Thursday, April 3, 2008

Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk

Goethe once commented, “One should, each day, try to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it is possible speak a few reasonable words.”

From radio and television hosts to church consultants and pastoral conference presenters, we hear a lot of religious talk — not all of which is particularly reasonable. In his book Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, Neil Postman discusses the semantic environment in which we find ourselves. The paragraphs which follow are a brief excerpt from that work (Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk by Neil Postman, New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1976, pp 3-5).

Stupidity is words. It is not something people “possess,” like their kidneys. Stupidity is something we speak, sentences that do not “make sense” or are self-defeating. We may speak such sentences to others or only to ourselves. But the point is that stupidity is something we do with our larynx.

What our larynx does is controlled by the way we manage our minds. No one knows, of course, what “mind” is and there are even those who think it wise to avoid discussing it altogether. But this much we can say: The main stuff of the mind is sentences. “Minding” and “languaging” are, for all practical purposes, one and the same. When we are thinking, we are mostly arranging sentences in our heads. When we are thinking stupid, we are arranging stupid sentences.

I will go so far as to say that the entire subject matter of stupidity is encompassed by the study of our ways of talking. Even when we do a nonverbal stupid thing, like smoking a cigarette (one of my own cherished stupidities), we have preceded the act by talking to ourselves in such a way as to make it appear reasonable. One might say that stupid talk is the generative act from which all the Higher Stupidities flow. The word, in a word, brings for the act.

Moreover, stupidity is something of a linguistic achievement. It does not, I believe, come naturally to us We must learn how to do it, and practice how to do it. Naturally, once having learned and practiced it, we find it difficult, possibly painful, to forget how to do it. Speaking, after all, is a habit, and habits, by definition, are hard to break.

Craziness is much the same thing. Crazy behavior is produced by our generating certain kinds of sentences which we have nurtured and crown to love. When, for example, Lynnette Fromme was sentenced to life imprisonment for attempting to assassinate Gerald Ford, she said, “I want [Charles] Manson out. I want a world of peace.” Considering the hideous circumstances by which Manson came to be imprisoned, and considering what most people mean by “peace,” you might say that Ms. Fromme exhibited an almost wondrous creativity in putting those two sentences together. We can fairly assume that she sees a connection between them. There are, no doubt, several unspoken sentences by which she has formed a bridge between Manson and peace. Even further, there must be still more sentences by which she connects Manson and peace to the assassination of Ford.

Crazy acts are not illogical to those who do them. But the point is that in order to do them, you must first build a verbal empire of intricate dimension. A great deal of crazy talk must be processed before assassination will appear as a reasonable thing to do.


Susan said...

Ok, I have to ask. Where do beliefs fit into this mix? I'm thinking that stupid beliefs also produce stupid thinking hence stupid words. I don't completely disagree - lazy thinking can happen with the best of beliefs,

But I'm also thinking about what information you take as food (Goethe's comment) makes a difference. Fromme's cultish brainwashing played a role in her madness and I also think about how much people are brainwashed into stupid thinking patterns from the innundation of our media/culture.

Lastly, I'm thinking that is why the Lord instructs us to feed on His word. Hearing right words and forming right beliefs helps correct our thinking and words?

Rev. Joel A. Brondos said...

Which comes first: stupid thinking or stupid words?

I think that, as one of the aspects of the sinful human nature, they come together. Apart from faith, there is no wisdom in thought, word or deed. In life, stupid thoughts and stupid words feed off each other.

Of course, that is not the way that Postman approaches the topic. His analysis is not theological.

Rom. 1 and 1 Cor. 1 talk about the foolishness of unbelief. The Wisdom literature, e.g. Proverbs speak about wisdom in connection with faith. What is it that breaks into the cycle of stupid beliefs and stupid words?

Hearing "right words," hearing the Word of God bestows life and salvation where and when He wills it -- but that does not work automatically.

And "right beliefs" aren't really the result of our "forming" them. In other words, it isn't a matter of my hearing the Word of God and then, on the basis of my intellect, I try to form right beliefs by means of cognitive effort. The Word does its work - not by might but by grace.

Bottom line: Where the living Word of the Lord is at work, there will be the creation of the "new man," and with that new creation also comes righteous thoughts and salutary beliefs. Thus He preserves true faith -- and there is no true faith apart from His Word.

But perhaps I am being too obtuse?

Susan said...

"But perhaps I am being too obtuse?"

No, I do not think so. As an ex-evangelical and as yet un-Lutheranized, I do appreciate your words and your help steering my thinking.

I agree with what you are saying. And if I understood what you are saying, then I too believe that faith, wisdom, and preservation in faith are gifts from the Lord through His word. But I also think we are to take care with whom we allow to be our teachers so we are not led astray. It seems that even with faith, it is possible to be drawn away?

In my post, I think I was more focused on the article's view of stupid thinking and stupid words. That's why I asked how beliefs fit into the mix. With the current situation in the synod, my thoughts tend to go towards how people are led astray just as Fromme was by a false teacher. I was thinking more about how easily people can become seduced and deceived by believing false teachings.

Lastly, what I meant by forming right beliefs was in reference to the bible talking about Christ being formed in us by His word and growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ. I was thinking that it was His word forming right beliefs. Again, a gift. And I think that happens where His word and sacraments are rightly administered.

Ok, now it's my turn to ask - perhaps I'm being obtuse? Did I miss what you were saying and go the other direction?

Rev. Joel A. Brondos said...

Actually, I think your question was very perceptive. My response was given in terms of human reason in light of faith; Postman's comments relate to human reason alone. The faith/reason dichotomy has ranged far and wide for centuries.

Crazy talk can certainly be identified by authors like Postman, but with redeemed reason we also acknowledge that faith which is foolishness to the world.