God’s method to conform fathers to the likeness of Christ as they, to their own children, act as stewards of His own divine fatherhood. The relationship – not exclusively, but uniquely – makes Christians out of men and makes God real to their children.

These are my thoughts on fatherhood’s purposes, at least.