Saturday, October 10, 2009

Death Be Ye Not Proud

With Halloween fast approaching, I've been contemplating humanity's obsession with death. Regardless of the era, culture, or ethnicity, part of what makes us human is our ability to ponder future states of affairs. Rather than simply living on base instinct that drives our day-to-day decision making processes, human beings are capable of reason, and, as such, have often wondered what really happens when we shuffle off this mortal coil, so to speak.

Some cultures employ a shadowy agent of the grave, who comes and gathers or transports souls to the world beyond. Some stipulate a resurrection, whether in a positive light, such as the Christian heaven or the Hindu reincarnation, others in a more ghoulish light, such as vampirism or zombification. Some believe that there is no life beyond this life and that when we die we simply cease to exist.

In many ways, death is the driving force of life. The thought that our time is short makes us accomplish more, in the hopes that our dreams will be fulfilled before we are dust. It seems that without death, life would be fairly meaningless. Death and life have a sort of co-eternally necessary descriptory nature, similar to light and dark, cold and hot, or right and wrong. All of these words require at least knowledge of the other word in order to be fully understood. It would make no sense to say that it is dark if we didn't know it could be other than dark, and cold is not something we can fully understand if we've never felt heat. To say that it was right to do something would mean nothing if there were not things that it would have been wrong to do.

In an odd way, death teaches us a lot about what life means. There are few things as formative in the life of a child as realizing for the first time that nothing lives forever. Death can be a comfort for some, while others struggle to delay it for as long as possible. And yet, ultimately, death becomes the great equalizer: no matter your social status, no matter your ethnicity, no matter how beloved you are, no matter how many people despise you, no matter whether or not you've lived a "good" life, death claims us all, from the mightiest emperor to the lowliest beggar on earth. When it comes, the best you can hope for is a chance to say goodbye and look back on your life without too many regrets.

"The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Loves Like A Hurricane, I Am A Tree Revisited

Back in January, I heard a song. A song that I blogged about. Since then, this song has spread at near-viral speed, sweeping the airwaves, and even being recorded by David Crowder Band. A lot of people weren't very happy with the way I viewed the song. Some thought that it was wrong of me as a Christian to critique worship music, others lauded the song and spoke of how deeply it moved them. Others implied that God would somehow punish me for my disdain. I write this to say, despite the song's increasing popularity, I'm still not interested. And, I figured with how many people are listening to this song now, I might take a moment to better explain why by examining a few of the songs metaphors:

Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy

Now, I'm from Oklahoma, and we don't have hurricanes. But, I am aware of what hurricanes are capable of doing, and I'm very uncomfortable comparing God's love to a hurricane. Hurricanes are highly destructive forces that have the potential to obliterate almost anything in their paths. Especially trees. Trees don't gently bend and sway in hurricanes; hurricanes snap trees in half, which means we seem to be implying that God's love is going to snap us in half and send us hurtling through the air, killing anything in our path. I don't even want to think about the "weight of his wind".

If grace is an ocean we're all sinking

Again, being from Oklahoma, we don't have oceans either, but, unless wearing scuba gear, it is rarely the intention of people in the ocean to sink. Drowning in the grace of God seems to imply the same sort of abrasive, violent love from the last hurricane line.

heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss
and my heart turns violently inside of my chest

Heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss. I don't know that I particularly need images of teenagers making out in the backseat of mom's car to be associated with the way Heaven and Earth interact. And, again, apparently God's love is out to get us, creating physical situations similar to a heart attack.

So, assuming God's love doesn't break you in half, drown you, or send you in to cardiac arrest, enjoy it.

“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Unlearning the Half-Truths of Sunday School, Pt. 1

There are a lot of stories in the Bible, that, when we talk about them in church, we seem to entirely change their meaning and intended message. In an attempt to undo some of this damage, I'd like to take a look at some of these stories, and talk about what they're actually trying to say, beginning with Jonah.

Jonah is one of my absolute favorite stories in the entire bible. However, if you think the story of Jonah is about a fish (or a whale), then you are sorely mistaken.

Usually, when people hear the story of Jonah, they only hear about the first two out of four chapters. The first two chapters cover the part of the story that most people are familiar with: God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah runs in the opposite direction, God makes a storm, Jonah convinces the sailors he is with to throw him overboard, and a fish swallows him. After spending three days in the fish, it coughs him up on the shore, and Jonah goes to do what God tells him.

If the story were to stop here, then you would probably say that the story of Jonah is about having the courage to do what God tells us. And, while this is part of the message of Jonah, this is by no means what the story of Jonah is really about. To figure that out, we have to look at the last two chapters.

In chapter three, Jonah goes and tells the people of Nineveh that in forty days God will destroy Nineveh. Without any sort of call to repentance or assurance that this will stop God's wrath, Nineveh repents, and God decides not to destroy the city. Again, if it were to stop here, you might say that this is a story about how obedience to the will of God brings about good things. however, the real meat of the story of Jonah is in chapter four.

At the beginning of chapter four, Jonah is furious. He prays this prayer to God, "O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live."

At this point, we could probably uses some context to explain why Jonah is so upset. To understand his rage, you need to understand who Jonah is, and who the Assyrians are. The Assyrians (whose capital city was Nineveh) were some of the most brutal, vicious, and violent conquerors to ever rule the Middle East. Some common practices of the Assyrians to inflict upon their captives were to skin their prisoners alive, cut off various body parts to inspire terror in their enemies, pull out tongues, and display mounds of human skulls. And, in the eight century BCE, The Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel. So, in all likelihood, they skinned Israelites alive, maimed and dismembered them, and proudly displayed their skulls for all to see before dragging them off to the four corners of their empire, never to return. The Assyrians are solely responsible for the decimation of ten of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Now, one would think that the opportunity to bring tidings of destruction and wrath against the city responsible for the deaths of countless Hebrews would be a joyful task for Jonah. However, Jonah runs away because he knows God. He knows that if he goes and delivers this message, the people will have a chance to repent and be saved. The fact that this is the absolute last thing that Jonah wants is the exact reason he runs in the first place.

After Jonah tells God how he feels, God asks him if he has any right to be angry. Jonah (conspicuously lacking a response to God's question) leaves the city and goes to see what will happen to it, probably hoping that God will change his mind again and Sodom and Gomorrah it to the ground. While he waits, God provides a vine for shade. However, a worm eats the vine, it gets hot, and Jonah is again furious. So furious, in fact, that he states death would be preferable to his current situation.

And then, in verses 9-11, the last verses of the last chapter of the book, we find the true meaning of the book of Jonah. "But God said to Jonah, 'Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?' 'I do', he said. 'I am angry enough to die.' But the LORD said, 'You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?'"

This is the heart of the message of the story of Jonah: forgiveness, even to the point of being able to forgive those who have wrong us in unspeakable ways. I hope you understand how profound Jonah's ability to forgive in order to forgive the Assyrians would have to be. Jonah forgive the Assyrians would be like Jews forgiving Nazis. It would be like the Tutsis forgiving the Hutu. Forgiveness on that level is rarely seen in our world.

The book of Jonah ends unresolved. We don't know from this book if Jonah ever forgave the Assyrians; we don't know from this book how long Nineveh's repentance lasted. All we do know is that God cares about all peoples, even those we might call monsters, and that God is willing to forgive all peoples, even those we might not think deserve forgiveness.

“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Indominable Will To Survive

I've been thinking a lot lately about human nature. Specifically, how well we adapt to changing situations. When faced with tragedy or loss or other situations that profoundly affect the way in which we live our lives, we have learned that either we can adapt our own personal outlook to the changing situations, what could be vernacularized as "rolling with the punches", or, we can shut down.

Now, unless we are fortunate enough to have loved ones around us willing to care for us through difficult circumstances, we will not be likely to have the option of shutting down. So, we, as human beings, do what we have done for all of human history: we adapt, and we thrive.

The human condition, while occasionally terrible and horrifying in it's inhumanity, can also be quite awe-inspiring. No other species we know of has both the mental capacity to understand tragedy and loss and the ability to move beyond it.

During our brief and tumultuous reign as the dominate species on the planet, we have teeter on the edge of extinction multiple times, dealing with Ice Ages, plagues, genocides, and natural disasters, and yet, due to our ability to understand and adapt to our environment, we have survived. But, maybe we're just to stubborn as species to give up and let someone else take over our planet.

“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”

Friday, June 19, 2009

Open Letter To Atheists, Agnostics, And All Others Who Fall Into The Category of Non-Religious

Dear Friends,

I'm so sorry. I'm sorry that those who claim to believe in the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ so often fail to look anything like him, and I'm sorry that because of this cynicism toward the religious establishment is often the only recourse. I'm sorry that people who picket abortion clinics and constantly harass homosexuals and other members of the counterculture do so with an understanding that it's "what God would want". And, because I too have often failed to live up to the name I have taken upon myself, I apologize for myself.

To those of you hurt by suffering and heartache, I'm sorry that you feel as if God has abandoned you, and that we are alone in a cold and uncaring universe. I'm sorry that circumstances conspiring against you and others have made it so that you find it absurd to believe in a God who is in any way benevolent. I'm sorry that so often your questions seem to fall on deaf ears.

And, sorry as I might be, I cannot promise that it won't happen again. I wish I could, but I would honestly be better off predicting that it will happen again and again, and is probably happening somewhere even as I type. But, two things I can promise: friendship, without agenda or qualification, and my personal attempts to live a life more in line with my adopted father's name.

Humbly yours,
The Wanderer

“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Nature of Suffering and Grief; Does God Even Care?

My great grandma (my dad's grandma) died on Sunday. She was 105, and while that was a long and full life, she did suffer quite a bit before she died, having trouble breathing and wasting away to what looked like a skeleton with skin. My mom's dad has Alzheimer's disease, and while he struggled with it at first, he has now been reduced to little more than an infant in his mid 80's, and now my mom languishes over why this happened to her father. Her mother has dementia, and loses more and more of her mind everyday. I do not consider any of these people to be bad people. As a matter of fact, they are some of the best people I have ever known.

I have often heard it asked (and occasionally wondered myself) "If there is a benevolent God behind creation, why is there so much pain and suffering?" "If God is all powerful, and he wants good things for us, then why do bad things happen to good people?" Let me preface my examination of these subjects with a disclaimer: I do not know of an answer to these questions that will satisfy anyone and everyone. I also do not believe that this is the sort of problem to which you can simply be told the answer. Like most of life's important questions, I think you have to find the answer for yourself.

As I am a devout theist of the Judeo-Christian persuasion, I am committed to the following three axioms: (1) There is a God. (2) This God is Maximally Powerful (by which I mean that all things which are logically possible and consistent with God's character, God can do), and (3) This God is benevolent. Were I to negotiate any one of these principles, the answer would be simple. Without principle 1, principles 2 & 3 no longer apply, and we are left to our own devices in a cold and indifferent universe. Without principle 2, we have a God who is benevolent and wishes to help, but simply lacks the power to do so. And, without principle 3, we have a God who is entirely capable of helping, but lacks the compassion to desire to do so.

So, how do I reconcile a God who has the power to stop suffering, desire an end to suffering, yet still refuses to bring this end about? Well, there is first a question to be dealt with, and that is to what extent God desires the independence of human beings. And, since God is a God who deals almost exclusively in secret, desiring faith without physical evidence, it would seem that God does not want us to simply have all of our problems solved for us, so, God chooses not to act when God could.

At this point, one might object that even if God doesn't act all of the time, there are times when God should. This leads to a philosophical conundrum known as the Problem of the Pile. I drop a grain of sand on the table. This is not a pile. I repeat with two grains, three grains, four grains, etc., and there is no magical number at which it ceases to be individual grains of sand and becomes a pile. The analogy here is that there is no magically quantity at which the interaction of God becomes too little or too much. Perhaps God chooses simply to err on the side of caution.

Another possible explanation for the seeming inactivity of God is that God is acting, all the time, yet God acts in such minute and imperceptible ways upon the infintecimally complex calculus of existence, that we are simply ignorant of God's constant intervention.

However, of all the ways in which it is possible to interpret suffering, there are some which I deem to be vastly inappropriate, as they are directly inconsistent with the nature and character of God. God does not kill people because he needs more angels in heaven. Nor does God rain down punishment upon the wicked, hoping that they will confess of some secret sin. If anything, our suffering causes God just as much pain as it causes us. I'll leave you with a quote from one of my favorite books on suffering, Lament For a Son, by Nicholas Wolterstorff.

"God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart. Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God. It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said that perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor."

P.S. shameless plug: If you have yet to do so, check out my other blog, Rules to Live Your Life By, and my newest blog, Syllabic Restraints.

“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Well, I've been graduated for a week and a half. I have a job, I have my own apartment, and I have bills to pay. And yet, I still don't feel like an adult. I'm not really sure when that feeling comes. Is it something I'll just wake up one day and have? Will I never feel like an adult? Will it come when I get married? Have kids?

And, then there's the question of whether or not a distinction ought to be drawn between being an adult and being responsible. If so, I don't know if really know many adults. If not, then is responsibility an essential part of adulthood? I would like to think so, but I'm not really sure. In the interest of quantification of data, here is a list of things that count for and against my alleged adulthood.

1. I have two jobs.
2. I have an apartment.
3. I pay bills.
4. I fulfill domestic responsibilities (for the most part).

1. I own hundreds of comic books.
2. I own several action figures.
3. My parents still pay some of my bills.
4. I don't have health insurance.

Perhaps the jury is still out on whether or not I qualify as an adulthood.

“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Graduate's Poems Concerning His Future Life: Undergrad No More.

I would like to express my feelings regarding graduation with a series of haikus:

College Graduate.
Difficult to work these days.
The Economy.

So much left undone:
Spent last four years wanting out,
Now I want to stay.

Don't want to do work,
Don't want to take any tests,
Just want to relax.

Stress, stress, stress, stress, stress,
Stress, stress, stress, stress, stress, stress, stress,
Stress, stress, stress, stress, stress.

Should be sleeping now,
Or at least doing homework.
But instead: I blog.

*Bonus Haiku*: This blog title.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Violence, Aggression, Soccer, and Genetics

I'm not typically a physically aggressive person (verbally aggressive, sure, but most of my verbal threats are quite hollow). However, when I play soccer I become highly aggressive. In my mind, the soccer field is a field of battle and honor, and no victories will be won by the enemy that have not been hard fought and well earned. On the soccer field I put aside mercy, compassion, and kindness in the name of battle, power, and wrath. And my soccer playing makes me wonder just how determined I am by my ancestral heritage.

For, you see, my ancestors were German. Germans have a long history of being a proud and noble warrior people, from holding their own on the battlefield against most of the rest of the world not only once, but twice, all the way back to their barbarian roots fighting on the northern border of the Roman Empire against the Romans. And, while I am quite proud of my Germanic roots, I can't help but wonder how much of the aggression I feel on the soccer field is directly tied to the barbarian warrior blood that flows in my veins.

And, if genetic ties still linger from thousands of years and generations ago, this does not bode so well for free will. For, if my actions can be so heavily influenced by things that are so distant in my genetic history, it can be inferred that the things much more recent, such as the actions of my parents, have even more influence. Anyway, just thought I would share some off the cuff musings on the nature vs. nurture argument.

“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”

Friday, April 10, 2009

Let The One Who Has Ears Hear

A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed. He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, "They will respect my son." But the tenants said to one another, "This is the heir. Come, let's kill him, and the inheritance will be ours." So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.

“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sometimes Truth Isn't Good Enough

"Because sometimes truth isn't good enough. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded."

The first time I saw The Dark Knight, I couldn't stop thinking about these words Batman says right before he runs away to bear the brunt of the people's anger at the actions committed by Harvey Dent that they believe were committed by Batman. And as I read them again, I wonder: do I actually believe they are true? Do I believe that we should lie to people and reward their faith even if what they believe is wrong?

And the answer is that I'm not sure. I don't really like to lie. I was a rambunctious child once, so I learned how to lie and do it moderately well, but I've never felt good about lying to people. Yet, at the same time, if people have faith and that faith is proven true far less often than it appears to fail them, then they will lose hope. And, if people have lost hope, there is little chance of motivating them to make the world around them a better place. I definitely don't want people to lose hope, which means I want people to have faith. The only question is whether the desired outcome of faith is worth the occasional lie or half-truth to motivate people in certain ways so that they will want to make the world a better place.

“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”

Thursday, March 26, 2009

"The Sum of Intelligence on the Planet is a Constant; the Population is Growing."

Sometimes I worry about the intelligence of future generations, specifically here in America. Children are increasingly becoming less and less required (or even encouraged) to read with the proliferation of video technology, and this coupled with the rapid growth in text messaging is leaving children unable to spell. With all the ways we communicate with each other electronically, face to face human interaction is becoming less and less prevalent. In a grand irony, our very need to constantly stay connected to one another may just be the thing that tears us apart.

Just imagine a world where we are "chained" to our cellphones, unable to pull ourselves away from them for even a moment for the fear that we will "miss something", while the world around us passes us by. We avoid one-on-one face-to-face human contact, and even when we are in such situations our lack of basic language skills that should be learned from reading leave us incapable of being able to express ourselves in an articulate and coherent manner.

If you ever get a chance to read the book Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, I highly recommend you do so. Bradbury's book is about a world in the not so distant future where society has become entirely hedonistic and anti-intellectual. Children roam the streets at night seeking violence and mayhem to distract themselves from the adults who are too busy watching wall-sized televisions and imagining the programs which they view to be real social interactions to take care of their children. In this world, books have been outlawed due to the ways in which they threaten the common man and make him feel insignificant and unintelligent. The main character, Guy Montag, is a fireman and, since house are now fire-proof, the job of the firemen is to find and burn any and all books.

The most jarring thing about Fahrenheit 451 is not that the world has gone to hell in a hand basket. There were plenty of similar dystopian books written about the same time. What makes this book stand out to me above other classics such as Brave New World and 1984 is that there is no outside force that sought to remove books from our homes. There is no Big Brother or drug that makes sure we stay placated and unintelligent. We did it to ourselves. The majority of people stopped caring about knowledge, and the intelligent minority threatened the happiness of the masses by making them feel like they weren't good enough. We wanted books gone, and the government gave us what we wanted.

So, please, I'm begging you: put down your cellphone for an hour and have an honest-to-goodness real life conversation with someone. Or pick up a book and read something that will expand your mind and make you more intelligent. The world doesn't have to be like this. We are in charge of our own destiny, and it's up to us to make sure that we as human beings don't devolve into glorified monkeys. It's not too late.

“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Pop Philosophy vis-à-vis Watchmen

I wanted to put this youtube video in as my picture for this post, but I couldn't figure out how, so enjoy it here.

So, after seeing Watchmen for the second time, I thought I might follow up my one-word review of the movie with some philosophical assessment of the characters which comprise this gripping and psychologically conflicting movie. The way I see it, there are three main schools of ethical philosophical thought espoused by the costumed heroes that are the focal points of the Watchmen story: utilitarianism, moral absolutism, and nihilism. WARNING: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS.

The character at the forefront of the utilitarian "camp", for a lack of a better word, in this story is the retired hero turned media mogul Ozymandias. Ozzy sees a problem with the basic nature of humanity, one which he shares in common with The Comedian: people are essentially savage beings, and sooner or later without outside intervention we are going to destroy each other. Ozymandias therefore creates the ultimate utilitarian problem: the entire world is about to destroy itself, so, in order to save the lives of billions, he kills millions. Then, the other heroes who have discovered his plot (Silk Spectre II, Nite Owl II, Rorschach, and Dr. Manhattan) have to decide whether they do the so-called "right" thing and make Ozymandias pay for the murder of millions, or simply let him get away without in order to help ensure his new global peace. So, as in the philosophical ethic of utilitarianism, "the good" is seen not as that which we might find most morally pleasing, but that which ultimately is best for the greatest percentage of people, forcing us to ask ourselves if we could live with the deaths of millions if it were for the sake of world peace.

Then, in contrast to the utilitarianism of Ozymandias, we have the moral absolutism of Rorschach. Rorschach, psychologically disturbed though he might be, sees ethics in absolute categories of right and wrong, good and evil, black and white. To quote Rorschach, "Never compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon." Matters of expediancy don't factor into his moral decisions, and there is no letting lesser evils go unpunished in order to bring in those who commit greater evils. Criminals are evil; therefore, criminals die. It's just as simple as that. And yet, within Rorschach increasing mental instability and paranoia, the reason the character is so compelling is that there is a little Rorschach in all of us. Whenever we see great injustices, or evil men hurting women and children, or people taking advantage of the weak and defenseless, there is a part of us that says "to hell with the system; this person should be dead." As human beings, we want justice, occasionally in extreme and violent ways.

Finally, we have the nihilists of the Watchmen universe: The Comedian & Dr. Manhattan. The interesting thing about these two is that they react to their belief that life is ultimately meaningless in entirely different ways. The Comedian sees all of human existence as one big joke. And, as a result, he becomes a parody of the darkness he sees in the heart of humanity. He lives a life seemingly composed of equal parts hedonism and pragmatism. He does what he wants, when he wants to do it as long as the personal risk is minimal and he can gain from the results. Dr. Manhattan, on the other hand, sees life to be a "highly overrated phenomenon", and as a result becomes increasingly detached from and unconcerned for human beings, to the point of leaving the planet to go live on Mars. Seeing his past, present, and future as one singular quantum moment, Dr. Manhattan becomes increasingly bored and depressed by human interaction, becoming in some cases little more than a passive observer, such as in the case of The Comedian and the Vietnamese woman who scars his face.

If you were to ask me what Watchmen was about, I'm honestly not sure I could give you an answer. The graphic novel is so indepth and has so many layers that it is difficult to sum up into a singular concept. Ultimately, I guess Watchmen is about life: the ways in which we live, we make the world a better place, and who we choose to become as we experience the world.

“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”

Friday, March 6, 2009

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

I am finding it hard to express verbally (or in type) just how excited I am for the new Watchmen movie coming out this week. This story raises all kinds of interesting questions about morality, God, and human nature. I don't want to spoil anything for those of you who haven't read the comic, but if the ending is anything like it is in the book, you will leave the theater unsure of what would have been the right thing to do, and those are some of the best stories I ever read/seen. For now, I'll leave you with this logical argument:

1. Rorschach is morally committed to the proposition "murder is wrong".
2. If something is wrong, then it should be punished.
3. Rorschach has committed murder in the past.
:. Rorschach should turn himself in.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Champion of the Oppressed

If you've ever met me, and we've talked for more than a few minutes, superheroes probably came up somehow in the conversation. And, if we discussed it further, the conversation probably led (as conversations with me on superheroes invariably tend to lead) to Superman.

Now, I know that most people who like comic books are into to Marvel. That's fine. They make great comic books, and I'm all for people supporting the industry regardless of which companies titles they read. Personally, I find Marvel's superheroes to be lacking that certain something that makes them heroic. A lot of people enjoy Marvel characters because they can relate to their failures and shortcomings. That's fine. Sometimes, it's even great. But, I want something more from my heroes. If my heroes are just like me, then I don't really have any reason to look to them as examples of how I ought to live my life.

That's why I've always been a fan of Big Blue. Say what you want about him, I've heard it all: he's too powerful to be interesting, he's just a boring boyscout, he's a total loser without his superpowers, he's a crude caricature of America, etc. But, at the end of the day, I think there's a reason that Superman has been around for 70 years: because people want hope. If our heroes don't inspire us to become better than we have been, if our heroes are no better than we are, then hero worship is merely just a matter of empathy.

Lots of things have changed about Superman over the years: his relationship with Lois Lane, just how powerful he is, whether or not he can age, his supporting characters and the villains he battles, etc. The main constant in the Superman mythos is this: Superman always does what he believes to be the right thing. His rigid moral character, his indomitable will, his love for humanity: these are things that make Superman a hero, not heat vision or super strength.

Now, to maybe help you have an idea of what I'm talking about, here are some examples of why I love Superman from a couple of my favorite Superman stories. The first is Red Sun, a what if story where Superman grows up in the USSR in the 50's instead of America. The context of this soliloquy is that a satellite is falling toward Metropolis, threatening to destroy the city.

"They called me a soldier, but that just wasn't true. I was never a soldier. A soldier always follows orders. A soldier knows and hates his enemy. A soldier only fights and dies for his own people. I just fought for what was right... A cluster of support cables groaned and snapped. People screamed for someone to save them. Not my people, but I never refuse a cry for help. All the lies they spread about me. The propaganda they engineered at the height of the Cold War. None of it mattered for a while on that bright afternoon. Just for a single moment. They realized I was here to save them."

These are not Superman's people. But, at the same time, they are. Superman does not belong to a single state or principality. Superman belongs to the world, and we are all his people, regardless of our personal philosophies, skin colors, sexual orientation, or the crimes we have committed. We are all his people.

The second and third examples are from Kingdom Come, a story set in the future where the new generation of superheroes have become petty and corrupt, and our heroes come out of retirement to show them the way that heroes are supposed to behave. The first story deals with why Superman retired, and the second deals with what happens when things get out of control in the rehabilitation of the new generation.

This quote is in the context of Magog, the "hero" who replaced Superman addressing him in the middle of a nuclear explosion decimated Kansas, a result of Magog's recklessness:

Magog: "They were calling you old-fashioned when I was a teenager. World's oldest boy scout...but you wouldn't change. You wouldn't get in step. You wouldn't flex with the times. Remember? The Daily Planet asked if that's why the Joker got so many notches on his belt when he blew into our town. How many did he take out just that last time? Ninety-two men?..."

Superman: "And one woman."

Magog: "Hell. We both tore up the city looking for that bastard. I really thought you or Batman would get to him first. Even I almost missed him. Almost. I will never forget the look on your face when you saw me standing over that smoking creep. All the way to Jail, I thought, what a sap. What an old woman. Blue boy's dragging me in for having stones he doesn't. 'Times are tough. Joker'd been deserving worse than 'cuffs for years. So I took it upon myself to lay him down. I can't be judged for that.' And I was right. I was a hero. But you just wouldn't roll with it. You had to get in a last shot and piss me off. I wanted that torch passed. I wanted to cement my claim as Metropolis' new number one. I asked for a title bout between you and me, and I won by default when you flew off with your cape between your legs... I always thought you were afraid of me. A lot of people did. But that wasn't it. You were afraid that I was the man of tomorrow. You were afraid of the future I represented. Well, look around you. This is what I represent."

Superman: "You must be proud."

Magog: "Proud? PROUD? GOD DAMN YOU! Pround of being the man of tomorrow? Your bastard. The world changed...but you wouldn't. So they chose me. They chose the man who would kill over the man who wouldn't... and now they're dead."

In case you couldn't tell without the pictures, this recounts Joker killing everyone in the Daily Planet building (including Lois) and in turn being killed by Magog after he had turned himself in to the police. Superman's response? Put him on trial for murder. Murder of the man who just killed everyone Superman ever cared about. Superman lost the trial and went into self-imposed exile, incapable of dealing with a world that would condone murder, even murder of a psychopath with the blood of thousands on his hands, including Superman's friends and wife. Because that's how much Superman values the lives of people, even scum like the Joker.

The second excerpt from Kingdom Come is Superman addressing his followers after the "heroes" they are attempting to rehabilitate are refusing to cooperate and have started a riot in their gulag.

Wonder Woman: "So...your world's finally turned completely topsy-turvy. How do we handle this?"

Superman: "I...don't know."

Wonder Woman: "Then I do. We're going to confront the prisoners and give them an ultimatum. They must surrender."

Superman: "And if they refuse?"

Wonder Woman: "Then it's war."

Superman: "But you can't have a war without people dying."

At this point in the story, everyone looks at Superman as though he's lost his mind, then walks away to go and have their war. It's true that Superman's moral code doesn't always work out neatly in his stories. People have been dying all this time as a result of his refusal to take the lives of truly evil people. But, agree or not, you have to admire his refusal to compromise.

I could go on and on about Superman and superheroes in general for hours and days, but I just thought I might give a rough, somewhat preliminary explanation of why I'll always love the Man of Steel as I wander through life.

“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

An Okie's Initial Reflections On the Ocean

The churning eddy of silvery green and deep, dark blues,
The ebb and flow of the ocean
Caressing and withdrawing from the shore,
The singing and squabbling of birds as they hunt
For unfortunate mollusks and crabs.
An endless vision of blue;
One can barely discern
The waters above from the waters below.
Life scurrying across the sands.
Life thriving in infinite holes and tidepools.
Life ending:
Shriveling after washing up beyond the sea's embrace.
The gentle pulse of the ocean's heartbeat,
Pounding upon the rocks.
The gentle breeze that carries the scent
Of salt and adventure.
The thunder of impending cloudburst.
The beauty of the sea expressed by countless dreamers;
Now I understand.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Politcal Apathy: A Rational Response

I am often chided and have even been (once or twice) verbally assaulted due to my extreme disinterest in all things political. And I thought I might take a minute or two to illustrate why, using a paper I wrote based off the arguments of one of my favorite philosophical articles of all time, "Is it Rational to be an Informed Voter?" by Anthony Downs (I couldn't find the article online, but if you come across it, I highly recommend reading it. I'd even loan you the book I got it from if you ask.).

The main argument Downs gives for why it is irrational to be an informed voter is that the time and effort put forth into becoming informed is not worth the output of being informed.

" a culture so flooded with information (much truer now that it was in 1957 when the article was written), one cannot absorb all the information to possibly be weighed in his decisions before he makes them. You must selectively pick and choose datum from the large supply of data in existence. This is true even if the datum don’t cost money, for they can still cost you time, a commodity which is usually harder to come by than money. The amount of information we should rational obtain Downs defines by this axiom: “It is rational to perform an act if its marginal return is larger than its marginal cost” (Downs 360). That is to say, an act is rational if you get a higher level of return than the time and/or money you invested into it. Since we live in an imperfectly informed world, the exact cost or gain from any decision cannot be known in advance, but this axiom can still be used to speak of expected costs and returns."

The supposed outcome of being "informed" (I use this term somewhat loosely, since there are problems knowing the reliability and biases of the information we receive) is that we vote "correctly", i.e. for the outcome with the highest utilitarian interest (utilitarianism has its own set of problems, but, for the sake of brevity, we'll gloss over them). The problem with voting in large elections, however, is that:

'This is the inevitable result of a large electorate: the higher the number of individuals who participates in an election, the lower the weight of each individual vote. Take, for instance, the 2004 presidential election. 1, 463, 732 Oklahomans voted in the 2004 presidential election (Washington Post). Had I been old enough to vote, and chosen to participate, my vote would have added one to this number, raising the total vote to 1, 463, 733. Out of these almost 1.5 million people, my vote would have accounted for only a fraction of a fraction of the percentage of votes cast. And, when we add this 1.5 million voters from Oklahoma to the almost 120 million voters nationwide (Washington Post), the vote of any one individual accounts for only 1/120 millionth of a percent. “Since the cost of voting is so very low, hundreds, thousands, or even millions of citizens can afford to vote. Therefore, the probability of any one citizen’s vote becoming decisive is very small indeed. It is not zero, and it can even be significant…but, under most circumstances, it is so negligible that it renders the return from voting ‘correctly’ infinitesimal” (Downs 361).'

However, I'm sure there are some of you who believe in the electoral process, and believe it to be a rational process. Downs does give four examples of individuals for whom becoming an informed voter is rational. The first is that "you may enjoy being well informed for its own sake, so that the very acquiring of information becomes your motivation for being informed. You feel yourself a good citizen, and your feelings of worth and accomplishment at furthering the democratic process are their own reward." I would agree, but this still gives me no reason to be politically informed, as I gain zero pleasure from the process.

The second reason for being an informed voter is that "you may believe that the election is going to be so close that the probability of you casting the deciding vote is relatively high." However, if 120 million people vote, this is fairly improbable.

The third and fourth reasons for being an informed voter is that "you may need information to influence the vote of others so that you can alter the outcome of an election, or persuade the government to give your preferences more consideration than others" or "you may need information to influence the formation of government policy as a lobbyist". These last two reasons apply to a very small minority, and they certainly don't apply to me personally.

Some would say that the call to being politically informed is made so that we will have a well-informed electorate who will change government policy and make the world a better place. However:

The problem is, we do not require a citizen to be well-informed about the electoral process or even vote at all to share in the benefits of the decisions made by the majority. It’s not as if not voting for a president exempts you from having to live under the reign of that president and follow the precedents he sets. So, as long as a citizen holds the same general opinion as the majority, he will reap the benefits of their decisions whether he actively took part in these decisions or not...In cases such that participation awards you no benefits, the most rational thing to do is simply find the way to most effectively minimize your personal cost, in this case minimizing the cost of your time that would be a waste of resources becoming an informed voter by remaining politically ignorant. However, if all citizens reason this way, then no one bears the cost of democracy and nothing is accomplished.the general solution for such a problem is the implementation of a centralized governmental agency responsible for coercing citizens. Everyone is forced to pay the price, and everyone receives a share of the benefits which (Downs assumes) more than offsets the cost of forced participation. This is the basic thinking behind the collection of taxes by the IRS for things such as national defense and other necessary costs of running a governmental system. The problem, however, is that, unlike the collection of taxes, there is no objective criterion for how informed an individual is, and there is no objective standard for how informed an individual should be. The farthest that any government has taken any such ideas is requiring its public schools to teach classes on civics, government, and history.

Such is the problem of becoming an informed voter. Even if you believe that your vote will not be tampered with, even if you believe that your vote will not be lost or misplaced, even if you live in a state where the Electoral College has to vote with the general consensus, even if you believe that you can actually influence people to behave in more rationalistic ways, you are still only one voice out of 120 million, and as such too much thought about which candidate to vote for will only be a waste of resources that could be better applied in another area of your life.

“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”

Saturday, January 31, 2009

It's Not How I Thought It Would Be, But It's All Right

I love the Chronicles of Narnia, both the books and the movies. I love the adventures of the Pevensie children, I love the mythical creatures, and I love the way that Aslan interacts with the world he has created. I especially love the story of the Pevensies as Walden Media is telling it this time around in the films, especially Prince Caspian. (If you haven't seen the movie, don't read this if you don't want me to spoil a plot point or two.)

I know a lot of people don't like Prince Caspian as much as the last film (certainly evident by the ticket sales), but I love it. I love the way that the Pevensies struggle with their frustration at being kids again when they used to be not only grownups, but kings and queens. I love how they struggle with faith in Aslan. I love how the White Witch comes and tempts them, and is defeated by the only Pevensie who really knows exactly what it means to serve her.

To me, the central theme of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is the idea of what it means to be home. Perhaps one of the reasons I love the film so much is that I often struggle with this concept. They say home is where the heart is, and the Pevensies certainly left their hearts in Narnia when they returned to our world. I'm fairly confident in saying most of us would rather live the life of a king or queen in a magical wonderland full of life and joy than a life of rationing and fear of being blown up in WWII era England. But, it's more than that. The Pevensies spent more time in Narnia than they did in our world. They grew to adulthood. They learned what it meant to be kings and queens, commanding respect and honor, and then returned to a world where nobody listened or cared about what they had to say.

Then, after all their hoping and longing for a return to the world they had left behind, they finally return to Narnia. And, when they arrive, they find Narnia subjugated by a foreign enemy, their castle a mere ruin, and so much time has passed that everyone they cared for and knew in Narnia was long dead. They were no longer even the heroes of their own story. And that's the point. Too often we spend all of our time hoping and wishing for a world that no longer exists. We dream of home as this place where everything is always okay, and the world can't get to us anymore, but that's not what home is.

As a college student, I've learned that you really can't ever go home again. Not to say that I don't love my parents or enjoy spending time with them. But, when I do, I'm not home anymore. What was home is now just a collection of memories. I've reached the age where home is going to be whatever I make of it. Ultimately, home is merely a state of mind: the place where you are most comfortable. The place where you truly feel as if you belong.

And that is what the Pevensies found when they returned to Narnia. They didn't find the place they remembered, and they didn't find what they had hoped for, but they did find peace and contentment. I guess another way of saying you're home is saying that you are comfortable in your own skin. We spend so much time and energy chasing after a dream, a fantasy, a mere memory, when all along home is right here waiting for us when we accept that home can only be what we make of it.

“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Loves Like a Hurricane, I Am A Tree

Oh, worship songs. I know that the intent is pure, but they often border on the ludicrous. However, every so often, a song goes above and beyond. Leaving behind the realm of the ludicrous, they pass directly into the absurd.

Back in September, I posted the lyrics of the most ridiculous worship song I had ever heard. I had believed this song could never be topped due to its utterly befuddling lyrics. However, today in chapel, I heard a competitor for this title. Without further ado, behold: How He Loves Us.

He is jealous for me
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy

When all of a sudden, I am unaware
of these afflictions eclipsed by glory

and I realize just how beautiful You are
and how great your affections are for me.

Oh, how He loves us so

Oh, how He loves us

How He loves us so.

Yeah, He loves us
Woah, how He loves us
Woah, how He loves us

Woah, how He loves.

So we are His portion and He is our prize,

Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes

If grace is an ocean we're all sinking

So heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss
and my heart turns violently inside of my chest

I don't have time to maintain these regrets
when I think about the way

That he loves us,

Woah, how He loves us

Woah, how He loves us

Woah, how He loves

He loves us,

Woah, how He loves us

Woah, how He loves us

Woah, how He loves

Woah how he loves us indeed. So, readers, give me your vote: which song is more absurd, and why?

:Edit: For a complete critique of this song, visit this link.