struggle, spirituality, absurdity

Category: Cultural Nonsense (page 1 of 2)

Richard Dawkins’ “Mild Pedophilia”

Richard Dawkins has recently come under fire for minimizing his own experiences being molested. He apparently dismissed it as “mild touching up,” and insisted that we should not judge past events with modern standards. Dawkins associates this “mild pedophilia” with caning and racism, which were more common when he was growing up (apparently…I wasn’t there). To be fair, he did make a distinction between his experiences and  rape, murder, and more severe cases of human brutality.

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Westboro to Picket at Sandy Hook Elementary

It appears they’ve announced that they will be protesting Sandy Hook Elementary. I can’t say I’m surprised.

What actually surprises me, however, is that they still appear to be operating under the assumption that someone still takes them seriously. In 2007 they were labeled “The Most Hated Family in America” in a documentary done by the BBC with  Louis Theroux. It’s a great show, by the way – I highly recommend it. I remember watching the national media’s reaction to this wonderfully dysfunctional family, specifically noticing how any anger directed towards them simply fed the group’s narcissistic sociopathy (I’m not sure if that’s a real thing, but it fits).

But honestly? I say pity them as you would the kid that starts fights in school because no one believes he really is Batman. Stop taking them seriously, stop allowing yourself to get angry, stop complaining about them. They feed off negative emotion like I feed off bacon: every chance they get.

Start treating them as they really are: deluded, sad, angry people who have no capacity for self evaluation. It is widely acknowledged that the patriarch, Fred Phelps, is a mentally ill, abusive, megalomaniac that keeps his little family in line by means of fear. That’s a hard way to live, both for him and his family.

While I have been pretty snarky during this brief post, what I am about to say is intended to be extremely serious (so please don’t send me any hate mail): Listening to( and reading) the rants by their leader, Fred Phelps, it is fairly clear that he suffers from at least a personality disorder and quite possibly other significant mental health issues. I find it deeply ironic and unsettling that they will be demonstrating in the wake of an event that will hopefully bring mental health awareness/issues to the national conversation.



Superhero Jesus

Everyone knows Spiderman. He flips around with web shooting out of his hands and beats up bad guys. But…if you ask how he gained all those superpowers, you might get different answers depending on the generation of the person you are asking. The older crowd knows that he was bitten by a radioactive spider, which, rather than giving him leukemia, made him a hero. However, the younger generations would answer that he was bitten by a genetically modified spider. Why the difference?

Stan Lee created Spiderman in the early 1960s. In the cold war era, when it seemed like nuclear war was both inevitable and imminent, radiation and nuclear fallout had Americans shaking in terror. Spiderman being bitten by a radioactive spider spoke to an underlying fear that resonated with many.

Spiderman’s popularity experienced a resurgence in 2002 with a new series of movies. This time it wasn’t radiation. A genetically altered spider bit Peter Parker, which makes perfect sense. In 2002, the Human Genome project was about a year from being completed, with rough drafts of the entire human genome already being disseminated. It was an amazing accomplishment. At the same time, our culture was becoming more aware of the possibilities and dangers involved with genetic modification. It wasn’t the radiation of the 1960s, in part because we were doing it to ourselves (and our food).

This is a small example, but it shouldn’t be too surprising. Artistic expression often works with themes that resonate in culture, even when those themes aren’t obvious. In fact, I have a hunch that literature (and I use this word very, very loosely) often speaks to a culture most powerfully when it works with themes that are under the surface. When an unexpected nerve is hit, it hurts worse.

Aside from interesting cultural analysis, the kinds of stories that our culture finds compelling can also tell us a lot about ourselves. Consider the biggest blockbusters over the last few years. What do they have in common? Have you noticed that there have been nauseatingly large quantities of superhero movies? You haven’t? Oh…I see. You live in a cave.

What kind of hero do we want? Let’s leave Spiderman behind and look at two of the biggest superhero franchises over the last few years: Ironman and Batman. Both movie franchises made gobs of money, and most of the movies were fantastic (except for Ironman 2 – that was awful). There are some eerie parallels between these two.

Both are the alter egos of wealthy billionaire playboys who use technology to gain an advantage over their enemies. And both commit acts of subjective violence, underscoring our deeply held belief that violence really can solve the world’s problems. This isn’t a commentary on violence per se, but it does show perhaps who we really trust in our society. We look to the billionaires and entrepreneurs, and especially to science and technology, to solve the problems that we face every day. We hope that through the use of money and technology we can actually even address the great evil that works its way through our world.

This really makes a lot of sense. To whom does our culture look up? We idolize people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, those wealthy, brilliant innovators at the forefront of technological advancement, and we hope that through their innovation our problems will be “solved.”

I’m not intending simply to browbeat our culture and tell them that they’re putting their trust in the wrong thing. In fact, humans of been doing that for as long as there have been humans. But I do see some interesting parallels between our desire for a superhero and Jesus’ experience of the people he encountered in the Gospels. Everybody was looking for a hero to save them from the Romans (they called that hero “Messiah”). And so Jesus had to confront the people’s expectations while at the same time reshaping their desires. God was going to do something very unexpected.

The kingdom of God, after all, was not something that was going to be achieved by military force. Instead, a new reality invaded the world, bringing God’s presence in and through the work of Jesus himself. Or, to put it another way, God’s presence was returning to Earth. While I’m sure nobody would have objected to God’s presence, it’s hard to imagine that this is what the people thought they really wanted.

The same goes for us in the modern 21st-century. Our culture desires billionaire superheroes to bring innovative technology and scientific advancement, and we think this is going to actually save us from both ourselves and the evil that we encounter in our world. However, that hasn’t worked so far, and I really don’t think it’s going to work in the future.

Jesus is not a superhero that is here to solve all our problems. Instead, he is God’s presence that has come to confront evil and actually take the full force of that evil onto himself. This goes far deeper than merely solving problems. It actually cuts right to the core of who we are as individuals and as communities. The problem is that the line between good and evil is drawn down the middle of each of us. Neither a superhero nor Google can save us from this reality.

Fighting the Insurance Company

Twice this year I have had to fight my insurance company for medication. I’ll spare you the minute details, because that would be a long, complicated explanation of coverage, plan info, benefits, deductibles, out of pocket maximums, and me wanting to hit my insurance company with a shovel.

The first “oopsie” occurred when I called in to have my oral chemo filled. My and their understanding of my plan benefits were vastly different. True, the meds are about $11,000 per month, but that really shouldn’t matter. They essentially informed me that I would owe, over the course of the year, $35,000 in co-pays for that particular prescription. I wanted to tell them that I would be happy to write a check and that they could deposit it in a very “unambiguous” place, but I kept my cool.

We argued for about 2 weeks, which was how long I was off this life-saving medication, and I had to get my church’s insurance broker involved. When we teemed up, we finally convinced the insurance company that I did not, in fact, have to pay a teacher’s annual salary (in Houston, at least) worth of co-pays in order to live. It took a bit of work, but I am thankfully trained in the fine art of reading, analyzing, and understanding complicated documents – thank-you exegetical course work.

To the surprise of no one, the mutation that causes my particular flavor of leukemia reappeared due to not having access to the medication. But I tend to take things in stride, so I figured that I would bounce back after getting back on the pill.

Things were fine until we were notified that my insurance plan was changing its prescription coverage. “Everything would be the same, if not better!” they assured us in their brightly colored pamphlet. I called it the instant I found out: they were going to make the same mistake they did last time. And I was right.

So I rallied the troops, and drafted a few more into my little army: lawyers. Yes, those lawyers were family members, but it still counts. The insurance company still quoted me ridiculous co-pays while I reminded them that that was not how my plan worked: back and forth like a old married couple. After another two weeks, they finally traced the problem to a “computer glitch” that gave them the wrong information. I’m sure the strongly worded letter claiming negligence had nothing to do with it.

I learned a few things that I thought important enough to break my 6-month streak of not writing. The first is that when you tell insurance customer service reps that they are effectively blocking (via negligence) you from getting a life-saving medication, and that you will eventually die without it, that conversation gets very uncomfortable very quickly.

The second thing I learned has shaken me to the core. Consider my scenario: (1) I am well educated – good schools, with a master’s degree. (2) I am decently literate and am able to read and understand complicated documents reasonably well. (3) I have a ton of connections and a huge community of support: multiple, talented lawyers in the family, access to viciously persistent insurance brokers (I love them), people I can talk to in the business world who have fantastic advice, etc. The list goes on. (4) I have a job that offers a lot of flexibility, so that if I need to spend 3 hours on the phone and explain my prescription benefits to 3 different people (all of whom should know it better than me), that’s not a problem. At all.

Now take those 4 points and change them. What if I were a single mother working two jobs to make ends meet who has Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia, who, though fortunate enough to actually have health insurance, is “blessed” with my same plan/company? (1) Little or no education. (2) High-School (or less) reading level. (3) Is very much alone and isolated, considering the toll that surviving takes on her and her family, without much support/family/anything to help her when she needs it. And (4) is easily replaced (jobs are in high demand, workers are expendable) if she needs to take a few hours to attempt sorting the issue out.

That’s a very bleak and vulnerable person. When I listen to political discourse regarding healthcare and other social issues, I can’t help but think about the people that are constantly slipping through the cracks in spite of their giving every ounce of effort they have. It changed the way I think. This isn’t about Republican or Democrat, Obamacare or Romneycare, or any other polarizing dichotomy. This is about real people who are sick and lack the resources to get help. I realize that this instantly gets complicated, but having needed help and receiving it, my mind immediately goes to those that need help but can’t find it.

Paul and the New Atheists

The death of Christopher Hitchens brought out some of the most extreme reactions I have seen in recent memory, and I think the trending on twitter for #godisnotgreat says it all. I won’t link to it because, frankly, I want to pretend it doesn’t exist, but many people decided to share their thoughts on Hitchens roasting in hell, quivering under God’s judgment, and so on. I would say, ‘use your imagination,’ but it won’t take much.

I couldn’t help but feel a sense of empathy for Hitchens’ fans. For many, he was a source of inspiration, someone who helped them navigate the murky and difficult waters of life with eloquence, reason, and that wonderful British wit I always find so fun. That’s not to say I agreed with him on much, and I am not pretending to. Regardless, he was an extraordinary thinker and writer, and he will be missed by millions.

This brings me to Paul, Jesus, the New Testament, and twitter. Social media has become (or always was?) a cesspool for virulent, violent rhetoric focused against those who are perceived as enemies. And because it is never directly to one’s face that these things are said, people can say anything they want without immediate consequence. This is dangerous, as a lack of direct accountability means that our words, in all their power, can become ruthlessly damaging as we also experience a decrease in empathy. In other words, we experience less of what makes us human.

I found myself thinking about Paul and Jesus, in what they wrote and taught (respectively). They encountered plenty of opposition, and both could be very ‘direct’ when confronting their interlocutors. But here’s the catch: These debates were internal. Paul was dealing with Christian Jews, and Jesus was dealing with fellow Palestinian Jews. Yes, Paul lands some zingers, but he was chastising people that, according to him, knew better. Jesus acted as a prophet, in this regard, seeking to alter the people’s expectations of the Kingdom of God. Both were the most direct when rebuking their own.

One striking counter-example is particularly illuminating. Paul finds himself standing in front of the Areopagus in Athens, giving an account of his “foreign divinities” to pagan (in the technical sense) leaders. His tone and manner were very, very different. He was eloquent and relevant, quoting the Greek writers Epimenides of Crete and Aratus. His graciousness in Athens stands in striking contrast to his letter to the Galatian Christians, where he sounds much angrier and meaner.

Why is that significant? The Athenians weren’t followers of Jesus, nor were they Jewish. He had no reason to be corrective or condescending, and instead explained the way he saw the world while also respecting the culture. It seems that we Christians would do well to take this to heart. Our interactions with those outside of our faith will be far more helpful when they are gracious and compassionate. And when dealing with each other, love. Be direct, but love. And maybe don’t take things quite so personally. And call your mother every once in a while.

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