Cultural Problems: How the Real Slim Shady Became President

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I would be tempted to quote entertainment mogul Shawn Carter (aka Jay Z) who once told the world about his ninety-nine problems, but he uses a word that degrades women and it shouldn’t be repeated here.

Carter’s “99 problems” came to my mind, I admit, because I’ve been a consumer of his products and also that of his cohorts.  Music and movies, from many producers, have been a part of my life and undoubtedly had an influence too.  I can still remember listening to Eminem (Marshall Matthers III) rap about using drugs, abusing homosexuals, killing his wife, etc.

It might seem strange that a straight-edge Mennonite kid from rural Pennsylvania would find anything in common with violent and hate-filled lyrics.  I could lie and pretend it was all for sake of amusement and didn’t reflect anything of my own character.  But, truth be told, even knowing nothing of a rough life in the ghetto, and having no animosity towards police or Sir Elton John, the words resonated with my own deep feelings of anger and frustration at the time.

Eminem actually offered some good insight in his lyrics.  He was right when he concluded a musical social commentary with the following words: “I guess there’s a Slim Shady in all of us…”  That is probably what made his music so popular.  People could identify with him.  He gave a voice to millions, especially underprivileged young men who were tired of being told how to think and worrying about the correct political language to use and just wanted to let loose.

The Two-way Street Between Artist and Audience

Hollywood producers and musical executives often hide behind this idea that their art merely reflects what is real.  That is their way of washing their hands of responsibility and  it seems reasonable enough considering what I’ve just confessed about my own inner struggles.  However, that is only half true, the whole truth is that their creative expression also shapes our world or we would not call it creative—what resonates or reflects can also help to shape and influence.

The entertainment industry is well-aware of their social influence.  True, we reject their most heavy-handed efforts.  I could care less about what Matt Damon thinks about gun violence, Brokeback Mountain didn’t tempt me in the least, and, sorry Dr. Dre, I still have no hate for police.  I take full responsibility for my own less than wholesome thoughts and wrong attitudes.  Nevertheless, I use the word “problems” and somehow Jay-Z comes to my mind.

Movies, music and other media are intended to influence and most definitely do have influence.  Sure, watching The Matrix didn’t cause anyone to go on a murderous rampage, but is it only coincidence that a mere month after this film was released two boys wearing long dark trench coats killed 13 of their classmates in Columbine High School?  Could it be they were partially inspired by a scene where two characters wearing long dark trench coats enter a building lobby and gun down everyone?

Again, individuals should be held accountable for their own actions.  But the same also goes for those who create content and play a significant role in defining popular culture.  Quentin Tarantino’s blood lusts might be portraying Nazis, Antebellum Southerns, or any of the others we have decided it is okay to completely dehumanize, but he can’t decide how others will apply the moral framework he presents and should probably think a bit more about unintended consequences of his violent ideations.

Writers, musicians, actors, artists, directors, executives, commentators, professional athletes, television hosts, and others employed in the entertainment industry are out to recreate this country in their own image.  And, many of them, in their race to profit off of the lowest common denominator, have shown themselves lacking in good moral judgment and need to take more credit for the results of their work.  Many have made their billions by promoting moral turpitude, have created an audience to consume their filth, and yet then are outraged that a vulgar man is elected President?

The entertainment media was all beside themselves recently with excitement when Eminem went off on an explicit rant parroting common accusations against Trump.  In breathless headlines he become a heroic figure, a part of their resistance and suddenly relevant again.  I guess it doesn’t matter that he helped to condition a whole generation to think it is funny to degrade women and minorities?  He made dirty locker room talk seem tame by comparison.

Hollywood Hypocrisy Has Been Exposed

“There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.” (Luke 12:2‭-‬3 NIV)

Those within the media echo chamber might not see the hypocrisy yet many Americans do and are tired of sanctimonious multi-millionaire celebrity elites telling them what to think, how to vote, or who should lead them.  The rebellion is on, the plebs have started to tune out your lectures years ago when the double standard became too big to ignore, and it is time for some serious introspection.

When Larry Flynt, a purveyor of sleaze, gets on his high horse, and again offers millions to find dirt on the Donald, does he ever consider repenting of his own immorality first?

Then we have Harvey Weinstein, a prominent figure in Hollywood, a wealthy Hillary Clinton supporter, and known sexual predator.  I say known because his behavior was apparently common knowledge amongst media elites and ignored.  For whatever reason, perhaps because of shared political ideology or cash payoffs and career opportunity or fear of their own sins coming to light, for years and years nobody spoke out publically against him:

“Weinstein’s behavior was reportedly an open secret in the circles in which he ran, which includes entertainment and politics. So much so, in fact, that shows like NBC’s “30 Rock” openly referenced his predatory habits. Twice. The comedian Seth McFarlane also referred to Weinstein’s abusive nature during the 2012 Oscar nominees announcements. Despite all of this, Clinton maintains she knew nothing about the producer’s appetites.”

I guess what we deem to be deplorable depends on who does the crime.  If Joe Paterno and everyone at Penn State should be held responsible for Jerry Sandusky’s abuse of young boys, does that mean everyone in Hollywood and the media (who buried Weinstein’s transgressions) be held to the same standard?  Is it time to investigate the Clinton campaign to find out what they knew and when?

Those questions will be answered in time.  I personally do not know the circumstances or various actors involved well enough to render any judgment.  But there are many who should probably think carefully about what they say in condemnation of others.

Weinstein, perhaps in a bid to deflect attention from his own sins (or in a failed effort to garner the support of other progressive elites) said he would target his anger at the NRA.  The absurdity of this, a man in an industry that hides behind the first amendment (apparently only angry for getting caught) targeting an organization that defends the second amendment…

Maybe it is because men of his ilk have been using that script for years?

They objectify women, they glorify violence, they stir up racial animosity and then pick a scapegoat to act outraged about.  Instead of admit their own role in the problem they would rather blame an organization that existed long before the upward trend in mass shootings of the past few decades.  They want to blame guns—nevermind the inconvenient truth that actual machine guns were completely legal until 1986 and long before this precipitous increase in violence.  It is time they stop deflecting and blame shifting and take ownership of their part of the problem.

Trump Is the Symptom, Not the Disease

Sorry, Hollywood hypocrites, many of those who consumed your entertainment (and found their own inner Slim Shady) also voted for the candidate who spurned cultural conventions in his rise the top and waved his middle finger in the air like he just didn’t care. In other words, he is just a slightly different version of you.

Trump is merely the first politician to take full advantage of the shift in American values.  He did not create the culture, he didn’t even create the character he is playing—we can thank Mike Judge, the movie Idiocracy and President Comacho for the inspiration.  So, if you really want to defeat Trump, start by addressing those privileged elites who lowered our cultural standards, encouraged the abandonment of traditional values, and created an audience primed for a vulgarian to lead them.

It is time we stop privileging a few with ready made excuses.  It is time to stop lambasting only those who help our political ends and ignoring the problems of our own side.  We all share some of the blame for the society we together have created, we all need to take a long hard look at where we are headed and how our own actions contribute to the problem.

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There Were No Heroes In Charlottesville—Only Two Resurrected Monsters

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There is no denying that Hitler and Stalin are alive today… they are waiting for us to forget, because this is what makes possible the resurrection of these two monsters. (Simon Weisenthal)

It is interesting that Weisenthal, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, mentions two men in this quote.  One of them the man responsible for his own internment and the other a man who helped to liberate him.  Seems odd, right?

The Soviet Union, led by Joseph Stalin, played a decisive role in the defeat of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.  And yet, despite that fact, Weisenthal creates an equivalency between the two men in his quote.  How is this possible?  How can the man who played a pivotal role in defeating fascism also be regarded as a monster?

Simply put: Hitler’s evil is remembered, but the great evil represented by Stalin has been largely forgotten.

There are constant reminders about Nazi crimes against humanity in movie portrayals and museums.  Marxists, however, have escaped the same accountability for their atrocities—their mass murders remain mostly concealed behind the steel curtain, and modern adherents are good at hiding themselves in the latest social cause.

Some things to remember…

1) An Enemy of Your Enemy Is Not Your Friend

Fascists and their racist contemporaries are easy to hate.  It is not popular to be a white supremacist in modern America.  Democrats have cut their ties with the Klu Klux Klan years ago, Republicans remain the party of Lincoln, and it is safe to say that most people in this country (conservative or liberal) strongly oppose Nazism.

I am, like most people in America today, opposed to racism and fascism in all their forms and therefore am opposed to rallying around those ideas.  And, while I support the right to free association and public protest, it is completely incomprehensible to me why anyone would want to unite under a banner of racial prejudice and hate.

That said, my opposition to the KKK and neo-Nazis does not equate to support for Antifa or other leftist groups that deface property and engage in violent protest as a means to advance their own hateful ideological agendas.  The events in Charlottesville, while defined by a young white supremacist plowing into a crowd, was a clash of two historical monsters and we need not pick one over the other.

Unfortunately many people have an overly simplistic view current events and history.  In their initial emotionally reactive (and virtue signalling) response they are willing to condemn Nazis—the cliché Hollywood villains—but not the violence of groups that hold to an ideological perspective equally divisive and dangerous.  It is probably because most people do not know what Antifa is.

Many seem to assume that since Antifa is fighting white supremacists that they are good.  Yet that fails to comprehend the reality that these left-wing extremists are a different side of the same coin.  They do not just fight against actual fascists, but elsewhere they have been initiating violence and, underneath their cowardly masks, are simply the latest iteration of marxist thugs.

Marxism has been rebranded many different ways—it is sold as “social justice” and “sticking up for the underdog” and anti-fascism.  Yet, despite the new sheep’s wool, it remains the same old wolf that gave a man like Stalin power to kill with impunity.  No matter where marxism has been tried the end result is always the same—the murder of millions and the totalitarian rule of a few elites.

Yes, it is true many millions died as a result of fascism.  However, it is also true that many more millions died because of marxist ideologies.  In fact, according to Reason.com, marxism is the leading ideological cause of death in the past century:

The 94 million that perished in China, the Soviet Union, North Korea, Afghanistan, and Eastern Europe easily (and tragically) trump the 28 million that died under fascist regimes during the same period.

During the century measured, more people died as a result of communism than from homicide (58 million) and genocide (30 million) put together. The combined death tolls of WWI (37 million) and WWII (66 million) exceed communism’s total by only 9 million.

Perhaps we do not oppose marxism as strongly because those who died were foreigners?  

Perhaps it is because their stories were interned and buried with them…  

Whatever the case, it seems we have forgetten that those who use “fascism” as an excuse to do violence will, given power, apply the term to anyone who disagrees with them and kill them too.  Stalin may have helped defeat the Nazis, but he was not a good man himself nor are the modern promoters of marxist ideologies who justify their own violence as anti-fascism.

Don’t be fooled by the different packaging…

2) The Next Hitler Won’t Be Another Hitler

That is the great irony here.  The next Hitler probably won’t wear a Swastika, “Seig Heil” or goose step, he will likely not be a white nationalist or foment hate against Jews.  The next Hitler could very well be a globalist, a smooth talker, pushing “tolerance” in the daylight and then letting others do violence against his/her political opposition in the dark of night.

Nazis and the KKK are less dangerous because they announce their extremism and are widely opposed.  Many Americans don’t even think they should be allowed to march and thousands show up to denounce, belittle and taunt them when they do.  But, truth be told, there is little a chance a relatively few angry white guys fighting for lost causes will gain much traction.  We already know who they are and have rejected them.

What we should be wary of is the backlash.  It is the overreaction that justifies our own evil that we should guard against.  Overreaction to one evil oftentimes leads to another and greater, more insidious, evil.  What the history books seem to have forgotten is that Nazi Germany did not arise from nowhere.  It is, in part, a consequence of onerous and unfair war reparations that led to economic collapse and desperation.

More significantly, before Hilter’s rise to power, marxist agitators tried (and failed) to overthrow the German government in 1918-19.  It is actually that event which helped to fuel the rise of the National Socialist German Worker’s (or Nazi) Party and later gave their charismatic leader an excuse to round up those whom he deemed to be a security threat and eliminate them.

What’s more troublesome to me (than the violent extremists themselves) is political opportunists who take advantage of tragic circumstances and use the raw emotion of the moment to advance an authoritarian agenda and curtail freedoms. We need voices of calm and reason, those who do not excuse violence against anyone (including violence against their own ideological enemies) or we risk going the way of Nazi Germany ourselves.

I can still recall how my guarded optimism about President Obama ended abrutly when he refused to correct those who used the epithet “racist” to silence those who opposed his policy agenda.  He decided to look the other way rather than be the leader of all Americans and speak up for those misrepresented.  It encouraged polarization, it ended the reasonable conversation, and is probably how we ended up with Trump several years later.

Antifa isn’t only attacking people we would regard to be fascists either.  A week later, in Boston, they were attacking police officers protecting free speech—that a day after six officers were shot and a young woman killed seemingly at random.  Those who don’t see the problem with a bunch of anonymous hoodlums running around playing judge, retaliating against anyone they construe to be fascist, are at best naive and enablers at worse.  We need to stand opposed to the marxist extreme as much as we oppose fascism or we are inviting an escalation.

Violence leads to violent backlash.  Not addressing the violence of marxist agitators—especially glorifying their violence and treating them as heros—could have terrible unintended consequences.  It could lead to something worse than the evil we see.  Lest we forget, both Nazis and Klansmen were also once enabled by a sympathetic public that saw their cause as righteous and justified.

Let’s see, hooded vigilantes, breaking windows, dehumanizing and terrorizing anyone who opposed them, sanctioned by the Democrats, approved by Christians—where have we seen this before… 

Nah, nevermind, what could possibly go wrong?

3) Hate Is Not Overcome By More Hate

We should oppose racism, condemn all racial supremacy movements and warn against all ideological extremism.  But what we should never do is use the hatred of other people as an excuse for our own.  The answer to hate is not to hate the hateful.  We can and should oppose bigotry—and also oppose violence against those labeled (correctly or incorrectly) as bigots.

Hate is not solved through shouting slogans or protest. What happened in Charlottesville has accomplished nothing besides the death of one woman and will only serve to further divide our nation if we let it.

Racial purity or ideological purity movements, especially those who pursue the elimination of competing perspectives through brute force rather than logic or reason, should be rejected rather than joined or justified.  It is hypocritical to denounce the hatred and violence of Nazis and then totally ignore that of marxists.  Instead we should choose “other” which means to reject the ideologies and loving those on both sides.

There is a Yiddish proverb, “If someone throws stones at you, throw bread back,” which basically means to overcome evil with good, and that applies as much today as it ever did.

The problem is our assumptions about those who throw stones.  When we assume they are irredeemable we can easily justify our own evil in response and throw stones back.  But, when we see our adversaries as human, as a person influenced by circumstances, worthy of a little love and respect, then there is chance of redemption.

That is not to say we should stand idly by or oppose the punishment of evildoers—police are responsible to reign in the violence and we should not stand in the way.  However, that does mean our part is to do good:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14‭-‬21)

If you think a racist white nationalist is beyond hope, then think again.  There are several accounts of courageous men, like Daryl Davis, taking the gracious approach against their enemies (as described in the passage from Romans above) and convincing them to repent of their hate.  At very least, even if the effort fails, we have not been overcome by evil.  Hate never wins when we refuse to hate those who hate us.

Don’t choose one evil over the other.  When asked to pick a side, don’t choose “the lessor of two evils” (as those who are sympathetic to one side or the other will urge you to do) and instead reject both extremes—choose “none of the above” and choose love for all people.

Marxism was and remains an evil alternative to facism.  When two ideological monsters resurrect themselves in modern form we do not need to pick one or the other.  When far right clashes with the far left we should always choose against both extremes.  We should fight against extremist ideologies, not people. We should resist with love rather than try to fight hate with hate.

Ignore the many different justifications from the partisans.  Hate and violence, all hate and violence, springs from the same evil well.

Fundamentally Flawed: How Mennonites Failed To Be Faithful

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I grew up believing my Mennonite religious tradition originated as a part of the Anabaptist movement.  I would’ve been incredulous had someone told me then that our theological underpinnings and practice actually originated from a completely different source and a much later time.

It has taken me decades to come to the full realization that conservative Mennonites (and especially those in the Charity movement) are not truly Anabaptist anymore.  We have, as a result of years of absorbing teachings from other sources, morphed into something quite different from our forebearers.  

The evolution has been slow and over many generations.  However, these small changes, added together, have become something profound and with very deep implications.  We might self-describe as Mennonite or Anabaptist, but are, in reality, something else entirely and have a mindset completely different from our ancestors.

If you want to see the contrast, compare us (conservative Mennonites) to our Old Order cousins and then consider how differently we approach things.  We might share the same genetic origins (and surnames) yet do not have much in common as far as our theological ideas and practices.

So, who is real and who is the impostor?

Consider that everything from Sunday school to revival meetings, four-part singing to our eschatological perspective, and Zionism, is not originally Mennonite or Anabaptist.  They were things added (and often with great controversy) within the past century and some only the last few decades.

The reality is that our relatives from a generation or two ago swallowed fundamentalist theological innovations hook, line, and sinker.  They did so without realizing the divergent path this represented.  It might have begun with a subtle change of focus, a slight ideological shift, but the difference in final outcomes is huge.

We have gone from from a question of “is it Christlike” to one of “is it biblical” and many of us don’t even know why that’s a problem.

Our ancestors might have been radical followers of Jesus.  Yet, most of us, despite our additional Mennonite packaging and a little Anabaptist flair (added back in to make us feel special about ourselves) are simply plain old biblical fundamentalists.

What is biblical fundamentalism?

It is a new idea.  It is a conservative Protestant reaction to modernism.  It is a hermeneutical system that reimagines “word of God” to be a book rather than something far more dynamic and alive.  It turns belief in Jesus into a process of finding a code of ethics in Scripture and creating doctrine—but misses the essence of what it means to truly follow him.

Biblical fundamentalism is an extension of a Protestant idea.  In fundamentalism the religious experience is centered on Scripture-alone (sola Scriptura) and neglects a large swath of Christian tradition.  It is a heresy only possible since the invention of the printing press.

Before Johannes Gutenberg’s invention, in 1440, and widespread literacy, it would have been a hard sell to convince people that God’s word (or logos) came to the masses primarily in book form.

Fundamentalists have literally deified a book, they made it an object of worship, and yet have irrationally thrown aside the institution of the church that delivered it to them.  They have essentially made Holy Scripture an coequal part of the Trinity, synonymous with Jesus Christ, usually at the expense of the Holy Spirit and almost always at the expense of church unity.  If we look at the long-term results, the fruit of the Protestant reformation has undeniably been the fracturing of the church into smaller and smaller bits. 

The Scripture-alone view has led to many bizarre interpretations of the text and a hyper-individualism that makes our unbelieving neighbors seem forbearing and cooperative by comparison.  It has led to a religion characterized by legalism and dogmatism.  Making the Bible into an infallible object has led to weird fixations on particular translations (like KJV-onlyism) that make no sense considering that the original text wasn’t written in old English.

In many cases biblical fundamentalists are simply conservatives stubbornly reading their own preconceived ideas back into the text (or proof-texting) rather than taking an honest and open Berean approach.  Fundamentalism started out of fear and as a defensive posture against higher criticism and modernism.  It is limited because it is based on assumptions that are wrongly taken as infallible truths.

It is a religious perspective that never leads to unity or true brotherhood because it is based on personal interpretation rather than a collective and historical understanding through the body of believers.  In Protestantism everyone has become their own pope and their own individual understanding of the Bible their only god.

When did biblical fundamentalism enter the Mennonite church?

Anabaptism quickly lost its way after a good start.  It soon devolved from radical faith, that challenged everything, into a religious tradition that couldn’t be questioned.  But despite that, it maintained a distinct community ethic and (after reigning in violent factions) developed a strong peace witness.  Ideas like non-conformity and non-resistance were passed down as a teleological “who we are” rather than a theological argument.

However, that “who we are” was too often missing the spiritual component that inspired it.  As a result, many Mennonites over the past few centuries started to look for energy from outside of the Anabaptist tradition.  Protestant movements that led to biblical fundamentalism have long had an appeal to conservative-minded Mennonites.  Pietism, revivalism and biblical fundamentalism have all breathed life into what had become dead orthodoxy.  But these movements did not share the same theological underpinnings of original Anabaptism.  And, instead of help, they have further eroded the Mennonite community, as many splits since then bear witness.

Biblical fundamentalism took root in the Mennonite culture when the longtime standard of the Schleitheim confession (established in 1527) was supplemented in 1921.  The adoption of “Christian Fundamentals” represented a dramatic change of thinking from anything truly Anabaptist.  It mirrored the polemic (or apologetic) style of the Protestant theologians and borrowed language from their work “The Fundamentals” which is the basis of ‘Christian’ fundamentalism.  The shift in priorities is clear, we went from a more practical lived-out ideal to an argumentative obsession with our “doctrines” and a new fixation on a particular brand of biblical literalism.

Our more scholarly and fighting approach has backfired.  The Mennonite church has split multiple times along “conservative” and “liberal” lines since then, both sides using their own interpretation of the Bible as their basis and coming out at different conclusions.  Our going from a perspective that prioritized loving submission to each other to one that elevates an individual’s own (personal, dogmatic and inerrant) interpretation of Scripture has not worked well for us.  It continues to bear the same fruit of division in our denomination as it did in Protestantism in general.

Sadly, we have increasingly farmed out the discipleship duties of the church brotherhood to “Bible institutes” and foolishly turned to fundamentalist icons like Bill Gothard, Michael Pearl or Ken Ham for our understanding of Scripture.  And worse, while a liberal arts education is viewed as a potential pitfall, biblical fundamentalist schools like Bob Jones (where racial segregation was enforced until the 1990’s) and Liberty University (who’s founder gave his full-throated endorsement to a divisive and immoral political candidate) are not seen as dangerous.

Why?

Because we have become something different from what we claim to be.

Fundamentalist indoctrination has now become woven into the fabric of our Mennonite experience and is indistinguishable from our authentic Anabaptist heritage to most born into our denomination.  We teach our children lyrics like: “The B-I-B-L-E, now that’s the book for me, I stand alone, on the word of God, the B-I-B-L-E!” or “I love the Bible, I love the Bible, I love the Bible, it is the word of God.”  Which is cringe-worthy when you consider those songs are fundamentalist propaganda, with little basis in Scripture, that are priming a child’s confirmation bias for life.

In their embrace of fundamentalism, conservative Mennonites have lost the fight for the soul of Anabaptist tradition.  

Many have confused the fundamentalism of the past century with a “third way” Anabaptist heritage and are fooled into thinking they are winning the war when they are actually fighting for the other side.  In reality, while we think we are still Anabaptists, we have actually been invaded and conquered by our former persecutors.

How was authentic Anabaptism different?

True Anabaptism, while having very high regard for the Holy Scripture, understood the importance of community of faith and attempted an orthodoxy around simple obedience to the instructions of Jesus.  It was Christocentric rather than bibliocentric, meaning that the words of Scripture were to be illuminated through the life of Christ and via the Spirit.  The focus, as a result, was less on theological navel-gazing and more on living true evangelical faith.  Or, in other words, they made practical real world application of Christian love.

Gelassenheit, or the idea of self-surrender and resignation to God’s will, meant submission to the body of believers.  Early Anabaptists understood the importance of community of faith and the part that community (and discipleship) played in salvation of the individual.  They taught that faith produces a practical change in lifestyle.

Fundamentalism, by contrast, puts emphasis on personal experience, stresses the importance of dutiful Bible reading, takes a cerebral (modernist) approach to understanding Biblical text and often gets mired in the theoretical.
Authentic Anabaptism was more teleological than it was deontological in that it was more about just “being” something rather than it was about creating theology or a system of rules.  

While fundamentalism reduces Jesus to the level of Moses (makes him into just another man trying to establish a code of ethics and doctrinal framework as a means to salvation) the Anabaptist perspective took emphasis away from the individual, it put an individual in a community of faith (representative of God’s kingdom) and made love in the brotherhood something practical rather than theoretical.  It was less “the Bible says so” (supported by a position paper) and more “this is what we are” using spiritual fruit as evidence.

Our Old Order brethren still carry on the vestiges of an Anabaptist perspective with their focus on maintaining a community of faith.  That, at very least, provides them with some stability and a little protection from being blown hither and thither by the winds of doctrine.  I can see this in my Amish coworkers who exhibit a genuine and simple faith as if it is breathing for them.  Sure, they might not loudly proclaim themselves “born again” or be able to give a detailed explanation of every practice, but they do have a unity of spirit that we as modern “conservative” Mennonites have lost.

Modern Mennonites, like other fundamentalists, are taught to depend on themselves and take an extremely individualistic approach to matters of faith.  We do not see ourselves as our brothers’ keepers (other than to argue with them in men’s Sunday school class) and are quick to split over what we see as “more biblical” based on our own personal interpretation.  We have lost the concept of the body of Christ (and our being the incarnation together) that once made us unique.

Why Has Anabaptism Failed?

Anabaptism started on the right track, but subsequent generations have abandoned what was a teleological (and Spirit-led) faith for something manufactured, deontological and fundamentalist.  Sure, we have more theological knowledge than ever, but we lack spiritual wisdom to contextualize, comprehend or properly apply what we know.

It is bizzare that we cling to fundamentalist innovations of the past century as if all truth depended on it (things like revival meetings, Sunday school, modern eschatological interpretations and Creationism) yet neglect the richer traditions of the church.

Even our Amish brethren celebrate important days on the Christian calendar (Pentecost and Ascension Day) that are forgotten by most of us.  Anabaptism has failed, in part, because it separated itself from the greater cloud of witnesses and universal church that together represent the body of Christ.
We failed also because we, like many religious fundamentalists today, study the Bible thinking a book alone can lead us and this, unfortunately, is a complete rejection of the means that Jesus said would be provided for those who believe.

Jesus promised that we would have the Holy Spirit to “teach us all things” and stressed living in simple obedience through those means—with loving submission to each other as something central.  That is something quite different from a mental assent to a bunch of religious doctrines or dogmas.

We fail because we face backward towards our ancestors as if they hold the answers for today and forget that those before us looked forward full of the Spirit.  They did not dwell in the past.  Instead, they were dependent on each other and had Christ as their head.  We should not be trying to recreate their movement or looking for fundamentals.  We should instead be in full and sincere pursuit of faith as they were.

What to do?

I believe we would do well to be humble about our heritage, consider the fallibility of our own inherited base assumptions, and reach for an understanding broader, deeper and richer than our own.  Yes, being a Mennonite is as good a place to start as any other, but it cannot be where we remain or it leads to spiritual stagnation.

Faith fossilized into mere Biblical fundamentals is no better than the dead orthodoxy and the faithless modernism it was supposed to protect against.  Faith is something that is supposed to be lived out while moving boldly in a direction and is not something reducible to a set of theological propositions.

My Favorite Children’s Books

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Growing up it was easy to take books for granted.  Books were always a part of my life as a child and nothing seemed unusual about having them readily available.  But, as an adult looking back, it seems that those books played a significant role in my development and were a privilege of a good home.

My favorite books from childhood also reveal much about my personality and interests later in life.  It is hard to know exactly how much difference books made in creating what I’ve become.  However, it isn’t difficult for me to know which books have sentimental value and contained lessons that I still remember today.

So, without further ado, here’s my list…

1) The Poky Little Puppy

When my mom used to sing “where in the world is my poky little puppy” I knew who that was.  Of my siblings, I am probably the most likely to get lost chasing after butterflies of thought and fall behind the crowd.  I was curious, a late bloomer, the family slowpoke, head in the clouds, and could truly identify with a little puppy in a Golden Book.  I’ve plotted my own course in life, both for better and for worse, and that book about being last was the first that came to mind.

2) The Story About Ping

This, another book about being last, is also a favorite.  It was a book at my grandma’s house about a duck that hides to avoid punishment, nearly is made dinner while out wandering alone, and returns to face punishment. (Reminds me of a time as a child when I ran and hid to avoid the consequences for throwing something at my sister Olivia and sending her off in tears.  I came out of hiding to face the music only after my parents threatened to leave without me.  I was so gullible.)  This book had a good lesson about punctuality and also piqued my interest in a culture different from mine.

3) Make Way For Ducklings

Okay, what’s not to like about a family of ducks?  I think as a child it was good for illustrating the dangers in the world beyond and also that there are people, like the policemen who stopped traffic, who are willing to help.  (Wait, now why do I suddenly feel manipulated by this story?)  I believe one of my gifts is situational awareness.  It is important to find those ducks out of water around us and return them to safety again.

4) Blueberries for Sal

This book, as well as Make Way For Ducklings, is the creation of Robert McCloskey and noteworthy to me for the artwork.  Sure, the story about a day picking blueberries and a mother mixup involving a bear cub and human child is entertaining enough.  However, I remember my appreciation for the drawing style even at a very young age.  I also like blueberries.

5) Choo Choo The Runaway Engine

Before there was Thomas the Tank Engine, there was another little engine that ran away named Choo Choo.  I’m not sure why steam engines are so fascinating to children, but I know that I loved all manner of machine and the railroad age still captures my imagination today.  This book by Virginia Lee Burton is the first of three of her books that made the cut for my list.

The next…

6) Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

This book about man, machine, and loyalty to the end.  I remember my empathy for Mike and his steam shovel, Mary Ann, as they face off with the big modern (and soulless) competition.  It is a book that captures many of my lifelong values.  I love underdogs and determination against the odds.  It seems also that loyalty is more and more uncommon in this age when bigger and newer is often considered better.  I love the creative and unexpected solution at the end of this book about change.

7) The Little House

Of the three books by Burton, this one probably hits me closer to the heart.  Change and the passage of time take their toll on this little house.  My feeling like an old soul probably started with the nostalgia this book inspired.  I pitied that little house, once so happy, later run down and forgotten.  I guess someone like me, who always had to struggle keeping up and understanding the longing to be loved, wanted that lonely old house in a crowded city to be happy again.

Some runners up…

Are You My Mother?

Horton Hears a Who

Freight Train

The Lorax

The Wump World

The Giving Tree

Curious George

And, last to make my list…

8) The Way Things Work

This comical book from later in my childhood explained everything from faucets to fission reactors.  What better for a child who asked why constantly than a book answering how?  I believe it was a gift to my brother Kyle one Christmas, but it was shared between us boys and definitely one of my favorite books.  It was a silly book of mammoth proportions.  Wooly mammoths, to be precise, and one of several by David Macaulay (check out Cathedral, Castle, and Colosseum) that contained beautiful drawings, great explanations and wonderful detail.

There’s one other book that I can’t recall a title for nor can I remember the exact story.  It was a book with an elevated rail line and corner stores reminiscent of Brooklyn or Queens near the turn of the century.  It would come back to me later in life while making one of my frequent trips to New York City.  What amazed me is how the Big Apple has retained some of that same character.  Apparently the city that never stops has time for a little nostalgia lane too.

What are your favorite children’s books?

The Confidence Conundrum

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“Be confident!”  

Two words and some of the most unhelpful advice ever given.

Telling someone to be confident is like telling a depressed person to be happy or a short person to be tall.  A person who lacks in confidence does not know how to be confident or else they would already be confident.  Building confidence takes more effort than making a bold pronouncement upon someone.

People do not simply choose to be shy, unsure, uncertain, doubtful, confused, hesitant, timid, anxious or fearful.  No, those things are a product of life experiences and emotions that are all very real.  A confident person making a perfunctory statement does nothing to change the reality of a person who lacks confidence.

That said, confidence is desirable and something to be shared.  

Unfortunately, people who are confident often do not have reason to be introspective about it.  When you feel good about life there is not much need to know why or question it, there is only reason to be what you already are and enjoy the benefits.

Confidence is both a natural disposition and also something gained through positive experience.  Parents instill confidence in children through example or by helping them to overcome their fears and learn from failures rather than dwell in them.  Confident and successful parents seem to produce confident and successful children.

Confidence goes hand in hand with success, it frees a person to take the plunge rather than waste time in needless deliberation and makes them more attractive.  But, there is a sort of causality dilemma, in that confidence often leads to success while success builds confidence and without one the other becomes more difficult to maintain.

When confidence doesn’t produce success, it leads an intelligent person to doubt.  And with doubt comes less desire to risk effort and that results in even less opportunity for success, which often leads to even less success and even less confidence.  Pretty soon things can spiral downward into the pit of despair without a clear way out.

So, how do we help someone who lacks confidence gain it?

If you want a person to be confident then you must give them reason to be confident and good enough reason to overcome whatever reasons they have to lack confidence. To be helpful one must directly address root causes and not dismiss the realities that created the condition as silly or irrelevant.

What people need is T.IM.E.

Help must be practical.  Encouraging words don’t cut it.  Words, no matter how confident you are in saying them, are only words and do nothing to counteract the real life experience or emotional baggage of someone who has only known failure.  What is helpful, perhaps the only thing that does help in some cases, is meaningful long-term investment in the other person.

Loss of confidence happens over a lifetime, it comes as a result of traumatic experience or neglectful treatment, thus expecting a person to “snap out of it” because you say so is delusional at best and an excuse to be indifferent at worse.  There is more to be done than simple encouragement and that means an investment of time.

Here are three simple steps…

1) Take time to listen.  Confidence goes hand in hand with success, but success can lead to arrogance and unwillingness to hear first.  Many people want to “fix” another person without taking time to actually listen and assess the need.  This could mean many months or only a moment depending on the need.  It takes relating to the other person at their own level, earning their trust, without being in a rush or speaking in judgment of their situation.  Half the problem could be the lack of someone who will actually hear them out and care.  So listen empathically and try to identify with the other person emotionally.  Weep with them, laugh with them, eat with them and imagine with them.

2) IMagine a solution.  Without confidence, our ability to envision a better future dwindles and dies.  A successful person can easily take their ability to see a bright future for granted and yet a person who has continually failed does not share their rosy vision.  The first step towards any solution, therefore, is to think about it, to break the problem down into steps and help the other person mentally develop their path towards success.  After that comes execution of the plan.

3) Empower them.  This is where the rubber meets the road and is probably what is most lacking in our age of dog-eat-dog individualism.  Sure, there are many willing to spew their unhelpful advice and unasked-for judgments, but there are very few willing to partner in the success of another person and by this I mean make a substantive investment.  No, this does not mean a handout done in pity or religious obligation either, but an investment that physically and materially shows our confidence in the person who needs it.  Your willingness to partner together with them in a solution will, by itself, help build their confidence.

Anyhow, some final notes…

This is not a method or formula.  Each person and every situation is different.  Sometimes all that is needed is encouragement (more than saying “be confident”) which could mean something as little as a phone call.  While other times a lifelong commitment may be required.  It will likely require creativity, facilitating the right connections, and making recommendations.  

The goal is to get the person what they need to get on their feet and going in the right direction.  It also means getting out of the way and not being controlling or expecting anything in return besides enjoying their success with them.

Nobody is self-made.  If you are confident and successful, there are reasons why that go beyond your own abilities.  We did not pick our own home, communities, height, intelligence, personalities or luck.  We cannot take full credit for anything we have accomplished in our life.  This is reason to be humble and helpful.

If you are confident then share what you have been given with those who have little or less than you do.  Show your hope in their future with truth of action and not only your confidently spoken (but empty) words, be their heart…


Taking on Matthew 23 and the Uncomfortable Topic of Hypocrisy

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Several years ago, my church designated the fifth Sunday of the month as an opportunity for laymen to preach.  I passed on the invitation when my name came up.  I did not feel qualified to speak and therefore decided not to embarrass myself or bore an audience with my scattered thoughts.

Much has changed since then.  A couple years ago (upon realizing that I could no longer use the excuse of being younger than Jesus when he started his ministry) I decided to start saying “yes” when called upon.  And, surprisingly enough, I did survive my attempts at teaching and giving devotions.  In fact, I did well-enough that I started to think about what I would preach, given the chance.

What sermon would I preach?

I’ve heard dozens of sermons parsing 1 Corinthians 11.  Modesty (the word “modest” only found once in Scripture) has been a frequently preached on topic as well.  Biblical proof-texts pertaining to our doctrinal hobbyhorses make their regular appearances—I’m pretty sure my Mennonite readership is quite familiar with the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew.

I’ve heard many “fire and brimstone” messages about the danger of television, rock music, sports and “worldly” entertainment.  Where I come from there is no shortage of sensational stories and titillating tales included in the message.  Even the occasional myths about wells to hell and erroneous silver dollar arguments get mixed in to spice things up a bit when the pulpit-pounding theatrics aren’t good enough.

However, amongst those numerous messages I’ve heard from across many pulpits, there is one particular Biblical text that I cannot recall a sermon being preached on.

That text being Matthew 23, the chapter where Jesus levels seven accusations against the religious elites of that time, a sermon full of unpleasant words and bitter reproach that culminates into prophecy about Jerusalem’s destruction and the ending of that age.

I have long pondered why this significant portion of Scripture (mirrored in the six woes of Luke 11:37-54) is so often neglected.

It could be confirmation bias.  It is very easy to only see evidence that confirms our existing worldview (or “cherry picking“) and ignore evidence to the contrary.  Perhaps it is preoccupation with defending the current tradition that distracts us from a sermon about the hypocrisy of other religious people?  We’d rather dismiss that as irrelevant to our own time and unimportant.

Or…does it hit too close to home?

In a denomination known to split over religious minutia a discussion of personal hypocrisy might be a sore subject.  When I read it, the parallels between the attitudes of those Jesus called out and some I’ve witnessed in our circles today are clearly recognizable.  So the passage might simply be avoided as an uncomfortable topic.

Anyhow, as one not striving to follow the path of least resistance, and as one who believes that faithfulness includes challenging the complacent, I would choose Matthew 23 for a sermon text and explain how the message Jesus gave then still applies to us today.

Blogging—today’s medium for delivering a message to a broader audience.

I felt called to be a minister of the gospel at a young age.  Back then, I had thought that meant being ordained or or serving as a missionary overseas.  Both of those things have become more and more unlikely as I’ve aged.  I do not tow the denominational line, so to speak, therefore my chances of ordaination or being sent to represent a Mennonite organization are about nil.

I may never have the opportunity to preach in a Mennonite church given my current trajectory.  But life is strange.  This thing called blogging did not exist until the mid 90s nor did social media and now it does.  My writing here reaches a larger audience than ordained Mennonite men do on Sunday mornings and that’s something I could not have imagined as a child.

So, I’ve decided to do a series of blogs on Matthew 23.  I want to be faithful with the platform I’ve been given, and I believe that you are here reading because the message is relevant to you.  My hope is that this encouragement to go beyond our own religious comfort zones is received as intended.

Part 1: Jesus Assails Unhelpful Religious Elites (Matthew 23:1-4)

Part 2: What Is True Distinction? (Matthew 23:6-12)

Part 3: Missionaries From Hell? (Matthew 23:13-15)

Part 4: Too Focused To Be Faithful (Matthew 23:16-24)

Part 5: Would Our Non-conformity Impress Jesus? (Matthew 23:25-28)

Part 6: Are You Better Than A Pharisee? (Matthew 23:29-32)

Part 7: Jesus Longs for His People (Matthew 23:37-39)

Rudolf Diesel: Thoughts about Idealism, Despair, Progress, Politics and Hope

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Diesel powers the world economy.  I never considered the extent to which that is true until watching a documentary (click here to view it) about this type of internal combustion engine.  It is named after the inventor, a French-German mechanical engineer, Rudolf Diesel, and is the reason why global trade is possible to the extent it is.

Early Diesel design, circa 1897

In considering the story of Diesel, his brilliant invention and the results, I could not help but see the pattern all too common with innovators.  Diesel’s life turned tragic, he was found floating in the North Sea, dead of an apparent suicide, and likely a result of his despair over the unintended consequences of his own design.

According to biographical accounts, Diesel was a utopian idealist who had hopes that his invention would be a catalyst for social change, free the common man and break corporate monopolies.  Unfortunately, while a revolution for transportation, Diesel power did not achieve the lofty social vision. 

Worse, the Diesel engine found use as a part in an efficient killing machine, the German U-boat, and this no doubt grieved the pacifist inventor.

Here are some observations…

#1) What is intended for good can often be used for evil.

Diesel had never intended his invention be used as a means of terrorizing North Atlantic shipping lanes.  And, likewise, many scientists and inventors had regrets related to their greatest contribution to the world.

German U-boat, the original stealth weapon 

There are lists from K-cups to A-bombs online and many others.  For example, Henry Ford seemed to dislike the vast social changes and consumerist mindset made possible by his manufacturing revolution that helped automobiles become a fixture of American life.  Even this media, the internet, once thought to be the beginnings of an information age, has become a cesspool of pornography and ill-founded claims.

I worry about this as a blogger.  Once my thoughts are out there they cannot be contained again.  Will someone pick up my words and run with them in a direction I never intended?  It is a potential outcome that could scare a sensitive soul into silence and is at least a reason for me to be prayerful in what I post here.

I believe there are many people who do not thoroughly think through the potential unintended consequences of the ideas they promote.  There are many government programs and social movements intended for good that might actually be creating more problems than the one that they were intended to solve.

Which takes me to a second point…

#2) Yesterday’s revolution is today’s loathed source of inequality and evil.

It is ironic that the invention that did actually outcompete coal for market supremacy is now enemy #1 for many.  The internal combustion engine won in the marketplace because it was by far the cheapest most efficient means to power transportation and still remains. 

Given there are no steam powered cars, tractors, trains and ships anymore, it is clear that internal combustion is the best bang for the buck and remains to be rivaled.  Diesel powered locomotives and ocean going container ships are extremely powerful while being very economical.    

109,000-horsepower Wärtsilä-Sulzer RTA96-C

Diesel power still outperforms hybrid technology—A loaded Diesel powered class 8 truck is more efficient pound for pound than a Prius.

Think about it: It takes one gallon of fuel to move an 80,000lb truck five to seven miles.  A 2016 Prius, by comparison, carries a weight of around 4000lbs can go anywhere from 50 to 58 miles on a gallon of fuel.  It may seem the Toyota is greener until you consider that it is moving twenty times less weight.  Twenty Prius cars combined together, after dividing their individual consumption by twenty, would consume 2.5 to 2.9 gallons of fuel.  Now, obviously, combining Diesel and hybrid technology on the scale of class 8 truck would undoubtedly yield even greater results if fuel economy were the only concern, but the point remains that Diesel power is extremely efficient and effective—and only more so the larger the application.

So what’s the problem?

Well, the current popular perception is that the petroleum industry “big oil” is the enemy and conspires to hold back technology that would dramatically increase efficiency.  Worse than that, we are told that petroleum power is a source of global climate change and a threat to the global ecology.  Poor Diesel would be driven even further into despair if half this is true.  We fight over oil.

 #3) Progressive aims of our time are at odds with each other or self-contradictory.

Globalism, higher standard of living for more people and environmentalist ‘green’ movements are at odds with each other.  Pushing one direction will almost invariably come at the cost of the others. 

Progressive politicians may tout an idea of a ‘green economy’ as a jobs creator, but the reality has been that wind and solar energy can only remain competitive through heavy use of government subsidies.  Beyond that, even with the help, domestic ‘green’ manufacturing is unsustainable against foreign competition.  At best we will merely replace jobs lost by the heavy regulations placed on fossil fuels and raise costs of living across the board.

Furthermore, it was the progressive policies of the past century that have created the current conditions.  Government policies like the Rural Electrification Act, the Interstate highway system and trade agreements have actually moved us away from a more sustainable less polluting lifestyle.  Our cheap and easy movement from place to place has harmed community and local markets.

Rural Electrification Act propaganda poster.

It is hard to know how the current landscape would look had the progressives of yesterday had not literally paved the way for suburban sprawl, the trucking industry (that currently employs me) and driven us to embrace a coal powered grid.  But I do suspect more of our food would be locally grown, more of our products locally produced and solar energy far more the norm in places utilities would be to costly to maintain unless mandated by law.

In final analysis things might not be as dismal as they seem.

It is easy to focus on the negative without considering the good.  The means of today are likely as unsustainable as the means of yesterday and therefore the progress of the past century might not be the end of us after all.  The only consistent reality in the past two centuries has been that markets constantly change.

Canal boats an all the infrastructure to support them were soon replaced by steam power and railroads.  In Pennsylvania the lumber industry rose in prominence before a rapid decline after the states wooded mountains were reduced to stubble.  The coal industry once put food on the table for boat loads of immigrants before cheap efficient oil and a multitude other factors conspired against it.

Bay State Mills, Lawrence, built 1845.

Manufacturing, from the once mighty water powered textile mills of the New England states to the formerly unstoppable domestic steel industry, has also migrated following cheaper labor and energy.  Each time promoting deep consternation and fear.  But so far the Luddites have yet to have the last laugh and a new balance is eventually found that usually benefits everyone.

Certainly the overconfidence and optimism about today’s new solution may become the big disappointment of tomorrow.  Yet, do we really wish to go back to a time when a transatlantic voyage was only something a religious zealot or crazy Viking explorer would do?  Would we really rather spend most of our time scrounging for just enough to eat as to avoid the possibility of mechanized warfare?

Nobody knows for certain why Diesel died... 

However, what is certain is that his invention changed the world and provided a means for interstate commerce and global trade that never existed before.  The pacifying effect of global trade, economic benefits of an expanded market place and inexpensive power are largely unappreciated.  But we probably do have Diesel to thank for helping create the long peace and prosperity of our time.

Maersk, Triple-E design, Diesel powered, container ship

In an age of information overload, where we know about beheadings in the Middle East before the people the next town over would have heard a century ago, it is difficult for our finite minds to contextualize and easy to become overwhelmed.  This, with an accompanying loss of faith, could be why middle-aged American white males are committing suicide (supposedly the most privileged in the world) and at an alarmingly increasing rate. 

Diesel’s pessimism about the future in retrospect seems to have been premature and his nightmarish perception of reality overstated.  In like manner many of our modern fears and despair inducing thoughts about the future could be negativity bias and nothing more.  Every generation seems to believe that the world is falling apart and still here we are.

Whatever the case, ignore the fear-mongering propaganda of the punditry and politicians.  Embrace temperance, a spiritual quality developed through faith, over mindless reaction and fearful impulse.  Trust God to secure the future, we can only live one day at a time and never ever lose hope!  If you are depressed about events in the world today, I invite you to see the higher perspective:

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Perhaps the greater of two evils will be elected come November and drive the nation to complete ruin.  

Who knows besides God?

We may all die tomorrow, we will all die eventually, our work blown away in the wind of time and forgotten.  Everything comes to pass, nothing will remain as we know it today, but there is hope beyond all hope found in an eternal perspective.  So look up, because the sun is still shining and the future remains bright!

Do you see the light and feel the warmth of hope eternal?

If not, my prayer is for the blind to see…