Some Initial Thoughts on ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’

When the casting for ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’ was first announced, the Internet exploded with a disproportionate number of negative comments regarding race and gender. There have been excellent responses to this negativity offered by Andrew Blair at Den of Geek and Dimitra Fimi and Mariana Rios Maldonado at The Conversation, so I won’t get into that here. Instead, my initial thoughts contain a degree of displeasure for completely different reasons from those of the bigoted Internet trolls.

Pretty much no spoilers ahead…

My passion for Tolkien’s fantasy cosmos (I don’t want to use the expressions ‘world’ or ‘Middle Earth’ as they fail to encapsulate the sheer breadth of Tolkien’s mythical cosmology) runs deep. I feel invested in Tolkien’s stories, more than any other fiction oeuvre. I am not a Tolkien expert by any stretch, but I have more than an ‘armchair’ interest in his work.

We’re only two episodes in, but my primary issue is this: source material. In other words, there isn’t much use of Tolkien’s actual narrative. This is not to say that I am closed to a Tolkien-inspired production (this is how I’d label these first two episodes) and the ‘in-the-know’ references (‘Aulë’s beard!’, for instance) satisfy some of my Tolkien-nerd needs. But my biggest disappointment at this stage has to do with the fact that I find Tolkien’s body of work so rich in storytelling that I feel as if there is more than enough material with which to work without inventing new storylines and characters, especially major characters.

Looking back, there were many major differences between the source material and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, but I felt as if those (yes, even the overegged Hobbit trilogy…) stayed true to most of the significant aspects of Tolkien’s narrative.

I admit that any attempt to explore Tolkien’s fantasy cosmos beyond the film series I have just mentioned is going to be more convoluted due to the fact that all of Tolkien’s other fantasy cosmos material has been published after his death and consists primarily of fragments (which include sometimes contradictory narratives due to the evolution of Tolkien’s ideas over the years).

With that expressed, I still have petty grievances. For instance, many of the major characters (and so far, to my knowledge, most of the major events) in ‘The Rings of Power’ are ‘non-canonical’ in that they are not featured in any Tolkien literature. I appreciate that the series takes place in the Second Age and I was glad to see a brief summary of some of the events at the closing of the First Age, but there are many elements which are completely foreign to Tolkien’s work. Here are but a few examples: Finrod’s death is misleading (there’s no reference to his sacrifice for Beren and somehow he bears ‘the mark of Sauron’). Additionally, while I love the focus on Galadriel, when did she lead an expedition to Forodwaith? In the literature, her invitation to Valinor came as the result of her innocence in the Kinslaying and not because Gil-galad was making some shrewd political move (though I admire the attempt to ground Gil-galad and his herald Elrond in this political mire). Also, Elrond’s early presence in Eregion and his visit to Kazad-dûm seem to me to be completely incompatible with Tolkien’s narrative (perhaps the version of the story in ‘The Rings of Power’ is an attempt to explain the beginnings of what would become the long-standing friendly relations between Eregion and Kazad-dûm – though, given the timeline in what they are trying to do with the show, probably not).

In the show, there are many establishing shots pertaining to the humans in the Southlands and the Harfoots in Rhovanion (both groups exist within Tolkien’s work, though neither are of any great significance), but I would have loved to see more of Lindon and Eregion (the only shots within these great elven realms made them feel very small and parochial, clearly within a studio). What gives?

We are in the early days of ‘The Rings of Power’, but for a Tolkien afficionado, I am left wanting, and not necessarily in a bated-breath sort of way. To be clear, I must return to my earlier comment: I have no problem with a Tolkien-inspired production, one that might not adhere to a rigid depiction of Tolkien’s cosmos (but come on, why can’t Gil-galad have silver hair?). I shall leave my moaning there for now as there are still many opportunities for my prejudices to be pacified (let’s see how Númenor is depicted) and I will be sure to watch every episode of ‘The Rings of Power’ as they are released. I am also sure I’ll be able to suspend my nerdy obsession for long enough to enjoy whatever the creators of the show—who, no doubt, are massive lovers of Tolkien—wish to share.

Die Hard : The Perfect Christmas Film

Note: This post in no way condones of violence, though the Gospel is necessarily violent. This post contains spoilers but given that the film was released more than three decades ago, this is not really a warning.

Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) is the perfect Christmas film. I am not the first to make this claim (or something similar). That Die Hard is a Christmas film at all is presented by some as a tongue-in-cheek suggestion, while others argue that Die Hard is simply an action film that takes place during Christmas. The genre of ‘Christmas movie’ is full of tat that presents itself as the ‘true meaning’ or ‘spirit’ of Christmas. Rubbish. For all intents and purposes, the ideas of shared humanity, love, forgiveness, acceptance, and family are lovely and can indeed be perceived as parts of the ‘spirit of Christmas’, though none of these ideals capture the essence of Christmas in the way that only Die Hard does.


How can I claim that Die Hard is the perfect Christmas film? Please indulge me for a moment.

Bruce Willis plays John McClane, a working-class New York City police officer. His estranged wife, Holly Gennero (played by Bonnie Bedelia) has accepted her dream job working for the Nakatomi Corporation. Unfortunately for McClane, Gennero’s new position necessitates that she relocates to Los Angeles, which she does with the couple’s two children, Lucy (Taylor Fry) and John Jr (Noah Land).

As Christmas nears, Gennero waits expectantly for McClane’s arrival: this is the season of Advent, in which the Christian Church rehearses the narrative for the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah. Does this seem far-fetched? Hardly. Apart from what might take place off-screen, we know that Gennero and the children are eager for McClane’s arrival, with Gennero phoning the childminder, Paulina (Betty Carvalho) to ensure that a bed is prepared in her home for McClane (as Gennero would not want the coming Son of Man to sleep in a stable, obviously).

Admittedly, at the beginning of the film, McClane’s role as the Christ is obscured. He comes from the east (NYC→LA) bearing gifts, as we see him carrying a giant teddy bear and it is reasonable to assume that he has other gifts for his children in his luggage (Matthew 2.1-2, 10-11). Therefore, at this stage, McClane represents the ‘wise men’ and he has ventured west under the light of a brilliant star (the Los Angeles sunset features prominently during the whole opening act).

McClane is collected at the airport in a limousine driven by Argyle, one who makes straight the way of the Lord (Matthew 3.3; Mark 1.2; cf. Isaiah 40.3). Soon thereafter, he arrives at Nakatomi Plaza, an under-construction skyscraper in the Century City district of Los Angeles. Here we can see the role of ‘wise men from the East’ shift to another character. The limousine is provided by Gennero’s boss, Joseph Yoshinobu Takagi (James Shigeta), who was born in Kyoto, Japan (most assuredly the ‘East’) and emigrated with his family to the United States in infancy. At Nakatomi Plaza, McClane prepares reluctantly to join a corporate Christmas party. It is at this point that a group of men, led by West German terrorist Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) infiltrates and locks down the building. McClane, who is getting ready for the party in an office, hears gunfire and the panic of party guests. At this stage, he, in his vest and bare feet, withdraws to assess the situation (Matthew 2.13-15).

McClane does his best to alert other authorities to the plight of those in Nakatomi Plaza, first by triggering a fire alarm (which is detected and deactivated by the terrorists) and then by reaching out to the police, using an emergency frequency on a radio he commandeered from a fallen terrorist. McClane’s plea is not taken seriously by the authorities, but a police officer, Sgt Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) is called to investigate. Powell does not perceive anything suspicious and is about to depart when McClane gets his attention by throwing the lifeless corpse of one of the fallen terrorists onto the bonnet of Powell’s squad car. Knowing that they have been discovered, the terrorists shower Powell’s car with bullets as he retreats, calling for backup.

Eventually, McClane gets in touch with Powell on his radio. Powell hears McClane’s message and sets himself under McClane’s tutelage. Powell represents all that have ‘ears to hear’ (Mark 4.23; Luke 8.8). Later, Powell also reports that McClane has garnered many more disciples among the police (this being a direct result of Powell’s sharing of the Gospel of John McClane, i.e., evangelism; see 2 Corinthians 5.20).

In contrast to the reception he receives from Powell and his other disciples, the authorities oppose McClane, who see his message as a threat to their own perceived authority. The first authority to oppose McClane is LAPD Deputy Chief, Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason). When first speaking with Powell, Robinson seeks to erode Powell’s confidence in McClane, suggesting that McClane may be one of the terrorists. In a similar way, the religious authorities in first-century Palestine sought to undermine Jesus’ authority by suggesting to the people that Jesus was an enemy of their religion (for example, see Matthew 12.22-24). Powell insists that McClane’s words are those of an ally (see Matthew 12.33-37). In response, Robinson exclaims, ‘Jesus Christ, Powell!’ Jesus Christ, indeed.

When Robinson is able to speak with McClane directly, he declares, ‘We do not want your help.’ In response, McClane tells Robinson that ‘if [he is] not part of the solution, [he is] part of the problem’, a phrase that may be the converse of Jesus’ words ‘whoever is not against you is for you’ (Mark 9.40; Luke 9.50).

Throughout the opposition McClane faces from authorities, Powell shows consistent commitment to his Teacher. At one point, Powell professes his love for McClane, calling back to Peter telling Jesus that he loves him (John 21.15-17). Due to his great faith in and commitment to McClane, Powell is told by his superior:

Robinson ‘You listen to me, sergeant: any time you wanna go home, you consider yourself dismissed.’

Powell ‘No sir: you couldn’t drag me away.’

Powell is a constant advocate for McClane among the authorities. When Agents Johnson and Johnson (Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush) of the FBI arrive to ‘take over’, Powell insists that McClane has been their guiding light throughout the whole hostage fiasco.

The opposition that McClane faces is not bound to the civic authorities, but also to anyone who seeks power. Enter Hans Gruber, whose guise as ‘terrorist mastermind’ is a cover for the attempted theft of $600m in bearer bonds from the Nakatomi Corporation. Gruber represents Death, the Enemy, or—if you are of that theological persuasion—the Devil. Throughout the film, we witness the death of several people, including two Nakatomi security guards and whoever was in the exploded LAPD SWAT van. These deaths were executed under the direct orders of Gruber. The two personal murders witnessed in the film—the first being that of Takagi and later, coke-snorting, sleazy Judas, Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner)—are at the hands (or pistol) of Hans Gruber. McClane is pursued doggedly by Gruber and his thugs (akin to the actions of King Herod when visited by the wise men). When realising that he and his second-in-command, Karl (Alexander Godunov) have got the bare-foot McClane cornered in an office, Gruber orders Karl to shoot out the glass windows so that McClane will have to cross the broken glass to escape.

While McClane had been battered relentlessly throughout the ordeal, this part of the film showcases the ‘Suffering of John’ or ‘John of Sorrows’ motif.

Perhaps a protest will be raised that while Die Hard is a masterful retelling of the life of Christ, it is not about Christmas. I defer to the countless Renaissance depictions of both the Nativity and of the Virgin and Child. Many of these depictions convey the breadth of the Gospel story, such as the appearance of Crucifixes (see Lorenzo Lotto’s 1523 depiction of the Nativity, for instance) or certain foliage representing the passion (Hugo van der Goes’ 1475 altarpiece for Tommaso Portinari features white and purple irises that allude to the Passion and three red carnations that allude to the three nails of the Crucifixion). One would be hard-pressed to deny the suitability of these depictions for reflection at Christmastime. Similarly, as Die Hard presents a broad Gospel narrative, this combined with its unmistakably Christmas context qualifies it as a Christmas film.

As the film enters its closing act, we discover that Gruber intends on killing all the hostages with C4 plastic explosive. He does this under his ruse of being a ‘freedom fighter’ and requests a helicopter to airlift his crew and the hostages to the airport. Once the hostages and the helicopter are destroyed on the roof, he believes that he will be presumed dead, thus making an easier escape with his bounty of bearer bonds in a van with Los Angeles City Fire Department markings. McClane is wise to Gruber’s plan and fights his way to the roof to clear the hostages from the helipad. Here, he puts himself in between the hostages and the FBI authorities (who have arrived in gunships to kill the terrorists instead of flying them to the airport). McClane’s actions saved the lives of all hostages, while the scheming FBI agents (who expressed contentment with the prospect of losing up to 25% of the hostages) met their end in the subsequent explosion.

This putting of himself in between the people and their enemies demonstrates just one of many ways that John McClane is the Christ-figure of Die Hard. In 1 Corinthians 15, St Paul enlightens us to the all-encompassing work of Christ, in particular, the work of Christ that culminates in the Crucifixion and Resurrection:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’… When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.

It is through McClane that the remaining attendees of the Christmas party at Nakatomi Plaza were ‘made [or rather, kept] alive’. He destroyed ‘every ruler and every authority and power’ when he disposed of Hans Gruber’s henchmen one-by-one. Then, the ‘last enemy to be destroyed is death.’

Shirtless, shoe-less and wounded severely, John McClane’s steadfast commitment to his calling brought salvation to many. What is Die hard if not the Christmas story?


It is valuable to acknowledge the Virgin Mary in any Christmas narrative. I am not suggesting that Gennero is Mary, but that the empowerment of women is at the very heart of the Gospel. Gennero is not some helpless maiden throughout Die Hard. She attempts to keep Takagi out of harm’s way when Gruber is trying to find him in the crowd of partygoers. She shows courage and solidarity at every step. There is, of course, a share of sexism in Die Hard (though I would argue that John’s disappointment in Holly dropping the ‘McClane’ surname is more to do with his pain at the breakup of their marriage, rather than a patriarchal hold on her life), but Gennero’s independence and empowerment is demonstrated further by one of the last scenes in the film. When she and McClane are approached by the unscrupulous reporter Richard Thornburg (William Atherton), she makes sure to give him a ‘piece of her mind’ for his despicable violation of the family’s privacy.

(It is also worth noting that Peter Venkman [Bill Murray] confirmed that Thornburg—in his previous career as an EPA investigator going by the name Walter Peck—‘has no penis’.)

Happy Christmas and yippee ki yay, motherf*ckers.

Jesus wept

On Monday evening, at Donald Trump’s final campaign rally before the election, Donald Trump, Jr declared, ‘Let’s make liberals cry again!’ Of course, this is a play on the worn-out ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan, but with an added twist!

The narrative peddled by Donald Trump and company is that the United States is an inherently conservative nation and the so-called ‘liberals’ are pedantic outliers and sore losers, and that these people actually hate America. In reality, it can be argued that the United States is a ‘liberal’ nation. Do you find that difficult to believe? Here are some figures:

Perhaps one might believe that these polls cannot be trusted. Granted, polls like these always have margins of error, but it cannot be denied that a large swathe of the American population supports policies that are associated with liberal ideals. This 2020 election is a very tangible demonstration of the fact that the United States is not wholly one position or the other with regard to the narrow spectrum represented by ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ labels in the country. This matters because, in expressing a desire for liberals to ‘cry again’, Donald Trump, Jr is making clear that the Trump campaign is not in the business of uniting the United States. This isn’t news — Donald Trump’s disparaging views regarding anyone who disagrees with him are well-established.

Donald Trump paints himself as the voice of ‘true America’. He speaks of how good he has been for women and people of colour, but the poll numbers seem quite clear and these demographics have expressed their verdict. By and large, women and people of colour do not believe that another Donald Trump presidential term would benefit their interests. A side note – if you feel the need to retweet when the odd woman or person of colour expresses their admiration for you, you might be a sexist and a racist.

With regard to the desire to ‘make liberals cry again’—beyond it being but one example of serial juvenile bullying from the Trump camp—I feel the need to express that this is not a Christian view. (I relate this to faith since Donald Trump, Jr has expressed that liberals hate Church.) From a more neutral perspective, perhaps it is possible to say that there is no virtue in wishing for (or taking pleasure in) the sorrow or misfortune of others.

This morning, I spent some time reflecting on the story of someone crying, namely (as this blog post’s title suggests), Jesus of Nazareth.

In the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, Jesus is walking around Palestine, upsetting the powerful and empowering the poor — you know, as he does. At the beginning of the 11th chapter, Jesus and his disciples are out in the wilderness, east of the River Jordan, where his cousin John had been baptising people. While he is there, he receives a notification from some of his friends, the sisters Mary and Martha. They inform him that their brother, Lazarus, is very unwell. They do this in a very intimate way, writing, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ Mary and Martha assume that Jesus, who had demonstrated this specific power at other times (especially in 9.1-12), is able to make Lazarus well again, but for them, time is of the essence.

Perhaps unusually, Jesus does not rush to their aid. He states, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ (11.4). The Gospel continues: ‘Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.’ (11.5-6).

To provide a little geographical context, Jesus is probably in a place called Bethany (‘Bethany Beyond the Jordan’, 1.21; modern-day Al-Maghtas, Jordan). Mary, Martha and Lazarus are in another Bethany (modern-day Al-Eizariya, Palestine) just outside of Jerusalem. As the crow flies, the two are about 60 kilometres (approximately 38 miles), or a day’s journey from each other. Therefore, when Jesus and his disciples finally reach Mary and Martha, it is likely that four days had elapsed since the sisters’ message was sent.

When he reaches Bethany, he is first approached by Martha who expresses, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ (11.21-22). Here, Martha is demonstrating an immense amount of faith, believing that this man somehow possesses the ability to heal people.

Some might discredit this sort of belief in ancient times because it is assumed that people back then were somehow more superstitious or gullible. But just as this sort of healing is not something that happens in our present experience (speaking generally – I have my beliefs, but I cannot discredit others’ experiences), in the same way, it was not something that happened in their ancient experience.

Martha entertains the possibility of some other demonstration of Jesus’ power, but doesn’t seem to be able to put the specific words together: ‘Jesus, I know you can raise him from the dead.’ Maybe she wanted to say that. She was in a desperate situation and in desperation people can be open to a whole range of possibilities that would have otherwise been impossibilities. In her grief, maybe she just can’t accept that this ‘avoidable’ death is here to stay.

Up to this point in the narrative, Jesus is demonstrating a degree of nonchalance that makes others uncomfortable. He speaks of God’s glory and God’s power to do the extraordinary, but those around him seem more concerned with immediate action. When Mary finally catches up with him, she falls at his feet and says, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ (11.32). Whatever modicum of faith that Martha had expressed in the open-ended suggestion that God will give Jesus whatever he asks, Mary’s devastation stops her faith at the former statement: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ Mary shows a large degree of faith, but that faith is somehow incomplete.

Mary breaks down in tears and is surrounded by a company of mourners, all weeping. The Gospel states, ‘When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.’ (11.33) He is then shown Lazarus’ tomb and begins to weep (11.35). This verse (translated historically as the supposed shortest verse in the Bible, ‘Jesus wept’), has been interpreted by many as a demonstration of Jesus’ compassion, empathy and grief. Indeed, the mourners with Mary seem to share this understanding when they look at Jesus and say, ‘See how he loved [Lazarus]!’ (11.36).

I am not suggesting that Jesus is lacking in compassion, empathy or grief, but I believe that the cause of his particular grief in this episode is not over the death of Lazarus. Jesus does love Lazarus, but all throughout the chapter he has demonstrated no urgency. He is not concerned about reaching Lazarus before his death. When he is approached by Martha, he explains calmly that this is not the end for Lazarus.

Why would Jesus then cry for the man he knew he was going to raise from the dead in a matter of moments? My argument is that he would not. Instead, it is his observation of Mary’s response that causes him to break down. The oddity of interpreting Jesus’ weeping as grief for Lazarus is highlighted in the very text. Among the mourners, some are inconsolable, while others see Jesus weeping and question, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ (11.37). These individuals are perplexed at the incongruity between Jesus’ power and his perceived powerlessness.

If Jesus was not weeping for Lazarus, why then was he weeping? At the very least, I believe the text demonstrates that he was weeping because these people believed that while he was able to heal a blind man (9.1-12) and while he might have been able to keep Lazarus from dying, Lazarus’ death was, for all intents and purposes, game over. Jesus was aware of what was about to transpire. While he was still at Bethany Beyond the Jordan, he said to his disciples, ‘For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.’ (11.15). Even his disciples did not yet believe he was able to do anything about Lazarus’ death. This is evidenced by Thomas’ follow-up, demonstrating an understanding that a return to Judea would bring about their own deaths at the hands of the authorities (11.16).

When looking at the whole of the Fourth Gospel, one can find a wide range of things that would disturb Jesus more than this incident in Bethany. For example, he would have known that Thomas was right, to some extent: a move toward Jerusalem would be a move closer to his death at the hands of the authorities. In the section immediately following the raising of Lazarus, some observers see this impossible act and report to the religious leaders, who continue in their plot to have Jesus killed. Therefore, it is possible to see that Jesus was also grieving for the challenges ahead. If his followers did not entertain the possibility that he could raise Lazarus from the dead, what hope would they have when it came to Jesus’ own death? I believe that this is why Jesus wept.

Throughout my reflection on John 11, I have thought about the words of Donald Trump, Jr. ‘Let’s make liberals cry again!’ While the Trump campaign might assume that liberals will cry because of the overwhelming victory for conservative America, ‘true America’, I posit two alternative reasons.

I wouldn’t like to call myself a ‘liberal’, though I can see how a lazy assessment and pigeon-holing of my beliefs might lead some to the conclusion that I am a liberal. (Others might feel the need to place me in the ‘conservative’ camp due to my beliefs in a divine being and in the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus.) But whoever wins this election, I may weep.

In case you weren’t sure, I shall now put my ‘cards on the table’.

If this presidential election goes to Joe Biden, I may weep with joy because of the end of a sustained assault on the basic humanity of the country of my birth perpetrated by an individual and the poisonous social climate he has helped to propagate. I may weep with joy because I will be able to wake up in the morning and not worry about the onslaught of misinformation and abuse tweeted by the Commander-in-Chief and analysed by seemingly every news source in the world. Don’t get me wrong — a President Biden would have every opportunity to disappoint and deceive. The difference is that I believe that Joe Biden represents a very different, far more dignified, diplomatic and fair ideology, one in which the cry of the oppressed will have more opportunities to be heard in the halls of power. For these reasons and many more, I may weep with joy.

If this election goes to Donald Trump, I may weep for very different reasons.

Last night, while I was languishing in election results at 04.00 GMT, I was following alongside one of my brothers who lives in California. I had told myself that I wouldn’t stay up: ‘There’s no point. We won’t know the results for a week.’ But with so much riding on this presidential election, I gave in.

Earlier in the evening, I told my brother that I would ‘eat my hat if Trump wins Texas’. I thought it unlikely, but I began to entertain the idea of making a hat out of bread and consuming it. The light-heartedness persisted, but by 04.00, it had come mask my growing anxiety. My wee brother—though we probably occupy somewhat different political positions—offered consolation, because he is a sweetheart. He told me that he was sorry for the direction of the results. In response, I told him something along the lines of:

Don’t be sorry for me. Be sorry for the hundreds of thousands who will die because of Donald Trump’s pandemic policies. Be sorry for the hundreds of children who are separated from their parents and are forced to live in camps. Be sorry for people with pre-existing conditions who will have their healthcare stripped. Be sorry for the blacks who will keep suffering oppression under a government that doesn’t believe in institutional racism. Be sorry for the people who will keep losing their homes and their lives due to climate change. Be sorry for the poor who are only getting poorer. Be sorry for a lot of other people, but not for me.

I admit that I am somewhat embarrassed by the dramatic tone, but this election is not about mere personal preferences. I believe that people’s lives are in the balance. I am heartbroken by the growing chasm between political factions. I will not weep because am a ‘snowflake’, nor will I weep because I am ‘liberal’. I may weep with anguish because I believe a better world is possible and I am of the conviction that a second presidential term for Donald Trump would be another step in the wrong direction. For these reasons and many more, I may weep with anguish.

As for now, we are all in that place of waiting. Are we waiting for Lazarus to die or are we waiting for Lazarus to be raised again? We shall see.

Lord have mercy.

The Bankrupt Politics of ‘Again’ (& Why I Voted in the 2020 US Election)

‘Make America Great Again’. While this slogan has become synonymous with the political rise of Donald Trump, he is not the first to have used it. During the Third Session of the 76th United States Congress (1940), Republican Senator Alexander Wiley (1884-1967) said it in a speech. It featured in some campaign materials for the 1964 presidential campaign of Republican Barry Goldwater (1909-1998). In his 1980 campaign for president, Republican Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) used the phrase, ‘Let’s Make America Great Again’.

This slogan has not been limited to Republican use. In his 1992 presidential campaign, Democrat Bill Clinton used the phrase in several speeches and reiterated the phrase during Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

When I think of the politics of ‘again’, I am compelled to reflect on its meaning. If someone is proposing to make America great again, the question arises, ‘When was America great?’

When considering America’s historical greatness, a return to the ‘Founding Fathers’ has become a conservative rally cry. If we are going with the Founding Fathers, we might ask, ‘Who were these people?’ For a start, as the name implies, they were all men. Additionally, they were all white men. Oh, and they were all Protestant (or at least, non-Catholic) white men. Also, they were all Protestant white men from the upper echelons of society.

According to notable American historian Richard B. Morris (1904-1989), the most significant and influential of these white Protestant upper-class men were John Adams (1735-1826), Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), Alexander Hamilton (c. 1755-1804) John Jay (1745-1829), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), James Madison (1751-1836) and George Washington (1732-1799).[1] Of these seven men, five owned enslaved people at various points. Of those five, Franklin’s views tended toward abolitionism by the mid-1760s. In later life, Washington also expressed unease with the institution of slavery. Jay and Madison were owners of enslaved people and Jefferson was perhaps the chief slaver among the Founding Fathers, owning more than 600 enslaved people throughout his lifetime.


A brief aside on the United States Constitution: In short, the United States Constitution is an oddity. Brilliant and revolutionary as it might have been when it came into force in 1789, it is very much a document of the late eighteenth century, warts and all. Consider the opening words, ‘We the people…’ Of course, this really means ‘We the white men…’

The United States Constitution is the oldest national constitution still in use. Some might see that as evidence of its strength. Some might argue that subsequent amendments have made up for any of its weaknesses. A look at the 27 amendments that have been passed by Congress and ratified by the requisite number of states demonstrates how insufficient this procedure is. Between 1971, with the passage of the 26th Amendment (‘The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age’) and the present day, only one other amendment has passed. The 27th Amendment (ratified in 1992) states simply, ‘No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of representatives shall have intervened.’ The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was passed by Congress by 1972 and sent to states for ratification. This amendment includes the following three sections:

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Sec. 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Sec. 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

Although the requisite number of states (38) approved the ERA in January 2020, two deadlines had already passed (1979 and 1982) and the amendment now resides in legal Limbo. Has society changed so little since 1971 that the 27th Amendment has been the only revision suitable for ratification? Maybe the whole project of the United States Constitution requires a revisit…


In the decades between the founding of the United States and the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), political stances concerning the institution of slavery depended largely on economic interests and not on genuine regard for equality. Of course, there were small groups of passionate abolitionists, especially among communities of Quakers. For their part, both Adams and Hamilton abhorred slavery. But it can be argued that the abolitionism of many (if not most) Northern politicians was fuelled by the desire to weaken the power of the Southern states, whose economies depended on the labour of enslaved people.

There seems to be a common myth among conservatives (especially among Confederate sympathisers) that the Civil War was about the rights of states. While this may have some truth, the primary ‘right’ for which the Southern states fought was the ‘right’ to own other human beings. There is no getting around this reality. I argue that the political tensions between the North and the South leading up to the Civil War were, by and large, issues concerning economics and power and at the heart of that, the institution of slavery. I would have to spend hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of words outlining these tensions, but I will just point to the Three-Fifths Compromise (1787) and Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) for now. And I have not even mentioned the horrific treatment of Amerindians.

So can we argue that America was great when it was founded? If you are a Protestant white man with economic power, then yes. It is possible that these would have been great times for you.

Still, there are others who wish to show some sensitivity, awareness or at least, nuance and will argue that America was great after the Civil War. Of course, this ‘greatness’ would only be experienced by a select few, namely, white men. It was not until 1870 that black men were given the right to vote. This is not to say that black men were able to vote. Voter suppression has a long and successful history in the United States. This does not even begin to scratch the surface the institutional oppression of people of colour and of women in the United States (de facto institutional segregation endures today). If you, like Donald Trump, Mike Pence, et al, believe that institutional racism in the United States does not exist, consider yourself very fortunate – you have not experienced that reality, at least, not from the perspective of the oppressed. But simply because you do not believe that to be born as a person of colour does not place one at a significant disadvantage does not dismiss this reality for tens of millions of residents of the United States. Maybe it would be enlightening to listen to their stories.

What if we fast-forward to passage of the 19th Amendment (1920)? This gave women the right to vote in the United States. Well, not all women. This was a better time for white women. It was not until the landmark Voting Rights Act (1965) that voting became universal, in theory. Believe it or not, voter suppression continues to this day. It is even touted by the Executive Branch of the US Government: if the Trump Administration is harping on about ‘widespread voter fraud’ concerning to mail-in ballots (a proven myth), why have both Donald Trump and Mike Pence encouraged their followers to turn up at polling stations (where people vote in-person) to intimidate voters?

So when was America great? This seems to be where reasonable discussion really starts to break down. There are plenty of other key political moments before which one might call the greatness of America into question. For example, I am thinking of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade (1973), granting women the right to choose what to do with their bodies and of the long road to the legalisation of same-sex marriage. The issues of women’s rights and the rights of queer people seem to be split right down party lines between the Democrats and the Republicans.

For those who want to ‘make America great again’, here is a question: is America less great when individuals are afforded the rights to choose what they want to do with their own bodies and the freedom to embrace their own sexuality and gender? Perhaps you are a staunch feminist (one who believes that all genders should have equal rights in society) who also believes that a foetus is a living human being and should be afforded all the rights of a human being. I can understand that perspective. That being said, there is nothing in the legalisation of abortion that forces anyone to undergo that traumatising experience against their will. Perhaps if American society cared for people after birth (for example, through proper social and health care), the abortion figures, relatively modest as they are, would change. Of course, I am trying to be as sympathetic to the anti-abortion lobby as possible here since I can comprehend some of the philosophical tensions that can come into play. Still, part of me fears that the issue of abortion in the United States is more tied to fanatical patriarchy (which has hijacked religion) than genuine philosophical reflection.

So you want to make America great again? When was America great? I am of the belief that there has never been a time in American history when more human rights and freedoms (I am assuming that this is a suitable measure of ‘greatness’) have been exercised than in this last decade. This is not to say that America is ‘great’ in the present. I will explain what I mean by this in a moment.

When I think of the politics of ‘again’, I cannot help but believe that anyone who holds to the notion that the United States was once a ‘greater’ nation than it has been in this last decade has not suffered from true, institutional oppression.

I know that Donald Trump has some supporters who are people of colour, who are women, who are working class. One way I believe that he and others like him bid for the affections of certain people groups is through accusing other oppressed people groups of inflicting this oppression. Are you a white, American-born man living in relative poverty? Why not blame this on the immigrants who come into the country to ‘steal your jobs’? (This is not even close to the worst things of which Donald Trump has accused immigrants.) Donald Trump and people like him thrive off of blaming others for society’s shortcomings. Perhaps it is not the immigrants who inflict damage to society (speaking economically, it is a fact that immigrants give far more to society than they take). Perhaps we should turn our gaze toward the powerful who have reaped unimaginable riches from the misfortune of others. What about those financiers who grew more wealthy as the housing market collapsed in 2008, forcing more than 2,000,000 foreclosures? What about the more recent example of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose wealth has increased by more than $74 billion while American unemployment has skyrocketed? Neo-liberal capitalistic ideals propagate the myth that if one works hard one will receive just compensation – the ‘American Dream’. In reality, individual economic prosperity is more often the result of the circumstances of one’s birth or of random chance. While this lottery plays out, the gap between the wealthy and the poor in the United States continues to increase.

Now I shall explain what I mean by suggesting that America might not be ‘great’ at present through an brief exploration of my personal faith and how it relates to my political views.

Some people might suggest that faith and politics should not mix. While I am in favour of the strict separation of Church and State, this is not because I believe that faith has nothing to say to politics. On the contrary, one of my theological heroes, Uruguayan Jesuit priest and theologian Juan Luis Segundo (1925-1996) argues that the two are bound together:

Every theology is political, even one that does not speak or think in political terms. The influence of politics on theology and every other cultural sphere cannot be evaded any more than the influence of theology on politics and other spheres of human thinking. The worst politics of all would be to let theology perform this function unconsciously, for that brand of politics is always bound up with the status quo.[2]

By ‘theology’, Segundo is referring to the study of the divine – of God and of religion. The issue he has with the ‘status quo’ involves ideology. The status quo is the way things are, the state of affairs. In order to accept the way things are (or indeed, to hope for the way things were), one’s faith has to cohere with the ideologies of the present. For example, my faith compels me to desire equality among all human beings. Where I see inequality, such as racial, gender or sexual inequality, I am compelled to challenge the status quo.

In essence, this comes down to the person of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. I think of the writings of German philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977). Although an adherent to the Marxism of the Frankfurt School, Bloch took it upon himself to revisit the Bible. In his studies, he did not find the ‘opium of the people’ (‘das Opium des Volkes’) observed by Marx in the Christian religion. While it is an established historical fact that the Christian faith had evolved from its primitive collectivist existence to adopt an institutional hierarchy (the institution against which Marx railed), Bloch finds within the Bible a Christianity that speaks for the oppressed against the status quo. For Bloch, this Christianity is one of atheism, that is, one in which the ideologies of power are challenged for the flourishing of the oppressed. In his 1968 book, Atheismus im Christentum (published in English as Atheism in Christianity in 1972), Bloch makes this case and concludes that, upon analysing the Christian Bible, the reputed motto inscribed on sixteenth-century German peasant leader, Florian Geyer’s sword—‘Nulla crux, nulla corona’, ‘No cross, no crown’—‘could be the motto of a Christianity free, at last, from alienation. And the far-reaching, inexhaustible depths of emancipation in those words could also serve as a motto for a Marxism aware of its depths.’[3]

In a similar way, I see my faith as one of committed and persistent challenge to the status quo. I turn to Jesus. From his birth to his resurrection, he is the living embodiment of what Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) calls ‘the Offense’. While being the ‘God-Man’, Jesus is perceived by onlookers ‘as a mere human individual who comes into collision with the established order.’[4] He is a living affront to those who have most to lose through his existence.

Jesus’ genealogy as recorded in the Gospel of St Matthew (Matthew 1.1-16) mentions five women (an oddity at that time): Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary. Each one of these women would have been viewed with sexual suspicion, especially in the patriarchal, honour and shame culture of Palestine during the first century. Tamar disguised herself as a sex worker to sleep with her father-in-law (Judah). Rahab was understood to have been a sex worker by trade. Ruth was understood to have entered the bed of a man (Boaz) who was not her husband. Bathsheba fell pregnant with one man (David) while she was still married to another (Uriah). Then there is Mary, who conceived before she was married (Matthew 1.18).

From there, Jesus’ life only grows in offense to the status quo. John the Baptist preceded Jesus, preaching a radical message of the coming Messiah and the kingdom of God. But Jesus’ ministry modelled a Messiah that most religious leaders (including John the Baptist) struggled to accept (Mathew 11.2-19). German Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann argues that ‘the appearance and activity of Jesus was a novelty which was bound to arouse resistance.’[5]

Throughout his life and ministry as recorded in the Gospels, Jesus makes speeches and performs actions that outrage the powerful constantly. The incident of his cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem (Matthew 21.12-17; Mark 11.15-19; Luke 19.45-48; John 2.13-16) is one of the most well-known. Moltmann observes Jesus’ subversion against the national symbols of Israel and argues that ‘in view of the whole of his scandalous message’ it is the condemnation of Jesus as a ‘“blasphemer”, as a demagogic false Messiah’ that ultimately precipitates his execution.[6]


A brief aside on the crucifixion event: It is a common understanding among at least the Evangelical Christian sect that Jesus was crucified because that was God’s plan to save those who choose to believe in Christ from eternal conscious punishment (Hell). I have issues with seeing God’s ‘plan’ in this way. I also have issues with assuming that belief is a choice (the letter to the Church in Asia Minor, known as Ephesians, describes faith as a ‘gift’). At this stage, I will not get too wrapped up exploring my understanding of the nature of belief or of how seeing belief as a choice is actually a form of ‘earning’ the grace of God (I have explored this before). Elsewhere, my blog-mate Greg has explored at least one alternative to the belief in ‘eternal conscious punishment’. For my part—please do not let this put you, dear reader, off—I believe that the grace and love of God is so enormous that the inheritance of the kingdom of God is for all of us dirty sinners. What I really want to say here is that Jesus was crucified because he opposed the powerful. The build-up to his crucifixion is observed throughout the Gospels. Jesus says or does something, the powerful are offended and seek to have him killed. It happens again and again until, at last, they stir up a crowd in a murderous fervour and appeal to their Roman enemy—another insecure power broker—to send him to the cross. Food for thought.


And yet, Jesus’ subversive work did not end with his crucifixion. His next great affront to the status quo, according to the Gospels, was to subvert death itself through his resurrection.

Please trust me when I express that I could spend a lifetime exploring the profound political implications found in every aspect of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. If you are interested in testing this for yourself, I encourage you to give the Gospels a read (or a re-read with fresh eyes).

The early Christians were similarly revolutionary. They sold all of their possessions and ‘had all things in common’ (Acts 2.44). Their existence promoted equality among all people: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3.28). Their faith was so disruptive to the status quo of the Roman Empire that they became enemies of the State. Their very existence was seen as a threat to the security of the Roman Empire – the preservation of their Roman ‘way of life’ (including patriarchy and its corresponding institutional slavery and sexism). They were forced to gather in secret and faced imprisonment, torture and death for their counter-cultural faith.

The issue of faith and politics, in a superficial and highly problematic sense, seems to appeal to the ‘Make America Great Again’ crowd. I have heard it said that ‘America is a Christian nation’ or ‘America used to be a Christian nation’. These views have been expressed by Donald Trump in one form or another. I have several serious concerns regarding this characterisation because of its association of Christianity with the status quo (whether presently or historically). I do not believe that any country can be called a ‘Christian nation’ as I do not believe that Christianity is bound to any human institution (Christendom ≠ Christianity). I believe that Christianity exists to make the kingdom of God a reality for the flourishing of all people and no amount of legislation can make that happen. In other words, no individual, no society, no institution, no government is so perfect that it evades serious, foundational challenge from the Gospel of Christ. This is not to say that individuals, societies, institutions and governments cannot reach for the ideals of the kingdom of God. But this ideal will never be achieved so long as people are governed by insecurity, selfishness and a lust for power and wealth.

Therefore, I believe that the ‘Christian position’ (if such a thing can exist) is one of perpetual opposition. This is not opposition to reason, justice, equity, sound science, etc. Instead, the Christian position reads the ‘signs of the times’ and, through critical reflection, considers how the Gospel of Christ speaks to the present. The Christian position is one that looks at the bodies of murdered people of colour and shouts, ‘Never again!’ The Christian position is one that looks at mass incarceration and shouts, ‘No more!’ The Christian position looks at extravagant wealth in the midst of obscene poverty and shouts, ‘Not on our watch!’ The Christian position looks at the exploitation of the natural world—God’s world—and shouts, ‘We must all change how we live!’ The Christian position is glad to share. The Christian position does not put any one nation ‘first’. The Christian position is desperate for the liberation of all humans from every form of oppression. The Christian position is not afraid of being challenged, of growing, of evolving, because it is self-consciously aware of its own shortcomings, its own inability to get everything right. The Christian position is a perpetual student and servant of the oppressed. The more I expound this ‘Christian position’ the more I see St Paul’s words from his first letter to the Church in Corinth:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.[7]

The Christian position is embodied in the person of Christ, the broken, subversive, oppositional Saviour, the Jesus of Nazareth who is the name of love.

Among people in the United States who wish to discredit my political beliefs, I have often heard, ‘You don’t know – you don’t live here.’ The latter part of that statement is true. I have not resided in the United States for over a decade. Some argue that this puts me at a serious disadvantage with regard to meaningful engagement with the political discourse in the United States. While I cannot discount the possibility that I might not have first-hand knowledge of some contemporary experiences, I did spend the majority of my life in the United States. Although my views have continued to grow and change over the years (thanks be to God), some of my most enduring beliefs took root while I was very much a resident of the United States. Additionally, I believe that as someone who has lived outside of the United States for more than a decade, I have reasonable experience of life elsewhere. I believe that this has broadened my perspective. This is not to say that I believe things are all hunky dory where I live now. My oppositional views are not reserved for the United States. I can see both positives and negatives in my adopted country.

On the most basic level, when criticised for living elsewhere, I reiterate that I am a citizen of the United States and I have every right of a citizen of the United States, including the right and civic duty to vote. Having expressed this, my honest admission is that I have not always felt compelled to vote in United States elections since living abroad. This is partly because I was confident in the voting trends of the constituency where I have been registered for more than 16 years. Of course, this is not an excuse, but more of an explanation. If large swathes of society chose not to vote because they believed that their constituency would vote the way they wanted, then very few people would turn up and democracy would be undermined. Mind you, I believe that the Electoral College has already done a stellar job of undermining democracy, at least in terms of presidential elections. The reality that the person with the most representation at the polls is not necessarily the person who wins an election might be quite discouraging for many.

One of the most damning realities that I have faced in choosing to participate fully in this upcoming election is the fact that in 2016, Hillary Clinton received 65,853,514 votes, Donald Trump received 62,984,828 votes around 100,000,000 eligible voters did not participate. Two out of every five eligible voters did not turn up. I am but one person, but I am one of those 100,000,000. I have not lost any sleep over it, but those figures are enough for me to step up and battle through the awkward bureaucratic hoops required in order to vote from abroad.

Perhaps, dear reader, you have read this and think, ‘Obvious Democrat’ or ‘Obvious Republican’. Maybe the latter is less likely. For the record, I oppose both parties. That is not to say that my idealism overrides my pragmatism with regard to this election. I did cast what might be considered a ‘protest vote’ in 2012. This was not because I was especially unhappy with the Obama Administration at that time (I was unhappy, but I would have been even more discontent with a Romney-Ryan Administration). I voted for Jill Stein, ill-equipped as she might have been, because I had grown very tired of a two-party system where both of those parties are not so far from one another as they would like to believe. And while I believe that, in general, the Democrats and Republicans are different shades of the same political ideology on a broad political spectrum, there has been a vocal shift to the right in the American political landscape over the last decade or so. This is toward a bankrupt politics of ‘again’.

This shift right is not the result of an increased political literacy. Reactionary right-wing language has become normalised by Donald Trump. He views immigrants, especially those who are also people of colour, with disdain. He demonstrates routine bigotry against anyone who is not like him – namely, women and people of colour. He uses derogatory language and tone against other nations, such as China. He acts like a bully toward anyone who might dare to disagree with him. He threatens the free press. He perpetuates conspiracy theories. He refuses to condemn all forms of white supremacy in no uncertain terms. He rejects scientific consensus when it conflicts with his pandering to the powerful. (This has played out in his dangerous environmental policies as well as his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.) I cannot trust a person who uses superlatives as loosely as he does. Everything he inherited as president was the ‘worst’, everything he has done has been the ‘best’. He has done ‘more’ for people of colour and for women than any other president in history. Is it not the right of these groups to decide who has done the most for them? At best, Donald Trump is an obscene braggart.

Donald Trump cannot be blamed for the whole of this mean-spirited and deluded political climate. With few exceptions, those from Donald Trump’s own party who once opposed him have thrown their support behind him with reckless abandon. They have adopted his language and demeanour. They have ‘sold their souls’ for a seat at his table.

This is not a rally cry to oppose Donald Trump or the Republican Party. I know that the majority of Americans have already decided who they want in office for the next four years. I only hope that in sharing my thoughts here—random and disjointed as they may be—that some people might be encouraged to keep up with the wrestle between politics and faith (or any other ideology).

I have already cast my ballot for this election. I have researched all of the local measures and candidates. I can only say that I have voted out of a conviction that my faith compels me to challenge all forms of oppression and injustice. I hope that people of all faiths and no faith have done or will do the same.


[1] Richard B. Morris, Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny: The Founding Fathers as Revolutionaries (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

[2] Juan Luis Segundo, The Liberation of Theology, trans. John Drury (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1977), 74.

[3] Ernst Bloch, Atheism in Christianity, trans. J. T. Swann (London: Verso, 2009), 256.

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, Training in Christianity and the Edifying Discourse Which ‘Accompanied’ It, trans. Walter Lowrie (New York: Vintage, 2004), 71.

[5] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans. R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (London: SCM, 1974), 128.

[6] Ibid.

[7] 1 Corinthians 13 (NRSV).

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 to be true, these folk are wrong. Others might think, ‘Well, we’re all on the spectrum somewhere, aren’t we?’ And while the latter may be true to some extent, I have been diagnosed as severely impaired (not a ‘weekend’ autism). This is a disability. I know that it might not appear that way at first glance. Unbeknownst to me, I have been struggling with this autism 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 while 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.

To be clear, I am no way making myself out to be a 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. I’ve spent my entire life learning to put on ‘normal’ (with varying degrees of success). 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 and things with which I continue to struggle. It takes a massive amount of cognitive energy to maintain even a flawed version 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 pretty horrendous. These things are just the very tip of my particular autistic iceberg.

Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, ‘There’s nothing unusual there.’ That’s kind of 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. I’ve always had a tendency toward busyness. In the face of this busyness, there is a great need for me to refocus, to remember who I am as Elijah: 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 term 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 deceptive 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 might put some of the English Tory gentry up in arms. But overall, it’s only common sense to acknowledge that not all Scots are leftists 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 LAST NIGHT, A ‘YES’ WOULD HAVE MEANT 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 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 hard in order 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 Angeleño-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 ethnic 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. All biblical quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

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 well 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. With that expressed, 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 while 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 might 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 demeanour, 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 while 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, or at least within the Christian religion. ‘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 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. At most, I do think it may be possible that we can cultivate a particular belief via manipulation (like any gay people 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)

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)

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)

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)

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 the Western Church has 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)

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 their divine thumbs, waiting for us to turn up. God is here, in our midst. And yet, while 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, while 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 people 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 work 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 design 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:

lost-in-the-cloud-header-colour2.jpg

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:

lost-in-the-cloud-header-update-ii4.jpg

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:

cropped-lost-in-the-cloud-header-update-viii.jpg

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:

lost-in-the-cloud-header-update-viii2.jpg

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:

litc-header-2013-sm1.jpg

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, geometric 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 (antebellum) 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 enslaved person who has been separated from his wife, another slaved person called Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington). Schultz first ‘unchains’ Django as he is being transported by slave drivers through Texas. Previously, Django had been enslaved 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 enslaved 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 enslaved person 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 enslaved people 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 enslaved people in our context (at least not in the manner in which people were enslaved in the United States in the past), 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,

E

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.]