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.