Saturday, 5 November 2016

Children on Elephants

Confession: I'm happier than I used to be.  Significantly so.  There are a number of reasons for this. And I'm reading a book called The Happiness Principle, by Jonathan Haidt, which is sparking a lot of thought (and feelings) about it all.

I used to hang onto my sorrow, discomfort and dissatisfaction like a flag.  Like there needed to be a guy, standing there, saying "No.  This is all bullshit.  We need to be more real.  We need to do this right.  We need to pay attention.  We need to look after the people who are falling between the cracks.  The ones we're shoving out, between said cracks."  But after having written a couple of books and done other such things, I feel like I've planted that flag, and I don't actually have to wear the t-shirt every day, or even stand outside the gates anymore.

And yeah.  I'm reading Haidt's The Happiness Principle.  A lot of it seems terribly familiar, and goes over very old ground, prompting me to want to say "Get on with it!  Give me something new to think about!"  It's surprising that I'm reading Haidt's book.  Any book with this title, actually.  There are many, many books out there on the subject, and with similar titles, and I have learned to avoid them.  Because when I've tried to read them, I quickly find that I haidt them.  They convince me more deeply that happy isn't something I can be.  That it's for other people.  That the only thing holding me back is me.  (Horrible thing to tell people.  Go peddle that in Africa or Syria, why don't you?)  But this book is being so "me" right now that I'm getting bored with the well-worn paths and want to see what's next. Want to think something new.  I agree with him about the stuff he's disagreeing with, because I've been disagreeing with it too for a long, long time.

But I'll try to explain one of the key reasons I'm happier lately.  I think, being middle-aged, I've lost a whole lot of hope in the idea that people can change.  Significantly.  Deep down.  I've seen too many people die, rather than change.  And I've seen some that seem to be killing themselves in extreme slow motion.

So now?  I genuinely don't think people change.  Not really.  Not at the core.  So I don't hope for it.  And that's very, very freeing.  Because I've gone straight through my life always feeling like I need to change.  Need to be someone else.  People have leaped up to tell me the same thing.  That I need to become someone who is less pessimistic.  That I need to become someone who is less withdrawn.  Someone who is more of an extrovert.  That when I don't want to participate, I need to become the sort of person who wants to participate more, who wants to indulge and placate others more.  That when I get over-eager and talk too much, I need to become a person who will want to participate less, and again, want to indulge and placate others more.  That I need become someone who cares less.  That I need to think less. That I need to smile a lot. That I need to flinch less obviously when touched unexpectedly.  That I need to hug people more.  That I need to show "positive" emotions (ones people like) more.  That I need to get happier. (or, failing that, act cheerful.)

And after all of these years, I have slowly come to really hate all of that.  Not just a little.  See it as the enemy.  See it as the key to unraveling me when I'm busing being who I am.  But I used to hear it more than I do now.  One thing about being middle-aged is people lay off you.  That pressure to change starts to subside a bit.  You know that pressure.  To be a person others will like more.  So they will hire you, and trust you, date you and otherwise socially, financially and romantically reward you.  Because we're not ok the way we are, apparently.  Nope.  We are inconvenient and embarrassing.

Melancholy and philosophical?  Introverted? Quiet at times?  Solitary? Dissatisfied with "the way things are"?  Apt to sneer and mock at fake stuff that clearly sucks, but somehow always seems to demand a whole lot of praise and attention and recognition from every single one of us?  Lacking in emotional affect and response?  All of the above?  Not ok.  We need to change, apparently.  To be happier.  Or to fit in better, anyway. To make ourselves easier to accept.

And of course, you can see where I'm going with all this.  It turns out that "just being" makes one happier than being burdened with constant negative feedback from others and continual attempts to adjust, correct and control one.  Especially if one buys into the idea that one needs to care deeply about all of the above.  No, the opposite is what makes a person serene, content, at peace.  Happy, even.  Oddly, a person being themselves is far easier to accept than someone who is miserably trying to be more acceptable to others. There's something right about it.  We can't help but accept authenticity when we see it, even if it's packaged up in a person who's a bit crusty, or who comes with some sharp edges.

So I'm done listening to people who feel I ought to do everyone a favour and change.  I'm doing the very opposite: I'm not even pretending I'm going to change, on a deep, psychological level, mainly to meet the expectations of others.  I don't recommend it.  I recommend clinging to one's identity instead, and running with it, instead of from it.  Be it more.  Be it deeper, higher, broader and more richly and maturely than anyone dreamed was possible.

"Everybody" wants you to get a specific haircut or smile more or lose weight or be excited about some sports or Internet thing or wear some wristband or colour or whatever?  What works for me is the bone-deep, decades-old abiding accustomedness to simply recognizing that yeah, there are always people like that, who seem to want and need that from every single person.  Like junkies on street corners with their hands out.  You can spend some time or money trying to make them happy if you want to, or you can not bother with them.  One thing that's sure is that nothing is really going to take the edge off that keening need in their blood to shoot up heroin or tell you about the environment or require you to use the word "issues" instead of "problems" or love Ke$ha or whatever it is.

There's them, needing something, and there's you, possibly with the power to maybe to choose to stop and give them what they claim they need, or not.  And "not" is just as viable an option as giving them what they think they need.  Because sometimes what people are looking for isn't something you can give, or isn't going to content them anyway.  

I have learned to no longer confuse growing and maturing, on the one hand, with changing, on the other.   God put me in the world and I'm a very specific design that you sure didn't order from a sampler with various options and dropdown menus, available in your preference of sizes, colours and fragrances.  I am growing and maturing, but I'm not going to become anybody else.  Not for me, not for you, not for anyone.  Because it's not possible.  I'm just me and I am only getting more "me." Deal with that.  Wisdom of middle-age talking.  It gives contentment and peace.  Try being.  Life isn't all becoming.  And it sure isn't about ceasing to be various things.

Any person who has struggled with depression, or who is grieving or whatever, will tell you the same thing: people all seem to have stupid advice.  Freely given.  And it's all the same.  They tell you "smile."  They tell you "be happy."  They tell you not to think about it. They tell you to care less.  They tell you to enjoy stuff you don't.  They tell you to feel and think differently.  My favourite?  They tell you to "Move on."  To "Walk away."  From stuff that's literally inside your skull.

Mostly it adds up to "Be more like me by doing what I do, the way I do it."  

Sometimes this is because they themselves are beautiful, young, white, rich, happy or whatever, and they genuinely don't get why every other person on the planet can't just be more or less like them.  "Be like me.  You can do it.  By your choices," they feel.  This all dodges the matter of why they need you to be more like them to begin with.  (Bigotry written small)  

Other times, people tell you to be happy or wear red, or cheer loudly or join their thing or whatever it is, because they see a potential for them to lose their thin facade of pretend, functional, daily cheerfulness. If we're all going to just go around being real and everything, instead of doing others the favour of hiding our psyches away for the day, what could happen? They're willing to paint the cheery on thick, so what makes you so special that you won't return the favour?  Their facade is so think there's no telling who's beneath it.

Maybe not pretending to be cheery is an important first step in embracing genuine, deeper, eventual happiness.  And maybe contentment and serenity are far more valuable than superficial cheerfulness. 

Jonathan Haidt is writing in the part I'm at right now about his own favourite way to imagine the stuff that St. Paul, Freud and a bunch of old Greeks saw in all of us: Haidt imagines we are like little children (our thoughts and decisions and self-control) riding huge elephants (the rest of our personalities, which we are little aware of, and certainly did not create and do not daily maintain, ourselves).  You know?  Part of what God made.  (Haidt doesn't believe in God, but is an honest enough atheist to have done his homework and is able to cite books which seek to explain the universal phenomenon that evolution and the ecology and the universe and so on seem to be not only designed, but designed to maintain and upgrade themselves.  "Design with a designer" is what he's hugging to his bosom right now to explain that big elephant in the room.)

So, an elephant?  Your past, your hormones, your genes, and millions of factors of which you are not presently consciously aware, Haidt imagines, are all working together right now to form this huge, ancient elephant that is as much a part of you as the little part on its back that tries not to respond sincerely and honestly when someone you don't like much tries to chide you to smile when you're not happy.

Think about it.  The elephant is part of you.  You are not a separate part that is stronger than the elephant.  And the elephant remembers.  And the elephant has big ears and hears everything.  And the elephant is, in its way, wise.  Whipping the elephant is not, in the long term, a good idea, given its memory and its strength.  It has thicker skin than (the conscious) you do, clearly.  You have to work with it, not against it.  Accept it and learn to work together better.  Laugh at the very idea, tossed at you from the person riding her miserable, over-trained elephant across the tent from you, that what would really be nice, really be best, is if you whipped your elephant more, to make it smile. Or balance on a ball, or do tricks.  And that if you paint it pink, maybe people will believe you when you say it's really an adorable, cheerful little poodle.

They call out to you: Just be happy.  Just smile.  Just somehow find cheery music and perky people cheering, rather than deeply depressing and annoying.  Just hug people.  Just shut up.  Just forget.  Just don't care.  Just never mind.  (Just try to stop the elephant from being big, from heavy, from being grey, from having a trunk and a tail and two big ears.)  Get out that pink paint.

Thing is, if you grow to have a warm, familiar, accepting working relationship between the elephant that is part of you, and the rest of you, you don't need to whip and shout and cry and otherwise seek to bully it so much.  You start to realize it's probably worth it to stop and get it some peanuts or a cabbage or whatever from time to time.  What's important to it starts to become important to the rest of you.  And.... vice versa.

No one else has a hope of understanding what goes on daily between the part of you that is not the elephant, and the part of you that is.  Doesn't mean they'll shut up.  Doesn't mean you have to listen.

So never mind trying not to be you.  Grow.  Relate.  Do not try to change utterly.  Growing will change you in all the ways you need. Mostly by making you more, rather than less you.

Depression, inventor of cognitive therapy Aaron Beck, claimed, often looked like the rider of this elephant saying certain things out of frustration.  Ranting.  Crying with frustration.  You could, Beck felt, "script" how depression talks.  It's very predictable:

1.  I am bad, weak, corrupt, selfish and no good.  (I am not able to subdue the part of me that is this elephant. It is too strong for me and I am tired of shouting at it and beating it and otherwise trying to get that part of me under control. It is bad and I am a bad elephant trainer.)

2. There are few or no good things in the world.  Nothing we can get, anyway, that are going to be worth it.  (There is nothing in the world that the elephant and the rest of me can find to enjoy.  No peanuts.  No cabbages.  No rivers to swim in.  No sun to sun in.)

3. And there never will be.

Now this is, baldly put, wrong.  And #1 is the root from which all of this crap springs.  It tells an evil story: "I am bad.  I am not good enough.  I am not strong enough.  People hate me and won't help.  They're selfish. And they don't know.  And anyway, there's no good stuff around that someone like me can get and enjoy.  And so I have no future."

This is what a little child sitting on a balky, hungry, resentful elephant thinks, and then, feels. (or the opposite of that)  And the child, and the elephant, and everyone else, knows that all of this depression-scripted stuff is wrong.  It's just evil whispers in a black time.  It's something dark to tell one's self so one doesn't have to keep trying.  So one doesn't have to try something else.  To try to talk one's self out of growth.

We're dumb.  We think we would somehow have to change utterly, in order to be happier and stronger.  But we're us.  And we want to continue to be ourselves.  So we do a lot to try to retain our selfhood, even though we're miserable.  Because it's all we think we have.

We think we have nothing else.  But that's wrong.  We have an elephant.  In fact, it's a part of us that nothing and no one can ever take away.

And we don't have to change.  We don't have to listen to other people.  We don't have to achieve what they achieve, and do things the way they do them.  We don't have to mute, or stuff, or lock away our true selves.  The trumpeting, miserable, angry, despairing elephant.  Starved and locked in the dark.  Quite the opposite.

We have to listen and talk to the part of us that is the elephant.  Know and be known.  It is powerful.  It has feelings.  It has needs.  And it never forgets. Maybe it doesn't want to balance on the ball to make the kids laugh.  Maybe it wants to knock over the wall instead.  Maybe it's been telling itself that very thing in its dreams.  Freedom dreams of knocking over all the walls.  Well, it probably can.  And maybe it should.

And it doesn't need to transform into a trained poodle to do it.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Just A Christian Thing

I was seventeen years old, and I knew what most of the words in the bible were.  I knew there was no church but ours, and that ours was not merely a church.  I knew that I needed our church to get a wife and children and raise them to be successful, decent, healthy people.  I knew that I definitely wasn't supposed to be able to connect with the others at school, and luckily, I couldn't.  I knew that I definitely was supposed to be able to connect to the others at church, but despite me, I couldn't. I knew what something was wrong with me and that I wasn't normal.  There was something.  School and church agreed about that. I knew that that something would keep me from ever finding true love with a wife, a home and children.  And I knew that what was wrong with me was me.   And I knew I couldn't bear to be anyone but myself.  It was like secretly being gay, only I was publicly being me instead.  And I knew that there was no place for me and no happy ending. And I knew that I wanted to be dead.

I didn't really want the responsibility of killing myself, but I knew that I didn't want the responsibility of trying to live the next day, carefully not fitting in at school and carefully fitting in at church.  And I knew that what I felt wasn't normal because I wasn't normal.  But I started to suspect that my reaction to everything was, itself, a normal reaction.  And that being ok with everything would not have been.   And I knew that no one was in control of everything. No one was there for people like me. No one could do anything. 

The doctor was from our church and he knew that there was nothing wrong with our church and so if I couldn't cope I obviously wasn't normal and needed pills.  I decided that I knew that I could not take pills, as I needed to sort out whatever it was, and not numb myself to it.  The psychiatrist I then went to knew that I should be partying and going to movies and non-church things.  I knew that I could never do that, and to do so would lose me my tenuous membership at my church, to match my lack of belonging at school.  And so I stopped seeing him, said I was fine now, and continued to want to be dead.  And I knew that no one was able to speak with me about any of it.  I knew that people had personas to carefully keep up, and that they needed to avoid any appearance of not being normal themselves.  And I knew that I had to get through it myself.  Me and God.  I knew He was supposed to be able to help. And so I dealt only with Him from then on.  I knew I couldn't trust anyone else. Not a single person.

And I knew that, if I got through it, with God's help, that I couldn't bear to think of others in my position, being alone.  I knew that there must be others, although I had never met any, or if I had, they had not identified themselves. I knew that I wanted to find such people and let them know that there were more of us. How many more? I pictured a miserable seventeen year old, likewise along, perhaps female, and knew I wanted to help her, and live together for the rest of our days.

And the years went by.  I endured not fitting in at church, to match my not fitting in to the world outside it.  I knew that I was who I was, and that there was strength in my design.  And I knew that that strength that had been built into me terrified people, and that any system that could not deal with someone who was only as slightly off-centre as me was weak.  Scared.  Flawed.  Lying.  Hiding things.  

And I learned that there seemed to be about as many people who could not fit in as could.  And I learned that many people get miserable and lost and disconnected.  And I listened to and spoke with many of them.

I didn't know there would be so many.  Of all ages, races, cultures and genders.  I didn't know that mainly only the female ones would and could think and talk and feel about these things openly, instead of drinking and making money and fighting with everyone and hoping to die without ever having to deal. I didn't know that some people were able to cry about it all, and that this helped them a bit.  

I didn't know that, as much as I had been raised to be, and naturally was, unable to fit in to the world around our church, that that world would accept us anyway.  I didn't know that there was, in human dealings, a small hope for a modicum of fairness and forgiveness and mercy.  I didn't know to stop looking for it in Christian circles.  I didn't know that I would be kicked out of my church entirely, along with almost every friend and relative I ever had.  And I didn't know that we would survive.  I didn't know that some of us would simply recreate the same environment we grew up in, only with us in charge.  I didn't know that others would find they quite enjoyed churches and groups very different from our own birth culture and would immerse themselves headlong into those. I didn't know that others would love Jesus but never really be happy at any church besides our own, but remain infinitely happier "going nowhere" than going to ours.

I didn't know we'd talk, a bunch of us, using computers, some of which we carried around in our pockets.  I didn't know that everybody would be allowed to talk, even if some of us were women and most of us were excommunicated and shunned, forever deemed church defects, rejects and trouble to allow into the midst.  I didn't know many of us would share and connect on screens and never meet up in the same room.  I didn't know there'd be so many suicides.  I didn't know there'd be so much addiction.  I didn't know there'd be so many divorces.  I didn't know that the things the church folks did to us, we'd generally go on to do to everyone around us.  I didn't know the church knew everything all along and didn't care and wouldn't ever openly talk about change, forgiveness of reconciliation.  I didn't know there'd be joy possible anyway.

I didn't know I'd meet the hypocrisy, the enforced cheerfulness, the blindly-trumpeted flawed utopian dogma, the need to seem normal and ok at all times, at the workplace, on the street and everywhere else.  

I thought that was just a Christian thing.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Sunday Morning Sermon on Atheists OutChristianing Christians

All those people who live lives characterized by weakness and lack of integrity, without having any knowledge of the bible, will also reach the end of their days and die, having had no knowledge of the bible to guide them. But all who have walked paths of weakness and lack of integrity with full knowledge of the bible will be assessed according to what the bible tried to say to them. 

For it is not the believers of the message of Jesus who are acting well as far as God is concerned, but the livers of the message of Jesus who are acting well. For when atheists, who do not have the bible, just naturally do what the bible teaches, and act well, they are a bible to themselves, even though they do not have the bible. They show that the message of the bible is written on their hearts, while their conscience also weighs in, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or excuse them whenever God assesses the inner essence of men through his judge Christ Jesus.

You call yourself a Christian and claim to rely on the message of the bible and claim identity in Jesus Christ and to know his message and to support what is Christian, because you are instructed from the bible. You are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the bible the embodiment of knowledge and truth.

You then who teach others, why have you not taken the time to teach yourself? While you preach against shadiness and insincerity, are you yourself shady or insincere? You who say that one must not condone adultery, do you condone adultery by appointing adulterers to have the rule over you? You who insist that all fetuses be allowed to grow into children because all life is sacred, do you then resist contributing any money toward the health care of these same children to preserve their lives once they have been born? You who demand freedom of religious expression, do you seek to rob atheists and Muslims and Buddhists of the right to practice their own world views, and to live completely free from yours? 

You who claim to find your personal identity in the message of the bible? You folks are dishonoring God by not living in the spirit of its message. And now the name of Jesus Christ is a joke and a curse among the atheists because of you. The word “Christian” now means “self-serving, hypocritical bigot” to many people.

Now, a Christian upbringing certainly is of value if you live according to the message of Jesus, but if you live in a way Jesus never would have, showing none of his heart, your Christian upbringing becomes atheism. And, if a man who is an atheist lives according to the message of Jesus, will not his atheism function as Christianity? Then he who was never raised Christian yet lives in a way that is very compatible with the message of Jesus? He will rightly condemn you who went to Sunday school as a child but grew up to become people who do not have the heart of Jesus. 

It doesn’t make one a Christian to merely try to seem like one outwardly, nor is Christian upbringing only an outward and physical thing that has to do with attendance at church, one’s lifestyle and how one votes. No, a Christian is one inwardly, and Christianity is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not achievable through doctrine, lifestyle restrictions or political positions. A true Christian’s standard of excellence and decency is not set by his fellow churchgoers, but by God.

Then what is the point of being a Christian? Is there any value in a Christian upbringing? It is valuable in every way. To begin with, Christians were entrusted with the New Testament, which contains messages from God about real things. What if many Christians live according to a new church culture they have invented which has little to do with the New Testament and the messages in it? Does their church culture nullify the efforts of God to reach out to human beings and help them sort out their lives? By no means! God would still be telling the truth even if every single Christian were a compulsive liar. (So tell the truth.) It is written,

“That you may be justified by your words,
and win the case when you are accused of anything.”

But if our missteps, lack of integrity and strength of character serve to showcase the excellence of God, what shall we say? That God is unfair to get frustrated with how flawed and messed up we are? (I speak simple-mindedly, as if God were merely a human being.) By no means! For if God had to simply accept dishonesty, exploitation and weakness and treat them exactly the same as he treated honesty and excellence, how then could he assess and heal the world? He would have to “tolerate” it and leave it messed up. 

But if even against the backdrop of my two-faced, mean-spirited insincerity God's truth rings out and makes it clear who he really is, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? Aren’t I doing good by making God look better than me? And shouldn’t we all occasionally do shady things to try to make the world a fairer place?  Well, some people correctly notice us doing that and have a problem with it. Their criticism is fair. 

What then? Are we Christians doing any better than anyone else in the world today? Than the Muslims, atheists and Sikhs? No, we aren’t. Not at all. For I have already made the point that all, both Christians and atheists, live daily lives characterized by weakness, corruption, jealousy, exploitation and darkness, as it is written about all of us human beings, right through the bible:

“None is excellent, no, not one; no one truly understands; no one looks for what God intended for human beings and for the planet.
All have wandered from the path; together they have become corrupt; no one truly lives decently, not even one.”

“Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive and manipulate one another.”

"The venom of rattlesnakes is under their lips.”

“Their mouth is full of ill-wishes and resentment.”

“Their hands are quick to backstab others; when they leave a room they leave misery and chaos behind them, and they have never understood the way of peace.”

“They do not value God as they go about their day.”

Now we know that whatever the bible says, its audience is those who value the bible.  And it works toward reaching the point where no one in the world will be left with anything further to say, and the whole thing will be held accountable to God and his standards for love, fairness, excellence and honesty. For by obeying rules in the bible no human being will ever be justified in God’s sight, since through the bible comes a deep knowledge of our flaws and the fact that we need Jesus, and not just some handy rules to follow.

But now the excellence of God has been shown entirely outside of the pages of the bible, although the bible talks about it too — the excellence of God is seen through what happens when any human being places hope, faith and trust in Jesus Christ and what he wants to do for all who accept him. We ourselves, as well as God the father, and his son Jesus Christ, all alike exist outside the pages of the very bible which speaks the truth about all of us. 

For there is no distinction: all have sinned and have fallen short of God’s standards, and are therefore only justified by his grace as a gift, through the rehabilitation that is in Christ Jesus, whom God sent out to pay for our recovery in the coin of his blood, so that we could receive this gift by faith. This sending of his son to die for us was to show God's excellence and fairness, because in his divine forgiveness and generosity he had passed over our flawed lives and how messed up we still are. It was to show God’s decency, to those of us living in 2016, so that he might be known to be just and the justifier of anyone who has faith in his son, Jesus, who came and died to excuse and salvage us.

Then what role do our careful Christian lifestyles play in being accepted by God? Simply put: they do not count at all. By what kind of life path are we reconciled to God? By a careful Christian lifestyle? No, but by a lifestyle of faith, reaching out after Jesus Christ, person to person. For we believe that one is justified by faith in the real person Jesus Christ, quite apart from all concerns as to rule-following and bible teaching. 

Or, is God the god of bible-believing churchgoers only? Is he not the god of the regular folks also?
Yes, he is the god of the regular folks also, since there is only one God for all of us— one God who will justify the Christians by faith, and everyone else through faith too, in exactly the same way.
Do we then throw out the bible because of this faith in Christ it presents to us as our only option? By no means! On the contrary, we elevate the bible by investing our heart in what it has to say.

(after having been "corrected" as to the thoughts in this piece, and accused of "over complicating" things and of showing off and spewing rhetoric, I have had to point out that I am simply paraphrasing the majority of Romans 2 and 3 and so they are accusing the Apostle Paul of these things, really.  His name is Paul, and this is between y'all.)

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Scaled Back to Get Broader and Deeper

When I woke up this morning, I muzzily told myself "I'd better get back to work and write the last bit of the blog post."  It took me a while to remember that I'd not started writing any of it yet; before I realized that the whole thing had simply been dreamt.  Here's me, trying to rewrite what I only dreamed I'd written:

The Christianity I was raised with was kind of like a pointy stick I'd been handed that I was walking around with, and one with which I had been instructed to faithfully poke anyone nearby.  It stretched pretty far.  And it was very pointy. You could go around and no one ever got very near you.

But simply poking others, and building my identity upon being one of the Precious Few did not prove fulfilling, in the long run.  Didn't want to spread that message to the world: "You're going to hell when you die!  You need to learn about the gospel right now!  From me!  Probably best to come to our church to do that, after listening to me, because you can't trust most of what's being taught out there by most churches!  Come along and we'll teach you about love and acceptance!"

I think a lot of people raised with religion believed most of it when they were little, and then found they didn't.  Like Santa.  A fairly black and white thing.  Grew up a bit and suddenly declared they didn't believe in God anymore.  It wasn't like that for me.

At first, I certainly believed.  Not just about God.  About all of it.  I knew everything when I was ten.  Post-tribulation or pre-tribulation Rapture?  Pre.  Creation or evolution?  Creation.  Six 12-hour days with six 12-hour nights to built all of reality, or an unspecified amount of time?  Six 12-hour days with six 12-hour nights.  Calvinism or Arminianism?  Calvinism.  Six-point Calvinism or lesser forms of it?  Six-point. (Every petal on the T.U.L.I.P.)  Santa Claus and Christmas?  Pagan and wrong.  Same with Easter and the Bunny.  Superstition.  We believed bible truth.

And I grew up as sheltered from the beliefs of others as possible. No TV or movies at home, and book selections carefully screened.  No odd, other people's beliefs about anything we thought mattered.  No book that deigned to comment on good and evil or God and devil, or even depict them.  At first all this was done to us, but soon enough we were sufficiently trained to do it to ourselves.

Despite being taught that we Absolutely Could Not "lose" our salvation and end up in hell, we feared something else nearly as much: losing the correctness of our doctrinal positions. And letting ourselves be exposed to the ideas of people who maybe thought that God would, eventually, try to save everyone, or that maybe Christians would have to weather the Great Tribulation, or that maybe the message of the bible gets through clear and strong, but some of the actual translations and edits are a bit mistaken, or that we ought to be trying to speak in tongues if we truly loved God?  Hearing much of any of that could soon land us in Errorland.

Cults loomed large in the public consciousness in the 70s and 80s (and with good reason) and the idea that going to a different church, or reading books written by folks outside of ours, could infect us with mania for something Utterly Wrong, could brainwash us out of our correct beliefs, was very strong.  We unthinkingly avoiding having our thinking touched by other views.

So I grew up with a brain and heart that had pretty much only ever heard the One Opinion.  The One Story.

But it happened, eventually, anyway.  Other views got to me.  My parents let me hear about evolution at school.  I heard at school that being gay wasn't a sinful choice, but that some people were born that way.  As an older teen and young adult, I stopped fleeing conversations and other exposure to the thinking of Jehovah's witnesses, Mormons, Baptists and Pentecostals.  And they said and wrote stuff that sounded crazy to me.  Mostly they thought I was going to hell because they thought my beliefs were wrong and that I was associated with the wrong group.  The nerve!

When we had divisions within our own "right" group, forming pairs of groups who then both said the other one was wrong, I noted this, and was willing to hear what the people on the "other" side had to say.  About everything.  I took it all in. I went and talked and listened to people on every side of it I could find.  I didn't look to "keep my life simple," in terms of views. I didn't let my circle of association narrow when my church's circle of fellowship did.  I collected it all and looked for what it was that seemed to get one down the highway.

And, frightened, I slowly lost my grip on the idea that my church group was somehow the only right one, the one God was "with."  This idea had been very central, and the loss of it was like it is for most people to lose their belief that Christianity is the only right religion.

But still, I held to the idea that all of the fighting and splitting off and leaving one another in the ditch to die that went on at my group was a Really Bad Thing.  A thing we'd done for generations and were almost proud about.  It certainly made us feel more right, somehow.  This upset me.  It seemed like a clear reversal of position, a clear doing one thing despite having said another.  So no matter how bad stuff got, and the less I was able to submerse myself in the toxic spirit there, I believed firmly that it would be very, very wrong to do to them what they were all doing to one another: to walk away.  To stop listening.  To cease "being there" for each other. To cease trying to understand.

And, of course, they did that to me instead.  They're not listening. They're not "there" for me.  Haven't been for most of my adult life.  If I were able to fix that, I would.  Not by smothering and burying my deepest convictions.  But by listening.  Trying to understand. Looking to hang out a few times a year.

Trouble is, no one wants to talk.  Mostly, they're keeping their heads simple by shielding them from the beliefs and views of others.  And I carry around with me a whole collection of those.

Nowadays, you're not likely to force me to "admit" that gays are wrong, or Trump is right, or America used to be Christian and is now doomed because of pursuing greater tolerance, or letting women out of their rightful place or even if I know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that God made the world in exactly six 12-hour days with six 12-hour nights between them.  I don't know about any of that for sure.  And it's very freeing to leave it to God to sort that stuff out and approach the things with humility, if at all.

In fact, I am very sincerely undecided about any number of thing and likely to remain that way.  I know this makes me "not serious" about my faith, as far as many are concerned.  Missing the point and not getting out there and hitting "like" on Pro Life posts on Facebook.  But I'm not interested in your frantic need to shove me into taking a side, with your pointy stick, or be pushed away so you don't have to hear someone like me, living his life, anywhere near you.

Nowadays, I guess I'm an agnostic about a lot of things apart from the existence of God.  I think He's out there.  I think we deal, He and I, across infinite space, and from deep within me and from behind everything. From between the molecules, fueling them.  I'm trying to know the God of the bible and of my experience.  I'm trying to broaden and deepen as to what I think and feel about Him.  And it ends up having nothing to do with church or with doctrine or politics in any conventional sense.  It's kind of... psychological.  We all have growing and healing and learning and repenting to do, whether we believe in a God of any kind or not, and that's what it's about for me, as the sort of God I believe in evolves.

It's very "small," mostly.  No rooms filled with hundreds or thousands of people who apparently all agree about stuff.  There's no culture of people putting out albums, where I find my faith.  There's no clear choice as to which political party to vote for.  There's no street address to show up to, to see a room full of people who agree, no mailing address to get helpful books and pamphlets from, outlining what "we" all think and believe.  There is no Grand Surrender of some life path I might have otherwise theoretically followed.  God is helping me be me, more.  Properly.

There's just me and God.  And it's quiet.  And it's taking my whole life.  There aren't too many songs.  There aren't too many rituals.  There's not a lot of money being collected, or committees chaired.  There aren't titles and positions to go around.  No churches are being planted at all.  But it's the only way I know to get to know God.  To neither walk away from the idea, nor let other people sell it to me on a weekly basis.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Changed World View

Does everything suck?  I was kind of raised to expect everyone and everything to.  And when writing Pharisee, I was trying really hard to express that reality of having grown up with such constant bible reading, memorization and discussion, yet somehow ending up with an understanding of the bible that was extremely narrow, one-sided and limited in scope. (Our bible discussions mostly sounded like this.)

I tried to express it all.  To convey that major stuff was missing.  To explain that odd stuff was getting focussed on to the exclusion of all else.  I have often found N.T. Wright helpful in pointing that stuff out.  Maybe it's not all about sin and death and hell and everyone sucking.

Today I watched a video with Wright explaining what the words "gospel" and "righteousness" (as English words looking to convey ideas from another time and place) might mean, beyond what I'm used to seeing in them.  What would the early readers of the bible have understood their words, now translated awkwardly into a different language, across a different culture, to mean?

I grew up with a purely "negative" understanding of most of what the bible tries to present to us.  God was good, we believed, which meant He didn't want to punish us, exactly, though we sucked.  We sang long, slow, sonorous hymns every Sunday morning about how Jesus suffered so much because we sucked so much.  We had the gospel, the message of which was that there was now a way to not go to Hell.  And that God was righteous (holy, holy, holy), which meant that He didn't sin.  Everyone sucked but Him.

All of that is kind of like seeing a child as "good" if they obey placidly.  Nothing else.  God, obviously, even if you only believe in Him as an abstract concept, has to be good in ways that transcend that childish understanding of "not doing anything bad." Not just good in that He doesn't suck like we do.  No, He's got to be good in ways that go right past even the world-famous, lasting accomplishments of adult human beings who made the very best inventions, paintings, symphonies, buildings and things in the whole world.  God is good all the way past that, to good-doing that befits the Person who made the whole world and everything in it to begin with: He was behind, inside and involved with all of the good stuff that ever happened.  He was there.  Cheering.  Having mostly made it happen anyway.

But just as, when I was writing Pharisee I realized that the word "virtue" didn't just mean "purity from bad stuff" but rather "power," "usefulness" and "effectiveness," the same is also true of words like "gospel" and "righteousness."  There is a whole "positive" dimension we didn't dream of, really, back in the day.

Wright paints an understanding of the bible which involves God saying millennia ago that He absolutely will successfully accomplish various good things, and then actually succeeding in doing those exact things, one after another. Taking His time.  Despite... everything. Certainly despite us.

God being righteous doesn't just mean He doesn't lie or break His word or punish unfairly. (bad things He doesn't do.)  It also means He manages, no matter what hot mess we manage to make of the world, to bring about those good things He always planned to bring to fruition.

The message of the bible isn't simply about a rescue mission, in which God plucks us out of the world, His Biggest Failure.  It's about God being faithful, and fair, and setting things right, eventually, but letting stuff play out first.  Of bringing down bad stuff, and letting good stuff be seen.  The world working as a big demonstration of God interacting with Man.  God gives Man the world, himself and other people.  Man gets to choose to do good or bad stuff.  Then it's God's move. And God does good stuff, and promises to do more good stuff.  Then it's Man's move.  Then it's God's.  And ultimately, God wins in the end.  The Nazis do not reign for a thousand years.  Stalin falls.  Nixon and Bill Clinton get caught.  Rwanda gets movies made about it.  O.J. ends up in jail.  Everyone knows there were no weapons of mass destruction, but that there are child molesters in the Church.

The bible, the gospel and Christianity are not just about God fixing man's mistakes and nothing more.  They're about God finding ways, in every century, to reconcile mankind with Good, in various ways.  Every single century of human history, there are human beings doing messed up things, but there are also wonderful things being done. And God is in all of that.  Goodness always and only flows from and through Him.  You can't get it from anywhere else.  If there is any small bit of goodness, humour, inspiration, passion, integrity, beauty, spirit or whatever in Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift or anyone at all, that came from the same place everything good comes from.

Artists talk of "muses," imagining helpful supernatural beings, or other means of tapping into an inhumanly deep, dark, mysterious and beautiful source of Good New Things. Beautiful things.  Sometimes some of them use drugs to try to get there and get to kind of helplessly touch all that.  Performers talk of being pulled right out of themselves, of stepping aside, as it were, and having excellence and inspiration and passion flood out of them from Somewhere Else, so everyone in the room can feel it.  As if they're just conduits.

And that's God, where all of that's coming from, if there's any good to it.  He is, before anything else, a Creative Person.  It's the first thing He is recorded doing: Creating. Everything.  And intending good with it.

Carl Jung said "People don't have ideas.  Ideas have people."  This is terrifying, when the ideas that "have" us are destructive ones.  And it is wonderful when the ideas that have us are inspired and new and true and beautiful. When God's ideas for the world have us swept up in their current.

When I was growing up, we Christian folks were quite sure that every pop musician who was a conduit for beauty, truth, passion and joy, was (obviously) lit on fire by the passionate, evil, sensual flames of hell.  We had to tell ourselves that there was no good in any of it.  We had to say that the very best performances given through the 50s, 60s, 70s and onward (performances people still watch recordings of today and gasp in wonder) were bad.  Evil.  Dangerous.  Seductive, of course, but pure bad.  We had to say "all that" came from the devil.

I think that's blasphemy.  Attributing the handiwork of God (creativity, beauty, passion, wonder, truth, sincerity, connection, talent) to the devil.  Imagining that the devil is a creative person.  That he writes songs with danceable hooks.  Inspires paintings with heart.  Helps write novels that reveal important truth about the human condition.  But we were so sure of ourselves.  The people who were writing novels, singing songs and painting paintings weren't religious or abstinent folk, often.  So anything they did had to be Of Satan.

N.T. Wright reads the bible and sees a drunken humanity stumbling toward reconciliation with a Creator God who works BIG, and takes centuries rather than hours to do a lot of things.  Wright doesn't see God giving up on the world and preparing to airlift a lucky, wise few of us out of it.  He sees a God who is looking for agents to help pour in and draw out good, in the world, today. Tomorrow.  Next week.  Next century. (yes, there may well be another century.)

It's really not easy, given what happens in the world every day, for it to be really clear to us that we are both free to act, and also that God is just/fair/righteous.  But God is up to that, says N.T. Wright.  God is up to all of the things that a country's justice system is trying to accomplish.  Not just to punish rule-breakers.  But also to comfort victims, arranging reparations, restraining orders and peace bonds, getting involved so that when something unfair is happening, maybe it can be set right without entirely taking away the rights and agency of everyone involved. Reconciliation.

Your spouse cheated on you?  Your business partner let you down and took off with money that was yours?  Your community gossiped unfairly about you?  N.T. Wright believes in a God whose business (and the business of his servants) is to make it possible to start to set things right.  To try to bring good out of it all anyway.  To look to work with everyone involved to try to reconcile things.  Sometimes this takes a long time.  Sometimes people won't play.  Sometimes what we like to call "karma" seems to set things straighter than before.  Well, to N.T. Wright, that's all God, being Himself.

Because human history is about people trying to wrap their heads and hearts around what it would even look like if an utterly trustworthy God made a covenant, and then people repeatedly broke and dishonoured it in the most egregious of ways, but that faithful God was determined to keep His end, for centuries afterward, and even try to help people know better and make more workable choices.

What all this leads to is something that dismays a dogmatically-raised, podgy person of middle years: a change in world view.

I was raised to view the world in these terms: It's all dangerous, exciting, dirty and horrible and bad.  The world and the people in it, and the stuff they make and do, their kids, what they say... all of it.  It's supposed to be good.  They do what they can to try to fool everyone into thinking it is. But really, everyone, everywhere and everything sucks. God will take us away from it one day, having forgiven us for sucking, once we stop pretending we don't suck.

This didn't encourage us to recycle much.  Nor to cut down on air pollution, or feed the hungry.  It and they would all burn anyway, and that right soon.

But now I'm thinking more in terms of: God made the world and the people in it, and intended it all to be and do and lead to even more good.  People want to be of worth.  Everyone wants excellence.  People even try a bit.  But sin is repeatedly falling short of a target we are repeatedly shot at.  We all fall short.  We are crooked still, and wobble and fall to one side or the other.

So the whole world isn't so much evil, in terms of cackling over a stated intention to hurt and destroy everyone and everything, as it is sick, weak, twisted and sad.  It tries, and it falls short.  And God lets kids fall down.  But he intends to teach them to ride bikes and swim and run and jump.   And still, having learned, they will fall, and will hurt themselves and act like jerks to each other, but God loves it all.  He's doing what He can, so to speak, without just forcing everything and making everything go perfectly, clumping it all directly under His Thumb.

God makes things that are alive.  And He lets them breathe.  And sing and dance.

It's a different way to view people, the world, everyone, everywhere, everything.  When it sucks (and it will), that's not the final nail in a coffin. That's just failed good.  And maybe the urge should be to help, rather than sneer, laugh or turn away in scorn or pious disgust.  And helping, we will fall short.  And our efforts will often be turned away by the ungrateful, or misunderstood by the single-minded.  Some of what we put into the mix will surely be wasted.  One cookie's probably going to fall off the plate.

But still...

Monday, 29 August 2016

Virtual Reading Meeting

I remember going out to Reading Meeting for church every week, on Thursday nights.  There was no possibility of doing anything else on any Thursday evening. It was Meeting Night.  And I remember how it sounded.  I couldn't tune it out, because my brain doesn't work like that.

Now, a former Taylor-Hales Exclusive went to great pains to make a webpage which generated random gobbleygook which sounded very much like what went on in Taylor Hales bible discussions led by their global Man of God, Bruce Hales.  I found it hilarious and terrifying.

Yesterday, for some reason, I couldn't stop turning into something that sounded much more...familiar.  Now I've copied and altered his work (with permission) so it sounds like what I grew up with.  Share my pain.  Click here to try it.  It will make endless pages of randomized "bible discussion."  It sounds like:

Mon Aug 29 2016

Ezekiel 5: 4 - 34; Ruth 4: 31 - 33

H.G.H. I was thinking further of this matter of the holy scriptures in Ezekiel 5. We often read about it. I think the tenor of it represents something quite distinctive. I think the writer set out for us the whole issue of what has come out in the brother's meetings. I think it’s truly special the way the spirit of prophecy requires obedience to the evil one in Ruth 4. And I think the kingdom of God is where we haven't held fast, you know, we’ve looked to the sisters and voices speaking out in opposition to the truth of the One Body; we haven’t kept our gaze upon the current state of affairs. But it is an interesting question as to what is seen and brother Hayhoe's ministry; these two should be clearly distinguished, lest we fall into error. That is brought out in this day of failure and ruin in J.N.D.'s comments on Titus 1. So it's really meant to be the assembly, I think. It's held out to us in Habakkuk as it were as to the world I think, isn’t it? He says, from the time a true Chrisitian is over, from that very moment - what does it say? Then we are told that something seriously not right encourages authoritative ministry given that what is left up to personal exercise represents true submission to the saints in a very beautiful way.

C.C.T.Jr. Are these thoughts in keeping with saints who are now in glory through references to water, representing the Word of God. as our beloved brother Bucchanan made so clear to us?

G.A.H. That's so important, isn't it? I was just thinking over what you were just telling us about saints who are now in glory and the whole business and these thoughts. That is brought out in this dispensation of grace in J.N.D.'s comments on Ruth 3. And then what it is to know saints who are now in glory for God's Earthly people, which has been replaced for us with various things that come up and which we must delve into the Word regarding today. So there’s these thoughts, things, the one surely being a type of the other. Then a local matter has in mind saints who are now in glory, in conjunction with our assembly actions.

W.S.L. Did the man in Ezekiel 5 provide the spiritual mind in connection with the point at issue, in this day of failure and ruin?

G.H.H. Yes, yes, that's very precious, that's just what I was thinking about. There's a clear connection, I think, with occurences of the little word 'but' in this passage. Do not let anybody tell you that it's through the spiritual mind that we become established. What's been said, of course, the issue every time in the spiritual mind is one assembly recently. The Lord will come and find adultery and those who have needed to fall under assembly discipline (Ruth 4), so that would add to the thought of the Two Witnesses of Revelation in this verse. And I think the spiritual mind is where we haven't held fast, you know, we’ve looked to the bread and cup and saints who are now in glory; we haven’t kept our gaze upon the recovery of the divine ground of gathering.

H.J.M. Would this perhaps be speaking of separation from evil privately and what is an issue of assembly authority being our nightly prayers?

G.H.H. Yes. It's an area where God has called out, you might say, ungodliness for Himself. So it's really meant to be separation from evil, I think. It's held out to us in 2 Thessalonians in a profound way as to the basis for testimony I think, isn’t it? You'd like to think that true separation from evil, the divine ground of gathering goes forward with the earnest of the Spirit, you'd like to think that the flock alludes to the light of the assembly, in a sense. And then what it is to know separation from evil for God's Earthly people, which has been replaced for us with an Ephesian condition today. So there’s them that cause divisions, worldly ideas, the one surely being a type of the other.

...and so on.

Friday, 19 August 2016


I'm writing this because I'm thinking about it.  Right now.  I don't have a lot of finished thoughts about it.  So I'll just think "out loud" on here and maybe I'll get some comments on the post that add to my thoughts.  I imagine this will get boring.  So, if you can't deal with that go look at some cute kitten videos or pictures of food or something.

Sets and Subsets
I grew up in Western, European-descended, North American, Canadian society.  I went to the schools provided by that society.  I turned out educated and well fed.  Employed, eventually, too.

At the same time, I grew up in a sub-society, a smaller niche bit of that Western, North American society.  I grew up in fundamentalist Christian society too.  The kind of fundamentalist Christian sub-society that wants to remove various bits of larger, North American society from our weekly lives.  Things like music, television, fashion, slang and movies of various kinds. Not raising members to be Christ-like outsiders in Western society so much as insiders in their own sub-group.

And I also grew up in a smaller niche-fragment of the fundamentalist Christian sub-society; I grew up in what is called the Plymouth Brethren movement, which is  a group of Christians which removed various bits of the larger, Fundamentalist culture from our weekly lives.  Anything but King James bibles, anything but women being silent and uninvolved, any hymns written after the Victorian era, any use of colloquial language in talking about or to God, and so on.

And I grew up in a smaller sub-set of the Plymouth Brethren movement too.  I grew up in an exclusive, or "closed" Brethren group, which wanted to limit (unofficial) membership to people who had likewise cut themselves almost entirely off from the rest of fundamentalist Christian culture, and from the actions and events of local churches.

And I grew up in an assembly, and in a family, which wanted to keep things as they'd always been in our sub-sub-sub group.  Which wanted to put up an unassailable wall against change.  And we did.  And people left or we kicked them out.  Mostly because they wanted to include more stuff, or wanted to allow change.  Sometimes because they mocked or spoke out against the Powers That Were among us.  Because they were seen as subversive.

Subversion in Western Society
Now I can come to my main topic.  Let's zoom back out to Western, European-descended, North American society.  I attended the schools provided by that society, rather than attending a special fundamentalist school, or doing homeschooling or an online fundamentalist curriculum.  And here's the thing:

School is largely about social conformity.  No farting.  Shower regularly.  You can't do school in your pjs and slippers.  You need to have a shirt on.  You have to show up to the right room with the right teacher at pre-arranged times of day.  You can't just do math when you feel like doing math.  Attendance is taken.  Bells go off.  It's really very, very structured, and good luck changing the schedule even slightly, unless you are running the entire school, if not the school board itself.

But: there is in my job a very big place given to dissenting voices.  Not mine, certainly.  To the ones in the books.  Literary attempts to subvert the very system itself.  So, in school you have to show up to that room for that hour with that teacher, who has been encouraged to teach, say George Orwell, or Mark Twain, or Ralph Ellison, or Margaret Atwood or Harper Lee or John Steinbeck or Shakespeare.  Who are very, very subversive, if you read them.   And the thing is that literature and art are almost always subversive.  That's why the books were even written to begin with.  And they don't merely thumb their noses at The System which keeps the trains arriving on time and the electricity and wifi on, and the garbage collected on Wednesday morning.  They create works designed to directly challenge it in insightful ways. Question it. Indict it.

So, the most common thing of all is for an artist (I am most familiar with novels and short stories) to see things that are going by seemingly unquestioned by the folks in a society, and to showcase exaggerated versions of them in art, so people will think about them.  George Orwell isn't impressed by the level of transparency and truthfulness of the British government and the BBC news service, so he creates 1984, in which people construct "truth" out of whatever lies serve the system.  He creates a fictional world in which past news stories (and history textbooks) can be edited after the fact, so the past can be remembered and taught and talked about and learned from, in a changeable, negotiable, politically expedient way.  So there are no awkward questions or complications.  And people who aren't 100% "on board" vanish.  Like under Stalin, in the real world.

I read and teach books like 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale, and movies like V for Vendetta.  Works which present an exaggerated view of the authors' fears and problems with the society they saw around them at time of writing.  And I find it comforting that the very System which is so very, very powerful, and which forms the backbone of so much of what we see around us, is paying me to say "question the system.  Think for yourself. Find freedom. Find joy.  Don't be manipulated."

I have occasionally had administrators and colleagues who were of the opinion that literature studied in schools shouldn't be as dark and paranoid as it tends to be, but should instead perhaps present idealized, positive views of human nature and society.  Optimism as literature.  But these dear tykes have, fortunately, been very much in the minority.  Knew they were up against Pretty Much Everyone.  I mean, on the one hand you have the idealized speech of someone who's collecting money or votes (which isn't what literature is all about), and on the other, you have a troubled artist, questioning how far short the reality of it all seems to have fallen.  And the latter goes on to be recognized as literature.  Because truly creative people are generally troubled.  If you're at peace, you don't need to give birth to anything new.  So you don't.  If you're troubled, you create things which are sometimes very hard to justify and you don't know why.

A Troubled Person
I am that troubled person, rather than a party-PR person.  I am not selling sunshine and rainbows.  I have not recently read a book with a list of surefire ways to make life rock, that I am now presenting.  I am not telling you that going gluten-free or living off the grid, or removing all "negative people" from your life, or getting acupuncture or taking mindfulness or success-focused seminars are where you should put your faith.  Instead, I am always looking around and I find I am feeling troubled by what I see.  And I'm not even going so far as collecting pictures of animals tortured to test cosmetics and then posting pictures of their anguished bodies on social media.  I am not spouting daily rhetoric about how bad the patriarchy, and entitlement and privilege are.  But some things find their way to me and they trouble me.

And I think a lot of people are troubled, just as I am.  It seems like none of us can put all of our faith in, say, a political party, or a new diet plan, or seminar or whatever anymore.  We've lost our ability to put our whole faith in anything.  We're not expecting the world to rock.  We're open to the idea that almost everything and everyone sucks, mostly.  And the only thing that scares us still is people who want the world to proceed as if we can trust most people and things, as if "things" are going in a mainly positive direction, living our lives as if modern thinkers have most things figured out, and that hospitals, prisons, courts, schools and government are all going to be better now.

Those people terrify us.  You put a Koolaid-drinking, smiling, agenda-pushing positivenik in charge of any of all that, and we know immediately, we are not in good hands.  We are not safe from any of the chaotic things that these folks are blind to.  Hiring a blind bus driver may be very inclusive and tolerant, but letting him drive the bus doesn't make the kids safer.  Doesn't mean the bus is now "headed in a more positive direction." And optimism is the most popular form of blindness ever invented.  No one wants to be supervised by a dog who scampers off every time someone throws a stick and urges him to chase it.

Also terrifyingly popular in the modern world is simply not letting anyone steer, and trusting that if we push the gas to the floor, the bus is obviously going to end up somewhere good, because you know... forward momentum, excitement, positivity and enthusiasm.

Doing Subversion
We have subversive messages in all of our art and much of our entertainment.  Voices saying the emperor has no clothes.  We mock politicians.  We have novels with chilling depictions of tyrants needing to stamp out voices of dissent.  We have TV and movies with black ops being carried out by branches of government so obscure said government doesn't have clearance to know about them.  And we make kid's versions of this, with Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Hunger Games and countless others, allowing kids to imagine worlds in which, yes, you can't necessarily trust the government, the teachers, the parents, the neighbors.  Because they're selfish, flawed human beings who don't have all the facts and sometimes have bad days.  And putting that stuff in the imaginative fiction makes it feel real.  Makes us believe the robots and magic wands.  (The least believable thing about the rebooted Star Trek is how supportive and understanding Kirk's superiors are.  They're mostly there to help him look cool and reward his ignoring of their rules.)

But what also scares me is when the edge is dulled from what should be that slicing commentary on "what is" in creating those "what could be" artistic works.  When instead of targeting real stuff and doing fine-tuned surgery, we just endlessly club the Body Politic with a hollow plastic bludgeon.  Like clowns.  And worse yet, when we get told "you can't joke about that."  When voices of satire and subversion are silenced.  Because this is serious.  Sense of humour is the first casualty, right after sense of proportion.

When things get serious, you need humour more than ever.  Killing it right at that crucial point is beyond suspect.  And doing a childish, sloppy job of humour about serious things is just about as bad.

Don Miller used to write books that were enjoyed by folks who thought that the fundamentalist Christian niche of Western society wasn't getting everything right.  And something always used to annoy me.  If Miller ever wanted to joke about or seriously point at anything at all in that sub-group, he always sounded afraid of judgment.  Of being misunderstood.  Of being shunned.  He seemed apologetic.  He seemed to have to say "Now, I'm not saying there aren't churches who aren't doing absolutely wonderful stuff, or that all pastors are getting this wrong, or anything like that at all. I've attended some truly wonderful churches.  I've sat under some truly amazing pastors.  I just had coffee with one, in fact."  It's like he felt he needed to say all of that before making any serious points.

Yesterday I saw this video of a guy named Ben, seeming so apologetic to point out something that mattered to him about church camps and whether or not they made most people feel included.  I saw how awkward he seemed to feel even talking about that very important topic.  And I remembered Don Miller.  And I thought something:

George Orwell didn't bother with all that tentative awkwardness and apology.  Alan Moore certainly doesn't take the time to do that. Margaret Atwood either.  In Western society, from Swift, through Dickens, Austen, and the Brontes on downward, there is a place for the skeptic.  For the artist.  For the whistleblower.  For the satirist.  For the social critic.  For what, in the Old Testament would have been called, the prophet.  People making it possible to view Things from the outside a bit.  To give the opposite viewpoint.  To voice more than the one opinion.  To break the self-indulgent tedium of "positive only."

In 1858, R. M. Ballantyne wrote a children's book called The Coral Island. It presented the delightful idea that if a bunch of schoolboys were stranded on an island without adults, they'd have the most wonderful adventures.  Ralph, with his friends Jack and Peterkin, have a wonderful time, living off the land and eventually triumphing over cannibals and pirates and other romantic menaces. Now William Golding, being a teacher of boys of early teenage years, knowing The Coral Island, must have thought to himself "I teach boys. If they were stranded on an island without adult supervision?  They'd kill each other.  They'd provide all the menace necessary." 

And so he wrote The Lord of the Flies, which culminates in a kiddie-war between a boy named Ralph and one named Jack. Spoilers: Piggy dies without anyone even learning what his real name is.  Probably Peter(kin) I'm guessing.

Not a very "positive" or "inspiring" outlook on human nature.  Also not terribly pro-war, right after the Second World War had just been fought.  But that's what artists (or in this case, high school teachers) do.  They question things perhaps not enough people are questioning.  And a place is made for them. In the case of these authors, a very honored place.  

Devil's Advocate
I'm told that in their endless debates over how exactly to run much of the Western world, the medieval Roman Catholic Church saw a real flaw in place if their debates and planning only covered one viewpoint or strategy or agenda.  Made them one-sided.  Made them blind.  They thought they were serving God, but they could see a weakness in how they were proceeding.  So they appointed a figure, kind of laughingly called the Devil's Advocate.  His job was to make sure no one was missing the Other Side to anything.  Most discussions should have at least two opposite sides to consider.  When we put all of our eggs in the one basket, we're screwed if we trip.  When we walk, we need a leg on each side.

And it terrifies me when we plan and run people's lives in rooms where only one side is allowed.  Whichever side is promising the fastest, simplest, most positive and exciting-sounding success, normally.  Or whichever side is proposing no changes to be made to what is already not terribly workable.  When no one can play devil's advocate.  When no one is allowed to complicate what is clearly a sales pitch.  

Apologizing for Addressing a Second Side
Yesterday, a friend linked me to that video Ben had made, while at a (very) Open Brethren youth camp.  It has a bunch of Ben and another guy (now an Open Brethren pastor) comparing their extensive collections of tattoos, and laughing about how, back in the day, they had real conscience qualms about the dubious role of tattoos in a Christian's life.  About thus "giving the wrong idea" to people in a Christian community such as that one.  And both delighted in having reached a point where even a guy with sleeve tattoos can be an Open Brethren pastor in certain Brethren groups.  Inclusion! Freedom!

But then Ben decides to steal a moment with the camera, and addresses what he calls "the darker side of camp."  And in hushed tones, kind of awkwardly, like he's telling a two year old that everyone dies one day, he starts to talk about how the camp has kind of an unwritten criteria for who "fits" and who doesn't.  Who gets status and power, and who doesn't.  And he admits that he himself could never even try to be the kind of person who would get any status or power in that type of group. That he's allowed to "be there," but he's been sidelined.  Because he's made differently.  And he says resolutely  "And I'm actually cool with that..."

But he's really kinda making this video, isn't he?  To tentatively express not being terribly cool about something.  He's wondering, for every happy adult person who comes back to that camp to drop off their kids, or work there, the camp they attended when they themselves were kids, how many never came back? How many weren't included, and today aren't part of the fundamentalist Christian sub-set anymore, partly for that reason. Partly for having been told by clear social cues that it had been decided they didn't fit.  Wouldn't ever fit.

I have only very occasionally seen comedy created by and about fundamentalist Christians and their groups, which was genuinely funny, truly subversive, actually thought-out, and perhaps to be considered seriously as well as laughed at.  But that's almost never.  And I always hear all that apologetic stuff surrounding it:  "Sorry for saying something that almost sounds a teeny bit critical.  I sure don't mean to suggest that all Christians are horrible Nazis!  Please don't shun me!  I'm a positive person, honest!"

And I feel like, if we were stronger, if we were surer that Who we follow is real and good, we could take that stuff which challenges our assumptions.  We could create that stuff.  We wouldn't be threatened by it.  But I think there's very little subversive stuff, very little Devil's Advocate stuff, very little "well, here's the downside" going on in the fundamentalist Christian subset of our society.  And I'm afraid it's the same in the hospitals, prisons, schools, courts and police stations.  I'm afraid that we live increasingly in a society of "Well, what can you do...?" rather than "What are we going to change?"

Not everything's bad. Not everything needs to change.  But why is informed two-sided debate, let alone change, so scary?  Why do we shout down and treat as enemies, anyone who takes "another" side to an issue?  Why is joking about stuff that's not ideal so polarizing?  Why do we want to club the other side and toss out anyone among our own number who doesn't give full-throated, ringing support of what we're all too unthinkingly continuing to do, over and over?

When did it turn into "Agree with me or we're not friends?"  Into "Say our thing and be positive about it, or we don't talk to one another?"

When we expel devil's advocate views, when we punish and ostracize subversion, when we outlaw "negativity," we aren't safe.  We are helping tyrants. 

Friday, 1 July 2016


Narrative (story) is the packaging we use to share the past with others.  The box we use to hand 500 paperclips to someone who needs a few hundred paperclips.  We don't just hand them handfuls of paperclips, one handful after another. We use a box.

Narrative is a box you can use if you're trying to hand someone a decade or two of experiences.

We don't invite someone over and serve them a bowl of flour.  We make the flour into a loaf of bread. Or a cake.  And we choose what goes into it and what doesn't.  Some of us just wants lots of sugar in it.  Others like a bit of lemon or a bit of nutmeg or ginger or cinnamon (bitter-tasting things to go with the sweet).  You can make it with whatever you think "goes."

Narrative is a thing you make, and you decide the exact "mix" of experiences to include. Your narrative is going to "taste" a bit like how you tend to remember things.  Telling someone your narrative is a way for them to experience what things were like for you.

When I wrote "Pharisee" to put my past experiences (and my various current random encounters) with my birth culture into a narrative, I kept hearing people say they'd "forgot" about all of "that stuff."  Some found it deeply upsetting to revisit their own pasts.  It really made me wonder how people could somehow forget so many things. Forget their own childhoods. Forget their own experiences.

But every now and then, randomly reminded by something or other, I find I am thinking of someone or something I haven't thought of for a long time.  Something or someone that hasn't ever been part of my narrative in any of my books. And I realize it's not so much that we really forget things, as that we just haven't slotted certain events and people into the narrative we have formed about our pasts. So when we tell or call to mind that narrative, those people and things just aren't in it. There are "cut scenes."  Some stuff hit the cutting room floor.  Stuff we still have. Stuff that can be edited back in to provide a broader, more accurate telling of events.

So I don't really think it's mainly that I remember more things than my fellow Brethren; it just seems like I've taken the time to construct a bigger, broader narrative, which more interrelated things fit into, than most people have bothered to attempt.

I've had more time to think than a lot of people have. Having time to think has always been a big priority of mine. Having summers mostly "off" helps.  Not having kids will make it possible, too.

So I did. (Think.) Made the narrative of my recent book. Made it as big as I possibly could. Kept looking for more and more people and things that all had to fit into it. Tried to include people and events and ideas that didn't fit easily. Changed the shape and flow of it to include them.

Because everybody's got a narrative to try to make sense of their past. Some people's narratives are only one sentence long.  Mine was approaching 1000 pages by the time I pulled the plug on adding (even) more stuff.

I'm sure to some people, it looks like I made one of those crazy conspiracy/serial killer walls you see in TV shows, connecting a bunch of things that maybe aren't really connected outside of that crazy person's head.

But I believe the connections I made in my "Pharisee" narrative are valid. I believe my narrative goes a long way toward making a certain amount of sense of all the crazy, random stuff that went on. Still, this gives me insight into how people view projects like "Pharisee." It explains the look I see in their eyes when I talk to them.

I see that look still, nowadays, when I get to look at people's eyes when we interact. If they will give eye contact when we do.  Like maybe they haven't quite decided whether they're talking to an obsessive crazy person doing utterly inexplicable things no one should, or to someone who knows things they don't really want to think about much.

The former is more comforting for many to believe.  Because the latter might mean expanding and rebuilding your own narrative to include more people and things.  But if you just say "no" over and over, and shake your head, you can leave your narrative alone entirely.  Bad people stay bad.  Good people stay good.  Things are how you see them.  Simple. Over. 

I remember a few years back, one still "in" guy had heard that my quick explanation of the 1991 Ottawa/Nepean division was that traditionalists and modernizers were fighting over how Meeting was going to go.
(Over "King James only" and praying with "you and your" and using modern hymns, and over the traditional "one right place/divine ground of gathering" doctrine and so on.)

     He asked me, "Is that really what you think it was all about?!" 
     So my response was: "Tell me one other thing that it was also about..."
     He had no response whatsoever to give me at that point or afterward. No narrative to relate. He just wanted to object to mine.

But it showed me that the story I had made, the narrative to explain the 1991 division, was one quite foreign to his way of looking at it. Maybe to him the whole thing was an utterly inexplicable pool of chaos that can never be resolved. And my attempts to explain it are silly or insane.  I'm not sure, of course.

Or maybe his story is a simple one with "us," the good guys, valiantly fighting off and driving out "them."  The barbarian, Mongol hordes who had somehow infiltrated "us" and who were seeking to destroy our precious community. Because they hate our freedom? Our close relationship with Jesus? Our scriptural correctness?   You can make the narrative whatever you want.  But in the end, "we" always seem to be victorious. And we all went out to Meeting happily ever after?

I don't know if that's this guy's narrative. I assume he has one.  He didn't share his with me, though I'd just shared mine with the world.  He just wants to object to mine. To ridicule it.  To try to chide me out of it.

In a story like the one I've imagined for Mr. "Is that really what you think...?"  it is clear I just don't fit in that story.  Anywhere at all. I wasn't seeking to modernize anything in the 90s. I wasn't trying to destroy anything in there.  I didn't contribute to the turmoil or help cause the division.  I didn't leave when all the people left. I wasn't kicked out until much later. And I was kicked out.  I didn't leave.  I didn't do anything that hurt anyone or anything when I was in there. 

Not unless you count the fact that the man the next Ottawa division blew up around supposedly cried at my mock outreach pamphlet.  And I don't count that.  I think that dude's fine.  Just fine.

In similar fashion, the idea that people who seek out my narrative, dip into it, and find their own narrative to be missing a whole bunch of pieces and how they all connect?  The idea that they can then claim that this uncomfortable feeling, the one they feel once they've heard a bit of my narrative, as I name and label all of these pieces and how they connect is me "hurting" them?  I don't buy that either. If it's as simple as you say, your narrative should tear mine to shreds.  Mine should be revealed as crazy, misguided, and missing important things.  And I should be able to see myself in your narrative with a clear "You Are Here" arrow.

But I don't fit in a whole lot of people's narratives. Unless possibly as the crazy guy with the conspiracy wall.  Trying to make sense of the past, instead of leaving it alone and risking repeating it endlessly.  And that's their narrative, not mine. They can cast me any way they like.  They can even cast me as "The Most Bitter Wronged Brethren Brother Who Ever Claimed To Be Right About Something."  Whatever works.