Saturday, October 17, 2009

Let another praise you and not your own mouth, a stranger and not your own lips--ethics

Perhaps the domain of life in which Proverbs 27:2 sticks with me most lately is ethics and reputation. I have known a few people, Christians, who have been set on defending their own honor and dignity. What is curious about one of these Christians is he is also fond of Ayn Rand lately and fond of propounding the idea that dignity and respect are not inherent but most be earned. I would like to know how this fellow reconciles his insistence that dignity in humans is not inherent but most be earned with his conviction that abortion is morally wrong, since a woman could decide that her rights and body supercede the consideration of a fetus who has not as yet justified its existence by earning the dignity and respect which are not inherent to its contingent life. I'm waiting to hear back from him about how he reconciles the live for yourself and humans have to earn their dignity with his opposition to abortion. It may take him a while, he's not as grand a philosopher as he thinks he is.

Meanwhile, when one's integrity and honor are called into question it hurts. When someone assumes the worst about your character there is nothing you can say that will change that. A brother offended is more difficult to win over than a fortified tower. This highlights the essential problem with defending your own honor and integrity is that the very nature of honor and integrity is that it is given and received, earned through the testimony of your life, word, and works. The very nature of honor is that it is given to you by others and the nature of integrity is that it speaks of your character precisely when you are whoever you are, not simply you you think you are.

If, then, you defend your honor you are defending the reputation you think other people should have about you based on your assessment of yourself, which may or may not be realistic and sober-minded as the scriptures urge us it to be. Additionally, your integrity is displayed by how you speak and act toward others and, if you have it, can be spoken for on your behalf by others. The harder you try to defend your honor and integrity instead of letting those speak for themselves in day-to-day life the more you risk revealing the possibility that by so vigorously defending the two you may find you have neither.

Those who profess Christ can easily forget these things. Indeed, when a crisis comes there are some Christians who do not realize that some Galilean peasant named Jesus said whoever humbles himself will be exalted and whoever exalts himself will be humbled. I have seen men exalt themselves and then end up being humbled. I have seen people pretend to humility while ultimately exalting themselves. I have, however, seen some humble people who have, at length, been exalted sometimes despite the fact that they are still profoundly flawed, sinful people. I have seen men defend their own honor and integrity and not realize that their reputations preceded them, which was precisely why they did not appear to even have honor or integrity evenif they may have had it in some form or another.

Those who consider themselves to be worthy of being great or highly esteemed tend to believe their reputations have been hurt more badly than it actually has been. If you are offended that your view of yourself has been harmed that may not mean your actual reputation has suffered. I don't mean to suggest that one does not speak up for one's own honor or dignity in the face of abuse, but that honor and dignity come from bearing the image of God. Let another praise you and not your own mouth, after all I have just seen too much of men who take offense when their reputations, they believe, have been dragged through the mud without considering how often they themselves dragged the reputation of others through the mud, perhaps not so far as libel or slander but bad enough.

Those who praise themselves eventually come under derision. In the last ten years of his life Michael Jackson became the butt of endless jokes about his transformation from a black man to a white woman, or that he was a child molester, and the like. In fact if we were to hazard a guess as to the time when this mutation in public perception happened it might have begun to happen around the time he crowned himself King of Pop. It is to Mr. Presley's credit he did not much like the label "King of Rock and Roll".

The proverbs are not as straightforward as first appears. Many of the proverbs are nearly riddles that invite us to reflect on how and why they are true. The proverbs are in their own way mercurial and limited yet that amounts to another consideration for another time.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Let another praise you and not your own mouth, a stranger and not your own lips--the arts

Now if I were to say that Hilary Hahn is a brilliant violinest, a thoughtful musician and a beautiful woman this praise would not seem too extravagant because, after all, she IS a brilliant violinist, a thoughtful musician, and a beautiful woman. Few things are sexier than a smart, beautiful woman who plays music by Bela Bartok and Charles Ives!

Now if Hahn were to say this about HERSELF it would seem self-aggrandizing and might even vitiate those claims, perhaps not completely, but significantly. Perhaps her publicist would receive the credit or blame for describing her in these terms, but I submit that if she gave this praise to herself and was entirely serious that it would diminish her stature (figuratively, if you've ever seen her in person you know she's not a giant).

I am considering this because self-promotion is obviously a part of the arts and, I must confess, one of the things I really dislike having to ever do. I have what is probably the naive notion that the quality of one's work will speak for (or, just as importantly against) itself. I have also seen a few people in my life delude themselves into thinking they have what it takes to become artists of some kind. This troubles me not just for the sake of friends who look like they are setting themselves up for the colloquial "epic fail" but for the sake of people who don't realize they are essentially buying into their own hype.

Yet I can muster some sympathy for these people who are precipitously buying their own hype through hope and ambition, because I have shared in those idealistic dreams of becoming an established artist or musician or writer who can actually get paid money by people for doing something in the arts. I can't really look down on someone who wants to write a novel and have it published and make money off of it I may privately question the wisdom of planning out a trilogy of novels when one hasn't so much as published a single short story in his or her life but I can't fault a person for aspiring to write. Writing is wonderful.

In the same way I can't fault someone for loving the visual arts. My older niece has been getting into the arts and I have been pleased to see her plugging away at different ways of using colors. She is now 8 and last year impressed me with a monochromatic composition in which she used different shades of yellow-orange to denote the background (darkest), middle-ground (medium), and foreground/subject (lightest). She may well have been copying something she saw somewhere else and it's great for an eight year old girl to do that, I'm still positively pleased that she made a crayon drawing of a bumblebee browsing flowers that employed different shades of a single hue to create the sense of spatial relationships. I'm a proud uncle who is happy to brag about his niece. She may not be able to consciously articulate why she even did what she did but she did a good job, especially for her age. At the risk of trafficking in too many proverbs, those who really care about the arts tend to care about them early. What we often describe as "talent" emerging at an early age is often simply the application of disciplined action out of unaffected love.

I have come to wonder if unaffected and affected love may be the most telling difference between an artist and the poser. It may be the blunt line of demarcation between knowing you have worked to get where you are (even if that's "nowhere") and thinking too much of your work and simply believing your own hype. It turns out the line is not very subtle and can be summed up in the proverb about receiving praise from others and not praising ourselves. I have seen at least two negative examples of this in my life over the last ten years but here I will only discuss one of them.

I had a friend for a while who was aspiring to be an artist--not a particularly close friend all things considered, more of an acquaintence in the end. She had some raw potential to be an artist (and still does) but all of her paintings essentially amounted to the same thing with a handful of variations on her subject. She never varied her color pallete, always a combination of warm colors with a few neutrals and some cooler hues. Thirty or so paintings all looked pretty much the same. She was (and is) a one-trick pony.

Now this would be fine by itself. She has, at best, a slightly higher-than-average equivalent of a high school education (home-schooled). No one would expect her to have a particularly sophisticated grasp of the elements and principles of design. She does not come from a particularly artistic family.

Her trouble is that, unfortunately, she has her paintings priced four to five times beyond what anyone would reasonably expect to pay for her work, given how obvious it is that she's a one-trick pony with no real formal training. Precisely how she arrived at her exorbitant prices is still something of a mystery but the second I saw the actual prices she was asking for I realized she was asking for anywhere between five to even ten times as much money as her paintings were worth. She had her works displayed in a few little spots around the city over a few years and people would come by and remark how they might consider buying one of the paintings but few actually bought one. To the extent that anyone has bought her paintings they might realisticallly be considered as much a form of rental assistance as paying for the worth of the painting itself. This was a girl who as yet has not displayed a keen insight for picking reliable roommates.

So far as I know she isn't even painting anymore and has moved on to photography. Her photographs, give or take a few nice, lucky shots, reflect the kind of design sensibility I have seen in 9 year olds, I'm afraid. She is clearly not thinking through her approach to composition so much as indulging in a child-like curiosity about everything around her.

Still, that will be good, if it spurs her to continue developing her craft as an artist ... but I hesitate to call her an artist at all. The youthful impulse to find something that "fits", that you can do without it feeling like too much actual work, is understandable. It is also how almost any person at any age fancies themselves to be into the arts when they are more into feeling special. That's what boyfriends and girlfriends are for, right?

Right now she is simply another home-schooled kid with the equivalent of a high school diploma who has dreams of being an artist and doesn't realize that when you're literally a nobody in the art world you command "nobody" prices. A few friends have bought her paintings, friends in the sense of being supportive of her rather than necessarilly people she actually treats as friends, but I fear these friends have sent the wrong message to this girl. She may infer from the friendliness of friends that her prices for her mostly unsold paintings are reasonable.

Not merely to speak of others, when I was in a band ten years ago that band never went anywhere. We just didn't find a real audience for what it was we were doing and living life was just too important to set other considerations aside, especially after the drummer got married and he and his wife had their third child. It was sad to see the band spinning its wheels for years but an honest assessment of the situation is simply that the band wasn't going to go anywhere despite our faith that our material was solid. Your own estimation of the quality of your work simply doesn't matter if OTHER PEOPLE don't believe in the quality of your work.

There is an old song that says, "you're nobody til somebody loves you."
Where working in the arts is concerned that "somebody" is the stranger. We do not get validation in our capacities as artists from family or friends, though they may encourage us. You discover whether or not your work (whatever it is) speaks to someone and brings some joy or insight or thought to their lives when the stranger invests in what you do.

The reason the young girl with aspirations of being an artist remains a nobody and will remain a nobody is because she has not done work that has won over a stranger. The stranger can look at her work and not be biased by the optimism of seeing the potential for more in what she is doing. The stranger will simply see the actual work itself, in its entirety, and probably be able to say, "Well, she's obviously a one-trick pony who has an unrealistic sense of the monetary worth of that trick and lacks the imagination to risk displaying and exploring other visual concepts.

Until she lowers her prices, branches out to doing more than forty iterations of the same thing, and comes to a more realistic assessment of what a nobody she is, she won't even be an artist, just a poser with delusions of grandeur. I wish it were otherwise, but my suggestions that she apprentice with established artists and learn more of the conceptual and technical tools of the trade seem to have gone without any consideration.

She will, I'm afraid, be better off as someone's girlfriend or wife and get her sense of feeling special or unique from that, which means she's defaulting to the upbringing she seems to have had: that becoming some man's woman was the highest earthly goal for her. As the soldierly axiom has it, when the crisis hits you revert to training and given that her training seems to have been to become a significant other I shouldn't be surprised if that's what she has settled on, even if she might consider that a rebellious act in terms of how she has attained that status. If she is serious about the arts I hope she persists but over the last two or three years I haven't seen any compelling evidence she is that serious about it yet. I don't have much confidence in her because she has too much confidence in herself in contrast to her actual competence, which seems to be a generational weakness in the family.

My hope for this girl, if she is serious about art, is that she will take seriously the implications that people are not yet willing to pay for her work who do not already know her in a social setting. I say this as a sympathetic nobody. If she believes her prices are fair the power of the art market will disabuse her of her illusions. The power of the artist is to create but the power of everyone else is to decide to pay or not pay money for that. She'll have to let someone else praise her work through actually buying it instead of thinking of herself as a capable artist because her ego requires that, her parents sold her on the idea, or her thinking she should be able to command this or that price because people she knows charge the same thing.

But there is hope for her if she gets a dose of reality, which reality tends to provide regardless of our feelings about it! If it turns out she just wants to make money there's always getting a real job. If it turns out she wants to feel special she's young and pretty enough to get almost any boy she would consent to be with. One of the advantages of youth is that beauty can sometimes compensate for undeveloped character among paramours who are willing to accept that trade off.
Despite what I have written I am more optimistic for her sake than for others I have met.

This proverb about letting others praise you rather than yourself also has application in ethics and I may turn to that application in the next few days.

Let another praise you and not your own mouth, a stranger, and not your own lips--job hunting

Sometimes I wonder if in ancient Isrelite culture people had anything equivalent to resumes. Resumes are supposed to be great big, grand, brief, but honest advertisments for why YOU ... SHOULD HAVE THIS JOB. I so wish I was thinking about this topic for abstract reasons!

Ancient Jewish culture just doesn't come off like the kind of place where anyone wrote resumes saying, "This is why I am qualified for this job." Or is that supposition possibly mistaken? Is it possible there were ways of getting the word out you were actually good at something? There had to have been because David was quickly reocgnized is a capable young men. Paul, after the resurrection of Christ, could say to one of the churches, "You are our letter [of recommendation]". Clearly in ancient societies there were ways of having one's renown established.

If a person were particularly skilled they would rise to particular prominence. There is, after all, another proverb that says: Do you see a man skilled in his labor? He will serve before kings. He will not serve obscure men. So we know that people who are truly distinguished in their work rise to be distinguished in who they serve.

This is the part where I can't help thinking about Paul's admonition to assess yourself with sober judgment. The job I had until recently was a job I liked, mostly, but a job that I admit could sometimes have been more intellectually challenging and had me more active. God willing, I hope to have a more intellectually stimulating and active job when next I am able to work.

Now I wonder about the tension between the literal reading of the proverb and the principle that may be applied in one's job search in America these days. I've got nothing. I have no particular wisdom about this stuff. It sometimes seems as though Christians in America may say that the proverb applies to a culture that doesn't fit our time, much as evangelical Christians have said C. S. Lewis reflected his ignorance of the goods of capitalism when he pointed out that biblical Jewish laws about lending money at interest either forbid the practice outright (Deuteronomy) or place important restrictions on it (Exodus, Leviticus).

If we take the Torah as a narrative whole it becomes apparent that restrictions on lending at interest progressively become complete prohibition against lending at interest within the people of God (which got no mention by Driscoll during his unfortunately miserable Nehemiah series, where he said that lending money at interest was necessarily against the laws of those times, even though for a group attempting to return to Torah practice after coming back from exile Nehemiah could reasonably have been expected to freak out once he realized he and other prominent leaders among Israel were breaking the law of Moses by lending money at interest to their own people). In other words, popular pastors can sometimes find ways to skate over teachings in Scripture that indict someone in Scripture he implicitly cast himself as. Nehemiah's response was serious and took the relevant biblical texts seriously by his own account, which is at least what we can say about the author of that book in the scriptures.

My impression is that Christians today would say that a resume should be a good sales pitch for yourself, honest, but still a sales pitch.

I have plenty of time to wonder how this proverb about not praising yourself and letting another do it applies in job hunting. I suppose the most obvious application about be professional references. People want to be sold on your qualifications but they also want to know you're not making things up.

I have to admit that because of the kind of Christian I am I have NO IDEA how any Christian can take Proverbs 27:2 seriously and then go into marketing!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"Character is destiny"

If memory serves this aphoristic nugget was given to us by Heraclitus. To be sure I have not read the collected works of Heraclitus in literally a decade but his cryptic, aphoristic writing has a way of sticking to the inside of the brain the way peanut butter gets stuck in the mouth. His pithy statements tend to linger in the memory the way the smell of cilantro embeds itself into tupperware.

Both the Greeks and the Jews made much of character being one's destiny and the early Christians took this up, though with the caveat that in Christ one's character can be transformed. In this respect Christianity offers hope through Christ that as one's character is transformed by the work of the Spirit one's ultimate fate is changed. This is not to say that Jewish or Greco-Roman thought made no provision for a change of character. In fact the whole point of wisdom literature in any religious or secular tradition is to urge the reader to change their current path to something new.

Taking the axiom that character is destiny then would it be pertinent to propose that the more set in your ways you are the more certainly your destiny will unfold? This may be why the scriptures say that the stubborn man who stiffens his neck after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed and be broken beyond repair. The proverbs also tell us that a selfish and unfriendly man isolates himself to seek his own desire and breaks out against all sound counsel. Those who are certain they are right beyond any doubt and those who are proud about it are setting themselves up for disaster. Both the Jews and the Greeks agreed on this.

I am getting just old enough now that, sadly, I may have seen people who have been stiff-necked in the face of persistent reproof and may be broken beyond repair. These sorts of people are convinced of their own rightness or greatness and that the real problem is outside themselves in the injustices of others. They can't look inside and see in themselves the propensity to the same kinds of sins they see in others. I don't go out of my way to discuss these things with them very often because I have observed, as far as I can, that they are stiff-necked people who refuse to listen. Letting them be broken by the application of their own wisdom may be all that I can do.

And for my part, who am I that I should suppose I can speak to someone else about their stubborn refusal to see reason? If I love someone enough I can suggest some dangers in the options they consider but in many cases that is taken as a sign of disloyalty or dishonor so it has been better to let people reap what they sow, often to their financial or personal detriment, than to attempt to reason with them once they have demonstrated that they won't receive suggestions, often after having made it clear they are open to telling me what I have to do based on their accumulated wisdom. Do you see someone who is wise in his or her own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for that person.

But the message of Christ is that now is the acceptable time of the Lord. We are invited to see who we truly are and not just who we pretend to ourselves we are, to repent of deceiving ourselves, and to follow Christ. In Christ, new creation. As we follow Him our character can change and be conformed to His likeness. Those who believe in this promise of the Lord and follow Him have an opportunity to change. Our changed character not only changes our destiny in this age but the age to come. Those who trust that they are just fine where they are and don't need to change may one day find themselves broken beyond repair. But Jesus, who can raise the dead, can be our hope even then. The Gospel is that Christ's character becomes our destiny because he bore the consequences of our character.