Month: October 2016

Death by Theology

This post is the first of a two-part series. Part 2 will show up next week.

hedge1My wife runs the books at our house, and thank goodness, because I am a financial idiot. I consider it a veritable miracle that I survived the time between college and marriage on a small youth minister’s income, especially since I like to: 1) eat, and 2) go places. I’m only two more miracles away from sainthood, I suppose. Joel, the Patron Saint of Overdraft Protection.

Occasionally, I’ll run smack into a book (or maybe a discussion) that reminds me of the nothing that I know all too well. Enter the engaging and bewildering book by Michael Lewis, The Big Short. It’s a primer on the American mortgage crisis of 2007-2008. Some of you, no doubt, have seen the movie. And some of you, no doubt, saw the movie (like me) in hopes that the film would explain a difficult concept to you in two short hours. It did and it didn’t. I’ve seen the movie twice and read the book once … and I’m not convinced I understand subprime mortgage swaps or CDOs to save my life (re-read first paragraph to understand why).

The point of this post is not to wade into the sludgy swamp of information and pull out a shiny diamond for you to enjoy. The point is to stand in fear and awe of the swamp in the first place. A central thesis of The Big Short was an acknowledgement that the home mortgage industry was so convoluted that no one, not even those in charge, could comprehend the multitude of forces at work. No one could understand the whole, let alone its parts.

Systems that are so complex, so utterly baffling, are systems that readily allow one kind of thing to flourish: corruption. And such corruption has all sorts of ways it can conceal itself when layers of bureaucracy and legalese are the norm. It’s like playing hide-and-go-seek with two other people at the Smithsonian. Spoiler alert: you’re not going to find them. Corruption, if anything, knows how to hide.

That is, until the whole system collapses in catastrophe.hedge2

Corruption flourishes in complex systems because the system begins to take on a personal nature by itself. Let me phrase that another way. The bigger the system, the more likely it is to act like a personal agent, complete with its own personality, needs, and wants. The beast feeds itself by creating new layers of fat, insulating its vulnerabilities from the outside world. With this principle in mind, I am sympathetic to those who press for politics to operate on the local level, as they argue that the federal government serves its own needs to grow and expand for expansion’s sake.

Many of us use personal computers. None of us really know how they work. Yeah, you might say, “this transistor does this and that little fan cools that,” but be honest, you press a button and, magically, either you see a half-bitten apple (sumptuously ironic) or a four-paned window (also ironic) appear on screen. There may be a window but you know nothing of what happens inside the box and screen. On a small scale, it is too much information to understand, so we just do our thing and hope the little magic box works like it did last time.

I suggest that esoteric, impenetrable systems put us in danger. Christian theology is not immune from this charge.

To a certain extent, Jewish law operated in many of the same ways as described above. The Mishnah (Oral Law) was recorded in the early 3rd century as a compilation of the oral tradition, widely accepted by Jews as a companion piece to the Torah. The Oral Law serves as a remarkable security system; it protects the absolute command of God by erecting a fence. Don’t cross this line here, or else you’ll be in danger of crossing the actual command of God there. In Mark 7 the Pharisees refer to these extraneous rules as the ‘tradition of the elders’ as a way to criticize the eating habits of the disciples [1]. Jesus rightly takes them to the proverbial woodshed. It’s all about the heart’s orientation to God, not an outward showing of false righteousness.

Stacking human law onto human law onto human law onto God’s divine command has a way of becoming its own beast—a minefield of behavioral modifications that drives us further away from the heart of God and toward a weird kind of idolatry: Loving God’s law more than God himself. And, in this case, it’s not even God’s law—it’s human law erected to protect God’s law.

I’m simply suggesting that I have a tendency, like the Pharisees, to love the hedge more than the treasure the hedge is commissioned with protecting.

While I often proclaim a peculiar freedom that comes with Christ-following, I’m certainly not advocating a free-for-all where law and the consequence of breaking the law are rendered obsolete. Quite the opposite. I’m simply suggesting that I have a tendency, like the Pharisees, to love the hedge more than the treasure the hedge is commissioned with protecting. The coffer more than the gold.

hedge4Christian doctrine works on two levels:
It describes reality. We look to the Scriptures to understand the reality in which we are living.
It acts as a hedge. We use doctrine to protect us from saying some really stupid or inaccurate things about God.

The first is relatively uncontroversial. Christians are bound by confession to agree with the first statement. The second, however, is slightly more complex. Christians like to point their fingers at the Pharisees, saying, ‘You are adding law to Law! You are obscuring the singular message of the Gospel in Christ!’

But, really, couldn’t we be susceptible to the same charge as it relates to the Gospel? I’m a Lutheran by tribal affiliation … lovers of grace, justification, freedom, and hops. Yet too often we carefully construct our own security system around the doctrine of justification with such intent that we won’t even entertain the possibility of obedience’s place within the system. How many times have you heard a pastor/DCE/youth guy/teacher teach about good works only to offer the ever-present caveat: ‘Let me be clear. I’m not saying that your good works earn salvation...’ Apparently, in the absence of the caveat, we’d do something reprehensible like preach about the vital link between God’s act in Jesus and our response in obedience.

We are so paranoid about this (albeit, true) additive about justification through Christ alone that we don’t know how to talk about obedient discipleship with anything that resembles the all-encompassing, all-demanding claim that Jesus makes on us. After all, he still demands the taking up of crosses and the selling of all things and the seeking first of the kingdom and the doing the commands of God and the upping the ante in the Sermon on the Mount and other hard stuff like that. Grace comes at the foot of the cross, the last thing we see in our failure to live up to God’s standard–not as an immunity card that gets me out of the call to discipleship in the first place.

It makes me wonder how many times I’ve worshiped the doctrine of justification rather than the God who justifies.

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[1] Paul speaks of the same ‘tradition’ in Galatians 1.

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. 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.

The Future of Football and Baby Robots

tech1Most technologies come and go without anyone really noticing. They’re absorbed into the cultural bloodstream with little fanfare. If the user reflects on the technology at all, the reaction would be underwhelming: ‘Oh. That’s kind of cool, I suppose.’ But the really big deals, the techs that shape the way a culture thinks about itself, have a certain trajectory about them. In my observation, a three-step path marks the way:

  • Curiosity. The introduction of a new technology sparks our interest if only for the pure novelty of it all. This is usually generated by the audacity of the designer’s claim about the technology. For instance, a device might claim to make your life easier, to make you healthier, or provide you with an alternative form of companionship. And, because inquiring minds want to know, we say phrases like, “I just want to see if it actually works…” Or, “I’ve never seen something like this before…” If curiosity is sufficiently aroused, we just might take a risk and purchase it. Perhaps this is how you felt when you decided to buy an iPhone or when you used YouTube for the first time.
  • Integration. If the tech actually delivers on its promises, the user begins to place a certain amount of trust (even hope?) in the device. What was formerly in the hands of the individual (e.g., scheduling, entertainment, creativity) has now been turned over to the little electronic gadget in your pocket. Over time, you begin to rely on the device to meet an important need. Yet there’s something even more profound going on at this stage. With every promise the device fulfills, the emotional bond between device and user grows. The user begins to ascribe human qualities to the tech. If the reliability continues, the roots of trust descend deeper and the bond continues. If the reliability proves to be a mirage, we get this:office-space
    A very human reaction to an act of betrayal (i.e., the printer doesn’t do what it promises).
  • Personalization. I’ve mentioned this before in an earlier post: We anthropomorphize everything. As a way to make sense of the world, we tend to ascribe human characteristics to non-human entities. We are especially prone to do this if we sense that the technology in question displays even a hint of empathy, which is why the ability to recognize facial expressions is a top priority for robot developers.

This ability has been programmed into many of the personal robots emerging on the market. Toyota, for example, will be releasing a 4-inch ‘companion’ robot sometime next year, affectionately named Kirobo. The promises are staggering, including:

  • Kirobo is designed to comfort for those without a child, particularly young women. It is an explicit attempt to create a digital baby.
  • The robot acts as a companion, can answer many direct questions, and can register facial expressions.
  • If taken on a car ride, it will sense the car stopping and shutting down, prompting a plea, ‘Please take me with you!’ In this sense, Kirobo makes an emotional appeal to be included in all phases of everyday life.

What does this have to do with the future of football? This will take a little time, so bear with me…

Malcolm Gladwell, the eccentric author for The New Yorker, has written extensively about his objections to the über-popular game, comparing it to the underground culture of dog-fighting. Ultimately, Gladwell believes that football’s national (even global) popularity will begin to wane when our collective understanding of football’s deleterious effects on the brain overwhelm our desire to watch the sport. In other words, football will become unwatchable because we know too much. Kinda like a 50-year old saying ‘no thanks’ to a hot dog. Sure, some people—even regions—will keep football popular in a localized way, but its ascendancy will forever be a thing of the past.football1

Perhaps he’s on to something, but not in the way that he describes [1]. Chuck Klosterman, in his But What If We’re Wrong, makes note of a tidal change in youth football. Fewer and fewer kids are playing, but not necessarily because parents fear for their child’s safety -though many certainly do. Turns out, all youth team sports are declining. The common refrain from the football coaches has to do with video games.

“ ‘The bottom line is that—today—if the kid doesn’t like the score, he just hits restart. He starts the game over’ … it’s wholly possible that the nature of electronic gaming has instilled an expectation of success in young people that makes physical sports less desirable. There’s also the possibility that video games are more inclusive, that they give the child more control, and that they’re simply easier for kids who lack natural physical gifts. All of which point to an incontestable conclusion: Compared to traditional athletics, video game culture is much closer to the (allegedly) enlightened world we (supposedly) want to inhabit’ [2].

Herein lies the connection between baby robots and football: We demand success at the expense of reality. We have become a culture in which mistakes are so severely frowned upon that we no longer have the ability to encounter resistance. To test. To experiment. To mourn a defeat and learn to live with it. We cannot tolerate the emotional pain of a real world that does not align with the fictitious worlds of perfection we demand.

We cannot tolerate the emotional pain of a real world that does not align with the fictitious worlds of perfection we demand.”

football2Remember the integration phase above? Integration is what happens when we see evidence that the tool is doing what we think it should and thus builds a measure of trust with the user. But this trust comes with one very big caveat. Call it a gadget prenuptial agreement. With any device, there is always a trap door for the user—an everpresent way out. One can simply turn off the device and walk away. We know if the results don’t match our desires, we can hit the reset button and start over again, just like a game of Madden.

But if I become a person who’s relied so much on my devices that I’ve trained myself with them as a primary means of companionship, amusement and information, I’ve also built into my life a fundamental belief that all things should work out as planned … that I deserve a reset button in all matters of my choosing. If the real world doesn’t live up to my standards, I shall live in my fantasy—after all, I have a baby robot who never disappoints me.

If technologies increasingly turn robotic and personal, the central risk isn’t so much that I begin to treat the robot too much like a human by ascribing it some sort of moral status. The risk is that I treat my human relationships too much like a technological device, always looking for a reset or way out when things get too dicey. Too emotionally challenging. Too human.

Pick up that zone blitz.

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[1] Gladwell might be right in his analysis of the downward trend of football in the coming years. Yet I’m skeptical for at least two reasons. First, part of football’s draw is based on its disdain for political correctness. It unabashedly uplifts certain views of violence, masculinity, and bravery that will (I think) be a counterpoint to an increasingly gender-neutral (neutered?) society. Second, like many dangerous sports, technological advances grow in unison with the amount of money the networks are afraid of losing should someone die. I think we’ll see ever-increasing regulations/mandates on equipment, as well as rule changes that mitigate the inherent dangers of the game. It may not look like the same brand of football in 20 years, but we’ll still have a popular NFL. I’d love to wager Gladwell on this point.

[2] Chuck Klosterman, But What If We’re Wrong  (New York: Penguin, 2016), 191.

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. 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.