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.