Thursday, April 12, 2018

Ready Player One: Community, Power, And True Winners

As a movie, Ready Player One probably deserves both the kudos and criticism it’s been garnering. Yes, it’s a visual feast. Yes, the 80s references are a lot of fun. Yes, it gives only a “meager emotional charge.” It’s also “a cautionary tale about burying ourselves in pop culture while the world burns,” but even that message comes across more clinically than experientially. As The Christian Science Monitor noted, “the message derived from it – that in our cyber age, we desperately need to spend more time in the real world – doesn’t resonate because Spielberg is much better here at virtual reality (VR) than reality.” Yup.

In spite of the mixed reviews, I enjoyed Ready Player One. The book was better – aren’t they always? – but RPO is an entertaining popcorn movie if you go into it expecting no more than that. If you are expecting something to deeply move you, choose another film. 

This is good for what it wants to be: a feel-good, pop culture homage validating our nostalgia for the years when technology was new enough (or we were young enough) that it felt like magic, the years when a screen of any kind could transport us into another world where we could escape from the frustrations and failures of the real world and be the person we always wanted to be in a world that made more sense to us than this one.

But that's not what stood out to me the most.

Monday, April 9, 2018

What Is Wrong With Humanity?

The Times once asked famous authors to respond to the question, “What’s wrong with the world today?” G.K. Chesterton responded simply, “Dear Sir, I am. Yours, G.K. Chesterton.”

"We have met the enemy, and he is us." - Pogo 

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts." - Alexander Solzhenitsyn

It's pretty obvious: a lot of things are broken in the world. The headlines of gun violence, human trafficking, #metoo, corporate greed, cyberbullying, terrorism and abusive sex cults remind us that something about the human enterprise is clearly failing on an ongoing basis. For every area in which we make progress, we seem to offset that by regressing in some other way.

"Etcetera #18: What's Wrong With The World?"

In this episode of a podcast I host with journalist Beth Milligan, I take a look at the brokenness the permeates our lives. The headlines of gun violence, human trafficking, #metoo, corporate greed, cyberbullying, terrorism and abusive sex cults remind us that something about the human enterprise is clearly failing on an ongoing basis. For every area in which me make progress, we seem to offset that by regressing in some other way.

So, what's the problem with humanity? Is it our biology, our environment, or our souls? Has our DNA doomed us to dance to its tune? If not nature, have the forces of nurture forced us to become who we are? Are our spirits or souls (qualia, for all you philosophers) the problem? And depending on what we conclude, what is the best course of action?

Spoiler alert: I think we have to look at all three possibilities. If we want to find the right cure, we need the proper diagnosis.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

A Defense of Missouri's Proposed Abortion Restrictions

Considering all the noise about Missouri's attempt to outlaw abortion after the 15th week of pregnancy, I figured it is worth taking the opportunity to look at more closely at how the facts of fetal development argue for more restrictive abortion limits in the interest in protecting unborn human persons.

First, what is that thing inside the womb that it impacted by abortion? Is it a clump of cells or a baby? I will let pro-choice advocates give their explanation of what an abortion does:
  • ''In 1970, an editorial in California Medicine noted: “Since the old ethic has not yet been fully displaced it has been necessary to separate the idea of abortion from the idea of killing, which continues to be socially abhorrent. The result has been a curious avoidance of the scientific fact, which everyone really knows, that human life begins at conception and is continuous whether intra-or extra-uterine until death. The very considerable semantic gymnastics which are required to rationalize abortion as anything but taking a human life would be ludicrous if they were not often put forth under socially impeccable auspices.” 
  • Former Planned Parenthood President Dr. Alan Guttmacher was perplexed that anyone would question these basic scientific facts. “This all seems so simple and evident that it is difficult to picture a time when it wasn’t part of the common knowledge,” he wrote in his book Life in the Making. (A. Guttmacher, Life in the Making: The Story of Human Procreation, New York: Viking Press, 1933, p. 3.)
  • A Planned Parenthood brochure in 1963 noted, “Abortion kills the life of a baby after it has begun.  It is dangerous to your life and health.”
  • Faye Wattleton, the longest reigning president Planned Parenthood, told Ms. Magazine: “I think we have deluded ourselves into believing that people don’t know that abortion is killing. So any pretense that abortion is not killing is a signal of our ambivalence, a signal that we cannot say yes, it kills a fetus.”
  • Bernard Nathanson, co-founder of NARAL, in an article for the New England Journal of Medicine in 1974: “There is no longer serious doubt in my mind that human life exists within the womb from the very onset of pregnancy…”
Note that the issue is not whether or not abortion ends a developing human life. The question is about who gets to make the call about what happens to that growing human life, and why. The Supreme Court has weighed in on that very issue. According to
"Viability... is an important mark in the abortion debate. In Roe v. Wade and the 1992 decision Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the U.S. Supreme Court argued that states do have an interest in protecting an unborn baby’s life once they are viable. Viability at the time was considered to be about 24-26  weeks [22-24 is more commonly cited now]..."  
Paul Barnes, special assistant to the attorney general of Missouri, argues that Missouri's stance is in line with the Supreme Court standard:
"The viability line is constantly moving. When viability is the issue, then the state’s interest trumps the woman’s interest. It’s always moving in favor of the state’s authority, it’s never moving the other direction. The more developed the fetus is, the state’s interest is stronger in protecting unborn life.”
Since I don't think legal necessarily equals moral, I believe there is an important question worth asking: is viability the right line to draw when it comes to the protection of unborn human life? Perhaps a better phrasing: Must human beings be viable in order to be human persons and thus deserving of the moral status that would rightly be accorded to them?

First, there is good reason to think the 'viability' line is a philosophically tenuous position:
Here is the Court's entire argument in Roe v. Wade for using the viability criterion: 'With respect to the State's important and legitimate interest in potential life, the "compelling" point is at viability. This is so because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother's womb.' 
That's seriously the entire argument... It is, of course, circular reasoning. Viability is important, the Court says, because that's when a child can live outside the womb (the definition of viability). Viability is important, that is, because it is viability.

"[T]he Court's defense seems to mistake a definition for a syllogism," noted the eminent Yale law professor John Hart Ely (who personally supported legalized abortion). Indeed, "scholars from a wide variety of backgrounds have recognized," writes University of Georgia law professor Randy Beck, that "Roe literally provided no argument in favor of treating viability as the controlling line, much less an argument grounded in constitutional principles..."

If we do take this to be an "argument," it is a fallacious one, as Francis J. Beckwith writes:
 'For the Court to make its argument valid, it would have to add to its factual premise [the fact of fetal non-viability] the normative premise: whenever a human being cannot live on its own because it uniquely depends on another human being for its physical existence, it is permissible for the second human being to kill the first to rid the second of the burden.'
The Court assumed that premise in both Roe and Casey. The Court has never argued for it.
So the first point is that the Supreme Court is not infallible, and may, in fact, build their rulings on a discouraging lack of reason at times.

Second, there is good reason to think it is a morally problematic position given the nature of the unborn. Perhaps the following walk through the weeks of fetal development during pregnancy will make this second point more clear. I encourage you to watch the videos as you read (they are not 'gotcha' videos about abortion).

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Biblical Commands Concerning Aliens And Strangers (Refugees And Immigrants)

Fellow Christians, let's talk about refugees and immigrants, legal and illegal.

This is not about the laws of America. They are fallible; they may be just (they often are) or unjust (sometimes that too). Empires make mistakes, and let's not kid ourselves - America is an empire of mankind, not the kingdom of God.

This post is about the biblical language surrounding those who are 'other'; specifically, what our hearts should feel and our hands should do in response to immigrants and refugees, legal and illegal.

I have an opinion as an American citizen under a Constitution, and I assume you do too. That's fine.  But if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you cannot avoid what the Bible says about this issue. And if you feel a tension between the laws of the land and the laws of God, you must go with following the heart and mind of God as revealed in the Bible, not the heart and mind of people revealed in laws.

Obviously,  there is a tension here. We are to honor those in authority. The Bible is clear on that point.  Government is ordained by God; they are part of his plan to (ideally) keep the world from devolving into chaos and war. If we are properly and righteously obedient, it's a witness to the world around us. However, we are also to honor all people, and honor God above all else. Sometimes, these things will be in tension. These points are biblically indisputable (see my previous links).

Fellow Christians, we must have a biblical conversation about the church's response to immigrants and refugees that simultaneously attempts to honor the laws of our land while beginning and ending in God's heart and mind as revealed in the scripture we claim as authoritative. Yes, I know the Old Testament verses are about Israel, which was a theocracy in the Ancient Near East, and is obviously different than our current situations. I'm asking you to think about what is revealed about God's heart in His commands to His people that should be applied today in a way that is appropriate to our situation.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Black Panther

The new Black Panther movie has been a global phenomenon, poised to break a billion dollars worldwide. Its success is probably due to a combination of being well made and well timed. Hollywood is riding a wave of filmmaking that is bringing those who have been historically disenfranchised (women and minorities) into the spotlight, offering bigger-than-life tales of heroes with whom many can more directly connect than ever before (check out #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe on Twitter).

Black Panther has much to offer that is worth celebrating*. As far as Marvel movies go, fan response is mixed. In some ways it still fits Marvel’s paint-by-number storytelling, but it has a more serious tone than the Avengers, and it deeply embeds itself within the beautiful tapestry of African culture and history (specifically Kenya, Namibia, and South Africa). It also avoids a lot of the moral ambiguity of other Marvel heroes (I’m talking to you, everybody but Captain America and Iron Fist) by offering a hero of virtue and nobility for whom we have good reason to cheer almost without reservation.

Here, in no particular order, are eight things that stood out to me.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Our Guns, Our Culture, And Our Hearts

Like everyone else, I am bothered by the prevalence of gun violence in the United States. Most conversations I have witnessed have devolved very quickly into emotional outbursts and meme-level talking points. This is my attempt to offer a meaningful addition to the conversation. Though I have attempted to do my homework, I don't expect you to substitute this for your own research. I welcome any thoughtful comments or links you would like to add to this conversation.

Let's begin with some statistics.
In the face of the reality of gun violence in the United States, there seem to be three primary solutions: limit access to guns, address unhealthy cultural dynamics, or change the people who use the guns. In the wake of the tragic Florida shooting, I've heard a lot of conversation about the first, but not so much about the other two. I don't think that's going to work. We should be talking about the weapons, sure, but we must also talk about the reasons people use them for such evil ends.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Pursuit Of Unhappiness

What does the good life look like?

We talk a lot, especially in the United States, about pursuing and obtaining happiness, but is that really all there is? What if happiness remains elusive? Is there something we are missing? Is there something wrong with us - something broken that must be fixed? Perhaps our desperation to be happy reflects a failure to understand something important about the truly important things in life. Perhaps the elusiveness of happiness is actually meant to point us toward something more profound.

In this latest episode of our Etcetera podcast, Beth and I wrestle with questions of happiness and unhappiness, depression, anxiety, hope, faith, meaning and purpose. It should be easy to sort all this out in an hour.....

As always, we value interaction with you! You can listen to this episode of our Etcetera podcast on Soundcloud or on various apps (such as Podcast Addict or Stitcher Radio). Then, feel free to comment on this blog or on our Facebook page. We value your feedback, as well as any ideas for future guests or shows!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Thinking About Illegal Immigration As A Citizen Of Heaven

So, the disclaimer first. 

As a result, I've been reading a lot about how Christians are processing the illegal immigration issue.  It's no secret we Christians are all over the map in how we believe we should respond. What I offer here is an attempt to do justice to two distinct sides on this issue, express some thoughts about the intersection of justice and mercy, and offer a solution that I hope offers a vision of how the church could change the world for our good and God's glory. 

So be patient, please, if you choose to read this. I'm not asking you to agree with me on every point; like I said, I'm sure these won't by my final thoughts. I would love to engage respectfully with you if you disagree in hopes that I can learn and grow.

I also encourage you to read the links at the end of this article.

Monday, January 29, 2018

P.T. Barnum, Cat People, and Our Legacy Of Exploitation

P.T. Barnum has been in the news again because of The Greatest Showman, a movie which has been getting some pretty harsh criticism not so much because of the movie as a movie but because of the man celebrated in it. Barnum hired ‘freaks', many of whom were forced into the work as children, and profited greatly from them, which was not uncommon at the time. He was probably a better man than many at the time; I did not read that he forced anyone into this. However, he eagerly bought out contracts and hired children as young as 5 to join his show. Even if he is better by comparison, that's a far cry from declaring him good.

However, there was a clear benefit to many of those who put themselves on display. “Many of his performers were paid handsome sums, some earning as much as today’s sports stars.” For example,
 General Tom Thumb” benefited handsomely. For around fifteen years, he was paid upwards of $150 per week ($4,100 today) for his performances, and, upon retiring, lived in New York’s “most fashionable neighborhood,” owned a yacht, and dressed like a dandy. A man Barnum named Zip, who was born with a head deformity, eventually make 1000 dollars a week in 1860’s money, lived in a very nice home Barnum bought for him, and retired in his 80’s a millionaire. Some Siamese twins who toured with Barnum joined as adults after running out of the 1.3 million dollars (in today’s money) they invested well. When they died, they left a fortune to their wives.  The Tattooed Man made the equivalent of $37,000 dollars a week and hired armed guards to protect him. The Dog-Faced Boy made out the best: “Throughout the 1880s, Fedor was among the highest paid performers in the business, netting $500 per week ($13,000 today). By the time of his retirement, his saving totalled nearly $300,000 ($7.6 million).”

In spite of this benefit to many of the freaks, the argument is that Barnum treated them unfairly to gain an unfair advantage or benefit for himself. He exploited them, right? No amount of money or fame could compensate for the dehumanization and commodification of other human beings so that Barnum could benefit.

We live in a world that condemns Barnum’s exploitation. But we also live in a world the has made consent a holy grail. So what do we do when these two things clash? Can the consenting – especially if they benefit well from a transaction – still be exploited? Most of the freaks agreed to it. In fact, most of them ended up pretty well off financially, far better off than they likely would have if Barnum had not hired them.

So, if they consented to work for Barnum, how is this wrong? An agreement was reached, a form of social contract; Barnum profited from them, but they did from him as well. Even if you make the argument he exploited them because he had an unfair advantage or treated them unfairly, it was “their body their choice,” right? As long as they were not coerced, we should be celebrating how these freaks took what society used against them and turned it to their own advantage. In today’s term, I think we would call that empowerment. Unless, of course, there is something about the very nature of what happened that is in some sense wrong.

Monday, January 15, 2018

It's Time To Talk About The Purpose Of Sex

The more I see all the headlines stamped on our news feeds about #metoo moments, the more I am
convinced we as a society have lost sight of the purpose of sex. It's a generally true observation that if we don’t know what something is for, odds are pretty good we will use it in ways we shouldn’t.

Sex is not exempt from this reality. And considering how the scandals range from the church to Hollywood to Washington to schools, it’s clearly a struggle that permeates every aspect of our society.

So, sex and purpose. What could possible go wrong in this discussion? 

I don’t expect everyone reading this to agree with me, but I do ask that you give serious consideration to these thoughts – and then, if you wish to offer serious thoughts in agreement or opposition, feel free!

Monday, January 8, 2018

Empires, Shires, And Incense To Ceasar

I have been reading The Benedict Option, a book by Rod Dreher that generated quite a bit of discussion after it was released just over a year ago. I'm trying to think clearly about the argument he is making, which is basically that "the culture war as we know it is over," and the church needs to focus on building strong communities that learn from and build on Benedict's monastic model.  

My goal here is not to support or critique his argument since I've not yet finished the book (or read a rebuttal). However, as I have been reading his chapter on Christians and Politics, and I have had a lot of thoughts bouncing around in my head.

So, if you are up for (perhaps) being unsettled, here are some excerpts from this chapter that will hopefully bounce thoughts around in your head as well - thoughts which I would love to hear either in the comment section on this post or on social media. I seem to remember reading that there is much wisdom to be found in a multitude of counselors...

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Consent Is Not Enough

Our culture needs to spend more time on two important questions that are increasingly being asked in the wake of the sex scandals rocking Hollywood and Washington, D.C.

First, is consent sufficient to grant moral goodness to any sexual act? After all, we don't simply assume that consent equates with morality or goodness other situations. Two people can agree to kill or cannibalize each other. The fact that they consented hardly makes it a good thing. One can certainly make a morally neutral act bad by coercion, but one can’t make a morally bad act acceptable simply by agreeing to have it done or by giving permission to do it. In terms of sexual activity, the goodness of an act can never include anything less than consent, but it must include more. Consent is necessary, but not sufficient.

Second, when is the one granting consent not actually granting consent? Think of the issue of minors engaging in sex with adults. If a minor is below the age of consent, the idea is that they are not even capable of consenting in any meaningful sense of the word, because they are not mature or rational enough to truly understand what they agreeing to do. That principle can be broadened:
  • What if someone who was abused has had his or her perspective on sex so badly damaged that consent is not a reflection of an affirmative desire at all, but of broken resignation?
  • I have read several articles (such as this one) and sobering books that take an in-depth look at the hook-up culture, especially how it exists on college campuses. If a woman gets drunk so that she can get over her natural inhibition or even dislike of what will eventually happen with someone she meets at a bar, is her consent really consent? She doesn’t really want to, but it’s how she believes the game must be played, so she numbs herself in order to say “yes.”
  • If two adults consent to actions that are degrading, perhaps even dehumanizing, and which will be formative in them and those who watch (if it is porn), is mere consent sufficient to give it our stamp of approval? 
  • What if two adults are in a relationship and one says, "Well, if you won't have sex with me (or if you won't have more sex), this relationship is over." If the partner fulfills the other one's wishes, is that truly consensual sex?

We must gain moral clarity on this. These questions matter not just for the individuals involved, but for the cultural mood that is created based on how we respond. Rather than give a prolonged essay on my view, I am offering a collection of excerpts from articles addressing this issue.