“Have to” or “Want to”?

Learning grammar...do I have to?

Photo credit: Benny Lewis, Fluent in 3 Months

At the beginning of last school year my daughter made a friend who has had an especially hard childhood. As the year wore on, she learned and told us more of his story. My wife, both of my daughters, and I all began to feel equal measures of compassion for him in his suffering and anger at the injustice he has experienced. Toward the end of the school year and through the summer we began to connect with him regularly as a family and to help him in various ways. As the new school year starts, this process of connecting and helping is only increasing, to the joy of us all.

Recently, he was at our house to help celebrate my daughter’s birthday. He arrived around noon, after the group had eaten breakfast. He had not eaten anything all day. We asked him what he would like to eat, and began getting out some of the copious leftovers to heat up. His response was that we didn’t “have to” do this for him. This is often his response when we try to help him with something. He says this (at least in part) because he doesn’t want to be a burden to us, which is understandable: none of us wants to be a burden. Continue reading

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

As part of the research for my fiction project telling the backstory of Philemon in the New Testament, I recently read I, Claudius by Robert Graves. Originally published in 1934, it is a gripping novel portraying the Roman ruling class from roughly the beginning of the common era to the assassination of Caligula and accession of the emperor Claudius in 41 CE. Although it is a novel, it hews closely to the actual history of the period, as far as I could tell. It has been claimed to be one of the best novels of the 20th Century.

The story is told in the first person by the protagonist, Claudius, who was an outcast of the ruling family as a child and young man because he was born lame and stuttered. In part as a result of his consequent isolation from most of his family, he befriended books and became a scholar and a historian. The novel is cleverly cast as a portion of his autobiography written for distant future generations (us!). As an admirer of the scholarly life, I found the descriptions of Claudius’s relationships with the Roman historians Livy (a mentor to Claudius) and Pollio to be especially clever and interesting.

The novel portrays the tumultuous and often deadly jockeying for power among Rome’s first family and those connected with them in ruling the empire. Continue reading

Is Amazon “Making History”?

Last week I visited the Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles for the first time. One of my favorite pieces was Andreas Gursky’s, “Amazon” (pictured below).

Amazon by Andreas Gursky

As a museum guide explained it, the work is a (lightly) digitally-edited photo of an Amazon.com warehouse. The ocean of consumer goods portrayed is, in itself, pretty compelling. However, what I found especially interesting about the piece was the compound slogan printed on the pillars in the background of the image. It may be hard to make out in this small version, but the left pillar says, “Work hard,” the middle pillar, “Have fun,” and the right pillar, “Make history”.

Assuming that the slogan was an actual feature of the warehouse and not an element added by Gursky, it is obviously intended to motivate the people who work in the warehouse. Amazon management hopes that hard work will be spurred both by fun and by the idea that workers are part of something “history-making,” bigger than themselves, important.

Even if the slogan was edited into Gursky’s image after the fact (which I don’t think it was), I have often heard people say that companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook are “making history” in some sense. For example, by day I work as an environmental engineering consultant. Lo many years ago I went to school in Silicon Valley, and I recently heard that one of my former professors laments how many of his graduate students do not end up applying their skills in service of the environment, but rather end up joining local internet companies. Higher pay is definitely part of the reason they do this, but another part is the sense that in joining such companies they will be involved in something of historical proportion.

But are companies like Amazon really “making history”? Continue reading

Obedience, Submission, and “Slave Morality”

According to Orlando Patterson, the Roman mime-writer Publilius Syrus wrote, “The height of misery is to live at another’s will” (Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 77). In this statement, Publilius, a former slave from Syria, had in mind the lot of a Roman slave.

To the Roman mind, living “at another’s will,” in submission and obedience to another, was miserable not because the one obeyed was necessarily harsh or unkind, but because living in this way was itself dishonorable. In effect, the slave had no life of her own; her life was a mere expression of the master’s life. Her actions expressed the master’s desires, and her very existence was dependent on the master. As Patterson puts it, “The dishonor the slave was compelled to experience sprang…from that raw, human sense of debasement inherent in having no being except as an expression of another’s being” (78). In contrast, to be a Roman slaveholder, with others subjected to your will, contributed to one’s honor.

As Patterson notices (78), this Roman view of honor and dishonor is wrapped up in a picture of the good on which power is central. He quotes Friedrich Nietzsche: “What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome” (Nietzsche, The Antichrist). Anachronism aside, I suspect many Romans—slave and free alike—would have endorsed Nietzsche’s idea.

Of course, the Christian picture of the good could not be more different. Continue reading

Aquinas on Christian Joy

I have often felt a tension in my theology when it comes to the concept of joy. On the one hand, in Galatians (5:22) Paul counts joy among the “fruit of the Spirit.” I take it that this means joy is to grow in the life of a Christian under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and that joy is to be something like a steady, stable, even permanent experience of the Christian as she matures. I have often heard pastors describe such Christian joy as something that persists despite negative or difficult circumstances.

On the other hand it seems the Christian is not to be inured to life’s pains and disappointments as a Stoic might be. Indeed, Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:28-37), and he fretted at his impending death in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46). If Jesus is the Christian’s example (and he is), then it seems appropriate for the Christian to feel the pain and disappointment of life.

Are these two teachings at odds? They have often seemed so to me. Continue reading

Was Roman Slavery Kinder and Gentler than American Slavery?

I’m writing a historical novel that tells the backstory of Paul’s little New Testament letter to Philemon. The letter is written to a Christian slaveholder in Colossae (Philemon), and it asks the slaveholder to forgive and welcome back his runaway slave, Onesimus, who has been attending to Paul while he is in prison.

The letter is rarely taught these days, probably owing in part to the difficult questions it raises about slavery. For example, what is a Christian doing owning slaves? And why would Paul blithely encourage Onesimus to return to his bondage rather than keep running? The letter also has the dubious reputation of being used by antebellum American slaveholders and their sympathizers to justify the practice of slavery in the American South. After all, it can seem that by sending Onesimus back to Philemon, Paul implicitly accepts (endorses?) the institution of slavery. These are just a few of the issues I plan to tackle in the novel.

In researching interpretations of Philemon and the institution of slavery in the First-century Roman Empire, I have noticed that part of the contemporary Christian defense of Paul’s actions in Philemon often includes the claim that First-century Roman slavery was generally kinder and gentler than antebellum American slavery. Continue reading

Loving the Enemy that is Yourself

Last week I listened to a Pray as You Go podcast focused on Matthew 5:43-45:

43 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (NRSV)

This passage is, of course, a familiar “difficult saying” of Jesus. However, the podcast reflected on it in a way I had never heard before: suppose the enemy you are to love is yourself. What then? Continue reading

The Ministry of Death

I listen regularly to the Pray as You Go podcast. Last week, one of the passages featured was the passage below from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church:

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory!

2 Corinthians 3:4-9 (NRSV)

In this passage Paul contrasts two covenants—first, the giving of the law through Moses; and second, what he calls “a new covenant…of spirit,” which “gives life.” Paul goes on to refer to the first covenant as “the ministry of death,” and “the ministry of condemnation.”

His meaning here seems to be Continue reading

Creativity and Constraints

As I launch into fiction writing, I’ve been reading Robert McKee’s Story as a guide to the principles of good narrative. I just came across the following passage that is part of his discussion of the importance of defining a clear setting for one’s story—the period, duration, location, and level of conflict exhibited in the story:

“Limitation is vital. The first step toward a well-told story is to create a small, knowable world. Artists by nature crave freedom, so the principle that the structure/setting relationship restricts creative choices may stir the rebel in you. With a closer look, however, you’ll see that this relationship couldn’t be more positive. The constraint that setting imposes on story design doesn’t inhibit creativity; it inspires it.” (71)

This passage rings true to me. It seems to me a myth about creativity that Continue reading