In Defiance of the Schoolmarms

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I do indeed intend to defy the schoolmarms, but you will pardon me if I take a few minutes to set the whole thing up first.

In the twelfth chapter of Acts, just a few verses apart, Luke gives us two instances of the angel of the Lord striking somebody, but with very different results.

“And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands” (Acts 12:7).

“And immediately the angel of the Lord smote [Herod], because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost” (Acts 12:23).

In both instances, we have the angel of the Lord. The same verb for striking is used in both instances (patasso). Both instances occur in the presence of some sort of glory. With Peter, light shone in the prison. With Herod, he was arrayed in royal splendor. In both cases, the angel struck the middle of the body. We are told that the angel hit Peter on the side, and with Herod we can conclude from the fact that he was eaten by worms that the angel struck him somewhere in the middle.

There is little doubt in my mind that Luke is having fun with this, but we must also recognize that the point of all the parallels is to make a contrast that was the fundamental point. The striking was the deliverance of Peter, and the destruction of Herod. Note that again—the point of all the parallels was to make a contrast.

Making a Right Judgment:

In rhetoric, the point of stasis theory is to teach the student to identify what is in fact the main point, the hinge upon which everything turns, and not to be distracted by various extraneous issues. Nothing is worse than watching someone debate one of the bad guys, the trunk of whose tree is open and exposed, with a chain saw sitting on the ground by that trunk, quietly idling, and then to have his orthodox interlocutor take off down the street, chasing some of the stray leaves that the wind blew off.

The Lord told us to use our heads and hearts together when we make an assessment.

“Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24).

Deciding the right thing to do should be straightforward. But that is not the same thing as saying that it is a simple in a cookie-cutter kind of way. To most of the saints at Antioch, Paul was creating an unnecessary controversy over the seating arrangements at the potluck. But Paul knew that unless he threw down at that point, the gospel itself would be compromised (Gal. 2:11). David ate the show bread and was justified (Matt. 12:4), while Uzzah just tried to prevent the ark of the covenant from tipping over and was slain for his efforts (2 Sam. 6:6). It would have been a terrible compromise to acquiesce in the circumcision of Titus (Gal. 2:3), and it was no compromise at all to have Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3).

In absolutely every situation that contains more than two variables, those variables can always be rearranged in such a way as to tell a story that is direct opposite of the story that God wants you to derive from it. After all of Jeremiah’s melancholy  prophecies had been fulfilled, after his bona fides as a true prophet of God had been triply proved, there were some who had the effrontery to say all these disasters had befallen Jerusalem because they had not worshiped the Queen of Heaven enough (Jer. 44:18). Yeah, that’s the ticket.

That’s our story, they said, and we’re sticking to it.

The Chap Stick Incident:

So let me tell you a story. Quite a few years ago now, my two daughters were giving a presentation to a number of young college girls. One of the points they were communicating to the girls, among others, was that Christian women should be responsible for policing their own boundaries of their own personal spaces, and that they should not allow any of the brothers to encroach uninvited.

One of my girls used an example from back in her college days, where a friend had grabbed a tube of her chap stick, used it, whereupon he then attempted to return it. She had refused to take it back, on the principle that she was not going to allow him to unilaterally determine whether or not things like that were okay with her.

So then, girls, the point of the exhortation was to show young women how not to be manipulated by men, whether in great things or small. We should all be for that, right?  

This was many years ago. But there was a vocal cohort of point-missers among the girls present (“I can’t believe she said friends can’t share chap stick if they want.”). The point they thought they had heard rapidly assumed the proportions of an outrage, and so the story has been passed down to subsequent generations of girls. “There are chap stick legalists out there . . . ware! ware!”

Now the problem is this. The young ladies who missed the point are actually the kind of women who, if a married friend finally had to resort to the desperate measure of getting a restraining order against a brutal husband, would be the very first to mount the Facebook barricades to demand that the entire world respect her choices, respect her space, respect her privacy. Fine. Good. Great, in fact.

But if someone proposes equipping such women earlier in life on how to recognize such things early on, and how to respond to such things when they are relatively simple, and not so devastating—no dice, Pharisee.

So Then, to the Schoolmarms:

Schoolmarms usually know something, but it is generally limited in scope, and runs on a narrow gauge track. They know their subject, and their immediate duties. But they do not know the world. They do not know how their subject fits into the larger world because in their minds, their subject of choice is the world.

The adage has, in their case, been fulfilled in a most illuminating way. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. A schoolmarm is fastidious, and couples this with having no sense of place or proportion.   

Their thing might be Latin, or it might be music, or it might be health and fitness, or it might networking on behalf of friends who have had to take out restraining orders, or it might be activism against apostrophe abuse, or it might be classical Christian education, or it might be all about the importance of the Oxford comma, or some other cause for the true-hearted. The operations of this true believer, which are usually destructive, might occur in a school, in a corporation, in a church office, in a college, or in a family—they are willing to destroy the harmony of whatever host they might be inhabiting.

When one thing is treated as though it were the only thing, conflict is usually not very far away. This conflict can happen with rival aspiring empires because there is the football team, chess club, and the music program, and your kid can’t do them all, and a representative of each one has hold of your kid’s leg, and both arms.

Conflict can also happen when people with normal balanced lives kick at the unreasonable demands being placed on them.

Not only is there conflict, but their fastidious pursuit of what they have hoicked up into the rafters of the sublime frequently results in the destruction of the thing they pretend to admire so much.

Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis both described how the purists of the Latin restoration movement in the Renaissance succeeded only in destroying Latin. There was one guy, floating above the common herd, who refused to use any Latin form that could not be reproduced from Cicero. By arbitrarily defining Periclean Athens and Augustan Rome as the high water mark, as establishing what had to be treated as the standard, they succeeded only in destroying the use of Latin as a living language. For if Latin were to be a living language, there would have to be a way of saying jogging, or toaster oven, or iPhone in it. That just seems so . . . tacky. Not the kind of thing a purist wants to do. What if you went into the grocery store and in aisle 13 your child cries out, Ecce! Ursuli gummi! Your eyes narrow because the Latin teacher has apparently been fooling around.

Schoolmarms are experts in making the perfect the enemy of the good. More specifically, they make the perfect one thing the enemy of the balanced many things.

Two Last Things:

Specialists are most necessary, but the model needs to be a Pauline one. It is a body life thing, and there are two aspects to this. There are two ways for a person to give himself to the pursuit of excellence in his chosen vocation, and to do so without raining mayhem down on the heads of all others. There are two ways, in other words, to avoid becoming a schoolmarm in whatever subject it is you have chosen. And what is it that you have become instead of becoming a schoolmarm? Let’s call it becoming a ninja. For a ninja, balance is everything.

The first is to realize, accept and love the fact that the emphasis that others place on things that leave you utterly uninterested is an emphasis that God gave them. God wants the liver to want to do things that the ankles, and eyes, and kidneys have no desire whatever to do. This is the fact of body life (1 Cor. 12:16-17).

And the second thing is learning to render to those with other gifts what you (in your better moments) wish they would render to you in your pursuits. If you wish they would recognize the value of what you do, then start by recognizing the value of what they do. This is the law and the prophets (Phil. 2:3). This is qualitative love and humility in that body life.

And it sets us free to pursue excellence in what God has given to us without becoming a fastidious pain in the neck. Don’t do that. Being a pain in the neck does not count as body life.

I Was Told There Would be Free Books:

The free book today is God Rest Ye Merry, my celebration of the importance of Christmas. The book contains Advent readings, if that is something you do with your family, and it also contains what might be called an apologetic for Christmas. Given the nature of the book, this is one of mine that might be considered a perennial.Or, failing that, a potted poinsettia, in keeping with the season.