Twenty-Seven

mehmet-kursat-deger-1BoEP5teHeA-unsplash

When another year peels away,
like a husk of corn,
I break and bleed:
shedding youth is shedding dreams
some die quietly, but others go out with
a knife fight.
I revel and rejoice:
age wrinkles the heart first,
in a slow suicide of naivete,
pressing in the sorrow and sweetness,
like a double-edged sword
carving into me more longing and life
forming in me the image of Christ.

I have never felt the invincibility
of the young
but fragility is a familiar friend:
a sailboat spinning in the storm,
a bruised reed beaten by the winds,
an unspoken fear of dead ends.
Sometimes, the hammer has to fall
on my castles in the sand
these flimsy fortresses
that I might know, in every season,
the only Rock that stands.

Mark my days with delight and desire
for the one true God
If all else fades
fails
forsakes
and the darkness does not lift
make my smoldering wick
a brilliant flame
that testifies to His goodness
and the glory of His Name.

 

Photo by Mehmet Kürşat Değer on Unsplash

Pilgrim’s Perils: Musings on Deconstruction

timothy-meinberg--RW06Ki6FbY-unsplash

Deconstruction is a loaded, yet deceptively calm, word for the shattering spiritual reality it equates to. I’ve seen this topic exhausted in recent weeks, but I have been reflecting and ruminating on this, even before Josh Harris’ news broke across the Christian sphere. It’s sad and disheartening to see, but his story is no more shocking or less heartbreaking than any other Christian I know who has walked away. His faith may have seemed more sure, because of his stature or his wisdom or his conviction in speaking gospel truth, so his abandonment shakes us more. But in the end, he is a man and a sinner. The church today is (rightfully) shocked and hurt when another pastor falls to adultery or scandal. But remember that the great men of God did not have squeaky clean records, even after they had demonstrated genuine faith: David was an adulterer and murderer, and Solomon had a harem of women along with their idols. Still, David was called a “man after God’s own heart” and Solomon wrote books of Spirit-inspired wisdom. This isn’t to soften anyone’s sin, but to remind us that we cannot stake our faith in any man, and God can use any wretched sinner.

I know no one’s heart but my own, and even then, I know how easy it is to self-deceive. But I dare say the line between faith and apostasy is perilously thin – some of us, perhaps more introspective or sensitive, feel it more keenly. Slip, slide, party a few weeks away, and we feel far off the beaten path. It is the sheer grace of God that keeps any of us. Here is another one of the great tensions in the Christian life: to take care and examine ourselves & to rest in the assurance that Christ loses none of His own.

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Hebrews 3:12-13)

&

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28)

Then, why do some walk away? I have seen 1 John 2:19 deployed, sometimes coldly, in the face of deconversion. It is a true verse, first because it’s God’s Word, and it’s reality is evidenced in the world. There are plenty of wolves in sheep’s clothing. But I trust there are also many who, as sincerely as they can tell, believed in Christ at one point and stopped at another. Were they self-deceived? Will they come back one day? All I know is that there is hope while life endures. God knows the truth of every heart and judges righteously. Solomon did his share of wandering and returned in old age to write Ecclesiastes.

These are just some personal musings on the perils of the pilgrim’s journey. 

Is it the warmth of friendship with the world? Not the cruel, bullet-ridden and bloody face of it, but the sound of social justice marching down our streets and knocking on church doors. How we crave the praise of man, and no people-pleaser ever wanted to live on the wrong side of history. John Lennon’s words in Imagine sound like a balm for today’s divisive rhetoric: no heaven, no hell, and a brotherhood of man.

Or a knife in the back from a Christian who treated you far worse than any of your so-called pagan friends? At least they have never worn the mask of holiness over a heart of hypocrisy.

Or a man who won you over with his love, though he loved not Christ? Surely, you could still press onward to the prize. Surely, you will change him, and not the other way around.

Did suffering slash into your life without warning, and your old theology felt like the house on sand, washed away in agony? Everyone quotes Job, but words don’t stop the pain. You would rather have relief than answers, but God is silent in both.

Did Scripture seem foolish in science class or rudimentary in philosophy? Supposedly, they are blinded by sin and unable to believe, but they seem like the enlightened ones. You don’t want to be the butt of their jokes, or the lone defender of Scripture every time.

Or the mindless cycle of work, parties, gym, rinse and repeat, simply (and devilishly smoothly) made you forget? An empty life can feel good when it forgets about the emptiness.

Maybe the endless immersion in Christian activities and service ballooned in your life, and the cost was quietly sitting at the foot of the cross. How frightening to be close to Christian things and far from Christ.

I’m not enumerating an exhaustive list, or suggesting any singular reason causes someone to walk away. These are just some of the things I’ve observed, and most I have felt the alluring tug of to some degree, in my own life.

We are a people always and desperately seeking to answer the Why? When an awful shooting happens, we need to understand the motives. We always assume there is one. There is some confluence of psychological and circumstantial reasons as to why people do what they do.

In the end, we are limited in what we can determine. I believe there is validity in some analyses of people who abandon their faith in patterns, attitudes, or influences in their life. But we cannot see into another person’s heart of hearts. There are telltale signs in the fruit they bear and the conduct of their life, but that is the extent of human measure we have. We coin words like “deconstruction” and “deconversion,” because on a horizontal level, that is how we’re able to describe the phenomenon we see. We don’t know the authenticity of every apparent conversion, or the true end of anyone’s story.

The watching world may use stories of deconversion to scoff at Christianity, that Christians who are “in deep” can “wake up” and free themselves from bondage to religion. The reality is, testimonies are powerful both ways – those who come to faith, and those who walk out of it. But we do not stake our faith in any person’s story, but the finished work of Christ. There is no true freedom outside of it. We all adhere to some authority, we all worship something, we all construct a worldview to live by after deconstructing another one. Let us not fall for the arrogance of our culture: it crowns the Self as the supreme authority on morality and truth, and cloaks that in a guise of humility and tolerance.

For Christians, I hope the shockwave of public deconstructions is the impetus for critically examining our own hearts. As the Psalmist cried, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24) That is a scary prayer for any sinner to pray.

But thanks be to God, that even as we see the wickedness and wandering of our own hearts, Jesus promises that He does not lose any of His own. We must be steadfast in our faith, but He is the one who holds us fast.

But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 20-25)

 

As I said, I’ve seen this topic exhausted in recent weeks by many writers. If you happen to be here reading, I should point you to a few others who wrote insightfully on this, from a couple of different angles.

Faith Without Sight is the Only Kind There Is at Sayable
An Open Letter to Someone Considering Renouncing Their Faith by Brad Hambrick
How Not to Fall Away at Reformation21
On Caution and Keeping: Friends Reflect on Joshua Harris’ Deconversion at The Gospel Coalition

 

Photo by Timothy Meinberg on Unsplash

Ratljóst

IcelandPic

I keep imagining the raw truths I’ll tell you
as our Suzuki burns through sunlit mountain roads
where the gravel path snakes to the horizon,
and ours is the only engine humming
in the wild world that spills out around us.
I think I’ll unbury my soul
with a shovel or words or pickax—whatever works
—and make sense of life in 2019
inside our dusty silver SUV, crammed
with suitcases and instant ramen and
people who share my blood and genes.
Maybe I’ll tell you about the trials:
how I’ve cried and rejoiced and felt
the brokenness, the beauty of life
and quietly hoped this escape would harden me,
like the bold hills of Vestrahorn, against my fragility.
Or about Christ:
my Savior God who keeps me
and in my weakness, I know His faithfulness
and all these days will melt away
along with the glacier pillars of Jökulsárlón
but His Kingdom alone will endure
so repent, believe, stop chasing wind.

In the end, I said much less than all of that
but found there’s more than one kind of intimacy,
like the ways we make peace with silence
and loud snores,
pass around a dwindling bag of apples and chips,
pee in a freezing, forsaken snow field,
and push / pull each other up the mountains.
I know there are stories hidden inside all of us,
scars that carved deep caves, like lava chambers,
some still burning,
some covered with bitter ash.
God, we are so human—
and it’s here I find softness and strength:
that the shadows have not won,
that we are marveling at creation, gulping arctic air,
far from home but home with each other,
chasing away our unspoken ghosts with laughter,
in this land of ice and myths and fire.

Then I know
—when I’m stuck down on all fours,
my foot on the edge of a cliff,
but I’m cackling at your jokes—
that some of the scars
are sealing up inside.

 

Ratljóst (n.) – an old Icelandic word that means ‘enough light to find your way by’

Made for Fans: A Reflection on Endgame and The Last Jedi

james-pond-185593-unsplash

If you haven’t seen Avengers: Endgame, stop reading. Spoilers will follow!

*

I don’t read the comics, but I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They built something magical over the last ten years, with a cast of oddball characters and films that crossed genres from space opera to spy thriller to high school dramas. The stories may continue indefinitely, but the curtains are closing on what (I predict) is the best run the MCU will have. I believe there’s plenty of potential to take existing and new characters in exciting directions, but the original cast of Avengers, helmed by Iron Man and Captain America, will be a tough one to top.

I went to see Endgame opening weekend, excited and somewhat surprised by how gushing the early reviews were. The expectations on this film were unbelievably high, and it had the difficult job of picking up after Infinity War’s mic drop and wrapping up the arcs of core characters. The opening sequence [spoilers are legitimately ahead so abort now], where Thor kills Thanos and there’s a five year time jump, reminded me of The Last Jedi in the subversion of expectations. (I could hear Luke’s voice: “This isn’t going to go the way you think.”) It felt like a concerted effort to make viewers realize this isn’t the movie they thought it would be. So, why was Endgame incredibly well-received, while The Last Jedi garnered so much backlash from fans (though critics applauded it as a brilliant film)?

Fan service? Pandering to the masses?

I don’t mean it as a negative thing. I loved Endgame. (But then, I’m a huge fan, and maybe it’s because I was pandered to…) While Endgame kicked off with an unlikely opening and came with its share of surprises, it undeniably was packed with throwbacks to fan favorites and easter eggs. They may or may not have really served the plot, but they certainly got cheers. There was a lot of speculation that they would employ time travel, which they did, and the time heist was a really fun romp, if you don’t think too hard about the logic. It did its job for the story (get the stones, reverse Thanos’ snap), but it definitely felt like a highlight reel of MCU’s Best Moments. Maybe minus Thor: Dark World. My favorite was Cap’s “hail hydra” in the elevator scene, reminiscent of Winter Soldier. Classic.

Endgame had it’s truly spectacular moments: when Cap gets Thor’s hammer, when the portals opened (Sam’s “on your left” was perfect) and everyone and their mother reappeared, and when Iron Man re-delivered his classic line before the snap. As apprehensive as I was about how they would close Tony and Steve’s stories, I thought the film did them both justice. In many ways, the two leading characters have had opposite arcs. Tony began as an egotistical, genius, playboy billionaire, and he ends with the greatest act of self-sacrifice. His off-script reveal of “I am Iron Man” at a press conference becomes a hero’s anthem. Steve began as a selfless soldier, a mascot of American ideal, and ran the serious risk of being a boring goody-two-shoes. His character arc has been one of my favorite parts of the Avengers’ stories. The core of who he is, selfless and noble, remains steadfast (and I love how they highlight that through his ability to wield Mjolnir). But he grows to be more than the face of a country or system that created him. When his convictions ran against the grain, he didn’t back down. His grand finale was a deeply personal choice, for himself rather than for the world. Just as “I am Iron Man” hearkened back to Iron Man 1, Steve’s ending closed the circle on Captain America 1. He’s a man of his word – and he made it back for his dance with Peggy.

However, Endgame was not the strongest Marvel movie in terms of story. It took a hit from having to close out many loose ends. In comparison, Infinity War pulled an even more massive cast together with a tighter plot. Endgame felt like it had multiple “starts” and multiple “endings.” Perhaps that was necessary and unavoidable, but it lacked the relentless forward drive of Infinity War and the narrative strength some of the best MCU films have brought, like Winter Soldier or Civil War. The core threading of the story was the time heist, which was more revisiting old turf than breaking new ground.

Unlike Endgame, The Last Jedi did no fan service. Or, if they tried to, it failed terribly. Star Wars fan were turned off, and a petition to remake and discount this as canon gathered steam (some people, like Steve and Nat, need to get a life). But I would argue, with general critical backing, that Last Jedi was a well-done story. The backlash wasn’t against a weak plot, but unmet expectations – Luke Skywalker wasn’t the hero we all wanted; Rey wasn’t a Skywalker, Solo, Kenobi, et al.; and Snoke was suddenly killed in the middle act of a trilogy. Personally, I loved the subverting of expectations: it’s a clever turn when you’re making a film that has every wild variation of Internet theories. People thought The Force Awakens was too similar to the original, but now they complain Last Jedi is not true to the spirit of Star Wars. You can’t have it both ways. Why not takes Star Wars down a new path?

Maybe it’s just me, but if you tell a solid story, I won’t complain because the characters didn’t become what I wanted. Luke is one of my favorite characters, and while I would’ve loved to see him bust off his island and take down the First Order, I believed in the direction they took his character. The nephew he trained turned into a monster, bringing back the shadow of Darth Vader. While The Force Awakens introduces Kylo Ren as the scion of the Skywalker-Solo bloodline, Last Jedi really explores the darkness that perpetually haunts the family, including Luke. In the originals, he was a hero, but he was also a whiny, impulsive farmboy. Now, he’s a legend to the next generation, but Last Jedi shows Rey and us that he’s human, and legends do not always match reality. This is a strange (maybe a stretch) comparison, but it reminds me of Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. People hated what Harper Lee did to Atticus. While Mockingbird made Atticus a nigh untouchable hero, this second book’s protagonist was Scout, and she has to mature and learn that her heroes are fallible. Same goes for Rey in Last Jedi. It’s on her to pick up the mantel now.

The Last Jedi was an impressive follow-on to the first film. It pulls the mask back and digs hard into the characters. The backdrop of the film, like every Star Wars story, is still this fight between the good guys and bad guys. But this one begins to explore those shades of grey. The old Jedi Order is gone, and Luke has no interest in reviving it. Whether or not Kylo will ultimately have a redemption arc, the exploration of the light tempting someone in the dark is more nuanced in his character than it was in Vader’s. And the connection between him and Rey was one of the highlights of the film. Do you really care that they took some liberties with “the Force” to add this to the story? Last Jedi made some audacious moves in how it handled Star Wars. I’m ready to sacrifice some technicalities of Force powers to indulge a better plot and characters.

There’s not much of a thesis to all this – it’s just a reflection on some big films, a minor (major?) geek-fest, and an informal exploration of the intriguing parallels between and vastly different reactions to Endgame and Last Jedi.  Endgame is smart on its formula. It makes a decided effort to be unpredictable while giving fans what they want. The great thing about most Marvel movies is they have a keen sense of self-awareness – while the heist plot has its holes, they make fun of time travel movies enough that you cut them some slack. It’s like saying, “Don’t take this too seriously. Just laugh with us and accept it.” So we do.

Thanks for the great ride, Disney. Let’s hope you close out Star War IX strong too.

 

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

A Quiet, Creative Journey

thought-catalog-354861-unsplash

Happy 2019! I know I’ve done a dismal job of blogging regularly, which I will try to improve upon. (I know what Yoda says about trying, but I have commitment issues and a day job). I did a fair amount of story writing last year but most of it was offline, and I prefer to use this space for actual writing instead of updates on what I’m writing. Unless something huge happens, i.e. I’m going to publish, I’m joining the Avengers, etc. However, since I’ve been quiet around here for awhile and we’re at the start of another year, I thought it’d be fitting to share a few highlights and reflections on the journey.

So, the highlights:

My science fiction / space opera novella, Pilot Tide, was a finalist in Rooglewood’s Five Poisoned Apples Snow White retelling contest. Even though I didn’t win, I got some great feedback from the judges, and it was just a fun story to write. I’m grateful to these contests for pushing me to create, with a deadline and a word limit. I’m also keeping an eye out for what I can do with this piece, because I don’t want it to die on my hard drive.

I published my first-ever piece in print and received an author payment for it! (Never mind that the $$ was about the cost of a salad where I live, and I promptly spent it plus some on buying print copies). While I prefer novels, I’ve come across some impressive flash fiction and I wanted to try my hand at it. I wish I discovered Splickety earlier; I just snuck into their last issue here. But it’s been reborn as Havok, an online flash fiction zine with a seasonal themes and a daily story. Check them out, especially if you like speculative fiction.

I also finished my first-ever novel-length story, a fantasy, at 98,000 words. (I was curious how that stacked up against typical novel lengths, so as a point of comparison, I found the first and shortest Harry Potter book was 77,000 words and Order of the Phoenix was the longest at 257,000 words. Maybe that one could’ve used more editing). I vacillate between thinking I wrote something half-decent and thinking it’s total rubbish. Regardless, I’ve started the process of querying agents, which is like an alien world I’m learning about.

My current project is expanding my Beauty and the Beast novella retelling, a sci-fi political drama, into a novel. It’s turning out to be a pretty unabashed mashup of things I love, i.e. literary references, Mission Impossible-esque suspense scenes, sarcastic androids, lots of Chinese food, the enemies-to-friends-and-maybe-more trope, and space. I feel like I’m just having a personal nerd-fest writing this.

All in all, some of my key takeaways:

Half the battle of writing is perseverance. I made a resolution in 2018 to finish that novel after tinkering with it for a few years. I’m done now. It may still not see the light of day, but at least now, there’s a non-zero probability it might. I write very slowly, and it can be hard to see the glorious end (it felt that way a few chapters in, at the halfway mark, and even coming to the final chapter). But every bit is progress. I learned to think of each chapter as a meaningful vignette that could stand on its own: each one needed to have its own kind of impact, whether it was in quiet character development or high-stakes action. In that way, each chapter felt like the birth of a mini-story rather than a mere tick mark in a long slog to the finish line.

The discipline of writing demands balance. As much as I joke that I’d throw in the towel on my current career if I could publish a bestseller, I don’t think I would. I’d go crazy writing full-time. I write in spurts – most recently, I spent an afternoon at the library, lost in a short story I was working on. If someone stole my stuff, I may not have noticed. Then, I go a few weeks without time or motivation to write. And I’m grateful that I can’t sit around, paralyzed, waiting for inspiration to strike. I need to go to work and be productive. I enjoy writing as side pursuit, where it’s one, but not the only, outlet for creative energy. Also, I have found that as much as good books have taught me about sharp writing and human hearts, I have learned more through experiencing life in the world – through soul-baring hours of conversation, tasting foreign cultures, navigating office politics. More than handbook theories, a real, earthy zest for life gives a writer a fuller voice and better stories.

Everyone says writers need thick skin because you’ll get a lot of rejections. Honestly, I think stepping out your front door in our crazy world requires thick skin. But point taken. Rejection always stings, but I probably haven’t felt that to its greatest extent because 1) I haven’t submitted that much writing to that many places, and 2) I’m not depending on this to pay any bills. It’s less the rejections, and more my limitations, that have been teaching me humility. It takes maturity and plain life experience to be capable of writing certain topics well. When I was working on my fantasy novel, there were many moments I felt like I was writing out of my depth, wrestling with how to handle certain themes or relationships and do them justice. Give me twenty more years of life on earth and I could probably do this better. A realistic acknowledgment of what I’m capable of and not is humbling. Though I would never have the audacity to say (or believe!) that I have some story or idea inside me (an average, twenty-something girl who used to win a lot at Never Have I Ever) that is genius, I find my inherent pride grasping for that greatness.

But for the most part, I’d be pretty happy if I wrote something enjoyable and not cringe-worthy. Plus points if it makes you think a bit or inspires you a smidgen. I’m not going to be Tolkien, or Lewis, or Jane Austen. Even a hundred years won’t fix that, and that’s totally fine.

In the end, I write for the thrill of it. A few years ago, I wrote this in my journal: “I once used words to soothe my loneliness. I once used words to prove my worth. Today, I want to use words to set the world ablaze with the glory of eternal things.”

Okay, I occasionally get overly dramatic.

But I still resonate with that. I have learned that our employment of words is a stewardship. Like an adept swordsman can use his skill to either cut down or defend the weak, a wordsmith wields similar power. Words weave stories, and of the many reasons I am convinced about the truth of the Gospel of Christ, one of the main ones is the power of story. We did not come from a vacuum, sprung into a meaningless existence. God has made us for Himself, and the stories we tell, though tarnished by our sinfulness and framed in the context of the Curse, still echo His eternal story: creation, fall, redemption, renewal. Some of our stories are more original than others, but they are ultimately all remixes. Only God creates ex nihilo, and we are imaging his inexhaustible creativity in our finite imaginations, building from the dirt and words and reality He has given to us.

So what’s your story?

 

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Solitude & Camaraderie

solitude

The winding highways and streetlights after dark tease a quiet magic, an unnerving freedom to fly through the night on rubber and metal. A universe of concrete, oxygen and stars slosh against my windshield. I am small and insignificant, a flicker and a breath. But it feels like a whole world lives in here, with four empty leather seats around me, and a rotation of voices from my podcasts: my favorite preachers unearthing Scripture’s gems and ordinary people telling true stories. The searing conviction, the tragedies, the comedy—artifacts of our souls, evidence that God stamped His image on us.

It’s warm and lonely inside, but in a rich and sweet, not sad, way. Sometimes, I’ll blast Taylor Swift and think of boys from days gone by. Sometimes, I’ll mute it all and sing quietly to my Savior. How great Thou art.

//

Dusk falls silently, the bright golden sunrays peeling off my studio walls. Distant birds and children fill a lazy summer soundtrack, but I’m lost in pulp and ink. Only the need for light forces me to resurface and realize nightfall swept a few hours away with it.

The world seems dim after the vibrant strokes of my weather-worn book. It’s like waking from a dream—or falling asleep. I can’t decide which.

//

I’m one of the few traveling alone on this flight—makes sense, since there’s nothing at the destination but resorts. I don’t mind, though. It just means plenty of open aisle seats when I board.

I’m already thinking of tropical weather, beaches, food, and of course, the family I only see a few times a year now. But there is something giddy in just the anticipation, surrounded by strangers, hurtling through the clouds. A few more hours of aloneness, of looking forward, of the almost but not yet.

camaraderie

Two hours pass by in a flurry as we reminisce, the line snaking forward slowly. Thank God for friends who make wait times feel like nothing. By the time we buckle in, my soul is refreshed though my feet and back hurt. No one is laughing at the ride operator’s joke. Then the music plays, we free fall, and everyone’s screaming with happy terror.

//

It’s past midnight but we’re wide-eyed and alert, forgetting Monday morning is creeping up on us. Four hours in, and we’re finally in the end game. Bated breath before every die roll, we fluctuate between tense silences and energetic bargaining and wheedling, a bright huddle around Catan while the rest of the world sleeps.

//

The DVD remained untouched all night because even introverted girls can talk forever at sleepovers. When you’re a good listener, you find everyone has good stories to tell. We are made for them.

//

We’ve found all the best conference rooms on our floor, hidden away from prying eyes. Behind closed doors, we’re a haven of honesty and laughter in the well-oiled wheels of the corporate machine. My co-conspirators share a horrifying secret: our prestigious academic records and resumes produced zero ladder-climbing ambitions.

We’re dreaming of the day we open bakeries and write bestsellers. Please spare us the manufactured goals and ten-year career plans.

//

We vacillate between long monologues—a stream of feelings, dreams, prayers, and reflections—and comfortable silences. I’m not sure whose awake and whose asleep as we’re all curled up in our seats, watching the parking lot empty out around us.

We are fragile souls, prone to wander, prone to break. But I listen to the quiet strength in their voices, hear the conviction of faith in their words, see the undeniable grace of God in their lives, and I know He is holding onto us.

Give me solitude over empty chatter. Give me souls we can knit together. Give me no less nor no more than I need to know, that I am made and fulfilled in Christ alone.

Canary in the Media Mine

jeremy-yap-160713-unsplash

Is it irony or self-awareness that much of Silicon Valley is enamored with a show about techno-paranoia? The genius of Black Mirror lies in its presentation of dystopias that are terrifyingly close to reality. Each episode combines technology that’s almost arrived with the dark tendencies of human nature to produce a shocking world, but one it seems we’re on the cusp of. I just did a google search of the show, and the first headline read, “Black Mirror’s ‘Nosedive’ episode is about to become reality in China.” Black Mirror is like a canary in the media mine, signaling the dangers of where technology could lead society before it descends upon us.

I’ve only watched a few episodes, and I don’t go around recommending it. If you haven’t seen it, I don’t exaggerate when I say many of the episodes are chock full of immorality and baldly disturbing. It’s also not what I’d call entertaining. But it is thought-provoking.

The episodes take a familiar, relatable premise (like social media ratings, video game escapism, online dating) down dark and twisted paths. This is what could happen… and all things considered, its creative and believable. While most critics applaud the show for cleverly exposing the danger of technology misuse, I think Black Mirror does more than that, whether intentionally or not. More than pointing out how social media or memory scanners could wreak havoc, it exposes the darkness of the human heart. Technology is just an enabler.

Take the Nosedive episode. Lacie lives in a world where people rate each other based on each interaction they have. Your average rating affects your job, ability to buy a home, and could even send you to jail if you drop too low. Talk about incentive to practice fake smiling and friendliness all the time (which she does). Lacie is obsessed with getting her rating up to move into her dream home, but a series of unfortunate events send her rating spiraling down. It’s a messed up world that doesn’t feel too far away, with rating Uber/Lyft drivers, pandering for Likes and Follows on Instagram … who’s to say ‘social credit’ won’t take a more prominent role in a society dominated by social media?

But behind this world is the same reality of human nature. There is nothing new under the sun. We’ve always wanted to be liked by others, to be on the highest rung of the social ladder. Read Jane Austen! No one had a rating associated with their name, but people were fundamentally the same. There’s a public face you present to garner favor, especially among the elite. Women weren’t chasing 5/5 stars on an app, but they were chasing the wealthiest man, the most luxurious lifestyle, admiration from others, ultimately for the same purposes. What Black Mirror did was recognize that innate nature, and placed it in a new infrastructure enabled by technology.

One more example: the Crocodile episode (this one is really bleak and violent). In her young and stupid days, Mia helps her friend Rob cover up a hit-and-run where he was behind the wheel. Years later, Rob wants to confess, but Mia has a successful career and family, and she doesn’t want to dig up that past – so she kills Rob. Then she witnesses a roadside accident (a self-driving pizza truck hits someone). An insurance agent comes knocking with a device that can replay memories, but that means exposing her murder of Rob … which leads her to kill the insurance agent, and then the insurance agent’s family.

(I told you it’s disturbing.)

Crocodile addresses a regular theme in Black Mirror: the invasion of privacy. Technology has turned everyone’s eyes into potential surveillance cameras that can be replayed. It’s meant to be used for good, but this episode shows a case where it goes extremely poorly as it pushes Mia to kill more and more in order to cover up her earlier crimes. But again, the fundamental issue isn’t with the Recaller technology. Mia is hellbent on protecting her self-interest at any cost to others. This is the darkness of the human heart. Sure, the technology exacerbated the situation, but the point is, her capacity for murder out of self-protection existed long before she was triggered.

We do face unique challenges today with the advancement of technology. Its moving at a pace where policies can’t keep up, and they often come retroactively and always imperfectly. There is a legitimate fear about what our tech can do in the wrong hands. But the reality is, no one is trustworthy. We’re all fallen people. Ironically, in a time where the culture denies original sin and validates self-worth and individual goodness, a show like Black Mirror isn’t just sounding a warning about technology, but signaling the sinfulness of our own hearts.

 

Photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash

The Shoulders of Giants

TV on Street

“I want to thank the Academy…”

They all share the Oscar with their families, with their colleagues, with the nameless downtrodden of the world. “This is for you.” The golden trophy will sit on their shelf at home, but somehow, in spirit, it belongs also to the ten or ten thousand others he named on that stage.

Other than my middle school math contest fluke and participating in piano recitals, I think its safe to say my trophy days are over. If I ever have such a platform, or an acknowledgements page in a book, you can look for yourself there. I have already imagined that I will put your name in bold script with a paraphrase of Newton’s quote.

“I stand on the shoulders of giants.”

In a world that loves the polished front and saving face, you protect my frailty. My friend’s father says, “If you’re dumb, you gotta be tough.” Unfortunately, I’m often the former, and not the latter, but you always have my back—scraped knees, splinters and broken hearts. You beat up my old dinosaur book when it started screeching in the dark. You brought me McDonalds after I braved the hospital shots. You held me when I cried in a hotel room because I thought my world was ending. You answered the phone when I killed the car battery at 10 PM. I’m working on being tough, but in the meantime at least I can say, “When I’m dumb, my Dad is tough.” Thank God.

In a world that hangs love on terms and conditions, you are steadfast. I have seen children who are a prize, measured by the sum of their awards, the rank of their schools, the letters that trail behind their names. But I am just your little girl, the daughter you said you wanted, in a culture that clamors for sons. I know the rest is nothing to you—some fun but dispensable bragging points at noisy Asian parties—because I don’t think any of your friends would do this: offer to let their kid drop a job and move home because their heart was hurting, in a completely non-medical-emergency way.

In a world of proper-looking photos, we are gangsters, pirates, and kangaroos. Venice canals, Roman architecture, and New Zealand beaches are neither sacred nor safe under the glare of our camera lens. There must be something deep about this—like how we laugh in the face of human constructs of significance. You have my humor (or I have yours), and its runs its thread through our picture albums, in the movie theaters, and at stiff boring parties. It flickers in the pirate pose, in the joke no one else finds funny, in the glimmer of mirth we share amid an oblivious crowd. Our laughter understands in a way words cannot capture.

You are in a story I wrote this year, and my professor cried. You are in the pictures I share, and my friends laugh. You are among the people I boast about, and boys say they want to be like you. (Because, I think, of your mastery of travel points and credit cards). It’d be nice to find one who really is.

Love is a debt I cannot pay, a gift I cannot touch. It is in the life you give me, the life you live alongside me. It is in the labor I do not see always see, it is in the words I cannot always find.

Mei you ni, mei you wo.

This is my Oscar speech, overtime and under-read, but its really only written for you, anyway. Cue the commercial break.

Today We Talked About Stories

brooke-lark-93583

Today we talked about stories. “No literature is truly profound,” you said, “that does not gaze upon death and wrestle with it.”

You come from a culture that looks away, hiding behind white garments and doctors’ hushed tones. When you asked after your friend’s mother-in-law, she said they were observing her 100th birthday. I remember, with a flash of humor, that you nearly sent her well wishes before you realized the woman was cold in the grave. There is no soft synonym for death in our mother tongue—she’s gone, passed away, no longer with us—so we say nothing at all. We cover it in silence and dirt, by the millions.

I grew up in a culture that sugarcoats, inventing euphemisms as if an exchange of words can temper our ruthless fate. We listen to a society spin convenient yarns: In our youth, Death is incentive to chase happiness, because You Only Live Once. In our contemplation, Death is dangerous to dwell on long, turning thinkers into maniacs. In polite company, Death has no place in conversation, drowned in teacups and gossip. At a funeral, Death is a sure entrance to A Better Place, affirmed by the man at the pulpit. All of us who are living are also dying, and we convince ourselves it is not so bad.

You read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Hugo and Dickens. Like Greek philosophers of old, the best minds press on the vein of the deepest questions, cut into human nature until it bleeds. But in the end, they also must look away, or sink into despair, or treat it too lightly.

“No literature can bear the weight of death,” you said, “without a right theology of God.”

Martin Luther said, “Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying.” Thank you for teaching me the True Story, that by God’s grace, I may do both well.

Today we talked about truth. “Every religion is man trying to reach God, or some higher spiritual plane, or some better sense of self,” you said. “But the truth is, we cannot reach God. God reached down to us, in Christ.”

You sent me off to the halls of higher education, a hailstorm of evolutionary theory and existential philosophy, without batting an eye. Maybe it was nothing compared to your college experience—complete with high quality communist movies from North Korea and Russia. But now I know why you were not afraid. The truth is not something fragile, that needs iron bars to protect it from the world. No, the truth is something fierce, that tears down strongholds of lies. That shakes the pillars of the Earth and stirs our blood. That says, with Paul, we are most to be pitied if Christ did not rise from the dead. That dares you to find it false.

Your heroes are not the celebrities, the entrepreneurs, the Nobel Prize winners. Yours are the ones who fought to know truth and fought to defend it, who pursued the glory of God despite the displeasure of men, who counted all things as loss for the sake of knowing Christ.

Charles Spurgeon said, “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.” You will not settle for less than that either. When a Man comes into our world and says He is God, who can take that lightly? Thank you for teaching me never to trivialize truth, that it is a hard and holy thing, and that it can set the sinner free.

Today we talked about everything and nothing. “So every year,” you said, “they will make another movie about this fake universe and fake characters and people will pay to watch it? Zhen me wu liao.”

How boring, you said in Chinese, and we laughed. It’s difficult to capture the full-orbed meaning in English—boring, silly, tasteless—and harder to describe why it’s gold coming from you—candid and genuinely perplexed, but not cruel or condescending.

“Of course,” I said staunchly, but I don’t fight back. I gave up long ago trying to convince you why Star Wars was not just for idiots, and sometimes I need your honest irreverence to see the absurdity of our lives.

Our times are in desperate need of people like you. Hence I suggested, with varying degrees of sincerity, that you should record a podcast, host a talk show, or write an autobiography. You laughed at me and said I would be the only listener, follower, or reader—and you continued quietly with your life.

I doubt it, but you made me think. How many mothers do their thankless duties with an audience of one?

Today a strong, independent woman comes with a particular characterization: a feminist empowered to break the chains to societal expectation, religion, institution, and men. To be whatever she wants, to define her own destiny. In pursuit of freedom, we have shackled womanhood to a religion of self-worship. In a march for equality, we have defied divinity to count nothing sacred but the Self: my way, my truth, my life. I wonder, what makes freedom and equality so worth fighting for, if they are nothing but man-made ideals?

Yet if they are divine, we all sit under the judgment of the Creator, and the Maker of its morality.

In a world spinning wild, you show me strength: to forsake what is wrong and hold to what is true. You show me freedom: to think little of self, so I might know a Savior. You show me womanhood: to be gentle but not timid, to have a simple faith but a probing mind, to fear God and not man.

Jim Eliot, echoing the words of Jesus and Ecclesiastes, said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Thank you for teaching me to have eternal eyes, that I might hold these fleeting things loosely, that I might have Christ.

Today we talked about stories. Sometimes you laugh at the ones I read, and I snooze at the ones on your shelf.

Today we talked about truth. We have God-shaped souls, though we are small people, anchored by gravity to a small world, hung on a spiraling, galactic canvas of creation.

Today we talked about everything and nothing. We sit in a quiet corner of the globe, eating breakfast and watching the rain. On the scales of eternity, our lives are but a flicker, and a moment lapses into memory with each breath. But I thank God, that in the time and space he carved around us, He made you my mother.

A Silent Salute

john-moore-141727

I love and hate that tributes to those we lose can be so eloquent. We can max out profundity and pretty words, inspiring tears and shivers, yet eloquence ends at the grave. We say these words, share these memories, but you’re still gone.

And we will continue with our lives, and slowly forget.

I guess that’s why funerals are more for the living than the dead. The tributes we pay are closure for us, even if they are infuriatingly, eloquently inadequate. But we have no other means. So here are mine.

You taught calculus and not poetry, but you were a type of John Keating—Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society—even though my friends thought you looked like Brad Pitt. Not that that’s an insult by any means.

I remember how you loved astronomy, and that was fitting for a man who lived with such fervor. The world couldn’t confine your spirit to a small blue orb spinning in a galaxy spinning in a universe spinning in infinity. Funny, you might have been the first one to teach me about infinity, outside of Scripture and church and the infinitude of God. I remember hearing it in your classroom, probably on a dreary gray morning, when you introduced asymptotes and limits, and bewilderment shot the sleep out of our eyes.

Why do we wait until someone is gone to remember, and realize the little things were really the big things? I can feel the years standing between then and now, with the space, the distance, the merciless drumbeat of time. Yet it also feels like yesterday, with the memory pressed so close.

You must have believed in strong ripple effects, and if not, your life has contradicted you. I wonder if that is why you chose a small classroom in a quiet suburb. Because I scrolled through your Facebook page today and saw generations of lives you touched, some that came before me, and some after. I read silently and left, unable and afraid to think of words to leave you in such a public place, but inspired by those who did. Instead, I scrolled through my old photos to graduation and found the one I took with you.

You, with your strong smile and hairstyle we poked fun at. Me, in my cap and gown, grinning with genuine unconsciousness of adulthood and its trials.

I stared at the picture for a while, thinking of how it marked an ending. The close of one chapter, and the start of another. I wish I visited more, kept in touch, after I left. I wish you had more real estate on the pages that followed.

I don’t think you were the Facebook stalker type—that belongs proudly to our generation—so here’s a brief summary for you: I went off to chase sunshine and dreams in California. Found some and lost some. I still laugh a lot, and at dumb things, but the smiles have stretched over a few more scars. Which is okay. The battle wounds of adulthood are bearable because of strong refuges. Like memories of your pi jokes and class pranks and juvenile things that remind me how good it was to be a kid, and how to savor the present before it’s gone.

I still make impulsive decisions sometimes, and that’s partly why I’m doing a graduate degree in engineering. When I took Optimization last year, I understood my professor about 10% of the time, and I owe a large part of that to someone who taught me well so I could still do derivatives years later like it was second nature. I’d get stumped after that, but thanks for the partial credit. This time, the kudos goes to your teaching, and not my begging.

John Keating and my old English teacher used to tell us Carpe Diem. Seize the day. You never said the words, too busy making lessons and helping the helpless—which were most high school students sitting in a math class. You never had to say the words because your life said it all.

You Carpe’d the hell out of every Diem.

I don’t like goodbyes as much as gratitude, so I will simply say thank you—

Thank you for teaching (so tirelessly).
Thank you for believing (that it doesn’t take a genius to survive math).
Thank you for sharing that one video (I still share with friends to make them laugh).
Thank you for accepting our insanity (and sharing your own).
Thank you for being kind (to the difficult and the downtrodden).
Thank you for your courage (in sickness and in health).

Thank you for the memories.

If I was back in your old classroom, I would—don’t laugh—stand on my desk in a silent salute to you.

Oh captain, my captain.