Friday, March 7, 2014

Ideas Are Powerful (but they need to get traction in order to go anywhere)

Despite the vanity plates, you can be sure that this is not my Corvette. How? For one thing, it has a fish on the back of it. I used to put symbols of my faith in Jesus Christ on the backs of my cars. Then I thought about my driving. I’m much better about it now, but I’m still not as sanctified behind the wheel as I would like to be.
Putting Power to Pavement

But the Vette does illustrate a point frequently discussed on Top Gear (at least on the BBC version that I watch) and in Automobile magazine (where Jean Jennings’ crew simultaneously inspires my vehicular fantasies as well as my aspirations to verbal excellence). The point often made is that, in the industry’s current escalation of horsepower output, useable power requires a chassis, gearbox, and especially tires for the traction needed to actually go faster. Some powerful cars, for example, go very well in a straight line, but are hopeless in the corners. Others need sophisticated electronics to prevent even seasoned drivers from simply obliterating their tires within a few yards of the starting line. The Camaro parked at my house is evidence that, in automotive considerations, there is such a thing as too much power—if not for the sake of the tires, then at least for the temptation it embodies.
When it comes to the power of ideas, however, I am entirely in favor of unlimited escalation. The world around us is in desperate needs of better ideas. But for those ideas to go anywhere, they need to get traction somehow. And whether in my own writing or that of others whose ideas I admire (when I can figure out where they’re going), there seem to be some “weak links” in the verbal equivalence of “putting power to pavement.”
Lighting Up the Tires
In my factory-original state, I was equipped with excellent exposure to and training in syntax, grammar, and especially vocabulary. I have been blessed to add to that some formal training in logic and rhetoric, along with a breadth of education that allows me to compare concepts from a variety of interesting (to me) fields of study, especially with regard to pastoral theology. But the addition of more powerful ideas and the exacting vocabulary in so many fields has actually lessened my effectiveness in some ways.
I continue to insist that “Words mean things,” for instance. To “say what you mean and mean what you say” requires a discipline to find the word that signifies your idea, and to use only that word for that idea. The challenge, however, is that in combining ideas from varied disciplines I use vocabulary that is specific for each, but incomprehensible to others. And, of course, from time to time, I just like to show off my vocabulary in the equivalent of “lighting up the tires.” The resulting cloud of blue smoke serves to imply that behind the incomprehensible jargon there are some overwhelmingly powerful ideas…whatever they may be.
Oil on the Track
But sometimes, what we mean isn’t what we say; and what we say isn’t what we mean. For the sake of manipulation, often the smoke comes complete with mirrors—magically transforming one idea into another, motivating decisions, behaviors, or at least an emotionally-charged outrage utterly divorced from reality.
For example, in a widely-read online Christian magazine, their “Political Opinion Editor” offered that God’s word doesn’t mean what it says in some cases; there must be exceptions when its clear statements contradict common sense. Specifically, he expressed that Romans 13:1-7 “only applies when civic law does not infringe upon God’s law” when we are told to “submit to the government.” In this case, the idea is popularly described by many as “submit,” “obey,” or “conform to” governmental demands, which are, themselves, often misrepresented. (e.g., The writer implies that the government will soon order me to kill unborn children and enter into a same-sex relationship, presumably after, or perhaps immediately before my divorce—but he doesn’t address that specifically.)
But the passage to which he refers is not at all confused or vague in the major English translations of scripture. In the King James, New American Standard, New International, and English Standard versions. In each case it reads, “be subject” (or in the NASB, “be in subjection to”). Of course, this doesn’t allow for the dramatic fantasy that scripture contradicts itself, or at least that it sets up an ethical quandary. It does not, in fact, demand that we obey scripture’s command to obey human government, even when doing so requires us to disobey other commands in God’s word. We do not need to abrogate scripture’s integrity for the sake of common sense. In context, the Apostle Paul describes a just government clearly contrasting the experience of the Christians to whom he is writing. Yet still he tells them to “be subject” to the government that had already imprisoned him, beaten him, and threatened to kill him (which, according to later tradition, they ultimately accomplished).
This teaching violates common sense and offends our sensibilities. But so does a great deal of the rest of scripture. Worse, it is entirely consistent with a view of God’s sovereignty above and beyond secular rulers—using them, and the consequences they impose on Christ’s followers as well, to accomplish His purposes. In short, “be subject” means that when any subordinate authority commands me to violate God’s commands, I allow them to subject me to the consequences they impose when I choose not to do so. (Check Acts 4:19 where Peter and John consider “whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God.”) And saying that the passage doesn’t mean what it says doesn’t change the fact that it says exactly what it means.
Discerning Dialogue, Rather than Antagonistic Argument
If our ideas are to get traction and go somewhere, then the vocabulary we use cannot be blurred and distorted. For the sake of clarity, it may be necessary to first discuss what we assume are unambiguous definitions. But first, it is also necessary that we establish that our intention is communication for the sake of mutual understanding. Not that we will necessarily agree on anything but terminology. But we can hardly expect agreement on our ideas when there is no commonality in the words we use to express them. At the very least, we will come to understand where, and perhaps even why we actually disagree (if, in fact, we really do disagree).
Like “boys with toys,” though, sometimes the goal has nothing to do with getting anywhere at all. When that’s the case, feel free to step back, watch the show if you’d like. But acknowledge that “Yes, I see that you can turn tires into smoke. Still, I was hoping we’d be going somewhere with your ideas.”

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