For the Narcissist Lover in You…


What Siri Taught Me About Understanding Existence


I consider myself a skeptic—that is, someone who examines and questions his beliefs and perceptions.  And yet I’ve never felt quite comfortable in the community of Skeptics (big S).

Upon reading an article by (and about) Skeptics, I think I’ve figured out why.  I’ll spoil this whole blog post by giving the answer now:

Skeptics are only skeptical of the sources they’re inclined not to trust anyway.

This is not true skepticism.  In fact, it’s almost the exact opposite.

The thing Skeptics ignore is that there has to be more than one way for humans to ascertain truth about the world.  The Skeptic relies exclusively on Intellect/Reason.  What can be seen, measured, proved, and repeated.

This is a comfortable place to be, admittedly, because we live in a culture that reveres (perhaps even idolizes) science.


“I don’t care how many decimal places you average the check down to. Did you see how many drinks Hitchens had?”

But there must be at least two other avenues by which humans perceive the world.  For the sake of simplification, let’s call them Heart/Emotion and Spirit/Revelation.

(And with that, all my Skeptic friends have already checked out.  For the rest of you, hang in there.)

These three methods of understanding the world are like three techniques of getting directions to a place: satellite navigation, a paper map, and asking a bystander.

Intellect/Reason is like using satnav to get somewhere.  It’s precise, bloodless, and (ostensibly) utterly objective.  I myself prefer satnav.  I’m happy to let my phone tell me when and where to turn.  I trust the science behind it.  I respect and understand, if vaguely, the reliability of satellite triangulation married to the most perfectly scanned and catalogued maps of planet earth that have ever existed in human history.

But then there’s Heart/Emotion, which is more like the paper map in the glove compartment: trustworthy in and of itself, but always subject to the interpretation of the reader.  My wife prefers a paper map, something she can unfold in her hands and translate with her own brain, wedding what’s on the page to her own skills and experiences.

And finally there is Spirit/Revelation, which is most akin to stopping alongside the road and asking a stranger for directions.  With this method, one is no longer relying on their own personal skill, experience, or rationality but is trusting instead on an outside source of knowledge.


“Turn right at youthful idealism, hang a louie at unresolved guilt, and just follow the signs for middle-age resentment. Easy peasy!”

Now I’ll be honest: it’s very easy to see why Skeptics ignore (and even belittle) the second two methods of understanding the world, placing all of their emphasis firmly on Intellect/Reason.

Heart/Emotion, just like a paper map, is entirely subject to the skills of the individual parsing the data.  The person reading the map/feeling the emotion may be accurately responding to the input while simultaneously completely misinterpreting it.  Some of the worst fights my wife and I have ever experienced have revolved around misread directions, both of the cartographic and emotional variety.

Spirit/Revelation is even easier to dismiss.  This is why most men are stereotypically loath to ask directions.  It’s perceived as surrender, a sign of weakness, even a defeat.  Trusting an external source of revelation is not only seen as unreliable, but as an offensive abdication of one’s own competence.

Thus, I can’t exactly blame the Skeptic for ignoring everything except for Intellect/Reason.  In the same way that I would be happy to never open another paper map or ask directions ever again.  I love my satnav.  I trust it.

And yet, embarrassingly enough, satellite navigation has failed me on more than a few occasions.  It’s directed me to the center of an industrial park loading dock instead of the pizza place I was looking for.  It’s missed destinations by many blocks, all while insisting I was exactly where I was supposed to be.  It has sometimes tried to take me to entirely different cities.  It will insist a destination doesn’t exist at all if I input the name in a way even slightly different than it understands.

In short, satnav is imperfect.  Cell reception can be sketchy, the data can be input incorrectly, satellite map information can be confusing, even to a computer.  (Consider, for a moment, the invisible island that Google maps insists is there.)


“Go home, Google.  You’re drunk.”

Similarly, let’s be honest: Intellect/Reason can lead us astray as well, or bypass some truths altogether.

For example, back in Copernicus’ day when the debate was about the center of the universe, some scientists argued that everything revolved around the earth using very reasonable, scientific logic: parallax.  They knew that if the earth was moving around the sun, the spaces between the stars would shift throughout the year as the earth changed position relative to them.  Since this was not observable, science dictated that the earth was stationary.

Of course, just like with my satnav, it wasn’t the science itself that was wrong, but the tools of implementing it.  The scientists of Copernicus’ day didn’t have sensitive enough equipment to measure the parallax of the stars.

The tools of Intellect/Reason are necessarily limited.  There are some things they simply cannot measure or understand.  Science may be able to show why hunger chemically affects the chemical balance of a human brain, but it’s no good at helping me discern if my wife is truly mad about the lawn needing mowed or if she’s just hangry.


That’s where Heart/Emotion come in.

Heart/Emotion, like reading a map, can be unreliable.  But that’s only if my interpretation is clumsy.  The emotion, just like the map itself, is accurate in and of itself.  It’s my duty to learn how to interpret the data in a reliable and meaningful way.

And there are essential things I can learn via that study that no amount of “in a quarter mile, turn right” satnav will ever teach me.  Emotional data, like a map, can illustrate the subtle topography of human interaction and the psychological distances between ideologies (and how they might loop back on one another).  Emotional truth helps me understand and relate to my wife and kids and friends.  It provides the mechanism of empathy, compassion, romance, and persuasion.

But what of Spirit/Revelation?

This method of learning about the world and existence is much maligned (and understandably so) because it isn’t as simple as asking a bystander how to find an address.  We all know how to choose a reliable source for directions.  We ask the wizened gas station jockey, not the wino on the corner or the toddler in the playground.

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple when it comes to revelation about life and existence.  Sources for revelatory knowledge can seem nebulous, numerous, and even mythical.  But this may be because we are no longer trained in the art of divining (pun intended) the spiritual equivalent of the gas station expert from the homeless meth addict.

Like learning to reliably interpret emotions, learning how to test and translate knowledge obtained via Spirit/Revelation is largely a lost art, either because we think it’s silly (the Skeptic) or because we trust anything and everything (the Mystic).

But the fact that this method is the least understood and/or the most clumsily engaged is not a legitimate reason to ignore it.

Imagine if we applied the same logic to an electron microscope or a DSM manual.

The thing Skeptics love about Intellect/Reason is that knowledge gained via this manner is shareable.  It can be documented and repeated.

Knowledge gained via Heart/Emotion and Spirit/Revelation is much harder to share.  But this cannot mean it is less valuable or useful.

That would be like saying love is a myth because I can’t make you love what I do.clamato

(What I love.)

So, circling back to my first paragraph: the problem with Skeptics is that they are people inclined toward one method of knowledge happily applying skepticism to the *other* methods of knowledge.

And to be fair, this is the same problem with Mystics.  And Romantics.

We are all inclined to prefer one way of learning about the world over another.  And we are all wired to wholly exercise that method and let the others languish.

But what if truth can only be really approached when we find a way to balance all three methods?  When we find that sweet spot between Intellect, Heart, and Spirit?

What if real skepticism means using all three methods of knowledge to hone and test the others?

Let’s take it a step further: what if Intellect, Heart, and Spirit are a little like Rock, Paper, and Scissors?  Each with their own individual strength and weakness, but undefeatable as a trio?  What if our ability to approach truth is only really honed when we are capable of engaging any of those three options, each tempered and bolstered by the other?

This is possibly where modern society falls down the hardest—the thing that future cultures will most laugh at and lament about us.  From Neil Degrasse Tyson to Bill Nye, to “I Fucking Love Science”, we’re so in love with the smug superiority of Intellect that we’ve become abject puny weaklings when it comes to Heart and Spirit.

We’ve removed all but one tool from our toolbox of knowledge.

We throw the same hand every time we play Rock, Paper, Scissors.

And no matter how superior we may feel about it, we’re the worse for it.

So to end this on an upshot, let’s practice with another tool.  Next time you want to throw Rock, try Paper.  Next time you want to dismiss a belief because it hearkens to a source of knowledge you dismiss, consider it anyway.  Next time you agree with something because it corresponds to your preferred tool for understanding the world, be skeptical.  Test it against another way of divining truth.

I dare you.

Challenge yourself.  Practice the far more difficult skills of interpreting your Heart and Spirit.  Get uncomfortable with some new ideas.  Instead of poking at other people’s stupid beliefs, try to find the stupidity in your own.

Because no matter what, it’s there.

Oh man, is it ever.

Just like with mine.

At the intersection of heart, mind, and spirit, maybe just once…

try ignoring your satnav.


10 Differences if “Downton Abbey” had been made for American television

I know I am several years late to this party, but I’ve only recently discovered Downton Abbey.  I had no idea of its power, otherwise I never would have approached the event horizon of its attention-absorbing black hole.  As it is, my wife and I are irreversibly sucked in.  We shall be spat out only when we run out of episodes on Amazon Prime or the brilliant BBC wonks stop producing it.  Curse those amazing Brits and their fantastic casting, self-loathing rapier wit, and unimpeachable writing!

But it got me wondering: what would Downton Abbey have been like if it had been produced by Americans, for American TV?  I’m pretty sure the following list sums it up.


10.  Bates murders Thomas in the first season, accompanied by a pithy one-liner (“somebody’s going DOWN in Downton…”). He then develops a taste for vigilantism and goes to London in search of Jack the Ripper.


“… and after that, it’s that Carmen San Diego broad…”


9.  Lady Edith is slowly transformed into the unpredictable Kramer-esque breakout character with an over-used, buzz-worthy catchphrase: “Mary! Kiss my kippers!” [laugh track]


“I received a letter today from cousin Urkel…”


8.  Sarah O’Brien is revealed to be distantly related to Nelly Olsen from “Little House on the Prairie”. There is a crossover episode.


(Why Mary is blind and Cousin Albert gets on Drugs)


7.  Dabney Coleman plays “OverLord Grantham”, a vicious, abusive industrialist making gilded-age wealth on the backs of child labor and gleeful pollution. His nemesis is an inexplicable environmental rights solicitor played by Kate Winslet.


“Carson, when will the orphans be served?  For dinner?”  [evil cackle]


6.  They have a torrid love/hate affair in the third season.


“Slightly better than floating on a headboard in the Atlantic.”


5.  Matthew Crawley uses the family fortune to build “Titanic Too, the Sequel”. He accompanies it on its maiden voyage and is shipwrecked on an Island. There, he builds a weird hatch and a button with a timer attached to it. He has a polar bear for some reason.


[sniff] “Smells like new money.”


4.  Carson the Butler spends his free time solving murders in nearby villages with the help of his sidekick, a cockney street urchin played by Jaden Smith. During season four, they briefly leave Downton Abbey to attempt their own spin-off series called “Carson and the Kid”.


“Pray, inform the constable that we have located Lord Mustard’s candlestick. It was in the Library.”


3.  The entirety of season five is a self-contained story arc in which aliens invade Downton intent on abducting Lady Mary as their queen. Her parents are ecstatic about this plan, but Mary screws it up somehow by being horrible. Aunt Rosamund is revealed to be a giant praying mantis wearing a human suit. The aliens wipe everyone’s memories and leave, thus nullifying the entire season.


“Those aren’t feathers.  They’re my antennae.”


2.  In season six, Daisy the scullery maid witnesses the Dowager Countess using a magic wand to turn a teacup into a frog. She doesn’t tell anyone, but suddenly starts wearing a burgundy-and-gold knitted scarf and calling the family “My Muggle Lord and lady”. The Countess pays for Daisy’s silence with Leprechaun gold.


“Have the chauffeur drop her off in Knockturn Alley.”


1.  In the final season, the entire family moves to Dallas, Texas and gets into the oil business. Cora miraculously gets pregnant with a son, whom they name “John Ross”. Downstairs, everyone starts calling him “J. R.”.


[sniff] “Smells like old money.”


I’m Rock, You’re Water (A Love Story/Fable/Social Commentary)


Rock and Water had a complex relationship from the start…

Water spent most of her time running along streams and rivers, tossing waves around her oceans, occasionally getting into hurricane rages about this or that, and often pouring herself out as life-giving rain over the land.

Rock spent most of his time sitting perfectly still and doing not much of anything except being heavy and hard, thereby providing the backbone for everything from mountains to molehills, from garages to castles.

Rock and Water couldn’t be any more different, and yet they both tended to respect each other, being equal parts of the world, and being equally necessary and worthwhile, albeit in extremely different ways.

Of course, unsurprisingly, sometimes their mutual respect turned sour. Sometimes Water got into Rock’s cracks and froze and broke him apart. “I spent two hundred million years getting into that shape!” he would exclaim.


And sometimes Rock was made into a dam that blocked the flow of Water’s rivers. “Just because you’re happy to lie around all day, do you have to stop me from moving!?” she’d shout at him. “Just look at my tributaries! They’re getting all fat!”

And sometimes there were deep jealousies between them.

One day, while Rock was contenting himself as a giant boulder on a hill, he watched how Water cascaded wildly down a nearby cliff-face, crashing into a deep pool below and roaring with laughter all the way.


He mustered every ounce of his complicated stony geology and melted himself into lava, committed to joining Water. Hissing and burning everything in sight, he delighted in his molten form, convinced that Water would be impressed at just how liquidy he could be.

Unfortunately, as soon as he joined Water on the cliff-face, she erupted into angry steam. “Get away! You’ll ruin everything, you big stupid clod!”

“Fine! Be that way!” Rock sulked, and solidified again, blocking the water flow. The few chunks of stone that did make it over the cliff looked pathetic as they tumbled like bricks, making ugly splashes in the pool below and sinking straight to the darkness of the bottom.

A few millennia later, Water felt some jealousy of her own. Rock was always being made into amazing things, from mountains to mansions. “I can be just as constructive as him,” she challenged herself.


Summoning all of her hydro-dynamic energy, she solidified into a lake of solid ice. Inspired, some humans turned away from the Rock, choosing instead to cut Water’s ice into huge blocks for building. They constructed a hotel out of her and lit her with hundreds of lights. She looked positively ethereal, shining in the snow like a crystalline castle. “Rock never looked as good as this,” she said smugly. “I can be hard and beautiful.”


And yet, despite her beauty and hardness, the humans who came to visit never stayed long. They exclaimed about her beauty, but complained about her coldness. And soon enough, the seasons changed and no matter how hard Water tried, she couldn’t maintain her solidness. She melted away with a deep, angry sigh of weariness.

Rock laughed a little smugly, knowing that the things built from him lasted thousands and even millions of years.

A different time, Rock tried to assume a majestic expanse like Water’s oceans, turning himself into a massive desert. It had waves, just like the ocean, but they were much harder and slower.


No one sailed boats on Rock’s sandy waves. The humans mostly avoided the desert ocean. Virtually nothing lived there. Rock sighed angrily, knowing that his plan had failed, but being Rock, just left his desert lying there anyway.

Water saw how richly moss grew on Rock’s boulders and mountains, carpeting them with lush green. She tried to lay still long enough to grow some moss of her own, but hers was a stagnant scum that stank and stifled her depths. Within a few decades, she threw the moss off and started running again in disgust.


And yet still, Rock saw how Water frolicked on the beaches, and he longed deeply to join her. He watched the majesty of her hurricanes and respected her. He felt her give herself to the land as rain, and he yearned for her.

“She’s more regal and beautiful and dynamic than I can ever hope to be,” he told himself.

Water, for her part, looked up at Rock’s imposing mountains and admired him. She saw the things built from him and respected him. She saw his steadfast reliability in the face of constant changing seasons and pined for him.

“He’s more solid and unscalable and immutable than I will ever be,” she sighed in her deepest heart.

Silently, they loved each other. They were equal in importance, in beauty, in strength. And yet, the more they tried to express their mutual admiration and affection by trying to be like the other, the further they pushed apart.

Water, when she tried to become Rock, was brittle and cold. Rock, when he tried to become Water, was destructive and searing.


Time went by. The years drifted into millennia. And then, slowly, a realization began to dawn on each of them, separately but similarly.

They were drawn to each because of their differences. And they were both only the best of themselves when they embraced those things that made them so different.

And further, they realized that it was when they were both completely themselves that they complemented each other and loved each other best.

Water could not frolic on the beach without the reliable bed of Rock’s sands. She could not cascade into waterfalls without the comforting strength of Rock’s cliffs.

And Rock could not be carved into his most impressive canyons over the centuries without water’s gentle, dynamic influence. His beauty was the shadow of hers, molded imperceptibly over time, made soft in the only way that he could be, by constant, gentle pressure.

Amazingly, both Rock and Water came to the same epiphany at the same time: they were only able to be their best selves when they allowed their other to be as different from them as they were made to be.

Water still resented Rock’s stubbornness. And Rock still chafed at Water’s persistent flowing energy. But with patience and an occasional eye-roll, they settled down together. They loved each other for their immense, necessary differences, not as bad imitations of themselves, but as their equal and opposite.

Rock scattered himself as boulders and stepping stones and rocky beds along the many miles of Water’s favorite, most curvaceous river. Together, they made rapids and shallows, circling pools and swift cascades, waterfalls and babbling currents. She laughed all day under the influence of his immobile solidity, and he softened over the years, his boulders losing their craggy viciousness and his stones becoming smooth as pillows, glittering under Water’s crystalline embrace.


They were utterly different, and sometimes they still drove each other crazy. But they were the best themselves when they were together. They knew this, and reveled in it.

And it only took a little over four billion years.

Last Word on the Refugees (in 34 words)

Refugees this and refugees that.  It’s taken over social media and so everybody has to have an opinion.  It’s like a nuclear arms race of memes.  As usual, no one really wants to be persuasive and change minds, they just want their side to be king of the moral hill.

I won’t be posting any memes.  I won’t be pretending “Jesus was a refugee” or claiming that all Muslims are terrorists.  Amazingly, I have an idea that the truth is a lot more nuanced than your average gotcha bumper sticker that makes one side all smarmy and the other side splutter at how inane it is.

I will say I do think that it is, within reason, our duty both as Americans and (for those that call themselves such) Christians to help the refugees in whatever way we can– with the obvious caveat that we should screen as well as possible (which I doubt is really all that well).

But here’s the thing, and this is as close to a meme as I’ll come, so maybe I should put these 34 words in a fun, over-sized font:

If you haven’t opened your front door to let your local homeless population camp in your living room, maybe don’t dictate to us that we do the equivalent in our communities, states, and nations.

It’s not quite so easy being charitable to the homeless when it’s your own front door, kids, fridge and wallet on the line, methinks.

I’ve offered this challenge (in a hopefully much more respectful tone) to several of my friends who are very vocal about the issue and not gotten any direct response to it.

Well, one did suggest that I couldn’t be a follower of Jesus.  Guess I’m kicked out of that club.

Again, I DO THINK WE SHOULD HELP THEM.  But stop pretending that the people who struggle with the safety and financial and cultural repercussions don’t have legitimate concerns.  They’re probably the ones paying for it, who have kids they’re worried about, who already have communities full of struggling families, who may even BE one of those struggling families, so show them some patience and respect.  Let them know their concerns are legit, and it may be a hard choice, but that’s what it means to sacrifice for our neighbors sometimes.

Or, maybe, just keep feeling all superior and self righteous.  I’m sure that will work out just great for both your soul and our culture.  The refugees probably don’t much care.

Of Guns and Gardens: Why the Problem is Probably You.

I never cease to be surprised at the smug hypocrisy of the people who most loudly condemn the flower of gun violence while most ardently fertilizing its root.

It’s a pretty simple analogy.  The flower of gun violence is crazy killers walking into schools or churches or whatever and shooting them up.  So what’s the root?

You won’t like it.  The root is modern culture.

modern-familyNot Modern Family.  OK, maybe a little.

It isn’t popular to say, but we’ve torn down every societal bulwark of mental health. We’re more bombarded with media now than ever in human history, from the Internet to television to music to video games, and the message we absorb is pretty seamless.

We’ve made fame the ultimate measure of value.  We’ve made death into entertainment.  Religion is a joke for stupid peopleTraditional heroes are gleefully torn down.  Humans are animals, mere accidents of biology, as insignificant and pointless as dust mites.

We’ve reached that stage in societal evolution where we’ve become so enamored with the idea of how enlightened we are that we blind ourselves to the ways that “enlightenment” has poisoned us.

DeliciousTeaAt least Iroh asked the question.

And make no mistake: we’re all poisoned by it.  Not just the weak-minded killers who snap and go shoot up schools.  We all have guns in our heads, whether we point them at others or at ourselves.  We all thrash for meaning, yearn for significance, but find nearly every traditional avenue of significance bulldozed by mockery and noise.

We used to strive to be like our heroes, but today those heroes are systematically dismantled and discredited.

We used to aim for pleasing our God, but God doesn’t exist anymore, and people who believe in him are uniformly condemned as small-minded, anti-intellectual haters.

We used to have a thing called patriotism, which while often flawed, gave us a sense of community and shared mission.  Now we enjoy the destruction of that unity.  We relish blaming the larger tribe, and happily participate in the deliberate fracturing of that tribe into smaller and smaller exclusive cliques.

We used to have science and intellectual curiosity and the pursuit of challenge.  Now we have “scientific consensus” and endless floods of grant money assuring nothing less than seamless agreement.  Now, perhaps for the first time in history, ignorance of the opposition’s argument is lauded as an intellectual virtue.

There was a time when media purveyors recognized the responsibility they carried.  Now, we bristle at the slightest suggestion that maybe not every message is worth proclaiming, maybe not every entertainment is worth the cost to our overall mental/moral health.

Instead of taking responsibility for the mental mines we’ve buried in our cultural landscape, we whine shrilly about censorship.

We insist that violent video games don’t lead to violence.  That hateful lyrics don’t cultivate hate.  That deconstructing traditional values doesn’t deconstruct traditional morality.

And then, when violence and hate and amorality show up in our playgrounds, we are shocked.

kw-shockedscaredWe blame the guns in the hands and ignore the guns we’ve buried in our culture’s hearts and minds.

We’re a nation of abject fools.  We deliberately scatter tacks all over the floor, step on them, and blame the office supply store.

We encounter a hopeless culture penning a suicide note and help it by banning pens.

And somehow, amazingly, we feel smugly self-righteous about it.

We enjoy blaming gun owners, despite the fact that, traditionally, they are the ones contributing the least to the culture that grows killers.  They tend to be the same people who’ve been saying for years “what about not making death into entertainment?  What about not singing about killing and rape?  What about a God who made people in his image and gave them significance?  What about ascribing to be like heroes, even if those heroes are part myth?”

ronald_reagan_riding_a_velociraptor_by_sharpwriter-d55rsh7Everyone knows Reagan never rode a velociraptor. He rode an Allosaurus.

You know the people who’ve been saying those things, right?  They’re the ones we’ve been mocking and belittling and stereotyping for the last few decades.  Incredibly, they’re the ones we’re blaming now.

Gun violence is the flower of a long, vicious vine of narcissism, meaninglessness, deconstructionism, and irreverence.

Any gardener will tell you: when you encounter a poison weed, you don’t just chop off the flower.  You don’t just hack away the leaves or even the vine.  You have to rip that thing out by the root.

If you ignore the root, the poison plant just grows back bigger and stronger.

Personally, I’m throwing down the gauntlet.  From President Obama on down: if you think the solution to gun violence is more gun control, not only are you not helping the issue, you’re making it worse.  You are the problem.  It isn’t just a mistake to focus on the poison flower and ignore the root.  It’s criminally irresponsible.  Any further blood is on your hands.

quote“But it can’t be that America creates and distributes more of the world’s popular entertainment than any other nation on earth, ever, in history. Who said that? Have them removed.”

Let’s be perfectly, brutally blunt: The next time a broken lunatic walks into a school and starts shooting, it will be partly your finger on the trigger.  Why?  Because you blame the gun in the hand, not the culture that put the gun in the heart.  Because you enjoy that culture too much to really consider what it cultivates.

So how do we stop this?  How do we seriously and deliberately take control?

Simple.  We stop consuming the poison culture that we’ve been feasting on.

If enough of us stop consuming it, they will eventually stop making it.

I don’t have a lot of faith that this will happen, of course.  I’m an optimist, but a realist, and I don’t have a lot of faith in human nature.  It probably won’t ever happen globally, or even nationally.  But it can happen in your own heart.  It can happen in our individual families.  And if it does, who knows?  Maybe it will spread.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

It may be a small thing, but at least then, the next time some tainted soul with a gun in its heart finally takes a gun into its hand, you can at least know you didn’t contribute to the poison root that grew it there.  Your finger isn’t partly on the trigger.

You can be more than a self righteous prig nipping at the poison petals.  You can be the gardener, digging out the root.

“The Nutcracker”: an Objective Review and Viewer’s Guide for the Culturally Deficient

So my son Zane appeared in his first ballet. He was a soldier in a local production of “The Nutcracker”. And just like how having a vegetarian girlfriend makes Jules Winnfield pretty much a vegetarian as well, having a kid in a ballet pretty much makes me a ballet watcher.

th“This IS a tasty arabesque.”

As such, the following is my objective review and viewer’s guide of “The Nutcracker” from the perspective of someone who’s never seen a ballet, worn a monocle, attended a fox hunt, or had occasion to unironically utter the phrase “well I never.”

First off, two things should be noted about the adult dancers in a ballet, and I use the term “adult dancer” advisably, considering what I am about to say. Number one, they’re all pretty good looking. And number two, they all wear tights. And not much else. That is to say, the men might don costumes of some sort, but all the hems stop just shy of the nethers. The women wear what could generously be called skirts, but they look more like those old-timey ruff collars you see in paintings of kings. Other than that, for the men and women alike, it’s just tights and a whole lot of unmistakable biology. This means that, regardless of what shade of the rainbow of genders you might fall into, you’ll find yourself at least curiously diverted throughout the show.

The really strange thing about this is that no one talks about it. And if you bring it up yourself, thinking you’ll be the brave one to mention what everyone else is thinking (perhaps with a complimentary appraisal of the Rat King’s “dance belt”) you’ll find it’s considered bad taste.

nutcracker-mouse-kingEspecially if you say it directly to the Rat King.

A lot of things are considered bad taste at the ballet. More on that later.

At any rate, I’m pretty shocked that this attire passed muster back in the prude ages, but maybe that was the point and the dancing was just there to give the performers an excuse to be on stage. Sort of like how people “read the articles” in Playboy.

Gives “high culture” a whole new perspective, I admit.

Anyway, here’s a tip for first timers to any ballet: pretend you are the only human in attendance at a dog whistle concert. If the rest of the audience starts to applaud, just applaud along with them. You aren’t going to know why, and that’s all right. Trust the audience. Clap lightly. Don’t overdo it. Standing up and pumping your fist is frowned upon, literally.

So, The Nutcracker begins with what looks like a party scene at the richest house in the old-timey world. There are butlers and maids and scullery urchins scrambling all over the place, as overseen imperiously by the Lord and Lady of the house (I know these terms because I once overheard a conversation about Downton Abbey– absorbing culture wherever you can is another helpful tip). There are children here and there, and more of them appear as guests arrive at the party. A lot of air-kisses happen at this point. And here we meet the main focus of the story, a girl named Clara. I only know this because the program tells me.

nutcracker-ballet-party-jpeg-scaled1000My guess without a program: the traditional game of Red Rover.

That’s another thing about ballet: no one says anything, ever, leaving the viewer to figure out what’s happening via guesswork, secret glances at the program, and constantly asking the people around you what’s going on.

The latter, unfortunately, is also frowned upon.

Clara, being the star of the show (along with the Nutcracker himself, who is yet to appear) is fawned over by everyone. She dances around a bit and everyone looks on adoringly.

Then, a grown man shows up wearing a cape. The cape might raise your hopes, but trust me: this isn’t Batman. This man is apparently a sort of magical, mysterious Uncle with an adoring eye on Clara. In our production, he was a wee bit on the plump side, wore a white powdered wig, and moved around the stage like a stork playing hopscotch. He was surely meant to give off an air of worldly-wise charm and doting mystery. It is imperative that you cling to this perception, no matter how much he might instead come across as the sort of creepy bachelor Uncle who has way too much candy in his pockets and an unhealthy fixation on children.

drossBad guys never wear eye patches.

The uncle gives Clara a wooden nutcracker. This is received as a marvellous gift rather than, as might be expected, a kitchen tool for preparing nuts. The Nutcracker is shown proudly around the room. The Nutcracker is painted to look like a soldier with extremely prominent teeth and jarringly bulging eyes. Some nuts are cracked. Children actually fight over the nuts.

People dance. This happens a lot.

Soon enough (although not soon enough) everyone leaves. The lights dim, indicating night, and Clara takes the Nutcracker to bed with her. Creepy Uncle Magic Cape (not his actual name) appears in Clara’s bedroom. Again, this is not presented as cause for alarm, a fact that seems to offer far more social commentary about life in Victorian times than the writers may have intended. Creepy Uncle Magic Cape slips the Nutcracker from Clara’s sleeping arms, performs some sort of magic spell on it, and then places it back in her bed.

Again, this is not presented as cause to ring up the local constabulary, and suggesting so will not endear you to your fellow audience members.

Next, a whole load of rats scurries into view. Clara’s bedroom is overrun by them. The King of the Rats waves a scimitar. Clara awakens in terror and attempts to escape, but the elements of her bedroom slide mysteriously off-stage, left and right, leaving her in a nightmare of swarming rats. Fairly dark stuff, here. Fortunately for Clara, the Nutcracker comes alive. UNfortunately for your ability to sleep ever again, he still has monstrously prominent grinning teeth and the sort bulging painted eyes that say “I am tortured by this curse you call life”.

nutcracker“KILL…. MEEEEEE….!!!!”

The Nutcracker attacks the Rat King. A contingent of soldiers appears, one of whom is twelve and devastatingly handsome and looks a lot like a young version of me. He is a tour de force and completely steals the show, even if, inexplicably, this is not one of those moments that the audience begins to spontaneously applaud. The dashing young soldier with the extremely awesome father performs his part expertly, bringing the viewers to tears of joy if they know anything about anything, and then, even when his part is over, the performance for some reason continues to go on and everyone gets extremely bored and starts checking the time on their phone every few minutes.

The Nutcracker has apparently saved Clara from the rats and now, to celebrate, they watch some dancing. I, of course, watch Clara and the Nutcracker, since they are the stars of the story. A bunch of lady dancers flit about, doing their thing, and if your performance is half-way decent, there will be snow falling all around them. You’ll wonder how the dancers manage not to get the fake snow in their eyes. If you watch closely, some of them probably will.

And then the curtain comes down and the house lights come back up.

AudienceDo not get your hopes up! The ballet is not over. This is called an intermission and it usually lasts about ten minutes. Ours lasted more like twenty, until an announcer’s voice spoke up, informing us that they were having technical issues and that they apologized for the delay. I commented knowledgeably to the people around me that the “technical issue” required that a tremendous amount of blood be sprayed off the stage. This was frowned upon.

Eventually the curtain went up again and the performance resumed.

A series of dances occurred, each one apparently themed after nationalistic stereotypes. There was a sequence with some female dancers dressed like Jasmine from Aladdin. This was followed by half a dozen dancers dressed like an all-female mariachi band. Eventually, a guy in drag appeared on-stage wearing an enormous powdered wig and an even more enormous hoop skirt. He looked a bit like a cartoon version of Marie Antoinette, so I assumed this was supposed to represent France. He flipped up his skirt and eight children scampered out. The children danced, and then were collected again under the man’s hoop skirt.

6mEPwcz1NhnlPerfectly normal.

Helpful hint: if you learned anything from your observation about Creepy Uncle Magic Cape, you will assume that, in Victorian times, it is not considered strange or unhealthy for a man in drag to harbour up to a dozen children under his skirt. Perhaps it was the best way to keep him or the children warm. Perhaps homeless children regularly gathered under hoop skirts, unbeknownst to the wearers, as a form of temporary housing. Consider this an anthropologically interesting observation rather than another reason to summon the old-timey equivalent of Child Protective Services.

Clara and the Nutcracker observe all of this with avid interest, seated on a small throne. As the main characters of the story, I made sure to keep my focus on them, despite the temptation to let my attention wander to the dancers. Clearly this was intended by the writers to be a test of the audience’s devotion to Clara’s story. I did not mean to disappoint them, or be disappointed.

76719_10152324445355570_1122413928_nWho watches the watchers?  I do.

It did become apparent, however, that the story, as it were, occurred exclusively in the first half of the performance. As Clara and the Nutcracker looked on, more and more dances sprang up before them. This went on for quite some time, and I began to suspect that they were repeating some of the same dances again and again. Helpful hint: this is not what is happening, and it will not be considered helpful for you to interrupt the ballet to suggest that the dancers check their programs.

The performance did, eventually, end. Clara and the Nutcracker watched everything until, finally, they arose from their throne. Having been paying very close attention to them the entire time, I was gratified that their story was picking up again. The Nutcracker produced a small gilded sleigh, which he pushed over to Clara. She climbed into it and the Nutcracker began to push it slowly off stage. Clara waved extravagantly back to the dancers, all of whom were gathered on the other side of the stage, and the dancers waved extravagantly back.

I waited. Would Clara wake up again, finding that the entire sequence had been a dream? Would the Nutcracker still be alive? Would Creepy Uncle Magic Cape still be there, having watched her in her sleep all night long, as any good and not at all sick and twisted Uncle apparently did back in Old Timey times?

No, actually. The curtain came down and the performance was over. And that’s when I realized: Clara hadn’t been sleeping at all. This was probably an hallucination brought on by the ravages of some fatal Victorian disease. Scurvy, perhaps? Or rickets? Either way, the final goodbye was not the Nutcracker escorting poor Clara out of dreamland but into the cold embrace of her own doom.

nutcracker15“Go toward the light!”

Dark, dark stuff! Especially for a cheery Christmas tradition. And yet, it put everything else into perfect perspective.

This downer of a realization, however, was immediately interrupted by the curtain call. As the stage lights came back up, all the adult dancers pranced onto stage again. As one, they bowed. The audience applauded. Then, groups of two or three performers came forward at a time. These bowed again. The audience continued to applaud. Then, the performers gathered in long line at the front of the stage. They bowed. The audience applauded some more.

“Bring out the kids!” somebody, probably not me, shouted. After all, when someone is forced by the ballet company that asked their son to be in their performance to sell ten tickets at thirty bucks a pop, it seems reasonable to assume that, conservatively, exactly one hundred percent of the people attending are there primarily to see the kid whose parents sold them the ticket.

The adult dancers bowed again. The audience applauded some more.

“Bring out the kids!” somebody who sounded suspiciously like me shouted.

They did not bring out the kids. The adult dancers bowed several dozen more times. Helpful hint: if you stop applauding and glare at the stage with unbridled scorn, no one will notice. At the ballet, being frowned upon only goes one way.

After the show, the adult performers went backstage to do whatever they do between performances.
endingI went down to the room where the young performers were being corralled until the next show, scheduled for two hours later. Several dozen other parents were there as well, gathered just outside the doors of the room, which had newspaper taped over all the windows to hide the children in their various stages of costumage. I assumed all the other parents were also there to heap praise and glory upon the dashing young soldier who had so stolen the show in the middle of the first half. Unfortunately, the “director” (those are scorn quotes) had determined that no one could see that soldier between performances (or, incidentally, any of the other child performers).

My attempt to start a riot petered out fairly quickly. Helpful hint: loudly suggesting how much more awesome your kid was than all the others will not garner a lot of support for your riot attempt, regardless of how true such an assessment may seem to you.

3 Reasons Why Christians Should Welcome Those Atheist Anti-Church Billboards

Last Saturday, while out driving with my son in St. Peters, Missouri, I passed a billboard.  You may have heard about it, because it (and a few others like it) have since appeared in some typically screechy and shrill news articles.  The billboard showed a little girl in a Santa hat accompanied by the words “All I want for Christmas is to SKIP CHURCH.  I’m too old for fairy tales.”

skip-church-BILLBOARDLook at that kid’s face. Forget the caption, she’s writing a ransom note about the Elf on the Shelf.

Somewhat understandably, the Christian response to this billboard has been angrier than Rachel Maddow on a lesbian blind date with Ann Coulter.  I’m a Christian, too, and I sort of get it.  But is it possible that we are looking at this from entirely the wrong perspective?  The following are three reasons why the atheist billboards might actually be a good thing.

3. Belief Requires Proselytizing.

Glenn Beck, on his radio show, responded to the atheist billboards by saying “why can’t we all just leave each other alone?”  Good Libertarian words, there.  And yet this is the same Glenn Beck who spends each Easter performing what amounts to a radio drama of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  This is less what could be called “leaving each other alone” and more what we’d have to classify as “proselytization”.

And there’s a good reason for that.  Even famed atheist (and, admittedly, one of my favorite peoples) Penn Jillette understands the idea that religious belief requires proselytization:

“How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”

Christians have beliefs involving life and death and therefore are (or should be) engaged in trying to persuade others of them.  But it doesn’t just count for religious beliefs.  If a person deeply believes in anything that involves important human consequences, then it is absolutely essential to that belief that they attempt to persuade others of its validity.

pesi2Some beliefs we can all get behind.

Atheists don’t believe in God (or so they say) but they do have important, defining beliefs. Their belief is that the influence of religion is overwhelmingly negative to human culture, leading to wars, genocide, bigotry, anti-intellectualism, and even climate change. Whether you agree with their beliefs or not, these are very important claims. We can’t blame them if they, like us, feel a strong compulsion to proselytize for what they perceive as the good of humanity.  In fact, they absolutely should do so.

And there’s an important component that people of all beliefs should recognize: a rising tide of liberty lifts all ideological boats. The more atheists (and Muslims, and Scientologists, and even Satanists) appear in the public eye to proselytize their belief, the more freedom Christians can enjoy to respond in kind.  This is a good thing for everyone.  Which leads us to…

2. Engagement is Better Than Indifference.

Imagine someone approaching you on the street intent on converting you to Tooth Fairyism.  Would you respond with an expensive mocking billboard about how silly the Tooth Fairy is?  If so, congratulations on holding a decades-long grudge for that toothbrush you got under your pillow instead of the folding money you were hoping for.

The fact is, we don’t care enough to hate or oppose what we perceive as pointless, fringe ideologies. If we choose to engage in opposing a belief system, it’s because we view it, positively or negatively, as important, relevant, and worthy of debate.  No matter which side one is on in that debate, the debate should be welcome, because it allows an opportunity for persuasion.

Have you ever wondered why these atheist billboards only seem to appear in America?  There are no news stories about inflammatory atheist billboards in Europe, for example. Why? Because to be blunt, Europeans don’t care enough to oppose Christianity. Christianity has been on the wane there for decades (it was apparently replaced by Hasselhoffism). They don’t hate God any more than you hate leprechauns. It’s a non-issue. They are indifferent. Try to start a conversation about the Bible with a typical French or Belgian or German young person and you probably won’t get an angry atheist tirade. You’ll likely just get yawning indifference.

130203-blog-holland-creative-meeting-boring-meetingIn Europe, church is considered sleep therapy.

By contrast, atheists in America always seem like angry teenagers slamming their bedroom door and shouting “I hate you!” at their parents. Their very anger and forcefulness about the issue implies a degree of engagement that, frankly, Christians should welcome. At least they are involved in the debate.

Indifference is a far harder nut to crack than angry engagement.  And that’s why…

1. Christians Should Welcome the Challenge.

The atheist billboard basically challenges that God is a fairy tale, Jesus was just a man, and there is no such thing as heaven.  These are questions laid out to be confronted within our culture.  Are Christians unable to respond? Are we so weak in our faith that the very asking of a tough (or not so tough, really) question makes us splutter with impotent anger?

angryChristianBecause angry shouting has worked so well for us this far…

The problem with a lot of Christians is that they don’t know why they believe what they believe. Since they don’t know for themselves, they have no way of responding to those who demand an answer. This isn’t just counter-productive, it’s unbiblical. The Bible doesn’t say “angrily complain on Facebook about anyone who confronts you with tough questions.” It says “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”  Furthermore, it says to do so with “gentleness and respect”.

Jesus_Christ_driving_the_money_changers_from_the_templeIt’s worth remembering that the only time Jesus didn’t show gentleness and

respect was when he confronted the church.

So maybe we shouldn’t be angry at the challenges demanded by the atheist billboards. Maybe we should welcome the questions they pose in the public’s mind and be prepared to answer. Because there are answers. Maybe we should seek them out for ourselves first.  Maybe we should get familiar with that famed intellect of the Christian faith, C. S. Lewis. To the atheist challenge, he wouldn’t have said “how dare they!? Pass the Chik-Fil-A!” He’d have said “You ask an important question: how do we know God? Is the Bible truly a fairy tale? Would a little girl actually say such things in a letter to a magical gift-elf?  There are answers to these questions, so I am glad you asked…”

The bottom line is this: how can we Christians be angry at people for doubting a God they haven’t experienced yet?  How can we be mad at them for spreading their idea of the truth while demanding our right to spread ours?

If, when confronted publicly with atheist ideology, we Christians respond with anger and spite instead of welcoming the challenge and responding with respect (and even a little humor) then we are wimps and no one should listen to us anyway.

Put THAT in your letter to Santa.