Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cut-n-Paste Culture

Ever since the popularity of Graphical User Interface (GUI) platforms, cut-n-paste has become a common way of life for many people. Call it copy-n-paste, print-screen, screen-capture, content extraction or whatever. Replication technologies have never been so advanced. Gone are the days of looking at old bookstores digging for lyrics of old melodies. Few people bother to dust ancient paper files as many of the archaic documents have been digitized. Technology is not only an efficient replicator but also a great distribution tool. Like all inventions, there is a downside to it. Easily copied, easily posted, and easily manipulated. The rise of high technology can lead to a drop in human creativity. The fallen race risk falling even more. In schools, plagiarism is a rising concern and seems to be a problem that can never go away. Stealing and storing information can be effortlessly done. It has become so much of a problem that legal firms now have huge departments that deal with Intellectual Property rights. Scholars are constantly warned to give due credit to the sources they quote. This is standard fare. Common standards have been published to allow authors and researchers to adhere to, like Chicago, MLA, Turabian, and many other styles. Many things can be copied, but is it possible to duplicate everything? In this article, I will argue that there are at least 3 things, namely relationships, prayer and experience, that cannot be easily cut and pasted.

A Culture of Cheating
Cut-n-Paste technology has become an expected feature in many software applications. It helps us avoid re-typing repetitive phrases. It enables us to save time, and avoid typographical errors while retyping. It is more accurate even to the finer details like commas, semi-colons and font sizes. Unfortunately, the technology has been abused. Some bloggers have called it ‘cut-n-paste-gate,’ an allusion to the Watergate scandal. There is a website called 'Famous Plagiarists' that is dedicated to exposing famous plagiarists.

Stealing has become a high tech enterprise. In a conference paper entitled: “PLAGIARISM AND NEW MEDIA TECHNOLOGIES: COMBATING ‘CUT ‘N PASTE’ CULTURE,” Caroline Miall says that new technologies have spawned many ways of cheating. Calling it ‘New Plagiarism’ and ‘culture of cheating,’ such actions like plagiarism swim against decent efforts at educating minds for the longer term. [Miall, C. (2005). Plagiarism and new media technologies: Combating ‘cut ’n paste’ culture. A paper presented to the OLT 2005 Conference, QUT, Brisbane, 168-176.]

I think Miall is on to something. The phrase ‘culture of cheating’ is cleverly chosen for it reflects how pervasive the practice has become. Culture is a simple word, yet it can be quite sophisticated too. Students of organizational behaviour will know that it is easy to replace personnel, office hardware, location of the business and other aspects of the corporation. However, when it comes to culture, it is not such a simple matter. How do we change the culture of an organization? I gather that it is one of the most, if not the most difficult thing ever to be changed. Chances are, those who try to change the culture will see themselves be changed out. Moreover, any results of change may be evident only long after they have left the company. If the culture is one of cheating, then not only technology but anything can be a possible device used to cheat. Like the popular saying: If you are a hammer, everything you see is a nail. However, is this a fair statement of calling our culture a cheating culture? Frankly, I think it is more accurate to describe people as having the TENDENCY to cheat, rather than being called cheaters directly. The problem becomes multiplied once we take on the first rung down the ladder of cheating. We can learn something from the Old Testament.

Adam/Eve and David
Sin is that all pervasive failing which began through Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They were deceived by the serpent into thinking that they can ‘cut’ the knowledge of good and evil and ‘paste’ it onto themselves. Together with Adam, both of them gave in to lust and ate the forbidden fruit, going against God’s explicit instruction. As a result, all mankind fell headlong into the depths of sin. This pattern of cut-n-paste is often done through lusting, like the mighty King David’s whose reputation became tarnished through that act of lusting after Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. He thought that he could ‘cut’ out the juicy part of his affair and to cover up Bathsheba’s pregnancy, simply by pasting it back onto Uriah (2 Sam 11:8). Of course, some people can claim that Bathsheba was already pregnant. The writer’s meticulous reference to 2 Sam 11:4 on Bathsheba’s ceremonial cleanness tells us clearly that Bathsheba was never pregnant before David slept with her. Moreover, that also tells us that Bathsheba was most ready for impregnation at that time, and having Uriah to sleep with her will perfectly disguise David’s ‘cut-n-paste’ strategy. What makes David think that he can quietly cut out what is not his, and quietly paste back to make it his property? An initial lust, followed by cunning scheming, a murderous act, all coalesces toward havoc in his kingdom. If sin is allowed to take root, the results are never good. John warns us:
“For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.” (1 John 2:16)
Sin is the root of grave evil happening in the world now.

Having said that, despite its seductive appeal, there are still things in this world that cannot be easily cut-n-paste. I will now describe the 3 things that we cannot cut-n-paste.

How can we cut-n-paste relationships? David tried, but suffered serious consequences, which includes the death of his first son with Bathsheba. Like heart transplants, medical know-how enables one to make a physical swap of a bad heart with a good. The surgery can be done, but not so with the emotions. Can we reasonably download a personality into an empty human shell? Are we like the Cylons, seen in the hit TV series, Battlestar Galactica, where these machines looking like humans can be conveniently resurrected after each death, with their personality downloaded whenever necessary? These things are fictional and represent the imagination of the storytellers and the drama producers. David Gushee confesses in his book “Only Human,” how his quarrel with his wife resulted in his physical shutdown. It affects his relationships with his children, his desire to work, and his energy to do things. He could not simply cut away his anger over the argument and live his usual routine. What he needs is a touch of forgiveness, and everything will then fall back in place. (David Gushee, Only Human, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005, 57-8)

Reconciliation is the superglue of any broken relationship. We cannot simply cut ourselves out of the problematic situation, and paste back into the new, thinking that everything will be all right. Gushee, in his reflection writes:
“The extraordinary importance of our relationships is never more obvious than when they are disrupted.” (Gushee, 65)
One example is the disruption of our routine with news of the loss of a friend or loved one. For pastors, one of the quickest decisions to ever make is deciding whether to go for a wedding or a funeral when both are happening at the same time. The funeral usually takes priority. One may say, that the person is already dead, so why bother? The counter argument is that people feeling a loss is more needful of human companionship and pastoral presence than anything else.

2) Prayer
One can cut-n-paste other people’s prayers by mouthing it or memorizing it. However, it is never one’s own prayer until it is internalized and uttered meaningfully. Sometimes, saying the Lord’s Prayer can be a dangerous act of taking the Lord’s name in vain. Now, I am not against going through the motions, in terms of saying together in the congregational prayer. Human emotions constantly shift and change, and some consistent ritual help the soul to sit still amid the tides of uncertainty and all manner of whimsical thoughts. When something becomes overly familiar, we risk falling into the familiarity-breeds-contempt trap. Dallas Willard warns those of us who have been Christians a long time about this danger.
“…presumed familiarity has led to unfamiliarity, unfamiliarity has led to contempt, and contempt has led to profound ignorance.” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, Harper San Francisco, 1997, xiii)
Thus his Divine Conspiracy offers Christians who feel jaded to have a fresh go at their spiritual walk with Jesus. In a nutshell, Willard’s main point is that Christians do not have to be mere consumers of God’s goodness and gifts, but disciples of God’s kingdom through faithful and meaningful living now (xvii). His take on modern society is brilliantly encapsulated as:
“… most of us as individuals, ad world society as a whole, live at high-speed, and often with no clue to whether we are flying upside down or right-side up. Indeed, we are haunted by a strong suspicion that there may be no difference – or at least that it is unknown or irrelevant.” (Willard, 2)
It is especially during times like these that we find much healing in prayer. George Herbert, a celebrated English poet in the 17th Century writes a profound prayer poem.

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices, something understood.”
(George Herbert: “Prayer” 1593-1633)
Beautiful words coupled with a vivid reflection of nature and the universe. Herbert connects the wonders of heaven with the things on earth. He weaves together elements of earthly nature with vibrant glimpses of heavenly realm. Prayer is like ‘reversed thunder’ in which human beings need not shudder in fear over the sight of lightning or the sound of thunder. Instead, a prayer silently uttered is like a reversed thunder from earth back to heaven. Sheer potent power of prayer indeed. Herbert gently transposes familiar cultural symbols like banquet, spear, manna, spices and sets them in communion with divine ecstasy. I particularly like “The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,’ as it describes prayer in terms of constantly expressing the prayerful person in many different ways. Just like we try to express one feeling of love for God through multiple ways. Our soul constantly paraphrased is that peppering God continuously to long for and seek God. Like the deer, which pants for the waters, so our soul ought to long after God. Can such prayerful moments be cut and pasted as an when we desire? No. It has to be lived, gradually and surely. That is why the human heart is described as one in pilgrimage.

3) Experience
CS Lewis calls experience as the “that most brutal of teachers. But you learn. My God do you learn." We cannot simply paste another person’s experience into our resume and call it ours. That would be cheating, and even if we land that job, we can be fired when found out. Likewise, our experience with God is not easily replicated from one person to another. The desire to experience God is clearly a popular one. Henry Blackaby’s bestseller: “Experiencing God” comprises 7 steps toward achieving such a divine encounter.
  1. God is always at work around you.
  2. God pursues a continuing love relationship with you that is real and personal.
  3. God invites you to become involved with Him in His work.
  4. God speaks by the Holy Spirit through the Bible, prayer, circumstances, and the church to reveal Himself, His purposes, and His ways.
  5. God's invitation for you to work with Him always leads you to a crisis of belief that requires faith and action.
  6. You must make major adjustments in your life to join God in what He is doing.
  7. You come to know God by experience as you obey Him and He accomplishes His work through you.

(Henry Blackaby et al, Experiencing God, Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2008, p54)

While Blackaby’s book has helped many people, I want to point out that God cannot be easily strait-jacked into such a methodology. There will always be people who, after going through the seven steps still find themselves confused and unsure what kind of experience they are expected to have. Blackaby’s formula is helpful, but only up to a certain point. We need to live out God’s Word according to God’s guiding Spirit. The Holy Spirit could use Blackaby’s techniques. He can also choose not to. A prayerful and discerning heart will be most helpful for us. Done with a community of believers, this discernment gets elevated closer to the divine heart of God. Didn’t the Lord teach us to approach the Lord’s prayer by starting with a plural?

I have argued that our cut-n-paste culture is yet another potentially sinful expression of cheating. Then, I submit that there are at least 3 things that cannot be easily cut-n-pasted, like relationships, prayer and experience. Having done that, I now propose that the way to counter the negative tendency of cut-n-paste culture is to discern our spirituality with God, especially with a Christ-loving community. Within a community of faith, we build relationships. Together with a community of faith, we offer up our prayers together to God. In our pilgrimage together as a people of God, we learn and grow together and encounter God, with our experiences enriching one another in the Lord.

In his conclusion, David Gushee writes:

“The strands of human nature – our need for relationship, the way sin disrupts them, and our potential for moral greatness in demonstrating loving concern for others – could be woven together to point to the conclusion that the destination most deeply worth cherishing would be reconciled and peaceable relationships in every dimension of human existence.” (David Gushee, Only Human, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005, p194)

A ‘reconciled and peaceable relationships’ in all dimensions. That is indeed needful for a world in need for healing. I will end with Mother Teresa’s A Simple Path which aptly describes the experience Gushee writes about.

The fruit of silence is
The fruit of prayer is
The fruit of faith is
The fruit of love is
The fruit of service is

(Mother Teresa, A Simple Path)

We cannot depend on Cut-n-Paste to mend relationships, do our prayers or gain our experiences. The solution is forgiveness and reconciliation. This is what we all need. This is what the whole world needs. Once we all recognize this, life will be more bearable for all.


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