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An Effective Approach to Teaching Writing

stevepb / Pixabay

When I went to school, students would turn in their major papers by the due date, or lose 10% per day for 5 days and then they’d get a zero.  When the papers were returned 2 or 3 weeks later, we’d ignore the underlined spelling mistakes, the little circles where the commas should have been, and the few comments written in red ink.  We’d just look at the mark at the top and toss the paper in the trash.  Funny thing, I got exactly the same mark on all of my English papers — a B.  I was happy with that.

I went to university without a clue as to how to use a comma, let alone write a paper.  I took only one English class in university–it was the basic one for people who were unprepared for university writing.  I didn’t earn close to a B.  There were many sections of this course; apparently my case was not unique.

Somehow I ended up being an English teacher.

Perhaps a lot of the responsibility for my failings as a high school writer rest with me, but I vowed that I would do anything I could to make sure that what happened to me, didn’t happen to my students.  To fulfill this promis, I would have to take a different approach to teaching students how to write.

Improving Student Writing

The first thing I did was eliminate was the deduction of 10% per day for late assignments.  Marks measure competence, and if they are used as punishment they no longer measure competence.  For the same reason, I don’t give zeros for assignments that are not turned in.  Another reason for my No Zero Policy is that I don’t think students have the right to decide to not to do the work and still pass the class.

The major feature of my system for teaching academic writing is to have students submit an early draft of their paper on which they receive detailed feedback.  They then immediately revise and resubmit their paper.

Students can turn a first draft.  This is optional, but most students choose to do it because they get a lot of individual feedback.  They receive a mark out of six on six different categories: 1st Paragraph (thesis), Analysis, Format, Organization, Expression, Conventions (grammar, punctuation, etc.).  They also receive a lot of comments. I usually return the papers within 12 hours of the time it was due.

Based on this feedback, students can make revisions and resubmit the paper.

The students who did not turn in the first draft, for one reason or another, receive feedback as well.  I dedicate a good part of the next class to going over the general issues I noticed in the drafts that I marked.  This feedback helps all students improve in their paper writing.

There are those who don’t turn in either draft.  These cases are referred to a Vice-Principal who employs any number of strategies that helps students get their work done.

Benefits to the Student:

  1. Higher marks: The second drafts are better than the first so the marks are higher.  Although students like the higher marks, this is not the most important benefit.  They’ve actually earned the higher marks because the papers are so much better.
  2. Better Writers:  Students are actually working with my feedback–trying to understand and apply it to their writing.  I don’t begrudge my high school teachers for writing little of significance on my papers, because they knew I wasn’t going to read their comments anyway.  I love it that my comments are read, even scrutinized, and then applied to significant effect.
  3. Immediate feedback:  Within 12 hours of turning in the paper students know what they can do to improve the next draft.  By making improvements to a paper just written, student learning improves. This is so much more effective than having to remember the comments on a paper written a month before and apply them to the new one.

How to Flourish

There are a few things that students need to understand in order to get the most out of this approach, to take full advantage of the learning opportunities.

  1. Use class time efficiently.  Class discussions, group discussions, and assignments all help with understanding the material on which the papers are written.  Take careful notes on the discussions.  All of the points you will make in your paper, are discussed, explored and referenced in class.  This is especially important for busy people and those who struggle to understand more conceptual content.
  2.  Start work on your first draft early.  Make the paper a priority.  If you are having a hard time getting your head wrapped around the task talk to me.
  3. If you have a lot of other things happening in the weeks before the due date, establish a work plan for completing the paper and keeping up with your other commitments.
  4. Turn in the best first draft you can.  The feedback you receive will be far more impactful on your learning if you submit your best work.  For the same reason, turn in a complete paper, including citations and a Works Cited page.
  5. If you can’t turn in the whole paper, turn in what you have.  I can give you a lot of good feedback on the first two paragraphs and a Works Cited page.  Just turn in these.  Just a caution, though–you will have more work to write your second draft.
  6. Don’t ask for an extension: If you do the above, you will learn a lot more and an extension will be completely unnecessary.

Read, “But can I please have an extension?”

How biased is your favourite news source?

A while back, I posted Vanessa Ortero’s Media Chart.  A new chart has been made that is even more detailed.

League of Legends versus Dota 2

League of Legends versus Dota 2 (Image from Cloth 5)

I play computer games.  Every Friday night at around 10:30, I connect through my gamer headset with the same group of guys.  Twice a year we gather for what is known as a LAN party.  We’ve been doing this for so long, I think it might be possible that our group invented LAN parties.  I’ve known some of these guys for 40 years, one (my brother) even longer.

My non-gamer readers can stop here, this will be irrelevant for anyone who doesn’t play computer games.

Over the years we’ve played many different games.  Some stuck around for years.  These included Doom, Age of Empires, Counter-Strike, most of the Call of Duty series, and League of Legends (League or LoL).

About 5 years ago, DotA 2 (Dota) showed up on our radar.  It is very similar to League.  My brother was working at Valve, the company that makes the game, and he was very eager to have us play some Dota on Friday nights.  Because he was my brother, I played without complaint, but I didn’t like Dota very much. It was frustrating.  I liked League way better.  It was simpler and more familiar.  Why mess with a good thing?

My attitude about League and Dota has changed in the last year.  Not everyone in our Friday night group feels the same way.  Lately, on most Fridays, we play a game of each, but we’ve rarely played a game of Dota without verbal complaints identical to my silent ones of a year ago.  The purpose of this post it to articulate why I now like Dota 2 better than League of Legends.

It’s not that one game is inherently better than the other.  It is simply that each is designed to offer a different gaming experience.  In a nutshell, League of Legends is more about the timing and execution of the skill shot.  The skill shot—the mechanics are designed to serve it, items are designed to enhance it, combos are built around it, and mana pools are deep to feed it.   Aggression and mechanical skills are rewarded in League.

I’m not sure if it’s my fingers or my brain, probably both, but have never been very good with timing and precision.  All games require them, but in some, but don’t have the same emphasis on speed and accuracy.  A long time ago I came to realize that I like games that create unique narratives.  I like baseball better than basketball for this reason.  Age of Mythology better than Rocket League.  I enjoy the Search and Destroy mode in COD 2 much better than Team Death Match because, win or lose, I enjoy the story is created.

I like Dota 2 better than League of Legends because the former creates a better story.

Dota 2 creates a richer narrative than League of Legends

Heroes/Champions:

In League of Legends, there are five main roles.  ADC, support, mid, top, and jungler.  Although some Champions blur the boundaries between them, these roles are fairly rigid.  The descriptors of the main roles in Dota 2 are carry, disabler, initiator, jungler, support, durable, nuker, pusher, and escape.  Each of the five Dota heroes in a particular game has a different combination of several of these qualities in different proportions.  The effect is that there is a lot of flexibility in how and where a hero is played.  Carries, for instance, can be found in any, and even all lanes. Roles aren’t set in stone—there is no ADC (that always goes bot and is always accompanied by a support) for instance.  In Dota you can have a tri-lane; I’ve played two such games this week.  There’s no need to have a hero dedicated to jungling.  Supports in Dota, depending on the specific hero, have much they can do.  They lane block and deny.  They can push or stack camps for gold-hungry carries and pull creeps to neutral camps in order to maintain an advantageous lane equilibrium.   They can be the first to rotate to other lanes that need support.  They can be aggressors and are often initiators in fights and bring game-changing abilities in team fights.

Another element adding flexibility to Dota 2 heroes are talents.  At every fifth level, a player can choose between two traits, unique to each hero on the talent tree.   This means that the character of Abaddon in this game can be different than that of Abaddon in the last game.

In Dota, hero identity, lane assignments and roles are fluid.  All this to say that the individual hero identities and roles are fluid and adaptive, making each game unique from the starting horn.

Items:

Item selection further increases the uniqueness of a Dota hero and therefore builds more unique narratives. Each hero has a different set of core items making each significantly different than any other hero.  But that’s not all; the situational items can take a hero is very different directions. A support hero can become more of a carry if circumstances warrant.

In League, builds don’t create as much of this differentiation—there is also a lot of similarity in builds within particular roles.  Most ADCs, for instance, buy the same items as the other ADCs.  The items in League tend to focus a character even deeper into their role.  This is not a bad thing.  It’s a deliberate part of League’s design.  Items are meant to increase the power of abilities.

In Dota we find different priorities.  Items take a hero in different directions.  Items can enhance strengths or reduce weaknesses, and they do so in the context of the game/story.  They are used to counter abilities or items on the other team, or to a shift to a new team strategy.  Consequently, it is not possible to “complete your build” in Dota 2.  The story keeps shifting even late in long games.  There is always another item to purchase to help you given the particular story/game in which you find yourself.

Game Play:  

In League, with its emphasis on skill shots, commands to move, attack, or spell-cast happen very quickly—you can move, shoot, slash or cast in any direction instantaneously.   Dota has longer animations; the heroes need to turn before they can move or shoot in a new direction.

Again, League is about the skills, so the instantaneous use of these skills is the priority.  To this end, League has large mana pools.  Dota has more innately powerful abilities, but they cost you a lot more in mana to use them.  Consequently, they have to be used more sparingly.  Both the more powerful abilities and the inability to spam them, contribute to the narrative.

Team Fights in League are short and fast-paced.  In Dota there are more of fights, they are longer and they can have various phases.  In Dota there are more buttons to push, but many of the abilities and items are more forgiving with timing and mechanical skill.   There is more time to see the effect of each successful cast or item used. All this combines to enhance the narrative quality of team fights.

In Dota, more expensive items are less effective in relation to how much gold it cost you to get them.  In League, the opposite is true; the more expensive the item, the more efficient it is in relation to the gold spent.  This leads often leads to one team “rolling” the other team because of significantly higher net worth.  Teams can’t come back as easily.  Hence the surrender option—why continue if the ending is obvious.  In Dota, there are ways to of dealing with a gold deficiency or an over-fed carry on the other team.  Comebacks are much more likely and comebacks make for great narratives.   This is why there is no surrender option.

In Dota there are more fights because of teleport scrolls.  Teleport scrolls are also one of the reasons why Dota 2 is more of a team game.  Smoke which makes invisible all heroes in a certain proximity is one of many items that involve the entire team and is used in a coordinated team action.

Dota games tend to be, longer consequently, the victory is sweeter and the defeat more bitter—comedy or tragedy.  Either way, the story is better.

Complexity:

Much of the frustration that new players experience in Dota 2 is a direct result of its complexity.  This is particularly true of those who have played a significant amount of League of Legends which is more streamlined around skill shots and mechanical skills.  The complexity of Dota arises from heroes and items, but the complexity does not end there.

The League recall takes you back to base.  The Dota teleport scrolls take you to the base and to any tower or fountain.  Further, in League you can select teleport as a summoner spell before the match starts; if you didn’t buy it, you can’t get it, but in Dota, any hero can buy boots of travel if conditions merit.

In Dota, trees can be destroyed through various means so as to improve the vision of wards.

Healing can be done at fountains.

In Dota 2 we have the courier to deliver items, and they can be killed.

There is denying creeps or towers.  You can buy limited items in lane shops and other items exclusively in secret shops.  There are buy-backs, stacking and pulling.  There is the day/night cycle and high-ground mechanics—more complexity.  I could go on, but you get the idea.

Some people don’t like this complexity.  Those who are new to MOBAs might prefer the relative simplicity of League.  I know from first-hand experience that those who have played a lot of League will find these elements frustrating.

I eventually overcame my frustration with Dota because I got used some aspects of this complexity, although I still have much to learn.  I began to understand that the differences weren’t just pointlessly complicated ways of doing a simple task, but elements that made every Dota game unique—I realized that the flexibility and complexity contribute to the narrative quality of Dota 2.

It is truly pointless to argue that one of these games in inherently superior to the other.  If your first MOBA was League of Legends, the only problem with Dota 2 is that it’s not League of Legends and vice versa.  If players give each game the necessary time to truly understand the relative merits of each, some will naturally like League’s more streamline skill-oriented play.  Others will like the complexity and flexibility of the narrative that Dota provides.

I happen to be one of the latter.

 

 

Synthesis essay

In British Columbia there is an exam in English 12.  It’s on the way out, and it will be replaced with a Literacy Assessment.  Both of these assessments have a major essay where students are expected to synthesize the contents of two or more pieces of writing while responding to a specific prompt.

Here are 8 tips to help you write the best essay of which you are capable.

1. Understand the texts

One of the things this assessment is trying to determine is the degree to which you understand what you read.  Misunderstanding one of the texts is not good, so here are a few suggestions to help you understand the texts.

  1. Thoughtfully answer the multiple choice questions.  One or more of these will often indicate the points at which a text might be misunderstood.  If you think it over, you may be turned toward the correct interpretation.
  2. Read the texts more than once.  Slower readers might not be able to give both texts a second equally thorough reading, but give each a quick re-read to see if you come up with better insights the second time.  This is particularly important for the poem.

2. Address the prompt

If you don’t address the prompt, you get a zero.  Don’t be subtle about this either; be really clear you are doing what you are asked to do.

Most of the time, the prompt will ask you to compare and/or contrast some aspect of the two pieces: How are two things similar–themes, characters, etc.? Which shows more preparation, dedication, courage, etc.?  Sometimes you will be asked to discuss how a character or the author in one reading would respond to something in the other.

I strongly suggest you annotate the prompt–pause for a moment and highlight the key words in the prompt and make sure you clearly understand your task.

Do what the prompt asks.  Don’t do something else:  Don’t evaluate goals.  Don’t write about conflict. Don’t write about need. Don’t write about determination.  Don’t write about nature.  Don’t write about diction, literary devices, or imagery. Don’t write about what you’d do.

Even though these pieces may nicely lend to one or more of the above, resist the temptation and limit your discussion to the prompt.

3. Introduction and Thesis

The introduction need not be long.  You want to set up your thesis statement and in doing so, name the selections and identify the authors.

Your thesis statement comes at the end of your introductory paragraph.  The thesis statement is key.  And it’s all about the prompt.  Your thesis statement is the answer to the question implied in the prompt.  Consider this prompt:

Discuss the qualities that Erik Weihenmayer in “Blindly He Goes…Up” and Uncle Jim in “Versabraille” share in facing their challenges.

The implied question is. What qualities do Erik Weihenmayer and Uncle Jim share in facing challenged?

Your thesis statement, then, will be something like this:

When facing challenged, both Erik Weihenmayer and Uncle Jim are courageous, resourceful, and motivated.

With a thesis statement like this, you have almost certainly avoided a zero, and are well on the way to achieving at least a  16/24 on this question.

A last note about your thesis statement: don’t over state your thesis.  If the prompt ask you to assess which selection shows more courage, don’t say that the one is courageous and one is a complete coward.  Both sides are usually defensible.  Good readers and writers understand nuance.   You will most likely argue that while they both show a lot of courage, ______________ shows more because ______________ .

3. Body Paragraphs–BE SPECIFIC!

This essay must be multi-paragraph.  The instructions explain that this means “3 or more paragraphs.”  Although it all depends on your thesis, you should be thinking in terms of at least four paragraphs.

Your English teachers have probably talked about topic sentences for years.  Now is the time to use them.  The first sentence in each paragraph will deal with some aspect of your thesis statement.  Using the above example, your first body paragraph will be about how each, Erik Weihenmayer and Uncle Jim, exhibits courage, the second will be about the resourcefulness they share and the third will explore the high degree of motivation we see in each.

Support for your assertions must be specific.  In what specific circumstances was Uncle Jim courageous?  How exactly do his actions indicate he is courageous?

If you know how to use “run-in” or integrated  quotations, do so.  If you don’t, work pay attention to these lessons in class.

Your paragraphs need to be a balance between references to the text and an explanation as to how they support your analysis.  A lawyer will not just hold up an evidence bag containing a bloody knife with fingerprints, she will also explain how this evidence points to the plaintiff’s guilt.  You too will need to provide evidence for your assertions, but will also need to provide an explanation as to how this evidence supports your assertions.

Make sure you use transitions between your paragraphs.

4. Organization

There are two basic approaches to organizing your essay: block and point-by-point.

Block                                                                             

Intro

Paragraph discussing Erik W’s courage, resourcefulness, motivation

Paragraph discussing Uncle Jim’s courage, resourcefulness, motivation

Conclusion

 Point-by-point

Intro

Body paragraph discussing courage of Uncle Jim and Erik W.

Body paragraph discussing resourcefulness of Uncle Jim and Erik W.

Body paragraph discussing motivation of Uncle Jim and Erik W.

Conclusion

Sometimes the combination of prompt and selection of literature lend themselves toward using block, other times toward point-by-point, but generally, average writers use the block and stronger writers use point-by-point.  Point-by-point can allow for a more sophisticated synthesis, but it should only be used by a writer that is capable of this level of synthesis.  After you read the prompt and the selections, make up your mind which you think would generate the best essay for you to write.

5. Synthesize!

The danger of the block organization is that you will write about both pieces, but fail to synthesize.  One solution to this issue is to have a good thesis statement–one that explicitly answers the prompt.  If you do this, at least one sentence in your essay is bringing the two passages into dialogue, so you’ve likely avoided the zero.

Synthesis in a point-by-point essay will happen automatically.

Most of the synthesis in the block approach occurs in the second body paragraph.  In your discussion of the second text, regularly refer back to your discussion of the first text in support your topic sentence/thesis statement.

6. Don’t do Summary

As you discuss each selection in the body of the essay, don’t spend to much time summarizing the plot, or retelling what the poem says, or rehashing the ideas in the article.  Your audience, the markers, know exactly what happens in each.

Your task is to answer the prompt/prove your thesis.  Use the text to complete this task.  By summarizing what occurs in the story, poem or article, you may accidentally also address the prompt, but this sort of incidental success will be far less effective than a focused discussion of your thesis.

7. Nuts and Bolts

  • The exam instructions give a 300-word minimum.   With a decent thesis statement and adequate explanation, your essay will be about 600 words.
  • For this exam, you will be reading a story, an article, and a poem.  Make sure you refer to them with the proper label.  Narrative, excerpt or informational text work as well when appropriately applied.  It is usually not appropriate to call any of these passages a novel.
  • Use the word, but use synonyms as well.  “The word” is the main word in the prompt.  Upper-level writers will use this term sparingly, replacing it with appropriate synonyms.
  • Know the difference between then and than – if you don’t know the difference, go with than.  Because this is usually a comparison essay, that will be the right one most of the time.

8. Don’t write like this

Control of language is a clear indicator of a good writer.  Here is a sample of student writing:

It is only through close examination that the revelation of qualities shared by the protagonists becomes apparent.  It is through examination of the two stories that the reader understands . . .

This writer has said nothing in these 30 word.

The best way to get a six is to be a good writer who has the ability to read between the lines for or above the lines of the text.  But regardless of how good a writer you are, these tips will help your earn the highest possible score on the English 12 provincial exam and the future literacy exam.

 

Time is Like a Lava Lamp

Bru-nO / Pixabay

I don’t know why we think that every minute is like every other minute; we certainly don’t experience time in this way.

The Elasticity of Time

Shakespeare comments on the elasticity of time in Romeo and Juliet.

Sad hours seem long. — Romeo

In a minute there are many days. — Juliet

Cervantes records the same experience.  I just finished reading Don Quixote where I found the famous knight finds time moving slowly.

Night, longed for by Don Quixote with the greatest anxiety in the world, came at last, though it seemed to him that the wheels of Apollo’s car had broken down, and that the day was drawing itself out longer than usual, just as is the case with lovers, who never make the reckoning of their desires agree with time.

These great works of literature present time as we experience it ourselves.

When drawing I lose all sense of time, but when cooking it moves quickly, often too quickly for me to get the potatoes mashed.  When sitting in a Christmas concert presented by young children with bells in their hands, time rasps slowly along, but it moves with even more heaviness in a hospital waiting room.

The trend in Western society is towards homogenizing experience–we’ve attempted to do the same with time.

Time and Technology

Our understanding of time is greatly influenced by the devices we use to mark it–they have become the metaphor by which we understand time.  Our modern clocks–both analogue and digital varieties–divide the day into homogenous hours, minutes and seconds.  Even old-fashioned hourglass divided time up into identical grains of sand.

We need another metaphor for time as we actually experience it so that we can begin to think about it differently.

The Lava Lamp

Sometimes time moves slowly, other times quickly; the goo in lava lamps moves up and down in various speeds.  We experience time, not only as minutes, but moments; lava lamps have these moments.  That’s why we like to watch them; we are anticipating the next moment.  The moments we experience surge around us and engulf us and lift us and then they dissipate.  Moments of Joy and Sorrow and Grace move through our experience as rising and falling blobs of iridescent lava.

Not only is this a much richer way to think of time, it is much more descriptive of our experience tha, the mechanical tick-tock-tick-tock of the ubiquitous wall clock.

The lava lamp is a much richer metaphor for time, more descriptive of our experience than the mechanical tick-tock-tick-tock of the ubiquitous wall clock.Click To Tweet

 

“The White Knight”

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Where does evil come from?

We’ve got two choices: It comes either from within or from without.

How one answer this question can hinge on how one understands the relationship between Good and Evil.  If we think they are completely separate, then we will tend to divide the world up into the things that are good and the things that are evil.  We will likely work very hard to align ourselves with the good and avoid, or even do battle with, evil.  We will distance ourselves from people who do things that we deem to be evil, for their words or deeds or views that are contrary to ours–the “good”–will show their alignment with evil.  If, in fact, good and evil are absolutely distinct, living this way is essential because we will be thinking and acting in accordance with reality.

But what if this is not an accurate description of the relationship between good and evil?  Then we will be getting ourselves into a lot of trouble because we are not living in with reality.

When we assume that evil is external, we are likely to do all sorts of evil for failing to deal with the evil that resides in our own hearts. #goodandevilClick To Tweet

The Bible begins by telling us that God made everything and that everything he made was good (Genesis 1:31).  It also tells us that sin affects all people–“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and all things–“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22).  All the things that God declared good, are still good, but they have also been distorted by evil.  This truth makes it impossible to find anyone or anything that is purely good, or purely evil (and determines how one reads Philippians 4:8).

Alexander Solzhenitsyn had it right when he says,

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.

In Mark 7:15 Jesus criticizes the religious leaders for isolating themselves for those they deemed morally inferior–“evil”–pointing out that  “it is what comes out of a person that defiles them” not what comes from outside of them.

The allegorical tale of the White Knight beautifully illustrates what happens when we have a too simplistic view of good and evil and, consequently, fail to attend to the evil that resides in our own hearts.

THE WHITE KNIGHT
by Eric Nicol

Once upon a time, there was a knight who lived in a little castle on the edge of the forest of Life. One day this knight looked in the mirror and saw that he was a White Knight.

“Lo!” he cried. “I am the White Knight and therefore represent good. I am the champion of virtue and honour and justice, and I must ride into the forest and slay the Black Knight, who is evil.”

So the White knight mounted his snow-white horse and rode into the forest to find the Black Knight and slay him in single combat.

Many miles he rode the first day, without so much as a glimpse of the Black Knight. The second day he rode even farther, still without sighting the ebony armour of mischief. Day after day he rode, deeper and deeper into the forest of Life, searching thicket and gulley and even the treetops. The black knight was nowhere to be seen.

Yet the White Knight found many signs of the Black Knight’s presence. Again and again, he passed a village in which the Black Knight had struck – a baker’s shop robbed, a horse stolen, an innkeepers daughter ravished. But always he just missed catching the doer of these deeds.

At last, the White Knight had spent all his gold in the cause of his search. He was tired and hungry. Feeling his strength ebbing, he was forced to steal some buns from a bake shop. His horse went lame so that he was forced to replace it, silently and by darkness, with another white horse in somebody’s stable. And when he stumbled, faint and exhausted, into an inn, the innkeeper’s daughter gave him her bed, and because he was the White Knight in shining armour, she gave him her love, and when he was strong enough to leave the inn she cried bitterly because she could not understand why he had to go and find the Black Knight and slay him.

Through many months, under the hot sun, over frosty paths, the White Knight pressed on his search, yet all the knights he met in the forest were, like himself, fairly white. They were knights of varying shades of whiteness, depending on how long they, too, had been hunting the Black Knight. Some were sparkling white. These had just started hunting that day and irritated the White Knight by innocently asking directions to the nearest Black Knight.

Others were tattle-tale grey. And still, others were so grubby, horse and rider, that the mirror in their castle would never recognize them. Yet the White Knight was shocked the day a knight of gleaming whiteness confronted him suddenly in the forest and with a wild whoop thundered towards him with leveled lance. The White Knight barely had time to draw his sword and, ducking under the deadly steel, plunge it into the attacker’s breast.

The White Knight dismounted and kneeled beside his mortally wounded assailant, whose visor had fallen back to reveal blond curls and a youthful face. He heard the words, whispered in anguish: “Is evil then triumphant?” And holding the dead knight in his arms he saw that beside the bright armour of the youth his own, besmirched by the long quest, looked black in the darkness of the forest.

His heart heavy with horror and grief, the White Knight who was white no more buried the boy, then slowly stripped off his own soiled mail, turned his grimy horse free to the forest, and stood naked and alone in the quiet dusk. Before him lay a path which he slowly took, which lead him to his castle on the edge of the forest. He went into the castle and closed the door behind him. He went to the mirror and saw that it no more gave back the White Knight, but only a middle-aged, naked man, a man who had stolen and ravished and killed in pursuit of evil.

Thereafter when he walked abroad from his castle he wore a coat of simple colour, a cheerful motley, and never looked for more than he could see. And his hair grew slowly white, as did his fine, full beard, and the people all around called him the Good White Knight.

Humans are Amphibians

Gellinger / Pixabay

Humans beings are amphibians.  This is because, as C. S. Lewis says, we are “half spirit and half animal. As spirits [we] belong to the eternal world, but as animals [we] inhabit time.”

Because we are amphibians, we experience two realities–one linked to the physical world and the other to the spiritual.

The Measurable

The material world has the qualities of height and depth and weight and temperature–these are all measurable. To measure is to compare the whole to one of its parts. A can of Coke can be broken down into millilitres, a human body into pounds and inches.

By their very nature material things are can be broken down into parts. This divisibility is closely related to mutability.  All material things are subject to change. If a student puts the apple on my desk on the last day of school in June, I will find the gift greatly altered by the following September. This holds true even if the gift was a diamond, although the time would be considerably longer for the alterations to be noticed.

As human beings, we are aware of the measurable and the mutable–it is part of our identity. We are material; we are animal.

The Immeasurable

But we are aware of something else that is just as essentially part of us as the material elements–an immutable element. Luigi Giussani (The Religious Sense)  identifies idea, judgment, and decision as aspects of the human individual that are unchanging, indivisible and unmeasurable. He offers an example of each:

    • Idea: We have an idea in our head of something we call “goodness.” When I was a child, I thought my mother good. Even after all these years, I use the same criteria to determine that my mother is still good–this idea is unchanging.
    • Judgment: My declaration, “This is a piece of paper” will still be true in a billion years.
    • Decision: The act of deciding that I like a specific person establishes forever the definition of the relationship.

These things do not change on their own, like the diamond or the apple necessarily do. The ideas, judgments, and decisions endure. The decision may be wrong, I may discover the person I liked had betrayed me and now I no longer like them, but this is a new decision. Each is indivisible and unchangeable in itself.

The point of all of this is to recognize that both the measurable and the immeasurable aspects are part of the experience of our “I”.  And we should not reduce our experience to one or the other of these two realities.

The important conclusion one can draw from all this is that the animal (body) and the spiritual (soul) are not reducible to each other.

Mom Crashes Sex Ed Class

cocoparisienne / Pixabay

On my way home from a haircut after work last Friday, I heard a brief interview with a woman who had gone to her son’s grade 9 sex ed class. This was in a public school in Michigan. She got angry enough about the perspective being presented that she hollered obscenities at those leading the class.

I agreed with some of her objections to what was being presented to the children.  The view of sex that was being promulgated by the speakers was faulty.  She does not seem to be aware that her position begins with the same faulty premise.

Both the presenters and the angry mom believe there is a profound separation between the spirit and the body.

The Presentation

One of the speakers told his story. He had a challenging past involving an alcoholic father and getting a girl pregnant. He ended up dating and then marrying a different woman who had practiced abstinence.

According to Dreger, the man concluded his talk telling the boys that they should look to marry a girl who says no. Dreger’s was very angry about presenting these conclusions to young people because it shames those girls who say yes–girls that she describes as those who “enjoy sex.”

When we talk about sex with young people we must be careful. The message of abstinence must be delivered without shaming those who are sexually active. It is important to let children know that abstinence is a state to which one can return. I do object to the implication that people who say no to sex, do so because they don’t, or wouldn’t enjoy it–those practicing abstinence have a pretty good idea that sex is enjoyable.

It’s the whole shaming thing that made Dreger lose it. Here too, I agree with Dreger. But she seems to link between advocating abstinence and being ashamed of sex. Of course, these can be linked, but one doesn’t necessarily follow the other.

As a side note, both the interviewer and Dreger seemed to be under the impression, perhaps they are right, that the main (or only) purpose of sex education is to prevent unwanted pregnancy. This strikes me as a very narrow purpose.

Faulty Premise

Ironically, Dreger’s view and that of the presenters which so angered her (at least the way she characterized it), both have similar roots going all the way back to the ancient Greeks–the belief that there is a profound separation of body and spirit.

One view has a negative idea of the spirit and the other has a negative view of the body.

For some, the separation results in the belief that the transcendent is essentially non-existent, thus sex is a solely physical event.

It seems as if Dreger fits into this category, and the presenters in her son’s sex ed class (as she characterizes them) fit into the other–where the separation results in the belief that the body is inferior to the spiritual and therefore a corruption of the spirit. Dreger quite correctly objects to the denial of the inherent goodness of sex which comes with this view, but to view sex as simply physical is also, in my opinion, a degradation of sex.

The Integrity of Body and Soul

There is a third view avoids this degradation, and celebrates both sex and abstinence, by understanding the integrity of body and spirit. It’s the view of sex found in the Bible, and there it’s described using the term “one flesh.”

One flesh is built the understanding that body and soul are one, and it refers to a new entity created by two individuals in the marriage relationship.  Sex is only one piece of the “one flesh” paradigm. It’s much more than a physical–the marriage partners become one in every other way as well.

Once married, all relationships change–with mother and father, with friends, and particularly with every member of the opposite sex. There are changes in the food I eat, the movies I watch and how I spend my time. My money becomes our money. My big TV becomes our big TV. The physical act of sex is representative of this new entity created by marriage.

You can see why many Christians believe in abstinence before marriage, not because sex is something bad, but that it is a part of a much bigger picture. In the Christian mind, you can’t separate the sex from all the rest without degrading the sex. Just as it would be foolish to share all your banking information with someone with whom you have no commitment, it would also be crazy to share a bed with them.

This idea seems strange to our culture. How can my body–the site of the self–not be mine and mine alone? It’s an alien idea because we are so committed to the autonomy of the individual, that we are repulsed by the idea of belonging to another in such a significant way.

If we are nothing more than animals, we might as well enjoy the pleasures of sex when it feels right–it’s only natural. But if are something more than animal, and that everything we do with our body is linked to every other aspect of our being–including a spiritual reality–then we might look at sex a little differently.

This is a Biblical view and those who follow its truth believe that sex is a wonderful thing that is best enjoyed when it is shared along with one’s whole life. Placing sex in this context elevates it from the level of a shameful act, but it also lifts it way beyond the level of a pleasurable, animal act. If you are going to be pro-sex, it seems to me the Biblical approach is the best.

I agree we with Dreger that we should be honest with children about sex. But honesty about sex looks different from different perspectives. For me this means we tell children how good it is and also that it’s a part of giving one’s whole life to another.

Scripture and Truth

stevepb / Pixabay

Does scripture have the final say in truth?

I had never heard of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral until it came up in a few sermons. And the way it was applied concerned me a little and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Although John Wesley never spoke of a quadrilateral, his writings apparently indicate that he drew his theological and doctrinal conclusions from four sources–tradition, experience, reason, and scripture.

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral

I like abstract constructs like the Wesleyan Quadrilateral; it is a useful tool for us to understand that we derive our theological opinions, both individually and collectively, from many sources–namely,

  • tradition,
  • experience,
  • reason
  • and scripture.

This is handy because we have theological disagreements in the church where the participants believe that their position is true because it is derived from scripture alone; it is, as far as they are concerned, the only legitimate position. This allows them to dismiss or even demonize their brothers and sisters in the Lord who hold to a different interpretation.

The problem in these conflicts is we aren’t aware of the other influences that shape our understanding of scripture.

My Problems with the Application of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

Initially, I struggled with the way the Wesleyan Quadrilateral was applied in the sermons when I first learned of it.  Let me paraphrase what I think was said from the pulpit:

Theological truths are derived from tradition, experience, reason and scripture, but the greatest of these is scripture.

In one sense, this is appropriate because of the four, scripture alone is inspired by God. But my concern is that in claiming scriptural supremacy, we end up in the scenario described above, where combatants simply claim their view of what scripture says and the only correct view.

Each element is influenced by the other three. It would be nice if scripture stood alone and could be brought in as the final word, but scripture is mediated by the other components. Rationalists incorrectly believe that reason is uninfluenced by the others, but they too are mistaken.

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a useful tool for us to begin to understand that our theological ideas come from different sources, but this tool must be understood as an over-simplification of very complex issues.

So what then is the proper attitude for arriving at doctrinal or theological truth (or any truth, for that matter)?

The Moral Rule

Luigi Giussani applies this moral rule:

Love the truth of an object more than your attachment to the opinions you have already formed about it. More concisely, once could say, “love the truth more than yourself” (31).

The Wesleyan triangle is useful here. By acknowledging that our theological positions come from a complex blend of tradition, experience, reason, and scripture we can begin to understand our attachment to preconceptions and prejudices. We can’t simply pretend these attachments aren’t there, but we can take of a position of detachment relative to them–really, it is a detachment from ourselves before the truth.

Giussani suggests that this imperative is articulated in Matthew 5:3 when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The poor are those “who have nothing to defend, who are detached from those things that they seem to possess so that their lives are not dedicated to affirming their own possession” (32).

This ethical imperative places the self under the truth–it comes down to loving the truth more than you love yourself. Before we’ve detached ourselves from our preconceptions, we will use scripture to defend ourselves.  Scripture takes up a position with us, often in opposition to the truth.

But if we have done the very hard work of separating our selves from the truth, scripture takes up a new position, not in the defense of self, but in the articulation of truth.

Faith versus Reason

Faith no parachute

This was an image on Facebook.

It portrays a popular understanding of faith.  It describes what we might call blind faith. The adjective blind distinguishes this faith from reasonable faith–or simply, faith.

Faith versus Reason

There is a popular, but mistaken, notion that religious people base their conviction of the existence of God on a faith that is opposed to reason.  I am mildly frustrated when I read this error in an online rant from some guy trying to prove religious people are idiots because they are so irrational.  But what really drives me nuts is when Christians to it.  Both the atheist and the theist are mistaken when they think faith is the opposite of reason.

The Importance of Reason

Reason is really important. It is important that Christians are reasonable. Without reason, faith will become nothing more than sentiment. The more sentimental faith becomes, the more it will be pushed around by the values of the dominant culture, or some mutant form of Christianity.

Christians need to understand that reason is not a bad thing–God made it.  It is important that we clarify terms.

What Reason is Not

Luigi Giussani’s in the second chapter The Religious Sense discusses what reason is not.

  1. First, rational is not the same as demonstrable.  This is the empirical approach which says that a thing is true, only if we have evidence. (I will point out that this principle itself is not empirically verifiable, so empiricism is self-refuting as a complete theory of knowledge.) There are many things that are rational, that are not demonstrable.
  2. Second, rational is not the same as logical. Logic is all about coherence. It is logical to say, as my son once did, that creatures eat what they like; beavers eat trees; trees taste good. It’s logical but based on a false premise–not rational.

Logic and demonstration are two of the tools in the hands of reason. Reason, as it has been understood for millennia, and as it is lived by every human being who has ever lived, is much bigger than the merely demonstrable or logical.

Giussanii says that rationality is adherence to reality, and because reality is so very big and deep and wide, rationality is a lot bigger than we often think. There are different procedures for using reason–all depend on the object.

  • It is rational to say that water is H20. My certainty comes from a scientific or analytic procedure.
  • It is rational to say that (a+b)(a-b)=(a² -b²) The procedure here is mathematical.
  • It is rational to say that a woman has the same rights as a man. This claim is based on a philosophical approach: all humans are equal; women are human; women are equal to men.
  • It is rational to say that my mother loves me. This moral or existential certainty is derived from many thousands of encounters with my mother.

Importantly, we can be in error when using any of these methods. But we will always be in error–we will be irrational–if we use the wrong procedure. The method one uses is dictated by the object. It would be irrational of me to attempt to use the philosophical procedure to attempt to understand the chemical composition water.   It would be equally irrational to use the scientific procedure to determine a mother’s love for her child. When I sit down to dinner at my mother’s house, I do not need to test the food to know that the food isn’t poisoned. It’s irrational for me to think it is. It would be irrational to have to test each component of the meal in order to ascertain that it was safe for consumption.

We aren’t being rational if we are limiting reason to only two or three categories.

A Definition of Faith

Now for a definition of faith.

When we are not talking about blind faith, we are talking about faith in relation to reason. Giussani’s definition of faith is “adhesion to what another affirms.” Faith is unreasonable if there are no adequate reasons for the faith.

I have reasons to adhere to what my doctor tells me about exercise.  I have reasons to believe what others tell me about the molecular composition of water. I have reasons to believe in the eyewitness accounts of Christ’s resurrection.  Faith is reasonable if there are reasons to adhere to what another affirms.

Imagine if humanity never practiced this type of reasonable faith. We’d never move forward because each individual would need to start at square one.  I’d have to study the effects of exercise on the cholesterol levels myself.  We’d never get anywhere as a civilization.  So, I accept it as true and act accordingly. It’s rational to do so, because I have good reason to believe it to be true. So even the knowledge made certain by the first three methods require faith.

Perhaps these definitions of faith and reason are still unacceptable to some, but these are the definitions that human beings live by–they are the definitions most attuned to the reality of lived experience. If one lives by them, one can be said to have a personal relationship with reality.

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