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Reading is a prerequisite for effective participation in cultural and political process in the postindustrial, postmodern world. Though the published literacy rate for the United States is still over 90 percent, that number reflects only minimal competence. Reading well—reading discerningly, critically; contextualizing appropriately; understanding implications; making distinctions between what is literal and what is figurative; asking questions about sources and bias—is far less common. Even the competent readers I have worked with in college classrooms generally have a long way to go before they can read with the kind of discriminating eye and critical tools required to interpret difficult, ambiguous, antique, or specialized texts appropriately. That’s why we continue to teach reading at the college level; more remains to be learned about how language works. One online discussion of literacy rates reminds us, “literacy skills are complex and span . . . a range of proficiency shades, while literacy rates assume a sharp, binary distinction between those who are and those who aren’t ‘literate.’ ”

Semi-literacy is arguably more dangerous than illiteracy. Simplistic readings of important texts have led to violence: consider what happens, for instance, when the Bible or the Constitution is read selectively, out of historical context, in order to promote a singular political agenda. Far too many wars have been fought over competing readings of the Bible. Variant readings of passages in the Constitution bring constitutional lawyers into vociferous public debate.

So when someone crisply announces that they’ve read the four Gospels and know what they say, or have read Moby-Dick and find it boring, I wonder what they mean by “read.” It takes more than one reading—sometimes many—to glean all that some texts offer.

— Marilyn McEntyre, Speaking Peace in a Climate of Conflict

For company, you often prefer those who find you interesting over those you find interesting.

— Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes

The liturgy of thanks expresses the church’s culture of gratitude. “In everything give thanks,” Paul says (1 Thess 5:18). And again, “always give thanks for all things” (Eph 5:20). Saying thanks at the Lord’s table trains us to receive everything with thanks (1 Tim 4:4–5).

We’re inclined to grumble. Complaint becomes habitual. Ingratitude is institutionalized in media, political, educational systems devoted to critique. Contemporary culture is designed to foster discontent. The Eucharistic liturgy challenges cultural habits and institutions and infuses the lives of Christians and churches with perpetual thanks. It Christianizes culture by filling our mouths with the words of God: “O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good” (Pss 106:1; 107:1).

— Peter Leithart, Theopolitan Liturgy

Just pause

Another practice that I have found helpful when I’m tempted to pass snap judgments or settle for simplistic arguments is to pause. Just pause. Wait before agreeing with a persuasive speaker; pause before offering an opinion; let there be a little silence around the edges of any statement—my own or others’—in which to hear whether it rings true. Pause when something on the page in front of you gives you pause. Then go in before you go on: wonder what it was that stopped you. Follow whatever wisp of feeling or shadow of a question was triggered by some word choice or image or claim. Spend a little time between the lines, behind the words. Tug on the threads that dangle from them. See what comes. What comes is likely to complicate the message and the moment. Welcome complication. Another word for it is richness. Complexity is the mother of surprise.

— Marilyn McEntyre, Speaking Peace in a Climate of Conflict

Meditation is a way to be narcissistic without hurting anyone.

— Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes

Our speech to one another is supposed to be a response to the speech of God. God says, “Speak truth in love” (Eph 4:15) and “Lay aside falsehood, and speak truth to your neighbor” (Eph 4:25). If we respond rightly to His word, our words to one another will build communities of truth and love, cultural habits and institutions that embody hope and justice.

But we don’t. We don’t speak rightly back to God, and so we don’t speak rightly to one another.

After Adam sins, Yahweh comes to the garden to speak to him. It doesn’t go well (Gen 3:8–13). Yahweh calls Adam to appear before Him, but Adam is hiding among the trees in fear and shame. Confronted with his sin, he doesn’t confess, but blames Eve and ultimately blames God.

Everything’s upside down. Instead of responding to a call to worship, Adam slinks out from hiding. Instead of confessing, he targets the closest scapegoat. The dialogue doesn’t end with benediction but malediction, with Yahweh issuing curses against the serpent, the man, and the woman. It’s the Bible’s first liturgy, but it’s twisted. It’s an anti-liturgical dialogue.

When Adam’s dialogue with God gets spoiled, so does his dialogue with his wife, his sons, his eventual neighbors. He submits to the serpent, whose wickedness is linguistic wickedness. Human speech becomes diabolical, full of lies, half-truths, seductions, temptations, threats, hatred, and anger. We speak like the serpent, with forked tongue.

Speech is corrupted, and so are all the common practices that rely on speech. Patterns of common life and the institutions that carry communities become infused with lies, slander, gossip, boasts, blasphemies. Husbands accuse wives instead of defending them. Parents denigrate children, and children defy parents. Sellers deceive buyers. Legislators write unjust laws, judges favor the rich or the poor, presidents and prime ministers manipulate public opinion through slick media campaigns.

The world comes under the dominion of the father of lies.

The God who creates by Word re-creates by Word. The eternal Word becomes flesh in order to redeem man and society. He enters our linguistic disorder to put it back in order so that our speech to God and one another is what it ought to be, restored to truth, love, hope, and justice.

Here’s where the liturgy comes in. The liturgy of the church restores language so that it becomes what it’s intended to be: a medium of dialogue with God and one another, the common practice that facilitates other common practices. By putting our fragmented language together again, the liturgy of the heavenly city repairs the common life of the earthly city of man.

— Peter Leithart, Theopolitan Liturgy

Complexity is not the opposite of clarity. Oversimplification is a dangerous tool—deceptive, manipulative, and alluring. As columnist Ellen Goodman once said at the conclusion of a talk about journalism, “The bottom line is always ‘It’s not that simple.’ ” To speak with integrity in the public square is to insist on more than the sound bite; to insist that there are more than two sides to an argument; to insist that authentic debate move beyond either/or questions, three-point plans, and slogans. One of the arts we need to cultivate for the common good is the craft of simplifying without dumbing down—making sophisticated ideas accessible without avoiding complexity. Good popularizers are servants of truth and faith and democracy; they make it possible for those of us who haven’t had a chance to study physics or Hebrew or medicine to consider the merits of space travel or the ambiguities of Scripture or to weigh the tradeoffs among treatment plans with some basis for opinion and choice.

— Marilyn McEntyre, Speaking Peace in a Climate of Conflict

A subject they don’t understand

Today, we mostly face the choice between those who write clearly about a subject they don’t understand and those who write poorly about a subject they don’t understand.

— Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes

“God the Bear” by Luci Shaw

GOD THE BEAR by Luci Shaw

Our God is a great bear
who leaves his pawprints
on the snowy trail of the lives
we are called to live, convincing us
that He was here, now His moving
there. And though, as the sun
summits the high peaks, the graphics
of his purposes begin to thaw,
we’ve seen what we have seen.
The tracks invite us to step up
into the glisten of melt, over rocks
and rough scree. And though it is
out of sight, somewhere up there,
the summit raises its head with
such splendor that our blisters and bruises
are simply healed at the sight.

God is our liturgical space. In an ultimate sense, He’s all we need. The church can worship in catacombs and caves if she needs to. God will hear and delight in our praises. He is redeemed space, the one safe place in a world of displacement.

But the church has never been satisfied with catacombs and caves. She’s built buildings for worship. Biblically, that’s the right instinct. The liturgy redeems place and therefore should take place in places. So the church has rightly sought to make the reality of God’s presence public, visible in the world. Whenever the church has the freedom to build, she has carved out spaces for liturgy. Following Scripture, she tries to reflect God’s glory in stone, glass, and wood.

Some Christian traditions describe churches as “sacred space,” but that phrase is liable to be misunderstood. As I said above, in Israel “Sacred” is a “No Entry” sign. Israelites can’t enter the temple because the temple is holy and they’re not.

The Christian church doesn’t have any sacred spaces in this sense. Jesus opened the way and brought us all in. He tears the veil that separated the sacred space from the outer court. In Him, we’re all saints, “holy ones,” because we’re united to Jesus through baptism. Every believer has access to the heavenly sanctuary; all are “in Christ,” at home in the eternal communion of Father, Son, and Spirit. We are the glory that consecrates the Lord’s house.

Under the new covenant, places are “consecrated” in the way everything else is: by thanksgiving, the Word, and prayer (1 Tim 4:4–5). Every saint consecrates everything he receives with gratitude and prayer. Every congregation makes a church building holy by giving thanks.

But holy things aren’t forbidden things and holy spaces are no longer closed spaces. Christian churches shouldn’t be designed to exclude or to communicate that the laity is further away than the clergy. Like the bread of the Lord’s Supper, a church building is a “holy thing for holy people.”

Christian churches have been, and should be, Biblemade-buildings. Like Eden, the tabernacle, and the temple, churches have often been built on an east-west axis, with the congregation facing east, enthroned with Christ and awaiting the sunrise from on high. They should resemble the garden of God. The roof vault looks like the ribs inside a ship because the church is Noah’s ark on the dangerous seas of the world. Christian churches have been, and should be, architectural embodiments of God’s glory. Cathedral spires soar up toward heaven. Stained glass windows rainbow the sunlight. Statues and pictures of heroes and saints remind us we worship with the dead as well as the living.

Christians who built such churches understood what they were doing. They understood the creation as a temple. They knew culture is the bridge between the initial and the final temple. They put their cultural skills, styles, tools, and materials to use in building churches that anticipate the new heavens and new earth, the heavenly temple-city. They seasoned the world with sanctuary-gardens, outposts of new creation. We should continue their work. If you walk into church and groan, “I hope the new creation is nothing like this,” something is badly wrong. We aim at a gardenified world. Gardenify the liturgical spaces first.

— Peter Leithart, Theopolitan Liturgy