The Dangerous Passivity of Evangelical Christianity

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Christianity over the past week. I’m not even really sure why. It just suddenly seemed like an important thing to mull over.

I think that mostly there’s been a part of me that misses faith. Christianity was not particularly kind to me for long stretches. I referred to god as “The Cosmic Jackass,” after all. There was something comforting in the notion of faith, though. There was something to be said for having the belief that things would work out in the end.

This is where the thought unravels. That notion of everything working out in the end collides with the Cosmic Jackass God and nothing survives the resulting explosion. Everything that was to work out was to work out as god’s will, after all.

As much as I’d like to say this explains every single one of my problems and walk away I cannot. This is a point of departure. It’s a place where Christianity combines with the thing I like least about myself and creates a monster that I still cannot quite seem to shake.

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I’ve always been afraid of the unknown. This, I suppose, is not a unique fear. I’ve always seemed to take my fear to extremes, however. I’ve never made an important life decision without attempting to analyze it from every possible angle a hundred times over and then trying to account for every possible factor that might come up down the road. I’ve never looked at the easy decision and then looked at the hard decision and said, “Yeah, I’ll do the hard one.”

The hard decision is scary. The hard decision is fraught with failure.

The hard decision is every decision I’ve ever wanted to make.

Many years ago my job went down to Texas. I had no urge to move to Texas. It was a guaranteed position and they’d pay my relocation expenses, so to Texas I went. I spent a miserable year and a half living in Dallas before moving back to Chicago to take a job working for the same boss on the same team at the same company as before. I didn’t want to do that, either. I had to leave Texas for my sanity but what I really wanted to do was move to Seattle. The Chicago move was the safe move, however, so I took it.

I was back at that company for three years. I started hating it about 3 months in. I didn’t feel secure at all, as the higher ups kept playing with our budget and we were constantly on the losing end of those awesome, unavoidable corporate turf wars. Eventually I lost out to a good, old-fashioned re-org. Things have not quite gotten back on track since then.

This is where faith would be nice. There’s nothing better than being able to pray and knowing that god will sort it all out in the end. This is where faith is the most dangerous. There’s nothing worse than praying for god to sort it all out in the end and then expecting that to be the case.

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I decided in the first grade that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I am a grown up and I am not a writer in the sense that I meant. Blogs were not exactly a thing back in the mid ’80s. We hadn’t even hit Web 1.0 yet, so Web 2.0 and the blogosphere were impossible to comprehend. Still, if someone had told me, “Hey, you’re totally going to be a writer. In about three decades you’ll be occasionally spitting out three pages of randomness for maybe a dozen people to read,” I would not have been impressed.

The thing that I’ve realized is that being a writer is scary. The writing itself really isn’t. I write a lot and I write all good-like, too. It’s that step from being a guy who writes to being a writer that’s scary. It’s the part that requires putting work into something and then finding out that no one wants to read it that hurts.

So back when the blog thing was first happening I started doing that and in the back of my mind was this idea that someday I’d be discovered and everything would be amazing. There were, of course, about a million other idiots with Blogspot accounts doing the same thing. They probably didn’t get discovered, either.

This is where Christianity comes back in. See, I was taught in church to believe that if you wanted to do anything you needed to pray about it. God, to reduce many a sermon to the simplest possible explanation, had one of three answers to prayer: “Yes,” “No,” and “Wait.” You’ll notice that nowhere in those answers is an option for, “Get off your ass and make it happen, you lazy bum.”

Whenever a Christian is afraid of something or worried about something or not sure of what path to take they’re encouraged to take it to god in prayer. This means many different things in the various Christian traditions so I will only speak to the one I grew up with. I was encouraged to basically go to god and say, “Hey, I want to do this thing. Is that in your will?” It was then proper to engage in a convoluted casting of runes and reading of signs and such for a while afterwards.

This part is always a little weird to explain to people who didn’t grow up in that world. Evangelical Christianity doesn’t really want to be associated with the excesses of the Pentecostal movement and the various other congregations that speak in tongues and dance in the aisles and get slayed in the spirit on TBN. They’re still extremely interested in engaging in the prophetic tradition, however, so there has to be some way that god speaks. Usually what that means is that you pray for guidance in whether or not to become a writer and then the next day someone knocks on your door and says, “Hey, I’m looking for someone who’s interested in writing novels for a living. Do you know anyone like that?” It’s not usually quite so explicit as that, of course, but I’ve heard stories that do basically go that way. More likely it’s about praying for something and then an hour later you hear a song and that song seems to have something to do with that thing you were praying about so god must have given you an answer.

It’s…it’s pretty stupid when you’re standing outside of that world and looking in. It makes all the sense in the world when you’re doing it, though. You’re surrounded by people who believe the same thing, after all. What else are you supposed to do when you genuinely don’t know what to do, so you go ask someone you trust and are told, “Bathe this in prayer. God will show the way.” That, by the way, is the answer to every single question more difficult than, “Should I have Trix or Cocoa Puffs for breakfast?”

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The process of growing up is all about taking steps out of shelter and fear and into the big, bright world. If there’s a scale of timidity from “Scared of your own shadow,” to “Fuck, yeah, where’s the GoPro?” I’d say that I was way more on the scared side. I never wanted to make waves. I never wanted to break rules. I never wanted to get in trouble.

Christianity did not cause this particular personality tic. Christianity did, however, basically destroy my ability to deal with it in any sort of constructive way. Prayer, after all, is the gift that keeps on giving to someone who doesn’t want to make a decision. Expecting god to show up and tell me how to handle that thing that was bugging me meant that I could put everything off. I didn’t have to try. God would tell me what to do. I never learned how to say, “I want this,” and then go after it with everything I had.

That’s another interesting problem that comes with the particular strain of Christianity with which I was raised. You’re not supposed to want anything other than god’s will. For me that meant that I wasn’t allowed to want anything.

It’s taken me years to figure that whole thing out. There I was, desperately praying to my ceiling in the middle of the night because I wanted to hear god’s will for whatever was vexing me. Then there were people who would just kind of show up and announce, “I’m gonna go do this because god said so,”[1] and whatever that thing was just so happened to be exactly what they wanted to do. It always seemed to convenient, so arrogant, so deluded. They were dictating to god, after all. I now realize that it was much healthier, developmentally speaking, than my strategy. It’s also the sort of thing that becomes spectacularly dangerous in the wrong hands.

The people who just somehow meshed god’s will with that thing they wanted to do anyway were bypassing the uncertainty and indecision phase of life and figuring out how to move forward. I wish like hell I’d learned how to do that. It’s super easy. “I hate my job, should I go find a new one?” Shake that Magic 8 Ball and, whaddya know, it always comes up with, “Signs point to yes.”

This whole thing becomes spectacularly dangerous when the questions and attitudes become dangerous. Like, say, you think that black people or women are getting just a little too uppity and want to know if god thinks that it’s time to go shoot up a predominantly black church or set a Curves gym on fire. Most Christians would not go to this extreme, but some obviously have and some will in the future. The strain of Christianity with which I grew up offers cover to that way of thinking.

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In the end I can’t blame Christianity for the fact that I tend to shy away from pursuing the things I want out of life. I can, however, blame Christianity for reinforcing my timidity and offering a way for my fears to dictate my actions while deflecting the focus of those fears onto an external force. These are long-held habits, after all, and they don’t just go away overnight.

The good thing, I suppose, is now that I see this pattern I’ve come to realize I don’t really miss faith all that much. I cannot be saved from my current predicament through faith. It’s going to require work.

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[1]Everyone who pays attention to politics in America is familiar with this phenomenon. The last few Presidential election cycles we’ve had a glut of Republicans who have zero chance of winning and who no one even likes very much who announce that god wants them to run for President and then completely disappear by the time the race really heats up. Or earlier. Everyone outside of, say, Mike Huckabee’s tiny circle of supporters rolls their eyes at the stupidity of the whole thing and asks why god wants Mike Huckabee to run since he’ll poll at -2% for a while until he goes back to doing whatever he was doing before. Then they’ll ask why god wants Huckabee to run if last week god told Rick Perry to run and the week before that it was Bobby Jindal getting the call.

It’s a specific way of communicating to a small percentage of the population. Hopefully it makes more sense now.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Belteshazzar?

So there were these four Jewish dudes. Their names were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. They were burly, strapping young lads at a time when the Babylonians were in charge over in Israel. Nebuchadnezzar, the king in Babylon, was all about having Jewish captives in Babylon to keep the Jews in line. It was custom at that time.

So Nebuchadnezzar, who’s better known as the hovership in The Matrix, was interested in getting his new subjects to go native and figured the best way to do it was to take their highest quality young folk and, um, Babylonify them. So he gave them names that were more Babylon-y than Jewish-y. So he called Daniel Belteshazzer. Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah got names that would be familiar to anyone who grew up in Sunday School: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. For the younger folk they might be better known as Rack, Shack, and Benny.[1]

Our four little buddies then had a series of adventures. There was the one where they ate a bunch of vegetables because the king’s food was too sinny or something. Then there was this other one where they didn’t bow to some idol. Then there was that one time Rack, Shack, and Benny got thrown into a fiery furnace while Daniel was back home visiting his mother and presumably using his Kung Fu skills to clean up his old block that was now infested with a gang of Illyrian toughs or something. I assume there was a romantic subplot involving his old high school girlfriend, too. Daniel also interpreted a few dreams and gave us the phrase “the writing on the wall.” He was an all around cool dude, y’know? Like Idris Elba.

The one that I want to talk about is the last story in the cycle. It’s the famous one about Daniel[2] in the lion’s den. You know the story, right? Daniel got thrown into the lion’s den. The lions didn’t eat Daniel in spite of the fact that they were super hungry. King Darius realized that the god of the Jews was super awesome and bowed his head or whatever. Then everyone lived happily ever after until Alexander the Great showed up and ruined everything.

The part I care about, though, is the why of Daniel being in the lion’s den. See, he was a super popular adviser and seer under the Babylonians, because god told him stuff and all the prophets of the false Babylonian gods didn’t know nothin’ from nothin’. Daniel even prophesied the very night Darius and the Persians would take Babylon from King Belshazzar.[3] Darius was so impressed by him that he made Daniel one of the most powerful men in the Persian Empire and satrap over the former Babylonian territory. So what happened?

The king’s other advisers didn’t much like Daniel, so they tricked the king. They got him to sign a decree under the law of the Medes and the Persians that people could only pray to the king for a certain period of time and violation of the law was punishable by lion. Well, it turned out that Daniel rather famously prayed out on his balcony every morning. To his god. So it became a gotcha game and, sure enough, Daniel got got. The king didn’t actually want to put Daniel in front of the firing lion,[4] but his hands were tied, since the laws of the Medes and Persians just couldn’t be broken,[5] not even by the king. So into the pit Daniel went.

But Yahweh would not take that assault on his favored son lion down. Daniel survived, the king himself got him out of the pit, and for a moment it seemed the only losers were the poor, hungry lions. So the king solved that by throwing those other guys who tricked him down. It’s a win-win!

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There was this one time Jesus was preaching, as he did. He was on a roll, y’know? Pharisees this, faith of a mustard seed that, kingdom of god. Real good stuff. So in the middle of all this he told his followers not to pray as those pagans and hypocrites did, out on the street corners and all braggy-like. He told them to go pray in secret. Hide in the closet if they have to.

Proponents of secular culture in America love this part of Jesus’s wisdom above pretty much anything else. See, we have this real problem in America of people deciding they need to get all Jesus-y in public and rub everyone else’s face in it. It’s tasteless, really. Like having sex on Main Street right there in front of the elementary school and fire station. Nobody wants to see that. Well, I don’t know. Maybe if it was, like, Scarlett Johansson and Charlize Theron we’d all stop and let it happen and then we’d spend the rest of our lives talking in hushed tones about where we were the day an entire town uploaded videos of ScarJoCharThon[6] to YouTube at the same time. But, like, if it was just some random middle-aged couple who have a really specific fetish that they finally worked up the courage to try we’d all be like, “Ew, stop that. Regular people are gross.”

Religion is like fat people having sex is what I’m saying. It’s pasty and kinda floppy and there’s way too much grunting. Wait, where was I going with this?

This particular preaching from Jesus is actually kind of weird. See religion at the time was a public practice. We’re talking about a part of the world under the thumb of the Romans, who appropriated most of their culture from the Greeks. Religion was totally a public spectacle for the Greeks and the Romans. The Greeks were even a step back from some of their neighbors, notably the Egyptians, for whom religion was an all-consuming aspect of everything.

For the Jews the notion of religion as public spectacle was a big deal, too. That’s why the building and rebuilding of the Temple was such a big deal to them. Ezra didn’t head back from Babylon with Cyrus’s blessing so he could supervise the rebuilding of the Temple and then go pray in the root cellar for fear someone would see him.

I don’t think Jesus had any real problems with public religion. His real problem is right there in the beginning of Matthew 6: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your father who is in heaven.” It was an attack, as we so often see in the New Testament, on hypocrisy.

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So here we get to the heart of the problem. Whenever someone does something blatantly religious in public in America people who are against that sort of thing throw Matthew 6 at them. This doesn’t help, though, because those people see themselves as living out Daniel 6. So when we all take to Facebook and Twitter to mock them they see themselves as being thrown to the lions.

Sometimes this sort of behavior needs to be smacked down. Is a judge starting court sessions with prayer? That’s a problem. Is a public high school teacher telling gay kids they’re going to hell in sex ed classes? That’s a problem. That sort of thing needs to be stopped. It’s against the law.

Most of the time I think this behavior should be ignored. Is some jackass trying to start a controversy because of the color of a coffee cup? He can be ignored. Is some has-been celebrity reinventing himself as a warrior for Jesus? Who cares? I tell you, they’ll get their reward in full in the form of page views. Let’s try to make that number as close to zero as possible. Because while we all know they’re just being assholes they think they’re being latter day Daniels. Silence is the best response in that case.

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[1]This has now brought us to the part of the show where Geds goes to YouTube and watches VeggieTales videos. So I watched the Hairbrush Song and Song of the Cebu and, wow, VeggieTales have not aged well. Song of the Cebu used to be hilarious.

It’s kinda weird, too. It’s not like I was only allowed to watch VeggieTales in my youth. I was out of high school by the time they got popular. But I worked in a Christian book store at the time and VeggieTales was huge money, so I was quite familiar with the whole thing. It was enjoyable and silly in a way no Christian children’s entertainment had been before. Most of the previous stuff was just terribly earnest and kinda creepy. I present Bibleman for your viewing…uh, pleasure? VeggieTales was way better than this. Not that it takes much.

Also, yes, that’s Willie Aames, Scott Baio’s sidekick from Charles in Charge as Bibleman. So if you’ve ever asked yourself, “Hey, what happened to that guy from Charles in Charge who wasn’t Scott Baio, now you know.

I’m terrified to find out what tonight does to further fuck up my YouTube recommendations.

[2]One of the things I’ve always found weird about the book of Daniel is that all four got Babylonian names, but Daniel remained Daniel while the others were always Rack, Shack, and Benny. Meanwhile, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego aren’t really Babylonian names. They’re undoubtedly symbolic of something.

Which, actually, gives us a whole different topic of conversation. Daniel is a Jewish name meaning “God is my judge.” The “god” part of that name is right there at the end: El. Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah are all various ways of saying god is great, but the use of god there is Yahweh. This goes way back to the book of Genesis where god is alternately referred to as El and Yahweh, which is a good indication that the early Jewish texts are actually an attempt to merge two different traditions. I don’t actually know if this has any significance. I just find it interesting. Because I’m a nerd.

Meanwhile, Daniel himself is a semi-legendary figure in Jewish myth. It was traditional in ancient literature to attach stories to legendary figures and people had a hard time telling truth from myth. We haven’t advanced too much from there, honestly, even with all of our advances in literacy and communication. Look no further than President Obama, who is single-handedly traveling the country to convert all of the good little Christians into Muslims and take away the guns while using the Constitution as toilet paper and laughing at us because he’s really from Kenya. Meanwhile, all the stupid liberals think he’s just a centrist who’s helping the economy and bringing America’s respect abroad back up from the abysmal levels to which it descended during Bush’s presidency. Poor, deluded fools.

[3]How do we know that the book of Daniel is pretty much made up whole cloth? Timelines and actual historical fact. Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and Darius were, indeed, real people.

Nebuchadnezzar actually did conquer Judah in 597 BCE. Belshazzar did, in fact, lose Babylon to the Persians. Belshazzar, however, was the son of King Nabonidus and the guy in charge of the army that lost to the Persians. This was in 539 BCE, which is 58 years after Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah. Now it’s certainly possible that Daniel lived through all of this. He would have been somewhere in his 70s or 80s, which isn’t unheard of for someone living high on the hog as the king’s favorite advisor.

This is where we hit the other half of the problem, though. Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. Darius the Great became king 17 years later. Daniel 9 referred to him as Darius son of Xerxes. Darius was, in fact, the son of Hystaspes, a minor satrap, and managed to take the throne after a minor scuffle when Cyrus’s sons, Cambyses II and Bardiya, had a minor civil war. Darius, meanwhile, had a son who also took the throne: Xerxes I.

The latter half of the book of Daniel, meanwhile, takes the form of Daniel writing his recollections, including being the guy who convinced Darius, son of Xerxes, to allow the Jewish people to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple. The book of Ezra records that it was Cyrus the Great who allowed that to happen. As far as history goes, we have the Cyrus cylinder, which records Cyrus’s good deeds in terms of sending Babylonian slaves back to their homelands and restoring their native religions and places of worship. It does not specifically mention the Jews, but there’s no reason to think it would.

Our big takeaway here, though, is that the book of Daniel is problematic, historically speaking. It seems likely that it was written by someone who knew enough to know some real names, but didn’t know where they belonged. So we’re talking about someone who lived much later. Most scholarship points to the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who was rather famous for being the Hellenistic king at the time of the Maccabean Revolt.

[4]Firing lion. Firing. Lion. I just wrote that. I feel good about it.

[5]I’ve studied the history of this area in some detail and never run into a reference to this unbreakable law outside of he book of Daniel. It seems to me more like a convenient plot device than anything else. The entire first half of Daniel comes across that way, though. The king’s jealous advisers see that the 4 Jewish guys are prospering so they convince the king to do something that will result in their deaths. They don’t die and in a convenient reversal the jealous advisers are hoist on their own petard. Then the king orders everyone to obey the Jewish god. Then the credits roll and, “Next week on the Dukes of Babylon…”

And now I’m seeing four guys on a chariot named the General Zedekiah jumping ramps over the Tigris to escape Boss Neb and Sheriff Rothbus P. Coltrazzar. And I’m not gonna lie. I would watch that.

[6]Pronounced “Scar-Jo-Char-Thon.”

The Unbearable Rightness of Being

I’d been working up a theory about why you don’t want Ben Carson as President because brain surgeons make terrible polymaths when the whole pyramids-as-granaries thing broke.[1] The theory is pretty simple. Becoming an amazing brain surgeon doesn’t reward any activity that isn’t devoted to becoming an amazing brain surgeon. Every waking hour that isn’t dedicated to the singular task of becoming an amazing brain surgeon is, in a way, a wasted hour. As such, you can be an amazingly brilliant brain surgeon and know absolutely nothing about the mechanics of tying your own shoe and that will be fine. Your practice will find someone to tie your shoes for you.

A brain surgeon, then, probably hasn’t spent a lot of time studying the geopolitical realities of a post-Cold War world. A brain surgeon probably hasn’t spent a lot of time studying Russian history from the Bolshevik Revolution forward. A brain surgeon probably hasn’t written a lot of treatises on the effects of gunboat diplomacy on the subjects of European or American colonialism. There’s also a pretty good chance that a brain surgeon hasn’t studied the long-term social effects of slavery or looked at the impact of the Union movement or checked to see if Reaganomics are actually a valid economic theory.

This isn’t to say that every president has done such things. A brain surgeon, however, isn’t required to deal with any of those things outside of possibly taking a few blow-off gen-ed courses during college. A lawyer has to deal with at least some aspects of the Constitution and the history behind case law. A lifetime government civil servant has to have some knowledge of the population they’re working with. Someone who came from the State Department or, theoretically, Senate has had to deal with some aspect of international politics. They might not necessarily be brilliant, single-minded people, but in most situations a broad, shallow pool of knowledge combined with curiosity is far more useful than a single, deep hole combined with drive and focus.

This isn’t something that the general population understands, of course. We shorthand “rocket science” and “brain surgery” as “really, really smart shit done by really, really smart people.” The weird thing is, though, that we’ve largely demystified the idea of the “rocket scientist” as the all-around brainy guy. In movies and whatnot he’s usually the one with glasses slightly askew, a tendency to not pay attention to what other people are saying, and an obvious unfamiliarity with the basics of fashion and comb usage. The “rocket scientist,” then, is smart but not aware. The brain surgeon, however, is a doctor. And we all know that doctors are suave and sexy and smart and sleep with all the nurses and shit. This is because the “rocket scientist” is a nerd and the brain surgeon is not. Nerds aren’t cool.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I said my piece on Carson’s stupidity in re: pyramids and walked away. Something didn’t sit right with me, though. His pyramid thing was stupid, yes, but it’s a particular variety of stupidity that I recognize all too well. Then Fred Clark cleared it all up for me. That was nice of him.

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I cut most of my ties with the Christianity of my youth in the months and years following my departure but a few remain to this day, mostly in the form of the few friends who I still love and respect and who still love and respect me. It makes for some interesting blasts from the past, however. Like, this morning when I was introduced to the thoughts of an old pastor of mine attempting to engage the internet with a bit of the ol’ Socratic Method.

He pointed out that the world thinks Ben Carson is crazy because of the whole pyramid thing, but then asked why we don’t think Hillary Clinton is similarly crazy because of her belief that people came from amoebas by way of bats and monkeys and whatnot. He then linked to an article in the New York Times and I clicked it because I wanted to see what kookiness Hillary applies to evolution.[2]

The article happened to be about what Hillary Clinton would do as President for public policy about science. It was, on the whole, some pretty amazing stuff about how she’d lower the restrictions on the use of stem cells for research and stiffen the government’s defense of the teaching of evolution in schools. It made me like Hillary just a little bit more.[3] And it became quite obvious that the monkeys and bats and amoebas were just poetic license on the part of the pastor.

This, then, is the problem with Ben Carson’s odd belief in the true purpose of the pyramids. I grew up in the church. I grew up with the pastor in question as one of my pastors for at least half a decade. The first time I can recall ever hearing the pyramid theory espoused by Ben Carson was when I was reading an article about what Ben Carson thinks the pyramids are for. This is not something that was ever, to the best of my recollection, taught to me in church. But it’s something that’s being used to call into question a different candidate’s belief in evolution. Because Carson comes from a place of Truth while Clinton doesn’t. It doesn’t actually matter that most Christians also probably believe Carson is completely and totally, provably, wrong.

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I left the church and religion of my youth because of moments like this. I was a bright, inquisitive kid who asked a lot of questions. A lot of the time those questions were answered with cobbled-together answers similar to Carson’s theory of the pyramids. These just-so stories filled to answer the immediate question but created greater and greater problems down the road.

The farther I got down that road the scarier each successive step got. I couldn’t avoid learning. It was just something that I did. I couldn’t avoid using each lesson as a jump to some further point of learning. And, from time to time, those just-so stories came into sharp focus.

In the book of Genesis, for one, we’re told that Adam and Eve had sons named Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel. Cain then lied about it and was marked by god so that others wouldn’t harm him and ended up going somewhere else, getting married, and starting a city. Wait, what? Where did these others who wanted to harm Cain come from? Where did his wife come from? How do two people found a city?

Actually, come to think of it, I never got a good just-so story to explain that one. Inconsistencies and impossibilities like that vexed me. The fact that I couldn’t ever truly explore the end result of such inconsistencies bothered me a lot more.

I learned about evolution in biology class and more-or-less accepted it as a thing. That was the first place where I got myself into trouble. Studying history in college was what split everything open. All of those questions I had avoided asking, all of those just-so stories I had avoided examining too closely all fell apart.

Believing that the pyramids were used to store grain is relatively harmless. I mean, it’s utterly wrong and might cause Peter Weller to cry himself to sleep at night, but in the grand scheme of things it’s no more or less harmful than believing that ancient aliens landed spaceships on the Great Pyramid at Giza.[4]

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One of the great dangers of being bright and inquisitive is that you learn too much about too many topics to allow the bullshit to hold sway for long. For instance, I love history, but I’m not particularly interested in Egyptian history. Still, it’s an important enough subject that while I don’t know enough to argue with a true Egyptologist I do know enough to tell Ben Carson exactly why and how he’s wrong about his theories of pyramids as grain storage and explain to the ancient aliens people exactly why they’re wrong about their theories of pyramids as power plants. I also love science fiction, which has caused me to learn enough about real science to both know why it’s laughable to think that the universe is 6,000 years old and why JJ Abrams is a freaking moron.

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The Christianity in which I grew up offers many rewards to someone like Ben Carson. It pours praise on someone who wants to single-mindedly pursue a path to knowledge that doesn’t challenge Christianity itself. It then praises him as a “man of science” who still manages to believe in that Christianity.

The Christianity in which I grew up also gives people who know nothing of real science a platform to take potshots at people who actually do understand it and its importance in the modern world. It rewards them, too, because there are so many people who are afraid to try to reconcile that Christianity with what they read in textbooks. It doesn’t hurt anyone’s faith to point out that we actually do know what pyramids were used for and we know what Egyptian granaries looked like because they can simply say, “Oh, so there was still a place to save seven years’ worth of surplus? Neat.” They can’t do that with knowledge that the planet is 4.5 billion years old and an occupant of a 13 billion year old universe when their pastor tells them that the planet popped into being some few thousand years ago and all the animals and humans popped up in the space of a week.[5]

The Christianity in which I grew up has no place for people like me. Ben Carson illustrates that bit of truth. My former pastor illustrates it far more effectively.

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[1]For anyone who has managed to avoid the internet for the last few days, here’s a shorthand: someone unearthed a video of a Ben Carson speech back in college where he claimed that the pyramids were built to store grain in Bible times because of the part in the book of Genesis where Joseph predicted seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh then ordered food from the first seven years stored to make it through the second seven years. Hilariously he also used that as a chance to attack the people who thought that pyramids powered alien starships. So Ben Carson was taking potshots at Erich von Danniken before it was cool.

Either way, Carson was asked if he still believed in his theory. He said yes. The internet exploded. So meme. Very fun.

[2]Evolution is a weird thing that a lot of people get really wrong in the details while getting correct in the overall sense, so I am always interested when I see someone explaining evolutionary lineages. The most common one, of course, is that humans evolved from monkeys. This is convenient shorthand, but it’s wrong. The great apes and the various are our closest relatives, but we did not evolve from them.

Think about it like a family tree. I have a niece. After her own parents I am one of her closest relatives. She is younger than me. That does not mean that she descended from me. We do, however, have a common ancestor in my parents. Humans and chimpanzees are like that. Somewhere deep in the dark mists of time there was some lemur-looking thing that had a family that branched off in two directions because of different evolutionary pressures put onto its various descendants.

[3]Politically speaking right now I am full-on feeling the Bern. I voted for Obama back in ’08. I will vote for Hillary and won’t consider it a clothespin vote or anything. She’s a little too war-mongery for my tastes and tends towards that whole political triangulation thing that Bill perfected back in the ’90s, but I think she’s more liberal than we’ve been lead to believe, since she seems to be perfectly comfortable shifting her positions leftward to compensate for Bernie’s popularity. If anything, I think that the two of them have been setting up for Hillary/Bernie ’16 for a while. I can always be proved wrong by this, but I said right after the pair started their campaigns that I would love to see that ticket and couldn’t imagine the Republicans coming close.

The political reality is that Hillary will get the Democratic nomination. Bernie is too much of an outsider and while he definitely has the grassroots that won’t do anything come Convention time. This isn’t 2008 when Obama stole a march by firing up the base, since Obama was already an insider. He brought down the house in 2004, after all, and people were talking about him as a future Democratic Party Presidential candidate. They were just talking about 2016 or 2020 and he accelerated the schedule.

That said, Bernie still has the grassroots support. Hillary is the presumptive candidate, but who is she going to tap for her Veep? Martin O’Malley and that guy who hid under the podium are out. Jim Webb is probably in a shack in Montana right now. There’s always a Julian Castro-type pick for the “let’s appeal to people who can be visually picked out from a freshly primed wall” politicking, of course. Julian Castro is the current Julian Castro-type guy getting all the VP buzz at the moment. I’ve got nothing against Castro. I like him, in fact. San Antonio is a great city and he’s had a lot of experience in local and federal government. But Bernie brings a ground game.

Of course given that Hillary and Bernie have run their respective campaigns with such mutual respect so far it could easily go that Hillary picks Castro, Bernie endorses Hillary, and then goes back to being the Senate’s lovable old Commie curmudgeon. And, yes, I know that Bernie isn’t a Communist. But Socialist doesn’t alliterate well with curmudgeon.

Either way, either scenario might be overpowering enough to force the Republicans to take a Hail Mary with something like Trump/Nugent and just completely blow the whole party to kingdom come.

[4]Or whatever. I’m getting Chariots of the Gods confused with Stargate again. Like, I know that the ancient aliens people believe that pyramids were power sources and connected with the space people, but I don’t know if they actually believe them to be landing pads.

[5]Although one of my favorites came recently with someone arguing that the age of the universe keeps changing according to science. The thing is that ever since the advent of modern telescopes the number has changed, but most of the numbers are somewhere close to 13 billion years and while the numbers “change” it’s not because they’re wildly swinging around from one place to another, but because they’re becoming more precise. This is an important nuance. It’s not like some scientist is going to show up tomorrow and announce they’ve definitively aged the universe to 27 trillion years. It recently moved from 13.73 billion years to 13.82. On one level that’s a 100 billion year swing, which is pretty huge. On the other that’s a tiny fraction of 1% in terms of difference and it’s actually within the margin of error given on the previous best guess.

Also, the math for figuring out this sort of thing is massively, stupidly complicated. Here, I’ll let Phil Plait explain it all to you.

So…I guess we need to talk about Chi-raq? Sigh.

A year or so ago I woke up to a whole bunch of stuff on my Facebook feed about how Jon Stewart had picked a fight with the entire city of Chicago. I DVR The Daily Show and watch it the next day, so I had not yet seen the episode. So when I sat down to watch it I was fully prepared to see Jon Stewart do something to really insult the city of Chicago. What I saw was this.

That clip is still completely hilarious. For the context, which is kinda cut off at the beginning, Chicago pizza had just been declared the best pizza in the country in one of those stupid internet things that rates shit just as a way to get your aunt to take five minutes out of her usual rants about Obummer and share it on Facebook. Y’know, clickbait.

Chicago and New York have always had a bit of a rivalry. Chicago has always been on the downside of said rivalry. It’s why one of Chicago’s many, many nicknames is “The Second City.” As far as influence and power go, Chicago has always been considered a stepping stone to the real bright lights of New York City. It’s gotten so ingrown that a few years back Chicago finally put the finishing touches on a long project to bring the city a top-quality theater district and what did it call said district? “Broadway in Chicago.”

It’s basically Little Brother Syndrome[1] by now. Anything Chicago does gets overshadowed by a reflexive look towards New York, either to stick out our collective tongues or see if someone from New York is throwing shade. Then Chicago postures towards New York like so many Jeb Bushes talking tough about how we’d really turn the thumb screws on ol’ Vladdy Putin.

So that brings us to Tuesday’s “big,” um, “news.” Famed New York New Yorker of New Yorkness Spike Lee dropped the first trailer from his latest joint, Chi-raq. I briefly talked about this yesterday, but for those who haven’t seen the trailer, which is probably basically everyone who doesn’t live in Chicago, doesn’t have Facebook friends in Chicago, and isn’t Spike Lee’s mom,[2] here it is:

I will admit that I was fully prepared to be pissed about the whole thing. Which is weird, because the first time I heard anything about it was when I was clicking the link from a Facebook post.[3] I remained ready to be pissed until about 48 seconds in when Sam L. Jackson, as the narrator, says the magic words: “They called her Lysistrata.” My immediate response was, “Oh, okay, then. We’re doing Lysistrata.”

For those who are not familiar (which is a group that apparently includes literally everyone else in the city of Chicago and its media), Lysistrata is a famous Greek comedy written by Aristophanes. In it the women of Athens decide to put an end to the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex until the men stop fighting. Hilarity ensues.

Aristophanes first wrote the play in 411 BCE, which was 23 years after the start of the Peloponnesian War and 7 years before its end. There’s also very little evidence to indicate that Aristophanes was actually writing about war, the general badness of war, or the possibility that women withholding sex could actually end war.[4] It was a farce written to comedically explore gender roles in Athens at the time. That’s it. Period.

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The backlash against Chi-raq in the Chicago news and social media was real on Wednesday. I, sadly, did not keep track of the links, but I saw one article that used that most tired vehicle of printing other peoples’ tweets to express its point and reprinted at least one that referred to it as “Shakespeare.” Another, which I think was an opinion piece in the Sun-Times, referred to Lysistrata as a figure from “Greek mythology.”

Both of these things are extremely wrong and indicate that the person writing them didn’t do the bare minimum level of research, like, say, entering “Lysistrata” in the search bar on Wikipedia.

There was another article that went into great detail about how Chi-raq was insulting to the concept of black sexuality and race relations. Most of the articles that I saw were all about how insulting it is to both the city of Chicago and the black folks within to suggest that the solution to the gang violence in Chicago is for all the women to withhold sex. Each and every single one of these objections receive the same response. Well, yeah. Duh. It’s a modern retelling of Lysistrata.

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I’m not a big conspiracy theorist, but in this case I find it necessary to consider the cast of characters, because there might be an ulterior motive here. For one, although Chicago itself is an amazing city Chicagoans have this tendency to be thin-skinned and provincial whenever outsiders, especially New Yorkers, say anything negative about the city. Spike Lee has all but disappeared from the social zeitgeist, but for anyone who was alive during the ’90s he’s synonymous with both black popular culture and New York City. In Chicago itself the “Chiraq” moniker is not exactly considered to be a compliment and there aren’t too many who actually use it.

As such, the notion of Spike Lee releasing a farcical film set in the worst parts of Chicago using a name that the majority of Chicagoans will find offensive and insulting seems like something that’s designed specifically to set off an Internet shit storm. In the world of Internet shit storms there’s truly no such thing as bad publicity and it’s all, every last drop, completely free. So follow the money and ask, “Who benefits from putting out a movie guaranteed to stir up an Internet shit storm?”

Spike Lee.

Boom. I just blew your fucking mind.

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Chi-raq itself follows a grand tradition of taking ancient plays that have withstood the test of time and recasting them in a modern setting the audience will understand. I recently saw a BBC broadcast of Patrick Stewart as MacBeth in a re-casting of that play set in some sort of post-WWII Eastern European nation or something similar. It was quite good. That’s not the re-placing of a play by the Bard that comes immediately to mind when it comes to Chi-raq, though.

No, what comes to mind there is Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet. I have watched the Chi-raq trailer about a dozen times now. I have read a whole lot of articles about how offensive Chi-raq is to Chicago or black folks or black folks in Chicago, but I haven’t seen one that can get past the meta-narrative of the film itself to get to the obvious. Chi-raq looks like a terrible movie. Like, seriously. It looks awful.

See, I don’t trust Spike Lee to handle classical Greek theater. It’s obvious from the trailer that all the pieces are there. He’s competent enough to do that much, but it’s also obvious that he’s not competent enough to do it without making sure we all know how fucking clever he is for doing Lysistrata set in the modern day. Also it looks like he’s gone to great pains to make everything rhyme.

Also, I’m about 95% sure that Lysistrata doesn’t have a narrator.[5] It seems like Sam Jackson’s character in the trailer is a narrator in the film. He’s referred to at the very beginning as “Dolomedes,” who is a character who does not exist in Lysistrata and is probably more of a throwback to the blaxploitation film Dolemite. Since I find it hard to believe that Jackson is only going to be in the trailer what this says is that Spike Lee doesn’t trust his audience to get something as simple as women withholding sex to stop a war. The inclusion of the narrator character is a red flag that says that Spike Lee wants us to know how much smarter he is than we are so he’s going to explain everything to us just in case we miss the implications.

In short, Chi-raq looks like a hot mess. I don’t intend to watch it.

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The best way to avoid Little Brother Syndrome is to stop reacting like a little brother. The thing about Chicago style deep dish is that it’s amazing. It’s also pizza. So if Jon Steward calls it a casserole in his exaggerated New Yawk accent it’s okay to laugh while picking up the phone to call Lou Malnati’s. Because Jon Stewart doesn’t get to define pizza and also HE’S A FUCKING COMEDIAN DOING A BIT. How do I know? Because he stopped in the middle of his own shtick and started laughing.

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[1]That’s probably not a real thing. But it felt like something that needed to be proper nouned and put into the DSM.

[2]Seriously. I didn’t even know he was still making anything and I sure as hell didn’t know he was still making movies. I think the last time he was relevant he was making commercials for the fucking NBA with an Alonso Mourning marionette or whatever those commercials were.

[3]Please note how often in these stories the concept of learning about things on Facebook comes up. It’s almost like there’s a thread that can be followed there or something.

[4]I would, in fact, say that it’s basically impossible to believe that Aristophanes actually thought it was a possibility. Campaigns lasted for months, women had little to no power, and Greek men were free to screw anyone they wanted to. Remember, the Greeks are also famed for their promiscuous homosexuality.

[5]I actually went up to my bookshelves to see if I have a copy of Lysistrata in my possession to confirm my suspicions. It seems that I don’t. I do, however, have a lot of Sophocles and about four different copies of the Oedipus Cycle. Because you never can tell when you’re going to need to write a compare and contrast of multiple English translations of a single Greek drama.

We Need to Talk About Gun Violence in Chicago

Over the summer I went to see Straight Outta Compton. The very first time I saw a trailer for the movie I said, “Oh, they’re doing Jersey Boys for my generation.” Turns out that I was 100% correct. The movie was a brilliant look at how N.W.A. members lived in and spoke about an America that we weren’t willing to talk about in the ’90s but that was plastered all over our TV screens the last two summers as Ferguson and Baltimore and so many other places exploded into protests and fury over the inherent racial divide that has split America since its founding.

The thing that strikes me the most now, though, is how familiar the Compton of the first few scenes of the movie were. I’m white, in my 30s, and from the suburbs of Chicago but I recognized the Compton where we first met Eazy-E, Dre, and Ice Cube. I’ve walked and driven those streets. I’ve participated in their culture. After a fashion. Video game developers at Rockstar stole those streets when they created Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Grand Theft Auto V. It was almost impossible to watch the first half hour of Straight Outta Compton without occasionally hearing Carl Johnson yell, “Grove Street needs yo car!” in my ear.

N.W.A. has passed into the realm of safe history. Dre pushes terrible, overpriced headphones to hipster douchebags. Ice Cube does stupid kids’ movies. Snoop Dogg has become a combination of Michael Jordan and Tommy Chong. The heirs of that movement have gone on to marry Kardashians and do reality TV shows and shit. Suburban teenagers play video games based on the excesses of that world and the hysterics of the news anchors broadcasting tales of those excesses to suburban white people tucked safely in their enclaves.

Yet the scene in Detroit where N.W.A. was banned from playing “Fuck tha Police” but did it anyway and started a riot still resonated. It resonated because the same scenes from Compton have played out in Ferguson and Baltimore. It resonated because while N.W.A.’s world has now become safe for the consumption of sheltered white suburbanites it still isn’t safe for poor black people all over the country.

It’s why we need to talk about Chiraq.

I have never lived within the city limits of Chicago but I consider myself a Chicagoan. I love Chicago. I am convinced that there is no city in America that is better than Chicago and precious few that are of equal importance. As a history major I know that the westward expansion of America never would have happened without Chicago. I know that that very westward expansion brought about the terrible conditions of Packingtown and the Pullman Village and those conditions, in turn, gave us the workers’ rights movement. I am proud to say that the rest of the world celebrates May Day as the International Worker’s Day because of the Haymarket Riots. I used to work a couple block from Haymarket. There’s nothing quite like ordering a Revolution Anti-Hero from the Haymarket Pub if you know why and how both of those businesses pay homage to Chicago’s history.[1]

Chicago’s story is the story of America. America’s story cannot be told without Chicago.

My mental map of Chicago, however, is incomplete. Chicago, to me, is a map of The Loop branching out into River North and various locations along the Brown and Red Lines. It’s The Vic and the Beat Kitchen and the Riviera. It’s the Museum of Science and Industry and Millennium Park and the Magnificent Mile. It’s Hyde Park and the view of the skyline from the Eisenhower.

It’s why my map of Chicago has no place for the news reports of violence in Chicago. It’s why I’m so utterly baffled that much of the rest of the country considers Chicago synonymous with flying bullets and dead bodies. That’s not the Chicago I know. That’s not the Chicago I love.

That Chicago is the reality for far too many people who live within its borders.

That Chicago is also used by far too many people as proof that gun laws won’t change the reality of gun violence. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” the gun advocates say, “Look at Chicago. It has the highest levels of gun violence in the nation and the most restrictive gun ownership laws. That just proves that you can’t regulate guns because criminals don’t care about laws. That’s why they’re criminals.”

There’s usually an unsavory racial commentary built into that sort of commentary, too. Chicago is filled with “those people.” You know, blacks, liberals, various and sundry people who voted for Barack Obama, who only made it into the Oval Office because of Chicago-style machine politics. Chicago is, to many in the conservative, gun-totin’ side of the American political divide, synonymous with everything wrong with America. There’s an unmistakable glee with which statistics about gun violence in Chicago are trotted out alongside Chicago’s historically restrictive gun regulations.

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Let’s say you live next to a river. You also, for some reason, have no indoor plumbing. So every morning you walk outside of your house and take a shit in the river because, hey, the shit washes away. You have a neighbor a mile downriver who also takes a shit in the river every morning. That neighbor’s neighbor also shits in the river. And so on and so forth.

One day you take a trip down river because you need to get something from a town one hundred miles away. As you get closer to that town you start to smell something rather unpleasant in the air. When you hit the town limits the smell is overpowering and you’re forced to plug your nose. Finally you get to the downtown business district, which is located right on the river, and you look out across the river and all you see is a stagnant mire of shit, stretching as far as the eye can see.

You do your business in town and beat feet back up river to your home as fast as you can. When you get home you say to your family, “Those idiots in the town live right next to a vast, stagnant river of shit. I don’t know what’s wrong with them.” You then laugh at the idiots who live next to a river of shit.

The next morning you go out and take a shit in the river.

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I woke up this morning and saw this article on my Facebook feed.

I actually came up with the river of shit analogy a couple of weeks ago while thinking about Chicago and guns and all of that other stuff. All of those stories in the news about violence and guns in Chicago pretend that Chicago is a closed system. They pretend that the restrictive gun laws in the city and the overabundance of gun violence exist in a closed system. They pretend that guns can’t reach Chicago from outside of the city or outside of the state which means that Chicago’s gun laws have failed which means that gun laws as a concept have failed.

The strange thing about that is that most arguments about how we can’t possibly stop gun violence with laws come from people who want to build a wall along the border with Mexico and keep the War on Drugs from ever ending. Laws can’t possibly stop guns from reaching Chicago because criminals don’t obey the law but laws can stop people from crossing the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico and Texas and southern California with condoms full of cocaine in their asses.

It’s a strange disconnect, this lack of realization that guns from Indiana might have made their way to Chicago coupled with this belief that drugs from Columbia can be kept away from Dallas. The War on Drugs has been in a constant state of failure since it began but when Obama releases a bunch of non-violent drug offenders from jail it indicates the end of the world while we literally cannot be allowed to do anything about guns even after someone shoots up an elementary school.

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Human civilization is all about attempting to move upriver from the shit. Laws exist to regulate the amount of shit that can be dumped into the river. That’s really all there is to it.

Drugs are shit. Guns are shit. Oil is shit. Plastic is shit. Inflation is shit.

Someone is always living downriver. Someone is always living at the confluence of everyone else’s shit. Laws exist to say, “Hey, don’t shit in the river.”

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I really wanted to be pissed at Spike Lee for making Chiraq. I went to the video of his latest joint ready to work myself up.

Spike Lee is trying to remake Lysistrata in Chicago in 2015.

It works because we’ve been telling the same damn story for as long as we’ve had civilization. Lysistrata made it’s way to Rome and that made its way to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and that made its way to Spike Lee’s Chiraq.

Why does that happen? Because we keep insisting on shitting in the river.

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[1]Also, seriously, Revolution Anti-Hero might just be the second best IPA in the world. Only Dogfish Head 90 Minute is better. I used to hate IPAs. Then I learned of Dogfish Head. At this point the only four IPAs I will drink are 90 Minute, Anti-Hero, and Two Brothers Outlaw and Heavy Handed. But even Two Brothers takes a distant 3rd.