Put Down Your Bible and Listen

For quite some time, my wife has been listening to the Bible. Every night she crawls into bed and turns on David Suchet's wonderful reading of the NIV translation. (Highly recommended.) And let's be really honest: some of it is a chore. The prophets, particularly, have been downers. You probably should time this so that you don't listen to the prophets during the dark winter hours. Night after night of judgments and threatenings can be psychologically difficult.

But she made it through. And finally the New Testament has begun.

And she told me how different it is. Wildly different.

No, I'm not going down the old well-worn path of how allegedly mean and angry the "Old Testament" God is compared to the "New Testament" God. But I am saying there is a difference. And we talked for awhile about what, exactly, that difference is. The one that she's hearing. I think we found it.

She's been listening, night after night, to the messengers of God. Every prophecy, every book, is filled with these phrases: "The word of the LORD came to..." and "This is what the LORD of hosts says..." and "The LORD Almighty declares..."

And then... Jesus arrives.

Jesus almost never says anything like, "This is what the LORD says." He never claims, like the prophets of old, "The LORD of Hosts proclaims to you..." He speaks in direct address: "I say to you..." If you really stop to think about it, the prophets always provide their credentials at the beginning ("The LORD Almighty came to so-and-so"), but Jesus simply talks. And when he's done he says things like, "my Father testifies about me."

Think about that. Not, "I testify about the Father." It's the other way around. Not, "Let me tell you about the Father," but "the Father tells you (testifies) about me." Jesus is central stage. He's not a third party delivering a message from God or pointing or directing you to God. This is nothing, I mean nothing at all, like the prophets.

Listening straight through makes a difference. You get just a glimpse of why those who heard him in the flesh were astounded. The gospels tell us their reaction: "Who ever taught with such authority?" This is the authority. No longer is God sending messengers. No longer is God's speech a third-person address through a mediator. God has entered his own story. He is the lead actor in the play.

It is a thoroughly remarkable change, and one that we miss entirely by not hearing it. We've got chaptered and versed Bibles. We stick to chapters or (when we're busy) verses, but don't bother with the long slog. But for people conditioned to, "This is what the LORD Almighty says," to hear a Rabbi come around saying, "You've heard it said, but I say to you..." and "truly, truly, I say to you" is a radically jarring thing. Just who does this fellow think he is? The third-person has become first-person address.

People often doubt that Jesus claimed to be divine. There's an entire industry of popular books written on that premise. I suggest they put down their versified Bibles and simply listen. His authoritative volume is deafening.

What The Crown Can Teach Donald Trump

I'm nearly through watching Netflix Original's "The Crown." It is deserving of much of the praise lavished on it: beautifully filmed, directed, and acted, even if some of the episodes don't have enough story power to keep from lagging.

But this isn't a review.

If you're unfamiliar with it, the show documents the reign of Queen Elizabeth II (currently the longest-reigning British monarch). Most of the friction in her early reign stems from the clash of tradition and modernity. She and her husband are young and energetic, citizens of the modern world, and yet they inhabit an institution formed and hardened by a millennium of tradition. No, that isn't right. She is the embodiment and custodian of this tradition-hardened institution.

Should she be energetic and free to do as she wishes? After all, she is the Queen, and all her wishes are commands. Instead, she finds the role incredibly stifling. There is a "way things are done." No, she is informed, she cannot choose her own private secretary. There is a time-honored pecking order. Well, that's not exactly true, either. She can choose her own secretary, but she is warned that it would be most "unwise" to do so. She is at something of a loss to navigate the treacherous waters between her own autonomy as the Queen of the Empire and "what is expected."

America is not a monarchy; never has been, and never should be. But America has its unique institutions, and institutions have cultures. They have norms, expectations, ethos, habits, manners, decorum, and a "way of doing things." Institutions are therefore pillars of stability in society. They form a community's skeletal system. The important thing to realize is that, beyond the merest sketch, nobody invents the culture of an institution on the front end. It is not centrally planned out. Rather, institutions form cultural expectations ("the way things are done") through the experience of time. They are therefore not (always) arbitrary whims; they are usually products of... collective wisdom.

Ah, but it is fun to be a radical contrarian! To view all tradition as arbitrary whim and reinvent the institutional wheel according to one's own passions! But the pleasure is fleeting because its result is anarchy: the destruction of common norms and expectations and the disintegration of communal bone structure. Throwing out all the history, tradition, and decorum destabilizes institutions.

Queen Elizabeth understood all this. She made her reign about The Office rather than herself: The Crown, rather than "Elizabeth." I don't think anybody would argue she did not develop her own individuality and personal "stamp" on the institution, but she did it very carefully. She knew (knows) that just because one cannot think of a reason for a certain "way of doing things" doesn't mean there isn't a reason. Tradition is collective wisdom.

Lots of people love the vulgarizing of our political discourse. Seeing President-Elect Donald Trump stand at a podium and call a media outlet a "pile of garbage" and another (much more well-respected), "fake news" is kind of fun, I guess, for those who agree with him. His entire campaign was a radical departure of our institutional norms and expectations, so it isn't really a surprise that actual governance would share that characteristic. It seems that Donald Trump is not going to make this about The Office. It is going to be about Donald Trump. Be careful what you wish for.

I'm just going to humbly offer a warning and leave it here. It has long been the Progressive dream to undermine traditional institutions and culture and our "ways of doing things" (they're all just arbitrary "social constructs," you see). And Donald Trump is a wrecking ball out of their wildest dreams.

If this is the new normal for America, I do not suspect it will end well.