What Makes Someone An Intellectual?

I had a stimulating phone conversation with a friend today.  She recounted that an acquaintance of hers, hearing a talk I gave some time back, described it as “not very intellectual.”  As is often the case, the conversation has sent me down the pathway of pondering.  What makes someone an intellectual?

Let’s start with the usual starting place – the dictionary.

(If I use the Merriam-Webster online rather than the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, does that prove I’m not an intellectual?  Or does it show that I’m too cheap to pay the subscription?)

Intellectual –  The Merriam-Webster definition has three parts:

(1) “Of or relating to the ability to think in a logical way.”  OK, this is good in so far as it goes, but I think it is somewhat misleading on its own.  I have family members who would not refer to themselves as intellectuals at all, but who think very logically, especially about mechanical problems they need to solve.  I imagine very few people would think of them as intellectuals and they themselves might even be somewhat disgusted by the term, but they clearly know how to think very logically.

(2) “Involving serious study and thought.”  Ah, this is progress.  I imagine the word “serious” also implies “sustained.”  In other words, intellectuals study and think about topics over a period of time.  They stay engaged with a subject until they have the sense that they know the subject adequately.

(3) “Smart and enjoying serious study and thought.” I think the property of enjoyment is very important.  Some people are smart, but not intellectually curious.  They are happy with what they think, maybe even to the point of complacency or laziness.  More than once I have heard someone say – knowingly, I might add – that they “took a course” back in college and now feel as if they know all they need to know about the topic.  This attitude is especially a problem when it comes to Christian theology.

What I don’t see in this definition of “intellectual” are “PhD,” or “academic.”  Certainly, those who work in the academy as researchers or professors and who have this terminal degree likely would be called intellectuals.  But simply working in the academy or having a terminal degree does not automatically qualify one as an intellectual.

Let’s move to the other side of the ledger.  What does it mean to be “anti-intellectual?”  Out of the denominational history that I know, certain parts of the Methodist movement and its various denominations have been labeled as anti-intellectual.  There is a grain of truth to this characterization, but it also is the case that class interest can so color a person’s perspective that s/he mistakes “not formally educated” with “anti-intellectual.”  As one who came from prairie pioneer people, I’ve always been a tad sensitive to this snobbery.  But on to the definition.

Anti-intellectual – “Opposing or hostile to intellectuals or to an intellectual view or approach.”

Let’s see if we can fill in a couple of blanks.  Going back to the first set of definitions, an anti-intellectual might be considered to be lacking in the facility of thinking logically, or lacking the desire to engage in serious study and thought or, finally, one who does not enjoy serious study and thought.

What I don’t see in the definitions of intellectual or anti-intellectual is “conservative” or “liberal” or “Centrist” or “Moderate” or “progressive” or “Republican” or “Democrat” or “Independent” or “Libertarian” or “Anarchist” or “Postcolonial” or “Socialist” or “Marxist” or (insert the label)…

If you truly care about the Common Good; if you truly desire justice to come upon the earth; if you want to live at peace with your neighbor and make your contribution to society, then I pray that you will ignore the silly pretensions of pseudo-intellectuals, who confuse using polysyllabic abstractions with intellectual power or who think that a string of academic degrees satisfies the definition.  Practice, at least on some regular basis, ignoring the unhelpful labels we give to each other’s opinions.  Read widely, not only the stuff you’re fed because Facebook or some other social media algorithm has placed you in a certain demographic.  Read widely and thoughtfully and gain wisdom.  And hope.  If you read widely, you will find yourself a more hopeful person.

And you will qualify as an intellectual.



Little League Lesson with Big-League Impact

There is plenty of worry these days (mostly among us older adults) about entitled young people and not-very-resilient college students.  Because of the work I do, I feel a good deal of sympathy for emerging adults and wince at these easy generalizations, but I also have to admit, there’s truth in them.

Here’s one that dates me, for sure.  How many of you have said or heard, “If I got in trouble in school when I was a kid, I knew I’d be in trouble when I got home?”  And then the complaint: nowadays, parents too quickly step in to defend their children against disciplinary consequences or otherwise fight their battles.  I confess, this scenario does happen far more often than it should, and with the consequence that students do not learn how to exhibit grit and “bounce back” and perseverance.

I was involved in one such conversation the other day.  We were lamenting how often students are unnecessarily shielded from painful, yet edifying lessons.  The talk evoked a memory, one of those important “lesson’s learned” from my childhood.  Admittedly, it is low on the severity scale, but, the older I get, the more grateful I feel that in many such situations adults took such pains to teach me.

As a kid, I was a pretty darn good baseball player.  When I was a twelve year-old, playing Little League baseball, I played on a championship team and then got picked to play on the all-star team in the regional playoffs.  Yeah, I was all that.

In the middle of my all-star season, my parents decided we needed to go on vacation.  So, off I went with Mom and Dad to some place like Ruidoso or Red River, New Mexico.  We were gone a week, maybe ten days.  I couldn’t wait to get back to the games.

My first game back after vacation, I showed up, fully expecting to step back into my position on the field, but the coach informed me that I would be sitting out this game until, perhaps (no guarantees) the late innings.  I was shocked.  The coach gently reminded me of his policy: “You don’t practice, you don’t play.”  And that, while I was gone, other guys had shown up to practice.  They were going to play and I would ride the pines for a while.

I stress the coach’s gentleness.  He emphasized that he did not think I had done anything wrong, that I was not in trouble, that he was not upset with me, that he understood that my going on vacation with my parents had not been my decision or within my control.  Nonetheless, those circumstances did not change the fact that other boys had been to practice, had done the work, and deserved to play.

Lessons learned:

  1. I wasn’t (and never have been) indispensable.  The team could get along without me.  This is not to say that my role was unimportant, yet it also helped me think more that my teammates had their skills and aspirations, too, and they cared as deeply as I did about winning.  Everything most definitely did not revolve around me.
  2. Relatedly, “team” really is bigger than individual goals and desires and commitment to (and responsibility for) the team supersedes individual goals and desires.  It does not downplay the value of individual talents, but it also does not make them paramount.  How important (and liberating) it is to realize that the world does not revolve around me.
  3. Coach was true to his word.  We could trust his word.  He meant what he said and I could take that to the bank.  He stuck with his policy.  We boys were watching him and we noticed.  Imagine how easily cynicism begins invading a young mind when the adult s/he looks up to offends his own stated values and principles.  It is very important to be true to your word.
  4. The rules are still the rules even if you didn’t “break” them on purpose.  You don’t always have to do something wrong to suffer unwanted consequences.
  5. These values were in place regardless of whether we won or lost.  Some things are more important than winning and losing.  (I don’t remember if we won or lost that game I sat the bench.)  He risked irritating parents.  Come to think of it, I don’t remember ever seeing parents bending his ear too much about anything.  That is another parental behavior that seems to have changed significantly.

Any kid who has experiences like this lesson I learned from a Little League coach will have a better start on adult life than the kid who does not.  Even today, I get a fresh challenge from the memory.


Honesty and the Art of Persuasion

A recent Time Magazine article by Joel Stein explores and laments the character and power of internet trolls.  According to Wikipedia, they are people “who sow discord on the internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages in an online community…with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or otherwise disrupting normal, on-topic discussion, often for their own amusement.”

One line from the article especially caught my eye: “Troll culture might be affecting the way non-trolls treat one another.” Yep, I think so.

Admittedly, Stein goes on to observe, based on a study by a U. of California Irvine researcher, that reports of good deeds seem to prompt others to report good deeds.  But the reverse is also true and that is what most of the article seems to reveal.  Trolls infect the internet and, though they are actually just normal people and not monsters, their corrosive rhetoric is doing real damage to serious debate.

Which raises the question about honesty on the internet.  Trolls seem to care little for careful and accurate characterization.  They go straight for the jugular, making things nasty and personal.  What should we think when bloggers do the same for the sake of promoting their views?  There are lots of Christian bloggers and commenters on the internet and there are lots of United Methodist bloggers.   There is more than enough nastiness among us to demonstrate the point.

Christian engagement with important and sensitive topics is dreadfully important.  All the more reason for us to strive for honesty in our arguments and, most importantly, in our characterizations of others and their views.  A number of United Methodist bloggers fail miserably on this measure.  The troll mindset infects us shamefully.

Experts and teachers of good communication remind us of some crucial reference points. For a long, long time teachers have been introducing  students to the three modes relevant to appropriate means of persuasion mentioned in Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

Logos (word/reason/order) refers to our ability to reason, sort, analyze, understand, make connections and draw conclusions.  Good communication illuminates and clarifies a subject.

Pathos (passion, emotion) appeals to our feelings.  Those appeals can come understated, even matter-of-fact, or they can come with swells of drama and pageantry.  We may feel inspired, or angry, or grief-stricken.  If pathos overwhelms logos, then we fail at good communication.

Then there’s the tricky one: ethos.  You can see the connection to “ethics.”  Ethos speaks to the credibility of the communicator.  Is the person believable because she demonstrates competence in the topic?  Do her words carry weight because she is known to be a trustworthy person, a person of integrity and character?  We all know people like this: when this person speaks (or writes), we listen and we are inclined to take to heart – to believe – what they say.

Many blogs plainly stink on the “logos” measure.  We seem to have overdeveloped “pathos.”  But “ethos” is what concerns me the most.  Sometimes the line between honest error, intentional hyperbole and subtle dishonesty is as thin as gold leaf.  Heck, even open dishonesty often gets a pass in the degraded discussions happening around the internet.

It behooves Christians to keep a firm hold on the virtue of honesty and integrity when we’re trying to persuade.  This is not to say that honesty has to avoid rhetorical devices.  Satire, hyperbole, sarcasm (extra care needed here!), reductio ad absurdam arguments are all legitimate tools.  Not very many people know how to use them.

Whatever our agendas, no matter how deeply run our passions, honesty must remain.  If we Christian bloggers lose our grip on a fair treatment of facts or situations or narratives; if we play fast and loose with other person’s views, characters, and motives, then we are of all people most to be pitied.

And subject to the judgment of God.

Show Them, Teach Them, Walk with Them

(Occupied with other matters, I have not posted on this blog in a long time.  The following is a sermon I preached recently in the chapel at Perkins School of Theology for the Course of Study School.  I occasionally say that we preachers are all “Johnny One Note.”  We typically have a dominant theme in our messages, even though we cover many topics.  The following is one of mine.  Even though not my usual mode of communication via this blog, the topic I address in the sermon is one I care about very much and is one of the abiding passions of my adult life.  Maybe it will edify some readers.)


“Show Them, Teach Them, Walk with Them”

Deut. 6:4-9; 2 Timothy 2:1-2


The Shema, the Greatest Commandment, is not only the centerpiece of the Biblical Law, it is the anchor of identity for the people of God. It shows that, however else we may think about identity, identity is tied to purpose and purpose to mission.

You may have heard the adage from leadership gurus: “Begin with the end in mind.” If you want to lead well, you need to have clearly in mind what the goal or target is and then you develop action steps toward the goal. You start by thinking about the purpose, then the mission (the action steps) aims at that purpose.

That was certainly true for the people of Israel. As we follow the narrative in the Pentateuch, we see this leadership principle embodied. When Moses returned to Mt. Sinai, having by the power of God led Israel in escaping Pharaoh’s clutches, the Lord tells Moses to tell the people:

“Now therefore if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.” (Exodus 19:5-6)

We see in these words the purpose of the people of Israel – a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. There is the purpose. What is the goal? We find the answer in places like:

Isa. 11:9, “For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” That same vision appears in Habakkuk 2.

And Psalm 67 sings, “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.”

As a priestly kingdom, the purpose of the people of Israel was to live so that the whole earth would recognize and worship its Creator and Sustainer. Identity is tied to purpose and purpose to mission. The purpose of Israel was to bear witness to the nations of the goodness and mercy of the living God, to invite them to the Lord’s holy mountain, as Isaiah 2 envisions.

As Moses reports to the people what the Lord had told him, the Israelites respond as one (Ex. 19:8), “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” They’re in. They commit, though it is a mighty struggle to keep the covenant.

Jesus Christ, God-with-us, embodies, fulfills and extends that covenant made with Israel in Exodus 19. He came to fulfill all the law and prophets (Mt. 5), therefore in his own life, death and resurrection the Shema, the Greatest Commandment, is made perfectly visible in him.

And by the Spirit he is forming a new humanity of Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, saints from every tribe and tongue, people and nation (Ephesians 2:15; Gal. 3). 1 Peter 2 uses exactly the language of Exodus 19 and applies it to the church, the Body of Christ:

“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

This is what YOU are! Where you live and where you serve, you are the people of God called to lead others in loving God wholeheartedly and serving God without reservation.

But how? How do we live and how do we help our people live so that this vision becomes real in us?

Deut. 6 – “Keep these words…in your heart.”

Deut. 6 – “Recite them to your children” at home, when you are away, when you lie down, when you rise. In other words, make the Great Commandment an organic part of daily life.

This same instruction comes through 2 Timothy 2:1-2:

“And what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.”

Notice the sequence of those passing on the faith: from Paul, through other witnesses, to Timothy, who is to entrust the word to faithful people who can teach others as well. If we think of this sequence as something like “generations” of passing on the faith, count them. Five generations: Paul, witnesses, Timothy, faithful people and the ones the faithful people teach.

Now that’s vision. What if we were to look at the babies in our nurseries and imagine their grandchildren as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, loving God supremely and passing on the faith to the next generation, because of the faithful witness of your congregation? Can you imagine it?

The news on this front is not so good, is it? The research organizations who follow trends in the church and help us understand what is happening in society – Pew, Gallup, Barna – all have shown that mainline Protestant denominations like The United Methodist Church are generally failing to disciple their young people into active, adult versions of the Christian faith. Many of the young people who go through our confirmation classes do not remain faithful United Methodist Christians. Praise God, some of them become faithful members in other traditions. Sadly, many of them drift away from the faith altogether.

Let us confess: We are not obeying the scripture to pass on the faith to subsequent generations. We do not keep the words of the Lord in our hearts. We do not recite them to our children. We do not take what has been given to us and pass it on to faithful people who can teach others as well.

But we can. And by God’s grace, we will. If you are not now passing on the faith to the next generation, you will.

How? How do we help the rising generations become mature, active, committed disciples of Jesus Christ?

Foremost, they need to see discipleship in us. We need to show them. And if they see Christ in us, we will have standing to teach them as well.

How did you come to faith in Christ, grow in your faith and hear your call to ministry? I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of us, in answer to this question, would tell a story – or maybe stories – of someone one who modeled the Christian faith for us. They lived the life, they walked the walk, in front of us.

I will tell you one such story from my own experience. When I was a senior in high school, a woman from a nearby town (I lived in rural KS – many very small towns), Betty Jo Banks, wanted to gather some high school students to form a Christian singing group. We started with about fifteen kids and it eventually grew to around thirty-five. She taught us songs of the faith – old and new, hymns and “contemporary songs” (like those written by Bill Gaither, yes I am that old) – and took us to churches in the area to sing and share our faith.

We’d gather once a week in the Downs United Methodist Church to practice and pray. We always prayed. Teenagers kneeling at the kneeling rail to pray.

And Betty Jo would talk to us. She would give us tasks to do. All of us, at some point, would have opportunity to share a brief testimony as part of one of the concerts. Some of us were tapped to take turns giving brief messages. Yup, I was one of those…

We called Betty Jo, very affectionately, “Big Mama.” She called herself, “Big Mama.” We loved her like she was our mother. She was our mother, like the scriptural mother in Israel. (See Judges 5:7) She loved us. She taught us. She prayed with us. We read scripture together. In her manner, in the way she led us, in the way she handled adversity (and she had plenty), we saw that she knew Jesus personally. Because Jesus mattered to her, he mattered to us.

Betty Jo is not a highly trained musician, though she does have a beautiful singing voice. She is not a trained pastor or theologian. She did not have a conventional career in the church or in the world, as we think of careers. Her last job before retiring was as administrator of a nursing home, but that job, though she loved it, was not a lifelong career.

I will never be able fully to convey the impact Betty Jo Banks has had on my life. Because of her and many others like her, including my parents, I came to faith in Christ and heard my own calling. As a chaplain and teacher, in truth all I am trying to do is to replicate what Betty Jo did in me and in many kids of my generation.

Though skill is important, it is not polished skill that passes on the faith. It is you, your life, your life shared with others for Christ’s Kingdom. It’s doing what the scriptures show us to do:

We keep God’s Word in our hearts.

We recite God’s Word to the rising generations and walk with them as they learn.

Look on the horizon in your community and see the rising generations. Think about the generations they will reach.   Today, someone yet unborn will encounter Christ through the faithful witness of people who see Christ in you.

I hope and pray someone is watching you! Show them the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Let them see your love for God. Let them feel your heart and hear your prayer. Walk with them. Sit with them. Teach them. Impart to them a vision for the rising generations.

And in so doing, you will have fulfilled the Great Commandment. May God bless you and empower you and give you everything you need to finish the work God has begun in you. Amen.

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