Happy Independence Day

May I suggest that tomorrow you read the full text of the Declaration of Independence. It has been noted that, as it lists the King of Britain’s “repeated injuries and usurpations,” the Declaration implies a whole philosophy of governance. President Lincoln found in it principles that could be extrapolated to outlaw slavery. In fact, an early draft of the Declaration added the encouragement of the slave trade to the list of the King’s crimes.

Our family’s big copy of the Declaration, printed in old-fashion script on fake parchment, is packed away in anticipation of our coming move. When we go to read it, I’ll have to go to the Khan Academy web site instead.

A Song Where God is the Actual Hero

A few weeks ago, I posted an awful contemporary Christian song that makes “you” the hero instead of Christ. So I think it only fair to post this one, in which we find out after everything is over that it was he who was calling us. The technical term for this is sovereign grace.

The only problem is, I couldn’t find the version of this song that I like. My first introduction to it was in the form of an arrangement that sounds a bit peppy, like a folk song. In the arrangement, the words of the last verse are used as a fast-moving refrain. But I can’t for the life of me find said arrangement anywhere on YouTube. So, I have posted the original hymn with the lyrics handily printed out. The hymn has a very different sound – almost like plainsong. It’s okay, but I like the energy of the arrangement. So if you can find the arrangement, please post it in a comment.

The Disruptive Force in the Story

Photo by Daniel on Pexels.com

The protagonist of my first novel, Nimri, has a personality that in real life would be Kryptonite to me.  (Whichever kind of Kryptonite it is that saps Superman’s strength.  Green, I think.)

On the MBTI, Nimri is an ESTP:

Extraverted

Sensing (i.e. concrete)

Thinking (no special desire to please people)

Perceiving (adaptable)

ESTPs are observant, energetic, and crude.  David Keirsey, in his book Please Understand Me II, calls them Promoters:

Witty, clever, and fun, they live with a theatrical flourish … Promoters have a knack for knowing where the action is.  ESTPs have a hearty appetite for the finer things in life … Promoters are so engaging with people that they might seem to possess an unusual amount of empathy, when in fact this is not the case.  Rather, they are uncanny at reading people’s faces and observing their body language … ESTPs keep their eyes on their audience, and with nerves of steel they will use this information to achieve the ends they have in mind – which is to sell the customer in some way.  Promoters can be hard-nosed utilitarians … they can keep their cool in crises and operate freely … although they ordinarily have little patience with following through and mopping up.

Keirsey, Please Understand Me II, pp. 64 – 65

How Did This Guy Get in The Story?

I’m an INFP.  I have little natural sympathy for this type. Thus, I didn’t set out to write an ESTP character.  But I also didn’t set out to write a likeable character, which perhaps helped open the door to a temperament I wouldn’t normally consider.

When I began writing the novel, I only knew that Nimri was smart, strong, snobbish, and involved in building the Tower of Babel (the ultimate project to promote).  I knew I was going to put him in a difficult situation where he’d be humbled and have a chance at redemption.   Once I put him in this situation (paraplegic, being cared for by people he once looked down upon, and unable to speak their language), ESTP is the personality that naturally emerged.

At first, Nimri behaves like a jerk, which is what we would expect of anyone in such a situation but especially of this personality type.  He first yells at his rescuers and attempts to order them around even though they can’t understand him. He then falls silent and begins to observe them.  Later, he tries to assault one of their young women, at which point they start treating him like a prisoner.  (ESTPs, remember, are crude and utilitarian.)

At this point, Nimri’s Promoter gifts kick in and start to serve him well.  He is energetic and adaptable, so instead of brooding, he starts a diary and occupies himself with things like arm exercises.  His ability to read people’s body language helps him as he observes his captors and begins to figure out their names and who is related to whom. When he eventually picks up a little of their language, he begins joking with them.  His concrete nature helps him find tasks he can do, such as music and weaving.

By the end of his time with his captors, Nimri does find redemption … but not by turning into an INFP.  Instead, the positive aspects of his Promoter personality start to shine.  He becomes what you might call a “good” ESTP.  Still a source of energy, but energy that’s a bit more positive.  Red Kryptonite.

Yet whether using his talents poorly or well, Nimri is a disruptive force in the story. 

Some People Are Like That

Perhaps you know a person like this.  Some people need only enter a room – or just walk by it – and chaos immediately breaks out.  Disruption follows in their wake.  They don’t even need to do anything (although they usually do).  In Nimri’s case, he causes a stir even when sitting imprisoned in his room not talking to anyone.

And We Need Them

Though I started out to write Nimri as an unlikeable character in need of redemption (as are we all), I actually needed his maddening nature more than I realized.  A story needs a disruptive force to keep things moving.  Jordan Peterson would say, speaking his language of archetypes, that we need a balance between the forces of order and the forces of chaos.  Too much chaos and society falls apart, but too much order can be stifling, enslaving.  And so in a novel.  You need a steady source of trouble or nothing will happen in your story.

(By the way, Peterson relies heavily on Jung for his archetypes. Concidentally, the MBTI is also derived – distantly – from Jung’s work.  I realize there are problems with the MBTI and there would certainly be problems with trying to draw solely on Jung for your complete philosophy of life.  However, both are useful when talking about stories.)

The disruptive force in a story is often the villain.  It can be that character that readers love to hate.  Or it could be something more abstract, like Nature.  In some stories of the sane-man-in-a-crazy-world variety, almost all the characters are colorful and disruptive, and only the protagonist is vainly trying to hold things in order.  This is true of Dave Barry’s novels, of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, and of the TV series King of the Hill (all of them comedies).  It’s a little more difficult if you’re writing a “serious” novel and wish to have a number of admirable characters.  You can’t make them all admirable, or no one will cause trouble, and then where will you be? Still, stories can accommodate more than one disruptor.  It’s often best if you have several, including some outside force and one or more characters closer to home.  In Beowulf, Grendel is the monster but Beowulf himself disrupts Hrothgar’s court by his arrival, and he is also challenged by Hrothgar’s designated mocker.

What’s a favorite story of yours and who is the disruptor in it?

Aha! I Knew It!

Photo by Gerd Altmann on Pexels.com

A few years ago, I posted this article on Hubpages. It argues that most social science research data can’t be trusted because of the inherent difficulties in studying human thought and behavior. Today, just like Herodotus, I am vindicated.

This article on Futurity shows that a major psychological test that has been used for years to screen for potential psychiatric illness is not reliable. The differences between the scores of schizophrenics and neurotypical people are smaller than the differences in scores for less educated versus more educated people, and even slightly smaller than the score differences among blacks versus whites. In other words, whether you finished college has a greater impact on your score of this test than whether you are an actual schizophrenic. Yet the test supposedly measures our ability to guess what other people are thinking.

This does not mean that the designers of the test were racist or classist.  It means that, like nearly every person who dares to undertake social “science,” they were naïve.   They didn’t realize that it’s almost impossible to measure anything in human cognition without also measuring a bunch of other stuff, such as vocabulary and cultural norms.  And often, you don’t even realize that you are measuring the other stuff instead.

Rating People’s Ratings of Pictures of Eyes

For the test, subjects were shown a series of black-and-white shots of actors’ eyes expressing various feelings. For each eye shot, they were asked to choose between four words that would best describe the eyes’ mental state.  For example, in one of the samples in the article, you are asked to choose between sarcastic, suspicious, dispirited, and stern.

I am sure you have spotted the problem already.  You have to be fairly literate to parse the nuances of those four words.  And all the shots were like that. This explains the education disparity produced by the test. To make matters worse, in most of the examples the article gives, two or even three of the offered words could plausibly describe what the eyes are expressing.  Which word was considered right on the test was decided “through consensus ratings.” 

Finally, some kinds of emotional expression are culturally conditioned.  For example, in many cultures people show respect by looking down, avoiding eye contact.  This is not true in mainstream American white culture.  So, the same eyes that might say “confident” to an educated WASP could say something very different to a Latino: “defiant,” perhaps, or “angry.”

The test designers’ naivete lay in not realizing how much of emotional expression is culturally conditioned.  This is a blind spot that all of humanity shares, but in this case there were serious real-life consequences for it because this test was being used to identify people who might be at risk for psychiatric disorders, and thus might require intervention.  Imagine being flagged as possibly schizophrenic because you didn’t understand the cultural norms behind a test.

However, I would argue that the deepest problem was not with the designers’ ethnocentricity but with their assumption that they were in a position to “objectively” measure human thought and predict human behavior. 

You can’t do it, people.

Machine Analysis of Word Frequency

Here’s another test.  This one is much more recent, better backed by data, and apparently better at predicting what it’s supposed to predict.  But there’s still a problem with it.

This test, too, is used to screen for potential psychosis, which usually, according to the article, comes on in a person’s early 20s, with warning signs in the late teens. Apparently there are subtle signs of being predisposed to psychosis in a person’s language (for example a less rich vocabulary).

For this test, researchers used an algorithm to study in detail the speech of 40 individuals in their diagnostic interviews with therapists. Based on these diagnostic interviews, a trained therapist can predict who will later develop psychosis with about 80% accuracy. The participants were then followed for 14 years (!) to discover whether they in fact developed psychosis. (Following a subject long-term is called a longitudinal study.)

It turned out that the algorithm could predict psychosis with a greater than 90% accuracy. The machine found that in addition to using a lot of synonyms, another predictor of psychosis was “a higher than normal usage of words related to sound.” The researchers had not anticipated this.

I am impressed with the results the test yields and I am really impressed that the designers actually tested its results by doing longitudinal studies to find out how many of the subjects actually displayed psychosis.  (I think longitudinal studies are almost the only legitimate kind of social science research.)  This checking of their results already puts them light years ahead of the eyes test.

That said, I think there is a potential problem with the way the machine was trained.  To create a baseline for “normal” conversation, the researchers “fed [the] program the online conversations of 30,000 users of the social media platform Reddit.”

Internet conversation defines “normal.” That should raise red flags for all of us. 

Then, that baseline of “normal,” from written conversations, was used to evaluate transcripts of face to face interviews.  It looks like, in this case, this problem did not skew the data, given how well the test predicts psychosis.  But I have a huge problem with the principle that we can diagnose people based on word frequency counts.  In the wrong hands, this principle could really escape its glass cage and go rampaging across the countryside, wreaking havoc and destruction.

To take just one example, I’ve heard of a scholar (somewhere) who decided the Apostle Paul had some kind of sexual fixation because his letters so often use the word “flesh” (sarx).  Never mind that Paul used the word sarx as shorthand for the deep sin nature of the unredeemed human being.  When he used sarx, he was talking about a frustrating natural human inability to do good … and usually, he was talking about this phenomenon in himself.

This demonstrates how easily word-frequency studies can be manipulated to prove whatever we want.  And this problem gets bigger the smaller the size of the text being studied. 

What if you were analyzing an essay in which the author has to define a term?   The term in question, and its synonyms, could come up dozens of times without being something that author is fixated on in everyday life. Using machine learning, you could “prove” that Ben Shapiro is a Nazi, because lately he’s had to spend so much time refuting that very accusation.  (Shapiro is an orthodox Jew.)

Suffice it to say, though this particular study seems well-done, in general I am deeply suspicious of word-frequency tests, especially if they are the only measure being used, because they allow the researcher to ignore the actual content of the text in question.

So, What’s the Takeaway?

I don’t have a big moral of the story to give you here.  Read the articles I linked to and decide for yourself.  I am just sounding a warning that social science “data” is not nearly as objective as we tend to think it is, and may often be flat-out false.

Behold the Worst Contemporary Christian Song Ever Written!

Ok. I don’t know whether it’s really the worst. It’s the worst one that I know of.

This song has been around since I was a kid. Listen to it, and if you can get through it without throwing up, we will discuss.

“Thank You” by Ray Boltz. Here are the things I hate about the song:

It gives a false impression of heaven.

Heaven is not going to be about finding out how wonderful we are.  It is going to be about finding out how wonderful He is. 

We already spend way too much time trapped in the world of our own efforts, our own talents, our own flaws, our own accolades.  Everyone knows that this self-focus is not in any way heavenly.  It is hellish! 

Gee whiz.  We go to heaven to get away from this stuff.  To finally be free to focus on something truly worthwhile.  I can’t think of a more depressing lie than being told that heaven will consist of finding out that it’s all about “you.”

It gives a false impression of service.

This is a very minor point compared to the fact that the song makes “you,” instead of Christ, the hero of the story.  So please, don’t take this second point as being nearly as important as the first. However, having once engaged in idolatry, the song then compounds the error by making it sound as if it’s easy to earn all this adulation. 

What did the hero of the song do in order to create all these wonderful effects?  He gave some money to missions when he didn’t have much wiggle room.  (Sounds like it was just one time, after a presentation, perhaps – forgive my cynicism – to make himself feel better because the missionary’s “pictures made him cry.”) 

And he taught Sunday School.  This is admittedly hard, as it involves dealing with kids.  But, in the song, the thing that made such a big impact was the simple act of praying an opening prayer.  Something that takes less than a minute.

Both of these examples make it sound like you can do an act of service once, at relatively low cost to yourself, and – boom! – lives are changed. 

Real service is very different.  It consists of years of effort that often feels futile.  For example, the act of getting up day after day, providing for your family, sticking with your spouse, staying in relationship with your children, is far more impactful than either of the examples in the song. 

As for “giving to the Lord,” as someone who has actually tried it, let me tell you what it is more like.  You start out trying to do something good.  Then you find out that your motives were all wrong.  You repent.  Then you find out (maybe years later) that even with right motives, you were undertaking your labors in the wrong way, missing critical bits of information.  In many cases, you discover that you have done more harm than good. (For more information about this experience, see the book When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett et al, and the novels No Graven Image by Elizabeth Elliot and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.)

In my personal version of the scene above, I arrive in heaven and eventually get an opportunity to ask forgiveness for my grievous mistakes from the people I once started out so confidently trying to serve. And I find out to my relief that despite my inadvertent efforts to keep them from entering, they are there anyway. And they are no longer ticked about my mistakes because Jesus got to them directly, without my “help,” and they are just so thrilled to be there.

But none of this would be the first thing that happens. It’s heaven. The Lord is there. I think we will have higher priorities right at first than sorting out who did what to whom.

It gives a false impression of the Christian life.

My worst nightmare would be that someone who does not believe in Christ would hear this song.  (And they probably will, now that it’s on my blog.)  It paints a repellent picture of what it means to be a Christian.  It makes it sound like the life of faith is all about going around patting ourselves on the back, rather than about progressively recognizing and repenting of our faults, and coming to admire and depend on Christ more and more.  If we are engaged in back-patting, then we have not yet embarked on the path of Christ.  We are still stuck in Pharisaism, with all its attendant miseries.  This is already the impression that many people have of Christianity.  The last thing we need is a song like this to further obscure the Gospel.

The Grain of Truth in the Song

Having said all this, I have to be fair.  There is a grain of truth in this song. 

I mentioned that people who attempt a life of service usually find themselves engaged in years of work that seems fruitless and sometimes actually seems to do more harm than good.  Human efforts are futile.  “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:1, 2:11, 2:15, 2:17, etc.)  That’s in the Bible too.

It is one of the ironies of the universe that often a person can put in intense labor without achieving the desired result, only to have some small, random thing that they did turn out to make a huge impact.  That may be the phenomenon that this song is trying to capture.  (I think it does a really lousy job of it.  Perhaps we shouldn’t try to capture years of wisdom and experience in a 5-minute song.  But there is truth in this insight.)

Jesus said, “When you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” There is humor in this statement (Jesus’ humor is under-appreciated).  Dallas Willard has pointed out that when our hands do things automatically, without us having to think about it, it is because we are engaged in some routine process such as brushing our teeth.  Our hands automatically coordinate themselves, and the whole thing runs on muscle memory.  And this only takes place with things that we do often.  Jesus was saying that our giving should not be the kind of thing for which we pat ourselves on the back, but rather a completely normal part of life that we hardly notice we are doing. 

So perhaps what this odious song is trying so clumsily to capture is the truth that it will be small actions, ones we hardly notice we are doing, that will turn out to have blessed others the most.  I could see that would be an encouraging message if it were better expressed. However, there has got to be a more nuanced and less idolatrous way to point this out, so let me go on record as saying that I still hate this song.

Herodotus Vindicated Again – This Time about Cannabis

Herodotus is the gift that keeps on giving. Last time it came to my attention that he’d been vindicated, I posted about it here.

And now it has happened again: “Archaeologists find signs of ritualized cannabis use 2,500 years ago in China.”

Speaking of. In my book The Strange Land, tribal matriarch Zillah includes cannabis in a painkilling cocktail that at one point she needs to give to her grandson, Ki-Ki. I figured I could get away with her having it in her stock of medicines, as the tribe had passed through Central Asia.

I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

I am a linguist.

This does not mean that I go around picking apart other people’s speech.

Normally.

This time I’m going to make an exception. This is a grammar rant, so buckle up.

“Begs the Question”

Everyone uses this phrase wrongly. Usually, misused phrases kind of tickle me. Common usage and all that. Plus, I am sure there are some that I misuse myself. But this one is really annoying. So listen up, people:

“Begs the question” is NOT the same thing as “raises the question.”

If a situation naturally leads to a certain question, that is not begging the question. It is “raising” or “provoking” the question. For example, the Green New Deal will cost $93 trillion. Which raises the question, Where is that money going to come from? Or, my son just showed up with chocolate all over his face. Which raises the question, What happened to that pudding I made an hour ago?

“Begging the question” is a technical term from the realm of formal logic and debate. It refers to a logical fallacy where the argument assumes what it is trying to prove.

For example, “Intelligent design is not a scientific theory because the only legitimate kind of science relies on pure naturalism.” ID is unscientific because we have defined it as unscientific. This is begging the question.

I don’t know how that particular method of arguing in a circle came to be called begging the question. Maybe because these kinds of arguments avoid the question that they purport to answer. And I agree that the phrase begging the question sounds like it ought to mean raising an obvious question.

But it doesn’t.

This has been a public service announcement.

Great Dads of History

Shout out to all the dads out there!  Happy Father’s Day!

Great dads are everywhere.  You might be one yourself.  But they are often invisible.  No one notices the person who does the job right.  If you are a great dad, you children may grow into well-adjusted adults.  They won’t become notorious for anything.  They won’t write a bitter poem about you like Sylvia Plath wrote about her dad.  They will probably not make history, unless your family is unlucky enough to get thrust into the historical spotlight (which is not an experience to seek out: see the ten Boom family, below).  They will just go quietly about contributing to society by being great citizens, moms and dads themselves.

This is why we so seldom hear about the great dads.

Here are three dads who, through accidents of history, had their great dadliness recorded.  One was the father to a daughter who wrote about him.  Another was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And the third wrote novels with his son.

Charles Ingalls: Rifle, Ax, and Fiddle

Charles Ingalls playing “mad dog” with his children.
Taken from the illustrated version of Little House in the Big Woods.

Charles Ingalls, father of Laura Ingalls Wilder, was a friendly, adventurous, adaptable man with incredible amounts of energy and what might be described as “itchy feet.”  He had the perfect personality to survive and thrive as a pioneer.  He moved his family many times throughout Laura and her sisters’ childhood, shepherding his family through disaster after disaster on the American frontier.  (For example: floods, fires, tornadoes, blizzards, locusts, and malaria.)

Charles was able to build his family a cabin in single summer using just his ax. He shot game to provide food for them.  And wherever they went, he took his fiddle.  He was a gifted musician who used music, along with his indomitably cheerful personality, to keep his family’s spirits up.

Casper ten Boom: the Grand Old Man of Haarlem

Casper ten Boom lived his entire life in a narrow, cramped house in Haarlem, Netherlands.  The front room housed the family business, a watch repair shop.  Casper, was the “absentminded professor” type.  He was gentle and affectionate, beloved by the neighborhood children, eccentric and forgetful, a gifted watch repairer but a terrible businessman.  It was typical of him to work for weeks on a rare watch and then forget to send its owner a bill.  He was delighted that the shop across the street was stealing his business, because “then they will make more money!”

He had long white whiskers and little spectacles. Picture him looking like the old banker played by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

When the Nazis took over Holland, Casper was still living in the Haarlem watch shop with two of his adult daughters, Betsie and Corrie.  Because the ten Boom family had so many connections in the city; were known as generous and helpful people; and had a great affection for the Jews (“God’s chosen people”), their house gradually became a hub for the resistance.  Its crazy floor plan made it the perfect place to build a bunker as an emergency hiding place for the handful of people that were always staying with them.

The ten Boom family were eventually betrayed and arrested.  A Nazi guard, seeing Casper’s age, tried to send him home on a promise of good behavior.  Casper responded, “If you send me home today, tomorrow I will open my door to the first person in need who knocks.”  He was arrested and died of a fever in prison. 

Casper’s daughter Corrie survived the concentration camps (Betsie did not) and later wrote a memoir about her family’s experiences, called The Hiding Place.  It’s an incredible story, but the most delightful parts of it to read are the early parts, where we watch Casper interact with his family and community.  He was truly a great dad.  Yet, if it hadn’t been for the Nazi takeover, few people today would know his name.

Dick Francis: Integrity in Life and Fiction

Dick Francis, a former jockey, wrote many terrific thrillers set in the world of horse racing.  Troubled father/son relationships often feature in his novels.  Francis was asked whether he had a troubled relationship with his own father, and he responded that to the contrary, the relationship was great.  “Perhaps that’s why I’m so interested in troubled father/son relationships.” 

Francis’s main characters tend to be single men in their early 30s.  Some have more baggage than others, but what they all have in common is a strong sense of integrity.  They can’t tolerate allowing anything like cheating to happen, even when it puts them in harm’s way, and they can’t bring themselves to back down, even sometimes when facing torture.

In his later years, Francis wrote several novels with his son Felix.  The novel Crossfire (2010), from which this picture is taken, includes the dedication “to the memory of Dick Francis, the greatest father and friend a man could ever have.”

Now, I’ll Bet You Know a Great Dad!

Leave a comment praising an unsung great dad that you know.