How Can I Block Out the Cruelty?

The stereotype of the schizophrenic is a poor soul beleaguered by a cacophony of voices telling him what to do. But we all now are subject to imperative messages from sources that do not have our best interests at heart.

Some of these are commercial, which foster the spiritual pathology of consumerism. “I alone matter, and I alone shall decide what is best for Me, Me, Me! So, ah, what shall I select? Oh, right. What you told me to buy….”

Some of these are social, whether this or that parent, this or that coach or teacher or director or other authority figure, this or that corporate culture or team attitude or church culture or other groupthink. Voices, voices, voices in our heads—and silent, but powerful, forces in our hearts.

Many of these commands, alas, are not merely manipulative, advancing their own interests at our expense. Some are truly cruel: dangling ideals before us that are impossible to actualize, demanding standards that no real person can achieve, and denouncing us for our inevitable failures to perform so as to earn the esteem of these malignant judges.

Prof. John Barclay of the University of Durham in the UK has recently gifted us with a popular-level précis of his splendid work on the theme of grace in the writings of the Apostle Paul, Paul and the Power of Grace (Eerdmans, 2020). Most of the book is what it ought to be: straightforward exposition of this theological theme: God’s unconditioned gift to us of salvation in its many splendours. At the end of this book, however, Professor Barclay looks up from his notes to survey our world, and what he sees compels him to urge us again to receive the good news he has seen in Paul.

We live in an age when self-esteem, or self-worth, is under intense pressure, especially among young people. Indeed, research in Western societies shows that crises of self-worth have reached epidemic proportions. Schools, colleges, counselors, churches, and health workers report a sharp and shocking rise in the number of people suffering anxiety, self-doubt, depression, and loss of self-esteem. These elements manifest in numerous ways: self-harm, panic attacks, eating disorders, sleep disorders, obsessive behavior, suicidal thoughts, and, tragically, suicide. The problem has multiple roots, but it seems to be exacerbated by social media, with its requirement to project an attractive self-image in popularity, appearance, body-shape, and success. The combination of impossibly high expectations and fragile egos is a recipe for distress. In an age when people fear the judgement of their peers more than the judgement of God, we have become increasingly petulant, critical, even cruel, and it is proving hard to take. [Emphasis added]

In Paul’s good news, human worth is founded on the grace of God, which is not dependent on any form of symbolic capital, ascribed or achieved. No one can, and no one needs to, make themselves “worth it” in the most important arena of all.… Many have urged that people should “let go of who you think you are supposed to be and embrace who you are.” [Barclay refers to Brené Brown and her well-known book Gifts of Imperfection, 2010.] But that does not help if “who you are” crumbles under your own embrace, as happens for many people today. If that embrace does not come from outside of ourseves, and if it is not completely authoritative and utterly secure, we are left wishing ourselves into worth, rather than knowing we have it.

… When all else fails, the love of God does not. What we need are better, fuller, and more down-to-earth ways of making this message clear and practical, and in the present psychological state of many young people, few things seem more existentially urgent.

John Barclay, Paul and the Power of Grace, 154-56

Christ died for all (2 Corinthians 5:14-15), and so all matter. Each person matters, not only as a creation of God, but as the much-loved object of God’s self-sacrifice. That is how much you matter: a crucifixion-of-the-Son-of-God’s worth. However bleak, or bland, your life may seem now, it is a life God made, a life God suffered and died to redeem, and a life God wants to bless forever and ever in unimaginable delight on a renewed planet and in a renewed society rid of all the stupid, harmful, and even cruel injuries we sometimes must suffer for a while here and now.

The world is deranged. It wildly rewards the wrong people and ignores and even punishes the right ones. We must not, must not, must not take our cues from who wins an Oscar or Stanley Cup or Grammy or Order of Canada. We must not adjust our lives by those who are glamourized by “Entertainment Tonight” or celebrated on “Saturday Night Live.” We must not strive for likes and friends and followers—how very thin and small the definitions of “liking” and “friendship” and “following” have become! What an insane way to govern your life, the very gift of God intended to last forever and to result—in just a few decades!—in stupendous glory as you become the very best version of yourself, finally recognizable and recognized, joining in a society the beauty of which exceed Disney’s greatest imaginations. (Read Revelation 20 again for starters. What a city is coming to us!)

Thanks, then, to Professor Barclay for calling us to What Really Matters, and Whose voice should be our only guide. “Trust in Yhwh with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall straighten out your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6).

Where (and How) Do I Want to Be?

I’m about to complete the academic year here at Crandall University, on Canada’s east coast, and return (if the Lord and the public health officials will let me) to the west coast for the summer en famille.

I like both lifestyles. I miss my wife, two sons, daughter-in-law and grandson in Vancouver terribly, yes, and the North Shore continues to beckon with long trails, big trees, gorgeous mountains—and Thomas Haas chocolates, Lee’s doughnuts, Memphis Blues barbecue (“whose god is their belly,” etc.,). I miss my friends and my motorcycle and my TV and lots more besides.

But here in Moncton, I have what I like to call the best dorm room in the Maritimes: my guitars, keyboard, and drum set are nicely connected through a mixer so I can play along with iTunes and Spotify whenever I like; I have a kitchen stocked with only what I prefer to eat; I enjoy laundry facilities en suite; and I have plenty of time to work, work, work—and I like working. Good friends at the university, fine student assistants, and work I enjoy (did I mention the working?).

Still, I can think of various ways I’d like to improve the feathering of both nests. I’ve got plans (and I know my wife has plans for me) to work on the Vancouver house and yard this summer, and then maybe buy a few more nice things for the Moncton place in the fall…

And then, this morning, Søren Kierkegaard tells me what the Holy Spirit of God seeks in a dwelling place:

We have our treasure in earthen vessels, but thou, O Holy Spirit, when thou livest in a man, thou livest in what is infinitely lower. Thou Spirit of Holiness, thou livest in the midst of impurity and corruption; thou Spirit of Wisdom, thou livest in the midst of folly; thou Spirit of Truth, thou livest in one who is himself deluded.

Oh, continue to dwell there, thou who does not seek a desirable dwelling place, for thou wouldst seek there in vain, thou Creator and Redeemer, to make a dwelling for thyself; oh, continue to dwell there, that one day thou mayst finally be pleased by the dwelling which thou didst thyself prepare in my heart, foolish, deceiving, and impure as it is.

[Quoted in The Oxford Book of Prayers, #192]

God seeks to live in my very heart: a place of corruption, yes, and of vanity, stupidity, and stubbornness; a place badly lit, foul-smelling, stacked with hoarded peeves and slights, strewn with porn of several kinds (sex porn, yes, but also house porn, clothing porn, fame porn, food porn…), clearly arranged to suit my lifestyle of petty appetites and aspirations and horribly inhospitable to such a superb roommate.

To call such a disaster a “fixer-upper” would be scandalous on a real estate agent’s website. Yet God freely, lovingly chose to move in and help me rehabilitate it. We’ve been at it together for a long time now, and it’s better than it was. But it’s still much too dark, and dank, and dumb. We’ll be at it for years yet.

May God inspire me to inhabit everywhere he puts me with a similar sense of constructive purpose: not to live here and now as comfortably as possible, but as creatively as possible. So much needs fixing up. So much needs cleaning and repairing and caring for. If God is willing to live in me, may I embrace wherever, and however, he wants me to live. And may I live more and more as God does wherever God lives: always holy, always loving, always creative, always making things better.

A Mild Rant about North American Education

It has been a very hard year for students everywhere, it seems, and in ways peculiar to each person. As I grade final papers, I am sympathetic toward the students whose stories of COVID-19-related woes I know, and toward the many I don’t.

And yet.

My spies in StudentWorld tell me that ‘way too many students have gotten too used to the grace extended by professors since this time last year, and have already adjusted their efforts to the lower standards, lengthier extensions, and general slackening of expectations. And I’ve just marked another class of papers from students who have taken courses with me before—nice students, smart students, generally attentive students—and ‘way too many of them are terrible. Not just a little disappointing, not just a little sub-standard, but exams one could have written with about half-an-hour’s cramming. I literally can’t pass some of them, and others barely make it across the line.

“THIS?” I want to shout. “THIS is all you got from 12 weeks of considered and capable lecturing? THIS is all you harvested from hundreds of pages of carefully curated reading? THIS is all you learned from hours of class discussion with your bright peers? THIS is what you have to present on some of the most important issues you will ever consider?”

I recognize that many university/college students today are enrolled in higher education because of the manifestly stupid decision made a generation ago to require a degree for many jobs that used to require only a high school diploma. I am convinced that high schools generally do a worse job than they did a generation ago: stupidly “streaming” kids into a single program that does not serve those who used to go into trade education early nor those who are bright enough for (real) university education—and not even the middle of the bell curve, who graduate from Grade 12 with smatterings only: smatterings of history, smatterings of math and science, smatterings of English grammar and usage, smatterings of geography.

They know nothing systematically, even as they have all been thoroughly indoctrinated that environmentalism is good; racism, sexism, homophobia and bullying are bad; and suicide is to be avoided. Those are all good lessons that a single theme week ought to suffice to imprint. But find their way on a world map, or a timeline of western civilization, or a list of great authors, or a chart of basic chemical processes, or a 1000-word essay exercise? Largely hopeless.

I blame a generation of stupid governments informed by stupid university faculties of education in league with stupid teachers’ unions. These generally mediocre minds have substituted ideology for evidence-based pedagogies, and our children, our universities, and our labour markets are reaping the paltry results. How much more interesting and satisfying it apparently has been to preach virtues rather than to teach subjects and impart skills.

And today it’s just more of the same as we ramp up anti-racism and trans-rights-consciousness and climate-change-alarm—all concerns I happen to share, just to be clear—while students can’t make nouns and verbs agree, do enough mental math to notice mistakes on their tax returns or shop intelligently, spot logical errors in propaganda and advertising, and recognize the latest nonsense from the cynically slanted media yelling untruths at them by the score.

This ought to be the best-educated generation in history. It isn’t. And that is a slow-burning, civilization-weakening, standard-dropping, economy-harming, culture-eroding scandal. 

I’m going to keep doing my best to teach whatever students come into my classes. I love them and I know that their general incompetence is not their fault. I know that they can improve, and many do—some remarkably and gratifyingly. 

Today, however, I’m mostly disappointed by the stress of the virus’s shadow provoking the best efforts of only a few, and reduced effort and expectation of far too many. I mourn that this graduating class of university students has been lamed by this year-plus of slap-dash approximations of what we normally offer. And I can only hope that we will not just rebound in the academic year to come, but press harder to improve education all the way down.

And especially here in New Brunswick.

And don’t get me started on the general foolishness, the tragicomical waste and confusion, of the French immersion programming in Moncton…