Friday, March 31, 2017

The Measure of Our Dystopia

My novel, or so I am told, is "dystopian fiction."  It is a story of, to get to the root of the word dystopia, the mythic "bad land," a place of speculative cultural negation.

On the one hand, this makes sense.  When the English Fall is a story of the world's collapse, of the catastrophic failure of the systems and structures that make our lives possible, told in the simple, plain language of an Amishman's journal as he watches in growing horror.  

On the other, though, I do wrestle with that term, because what I've written isn't a classic speculative dystopia.  There are no games in which young people are forced to fight to the death for the amusement of all.  There is no patriarchal theocracy that forces women into chattel servitude.  The weak and the failed are not systematically but humanely exterminated by human beings who live perfectly regimented lives in a world without color.  Monsanto does not partner with local hospices to provide us with delicious meat alternatives.

I craft no bizarre spin on society.  Other than a technological collapse, what my novel presents is quite simply us.  It's a story about our society, exactly as it is.  It is utterly familiar.

Is that dystopian?

I think it is.  Even by the standards of my childhood, ours is a dystopian culture.  Not a joyous, hopeful future, but a drab, ignorant, shallowly anxious one, one projected in the All Our Wrong Todays, the delightful recent novel by Elan Mastai...seems to reflect a wrong turn taken somewhere.

I have a peculiar measure for dystopia, honestly.  That measure is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, one of the great classics of the dystopian genre.  It was my first dystopia, read back in seventh grade, as a bookish and inquisitive lad fond of picking up books from the library that weren't "kid's books."  It blew my mind.

The world Huxley describes is a future of vat grown clones, each designed for a specific purpose in a great machine of a world defined by caste.  It is a place of utter regimentation mingled with pervasive pleasure-seeking, a bizarre mix of drug-enhanced entertainment and caste.

So against the Huxley Measure, how are we doing?

Not so well.  I would contend Huxley's bizarre Brave New World a much, much happier world than the dystopia we currently inhabit.  In Huxley's vision, every person...cloned though they may be...has a place, and knows why they exist.  The Betas and Gammas go about their lives knowing they are needed, blissed out on soma and the pleasure of endless orgy-porgy entertainment.  They do not know illness.  Work and leisure are theirs.  The Epsilons, with intellects barely above those of animals, are nonetheless utterly contented to perform their menial duties.   The Alphas, who look out over their culture like supermen, are free to act as they wish..even to the point of being permitted...with leave the system entirely if they find it represses their creativity.

Happiness.  Freedom.  Contentment.  Pleasure.

Huxley creates a peculiar horror, the horror of a society designed to provide place, purpose and happiness to most of those who participate in it.  It is inescapable happiness, relentless purpose, so all encompassing that it somehow brutalizes our nature as homo sapiens sapiens, as his Savage discovers.

The Amish, of course, side with the Savage as they look to our dissipated, distracted, anxious emptiness.  They have always seen all of us as inhabiting that "bad land."  They're already sure that we "English" inhabit a fallen realm, part of a a broken and selfish world, one in which the fundamental purpose of humanity has been subverted.  Ours is a dark world, from which they have to remain judiciously separate from in order to preserve their souls.

So is this a dystopian novel?  From our perspective, perhaps not.

But from the perspective of the Amish?  Of course it is.  All of our stories are.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

America Demands Power over Creation

From the Book of First Billy, Chapter 8, verses 1-22

America Demands Power over Creation

When Billy became old, he made his son pastor over America. The name of his son was Franklin, he was a pastor in North Carolina. Yet his son did not follow in his ways, but turned aside to fight the culture wars; he was frequently ungracious and judgmental and not nearly as good a preacher as his sister.
Then all the politicians of America gathered together and came to Billy at Montreat, and said to him, “You are old and your son does not follow in your ways; so we elected a strange loud man who tells us what we want to hear.  Give us now the blessing to use creation as our slave.” But the thing displeased Billy when they said, “Bless us to use creation as our slave.” Billy prayed to the Lordand the Lord said to Billy, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from my Lordship over my work. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving Mammon and power, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them what it means to use creation as their slave.”
10 So Billy reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for power to use creation as a slave. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the creation that you imagine will serve you, O children of earth: the storm will rise up, and scour the land with tearing winds and beating rain, and you will be helpless; 12 and the seasons will turn on you in disdain, turning winter to summer and spring to winter, and you will be confused. 13  The oceans will weary of your clamor and hunger, and all the fish and the reefs and the great Leviathan will die, and the seas will be as empty and devoid of life as the desert at noonday.  14 In her anger at the loss of her children, the sea will rise up in her rage, taunting you as she slowly eats the homes of the rich and your cities and the harbors of your trading ships.  Creation will take the best of your corn fields and vineyards and apple orchards and make them a bitter memory. 15  It will take your grain and of your vineyards and return them to dust. 16 As you ravish the earth with your minings and your pumpings and your frackings, it will shudder and shake and strike out, and throw you off as a women's heavyweight Mixed Martial Arts champion might take down a pawing drunkard at a sports bar. 17 Though you, O creatures of earth, might imagine yourselves creation's master, in your foolishness you shall be its slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of creation, which you have chosen to "rule" for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

America's Request for Power Over Creation Granted

19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Billy; they said, “No! But we are determined to use creation as a slave, 20 so that we may be great again, and that our CEOs might have large bonuses and our corporations might have improved quarterly profit margins.” 21 When Billy had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord22 The Lord said to Billy, “Listen to their voice and let them imagine they are lord over my creation.” Billy then said to the people of America, “Each of you return home.”

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Ten Year Trends

It was one of my grumpy-things, a place of trivial complaint that would surface every now and again.

The source of my concern: Ten Year Trends, a resource my denomination had provided for years, one that allowed church leaders and anyone who was even faintly interested to check in on the progress of their church against a set of quantitative metrics.

Oooh.  Quantitative metrics.  The Presbyterian heart goes pitter pat.

Meaning, you could see how your worship attendance numbers were trending.  How your membership was trending.  How your budget and giving was trending.  And while I am convinced that the spiritual health of faith communities is primarily qualitative, having that data isn't a bad thing.

We'd send our information up to the denomination, and every year, it would be updated.  Only when 2014 rolled around, nothing happened.  Then 2015 came and went.  The site remained un-updated.  Then 2016.

As we dug deeper into Twenty Seventeen, I got to wondering if that resource was one of the things that will inevitably go by the wayside as my denomination continues to retract institutionally, as the tides of cultural Christianity recede.   Ten year trends, I thought, might be just another symptom of a church body in the slow, fading throes of decline.

I thought, for a moment or two, about writing just such a blog post, because that would be easy.  Just pitch out an opine about the woes of the fading oldline, a post this one...will only be read by a handful of souls, and then primarily as a convenient non-narcotic sleep aid.

But I felt, in this era when speaking out of opinionated ignorance and with malice aforethought is increasingly the norm, that I needed to do more.

Rather than spinning out something to reinforce a preconceived narrative, I actually kind of wanted to know what really happened, in other words.

So I sent an email, and I politely asked, in my capacity as the Reverend Doctor Williams, Senior Pastor of the Fifth Largest Church in Poolesville.  "Hey, what happened to Ten Year Trends?"

I got a call back within a few hours, and after a short round of phone tag, talked with folks at the denominational headquarters.  The system is in the process of being remade, I was told, during a perfectly pleasant and informative conversation.

I was given a link to the pre-beta version of the new online tool, which...while clearly a work in progress...was actually on track to being much more useful.  It provided not just congregational level data, but also aggregated data against several helpful measures.  How does your congregation compare to communities of similar size?  How does your congregation compare to other congregations in your state and/or region?  That means meaningful benchmarks, which are always a handy thing.

The Church Trends resource, I was told, will go live once the 2016 data is entered.

So.  Two lessons learned:

First, there is a resource in the works, for those who care about such things, that will prove a useful tool for measuring the organizational health and well-being of communities within the Presbyterian Fellowship.

Second, and more importantly, it was a reminder how vital to the service of truth it is to actually seek out information, to try to really get a sense for the reality of a thing, rather than to just spout off whatever I might be thinking/feeling at the moment.  

Hard as that might be, in this age of internet bloviation, it's a lesson worth learning.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Cutting Meals on Wheels

Every other Thursday, I volunteer for Meals on Wheels.

I get in my car, and drive to the nearby Baptist Church, where I pick up anywhere from a half dozen to a dozen hot meals, along with a cold dinner.  For the next hour and a half, I drive from home to home, delivering those meals to the those in need.  I've delivered to disabled veterans and the desperately poor.  Mostly, the people on my route are older women, widowed, living alone.

I say hello, wish them a good day, and...if it seems like they want a few moments of human interaction...I'll stick around and talk for a bit.

For some, I'm the only human being they'll see that day.  So I don't rush it, because I know how important that contact is.

Sometimes, no-one will come to the door, and that's my cue to contact our dispatcher, who contacts family.  Most of the time, it's nothing.  But I'm also aware that I may be the first line of alert if something's gone wrong.

I've been doing it for years, because it's a good thing to do.  As a Christian, and as the pastor of a small congregation, I have the time to volunteer as a private citizen.  I know that what makes a community moral is its care for those in need.  How a society treats widows and the elderly is the surest measure of its value, as written into the scriptures of my faith.

Meals on Wheels has struggled with budget cuts over the years, as "efficiency"-minded ideologues have nibbled away at funding for a program that is bare-bones lean to begin with.

The latest budget, however, goes the full Monty.  The current budget proposal from the Administration completely eliminates all federal support for Meals on Wheels, deleting the $3 billion in block grants given to the states and using those funds to offset the building of a border wall and new weapons purchases for the military.

In the wealthiest of communities, this will have less of an impact, as localities pick up the slack rather than allowing the disabled and elderly widows among them to languish or starve.

But throughout the American South and in small towns, this will impact a vital program providing food and human contact to the disabled and the elderly.  It will mean more older Americans having to leave their homes sooner.  And it will mean more people go hungry.  Period.

I understand that there are those who believe that the federal government should take no role in promoting the general welfare of all Americans.  I am not one of those people.  Our national government must both its actions and use of our resources...our values as persons and communities.

I also understand that this is just a proposal.  It is not yet law.

From that understanding I would like to be measured in my response.

But as this shameless, morally bankrupt administration doubles down on its assault on the poor and the elderly, dismissing Meals on Wheels as "not showing any results," that is not how I feel.  I see the faces of those women as I bring their meals, hear their voices as we talk, and all I feel is anger.

Anger at this administration's willful ignorance of what makes our nation worthy, at their foolishness, at their crass, false, self-serving shallowness of soul.

And while recognizing that compassion and care for the poor are not uniquely Christian virtues, there can be no question: such a choice once again marks this administration as fundamentally opposed to the values taught by Jesus of Nazareth.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Snow Day and the Internet

With the East Coast bracing for the only significant snow of this failed winter, I was hoping for just a taste of winter wonderland.  But no.  No dice.  This morning I awoke to a neighborhood covered in a thick, heavy mat of congealed sleet.

It's enough, though, to keep the family home.  We have a snow day.  Sort of.

Only we don't.  Not really.  Not the way snow days once were.  I'm not talking about snow days for kids.  I'm talking about grown up snow days.

My wife and I, being old and all, remember what snow days were like.  We were in our twenties, and recently married, and it was the mid-1990s.  Ancient history, in other words.  When it snowed enough to make the roads impassable, we'd stay home from work.

I'd dig out our trusty little used Toyota, and we'd go sliding and bucketing along half-plowed roads to friends houses.   There, we'd drink and eat and tell life stories.  Others would come to our little apartment, and we'd watch videos on the Vee Cee Arrr and laugh and drink.  We'd call around to neighborhood establishments, finding places that were open, and we'd walk and laugh and pitch snowballs at each other on the way there, and come stumbling back through the snow on the way back.  The yards and parks would be filled with children, and the streets and sidewalks with little groups of adults doing what we were doing.

Snow made the day different.  It was notable.  It changed the pattern of our life.

Snow changed the pattern of life because work stayed at work.  It had not yet wormed its way into every moment of our lives.  The expectation that we would work from home, that we'd have meetings at home and read memos at home and never ever ever stop working?  That work would lurk on its charger at our bedside and vibrate in our purses and our pockets?  That did not exist.

Snow changed the pattern of life because our relationships and exchanges weren't mediated, because life had organic rhythms and patterns and seasons.

Snow days in the internet era are inferior things.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Top Christian Critic

At the fellowship hour after church, one of my congregants came up to me to chat.  She's a delightful, creative soul, and her question for me arose from her knowledge that I love both film as a medium and literature.

Had I seen, she wondered, The Shack?  It's the number three movie in America, as of last week, one that explicitly explores themes of faith and loss and recovery from a more-or-less Christian perspective.

I told her that I had not, nor had I in my reading managed to get around to reading the book upon which it is based.

She told me she'd seen the film that prior week, and that not only was the theater in which she saw it packed to capacity, but that at the end of the movie everyone applauded.

What struck me, as she told me this, was that I'd already gone to to see what the reviewer consensus on the film might be.  I do this regularly, and particularly for films with Christian themes.

I'm not interested in the reviews of the moviegoing masses, not generally.  Nor do I tend to align with the reviews of the broader group of experts.  As a film buff, my aesthetic usually...enough to be a reflected in the perspectives of the "top critics."  Meaning, the folks who know the history of film, who've studied film as a discipline, who understand the dynamics of cinema as an art form.

The top critic score for The Shack?  A perfect goose-egg.  Zero percent of them gave a positive review to The Shack.  It was uniformly and without variance negative.

This did not surprise me.  The trailers for The Shack were mostly cast in oversaturated pastel hues, rich with intense color.  That tends to signal a film that is Hollywood-spiritual, redolent with the psilocybin visuals of films like What Dreams May Come.  The screenwriting was intentionally familiar, offering up soul-advice that we've likely heard many times before.  The film's trailer promises an experience that would be deeply earnest and ultimately positive.  And earnestly positive?  That doesn't fly with critics.  It's just not...critical.

So the critics universally panned it.

But then I looked at the "audience score," meaning the ratings of those who had gone to the movie.  Their assessment:  88% of them liked it.  Meaning, the significant supermajority of those who saw the trailer and chose to go to the film liked it.  It pleased them.  It met or exceeded their expectations.  By that standard, it was "Certified Fresh," meaning it'll give you a good moviegoing experience.

And herein, a conundrum.

The Shack, as a book, sold 20 million copies.  The movie may not be a roaring blockbuster, but it's easily one of the most successful explicitly Christian films in years.

Sure, its theology is squishy, as it couldn't care less about presenting darkness and subtlety, or describing the Trinity in a way that would satisfy the Aristotelian leanings of a Cappadocian Father.  It smacks of a personalized neo-Praxean Modalism, one might grump, with assumption that this is 1) meaningful and 2) a deal-breaker for most human beings.  And sure, it has a whiff of universalism about it, which of course bugs the bejabbers out of Pure Strain Christians.

Honestly, though, I think the dissonance between the critique and the response is worth considering.  If one is telling a good story, how important is it to tell that story so that people can engage with it?

How important is it to be accessible?

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Net Negative

Lent this year involves an additional discipline in my life, one that is increasingly common:  the social media fast.  I've deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone, and installed a blocker plug-in on my browser that limits total social media time to thirty minutes a day.

I know, I know, Lent is all about finding spiritual disciplines that help us walk the Way, about committing ourselves to the Lordship of the Risen Christ.  "It's not just about losing weight and shedding habits, like Jesus is some self-help guru," one might cluck.

To be honest, now that we are 30 years into the great internet experiment, I'm reasonably sure that our engagement with the internet...and social media in a spiritual issue.

It was, or so we thought at the dawn of this era, going to open up a new age of openness and awareness.  We could connect with anyone, anywhere, and the walls of our mutual misunderstanding would fall away.  The full repository of all human knowledge was ours to encounter.

Perhaps in some alternate universe, that was so.  But in this one, humankind has made a hash of it.

I've felt this, as a growing irritation, as my interactions with social media have changed over the last fifteen years.  As it has evolved, I'm more aware of Facebook managing my interactions, as the design underlying the connectivity becomes more intentional and more insistent.  Perhaps it's my pathological introversion.  But it feels more and more...not the human souls I interact with over it, but the system itself...intrusive.

Endless, pointless "notifications," which used to represent actual human interactions, but now are part of a system of intermittent social reward.  Relentless marketing, intentionally interfaced with external systems that track and mirror back perceived interests as a way of reinforcing behavior.

For all of the human connection that can occur, I'm increasingly aware that I'm being played, that I'm being used by an increasingly sophisticated but subsentient learning system whose sole function is to distract and addict, to maximize my engagement for its own profit.

It's that motive, that corporate self-interestedness, that ultimately sabotages our efforts.  I trust for-profit social media to create healthy relationships in the same way I trust for-profit hospitals to provide the best care.  Or for-profit prisons to reduce recidivism.

There lies the soul-peril, because being part of any system that is itself selfish is a dangerous thing for the integrity of our persons.

Taking a break from that is a good thing.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Deleting The Leader

For the last several weeks, I've been listening to an extended mix of James Brown, one of those Youtube constructions that now make up a considerable portion of my listening.  It's a good deep funky mix, an hour and forty four minutes of sweet delicious licks, and it blares through the speakers in my half finished basement as I work out, keeping my pasty white behind bopping on through my weightlifting regimen.

It's a funny thing, this era, when "Music Television" has almost nothing to do with music, and an online streaming video service is a global repository of music.

What I enjoy most about this mix is that it's a paradox.  It's James Brown without James Brown.  Oh, sure, the Godfather of Soul is still there in the background on occasion, but what makes it such a delight to listen to is his absence.  He has been almost entirely edited out.  It's a little like the difference between Garfield and Garfield minus Garfield. 

It's just better...truer...without him.

Not that I have any great beef with Brown, other than noting his titanic ego, and his tendency to be more than a little bit abusive in relationships, and the PCP, and the...well...yeah.    He was a difficult person...creative and driven and often unbearably hard on those around him.

But the bands that gathered around him?  Those bands were amazing, made up of some of the most talented artists of the late 20th century.  Setting aside the insistent voice of their "leader" for a moment, their gifts are clear.  They laid down some of the sweetest, fattest grooves in the history of music.

Which they continued to do without him, moving on and forming their own bands, combining and recombining.

There's a truth there for the church, I think, one that needs to settle into the egos of everyone who calls themselves a pastor.  What made James Brown the Godfather of Soul was not James Brown.

It was Maceo and Fred and Bootsy and others, the soul all around him, a music that continued even in his absence.

In churches, that is equally true.  The measure of a good church is that it is, of itself, a gathering that understands its purpose.  That can be heightened by a pastor who tells the good story well, and who represents in their person what the church represents.  It can be helped by someone who guides and teaches, both in word and in their own life.  It can be strengthened by an individual who has a gift for articulating the vision that rises from a fellowship.

But ultimately, the gifts and graces of those who have gathered are a truer measure of a congregation.

Do the members of a church do Jesus on their own, even when the pastor isn't watching?  Do they show forbearance and kindness to one another, even if Dear Leader isn't there to tell them to?  Do they...when the fires of disagreement or misunderstanding arise...put out their own fires?  Do they serve from the joy of it?

It is in those places, I think, absent the presence of The One Who Holds Formal Authority, that the music of the Gospel is most truly sung.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Ashes of A Year

They accumulated on my desk, by the two and the threes, more every Sunday.

Three by five cards, each of which has upon it a prayer, written by hand, in pencil or in pen.

We gather them in worship, where they become part of that Sunday's public prayer.  I take them afterwards and send them to our congregation's prayer circle, which lifts up those joys and sorrows to our Creator.

It's a soft sort of magic, as a small gathering of souls opens themselves to the needs of others.  It is, I think, a vital part of any Christian gathering.  We have to pray, but not because we feel it gives us power.  Instead, because it is a vessel for compassionate remembrance, and a place for us to humbly hope for the best possible future for those whose lives are part of our own.   It's an essential exercise in trust and compassion, a fundamental component of turning ourselves towards God and neighbor.

So on my desk, those prayers gathered this last year, until the stack was as thick as my fist.

I couldn't bring myself to recycle them.  It felt wrong.  These weren't pieces of junk mail, or old newspapers.  But neither were they just another piece of clutter on my slightly disheveled desk.  

And it occurred to me: these prayers will be the ashes for Ash Wednesday.  

I know, I know, it's supposed to be the palms from Palm Sunday.  I'd kept them around the office for a whole year for that very purpose, a great thick sheaf of light brown fronds.

But ash is ash, and carbon is carbon, and this felt...better.  More right.

So I found a good fireproof steel bowl, and gathered that thick stack of prayers.  I lit a match.  Then one by one, I gave them to the flames.

As I fed them to the fire, I prayed over them, each and every one of them, one last time.   Prayers for healing that came...and did not.  Prayers hoping for a new thing to come to pass, and the prayers celebrating its arrival.  Prayers for lives passed into God's care, friends and family, their names familiar.  Prayers written in the hands of friends, and in the hands of children.

Hundreds of prayers, one by one remembered.  

And then gone, the smell of their burning a rich smoke on my fingers.  As we, ourselves, pass.

Those ashes, I will mix with a little oil.  

And tonight, as we remember that we are dust and ashes, those sweet, mortal prayers will mark the cross on our foreheads.