I can remember where I was eight years ago when the news about Jerry Sandusky broke. It was the first weekend of November. A rare weekend that was free from Blue Band commitments since the football team had a bye week. I was scrolling through the Facebook news feed when I saw our drum major share one of the first articles to break with the story of Jerry Sandusky’s arrest with a simple status update. “Oh no….”
Since the news broke on Saturday and the details were sparse, it was difficult to tell at the time just how significant this story was. I know I didn’t expect the story to get the traction that it did. Not because if wasn’t a significant crime and story. But because I had never been closely associated with a story this big before. But by the time Monday rolled around it was the talk of every news station. It was everywhere on TV and the news stations had their vans lined up in front of campus, reporting from the town where it all transpired.
To be honest, I didn’t know an outrage nationally could occur this quickly. And I had never been a part of a community as rocked as ours was by this sudden turn of events (or at least the public revealing of past events). My only connection to the story was that I was a student at the university. But that didn’t keep people in the comment sections from saying that students like me were a part of the problem. A school, student body, and family of alumni that for years touted “Success With Honor” as one of our main mantras was left wondering was there ever really honor associated with that success?
Friends of mine lost sleep over Joe Paterno’s firing and soon-to-follow death. Some students transferred out of fear of remaining associated with an institution who’s name had been significantly tarnished. And trust in the leadership of the university and its athletic programs was shattered. Nowhere near as shattered as the lives of the victims must have been. But nonetheless, the sins of a few men had much wider ripples that extended beyond these young boys. Ripples that extended to their families and to the community at-large.
One cannot help but think about how much this story undermined what so many thought they had at Penn State. A seemingly infallible persona in Joe Paterno. A football program that was supposed to serve as the epitome of molding men and student athletes. A football program that was above reproach. And it was an identity that so many fans and students adopted willingly and joyfully.
The removal of the Joe Paterno statue eerily represented the sudden decline in the institution’s public image. And many were left wondering if Penn State ever was representative of the ideals we flaunted.
Just a quick reminder, the Penn State Scandal wasn’t the first scandal to ever occur. Nor will it be the last unfortunately. A similar one from the recent past occurred within the Roman Catholic Church. A similar coverup of sexual crimes against minors that had been pervasive throughout leadership. And just like the news with Jerry Sandusky, the revealing of these transgressions and the subsequent concealment of these issues, led to a similar distrust of authority within the church, widespread abandonment of the Catholic Church and the questioning of the Christian faith in general. This scandal leaves us with similar questions. Did the church or Christianity ever represent the ideals they claimed to hold?
The Penn State Scandal, a representation of when school spirit and the protection of an identity as a successful athletic program goes bad. The scandal within the Catholic Church, a representation of when a church hierarchy degenerates into an institution that is more preoccupied with preserving its image than serving as ambassadors for Christ and protecting the least of these. But the scandals don’t have to be at a national scale for them to impact us.
How about when you find out a friend has stabbed you in the back? Was that friendship ever really genuine? Did I ever mean anything to that person? What do I do with all those memories that at the time seemed so positive? Hasn’t this backstabbing distorted these memories and left us jaded?
Or how about being cheated on by a significant other? Doesn’t every memory come under immense scrutiny? Where did it go wrong? Did they ever love me? Can I ever see myself being back in a serious relationship or trusting someone else again? Could a child of divorced parents ever convince themselves to pursue marriage after seeing it fall apart?
And what about the revealing of significant errors made by politicians, CEOs, and celebrities? Does this undercut our ability to have any confidence in them or the organizations or agencies they represent?
The list goes on. We see parenting, politics, religion, friendship, sports, and life itself done in so many ways that are to the detriment of others. And when these seemingly good things go bad they eat away at our certainty in what has often served as pillars and foundations for our lives.
When I was at Penn State, this scandal fractured the school pride that I had at the time. To associate with Penn State was embarrassing for a while. My self-worth wasn’t wholly tied up in the school’s image, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t partially connected. This scandal forced me to ponder two questions.
The first was, where should I put my faith if these other things have failed me. I have never been perfect in my dependency on God, but He has served as that firm foundation. He has been unchanging, faithful, and dependable through the difficult chapters of life even when I haven’t always been steady in my response and trust. He was before dependable before the scandal rocked my community. He was during it. And He has continued to be afterwards. I’ve tried to set aside these foundations I formerly had and that did not hold up in difficult circumstances. And to the degree that these foundations have been exchanged for my faith in God, is the degree to which my security improved.
The second question has taken a longer time to answer. That question is how do we move forward after being hurt by others and/or institutions that fail us. Sometimes we withdrawal. Sometimes we lash out in anger. Sometimes we quickly try to find something new to fill that void left in our life. We will all respond in slightly different ways in the immediate aftermath of something significant like a scandal.
What I have found to be true in the long term though is that in almost every scandal or breakdown in relationships and communities, it is because something that was good became twisted from it’s ideal purpose.
The Penn State Scandal hurts because school spirit and community are not in and of themselves bad things. But when that school spirit motivates people to worship coaches and conceal criminals to protect an image, it has been distorted.
The scandal in the Catholic Church hurts because the church itself has incredible power to love and serve people. But when those who are entrusted to lead the flock, protect the wolves in sheepskin, the power of the church gets turned into something incredibly demonic and all authority and credibility gets destroyed.
The same goes for our relationships. Divorce is so unfortunate because the potential good of a healthy marriage, not just for the individuals, but for their families and community is lost. A broken friendship casts a shadow of how incredible a dependable friendship can be.
Just because a friendship or a relationship go as planned doesn’t mean we need to give up on all friendships and relationships. Just because a leader or an organization fails us, doesn’t mean we need to disassociate from any and every group.
As C.S. Lewis states in his book “The Great Divorce,” the stronger an angel, the fiercer devil it is when it falls. Some of the most tragic and scandalous things we see in the world don’t occur because they are inherently evil. It’s because something that has the potential for much good has fallen, been corrupted, and now has the power to do so much damage.
As I reflect on eight years since the Penn State Scandal broke, I continue to think about these two things. What is my foundation built on? And am I willing to open myself up to the good that can come from things that have gone poorly? Am I willing to up myself up when I’ve been betrayed before?
There can still be some good there. It will take courage to fight through the instinct to pull ourselves back. We just have to keep a discerning eye, always watching for when the good goes bad. And remembering that even the bad can show us glimmers of the good when we’re willing to search for it.
A friend asked a seemingly simple question on Facebook a few months ago. The question was, “If you could give your best advice in 5 words what would you say?” Of course there were a variety of answers provided, but one that was mentioned by several people.
The advice was “Don’t Change Yourself for Anyone.”
If one were to take a sample of all the platitudes commonly thrown around today, I have to think few are used more often than this one. And while it can be useful in particular contexts, like discouraging young people from compromising their values for a relationship or to fit into a particular social group, is it really sound advice that can be applied universally to life? Heck, can it even be applied broadly to life beyond these very specific scenarios?
Should you really not change for anyone? Does it no difference if that “anyone” refers to an acquaintance, a colleague, a friend, a mentor, a family member, a parent, a significant other, or a spouse? Is there no one within our lives for which we should be willing to change?
Is there a certain age where you should no longer change? I think many of us would say that toddlers, especially when throwing tantrums, must change their behavior as they grow up. Should they not change? I’m sure many of us know adults who still act very much like toddlers. Should they not change? Does changing stop when we become 18 and graduate high school? Or when you obtain a certain level of post-secondary education?
Why do we tell each other to not change ourselves for anyone? Could it be that it sounds therapeutic especially when coming out of a tumultuous season of life, which seems to be when this phrase is often uttered? Could it be that maybe when we need to evaluate what changes may need to be made, we’re often scared to start that process and this reinforces that we’re fine to stay as we are?
I think for many of us, the word change can be a terrifying thought. But maybe it’s the conscious and purposeful kind of change that we’re most scared of.
There were several trends I recall growing up as a 90’s kids. Tamagotchi. Pokemon cards. Furby, Ty Beanie Babies. Dunkaroos. Capri Sun juices. Colored ketchup. Walkmans. Gameboys. How often was it that our desires reflected those of the people around us? That, while these are all material things, the fact that our friends had them and desired them, we were (subconsciously) willing to change to be like them and desire the same things.
Just to be clear those Furbies still creep me out to this day. Just staring into those eyes…. I’m going to have nighmares tonight.
And was there anything more damaging to one’s status among classmates than being labeled a “poser?” That if you were caught copying or imitating someone else, you were lesser than everyone else. I thought imitation was the sincerest form of flattery. Yet, the conscious effort to follow someone growing up was disdained even though we were all doing it subconsciously.
Consider how even as adults, the people who identify with counter-cultural groups like hipsters, rebels, punks, and hippies have all followed nearly identical trends within specific groups. In their avoidance of mainstream culture, they simply change to follow and adopt the patterns of their own subgroup of the culture.
So can we ever be purely an individual? Is there really a way for us to not change? And is the status quo really worth striving for?
If I could offer an alternative five-word piece of advice it would be this.
“Find someone worthy of imitating.”
Change is inevitable and we are social beings that are constantly watching those around us. Whether it’s trying to keep up with the Jones’ or just trying to fit in with coworkers or friends, we are all in some way or another trying to conform ourselves to be accepted.
So why not shift this process from the subconscious level to the conscious? Why not be proactive in selecting who in our lives are living in a manner worthy of our imitation? If we are all “posers” anyway, why not pose after someone who will help you become a better person?
In an ironic way, we may find that there’s a whole lot of freedom to be found in this type of conformity. That maybe imitation done properly will provide so much more good than telling ourselves to not change at all. That maybe we don’t always know how to best live well, and emulating someone else may help us get closer to figuring this out.
So how about you? Any life advice you would share in five words?
I like to think I’m a good husband for being willing to watch The Bachelor and The Bachelorette with my wife. At times (actually pretty often), I’m sure she would disagree. I’ve try to cut back on the jokes I make regarding the overtly shallow and hollow conversations they have. And I try to limit how often I mention how awkward it is that there’s a camera man standing within feet of them pretty much at all times. But I just can’t help myself sometimes. Most of the time she laughs with me, but on a few occasions she’s told me to go to the other room because she can’t watch it with me.
I’m normally not one to voice any strong views against TV shows and the same has largely been true for this show. While I wouldn’t recommend anyone pursuing a relationship in the way they do, I’m not forced to watch the show and the participants on the show aren’t forced to partake in it. I think it’s pretty clear why pretty much all relationships in the world don’t start with this type of approach. And as Hannah B. said herself when tearfully struggling to pick between the last two guys, “This is why you don’t date two people at the same time.” That’s quite an astute observation Hannah.
However, this past season, especially as it got to the end of the season, felt starkly different. I felt there wasn’t a resolution to some of the big topics being discussed and that this did a disservice to those watching. I felt that these topics warranted more dialogue.
the false dilemma
Hannah’s season of The Bachelorette will be remembered for news surfacing of her fiance Jed never really ending his former relationship prior to going on the show and then the ensuing ending of the engagement. But maybe even more memorable than the ending will be her constant struggle with Luke P. over issues of faith and sex. It was a topic of conversation that the producers of the show chose to highlight. And highlight it they did.
As we’ll clearly see soon with the Presidential Debates, we are often presented with a problem of “false dilemmas.” That is when we’re presented with two options, and only two options, we feel the need to side completely with one or the other. Hannah’s season of The Bachelorette presented us with exactly that in the very turbulent and unstable relationship between Hannah and Luke. The stark differences in how they viewed their faith, and specifically what that faith meant to their personal lives and their views on sex, became increasingly more evident through the season and hit its climax in their last date together before he was sent home.
I think it’s safe to say that date didn’t go very well.
In the Men Tell All episode, host Chris Harrison states that they have never had this much conversation on faith and religion before. The false dilemma we are presented with in this “conversation” however pressures us to feel the need to agree with Hannah or Luke, two individuals who, in my opinion, reflected some of the most flawed examples of how followers of Jesus are to view sex and relationships. Couple that with the fact that Luke undermined his own credibility throughout the entire show by lying and being manipulative and prideful and you can quickly see who most people will align themselves with in the conversation. The touting of anyone as the winner in this conversation would be wrong, but that’s exactly what happened as this show unfolded.
the differences between hannah b. and luke p.
To give context, both had sex with other people prior to being on the show and were open about that upfront. They both claimed to be Christian. But that’s just about where the similarities end though. On the one hand you have Luke, who very recently became a Christian and who wanted to push all of his recently experienced moral convictions onto Hannah. He tried to “save” her from the other men and from her desires to sleep with some of them prior to their potential engagement and marriage. He consistently berated and belittled her for making these decisions and expected her to make the same moral commitments that he’d been convicted of himself in his life. He was afraid of marrying someone who would be sleeping with other men weeks before their potential engagement. Instead of choosing to leave the show though, he was absolutely convinced Hannah was the one for him and was then willing to flip-flop on his own convictions to maintain a relationship with her.
On the other hand, you have Hannah who used her Fantasy Suite date with Peter, to notoriously have sex in a windmill four times, and boasted about this as a way of getting back at Luke. In her final date with Luke she was quoted as saying, “I have had sex and Jesus still loves me.” A quote that quickly turned into a rallying call of sorts. And people in attendance were printing it on t-shirts for the final episodes.
Just search that quote, and instantly dozens of articles will come up discussing the implications for sex positivism, “slut-shaming” (as Hannah termed her experience with Luke), and faith. Hannah said off the show in an interview, “I think sex and faith are all very individual relationships, and what I might feel comfortable doing sexually is not the same as the next girl, but that doesn’t make her any less worthy.” Clearly she believed she should have the freedom prior to marriage to do what she felt comfortable doing sexually and that Luke was in no place to ask her to not act on her desires. Without being privy to all their conversations, it’s difficult to know if they were upfront with each other on their views on this topic or if they changed throughout the season. But there was no doubting that they did not see eye-to-eye on this at all towards the end.
The fact that their conversation on sex and faith garnered this much attention speaks to the void we have today in the discussion of this very topic. And that’s partially why I find this so frustrating. Like two diplomats representing completely different foreign policies when visiting another nation, Hannah and Luke claim to represent the same team but hold starkly different opinions on what that faith means for themselves and their relationships.
reconciling their differences
So how do we reconcile these two drastically differing views from two people who both claim to be faithful followers of Christ?
Hannah, in her argument with Luke alludes to a pretty well-known story within the Bible, and one that I think is incredibly relevant. She responds to Luke in one of their fiery conversations, “What you just did was you’re holding your stone up at me, and asking and trying to see what I’ve done, and I know that I have God in my heart, so I know that everything that I do, and who I am, is light. I am light. Do I make mistakes? I’m not Jesus.”
Maybe you caught the reference to a specific story of Jesus’ life. The passage she refers to regarding the “stone” is about the woman caught in adultery, which is found in John 8:1-11. I figured it would help to read this short passage.
Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives,but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.
“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”
They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger.They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.
When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman.Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
“No, Lord,” she said.
And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
Jesus said he does not condemn her for her mistakes. Committing adultery with someone can have incredibly disastrous effects on others. This is serious. But the one person without sin, who as he said would have been justified to bring judgement by throwing the first stone, withholds punishment for her adultery. Like the adulterous woman, we have all fallen short of what we know we should do and who we should be. Yet, he does not give up on her. He does not give up on us. He gives her, and us as well, forgiveness and mercy for our shortcomings.
That being said, Jesus tags on an impossibly difficult command at the very end. “Go and sin no more.” It’s a strange thing to say at this time right? I used to think it sounded harsh. Like he’s telling her to get her life together. But I think at the time I was misinterpreting what Jesus was really saying to her.
I think we all would agree that we would live differently if someone, especially someone we respected, gave their life sacrificially to save ours. Whether or not you believe in the resurrection, Jesus went into his execution believing that he was giving up his life so that we could live and have life to the fullest. And to him, life to the fullest includes avoiding sin because those mistakes can seriously harm us and others. Often we are willing to accept the forgiveness God offers, but are resistant to making the changes in response. Jesus is imploring this woman to move beyond this adultery and be obedient, which will produce a far better life for her. He’s not telling her to fix her life just for the sake of following the rules. He says it because he has something much better in store for her. We need to ask ourselves if we respect and trust God enough for the sacrifice he made, to be willing to be obedient in response.
So what is the implication of this passage on our topic of faith and sex? And why is sex before marriage considered a sin to begin with? God very clearly desires for us all to wait until marriage for sex and is consistent with this throughout the Bible. And I don’t think this is some arbitrary rule. Statistics show marriages are less likely to result in divorce and are much happier with less sexual partners beforehand. And I think it’s easy to see the trends that are found in stable marriages and the benefits it provides for the children. It’s all connected.
So where’s the tension? We are so often easily tempted to desire something expedient instead of delaying gratification and working towards the ideal. And often we don’t realize that there is something better in store for us if we’re obedient. That there is something worth striving for. We are so caught up in what we want now, that we cannot see the potential implications this decision can have on our future.
I don’t think it’s wrong that Luke wants to wait for marriage for sex or expects his partner to not sleep with other men within weeks of when he would be proposing. However, the heart does weird things when it gets entangled. He should have walked away if his convictions were that strong and Hannah showed no willingness to abandon her views and approach to sex. And maybe he should have avoided going on the show altogether since it hardly aligns with his convictions.
Regarding Hannah’s position, yes we all fall short, and the Bible gives us examples of seemingly every type of failure man and woman can do. But it also shows how a faithful God who is more merciful and gracious than we could ever imagine can also desire much more for us than we can ever imagine. Hannah wants her forgiveness but doesn’t trust that God will provide what she wants if she were to be obedient to his rules. We all do this to some degree of another. It’s just that she was largely celebrated for being rebellious in this way and I think God wants so much more for all of us than to continue extending grace for our mistakes.
Hannah was right to say, “I have had sex and Jesus still loves me.” But love doesn’t just mean acceptance. To “love” is to will the good of the other. And sometimes that means God wants us to change. We will all miss the mark at times but we should not boast about it. Forgiveness came with a significant cost.
There is healing from past mistakes offered by Jesus’ willingness to lay himself down for us. But we have to recognize that to accept this gift, we will enter a life of pruning and refinement. While we can come as we are, we are to become a new creation and conform to the image of Christ. And that’s something to be excited about and not dreaded.
You may not know this, but I’m a bit of a board game enthusiast. Yes, I’m self-aware enough to know I’m a nerd. Ever since being introduced to Dominion in college, I’ve often been searching for newer and even crazier games to play with friends and family. And I have accrued quite a collection over the past few years. Codenames, Avalon, Pandemic, Puerto Rico, you name it… But there’s been one game in particular that I found this past year and boy has it been a joy to play. The game is Spirit Island.
For those of you who have never heard of it, it’s like a mix between Dominion, Pandemic, and Settlers of Catan. Hopefully I didn’t lose all my readers there. It’s the perfect game for millennials because the spirits of the island are teaming up with the island natives to fend off those oppressive European settlers who intend to settle and blight the island. Hopefully I didn’t lose all of you by now because this isn’t a board game review. Although this is one of the highest rated games and I do recommend it!
I think Spirit Island provides illustrations of the widely held views of what spirits were to ancient people. They were those invisible forces of nature that tribal people used to believe in. They were the mysterious entities crafted by our older generations before they had the ability to disprove their existence through science. They were the result of person-hood being assigned to the elements like fire, water, and lightning. These phenomenons that they experienced at the time but could not explain in any other way.
Maybe that’s what our ancestors thought. I’m sure that is what some of them in fact did think. But maybe there’s a bit more to this idea of spirit as well.
If you consider yourself a Christian, you will likely have to ask yourself what to make of the references to spirits within the Bible. And even if you’re not a Christian, you’re probably wondering why those Christians believe in spirits at all? I mean the Holy Spirit is right in the Trinity right? It’s kinda a big deal. Yet, speaking for myself personally, for many years I have avoided giving this question sufficient consideration. Maybe you have as well.
What made me initially want to become a Christian was my adoration for who Jesus was. The way he interacted with people. The wisdom he shared. The love he said he had for me and everyone else when he gave over his life in his execution. Isn’t it adoration that makes us want to follow anyone? I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t at least like Jesus. They may not like Christians, and I understand why, but Jesus himself, tends to be a pretty likable figure for many people today.
Yes, some of you may say I was suspending disbelief to put my faith in a man who died and rose again. The resurrection is as much today, as it was then, a mystery and a miracle worthy of debate and doubt. But I was at a point where I decided Jesus was worth following, he was the basket I was willing to put my eggs in, and I would see where it would lead. But I wouldn’t at the time suspend my disbelief on spirits. It just wasn’t something I was giving much thought to at the time.
I have often struggled or avoided this topic of spirits. To me, spirits were similar to the topics of angels and demons, which have unfortunately been represented often in a manner similar to that depicted in The Emperor’s New Groove with an angle and a devil on each shoulder telling you what you should or shouldn’t do. I mean c’mon, it’s clear to everyone today that this was an antiquated way of representing what we now know is our consciousness. It can be reduced to a bunch of synapses and neurons firing at all times.
As an engineer, someone who has spent much time in mathematics and the sciences, how could I believe in these spirits? There’s no proof of them. Nothing materially to show they exist. If it weren’t for their prevalence in the Bible, I probably wouldn’t be wrestling with this question. But here I am. I cannot continue to kick this can down the road. For myself, I needed to give some more thought to the topic. And before that question of who the Holy Spirit is could be answered, I had to ask what in the world spirits even are.
what spirits do we have today?
When you hear the word “spirit” in what context is it often used today? School spirit possibly? Team spirit? The type of spirit associated with Halloween that floats around like a ghost? Wine and spirits? Spirit fingers?
According to Google NGram, the use of the word spirit, not surprisingly, has diminished in use over the past couple centuries. I know I personally don’t use the word often and would often turn my head sideways when I met someone who did. But it’s with this diminished use of the word that I believe there’s been a loss of understanding of what in the world “spirit” even means.
If we consider uses of the word like team spirit and school spirit, I think we can start to get an understanding of what spirits may be. As a Penn State alum, I know full well what school spirit looks like. There are few experiences that compare to that of watching a Penn State football game with over 100,000 other Penn State fans at Beaver Stadium. People screaming their heads off. Giving up their entire Saturday to tailgate, eat food, yell chants, sing the Alma Mater and show up shirtless for a November game. The same school spirit that causes people to lose sleep for days when Joe Paterno was fired. How do you define that school spirit? Is there a scientific way for representing what that school spirit is?
Or consider team spirit. I’m sure many of us have taken part in a team sport, musical ensemble, or worked with a group of people at multiple times in our lives. There are different feelings associated with each group. Maybe times where everyone “gels together” and maybe times where there is clashing and infighting amongst the group. Is there a way that this team spirit can be quantified or measured? I don’t know that it can.
Maybe instead of spirit, we would call these “values”, or more broadly “ideas”. But I think the problem with using the term value or ideas is that we often state that we have values or ideas. Yet Carl Jung, a well-known psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, flipped this notion on its head and said “People don’t have ideas. Ideas have people.” I think this quote is quite relevant for explaining how we experience values, ideas, and even things like team or school spirit.
How responsible are we for adopting these spirits or values? It didn’t take much effort at all for me to hop on the Penn State school spirit train or to want to belong to the teams I have participated in over the years. Do we possess these values or ideas, or could it possibly be that these values, ideas, or, dare I suggest, spirits have us?
Consider the dark side of these so-called spirits. Is it that hard to say that a spirit colonized the people of Germany leading up to and through World War II? We’re not talking about a few people here. We’re talking about millions of people who fell in line with what turned out to be a horrific viewpoint. To them at the time, it was completely rationalized, yet look at the fruit that spirit produced. They were in a sense controlled by what we would term an evil ideology today. This isn’t to absolve individuals of responsibility, but to demonstrate how people can passively, and sometimes actively, absorb these mindsets and ideologies. Is it hard to say that maybe “spirit” would be an appropriate term for this example that is comparable to the team and school spirits we discussed previously?
Or even spirits within families? As children, aren’t we largely passive in our intake of the spirits of the very relationships of our parents, siblings, extended family members and communities? Are there not “spirits” that occupy the interpersonal spaces and relationships that we breathe in every day of our childhoods? When we say “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” can we not see that there is often some momentum within family dynamics that can be difficult to overcome? Can we not ascribe the word “spirit” to this constantly evolving (both positively and negatively) interpersonal space that affects us all?
These spirits aren’t quantifiable. They cannot be measured. They are unseen to the naked eye. But I think we can all admit they exist. We may call them values. We may call them ideologies. We may even give them the name essence. Could their fluidity, invisibility, potency, and ability to (again dare I say) possess people make them worth considering more deeply?
If you followed me to that point, then the next step beyond that would be assigning these spirits personhood. I realize that’s no small leap in assumptions. I’m not sure I’m there yet myself. But when one looks at the spirits that contend for our allegiance in political, familial, and societal spheres of life, I don’t think it’s that far of a stretch to think there may be some credibility to the statement that a spiritual world exists. I was struggling with this idea of spirits before, but I think I’m slowly starting to see that maybe they just look different than the ones in Spirit Island. Maybe, just maybe, there’s some legitimacy to this whole spirit thing.
I wouldn’t say I was an avid reader growing up, but there were several books that I thoroughly enjoyed reading as a child. The Lord of the Rings, The Hardy Boys, and Harry Potter come to mind immediately. When I first read them, I appreciated these books simply for the story. The joy of an unforeseen plot twist in the Hardy Boy mysteries. The constant evolution and unfolding of characters like Severus Snape. And the freedom to imagine new worlds like Tolkien’s Middle Earth. However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize these books contain more than just the stories themselves and have started to appreciate the author behind the story more and more. .
Similar to authorship, someone without going through proper education and training cannot just wake up one day and be an architect and design a house that will both stand and be aesthetically pleasing. And someone cannot instantly become a composer and write a piece of music worth listening to without some type of instruction. There are years of developing the skill and accumulating experience that leads to the final piece of art. I’m blown away by the creativity of these authors and am impressed with their ability to construct such poignant stories. I wish I could craft a story like the ones I read growing up, but it could not just happen by chance as The Simpsons so aptly illustrate in this clip.
In a way, the work of art is an extension of the artist. The house in some way takes on the character of the architect. Music takes on the character of it’s composer. The narrative takes on the character, or essence, of it’s author.
I was the type of fan who was waiting in line at the bookstore before the store opened to pick up my reserved copy of each book when it was released type of fandom.
The type of fan that would forgo sleep to read each book in a matter of days.
The type of fan that went to the Barnes & Nobles midnight release party for the seventh and final book.
The type fan that dressed up as Harry Potter himself (and in my opinion pulled it off well) for Halloween! Sorry Ashley and Alex for not running this by you beforehand. Nice cat ears by the way Alex.
The whole post was intended to share an interesting illustration of God the Father and God the Son that I had stumbled upon. The premise of the illustration was that the only way Harry Potter could know who J.K. Rowling is would be if she were to write herself into the story. Then, and only then, Harry Potter would be able to know his author. The realization for me being that the only way to truly know the author of our story, would be for that author to write him or herself into human history. As Paul says in Colossians 1:15, “The Son is the image of the invisible God.” Christ took on human nature to reveal himself and walk alongside people to show who the author (if we stick with the analogy), God the Father, is.
It’s hard to believe it’s been over seven years since I published that post. Within that time, my thoughts on this analogy have changed. Not that I think it’s a wholly inaccurate illustration but that it’s incomplete. The Father and the Son, although being incredibly complex on their own, seem to be easier to grapple with than the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, which I completely omitted in that post.
The Holy Spirit has often been mysterious, difficult to understand, and rarely discussed specifically, especially in our culture. Even as a regular church attender, I rarely hear much time dedicated to understanding probably the most obscure Person of the Trinity. And yet, the Holy Spirit is mentioned throughout the Bible from beginning to end. If you’ve been baptized, we are told that it is symbolic of being baptized with the Spirit. And that you have been given the Holy Spirit to dwell within you. What in the world does any of this mean? What is it that the Holy Spirit is doing? And who exactly is the Holy Spirit? I know these questions have been some of the most difficult for me to answer personally.
In my last post, I started exploring what spirits are. “Spirit” is no longer in our vernacular, and is probably indicative of why the Holy Spirit gets so little conversation in our culture. Spirits are similar to what we would call values or ideologies today. They are dynamic and invisible and are shared and developed within interpersonal spaces. Spirits can influence individuals, families, communities, and nations in both positive and negative ways.
But I think to really begin to see how spirits, and the Holy Spirit specifically are at work in the world, we need to explore what this word “spirit” has meant historically.
the root of the word “spirit”
Our use of the word spirit today derives from the Latin word “spirare,” which means “to breathe”. There are many other words that we use today that come from this same root that we probably wouldn’t associate with the word “spirit.” Aspire means to “breath on”, or to work towards a goal. Conspire is to “breath together” or craft a plot together. Inspire is to “breath into”. And even respiration, or to “breathe again” comes from this same root word “spirare.”
So what in the world does “spirit” have to do with breathing, and is this just another one of those weird aspects of the English language that our word spirit would be associated with this Latin root that seems unrelated?
Surprisingly the answer is an emphatic “No.” This isn’t just a “the English language is weird” thing. The Greek and Hebrew words for spirit were “Pneuma” and “Ruach,” respectively and both of these words were used to represent the words breath, spirit and wind. While in English we have separate words for all three of these, the Hebrew and Greek languages have one word that means all three. That breath, spirit, and wind were all related to one another within these cultures.
And this is consistent with how the Holy Spirit is depicted throughout the Bible. The Spirit hovering over the waters at the beginning of creation. God breathing life into the nostrils of Adam. God breathing life into the dry bones in Ezekiel. The Holy Spirit descending like a dove onto Jesus at his baptism. Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit onto the disciples. The loud wind that is associated with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This imagery is even used for those born of the Spirit.
"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." - John 3:8 -
From the vantage point of the writers of scripture, they saw the wind, breath, and spirit as one and the same, animating and giving life to the world around us. It sounds very mystical and like an antiquated way of looking at the world. But should it be?
the “trinity” in harry potter
Sticking with the Harry Potter analogy, consider that part of J.K. Rowling’s essence is found in every word, every sentence, and every chapter that moves the plot line. Her character, her values, her dreams, her aspirations, and her experiences are distilled and breathed into these books and animate the characters bringing this fictional world to life. That if J.K. Rowling were to write herself into the story, we could see a similar “trinity” in play. J.K. Rowling as the author, J.K. Rowling as the character within the Harry Potter story line, and the dynamic “spirit” of J.K. Rowling that permeates through and inspires the entire story line to bring about her desired plot line.
For Augustine, an early Christian theologian from the 4th and 5th centuries, love served as the best example he could use for the Trinity.
“Now when I, who am asking about this, love anything, there are three things present: I myself, what I love, and love itself. For I cannot love unless I love a lover; for there is no love where nothing is loved. So there are three things: the lover, the loved and the love.”
The person of the Holy Spirit only becomes more beautiful when we consider His role within the Bible. God’s Holy Spirit emanates from this relationship between the Father and the Son and it’s what gives life to the very story we are a part of. It’s similar to J.K. Rowling’s love for Harry Potter, and that love manifesting itself in what I think is a very beautiful and well-written story revolving around him.
And just like how J.K. Rowling worked through Dumbledore, Snape, Hermione, Ron, and a host of other characters to carry out this storyline, God has invited us to breathe in His Holy Spirit. He has invited us to allow Him to dwell within, motivate and empower us as He carries out his story. Not that this is the only spirit we are inspired by, but that it is the one spirit that gives life and blows us like the wind towards the things in keeping with who God is.
Maybe this is all sounds weird and strange. I would completely understand anyone who felt that way as I clearly couldn’t have articulated the Holy Spirit this way seven years ago when I first attempted this illustration. For me, this recent shift in my perspectives on the nature of God and specifically His Person of the Holy Spirit has been life giving. The ability to rest and not feel like it’s all in my power. And the ability to “test the spirits” as John would say and see what’s worth breathing in.
I’m sure many of us heard the old adage growing up “You become what you eat.” May I suggest one slightly modified? Maybe that you become what spirits you breathe in? The questions then are, “Is there an author to this crazy thing we call life?” and “Do you trust the author enough to breathe in their spirit and allow them to work through you?”
I’ve heard it said that theology is like a map. The maps we use are scaled down and smaller representations of the actual world. It’s this smaller size that allows us to use the map. And the map hopefully has sufficient details for our purposes of navigating the world. Likewise, this illustration is not a complete and exhaustive depiction of who the Holy Spirit is. It is a reduction, or a map, that for me helps me to navigate my relationship with God. And my hope is that it helps you. And hopefully over time, that map becomes more detailed, more vibrant, and more accurate.
“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” – 1 Corinthians 13:12
Let me know your thoughts and if you have any other helpful ways you have found to explain the Holy Spirit.
Avengers: Endgame was a unique theater experience. I can recall going to see many several of the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies shortly after they hit the big screen but those experiences pale in comparison to that of watching Endgame.
I couldn’t find more recent data on how many people have seen Avengers: Endgame since it debuted this past April, but this article indicates that their survey conducted prior to its release showed that more that half of Americans planned to see the movie. It currently sits at the top for the highest grossing movie of all time at the box office, with a gross of nearly $2.8 billion worldwide (although they had to use some trickery to get there). The amount of conversation devoted to this movie among friends and families probably serves as enough of an indicator of how popular this movie was.
The movie felt like a cultural moment. It was the 22nd movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the culmination of their first big overarching story line that weaved throughout each of the preceding films. It signaled the end of a chapter of movies that had been made for over a decade leading up to this point and it’s difficult to see anyone except Marvel Studios pulling something of this magnitude off again.
Yet, the euphoric feeling of that culminating movie didn’t really last too long. Yes, another Spider-Man movie came out (which I haven’t seen yet so no spoilers please!) and more Marvel movies are slated to hit theaters for the foreseeable future. But unless we plan to partake in Comic Con, there aren’t really opportunities for us to engage in these superhero stories beyond purchasing our tickets, reclining back in the theater, and wolfing down some popcorn. We can discuss the movie among friends and families, but even the novelty of that conversation wears off as time passes. It seems like it pulled so many of us together, but only for a short while. It’s like the movie points to something we all want, but the MCU thus far, even through 22 movies, hasn’t quite fulfilled it.
Can the MCU point to something that we desire? And what implications can it have for discussions on social justice, and how do we go about fostering good conversation.
we’re living in a post-christian society
We are divided along political, racial, geographic, gender, and generational lines. Except for the rare case like Endgame, there aren’t too many opportunities where we come together despite these differences. But were there always this few opportunities for community?
We could take a look at organized religion as an example. It’s no secret that church attendance is in decline, especially among younger generations. Studies everywhere show that pretty much across the board numbers are dropping as indicated in the figures below. Whether it’s the argument that science has disproved the claims made in the Christian belief system, the scandals and hypocrisy that have eroded its credibility, or the dangers posed by fundamentalist religions, there have been a number of reasons to avoid associating with any type of religion. However, as we can see from this graph, a significant portion of the nation belonged to a church just a couple generations ago.
Church membership was incredibly stable up until the late 90’s when it started to sharply decline. And this trend is represented even more starkly in the following chart.
I think it’s safe to say that these charts point to a seismic shift in our culture over the past few decades and as with any change their are side effects, often both good and bad.
Set aside the metaphysical claims made by religions for a minute and consider what the institutions of religion have provided historically. I mentioned that the Marvel movies have given reason for about half the nation to sit in front of television and movie screens a couple times a year for a few hours to enjoy what are essentially mythical tales. Consider that even today after all this decline in church membership that 50% of the nation are still members of a church that get together weekly to take part in a narrative of their own. A narrative that they have continued to take part in over vast periods of time. It’s almost like a weekly Comic Con and yes, some of the people are just as interesting.
We all know that these communities have not always been a perfect reflection of the diversity of the community at large and as I mentioned earlier there are understandably concerns with the church. But traditionally churches have provided a place for people to come together and ideally consider how they were meant to live both in relationship with God, or the highest ideals for life, and with one another. Why do you think an event like the Notre Dame Cathedral fire had such a profound impact on people religious and non-religious alike?
There’s a reason that churches were placed in the center of communities and often had their steeples set at the highest elevation within towns. They served as a central meeting place. The ideals taught there were embraced largely by the surrounding community. And the prioritization of religion within the community provided a space that could draw people together to commune, share meals together, and take part in a narrative. Something starkly similar to I think what we try to find in the MCU movies (kudos if you can find the pun in there). Yet, can movies replace the type of community an institution like the church produces?
where can we go for community?
It is within communities that we have conversation. I don’t think that’s a radical idea. The question is what can replace the role that religion has played historically as people leave the church? And where do we hear and engage with difficult topics like social justice?
As I discussed in my previous two posts, the news and politics don’t seem to provide a great locus for dialogue. And if the church is no longer the place for many of us to tease out these principles where do we have to go? K-12 public education? Colleges or universities?
Public schools are probably the closest to offering this type of community because students have to live in community with each other for hours a day for years. But consider the fact that schooling for most people ends by your mid- to late twenties. Is there an institution that can take the place of church for adults? The workplace? Meetups? I honestly can’t think of one.
a conversation on the hierarchy of values
Let’s assume we find some place to have conversation. Whether it’s in a church or elsewhere, what type of conversation are we having? When we tackle difficult issues like social justice, what we are often discussing is what values are of most importance. Kindness, love, justice, freedom, fairness, etc.
It often seems that the virtues of kindness and compassion are king within the social justice movement. Often there is no narrative offered to support why these virtues are of most importance. To many who subscribe to this belief, these virtues are self-evident. We ought to be kind and compassionate towards others.
I would ask the hypothetical question, do you think the self-sacrificing scenes throughout the MCU movies would arise from every other culture in the world both throughout history and geographically? I would think we would be naïve to think it would. The question then becomes where did we learn that kindness and compassion were important?
With the diminishing attendance at church and role of religion in society, we are trying to replace the Judeo-Christian narrative that for a long time has served as one of the most substantial influences in our culture with the virtues that we believe to be self-evident without a religious narrative coupled to it. But can this modern social justice narrative adequately fill that void? Author G.K. Chesterton seems to indicate that they aren’t the same in his following quote.
“The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered…it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”
Consider the fruit of the Spirit listed by Paul in Galatians 5. Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. How would you define each of these?
Take kindness for example. Kindness as I mentioned is pervasive throughout the current democratic party’s platform and it seems straightforward. Kindness would probably be defined most often in this setting as tolerance and permissiveness. A “stay in your lane” mentality. Wokeness may even be considered kindness. Is that what Paul was referring to in this passage?
Or consider joy. Joy in isolation from these other fruits can be reduced to happiness. Do whatever makes you happy. Don’t change yourself. Don’t commit or get tied down. Life is short. Life for your enjoyment. Is this what Paul meant by joy?
When Paul wrote about these fruit he didn’t mean for them to be used in isolation because it is in their isolation that they each become distorted. Yet, we have done exactly that. We have separated these virtues that were learned over a long period of time through interaction both with myths and narratives and with other people through community. We thought they were self-evident and have distorted their meaning and application in life. And now they have gone wild and have taken on a life of their own.
why narratives are important?
So what was it that made Endgame so special? With more movies came the opportunity for more screen time for characters to develop their narratives. We got to see the maturation of their personalities into some absolutely beautiful moments of sacrifice, love, and courage for one another.
I know I left the theater feeling like the movie exceeded any expectations I had for it. It truly was a masterpiece of storytelling. I have to believe that’s a large part why people got so emotional, even to the point of requiring hospitalization.
There isn’t a problem with Endgame. It’s just that a movie like this is limited to providing entertainment and a limited amount of conversation because we can’t live within the story. We can contemplate the significance of the inclusion of female and minority superheroes and the virtues of the characters on screen, but at the end of the day none of us will be fighting alongside Tony Stark, Captain America, and the rest of the gang.
Without a story that we can participate in, I’m not sure that we have the ability to tease out how all of these virtues should interact. That’s where a narrative like the Christian narrative is different, because the story claims to occur within human history.
God as depicted within the Bible demonstrates in part all of these virtues interacting with one another. Even the statements “God is love” and “the greatest of these is love”, only have meaning within the context of the greater narrative and his interaction with humans throughout history. Similar to how the self-sacrifice of certain Marvel characters (avoiding spoilers here) has that much more significance because we know their backstory, the story of God’s relationship with humans and eventual self-sacrifice can illuminate these virtues and give them life.
It’s through our engagement with this narrative and the stories of others in the context of church in our communities that we can start to see how we can respond with love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in the midst of difficult situations and confront these problems. We can avoid the temptation to elevate one virtue above the rest and as a result diminishing all of them.
what narrative does the church provide?
So what is the meta-narrative offered by the church in regards to social reform and change? I’m still unpacking for myself just how significant the story of the Bible is. I will spend the rest of my life doing so. But if I could try to boil it down to a few relevant ideas they would be these.
First off, I find it interesting if you consider the first five books of the Bible, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, how the Israelites told the story of their own nation’s history. These are the stories they passed down orally and then eventually wrote down to explain their origins. They descended from people who were lazy (Abraham), deceitful (Jacob), willing to trade their brother into slavery (Jacob’s sons), drunk (Noah), disobedient (Adam and Eve), murderous (Moses), and idolatrous (the rest of the Israelites) among a variety of other mistakes.
The story they chose to tell of their own nation’s history was brutally honest about how they had failed their God. They don’t applaud these behaviors, but decided to remind themselves of how often they fell short. Maybe a little honesty on the shortcomings of our past is healthy to have.
Second, I would consider that Jesus didn’t spend his life trying to change Rome’s system of government. He spent his ministry investing mostly in 12 men, a lot of time in prayer, teaching principles, performing miracles to heal the sick and lowly and communing with the outcasts and dispossessed. He restored relationships between the dehumanized and the society at large by giving value to the very people that no one at the time saw value in.
It was in this way that he would build his church and change the world in a grass roots manner. The locus of change was the individual that resulted in widespread impact. The early church constantly showed that community could be formed across racial, generational, class, and gender lines. A little more of that sounds like exactly what we need today.
Lastly, when John starts his gospel off with the phrase “The Word became flesh”, I think we need to consider how significant this statement is. The Greek used here for Word is “logos,” which essentially means in the context of this passage that God revealed Himself by speaking.
If we were in a classroom and a dog were to randomly show up in the room and be running around there would be chaos and confusion. However, if a faculty member were to come into the room and explain that their dog got off the leash and that it was friendly, everyone in the classroom would suddenly have context for the situation. Order would be restored. John is essentially saying that Jesus has provided context for the chaos of our world and revealed God to us through his speech and language to provide order.
Speech is important for all of us to figure out the chaos around us. There may be temptations to silence certain voices, but I would argue this silencing of differing opinions would be to our detriment. There’s a reason we have the First Amendment. There’s a reason John emphasizes the importance of “logos.” And there’s a reason you see cultures go in terrible direction when people are silenced. We need to value others thoughts even when we don’t completely agree. It’s through truthful and honest conversation that we can mold each other. We need more of it not less.
where do we go from here on social justice issues?
Does that mean we do nothing then within politics? I don’t believe that to be the case. I think we should advocate for change and when it’s in our power, try to make changes, but we shouldn’t lose sight of what’s happening in our own lives, families, and neighborhoods. Should we look down on progressives? By no means. Compassion for the dispossessed and disenfranchised is to be lauded and we should be able to discuss these issues. The desire to want to do something is not a bad instinct.
Should we disparage conservatives for resisting social reform? I don’t think so. There are stark differences between statutes that abolish slavery and ones that provide reparations. Just like there are stark differences between giving women the right to vote and requiring women on executive boards. Some regulations should clearly be supported. Others, despite seeming similarly compassionate, may not produce the same effects they are desired to. And systematic sin, if you’re willing to call it evil, is not always rational and therefore rational solutions cannot always be found for these issues.
Systemic sin is real. It’s difficult to quantify, but always present. And as we see in my own post from four years ago, I think it’s important to be patient with one another because viewpoints on these difficult subjects often change over time. I’m sure mine will change and evolve even more over the coming years.
Unfortunately the solutions to these pervasive issues are not so easily prescribed. Let’s resist the urge to buy into quick solutions, look for the principles that can be developed to move us from pity to action, and try to rebuild the sense of community that has been lost. Maybe you will find that in church, or maybe new institutions will come about to fill this void.
And maybe… just maybe, these issues may start to resolve themselves without policy. Whether you’re a Christian or not, we have to admit that the historical figure of Jesus changed the world and undermined the Roman empire by communing with those on the outskirts of society and not through political and legislative means. I think it’s through rediscovering our local community and investing there, that the public sentiment of the nation will be changed and good conversation can resume.
If you’ve ever been to the Judgement Free Zone of Planet Fitness you would know that in addition to their free Tootsie Rolls and Pizza Mondays, most of their gyms have a row of televisions in front of their treadmills, ellipticals, and exercise bikes.
The TVs are set to a variety of channels usually including the staples like ESPN, HGTV, and ABC. And of course, they always have on both CNN and Fox News.
I would often be listening to music or a podcast, but every so often I would take a look up and see what the banners at the bottom of each channel’s screens indicating they were discussing. The ironic thing about being able to watch both channels at the same time was being able to see two incredibly different messages about the same event. Whether it was the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, Dayton and El Paso shootings, Freddie Gray incident, or the latest political or economic developments, these two news providers rarely presented the same take on the same event that we were all watching.
They serve as a clear indication of the divide we all are wrestling with today. How can we see the other sides viewpoint? Can we have good, meaningful, and respectful conversation? I think we can even though the news can make it very difficult for us to get there.
how is the news different today?
Consider how long the news used to take to get around the world. Prior to the telegraph and the photograph, stories took significantly more time and effort to communicate over distance let alone publish, print, and distribute.
I cannot honestly say that it is all doom and gloom when it comes to the news. Today, the news does a great job of providing us with stories from all across the globe. Today stories are heard from people who previously would not have had the means to do: the downtrodden, the outcasts, the oppressed, and those tucked away in the farthest reaches of the globe. Where previously, the economics of getting a story out would have been cost-prohibitive for these people, today they have a microphone to quickly reach out to the greater society outside their immediate community.
Additionally, we can’t help but ponder the benefits of being able to engage with people of other nations. Within the past century, we have gone from not really understanding many of the people from other corners of the globe, to being able to communicate with them with ease. This connectivity has in many ways helped us to a greater extent “humanize” the strangers that we would have never met or interacted with previously. These technologies have provided great benefits to society and we cannot forget that.
Similar to the introduction of the printing press, the telegraph, photograph, television, and now the internet that have drastically changed the pace at which we receive our news. Stories and photos are now, to exponentially greater degrees, able to be mass-produced and distributed. Instead of the daily periodical, news runs continuously 24/7 and now an article published a day ago (sometimes even hours or minutes) seems like ancient history.
However, as it is with most new technologies, there is almost always a flip-side to its introduction to culture or at least unforeseen side effects. Consider how automobiles allowed for quicker and more enjoyable travel, but also changed dating forever and brought about the automobile accident and the need for new infrastructure. Or how even something as seemingly trivial as a clock and our ability to measure time can change how we interact with nature, the seasons, and how we structure our days. New technologies inevitably cause changes in culture.
So often we hear people saying the media is particularly ugly today. Yet I think you can look into publications from early in our nation’s history like those of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and find similarly argumentative and ugly disputes to what we find on Fox News and CNN today.
There are many implications of these new technologies, but two in particular that I think are incredibly relevant to this conversation on social justice issues. I think it’s the medium and quantity of news that is so starkly different and can present issues.
the medium for the news matters
A quick example of how the medium of television has changed our methods of communication in the past century is demonstrated by this ad for the Model T and the following commercials from 1951 and 2013 for Ford.
What I find so fascinating is how that 1951 Ford commercial shows a blend of the former paper advertisement and today’s almost complete lack of words and reliance on imagery. The narrator is walking you through step-by-step the benefits of purchasing this particular car similar to the paper advertisement for the Model T. However, the Mustang commercial has pretty much no narration, some musical background, and is basically saying this car can reflect your inner personality. We cannot diminish how starkly different these two messages are.
A literate culture prioritizes a linear thought process. It has to, because you are organizing words in publications and books in a way that constructs a logical argument. The reader needs to follow the train of thought. You may notice that the 1951 commercial’s narrator sounds like someone reading from a book or script. How robotic sounding right? However, this dialogue is a reflection of the medium that up until then was most widespread and used for communicating. Everyone to a large extent spoke that way because it was primarly through reading that they engaged with the culture. Newpapers and books offered this type of logical approach then and they still do today.
However today, we see how this new medium of television has drastically changed how we communicate because it has taken over as the primary means of communication. Most of us don’t talk in a similar way to the narrator from the 1951 commercial because television has replaced written forms as the most often used medium for communication. A shift towards the prioritization of imagery, music, emotions, and symbolism that unfortunately undermines the linear logic that used to be prevalent in a more literate society. I think we can see how our news has shifted in a similar way.
the mass production of sympathy and disappearance of empathy
I spent my last post criticizing how our political system is affecting our discussions on social reform and justice topics. But it wasn’t through the political sphere that I first engaged with the Freddie Gray story. The news got to me first. Within hours of the unfortunate incident, we were immediately presented with video and interviews from people on the ground. Journalists offering the first takes on what was unfolding.
One of the emotions that struck me initially as the events surrounding Freddie Gray’s death unfolded on the television screen was that of pity. A feeling of sorrow for the unfortunate and sad events surrounding him, his family, and others affected in similar confrontations with police. Maybe you had similar feelings. I had never met Freddie Gray or anyone in his family nor anyone who had experienced a similar situation. Yet I was saddened by the news.
The eye opening thing with revisiting my draft blog post four years later is, my sense of pity did not drive me to make any changes in my personal life. I didn’t seek out Freddie Gray’s family to offer support. That’s not to say I should have, because that probably would have come across as strange and unwelcome. I didn’t go into my local community with the intent of starting a conversation regarding police and minority relations. I’m not a cop or related to one nor am I a minority so this wasn’t really salient to me and in the busyness of live that opportunity never really presented itself. My pity drove me to nothing new other than dwelling on the sad situation that unfolded in Baltimore.
I’ve noticed for myself that pity on it’s own isn’t sufficient to drive change. It’s a passive emotion. It doesn’t help me to move towards anyone. Honestly, after a few weeks following this event, I had largely forgotten about it. Even when visiting the city a few years ago, I can’t recall this event popping into my memory. It took me rereading my post to remember.
Neil Postman in his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” said the following of how our news functions today:
“Since we live today in just such a neighborhood (now sometimes called a “global village”), you may get a sense of what is meant by context-free information by asking yourself the following question: How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve?”
I don’t share this quote to reduce the significance of a lost life. Quite the opposite. My point is what he mentions in the beginning. That what we now consider a neighborhood is what we could really call a “global village.” We used to only have the ability to interact with our immediate geographic community. When we would have heard of a death, it was almost always someone in our community and therefore we could in person provide support to those grieving. In that context pity can serve a role because there’s an opportunity for action.
Today though, news as tragic as what occurred in Baltimore is displayed before us on a nearly daily basis, and as a result it becomes normalized. Habits get created where the news of tragedy are routinely met with no response but maybe a short bout of outrage. We cannot help but trivialize and reduce the significance of the death when we get important news in the quantities that we are. This isn’t to say the Freddie Gray story isn’t important. It’s to say we are getting too many important stories like these with no substantial conversation happening to help us figure out what to do with all this information.
And by the next day our pity has been transferred to some other heartbreaking story. The latest shooting. The latest kidnapping. The latest murder. The news has no shortage of sad stories to share. Similar to the economics of politics, the news profit with viewership. And sadly, the tragic stories seem to sell.
A few years ago I had actually been pretty worn down with an excessive intake of the news and dwelling on the tragedies of the day. Something I’ve had to consciously try to take a step back from. My wife, Morgan shared this video with me a few years ago that she had seen in one of her classes at school. I found it quite helpful for me. It’s a short and beautiful illustrated video depicting the difference between empathy and sympathy. I would say that sympathy as described in the video is synonymous with my use of the term pity in this post.
I think television today is able to generate a lot of sympathetic responses from its viewers. The news is constructed in a manner that inundates us with context-free information and stories that will not cause us to alter or plans or come alongside those who are going through difficult times. Stories though that are very emotionally charged and the videos shared elicit responses similar to the Ford Mustang commercial.
Television turns these stories into entertainment and allows us to dwell in the mire and muck of the saddest of all tragedies that we often cannot enter into and engage with in person. Pity in this scenario only pulls us all down with no real opportunity to pull ourselves and the victims out of it. It moves us towards a state of sympathy not empathy.
The news is not structured in a way to serve us in figuring out how to think about these stories. It often does not present a logical argument for how to think about these topics and presents a hyper-emotional view on them. Even when the news tries to provide a logical argument, they are held to a 5-minute segment, which is nowhere near enough time to really get a substantial discussion going.
The news brings the miseries of the world into our living room but often makes us numb to them and provides no thorough discussion on the implications of these stories or how we are to respond. And in the process how often are we distracted with these national stories and we overlook the people in need of empathy living next door or possibly in our own household?
It’s not that the news is all bad and has no role in finding these solutions. The problem is that we have allowed them to become the primary mode through which we hear about these topics and then we let channels like Fox News or CNN construct the narrative we are supposed to believe about these topics. I just do not think the news can adequately prepare us to appropriately respond to or understand the implications of these tragedies. And when current technologies produce a more emotionally charged form of communication, it becomes much more difficult for us to have the patience to hear each other out.
So where should we go for good conversations on these topics? I will explore a couple principles I think are key to recreating this sense of community in my next post.
Well if you’re a Phillies fan, you’ve probably found the past few months pretty frustrating. It seemed like we were set up for a competitive season with off-season acquisitions and early season success, but the wheels have since fallen off and we sit in a position of hoping to land a wild card spot unless some unlikely and fortuitous changes occur. On top of that we may lose our beloved Phillie Phanatic. Not the outcome many of us Philadelphia sports fans had hoped for or envisioned for the season.
The trading deadline is in the rear-view mirror and some fans were left scratching their heads. Why didn’t the team make more significant moves to acquire greater talent with the hopes of making a bigger push into the playoffs? They could have sold some of their minor league prospects to acquire major league talent to try and win now. But they didn’t. Why not?
In some paradoxical way, these professional sports teams are competing for this season and for future seasons as well. There aren’t awards for major league teams who have continuous success over several seasons, except for the number of championships won. However, there could be an argument made for the value of the teams that win consistently over long stretches of time. Teams that aren’t just peaking for one championship season and then diminishing into the position of the lowliest of teams like the Miami Marlins, who are dreadful yet still seem to find a way to best our Phillies this year.
Mortgaging the future for one season is not always the wise decision even though this season is the one the fanbase is most preoccupied with. Somehow the Sixers got fans to look forward somewhat patiently for success years in advance. But most often, especially in Philadelphia, there is a push from the fans to win now. But the front office for the Phillies made the decision that going all in this season, even if it aligned with the wishes and desires of a fanbase to win as soon as possible, would likely compromise any opportunity in the near future to bring home the World Series Trophy. In a sense they are playing two different games at the same time. There’s a competition to win this year’s championship, as remote as those chances are, but also remain competitive in the long term.
We don’t just see this in sports though. In some way, this is an application of delayed gratification similar to the habits of saving, investing, working out, and eating healthy. We try to establish these habits, that require effort and often sacrifice in the short term to provide health, prosperity, and success in the long run.
It’s a principle that seems lost in how our politics work today especially on difficult topics like social justice. Our political system is currently constructed to offer and profit off of immediate gratification and is capable of trading away the long term health of the nation in an expedient effort to obtain something in the now. Essentially, playing for this season and mortgaging our country’s future in the process.
And the general public is adopting a similar temperament to those of the Philadelphia sports fanbase: that brotherly love and patience we are so beloved for. Hopefully we don’t all wind up throwing snowballs at Santa. Feels like we’re really close to that happening.
ProgressivE POLITICS and the narrative it proposes
Progressivism implies a particular perspective or narrative. The inclusion of the word “progress” in it’s name indicates a direction. Change. Fluidity. Flux. The opposite of staying put. It insinuates that where we currently stand is insufficient and that we need to move towards a new place – arguably a better place.
This idea in and of itself is not a bad one, right? There are plenty of issues we can identify around us. No shortage of problems to be solved. Why wouldn’t a progressive mindset be a good, even necessary one? We should try to change to fix issues where possible. To be content with where we currently are would seemingly be to cast a vote in support of the very problems we are observing. and to be accepting of the way things are.
Progressivism, as a political and social platform however, is different. Although they are the side advocating for social justice and reform, I think they are undermining their ability to create the desired change in the process. While both the left and the right have a significant role in the political tension and mudslinging we all see and experience today, I believe it is progressive politics that have elevated the discord to another level.
Before you click away, please give me a chance to explain. I did not vote for Trump. I’m no alt-right white supremacist. I hope everyone reading this who knows me could attest to that. Yes, the right has been blocking all of this necessary social reform with great fervor and they have many problems of their own, that I may write about in the future. The bigger problem with our ability to have conversation on these specific topics of social reform, as I see it, is the resulting attitudes towards one another largely as a result of the progressive platform gaining prominence and I have data to support that conclusion.
Take a look at these statistics from the American National Election Studies (ANES) from 2018 on racial bias.
As you can see from the graph above the more liberal white people consider themselves, the more negatively they feel about white people. The more conservative, the more positively. Also, consider that the moderates also lean towards favoring their in-group. Yeah, yeah, yeah… people on the right are white supremacist, and people on the left see white people accurately as perpetuating the systemic sins they have committed… Let’s look a little deeper.
The real game changer is this next graph.
White liberals are the only group surveyed that views there own race less favorably than other races. Every other subgroup views their own race more preferably than other races. And it’s not a small difference. You could make the argument everyone else is racist… or I think you could draw a more likely to be accurate interpretation that there is something incredibly unnatural occurring within the left wing of our politics today, especially among white people. If you can do the math as well, you will see that there isn’t a drastic difference in how positively white conservatives and white liberals feel about out-group people, which I think is important to note.
Yes, both political parties have a role in the lack of productive conversation we are having today, and these stats don’t mean every white liberal hates white people, but I think these point to a stark trend. I think the progressive platform especially it’s white proponents, for all of it’s own self-proclaimed compassion, are sowing a lot of negative feelings towards others. And it’s these negative feelings that will make the platform unsustainable over the long run, and maybe in the very short term, undermining their own goals in the process.
So what is it specifically about progressive politics that creates these attitudes? The platform, which still emphasizes the need for change and flux within society to move to a better place, focuses on the preeminence of social reform to carry this out. It takes this idea that problems exist and says that through the political realm, almost all issues can be resolved or must be resolved. That change to society must come largely through legislation. That our laws dictate the ethics and direction of our nation, and that without these in place, we cannot make progress. We cannot take steps towards the ideal, towards the utopia we envision, in any other way.
As Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said in one of the recent Democratic Presidential Debates in response to Maryland Representative John Delaney regarding his statements that her platform was “impossible” to implement:
“I don’t understand why someone would go through all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to tell us what we can’t do and what you won’t fight for.”
It was a quote that was largely applauded and celebrated. Several media outlets were praising Elizabeth Warren for standing up for what the party was for and this quote was considered a death blow to John Delaney and his more moderate stance on these issues.
Right now, especially within the Democratic Party presidential nomination race, there is a fight to show how willing you are to advocate for causes without needing to really address the plausibility or methods of pursuing such ends. The more kind and compassionate you sound towards the most lowly members of society, the higher you are in the status hierarchy. It sounds good. It sounds compassionate. It makes for good sound bites. And it is completely understandable why this would sound worthy of support to a lot of people. I probably would have aligned with some of these ideas myself about four years ago, if you read that snippet from my previous post. I bought into this mindset as well.
Progressive politicians advocate for change at the highest levels of government and in the most powerful institutions. That if we can just get the right people in place and the right policies, everything will fall into place. And it isn’t just in politics. I listened to two keynote speeches at colleges this spring advocating that the young adult graduates advocate for these social reforms to be brought about. With the time they were allotted before the young audience, the most important message the speakers wanted to convey was encouraging students to fight for these causes with expedience to make the world a better place. To take on these large systemic issues. Quite a lofty task to entrust to these young adults as they enter a new chapter of life.
The problem is not that these topics or policies are being raised or considered. We should discuss reparations. We should discuss gender equality and if there are barriers for certain minority types from being involved in society. There is merit to discussing these types of policies. The problem, in my opinion, occurs when this political platform serves as a meta-narrative of sorts because then the policies become elevated to ultimate importance to resolving the woes of society.
If the story of our nation can be boiled down to power struggles, how quickly power can be obtained, the institution of new policies at the highest level of government, and that policies are the key to the improvement of well-being and the ushering in of the utopia, who’s to say we shouldn’t rush the process as quickly as possible?
Right, why shouldn’t we fix everything now? That’s what they are promising to do if they are elected. Why shouldn’t we demand it? We see what’s wrong. The problems are self-evident (or so we say). Just throw some legislation at it and we can all go on our merry way. If the wealth of our nation could be more evenly distributed. If the top positions within companies were evenly split between all races, genders, sexual orientations, then we could achieve the equity of outcome that everyone deserves. That only through this approach can we finally right the wrongs of the past and get to that utopia we so desire.
And what about the local community. The family unit. The individual. These smaller and seemingly less powerful entities are of little to no consequence in light of the most powerful institutions. They have no role or responsibility in progressive policies. The individual is reduced to their identity. Gender, sexual orientation, race, age, etc. and are merely a statistic. You are a byproduct of everything that’s been handed you, both the good and bad. Some are privileged and some are oppressed. The individual, the family, the neighborhood are just along for the ride with the social tides and at the mercy of whoever happens to be at the helm of the most powerful institutions in society. Better hope the right person is in charge or your group is screwed.
At that point don’t the ends justify the means? At the end of the day it’s about “progress.” We know what the utopia should look like (or at least we tell ourselves we do). We can create policies to get there, and there’s no reason to wait. These ideas are laced within political discourse. It’s why we have lost patience with the other side. They are standing in the way of progress. (Cue the anger and resentment.)
Yes, there are problems in our society. Yes, some can be fixed with laws. But do we really want to buy into the narrative progressivism provides though? Do we want to put all our eggs in the basket of legislation oscillating in the 4-year tide of presidential elections for solving our problems?
By believing these problems, which progressives usually consider to be significant, can be resolved within any one- or two-term presidency is in an ironic way diminishing the breadth and depth of these very problems. Politicians are playing checkers when we should be playing chess. They have different goals than society at large and have to craft their platforms to appeal to the most voters and motivate them to get out and vote, or as Hillary Clinton would say, Pokemon Go to the polls.
And most politicians seem willing, like an unwise professional sports team, to mortgage the future for the sake of votes now. They are willing to let the sentiment of the nation and our ability to have discussions and community across party lines get destroyed to capitalize on the next election. This isn’t an issue with one party. It’s a real problem with politics, and becomes much bigger when we let politics host all the conversations we are having and become the governing meta-narrative of our society.
One of the unanticipated benefits of keeping a blog I have discovered is having the ability to revisit some of the ideas you held in the past. Similar to how a familiar song can help you instantly recall memories of your past, rereading what you wrote can remind you of what you used to be concerned with and how you previously thought about certain topics. A little blast from the past in a way.
For every post that I have published there has typically been at least one other left in draft form and unpublished. Sometimes these drafts weren’t posted because the ideas weren’t fully formed. Sometimes I wasn’t comfortable with the language I was using and was a bit afraid to share my thoughts. Sometimes I thought the post wound up being really boring and wasn’t worth sharing. Whatever the reason for not publishing these posts, they have been a joy to reread recently. Did I think and feel about these topics in the same way today? Would I have said things differently?
One old draft in particular caught my attention. This particular one was drafted shortly after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, which was a little over four years ago. You may remember that riots occurred in the aftermath of his death. Tensions flared because this unfolded during an especially volatile time nationwide with police and African American relations in the spotlight. I grew up not too far outside that city. I frequently visited the Inner Harbor with my family for Orioles games and with classmates to visit the aquarium. I have fond memories of the place so this story in particular caught my attention.
I figured I would share a snippet of that draft post I wrote at that time.
“The riots that have occurred. The fires. The stones thrown at cops. The stones thrown back at the rioters. All over a lost life. A young man very similar to several others who have experienced similar stories in these past months and years. The story is too familiar. It’s too repetitive to be a coincidence. There is a huge issue at hand. And both sides are aggressively making their cases that the other side is completely wrong, uncaring, barbarian, and deserves punishment. And if both sides keep pushing, fighting, and pointing fingers, I don’t see us moving anywhere anytime soon.
I’ll admit that I have been wrong. Growing up I thought that everyone had the freedoms to be able to take advantage of opportunities and turn things around for themselves but I’m realizing more and more that I was wrong. There is a clear inequality that exists between classes in this society that is contributing to the issues we’re seeing and it’s one that should be addressed.“
Some loaded words there… especially for me. I’m not usually one to use heightened language like that, but there it was. I never finished this post. I didn’t offer a solution by the time I finished writing. I didn’t have a suggested stance or disposition to recommend beyond realizing myself that issues were present and a feeling that something (whatever that something is I don’t know) should be done.
I’m not exactly sure where I intended to take the rest of the post at that time, if I had a resolution in mind, but the sentiment and feelings I had I think are evident in this passage: that not all of the tension and violence between law enforcement and members of the African American community should be attributable to individual responsibility on part of the African American community. My reasoning was a realization that there were significant class differences, perpetuated by longstanding issues of racial discrimination, rooted centuries in the past in slavery, and still propagating in segregation and discriminatory behaviors up until just a few generations ago. That systemic racism is a real thing. Even though I wouldn’t define myself in this way at the time, I was, as some would say, “woke.”
I never shared this at the time. The post was never finished so I’m not sure if it was because I was fearful to share these thoughts, or just that I hadn’t finished grappling with them. So why am I sharing this now? With the Democratic presidential debates underway, the topics of social justice, reparations for slavery, gender equality and equity are all hot button topics of discussion and the conversation can often get heated around these topics.
Questions arise… How much of people’s struggles are due to systemic issues out of their hands and how many are the result of personal choices? How much disparity between economic and social outcomes are attributable to race, gender, class, and what we would now consider the errors of our forefathers? Should we try, and if so how do we try, to mend and heal the wounds of the past? Is legislation the appropriate, or even a plausible approach for making amends?
I found this recent article by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times to be quite interesting and I think a politically balanced overview worth reading on the topic of reparations. Among the many interesting tidbits she shares, she notes that economist David H. Swinton estimated in 1983 that 40 to 60 percent of the disparity between white and black incomes are due to historic and ongoing discrimination. Additionally, she mentions that as the Civil War ended that General William T. Sherman made a promise to redistribute a large section of land along the Atlantic Coastline to black Americans recently freed from slavery that had the support of Lincoln. But that plan was later rescinded by President Andrew Johnson. And on top of that she made reference to the reparations we made after the Japanese internment camps ended and those made by Germany to the Jewish people as examples of reparations previously executed. One considerable difference I’ll note though, is that these reparations were made almost immediately after the cessation of the harmful acts. They were handled much more rapidly than the case being discussed in America today.
I only share that to say that there is credibility to the statement that the sins of the past have bearing on the present and that there is precedence for reparations in similar cases and we, as a nation, previously considered them shortly after the abolition of slavery. I am not prepared to give a vote to support or disparage either side of this particular debate. These are incredibly complicated issues and warrant a large investment of time, study, and conversations with others. A sufficient investment I don’t feel I have made yet to date.
But I do want to explore how we discuss these issues. I believe this question of how we converse is the bigger underlying issue to be addressed, and one that, if addressed, will help us navigate through these incredibly complex issues like social justice, equity, equality and reparations. Because let’s be honest, is there really a debate or discussion occurring on these topics currently?
In my next post I’m going to explore what I believe are the two biggest threats to having a productive conversation on these topics. And then I want to share in the following post a couple of overlooked and undervalued principles that I think are necessary to help us move in a more positive direction. These are incredibly sensitive topics and ones that I intend to handle delicately. I hope you’ll join me in this conversation over the next few posts as we explore these issues of social justice and reform. And hopefully some good conversation can result. That we can make an investment of time, thought, and conversation in trying to grapple with these incredibly important and difficult topics.
I feel like I was late to the party. It was just within the past year that I started watching Parks and Recreation on Netflix and it only took a few episodes to realize what I had been missing out on. I mean how can you not laugh at Ron Swanson’s over-the-top libertarian approach to running the Parks and Rec department, Chris Pratt’s role playing as FBI agent Burt Macklin, Amy Pohler’s incredibly fun personality fit for the role of Leslie Knope, the overly ambitious mid-level politician, or the undeserved incessant badgering of their fellow coworker Jerry (oh wait his name was Garry right?).
If you’ve ever watched Parks and Rec, you would know that one of the most recurring gags on the show are the murals displayed within the municipal building in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. At several points during the show Leslie Knope introduces one of the Murals of Pioneer Hall and explains the historical significance of the artwork. These murals addressed chapters of Pawnee’s past time, (in an overtly comedic manner) that ranged from a magician being burned at the stake in the 1970’s for pulling a rabbit out of a hat, to bare-knuckle fist fights between men and women, and the trial of Chief Wamapo, who was punished for simply being “Indian,” which at that time was considered a crime in Pawnee.
The intention of including these murals in the show was to, in a lighthearted manner, show just how outrageous people were in the fictional town’s past and they did a good job of it. At times, Leslie Knope would make references to the removal or covering of these murals to prevent any offense towards the citizens in Pawnee.
However, you will notice that Leslie had subtle elements of shame shrouded in the comedic overtones of these particular moments of the show. In a way, as a resident of Pawnee, she felt connected to, almost involved in, the actions depicted in these murals.
These mural scenes rarely lasted more than fifteen to thirty seconds in length each time, yet in a strange way, these scenes had a way of leaving an impression. At least they did on me. And they have been almost prophetic about what our nation would be confronting with great frequency not even a decade later.
Ironically, it seems that a high school in San Francisco is situated in a strikingly similar, yet I would argue, starkly different position. At George Washington High School, the school board recently approved the decision that 13 murals that constitute a cumulative work of art entitled “The Life of George Washington” are being removed from the school at a cost of at least $600,000. These murals, which highlight George Washington’s slave ownership and treatment of Native Americans, among other aspects of his life, have been deemed offensive by some in the community and there has been a push by some in the community to have them removed. Their pushing and prodding has evidently been successful.
Unlike the murals in Pawnee, these murals were not representative of a fictional town in Indiana, but of actual events that did occur in our nation’s history. And these murals were not meant as a joke like the one’s in Parks and Rec. These murals were painted in a not-so-lighthearted manner and represent what some of us would now consider uglier times in our history.
Now before we get too far ahead of ourselves I want to clarify a couple things. Most of us have not and will not ever set foot in George Washington High School. I couldn’t care less how much money it will cost them to remove these murals. If I lived in that school district maybe I would. My life will go on essentially completely unchanged with their decision to remove them. The reality is, this high school in San Francisco really has no bearing on most, if not all of my reader’s lives.
That being said, the removal of these murals is consistent with a pattern of similar conversations and decisions currently occurring across the nation regarding the preservation/removal of statues and other historical artwork in public spaces that represent, and some would argue, endorse some of the darkest parts of our nation’s history.
It is this second point, the pattern that we are observing that I wish to discuss. How should have these discussions. My hope is to have it not with anger. Not with frustration. But with consideration of what all is at play and at stake with these decisions. I want to try to answer what role should art and history should play in our culture.
The role of art
Jonathan Pageau, an icon carver from Canada, has a YouTube channel entitled The Symbolic World. I find his videos quite interesting as he discusses the symbology of movies, culture, and stories. He recently did an interview for a documentary on the purpose of art, which I have linked below (the first 15-20 minutes give the gist of his ideas).
A simplistic explanation of his view on art in this interview is that the term “art” was initially meant to mean the skill with which someone carried out their craft to serve a given purpose. Today the word “art” is largely meant to refer to the thing that was actually crafted. This difference may seem trivial, but in fact this point can be quite significant the more you think about it.
Jonathan and the interviewer discuss how the art of pizza-making, done by a pizzaiolo, is not so much based on how creative the pizza looks. When we buy a pizza, we don’t need them to reinvent the pizza. The artistry is how skillful the pizzaiolo is at making a pizza that serves it’s intended purpose, which is to be aesthetically pleasing but ultimately delicious and nutritious. A pizza that looks good but tastes like garbage is not art by Jonathan’s definition.
Likewise, Jonathan discusses how the famous painting “The Last Supper” by Leonardo Da Vinci would be a work of art. While the painting might not seem historically accurate because it would be strange for all the disciples and Jesus to all sit on one side of the table, the painting was skillfully crafted to serve a particular purpose. When the painting is hanging on the wall of a dining room, anyone sitting at their own table, eating their own meal, would be able to reflect on this painting and in a way feel like they were a part of the Last Supper. It is for that purpose that the painting was crafted.
With that in mind, let’s revisit these murals at George Washington High School. These murals were initially painted in the mid 1930’s by Victor Arnautoff, an artist who worked under the New Deal Works Progress Administration. By the way people are offended by these murals, you would think he was serving as some advocate for the actions of George Washington. You would think that the purpose he intended for these murals must have been to applaud our first president and endorse slavery and the killing of Native Americans. The reality may surprise you.
Victor Arnautoff was a communist who happened to be quite critical of George Washington. He used his skill of painting for the purpose of creating murals that would encourage critical analysis of the life of George Washington. One can argue how accurately he crafted this argument as I’ll discuss later. But contrary to many of the detractors of this work of art, its whole existence was intended to provide a critical lens through which we view George Washington’s life and the actions of his contemporaries. So basically, those who wish for these murals to be removed are advocating the destruction of a work of art that was intended to critique the very same issues they are critiquing…. Right… This sounds like exactly the type of mural that they would want preserved. Anyway…
I liken the skill of art to a process of distillation. A reduction of the raw materials to something more dense and potent. The pizza maker distills his years of experience into crafting his best pizzas. Leonardo Da Vinci distilled both his painting skillset and his understanding of the gospel story to craft a beautiful and impactful painting purposed for connecting people with the story of the Last Supper . Similarly, Victor Arnautoff distilled his painting skillset and understanding of George Washington’s life into a painting meant to persuade it’s viewers to give a critical assessment of his life when so many held exclusively wholesome and idyllic views of our first president.
When we view works of art and interpret them in a manner consistent with their intended purpose, there is a much greater depth to which we can engage with them. The skill of art distills down even the most complex narratives into something like a mural that can serve as a potent reminder of what the artist wants us to remember or learn.
the role of history
I loathed history class growing up. I mean it absolutely bored me out of my mind. Morgan would attest that I don’t have the best memory, and with how history class was structured at my school – and I think most schools for that matter – I struggled mightily to memorize dates, names, and places. I was so bad at regurgitating those flashcard facts on the exams. The primary lesson I learned after all those years at school was simple. People in our past were really bad people, but fortunately we’re so much better now and we keep making progress.
Maybe you would agree with that idea. Or maybe you wouldn’t. It wasn’t a hypothesis that I consciously constructed. It was a viewpoint formed naturally over time from the stories in history that I had been told. Stories of wars, disease, slavery, prejudice, genocide, oppression, you name it. People were so dumb in the past. Good thing we’re so much smarter and nicer than they were.
I don’t recall learning about too many historical figures with overtly positive attributes associated to them. There really weren’t too many positive stories in the past at all that I could remember. If anything there were historical figures, like George Washington, which I knew of but was indifferent towards.
But if we really are so much better off today than where we were in the past, how do we explain how possibly the most horrific chapter of human existence occurred just over 70 years ago during World War II? There are people still alive today that lived through the Holocaust. How do we explain the increased prevalence of mass casualty shootings today? How do we explain the substantial divisions within the populace, increased suicide rates, increased mental health issues, the downfall in the success of marriages, just to name a few issues.
Are we really better off than our ancestors? Maybe financially. There’s definitely less scarcity in the world than there ever was throughout human history. That definitely makes it easier to be nicer to each other (although I think even that’s debatable).
Is there absolutely nothing we can learn from history except what not to do? Is there nothing redeemable about our ancestors or their cultures?
The 2016 presidential election peaked my interest in history because I was curious how we got to where we currently stand. It was a sufficiently ugly campaign to push me to seek out what lessons could be teased out from history. I’ve (very slowly) been reading biographies on past presidents and ironically I most recently finished “Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow. I cannot recommend the book enough.
If I were to revamp the primary lessons that I’ve learned about history, in just a few years of more intentional study, it would be in this way. I’ve found that by reflecting on history I can very quickly insert myself into the shoes of people in different times and situations and ask myself could I or would I do anything differently. I can gain insight into a different culture than my own, like a fish getting to go swim in the ocean after being cooped up in a fish tank it’s whole life (except there’s no risk of being eaten by a shark).
It’s worth noting that history, like art, can never be completely objective. Historical stories can be true, but with the inevitable selection and omittance of details, one can never fully grasp the entire story. Each biographer brings their own perspective and has to craft from an infinite number of facts and details a cohesive storyline for the life of the historical figure. I will never be able to see the inner thoughts of historical figures like George Washington. But I read excerpts from his letters, studied his actions, and learned about the current events occurring in his lifetime and began to understand who he was. Even in some of the darkest times of history, there are some absolutely beautiful stories and strong and good-natured people to learn from. Studying history has a role in my life, and I think it can and should still play a role in our culture.
So what do we make of these murals?
So how do these piece together. Murals, like the one at George Washington High School, are a distillation of the events of not just George Washington’s life but of our nation’s history. You could spend your whole life studying the reasons for and ramifications of these events and still not see it with complete clarity. Murals distill that information into a painting, placed in a public space, where we collectively can wrestle with the reasons for and ramifications of these events. Murals, like other publicly shared works of historical art, invite us to engage with history together as a community.
But historical art without a thorough understanding of the history is problematic. The Last Supper painting by Leonardo Da Vinci means nothing to the viewer if they do not already possess an understanding of the story behind the painting. Likewise, one cannot really enjoy or assess how good a pizza is until they have tasted several pizzas to which they can compare.
Regarding Washington specifically, I would like to offer a few key insights that I’ve learned. Yes he owned slaves and often was a harsh slave owner. Yes, he was involved in military conflict with Native Americans. These aspects of his life are in fact true and well documented. However, there are other sides of the stories to be considered as well.
George Washington lived in a tougher economical time, where lifespans were shorter and survival was much more difficult. In many of his letters, you got the sense that he thought he was doing his slaves a service by giving them work, a place to live, and food to eat. It’s worth mentioning that George Washington’s estate was always struggling financially, especially since he refused pay for most of the service he gave to our country. He also adopted many children from his friends and family after they died and financially supported them. Additionally agriculture was incredibly labor intensive (they were just on the cusp of introducing crop rotations and new technologies), hence the economical reasons for maintaining the institution of slavery. This is not meant to endorse slavery, but to demonstrate why it was difficult to overcome the momentum it had within the culture.
He actually allowed his slaves to marry slaves from other plantations and relocate so that he would not separate their families. This was something that was not common among most slave owners. One of his closest companions throughout his life was Billy Lee, a slave, who rode by his side throughout the Revolutionary War. And by the end of his life, with the constant attempts of persuasion from his friend Marquis de Lafeyette, he overcame the inertia of the cultural norm slavery was by rewriting his will to free the slaves he owned upon his death. Marquis de Lafeyette is a man I found quite admirable in my study of George Washington, and one I hope to study more at some time.
And regarding Native Americans, the interactions between colonists and the many tribes are way too complex for me to get into. I simply don’t know enough to really weight in on it. All I can say is that no side was completely in the right or wrong, and many horrific acts were performed by both sides over many many years. I sound a lot like Donald Trump there, but I do think this is true in this case.
Was Washington all bad or good? No. But he is a man worth studying, and we shouldn’t be so quick to praise or demonize him. Ever wonder what he thought about artists painting portraits or crafting statues of him? He actually requested that he not be drawn or sculpted larger than his actual stature in real life. I think that’s a pretty humble stance for a man who would be head of the executive branch for our nation in its infancy.
If you read articles on the removal of these murals, you will read quotes from students saying they were never taught the significance of these murals. They will say that the only interaction they have with them is that other students will suggest “meeting under the dead Indian.” It’s this hollow interaction with historical art that keeps us from contending with these essential questions in our culture. This mural was meant to serve as a catalyst for discussion and instead is serving as an incitement to anger over past sins.
We definitely should discuss whether all statues and murals should remain up? That’s not a bad question to ask. Honestly I still struggle to see the value in statues because they fail to depict any story and only seem to glorify the individual. Maybe that’s too shallow of a view on them. But not all of these murals and statues need to remain. The question is what purpose are they meant to serve, and can they continue to function in that manner if we approach them in the correct manner.
The problem occurs when we don’t give history its due respect and we interpret art in a manner in which it was never intended to be used. It doesn’t matter to me if they take the murals down or not. My question would be what would they proposed to replace it with? And if we are going to so heavily scrutinize the errors of our ancestors, can we step outside our own fish tank to see our own culture with enough clarity to identify where we may be off base.
There’s no way to whitewash or erase history. We can forget history, but it still doesn’t change the fact that it occurred. Art and a study of history can help us engage in these difficult conversations. We need to be careful about how quick we decide to remove these works of art from our public arena. Maybe we just need to rediscover their purpose or learn a little more about the stories behind them. Then we may discover new vistas of appreciation for what we have, how we got here, and where we really should be going.