Another Week Ends

1. You’ve probably heard the classic arithmetic question, “A bat and ball cost a dollar […]

David Zahl / 6.15.12

1. You’ve probably heard the classic arithmetic question, “A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” If your kneejerk response is in the double digits, well, think again. Jonah Lehrer kicked off his new post at The New Yorker with a couple of terrific new pieces. “Why We Don’t Believe in Science” was the first and “Why Smart People Are Stupid” is the latest, and it in particular warrants some excerpting here. Another cogent reminder that self-knowledge (or knowledge in general) is not enough to change or improve a person. We need a stronger potion (and a better calculator):

Perhaps our most dangerous bias is that we naturally assume that everyone else is more susceptible to thinking errors, a tendency known as the “bias blind spot.” This “meta-bias” is rooted in our ability to spot systematic mistakes in the decisions of others—we excel at noticing the flaws of friends—and inability to spot those same mistakes in ourselves. Although the bias blind spot itself isn’t a new concept [ed. note: Matthew 7:5], West’s latest paper demonstrates that it applies to every single bias under consideration, from anchoring to so-called “framing effects.” In each instance, we readily forgive our own minds but look harshly upon the minds of other people.

And here’s the upsetting punch line: intelligence seems to make things worse. The scientists gave the students four measures of “cognitive sophistication.” …those more likely to engage in deliberation were slightly more vulnerable to common mental mistakes. Education also isn’t a savior…the driving forces behind biases—the root causes of our irrationality—are largely unconscious, which means they remain invisible to self-analysis and impermeable to intelligence. In fact, introspection can actually compound the error, blinding us to those primal processes responsible for many of our everyday failings. We spin eloquent stories, but these stories miss the point. The more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand.

2. This one appeared last Fall but only came to my attention this week. It’s an interview with VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer, who has had a remarkable change of heart about some of the content he used to produce, ht DB:

I looked back at the previous 10 years and realized I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, “Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so,” or “Hey kids, be more kind because the Bible says so!” But that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality. . . .

And that was such a huge shift for me from the American Christian ideal. We’re drinking a cocktail that’s a mix of the Protestant work ethic, the American dream, and the gospel. And we’ve intertwined them so completely that we can’t tell them apart anymore. Our gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make all your dreams come true. It’s the Oprah god. So I had to peel that apart.

3. Speaking of children’s entertainment, Pixar story artist Emma Coats recently tweeted a series of story basics, which are really wonderful, and even have some implications for preaching/teaching/hearing/living. A handful of favorites include:

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

On a similarly animated note, this is so good:


4. On Christianity Today, Mark Galli ended his SoulWork drought with an inspired reflection on authority, or more specifically, the difference between the love of authority and the authority of love. Packed with personal illustrations and some terrific ruminations on the Transfiguration, the whole thing is worth reading (to the end). Two paragraphs that stuck out:

our expertise—whether it comes from education or experience—is not where our authority is ultimately grounded. Our efficiency, our ability to solve problems or gain insight may be grounded there. But not our authority.

So, the temptations to ground our authority in anything but love will be with us always. But sooner or later, God’s good grace will knock us up the side of the head. We’ll discover that disconcerting but liberating news that we have no power to ground our authority in the first place. It is something grounded in us, and grounded by another. And that other grounds it in love—more particularly, his love for us.

Also on CT, if you couldn’t access it a few weeks ago, my recent little article “By Grace You Are Mature” is now available to the wider public. The illustration too…

5. Next, on CNN Columbia University linguist John McWhorter gives a sympathetic response to the recent law passed in Middleborough, MA imposing a $20 fine on swearing in public, which doubles a rumination on law in general, ht SMB:

…the fines will only create the kind of resentment that makes it feel sexy to rebel. Nothing will feel more authentic to the Middleborough teen than to haul off with a few epithets when no police are in view — but plenty of other citizens are. And all we have to do is wait for the cleverer ones to claim that certain uses of the words aren’t really profanity, which will mean messy cases of where-do-you-draw-the-line.

6. Two amazing little reports from Medical News Daily over the last couple of weeks, “Coveting May Be Hardwired In Brain”, and the ultra-timely “One Of The Greatest Influences On Personality Development Is A Father’s Love”, ht JD.

7. A brilliant post over on Topmost Apple about “The Spiritual Life and the Problem of the Ego,” exploring, among other things, the strained relationship between “good works” and humility, the unique role of religion when it comes to ego assertion/subjugation, and the contribution of Alcoholics Anonymous on all fronts. The quote from Matthew Arnold’s poem “Self-Dependence” is one for the ages.

8. Next, Liberate sure has hit the ground running! If you haven’t been over there yet, do yourself a favor. The ridiculously talented Mark Miller dropped quite a gift on the world this week with his reflection on “The Gospel and the Worship Leader”. As per the flattering requests, I’ve embedded the video of the culture discussion I did with them below (which also doubles as a surprisingly effective motivator for weight loss… at least if you’re me).

9. Speaking of music, NPR did a fascinating interview with that love-her-or-hate-her tornado of intensity known as Fiona Apple, who has just released a difficult new record. The best portion comes in the middle, where she talks about her attempt to “parent herself”, ht GP:

NPR: Tell me about what you’ve been up to, or even some of the things you’ve been through over the past seven years that show up on this record.

APPLE: Well, the funny thing is is that I definitely had, for the first time, real concrete feeling of I’m an adult now, except I got it a year after I finished the album. I have a thing about, like, wanting to learn about parenting myself. I don’t want to have kids, but I tend to buy a lot of books about parenting… I think that you can always parent yourself. So I think that if there’s something like, I have a problem with a work ethic, say, and maybe if I read a book about the new way to teach your kid about how to form a good work ethic, maybe I can do that to myself and maybe it’ll work, you know? Stuff like that.

RAZ: Is it – does it work?

APPLE: Well, you know, I’m a little bit behind on my homework.

10. Finally, in TV, not a whole lot to report, other than the Mad Men finale, which may have been rather anti-climactic but the final shot was a stroke of genius. I’ll join the chorus of voices that have claimed Don’s 180 has been a little too complete, yet it makes the subtle way in which he turns against Megan in the finale (i.e. via what most would consider a good deed) all the more convincing. Expert storytelling, to say the least. And Pete Campbell’s melancholy speech about a “temporary bandage over a permanent wound” was a highlight, not just of the season but the series. Perhaps not their best season, but certainly not their worst. What did you think? Oh, and speaking of finales, I finally took Todd Brewer’s advice and inhaled two seasons of the absurdly entertaining Sherlock. I heartily second his recommendation, with one caveat: skip the second episode of the first season.



ROUNDTABLE ON CULTURE: Tullian Tchividjian, Scotty Smith, David Zahl | LIBERATE 2012 from Coral Ridge | LIBERATE on Vimeo.

p.s. Pre-registration for the Fall Conference opens on July 1st! The theme this time is “High, Low and In Between: Hope Amidst the Ruins”. And as you make your travel arrangements, not that the event begins at 9am on Friday 9/28 and concludes at 12:30pm the following day.