Monday, December 23, 2013

Push Polls, Marketing, and Respecting Human Liberty

A couple of months ago, I got a "survey" in the mail from the National Rifle Association.  As a Virginian, they were interested in learning what I had to say, so that my opinions might help them decide…snicker…be reflected in their legislative…snort…I'm sorry.

Can't keep a straight face on that one.  They couldn't have cared less what I thought, because their "survey" wasn't a survey at all.  I used to review social science research proposals in a prior life, and for a survey instrument to have any validity, it needs be written in a way that allows for an objective response.  Meaning, you need to carefully construct the language so it doesn't create a bias in the person  responding.  Otherwise, your results will be skewed, and the data you produce will be unreliable.

That's a problem if you care about gathering information, but the survey I got was not about listening to opinions.  It was about cramming opinions down your throat using manipulative language.  In political parlance, what I got from the NRA was a "push poll," which meant it asked questions like:

1) Do you want fat-cats in Washington to destroy the Constitution and take away your fundamental freedoms so that special interest groups can have their way with the weeping, broken body of Lady Liberty?  (  ) Yes   (  ) No

Um.   Hold on.  Let me think.  This is a toughie.   Maybe…No?

Sure, I have my political opinions.  But I also know when I'm being played.   I found that survey…woefully misdirected to a progressive…remarkably false.  From my progressive predilections, it was easy to cluck knowingly at how effectively this hunk of rotten meat would be consumed by the fearful and the gullible and the true-believers.

Which made it interesting when Friday's mail brought me a "50-State Survey" from the American Civil Liberties Union.  

That ACLU survey began:

"Nationwide, we're seeing a relentless and wide-ranging assault on our fundamental freedoms."

Wait, what?  I think I read that exact same opening sentence in the NRA survey.

It went on, in three sections, entitled, respectively:  1) Defending Freedom in Virginia; 2) Defending Freedom Nationally; and 3) Strategies for Advancing Freedom.

I wish I hadn't sent back the NRA's survey instrument, because Lord have mercy, did that seem familiar.

I got into the questions.

Do I care about the constitutional rights of those who are impacted by discriminatory laws?  Do I care about standing up to extremists who are carrying out an all-out assault on our rights?  Do I care about informing and mobilizing people to strengthen and expand individual liberty in America?  Will you help us confront those seeking to undermine the Constitution and sweep away our fundamental freedoms?

Yikes.  Different hot-buttons, but the same emotionally charged, manipulative language wrapped in a "survey."  And while I agreed with much of what that survey was pushing, I still couldn't help but notice that I was being played.  The ACLU's marketers were using the same push-poll fundraising strategy as the NRA's marketers.

Because the last question, in both surveys, was : "Will you send us money?"

In the context of both the NRA and the ACLU, that bears with it a deep irony that goes well beyond the unfortunate and unnecessary divide between liberals and libertarians.

You cannot claim to serve the cause of liberty if you use manipulative tactics.  Because to serve the liberty of others, you must first respect their integrity as individuals.

Push poll marketing does not show that respect.

Friday, December 20, 2013

How to Win the Lottery Every Time

I used to play the lottery.

It wasn't so much for the prospect of winning.  It was for the daydreams.  You'd chunk down a buck for a ticket, and then you'd get one or two days of wild flights of fantasy.  Every thing wrong with the house, suddenly repaired.  A new car!  The opportunity to give and make a difference through your philanthropic generosity, all of which you coordinate from your vast custom-built dirigible-yacht.

But I stopped playing years ago, after I bothered to look at the souls who stood in line with me.  Could they spare the thirty bucks, the fifty bucks, that they chunked down every week out of their hunger for a hope that reality wasn't giving them?  No, they couldn't, and I didn't want to participate in a system that was really little more than a tax on the desperate and the poor.

Here's the thing, though.  Oh, I know, they say "You Gotta Be In It To Win It."

But there's a little secret.  You don't.  Not technically, not given the wild probabilities now involved.

You see, for those huge winnings, you also have astronomical odds.  They've been ramping those odds up a bit recently, to drive the jackpot higher.  That stirs more buzz, which sells more lottery tickets to hopeless, luckless dreamers just looking for a hit of fantasy.

If I understand the probability correctly, you are more likely to be electrocuted by a shark that is biting you whilst simultaneously being struck by lightning than you are to win the Powerball or the Mega Millions.

Which leads me, at least, to a rather logical conclusion.  With odds now standing at 258,000,000 to one, it's basically like saying, there's a near zero chance.  Most of what I got out of the lottery were the daydreams anyway, so here's what I think to myself.

There is also a chance, radically unlikely, but nonetheless not impossible in the vast probabilistic scheme of God's multiversal creation, that someone out there will buy a lottery ticket.  They will then pick a name at random, and mail that lottery ticket to me.

That ticket will arrive in the mail shortly after the lottery winner is announced.  And hey, presto, I've won the lottery.

Of course, this is astronomically unlikely.  It would not happen in a hundred lifetimes.  Not a thousand. Or a million.  But then again, neither would winning the more prosaic way.

But this way, I get my lottery daydreams, and I don't have to spend a penny.

Because dreams are free, kids.  Dreams are free.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Pastoral Letter to an AntiVaxxer

Dear Friend:

Yesterday, I saw yet another post on my social media feeds that was yelling at you.  It was a scientist, a trained pharmacologist, reposting a raging rant at how stupid and ignorant and terrible you are for intentionally not vaccinating your children and encouraging others to do the same.

I understand his anger, because I know what you are doing is remarkably dangerous.   Twenty years ago, the only significant group of people who opposed vaccination were Islamic extremists in a province in northern Nigeria.  But that was before the internet, which has made us all a little crazy.

Now you don't vaccinate your kids either, because you've heard things on the Web that make you afraid, angry, or some combination of the both.  You've gathered friends around you, through the 'net, in your community, and maybe through your church.  They all share your fears, and together you've looked for reasons that reinforce what you believe to be true.

Some of us, meaning people like me who know that vaccines save the lives of children, are a little freaked out by this.  So we do what people do on the internet: we rant at you.  You are stupid and evil!  And then we throw Science at you, filled with links to authoritative studies that if you weren't an idiot you'd know about, and then we call you an ignorant moron.  And then we mix in some swearing, because we're so angry.

I don't find this to be a constructive tactic.  Oh, maybe it is sometimes for some people.  Lord knows every now and again I might get a little yell-y with my kids when they're doing something particularly daft.  They're teenage boys, so, um, that happens more than I'd like.

But generally speaking, screaming at people and belittling them doesn't work.  I don't like it myself.  It makes me feel defensive, and makes me feel angry right back.  It hardens my heart.  And as Jesus teaches me every day, we need to treat others as we want to be treated.  Especially if we disagree with them.

So I want to speak to you from a different place, and in a different way.

Because I know the world now is frightening.  Everything has changed, so quickly, and it seems like the most precious things to us are being destroyed.  You love your children, and want to protect them, because you know that there are powers out there that threaten the ancient fabric of family.  There are huge corporations, great soulless entities that move like empty-eyed angels across our culture, seducing us into a way of life that is tearing us from one another.  There is the dark chaos of the web, where truth and falsehood are often indistinguishable, and where unspeakable things are just one or two clicks away.

You aren't wrong about that.  I feel it myself, because family matters to me.  It matters a great deal.

One of the most terrible ways our culture is changing us is that it is making us forget about family.  We barely know each other, and we've lost sight of the wisdom that can be learned from those who came before.  I resist that, as a pastor and as a father.

My family, you see, is a family that remembers itself.  We have stories and memories from way back, generations and generations.  Those people are my blood, just like my children are my blood.  I am part of their story, and they are part of mine.  So I remember them, and I do what I can honor them.  It's one of the Commandments, after all.

I've been recently reading the diary of one of my great-great-great-grandfathers, part of a project for my ongoing ministry studies.  That's his picture, at the top of the post.  His name was Aaron Baker West, and he was born on March 18, 1825.  He was a farmer, and a teacher.  He lived off the land, and he was a literate, churchgoing man.

He wants to talk with you.  I can feel it in my blood, the blood he and I share, and from the faith that we share and I still preach.   You need to know what he knew.

He started writing his diary on his twenty-eighth birthday.  It begins like this:

"The important anniversary of my birthday having again recurred, I have thought proper even at this advanced period of my existence to commence a daily record of the more important events and transactions that may transpire."

Yeah, people used to write like that.

Being a teacher, he writes in flowery language for a while, but then…also being a stoic farmer type...just puts down the important stuff.  It's pigs and cows and chickens, and crops being put in.

But it's other, harder stuff, too.

Like on January 28, 1856, when he wrote: "Baby still sick.  Weather milder this evening."

His son William was then only two weeks old.  He had the flu, and he never got better.  He died on May 18.

The years pass.  He has a daughter, Emily.  Then another daughter, Allie.  On March 13, 1861, Allie started feeling unwell.  On March 14, they called the doctor.  She had diphtheria.  On March 15, two more doctors arrived.

Aaron's journal entry on March 17, 1861 reads as follows: "Little Allie died this morning at 1/2 past 1.  She dropped away calmly and easily.  Her pleasant and mirthful voice will be heard no more.  But God is too wise to err and too good to be unkind.  Blessed be his name!"

He buried her next to his son.

On November 14 of 1864, he wrote: "Nellie sick."  Just those two words.  They recur for the next four days.  Then on November 19, 1864, he writes: "Nellie worse this A.M.  Dr. called.  Nellie died this P.M. A patient little sufferer.  She has gone home."

They buried her next to her sister and brother.

He buried three of his seven children, all under the age of five.  My great-great-great grandmother Mary  watched and wept as each of her little angels were put into the earth.  Three little graves, all in a row.

If they had been vaccinated, not a one of them would have died.   Not one.

Speaking from the long memory of my family, I want you to know that, down deep.  Feel what it would be like to lose half of your children.  Which of them would die?  See their faces.  It would be a coin toss.  What terrible odds.

I am convinced if you reached back into your heart memory, to the stories of your great great grandmothers who struggled to bear child after child only to weep over their cold little bodies, you would feel what they feel.

I can feel you fighting this deep truth.  Right now, you are fighting it, coming up with reasons that it is not so.  That is what the demons of fear and anger do in us, when we bring the light of truth to bear on them.  Do not listen to those dark voices, because along with the witness of God's creation, the lives of your foremothers and fathers bear witness against them.

Those men and women would not believe the fear that our culture whispers into your heart.  They would leap at the chance to protect their children, a chance they were never given.  They might, hearing that you have chosen to unnecessarily risk the lives of their great-great-great children out of your fear, even be a little angry at you.  Out of love for you, of course, but still angry.

Remember them.  Listen to them.

For faith, and for family, honor their memory.

Peace and Blessings,

Pastor David

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Eulogizing Harold Camping

"I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.  For the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones."  

Ah, Harold.  It was tough to see you go.

It's not that I agreed with you theologically.  I don't, and we wouldn't have seen eye to eye on almost anything where our relationship to the Creator of the Universe was concerned.  I suppose you now know the truth of it, as I will one day.

Here's hoping I'm right, because I'd like to share this with you, and maybe talk for a little while.  Or do whatever it is one does where you are now.

Though we wouldn't have agreed about most things, it's still hard to see the way that you are remembered, with slight snickering.

In your latter years, you crossed a line, one you'd been toeing for a while.  From your earnest, self-taught heart, you made a deeply unwise call that made you a global laughingstock.  Pesky thing, this social media era, particularly for the unwise.

But you weren't a charlatan, a two-faced huckster just out to fleece his flock so's he could have another Bentley for his "ministry."  There are plenty of those out there, but you weren't one of them.  You really believed what you said, which made it painful watching you fail.  I never thought you were right, of course.  You were wrong in some very significant ways.  But that does not give me the right to mock  you, or to snicker and smile at your pain.

Your response to your error was telling about your soul.  You didn't double down.  That's what cultists do, and the insane, and the evil.  They find a reason they were right.  They cling to their error, no matter what.

After a humiliation of global proportions, you said, publicly, to everyone: "I was wrong.  I wasted my long life on this pursuit.  Faith is about other things.  I'm sorry."

No excuses.  No rationalization.  Just, "I was wrong."  That takes a certain type of person, it does, and it speaks well of who you were.

We probably still wouldn't have agreed about most things, even then, but let me share with you three good things that I can honestly tell you about your life and the effect you had on me.

First, in the midst of the hubbub of your globally publicized mistake, you stirred my thirteen year old Jewish son to talk with me about what it meant to be a faithful person.  Did I, as a Christian, believe what you believed?  I was able to tell him that I did not, and to explain why.  Teens are notoriously hard to open up, particularly about matters of faith and meaning, and double-extra-particularly if you're their father.  I still remember that conversation, and I'm grateful to you for making it possible.

Second, as I've grown spiritually over the years, my worldview has changed.  I'm shaped by a peculiar fusion of faith and science, one that you'd probably have found a bit heretical.  OK, a lot heretical.  Given that your creation was only 6,000 years old, and mine is…well…an infinite multiverse…we understood our place in the scheme of things rather differently.

What's peculiar about my view, though, is that within it, there's a place where you weren't wrong.

Oh, sure, you were completely wrong in this space-time.  But in the wild and crazy multiverse of creation, there are functionally countless universes, identical to our own.  In more times and spaces than we can shake a quantum stick at, a six-kilometer wide hunk of mostly-iron came barreling out of the inner solar system on October 21, 2011.  Blinded by the sun, all of our sensors and telescopes would have missed it.

Just as we were all collectively tweeting our snarkery to #haroldcamping #lol, the heavens would have lit with the fire of a species-ending epochal asteroid strike.   I'm not sure how validated you would have felt by that, but hey.  "Close enough" counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and apocalyptic events.

More importantly, in the infinite multiverse of God's creation, some mistakes are wrong, and some mistakes are evil.  You were just wrong.  Your life has reminded me, as I often need reminding, that there is a difference.

Third, I've found myself reflecting on the impact your wrongness had on your followers.  Here's what they did.  They gave up all their possessions.   In those months before things did not go as you'd said, those who took your message seriously lived their lives as if every moment mattered.  They abandoned the drab routines of our culture, and set themselves towards doing something they viewed as being of ultimate importance.  That thing did not involve doing permanent harm to themselves, or harming others.  They just set all the crap aside…all of it...for a season.

This, in reflecting on your life, strikes me as interesting.  Because Lord knows I feel that desire now and again, as materialism and consumerism sits heavy on my soul.  But I am just too much of a coward to do it.

In countless churches around the world, that's what gets preached every week, and particularly in this season of Advent.  This time matters!  Possessions are not what counts!  Wake up! Spread the word!

This is kinda sorta what Jesus asked us to do, thems of us who take him seriously. We preach this from our pulpits, but more often than not we fail to live it.  Sometimes I wonder, frankly, if the only way to pull people out of the mire of our broken culture is with a message as radical as yours.

And wondering that is a good thing.

So, Harold.  Thanks for really apologizing, in an era when that skill is almost forgotten.  Thanks for helping me talk with my son, and for the way you were wrong but not evil, and for the reminder about what it often takes to stir us to action.  I'll see you on the other side.

Defending Santa

(Spoiler alert: don't share this with your little ones.    Not that you would, but really.  Don't.  Thank you.)

I never believed in Santa.  When I was five, I didn't buy it.  I'll lay that right out there.

I can remember walking with my Dad, a spindly lad of five or six, down at the side of the stream near our home in Nairobi.  It was a warm December, because it was Kenya, but Christmas was near.

He told me Santa was coming soon, and asked me if I was excited.  I shared with him that, well, c'mon, really?  Did I look like I was three?

How could there ever be a Santa?  I mean, really, the technical and logistical elements were too dicey.  As a teeny spud, I could still see how the grownup world worked, and there was no way this one guy could pull the whole thing off.  Just. Wasn't. Gonna. Happen.

Dad fessed up.  He said it was a fun game grownups played so kids could get presents, like a magic trick.  And could I please not spoil it for my brother?  I said sure.  That didn't bother me.

As an adult Jesus-following pastor-type, I never did the Santa-thing with my boys when they were little.  That's just a factor of my peculiar family arrangement.  Raising Jewish children with a Jewish wife really renders Santa unnecessary, and Hannukah Harry?  He just ain't the same.

But that I never told them the Santa story when they were little doesn't mean it bothers me if you do.

But Santa does seem to bother some people.  Two sorts of people, actually.  Santa really really bugs some atheists, and he really bothers ultraconservative fundamentalist Christians.

The ultraconservative fundamentalists view Santa as a pagan accretion, and a recent one.  Santa…the jolly old elf who pitches us Coca Cola and cigarettes...doesn't have a lick to do with Christian faith.  Not a whit.  In that, they're not wrong.  Almost completely insane, but not wrong.

The Santa we experience in our culture is a modern Western creation, an amalgam of various traditions, none of which have any grounding in the Bible.

He also bears no resemblance to St. Nicolas, a notorious Turkish heretic-puncher who got his "patron saint of children" reputation in part because he was reputed to have resurrected dead kids.  And not just any dead kids.  Dead kids who'd been killed and pickled by a cannibalistic psychopath who was trying to sell their meat at the market.

Not exactly 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, unless you're sitting around the hearth with Hannibal Lecter.  Just what is that Roast Beast again?

Long and short of it?  Santa is not the historic St. Nicolas, any more than the fat gold prosperity Buddha you see at your neighborhood Chinese restaurant is the Buddha of the Noble Eightfold Path.

And you know what?  I don't care.  Not at all.

So he's not Christian.  So what?  Neither is a tree, or my dog.  I refuse to get my knickers in a twist about it.  Santa isn't a bad thing.

There, of course, I find myself in disagreement with not just my glazed-eye fundy brothers and sisters, but also some of their conjoined twins in the atheist community.

"Santa," for more aggressive atheists, is just another way that that ignorant theists teach our kids not to be rational.  For them, it's an irrational lie, just like faith and believing that your dog loves you.

Better to dispense with such ignorant and superstitious nonsense.  Santa?  How stupid.  Just hand your five year old an illustrated version of the God Delusion and remind them that they're another day closer to the yawning blackness of mortal oblivion.

A recent anti-Santa billboard pitched out there by an atheistic performance artist has been making the rounds lately on the web, one that accuses Santa of not just being a lie, but being a manifestation of capitalistic injustice inflicted on unwitting children by the Christmas-Industrial complex.

"Santa gives more to rich kids than poor kids," it frets.  "Stop lying to your children!" it scowls, with the bright and hard moral certainty of a childless bolshevik.

To such a cold sentiment and such an individual, I first find myself thinking that perhaps the most appropriate response is the one uttered by America's Favorite Gay Asian Uncle (™).  I won't write it here for reasons of blog language policy, but you can follow the link if you'd like.

But then I think better of it, and catch my breath, and simply think to myself, "And a Merry Christmas to you too!"  Best to be positive, eh?

Understood from outside of the sterile joylessness of any form of absolutism, Santa is a different thing.  It's a game we play with our children, in which we delight in their simple wonder.  And at the end of it all, when they finally realize what the Santa game is, of course we tell them what's really going on.  And here's the blow that reveal delivers to them, the truth that shatters the "lie": Those who gave the gifts were the ones who loved you all along.

Santa is like a magic trick, wonderful when you don't know the truth of it, and even more wonderful when you realize how it's done.

For beings both warm-hearted and rational, that's enough to make it well worth while.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Scraps of Paper Lying Around the House

As I chugged away on the dishes from dinner last night, the little guy came eagerly into the living room, bearing one of the books he'd purchased at a book sale out in Western Maryland last summer.  It was an old collection of Robert Browning's poems and plays, and by old, I mean it was printed up in 1895.

He'd bought it for a couple of bucks because, well, he thought something that old was kind of cool.  Which it is.

What he wanted to share, though, was a scrap of paper he'd found within.  It had served duty as a bookmark, no doubt…but a very, very long time ago.

It appeared to be a worship schedule and bulletin, but it wasn't one from a church.  It had been published by the chaplain of the USS New York.  But not the current USS New York.

It was the bulletin for a worship service dated December 15, 1918.  On the back, there were little shipboard news blurbs and...poems.  Browning, not surprisingly, but also Goethe, which ended up being a little surprising.

We did a little googling and wiki-ing.

The USS New York (BB-34) was a battleship commissioned in 1911, one that served in World Wars 1 and 2.   It saw action in both conflicts, in WWI being the only US vessel to sink a U-Boat.  The U-Boat accidentally crashed into it and sank, but still.  You take what you can get.

It saw major action in WWII, laying down fire for Operation Torch in North Africa.  It also provided support for the landing at Iwo Jima, and the landing at Okinawa.

After the war, the BB-34 was "retired" as a target ship for the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests, and managed to survive both the Able and the Baker  tests.  Tough hunk of steel, evidently.

It was subsequently used as a target ship, and sunk near Pearl Harbor in 1948.

So here in our house, without our knowing, was most likely a book of poems that in World War One sailed the seas with the chaplain on a steampunk-era battleship.

And in that book of poems, a worship service bulletin from said battleship, one printed at sea just about a month after the first World War had ended.

Amazing, the stuff you find lying around the house.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The English Fall

It's an odd thing, when a story you've been thinking about writing actually finally gets written.

This last week, I self-published a novel that has been banging around in my head for a couple of years, and it's peculiar seeing it sitting there on my bookshelf.

The English Fall, it's called.  It's Amish fiction, sort of.  It was peculiar categorizing it as that, because typically Amish fiction implies pastel covers, earnest women in bonnets and chaste romance.

This is not that.

The English Fall is written from the perspective of an Amish farmer who experiences the total collapse of civilization after a cataclysmic solar storm wipes out the North American power grid.   Post apocalyptic Amish literature, I like to say, jokingly, but it's not a joke of a book.  It intentionally explores issues of faith and "separateness," our dependence on technology and our need for one another, and the role of violence in our culture.

I like the book, having re-read it.  It maintains a gentle, reflective pace, mirroring the soul of the protagonist as he journals his way through the upending of humanity.  That gentleness of pace could be something of a liability, I'll admit, but it feels true to the character as I came to know him.

I was amazed, frankly, at how easy the book was to produce through Createspace, Amazon's self-publishing imprint.  It was a question of a week or two.

Well, it was easy because I was a bit lazy about it.  I didn't fiddle around with making a mega-professional cover, just using one of their stock templates.  It's readable, but not perfect, with slightly less text-per-page than I'd like.  It's a primal book.  It has a cover with a title and my name, and pages with text on them.  Not much else.

I didn't muck about with many of the details that would normally go into a professionally printed book, because my hope is that this might yet one day find a publishing house that can really market it.  Though it's been edited to the point where I'm comfortable with it, it could also use a really solid professional edit.    How I manage to miss typos after five read-throughs is beyond me, but I do.  Must be one of my spiritual gifts.

But connecting with a physical-media publisher is hard, to the point of being like winning the lottery.  At a bare minimum, it takes time.

In that time, I'd really like to be able to share the story with friends and family.  Self-publishing is good for that.  So if you've got the time and are looking for a good read, give it a look.

And if perchance you should want a free Kindle version, all ya gotta do is promise to review it on your blog.  Or ask nicely.

Seriously.  Just email me at belovedspear *at* gmail *dot* com, and you've got it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

An Audience of Orcs

So "The Hobbit: Part Deux" came out this week. I don't doubt that at some point in the hurly burly of this Getmas season I and the wife and the boys will see it, chunking down our contribution towards the second payment on Peter Jackson's new orbital yacht.

I will confess, though, that the front end reviews have me a little worried.  The first film had some significant flaws, which for me were rather different than the flaws that seemed to bug the rest of the filmgoing universe.

For most reviewers, the issue was pacing.  Meaning, it began too slowly, drawing out the opening arrival of the dwarves as painfully as a babalao winding a guinea worm.  Trust me, that's painful. 

For me, the most painful part of the first movie was the pacing of the action once the film got going on all eight cylinders, air howling through the intakes of its twin sequential intercooled turbochargers.  So much of the first movie felt absurdly hyperkinetic, over-violent and visually aggressive.

And Lord, but do I weary of the sameness of that meal, served up every time I go to the Circus.

Bam! Zow! Sockie!  Look at little Bilbo, bustin' open a can o' whupass on that orc!  Yeah, it wasn't in the book, and those orcs are obviously just bosses put in for when the whole thing gets turned into a game franchise, and it totally destroys Bilbo's character development, but we're too juiced on adrenaline to care.  Freakin' Hoooah!

Oh, sure, there are battles in Tolkien, battles aplenty.  And the Hobbit, as a book, does leap from one thrilling moment to the next.  That's what makes it such a hoot to read aloud to your children.

But as this story is being retold in film, it is being retold for a particular audience, cast to appeal to their expectations.  And what I'm hearing is that "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Benefit Cumbersplat" is even more relentlessly action-packed than the first film.

What I fear, as I go into what sounds like another groaning table of hack-n-slash, is what that says about us.  Where does this sort of storytelling place us, in the world of Middle Earth?

This does not appear to be a film made to appeal to the aesthetics of hobbits.  It is also not made for elves, who almost exclusively watch obscure French films in little art house cinemas.  Neither does it appeal to dwarves, who are far too practically minded.

It seems to me that a film that is relentlessly, endlessly violent and hyper-aggressive would only appeal to a select few of the races of Middle Earth.

Men, of course, who above all else desire power.

And Orcs.  Orcs, from what I have been told, would love this film.

Which are we, I wonder?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Monkey Santa Wants Revenge

Last night was my older son's choir concert, and it was woven into the great swirl of seasonal scurrying that makes up this time of year.  The younger spud needed to be at a rehearsal in Vienna at 6, and the choir concert was at 7:30 in Annandale, which meant I was slogging through the worst traffic in America for a good solid hour and a half at the height of rush-hour.  One appreciates the Prius for the traffic-appliance it is at such times.

I made it to the big guy's concert on time, and settled in near the back so's I could book out at 8:30 sharp to go back to Vienna for a 9:00 PM pickup.  The school choirs filed in, and like their high school, they were a wide and hopeful slice of contemporary America.  It was a veritable United Nations, with equal portions of kids of European heritage, Latinos and Asians and Africans.  They were a mix of all faiths, Christian and Muslim and Jewish and whatever they wanted to be.

The singing started, and unlike concerts in elementary school, this wasn't an endurance contest.  They were great.  These kids cared about what they were doing, and were having fun doing it, and it showed.

Well, it did for most folks there.  In the very back of the auditorium was a row of individuals--"students" seems like the wrong word here--who were not there for any discernible reason.  They hooted and catcalled at the girls choir when they came up.  They talked without stopping, through the quiet reflective pieces, in between the songs.

When asked to be quiet, they responded with aggression, to the point where they had to be asked to leave in ways that made it clear the adults involved were quite willing to press the matter.

The rest of the concert was lovely, although I had to book out right before the last song to race back to Vienna to get my youngling.

When I touched base with my wife to debrief, I heard that things had not ended well.  Evidently the group that was asked to leave had not left through the main entrance, but had all filed down the hall towards the choir room before slipping out a back door.

The choirs returned to the choir room to find it ransacked, every bag gone through, dozens of items stolen.  Cops were called.  Police reports were filed.

Happy Holidays.

It was interesting meditating on my reaction.  My primate-self responds in a fairly consistent way to such things, mostly pitching out suggestions that involve Louisville Sluggers and unusual criminal sanctions from late medieval Germany.

My liberal and libertarian selves argued briefly about personal responsibility and the impact of socioeconomic status on social behavior, but considering that most of the choir members victimized were of the same ethnocultural and socioeconomic background, ultimately left and right started listening to my monkey brain as it talked about the how-to's of drawing and quartering.  Who do we know that can lend us us some horses?  Hmmm.

But then, for me, there is always the voice of Jesus.  Pesky, pesky Jesus, who always forces me to consider those places where the bright binary equation of retribution never has a positive result.  Meaning, reality.

Reality, where the role of the one true law is to protect those who are victimized, but also to avoid harming an aggressor--physically or spiritually--to leave open the possibility that they can change.

Because closing out the possibility for change shuts out the whole purpose of Advent, now, doesn't it?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Great Triumph of Global Capitalism

In addition to taking advanced coursework on pastoral counseling, I'm also rounding out my D.Min. electives with a class on the sociocultural context of the Apostle Paul's letters.   Meaning, what was the world like, really, when he fired off those annoyed letters to the endlessly fractious Corinthians?

I've been reading one book for the last few days, the one I've got to complete a paper on by the end of the month.  It's by a professor of religion at Baylor, and delves deep into Paul's attitude towards the poor and disenfranchised.  Some of it is…um…"academic."  Two entire chapters parsing out scholarly responses to one…ONE…verse in Galatians?  Lord have mercy.

Like, say, the exploration of the way income and wealth worked out in Rome.  Using the best available historical data of the economy of Rome in the first and second centuries CE, historians have come up with a scale measuring the income structure of the world at the time Paul was writing.  

Several scales are proposed, but one seven point scale has significant data behind it.  It goes like this:

1) Imperial Elites  (members of the dynasty, senatorial families, royalty):  0.04% of population
2) Regional/Provincial Elites (equestrian families, provincial officials, military elites): 1.0 % of population
3) Municipal Elites (decurial families, some merchants and freed persons): 1.76% of population
4) Moderate Surplus (merchants, artisans, military veterans, traders): 7% of population
5) Stable/Near Subsistence Level (merchants/traders, wage earners, shop owners, some farmers): 22%
6) Borderline Subsistence-Unstable (small farms, laborers, most merchants, small shop owners): 40%
7) Poverty/Below Subsistence (small farms, beggars, disabled, unskilled labor, widows, slaves): 28%

Meaning, if you translate that into where humanity stood two thousand years ago, about nine point eight percent of humanity living under the rule of the Roman Empire were economically secure.  They could reasonably expect that they would experience no significant hardship.  A tiny fraction--just under two percent--controlled most of the wealth.  An additional seven percent were functionally secure, consistently receiving enough income to maintain a surplus.

Twenty two percent were just above subsistence, meaning hunger was at bay and shelter was consistently present, but they were vulnerable.  And sixty-eight percent were either in poverty or scrambling day to day just to keep afloat, one accident or illness away from real privation.

That was two thousand years ago, before industrialization, before science and technology, before the global economy and the dynamism of capital markets.

Now, according to the magazine Business Insider, our world looks like this.  Give a click on the image below:

That bottom number hasn't budged.  Sixty eight percent remain poor.  Two thousand years, and for all intents and purposes, not a thing has changed economically.  The wealth profile of our world looks no different than the world ruled by Rome.  

On the bright side, I suppose, that makes everything the Bible has to say about justice, wealth and poverty still completely relevant.  


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Presumption of Dysfunction and the Bright Side of Life

I've been working on pre-work for two of my doctoral classes over the last week, and found myself musing a bit over something in the coursework for my counseling class.

I've been asked to pull together a genogram, a map of the relationship dynamics in my immediate family.  It's sort of like a genealogy, but it also integrates emotive and relationship content.  Meaning, not just names and dates, but a little bit about who these people were and how they got along.  I did a version of this years ago for my M.Div. Pastoral Counseling coursework, but it's been nearly a decade, and a refresh is in order.

Family dynamics are a good thing to explore, and a good influence to understand.  For all of our American focus on ourselves as individuals, we are deeply shaped by our family context and the complex latticework of our relationships.  I'm enjoying the work, and will also enjoy the reflections it stirs as I delve again into the history of my family.

Still and all, as I pore my way through the workbook I find myself struggling with something.

It's the thing I often struggle with when I engage with counseling/therapeutic literature: the presumption of dysfunction.

It's an understandable thing, given the focus of the counseling environment.  You're so often dealing with folks in emotional and spiritual extremis.  Having a strong sense of the influence of the negative and damaging is essential.  And Lord knows those forms of relationship are present in all families, my own included.

But as I look to map out the latticework of my family history, I can't help but feel confined by that way of framing existence.  In my genogram, for example, the primary tag categories…meaning the symbols you use to flag relevant characteristics about an individual…are all negative.

A square indicates a male.  That's not negative, or so I hope.  If that male was an addict or an alcoholic, the bottom half of the square should be blackened.  If that male was mentally ill, the left side of the square should be blackened.  If both, I guess only the top right quadrant would remain clear.  If they were slightly eccentric and enjoyed an occasional tipple, maybe you can use grayscale.  Hard to say.

Lines between personal symbols indicate relationships, and while a double line indicates particular closeness, there are an array of varying lines to mark conflict, estrangement, "entanglement," and other forms of interpersonal mess.

What is missing is an equal focus on that place where joy dwells in families.  What is missing is any sense of the gifts.

How do I mark the heterochromatic ambidextrous mathematician-athlete?  Or the playful, fiercely mischievous soul who sparkled and shone through life?  Or the gifted actress?  Or the pastor who could make a laconic Scots elders openly weep in worship?  How do I mark the self-made woman, the successful entrepreneur who built a business at a time when women's work was the kitchen?  How do I mark the relative who taught himself calculus as a young teen?   How do I mark the musical and the creative, the kind and the supportive, the strong and the spiritual and the gracious?

If I am operating from dysfunction as my primary framework for understanding existence,  I do not.

Seeing the broken things, and naming them?  That's essential for healing and growing.  It must be done.

But if we do not acknowledge graces and the gifts as having not just equal standing, but deeper power, then we inhibit our growth.

Always look on the bright side of life, as they say.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Dark Litanies and Tolling Bells

This last Sunday, our little congregation's Prayers of the People went through a list.  It's a list we've been reading every week for months now, as we pray our way through the names of those who are in a long and sustained battle with illness.  It's a potent way to keep those ongoing struggles on our minds, but it can be hard to read and pray.

You don't want it to feel like an empty recitation, not at all.  We are not reading these names, after all.  We're praying them.  I've found myself reading them as couplets, like the ringing of two bells, and that's how I read them at the early service.  At the second, our liturgist delivered them as part of a raw, vulnerable, and lovely prayer, struggling to get through the list as the names connected with the persons she knew.

Listening to her read those names on Sunday, I found myself reminded that one year ago that very day, I went through another dark litany.  I'd had to scrap my Advent-themed sermon the night before, as the news from Newtown demanded my spiritual attention.

In the scrambled sermon rewrite, I found myself including a litany.  Every name, every age, every child.  Reading those names was like a tolling bell.

I went back to my sermon blog, and re-prayed those names to myself afterwards.  A year later, it's a mostly forgotten thing.  We have moved on, and nothing has changed.

But that's the purpose of a litany, and of ritual. It's a way of remembering.

So important, that is, in a culture that quickly forgets.

Narrative Therapy on a Friday Night

I've been doing a bunch of reading for my doctoral program this week, with a particular focus on coursework in couples and family counseling.  The prof for the the class is apparently big into "narrative therapy," a counseling approach that understands the self/soul/psyche in terms of storytelling.  That's been the last two books I've read, and they both spin out the same basic concept.

Meaning, we understand ourselves as having a story, and the plot lines within that story…and our reactions to them…define us as beings.  As a therapeutic approach, it does start wandering onto some peculiar ground, particularly as it deals with the things that mess us up.  It focuses on "externalizing" damaging self-narratives, meaning you name a problem, view it as not really a part of your core self, and from that position refuse to let it govern your existence.

Which makes it a teeny bit like demonology, a connection that is not lost on the progressive folks writing the books.  "I know this sounds like we're talking about demons…" isn't one of those sentence-openings Presbyterians are generally comfortable with.

But then again, it also sounds like deleting bad code or editing a manual of operations, so I guess there's  a comfortable "way to frame" this particular approach to things for Presbyterians.

I've been playing around with the concepts underlying narrative therapy myself, getting a feel for whether they have any validity.  My rule of thumb is pretty simple: Does it work?

When applied to my own being, does it seem to have purchase, or is it only so much fluff and jargon?

The answer, so far, has been a qualified yes.  It actually kinda sorta has.

Take, for example, my reaction to the romantic Friday evening activity my wife and I engaged in last night.  We spent the evening timing my older son's swim meet.  As we will pretty much every Friday night for the next month or so.

There is typically a large portion of my processing capacity that has beef with this, most having to do with change.  Friday nights used to be time for the wife and I to be together, back when we were dating and early in our marriage.  Then, those evenings were time for all of us together.  They were always family time, as we'd settle in for a movie and popcorn in our basement nest.  Friday nights were also shabbas mealtime, which was a non-trivial thing for a Christian helping raise Jewish children.  It's hard to lose those things, both the cozy and the sacred, particularly the scurry and the shuffle of sports and busyness.

So Resentment comes easily at the beginning of seasons, as it grumbles and mutters at all the racka-frackin' activities parents inflict on themselves and their children.

But there's no point in that.  Because the kid who's growing into manhood does not swim because we're inflicting an activity on him from the heart of our competitive American parent-anxiety.  He swims because he really likes it.  And I'd be at those meets anyway, because he's my son, and I enjoy rooting him on.  Why not participate?  Wouldn't I just do what I'm doing?

I used some narrative therapy techniques last night, when I found myself drifting into season-start growly-ness.  It didn't take much, just a few gentle re-framings.  And danged if I didn't find myself feeling much more centered, and actually kind of enjoying myself.

Perhaps it's overly 'Murikan of me, but I do have an appreciation for practicality.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Multiverse, Dark Matter, and Other Such Trifles

The other day, while my younger guy was in his drum lesson, I found myself taking another long and meditative walk.  It's how I prefer to spend my adult down-time, particularly now that I've deleted all social-media apps from my phone.  Lord, but that has helped me feel more sane.

And so I walked and looked up to the heavens and ruminated on something that had recently danced through my consciousness.  It was a popular press article I'd recently read on the continuing struggle of science to come to terms with an elusive thing they call "dark matter."

Our time and space has within it plenty of matter, of course, the stuff we can see and touch and measure.  But as astronomers have looked out at the gravitational dynamics of the universe, it's clear that there's something missing.  Our universe behaves as if there is significantly more mass out there, and yet we can't observe or find that mass.  By some estimates, nearly 85% of the mass that should be out there is just kinda missing.

That peculiarity of physics has been a point of some befuddlement since humankind first strapped on its cosmological reading glasses and really looked at the creation we inhabit.  Where the heck is everything?

As I walked and meditated, I found myself thinking about dark matter and the Many Worlds hypothesis, and it suddenly seemed that there was some connection.

Perhaps what we consider "dark matter" is not matter that inhabits our space-time at all, at least not in a way that we can currently empirically measure.  If our time and space is interlaced with other times and spaces, perhaps it is they that are leaving an echo or imprint on the gravity of our corner of creation.

It was a delightful spark of a thought, a mystic ah-hah realization, and yet another indicator that I have way too much time on my hands.

But such flights of fancy aren't necessarily real, as fun as they might be to speculate about.  Afterwards I googled around a little bit to see if anyone who actually has a clue about such things has had a similar thought.  Meaning, not a mystically inclined cleric such as myself, but an actual trained scientist/cosmologist.

And whaddaya know…it's actually out there.

Nice to know I'm not entirely crazy.  Not entirely, anyway.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Mainline Academese and the Language that Transforms

After something of a hiatus, I'm back into my doctoral program, which got stalled out this last year for a range of reasons.  The writing project that was to be the book-length output of my D.Min. was so fundamentally changed as it ground through the proposal approval process that it ceased to be interesting or innovative, which doesn't exactly help motivate a body to get it done.

The large independent study project I'd hoped would give me my last six credit hours pranged off of professors who were simply too busy to take on the reading.   The two elective courses I'd signed up for to replace them were both cancelled.

But when life hands you lemons, you make life take the lemons back, as Cave Johnson elegantly put it.   So I've managed to remotivate on the project writing for next year, and found two courses that are 1) interesting enough to actually qualify as electives and 2) not cancelled.

My reading for the first of the courses began last night, as I worked my way through much of a book on narrative therapy and pastoral counseling.  It's actually rather useful stuff, and I find the therapeutic model it presents to be promising both interpersonally and spiritually.  We are creatures of story, we human beings, and understanding how we can change our own narratives about ourselves and our relationships is key to healing our wounds and transforming our lives.

So far, the book talks about the need for the "guiding professional" to empower individuals and couples, giving them the tools they need to understand and reclaim their own stories.  Meaning, when you and the missus have lost track of why in the hell you got together in the first place, there are ways you can get that back.  Or get back something better and more resilient.  Which is an excellent thing to know, and to know how to do.  Useful, in a healing sort of way.

What I've found myself noticing, though, is the language.  It's written by a Presbyterian pastor, a professor of pastoral counseling, and the language and structure of the book is…well…academic.  In fact, it's ragingly, blazingly, relentlessly academic.  It speaks in the strange and stilted tongue of leftist academe, which has two unfortunate side effects.

First, the shadow side of writing for a "professional" audience comes when the things you are teaching really *could* be accessible to everyone.  Because as I read, I keep thinking, you know, this stuff isn't nearly as complex as the language being used to convey it.  There's no reason that it needs to be written this way.

In fact, it seems oddly ironic that it is written as it is written.  If your whole model for healing the broken soul of a relationship is "empowering" people, then writing a book that a pastor can't share with couples who are struggling seems peculiar.

Sure, it's good for me to have the tools.  But it's equally important for me to be able to teach those tools to those who come to me with their pain.  And unlike books written by evangelicals and the self-help folks, this one just can't be shared.

Second, I know that this language cannot become my operating language.  The more deeply we steep ourselves in language that is not broadly accessible, the more that becomes the way we think.  And when we think using terms that limit our ability to broadly convey concepts, we start losing the ability to get our message across.  

When you've got good news to share, when there's real healing potential in it, that can be a wee bit of a problem.