Saturday, May 22, 2010

Link: Godzilla Haiku

Death we must face when he comes
through our own action

Singleness, depression, and relative privation

"I’ve found that changing my circumstances isn’t the hope of release from depression, because inevitably, the depression returns in a slightly different form regardless of how my circumstances evolve."

One of the common memes in the thoughts of singles is that they find being single depressing. I don't necessarily find being SINGLE depressing. I find being unemployed more depressing. I don't "need" a wife or girlfriend so much as I need a job, though even in the midst of having no job it is not as though I have been unable to make ends meet. For some single guys I have met, though, this sort of thing is no consolation. Rather than see singleness as being profoundly beneficial in preventing the necessity of people relying on your non-existent income for support some single guys hold to the falacy that maybe known as relative privation. "Well, at least you're married so you have someone to be with you in bad times." is how this kind of sentiment goes.

Sure, but that's an extra mouth to feed or someone who may rely on your now non-existent income for support. The fallacy of relative privation is to simply suppose that things are worse or better for someone else. It is essentially nothing more than asserting that the grass is greener or browner on the other side relative to where ever you are. Some guy may assume that he couldn't possibly make it as a single man because the temptation to sexual dalliance would be too great. Or he may imagine that single guys can't make it through life because the guy has never bothered to read laundry detergent instructions once in his life to see that you wash things a certain way. Paradoxically said married guy could know all sorts of things about theology and history but still not be able to do rudimentary domestic tasks because his wife has always tackled that stuff. The fallacy at work in this man's thinking is relative privation. If at some point his wife dies and he is left a widower he'll have to learn how to do all those things for himself.

On the other hand, a single guy may frequently operate under the delusion that if a person is married then at least that person has a spouse and gets to have sex. This whole "at least you get to have sex" delusion seems to be the big one for a certain brand of Christian single guy! If, say, your spouse is deployed to a combat zone because he or she is enlisted then, no, you don't get to have sex. If your spouse ends up having an injury or health problem that necessitates the avoidance of sex then a person ends up effectively a married celibate. It won't matter how many times a married guy can explain that if all other aspects of a marriage are not healthy then the sex isn't happening either that single guy will persist in his pipe dream (which may be more one sort of figurative than another). You may infer from this that I am positive I know such single guys.

The relative privations we consider ourselves or others to have frequently say as much or more about our own emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and physical want than it does about whatever the allegedly greener or browner grass on the other side is.

What I find paradoxical is that among Christians we frequently pay lip service to the idea of finding identity entirely in Christ and yet ... in practical ways we define identiy in a multi-valent way like everyone else. If you define yourself by one relationship or task that thing consumes you (a la Ahab in Moby Dick or the equally doomed Ahab who was king over Samaria). If you define yourself through a multiplicity of things you are less likely to fall. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.

Yet what can amplify depression in a single state is the double-speak Christians can have. The most common and virulent form I have encountered is to define adulthood on the basis of marriage and parenthood. These, to be sure, cast you into the crucible of forming adulthood for most people in ways that are not necessarily matched by anything else. But, as Paul put it in another setting, not everyone has this gifting. I know of the screeds in which often super-Reformed theo-blogger types say there is no real gift of singleness and that singleness is an epidemic that has ravaged the American church but Paul wrote "not everyone has this gift" referring to his ability to go through life without a spouse. Exegetical gymnastics withstanding, Paul wrote what he wrote and it is merely the impulse of some people to ignore the intent of the apostle while claiming to take him seriously.

Particularly among certain stripes of evangelical Protestants there can be a double bind in which adulthood is predicated on being the right kind of breeding man or woman and yet to earnestly desire those things as life-defining pursuits is called idolatry even when that pursuit is held up as the normative purpose of human life as designed by God. I have seen this a LOT over the last fifteen years but most of all during a stint from 1999 to 2008. It has not inspired me to give up on the Christian faith as it has some of my friends but it has led me to rethink how seriously some of my evangelical friends actually engage the good news of Christ as the good news of Christ instead of as the good news of marriage.

My friend Wendy has already written about the prosperity gospel of conservative evangelicals and I cannot hope to equal her eloquence on that matter over at Practical Theology for Women. For my part I remember all those men (and it was mainly men) who went on and on about how marriage brings "redemption" into the lives of women without knowing that it came off like they were saying the lives of women were redeemed by their husbands and that single men were redeemed from their single state by a woman.

What I'm seeing at this stage of my life is a lot of friends who are married and raising kids and have less time to spend with me. What is strange, however, is that while some of my more bitter unattached friends in the male subspecies lament how stuck up married people are I find this is often not the case. While single guys lampoon the shallowness of women they don't recognize that they have attitudes that invite a reciprocally shallow response. A guy who says he doesn't care if they're real so long as they are a certain size shouldn't be surprised if women end up returning the favor in terms of attitude or be surprised that if he does not himself measure up to such a mentality in women that they are no more shallow than he is. The indignation of the singles can, even though I speak as one unmarried, confirm that they lack the pragmatism and realism to make a flesh and blood relationship work even as they earnestly believe that having such a flesh and blood relationship would make them more whole. I consider all of that stuff with utmost reluctance and my married friends sometimes tell me that I'm far more ready to be married than I think I am.

In some ways I suspect that total heathens are probably more realistic in their ways of dealing with the opposite sex. A friend of mine remarked that it seems that on things like sexuality, attraction, and courtships that the world seems able to transform those frustrations and longings into art while evangelical Christians seem only able to transform all of that into REALLY BAD THEOLOGY. This brother can say "Amen".

It is often the single people who are more stuck up. Married people, and especially married parents, have a lot less time to spare but when the time is spared it is still immensely meaningful for us. This doesn't mean that married people are less shallow or selfish than single people as certain married preachers keep saying. :) What it means is that there are some people married or single who value friendships enough to keep investing in them apart from some blunt assessment of utility. These are the kinds of friendships everyone needs.

Now a married guy who says that singles are selfish, yet who evaluates all of his friendships on a brutally utilitarian ethic of who will get him "upstream", or who is "wasting his time", has completely failed to understand the way in which Christ chose to befriend us while we hated Him. He may be convinced he understands friendship because he's read the Bible and takes the Bible seriously but just as the Pharisees searched the scriptupres for eternal life and rejected Christ a person may search the scriptures for wisdom about friendship while ultimately rejecting true friendship. It is possible for a person to go for years in ministry without truly understanding the self-emptying nature of not only Christian friendship but even ordinary "heathen" friendship.

The error of assuming the grass is browner on the other side can be at an abstract level or at a personal level. To be thankful for what the Lord has providentially given you in a way where you are not belitting others is no small feat of spiritual discipline and no small grace from the Holy Spirit! The temptation to see all of your life in terms of relative privation is immense. If you always look at the grass as greener on the other side then you are coveting and putting yourself in a terrible position by harboring sin in your heart. If you always look at the grass as browner on the other side then you are in worse shape because pride overflows in your heart, though, ultimately, both impulses are pretty sinful. If you see your own yard as a mixture of brown and green grass and see that this is true of others then you can learn to be gracious. The Father sends rain on the just and unjust alike and waters the grass of the field that is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Computational composition, don't knock it until you've tried it

It is fascinating as an amateur composer and guitarist to consider how often people talk about the arts as arts. There are aesthetic absolutes or there aren't and even those who deny vehemently that any aesthetic absolutes are possible will still grandly pronounce what the true nature of true art in a given medium is. I have a friend who denies aesthetic absolutes are even possible who bemoans 1990s rock and declares confidently that rock is about spectacle and bombast while I remind him that he is using purely visual criteria to assess the merits and demeirts of an aural experience.

This fellow also holds that talent is subjective while skill is objective. Well, in a way the problem with this line of reasoning is that it separates potential from kinetic energy as though never the twain should meet. The other problem is that we now have a computer program that can compose music imitating the styles of various composers. If "talent" for musical creation is in no way measurable then it should not even be theoretically possible for a computer to compose.

Of course we all know the programmer establishes the foundation from which the computer program can compose. This doesn't mean computers will replace human input in the creative process. That programs can emulate effectively the works of existing composers so that students of Bach or Beethoven are hoodwinked into thinking they have heard an original work when they are hearing a computer-generated variation doesn't mean we'll stop having humans composing music.

What this does mean, however, is that I feel grandly justified in my conviction that much of the compositional process can be demystified without taking away the essential mystery of the beautiful moment and the painstaking process of composing. David Cope's work does not over-compensate in this demystification process. If anything his proposal by example that productive composers approach the art in a computational or data mining way makes sense. If you have ever studied the works of great composers extensively you begin to discover how, at a mammoth scale, composers pilfer from themselves, recycle, borrow, style, imitate, and distort existing patterns as a pathway to discovering what are for them new musical possibilities.

I actually like the idea of a giant database that allows computer software to compose music. Sure, I admit I'm not particularly eager to listen to that music but I believe that too many people throw around the complaint about musicians that this or that musician just sounds like they are playing midi files. Much of music as music is more fundamentally robotic than people give it credit for. I don't listen to the radio now and haven't for more than a decade. You can listen to several hours of oldies or new songs on format radio and can begin to identify stock chord progressions. I have grown particularly weary of songs that insistently build themselves around I-V-vi-IV because, to be honest, I like "With or Without You" by U2 just fine and there are only so many ways to write passacaglias in a pop song format. It is tough for me to even listen to songs that are I-IV progressions ad infinitum.

The art of composing, the art of anything, really, begins with a bad idea that you can make better. During the Enlightenment era artists believed that the hallmark of a great artist was to find what was beautiful in nature and to improve upon its form, beauty, and practicality. This sounds scandalous and impossible to hippies and neo-hippies everywhere for whom unalloyed nature is the highest good. Those are probably people who have no physical infirmities or handicaps and have the luxury of imagining they are in better touch with nature or the true nature of things by being neo-Luddites. But I digress ... .

As the author Anne Lamont famous put it the key to being a writer is writing shitty first drafts. Many people never get past the point of first drafts and others believe their first drafts are fundamentally above reproach. Others subscribe to a "less is more" aesthetic because the less they can do is pretty much all they can do. Still others are persuaded that what is cliche is what works therefore all works ought to hew closely to cliche. Still others are so bent on defying cliches they become beholden to the very cliches they would supposedly repudiate and become defined as dopplegangers reflexively. Artists that mature don't give a crap about being either cliche or not cliche but, at the risk of speaking too broadly, depicting things as truly as they can.

Sometimes the truth about the creative process is that it is more workaday and "uninspired" than a lot of people claim it is. I have for years been coming to the conclusion that in the arts inspiration is as much a function of work ethic as some lightning flashing in the mind leading one to some moment of discovery. I am willing to liken artistic breakthroughs to scientific breakthroughs--you have to have a hypothesis and test it out over and over again to see if it works and if it doesn't you move on to the next hypothesis. There may be situations where the technology is not available to apply what is in principle a sound idea. Jack Northrop's concept of the flying wing was not impractical in the 1980s but it was lethally impractical in the 1920s!

I don't know if giving an example from my own work is even a good idea but it can take me years to settle on the particular form a musical idea can take. In one case, ten years ago, I got some ideas for what I thought would make for a great guitar concerto. I thought I wanted to compose a guitar concerto based on a couple of riffs and eventually I got themes for them. The trouble was that the theme for the first rif was basically not very interesting. It was a jagged scalar riff around a pedal point. You could say that the problem was there was no room amidst all that pedal pointing for harmonic and meaningful melodic development. There was no tune.

The trouble with devising a theme for the second riff was that it was yet another jagged riff, this one being in an asymmetric meter and pentatonic. Pentatonic scales, as my composition instructor kept telling me, has no shape, no inherent direction. Since one of his favorite hymns was the predominantly pentatonic "Be Thou My Vision" I didn't take this warning as literal! The problem with a fast, jagged 11/8 riff in a pentatonic scale, though, is that it tends to invite the grnaddaddy of all lazy rock and roll writing, the riff basher! How was I going to develop thematic material out of a recursive guitar riff that I admitted sounded totally awesome and aggressive? How was I, then, going to go further and turn that into part of a guitar concerto?

First things first, I had to get to the first theme. The riff itself just became a riff, a hunting call, an introduction. An attention-arresting guitar riff just has to be that and not used for more than that at the start of a form. I mapped out an antiphonal response to the strings on woodwinds. I then took my static first theme on the guitar and buried it in a string section and focused just on developing a theme for a pair of wind instruments to play over the riff bashing. Once I came up with a tune I liked I jettisoned the original guitar theme. At this point I felt confident I had the beginnings of a nice guitar concerto.

But there was a problem and that problem is the one of form. In a concerto you have the soloist and the ensemble in competition with each other or, perhaps a better way to put it, playing with each other and off each other. I had a harmonically static theme and that meant that if I gave the theme in the orchestra to the guitar it would be droning on and on over essentially two chords. Now if you're John Lee Hooker telling a story that's awesome, really, but I'm not John Lee Hooker and there's no narration in a guitar concerto.

I never actually solved the problems with coming up with a theme based on the second riff for years. I had a secondary theme derived from the pentatonic riff that uses a massively liberal retrograde inversion of the riff with rhythmic augmentation but I knew I couldn't make that the first theme in a movement based on such an agressive riff. I knew it would be a wonderful B section in a five-part rondo, which would be a good way to end a guitar concerto.

Finally one winter I was hanging out with a roommate who has been a buddy of mine for years. He plays electric bass. He was interested in learning the 11/8 riff so I was teaching him how to play it. He ended up making all notes that would have to be played on the second fret first fret notes by mistake. He apologized for playing the riff so badly but I had a flash of realization at that point and thanked him. His playing the riff the "wrong" way was precisely the right way to approach building a thematic idea out of that pentatonic riff.

Now before you suggest that this was the "aha!" moment apart from some rational enquiry I am going to mention it as an example of a conductor's axiom, "never underestimate the obvious". Each musical idea by its very nature will lend itself more readily to some developmental techniques than others. In the case of the 11/8 pentatonic riff I had overlooked a crucial device and that device was intervallic change. Instead of changing the relentless rhythm of the guitar riff, which I needed to sustain the momentum of the piece at a linear/horizontal level, I needed to alter the harmony both at the literal and implied level and manipulate the vertical. At this point manipulating the vertical element was all I could do once I had committed to the idea that the best way of expanding on this material was taking a neo-Baroque prelude/toccata approach to the guitar riff. My friend's accidentally playing two notes in the riff flat was what I needed to hear to realize how I had blocked myself in by not thinking through all the possibilities.

One of the disadvantages of following your gut as a compositional METHOD is that you get stuck thinking in terms of the emotional moment or intellectual flash of the moment of inspiration itself. You don't manage to break beyond that to the METHOD of inspiration, moving beyond the thing that sparked your interest in composing something to begin with. You may find (as I did) in the process of working that you no longer even like the material you came up with to go with the first riff. The first and second riffs themselves, however, remained compelling and I had to find new and more persuasive ways to develop that material in a way that made sense.

At length a request from a guitarist for a work for cello and guitar was what inspired me to rethink everything about the form I was giving to the work. Once I saw that there was no likelihood of a local orchestra performing a guitar concerto anyway I pragmatically decided that what I was doing would make more sense and be more practical as a straightforward sonata for cello and guitar. This would eliminate the structural and conventional need to repeat thematic material on the guitar that had been played by an orchestra. I could simply assign the thematic material to the cello or the guitar as I saw fit. I had eliminated the repetitions of harmonically static themes and could streamline the form.

Discovering that employing intervallic change on the 11/8 riff meant that I could begin to compose a rudimentary ABABA rondo form for cello and guitar that would have a much tighter, leaner form and more thoroughly develop the material I had. I could assign the slow theme of the B material to the guitar in the first case and to the cello in the second case. This added the spice of variety to the form while leaving the A material the same throughout.

The A material took shape as I realized that riff bashing works better in classical music as it does in rock, when you create a real or implied cascade of shifting harmonies over the riff, around the riff, or within the riff. This is a harmonic technique that can broadly be called oblique motion. You don't change everything in the harmony at once, that would be too abrupt, you change just one or two notes at a time so that you progressive travel further in your harmonic development than you might otherwise. Modulations and chord progressions that would be awkward or unconvincing with wholesale linear movement become more compelling and plausible shifting just one or two notes at a time.

If there is an argument to be made against a computer program composing music it is that computers are better at exploring and exploiting unity over contrast and contrast is what makes structural development interesting. I notice this more in fugues than in other forms but I could point to an exposition by Shostakovich and say that a Hindemith exposition is better because Hindemith has a clearer grasp of the need for contrasting melodic concepts within his expositions. I could point to a fugue by Haydn and say that Hindemith's fugue expositions are stronger in terms of rhythmic variation and weaker in terms of episodic development. I could point to Bach and say, of course, that his fugues are most compelling because he continually favors fully invertible counterpoint which displays not only a higher mastery of contrapuntal art but also has more memorable individual tunes. Yet the irony in all this is that for many music fans who can't stand the Baroque, all of Bach's music all sounds the same. They hear a computational mainframe of a musician and not anything very inspired or inspiring. We should not be surprised that David Cope has come up with a computer program that can churn out musical works because in his one way Bach beat everyone at that game centuries ago, only we love him for it!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Apologies for Hell: part 2, the "nature of the offended" argument is a failure

When Christians confront the offense of the doctrine of Hell in conversation with unbelievers it is common enough for them to make a case that is even more offensive than the actual doctrine of Hell itself, that a sin against an eternal God warrants an eternal punishment. Christians don't realize that this argument is what might be called by some "epic fail"--It would be roughly on par with sending Bumblebee out in single combat against Megatron; It would be roughly on par with Riddler being sent to best Batman in martial arts; It would be like expecting Snoopy to easily conquer the cat next door; And it would be like expecting Garfield to actually be funny. I trust you get the idea.

The reason this apologetic is a failure can be demonstrated by highlighting its other form, that a sin against an infinite god warrants infinite punishment. Why? Well, the answer is inherent in the apologetic itself, the rationalization for punishment inheres in the offended party rather than on the nature of the actual offense. By this reasoning a four year old boy who angrily punches his father's penis warrants being punched in his penis by the offended father. Clearly the punishment is not physically or emotionally proportional to the offense and is not morally viable in the context of the relationship where spectacular differences in knowledge and power are involved. While it would be wrong for the father to not discipline his boy we cannot morally or rationally contest that the discipline would be derived from a proper response to the offense and not only from the nature of the offended party.

Ergo, a finite sinner who is only capable of committing finite sins cannot justly be punished infinitely or eternally for committing sins that in themselves are incapable of harming an all-powerful, all-knowing, indestructible, eternal, life-giving spirit. Punishment for wrong cannot derive from the nature of the offended party because if we take seriously the attributes of God it is completely impossible for God to be harmed in any way by anyone's sins.

Christians seem to want to have it both ways on this issue of how or if God can be somehow hurt or offended by sin. On the one hand we want to say that nothing anyone could say or do could hurt God or upset God or catch God off guard and yet we also wish to say that our sins are so offensive to God that He can't even stand the sight of us--some people propose to eliminate the sin nature as even being possible and there, generally, is a path to Pelagianism. If we're not born with a sin nature there is no need to baptise babies, as Pelagius was apt to put it. Well, even if we grant this paradox of bearing God's image yet bearing it in a tarnished way that is corrupted by death it does not in itself furnish an apologetic for Hell since a god could choose to obliterate offenders rather than subject them to unending torment.

Ultimately the reason this whole line of argument fails as an apologetic for Hell for the Christian is that it has nothing to do with Christ. A deist, a polytheist, a Muslim, an Odinist, etc could all make this argument and the Christian would reject it. A Christian explanation of the basis for eternal punishment or punishment of any kind must be grounded in trinitarian terms and this is where, as I have been arguing, too many popular theodicies for Hell have failed and will continue to fail.

If punishment for sin is just (and I have never said that it isn't) then punishment for sin must of necessity be in response to the nature of the actual offense and not merely the offended party. For those of us who take seriously the scriptural statement and warning that there is no one who is righteous among mortals, not one, we must remember that though sins may "ultimately" be against God by sinning against God's image in humanity and reflections of the divine image present in creaetion, sins are also against others and ourselves.

Now for some people who do not grant that people may be punished for lack of faith on the basis of the nature of the offense there is another defense that is popular, the free will defense. This simply means that God doesn't SEND you to Hell. On the contrary, YOU chose Hell by virtue of refusing to choose God. This has a few things to commend to it but I will get to the problem of that defense in another post. It is, to be sure, far less ineffective than the "a sin against an infinite, eternal god requires an infinite, eternal punishment" but it is not without weakness.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Apologies for Hell: part 1, is it a fiery dart shot at you or a napalm-covered bear trap you step in because you overlooked it?

Few things figuratively fire up the imagination as readily as the idea of Hell. Hell is where all past injustices get disciplined. Hell is where people are tortured in all the grisliest ways we say we don't like to imagine, but keep imagining in literature, film, and art all the same. Hell has alternately been depicted as active, actual torment, and horrifying privation. Hell has been depicted as total isolation and as being eternally bound to other people, people whose very existence you detest.

Clearly we have two great and apparently conflicting traditions defining Hell in terms of active assigned punishment and passive punishment that is inevitable as a consequence of disobedience.
There is even a third stream of thought that is annihilationist but this tends to historically come off as the passive formulation rather than the active one for reasons I'll get to shortly.

In summary, the active Hell is one that people are condemned to where they are tormented for their evils. The passive Hell is the one people consign themselves to because they refuse to accept the truth and change their ways or show compassion to the needy or do not have the wits or circumstances to placate the appropriate god, goddess, or pantheon that would otherwise prevent them from facing oblivion in whatever form it may take. When you think of the active Hell it is best to think of it as the flamethrower or fiery dart that God shoots at you for actively courting His disapproval. The passive Hell can be thought of as a napalm-lined bear trap that you step into because you refuse to heed God's warnings that you're about to place your foot on to a bear trap.

Now for unbelievers the active Hell is likely to seem most barbaric while for believers they may be certain that a passive Hell makes the doctrine both more pallatable to them and more just as an explanation for what, if any, kind of hell sinners shall be consigned to for however long that sentence will be.

In consideration of my friends who are not believers in Christianity and not believers in any sort of religion at all I have to say that those Christians who see Hell in the passive form may not realize that the doctrine is offensive no matter how we sugar coat it to ourselves or each other. It doesn't matter how much we talk about how we send ourselves to Hell when we consider how people outside the Christian faith will consider these things. The doctrine has always been an offense and it will always remain an offense.

Even those who specialize in "turn or burn" evangelism recognize the offense of Hell as a doctrine and bank on that offense as part of their evangelistic approach. There is, it virtually goes without saying, a whole evangelistic tradition that hinges upon scaring people into the Kingdom so that they will avoid going to Hell. Jesus taught about Hell in the synoptics more than most other biblical books so it is impossible for a Christian to say that there is no Hell if a person takes Jesus' sayings seriously. Whatever the flaws of the turn-or-burn evangelism approach it cannot be said that this approach fails because it fails to take the words Christ used about divine judgment seriously. It is, for the Christian, better to err on the side of caution and taking the Lord's words presented in the testimonies seriously.

Yet in the documents of the New Testament we would be hard-pressed to argue that the use of Hell as a scare tactic in evangelism frequently appeared. Though the Lord Himself spoke vividly about the judgment the apostle to the Gentiles had remarkably little to say about it. This could hardly have been because there were no ideas about the fate of people after death or ideas about some form of divine justice. Paul did not see much reason to bank a lot of his writings on the subject of Hell. This does not mean he had no concept of it but it does strongly suggest that while Jesus had vivid things to say about divine judgment Paul tended to avoid those topics because they were not central to his message about Christ.

What I wish to reiterate and emphasize now is that though

1) Christians may exploit a definition of Hell as active torment meted out to sinners who defiantly defied GOd;

2) though Christians may choose to define Hell in the most passive of terms as that penalty people accept by refusing to accept the love of God through Christ;

3) and though Christians of both schools will remain convinced of the inerrancy of their particular traditions it is important to remind us all who are in the faith that

4) unbelievers don't give a crap about how we define for ourselves what they consider one of the most offensive of many things taught by Christians over millenia.

As a discussion among the faithful in an attempt to understand what the Lord said a discussion about what exactly Hell is will always be fruitful but we need to have a reality check about how useless that can be if we attempt to transpose all of that content on to our non-Christian friends and family. Telling your father or daughter or brother or sister or mother "Your unbelief means you would rather choose Hell than Jesus" comes off pretty much as sanctimoniously as "You're going to Hell!" Dying because you got shot in the head with a fiery dart and burning to death because you got your foot caught in a napalm-coated bear trap ends up being pretty terrible either way. This is why unbelievers rightly don't care if you have a preference for either the active or passive Hell in your lexicon of personal belief. The reason is simple and is something I will get to presently.

Apologies for Hell: introduction

Of all the cotrines taught in Christianity the least appealing one would probably be the doctrine of Hell. More than any other doctrine in our age or probably any other, the doctrine of Hell is considered offensive, outrageous, and unjust. Many Christians have devised a variety of ways to explain and defend the legitimacy of this teaching by appeal to traditions and to the scriptures. There is a great deal of both in a defense of hell and yet in many cases too much and too little is said on behalf of the teaching; it is this making too much of too little that presents problems.

Over time I have come to the observation that the problem with the doctrine of Hell as Christians defend it comes about in part because there are two apparently opposite views of what Hell actually is. It would be more accurate to say there is debate about what Hell actually will be. Scholars have noted that the conflation of the lake of fire in Revelation with Hell happened quite some time ago and that the two are considered essentially the same.

I believe it is necessary to examine how Christians defend the doctrine of Hell so that a viable defense of the doctrine can be made. One of the chief problems of the doctrine's defense is that significant category mistakes happen both int he process of defining what Hell may actually be and on what grounds it would then be justified. Worse yet, however, is the essential problem that most allegedly Christian theodicies regarding Hell have nothing to commend them as actually Christian discussions of the subject. I intend to slowly survey some of the options and arguments that often come up when I have seen and heard christians discuss the doctrine of Hell and explain which ideas I consider to be weak in terms of scriptural support and which ideas fail due to internal and external problems.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

People who in power are better at lying


It would appear that the more power people have the better they are at lying, according to one study, such as it is. Though there are physiological symptoms associated with lying an increase in power offsets these physical symptoms. The advantage power confers, it seems, is that the more power you have the more comfortably you can lie to others about goals and practices to get what you want.

When Christ taught his disciples about leadership he said that the greatest among us would be the servant of all. That is not how leadership works in the world. In the world power and the capacity to lord it over others is considered the measure of a leader. The person who is up and coming and able to make conquests is considered the leader to follow. The bad-ass warrior or executive or politician who doesn't take crap and take names can also be the accomplished liar.

That this happens even within God's people is confirmed through the scriptures by way of example, since to try to spare his own life both Abraham and Isaac respectively lied. Jacob swindled his brother out of the key blessing and birthright twice, first by conning Esau into trading his birthright for a bowl of stew and the by deceiving his father into conferring a blessing on him that was meant for Esau. Jacob was disciplined by falling into the hands of his uncle Laban, who was more a master of deception than even Jacob. Jacob was appointed by God to be the heir through which the promises of God would be fulfilled but Jacob used deceit and treachery to obtain it. Ironically the blessing he thought would make him someone was his father Isaac's though the blessing he truly needed was that of his father. (I could (and likely will) write a whole separate blog post about the contrast between the first blessing Jacob sought and the second blessing he sought because it seems emblematic of a problem in contemporary males that goes beyond a merely "evangelical" obsession about the decline of men.)

Many of the saints of old slipped into lying to save their reputations or their skins (beyond the patriarhcs both of the first kings quickly learned how to spin lies once power was conferred on them). God found a few ways to ensure that those who lied to further their own material or political agendas had a chance to see consequences for it. Unfortunately, though, what some of the liars in the people of God don't necessarily see coming is how their lives will destroy not their own lives but the lives of innocent people who are seeking to do the will of the Lord.