Monday, December 11, 2017

What Does It Mean To Be A Science Denier?

I've been hearing the phrase "science denier" tossed around quite a bit lately. Frankly, it's usually a rhetorical bludgeoning tool to dismiss someone who disagree with someone else about how to properly use the scientific method or how to rightly understand information and conclusions. It's almost never actually about someone "denying science" - unless they are postmoderns. 
In all these cases, it doesn't mean that both sides are right because they don't agree. I'm also not making the claim that both sides are using the scientific method with equal vigor. I am just noting that almost no one denies that the scientific method is good for studying the natural world. There are remarkably few actual "science deniers" in the scenarios I just mentioned. A better term might be "science challengers" or "establishment skeptics," since a scientific argument is occurring between two sides who at least claim to value science but strongly disagree about the robustness in which the method is being employed.

My point here is limited: "science denier" is almost always an inaccurate term, and I see it everywhere. It annoys me. It's a conversation stopper meant to poison the well in any discussion. In a world where real news is called fake news and words seem to increasingly lose their meaning, even small victories count.

* * * * *

(1) I think there is an argument to made that all statements about origins are unavoidably theological statements in that they will make a claim about the necessity or possibility of God in the process. Some start with or without God and then make claims about science; some start with science and then make claims about the existence and/or nature of God - or lack of it. Either way, the two topics become tightly intertwined. Let's not kid ourselves: both sides are trying to tell a story of everything that enables us to hold a belief (or non-belief) about God that meshes with what the scientific method reveals.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Moving Into The Neighborhood

When Christianity first started, the followers of Jesus lived in a world full of people in situations that were really at odds with Christ and his teaching.  What were they to do now that they were spiritually Christian while almost everybody around them was a culturally very Roman?
The early followers of Christ often took an approach to spreading the Good News of the gospel that was not only counter-cultural to the Roman and Greek way of life, but was countercultural to how the church today often handles the uneasy tension between the church and society. The early church wanted to reach their cities – they cared about them, after all -  but they lived in places where they were surrounded by a lot of really bad stuff. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Punisher

“All the things that I done, memories, they never hurt me. But the past, it's more than memories. It's the devil you sold your soul to. He's comin'. He's comin' to collect." —Frank Castle, The Punisher

Netflix’s The Punisher is one of the most violent TV shows I have seen. You can read review about the plot and the quality of the show elsewhere. I want to jump right in to a discussion that's been swirling around this show: the level of violence.

Plenty of reviews have suggested that the timing is bad considering the recent mass murders from which the United States is recovering. That's a valid question, but I think they are wrong -and I think this show might be more timely than ever precisely because it unveils the terrible nature of violence.

The Punisher features broken, hardened, nearly soulless men who have trafficked in the way of the gun. None of them are meant to garner our admiration. Even Frank, the punishing protagonist(?), leaves us scrambling if we want to justify who he has become and what he has done.

He has clearly separated people into two categories: ends and means (to use Kantian terms). Those he views as ends, valuable in and of themselves, he would give his life to save. That’s the part of Frank we really like – and why we want him on our side. I mean, the dude gets things done.

But then there's everyone else. Daredevil asked him once, “You never think for one second, "S***, I just killed a human being"? The Punisher responds, "That's being pretty generous." The people he kills aren’t people to him anymore. They are things, and they will likely give their life for him. There is a terribly uncomfortable episode where he tortures a man he is convinced is a criminal. The man is not. Frank does not seem to care once he finds this out. He does what he thinks needs to be done, and if he needs to treat you as a mere chemicals in a meat bag, he will.

That mindset is part of what tragically formed him into The Punisher and informs what he does now. Vanity Fair refers to Frank’s “compartmentalized view of the world”:
“It’s all right to kill bad people as long as you know that they’re bad. What the series neglects to examine, of course, is the fact that the Punisher is just as wicked as the villains he targets. Though he’s the victim of a corrupt system, he’s not working to take down that system, or even repair it; instead, he’s taking advantage of disorganization in order to wage a personal war on any individuals who threaten him.” 
The series might neglect to examine it, but maybe that's our job. Maybe the series need do no more than bring it into the light so we can see if for what it is. This is the nagging issue behind most of the superhero stories. They are vigilantes who share a common worldview in which they can do what they believe is justified outside the purview of the law. There is an interesting snippet of conversation from the Daredevil series that uncomfortably connects the dots in the MCU:

"You think, uh you think he's crazy?"
"Uh, the Punisher? No. I think he was inevitable."
"Inevitable? How so?"
"Maybe... maybe we created him. All of us. The moment that we let Daredevil, or the Devil of Hell's Kitchen, or whatever it is-"
"There's... there's no connection."
"Well, actually, I think it's a pretty straight line, Matt. Daredevil practiced vigilante justice in our backyard and we applauded him for it. I know that I did. And we never stopped to think that maybe... his actions could open the door for men like this. Men with guns. Men who think that the law belongs to them."

Frank is appalled when a terrorist claims that he and Frank are no different (“We both believe the system will fail to do what needs to be done, and we take matters into our own hands,” or something like that). They are different because the bomber targeted innocent people, right? But wait…Frank tortured an innocent guy just a couple episodes earlier because that guy’s life was just a means to Frank’s ends. Frank’s violence isn’t random, but that’s little comfort to those unjustly hurt by him. He is no terrorist to the general population, but there is very good reason for everyone to be a little nervous. A scene in Daredevil gave us a disturbing window into his way of thinking:
“"You know those, uh... those people? The ones I put down, the people I killed? I want you to know that I'd do it all again. This is a circus, all right? It's a charade, it's an act. It's bull**** about how crazy I am. I ain't crazy! I'm not crazy. Okay? I know what I did. I know who I am. And I do not need your help. I'm smack-dab in the middle of my right god**** mind, and any scumbag, any... any lowlife, any maggot piece of s*** that I put down, I did it... because I liked it! Hell, I loved it! I'm sitting here, I'm... I'm just itching. I'm itching to do it again. And you think... What, you think you're gonna send me to a nuthouse? Some doctor, they're gonna get me to stop from doing what I want to do? Well, that ain't happening! Not on my watch! You people, you call me the Punisher, ain't that right? The big bad Punisher. Well, here I am! You want it, you got it! I am the Punisher! I'm right here! You want it, I'll give it to you. And anybody who came here today to hear me whine, to hear me beg? Well, you can kiss my ass!"
I’ve seen a number of reviews saying this a bad time for a show with this level of violence. I don’t know. Perhaps what is portrayed could look appealing to someone whose heart has already been deeply calloused, but the average viewer will not see a glittering and appealing world of excitement and intrigue. They will see torture, blood, horrifying inhumanity, and a cycle of violence that escalates around and within those who engage in it. As a review at Variety noted: 
“But above all what “The Punisher” is cynical about is the use of force: This is a series where a man who was asked to senselessly kill by his government goes rogue and ends up hunting down members of that same government — because they made him kill people. The show is wary of guns, wary of blind patriotism, wary of unquestioned service; it sides only and always with veterans. (The affection that military veterans have for the character of the Punisher is a long-documented one. The character was originally a veteran of the Vietnam War when introduced in 1974; in the Netflix series, he’s a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.) Bernthal’s Frank Castle seems to have wrapped himself in these forces because he doesn’t trust anyone else to have the power to wield them — and at the same time, because he is so broken by his own tragedy, he is a protagonist who commits violence while understanding how that violence creates trauma. It makes for a charged, destabilizing dynamic…” 
The end of the show hints at a turn toward peace if Frank is willing to enter into a community of the broken and healing. I doubt it will last. The Punisher does not mete out his savage punishment from a place of health. The hell inside become the hell outside. Hurt people hurt people, isn’t that how the saying goes? And if they don’t get fixed, broken people will break people. And if you give them a gun, they will do so quite efficiently.

I’ve long advocated for honest violence: if you are going to show it, don’t make it cool. Make it real. If you do it right, we will know that violence is the last thing for which we should hope. Show us the toll it takes on everyone involved.  If viewed as more than mere entertainment, The Punisher forces us to face these things:
“The Punisher forces us to philosophically question our own personal relationships with power, abuse, sadism, and terror. The series, drenched in shadows and hazy grays, explores what happens when vigilantism goes unchecked. Fans who have been following Castle’s story from the second season of Daredevil know that he’s killing because his family was killed; The Punisher, through its excessive violence, wants to test whether there’s a limit. It wants to ponder what could happen if everyone who’s ever been wronged started acting like Castle.” 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Problem With Power

While the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal has highlighted the terrible problem of sexual
harassment and assault, it's also shone a spotlight on a broader topic: the misuse of power. In Part One of a short podcast series on this topic (see link below), Beth Milligan and I look at the recent sexual allegations in light of the broader dynamics of how power is given, gained, used and misused in American culture.
  • How is our culture fueling this? One can firmly believe in personal accountability while also recognizing the powerful influence of the environment in which we are raised. 
  • In what ways does this misuse of power, particularly in male/female interactions, manifest in more ordinary moments before it crosses the line and garners headlines? The Harvey Weinstein's of the world were not created in a moment; what does the process look like that enables or even encourages those in power to harass and assault?
  • Finally, what can be done about it? Where do we go from here? What kind of dynamics must we address in homes, schools, and social institutions?
The ubiquitous presence of the #metoo has made more clear than ever that we must make a concerted effort to learn what honor, respect, and dignity mean in a world that seems to have forgotten these things far too often. We will be dedicating more than one episode to this, so this is only the beginning of a conversation we hope can be instrumental in challenging the status quo and offering a hopeful solution.

You can find the podcast on Soundcloud here, and you can visit our Facebook page as well where we continue a discussion and occasionally post additional links to related stories. We welcome feedback on this website and on our Facebook page! Our intent is addressing these topics is not to suggest we have finished the discussion; our goal is to pursue truth, and that is best done in community - which in this case includes you!


Tinder And The Dawn Of The Dating Apocalypse
When Men Become Monsters
Why The Harvey Weinstein Allegations Could Change Our Culture
How Vulgarity Normalizes Predators
A Culture For Predators
The Minds Of Powerful Sexual Predators: How Power Corrupts
The Unsettling Truth Behind the #MeToo Movement
Why Power Corrupts
How Power Corrupts The Mind

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Is It Statistically Safer To Have An Abortion Rather Than Give Birth?

Planned Parenthood Black Community recently posted on Twitter: “If you are a black woman in America, it’s statistically safer to have an abortion than to carry a pregnancy to term or give birth #scarystats.“

According to commonly cited stats, all pregnant women are statistically safer having an abortion than giving birth, though the degree of safety falls on a sliding scale. The rate of maternal death in the United States is lowest for white women and highest for black women, with pregnant women of other races or ethnicities landing somewhere in the middle. 

I want to address this question: is it statistically safer for a pregnant woman in the United States to have an abortion than to carry a baby to term or give birth? 

It’s not statistically safer for the unborn baby, of course, who always dies in an abortion. One cannot address the broader moral issue of abortion without addressing the status of the unborn. But, for the sake of this post, I am only going to look at the initial claim involving the mothers. 

My interest in this is not to make an anti-abortion argument, though I am happy to do that and have done so elsewhere. My interest is in the facts swirling around a claim that has life-changing implications for pregnant women.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Foreigner

If you are a Jackie Chan fan - and maybe even if you are not - you will like The Foreigner. It's a compelling story in the tradition of Taken. A father has lost his daughter, and he will do anything to bring the perpetrators to justice. From the shocking act of terrorism at the beginning to the end the audience knows is coming, the film keeps us engaged and (generally speaking) rooting for the right people for the right reasons.

There are several interesting elements to the story that deserve some serious thought. Pierce Brosnan's character (Liam Hennessy) is a morally compromised man trying to do the right thing for morally ambiguous reasons. He would be a great case study for an ethics class. Several affairs show what happens to individuals and situations when sex, which is meant to be an expression of love, becomes a weapon. As much as I am interested in pursuing those thoughts more deeply at some point, I am currently more interested in something that stood out to me in relation to Jackie Chan's character, Quan Minh.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

When Men Become Monsters

In an ideal ecosystem, everything has a particular role to play; there is a balance that is hopefully not disrupted by something that breaks the natural flow and harmony. In a broken ecosystem, something invasive is introduced that will brings harm. (I'm talking to you, zebra mussel.)

The Harvey Weinstein scandal is calling attention to a lot of important issues, so I want to be sure we don't overlook this one: we have a sexually broken moral ecosystem in the United States. While both men and women are are impacted, women are bearing the brunt in overwhelming numbers as morally monstrous men increasingly exert their power to use and abuse. How did we get here? What are the causes? What can we do to address it?

* * * * *

First, we have to address the terrible social cost of pornography. Is there really any question that it fuels all kinds of terrible fallout for women and men? It fundamentally damaging how people view others. It’s ruining sex for millions of people; it’s leading to a rise in human trafficking; it’s creating a culture in which we begin to think of pornographic norms as if they were actual norms. Read up on how people who work with kids are noticing wildly changing norms for young girls who are being pressured to perform like porn stars by equally young boys who are being raised on porn. And if you are wondering if there are studies that confirm the link, the answer is yes. 

Yet in the midst of this damage we laud moral monsters like Hugh Hefner - well, not everyone did - who have done all they could to convince us that our current sexual ecosystem is the best of all possible worlds: Boys will be boys, and women will be bunnies. When men say ‘hop,’ women should be happy to do so naked on the grounds of a castle that puts Neverland's scandalous rumors to shame. It’s all so very normal and good and healthy.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Plague Of Porn

As much as I like to explore both sides of an issue, the two sides of this issue are remarkably lopsided. Pornography is a moral and social plague that brings devastation to those who make it and those who use it. Here's the argument I will make, and which my links will support:
  • It dehumanizes, objectifies, and eventually destroys the actors and actresses who make it.
  • It turns those who make and produce it into callous users if not predators.
  • It ruins romantic relationship emotionally, sexually and relationally. 
  • It ruins normal relationships as users get used to the commodification of people.
  • It fuels “acting out” as many (not all) users find that simply viewing an activity is not enough.
  • It fuels a culture that normalizes sexually abusive behavior (see the recent headlines about a daunting list of predatory males - then ask women around you if they have had those kinds of experiences with men in their lives)
Full disclosure: I gave ten years of my life to pornography. Fortunately, this was before I had easy access to the internet, so I was spared the easy escalation of clicking on the next link. I didn't need that to fall into an addiction. Had you asked me at the time, I would have said it was no big deal (except for the shame and depression that followed my inability to stop). It wasn't until I found freedom - which is a story for another time, and involved what I consider to be God's miraculous and crushing intervention in my life - that I realized how much it had been impacting my view of women and sex, as well as my overall judgment of what gave people value, worth and dignity.

I rant about this not because I sit astride some moral high horse; I'm pleading with you as one who was broken by this, and as one who did not realize until later that cost that all those around me would pay for all the time I spent training myself to view the world through pornified lenses. As I moved from addition to freedom, I spent a lot of time reading up on how porn impacts the brain, how it impacts relationships, and how it devastates those who make it. I also spent a lot of time refilling my mind with truth (more on that in the links at the end).

It is not a victimless crime. Someone always pays a price. Don't take my word for it; read the links. There's a lot of them, but there's probably not enough that can be said about the seriousness of this issue.