Pale Rider

Pale Rider

“Wars and plagues are remembered differently.”

That’s one of the closing insights from Laura Spinney’s book, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World.

I read it recently to gain some perspective on COVID-19, and the upheaval that has accompanied it in 2020. (Quick note: Since Spinney’s book was published in 2017, it cannot be accused of rewriting history to provide commentary on our present crisis.)

Without a doubt, the two outbreaks—separated by a hundred years—are different. The Spanish Flu killed between 50 and 100 million people. And its occurrence on the heels of World War I made it a perfect storm of death and dissolution. In some cases, the flu finished off victims who were malnourished, riddled with tuberculosis, and without what we think of now as modern medicine.

The Spanish Flu also had a terrible “W-shaped” mortality curve, whereby it killed not only the very old and very young, but also a startling number of healthy young adults (28 years old was the peak of this curve, which may have something to do with the first flu virus these individuals were exposed to as children).

Undoubtedly, the two pandemics are not the same.

But there is something to be learned from the way history sometimes rhymes.

  1. Pandemics are social phenomena as much as medical ones

What Spinney means by this point is that the tumult caused by a plague goes far beyond the disease itself. Our ideologies show symptoms too.

And conspiracy theories spread as fast as the virus (see here).

In 1918, the Plandemic brain-worm took the form of a rumor that the Spanish Flu was manufactured by the German drug company Bayer—and distributed to Allied nations by way of aspirin packets.

In Washington D.C., newspapers printed the claim of Lieutenant Philip S. Dane, head of health and sanitation, when he asserted that the Germans had deliberately sown the flu in America to defeat us.

This was false, in part, because the leading theory now is that the Spanish Flu started near Fort Riley, Kansas. Patient zero was a corn-fed farm kid named Albert Gitchell who may have contracted the pestilence when it jumped from a duck, to a pig, to a human.

a God-fearing boy who had grown up on a farm and known no other life, unwittingly carried the virus into the American war machine, whence it was exported to the rest of the world (164).

  1. Masks and kids and empty stadiums

Like today, there was some controversy over use of masks in 1918.

In select cities, mask use probably cut the death toll in half. But the mayor of San Francisco faced a PR nightmare in 1918 when he was caught on camera with his mask dangling from one ear while watching an Armistice parade.

Some Christian ministers, like Father Bandeaux of New Orleans, protested the closing of churches in 1918. And in one case, packed worship services were held wherein dozens of parishioners were invited to come forward and kiss a single holy relic—the kiss of death, in some cases.

Footballers played to empty stadiums. And there was a bitter debate over whether children should return to school. New York’s health commissioner, Royal S. Copeland, was lambasted for allowing public education to continue, only to be vindicated when the flu was practically absent from the city’s school-age children that fall.

  1. Presidents, the poor, and pieces of a lung

In an echo of 2020, President Woodrow Wilson came down with a severe case of the flu while negotiating what became the treaty of Versailles. He raved with delirium and was, by some accounts, never the same after surviving it.

The president’s illness may have contributed to the disastrously harsh nature of the treaty. Apparently, Wilson’s sickness rendered him unable to fight for a more merciful arrangement (which he wanted), and which might have prevented the bitter rise of Hitler and the Third Reich.

Like in 2020, the poor were hit hardest. The death rate was lowest in developed countries like the United States and Australia. It was worst amongst populations that lacked proper sanitation, housing, water, and healthy food supplies.

In India alone, around 15 million people died.

Ninety percent of folks who got the Spanish flu experienced nothing worse than a bout of seasonal influenza—but in poor regions, and especially amongst indigenous populations like the Inuit of Alaska, the result was much worse. Entire villages were wiped out.

In one of these Alaskan mass graves, a San Francisco doctor embarked, in the 1990s, upon a controversial mission. He exhumed a body of a flu victim from the permafrost, packaged up her mostly frozen lung tissue, and shipped it off to researchers. Scientists then combined its genetic information with a lung sample from British soldier to resurrect the Spanish Flu.

After almost a century of lying frozen and dormant, the Spanish Flu is now alive and well in the CDC’s Level Four lab in Atlanta, Georgia.

CONCLUSION

What is the point of reading histories like Spinney’s Pale Rider?

One benefit is perspective. In the age of social media and Cable News myopia, we are beset by “presentism”—that’s Alan Jacobs’ word for what it means to drown in a deluge of constantly breaking information. Because there is SO MUCH information, many people commit an act of intellectual triage whereby we accept only those stories that confirm our pre-existing biases.

We are thus left in our silos of tribalism, anxiety, and the prison of the present tense.

History can’t solve all those problems, but it can grant perspective.

Wars and plagues are remembered differently.

So while six times as many Britons died of the Spanish Flu than in the trenches—we are only now beginning to read books like Pale Rider.


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Justice and terror

Justice and terror

In her excellent book, On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior notes how virtue can slide toward “excess” and not merely deficiency.

For instance,

[The] virtue of courage is found between the excess of rashness (a vice) and the deficiency of cowardice (also a vice).

Aristotle made this point in his Nicomachean Ethics. But I’ve been thinking about it in regard to justice.

Justice, after all, might be the word of the year for 2020—along with “apocalypse” and “social distancing.” Unfortunately, even a noble thirst for justice can get twisted by our sinfulness.

JUSTICE AND THE TERROR

Consider these words from Maximilien Robespierre, the social justice warrior/talk radio host of the French Revolution.

“Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.”

Robespierre helped orchestrate the so-called “Terror” in which thousands of French citizens were guillotined, some for no reason other than the pent-up vengeance of the mob.

He was an “influencer” who was obsessed with severe justice. But he lacked mercy, and the monster he helped create devoured him. He was guillotined in July of 1794 as the Jacobin regime collapsed around him.

This raises an important question: Was the murderous bloodletting of the guillotine an “emanation of virtue”?

Perhaps so (at least in some cases). But that doesn’t make it right.

The problem lies—as it does with every severed head—in the distance between the body of motivating virtue and the blood that “emanates” from it.

In other words, an act can start (or emanate) from a desire for justice, even while it results in flailing vengeance that is itself unjust. Violence begets violence. Victims become perpetrators.

When justice becomes a god, she begets vengeful demons.

JUSTICE WITHOUT JESUS

Michael O. Emerson makes a related point in his recent CT article, “Goodbye Christ; I’ve got justice duty” (here).

There he tells the story of two Christians who could stand in for many others.

“They represent what I see repeatedly. Christians grow up in faith defined as an individual relationship with Christ. When they learn that God cares about justice, and when they see the whiteness and complicity of the faith they claim, they either become tied tenuously to that faith, mocking many aspects of it, or they leave it all together.”

In these cases, the bitterness is directed toward Christ and his bride.

Some of that is understandable, and especially when certain evangelicals assume that the solution is to deny systemic injustice altogether (see here).

There is a better way.

As Emerson concludes:

Justice is not about domination or identity politics or even getting what is fair. Justice is about realizing right relationships, making right what is broken between us—including fixing our systems. Jesus’ justice is shalom: peaceful, equitable community in communion with YHWH, directed and empowered by the Spirit of Christ, certain to come to pass by God’s power and not our own.

Neither complicity nor vengeance will do. Neither deficiency nor excess.

CONCLUSION

The human tendency to “excessorize” virtue (not least through signaling) is worth remembering in this strange year of 2020.

We must guard not only against apathy but also anger that turns into bitterness, vengeance, and self-destruction.

To cite a philosopher far older than Aristotle, we must not only “act justly” but “love mercy,” and “walk humbly” with our God (Micah 6:8).


For my full interview with Karen Swallow Prior, you can listen to it on my podcast, Outpost Theology.


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The heresy of radical individualism (part 3)

The heresy of radical individualism (part 3)

How does individualism become a roadblock to racial justice?

With the recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain, many white evangelicals have begun to pay more attention to racial injustice in America.

But there’s a catch.

In their book, Divided by Faith, sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith argue that most white evangelicals do not have a category for structural racism, thus, they tend to view America’s “Race Problem” primarily at an individualistic level.

Divided by faith

For this reason,

well-intentioned people, their values, and their institutions actually recreate racial divisions and inequalities they ostensibly oppose.

RACE AND RADICAL INDIVIDUALISM

Worse yet, in our highly polarized environment, it has become fashionable (in some circles) to dismiss any talk of structural racism as a “Marxist” product of “Critical Race Theory.”

When I interviewed the Christian writer Jemar Tisby recently, he told me how confused he was to be labeled a “Critical Race Theorist” several years ago, because at the time, he didn’t even know what that meant. He was simply trying to be true to Scripture, history, and the black experience.

Unfortunately, when your only two options for viewing reality are “hyper individualism” or “Communist Collectivism,” every perspective must be crammed into one of those two buckets.

As I argued in parts 1 and 2, there is a better way.

BOB THE TOMATO TO THE RESCUE

Thankfully, recent days have brought accessible resources to help Christians grapple with the continuing reality of both structural and individual racism. From Phil Vischer, creator of everyone’s favorite Bible-teaching tomato, there was this helpful video on systemic racism.

And from Esau McCaulley, there was this informal talk on Scripture and structural sin.

TOWARD A BIBLICAL VIEW OF SIN

In this post, however, I want to address two things:

  1. How the Bible speaks of sin in both individual and systemic forms.
  2. How that connects to racism in America.

First, sin.

In my friend Tom McCall’s new book (Against God and Nature) he addresses how the Bible speaks of sin in both individual and corporate ways.

Unfortunately, to speak of structural or systemic sin can sound confusing. Sin is always personal. People sin. Structures don’t. But (and this is the important point) systems and structures can be inherently sinful, oppressive, and unjust.

What we need is a definition of structural or systemic sin.

As McCall rightly notes:

Sin becomes “institutionalized” as it perverts and warps social structures and institutions—which then in turn become breeding grounds for further sinful activities … this point is all-too-easily missed, overlooked, or denied by people who benefit from such institutions while being all-too-painfully-obvious to those who suffer from [them].

Structural sin is uniquely tied to power.

A great example exists in the 1986 and 1994 crime bills. (Though we could talk also of housing, hiring, or policing practices.)

For years, crack cocaine (which was seen as a “black drug”) was punished exponentially more harshly than powder cocaine (which was seen as a drug of wealthier white citizens), despite the fact that the chemical makeup of the two drugs is essentially identical.

By 2003, a whopping 80% of defendants sentenced under the harsher mandatory minimum sentences for crack were black, despite the fact that 66% of crack users are white or Hispanic. That’s a form of systemic racial injustice, and it didn’t happen in the 1800s or the 1960s.

More importantly, the lasting implications of such structural sin don’t just go away “poof!” when the law changes. The effects echo across generations with the voice of Rachel weeping for her children.

Screen Shot 2020-07-14 at 10.43.45 AM
Links to individual studies here.

In response, the individualist might say, “Well, don’t do crack and you won’t have to worry about it.”

That reaction is ungodly because it misses the biblical treatment of how sin perverts entire systems of justice, especially when money and power converge. For this reason, Deuteronomy 16 states:

18 Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. 19 Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent. 20 Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.

PRINCIPALITIES AND POWERS

Another way Scripture speaks to systemic sin is through the language of the “principalities and powers.”

In the New Testament, these powers often refer to fallen spiritual forces that stand behind entire nations, governments, and ideologies.

To give allegiance to Christ requires one to recognize and reject these fallen principalities and powers—even within your own country or political party. The reason is simple:

“[God] raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come (Eph 1:20-21).

The relation between the “powers” and systemic sin is made most clear in the Book of Revelation, where whole churches are rebuked for specific sins (e.g., Rev 2-3), and whole empires (Rome especially) are seen to have become “beastly” in their oppressive, prideful, and persecutorial ways (Rev 13, 17, 18).

In short, the Bible sees sin as both an individual action and an enslaving demonic power that inhabits nations, churches, and in-groups.

But if all that’s true, why do many Christians reject the idea of systemic sin on the subject of race and racism?

THE INVISIBILITY OF STRUCTURAL SIN

Let’s return to the crime bills referenced previously.

As a young white person, I wasn’t even aware of this disparity.

Nor was I aware of redlining (which intentionally kept black people from owning homes, especially in white neighborhoods), poll taxes, convict leasing programs, for-profit prisons, the Tulsa race massacre, or (most importantly!) the specific experiences of black friends with unjust policing. (No, I didn’t say “all cops.”)

This speaks to a key aspect of structural sin: It tends to be invisible to those who are not directly affected by it. Hence, even well-meaning white Christians can scroll past the 99% of black voices telling their stories in order to “share” a viral video of the one black pundit who tells them exactly what they want to hear.

In this way, it is entirely possible to hate racism while failing to recognize how systemic prejudice has infected one’s own heart, in-groups, and Facebook timeline.

“BLACK ON BLACK CRIME”

Take for instance the frequent response that we need to stop focusing on police brutality and start focusing on “black on black crime.”

While it is certainly true that every crime cries out for justice, consider this: Why don’t we refer to America’s mass school shooting epidemic as “white on white crime”?

After all, most mass shootings in schools are perpetrated by white students, and the majority of victims have been white. We don’t speak that way because white citizens do not associate the violence or the victimhood directly with the shooter’s skin color, or with an entire race of people.

Instead, school shootings are seen to be work of deranged individuals with guns.

CONCLUSION

None of this means, of course, that every allegation of structural racism is justified. We need to deal in specifics, we need to listen charitably, and we need to be wary of how a thirst for justice morphs easily into a desire for revenge. (Read a book on the French Revolution to see how that ends.)

To address these challenges, we also need to move away from exclusively individualistic or collectivist understandings of sin (including racism), and toward a more biblical approach.

Sin is not just a naughty action done by individuals, it is an enslaving power that corrupts and co-ops systems, ideologies, and political parties.

As I’ve written elsewhere for a forthcoming book:

To focus only on systemic injustice allows individuals to justify their own sin while decrying “society” and institutions. Conversely, to focus only on individual sin allows the church to justify complicity in systems, companies, and political parties that become oppressive, even while I congratulate myself for being a faithful husband or a hard-working, God-fearing citizen.

Sin is both individual and systemic; hence Scripture cares about both personal morality and systemic justice.

When sin “masters” those in power, it creates structures of inequality and injustice—and to ignore this reality is no better than being high on crack.

 


For parts 1 and 2 in this series, see here and here.

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Why we love conspiracy theories

Why we love conspiracy theories

“The Jews did it.”

That was the claim made by certain medieval “Christian” bloggers in the face of the Black Plague. Jews were said to have started the pestilence by poisoning the water, and they were subsequently murdered when the fake news went viral.

But what does that have to do with current (Christian) conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19?

As best I can tell, the virus was cooked up in a North Carolina lab by Bigfoot and Barack Obama to keep pastors from preaching live–and/or getting their nails done. (I am immune. I swallowed disinfectant and an infrared lightbulb.)

CHRISTIANS AND CONSPIRACY THEORIES

Ed Stetzer issued a rebuke last week to those evangelicals who seem disproportionately prone to bizarre and politically-charged conspiracy theories.

Gullibility is not a spiritual gift.

Likewise, Dru Johnson wrote regarding Jesus’ own words against the tawdry rumor mill of End Times speculation:

Prior to his death, Jesus sternly warned his disciples against buying into the various conspiracy theories that would come. “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars,” he said. But his counsel is revealing: “See that no one leads you astray…” (Matt. 24:4–6, ESV).

Both articles are instructive.

But my question is different.

Why are we (and especially certain evangelicals) drawn to conspiracy theories? Why do we find them almost irresistible?

A few thoughts:

    1. Conspiracy allows me to blame “them.”

You can’t sue a bat for damages. You can’t put a Venetian flea on trial. When disaster strikes, we want to blame “them.”

When a hurricane struck Texas and Florida, Jennifer Lawrence blamed the devastation on “Mother Nature’s wrath” against states that had supported Donald Trump. Pat Robertson blamed a Haitian earthquake on the islanders’ “pact with the devil,” and Jerry Falwell attributed 9/11 to “gays and lesbians” (see here).

While these may not be “conspiracies” per se, the common theme is a need to blame people we already loathe (“them”).

2. Conspiracy puts me in the know.

We all like to feel smarter than our out-groups.

And especially when those out-groups (university professors, the media, people who know math) have looked down on others for not having the expert status they possess. In many cases, conspiracy theories feed on our desire to acquire a special, secret knowledge (gnosis) that is lost upon the “shills” who believe what they’re told in the media.

3. Conspiracy defrays “sunk costs.”

The trouble with facts is their potential to invalidate my prior opinions. And if I’ve already “sunk” a lot of time and energy into supporting an opinion, ideology, or leader, contrary evidence feels like a slap in the face.

Conspiracy theories help defray “sunk costs” by providing an alternative narrative—even if it’s stupid.

4. Conspiracy is fueled by a lack of trust.

In his rebuke of Christian conspiracy theorists, Stetzer writes:

we need to speak up […] and lovingly say, “You need to go to trusted sources.”

Stetzer isn’t wrong. But his advice probably won’t work.

If “trusted sources” were seen as trustworthy by conspiracy theorists, then those persons would have never sought the “real story” from disreputable pundits, bloggers, and self-deputized evangelical “thought-leaders.”

Conspiracies run rampant precisely because there are NO universally trusted sources anymore—only silos inside silos inside silos.

5. Conspiracy abhors an expert.

In fundamentalist Christianity, scientific “experts” have long been viewed negatively. They were alleged to be (and sometimes were) dishonest deconstructors of biblical truth, as seen in the likes of Darwin, Dawkins, and Sam Harris.

Unfortunately, this posture furthers the misconception that Christians must be “science-deniers” who can be lumped with other flat-earth, anti-vaxxer, fringe groups. To be frank, it pushes intelligent young people to throw out the “Baby” of orthodoxy with the “Bathwater” of anti-scientific fundamentalism.

6. Conspiracy sells.

Big tech companies are in an awkward position. They are driven by ad revenue. So while they are often accused (and sometimes rightly) of muting free speech, they also profit tremendously from conspiratorial nonsense.

One study showed that conspiratorial “fake news” was far more likely to be shared than anything else—and especially when its existence is seen as being threatened. In short, conspiracy sells.

7. Conspiracy is sometimes true.

Lastly, it is important to remember that truth is sometimes labeled as a “conspiracy theory.”

Imagine the following scenario: You are a Gentile Roman citizen in the first century. Which story seems likely:

  • A man was crucified; God raised him from the dead; he now rules creation.
  • A man was crucified; his crackpot Jewish followers stole his body and then claimed (ridiculously) that he was resurrected.

The answer, as during the Black Plague, seemed obvious:

“The Jews did it.”

I’ll give Johnson the last word:

Therein lies the good conspiracy that we are to spread: The kingdom has come and is still coming in the ordinary lives of overlooked people in our communities. But that also means there are other conspiracies—lesser ones—that will compete and distract us from where God is trying to focus our efforts.

If we’re busy carrying out the mission of the coming kingdom, we won’t have much time or energy for tawdry conspiracy theories—and pretending we can peel back the curtains of history and discern the exact signs of the king’s coming will seems frivolous at best.

 


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Quiet heroes

Quiet heroes

A tragedy in our age of spectacle is that we often make morons famous while courageous people labor in quiet fidelity.

“Quiet” is the key word there.

And Good Friday reminds us it’s not new.

The Roman historian and politician Tacitus (c. 56–120 AD) famously remarked that

“Under Tiberius, all was quiet” (Hist. 5:9).

There were apparently no Messianic news stories during those years that demanded the intervention of the Roman legions in Palestine. Hence, as far as Tacitus was concerned, little happened.

But of course, something happened under Tiberius: Jesus lived, died, and rose again.

And a later historian (and atheist) Tom Holland claims that no event would have more impact on subsequent centuries than the “quiet” one that failed to appear on Tacitus’ Newsfeed.

Even in those days, the algorithms had other priorities.

Holland:

To believe that God had become man and suffered death of a slave was to believe that there might be strength in weakness, and victory in defeat.

HEROES

I’m reminded of that truth today (Good Friday) as I hear of my former students, both nurses, who are now headed into crowded, virus-laden hospitals—in New York and New Jersey.

One of them (Amanda) has blogged her experience beautifully (here).

And another (Jo-Nieca) has volunteered to leave her young family in Oklahoma and serve in an overrun New Jersey hospital.

Pray for them when you think about it. And pray for other quiet heroes placing themselves in traumatic situations for the good of others.

“Good” is the key word there, on a day (Good Friday) that redefines that concept too.

 


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Deep thoughts on Tiger King

Deep thoughts on Tiger King

Hey all you cool cats and kittens.

Gird your loins.

Like many people, my wife and I got sucked in to the Netflix documentary, Tiger King, as a much-needed distraction from our COVID-induced lockdown.

It was, well… a lot.

Admittedly, finding life-lessons in the show might seem as likely as extracting high nutritional value from a bag of Cheetos. But since Cheetos may be all I have left soon, here goes.

“I SAW TIGER”

For the uninitiated, the king himself (“Joe Exotic”) hails from down the road from me in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. He’s an openly gay, gun-toting, mullet-wearing, lip-synching, PETA-hating polygamist (technically: polyandrist) who owned several hundred live tigers in a private collection.

Joe ran for Governor in 2018 and received 18% of the Libertarian primary vote. But that was before his conviction in a murder for hire investigation, which sent him to a federal prison that is currently infected with COVID-19.

Caught up?

Some have argued that Tiger King’s absurd storyline (in which reality and Reality TV converge) is the perfect match for our current cultural moment. And by some people, I mean my friend Josh who sells electric motorbikes and month-by-month phone plans. (Hi Josh.)

K. B. Hoyle describes it this way over at Christ and Pop Culture:

[It is] not a documentary so much as a circus presented to a captive America during a time of crisis while we wait for the government to dole out to us our bread.

There are only villains and victims in this story—no winners and no heroes.

Hoyle’s claim is that when “bread” is short, we settle easily for “circus.” (Read the whole thing here.)

But what lessons can we glean from Joe in a time when schools, church buildings, and counseling offices are largely closed to the public?

I’ve boiled it down to three F-words: (1) freedom, (2) fame, (3) frauds.

1. FREEDOM

One question the series raises involves how far our individual “freedoms” should go. And that’s especially relevant in a time of social distancing.

Where else on earth can one buy, breed, and monetize hundreds of man-eating tigers in their own backyard? Answer: I don’t know. But I bet places like Oklahoma are just a teensy bit unique on planet earth.

We Americans like freedom, and rightly so.

We don’t like people saying we can’t do what we want: Even if what we want are two hundred live tigers, three husbands, and a private military arsenal in the woods behind a Casey’s gas station.

It’s in the Constitution. Or not. I’ll Google it.

But what if—and just go with me here…—total individual freedom is not the highest good? Perhaps in some cases, thumbing our nose at regulations—say, a social distancing order—could actually result in a massive loss of freedom for others (say, health care workers)?

(I say this after having driven by the local Lowe’s and noting how packed it still is. Do they sell food and ventilators now?)

Sometimes, a “freedom first” mentality has advantages—like an entrepreneurial spirit or a resistance to dictatorship. But absolutizing the “I can do what I want” mindset is as foolish as sticking your arm (or that of your ER nurse) inside a tiger cage.

2. FAME

A second point raised by the show is how far people are willing to go to be famous.

By the end, Joe’s friends all admit that his passion stopped being tigers and started being celebrity. It’s why he ran for Governor, started an internet show, created terrible lip-synched videos (see here), and filmed literally every moment on his giant tiger-topia—including some that helped land him in jail.

Herein lies a parable for “leaders” in the age of internet celebrity.

Chasing fame incentivizes ever more outrageous behaviors, statements, and hairstyles.

Before you know it you’re in federal prison. Or federal office. It goes both ways.

3. FRAUDS

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the documentary (nope, I take that back) is the way it slowly causes you to question which “tiger person” is most fraudulent.

Which big cat lover is actually most deranged and dangerous?

Joe, of course, wears his absurdity like gaudy earrings—nine per lobe. But his bête noire of big cat breeding is a tiger queen named Carole Baskin.

Carole is beloved in the animal rights community for her attempts to “rescue” cats from exploitative keepers. Yet as the series rolls on, you start to wonder if Carole and Joe are that different. (Not to mention the defacto cult leader “Doc” Bhagavan Antle, who runs another private zoo/harem.)

Like Joe, Carole Baskin also lives under a cloud of murder rumors (her millionaire husband disappeared mysteriously); she too makes money off of caged cats; and she too has legions of followers who serve as near slave labor for her big cat kingdom.

To cite Hoyle again, “There are several predators [here]”–and none of them are tigers.

Who really cares about the animals?

Who is the bigger fraud?

Now for my super-sentimental conclusion.

CONCLUSION

At the end of every Jerry Springer episode, Jerry shared a “Final Thought.” It was an absurd attempt to spin the show’s empty calories into something poignant and practical so viewers would feel better about having consumed them—like wrapping dog poop in a page from Chicken Soup for the Soul and handing it to the audience with a smile.

This blog post is like that.

Smile.

But after 27 seasons, Jerry’s final Final Thought was this: “We’re not better than these people. We just dress better.”

Is that true of me and you and Joe Exotic?

I don’t think so.

But then again, we loved the show; and we’ve been wearing sweatpants for weeks.

 


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Christendom, the coughing ghost

Christendom, the coughing ghost

“Christendom,” says Mark Sayers, “is like Hamlet’s ghost; it may be dead, but it still acts in the play.”

That line could form a summary of the book I’m reading during this time of global tumult: Dominion, by the British historian Tom Holland.

Dominion

The subtitle is “How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.” And the work represents a shift from Holland’s early scholarship. Having written histories of Julius Caesar (Rubicon) and the Persian empire (Persian Fire), Holland once claimed a fairly negative view of Christianity.

He remains an atheist.

But he eventually arrived at an unsettling conclusion: The values he held most deeply were the product of a faith he could not hold. To quote Sayers again, the secular project is itself an attempt to have the Kingdom (values, or at least some of them) without the King.

Dominion is Holland’s long attempt to trace how that happened.

The dust jacket tells the thesis:

Christianity is the principal reason why, today, we think it nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering; why we assume every human life to be of equal value.

From Babylon to the Beatles, Moses to #MeToo, Dominion tells the story of how Christianity transformed the world.

GHOSTS ON VENTILATORS

Meanwhile, down in Texas…

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick stuck his cowboy boots in his mouth last week when he seemed to suggest that America should value the economy over the potential death-toll on the elderly by COVID-19.

“Let’s get back to work,” Patrick proclaimed, “let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.”

After a media firestorm, Patrick sought to “clarify” his comments by adding the “at some point” qualifier–a move that is about as bold and specific as suggesting that “at some point” we should restock our national supply of toilet paper.

It’s easy to make political hay of such soundbites. I’ll let others do that.

My goal is merely to relate Patrick’s original faux pas, and the related ones of many others, to Holland’s Dominion.

ECONOMIC PAGANISM

Holland’s claim is that we now call callous and barbaric viewpoints are actually the more common ones in world history: a lack of concern for the weak, the sick, the poor, the old, and those with disabilities.

The very need for the Lt. Governor to “clarify” his comment signals something strange in world history.

Holland writes this of the ancient Greeks and Romans:

It was not just the extremes of callousness that unsettled me, but the complete lack of any sense that the poor or the weak might have the slightest intrinsic value.

Why did I find this disturbing?

Because, in my morals and ethics, I was not a Spartan or a Roman at all. That my belief in God had faded over the course of my teenage years did not mean that I had ceased to be Christian [in terms of ethics].

Of course, Holland is focusing on only one set of Christian values—an error that is common amongst both liberals and conservatives. Yet the atheist historian and the Lt. Governor bring us to a final, unsettling question:

What if the ghost of Christendom is getting “sick”—not just in the secular cities of New York, London, and Los Angeles, but in the Bible belt as well?

“Christendom” is not the same as “Christianity.” The former has more to do with cultural power and privilege. The latter is about worship, service, and mission.

Still, the former is not unimportant–and especially for the way our culture treats the least of these (the elderly, the poor, the unborn).

This is what it sounds like when Hamlet’s aging ghost begins to cough.

 


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You’re being programmed

You’re being programmed

“You don’t realize it,” states a former Facebook executive, “but you are being programmed.” And the programming is making us more scattered, shallow, angry, and anxious.

That’s from Nicholas Carr’s bestselling book: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. I’ve been reading it. The updated edition offers a cache of new data on how exactly our smartphones are transforming us.

Spoiler: it’s mostly bad.

And it raises a question Jesus never answered: Can a person serve two (competing) algorithms? Must he or she love one and hate the other? (Matt 6:24)

INVISIBLE “FORCE FIELDS”

Since I’m a teacher, I found the following studies fascinating.

A 2017 experiment from the University of Arkansas showed that college students who brought their phones to class scored a full letter grade lower on exams. Surprisingly, it didn’t matter whether they looked at the device or not. The mere presence of a smartphone correlated to lower scores.

Another 2017 study, entitled “Brain Drain,” showed similar results.

As the phone’s proximity increased, brainpower decreased. It was as if the smartphones had force fields that sapped their owners’ intelligence.

I’ve sensed this in my own life.

Several years ago, I completed a research PhD in theology, which entailed hours of dense reading. I’m good at it—unlike my abysmal aptitude for math, science, and mechanical tasks.

But even I have noticed how the smartphone has changed my ability to focus. If my iPhone is within reach, it is just too tempting to set down the book every few minutes to scan Facebook or Instagram. It’s like placing a drink in front of an alcoholic.

Studies bear this out. When the elderly are taken out of the statistics, daily reading time (outside of one’s smartphone) has plummeted to an average of six minutes. In Carr’s words,

Curling up with a book is losing its place in the general culture. It’s becoming a quaint pursuit, like ballroom dancing or darts.

The claim reminded me of a troubling observation of the English Professor Alan Jacobs. A colleague asked him, “What are the most influential Christian books of the past decade?” Jacobs responded this way:

the answer to that question is: There aren’t any. In our moment, Christians are not influenced by books at all.

REWIRING OUR BRAINS

The problem is deeper than habit.

Neurologists suggest that our brains are being rewired by technology. The troubling effects are evidenced by the high percentage of Silicon Valley designers who keep their own children FAR away from the very products they create.

Carr’s research shows how complex algorithms have zeroed in on what grabs our attention (a neural system called the “salience network”) in order to bombard us with “supernormal stimuli” that hijack attention.

Sadly, we are far more likely to be “hijacked” by things that aren’t true or good or noble. A 2018 MIT study of Twitter showed that fake or grossly misleading stories were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than factual ones.

ESTABLISHING GUARDRAILS

Of course, technology has upsides.

My research time—say, when looking up a quotation—has been reduced dramatically. My “memories” feed sends daily reasons to be grateful as I look back at pictures of my children. And platforms like blogging have allowed me to connect with larger groups than I could have otherwise.

“[O]nly a curmudgeon would refuse to see the riches,” Carr writes.

But. But. But.

We need some guardrails. Here are three of mine:

1. Set “App limits”

Under “Settings” and “Screen Time” I’ve been progressively lowering the amount of time my phone will allow me to use Facebook and Instagram (I’m not on Twitter). I’m down to a combined total of thirty minutes per day—but the catch is I have to actually hit “Okay” when it tells me my time is up in the evening.

2. Quarantine the iPhone (periodically)

For awhile, I kept my iPhone nearby in the evenings so I could see the time. (I am on a very strict schedule, like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rainman.) But I’ve found that this is just too tempting.

Now I’ve started leaving the phone in another room and simply wearing my traditional watch.

3. Give extra credit

Since carrots beat sticks (no pun intended), I’ve started offering extra credit to any students willing to part with their smartphones during class.

(I was going to make a fancy box to put them in, but, you know… coronavirus.)

Rather than rant about how “narcissistic millennials” are addicted to their devices, it seems best to present the research and give them a chance to score some easy points. (Besides, some of the worst phone addicts I’ve known are older Americans, who use their devices to rant narcissistically about “narcissistic millennials.”)

CONCLUSION

If you’re interested in the research, or in making meaningful changes, check out the updated edition of The Shallows (here).

Here’s to rediscovering the deep end.


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When celebrities die

When celebrities die

What exactly is going on within our collective psyche when a very famous person dies under tragic circumstances?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been researching the subject of my next book. Its focus is upon the way “celebrity” and a celebrity-obsessed culture has come to influence American evangelicalism.

My claim is that a fixation on fame and famous people is creating certain problems for the church, despite our claim that only God be worshipped and adored. My argument is that evangelicalism needs to be “de-famed” so Jesus won’t be.

Then, in the midst this research, a helicopter crashed.

AN UNDENIABLE TRAGEDY

Kobe Bryant, his young daughter, and seven others were tragically killed.

The internet exploded.

Like most people, I never met Kobe. I wasn’t a Laker fan. And I wondered (years ago) about the sexual assault charge that was ultimately dropped against him. How do you judge the character of someone you’ve never met?

Still, like everybody else, I was shocked and saddened. A rush emotions followed: His daughter too!? It can’t be. What must his wife and family be enduring!?

I wasn’t alone.

WHAT IS A CELEBRITY?

Then I began to ask another question: How does my strong reaction to Kobe’s death fit with my research into our celebrity culture?

In his book Celebrity Worship, Pete Ward attempts to unpack just what is a “celebrity” and why they matter to us.

A celebrity, Ward says, is a “mediated person.” Celebrities are those persons who have been elevated and magnified by a complex mix of technology, media, industry, and social relationships. Ward’s claim is that our deep connection to celebrities is not actually about them—it’s about us, and the formation of the modern “self.”

To see the young and smiling face of Kobe Bryant, memorialized on CNN, is to be reminded of how fragile our lives are. It is also to be transported back in time to watching basketball with one’s own father or high school friend. It is to place myself in Kobe’s seat in the helicopter (the seat of a father), and to look into my own daughter’s eyes. It is to empathize with a grieving widow and grieving children. It is to relive our own grief and trauma vicariously.

And after that, it is to find a collective outlet for that groan on social media. (This isn’t wrong.)

In Ward’s words, “Celebrities are important, because they are one of the primary resources used in processing the project of the self” (4).

WHEN CELEBRITIES DIE

After the death of Michael Jackson, and in spite of widespread evidence of child molestation, Ward notes how the public reacted with intense grief and deep affection.

MJ’s music had formed the soundtrack for countless lives.

Hence the public was not mourning an accused child molester, or even a phenomenal performer (he was likely both). They were mourning what his music represented in their stories.

A man named Paul put it this way:

“I immediately thought of my brother with whom I held great parties and where we danced like MJ, we were teenagers […] My brother was important to me.”

LISTENING AND LEARNING

These kind of celebrity deaths also provide an opportunity for  us to ask important questions of ourselves. For instance:

1. What am I actually grieving?

Like the young man (Paul) who was thoughtful enough to link the death of Michael Jackson to his past relationship with his own brother—we should ask what our grief over persons we have never met might be trying to teach us.

What are we grieving beyond the individual who has died?

What if the death of Michael Jackson led not to a shrine at his personal amusement park (which, if we are honest, was more a crime scene than a temple), but to conversations with one’s own brother, mother, pastor, friend, or therapist?

We like to run from death and grief. And events like this ask us to connect to the deeper sources of our pain.

2. What about the others?

Here’s another question to be wrestled with: Do I really believe that every person—no matter how famous, beautiful, or powerful—is created equally in the image of God?

Equality is a value in the modern West. But our responses to celebrity raise questions as to how deeply we believe in it.

Is the death of a poor and unnamed Chinese girl every bit as precious in the sight of God as that of Kobe Bryant? Do I actually feel this to be true, despite the fact that the young girl’s death (or that of the unborn baby) will get little personal coverage, in part because a given government has a vested interest in saving face?

Celebrity deaths give us occasion to grapple with these uncomfortable questions about equality and the sanctity of life.

3. Is the ache an echo of a Voice?

The Judeo-Christian tradition has long held that God has placed eternity (or a longing for transcendence) in the human heart.

The ache over mortality is therefore meant to be an echo of a Voice. It is a “dispatch” from transcendence, and even ardent secularists can hear it.

In the words of James K. A. Smith (citing Charles Taylor), the “closed take” on reality (No God, no transcendent meaning, no afterlife)

can’t seem to get rid of a certain haunting, a certain rumbling in our hearts. There is a spectre haunting our secular age, the “spectre of meaninglessness”—which is a dispatch from [divine] fullness.

CONCLUSION

In the end, it is good and right to mourn celebrity deaths. It is good and right because they are people made in God’s image.

Yet these tragedies may also serve as reminders of important truths (or falsehoods) that we would like to ignore.

All life is sacred. All human death is an intrusion into God’s good world. And this mortal ache—while painful—may form a trail of breadcrumbs leading to a Table where we hear the same truths Kobe did at his last worship service, just hours before his death:

This is my body.

This is my blood.

Do this in remembrance of the Christ who conquered death, and who alone is worthy to be worshipped.


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Between Zacchaeus and Benny Hinn

Between Zacchaeus and Benny Hinn

Some headlines get your attention.

Like, “Florida man has completely uneventful day.”

Or last week, “Benny Hinn is rejecting the prosperity gospel.”

I grew up watching Hinn occasionally on Christian Cable. He was known for his entrancing accent, for punching demons, and for dressing somewhat like a Captain of the Starship Enterprise.

But none of this is essential to prosperity theology. The movement is a mostly American phenomenon that guarantees financial and physical blessing in exchange for unwavering faith and monetary “seeds” sown into the coffers of jet-setting televangelists.

I’ve described it elsewhere as a Christian Ponzi scheme that preys upon the poor, the sick, the desperate.

And I don’t say this lightly.

I have been to parts of Africa where the primary exposure to “American Christianity” is by satellite broadcasts of the most egregious and ridiculous of preachers—all promising faith-formulas to “first-world” wealth and happiness.

And I have seen the effects of the Faith-Healer movement (in its distorted forms) on dying loved ones, to whom it was implied that a failure to get better was because they “harbored doubts”—or worse yet, had a caretaker who must be “speaking death” over them.

These teachings are demonic.

And I say that as a fairly charismatic Wesleyan who believes in miracles and is friendly toward of a wide variety of religious traditions: Pentecostals, Presbyterians, even Pittsburgh Steeler fans.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see Hinn distance himself from prosperity teachings.

“I’m correcting my theology,” he said. “I think it’s an offense to the Holy Spirit to place a price on the gospel. I’m done with it.”

BETWEEN ZACCHAEUS AND BENNY HINN

As I watched, I had two reactions.

First, “Wow!” and “that’s fantastic.” I’m glad he’s had a public change of heart.

But secondly: Renouncing isn’t necessarily repenting (though it is a crucial part of it).

One thing I didn’t hear Hinn say was “I’m sorry.” I’m sorry for the poor and dying people I manipulated into sending me their life-savings (or in many cases, their credit card numbers). Instead, he mostly chided others to applause.

“I’m sorry” is an important part of true repentance.

And repentance requires more than words.

ENTER ZACCHAEUS

Case in point: Zacchaeus.

By befriending the diminutive Jewish tax collector, Jesus showed his love for Zacchaeus even before his “deconversion” from his greedy, exploitative ways.

Zacchaeus also swindled God’s people out of money. And Zacchaeus also recanted. But then he did something else. He ante’d up and put his money where his mouth was.

“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).

I hope Benny Hinn does that too–at least in some small way.

CELEBRITY > PROSPERITY

Until then, I wonder if some public “deconversions” (in whatever form) aren’t a symptom of a bigger problem. I wonder if the ultimate idol in the televangelist movement (and for many of us) isn’t just “prosperity” but “celebrity”?

In the age of social media especially, we all feel the pull of that temptation (bloggers, preachers, and book writers especially). Celebrity craves sustained attention.

And few things get attention faster (after it has waned) than a deconversion story.

 

“I was a Christian, but now … ”

“I kissed dating goodbye, but now … ”

“I was a Liberal, but now … ”

“I was a prosperity-gospeler, but now … ”

 

That doesn’t mean that all deconversions are phony or meaningless!

“I used to be a persecutor of the Way, but now … ”

But as with Zacchaeus, repenting is more than renouncing.

CONCLUSION

I’m glad for Benny Hinn’s change of heart.

And I hope it’s genuine.

But the lesson of Zacchaeus is that greed and exploitation must be healed by more than words.

Renouncing isn’t necessarily repenting, but it is a crucial part of it. When these two come together, then the saying will be true, not just for televangelists and tax collectors, but for us all:

“Today salvation has come to this house … For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9–10).