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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Review of Jesus Untangled: Crucifying our Politics to Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb

Speakeasy, gave me an opportunity to read and review a free copy of Keith Giles' Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics to Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I express are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255.

I have been on the hunt, for quite a while now, for good books which will address the complicated relationship between US Christians and the US Government from a (broadly) Anabaptist perspective. Giles' Jesus Untangled is in a league with Greg Boyd's Myth of a Christian Nation though it has something of a different focus and intended audience. 

Giles explains in the introduction that this book began life as a series of blogs which were then edited and reworked into the final book. This is actually evident when reading it, both for good and for ill. On the positive side, the blog-like informality (though the book is well sourced with supporting research) is really compelling and makes for an easy read. Many of the later chapters in the book, very much "feel" like reading well written blog posts. On the negative end though, those same chapters have a bit of a tendency to repeat themselves in a way that would make sense on a periodical blog series but seems superfluous in a book. Overall though Jesus Untangled is scores high marks for readability, which is an important quality for those of us looking for resources to recommend to our more nationalist-inclined Christian friends. 

In Jesus Untangled Keith Giles sets out a strong argument that Christians have, since Constantine, become entangled with the politics of "this world" to the detriment of our capacity to focus on and inhabit the Kingdom of God. Throughout the book he works to demonstrate that "to be friends with the world is to be against God" and he makes his point compellingly. 

In fact I think the real strength of the book is in its ability to introduce readers to an Anabaptist, "Kingdom Theology" approach to thinking about their own relationship to government. Giles is both charming and challenging throughout, and nearly always grounds his arguments in the sort of solid, conservative, exegesis which is so compelling to many Evangelicals. It is likely that the average US Christian will want to reject many of Giles ideas about voting (Giles is against it), violence (Giles insists that the Way of Jesus is non-violent), corporate power (remember the camel and the eye of the needle) and so forth. The temptation will probably be to dismiss him as a liberal (Giles refuses the identity) but it will be hard for them to do so in light of his careful interpretation and application of the Bible. So for those who are already sympathetic to an Anabaptist Christian politics, this book will be an excellent conversation starter with your more Evangelical friends. They may not like it exactly, but they won't be able to simply dismiss it either.

My personal favorite portion of the book was actually something of a lemma. In Chapter 2 A Matter of Perspective Giles spends some time outlining and justifying his hermeneutics. He sets his approach—which he refers to as "Jesus-centric"—in apposition to what he calls "flat-bible" interpretation. I suspect that this section in particular will serve as a strong introduction to Christocentric hermeneutics—an approach which many Evangelicals have hardly encountered. Giles is at his best here, dancing back and forth between being challenging and being winsome. 

He also includes this illustration by David Hayward in the
book and it just made me really happy to see it in print.
My only real critique of the book has more to do with false expectations than with any real failing on the author's part. Because I have already read a number of books in this vein, and because Giles opens with references to the 2016 election, I had hopes that he would move beyond pointing out the problematic nature of Christian entanglement in the power and political structures of human government, to recommendations and reflections on what disentanglement ought to look like in today's world. There is some of this—Giles is clearly against voting, war, and capitalist oppression—but he really doesn't get into some of the more thorny practical and pastoral questions. I finished the book still wanting to know what he thought about Christians in America protesting against violent, unjust, and oppressive policies of the government. It never really became clear to me whether he was advocating a sort of withdrawal from public involvement, or had some third way of "disentangled engagement" in mind. 

Overall then, I would highly recommend Jesus Untangled for anyone who is interested in, or even just willing to engage in, questions about the legitimacy of Christian engagement in politics. My take is that this book is written largely with conservative Evangelicals in mind and it is just the sort of medicine I would have benefited from back when I was a conservative Evangelical. If you have already moved into a post-republi-christianity mindset, then you will still find the book encouraging (and will likely find that Chapter 2 alone is worth the price of admission) but you probably won't find it as challenging as the first group. Either way, Jesus Untangled is an easy, and engaging read and very much the sort of book that I would like to see talk about more.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Indirect Texts: My Defense of LGB Relationships Part 4

Note this is Part 4 in a series which beings HERE.

Then the Lord God made the rib He had taken from the man into a woman and brought her to the man. And the man said:

     This one, at last, is bone of my bone
     and flesh of my flesh;
     this one will be called "woman"
     for she was taken from man.

This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh. Both the man and his wife were naked, yet felt no shame. (HCSB Genesis 2:22-25)

For my series in defense of the identities of transgender folk click HERE

The Creation Account

When moving from the direct references to gay sex in the bible to the—potentiallyindirect references, the majority of arguments with which I am familiar nearly all end up pointing back to this passage, together with the two gospel accounts of Jesus quoting it (Matthew 19:1-9 and Mark 10:1-12). The reasoning then goes as follows: In the first description of marriage which we have in the bible, and which Jesus particularly references as exemplary in some way [more on just how it is exemplary in a bit], the marriage is heterosexual. Furthermore, the heterosexuality of the marriage is particularly spotlighted by the fact that it immediately follows the account of the creation of Eve from Adam and that God's creation of both men and women is highlighted by Jesus when he cites the passage. This is taken to imply that God designed marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution.

The first problem with this reasoning is the way it slips in that word exclusively. Nobody that I know of denies that the biblical account of the first marriage is heterosexual or that this implies God's approval of heterosexual union. But the simple claim that God approves of straight marriages does not, it itself, imply that God disapproves of same-sex marriages. In order to draw that conclusion, the arguer would have to supply further evidence. Think about it like this: If I were to tell you that yesterday I made a great sandwich by spreading peanut butter and blackberry jam on whole grain bread, you could, very reasonably, conclude that I believe a sandwich can be made by combining peanut butter and jam on whole grain bread. But it would be ridiculous for you to conclude that I do not believe that ham and cheese (with a little mayo and mustard) on white bread can also be a sandwich; or that I don't believe in the legitimacy of peanut butter only sandwiches. We do not say that the only "real" light bulbs are incandescent just because the first commercial light bulbs were, or that republican democracy is an illegitimate form of government because the bible only recognizes variations on theocracy and monarchy. We don't do that because that just isn't how language works.

An affirmation of one thing is not in itself a denial of anything else, even when that account is of the thing's origin.

So too, the biblical affirmation of heterosexual marriage is not in itself a denial of the possibility of homosexual marriage - language just doesn't work that way.

Furthermore, the fact that Jesus referenced the Genesis account—even the fact that he references the participation of both men and women in marriage—when talking about marriage does not imply a denial of the legitimacy of same-sex marriage. Humans have a tendency to read answers to our questions into texts or accounts that aren't actually addressing those questions. We like having our questions answered and, as Christians, we are really motivated to find as many answers to our questions as we can in the Bible. Unfortunately, the result of this—very understandable—desire is that we tend to create answers where they don't exist. In the Matthew and Mark passages, Jesus is answering a question about divorce and was, naturally, referencing the common contemporary form of marriage in his answer. Good teachers generally avoid trying to answer questions with elaborate and comprehensive accounts of the full range of tangential possibilities related to the subject - when possible they answer the question on the terms it was asked, and where not, they demonstrate the misunderstandings contained in the question itself. If someone had asked Jesus whether or not it was OK for siblings to fight, he might very well have referenced Cain and Able, but that would not have indicated that Jesus didn't believe in the legitimacy of sisters.

The upshot is that the creation narrative, and other biblical references to the creation narrative, do not actually speak to same sex marriage or homosexuality one way or the other. They are neither affirming or condemning. However, I would suggest that when we look at what the Bible has to say about the role of sex in a Christian's life, there are some legitimate conclusions which can be drawn concerning LGB relationships.

Specifically, in 1 Cornithians 7, Paul is writing to the Church in Corinth about (among other things) what they should be doing with their sexuality and romantic/pair-bonding relationships and his general advice is generally that marriage (committed other-valuing relationships) exists—among other reasons—for the sake of satisfying sexual desire. He recommends singleness (and presumably chastity) where possible but says in verse 9 that if someone doesn't feel able to control their sexual desire, that they ought to marry, since "it is better to marry than to burn". Now the fact of the matter is that Lesbian and Gay folks will not generally find heterosexual marriage to be much of a help in alleviating sexual desire— a bit like trying to slake your thirst with a big glass of sand. So if we want to insist (as many conservative Protestants do) that the Bible is applicable to all persons, the logical conclusion is that LGB folk are blessed by God when they choose to satisfy their sexual desires in marriage to a member of their own sex.


A second common objection to the legitimacy of homosexuality is the Bible's uniformly negative language about "sexual immorality". The English phrase is a common translation of the Greek word porneia (the older translation was "fornication"). There is no question in my mind that porneia is a thing that God sees as damaging to people who engage in it and is, therefore, not commensurate with the Way of Jesus—Christians should avoid it. The vital question though is whether or not gay sex in the context of a same-sex relationship would qualify as porneia.

The problem with answering that question is that, in the NT "porneia" is a general umbrella term. In fact, I would argue (for once) that "sexual immorality" is actually a pretty good translation of it. There are two distinct methods a careful Bible interpreter can take when it comes to examining umbrella terms like porneia: the list method or the principle method. The list method would recommend making a list of all the actions which would have been considered items under the "umbrella", thereby using the one term porneia as a simple short hand for a long list of sexual activities we shouldn't do. The principle method would recommend comparing all of the items on the contemporary list, discerning what it was that they were understood to have in common, and then identifying that principle as the thing being discussed when the NT uses the term porneia.

Maybe an example would be helpful. Let's take use the English word family. If I were to say that we should be kind to our family, a list model interpretation would interpret that statement by carefully investigating who I consider to be my family and the nature of my relationship to those people (wife, sons, mother, father, brothers, sister, in-laws, aunts, uncles etc...), they would then conclude that Bill wants people to be kind to those who have those relationships (wife, sons, ect...). But a principle method interpretation would look at the common thread in all of those relationships and would conclude that by family I mean anyone whose relationship with me contains that particular thread.

The consequences of choosing a list method or a principle method of interpretation are really significant. The list method guarantees certainty and stability—once the list is set it can't really be altered except by new scholarship or data indicating that a particular item ought to be added or removed—but it comes at the price of flexibility and risks missing the point entirely. In my example above, a list method interpreter would not be able to account for adoption or godparents, list method interpretation would not incorporate that friend who has lived next door our entire lives, the "aunt Bernice" who is no blood relation but is unquestionably family. The principle method of interpretation is entirely open to those possibilities. It lacks the clear and comfortably defined boundaries of the list method—we never get to be entirely sure that we are applying the principle perfectly—but it is able to incorporate a broader range of meaning and, in my own experience, gets us far closer to the core intentions of the communicator in many instances.

For the record, there is a lot of really good research out there working out the list of sexual acts that were included in early Judeo-Christian uses of the term porneia and that is important work. Both list method and principle method people need that work to be done. This list method interpreters need it in order to figure out which particular sexual acts the Bible is condemning as damaging to persons therefore and upsetting to God, while the principle method interpreters need it in order to figure out what type or character of sexual activity the Bible is condemning as damaging to persons and therefore upsetting to God. Unfortunately for all of us who like easy answers, the fact is that most scholars will tell you that porneia is a really difficult word, that its meaning tended to shift, not just over time, but from culture to culture(1), and as a result there isn't really any total consensus on which actions the various authors of the New Testament would have been referencing when they chose to use the word.

In fact, porneia has been suggested to refer to a broad a range of activity as: bestiality, adultery, adulterous rape, exogamy (marrying outside one's group), pederasty, prostitution (male and female), solicitation of prostitutes, extramarital sex, any sex that violates the Leviticus prohibitions (including heterosexual sex when the woman is menstruating), and masturbation. Scholars do not generally agree on the list and the approach they take to determining which items ought to be on it is generally conditioned by their overall theology of sexuality.

I would suggest that we ought to take a principle model approach to interpreting this word. If we do I would suggest that the common thread which emerges from the scholarship on the term would be "sexual activity which does not honor the full humanity of the other" or maybe "sexual activity which uses rather than partners with the other". This would be very much in line with Jesus' declaration that all of the law (including the forbidding of porneia) can be summarized by the aphorism "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself".

So I agree with Christians throughout the centuries that porneia is a common temptation and the source of great damage to many people and that it ought to be avoided. I agree that one of the important roles of marriage—not the only role—is to provide a context for practicing sex which honors and serves the beloved. I would, however, further argue by pointing to the many Christian same-sex couples who are in loving and committed marriages, that same-sex marriages are able to fulfill that role in the lives of LGB people just as much as heterosexual marriages are bale to fulfill it in the lives of straight and heterosexually coupled bisexual people.

PART 5: Natural Law HERE


- Well, I didn't quite make it. I had hoped to cover the philosophical question of natural law in this post as well as porneia and the creation account but it has already gotten longer than I anticipated. As a result I will put my thoughts on natural law in a fifth post for the series.

- A lot of research went into this post and, in addition to my general reading, some of it came from various journals so I have included a list of papers and resources on the topic of porneia below for those of you who would like to check my work (which I would very much encourage you to do). This is not a complete list of all the sources which have formed my opinion but it should be enough to give you a taste of the scholarship. I would encourage everyone to do their own additional research and reading (I will probably end up writing an ancillary post for this series with recommended readings on the subject).

-As always I welcome your comments and critique in comments so long as you keep things civilized

Research Material

  1. Harper, Kyle. "Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm." Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol 131, No. 2 (2012) pp. 363-383
  2. Malina, Bruce. "Does Porneia Mean Fornication?" Novum Testamentum, Vol. 14, Fasc 1 (Jan., 1972) pp.10-17
  3. Jensen, Joseph. "Does Porneia Mean Fornication? A Critique of Bruce Malina." Novum Testamentum, Vol. 20, Fasc. 3 (Jul., 1978), pp.161-184
  4. Schroeder, Caroline, "Prophecy and Proneia in Shenoute's Letters: The Rhetoric of Sexuality in a Late Antique Egyptian Monastery." Journal of Near Eastern Studies Vol. 65, No. 2 (April 2006), pp. 81-97

(1) for Greeks it usually just meant prostitution whereas for people with a Hebrew/Jewish background it was the preferred interpetation of the Hebrew word zhn which was used as a catch all term for disapproved of sexual activity.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Some Perspective - The Wisdom of the Vikings Part 9

Image result for old vikingSelf-Deceit

Only fools
hope to live forever
by escaping enemies.
Age promises
no peace
though the spear spares them.

Note: This is part 9 in an ongoing series (the series starts HERE) bringing together the Hávamál (a collection of Norse wisdom poetry) and the still-evolving rules and mores of the Internet, particularly as they are developing in the realm of social media.
The last several posts in this series have focused on the various forms of discretion which were vital for medieval Iceland and are important the great multitude who inhabit the internet. Today's poem, in contrast, highlights the importance of engagement. As something of a side note: as I have been working through the Hávamál I have begun to notice a heavy favoring of Aristotelian style virtue ethics and a reliance on a concept similar to his "golden mean". I'll link a  Crash Course Philosophy video, which explains the concept nicely, at the bottom for those of you who are interested in following along.

Poor Randall Munroe gets ripped off a lot. 
In this poem, the sentiment, far from advocating caution and reticence, is more along the lines of carpe diem. In an age of great uncertainty and physical danger, particularly danger from neighbors who might respond to offence with a swinging axe and a warcry, this pair of aphorisms are reminding the reader that a life lived in fear, driven by a desire to avoid all conflict is ultimately empty and self-extinguishing. "Age promises no peace though the spear spares them" would make a tragically damning eulogy. Certainly "timid" is not the sort of adjective we are inclined to associate with Viking culture, and that for a good reason. Having reminded the reader that discretion is the better part of valor, the Hávamál now continues with an insistence that action, too, is often necessary. The Viking who failed to defend her honor, or to stand up for those in her care, was likely to come to just as bad an end as the Viking who failed to think before she boasted. 

This balance between caution and indiscretion turn out to be a vital one for those of us who choose to participate on social media as well. While we are often very well advised to write, read, and delete our comments or combative post/tweet/blog, we are nearly as often morally required to take a stand. As someone who engages fairly frequently in social media "conversations" which turn hostile more frequently than I would like, I want to attest to the fact that I often receive private messages or in person comments from friends and even strangers, thanking me for standing up for them when they felt bullied or dehumanized online. 

Be the hero we need
According to Aristotle, "courage" is the virtue between the vices of cowardice and foolhardy brashness. Sound familiar? Reading this poem in context with those which come before it. We are well served to remember that while there is certainly a time for holding our tongue and letting silence be the voice of peace, there is equally a time for calling out hatred, ridicule, and vitriol. And in fact, I would suggest (at the risk of fanning the flamewars) that in our current climate, you are more likely to hear people calling for "peace" when some vocal and defiant speech is what is actually required than you are to hear people calling for contention when things are calm. Bystanders generally prefer not to have their boats rocked after all and it is far easier for people who are not devalued by misinformation and hateful rhetoric to call for calm, than it is for them to risk looking like troublemakers by calling out smarmy screes and flat out lies. 

In future posts I will try to address some of the thorny questions around developing the discernment to know one situation from another (given the fact that medieval Icelanders' lives literally hung on this ability, it is likely that we will run into it again) but in the meantime I want to end be encouraging you to think about the motives behind your decisions to comment as well as your decisions to "just scroll past and avoid feeding the troll" and remember that sometimes the only course of action is to jump in and try choking the troll with your own body... or words and reputation as the case may be.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Best (free) Way to Help Your Artist and Author Friends

So one of the really exciting advantages of the internet age is the way it has allowed so many people to get their creation out into the word. The internet has allowed you and your friends to make and distribute their own music, publish books,podcast, market and sell their own art, make video, and enrich the world in so many ways. These are absolutely things we want to celebrate and support. Of course great artists practice their craft for the love of the craft, but the fact is that getting news of their work out into the world is still pricey. Also they like to eat.

And the internet has managed to develop a great number of creative ways to facilitate the feeding of artists. We have crowd funding and patronage sites like Kickstarter, Go Fund Me, and Patreon. We have etsy, ebay, and craigslist. There are a million and one different preexisting online stores and marketplaces through which we now have fuller and fuller access to the collective creativity of humanity. And, of course, there are Vimeo and YouTube for video content and ad based revenue. This is also a great thing.
Image result for crowdfundingBut I know you only have so many resources. So many of us are now so much more empowered to create and market our art, that we are simultaneously beginning to be overwhelmed by the social need to support our friends and the aesthetic, ethical desire to support the makers of great ideas and art. These pressures can quickly begin to outstrip our budgets. 
So how do you support a product or an artist that you can't quite afford at the moment? There is actually an easy and free option: Ratings and Reviews.

One of the natural side effects of this explosion of creative output is the concomitant need to sort, rank, and recommend the right things to the right people. If you couldn't log onto Amazon or Etsy without a way to sort and functionally browse their products, you would probably leave quickly. So most of these sites have developed quite a few complex mechanisms to make sure that you are more likely to encounter products that you will enjoy—and yes some of these methods seem to be downright sinister but that is probably a question for another blog post.

Fortunately, one of the biggest, most effective and ubiquitous mechanisms is the rating and review system. Nearly always on a 5 start scale with the option for a written review, these ratings are usually the primary mechanism online marketplaces use to decide which products will and won't be seen. Even more critically, it is these reviews which determine which products many readers, listeners, watchers, and buyers will take a chance on. Finally, and probably least well known, many marketing services (particularly those geared towards independent creators) use those ratings as an outsourced quality control service. Your friends and the creators of your favorite content are probably far more dependent on those reviews and ratings than you ever realized.

My own domain is fiction writing, so let me give you and example of the importance of this from the self-publishing world:

Among self-published authors it is an open secret that their best chance of having a quality book catch on without the sort of marketing budget that major publishers have to play with is to have their book accepted by BookBub. BookBub is an online ebook marketing service (the biggest one out there) which maintains a database of subscribers who receive regular emails from BookBub alerting them about opportunities to buy discounted quality ebooks in genes of their choice. If BookBub accepts an author's book, the author will then set up a discount on that book for a particular date and on that date, BookBub will send an email to any subscribers who have indicated that they are interested in books of that genre, that the author's book is discounted or free. When those subscribers subsequently start buying and downloading the book, it's sales rank generally skyrockets and the market's algorithms tell it that people like the book and that it is therefore worth featuring the book more prominently on their site. 

Author's careers have been made by catching a BookBub promo. 

But BookBub (together with nearly every other online marketing service) uses ratings and reviews to determine which books to accept. 

And it isn't just with books. There is a reason that all of your favorite podcasts begin and/or end with a plea to rate and review the show on i-tunes. There is a reason your apps all ask you to review them in the apple or google play store. The internet has no judgement or taste so it relies entirely on yours.

My books are below (and of course I would really appreciate an honest rating and review) but the real point is to let you know how you can support the artists and work that are important to you.

Hubris Towers: The Complete First Season (Hubris Towers Season 1 Book 0) by [Faroe, Ben Y., Hoard, Bill]                                   The Dagger and the Rose by [Hoard, Bill]

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Joyful Dignity - The Wisdom of the Vikings Part 8


A King's son should be thoughtful
thorough and silent
brave in battle.
A man should be happy
and in good humor
to his dying day

This is part 8 in an ongoing series (the series starts HERE) bringing together the Hávamál (a collection of Norse wisdom poetry) and the still-evolving rules and mores of the Internet, particularly as they are developing in the realm of social media.

In any tense—let us say combative—situation, strong emotions can be galling. The classic iteration is the "sore loser" though many of us have been just as irritated by "sore winners" on occasion. In either case, outbursts which are generally contrary to the mood of the community or the environment are not well received. It is people who have enough control over their own displays of emotion who have the upper hand in a competitive, social environment.

Medieval Iceland they rejected kingship in general, though they had a clear memory of the institution, so I would suggest that the "King's son" in this poem is a placeholder for the same social archetype that it serves in our own democratic republican society - the natural, noble leader. So this advice should not be read as restricted to an irrelevant nobility, but as prescriptive advice for anyone who aspires to a leadership position in society. These are qualities—the virtues—one ought to cultivate in the pursuit of that goal. 

This is not going to go well
Within that context, this poem amounts to a recommendation of the virtue of temperance. We don't discuss this virtue much anymore (most people who have encountered the word at all are only familiar with the definition derived from the abolition of alcohol in the early 20th century United States) . In classical understanding, "temperance" amounted roughly to being in control of one's reactions. Emotionally this meant both not making impassioned decisions or proclamations without first considering the consequences and not being utterly devoid of emotion. Its opposites are both dramatic emotionalism on the one hand, and utter stoicism on the other. The temperate person has emotions but is not ruled by them. 

Viking leaders would then be expected to be restrained in the heat of combat (in contrast the berserker), but able to thoroughly engage in the joys of life. This person is not just relate-ably human, but a genuinely pleasant human to be around. 

Neither is this
It strikes me that there isn't really enough of this online, but the advice certainly rings true when we encounter someone who possesses this virtue. Intemperate folks of both varieties abound online. People who react emotionally and immediately, sharing poorly sourced, over-hyped "news stories" without doing their due diligence, and folks who freak out in the comments section and play right into the hands of trolls represent one form of intemperance (and probably the first type to spring to mind); but just as ineffective as social media leaders are contributors who are all bland facts, numbers, and analysis who seem blithely unaware of the humanity and real costs of the information they are trading in. Both of these types are failing to exhibit temperance. 

So what makes a good leader both in medieval Iceland and in contemporary online communities? People who have emotions, but are not slaves to them. We follow and admire the people who are able to project their humanity without losing control of it (or when they do lose control it is for reasons we can empathize with). It is that person in the forums who seems to really care about the issue and is also well informed. The person who posts about important issues and also shares photos of their dog. 

I have posted some examples below. Let me know what you think:

Hank Green of Vlogbrothers (and a whole lot of other stuff)

His brother John Green of Vlogbrothers (these guys are everywhere)

Click HERE for Part 9
Click to get the Hávamál on Amazon

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Dangerous Drink - Wisdom of the Vikings Part 7


Better weight
than wisdom
a traveller cannot carry.
A clear head
is good company.
Drink is a dangerous friend.


has too often
been praised by poets.
The longer you drink
the less sense
your mind makes of things.

This is part 7 in an ongoing series (the series starts HERE) bringing together the Hávamál (a collection of Norse wisdom poetry) and the still-evolving rules and mores of the Internet, particularly as they are developing in the realm of social media.

These two poems contain the abundantly clear (yet far to oft' ignored) advice that it is not wise to consume too much alcohol. It may well be worthwhile spending time reiterating this message (and I suspect that "don't drink and tweet" is necessary advice for many) but I want to focus instead on the principle which, I think, made this advice especially important for medieval Icelanders; advice which, I suspect, is nearly as important for those engaging in digital society. 

In the largely anarchic society of medieval Iceland hospitality and courtesy were incredibly important values. In any society where arguments can become feuds which can, in turn, become near civil wars, it is of the utmost importance not to get the ball rolling in the first place. If Sven insults Olaf, and Olaf feels the need to revenge himself on Sven such that he himself has to be put back in place by Sven and his friends, there is no easy way to stop the process once it has begun. So the easiest, and best, answer is to stop really vitriolic personal arguments before they begin.

But this dynamic is necessarily in tension with the need to establish a reputation as a good and powerful individual since being perceived to be dangerous is one of the most effective preventative actions an individual or small community can take to forestall unwanted conflict. The tension between the need to be courteous and the need to appear dangerous, leads to something of a tightrope walk wherein each word, objection, or boast has to be carefully calculated to elicit just the right response from one's company, particularly when that company is not part of your own close-knit community.

Alcohol, for all of its virtues, is not conducive to tightrope walking. I suspect that the deeper point being made in these passages is that drink is something best reserved for moments of celebration and among close friends, where it is safe to be unguarded. It would have been the height of foolishness (and too often was) for a Viking to let her guard down and start boasting and insulting around company which might take offense. 

Get the Havamal on Amazon
So, too, in the age of the internet and social media, we are well advised to remember that publicly made comments are, well, public. That unless we know that our thoughts are going to be restricted to the friends and companions who really love and understand us, we would do well not to let ourselves become "giddy" or "punch drunk" in our reactions and comments. Think to the many and increasing stories of people whose lives and livelihoods have been materially damaged as a result of their unguarded language or comments. In an environment where the crowd, rather than the state, exacts vengeance, it is important not to engage when something (drink for sure but also passion, excitement, anger etc...) might be clouding our judgement.


Thursday, February 9, 2017

Wisdom and Reputation - Wisdom of the Vikings Part 6


It is fortunate 
to be favoured
with praise and popularity.
It is dire luck
to be dependent
on the feelings of a fellow-man.

Opinion of Others

He is fortunate
who is favoured
with respect and good reason.
Advice given
by others
is often ill counsel

This is part 6 in an ongoing series (the series starts HERE) bringing together the Hávamál (a collection of Norse wisdom poetry) and the still-evolving rules and mores of the Internet, particularly as they are developing in the realm of social media.

These two poems deal rather directly with the power and danger inherent in the good opinion of others. Despite the Viking reputation for toughness which we in the United States often associate with a sort of rugged individualism (and, to be fair, the Icelanders certainly had their share of individualism relative to the rest of the medieval west), Icelanders recognized—far better than many in the modern westthe vital importance of functional community. Indeed much of the Hávamál deals explicitly with how to retain functional community in a tense and violent situation. In this context, the good opinion of others—potential allies or enemies—is as much a resource as physical strength of skill. Humans are a social species after all.

So in these pieces we encounter both an acknowledgement that a good reputation is of significant value and the warning that those who become overly dependent on the opinion of others ultimately harm themselves. It is a blade which can turn on the hand that holds it. On the positive side, being the sort of person that others respect is pleasant and protective. Online, having a lot of "followers" or readers" is the basic form of capital. It may not be what you are there "for" but, for better or worse, it is the way internet culture tends to determine the value of a particular account (if not the value of the person who controls that account). Being a thought framer, someone whose ideas are valued by others is fundamental to this, and one classic indication that an online thought leader is going into decline is that they become derivative, merely echoing and amplifying the ideas and creativity of others.

Almost paradoxically though, one of the greatest dangers to someone with a good reputation is the temptation to rely on that reputation in their estimation of their own value. The moment a successful internet creator begins to ask "will my followers approve of this idea" is the moment that the quality of their ideas begins to decline. It was the independence and honesty of the thought product that drew your audience in the first place which means that the tighter you cling to the audience, the less they will respect you for it and the more your work will suffer.