We used to dream of having a hundred sheep

The good shepherd

The other day, Mrs Acilius and I went to see the feature film Shaun the Sheep.  A story about a flock of sheep who rebel against their shepherd and then struggle to be reunited with him sounds rather like a pastiche of Jesus’ parables, so I remembered something about those parables that I’d been meaning to post for some time.

Amy-Jill Levine, author of last year’s Short Stories by Jesus, remarks that the characters in Jesus’ parables are usually pretty rich. Very few people would have a flock of a hundred sheep, for example.  I don’t think this is very hard to explain.  Most people do fantasize from time about being rich. These fantasies give a speaker many reasons to populate stories s/he wants his or her audience to remember with rich characters.  Among those reasons are these four:

  1. Fantasies of wealth draw people to collect information about the rich and to identify with them.  Therefore, details about the lives of the rich are likelier to be familiar to a large and diverse audience than are details about any other subset of the population.

    If Jesus were telling parables that took place among workers in the building trades, for example, members of his immediate family might have been able to follow what he was talking about, but people who made their living in other walks of life would probably have lost the thread somewhere along the way.

  2. Fantasies of wealth bring some measure of cheer to people who entertain them.  They bring other feelings too, of course, and are often cause and symptom of serious problems, but people get hooked on them the way they get hooked on everything else, by pleasure in the first few experiences.

    We can see something similar in, for example, the way debates about pacifism tend to go.  Godwin’s Law states that every Internet discussion that goes on long enough involves a reference to Hitler; discussions of pacifism, whether conducted online or face-to-face, needn’t go on more than about 10 seconds, usually, before someone asks “What do you do if you’re confronted with Hitler?”  Well, if you’re an average person, you hope he doesn’t notice you, since there’s bugger all you can do if the absolute dictator of your country decides you are his enemy.  But the “you” in that question is not the average individual under Hitler’s rule.  Rather, it is some hypothetical person who rules an empire capable of opposing the Third Reich effectively by military means.  Of course this is the example opponents of pacifism always choose; examples drawn from situations in which an average person might actually have a strong reason to consider the use of violence, such as bullying, street crime, domestic violence, etc, are not only complex, but are also immensely depressing.  Imagining oneself to be the hugely popular prime minister of France in the early 1930s, or the unchallenged dictator of Britain in the mid-1930s, or the god-emperor of the USA in the late 1930s, is quite pleasant enough to offset any discomfort that arises from thinking about the Nazis for a couple of minutes.

  3. Fantasies are abstract enough that they can be narrowed in application to a single point.

    If the first audience that heard the parable of the lost sheep were a convention of extremely prosperous sheepmen, then the line “If a man owns a hundred sheep and one of them wanders off, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one who wandered off”? might have led to an intricate discussion about the practicalities of flock management.  If, on the other hand, no one in the audience has done more than wish s/he had a hundred sheep and tried to imagine what it would be like to have so large a flock, then the speaker could be confident that the audience would bypass such irrelevant matters and take the main point.

  4. Fantasies, no matter how many people share them, always take shape in the intimate confines of the private mind.  So when first one hears a fantasy of one’s own described in public by someone else, the thought might occur, “That person is reading my mind!”  Even if, upon reflection, one realizes that one’s fantasies are probably quite commonplace, indeed that the intimate confines of one’s private mind are probably pretty much indistinguishable from the intimate confines of everyone else’s minds, that reaction often lasts long enough that one is left with a feeling that one has been understood.

    That’s one of the reasons why science fiction is so popular.  No matter how many people might fantasize about flying among the stars, meeting aliens, traveling through time, etc, the first time one sees such a fantasy in a book or film or other product created by someone else, there is a shock of recognition, a feeling that the creators of that work have heard and shared one’s own secret thoughts.  So of course a preacher who knows his or her business will try to create that same shock of recognition as a step towards encouraging his or her audience to feel that s/he has an intimate connection with them.

What matters in life

Here are the last three sentences of an opinion piece that appeared in Time magazine some time ago:

It is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life. As such it deserves fairness, compassion, understanding and, when possible, treatment. But it deserves no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, no fake status as minority martyrdom, no sophistry about simple differences in taste—and, above all, no pretense that it is anything but a pernicious sickness.

To what does that “it” refer?  By themselves, these sentences leave open several possibilities.  They sound very much like the more strident remarks that aggressive atheists make about religion.  For their part, believers have been known to reply to these remarks in kind.  People on each side of that dispute tend to build their favorite presuppositions into the way they use words like “reality” and “life,” so that each could accuse the other of offering “a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life.”  At the same time, leftists have been known to write this way about right-wingers, especially when the right-wingers in question belong to groups that the leftists see as victims of unjust policies that the right supports.  The phrase “false consciousness” may not be much in favor any longer, but there are other ways of accusing people of being deluded about what political movements are in their own best interests.  The line about “fake status as minority martyrdom” sounds just like the sort of thing left-of-center Americans are often provoked to say when their least favorite political figures claim to have suffered unfair treatment at the hands of a “liberal elite.”  Again, it is not uncommon for right-wingers respond in kind, presenting leftism as a mental illness and a sign of self-loathing.
Indeed, just about any activity or belief of which a speaker disapproves could be attacked in the words that Time magazine used above.  If the speaker is absorbed in a rival activity or committed to an opposing system of belief, it may seem obvious that Time‘s description is perfectly accurate.  For example, when I was in graduate school, I was entirely immersed in the study of ancient Greece and Rome.  For years, I and my fellow students averaged something between 80-100 hours a week studying the languages, literatures, histories, and material remains of classical antiquity.  We socialized primarily with each other, and modeled ourselves on our professors.  So by the middle of our grad school years, we came to take it for granted that every walk of life that did not advance classical learning was a waste of time, a poor consolation for people who couldn’t make it in classics.  We had entered graduate school with a more balanced view, and by the time we entered the job market most of us were on our way back to that balance, but for most of us there was a period starting sometime around the end of the first year and ending sometime before the fourth year when it was hard to take anything outside of classics at all seriously.  I suspect we would all have nodded in agreement if someone had described, say, a career in the insurance industry as “a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality,” etc.
Of course, classical scholarship is not one of the most powerful or celebrated professions in the twenty-first century.  So once a person emerges from the odd little world of a graduate program in classics, that person is unlikely to continue taking it for granted that classicists are the only successful professionals.  Other fields enjoy far more  prestige; their practitioners are in much greater danger of becoming unalterably attached to the idea that they and their colleagues have a monopoly on wisdom.  Businesspeople, scientists, and medical doctors seem to number among their ranks many people whose intellectual development is permanently stunted in the condition of the second-year grad student.  For these individuals, the boundaries of “reality” and “life” are the boundaries of their disciplines, and anything outside those boundaries is a “substitute for reality” and a “flight from life,” and people who dwell out there are sad cases to be taken gently, but firmly, in hand.
Political and religious beliefs are even more likely to swallow up a person’s conception of success in life than is a sense of the importance of one’s profession, and certainly less likely to spit that conception back out into the open air.  So it is small wonder that left and right, atheist and believer might see each other in the light that Time magazine describes.  For each ideological group, it seems obvious which things truly matter in life, and people who are uninterested in those things and devoted to others must therefore be fools who are suffering from some peculiar sort of disorientation.  Any influence such fools have on those around them is, of course, dangerous and requires action to reassert the more wholesome values.
So, these sentences represent, on the one hand a content-free insult, but on the other hand the writer’s confession of faith.  What he was attacking as unreal, unliving, and pernicious was the direct negation of what he thought of as most plainly real, lively, and wholesome. To find out who Time magazine was insulting, turn to the original article (which I found here.)

The contextualization fairy

Recently, John Holbo posted two items (here and here) on Crooked Timber about something odd in American politics.  Right-wing politicians in the USA quite often make public statements that would, if taken at face value, suggest that they are far more extreme in their views than they in fact are.  So, Professor Holbo finds remarks from Texas governor Rick Perry which, taken literally, would imply that Mr Perry thought that Texas should secede from the USA, that all federal programs established since 1900 should be abolished, indeed that there should be no government at all.  Mr Perry obviously does not believe any of those things, so obviously that only his committed opponents try to take him to task for making such extreme remarks.  This is not unique to Mr Perry, but is a usual pattern for right-wing US politicians.

What makes this so odd is that, while it is common for right-wing American politicians to exaggerate the radicalism of their views and for the public to realize that this is what they are doing, Professor Holbo can find no examples of their left-leaning counterparts doing the same thing.  A Democratic or leftist candidate who makes a radical-sounding statement likely means that statement to be taken at face value, and it certainly will be taken at face value by most observers.

Many commentators on American politics explain the right-wingers’ habit of making extreme sounding statements for which they do not expect to be held responsible as an effort to move the “Overton Window.”  The Overton Window, named for the late Joseph P. Overton, is the range of ideas that the people who hold sway in a given political culture hold to be acceptable at a particular time.  Only ideas within the window are likely to be put into effect.  The window shifts back and forth, as some ideas that had once seemed outlandish begin to seem mainstream, while other ideas that had once seemed mainstream begin to seem outlandish.

Key to the Overton Window is the idea of contextualization.  The idea of devolving Medicare, the program that ensures that most Americans over the age of 65 will be able to pay for health care, to the states may seem outlandish to many in the USA, but compared to the idea of large states seceding from the Union it is quite moderate.  The idea of shifting the revenues of Social Security, the program that provides a guaranteed income to  most Americans over the age of 65, from current benefits to private savings accounts may seem outlandish to many in the USA, but compared with the idea of abolishing the entire welfare state it is quite moderate.  Other policies favored by powerful interests on the right end of the political spectrum may also seem outlandish, but compared with anarchism they too are quite moderate.  So, within the context of the extreme remarks for which they are not called to account, rightists can gain a hearing for policies which they do seriously advocate.