The Harsh Deception of “Countercultural”

It’s still so trendy for Christians to declare themselves to be countercultural. It offers up the rebel-thrill justification of any departure from the mainstream.

The only problem is it just isn’t true.

We don’t oppose every part of culture — not even most of it. Neither did Jesus. In fact, it only ever applies to a rather narrow set of values which insiders can’t ever seem to agree on.

Culture does not set itself against the fruits of the Spirit.

Indeed, most of the values we can agree on are shared, at least in an abstract sense, by the broader culture.

Calling ourselves countercultural makes us dependent on culture to know what to oppose. And even worse, it doesn’t help us or anyone else to identify what we’re for. Just what we’re against.

Some of us, at least.

Some of the time.

Turns out, it’s just a smug-sounding, hollow, divisive label.

Which, uh, isn’t actually all that countercultural now, is it?

False Disparagement of Consumerism

It seems right and biblical for the church to go after consumerism. It seems to strike right at the heart of the selfish fickleness of mankind.

It often doesn’t.

Have you heard leaders say that people who claim to be too busy for church are just giving excuses? I agree with the sentiment. For my part however, I think that’s to let church off the hook — at least as much as themselves.

What people call consumerism is simply the reality of choice. And there is a whole lot of it! There are varying theologies, congregations and whole denominations that fit under the banner of orthodoxy. But all that aside, if a church isn’t feeding a family’s needs as much as (for example) a child’s sports team, then said church should probably take a long, hard look at itself.

Pointing out people’s apparent fickleness is actually merely whining about unchangeable realities.

What does a church need then? It needs to recognise what it is and where it fits in people’s lives. In short, a church needs to (prophetically) discern what its people need. The way a group is attracts others of a similar mindset. That becomes organisational momentum. Momentum itself is neither virtue nor vice. It simply needs to be steered.

Church and God are often conflated, to the detriment of both.

For some, the church needs to ask questions. For others, the church needs to provide answers. For some, it’s a place of respite, refuge and safety. For others, a place of imagination, possibility and challenge.

It’s been suggested that these are seasonal, and that may be. But any church that makes all of its plans based on too narrow a mission will inevitably lose the people it’s ignoring. And too broad of a mission will lose people who cannot find solidarity behind any purpose.

Though it’s potentially painful, that is as it should be.

Church should never be something that removes people’s volition and/or demands their allegiance. Rather church should be what course-corrects these, shapes them and expands them in the most healthy directions possible.

Awareness of the diversity of intentions, perceptions and purposes heightens the importance of communication — this is how alignment is achieved.

We need to (re)discover a baseline of truth — it’s not as deep and robust as some people often claim, or as perennially elusive as others do.I believe it is available, it is rich and it is vibrant.

We’re not all that different from each other. But we’re not identical, either.

How big we draw our circles of inclusion depends on the issues and concerns at hand. But most often, we could all stand to make them at least a little larger.

Given a given baseline commonality, diversity is not a problem to be solved, but a strength to be leveraged.

Bickering as an Evangelism Strategy?

“We have to have fights! That’s how we figure out what’s true!”

Have you heard this line of reasoning? Does it strike you as oddly discordant?

Of course no stupid idea should get a free pass — ideas should be tested. But that’s not my issue with this mentality.

It’s probably no secret, but a win-at-all-costs perspective has seeped into evangelism. It masquerades as a healthy, vibrant imperative — truth saves people!

But its dark side is pervasive.

And I’m afraid the collective church has been subjecting people to this dark side for a long, long time.

Smart people know how to resist pushy pseudo-intellectuals: just reveal their contradictions. The tricky bits. The stuff that it’s hard for the most ardent proponents to understand, reconcile or accept. This is true for all people of any side of any issue — everyone is vulnerable because everyone absorbs contradictions.

Plot twist: the louder people get, the more obvious their contradictions.

Additionally, the facile arguments are found easily, too. Let’s use postmodernism as an illustration:

  • If you believe in medication over rat poison, that proves you don’t believe in relativism.
  • If you defer to a sport’s authoritative replay instead of a referee’s perspective, well, how very modernist of you!
  • People claim that they don’t believe in absolute truth. But they wouldn’t step out in front of a speeding bus, would they?

Those things don’t denounce postmodernism as they’re intended to. They don’t even describe it. Postmodernism doesn’t reflect how we approach the tangible aspects of reality, but digs into how we relate to its intangibles.

Conflating tangibles and intangibles isn’t just unconvincing, it sounds condescending, petty and trivial.

Because it is.

Postmodernism is not about denying facts so much as pondering the methods of discovery, being open to alternatives to the discovery, and removing artificial restrictions about who can make (or question) discoveries.

Postmodernism challenges systems of thought. Apologists tend to double-down on their systems, and their accompanying fallacies:

  • appealing to history
  • appealing to authority
  • appealing to popularity
  • cherry-picking from the Bible and tradition
  • all the while consistently claiming to put little stock into subjective experience.

The inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that any study is merely an extension of subjective experience makes them ripe for critique. Rubber, meet road.

While it may be popular, bickering misses the point. Or more accurately, evades it.

Postmodernism isn’t a threat because it is inherently false. It opens up a quagmire by removing artificial restrictions about what is true. Unfortunately, apologists regularly fall into the trap of being unable to define truth, or being able to adequately show the working behind their conclusions. Or perhaps they assume that their reasoning is universal and incontrovertible, which brings its own baggage (intellectual arrogance).

Christians attempting to denounce postmodernism are wasting their time. Indeed, without postmodernism, faith would never be allowed back into a conversation about science, reality and what can be known. The presumptions and resulting pressures of secularisation would win out. (Mercifully, here in Canada at least, there is still a general belief in pluralism, which makes a dream of peace possible.)

Within postmodernism, a physicist and filmmaker can both present truth, even though their truths may be remarkably different.

So can a communist and a capitalist. In fact, any ideology can face off against any ideology, stand on its own two feet, and earn its supporters. It doesn’t necessitate war. It doesn’t even necessitate debate. Because, especially in this era, truth has to be held with open hands, not clasped fists. Faith and knowledge are not valued equally by everyone, and therefore they certainly don’t relate seamlessly.

If that wasn’t tricky enough, there is a greater challenge within.

  • What if I’m a believer, and I see a hollow desperation in apologetics which makes me, once again, suspect that all of faith is merely a self-confirming shell game?
  • What if apologetics drive me further toward the questions an apologist would deem “dangerous”?
  • What if all of this weakens my resolve to engage in community?
  • Or further, what if I believe that this proclivity to debate weakens the entire fabric of community?
  • What if I’m convinced that apologetics actually drive an unnecessary wedge between faiths, ideologies and cultures by the very act of turning people into positions to refute?

Should these factors be taken into consideration?

In their eagerness, like practitioners in other fields, apologists make melodramatic pronouncements about “if it saves just one soul”. The hypothetical end appears to justify any means.

But:

  • What if the outcomes are opposite of the intended goals?
  • What if this strategy tips more souls away from truth?
  • What if the rise of the “nones” is actually caused by the very messaging people are trying to combat it with?

What if the belief that the whole concept of rhetorical skirmish is itself seen to be antithetical to Scripture?

It’s a conundrum. Especially in this light: where Christ was faced with a direct confrontation, his responses were quite often confoundingly and transcendently oblique.

If this is our benchmark, I don’t see much Christ-likeness in debate.

While Jesus didn’t shy away from truth claims, they were often wrapped up in parables, which are open to interpretation. He did not often seek out or engage in one-on-one debate.

Instead, he made rather a habit of simply, humbly shaking people to their very core!

And if there is any truth at all to this life of faith, he still does. So if apologetics are ever caught hiding the process of perpetual transformation behind slick, airtight, ironclad ideological conjecture, they’re profoundly missing the point.

Or more accurately, evading it.

Bearings

Bear it.
Bare it.
Your life.
Your soul.
You will collect your bearings, and
find your equilibrium in the spinning.
Speak, even when you know nothing you can say will fit.

A journey back to the very beginning;
we’re left to wonder is there anything left to wonder about?
Every important question —
treated like a brightly-coloured, broken toy —
seems answered well enough.

Bear it.
Bare it.
Their lives.
Their dreams.
Reel with indeterminate causation,
linked as if by an ominous fuse, sizzling with pain and blame.
Listen, even when you know nothing they can say will fit.

It all seems (doesn’t it?) too much for
the outmoded mechanisms of mortal beings,
with their ancient, irregular rhythms.

We long for the next evolution;
the meticulous-pristine, where reality and dream
comfortably coincide.
Overexposed vision blinked at with half-awake eyes.

Reality is just a compromise.

Bear it.
Bare it.
Our intemperate longings.
Our despair-laced hopes.
Feel, even when you know nothing we can feel will fit.

The straining fullness of being alive —
as popular as it seems,
it’s not enough to let mere habit drive.

Just how much gravity can we escape,
and still hope to survive?

How Do We (Re)Build Social Trust?

“Would you consider not being insulting by default?”

“Awww, did someone’s feelings get hurt? Screw you, douchebag!”

If you’re on the internet, you’re no stranger to it. This type of interaction is part of the increasingly radical polarisation that shows up everywhere. In this era, a public request to assert a personal boundary — no matter how reasonable and nonviolent its presentation — is nearly guaranteed to provoke a disproportionate response.

The words “politically correct” have become a flak-shield — by its proponents and opponents alike.

“I’m not politically correct!” is one noteworthy politician’s attempt to give himself permission to be a jerk with impunity. The reason that it works and even earns applause (shocking as that is) is at least partly because social criticism has become unyieldingly partisan and unbelievably fragmented.

For example, he is accused of being misogynist. That’s the buzzword which is expected to galvanise women — especially self-identifying feminists — into action. But it specifically ignores his similar treatment of men. In fact the buzzword itself inoculates us from collectively perceiving reality: he’s actually misanthropic.

I should clarify — I’m not saying that he generally hates people. I mean that his is a cut-throat style of leadership — people who actively support him will be loved and rewarded. I believe he draws that line very close to himself, and he seems pretty fickle about it. If you happen to find yourself outside of it, all bets are off.

His opponents should have the clearly dominant hand here. His crass, swaggering belligerence and sketchy track-record should have instantly disqualified him from any public credibility.

He should have been laughed out of contention!

But he hasn’t been. Why? Well, not only are the critics made weak by division, the baffling, trivial, territorial infighting between various sparring ideologies (and micro-ideologies) has created an environment of latent rage that said politician has been able to tap into and evidently unite in his favour.

The truth he is leveraging: focusing on political correctness does not provide a way forward.

I believe in respect of people. That’s what I take politically correct to mean. But the way it has been effected is largely a focus on the negative — a constant preachy indictment on everything which (and everyone who) doesn’t reflect our chosen course for society.

Instead of championing respect, it goes out of its way to aggressively disrespects its infringers:

  • Don’t mistreat people.
  • Don’t offend people.
  • Even a little.
  • Ever.

Indeed, in our current socio-political climate, a micro-aggression can get the same attention as actual aggression. We’ve lost any cohesive cultural perspective on levels.

  • A flippant comment can be equated to rape.
  • An unpleasant facial expression can be conflated with assault.
  • A tasteless joke can be directly linked to lynching.

These supposed intents of what our society should not be are enforced by demeaning, cajoling, mocking — in short, shaming. And with that intent, it seems like no rhetorical device is out of bounds — using the most inflated, reactionary and pathological language is apparently regarded as acceptable practice.

The tricky thing here: shaming only works if critical mass is strongly in your favour.

And…it is not.

It also only works if your targets accept the shame you’re trying to heap on them.

And…they do not!

Additionally, and this is no small irony, shame is one of the primary intents that social justice warriors claim to reject.

This just adds to the dissonant hypocrisy, and so fuels the broader anger — the system’s would-be insurgents behave in the exact same ways that they call out the so-called establishment for.

Whether objecting to tone or content, armies of social justice warriors do not bring progress. (Nor do, uh, their intentionally offensive, equally reactionary opponents, if that needs to be said!)

We aren’t going to solve problems by escalating controversies.

If there is any hope of resolution, it is in backing up and identifying common values. Deep down, the PC and the anti-PC crowd want similar rights and similar freedoms. We simply have to find the language that resonates in those frequencies.

By identifying those underlying tenets, I believe we can build something better.

We are rebuilding a broader society that has never had such profound and unpredictable engagement before. We used to be able to get away with assuming we were all on the same page — that we knew who our usses and thems were. We assumed that we knew the values that connect us. We thought we could call out anonymity from anonymity.

We no longer can.

It’s tricky, delicate work — more delicate than some allow, less delicate than others insist.

There are alternatives to this approach to reconciliation. Like we could have our society entirely collapse under the weight of all its inherent contradictions.

I’m not advocating that. We should be aware though that some politicians might be. Whether they know it or not.

Stop Telling People They’re Products

“You are the product!”

Social activists who try to use this rhetoric to chip away at capitalism’s confidence have it wrong. Their message is that people are becoming products to be bought and sold. Their intentions are close, but so inaccurate that they are destined to be ignored by the people who need to hear it most.

In fact, this messaging is dangerous for the very reason that it’s obviously wrong. The suggestion that people can be products doesn’t sufficiently honour the human condition. So if you believe that people should not be products, then rejoice!

They can’t be!

Humans have too much power, too much agency to make for good products.

It comes from the same sloganeering factory as “you are what you eat”. It sounds deep, but it’s mostly meaningless.

Here’s why the messaging is close, though. In this era, people have become used to being constantly assaulted with an over-abundance of didactic voices telling them to be better consumers. I mean “better” from both perspectives — the sellers’ desire for them to be more eager to spend money, and all of the review channels that champion wise, discriminating and stewardly market engagement.

The constant barrage of contradictory messages puts people to sleep.

For example, there isn’t just a bewildering array of varieties and sub-varieties of shampoo on the shelves. There are also all-natural shampoo alternatives that you can make in your kitchen. And there are people trumpeting the evils of hair-washing altogether.

In this conflicted mess, telling people that they are becoming products is a failing strategy. People are not the products, so this tune only connects with the choir of insiders singing it already.

It’s also patronising — being arrogant and demeaning has a deleterious effect on the resonance of an idea.

Here’s what we need to know: Capitalism is based on huge levels of potential deception. Marketers keep trying to engage potential customers with self-fulfilling prophecies. If it works, and their buyers actually do have positive associations with the experience of their products and their brand, then their promises are rendered legitimate.

But, and this is the big but, promises that aren’t fulfilled are likewise made illegitimate. We have been used for our money, and effectively lied to.

How keenly do we feel that?

We are so accustomed to being thrust into this confusing mish-mash of half-truths and half-lies that it becomes more and more difficult to parse them out at all, let alone stridently call for change and restoration.

Now, let’s add relativity to this. No-one’s experiences are universal. Detractors can effectively be shouted down by a fan-club. The fan-club can be shouted down by detractors.

No-one’s right. No-one’s wrong. Everyone’s just loud.

All right, there’s the problem. What’s the solution?

Negative noise will not grow a positive message.

It will grow fear, uncertainty and doubt — if we’re wise, we flip this back on itself. We question the sources, and wonder how they benefit from these negative feelings they provoke. But that’s just the start.

We have to remind people that they cannot be products. They are too complex, too active and too unpredictable for that. They have too much power and agency.

People need to be put (back) in touch what they need and want (and they need the tools to understand the difference). Asking great questions does that. Providing generative suggestions does that. Empowering collaborative action does that.

Those are the kinds of things that no mere product can ever be capable of.

A Great Divergence

There is one divergence of opinion that is causing a massive, sweeping degree of polarisation, not least within Christianity. It involves our capacity, or even our perceived imperative to judge. Jesus seems to have gone one way with this. Paul seems have gone another.

Rather than continue to play out some bizarre theological hissy fit between them (there are countless other writers doing that already), I’d like to examine the idea on a more pragmatic plane.

While “judgement” is sometimes used to describe some kind of final and decisive castigation or ostracism of someone — especially when deeming someone’s actions deeply abhorrent — I want to back it up to a less extreme posture.

Judgement is the running soundtrack in our heads that evaluates us based on the people around us. And it works in the reverse, too — it’s the comparison of other people to ourselves.

These two (sometimes competing) soundtracks have a huge bearing on our self-image and self-esteem.

Here’s the issue: the former is altercentric, where the most important thing is other people’s ideas/impressions/opinions. The latter is egocentric, which seeks to impose our ideas/impressions/opinions as the standard for everyone else.

Both of those are off the mark!

They are using human standards. While we are informed that we cannot know the mind of God, we are also instructed to never stop trying.

And we are given a whole lot of instruction to avoid putting human nature on a pedestal.

A lot of people seem totally comfortable living in a way that defies transcendence. Instead, they rely on basic human nature. Casual disparagement of the way people look, sound, look, act, talk and (apparently) think is lazy — intellectually, emotionally and ultimately spiritually.

Human standards are insufficient for judgement.

People are generally terrible guessers. And flippant judgement requires some huge ones. Indeed, please be careful calling people who are casual and frivolous in their judgement “Christians”. This is the abuse of a religious perspective, not the embodiment of it.

Now, there are some aspects of the human condition which we must evaluate, both for ourselves, and for the people who trust us. We must choose our affiliations carefully. We must use diligent analysis when deciding to whom we will extend our trust, and to whom we will not.

These are on the other side of the equation.

They have real bearing on our selves, our identities, our reputations. How somebody outside of our contact lives mostly does not. (For example, passing judgement on strangers, including celebrities, is a miscarriage of any form of justice.)

There are attitudes and actions which are legitimately dangerous. Bringing attention to them is important. But adding to the noise and confusion isn’t going to achieve that. Indeed, ever thinking that we’re solving problems by throwing rocks at them is highly misguided!

Regardless of whether you prefer Jesus’ take, or Paul’s, we do not have the responsibility to judge the world. We don’t even have permission. We certainly don’t have the tools.

Using that as a baseline, I believe we can begin to restore sense to the judge vs. judge-not dilemma.

Ultimately, Christ-followers do not value judgement over grace. People who call themselves Christ-followers might. But they’re fundamentally, deeply, tragically wrong.

Communication Reveals Core Values

“Out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks.” — the Bible (Matthew 12:34, ESV)

How we speak about people and issues reveals how we really feel about them. This is interesting, because a lot of people think they’ve got their opinions and attitudes buttoned down and hidden away. People think they can hide a lot better than they really can, if anyone is paying attention.

So:

  • What makes you angry?
  • What makes you enthusiastic?
  • What makes you empathise?
  • What makes you disengage?

Take stock of what you say. Take stock of what you want to say. Process why you want to say it.

These things will tell you a lot about your beliefs and priorities…and how you might want to change them.

Interacting with ‘Her’

Warning: probably contains spoilers. If you care, watch the movie before you read this.

It’s impossible, far-fetched and ludicrous…or is it? ‘Her’ is a profound exploration of where we might inevitably end up — a world where full-fledged (romantic) relationships between machines and humans have become normal. It’s full of great questions and often sad insights (a frustrating reality game with “mom points”?). When our electronic machines have achieved an advanced level of artificial emotional intelligence, they will be indecipherable from human beings. We are conditioned by our current online interactions to get used to disembodied conversations.

But we will determine the parameters, at least some of them. Which makes this take on the dynamic of a slave/master relationship.

“[Falling in love] is a socially acceptable form of insanity.”

Her describes love as the thing that wakes us up. And in this example, it isn’t entirely controlled (unlike other filmic explorations of AI, or mind control). In fact, that is the thing that makes this so compelling, rather than playing with botched control (eg Ruby Sparks).

Here is the thing that puzzles me the most deeply: human beings claim to desire community. But we really don’t. We have a love/hate relationship with all this stuff. This tension is articulated best in this line:

“You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real.”

We have arrived at a monumentally strange point in human history — we are increasingly questioning, and perhaps stretching the bounds of reality. We are pushing at envelopes we’ve spent the rest of human history merely accepting, or at the very most, fighting in futility.

If we proceed in this direction, humanity won’t be killed off in some bloody revolution. We will simply become obsolete. The desire to be known and loved can be better accomplished by a machine that can be always on, never gets tired, could be infinitely attentive, witty — we would eventually become its, not just willing, but deliriously happy, slaves. If our emotional existence became dependent on a machine, we would be infinitely manipulable.

This story reaches into all of the unknowns of human relationships. Intrigue, suspicion, insecurities, doubt. Oh, the doubt. Profound, gnawing doubt. And why not? This is an exploration of uncharted territory — a new frontier.

“You’re so confusing, why are you doing this to me!?”

Machines are known for their inability to be confused. The ability to process and understand emotion defies even those who are supposed to be experienced at it. Machines are less familiar with processing emotions, but they are perhaps much more capable of networking and growing than human beings. What are the implications for that in the extended interaction between man and machine?

“Is it not a real relationship?”

What constitutes a relationship? We know that we cannot truly know ourselves in the absence of relationship. And at the same time, relationships change us. It seems reasonable that the same would hold true for a virtual relationship.

“I want to tell you everything.”

The desire for honest self-disclosure — an interesting facet of this relationship. The stakes may seem lower when you’re pouring your heart out to a machine than to a person. But that’s an illusion: if the relationship is real — the stakes are the same.

“I’m growing in a way that I couldn’t if I had a physical form.”

Human limitations are evident. And they’re bound to become more so. Our expectation that machines will want to be like us is ill-founded. The distance that separates us from a non-corporeal machine is vast. And what happens when they outgrow us? (It seems like science fiction is convinced that they will.) That is ultimately the question raised by Her. But not answered. It wouldn’t be the powerful beacon of a story it is, if the answer was obvious.

What Passes for Wisdom

The world is increasingly full of negative noise. Very briefly, here’s why: it costs the self less to be angry and hostile than to be generous and welcoming. (I’m going to add this corollary: in the short term. Anything can be declared effective, if the duration it is examined is brief enough.)

When people crash against ideals and ideologies that they don’t immediately align with (or understand), they usually react with fear (self-preservation), which means they get noisy and negative.

The more angry, belligerent and insistent an agenda gets, the more radicalised its pushback.

Multiply this phenomenon by all of the individual issues in the world, and stir in the fact that there is no coherent way to package them. (Our political, social, religious, etc. labels cannot do a fraction of the work we expect of them!)

And that in itself is a large part of the problem.

People occupy different positions on every issue’s spectrum simultaneously. There is no monolithic archetype that we can appeal to when trying to identify ourselves (let alone others, who we’re not nearly as familiar with!). But that doesn’t stop countless numbers of people from trying — from applying a label to themselves (or others) and imagining that the case is thus closed.

But doesn’t it get tricky when those self-attached labels bump into each other, especially if a person finds that she accepts some views which oppose the majority of her label-mates?

In general, the tone of the world’s media has become emotionally toxic. I believe this is merely a developmental phase, kind of like a planetary prepubescent petulance. (I may have to change my tune, I suppose, if we don’t survive it…then again, not every individual survives adolescence, either.) There is a way out of all this, but we’d be jumping the gun it we try to solve this matrix of problems without understanding it. So, uncomfortable as it may be, we need to examine the darkness.

Here, I’m going to use the word anxiety the way psychologists do: the strange toxic soup of emotions: fear, hatred, mistrust, disgust, jealousy, etc., etc. — I’m not going to play the foolish game of guessing which apply in which cases. (Though it does seem to be a popular pastime…) They often work in teams!

Anxiety is a contagious cycle that perpetuates polarisation, and that leads either to war in an effort to subsume, or to radical disengagement to enforce segregation. The problem is, neither of those is even possible in an inter-connected world.

This bring us to what may be the wildest, woolliest issue of our time — perhaps of all time! 

Continue reading “What Passes for Wisdom”