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Chesterton, Anatomy of the Joke

I picked up an out of print book of G.K. Chesternoon newspaper essays at the seminary library a while back and came across this gem. It was published in 1922 in Hearst’s International. You can find it online HERE.

Chesterton illustrates man as a supremely needy being – so needy that he alone must sleep in the skin of another, so needy that he alone must pass his food through fire before it can pass through his stomach, so needy that he alone must be propped up by crutches called furniture.

Joy Davidman once quipped that, “…perhaps our remote ancestors had no sooner invented the slingshot than they reared back on their hind legs and proclaimed that their technical progress had now enabled them to do without religion.” Chesterton’s observations remind us that even our technological progress shows our neediness.

The Anatomy of the Joke, by G.K. Chesterton

There is nothing comic about a falling tree. There is nothing really funny about a falling star. And there is very little amusement to be got out of a falling thunderbolt, unless it knocks over some carefully selected and suitable person; such as a sociologist proving that he can foresee all future eventualities or an astronomer disproving the existence of thunderbolts.

In short, a falling star is not fantastic, but a falling man is, or can be, fantastic. Why? I do not believe the question can be fully answered, for the same reason that I do believe the current answers are wrong; because it lies deep in the mysterious matter of what did really happen when man received or evolved the mind that sunders him from the beasts and birds. But I will throw out a few vague suggestions about the proper direction of inquiry.

Man himself is a joke in the sense of a paradox. That there is something very extraordinary about his position, and therefore presumably about his past, is the clearest sort of common sense. Alone of all creatures he is not self-sufficient, even while he is supreme.

He dare not sleep in his own skin; he cannot simply put his own food into his own stomach. He has to put the latter first into an oven and cover the former first with external and foreign hair; always sleeping in somebody else’s skin. In one sense he is a cripple amongst the creatures; he is at once imperfect and artificial like a monster with two glass eyes and two wooden legs. He is propped upon crutches that are called furniture; he is patched and protected with bandages that are called clothes.

Properly visualized, he is grotesque, not when he sits on a hat, but when he allows a hat to sit on him. Properly understood, he is not so ridiculous when he sits on a hat as when he sits on a chair; for then he is acting like some monstrous sort of crippled quadruped and equipping himself with four wooden legs. Why the lord of creation is a cripple in this queer sense is an open question; but some maintain that it is because he once had a bad fall.

Now this humorous human quality can, as a matter of fact, be much more easily connected with this old idea of a fall of man than with the current and conventional ideas about the evolution of man. To begin with, the explanation, whatever it is, must be some thing more or less peculiar to man.

Those who have heard the hyena laugh will not admit that his laughter would add much to the mirth of a happy fireside. The fantastic shapes of the other animals are only fantastic as mirrored in the mind of man. In this sense we may say that the camel’s hump and the rhinoceros’ horn are human secrets and even human possessions; and that we know the pelican and the penguin better than they know themselves.

To all appearance the animal world is unconscious of the grotesque; and considered in the light of mere animal evolution, there is hardly anything grotesque about their innocence.

But let us entertain, merely as a hypothesis and without any reference to doctrinal details or applications, some such supposition as this. That at some time in the unknowable past the creature that has become man received some sort of shock or revelation, by the expansion of his own or the visitation of other psychical forces, whereby he gained a sense of a separate and more divine destiny; that he afterwards lost this direct vision and lived on a lower plane, so that he was haunted with a curious sensation that the accidents of this world are in a sense alien to him, while their very inappropriateness is mixed with some memories of happiness and some hope of recovery. To put it shortly, he is in a sense pleased to be the only creature who is in the wrong place, while all other creatures are in the right one.

It seems to me that the problem of humour presents one primary condition and difficulty which divides it from most others. It seems to me quite clear that the process which ends in a joke necessarily begins with a certain idea of dignity. The dignity is in some way implied beforehand. Beauty or knowledge might conceivably break on a person without previous implications. But incongruity cannot break on him without the pre-existence or pre-supposition of something with which it fails to be congruous. So far as one can see, that pre-supposition is of something erect and, as it were, respectable about the station or stature of humanity.

We think the projection of an elephant’s trunk grotesque because it is near enough to being a caricature of a man’s nose. We do not think the projection of a precipice grotesque because it is not near enough to imply any comparison with humanity at all.

The more this dark matter is independently considered, the more, I think, we shall find this human standard, as of an erect figure, dominating it like a statue. All depends on this dim or fantastic tracing everywhere of the image of man; and I believe the key is somewhere in that mysterious oracle which identified it with the image of God.

Technique Over Truth (Technopoly)

I want to share two quotes under the heading ‘Technique Over Truth’:

We might even say that in Technopoly precise knowledge is preferred to truthful knowledge…

-Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 158

This quote reminded me of something I came across a while back that was attributed (though I’ve never found the source) to G.K. Chesterton. He was reported to have said something like ‘not facts, but truth.’ The idea of the statement is that the Christian is interested in more than simple facts; The Christian’s primary concern is the Truth itself. This does not, or at least should not, mean that we downplay facts. But it means that a general sense of the Truth is preferable to a precise knowledge of things. I could illustrate this by saying that I would trust a psychologist who has a good understanding of the human soul with little understanding of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) than one with a precise understanding of the DSM and a poor understanding of what the human soul is. (This immediately makes me a Psychology heretic by the way).

As a preacher, I cannot help giving another illustration. I would prefer to hear a preacher any day who has a great general idea of the truth of Scripture (the message of Scripture) over one who has a precise knowledge of Hebrew and Greek with little understanding of the message. If he has both, that is all the better.

I understand that this opens up all kinds of problems and objections. Yes, I would rather have a ENT doctor who understands human allergies though he is weak on Truth in general than one who is strong on Truth and weak on noses. But this does not have to be an either/or. Ideally, we would want both. I would have to work through the objections on an individual basis.

A problem with modern ‘technological’ man, according to Postman, is that he values precise knowledge, technique if you will, over the Truth. For us, the genius is one who can postulate and solve complex scientific formulas, even though that same scientist may be a terrible grouch who has been divorced three times and is an atheist. We laud him because of his precise knowledge, though he is far from the Truth.

Because this is the case, education has become much more concerned with the student’s acquisition of precise knowledge of things rather than a larger view of Truth itself. This leads to the next quote. Postman relates technological man’s take on art and literature in this way:

They are interesting; they are ‘worth reading’; they are artifacts of the past. But as for ‘truth,’ we must turn to science (p. 159).

The Lord of the Rings may be an interesting read, and it may be somewhat imaginatively enriching, but it has nothing to teach us about the truth. We don’t need fiction to teach us about bravery, or friendship, or love, or sacrifice, or humility, or the danger of technology; rather, we must turn to Science alone, with the end result that we are content to know techniques and be ignorant of the Truth. That is another angle on Technopoly – the culture that exalts Science to the point of it becoming a religion.

AI, Bionics, Technopoly, and the Gospel

I tend to shy away from posting on current events; I talk about them often in my sermons, but it is not my purpose on this blog. But this one ties into my reading from not only this past week, but really the past month.

I came across Stephen Hawking’s op-ed (HERE) from a couple of weeks ago on the subject of Artificial Intelligence. I actually agree with his main point in the column: we need to start considering the future ramifications of our technological tinkering. This is really the main point that Neil Postman was trying to make in Technopoly as well. From Postman’s perspective, which he wrote 20 years ago, Americans, at that time, needed to start asking important questions about technology: What is it replacing? What will it cause to become obsolete? He proposes many questions that we should have been asking then. But few were asking them. Perhaps someone with the alleged credibility of Hawking will actually cause some folks to ask questions they haven’t been asking.

Hawking makes the point that our technologies may have more of a dangerous potential than we typically envision. Maybe some of the Sci-Fi movies and books may actually prove prophetic. Perhaps The Matrix isn’t so far removed from potential reality. But he also makes the point that technology, especially Artificial Intelligence, provides glorious possibilities; In his own words, “we cannot predict what we might achieve when this intelligence is magnified by the tools that AI may provide, but the eradication of war, disease, and poverty would be high on anyone’s list. Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history.”

There is a bigger event that has already happened (2000 years ago); but I digress.

As I read that line for the first time, in my mind, I began to hear the voice of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preaching about modern man, the bomb, Man coming into his own, Educationism, and Scientism. If you are somewhat familiar with him, you could probably imagine him in a pulpit today saying something like this:

Modern man thinks that he is unstoppable. He has his technology. He has his computer – it is the answer to everything: ‘We don’t need your Christianity for answers,’ he says. ‘We have internet search engines that are omniscient.’ ‘We don’t need your resurrection; give Google 20 years and they will cure death,’ he says. ‘A few more years and we will eradicate war and poverty and disease.’ Modern man says, ‘We don’t need your God, we have Bionics. We can make the lame to walk and the blind to see with our technology.’

And then I can hear the Doctor, in my mind, saying, ‘But they are all fools; the fool saith in his heart there is no God. Have they not read the story of Babel? Have they not read the psalmist speaking of the raging of the heathen? The God who sits in the heavens laughs. “Let us tear their chords apart and burst their bands asunder!” says the fool; and the living God laughs at their notions of power.’

Now, back to my own voice. I watched a TED Talk on the subject of Bionics recently. It’s worth the 20 minutes it takes to watch it (HERE). It chronicles the development of Bionics as scientists and engineers are seeking to create prosthetic appendages that will work with the neurological systems of human bodies (the recent FDA approval of the ‘Luke Skywalker Arm’ is an example of this). The invention itself looks magnificent; the problem comes in when the creators of such devices say things like this: “I reasoned that a human being can never be broken; technology is broken; technology is inadequate.” That is the logic of Technopoly in a nutshell. We’re fine; there’s nothing wrong with us; we have unlimited potential; we just need the right technology.

We have no idea what our future has in store. In many ways we should be thankful for the advances we are making in Bionics and other technological fields.When we cause the lame to walk, we are, in a sense, imitating the work of Christ. But if, in their new ability to stand, they rise up on those magic legs (to quote Forrest Gump), beat their breast, and pronounce their own deity, then we have a great problem. And this is my great fear. In the words of Joy Davidman,

…Perhaps our remote ancestors had no sooner invented the slingshot than they reared back on their hind legs and proclaimed that their technical progress had now enabled them to do without religion.

Let me end by going back to Dr. Lloyd-Jones. He was fond of saying that the great problem with humanity is that we tend, at one and the same time, to think too highly of ourselves and too lowly of ourselves. We think too highly of ourselves because we think that we can do without God, or indeed, that we are gods; we may not be perfect, but certainly we have no categories for sin. Yet we think too lowly of ourselves because we believe that we are simply evolved animals upon whom Heaven has no bearing. We think that Heaven, if there is such a place, is wholly indifferent to our actions (or at least this is what we prefer). Psalm 8 is our great corrective.

We in the West are back, philosophically, where we were before the World Wars. We think that we can somehow eradicate war and poverty because we have no conception of sin. We see nothing but progress in our future. Hawking wants us to consider the possibility of negative effects, yet also boasts of a technological future without war and pain and hunger. As Christians, we must be mindful that the sinful nature of Man will continue to play a role in all he does, and it will infect all he creates. This does not mean that the future is a lost cause. Rather, it means that repentance and wisdom are necessary. Yet repentance is no longer in the modern vocabulary and wisdom has been wholly removed from any relation to God.

We are now obsessed, as a culture, with creating artificial life; all the while, God calls us to genuine life (see John 3). We are obsessed with progress; all the while, God calls us to re-dig the old wells (see Genesis 26) and return to Paradise (see 2 Corinthians 5 and Revelation 21-22). We are obsessed with making the lame walk and the blind see; all the while, we will not heed the call of Jesus Christ:

He speaks, and, listening to His voice,
New life the dead receive,
The mournful, broken hearts rejoice,
The humble poor believe.

Hear Him, ye deaf; His praise, ye dumb,
Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Savior come,
And leap, ye lame, for joy.

Charles Wesley captured it beautifully. I am a simple country preacher, but I would dare say that we desperately need to sound this note, especially in our urban pulpits. Hawking is right; we need to think about the ramifications of what we are doing. And it is the Christian’s job to be at the forefront in that thinking as we call humanity away from making idols of technology, and themselves, and declare the gospel of the great Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Subverting Technological Imperatives (Technopoly)

…Technology creates its own imperatives and, at the same time, creates a wide-ranging social system to reinforce its imperatives.

-Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 105

Michael Polanyi makes a similar point in Personal Knowlege:

All technology is equivalent to a conditional command, for it is not possible to define a technology without acknowledging, at least at second hand, the advantages which technical operations might reasonably pursue…A technology must…declare itself in favour of a definite set of advantages, and tell people what to do in order to secure them (p. 176).

When Postman and Polanyi come together, I listen intently.

We need to be asking ourselves what our technologies are asking of us. By ‘asking of us,’ I mean what are they compelling us to do and what are they asking us to give up? The next logical question is, What are the benefits of obedience? In summary, then, every device is telling me to do something, asking me to give up something, and offering me something in return for obedience.

If we want to subvert the imperatives of technology, if we want to throw off its sovereignty, a good starting point may be to ask what we will gain if we disobey, and if that disobedience may lead to better results than simply yielding to what is offered to us. Another starting point, and a distinctly Christian one, is to ask how we can submit technological imperatives, or technological sovereignty, to the imperatives and sovereignty of God. That is, rather than being a tool of our tools, can we use those tools to follow a different sovereign. Can we see them as His tools?

One sure way of knowing who’s sovereignty we are under, and whose commands we are obeying, is whether our use of those tools look just the same as someone who has no love for Jesus Christ. Do you surf the internet the same as the godless? Do you text the same? Do you take the same kinds of pictures? Do you post the same status updates and photos?

This is all stream-of-consciousness. I have not worked out a definite position here. I only want to provoke thought. But the main point I think I want to make as I post about technology (and Technopoly) is that my idea is that we must be aiming at a loving subversion against the spirit of the age. Subversion is not necessarily rebellion. But it always asks questions and it always proposes possible alternatives.

Technology: To A Man With A…. (Technopoly)

I want to start off my thoughts on Technopoly with a little bit of fun.

…To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Without being too literal, we may extend the truism: To a man with a pencil, everything looks like a list. To a man with a camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data. And to a man with a grade sheet, everything looks like a number.

-Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 14

Postman published this book (in 1992) before the spread of the internet or the mass popularity of cell phones, but much of his wisdom could easily apply to either. I wonder what he would add to this list today. Here are a few possibilities: to a man with an Instagram, everything looks like a photo op. To a man with a Twitter, everything looks like a hashtag. To a man with Google, everything looks like data waiting to be searched. To a man with an iPhone, everything looks like a text message, photo op, app, etc.

Those are terrible examples. Feel free to add your own.

Technological Imperatives: Do This and Live

All technology is equivalent to a conditional command, for it is not possible to define a technology without acknowledging, at least at second hand, the advantages which technical operations might reasonably pursue…A technology must…declare itself in favour of a definite set of advantages, and tell people what to do in order to secure them.

– Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 176

All technology is, well, technical; as such it demands technique. It offers promises and delivers implicit imperatives. In our cultural and historical setting, the issue becomes this: since technology offers promises that can only be received through obedience (i.e. push the lever and out comes the food pellet, or use this and become cool and popular), the question becomes, Who is the master in this scenario? Are we using technological tools, are they using us, or is someone using us through them?

Do not think for a moment that silicon valley, or Hollywood, or Washington D.C. is blind to this. The problem is that we are often blind to it ourselves. Take care that while you give your iPhone commands that it is not actually commanding you. If it is saying ‘Do this and live,’ then be certain it cannot deliver on its promises. When Google says ‘Do this and find resources on so and so subject,’ that is entirely reasonable, and even wonderful. When it says it will help you live forever, it has gone into a whole other realm.

For some food for thought on this issue, watch PBS Frontline‘s The Persuaders and Generation Like. And while you’re at it, see if you can see the implicit call to idolatry, as a case in point, of this commercial: