Sunday, May 21, 2017

"It's difficult to promote that which you don't admire"

Mike Rowe was speaking about manual skilled-labor jobs, and how a certain educated class comes across when discussing manual labor, when he said: "It's difficult to promote that which you don't admire." Without getting into the class politics behind that conversation, I hope we can agree that he's right about what it takes to promote something.

While I wouldn't call evangelism "promotion" because it has connotations that I don't intend, still I think the principle applies. I believe that many people are held back in their discussion of Jesus, and of faith relationships, and of the value of religion, by that same problem: we view evangelism as a duty or a proof or a teaching, and may have heard little of what is good about faith and religion. But do we admire Jesus? (Isn't that necessary for worship?) Are we appreciative of his influence in our own lives, our own families, our own cultures? Are we grateful for Jesus' role in our own quest for understanding the world and for loving our neighbors? How about our hope for the future? Have we admired the way in which moral teachings add topcover and strength to our lives and our families and our personal ties?

Before a Christian speaks about Jesus, I think that may be an essential part of our preparation: that first we take a good long look to understand why we admire him.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Could your mind be hacked like a computer?

Recently Martin LaBar (always a good read) mentions futuristic technology that might connect our minds to the internet. He raises the possibility: If that happened, could we be hacked?

Dear friends: Ads and propaganda both exist to hack the mind to a certain extent. If we're careless about ads and propaganda, we're already being hacked. Temptation is also a kind of hack, while we're on the subject. These things are less direct than a neural interface to the internet, and that protective layer is valuable. But please don't imagine that people aren't trying to hack us already. Please don't imagine that they aren't, to some extent, succeeding.

And please consider when I tell you that our minds are already connected to the internet: we have an interface where we still retain some control, and we become annoyed every time that control is violated. We have a (possibly unwarranted) trust that our use of the internet won't be exploited, that we will remain in control of our experience, that we use the sites on the internet (instead of the other way around, and they use us). Notice the things we become angry about during internet use: "I didn't click on that and still another window opened." "They tracked what I was looking for, and now ads are following me around." "They wouldn't let me play the game unless I shared information about my friends, or shared personal information about myself." "The content is free so they force me to watch an ad." "They search the content of my personal mailbox to determine what ads to show." We become angry when our trust is violated. But did anyone actually promise us they would never do those things? So we can be hacked, and currently we have a thin layer of virus protection in between us and the internet: the people who would control us still have to bypass our BS filters (pardon my language), and/or our moral compasses. Those are disturbingly easy to bypass with one-sided presentation or emotional dramatizations. I also believe that many people have already become addicted to the fear or rage that was introduced to bypass their filters; more on that shortly.

First a word on ads and propaganda: Not only is it possible to be hacked, but I don't think it's too unusual to be hacked. It's what propaganda exists for, and there's lots of it on the internet. Advertisements are explicitly designed to hack us. So are a disturbing number of news/opinion pieces, and more than a few "morality-play" themed dramas. "Important" drama with a "message" is a sympathetic way of talking about propaganda. And not all the messages are bad, but we may find ourselves being played emotionally, less able to judge whether there was bad mixed in with something good. If we walk away from a presentation with complete certainty that we should dislike the same people that the presenter dislikes, and with the belief that our new intensity of dislike is more than simply reasonable, in fact it's the only reasonable thing, because they just showed us why ... Er, we've been hacked. I can't remember the last time I saw a news show on either side of the political aisle that was something other than an infomercial for its producers' point-of-view, with its facts and presentation all pre-filtered to leave the consumer with only one rational choice based on that subset of reality. Shows of that nature generally try to plant distrust for information coming from the other side, as a safeguard ... which prevents their faithful viewers from getting a healthy perspective-check. A noticeable number of TV shows or movies are infomercials for or against certain viewpoints, a crafted blend of narrative and propaganda/advertising that is designed to manipulate the viewers into certain likes and dislikes, certain points of view. We're being sold a worldview.

Our filters are often bypassed by playing our sympathies, or by stirring up fear or anger. Unfortunately, we can become addicted to our emotions. I know that there is recognition in our culture that porn can be an unhealthy addiction; that addiction works by playing on lust. But lust is not the only addictive emotion. People might watch certain shows and notice that they tend to come away angry, or frightened for the future, or (less often) victoriously self-righteous. Those emotions can be as addictive as lust, which has long been exploited for its addictive properties and its ability to bypass our good judgment. And people come away with that anger or fear every time they watch a certain show. It's unhealthy. A news presenter might add the suggestion that following along every day is "being informed" or "being responsible" or "doing your part". A drama may urge the viewers not to miss out on the next installment, or the next threat to the hero. So many ways to keep people coming back.

In the end I'd agree with Mr LaBar's concern that unscrupulous people might try to take advantage of the next step in more direct connections between our minds and the internet. I'd offer as evidence: they already take advantage of people now, with the connections already in place. I'd encourage people to start protecting themselves already in our current environment. Grow in knowledge of how manipulation occurs, in awareness of the signs of being manipulated. Be grounded in knowledge of what we want and who we want to be. And develop outside sources for information or perspective, so that we do not become dependent on sources that we cannot reasonably trust.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Should Christians share personal stories when we share about Christ?

Over at CADRE Comments there has been some discussion about whether our changed lives are a legitimate part of evangelism. (See these threads and comments on them: Part 1 and Part 2.)

So what was the practice of the earliest Christians on that? In the Bible, the woman at Jacob's well spoke of her life story as a launching point in talking about Jesus. And I should mention: she was talking about Jesus because she was amazed by Jesus, not because she was amazed by herself or even wanted to legitimize herself. Jesus legitimized her, not the other way around.

There are many people that Jesus healed who are said to have told people what God had done for them. Though if our lives don't show a particular medical miracle, there is a risk that we come across as boasting or self-absorbed to talk about ourselves much.

Also in the Bible, St. Paul goes into his personal life plenty of times -- though if we follow his lead there, it's interesting to see exactly the examples he chooses from his life, and how he looks at them. He talks about not boasting in ourselves, but only in the Lord. He talks about the things he used to be so proud of and how worthless they seem now. He talks about his struggles with his own faults and with unanswered prayers. He talks about the hardships he has endured for the sake of Jesus. He talks about his bona fides and his educational pedigree when he needs to open doors. He insists that, when it comes to humility, he has more occasion than anyone else to be humble, and claims the title Chief of Sinners for his old life before Christ.

A lot of his messages are addressed to those who already shared his faith in Christ. Sometimes there were factions all sure that their approach was the best. Sometimes Christians were boasting their pedigrees against each other to one-up each other and claim the legitimacy over each other. These were the ones he reminded: no matter what our gift is, it is worthless without love. No matter how right our message is, without love nobody will listen -- because it will sound awful. Without love, it easily turns into self-righteous squabbling, and there's nothing spiritual about that.

I think that whether we talk about our lives depends on whether it connects with the people in the conversation. But we certainly don't boast in ourselves, and we make sure we're clear within ourselves that we're not the message.

The greatest message is Jesus' love, the greatest commandment is love, the greatest gift of the spirit is love, and the nature of God is love. The way we deliver that message is with love, or we have already lost the message before we open our mouths.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

What's Wrong With Perfection(ism)

Many of us who seek God are perfectionists. We want to be as good as possible. What's wrong with that?

Let's consider one area where we could excel: the world of knowledge and facts. When it comes to facts, we make every honest effort to be accurate. Accuracy is a good goal; it shouldn't lead us wrong. But the quest to be error-free can lead to fault-finding.

When it comes to people -- including ourselves -- the risk is much greater. The quest to be error-free can lead our minds to cultivate a constant stream of evaluations and judgments. A perfectionist attitude looks at our own actions (or those of others) to find something wrong. Perfectionism easily becomes an instrument of hurt, of attack. When perfection causes harm, perfection isn't even good.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

St Francis' Prayer: Sowing Love In My Own Heart

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love. 
The climate of hatred is thick like a fog, intense like a desert -- and about as friendly towards our health and well being. I can hardly sign on to facebook without seeing a collection of people who want to use that as a platform for explaining why the people they hate are stupid, or looking forward to the evil people getting some poetic justice, or just practicing their favorite insults against their favorite targets. In some cases I actually belong to one of the vilified groups; in others I find myself identifying with people who are despised and marginalized.

But before that sounds too noble: I also find myself angry -- furious -- and tempted to hatred when I look at all the unfairness and abuse. I find myself resenting the arrogance of the people who presume they know so much better than everyone else. I find myself outraged at the hypocrisy of people who claim to be loving and tolerant but who speak of other people with open contempt without bothering to understand their point of view, gleefully assuming the worst of them to justify their hatred.

All it makes is a level playing field. Every injustice and hatred that we see is a temptation to respond in kind. People tend to copy the way we are treated when we respond to others. And sometimes we even adopt the emotions that came with our action. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, there comes a time when justice brings us down to that awful level where the good guys are indistinguishable from the bad guys. Those of us who think we're better than the others are probably kidding ourselves.

If we found some action really unfair or intolerable when the other side did it, why exactly would we want to copy it?  How could responding in kind do anything except make it so that there is no moral high ground?

Instead of copying the wrongdoers, Jesus challenges us to something radically different, something that could actually change the game: treating people decently whether they deserve it or not. Because people tend to copy the way we are treated when we respond to others. And sometimes we even adopt the emotions that came with our action. Treating other people with decency and respect changes us. And if it changes us, may it also humble us that we were not already treating people with decency and respect.

Does that even apply to our enemies? Of course it does. Where's the credit in being good to people who are good to us? Even the worst people on earth may be kind to their own, as Jesus points out. And if that's all we've got going, we're no different. Jesus' words "Bless those who curse you" could only apply to someone who hated us; exactly who else would be cursing us?

The work will be to figure out how to bless the people who are cursing us.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Observing Good Friday: Forgive them

"Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing." -- Jesus, at his execution
Of all the words spoken by Jesus from the cross, three are prayers -- but only one is a petition: forgiveness. He did not ask forgiveness for himself (which many dying people would pray earnestly), but for the people involved in killing him.

To observe Good Friday, and to observe the longer season of Lent, many of us fast on certain days and abstain from all kinds of self-indulgence. But how much of Jesus' point in Lent is about forgiveness? How much of his teaching is about forgiveness?

To observe Good Friday right, I'm thinking of all the people Jesus had occasion to forgive, and thinking how many people just like that I could forgive today:
  • The people who didn't know what they were doing, and thought they were doing the right thing (like the soldiers at the crucifixion)
  • The people who talked a good game, but didn't come through (like Peter at the Last Supper)
  • The ones who didn't do what they could, when we asked for support (like Peter, James, and John in the garden)
  • The ones who didn't stand by us when we needed them (like the disciples who ran away at Jesus' arrest)
  • The people who tried to score personal points at our expense (like Pilate sending Jesus to Herod)
  • The no-shows at our big moments in life (like Thomas on the day of the Resurrection)
We're all the criminals on the other crosses. Lord, forgive the people who have wronged me, so that when my time comes I may die in peace.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

St Francis' Prayer: Let Me Sow Love

I've been praying St Francis' prayer fairly regularly lately, where the beginning runs:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
I found myself wondering: How do I sow love? I know so many people who are full of hatred, or plagued by hateful thoughts, or (at any rate) what they say is reliably about their hatred of others. If we want to be an instrument of that peace, how do we do it?

Love is easier to sow where there isn't hatred. Where there isn't hatred, love can be planted by people getting to know each other: showing common interest and common ground, showing admirable traits or honest struggles. Those things tend to build a bridge. But where there is hatred ... how do we sow love?

I have to start by saying that I've seen it done badly. I've sometimes seen one person who is determined to force another person to say something nice about someone they hate. They maneuver their target into a position where they must grudgingly admit some small decency in someone they dislike. I've never seen it work in changing attitudes; it seems to be more about scoring points. It's about making the other person lose. After that, they have even more resentment. And it ignores that there might be a reason or a history behind it in the first place. Very few people come into their thoughts and feelings without a reason. For hatred, there is often a history of distrust or fear, or someone may have harmed them, or they may have believed an accusation without knowing whether it was true. Or it may have even been true.

So here are my first thoughts on how to sow love where there is hatred:

If there is legitimate reason for someone to be angry with the other, I want to acknowledge that the complaint is valid. If there is legitimate cause for fear of harm or loss, I need to consider that and give full weight to their voice. If I belittle someone's real concern, it will only increase the resentment and decrease my credibility for not recognizing it. If I haven't listened, I haven't earned the right to speak.

There is another angle here: Depending on the cause of the hatred, and the target of the hatred: Does the person have regular contact with someone who nurtures and encourages the hatred? Almost every news outlet, and a growing number of other TV shows, promote hatred of some group or person or viewpoint. There are some groups of like-minded people that seem to exist, or fuel themselves, by encouraging hatred of people with opposing points of view. Sometimes the hatred would fade if it weren't fed.

If someone regularly reinforces their own hatred, we may need to start by simply not getting caught up in it. I've come to appreciate people whose facebook posts are about things that are wholesome and not divisive. Anything that is divisive, if done badly, promotes hatred. Anything that is unifying, if done well, promotes friendship and love.