Archive by Author | Elijah

Alien in a Strange Land

Spectrum

What I am about to share may be news to some of my friends, but will be no new revelation to a great many others. I now know at the age of 30 what I have suspected for a number of years. It is time for me to emerge from the feigned comfort of a figurative closet, despite my deep longing to seek refuge, and to share with my family, both my biological family and my sociological family, that I live with autism spectrum disorder.

I’ve been reluctant to share this because I believe it will be perceived as me making a mountain out of a molehill. For some, the first thought might be, ‘No you don’t.’ Despite my desire for the opposite, these folk are wrong. Others might think, ‘Well, we’re all on the spectrum somewhere, aren’t we?’ And whilst the latter may be true to some extent, I have been diagnosed as severely impaired. This is not a ‘weekend’ autism. This is a full-blown disorder. I know that it might not appear that way at first glance. Unbeknownst to me, I have been struggling with this disorder throughout my life. I have learned a lot about what is and is not acceptable in social interactions (and I still have much to learn). Some might think, ‘Well, don’t we all have to learn that?’ Once again, I would agree to some extent. But part of what makes an autistic person different is that we lack the social intuition that makes this happen naturally. A bicycle with a flat tyre might roll, but it won’t soon be carrying the winner of the Tour de France. I am grateful for the resources I have discovered to help me get by whilst seeming relatively ‘normal’. But because this is learned—something ‘put on’ like a jumper—I make mistakes. Sometimes my head ends up in a sleeve or I’ve put it on back-to-front.

My sisters and brothers (and those in between and outwith that dichotomy) who inhabit this strange world whilst living with ASD – though we represent a broad spectrum of ability, we are united in the extraordinary challenges we face and the extraordinary beauty that we embody. For myself, I’m not sure how much of that statement I believe with all of my heart, but I can say that we see the world in a very different way. Sometimes this world is frightening. Sometimes it is a world full of wonder. But it is always an alien world, perceived through a degree of social ineptitude and, for some of us, an oversensitivity to external stimuli that sets us apart from our neurotypical sisters and brothers.

In both the past and the present we have been social outcasts, but this strange world is our world too. We have a voice, whether that is one spoken aloud, through a speech device, or even uttered within our own minds. We are an invaluable part of the fabric of society – without us something essential would be missing.

I’m no way making myself out to be the spokesperson for all people living with ASD. I am new to this realisation and I can only speak from my experience. But who am I? That’s a difficult question for me to answer. It’s made especially difficult because of what I ‘do’ as I am a parish minister in the Church of Scotland. People often ask me about my calling and I grant that it’s rather unusual as there are fewer than a thousand of us in post at the moment. I often describe it, in brutally honest terms, as miserable, but the best thing in the world. I have the great and humbling honour of serving a wonderful and accepting congregation, full of energy, compassion and diversity. In addition to my ‘church family’, I have an extended family of one of the largest parishes in Scotland. The parish of Queen’s Park and Govanhill doesn’t cover an especially large geographic area, but it is home to, in my estimate, more than 20,000 individuals, nearly half of which, like me, were not born in this country.

As part of my calling, I have the opportunity to work with what seems like countless community organisations and faith groups in our area. I have the opportunity to build relationships with so many different kinds of people, networking between organisations, playing my very modest part in the incredible work that goes on in this wee patch of Glasgow. In addition to community work I also have the opportunity to serve on different bodies within Glasgow Presbytery and the Church of Scotland. And last, but not least, I have the opportunity and privilege of building relationships with my aforementioned church family. This includes visiting folk at home and in hospital, leading several services on Sundays and attending prayer groups. Additionally, I also have the opportunity to take part in special events, such as fundraisers and social meals. I’ve probably left out a fair bit of what being a parish minister entails, but I hope you get the gist.

As someone living with ASD, none of this is natural for me. In fact, it’s highly unnatural. That is part of why the question ‘Who am I?’ is so difficult to answer. I’ve got the person who needs to fulfil the responsibilities of being a parish minister with the added layer of the need to fulfil the responsibilities of a ‘normal person’. I’ve spent my entire life learning to put on ‘normal’. I feel that I must do this because of the negative responses I have received for not behaving a certain way. So very much of what many people take for granted as natural practice within social interactions are things that I have had to learn. It takes a massive amount of cognitive energy to maintain even just one of these two layers of ‘normality’. And I’m still learning. When a behaviour is not natural, I make some embarrassing—or even worse—hurtful mistakes. All too often I misinterpret what I am told. When I see someone has a new haircut—stop everything—I must tell them that I’ve noticed, even if they are midsentence. The same goes for other aspects of physical appearance – it’s not okay to point out every feature, especially when someone has a lazy eye or a new plook. When is it my turn to speak? When should I stop talking? Phone calls are a waking nightmare. These things are just the very tip of my autistic iceberg.

Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, ‘There’s nothing unusual there.’ Thank you. Please spend a few hours with me and tell me that I’ve not made any social errors – it’s a rarity. And when we meet, please don’t touch me unless I tell you that it’s okay.

So who am I? To be honest, I don’t really know. Maybe none of us can answer that question. For me, I don’t know how to disentangle fully the learned behaviour from the kernel of ‘Elijah’. When presented with of all of the opportunities set before me, it’s very easy to overwork, a vice if ever there was one. There’s a great temptation to overfill my schedule, to take on any opportunity presented to me. For even the most hardy neurotypical person, this is a sure recipe for burnout. In the face of this errant busyness, there is a great need to refocus, to remember who I am as Elijah; not the parish minister, but the person, the disciple of Jesus. ‘Know thyself’, ‘γνῶθι σεαυτόν’, a pre-Socratic maxim featured in Western thought for several thousand years. It is not an unusual challenge. I’m working on it.

I’m not sure if sharing all of this is yet another faux pas, but I’m grasping at straws. I’m trying to make sense of it all. I need to figure out what resources there are to help me on this journey. And if you’d like to help, thank you. I need it. We need it. We need patience and understanding. We need respect and equality. We need love, even if we’re not the best at expressing it.

Six Thoughts, Post-Referendum

Several short thoughts, nothing more.  Due to lack of sleep and general exhaustion, this won’t be my finest bit of writing ever, but here goes…

1. MANY VOTES WERE FRAUDULENT – Don’t worry, this isn’t what it seems to be.  I’ve not got some conspiracy theory floating around in my head about mass instances of voter fraud.  I suppose I mean ‘misguided’, but that didn’t seem strong enough.

I would like to look at the simple language of the Referendum ballot: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’  In all honesty, I think both sides of the debate have obscured the question, whether intentionally or unintentionally.  I think when most people look at that question they aren’t reading ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ at all.  It could be any number of things:

‘Should we sack the Tories?’
‘Should Alex Salmond and the SNP run Scotland?’
‘Should Scotland be an independent country on 19 September 2014?’
‘Do you want to lose your pension?’
‘Do you want to lose Coronation Street?’
‘Do you appreciate the monarchy?’
et cetera

The heart-breaking thing is that whilst some of those suggestions are legitimate or even debatable knock-on effects of union or independence, none of them are really an answer to the bigger question and the first two (and variations of them) are particularly deceiving as they involve conflating party politics and national sovereignty.  I think that the Better Together folk were wise in having a Labour politician lead them (although they couldn’t find someone who sounded more Scottish than Alistair Darling?), indicating a cross-party effort to maintain the Union.  Although Alex Salmond is an incredibly talented politician, he is also the First Minister and the leader of the SNP.  Granted, the Referendum is a direct by-product of the SNP’s election to Scottish Parliament in 2011, but it could’ve been more effective to see less divisive faces leading the Yes campaign.

This all adds up to a wee bit of confusion when it comes to answering the question, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’  In defence of the Yes campaign, I would argue that it is likely that many people were not thinking about the future of Scotland with a fully devolved and independent Scottish Parliament made up of all Scottish political persuasions.  We wouldn’t need to ship our best and brightest to Westminster.  They could stay here in Scotland where they have the opportunity to represent the interests of the people living in Scotland — because that would be the entire purpose of an independent Scottish Government.  Instead, folk were thinking about a decade of Alex Salmond.

I also think a lot of folk have been using language to imply that had Scotland voted ‘Yes’ on 18 September, we would be an independent country on 19 September.  Had we voted ‘Yes’, the new government would not have been established until 24 March 2016.  This would allow a year and a half of consultation and negotiation; and to play into the previous point, a democratic vote for all eligible voters in Scotland.  I’m seeing a lot of ‘still in the UK’-type language on social media this morning — no matter the outcome of yesterday’s Referendum, today we would still be in the UK.

2. SCOTLAND IS NOT THE SOCIALIST HAVEN SOME OF US HAVE BELIEVED IT TO BE — Results this morning indicate that areas of a higher working class and unemployed population came out overwhelmingly in favour of independence.  In many of our minds (me included), we’ve harboured this delusion that the vast majority of Scots are like the working class folk in Glasgow and Dundee.  But the reality is that Scotland is not as different from the rest of the United Kingdom as we thought.  Of course, a Conservative politician in Scotland is most likely much further to the left than a Conservative politician in England. See Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives.  She’s a woman and a lesbian at that — two qualities that would have many of the English Tory gentry up in arms.  But overall, it’s only common sense to acknowledge that not all Scots are socialists and up until only a few decades ago, Scotland had a long spell of complicity in the electing of Unionist/Conservative Governments in Westminster.

3. THIS IS NOT A TORY VICTORY / THIS IS NOT AN SNP DEFEAT — One great frustration among many I have with the result of this Referendum is that many folk are seeing this as either a Tory victory of an SNP defeat.  It is neither of those things.  At most, it is a Better Together victory and a Yes campaign defeat.  Make no mistake — this vote does not indicate Scotland’s approval of Westminster or the UK Government.  Likewise, it does not indicate Scotland’s disapproval of Holyrood and the Scottish Government.  Instead, a slim majority of Scottish voters decided that our best option at this point is not full independence.  Not only that, but in the midst of their grief, the SNP and the Yes campaign should take some consolation in the fact that over the length of this campaign the support of Scottish independence is at a record high.  It seems clear that the majority Scottish people want more power devolved to Scotland (a clarity that could have manifested itself in a result today had David Cameron not very sneakily traded a second, devo-max Referendum question for allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote back in the Edinburgh Agreement).  If Westminster politicians stick to their promises, we will be seeing further devolution in future.

As far as the future of the SNP goes, I believe that a large number of Scots think that the SNP has done well for the Scottish people, hence 2011’s election of a majority SNP Scottish Government in a parliament designed to avoid majority governments.  The SNP isn’t going anywhere any time soon.  If anything, a ‘Yes’ vote would’ve been the best way to ensure that the SNP would eventually dissolve.

4. AT A CERTAIN POINT, A ‘YES’ WOULD MEAN THE SAME THING AS A WESTMINSTER GOVERNMENT — As one might expect, the first results that came in early this morning were the smallest council areas. When a majority of councils had reported (most of them ‘No’ votes) it became clear to me that had the bigger councils voted ‘Yes’ overwhelmingly, this would create the same lopsided democracy as we find at Westminster.  Sure, in this hypothetical situation where ‘Yes’ won as a result of only a handful of large council areas, in numbers the ‘Yes’ would have it.  As is already felt by the smaller councils, particularly in the Western and Northern Islands, they would be governed by the will of places like Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee.  Folk have used this as an argument against independence, saying things like ‘Well, the Highlands and Islands have a different culture from the Lowlands, so we should have the opportunity to be independent countries too!’ I think that’s nonsense and you don’t need to think too long to realise that the Western and Northern Islands would be more closely managed and find greater clout in a smaller, more local Scottish Parliament (as opposed to Westminster).  But what I really want to express is that, should Scotland one day decide to be an independent country, I would hope that would be the will of the vast majority of Scots, with support from the further flung parts of our beautiful country.

5. THE UK IS BECOMING INCREASINGLY INHOSPITABLE TO THE OUTSIDER — A major part of why I supported a ‘Yes’ vote is because I am noticing a trend of hostility and inhospitality to outsiders in the United Kingdom.  (Given the results of the last European Parliamentary election, some might even argue that this is a European trend.)  As an Angeliño-Glaswegian, I have a particular interest in the rights of immigrants, although my native language, skin colour and accent put me at a great advantage among non-native residents of Scotland.  The cancer that is British fascism and isolationism is spreading beyond the confines of the political fringes.  Many BNP voters have been making their way to UKIP, a seemingly more politically viable party these days.  I thought that political separation from the UK would enable Scotland to become more intimately associated with the rest of Europe (and the rest of the world).  Unfortunately, no amount of devolution will allow for that in a United Kingdom.  I suppose that is one of my biggest fears in the wake of the Referendum results — that Scotland would become yet more xenophobic.  And here’s a wee reminder to those who think that the SNP’s brand of nationalism is the same as Nazi nationalism — the SNP has never stood for ethnic nationalism, that’s the job of the SDL.

6. WE CANNOT LOSE MOMENTUM — In the wake of this morning’s result, it would be easy to become discouraged or complacent.  Those who supported ‘Yes’ might feel downtrodden and exhausted with nothing to show for it.  This isn’t the result of a simple football match.  This was bigger than any General Election.  And now the opportunity seems lost.  It might be difficult to face the day today.

Those who supported ‘No’ might feel as if their work here is done, dusting off their hands, accompanied by a large sigh of relief.  After the overwhelming nature of this very long and divisive campaign, we might feel too tired to continue.  But there is much work to be done.  I believe that many ‘No’ voters are not entirely convinced about this current system in the UK.  Perhaps they believe that the best way for change is to remain part of the UK and renew it from the inside out.  I can appreciate that.

Today we find ourselves in the midst of a nation divided.  But we are still Scotland and despite the fact that we are not the socialist haven many have envisaged, we have many shared ideals, ideals that are not represented by many of the folk at Westminster.  We cannot give in.  We cannot feel defeated and we cannot feel as if our task is finished.  We must unite as Scotland with love for one another in order to press for the change we need.  We must hold those who made promises accountable to those promises.  We must fight for a fairer and more just society.  We must fight against the special breaks given to large financial institutions.  We must fight for the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society.  We must fight to do our part to demonstrate care and respect for nature and the precious natural resources so exploited by UK.  And if it be our united will, we must fight to rid the UK of our hypocritical and immoral nuclear arsenal.

These are just some of the things we value.  Let’s write a longer to-do list together.

Hearts

God & the Dentist

Courtesy of jesus-withyoualways.com

Courtesy of jesus-withyoualways.com

Below is, as it is with all opinion posts, an outline of my opinion on a particular topic.  Please feel free to disagree or to challenge my views, but please also take the care to read all of what I have written.  It is my sincere intention to be a loving, gracious, humble and devout follower of Jesus.  Please forgive me when I fail at this.

Today a couple of minister friends of mine shared the same link on Facebook with the heading, ‘Dentist Says God Doesn’t Exist – Watch What His Patient Says…’  Normally I tend away from these sort of links (my criticisms in this post will probably reveal why that is the case), but for some reason today I decided to click.  Here’s the clip:

I’m not sure how long this ‘God & the Dentist’ idea has been circulating (after a limited amount of research I’ve discovered several videos presenting the same argument), but this one was produced by a group called ‘cvcnow’ who on their YouTube account give this description:

cvcnow produce creative short films, designed to entertain and challenge your thinking about real life.

In amongst all the negativity we face online, we want to be that much needed positive presence online and bring a fresh new perspective on real life struggles – from forgiveness to suicide; we don’t shy away from the big issues.

They’ve got this written in their ‘about’ section on the cvcnow.com website:

All we want is to help you explore those unavoidable questions about life, the universe and everything in it.

After a wee bit of research I’ve discovered that cvcnow is a ‘brand’ under the umbrella of Christian Vision, ‘a UK-based international charity founded by Lord Edmiston in 1988.’  I have yet to watch all of the videos that they’ve produced (and I don’t see myself doing that any time soon), but from viewing this dentist video alone, something tells me that none of their videos will sit right with me.  But why?

Before I explain why I see this sort of thinking as more of a foe than a friend, I want to say that this is no attack on any individuals who find this video inspirational.  Please know that I am in no way doubting the faith, goodness or sincerity of anyone involved in cvcnow or Christian Vision, or even anyone who has enjoyed the video above or has passed it on to friends.  I believe that the folk who produced this video are using their skills, passions and energies to do what they think is the most effective way to follow what they believe God wants for them.  But with that being said, I think that most people (even people who commit acts of great evil) do the same.  For example, I’m convinced that the Tories believe that society will best flourish under their policies whilst Labour politicians believe the same of their own policies (though, some might argue that New Labour’s policies are more Tory than Labour, but I digress…).  I also want to express that I believe that God can use any means to reveal theological truth and convey religious experience (my PhD thesis approaches a small facet of that very belief), as in the old story in the Torah of the diviner Balaam who was intent on cursing the God of the Jews, but this very God corrected him via the mouth of a donkey.  So yes, according to our mythology and tradition, God can speak through various means, but I’d rather be the prophet than the ass.

So what about this video do I find particularly offensive?  Aside from the poor writing, poor acting, poor music, poor production and implausibility of the conversation?  Let’s walk through the ‘script’:

Dentist [after working on a patient’s teeth]: OK, we’re done.
Patient: Yes, thank God for that.
D: God?
P: What do you mean?
D: Who in this day and age still believes in God?

At this point it’s important to point out that I don’t know of any dentist, even a staunchly atheistic dentist, who would take issue with someone saying ‘Thank God’ in a situation like that.  Many of my atheist friends say ‘Thank God’ as often as they say ‘Thank fuck’.  The ‘God’ bit of ‘Thank God’ doesn’t necessarily carry much meaning.  ‘Thank God’ is simply a colloquialism.  But the writers of this piece needed to find a way to put God into a ‘real life’ situation, so we end up with a very rude dentist who decides to challenge his patient on a passing comment.  And to answer this elitist dentist’s silly question, Who in this day and age still believes in God?apparently some 5.8 billion of the 6.9 billion people in the world, or 84% of people.  That in no way proves the legitimacy or truthfulness of belief in God, but at least demonstrates that, even ‘in this day and age’, belief in God isn’t exactly uncommon.  So the patient decides to respond:

P: Well, I do.  Why’s that?
D: Well, you obviously missed all the wars, uh, the devastation, the poverty…everything that goes wrong in this world.
P: Well, I don’t believe in dentists.  If there are so many dentists in the world, then why do so many people have broken, infected and missing teeth?

Oh dear.  Now, despite his unpleasant personality, I’m starting to side with the dentist.  Whether or not a Christian will admit it, there is no simple answer to the problem of evil (expressed so eloquently by the dentist in his condescension: ‘Well, you obviously missed all the wars, uh, the devastation, the poverty…everything that goes wrong in this world.’).  I have some views on how I might approach the problem of evil, but I don’t want to go there with this post.  It’s also important to note that God has been used to justify a great many wars throughout history (even Bush and Blair claim to have prayed to God before the [misleading] war in Iraq).  But that at which I want to get is what the patient has used to argue against non-belief – she has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists.  There are two major problems I have with her decision.

1) She has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists That’s a very difficult position to maintain when you’re sitting in the chair of a dentist‘s office after your dentist appointment and a dentist is standing right in front of you, speaking with you.  If the Christian God was always so readily tangible the argument might stand up a wee bit better.  But dentists do exist and her assertion that the lack of dental care in the world proves that dentist’s don’t exist is somehow akin to this dentist’s argument against the existence of God by way of the problem of evil is complete and utter nonsense.  In the spirit of this unlikely exchange, this patient’s thanking of God after her dental procedure reveals that she believes that God was somehow present and responsible for the ending of the procedure.  This can be seen as implying that God is capable of being present in many places at one time (omnipresence) and that is powerful enough to bring her through this dental challenge (omnipotence).  The dentist argues that an ever present and all powerful God (who is also a good God [omnibenevolence]) cannot exist in light of the brokenness in the world.  And whilst there are many different conceptions of God, these three things—presence, power and goodness—form part of the general understanding of the concept of ‘God’ in Western society.  ‘Dentist’, on the other hand, does not carry the same weight.  No one in their right mind believes dentists are omnipresent.  No one in their right mind believes dentists are omnipotent.  Some people believe that dentists are actually evil.  So to argue that dentists, because of their lack of omnipresence and omnipotence (and to some people, their lack of omnibenevolence), do not exist, is quite silly.

2) She has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists.  I have argued against the concept that we ‘choose’ what we believe in other posts (particularly here in ‘Agnosticism in the Kingdom of God’, from 23 September 2011 and here in ‘Some thoughts on religion and its place in my life’, 9 May 2012), but I’ll attempt to reiterate and expand some of that argument here.  In short, I don’t believe any of us choose what we believe and instead—based upon the information we store in our heads from our experiences—we ‘reason’ to what makes the most sense to us.  It’s not Logic with a capital ‘L’, but it’s some type of existential logic.

For a friend of mine, Christianity made sense until something else—whether that is new information he learned or a new experience or series of experiences—led him to see his Christian belief system as illogical.  I do think that we can cultivate a particular belief via manipulation (like any gay men who cultivate the unfortunate belief that their sexuality is a choice), but ultimately, I think belief is something that happens to us.  This makes most sense in Christianity (as opposed to this idea that we choose our beliefs) because, alongside the broader Christian tradition, the Bible seems to express that faith/belief is a gift:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’  Matthew 16:13-17, NRSV

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  Ephesians 2:8-9, NRSV

Even the account of St Paul’s conversion implies that faith is something that happened to Saul, not something he chose (see Acts 9).  If the element of choice is ever involved in the Scripture, I believe it’s a matter of choosing between that which is in line with the values of the kingdom of God and that which is out of line with the values of the kingdom of God.  As a result of acting upon belief, some people are commended by Christ:

As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’ Then he shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.  Luke 18:35-43, NRSV

There are many other similar passages in the Gospels (such as Matthew 9:22, Mark 5:34, Luke 7:50), but as is expressed in the Epistle of St James, faith/belief is a gift from God:

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  James 2:5, NRSV

I didn’t choose to become a Christian.  Perhaps every day I have the choice to follow either that which I conceive of as following Christ or that which I conceive of as not, but the conception of following Christ, being a Christian, believing in God — those things are part of my faith, and my faith is a free gift from God.

This is a good place to look at the concluding lines of the dialogue, which reveal what is perhaps the most important reason why I cannot stand by this video:

D: I can’t help people that don’t come to me to have their teeth fixed.
P: Exactly.  It’s the same way with God.  It’s a bit rich of us to expect God to help people who don’t come to him and instead insist on doing things their own way.
D: And how am I meant to come to God?
P: Just talk to him – he’s listening.

Here the patient tells the dentist that it’s unreasonable for us to expect God to help people who don’t come to him.  Why would I have any problem with that?  Being that we’ve just celebrated the Epiphany a few days ago, the doctrine of the incarnation weighs very heavily upon me.  At the very heart of the Christian faith is the belief that God became human in Jesus.  This divine mystery plants God in the midst of human existence, as a human.  As quoted in the Gospel of St Matthew,

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’  Matthew 1:23 (cf. Isaiah 7:14), NRSV

Christianity rests on the belief that God is the one who comes to us: ‘But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8), ‘We love because he first loved us.’ (1 John 4:19).  It is God’s initiative, God’s move that makes this happen.  God is not sitting, twiddling her divine thumbs, waiting for us to turn up.  God is here, in our midst.  And yet, whilst I believe that this is true, the patient’s response to the dentist’s final question, ‘And how am I meant to come to God?’ poses some other difficulties.

I do believe that God listens.  I do believe that God cares.  But as I have written in a previous post,

I don’t know why some people believe they’ve had a religious experience when they didn’t want one, whilst some people really want a religious experience and have yet to receive it.  I don’t know why the universe is chaotic.  I don’t know why such lovely people die of cancer.  I don’t know why millions of people die of starvation and disease each year.  I don’t know why, if a God exists, that God doesn’t just sort all this out this instant.  These are difficult questions; questions that make the writing of some blog post seem absolutely meaningless.  But even though I cannot give someone a life-changing religious experience, even though I cannot stop a tsunami, even though I cannot feed all who hunger and even though I cannot answer these questions in a neatly-packaged way, I know that this world and the people therein are beautiful and God has called me to give of myself for others in love, despite my lack of love and my lack of ability.

I know that this is not a resolution to the logical challenges facing Christians who maintain that God is omnipresent, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, but in light of the reality of suffering in our world, I believe that those who have faith should tread very lightly when arguing for God’s existence to those who—without us even being aware—have tried very hard to call out and listen for God.  The video above seems to imply that God is just a phone call away, but it does not balance that belief out with the reality that billions of suffering people who have cried out for the aid of a higher power have not received the answer that we of faith so take for granted.  For this reason, someone might see this video and be unnecessarily hurt.  This is why this video rubs me the wrong way.

A life of belief in God is not always cushy.  It’s never easy.  The only concrete thing I believe with this regard is that, through Jesus, God empathises with human suffering and wants people who call themselves followers of Christ to help ease it.  One way we can do that is to train up more dentists in order that they might ‘show the love of Christ by offering dental relief to those in need around the world.’

Lost in the Aesthetic

As you might have noticed, we have had a wee bit of a redesign here at Lost in the Cloud.  But how you would have noticed, I am not sure, since any visits to this blog in the last year or two will have proven generally underwhelming (even more underwhelming than when we post more often).  Thanks to Greg’s posts John Stump, composer of Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz and Moby Books Illustrated Classic Editions (both published in 2010), we still receive between 100 and 200 views on any given day.  But those views are the result of a couple of brilliant niche subjects and not the steady traffic that results from consistent and thoughtful blogging, the initial challenge we set for ourselves here at LITC.

Granted, Greg and I are quite busy with relationships, our respective church ministries and life in general, but this is my formal recommitment to Lost in the Cloud and the first order of business was the redesign.  It seems like the last design update was only a few months ago, but looking back at my records I realised that the blog hasn’t had any design changes since September 2011, which, in graphic designer terms, is ancient.

I’ve always aimed to make the aesthetic of the blog efficient, playful and thoughtful.  Those values played a significant part in the inspiration for my original ‘yod cloud’ design back in 2004.  Since those initial doodles I have employed the wee cloud in a large number of designs, including this painting with the full Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew name of God (יהוה‎ or YHWH) which was commissioned for a church in 2006:

Vanityoil on maple, 4′ x 5′, commissioned for Grace Brethren Church of Long Beach

Later on in 2006 I was part of a mix CD club with Greg and some friends and for my round I decided to make a mix that was a playful reflection on the mythical history presented in the Christian Bible called Die Geschichte (The Recapitulation).  This was when I discovered the versatility of the yod cloud design:

CreationI. The Creation

The FloodIV. The Flood

SinaiVI. The Exodus & the Wilderness

TransfigurationXII. The Life of Christ – The Transfiguration

The playfulness of the design is made quite obvious in these illustrations and it was this yod cloud in the Transfiguration that most captured my imagination.  I began to use it obsessively.  I even designed a book stamp featuring it:

Stamp

In 2007 I devised and led an art project made up of a group of university friends that formed a small orchestra and theatre/dance group and performed a theatrical and orchestral version of Sufjan Stevens’ ‘The Transfiguration’ at Biola University in La Mirada, California.  The programmes featured the illustration from the Transfiguration above:

The Transfiguration Flyer

The iconic clouds played a very prominent role in the performance, adorning dancers as well as musicians.  So two years later, when Greg and I were first inspired to start our own blog the name, taken directly from the coda of the song above, came rather quickly, and the yod cloud was sure to be a design feature.  So here’s a wee walk-through of the header designs we’ve employed in the last four years.

Our first header was rather simple, featuring the yod cloud prominently:

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As with many of my designs, looking at it now I see it as cluttered, boring and lazy, but I think we really liked it at the time.  The second design was introduced in November 2010 and was nearly identical, but with a few changes:

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One cloud was added and each cloud employed finer lines, which tidied up the look a wee bit.  Also, the text was brought out to the foreground.  Nothing too major until July 2011, when the third overhaul took place:

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For some reason I went back to my early design days and employed a whole lot of drop shadow and opacity.  Making two dimensional designs ‘appear’ to have three dimensions was all the rage.  Not long after this design I realised that the white background was looking very boring, so in September 2011 I added the sea foam hue:

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I would consider this a definite improvement, but it frightens me that I went more than two years without altering the design.  That is a reflection of how much (or how little) attention I’ve paid to Lost in the Cloud, and for that I apologise (although I suspect that most folk pay no attention to the design and those that do probably never thought of our blog’s aesthetic as much to look at).

This leads me to the current design:

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The Andersonian echoes should be screaming at you (though I assure you, it was subconscious).  I’ve decided to really shake it all up.  The hallmark yod cloud is there, but I’ve actually finally tailored it into a nice, clean, modern design.  The hand-drawn element of the previous designs had its own charm, but I’m in the mood for this streamlined cloud.  Flanking the redesigned cloud are navigatory motifs (left) and cloudy-scientific motifs (right).  And yes, I think I just invented the word ‘navigatory’, but I’m pretty sure you know what I mean.  We’ve got the text in a cleaner, modern typeface (the old stenciled typeface was really getting on my visual nerves) that stretches across the whole of the header and below it you may notice nine wee symbols.  These are actually international weather office map code for describing different types of high clouds.  Along with ditching multiple clouds and the old typeface, I also flattened everything.  I think this might be related to the rekindling of my love for printed media and classic branding (see a series of redesigns of professional Scottish football badges I attempted over the last five months).

If you have stuck it through and are still reading this post, let me both apologise for my self indulgence and extend a hearty thank you to you!  Greg and I are back to post more regularly and we hope it’s as exciting for you, our readers, as it is for us.  And maybe I’ll finally get around to manufacturing some merchandise (like this yod cloud badge) for those eager to rep LITC…

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The World Unchained

DjangoUnchained

WARNING: Contains spoilers

This article was originally published in the February 2013 newsletter for Govan & Linthouse Parish Church, Glasgow.

Last week I had the opportunity to go to a screening of the latest Quentin Tarantino film, Django Unchained.  If you’ve never seen a Tarantino film, they are known for their excessive violence, brutality and coarse language.  Django Unchained is no different.  I’m not suggesting you see the film, that is, unless you’re willing to endure 165 minutes of brutality (but it’s brutality with a point).  If you are planning on seeing the film, I warn you that this article will contain some spoilers.

The film is made out to be a western epic.  It takes place in the pre-Civil War United States.  The main protagonists are Dr King Schultz (played by Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz), a German immigrant and former dentist who works as a bounty hunter, collecting rewards for the bodies of federal outlaws, and Django (played by another Academy Award winner, Jamie Foxx), a black slave who has been separated from his wife, another slave called Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington).  Schultz first ‘unchains’ Django as he is being transported by slave drivers through Texas.  Previously, Django had been a slave on a plantation where three murderous outlaws, the Brittle Brothers, had worked as farmhands.  Schultz wishes for Django to assist him in identifying the Brittle Brothers so that he may collect the reward for their bodies.  Schultz, who throughout the film demonstrates his utter distaste for the institution of slavery, offers Django his freedom, $75 and a horse in exchange for his assistance (and feels awful for not simply giving Django his freedom straight away).  After the slaying of the Brittle Brothers, Schultz asks Django, who demonstrates great skill in the ‘art’ of bounty hunting, if he would join him as his business partner for the winter and Django accepts his proposition.  Django reveals that once he is finished with their winter’s work, he is going to try to find his wife and rescue her from slavery.  Schultz, who has developed a very close friendship with Django, insists that he helps Django, as they discover that Broomhilda is a slave on a large plantation outside of Greenville, Mississippi, a particularly dangerous part of the States for a black man, free or not.

After the winter they come up with and carry out a complicated plan to reunite Django and his beloved Broomhilda.  But after their plan is uncovered, Schultz and Django are given an ultimatum: either they pay the exorbitant amount of $12,000 to purchase Broomhilda or she will be killed by her owner, the ruthless and bigoted plantation owner, Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio).  After they comply, Candie proposes that the transaction is not official until Schultz shakes his hand.  Schultz, who has been having flashbacks of an event during which Candie ordered a runaway slave to be torn apart by dogs, refuses to shake hands.  This is the point in the film which I believe carries the most moral weight.  As we, the audience, have been battered with the injustice and brutality of racism and the institution of slavery throughout the film, we feel something of that same moral weight.  Ultimately, Schultz’ refusal ends up costing him his life.

The film continues from there, but it’s at this point that I want to ask a question: what does Django Unchained have to teach Christians?  Our two main protagonists exhibit many Christ-like qualities throughout the film, but the one which I think is most profound, as a result of the build-up of the film, is Schultz refusal.  On principle, Schultz sees shaking Candie’s hand as some sort of approval of Candie, his vicious treatment of slaves and the whole of institutionalised racism that still, even in the age of a black President, finds expression in some parts of American culture.  Although some Americans, particularly the Quakers in the North, were opposed to slavery during the first half of the 19th century, the institution was still regarded as rather normal for most Americans.  Still, Schultz refuses to betray his strong sense of justice, even a sense of justice perhaps rather clouded by his recent career as a bounty hunter.  He demonstrates this passion in his last great speech immediately preceding his refusal to shake Candie’s hand.  After completing the paperwork for Broomhilda, Candie offers Schultz some rhubarb pie, but Schultz declines.

Candie   ‘Are you brooding ‘bout me getting the best of ya?’

Schultz   ‘Actually, I was thinking of that poor devil you fed to the dogs today, D’Artagnan.  And I was wondering what Dumas would make of all this.’

Candie   ‘Dumas…?’

Schultz   ‘Alexander Dumas.  He wrote The Three Musketeers.  I figured you must be an admirer.  You named your slave after that novel’s lead character.  If Alexander Dumas had been there today, I wonder what he would of made of it?’

Candie   ‘You doubt he’d approve?’

Schultz   ‘Yes, his approval would be a dubious proposition at best.’

Candie   ‘Soft hearted Frenchy?’

Schultz   ‘Alexander Dumas is black.’

The weight of the tone of the speech can only be captured if you see the film, but written out here, we can see that Schultz is able to undermine Candie’s ignorant racism with his poignant and authoritative presentation.  Candie, a self-professed Francophile who, although he does not know the language, insists on being called Monsieur Candie, is left stunned and confused.

Schultz’ words here remind me of the Parables of Christ.  Taking something trivial such as the raw materials of everyday life and turning it on its head in order to shift the worldview of his listeners toward that of the truths and values of the kingdom of God.  Unfortunately, Candie did not have ‘ears to hear’ the truth that Schultz uttered.  Do we?

Of course, our context is quite different.  The context of slavery-era Southern United States is a far cry from present day Govan and Linthouse.  I’ll even say that we live in a fortunate part of Scotland with a long heritage of fighting for social justice.  But have we grown complacent?  Perhaps we don’t have slaves in our context, but throughout our congregation and parish there are new battles to be fought.  Among others, the people who suffer in poverty, the people who struggle with addiction, the people who have immigrated from other countries, the people who seek asylum – they all suffer under various institutions of injustice here.  Maybe we’re responsible for some of that with our behaviour.  In Django Unchained, white people are appalled at the scandal of a black man on a horse.  I’ve heard people express their shock about the scandal of a recent immigrant with a bankcard or a mobile phone.

No matter how much we try—and we do try—justice is not the way of Scotland, the United Kingdom or any other nation.  Nations are made up of all kinds of people with very different ideals, some of which propagate institutionalised oppression.  In reality, the Church looks very much the same, and while I am grateful to God that the Church of Scotland and that Govan and Linthouse Parish Church are very much composed of a diverse body of people, I think we can unite in discipleship under the leadership of one man, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

The words found within our Gospel readings for the month of February have a great deal to teach us about the way that being a Christian turns the institutions of this world on its head:

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.

‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,

for you will be filled.

‘Blessed are you who weep now,

for you will laugh…

‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Luke 6:17-21, 27-31

As Christians, it is our daily challenge, not just in the month of February, but for the rest of our lives, to seek the values of the kingdom of God.  And we are not called to do this simply because we are good people or we think we will get a box of treasure in the future.  We are called to love because God loves this world.  God desires that we ‘unchain’ the world from oppression — what an unworthy honour for us!

May we be inspired by the love and grace of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do the works of the kingdom and fight with great conviction, as Dr King Schultz fought, the injustices in our community and beyond its boundaries.  It’s no simple task, but maybe we could keep each other accountable.  Next time you see me, I’d appreciate it if you reminded me to be more like Jesus and Dr King Schultz.

Many blessings,

Elijah

In this post a pacifist proposes a rivalry

This afternoon the Detroit Tigers will take on the New York Yankees at Comerica Park in Downtown Detroit.  I know that some of you are thinking, ‘Oh no, another baseball post…’  But hear me out.  A Tigers win in today’s game [UPDATE: The Tigers won!], which was originally scheduled for last night but was postponed due to adverse weather conditions, would seal a few things:

  1. The Tigers have stopped the Yankees in each of Detroit’s last three postseason appearances (2006, 2011 and 2012).
  2. The Yankees have been swept (losing a series with no wins) in a seven-game postseason series for the first time since their 1976 loss to the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series.
  3. The Motor City Kitties have won their eleventh American League pennant. (*For those of you who are not baseball fans, Major League Baseball is divided into two historic leagues: the American League [AL] and the National League [NL].  When a club wins the championship in either league they receive what is called ‘the pennant’.)
  4. The Tigs will compete in their eleventh World Series, hoping to earn their fifth World Series victory (1935, 1945, 1968, 1984 and 2012?).

Five out of eleven?  Even if the Tigers make it to the World Series and even if they win they will still only have a 5/11 (.455) record when it comes to World Series appearances.  The individual games (out of ten World Series) breaks down to 26 wins and 29 loses, or .473:

  • 1907L 0-4 (Chicago Cubs)
  • 1908L 1-4 (Chicago Cubs)
  • 1909L 3-4 (Pittsburgh Pirates)
  • 1934L 3-4 (St Louis Cardinals)
  • 1935W 4-2 (Chicago Cubs)
  • 1940L 3-4 (Cincinnati Reds)
  • 1945W 4-3 (Chicago Cubs)
  • 1968W 4-3 (St Louis Cardinals)
  • 1984W 4-1 (San Diego Padres)
  • 2006L 1-4 (St Louis Cardinals)

So the Tigers aren’t the strongest club as far as World Series victories are concerned.  After a quick glance at their World Series opponents two stand out: the Chicago Cubs and the St Louis Cardinals.  As can be seen above, the Tigers have faced the Cubs in four World Series, splitting their crowns 2-2 (although the Cubs have won more games in the four: 13 Cubs wins vs 9 Tigers wins).  Unfortunately for Chicago, in their ten World Series appearances they have only won two: their 1907 and 1908 victories against the Tigers.  In fact, the Cubs haven’t even been to a World Series since 1945.  Poor lads.

So if we’re looking for an exciting, historical, cross-league rivalry for the Tigers (since AL clubs very seldom face NL clubs outwith the World Series), which is what I’ve decided that we’re doing now, then the Cards are a better candidate than the Cubbies.  [Oddly enough, I referenced this rivalry in this tribute to Steve Jobs last October.]  The Cardinals have only played the Tigers in three World Series, but we’re talking about a range from 1934 until 2006 – 72 years!  And the Tigers are the underdogs, having only beaten the Cards once in three World Series.  The Cards are the reigning World Series champions and rank number two (behind the Yankees) in most World Series appearances (18) and victories (11).  AND there is a decent chance that 2012 will give us another Tigers-Cards World Series.

Of course, in baseball there’s no telling who will be going to the World Series until both leagues have awarded their pennants [UPDATE: The 2012 AL pennant belongs to the Tigers!].  The Tigers had a mediocre season, finishing with a .543 record, the lowest of any team in the postseason, even the wild card clubs!  They’ve turned things around in the postseason, especially during this series against New York.  But the Yankees have their southpaw ace CC Sabathia on the mound tonight.  That being said, it should be a good match-up between CC and the Tigers’ ‘other ace’ (the ‘ace’ title being given to the venerable Justin Verlander), Max Scherzer.  Scherzer has had a great season and a great postseason, so I have high hopes.  [UPDATE: Scherzer and the Tigers defeated Sabathia and the Yankees 8-1.]

Whilst trying to avoid sounding like the Kitties have this one in the bag (OMG, TIGERS GONNAE GO TAE THE WORLD SERIES THIS YEAR!!! [UPDATE: Seriously.]), it will be a great challenge for the Yanks to pull out of this 0-3 deficit given the poor state of their would-be power hitters like Teixiera, Cano, Swisher, A-Rod and Granderson (the latter three will sit out today’s game) and without their injured captain Derek Jeter.  (*On a side note, these four players have receive a combined $93.075 million salary this year, which accounts for nearly half of the entire Yankees payroll and is a higher figure than the entire payroll of 16 of the 30 Major League Baseball clubs.)

The Cardinals’ fight to clinch the NL pennant looks a wee bit more difficult.  The Cards finished their season with the same mediocre Tigers record, .543.  Unfortunately for the Cards, the NL Central Division also featured the Cincinnati Reds, who boasted the second-highest record in all of baseball this season.  But the Cards won the wild card playoff game against the Atlanta Braves and went on to defeat the winningest team in baseball, the Washington Nationals (.605), in the best-of-five National League Division Series.

They’ve done well in their uphill battle, but the National League Championship Series between the Cards and the San Francisco Giants is looking even more competitive.  The Cards are up two games to one, but who knows what will happen…

As far as any true rivalries go, it’s fair to say that the Cards have a much stronger World Series history than the Tigers.  The Yankees seem like the natural cross-league rivals for the Cardinals (or any club, for that matter).  As mentioned before, the Cards are second both in World Series appearances and victories to the Yankees.  In addition to this, the Cards have played the Yanks in five of their 18 World Series appearances (1926, 1928, 1942, 1943 and 1964).  Like the Tigers, the Boston Red Sox have faced the Cards in three World Series (1946, 1967 and 2004).  But both the Yank and Sox rivalries with the Cards lack the longevity of the rivalry I’m proposing.

If both the Tigers and the Cardinals make it to the World Series we’ll be looking at their fourth meeting and an opportunity for the Tigers to level the score (2-2) in what would then be a World Series rivalry spanning 78 years.  That would be a match-up for the ages.  A less gentle man might propose that the Tigers rip the throats out of the Cardinals and make their children weep for generations.  But that wouldn’t be very nice of me to write.  So let’s go Tigers and let’s go Cardinals!  (But mostly, let’s go Tigers!)  [UPDATE: The San Francisco Giants beat the St Louis Cardinals in seven games to clinch the National League title and reach the World Series.  This will be the first ever Tigers-Giants World Series meeting.]

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[Updated on 24 October 2012.]

Some thoughts on Detachment (Tony Kaye, 2011)

Last night I had the pleasure of viewing Tony Kaye’s third and most recent ‘talkie’, Detachment.  The film was shot beautifully and acted brilliantly, and for those qualities alone it is worth seeing.  But the content is yet more intriguing.  Detachment follows a few weeks in the life of a substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) as he takes up a temporary post at a New York state school in decline.  But the film could take place in any school.  In the New York Times review of the film from 15 March 2012, the film is ‘about the failing public-education system [in the United States].’  I would agree with this claim in part – yes, prominent in the film is this portrayal of the dysfunctional education system.  But it’s so much more than that.  I’d argue that the entirety of the film represents a microcosm of society at large.

This isn’t me dropping a shameful reference to my doctoral research, but I think a strong case could be made that Detachment is actually a parable.  By this I mean that the film is using the raw material of every day life to tell a bigger, more disturbing yet more hopeful story.  Just as Christ told parables the audience in the Gospels, the film is tied together by a loose narration from our Henry Barthes, with close-ups of his unkept face in a dark room (perhaps during a counselling session).  We’ve got representatives from various levels of society and various levels of engagement with and detachment from their current situations.  At the very heart of this parable is not ‘education’, for education is merely an outflowing of the deeper social illness.  The parable takes society back to the most basic social framework, a framework we all encounter by virtue of being born – family.

To quote the oft-quoted Larkin poem, ‘This Be The Verse’, They fuck you up, your mum and dad.  Most of the great conflicts in the film are rooted in family and parenting, just to name a few:

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW, SKIP TO THE NEXT SECTION TO AVOID THEM

a girl is expelled from the school after she threatened and spat upon Ms Madison (Christian Hendricks) and her similarly-tempered mother storms into the school hurling yet more abuse at the harmless Ms Madison.

Mr Wiatt (Tim Blake Nelson) takes up an odd stance at a school fence every afternoon hoping to be noticed by anyone as a result of being ignored constantly by his family members when he returns home from work every day.

Meredith (Betty Kaye, daughter of the director) is discouraged in her artistic endeavours and told that she ought to lose weight and conform to social norms by her father and ultimately decides to kill herself as a result of her extreme sense of rejection and isolation.

Erica’s (Sami Gayle) lifestyle as a teenage prostitute and her great distress when she is removed from Henry’s care by social workers.

During ‘parents’ night’ at the high school, virtually no parents show up, demonstrating a lack of both the parents’ concern for their children’s education and appreciation of the teachers.

And ultimately, Henry’s sense of detachment from being abandoned by his father as a toddler, losing his mother to a lethal combination of drugs and alcohol when he was a small child and caring for his dementia-stricken grandfather, whose abuse of Henry’s mother led to her substance abuse.

END OF SPOILERS

Like a parable, the characters are universal (as opposed to cliché) in order to open the eyes and ears of the audience to the deeper level of meaning.  In addition to his ‘counselling session’ narrative, at different points in the film Henry also tells the audience (by way of telling his students) the root of these social ills, calling on his students to avoid the ‘ubiquitous assimilation’ of oppressive values being shoved down their throats by a constant barrage of bull shit that has not only broken into media and culture, but has also infiltrated the very fabric of their family lives.

During the opening sequence we are given a quotation from Camus’ The Stranger, concluding with ‘And never have I felt so deeply at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world.’  Throughout the film Henry is challenged to break down his wall of ‘compassionate detachment’.  The blurb from the official website states, ‘Kaye has molded a contemporary vision of people who become increasingly distant from others while still feeling the need to connect.’  Does that wall ever break down?  Well I’m not going to include any more spoilers – you should see it for yourself.

The aforementioned New York Times review concludes with, ‘Is it really this bad? Or is “Detachment” a flashy educational horror movie masquerading as nightmarish reality?’  No, it’s not really this bad – it’s worse.  As I mentioned before, I believe that the film is using the façade of the educational system (severely broken as a result of the deeper problem) to tell a bigger, more disturbing yet more hopeful story.  In a recent Guardian interview, Kaye states, ‘We live, we go through these realms, we learn, we figure out where we went wrong.  That’s what living is.’  Detachment won’t be tearing down the power structures built up in our society to control, but perhaps it can help inspire us to fight harder with all that we have in hopes that we might chip away at the foundations of such oppression.

Rest in peace, Steve Jobs

It’s late at night here in Fife and I can’t sleep.  So I do what many Western twenty-first-century twenty-somethings do – I end up on my computer, browsing the internet.  Tonight I am especially glued to the computer with the Phillies-Cardinals game going on.  If the Cards lose tonight they’re out of the playoffs, so I desperately want them to win in order to keep the prospect of a Cardinals-Tigers World Series alive.  For those who are unaware, the World Series rivalry between the St Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers (my favourite team) spans nearly eighty years.  The first time the two teams played each other in a World Series was in 1934, with the Cardinals taking the series in seven games.  They met again in the 1968 World Series, which the Tigers won in seven.  They last met in the 2006 World Series.  After having defeated the Yankees and Athletics in the playoffs, the Tigers went on to lose the World Series to the Cards in five games.  So in the [unlikely] event that both the Tigers and the Cardinals win their respective league titles and end up facing-off in the World Series, well, I will be an excited young man.

But the Major League Baseball 2011 postseason is not why I am compelled to share a few thoughts in a blog post.  The answer to that ‘why’ is sitting right here in front of me…literally…on my lap.  Yes, I am a ‘Mac user’, and tonight, as has been made clear from the incredible flood of identical status updates on Facebook (yes, I am a ‘Facebook user’), it was announced that Apple co-founder and former CEO, Steve Jobs has died at age 56.

Not only was Steve Jobs the official technological outfitter of hipsters, he was a proto-hipster.

Without a doubt Jobs’ death will be the talk of the town tomorrow.  Whether you loved him, hated him or found yourself generally apathetic toward him, Jobs has had a significant role in the daily lives of a great many people over the last few decades.  When I initially heard the news of his death I figured that enough people are writing about this, why make my own feeble attempt to eulogise, inadvertently adding to the cloud of ‘We’ve lost a visionary!’ chat?  While I have admitted to being a ‘Mac user’ I have neither a literal nor figurative Apple tattoo.  I am not especially wowed by Apple Keynote addresses.  I certainly don’t trouble myself with the false ‘need’ to possess a wide array of Apple products.  To be honest, it’s all very expensive and even if I had the money part of me doesn’t think that it would be especially responsible to indulge in consumer electronics.  But I have owned several Apple products.  As a child my family had an early Macintosh (we weren’t cutting edge or wealthy, but I’m pretty certain it wasn’t stolen either).  All throughout my school years we used Macs in computer labs.  I first learned computer programming on a Mac.

When I went to university I used my extra scholarship money to buy my first computer – a 12-inch iBook G4.  A few years later that laptop’s display went kaput and I eventually upgraded to a black MacBook, the very MacBook that’s sitting on my lap now, four years after that purchase.  A couple years ago a certain Greg gifted me with some money, in celebration of my birthday/embarking on my PhD, meant specifically to assist my purchase of an iPod.  I only tell you this incredibly boring history of my Apple product experiences to highlight how my life actually is affected by the influence of Steve Jobs on a daily basis.

In a way I feel sort of dirty for thinking so much about this.  Nearly one billion people in the world don’t have clean drinking water, let alone a computer, let alone an expensive Apple computer (granted, I’ve never owned the ‘high-end’ Apple products).  It’s very evident to me that I should change my lifestyle, but I’m not going to pretend that I don’t make extensive use of my Apple products.  My Macs have brought me through university degrees, have been the means of countless designs (like the designs you see here at LITC), blog posts (like this one), letters, mix CDs, recording songs, etc.  I don’t necessarily need to do all of these things on a Mac, but I have a Mac so I do.  And the iPod – unless I’m spending uninterrupted time with people it is a very common feature of my day.  I estimate that I probably use my iPod for, on average, two hours a day.  I don’t necessarily need to listen to music on an iPod, but I have an iPod so I do.

My point is not to make some profound argument about how the world would stop without Apple – it wouldn’t.  My point is not even to make some profound argument about how my life would be drastically different without Apple – it probably wouldn’t.  But the vision of Steve Jobs, a man who was genuinely passionate about innovation (and genuinely good at selling it), is the fuel behind the success of Apple, success that cannot be reduced to mere monetary units.  The Jobs-led Apple set the bar for other manufacturers (yes, this is a mild endorsement of one aspect of a capitalistic system).  Even though Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player, they dramatically changed the way that our society experiences recorded music.  Aside from the technical innovations, Apple also brought a high aesthetic quality to the realm of electronics.  Why can’t our electronics be both functional and pleasing to the eyes?

It’s quite depressing to think about reducing a human being to a brand.  The media outlets will soon be publishing frightening news about how Apple’s success will decline because of Jobs’ death (which isn’t that frightening even if it was true).  Part of me finds this sort of revolting – Steve Jobs was a man with his own unique personality that, in theory, extends beyond the confines of a business, even a business as large as Apple.  But then another part of me realises that Apple was very much at the centre of Jobs’ life and he liked it that way.  Apple was not merely a business venture, but an invaluable outlet for Jobs’ vision and self-expression.

Apple is not dead and will continue to produce excellent innovations, but I don’t think that trajectory could have been so successful without the creative leadership of Jobs.

Steve Jobs wasn’t my friend and I generally do not have a great deal of respect for large companies and their leaders, but all-in-all I think he might have been something like an artist, and a great artist at that.  For someone I never knew and never followed with any sense of dedication, somehow I think I’ll miss Steve Jobs (or as I like to call him, ‘Esteban Trabajos’, with affection).  Thanks for sharing so many good things with the world, Steve.  We here at Lost in the Cloud salute you and will think of you as we experience the blessings of our MacBooks and iPods (and Greg as he uses his iPhone).

Cards won the game, by the way.

Why I am not a Scientologist

Last spring it was revealed that one of my favourite directors, Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood) was trying to pitch a new film to a studio.  In December of 2009, Variety reported on the new film, possibly dubbed The Master, with the outstanding Philip Seymour Hoffman set to star.  A synopsis of the script was published by The Playlist last February:

‘The Master’ is the story of a charismatic intellectual … who hatches a faith-based organization that begins to catch on in America in 1952 called The Cause.  The core dynamic centers on the relationship between The Master and Freddie Sutton, … an aimless twenty-something drifter and alcoholic who eventually becomes the leader’s loyal lieutenant.  As the faith begins to gain a fervent following, Freddie finds himself questioning the belief system he has embraced, and his mentor.

Essentially the film has been seen as a critique of the infamous L. Ron Hubbard and his Church of Scientology.  The Master has encountered several snags since these reports, snags that some connect with Scientology’s influence in Hollywood.  But alas, the film seems to be under way, with Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix potentially set to star alongside Hoffman.

Anderson is a gifted filmmaker and storyteller.  I’m certain that The Master, or whatever it will be called, will be an excellent film – he just doesn’t make bad films.  I suppose that’s why it’s so shocking that he’s gone through such an ordeal to find a studio to back this latest project.  It’s easy to point the finger at the heavily-caricatured Church of Scientology, but in my reflections I’m not so sure that’s fair.

I’ve spent a significant amount of time investigating Scientology for someone who has never considered taking up the belief system.  Growing up in and around Los Angeles, Scientology was always something ‘close to home’.  In the last few years, Scientology has been the target of a significant amount of slander.  I suspect that this can be largely attributed to the erratic behaviour of one of their most outspoken members.  I’ve read a lot of Scientological literature (Dianetics, What is Scientology?, Scientology 0-8, etc.) and have learned a lot of Scientological terminology (‘Thetan’, ‘Clear’, an ‘OT’ = ‘Operating Thetan’, ‘KSW’ = ‘Keep Scientology Working’, ‘LRH’ = ‘L. Ron Hubbard’, an ‘SP’ = ‘Suppressive Person’, ‘Tech’, ‘In-Ethics’, ‘Out-Ethics’, ‘Orgs’, etc.).  I’ve heard many people criticise Scientology for its ‘outlandish’ beliefs, such as the fundamental belief concerning human origins (called ‘Incident II’): that the dictator of the ‘Galactic Confederacy’, a being named Xenu brought billions of beings to Earth and killed them with hydrogen bombs, though leaving their essences to inhabit bodies that are now people, etc…

That bit does seem like a lot to stomach—and I know that the orthodox Christian claims concerning such as the existence of a personal deity, the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus, could be just as alienating—but Scientological ‘cosmology’ is not my primary reason for rejecting Scientology.  The Church of Scientology’s Creed, written by L. Ron Hubbard in 1954, states:

We of the Church believe
That all men of whatever race, color or creed were created with equal rights.
That all men have inalienable rights to their own religious practices and their performance.
That all men have inalienable rights to their own lives.
That all men have inalienable rights to their sanity.
That all men have inalienable rights to their own defense.
That all men have inalienable rights to conceive, choose, assist or support their own organizations, churches and governments.
That all men have inalienable rights to think freely, to talk freely, to write freely their own opinions and to counter or utter or write upon the opinions of others.
That all men have inalienable rights to the creation of their own kind.
That the souls of men have the rights of men.
That the study of the Mind and the healing of mentally caused ills should not be alienated from religion or condoned in nonreligious fields.
And that no agency less than God has the power to suspend or set aside these rights, overtly or covertly.

And we of the Church believe
That Man is basically good.
That he is seeking to Survive.
That his survival depends upon himself and upon his fellows and his attainment of brotherhood with the Universe.

And we of the Church believe that the laws of God forbid Man
To destroy his own kind.
To destroy the sanity of another.
To destroy or enslave another’s soul.
To destroy or reduce the survival of one’s companions or one’s group.

And we of the Church believe
That the spirit can be saved.
And that the spirit alone may save or heal the body.

Perhaps you read this creed and find no fault.  Perhaps you read this creed and see a bunch of convoluted and meaningless language.  When I read this creed something else jumps out at me.  At the very centre of Scientological belief is the view that a person is a spirit, a thetan.  According to their website, and one of their more prominent evangelical campaigns in the last few years, the heart of Scientology lies in an answer to the question, ‘Is Man a spirit?’  The official website states,

Yes.  A short exercise can quickly answer this for anyone: Ask someone to close their eyes and get a picture of a cat, and they will get a mental image picture of a cat.  Ask them who is looking at the picture of the cat and they will respond ‘I am.’  That which is looking at the cat is you, a spirit. One is a spirit, who has a mind and occupies a body.  You are you in a body.

Scientology breaks up the ‘Parts of Man‘ in this way:

First there is the body itself.  The body is the organized physical composition or substance of Man, whether living or dead.  It is not the being himself.

Next, there is the mind, which consists essentially of pictures.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the thetan.  The thetan is not a thing.  It is the creator of things.

Of the three parts of Man, the thetan is, obviously, most important.  Without the thetan, there would be no mind or animation in the body.  While without a body or a mind, there is still animation and life in the thetan.

The goal of a Scientologist is to become an OT, an ‘Operating Thetan’, defined by the Church of Scientology as ‘a spiritual state of being above Clear.’  It continues, ‘By Operating is meant “able to act and handle things” and by Thetan is meant “the spiritual being that is the basic self.”  An Operating Thetan, then, is one who can handle things without having to use a body of physical means.’

In order to achieve this OT state, a Scientologist much engage in a series of ‘gradient steps, each one slightly more advanced than the last and each with its own ability gained.’  The website continues, ‘At the level of OT, Scientologists study the very advanced materials of L. Ron Hubbard’s research.  According to those who have achieved OT, the spiritual benefits obtained surpass description.’

I want to make clear that this is not an attempt to set up a ‘straw man’ version of Scientology.  I could commit many different philosophical fallacies trying to incite hatred of the Church of Scientology, like rumours about conspiracies and brainwashing or the odd lifestyles of the late L. Ron Hubbard or Tom Cruise.  I could also argue that the language employed in these statements is convoluted and meaningless.  But what I am sharing here are things directly from the Church of Scientology’s official website, in the sections that are meant to evangelise to non-Scientologists.  It has been my aim to briefly and accurately express some core beliefs of the Church of Scientology.  At this point I hope to highlight a fundamental disagreement between Christian orthodoxy and Scientological belief, ultimately illustrating why I, as a Christian, am not a Scientologist.

From very early on, the resurrection of the body has been a fundamental tenet of Christian orthodoxy.  In the Creed of Marcellus (a precursor to The Apostles’ Creed) from 340 it is written, ‘… And [I believe] in the Holy Spirit, the holy Church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body [σαρκός], life everlasting.’1

The need for these sorts of credal affirmations of the physical body arose from a very early Christian heresy that is labelled ‘gnosticism’.  Within a very watered-down gnostic worldview we find the idea that there is an fundamental antagonism between God and the material world (dualism).  The soul is trapped in this material world and through certain esoteric knowledge the soul can find a way of escape.  From what I have gathered, the Scientological belief system very closely resembles a type of gnosticism.  But in light of their understanding of the resurrection of Christ, early Christians, like the second-century Ante-Nicene Father St Irenaeus, condemned such views.  Indeed, when ‘the resurrection of the body’ is mentioned in early Christian sources the phrase does not mean that Christ (as the ‘first fruits’ of the resurrection from 1 Corinthians 15:23) has figuratively risen from the dead.  Contrary to the claims of critics like John Dominic Crossan and his ‘Jesus Seminar’, what makes the claim of the resurrection in the first-century Jewish context so problematic is that it only ever refers to a physical, bodily, literal raising from the dead.2

Whether or not one accepts that Jesus rose from the dead in this way, the early Christian Church held this view and when we say in the creeds, ‘He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day…’ we mean just that.  While St Paul condemns ‘sin in the flesh’ (ἐν τῇ σαρκί) in Romans 8, he is not condemning the body, but the sinfulness over which Christ has triumphed.  This is the key to the validity of the Christian faith.  It is both our present and future hope.  Part of the beauty of this hope is that it restores value and dignity to the creation, the physical creation, that God has created.  The Christian faith is not some collection of data that prepares our souls for a rescue from our bodily prisons, but it is a submission to the reality that God has begun to rescue and will fully rescue this physical world from its corruption and decay.

In this way we are invited to throw ourselves into the rushing stream of God’s kingdom.  We are asked to take part in God’s story through loving others as we have been loved by God.  We do not fight the oppression of the physical world.  Instead, we declare that this physical world has been redeemed by Christ and demonstrate that redemption through God’s working in our lives; caring for those who have been mistreated; being a beacon of peace in the midst of ongoing conflict; standing up for the dignity all people, regardless of nationality, race, age, gender or socioeconomic status.  We are to be constantly challenging the way that those with power (including those within our own large-and-small-scale ecclesiastical institutions) exercise their oppressive authority over the powerless.  God has come in a body through the incarnation, Jesus met the holistic needs of people during his ministry and in the death and resurrection of Christ God has exclaimed ‘I have redeemed the whole person, not merely his or her “soul” and not merely his or her “body”!’

In Scientological literature we are presented with this: ‘A Scientologist can be defined by a single question: Would you want others to achieve the knowledge you now have?’  In the Christian faith a similar question might be worded in this [admittedly cumbersome] way: ‘Would you want others to receive the present and future, holistic hope that you now have?’

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1. John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches, Third Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 23.
2. For a brief, accessible look at this literal concept of the resurrection, see Tom Wright’s Simply Christian (San Francisco: Harper, 2006), 111-6.

Imaging the Kingdom V: Agnosticism in the kingdom of God

This long-overdue installment of Imaging the Kingdom will be focusing on what I consider to be a healthy degree of agnosticism in the Christian faith, and I’d like to begin with a personal story. In my first year as a theological studies undergraduate student I became aware of an interesting issue within American Christianity: the age of the earth and the interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Coming from a more scientific background, accepting the idea that the universe originated with the Big Bang was no struggle for me. Belief in the God of creation and the discoveries of contemporary science were not contentious, unless of course those scientific conclusions depended entirely on an exclusive naturalism, a presupposed atheism that is just as certain of the non-existence of a deity as theism is of the existence of one. Despite claims of the purity and certainty of science and reason, I found these atheistic presuppositions to be more experienced-and-feeling-based, like a religion – but I digress.

Through my late exposure to American Evangelicalism I was confronted with another story, a story that claims with certainty despite strong scientific evidence (proof even!) that the earth alone is some 4.5 billion years old, that argues for a ‘young earth’ model. If the earth is only several thousand years old, then how could biological evolution have happened? Exactly. This view also claims that the ‘theory of evolution’ (as if emphasising ‘theory’ makes it less legitimate straight away) is a fabrication of the godless scientific community. While many evolutionary biologists have presupposed atheism—seeing evolution, as opposed to theistic creation, as a legitimate way of explaining the diversity of life on earth—I still found no significant tension between the concept of evolution and my belief in God. That may simply be a matter of my own ignorance, but indulge me.

So as a first year undergraduate student I was confronted with these ‘young earth’ views and I wasn’t sure what I ought to do with them. I decided to consult someone I trusted, someone whose name was synonymous with ‘wisdom’ in the seminary I attended: Ed Curtis. Dr Curtis was (and still is) a white-haired sagely Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies who specialised in the Hebrew language and Wisdom Literature. On top of this, prior to pursuing theology he studied physical science and worked as an engineer and physicist. I approached Dr Curtis during a theological staff-student lunch and shared my recent confrontation with the conservative Evangelical position on creation. He told me that he found himself confronted with the same tension, but in his gentle Texan-drawl he delivered a profound piece of wisdom that has stayed with me since: ‘If we only concerned ourselves with that which we can actually know we’d have enough on our plate.’

This reality puts a significant perspective on how we approach issues of doctrine, belief and practice as Christians. The ‘that which we can actually know‘ that to which Dr Curtis referred is essentially boiled down to the love that God has revealed to us so explicitly.  In other words, as Christians we know that God loves the world that they created and the incarnation and giving of Jesus Christ in order to upend the power structures of this world is a profound demonstration of this love. Not only that, but in response to this love, empowered by God’s Spirit, we are called to love God and to love our neighbour. In fact, loving our neighbours is very much synonymous with loving God, as we hear in Jesus’ words from Matthew 25:31-40 (NRSV):

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”  And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”’

Truly, if we primarily concerned ourselves with caring for the holistic needs of all of those around us we would have plenty with which to occupy ourselves. That all sounds so beautiful, but that still leaves the issue of uncertainty wide open and Westerners don’t like uncertainty, right? A more troubling thing is that these adamant ‘young earth’/’anti-evolutionary’ views are not bound the sidelines of public discussion – the prominent Republican political figures Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry (the latter two are currently competing for the Republican Party’s nomination for president) all hold to and promote conservative Evangelical views on these issues. In our society these people have a right to hold these views, but the general intolerance demonstrated by many who hold such views only seems to promote needless division.

So what happened? How did we get to this point? At one point our Enlightened Western world accepted that through the power of our good science and our right reasoning we can solve anything; we can have certainty. Over the last few centuries, the findings of science and reason began to challenge the way that we understand Christianity, from Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to remove all things supernatural from New Testament in writing The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth in 1820 to Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s 2010 book The Grand Design, which asserts that the origin of the universe need not be explained by the existence of God but by physical laws alone. In reaction to these assertions, many Christians (primarily, though not always, those of a more conservative brand) have outrightly rejected science and reason, or have tended toward developing their own exhaustive analytical philosophies and pseudoscience.

While there is no room for half-baked, reactionary ‘science’ in the marketplace of ideas, providing a rational defense for Christian belief/theology is not entirely out of the question. But what I’ve come to appreciate is the freedom to simply not know. In other words, the inevitable transcendence of God (the inability for humanity to know everything about God) means the inevitable ignorance of humanity. The sheer otherness of other people should be enough to help us realise our inevitable, eternal ignorance. Even our inability to know ourselves fully shows us our ignorance.  We don’t need to be insecure about uncertainty and paradox. It’s okay to answer, ‘I don’t know,’ – it’s even okay to answer, ‘I don’t know and I probably never will.’

Over the last few years I’ve engaged with this issue of agnosticism with a close philosopher friend who directed me to the eminent 20th-century Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein stresses the importance of holding onto epistemological humility in Philosophical Investigations (426):

Here again we get the same thing as in set theory: the form of expression we use seems to have been designed for a god, who knows what we cannot know; he sees the whole of each of those infinite series and he sees into human consciousness. For us, of course, these forms of expression are like pontificals which we may put on, but cannot do much with, since we lack the effective power that would give these vestments meaning and purpose.

In the actual use of expression we make detours, we go by side roads. We see the straight highway before us, but of course we cannot use it, because it is permanently closed.1

It seems that Wittgenstein is telling us that both our language and our ability to know are significantly limited, thus necessitating a self-reflective hint of humility in how we argue for/hold onto various ideas. I see this fitting perfectly with a healthy Christian agnosticism, as Barth expresses in his Dogmatics in Outline,

Christian faith has to do with the object, with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, of which the Creed speaks. Of course it is of the nature and being of this object, of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that He cannot be known by the powers of human knowledge, but is apprehensible and apprehended solely because of His own freedom, decision and action.2

This is not to say that we stop our pursuit of the knowledge of God, but that while we pursue a better knowledge—a knowledge that, when coupled with action, has the potential to transform lives and deliver those who are oppressed from their oppressors—we must always hold onto that which is most central to the Christian faith: the grace and love of God. We can and should disagree with one another, as diversity is part of what potentially makes the Church so effective, counter-cultural, welcoming and healthy, but we should also take very seriously the fact that none of us will ever know everything.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead. His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.3

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1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953), 127e.
2. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, translated by Colin E. Gunton (London: SCM Press, 1949), 15.
3. John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 33.