Sometimes I Just Want to Give Up

Is it wrong to say that sometimes I just want to give up?

I feel like giving up on holding an opinion on anything because it is so easy to see people dismiss the opinions of others in a smug arrogant dismissal.

I feel like giving up because even people who agree with each other on large issues still seem to go for the neck when they disagree over details.

I feel like giving up because there are those who say I’m just another person writing and that I probably have nothing to say.

I feel like giving up because there are others who say that everyone has a voice and should be able to use it.

I feel like giving up because it often feels like you can never do anything right. People talk at each other, but rarely seem to talk with each other. People give their own view of how things are and ignore or put down the views of other. It seems like division, disrespect, and line drawing are the standards of how our culture communicates.

All that matters is if someone is on your side or not. Even if people have reasonable hesitation against going all or nothing the line is drawn, you are found wanting, and viewed as an enemy of the cause, whatever that cause may be. We pick through the actions, words, and images of everyone we get the chance to in order to criticize and oust, even those whose actions are not very controversial and their intentions seem to be for the good.

Perhaps the most discouraging thing about all this is that I know I do the same thing at times. It seems to be a human trait. It is easy to try to give people one size fits all labels that we make up in our head, that in reality are often worthless and do a poor job describing most of the people we run across. My aversion to labels and needing hivemind-like agreement tempers this quite a bit, but I still do it. It’s a lot easier to argue with and be condescending to a label we make than a whole person.

So often I want to give up on people. I tire of all the unwavering certainty, the us vs. them mentalities, and I don’t really know what to do about it. It’s frustrating enough when people you don’t agree with do it, but it is even more frustrating when people you tend to agree with do it too. You worry that some aspect of your thoughts on a particular issue doesn’t line up and the exile will begin.

I feel like giving up sometimes, but I don’t think that is really the right thing to do. My opinions may be considered wrong or even worse things by others, but they’re still mine. I don’t even really view my opinions or the things that I write about as unmoving boulders set in place for all eternity either. They are simply a reflection of where I am, just like other people’s opinions are a reflection of where they are. My guess is that over time views will change and/or become more developed over time.

It may be very odd posting something like this the week of Christmas. This sentiment feels  very anti-Christmas. To want to give up on humanity and any idea of striving to make the world a better place at all. At the same time I also wonder if this is not the most fitting time to put forward thoughts like this. The last few months have been fraught with conflict, tension, tragedy, and a multitude of opinions about those things. It just wears you out as you try to sort through it all, especially when you see people criticize other people just for trying to sort it out.

Yet at the same time, those who are Christians are celebrating the coming of Christ into the world. The incarnation of God into a messed up world that always seems to have its share of conflict, tension, and tragedy. I’m also sure critics are not just a product of our age. God didn’t give up on the flawed humanity that we are. If I am to embrace the coming of Christ and seek to follow that, then giving up doesn’t seem like a viable option no matter how tempting it may be.

So I keep hoping that people will become more understanding, even when they disagree, instead of divisive. I will keep striving to be more like that myself as well. I’ll also keep writing my thoughts and opinions, as flawed and in progress as they are and will probably always be. As much as I may want to give up sometimes seeing how messed up the world is, I’m pretty sure people giving up would only make it worse and not better. So we move forward day by day and hope that we will make progress.

Final Thoughts on Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak to Us Today

The Psalms is a book in the Bible often appreciated for its beauty and its depiction of the struggles, triumphs, and emotions of human life. It’s a book where people extract verses or even whole chapters and give them titles like Call to Worship. The Psalms have even been used in the formation of a fair number of songs that we sing in many of our churches. So it is little surprise to me that my theological education included a book on the Psalms. This book was Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today by Bernhard W. Anderson.

Out of the DepthsAnderson’s approach to the book of Psalms is largely thematic. He begins with a few introductory chapters about the Book of Psalms in general, and then proceeds to focus on different categories of psalms. As he focuses on these different types of psalms, he speaks a little information about the category he’s focusing on, examples of this type of psalm, and what that type of psalms typically included.

Overall, his approach is pretty helpful. His focus on categories allows you to be able to try to understand and appreciate the variety that is to be found within that book of the Bible. So often it seems that our worship and even the psalms we decide to quote in our service and make into songs are always about triumph and joy, but very rarely about lament and trusting God with the emotions we really feel as we’re going through the trials and struggles of life.

I should note here though that this is not a comprehensive walk through the Book of Psalms. Anderson does typically go through at least one psalm from each category, but he is more about focusing on the type of psalm and what reality that genre was trying to express. I would say he is trying to equip us to read the Book of Psalms better rather than give us detailed explanations of every single psalm.

I found that he had a number of good insights in the book. While Anderson does delve into the more technical aspects of genre and the literary form the psalms take,  this is not his only area of focus. He also focuses on how the psalms and their different types speak to the realities of human life, the struggles of faith, sin, and the character of God. After all the book is subtitled, The Psalms Speak For Us Today and he really does present how the Book of Psalms was not just for Israel, but are able to speak to all times.

While I would say that Anderson’s book on the Psalms was enjoyable overall, there were a couple things that I thought were some shortcomings. The first is that I felt the book was a bit dense in places. It wasn’t horrible to go through, but I felt that some people could get frustrated with some of the more scholarly sections of the book. Going into this book expecting only personal application of the Book of Psalms for today will be in for a disappointment. Understanding that this book is both a mixture of understanding the literary forms of the psalms and what truths that they’re proclaiming to those who follow God will help you appreciate the book more, even if some of the parts still move a bit slow.

The other shortcoming is one that Anderson gives up front. This is in his attempt to organize his book by the categories of the various psalms. The problem with this is that the psalms don’t always follow a very neat and tidy way to organize them. As I said he is upfront about this, but we could easily be too restrictive when we try to fit certain psalms within one category alone. We like to label things so they’re easy to understand even when the author tries to get us to understand it isn’t that simple.

Overall I enjoyed Out of the Depths and thought that it gave me some good ideas to chew on and presented faith and worship as a much fuller experience than the often unspoken expectation to only worship God in a cheerful or happy manner. It is definitely one of the books that I’ll be keeping from my school years and perhaps even pulling out when looking through the Book of Psalms. It had slow spots, but I felt that what I took from the book was worth going through it.

Searching for the Tropes, but Losing What Matters

Have you ever seen a review of a movie or television show that basically brushes it off due to it being a certain genre or because it includes certain tropes? What is a trope you may ask? Well, if you look at dictionary.com they have the main definition being “a word, phrase, or image used in a new and different way in order to create an artistic effect.”

That doesn’t sound too bad right? The issue with this is that another definition is “a common or overused theme or device” or in other words a cliché. Now a trope doesn’t have to be a cliche, as seems to be the standpoint of the website tvtropes.com. As they say that, “On the whole, tropes are not clichés.” The definition seems a bit like it could go either way.

So how about we give an example? Hitting random on tvtropes.com sent me to “Never Grew Up” it’s basically about the characters in popular media that never age on the outside, and potentially even the inside. A prime example of this trope is Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. Now on that page are other TV shows, movies, etc that use this particular type of character.

Now, when tropes are used in the manner that tvtropes.com uses them, or at least wants people to use them, I don’t have too much of a problem with the idea of tropes. They can be fun to explore and see what tropes are in the movies, TV shows, books, or video games that you’ve experienced. At the same time though, I’ve seen a number of people use tropes interchangeably with clichés and presenting it as a negative thing which is used to dismiss whatever they’re talking about. This usage frustrates me a bit.

I feel that when we start paring down media to tropes, clichés, and stereotypes that we begin to lose stories as a whole. That they are dismissed not by the story they tell, but more by the tropes they use. It’s the outward labels and character archetypes they use that defines worth and not the actual story and characters.

Now I don’t think that everyone has to like every single genre or trope out there. I also know that all works are not created equal. Some are more cliché riddled than others or fail in creating a memorable world or story no matter what clichés they use or don’t use. However, I get a bit tired of people dismissing anything based on a genre, a certain type of character, or another trope.

I mean ultimately one could say this doesn’t matter too much because it is just about movies or television shows, but I guess part of my frustration in all this is that all too often it seems to be how we treat other people too. We either try to find a particular label to slap on ourselves or others are all too ready to slap one on us. We look for the “tropes” evident in that person and make all kinds of assumptions while missing the person underneath.

In both I feel that we reduce complicated matters down to easily understood labels and categories, but miss the wider story. We may think we have the story all figured out, but may miss other things or simply make ourselves unable to enjoy the story. We may label others based on a few of their opinions, but completely miss out on who they are, what they’re about, and why they think the way they do.

Tropes, clichés, stereotypes, and labels exist. There is little to be done about that. They can be used in fun, informative, and interesting ways. We can also tend to conflate these labels and clichés, in some cases, to such a point that we begin to identify works or people by that and that alone. It is at this point that I think we are trading in what’s really important for what is easily managed and categorized, but incomplete.

So feel free to use tropes and clichés, but remember that there may be more to the stories we’re reading, watching, or playing than the tropes. Feel free to use labels for yourself and for others, but remember that we are all more than the labels, and that we could be labeled in many different ways that fail to encapsulate who we are entirely. We never know when we’ll miss out on an engaging story or an great person if we just look at the parts we think easy to categorize and pass them by.

What do you think? Do you think we use tropes and clichés too much when engaging media? Do you think we use labels too much with others? Let me know what you think in the comments.

 

Brand Wars

We don’t get traditional television at our house, so the only place I see commercials is on Hulu. Currently there have been commercials pitting Apple’s iPad against Microsoft’s Surface. The commercial is put out by Microsoft so it of course highlights how the Surface is better than the iPad. This kind of commercial is what happens when two brands are battling each other in the market. It’s a head on strategy that you can see in a number of places out there either in official advertisements or in the community who follows a particular brand.

Coke vs. Pepsi.

Nintendo vs. Sega

Mac vs. PC

Nintendo vs. Microsoft vs. Sony

Canon vs. Nikon

These are all examples of brands that are at war with each other. They are competing for our money, our loyalty, and our business. This works well when you have cut and dry products to sell. You can compare the taste of Coke with Pepsi. You can compare specifications and aesthetics of a camera, gaming console, or computer. However, this gets more difficult to do when you take this battle into the realm of ideas.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the cloud of dust that Rachel Held Evans CNN Blog “Why millennials are leaving the church” and something has bothered me about the whole thing. Don’t get me wrong I didn’t really have much of a problem with what she said. I guess my problem is wider in scope than just this article. It’s really about a lot of people who are blogging about religion. I feel that all too often we’re trying to set up our own brand wars, but that we don’t really have a coherent product to ship or compare.

I left reading this article and the various response articles not so much mad or concerned about it, but wondering “Am I a millennial?” I didn’t really know the answer to that question. From what I’ve been able to find out I think I am. I saw one post that put the millennial generation as being cut off around 33, so since I’m 30 I make the cut. This however introduced a flaw into articles like this for me. How many people really identify themselves as millennial or even know that they are one? Does everyone package the product “millennial” the same? Are millennials narcissistic or do we care about equality for all? This depends on who you ask it appears. Is it possible that we could even be both?

My point is, it gets difficult to present a coherent product. Statistically, I’m a millennial. I haven’t left organized churches, but I can also understand some of the concerns that people like Evans bring up, at the same time though there are ideas that I don’t share. So there is resonance and dissonance at the same time. This isn’t just a problem with the word Millennial either. I find the same difficulties with many words used in Christianity today. evangelical, Calvinist, reformed, progressive, feminist, complimentarian, egalitarian, post-evangelical, and I’m sure there are others I can’t think of. They all just leave me pondering, what do they mean by that? The problem is you ask different people you’ll get different responses. This makes it really hard to self-identify with any of labels that get tossed about.

It also makes it hard to talk about any of the groups with any kind of accuracy. It is too easy to point to the negative (or positive) examples that hold a certain label and categorize the entire label by that. On the other hand it is also too easy to dismiss that negative (or positive) example too quickly by saying that “Well, real ________’s aren’t like that.” Ultimately the label does little good, and you have to weight the person for who the person is, what they say, and how they act. Not just when that person is saying something you don’t like or they’re openly disagreeing with you. Not just when they’re saying things you agree with or openly agreeing with you. It’s about taking the whole person for where they are. Shedding the need to be identified by labels, brands, or tribes and to be known by their name. Even that is tough, since so often we barely have a grasp on knowing ourselves completely, let alone having others know us.

I wonder if there are ones out there who share my discomfort? It seems like I’m in a world trying to suck me into labels so that I can do battle with other labels. It often feels like I’m being told to tilt at windmills and forget about the real people that are inside them. It feels like we’re trying to bring the consumerism of brand wars into our identity. We have to have a brand to really be important is the lie I feel whispered to me underneath so many articles and so many blogs. To raise the rally cry when someone says something we disagree with, identifies with a label that we’ve deemed as a hostile, or pushes back against our own ideas.

The truth is I don’t know how to identify myself very well. Perhaps I’m best described as a mess. I am full of contradictions, probably many that I’m not even aware of. I’d also call myself a Christian, despite knowing all the baggage with that term. Beyond that, I’m not really sure. As I’ve mentioned before I’m not even sure I want a bunch of labels. What I do know is that a mess isn’t all that marketable. It’s not a brand people will flock to, but it’s really all I’ve got. A mess who’s trying to follow God. It may not be very attractive, but it’s very real.

Remembering That We Are All People

I remember studying my Bible one day and coming to a realization that I hadn’t really had before. It was one of those realizations that is profoundly simple, yet can change the way you approach the events that take place in the Bible. This realization was that the stories and events of the Bible contained real people.  You might be staring at your monitor saying, “Wait, that was your big realization? How dense are you?” I realize that this is a pretty simple idea, but let me explain why I think this is significant.

I’ve found personally that it is so easy to look at the events in the Bible from a distance, trying to ascertain whether the actions of a particular person are good or bad. I’m not saying that this is fully a bad thing, but it felt like I was losing something. It felt like I was reducing the story to some equivalent to Aesop’s Fables instead of getting glimpses of the lives people led while trying to follow God, successfully or not. I felt like I was simply trying to stamp their behaviors as an example to follow or an example to avoid. This process often led me to look down on those who didn’t do the right thing, or to idealize those who made good decisions, at least most of the time.

I think that this can lead us to bad places. We can forget that people who are often put into positive light (like Moses, Abraham, David, Isaiah, or Paul) were human and sinful even though they took following God very seriously. On the same token we can look down at some of the less exemplary individuals (like Jacob, Samson, Gideon, or Peter) and forget that God still used these flawed individuals to accomplish significant things. We can easily be tempted to idealize certain people in the Bible and dismiss or cast a negative gaze upon certain other characters without thinking of the fact they are human, and that sometimes God still used them despite or because of their flaws. Does this justify their flaws and sins or reduce the impact of their faith and actions? No, but we can easily resort to shallow characterizations rather than looking at them as full human beings seeking to follow God or rejecting God.

This use of shallow characterizations can leak into our interactions with the people around us. We can idolize those who put on masks and appear to be flawless, and ostracize those who aren’t able to put on masks and appear with all their roughness, sin, and flaws out for the world to see. In both cases we reduce these people to caricatures. We forget that those who put on masks have flaws, and become surprised and maybe even aghast when we learn how serious they may be. We also become surprised as we learn that those who may appear more flawed have good qualities and maybe even look a little more like us than we thought possible at first.

I’ve had this as a post I wanted to do for a long time, but with current events this seems to be something that is relevant. We’re coming off of the week where George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Treyvon Martin. Everyone and their brother has been giving their thoughts and opinions about the verdict, but I wonder if this kind of attitude isn’t part of the problem in the whole situation. It’s a problem when Zimmerman profiled Martin as “suspicious.” Was it race, age, build, clothing, being out while raining? We may never know, but something caused Zimmerman to make a shallow characterization of Martin. As we all know this led to the death of Martin and the nation has been divided on what happened and whether justice has truly been done ever since.

However, the media has done a good amount of shallow characterizations too. It seemed that Martin was portrayed early as this innocent kid (including use of an earlier photo of Martin). The narrative became more conflicted as another narrative was Martin the thug. In both these cases it seemed that the point was trying to get some sort of idealized (either good or bad) portrayal of Martin. It seemed neglected that he was a person both with flaws and positives. Zimmerman got this same treatment, and he was presented as a racist. Could this be true? Sure, it could be and as I said something must have made Zimmerman be suspicious of and follow Martin. But it doesn’t seem like people really cared about the truth of this claim. It was more about shallow characterization. It was almost like we had to have a label to give Zimmerman in order to distance his actions from the actions that any one of us could do.

Now I’d like to say that this kind of shallow characterization only happens in divisive court cases, but sadly I see it all over the place. You can see it when people attack others for their views, like those who hold them aren’t people, but simply something to be argued against. Labels are tossed around and summarily dismissed. These labels take different forms depending on who is using them. Maybe they’ll look like “fundamentalist”, “feminist”, “evangelical”, “heretic”, “atheist”, “liberal”, “conservative”, “bigot”, or any other label that may be tossed around these days (these labels can be used positively too, but it just depends on who is using them). We don’t look at each person as a person, rather we want to label them, characterize them, and then classify them as friend or enemy with as little interaction as possible.

This is tough not to do. I know I do this at times, and I’m pretty sure we all will. It’s just too easy sometimes to look at people as labels or caricatures. We want to get to what we disagree with or what we think they did wrong. The reality is that we’re all people, we can’t forget that. As I said it doesn’t negate our responsibility when we do thing wrong, but it should give us a deeper insight as we look at others as a complex individual instead of just the label of the day. I think that remembering that people are people will help us when we open our Bibles and look at the stories of men and women who lived long ago, and will help us look at those around us today with eyes that are ready to see a person there, in all the mess and beauty that brings.

Defining Myself

I’ve always had a hard time defining myself. That is not to say that I’ve been in a perpetual identity crisis my entire life, but rather that I have a hard time telling other people who I am. Sometimes it seems that others have their identity firmly nailed down and know exactly how they’d respond in a particular circumstance. I often have trouble with this, because to me it is hard to use labels to fully identify me and I like to think that how I react is, for better or worse, contextual.

For example, the label that I probably identify most with is that of a Christian. I believe in God and that we are sinners and that God sent His son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins in our place and that we are to follow after him. While I can easily say that this is central to my life, the label Christian is still not able to encompass all of who I am. This may sound troubling or heretical, but trust me it’s not as edgy as it may sound.

How can this be? Didn’t I just say that being a Christian was central to my life? Yes, yes I did. However, let me ask this. What does Christian mean? It literally means Christ follower. Which while it can show what is most important in my life, it doesn’t show all of who I am. Does it let you know what type of music I like? Does it let you know my favorite movies? Does it let you know my skills, interests, and talents? Does it even let you know my personality? It may help a little on some of the questions,but probably would be unable to answer any of those fully.

Now if this is true for a label which indicates what is most central in my life, then it has to be true for ones that I would not claim are central to my life. Whether that label be father, husband, moderate, nerd, gamer, immature, mature, heterosexual, male, etc. At the end of the day there is no way to define myself entirely by a label. I’m guessing that there are not many people who can. The only way to know me is through relationship and interaction, just like that’s the only way to know others. This is much more difficult than slapping a label on ourselves or another person, but also much more fulfilling.