Yesterday, I was standing on a covered porch talking to a man who is legitimately psychotic. He explained to me that he has won several major literary prizes, holds a number of important patents, and traveled around the world in a dirigible for years. Trying to find a way to make conversation, I confided to him that I am afraid of flying. His mania seemed to subside as he looked at me, took my measure, and said, “You know, flying is a lot safer than other methods of transportation.”
I was a teenager in the 1980′s when many secular Americans (including me) formed their view of Christianity on the basis of what was happening with Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. Two men who had become rich through ministry ended up making mistakes that severely damaged their reputations and organizations. The trashy, deceptive, scoundrel, flashy preacher character is part of the stock of American literature.
If you want to see the type in action, there are places you can go via cable or satellite to get your fill. You can stuff yourself with shameful judgment and delight as you watch them with their sparkling, colorful clothing, jewelry, and architectural hairstyles. They model wealth because their appeal to the viewer is that if you will call a number and give a gift very quickly, you, too, will be blessed. You will have planted a seed against your need. The unexpected life-changing check will surely appear on your doorstop very soon.
Truly, I do not know any of these people. At age 41, I have been a Christian now for about 23 years. I have yet to meet anyone who endorses the theology broadcast by the prosperity gospel industry. Nor have I found any Christians who run around in rhinestones and purple hair.
But to those of you who are unchurched, who think very little of Jesus Christ and Christianity, and who take your cues from someone like, say, Jon Stewart, I have an antidote to offer to the poisonous view of the faith you may hold. The antidote is the Christian scholar.
The first person to really get my attention with regard to Christianity was Robbie Castleman. She had been doing graduate work and would eventually obtain her doctorate. She is a professor at John Brown University now. Robbie was never interested in spending lots of time shopping or in the salon. She was the first person I ever met who didn’t run after a ringing phone. Robbie and her husband, Breck, were (and are) generous with their time and money. She didn’t preach AT people. She had relationships with people. And the energy behind all of it was Jesus. She put up with an egotistical, exasperating, and lazy kid like me without losing patience. Robbie is a Christian scholar. Such a different creature than that Brother Love character you all know and despise.
I won’t name names of other people to whom I’m close (because I don’t want to embarrass them), but I don’t mind describing them to you. The Christian scholar is the man with a rather unkempt beard and the pants and sleeves with frayed cuffs. The tie often clashes or is a couple of decades out of date. If you know men like these you probably find them somewhat eccentric and uninterested in many of the passing things the rest of us chase after. They don’t know which buttons to fasten on a sportcoat or how to properly coordinate belts and shoes. And the reason why is not because they are ignorant, but rather because they are setting their powerful minds to other tasks. They are, as a friend in Texas who had some impressive life experience said to me, deep rivers. They are otherworldly.
I regret (a little) to say that I do know about the belts and shoes, the right buttons to button, which colors can go together, and other matters of concern to people of fashion. But I admire those who have no need at all to care about those things. And when my wife, no great follower of trends herself, happens to note that I am wearing pants that seem to be falling apart a little or the seat is wearing out, I’m almost sorry to notice. Because I was just a little closer to being like those men and women I so admire.
I recently had lunch with a friend working in the UK. When I asked him about the electoral politics, he reported the following conversation:
Friend: (Speaking to British citizen) Who are you voting for?
Brit: My parents were Tories, but I’m voting for the Lib-Dems (the Liberal Democrats).
Friend: Really? Why are you voting for them?
Brit: They’re for social justice!
Friend: That’s interesting. What is social justice?
Brit: Let me put my mind to that and I’ll get back to you.
When I was a child (probably around the year 1979), I once asked my father to tell me who was the most beautiful woman in the world. He instantly replied that it was my mother. I then asked him to tell me who was the most beautiful woman other than my mother. He replied nearly as quickly that the answer to my question was Raquel Welch.
I clipped the following section from a very interesting interview between Raquel Welch and Men’s Health magazine. Her comments are worth carving into the face of a mountain somewhere. Take special note of how her interviewer goes from flip to serious as she makes herself clear.
MH: You once said that you think sex is overrated. Could you elaborate?
Raquel Welch: I mean just the sex act itself.
MH: Really? Are you sure you’ve been doing it right?
Raquel Welch: I think we’ve gotten to the point in our culture where we’re all sex addicts, literally. We have equated happiness in life with as many orgasms as you can possibly pack in, regardless of where it is that you deposit your love interest.
MH: Okay, admittedly that doesn’t make sex sound very appealing at all.
Raquel Welch: It’s just dehumanizing. And I have to honestly say, I think this era of porn is at least partially responsible for it. Where is the anticipation and the personalization? It’s all pre-fab now. You have these images coming at you unannounced and unsolicited. It just gets to be so plastic and phony to me. Maybe men respond to that. But is it really better than an experience with a real life girl that he cares about? It’s an exploitation of the poor male’s libidos. Poor babies, they can’t control themselves.
MH: I cannot dispute any of what you’re saying.
Raquel Welch: I just imagine them sitting in front of their computers, completely annihilated. They haven’t done anything, they don’t have a job, they barely have ambition anymore. And it makes for laziness and a not very good sex partner. Do they know how to negotiate something that isn’t pre-fab and injected directly into their brain?
Reading those last few lines I wonder if Raquel Welch might have made an outstanding writer and cultural commentator. How many men know exactly what she is talking about? And isn’t “annihilated” the perfect word in the perfect place?
Grace saw me looking at Europe on Google Maps. She noticed the United Kingdom and was excited to see it, but then said, “That’s not a real place.”
“Yes, it is,” I insisted. “And it has a queen and princes.”
“I don’t believe it,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because you should never believe anything on the internet.”
When I was a graduate student in public administration about 20 years ago, one of my professors was the much-published, much-decorated Robert Golembiewski. He was almost as wide as he was tall, had a terrific head of white hair with accompanying white beard and mustache, and proudly displayed a large poster for Polish Solidarity (SOLIDARNOSC!) on the door to his office.
He and I spoke many times as I took every advantage of opportunities to learn from him. I still recall a framed letter he had from another very famous social scientist, Aaron Wildavsky. The letter opened by congratulating Golembiewski on some photograph that had been taken of him and subsequently appeared somewhere notable. ”What an excellent likeness, Bob.” In the second paragraph, Wildavsky announced that he had cancer and would not live very long.
On the occasion of one of my visits, I was excitedly discussing the book Reinventing Government by Osborne and Gaebler and the corresponding Clinton reform initiative, the National Performance Review. I was surprised to hear Golembiewski dismiss the initiative as “just another management sheep dip.” The conversation didn’t go much further because I had no idea what sheep dip was. I have since figured out that he was referring to a veterinary treatment for sheep similar to the kind of special bath dogs get to keep fleas and other pests at bay.
Today, I was thinking about Golembiewski and “management sheep dip.” I think his critique was that most managerial reforms are like a coating that appears to work for a while, but doesn’t change the essence underneath. The conversation came home to me as I took my class through a case study about education reform in Denver during the last decade. Michael Bennet managed to become a U.S. Senator after his purported turnaround of the schools in Denver. It is clear that he worked hard. I am less sure whether his reforms were successful. It mostly seems that the force of his personality was important, but now he is gone.
We frequently hear about new plans for big reforms. People make much of them, although those of us who understand PR appreciate that the gains get pumped up larger than they really are and the problems are minimized. We get catchy labels such as Scientific Management, Total Quality Management, Lean Six Sigma, Reinventing Government (which is my favorite for what it’s worth), and others. A number of people make a lot of money promoting these ideas, writing, consulting, etc. But what it really comes down to is a few things. Do political leaders, administrators, and employees care about their work? Are they honest? Do they have integrity? Are they competent? I would submit to you that if those things are true, then it not so much the managerial sheep dip that we are proposing that matters so much as it is the soul with which we approach the work.
Here’s the really terrible side of that truth. If you have political leaders who just care about moving up to the next job, administrators and other employees who are primarily worried about getting more money and better benefits and having an easy life, then whatever sheep dip you apply will make things look and smell better for a short while, but you’ll go right back into mediocrity or worse, decay.
Fundamentally, if you have competent, conscientious people working in good faith, then the system you have is a matter of secondary importance. This is an awful thing to understand, because it means if you have a bad culture, if your people lack character, if families aren’t raising children well . . . then you don’t have a great chance of turning things around.
We basically have two hopes for making things better.
One is that technology improves so much that we can afford our many social pathologies. (Of course, that road may lead to the kind of human existence we see portrayed in WALL-E.)
The other lies with spiritual renewal. And that road is the tougher one by far.
In fact, you have to die first. And then you have to live again.