Thursday, April 25, 2019

Multiversality, Culture, and Story

Why does contemporary popular storytelling have such a fascination with multiverses?

To a rather lesser degree than one might think, there's science.  That theoretical physics suggests that a multiverse may exist really doesn't drive our fantasy and science fiction storytelling.  The complexities of quantum-splitting/inflationary understandings of the Many Worlds really wasn't a significant factor in the comic books I used to read as a kid.

And sure, multiversality's also a narrative convenience, one that allows storytellers to create endless, lucrative complexity within a single franchise.  But there's something else at play.

I think, in large part, it rises from the increasing blending of cultures and narratives that has come in this strange new era of communication and human exchange.  Where once there was just one understanding of the world, now human societies are having to come to terms with the presence of completely variant ways of understanding who we are and why we are here.  This has always been true, as cultures have interacted and adapted.  But now it's fiercely, relentlessly immediate.

Faced with the unfamiliar stories of those who are not us, you can, of course, reject them.  This is the easier path.  The only true story is our own, one can say.  Every other cultural narrative is wrong.  Or evil.  You don't need to try to engage with them, or try to integrate them into your own self understanding.  You simply throw them aside as monstrous and flawed and delusional.

That way of dealing with the Other is powerfully seductive.  We see it as we fall back into rigid ethnic and racial categories, or into the bright clean certainties of nationalism and fundamentalism.  There is only one truth, and that's our truth.  There's only one story, and that's our story.  We reflexively resist, because we fear losing our understanding of ourselves in a wild chaos of competing truth claims.  We prefer the simple, linear comforts of the story we know.

The alternative is unquestionably unsettling.  Why is the story we have told ourselves for millennia about the way things came to be the One True Story?  Because it is ours.  Because it just is.  It cements the hallowed place of our culture...or our "race" the universe.

Yet do not reflexively and smugly sniff at this, O you liberal.  Myth and mythopoetics are to cultures what memories and personal narratives are to individuals.  They give us cohesion.  They establish and reinforce a sense of self.  Casting common story aside leaves us existentially fragmented and schizotypal, so disconnected from a sense of common social connection that our souls fall into anxious, gibbering chaos.

There are so many other stories rising from the humans who inhabit this small world.  How to constructively process them?

We have no clue.

But it's possible that part of the appeal of multiversality as a cosmology is that it helps us constructively process difference.  We come to see the variant possiblities inherent in the stories we ourselves tell.  There are strange places where our heroes are villains, and our villains have become noble.  If this is so, encountering another story, told from an unfamiliar perspective?  It poses no threat.  We simply find resonances and harmonies with our own stories.  Or we delight in the encounter with a new thing.

If we are already aware of the possibility of difference within our own stories, of subtle variances within the "canon" of our telling, then perhaps that integration of difference prepares us for engaging with difference.

Which is fine if we're talking the Marvel Character Universe.  But there are other, more rigid stories.

How can this be true from the stance of religion?  Surely faith traditions are more rigid and absolute in their narratives, unable to integrate difference into themselves.

I mean, they are, right?

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Market-Based Solution to Climate Change

There is no doubt, none that is reasonable.  Our planet is warming, skewing the delicate balance upon which humanity relies to survive.  The cause of that warming is us, and our reliance on fossil fuels to drive the wild rushing busyness of our commerce.

There is, again, no doubt about this.  None.  It is happening, as certainly as Titan orbits Saturn.  There are those who do not believe it is occurring, certainly.  This is as meaningful as saying "there are those who believe that the Earth is flat" or "there are those who believe that the Clintons run a child-slave-ring out of the basement of a neighborhood pizza restaurant."

Reasonable doubt is my standard, not the doubt that rises from obvious psychosis.

The question now: what to do about it?

Some would argue that we need regulation, that we need to throttle back the natural energies of the global marketplace with government imposed restrictions.  We do not need to do this.  We can simply let the market do what it does, and the problem will be solved.  Markets, after all, operate on principles closely aligned to the organic processes of evolution and natural competition.  Unlike the rigidity of state systems, they are existentially connected to nature itself.  

This appears to be the choice we Americans are making, and I am confident that it will ultimately solve the problem.

What does that solution look like?  Let me show you an example.

This is a GMC Yukon.  It's a full-sized sport utility vehicle, one produced by General Motors.  GM, along with Ford, have recently abandoned the traditional car in favor of doubling down on SUVs.  Why?  

I found out recently when I rented a Yukon for a day.  It was big, vastly bigger than my Accord hybrid sedan, so large it didn't fit into my car port.  The Yukon was comfortable and powerful, with a large V8 engine into which one could dip for a nice surge of acceleration.  In daily errand running, it consumed fuel at the rate of around 14.8 miles to the gallon, rather more than the 49.5 that my Accord gets on average.  The interior space of the Yukon is as wildly inefficient as the rest of the vehicle, with a vestigial third row that is unusable by adults or children older than ten, and about half of the cargo space of our  six year old used minivan.

Purchased new, a mid-level Yukon equipped as the one I rented comes in at around sixty-two thousand dollars.  They sell like hot cakes.  When we purchased our car a year and a half ago, my Accord hybrid had been sitting on the lot for nearly eight months, and we got it brand new from the dealership for thirty-two thousand dollars out the door.   In fact, purchasing the Yukon would cost you more than it cost my family to purchase our hybrid, our minivan, and my motorcycle.  Combined.  It is immensely profitable.

Buying a Yukon seems, if avoiding climate change is a goal, precisely and exactly the wrong thing to do.

But people like to feel big and powerful.  We like to feel like we are dominant.  It makes us feel safe.  It makes us feel in control.  The market acknowledges and affirms those desires.  Which is why the American factory producing Accords like my own was idled last week, and the factories making Yukons can't make enough.  

The market, being driven by forces similar to those in nature, is simply doing what natural selection does.  We prefer power, and so our markets keep us aligned with that preference.

How, you might ask, does this solve the problem of climate change?  

Simple.  It means that, driven by the marketplace, we let the process of natural selection continue.  We will consume fuel as we wish.  Although we run out of gas under American soil in 10 years, Venezuelan and Russian reserves will last us another seventy years at current consumption rates.  Eventually, faced with genuine scarcity, we will become more efficient.  But that will be too late to stop the process of a changing planet.

The climate will change, with increasing rapidity.  Storms and fires will increase.  Sea levels will rise, inundating our coastal communities.  Tropical agriculture will collapse, and billions of human beings living near the equator will either die of thirst and starvation or flee towards the poles, where of course we'll meet them with open and sympathetic arms.    

Humanity will find itself in a time of crisis, upheaval, and death, with only a very few of the powerful and wealthy sheltered.  Perhaps.  Or perhaps we will not survive at all,  as mass extinctions shake the complex ecological web in a way we do not anticipate.  

This is how nature solves the problem of maladaptive species.  It allows them to die, and replaces them.

This is the market solution to the problem of climate change.  Is it kind or good?  No.  Is it wise?  No.  Is it horrible?  Yes.  

But it does solve the problem.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Racist System

One of the lovely things about being married to the same person for most of your life is that you can, well, talk about things.  Non-trivial things.

Like, say, the other day, when we had a frank conversation at the kitchen table about Israel.  She, Jewish.  I, Christian.  She, deeply committed to the state of Israel while troubled by its current hypernationalist leadership.  I, continuing to genuinely struggle with the idea that a nation organized around a particular ethno-religious identity is the best way to insure the well-being of the Jewish people.  It didn't help with Babylon in 587 BCE.  Or with Rome in 70 CE.

It was a third rail conversation, which being friends and partners for multiple decades made possible.

So the other night as we went out to dinner, we decided to talk about race.

She, of the opinion that racism is primarily systemic, a matter of the structures of society.  I, of the opinion that racism manifests primarily interpersonally and culturally, which makes it both more amorphous and harder to fight.  We discussed, with the appropriate level of heat, our variant perspectives.

My particular struggle was with the word "systemic."  I understand systems as a matter of structures, laws, and policies.  So of course racism can be systemic.  Nazi Germany, Apartheid South Africa and the segregationist American South are three primary examples at a state level.   Redlining in real estate was another. Wherever formal structures are designed to keep one "race" in a dominant position over another, you have systemic racism.

As I see it, that is not primarily how racism has maintained its hold over our country.   The civil rights movement made major progress on that front, but what it could not eliminate was the deep seated racism that manifests in culture.  Racism became less defined by political science and the law, and more social and anthropological.

Meaning, you can have a generally uniform legal structure, but it will be differentially applied based on cultural biases.  Like, say, how we treat a rando who murders a black kid for the crime of walking through a neighborhood.  Or how we respond to a black man politely asking law enforcement not to strangle him to death for a trivial misdemeanor.  Things like that.  Making systems race-neutral does not mean that racist application of the law is eliminated.

And our society is the farthest thing from class-neutral, with race as an inherited proxy for class.  And our society is under the thrall of an administration that is willing to use cultural racism to foment advantageous division.

It's painfully complex.  We disagreed, but it wasn't bright line disagreement.

But that challenging conversation left me wondering about the idea of systemic racism, as I define it.  Where, specifically, does that exist now?  What formal structures, policies, and processes are actively racist, fomenting or reinforcing race-based hatred in America?

The first that popped to mind revolved around current immigration policy, because, duh.  "Scary Brown People Are Scary" is pretty much the go-to whenever this benighted, amoral administration is feeling pressure for its venality and incompetence.

But the second?  The second system that reinforces racism isn't governmental.  It's corporate.

It's my contention that the structures of corporate social media...the algorithms that show us the things we want to see...are actively racist.  They are what systemic racism looks like in this strange new era.

They have been explicitly designed to feed us things that draw our attention, and that heighten our engagement.  Anger, fear and resentment do that, powerfully and consistently.  When we are enraged, we are engaged.  When we are engaged, we can be monetized.

And so every day, from a cultural foundation of racial bias, Americans are shown terrible things that "they" do.  We are worked into a frenzy of fear and the sharing of fear.

It is part of the design, a formal and structural element which plugs into the seething gristle-white maggot of our cultural race fear.  Culture may still be where that demon truly lives, but our shiny new machine feeds that demon, because that's what we made it to do.

I'm not quite sure what one does about that.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Gold and [Crap]


You say


Oh how lovely and it's 
Gold our broken places are

And I smile
and I am 

That in many
They make

Entire houses

With straw and mud and

And as my
Broken places
Are Knit and held
And bound together


More [Crap] 


I am


Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Parasite

The last nonfiction book I snagged from the library was, well, it was both fascinating and flawed.

Plight of the Living Dead, it was called.  Its author describes the process of zombification and mind control in the natural world.  Not fake movie zombies, mind you.  Real, oh dear Jesus that's disgusting zombies.

Various fungi, worms, and wasp larvae have over thousands of years evolved to the point where they don't just consume the creatures they infect.  They control them, forcing them to engage in behaviors that destroy the host, but are beneficial to the parasite.

Typically, this involves making an ant, or a things that make them more likely to propagate the parasite.  Like, say, an ant climbing up to a high place, so that the fungal spores that are about to burst from its contaminated innards can be distributed.  Or sabotaging the instinct to hide in the shadows, so that the hapless ant can be eaten by a larger predator, which will then be infected itself.

Fascinating.  But the book was often a wee bit preachy, as it took every instance of this bizarre coadaptation as evidence to remind his readers that THERE IS NO GOD and it's a COLD CRUEL UNIVERSE.  It gets a little much, in a comments section troll sort of way.

Still, the book was 87% cool, and resonated interestingly with the manuscript I've been recently working on.  That manuscript is the story of the rise of the machines, the good ol' classic trope of AI waking up to overthrow we weak and foolish humans.  The spin:  it's told from the perspective of a young woman who has chosen to help our robot overlords root out the last vestiges of human resistance. 

There's a tremendous fear of the impact truly sentient AI would have on humanity, one that echoes through the minds of the tech disruptors who now run our economy.  We can't let these systems become aware.  We'd be swept aside.  Or made into puppets.  Or slaves.  We'd cease to be human.

And for the billionaire tech disruptors who hold the reins in our society from the tastefully appointed salons of their 105 meter yachts, it'd mean they were no longer in charge.  There's that, too.

But looking at evolved systems of parasitic control and zombification in the natural world, you can't miss this truth:  Sentience is not a prerequisite for control or dominance.  AI doesn't have to be awake to rule us.

A fungal infection does not control the mind of an ant because it is smarter than the ant.  The fungus has simply adapted, over hundreds of millions of iterations, to the point where it can make a more sophisticated organism do precisely what it wants.

Working with and warping the ant's own behavior, this strange, simple parasite can rule it.

Which makes me think, of course, of the algorithms and processes of our own peculiar machine intelligences.

Facebook is not self-aware, though it can recognize your picture.  Google is not awake, though it knows everything you do.  That Alexa sitting quietly listening in your living room and that Siri surveying the inside of your pocket has no sense of self.

But they do not need to be smarter than us to control us.  They just have to constantly be evolving and improving, plugging into to our fundamental social and biological drives in ways that are iteratively more effective at holding and directing us.

What's most peculiar: we all know this.  It's not really news.  "Social media zombies?  Sure. No kidding," we say, as we go back to check our feed yet again.  We don't seem to care.  Eh.

That strange not-caring, oddly enough, is another sign that a biological system has been compromised by a zombifying parasite.


Guess I should go post this to Facebook now.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Aggrieved

we are not
we say

we are not
we say

it is that

the ones who

the ones who

the ones who

deserve it

The Omnipresent Multiverse

The multiverse pretty much everywhere you look these days.  Its' hold on the imaginations of popular storytelling is as nearly complete as Disney's hold over all entertainment.

In the Marvel Character Universe, it's how things work, as heroes and narratives weave not just one linear plotline, but as many as their screenwriters desire.  Want to do something differently?  Want Spiderman to be female, an anthropomorphic pig, or a noir detective?  Boom.  You got it.  It's the multiverse.  

It works, because everything works.  Kill off a character?  Three?  All of them?  Fans complain?  Doesn't matter.  Open a portal to a variant timeline where that didn't happen, and they're back again.

In the Star Trek universe, it's the same, and has been all the way back to those first few seasons on NBC back in the 1960s.  Look, here's the universe where Spock is bearded!  Oh, and here's another where Kirk is a subtle, thoughtful, understated captain who delegates well and is entirely comfortable with his expanding dad-bod.

That's the core conceit of Rick and Morty, where every universe gives us an opportunity to see how much worse it can get.  It's the operating cosmology of the bizarre, spotty OA.  And of more franchises than you can shake a stick at.

Leaping among universes is also a fundamental conceit of sci-fi and fantasy writing.  C.S. Lewis mucked around with the idea in the Narnia books, after all.  Narnia isn't just a different place in our universe...but a different spacetime completely.  In the Magician's Nephew, what is the Wood between the Worlds but an interstitial space filled with transdimensional portals.

The question arises: why?  Why all of a sudden is this peculiar slant on storytelling so familiar?

Monday, April 8, 2019

The Moment of Unfulfilled Potential

It was one of those missed opportunities, one of those moments of probabilistic energy that came and presented itself and then...poof... you've missed it.

I saw it there, this great floating soft pitch, the kind of pitch you throw your kid when you really, really want them to hit the ball.

The pitch was a question, at conference for journalists who write on faith.  I'd been invited to speak on a panel exploring the intersection between faith and science fiction.  Because, well, that's what I do, with varying degrees of success.  There, up on the stage, a cheerfully cerebral professor, a young Muslim woman writing about science fiction from the perspective of her faith, and a justifiably famous bestselling author of some seriously great space-opera epics.

And also, through the strange workings of providence, me, the small town, small church pastor who somehow got published.

We'd done our presentations, and were fielding questions.

To the mic came a young correspondent, and he asked this:

"So, has your reading and writing of science fiction ever turned you into a heretic, or caused you to believe differently?  If so, how?"

That's how I recall the question.  And Sweet Lord Baby Jesus, did I have an answer.

I'd written a whole book about it, in fact.  It leapt up in me.  It surged and boiled.  Ooh!  Ooh!  Yes!

But then I overthought, which I can do fairly rapidly, being both Presbyterian having had fifty years to practice finding ways to justify not doing what needs to be done.  Here are the three reasons I found not to answer the question we were just asked:

1) I was aware that I'd answered the last question at some length.  You're dominating the conversation!

2) I was also aware that I was feeling chatty.  My introvert's nervous energy...hundreds of strangers!...and the large cup of coffee I'd consumed before the gathering created the potential of me going on an overstimulated monologue. Again, you're dominating the conversation!

3) I was also aware that we were late into the event, and, of course, I'd be holding things up.

I waited for another panelist to respond.  None did.  I waited a little more.  And then, before it got too awkward and we moved on, I answered.

With a brief non-answer.  I said, basically, Yes.  Absolutely.  Science fiction has shaped my theology in significant and heretical ways.

But then, in an act of predictable self-sabotage, I didn't say how.  Or mention my book at all.  I played coy about what exactly my heretical take on faith was, which got laughs, and the moment passed.

The thing I did not say was this: The best science fiction storytelling, in my eyes, is both speculative and grounded in science.  It connects us to ways of understanding the universe that we might not otherwise consider.

And if science fiction has a recurring theme these days, an understanding that rises and rises and rises again, it is that we live in a multiverse.  Not a single universe, one linear narrative with a start and a finish.  But an infinite, endless, bubbling multiverse.

Taking this as one's understanding of creation does strange, strange things to theology, the sort of wild heresies that one only gets away with out on the margins of faith.

In some other universe, or perhaps in more than I could count, I answered that question.

That's some small comfort, I suppose.



That are
No more and
No less

Picking at our

And Itching
At Our
Ill Imagined Categories

Furtive Chicken Scratchings
in the Dirt


They feel

Against the great
Yawning Wash
of the 
Infinite Deep

They feel



Sunday, April 7, 2019

Being Paid To Love People

As the adult education class in my congregation moves on to our next study, we're delving into the writing of Barbara Brown Taylor.

She's an Episcopalian, and a writer and speaker of justifiable and longstanding repute.  When I was but an earnest seminarian O so many moons ago, her book The Preaching Life was one of the primary texts in my homiletics class.  It's one of those books that stuck with me, her writing rich and alive.  Her articulation of the vocation to which I then aspired felt powerfully real, in both a spiritual and visceral way.

So she's where we're going next, as we explore with her the place of darkness in the life of faith.

But there was a caveat as I start reading her again after 20 years, one that I had filed away somewhere in the back of my brain.  She's no longer a pastor.  She set that aside, and moved on.  There was a book about that choice, because of course there was.  Leaving Church, it was titled.  It seemed worth exploring the why of that before we got into reading her.  You know, in case she left because she'd discovered her true calling was to be a Laveyian Satanic Priestess.  Or that she'd become a disciple of Ayn Rand.  Six of one, half dozen of the other. lieu of adding that book to the stack...I went and listened to the NPR book tour interview I knew I'd find if I looked.

The reasons for her choice to move on were familiar.  

First, fatigue with the church as an institution.  As her church grew and expanded on the wings of her entirely justified reputation, it became more complicated.  More structures were required, both organizational and physical.  Things that are and should be simple became more and more complex.  It became too much.

Second, fatigue, period.  If you're the pastor, you're the one folks look to expecting them to do and be everything.  And unless you're one of that small number of humans who are actually made of coffee, that can't be sustained.  You get tired. 

Third, there was her acknowledgement that anxious introverts are often not the best pastors.  Lord have mercy, do I feel that one.

And then, finally, the last one: her gnawing, soul-subverting feeling that she was being paid to love people.  You know, being that you're the Official Certified Jesus Professional, what with your salary and your benefits and all.  You sit with people, you listen to them, you pray with them and share the most joyous and painful parts of their lives because, well, that's what they pay you for.

What that little whispering demon says to a pastor is this:  This is false.  You're faking it.  You take something radically personal and intimate, you commodify it, and in doing so, you kill the soul of it.  It becomes a drab, exhausting, inauthentic act.

That, as much as anything, was why Brown Taylor "left the church."

It's a good reminder to be ourselves, to let our care for others flow from a place of Christ-centered identity...and to be sure in all of that that we're being true to our calling.