Andy Savage Ruined Making Out For Me

There is a beautiful young woman on the horizon of my world.  (And I’m…well, hoping for the best but expecting the worst.  Hey, story of my life:  The other guy always gets the girl while I get to go home to my imaginary wife and 2.6 imaginary kids.)

As you might suspect, this is a crush.  Crushes suck, but there is an upside which makes it all worthwhile, in that you have this beautiful young woman out there on the horizon of your world and you’re trying oh so hard to be the very best you that you can possibly be because she’s oh so worth it and today–any day–could be the day she says “YES!!!!!  I’M YOURS!!!!!  TAKE ME AWAY!!!!!”

I have this recurring fantasy that one night I will be out on a date with her and she will want to take the long way home.  This will involve going to a spot I know that affords the best view of the Atlanta skyline you probably never knew existed, watching the sun set and seeing the light of the setting sun illuminate the buildings off in the distance.  Likely there will be some physical affection–hand-holding, arm-around-the-shoulder, perhaps even a kiss–involved.  This is what we commonly know of as “making out”.

Andy Savage ruined all of that for me.

ICYMI (that’s “In Case You Missed It” for those of you who are not millennials or otherwise well-versed in the ways millennials express themselves via texting and/or social media):  Andy Savage was the teaching pastor at Highpoint Church in Memphis.  He resigned earlier this year over an instance of sexual misconduct from twenty years prior which recently came to light as part of the #metoo movement.

Savage had been youth pastor at a church in the Houston suburbs.  He was in his early twenties, in his first real ministry job.  Jules Woodson was a student in his youth group.  One night she was at church late after a youth group function and needed a ride home.  He took her the long way home, as it were, to a remote spot on the edge of town, and there he did the nefarious sexual deed.  When he was done he suddenly fell to his knees before her and pleaded with her, in a panic, to forgive him and never speak of it again.  Woodson recounts the incident in her own words here and here.

Woodson reported the incident to church leadership.  They covered it up and did not report it to the authorities.  Instead Savage was honorably discharged from his role as youth pastor and allowed to leave quietly after admitting only to a minor indiscretion.  Savage returned to his hometown of Memphis, and there he went on to become a celebrity pastor/speaker/writer/blogger.  The incident was never spoken of again until it resurfaced earlier this year as part of the #metoo movement.

This story hits me in a special place.  Why?  Because when there is a beautiful young woman on the horizon of your world and you’re trying oh so hard to be the very best you that you can possibly be because she’s oh so worth it…well, stories like this hit you in a special place.

Andy Savage has ruined “making out” for me.  And maybe it’s just as well.  Because I can’t fathom–don’t even want to fathom–the notion of going out with a beautiful young woman, taking her the long way home, and having it end the way it did for Savage and Woodson.

Chasing Extraordinary

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to volunteer at one of the Passion 2014 gatherings.  As volunteers it is frequently emphasized to us that any of the students passing through this gathering could be the next Chris Tomlin, John Piper, Louie Giglio, or Beth Moore.  Several will go out from this gathering to start megachurches, influence denominations, start hugely successful nonprofits dedicated to providing clean water in Africa or ending sex slavery in India…who knows?  And we get to be on the front lines of serving them during this time.

Certainly, given the law of averages and the size of a typical Passion gathering these days, there is a strong likelihood that the next Louie Giglio, Chris Tomlin, John Piper, or Beth Moore is somewhere in the room.  But what no one seems to want to talk about very much is that the vast majority of these students will not be the next Chris Tomlin, Louie Giglio, or Beth Moore.  Instead, the vast majority of these students will go out into the real world and take jobs as engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants, IT professionals, baristas, nurses, paralegals, plumbers, carpenters, architects, you name it.  The vast majority of these students will live in the city as young professionals, or get married and move to the suburbs and start families.  There they will live as husbands, mothers, fathers, wives, and strive to raise children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.

But in the evangelicalism of our day and age, this is not good enough.

We are addicted to chasing extraordinary.

In so many parts of evangelicalism, Paul is held up as the standard to emulate and strive for.  Look at his zealous, singlehearted, radical devotion to Christ!  Look at what all he went through in order to spread the Gospel throughout the known world of that time!  Look at the passion he felt, that drove him forward in all he did to advance the Gospel!  Shouldn’t you be ashamed if your life is anything less than this?  This is exactly the sort of thing we get from so many pulpits and conferences for zealous young college students in evangelicalism these days.

But who received Paul’s letters?  It was ordinary believers.  Not other apostles.  Not even other pastors.  Paul’s letters were written to ordinary, rank-and-file believers.  Bet you didn’t notice this, did you?

These people, the recipients of Paul’s letters, were carpenters, farmers, traders, sailors, fishermen, shepherds, mothers, fathers, and children.  Compared to the apostles, these people were no great shakes.  Their lives were quite mundane.  They were ordinary people who gathered together in someone’s home to drink their wine and eat their bread and hear the Holy Spirit speaking to them through the words of an apostle.

And then they went home.

And then they got up the next day and lived a perfectly normal life.

And they came back the next week and went through the exact same drill.

And on and on it went, all the way to the very end of their days.

Then they died, and now they are all forgotten.

For most of these people, the most extraordinary thing that happened in their lives was the day they trusted Christ and joined the Christian community.  After that, their lives were completely back to normal.  They listened to the words of Paul, learned from him, then in faith stayed exactly where they were, doing exactly what they were doing before, after he left.

Never in any of Paul’s writings do we get the sense that he was asking his readers to stop being who or what they were.  He never challenged them to pack it all up and go overseas to preach the Gospel.  We never get hints that he is making them feel guilty for living in relative comfort and ease, compared to his lack of it.

For some of you, this idea of identifying with the ordinary rank-and-file believers who received Paul’s letters may seem like a sort of death.  Death to the dream of being extraordinary, of being someone special.

I get that.  I once dreamed that I could one day be the next Chris Tomlin.  I once dreamed that I could stand on a stage and preach or sing in front of thousands.

Matt Chandler, a prominent megachurch pastor in the Dallas area, attended the first ever Passion gathering in Austin as a college student back in 1997.  During those days God turned his world upside down and sent him out as a flaming arrow across the sky for His glory.  Now he is a big-time megachurch pastor, widely recognized as the next John Piper.

Those are the sorts of stories that are celebrated around Passion.  You too can be just like Matt Chandler.  You too can be just like Chris Tomlin, who is now living the dream, married to a former Miss Auburn who is now the woman whom every young Christian woman on the face of the earth would give her very life to be.  Just pray harder.  Surrender more.  Dedicate more fervently.  Live with even greater zeal than before.

I wanted it.  God, how I wanted it.  I have been going to Passion gatherings for over a decade now, just hoping and praying that God would rock my world as he did Matt Chandler’s, and send me out as a flaming arrow across the sky for His glory.

Hasn’t happened yet.

So if this seems like a death to you, death to the dream of being extraordinary, death to the dream of being someone special, I get that.

But for countless others of you, this idea of identifying with the rank-and-file believer instead of the Apostle Paul is the greatest news you have ever heard in your life, next to the Gospel itself.

As noted earlier, we in evangelicalism are addicted to chasing extraordinary.  Meaning that we have GOT to make a good name for ourselves.  We have GOT to do big things for Christ that will be remembered by God and by others for all of eternity.  It is not enough to run your business ethically or raise small children to the glory of God unless you are doing it on another continent, with bullets flying overhead and malaria crouching at your door.  Why?  Because we approach life needing desperately to succeed.  To fail is to die.  Success equals life.

But because of God’s grace, we are free to be ordinary.  We don’t have to go out and turn the world upside down.  Jesus Christ already did that when he won the victory over sin and death at the cross.  We don’t need other people to love, respect, or approve of us in order for us to matter.  We don’t even need anything from God.  Why?  Because we already have everything we need in Christ Jesus.  Because Jesus was extraordinary, it is perfectly OK for us to be ordinary.

The Rich Man and Lazarus: A Picture of Heaven and Hell?

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”  (Luke 16:19-31)

This passage is the fire-and-brimstone preacher’s dream come true.  The issue of salvation presented in stark, contrasting terms.  The reality of an eternity with God or separated from Him in a place of intense physical misery, with a great gulf fixed between the two locations.  The urgency to make a decision right now as to where your eternal future will lie.

In the dispensational way of looking at things that a lot of you are probably familiar with, Hades is the realm of the dead.  Not their final destination, but a holding chamber, as it were, where the souls of the dead would consciously await the resurrection at the end of the age.  This place is separated into two distinct regions: one called “Paradise” or “Abraham’s bosom” where the blessed dead would wait to enter into eternity with God, and the other called “Sheol” where the not-so-blessed dead would await judgment and eternal separation from God.

Only the most ultra-super-hyper-literalist types would think that this story refers to an actual rich man and an actual beggar named Lazarus.  But a lot of you who read this story no doubt think that these are types for every person who has ever walked the face of the earth.  Will you be like the rich man, caring about nothing but your own wealth and comfort, showing no concern for the things of God or the needy in your midst, and ending up in hell?  Or will you be like Lazarus, who had nothing in this life and at the end was taken up to Abraham’s bosom to spend eternity with God?  That’ll preach!!!!!

Not so fast, my friend.

What if Jesus had something completely and totally different in view when he told this parable?

Some considerations:

–First, it is very difficult to show from Scripture that Hades refers to anything other than just “the grave” or “the place of the dead”.

–Jesus was using folktale elements to make a point here.  Notice that he draws the widest possible contrast between the rich man and Lazarus.  Notice also that Lazarus is not actually buried when he dies, but is instead carried off by angels a la Elijah, whereas the rich man is buried.  Bet you didn’t notice that detail, did you?

–Note also that this story does not exist in a vacuum.  Luke has placed it in a specific context.  Jesus has just finished telling the parable of a shrewd manager who, on the eve of his firing, did some creative bookkeeping to help people who were in his master’s debt.  He follows it up with some well-known sayings about money, including “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

The Pharisees know that Jesus is talking right at them.  Luke records their reaction thus:

The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.

“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.”

–Luke 16:14-17

Jesus then goes on to give two specific examples of how they were ignoring the law: the way they practiced divorce (verse 18), and our story.

The story points back to the words about the Pharisees in verses 14-17 by portraying a man who (1) loved money, and (2) justified himself in the eyes of others (note his words and attitude toward Abraham).  The story carries the themes of the Law and the Prophets (verse 29) and the good news of the kingdom of God (particularly in his reference to one raised from the dead in verse 31).  The story knows that God knows their hearts, just as he knows the heart of the rich man, and that what people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.

What if this story was actually providing a warning to Israel, as embodied by their religious teachers the Pharisees, and pointing toward the coming judgment that God would bring upon the nation?  Instead of being about heaven and hell and the urgency for the individual to make a decision for Jesus, this story is about how Jesus is bringing the story of Israel to completion by fulfilling the Law and the Prophets while Israel’s representatives the Pharisees are continuing their ancestors’ unbelief by rejecting the good news of the coming kingdom and by practicing injustice.  So hard were their hearts against Jesus that not even his resurrection from the dead (to which verse 31 is a rather hard-to-miss reference) would change them.

More to the point, the story says, using unique afterlife imagery, that One will be raised from the dead and we are called to listen to Him.

Tolkien, Williams, and Opposite Views of the City

Those of you who are familiar with the writing of J. R. R. Tolkien are probably aware that he was no big fan of urbanization and industrialization.  To him, the unspoiled countryside and simple life enjoyed in places like The Shire and many other parts of Middle Earth was the optimal mode of human existence.  There was a deep distrust of technology and industrialization, and almost a yearning for the rural, arcadian vision of England in times long past.  Cities were, at best, a necessary evil, such as Minas Tirith.  Minas Tirith served a vital purpose in defending Gondor and the rest of the free peoples from the onslaughts of Mordor, but you never got the impression of Minas Tirith as a place where you would want to spend any extended amount of time.  Certainly none of the companions of the Ring, not even the restored king Aragorn, spent a very long amount of narrative time there.  At worst, urbanization was the embodiment of the diabolical, for example Minas Morgul.  Witness Saruman’s takeover and development of Isengard into a headquarters for his war against Rohan in conjunction with Mordor’s assault against Gondor.

I feel Tolkien, a little bit at least.  There are numerous benefits to living in an industrialized, urbanized world, which I am not about to give up anytime soon.  But the unintended consequences of technology have made us at least a little less than fully human while disconnecting us from creation and from each other.  For many of us, our direct experience of creation is limited to the time we spend walking from house to car, car to office, office to car, car to store, store to car, car to house, etc.  And even this interaction with nature takes place in urban or suburban environments where the influence of man upon nature is very heavily felt.  This can’t be a good thing.  I wrote about this in somewhat greater length in response to a quote from Thomas Merton which expresses similar sentiments.

Just lately I have been exposed to Charles Williams.  Williams was a contemporary of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis while they were at Oxford.  He was never very close to Tolkien and Tolkien lamented the influence he had on Lewis.  (That Hideous Strength, the only novel of Lewis’s to be set in an urban environment, was strongly influenced by Williams.)

Williams’ view of the city is diametrically opposed to Tolkien’s.  Most of Williams’ novels are set in the city.  The countryside appears sometimes, but it is seen as basically an extension of the city–a more aesthetically pleasing and less stressful place, economically dependent upon the city, a place where the privileged few who can afford it go to visit from time to time.

In Williams’ way of looking at things, the city has a special place in God’s economy.  Humanity began in a garden (the Garden of Eden), but is moving toward a city (the New Jerusalem).  Civilization, the fruit of living in cities, is the most desirable state of man; apart from this there is only savagery and barbarism.  The Christian life is intended to be lived in the context of community, and city life forces upon you the realization that you live in community whether you like it or not.  Others have labored to put in place what you see and enjoy as you live in the city; you are simply adding your labors to theirs.  The city is the place where human energies are collected and submitted to the process of exchange–in his way of looking at things the Exchange is not just a Christian doctrine of Christ’s redemptive work applied to sinful man, it is also the means by which we live with others in community, bringing our best work and offering it in return for their best.

You can read more about Charles Williams’ view of the city here:  “On Charles Williams” by Mule Chewing Briars at internetmonk.com.

Mark 6:1-6: Jesus Whose Power is Cloaked Under Weakness

Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.

 

“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

 

Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith. (Mark 6:1-6)

What is the one thing that the people of Nazareth stumbled over with respect to Jesus?  It was his ordinariness.  They knew him.  He grew up with them.  He played with their kids.  They knew his family.  He was the carpenter.  He was homegrown.  They knew where he came from.  And now he is preaching with the authority of God.  Who knew?

This was a stumbling block for the people of Nazareth, and it is a stumbling block for us today.  We have this Platonic idea that holy = perfect.  If it’s holy it ought to glow like it’s radioactive.  It is not enough for the Bible to be the word of God, it has to be the perfect word of God.  The views of divine inspiration of Scripture that are prevalent in much of evangelicalism nowadays would be very much at home in Islam or Mormonism.  We expect Jesus to walk around with one of those goofy looking halo thingys around his head like an old-school Catholic holy card or an Orthodox icon.  As a carpenter he should have been able to produce perfect chairs with zero defects that fit his customers’ bodies perfectly.

Because this is what the people of Nazareth were looking for, Jesus could do no mighty work there.  Not that his supernatural powers had run out and were in need of recharging, or that he relied on faith to make the whole thing work (like Santa Claus relied on people’s Christmas spirit to make his sleigh fly in the movie “Elf”), but that he would not, in the face of abject unbelief, counter it with a show of power.  “Oh yeah?  Let me show you!!!!!”

The people of Nazareth wanted to see a work of power.  But they could not see it because they could not recognize Jesus.  They failed to recognize his power cloaked under weakness, under his being one of them.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” during a particularly low point in his life. His son Charles, without consent, had joined the Union army during the American Civil War and was killed in combat. Around the same time his wife also died in an accidental fire. On Christmas day, 1864, he sat down and penned these words.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and mild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

The carol begins nicely: the bells on Christmas morning remind him of the angels in the Gospels. Peace on earth, good-will to men! Then it takes a dark turn.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

While we can look back and see 1864 as a good year for the Union, for those living during the time victory was not certain. Battles at the Wilderness and the Crater and the siege of Petersburg were bloody, brutal affairs. Coupled with his double-loss, it was no wonder Longfellow despaired. “There is no peace on earth” is a mild sentiment considering the circumstances.

But the carol doesn’t end there:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

This is not mere sentimentality, or a liberal belief in Progress. For Longfellow, the Gospel rings louder than the evil of men. What sin has done to man, Jesus undoes. The canon may boom, but the church bell peals louder.

Ezra 8 and Celebrity Pastors with Police Entourages

Today I would like to quickly address a practice that is becoming quite prevalent among prominent pastors (in my city, at least).  It is the practice of employing off-duty police officers to act as personal bodyguards.

Now, I do not intend to come off like one of those TR watchbloggers who can quote a million scriptures to show that Rick Warren is the Antichrist or that churches with praise bands and Powerpoints are of the devil.  This is not that kind of blog, and that is not the piece I am going to write.

In this day and age, it is a very sensible thing for a well-known pastor to have a police entourage.  There are lots of crazies running around out there, of whom yours truly is at or near the top of the list.  Some of these crazies stalk famous people for their own twisted reasons, and some would like nothing better than to get their moment of fame by knocking off somebody famous.  A celebrity pastor is a very large and inviting target.  On a more serious note, some well-known pastors are involved in ministry in areas of the world where hostility toward the Christian faith runs very high, and this places them in frequent and real danger.

But…

Consider this story from the Old Testament, tucked away in the book of Ezra.  The Persians had just defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple.  Despite opposition from some uncooperative elements in the Persian government, the project was eventually completed.  Ezra, a Jew who served as a high-ranking official in the Persian court, was given leave to return to Jerusalem along with all of the silver and gold articles used in Temple worship, which the Babylonians had confiscated during their conquest of Jerusalem.

Now there was just one problem involved in transporting all this gold and silver back to Jerusalem:  about 500 miles of desert between Babylon and Jerusalem.  All that empty space made a perfect hiding place for bandits, because no law enforcement agency could possibly hope to cover all that space.  The volume of silver and gold to be transported was north of 800 talents, an amount worth several million dollars in today’s money.  This, of necessity, would require a ginormous caravan, which could not possibly hope to travel secretly through the desert.  If word got out that such a caravan was leaving Babylon, bandits would have descended instantly upon it and seized everything of value long before it ever reached Jerusalem.

Ezra would have been wise to request assistance from the king of Persia in transporting all of this valuable cargo across the desert.  As a matter of fact, he would have been crazy not to.  All indications are that the king was ready to provide Ezra with soldiers and horsemen for protection if he requested it.  But he didn’t.  Verse 22 of chapter 8 (NIV):  “I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king:  “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” ”  Sure enough, God was gracious and all of the gold and silver made it to Jerusalem without mishap.

Again, I am not here to say that police bodyguards are unbiblical or that prominent pastors who have police entourages are false teachers leading the flock towards damnation.  I am not [insert name of your favorite TR watchblogger here].

But…

Imagine if there was a well-known pastor out there somewhere who had the kind of faith that Ezra showed in this story.  Someone who would be willing to step out and say “I know that having police bodyguards is a wise precaution for a person in my position, but I believe that God is gracious to all who look to him.  I know the risks here, but God is bigger than all of them.”

Imagine what it would do for the Christian movement to see that kind of faith in our world today.

On the limits of prescience

“Daily Delivery” by Rob Gallop

Like many American boys my age, my first job was as a paperboy. For those who don’t know what that is, there used to be these things called newspapers that gave you all of yesterday’s news, and companies would hire local boys to hand deliver them to people’s houses. You could also buy a newspaper at a store, or through a machine that operated on the honor system, but many people, especially old and fat ones, preferred to have a boy deliver them to their doorstep so they wouldn’t have to actually get out of the house.

Anyway, every day I would get a stack of newspapers delivered to my house by a van-driving middle aged guy who had a, I don’t know, rapey quality about him. (I know, you’ve always wondered “Who delivers to the delivery guy?”). I would then put the newspapers into individual bags and proceed to drive my ten speed around town so people could finally figure out whether they won the lottery or which of their friends was arrested the night before. I did this every day, including Saturday and Sunday morning, for about two years. For all of this work, I was only paid $150 a month, plus tips. No one ever tipped me.

At the same time, I also fancied myself a bit of a writer. A science fiction and fantasy writer, no less. I imagined a future where I would live in New York, rich off of all my short story sales, drinking champagne every night and hanging out at a lot of coffee shops. Obviously, this was before the bottom fell out of the lucrative short fiction market; now, I only imagine living in Poughkeepsie and drinking Coke Zero.

All of this took place between 1992 and 1993, at the height of the Fab Five and right before internet access became commonplace. I was cutting my teeth on Frank Herbert, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Alan Moore, Robert Jordan, and Neil Gaiman while enjoying the musical stylings of Nirvana and Public Enemy. Bill Clinton was playing the sax on the Arsenio Hall show and Michael Jordan was already the greatest basketball player of all time. This was when I was at my most naive and optimistic; in only a year, Kurt Cobain would kill himself and O.J. Simpson would drive a white Bronco down the highway, thus ending my extended childhood and thrusting me into the cynicism of late adolescence.

So, as I was delivering my newspapers, I had quite a bit of time to think. About an hour and a half every day. During that time I would write stories in my head, most of them sci-fi, and most of them very, very bad. I don’t remember most of the stories, but they were probably blatant ripoffs of popular stuff with a very obvious avatar of me as the protagonist. Oh, and I also probably was a ladies’ man, closely depicting reality.

One story that I do remember was decent, but made irrelevant by modern technology. The protagonist was a young paperboy in an isolated farming town who went from house to house with a 3.5” floppy disk (the things used before CDs and thumbdrives but which were not, in fact, floppy), loading the daily news into each home’s central computer. The character would ride his hoverbike to a house, insert the disk, enter his passcode, and upload the news; after upload, the family could read the news on any computer they had, as well as the TV and a tablet like device (the latter stolen from 2001: a Space Odyssey).

The paperboy, who was never given a name, grew tired of hearing all of the bad news. Day in and day out, he would read about war, rape, murder, famine, and even cyber attacks (which seem quite obvious considering everyone had an unsecured disk drive on the front of their house). The more he, and the town, knew about the world, the more depressed they became. So, in a fit of inspiration, the paperboy decided to rewrite the news to make it more upbeat. (It’s unclear whether cable TV existed in this world.) He wrote what he thought the news should be, making nations sign peace agreements and the murder rates drop precipitously.

Sure enough, the people of the village cheered up. They came out of their funk and started being nice to each other, organizing street fairs and festivals. Block parties were a weekly occurrence. Utopia was at hand. But, of course, that could not be. People from the government found out about the paperboy and tried to shut him down. They sent a new paperboy, a paperman, who delivered the real news while attempting to subvert the false news. The paperboy fought back but was, in the end, defeated by the government. The people, who probably knew the news was fake all along, went back into their black mood.

For a story written by a 13-year-old, The Paperboy wasn’t too bad. I’m sure it wasn’t original, and it certainly was inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four and Pump up the Volume, but it was enough to earn me an A+ in Mrs. Williams’ English class. At the time that was all I really cared about. While I was hoping for a literary career, I was much too shy to actually show anyone but my teacher the piece. (NB: I’m still much too shy to show anyone my writings.)

As far as literary themes, the story isn’t too bad. It says a lot about the nature of the news and how we are being manipulated by what our newsmasters choose to tell us, as well as how knowledge does not always lead to enlightenment, sometimes it just leads to misery. This is one of the things I have always loved about Dune, and something that shows up quite a bit in my writing; a character seeks to learn a mystery, but upon learning it discovers the Pandora’s Box should never have been opened.

Another key element is the individual rebelling against the collective. This is quite a trope is sci-fi, especially dystopian fiction, but one that appeals to teenagers. I can imagine how pleased I was at writing about a character who was the only one to see the problem and who took it on himself to fix society’s problems. This is, of course, every teenager’s place in the world.

The ending, a dark bit of business that would characterize most of my stories, was more about my feelings of futility in the face of the adult world than anything. This Cassandra complex, of both seeing the future yet being unable to do anything about it, is perhaps a bit too biographical, but it does sum up how I felt at the time. (And often feel today.)

The problem with the story is not necessarily the plot or the characters, cliches and all, but with the treatment of technology. At 13, I could not imagine a world where the internet existed (although it did exist at that very moment) or where people had an abundance of choices for getting information. In the town I lived in, population 500 or so, not a single person had internet access. The library didn’t and the high school didn’t, nor would they for at least 5 more years. The only options for getting news were two out-of-town newspapers, one radio station, a few TV stations from 100 miles away, and, if you were lucky enough to have cable, CNN. Within that context, it made perfect sense that everyone could be fooled by fake news. I was constrained by what I knew, although I could have imagined greater.

Also, while the idea of someone physically uploading news to your home computer network is laughable today, at the time it made perfect sense. I remember sharing this revelation with my friends, who were certain something like that could never happen. There would always be newspapers, they assured me. Again, we were constrained by what we knew. I knew that one day digital news would replace paper news, but couldn’t imagine a scenario in which the bits would be delivered by wire instead of a person. I understand how stupid this is, since there were already technologies in place that did this very thing (computers, fax machines, telegraphs, etc), but at the time it was the only feasible solution. Also, I really didn’t want to lose my job.

The problem I had, one the affects even great writers, is that there is a limit to what I can imagine. For all of the iPads and cellphones that were predicted, there are tons of things that sci-fi writers just got plain wrong. How many stories had flying cars and ubiquitous jetpacks? How many movies and TV shows from the 90’s still had us using giant CRT monitors fifty years in the future? How many imagined the miniaturization of computers and the rise of mobile computing?

This limit to our prescience is nothing to be ashamed of. Storytellers are not in the business of predicting what will happen in the future, they are in the business of telling really good stories. You don’t read Dune to figure out how the Holtzman drive works, you read it to follow Paul on his journey. You don’t care that much of the hyper and warp drive stuff is crap, you just want the hero to rocket off into the stars. And in the case of my (terrible) story, it’s not important that the paperboy’s technology is outdated, what’s important is that he discovers the truth of knowledge.

John Scalzi’s theodicy

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Warning:spoilers for Redshirts follow

John Scalzi’s Redshirts is a novel with a familiar premise: what if the characters in a story realize they are, in fact, characters in a story? In this case, what if the (thinly veiled) redshirts from Star Trek, characters with whom the viewer is not familiar and who die a spectacular death, figure out they are characters in a pretty crappy TV show?

As far as premises go, this is quite familiar, as one of the characters even points out, but not necessarily bad. Scalzi, who wrote one of the best super-soldier-in-space novels1, takes something familiar and transforms it into an excellent book. Redshirts is, in parts, a meditation on free will, a theodicy, a love story, and one of the best books on writing you will ever read. It is that second part, the theodicy, that I’m interested in today.

A theodicy is an attempt to reconcile the existence of evil and human suffering with the omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence of God.2 Within the world of Redshirts the characters recognize they are surrounded by misery and suffering, but only for a select few. The Captain and other senior officers are rarely affected (with the exception of the lieutenant who is constantly getting hurt only to quickly recover in time for the next away mission), but the lowly ensigns are dying in droves. What’s worse, these redshirts are dying for no good reason in increasingly bizzare ways. One is killed by ice sharks, the next by crazy robots who were given weapons, and another by sandworms that are clearly ripped off from Dune.

Needless to say, life for these characters is something of a hell, even if Scalzi fills the story with his charcteristic humor. They come to realize their lives are guided not by their own actions, or even the fate of a powerful deity, but by some hack writer who makes and breaks rules on a whim. A writer who kills anyone with an interesting back story for dramatic effect, to make an audience feel something right before a commercial break. They come to realize their lives are essentially meaningless, that they can and will be killed without a moment’s hesitation.

When the characters eventually face their creator (and of course they do), they confront him with their grim existence. They throw in his face that his lazy writing has actual consequences, that his use of tropes and shortcuts has ruined lives and is the cause for much suffering in the universe. The writer has no comeback, he lamely attempts to mount a defense, but even he knows it is futile. He is a bad writer who has never written anything good; he is a lazy creator and his creations are revolting.

Christians, when talking about the problem of evil, usually go to St. Paul’s letter to the Romans in defense of God. In the 9th chapter, Paul imagines a scenario where a human goes to God and asks “Why did you make me like this?” God’s response is to point out that he is the creator and has the right to do what he wants. But, Paul goes on, God does this for a reason, there is not a randomness to things but rather he is working things out to create for himself a people, the children of God.3 That’s all well and good if you have a benevolent god, but the characters here have probably the worst deity of all time.

So what do they do? In a dream (that may or may not actually be real), the characters appear to the writer and talk to him. All of the characters he has personally killed stand before him and give their demand: they want meaning to their lives. Their spokesperson says they don’t mind death and suffering, they recognize it as part of the universe, but what they don’t want is to die for no reason. They want their deaths to provide more than just a sense of danger for the Captain or to make the audience feel sad for all of 30 seconds. They want their lives to have real meaning and they want the writer to be the Creator he should be.

Ok, so there really isn’t a theodicy in Redshirts, at least not in the traditional sense. The characters want to figure out why their lives are full of suffering, but they don’t really need to reconcile that with a good god because they discover they don’t have anything like that. But in the end they come to a point where they want something like a theodicy: they want to reconcile their deaths with a larger purpose. They want meaning. Just like we all do.


  1. The best super-soldier-in-space novels, in order of greatness: Starship Troopers, Old Man’s War, The Forever War, and Armor
  2. The Wikipedia article is pretty good on this.
  3. The point of this is not to argue whether Christians are right on this count, merely to explain the most catholic theodicy.

The scapegoat in Benghazi

cc photo “Goat” by Edwin IJsman

On news that the United States ambassador to Libya was murdered, many are questioning how and why such a terrible thing could happen. Various answers have been put forth, ranging from the religious to the political, but each attempt merely looks at a single aspect of the killing, not the whole. In trying to come to a better understanding of the situation, I believe René Girard can be of some help.

Girard’s most famous theory, that of mimetic desire, says that we do not desire things simply because we desire them, but because others desire the same thing. We mimic those around us, which leads to violent impulses and the war of “all against all”.1

“The real source of victim substitutions is the appetite for violence that awakens in people when anger seizes them”

In many cases this mimetic desire results in the formation of an angry mob. “Every time you add one,” Girard has said, “the move towards the unity of the mob becomes faster, it has more power and attraction.” As more people join, as the media reports on it, as more people are talking about it the mob gains momentum.

At this point the violent impulses must be suppressed. A victim must be found and punished, what Girard calls the scapegoat2, an accessible target of the mob’s violence whose death (or expulsion) restores balance to the community. The scapegoat is not referred to as such, in the eyes of the mob it is the actual source of the problems, because the larger object of violence is often unreachable.

In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (chapter 12), Girard says:

The real source of victim substitutions is the appetite for violence that awakens in people when anger seizes them and when the true object of their anger is untouchable. The range of objects capable of satisfying the appetite for violence enlarges proportionally to the intensity of the
anger.

In the case of the riots in Libya, could we say the American embassy was the scapegoat? The rioters, angry over blasphemy against Muhammad, saw America as the enemy but could do little against a far away nation. The ambassador and embassy building represent America and are therefore suitable outlets for violence.

The root cause is our innate brokenness and desire to blame the Other

This seems to be at the root of the type of violence we see in Egypt and Libya. Sure, we can look at religious answers or we can look at the geo-political issues surrounding the violence, but neither of those go deep enough. The root cause is our innate brokenness and desire to blame the Other and restore harmony to our community.

Finally, I think it would be good to caution against creating a scapegoat of our own in our desire to understand this. We can look at someone like Terry Jones, who enjoys inciting religious violence, and label him a crazy. Because we only are interested in self-righteous condemnation, he and his small group of followers thus become our scapegoat. Ultimately, we haven’t actually moved forward.

Update: This post was written immediately after the attack, before all of the details were known. It is now clear this was an intentional attack, not a spontaneous one. The point still stands, I believe, no matter what the impetus for the attack.
 


[1]: I am indebted to John H.’s post at Curlew River here.

[2]: For the Christian, or anyone familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, the scapegoat is a familiar idea. See Leviticus 16.