The Symbolism of the Multiverse

The final scenes from Loki have been bouncing around in my head for the past year since the show ended. The imagery of the splitting timeline has stuck with me. From the very beginning of the TV series the theme of the authoritarian regime reflected in the Time Variance Authority (TVA) was evident and it was quite engaging. And I don’t think I’m alone because Loki has the highest IMDB rating of all MCU TV series to date.

But I struggled to make sense of the themes that the show was trying to depict in the remaining aspects of its plotline. What to make of “variants?” And why was the fracturing of the multiverse the culminating event in the show? Was it done out of pure convenience for the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) content in the pipeline to unfold or was there a deeper symbolic meaning behind it that served as the fitting ending to the Loki series in and of itself?The more I ponder this show, the more I think it’s the latter.

Upfront, this show makes it pretty clear that it is going to play with the relationship between authority and identity. Consider these two quotes from TVA employees in the first episode alone. “It’s not your story, Mr. Laufeyson[Loki]. It never was.”

“You weren’t born to be king, Loki. You were born to cause pain and suffering and death. That’s how it is, that’s how it was, that’s how it will be. All so that others can achieve their best versions of themselves.”

Loki doesn’t get a say in how his story would unfold according to the TVA. Within that first episode it is clear to the viewer that this is a dystopian regime with a rigidness to how it governs. Despite the seemingly good reasons they give for their existence, one gets the feeling the TVA isn’t functioning as it ought to.

Hierarchies work in a particular manner. When functioning well, the top gives identity, meaning, structure, purpose, and love to the bottom. The authorship part of “authority” is quite evident in well functioning families, communities, workplaces, teams, and churches. However, when the authority fails to fulfill its purpose, that sense of a cohesive identity across the group is lost, and the hierarchy decays into a multiplicity of varied identies. Variants begin to emerge when this loss of cohesion occurs.

Sometimes the authorities lose the trust of their community by being incompetent or overbearing. Sometimes revolution results in the forcible removal of their leaders. And sometimes advancements in technology and the shifting sands of culture undermine the hierarchy and cause it to crumble. Whatever the cause, the outcome seems to follow a particular pattern. An explosion of variability in identity through the community.

loki and the conversation regarding gender identity

The show Loki fits this mold and reflects our current cultural moment. When the show first released there was a broader cultural conversation about the significance of Loki being the first non-binary Marvel character. What does it mean that Loki could be either male or female in different universes? The whole show is in essence an exploration of Loki and Sylvie’s (female Loki) identities.

Should gender or sex be considered integral with who Loki is or is it fluid? This is certainly a topic germane to the times, and as such prompted the typical partisan responses. Some on the right said this was just Disney going “woke” for the sake of scoring political points. And maybe that was a part of the motivation. And some on the left viwed it as support for their cause, especially with its coincidence woth Prode Month. But I actually think the topic fits the story well and can help speak to both sides regarding the topic of gender.

This explosion of various identities in the wake of a crumbling authority has played itself out previously. And maybe it’s worth doing a comparison to see where there may be lessons to be learned. Throughtout history, we have seen excessive authorities undermined like the one depicted by the TVA. One of the most influential historical examples in our cultural context would be that of the Reformation in the 1500’s and the fracturing of the Catholic church. Sure many might not know much about the event and therefore not have much appreciation for how it continues to affect us today. But the aftershocks from that chapter of human history can still be felt even if we don’t understand the epicenter of where it began.

So maybe an exploration of the Reformation, Marvel’s TV series Loki, and the current conversations regarding gender identity movement could be worthwhile.

the reformation resulted in the fragmentation of the catholic church

Today, we are surrounded by a multitude of Protestant Christian traditions that all derive from that critical moment in the 16th century when the Reformation occurred. Prior to the 16th century there were really only two main branches of Christianity. The Orthodox and Catholic churches, which had split from one another in the 7th century. Pretty much every church denomination that isn’t Catholic or Orthodox has its roots in the Reformation. But what was it exactly that caused the Catholic church to lose so much hegemony in Europe at the time and explode into the variety of denominations we see today? I’ll take a stab at listing what I believe ate some of the substantial causes.

The Reformation occurred at the tail end of the Middle Ages, or what some term the “Dark Ages.” Much of the literature that served as the foundation for the culture had been reserved to monasteries and only a select group engaged with the very philosophical ideas that underpinned their society. I don’t think this was done malevolently, as literacy rates were a fraction of what they are today. But as a result, the practices of the Catholic church drifted in many respects from the principles by which it should function. The Catholic Church became decadent and no longer served the best interests of its constituents.

A growing interest in ancient literature and old manuscripts of the Bible by people like Erasmus and Luther, combined with the new technology of the printing press, allowed for the spreading of alternative perspectives, new interpretations of key Biblical texts, and critiques of the current hegemonic power in a way that wasn’t possible previously. Increased literacy rates allowed commonfolk to access these new ideas in a way that wasn’t previously possible. And it wasn’t so easy for the church hierarchy to combat the spreading of these new ideas. Sure they could lean on draconian measures like the threat of death and burning of the pamphlets that ran counter to the church’s interests. But the identities associated with these new movements were spreading like wildfire, in some ways fanned by the very authoritarian measures used by the church. And the gatekeepers had effectively been circumvented.

And so, while the original goal for many like Luther and Erasmus was to simply reform the Catholic church and rediscover the ideals by which it was to live, it quickly devolved into the fracturing of the church. And that process continues today and resulted in what some say is in excess of 30,000 denominations.

the gender identity spectrum

The LGBTQ+ has likewise followed a similar trend. Identities that were until very recently only considered within the strict conformity to a binary sexual and gender framework are now disrupted by the crumbling of society’s institutions, disintegration of family units, the introduction of the internet, which allows for new ways of making community, and new medical procedures that cause us to entertain new possibilities that were previously unimaginable.

Much like the explosion in the different expressions of Christianity and the variability now allowed within each of the unique universes within Marvel, we now hear of infinite sexual and gender identities, spectrums of expressions, and indefinite ways people identify themselves. Today’s gatekeepers have likewise been undermined in much the same way as the Catholic Church was in the 16th century.

Is our current culture much like the Catholic Church of the 16th Century and TVA as depicted in Loki? Probably at least in part. And are our identities malleable? Probably more than both sides of the political spectrum espouse to be true. The interplay between authority and identity often follows a similar script.

So much focus gets put on the individuals who lay claim to these new identities as if they’ve created this environment, but few shed light on the way the top of our society’s hierarchies may have contributed to where we stand today.

what lessons can be learned?

One has to wonder, is there a way to get the genie back in the bottle? Os a strict binary for gender the way forward? And if we could, should we? What would it take to do so? Is some draconian measure, similar to the threats of death and burning of pamphlets in the early 16th century, the way forward? Form another authoritarian regime to enforce strict conformity of identity on all its subjects? What are the odds that approach is sustainable?

I think our hierarchies need to rediscover what it looks like to function well. For the top to love the bottom and give identity while making room for some diversity. And the bottom needs to regain respect for the top in order to respond well in love. For the church, I would hope ecumenical work would be able to help bridge the gaps between all these denominations. Regarding gender identity, there might need to be a consolidation of these various identities if and when our communities begin to heal the wounds from this culture war.

In both cases the authorities probably need to allow some margin and buffer for expressions that might seem heretical. Otherwise we’re destined for disconnection and division all the way down. A split much like the fragmentation of the multiverse, and the church, and our communities today.

As the end of Loki shows, with the end of one authoritarian regime often comes the rise of a new one. And that change is rarely for the better.

Twice Baptized and New Perspectives

Picture this. You have just purchased a new property that is going to serve as the ideal site for your future home. You are thrilled about it! The lot is expansive and untouched with a mixture of gently sloped open fields and thick woods. It’s perfect!

Shortly after acquiring the land you decide to go and explore the areas you have yet to see. And in the far back corner of the property, to your surprise, you happen to stumble upon an old split-rail fence. The lot was supposedly “untouched.” Why was the fence put here? Who put it here? Should you let it remain? Is it worth removing? What would you do?

Would you be inclined to remove the fence, assuming it has little or no purpose anymore? Would you leave it in place, assuming that it was put there for good reason? Or would you decide to keep it simply because you enjoy the aesthetics of the old rustic fence?

Author G.K. Chesterton used a similar illustration to talk about the role tradition plays in our lives and the challenge it presents to us. Many times these traditions, like fences, at face value seem to be unnecessary, outdated, or burdensome. We are unable to articulate why they are there in the first place. Yet, is it possible that they served a purpose that we don’t quite yet understand? And maybe it still serves that purpose?

On the other hand, we may come to find they do in fact serve no purpose anymore, but nonetheless we’re hesitant to remove them. Possibly it’s a scary proposition for us to remove that which has long provided a sense of security, regardless of whether they actually achieve that end or not. Or maybe we just enjoy the sense of nostalgia it brings to our lives.

This illustration is the best I’ve come across to explain the faith journey I’ve been on for the last decade. Growing up in a Lutheran church, I was surrounded by traditions: liturgical calendars, old hymns, candlelit services, creeds, and organ playing. The pastor wore traditional garments. I often served as the acolyte. The walls of the church were adorned with stained glass windows. There was the regular occurrence of infant baptism and confirmation ceremonies during services. The church experience was distinct from the other days of the week. In many ways, it felt like a step back in time and into a completely different world.

It was all I knew as a kid. And I didn’t really give it much thought. When asked by a friend in middle school if I was a Christian like him, I responded naively that, “No, I was a Lutheran.” I was baptized into this denomination. We attended nearly every week my entire childhood at Christ the King Lutheran Church while we lived in Maryland and then St. Paul’s Lutheran church we moved to Pennsylvania. Like a fish in a fish tank, I had as little understanding of what else was out there as the very water I was swimming in.

But then college came, and as is the case for many young adults, this new chapter in life presented me an opportunity to step outside of the bubble I grew up in. And I started to get connected with a variety of different friends who came from many different backgrounds.

One of those groups I started to connect with was through a non-denominational organization called Cru. The in essence considered Evangelical and attempted to avoid falling into a defined denomination by focusing on the fundamentals of the faith. This group opened a completely different world to me than the one I experienced in the mainline church I grew up in.

There wasn’t a liturgy that they read from or a liturgical calendar that directed the sermons. People prayed as they were moved and sermons were topical and changed as the leader sought fit. The music played by the worship band was composed within the last decade, not from centuries ago. There weren’t any candles. They didn’t recite any creeds. The pastors and ministry leaders wore the same casual attire the students did. And there wasn’t a single stained-glass window to be found.

But quite possibly the most suprising difference I found surprising during these years of exploring my faith in this new group was when I found out that adult baptisms were in fact a thing. I had never seen one before. And the fact that some churches exclusively did adult baptisms and refused to do infant baptisms was a completely foreign idea. These churches believed infant baptisms, like all of these other traditions, was essentially “added on” to and not reflective of the “pure” Christianity that was observed of the early church. It might not have been explicitly stated, but it was implied. Was my infant baptism like an old fence that deserved to be removed? Was it merely added to the faith for no reason for strictly ornamental or misguided reasons? Was my baptism legitimate at all?

Common to many Evangelical churches and groups is the notion of “Sola Scriptura,” a phrase that emerged in the Protestant Reformation. The idea being that the Bible holds the ultimate authority on the Christian faith, not church hierarchy based on apostolic succession or tradition. But coupled with that is the idea that anyone can approach the Bible in isolation and from a plain reading of the text, ascertain clearly what it prescribes. And that’s what I set out to do as I grappled with this question of baptism.

One quick read of the book of Acts, which summarizes the earliest stories of the Church, seemed to indicate this was in fact the case. An infant baptism does not appear anywhere explicitly in Acts (a historical account of the early church following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension), or anywhere in the Bible for that matter. Countless examples of adult baptisms are detailed yet no infant baptisms with the ceremonial sprinkling of water are to be found. And so a clear divide between “tradition” and a “pure” Christianity was forged in my mind.

As a result, I found it most appropriate at the time to start distancing myself from “traditions,” at least as I understood them, to get back to the core of the Christian life without what I had deemed these unnecessary ornamental additions. At least try to recover what the Christian life looked like in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ life. No more liturgy. No more stained glass windows. No more infant baptism.

Despite being baptized as an infant myself and growing up in the Lutheran church, a few years of being involved in non-denominational and evangelical churches and college campus groups led me to believe that an adult baptism was the most responsible thing I could do in response to Christ’s command to be baptized found in Matthew 28. I was at an age where I could decide for myself to follow Christ, and so it seemed that the most obedient thing for me to do at this time was to make this public declaration of my faith. And about a year after graduating college, I decided to get baptized at the non-denominational church I was regularly attending.

That was over eight years ago, and I have many positive memories associated with it. At that time, I would have viewed this as my legitimate baptism. I was so confident in my beliefs… So sure of everything. There was no way you could change my mind. And yet… here I am several years later and I see things a bit differently.

It’s difficult to say exactly caused this change in perspective. I’m no longer single and on my own. I’m married and have two kids now. Those are substantial life moments that have altered the way I see the world. I’ve met many people of varying denominations that I respect with conflicting views on this topic. That has certainly made me less dogmatic. And well, I’ve had several more years to see how God works in my life and others and He acts differently than I thought he did back then. I think He’s humbled me.

And over the past few years, a growing interest in church history led me to learn the surprising facts that infant baptism has been prevalent since the early church and is still widely practiced in most branches and denominations of Christianity. In fact, the rejection of infant baptism is a relatively recent phenomenon only emerging in what were peripheral groups during the Reformation (the Anabaptists). That’s not to say that minority-held positions cannot be correct on an issue. But it is to say, maybe I’ve been missing something. Maybe there’s more to this than a simple “plain” reading of the scriptures. Maybe this newfound “pure” Christianity I’ve adopted is just another tradition that is worthy of investigation and scrutiny.

While it’s true that we don’t see an explicit description of an infant baptism in the Bible, we do see the jailer and his entire household get baptized in Acts 16 as a result of Paul and Silas’ mercy towards him when the prison gates were opened and their chains came loose. While the specific age of those in the household are not mentioned, the very fact that this redemption and restoration was not limited to one man but provided to an entire family I think is worth noting. Our culture puts much emphasis on the individual, but it does seem that the Gospel also provides hope and restoration for whole families and communities. And maybe baptism plays a role in that.

It’s also interesting to note the comparison of circumcision to baptism in a passage like Colossians 2. Throughout the Old Testament, we see God build the nation of Israel through the circumcision of males at young ages. God doesn’t exclude the inclusion of children in the nation of Israel in the Old Testament on the basis of how intellectually developed they are and their own ability to ascent to a set of doctrinal beliefs. His approach is quite the contrary. And there are indications that this same pattern, the availability of the Kingdom to even the youngest among us, is present in the New Testament (Mark 10).

I’m no professional seminarian or theologian. People who dedicate their lives to studying this topic come out on different sides on this topic. But as a layman, I can’t help but wonder could it be that baptism is a way of bringing people, both children and adults, into the church community? Is it really true that the only way we can be baptized into the church, is when we’re old enough, self-aware enough, and wise enough to assent to our own saving faith? Or is it possible that in addition to adult baptisms, children of other disciples can also experience being a part of the covenant family? That God can be active in both expressions of baptism?

Here I am years later with a newfound appreciation for the baptism I received as an infant. I appreciate that the community invested in me for all those years and included me within the church. I appreciate that God gave me the family I did and raised me in a Christian household. I appreciate that His providence, although not giving me the most exciting conversion story that would often be applauded by many in Evangelical churches today, consisted of an environment that would provide the foundation for a deep trust and reliance on Him later in life.

Pictured from left to right: My father, my godparents, and my mother

In some ways I regret getting rebaptized. And yet, I know that this has been a process of working through two very different ways of reflecting on the traditions that were handed to me. What’s unfortunate is that, the photo from my more recent baptism doesn’t capture what’s just outside the edge of the frame. My parents standing up on stage, supporting me as I was baptized again. And my siblings and grandparents in attendance in the congregation. A community and family that have walked alongside me and been a support from the beginning, when at the time I thought I was doing this alone. And the same God was present the whole time as well.

Despite all of these changes in perspective, we are still invested within the Evangelical church and while child dedications are done in lieu of infant baptisms, the spirit of what was graciously given to me, I hope to pass on to my own kids. Inclusion in this messy, beautiful, enduring and life-giving community that is the Church. The laying of foundations for them to continue to have deepening trust in their God. And that by sharing in Jesus’ death and resurrection, that they may experience abundant life.

And maybe, just maybe, I can convince a few of my fellow brothers and sisters to give a second consideration to some of these older “traditions.” That maybe some of what we’ve discarded would be worthwhile to bring back. That maybe our ancestors had something valuable to share with us. And that even when we struggle to articulate exactly the reason for why they were there in the first place, we should be more cautious before dispensing with them.

I’ll end with this quote from Martin Luther.

“God is acting here, not the human creature... If it’s possible that children don’t have faith and that they cannot demonstrate it, nevertheless, we should piously believe that God himself baptizes children and gives them faith and the Holy Spirit. That follows from the text. Therefore, regard baptism as a divine word for God himself does it. There would be no church at all on earth, if God did not assemble it through baptism.”

The Urban and Rural Rift is Nothing New

In a previous post, I was trying to plumb the depths of the relationship between geography and our political divide. The purpose of that post was simply to explore how population density can affect how we desire to regulate the actions of those around us. And how population density therefore correlates with political affiliation. The lower the population the density, the less people feel the need to monitor their neighbor’s every move. But as you move closer to the heart of cities and towns with higher population density, the desires of the collective become paramount, and the rights of the individual diminish.

While I think this plays a big role and is certainly discounted in much of our political discourse, I would never say that this accounts for the entirety of the differences in how urban and rural populations vote. In fact, I think there’s another similarly overlooked factor, that may be even more worthwhile to explore.

a step back in time to the first urban civilizations

Recently I read a book titled Babylon: The Birth of Ancient Civilizations by Paul Kriwaczek, which gives an overview of the rise and fall of ancient Mesopotamian cultures and how they gave us many of the building blocks that serve as the foundation for our current nations and cities. It was an absolutely fascinating read for a multitude of reasons, but I was surprised how this man’s interpretations of the rise and fall of these ancient cultures could speak so much to the current paradigm. I’ll share just a couple quotes to set the table.

“Those societies in which seriousness, tradition, conformity and adherence to long-established – often god-prescribed – ways of doing things are the strictly enforced rule, have always been the majority across time and throughout the world. Such people are not known for their sense of humor and lightness of touch; they rarely break a smile. To them, change is always suspect and usually damnable, and they hardly ever contribute to human development. By contrast, social, artistic and scientific progress as well as technological advance are most evident where the ruling culture and ideology give men and women permission to play, whether with ideas, beliefs, principles or materials. And where playful science changes people’s understanding of the way the physical world works, political change, even revolution, is rarely far behind.”

“If cities and civilizations are like machines, then it is tempting to see the Akkadian imperium like one of those fighter aircraft of mid-twentieth-century warfare, the Spitfire or the Messerschmitt 109, which owed their success and their dominance of the skies to the fact that they were designed to fly on the very borderlines of stability. When all was going well they were magnificent. When damaged in a vulnerable part, they would spin and crash to the ground. Other, more conservatively fashioned – and duller – planes could limp home even with wings and tail assemblies shot full of flak holes.”

This may just be one writer’s interpretation, but I really think he’s mapped out in just a few sentences some key insights regarding the left-right, progressive-conservative, and what is essentially at the core, an urban and rural divide.

the worldview differences in urban and rural life

For urban societies, “progress” is often the chief aim. As the author notes of these old Mesopotamian civilizations in other parts of the books, much of the city would be razed and rebuilt on average every 90 years. Iconoclasm was routine and the erection of something new (new technologies, new architecture, new gods, and systems of hierarchy) the norm. Opportunity was sought in the unknown and pursued at great cost.

As for rural communities, the desire to “conserve” the past is an instinct to do what has always been done. This is often the approach less prone to dramatic collapse. It’s known territory. Predictable. Safer. The ideals that undergird this philosophy have been tested by time and through a variety of seasons have proven to be durable. Why reinvent the wheel? Why fix what isn’t broken?

If we understand cities as a form of technology, we start to see some of the benefits and consequences to the societies, which they serve. Cities, which initially formed as a prerequisite to the collaboration required for agrarian life, serve as the basis for the division of labor, increase in the efficiency of production, and provide the setting for a melting pot of ideas and cultures that have often been the locale of our greatest innovations. However, as the author notes, like most technologies that are continuously refined for efficiency, urban societies can forget that for every successful innovation, there are magnitudes more that failed. Like throwing paint at a wall to see what sticks, there’s a good chance many of the ideas fail to accomplish their aims and leave the society susceptible to destruction. Like the fighter planes he referenced, they are designed to fly magnificently under perfect flying conditions, but a single bullet hole might be enough for everything to unravel. And yet, as the author also notes, it would be wrong to ignore the incredible benefits to humanity that have resulted from some of these innovations.

The rural communities often fail to recognize how in debt their current lifestyle is to the innovations from past urban civilizations. Modern agriculture, sanitation practices, language, mathematics, writing, engineering, architecture, metallurgy, wayfaring, medicine, the domestication of animals, organized religion, arts, theater, and athletics all find their origins in the urban cultures of history. Yet today they have all been adopted by these conservative communities and are simply assumed. Conservatives aren’t harkening back to the “golden days” of nomadic life. What they essentially are desiring to be conserved today were the successful innovations of yesterday.

And urban communities often fail to recognize how often they tend to go awry in their pursuit of progress. Nature has its limits. Like Icharus, it is possible to fly too close to the sun in pursuit of the next advancement. And there might be more conservatively minded people with the correct intuition that this striving towards a utopian vision might be towards a dead end with catastrophic consequences.

The left and the right. The progressives and conservatives. The urban and the rural. They have always been in tension and for good reason. We need an appropriate application of the two and that might not necessarily look like a 50/50 split at all times.

the symbolism of a new jerusalem

I think the imagery presented at the end of Revelation might depict it best. The city of the New Jerusalem with the Tree of Life at its center. Cities in and of themselves are not bad. Nor are rural communities. It’s a question of what’s at the center. Progress alone isn’t enough. Nor is conservation. I don’t think economic growth, diversity, inclusion, tolerance, or national pride are sufficient in and of themselves to fill that void either.

So what is the ideal, or “Tree of Life” so to speak, that societies should be centered around to be successful? What defines “success” for a society? And what could possibly unite the rural and urban parts of the population? I think those questions are really worth pondering and could possibly help us get a glimpse into the stark differences in worldview that inform the way we see one another. And possibly even help us bridge the gap and find a more unified way forward.

Although if history serves as the model, I think more likely than not, we will continue to see this division along rural and urban worldviews continue to present itself. It may be a pessimistic outlook, but it doesn’t mean these efforts to understand the other side have to be for naught.

The Predictability of Spirits

I never knew before having kids that I would one day become a bubble solution connoisseur. After a few run-ins with poor quality bubble solution and the tears that ensued (Tristan’s, not mine to clarify) I’ve been taking notes on which brands perform the best and asking family and friends alike who their dealers are for the best brands. You learn quickly with kids there are few things more deflating than going to blow bubbles and nothing coming out of the wand. As a parent you have to be prepared and stocked up with the highest quality solutions.

Well over the summer I think we’ve probably used at least a few gallons worth of bubble solution. That means watching our kids blow A LOT of bubbles. And I began to notice something…

While the wind may carry all of them in a general direction, the individual flight patterns of each varies considerably. Up, down, left and right, forwards and backwards. Often following the prevailing wind direction but at other times going against it. You can’t anticipate with certainty which way they would go next.

And it reminded me of this interesting verse from John 3:8. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

wind, spirit and breath

The original Greek words for “wind” and Spirit” used in this verse are pneuma and pneumatos respectively. I’m no scholar on ancient languages, but we can clearly see that these two words are clearly related in the original language. In fact in both the Old Testament and New Testament, the words wind, spirit and breath are often used interchangeably. While we see them as being distinct from one another, our ancestors saw them as far more integrated.

Take school spirit for example. It’s not a material object you can touch, move, or see with your eyes. It cannot be reduced to atoms bouncing off one another. It cannot be modeled by empirical formulations. And it isn’t bound by the laws of physics. Yet, I think all would agree it exists. School spirit animates students and teachers alike. It has the ability to breathe life into kids. It can move through a body of students much like the wind.

It’s why the word spirit shares the same root as words like inspire (“to give breath”), respire (“to breathe again”), and conspire (“to breathe together”). We still have remnants in our language of a former way of seeing the world. A way of perceiving that we still see in part.

Or consider the wind motif that is still in many of our movies. It often represents this subtle force that moves characters and pushes the plotline along. It’s found all throughout movies like The Lion King, Frozen II, and Pocahontas. It’s difficult to articulate the exact purpose it plays within a story, yet we all intuitively understand its role. Here’s a scene from the Lion King that captures that essence beautifully.

Much in the same way, we can intuitively understand how spirits govern the actions of individuals, schools, communitities, families, and entire nations for good or for bad. Yet, they often go unseen and unrecognized just like the wind.

the social sciences and the discernment of spirits

Recently I have started taking interest in topics pertaining to the social sciences. Family systems, personality disorders and mental health, the rise and fall of ideologies, religions and nations… it’s all relevant to the social sciences.

The social sciences is a field of study I would have scoffed at in my high school and college days for being something of far less value than the hard sciences. And yet, here I am a bit older and realizing just how crucial these studies are and the value they can provide when done well.

What is so baffling is that you begin to see that the behavior of groups start to follow patterns in a similar fashion to the traditional sciences like biology, physics, and chemistry. Political factions, dysfunctional families, churches, work environments, and even the lives of individuals tend to play themselves out in patterns that those in the social sciences can track and monitor with relative predictive ability. In many ways the social sciences have helped elucidate what has long been opaque. One could say the unpredictability of spirits, has to some degree become predictable.

And yet, I can’t help but notice that more often than not the consensus in the social sciences is regarding that which is pathological. Around how to live the good life, it seems very much that the jury is still out. It’s easier to identify addiction, personality disorders, dysfunction, cults, or what constitutes something like poor school spirit than the alternative. It’s easier in many ways for modern movie makers to depict villains than it is to create an engaging hero. It’s easier to see where things went wrong than to know how to fix them let alone articulate what the ideal is. And I think this is one of the points Jesus is trying to express to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, when he makes the aforementioned statement regarding the necessity of being born of the Spirit.

Jesus and the unpredictable spirit

Pharisees have a bad reputation for being hypocritical. And yet, on the other hand you have to recognize their attempt to live an upright life, even if hypocrisy was in play. In contrast to many around them, they were at least expressing an intent to avoid sinful acts.

Nicodemus approaches Jesus for a conversation because he recognizes that Jesus could not perform the miracles he had, if he were not from God. Nicodemus is essentially trying to confirm that they are both laboring for the same team. And yet Jesus responds in a surprising manner. He doesn’t openly embrace Nicodemus but instead states that even Nicodemus still needed to be born again of the Spirit if he wanted to see the Kingdom of God.

Nicodemus, like the Pharisees in general, was predictable, following a set of rules and operating in absolutes. Jesus however lives by a different Spirit, and one that like the wind, often surprises people. He zigs when others expect him to zag. Much of the gospels can be summarized as different individuals and groups thinking Jesus is on their side, trying to recruit him, and finding out he operates in ways that confound them. Jesus is, in a way, unpredictable. Not that he is erratic. But he is able to hold within himself what we often perceive as conflicting virtues in perfect harmony.

And for 2,000 years individuals, families, communities and nations have been altered and animated by this Jesus and the Spirit by which he lived. Part of what makes him such a captivating person is his ability to avoid being compartimentalized. In many ways he’s unpredictable like the Spirit that moves him. He sets impossibly high standards yet communes with the sinful. He made bold claims to his own divinity and authority yet he humbled himself to the point of being unjustly hung on a cross. And he chastizes his disciples for having little faith yet has the utmost patience and grace.

Even today, Jesus is used as a model for both inclusion and holiness. Both grace and judgement. Both perfect service and kingship. The lion and the lamb. The first and the last.

Yes, the path the Spirit calls us to may be to take the narrow path and avoid the wide path to destruction. And in that sense the prevailing wind is predictable. But beyond that narrow path are wide open vistas of a life that to many will seem to many as “unpredictable.” The type of unpredictable that leads to admiration, which is part of why this Jesus of Nazareth has captivated so many for so long and continues to breathe new life into this world.

Is Geography the Key to Understanding Our Political Adversaries?

When your full-time job is civil engineering, your work doesn’t tend to make for lively conversation at parties. This fact is only made that much more evident when you happen to be married to a nurse with years of emergency room and ambulance stories. You might be surprised to realize stories about infrastructure can’t hold a candle to the best ER stories. But it’s true, and it’s the reality I’ve learned to live with. I’ll accept your pity.

My days in the office are fairly routine. And a bad day for me pales in comparison to a bad day for my wife or many others who find themselves in a variety of other careers. It’s a relatively safe career, minus the staple I put through my finger a couple years ago. “The Staple Incident of 2019.” It doesn’t get too much more exciting than that.

I think you would understand then why my job has never been the topic of these posts. I love what I do, but it’s often difficult to explain what, in fact, I do for a living. Or to even make it remotely engaging enough for others to read.

I’ve probably been asked a hundred times, “So, if you’re a civil engineer, does that mean you design bridges?” While, yes, some civil engineers do in fact design bridges, I chose to go a different direction. I work within a different subfield of civil engineering. It’s what is often termed “Land Development” and many don’t know what that is. I’ll try to explain.

When you arrive at a Chick-fil-A or a McDonald’s to grab some grub what do you take notice of? Maybe you look at the number of cars waiting in the drive-thru. You search for an available parking spot. You take notice of the façade of the building or the landscaping around it. And maybe you catch a sniff of some fresh waffle or shoestring fries in the process.

As a civil engineer, my experience is quite different. I notice the queue length for the drive-thru and how much room is available before it causes traffic concerns. The number of parking spaces required by municipality ordinances. The orientation and design of driveways and their spacing from adjacent driveways and intersections. The location of shade trees, trash enclosures, and even the positioning of the building for visibility from major travel corridors. Handicapped spaces, striping, ramps, and walkways for ADA accessibility. The grading of drive aisles, swales, and landscaped areas. Stormwater management design and utility locations. And even building setbacks from roadways and adjacent properties. I also can’t help but notice the scent of those delectable fries…

Since getting into this field, my understanding of how commercial and residential properties are laid out and organized within a community has fundamentally changed. I’ve designed several of these lots and worked with many municipalities and developers over the past several years. Enough to gain an appreciation for what all goes into community planning. There’s a lot more that goes on behind the scenes before that new Taco Bell or residential subdivision goes in. A lot of time, money, energy, conversations, and design. Trust me it’s a lot!

One of the unexpected insights that my job has afforded me, is a glimpse into how geography or location dictates how municipalities set regulations. Zoning is in essence, exactly that. As one local municipality puts it, the purpose of their zoning ordinance “is to promote the public health, safety, morals and general welfare by encouraging the most appropriate use of land.”

“The most appropriate use of land…” The more I’ve thought about geography and politics the more I think zoning can give us a fundamental understanding of how influential geography and population density is to public policy and how much they inform our political leanings. At a time when so many are looking for ways to differentiate the left from the right via categories like race, class, religion, gender, education level and age, I think many of us are overlooking one of the biggest determinants in political affiliation: locale.

If I haven’t lost you yet, I’m impressed and thankful. I hope you’ll continue to engage me in this thought experiment, that may actually help, dare I say, humanize your political adversaries. Certainly there are inarticulate, unwise, and sometimes dangerous or downright evil ideas that can be found on both ends of the spectrum. This post isn’t intended to excuse those.

But maybe we can see that there are reasonable positions to be found by the moderates of both sides, and that these may be informed by our experiences that result from something largely out of our control – where we happen to be born and raised.

how does population density relate to party affiliation?

One quick look at an election results map of Pennsylvania from the 2016 presidential election should reveal something that’s incredibly obvious from the get-go. Urban areas voted for Clinton. Rural areas voted for Trump.

This isn’t just a Pennsylvania trend. This occurs in practically every single state.

Dave Troy, a blogger, entrepreneur, and CEO of 410 Labs wrote in his own article following the 2012 election that he was similarly interested in these trends. What did he find after crunching the data? 49 of the 50 most dense counties voted for Obama and that 49 of the 50 least dense counties voted for Romney. Not only that, but he charted population density and voting results for both candidates and found an interesting inflection point that occurred around a population density of 800 people per square mile. If you lived in an area with a population density greater than 800 people per square mile, the likelihood of voting for Obama was 66%. In areas with a density below 800 people per square mile, the likelihood of voting for Romney was also 66%. And these trends help up regardless of the state with minor fluctuations. Fascinating!

For years I thought that this trend, which seems to occur every election cycle (at least that I can remember), was an indication that the other side simply had bad ideas and that those with bad ideas happened to share a similar geographic location. That they were voting against their own interest, or at least against our collective interest as a nation. Or that maybe, these political differences that are often attributed to those aforementioned identity categories were largely responsible for urban areas voting heavily for Democrats and rural areas aligning with Republicans.

Geographical differences were secondary. Identity and ideological differences were primary.

However, voting results, which were evaluated by professors at Washington University of St. Louis and the University of Maryland and detailed in a formal paper (and summarized here) indicated that if one holds all other individual characteristics constant, an individual’s probability of identifying as a strong Democrat drops by 12 percentage points if they live in a far rural area. Likewise, their analysis suggests that a person with the same individual characteristics living in a densely packed community is about 11 points more likely to identify as a strong Democrat compared with that same person living in a sparsely populated area. Also, absolutely fascinating!

Location seems to play a role in our political leanings and this pattern is seen consistently across this urban and rural divide.

Now I’m sure some people move in and out of cities or rural areas for political reasons. There’s certainly a chicken and egg factor to this in some degree. But we cannot overlook the influence geography has. But why, and how does one’s location intersect with politics?

the prudence of different regulations

As I started doing more work in land development I began to notice some trends in how zoning regulations differed depending on the zoning district within question and that these trends seemed to map onto these political differences that were manifesting themselves in national elections. Look up your own municipality’s zoning ordinance and map and you’ll likely find a similar pattern. Very quickly you will see there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach that municipalities employ.

Often, a Township, Borough, or City will identify commercial, village center, and high-density residential areas in close proximity to major travel corridors. Then as you move out of this central hub, you start getting into industrial and middle-density residential districts. And then beyond that, agricultural and low-density residential districts are often found. In many ways, each municipality is a microcosm of how our states and nation lays themselves out, with designated areas of low- and high-density development.

Each district then has it’s own set of criteria that determines how big and tall your buildings can be, what types of building uses are allowable, how far back from the roadway and adjacent properties they must be set, and even the size and shape that proposed lots can take. These regulations prevent an amusement park from being built in the middle of a residential district or an adult business from going right in the center of town. They are meant to protect the character of the neighborhood, and ensure an appropriate use of land.

But maybe what is most telling about these differences is how nuisance concerns are dealt with. Inevitably, in zoning districts like your commercial, village center, and high-density residential areas there are greater opportunities for dissimilar uses to be located adjacent to one another. A restaurant might abut a single-family home. A car dealer next to an apartment complex. A commercial garage next to a library.

What you will often find is that the zoning ordinance requires a line of dense vegetation be planted along these property lines to provide visual screening between these dissimilar uses. Usually the commercial or industrial uses are required to plant these as part of their development to prevent any light spillover from overhead lights, reduce sound and glare, and just protect the adjacent property from any excessive nuisance. There are also restrictions on the hours that lights can remain on, and limitations on how loud a businesses operations can be. When properties are more densely packed together, there is more opportunity for conflict. and the process of zoning places (hopefully) appropriate requirements in place to avoid conflict.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to see how appeals to greater government involvement would therefore occur within densely packed areas. That when hundreds and thousands of people live within a single square mile, they cannot all know one another and establish trusting relationships with all of them. Stricter enforcement and policies are required to ensure everyone stays in line to maintain the character of the neighborhood. That is if there isn’t some shared set of morals that could guide all their actions without such enforcement, which in an increasingly pluralistic society is incredibly hard to agree upon.

Conversely, in low-density areas there are less neighbors with which to have conflict. The types of uses vary far less and there’s much less turnover and change in character for the area over time. Zoning therefore is much more laxed in the prescriptions it gives for these areas. And therefore there’s no sense in undue burden placed in these districts.

I think one could therefore understand how in low-density areas, a robust and highly involved governing body is wasteful, overly redundant, or encroaching on rights. When residents only have a handful of neighbors, who they live next to for decades and have developed deep trust with, there’s less need for an external entity to regulate their behaviors. The set of morals is largely shared and the community is smaller and at less risk of nuisance from strangers.

In essence, more regulation is required in higher density areas than lower density areas to protect the social fabric. And I think this can serve as a distillation of much of the perceived competition between the two political camps.

a competition between two ideals

Every now and then, you read something that completely alters the entire framework for how you understand an issue. This passage from Daniel Moynihan, a former Democratic Senator from New York did exactly that for me.

“Liberty and Equality are the twin ideals of American democracy. But they are not the same thing. Nor, most importantly, are they equally attractive to all groups at any given time nor yet are they always compatible, one with the other.

Many persons who would gladly die for liberty are appalled by equality. Many who are devoted to equality are puzzled and even troubled by liberty. Much of the political history of the American nation can be seen as a competition between these two ideals, as for example, the unending troubles between capital and labor.”

Daniel Moynihan in The Negro Family: The Case for National Action

Liberty, the freedom to do what one pleases. Equality, the state of having equal rights and opportunities (and most recently used interchangeably with “equity” often meaning equal outcomes). Both, as Moynihan points out are ideals of American Democracy and yet so often they seem juxtaposed to one another. When does your freedom encroach on my rights? And when does my desire for equality curb another’s liberty? It’s this very dynamic that is so often at play within political discord.

Both can appeal to very basic longings we all have. And both have an essential role to play in maintaining a functioning democracy.

Quite possibly to our own detriment, our habits of increasingly appealing to the federal government to champion and impose our desired ideal, be it liberty or equality, nationally, we might be forcing values onto other communities that really aren’t in their best interest. This could be by placing undue regulatory burdens on communities that have alternative mechanisms for self-regulating. Or by resisting even small encroachments in our freedoms when more regulations may be prudent to minimize the destabilizing effects of a community left unchecked.

Politics, like zoning, probably shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach, which unfortunately in our current political discord is exactly the way many of us frame it. Liberty and equality. Rural and urban. Geography and population density shapes us whether we know it or not.

Maybe we can give our political adversaries (at least the reasonable ones) an ear. We may find there’s more substance to their positions than we are prone to give them credit. This doesn’t mean we need to adopt all their views or switch political affiliation. But maybe, just maybe, it will help us broaden our understanding of the issues, to be better listeners, and to know how to best communicate our values to someone who lives in a completely different setting.

Twin ideals in competition. Lower and higher density populations that may need different approaches to regulation. At a time when everything is divided over race, class, sex, religion, and a multitude of other identity characteristics, we miss just how influential our geographical location is. How important the location we call “home” is to our political framework.

We need to learn how to communicate across these lines. There’s a lot riding on it.

The Devolution of the Super Hero and the Decay of Social Capital

While everyday that passes can certainly be considered just another day in the books, there are particular events that you know, even as they are still unfolding, will remain the topic of conversation for years to come. The types of events that will likely make there way into textbooks. That our kids and grandkids will ask us about. That will be considered pivotal moments for our culture. The cliché phrase “we’re living through history” seems all too fitting for these trying times.

Is it an overstatement to say the rioting at Capitol Hill fits that category? Or even that much of the social strife experienced over the past year will be worthy of reflection for future generations? Events filled with opportunities to teach lessons or at least offer a snapshot of what life was like within the United States in the early 21st century?

While it’s always difficult to assess the significance of a particular event within such a short timeframe, this feels even more difficult to put into words. Was this the climax of a long-building crescendo? Or is this just another “bump” in the long road of turmoil within our nation?

How did we get here? Whose fault is this? Where do we go from here? And how could this have been avoided?

As to be expected, there are many who are quick to give answers or at least vent their frustrations. Who’s at fault? The President? His base? The party that never reeled him in? Fascists? White supremacists? The patriarchy? Fake News? The Swamp? The Deep State? It depends who you ask. But for so many in this country, still living through the fog of a tumultuous year, the answer is crystal clear. The problem is the other tribe and it has been for a long time.

What’s sad is that in almost every rant that makes its way onto social media, there are at the very least kernels of truth. There’s no shortage of reasons to cast blame on pretty much everyone mentioned previously, which is what makes this so messy. One can easily make the case, that just about everyone has contributed in some way to getting us to this point.

And so, as much as we may want to cast judgements on the events of the recent past, it may be helpful to remind ourselves that this isn’t an isolated incident that came out of nowhere. It may be even more helpful to view this event against the backdrop of larger undercurrents that have been forming within society over many years and decades. To take a step back and try looking at it from a 10,000-foot view.

As I so often do in many of these posts, I find movies and TV shows so incredibly helpful because they represent the stories we tell ourselves that both inform our culture and reflect where it currently stands. Often popular art can give us a glimpse into where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going. And I can think of no genre of movies and TV shows that reflects this evolution (or maybe better put “devolution”) more clearly than the super hero genre.

these aren’t your granddaddy’s super heroes

I’ll admit. I’m no comic book junkie. The extent of my comic book reading as a kid consisted of Calvin & Hobbes, Dilbert, and The Far Side. I never really dabbled in the super hero genre. It just wasn’t my thing.

My exposure to super heroes as an adolescent was largely relegated to an occasional viewing of the Batman animated series and the live action Batman and Robin movies. You know, the ones with the over-the-top “KAPOW” and “BANG” lettering intermixed with each and every fight scene. It was enough for me to ask for my own Batman utility belt. But that was about the peak of my interest.

But my love for the super hero genre, really began with the first Iron Man movie and the introduction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). I know I’m not alone in feeling this. Marvel Studios has been producing many of the highest grossing movies of the past decade, (for good reason) and continues to pump them out at an increasing frequency, no doubt to capitalize on an opportune moment while popularity remains high.

Sure the visual effects and CGI has taken current films to a completely new level of production quality than the older films. But maybe one of the most notable changes has come with the with the characters themselves.

Unlike the typical superhero trope of the past, none of the super heroes within the MCU maintain their secret identity. Ever since Tony Stark revealed his identity as Iron Man in the first movie, almost none of the characters have maintained an alter ego. There is no stark division drawn between their public and private lives. And that means for the viewer, you are presented with all of the flaws and weaknesses of the heroes.

In the past, clear lines were drawn between good and evil without much of a character arc required within the individual. But in today’s movies, although there are certainly clear “good guys” and “bad guys”, the protagonists have flaws, and deeper context is given for why the antagonists became who they are. Changes that certainly make the movies all the more engaging and are worthy of note.

But where this genre really takes a turn is with one of it’s most recent adaptations. The Boys, a very popular TV show on Amazon Prime that just finished its second season, demonstrates this shift in culture by very clearly contrasting itself against the many super hero stories of the past. And boy oh boy (pun intended), is it a doozy.

The show was recommended by friends of ours. With an 8.7 rating on IMDB, many award nominations, and considered one of the most popular shows today, this show is certainly drawing a lot of attention. And as usual in our household, Morgan started watching without me. Go figure. But I just so happened to sit down in time to catch this scene from the fourth episode which gave me an introduction into what this show was all about and I was immediately intrigued by its message.

Disclaimer: There is swearing, blood/gore, and disturbing content in this clip. The show is rated for mature audiences. While there is no sexual content in this clip, please know for future reference the show itself does contain pretty gratuitous amounts of it in the remainder of the show. In short, I don’t recommend this for kids.

I’m not sure if this scene hits you as hard as it hits me, but I can’t help but feel my stomach turn when they lie to the passengers that everything would be okay and abandon them to their demise. This scene encapsulates in just a few minutes what this whole show is about.

Clearly Homelander is a parody of Superman. Queen Maeve, a parody of Wonder Woman. There are other super heroes that allude to Aquaman and to The Flash. This whole show takes the oh so familiar concept of a group of super heroes like the Justice League, and flips it on its head. What if those who are responsible for our protection aren’t just incompetent at times, but they’re actually malevolent?

If you watch the show, you will see that this twist doesn’t just occur with the super heroes. Nearly every institution in this show is untrustworthy. A Christian organization is led by a man that is sexually deviant in private after condemning it publicly. A big pharmaceutical company is led by completely dishonest leaders and misleads the public every step of the way. Politicians are corrupt. Cults take advantage of their followers for monetary gain. Many of the relationships depicted are absolute train wrecks. Innocent bystanders killed all the time in both domestic and foreign affairs. And the show makes barely veiled allusions to many of our cultures hot-button topics like white supremacy, the #MeToo Movement, and police brutality. It has it all!

This show is at its core a thought experiment. What if we took the super hero concept and made a dystopian version of it? That my friends in a nutshell is The Boys. A show that probably would not have received anywhere near this level of popularity in the past. A show that probably won’t stand the test of time. But a show that shows so saliently what so many are feeling today.

And what’s their proposed solution? “The Boys.” A group of nobodies who have been hurt in the past by these super heroes and who group together to take down them down through not only non-violent means, but also through violence. The solution is a grassroots resistance rebelling against the powers at hand. Does this sound familiar?

The Decay of social capital

It may not come as a surprise that public trust in government has been hovering around an all-time low for much of the recent past. The below chart from Pew Research shows just how precipitously we’ve declined in trust in public officials these past 60 years.

Then one could look at the status of marriages over the past century and the waning influence it has within our society. And with the reduced rate of marriages, we have seen related patterns in the increase of babies born out of wedlock, certainly a condition that does not afford stability to the children – a storyline I would note that one can also find within the plot of The Boys.

I’m sure one could easily find similar studies showing trends for diminished trust in the police, our neighbors, clergy, state and local officials, schools, etc. And similar levels of disconnection from other institutions like church, community groups, friends and family. Despite having the ability to connect more easily today with anyone around the globe, we are more disjointed and less trusting of those around us.

Is it any wonder why a show like The Boys would resonate with people today yet almost certainly be incredibly off-putting to generations past? Is it any wonder why so many on both the right and left are resisting and rebelling against who they perceive to be the perpetrators of these conditions? Is it any wonder that many feel that resorting to violence is the only way for them to feel heard?

Social capital is rarely mentioned measure of a culture’s health. Honestly I wasn’t familiar with the term until very recently, but it is quite obvious once you hear it. Social capital is the value of the relationships within a society that not only bind us together, but propel us to live admirably and function effectively. High trust within a society reduces the need for regulation. Moral behaviors that arise from constructive relationships reduce the need for law enforcement. Social capital provides increased levels of satisfaction, stability and predictability to our lives. And it affords opportunities for the most disenfranchised to be heard when those relationships are prioritized between all levels of the hierarchy.

When societies are functioning at their best, social capital is high. Sadly many of the previous attributes mentioned do not describe the experiences for many in our nation today. In many regards, that dystopian vision of The Boys is not too far off from what many perceive to be reality. So what can we do?

so how do we build social capital again?

One may say that maybe our trust in the government in the past was too high. That the very carefully crafted propaganda of our past that afforded such a unifying vision of our country’s leadership cannot occur in this modern era, nor would we want that. Can you imagine a current president being able to hide for years their limited mobility like FDR did in the past?

Like that aforementioned change made in the MCU movies, for better or for worse, we are presented with far more of the strengths and flaws of our leaders than at any time in the past. With cameras everywhere and an expectation that communication not just come from polished speeches but from half-baked tweets, we will get an up-close view of not just their public lives, but their private lives too. In fact, with the advent of social media, we’re confronted with the best and worst of many of our peers as well. To some degree we need to learn to live with the messiness of one another that is aired out for all to see in ways it hasn’t in the past, including our leaders (not to be mistaken as an excuse for these recent riots).

But there are many other changes that have been occurring within our society over the past several decades. Many seemingly small and innocuous decisions are made by all of us that over time accumulate. The decision to continue a marriage or end it. To get to know our neighbors better or ignore them. To attend church and invest time into the community or spend every leisure hour on ourselves. To be diligent at our work or let our quality slip when no one’s looking. To be dependable to our children, parents, and friends or look out for #1. To build social capital, or to let it decay.

We didn’t get here overnight. And we’re not getting out of it as quickly either. We don’t have to live within a dystopia. But in order to promote trust in our institutions again, the people who make up those institutions have to start generating more social capital again. And violence is never constructive.

Jesus said to his disciples in the hours leading up to his execution, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

Jesus found himself within the midst of a very harsh culture war and instead of resorting to violence he encouraged his disciples to seek a new way. The Boys glorifies violence as its solution to the problem of malevolent actors. Jesus proposed a different, albeit far more costly and difficult way to approach others, even our enemies.

To continue to invest in others, even when it’s at the cost of yourself. Those aren’t the type of heroes we glorify today. But those are the heroes we need to turn things around. Then, and only then, will we actually begin to see and feel indications of healing. And maybe, just maybe, we will look back at these recent events as the pivot point towards something better.

It’s up to us.

Is Santa Real?

What traditions haven’t been altered in some way by the year 2020? Family gatherings delayed indefinitely. Vacations postponed if not missed altogether. Holidays without the whole family around the table. Even regular events like apple and pumpkin picking, made a little less comfortable with masks on. One can only imagine how different Times Square will be for New Years Eve and I can’t wait to see the Year-in-Review montage they put on. It’s impossible to overstate how much 2020 has impacted our most firmly held traditions.

Well… sadly for us we will not get a picture of Tristan with Santa Claus this year as is the case for many other families. I’m sure the old man is in the high-risk category anyway and I think we’d all understand if he decides social distancing is the way to go this year. Of all the years for this to happen though, I’ll selfishly admit this year probably worked out best for us. We got our Santa pic last year for Tristan’s first Christmas. And he’s not quite old enough this year to really understand who this jolly man named Kris Kringle truly is. If he were to miss a year on this experience, this seems to be the best one.

But taking him for his first pictures last year made both Morgan and I ponder, was this Santa Claus tradition one we wanted to continue with our kids? We both grew up with parents who had entertained this tradition with us. Leaving out milk, cookies and reindeer food. Having to stay in our rooms until sunrise. Even opening letters from Santa on the years when we just barely made the cut for the nice list. For many many years the answer to the question, “Is Santa real?” was an emphatic “Yes!” No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

But things change for all of us as we grow older. We begin to question the ability of one man to bring gifts to the whole world in one night, how reindeer can fly, and why Mom and Dad have been holding out on Christmas gifts for us all these years. We eventually learned that the story behind the presents under our Christmas trees wasn’t exactly what we were told when we were younger. Instead of a high-octane sleigh ride through the sky to deliver presents from the North Pole, our parents simply survived the brawl in the Toys ‘R’ Us parking lot on Black Friday to get the gifts we wanted. Today those gifts are obtained in more humane, albeit far less exciting ways like Amazon Prime. And on Christmas Eve they were “simply” walked to the tree from one room over in our parents’ closet. The milk and cookies weren’t eaten by big man from the north pole, but the big man we called “Dad.” The answer to the question “Is Santa real?” went from an emphatic “Yes!”, to an equally certain “No!” It was all so obvious now. Why didn’t we see through this hoax all along?

I don’t recall the moment my parents telling me the truth about Santa as being particularly traumatic. I had a hunch for some time but didn’t talk to my parents about it. But once I knew, it was expected that I would take part in maintaining this “secret” to keep from ruining the magic of Christmas for my younger siblings. Was Santa real? It depended when you asked me and if my little sister or brother were around.

It was this same hesitation that made Morgan and I ponder what we would do with our own kids. Cautious about repeating traditions just because that’s what we’ve always done, we wanted to make sure we knew why we were doing what we were doing. We had heard of other parents avoiding the Santa tradition because they didn’t want to lie to their kids or unnecessarily sow distrust in their relationship. Others that saw parallels between Santa and God and not wanting to unsettle their kids’ faith when they would realize Santa wasn’t exactly who they believed him to be. Genuinely thoughtful stances, and opinions that we were considering ourselves. Once you start to look up articles online about this topic, you’re bound to find plenty of people willing to tell you how to raise your kids. This is a personal decision (one we’ve clearly been working through ourselves) and one I do not want to critique in other parents.

But I wanted to offer a new way of framing this conundrum around how you could tell your kids about Santa without the feeling that you’re simply being deceitful. We decided we would continue this tradition ourselves and I thought it may be valuable to share why. One practical reason was that we would rather be the ones telling “lies” than our kids. We didn’t want to have them navigate how to “lie” to their friends who did believe in Santa Claus at such a young age. But there was a second reason, that really convinced me that I wanted my kids to believe in Santa as children.

When we ask the question, “Is Santa real?” what in the world do we mean by that word “real?” I’m assuming when most of use the word real in regards to Santa, it’s to say that the only way he would be real would be if he was a living breathing human alive today, living at the North Pole who delivers presents to all children with his magical reindeer and sleigh. And in that sense, no Santa is not in fact real. But maybe there’s an opportunity to teach our kids that maybe there’s another, and quite possibly a better way of thinking about what is in fact “real?”

Are the only real things in the world those that we physically see or touch? Those that we can measure or quantify? Those that can be explained by the hard sciences like physics, math, chemistry, or biology? The problem is that if these are the limits to what we can consider as real, then what do we make of things like Christmas spirit, generosity, kindness, or love?

Many of us would say that these are also real, yet we can’t see them, physically touch them, measure, or count them. Yet these very “real” things animate us. Move us. Motivate us to live in particular ways. They govern our actions. We can feel them. To give gifts as parents without an expectation of anything in return, even the recognition for giving our children gifts. To behave as children like we are always being watched, even when Mom and Dad aren’t within sight.

Many of the most “real” things in this world are not made of merely material things. Love, joy, wealth, patriotism, ideologies, school and team spirit, are all in their essence devoid of material substance yet they drive people to act in a multitude of ways.

Likewise Santa, the embodiment of generosity, kindness, charity, without expectation of reciprocation, has motivated parents and kids alike, over multiple generations to take part in this beautiful Christmas performance of giving and receiving. A performance that most likely would not occur if not for the story of Christmas and the way that story has manifested itself in the character of Santa Claus.

So is Santa real? I think he’s one of the most real things we have in our culture and I look forward to sharing him and the story of Christmas with our children. And when they are old enough to question the actual existence of Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, I’ll be excited to share with them that the story can continue to inspire generosity, kindness and love within us if we are willing to play a role in the magic.

It was never really just about Santa. Santa points to something even more real about the culture it fosters within our families and communities and getting a better glimpse of the true meaning of Christmas.

The most real things are those not bound to temporal material things like gifts or even our lives. They are the those things that are most enduring and that motivate us to live and love well. This cultural adaptation of the Christmas story has lasted long before we were born and will almost certainly last beyond our final days. And it is a story that we are all invited to partake in.

So is Santa real? I would say most definitely “Yes!”

Have a Merry Christmas everyone!!!

Update: After finishing this post, we had the pleasant surprise from none other than Santa himself who happened to make his way into town. Our neighbor captured a fun photo for us to remember this less-than-ideal, yet very special 2020 Christmas season. Thank you to the local fire department for making that special event happen for our son, who was very excited to see the renowned Santa Claus!

A Few Thoughts on Our Current Political Climate

I forgot just how much I dislike election years… But as November 3rd gets closer and closer, the temperature gets up all the more. Tensions are running high for most everyone and I’m no exception.

Over the last several years since this past presidential election cycle got underway, I have on several occasions wanted to write something but didn’t quite have the words to say and decided to take the path of silence. This post is very much an outflow of my own internal processing over these past four years. I didn’t post it before because I didn’t want to incite any anger or hurt anyone, a seemingly impossible task these days. That decision to hold back was probably for the best. To take four years to step back, read some history, listen to some new voices and barely scratch the surface of trying to understand how we arrived at this juncture has been fruitful. Maybe even now I should be holding my tongue, but we’ll see how this goes.

It’s probably good for you to know upfront that I didn’t vote for either Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton this past election. Yes I did vote, but I did not give my endorsement to either candidate. This isn’t something I’m necessarily proud of (as I’ll discuss later). I share this because I hope you see that I’m coming at this issue with a relatively moderate view. No one is truly unbiased, and pure centrism isn’t necessarily an ideal to be lauded at all times, but I’m doing my best to write that way. We have enough divisive political content. I want to try and offer something different.

It’s a difficult topic to write on without angering someone but I hope I can pull this off. Here we go!

there Are Only (REALLY) Two Options

If you had to choose between eating a warm slice of apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a handful of dirt (not that crushed Oreo’s and pudding concoction) which would you choose? I think all reasonable people that don’t have a gluten allergy and lactose intolerance would take the pie and ice cream over some gritty dirt in a heartbeat.

But what happens when the choice is between that warm slice of apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a chocolate cake filled with hot fudge? All of the sudden the decision gets more difficult for most people. The conclusion becomes more situational… What did I have for dinner? Am I around people who will judge me for a particular food choice? Did I have enough fruit and vegetables today to justify all that chocolate?

While for some people, election decisions may feel like a choice between eating pie or dirt, others may relate more to the choice between the pie and cake. During a year like this, I think these people who see overwhelming positives to both candidates are a minority. I’m sure for many others it may feel like a choice between getting a gut punch or a kick to the shins, where neither option is ideal. For even the most staunch supporters of a particular candidate, how often is it because the other side seems all the more unbearable.

When a decision comes down to only two candidates who represent platforms that cover such a wide range of topics it should be much more complicated and situational than a choice between pie and dirt. The two-party system presents a false dilemma fallacy. The notion that this is black and white often keeps us from understanding the complex decision others, like us, are trying to make.

There are so many issues that have substantial complexity to them and deserve discussion and dialogue. The economy, national security, supreme court justice nominees, racial and gender equality, border security, immigration, education, tax policy, environmental regulations, energy policy, the criminal justice system, abortion, foreign relations, religious freedoms, cyber security, and now pandemic response just to name a few.

There are people who dedicate their entire lives to studying just one of these issues and come to different conclusions on the right way to address them. Every person who voted for Trump does not necessarily have the same opinions on all of the topics. And neither does every person who voted for Clinton. I think I’m safe to presume the same applies to this election.

If you completely align with one party’s beliefs, it makes the choice much easier. And sure, there are certainly reasons why a general consensus forms around each party’s platforms with general acceptance among wide swaths of the population. However, while aligning entirely with a party’s platform may make for easy voting, you may wish to consider if it should really be that easy. Considering party platforms have changed considerably over time (compare party platforms to what they believed even a couple decades ago), what’s to say they won’t continue to change? And does that mean you will change your beliefs to align with an ever-changing platform? Where is your anchor set?

Let’s remember we’re reducing a lot of complexity to just two (sorry third-party candidates) choices for most elections. Assume that other people are giving as much thought to this complexity as you are. They may not be. But it’s certainly a more charitable starting point if you presume they are and I would argue more productive.

you live alongside people on the other side

I have friends and family who hold views on both sides and I’m sure almost all of you do as well. Especially over the past few years, I have consistently heard people paint those on the other side with a broad brush. “Anyone who voted for X is fill in the blank.” Stupid, greedy, racist, lazy, ignorant, bigoted, unpatriotic… you get the idea. I’m sure most of you agree with me when I say this is incredibly difficult to listen to because we know people we value, respect, and look up to who fall on both sides of the political spectrum and we don’t think they fit these stereotypes.

Many of these people are incredibly bright, kind, generous, well intended, and patriotic people and fall on differing sides and there’s a reason for that. Picking a candidate to vote for is a very complex decision that people have to make. That doesn’t mean that people might vote for someone for reasons that are not admirable. But my experience has been, that more often than not the reasons given have been very much commendable even if they seem unsound.

When we see those across the table as people who are doing the best with what they know and believe to make a choice for the betterment of the nation instead of adversaries with malevolent intentions, we can change the tone of the conversation. I think one of the best reminders we can tell ourselves is that most people are trying to make the best choice for our nation and their communities and families and may come to a different conclusion than we do.

I know I’ve changed my views or at least broadened my understanding of topics over the last several years. I’m glad others have been patient with me as my views have evolved. I’m sure in the future I will look back at myself now and will see areas where my thoughts have changed. And very likely other views that have become more firmly established. That’s how we all work through these topics. I think we should extend that same patience to others that we expect for ourselves.

the morals of our leaders are important but not everything

It would be much easier if we only had to vote based on the issues, but we also take into account the temperament, morals, and likability of the candidates during an election. I think it is on this issue that we have seen the most strain. I realize those last two statements weren’t exactly the most cryptic but please stay with me.

For those that highly value the demeanor of those in leadership, cracks in authenticity and morality can be crippling to their view of that candidate and the party they represent. As a result, it can be easy for them to criticize those who support that candidate and are sometimes unable to understand how they could ever vote for them. On the contrary, those that highly value the policies and platform of the candidate can often overlook the implication of words and actions and do not always see that the way a leader carries themselves has a significant influence on the temperament of the nation.

Voting for a particular candidate does not mean someone endorses every act the candidate does and every word they speak. Someone who criticizes a candidate for an act they do or word they say should not, by extension, condemn all who voted for that candidate. Likewise, those who voted for the candidate should be able to make criticisms when they have been wrong and not take offense when others criticize the candidate.

As an example, FDR despite being a lightning rod for divisions in politics, is still considered one of the most highly touted presidents in our nation’s history for his ability to lead through incredibly trying times. He and his wife Eleanor championed a lot of causes, especially during World War II, that greatly improved the quality of life for women and African Americans in particular and were incredibly gifted at shaping the direction and sentiments of the citizenry. If you have a chance, look up just how many listeners he had for his fireside chats. People wanted to hear from him and be encouraged with his words during trying times.

Despite his ability to lead the nation, he had his own personal failings. FDR had an affair while married to Eleanor with Lucy Mercer before his presidency. In his final months before his death he spent time with Lucy without Eleanor’s knowledge or consent. After his death when Eleanor found out, as you can expect, she was crushed. In addition, he could be incredibly shallow in his friendships, use them for political gain, and abandon them like when health issues arose for Missy LeHand, his personal secretary. In addition to the failings in his personal life, the internment of Japanese citizens and rejection of Jewish immigrants during World War II are widely criticized today. A leader who was, and still is, widely celebrated for his accomplishments had his own personal shortcomings that are often overlooked.

Even the presidents that are often most praised have failed at times. My intention is not to stain FDR’s presidency but instead to highlight the mixture of good and bad that can happen at the same time.

All presidents, even the best ones, have had morality issues throughout history. Every person in the world, to varying degrees, has done something immoral in their life. That’s the complexity of the issue of morality. That doesn’t mean we diminish those errors or look past them. It also doesn’t mean we allow that to cloud our judgement so that we condemn those who supported that candidate or all other actions of that leader.

Party lines have to disappear when it comes to these issues of morality like adultery, lying, and slander, otherwise our credibility is lost. We should try our best to consistently judge the actions of our leaders while also having an understanding that every leader who has lived and ever will live has failed or will fail at some point. We are imperfect people led by more imperfect people. It’s therefore a given that there are always going to be morality issues and we’ll have to learn how to respond to them. We have to view every political leader with the same level of objectivity, regardless of party if we want those around us to respect our views. Once double standards occur, the ability to have productive conversations is hindered.

The tactics politicians and mainstream media use do not work for friends and family

Every time I was at the “judgement-free zone” of Planet Fitness, I would find it a bit humorous when watching CNN and Fox News up on the TV screens in front of me with their “Breaking News” and “Fox News Alert” ribbons at the bottom of the screen. Ever notice how those are on for nearly the entire shows even when incredibly trivial matters are discussed?

I’m sure we’ve all heard the story of the Boy Who Cried “Wolf!” right? When everything is urgent or alarming don’t we lose a sense of what topics are actually urgent and alarming? Or when one side is painted as being exclusively responsible for all the issues our country is facing, isn’t it easy to fall into tribal tendencies? Unfortunately, the media is largely driven by the number of eyes they can get on their content. And what has proven to be most lucrative is a form of reporting that is meant to be first and foremost entertaining to the masses.

Sure reality TV shows may be entertaining, but a culture can dissolve quickly when every household starts to reflect these same values and devolves into reality TV shows themselves.

Politics, similarly, are driven by the desires of the masses. FDR didn’t necessarily want to detain the Japanese Americans in internment camps or turn away ships carrying Jewish refugees during World War II. He decided it was politically advantageous to follow the opinion of the masses in these decisions because he would be up for reelection in the future. Andrew Jackson, a populist candidate elected by the masses for his heroics and selflessness in war, is now widely criticized for his treatment of the Native Americans, when at the time his decision to eradicate them from their lands was the popular decision among Americans.

Even Abraham Lincoln, who wished to give the Emancipation Proclamation earlier than he did, decided to wait about six months for the tide of the public to match his desires and values before giving the proclamation. Many people in the north were not ready for the idea of emancipation. Abraham had to wait on them to work through their own beliefs and for the appropriate moment to present itself. Politicians are walking a fine line of making the decisions they think are right and what decisions the public wants them to make.

In that sense, they can often serve as a mirror to ourselves. They to a certain extent embody the values we broadly hold as a culture. And that should scare all of us.

The hotly contested shouting matches that are often depicted in political debates and on the mainstream news is in a similar position. They are walking a fine line of making the decisions they think are best and what the public demand is. There are clearly benefits for them to be outraged and aggressive, otherwise they wouldn’t do all the theatrics. That same approach to discord does not benefit us in the same way.

We’re dividing over these issues. Finding our echo chambers and refusing to come out. The aspects of politics and media we most despise are due, at least in part, to the culture we have fostered. If we can change our demand for better forms of political discourse, maybe we can turn the tide. But it starts in the little conversations with the friends and family we have disagreements with.

closing thoughts

So what now? When I said I wasn’t necessarily proud of my decision to not vote for either party’s candidate it was because I feel like I should have been able to look at all of these factors and make a decision that would actually endorse a candidate in contention. I knew my vote wouldn’t change the outcome in 2016 and didn’t want to contribute to the election of either candidate. I had a gut punch/kick-to-the-shins outlook on the election and said “no thank you” to both. I plan to vote for one of these two candidates this year, and I’m not particularly thrilled, but I think there’s value in contributing to which platform is, in my opinion best for the country.

That being said, we can also fall into the mistake of thinking all change must start from the top of our government. We tend to assign all our praise and hope or blame and misery to the people in power. Unfortunately that mindset only feeds this issue more as the public becomes more and more dependent on the input and direction of these politicians and media that feed these thoughts. Patience, which I think is key to unity, can only occur if we believe the world won’t end if our candidate doesn’t happen to win.

In closing, I would like to offer one memory that I have that has left quite an impression on me. Just before my friend’s wedding ceremony, the pastor said a prayer for my friend asking God to help them develop a marriage that would positively influence their families, which would positively influence the community, which would positively influence the regions and then the nations.

How we treat those around us has a far more profound impact on our quality of life than any past, current, or future presidents, supreme court justices, or congressmen will ever have. People have lived good, fulfilling lives in the midst of all types of government systems throughout history. That’s not to say politics or advocating for the things that are important to us don’t matter. And that’s not to say that different government systems don’t influence the quality of life of their citizens. I’m saying that a good life starts in the closest relationships we have, and the fruit that comes from those relationships is what will nourish and build up our families, communities, and nations even in times of political division.

Change can be a long and arduous process, but it starts at home and works it’s way up from there. And that is what I am most hopeful for because it’s this type of change that we have the most control over.

In 10 years, when new people are in office and we look back at this chapter of our lives, will the discord we allowed between us and our closest friends and family over politics really be worth all the division we have sown? If not, maybe now is the time to change.