Monthly Archives: February 2014

Is it All About Hate?: Understanding Proponents of the Arizona “Discrimination” Law

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There’s been a lot of controversy about “gay discrimination laws” lately, namely about a failed bill in Kansas and a bill that’s currently making it’s way through the Arizona government. These bills essentially ensure that business owners will not be sued if they refuse service to someone because they are gay. Naturally almost all of the media attention is negative, with articles about bigotry and discrimination, as well as comments that we might be seeing “No Gays Need Apply” signs showing up in businesses around the country. Personally I don’t necessarily support such laws. However I do think there is a good reason that they’re being proposed, a reason that is mostly being ignored because of the shock value of a bill that appears to support discrimination.

I think the main reason why these bills are contentious are a matter of framing. Just about anything can be made to sound good or bad based on how you frame it. The framing these bills have mostly received is along the following lines: “This bill will allow small businesses to refuse service to people simply because they are gay.” Or even “These bills make it legal to discriminate against gays.” These are powerfully negative framings. Who would want to support a bill like that? On the other hand, the bills can be framed another way. “These bills ensure that an individual cannot be forced to do work that violates their religious beliefs. “ This framing puts it in a completely different light. After all, we don’t want to force people to violate their religious beliefs. That would be going against the first amendment. The funny thing is that all three of those framing are technically accurate. I just think it’s important to take them all into account when trying to find your own stance on this contentious issue.

On the one hand these bills do seem to be legalizing discrimination based on sexuality, which is obviously bad. I completely understand why people are upset about this, and I think they have a right to be. On the other hand we need to recognize why the bill is being proposed in the first place: to protect religious rights. Separation of church and state is a road that goes both ways. The government is not allowed to force a person to violate their religious beliefs. That’s what “separation of church and state” is all about. The phrase comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to churchgoers who were concerned that the new government was going to prevent them from practicing their religion, or force them to convert to another faith. Thomas Jefferson assured them that the first amendment built “a wall of separation between Church & State” and that the government would not interfere with their beliefs. In the case of these bills, the concern is that the government will force business owners to perform work that they have religious objections to.

So, again, the controversy about this law is a matter of framing. If the question is “Should the government legalize discrimination?” the answer is obviously “No!” But if the question is “Should the government force people to violate their religious beliefs?” the answer is also obviously “No!” The concern of the proponents of these bills is that under the current system people can, and have, been sued for refusing to serve gay individuals based on religious obligations (photographers declining to photograph a gay wedding, bakers declining to bake cakes for a gay wedding, etc.). This appears to be an example of the government punishing individuals for following their religious conscience.

Now I personally do not think it is morally wrong for a Christian baker to bake a cake for a gay wedding, or at least not any more “wrong” than it is for a baker to bake a cake for a person’s third wedding after two messy divorces. However some people do have moral objections against that kind of work, and even if I disagree I support their right to follow their religious beliefs. On the other hand, I don’t think a bill like this is the way to do it. I believe that the ideal solution is for the courts to handle this. If someone is sued because they refused to violate their religious beliefs then the courts should (ideally, remember) recognize that their first amendment rights are being violated. That’s the whole purpose of the judicial branch of government: to identify when laws violate a citizen’s constitutional rights. Passing a bill seems more likely to simply cause controversy (as we’ve already seen) instead of understanding as to why supporters of religious rights are concerned. If our current laws violate the first amendment then it is the job of the courts to overturn them. On the other hand, I can understand that everything is not ideal and our judicial system is far from perfect. I can see why some people would rather pass a law then put their faith in the judiciary.

So, whether you’re for or against these bills, try to understand the other side’s perspective. This isn’t about bigots and persecutors fighting each other, but rather about two different ideas that are both good but sometimes have trouble working together: individual rights (religious liberty) and civil tolerence (human dignity). And always remember, whatever the controversy is, that moral, rational, and educated individuals can disagree on important issues. Try not to demonize anyone out there.

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Memento Mori

 Detail of the Wall in the Chapel of Bones (Capela dos Ossos)

C.S. Lewis once pointed out, while commenting on the massive fear that accompanied the invention of the nuclear bomb, that all of us were doomed to die whether the bomb existed or not, and that most of us will die in horrible ways. When I first read that it seemed almost funny. It was certainly true. Most of us dream about the “perfect death:” to die peacefully in your sleep at a ripe old age. Most desire it, but few achieve it. Very few. My great-grandfather was counted among the lucky ones. He died peacefully at the age of 101. I believe he was making a sandwich when his heart gave out. It happened quickly and presumably without much pain.

But my grandfather wasn’t so lucky when he died. He was in great pain for days before the end. He struggled and moaned under the weight of the painkillers. He could not even put on a brave face for his family: the drugs robbed him of that. It was a horrible way to die. In that sense it was very natural. Most death is horrible.

I don’t find that sentiment as funny anymore.

I have been blessed with getting to know my wife’s grandfather quite well. He lives in the same city where my wife and I went to college, and my wife stayed in a little apartment above his workshop before we got married. I got to spend a lot of time sitting on the couch across from him, watching TV and talking about cars and life. He’s a wonderful man who really loves God and loves others. He also has a wicked sense of humor: when he gets together with his best friend you’d think they were worst enemies the way they toss insults at each other.

For some time now he’s suffered from several different medical conditions. His kidneys keep failing, and he’s been on and off dialysis for years. He finds the dialysis extremely painful, and becomes listless and weak in the days following a dialysis session.  His heart is weak, so blood doesn’t properly circulate in his legs which leads to pain, numbness, and infections. A few months ago one of his legs had to be amputated because of this. He is often in pain, and his “good days” come and go almost unpredictably.

I’ve often thought that it would  be nice to be retired, to be able to sit around and watch TV or work on your hobbies all day. When I look at my wife’s grandfather I can’t be jealous. He has all the time in the world, but most of it is spent in pain. He has trouble sleeping. He can’t work on his cars anymore. Over the past several years he’s been slowly preparing to die. He auctioned off almost all of his tools and his collection of automobile memorabilia. His health is bad, and he’s ready to go. Yet for some reason he’s still here (and my wife and I, and all who love him, are grateful for that). I wonder if this is the kind of death I have to look forward to. Will my twilight years be full of drawn out pain and weakness? Or will my death be like my grandpa’s: an unexpected and terrible end to an otherwise idyllic retirement?

I don’t hold out much hope that I’ll die peacefully while making a sandwich.

All of this seems very morbid, but I think it’s something we need to think about more. Too often we try to insulate ourselves from suffering and death. We try to cut them out of our lives and our thoughts. The medievals had a different value. The prized the memento mori: something to remind us that we will die. Many medieval scholars and priests kept human skulls on their desks to remind them that someday they too would nothing more than bones. Franciscan monks in Portugal made an entire chapel out of human bones to serve as a memento mori to all who entered it. The engraving above it’s door reads Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos: “We bones that are here await your own.”

The simple fact is that we will all die, and we will all suffer. Some of us will suffer greatly before the end. We should not deny this fact but accept it. That way we won’t be dismayed when suffering does come. Instead remember that this world is not the end, that suffering can strengthen us if we let it, and that we can survive more than we might imagine.

Stop Thinking, Start Writing

As long time readers of the blog may know, I want to become a professional writer. The whole reason for starting this blog was so that I could become a better writer through the process of regularly writing for public consumption. One piece of advice that just about every professional writer gives is that the way to become a writer is to write. Write every day. Write constantly. Practice, practice, practice. Everywhere I look I find that same grim truth. There is no magic bean that will make you better at something, and talent is secondary to experience. The only way to get better is to write, write, write.

The problem is that I really suck at that.

I have tried several times to put a schedule together where I write every day. I never lasts. Writing is hard work, and most days I’d rather not do it. At the beginning of the blog I wrote a post three times a week, and wrote 750 words of personal reflection two times a week. Today I write about one post a week, and I don’t do reflective writing anymore. certainly some of this has to do with my work schedule. I have just enough time in the morning to get ready for work, and when I get home I have to cook dinner and do some billing work on the side that helps pay the rent. Any free time after that I’d rather spend relaxing, reading, watching tv, or playing games. Then my wife wakes up (she works nights and has a schedule that is effectively flipped from mine) and I make it a point to spend the rest of the night talking and being with her since I don’t get to see her in the mornings. This doesn’t leave too much time for writing. On the other hand…honestly, it doesn’t take too much time to write. I can bang out a blog post in under a half hour unless I need to do some research. Yet I find myself constantly choosing to do other things over writing.

Take today, for example. I knew I wanted to write a blog post. I’ve been meaning to for days. I had a few rough ideas of what to write about. Yet when it came to actually typing the words out, I stalled. I couldn’t start. All my ideas seemed too complicated, or not interesting enough, or just plain silly.  None of them were good enough. So, as I usually do, I just sat there thinking and thinking and thinking while staring at a blank screen.

That’s when I realized it. I’m thinking too dang much.

During my freshman year of college I took a public speaking class, and later participated in our schools forensics team (which is basically speech and debate). I had particular trouble with “impromptus” which were short speeches that had to be delivered with only two minutes of preparation time. I hate impromptus. I struggled with them. My impromptus would be full of pauses and interruptions. My professor would help me work on them, and every time he had the same advice. “Stop trying to find the perfect word! Just keep talking.”

It occurs to me now that I have trouble writing regularly for the same reason. I want my work to be good. I want it to matter. I want it to be important. Because of that I never actually get around to writing. Honestly, when I let myself go and just start typing it’s quite relaxing. It’s starting to write that is a real pain.

I’ve been working on a short story for a few weeks, part of my ongoing attempts to get published in a sci-fi site. I had a cool idea and I couldn’t wait to get it written. I planned it all out from beginning to end. As I wrote I added more and more details. I thought hard about developing the characters, describing the environment, and making sure that the plot was not heavy handed or confusing. Because of all that thinking I haven’t touched the thing in over a week. It’s gotten to heavy. Writing it is a slog; I’m trying to make it perfect, and perfection is just too hard.

Isaac Asimov, one of the most well loved writers of science fiction in history, once banged out a short story in a half an hour for one of his publishers. His work is a bit infamous for being dry, mechanical, and to the point. He understood that not every story had to be perfect. And frankly, I think I’m more likely to actually succeed in writing if I try to emulate that style. The way I’m going now I’m more of a Tolkien: a man who spent years writing his books, which were obviously the product of a great deal of thought. After The Lord of the Rings took off he promised his publishers that he’d get The Silmarillion into proper reading shape. Up until his death he would tell you that he was still working on it, when in reality he hardly touched the thing. I love The Lord of the Rings but Tolkien was a professional professor first and a writer second. If I’m going to become a full time writer I’m going to have to go for volume first. A masterpiece will have to come later.

Ender’s Game, Claymation Video Games, and Chicken Sandwiches: Can I Buy Your Work if I Don’t Buy Your Beliefs?

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Everybody can recall the uproar about the Ender’s Game movie that recently came out. I mean everybody who frequents the same internet news sites as myself. Or has a similar circle of friends. Actually, I guess it would be more accurate to say that almost nobody can recall that particular uproar, especially if you consider how many people around the world don’t even have internet access. Or television. Or have both but couldn’t give a used chapstick about Ender’s Game.

Well, anyway, there was an uproar. People were upset about this movie. Many people called for the film to be boycotted. Others said that they didn’t care if other people watched it, but they felt it would be morally wrong to go themselves. A few critics saw it, but said they had moral reservations about doing so. Having grown up in evangelical circles none of this was too unusual to me. I was used to people calling for certain movies to be boycotted. I was also used to seeing people be careful not to mention that they had seen a particular movie while in the wrong company, lest they get a dissaproving glances or a lecture on morality. The only difference is that those movies were railed against because of hyper-sexuality, foul language, or or irreverence. The only sin of Ender’s Game, on the other hand, was that it is based on a book written by Orson Scott Card. Why is that so bad? Well you see, Mr. Card is a Mormon with some rather loud opinions about homosexuality. He is very opposed to homosexuality in general, you see. He’s stated publicly that he’d like anti-gay laws to stay on the books, and he’s very much opposed to legalizing gay marriage. Because of this individuals across America decided to boycott the film.

It should be noted that the film itself doesn’t contain any anti-gay messages. Neither does the book. But Mr. Card does get royalties off of the work. Because of this, gay-rights activists have been arguing that seeing the movie (or buying the book) is tantamount to supporting anti-gay messages.

Ender’s Game isn’t the first time we’ve seen something like this happen. Back in 2012 the fast food chain Chick-fil-A found themselves under a boycott after their COO made some public comments that were critical of gay marriage. Some people still refuse to eat at Chick-fil-A because of it. After all, if they support a company that is managed by people who are opposed to gay marriage, then they’re supporting hate. It would be wrong to buy that delicious chicken sandwich.

This is all old news, but what brought it to my mind was a recent discovery. I was making my way through the archives of the Phil Vischer podcast (which I would recommend, it’s a good’n) when I saw that they had an interview with Doug TenNapel. My brain started buzzing. TenNapel. Where had I seen that strange name before? I loaded the podcast up and soon realized why the name was so hauntingly familiar. He’s the Earthworm Jim guy!

I had grown up seeing Earthworm Jim here and there in the early 90s. I even had read some of TenNapel’s more recent work. What I didn’t know was that he was a Christian, and pretty committed one too. You can’t really tell it from his work: his comics, tv shows, and video games (the fella gets around) are all very secular, absurd, and fun. There’s nothing overtly religious about any of them. Recently he ran a succesful Kickstarter campaign to make a video game named Armikrog which is notable for being done with claymation. That’s right: a claymation video game. It’s a spiritual successor to Neverwood, a video game TenNapel made years ago that was also done in claymation. It looked really interesting for it’s novelty value alone. What I wasn’t aware of was that at the time the Kickstarter was going on there were cries for gamers to boycott it. Why? Because Doug TenNapel has made it no secret that he is also opposed to gay marriage.

All these events have stewed in my brain. They lead to an interesting question: is it morally wrong to consume content (or sandwiches) if the person who created them has opinions that are repulsive or hateful to you? If you support gay marriage, is it wrong to also support the creation of a cool claymation video game just because the creator opposes gay marriage? What about sandwiches? Or movies? I thought about it for a long time. I really chewed this one over folks. I’ve been thinking about the issue ever since the Chick-fil-A think happened. And after all that stewing, I’ve finally come to a conclusion:

You can’t live that way, and you’d be crazy to try.

Can you imagine what it would look like if everyone who was pro-life refused to read any books written by authors who are pro-choice? What if all the people who believe in god refused to watch any movie created by an atheist? I’m not talking about someone pro-life refusing to read a specifically pro-choice book, whose plot and moral are wrapped up in the abortion debate. That makes some sense. And I’m not talking about a pious Baptist refusing to watch Religulous, a move whose whole point is to make fun of religious people. I’m talking about refusing to engage in any piece of art or entertainment solely because the creator has different views from yourself. And that’s just nuts. It sounds like something that came from the pulpit of one of the most fringe fundamentalist churches in the deepest parts of the south. “Don’t watch any movies made by an atheist! If you do, they’ll get a cut of the money, and they might use it to support ATHEIST causes. Heck, I’d watch out for movies made by Christians too. After all, one of the cameramen or editors might be atheist, and then your money is indirectly supporting their ideas! Only watch movies or read books whose creators have been completely checked out by our board of elders to confirm that they believe all the right things. It’s the MORAL thing to do.”

I can really sympathize with the ethical dilemma some people are having about this subject. And if Ender’s Game was promoting hatred against homosexuals then I’d say “Alright, your boycott makes total sense.” But when someone says you can’t watch a movie about space aliens because the author of the book it’s based off has views you’re opposed to, you’re crossing the line into crazy territory. We wouldn’t want to live in a world where you’re only supposed to enjoy art that was made by people who agree with you. Heck, I wouldn’t want to live in a world where you’re not supposed to engage in art that’s directly opposed to your own ideas. I’m a Christian, but I have enjoyed, been touched by, and learned things from movies and books that were made by atheists. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s nothing wrong with going to see movies, or play video games, or even eat chicken sandwiches that were made by people who have opinions that your are radically opposed to.

Honest Vows

I’ve been wondering what would happen if people were more honest with their wedding vows.

I think part of the problem is that many people have forgotten that they are “vows” in the sense of “formal and binding promises made before witnesses.” If I tell my wife that I’ll pick up some eggs at the grocery store on the way home from work and I fail to do so, that’s no big deal. If I promise her that I will pick up the eggs and neglect to do so, it’s a bit more serious. I mean I did promise, and a man is only as good as his promises. Now if I went before my in-laws, looked my wife straight in the eyes, and said “I solemnly vow that I will pick up some eggs on my way home from work” and I space out and forget, that’s a much bigger deal. It’s not even about the eggs at that point; what kind of person goes to the trouble of vowing to do something and then doesn’t pull through?

Of course, I might get some forgiveness out of the fact that I simply forgot what I was going to do. I mean, not much since I went to the trouble of making that vow thing so I should at least be expected to write it down on a sticky note or something, but still. In the case of marriage we’ve got a situation where the only way to break the vow is to perform a conscious act, whether that’s filing for a divorce or sleeping with the neighbors. Yet people break their marriage vows all the time. Many people treat it like it’s no big deal. “We weren’t happy anyone, so we got a divorce.” Okay…but what about that vow you made? You know, the one that had something about bad times and sickness and the like? Didn’t you mean the words that were coming out of your mouth?

And that’s the problem. A lot of people don’t mean a word of their vows. They’re just a ceremony that you go through, like getting rice lobbed at your head or shoving cake into your spouse’s face. Both of them knew beforehand that divorce was a legitimate option for ending their partnership. Which is fine, I guess, but dang does it seem dishonest. Why lie to a member of the clergy (or justice of the peace) in front of your extended family? Come on, people change their vows all the time. Why not be simply honest? Maybe say “I swear to stick this out until one of us is no longer happy, or in love, in which case we’ll file for divorce and go our separate ways.” I don’t like divorce, but at least you’re being up front with everyone. Not to mention keeping your honor in case you do divorce.

It doesn’t seem like many people care about honor these days. When you promise to do something you should do it. If you make a freaking vow to an official in front of multiple witnesses and ostensibly (unless you go for a more secular ceremony) God himself shouldn’t you take that a little seriously?

So I’m in favor of honest wedding vows. When I got married I made sure I was ready to commit to the entire vow. I even tweaked a few parts of it, slightly. My wife and I don’t believe in divorce; we’re both willing to stick it out and try to keep our marriage healthy. If you believe differently that’s fine. But for the sake of honor and honesty, can you at least be upfront about exactly what you’re vowing to do? Please?

I promise I’ll appreciate it.

Cool Down Timer: Listen to People and Also Me (Alternative Title: I’m on a Podcast and It’s Neato)

Do you remember when I plugged the podcast Cool Down Timer? It’s put on my two of my best buds. They’re up to fifteen episodes now, and ever since episode twelve I’ve been co-hosting with them. So if you’ve ever been interesting in hearing the dulcet tones that my voice box produces (which have been likened to an obese terrier being slowly smothered) then you should run on over to cooldowntimer.com and check it out. Or not. Whatever floats your boat.

The podcast began by discussing video games, but now it discusses just about anything. I mean video games get brought up a lot still, but we try to be broad. And I guess “anything” isn’t really accurate, I mean we don’t talk about puppy murder or how to build a woodshed with an attached smoker. Honestly the only thing that thematically connects the episodes is nerd culture, entertainment, and personal anecdotes about cats and inside jokes.

Just so you know, for the first few episodes they refer to me as “Mr.H.” Why? Because my friends are weird and have rejected the names their mothers gave them in favor of leet internet handles that sound patently ridiculous. I didn’t want to rock the boat. Until episode 15, where I rocked it anyway and told them to just use my real name. So just remember that when “Mr.H” is talking you should be laughing and agreeing heartily with whatever he says.