Posts Tagged ‘truth’

Evolution of type design and the quest for Christian truth

September 2nd, 2009 No comments

I used to worry about what was true.  Now I spend more time trying to figure out what truth is.

At this stage of the game I find if I strongly disagree with someone, especially on theological matters, is often isn’t because we have come to different conclusions, but rather because we are asking different questions.

This tension has been made all the  more clear as I have wandered into the world of post-modern epistemology (if there is such a thing).  Many of my close friends fear that doing so has driven me to a place where any concept of truth is discarded; yet for me, I have made no judgments on truth itself, only on our own ability to comprehend truth.

So what does this have to do with type design?

Helvetica Documentary

Helvetica Documentary

The other day I watched a 1.5 hour documentary about the Helvetica typeface. Despite the seemingly mundane subject manner, the movie was quite interesting as it followed the rise of this Swiss font from the 1950’s to its ubiquitous status as the work horse of graphic design in the modernistic era.  You see Helvitca is an extremely “clean” font that supposedly could be used to convey pure meaning without getting in the way.  Rather than using hype and idealism, modernistic design (and the Helvetica font) could simply tell things as they were.

To put it visually, just look at these two coke ads:

Idealistic, life is beautify.  You drink coke because it will make everything great.

1950s: Idealistic, life is beautiful. You drink Coke because it will make everything great.

1970: Direct, unassuming, to the point.  You drink Coke because it is real.

1970: Direct, unassuming, to the point. You drink Coke because it is authentic.

For a while people soaked up this simple, direct style where everything had its place.  But eventually people began to realize that not everything in life fits into clear categories–in fact, life is hectic and chaotic and to ignore these aspects is not to be authentic.  This led to post-modernism where all the rules were thrown out and meaning was understood to be more in the experience than the text itself.   Unfortunately this way of thinking (and designing) eventually spiraled downward into a subjective mess of jumbled words and ideas.

Postmodern poster design with multiple fonts, jumbled information and chatoic layout.  Credit: Dustin Parker

Postmodern poster design with multiple fonts, jumbled information and chatoic layout. Credit: Dustin Parker

In this way modernism was a response to the idealism of the 1950’s and then postmodern design emerged in contrast to the orderliness of modernism.  While each stage developed as a way to be “more authentic” in the end, each failed because it refused to take in the whole picture.  Life is not perfect, life is not always orderly, but at the end of the day it is not complete chaos either.

I have found many approaches to Christianity mimic these stages of design.  Some people preach a Christianity where once you are “saved” all your problems go away.  This is just n0t true and breaks down under the smallest amount of scrutinizing.  Some people think that Christianity is very clear cut and if you study Scripture close enough, you will be able to categorize all things into right and wrong / black and white / in and out.  This too is niave as it fails to take into account the complexities of the world and the ambiguity of scripture.  Finally, some people approach Christianity in their own way and refuse to acknowledge the coherence and direction it does provide.  These people are willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater leaving a religion stripped of its power and uniqueness.

In design, the best pieces are those that can open a window to a better world, clearly convey information and emotion, and at the end of the day, strike a personal chord that is rooted in authenticity.

Clean, powerful, authenitic.  See other great posters that combine these attributes here.

Clean, powerful, authentic. See other great posters that combine these attributes here.

Our approach to Christianity needs to be similar.  We need to believe the faith we follow is moving us to a better place, yet acknowledge the pain and suffering of this current world.  In fact, the vision we have of the ways things can be is what should drive us to make it so.  When it comes to scripture and truth, we need to trust in the power of the narrative of scripture, yet also be willing to acknowledge its short comings and the holes in our own understanding of it.

I believe scripture does paint a clear picture of what it means to be the people of God and participate in the will of God.  At the same time, am not willing to assert simply believing in God will solve all the world’s ills, nor am I confident in saying we can distill pure truth from the Word of God.  Instead, I think Christianity is messy, yet follows a clear direction.  I don’t have all the specifics, but I feel I am wandering the right way.

Sotomayor – Determiner of Truth

August 17th, 2009 6 comments
Sonia Sotomayor

Sonia Sotomayor

I am bit behind the news cycles with this post, but I did not want to miss the chance to comment on the role communities play in determining truth.

On August 6th, the US Senate confirmed Sonia Sotomayor as the 111th  Supreme Court Justice in the United States.  By all accounts her confirmation was relatively smooth sailing despite the partisan bickering found mostly on the fringes of the discussion.   With her 68-31 confirmation vote she became just the third woman and the first hispanic to sit on our nation’s highest court.  This selection process revealed a lot about our nation, but it also provided a lens through which we can view and understand the nature of “truth.”

While the confirmation hearings were generally calm, many lambasted her as being an “activist judge” and several organizations openly opposed her selection.  The most most notable was the NRA, who submitted an official letter calling her views on the 2nd amendment into question.

If you read the letter and followed the arguments against her, you will find the people who stood against her did so largely because the disagreed with the way she understood the law.  The reason they were so adamant in their opposition is because they realized at the end of the day, it does not matter what any individual thinks a law means, but rather, what the majority of the supreme court thinks it means.  The NRA and other conservative groups want like minded thinkers to be on the court because they realize the what the second amendment (and all laws) truly means is not static, but rather is interpreted.  Literally, the law means whatever the court says it means.  You can disagree, but you will be wrong.

It is interesting when you think about how the leanings of the courts affect this.  At certain times in our nation’s  history, the truth of the law was more conservative.  At other times, it was more liberal.  But what was constant is that legal truth was determined by the supreme court and the community of people who formed it.

Morality functions in the same way.  The only difference is the communities who determine it are much larger.  Think of misogynistic practices and slavery.  At one time these practices were considered acceptable and moral — but obviously this is not longer the case.  Did the morality of the acts change?  No.  Rather, the communities who determine morality changed (over time).

I have learned from many conversations that many people are not comfortable with this discussion — especially Christians who believe in the absolute truth of scripture.  The problem is that the meaning and “truth” of scripture have changed more often than our Constitution.  If you don’t believe me just read a survey of how various commentators have understood The Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke.

Truth is not individually relative.  That is to say, we all can’t go around making up what things mean.  But at the same time, it is dynamic.  Truth is determined by the communities who are willing to earnestly seek it.  It is my hope that each of us will take the question of truth seriously, just as we expect Sotomayor to seriously question what the truth of the law is in every case she is presented.

10 Ideas

July 30th, 2009 No comments

First… an apology to all my readers (all 8 of you… 6 if you don’t count Beth and my mom).   On July 14th Beth and I started a series of ten top 10 lists.  We tried to post daily, but unfortunately I have gotten a bit behind.  That has partly been because of craziness in life, but also because I have been a lot of thought in this final list.  So far we have explored the things that we enjoy, the things we want to do, and a few things about us.  If you have followed along closely, you might have learned a bit about what type of person I am.  I believe that underneath these lists are core ideas that define me as a person.

In reflecting on life these last two weeks, I have examined the concepts that drive me as a person.  In my mind, they all are synergistic and guide my day-to-day living as well as the larger direction of my life.  Here are the 10 ideas that define me as person.

  1. Trajectory of Redemptive History – I first picked up this phrase in Dr. Sandy Richter’s Intro to Old Testament my first semester at Asbury Seminary.  Since then, it has been the primary way that I understand the work of God, God’s people, and the narrative of scripture.  The idea is simple: Since the beginning of history, God has been working in and through his people to bring all of creation to redemption and restoration.  I do not believe the world is constantly descending into more and more evil and pain, but rather, it is consistently moving to place where all wrongs are set right and life is as it should be.  Martin Luther King Jr. expressed this concept when he said, ” The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  In regards to this central idea to my life, I must highly recommend Dr. Richter’s book The Epic of Eden.
  2. Kingdom of God – During the summer of 2006 Beth and I hosted a Bible Study for college students in our home.  We looked through book of Matthew at all of Jesus’ references to the Kingdom of Heaven (Kingdom of God in other gospels).  Simply put, it completely changed the way I viewed the message of Jesus.  In the 6 months that followed, my entire approach to Christianity began to morph.  This was one of the most formative and painful times in my life.  The concept of the KofG is complex and simple at the same time.  It is in essence the world where God gets his way — it is a world redeemed and restored.  I am convinced Christians are a part of the KofG and called to bring it about.  There is a constant tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of this idea.  A good intro to this concept is N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus.
  3. Nature of Truth – During my time of theological and philosophical transition (which, while coinciding with my entry into Seminary, was probably more of a push back to what I was learning than the result of it) one of the primary things I gave thought to was the nature of truth and how we know what we know.  I have written an extensive piece on my conclusions (this blog is actually titled after this paper).  To summarize, I believe there is truth, but it can only be understood through our flawed human existence.  Our worldview will always skew our perception.  This has led me to be more humble in how I understand knowledge and open to others conclusions.
  4. Interpretive Communities – If truth is dynamic (or at least flexible in our understanding of it) how do we reach conclusions on what is?  Stanley Fish has given me the framework for answering this question.  Truth is shaped by the communities we are a part of.  I have discussed the practicalities of this in this post.
  5. You must be the change you wish to see in the world – This quote is from Ghandi and is pretty self explanatory.  I tend to be fairly cerebral and will process thoughts on societal change in my mind quite frequently.  I constantly ask ‘What does it look like to have the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”  Sometimes I think I have the answer, other times I am overwhelmed.  But consistently, I must be reminded that knowing change is needed is useless if nothing is being done to bring it about.  I have spent way too much time trying to convince others to change, when in reality, I must first embody the change I wish to see.
  6. Pacifism – I have increasingly found as I explore the implications of Kingdom theology that if I want to truely follow Jesus, it requires radical pacifism.  This is one area where I feel my Mennonite brothers and sisters have a lot to teach mainstream evangelicals.  This is a topic I wish to explore further in the coming weeks.  Look for a full length post (or 3), but until then, I urge you to ponder the implications of this quote from MLK:

    Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.

  7. Knowledge is power – This sounds odd to me when I list it out, but the essence of this idea play out regularly in my life.  This does not mean the more degrees you get the more influence you have, or that the most powerful people are the most learned.  Instead, it refers to ability.  If I have knowledge of how to fix a lawn mower, I can help my neighbor out in a pinch.  If I can speak another language, I can learn more about a person and their situation.  If I understand a person’s situation, I can empathize and appreciate them more.  Unfortunately, the withholding of knowledge can be used to oppress and subjugate.  That is why I find great power in open and non traditional learning.
  8. Stewardship of Creation – Because of the way I view the world and the Kingdom of God, I hold firm to the belief that all people are called to participate in the protection and redemption of the world.  While this included environmental responsibility, it also points to the belief that all people are part of a larger world and the needs of all must be considered.
  9. Umbuntu – This is an African concept that can loosely be translated “I am because we are.”  It focuses on the interconnectedness of all people and the need for mutual respect.  It also captures the way community identity shapes personal identity.  It is the antithesis of individualism.  In the past few decades, many of the leaders I most respect have used this idea to being about peaceful reconcilliation.  Here is a clip of Desmond Tutu discussing the concept of Ubuntu:
  10. Prophetic Imagination – In his book The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann discusses the role of the prophet in brining about a better world.  He claims a prophet must be able to project a world as is it can be so we can see past the world as it is.  In doing this, he identifies two modes: criticizing and energizing.  Basically he says at times a prophet must speak out against injustices, and at other times a prophet must speak about things that can happen.  However, at the end of the day, the prophet must embody this alternate reality.  This tension between criticizing and energizing is put plainly by Ben Harper when he asks, “what good is a critic with no better plan.”  In fact, his whole song “Better Way” exemplifies this concept.

Closing note:

As I upload this final post in the my series of ten Top 10 lists, I just wanted to say how much I have enjoyed writing them and have been encouraged by the response I have received.  I am very thankful Beth decided to join me in writing out her lists.  It was a great experiance to work through this process of self-reflection together.  If you have not read her posts and are interested in them, you can view them here on her blog: A Sugar-Mamma’s Thoughts

Gun Control, The Constitution, and Interpretive Communities

June 19th, 2009 No comments

*This is a repost of a prior facebook note.

I have been having a conversation with a few guys about gun control laws in the US. This has moved into a discussion of the proper reading of the Constitution. Because my current studies involve understanding the role of Interpretive Communities in finding the meaning of authoritative documents, that has come into the conversation as well. Below are some excerpts:

I think a discussion of gun control must include a discussion of the constitution. Let me be clear from the start – I believe the constitution is THE authoritative document concerning the rule and government of the United States. If something is truly unconstitutional, it should be squashed. I will resoundingly agree with those who say that “this document defines the USA”

Now comes the rub. Despite our agreement on the constitution’s authority, we all read the document differently. In fact, there isn’t a single correct way to read the constitution by which all other readings and readers must be held accountable. A perfect example of this is our Supreme Court, which has the authority (and I will quickly admit the constitutional source of this can certainly be debated) to interpret the Constitution in judicial cases. In the most important constitutional cases, the justices are often split. What does this teach us? Even the final authorities on constitution interpret it differently.

Let me a share a bit about myself. I am a pastor and have recently completed an MA in Biblical Studies. These discussions concerning the meaning and authority of documents are very near and dear to me. I spend most of my days working with documents many find to be authoritative, yet find different interpretations. Recently, I have begun a study on how Interpretive Communities affected the formation of scripture and consequently how that affects our reading of it. I am relying heavily on a literary theorist named Stanley Fish. It is at this point that our conversation must move from the political to the philosophical (namely the post-modern). Fish argues “meaning” and “truth” can only be grasped by the reader. He certainly affirms the importance of “authorial intent” but claims we will never be able to fully grasp that because we will always read a text through our own experience. Now critics often attack Fish for being too subjective – they say he is throwing out absolute truth by saying truth means different things based on the reader. He argues that a text cannot “mean anything” but instead must be found within certain parameters. Sometimes those parameters are tight, other times loose. In fact, he is quick to affirm those parameters change over time. For Fish (and for me as well), the source of those parameters, and thus the source of the constraints on possible meanings, are “Interpretive Communities.” Basically he argues we are a part of a shared community with shared experiences and worldviews. Being a part of those communities affects how we can read documents and find meaning. In fact, it is impossible to understand a text apart from our current context, our experiences and the Interpretive Communities to which we belong.

Here is a cheesy example. If I was in Kindergarten and we were reading a book that said, “we dropped the little boy on an island” because of the context and community I was a part of, the meaning would certainly be that a child was placed on some land surrounded by water. However, after I became a part of a community that understands WWII and the context of the nuclear age, I know the meaning of that could now be related to the dropping of an atomic bomb. Before my context / community changed, I could not possibly understand the other meaning – even if it was clearly talking about Hiroshima.

In discussion of the constitution, we see this happen when one court upholds one reading of the constitution, but later courts reject that view. What has happened? The interpretive community has changed.

I say that that, to say this. While I support the authority of the constitution, I do not necessarily agree with others reading of it. The second amendment reads:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Grammatically (forget interpretively) this is a difficult sentence to understand. First, we could read this as one subject or as two. We can read this as a protection for both militias and the right to bear arms, or we can read it as simply a long sentence about protecting the militia wherein the right to bear arms is a part. Based on the syntax, this later definition makes more sense. After all, the second clause (being necessary…) clearly modifies the first. It would be fair to assume the third clause concerning the right of the people to keep and bear arms is simply describing the nature of a well regulated militia as well.

However, lets take the most popular reading and assume these are two rights being addressed together. Now we must ask what does it mean to have the right to bear arms? It does not say, “right to bear any arms,” it simply grants the right. So then if you own a .22 pistol, you are bearing an arm. As long as we allow some arms to be owned and do not flatly outlaw all arms, then one could argue the right is still being supplied. (By the way, I am not making this argument, just listing it). Now even if we reject this last argument and contend this amendment is protecting all arms, we must deal with the issue of infringement. It would be great to take a literalist argument and say NO LAW shall infringe in ANY WAY. But lets face it, that is not practical. To argue this takes us to absurd places. We find ourselves arguing for private citizens owning nuclear weapons and toddlers being able to carry concealed weapons.

AssaultRiflesThe fact of the matter is even a vast majority of gun owners support some limitations on types and contexts of arm bearing. Even those that argue the purpose of the second amendment was to ensure the people could be as well armed as the military do not want private ownership of nuclear weapons. If you make this absolute literalist argument and demand absolutely no infringement you must then argue it is perfectly acceptable for US citizen to be given a nuclear weapon by Iran. Lets try to stay away from the absurd. We must acknowledge a line must be drawn somewhere – our real question is where. Do we allow howitzers but outlaw a-bombs? Do we allow rocket launchers but outlaw howitzers? Do we outlaw rocket launchers but allow fully automatic machine guns? Do we outlaw fully automatic machine guns, but allow semi-automatic rifles? The list goes on. It is not a question of whether or not we limit the right to bear arms, but a question of where. Historically the authoritative readings of the constitution have allowed this line to be drawn and it requires a dance between the judicial branch and the legislative branch to find that spot.

My friend made the following point concerning the intent of the second ammendment:

The second amendment allows citizens to have whatever armament the military has.

I think this is a great point, but unfortunately it is not backed by the constitution. Even if we could prove this was the intent of the framers (which is impossible to do) that does not make it the correct reading. You see, our constitution does not instruct us on how to read it. It does not state that the most correct reading is one that aligns itself with how the founding fathers viewed the world. I find most “constitutionalists” are not only arguing for the authority of the document, but also for a particular reading – in this case one that attempts to mimic the founding fathers. I don’t think this is a wrong reading, but there is no evidence this is the only correct reading. A person can be faithful to the letter of the law, without having to adopt the worldview of 18th century politicians. If our constitution included a section on how we are to interpret the document, then I would certainly honor that. However, this is an area that the constitution is silent on. One could assume the founders recognized that each generation would have to interpret it for that generation.

I want to be clear… I don’t think a reading that attempts to mimic the views of the founding fathers is wrong. However, I also don’t think that a person who reads the constitution faithfully through their own worldview and is following it the letter of the written law, is treading on our founding document (as people like Sean Hannity might argue). I firmly believe you can be faithful to the constitution without having to read it through the framework of the original authors. After all, any attempt to completely formulate authorial intent is subjective and incomplete at best.

To be honest with you, I have not formulated my own views on gun control and the second amendment. I am still trying to work through a proper approach to the issue. In discussions like these I think it is always best to find some common ground so we can avoid the extremes and discuss the implications of the particulars. For gun control discussion I think that means admitting there are legitimate reasons to own a wide variety of weapons (even those currently banned), most gun owners are responsible law-abiding citizens, criminals will still break the law, and that in all practicality, there must be some laws limiting the right to bear arms – even if we are only talking about nuclear weapons and toddlers with uzis.

Once those parameters are set, we can have a helpful conversation about where that line should be drawn without risking it descending into the absurd. We may not agree, but hopefully we can learn and genuinely discuss the positive and negative consequences of each law. I want to hear how a law is going to affect law abiding citizens as much as I want to hear the potential benefits. In order for that to happen, we have to be civil otherwise we simply pigeonhole each other and their arguments.