Tuesday Miscellany (Things That Don’t Work As They Should)
A disparate collection of reflections on a few of the things that don’t work as they should for your Tuesday afternoon…
I listened to the most recent episode of This American Life while out and about this morning. The episode is called “Seriously?” and talks about the bewildering reality that this American election campaign has made plain: facts are rather puny obstacles when it comes to people’s political allegiances.
At one point, host Ira Glass grimly noted:
Never before have the facts been so accessible and never before have they mattered so little.
Indeed. It’s sobering—frightening, even—to observe that facts have almost literally no impact on our political discourse. We know our story and we’re sticking to it.
At one point, Glass plays a recording of a conversation with an uncle of his. His uncle is an intelligent man, a former surgeon. He’s voting for Trump, not due to his own merits necessarily but mostly because he can’t stand Obama or Clinton. He lists some of the wildest theories imaginable about both. When Glass offers some (well-documented) facts and statistics in response, it literally has no effect. They are dismissed as outright lies or the result of biased media. It’s incredible to listen to.
I’ve had conversations with people on both the far right and the far left, I’ve listened to how the world looks and sounds from their perspective. What’s always fascinating to me is that both sides think that their views and their sources represent the pure, unbiased, unvarnished truth while their enemies’ opinions are based on bad motives, ignorance, and biased sources.
It’s almost literally that simple.
My side = good, true, and virtuous; the other side = bad, false, and immoral.
I wonder what would happen if we were all forced to preface any and all political (or theological) commentary with this simple phrase: “I recognize that it’s possible that I could be wrong about this and that there are other sources to consider, and that other people of reasonable intelligence and good will interpret things differently, but…”
A bit unwieldy for a T-shirt, I suppose. And it probably wouldn’t play well on Twitter.
I was having a conversation the other day with someone about the problem of multiple interpretations. How can we claim the Bible is authoritative when there are so many different interpretations of it? When there are so many denominations that all claim different things? When so many people read the same book and come to such wildly different conclusions about what it means?
It reminded me of a quote from Abraham Verghese’s wonderful novel, Cutting for Stone:
What a bad idea it had been to give the Bible to anyone but priests, Ghosh thought. It made a preacher out of everybody.
At least since I attended graduate school in the early 2000’s, it’s been in vogue to espouse a more physical eschatology than has perhaps been popular in the past. Christians look forward to a new heaven and a new earth where matter matters. Revelation 21 and N.T. Wright and all that. I remember how much fun it was to theologically skewer old songs like “I’ll Fly Away” with their laughably ethereal eschatology, as if the Christian hope was to one day evacuate our bodies and float off into spirit-land to sit on clouds and play our harps with Jesus.
I’m still mostly glad for this theological (re)emphasis. I think the Christian hope is a material one, that we do hope for bodily resurrection not a disembodied escape from physical stuff. But it struck me then, and strikes me more forcefully now that this hope is a lot easier to embrace when your experience of your body and the world is mostly good. When you have enough to eat, when you don’t worry for daily survival, when life isn’t a constant struggle. When your body is working the way it’s supposed to. Then it’s easy to say that the Christian hope is one of bodies and physical stuff.
I’ve had a lot of opportunities recently to sit with people whose bodies are betraying them. These are often difficult conversations. It’s not so easy to point to the Christian hope as “like this world but better” when this world and this body happens to be a source of little but pain and frustration.
I remember a recent conversation with a person with Parkinson’s disease. We were talking about heaven. I was groping around for adequate language to communicate what I considered to be the fullness of the Christian hope. At one point, I said something like, “I don’t think heaven is just evacuating the prison that is the physical world and drifting off into some kind of bodiless existence…”
They looked at me, smiled, and said, “Well, that doesn’t sound so bad.”
I drive a 1997 rust-flecked Volkswagen Jetta. Some of the paneling has fallen off the side. The air conditioning doesn’t work. Periodically, lights and warnings will just flash on the dash at random moments. Like when the steering wheel is at a certain angle or when the fan is on at a certain speed or when my coffee is at a certain temperature… Whatever. Most days, it feels like my Jetta could fall apart at any moment. It makes my morning commute more exciting, especially in winter.
I had the car in the shop a few months ago to get the starter looked at. They had to disconnect the battery, which meant that my car stereo reset itself and is now in “safe mode.” Which requires a code to be punched in before the radio will work again. A code that I don’t happen to possess. A code which, the VW dealer told me, they would happily give me if I would just provide them the serial number on my car stereo. Which requires the removal of said stereo from the car because the serial number is conveniently located at the back of the stereo.
So, now I have no radio.
Consequently, I now listen to podcasts with ear buds (yes, I know this isn’t, strictly speaking, advisable… or legal… I’m pretty sure the police would look at my car and have pity on me). The particular ear buds I am in possession of are of comparable quality to my VW Jetta. Even at maximum volume, I can barely hear anything. Which is enormously frustrating. On top of the indignity of driving a falling-apart crappy Jetta with no A/C or radio, now I have these wretched ear buds to contend with!
Over these last few months, I would periodically scrutinize the ear buds in great detail. I would make sure the volume was cranked up. I would verify that I had the “L” and the “R” in the right ears before angrily jamming them in as far as they would go. All to no avail. My suffering was reaching Job-like proportions.
(Yes, I know that purchasing new ear buds might have been an option. But that would have deprived you all of this incredible story. Also, I’m cheap.)
A few days ago, on a whim, I tried sticking the left ear bud into my right ear and vice versa. The volume just about blew my ear drums. I laughed audibly in an ironic, embarrassed, and not-very-virtuous way. What an obvious solution! Just put them in the wrong ear!
So, now I can listen blissfully to my podcasts while driving. The ear buds barely stay in my ears because, well, they’re in the wrong ears, but if I move my head as little as possible and don’t make any sudden stops and starts, I can mostly hear what’s going on. Most of the time. At the very least I’ll be listening to something interesting when my car wheezes and gasps its last while creaking along down the highway.
Things don’t always work as they should.
Thanks for your thoughts Ryan. Always appreciate the miscellany posts, it feels like a bonus amount of blog posts in one fell swoop.
RE: physical eschatology, I was recently visiting a elderly person in our church (in their early 90s) and happened to be so bold as to ask the question “Do you think about heaven much?” To which they responded with a chuckle, playfully kicked me in the shins and we understood together the answer was something along the lines “all the time, you laughably naive yet appreciated pastor type person”
Beautiful. I’ve had a few similar moments, Kevin. 🙂