Month: July 2017

Don’t Be Samson and Other Life Lessons

Samson (the one in the Bible) is not a nice guy. But it took me at least until high school to realize this.

Some of you who know the story are rolling your eyes. “What was your first clue? The way he broke basically all of the Ten Commandments? That little incident with the prostitute? Maybe the time he dealt with a breakup by lighting hundreds of foxes on fire to burn down his enemies’ fields?”

In my defense, Samson’s story is so action-packed that it’s often told in Sunday School, and the kiddie version (understandably) sanitizes some of the violence and edits out all the hanky-panky. For a while, without context, Samson seemed like the perfect biblical superhero: strong, brave, and used by God to defeat Israel’s enemies.

Usually accompanied by pictures like this.

Then one day it dawned on me that Samson is a classic antihero, one whose story should come with a content warning label and an announcement that this is a cautionary tale, not a role model profile. Surprise!

The thing is, we like strong characters. People who get things done. Heroes who take action instead of letting life just kinda happen to them. And Samson is that, for sure. Told that way, with that particular slant, he makes a great and uncomplicated story.

But if we don’t watch out, that natural love of an active protagonist can turn into a tricky little lie that I see in the church from time to time: Competence excuses bad judgment. The results matter more than the way you get there. Or, to go from general to specific…

“Fine, maybe I shouldn’t have phrased it like that, but I have a forceful personality. Everything I said was true. Isn’t that enough?”

“I wish people would stop complaining about Leader VonSuperpower—God is in control, and he can use anyone, right? Besides, at least he’s getting things done.”

“She pretends she’s being open-minded, but you know what? I think she’s just too afraid of offending anyone to actually have an opinion on XYZ issue.”

“I love the way Blogger McMegaphone isn’t afraid to say it like it is. Sure, it’s a little cutting sometimes, but the other side is asking for it.”

(more…)

Why I Complain About Technology

If you ever wondered how Disney does good ol’ tall tales, there’s an animated collection for you: American Legends, which I watched recently with a room full of antsy kiddos.

Being Minnesotans, we started with Paul Bunyan, whose boot-steps formed the thousand lakes of our proud state. (I asked why he couldn’t have eradicated mosquitoes instead of cutting down trees, and a four-year-old rolled her eyes and informed me they would be way, way too small for him, obviously.)

General overview of the tall tale: Paul the giant goes around causing mayhem and somehow still being useful. He meets a big blue ox and eventually challenges a chainsaw and steam engine to a grand contest to see who can cut and haul the most trees.

And…he loses.

The kids were shocked. I was even kind of shocked. Banished to the wilderness, Paul continues to frolic around with Babe the ox, but it still felt like a bit of a letdown of an ending.

The other stories in this volume had a similar theme. Johnny Appleseed doesn’t travel by rail or even wagon train out West—he sets out on his own, planting trees as he goes and dies in obscurity. John Henry also gets into a duel with a machine to lay tracks and dig through a mountain. He, unlike Paul, wins…and then dies of exhaustion. Even Casey Jones, a railroad engineer, survives by grit and pushcart to deliver the mail on time when his train fails him.

I will be honest and say that only the “John Henry” clip is worth watching.

Rugged independence, strength, and down-home courage, sure, all of that is there. But a deeper value found in these stories was a distrust of technology. Set in the rugged, untamed West, there was a sense of mourning the coming changes. The frontier would be civilized, there was no choice there, but it would lose something, something inherently good and heroic, in the process.

Apparently, the classic American hero is courageous in the face of great odds…and then eventually defeated by so-called “progress.” Change is both inevitable and sad. Whether this reflects on the era in which the legends were first told (the late 1800s) or the one where they were animated by Disney (mostly the 1950s), it said something interesting.

And I wondered, were they right? (more…)

Donald Trump Is Not the Exception

Sometimes, people try to convince me that the human race is slowly progressing. “Think about it,” they’ll say. “At least in our culture, there’s no more human sacrifice or slavery. Women can vote, and minority groups of all kinds are fighting for and receiving equal rights. Repressive and outdated moral codes are fading in influence, and we’re working toward justice and love for all. Also, Wonder Woman finally came out!”

And some days, I can almost believe them. Yes, I think, I’m delighted that I live in a society where, even though someone in my apartment building has a wireless network called “Racist Neighbor,” (yes, really) at least no one I know is heil-ing Hitler or boiling and eating their enemies. Could we be getting better after all?

And then I go on Facebook or Twitter or the comments section of blogs or articles, and I remember: nope, people are not basically good.

Social media might be the most obvious way to see our true selves: unscripted and unfiltered. Most bad behavior trends in and out, making resurgences like fashion fads: are we cynically self-sufficient this decade? Maybe legalistic condemnation is more in vogue. Or is lawless abandon making a comeback?

Our selfishness takes different forms, chants different slogans, and gets a rebranding to change the packaging, but the content is still the same, variations on those ol’ seven from church tradition: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth.

For a specific example, in some ways, I’m encouraged to see outrage every time President Trump is unprofessional or just plain mean on Twitter. It’s good to hold those in public office accountable to be thoughtful and deliberate in their choice of words.

 

That said, Donald Trump isn’t the first person to be rude, gossipy, and narcissistic on social media. There’s a greater shock value for what he says because we expect better of our president, and rightly so. But what we can learn from this is more bigly than just dissatisfaction with our current president’s behavior (sorry, couldn’t resist). It should remind us of something much more fundamental: our unrehearsed selves are not kind.

Not just Trump’s. Ours.

(more…)