Friday, August 31, 2012

On a String

"Pull the string, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all." - Dwight Eisenhower

     This week's a bit more fun than last. This is my most recent Lego project that's a bit outside my comfort zone. I was inspired by the arch piece that I ended up using as the nose, but a macro scale figurine would have been so terribly boring by itself. So I remedied that problem by putting strings on the figure and turning him into a marionette. The fellow was originally a sort of Elizabethan Thespian, but doublets are nigh impossible. That version was quickly scrapped.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Preserving the Spark

"You see but you do not observe" - Sherlock Holmes, "A Scandal in Bohemia"

"He sees many things, but does not observe them" - Isaiah 42:20

     "All that matters to me is the work," shouts the modern day Holmes to his blogger Watson. "Put that in your blog," he says, "or better yet, stop inflicting your opinions on the world." With that word of wisdom from history's greatest consulting detective, I shall begin to inflict my own opinions upon you, my poor reader. Even worse, I am naming this lengthy and droll piece of writing my 'maximum opus ad modernum' because, of course, everything sounds far awesomer in Latin, thanks to Ooglegay Ranslatetay. I suggest you close your browser now before the pain of this blog post becomes intolerable.

Without further ado...

     For a few weeks, my thoughts have wandered about the streets of the world with and without aim before finally coagulating at the door of 221b Baker Street. I am unashamedly something of a "Sherlockian," and have been found stalking around the house with an antique pipe in my mouth for its sheer classiness. I've read the majority of the "pre-resurrection" adventures and memoirs of Sherlock Holmes in the past, watched a few of Basil Rathbone's charming shows from the 1930s, built the Baker Street residence out of Lego, and most recently, enjoyed Benedict Cumberbatch's stunning modern interpretation of the famous detective in the new Masterpiece Theatre drama series. It was no surprise, then, when an opinion article on BBC News caught my interest. It was titled "The Enduring Appeal of Sherlock Holmes." 
     Before long, my printed version of the article was doused with a heavy layer of highlighter ink and pencil lead. The article connected the dots that had been shuffling around in my head for these several weeks. From the campus of Patrick Henry College, to Einstein's religiosity, to Chesterton's molehill mountains, to "Sticky Ideas," to the communication of the core of the Gospel, to the future of America. 
     And what picture did all these connected dots form? They formed a picture of the divine spark. Not a spark of rational thinking, but a spark of emotion. I began to see that emotion and the human ability to feel are inseparable from God. Logic without emotion is a denial of Divine Providence; a slap in the face of the Creator. 
     Perhaps the most intriguing example of this divine spark is the paradoxical figure of Sherlock Holmes himself. A man who appears to be rigorously rational, yet is so enduringly appealing because he is not as rational as he seems. Under the stony surface of Holmes' visage, emotion, guesswork, whimsy, and faith play as large or greater a role than reason. "What's striking is that Holmes relies on guesswork and imagination, supplemented and corrected by observation, as much as on reasoning" writes John Gray, the author of the BBC article. Holmes personally declared that he followed a "science of deduction" and additionally that "I never guess. It is a shocking habit." But, as my philosophy of science professor last year prided himself on proving, Sherlock was wrong on both these fronts. Sherlock did guess, and Sherlock didn't follow the 'rules' of any particular method of reasoning. If anything, it certainly wasn't deduction, but closest to abduction: the more unconstrained process of moving from facts to explanation by process of elimination. 
     Sherlock, then, begins to become an exemplar of the proper blend of reason and emotion by letting go of the rules that reason forces upon it's practitioners in favor of the freedom of imagination and guesswork.
     I tried Sherlock's method a few weekends ago while eating soup on a busy sidewalk. It was amazing how much clarity was given to that busy sidewalk simply by observing cobwebs and shoe soles and awning colors and imagining why they existed the way they did. It was as if a new layer of context was added to my perception. The BBC article highlights a Sherlock quote that I found rather wonderful. "You know my method," he says. "It's founded on the observation of trifles." 
     G.K. Chesterton, officially one of my favorite writers, authored a tremendously trifling collection of essays titled "Tremendous Trifles." Chesterton's method was the same as Sherlock's. I roughly quote one of Chesterton's witty phrases that sum up his perspective. "The most efficient form of manufacture," he writes, "is making mountains out of molehills." Chesterton waged war against the dogmas of rationality by hurling his spears of common sense. Chesterton shows us the next rung on the ladder to preserving the divine spark of emotion in a world of reason. It takes a bit of whimsy to read Chesterton, but he argues that the things commonly seen as abstract, (feeling, imagination, and the miraculous) are all far more reasonable and less abstract than the cold rigidity of reason itself. "But I would add this not unimportant fact," writes Chesterton, "that molehills are mountains; one has only to become a pigmy [...] to discover that."
     Yet, as John Gray states in his article, "it's not the methods used by the fictional detective that fascinate us. It's the contradictory figure of Holmes himself." To further investigate the contradiction that Sherlock presents us, I turn to a little college in Purceville, Virginia where Chesterton is not unfamiliar.
      I was blessed with the recent opportunity to travel to Patrick Henry College outside of Washington DC to participate in a rigorous two weeks of debating. I have never debated before, but the camp, taught by the family owned Ethos Debate company, certainly got me hooked. 
     Patrick Henry is a gorgeous little Christian college; the kind of place where Chesterton and Lewis can be found on all the coffee tables, and the glass trophy cases are devoid of sports trophies, but filled to overflowing with moot court awards, mock trial awards, and debate awards. There are only two main buildings on campus, and just ga few dorms surrounding a deathly bacterial pond lovingly titled Lake Bob. The healthy Christian environment of the politically oriented college provided an ideal backdrop for learning the ropes of formal debate.
     This part of my story began while staying awake in a lecture given by the brilliant professor of rhetoric at PHC, Dr. James Tallmon. And unlike some of the other lecturers, staying awake during Dr. Tallmon's talks was hardly a task at all. Dr. Tallmon played funny Monty Python clips. All we had to do was identify enthemematic lines of dialogue, convert the enthymemes into syllogistic construction, diagram the syllogism to locate the major, minor, and middle terms in addition to the hidden assumption before finally determining if that assumption was fallacious and, if so, what kind and to what extent. 
     Easy cheesy. During one of these clips, I raised my hand to humiliate myself by stumbling through the above process before concluding that the argument in the clip was indeed fallacious (built upon faulty reasoning) because it included an appeal to the viewer's pity. Without missing a beat, Dr. Tallmon asked me where I had been taught that an appeal to pity was a fallacy. "A book" I lamely replied, drawing a blank on the title. "Was the person who wrote your book a Vulcan?" Asked Dr. Tallmon, doing the Spock finger thing. "I should certainly hope not." I replied after a moment's hesitation. Dr. Tallmon gave a mysterious smile and returned to the lectern. 
     It turned out that that very evening, Dr. Tallmon was delivering another speech on this very topic. His core idea was simple: emotional engagement in discussion, argument, delivery, or the like is essential to remaining human. Without appeals to pity or appeals to fear or appeals to sentiment, we become "rationality machines." We become Vulcans. We deny the divine spark of mystery, faith, and feeling in favor of a logical framework, abstract numbers, and rules. Calling appeals to emotion erroneous, he argued, should immediately put up red flags.
     Dr. Tallmon is a big fan of the rhetorician Richard Weaver, a contemporary of C.S. Lewis who is considered to be the shaper of modern conservatism. In this second speech, delivered on the lawn, Dr. Tallmon read pieces from Weaver's treatise, "Language is Sermonic." Though Weaver's "sermonic language" was a bit heady and academic, his point came across decently enough. He writes, "the discourse that is favored today is without feeling and resonance, so that it is no exaggeration to say that eloquence itself has fallen into disfavor. Moments of great crisis to indeed encourage people to listen for a while to a Churchill or a MacArthur, and this is proof of the indispensability of rhetoric when men feel that great things are at stake. But today when the danger is past, they lapse again into their dislike of the rhetorical mode, labeling all discourse which has discernible emotional appeal 'propaganda.'" All the ten letter words aside, the passaged can be paraphrased, (as Chesterton prefers) with one-to-two syllable words to read, "Rick thinks that emotional speeches are frowned upon unless people need to be inspired when bad stuff is happening. But when the bad stuff is over, people go back to thinking that that emotional speeches are deceptive and untruthful and sneaky."
      Near the end of my time at PHC, I was given a speaking award in the form of a nice hardcover book titled "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die." Written in the style of Malcolm Gladwell's work (another of my favorite writers), the 300 page nonfiction guide outlined a six step checklist for communicating ideas. The checklist was contained in the acronym "SUCCESs:" Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, and Stories. Even as I write this complex, expected, wishy-washy, uninspiring piece of internet opinion, I am reminded of how terribly difficult communicating ideas is. However, the book summarizes Richard Weaver in two simple, concrete sentences: "How can we get people to care about our ideas? We get them to take off their Analytical Hats."
      Back to Holmes, the man who's simple deerstalker cap has become THE symbol of an "Analytical Hat." The new Masterpiece drama, which places Sherlock in the modern day, has an interesting interpretation of the deerstalker cap that fits snugly into my little connect-the-dots picture. Holmes personally detests the hat in the series, yet the media, after one incident, continues to associate the hat with the detective. "Why is it always the hat picture?" fumes Sherlock after seeing the front page of the daily news. It's a fitting picture of how the media plays up the logic, the reason, and the analysis while downplaying the substantive emotion. The BBC article picks up on this too. "Can we learn to be reasonable without expecting too much of reason?" Asks the writer. "Or will we blunder on, trying to remodel the world on rational principles that in practice produce chaos?" The world wants to believe that reason works, but underneath it all, the world subconsciously knows that reason doesn't work on it's own. Society simultaneously rejects the proper blend of emotion and reason, and desperately wants it. The BBC article continues to highlight the final link in the chain of the preservation of the divine spark when it says, "Seeming to find order in the chaos of events by using purely rational methods, [Holmes] actually demonstrates the enduring power of magic." 
      Magic. The supernatural. Emotion taken to its extreme. I have heard it said that Einstein, arguably the most analytical and rational figure in science began his career to some degree as a mystic, perhaps something like a Jewish Chesterton, before formulas and abstract mathematics led him away from pursuit of the divine absolute truth, and toward a relative (pun intended) scientific truth.
     Sherlock Holmes is the Einstein who, though still secular, is properly searching for an absolute truth somewhere out there in the supernatural realm. In The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, published in 1892, he asks, "What is the object of this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must have a purpose, or else our universe has no meaning and that is unthinkable. But what purpose? That is humanity's great problem, to which reason, so far, has no answer." Holmes never reaches a conclusion to this "great problem" but there are many of us who can safely and securely say that we have a one-up on Holmes because we do have the answer to that "great problem." The answer is that there is indeed a meaning behind "this circle of misery and violence and fear;" a living being who both created and redeemed this "circle" we know as earth.
     Eric Metaxis, a former writer at VeggieTales, biographer, and comedian said during a recent address in Grand Rapids that "You can't reason your way to faith in Jesus Christ any more than you can swim to Hawaii." Faith is something that is far from rational, yet is as concrete as the cement in your driveway.
      For me it vividly took the form of an emotional skit enacted by current PHC students. For others, it takes the form of an answered prayer, or a feeling of confidence or hope. 
      I have hope for our world. We're slowly becoming conscious of the fact that reason fails without a connection to emotion and to the divine. We see it in articles like John Gray's on Sherlock Holmes. We see it in the incredible, bestselling success of stirringly prophetic novels like Jonathan Cahn's "The Harbinger." We see it in against-the-grain media personalities like Glenn Beck. And hopefully we begin to see it in tedious blog posts like this one, however unmemorable they may be.

If you've actually read this far, go read some Sherlock Holmes stories. They're far more interesting.

If you just skipped to the end to look at the picture, you're the smart one.


Friday, August 3, 2012


"Beware the barrenness of a busy life." - Socrates

My summer has been a busy one, but it's also been a wonderful one. At the risk of falling into the barrenness that Socrates speaks of, I'll be taking a writing break for a few more weeks. Expect to see me again at the end of August. I thought I would share this completely unrelated photo though. Last monday was one of the most gorgeous nights in a long time.