Monday, January 17, 2011

No Rest for the Wiki'd

For the past couple of months, I've been wondering what history books 50 years from now will have to say about Novemeber 28th 2010, the day when the website WikiLeaks under the guidance of whistleblower-extraordinaire Julian Assange began releasing a big old pile of classified diplomatic cables. What kinds of stories will they tell? Will they declare November 28th to be Julian Assange Day? I hope schools and businesses are closed that day; so we can all gather 'round and hear stories of how one handsome hacker from Down Under forever altered the course of global politics, releasing captive information from the clutches of governments and mega-corporations for all to take in. And we'll trade stories about how the mean old US government tried to hunt him down through extralegal means and about how the digital behemoths Amazon and PayPal sold themselves out to Uncle Sam by cutting off their support to Wikileaks. And of course, we'll all ooh and aah at the courageous exploits of the Anonymous collective, who rose from the miry depths of parents' basements the world over, wielding the sword of justice in the form of a maelstrom of poorly-constructed HTTP requests against these complicit citadels of cyber-oppression. And we'll all sing songs of praise about the heroic movement that made all information free to anyone anywhere, thus solving all of the world's problems, save mortality. Oh, man. So cool!

Of course, even 50 years from now, this prospect sounds pretty absurd. It has now been almost two months since the biggest leak of classified information belonging to the US government ever, yet the world I know has not changed much at all. Perhaps, more realistically, the "Cablegate" scandal will be immortalized with a mediocre testosterone-injected, PG13-rated action thriller. I can see the trailer now. A fast-paced montage of our hero Mr. Assange running in front of explosions, frenching random ladies in Sweden, and a team of FBI agents kicking down a door, drawing their guns, and one of them yelling, "FREEZE!" All of this accompanied by the chorus of Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive". Of course, even this prospect is a big push since I can't imagine this whole controversy being remembered even five years from now.

I'm a libertarian. In today's political culture I'm expected to applaud the actions of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks and lose sleep over the ways in which my government could bend its laws to get back at this guy. However, libertarianism has a long-standing emphasis of individual responsibility to follow one's conscience, even at the risk of being unpopular, or worse. Thus, I will be the best libertarian I can be by turning my attention away from what my government can do and instead calling into question what my fellow citizens have done. When Amazon and PayPal nixed their support for WikiLeaks, they were accosted as being sell-outs and enemies of free speech. They were even targets of a brief denial-of-service attack. Last week, we learned that the Justice Department asked Twitter to secretly turn over the account information of WikiLeaks associates. Twitter blabbed, and now they are being praised by geeks and free-speech activists everywhere. It seems that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks have become synonymous with free speech in general. If you have a problem with WikiLeaks, you're against free speech. How did it come to this?

Today is Martin Luther King Day, a day in which we reflect on one of the most important leaders of one of the most important social changes of all time. It seems a cheap shot to invoke Dr. King in defending Mr. Assange, but these two are worthy of comparison. They both were central figures in ambitious social changes. For King, it was the dignity and civil rights of all people regardless of ethnicity. For Assange, it's the honesty and transparency of governments. Both were confrontational, standing up to regimes they believed to be wrong, even to the United States. They both suffered for the choices they made. King is admired by practically everyone, even today. So why wouldn't Mr. Assange be remembered years from now?

Martin Luther King didn't flinch when he saw oppression and injustice in the system. He was straightforward in his criticism of America's policy in Vietnam as evidenced by this anachronistic sermon-on-tape. No doubt, King was a confrontational dude, but he never reveled in the mystical rock-stardom stereotypically associated with many activists in the public eye. His boycott of the Montgomery public bus system was indeed drastic, but it was also well-calculated. Boycotting the public transit system was a strategic move because the lack of patronage spelled financial troubles for the city of Montgomery. The drying up of revenue forced the city of Montgomery to pay attention to those oppressed by their unjust, racist laws. Dr. King also played the move carefully to gain public sympathy. He didn't push forward with the boycott until word got out about Rosa Parks, a law-abiding African American woman with a respectable job whose only "crime" was refusing to give up her bus seat designated by law to white people only. Now he had the proof needed to communicate to otherwise uninterested townspeople about the realities of segregation. What a clever way to engage people! You might say it was accidental journalism.

Stacked up against King's leadership, WikiLeaks' big leak comes off as a cruel joke. Assange simply collected from a grab bag of diplomatic cables obtained illegally by various donors and put them out on the Internet. That's it! No journalistic exposition. No apparent third party explanations as to why this matters to average joes. Just information, thrown out there for anyone to download. Not a very impressive feat if you ask me, but how about the content of these cables? Anything juicy? Maybe, but there's so much information here, I can hardly tell. Most of the content is just benign dinner conversations among dignitaries. Assange and the WikiLeaks team could've at least sifted through these documents to point their audience to real or potential abuses of power. Instead, they just splatter-painted a bunch of random information that altogether is about as lucid and focused as a rambling occult manifesto published some years ago by one of my state delegates. (I wish I was making this up!) No rhyme. No reason. Just information. For information's sake?

There is one piece of information in this mess of cables that stands out (and I owe it to several news institutions that aren't WikiLeaks for pointing me to it) and that is the briefing from the State Department requesting government officials to spy on UN ambassadors. I do believe that shifty behavior like this should be brought to the light, yet I don't find this revelation to be all that disappointing. I'm a libertarian, remember? I'm already familiar with the shady goings-on in our government: They subsidize corn grown in the Midwest, forcing me to pay for crops I probably won't need. Our previous President unconstitutionally declared war. They do a lot of little favors for their lobbyist pals, all without my permission. I'm already aware of this! I believe government folk are just as human as the rest of us, which is why government should be as limited as possible and be small enough to easily be held accountable. You may disagree, but my beliefs are pretty well-entrenched no thanks to the "brave" endeavors of WikiLeaks. If you still find this big leak a courageous feat of investigation worthy of militant support, allow me to offer some food for thought: Did you actually gain any new insight from these documents? Were you even able to read them? Have your beliefs about the US government and your civic responsibility changed as a result of this leak?

It's well-established that, like many prolific activists taking bold stands, Julian Assange has paid a price for his actions. In 2010, he moved around a lot to avoid authorities. After the diplomatic cable leak, he became even more elusive. This reaction is understandable if you're in big trouble with some very powerful people, but what if Mr. Assange didn't play hide and seek? What if, instead of trotting the globe in search of asylum, he allowed himself to be subdued by the authorities? What if he put himself out in the open, saying something to the effect of, "I am Julian Assange. I'm taking a stand for these issues. Go ahead, arrest me. I still think you're wrong, and I'm willing to go to jail in the name of the people you've been secretly oppressing." Would it change people's perceptions about government transparency and accountability? After all, it's not like WikiLeaks would have ceased to function if Assange was doing time in the slammer.

Martin Luther King Jr. didn't just devote himself to a worthy cause. He devoted himself so fervently that people then and now couldn't deny him respect even if they didn't agree with everything he said. Dr. King carefully chose to refuse violence when standing up to corrupt authorities, citing Gandhi as an influence. Why did he choose non-violence? It couldn't have been to get results. Why, you can get anything you want through force and violence; just look at the founding of the Soviet Union! Dr. King saw the humanity behind the systemic injustice of institution, showing compassion even for the people who oppressing him and his community. And as an itinerant minister, he made sacrifices to engage communities even in the South where he knew that resistance was violent and venomous. As you all know, it ultimately cost him his life, yet he braved these challenges all the way without a shred of anonymity. A far cry from Assange or the faceless hoodlums of Anonymous!

I have to give credit to Assange for caring about obscure things that more folks should care about: Extrajudicial killings, civilian casualties of "collateral damage", unscrupulous banks, etc. These are things that are worth further investigation and perhaps even encouraging some huge social change. But how high of a price are you willing to pay to spearhead such change? Julian Assange tries to encapsulate the aforementioned issues as a problem of information flow. I've seen enough debates about the merits of his theories; I'm more troubled by the very little effort on the part of him and his cohorts to do anything about these issues aside from throwing a big ole' mess of government documents out on the 'Net and calling it an exposé. Not to mention, Assange and Anonymous' repeated attempts to stay underground, which leads me to what I think is the most blatant hypocrisy of the pro-WikiLeaks crowd. Assange is allowed to flee from country to country to avoid authorities. Anonymous is allowed to keep its members' identities under wraps, true to its name. Yet Amazon and PayPal are expected to fight to the end for free speech by giving overt support to WikiLeaks. (i.e. through web-hosting and donation management) Some folks (Anonymous) even have the nerve to punish these companies for "selling out" by disrupting their business through denial-of-service attacks. Sickening! The "free-speech" fanboys applaud Twitter now for their defiance of the Justice Department, but what if the DOJ ramps up their effort? And what if Twitter folds and starts handing them account information without consent from the account-holders? Will they then be panned as sell-outs and enemies of freedom?

The price to pay for major social change, whether it's for open governments or civil rights, is and always will be a high one. Martin Luther King Jr. understood that, and we remember him for his exceptional bravery. Amazon and PayPal were at least brave enough to honestly assess themselves; they decided that they as a whole deemed the crusade for information anarchy too dangerous and wanted no part in it. Sorry, WikiLeaks and friends. In the shadows of brave souls like Dr. King, Gandhi, Corrie Ten Boom, Nelson Mandela, and many others, there's just not enough going for you for me to consider you heroic, let alone carry my proverbial cross for your cause.

I know I'm not the only one who hates editorials that gripe about things without discussing how things could be better; so I'll leave you with this little blurb about Witness (Warning! The video contains violent images.), an organization that I've found to be virtually everything WikiLeaks should have been. Witness is journalist organization that exposes brutality by governments by filming it and showing the films to select people. One of its co-founders was Peter Gabriel, proving that even a founding father of the nerdy, indulgent musical genre known as prog-rock can find an outlet for his artistic pursuits that extends far beyond himself! Like WikiLeaks, Witness is just as much entrepeneurship as it is activism, placing emphasis on the method of using technology (specifically video recording) to communicate causes. Also, like WikiLeaks, Witness is not an assembly of "nice guys." They film corrupt governments in action without their permission, and they "leak" their film footage to people whom said governments would not want to see. Unlike WikiLeaks, they produce focused footage that they know will engage their audience. They don't just throw out some complicated government mumbo-jumbo and say, "Here, read these." They are also very careful about who they release their footage to. Furthermore, those who go to the front line to film this footage risk everything, including their lives. That's bravery, folks! Julian Assange and WikiLeaks could learn a thing or two from these guys. Maybe Assange, if he'll ever walk around a free man again, could turn WikiLeaks into an organization worth applauding. Until then, Peter Gabriel would be a more worthy candidate for a national holiday 50 years from now.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Live Free Or Pi

Today, March 14th, is Pi Day. For those who are unfamiliar with the tradition of Pi Day (about 84.324% of you, give or take), you celebrate the constant pi (3.14159...and so on) by eating pie at 1:59 PM. But there will inevitably be purists out there who will want to be more precise in their Pi Day celebration. They'll tell you that the proper time to eat pie is at 3:54 PM because 3:00 PM is 1500 in military time and :54 is .9 of 1 hour. And maybe some will insist on being more precise down to the second. Others may insist that the proper time to celebrate Pi Day is to consume pie at 3:54 PM in Greece local time, since Greece is where pi originates. Those people should be reminded, however, that Greece follows a little-endian date format in which they write March 14th as 14/3. So for it to be correct in Greece, Pi Day would have to be on the 3rd day of the 14th month. (Smarch?) Or the 31st of April, which is really May 1st...

If this all sounds too complicated, you can simply celebrate Alabama Pi Day, where you eat pie at exactly 3:00.

Hey, don't sweat the small stuff. Just enjoy yourself this Pi Day. After all, you gotta have something to tide you over until St. Patrick's Day!

Photo credit

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Derek Webb - Stockholm Syndrome

Every countercultural movement of the past century has its great, bald spiritual leader. The Indian independence movement has Gandhi. The Church of Satan has Anton LeVay. Gen-X, alt-rock-loving perpetual grad students have Michael Stipe. And Disaffected Hipster Cradle-Evangelicals Who Shun The Conservative Values Of Their Upbringing But Still Display At Least A Partial Interest In The Whole Christian Thing have Derek Webb. Webb's latest and perhaps most controversial album Stockholm Syndrome hit the stores earlier this month, and it's got many folks a-talking. Matthew was buzzing about it two months ago; he's much more of a Derekologist than I am. Tim recently put out this post which mentions Webb's highly publicized track "What Matters More", in which Webb vents his frustration about Evangelical obsession over homosexuality/bisexuality/etc. and, perhaps driven by the heat of the moment, uses some naughty words. Matt (other Matt) had another post about Christian culture's censorship of the Bible's grizzly passages, which really has nothing to do with Derek's new album, but is still very profound and I highly recommend reading it.

Now it's my turn to weigh in on Derek Webb's latest exploration, even though this album has been out for almost a month, which makes it old news by the oppressively high standards of this fast-paced modern world of McSalad Shakers and George Bush Jr.* But the album has had time to settle with me, and I feel I can make a much better judgment call on it now than the zillions of customer reviews that are typically splat-painted on the iTunes Music Store only hours after an album's release. My belated review will attest that I'm not very good at coming up with original ideas, which is why I'd probably make a great Free Software developer. (Ohhhh, snap!!!) But there are still plenty of folks out there who haven't heard the new release, let alone, know of its existence; so I hope my service proves to be helpful.

The first thing most people think of with Stockholm Syndrome is the controversy surrounding the aforementioned "What Matters More" track; so I'll start with the second most significant controversy: The style change. As underground rapper extraordinaire Talib Kweli once put it, "We don't live for hip-hop. Hip-hop--it lives for us." Replace the word "hip-hop" with "folksy, quasi-didactic, sensitive singer-songwriter, Dylanesque, predominantly acoustic alt-rock" and you basically have what seems to be Derek's artistic philosophy for this release: musical style as a means to an end and not the end itself. That's because, for this record, Derek switched from his signature organic rootsy stuff to synth-poppy, beat-heavy electronic, bringing out the ol' acoustic only a couple of times. You gotta give him kudos for not caving in to the nerdiness of the disaffected-youthful-folk subculture by making another folksy album just for the genre's sake. But, of course, a strong artistic statement like that doesn't automatically guarantee enjoyable music. This is a truly experimental album, as he flirts with all different flavors of electronic music. The breakbeats on "Black Eye" are quite nifty, think Radiohead during (one of) their electronic phase(s); and the drum-n-bass (with real drums, I think) on "The Spirit vs. the Kick Drum" are catchy. The dance-pop on "Jena and Jimmy" didn't quite win me over, especially the obnoxious falsetto "ooh-ooh-ooh", and the throbbing "nnts-nnts-nnts" on "What You Give Up to Get It" I found to be rather irritating, even after several listens. The laid back tracks like "Heaven" and "Freddie Please" are the most unique. "Freddie Please" is especially delightful. I'm told the song is sung from the perspective of Jesus toward Fred Phelps. The raspy vocals over the slowed-down '50's-style ballad are downright creepy--in a very beautiful way. This track alone more than makes up for the album's awkward moments.

And the lyrics? Well there's some style change in these, too. Derek Webb was never really preachy in his songwriting, but he's always been pretty blunt when it comes to issues of politics ("We'll never have a savior on Capitol Hill"), theology ("Nobody's good enough to save themselves") and middle-class America. ("Sell your house. Sell your SUV [...] Give it to the poor.") Here, aside from "What Matters More", it's rather abstract, whether he's repeatedly chanting, "I don't want the Spirit, I want the kick drum" or rambling about a "Black Eye" or chanting political slogans I'd expect to see on bumper stickers on Fiats parked in front of "independent" (i.e. failing) record shops. ("Please take your laws off my lover.") I needed a lyric sheet to follow along with a lot of these songs, and even then, I couldn't figure out what many of them were about, although themes of state-church relations, homophobia, pacifism, and poor people getting screwed over seem to pop up here and there. This ambiguity seems to be playing on the cognitive biases of quite a few theological conservatives, as evidenced by this critical review which chides the album for Derek's "disturbing theology" and seems particularly hung up on the song "Heaven" for not offering an exegetically correct description of the afterlife. (Was it supposed to?) The article mostly reviews Derek's apparent theological stance and his table manners (i.e. the use of profanity) rather than the album itself, and this I find to be really tragic. Derek doesn't give any definitive statement about sexuality or politics here, and that's what I find most appealing about this album! He's not interested in lecturing you about the doctrine of infralapsarianism** or rant about how unhip suburbanite Evangelicals should be more social justice-y. Instead he makes music that's vaguely topical but interesting and infectious enough to inspire you to do the talking. And the topics of foreign relations and sexual politics never go out of style. I can already see Webb 2.0 working its magic amongst my closest peers; just look at Tim's post (mentioned above) and its comments. Who knows what kind of dialogue Stockholm Syndrome will spark in the next few years? And as for Derek, where will the experimental path take him next? How about an album consisting entirely of cymbals clanging! It would be a minimalist concept piece based on 1 Corinthians 13:1, protesting the hypocrisy of contemporary Evangelicals who preach about "moral values" without displaying love in their actions. Steve Reich would be so proud.

* A tribute to essayist Jeremy Lavine, whose El Niño essay begot a mild Internet meme a few years back. On a personal note, Alex and I became fast friends when I e-mailed him that essay.
** I don't even know what that means.

Friday, June 26, 2009

"A Bag On My Head"

In the classic novel A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius Reilly, the narcissistic protagonist, gets a job at a pants factory to support his family. Ignatius is incredibly astute and should be over-qualified for such blue-collar work. But after caving in to his mother's demands to stop making excuses for his complacent laziness, he takes the low-skill job. He does somewhat well until ego gets the best him. In order to upstage his beatnik ex-girlfriend, he dabbles with the whole social activism thing that was hip in the 1960's; and where better to make his mark than in Civil Rights-era New Orleans, where he worked. He attempts to galvanize his fellow poor workers into an enormous protest for improved wages and working conditions. He asks them to sing Spirituals in unison. The protest fails monstrously, Ignatius gets fired, and hilarity ensues.

My first job was at Taco Bell. I was 16 and needed money to help pay for car insurance. Like many fast-food franchises, the lowly environment at Taco Bell is the last resort lunch option for the sharply dressed, upper-middle-class folk who describe their work as "market research" to young ladies they're trying to pick up at wine galleries. When they're behind on their payment for the loan they took out for the 115" 9600*5400 resolution HDTV, they can't afford the usual Greek place or even Panera Bread. So at about 12:15 pm, after they've finished preening and re-popping their collars in the bathroom, these well-groomed socialites venture from their pristine, naturally lit office building into the dreary fast-food dungeon, only to return an hour later to their idyll where they promptly resume reading Fail Blog. Behind the counters where they place their orders lies the metallic cavern lit by flickering fluorescent lighting. Here, minimum-wage-working single mothers, non-English speakers, and perpetually stoned high-school dropouts assemble wads of growth hormone-addled cattle carcass onto artificially flavored rubber sheets resembling tortillas. A trickle of scalding grease from the monolithic fryer splashes these hapless grunts as they deliver the barely edible concoctions to the aforementioned higher-skilled/paid workers to consume while conversing about the "stresses" of "work." This stark contrast is chillingly similar to Fritz Lang's epic dystopian film Metropolis.

My first week at Taco Bell, a co-worker trained me on how to use the fryer and prepare nachos and cinnamon twists. Or at least, he was supposed to. Most of the time, he stood around and made inane conversation. He showed visible signs of frequent marijuana use. He was often unresponsive and would get yelled at by the manager. He had a quiet, deep voice similar to that of Snoop Dogg. He also asked me if I had listened to Snoop Dogg. I lied and said I did. He was Caucasian. One day, as he was tasked with showing me how to prepare cinnamon twists, he opened a clear plastic bag of twists and dumped them into a bin where they would placed into individual paper bags. He then proceeded to place the bag on top of his hat. He adjusted the bag as it sagged to and fro. As he walked around holding the bag, he said nonchalantly, "I got a bag on my head, yo."

One Christmas Day, my uncle Paul and cousin Billy were watching the fireplace that comes on public access channels during the holidays. My Uncle Paul makes random erudite observations on everyday things just to be funny. His deadpan humor is often underrated among the rest of the family. He and Billy came up with a postmodernist deconstructive analysis of the scene of the fireplace. On the right side, the firewood was level and the wood was vibrant; but towards the left of the fireplace, the wood was charred and drooping. The bulk of the wood was on the left side. Uncle Paul speculated, "The wood on the left is a representation of those disenfranchised by the 'fire' of the ruthless capitalist system; yet one can clearly see that they make up the majority of the wood, collapsing under the weight of the wealthy few, that being the level wood on the right." Billy added, "And the sturdier wood is on the right. That wood must represent the Republicans."

I wonder how we can deconstruct this workplace scene of a young man placing a bag on top of his head. Is it a helmet that he has chosen to wear as a result of the stress brought on by the endless demands of an unrestrained mega-corporation who sells the meat of factory-raised animals to impressionable children and makes rapacious profits? Or is it a bag of apathy, like what so many people his age demonstrate towards important societal issues nowadays. Notice the music of Snoop Dogg appeals to him. Why not a more cerebral, conscious celebrity in the rap genre, like Mos Def?

In case you're wondering, I just finished reading all three of James Finn Garner's Politically Correct Bedtime Stories books. My awareness has been raised tremendously. What a shame these books are out of print!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Practical Application

Next time you start your car, scan the radio dial. Eventually, you will come across the Christian station. You'll know you've found it when you hear a mid-tempo power-ballad with acoustic guitars gently strumming C-major chords and seething Eddie Vedder-esque vocals singing about being fondled by the Spirit. And maybe they'll throw in some synthesized strings into the final chorus to make it sound more majestic. After a few minutes of rockin' out and feeling guilty about throwing away your purity ring, you'll hear the station identify itself and advertise some of its programming. In one of these program advertisements, as a nameless oboe/piano duet belts out saccharine mood music, a calm yet stern 40-something male voice announces, "Join us for Exploring the Word with Pastor So-And-So, and learn how the teachings of Scripture apply to your life."

Every time I hear a religious broadcast, peruse a Christian book store, or just do a Bible study with friends, it's always about applying things in the Bible to my life. It seems that that's the only way people can read the Bible nowadays. Why don't we see what application we can milk out of this passage? Here's Jesus commissioning his disciples to preach the Gospel. It's a direct command; there's gotta be some application here!

As you go, preach this message: 'The kingdom of heaven is near.' Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.
- Matthew 10:7-8 (NIV)

Wonderful. Now let's find some corpses.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Apocalypse Whenever

Religious school. For most people who grow up there, it invokes memories of being paddled in the buttocks by French-speaking nuns. But my family just couldn't afford those prestigious Catholic private schools. Or even the Lutheran ones. So how did we avoid the cistern of the public school system? With a more inexpensive, non-denominational but pre-millennial, quasi-fundamentalist leaning alternative. Enter: My elementary school. We didn't have paddle-wielding nuns. Nor did we have groin-choking overalls and long, "modest" mini-skirts; we had Chapel every week. And at least once a month, the subject of the Chapel sermon was the impending Second Coming of Jesus. Yes, the talk about spending eternity in hell stopped scaring me when I figured I could live a life of Earthly pleasures, but I could eat healthy and stay in school so as to minimize my chances of dying before I had the opportunity to drum up a confession speech to God for all my sins. But Jesus is one slippery rascal. You see, he's going to return to Earth some time in the future, possibly in my lifetime! And when he comes, the world will end and all those who haven't yet died will be escorted to heaven or hell, same rules apply. The news made me pee my pants, and I want to make it abundantly clear that I was young enough for that to be an acceptable response.

We spent an awfully hefty portion of our Chapel and Bible studies on the End of the Age. There were many facets to our eschatology, strange signs allegedly predicted by the Bible. Earthquakes, hurricanes, wars, Sinbad getting his own sitcom. There are many conflicting theories as to what will happen in the years immediately prior to the End. One of the more popular ones we visited was the Rapture. For those not in the know, this is the theory that at some point near the end of time, all the Elect will be levitated from the Earth, relieved of their physical bodies and responsibilities and whisked away to the Pearly Gates boogie down with St. Peter. I envisioned it would look something like the Power Rangers as they teleport to the Command Center for their mission briefing from Zordon. Those unfortunate souls who remain on Earth drink the acrid wine of God's wrath, and their misadventures are chronicled in a sadistic book series that was unsurprisingly popular at my old stomping grounds.

The scariest part of all of this was that "no one knows the day nor the hour" (Matt 24:36) when Jesus would return and judge the world. But that didn't stop some folks from guessing. With the unspeakable horrors of the apocalypse described in the Bible, who wouldn't want to have an idea of at least when they'll happen? Those who grew up in the quasi-fundie circuit probably remember when everyone was sure that the world would end in 1988. That one came before my time, but I do vividly remember the Second Coming Scare of 1994.

My favorite End Times speculations were the ones that tied in the Y2K hysteria. Surely Jesus would have to come and rescue his people from the supposed great computer crash that would send the world spiraling into anarchy. Jesus said in the discourse about his Second Coming that "(t)wo women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left." (Matt 24:41, NIV) One of my classmates came up with her own theory that beautifully tied this snippet in with Y2K doomsday predictions. At the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2000, electricity, water, and anything that can power our modern conveniences would be shut off. People would revert back to less technological ways of living more akin to Bible times. And in all this, there will have to be at some point at least two women having to use a "hand mill" (whatever that is) for their daily tasks. At which point, the archangel would see this from heaven and say, "Okay, Jesus. That's the signal. You're on." At my elementary school, you could graduate with the conviction that you knew exactly how the world would end. How many of your public-schooled friends could get to do that?

With all the emphasis on making speculations about vague passages of Scripture, you're probably wondering if anyone at my Christian school did anything practical with their spirituality. Actually, quite a few of them did! One sunny Friday, we took a field trip to Lutheran mission in downtown Annapolis. The lady working there showed us around the various services they had for the city's poor: the homeless shelter, the soup kitchen, the rehab center. It was a field trip designed to inspire us munchkins towards living selflessly and working to restore broken lives. And get our feet wet in the realities of poverty and injustice.

But my mind wandered the whole time I was there. I was too busy thinking about how I wanted to beat MechWarrior 2 before Jesus comes back to crash the party. It was always the cataclysmic aspects of the faith that stuck with me.

Photo credit: Flickr

Monday, April 27, 2009

Heaven & Hell

"Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens."
- David Byrne

I'll never forget a sleepover party I attended when I was roughly 10 years old. We camped out in my friend's backyard on a muggy Friday night. It was well into the wee hours and the conversation had wandered long past the boundaries of coherence. One party guest (someone I had never met before) told about a dream he allegedly had in which he visited both heaven and hell. "Heaven was very boring," he said. "People just floated around on clouds and played harps. But hell was cool! Man, I almost got boiled alive in a pool of lava. And there were dragons and scorpions, man!" This upset many people at the party. Most, if not all, of us went to private Christian school, and talking playfully about hell was about as wise as downing the whole bottle of Flintstones vitamins at once. Yet his case was very convincing; For most of us, hell was associated with things that we young males actually found quite fascinating, like fire and creepy mythical creatures. Heaven, on the other hand, was a modified nirvana where people were "rewarded" for their fidelity by being compelled to pluck assigned harps ad nauseam as they glided about an endless ether. Sound of crickets chirping, please?

My mom used to read to us from a book of illustrated Bible stories. My brother Jordan had a few favorites: The story of complaining Israelites in the wilderness being swallowed into the ground, the story of the Flood that drowns all life on Earth except Noah and his kin and some animals, the story of Elijah calling down fire from heaven and then slaughtering the prophets of Ba'al (in a children's book!). He loved those grisly tales of divine retribution.

Is the time-honored Christian practice of indoctrinating your kids with the fear of God's judgment backfiring? The aforementioned stories are supposed to scare the bejeezus out of impressionable youngsters so that they'll pretty much leave themselves no choice but to pipe down and finish their veggies, yet they're always the ones that young Y-chromosomed folk remember most fondly. Meanwhile, the images of heaven that are ever present in our society are hardly worth a mention. Chubby, rosy-cheeked angels levitating across the Windows 95 background? Is this the only alternative to eternal damnation?

One time when Jordan and I were very young, I asked him what he thought about God. "God's yuck!" he exclaimed shamelessly. Mom, hearing our conversation, was flabbergasted: "How could you say such a thing?! Did you know he can strike you with a lightning bolt?" "Yeah!" I retorted. "What do you think of God now?" "God's yuck!" he said, undeterred.