Month: June 2015

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.