Listicles: subverting your self.

The article popped up in my newsfeed, clickbait headline blaring: the 65 books you need to read in your twenties. Being a person of self-restraint and sober judgement, I clicked on the link, naturally. It was, as the attentive reader might have guessed, a Listicle.

The listicle seems to be becoming the dominant article form of our time. I see more of this once shy creature in my facebook feed than almost any other kind of article these days- and I have friends who love the long form article.

Like most listicles, this one had a series of numbered pictures with a paragraph standing by like some awkward parent. Book covers were displayed, shining, next to a digit somewhere between 1 and 39, with the paragraph allowed to sing its praises, as long as it did it quickly and then shut up.

I had only read one of the books on the list.

Cue the shiver of book-induced FOMO. I felt out of touch, wondering why I’ve not dived into the pool of things-you-must-read-in-your-20’s. I only have three years left! I wasn’t alone. The comments on the post both stated their inadequacy as measured by the list. We all felt like we should have done better. We were all voracious readers, after all.

The unexamined life is not worth living. So, striving to at least fake an existence with a reason for continuing, I stopped and took a step back. Who was the person writing this? Some random person I don’t know from a bar of soap, who had the time and inclination to scratch out an example of one of the most effortless articles in existence. And I was giving her any kind of say in my life?

It works like this. Take 65 books you really loved, google their covers and say why you liked them. Now add a title that makes it sound authoritative. Profit.

I could do it too, but unlike this person, my list would be full of mind-bending Science Fiction instead of books written by or about rock stars. I would have a few (very few) books on philosophy instead of feminist manifestos by popular celebrities. Instead of something by Chuck Palahniuk, I’d offer up books like Shantaram and The Book Thief.

This does not mean that my list would be better. For instance, I’ve been meaning to read Chuck Palahniuk for quite some time. There were many incredible books (I hear) in that listicle, but that does not make it authoritative. A title claiming that you MUST read them does not make it authoritative. As hard as it is to believe, not even numbering the posts makes it authoritative.

A better title would probably have been: Books I really liked reading in my 20’s. And that’s the problem with so many of these cookie-cutter articles: they are merely someone’s opinion disguised as a definitive take on the world.

We are taken in by the form, by the way it is dished up, made to believe that we must conform to the reality it tries to sketch. Truly, the medium is the message.

What do you do with a problem like the listicle? Maybe their worth lies in the possibility of encountering something new. If it’s all just opinions disguised as something more, we can stand back and decide whether we would like to explore the world that is offered up to us. If we don’t, that’s great too, but too often we are pulled into the clutches of inadequacy by a form that is barely worth the angst.

But don’t give it power, don’t let it depress you. The listicle thrives on people missing out, or feeling like they do. It is unfortunately a fact of life that if you do one thing, you miss out on another. Never allow a number and a picture to make the things you’re doing right now feel less worthy of your time.

Unless they are. Then you should run.

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Shattered Monolith: Inbreeding in the Church

In the beginning was the church.

No, not THAT beginning. I’m talking a little under 2000 years ago, when the first people professed belief that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead, legitimising all he had claimed to be. It was a ragtag group of followers, that first church, ranging from tax collectors and fishermen to a doctor and even some women (at the time, this was super controversial).

These people told others about what they had experienced and soon this little band of believers had grown enough to intimidate the Jewish leaders of the time. Given some persecution and another couple of decades, the church grew to include the gentiles, non-Jewish believers from places like Antioch, Syria and Athens and Rome. It is basically impossible to imagine a more diverse set of people, but they were united in the affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection and the strange implications it had for those who believed.

Trying to figure out what Jesus’ word meant for them brought many controversies. The people were divided and incensed. They struggled with all the strangeness inherent in the Christian message. It took them 600 years to find the language to try and describe the idea of the trinity, this supremely weird three-in-one God that Jesus and the Jewish scriptures alluded to.

The more we feel we’ve figured something out, the stronger we hold our convictions. This is true of institutions too. As the church grappled with Christ, it hardened into a doctrinal faith, with very specific affirmations of what it entailed. Hard things are very often brittle and the harder the church became, the more easily it shattered. The more intensely the people within the Church enforced their conception of orthodoxy, the more easily it schismed, scattering chips and fragments all over the world…

Gene pools are interesting things. They need diversity to work. If you confine any set of animals to an enclosed gene pool for long enough, it will start imploding. I think this is an apt analogy for the church.

You see, I found a little certificate in my desk drawer a while back. This little slip of paper stated that I had made a confession of faith. Interestingly, it also stated that I had confessed to believing that the Dutch Reformed church’s teaching were all true. Whoah.

Thinking back now, I realise that this has always been the assumption. Whenever I’m asked about the church I attend, there is an implicit question about what I believe. I do it too. Somehow, in the intricate splintering of the church based on the tiniest theological differences, it is expected that the church you attend is the one you agree with completely, but the only people I’ve ever met who completely agree with everything their church espouses are the ones who don’t think very hard about it.

The church has never been homogenous. I don’t think it was ever meant to be. Toeing the theological party line leads to spiritual and theological inbreeding. It’s toxic and dangerous, because that is how cults work. If you have enough people patting each other on the back because they believe the exact same things, you tend to become inflexible and judgemental.

The church is a conversation. That’s how it started, at least. Finite people trying to figure out the infinite (Hint: it can’t be done). And that was OK. They disagreed vehemently before sitting down and sharing meals, because that’s how you figure stuff out. Not by simply affirming what someone says and congratulating ourselves on our similar beliefs.

I want to go to a church where I’m free to disagree, where the conversation is as important as the conclusions we reach. I want a place where I can be shocked and challenged by those who differ wildly from me while still sharing our connection in Christ.

I think that’s what the church was meant to be: chaotic, diverse, challenging, but in the end, because of this, humble, loving, and alive.

Amen.

You are not a storyteller. Or are you?

So this happened (WARNING: The video contains naughty words):

Watching the above video, I found myself curiously drawn and repulsed by the idea that it espouses.

You see, according to Terry Pratchett, we are Homo Narrativus. The storytelling ape. Our ability to construct narratives around seemingly innocuous things like the way that grass moves is part of the reason that we are alive today. It is why we get scared when we’re alone in the dark. Stories are coded into our genes, they colour every waking moment of our lives. It might be one of the main things that distinguish us from most animals.

Two famous editors once taught a class of film students about story. They split the class into two groups and gave each the same documentary style footage. The first group was told to cut the seemingly unrelated footage into a narrative. The second was told to stay away form narrative completely, to edit the footage in a way that’s as far away from a story as possible.

Once the class handed in their assignments, some of the resulting films were shown to them. The interesting thing is not that the first group managed to craft a story from disparate elements, it’s that the second group, no matter how hard they tried, always seemed to convey some kind of narrative in their films.

Which tells us one thing with two possible interpretations: We cannot get away from story. We are caught in narratives. The question is whether we create them or are just so well programmed to look for them that we cannot NOT see them everywhere we look. This means not only that we weave narrative into the fabric of everything that we create, but that we instinctively imbue otherwise storyless objects with narrative.

Now, when you design a roller coaster, you structure an experience. Within that brief you will always have some sort of narrative. It’s about movement through spaces with different emotive aspects, as Stefan Sagmeister mentions in the video. Yes, it is based in some sort of narrative, but does that make the designer a storyteller?

Calling yourself a storyteller seems to me to say something about the primacy of storytelling in what you do, like, you are primarily a storyteller. But if we take the above idea to its logical conclusion, then we are ALL storytellers, whether it’s the novelist or the accountant. Every act and object is imbued with its own little narrative through the fact that a human is participating in it somehow.

As with iconography, ubiquity goes hand in hand with meaninglessness. If everyone is a storyteller, then calling yourself a storyteller is nonsensical, on the level of trying to convince people that you are human (To any non-human reading this, please just swop human for your species. Which proves my point. It’s only in differentiation that we can truly make sense.)

It seems that my immediate reaction is to make a distinction. To say yes and no at the same time, like Pandora opening Schrodinger’s box.

Yes, we are all storytellers. Each and every one of us. Revel in it, live it, be inspired to create with your life a story that is great.

But no, we are not all STORYTELLERS. We are not all concerned on a day to day basis with structuring narratives, crafting stories. If that is what you do, great. If it isn’t, great. We don’t all have to be storytellers. That’s just the fashion these days. Calling nearly anything storytelling (which I think I’ve shown to be possible) reduces the concept of storytelling to meaninglessness. It makes less of those people who are explicitly trying to do it.

The problem is that there are no obvious lines to draw here. We ride the roller coaster of sliding scales, so don’t get too worked up about it. If you truly believe that you are a storyteller, why not tell your own story with more specificity? Be a writer. No, be a novelist, screenwriter, journalist whatever. Be a filmmaker, be a designer, be a landscaper, be whatever you are. Gleefully get on that sliding scale, but know that blanket terms are often counterproductive. It’s in the specifics that your true value lies.

Blankets are comfortable, but they also hide you from the outside world.

Going Up: All these sequels might not be such bad news.

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It is not often that I can get through an article on the film industry and only disagree with the very last line. Laurence Caromba’s Studios with a licence to sequel (Published 7 March, I know I’m late to the party) gave me the opportunity to reflect on this fact, because it actually managed it. The article itself deals with Hollywood’s love affair with sequels and adaptations, eloquently laying bare the economic incentives and pressures that caused and propagate this state of affairs. It is a strong piece of writing that loses some momentum when it veers into value judgements. Not that value judgements are wrong. They’re things we’re all allowed to make.

It’s just that last line (and, to be completely honest, the preceding paragraph) that kept niggling at me. Is the new crop of films released by Marvel and Friends truly that “empty and soulless?” They are adaptation, sure. They are sequels, undoubtedly, but to compare them to Jaws and Indiana Jones is not only cherry picking, but missing another important consequence of the big Disney takeover.

When comparing today’s films against the charms of Indiana Jones, it seems that the writer is using quirk as the main criterion to bemoan the state of modern films. To be sure, Indy is chock-full of quirk and I love him for it, but a perceived shortage of the stuff is not exactly reason to bemoan the state of the industry.

It views the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Indiana Jones might be the archetypal adventurous romp, but that doesn’t mean that its peers are necessarily works of genius. There are more than enough examples of “original” drivel making tons of money in the past to seriously question the veracity of the claim that spec scripts are necessarily better.

Adapted material is also not necessarily worse. The Hunger Games franchise is coining it with films that are uncharacteristically nuanced for tentpole films. Would it have been better to rather make two original ideas? Maybe, but it’s doubtful that it would have necessarily resulted in better movies. It would almost definitely have resulted in less money.

Viewers are growing more nuanced. We are disillusioned with simple narratives about the world and expect films to mirror this. The upshot is that big dumb action movies are seemingly becoming less and less stupid. Take Iron Man, for instance. The third instalment in the series was as quirky and self-deprecating as Indiana Jones ever was, but with added nuance. Here we have a film built around giant action set pieces, while still managing to touch on issues like media manipulation, mass hysteria, PTSD, and obsession. Or the new Captain America: drone warfare, the patriot act, government espionage, moral culpability, and preventative violence are a few of the main themes explicitly tackled by the movie. Let’s not even get started on movies like The Dark Knight. 

I lament that wonderful original movies aren’t getting made as much. I wish the ones that are made didn’t often get overshadowed by the studio’s behemoths. Much of what the article says is very true and worrying, but not for the reasons posited. The big, brainless films will probably always be with us. It’s why most people watch movies. I don’t believe, however, that we are on a downward trend. I, like the article’s author, don’t expect these chart-toppers to be great works of cinema, but I do believe that we are getting closer and closer to the point where they actually are. 

Occam’s Dirty Razor.

Long ago in a land far, far away (from mine, at least), there lived a man named William of Ockham. William was a pensive type who would often try to figure out the logic of everything (or so we’re told). He was so good at this that, hundreds of years after his death, another thinker named a well known philosophical tool after him: Ockham’s razor.

Ockham’s razor has, as these things do, slowly changed to Occam’s razor over the years. The point of the idea is simple: when any two explanations for something come into competition with each other, we should favour the one with the least assumptions. The simpler explanation should stay behind after the razor has been wielded.

This is something we do every day, actually. We immediately see that it is better to explain the turning of a water wheel by the obvious explanation rather than the activity of fairies. In a world where there may be an infinity of possible explanations, Occam’s razor frees us to only ponder those that matter.

Unfortunately, it is also one of the most widely misused tools in philosophy. Electricity is much more complex than simply saying lights work by magic. The razor only truly functions when all the available explanations are equally (im)plausible. The domain of Occam’s great blade is in the unknown.

Which is, once again, something that we are confronted with daily. Humans have evolved as categorisers and storytellers. When Terry Pratchett calls us Homo Narrativus, or the storytelling ape, he implies that this is what actually sets us apart from other species we know. People see things happening and immediately make up stories to connect them. It is why we have developed science. It is why we are able to plan for the future and learn from our past. I agree with Mr Pratchett (I usually do), our penchant for stories has been as important to our development as our opposable thumbs. 

So here we are, 21st century man, master of the universe. What does this have to do with me? Everything. Every day, when you click on a link or open a blog (or consume anything on the internet) you are being given a depiction of reality that says: This is how things really are.

This is where Occam comes in. The more plausible and simple these stories seem, the greater the chance that we’ll take them at face value. Writers are incentivised to work within the dominant frameworks we use to categorise the world. We all know that celebrities do silly things, so why question the newest gossip column? Big corporations are always evil, right? Environmentalists are always noble. Herbal means healthy and the news is always true.

Except it isn’t like that. Reality is almost never as simple as the heuristics we use to filter it, but our bias tends to favour the explanations that fall solidly within the narratives we are comfortable with. The problem is: The people generating the content know this.

They know that if they keep us comfortable, we will keep clicking. No worldview-threatening stories are allowed to shake the reader base, because pageviews equal money. This is why all you ever see on anti-GMO blogs are things that demonise GMO. The pattern holds true for everything from Jezebel to Christianity Today. To a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail. The only thing that changes is the different types of hammers.

When they heard about the filter bubble, people were aghast at the implications without realising that they’d been doing the same thing voluntarily for years. We crawl into little internet ghettos where likeminded people pat each other on the back for being likeminded. I get it. It’s comfortable. I do it too.

But the world is too complex for this kind of reduction. We owe it to ourselves to escape our ghetto and see how other people live and think. Your mind is only as broad as the horizon that you paint for it. Smallmindedness is self-perpetuating and comforting. Others will feed this drive towards insignificance. Nobody will help you fight it if you don’t do it yourself first.

If Occam’s razor is dirty, the only thing it’ll give you is tetanus. 

Why I am a Christian 3: Evil

It is difficult finding words for ideas. I think most people know this on some level. Have you ever experienced something so intense and profound that you could find no words to convey what was shivering in your core? It happens to me. Often.

I think it’s why we consume art on such an enormous scale. It is why we flock headlong to the telling of stories, saying: “Yes, that’s it. HE got it. That storyteller understands.”

The most foundational aspects of our lives defy easy categorisation and explanation. We are forced to acknowledge this when we stand speechless in the presence of things like birth, death, love, courage, and evil.

In some of my most intense times of doubt I have returned to my experience of darkness and found God waiting there. There may be many refutations that can be levelled at the experience of evil, but irrefutability was never the point of these posts. It is an exploration of the multiplicity of reasons that I feel drawn to Christianity as the greatest explanation of reality. I have spent some time trying to place the experience of evil in the foundations of my faith and I think I may have found part of the answer.

Evil is a lens. It is one of the most basic human experiences, and it forces a response in a way that almost nothing else does. I think that’s one reason why we all shy away from it. There is something in us that rebels against the worst of humanity, calling us to action: even against our wills.

Which is where I often find God. Evil, and our reaction to it, affirms the existence of true goodness in the wrong that goes against it. You could point to my upbringing as the source of my discomfort and I would concede that you might be right. There are no ironclad philosophies (I have written about this previously).
Evil is something that I cannot deny. It is one of the beliefs that are engraved in my bones: so deeply imbedded that to lose it would be to be fundamentally different.

I believe in objective evil: wrongs that would be despicable even if everyone alive believed them to be moral. I also happen to be in good company about this. My best friend is agnostic, and believes this as strongly as I do. Richard Dawkins agrees, along with the pope. Our lines might lie differently, but in the face of true evil, all are united in revulsion and denunciation.

This in turn points to ultimate, objective good; something I believe to be impossible without the existence of God. For morality to be truly objective, one cannot live in a naturalistic world. The only objective law in a world without God is that might makes right. This is an argument I’ve had with a few non-believers, and it seems like it’s something you either apprehend as a logical conclusion or not (And there are many theists and atheists who have argued for both conclusions, which tends to support this observation). For me, it is obvious. The existence of the Good (God) is necessary for the existence of absolute evil.

Evil points even further. In my most despairing experience of the brokenness of humanity, I have seen glimmers of truth in Christian teachings. We can all agree that we’re broken, but I find it illuminating that we’re broken exactly like Jesus envisioned. This is obviously true because the Bible is largely an account of the specifics of our brokenness, but it is also more. It doesn’t fall into the same shortcomings that other philosophies do on the subject of human depravity. It goes deeper and further than Buddha or Marx or Hume’s characterisations. It encompasses the scope and depth of the raw badness boiling in the human heart.

It speaks to my own evil: the beast in my breast that leaves destruction in its wake whenever it stirs. C.S. Lewis famously said that all men fall short, not of the moralities of other, but of their own rules. We are all party in some small way to the brokenness of the world. In that too, I see Christ’s teachings shine.

In the end, evil is something we are intimately familiar with. Those who are able manage to subdue little bits of it every day. I believe in Christ through the very existence of evil, the experience of His teachings (and the teachings He engages) about it, and the hope that one day evil may be beaten. It is a battle I experience every day in myself. It is a war that I see waged all around me.
Sometimes, when I despair of the victory of Good, I realise again why I am a Christian. To lift a world as dark as ours from the slime we have created we will need help from someone. Someone who is clean in ways that we have never known. Someone like Jesus.

Of beams and splinters: Homosexuality and Christian activism.

World Vision has caved under pressure. I don’t necessarily count this as weakness on their part.  As an explicitly Christian charity, the kinds and amounts of pressure that can be brought to bear against them are unfathomable. Which leads me to my first point: the Gospel is under attack, but not from outside. Rachel Held Evans summarised this so eloquently.

I have been working myself up to this point for a while, thinking about complicity and bigotry and where I stand in the strange maelstrom of where all these things intersect with theology. To those who know the shape of our souls silence does not mean assent, but to the world at large silence is yes. This is true of social organisations too. To outsiders an absent no means you agree. Always.

This is how systemic evil stays alive: when good men stay silent. If nobody speaks out, everyone stays isolated and impotent in their dissent. It’s in the absence of communication that relationships break down, societies calcify, progress is hamstrung.

And I want no part in it.

This is what I believe. I lay it out in public, because that’s where it may be a small crack in the monstrous monolith that outsiders perceive Christianity to be.

The roots of Christianity are set in the hearts of the oppressed. It’s in the history of the Jewish people; it’s in the oppression of the early church. In the Bible we find, over and over again that God is the God of the oppressed, of those on the underside of power, no matter who they happen to be. The gospel is the story of a God who comes down to the powerless and broken, and offers them healing. I believe that it’s our sacred duty as Christians to speak out against oppression, especially when it originates within the church, because silence is complicity.

Jesus calls us to love. Wherever we support, even implicitly, the systematic oppression of others, we have moved away from God and His good news.

Homosexuality isn’t even close to the issue that it is made to be, even if you believe in its inherent sinfulness. In the Bible, homosexuality is outshone by things like greed, hate and oppression to such a degree that we can almost round its score off to zero. That’s the problem here: it’s become a political issue, not a theological one. It’s a hot-button topic used by lazy preachers to create a fictitious enemy that the church can unite against.

But the church doesn’t need to. The gospel is so much more than a set of rules to protect with force. The only people Jesus ever used force against were religious people. Everyone else received an invitation. So the question comes up for each of us: if Jesus were here, would he weave a whip for me?

Creating laws to kill and imprison people for their sexuality is deeply wrong. We cannot legislate our specific morality: down that road lies fascism and all the many inventive evils that flow from it. Jesus didn’t call us to patrol the actions of others, especially not those of people who hold different beliefs. Not even God does that. If the most high respects free will enough to allow me my faults, who the hell are we to withhold our love in some misguided attempt at social engineering? We’re to bring good news, love and healing.

Withholding homosexuals the right to work alongside fellow Christians for the betterment of the world is more than sad, then. It’s misguided, loveless and evil. As long as the church keeps pushing this stupid homosexuality agenda (in all its forms), it will be an empire of oppression. It will be part of the problem that our religion was started to solve.

The stance taken by most Christians on this topic is so disgustingly toxic that it beggars belief. It is so ‘far-sighted’ that it needs glasses to see its own sin. As long as we remain sinners, we have no right to even pick up stones, no less cast them. I am staggered by the amount of damage done by the rejection of homosexuals. It is possible only because the Christians doing so reduce these people to a single characteristic. These are people who love, fear, feel, cry, dream, and laugh. They are flesh and blood, with lives like ours, full of beauty and complexity. Just like us.

We are meant to be a force of love in the world. The body of Christ. Christ who loved and accepted whores and killers and you and me. We are in good company, no?

Personally, I don’t believe homosexuality is a sin, but “allowing it” (if we assume that it’s sinful) will never be able to live up to the destruction that is being sown all over the world by those who oppose it. Don’t we ‘allow’ so many other sins too, anyway? Isn’t that the point of forgiveness, of tolerance and love?

Christians must start speaking up against wrongs. If we don’t, nobody’s going to change it for us. So this is my start. I denounce Uganda’s gay bill, Russia’s legislation, every Christian’s clamour against a charity allowing homosexuals into its ranks. We must speak out against anybody who treads on those who are different from them.

This madness needs to stop. It’s small-minded and unworthy of people who claim that God is love.