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Facebook and digital bumper stickers

I have no idea who Demetri Martin is, except that my godson Lucas often quotes the following from him: “A lot of people don’t like bumper stickers. I don’t mind bumper stickers. To me a bumper sticker is a shortcut. It’s like a little sign that says ‘Hey, let’s never hang out.'”

Things that people post on Facebook can be like bumper stickers, except they can be a lot longer, and they can be intended to be seen by a key group of people whom they know will get that warm and fuzzy feeling in their stomach that one gets when one hears a clever soundbite that they agree with. Or both.

Here are a couple of recent examples — “recent” meaning “having shown up a lot over the last several months/years, and it’s only in the last week that I’ve finally hit the last straw with them”:

Exhibit A: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” – Anne Lamott

I’m not the world’s biggest Anne Lamott fan, and I find this particular gem to be really annoying with its oh-so-cleverly-stated, but still intellectually dishonest, tone. On the other hand, I assume God loves Anne Lamott, so I guess at least on that point, I pass her cute little test. Still, the “Very Liberal And You Know It Because I Put the Word ‘Very’ In Front of It on Facebook” crowd can’t help but rah-rah this whenever it shows up, and the cycle seems to take about a week.

Yeah, yeah, fine, I’m uncharacteristically grumpy. I’m about to turn 35; I guess it happens. Rassafrassafrickfrackindamnkidsgetoffmylawn. Let me clarify a couple of things.

First — I find that, for my own sanity, Anne Lamott is best treated as what we might call devotional satire. Satire is great, love satire, but it seems to me that with most satire, if you’re not the target audience then you’re just the target, and I’m acutely aware when I encounter Lamott’s writings that I am not the target audience.

Second — I actually don’t disagree with what I see as the broader point here; I just don’t find that Lamott has put it in a terribly constructive way. It’s intellectually dishonest because it’s pointing the finger at people who point the finger to show them why pointing the finger is wrong (language I borrow from anti-death penalty slogans — “Why do we kill people who kill people in order to show that killing people is wrong?”). That said, it’s a kind of intellectually dishonesty that’s fairly common to satire, so perhaps what bothers me about it is a feature and not a bug, and again, I’m just not part of the target audience.

So, thought experiment time. Let’s take somebody like, say, Frederica Mathewes-Green, or to take it several hundreds of steps further, Ann Coulter, and let’s say that she comes up with a pithy, digestible quote that goes something like this: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God approves of everything you do.” This would be a problematic statement, right? It would be smug, cloying, and it would smack of trying to generate a spiritual fist-pump from everybody who already agrees with you as well as pointing the finger at everybody who doesn’t, not-so-subtly (explicitly, really) accusing them of bad faith.

And I think you’d be right to think that. I’d have the same problem with such a statement. To me, there’s a bigger picture here that can be stated constructively (and maybe even catechetically): God, when we follow Him, will challenge our comfort zones. That’s a great thing to be reminded of; I sure need reminders of that, constantly. As stated by Lamott and hypothetical-Mathewes-Coulter, however, it’s put in a manner that’s intended to provoke self-righteous indignation against Everybody Who’s Like That. And it seems to me, from what I have encountered of Lamott’s work, that she probably would howl at my hypothetical reversal. So, yes, while I need reminders of the broader point, I do not seek them from Anne Lamott as a rule. She’s no St. John Chrysostom, as far as I’m concerned.

At least, that’s how I see it, which, to get back to my first point, maybe just all underscores that — say it with me — I am not part of the target audience for Anne Lamott.

If that makes me a grump who’s just wrong about this, well, fine, but just so you know it’s not just squishy lefty nonsense that bugs me but also let’s-have-Glenn-Beck-rewrite-history right-wing crap, there’s also this:

Exhibit B: “‘Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm. Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold form the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first – and then they will joyfully share their wealth.’ St. John Chrysostom on the poor from On Living Simply XLIII.”

First of all, I’d like to point out that I included the attribution as part of the quote. That’s key here.

There are several problems with this. One, there is no Chrysostom homily called “On Living Simply XLIII”. On Living Simply is a collection of what are supposedly Chrysostom quotes edited by somebody named Robert Van de Weyer, and this is passage #43 in that volume. Unfortunately, Van de Weyer has not actually sourced these passages in any way that would actually tell anybody where he got them.

Now, I am not accusing Van de Weyer of making anything up. I have no evidence that he made anything up. I’m going to assume that he got the quote in a manner similar to how everybody is getting it from him (and this XKCD cartoon is perhaps relevant to the discussion). However, I do know two things:

1) Catherine Roth didn’t include anything vaguely like this reference in her compilation of Chrysostom’s greatest hits on the topic, On Wealth and Poverty. Now, that in and of itself could just be evidence that she didn’t include it, not that it doesn’t exist. Proving a negative is always really difficult.

2) Still, Thesaurus Linguae Graecae is text-complete for Chrysostom, and searching the corpus on various key Greek words that the English version of the passage suggests should be there comes up with nothing that looks anything like this. Gotta be careful with TLG, because as I’ve found out, searching on Chrysostom can for some reason trip their “He could be illicitly downloading all of our ancient Greek texts!” sensor, but I spent a good hour or so poking around for something that could even be loosely translated like this, and there’s nothing.

On a conceptual level, though — this “Chrysostom” claims that the wealthy will “feel bitter and resentful” as part of the argument against taxes. Well, here’s something I’m reasonably certain from sourced quotations that St. John Chrysostom did say:

…God says, “The earth has brought forth her increase, and you have not brought forth your tithes; but the theft of the poor is in your houses.” Since you have not given the accustomed offerings, He says, you have stolen the goods of the poor. He says this to show the rich that they hold the goods of the poor even if they have inherited them from their fathers or no matter how they have gathered their wealth. And elsewhere the Scripture says: “Deprive not the poor of his living.” To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others. By this we are taught that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal. (Chrysostom, Sermon II on Lazarus and the Rich Man, trans. Roth)

Yeah, I can’t really say that I buy that Chrysostom actually cares about whether or not the wealthy will “feel bitter and resentful”.

“Well, I don’t care who actually said it, it’s still right,” I’ve heard a couple of people say to this. It actually matters quite a bit whether or not Chrysostom said it, and I think we all know this and why. Chrysostom is being given as the authority for something that looks like a remarkably specific policy position that is quite relevant to the present day. If he in fact said this, it carries a lot of a particular kind of weight; if he can’t be accurately cited as the source, then it doesn’t carry the same weight. One may still agree with it, but it doesn’t have the same kind of authority behind it.

Now, what I’m not saying is, “So, of course, Marx is how we deal with this.” All I’m saying is that, until Van de Weyer (or somebody) actually cites a source that can be checked, it is irresponsible to attribute this passage to Chrysostom. It may well be an ideological position that some find attractive, and it may well be what some convicted Christians believe is the “Christian position” and thus would love to have support for from the words of the Golden Mouth, but as of this moment, the matter of whether or not he actually said it is pretty sketchy. Whether or not I myself agree with the content of the passage is not relevant; the point is responsible attribution of texts, and I have yet to see that Van de Weyer has done so.

So bottom line for the evening is that Anne Lamott is no St. John Chrysostom, and as presented by Van de Weyer, Chrysostom’s no Chrysostom either. So can we pick some other bumper sticker-style pithy and clever quotes for our Facebook walls, please? Damnkidsgetoffmylawn.

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3 Responses to “Facebook and digital bumper stickers”


  1. 1 Marinaki 11 January 2012 at 8:47 pm

    Brilliant! I’m going to post a link to this blogpost every time I see that pseudo-Chrysostom quote! [I thoroughly searched TLG too and found nothing. Yet, I was amazed at how frequently and how often St. John Chrysostom urgently exhorts the rich to give to the poor, decries hoarding of wealth, and slates the rich in general!


  1. 1 In which St. John Chrysostom shows up on another digital bumper sticker « Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 20 February 2013 at 6:05 pm
  2. 2 Something doesn’t smell right about the Elizabeth O’Bagy “résumé lie” | Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 13 September 2013 at 8:45 pm

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