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.
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?’
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.
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.
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.’
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:
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:
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:
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 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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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…
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:
- The Tigers have stopped the Yankees in each of Detroit’s last three postseason appearances (2006, 2011 and 2012).
- 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.
- 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’.)
- 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:
- 1907 – L 0-4 (Chicago Cubs)
- 1908 – L 1-4 (Chicago Cubs)
- 1909 – L 3-4 (Pittsburgh Pirates)
- 1934 – L 3-4 (St Louis Cardinals)
- 1935 – W 4-2 (Chicago Cubs)
- 1940 – L 3-4 (Cincinnati Reds)
- 1945 – W 4-3 (Chicago Cubs)
- 1968 – W 4-3 (St Louis Cardinals)
- 1984 – W 4-1 (San Diego Padres)
- 2006 – L 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.]
[Updated on 24 October 2012.]
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.