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Archive for March, 2012

As a journalist-turned-professor, I have followed a path built around words and their use. How can students learn to write with precision and clarity? How can they decipher truth from falsehood in what they read and see? How can they preserve their own humanity — and that of others — in their communication practices?

In other words: How can they be real, authentic and sincere in life amid a media-generated blizzard of clever words? The same question, of course, applies to each of us every time we log on to Facebook, place a phone call, send a text, or a speak in person with someone.

“The Enemy of Clear Language”

George Orwell understood this challenge all too well, as noted in his 1946 essay on writing, “Politics and the English Language”:

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

More than 65 years have passed since Orwell penned those words. Not much has changed, except for the new ways in which we can channel our insincerity. But here is the more important question: If we wish to live differently as Christians, what kind of practices might we adopt so that our words don’t just ring true — but are true?

Words and Their Care

This brings me back to a book I quoted in an earlier post, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s “Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.” Much like Orwell, she is troubled by how people use words to obscure rather than illuminate. One response, she argues, resides in the practice of precision:

Truth-telling is difficult because the varieties of untruth are so many and so well disguised. Lies are hard to identify when they come in the form of apparently innocuous imprecision, socially acceptable slippage, hyperbole masquerading as enthusiasm, or well-placed propaganda. … So let us reflect here on the practice of precision as a spiritual discipline that lies at the heart of truth-telling.

For McEntyre, a practice of precision embodies several traits.

First, “precision begins with defining terms.” This isn’t a matter of using the dictionary. It means we think carefully about the words we choose and how others use them as well. More important, if we wish to speak or write with precision we must have the humility to listen to others first. In other words, we treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves.

Second, “precision requires attention to process.” That is, precise communication helps ourselves and others understand how the world works. It does not obscure the uncomfortable truths, either in pubic debate, personal relationships or church life. McEntyre calls this kind of precision “strenuous and highly morally relevant.” Our credibility, as individuals and as a church, depends on it.

Third, “precision lies in understatement.” We live in an age of continual hype, and we can resort to it to promote ourselves and our faith. But when we refrain from hype we become more honest about our lives and more open to God’s true love for us. Hype is a desperate effort to impress and control, to prove that we deserve attention. Understatement, in contrast, shows respect for others and humility before God.

Responsibility and Compassion

McEntyre concludes:

Precision is … not only a form of responsibility and a kind of pleasure, but an instrument of compassion. To be precise requires care, time, and attention to the person, place, or process being described.

This is a key point: Precision unleavened by compassion turns even the best-intentioned words into heavy clubs. If we are to be real and authentic with one another, then we speak and write with others in mind, not just ourselves. To practice precision is to be both clear and open. Let us pray that God may help us to be both.

Note: Another version of this post also appears on my church’s blog.

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Years ago, during a sermon about money, a preacher offered this observation (which I paraphrase):

People say that money is neutral; what matters is what you do with it. But money isn’t neutral — it’s powerful. If you have it, you have choices that other people don’t have, and those choices will tug and pull at you. We should not kid ourselves about that.

That message has stayed with me through the years, and it returns every time I think of the financial collapse of 2008. In his book “The Big Short,” Michael Lewis argues that the prospects of huge, immediate profits overwhelmed all caution in the financial sector. In essence, Lewis says, people acted in a manner contrary not only to their own long-term interests, but to the interests of their clients and society. It became a sort of collective delusion, fueled by the prospects of extraordinary profits.

However, Lewis’ argument is generous when compared to that of Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job (see trailer), which won the 2011 Oscar for Best Documentary. Ferguson sees in the finance industry willful greed and malevolence, not just delusion. He explores the ways in which that pursuit of money, accompanied by a sense of entitlement,  continues to taint not just Wall Street but government and (yes) university academics.

Whether you find Lewis or Ferguson more persuasive (and both are worth your time), their stories illustrate an observation from my pastor this Sunday: Money operates as an ideology from which we must be converted. When money, rather than God, becomes omnipotent in our lives, its power can distort and harm. The collapse of 2008 is but another cautionary tale of that power — a tale we still struggle to comprehend.

The consequences of 2008 persist today; they are not the abstractions of world set far from the Northwest. They continue to echo in our lives through lost jobs, foreclosed homes, and derailed hopes and dreams — even among those still fortunate enough to have homes and savings. It makes me wonder: Will my children have the same opportunities that my wife and I have enjoyed? I’m no longer sure about that.

But there’s a bigger question: Beyond those earthly worries, how can my wife and I steel our children against the pull of money and its pernicious ideology? How can we model for them a lives that are truly free? In a society rocked by financial uncertainty, perhaps one place we can begin is to put aside fear and trust in a God who will never abandon us. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 

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During his sermon on Sunday, my pastor asked: Are we consumed with consuming? If our major corporations have their way, the answer would always be yes.

In a new book, recently excerpted in the New York Times Magazine, reporter Charles Duhigg catalogs the extraordinary lengths that retailers like Target (see video) work not only to build, but to control, our habits of consumption — and to make our consumption habitual. As one researcher from Target told Duhigg:  

Just wait. We’ll be sending you coupons for things you want before you even know you want them.

The scope of modern marketing, fueled by research in neurology and psychology, is far different from the advertising of the past. It allows us to hold on to the illusion that we can resist even as we are directed, and even manipulated, to buy and buy again.

So it is no small thing when my pastor asked us to consider changing our shopping and consumption habits. We are working not just against our own tendencies; we are working against a relentless culture of marketing that aims with precision at our tendencies and vulnerabilities. That’s why it can feel so difficult to change.

Yet, by God’s grace, we are not helpless. This is why we can think of frugality as more than just a virtuous trait. It is a spiritual discipline, an act — no, a habit — of resistance against one of the powers and principalities of our day.

Note: A version of this post also appeared at my church’s blog.

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