New Auburn, Wisconsin: Where the Rubber Meets the Road

I always take the advice of Carla Barnhill.  She’s not only a nationally recognized advice guru, she’s also my person advice guru.

A while back, she recommended that I read something by Michael Perry.  She said that parts of my writing — particularly parts of The New Christians — reminded her of Perry’s writing.  Looking back, that is a humbling compliment.

I picked up Perry’s book, Population: 485 – Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time last week, and I tore through it in three days.  He’s a writer of great talent, bringing the mundane and everyday into high relief.  The books is alternatively funny and heart-rending.  And it is unapologetically nostalgic.

Perry writes of his hometown, New Auburn, Wisconsin, to which he has moved back in his early 30s.  He’s joined the volunteer fire department, and he goes on all sorts of calls, ranging from tragic (which begins and ends the book) to the silly to the touching.  But really, it’s a book about America.

One passage in particular struck me, because it resonated with my own vocation as a practical theologian:

A little while back, I happened to be passing through Appleton, Wisconsin, on the same day the philosopher Martha Nussbaum was at Lawrence University to deliver the lecture “Global Duties: Cicero’s Problematic Legacy.” What the heck.  A guy finds himself a block and a half from a woman described as the nation’s preeminent classicist, feminist, multiculturalist, and humanist, he figures he can stop by to listen for an hour.  I am not overplaying the rube when I say I understood only about 20 percent of what Ms. Nussbaum said.  I felt more than 20 percent edified, however, and resumed the drive home with a sense of intellectual invigoration, which lasted maybe six miles, whereupon I began to mope over the idea of the rubber meeting the road as it relates to the gulf between theory and application.  Part of the blame lies with intellectuals who are unable or unwilling to convey their ideas in terms that will play down at the café.  But anyone who sits in that café and dismisses complexity by reveling in their own simplicity is no less pretentious.  Civilization itself depends on complication.  As a dyed-in-the-wool farm boy, I have an almost atavistic urge to poor-mouth anything more theoretical than a bag of feed.  I have come to realize this is not always attractive.

Although I more often find myself on the opposite side of that equation from Michael Perry, I nevertheless agree wholeheartedly with him.  As I once asked Peter Rollins, when we were both at Yale, no less, “If you can’t explain it to the person standing in line with you at Walmart, what good is it?

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  • “If you can’t explain it to the person standing in line with you at Walmart, what good is it?“

    I’m also on the wrong side of this. Still, Amen.

  • Not sure how I responded to you at the time but one of the problems I have is that we tend to implicitly assume people are dumb. Personally I left school with no qualifications and spent a further 4 years failing pretty much every exam I took.

    But I then got lucky and found people who didn’t try to “dumb down” to my level or explain their theories in such a way that I would not have to struggle. They helped give me tools that enabled me to think. They taught me that I was not dumb. That I just needed to apply myself and be taught certain skills.

    I find that the idea of communicating ideas “to the person on the street” is patronizing and part of the problem.

    There are people with legitimate learning difficulties of course but I would argue that the vast majority of people are more than capable of thinking critically. I am not interested in being able to water down my thoughts so that they can adopt them (why would I want them to uncritically adopt my ideas anyway?). I want to help teach people to think for themselves, come up with their own ideas and use logic/empirical research to test them. The powers that be do not want people to think, they want people to act like cows, grazing and watching without thinking.

    If we are simply trying to spoon feed people a different message we are still part of the problem. If we have been fortunate enough to have been taught how to think then we have a duty to pass that on… what we think (meaning our systems) is secondary.

    I hear this stuff in the US a lot, it is almost like being able to think is either a bad thing, or at best something to be wary of. Crazy though it sounds I want better education systems that teach us all to be more critical… I want to create a world where the person in line at Walmart can point out why what I am saying is problematic and suggest clearer ideas. A world where we are encouraged to use our minds! Crazy perhaps 🙂

    • Pete, you actually responded with agreement. And I think that you’re a shining example of someone who is interested in populist philosophy and theology, in the best sense of the word “populist.” You’ve shunned teaching appointments in academia for pub tours and books with trade publishers. That’s a risky path, but it’s the better path.

      What I love about Michael Perry’s quote from the book is that he thinks the people who want everything dumbed down, who talk about the “east coast libbrul elite,” are just as pretentious as those “elite” are.

      I’m all for avoiding the pretentions on both sides of this equation.

      • Hey Tony

        Thanks. I feel the same way about you. But enough of the bromance…

        I guess I feel so strongly about this issue because I was that person who people thought would be utterly unable to grasp difficult ideas. I think that my passion about that (and I get passionate about all too little these days) blinded me to the more subtle point you were making, or drawing out of the author you were referring to.


        • Chris

          Pete, I think you’re wrong.

          It’s not about dumbing down. It’s about proper translation.

          I’m sure you’re no fan of Lewis, but he said this, and I think it’s wise as well as germane to the topic:

          “We must learn the language of our audience. And let me say at the outset that it’s no use at all laying down a priori what the plain man does or does not understand. You have to find out by experience. You must translate every bit of your theology into the vernacular. This is very troublesome, but it is essential. It is also the greatest service to your own thought. I’ve come to the conclusion that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language then your thoughts are confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood your own meaning.”

          • Hey Chris

            Not sure why you think it is just, or primarily, about proper translation. That would mean that people are already able to think in a critical way and one must simply translate into a different vocabulary. In other words thinking critically is not a skill that one must learn, people can already do it, they simply need to be given information in a way that they understand.

            Not only do the surveys not back this up (e.g. there is a huge problem with ‘functional illiteracy’ today in the universities that is well known – where people can read but are unable to 1. tell the difference between when an author is making their own point or summarizing someone else’s, 2. summarize an author’s overall point 3. tell when the author is being critical of a perspective and I forget the forth), but also my own experience of teaching young people.

            A few years ago, for example, I was teaching a large group of high grade secondary school students the art of critical thinking. These students actually had a good ability to retain information, but my job was to simply test and train them in how to engage in rational reflection. They were lost at the beginning. This is something I have taught many times since and the results are invaribly the same… people do not need simple translation, they need to be taught the skills of critical thinking.

            This idea of “translating”, while it sounds like it is for “the people”, actually plays into the strategy to keep people uncritical and unable to engage in political discourses. It is the shadow side of saying that we need to dumb down because it sounds like it is saying something positive but really ends up in exactly the same place.

            The ability to think critically of course needs a basic mental framework to be possible, but it takes time and effort to bring it into being!

    • As I was moving through the ordination process in the PC(USA) one of the most disturbing themes of the guidance I received was that all this stuff I was learning in seminary just wouldn’t matter to the “person in the pew” and I should forget it and learn to spout slogans and reduce my thoughts to 6th grade English soundbytes for the benefit of said “person in the pew”. I had three gut responses to this advice:

      #1 – I was deeply depressed because a significant portion of my personal sense of call was an intellectual joy at the profundity of Christian tradition. I couldn’t worship a God who didn’t challenge me to think and rethink what I know and understand about life. I had chosen to engage my Presbyterian heritage partly because it has a long tradition of supporting “pastor-theologians” and encouraging thoughtful preaching. Hearing that I needed to restrict my vocabulary and simplify my theology was hugely discouraging.

      #2 – I knew then, and still know now, that I wanted to be a pastor, not a seminary professor, because most of the fodder for my theological reflection comes out of interaction in the church. These people seemed to be saying that the only place someone could be intelligent was in seminary, but I immediately thought – won’t that just reinforce the divide you are talking about where the things we are taught in seminary don’t have direct application to congregational ministry?

      #3 – Finally, and most importantly it struck me as offensively condescending toward this “person in the pew.” Especially in a Presbyterian context where many of our members are teachers, engineers, lawyers, and doctors – in other words people as highly educated or more highly educated than our ordained ministers.

      Fortunately my experience of ministry has proven this advice completely wrong. Not only do people crave serious thinking from the pulpit and in their adult education, but they are smart enough to call you out when you say something foolish and push you to be a better thinker with every interaction.

  • Just one final thought. The vision is not as crazy as it sounds. There are countries where high level discourse happens at “street level”. France of course. But also in large parts of Russia in the 20th century, Cuba etc. Deep political discourse was and is such a part of these cultures that what you hear in the Grocery store would be at a higher level than what you see on National TV here or from my home country

  • John Mc

    However, there many who listen out of politeness, unable to synthesize the message, see the overall picture of the problem and the point being present, or otherwise apply the teaching in a practical fashion. I think a good idea to find ways to organize and present teachings in ways that don’t loose the half-listening, and without being patronizing, or dumbing down the message. Rhetoric is truly an art. I too want to talk with the person in line at Walmart but I want to get them interested in the discussion in such a way that they do not feel left out – or left behind. Let them see my passion and perhaps they will share theirs.

  • Scot Miller

    My experience in teaching is that students rise to the level of expectation that is set for them. If you don’t expect people to think, they won’t.

    My church has a few college-educated/professionals, but most of the congregation is composed of working-class individuals who never went to college. Nevertheless, my pastor engages them in rather sophisticated theology, and the church members each get something out of his sermons and discussion groups. (In fact, I gave my pastor Peter Rollins’ first three books, and now he quotes from “The Orthodox Heretic” in his sermons. He also quotes Richard Rohr quite a bit, among others.)

    When I talked with my pastor about his teaching/preaching, he reminded me that he is not only involved in the personal and spiritual lives of the congregation, but he has the luxury of taking time to lay an adequate foundation of teaching. That’s how he can lead the church to deep spiritual reflection.

    Our church sign currently reads, “A safe place to ask questions.”

    • Charles

      Obviously a DOC congregation 😉

  • At some point a person’s field of knowledge is specialized to the point where not just the vocabulary is familiar to only a few, but understanding certain concepts must be mastered in order to understand the dialog.

    So at some level to be able to crystallize your thoughts for the Walmart shopper to understand is where you do need to be able to communicate.

  • I have found that folks I talk to crave the questions that have open-ended answers. I don’t find it necessary to “translate” these questions but it certainly helps to make the contextual to their experience. I’ve been interested in philosophy and theology since college and have worked in the trades (carpentry, 7 years) and publishing (15 years) so I’ve been on both sides of the fence professionally. You may know all the philosophical arguments related to those questions, but it’s the questions themselves that bring real value to conversations–and people in my experience love to wrestle with these deeper questions.

    That’s what I find valuable in Peter’s books. I find too if I fake an Irish accent that they take me much more seriously.

    All that said, I don’t think people are dumb but I do think it’s pretty damn easy to avoid asking these questions about life and existence. I think that can be seen as dumb or lazy. I think we’re willing to be the cow because frankly it’s a lot easier to sleep at night. That is, until you wake up one day and realize that you’re a cow. That can get awkward.

  • I used to think that, deep down, everybody wanted to be taught how to think critically and deeply and for themselves. Then I became a public school teacher. That sounded way more depressing and bitter than I intended it to be.

    Still, I don’t know if you guys all need a dash of reality, or I need a dash of idealism. Probably both. But the fact is that “Heaven is for Real” sells like hotcakes, and Two and a Half Men gets way more viewers than Parks and Rec. I’m still fighting the good fight, and I still celebrate the little victories, but a higher-discourse postmilennialist I am not…in other words, I don’t think we’ll usher in the millennial kingdom of higher discourse anytime, ever. Instead, I’ve got the lifeboat, and I’m trying to pull in as many as possible before Jersey Shore begins a new season.

  • “If you can’t explain it to the person standing in line with you at Walmart, what good is it?”

    I’d almost go the exact opposite direction. If an idea doesn’t take more time to think about than you have in the line at Walmart it probably isn’t a very good idea. The best ideas take a life’s dedication to unravel. I couldn’t explain quantum mechanics to the person behind me in a checkout line (pretty sure I don’t understand it myself) but I’m awfully glad for my computer. The ramifications of a phrase like “You must lose your life to gain it” aren’t something that can be worked out in under 30 seconds, but it’s perhaps one of the most important ideas ever.

    Furthermore, I think you’re conflating the ability to communicate well with other kinds of intelligence. You might have a great idea, but be a poor communicator, and you might be a great communicator without a meaningful thought in your head. In either case it doesn’t say anything about the value of your thoughts whether you’re able to express them in such a way that anyone can understand them. It says more about your skill as a communicator.