Month: January 2016

Mundus vult decipi

rabbitDoes the world prefer deception to truth? Does humanity, at its very core, want to be deceived?

I’m curious about the beginnings of street magic. And, before we get too far off track here, I’m not talking about how court magicians of long ago would practice their art as a way to invoke fear into a populace or gain favor with some pharaoh. I’m talking about simple slight-of-hand used on dirty street corners and massive lavish theatres, picking cards in a deck and sawing a lady in half.

If I was the cynical sort (I’m normally not), I’d mine the data and discover what you and I would have probably suspected all along: magic is an effective tool for removing a person from their money. The best magicians, therefore, have always been master manipulators staging spectacular shows in an attempt to convince the average person that, yes, it is worth $25 to have someone sell us a lie. A grand lie, but a lie nonetheless.

Just maybe, however, street magicians come from a long line of observers of human nature who intimately understand what makes people tick, and they know that a certain style of performance could cause a person to transcend the doldrums of their everyday existence with something out of the ordinary, even un-natural. When the participant experience delight in connection with this transcendence, he implicitly appreciates the value of deception. In this moment, the magician recognizes and takes advantage of truth as old as time: Mundus vult decipi. The world wants to be deceived.

Mundus vult decipi.

For those of you Christopher Nolan fans, you’ll recognize the undertones of this Latin phrase at the beginning and end of The Prestige (2006), when one of the central players explains the essence of magic. He says, “Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts. The first part is called The Pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary … but, of course, it probably isn’t. The second act is called The Turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now, you’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it. Because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet, because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part…the part we call The Prestige.”

Somehow the world has mastered the first two acts, the pledge and the turn, and completely forgot the part about the prestige. We have a world of deception, filled with dead goldfinches and empty (yet still grand) overtures.

And you know this to be true, at least in part. How many times does it take for us to hear this-or-that political candidate promise something bold, and how many times (if the politician holds to our particular brand of ideology) do we get excited that maybe, just maybe, this candidate will fix the country’s problems by actually fulfilling those promises? Then, like a codependent relationship, we return back to the party, justify the candidate’s failings, and get excited about the next man up all over again. We’re Rocky minus the glory: we get pummeled, leave the gym bloodied and confused, then return to the ring for more abuse the next day.

Such deceptions are tiered.

  • The half-truths. ‘He’s got a great personality.’
  • The not-the-whole-stories. Think of MSNBC or FOX News trying to describe an event before cutting to commercial.
  • The happy lies. The fairy tale ending. The nerdy guy gets the pretty girl. Santa Claus.
  • The peace-keeping lies. ‘Honey, do I look fat in this?’ (your answer)

It’s not just the political arena. We willingly believe the lie that girls are supposed to look like that, which has been culture’s scorched earth tactic against the average teenage girl. We willingly believe that our neighborhood is safe in order to protect our fragile sense of belonging there. We willingly believe that our enemies abroad are vile because such conviction will absolve us of the guilt when we bomb them. Some lies are truer than others.

I think there is some value to reformulating the translation above. It’s not quite right to declare the world as a place that wants to be deceived. I think a more accurate statement might be this:
In the absence of a compelling truth, the world will accept an attractive lie in its place.

In the absence of a compelling truth, the world will accept an attractive lie in its place.

If you’ve had any contact with academia in the last ten years, you’ll know that your textbooks and professors like to throw around the term, ‘postmodernism,’ as a way to explain what’s happening to the Western world from a philosophical point-of-view. Postmoderns, we’ve been told, reject the hard-core individualism that flourished in modernism. They reject absolute claims to truth, they do not assume progress is the bee’s knees, and prefer communities of interpretation. One of more influential insights came from a dude named Jean-François Lyotard, who effectively argued that postmoderns have come to reject the notion of a meta-narrative. In other words, we no longer order our lives by one, all-encompassing explanatory myth. This would include the Christian claim found in the Bible. Rather, Lyotard suggests that the particularity of people—the vast contextualities that make for unique human experiences—forces us to accept a less-than-grand alternative.

My guess is that Lyotard was trying to get modernism—even the all-encompassing narrative of science’s explanation of the world—to identify its deep biases. No particular part has the authority to fully understand the whole, if you will. This ‘incredulity of meta-narratives’ has led, intentionally or unintentionally, to a corpus of scholarship that attempts to break down theatrewhat I think is central to the life of the individual: the absolute need to be in a compelling narrative—even if it is a false, even if it is incomplete.

The cynicism of our age is borne, in part, on the broader hesitation to call something true. It’s infinitely easier to revert back to a default position that assumes every story, every narrative, every explanation is just an attempt to manipulate. Assuming everyone is a liar is less threatening than risking belief in a truth which will (in all probability) turn out to be a lie, too. Finding out what’s true is hard work, after all.

Where does that leave the Christian? Consider this a call to hopeful discernment. The world not only wants to be deceived, it often acts as an accomplice of the Deceiver, who attempts to sell us the final lie: Nothing is true. The Gospel of John reminds us that Jesus came from the Father, full of grace and truth (1:14). We might not ever know Truth as God knows Truth; sin has a way of screwing up our understanding of such lofty things. But we sure as heck can proclaim a risen Christ with confidence to a world so inundated with ‘magic’ that it no longer has an ability to recognize the exposed wonder of the cross and the empty tomb.

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© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Indecently Exposed

castelI distinctly remember the day I bought my first house in Austin, some fifteen years ago. The neighborhood was tidy and welcoming, even if the houses were a bit cookie-cutter by design. After a mere twenty minutes at the bank, I was handed the keys. Even though it was a Wednesday and work was calling, I drove immediately to my new place, opened the door and laid down right in the middle of the living room floor. I fell asleep right then and there. The castle was constructed and the king was home.

These days, home buying is a royal pain in the ass, especially in the Land of Unending Red Tape (a.k.a., California). I can handle the boatload of signatures; I suppose that comes with the territory. Forty-five minutes of signing my name isn’t going to kill me if it means that, in forty-six minutes, I can blow out that wall in the bedroom with a sledgehammer. The part that gets me is the complete takedown of my personal life. No stone is left unturned when that much money is at stake. At one point, it felt like the bank/lender/lawyer/whoever team was crowded around in a downtown office somewhere laughing at my financial picture: ‘Can you believe this guy gets paid (my salary) for doing what he does?!’ ‘And he calls this his portfolio!!!’

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For someone who values his privacy, the process felt like an invasion. Every purchase, every deposit, every sandwich purchased at Togo’s was subject to scrutiny and required my immediate justification. ‘Why did you get mayo on your hot #9 instead of mustard, Joel? Joel? Why the mayo?’ I almost expected to come home one day to find some Orwellian stiff rummaging through my iTunes list to see if any subversive tunes were present. Oh, and spoiler alert, you’ll find The Clash.

Perhaps this is just a complaint of an old-fashioned dude whose concern for his own privacy is gently going the way of the passenger pigeon. I even feel it in my own home at times, as my wife would like nothing more than to live in a 10-family commune; open doors, no fences, and everyone neck deep in everyone else’s business. Here I am trying to install barbed wire and she’s trying to start community barbecue Tuesdays at the Oesch kibbutz.

But it’s not a stretch to say that the boundary between public and private acts has fallen under severe disrepair. Everything is public. Or better yet, everything is exposed. Business executives are now eschewing email as a form of business conversation precisely because they know they are being watched…by the government, by their competitors, by some dude in his mom’s basement who goes by the online tag, Skeletor. A buddy of mine told me yesterday that, in his industry, all the office computers have black tape over their built-in cameras to prevent intentional or unintentional snooping. Wow. But not surprising. Google knows that I need athletic socks, Yahoo knows I need a better WR2, and Amazon knows I’m a theologian. The private world is on its…last…few…gasps. Might this drive toward the perpetual public life be a corrective to the over-the-top individualism of our post-Enlightenment world?

The younger among us, in particular, seem to embrace the takedown of the public-private barrier. All forms of social media feed this obsession; shoot, Facebook allows us to update our status. Our status. Is our status that important that we must feel the need to: 1) articulate it in print, and 2) make sure our friends know it on a timely basis? And believe me, every time I jump on Facebook, I’m reminded by the blank box on my home screen that my status does, in fact, need updating. Without a status, you might as well say that you have no emotionLOS ANGELES - 1979: A crowd of paparazzi struggle to take photos of arriving musical celebrity at the annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images), no thoughts, and/or no life. After all, a life worth living necessitates a life worth talking about in real-time to your imagined audience.

But the other shoe must fall.

TMZ behaviors give you TMZ results. Act in ways that spill your innermost thoughts out into the streets of the Internet, and you’ll find yourself exposed in ways that you certainly didn’t intend. The New Media has simply exacerbated the effect. We’ve been told that, for a celebrity, ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity.’ We’ve appropriated that for ourselves to mean: There’s no such thing as over-sharing.

If a young woman has no genuine community of love and accountability, then she is forced to compete for attention and respect with the whole of society—a society that takes but does not give. The girl is forced to shout over the din, ‘Pay attention to me! I’m worth your attention!’ What is her strategy at this point? How shall she merit the attention she desperately craves? Let’s see what philosopher Miley Cyrus does (WWMCD?):

  1. Expose yourself emotionally. But frame this exposure as self-expression.
  2. Expose yourself physically. But frame this exposure as a challenge to repressive societal norms.
  3. And call it all a courageous fight against ‘The Man. To which The Man simply laughs.

We expose ourselves because we don’t know how to grapple with an inherent tension that we all feel: We want to be pursued and known. Yet, we don’t want to be revealed. Wendell Berry kills it when he says that we have “a rightful fear of being misunderstood or too simply understood, or of having our profoundest experience misvalued. This, surely, is one of the reasons for Christ’s insistence on the privacy of prayer. It is a part of our deepest and most precious integrity that we should speak (if we wish) for ourselves. We do not want self-appointed spokesmen for our souls. Sex and worship especially are inward to us, and they are especially fragile as possessions. Their nature is to be shared, and yet it is dangerous to speak of them carelessly. To speak of them carelessly is to violate yet another nucleus that ought to be sacrosanct” [1].

“We’ve been told that, for a celebrity, ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity.’ We’ve appropriated that for ourselves to mean: There’s no such thing as over-sharing.”

Yet this is the slow pull of a TMZ culture; do everything to make sure your life consists of shallow (not necessarily lacking in value) connectivity without committing yourself to an accountable community. Culture is, I believe, trying to re-wire our sense of virtue. Behaviors that past generations shunned have become cloaked in virtue language.

  1. ‘Being honest’ necessitates stream-of-consciousness tweets, texts, updates, and snapchats.
  2. ‘Guarding your heart’ implies that you expose yourself only to the views of those you already agree with.
  3. ‘Exercising freedom’ means having the right to cut down, tear open, and dis-cover anybody and everybody.

A fish can’t hide in a pond a mile wide and 10-inches deep. The fish will always be exposed.

Yes, there is a balance to be had. I continue to press home the need for embodied community, even if that makes us introverts nervous. But privacy is a prerequisite for friendship. Courage becomes, in this sense, an act of consummate self-control—the type of control that protects that which is precious. The ability NOT to show the world the goods, knowing that, in private one-on-one friendship and intimacy, those goods are precisely good because they are rare (in fact, absolutely unique). Diamonds wouldn’t be expensive if everyone could find them on their lawn and pick them up like weeds.

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[1] Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2001), 80.

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Thank you for smoking!

smolderThe world needs more smokers. Both kinds. Smokers-smokers and meat-smokers.

More clearly put: Smokers somehow embody the essence of what it means to be in community, and the world needs more of that.

If your home state is anything like California, it is trying to eradicate smoking from every corner of society—such a practice  is on equal moral footing with clubbing baby seals or using k-cups. Don’t pollute our air, don’t pollute your lungs, don’t leave your butts on the ground! Which, I suppose, is ironic when you consider the thick haze of smog that Southern Californians inhale every summer day. How dare someone enjoy their poison.

Having this sanctimonious outlook for much of my younger years, I have now come to the conclusion that the non-smoking Joel of 20 years ago was a complete idiot. I have repented of my blind naivete, and now smoke cigars on occasion like the heathen I am.

Smoking kills. Smoking causes this or that. I get it. But here’s the other side of the coin:

  • Smoking brings people together – often the same people – for 20-40 minutes of conversation every day. These conversations ramble on about life and politics and sports and marriage and joy and frustration and something and nothing. Does anything work as well as a cigar to bring two or more people into a discussion about life?
  • Smokers don’t give a crap who you are…if you want to join in, you’re welcome. It’s a community of sharing (do you have a light?), inclusion and good-natured ribbing. In this way, the smoking community is like the anti-clique; you’re never too old to be one, never too rich, never too educated.
  • Smokers get paradoxes. They understand that life is messy, unkempt…it can’t be made to fit in some prepackaged box. Any and every smoker has been confronted by that one guy/girl, usually named Dennis or Denise, who sees you participate in the verboten act, declaring: ‘You know those things are going to kill you.’ Still they smoke. Living and dying. Healthy conversation amidst hacking coughs. Honey badgers, through and through.

Some of my most admired colleagues regularly disappear to the ‘smoking table,’ and, if I’m honest with myself, I feel kind of left out. I know whatever conversation they have (…and it probably has to do with 1) history, 2) theology, 3) movies, and/or 4) Sportcenter) will be one that I’d share full belly laughs with and cause me to think more deeply about logical fallacies and inconvenient truths. Instead, I’m here looking at my computer screen. Alone.

To be in the smokers’ conversation, you have to be a smoker. Otherwise, you’re just some guy interrupting a great conversation, saying, ‘Big gulps, huh? Alright, well, see you later…’

The world also needs more meat-smokers. For much the same set of reasons.

  • It brings people together. Delicious meat has a way of doing that.
  • The smoking (meats) community is a pro-conversation, pro-food, pro-Jerry Jeff Walker, anti-jerk group of people. They share tactics, smoker space, and beers. Hard to argue when that much good stuff is going on.
  • Smoking meats is a picture of messy, charcoal-stained life that awaits the future glory of a finished pork butt.
  • They get to say, ‘pork butt.’

Personally, I’d rather hang out with smokers of either kind than spend 5 minutes in some sort of perfectly presented life. These smoking communities, I’m convinced, are instructive to the Christian.

Community is not some Christian goal to be realized, waiting to be accomplished by well-intentioned folk. If we enter into Christian community and try to drive it toward some wishful ideal of what community should be, we’ve lost it. More accurately, we’ve killed it. That’s why so many people experience a certain measure of depression when they first join a church. Expecting a cadre of well-aligned, goal-oriented, beautiful in spirit and mind Christian go-getters, they instead get Bob and Gina, Timmy and Barbara. Oh no! Barbara got divorced once and Timmy chain smokes! The humanity!

” If we enter into Christian community and try to drive it toward some wishful ideal of what community should be, we’ve lost it. More accurately, we’ve killed it.”

smolder2Christian community is not something we make. It is a reality that we participate in. If the former was true, we’d be forced to compare the community we know exists with the community we think God wants. And that tragic turn would lead to one of two conclusions: 1) deep despair, for the reality of God’s people is nowhere near as lustrous as the ‘way things should be’, and/or 2) a commitment to expel anything that would seem to be contrary to God’s design.

Once we understand that God has created communal life for the Christian, we may receive it as a gift. I then embrace the neighbor as that person who will speak the word of God to me in my need, and I to him, as his brother in Christ. The weakest, the ugliest, the smelliest, the blackest of the fold are welcome in this reality; they do not sit in fear as they wait to be found out (and thus, purged from the group). Rather, they wait for the word of truth: The truth that God loves them presently, that Jesus’ sacrifice covered their sins, and that this awkward group of people (i.e., the Christian community) will joyfully bear life together with you under these realities.

Yes, these are the people of God’s community. The junior varsity. But these people are brought into a way-of-being set forth by God, put into place with the very declaration that ‘it is not good for man to be alone.’ Community is something to be received as one of God’s most treasured gifts, not the personal project of someone trying to replicate Christian Richard Simmons’s everywhere.

“Community is something to be received as one of God’s most treasured gifts, not the personal project of someone trying to replicate Christian Richard Simmons’s everywhere.”

Truth be told, this utopian dreaming is, in some ways, at the heart of political liberalism. If we are able to limit how much sugar people drink, how much nicotine they can take in, tell them what kind of cars they must drive, restrict their accesslaughter to this or that, then our goal for a perfect human society will come to fruition. People will live forever and experience the advent of a secular salvation. Theologians fall into this trap, too. Postmillennial eschatology, the social justice movement…these ideologies fundamentally believe that humans are responsible for bringing about the coming of the Lord’s reign. When Christians can bring about a world good enough, moral enough, then Jesus can return to make his rule manifest.

But the central claim of the gospel is that God became one of us. The Incarnation landed in the dirty life of 1st century Palestine, complete with its trash, its blood, its coarse jokes, its imperfections. Jesus did not isolate himself from the mess…he sought out the messy. After all, Jesus probably (shhhhh) ate food high in cholesterol. He probably ingested carcinogens and engaged in risk-taking behavior. Off-color jokes were told within earshot, and he may have even belly laughed.

Shoot, for all I know, when he returns, he might just light up a Romeo y Julieta and say, ‘let’s get this thing started.’

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© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Trespassing on God’s Property

line in sand“If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”  –Dostoevsky’sThe Brothers Karamazov

But if God does exist, what, exactly, is permitted?

It seems that Matt Drudge is doing much of my work for me lately. In the past two weeks, I’ve seen no less than five articles on issues related to transhumanism, robotics, and the digital life pop up on The Drudge Report’s homepage. These articles have led me to my first genuine, post-Christmas thought/struggle/argument. At what point exactly does scientific work move from a naturally human response grounded in joyful discovery to a point of arrogance and violation? Consider the tension from these polar positions.

We can safely assume that God gave human beings the ability to expand their intellectual capacities for the purpose of seeking out that which we do not know. A child is not content to have the intellect of a child and, therefore, interacts with the world around him, absorbing information at an astonishing rate. God did not ‘upload’ all the information in the world into the child at birth. Things must be experienced. They must be discovered. I suppose there are people who choose to isolate themselves from all things new as a way to preserve a worldview that is safe and untouched—but society (even Christians) would quickly dismiss such action as degenerate, if not outright impossible. Men and women, at a primal level, are beings that are constructed, in part, to be creatures that both take in the world and act upon the world.

“God did not ‘upload’ all the information in the world into the child at birth. Things must be experienced. They must be discovered.”

Yet, it may be equally obvious that our innate desire to discover the uncharted waters before us also lead to our own demise. With discovery comes a certain measure of violation—not in a pejorative sense, but as a simple reality that the object of our fancy may not actually be better for our observation. The examples here are manifold. Europeans span the Atlantic to a new land, they claim the beach for their own, then ask, “Who are these people?” Scientists unfold the great mysteries of the genetic code—an astonishing discovery of epic proportions—then set their efforts toward cloning Dolly the Sheep. Should some secrets be kept secret?

Am I suggesting that we just outright stop scientific discovery? Of course not. Besides, blanket statements like that don’t contribute to the ongoing debate and conversation about what constitutes ethical behavior in the increasingly turbulent waters of the West. And I’m also not so foolish as to think that I’m breaking new ground in this discussion. Galileo, according to some of his accusers, was attempting to bring down an entire theological and philosophical framework from his observations on planetary movement. Shoot, how long would it take you to find an article accusing Christians of being ‘anti-science?’ 30 seconds? 15?

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I think, however, that a bold voice must come from thoughtful Christians who are willing to converse with the culture, saying consistently and without apology that any exploration—scientific, philosophical, theological, whatever—should find its genesis in a disposition of humility, conversation, and deep reflection.

The voice is necessary precisely because, in a world without God, no scruples need exist about such discoveries. The non-believer arranges his/her life in accordance with the primary biological need to do two things: 1) survive, and 2) have sex. Vast amounts of money are poured into the coffers of the science industry to create a synthetic form of salvation which helps them accomplish the former. To put it plainly, the world is trying to figure out how to live forever—because such a discovery is only thing that alleviates the horror of dying, the omnipresent uncomfortability (to put it lightly) with non-existence. As to the latter, well…

And this becomes the battlefield. On one side stand the Christians (and other faiths, to be fair), who rightfully declare that humans have a God-given dignity that should not be violated, and therefore we are obligated to treat issues of life with the highest degrees of humility and caution. The Christian goes so far as to say that some research is not allowed on the basis of our subservient creaturely status; we are not God. And since God does exist in this system, certain things are NOT permissible.

“The Christian goes so far as to say that some research is not allowed on the basis of our subservient creaturely status; we are not God.”

On the other side, a godless culture is hard-pressed to escape the flawed and limited structures of our bodies, diligently seeking new ways to prolong the human experience, whether it be through artificial resurrection, ongoing digital consciousness, or the obsession to eliminate all forms of pain or harm to the body. Those that stand in the way of this new transcendence, this salvation, are truly threats indeed, for such threats (Christians) are blocking the evolution of a species that may just be, in fact, destined for some type of immortality. The stakes are high because death is coming, one way or another.

conversation3I have few answers for those of you who are wrestling with this issue with me. I feel the great need for Christian universities to train young biologists, chemists, psychologists, business men and women to be equally competent in their vocational fields and their ability to articulate a Christian way of being within those fields. I am also drawn, more than ever, to a commitment to teach the art of the intellectual fight – both to my kids (my students) and my kids (my actual kids). Fighting right means listening right. And listening is both an empathetic exercise and a humbling experience.

Perhaps that is the answer: to listen. There are moments when we need to shut up and brace ourselves like men—not my words here, but God’s. Job 40-41 is the story of a God at the end of his rope. He tells Job, essentially, that all power belongs to him; a man has not all the answers nor will he. “Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook?” (41:1)

Overcome by God’s divine authority, Job smartly replies, “No plan of yours can be thwarted … Surely I spoke of things I did not understand.” A relief. After all, God is not caught unawares of the human urge to violate his domain by resurrecting life, in whatever form it comes. This is not to say that we, as Christians, remain silent and docile as the culture runs roughshod over our deepest concerns, but rather to say that God, in his sovereignty, stands where he always stands as he looks at the designs of man: On the throne AS GOD ALMIGHTY. Hopefully, we’ll have the good sense to shut up and listen when we’re straying from the sunny beaches of joyous discovery to the perilous lands of God’s sole domain.

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© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.