A Very Boring-Sounding Title: The Foundation of True Discourse

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“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“I can’t understand how anyone could believe that.”

“Anyone who thinks that is a complete idiot and understands nothing.”

We’ve all heard people say things like this, and most of us have said some of them ourselves. But the more I observe people interacting in person and online, the more I see how destructive such attitudes are towards the goals of honest conversation and true discourse.

It is the most natural inclination of any group with shared beliefs to reinforce those beliefs by developing arguments against the beliefs of others. This in and of itself is fine and good. This is why Christians study and discuss the wrong beliefs of Muslims, Mormons, and atheists, and why Camaro enthusiasts talk trash about Mustangs. The last thing we want is to say that one belief is as valid as another, or else we end up with plain old relativism and that is about as helpful as a set of black and white traffic lights or pharmacists who only administer placebo pills. 

And yet something critical is lost when the Camaro Club members come to believe that the Mustang is a useless piece of junk and quite literally the worst car ever made, or when a Christian says that Muslims or Mormons or atheists are completely deceived and know nothing about God or the world. What is lost is simply the truth. In the effort of preserving and reinforcing one’s own beliefs, it is all too easy to leave the realm of truth and reality. Constructing crude caricatures of opposing views is so rampant in religious and political discourse that its easy to lose sight of how harmful and destructive it is. And it isn’t just harmful for the one being caricatured. No – it is even more harmful for the one doing the caricaturing, because even if that person holds the view that is really true, he has left the realm of truth in his attack on the other, and is now frankly unable to convince anyone else of the truth.

Why is this? It’s because of a very simple and understandable reaction that always occurs when someone hears their own beliefs misrepresented. It’s essentially impossible to be convinced by an argument that is not addressing your position. And if I can narrow the focus a little bit to an especially guilty party of which I am a guilty member, we Christians are constantly doing this. The other partners in this fumbling waltz of misfired arguments are the atheists, who I daresay are just as bad. 

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I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Christians quote Psalm 14:1, “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God”” and then proceed to argue that atheists are all fools and if they had any working brain cells they would see that God exists. Now, the scripture is true, and in the last analysis, when all things are revealed and our profound blindnesses are cured, it will be obvious that it is a foolish thing to say there is no God, sort of like it is a foolish thing to say there is no such thing as speech. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t perfectly understandable why someone would be a committed atheist. In fact, I am quite sure I would be a committed atheist if I had been born to atheist parents and if God had not so clearly intervened in my life; there but for the grace of God go I and you too.

The truth is, if the deepest pre-supposition you held was that there is no such thing as the supernatural, God, or anything beyond the physical world, then it makes sense to look at all the data available and conclude, like so many do, that the universe somehow came into existence through a big kablamo and that by endless chance life came into being and through countless eons evolved into what we see today. A lot of very intelligent, sensible people believe this. Likewise, atheists should be able to imagine how an intelligent and thoughtful person could come to believe that God created all things and that Jesus is the son of God.

We need a kind of intellectual empathy that says “I can see how you could believe that.” 

This is the foundation for any conversation which might actually bear the fruit of mutual understanding, growth, and maybe even epiphany. 

Defending the truth is a vital and worthy objective. But often in the interest of defending the truth we build walls instead of bridges, creating insular intellectual communities instead of winsome truth-telling communities, based in fear instead of love.

Someone I know came back from a conference a few years ago and told me “Post-modernism is so stupid!” I don’t disagree with the fact but the sentiment is not likely to convince many post-modernists. Forgive the analogy but if you want the dog to come inside you’re going to have to do something other than throw sticks at it. 

Republicans routinely demonize and draw caricatures of the Democrats, who then turn around and return the favour with interest. Christians get together and make fun of those stupid know-nothing atheists, who also get together and chuckle at the poor misguided fools who believe in an imaginary omnipotent being. And then there was the guy in my class who had decided that any and all Japanese cars were ugly and stupid and that only Fords and Chevys were worthy of appreciation, a position so untenable that it was hard not to laugh. 

Building walls of mutual incomprehension will do a good job of preserving the status quo but it will also prevent any actual conversation and – most shockingly of all – any realization of our own errors and wrong beliefs. Ultimately it is the path to ignorance, blindness, and even hate and violence, for there is a sense in which the kinds of mental attitudes I’ve described contain the seeds of the dehumanization necessary for violence. 

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Blinded by Celebrity Culture

The culture of celebrity is so pervasive that we have forgotten and lost something very important and very obvious. Pick any talent or discipline and we think that the very best example of that talent or discipline will be found in the person who is the most famous for it. But this is a very irresponsible assumption to make. For example, celebrity is often all-consuming. Someone of greater or equal talent may have decided that they were going to make family and privacy a priority and forgone that route. Other talented people aren’t as physically attractive and therefore can’t create an image that will ‘sell’. Still others simply haven’t been discovered yet, and many never will. They will simply continue to write and perform and sculpt and cook and paint and sing in your communities, your coffee houses, local art galleries, your churches, always being less in our eyes because they have none of the waxy sheen and glitter that we wrongly associate with true greatness. The case in point for this is the true story of the world-class violinist who played in a subway for 45 minutes while hundreds upon hundreds of people walked by without ever noticing.

And I think most of us are guilty of ‘not noticing’ all kinds of wonderful talent and greatness all around us. It’s a darn shame is what it is.

This holds true in the spiritual world as well. The church has bought into the celebrity culture so completely that it has forgotten there was ever an alternative. Our worship bands are good but they aren’t exactly Chris Tomlin, David Crowder, or Michael Gungor. Our preachers may be good but they aren’t (insert favourite preacher here). If only we had someone in our church who was a spiritual giant like so-and-so, who could pray like other-so-and-so. But the fact is we are looking at the waxy sheen instead of the substance, and the truth is that there are fantastic preachers in your town, and probably your church. The truly great prayer warriors and spiritual giants will never be celebrified, and they abound in the quietest of corners in most churches. The music can be as much of a distraction as a help. The North American worship experience has been profoundly and perhaps irrevocably knocked off balance by the inappropriate elevation of the rockstar worship leader, the indistinguishability of worship service from concert, and the confusion of emotional effusion for spiritual power.

What I’m saying is that the celebrity pastor most worth your time is your pastor, the celebrity worship leader most worth your voice is your worship leader, the spiritual giant most worth approaching for advice and prayer is that sweet older person who sits two rows back and to the left and smiles at you when you walk in.

It’s simply the way God has always done things. Greatness comes in the most ordinary vessels.

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A Too-Good-Not-To-Share Paragraph on the Problem of Evil from G.K. Chesterton

Be warned, a paragraph for ol’ Gee-Kay is a five page article for most of us, but nevertheless, here ’tis.

Context: He is here near the end of his book, and working to show how Christianity differs from both mythology and philosophy. I’ve adjusted the formatting for improved ease of reading, since as superiorly intelligent people in the age of the perpetual interruption we are quite unable to follow a train of thought or argument for more than a dozen or so words.

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But if it is not a mythology neither is it a philosophy. It is not a philosophy because, being a vision, it is not a pattern but a picture. It is not one of those simplifications which resolve everything into an abstract explanation; as that everything is recurrent; or everything is relative; or everything is inevitable; or everything is illusive.

It is not a process but a story.

It has proportions, of the sort seen in a picture or a story; it has not the regular repetitions of a pattern or a process; but it replaces them by being convincing as a picture or a story is convincing.

In other words, it is exactly, as the phrase goes, like life. For indeed it is life.

An example of what is meant here might well be found in the treatment of the problem of evil. It is easy enough to make a plan of life of which the background is black, as the pessimists do; and then admit a speck or two of star-dust more or less accidental, or at in the literal sense insignificant. And it is easy enough to make another plan on white paper, as the Christian Scientists do, and explain or explain away somehow such dots or smudges as may be difficult to deny. Lastly it is easiest of all, perhaps, to say as the dualists do, that life is like a chessboard in which the two are equal; and can as truly be said to consist of white squares on a black board or of black squares on a white board.

But every man feels in his heart that none of these three paper plans is like life; that none of these worlds is one in which he can live. Something tells him that the ultimate idea of a world is not bad or even neutral; staring at the sky or the grass or the truths of mathematics or even a new-laid egg, he has a vague feeling like the shadow of that saying of the great Christian philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas, ‘Every existence, as such, is good.’ On the other hand, something else tells him that it is unmanly and debased and even diseased to minimise evil to a dot or even a blot. He realizes that optimism is morbid. It is if possible even more morbid than pessimism.

These vague but healthy feelings, if he followed them out, would result in the idea that evil is in some way an exception but an enormous exception; and ultimately that evil is an invasion or yet more truly a rebellion.

He does not think that everything is right or that everything is wrong, or that everything is equally right and wrong. But he does think that right has a right to be right and therefore a right to be there; and wrong has no right to be wrong and therefore no right to be there. It is the prince of the world; but it is also a usurper.

So he will apprehend vaguely what the vision will give to him vividly; no less than all that strange story of treason in heaven and the great desertion by which evil damaged and tried to destroy a cosmos that it could not create. It is a very strange story and its proportions and its lines and colors are as arbitrary and absolute as the artistic composition of a picture. It is a vision which we do in fact symbolize in pictures by titanic limbs and passionate tints of plumage; all that abysmal vision of falling stars and the peacock panoplies of the night.

But that strange story has one small, advantage over the diagrams.

It is like life.

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My Big Beef with Car Culture

Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved cars.

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They’ve always been able to tug at my imagination, to capture my fascination, and I’m not sure why. Other people don’t seem to have this reaction at all when they encounter a motor vehicle. To them it really is just a collection of metal, rubber, and plastic. Perhaps the simplest way to describe what it means to be a car person is that a vehicle is more than the sum of its parts, and that it evokes something from within.

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A car, as a product of engineering and design, is not merely functional, but a work of art. It may be a poor work of art, or the art may be more in its functionality than anything else, but the shaping and moulding of panels, the calculating of proportions and angles and sight-lines, the tone and growl of the engine and exhaust, all require at least some measure of esthetic intentionality. It may look like a cross-eyed bullfrog but you know that someone somewhere presented that design to some decision makers who decided to make that hideous car.

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This is why we can begin to speak of a car’s personality, stance, face, rear-end, or ethos. Some cars exude power and aggression, others confidence and class, and still others just scream “I’m a Korean-made sub-compact from the mid-90’s and I’m utterly terrible.” Don’t get me wrong – I’ve got nothing against the Koreans – in fact they make some very fine cars now – but don’t ever buy a Daewoo, or a mid-90’s Hyundai. When you contact Daewoo to tell them that your driver’s seat fell through the floor of the car and the gear lever came off in your hand, they will simply laugh at you and say: “Hey! What you expect? You buy Daewoo!” Or that’s the rumor at least.

We all know that cars can be an endlessly fascinating subject of interest and conversation among men. The majority of those people who have an above-average interest in cars are indeed men. But like anything in which the majority of participants are men, there are some problems, and I’d like to talk about one of the major ones.

For a long time, I’ve wondered why it is the case that many magazines and websites which feature nice pictures of nice cars, will also contain sexualized pictures of women models. This is predominantly true of anything in the tuner culture, but is also more broadly applicable. If it isn’t outright portrayals of women in sensual poses, the same spirit is there in the sexist jokes and comments that presenters or writers make. Regardless of the form it takes, there is a pervasive attitude in much of this sub-culture that women, like cars, are pretty playthings that exist for men to enjoy.

This is done so casually and thoughtlessly, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to have some woman in her underwear standing beside a car. As the father of a daughter, I feel very strongly that this is not a natural thing at all. Say what you will about the decisions and career choices that these women have made, but I wouldn’t wish for any woman to have to take off her clothes in front of leering men in order to make a living, or to have worth in people’s eyes. I want my daughter to be valued for her character, personality, and spirit. For a long time, I didn’t really understand why this association between cars and women was so ubiquitous in car culture.

Then one day it hit me.

Men like cars for many reasons but one of the main ones is that they are good looking objects. Well then it only makes sense to have another good looking object to go with it.

Never mind that this second ‘object’ is a really a human being with a heart and soul and is of precious worth far beyond that of any Ferrari of Bugatti.

Never mind that all the men leering at the pictures of these girls wouldn’t want their own sisters, wives, or daughters displayed like that for all to see.

It’s just one of a hundred thousand ways in which our world doesn’t see or portray women as full and complete human beings, worthy of dignity and respect. It’s not right, and it’s not okay.

I’ve always told myself that I would love whatever my kids love and not try to get them to be interested in my own interests. So I don’t know if I failed at that or if my son really came to love cars by himself, but anyways he really loves cars and trucks. He’s only two and a half, and already (with a bit of coaching from me) he can tell the difference in his toy car collection between the ‘Porsche Nine Elebben’, the GT-R, and the Audi, as well as between the Jaguar E-Type and the Toyota 2000GT, which look quite similar at 1:64 scale. I want to be able to take him to the annual Auto Show when he’s a bit older, but it makes me sad to think that I will have to explain to him why there are women dressed in really small, tight dresses standing around in the modified cars section.

We need to do a better job of guarding the honor and dignity of all human beings, especially those whose honor and dignity and humanity are so often dismissed.

And we also need to treat objects as objects. I did go to the car show this year, and although I really loved seeing all those gorgeous cars, pulling open the back door of a $500,000 Rolls Royce (I wasn’t supposed to, but how often do you get the chance?!), climbing into the trunk of a Toyota Echo to test out the emergency release cable they’ve installed in there in case of kidnapping, and pushing all the buttons and knobs in the Jaguars and Audis, I left the conference center feeling quite flat about the whole thing. At the end of the day, it really is just metal and rubber and really nice leather, and we would do well to remember it.

The sad reality is, for many people walking through that auto show, they had a far more human interaction with their dream cars than they did with the ladies who were put on display. They were far more conscious of the personality and soul of that new Audi than of the eternal value of each of those girls.

Dear car culture, you’ve humanized the object and objectified the human, and that is my big beef with you.

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Just Keep Swimmin’

It’s been a few weeks of straight-piped no-foolin’ craziness around here. Kids and babies getting sick and spewing bodily fluids in every direction. Parents going down in tandem like tightrope walkers tied to each other with electrified bungee cords. Why gosh darn I tell you it’s a front-line field hospital that’s as messy as a school cafeteria after sloppy joe Wednesday and national food-fight day happened to be on the same day.

Just when you make it through one endless day and have some time to recalibrate your sanity-machine by injecting it with coffee and multi-syllabic ‘grown-up’ conversation, you realize you have less than seven hours before the one that can walk gets up and walks out of his room, demanding sustenance and entertainment. And those less-than-seven-hours are by no means guaranteed or uninterrupted – nooo – expect to be called upon more than once to get up, make a bottle, change a diaper, fill up a water glass, paint a picture, and wax the car. Well maybe not those last two. So with the prospect of not very much not very good sleep, here I am throwing an open-house pity party with free whine and cheese.

One does well in times like these to remember those words which alone can summon that superhuman level of commitment and perseverance:

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Alright I think I got it out of my system now. Some weeks are just like that, you know? We seem to be making a habit of taking about a month of winter around the January-February mark and just writing it off with a self-propagating cycle of sickness through mutual infection. We even took our little show on tour this year and went to Ontario and visited a whole bunch of our friends, making sure that they were left with something to remember us by such as laryngitis.

But although it’s been hectic, there have been many recurring evidences of profound blessing. Life is such that while you’re trying to tear your hair out you can also have your heart melted by the precious sweetness of family life. Love also shines a little brighter in dimmer circumstances: selflessness, service, hugs, life-giving words of affirmation, these things are that much more special when you really need them.

Friendship, too, is that much more meaningful in such times. I’ve had the words of author Tim Keller on the subject of spiritual friendship in my mind lately. He says that friendship blossoms out of commonalities, but that spiritual friendship in a Christian context can happen between any two believers. The strongest and most fulfilling friendships, however, are when those two aspects dovetail together so that not only is there a spiritual bond borne out of similar beliefs and experiences, but also that simply human connection that happens when personalities and passions agree. It is a rare gift but one that I have had the great fortune of experiencing repeatedly along our journey – foremost with my wife, who is my closest friend in all the world, but also with others. These kinds of friendships are worth nearly any amount of time or money required to keep them alive, and the dividends are not measurable in this life.

This post isn’t really about anything, so I’m having a hard time drawing any satisfying conclusions about it. But there you go, another life lesson: sometimes things just happen and the purpose is inscrutable.

That’s okay, some blog posts are like that too.

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On the Writing of Novels

I joked about writing a novel a few days ago, but the truth is that I feel as far from writing a novel as ever before.

Seriously, just thinking about it makes me feel like this:

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It’s similar to a one-legged man who has always dreamed of climbing mount Everest. He arrives at base camp and gets a taste for the effects of high altitude and the difficulty of, well, climbing the world’s highest peak with half as many legs as is typically needed. In other words, he gains an appreciation for the immensity of the task, and the romantic glow which accompanied the thought in his mind is replaced by a stagnant dread.

Recently I discovered that my brother is into writing electronic music, and being musically inclined myself, I asked him to show me how he does it. I figured I could take a look at the interface and whip up something decent sounding in a few minutes. Well, not so much. He uses an online interactive in-browser set of tools that is as expansive as it is complicated and intricate, from mixing boards to effects pedals to wave synthesizers and loops, each with dozens of settings and adjustments. I didn’t even know how or where you could even start putting notes down, never mind putting together something with any more complexity than The Itsy Bitsy Spider in C major.

Even if I could manage to produce a sound that I liked, and wrote a little hook, to think of building upon that layers and layers of individually tailored sounds and beats and loops, each requiring a mastery of minutiae, is just overwhelming. The effort required to focus all your faculties on tiny details all while holding in your mind a vision of the entire piece so that each created section fits cohesively within the whole is simply staggering. And writing a novel is just like that. In that sense, even the most basic and formulaic novel is an impressive achievement, never mind creating believable characters that draw you in emotionally, scenes that play out in the readers’ minds with 1080p clarity, story arcs that are suspenseful and thrilling, and a depth of humanity and honesty that moves the work from mere entertainment to literature.

Maybe, I hope, I’ll get there someday. But for now I’m sticking with bite-sized pieces that my mind can wrap itself around. I’ll leave the grand weaving to others who feel so inclined, and heartily cheer when they do it. It is no small task. My humble goal this month is to submit a short story I’ve written to the CBC Canada Writes Creative Non-Fiction Competition. All the previous winners seem to be legit published authors with actual credentials so my expectations are low, but that’s not a reason not to try!

So here’s to you, novelists: well done, well done indeed.

*slow clapping*

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Powerful Video about Pornography, Sex Trafficking, and the Gospel

This video accomplishes a not-so-easy task: To evaporate the notion that there is no inherent connection between the casual user of porn and the sex-trafficking industry. Most young men don’t want to see this strong tie, but the more we put this kind of truth out there in the cultural marketplace, the harder it will be to justify the kind of porn use which is so thoughtlessly expected, excused, and joked about today.

Some day I will write a post about feminism (as if one will settle the matter!), but suffice it to say here that on a number of issues we have reason to applaud their efforts and cheer them on; likewise I wonder if, despite our many and profound differences, they would nevertheless encourage this kind of project?

Check out this filmmaker’s website and consider making a donation.

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