Sunday, October 9, 2011

never know

If you gotta ask, you'll never know.

-- Louis Armstrong

Last American Who Knew What the F__k He Was Doing Dies

-- The Onion

I'm a consumer, and I know Steve Jobs loved me. I'm a consumer, and I know Steve Jobs didn't give a f__k what I think I want.

I never thought much about him until he died. But now I feel his love as I type on this keyboard. I feel it as I pick up this sleek, discretely shiny, tightly made flat box. I feel it every time I drop the box into my briefcase. It feels good to the hand, this box. I trust it to do what I want without fussing.

I feel the love of Steve Jobs as I look across my desk at another, even smaller shiny box, a box that answers the call of my Manhattan-apartment space problem, a tiny box that now contains my whole music collection, some one hundred fourteen gigabytes, almost forty-three days of sound, and promises to reproduce it through any convenient sound system, but will travel in my shirt pocket and deliver those same riches into the private depths of my ear if I ask it to do so.

Yes, in some militant outpost on the plain of corporate medianism, undistracted by the din of a thousand identical mission statements, someone dared to think clearly, ruthlessly about my happiness. Which is not to say that he asked me what I wanted. Why would he? How would I know? I'm just a consumer.

Thirty years ago I asked my friend, an actor who paid his rent by desktop publishing, why I would want a computer in my house. Now there are four computers in my house, and each of them fits in a shoulder-bag. And the ones I want, the ones that aren't foisted on me by employers, are the shiny boxes conceived by Steve Jobs. Because they do the work and feel good and are easy on the eyes, and they don't make trouble. When I use his machines, I don't feel like I'm working at the sufferance of techies; it seems rather that the techies have been put in their place, told to make me happy and then disappear. Ross Douthat writes this morning that "Jobs revived the romance of modernity."* It's like the old space operas: climb into your seat, turn the damn thing on and fly to Mars.

So what have we learned? that the good is enemy to the great. Not only in gadgetry but in art, in teaching, in prophecy, in preaching. If what you want is to ameliorate, smooth off the rough edges, squeeze another percentage point or two, avoid complaints -- here's what you do. You ask around. You take polls. You form focus groups. You make sure that you understand everybody's point of view. Then you write up the best practices, and train everybody to follow them, so there'll be no surprises.

That's what you do if you want to ameliorate. If you want to change things, well, that's a completely different matter ---

You can't invent what people already want. Somebody else already has that sewn up. You can only invent what people have no idea they want yet. Thomas Friedman says today that Jobs "was someone who did not read the polls but changed the polls."** He could change the polls because he knew what every great poet, preacher, leader knows -- that the public doesn't know what it wants until you show it to them.

There's plenty of room for predictability in the world: in business, in love and in faith. But predictability only gets you so far, particularly if you're in a deathly landscape. Rubbing off sharp edges and polishing surfaces won't prove satisfactory if you're living a catastrophe. If the hideousness around you is too strong, you may not even know it's killing you. Someone has to tear you out of your location and place you in a new landscape -- and you probably didn't know you wanted this. You wouldn't ask for it.

In the novels of Isaac Asimov, one travels the vastness between stars not at cruising speed but by violent hyperspace leaps. It isn't fun for the ship or for the people it carries. It takes some getting used to, and some would rather stay home. But if you don't learn to leap, you'll never leave your back yard.

To supervise the people is one thing, but to lead them is another. The prophet, the poet, the singer, the preacher -- such a person loves the people, with a vision of their better life and of how at this moment it might come to pass. But the vision cannot be found in a survey, or at the end of a course of audience research, or through the ministrations of a focus group. You'll find it together, if you find it at all, on the other side of a hyperspace leap, and no audience or congregation will ask for that. It's the artist's job to choose the place, the time and the direction of the leap.

Your public can't make this choice for you. Bless their hearts, they just can't. The moment you let them into your head, the moment you let them influence your choice with what they imagine are their desires, that is the moment when your prophetic gift begins to die. You must choose, and your choice will alienate someone. But if, at the end of your leap, you come down right together on the other side, then a new life appears and you learn what the glory of the Lord looks like. People will come back for that; and they will tell their friends.

I belong to a tiny religion with an outsized influence on what it means to be American. My teacher Gary Dorrien wrote the 1500-page history of American liberal theology,*** and his first two chapters are about us. Five of us have served as presidents of the United States. But in recent decades our membership stagnated, with meager annual increases that failed to keep up with population growth. And now, as the president of our association tells us, the numbers are falling. So after long delay we now suffer from the decline and implosion of mainline American religion.

I used to say that we were the only thing left of center in American religion that wasn't in decline; and that the reason we weren't declining yet is that we said out loud what liberal Christians could not say boldly without risking schism in their churches. Our message was clear, while Orthodoxy Lite failed to be a compelling message for liberal Christianity. Now however we are in decline ourselves, and this decline has begun at a time when most of our programming is about diversity and inclusiveness: we want to see in our churches more people of color and more people from outside the middle class.

Much will depend on how we pursue these dreams. If our drive for diversity turns us into a church of surveys, if we reduce our prophecy to an assurance that we don't mean to alienate anyone, if we become a church of edge-smoothers and surface-polishers, we shall not reverse the trend of the numbers. No demographic can tell us how, when or in what direction we must take the hyperspace leap. That is for preachers to decide.

Liberalism always offended someone. It was always meant to offend someone. When we stand courageously for the universal rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, when we condemn the use of some human beings for the luxury and pleasure of others, we make enemies. But that is also when we find our friends. Once upon a time before I was born America had a president who would "welcome the hatred" of those who lived luxuriously off the wretchedness of others. That president was elected to the office four times.

We are ultimately known, of course, by the quality of our friends. But our true friends often come to know us by our choice of enemies. We cannot afford to hate ourselves because some people don't care for us, or to shame ourselves for having a distinctive religious culture. If Orthodoxy Lite is not a compelling message, self-loathing is not an attractive quality. It isn't who we can get along with that will save us; our hope lies rather in what we are willing to risk for kindness and justice. And if you gotta ask, you'll never know.

*"Up From Ugliness," New York Times (October 9, 2011)

**"Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMiggio?" New York Times (October 9, 2011)

***Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), 3 vols.