Let’s Talk About Cain Killing Someone With a Rock

Most people know the general plot of the story, whether they think it’s history or myth: Cain and Abel were the first brothers on earth, and because his offering wasn’t accepted by God like his brother’s was, Cain killed Abel in a jealous rage. (You can read the full story here—and you should, because source material matters, people.)

There’s something deeply disturbing about realizing the first death was a murder. Christianity teaches that because of sin, we all die…but also because of sin, we sometimes kill.

Which brings us to today. More than in the aftermath of past mass shootings, I’ve seen arguments from both sides that reference Cain. Here’s the most common one:

Full disclosure: I’m not a huge fan of discussing complex societal problems on the Internet, partly because I’m not an expert in basically anything, and partly because it’s not a good medium for listening and responding well.

But as soon as I see people posting Biblical verses or references to support their position, it’s like beaming the bat-signal into the sky. Time to break out the cape and exegetical utility belt. Gotham needs me.

Don’t worry. I always give myself a cooling-off period when I’m in one of those moods, so I’m not about to go all vigilante justice on you. By now, I know that I’m not the hero the world deserves or the hero it needs. I don’t have all the answers. I can’t solve all the problems. But I do have some thoughts.

If you had asked me a week ago what the story of Cain teaches us, before the memes and the rhetoric, I would have said things like “God deeply values right worship,” “God deeply values human life,” and “We are held responsible for the moral choices we make.” All of those are major themes of the story. None of these are referenced by the meme.

That’s your friendly reminder that the story of Cain and Abel isn’t actually about gun control. It exists in the Bible for much more important reasons than to get name-dropped on Facebook after a terrible tragedy.

Okay. So, let’s talk about the part that is directly relevant to mass shootings and what we should do about them. One of the themes of the story of Cain is…

We are capable of great evil.

All of us. Not just the mentally ill or the marginalized, not just the shooters and the psychopaths. Need proof? Later in the Bible, when John says, “Do not be like Cain”—referencing choices to hate others instead of love them—he’s talking to his fellow Christians. (1 John 3:12)

Have you felt what that means, lately? It means we could be like Cain. It means sometimes we are. Sometimes I am.

If you believe this, thousands of conclusions follow, some of which I think relate to the meme-ification of gun violence. Because I believe that all of us are capable of great evil, I also believe…

My friends on the political left are correct when they say it’s all too easy to let greed and selfishness blind us to potential solutions to this problem.

And my friends on the political right are correct when they say that no matter how many laws are made, people determined to break them will find a way to do so.

Some of my friends are wrong because, really, there is no such thing as a “good guy with a gun.” We are all corrupted by sin, and even our good intentions for gun ownership—protection or public safety—can be twisted by fear or prejudice or pride. (Ex: controversial police shootings and questions about “just wars.”)

Some of my friends are wrong because they put too much faith in rules, and maybe even in the government (made up of corrupted people) by being willing to trade freedom for security. It’s an age-old question of risks and gains that needs to be made carefully with an understanding that we’re just as bad, maybe worse, institutionalized into a group than we are individually.

So to the people talking about how Cain killed with a rock, I’d say yes, he did. But now we can kill with weapons that have more power and potential, and that changes things. That’s true of every new invention—guns are just one example. Technology shows both our capacity to create and progress, and our tendency to corrupt and destroy in more far-reaching ways. That’s the difference between a rock and a gun. And the point of the story of Cain and Abel isn’t to say we shouldn’t have laws just because we are lawbreakers at heart.

And to the people saying that Abel’s blood cries out for justice, I’d say yes, it does. But it cries out against us, in our confidence of our own rightness and righteousness. The references to Abel’s blood crying out in the New Testament (Matthew 23:34-36, Hebrews 11:4, 12:24) aren’t given as a reason why we should have more restrictions to prevent murder. The point of the story of Cain and Abel is not that it tells us how to respond to violence, but that it symbolizes all of our rejections of God since then.

All that said, the story of Cain and Abel does have application to the crazy, messed-up world we live in. The main one I see is in its honesty about the human condition. What you think about people’s goodness matters when you talk politics and policy…but it doesn’t mean you don’t have a responsibility to talk about those things.

Let’s refuse to accept platitudes and easy answers as we try to find wise solutions…but let’s also remember our tendency toward corruption when we think about how those solutions will play out.

Star Wars Valentines

Happy Valentine’s Day Eve! (That’s a thing, right? Like, where you eat carrot sticks and rice so you can eat too much chocolate the next day?)

It’s become a tradition on the blog to put up a page of homemade Valentines in February. This year’s round is for my sister, a big Star Wars fan. (You’re welcome, kid!)

Do some of these probably already exist out in Internet-land? Yes. Are there about a billion Star Wars valentines being sold every second today to young padawans who have class parties tomorrow? Yes. Did I still really want brooding Anakin on a valentine of my own? Also yes.

I could have gone on for dozens of punny slogans, but here are a few. Put more ideas in the comments…I love reading them! And check out the Theologian, Lord of the Rings, and love-at-first-fight valentines too if you need more.

Okay, friends: here’s your chance. You’ve got three trilogies (and an extended universe) of characters to write valentine mottos for. Go!

Can Technology Make Us Better?

“I’m going to tell you a story about a time I made someone cry,” I told the fourth and fifth grade Sunday School class. They settled in, excited, as I described the scene: sixth grade, the start of a long stretch of awkwardness. One of my classmates was trying to collect his thoughts in answer to a question and couldn’t quite get there. “I think…I think…” he said, then trailed off.

“Do you even think at all?” I blurted out. And the other kids laughed. The boy I’d made fun of ran out of the room crying. I’ll never forget the look on his face before he did.

I paused the story. The kids, the present-day ones, looked alarmed. This is not where they thought the story was going. Most of my stories have happy endings, and along the way involve funny things like zombies with lightsabers, exploding grape slushies, and me launching an offensive disguised as a bush during a game of Capture the Flag. They probably thought I’d made someone cry with joy, or, more likely, by accidentally injuring them in a comical way.

This Amy, they were starting to realize, did something mean. Plain and simple.

“Do you know why I did it?” I asked.

Twelve pairs of wide eyes stared up at me. No one volunteered an answer.

So I gave it to them. “I did it because I wanted to.”

I went on to explain that I loved being the center of attention. I wanted people to like me and think I was funny. So when I saw a chance to make a joke at someone else’s expense…I took it.

That’s what I thought of when I saw this clip from a Louis C.K. interview about how cell phones have changed bullying. (The main point is in the first two minutes, and if you just listen to those, you’ll also miss the language.)

I use this example in particular partly because it’s got something profoundly true to say about how technology can distance us from others. As Louis C.K. says, a cell phone can’t teach empathy.

But I also included it because Louis C.K. is one of many Hollywood figures caught up in a storm of sexual misconduct and abuse. In that aspect of his story, we see some of the complexities of technology: it’s given victims a voice and it’s made it easier for us to hurl condemnation from afar. It’s made entertainers into idols and then publicized their falls.

I saw a response by Sarah Silverman, his friend and colleague, who talked about the hurt that comes when someone you love does bad things. What stuck out to me most, though, was at the very end when she said, “We need to be better. We will be better.”

And I have to admit that part of me wondered, “Will we? Does saying it make it true?” (more…)

Let’s Talk About Technology!

During my senior year of high school, we were supposed to write a personal essay on a topic of some kind.

That’s how I remember it, anyway. It’s possible the instructions were more specific than that, but then again, I recall my very structured sister vehemently hating this assignment, so maybe not.

Regardless, I decided to write about writing. More specifically, how much easier (and better) it was to write first drafts by hand rather than using a computer. My teacher loved it. He had me read it out loud to the class, and I confidently waxed eloquent about how the convenience of technology can be a danger as well and how writing is more pure, undistracted, and real when begun by hand.

“There’s something about a computer that distances us from our writing,” my essay declared. “In a way, it could have been anyone’s hands that typed this sentence. Each letter on the keyboard in front of me has been pushed thousands of times and has come out in the same Times New Roman size 12 mold each time. . . . Admitting that it feels intimidating to entrust my writing—in a way, a small part of myself—to the impersonal Document1 makes me feel a bit ridiculous, like I just confessed that I don’t like to have my picture taken because I think that the camera will steal my soul. I know that, logically, this essay would be the same whether typed on a laptop or scribbled in my messy handwriting…but it doesn’t feel the same.”

There was only one problem: it was a lie.

Oh, sure, I’d gotten the idea while brainstorming in the margins of my notebook, even written the first paragraph and some of the best parts in the middle on notecards, to be rearranged later. But the bulk of the essay, contrary to what I claimed, went straight from my head to the impersonal Document 1 by way of the computer.

That wasn’t how I planned it. It had just sort of…happened. And by the time it did, I decided to turn the essay in anyway. When my conscience poked me about it, I told myself that it would be too much work to change topics, that I’d have to rewrite the whole thing, that (to be honest) I didn’t know how to explain my complicated feeling about technology. (more…)

Why Are Fairy Tales So Violent?

With fairy tales, there’s a certain expectation of a charming, sweet little story that takes place long ago and far away. Sure, we like the Disney storybook versions with pain-free happy-ever-afters, but guess what? When you count the original stories for those sorts of tales, you won’t find many.

Hugs and wise guidance from parents are far less common than abandonment and decapitation in the old tales. Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off their toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper, Snow White makes the evil queen dance in red-hot iron shoes till she dies, and instead of beautiful castles and red roses, there are mostly just monsters, unfair enchantments, and people getting rolled down hills in barrels filled with spikes. And those are just the fairy tales that Adam Gidwitz drew my attention to.

My latest road trip was occupied by listening to the amusing-but-unflinching narrator read Gidwitz’s collections of woven together fairy tales. (In case you’re interested, the second one, In a Glass Grimmly was by far my favorite.)

Plot points of these stories range from the creepy (a stepmother murdering a young boy and then framing the boy’s sister) to the gruesome (his father accidentally eating the son’s dismembered body for dinner) to the just plain weird (the boy’s spirit in the form of a bird dropping a millstone on his stepmother and then turning into a boy again). Same story. That would be “The Juniper Tree,” kids. Basically everything that happens in that one is a bizzare twist.

As I read, I wondered why these stories were ever considered appropriate for children. When I got to the grossest, grimmest parts, Disney’s cleaned-up versions were just fine with me. But as I thought about it, I realized the purposes of the old fairy tales weren’t the same. In an interesting essay, Gidwitz explains how fairy tales make abstract moral concepts real for kids: “Forests are where our fears turn into wolves, our desires into candy houses, where our fathers turn us loose to fend for ourselves, where the emotional problems we face at home are physicalized, externalized, and ultimately conquered.” There’s a moral certainty to these old stories, a weightiness. Good has to triumph and evil must be punished—that’s the way these tales work. You can count on it. It just will.

Probably the scary and violent details of these stories got by, experts say, because two hundred years ago, many kids didn’t reach adulthood and none of them were coddled, and there actually was a chance that a wolf might eat you if you wandered into the woods alone. I’m sure those are all true. But what intrigues me more are the high stakes that these violent old stories put on choices and their consequences. No kid who heard those tales and their vivid endings would wonder if wrong choices would catch up with them. Not going to happen. (more…)

The Last Jedi and Everyday Evil

It’s game night. We are playing a “social deduction game” where the object is to either assassinate the player who is Secret Hitler or to get Secret Hitler elected Chancellor, depending on whether you’re a liberal or a fascist. As usual, I am defending myself, and as usual, the people who know me best don’t believe a word I’m saying.

Finally, someone comes to my defense. “Come on, guys,” he says, holding up one of the world-famous chocolate chip cookies I’ve brought with me. “No fascist would make us cookies.”

“Yes, they would,” I say automatically. Then I explain that one of my philosophy professors had a song called “There’s a Little Hitler Inside of You.” Looking back, this didn’t help my case at all.

SecretHitler

It really is a fun game. You should try it.

Since I am getting strange looks from the people who met me twenty minutes ago, I don’t tell them that I’ve read dozens of books about racism and genocide, and most of the people involved were decent, mild-mannered neighbors who donated to charity, doted on their children, baked cookies…and turned away from a vast and sweeping evil that they could have resisted.

And I certainly don’t say that every time someone watches a movie or the news and tells me, “I can’t imagine how anyone could let something like that happen,” I think, You have such a limited imagination, my friend. Or maybe just a short memory. How long has it been since you dwelled on something dark and secret instead of turning away? Since you felt hatred for someone you didn’t really understand? Since you saw the way out of temptation and didn’t take it?

Not long, at least not for me.

While I’m thinking these things, the game goes on. I am, actually, a fascist (but not Secret Hitler). I get assassinated and the liberals rue the cookies they ate in confidence. They should have known better.

(more…)

The Best of 2017

(Disclaimer: this is momentarily going to be somewhat depressing, so go ahead. Skip to the fun facts if you want. I don’t mind.)

It’s the end of another year and the fourth birthday of this blog. Along with all the usual greetings wishing everyone a happy new year in person and on social media, I’ve noticed more people than usual commenting on how they hope this year will be better than the last one.

That’s a wish we probably all share after a 2017 that was hard by most measures—we had political strife, natural disasters, global tragedies, and a front-row seat to the decay that goes on when morality doesn’t matter anymore.

As a friend or family member, I hope your 2018 is without those sorts of trials, personal or public. As an imperfect person with half-finished thoughts living in a sin-stained world, I know your 2018 probably will be marked with the same signs of brokenness as the one before. As a writer who has continually been amazed by the grace of God at work in the midst of the craziness, I trust that instead of losing hope, you’ll be reminded to depend on the only one who is actually in control.

And now for the usual year-end recap.

Assorted Fun Facts

  • The Monday Heretic is up to 244 posts if you’re new to the blog and want a deluge of back-reading…but only 41 from this year. Out of 52 weeks, that means I wasn’t quite as consistent this year as in the past. No bonus points for me!
  • Besides the US, top countries for views are: Canada, the UK, Australia and South Africa (a new entry in the top five countries this year).
  • This is the first year since the blog began with no posts that were actually a disguise for a secret code for some sort of escape room/puzzle challenge. Yes, really.
  • I’m running out of Lord of the Rings characters I can use for my annual Hobbit Birthday Party. I might switch to linking “gifts” to relevant places or significant props. If you’re a LOTR fan, you can help me out by commenting with your top three settings or top three objects in the books.

Most Viewed Posts

Gold: The Wise and the LeFous

I love that this post and its sequel, below, got just about the same number of views. And I hope is that each one didn’t get passed around to people who already agreed with it. This one was a challenge to articulate a difficult position in a nuanced way (I feel like that was a theme of many of my 2017 posts).

Sample Quote: “Our faith matters. It relates even to areas of our life like what animated movies to watch. This isn’t a ridiculous overreaction…as long as Christians thoughtfully and graciously make and explain their choice. What we watch may be important, but more important is who is watching us to see what Jesus is like.

 

Silver: LeFou Gate, Part Two

This is one of those posts that bothered me until I wrote it, the critical missing sidenote to the original that I think was more important because it asks tough questions. What does it look like to live out our beliefs? How does the “love” part of “speaking the truth in love” come in? Where have we failed to act like Jesus? I didn’t articulate everything perfectly the way I wanted to, but I’m glad I added this.

Sample Quote: “These are real people who you might have offended with your general anti-gay post about the movie because, no matter what your actual beliefs are, they are hearing that you wish people like them did not exist, or at least that you wish they’d exist silent and unseen.”

 

Bronze: The Church’s Biggest Problem

Controversy! Also, I get to quote from my friend Greg’s book, Single Gay Christian, so here’s a reminder that it’s so good. This one has a message that I want to shout from the rooftops all year long until my voice is hoarse…and remind myself over and over till it finally gets through.

Sample Quote: “I am deeply, desperately afraid that we are destroying our witness in our pursuit of the Christian version of the American dream. The world is looking at what we’re doing—and not doing—and coming to conclusions about the God we claim to serve…and they’re not always good. Sometimes, we are silent when we should speak. Sometimes, we talk too much when we should listen first. Sometimes we just run away.”

 

Amy’s Favorite Five Posts

In no particular order, here are five posts I particularly enjoyed writing.

Advent Stories: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Why: All of the Advent Stories this year were delightful to write (there’s a good chance that I’ll continue with more carol stories next year), but Ernest’s prodigal son story has been brewing in my head for a while. I’m glad I got the chance to share it.

Sample Quote: “Charley thought it would a lark, an adventure, a response to the taunting of his friends who had enlisted to skirmish with those know-it-all Southerners and be back home with medals and glory in a few months. It’s been over three years. The war isn’t over, and for all I know, it never will be. We’ll just go on fighting and fighting until the Mason-Dixon line is nothing more than a boundary between two graveyards.

 

When You’ve Almost Lost Hope

Why: This one combines my favorite metaphor of the year with my favorite Storytime with Amy. After all these years, I can finally admit how I conned my way into my high school’s advanced choir without being able to read music. (Confession is good for the soul.)

Excerpt: “We’re the choir, church. Sometimes we’re not going to know what’s going on, and many times we’ll feel mildly terrified when it’s our turn to break the silence, but the world needs our song. Let’s go with what we know—the truth that’s gone so deep it’s a part of us—and sing it loud.”

 

Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton Review Snow White

Why: This was just a really fun fact to stumble upon when researching for a Snow White retelling I was working on…and a chance for me to see myself in some of my favorite Inklings, but in a negative way. (And since Lewis is basically a fourth member of the Trinity to some, criticizing him does actually feel like heresy, so that’s a bonus.)

Excerpt: “When I elevate myself above those around me, when I interrupt people who are clearly wrong to bestow my great thoughts upon them, when I divide everyone into “us” and “them”—I lose focus on what matters.

 

Rogue One and Martin Luther King Jr.

Why: This is one where I processed something as I was writing. I’m still not sure I’ve got it all sorted out, but it was an interesting connection, and I’m still working out the implications. Also, it’s one of the few movie-reaction posts this year.

Whether these connections make sense or not, wherever you are on the political spectrum, whichever order you use to watch the Star Wars movies, I think there’s a takeaway we can all agree on: don’t reduce people. Don’t forget that they are not causes or archetypes or walk-on roles in a saga starring you. They are people.

 

How Do We Respond to Radical Extremism?

Why: Of my responses to current events, this one hit me the hardest. There is tragedy here. There is also a challenge, hope, and some book recommendations.

Excerpt: “I want to be a brave person. Even more, I want so badly to live in a brave country. But we have to remember: courage takes action when the stakes are low, in the small things, and those million tiny decisions make us who we really are.”

 

That’s it, friends! Thanks for reading along on the blog this year. I appreciate you and the good thoughts and conversations you’ve sparked, whether in the comments section or a private message or in person.

If you want to look through past best-of posts, go to 2016, 2015, and 2014.