IVP - Strangely Dim - I fight authority (authority always wins)

May 7, 2004

I fight authority (authority always wins)

David A. Zimmerman

I guess I need to be concerned for my reputation. My editor is telling me to be more "authoritative"—less deferential to competing and critical voices not only in my writing but in my casual conversations. People need to be given confidence, the argument goes, that whoever calls them to follow along knows where they're going to wind up and what they'll encounter along the way.

Here's my problem, though: I'm thoroughly Gen X. I ride the slacker waves that birthed, among other things, the song "I'm a Loser, Baby (So Why Don't You Kill Me?)" Let's just say I'm not comfortable with the concept of authority—at least as authority is commonly understood.

"The authorities" are the ones who come get you when you've done something wrong. Their opinions are incontrovertible and their decisions decisive. Authority in this sense is a thoroughly modern concept—patented property of the Baby Boomers. No wonder I resist it.

Still, authority has the word author written right there in it. So if I want to claim the one, I'll have to contend with the other.

I brainstormed a list of what I might convincingly claim authority over in the minds of my Boomer friends:

 self-promotion
 underachievement
 humor as defense mechanism
 musical snobbery
 sinning

Rereading this piece, I'm starting to have my doubts about that first one, though I think I can now make a strong case for being named chief of sinners. Nevertheless, with a resume like this you can understand why I favor a more nuanced understanding of authority.

My preferred model comes from the U.S. House of Representatives. You don't necessarily get to Congress because you know Arabic or have secured cheap prescription medication for your octogenarian parents. You get to Congress mainly because you've convinced a plurality of the population that they’re safe authorizing you to speak and act on their behalf.

That’s a whole different ball of authorial wax. Rather than dictating to their subjects—“Respect my authority!” in the language of South Park—people of authority under this model are accountable to their constituents. They are obligated to responsibly represent the needs and wishes of their audience no matter what they come across. They govern with the consent of the governed.

Maybe I’m making too big a deal out of this. It’s not like I’m writing foreign policy or security codes for the Department of Defense. I write about stuff like comic books and television and eating with the wrong fork. But we’ve become a culture that wants immediate, authoritative answers, even though many of our questions can’t really be answered immediately or authoritatively. If you want to know the meaning of life, you won’t turn to a dictionary or a phone book; you’ll start out on a quest that likely won’t end.

A quest like that can be humbling and perplexing—not something that cultivates authoritarian impulses in people. We need to commission people willing to embark on such a quest and brave the confusion it engenders, authorizing them to report back whatever they discover.

Hmmm. Authorized confusion. That sounds right up my alley.


Check out my secret identity at www.ivpress.com.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at May 7, 2004 9:12 AM Bookmark and Share

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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