Monday, January 15, 2018

It's Time To Talk About The Purpose Of Sex

The more I see all the headlines stamped on our news feeds about #metoo moments, the more I am
convinced we as a society have lost sight of the purpose of sex. It's a generally true observation that if we don’t know what something is for, odds are pretty good we will use it in ways we shouldn’t.

Sex is not exempt from this reality. And considering how the scandals range from the church to Hollywood to Washington to schools, it’s clearly a struggle that permeates every aspect of our society.

So, sex and purpose. What could possible go wrong in this discussion? 

I don’t expect everyone reading this to agree with me, but I do ask that you give serious consideration to these thoughts – and then, if you wish to offer serious thoughts in agreement or opposition, feel free!

Monday, January 8, 2018

Empires, Shires, And Incense To Ceasar

I have been reading The Benedict Option, a book by Rod Dreher that generated quite a bit of discussion after it was released just over a year ago. I'm trying to think clearly about the argument he is making, which is basically that "the culture war as we know it is over," and the church needs to focus on building strong communities that learn from and build on Benedict's monastic model.  

My goal here is not to support or critique his argument since I've not yet finished the book (or read a rebuttal). However, as I have been reading his chapter on Christians and Politics, and I have had a lot of thoughts bouncing around in my head.

So, if you are up for (perhaps) being unsettled, here are some excerpts from this chapter that will hopefully bounce thoughts around in your head as well - thoughts which I would love to hear either in the comment section on this post or on social media. I seem to remember reading that there is much wisdom to be found in a multitude of counselors...

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Consent Is Not Enough

Our culture needs to spend more time on two important questions that are increasingly being asked in the wake of the sex scandals rocking Hollywood and Washington, D.C.

First, is consent sufficient to grant moral goodness to any sexual act? After all, we don't simply assume that consent equates with morality or goodness other situations. Two people can agree to kill or cannibalize each other. The fact that they consented hardly makes it a good thing. One can certainly make a morally neutral act bad by coercion, but one can’t make a morally bad act acceptable simply by agreeing to have it done or by giving permission to do it. In terms of sexual activity, the goodness of an act can never include anything less than consent, but it must include more. Consent is necessary, but not sufficient.

Second, when is the one granting consent not actually granting consent? Think of the issue of minors engaging in sex with adults. If a minor is below the age of consent, the idea is that they are not even capable of consenting in any meaningful sense of the word, because they are not mature or rational enough to truly understand what they agreeing to do. That principle can be broadened:
  • What if someone who was abused has had his or her perspective on sex so badly damaged that consent is not a reflection of an affirmative desire at all, but of broken resignation?
  • I have read several articles (such as this one) and sobering books that take an in-depth look at the hook-up culture, especially how it exists on college campuses. If a woman gets drunk so that she can get over her natural inhibition or even dislike of what will eventually happen with someone she meets at a bar, is her consent really consent? She doesn’t really want to, but it’s how she believes the game must be played, so she numbs herself in order to say “yes.”
  • If two adults consent to actions that are degrading, perhaps even dehumanizing, and which will be formative in them and those who watch (if it is porn), is mere consent sufficient to give it our stamp of approval? 
  • What if two adults are in a relationship and one says, "Well, if you won't have sex with me (or if you won't have more sex), this relationship is over." If the partner fulfills the other one's wishes, is that truly consensual sex?

We must gain moral clarity on this. These questions matter not just for the individuals involved, but for the cultural mood that is created based on how we respond. Rather than give a prolonged essay on my view, I am offering a collection of excerpts from articles addressing this issue.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

My Impossibly Optimistic Wish List For 2018

I loved so many things about my immediate surroundings in 2017: my family, friends, church, jobs, - and hey, no heart attack this year! - so in that sense I'm good with 2018 looking a lot like 2017, except the Buckeyes make it into the college football playoffs. However, I do have an Impossibly Optimistic Wish List For 2018 that involves the media, the President, political factions, we the people, and myself. Here they are, in no particular order.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The War (?) On Christmas

It's the time of year when we hear a lot about Jesus, Santa, holiday cheer, peace on earth, yuletide celebrations, free shipping for a limited time, and....war. War?

The sense that there is a war on Christmas is nothing new in the United States. The Puritans outlawed it for a time; Henry Ford was convinced a Jewish plot was overturning the Christian celebration; the John Birch Society thought the U.N. was the villain; current groups keep track of department stores that celebrate - or don't. The President himself has made the return of Christmas to the White House a significant issue in his campaign and his presidency.

Is there really a war? Should people be worried about Christmas being banned or otherwise taking a pummeling across culture? And what's a Christian to do in the midst of all this controversy? In this episode, I offer some (hopefully) helpful thoughts about the origins of Christmas, the history of the church's observance (or lack of it), the current state of the cultural clash, and some recommendations for Christians about how to honor what Christians believe to be the reason for season.

As always, I value interaction with you! You can listen to the Etcetera podcast on Soundcloud or on various apps (such as Podcast Addict or Stitcher Radio). Then, feel free to comment on this blog, the Etcetera blog, or on our Facebook page. Meanwhile, here are some recommended links that may be helpful in thinking carefully about this topic.

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.”