Sunday, December 28, 2008

Motor Oilish Beer and Christian Hypocrisy: Audio Version

A couple months ago I posted a brief argument regarding ‘The Problem of Christian Hypocrisy which I expanded into a talk. A couple weeks ago I gave the talk again at my brother’s church. My wife said it wasn’t nearly as good[1], but I think it does the job. It includes some thoughs on the Historical Injustices of the Church as well. The mp3 is here.

If the topic interests you, I also recommend Dr. Os Guinness[2] on the topic here. Guinness actually contradicts me at one point, but that is part of the fun of taking on these questions.

[1] I was sick, jet lagged, teaching for the 3rd time that day and my rhetorical style was not thriving in the southern milieu, shaking my confidence a bit.
[2] Yes, THAT Guinness. He starts with a hilarious anecdote about the family business. It is worth clicking on the link just to hear this story. The great thing about an apologist in the beer industry is that he tends to not be constrained by standard strictures of propriety observed by many Christian speakers (which he evidences in the Q&A).

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Singularity of Bethlehem

I am always looking for ways to make Christmas an actual celebration of the event of Incarnation. By rejecting the liturgical year but keeping Christmas, Protestants have left themselves with a single day that can not bear the weight of all the expectations (both Christian and ‘secular’) that we have put on it. So for the last 5 years or so I have tried to embrace the rhythms of the liturgical calendar, working advent readings into my devotions and observing Christmas for more than just the 25th (as the church historically has done). So I am always looking for new ways to make Advent and Christmas reflective and worshipful.

Recently I have been leaning on poetry. This year I tried to create some. I challenged myself to write a poem in the last week of Advent that I would post regardless of its quality on Christmas Eve. I have already given my disclaimer for my brutal poetry, but I recently encountered this quote in Martian Luther’s Bondage of the will:

“What if any one, intending to compose a poem…should never think about, or inquire into his abilities, what he could do, and what he could not do…what would you think of such a poet?”

Hopefully you would think well of such a poet…or at least one who has considered his abilities, found them wanting, and tried any way.

The Singularity of Bethlehem

A misplaced star
awkwardly indicates
the singularity of Bethlehem.

The God-man paradox
even more befuddling
in its God-baby instance.

The infinite packed into
an adorable, finite vessel
Glory squished so dense.

The intractable mystery
suffers not from a deficit of intelligibility,
but a surplus.

God con-carne, meated
redeeming and ennobling flesh.

God soils his swaddle.
Meconium declares the glory of God.
The co-suffer has come to share our shit.

Wizards from distant deserts
and sheep wranglers from proximal hills
seekers and the sought
worship the baby

‘Who can abide the day of his coming’
Today as a helpless baby
Tomorrow, tatted up and into swords.

This annual training in waiting.

Well if you got through that, here is one of my favorite actual poems that I use in my Advent devotions. I don’t know if it is actually a Christmas poem (or even a Christian Poem), but it certainly does the job:

Black Rook in Rainy Weather

On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident

To set the sight on fire
In my eye, not seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall,
Without ceremony, or portent.

Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can't honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Leap incandescent

Out of the kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then ---
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent

By bestowing largesse, honor,
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); sceptical,
Yet politic; ignorant

Of whatever angel may choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content

Of sorts. Miracles occur,
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait's begun again,
The long wait for the angel.
For that rare, random descent.

-Sylvia Plath

Have a great Christmas.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Is the ‘Neon Bible’ Right?

The Arcade Fire[1] is indisputably one of the most successful indi/alternative rock bands of the last 5 years. I honestly wish I had a nickel for every chat room or comment block mention of them as ‘the greatest rock band of our generation.’ So I approached their first album, Funeral, with eager expectation. While I found the hyperbole overstated, it was a very fine album with fertile themes of community, neighborhood, family and the human condition. The Arcade Fire certainly falls on the list of my favorite things that are Canadian with hockey, beaver tails[2], Toronto, Banff, the Burgess Shale, Samantha Bee, the Drumheller dinosaur museum, the ‘two-ny’[3] and our friends Richie and Allen. So I moved on to their second album with heightened expectation.

The first time I listened to Neon Bible, I knew it was a thematically provocative piece. As pipe organs and orchestras swelled I caught lines like:

“…It's in the Neon Bible, the Neon Bible…”

“…Working for the Church while your family dies…”

“…Dear God, I'm a good Christian manIn your glory, I know you understandThat you gotta work hard and you gotta get paid…”

But, because their lovely artistic mumbling I didn’t catch half the words until my third time through it. By then I was pretty sure that it was an acerbic anti-Christian album. But after many more listens and a careful reading of the lyrics, I think it is far more complicated than that. Neon Bible is unquestionably dark. It is bitter and cynical about culture, commerce, media and the church. But upon more careful reading, I don’t really think they are making a full frontal attack on Christianity or faith. There is no doubt that faith is the pejorative theme of the work, but it is not so much faith itself, but the unholy alliances it makes with politics, television, celebrity culture, consumerism and the like. Win said in one interview “There's definitely an aspect of religion always combining with culture and becoming a third thing.” I think this idea is the thematic heart of the album. In this sense, it is a prophetic album, with themes that I often resonate with. Here are some thoughts on the most overtly spiritual tracks. But since this is an interpretive exercise it will also be a reflection on hermeneutics[4] in general:

Neon Bible

A vial of hope and a vial of pain
In the light they both looked the same
Poured them out on into the world
On every boy and every girl

It's in the Neon Bible, the Neon Bible
Not much chance for survival
If the Neon Bible is right

Take the poison of your age
Don't lick your fingers when you turn the page
What I know is what you know is right
In the city it's the only light

I have read a wide variety of interpretations of the title track. They range from the wholesale dismissal of Christianity to a critique of television.

The former interpretation takes its clues from “Not much chance for survivalIf the Neon Bible is right”

The latter takes the opening verse as a description of how the news delivers genocide and famine (a vial of pain) in precisely the same ‘entertainment’ medium as it reports amusing trifles or stories of beauty, justice or courage (A vial of hope…/In the light they look the same)

I think the meaning is something between these. In an interview Regine said that she thought of the title when she saw a church with a neon sign.[5] But there are themes of Television and consumerism as well. I think, fundamentally, they are decrying the contamination of religion in general and Christianity in particular with the more vapid aspects of our culture.

The king's taken back the throne
The useless seed is sown
When they say they're cutting off the phone
I tell 'em you're not home

No place to hide
You were fighting as a soldier on their side
You're still a soldier in your mind
Though nothing's on the line

Who's gonna throw the very first stone?
Oh! Who's gonna reset the bone?
Walking with your head in a sling
Wanna hear the solider sing:
"Been working for the Church while my family dies
Your little baby sister's gonna lose her mind
Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home"
Hear the soldier groan "We'll go at it alone.

This is the most obvious Rorschach of the album. Many think it is about Bush and Iraq and the idea of a Holy war. I think that is pretty likely. If I could employ the hermeneutic of analogy
[6] it fits in with the larger theme of contaminating Christianity with the dark institutions of our world…in this case, politics.

But this interpretation does not seem to account for all of the themes. And so since I have nothing else regarding an ‘authorial intent’ interpretation, let me give you some reader response.

This song reminded me of the many soldiers I know
[7] that subsequently went into the ministry.
The line "Been working for the Church while my family dies” also conjures the image of my broken propensity to put the programs of the church above my responsibility to be emotionally and temporally available to my family. I actually think this second point fits into my hypothesized, overall theme, of human institutions as impediments to faith. I love the Church,
[8] but the church’s programs can undermine its mandate.

"Antichrist Television Blues"

I don't wanna work in a building downtown
No I don't wanna work in a building downtown
I don't know what I'm gonna do
Cause the planes keep crashing always two by two…

Dear God, I'm a good Christian man
In your glory, I know you understand
That you gotta work hard and you gotta get paid
My girl's 13 but she don't act her age
She can sing like a bird in a cage
O Lord, if you could see her when she's up on that stage!...

Wanna hold a mirror up to the world
So that they can see themselves inside my little girl!

Do you know where I was at your age?
Any idea where I was at your age?
I was working downtown for the minimum wage
And I'm not gonna let you just throw it all away!
I'm through being cute, I'm through being nice
O tell me, Lord, am I the Antichrist?!

This is, without a doubt, the most disturbing song on the album. The interpretive key is
that it used to have a working title ‘Joe Simpson.[9]’ If this is true the line “So that they can see themselves inside my little girl!” is beyond disturbing.
Like the political interpretation of Intervention, this track paints a picture of a man who uses his faith to justify, or even encourage him to throw his daughters under the machine of our celebrity culture.

My Body’s a Cage

I'm standing on a stage
Of fear and self-doubt
It's a hollow play
But they'll clap anyway…

I'm living in an age
That calls darkness light
Though my language is dead
Still the shapes fill my head

I'm living in an age
Whose name I don't know
Though the fear keeps me moving
Still my heart beats so slow…

My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key

You're standing next to me
My mind holds the key

Set my spirit free
Set my spirit free
Set my body free

To me, the most obvious interpretation of this is a longing to be free of moral corruption. In Paul’s words:

1Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, 3because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

There is very little doubt in my mind that that is eisegesis based on my perspectival biases. Yet for lack of a better interpretation I am going to go with it, making My Body’s a Cage my favorite track.

[1] The band is built around a husband wife team of Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, is based in Quebec and is known for nearly orchestral arrangements. Both Funeral and Neon Bible were nominated for Grammys
[2] Not the actual tails, they are far too chewy. This is a version of fried dough we used to get every time we went to ottowa on family trips which was more than anually
[3] Canada’s first dollar coin had a loon on it so they named it ‘the loony.’ When the two dollar coin came out it was just an exercise in theme and variation.
[4] The study and practice of interpretation.
[5] My favorite part of this interview is when Regine talks about the church the bought to record in and says ‘It is funny that they get turned into condos where no one speaks to their neighbour. Nobody even knows who lives next door!’
[6] This is an interpretive method that suggests that if a certain pericope proves resistant to interpretation you should, at least, bound your interpretation by the themes of the larger work. Of course the problem with the hermeneutic of analogy is that if you get the overall theme wrong you will find many pericopes difficult to harmonize and will just impose your erroneous interpretation on them…which I may very well, in fact, be doing here.
[7] I became a Christian at an on base youth ministry at Ft Drum in Northern NY. Much of my early spiritual development was overseen by mentors that received much of theirs from the West Point Navigators chapter.
[8] I will post on this idea soon.
[9] The ex-pastor single parent father of Jessica and Ashley

Thursday, December 4, 2008

An Explanation of Fantasy Ink

Every six months or so Bill Simmons re-pitches an excellent idea for an annual NBA publication. He proposes a document that contains pictures of players’ tattoos (by team) accompanied by explanations of what the ink means and why they chose it. I would SO read that. I find the psychology of tattoos fascinating…mainly because I am thinking about getting one. Here is a goofy fake interview which is how I would like my page to read in the Simmons Guide to NBA Tattoos if (A) if my unguarded field goal percentage didn’t hover around 7% and (B) if I actually had a tattoo:

‘Sacramento Kings’ twelfth man[1] Stanford Gibson (#7) has a single tattoo on the inside of his left forearm. It is a mixture of traditional and unconventional body art themes featuring a skull (traditional) held pensively by some sort of robed monk (untraditional). Here is the conversation we had with him:

SG: It was inspired by Caravaggio’s St Francis in Prayer . It is an existential theme that life is most fully experienced in light of our mortality.
SGTNT: So, it’s sort of a Heidegger thing you’ve got going on.

SG: I’m closer to Kierkegaard than Heidegger. And actually, I’d like to think I’m closer to Jesus than either of them. Meditation on mortality is a source of joy rather than despair. And I think the figure of Francis illustrates this more than almost any one else living or dead. He was a man of desperate joy and he lived like he knew that each of his moments was filled with ultimate value. I think this is, in a strange way, what the Christian and the secular existentialist have in common. For a Sartre or a Camus each moment was filled with ultimate value because this life is all we have. For Francis and the rest of us who hope in Christ, each moment is filled with ultimate value because the implications reverberate through eternity. Remember, two of the three authors[2] credited as proto-existentialists were Christians. The movement has its roots in both visions of ultimate value.

SGTNT: When did you get it and why?

SG: It was in my early 30’s when I was diagnosed with Graves Disease. I felt like I was too young to be loosing organs[3]. But it connected me experientially to my mortality at a relatively young age. I got the tattoo as a reminder of the ultimate value of each moment. There is a line from one of my favorite ancient poems[4] that pretty much articulates why I got it: “The length of our days is seventy years-eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass and we fly away…Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

The other thing is that I was raised to think that getting a tattoo was the surest sign of poor judgment because you have it forever. But that is precisely why I got it. Because I won’t have it forever. It has an expiration date that is approximately the same as mine. I will only have the thing for something between 30 seconds and 60 years. It is a reminder to both celebrate the deterioration of my body and to struggle with each breath to make my few moments count.

[1]Another Simmons theory is that NBA teams go about 7 to 9 deep and have no need for their 12th man, so they should use the slot as a marketing scheme and make it a blogger like Paul Shirley. I am afraid that that is as far as my imagination can take this.
[2] Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche
[3] The main treatment for Graves disease is to ingest a dose of radioactive iodine that kills your thyroid.
[4] Psalm 90

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sovereign Particularity and Palin's Turkey Pardon

Sarah Palin is in the news again. She exerted her gubernatorial (love that word) prerogative to pardon a turkey. To do this, she went to a turkey farm, a logical place. It was all very folksy and fun. On the way out she was interviewed about the presidential race. The catch is that the interview took place in front of the active dispatching of the unfortunate, unpardoned:

This is equal parts surreal and ridiculous[1]. But the first time I heard of it I couldn't help but think about one of the most difficult and controversial verses in the Bible.

22What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— 24even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

Now this verse is largely about ethnocentrism. Paul is saying to the Christians of Hebrew descent, what is it to you if God wants to save some of the dirty gentiles? God is all about maximizing his glory by saving the worst of the worst. And the ‘What if’ linguistic structure suggest Paul may not even be fully committed to this idea. This may even just be a rhetorical device.[2] But if we just try to suspend our modern propensity for offense for a minute, and take the verse at face value, that God's mercy is magnified in its sovereign particularity[3], I can’t thing of a better illustration than the stark contrast between Palin's pardoned turkey and those being decapitated before us. We became existentially aware of the benefits of mercy. While I do not pretend to understand Romans 9, there is a ring of truth to this illustration.

[1] The ridiculous part is modern disassociation between meat and death. This is how we used to butcher chickens when I was growing up. We had a bucket with a hole that we stuck the head through and loped it off. Once a gyrating headless chicken bounced out of the bucket and ran at me. Good times.
[2] Like a standard response to the problem of evil that goes like: "I don't know why evil exists but if I could come up with a reason that kind of works, an all mighty God could do far better
[3] The doctrine of ultimate judgment is poorly understood by most Christians and non-Christians. For the best explanation of it I have found check out “Hell: Isn't the God of Christianity an angry Judge?” here

Monday, November 17, 2008

Fragments and Links 2

From time to time I like to post a series of thoughts and reflections without necessarily expanding them to a full essay. This is one of these times:

My friend Mark coined the term 'Sombrero trick' as a reference to for eating Mexican for all 3 meals in one day.[1] Done.

If I played baseball for Seattle I would definitely use a clip from The Decembrists' 'Mariner's Revenge Song' as my batting music. Now choosing a 5 second clip from the nearly nine minute vengeance epic would be a challenge.

Speaking of The Decembrists, they are probably the most original lyrical story tellers I have happened upon in some time.

On the topic of lyricists…It took me a while but I have finally made up my mind about Death Cab for Cutie. I do not generally resonate with their mildly mopey themes...but they sure can write poetry:

The glove compartment is inaccurately named
And everybody knows it.
So I'm proposing a swift orderly change.

Cause behind its door there's nothing to keep my fingers warm
And all I find are souvenirs from better times
Before the gleam of your taillights fading east
To find yourself a better life.
-"Title and Registration"
I have been listening to a lot of Evanescence lately. But I’m not sure I get the central metaphor in their most overtly spiritual song. Tourniquet uses two metaphors to describe God summarized in a late line: “Christ, tourniquet, my suicide .” I get the suicide image in a Galatians 2:20 sense, but just can’t make much out of the ubiquitous tourniquet reference. Here is what I’ve got so far. A tourniquet is a desperate and dangerous attempt to save your life at great risk. I could buy that as a picture of faith.

I thought about using a Nirvana clip the last time I preached. But then I wondered, is an Xer dropping a Nirvana reference on Millennials the equivalent of a Boomer dropping a Bob Dillon reference on Xers?

Christianity Today has a pretty good music page called “Glimpses of God” where they highlight music with redemptive themes.[2] But their review of Ohio[3], by Over the Rhine put me into angry e-mailer mode. The comment that set me off was “There's only one reason (one word really) why Ohio hasn't been featured in our regular review coverage.” They are referring to a singular F-bomb in one of my favorite songs Changes Come.[4]

Changes come
Turn my world around
Changes come
Bring the whole thing down

I wanna have our baby
Some days I think that maybe
This ol' world's too f@#$ed up
For any firstborn son

There is all this untouched beauty
The light the dark both running through me
Is there still redemption for anyone

Here is the e-mail I wrote: Perhaps you should stop promoting the Bible because Paul uses one profanity in describing the uselessness of religion, or tells the Judeizers to cut their balls off, or Isaiah's 'icky' menstrual imagery. If God isn't afraid of occasional strong language, why are you? This is just legalism. Let our best artists express what they need to express. To say the world is so f-ed up that I worry about bringing a child into it is just good exposition of the Christian doctrine of Human Depravity.

My brother Nic is the first person I know to publish a book that is available through Amazon. It is a partly practical partly theological survival guide he wrote for the kids in his youth group going to college. I recommend anything he has written.

My friend Tiffany posted this link to: “How Hemingway might see Palin”. It is perfect. I wanted Joe too.

Speaking of the election, I cried during both Obama’s acceptance speech and McCain’s concession.[5] During Obama’s speech I thought about Ian from my Buffalo youth group who told me that a young black man had 3 options: rap artist, basket ball player, crack dealer. I think Barak is the man for this moment.[6] I smiled while I marked Obama’s box. During McCain’s speech I said out loud, ‘Where the hell have you been?’ THIS was the man I had so much hope for. Where did he go for 6 months? The whole election could have had this tone (and he could have had a better chance at winning).

I happened on this great bit of comedy on the hyperbole that typifies our political discourse.

Regarding Propositions: If you can’t get spending though a very liberal CA legislature, I suspect we cannot afford it.

My friend Corrie suggested a facetious guide to deciding on propositions. Choose the side that uses the least ALL CAPS[7] and italics in the voter guide. They are probably protecting a weaker position with manipulative, emotive rhetoric. She was just kidding but there is a ring of truth to the idea.

Karl Rove said that Obama did 10 points better than Kerry among “frequent church goers.” That’s right Karl. I feel like the appropriate response is that of the Dread Pirate Roberts to Indigo Montoya during their classic duel…”Get used to disappointment”.

I miss Manny. I can’t believe that someone else gets to cheer for him. Bill Simmons captured my feelings about the Manny trade brilliantly: “I can't look at (Jason) Bay and not think of Manny. At least not yet. Bay is like the dutiful, pretty second wife who does everything right … and yet, I can't stop thinking about the soul-wrenching tramp who married me first and broke my heart. I wish it wasn't that way, but it's going to take some time.[8]

A little scatological (not to be confused with eschatological) humor from Bill Simmons’ NFL preview "On the bright side, 'taking the Browns to the Super Bowl' remains my favorite euphemism for making a doody." With the Phillies winning the Series, is Cleveland sports the most jilted Sport’s city?[9] Sorry Astifans.

On the semi-topic of eschatologically, NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope has been a very good corrective to my theology of heaven: “Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny but the other, hidden, dimension of ordinary life – God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever.” Heaven, in this picture, is not a place somehow ‘up there[10],’ but a parallel, invisible, truer reality that we are working to come into line with and will someday be revealed. This does nothing to invalidate classic atonement theology, but it guts a flaccid dispensationalism.

Speaking of heaven: Nevaeh (Heaven spelled backwards) has zipped up to #31 on the Social Security Administration's list of popular names. I have no response.

I love Mars Hill. Driscoll and I have our differences[11], but no one (not even Keller) has had a bigger influence on my preaching mechanics over the last year than Mark. He is theologically sound, relevant, honest, transparent, hilarious and uses media like no one else. Check out their promotional video for his series on Song of Solomon. That is how it’s done.

[1] If this seems far fetched, we had the discussion in Vicksburg after a travel day. Consider the following scenario. Grab a breakfast burrito from the McDonald’s drive through on the way to the airport. Eat lunch at Chili’s at DFW. Then eat Miss-mex in Vicksburg for dinner as the result of a group dining decision. And there it is, the sombrero trick.
[2] Some of the artists are Christians (like OTR) but most aren’t.
[3] Easily one of my 5 favorite albums of all time
[4] A song the say they wrote the evening our tanks rolled into Iraq…the second time.
[5] Though, to be fair, I cry really easily as the result of my hyperthyroid condition. The Prince Caspian film had me in tears at least four times. I even welled up during ‘My Name is Earl’ last night...which is just over the line.
[6] I suppose my emotions can be dismissed as liberal white guilt. But while I do not remotely understand the plight of urban, black youth, I am personally vested in it.
[7] I’m not sure the people who write the positions for the voting guides know that an internet generation considers ALL CAPS yelling and poor form.
[8] Note, my resonance with this illustration is in no way based on marital experience.
[9] This will not be disputed if LaBron flees for a big market contract.
[10] Wright says “there is very little in the Bible about ‘going to heaven when you die’”and that ‘the roots of the misunderstanding go deep into a residual Platonism.’
[11] Mainly his eisigesis regarding masculinity and gender roles.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Freedom and the Great Hospital

So I am working on a number of things but none of them are ready to post, so it is back to the file. Most of my creative energy has been going into preaching. I post the transcripts here. This post is a bit dated (based on a 2004 film) but it is on topic from my last post so here it is.

Hollywood recently decided that a retelling of the Arthur myth would be profitable. To artistically justify their retelling however, (as I am apt to believe that even the most realistic/cynical artists are apt to do), they placed it a thousand years earlier than its standard context, in the far reaches of the Roman empire, the British Isles. This provided a couple of convenient plot points, most notable, matriarchal Gaelic tribes that could be reconstructed to satisfy our enlightened, contemporary, gender role demands upon our female protagonists (read Kiera Knightly in straps of leather). There was another plot device I found more startling, however. By placing the story in the fifth century isles they were able to make Pelagius the boyhood tutor of Athurius prior to the Pelagius’ travel to Rome. This was an intentional facet of a larger theme in which the movie makers attempted to contrast Arthur’s pagan friendly Christian spirituality to the rigid, domineering, and cowardly spirituality of the Roman center. At one point Arthurius states, somewhat defiantly, somewhat innocently, to a deceitful Roman representative[1] that he particularly respects Pelagius’ views on human freedom.

This sounds very good, very American, very Hollywood – rejecting the orthodoxy required by distant, hypocritical potentates because the idea of freedom is particularly compelling. And who could really be against that?

Here’s the problem. They backed the wrong horse. Pelagianism and the stress on human beings as free moral agents, taken seriously, invariably progresses to a fierce rigorism. It is this sort of thought that spawned the monastic movement that was mocked in the movie. It is thought that by throwing off the divine decree we somehow achieve freedom, in the sense of a liberal self determination. What we actually get is the bondage of unattainable responsibilities. It might be popular to assert that we have all the necessary resources for moral uprightness within ourselves, but it is not an empirically robust assertion under the scrutiny of honest self reflection. It was actually Augustine[2] who paints the picture of freedom and a generous liberality. Augustine, not Pelagius, welcomes the weak and desperate sinners. Alister McGrath summarizes this well “(For Pelagius) Only those who were morally upright could be allowed to enter the church – whereas Augustine, with his concept of fallen human nature, was happy to regard the church as a hospital[3] where fallen humanity could recover and grow gradually in holiness through grace.”[4]
The movie’s message that there is freedom outside of the church, self conscious or not, was clearly articulated. But what they did in the name of freedom and liberality was to champion a position of behavioral rigor and moral exclusivism. I’ll take grace, thank you very much. I’ll take the great messy, tragic hospital that is the church and the physician that will hold my bed while I heal.
[1] Who, incidentally is accompanied by a despicable, cowardly monk who serves no discernable plot purpose and appears to only exist to contrast the bravery of pagans against the sniveling cowardice of orthodox Christianity. I seriously hope that he has several scenes on the cutting room floor to justify his existence beyond the shameless perpetuation of anti-Christian stereotypes.
[2] Augustine and Pelagius staged the most significant doctrinal debate of the 5th century. Pelagius suggested that salvation was attained by acting according the teachings of Christ. Augustine countered that we are not free moral agents but hopelessly broken and in need of a complete salvation that rests only on the grace of God. The Church sided with Augustine. Over 1000 years later the reformers (Calvin and Luther) rediscovered Augustine and found his theology in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
[3] His favorite image of the church.
[4] Christian Theology: An Introduction 375

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Problem of Christian Hypocrisy

A common and relatively powerful argument against the validity of Christianity is that its adherents are not noticeably more moral, ethical or good than an average atheist, agnostic or adherent to another faith.[1] Tim Keller[2] frames this objection as follows: “If Christianity is all it claims to be, shouldn’t Christians on the whole be much better people than everyone else?” In the little, rural, Pentecostal community where I came to faith, there was one man in town who was the prototypical example of this problem…my dad. While my father did not claim any kind of formal belief in God, my pastor freely admitted that he was probably the most morally admirable man he knew. This posed the question for me very early, if my father, who rejected his faith in college, could become a better man than my pastor without the aide of Christian resources, had I picked the wrong path?

Some may be tempted to argue that Christians are not as bad as asserted[3] or that others are not as good as claimed.[4] But both of these tacts fall apart. In my opinion, a much more successful approach is to claim that, given the claims and practices of Christianity one would not expect Christians to be morally superior. Keller actually made the provocative claim during his address to Google that, ‘Christianity is the only religion in which the believers do not claim or expect moral superiority to unbelievers.’ I actually believe that a correct understanding of Jesus and the Church would lead one to expect that, if Christianity is true and efficacious, that we might expect Christians to be more annoying, hypocritical and have more moral difficulty than the general population. Paradoxically, I assert that this is a good thing and encapsulates precisely what is beautiful about Christianity. Consider the argument as a series of three assertions.

Assertion 1: We do not all start out on a level playing field morally. Because of our genetics and upbringing, being kind, pure, loving and self controlled will come easier to some of us than others. Goodness does not come as easily to some as it does to others. There is a sense in which goodness acquired through genetics or good parenting is not to one’s credit since it was not through their efforts. This is where Keller’s thinking is particularly clear:

“Good Character is largely attributable to a loving, safe, and stable family environment-conditions for which we were not responsible. Many have had instead an unstable family background and poor role models, and a history of tragedy and disappointment. As a result, they are burdened with deep insecurities, hypersensitivity, and a lack of self-confidence. They may struggle with uncontrolled anger, shyness, addictions, and other difficult results.”[5]

Assertion 2: The gospel does not claim to produce moral perfection or automatically advance everyone to an equivalent moral state. The grace of God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit should result in moral improvement…but someone’s current or final moral state is a function, not only of the improvement, but also of the starting point. Therefore, it is true that gratitude for the saving work of Christ should make each Christian more humble, gentle, just, kind, loving, sacrificial etc than they were before, but it does not necessarily mean that on the whole we would be above average because…

Assertion 3: The gospel is more attractive to those of us with more dubious moral starting points. This is the point of much of what Jesus has to say including ‘Blessed are the poor in Spirit’ and ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’[6] Therefore, the church is full of particularly wicked people[7]. So while the church should be (and is) a place of healing and growth, this progress is painted on a dark ambient canvas. If those most likely to accept the gospel are those most aware of moral failure it would seem to follow that the moral starting point of the standard church member would be well below average. And though we spend our lives trying to live commensurate with the forgiveness already granted us, we continue to fight against biology and patterns set while we were descending into our place of need. Simply put, if the church is full of bad people[8], slowly improving, it should not be shocking that it is not a morally exemplary institution.

This is why Augustine’s favorite metaphor for the church was a hospital. The Church is a place where broken people come to slowly heal. But we are still broken people, disproportionately so. So we say stupid things on Fox news…and we say hurtful things to the homosexual community…and we forget that we are broken and end up pretending that we are better than our non-Christian friends…and we get seduced by political machines…and act indifferent towards the poor and the environment…and we do a wide variety of other things that hurt people and embarrass our Lord. For these things we are deeply sorry and desperately trying to fix. But it does not invalidate the Christian message. It is the precise state of affairs one would expect if Jesus was who he said he was and did what he said he did.

[1] A friend recently subtitled a talk I am doing on this topic: “Why Christians suck.”
[2] My overall argument in this post is strongly influenced by the ‘evangelical yoda.’
[3] Usually this takes the form of differentiating between ‘real Christians’ and posers.
[4] But this ends up with you dissing Gandhi and just sounding silly.
[5] “The Reason For God” p54
[6] Luke 5:31-32 – Incidentally, Jesus wasn’t letting the ‘well’ off the hook. He is subversively challenging the religious people to re-evaluate their own moral sufficiency.
[7] Like me.
[8] Incidentally, these are the only kind of people in the church. The only prerequisite for Christian salvation is relinquishing the claim to being ‘a good person’ and trusting the sacrificial work of Christ to make up for the lack. So, by definition, the Church is full of self-identified bad people.

For a free Mp3 of a talk Keller gave on this topic see: Injustice: Hasn't Christianity been an instrument for oppression? on the "Reason for God" website.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Revenge of the Paste Eaters: The Anatomy of a Swing Voter

The Myth of Undecided Stupidity

I recently took my daughter out for lunch at a local restaurant. With the check they gave me some jelly beans to place in the two jars up front labeled ‘Obama’ and ‘McCain’. To force decisiveness upon me they gave me 5, an odd number, so I could not split my vote. I like John MaCain and Barak Obama each as much as I have cared about any politician. For me it is a dream election. It is the equivalent of the Packers-Broncos Super Bowl (two teams I love) after so many years of Cowboys/Giants/Reskins-Bills (teams I despise, not unlike the last election). I sat there staring at my little gobs of sugar facing a decision 3 months before I was expecting to. Fortunately, on of the beans was cherry, which was delicious, and the two jars then received two apiece.

Of all the labels one can claim there are few that will stimulate such simultaneous rage and fawning as that of ‘undecided voter.’ There are so few of us who are ‘as of yet unaffiliated’[1] that a disproportionate amount of personal and institutional effort is expended to prevail upon our wills. At the same time, party line voters on either side see us as flakey. ‘You already know the voting records’ the argument goes, ‘what helpful information could you possibly still be holding out for?’ The implication (see cartoon) is that serious voters make their decision early based on data and undecideds are swayed by contrived and extraneous considerations like character and charisma.
This was further illustrated by a recent piece on Jon Stewart’s show where John Oliver described the undecided demographic as follows:

John Oliver: As you can see (undecided voters) fall into a variety of categories: Attention Seekers, Racist Democrats, the Chronically Insecure, and right here the Stupid. That is 45% of uncedideds. They are the swingeyest of the swing voters. And they, as they always do, will decide this election.

Stewart: Well that is a fascinating thing. How do you break down the Stupids.

Jon Oliver: Well ironically, it is a rather complex demographic. You’ve got your paste eaters, your numb skulls, your nitwits, your f@#ktards, people’s who’s heads get stuck in jars when they eat pickles, that’s a surprisingly large component, people who loose arguments to babies, douchenozzels, tiger petters…people who jump up and down on frozen lakes when the ice is too thin, shaved gorillas that have somehow acquired driver’s licenses, the voulentarily lobotomized, and, finally, cubs fans.

But implicit in thes assertions, serious and comedic, is the tenuous assumption that the groupings of issues under the headings ‘democrat’ and ‘republican’ are logical outworkings of a pair of unified world views that, between them, describe most Americans. Ironically, it was Jon Stewart (another guy who, at one time, liked both of these candidates[2]) who, in his book, did the best job of deconstructing this myth:

"Together, the two parties function like giant down comforters, allowing the candidates to disappear into the enveloping softness, protecting them from exposure to the harsh weather of independent thought...Each party has a platform, a prix fixe menu of beliefs making up its worldview. The candidate can choos one of two platforms, but remember - no substitutions. For example, do you support universal health care? Then you must also want a ban on assult weapons. Pro-limited government? Congratulations, you are also anti-abortion. Luckily, all human opinion falls neatly nto one of the two clearly defined camps. Thus, the two-party system elegently relflects the bichromatic rainbow that is American political thought."

Conflicting Platforms

Back in primary season, I took one of those internet surveys that asks you a bunch of policy questions and then ranks the candidates based on their correspondence with your policy preferences. Here is how the rankings of the top four came out:


(with Guliani and Romeny at the back of the pack)

Like a surprising number of Xers (and even more millenials) I am a man without a party. Each reflects part of my worldview and values. Now let me be clear. I am NOT a moderate. I am a fanatical liberal…and an unapologetic conservative…just on different issues.

I am an environmentalist who thinks climate change is real and that we should spend gobs of money on alternative energy research.
But[3] I think any energy policy that does not prominently feature nuclear power is deeply flawed and based on fear rather than science.

I support a wide variety of government regulation to protect individuals from the profit motive[4] of corporations.
But I am wary of regulating to the point that innovation is smothered.

I am unapologetically pro-life
But my #1 issue is urban poverty (which indirectly affects the social conditions that make women feel the need to get abortions)

I am a huge supporter of affirmative action
But I think government needs to quantitatively evaluate its social spending and ruthlessly pull the plug on social programs that are not generating the results we expected

I’m a Fed who thinks my job (with many others) is worth tax payer money
But I think there is significant federal and state waste that needs to be cut

Why I like These Guys

In our sad era of cable news and talk radio we define ourselves morally by what we despise. Our fact entertainment industry needs antagonists and protagonists to sell their stories so events are only newsworthy if they highlight conflict. So I could pretty much get a free pass from everyone by claiming to hate both candidates. There is a much larger social penalty for liking a candidate someone hates than for hating a candidate someone likes. But I reject this and by claiming both Obama and McCain I open myself to charges of immorality by most of the country. I was much more popular last time around when I disliked both Bush and Kerry. But here is gist:


McCain was the only shot the republicans had at me. But I knew I’d vote for McCain against anyone but Obama. Only in the dream match up would I be an undecided again. John McCain has been my favorite politician since shortly after the 2000 election. He is a sane conservative who wasn’t beholden to the party and seemed to make decisions based on a healthy ratio of principal and pragmatism. I loved McCain-Feingold and was relieved by the game theory employed by the McCain 13. In fact, if I had to explain in one phrase why I liked John McCain it would have to be that he seems to be principled in precisely the right ways and pragmatic in precisely the right ways.

So I was devastated when he supported the surge. I thought the surge was a terrible idea.[5] I could not believe that McCain would stake his political career on such a desperate and dismal move. I was sad and I kind of made a deal with the ancient senator from Arizona. The surge became a test case. If he was right about this, then his cumalitve record, in my mind, justified his presidency. In my opinion, the surge was an unqualified success, and even as I cast my primary vote for Obama, I suspected McCain would be my November choice.


There are only two kinds of politicians I will consider for president at this point. Someone who supported the Iraq war from the start but clearly would have run it better or someone who opposed it from the start. [5.5]. I admire precisely the same quality in Barak’s opposition to the war as I did in McCain’s support of the surge. Political courage. Putting their political reputation on the line based on what they think is best for my daughter’s future. For me Barak’s opposition to the Iraq war would give him more freedom to manage it and this is his greatest policy advantage.

There are many other liberal issues that I agree with Obama on (see above). In the final count, I align with the left on more issues than the right. But, like McCain, Obama’s greatest assets are not his angles on the issues. I think the United States President’s role is a cultural role more than a political role. In the era of the 24 hour news cycle his rhetoric sets the cultural tone for our country. And Barak offers us a conciliatory oratory. A Kenedyesqe orator that can assuage our fears and reconcile some of our differences. He could be our generation’s Kenedy or Regan, the president that we compare all future presidents to. He could also find himself in way over his head, but if Regan and Schwarzenegger have taught us anything it is that experience is not what makes an executive successful, it is the people he or she surrounds him/herself with.

Post Script: The Choice

So with three weeks left, I am no longer undecided, which is too bad since I was having so much fun deciding if I was a paste eater or a tiger petter. Unfortunately, since the orriginal writing of this piece, my favorite politician, has made the dicision for me. For some reason which mystifies me, McCain has moved right, since he wraped up the primary. I could understand[6] moving right to win the base and then moving left for the general, but MaCain stuck to his unpopular views about drilling, taxes and immigration while he was taking hits from other conservatives and then abandoned these principaled, moderate positions when he was trying to win the middle. I will never understand this. And I’m afraid the selection of Palin (as arguably the most important VP selection in history given McCain's health and age) is just mystifying. She seems like a nice lady. I'd vote for her for mayor. But if the Bush presidency has taught us anything it is that confidence is not a substitute for competence. And, in the end, I just think Barak’s conciliatory rhetoric is what our country needs right now. So I am voting for Obama, but I understand and respect and refuse to demonize the McCain vote and proudly embrace my fellow undecideds. I’d gladly remove the pickle jars from your heads any day.
[1] ref – ‘Brother Where Art Thou’
[2] This, for me, is actually the biggest disappointment of the election. McCain held the record for Daily Show appearances and he and Jon seemed to have a lot of mutual respect and affection. But as soon as McCain got the nomination then Jon turned against him (while basically giving Barak a comedic free pass) proving once and for all that he is not an equal opportunity mocker but a democrat shill.
[3] Or, rather, because of my environmentalism.
[4] Note: I am not using profit motive here as a pejorative. We often talk about the big bad corporations who make decisions soley on the citeria of profit maximization. The thing that bugs me is that most of the people whining about this have 401k’s which means THEY are the corporations. By law, publically held corporations HAVE TO maximize profit. A few companies have remained privately owned for just this reason (e.g. In-and-Out Burger, a faith based business that has a more holistic approach). Thus, non-profit societal values have to be implemented by government regulation.
[5] I know, I also thought Ladamin Tomlinson and Shaq would be flops at the professional level.
[5.5] I am unmoved by the Edwards/Hillary/Kerry argument that 'Bush is a moron but he outsmarted us.' They did not have the political courage to stand up to a the administration when the country was Hawkish. I was depending on them to make that decision on my behalf and they blew it.
[6] Though I loath it.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Would Chuck Love Me?

FF Bruce, DA Carson, NT Wright and John Stott are among my favorite Biblical exegetes. That is, these gentlemen tend to make insightful observations about the Biblical text and have the background in the first century Palestine to helpfully interpret what is going on. But relevant theology or preaching lives in the intersection of Biblical insight and contemporary culture. So in addition to some good biblical exegetes I also employ the services of a couple of good cultural exegetes, authors who make startlingly insightful observations about our culture and have such an encyclopedic knowledge of the twenty-first century, western, low culture that they can interpret the implications with remarkable clarity (and/or creativity). My favorite cultural exegetes are Bill Simmons (who is first and foremost a sports writer but finds analogies to athletic phenomena in any niche of sports culture) and Chuck Klosterman.

Klosterman burst onto the scene with his ‘Low Culture Manifesto’ titled ‘Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs’ (SDaCP). He has written several hilarious and insightful books since then, but none have re-captured the brilliance of SDaCP. I recommend checking it out of the library even if it is only to read two of the later chapters: ‘Hanging with Lisa Loeb on the Ice Planet Hoth’
[1] and ‘How to Disappear’ (a surprisingly insightful analysis of the Left Behind phenomena). But at the center of this fun little text is a remarkably unique chapter. Chuck simply includes a list of 23 questions that he claims hold the key to whether or not he could truly love someone. Amanda and I used them to construct a series of ice breakers for our home group in which we would play a question from the audio book[2] and then open it to discussion. The discussions were remarkably interesting and I have thought a lot about them since. So here are a dozen of my favorite questions and how I answer them.

1. Q: Let us assume you met a rudimentary magician. Let us assume he can do five simple tricks — he can pull a rabbit out of his hat, he can make a coin disappear, he can turn the ace of spades into the Joker card, and two others in a similar vein. These are his only tricks and he can’t learn any more; he can only do these five. However, it turns out he’s doing these five tricks with real magic. It’s not an illusion; he can actually conjure the bunny out of the ether and he can move the coin through space. He’s legitimately magical, but extremely limited in scope and influence. Would this person be more impressive than Albert Einstein?

My Answer: No. I have identified three aspects of my worldview that undermine the magician’s impressiveness. First, I am not a materialist. I do not believe that reality consists of only the physical universe and its immutable laws. Therefore, however unlikely, I do not consider the magician’s trick impossible and my awe is diminished.

Second, I am a scientist who has studied modern physics. The physical universe and its standard workings are not fully understood and can be counter intuitive even where we understand them (e.g. quantum states). Therefore, the magician may have just happened upon some working of the universe and is utilizing it for private gain (without necessarily understanding it). This is not nearly as impressive as Einstein who understood phenomena that had not even been identified yet.

Third, I am a mild pragmatist. Scientists that do practical if not earth shattering work are always more impressive to me than brilliant esoteric theoreticians. Therefore, the practical implications of Einstein’s genius are far more substantial than the magician’s trifles.

And fourth, for good measure…some scientists are over rated and others are under rated (just like bands…You could say that Darwin was the Counting Crows of the scientific world). It is counter-intuitive that Einstein, as the most well know scientist could be under rated, but, in truth, we have just set the ceiling too low. Most people just don’t understand how brilliant he was and how the much of subsequent physics discovery has proven him correct again and again. There is no precedent for this kind of Khunian paradigm upheaval. There are very few things that I would count more impressive than Einstein.

2. Q: Let us assume a fully grown, completely healthy Clydesdale horse has his hooves shackled to the ground while his head is held in place with thick rope. He is conscious and standing upright, but completely immobile. And let us assume that–for some reason–every political prisoner on earth (as cited by Amnesty International) will be released from captivity if you can kick this horse to death in less than twenty minutes. You are allowed to wear steel-toed boots.
Would you attempt to do this?

Absolutely, yes. I was surprised how controversial this was in our small group. A main objection was that it was impossible to kill a Clydesdale this way so you were just doing violence to an innocent animal. At the heart of this question is 2 issues: 1) is the value of human life on the same qualitative plane with the value of animal life and 2) regardless of whether you would trade the life of a horse for tens of thousands of political prisoners, would you do the deed yourself?

I am a soccer player. My quadriceps are my strongest muscle group and I have uncommonly long femurs. I can generate significant power with a steel toed boot. And while I am all about protecting animals (particularly those that swim in federal waterways), I would absolutely trade the life of one horse for a small chance to free one innocent political prisoner. And if I am willing to make the trade, I am willing to perform the execution…for me that goes without saying.

In our small group I re-posed the question but replaced ‘horse’ with ‘rat’ and the numbers changed dramatically. This relates to David Foster Wallace’s assertion that the closer an animal is to us on the Cladistic diagram the more likely we are to disassociate its meat with the animal it comes from. Consider, we eat chicken, duck, fish, frog’s legs, lobster...but for the ‘higher’ animals it is beef, pork, and mutton. This seems like an arbitrary demarcation of sentience. While animals have very high intrinsic value, it is qualitatively different than human value. So lace me up.

4. Q: Genetic engineers at Johns Hopkins University announce that they have developed a so-called “super gorilla.” Though the animal cannot speak, it has a sign language lexicon of over twelve thousand words, an I.Q. of almost 85, and –most notably– a vague sense of self-awareness. Oddly, the creature (who weighs seven hundred pounds) becomes fascinated by football. The gorilla aspires to play the game at its highest level and quickly develops the rudimentary skills of a defensive end. ESPN analyst Tom Jackson speculates that this gorilla would be “borderline unblockable” and would likely average six sacks a game (although Jackson concedes the beast might be susceptible to counters and misdirection plays). Meanwhile, the gorilla has made it clear he would never intentionally injure any opponent.
You are commissioner of the NFL: Would you allow this gorilla to sign with the Oakland Raiders?

This is why I love Klosterman. He doesn’t just ask if the gorilla could play football. He assigns the primate to the Oakland Raiders, where he would unquestionable be the best fit. (I love the bit about Tom Jackson and misdirection plays).

My answer is no. I love football for three reasons (which will be its own post some day)…but one of these is the human excellence factor. I love watching men, who have the same number of chromosomes, muscles, and bones as me, perform ridiculously athletic and beautiful acts. By adding a sentient gorilla to the mix (similar to question 2) you are adding a qualitatively different performer. It is not just about competitive balance and injury – it is about watching greatness that is within the reach of my species (and by extension, me, even if this is a fantasy).

On the other hand, if JHU developed 10 other ‘super gorillas’ and MIT, CalTech and Wisconsin did the same for intramural play, I would not only watch it but purchase a jersey of my favorite gorilla Badger.

At the heart of this question is whether or not intelligence is the demarcation of humanness. I reject this premise.

5. Q: You meet your soul mate. However, there is a catch: Every three years, someone will break both of your soul mate’s collarbones with a Crescent wrench, and there is only one way you can stop this from happening: You must swallow a pill that will make every song you hear — for the rest of your life — sound as if it’s being performed by the band Alice in Chains. When you hear Creedence Clearwater Revival on the radio, it will sound (to your ears) like it’s being played by Alice in Chains. If you see Radiohead live, every one of their tunes will sound like it’s being covered by Alice in Chains. When you hear a commercial jingle on TV, it will sound like Alice in Chains; if you sing to yourself in the shower, your voice will sound like deceased Alice vocalist Layne Staley performing a capella (but it will only sound this way to you).
Would you swallow the pill?

Give me the pill. I think this would actually increase the amount of Christian music (particularly worship music) I listen too. KLOVE or the Fish might be suddenly bearable.

6. Q: At long last, someone invents “the dream VCR.” This machine allows you to tape an entire evening’s worth of your own dreams, which you can then watch at your leisure. However, the inventor of the dream VCR will only allow you to use this device of you agree to a strange caveat: When you watch your dreams, you must do so with your family and your closest friends in the same room. They get to watch your dreams along with you. And if you don’t agree to this, you can’t use the dream VCR. Would you still do this?

At first I said no with almost every one else in my home group. What came to my mind (and I assume others as well) were the wildly inappropriate sex dreams. But in retrospect, how often do I really have a sex dream? Honestly, it is only a couple times per year (that I remember – which might, in fact, be the problem). On the flip side, dreams have been very helpful to me. I have happened upon lost items in what eventually turned out to be their actual location. I have solved physics problems. I have developed engineering algorithms. I have developed story ideas (and this includes one of the sex dreams). And this is just dreams I attribute to my subconscious. In my life I have had one or two dreams that I believe were from God (though my evidence for this is thin). How great (and terrifying, because these were not ‘walking with Jesus through a field of daisies’ kind of dreams) would it be to have a record of these. Plus, we would save money in our entertainment budget. Instead of saying ‘honey would you like to watch another incomprehensible episode of LOST’ we could just watch a dream where (like LOST) characters that you vaguely recognize appear for no discernable reason and events are thinly and inexplicably connected.

7. Q: Defying all expectation, a group of Scottish marine biologists capture a live Loch Ness Monster. In an almost unbelievable coincidence, a bear hunter in the Pacific Northwest shoots a Sasquatch in the thigh, thereby allowing zoologists to take the furry monster into captivity. These events happen on the same afternoon. That evening, the president announces he may have thyroid cancer and will undergo a biopsy later that week. You are the front page editor of The New York Times: What do you play as the biggest story?

It is the Sasquatch because of the anthropomorphic and physical anthropology implications. Nessy is astounding but does not comment upon the human condition. The discovery of a ‘missing link’ has philosophical and ethical implications for the human race.

8. Q: You meet the perfect person. Romantically, this person is ideal: You find them physically attractive, intellectually stimulating, consistently funny, and deeply compassionate. However, they have one quirk: This individual is obsessed with Jim Henson’s gothic puppet fantasy The Dark Crystal. Beyond watching it on DVD at least once a month, he/she peppers casual conversation with Dark Crystal references, uses Dark Crystal analogies to explain everyday events, and occasionally likes to talk intensely about the film’s “deeper philosophy.”
Would this be enough to stop you from marrying this individual?

This is certainly the sort of thing I could not only tolerate but get into. I loved the ‘Dark Crystal’ as a kid and, while it hasn’t aged well, and is a bit disturbing, it is exactly the obscure kind of eccentric art that I could be dragged into. Small price to pay for a soul mate.

9. Q: A novel titled Interior Mirror is released to mammoth commercial success (despite middling reviews). However, a curious social trend emerges: Though no one can prove a direct scientific link, it appears that almost 30 percent of the people who read this book immediately become homosexual. Many of these newfound homosexuals credit the book for helping them reach this conclusion about their orientation, despite the fact that Interior Mirror is ostensibly a crime novel with no homoerotic content (and was written by a straight man). Would this phenomenon increase (or decrease) the likelihood of you reading this book?

I would certainly read the book, and I read almost no novels that are less than 100 years old. So I guess you would say it would increase my likelihood of reading the book.

11. Q: You are watching a movie in a crowded theater. Though the plot is mediocre, you find yourself dazzled by the special effects. But with twenty minutes left in the film, you are struck with an undeniable feeling of doom: You are suddenly certain your mother has just died. There is no logical reason for this to be true, but you are certain of it. You are overtaken with the irrational metaphysical sense that — somewhere — your mom has just perished. But this is only an intuitive, amorphous feeling; there is no evidence for this, and your mother has not been ill.
Would you immediately exit the theater, or would you finish watching the movie?

I would leave and call…not because I trust the instinct, but because when we got the call that my dad died we were at the movies and came home to a dozen messages on the machine.

12. Q: You meet a wizard in downtown Chicago. The wizard tells you he can make you more attractive if you pay him money. When you ask how this process works, the wizard points to a random person on the street. You look at this random stranger. The wizard says, “I will now make them a dollar more attractive.” He waves his magic wand. Ostensibly, this person does not change at all; as far as you can tell, nothing is different. But–somehow–this person is suddenly a little more appealing. The tangible difference is invisible to the naked eye, but you can’t deny that this person is vaguely sexier. This wizard has a weird rule, though–you can only pay him once. You can’t keep giving him money until you’re satisfied. You can only pay him one lump sum up front. How much cash do you give the wizard?

$500. Incidentally, this was nearly two orders of magnitude more than any other member of my small group would pay the wizard. I think at the heart of their responses was the issue of contentment. (e.g. ‘God made me this way, that is good enough for me’…and, by inference, my spouse.) Here is the thing. I am facing the removal of my thyroid in a month which means I am going to struggle with my weight for the rest of my life. I want to remain attractive to my wife and am facing legitimate fears that this might be difficult to do long term. I pay ~$500 and spend hundreds of hours every 14 months to belong to a gym, mostly so my wife will continue to find me attractive. The services of the Chicago wizard (and really, could it have been any other city) seem like a bargain. On second thought, give me $1000 of attractiveness.

13. Every person you have ever slept with is invited to a banquet where you are the guest of honor. No one will be in attendance except you, the collection of your former lovers, and the catering service. After the meal, you are asked to give a fifteen-minute speech to the assembly. What do you talk about?

Amanda and I would have a lovely catered dinner alone. I’d read her the running list I keep of ‘reasons I love my wife.’

16. Q: Someone builds an optical portal that allows you to see a vision of your own life in the future (it’s essentially a crystal ball that shows a randomly selected image of what your life will be like in twenty years). You can only see into this portal for thirty seconds. When you finally peer into the crystal, you see yourself in a living room, two decades older than you are today. You are watching a Canadian football game, and you are extremely happy. You are wearing a CFL jersey. Your chair is surrounded by books and magazines that promote the Canadian Football League, and there are CFL pennants covering your walls. You are alone in the room, but you are gleefully muttering about historical moments in Canadian football history. It becomes clear that—for some unknown reason—you have become obsessed with Canadian football. And this future is static and absolute; no matter what you do, this future will happen. The optical portal is never wrong. This destiny cannot be changed. The next day, you are flipping through television channels and randomly come across a pre-season CFL game between the Toronto Argonauts and the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Knowing your inevitable future, do you now watch it?

No, there will be plenty of time for that later. Incidentally, my home group found this far fetched. One of the women made a very good point that the only way for that future to come true is if she had a son become a star of a CFL team. But this is something I could see happening to me (thought the gleeful muttering is a little disturbing). I love minor league sports. When we were in Buffalo we never went to a Bills game (they cost like $80) but went to see the Arena Football team (which was terrible) a dozen times. I love the passion of those who are still trying to make it and are playing sports for CPA money rather than CEO money. If I could get into Arena Football, I could get into the CFL (particularly if I ended up say, as a professor in Calgary, one of my favorite cities).

[1] In my opinion, the quintessential description of ‘generation X.’
[2] Incidentally, I strongly recommend interacting with Chuck in the audio format. His oral readings of his own text not only make them more fun, but more interesting.

Sasquatch image from