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


Corrie said...

Did we ever replace "Clydesdale horse" with "dog"? I can't remember.

I'd have a hard time if Nutmeg were tied down to the ground, though...

BlackEyedSusan said...

You know, I put a hold on Klosterman's book at the local library (couldn't bear to have my TA pick it up and see the title).

But the title of this post, and Klosterman's reasoning behind his list were really disturbing to me. I've been thinking about them pretty much non-stop since reading. For one thing, I couldn't help but think, well, of COURSE Stan's answers would make chuck love him...he's Stan. He solves physics problems literally in his sleep. But thinking through my answers/my husband's answers, it feels like, when such questions are designed as a test for love, we'd never pass. We'd never say something worthy enough to win love with our logic, our charming idiosyncracies, or whatnot. We're just not that great as human beings. Josh tells me that my dream life (at least as expressed to him) would be an excellent cure for insomnia (dreamless sleep, anyone? watch the Tiffer!), though I maintain my dreams about losing/finding books and my nightmares about teaching are compelling. His dreams are, he tells me, usually interrupted by something relating to urination--as he needs to get up to pee.

But the reason that I write this is not to self-deprecate or husband-deprecate, but rather to think about using these questions as small group and husband/wife sorts of things. Small group is a chance to mix the church, to act out the gospel, perhaps among folks different than ourselves, to get in the wheelhouses of our brothers and sisters. The questions need be ones that get us to the particular humanity of each person, that get us to be curious about them, to recognize the eternal failings and possibilities in each person.

Klosterman's list works to that end, I think, even if he doesn't mean it to, because, except for Stan, people don't sound noble in answering them. I mean, it's hard to sound noble when defending kicking a Clydesdale to death or explaining the weakness that would cause a person not to be able to even try.

I think we have to think of these questions as ways of beginning to love rather than as ways to evaluate someone's worthiness FOR love. When I listen to a person's answers, if she is able to be honest about the terrible weakness that would make her likely to run away from the entire horse situation and then theorize it later in order to redeem some sort of self-righteousness out of it, I am learning to love despite the distaste that I feel because the details work themselves into my consciousness. They work on me and make me more aware of her personhood, less of someone that I can sum up in a phrase or a cliche.

stanford said...

Thanks for the insightful thoughts Tiffany. I think it is significant that Chuck remains alone after many well documented relationships. I agree that it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of love.

And I really appreciate the precision with which you get at what small group interactions are about (and why this seemed to work in ours): unveiling and embracing unique, textured and broken humanity and redemption in each other.

Though, I have to admit that it makes me a little nervous, that of all my freinds, it is my English professor freind who has taken me up on the Klosterman recomendation. Let me stress 'low culture manifesto.' But I'll stand by my recomendation of the two chapters I cited in the post.

JMBower said...

On a lighter note, I have to agree...the Dark Crystal question is completely void for those of us for whom it does not represent a conflicting choice.

I'm pretty sure that if I'm honest with myself, at least passing familarity with this movie is a prerequisite for romantic entanglement. That is both sentimentally quirky and deeply deeply troubling:)

Ian said...

Interesting questions! I think I'd answer similarly to a lot of them.

Re question 2: I'd totally kick the horse. And my legs aren't even all that powerful - I likely wouldn't even kill it. But I *might* succeed, and that's good enough for me.
Re question 5: I'm with you on the Christian music. Also, I actually like Alice in Chains.
For number 9, I think I might be too creaped out to read it, not knowing what accounts for the statistic.