I’m glad they carried tiki torches

I’m  glad they carried tiki torches

“In a way, I’m glad they carried tiki torches and wore well-pressed polo shirts.”

That was one of my (admittedly strange) thoughts while grieving the vile scene from Charlottesville this weekend.

The citronella made the barbarity feel suburban–and that matters.

White Supremacists March with Torches in Charlottesville
P: Zach Roberts/NurPhoto

The stereotype for white supremacy (as set forth by Jerry Springer) usually involves a two-toothed yokel in bib overalls, catfish bait beneath the fingernails, and married to a cousin.

That’s unfair.

Not to white supremacy, but to the many decent folks who wear bib overalls.

That picture of racism is dangerous because it’s easy to dismiss as distant and defunct.

“I don’t know anyone like that.”

But the young millennials marching in Charlottesville looked (well…) a lot like me:

  • sensibly dressed,
  • semi-literate, and
  • unacquainted with cousinly matrimony.

That’s important too.

Because as long as I view white nationalism as just a backwoods problem, I will never note the subtle ways it grows untended in my own backyard.

Now a word on that.

A DANGEROUS QUESTION

Shortly after Saturday’s bloodshed, a pastor-friend of mine posed this question to me.

How long could a polo-shirt wearing, tiki-torch bearing white nationalist attend your evangelical church before hearing something from the pulpit that would contradict his worldview?

One month?

One year?

One lifetime?

What would be your response?

I’m thankful to be part of a tribe that has tried to change the answer to such questions (see here). Yet we have some work to do.

SOME HONEST HISTORY

For the past few weeks, I’ve been reading the latest history of American evangelicalism (The Evangelicals) penned by Pulitzer Prize winner, Francis Fitzgerald.

It has been a painful but important read.

A stark reminder has been the extent to which many evangelical leaders found themselves on the wrong side of civil rights.

And by that, I do not just mean “the wrong side of history” (see here), but more importantly: “the wrong side of God.”

The reason?

White nationalism. And a desire not to run afoul of their “constituency.”

To take a famous example: Jerry Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority (and Liberty University) preached and published passionately for segregation; he called racial integration “the work of the devil”; and he denounced civil rights legislation with the claim that “it should be considered ‘civil wrongs’.”

He eventually disavowed these viewpoints. Yet his mature ministry was still marked by staunch support for the white supremacist government of South Africa, which he visited, while denouncing Bishop Desmond Tutu as “a phony.”

Billy Graham was (normally) light-years ahead of Falwell on this subject.

Yet even he struggled to stand up to his constituency. While MLK languished in a Birmingham jail in 1963, Graham chided his “good personal friend” with the claim that he needed to “put the brakes on a bit” in the quest for justice. Likewise, Graham often insinuated at the time that whites and blacks were equally culpable, even in instances when violence against nonviolent black marchers was at its height.  (If you have ears to hear, then hear.)

A HOPE

The reason for bringing up this history is not to look down our collective nose at those who were, like all of us, people of their time.

The motive actually is just the opposite.

Evangelicals must be honest about our past so as not to repeat it.

Because the real danger of white nationalism (or hatred of any kind) is not the Jerry Springer stereotype.

It is the subtle form that will kill us, without ever climbing behind the wheel of a Dodge Charger.

Christians and Climate Change

Christians and Climate Change

My Interview with a real-life Climate Scientist

Jim Norwine is a unicorn.

A few years ago I met Jim as he audited my university New Testament class.

For the unfamiliar, auditing means attending my lectures simply for the fun of it, rather than for college credit. (Needless to say, some of my traditional students find this very odd.)

Nevertheless, Jim and I became friends.  And I then learned that he is a PhD scientist, specializing in Climate Change, and having taught for years in the Geosciences at Texas A&M.

Jim is a scholar.

Yet he is also an evangelical Christian, living in the Bible-belt — which brings us to the opening line about his almost “mythical” status. As he admits, evangelical climate scientists (with actual PhDs in the field) are somewhat rare.

EVANGELICALS AND CLIMATE SCIENCE

Manmade global warming, while accepted as an empirical fact in many places, is often controversial in the Bible-belt (though not for theological reasons).

And like everything else, it is highly politicized.

Even so, the command to be good stewards of our earth is a mandate for all Christians. And the need to listen to actual experts on such subjects (rather than unqualified bloggers like myself!) seems wise.

So whether you “believe” in manmade climate change or not, I hope you’ll enjoy the interview I did with Jim.

THE GIST

In it, he attempts to explain:

  1. How warming happens;
  2. Why he can be quite certain it is both real and human-caused; and
  3. How his treatment of the topic differs from some others as it comes from a Christian concern for the “least of these,” and an acknowledgement of the imago Dei.

You can access the conversation, in two formats.

First, there is an audio conversation shown below, and secondly (further down) there is an email response from Jim in which he responds to some questions on Christians and climate change.

Enjoy!

EMAIL Q&A WITH JIM NORWINE

Q: How do we know that man made global warming is real?

Oh boy. How to answer that in a few sentences….?

First, we know nothing with absolute certainty other than our selves, and even that could be a projection by some external whatever. (The latter is the ancient philosophy of solipsism, “I am the only reality,” which is impossible to refute…but which most of us choose to ignore in order to get on with “our”—we hope–lives.)

Seems obvious when you think about it but in fact even very educated folks often seem to think we are eating into the corpus of ignorance and soon will have digested the whole enchilada. Nothing could be further from the truth. Knowledge is by its nature finite. Ignorance is infinite.

Think of the former as standing on a new and still-rising volcanic mountain on an island in the middle of the sea. Every day you are higher and higher, see (know) more and more.   So easy to think, what a smart boy am I! And true up to a point. But: every day the horizon recedes further and further. This is the point of the folk, and scholar’s, wisdom, “the more I know the greater my ignorance.”

So I suppose one could say there is one kind of “certain” knowledge, that of apprehending the limits inherent in being embodied createds.

Second, as to knowing in a scientific sense, there are levels. One may know in the sense of a law, like that of gravity. Near-“certain” because of so many repeated demonstrations and observations. (Still never really certain because a law, like that of gravity, is not the reality, just the best description one has at the moment.   And in fact the law of gravity has been overturned: Aristotle to Galileo to Newton to Einstein and so on.)

The next level of knowledge in science is that of theory. You might think of a successful theory as a sort of baby or not-quite-yet law. High confidence again due to verification by testing and testing and still more testing. The theory of evolution is a good example. When folks hear the phrase they often confuse theory with hypothesis. The latter is the educated guess with which one begins the practice of the scientific method. Hypothesis is merely square one on the Monopoly board of science; theory is at the very opposite end of the practice, one half-step short of law.

Anthropogenic warming is in, or at least close to, the latter category, in terms of the broad relation between CO2 levels (and those of other greenhouse gases) and planetary temperature. Our studies of Earth’s climate history provide robust evidence of CO2 level as one of the 4 principal causes of climate change over many thousands, even millions, of years, along with the astronomical cycle (3 cycles in Earth’s orbital geometry), volcanic activity, and solar output.

To wit, warm epochs in the past were periods of high CO2 and vice versa.   It is true that important details remain open to question, such as the rate of future warming. Our mathematical models are impressive but again they are only simulations of the vastly more complex real deal so always open to improvement.

Backing up a bit, I should have mentioned that speculation about the thermal effect of emissions from fossil fuels dates to the late 1900s. This “educated guess” was based on a by-then clear understanding that Earth is only inhabitable because of the greenhouse effect.

Quickie short course: the sun is so hot it emits extremely short-wave radiation, energy which zips through our atmosphere like the proverbial knife through butter. However, the Earth is much, much cooler, so that it re-radiates the energy outward in the form of long-wave length “heat” that CO2, methane, ozone and other gases are able to trap in the lower atmosphere with great efficiency. (This “extra” leaks out to space at night so over time Earth usually remains in heat balance.) Consider Mars and Venus by comparison. Both have mostly CO2 atmospheres, but Mars has such a thin atmosphere it lacks the “blanket” needed to trap the outgoing energy near the surface and hence is cold, while Venus has a thick atmosphere with a super9efficient greenhouse effect, hence mean temps of 800-900F.

Q: How do you, as a Christian (and, I think, as a fairly conservative guy) think about this issue differently than some of your colleagues in climate science.

Another toughie to answer briefly.

First, they are right to be skeptical. Just as there was some core of truth about Hilary’s famous “vast right wing conspiracy,” I am confident that there is a strong undercurrent among advocates and progressives in general to place, and enforce using state power, ever-greater limits on personal freedom. (And like the right-wing conspirators, not out of some dark impulse but because of a sort of true-belief faith, in the case of the progressives in “positive”—rules, regs and laws designed to maximize equality of condition–as opposed to the “negative”—“don’t tread on me”—freedom conservatives favor.)

But finally, it don’t make no nevermind, as we say in TX. Or: just because you are paranoid don’t mean there ain’t a bad’un behind you. See answer above: Earth is habitable only because of a wonderful (for us) process that we are overdoing. Liberal plotting and conspiracy notwithstanding, enough extra CO2 is like enough extra jelly donuts: warmer/fatter. Trads of all folks should be first to remember that we are not and never will be “as gods.”

Another reason for conservative dubiety is they intuit, correctly, that they have been lied to by advocates. I.e., “leaving fossil fuels behind won’t be that hard.” Complete and profoundly disingenuous nonsense. (Sort of like “you can keep your doctor, it won’t cost more, etc.” with health care.) Elites think that ordinary folks are so stupid and selfish that they can’t be told the truth about sacrifice.

Fossil fuels were the most transformation discovery in human history since fire itself. The challenge of moving away from their use even done gradually will be immense, something on the order of the Great Depression, WWII, and Europe’s Black Death plagues.

Another common theme from advocates: “we are all in this together.” Yeah, right. Folks see Al Gore and Bill Gates in their vast estates gobbling up energy, and elites with few if any kids living in huge homes, taking jetliner flights to climate conferences–each of which has a greater environmental footprint that a redneck family for a year—all smug in their confidence that by a. recycling and driving hybrids—behaviors that don’t inconvenience them one iota–, and b. preaching to nobodies about how awful they are to drive gas guzzlers, they are sorting with the angels.

And of course they also almost universally support policies like “cap and trade,” which will double or treble energy cost. Again, no big problem, merely some modest tweaking of lifestyle (fewer trips to Cabo, etc.)…but try to imagine the impact of a summertime monthly electricity bill of $800 or $1,000 for someone of modest means living in an older home or trailer.

All the above have unfortunately contributed to many traditional losing sight of our No. 2 marching order: the well-being of the least of these. Opting out of the conversation is consequential, because by participating they could hugely influence new policies and regs, which are surely coming one way or the other. For instance, to lobby for James Hansen’s “fee and dividend” plan, which would raise energy costs enough to cut back emissions but would all be rebated to individuals/families at year’s end. (Progs mostly hate fee and dividend because all the taxes in cap and trade go to the state. As in California now, and Australia earlier, neither of which effectively cut CO2.)

Q: What would you say to those who think manmade climate change is basically a ploy driven by some other political or ideological agenda?

Guess I sort of answered this above: “First, they are right to be skeptical. Just as there was some core of truth about Hilary’s famous “vast right wing conspiracy,” I am confident that there is a strong undercurrent among advocates and progressives in general to place, and enforce using state power, ever-greater limits on personal freedom. (And like the right-wing conspirators, not out of some dark impulse but because of a sort of true-belief faith, in the case of the progressives in “positive”—rules, regs and laws designed to maximize equality of condition–as opposed to the “negative”—“don’t tread on me”—freedom conservatives favor.) But finally, it don’t make no nevermind, as we say in TX. Or: just because you are paranoid don’t mean there ain’t a bad’un behind you. See answer above: Earth is habitable only because of a wonderful (for us) process that we are overdoing. Liberal plotting and conspiracy notwithstanding, enough extra CO2 is like enough extra jelly donuts: warmer/fatter. Trads of all folks should be first to remember that we are not and never will be “as gods.”

But Let me know if you want further clarification.

To recognize that there is a problem with climate change is one thing… but what can the global community actually do about it at this point?

I should have already stressed this point: we can do nothing about the warming from the emissions already done. And frankly not much in terms of actually “fixing” the problem anytime soon. We are going to have to adapt to a warmer world. The key question is how much warmer. The toughest aspect of doing that is that those who sacrifice now will not live to experience any of the benefits.

James Hansen leads the so-called 350 movement, That is, to get CO2 back to 350 ppm from the current 410 or so. (~275 at the start of the Industrial Rev.) Very unlikely methinks, at least without massive economic disruption, with most disastrous impacts on the world’s nobodies. I believe that a doable objective (doable, anything but easy) is to get the level stabilized at or below 450 and then by ~2100 with luck, hard work and sacrificeback down to around where it is currently. That means something like a 5F rise by century’s end. A big challenge, but nothing like the 10F or more which could well present an existential threat if we if we don’t begin to flatten the rate of increase.

Returning to your question, if we could go back in time 20 years I would say that candor would have made a big difference. A forthright message of the need for shared sacrifice like ML King Jr.’s Christian-morality based movement. Recall his own personal example of sacrifice writing from the jailhouse, etc. Maybe too late for that now.   In a self-referential age like the one we now inhabit, post-modernity, evidence along no longer persuades many unless it bolsters what they already believed. (And new studies make it clear that is as true of liberals as conservatives.)

Maybe if a Francis Collins led a movement of traditional evangelicals….? Perhaps somehow combined with Ron Dreher’s “Benedict Option”…in which we do retreat in some manner to spiritual “sanctuaries”—living as we do in an alien and ever more hostile post-theistic world—but reach out from them to that world, kind of ala Jeremiah’s concern for the pagans.

 

 

Minimalism and the Sermon on the Mount

Minimalism and the Sermon on the Mount

“You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.”

That was the line that zinged me from the documentary entitled Minimalism (available on Netflix).

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For those not familiar:

Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.

(“The Minimalists,” Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus – see here)

The documentary introduces a wide variety of people, who, despite great “success” in the corporate world, grew dissatisfied with their lives of compulsive consumption.

“We’ve been told that more stuff will make us happy,” they all say, “but that wasn’t the case for me.”

The solution was to shrink their human footprint (often radically), in order to find more time, more money, more freedom, and more meaning.

It worked, allegedly, and each one proudly preached the gospel of minimalism with the zeal of a hemp-shoed televangelist.

JUST ANOTHER FORM OF EXCESS?

From my perspective, there’s much to love about the movement.

Yet I was also struck (occasionally) with the sense that, for some, “minimalism” seemed like just another species of excess and one-upsmanship.

Instead of merely downsizing the McMansion, “true believers” were shown luxuriating in their Derek Zoolander-inspired center-for-ants-sized “tiny homes” (which often retail for more than my last actual house), and gushing about how their lives are so much better now that they have one pair of pants.

“I woke up really SAD one day… And then I realized, it was that second pair of slacks.” ~Fake quote.

This is, of course, an exaggeration—and Joshua and Ryan (“The Minimalists”) are quite keen on tempering such impressions.  Minimalism will mean different things to different people. And as they say, it’s not about what you get rid of, it’s about “Everything that Remains” (see here).

Perhaps, then, the extremes are just more interesting to us.

After all, no one watches an A&E show called “Not really a Hoarder, but still kind-of lazy with regard to housework.” No. We want the hardcore stashers—boring mole-like mineshafts through discarded USA Todays.

And so too with the minimalist who makes toothpaste pull triple duty as hair product and underarm deodorant.

Minty fresh, from nave to chops.

We like extremes.

So whether it’s the meta comparison of “Who’s got the bigger boat?” or the micro one-upsmanship of “I live in a van down by the river (for the planet!)”—both poles can represent the same pathology.

JESUS-STYLE MINIMALISM

But having said all this….

Much of the minimalist mojo fits quite well with Jesus, and especially with his Sermon on the Mount.

“Watch out!” Christ said: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Lk. 12.15). In fact:

23 life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.

24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!

27 “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30 For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well

32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Lk. 12).

CONCLUSION 

So while I will be keeping that second pair of pants, and forgoing the $400 per-square-foot tiny house, I do recommend the documentary for those of us trying to whittle down our excess in service of the Kingdom, and in pursuit of peace.

I needed it.

After all, as Jesus taught the woman at the well (Jn. 4):

You can never get enough of what won’t really satisfy you.

What’s your Bay of Pigs?

What’s your Bay of Pigs?

The Importance of Failing Hard and Learning.

Is it possible that the greatest failure of JFK’s presidency saved the world from nuclear apocalypse?

In recent months I’ve been binge-listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast (check it out here), and in his most recent offering, he delves (for six hours!) into the background of the Cuban missile crisis.

The episode is breezily entitled “Destroyer of Worlds,” and it gives a frightening look at how close we actually came to an atomic Armageddon.

One suggestion for why this didn’t happen, however, has to do with what was undoubtedly the biggest and most public embarrassment of JFK’s young presidency: the Bay of Pigs.

As Carlin points out, Kennedy largely inherited the proxy invasion of Cuba from his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Yet the previous administration had run out of time to carry out the attack. So while JFK reportedly had misgivings (hindsight is always 20/20 isn’t it…), he chose to go along with the Generals and CIA officials who assured him that the Bay of Pigs would be a huge success.

It wasn’t.

The invaders were slaughtered and the ensuing controversy mired the president in a flaming pile of “covfefe” from the early days of his administration.

Even so, Kennedy reportedly learned a lesson from his epic failure: Don’t simply go along with what the experts are telling you. Sometimes the “experts” are wrong.

THIRTEEN DAYS IN OCTOBER

According to some historians, this painful lesson proved invaluable in October 1962.

With word that the Soviets were installing nuclear warheads just 90 miles from the U.S. coast, the president and his advisers began a thirteen-day game of atomic poker.

What we now know from these marathon meetings (because of Kennedy’s secret taping system) is that several generals were urging the president to push the big red button, just as they had previously advised Truman to do the same (even after WW2 was over).

“If you wait, we’re dead” was the logic employed. Thus the “only option” was to launch hundreds of nuclear warheads toward dozens of Russian cities.

While I can’t imagine the pressure of that decision, some historians trace Kennedy’s pursuit of a more diplomatic solution to his early error at the Bay of Pigs.

His prior decision to “shoot first, and ask questions later” had blown up in his face. And that same advice was now coming again, but with greater consequences.

It’s possible then that the memory of Bay of Pigs kept the Cuban crisis from becoming Armageddon.

WHAT’S YOUR BAY OF PIGS?

Of course, not everyone reads the story quite like this (See Garry Wills’ scathing critique of Kennedy’s Cuban policy [here]).

Still, the principle holds true even if the history is complicated.

Early failures can be invaluable if we learn from them.

And in one way or another we all have our “Bay of Pigs.”

Each of us can look back at past decisions that were embarrassing and painful.

There was the choice to flunk out of college freshman year, because beer was more interesting than biology.

There was the decision to turn an ill-advised relationship into an ill-advised marriage.

Or the early and repeated conflation of “cash” with “credit.”

While none of this is quite on par with nuclear holocaust, even smaller embarrassments can serve as sacrifices on the altar of wisdom.

If we recognize them.

So what’s your bay of pigs?

And what did you learn from it?

13 Reasons Why Not

13 Reasons Why Not

There is a danger in decrying certain elements of pop culture.

In many cases, the very breath that’s used in criticism serves only to fan the flame you’re trying to extinguish.

Boycotts build bestsellers.

And the best way to ensure the popularity of a book or movie is to try and ban it.

So this is not a move to ban or boycott; but it is a note of quiet resistance to what is now the most controversial show on television: 13 Reasons Why.

THE STORY

The series is an adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel chronicling the tragic life of Hannah Baker, a high schooler who kills herself after leaving behind 13 tapes to explain why she did it.

Each tape is devoted to a different person in Hannah’s life, and together they plot a path of bullying, betrayal, and most horrifically–a brutal rape.

At points, the series is poignant and heartbreaking.

The characters of Hannah and Clay (her love interest) are well cast and well acted. The soundtrack is fantastic, and the buzz around the show proves what has been obvious for some time: network television has long-ceased to tell stories that folks under fifty even remotely care about. (This too was a suicide of sorts – but less lamented.)

At other points, however, the show is badly broken.

And not just for moral reasons.

ONLY THE CLICHÉS EMERGE UNSCATHED 

With all the talk of death in 13 Reasons, one thing that lives eternal are the wooden stereotypes.

Indeed, most episodes could have come with a disclaimer that despite appearances, “No clichés were harmed in the making of this mixtape.”

“The popular kids are always mean,” says Hannah. “That’s how they get popular.” No lack of nuance there.

The assessment is fairly simple:

  • Athletes are dumb and despicable.
  • Rebels are kind, though misunderstood.
  • And if you own a letter jacket, you’re half Nazi, half Neanderthal.

While acknowledging that there is some truth to the Darwinian dictum that “the strong eat the weak” within the wild of high school, these sorts of oversimplified clichés are enough to make Saved by the Bell seem complex by comparison.

The real problem, though, runs deeper.

THE BACKLASH

While the show’s intent is (ostensibly) to shine a light on the terrible effects of bullying behavior, many experts say that it will have another consequence: more suicides, not less.

In the view of Trevin Wax (here):

In trying to fight bullying, this show lifts up suicide. It gives the main character a noble way out, a martyrdom of sorts, a tragic but glamorous finale (displayed in graphic detail) that goes against virtually every best practice for addressing suicide responsibly.

For Hannah, suicide is a weapon to be wielded against a culture of shame and brutal violence.

Yet what may escape the audience is that this selfish act merely perpetuates the problem. It continues the graceless cycle of violent shaming. And it ends up valorizing the very beast that devoured Hannah in the first place.

To be sure, Hannah’s predators deserve to be punished—severely. Yet the road she chooses merely reiterates the rapist’s verdict: Some lives are expendable; some bodies are mere means to a vindictive end.

In Wax’s even harsher judgment:

Most people think that 13 Reasons Why is about a group of teenagers, who in their selfish actions and inaction, are responsible for killing a fragile young girl. No. This is a show about how a girl, beyond the grave, kills her classmates.

And I’d add: her parents.

While suicide is complex—with contributing factors like mental illness, clinical depression, and even chronic brain injury—13 Reasons gives little hint that such forces account for Hannah’s choice. She’s just a happy girl who was driven to this end by bullies. What choice did she have?

And that’s a dangerous depiction.

THE OTHER HANNAHS

If there is a silver lining to the show, it is the conversation that it may spark (in places like this) regarding how we ought to deal with bullying, sexual assault, and suicide prevention.

And we must.

The very title of this post was stolen from a message by my friend Aaron Stroman as he preached hope to the high school students in his own youth group.

Instead of 13 Reasons Why, he gave “13 Reasons Why Not.”

Because the Gospel claims that even the darkest moments can be made new.

13whynot

As a ministry professor, one thing I never expected was the number of students—even from Christian families—who would eventually recount for me a tale that sounds a bit like Hannah’s.

“I was bullied terribly.”

“I was raped in high school.”

“I thought no one would believe me.”

Or worse yet: “No one did.”

Yet unlike Hannah, these women did not take the violent way out. They pursued help and hope and healing.

For such reasons, they are the far more interesting case studies.

They are the ones who deserve an audience.

And I’ve learned far more from them than Hannah Baker.

Trampled: Reading “Silence” for the Lenten Season

Trampled: Reading “Silence” for the Lenten Season

Is God’s speech sometimes more painful than his silence?

This is but one question raised by Shūsaku Endō’s classic novel.

For almost the duration of story, Father Sebastian Rodrigues longs for just one word from God on behalf of his persecuted people.

But when that word comes, it is the last thing the priest expected.

While I have yet to see the film adaptation of Silence by Martin Scorsese, I have just read the book for Lent.

It is not for the faint of heart.

SILENCE

[*SPOILERS BELOW]

The story follows the path of Jesuit missionaries as they set out for 17th century Japan.

After flourishing in a prior generation, Christianity now faces unspeakable persecution there as the faithful are brutally drowned at sea, slashed by samurai, and tortured over pits of human excrement.

In the midst of such butchery, Father Rodrigues sneaks ashore to serve the suffering Christians, and to investigate the whereabouts of his old mentor, Father Ferreira.

While Ferreira had been a celebrated missionary, rumors swirl that he has now renounced his faith and even trampled on a picture (fumie) of Christ as public proof of this apostasy.

Rodrigues must know if this is true.  Yet after a brief period of ministry, Rodrigues is betrayed, captured, and finally brought to meet the man that he has searched for: Ferreira.

The old priest has adopted the dress and customs of Japan, and he explains what led to his apostasy. After capture, he was hung upside down for three days over the dreaded pit, and all without recanting. But after being taken down, the local magistrate  devised a more insidious torture.

In his place, innocent peasants were suspended over the pit, and Ferreira was told that only his trampling upon the Christ-picture would free them. His choice was their torture or his own “apostasy.”

Ferreira trampled.

Eventually, Rodrigues is given the same choice, yet he resolves never to deny his Lord. Still, even before the fateful moment, the reader senses that the Rodrigues’ resolve is sinking like the peasants in the sea.

His aching question throughout the novel has pertained to God’s silence in the face of suffering.

Why does he say nothing!?

“… the silence of God was something I could not fathom … surely he should speak but a word… .”

Indeed, this excruciating muteness provides a backdrop for almost the entire novel.

Almost.

In the end, as Rodrigues is faced with the terrible choice, he looks down at the picture of Jesus—worn down and grimy from so many feet—and at long last he hears the voice of Christ, as clear as crystal:

“Trample! Trample! … It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that carried my cross.”

The priest placed his foot upon the fumie [picture]. Dawn broke. And far into the distance the cock crew.

RESPONDING TO SILENCE

Is Rodrigues is more like Jesus or Judas?

Is he more like Peter heading to his cross, or Peter just before the rooster crowed?

Is it actually “Christ-like” for the priest to endure what he perceives to be “damnation” so that others might be freed?

And which is more intolerable for Rodrigues, God’s silence or his unexpected speech?

Which is more intolerable for us?

Rodrigues and Ferreira are hardly the only Christian to wrestle with such questions.

The apostle Paul himself once claimed that, if possible, he would gladly be “cut off from Christ” if it meant salvation for the Jews (Rom. 9.3).

And in a different vein, the ardent pacifist Dietrich Bonhoeffer signed on to a plot to kill Hitler while refusing to justify such violence. Instead, he was resolved to “bear the guilt,” so that others might go free.

Did Rodrigues do that?

Neither Paul nor Bonhoeffer publicly denounced their Lord.

But what if Christ had commanded them to “trample”?

Would Jesus say such a word?

Despite unanswered questions, Silence remains, in many ways, a deeply Christian work—which explains why the Pope recently offered Martin Scorsese a blessing on the movie version.

But unlike so much that passes for “Christian” art these days, Endo’s masterpiece does not gloss over the dark travails of faith.

And as such, it fits perfectly amid the silent shadows of the Lenten season.


Available here.

 

Breaking Bias: A children’s book for grownups

Breaking Bias: A children’s book for grownups

As a parent in that purgatory known as “potty training” I am of course familiar with Taro Gomi’s #1 Bestseller: Everyone Poops.

 

It is pearl of wisdom.

 

And since it has also been quite lucrative, I’ve even pondered writing my own classic to address a universal issue plaguing our society.

I call it Everyone Skews—a grownups guide to confirmation bias.

To save costs, we could even steal some illustrations from the Gomi classic (see especially the donkey and the elephant).

The need for such a book should be obvious: Everybody is biased at some level.

And in a highly polarized environment we become especially adept at spotting bias in “them” while being blind to it in “us.”

As Wittgenstein once said: “Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving yourself.”

TYPES OF BIAS

In fact, there are many types of bias (see here)—and each should probably be taught with the kind of rote memorization once reserved for multiplication tables, and now replaced by Taylor Swift lyrics.

Examples include:

  • Projection Bias
  • The Gambler’s Fallacy
  • The Anchoring Effect, and
  • Current Moment Bias

But this is not about those.

CONFIRMATION BIAS

Confirmation Bias (or “Myside Bias”) is the tendency we all have to focus only on claims that reinforce what we already believe.

As the argument goes, we humans can interpret almost any evidence as a confirmation of our existing opinions.

And this can make us stupid.

In the words of George Dvorsky:

We love to agree with people who agree with us. It’s why we only visit websites that express our political opinions, and why we mostly hang around people who hold similar views and tastes. … It’s this preferential mode of behavior that leads to the confirmation bias … And paradoxically, the internet has only made this tendency even worse.

One result of this is what I call a “silo culture” (see here) is a general lack of listening.

WHY DOES IT SMELL FUNNY?

This is dangerous, because to quote Rosaria Butterfield (yet again): we all tend to become sentimentally attached to our bad ideas.

Hence the children’s book for grownups.

While Everyone Skews, more problems come when we deny that our biases stink like those of other people.

“Sure that other News network smells funny, but mine smells like roses and truth. It even says so on the label.”

(Never mind that both are driven by the same quest for ad revenue that guides Keeping Up With the Kardashians.)

CAN I FLUSH IT?

A further danger with confirmation bias is the evidence suggesting there is little correlation between one’s understanding of a given issue and one’s confidence in understanding it.

A sign of this comes in a recent Yale study (here) involving—and I am not making this up…—how a toilet functions.

The study asked folks to rate their understandings of basic processes, including zippers and how a bathroom stool works.

Apparently, the effort revealed to the students their own ignorance, because …(Toilets, it turns out, are more complicated than they appear.)

[The researchers] see this effect, which they call the “illusion of explanatory depth,” just about everywhere. People believe that they know way more than they actually do.

But while such ignorance is fairly unimportant when it comes to toilets, it is more dangerous in other areas:

It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban [or any other position] without knowing what I’m talking about.

Surveys on many other issues have yielded similarly dismaying results. “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” … And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem.

BELIEVING THE LIE

Interestingly, the New Testament goes even further.

In Romans 1, Paul attributes the universal human rejection of God (a fairly serious bias), not merely to ignorance or lack of evidence, but to our active “suppression” of the truth.

This is how deep bias runs.

As Paul argues, we all want to “believe the lie” at certain points because lies are more convenient.

Because of this, we need something more than information.

We need Grace.

In some ways, this startling diagnosis should encourage a certain patience when dealing with the biases of others, because I realize that I am prone to even more egregious truth suppressions.

THREE PRACTICAL STEPS

Apart from a gracious overthrow of previous perspectives, there are some practical steps to breaking bias. Here are three simple ones:

  1. Admit the problem.

I can’t have my biases challenged if I don’t admit their existence.

While some folks are clearly more biased than others, there is no view from nowhere.

Every perspective–including mine–carries with it certain blindspots and prejudices.

No one is completely fair and balanced.

So claiming to be so is either ignorance or duplicity.

  1. Irrigate your ideas.

Idea irrigation happens as we expose ourselves to new and differing perspectives. The goal here is not to adopt opposing viewpoints (they might be wrong), but to understand them and (this is important) to encounter them in their most cogent form.

Along these lines, I recently heard a libertarian colleague tell me that he gets all his news from periodicals (not the rubbish heap of Cable News).

Then he told me that he subscribes to thoughtful publications from opposing angles. That seems like great advice. Read diverse thinkers who know how to write in complete sentences.

  1. Embrace Surprise.

As the biochemist Isaac Asimov once said:

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny’.”

What he meant was that our greatest advancements come not when our old presuppositions are confirmed, but when they’re rattled—and we notice it.

Thomas Kuhn called these “anomalies.”

They are observations that don’t make sense under the current paradigm.

Along these lines, some scientists are now encouraged to start a “Surprise Journal” (see here) in which each entry chronicles three things:

  • The moment of surprise.
  • Why it was surprising.
  • What this tells me.

The point is to fight confirmation bias and to turn the dissonance into a moment of discovery.

What if more than just scientists did this?

What if we began to notice (and even delight) in those instances in which our presuppositions are surprisingly upended?

In my view, that would be a good thing.

Because all facts are friendly when you’re chasing truth.


 

For more on bias and what a proper information “diet” looks like, check out The Information Diet, by Clay Johnson (here).