Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | December 18, 2008

Tux, Flipper, Lego and the Church – Part Two



Found the images I couldn’t back in Philly… so you can at last see who and what I’m running off at the keyboard about…. for (yipes!) more words than I thought.  This second installment may be the last… or may be the last for a while.. leaving sometime for Nativity and the like.

In the last installment, I tried to convey my sense that converting to the Orthodox Church has something of the thrills of converting to Linux. Yes, it’s “better” if we know that by “better” we mean adapted to the particular needs of the user’s desire to walk the ascetic path towards salvation… but this isn’t the whole.

Let me explain something of my Linux experience before moving on. Before getting things actually up and running… it was a real bear. Tried it once, failed; tried it again, still failed. And so on… but I kept at it. There was even a time that I quit it altogether as impossible… as unready for the real world. And then I stumbled on a new “friendly” distribution. “Distros” as they’re called are like jurisdictions in Orthodox Christian America… they’re all basically doing the same thing in their own way and each has its champions as the one, the true, the only one for whomever… but everyone knows at the end of the day… we hold the same faith, and commune with the same God.flipper1

So eventually I got things running. I got my music files transferred out of Apple’s proprietary DRM format and into ubiquitous MP3 and OOG formats I could drop on to my music player… and life was good. Got the photos, spreadsheets, Word documents – all of that handled without a hitch. I even found a package similar to Quicken… but in classic Linux virtue… “without the bloat”. First managed this on Mepis, then switched to Ubuntu… and now am moving on to Linux Mint as a polished, dummed down Linux. Yes, the true believers are convinced I’m a slacker… and in truth… I am, but you already know that. I’m one of those folks the true engineers sneer at and call “a user”, and dismiss with a wave, but we’re a small but growing lot… and the engineers love and need us as much as they’d pretend otherwise.

And here’s the Linux difficulty. It’s paradigm remains so committed to open source kernel orientation, and it’s experience so rooted in the user-as-builder that it finds it difficult to loosen up and allow either commercial software, or finished packages of Linux to get promoted as anything more than (add sneering and contemptuous drip to the voice) “packaged”. There are a few out there thinking and working to make life “do-able” and “less hard” for the novice user… but to many, this smacks of all the wrong things… something only the wrong sort of people would want.

Now there’s nothing wrong with this machismo user bravado. It is indeed a faith of its own, and serves to keep things focused on the winning ways of its origin: commitment to putting “power” in the term “power user”, and keeping it lean and light wherever possible. There is also a keen awareness that add-on power risks bloat, risks compromise to the integrity of the core design… and so a hesitancy to embrace it. Linux is nothing if not concilliar in its management of the code it runs on: The code can be reviewed and revised by anyone… subject to blistering critique and approval of the user base. It is a literal trial by fire approach to software, and distinguishes its contributors as real “somebodies” in the world of coding. And there is in this a real testament to the virtues of software whose integrity depends on its lay users – where the “body” of knowledgeable friendly (helpful) users provides the lure.

And yes in many ways, Orthodox should warm their hearts to these sounds as a sort of tech world laboratory re-proving the ecclesiology of the Church. There is joy in this sense that a disorganized concilliar body can out maneuver, out-think and out-evolve a highly concentrated, corporate organization embedded on every desktop by default. Linux users aren’t born… but come by choice. But there is also joy in the simple user base of folks like me who see the development guided along and remaining true to its principles. It works… not without effort… but it works.



And this is where the Lego analogy comes in. Because Linux isn’t the only option, and it is uniquely poor in serving particular needs of some users… at least for now.

Consider for a moment a kid who wants to play with a toy car. There may be at least three ways to get the job done: 1) roll a Matchbox Hot Wheels car, 2) build a kit model from Revell or some other company, or 3) build a Lego car. The first two options focus on cars that are complete and recognizable… they conform to images seen and known everywhere. The first allows even the youngest to start rolling those wheels immediately, while the difficulties assembling and finishing the second may require more advanced skills – even waiting until the child’s teen years – the so-called years of reason. But then, with a little glue and paint, this second option results in something special: there’s a 1937 Ford Model A Roadster or a 1965 Ford Mustang or something very unique.. a real collector’s item the builder can reasonably feel proud to have built with their own hands.

Lego is completely different. To the child that thrills to the first two courses alone, Lego may seem just incomplete and crude… like what’s the point? I mean whatever you build is still kind of crude looking, dimpled and angular and all. But its unfinished nature is precisely the point. The completion is left entirely to the builder’s ability to match the image formed in their mind’s eye. And what emerges is unique to that child at that moment. No incarnation will ever match it. Cars powered by sails, equipped with wings and sometimes propellers, and armed with canon were quite common in our house. Of course you could elect to see this as some sort of temptation to individualism… but the fact is… Lego keeps you at the core… and the outer appearance is only in the mind. The core is what you have.. and looks remarkably the same… every time and every where.

And then there’s the well-known Lego “scrape”… the hand of a child searching through a bucket of thousands of pieces looking all alike to a disinterested parent… but clearly distinct and unique to the intentions and memory of the builder. Yes, what emerges may be oddly reminiscent… but at the same time it is truly unique.. and the search and build itself are actually just so much a part of the play… just as the virtue of the parent-annoying sound (and mess) may be equally pleasing to a child’s sense of the moment and perverse wonder.

Like Lego, Linux lets the user assemble precisely the packages needed for a job. You (but not me!) can strip out from software and indeed from the operating system itself… only the pieces needed to give a user precisely what they need for the job. This is the core of the DNA. This is a building block process that allows the linking together of parts into a whole that through the activity of the mind’s eye to create exactly what you need. Nothing more, and nothing less. Just the essentials. This is its beauty.

Similarly, the Orthodox Church’s beauty seems to me to lie less in its icons, vestments, and churches… because for many, these are indeed intimidating and off-putting by their unfamiliarity.. and “incomplete styling”. While this isn’t the way I see it, I’m only using my own operating system… but if your experience is different… you’re not alone. We’ve been there, too. This changes… only if you are energized by its challenge.

So I’d suggest we might consider instead that the beauty of Orthodoxy lies in the unique adaptation of these building blocks to being put together into each user’s spiritual formation and life… a spiritual operating system for the “user”… to get them “home” to salvation. It doesn’t assume you start out as a “power user”… but it’s designed to move you inexorably along in that direction. And in the saints, their lives and writings… we have one of the greatest user forums ever assembled to help us along the way. You just have to post something in prayer when you get “stuck”… and wait for the reply.

And here’s where I wonder whether we aren’t better off to seeing ourselves joined as Legos into the “kernel” of the Church with Christ at its core and the Trinity deeply embedded. This body… completed mystically… allows each their independent uniqueness, but rounds off the hard edges, the incomplete unity (even the dimples), into something much more than the sum of its parts and unified with each of the others. This “something more” is of course not just beyond the certainty of the visible, the here and now, but focused on the image and likeness given by a loving God whose energies… “play” in our creation. What a wonder it is to see each other… the core of our spiritual being… yearning for completeness in the image and likeness of God rather than just the face that looks back in the mirror! If only…

So then if only we could let these same energies of God play in our lives… and instead of running off the LiveCD each Sunday morning…and going back to the same-old, same-old operating system after a “nice” trial… we’d choose something different… select to install the whole system to the hard drive, remove the disk, and reboot to the “new” op system. While it’s never easy… it really could be as simple as that. Oh.. and don’t forget, you’ll get prompted at the logon… the password’s of course “Kyrie_Elieson”… but you’ll have to give it your name… your user-id first.


  1. Very interesting analogy James! I like it, despite some of the words being over my head since I am not a computer expert.

    I like that Legos are simple objects, but when put together can be something beautiful. It reminds me of St. Athanasius’ analogy of Christ becoming Incarnate to “sit for the portrait” so that it might be redrawn.

    Along with the Legos – have you seen this?

    Blessed Nativity to you and yours!

  2. I’m going to send these two links to my Linux/Lego loving son. (say that 5xs really fast) He will totally get the lingo.

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