When the Narrative Controls Us

“The world is waiting. Good luck. Travel safe. Go!”

If you’re familiar with the globetrotting CBS reality competition The Amazing Race, the above words, spoken by host Phil Keoghan at the starting line each season, might sound familiar.

1801_starting_line-jpegI was about 12 years old when I saw my first season of this show. As someone who couldn’t stand the constant backstabbing and mind games of Survivor, I was immediately drawn in. The idea of a competition where teams of two had to go out into the unknown, travel the world, learn more about various cultures along the way, and go head-to-head in a series of challenges while avoiding elimination to ultimately win a million dollars was refreshing. And yet, the baser elements of human nature found a way to participate in the Race as well. Even at that, the show was fun, colorful, and focused enough on the challenges and locations that the unsavory characters and tactics were not a complete wet blanket.

But something funny began to happen across The Amazing Race’s fan base. Social media was still coming into its own as a communication medium, but that didn’t stop fans from going online and sharing live photos they took of teams wearing their Race-tagged gear and running through the cities on the route for a given season. Viewers on spoiler forums started to piece together the order of who was eliminated based on who was seen where and when.

One of the consequences of knowing the possible results of the competition was an altered view of the events shown on TV. Fans began to pick up on how the producers edited the footage in order to paint certain teams in a favorable light while painting other teams as scheming and villainous. Not surprisingly, some viewers used these editing tendencies to decipher who could be receiving the “winner’s edit,” in which the team that ultimately won was typically shown as likeable, hard-working, and possibly even an underdog. In contrast, a team that would receive the “villain edit” was more than likely not going to win. After all, the winners had to overcome the odds to triumph over someone unlikeable.

This became even more apparent when teams were interviewed by online publications about their experiences and interactions with each other, with some claiming that the “villains” were nowhere near as consistently nasty as they were shown to be on TV. Regardless, this didn’t stop most of the viewing public from acting on bias built up over reinforcement through the power of editing. A quick scan of The Amazing Race’s Facebook page activity today reveals just how much viewers pick their favorites early, even using the teams’ occupations and perceived income levels as indicators of whether or not they’d be worthy of support even before a season actually starts.

Why do I bring all this up? Because reality television and the producers behind it are masters at crafting a narrative. And as much as we enjoy a well-spun yarn, I can’t help but wonder just how much we allow narratives in our everyday lives to control us, perhaps even subconsciously.

daredevilIn a world full of injustices, we long to escape. We want to retreat to places where good triumphs over evil, and the underdog wins out over the oppressor. However, when we seek out stories to latch onto, we also want something that’s relatable enough that we can see shades of ourselves, our struggles, our passions, and our victories. A part of us longs for a hero who represents more than our shortcomings but is still an everyman to whom we can relate. Another part of us wants to see a world where the protagonists face much of the same plight we face in our own lives while being distant enough that the ultimate victory is still believable.

In many respects, I think this is why science fiction (and for that matter, speculative fiction) has endured over the decades. Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer position their antagonists to represent actual struggles young people face, while books like Fahrenheit 451 paint chilling, dystopian visions of the future to warn us against giving into our baser instincts societally. Today, we use superheroes, vampires, zombies, and other fantastical elements to construct worlds where these issues can be dissected.

And yet, despite so many rich stories from which we can glean insights, we have to carve out time to live in the real world, which unfortunately, isn’t so cut-and-dry. Conflicts can’t be resolved in a mere 43 minutes. Society won’t dramatically transform for the better in a few days after seeing a band of heroes overcome the impossible and inspire everyone. And as much as we sometimes hope our normal, mundane lives are interrupted by apocalyptic events that would challenge the status quo and shift everyone’s priorities toward cooperation and away from bickering, we have to face the reality of our lives. Every single day. In some ways, our entertainment has begun to reflect the reality of our lives more than we may care to admit. Serialized story arcs with drawn-out resolutions have largely eclipsed one-off episodic tales in popularity, while large, interconnected franchises have endured by pointing to the cyclical nature of the battles we fight.

I think there is a significant part of us that longs for something greater – to be a part of an epic metanarrative. As a Christian, I believe that we are, and that we play key roles in a grand story of redemption. Recently, I saw a video of theologian Timothy Keller speaking about the impact of culture – the practice of taking raw materials and fashioning something greater from them – and why we participate in building it for better or worse, whether we want to or not. Our stories reflect the values we live by. No matter what differences may divide us, and what those values may be, there’s a part of each and every one of us that is captivated by themes like sacrifice and redemption that reflect the ultimate metanarrative.

But in a society where immediacy is prized, we want to be a part of a narrative that’s quick and easy – even though that part of us cries out, knowing it won’t work. Yet we aren’t easily deterred. It’s easy to build our own boogeymen and do all we can to be positioned as the heroes. It’s easy to take people who don’t share our priorities and demonize them, all the while hoping that we’ll come out victorious or be remembered in a positive light by those who pen our history. Just looking at this election season, countless dollars have been spent in the service of building up candidates and political parties while also tearing down the opposition.

Our desire for quick and easy villainization hasn’t gone unnoticed by cable news networks and internet bloggers who thrive on negativity and fear of those on “the other side” gaining traction. I recently read an article postulating that with enough reinforcement, a person can be so biased that being presented with objective evidence to the contrary actually further reinforces their opinions. This isn’t a statement on the veracity of the evidence, but rather just how narratively driven the opinions are. And it’s so true. It’s not uncommon these days to gaslight those who disagree to the point where any resource outside those within the vacuum chamber of reinforcement is painted as untrustworthy or unscrupulous. More than likely, the reality is that we all possess some degree of fallibility and choose to focus on the flaws that build us up while painting those we distrust in as negative a light as possible.

teen-dramaI’ve struggled with this tendency in my own life too. When I was little, I grew up among a circle of people who believed that the best response to the troubles of the world was to cloister themselves from it. No one on the outside was to be trusted. We were even trained to make value judgments about people based on externally visible qualities, not what was on the inside. As the years went by, and I moved on to other circles of friends, all those warnings I had heard began to be subverted. People “on the outside” were not as simple as a disagreeable opinion that I had conflated to represent their entire being. They were so much more than the boogeymen I had constructed in the narrative in my mind, and in many ways, they understood more than I could have ever imagined. Those who were Christians inspired me to re-examine my faith and discover more about who Jesus is.

Although we may never overcome all our differences in this life and achieve total peace on this earth, we have the ability – the responsibility – to approach others as more than just easily understood edits on a reality TV show. As I learned from the very people I was taught to fear, I began to understand that their value wasn’t tied to what political party with which they aligned, or what set of opinions they held. Their value was inherent as people made in the image of God.

And that’s as good a place to start as any.

Don’t Become the Thing You Hate

It’s been a while since I’ve written here.

coloradoMuch of that has been due to a significant life change: since my last entry last July, I’ve moved from Texas after accepting a marketing job with a ministry headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In the wake of all the adjustments, I’ve had to lay a few things aside temporarily, not the least of which have been this blog and my gaming channel on YouTube. But there’s been a bit more to it than that…and it’s kind of a long story.

Working at a non-profit organization with other Jesus followers has been nothing short of a humbling experience. I remember the same feeling several years ago in college when I was exposed to a bit more diversity than I expected at the Christian university I attended. At first, I thought I had what some might call “homecourt advantage.” I had lived right there in Texas for several years beforehand and didn’t need to worry about adjusting to the humid climate or surrounding environs. I had been involved in church and was surrounded by other believers for so long that I thought I had all the Jesus lingo down and could say all the right things. I figured everyone would have the same perspectives and backgrounds.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. There were deeper lessons to learn. The preeminence of grace and the person of Christ. The importance of rest. The need to go deeper instead of wider in relationships. The benefits of listening to those with whom you disagree.

History has a strange way of repeating itself, because it’s happened again.

Vancouver_new_Car_DealerOne of the reasons why I started this blog was because I wanted to share my perspective on a variety of issues after emerging from a cult-like environment as a kid. When so many of your formative years have been defined by the abusive, toxic trappings of authoritarian theology and graceless exhaustion, you start to notice it wherever you go. It’s like that feeling you get when you’re a new car owner and see cars like your own while driving around. It’s difficult to get it out of your head. The more I thought about the shadows of my past, the more I began to notice them in my present where I walked, albeit in less concentrated doses. So I decided to do what I could and start speaking out about the less obvious stuff – the root issues of the heart I had personally avoided for so long.

When I was little, much of what I had been taught was anchored in the notion that because our eisegetical proof-texting of the Scriptures was theologically sound, we were wiser and more knowledgeable than our peers. As a teenager who hadn’t quite yet grasped why that hermeneutic was harmful, I would arrogantly stand on the sidelines feeling like I had a deeper perspective about sticky issues like relationships and mental health than those around me. The irony was that I had barely scratched the surface compared to my friends who had actually weathered some tough storms related to those issues.

5976474_origFast forward to adulthood, and there’s a new temptation that emerges when actual knowledge and wisdom get added into the equation: you may have more life experience, but unless you dig down deep into the heart and understand why the methodology of your past was so toxic to begin with, you’re bound to repeat everything – only this time, you’re the one who’s making the decisions. And as a result, it’s even easier to feel like you’ve got it all together after that revelatory turning point. Now you are in the driver’s seat.

That’s what I fear had happened to me after sorting out my beliefs and owning my faith in Christ once I realized I wasn’t the uber-ultra-hyper-elite Jesus follower I was often told I’d become by adhering to a bunch of extra- (read: non-) Biblical standards. All of the discovery from that point on felt euphoric. For once, I was in command! I now realized what was missing from my youth. But the funny thing was that in my efforts to speak out against all manner of issues tied to my past, my identity was still tied to the very thing I was trying to avoid instead of the Savior who rescued me from it.

pendulumOne of my pastor’s old mentors said something I’ll never forget: “We think we’re balanced creatures, but in reality, we’re pendulums just waiting to wildly swing back and forth.” No matter where we may land ideologically, it’s very easy for us to acknowledge where we’re not being heard and feel the urge to tip the scales so that we or our viewpoint hold more weight. One of my friends’ friends took this idea so far that he felt entitled to be a jerk on social media just because he had been put down for years.

I hope this blog hasn’t taken on that kind of tone, and I’d like to think it hasn’t. My original intention was to draw attention to issues around which I hadn’t heard much discussion and provide a safe place for readers to discuss those issues. But in doing so constantly, it was easy to develop the attitude of a critic on the inside and feel like that teenager on the sidelines again. It was easy to limit my engagement to the world of social media where people could shout out what was on their minds with minimal repercussions. It was easy to avoid the real world where I’d have to understand and work with a variety of perspectives from people who didn’t exactly share my passions.

That’s why I’ve felt humbled after beginning work at a ministry.

It was easy to walk in on that first day with that critic’s perspective. But much like the perspective of my childhood, grace was severely lacking. I had been shown grace by so many people in the midst of my own struggles, and here I was, having trouble demonstrating it to others who were just as desperately in need of it as I was. In the months that followed, I began to see beauty in that imperfection. I began to see wonder again. And I finally came to a realization I had been putting off for so long – my past didn’t have to define me. I didn’t have to be all about the problems that were tied to the place I came from. I could still be as passionate about those issues while still knowing that Someone greater than I transcended them and was ultimately working miracles even when all of the conditions weren’t quite perfect.

Please don’t misunderstand – I’m not planning on going anywhere with this blog. I’m not planning on refraining from addressing important topics related to abuse, healthy relationships, and unhealthy theology. But I guess my perspective and methodology have shifted a bit in these last several months. My identity is less rooted now in my past and more rooted in the freeing work of Christ – and it’s such a refreshing feeling. Maybe I’ll mix up my posts a bit and do some movie reviews frequently, or just write about life here in Colorado or personal growth. Because life is so much more than the struggle. That’s not to say that the struggles aren’t there. But it’s the way we respond to them that says a lot about where our heart is. I don’t say all that as someone who has overcome yet another struggle, but as someone who needs grace to continually overcome it each day. I have to remain anchored in the comforting rest Christ offers, or else I’ll lose myself obsessing over whatever new problem comes up.

criminal_justice_jurisprudenceThe other night, I was reminded of how sad that can be while chatting with a friend who also came out of a rather theologically oppressive background and has been experiencing many of the same realizations. It’s been difficult for both of us to avoid succumbing to the pendulum swing as we’ve seen so many people with similar experiences – including ourselves at times – avoid addressing the root issues that made those environments as toxic as they were. Instead of finding balance, many of us have ended up creating “safe” but toxic environments of our own in which a bunch of rules are enforced in the service of avoiding people and opinions we don’t want to hear. In the case of one such closed group on Facebook she was a part of, the admins who were in charge were vetting potential members to make sure that they weren’t abusive, dangerous people – which is totally understandable. But the way they did this was just as much of a witch hunt as the harsh judgmentalism that defined where they came from. When one guy was being screened, they noticed that he was wearing a rather nondescript article of clothing that they immediately found incriminating. It’s just really sad that at the end of the day, all that really happened was a cosmetic change – they merely traded one type of oppression for another. Only this time, they happened to be the ones in control.

Healing is a process. We all have a story, and we all have scars of some sort. Some of them don’t heal right away. Some of them take an incredibly long amount of time to heal. But if there’s one unhealthy barrier to that healing, it’s perpetuating the cycle that broke us in the first place. If you’re struggling with figuring out where to go after emerging from an abusive situation, my heart goes out to you. Your hurt is real. It’s valid. But it doesn’t have to consume you. Please find support. Find people who understand. Find people who can speak truth into your life – that you are valuable, that you carry worth.

But wherever you go, please don’t become the thing you hate.

Having Emotions Doesn’t Make You a Terrible Person

I’ve got to admit – when I first started this blog, I had some trouble coming up with a name for it.

The first thought that came to mind was something that encapsulated where I was in life. At least right now, much of my life journey has been about settling down emotionally. Part of that is just growing up and all the challenges that come with it, but another part is colored by my experiences with the unsound theology and warped viewpoints on people and relationships to which I was exposed as a kid. I don’t say this because I want to spread a bunch of blame around, or because I want to be bitter. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just difficult when a twisted perspective permeates so much of your formative years. It’s hard to talk about it, even to your own friends, especially if they’ve never had something so insidious maintain such a pervasive presence in their lives for so long. I can honestly say that if I were in their shoes, I’d have a lot of trouble grasping what it’s like.

InsideOut54aef6a6e091f.0Last month, a movie was released that affected me in an unexpected way. Pixar’s animated film Inside Out was a fascinating, poignant look at the realm of the emotional – that abstract arena where thoughts, ideas, and feelings dance around in an awkward ballet. Without giving away too much for those who haven’t seen it, the story is about an 11-year-old girl named Riley who is moved away from her comfortable, familiar life in Minnesota when her father’s job relocates the family to San Francisco. The tale is told from the perspective of the five predominant emotions in her mind – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust – who all have a part to play in ensuring that Riley is well-adjusted and emotionally balanced. When Riley’s emotions start to get lost and out of control, she has to wrestle with unfamiliar, uncomfortable feelings and memories that no longer have the meaning they carried when she was younger. She has to adjust from one normal to another.

Warped-Wall-run-upThat’s how I’ve felt, more or less, over the past 10 or so years. Adjusting from one normal to another – hence the name “Finding Normalcy.” (Sadly, “Finding Normal” and “Finding Normality” were already taken.) Like Riley, I too once had a difficult move, only it was out of the San Francisco area and into Texas. But this recent adjustment has been about something much deeper, something on a more foundational level. It feels like the emotional equivalent of running the obstacle course on American Ninja Warrior, where your preconceptions are constantly challenged as you encounter everything for the first time. You stare up that 15-foot warped wall, build up momentum, and make a mad dash right up, only to discover that the wall was much different than you thought it was, and your strategy has to be adjusted. Okay, maybe that’s the most terrible illustration of all time, but that’s basically what it’s like to have your every assumption tested after spending so much time developing a mindset that fostered a fear of what was “on the outside.” The emotional obstacles that naturally accompany meeting another person for the first time are compounded when you have a sea of preconceptions about other people that need to be tossed to the side in the process. For a long time after passing through adolescence, I tried so hard to dive into the sorts of relationships I had missed out on as a kid – all without addressing those preconceptions and doing some very necessary heart work. And I’ve had to pay dearly for it.

11722314_1009031162460970_554514689606681561_oAs I’ve talked about in some of my other posts, a large portion of these issues have had to do less with behavior than with methodology and mindset (which do play an important role in ultimately informing one’s behavior). One of the reasons why I write so much on here about communication and understanding other people, even those who are disagreeable, is because it’s an issue that desperately needs to be addressed in our “faster, louder, dumber, angrier, screenier, alonier” world, to quote Opus the Penguin from the recent Bloom County revival. There are a lot of issues about which we as a culture are passionate, and everyone certainly has a favorite to talk about. Many of them are very important too. But I don’t see any conceivable way we can productively discuss any of them if we can’t communicate with the intention of listening, rather than responding.

Working in the world of marketing provides an interesting set of challenges. For one thing, you possess knowledge about whatever you’re promoting that your target audience may not have, and convincing them that they need what you’re offering is no easy task. You have to cut through a bunch of noise to even reach them. You have to build trust with them and ensure the relationship is in their control, not yours. On top of that, you may also have to address some preconceptions they may carry about you or what it is you do. It’s not a complete framework, but I think it can be very helpful for any persuasive effort. Understanding where another person is coming from and demonstrating some degree of empathy are vital toward finding common ground. It’s a character trait I’ve often struggled with developing for a long time. In fact, I didn’t really think about it until a point a few years ago where I had destroyed a relationship after an argument and recognized that I couldn’t go on without some heavy heart work in that area. Even today, I still have much to learn about empathy and understanding the emotional positions of others. And I get the sense that I’m not alone on this journey.

brain1I’m no expert on emotions, but I often get discouraged whenever I see them being stigmatized in our culture. I can’t honestly say that I completely know why we do this. But I think a large part of it has to do with the way modern culture has conditioned us to compartmentalize. From separation of church and state to the scientific classification of plants and animals, or even the division of the Christian life into the steps of justification, sanctification, and glorification, we’ve developed so many ideas since the advent of modernism that have been marked by compartmentalization. In many respects, breaking complex concepts into manageable chunks can be really helpful for many people. And there are certainly many other positives that come out of this approach. But I can’t help but wonder if it can do us more harm than good when we apply this same methodology to people.

breakfastclubpPeople are, by nature, complex creatures. It’s difficult to define everything about a person, so our natural inclination is simply to run with what stands out to us and conflate that to represent their entire being. Much of our high school experiences involved cliques based on externally visible qualities. Sadly, I don’t think the world gets too much better as an adult. Instead of jocks, geeks, and hipsters, we generalize on terms that seem to be within our control. If a person mentions that she holds the disagreeable Position A on Topic X, we immediately do some cross-referencing in the backs of our minds. Gasp! Position A?! That must mean she also holds…let’s see…Position B on Topic Y, and – oh man – Position D on Topic Z! I’ve got her figured out! The unfortunate irony is that we end up in a position where we think we know more about someone than we really do.

dc9e09107250cd3b11a453172873f3255ceddc2bI think the same sort of mindset can easily take over whenever we see what looks like emotionally charged behavior. Responses like “oh, he’s just acting on his emotions,” or “she’s just letting her feelings take over” are based on a couple of incomplete assumptions that make us feel like we know people when we really don’t. First, we implicitly divide people into logical and emotional components warring with each other and assume that if emotional behavior is being exhibited, then the emotional component must be “winning.” To a certain extent, we do feel a push-and-pull between logic and emotion. But these parts of us are not meant to be separated, nor are they all that define our minds. They are meant to work symbiotically. Second, there’s an unspoken, underlying assumption that because logic is more grounded, and emotions are more abstract, logic must be “good” and trustworthy, while emotion must be – well, we wouldn’t say “bad,” but perhaps “dangerous.” Shoving emotion to the side can ignore two very real possibilities: our dedication to the logic we value may be more informed by emotion than we realize, and the emotional acting out from others that we so often decry may be the result of emotional suppression, a lack of attention to one’s emotional health, or perhaps even a mental health issue that needs to be met with grace instead of a handwave.

darmok-hd-359Why is it so easy to do this? Perhaps it’s because we’ve grown accustomed to dealing with the tangible, the quantifiable, and the concrete in our world – all in a very immediate sense. We can jump on Google to look up the capital of Lesotho. We can hop on YouTube to check out how to build a makeshift video studio with supplies from The Home Depot for under $100. Even when we’re dealing with something more abstract, we’ve got resources that reinforce our biases and further convince us that we’ve got it all figured out. But truly understanding another person or even ourselves, messy emotions and all, is a process. It can be grueling, time-consuming, and often frustrating – but it’s a necessary part of being human. That’s why I get discouraged when I see people practically viewed as nothing more than machines in a world of convenience.

It’s especially discouraging to see many of my fellow Christians flowing right along with the culture in this regard. Some congregations even go as far as to denounce emotions as evil whenever someone acts impulsively or exhibits an emotional outburst, in some cases sending the person into a downward spiral of self-doubt. Even if something so blatant isn’t declared, it’s our mindset that can often go unchecked. I just can’t help but notice how much we have bought into the “people as machines that need to be programmed” mentality, only with a Christianese sheen: throwing Bible verses like spells from a magic book, spouting off platitudes and memes, and simplifying processes like repentance, reconciliation, and redemption to the point where they feel like turning a switch on and off or fixing the alternator in one’s car. It’s no wonder that we also see so many scandals in the church being swept under the rug, especially when the focus is on external appearance.

Like I said earlier, I’m certainly no expert on emotional health. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes in not paying attention to my own – and not being attentive to that of others when necessary. But I’d like to learn. I’d like to be more empathetic. And I’d like to invite you to join me as I continue to stumble through on this journey. Much like Riley and her uprooting from Minnesota, we may have to wrestle with uncomfortable feelings as we take a step out from the realm of the familiar and into uncharted territory we don’t initially understand. But I think it’s worth it. It strips our minds of all the assumptions we build up when we remain within the confines of the familiar and strengthens our convictions that pass through the fire. And in the process, we abandon our urges to figure others out and instead gain a more holistic understanding of what makes them who they are. So next time we see people struggling emotionally…

Can we resist the urge to view them as problems to be fixed?

Can we take the time to listen and validate their struggles?

Can we extend grace and view them as more than the struggles they face?

Confessions of a Former Conspiracy Theorist

When I was about 12, while my dad was on a business trip, my mother called me over to her room while she was watching TV. “J.B.!” she shouted. “You’ve got to see this!” Excited, I ran into the bedroom and sat down in front of a screen for a documentary showing one of the Apollo astronauts on the moon. By the time I was that age, I had been exposed to quite a few movies and programs about space flight and travel in the 20th century. Tom Hanks’s HBO docudrama series From the Earth to the Moon was a big one. So was Apollo 13. I enjoyed The Right Stuff and the fun, more fictional stuff, like the old Don Knotts movie The Reluctant Astronaut. Our family had even stopped by Kennedy Space Center when we were vacationing in Florida. My dad was – and still is – especially passionate about the subject of space travel and setting out as pioneers in the final frontier, which is one reason why we’ve both grown fond of science fiction like Star Trek.

So imagine my surprise when this particular documentary was something completely different: a conspiracy show questioning if we actually went to the moon. At the time, it felt like a complete eye-opener: questionable photographs were displayed. Bizarre coincidences were laid out for our evaluation. Supposedly scientific treatises were put forward and juxtaposed with the predominant narrative about space travel. “Was the Apollo program the most expensive movie ever made?” the narrator asked as moon photographs from what the show claimed to be Area 51 were displayed.

I’m not going to lie: to a 12-year-old, it was actually pretty convincing. My whole world felt shattered. Everything I knew from all those wonderful movies and docudramas may not have been true after all. I was fired up after watching it, charged with a euphoria that stemmed from the feeling that I may have just stumbled onto knowledge that hardly anyone else in the world had. I was even ready to write a report on the topic so I could present it to my dad when he came home and try to sway him toward believing. By the time he came in the door, I felt fully rehearsed, ecstatically recounting the key points the narrator made.

He was unfazed.

“J.B., that’s silly. Don’t you realize that there’s actual physical evidence of our presence on the moon?” he asked. “What about all those moon rocks down here? How could those have all been faked?”

I didn’t want to believe it. I really thought I was onto something. My entire world felt shattered yet again, and this time, there was no euphoria accompanying it. “Wait a minute,” I turned to my mom. “Why did you have me watch that in the first place?” She explained that she didn’t really feel passionately about it one way or another and that it just looked interesting, not that she necessarily believed in it.

This wasn’t the first time I was exposed to conspiracy theories. After becoming a Christian, I developed a rather keen fixation on eschatology for a season, though I had no discernment at all toward the subject. My parents would receive Christian book catalogs in the mail, and the first place I’d turn wasn’t always the kids’ section – it was the “Prophecy & End Times” category. I was always eager to see what new insights those books had to offer, no matter how loony or even fictional they were, especially with all the Y2K hysteria at a fever pitch. On top of that, a few of my parents’ best friends were fascinated by the subject too. I remember one night when we all went out to eat, and they were telling us about the latest book they bought, which claimed that there were “mysterious codes” in the pages of Scripture that prophesied recent news stories like the death of Princess Diana and the Oklahoma City bombings and could be found by piecing together certain letters placed at various intervals (despite the fact that the same could basically be done in the pages of Moby Dick). My parents weren’t so quick to buy into it, but I was fascinated.

I really thought I had it made. With all of this information, I thought, I could be ready for the end. I wouldn’t be caught off-guard. Of course, I don’t know the exact hour of Christ’s return. No one does. But at least I can come close, right? This will help me make better sense of all these crazy things going on in the world. And if I ever come under fire for it, I can just tell them that I’m “keeping watch.” That’s harmless enough, right?

Eventually, I began to recognize how futile this was. The Y2K disaster never happened. The Clinton administration didn’t bring about the end of the world. The conflict in the Middle East didn’t boil over to the point where the Antichrist emerged from the shadows to prime everyone for global domination. Life kept moving on. And although my interest in conspiracy theories waned, it took an even longer time to undo the mindset behind them. In the years that followed, I discovered that at least with respect to the methodology that informs conspiracy theorists, I wasn’t all that alone.

Even if not everyone wears a tin foil hat, many of us have a desire to be as informed as possible and try to figure out how what’s going on in our world may play into the big picture of history. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. But whenever our desire to do so controls us – whenever it reaches a point where even our relationships are affected, we proclaim our outrage at the latest Cataclysmic News Story of the Week, and we view people around us are no more than pawns in an overarching scheme, it becomes unhealthy for several reasons. Here are just a few:

We can all too easily construct narratives in which world events or cultural changes are “causes” in an equation with “effects” that are foregone conclusions, and as a result, we can feel like we’re informed when we may not be. In a previous post, I talked a bit about how our culture is very eager for control. It’s especially easy in a part of the world where many of us have convenience at our fingertips. It’s very tempting to live for results, to look for inputs that will give us the outputs we want. Similarly, it’s just as tempting to shoehorn everything going on around us into a part of a greater story with a predetermined ending. Those mysteries on TV and in the movies in which the main character has a Big Board where everything’s connected? If only real life were that simple.

I think this tendency can be very appealing for Christians, especially if we’re fascinated with the end times. We can easily form an opinion about how all of that will play out as it relates to current events because we have a limited, finite perspective. Even with all the history books at our fingertips, we all too quickly forget that every generation has had its doomsday prophets or groups of people who saw all the atrocities in the world and determined that the period of time in which they lived had to be the beginning of the end. Sadly, it’s no different today. The trouble with such an approach comes when we reach a point where nothing can subvert our expectations at all, and nearly everything becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a result, we end up building a false reality for ourselves in which all the happenings in the world are designed to drive the narrative forward and bring about the very results we expect, and any other explanation is dismissed as “what ‘they’ want you to think.”

We base our lives and decisions on fear and cynicism. Fear and cynicism are not only powerful – they’re also compelling and contagious. They’re incredibly prevalent in a world where news is sensationalized and often written to provoke reactions through clickbait headlines that feed on our outrage. Like any emotion, fear and cynicism are sometimes necessary and healthy. For instance, it’s difficult to recognize a need for growth or change without some degree of cynicism. But miring oneself in cynicism is not conducive to that growth. Sooner or later, we have to move beyond that.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for the early church. Here was an institution that was just getting on its feet, whose members struggled to survive in a hostile culture that fed them to lions. It would have been incredibly difficult to resist the temptation to give in to fear and outrage. The Christians of the time could have decided to make it their mission to overthrow the government and rail against the culture, but they did not. They focused on living their lives, exemplifying the life and character of Christ, and developing relationships among those around them. They focused on the decisions within their control, not the circumstances outside it.

We can think we’re making a difference when we’re just creating noise. We see all the turmoil, the conflict, the insanity going on out there. We see and hear events quickly playing out, cultural changes taking place under our nose, and noise blaring so loudly that we feel like our voices are being drowned out. Through it all, it’s tempting to take the easy road: “speaking out” and shouting through the impersonal medium of the internet instead of using our time to actually invest in the lives of others. Just this past week, I’ve read so many outraged Facebook statuses and comments about what’s going on in the world that I’ve officially lost count.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty going on in the world that I disagree with. And I don’t doubt that some conspiracy theories may hold a bit of water. (Without getting terribly political about it, I’m certainly not one to trust the government on principle, for instance.) But even if that is the case, I have to ask with respect to our response: what exactly are we getting out of all the ranting? Out of playing into the sensationalism that stirs us up against each other? Out of building up fear? Out of creating division between ourselves and others?

What’s ultimately sad is that for all the time we waste doing this, we could be spending it making an actual difference. There is certainly a time to stand up, but how that is accomplished is what will make the biggest difference. Should we be fighting the way everyone fights – with platitudes, memes, shouting, arguing, and insults – or is there a better way?

I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Being Right Isn’t the Chief End of Man

This is a follow-up to my previous post, People Are More Than What We Find Disagreeable.

There are many vices that run rampant throughout our society, but comparison may just be one of the most insidious.

We constantly find a new way to one-up the next person, only to discover the fruitlessness of that pursuit and jump to find yet another scale on which we can measure our worth against theirs. We accumulate possessions, develop skills, and build up stores of knowledge that we can point to whenever someone else seems to have more of something. It’s all quite sad, but it’s that last part that I wanted to focus on today, mainly because it’s so subtle in its intangibility and often goes unnoticed. And to be frank, it’s the one I’ve struggled with the most.

shutterstock_goldfishHave you noticed how much our culture has developed a fixation with being right? We may call it “being educated,” “having the truth,” “being on the right side of history,” or whatever other term suits our fancy, but at the end of the day, the methodology is very similar. We just don’t like the idea of being wrong. We want to avoid being caught off-guard. We’ll develop a compendium of responses to every conceivable question so we can stay on top and avoid embarrassment or the notion that we may still have learning or growth to do. After all, we live in the age of Google, where we can find answers to just about any question with a few clicks. I think we all struggle with this, but as a Christian, I wanted to address the state of modern Christianity as it relates to this issue. Because guys. It’s really killing us.

For anyone who may be wondering, yes, I do believe in truth. I believe in absolute truth. I believe there are truths on a metaphysical level that will always apply to everyone by virtue of the way the universe works. I believe there are truths on an individual level that apply to specific people by virtue of the way they are made. What I don’t believe in is focusing on the truth at the expense of everything else – including how it’s delivered, the perceptions of others, and the relationships we develop with them.

Growing up in IBLP provided an opportunity to see just how damaging the obsession with being right can be. The entire program was grounded in the warped notion that if families were to develop the tastes, preferences, and lifestyle choices of Bill Gothard (basically), God would bless them in a very visible way. If families could emphasize the production and appearance of morality, they could be a “beacon on a hill” toward which the rest of the world could look and wonder, “I want that too!” – the comparison mindset at work. Some even believed that if families produced enough children and grandchildren skilled enough in the defense of their faith, they might stand a fighting chance against the rest of the world who would inevitably attack them. Ultimately, if enough morally upright children and families permeated the culture, Christians would ignite another Great Awakening or widespread revival. An admirable goal, but one that ultimately pales in comparison to sharing the Good News – and one that has helped cement the pursuit of respect and comfort as idols of the church.

tunnel-visionOf course, the tunnel vision instilled in such a culture doesn’t help either. When you surround yourself with materials that repeatedly reinforce the same biases and denounce outside voices as tainted and untrustworthy, the issue prioritization of the organization gradually becomes your own. Whatever cultural deficiencies in the “outside world” are given the most attention are naturally perceived as being the most important, the most critical, the most epic. Soon, you cultivate an unhealthy dependency on the organization when everything on the outside seems to be in shambles. I recently had an exchange online with a fervent IBLP supporter who, even in the wake of the Gothard sexual molestation reports, just couldn’t bring himself to believe that the man he idolized was capable of such behavior. He even admitted that he felt safer with IBLP than without it because the stringent rules and restrictions gave him some measure of comfort that he was “getting it right” and that he would be rewarded in heaven one day. Sadly, he just couldn’t bring himself to let go.

Looking at the heart of the Gospel and at the life of Jesus Christ paints a much different picture. He not only embodied truth, but also grace (John 1:17). He didn’t complete our salvation by giving us a laundry list outlining what to believe or what prayer to pray, though He certainly provided us with a framework. If that’s what it all boiled down to, then Christianity would be no different than any other world religion where we would have to focus on what box to check off to get to heaven. He completed our salvation by becoming us, by sharing life with us, by becoming human and having relationships with humans, and by sacrificing Himself for us and rising from the dead. I’m not trying to say that truth isn’t real, but rather that truth is not the main thing. The truest truth isn’t intellectual but Christ Himself. If objective truth exists and is important but is not the most important thing according to how Jesus acted, and if objective truth is not totally accessible to me, so that I am, even with Scripture in hand, wrong about many things no matter how hard I try to be right just by virtue of being human, then logically, it stands to reason that being wrong about truth, on some level, while nothing to be happy about, is also not the end of the world most of the time.

dominoesThis is a foreign concept in our mainstream evangelical culture, where the emphasis is often placed on defending the truth at all costs and treating it like a set of dominoes that would topple over if one were to get just one tenet or belief wrong. Not only does this discount our own human capacity to make errors, but whether we realize it or not, it also implicitly paints God as a horribly unjust, mercurial deity who creates a reality so complex within which we humans inevitably find it impossible to have all the dominoes standing with our inherent intellectual limits. By subscribing to this paradigm, we’re ultimately setting ourselves up for an infinite loop where we pressure ourselves to “get it right” and end up stressing ourselves – and others – out by wanting to make sure everyone is where we are. If that’s the most important thing in our lives, it’s “loving” in our eyes to insist that everyone agrees with us. But in the end, such insistence leads only to broken relationships and sidesteps the time necessary for true growth to take place.

Being obsessed with being right leaves no room for grace, that we are works in progress. It invites the monster of comparison to live rent-free in our minds as we evaluate ourselves based on how mature we are with respect to how much we believe we’ve “gotten right” – and how much others have done so as well. Soon, we start constructing platforms and elevating ourselves over those around us. It also leaves no room for the possibility that others are works in progress as well – and their perceptions can’t simply be tossed aside, even if they may not entirely be based on the truth. I remember when I was in college, I got into a conflict with a friend over a simple misunderstanding, and it took us months to sort everything out and be comfortable around each other again. We both could’ve handled the situation more maturely, but one of my biggest issues was that I was very quick to justify my own faults by claiming that her misunderstanding me wasn’t entirely based on “fact.” The thing is, that really didn’t matter. She felt hurt and needed space, and I needed to respect that. Her perceptions defined her feelings, and those feelings needed to be validated, even if that meant holding back from shoving the truth in her face.

On top of that, when an obsession with the truth is coupled with an unhealthy us-vs.-them mentality, it can be all too easy to perceive those who disagree only as truth-stampers who want to crush us, then find some way to glory in the situation. It may come as no surprise that the IBLP culture romanticized the idea of persecution. Even one of the booklets that comprised the program’s homeschooling materials assured its readers that an extra jewel would be added to the heavenly crowns of those who had been reviled for their faith. For those with such a mindset, the defense of the truth transforms into a quest for marginalization in pursuit of that jewel. In a very twisted way, those in these situations who crave for and feed off of approval from others often end up seeking out disapproval as their approval. Any form of criticism is ultimately fruitless, as it reinforces the idea that they are in the right.

Even though I’ve focused on these issues of pride and comparison in the context of IBLP and the larger mainstream Christian culture in the West, I hope it’s not too difficult to see how these problems plague almost all of us in this part of the world, regardless of our worldview or political bent. If I could summarize the main points I’ve tried to make in the past few posts on here, it’d look something like this:

  1. Our society is very appearance-obsessed, competitive, comparison- and results-oriented, and loves pitting entire groups of people against each other.
  2. We live in an awareness-saturated world, in which there is a lot of noise that we have to filter out. Our preferred method of filtering out noise is by listening only to people / news sources / etc. that reinforce the biases we carry.
  3. Therefore, the perception of a cultural deficiency by any given group of people can easily be magnified through constant reinforcement by those who seem agreeable or make us feel comfortable, fueling conflict even further.
  4. Whatever issues are highlighted within the group are often awarded priority at the expense of other issues that are often just as, if not more, important.
  5. Compatible points of view are amalgamated into easily digestible packages such that epistemological issues are discussed in terms of these packages, not the merits of individual components. As a result, people are often discouraged from deviating from their set of comfortable talking points out of fear of compromising or “going soft.”

At the end of the day, the pursuit of the truth is most certainly a worthy and critical one. But the way we seek and share the truth is also important. It can often be conflated with the truth itself to the point where any attack on our methodology is perceived as an attack on the truth. Our insistence on dogmatically defending the truth or being right as the end-all-be-all goal can often drive us to break relationships before we even begin creating the space necessary to discuss the truth. Jesus certainly knew how to create that space with the people who needed to hear His message the most by meeting their needs or demonstrating that He truly cared for them as whole people before talking about the difficult stuff.

Some of the wisest and most mature people I’ve been blessed to know all share one characteristic: they are lifelong learners. They don’t stop searching. They don’t take for granted that they are fallible human beings. They take a stand, but they do so in humility, not at the expense of others. They understand that their perceptions of the world, the Bible, history, or culture need to be evaluated and re-evaluated as they continue to grow. And as part of that, they seek out relationships with wiser people who can provide input and advice, even people with whom they may disagree about some issues.

One such person in my life once stopped me dead in my tracks. He often shares differing perspectives on various cultural issues on Facebook, not because because he agrees with every one completely, but because he enjoys viewing life through a variety of “lenses” to help compensate for the shortcomings of each. I was rather blindsided when I first started to know him in college, because he wasn’t afraid to think outside of the binary terms within which our society often confines conversations. He is grounded in his faith, but he understands that the fallible, human, cultural manifestation of that faith is insufficient to help him grow completely. So he ventures out in an attempt to understand others who may believe differently, and as a result, his worldview is strengthened as he continues to learn. Obviously, he is not you or me. What works for him may not work for us. But I think there’s at least something to be said for listening to others, even in our disagreements. For holding lightly to our perception that we may have it all together and “got it right.” For treating others the way we want to be treated and being willing to grow.

Who knows – maybe a few years from now, I’ll look back on this blog post with a few adjusted insights and new thoughts to share after some additional growth and life experience. At least I can hope, right?

People Are More Than What We Find Disagreeable

The Doctor and Idris“Are all people like this?”

“Like what?”

“So much…bigger on the inside.”

– Doctor Who, The Doctor’s Wife

We live in such a competitive, noisy world.

My line of work – marketing – involves generating a certain degree of noise that can be heard amidst the cacophony of messages being shouted from the rooftops every day. Some of them are healthy. Some aren’t. Where it gets sticky is how we resort to being heard. Let’s just take our Facebook News Feeds, for instance. Look on there, and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find at least one clickbait headline about something crazy some celebrity did over the weekend. Go down a few lines, and there will be a “sponsored” post for which some company or organization with which you’ve never been connected has paid just so someone with your demographic data points can see it. Then, even further down, you’ll find a news story from an obviously biased source written to pit one group of people against the other. And if you see a “trending” icon above it, you can click and find other perspectives on the topic that effectively do the same thing.

With all of this noise, we have to adapt. We have to find some way to filter it.

Some of our methods are helpful – and necessary. We look at who’s calling us on our cell phones before we answer. We install ad blockers on our internet browsers. We take some measures to ensure our kids aren’t being affected by unhealthy influences. But where it goes sour is when we mentally wall ourselves off from anything that even feels disagreeable. We now have the ability to construct a reality for ourselves in which our news, our information, and even our relationships – especially online – can be customized and individualized to fit our every whim. No longer do we have to suffer through the uncomfortability that comes with hearing a different point of view. We can insulate ourselves with all the bias-reinforcing sources we want to hear – and after a while, every opinion we hold dear feels like the most reasonable, the most sensible, the most moderate.

Couple ArguingThat’s enough of an issue to talk about on its own. But the way our cultural conversations are imbued with false dichotomies – our desire for each issue we discuss to boil down to a simple binary choice – is compounding it to an extent that has rendered reasonable discourse near-impossible. Let’s go back to our News Feeds. Chances are that throughout this week, you’ll run into at least a handful of heated online discussions, some of which may be engineered by news and opinion-providing entities seeking to thrive on all the likes and comments. These shouting matches are typically characterized by Side 1 and Side 2 arguing and flaming with no intention of budging. They may even walk into the conversation with a pre-determined narrative that they hope to reinforce, and anything that doesn’t fit within the confines of the narrative is discarded and ignored.

This isn’t productive. It’s not persuasive. It’s certainly not edifying. And unfortunately, it’s not limited to the impersonal medium of online conversation. After a while, we reach a point where we amalgamate. We take Talking Point A and Compatible Opinion B and group them together with similar ones to build that narrative, to form Paradigm X with no room for deviation. Then, we give that paradigm a name, a sense of identity around which we can rally so the “not-we”s who subscribe to Paradigm Y can be put down. Ultimately, whether or not we intend for it to be so, our upholding of “X” is based on negativity. Before long, it’s no longer primarily about X being good on its own merit – instead, X is good because X is Not Y. And on and on this dance goes.

I don’t say this as if I’m some wise rhetorician who looks down on all the discord. I’m not. I’ve been this. I’ve added to the verbal crossfire. And most unfortunately, I’ve reaped the saddest consequence of it: broken relationships.

It’s sad because we forget just how complex and interesting human beings are. We’re flawed and fickle, but we are also invaluable and intricate. It’s so easy to set all of that aside when the veil of online anonymity obscures our perception of others, or when we allow a disagreeable opinion in a face-to-face conversation to define an entire person. People are so much more than their talents, their failures, their triumphs, their shortcomings, and yes – even their opinions.

I can’t tell you just how many relationships I’ve missed out on – or even broken – just because I was afraid. I was afraid that the comfortable reality I constructed for myself would crumble when I realized that life was a bit more complicated than just Paradigms X and Y. I would have to relinquish that illusion of control – that idea that I had everyone figured out and categorized – by stepping outside the comfortable talking points that fit within the binary. I would have to entertain the notion that maybe I’ve been wrong about something – that perhaps the methodology packaged in the delivery of the paradigm I value was flawed and needed some work. (I’m going to address issues about being right / wrong / etc. a bit further in my next post.)

Over the past few years, I’ve been blessed with an incredible, colorful spectrum of relationships. I don’t say that simply as a positive, cheery statement, because it’s actually been a grueling growth process. Do we always agree? Certainly not. Do we hold hands around a campfire and sing Kumbaya? Nah. Are there times when we need to address our disagreements in the context of relationship? Yes, and it’s not easy. But that’s the beauty of it. We have the freedom to agree to disagree. We have the ability to view others as more than just data points, labels, and descriptors. We have the responsibility to examine ourselves and our own shortcomings in light of what we learn from others. It’s hard work. It’s painful. It’s heartbreaking.

But it’s also life-changing. It’s how we grow.

We Need to Talk About Things Unseen

Do you ever see a big news story blow up all over the internet, and you start sighing and thinking to yourself something like this?

“Oh, boy. Time to take cover. The arguments and shouting about this are going to be insane.”

This was how I felt the other day when word about the big Duggar scandal broke out. Everyone wanted a piece of the action. People in the secular sphere who wanted to see the family fall finally found their chance to point fingers. People in the Christian sphere who viewed the Duggars as a sweet, wholesome family rushed to defend them and their son, claiming that everything had been resolved a long time ago, or called out people in the secular sphere for not calling out other people in the secular sphere for similar behavior.

I’m sad about what has happened. It’s inexcusable and wrong. There’s been a lot written about what Josh did and how the family handled the situation – so I won’t talk about that here. We need to talk about our response to this, particularly in light of what’s transpired in the years leading up to last week’s news – even the years leading up to the molestations themselves.

The state of public discourse, with its arguing, blaming, and deflecting, is at an abysmal low. Our approach as a culture to complex issues is so surface-level, and as such, the real problems never get addressed. We assess the situation and see the wrongful action (“he molested underage girls!”), but in many cases, that’s pretty much it. Our view of the cause leapfrogs over several other issues that need to be addressed, instead settling for easy (even true) responses and platitudes: We’re all human. We’re all sinners. Everyone has a struggle. And alongside that, our view of the consequences of those wrongful actions is often limited to what we can see – and all the while, the victims are passed over.

This is at least one reason why the abusers among us continue to thrive in secrecy. They prey on our external focus.

Even though my family was not nearly as involved in IBLP as the Duggars are, I can assure you that the methodology of the organization plays right into that tendency to be externally focused. At IBLP conferences, we’d watch large, well-behaved families like the Duggars being featured on stage as examples of how well the program “worked.” We bought into the organization and its lies because we wanted those results. We wanted those behaviors for the generations that would follow our own. But underneath it all, abuse thrived. Within the IBLP ranks, silencing of those who spoke out wasn’t uncommon. The founder himself, Bill Gothard, molested underage girls and instilled a culture against whistleblowing (“don’t take up offenses for others”) while shaming those who dared disrupt the status quo. The entire organization was shame-based, with a foundation of coded language and many hidden, unclarified, unspoken expectations.

I don’t say all of this to bash the Duggars, to add to the tarnishing of their reputation. They are much more than just this incident, or their involvement in IBLP. I’m bringing it up because we need to understand just how damaging the subcultures of groups like IBLP can be. We need to understand that no, what happened to the Duggars is not just some isolated incident of molestation. There is a pattern here. There is a reason why this kind of subculture does more harm than good by blaming and shaming victims of abuse. There are a lot of perspectives out there about the topic, enough to fill another blog post or two. But I wanted to take this one to address my fellow Christians about our response.

Guys. We do not need to be like everyone else when we talk about this issue.

We do not need to gossip, to shout and argue, to engage in the tribalism that rears its ugly head whenever anyone from “our camp” gets into hot water, to try to save face (even with a Christianese spin like “being a good witness”), to use language that minimizes the experiences of those who have been shamed and abused, or to treat forgiveness like some easy one-step process like changing the alternator in one’s car. We need to get serious about reaching out to the hurt, to talk about the underlying issues that are being ignored, and to call out abusive systems and people when the state of their fruit is evident. It’s hard, it may get us out of our comfort zones, and it may take us to a place where we may find ourselves – gasp! – in agreement about something with those with whom we normally find it difficult to agree. But in the end, it’s the first step in peeling back the facades we erect in order to have an honest conversation about what needs to be addressed.

Can we please at least consider it?