Personal Canon

Cannon Firing
No, I do not mean a pocket sized one of these. That’s a cannon, not a canon. (Photo by David Brandt via Wikipedia)

Just a brief thought today about what I am coming to call “personal canon.” It might seem an odd topic–or, perhaps, a normal topic oddly worded, but, to be honest, it is still a “thought in development,” so hopefully you will bear with me.

Most of us are probably familiar with the word “canon” in our readings about the Bible, as in the biblical canon is the collection of works that are believed to be authentic and authoritative–or “canonical.” However, the word admits to usage outside of discussions of the Bible, such as in sci-fi franchises. For instance, with a franchise such as Star Trek, which has produced eleven movies so far (the twelfth is coming out next summer, apparently), practically countless books, a cartoon series, and story-based video games–let alone fan fiction–those who are “true fans” want to know which stories are “canon”–that is, which ones should be considered “true” and part of the franchise’s universe, such that any canonical additional stories must take into account those canonical stories that were written before them and can’t contradict them. Other, non-canon stories can differ from other stories as much as they like.  (Star Wars fans have not had as complicated a time as Trekkies, since their favorite franchise has not had as long to develop a vast amount of novels, but the new Disney-produced movies may pose a challenge as they will likely establish a new line of canon after the six previous Star Wars movies that will differ from the novels that had been considered canon up to this time.)

“Canon” is, in that sense, the “official tale” or “authorized story or set of facts.”

So, that said (why did I say it would be a “brief” thought today?), what do I mean by “personal canon”? I’m speaking of our individual efforts to weave a narrative tale for ourselves that we take to be true and by which we judge the truthfulness of other tales. For instance, one might be a aficionado of the American Civil War and have, in your mind, a working “canon” of how it progressed and what influences were responsible for what effects over the course of the war. Then, when you encounter new information, you compare it to the canon you’ve established: Does it fit your canon or not? If not, we tend to want to reject the idea outright or to accept it only with modification. If it fits our canon, then the information is assimilated more easily–even possibly reinforcing the canon.

If we’re rejected the information “as is” due to its disagreement with our personal canon, then we’re either right or wrong to do so… If we’re right, then no harm done in most cases. If we’re wrong, then we’ve missed a chance to revise our canon–to see that, just maybe, we don’t have things right after all.

What concerns me, though, isn’t so much our opinions about the Civil War. What concerns me is my interactions with others.

It is not uncommon (in my experience, at least) to see grudges continued on and on and on out of problems with personal canons: “This is the way it was, and there is no telling me that it was some other way!” And sometimes it seems that the individual who will not budge works hard at maintaining his or her belief in his personal canon even when ample evidence mounts that the canon is wrong.

Actually, I am reminded of the Apostle “Doubting” Thomas, with whom I identify a bit. When ten of his closest friends try to explain to him that they have seen the risen Christ, he refuses to modify his personal canon, part of which includes the belief that dead people just don’t come back to life again:

Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” (John 20:24-25)

I really do sympathize with Thomas, here. As they surely relate to him the details of their encounter with Jesus–the sights, the sounds, His specific words–he is willing to say that each and every one of these ten men is, essentially, either insane or lying, rather than to accept that he is simply wrong about the matter. (David Hume would be proud.)

And I’ve seen the same in personal grudges and disputes…

  • “I’m upset because they said X.”
  • Who said X?
  • “A, B, and C said X.”
  • But I just spoke with A, B, and C, and all of them say that they didn’t mean to say X at all–they were trying to say Y. Perhaps you just misunderstood what they meant.
  • “Well, they are lying now. They said X and meant it the way I know they mean it.”

In other words, “I’ve established my personal canon, and there is no going back.”

(By the way, any resemblance between A, B, & C and certain children whose last names rhyme with “Schmith” is completely not coincidental. 🙂 Resemblance to anyone else in your life, on the Internet, working in talk radio, or staring at you from your mirror may or may not be also. I will let you make that call!)

I am thankful to have had my tendency to build personal canon thrown in my face when I was 19 years old by my college roommate. We were in our beds chatting before falling asleep and he said something with which I disagreed and told him so–not rudely (at least I don’t think), just making conversation. He then, after a brief pause, said, “You know Wally, when someone says something you disagree with you don’t even consider what they said–you just figure it’s wrong and then keep thinking what you were thinking.” (Or, at least something to that effect.)

Of course, my first thought was, “That’s not true!” But, hopefully realizing that I was, perhaps, validating the very accusation that was presented to me, I resisted that thought and considered what he said. And, sure enough, as I examined myself that evening I found, annoyingly enough, that he was right–that is how I tended to react. I really didn’t give the comments of others enough weight if they obviously challenged my personal canon.

Now, that doesn’t mean that every such comment should be given equal weight. If anyone ever comes up to me and says that they just saw Elvis dressed like a leprechaun and chasing Bigfoot while riding a diamond-studded unicorn, I will be unlikely to exert any effort at all in examining my personal canon to revise it for this new “fact.” (Everyone knows Elvis rides UFOs, not unicorns.)

But when it comes to relationships or what I “know” to be true about others and what they’ve said and done or even thought and felt, I must be willing to see them differently than I do at any given moment. I have to be able to revise my personal canon, developed over my history with them, because–last I checked–I am human, and making mistakes is something that we humans are good at, even over long periods of time.

Marriage teaches this, or at least it should. We think we really know this person we’ve been married to for X years, and then they go and surprise us! Sometimes good, sometimes bad — I know that I have given my Beautiful Wife plenty of examples of both over the last 20 years. 🙂 But if I can still be surprised by someone whom I know better than anyone else on the planet, is it possible that I’ve made mistakes in my effort to understand anyone else? To be sure, I have and do.

I hope God will protect me from getting so married to my own personal canon that when reasonable evidence arrives to let me know I should revise it I end up refusing and risking damage to my relationships, my character, or even those around me in the future. Our personal canons should reflect reality, and that will take a willingness to revise them from time to time. Sometimes that thing I think A, B, and C meant really isn’t what A, B, and C meant.

10 thoughts on “Personal Canon

  1. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    I don’t think either you or I are even capable of what most people consider “brief thoughts”. 😛 pbbt 😉 I do think we carry pocket-sized cannons around in our pen pockets–proving Ben Franklin’s dictum that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” 🙂 And sometimes, I suspect, even more than the MIRV’d ICBM. 😀

    We do deal with logical systems thinking and personal value judgments in apparently inverse ways and so what would make and keep our “personal can(n)ons” armed may be different–which makes no difference if the bad result we might aim at 😉 remains the same.

  2. D. Crockett

    My idea of an agreeable person is one that agrees with me…
    As I think about it, my “canon” may be rusty.

  3. Timothy

    [EDIT: Comment content removed. Sorry, Timothy, but I will not let you hijack this blog post and make it about something else, especially when your family fits the “problematic personal canon” description so well. I took the time to research and personally send you guys a copy of a document, complete with Herbert Armstrong’s own signature in his own hand, showing that he chose to make the WCG a 501(c)(3) compliant organization in the 80s even after the receivership, and I have heard nothing in the way of “Wow, we were wrong,” or apologies for accusations made. You’re so dedicated to your own “canonical” version of Mr. Armstrong that you can’t even accept a document with his signature as evidence that you have him wrong. Sorry, but no thanks. If you’ve repented of all that and of your inadvertent slandering of Mr. Armstrong, just let me know. But if you want to preach your personal version of Mr. Armstrong, please do it elsewhere. At the very least, choose to try it on a post that is more relevant, as I will not let you hijack this one. Thanks. — WGS]

  4. We covered something like this in an “interpersonal communication” class years ago. If we don’t like someone, then we tend misinterpret his words in a negative light, confirming our original dislike. I think it was called “selective perception.” Something like that. Good post, Mr Smith; and a point well worth taking.

    (By the way. I keep telling people that Elvis lives on the planet Zontar, and that he still visits Earth, posing as an Elvis impersonator. Those fried peanut butter and bacon sandwiches, you see. For some strange reason nobody believes me).

  5. Teresa

    Don’t you think there must have been more to Thomas’ doubts than just that dead people don’t come back to life again? There had been historical examples of it as in the case of the widow’s son that Elijah raised. Also, Lazarus had just been raised after being dead for four days, and it seems like there was another son of a widow that Christ raised in a funeral procession. So, he had seen examples of its possibility.

    I’m glad you have time to write again! 🙂

  6. Howdy, Teresa, and thanks for your encouragement! While I believe that Christ’s death could have shaken Thomas enough that it was hard for those experiences to be enough for him to accept the unprecedented event his friends were telling him about (since Christ’s resurrection was, in several ways, very different from the other healing and resurrections of the Bible or Jesus’ ministry), yes, I do think there may have been more at work in Thomas’ denial. That thought has crossed my mind before.

    Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  7. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    Hi Mr. Smith! I think both Teresa and you are on to something. With Thomas’ described combination of “predictin’ gloom an’ doom” about the future, general skepticism in principle plus needing the most solid physical evidence possible, not that people can get resurrected in theory, will be in the future or have been in the past, but that Jesus was resurrected there and then in physical fact – he reminds me of me for all those reasons. I think I want to believe more than he, in fact I believe that I’m much more like Nathaniel (who only needed to be “made clear on the concept” of Jesus’ Messiahship through a minor miracle) than Thomas on that level, but there’s enough of the skeptical Thomas in me that I can relate to his various reactions strongly.

    How does all this land with you? Foresighted, skeptical, agnostic with the physical facts until they’re solidly demonstrated – now if I say this just right I’m sure to insult you (and I’m sorry if I do), but why do you and Thomas sound to me like very similar people in broad strokes? 🙂 Just as human beings, leaving aside conversion? 😀 Or am I just blowing smoke here IYHO?

  8. No, I do think that there is something there. Perhaps in keeping with your characterization, I find it hard to draw conclusions about Thomas too firmly. It simply could have been a matter of the emotional need not to be hurt again. Perhaps inwardly he has let himself go “out on a limb” and invested real belief in the “Messiahship” of Jesus, only to be so scarred at His death that he dared not allow himself to imagine that his friends might be telling the truth. The will is always involved with belief, yet the will is not completely beholden to reason. In fact, getting things back a bit to the broader topic, I see this in some personal grudges, as well. It is not that the grudge-holders don’t have the ability to process the evidence at hand, but there is often a clear lack of will to do so, and that lack of will can be motivated by many things–pride, to be sure, but also a desire to protect oneself from hurt and/or an unwillingness to be vulnerable.

  9. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    My general characterization, if true, would certainly leave Thomas open to the deeper and more detailed inner conflicts you describe than some.

  10. Pingback: Who Loaded My Canon? « Resting in His Grace

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