Thursday, October 31, 2013

Gaming, Faith, and America's Demons

I've been waiting for a while for one particular game.  Dropping sixty bucks for a bit of amiable pastime is just not something I do, so when I buy, I go used...and I'm patient.  The experience will be the same six months after release as it would be new.  So why hurry?

Some games, though, are harder to wait for, and the one I started earlier this week was a particular test of my patience.  The game: Bioshock Infinite.

I'd played through portions of the original Bioshock, which was a brilliant, thought-provoking, and intelligent game.  That game was set in an underwater city called "Rapture," the creation of a John Galt-like figure.  In fact, the entire game was a riff on the premise underlying Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, laying out the fun-fest would ultimately result from a community based entirely on the premise of unfettered self-absorbed egoism.  Wretched, bloodstained dystopia, in other words.

It was a dark, bleak game, so unrelentingly unpleasant that after about eight hours of play I had to step away from it.  As much as I respected the vision and design of the game, Rapture just wasn't a place I wanted to spend time.  Sort of like Atlas Shrugged, actually.  Lord, but that book was a waste of life.

Bioshock Infinite is different.  It's equally dystopian, but the demons it surfaces are very different ones.  The vision of Bioshock Infinite is of a realm of seemngly idyllic perfection, a glorious city in the clouds called Columbia.   It's gorgeous, radiantly beautiful, so much so much so that those first moments when you step into the city leave you amazed.  

It is also, as you soon discover, utterly monstrous.  Columbia is ruled by a mad prophet, the psychotic Father Comstock.  This is particularly fun for me, given that it's an old family name...the side of the family that produced a whole bunch of Baptist preachers, as I recall.  Heck, he even sort of looks like me.  

Without going into too much detail, Columbia presents us with an alternate past where the triple demons of American hypernationalism, religious zealotry, and racism have been given the keys to the car.  It's like the 1904 World's Fair in Hell, a lilywhited sepulcher in bustles and flags and straw hats, masking is rot and death within.

I'm only about ten hours in, but the story arc reminds me that gaming has the potential to be powerful and affecting social commentary.  Yes, it's disturbing.  It's not a game for kids.  But unlike the hopeless, cynical, and exploitative character of games like the recent Grand Theft Auto, Bioshock retains a moral core.  Violence feels violent, which means it feels wrong.  Your character clearly struggles with his use of force.  As does Elizabeth, the young woman around whom the whole narrative revolves.  She's sympathetic and well wrought, appealing without being sexualized, and is refreshingly competent without seeming like an action figure caricature.

It is purposeful storytelling, a carefully crafted tale that illustrates how even such seemingly positive things as faith, patriotism, and pride in heritage have their shadow sides.  In fact, it comes across as classically prophetic, using the medium of interactive storytelling to force gamers to confront the darkest spirits of the American collective subconscious.  

Plus, it's a major riff on multiverse cosmology, the full ramifications of which I'll have to wait 'till the end of the game to experience.  Faith, politics, and the multiverse, all woven into one game?  

Lord have mercy, it's like the game was made for me.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Star Wars and the Sausageworks of Sacred Story

It was one of the more successful viral videos making the rounds yesterday.  For a few hundred bucks, an intrepid Star Wars fan had managed to purchase some bespoke old-tech digital discs containing long unseen outtakes from the very first Star Wars movie.  This being the era of sharing such magic, it popped up onto YouTube, and the resulting moments of delightful error are genuinely snicker-inducing.

Being the sort of human being who desperately overthinks everything, I found myself musing about what this video says about media-era mythopoetics.   Yes, I'm looking at bloopers, and the word "mythopoetics" comes into my head.  That's what makes Presbyterians Presbyterian.

Seriously, though: Star Wars succeeded, as a cultural phenomenon, because it was a form of healing mythopoetic.  It articulated the struggle between good and evil at a time when our society felt a tiny bit lost.  'Nam was a fresh wound in the mind of our nation, and we were no longer quite sure of who we were as a people.  Are we even good anymore?

Here in a space opera you had the light side and the dark side, writ in such a way that both mystic peacenik hippies and vets who had been through the crucible of 'Nam could relate.  It was filled with characters who were playing spare, simple, and recognizable archetypes, ones that resonated with something primal in the human character.

And it has had a profound influence.  Obi Wan waxing on about the Force has influenced more  American theology than ten-thousand sermons.

That, I think, is one of the reasons these films have stuck around for well over a generation.

Well, that and relentless marketing, but it's the essence of the story that carries it.  Like all myths, it is one of the stories that unifies, and that gives life meaning.

Which makes the blooper video so fascinating.  Here's the sausageworks of how your myth came to be, giggles the video.  Here are your iconic figures, stumbling over the"lines" know by heart.  Here are stumblings and bumblings, as the making of a myth takes shape.

And the deeper truth in that comes when we realize the process of our own mythic creation is no different.  In my sacred tradition, there was plenty of mess, so much so that we don't even bother with a single unified story.  We tell it four times, each differently, because we know there's a slightly different but vital truth in each of the tellings.

There was some stuff, like the bright and brittle selfishness of Gnosticism or bits of fever-dream bizarreness like the Gospel of Judas, that we left on the cutting room floor.  We'd rather forget about them, in the same way a Star Wars fanboy would rather forget about that Christmas Special.  It just can't be canon.  It can't.

There's other stuff, like our understanding of the fascinating mix of sources that history swirled together to shape the central stories of the faith, that more thoughtful Jesus folks can embrace as just part of what makes our story part of the Real.

Because the transforming meaning of sacred narrative does arise out of the messiness of it all.  It can still define us, binding us together, moving in us and through us and...huh.

Why does that sound so familiar?

Adult Costumes

My thirteen year old son will not be trick or treating this year, which is one of those wrenching "firsts" that invariably gets parents a bit bleary-eyed.  How can they have grown up so fast?

But that doesn't mean he didn't need a costume.  He's playing the March Hare in an upcoming school performance of Alice in Wonderland, and that meant a recent trip to Party City for a few accessories. The two items he'd rather his dad not attempt to produce out of cardboard and duct tape: a bowler hat and a set of rabbit ears.

To get to Party City, we had to drive past a slightly run-down area near Bailey's Crossroads.  It's an agglomeration of warehouses and gritty little businesses, one of which is the bare-knuckled motorcycle shop where I take my ride to be maintained.  Other industries there include some garages, a cheap used car lot, and a little hole in the wall which seems to mostly specialize in waterpipes, hookahs, and other "tobacco" paraphernalia.

Among the businesses in that gritty little district, there's"adult product" store.  Most of those businesses have been crushed out of existence by the internet and its false promise of anonymity, but this one still stubbornly operates.  In the front windows, under the couple of neon signs that still work, there are an array of mannequins.  All of them are female, and all of them are wearing outfits that were probably the height of titillation back in the 1980s.  I'm sure, somewhere in there, there are Betamax videos.  I'm not planning on going in to check, but it seems likely.

My son, being 1) observant and 2) a thirteen year old boy, didn't fail to notice the store, and we talked about it for a moment or three.  It gave me the opportunity to reintroduce him to the word "skeevy," which he agreed was an excellent and accurate descriptive term.

We passed on by that gritty section of Baileys, and into one of the strip-malls, the one where Party City lies.  They were in full Halloween mode, with fully half of the store dedicated to costumery for the season.  It was crowded with kids and their parents, all seeking product for the upcoming corn-syrup and sugar bacchanal.

We found a hat, and then gloves, and then a cane, as he managed to upsell his dad in ways that make me believe that being a Vice President for International Marketing may well be in that lad's future.  The final piece of the costume proved a bit trickier.  Fake chainsaws and Avengers outfits?  Sure.  But rabbit ears?  Those weren't available.  Or, rather, the ones we found were tiny, meant for a toddler's costume.

Not being a fool, I knew where else in the store such ears...larger ones...might be found.  I did a quick bit of mental calculus, and then he and I went to the side wall of the store, where there were indeed bunny ears.  It was the section for adults, or rather, female adults.  There were the ears.  They were white, which was going to mean we'd need to dye them to avoid confusion with the white rabbit.  That was entirely doable.

But the wall was also filled with other costume accessories.  Lace masks. Fishnet stockings.  Collars.  Bustiers.  That sort of thing.  Most didn't even bother with the "sexy nurse/ vampire/ librarian/ congresswoman" schtick.  A couple of girls, maybe fifteen or sixteen, were looking over them, clucking, taking pictures with their smartphones.

And my son said, Hey, Dad, this is exactly the same as that other store.

He wasn't wrong.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Your Robot Friend Loves You So Much

 The message came through on our answering machine that evening, as my son and I sat downstairs.  It was an announcement from my big guy's high school, telling us about an event that would be occurring the next day.

The message wasn't live, but it also wasn't recorded.  It was a droning, artificially-generated voice, speaking the words that had been typed into it by some administrator.  Or perhaps, listening to it, it was just a mass-call system reciting an email in that peculiar, lilting automated monotone.

As invitations go, it was peculiarly uninviting, a bit like getting a message from the Borg asking you to join them for an evening of live music, coffee, and assimilation into the Collective.

Because there are things, frankly, that machines just can't do, no matter how much more efficient they might be.

Like, for example, this bizarre oddment I encountered the other day.  I'm fascinated by bots and AI, and in my noodling about on the net looking for new bot-stuff, I found...well, this.  It's called "empathynow," and it's a fledgling webservice based on a Loebner Prize winning chatbot.  The business model here is a simple one.  You need encouragement?  You have no-one to listen or give you that little boost?  Well, you can just send "Chip" a text.

Sad?  Just text Chip.  Chip will text you right back with a word of encouragement.  Need affirmation?  Just text Chip.  Chip will affirm you.  Trying to work on losing a few extra pounds and need someone to hold you accountable?  Chip will keep asking you how you're doing, in a nonjudgmental way.

All for a small monthly fee.

The human desire behind insure that no-one feels alone and uncared an admirable one.   But I can't escape the feeling that as business models go, this one is desperately, horribly sad.

Are we so isolated and hungry for something to affirm us that we'd turn to an unfeeling automaton to simulate empathy?

I wish that I could answer that question in the negative.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Flurm By Any Other Name Glorps as Plurk

There's a new big congregation sprouting near my home.  They're conservative and vigorously evangelical, and maintain a laserlike focus on growth.  And Lord, grow they have.  They've got a sprawling new building, lots of parking, and a pastor with a solidly selling book on Christian weight loss.  Bod4God, I think it's called.

They're on the go and up and coming, as they say, and every month or two we'll get another glossy, professionally produced mailer from them at my home.  I read them all, out of collegial interest, and the last one we got caught my eye.  It seemed notable not so much for what it said, but for what it did not say.

It was a "teaching series," an opportunity to learn practical lessons for your life.  Each part of the series had a practical theme.  Parenting.  Sexuality.  Relationships.  Money.  Work.  "Womanhood," although how their very notably not-a-woman pastor was going to speak authoritatively about that is beyond me.  

Meaning, in other words, this was what they used to call a "sermon series" back in the day.  But nowhere was the word "sermon" used.  This didn't surprise me.  Sermons, unfortunately, have something of a negative reputation, for being long and dull and judgmental.  You'd be outraged and storm out, if you hadn't been bored into a stupor beforehand.  Why? Can't? I? Move?

Sermons?  Ew icky icky ew.  Stay away from that idea.  "Not a Sermon, Just A Thought," as the local megahumongochurch pastor says in his ads, right before preaching an awkward mini-sermon.

Then I realized that the pastor of the Baptist church...and he is called their pastor on their referenced in the flyer as the "author and speaker."  The word "pastor" is never used. This seemed noteworthy.  Also noteworthy was that the "teaching series" was happening on Sunday, during what I'm sure some folks there think of as "worship."  But that term is not used.

Neither, I realized, was there any other faith content on the mailer, beyond the congregation's logo identifying them as some flavor of Baptist.  No mention of God, or of faith.  The word "Jesus" did not appear.   

Huh.  It felt oddly coy, peculiarly indirect, particularly for a solidly conservative church.  Were they Unitarians or a Humanist Chapel, sure.  That'd make sense.  But they're not.  It felt a teensy bit bait-and-switchy, like a mask.  In seeking to be more palatable, the marketing folks had blurred identity to the point where it didn't feel quite on the up and up.

Not quite like one of those cults that draws you in by talking about world peace, and the next thing you know you're living on a compound in Guatemala as the brother-husband of a stark eyed woman who claims to be an emissary from the K'tall Nebula.

But closer than should be comfortable.

I didn't know the Jesus brand was hurting that badly.  What are we, xFinity?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Marketing and The Problem with Ethics

Ethics are such pesky, pesky things.

Over the last few months, I've worked my way down the checkboxes of every possible marketing strategy I'd brainstormed for my recent book.  The Believer's Guide to the Multiverse is a fine book, or so I'm prone to telling myself, one that ain't perfect but that I feel solid about.  The concept is cutting edge and both spiritually and culturally relevant, and it was a joy to both write and have edited.

What's been less robust is the outreach.  Not in the effort, but in the result.  Oh, sure, friends have bought it, and folks who know me personally have bought it.   But each and every one of the other  approaches I'd considered and then implemented have crumbled.

The folks I know tenuously through social media...not longstanding net friends, but loosely affiliated acquaintances...just haven't been interested.  There, even free review copies offered to online conversation partners have just not been picked up.  Most folks have other theological fish to fry, and more significantly, other and more deeply established connections that have more meaning to them.

I am, if I am honest with myself, just not a well known person.  I'm not a brand, that's for sure, but it's deeper than that.

This has nothing to do with others, but rather, comes as I reap a harvest I have sown.  Or in this case, not sown.  For most of my ministry, I've prioritized life/family balance.  That means I live considerably more slowly than my frazzled colleagues, and I would not change that.  But it also means I've stepped away from the conference and meeting travel that creates both family stress and collegial connection.  By choosing not to travel so that I can be a consistent and (mostly) nonanxious presence for family, I've not created that network.

And that delimits the depth of interpersonal engagement necessary for a network to be created, and that delimits reach.  It is, as they say, what it is.

This has been coupled with the challenge of eBook publication.  Most review outlets simply do not take them seriously, even if they've been edited by a competent and gifted professional and capably produced.  Eventually, this will change, but now, it's the reality I've encountered.  With one or two exceptions, every outlet I'd expected to at least look at the book has balked.

No reviews mean no buzz.  No buzz means no sales.  It's simple.

So at the end of six months of outreach, I went down my list and found only one brainstormed outreach option left unimplemented: the subversive metamarketing gambit.

I'm reasonably sure this one popped into my brain way back when because I know that what sells books is controversy, and honey child, there's controversy to be had in the Believer's Guide.  Or there would be, once it got past folks who know me into the hands of thems that don't.

Here you have a book that suggests a completely different view of Creation, and openly and unabashedly expresses tolerance for other faiths.  Were I better known, this book would have drawn net-trolls like flies to honey.  New atheists and fundamentalists alike would find it appalling and unacceptable.  Much angry and indignant bloggery would have ensued.

And so, a ways back, I'd laid out a multistep plan.  It was an outline for a wee bit of mischief making, involving anonymously sending draft copies of the book to those I know would seriously freak out when then encountered it.   The list included "discernment" ministries, the professional gadflies of my denomination, particularly volatile atheist bloggers, and the like.   I know their buttons, where they lie, and how to trigger that furious response.  I have, drafted, letters that would invoke that Pavlovian response, calling out the dogslobber of umbrage that is so easily invoked every time you ring that bell.  Press the button, out comes outrage.  Lord love the internet.

Sure, it'd mean my Amazon reviews would suddenly go waaaay negative.  But it would also generate energy and chatter, and energy and chatter sells books.

I found myself considering that plan again last week, and I came to two conclusions.  First, it was so crazy it just might work.  And second, there was no way I could actually bring myself to do it.

Because to do it, I'd have to manipulate others.  Sure, they are others who are not my friends, and whose worldviews threaten the heart of the Good News.  But they are, nonetheless, human beings and children of God.  I have a clear and discrete ethical obligation towards them, one that my Teacher simply will not let me ignore.

I do not like being manipulated, therefore I cannot manipulate.  I do not like being embarrassed or deceived, therefore I cannot embarrass or deceive.  Period.

Beyond that fundamental imperative, there's also my understanding of the balance between means and ends.  Sure, getting an idea I care deeply about out there is an important end.  But ill means do not truly serve a good end.  They just never do.  If you cannot fold your ultimate purpose into your means, then you need to reconsider your approach.

So that outside the box gambit, as tempting and tastily mis-cheee-veee-us as it is, must be set aside.

Ah well.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Voices of Children in the Church

This last Sunday, I performed a baptism.

As baptisms go, it wasn't the usual fare.  I've baptized babies and very little ones, and that's a delight, utterly different every time.  I've welcomed adults into the fellowship of the faith, and watched as the water that poured down their faces mingled with tears of joy.

But I've never baptized a kid before.  Meaning, not a baby, and not a teen, and not a grownup, but a kid.  It was a child of the church, loved by the whole community, who for various reasons just hadn't been baptized.

And he'd gotten old enough to ask whether it had happened, and old enough to ask...repeatedly...if he could please be baptized.  No one prompted him, or cajoled him.  It was his idea.  He was persistent enough and serious about it enough that grownups listened, and asked if he could talk with me.

So for a few Sundays after church, I sat down with him and we talked.  We talked about God, as I do with the adults, and worked our way through ecclesiology and the doctrine of the Trinity.  I don't generally weave dinosaurs and Lego Star Wars and karate into those conversations, but in this case, it seemed to work.  He got it, grasping with his child's mind what the church is all about, and what God's love is all about.  It was clear he was serious about it.

We didn't get into the convoluted theology.  None of the fuddly stuff that tangles and snares us, and that we mistake for the real.  It was very simple...but it was the same thing I do with the very-slightly-older humans we call grownups.

And for the baptism itself, he had his sponsors, up there with him.  But he also answered questions, the very same Affirmations and Renunciations I place before the adults.  Those questions were straight out of our very decent and orderly Book of Common worship, but they...errr...needed a bit of tweaking.

Why?  Because those words themselves only point to what happens in baptism.  They are not of themselves magic.  It's why we have multiple versions open to us.  And the Big Words for Adults would have required too much unpacking.  Other words, simpler and stronger and bearing meaning to a child's spirit, those words can serve precisely the same purpose.

And so I asked, and he answered, renouncing sin, turning to Jesus, committing to the community of the Way.  And then, through water and the Spirit and with the Words of the Great Commission (those I left, of course), we welcomed him in.

Later, during the Lord's Prayer and during the final hymn, I was struck by something.

His friends had stayed to see him baptized.  When we prayed that great prayer together, I could hear them praying, raising their young voices so that they could be heard along with the adults.  And I could hear them singing, strong and confident, as we belted out What A Friend We Have in Jesus.

It felt good to hear the voices of children in church.

Science Fiction, Prophecy, and the Shape of What Will Be

Over the last six months or so, I've been throwing myself back into evening reading.  With a brief imposed lull in my reading for my Doctoral work, I find that the opportunities to read for pleasure have presented themselves again.

And my pleasure, for the most part, is some blend of page-turning rip-snorting yarns, Books of Quality, and hard science fiction.  Preferably all three, if I can get it.

That third category...hard sci the literary catnip of choice for my brain.  Hard sci fi is to be distinguished from fantasy sci fi, in that it actually attends to reality.  It can be character driven, sure, but the authors tend to have training in the hard sciences.  They want their narrative reality to feel real, to be cast within the realms of what truly might be.   Some particularly beautiful less-hard sci fi does this too, sweeping you up with brilliantly rendered characters or fascinating psychosocial implications.  The astoundingly thought provoking works of Ursula K. Leguin or Maria Doria Russell's stark and challenging The Sparrow come to mind.

But good hard stuff makes the medicine go down smooth. It means, for the hypercritical reader, that the suspension of disbelief comes more easily.  This could be real, your higher functions say, and you just go with it. 

There's a peculiar side effect to this focus on the real, though.  Some hard sci fi ends up being...well...right.  It pegs the future.  It stakes a narrative claim in a future reality, and then that reality manifests itself.   This, in another age, was the realm of the prophets.

Oh, I know, we liberal Jesus-folk are always talking about prophets as social critics.  Prophecy is when you challenge injustice, we say.  Prophecy is when you speak truth to power.  We say that a whole bunch, and we're not wrong.  It ain't soothsaying, and it does not involve crystal balls.

But that's only part of it.  We remember Jeremiah and Isaiah and Amos and Micah not just because they were social critics who poetically skewered injustice, but also because when they made a call about the future, they were dead on.  They understood, through the eyes of faith and insight, the implications of the brokenness they encountered.  The future was not closed to them.

Nor is it closed to other observers.  Take, for instance, a book I recently read.  The book was a near-future tale, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, published four years ago.  It's a huge sprawling shaggy dog of a story, weaving and interweaving multiple narratives.  A fun story, although it ended oddly, as if Stephenson had suddenly looked at his watch, gotten up, and wandered off.

The thrust of the book...and this is only mildly spoiler-esque...revolves around the creation of a radically secure encrypted "data haven."  It's a virtual place that would allow for transactions, exchanges that would amount to currency exchanges, all of which would  exist outside of governmental control, not part of any state or nation.

As I was reading this, I found myself thinking: this is Bitcoin.  What Stephenson was describing is Bitcoin, that odd lawless anarcurrency that nation states are now wrestling with.  It's not exactly the same, but close enough to be recognizable.

And when Stephenson was writing his novel, Bitcoin didn't yet exist.  The possibility existed, right there on the cusp of being...but it was not yet real.

Is that prophecy?  No, not quite.  But it is a close cousin.

And just as we remember the prophets, I think those folk whose vision of the future becomes the present are folks we'll remember.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Hymns and Politics

Among the more peculiar aftertastes lingering following the recent mess in Washington... which was such a Lovecraftian horror that it drove the stenographer of the House of Representatives insane... one sticks in my head.  It was the reportage that one of the meetings of House Republicans began with the singing of Amazing Grace.  Must have been a lovely moment, but given that the human beings singing it got right back to being graceless and angry as soon as that moment had passed, one wonders what the point of the singing was.

Perhaps it was an ironic rendition, or performance art designed to shock, as respectful of the intent of that justifiably beloved hymn as the unwatchable Sarah Silverman rendition.  And no, I'm not going to give you a link to Ms. Silverman "singing" it, any more than I'd link to a clip from the Saw franchise.   You want to watch it, Google it.

Or don't.  Really.  Don't.  Some things, like a couple of Lars von Trier's films, are just better not seen at all.

I think that particular "hymns and politics" moment stuck in my head because I was in the midst of reviewing the new Presbyterian hymnal, dipping my toe into the water to see whether it's worth the investment.  We frozen chosen have been working with our current hymnal since the 1980s, the "blue" hymnal.  It replaced the "red" hymnal, which replaced the "green" hymnal.

And every time there's a change, there's handwringing.  Will these be the songs we love?  What will be lost?  How many Sundays will we have to stumble through songs no one knows or likes?

My first reactions had not been positive.  Songs from the hymnal had been carted out at the last couple of meetings of my Presbytery, and they'd had kinda the opposite of the intended effect on me.  "Let's sing these wonderful new hymns," went the refrain, but God help me, I knew what that meant was coming.

The resultant combination of unfamiliar harmonies with the stilted lyrics of earnestly leftist theology just didn't work for me, reminding me way too much of the hymns I make a point of avoiding in our current hymnal.  It was not the best beginning to that relationship.

But I wanted to give it another chance, because that's how we Christians roll.   So I followed the link we'd been given, one which took us to a hymnal sampler site.

That didn't help.  The "sampler" had mostly new hymns, of the same awkward ilk, but it also made the point of repeatedly pressing one of my Angry Buttons.

A large portion of the page was dedicated to fretting about copyright issues and concerns, which always cheeses me off when it comes to sacred music.  If it's a product, then it isn't holy, dagnabbit.  If it "belongs" to you or to Sony, then it is a commodity, not a bearer of cultural meaning and transforming power.  "You may not sing my song of praise to God without the appropriate permissions" is a phrase that should never pass the lips of anyone who walks the Way.  Our music is part of our mission, not a profit center.

Two strikes.  But that I've got that particular chip embedded in my shoulder is my thing, and as the Good Lord said, we should forgive seventy times seven.  Even so, when one of the saints of my church handed me her copy of the new hymnal during the coffee hour and said I could look it over to see what I thought, I was a bit worried.  What if I can't stand it?  What if my first two reactions are reinforced and magnified?

But as we talked about it there at the coffee hour, I cracked it open and looked down.  The hymn in front of me?  "Softly and Tenderly."  Huh.  Didn't know that was in there.  It wasn't in the blue one, but Lord help me, do I love that hymn.  I flipped to another page.  Two more hymns I love.  Dang.

And then I knew how I needed to proceed.  This week, I went through the hymnal, song by song, page by page, reviewing every last one of the over eight hundred and sixty tunes.  My mission was not to find the hymns whose theology bugged me, or whose tunes stumble and clatter around in unsingable academic noodling.

My approach was exactly the opposite.

On a piece of paper, I marked down every hymn I knew and loved.  My final tally?  One hundred and thirty three of the hymns were favorites.  Old classics.  Taize meditative music.  A couple of the Christian contemporary songs I actually kinda sorta like.

Having sought the place of commonality, where those things that make my heart sing could be found, I realized that my sense of trepidation about this new book of songs had melted away.  Sure, there were songs in there I might not like.  But there was enough there to work with.  And who knows?  Maybe some of those other tunes might become new favorites.

Being intentional about seeking the shared good with the Other has that effect.

A pity so few folks here inside the Beltway seem to realize that.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Biblical Authority in Babylon

Not everything that I encounter in my exploration of a text makes its way into a sermon, and this last week, one particular "remainder" stuck with me.  The passage was from Jeremiah, a prophetic word to the exiles in Babylon.  Live your lives, he said.  Be a blessing, particularly to those who have oppressed you.

Pray for the wellbeing of those who have oppressed and enslaved you, says he.  It's a word of fierce grace from a prophet best known for anger and lamentation, which is striking enough.

But what had struck me hard about this text was it's juxtaposition with the Psalm that I chose not to use in the responsive reading the Sunday before.  The lectionary had pitched out Psalm 137, which is just one of those passages that I can't use unless I've screwed up the courage to preach on it.

Particularly if you're having the congregation read it responsively.  When the folks in the pews choke out that last line about happily smashing children on a rock, you'd better have some interpretive sermonic magic planned right quick.

The juxtaposition of those two passages, just a week apart in my studies and meditations, was particularly striking because I had never considered the two together before.  And they're in radical and irreconcilable tension with one another.

One seethes rage and pain, and yearns for vengeance.

The other, speaking into exactly the same context, says: constrain your fury.  Do not desire vengeance.  Be the good.  Seek the good.

I personally have no problem here, mind you.  To the ears of my soul, Jeremiah is the one who speaks for God here.

The anger of the Psalm is the rage that burns in the hearts of those who are broken and oppressed.  It articulates that truth, and in that, the song of pain and loss has some validity.

But the "happiness" it hungers for in its final verse does nothing to bring healing.  The result of its yearning would only be more sorrow.

From my interpretive framework, Jeremiah's letter has clear authority over the Psalm, and the Psalm must yield to it.

But if you believe that both are equally and completely true, both the Word of God, perfect and right and with equal authority to govern our souls, you have a problem.

Why Your Environment Becomes Toxic

There was an interesting little article this morning about the current political season in Virginia.  In that race, a particularly weak and not-particularly-popular Democratic candidate seems to be handily beating the Republican nominated for office.  It's a mess of a race, distasteful and negative, one that has left Virginians to choose the better of two Slytherins.  I mean, look at these two.

As terrible as McAuliffe is...a transparently gladhanding name-collector who uses his relationships to further his power and reputation...Cuccinelli manages to be worse.  Vociferously anti-gay and anti-science, he's a bully who's view of the law is cruel, self-serving, and brittle.

It's Slughorn versus Umbridge, people.

Neither of them is Severus Snape.  Seriously, I'd vote for Severus over either of these guys.  Some judicious applications of the Expelliarmus spell might do wonders for the Virginia House of Representatives.

Then again, the McAuliffe also reminds me a bit of Gilderoy Lockhart, so maybe that's where the Slytherin analogy breaks down.

As some of the sane Virginia Republicans find themselves lamenting that they seem likely to fail to beat an eminently beatable Democrat, there was an interesting comment from one of them in an interview today.

The chair of the Prince William County Republican Party, a strong support of Cuccinelli, lamented: "It does not look very good for us out there.  The environment for Republicans is toxic."

This, I think, is true.  But the question is not whether the environment is toxic, but why the environment is toxic.

Environments can be toxic for a variety of reasons.  A culture can have gone badly wrong, becoming so darkly oppressive and hateful that speaking freely about good things brings oppression and subjugation.

If you tried to preach the Gospel in North Korea, you'd experience a toxic environment.  If you tried to teach science to girls in Northern Sudan or the Swat Valley, you'd experience a toxic environment.

That is certainly the story that Republicans would like to tell themselves.  "It's the fault of everyone but the true believers," one can say.  But the inverse is also true.  If you scream and shout and carry on about things in a way that turns the world against you, then you'll experience a toxic environment.  If you stand on a street corner and bellow hellfire and damnation through your bullhorn, you'll find the environment more and more toxic.

If your worldview is radically different from that of the broader culture, then the environment will tend to feel hostile.

But it goes deeper than that relativistic, postmodern bit of truthiness.

Because underlying our cultures and societies and assumptions, there is the Real.  It is complex and interwoven, but it is not something we've fabricated or imagined.  It exists utterly independent of our imaginings of it, and we are a part of it, whether we realize it or not.  The further we remove ourselves from what is Real, the more we allow ourselves to believe the sweet lies we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel more important, the more our world will come apart in our hands.

Twelve trucks are not a million trucks.  Three hundred protesters are not a million protesters.  We can wish it, we can shout it, we can believe it as strongly as we want, but that does not mean it is real.  And when human beings tell themselves one thing, but reality is another, we get into trouble.

And then, peculiarly enough, it goes deeper still.  Because we have been created as a part of the Real, our stories and our yearnings and our hopes are given the power to shape the reality around us.  If everything you encounter is broken and toxic and cruel, if your every relationship falls apart and no-one understands you, the terrible truth we never want to hear is that maybe it might be us.  We'd rather descend into fantasy than hear that.  We'd rather anything than hear that.  But the truth remains:

Maybe things don't work because we won't let them.  Maybe our culture is a mess because we've chosen to make it that way.

Maybe the world is toxic because we're making it that way.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Crackpot Idea Number #435: Representative Representatives

My subconscious mind is a veritable fountain of totally crackpot ideas, which my higher brain functions have to bat down on a regular basis.  Sometimes I succeed.  But other times, well, I end up blogging about them.

One that surfaced this last week felt utterly unworkable, meaning that while it's probably being tried in any number of alternate universes, it ain't about to happen in this one.  Still and all, I felt like sharing.

Our political system just seems to be doing a kind of craptacular job of representing us lately, particularly our House of Representatives.  It's always been a mess, the down and dirty manifestation of our national id.  That is how it should be.  It's a mess by design.

But with political participation dwindling and gerrymandering gamesmanship now honed to a fine edge by demographic analysis, our "representatives" are frequently elected by only a small subset of the individuals they putatively represent.  If you "win" with a slight majority of the 57% of the voters in your district who bothered to show up, you still win.   With those as the dynamics of elections,  it makes it far easier to rely on a loud and highly motivated partisan base instead of attempting to have broader appeal.

So I got to thinking: what if we messed with that a bit?  What if every member of the House of Representatives didn't cast one vote, but instead got exactly the same number of votes as were cast for them in their election?  My representative, for example, would cast 176,686 votes.

This would mean the vote tallies in the House of Representatives would be much larger numbers, sure.  But it's just addition, eh?  Get a spreadsheet.  Tally 'em up.  It's not hard.  House vote results wouldn't be two hundred and something to one hundred and something.  They'd be in the millions.

Such a system would be perfectly reflective of the actual "representativeness" of a Representative.

It also seems...although here it's hard to say...that this would increase the value of voter participation in the system.  The more participation, the more weight would be given to a particular Representative's influence on a piece of legislation.  If you've got 85% turnout in your district, and you're trying to appeal as broadly as possible to your electorate, you would have more influence than if you made it harder for folks to vote.

Every vote becomes important.  Registration and participation suddenly becomes a priority, because winning is leavened with participation.

And even losing candidates would influence the system.  Take, for example, John Boehner's last two election cycles.  When he was re-elected in 2012, he got over 209,000 votes.  He ran unopposed.  Your choice in the Ohio 8th District was John Boehner or John Boehner, exactly the kind of choice you'd have in the good old days in the You Ess Ess Arr.

Well, there was a proto-fascist running, a hard-core right winger.  He took a total of 409 votes from Boehner.

But in the previous election, when there were four choices (Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Crazy Person) Boehner only pulled in 149,000 votes.  Meaningless in the current system, in which he's still the winner.  But in a vote-tally House, it would reduce influence by over 25%.  Third and Fourth parties suddenly matter.  You wouldn't be "throwing away your vote" if you voted libertarian, for example.  You're saying: You have not persuaded me you deserve my power.

Finally, if you're centrist...a capable, pragmatic person with broad appeal and competence, not just one playing to a surface froth of'll garner more of those votes.  That might make you even more able to influence the direction of the country.

There'd be potential downsides, sure.  With any system, there might be ways to game it.

But as a political concept, it's interesting to play around with.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Gerrymandered Church

As our nation continues to lurch and stumble its way through yet another sustained pointless political psychodrama, there are plenty of folks willing to pitch out reasons why.  We do seem, as a nation, increasingly unable to get along.  We posture, we bellow, we display, but what we don't really do is take one another seriously.

The reasons for this are many, but one that tends to come up a whole bunch is the new science of the gerrymander.  Political parties who find themselves in power use this arcane art to restructure the shape of a state's districts, carefully splitting and dividing and concentrating sections of their state so that opposing parties are weakened.  It's this dynamic that has lead us to a House of Representatives in which one party has a significant majority, even though its candidates received over a million fewer votes nationally.   If you know how to game the system, you can insure your power.

Candidates choose their voters, in other words.  And that gaming is a violation of the integrity of our republic, no matter which party does it.

In that concentration of power, you also insure that more extreme and combative positions aren't leavened by having to consider alternate perspectives.  It radicalizes and calcifies perspectives.  It makes things a mess.

Musing on this the other day, I found myself noting that in some peculiar ways, this is also a problem with Christianity in the United States.  The great, joyous, and glorious freedom to pursue exactly the faith community that speaks to you and your needs?  The tendency of folks with Strong Theology and Big Personality to draw in folks who agree with them?

It means that we divvy ourselves up, engaging in a peculiar autogerrymandering process that allows us to seek fellowship and engagement with those who are People Like Us.  And because we are free, we can also choose to leave a place rather than doing the hard work of loving those who aren't People Like Us.

I wouldn't have it any other way, of course.  We need to be able to both seek and create communities where we feel safe and empowered.  But there is a price to seeking those places of personal and theological comfort.

That price comes in the ease with which we attack and condemn the other, smug and comfortable in our selected place of sameness.

In its own way, that's as spiritually dangerous as being trapped in a community where you cannot freely speak.  Sometimes even more so.

It's hard to love your enemies if you've structured your whole life so that you never have to encounter them.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Pope, the Atheist, the Real, and the Good

A marvelous, heartening recent interview between Pope Francis and the editor of Italian newsmagazine La Repubblica has been making the rounds lately, and a full reading of it does nothing to diminish the smittenness many open-hearted Christians feel towards il Papa.

I had initial concerns, I'll admit.  Twitter wasn't the best format for Cardinal Bergoglio.  But he has, as they say, exceeded expectations.  Kind.  Humble.  Gracious.   He has the intellectual curiosity of a Jesuit, the personal discipline of an Ignatian, and the joyous grace of a Franciscan.

Reading through the English version of that interview is worth your time, particularly because it is an exchange between a committed atheist and a Pope that manages to be both mutually respectful and playful.

One of the dynamics that struck me in their exchange was the degree to which the Pope cares about what is real.  Meaning, he grounds the conversation in a gracious, practical mysticism.  It's an approach that views the actual and physical manifestation of mercy, kindness, and forbearance into the world as of far more importance than ideology or doctrinal purity.

This stance seems to charm the atheistic editor, as the Pope chooses not to lecture or convert, but to seek commonality of understanding.  Together, they explore the concept of the Good, with the Pope defining it...clearly and that which spiritually and materially expresses self-giving love for all.

The case the Pope makes, while clearly grounded in his tradition, is also one that his atheistic conversation partner is able to engage.   It's not the in-group babeling of a particular worldview.  It's a case, clear and cogent, for the material and tangible benefits of what is most fundamental about Christian faith.

What is remarkable about this is twofold.  One, how simple and self-evident this approach seems.  Of course this is what is essential.  Well, duh.

Two, how effective it is for spreading Good News.  I mean, gracious, it's so obviously good, by the wild and crazy standard that it makes the world discernably better.  The measure of the good, after all, is not that you think it's good, or that those who share your worldview think it's good, or how aggressively you proclaim it.

It's about the impacts your "good" has on your relationships with others.  If your defense of your "good" cause anger, frustration, pain, and anxiety in all those around you, chances are the thing you describe as "good" is not grounded in the Deep Reality of existence.

It is not Good with a capital Gee.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

What Works Inside the Beltway

Last week, here inside the Beltway, it all came apart.

I'd planned to spend last Monday doing laundry.  Having spent my usual Friday laundry day traveling to officiate an out of town wedding, things were really piled up.  So as soon as the boys were out of the door, I gathered the accumulated piles and mounds and mountains of smells-like-teen-spirit socks and underwear, and prepped them all in the downstairs staging area.

The first load of what was going to be a seven-load day went in, and then there was a knock at the door.  It was my neighbor, the not-entirely-sane-one, and I talked with him for a while about the mess of his life, trying yet again with gentle suasion to get him to register that his disability insurance company is not in cahoots with his next-door neighbor to monitor him with invisible lasers.

I must have missed the episodes of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood that prepped you for this, but the basic principles of kindness and listening still apply no matter what.

When he finally wandered off, I went downstairs to check the laundry.  All was not well.  The stench of smoke was everywhere, the sharp tang of burned metal.  The smell came from our washer, which was six-years-new when we bought the house thirteen years ago.  In it, a mound of half-washed socks and white towels, soaked but clean.

It was a dead thing.  As I wrung out the socks and the towels, I inhaled and assessed.  The smell was that of a fried motor.  A really expensive repair.  It was time to replace it.  Just had to happen, dang it.  "Everything is money," as my wife groaned when I told her.  I mused over this as I went over to my in-laws with a carload of laundry, feeling all the world like a college student again.  What to get?

The old washer was a basic General Electric, functionally identical to the washers I sorta kinda used when I was young.  It was all knobs and clackity dials.  A simple, basic machine.  Tell it to do something, and it does exactly that.  Period.

I looked around for one just like it, but those that were out there were cheap, but not inexpensive.  I've learned the hard way that cheap stuff is often cheap for a reason.  When buying, find objective research, don't be distracted by hype or net-trollery.  And get what you need, not what you think will make you appear a certain way in the eyes of others.   OK, yeah, I know.  Wild midlife clotheswasher purchasing sprees are a rare thing, but still.  Focus on reliability, efficiency, and practicality.

What we needed arrived yesterday afternoon, a moderately-priced hyper-efficient Korean-designed and built LG top-loader.  But unlike any other washer I'd ever used, it wasn't mechanical.  There were no knobs and buttons and clacky dials.  Just a control panel.  When I pressed that ubiquitous circle-and-a-line power button, it started up with a cheery tweedle-dee-dee of ascending tones.  "Hi there Industrious and Capable Housewife," it was designed to say. "I'm your Happy Fun Washer Robot Pal!"  Labels all across its surface announced that it was a smart machine, filled with sensors and all sorts of hifalutin' gimcrackery.

In cars and phones I like that.  But this was a washer.  I did not trust it.

I particularly did not trust it because it was so very simple.  Put in the detergent.  Put in the clothes.  Tell it what kind of clothes they are.  Press start.  Period.  In particular, there was no way to tell it how large the load was. This sort of freaked me out.  No load size knob?   How could that be?  "I'll handle it!  Trust me! Tweedle-dee-dee!"

Sure you will, I thought, with visions of a robot-wash apocalypse playing out in my head, my basement filled with foam as it maniacally played The Sorcerer's Apprentice in cheery, ascending tones.

And so I warily loaded it, and started it.   And then I watched it suspiciously through the glass window in the top of the hatch.

It noodled about for a moment.  It rolled those socks and t-shirts around carefully, as if tasting them on its tongue, or passing them hand to hand.  It spun them a bit, then stopped, then spun them again, accelerometers and sensors getting a feel for it.  Then, with a decisive clunk, it filled up with water...just exactly enough to saturate and cover the clothes, no more, no less.  

Then, connected with that reality, it got to work.  "I'll be done in fifty-two minutes!  Tweedle-dee-dee!"

I ran a few errands, and sure enough, when I got back, it was done.  Perfect.

For a complex system to work for you, it has to be both well-designed and capable of adapting and relating to reality.  And you have to trust it.

Amazingly enough, that's true even here inside the Beltway.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Nonessential

As a DC townie, it's tough.  I've grown up inside the Beltway, which makes me something less than American, I suppose.  But watching the goings on among the folks y'all have been sending here lately, I find myself wondering at the whole concept of what is "essential" and "nonessential" to the spirit and character of the You Ess of Ay.

There are some things, the things that make a nation-state, that we've deemed essential.  Then there are the nonessential things.  They're the fat we need to trim as part of getting slim.  Lean and mean, as they say.  What are these things that are wasting our money?

They are things like the National Park Service.  I mean, shoot, the Grand Canyon is just a hole in the ground.  And those redwood forests?  Boring.  What do they do besides grow and take up space?  How do they add to the bottom line?  They don't.  We've got to set priorities here, people, ones that don't reflect Teddy Roosevelt's bad-for-business socialist agenda.

That also means, of course, that major gatherings of American citizens in the Nation's Capital will be on hold for a while.  That's fine.  I mean, really, how important could they be?  C'mon, people.  Can't you find something better to do with your time?  Seriously, get a job.

Or, say, the Library of Congress.  It's the largest repository of historical information and literature in the world, founded on a gift by Thomas Jefferson.  But we've got the interwebs now.  That musty, dusty collection of old scraps?  Who cares.  History is for sissies.  Who has time to waste on that sort of thing?

Or NASA.  Why should we care about NASA?  We can always rent space on one of those Soyuz things, and if you're a billionaire and want to add going to orbit to your bucket list, Virgin Galactic will do just fine.  We can dispense with it.

Or the National Archives.  Hell, there are a billion copies of the text of the United States Constitution lying around out there.  Just Google it, and print it.  What possible reason exists to see some browned old hunks of paper?  We have to be practical here.  No time for pointless frippery and empty symbolism.

Or the Centers for Disease Control?  C'mon.  Just use some Purell.  That's, what, a coupla bucks?  And if your kid gets influenza because we're not tracking this flu season, heck, that's what ibuprofen and/or natural selection is for.  Suck it up, buttercup.

There's so much we can get by without.  Curiosity.  Progress.  Beauty.  Art.  History.  Exploration.  Dignity.  Science.  The General Welfare.  National Pride.  A functioning first world economy.

You can live without all of those things.

Nonessential, as they say.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Social Media, Faith, and the Language of Well Being

There was a fascinating article on Slate recently, one that explored the use of language on social media and aspects of human personality.   A team of researchers at U. Penn. gathered a large sample of Facebook users...seventy five thousand in total.  Those users volunteered to take a survey assessing their personality dynamics, and then allowed the researchers to mine their Facebook posts for linguistic usage.

They then parsed out language use against personality characteristics.  What terms and phrases define different individuals?  What terms are expressed more among introverts, and which are more likely to be part of the language of extroverts?  When men express themselves into social media, what language do they use that distinguishes them from women?

The researchers then converted their word frequency charts into word-clouds, which I will not post here because, well, I try to stay more-or-less church appropriate.  Amazing, some of the vocabulary we use.  But you can follow the link to the study site, and see for yourself.

It was an intriguing and comprehensive project, with some interesting results.

What was most interesting to me was the linguistic variance along the continuum of emotional and personal stability.  The word-cloud for the dysfunctional/struggling set of individuals was what one might expect.  It was mostly filled with expletives, equal parts expressions of rage or depression.  It was anger and isolation.

The word cloud for those who'd indicated a high level of emotional and personal stability was different.     It was filled with indications of physical activity, repeatedly referencing sports.  The keywords "Lakers" and "Basketball," for example, are evidently signs of a balanced and content self.  References to social engagement, with both friends and family, was also a key measure.  As is language indicating regular trips to the beach.

But in the thicket of terms that regularly surface among those reporting emotional and personal well-being, there was a strong concentration of faith-semiotics.  "Blessed." "Praise." "Church." "Lord." "Thankful." "Proverbs."  It was an unmistakable concentration, clearly nonrandom.

This stirred two responses.  

First, it feels worthy of note that as we articulate ourselves into the peculiar thing that is social media, the language of faith is correlated with personal and emotional well being.  Yeah, I know.  Correlation ain't causation.  But individuals who are more content or more in balance are more likely to utilize language that is rooted in a faith tradition as they express themselves to others.  If faith is a delusion, as Richard Dawkins and my atheist friends would suggest, then it is an oddly beneficent one existentially.

Second, I found myself wondering at what challenges this might pose for...oh, dang, I'll just say it...evangelism.  What this study suggests is that the language of those who are in pain and experiencing suffering is different from that of those who are not.  Souls who experience life as rage or a dark cloud of abandonment do not use the same words to express themselves.  For faithful souls, we need to insure that our tendency to be immersed in the language of contentment does not make reaching out in compassion to the hurting and the suffering more difficult.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Leader of the Tea Party Caucus

It was a moment, from waaay back during the last presidential election, that stuck with me.  Lord knows if I can exactly place it, but I think it was in one of the debates between Obama and Romney.  In discussing the Affordable Care Act, Obama noted that it was often called "Obamacare," and then didn't walk away from that or resist that term.

"I've kind of grown fond of that," he said, or words something to that effect.

Hey, I'm getting older.  My cortex only has so many new things it can hold on to.

But that struck me, at that moment, as a very odd thing.  Enough so that it stuck, and resurfaces now.

Why?  Because Barack Obama was a student and a teacher of the organizing techniques of Saul Alinsky.  In Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, one of the core principles he articulates to radicalize and motivate is personalizing an issue.  If you want to get human beings riled up about something, you need to tie an issue to your attitudes towards an individual.  Find an enemy, a name and a face, and allow that enemy to become the face of the thing you seek to subvert or oppose.

If you can do that, you automatically escalate the sense of conflict.  Anyone who's worked in conflict resolution knows the truth of Alinsky's observation.  When people stop seeing things as problems to approach pragmatically, and get personally engaged in an ego-driven conflict, the heat goes waaaay up.

That's why the name "Obamacare" exists.  It's a fundamentally Alinskian tactic, used as a motivational tool to stir up heat among the lumpenproletariat who drive the Tea Party...which is, to my eyes, mostly organized on Alinskian principles of creating change.

Yet for reasons that fuddle me, there's not been aggressive pushback against the use of that term to describe the Affordable Care Act.  There's the occasional wan reminder that the basic idea was promoted by the Heritage Foundation as a market-based alternative to a rest-of-the-first-world-style single-payer universal health care system.   That's the reason conservatism has no alternative to the ACA.  It is a conservative idea, which they're now attacking.  Nominally, that's to insure that our *cough* health care "system" *cough* is left as the perfect beacon of perfection that we all know it to be.  But really?  It's personal.

So here we have Obama embracing something that he knows is being used to energize and motivate opponents.   He knows it, as surely as he knows Alinsky.  And I wonder, frankly, if he knows it well enough to be playing something of a gambit.

If a conflict escalates far enough, as things plainly have here inside the Beltway, a group can completely lose sight of anything other than the annihilation of their opponent.  It's a classic Level Five. Everything becomes defined in terms of that conflict.  All data that does not support the conflict is ignored.  It becomes a form of madness.  I've been there, in churches that have been so driven by division that they've gone basically insane, obsessed with dramas and battles that only have meaning to them.

It's an ugly place...and an undesirable one.  For a group that's driven into that position in a conflict, it's also radically unattractive, visibly insane to a disinterested party.  It alienates others and isolates the community in question, which has become so target-fixated that they're oblivious to the damage they're doing to themselves, and the impact they're having on their relationship with the broader culture.

It's a cliff.  It's a box canyon.  It's a trap.

And I think Barack Obama knows that.