Friday, December 19, 2014

What Does Your Myers-Briggs Score Say About You?

On today's episode of Let's Ruin Something You Thought Was Fun and Interesting, we examine the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI. Doubtless you've seen these four-letter acronyms flying around, and perhaps you've even taken a version of the test to find out all about yourself. Is it really, useful, though? For anything? Well, yes and no. Mostly no.

The MBTI was developed by a mother-daughter team, Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, over several decades in the early twentieth century. It was originally the brainchild of Katherine Briggs, who was inspired to build on and refine the "psychological types" theory of famous psychologist Carl Jung. The pair's tireless efforts culminated in the introduction of a formal version of the MBTI test in 1962.

The method behind the four-letter type indicators is largely an extension of Jung's theory of introversion vs. extroversion and how that distinction manifests itself in personality preferences. It splits an individual's personality into four dichotomies: Introvert-Extrovert, Sensing-Intuition, Thinking-Feeling, and Judging-Perceiving. The theory supposes that everyone displays a dominant preference in each dichotomy, indicated by one's corresponding four-letter score: ENTJ, ISFP, ESTP, et cetera.

The MBTI has enjoyed uninterrupted success and popularity for decades, mostly because it's a fun test to take, and people love being able to label themselves as something. (Buzzfeed is subsisting almost entirely on this idea.) We humans insist on forcing discontinuity onto our categorically continuous reality, so the idea that every individual can be classified as one of 16 personality types is fantastically appealing. Modern versions of the test even have a heroic-sounding label for each type, like "The Showman" (ESFP) and "The Confidant" (INFJ). (Click here to see which superhero you are!) One wonders how popular the test would be if it labeled people by their stereotypical negative character traits instead, like "The Insufferable Elitist" (INTJ) and "The Oblivious Materialist" (ESTP). Actually, has anybody done that? Let's do that.

Not so excited to add "ENTJ" to your dating profile anymore, are you?

As fun as the MBTI is, there are serious and numerous problems with it. The two women who developed it, for all their enthusiasm and tireless effort, were not psychologists. Neither of them had any formal training in psychology or in any science whatsoever, so the development of the test was patently unscientific. Even though the test has been administered for decades, many psychologists continually question the validity of the MBTI, and for good reasons.

First of all, the test relies on the honest input of the test-taker. Anyone not answering the questions honestly for whatever reason will obtain an "inaccurate" result. Secondly, there's no way to argue with anyone's result, because the test is unfalsifiable. It's impossible to demonstrate that someone isn't an ENFP, for example. Anyone who takes the test is free to agree or disagree with the result, and nobody could possibly argue.

Another reason that experts openly question the validity of the test is its alarmingly high rate of test-retest unreliability. People who take the test and then take it again several weeks later have a significant chance of getting a different score. This is because the test relies heavily on arbitrarily-defined dichotomies, pushing people to one side of the spectrum or another, when most of us are somewhere in the middle. Someone who displays an even mix of introversion and extroversion in different situations is likely to receive different results on retests. For example, two individuals who have nearly identical personalities could receive polar opposite MBTI scores if each one skews just slightly to the ETSJ (totally extroverted) or INFP (totally introverted) side of the line, indicating falsely that these people couldn't be more different.

This is the problem with a test predicated on dichotomies in general: there is no such thing as an introvert or an extrovert. Statistical models of all four indicators consistently demonstrate that the general population fits a bell curve between the two extremes, not a bi-modal (the opposite of a bell curve) distribution. Only a small percentage of people are mainly extroverted or mainly introverted; the majority of people fall in between somewhere, and the MBTI is blind to this reality. Nobody is an INTJ, or an ENFP, or an ISTP. These people do not exist. Every individual is a different mix of EI, SN, TF, JP, and nearly nobody skews heavily to one side of each of those.

There is also no significant data showing that these MBTI scores correlate with vocational performance. The official exam even openly states that the test only measures preferences, not aptitude, so even though one personality type might prefer a certain vocation, there is no guarantee of success or competence in practice. (This is probably why the official test also explicitly states that the MBTI should not be used to screen job applicants.) There is also no significant correlation between MBTI and industry: every vocational field has a more-or-less random sampling of MBTI types. Most actors are not ESTPs, for example, nor are most CEOs ENTJs.
So, what does your MBTI say about you? Well, certainly nothing that you didn't already know about yourself. The test really only needs to be four questions long:
  1. Are you more extroverted or introverted? (I/E)
  2. Do you primarily gather information via your senses or your intuition? (S/N)
  3. Do you make decisions more by thinking or feeling? (T/F)
  4. Which is more important to you, #2 above or #3? (P/J)
If you find some or all of these questions difficult to answer definitively, congratulations! You're a normal person who can't be easily classified by the MBTI. If you have a clear preference in each, then you can easily identify your "type," and most likely so can anybody who's known you for longer than 10 minutes.

The only thing that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator result shows definitively is... that you've taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test. Any conclusions drawn beyond that should be taken with a football stadium full of salt.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Ignorance or Dishonesty? A Response to a Pastor at Christmas

Christmas is a time for a lot of things - decorating, gathering, singing, giving, eating, shopping, general merriment. It's also a time for slightly more Christian nonsense than usual to waft across my Facebook feed. As disheartening as it is to be reminded of just how many people close to me believe in magical nonsense, it does at least provide blog-fodder.

The most recent such example is a blog by a Virginia pastor, who happens to be the brother-in-law of a friend of mine. I've actually met him; he seems a nice enough fellow. His Christmas-inspired blog posts, however, are indicative of the problems inherent in being an apologist for the Christian faith (or any faith, for that matter) - one must be either ignorant of reality or dishonest about representing it. Have a look at this post of his (it's a quick read); what follows is my perspective on what he presents as "truth."

He begins, "One of the many ways we know the Bible is true is through it’s [sic] awe-some [sic] supernatural fulfillment of prophecy."

Ok, no. Stop. There's a major flaw in asserting that any Old Testament prophecy is fulfilled in the New Testament. The writers of the NT were all credulous Christians who had the OT readily at their disposal. They already knew about and believed in the prophecies mentioned in the OT. These prophecies must come true if their religion is to retain any credibility, so the writers of the NT simply confirm them. The writers of the NT had every reason to lie, and there are no independent, non-Christian sources to confirm any of these fulfilled prophecies. Add to this the generally vague wording of prophecies, and there's absolutely no reason to recognize "fulfilled prophecies" as evidence of anything but early Christians being aware of OT prophecies. Of course they came true - failure wasn't an option.

"But the reality is that the Bible is comprised of 66 different “books” composed by 40 different authors, all living in different times and places, speaking different languages, contextualized in different historical situations, many separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years from one another.  The probability of conspiracy and collusion for them to make it all up is nil.  Thus, the only explanation for the Bible’s amazing consistency and coherency is it’s [sic] clear supernatural, divine authorship over and above the abilities of it’s [sic] human scribes."

Now we get to the ignorance vs. dishonesty question. Pastor Matt displays his knowledge of the textual history of the Bible: different authors in different places in different times. This is all true. Then, we have an irrelevant conclusion: The probability of conspiracy and collusion for them to make it all up is nil. Yes, that's basically true, but that statement only matters if the Bible has been passed down to us from its very origins in its original form. It hasn't. Not even slightly. While it's true that the writers of the original texts couldn't have conspired, the early Christians who edited and compiled what we have today as the Bible absolutely did conspire and collude. This isn't up for debate - we know as a matter of historical fact that our current text of the Bible is based on manuscripts which are copies of copies of copies, sometimes centuries removed from the lost originals, changed in innumerable places either by error or by design, and compiled by early Christians with their own theological agendas. The probability of the text of the Bible being a product of conspiracy and collusion isn't zero, it's one. It's unlikely that Pastor Matt is unaware of this, yet it's completely ignored. This is either a failure to reason properly, or a failure to be honest about the reality of the textual history of the Bible.

Step back for a moment and just consider the burden of proof for a statement like this: "thus, the only explanation for [insert anything at all] is supernatural, divine [whatever]." Really? We know that the NT was written by credulous Christians who weren't witnesses to the stories they were reporting, and yet Pastor Matt asserts that the only possible explanation is that it's magic? Not only is that not the only possible explanation, it's easily the least probable explanation.

"So when Isaiah and the other prophets say something would happen 800 years before the New Testament Gospel writers record it’s [sic] actual occurrence, we better take it seriously."

The statement "New Testament Gospel writers record it's [sic] actual occurrence" is extremely misleading. [Side-note, get a handle on its vs. it's, dude.] The New Testament Gospel writers didn't know Jesus. They lived and wrote after he died. Decades after. They did not witness the events they're writing about. They're clearly copying from each other in places and just making shit up in others (looking at you, John). They're Christians reporting stories about Jesus that they've heard from other Christians. The Gospels are not credible, historical accounts of factual events. This is not a controversial statement - Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not the names of the writers of those respective gospels, and they were not written during the time of Jesus' life and death. They are not a "record" of anything except what Christians believed at the time. Pastor Matt must know this. To say that "the Bible says that X happened" is not to say that X definitely happened, it's only to say that the Bible says that X happened. You may believe whatever you'd like about the historicity of the Bible, but do not assert as fact that which meets no reasonable burden of proof. A newer religious text confirming the predictions of an older religious text isn't fulfilled prophecy, it's an intertextual circle jerk.

The idea of fulfilled biblical prophecies is a perfect storm of failed reasoning. Believing that an NT passage confirming an OT prophecy equals divine, inerrant truth of scripture is the result of rampant confirmation-bias and the hopeless myopia that religious indoctrination breeds. No skeptically-minded non-believer would look at any "evidence" of fulfilled biblical prophecy and be even slightly impressed. This is the sort of thing that pastors like to parade in front of their flocks around the holidays while everyone vapidly nods along.

The worst part about this is that Pastor Matt should know better. It should be obvious to him, of all people, presumably more educated in these matters than the hapless congregation, that none of this is evidence of the truth of scripture. It's evidence of the existence of people who desperately need to believe in the truth of scripture. Ignorance or dishonesty - in the end it doesn't really matter which one is the culprit. It's shameful behavior, either way.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"With God All Things Are Possible"

Across the street from the office where I work is a little restaurant called the Bonfire Cafe. I went there once for lunch with coworkers, unaware of the fact that it's an overtly Christian establishment which wears its beliefs proudly on its sleeve. Anyway, the experience didn't scar or revile me or anything - I think I had a reasonably priced, if unremarkable, sandwich and a coffee - but I do generally walk past this place every day (it's between my office and Starbucks) and see things like the above propped up outside the entrance. 

Now, I have no problem with the fact that a nominally Christian (or Hindu, or Muslim, or Buddhist...) cafe exists, or with this sign proudly and prominently displayed from it. I'm actually rather glad to be reminded of Bible verses like this; for me, what is surely intended to be merely an inspirational exhortation to passers-by becomes the impetus for profound, meandering philosophical rumination about the core doctrines of Christianity, the nature of God, and the value of telling each other comforting lies.

The first thing I think about is the context of this verse, because I often hear it recited by well-meaning believers as a pithy platitude intended to offer comfort or encouragement to someone in a difficult situation. One rarely ever hears of the verses immediately preceding or following it, and one wonders how many Christians are even aware of the context in which this famous verse appears. Here is Matthew chapter 19, verses 16-29:

19:16 And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
19:17 And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
19:18 He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,
19:19 Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
19:20 The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?
19:21 Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
19:22 But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
19:23 Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.
19:24 And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
19:25 When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?
19:26 But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.
19:27 Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?
19:28 And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
19:29 And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.
There's so much good stuff in here. In verse 17, Jesus objects to being called good, because only God is good. This is one of the many verses in which Jesus clearly demonstrates that he and God are separate. (This is probably copied from Mark 10:18 and also appears in Luke 18:19) Not only does he not call himself God, he refers to God as entirely different from himself. Then, when a child asks Jesus which commandments he should follow (verses 18-19), Jesus only mentions a few of them - incidentally the reasonable ones - and leaves out the nonsensical proscriptions like not worshiping other Gods, making graven images, keeping the sabbath holy, and coveting stuff. Excited that he's been doing all those things all along, the child asks what else he needs to do to have eternal life but is totally bummed when Jesus tells him to sell all his stuff and give to the poor (verse 21). Jesus then takes this opportunity to reiterate how screwed rich people are, including the rather famous verse 24. Then Peter's like "ok we've done all that stuff, and we sold all our shit and have been following you around for a while, so we're good yeah?" (verse 27) Jesus affirms that they are indeed good, as is everyone else... who keeps the commandments and sells his house and leaves his family behind to follow Jesus. All Christians do that, right?

Perhaps I should back up a bit and paint a fuller contextual picture. The phrase "with God all things are possible" comes from the New Testament, specifically the book of Matthew, chapter 19, verse 26, in the midst of a conversation between Jesus and some of his disciples who just want some clarification on how to get to heaven. Specifically Jesus is drawing the distinction between earthly and heavenly salvation: nobody on Earth can save you, but God can. Even this is contingent, though; God can't save you directly - you need to go through his intermediary Jesus, and abandon your family and home in the process. The standard caveats apply when dealing with the NT gospels: Matthew was written sometime in the late 1st century CE several decades after Jesus' death by nobody knows who, and whoever wrote it never met Jesus, so there's no good reason to believe that Jesus even said this. Even if we ignore all of that and just accept that he did say "with God all things are possible," he wasn't uttering it in the same all-encompassing way that Christians do when they say it to each other, and he said it in the same breath as "sell all your stuff and forsake your family for me."

But, since many people who know this verse aren't at all aware of its context, let's just pretend that we aren't aware of it either, and treat it as if it were a single profound utterance, devoid of context: "With God, All Things Are Possible." Just for fun, let's take the easy road first and declare this statement nonsense because it's inherently contradictory. Omnipotence is impossible. If you say "all things" and literally mean it, then you've ceased to make any sense. The standard sardonic retort to God's omnipotence is the subversive question "can God make a boulder so heavy that he can't lift it?" or, as I've also heard it, "can God microwave a burrito so hot that he can't eat it?" It's a silly question, but it serves a serious purpose, namely to illustrate that the idea of omnipotence is logically incoherent.
The same problem applies to the statement "with God, all things are possible." With God's help, could I microwave a burrito so hot that I couldn't eat it? Ok so I wouldn't actually need God's help for that part. But what if I both wanted to microwave a burrito so hot that I couldn't eat it and then I also wanted to eat it? If I accomplish the latter, then I've failed at the former; even God can't get me out of this one. This probably all seems like a silly rhetorical exercise, but that's the point - to demonstrate that a phrase like "all things are possible" in any context is a silly thing to say.

But let's ignore that too. Let's pretend that the idea that "with God, all things are possible" is literally true and not inherently contradictory. Let's proceed with the assumptions that God exists and is literally capable of doing all things. There is still a glaring difficulty staring us in the face: it is clear from our experience that a great many things are simply not possible. 

There is a massive disconnect between the idea that God can do anything and the actual world we observe, in which there are serious and numerous limitations. It would not be difficult for anyone to come up with a long list of things which we can safely assume, based on our experience in the world, are simply impossible. They might range from the ridiculous to the mundane: it's impossible for people to fly without the aid of technology, impossible for a severed human limb to regenerate spontaneously.

If one would like to argue seriously that it is possible for a human being to fly without the aid of technology, or that it is possible for human beings to regenerate severed limbs without the aid of science or medicine, then one ought to consider and attempt to explain why these things have never happened. (Anyone who doubts the impossibility of unassisted human flight is welcome to jump out a window.) There are numerous species capable of regeneration of entire limbs, but for some reason homo sapiens isn't among them. Does God love lizards more than he loves us? Is it really more important that a lizard grow an arm back than a human? If a human being loses an arm or a leg, why does nobody ever expect it to grow back on its own? Even if you seriously believe in the power of prayer, would you be at all surprised if a billion people all prayed for one severed limb to grow back, and it didn't? Are there any Christians willing to volunteer to have a limb hacked off just to give God a great chance to prove me wrong? ...No? No takers on that?
It should be clear by now that the phrase "with God, all things are possible" is an incomplete statement at best. Even if it is factually true, the reality is that, even if God can do literally anything, the simple truth is that in reality he seems entirely unwilling to do a great many things, especially those things which we would consider impossible in the physical world. The second part of that statement renders the first part irrelevant. Perhaps there are those who somehow manage to take comfort in the idea of a God who is omnipotent in theory only. I am not among their number.

So, for the sake of intellectual honesty, I propose we edit Matthew 19:26 so that it conforms a little more closely to reality:

Sunday, June 29, 2014

On Following Jesus

I recently rediscovered a popular YouTube video that first made the rounds a few years ago but gets kicked up again every now and then when someone shares it anew via the TwitFace. If you’re not one of the 27 million (!) and counting who have watched this video, here it is:

It’s titled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” and is an unremarkable spoken word piece about how Jesus and religion are entirely separate entities, and, generally, Jesus is good, while religion is bad. If my only intention were to respond to the video, this would be by far the shortest blog entry I’ll ever write, because the whole thing is, bluntly stated, a thoughtless, incoherent fit of theologically vacuous solipsism. The ideas expressed in this video are so stupid that I think even Christians should find it offensive. I don’t have the patience to point out everything that’s absurd about this, so I’ll limit my reactions to the most egregiously ignorant parts, starting with the very first line:

“What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?”

Well, I’d tell you to support this outrageous claim with at least one compelling reason why I should believe you, when Jesus himself said “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” (Matthew 5:17) Jesus lived and died as a devout Jew and preached that his followers should uphold the Torah of Moses. Not until Paul’s epistles do we get this idea that Jesus came to abolish the laws of the Old Testament: “But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.” (Galatians 3:23-6) Paul, incidentally, never met Jesus.

“If religion is so great, why has it started so many wars?”

Not all religions start wars. That phenomenon seems to be limited to monotheisms, and the answer to the question is simple – because God says to do so.

Tells single moms God doesn’t love them if they’ve ever been divorced.”

Oh, how embarrassing for you… actually the Old Testament gives guidelines for when divorce is acceptable (Deuteronomy 24:1-2); it’s Jesus who says Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery.” (Mark 10:11, Luke 16:18)

“In every other aspect of life you know that logic’s unworthy;
It’s like saying you play for the Lakers just because you bought a jersey.”

This is the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, which every group of Christians commits when talking about any other group of Christians. “Oh, they’re not real Christians. If they were, they’d do X and believe Y, like we at our church do.” There are as many ideas of what constitutes a real Christian as there are Christians.

“…Cuz it’s not a museum for good people, it’s a hospital for the broken.”

The entire idea of the inherently sinful nature of human beings and consequent need for salvation is a dogmatic Christian belief. This is the sort of thing that defines a religion. You can’t tirade against religion and yet somehow magically retain the doctrine of salvation through Christ.

“…Which is so different from religious people, and why Jesus called ‘em fools;
Don’t you see he’s so much better than just following some rules?”

Citation needed for Jesus calling religious people fools. Was he preaching in the temple when he did that? You know, to all those religious people following him around? Secondly, Jesus very explicitly told his followers to FOLLOW THE GODDAMN RULES. I’ve already mentioned the passage in Matthew. See also ALL OF THE REST OF THE GOSPELS. CHRIST.
“Now let me clarify, I love the church, I love the Bible, and I believe in sin.”

…wat? You love the church, love the Bible, believe in sin, but …you hate religion. What in the actual fuck are you on about? Is this a joke? If you’re keeping the church, and the Bible, and the major doctrinal teachings of the faith, what exactly do you hate? What’s the stuff Jesus is apparently better than? What the hell is “religion” if not the church, the Bible, and the major dogmatic beliefs?

“Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums.”

On opposite spectrums of what? Do you mean different spectrums? Which spectrum is Jesus on, and which religion? What does this statement even mean?

“Religion is man searching for God, but Christianity is God searching for man.”

So not only is Jesus different from (and better than) religion, but now Christianity is too? Do you actually think you can get away with this sneaky implication that Christianity is not a religion? Like, for seriously?

“So know I hate religion, I literally resent it;”

At no point have you even come close to establishing exactly what you think “religion” is, so I have no idea what it is that you hate. You literally resent it? As opposed to… figuratively? metaphorically?

“Because when Jesus cried “it is finished,” I believe he meant it.”

I assume the reference here is to John 19:30, Jesus’ final words before his death. This profound utterance only occurs in John’s gospel; in Mark and Matthew he says nothing more than “My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34, Matthew 27:46) I’ll also point out that John was written much later than Matthew, which is copied from Mark, half of which is disputed as inauthentic, sooooo… yeah Jesus probably didn’t say that. But by all means, cherry-pick your way to the lazy-ass theology you want other people to take seriously.

The Bigger Picture

My intentions are not simply to tear apart this ignorant rube for his disjointed ramblings and laughable attempt at promoting an untenable worldview. The fact that this video has gained such massive popularity attests to the reality that many, many people identify with this idea. Unfortunately for those who would embrace this pro-Jesus, anti-religion version of the Christian faith, espousing this view tellingly reveals at least one thing: the creator of this video and the people sympathetic to its message are profoundly ignorant about Christianity, the church, and Jesus. This is the more salient issue I’d like to address.

Now, before we go too much farther, let’s establish some basic facts in which to ground our epistemology (basically, how we can know shit) about Jesus. Hopefully everyone will agree with these rather uncontroversial claims:
  • The life, deeds, and sayings of Jesus are matters of fact, not of opinion. He either did and said certain shit, or he didn’t, and there’s an objective answer – whatever you believe about Jesus is either true or false. He’s not whoever you want him to be, not different for everyone.
  • The only way to know anything at all about Jesus is to read the New Testament. Even though it’s a historically useless hodgepodge of church-approved propaganda, it’s literally the only source in existence which even purports to give any factual information about the life, character, and deeds of Jesus. If you believe something about Jesus for which there is no textual support in the Bible, you’ve simply made some shit up and have no legitimate reason whatsoever to believe it.
I’m not even a Christian, and still it irritates me to discover the completely fabricated faith that so many Christians proudly endorse and loudly proclaim. This popular notion that Jesus was a forward-thinking, benevolent, anti-establishment guru is simply a fallacy, a caricature of the figure of Jesus as depicted in the Bible. Of course everyone gravitates toward the sublimely moral teachings and messages of good-will toward thy neighbor and turning the other cheek and not being judgmental. What about some of those less flowery things that Jesus also said? Where are the bumper stickers for these gems?
  • “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on… Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.” (Matthew 6:31, 34; Luke 12:22)
  • “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.” (Matthew 10:34-5; Luke 12:51)
  • “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
Jesus was an observant Jew and failed messianic prophet. His followers all genuinely believed (including Paul, our most authentic source) that they were moments away from the end of the world and would be enjoying eternity with God in the immediate future. Since two millennia have passed now with no sign of Jesus’ return, Christians downplay the fact that much of what Jesus said makes no sense unless the physical world is about to end. We all understand that it’s generally a bad idea to live our lives as if the Rapture will happen tomorrow, and yet this central theme of Jesus’ message is entirely, and rightly, ignored.

Yes, some prominent ideas in the teachings of Jesus are admirable. But nearly every single religion and philosophy in the world embraces basic moral precepts like do unto others; Jesus was neither the first nor the only person to suggest that we be nice to each other. To deny the complete character of Jesus as reported in the very same source as the oft-repeated beatitudes and sermon on the mount reveals either ignorance or dishonesty, neither of which is an acceptable basis for a worldview, religious or secular.

Can Jesus and Religion Be Separated?

The short answer is no. The long answer is no, of course not, why would you say something so stupid? I can perhaps understand the desire to take the (idealized, edited) figure of Jesus and remove him from his milieu of organized religion, and all the intolerance, bigotry, and hypocrisy that comes along with it, because he should be above that sort of thing. The problem is that there’s absolutely no theologically coherent way to do that. Why? Why can’t you keep your homeboy Jesus and tell the Pope to go fuck himself?

Well, because there’s no such thing as Jesus outside of the church, outside of religion. The only reason we know anything about him at all, as we agreed earlier, is because members of the early Christian church wrote the New Testament, our only available source of information about him. Jesus himself didn’t write anything, nor did any of his apostles. Nor, in fact, did anyone who even saw the historical Jesus write anything about him. (The book of James, reluctantly crammed into the back of the NT, is a possible exception and a discussion for another time.) Paul, whose version of Christianity won out over that of his rivals Peter and James, is the single most influential writer about Jesus, and Paul didn’t become a follower of the movement until 20 years after Jesus died. The writers of the gospels all came later, in some cases much later, and are just following Paul and/or copying each other. Yet, this is the reality: this is all we have, and the only reason we have it is because the early church collected, edited, reorganized, and passed these writings down through the ages. If it weren’t for the organized religion that eventually grew out the Jesus movement, there would be no Jesus. We would scarcely have any idea that he even existed (and still, actually, it’s possible that he didn’t.) You can’t dump the religion without dumping Jesus out along with it.

A Lazy Theology

It might seem a bit ridiculous that someone like me, an unapologetic non-believer, would actually bother distinguishing between more and less respectable forms of Christianity. Generally my problem is not with the particular beliefs that a person holds as much as the means by which he has acquired them. There is an abyssal difference between a Christian who has thoughtfully and diligently plunged repeatedly into the depths of scripture, historicity, and textual criticism and a Christian who believes in Jesus because his mother used to read him bedtime stories from a children’s bible. Only one of those people holds a belief not worthy of immediate and unrestrained derision.

The massive irony of people who want to follow Jesus but don’t want to follow the rituals and strict rules of the church is that they’re doing precisely the opposite of what they claim. If your idea of Jesus doesn’t come from reading scripture; if your idea of Jesus is somehow different from the Jesus of the Bible; if you have a radically different idea of who Jesus was that just so happens to conform to everything you think is good and important, you’re not following Jesus. You already have a set of values you’ve acquired by some other means, and you’re simply looking for divine justification for what you already think. You make Jesus into whatever you need him to be in order to continue to live your life however you’d like and still sleep soundly at night, knowing that your immortal soul is safe. Think homosexuality is a sin? I'm sure Jesus agrees. Changed your mind about that? I'm sure Jesus is totally cool with that, too. You’re not following Jesus; Jesus is following you.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Star Wars Episode VII: Here We Go Again

It’s been nine years since the final installment of George Lucas’ tripartite ruination of one of the most storied franchises in cinematic history, and now we, the faithful admirers of the original Star Wars trilogy, must brace ourselves for Episode VII, currently under production and slated for a December 18th, 2015 release.

Quite a lot has changed in the minds of adoring fans since the first time we all experienced the phenomenon of a new Star Wars film. Before the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999, there was decidedly more excitement than trepidation, and understandably so – George Lucas was at the helm, with complete creative control of the project, nearly limitless resources, and the latest and greatest digital technology. It’s difficult to imagine a film which was ever more highly anticipated before its release, or more bitterly disappointing after. The Phantom Menace was so categorically awful that it almost seemed like a joke. A New Hope, the original film, is basically a classic story of the hero’s journey set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The Phantom Menace, the first of the prequel trilogy, is a boring, convoluted, uninspired hodgepodge of people we don’t care about swinging lightsabers around for 2 hours.

Here's a fairly nauseating sight for most Star Wars fans

The Phantom Menace was followed by Attack of the Clones in 2002 and finally Revenge of the Sith in 2005, by which time most people realized that George Lucas had no idea what the hell he was doing and was simply trying to make another bazillion dollars from the franchise. It’s clear from the prequel trilogy that George Lucas has absolutely no understanding whatsoever of what made the original films so magical and iconic – the characters and the story. Instead, he devoted all of his time and energy to producing cutting-edge CGI renderings devoid of all human emotion and realism so that he could shoot entire films in an air-conditioned sound stage rather than have to go somewhere interesting and build actual sets. The result is a series of poorly-written films, the plots of which are nonsensical and the characters of which are forgettable.

As a result of having suffered the acute disappointment of three of most underwhelming films I’ve ever seen, I’m extremely hesitant to get excited about Episode VII, even as more and more seemingly promising information is released about it.  Here’s what we know so far:

  • J.J. Abrams is directing and contributing to the screenplay.
  • Lots of original cast members are returning to reprise their original roles, including Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker (C-3PO and R2-D2), Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford.
  • The film is a sequel to Return of the Jedi, taking place 30 years later.
  • The story is entirely new, not making use of any of the “extended universe.”
  • George Lucas is a “creative consultant” and is not directly involved in the production of the film.

I think it’s safe to assume that this latest film simply cannot compare favorably with the original trilogy – it’s been too long, it’ll be too different – so the best it can hope for is to be less of a disaster than the prequels. Here’s why it could well go in either direction:

Episode VII will be better than the prequels, because…
  • George Lucas won’t be able to ruin it from start to finish.
  • Luke, Leia, and Han are back, and fans love these characters way more than Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi, who appeared in the prequels.
  • Lawrence Kasdan, the screenwriter for Empire and Jedi, is sharing screenwriting duties on the new film. He wasn’t involved in screenwriting for the prequel trilogy.
  • J.J. Abrams is a competent director who won’t simply sit in a green screen studio for 6 months and then finish the movie on a computer.
  • The prequels were such a disaster that it’s likely the new director will try to distance his work from them on purpose, hopefully steering things in a better direction.
Harrison Ford is 71, you guys. 71.

Episode VII will be even worse than the prequels, because…
  • George Lucas still came up with the plot for this film, as well as the next two which follow it, so it could still have an unsalvageable concept at heart.
  • Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill are all really old – Fisher is the youngest of them at 57 – and will probably play quite different characters from the Han, Leia, and Luke we all love. The stakes are much higher with these characters – ruining them in a bad Star Wars movie will be unforgivable.
  • The events are set so far after the end of Jedi that there will be little connection to any established canon, which will make it feel like less of a Star Wars movie, and thus a strange setting for the familiar characters. The ending of Jedi was rather final; Vader and the Emperor died and the second Death Star was destroyed, effectively ending the reign of the Empire, so an entirely new conflict will need to be created, along with a new villain, and there’s a lot of room for that to go wrong.
  • J.J. Abrams’ work on the last Star Trek movie received lukewarm reviews from fans, and I can’t help but feel that doing Episode VII is just another project for him – he’s also producing Mission: Impossible 5 and yet another new Star Trek movie in the near future.

Ultimately I have to admit that I’m at least extremely curious to see what happens with Episode VII. With the prequels, we all had the vague sense that they were going to be about a young Anakin Skywalker and his journey to becoming Darth Vader, so it all revolved around something we knew, something connected to the original trilogy. With the newest Star Wars films, we really have no idea whatsoever what the general plot will be, so VII is going to be a complete surprise. Bringing back some of the original actors after such a long time is a massive gamble as well; I suspect the success of the entire film will hinge upon giving Han, Luke, and Leia a proper, believable treatment.

Speaking more generally, I think sequel making for such an iconic series of films like Star Wars is simply an exercise in futility. Everything about the original trilogy is sacred; just look at the uproar when Lucas released the Special Edition of the original films, filled with cartoonish CGI nonsense which clashed jarringly with the familiar scenes we already knew and loved. What fans really want in a sequel is simply more of exactly the same thing that they already love. The time to make another Star Wars movie was in the early 1980’s, when the main actors were younger and technology hadn’t made massive forward strides in the digital realm. This is why the prequels don’t feel like Star Wars movies. They’re markedly different in every way that matters, which is apparently something that Lucas himself can’t even understand. A CGI Yoda comically bouncing off of walls in a frantic sword fight is not Star Wars. 

The original trilogy was filmed in actual locations, using actual sets and actors and models. That’s the only way to make a Star Wars movie. That is almost certainly not how Episode VII is going to be made, and for that reason alone I know it won’t be worthy of the name. At best, Abrams can only hope to do a better job with the new film than Lucas did with the prequel trilogy. He’ll accomplish that meager feat simply by not having Jar-Jar fucking Binks in it.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Feminism's PR Problem

I'm a sympathizer with the Feminist movement - let me state that clearly for the record - but I wouldn't call myself a Feminist, if only because I think the term implies some level of activism. I support the goals of Feminism (as I understand them, anyway, i.e. equal opportunities for women in general) but don't actively campaign for change in any appreciable way, so I'll leave the term for those out there on the front lines. As a supporter of the ideals of the movement, I have to admit that it's becoming difficult to watch as it struggles to find a unified voice and a consistent and helpful tone. I'll point out two recent examples of what I think are unmitigated PR disasters on the part of the Feminist movement in order to illustrate exactly why a change in strategy might be advantageous.

Rape Culture

This phrase has been thrown around on social and mainstream media and debated at length, and it seems to have real staying power - proponents of the movement like this phrase and aren't backing away from it. Sadly I think it's a miserable coinage with way more deficiencies than insights, and it's far too flawed for too many reasons to be a catalyst for sweeping positive societal change.

Let me first articulate what I understand to be the general sense and usage of the term "rape culture", in case any of my criticisms of it stem from a basic misunderstanding. "Rape culture" broadly refers to the various ways in which society (particularly Western, and perhaps chiefly American) encourages, ignores, or tacitly endorses sexually aggressive behavior towards women. There are many examples of this, such as victim-blaming, slut-shaming, and probably some other hyphenated buzz-words. To be clear, I don't for a second dismiss the notion that these phenomena do actually occur, are harmful to women, and must be curtailed. My problem is with the phrase "rape culture," which sucks for a couple of reasons.

First of all, it's absurdly hyperbolic. Simply two words that, without very specific context, paint an overly broad and inaccurately dour picture of society. As a culture, we abhor rape. We have laws establishing severe punishments against rapists. I would even contend that it is perhaps the only issue imaginable on which people agree without exception. What sane person would ever argue that rape is acceptable in some situations? The idea is laughable. There are cultures elsewhere in the world that have different views on the permissibility of rape, certainly. To American society on the whole, it's utter anathema. The term "rape culture" is blind to these truths.

It's also unnecessarily provocative. There's no non-confrontational way to accuse someone of contributing to rape culture. While it's not the same as calling someone a rapist, it's still far too close to be an acceptable way to engage someone, particularly if you'd like that person to be sympathetic to your position. People who don't consider themselves to be rapists are not going to respond positively to any intimation that they are a party to the act in any respect.

"Rape culture" shifts the focus from delinquent individuals to society as a whole. Rape is a violent, antisocial, aberrant behavior. People who rape are criminals and need to be held accountable for the decisions they've made. "Rape culture" seems to undermine the idea of individual culpability by providing some sort of larger context that contributed to a rapist eventually committing the act. I don't think asking why does our society produce rapists? is as relevant a question as what's wrong with this person who feels that rape is acceptable?

The issues raised by proponents of the "rape culture" trope are real. There are aspects of society that do not adequately point out appropriate and inappropriate behavior regarding sexual relations between consenting adults. Work does need to be done in order to reduce the instances of inappropriate sexual conduct, especially among college-aged people. The term "rape culture" is not, however, a particularly well-crafted encapsulation of these societal imperfections. It's a hammer for a job requiring a set of surgical instruments.


I'm actually more bothered by this latest PR abortion than "rape culture", as I think it's even more misguided and even less effective. Perhaps you've seen the Twitter hashtag, or this commercial featuring some prominent women:

This video has more than 2 million views at the time of writing, and innumerable others have seen it on television. There is some serious star power behind this one, including Beyonce and Condoleezza Rice. The video recommends banning the use of the word "bossy" because it discourages young girls from taking leadership roles. This entire idea is so profoundly stupid that I'm having difficulties articulating my befuddlement in words. I can sum up my feelings succinctly with a popular internet meme:

Ok, let me try to peel away the layers of bullshit from this onion of ignorance. First, there is absolutely no sense whatsoever in trying to ban the use of a word, especially a word like bossy, which is not vulgar or offensive. It's a normal English word that normal people use every day in normal conversation. Even if every single person in America saw this video, there is no practical hope of people ever collectively deciding to stop using this word, or any word at all. You can't make a 1-minute video and expect 300 million people to alter their behavior or their lexicon.

I must admit, though, that I am categorically opposed to banning any word for any reason. Words convey meaning, and by removing a word, we limit the ability to express ourselves in spoken or written language. While it's certainly true that there are extremely offensive words that should be used with extreme caution and at the risk of severe consequences, there is no rationale for completely forbidding the use of a word. I'm speaking here about extremely offensive discriminatory slurs, which does not describe bossy in the slightest.

Bossy is a word with a specific meaning, and if we arbitrarily decide to remove it from our language, we become incapable of clearly expressing that idea. Here's what the word means, according to

given to ordering people about; overly authoritative; domineering.

We have words for things so that we can describe those things accurately when necessary. There exist in this world people who are overly authoritative and domineering, and we can rightly call these people bossy. That's what they are, that's what the word means. There's also the apparently unappreciated irony of issuing such a strong prohibition in such a, you know, bossy way.  I'd say forbidding people from using a word is overly authoritative, wouldn't you? Perhaps if you'd like to dissuade people from using the word bossy you might go about it in, say, a less bossy way? Did the writers of this ad really not even consider how hilariously hypocritical this is? 

Then there's the justification for the campaign: "By middle school, girls are less interested in leadership than boys, and that's because they worry about being called bossy." Ok. This sentence contains two statements, both reported as facts, with the latter explaining the former.  If you're going to tell me that I can't use a word anymore, you'd better have some god damn conclusive evidence that directly correlates being called bossy as a child with not wanting to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Not evidence that discouraging young girls from being assertive leads to this consequence, but that being called bossy does. I've tried unsuccessfully to find the study that apparently gave rise to this whole ridiculous campaign. It was reportedly done by the Girl Scouts of America, but I don't see anything relevant on their publications list. If anyone knows what perhaps legitimate work has been bastardized for this commercial, let me know. 

Does it really matter anyway, though? What sort of study could even substantiate a claim like this? Surely the number of girls who abandoned their ambitions specifically because someone called them bossy when they were children must be incalculably small. How many middle school girls would you even have to ask before someone gave that specific answer, that she willfully modified her behavior solely out of fear of being called bossy? And I'm to believe that this is so pervasive a problem that it warrants banning the use of a word? The simpletons who came up with this ad must imagine that I'm even denser than they are.  

Let's have another look at that definition, shall we? Given to ordering people about; overly authoritative; domineering. Do those sound like strong leadership qualities? No, of course not. Bossy people are not leaders, they're bullies. They're insecure, antisocial brats who don't know how to interact with other human beings in a positive and productive way. Bossy children, if the word is being applied correctly, should not be fast-tracked to management positions. They should be educated about how to engage with others without being assholes. 

Here's what this incomprehensibly poorly conceived campaign is actually trying to say: "Hey guys, let's all recognize positive leadership qualities in children and make sure we encourage rather than stifle them, especially in girls." Unfortunately that was too long to be an effective Twitter hashtag, so some marketing genius boiled it down to #BanBossy, ensuring not only that the message would be overshadowed by its own preposterousness, but also that Feminist initiatives would continue to come across as aggressive and confrontational.

So here are just two recent examples of why Feminism needs to fire its PR team and try again with a novel approach. I certainly don't profess to have all the answers, but I think these examples can provide some good advice on what not to do, namely implicate innocent people in an unspeakable crime and attempt to remove perfectly useful words from the English language for completely misguided reasons. The most frustrating thing about all of this is that at the core of both of these campaigns is not just an important message, but a message that most people would absolutely sympathize with, if only it could be offered in a way that didn't immediately cause aversion and reactionary opposition.

If I were pressed on exactly how to go about accomplishing the goals of Feminism in a more effective way, I would say that there is no magic bullet, no catch phrase or hashtag that is going to change the world. Instead, efforts need to target the roots of problems rather than simply treat the symptoms, the superficial manifestations of deep-rooted cultural tendencies. Education and raising awareness are indispensable parts of the solution; they must, however, be framed in a consistently positive, non-confrontational way in order to be taken seriously.