Monthly Archives: January 2009


Driving in the Spirit: Traffic Epiphanies for the Modern Christian

While vacationing in December, I stumbled upon an engrossing book with a gloriously inflated title (even longer than the title of this post):

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), by Tom Vanderbilt.

It’s a fascinating read, because it manages to synthesize mountains of research into understandable concepts illustrated with funny stories. I recommend it, if only because it sheds some much-needed light onto a subject that you probably think you understand more than you do — the way that you drive your car.

One of the overarching concepts in Traffic is that safety is a malleable concept, and that our preconceived notions of safety are often too-far removed from reality. Roads we normally consider to be safer — wide, clearly marked lanes running straight for miles and miles at a time — are actually more dangerous, because the predictability lulls us into driving faster while paying less attention to the road. Conversely, roads that look dangerous — two-lane mountain roads with no guardrails, for example — are statistically safer, because people actually have to SLOW DOWN and pay close attention.

After crunching the data and examining the topic of driving from every which angle imaginable, one of Vanderbilt’s conclusions is that advances in technology do help, but traffic fatalities persist because people always find ways to push the envelope of socially acceptable behavior. You can post a sign and set a speed limit, but that doesn’t mean people will follow it. Engineers cannot factor in the capricious, unpredictable outcomes of human decision-making.

In an Amazon Q&A session, he sums up the human element of driving:

We make mistakes, we misjudge our abilities, we’re not as aware of what’s happening in traffic as we think we are, we act differently in different situations, we get angry over things that matter little in the long run, we’re susceptible to distortions in our sense of time, we have trouble living beyond the moment, of seeing the big picture — oh, and also, that everyone has a different opinion on who the worst drivers are and where they live…”Los Angeles! L.A. drivers are the worst… No, Atlanta has terrible drivers… No way, Boston drivers are nuts…”

Straight from the horse’s mouth — sorry Tom! — there it is.

The problem is humanity.

Being human is a condition that no government safety mandate can fix. So we all struggle in similar ways, among them being a willingness to break the rules as we see fit, while railing against the gridlock that such lawlessness inevitably produces.

Humanity, as the problem? Sounds like a spiritual issue to me.

No, seriously.

If you think I’m out of line, just try this exercise. Look up a few Scriptures that use walking as an analogy, and then exchange the word “walk” for “drive”:

“Blessed is the man who does not drive in the counsel of the wicked” (Ps 1:1a)

“I am God Almighty; drive before me and be blameless” (Gen 17:1)

“If you drive in my ways and obey my statutes and commands … I will give you a long life” (1 Kings 3:14)

Feeling convicted yet?

As Christians, we ought to pay more attention to the way that we drive, if for no other reason, so that we don’t ruin our witness. (Nothing says “hypocrite” quite like a maniac driver with a Jesus fish bumper sticker.)

Not only that, but driving usually stands alone in the category of Most Mentally Demanding Activity With Unspeakably Catastrophic Potential. Unless you practice brain surgery as a weekend hobby, you probably don’t do anything else quite so dangerous quite so often.

Furthermore, I’m convinced that by examining not only our personal driving habits but also the driving cultures that surround us, we can learn and discern a lot more about life in general.

As always, the Word of God is the key.

(The IGNITION key! ** rim-shot**)

(Sorry, I couldn’t help myself there.)

* * *

Not Just A Good Idea, It’s The Law

The way we drive says a lot about how we interpret and understand the law. And the way we understand and interpret traffic laws influences the way we interact with God’s law. If you grow up in a Christian household, you are taught to obey the law as an extension of God’s authority in your life. This makes plenty of sense, especially in light of Paul’s teaching on the subject. For a ten-year-old budding believer, obeying God, the law, and your parents are essentially the same thing.

Problems crop up, however, when we reach adulthood and we do the converse — we obey God in the same manner that we obey the law.

Because how do most of us obey traffic laws? Selectively. Sure we generally obey the traffic laws. But the rules of the road seem much more elastic once you’ve been around the block a few times.

This, by the way, is part of the natural struggle when parents begin teaching their teenagers to drive. Children are astute observers, so it’s hard to make a compelling case for coming to a complete stop at every stop sign if your natural habit is to slowly roll through them.

Some of this is complacency, but part of it stems from incomplete understanding.

God’s laws are fundamentally different from traffic laws, because God is fundamentally different than man.

Traffic laws are designed to coerce citizens into order by threat of punishment by enforcement officers. If you break the law, you’ll face a sanction from the state, either as a fine, or as in some cases, incarceration. But, if you run a red light and no human (or camera) is there to record your infraction, then practically speaking, it didn’t happen.

Not only that, but traffic laws tend to change over time. Child safety devices are much more strict than they were three decades ago. Speed limits increase as more and more vehicles are designed to maintain stability at higher speeds. So if enough people think a law needs to change because it’s unfair or unsafe or unconstitutional, it will change.

God’s law is fundamentally different, because it’s not supposed to be an external code of conduct that results in right living. Christianity is more than just obeying the rules, it’s engaging in a personal relationship with an almighty God who knows far more about our lives than we can ever hope to know. This is why James referred to God’s law as a mirror… it’s God’s way of giving us tangible signs of warning in case we go astray.

God’s laws do not need enforcement, because they are inherently immutable — they do not change, because He does not change. As humans, we have the freedom to engage in behaviors that go against God’s will for humanity (as stated in the Ten Commandments, for example). But by doing that, we place ourselves outside of His will. As a result, bad things that God never intended to happen, happen.

This is the fundamental difference between God’s law and traffic law. Traffic laws can be broken; God’s laws cannot.

If you violate His law, you’re the one that gets broken. The punishment for violating a traffic law depends on whether or not you get caught. With God’s laws, there is no punishment. There is no punitive action designed to coerce a desired response. Rather, there are only the natural consequences of being outside of His will.

So, for example, God does not mete out His divine punishment upon someone engaged in an adulterous affair, simply because their choice violates the 7th commandment. Rather, He allows the consequences to unfold — in this case, a broken relationship. And it doesn’t matter if the cheating spouse is “caught” or not, because the relationship is severed either way. The very act of violating a spouse’s trust is what rends the relationship — which is one of the reasons for the commandment in the first place.

It seems to me, then, that the current state of affairs as it relates to driver behavior tends to follow this general pattern:

  1. First we learn to obey traffic laws.
  2. Once we get older, we realize traffic laws are a pain in the arse to obey all the time, so we stop trying. Instead, we just do our own thing, trying not to kill anyone in the process.
  3. The only thing that keeps from abandoning the law altogether is the fear of getting zapped for a serious infraction.

Come to think of it, that’s the way most people follow God’s laws, too.

But anyone with an authentic Christian spirituality knows that it’s not just about following God’s rules, it’s about engaging in relationship with Him. As Christians, we need to be plugged into the Holy Spirit if we want to really live. We must maintain a real connection, in real time, to a real God who really knows what’s going on.

Assuming that there’s a most excellent way to live, why can’t there be a most excellent way to drive?

What would it look like to drive in the Spirit?

I’m guessing that in some cases, it might look a lot… slower.

* * *

Of, But Not In

In Traffic, Vanderbilt cites Ben Hamilton-Baillie, an English transportation planner, who, in discussing complex traffic configurations with multiple types of vehicles, makes a notable observation about eye contact:

“Hamilton-Baillie suggests that it is more than coincidental that as drivers get above 20 miles per hour, we lose eye contact with pedestrians, while our chances of dying as pedestrians if hit by a car also begin to soar dramatically… in the modern world, Hamilton-Baillie adds, this may explain why being struck by a car becomes so much more exponentially dangerous above that speed” (emphasis mine).

As eye contact declines, so does our awareness of our fellow humans. For Christians, this is not merely a safety issue; it’s a spiritual issue. It’s a matter of actively engaging in the world rather than blithely zooming through it.

Consider the nature of the car — a private space amidst a public arena (the road). As Christians, we are called to traverse this public space with grace, humility and awareness. Our behavior is supposed to stand in contrast contrast to the pattern of the world, which is to generally look out for yourself. This is why many of us like to say that we are “in but not of” the world — a phrase derived from a passage in John where Jesus is praying for His disciples.

That’s the goal, anyway. But the reality too often is the exact opposite.

We mirror the world in our driving habits; we’re myopic and self-centered, lenient regarding our own failings but harshly critical about the failings of others.

Yet we often use our cars as a safe little cocoon where we can escape the oppressive rigor of modern life. Our Christian radio stations are there to drown out any vestiges of sound that may bleed into our sealed, climate-controlled interiors.

Thus, as we drive with little regard to others around us, we are of the world, without being emotionally present in it.

This is one of the true tragedies in the parable of the Good Samaritan. We’re all used to hearing accolades go to the Samaritan who helped out the victim, but that good deed happened only after the religious people, who are charged with the responsibility of helping others, passed right on through without a second glance. The priest and the Levite might have seen him, but they didn’t really see him.

Maybe it was because they were haughty and did not want to get into something messy and inconvenient. Maybe they were just moving too fast to stop and take notice. Maybe both.

One modern equivalent to this parable would be when marginalized people are displaced from their neighborhoods because of freeway expansion. It’s been happening for years. To those on the receiving end, it’s like a slap in the face. In both cases, the poor and victimized are shunted aside in favor of the upwardly mobile.

These are injustices. As Christians, we are called to care about them.

If more people outside the church are passionate about these issues than people inside the church, that’s a sad indictment against the state of the church in America. The extent that we fail in this arena is the extent to which we fail to learn the lesson of the good Samaritan.

Driving in the Spirit means, at least some of the time, we need to slow down enough to interact with our neighbors.

And like any other example of obedience to God, it also has a bonus side effect — safety on the road.

It’s God’s version of traffic calming.

(See, who said the Bible isn’t relevant to everyday life?)

Rules Rule… Except When They Don’t

Now you’ll notice I said, “some of the time.” I didn’t say that being a Christian means you never drive over 20 mph, because if that were the case, a vast majority of Americans would be going to hell in a handbasket Honda, and fast. The fact is, there are some situations where driving 78 miles-per-hour would be less reckless than driving 20 — in the left lane of an interstate freeway, for example.

Then again, there are also certain situations where driving 20 mph in the left lane of a freeway is the safest thing you can do — like when you’re attempting to travel from Portland to Seattle and the rain and snowmelt leave several inches of standing water on the roadway, leading officials to eventually close off the freeway.

(And yes, I was on I-5 when they closed it off. It was annoying, a little bit scary, but quite redemptive. More on this later.)

So let me see if I’ve got it… you’re supposed to drive slow in general, except for when you’re on a freeway where you can drive fast, except for when it’s raining cats and dogs and then you should drive slow again?

No wonder people get in trouble on the road.

Often rules appear to be the solution, yet relying on rules only can be just as bad as ignoring them altogether.

Abiding traffic rules is not as simple as it seems, because rules are never supposed to be followed without interpretation, especially rules of the road. (This is why it’s so difficult to teach a robot how to drive.) Rules exist to guide us toward a particular way of action or existence. Attempting to follow each rule as it is written, without an understanding of the underlying principles involved, can end up creating outcomes that actually violate the spirit of the rule in the first place. (Hence this great scene from “Rain Man.”)

Things get even more complex when you add the human element.

People are unpredictable. Sometimes they follow rules, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they have good reasons for not following the rules, and sometimes they don’t. The temptation, then, is to keep adding more rules and raising the ante of enforcement until the general populace will behave according to a pattern of manageable conformity.

The only problem is, this doesn’t work.

What you get is actually more chaos.

Kill, Or Give Life?

There’s a reason why the Lord limited the Commandments to ten — because anything more than ten just brings more confusion and frustration. (The American tax code comes to mind here.) There is a limit to how many rules and statutes we can juggle before we start dropping them, one by one, until they’re all over the floor.

God’s laws are supposed to be moral signposts that we can rely on to figure out where we stand in relationship to Him. But when humans decide to help God out by introducing more and more rules, this amounts to more and more signage. At some point, we become over-saturated with stimuli, and we lose our ability to discern what we should do at any given moment.

This happens in the physical world of the road, and in Traffic, Vanderbilt provides another great illustration (last one, I promise!), when he discusses the work of the late Hans Monderman, one of the world’s great traffic engineers:

If people have heard of Monderman, they tend to recall something about “the guy in the Netherlands who hated traffic signs.” But there is, in fact, one traffic sign that Monderman loved. It stands at the border of the small village of Makkinga, in Friesland. It announces a 30 kilometer per hour speed limit. Then, it says, welkom. Finally, it says: verkeers-bordvrij!! In English, this means, roughly, “Free of traffic signs.”

A traffic sign announcing the lack of traffic signs is a good joke, but it’s also a perfect symbol of Monderman’s philosophy. The sign itself is superfluous, for a driver can see that there are no traffic signs in Makkinga. After all, Monderman pointed out, what do traffic signs actually tell us? One day, driving through Friesland in his Volvo, Monderman gestured toward a sign, just before a bridge, that showed a symbol of a bridge. “Do you really think that no one would perceive there is a bridge over there?” he asked. “Why explain it? How foolish are we in always telling people how to behave. When you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like that.”

Monderman’s methods were so bold that his premise was sometimes misunderstood.

It’s not that rules are bad, but rather, it’s better to promote a broader rule like “be considerate of others on the road” rather than a bunch of smaller directives posted on signs like, “turn here,” “slow down here,” “watch for pedestrians,” “yield to bikers,” etc. None of those instructions are bad, but taken as an aggregate whole, they do more harm than good. It’s much better, then, to go by the spirit of the law. “For the letter kills,” as Paul says, “but the Spirit gives life.”

Jesus espoused a similar principle when He was challenged by the local authorities of his day, as recorded in Matthew 22:

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hand on these two commandments.”

Here we see a similar idea. According to Jesus, all of the Ten Commandments, as well as the thousands of rabbinical commandments that had been built upon them, can be summed up in two very simple ideas.

(Along with being a profound truth, this passage is proof that Steve Jobs did not come up with the simpler-is-better ethos.)

The biggest difference, though, between Monderman’s vision and Christ’s commandment was that Monderman put his faith in the goodness and intelligence of man, whereas Jesus made it abundantly clear that God is to be the source of all that is good, authoritative, or trustworthy.

This is where the Spirit-gives-life part comes in.

Giant Rubber Skis? No Thanks.

As a frequent driver along the I-5 corridor between Portland and Seattle, I like to think I have a pretty good handle on the spirit behind all of the traffic laws, and I do my best to stay on top of the little things that enhance the overall usability of the road. I signal when I change lanes. I slow down for construction workers. I leave a lane of clearance if there is an officer conducting a traffic stop on the shoulder. (And thanks to Tom Vanderbilt, I no longer feel bad about being a late merger.)

These things I do because I Generally Try to Do the Right Thing.

Yet, sometimes my instincts fail me. Why? Because I am a fallible human being. To expect otherwise would be foolish.

The good news for me, though, is that I don’t have to rely solely on my instincts. I can listen to the Holy Spirit, because as a Christian I know that the Holy Spirit dwells inside me, 24 hours a day. (Like OnStar, but without the overbearing commercials.)

Thing is, though, I’ve been a Christian for a long time, and yet I still occasionally have a hard time discerning the difference between my instincts talking and the Holy Spirit talking.

Sometimes I don’t find out which until much later.

Which brings me back to that ill-fated journey up toward Seattle for a presentation I was supposed to do last week. It had been raining and windy all day, and I wanted to leave around noon so that I could still make it to my destination before dark.

But, true to form, I was running behind on my packing and other stuff I wanted to take care of before I left. Pretty soon, my noon departure turned to 1:30, and then 2:00, all the while I still had plenty to get done. At this point, I had a decision to make.

I could:

A) cut my losses and leave, still making it into Seattle before dark, or

B) stay and finish what I started, but not leave until closer to 5pm, driving almost completely in the dark and hopefully making it there by 8pm (my presentation wasn’t until morning).

Normally my choice would be A, because I generally try to be as safe as possible on the road, and every bit of daylight helps. But I promised my wife I would tidy up the living room and take care of some of the dishes I had left in the sink from days prior. So for once, I took the nobler path, and hoped for the best.

Fast forward to mile marker 68… it’s pitch black, raining cats and dogs, and through the blurred visage of my windshield I see a sea of red.

Brake lights.

Briefly, I shudder.

Another accident? Geez… we’ve all been driving too fast in the rain. Slowing down will help us all.

As I got closer, I could see the road flares, the orange cones, and the emergency vehicles that normally mean an accident has taken place. The only thing I couldn’t see was wreckage. And then I noticed.

Waitaminute… ALL the lanes are closed? What the… ?!?

I had no choice but to follow the stream of traffic off of the freeway, where I learned of the flooding and road closure from a convenience store clerk who had her hands full trying to explain the situation to dozens of irritated motorists. (“I guess we’ll just have to party here tonight,” she said. “We’ve already got the snacks!”)

My first response was disbelief, because I had never seen an interstate close because of rain. Snow and ice, sure, but rain?

My second response was frustration, because I knew if I would’ve just left the house sooner, I would’ve made it through with no problem. Choosing option B ended up with me missing my presentation. That part sucked.

My third response came while I was driving back to Portland, and it was a mild sense of relief. Just because I could’ve made it before the roads were closed doesn’t mean something bad wouldn’t have happened to me on the way. I thought back to a comment I heard a Drivers Ed instructor make when I was in high school:

“It only takes an inch of standing water for a car to hydroplane, which is fancy word for waterskiing without a boat.”

I’d never been waterskiing before, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t want to try that way.

But my fourth response happened the next day, after I told Holly that I felt a little bit guilty because I know I could’ve left earlier and still made my appointment.

“Yeah, that’s true,” she said. “But then you’d still be stuck there.”

She was right. The interstate was closed for three days, and I had another three-day journey due the following week. If I would’ve left when I planned to, I would’ve spent eight days away from home.

It was at that point that I realized… picking option B wasn’t just my instinct.

It was the Holy Spirit.

What Does This All Mean?

I was drawn to Vanderbilt’s book because in it, I found more evidence of Biblical truth in action.

Sometimes rules can be helpful, but sometimes they’re not. What’s more, we need more than rules to live by. We need understanding. We need relationships with one another. Most importantly, we need a relationship with God.

I recommend Traffic, but what I recommend more than reading it is embracing the conviction that precipitated its existence – the need to examine one’s self and surroundings. I’m convinced that nothing innovative, revolutionary or legendary ever happened without someone asking the questions, “why are things the way they are?” and “is there a better way?”

Finally, I offer an addendum to a time-honored axiom.

My mother-in-law used to tell my wife Holly when she was little that couples who are thinking of getting married should first be forced to tile a bathroom together.

In our first year of marriage, we never had to tile a bathroom together, but we did move across the country, taking a few days to drive from Chicago to Portland. So I offer the multiple-day road trip as a worthy substitute trial.

Because trust me… you haven’t seen how a person really lives, until you’ve seen how they drive.

I’m Jelani Greenidge, and thanks for Mixin’ It Up with me.