Temptation

This post is something of a confession; prepare yourself. It’s nothing so tantalizing as a comment about the temptation of drugs or sex; it’s about another insidious temptation with which society often plies us. Lately, I’m feeling its pull more strongly, it seems.

That temptation is the one of comparison. You know the one. It’s the one that gnaws at your soul a little, whispers doubts in the back of your mind, every time you open up a social media platform. You see people living their “best lives” and–even though you consciously know that 99% of what you see posted is manufactured and exaggerated, conveniently glossing over those problems, dilemmas, failures and weaknesses that everyone has and no one really wants to share–you still wonder, “Am I not doing as well as everyone else?” “Am I just not as good?”

I’m no exception, and lately I’m thinking about this much more than I’d like to. Part of it is a function of age: I’m thirty-five, fast closing in on thirty-six. But I can’t really lay the blame on that, because it’s just another measure I’m using for comparison.

I, like many people from upper-middle-class suburban backgrounds, was raised on a steady regimen of the importance of achievement. Explicitly or not, I was taught to weigh value based on achievements reached, things accomplished. To add to that, I fell into the belief (though I can’t, admittedly, say that anyone drilled it into me) that real achievers achieve things early and often.

This was an easy thing to satisfy when I was younger and in school. I maintained consistently high grades, took all of the advanced placement classes available to me and entered my first semester of college with forty-seven hours of credit already under my belt. I spent the next decade or so earning degrees, tangible (kind-of) certifications of achievement.

Now I’m much farther removed from academia, and I’ve become much more responsible for intrinsically maintaining my sense of self-worth.

And therein lies the battle. I have very consciously chosen certain ideals and values to live by, ideals and values inspired by my faith and my idealism, ideals and values about which I am convicted and passionate.

Sometimes, those values are counter-cultural. A significant point of my personality is the value I place on my independence. Combined with my moral compass, that’s very much influenced my career path as a lawyer. Those choices are not without consequences. One of my wisest friends once said, “you’re only as free as you’re willing to accept the consequences of your actions.” Fulfilling that statement is truly living without fear, and it’s something that has resonated with me ever since I first heard it.

So–most of the time–I’m perfectly content with the career choices I’ve made. I work in a small firm with two partners who are like family, I have great independence in how I do my work and for whom I work. This has given me a lifestyle balance that truly fits with who I am, and I often tell people that I wouldn’t be happy lawyering if I was working for someone else.

But it also means that there are consequences. Balancing my broader life goals against my career and placing my moral values first when working mean that I sometimes turn down work that might be lucrative or that I perform my work in ways that place income as a secondary concern. I don’t take on new clients when I don’t believe that I can achieve anything for them; I don’t bill my clients for every little thing; and I don’t charge the exorbitant fees I sometimes see other attorneys charging.

I feel those choices every time I look at my bank account. Don’t get me wrong, I make a decent living and my practice grows with each passing year–it turns out that being honest and capable actually is a good business model! I’m happy to accept the consequences of those choices; I’ve found in the past few years that I need far fewer material things to be happy than I thought I did, and I have mostly disdain for the pursuit of wealth, power and status.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I was scrolling through Facebook over the weekend and happened across a post by a couple I went to law school with and felt a pang of jealousy. Here’s the strangest part: my jealousy was about the background of the picture, about their kitchen. I’ll be very excited to see K’s reaction when she reads this, because she knows me well and knows how little stock I typically put in the size and fanciness of a person’s home.

Of course, my feelings weren’t really about the kitchen. They were the result of the doubting my own adequacy in light of the financial success this couple presumably enjoys. These feelings were really about me asking myself if I’m really good enough, according to a standard I don’t believe in and actually reject!

I don’t want a house like theirs. I don’t want the type of life consequences that are attached to such a choice (which is not intended to be a judgment of their choices, simply a statement that that is not the path for me). But it doesn’t matter who you are, that temptation will reach its ugly tendrils into each of us at some point, if not regularly.

When it comes down to it, though, career achievement is the place where the temptation of comparison to others is easiest for me to bear. I’m very proud of how I conduct my business and uphold my values; that I try to practice the Christian ideals I so often discuss on this site. Again, that’s not intended to be a judgment on others, just a matter of trying to keep my own hypocrisy to a minimum.

The two other temptations I frequently feel to compare with others hit closer to home. The first of these is about parenthood; the second: my writing.

Those of you who have followed this blog for some time, or perused it in depth, or who know me personally, know that K and I plan to foster to adopt, and that we’re again waiting for a placement of kids. That’s difficult enough as it is, but we’re quickly approaching a time where it seems that we’re the only ones without children. One of my partners at the law firm has two; the other is expecting his first this Fall. My (younger) sister is pregnant with her first (and I am very happy about this and excited for her!) and I’ve got several siblings and cousins–many of whom are younger than me–who already have children as well.

I know better than to think of having children as a matter of achievement, really I do. But the fact that I have to write that here is revelatory in and of itself, is it not? And I know that K and I are not the only ones to deal with such comparisons with others–not by a long shot.

For me, my writing is where this temptation cuts deepest. If I can discern any sort of divine calling for myself, it lies in writing fiction and theology. If there is a personal pursuit about which I am truly passionate,  it is in writing. If there is a single most-powerful, non-divine source of my sense of self-worth, it is in my writing.

I’ll make a true confession by way of example, so get ready for some vulnerability on my part: This past weekend Rachel Held Evans died. She was an outspoken writer for progressive Christian values and, even in her short life, accomplished much in service of Christian faith and demonstrating to the unchurched (and perhaps millennials in particular) a Christianity that rejects fundamentalism, embraces the Gospel truth of love and reminds us that Christ calls us to pursue an agenda of social justice that does not rely on identity politics, a rejection of immigrants, or fear. (Here is one article with some information if you’re not familiar with her).

To my shame, I have to admit that, in addition to the sincere sorrow I feel at her passing, I was awash in a sense of unreasonable jealousy. She was only a little older than me and already had five published books! Obviously, my feelings of inadequacy have nothing to do with her; they’re really about me questioning myself, worrying that maybe I just don’t have what it takes.

I told myself that I’d get my first major work published before I turned 40. As that time slips ever closer, I find myself often looking up other author’s ages when they were first published. I can say that I understand that their life isn’t mine, nor should it be. I can write that I know that the value of a writing originates in the writing itself, not how old the author was at the time of creation.

And that knowledge, I think, is where the truth will out. Particularly in my theology, I talk about the importance and beauty of ambiguity. I also admit the difficulty we naturally have with the ambiguous. And let this post be evidence that I don’t stand above that difficulty; I’m not free from that struggle.

There are no easy ways to judge the value of a writing, whether fiction or non-fiction. Style is so highly varied and individual, the myriad ways in which a story might be told so dependent upon the consciousness in control of the tale, that there can be no single measuring stick. And yet, we humans like to have some certainty, even if that certainty is artificial and illusory.  For me, I can find some tangible standard of measure by looking at age at time of publication as a meaningful comparison (though I know in my heart it is not).

Again, the craziest part about falling into self-doubt by making such comparisons is that I intellectually do not value them! In my fiction, I follow after Joss Whedon: “I’d rather make a show that 100 people need to see than one 1,000 people want to see.” At this point in my writing, I’m not sure that I can do either, yet, but the point is that I’m more interested in deep connections with a smaller group of people than broadly appealing in a commercially-viable way. The same goes for my theology–I’d rather write something that resonates deeply and inspires just a few people to legitimate faith, that gives even a single person permission to practice Christianity in a way that isn’t “one-size-fits-all,” than to establish some great presence in the history of theology.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’m not even sure that I’m interested in traditional publication avenues right now. I’d love to be able to make a living writing, to devote all of my time to it, but not at the cost of having to cater to publishers or what will be successful on the current literary market to do it. My self-comparisons with published authors, though, makes me wonder if all of this idealism is simply cover for the fear of failing. “Know thyself,” the oracle says. “I’m trying!” I complain in response.

Ultimately, the temptation to compare ourselves comes from a positive place–we want to be meaningful, to be creators of meaning and to live lives where others can easily recognize meaning. That is a natural and divine thing. It’s where we let society tell us that meaning must look a certain way that we go wrong, where we try to make someone else’s meaning our own that we lose ourselves. Perhaps that is what Jesus means when he warns us about the temptation of the world, what Paul is alluding to when he warns us not to be “conformed to this world.”

What I do know is that I am passion about writing, and in particular I’m passionate about writing speculative fiction and easily-accessible theology. I’m working on the discipline to match that passion, and with every passing day I’m probably coming to understand the art and craft of writing just a little bit better–no that anyone truly ever masters it. Those things need no comparisons to be true, to be inspiring, to be fulfilling. So why look beyond them? As with so many things, easier to know what to do than to actually do it.

How do you cope with such temptations? Having read the blogs of some of my dear readers, I know that there is insight out there, meaningful stories to share. If you’ve got one, comment, or post a link to a post on your blog, or send me a message!

Post Script: Maybe in talking about my struggles writing, it would be useful to give a short update on where that writing stands:
(1) Children of God: This is the tentative title of my first theological book. I’ve had finished about 75% of a first-draft for several years now, but it needs a rewrite from the beginning and I need set aside the time to do that.
(2) Wilderlands: This is the first Avar Narn novel I’ve seriously set to working on. The first draft is about 40%-50% complete. I’m starting to feel an itch to return to the story; I’m not sure whether I’ll do that soon or wait until NaNoWriMo this year (which is how it started). It needs to be finished and then needs some significant rewrites in the portion already written.
(3) Unnamed Story of Indeterminate Length: This is an almost-noir-style story set in Avar Narn and what I’ve been working on most recently. I had envisioned it as a short-story, but it’s already swelled to 16,000 words and I’m not finished. I’ll be sending to some volunteers for review and advice on whether it should be left as a novella, cut down significantly, or expanded into a novel. I’ve got several other “short stories” in mind with the same major character, so this could end up being a novella set, a collection of short stories, or a novel series. I’ve also got an unfinished novella-length story with the same character I may return to while this one is under review. If you’d like to be a reader, send me a message.
(4) Other Avar Narn Short Stories: I’ve got several other short story ideas I’m toying around with, but I’m trying not to add too many other projects before I make substantial progress on the above.
(5) Avar Narn RPG: I have a list of games to spend some time with and potentially steal from for the rules here, but I’m mostly waiting to get some more fiction written to elaborate the setting before continuing seriously here. I’m occasionally working on additional worldbuilding and text that could fit in an RPG manual.
(6) The Blog: Of course, more blog posts to come.

 

Accounting for Respect

(This is the 8th of 17 posts in my “200 for 200” challenge to myself. We’ve hit over 200 followers in total, but the goal is to have 200 followers through Wordpress subscribers–there are currently 147).

It has recently struck me that we talk about respect as a currency. We do certain things to “pay our respects,” and we talk about those to whom “respect is owed.” We talk about respect being “earned, not given.” Several sci-fi settings I’m aware of–the Eclipse Phase RPG and even The Orville TV show–discuss the use of reputation as a form of currency in a semi-or-fully-post-scarcity economy.

1 Timothy 6:10 tells us that “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Out of curiosity, I went to Strong’s Concordance to look up the word use for “love of money.” It’s philargyria, which comes from a root indicating “avarice” or “avariciousness.” Avariciousness can be applied to more than just money–it applies to the “miserly hoarding of wealth” in a general sense. Greed. This is what I expected to find; it’s axiomatic that it’s the feeling, the obsession and the behavior, rather than the object, that causes the problem.

And here’s where my concern comes in: should respect be something that we commoditize? In other posts (like this one), I’ve talked about the societal tendency (at least in Western cultures) to value people in a capitalistic way–a person is only worth what they produce for consumption or what they generate in terms of income. This, I think, is why stay-at-home parents face a stigma despite the fact that managing a household and rearing children is as or more difficult than many jobs for which people get paid (which, ironically, includes both household management and child-rearing!).

These issues (assigning capitalistic value to a person and commoditizing respect) are related, perhaps symptoms of the same malady, but they’re different things. The previous post referred to above deals with the problem of how we assign value to other people. This post is about the problem of seeing reputation as a form of currency.

As is often the case on this blog, the topic is complex and filled with nuance. In her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, the anthropologist Ruth Benedict drew a distinction between “guilt” cultures and “shame” cultures, with an assertion that Christian societies were mostly “guilt” cultures (with notable exceptions) and a focus on Japanese culture as a “shame” culture. These assignments are, of course, debatable, and further categories (“fear” culture and the “shame” culture is now sometimes discussed as the “honor-shame” culture) have since been developed. We can also talk about “face” as an aspect of honor-shame cultures and we can debate whether the part of the United States we think of as “the South” is (or formerly was) an honor-type culture where the rest of the country may be something else.

The basic premise of this anthropological view of cultures is that guilt cultures rely on the concepts of justice and punishment (temporal or spiritual) as the enforcer of societal norms and the honor-shame culture relies on the judgment of other by society as the enforcer of norms.

This post is not about an anthropological dissection of social constructs; it is a reflection on the consequences of assigning value to reputation. In my own studies (and I’m accepting this as generally true for sake of discussion), I’ve read writers who argue that many agriculturally-based societies tend to be honor societies (pointing to the agriculturally-dominated economy of the antebellum “South” as an example). I’d like to use this idea to give some form to my thoughts. The argument goes that honor societies (here sometimes contrasted with law societies) use a person’s reputation as a regulatory structure in place of reliance on a legal code. The Southern gentlemen who disavowed a business agreement after the fact would suffer economic consequences for his actions (others would be unwilling to deal with him in the future); this cause-and-effect serves to enforce expectations and provide the predictability and stability that an economy needs to thrive.

It also meant that challenges to a person’s sense of honor unrelated to business dealings had to be vigorously defended, lest an affair unrelated to one’s livelihood bleed over into economic ruin. Hence dueling, honor killings, and all other manner of senseless activities that occupy the fringes of some honor/shame societies, historical and present. It seems especially true that women tend to suffer most from honor-based cultures. I would argue that this is strongly related to the preservation of property rights–both the intense focus on the maintenance of virginity and the use of honor killings as a consequence for premarital sex or adultery stem in great part from controlling who might inherit a family’s property and economic wealth.

That writes large one problem with commoditized reputation: it gives incentive to do things which may be immoral to protect a source of wealth and livelihood. But it also–as with all forms of wealth–has a disproportionate effect, because those will little economic power to begin with are disincentivized to participate in the system. This, in turn, means that those with wealth, reputation and the power that goes along with both being to see those without wealth or reputation as inherently immoral or amoral (though the reliance on this system of honor means that morality is not typically the first motivating factor for anyone). This gives those with power freedom to further exploit and oppress those without by viewing them as morally bankrupt. As Shakespeare’s Apothecary says, “My poverty, but not my will, consents.” Come to think of it, Romeo & Juliet is an excellent example of a contemporary critique of Renaissance European honor culture, given that the crux of the play hangs on the tensive nature of the relationship between love as moral motivator and honor as destroyer of that which love builds up.

Likewise, the Renaissance historian, philosopher and (in my opinion, at least) funny-man, Francesco Guicciardini gave this advice (paraphrased): If you want to ingratiate yourself with someone, do not do a favor for them, ask them for a favor. People would much rather feel that someone is indebted to them than that they are indebted to another, and this creates a bond between you that invites them to return to you to call in that reciprocal favor. The context of the time–Guicciardini was friends with Machievelli and a product of the same tumultuous political systems (and experiments) of early sixteenth century Italy–jibes well with this sort of thinking. But, of course, it is based upon a background of often life-or-death political competitions and the assumption that every man’s ambition should be the accumulation of social, political and economic power. This is the very thing Scripture warns us about, because it skews what is truly important in favor of what is, fleeting, ultimately disappointing and often self-destructive.

And that’s the problem with our tendency to make a commodity of respect and reputation. Our reputations are inextricably bound up in the web of relationships we have with others, our “social networks.” When our focus is on leveraging those relationships–which is really a matter of exploiting the people on the other end of them–we’ve lost sight of the types of relationships we should have with others. Respect merely becomes a currency we cash in for personal benefit. Such an approach removes even the possibility that our relationships are about mutual admiration and celebration of the uniqueness and sacred worth of others.

When we look to the example of Jesus, we see someone who looks past reputation to acknowledge the value of the person. He dines with the sinners and bears harsh words to the Pharisees, whose power and reputations allow them to reject and exploit those “beneath” them.

What would it look like if we viewed respect as something that ought to be shown to every person simply because they, too, are a child of God? What would happen if we stopped talking about “earning respect” and removed our respect for each other as a commodity to be traded for personal benefit? I think we’d have brought the Kingdom of Heaven just a little closer to Earth.

Eulogy

(This is the first post of seventeen for my “200 for 200” goal; get your friends to follow!)

I went back and forth about whether to put this up on the blog; in some ways it seems such a private thing for friends and family. But, at the end of the day, I figured that my grandmother, though she wouldn’t have done it for herself, deserves to be praised to anyone who will listen. So, I’ve decided to post the short eulogy I read at my grandmother’s funeral this past Saturday. Here goes:

My grandmother, Barbara Bass, is one of the greatest rebels I’ve ever known. We live in a world that tells that success is based on power. There was never any doubt in my mind that she was the matriarch of the family, but I cannot remember a single time she demonstrated a sense of entitlement to that position. Given the stereotype of the Southern matriarch, that could only be a matter of impressive will or genuine humility. Both are commendable. Instead, she influenced by reason and example, governed by gentle guidance, demonstrated strength by quiet confidence.

We live in a world that tells us that success is based on money. I never saw my grandmother lavish herself with expensive things. Instead, she lived a life of satisfaction in sufficiency, seeing through the empty grandeur of material things. As a result, she and my grandfather have been generous with their hard-earned wealth, sharing freely with others—especially us grandchildren—what they have.

We live in a world that tells us that success is based on career achievement. Coming along in a world dominated by men, my grandmother earned great success as both student and educator. With my grandfather, she ran successful businesses in dollhouses and in antiques. She mastered the Ebay market—buying and selling—and while Grandpa played the stocks, she played other commodities, like art. But it was never about cold profit; for her, it was about the thrill of the find, participation in a community of people who appreciate art and culture. Most important, no matter how easily that success came to her, it was never her primary aspiration—her family always came first.

In a world that tells us so many lies about what matters and what doesn’t, my grandmother’s life was once of continued defiance. You see, she followed the truth of Jesus Christ like few other people I know. In knowing Christ, she knew that the most fundamental and meaningful thing there is in this or any other existence is love. Not only did she know that, but she did what even fewer people still do: she lived it. I am sure that hers is a mind an inner life far too complex, diverse and, frankly, well-developed to be summarized in a short speech. But there’s not one memory I have of her that is not imbued with the sense of the love she has for others, her compassion and caring for those around her.

My wife, Kate, would agree. When I was preparing these words, she shared with me her best memory of my Grandmother. Granny was the first person in my family to tell Kate that they loved her—and this before we were married or even engaged. From that point on, Kate felt part of the family. And she was. That welcoming and loving spirit is the thing that has, I’m sure touched all of us the most in knowing my grandmother.

In this day and age, the kind of life that Barbara Mitchell Bass led, of building others up instead of bringing them down, of creating relationships instead of pushing them away, of sacrificing for others instead of putting oneself first, of lifting up ideas and ideals that are beautiful, is itself a rebellion against those falsehoods that daily endeavor to lead us away from what is real and good and true. She managed that kind of revolutionary behavior without belittling or denigrating any other person, by positive example instead of negative argument.

It is natural for us to mourn her loss, for our lives have all been brightened by her presence in them and now, for a time, we will be diminished for the lack of it. But we should also celebrate, for there should be no doubt that my grandmother has now come face to face with our Creator, and she has heard those coveted words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” She has entered into the abundant and eternal life promised to all of us. When each of us goes to join her there, I am sure that she will be there waiting with that welcoming spirit we all remember her by, ready to remind us that we are loved.

200 for 200

WordPress tells me that, in the roughly two-and-a-half years since I started this blog, I’ve posted 182 posts (this will be 183). Considering my goal has been a minimum of one post a week (even though sometimes posts come in bursts following periods of silence rather than on a regular schedule), I’m pretty proud of that.

But I aspire to more, so I’m setting a goal for myself, one with which I very much need your help! Here it is: I want to have 200 followers through WordPress by the time I hit 200 posts. I currently have 137 WordPress followers, so that’s 63 new followers in the next 17 posts.

If you like what I do here and want to help me reach a wider audience (and perhaps be motivated to do even more), here’s what you can do: (1) invite your friends and followers to come take a look at the blog and follow if they like what they see; (2) repost your favorite posts from this blog on your blog; (3) “like” articles and posts that you, well, like; (4) comment on posts; (5) send me a message about what you like (or don’t) and what you’d like to see more of; (6) generally tell your friends.

Here’s what you can expect to see in some of those next 17 posts: at least two new theology posts I’m working on, one of which is called “Is God’s Will General or Specific?” and the other of which is titled “Jesus’ Anti-Apocalyptic Message;” a review of Wrath & Glory RPG; some preliminary notes on the Dark Inheritence 40K Campaign I’m currently writing; some more notes on the development of Avar Narn RPG; at least one Avar Narn short story.

That certainly doesn’t cover 17 posts, so I’m free to take some suggestions or requests.

All it takes is clicking a few buttons to help me reach more people; please take a little time to spread the word!

Loss

Monday morning, my grandmother passed away. I am thirty-five years old and this is the closest to home I’ve been hit by such a loss; in that regard, I am fortunate.

This is not to say that I have not previously lost people in my life about whom I cared deeply and who were profoundly influential on me: my stepfather’s mother, my wife’s grandmothers, a brilliant and inspiring professor. But, before this point, I have never lost someone such a direct and constant force in who I am.

She was both a lifelong student and educator (with all but a finished dissertation on her PhD, no less!), a person of deep and abiding faith, and a lover (and connoisseur) of art in all its forms. She and my grandfather have been one of the best examples of successful marriage I have ever encountered–at once like giddy school-children at the blossoming of new romance and yet with an implacable and well-settled love deposited by the accumulated sediment of years and decades.

We traded good books to read, fiction and non-fiction and talked about a wide variety of topics. To me, she was both the matriarch of the family and an exemplar of values, but also eminently approachable and a friend with whom I felt free to discuss nearly anything.

Not only was she a role model and great example to me, but also a great encourager, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of this blog, in fact. It is strange, almost incomprehensible, that I will not see her face or hear her voice, enjoy her laughter again in this life. And yet, I will always, for those things are engraved on my heart and inscribed in my mind with what seems to be flawless detail.

So what do I feel now? Guilt, mostly, I suppose. Guilt that I am not distraught to the point that I can do nothing but mourn. Guilt that I have the wherewithal to sit and write this–perhaps not dispassionately, but more at peace than not. Guilt that the emotions I feel do not reach the level of what I think she deserves.

In my more logical mind I realize that that guilt–at least most of it–is not warranted. I am at peace about her passing. I am resolved in my belief that she has passed on to God’s presence and the existential joys that follow this life about which we who are left behind can only dream. I am convicted that she led a life full of meaning, well-lived and focused on what is most important. I am steadfast that her last moments on this Earth were filled with love, surrounded by her children and her husband (with whom she’d been since she was sixteen!). I will miss her, but I will see her again. Given all of this, a part of me asks why mourn at all?

And so I wrestle with this strange conflict of being content and yet feeling that I should be anything but content. Illogical, but natural all the same. In a sense, I am glad to have both, to–as Chesterton might put it, “keep this paradox and keep both ends furious.” There is a beautiful fullness, experiential and existential, to the combination of logic and emotion.

And, I suppose, I am happy to see my faith strong in the face of being tested by that must absurd and unsettling of human experiences–the existence of death. Try as we might, I’m not sure that we’re capable of understanding why we die, what purpose it serves. That is true for both the person of faith and the atheist, for regardless of the answers we try to find, the question is the very same: “why this and not something different?”

As I look back through what I have written, it strikes me just how much paradox I’ve related in these words, from the mundane (educator and student) to the more profound (I will not see her again in this life, and yet I will by memory). Perhaps that’s ultimately what death is to all of us–life’s greatest paradox.

Regardless, it’s cathartic to write these words, and to be explicit that my grandmother has been and will be a great influence on me, and by association, this blog.

 

 

42

Maybe Douglas Adams was right when he wrote that “42” was the answer to “Life, the Universe and Everything.” Personally, I lost interest in the “everything is meaningless and isn’t that funny?” game about four books in, but after this weekend, maybe I have a newfound respect for the author.

My dad has been invested in Kairos Prison Ministry for a few years now. About a year ago he told me that he’d be leading one of the Kairos weekends in November 2018 and asked if I’d participate. I said I would and mostly forgot about it until trainings began a few months ago.

If you’re not aware, Kairos International is ministry that equips Christians to carry out “Kairos Weekends” in prisons across the world. For us, that meant about four hours inside on this past Thursday, about twelve hours inside each on Friday and Saturday, and about eight hours inside yesterday. It is an intensive program first and foremost designed to communicate the love of Jesus Christ to inmates through the actions of the faithful who volunteer with the program.

Thursday night is largely an introduction. A lot of the volunteers had been involved in Kairos for years, but for those of us who had never been, we did not know what to expect. It was my first time to set foot inside a prison.

And, of course, for the inmates involved, they have no idea what to expect when the weekend starts. Our Kairos Weekend was the third to be held at the Jester 3 unit here in Fort Bend County. Jester 3 is a relatively laid-back prison (as far as they go); inmates are sent to Jester 3 primarily either because they have medical issues or because they are taking college courses through the programs offered at the site.

Most of the men have been incarcerated in other prisons within Texas, many of them much harder on the inmates than Jester 3–not only because of the Correctional Officers (COs) but because of gang activity, drugs, and violence within the prison itself. I heard some stories from the men about their previous experiences that made me feel like Piper in the first episodes of Orange is the New Black.

And Jester 3 is not without its fights, rivalries, disputes, and dangers for the men inside–not to mention the shame and guilt, rejection, isolation and worthlessness felt by those who are incarcerated no matter the location.

So, on Thursday night, it’s understandable that many of the men came in with their “shields up.” Because of their backgrounds and their experiences in the system, they’re used to viewing all (or nearly all) relationships as transactional–everybody’s out to get something for themselves in every association with another person, and nothing’s ever offered for free. It was plain on some of the faces that there were those who did not want to attend, and I later heard from a few of “my guys” that they almost didn’t come at all.

My understanding is that Jester 3 houses somewhere between 1200 and 1400 prisoners. Only 42 were selected to come to our Kairos Weekend after submitting applications (though there were a few who had applications anonymously submitted on their behalf!). Of those eighty-something men who had participated in the previous Kairos Weekends, about fourteen of them served their brothers in the latest weekend, bringing out food and drinks, working with outside volunteers on logistics, and generally making sure everything went smoothly.

Most of the men had heard something about Kairos before the weekend started, but like so many things that are deeply significant in our lives, those who had come before couldn’t explain what they’d been through–it had to be experienced. Accordingly, what most of the men knew about the program was that it was something to do and that the food was good (it was, and it offered the inmates food from the free world that they rarely or never had access to in the commissary or the chow line). There were fresh fruits and vegetables–a rare delicacy in prison–over 1000 cookies (I don’t want to think about how many I ate in those four days), and meat that wasn’t pork. The guys put ranch dressing on everything. As it turns out, the commissary used to sell it, but when the system switched to a cheaper (and not very tasty brand) the inmates stopped buying, so the commissary stopped carrying it altogether.

I think I mentioned in a previous post that part of our preparation (in addition to the four training days) was the writing of a letter to each participant. For efficiency, we wrote the bodies of the letters in advance. Friday night after the program we went home and added personal details and messages to eight of the forty-two (the six guys who were in our “family” for the weekend and the two for who we were personal greeters and hosts), addressed and signed all of them, and put them into envelopes. We couldn’t do this until Friday night because the roster is subject to change up to that point (not to mention that the names given to us on the prison’s official roster are not always how the men want to be called).

In prison, mail call is a big deal. It is tangible evidence that the outside world hasn’t forgotten you, that there are still people who care about you and who are willing to have a relationship with you after you have been labeled “criminal.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The weekend itself is a collection of talks and meditations, followed by discussion time, fellowship at meals, and singing of hymns (often with silly hand motions or dances: flapping of arms and “flying” around the room for “I’ll Fly Away,” and a number of moves for that painful classic, “Pharaoh, Pharaoh”).

As I alluded to above, there are six men from the inside in every family, along with one clergyperson (if possible) and two lay volunteers. The talks are intended to guide each participant into asking questions to develop an understanding of self, that God is love and that they are all worthy to be forgiven of their pasts and to be called God’s children, and to equip them to develop spiritually and to build a community on the inside that centers around living in love and following Christ. It’s a lot to pass on in a weekend, even if it is a longish and intense one. And that’s what the volunteers are there for: to demonstrate God’s love for them.

At first, it’s a confusing and disorienting thing to be confronted with. One of my guys kept telling me that he just couldn’t believe that someone (especially young-ish like myself) would take the time from the things I could be doing to come inside and spend time with them. They had to let their guard down to accept that kind of acceptance and treatment–its nothing short of miraculous to watch.

We ask them to share about themselves and to open up, but there are certain things we don’t ask–why they’re in, how long they’re in for, and the like. Quite frankly, it just doesn’t matter. Not once did I really find myself wondering why any one of the guys had been incarcerated. That kind of willingness to be accepting was strange to me when I experienced it, even when I always considered myself a pretty accepting person in theory.

I notice that I’m putting a lot of words on the screen and probably not saying too much. I’m certainly not conveying the depth and profundity of the experience and the extent to which I myself have been changed by the experience. I left the experience yesterday with sadness that it was over, and the feeling that I’d become brothers with the men at my table over the weekend. We plan to write one another and I hope to be able to visit them.

I was told before the weekend that I’d get more out of it than I put into it. That certainly proved to be true. As my writings likely suggest, I’m typically a cynical, sarcastic and skeptical person in many things. My experiences inside a prison with men who had been waiting to be able to let their guard down, who wanted to have faith in God and that love was the answer to the lives they’d been living (which, if we’re honest with ourselves, could be a life any of us could have been born into or could stumble into on our own), and who had courage to do things that were existentially frightening to them (like forgiving people against whom they had long held grudges), refreshed my faith in humanity and my faith that God can redeem and refine any person no matter who they are. I was put face-to-face with the reality that all people have real value, that people can change and that our existence was created in such a way that the selfless love demonstrated by Jesus Christ is the most joyous state of being there is. In the free world, those opportunities for our hearts to be “strangely warmed” (as John Wesley put it) often seem few and far between. This weekend, that feeling set in early Friday morning and still hasn’t worn off. I see clearly why my father is so passionate about this ministry.

It didn’t hurt that the volunteers who came in with me (most of whom are my father’s age) provided both examples of men of faith and stories about how God had worked in their lives.

If you have the opportunity to participate in Kairos (whether the original version of the program for incarerated men or Kairos Outside for the female family members and loved ones of incarcerated men), I cannot recommend it highly enough.

A Christian Theory of Humor

I feel like I’ve written about this before, but it seems that I haven’t, so here we go.

There is much to be said about humor, its causes and its effects, from physiological studies to sociological implications (I heard someone talking about the role of humor in demonstrating integration into a social group on NPR a while back). I’m going to focus on what humor tells me, at least, about theology.

Let me begin by saying that I must rely on the hope that God is especially forgiving of humor, even if in bad taste. If not, I might be in trouble…

The theory of humor; i.e. “why are some things funny and some things not?” looks to several core attributes of those things that make us laugh. By way of shortcut in the matter of theory, I’m going to point to Wikipedia’s article on “Humor.” Not the most reliable or deepest of sources, I know, but it’ll do.

Wikipedia says that the “root components” of humor are:

(1) Being reflective or imitative of reality; and
(2) containing surprise/misdirection, contradiction/paradox, or ambiguity

I look at these descriptors and marvel at how they mesh with my existential approach to theology.

Before I unpack that, though, let’s look to an opposite phenomena that I think will shed much light on my ideas that follow.

We start with a German word: weltschmerz. Weltschmerz (literally “world-pain”) means that pain that one feels at realizing the difference between the way the world is and the way the world could be. It is often defined as being similar to the French ennui, but I think that these terms are quite different (but both existentially related)–ennui being the suffering caused by finding no meaning in existence.

Weltschmerz is a wonderful word; it describes with specificity something we all feel at one time or another but struggle to communicate. When something is overhyped and the experience fails to fulfill the expectation of the experience? Weltschmerz. That sense of injustice that causes one to rage inside while also feeling helpless? Weltschmerz. The force behind fatalism and gallows humor? Weltschmerz. It was this idea that started me thinking about a theological explanation of humor.

Things are funny when they are close to reality but not quite right. On top of that, let’s look at the three other aspects Wikipedia attaches to humor: surprise, contradiction and ambiguity.

Surprising things are funny because they turn expectations on their head. Surprise is about possibility, and the pleasure of surprise in humor is that it reminds us that the world does not have to be the way that it is–it could be different. Often, the surprise comes from a sudden change in frame of reference or perspective. Consider the following, ripped straight from the internet:

“Mom, where do tampons go?”
“Where the babies come from, darling.”
“In the stork?”

Reference what I said before about inappropriate humor.

I’ve had some difficulty finding a joke (that I’m willing to write here, which says a lot) that adequately demonstrates paradox/contradiction that isn’t also heavily inundated with surprise. This is understandable, I suppose. The best I’ve found is the following, from Demetri Martin:

“‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I apologize’ mean the same thing. Except at a funeral.”

Without providing a bunch of jokes to allow for an inductive conclusion about the nuance between surprise and contradiction, I will point you to an established narrative trope using contradiction for humor, via TVTropes.com. If, like me, you can lose hours following rabbit trails on TVTropes.com, I apologize.

When we attempt to come to a Christian theological understanding of humor, paradox and contradiction are essential elements. First, there is the “meta” aspect of thinking theologically about paradox and contradiction–much of theology is an attempt to reconcile apparent contradictions and paradoxes, or, as Chesterton puts it, “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them furious.”

He’s right, you know, Christianity invites us to dive headfirst into paradoxes and contradictions and to struggle with them, often without easy (or any) resolution.

At the same time, paradox in humor is a sister to weltschmerz; the half where we see the difference between how the world is and could be and we laugh instead of crying–both are existentially-appropriate reactions, I think.

At its most fundamental, paradoxical humor reminds us that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is; the contradictions of paradoxical humor often ask us to laugh at how the world is worse than it could/should be. Like humorous surprise, the same humor reminds us that we can make things better.

As a relevant aside, Chesteron has also written, “Paradox–Truth standing on her head to get attention.”

And now to ambiguity. If you’ve read my previous series on ambiguity in scripture, you’ll know that I think that ambiguity–and our ability to struggle with and engage it–are fundamental aspects of Christianity. So it should come as no surprise that I think that the humor derived from ambiguity is not merely an existential coping mechanism (though it is often that), but a well-concealed revelation of Truth.

There’s a great (and short!) article on how lexical ambiguity contributes to humor here, on the Society for Linguistic Anthropology website. Lexical ambiguity is just one small portion of ambiguity in humor, but it suffices to illustrate the point. I’ll borrow an exemplative joke (much tamer than the previous ones) from that site:

“How do you make a turtle fast?”
“Take away his food.”

Note the inseparable elements of contradiction and surprise in that joke, which uses ambiguity about the applicable definition of the word “fast” to reach the punchline.

Taken altogether, ambiguity, surprise and contradiction work together to make us laugh by disrupting comfortable and seemingly reliable assumptions and expectations. At its most fundamental, this is also what Christianity does as well–it tells us that what the world tries to seduce us with (money, power, fame) does not have the depth of meaning and ability to fulfill that true living does (through love, the pursuit of justice and mercy, and relationships, for instance). Both Christianity and humor tell us that things can change–that we can change both ourselves and the world for the better.

By my Chrsitian understanding, humor does two theological things: first and most important, it gives us hope by reminding us that things do not have to be as they are–that God is calling us to work to change them for the better; second, humor reminds us of raw possibility, of our ability to participate in the creation of meaning, of the existential joys of being God’s creations.

 

 

 

Thinking about Homosexuality in an Unchanging Gospel – An Epistemological Argument

Last night, I attended a potluck dinner and worship service hosted by the Reconciling United Methodists of the Texas Annual Conference (RUMTX) and attended by our new Bishop, Reverend Scott  Jones. The event represents the optimistic opening of a dialogue between proponents of full inclusion and our bishop, who—I’m given to believe—takes a decidedly conservative stance in regards to the United Methodist doctrine regarding sexual orientation. This includes continuing to bring disciplinary action against those pastors who violate the current Book of Discipline by performing gay marriages.

My experience last night has led me to share the following thoughts regarding full inclusion in the United Methodist Church, or within Christianity at large.

In his remarks during the worship service, Bishop Jones stated (I’m paraphrasing) “that the Gospel doesn’t change, but times do.” You could just as easily change out the word “Gospel” for “Jesus,” “the Scriptures,” “God,” or many other words to the same or similar effect, and it’s quite possible a different word was used by the Bishop and I’m misremembering. Regardless, though, the use of any of these words seems to intimate the same idea—a common one proffered by conservatives on the issue of homosexuality’s “compatibility” with Christianity.

The problem is that the statement of the unchanging nature of the divine doesn’t actually tell us anything. If the point is that the meaning and truth of Christianity and all that that entails does not change, that tells us nothing. It does not prove that traditional interpretations of the Gospel and the person of Jesus Christ are the correct ones, does not in and of itself explain the often-ambiguous meanings of the Scriptural texts, and does not even assert that we have the ability to properly interpret holy words.

As I’ve mentioned, my master’s degree is in English, focusing on medieval and Renaissance literature. My undergraduate degree is in History, again focusing on those periods. In my graduate work, I received training in the literary school of thought called “New Historicism.” The New Historicist’s approach uses a few key philosophical assumptions that are apropos to this conversation. First, New Historicism asserts that we cannot separate ourselves fully from the culture and ideologies of our own time when we interpret a literary or historical text (the Bible is of course both) and that—while we should absolutely be looking at the historical context in which something is written—we cannot fully access the context of the author or the work. This is partially because of our temporal and experiential remove from the author and partially because it is at best difficult for us to definitively discover how and where the author and work fit into the historical context with particularity. The author and her work may be fully or partially “bought-in” to the ideological context of her time, but we cannot determine this with great certitude—particularly since every text may rely on unspoken assumptions not explicit in its words.

What does this mean for us and Scripture? If you follow these assumptions, we can’t fully understand the historical context in which the Scripture is written. For all of our knowledge of Israelite and Greco-Roman culture and language, we have lost the paradigm of the people who lived through the Gospel times through the slow crush of time. We must therefore make guesses about certain meanings of the text, however educated those guesses may be.

At the same time, we cannot divorce ourselves from our own cultural and experiential biases and expectations—we cannot elucidate objectively. This makes a diversity of opinions not just desirable but necessary in our interpretative attempts.

All of this goes to say that we cannot with great confidence state definitively the Gospel message when it comes to highly complex issues such as homosexuality—we get in our own way. We have to do the best we can in interpretation, and I believe that we probably can come close to the truth of things (though logic may only get us so far). At the same time, however, we ought to be very careful about having extreme confidence in the theological positions we take when were are outside of the core doctrinal Christian beliefs (those about which we can be most secure, I think, are those found within the various creeds).

What we’re left with here is a statement without any logical assertion. Instead, it seems to me, the only value is a rhetorical one. This rhetoric taps into the idea that Christianity is under attack by mainstream secular culture—that broader cultural acceptance of homosexuality is undermining “pure” Christian doctrine. It is the same idea that causes some of us to insist that there’s a “war on Christmas,” that a secular world is actively seeking to marginalize (an uncritical and unquestioning view of) Christian truth.

Let’s for the sake of argument accept the possibility of humankind attaining knowledge of absolute divine truth. Even with this acceptance, we must admit the extreme difficulty of doing so. With that admission, we must at least entertain the possibility that Christian interpretation of the Gospel message is a process that moves closer (and occasionally farther) from the truth we seek as we discover new methods of inquiry and experience new cultural paradigms.

This development over time is something we see play out in the story of the Old Testament (and the New, but I’ll focus on the Old for these purposes). Abram is called out by what he believes is one god among many for a special covenant. The early relationship between God and the Israelites is not one of monotheism—it is one of monolatry (devotion to one god without denial of the existence of other gods). How many times do we hear the Hebrews say “Who [i.e. which other god] is like our God?”

The Ten Commandments are monolatrous and not monotheistic—“You shall have no other gods before me.” Compare with the monotheistic Shahada of Islam—“There is no god but God. Muhammad is His Prophet.” The Hebrews undergo a process of better understanding God, starting with the identification of God from the collection of supposed divine beings to a realization of God as the supreme and only divine being.

If ancient Hebrew theology progresses from a more limited to a more accurate understanding of the nature and person of God, why should we suppose that Christian theology was perfect thousands of years ago and that we could not come to a better understanding of the Living God through time and debate?

In the New Testament, we see the apostles understanding of Jesus’ message improve over time—with Jesus often lamenting the things they fail to understand. Are we any different?

If we return to the question of homosexuality in Christianity, here’s where the above points take us:

(1) Traditional interpretations (i.e. those that consider homosexuality to be sinful or “incompatible” with Christianity) should not be categorically prioritized but should—as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral would have us do—be reviewed by considering tradition alongside the Scriptures themselves, logic and reason and human experience (both personal and cultural).

(2) If honest epistemology precludes us from being absolutely sure about our theological position on homosexuality, we must make our best guess.

That best guess requires the weighing of competing theological precepts. These competing precepts are definitions of what it means to “love thy neighbor.” From the conservative position, the argument goes: “It is not loving to allow your neighbor to continue in sin.” The progressive response (to which, admitting my own bias, I subscribe): “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” For me, loving my neighbor does not mean judging them for what I might believe to be sin—I’m no better myself, and sin is, in my mind, far too complex in non-egregious contexts to be categorically defined.

In my own personal understanding of Jesus, I cannot conceive that a loving relationship between two people is right or wrong based on sex or gender. I think to categorize things along such uncompromising lines is too akin to pharisaical legalism for my comfort.

I have said in other posts that I believe that the question of homosexuality in Christianity is really a cover for an underlying argument about epistemology and the methodology, nature and bounds of interpretation of Scripture. I hope that this post adds some clarity to that assertion that I have made, regardless of where you stand on the issue or how you approach Christian epistemology and interpretation.

Like it or not, the real argument over homosexuality in Christianity is over. Today’s youth (at least for the most part) cannot fathom condemnation based on gender and sexuality issues. You might call that cultural indoctrination if you like, but I’d say it’s an example of C.S. Lewis’s natural law. Regardless, the fact of the matter is that, if youth see Christianity as homophobic, they will never open up to the opportunity to actually know Jesus. To me, that’s what’s at stake by continuing to make an issue out of homosexuality in Christianity—the longer that we even prevaricate on anything less than full exclusion, the more we push people away from Jesus.

During his speech last night, Bishop Jones said that “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Meaning, of course, Jesus. If my epistemology means that I have to take a guess about which theological position is best, you can bet that I’m going to choose the position that may bring more people to Christ every single time. Is that a compromise? Maybe, but it’s one I’m more than willing to accept.

 

The Honest Seeker

We sit together at breakfast this honest seeker and I, a young man who I have the great good fortune of meeting this morning, who reveals more to me than I to him. By happenstance, if such a thing is to be believed in, we have been brought together, him seeking faith, me welling up with unexpected passion to explain my own.

Our subject is honest about his position. He sees great value in the social structure the church provides, great wisdom in the moral and philosophical precepts the scriptures teach, great promise in the philanthropic work the body of Christ undertakes. And yet, he will state matter-of-factly that he remains unsure about the spiritual reality of Christianity.

On this foundation he stands, his mind open, seeking for ideas and doctrines, carefully and skeptically weighing them, patiently considering the advice and thoughts and experiences of others, ever pursuing a reality he is not sure of, unsure he possesses a spiritual inclination, intellectually fascinated by the possibility of encountering the reality he hears so much about from others, ready to be convinced but pessimistic that he can be.

As we talk he questions me with deep and thoughtful interrogatories: Why is there evil and suffering? Why do Christians see all sin as equal? What is the resurrection supposed to mean? I struggle along to provide what answers I can; he follows with more difficult queries, testing not only me but the very limits of rational thought. When I tell him that some questions are beyond human understanding, he pauses, pondering the thought, piercing it with the sharp edges of his mind, perhaps perturbed by the prospect but satisfied by my honesty (if not the truth of my assertion).

He holds my attempts at answers in his hand, turning them slowly to view them from every angle, taking the measure of them, ascertaining their boundaries and their flaws. When I tell him that faith is a truth that must be experienced, not proved, he looks back at me with understanding, his young eyes seeming older by far.

I appreciate his skepticism. He is cautious before ever finding faith. Even before he believes, he is building a tower, testing its foundations, proving it to himself before he makes it his home. His, when he finds it, will be a strong faith, well considered, conscious of the ambiguities with which one must become comfortable to maintain faith, both reasonable and beyond reason. He is honest, surely the God who sees his heart will reward such honest seeking.

We part ways after a few hours but agree to meet regularly to continue our fellowship. But I am no guide, merely a fellow traveler on a road we all must walk to its destination.