Sunday, February 05, 2017

56 Theses on Trump and Truth

1. Understanding the power of how President Trump relates to the truth requires understanding how professional wrestling and reality television, the televisual forms in which he built his popularity with the everyman, appeal to their audiences.

2. If we don't understand what the rise of Mr. Trump to the presidency reveals about the way these these televisual forms shape their audiences' relationship to the truth, we won't understand how to effectively communicate with them.

3. These audiences know that what is being presented in these televisual forms as unscripted is in fact heavily scripted, yet not entirely scripted.

4. Pointing out to these audiences that a gap between presentation and reality makes a TV show "fake" does not lessen the appeal of these televisual forms for them.

5. By asking their audiences with a "wink" to suspend disbelief on the question of whether what is presented is fiction or non-fiction the producers of these televisual forms invite the audience into an interpretive game played with an unreliable narrator.

6. The audiences that enjoy professional wrestling and reality television enjoy it, not despite the fact that they are being "lied to," but because the gap between presentation and reality invites them to account for the mechanics of scripting a spectacle that resonates emotionally.

7. This gives the audiences a powerful sense of being "in the know" about stories over which they have little to no control.

8. These audiences can then play this interprative game with the rest of the media, media that is not "winking" as they present a story as fiction or non-fiction.

9. If fiction and non-fiction are on a spectrum, how much of non-fiction media is presented by unreliable narrators as real when in fact it is scripted? Answer: All of it, to some degree.

10. In reality television and professional wrestling, good and evil are not moral absolutes but plot devices used by unreliable narrators to ask their audiences' to suspend disbelief.

11. Sensationally good characters suspend disbelief just as well as sensationally evil characters. Only boring characters are wrong.

12. If something boring happens, the interprative game is no longer fun because the gap between presentation and reality collapses as the reality of the scripting process becomes evident in its failure to deliver a spectacle that resonates emotionally.

13. For the audiences of these televisual forms, the value proposition of most media on the non-fiction end of the spectrum comes across as, Give us your time and attention (making us money) in exchange for boring stories told by unreliable narrators who never "wink". At least the unreliable narrators of fiction media tell spectacular stories, even if their interprative game is less fun.

14. These audiences cannot evaluate the truth of professional wrestling or reality television based on whether the narrator is sincere in what they present as true or false, good or evil, but on whether the (always unreliable) narrator tells a story that is emotionally compelling while inviting them to consider how they scripted reality.

15. By inviting their audience to consider how they scripted reality, the unreliable narrator allows their audience to evaluate them based on whether the narrator's self-interest in telling the story aligns with the audience's interests in investing in it.

16. For the audiences of these televisual forms, earnestly presenting truth as Truth, not-truth as Not-truth, good as Good and evil as Evil is the sign of an unreliable narrator who either doesn't realize they are scripting reality according to their own interests or knows it and is keeping their audience from playing the interprative game by being inauthentic.

17. For the audiences of these televisual forms, what counts for truth is authenticity—telling a spectacular story they can resonate with and inviting them to evaluate your motives for having done so by "winking" at your unreliable narration.

18. Of course, there are those in the audiences of professional wrestling and reality television who believe everything they see is real and none of it scripted. They intensify the sense of interprative play for the rest of the audience who is in on the game.

19. In the metanarrative constructed by the audiences of these televisual forms in their interprative play, the true believers among them are just another part of reality being scripted by the unreliable narrator, in this case, using the spectacle to script the true believers.

20. This reinforces the audiences' sense of being behind the scenes of a story over which they actually have little to no control.

21. For the true believers, truth resides at the level of spectacle, where presentation and reality appear to merge.

22. For the rest of the audience, truth resides in the gap between presentation and reality where spectacle and motive combine: Lie to me, so I can see if our self-interests are aligned.

23. Those who present truth earnestly, in the view of these audiences, are obscuring how they've scripted reality so that they can obscure their motives to themselves or their audiences.

24. Those who present truth earnestly and appear to be scripting reality the least may limit the spectacular in their presentation by breaking up their story with alternative viewpoints, caveats about their own biases, and other nuances. They are boring.

25. Boring presentations of reality are not emotionally compelling, so the audiences of these televisual forms are apt to ignore them.

26. Boring presentations of reality do not help these audiences tell themselves a story about themselves that makes their lives feel spectacular, so there is no payoff for these audiences that alignes with their self-intersets in investing time and attention in media.

27. If a presentation of reality doesn't offer a story that can be evaluated in terms of these audiences' self-interests, it cannot be evaluated by them through interprative play for its truth content.

28. For the audiences of professional wrestling and reality television, boring, non-fiction media has even less truth value than earnest, non-fiction media (Donald Trump > Hannity > Fox News > CSPAN).

29. Boring presentations of reality also imply that acting based on ones interests is less important than understanding reality in all its complexities.

30. If reality is always being scripted by all media, it is meaningless to seek an understanding of it that goes beyond the interests of powerful actors.

31. The spectacular celebrates the act taken without regard to complexities, whether for good or evil, as that which compels an audience to invest time and attention in the story of the actor and find truth in its resonances with the story they tell themselves about themselves.

32. Because the story we tell ourselves about ourselves shapes and is informed by our self-interests, it is possible to influence the interests of audiences invested in a story by shaping their story about themselves.

33. The one who produces spectacular acts can influence the interests of these audiences by shaping they story they tell themselves about themselves through the metanarrative they tell themselves about the scripting of the spectacular. (The effect also works in reverse from audience to producer.)

34. Having given up on any truthful presentation of reality, the audiences of professional wrestling and reality television are not equipped to evaluate this shaping of the stories they tell themselves by any standard other than their interests as they are being shaped.

35. Pointing that that Mr. Trump is "fake," a more pervasive scripter of reality than ordinary politicians, and that his blatant disregard for the pretense of truthful presentation disqualifies him from being taken seriously does not lessen his appeal to these audiences because they do not believe that any presentation of reality can correspond well-enough to reality to discredit the story Mr. Trump is telling.

36. For the audiences of these televisual forms, Mr. Trump is telling the truth because he tells a story through spectacular speech acts that leave gaps between reality and presentation inviting them into a interprative game in which they tell themselves a story about how his interests align with their own.

37. Politicians are simultaneously narrators of the national story and actors in it.

38. Politicians who want their audiences to participate in their decisions about how to deal with the reality of Truth and un-Truth, Good and Evil, make earnest presentations—the more boring the presentation, the more reality their audience is able to participate in deciding about.

39. Mr. Trump does not want his audience to participate in decisions about reality, but instead asks his audience to trust that his own interests in scripting reality are aligned with theirs to the degree that his unreliable narration reveals that they are.

40. The more spectacularly Mr. Trump's speech acts as an unreliable narrator signal that he is aligned with the interests of his audience, the more truly his interests can be judged by his audience through interprative play to be aligned with their own.

41. The more spectacularly Mr. Trump's speech acts as an unreliable narrator signal that he is not aligned with those opposed to the interests of his audience, the more truly his own interests can be judged by his audience through interprative play to be aligned with their own.

42. For the purposes of creating spectacle, it does not matter whether Mr. Trump presents himself as good or evil.

43. Evocative presentations of Mr. Trump as evil heighten the spectacle for his audience.

44. Earnest presentations of Mr. Trump as evil that can be plausibly denied heighten the sense of unreliable narration from both Mr. Trump and the news media for his audience.

45. Nuanced presentations of Mr. Trump as one not aligned with the interests of his audience are boring to his audience, which causes them to question the motives of the presenter.

46. Science-fiction author Phillip K. Dick was correct when he said, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." (And he should know, because he had a mystical vision and then did a lot of perception altering drugs.)

47. Unfortunately, that kind of reality is so complex that by the time we realize it's not going away, it's too late to avoid trouble.

48. Those who wish to understand the reality of Mr. Trump and make decisions about it before it reaches the point where it doesn't go away are limited to the study of his actions in speech and deed.

49. As an unreliable narrator, Mr. Trump will continually create ambiguity as to how much of what he presents is Truth. You will rarely know enough about how big the gap between presentation and reality is before it's too late to respond.

50. Ask not what Mr. Trump's says but what his speech does and how it aligns with everything else he is doing.

51. When making decisions, account for how Mr. Trump's actions in speech and deed script reality for himself and his audience, shaping and responding to their mutual self-interests.

51. The study of Mr. Trump's speech as act requires detaching from the emotional resonance of his spectacular performance as national antihero.

52. To detach from Mr. Trump's spectacle, you must tell yourself a story about yourself that has more emotional resonance than the one Mr. Trump is narrating by replacing self-(interest)gratifying entertainment with spiritual practices.

53. To detach from Mr. Trump's spectacle, you must invest time and attention in boring presentations of reality by replacing 24-hour news cycles and social media with critical analysis of longform journalism and peer-reviewed research findings.

54. Reliable narrators who understand the reality of Mr. Trump's audience will not try to influence them with earnest appeals that require the audience to assume that the presenter is good, the presenter's opposition evil, and the presenter's self-interest, irrelevant.

55. Reliable narrators who understand the reality of Mr. Trump's audience know that talk is cheap and reality is expensive. They prove their good intentions with real investments in their audience that cannot be denied because they don't go away.

56. Reliable narrators who understand the reality of Mr. Trump's audience attempt to engage them with irony, Socratic dialogue, and illustrative stories that make nuanced presentations of reality an invitation to mutual discovery instead of a boring monologue.

Further (Boring) Reading

Monday, January 23, 2017

Polarization in American Politics: Whither Adventists?

As Americans move deeper into an era of relativistic political tribalism, where picking a team and embracing its biases increasingly counts for more than arriving at a truthful consensus, political disagreements threaten to divide American Adventists against their coreligionists.

This will require the church to either retreat even further from religiously informed political engagement or renew a distinctly Adventist political theology that can withstand the forces of polarization. I will argue that we cannot afford to abandon the political formation of Adventists to American political factions, because their fundamental political commitments are not religiously neutral and have religious implications.

To get that religious perspective, it is important to understand that much of the emotional energy
driving the left and right of American politics apart is derived from the Calvinist (or Reformed) impulse to transform society through an integrated relationship of church and state that came to these shores with the Puritan settlers of New England.

On the left, the Puritan "city on a hill" vision of "perfecting earthly civilization through social engineering, denial of self for the common good, and assimilation of outsiders" was secularized in liberal American churches and directed toward accomplishing social equality. Beginning in the 1950s, these WASPs, having been told by their preachers that they didn't need a particularly Christian God, or even any God at all, to accomplish that pluralistic vision gradually emptied out of their mainline Protestant churches and turned to left-wing politics as their ultimate good—the ultimate good being the highest source of meaning one can find in that which is greater than oneself. "In short, ecumenical Protestants embraced modernity, advancing the cause of Enlightenment while simultaneously becoming one of its casualties."

On the right, the neo-Puritan vision revolves around rolling back the sexual revolution by re-establishing, to some degree, the state sponsorship of Christianity as the ultimate good that existed in the Puritan colonies. Of course, other Christian traditions share the goal of reforming American sexual mores, but, crucially, differ on the question of how tightly church and state should be integrated to accomplish social reform. The recently published, Five Views on the Church and Politics, gives a good sense of the spectrum, all the way from separationist to integrationist: "Anabaptist (or Separationist), Lutheran (or Paradoxical), Black Church (or Prophetic), Reformed (or Transformationist), and Catholic (or Synthetic)." Calvinism—through the neo-Reformed movement—is the major intellectual force in White Evangelicalism today, but Russell Moore is trying to bring the Southern Baptists closer to their separationist Anabaptist/separationist roots via the English Dissenters.

It is those persecuted minority, dissenting groups, as my professor Nick Miller argues, that came to define the tradition on religiously informed politics to which Adventists belong. Adventists have no illusions of perfecting, much less transforming, society on this side of the Second Coming. We don't desire a privileged political position for ourselves (or any other group) to implement our conception of the ultimate good, because that will not be realized in the here and now. But we recognize that God has given us a democratic government to foster temporal goods based on consensus, including temporal goods based on sexual morality and social equality. While willing to work with others toward reforms in those and other areas, we're deeply skeptical of political agendas that sacrifice one for the sake of imposing the other.

Adventists cannot take sides in the political fight within the house of Puritanism—one camp secularized and focused on equality, the other religious and focused on sexual morality—without compromising both our commitment to the Second Coming as the only source of societal transformation and to the imperative of religious liberty with respect to ultimate goods in the meantime. Both kinds of Puritan could equally cast us into a cold Massachusetts winter, whether for being on the wrong side of the sexual revolution or for being the wrong kind of Christian.

Thankfully, the political theology of the dissenters, not the Puritans, made it's way into the First Amendment. The question is how long the promise of separationist religious liberty guaranteed on paper can last in a political environment dominated by religious and secular, political Calvinists.

Monday, November 07, 2016

History, Prophecy & Tomorrow's Vote

I just finished a close reading of Ellen G. White's short treatise "History and Prophecy" in Education, and I'm persuaded that is has a message that is vital for American believers of all persuasions facing tomorrow's vote.

In my interpretation, her burden in this chapter is to show how history is a medium through which God's character is revealed in the historical forces that lie behind the rise and fall of nations.

Using Nebuchadnezzar as an example, she decries his arrogance and pride in speaking and acting as if he were the source of his power and greatness. These character defects led the formerly great king to gave himself over greed, resulting in the oppression of those he was given that power to protect.

She writes:
To each the words spoken to Nebuchadnezzar of old are the lesson of life: 'Break off thy sins by righteousness, and thine iniquities by showing mercy to the poor; if it may be a lengthening of thy tranquility.' Daniel 4:27.

To understand these things,—to understand that 'righteousness exalteth a nation;' that 'the throne is established by righteousness' and 'upholden by mercy' (Proverbs 14:34; 16:12; Proverbs 20:28); to recognize the outworking of these principles in the manifestation of His power who 'removeth kings, and setteth up kings' (Daniel 2:21),—this is to understand the philosophy of history.
In the word of God only is this clearly set forth. Here it is shown that the strength of nations, as of individuals, is not found in the opportunities or facilities that appear to make them invincible; it is not found in their boasted greatness. It is measured by the fidelity with which they fulfill God's purpose" (174–175).
God acted to remove the abusive king's power, and those who believe in Daniel's God can still fall into the same trap by arrogantly imagining that the outcome of tomorrow's election is up to the electorate. If it were, our "strength" would be "found in" a human source, namely, the number of people who vote like we do. Rather, our strength as a individual voters and as a nation "is measured by the fidelity with which" the choices we make in deciding the leadership of our nation, "fulfill God's purpose."

We have a role to play, but it is God who ultimately permits one candidate or the other to inhabit the White House. Thus, divine supervision of history frees us from the burden of making Machiavellian political calculations entirely within the "immanent frame," as if God were not an active agent in history.

This brings all the options political pragmatists insist we must ignore back on the table. But, it also brings an even greater burden on us who must choose whether to vote and whom to vote for, because history is not only the medium in which God's character is revealed, but also our own.
We need to study the working out of God's purpose in the history of nations and in the revelation of things to come, that we may estimate at their true value things seen and things unseen; that we may learn what is the true aim of life; that, viewing the things of time in the light of eternity, we may put them to their truest and noblest use. Thus, learning here the principles of His kingdom and becoming its subjects and citizens, we may be prepared at His coming to enter with Him into its possession (184).

Friday, July 29, 2016

"The Sabbath More Fully"

“I saw that God had children, who do not see and keep the Sabbath. They had not rejected the light on it. And at the commencement of the time of trouble, we were filled with the Holy Ghost as we went forth and proclaimed the Sabbath more fully” (Ellen White, “A Word to The Little Flock” [WLF], 19).
On April 7, 1847 a young visionary, Ellen White, wrote a landmark letter to the Advent preacher and abolition activist, Joseph Bates. Her husband, James White, published it two months later in “A Word To The Little Flock,” the broadside that first set forth the core beliefs of the coalescing movement that would become the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The letter was a straightforward account of what we now call the Sabbath Halo Vision.

The Holy Spirit had shown Ellen White the Most Holy Place of the Heavenly Sanctuary. As she looked into the Ark of the Covenant, Jesus opened the tablets of stone that contain the Ten Commandments. “…the fourth (the Sabbath commandment,) shone above them all; for the Sabbath was set apart to be kept in honor of God's holy name.…The holy Sabbath looked glorious—a halo of glory was all around it.” (WLF, 18)

Then the scene panned down on terrestrial events. She saw how the Sabbath had been changed and that just before the final crisis of earth’s history Sabbath keepers would go out and proclaim “the Sabbath more fully.” Ellen White, reflecting on the vision five years later, understood the fuller proclamation of the Sabbath as a promise that the Sabbath message would be widely propagated by more believers than the “little flock” of Adventists then honoring the seventh day Sabbath could muster.

But beyond a greater quantity of proclamation, the Sabbath Halo Vision also indicated broader qualities of the Sabbath message, not previously understood or emphasized, that must be proclaimed “more fully” before Jesus comes. By 1847, the Seventh Day Baptists had long taught that the sacredness of the seventh day was never changed and was as important for Christians to observe as the other nine commandments. But the scenes of the final crisis Ellen White was shown go farther by emphasizing how the Sabbath is not just like the other commandments, how it has a special significance prior to the second coming.

“…all we were required to do,” she wrote, “was to give up God's Sabbath, and keep the Pope's, and then we should have the mark of the Beast, and of his image” (WLF, 19). Because of their total commitment to Jesus, Ellen White saw that Sabbath keepers would be persecuted, and God would save them with supernatural power at the second coming. This implies that a full proclamation of the Sabbath includes its end-time role as a sign of our commitment to God and of God’s protection for His people.

This part of the Sabbath Halo Vision confirmed Joseph Bates’ conclusions about the heart of Revelation (chs. 12–14), and ever since Seventh-day Adventists have proclaimed the ultimate test of God’s relationship with His people as the center of the Sabbath’s end-time significance.

Jubilee

Next, Ellen White saw the second coming in sabbatical terms:
“Then commenced the jubilee, when the land should rest. I saw the pious slave rise in triumph and victory, and shake off the chains that bound him, while his wicked master was in confusion, and knew not what to do; for the wicked could not understand the words of the voice of God” (WLF, 20, emphasis mine).
The Year of Jubilee was the culmination of the Sabbatical year system (Lev 25). Every seven years the land was to lie fallow, allowing the people and the land to rest for the entire Sabbatical year. This would continue for seven cycles of seven years (49 years), and then the 50th year, the Jubilee year, was to be an extra Sabbatical year. During this year all debts were to be cancelled, all Israelite slaves set free, and everyone was returned to their ancestral lands.

Might the Jubilee also indicate the quality of a fuller proclamation of the Sabbath before Jesus comes? I believe the answer to that question lies in the answer to another. On which of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments does the Sabbath belong?

Recall that Ellen White saw it on the first, which along with the three preceding commandments pertain to our relationship with God. Sabbath is about loving God by respecting God’s time: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God …” (Ex 20:8–10a NKJV).

Sabbath simply acknowledges that six without seven is incomplete. The sixth day is the day on which human beings were created, and seven, the creation day on which God rested, is the biblical number of sufficiency. Thus, Sabbath keeping is a rhythmic reminder that human flourishing is not based on what we accomplish but on who we know. By resting on the seventh day we embody our dependence on our relationship with our Creator.

But notice the middle part of commandment: “… In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates” (Ex 20:10b NKJV). This aspect of Sabbath keeping deals with how we relate to other people (and animals, but that’s for another article). It teaches us that everyone is equal before God, because on Sabbath there are no socio-economic divisions. When we are all resting from our labor, we rest from our struggles within the divisions and power structures of the social order. On the seventh day, we are freed to relate to everyone as princes and princesses of the Heavenly Creator before whom we can claim nothing that sets us above another.

Complete Sabbath Keeping

Proclaiming the Sabbath more fully in the end times encompasses more than preaching Sabbath as a sign of God’s relationship with His people. Resting on the Sabbath calibrates our relationship with God; and that way of relating through rest based on God’s prior involvement in our existence must in turn recalibrate our relationship with each other. Therefore, the Sabbath is especially significant in the end-times because it functions as the bridge that unites the two great commands: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,’” and “‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt 22:37, 39).

The Sabbatical year and Jubilee laws fleshed out the political and economic implications of Sabbath for Israelite society, and Ellen White held that the social principles encapsulated therein would be beneficial for us to follow today (PP 536, cf. Matt 5:17–18). God did not create human beings to be enslaved by endless production and consumption, globalized competition, over-regulation, indebtedness, and crony capitalism. And God did not create human beings to be inescapably oppressed by discrimination, police brutality, welfare dependency, predatory mortgages, and gang violence. God desires that earthly societies be structured such that people threatened by slavery—real or virtual—have an escape route to freedom. So while the fourth commandment primarily deals with our relationship with God, if it were possible, it could find a place on both tablets of the law, because it also relates to how we treat each other individually and in society.

Keeping the weekly Sabbath gives us the experience of Heaven as time spent with God apart from the problems of this present age. Keeping the social principles of Sabbath expressed in the Jubilee gives us a foretaste of a human race free and equal before God, which is the “great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” in worship (Rev 7:9 NKJV). Working to present that vision in concrete ways is indispensable to a full proclamation of the Sabbath.

It would be absurd for me to tell people to keep a weekly Sabbath without resting on the seventh day myself. It is just as absurd to invite people to come to Heaven with us and not demonstrate to them what Heaven will be like by our actions. Proclaiming the Sabbath more fully even involves working to insert the social principles of Sabbath into the governance of our society so that by tasting a drop of practical compassion, a world thirsty for justice can have reason to hope in the promise of its one day running down like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24).

Reform Movements

Though the American institution of slavery Ellen White saw being abolished at the second coming ended during her lifetime, she insisted that this change in the slaves’ legal status did not exhaust the divine mandate for privileged American Adventists to make special efforts toward racial equality:
“Are we not under even greater obligation to labor for the colored people than for those who have been more highly favored? Who is it that held these people in servitude? Who kept them in ignorance, and pursued a course to debase and brutalize them, forcing them to disregard the laws of marriage, breaking up the family relation, tearing wife from husband and husband from wife? If the race is degraded, if they are repulsive in habits and manners, who made them so? Is there not much due to them from the white people? After so great a wrong has been done them, should not an earnest effort be made to lift them up?” (“Our Duty to the Colored People,” 20).
The pioneers of the Seventh-day Adventist movement saw no distinction between preaching the soon second coming and working for a better world today. They joined the social reform movements like abolition, prohibition, and health reform to alleviate the suffering of the oppressed through a combination of personal influence, organized relief, and legislative action. All were idealistic causes with little chance of success, but if you believe in Heaven, you can afford to be an idealist, because Jesus is coming to right the wrongs of this world! The founders of my church did not regard history’s trajectory toward persecution and the eventual destruction of this wicked world as an excuse with which to wash their hands of any involvement with activism and politics. Rather they took the second coming as permission to make a difference in society, knowing that their work would find its eternal value in the restoration of all things.

Today, Americans are confronted with a crisis of race and law enforcement that has its roots in a self-righteous failure of empathy and solidarity for those whose experience differs from the vulnerable group with whom we most identify, whether the already vulnerable or those who make themselves vulnerable for the sake of protecting others. Today, Adventists in America decide whether to step out of their demographic box to find a common humanity, or step into the scripted role society expects them to play. We decide whether to step in and work with those advocating solutions to this crisis, or step out and do nothing as things get worse. God has promised to use the Advent movement to proclaim His Sabbath more fully, and He promised that He has numbers waiting to join those of us who embrace a complete Sabbath message. Let us go out, and proclaim “the Sabbath more fully.”

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Top 5 Reasons Why The 2015 General Conference Was More Progressive Than You Thought

Okay, so they voted down allowing divisions to decide whether to ordain women. But that wasn't all that happened in San Antonio. Here's five progressive changes the delegates voted through.
  1. No To Eternal Subordination – It was stated from the podium that a revision to Fundamental Belief 3 rules the idea that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father out of Adventist theology. This introduction of hierarchy into the trinity's eternity past has been proposed by supporters of male headship theology, as it is used to explain how two persons can be theoretically equal and at the same time always in a hierarchical relationship (guess the gender of the persons who are always at the bottom). The revision states that "The qualities and powers exhibited in the Son and the Holy Spirit are also those of the Father," which implies that no quality that leads to subordination can be attributed to the Son or Spirit that would not also be shared by the Father and thus such a quality could not result in involuntary or necessary hierarchy within the trinity. Got it? No? Read that again, cause I'm moving on.
  2. Gender Neutral Language – A sweeping revision to the Fundamental Beliefs statement removed terms like "men", "man", and "mankind"; and replaced them with terms like "human beings", "human", and "humanity". Welcome to the 21st Century, church! Over the objections of some they also specified that at the incarnation Jesus became "truly human", instead of "truly man", clarifying that we believe Jesus didn't only identify himself with the male gender, but with all humanity.
  3. No To Non-consensual Sex – No means no, even if you're married. The Church Manual now makes it clear that forcing yourself on anyone is a reason for church discipline. When asked if that refers to spousal rape, the answer came back, Yes. It's past time we said that it's not only important who you're doing it with, it's about whether they want it.
  4. Discipleship – As per the Church Manual revisions, your local Adventist church board now has a new primary responsibility. It used to be "Spiritual nurture". Now it is the formation and execution of an "active discipleship plan". Helping people follow Jesus wherever they are in that journey—sounds like what church ought to be all about, doesn't it?
  5. Adventist Youth Ministries - First, they dropped the legacy name "Adventist Youth Society", which, as was explained, had come to refer to a meeting more than an umbrella organization. This meeting, which is still a blessing in many places, has become a ball and chain of youth ministry in some churches, tying youth programming expectations to a model developed in the mid-20th century. But more importantly, Adventist Youth Ministries has new departments that can be organized within it, and their leaders get board positions according to the new Church Manual. That means that youth and young adults have a potential to have their say in the operations of their local church like never before. So if young people don't have a voice in your church, get out there and organize a Public Campus Ministry. And when Nominating Committee rolls around, if you don't have a seat on the Board, you can say with a cheeky grin on your face, It's in the Manual.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Getting Off Time's Big Ride

Time is the big ride that nobody gets off.

But wouldn't be cool if we could?

In the recent film, Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise plays a soldier who suddenly gets the ability to reset the day. Think Groundhog Day, but with violence instead romance driving the plot. With each recurring day the soldier uses his increasing knowledge of what's happens next to plan his moves, enabling him to accomplish the otherwise impossible.

http://www.le-serpent-retrogamer.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/game-over-continue-end.jpg

The film was inspired by video game storytelling, specifically the way games allow you to make mistakes that are fatal to your in-game character then bring your character back to life at an earlier point in the game and, hopefully having learned from your mistakes, try again.

This game mechanic allows video gamers to simulate what theologians call foreknowledge. Within the closed system of the game time moves in one direction, but with the ability to get off that ride and try again as often as necessary the gamer is able to gain what to her in-game character would be knowledge of what will happen before it happens. That's foreknowledge, and it is generally considered, though theologians debate exactly how it works, to be one of the attributes of God.

Godlike power is part of our attraction to video games and time travel flicks. Getting off time's ride through unlimited death and resurrection while everyone else is forced to remain means you can get a look at the destination and control how we get there. That's intoxicating because in real life we worry that our destiny is largely outside our control.

Video game storytelling speaks to our spiritual need to believe our lives are part of a greater story that calls for us to invest ourselves in a struggle for the good. But video games also exploit that need by addicting us to the sensation of wielding unstoppable power, thereby tempting us to see ourselves as a timeless beings among lesser mortals, justified in manipulating their actions to serve our goals. (The video game, Braid, explores this conceit.)

But after we've turned off the console and are laying in bed, the fact remains that our real life failures are permanent. While we may claim we regret nothing, it's hard to know what our lives are going to mean when our part in time's ride is over.

New Year's is almost here. No one's getting a do-over of 2014; no one gets to skip what happens in 2015; and no one knows what the price of oil will be by the time 2016 rolls around.

What you can do is choose where you'll look for direction on the journey. The way I see it that boils down to two options.

You can choose the video game option and leverage what power you have toward the outcome you want. Or you choose to believe there is an Author of our story who loves the characters in it and is bringing it to a conclusion that will end well for those who come to trust that love.

As they say in video games, "Choose wisely."

This article was originally submitted for the Clergy Comments column of the Fort McMurray Today (December 26, 2014).

Monday, November 10, 2014

Monster Energy Drink Is Anti-Christ: A Case Study In Occult Epistemology


First, if you haven't already, watch the video embedded above. It's blowing up on the internet today.

Second, ask yourself whether you think it might be possible that, aside from any health effects, you're putting yourself under the power of Satan if you drink Monster.

If your answer to the above question is yes, you might have an occult epistemology.

What is occult epistemology, you ask?
  1. Occult: Pertaining to hidden knowledge of supernatural power
  2. Epistemology: The philosophy of how to attain knowledge.
Occult epistemology teaches that there are two levels of knowledge. The lower level is the knowledge that can be gained by observation and reason through the normal and boring disciplines of history, science, philosophy, etc. The higher level of knowledge that leads to supernatural power is not laid open to ordinary observation and disciplined reason but is layered on top in a system of secret symbols that only the initiated can interpret.

The modern occult movement of the 19th century looked back to the ancient mystery religions for this knowledge. One of those religions was Gnosticism, a blending of mystery religion and Christianity. Gnosticism means something like "knowledgeism", because the Gnostics taught that a system of hidden spiritual knowledge through symbolism was necessary for salvation from the material world.

The word heretic as we use it today, was created to describe Gnostics. They were heretics because they preached salvation through secret knowledge instead of salvation through Jesus.

Today we not only have a modern expression of ancient mystery religions known as the occult, we also have a modern expression of Gnosticism—Christian conspiracy preachers who teach attainment of spiritual power through secret knowledge of hidden symbols. They purport to warn you against the occult, while at the same time adopting occult epistemology in order to explain its power.

When conspiracy teachers blend Christianity and occult epistemology they end up with two levels of spiritual knowledge. The first level is the knowledge you get from ordinary theology—comparing scripture with scripture, studying the original languages, thinking through the teachings of the Bible—that's open for anyone to study. That's probably enough to get you to Heaven, but you still might get fooled by the Devil if you don't know what he's secretly up to. So you need to advance to that second level of hidden knowledge that is only available through an extra-biblical system of hidden symbols, which only the initiated can understand.


Once you accept the premise that spiritual knowledge can be gained through this system of hidden symbols, you're swept up into a hidden world of mysterious powers, remarkable secrets, and high-stakes conflict. It's like being on a spiritual drug, and once the buzz wears off you want some more. None of it does anything to bring your heart closer to Jesus, and you end up trusting in your knowledge about the inner-workings supernatural power to save you from Satan.

So what can you do if realize you've fallen for occult epistemology?

  1. Recognize that true spiritual knowledge starts with Jesus, and Jesus doesn't hide this knowledge but lays it open (apokalupto) in His Word: "There is nothing covered up that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known" (Luke 12:2).
  2. Get close to Jesus. Instead of studying conspiracy theories, spend time in prayer. Not only will you get true spiritual knowledge, but you'll be protected from the Devil. No one accidentally ends up under demonic power by drinking a beverage with "666" hidden on it or watching a music video with Illuminati symbolism. The real danger is in choosing to focus my heart's desires on something other than God (1 Peter 5:8-10). In that light, conspiracy preaching holds a more subtle danger than popular entertainment, because you think your heart is close to God when the reality is far from it.
  3. Study the symbolic system of Scripture. The Bible is replete with ritual, typological, and apocalyptic symbolism. God uses it to communicate spiritual truths that are too profound for simple explanation. Nowhere in Scripture are we encouraged to look to a hidden knowledge outside the Bible to interpret the symbols in the Bible. Rather, the Bible provides its own interpretive keys, which are not hidden and available only to initiates, but open to all.
I believe occult epistemology is the Devil's counterfeit to distract us from the symbolic system of the Bible while fooling us into thinking we can have a measure of control over supernatural power. The symbolic system of scripture is deep enough to sustain a lifetime of study, but it has a simple message: God is in control, put your trust in Him.

This post was revised, expanded and posted to SSNet as a commentary for the Adventist Adult Bible Study Guide for the week of January 17-23, 2015. That version was crossposted on ADvindicate.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Mrs. Jesus?

This article was originally submitted for the Clergy Comments column of the Fort McMurray Today (September 21, 2012). 

For people who study ancient documents, Egypt is what South Africa is to diamond cartels or what Nashville is to country music fans: the gift that keeps on giving. Egypt has had a thriving literary culture since the dawn of history. But it was blessed with two other gifts that have made it a treasury of ancient documents that has yet to be exhausted—papyrus, an easily produced and sturdy kind of writing material; and a dry climate in which papiri (papyrus manuscripts) can survive relatively intact for hundreds of years.

So it was no surprise when, on Tuesday, a Harvard professor announced a new papyri fragment discovery. It was not even necessarily surprising that the papyri was about Jesus and was dated to just 250-350 years after his death (assuming it isn't a forgery, a question that may never be resolved [The manuscript has been dated to between the fifth and ninth centuries AD]). Those finds happen every year. No, what revved a routine papyri discovery into a media headline was the fact that in the fragment Jesus is talking about his wife.

Most people know that Jesus isn't supposed to have a wife, which was part of the attraction to The Da Vinci Code. The curious thing is that nowhere in the Gospels (the four volumes in the New Testament that record Jesus life) is it positively stated that Jesus didn't have a wife. The gospels have Jesus interacting with other family members, such as his mother and brothers, but make no mention of Jesus having a wife or children. Thus it is generally assumed he didn't.

But to conclude on this point is to miss the larger controversy, because this most recent papyri fragment is the latest in a series of discoveries that have challenged the status of the New Testament as the exclusive source of reliable information about Jesus. For example, a series of "Gnostic Gospels" have been discovered, which chronicle events not found in the four Gospels of the Bible, and cast Jesus' life and mission in a radically different light. At issue is not so much the question of whether Jesus had a wife, but which ancient documents have a trustworthy record of his life, if any at all.

Against this slide toward agnosticism, the weight of the documentary evidence we do have about the life of Jesus speaks volumes. We have by a few orders of magnitude more ancient copies of the New Testament availabe to us today than we have for any other ancient text. That speaks to the value and validity that those who originally received those writings placed in them.

It should come as no surprise that there were competing accounts of Jesus life in circulation in the centuries following his death. But copying manuscripts by hand was both time consuming and expensive. What counts in assessing Jesus historically is the effort people who read the various accounts were willing to put into copying and spreading one version versus another.

So when a story about a single ancient manuscript saying something sensational about the life of Jesus breaks in the media, remember that single manuscript is what most people who were around and cared judged as unworthy of the effort of transmission. What counts is the boring discovery of another group of New Testament papyri, too routine to be covered in the media, because that's what more people who were in the best position to know thought was worth preserving for us.

Monday, March 03, 2014

On "A Year Without God"

In our reality TV generation there is class of writers who set out to experience for you that which you can or will not for yourself. Tim Ferriss tries out life hacks, so you won't have to do self-improvement the hard way. A. J. Jacobs, the self-declared human guinea pig, does that which you're either to conventional or lazy to do—like cheating at poker with Google Glass or reading the entire Enclyclopedia Britanica, respectively. For his bestseller, The Year of Living Biblically, Jacobs tried to carry out surface meaning of all the rules in the Old Testament. Blogger Rachel Held Evans rode his coat-tails into The Year of Biblical Womanhood, because it wasn’t fair that women should be excluded from test-driving Ancient Near Eastern customs in a 21st century world.

So in some ways it was not a surprise when a recently resigned Seventh-day Adventist pastor, Ryan Bell, came up on my Facebook feed, just as 2014 rolled in, announcing that his new project would be A Year Without God (with book at the end). What was surprising to me was the way Ryan's year-long experiment with atheism was picked up by US and international media, including an interview on CBC's “Q.”

What's uniquely fascinating about Ryan's project can be best seen in opposition to what came before. Ferriss, Jacobs, and Evans become your human guinea pig in order to convert you to their value system. Whether persuading you to always take the quickest shortcut to accomplishment or that the Bible is a culturally-conditioned artifact that needs to be interpreted through the lens of enlightenment humanism to have modern moral relevance, their experimentation is grounded in fundamental presuppositions about reality.

By trying on atheism for a year, Ryan is throwing presuppositions out the window. He avoids the question of ultimate reality—God—by rejecting identification as athiest, theist, or agnostic. So if you ever wondered where you'd end up were you to rid of all your preloaded beliefs and approach reality as a blank slate, Ryan Bell is your guinea pig. He doesn't want to persuade you about anything. He only wants to live as if God doesn't exist for a year and see if there's any difference between that and the way he was living before.

Except it's not really possible to remove oneself completely from fundamental assumptions. Ryan's assumption is that God, if God exists, is like an exercise program, in that you can go off and on and evaluate effectiveness by noting relative differences. But what if instead God is more like a person, a person like Ryan Bell. If I were to remove myself from Ryan's influence for a year to see if that makes a difference in my life, I would likely conclude that he's good to have on my feeds but not essential and easily replaced with others. And I suspect that the assumptions and methodology behind Ryan's Year Without God are leading him toward an inevitable conclusion: God's nice if you want God, but you can do just fine without.

A personal God wouldn't be like Ryan or any other person in one critical respect: If God is real, you can't take a year without God, because God is what sustains you. You can only end-up choosing to ignore God, and thus reality. So if you want to know whether a personal God exists, you need to reach out for the purpose of getting to know to God, and let God show you if God is real.
This article was originally submitted for the Clergy Comments column of the Fort McMurray Today (February 28, 2013).

Friday, November 29, 2013

"You First"

"You first." These two words constitute a gracious deference in the checkout line when you have two items and the person in front has twenty.

"You first." Now two words are flung back and forth in ill-advised politeness as two individuals insist the other must go ahead.

"You first." On a dark night high in the Canadian Rockies, those two words betrayed the true colors of my tent mate as he responded to my observation that going outside would be the only way to prove whether it was a bear or our fellow campers who had collapsed the structure on our faces as we slept.

In our relationships the line between polite and annoying; between self-sacrifice and self-interest; between what's good for me and what's good for us; can be as ambiguous as the meaning of, "You first." It's hard to know how much we can rely on the good intentions of others when those we trust most are capable of letting us down. And if we're honest with ourselves, it's also hard to know how far our own good intentions can carry us when we consistently put our needs, desires, and expectations ahead others. We demand trust even as a question mark hangs over our own trustworthiness, causing us to question the trustworthiness of others.

In the discipline of game theory there is a classic game called Prisoner's Dilemma. In the simplest variation, two criminal accomplices are taken in by the police for questioning and interrogated in separate rooms. Each criminal has two options remain silent or confess the crime. If both criminals remain silent, they both go free. If one confesses and the other remains silent, the one who confesses goes free and the one who remains silent goes to jail. And if they rat each other out, they both go to jail.

Prisoner's Dilemma illustrates the darkest aspects of the way trust functions our relationships. We need to trust each other in order to accomplish the goals of the relationship. Yet actions based on trust expose us to exploitation by the untrustworthy.

The same dynamic plays out in the stereotypical marriage conflict where the man wants to have sex and the woman wants to talk. Ideally, they would make time for both activities, because both partners would benefit. However, the man worries, What if all we do is talk and never get around to the sex? Of course, the woman has the opposite fear, He'll use me for sex, and we'll never talk. Each has the option to say, You first, and nag their spouse to meet their needs or, You first, and offer to meet their spouse's needs before their own are met.

The difference between the first response and the second is hope. Hope allows us to move beyond the pain of disappointment and open ourselves for the sake of improvement. Where hope is absent, the best circumstances cannot save a relationship; but where hope is strong, the worst challenges can be overcome.

Hope is a spiritual resource. It is not based on risk/reward assessments or objective consideration of one's interests. It is grounded in a conviction that God is watching over us and developed by spiritual practices that nurture a sense of his provision in our lives. If God's ultimate intent is to restore what was lost, I believe we can take that as permission to live our lives with an openness to his restoration in our relationships today.

This article was originally submitted for the Clergy Comments column of the Fort McMurray Today (November 29, 2013).

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Time, Loyalty, and the Exclusion of Other Options

One of my acquaintances recently remarked that she is partisan to the point where she cannot acknowledge any good done on the part of the current Canadian government. But their recent proposal to force cable companies to unbundle their channels has won them her wholehearted approval on that point.

This move is even drawing cheers from media outlets south of the boarder. Apparently, the right of consumers to customize their cable package is unifying force in our divided times—a common interest we must assert (my favorite channels) against a common enemy who would deny us that interest (the cable company).

Because the thing no one in our society can tolerate is the sense of being constrained. We are a culture that believes in order to be free, the individual ought keep open as many options as possible. We apply the have-it-your-way principle from decisions as small as hamburger toppings up to those as life-altering as careers.

Our commitment to non-commitment also has it's downside. It comes in those aspects of life where loyalty and time are required to develop a satisfying experience. I observe this primarily in the area of relationships, where becoming deeply connected requires a choice to eliminate other options and invest emotionally in another.

Of course, other people have their own needs and desires, and will likely end up failing in some way to meet our expectations for the relationship. So we keep our options open.

This is why our society is understood by outside observers as one in which people are quick to declare a friendship exists and able dispose of the relationship just as fast. This is why, when our spouses hurt us, we feel free to turn away from them in divorce, adultery, or that silent killer of marriages, the parallel lives accommodation wherein couples share a house but not a life.

This is why religion has become spirituality, because religion makes demands of us. Instead, drawing on multiple traditions one may invent a customized god who is compatible with ones goals and desires. Recognizing a God who is independent of me constitutes the ultimate restriction.

There is another highly regarded aspect of life that requires a similar level of dedication to relationships: athletics. One must be loyal to an athletic pursuit, put in the time, and deny other options in order to succeed. Athletics teaches us that the things in life that are most rewarding are often hard and difficult. Just as one must be able to endure a healthy level of physical pain and suffering to have athletic fulfillment, one must also be able to endure a healthy level of emotional pain and suffering to have relational fulfillment.

In a society that encourages us to move through life, using and discarding people as it suits us, it takes a brave soul to stand for loyalty and commitment. Don't think you can do it alone. Make the choice to commit to a God, a spouse, and friends who will support you in ways that develop a relationally fulfilling life.

This article was originally submitted for the Clergy Comments column of the Fort McMurray Today (October 25, 2013).

Monday, March 04, 2013

Anti-racist Racist

In his Big Think blog, Moments of Genius, Sam McNerney recently wrote about a trap he calls the "Sartre Fallacy." When first exposed to Sartre's existentialism as a young college student, McNearney became convinced of the importance of living an authentic life—remaining true to yourself despite the pressures of the external world. Because he knew about Sartre, he decided he was living more authentically than his derivatively ironic hipster friends. Of course, what he was doing was defining himself in opposition to his friends, which is the height of derivative inauthenticity.

McNerney defines the "Sartre Fallacy" as "doing the opposite of what you've learned." Here's another example from his college carrier.

Upon learning about confirmation bias—the proven tendency for the mind to latch onto ideas that support prior beliefs while excluding concepts that contradict them—McNerney came to believe that human beings are hopelessly stuck in narrow, irrational conceptions of reality (except, of course, those like himself who understood confirmation bias). But when he discovered himself filtering out information that indicated humans can act rationally, McNerney realized he had confirmation bias bias. His beliefs about confirmation bias had led him to a narrow, biased belief about human nature in general.

I grew up in the first state to send volunteers to fight for Lincoln in the US Civil War, a state that since the civil rights era has always voted for the Democratic presidential candidate, a state known chiefly for its "nice". I learned from a young age that racism is a terrible, awful thing that came into an otherwise good-willed America through race-based slavery in the southern states. I also learned that even though black people now had rights, there was still a big problem in the US South with white people thinking they were superior to black people. So I got the idea that white, American southerners are racists. I was an anti-racist racist.

And I think still am. Just the other day, I found myself telling a friend about how racist white people in Saskatchewan are towards First Nations people, as if here in Alberta we don't have the same problem.

And I'm not the only one. How often have I heard white South Africans accused of being racists because that they are white and from South Africa? Often enough to know anti-racism racism is a common Sartre Fallacy.

As an American living in Canada I have more than once heard my people being painted with a very wide brush. If you're Canadian, ask yourself, Do I know more about the black struggle for equality in the U.S. than I do about the First Nations' struggle for treaty rights in my country?

As a child, being an anti-racist racist helped me feel superior to people who lived farther south than I, but didn't help me feel less afraid of violence whenever I found myself in a predominantly black group of high school kids. As a college student, it didn't help me get involved in causes to reduce racism.

In the Bible, the Apostle Paul says, "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." At the heart of the Sartre fallacy in general, and anti-racism racism in particular, is the desire to use knowledge to feel superior to other people. What if I desired to use knowledge to love other people? Would knowledge then be able to transform me, too?

This article was originally submitted for the Clergy Comments column of the Fort McMurray Today (March 1, 2013).