Baby, it IS cold outside

Full confession: I’ve never really liked the song “Baby, it’s cold outside”. I always have found it a bit creepy, and I’d certainly like to keep my children from hearing it enough to start singing along with it on the radio. In other words, I won’t miss it if it goes to the cultural guillotine, as many are calling for.

Still, I have to say, I’m a bit surprised: When did we start caring about song lyrics?

We didn’t seem to worry about them much this April, when Lil Dicky got a number 1 hit for musing about what it would be like to have other people’s genitals, their lists of hoes, and their freedom to throw the n-word around. Where was this outrage when Robin Thicke was making non-consensual assumptions about a “good girl” in “Blurred Lines”, or Ben Harper was crossing State lines to follow (also known as stalk) a girl who apparently didn’t want to see him, so that he could “Steal My Kisses”? And these guys are just normal. I recently noticed that more than half of the top ten songs on iTunes were marked as explicit. Once, on State-sponsored RTÉ radio, I heard a news report about Ireland’s deepening drug problem, followed immediately by a song called “My Happy Little Pill”. Seriously.

And we’re outraged by “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”?

Maybe it’s just a song I don’t like. Maybe I won’t miss it. But I do think this cultural moment marks something much bigger than any song in itself. There’s a corner being turned in the western world, and around the bend is a road we’ve been on before: censorship.

But this new censorship is different from the old variety. The old censorship was based on a logical moral system, and whether you agreed with it or not, it had a kind of consistency to it. Obviously, many of its proponents were hypocrites, and the system in Ireland was corrupt, but what of the new censorship? What is its logical foundation? Now that we are beginning to allow speech to be censored again, how will we judge what kinds of speech make the cut? I’m asking because so far, it seems fairly inconsistent. The outrage falls unexpectedly, destroying one song and leaving other (obviously worse) songs unscathed. What is our standard? What kind of new conformity are we aiming for, and how strictly are we willing to enforce it?

Without any universal standard to go by, the only foundation left for the new censorship is the shifting sand of popular opinion, shaped in large part by those powerful enough to make their voices heard. If this is how we’re going to do things now, there will certainly be a chill in the air over free speech. I’m beginning to think maybe it is cold outside.

The Pilgrims At The First Black Friday

When the Pilgrims landed in the New World after fleeing religious persecution in the Old, they faced incredible hardships straightaway. Learning to survive in a wilderness with a different climate was difficult, and the addition of more settlers who arrived without provisions brought them to the point one winter when the daily ration was a mere five kernels of corn. Somehow they made it through, and with help from Squanto and the Wampanoags, learned to live in a new context. After a bountiful harvest the next year, they declared a day of Thanksgiving, and celebrated it with a joyful feast and games (apparently not American football, but it’s hard to say for sure) shared with their Wampanoag neighbours.

On the very next day, the Pilgrims and Wampanoags realised that true happiness and contentment could not be achieved through mere gratefulness. What they really needed was wagonloads of new things, purchased at mind-blowing discount prices. So they came together and declared another holiday; a day dedicated to knocking one another down in a quest to gather as many deals as possible so that they could fill their houses and teepees to overflowing with comfortable and impressive things that would prove their worth and make their neighbours drool with envy. They called this second holiday “Black Friday”, and although the origins of the term are cloudy, some historians believe it came from the fact that many of them ended up black and blue in the mad rush to be the first to get a good deal on the latest convenient oil lamp model, stylish hat, or diamond-studded saddle.

This, of course, didn’t happen. Apparently, the Pilgrims and Wampanoags were actually content with their joyful feast and the provision God had supplied. In fact, it took us 400 years to achieve the cognitive dissonance necessary to turn the day after Thanksgiving into a National Day Of Unbridled Consumerism. Could two consecutive days contrast each other any more? We spend one day in thankfulness for all the gifts we have received from God, then wake up early the next to trample each other in our quest for more!

Some think the world of the Pilgrims was dour and cold, even though history shows them to us singing, feasting, and playing games. We can think what we like about the Pilgrims and their flaws. I wonder, though, if the Pilgrims could see our celebrations this week, what would they think of us?

The Noisiest Headlines Are Not The Most Important

KAVANAUGH IS CONFIRMED TO UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT, AFTER CONTENTIOUS CONFIRMATION…

What’s the most important news in that headline? Certainly, a spot on the US Supreme Court is influential in the extreme – far beyond what it was intended to be by America’s founders. Kavanaugh will have out-sized influence over American life for decades to come. And yet, I submit to you that Kavanaugh himself is not the most important part of the news cycle these last few weeks.

We are.

The only thing everyone on both sides seems to agree on is this: the entire process was broken. From that common acknowledgment, we go on to explain whose fault it is, and how corrupt the other side is. Which is fair enough. A free country ought to encourage free exchange and debate. The problem is that we don’t actually debate anymore.

In order to have a fruitful debate, two things are necessary:

1) A shared goal

2) A shared respect

Can’t we debate about our goals? Yes, but until we come to some sort of consensus on our purpose, we will never be able to debate productively about anything else. As long as we disagree on where we are going, we’ll never be able to agree on how to get there. The only way we’ll move at all is by leveraging raw power. This is the state of current “debate” in America: it is primarily rhetoric for the purpose of solidifying bases from which power plays can be made at opportune moments. The Kavanaugh “debate” stank of this. We have come to the point when even accusations of sexual abuse are political weapons to be timed and deployed and shot down with cynical regularity, each side taking turns at each role as the specific situations change. The exact same phrases, moral condemnations and righteous defences are taken up in turn by opposite sides, only to be conveniently forgotten as soon as the tables turn. The game is dirty. Everyone knows it. We justify anything from our side and believe anything against the other with one ultimate purpose: victory at all costs. But what if the cost turns out to be the very foundation of our society? What if, in fighting the monsters against us, we find that we have become monsters ourselves?

The second requirement for productive debate is a recognition that other people are actually people. Even if their perspective is different, their value remains. This is less common than it sounds. In fact, very few societies in history have intentionally valued dissent or dissenters. America has been an exception to this rule, but the revolutionary idea of honouring those we strongly disagree with seems to be falling on hard times. In our zeal to see our vision for the future established, we have begun to allow ourselves the comfortable view that our cultural and political enemies are sub-human animals worthy only of insult and abuse. We call this new reality “Twitter”.

Is there a solution? I believe there is. I believe it is possible to disagree productively. But it won’t happen as long as we define our ultimate problem as the people against us. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who experienced the horrors of the Gulag, saw with clarity that the problem is bigger than the other side:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Who indeed. While the headlines re-direct us to the corrupt political manoeuvring and power plays in the halls of government, they allow us to conveniently ignore the ways our own hearts are manoeuvring and playing for self-justification and control over others and even over God himself, if that were possible. This is why, no matter how good the headlines are, our favourite politicians can’t save us from the problems around us. Those problems have put their roots into our own chests. The corruption is in our own hearts. This is why righteous causes throughout history have all eventually fallen apart under their own weight, why the saviours of one generation have always somehow become the oppressors of the next, why every revolution leads only to the need for another. No, a better headline won’t save us. We need a better saviour. We need Jesus.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” – 2 Corinthians 5:17-21

Mind The Gaps

The world is full of words, more than ever. Never have there been more news headlines clambering for clicks, advertisements designed to arrest our attention, or friends filling us in on everything they had for dinner. Somehow, we have to muddle around this mess with our infobese heads filled to popping with more messages than they can process, too worn out to care much about what is really true and what is deceptively false.

Yet into this deluge I submit words of my own. I take a deep breath and yell into the roaring waterfall: “There are not enough words!”

Because there aren’t.

In all the daily torrent of verbiage, there are still far too many gaps. Most of the communication we hear is like a 1,000 piece puzzle from a charity shop that didn’t come with all the pieces. The pictures presented to us are incomplete, and the gaps can be hard to spot. And yet, quite often, the gaps are the most important part.

This is obvious enough in advertisements. We know that companies will tell us only the virtues of their products, shaping and bending the truth into the most desirable package they can produce. Yet even as we complain about this, we practice it ourselves on social media, where we work hard to cultivate an idealised image of ourselves, leaving out most of the actual reality of our lives. We fully expect the same from our political leaders. Fake news may be a new catch phrase, but it’s an ancient reality: the art of spin is a time-tested tradition that spans all cultures, continents, forms of government, and types of organisations. We may have more choice now over who we listen to, but often this choice comes down to which set of incomplete puzzle pieces we happen to prefer. Do we like the right side of the puzzle or the left? Are we drawn to the bits with a confusion of colours or to the parts that blend together in understandable sameness? Whatever our choice is, we can find news sources, friends, and tweets to support us.

The trouble is, with all our choosing and shaping and shouting others down, no one seems to be able to agree on what this puzzle is supposed to look like in the end. Have we lost the box top? Is there no unifying vision powerful enough to pull these pieces together?

There is a box top. I’ve had a glimpse of it. I can tell you that its picture has shapes and dynamics that are diverse enough for every person on the planet to have a place, and yet the lines and colours are so unexpected that they will leave absolutely everyone with something to be offended at. No surprise there: Did I really expect the picture of the universe to be a portrait of me? It turns out that the Artist behind this puzzling reality had a much bigger and more complicated design in mind than any of us could fathom, but he generously gave us the broad outlines of his plan in the Bible. It’s a complicated book (like the world); mixing shadows and light, greys and colours, sameness and confusion into one overarching drama expansive enough to catch up all our little pieces and finally make sense of them in the masterpiece of history.

As long as we insist on communicating without any reference to the box top, we’ll never be able to fit the pieces of our world into anything meaningful and whole. We’ll spin on in a vortex of half-truths and incomplete ideas, swinging our pendulums from one extreme to another in a never-ending series of attempts to find the purpose we long for. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we listen to the Artist, we can begin to close the gaps and find our places together in his Magnum Opus.

What’s New About New Ireland?

Hello! My name is Seth, and I live on the south coast of the Republic of Ireland. Ever since I was a child I have found that writing is the best way for me to collect my thoughts and process what I see and experience, so I’ve done a lot of it. I find that the world is a bottomless depth of wonder and intrigue, and this blog is a small attempt to scratch my way under the surface. So welcome to my new blog. These days, new things are usually considered to be the best things, so this might be the best blog you’ll read today. Anyway, it will almost certainly be the newest. And speaking of new-ness, you’ve probably heard more than a few people saying that the recent referendum landslide in favour of legalising abortion is proof that we are living in a New Ireland. No one denies it.

So what is new about New Ireland? First and foremost, New Ireland is Not Catholic. Except when she is.

According to exit polls, 74% of those who voted in the referendum described themselves as Catholic, although it’s obvious that a large percentage of these voted against Church teaching. This reflects the reality that although a strong majority of the Irish population is happy to participate in the rituals that have shaped Irish life for centuries, these rituals actually mask the real change in Ireland, which is not so much in Church participation as it is in Church authority. The change there has been drastic: the Church that used to have unquestioned authority over the halls of Irish power now has trouble asserting meaningful influence over the hearths of Irish homes. There are reasons for this, of course. The Church has shown Ireland that even those who dedicate their lives to God are not immune to the corrupting influence of power. Her power was shockingly abused by some of her leaders, and the Irish people rebelled in what our Taoiseach has called “a quiet revolution”. Although the majority of individuals in Ireland are still Catholic, the nation as a whole has set a new course. Ireland may be hung over on religion, but she is not listening to the Church anymore. New Ireland is not Catholic.

But defining things only by what they are Not isn’t enough. A black hole isn’t a planet, but it would help us more if we could figure out what it Is. New Ireland isn’t Catholic, but what Is it? Just like a black hole, it’s hard to say. So far, New Ireland seems determined to be as European as possible, substituting the goals and morality of Brussels in place of the hypocrisy she saw in Rome, and media presenters in place of the priests who used to teach her how to live. But New Ireland is still just that: New. New-ness comes with the smell of progress, by the simple virtue of being different from the broken past. But once the New has established herself firmly, her flaws will also become apparent, and it may turn out that they are not so very different from those of the broken past.

What was it, after all, that caused the fall of the Catholic Church’s power over Ireland? At the heart of it, there were selfish people, using power for selfish purposes. Will New Ireland be free from this? Don’t hold your breath. Examples already abound of bankers, politicians, and private citizens using whatever power they have for themselves alone. The question is: What can be done about it?

Old Ireland tried to cure selfishness by teaching people a system of rules to encourage them to submit themselves to God and sacrifice themselves for others – but the rules were not enough to stop some of her teachers from abusing the submission of others for their own selfish goals. In the end, we saw that rules alone couldn’t cure us. So New Ireland proposes a new and radically different solution. In fact, New Ireland completely re-frames the question: what if selfishness wasn’t the problem after all? What if the real problem was all the self-restrictive rules and talk about self-sacrifice, which made it impossible for the self to flourish freely? New Ireland proposes a new definition of the problem: we are suppressing ourselves. And so New Ireland proposes a new solution: the absolute freedom of self.

Who can argue with freedom?

Self-determination sounds incredibly liberating. The problem, of course, is that when we celebrate Self above all things, we end up selfish. If our personal freedom to make personal choices for our personal good is the ultimate goal of all things, than what is left to motivate us to give up any of these rights for the sake of the people around us? We find ourselves, in fact, right back at the very problem we were trying so hard to run away from: we become selfish people doing selfish things.

What we need is not more restrictive rules that try to mold the self from the outside. We’ve seen already that this doesn’t actually change our selfish hearts, it just makes us hypocrites.

What we need is not to liberate ourselves from all restrictive rules so that we can mold the world to suit ourselves. This will only make selfishness easier to act out, and harder for anyone to question.

What we desperately need is an entirely new self. There’s a reason Jesus said “You must be born again”. He knew that no external system, and no amount of external freedom, could cure us of our passionate, relentless, and yet ultimately self-destructive self-focus. His solution was the most radical of all: he gave up his own self entirely – even to death – to buy us the cure for our selfishness. He offers us an entirely new identity. An identity that places incalculable value on each individual self, while simultaneously re-focusing our eyes on Someone much bigger (and far more satisfying) than our tiny selves. Can we humble ourselves enough to stop staring at ourselves and start looking up? If we do, we’ll find that Jesus’ paradox is true:

“Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”