Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Does the Nativity Offend You? It Should.

'Nativity' photo (c) 2013, Sharon - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/
The nativity; so romantic and idyllic, so comfortable and peaceful, so familiar and well-known, like a warm pair of sweat pants we can burrow in to. We see it every year, the shepherds, the wise men, the baby Jesus in the manger.  We know the nativity scene like the back of our hand, so well we could set it up blindfolded. I wonder though, if it’s a bit too familiar to us, a bit too comfortable, a bit too well-known.

Think about it, the baby Jesus, the son of God born in a barn.  We romanticize it a bit.  Truth is it’s not quite as cute and quaint as we make it out to be.  When’s the last time you’ve been in a barn? Chances are the smell was unpleasant to say the least. In all reality, where Jesus was born was most likely in a cave and he was laid to rest in a feed trough—hardly where one would expect to find the son of God to be found on the night of his birth.

We need only to think back to the birth of Prince George, son of Prince William and Duchess Catherine, to imagine the fanfare that should have accompanied the birth of Jesus.  Remember the wall-to-wall media coverage, the international acclaim, and the fanaticism over the royal birth?  If Jesus were to be born today, we would certainly expect his coming to be celebrated in the same manner. Yet, that is the exact opposite of what happened.

Bear Nativity
This is where we need to go back to the historical manger, the feed trough, the smelly cave. We need to strip off the layers of romantic and idyllic images we’ve pictured it to be.  Instead, we need to see the birth of Jesus in a cave for what it really is—unsettling, offensive, shocking even. Rather than being born in a royal palace, in the capital city of Rome, he was born in a backwoods town, far away from the centers of power and influence, amongst a family with so little wealth or persuasion they couldn’t even secure a place to spend the night.

If Jesus were to come today, he wouldn’t come to an influential political family in D.C. or a media mogul in Hollywood. No, if Jesus were to come today, he would come to a migrant family from Mexico, traveling without documentation across the Sonoran desert, looking for work in the United States. If Jesus were born today, he would be born in the desert, left for dead by the coyote, picked up by la migra (the border patrol) and swaddled in an old, worn out blanket, as the family rode in shackles to the border patrol holding cell. If Jesus were born today, his coming would be announced to the minorities of the slums of south central LA, to the drug dealers and prostitutes, to the poor, the homeless, and the forgotten.

It’s a bit offensive isn’t it? A bit shocking perhaps; the thought of the sweet, innocent baby Jesus born amidst such utter poverty—and it’s exactly the context Jesus was born into. Maybe we’ve familiarized ourselves with the nativity so we can forget that we are the ones that need to be shaken up. Forget that we have assimilated with the powerful, that we have aligned ourselves with economic interests that abandon the poor, that we have accepted a world where Jesus born in abject poverty would simply be disregarded as another unplanned pregnancy of a single, unwed, minority female. 

Here in middle class, suburban America, where Christmas and the baby Jesus is comforting and reassuring, this image of Jesus disturbs us. We’re far too comfortable with our image of a white Jesus who looks like us, mirrors our own political and economic values, coddles us in our preconceived notions and ideals about him. Just as we find such an image of Jesus’ birth shocking and unsettling, those reading Luke’s written account would have been similarly offended. 

And that’s the way it should be. If the nativity isn’t offensive and unsettling to us today, perhaps it’s because we are those amidst the halls of power he was seeking to avoid.

So this Christmas, if we think we’ve got God figured out, if we think we’ve got Jesus perfectly idealized, we need to take a fresh look at the nativity. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Why I hate Apple

Apple certainly meets all the criteria by which one would define a highly successful, 21st century company.  Highly profitable, Apple’s products have significant influence in American culture and the company enjoys a cult-like following by some.  One need not be a student of the culture to recognize the impact Apple has in our society.  From Apple retail stores in the mall to the company’s push to put an iPad in every school classroom in the country, Apple is in my view the most influential company in 21st century American consumerist culture—and that’s why I hate Apple.

'Apple' photo (c) 2006, Adrian - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/For me it really goes back to the invention of the iPod, brilliant of course, yet the advent of the iPod would drastically change American culture at large and turn out to be a huge financial boon for the company.  Macs really only had a niche following until the iPod came out.  I’d see one at a friend’s house and stare at it like I was looking at alien technology.  But the iPod changed all that. Rocketing to popularity thanks to its functionality and ease of use, it quickly became the go-to music playing device, seemingly making those MP3 players seem out-of-date overnight.

The other side of the iPod was the impact it—and its music library iTunes—had on the music industry at large.  Remember record stores? They actually existed before the iPod and iTunes.  When’s the last time you actually listened to an entire album?  The impact of iTunes is that “singles” downloads are standard fare and the art of the entire album is lost. And of course, true to Apple, an iPod today is now simply a relic of the past, antiquated by the latest iPhone or iPad. 

Yes, the iPhone, revolutionary as it was—and still is—changed the game forever.  I remember one of the first iPhone commercials in which some guy (perhaps you remember) whined about how pre-iPhone, he had to carry around a phone, a camera, and some third item I can’t remember. But, now with the iPhone, his “burden” was reduced by two-thirds.  This sales gimmick of creating a problem for the consumer that didn’t actually exist then solving it has become a feature of Apple marketing since.

I could list other things about Apple which irritate me, like how a device can only be used with one iTunes account, how Apple purposefully leaves out features only to conveniently include them on the next device (4.0 vs. 4.1), or Apple’s needlessly changing features such as the charging outlet in the iPhone 5 so as to force consumers to go out and buy new accessories.  I could talk about how Apple takes the money it makes off American consumers and stashes it in other countries to avoid paying taxes—taxes which support the public infrastructure and civic society which has allowed companies like Apple to thrive.  I could also highlight the unscrupulous and immoral treatment of workers in overseas countries by Apple contracted manufacturers (and  other companies) like Foxconn.

'The Apple Store in Japan' photo (c) 2010, IvanWalsh.com - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
The temple of the cult
But when it comes right down to it, what I most hate about Apple is the way they promote a culture of mindless consuming, which encourages an unsustainable, ecologically irresponsible usage of earth’s resources, a financially reckless approach to spending, and an ideology that meaning is found not in purposeful actions or personal relationships but in acquiring the latest gizmos and gadgets. 

Perhaps what has made Apple so successful, and what causes my utter hatred, is that Apple represents the purest form of unbridled capitalism. Apple, like no other, has incorporated the tenets of a godless, laissez-faire capitalism; the pursuit of wealth regardless of the costs to others, the utter disregard for community or society, the view of the earth as a resource to be exploited, the exaltation of wealth as a god, and the insistence that meaning and purpose in life can be found by acquiring stuff.  So, in the end, my hatred of Apple is perhaps misguided—and I should rather direct my ire towards global capitalism.

If like me, you believe that meaning is not found in acquiring more stuff, that the earth is a treasure worth preserving, that humans are our sisters and brothers deserving of our care, that we’re all in this together, and that the rejection of wealth is the path to true enlightenment (as most religions teach) I invite us to unite in rejection of a godless, meaningless financial system and strive to live and act in a way that subverts the norms of capitalism.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Congratulations on Winning the Genetic Lottery!


Perhaps you’ve seen the latest pictures online of the lingerie wearing new mom Caroline Berg Erickson who took a “selfie” just four days after supposedly giving birth to her child.  Or maybe you can remember from a few months ago the “what’s your excuse”  “fit mom” Maria Kang who posed with her three young children in skimpy work-out attire to show off her well-toned body. While Erickson has claimed that her picture wasn’t meant to shame women, and Kang has strongly resisted claims of being a bully because of her pictures, I think the message stands out loud and clear. 
'LeBron James' photo (c) 2011, Keith Allison - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Perhaps you’ve heard it said that we can be anything we want to be in life. That sounds great and all, but at 5-11/185, I’ve got no shot at making an NBA roster. Some say that anyone can be anything they put their mind to—baloney I say. It doesn’t matter how hard I work, I don’t and won’t ever have the size, strength, or quickness required to compete in a professional sports league like the NBA.  My point is that these two women, who I am sure maintain rigorous physical fitness regimens, are also winners of the genetic lottery.  
LeBron James is an incredible basketball talent who works very hard at his craft. He also happens to be 6-8, 250, built like an ox, and able to jump out of the gym.  LeBron could say all he wants about his “hard work and dedication” getting him to where he is today, but let’s be honest, his “God-given” physicality and talents had a LOT to do with it. Heck, LeBron is such an athletic freak of nature that he has expressed desire to play an NFL game one day, with many thinking that he certainly could compete. NFL stars such as Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham, who played little or no college football, also demonstrate this reality.  So much for “hard work and dedication” being the keys to success.  
Here’s the thing, like the ancient Greeks, our society has given preeminence to those with incredible physical attributes like James and Erickson while conversely critiquing everyone else for not being able to meet those same standards.  It’s basically an aristocracy of physicality.  At least ancient Greece seemingly recognized what they were doing —our society is messed up enough to believe it’s simply “hard work” and “dedication” that gets you a body like Erickson or a jump-shot like LeBron. 
'2013 Boston Marathon' photo (c) 2013, Sonia Su - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Here’s a reality check, all humans are not “created” equal—not all have the same gifts, talents, strengths, or abilities. Neither do we all start off with the same basic “tools” to work with.  I am a runner.  I have run a marathon, something 99.5% of the population hasn’t done. I ‘d like to think that makes me pretty special. But here’s the thing, my dad was a very good runner, far better than me in fact. He has qualified for and ran the Boston Marathon 3 times (the top marathon in the country) and ran a hundred mile race! By that standard, my single marathon doesn’t look that fantastic anymore.  I’m not a scientist, but I’d say chances are pretty good that my dad passed along some genes that predisposed me to being good at endurance sports, not to mention passing along an environment and culture of running!
Being I’m a self-proclaimed theologian, I of course recognize a religious dimension to all of this. According to author Luc Ferry,  one of the defining things that separated early Christianity from Greek thought was its insistence on the value of humans no matter their differences or “weaknesses.”  Christianity continues to affirm the intrinsic value of each and every human being as created in the “image of God” (theologians have argued for centuries on what that actually means).   So then, I find it troubling that in a culture that claims to be overwhelmingly “Christian” people are not valued simply by virtue of their humanity but rather by their physical appearance, their earning potential, or their abilities. 
Worse even, our culture shames people for not living up to these impossible standards. I’m sure many women wish they could look like Kang, but they don’t have the same body size, structure, genetics, etc. Or perhaps they don’t have the time or motivation to work out like Kang. Yes, physical health is important, but there are many people who simply find other things to enrich and enhance their lives in other places than the gym.  That’s not a bad thing. There isn’t some eternal law that says we must all have a certain BMI or body fat percentage—our culture defines such. 
What I’m saying is, first of all, be you. Don’t try to be someone you aren’t.  I can’t be LeBron James, and I’d be fooling myself if I thought I could be. Second of all, take care of yourself—however that works for you. We all know the things we should cut back on and we all know the thing we need to do to improve our health. But third, and most important, don’t freak out about it. I’m never going to be an elite runner, to me I’d have to give up too much to make that even a possibility, and despite what Maria Kang might think, all woman aren’t supposed to look like her, and that’s ok. Because you know what? In the end, I think we’re all winners of the genetic lottery! We’re the only us that exists in the world! And when recognize that fact and start truly being ourselves, we’ll be the richest people in the world!
So be you!
Take care of yourself!
Don’t worry about what others think!
 Go us!