Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Straight-Line Power

A few months ago, I read quote from a book by Robert Farrar Capon titled "Kingdom, Grace and Judgment" that spoke of something called straight-line power. Here's what he had to say...

"Direct, straight-line, intervening power does, of course, have many uses. With it, you can lift the spaghetti from the plate to your mouth, wipe the sauce off your slacks, carry them to the dry cleaners, and perhaps even make enough money to ransom them back. Indeed, straight-line power ("use the force you need to get the result you want") is responsible for almost everything that happens in the world. And the beauty of it is, it works. From removing the dust with a cloth to removing your enemy with a .45, it achieves its ends in sensible, effective, easily understood ways.

"Unfortunately, it has a whopping limitation. If you take the view that one of the chief objects in life is to remain in loving relationships with other people, straight-line power becomes useless. Oh, admittedly, you can snatch your baby boy away from the edge of a cliff and not have a broken relationship on your hands. But just try interfering with his plans for the season when he is twenty, and see what happens, especially if his chosen plans play havoc with your own. Suppose he makes unauthorized use of your car, and you use a little straight-line verbal power to scare him out of doing it again. Well and good. But suppose further that he does it again anyway -- and again and again and again. What do you do next if you are committed to straight-line power? You raise your voice a little more nastily each time till you can't shout any louder. And then you beat him (if you are stronger than he is) until you can't beat any harder. Then you chain him to a radiator till....But you see the point. "

When reading this, I thought it was a bit extreme. While I don't have children, I've been in arguments before and I've never thought to break out the handcuffs. And then I stumbled upon this article by that speaks of "seclusion rooms" for autistic and special needs students. These small rooms are often converted closets with walls covered in padding. Apparently, seclusion rooms are used by teachers for students who have a particularly difficult time calming down when asked. If a room is not available, the teacher is instructed to physically hold the student pinned to the floor until he/she calms down. While these rooms are sometimes over used by impatient teachers, they are meant to be a help to the student.

This demonstrates one use of straight-line power (theologically called "the law") in a classroom setting. Yet, forcing a child to sit still as punishment for being rowdy only gives the semblance of compliance, or even makes matters worse. The child may call down, but rarely will he/she actually learn. As was the case four years ago, a young child put in a seclusion room killed himself.

Is there another way?

A Capon goes on to say, "
At some very early crux in that difficult, personal relationship, the whole thing will be destroyed unless you -- who, on any reasonable view, should be allowed to use straight-line power -- simply refuse to use it; unless, in other words, you decide that instead of dishing out justifiable pain and punishment, you are willing, quite foolishly, to take a beating yourself."

This means letting youself bear the embarrassment of a screaming child, in love listening to every word of insults hurled at you, losing the battle to win the heart.

Monday, December 1, 2008


When I was in college I barely knew that a counseling center existed, much less that I was able to go see a counselor for free 15 times a year! So I was surprised when I read this article from my former college to find out that 1 in 3 students use the counseling center each year. The fact is that every student (Lafayette and otherwise) needs to go to counseling. The sooner one goes to counseling, the better. The reality is that we are all in over our heads, struggling to keep up. As the counseling center said,

"Many students talk about relationships, or stress about careers or academics...It is very common for students to be concerned about living up to others' expectations. In some cases this helps them to keep motivated to achieve their goals, but in other cases it can lead them to worry excessively about what happens if they do not meet these expectations."

The pressures of life are too much. Yet in the midst of our failure and insecurity counseling cares for those who have no control. In this way, Jesus is the great counselor. When we have no where to turn and Jesus hears our prayer. While we are inadequate, Jesus is able. What this article shows is just how prevalent such a need is in everyone and how desperately we need someone to carry us through.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Posthumous Buckley Feud

A few weeks ago I was shocked to hear of Christopher Buckley's endorsement of Barack Obama. How could conservative such as Buckley back Obama, let alone the conservative son of William F Buckley?!?! Pardon my sounding psycho-Freudian in this, but I think it has everything to do with his relationship with his father, as detailed in this article.

Following his father's death the younger Buckley was both grieved and relieved. While had lost his father, he also was freed from the explicit and implicit burden placed upon him by his father. Said simply,"It’s also awful. I miss him every day. But I can now write about things I was not terribly comfortable writing about." Buckley described his relationship with his father as "complicated" and resembled a subtle competition between father and son. The more famous Christopher became, the more negative the elder Buckley became of his son.

Despite this newfound freedom, Buckley still suggests that his father would have endorsed Obama as well, claiming that his father endorsed several liberal Democrats for high office, including Joseph Liberman. I can't help but wonder if Buckley the younger is appealing to his dead father for others' sake, or to reassure himself. Is he truely free from the ghost of his father?

All this goes to show the inherent tension in the father-son relationship. The father wants to be respected and admired by his son. The son desperately wants the approval of his father.

Christianity uniquely knows God as our Father. In doing so it means that, unlike Buckley the elder, God is one unwaveringly approves of his children, no matter how far the apple falls from the tree. Put another way "all the promises of God find their Yes in Christ Jesus (II Cor. 1:20)." We do no need to win God our Father's approval or love. He gives it freely to all his children.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

10, 15, 18, or 20% ?

I recently read a New York Times article about tipping and it made me think a bit about what's behind the whole idea of tipping. I've never given the practice of tipping my waiter a second thought. Whenever the bill comes, I quickly compute the percentage in my head and round up or down to around 20%.

The logic behind tipping is that the customer is able to reward or punish the waiter for good or bad service based upon the size of the tip. This encourages the waiter to be more attentive and friendly to the customer. As the article says:

"Tipping, its defenders say, improves service by rewarding good waiters and punishing bad ones. But that’s not what Porter saw when he looked out on his dining floor. In his brief experience, working for tips encouraged selfishness rather than teamwork. Moreover, good service was not always rewarded with a big tip, nor bad service with a poor one.'"

Instead of promoting god service by the waiters, tipping produced the opposite result! It promoted dissension between the waiters and the kitchen crew and the pressure to perform in fact made the waiters less friendly.

Instead, the writer of the article promotes a flat service fee of 18%, to be evenly distributed amongst the staff. This practice is similar to ones found in Europe. Instead of giving license for waiters to spit in people's food, this seems to promote good service. As one waiter said, “For the first time, I get to concentrate on the job, and I’m looking at the guests without seeing dollar signs or worried about what anyone else is making,”

The other issue the article tries to address is the reasons why most people tip to begin with. While there is no clear cut answer, the article suggests two reasons: guilt and ego. Peopel tip out of guilt because “the need to pay, psychologically, for the guilt involved in the unequal relationship is so strong that very few are able to ignore it.” Those who don't tip our of guilt ususally tip out of ego. The practice of tipping prey upon our need for control and the supconcious enjoyment one has of having such financial power over another person.

All this to say theologically that tipping is another form of the law to the waiter. In the face of the demand for better service, the waiter becomes stressed or disingenuous in their service (think of Jennifer Aniston's character in the movie "Office Space"). Yet when the waiter is given "grace" in the form of a guarenteed pay check, it enables true freedom to fulfill that which the law demands.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Folsom Prison Blues

I have a deep appreciation of Johnny Cash and his music. It's not that I love country, or that signature " boom-chicka-boom" drum beat. But what I love is how his music speaks to the reality of life. Cash doesn't sing about idealistic pleasantries- he sings about the struggles of grief, love, rebellion and death. I believe the song "Folsom Prison Blues," is the characteristic Cash song. It's the title track of his album recorded live from within an actual prison. Here are the lyrics...

I hear the train a comin'
It's rolling round the bend
And I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when,
I'm stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin' on
But that train keeps a rollin' on down to San Antone..
When I was just a baby my mama told me. Son,
Always be a good boy, don't ever play with guns.
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry..

I bet there's rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
They're probably drinkin' coffee and smoking big cigars.
Well I know I had it coming, I know I can't be free
But those people keep a movin'
And that's what tortures me...

Well if they freed me from this prison,
If that railroad train was mine
I bet I'd move it on a little farther down the line
Far from Folsom prison, that's where I want to stay
And I'd let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away.....

Folsom Prison Blues is a song about a man longing for freedom, for a chance to ride the train away from the troubles of his life. The tragedy of the song is that the man singing isn't free and it tortures him.

This is the plight of being human. We wish we could be free from the despair of life. We wish we could transcend the difficulties and stress of our inability to be who we want to be. Or as St. Paul says "For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing...Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!"

Monday, October 13, 2008


A while back I read a New York Times article about a prominent blogger who worked for This particular blogger spoke personally about how blogging and posting personal thoughts and biographical details had ruined her life. Since then I've come to enjoy several of my friends' blogs, but I've always been hesitant to blog. There's the danger that I'll blog and no one will respond to my posts. There's the danger that if people to respond, then I'll hang upon every word of what people say. But today as I sit in class I'm come to realize that I need to blog to keep a record of all the articles, books, movies, TV shows etc. Without such a record, I'll forget it alltogether. I only wish I had thought of this sooner.