Lift Not the Painted Veil


I have spent considerable time on social media this year, maybe too much so, but I believe it has the potential of doing more good than harm. I curate my online persona, of course. What you see of me is what I want you to see, what I put there to convince you of something, to show you my best self, or to reinforce my tribal allegiances. I don’t spread falsehoods on social media, but, if I am honest, neither do I share my whole truth. I reveal a crafted facade of a life, the modern rendition of what the poet Percy Shelley called “the painted veil”:

Lift not the painted veil which those who live

Call Life:  though unreal shapes be pictured there,

And it but mimic all we would believe

With colours idly spread,

Our social media profile is only the most extreme version of our self-edited lives, so perhaps 2017 was unsettling because it feels like we have all, somehow, gotten glimpses of what awaits behind our great national communal curtain. It’s as if our veiled personas were lifted this year, and our pure unedited lives emerged from behind all the vacation photos, personality quizzes and restaurant updates. Shelley told us what to expect when that happens:

— behind, lurk Fear

And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave

Their shadows, o’er the chasm, sightless and drear.

Fear and Hope. I suppose that was my 2017 in a nutshell. As a person of faith who grew up in evangelicalism, my experience with God is embodied, quite literally, within my faith community. I am obliged now to entertain the notion that God may choose not to use that white evangelical community to accomplish His will. That has created in me a sense of unmooring. As an American I have, perhaps naively, assumed that we citizens largely endorse the general Welfare, and Blessings of Liberty; merely differing in how politically to attain them. However, this last year suggests that many Americans have a very different view not merely of the means to, but of the very the definition of, the American ideal. Bedrock expectations have cracked, prompting a chronic, low-grade psychological distress.

I’m pretty sure I’ve disappointed friends as well who thought they knew me differently than I have turned out to be. Yet, in all this, I have also made wonderful new friends, been allowed to consider different perspectives, heard both brand new voices and bold new thoughts from established voices. My own upset in 2017 has enabled me to empathize, perhaps for the first time, with those who, by virtue of race, gender or other characteristic, experience political abandonment routinely. I am grateful for this new perspective.

Because I am a person of faith, I already maintain a confirming hope which is undefeated by daily personal, social, or political tribulations. But since God has chosen a distinctly temporal setting for my life, I am called to lift the veil and view this world in which I walk as clearly as possible, even if it means fear joins hope as travel companion. Though in this, to my mind, poor Shelley is altogether wrong:

I knew one who had lifted it — he sought,

For his lost heart was tender, things to love,

But found them not, alas!   nor was there aught

The world contains, the which he could approve.

Through the unheeding many he did move,

A splendour among shadows, a bright blot

Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove

For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.

I have my usual resolutions for 2018; I want to care, speak up, model grace, and make a difference, even if that difference is only to give others in my tribal community the permission to think critically and speak outside our norm. But most of all? My resolution in 2018 is to find new things to love, to be a “bright blot” and…Percy Shelly to the contrary…to find Truth in doing so.

Happy New Year, 2018







General Lee and Me: the Monuments Question

HBO is reported to be planning a counterfactual television series set in a reality where the Confederacy remained seceded from the Union. No need. Mississippi in the 1960’s was just that. I came to Jackson in 1962 as a young boy with my family. There I grew up in a place where the losers, not the victors, wrote the history. Not only our flags, songs, and monuments, but our public nostalgia, forced segregation, and race-based legal system were intentionally constructed exactly as if the South were quietly being readied for an imminent and welcome re-authorization of the Confederacy.

The current passion surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments is a reminder how powerfully, even today, that Lost Cause longing has been implanted into the psyche of otherwise well-meaning white southerners. It has overwhelmed thoughtful consideration of the statues themselves and the criteria around which we, as a nation, decide what we want to remember, what we want to revere, and frankly, what we want to forget.

The scope of our national memory should be broad indeed. American scars and triumphs reflect our shared history and we should include them with equal dispassion. But public monuments are something altogether different. They are marks not of remembrance, but of reverence and approval. The bar for inclusion should be well elevated because through what we revere, we teach. We cannot impose 21st century sensibilities when judging 19th century individuals, but we can ask whether, on the great issues of their day, they led or trailed that great arc of moral progress and, in so doing, deserve to be venerated, or simply remembered.

Robert E. Lee falls below that bar. In many of the great decisions that history placed before him, he chose wrongly. One needn’t demonize Lee to make this case; there were activities in his life and private sentiments expressed that were consistent with the best of his southern peers but he did not help lead America to a new, better place. He can be studied by historians in all the complexity of any towering figure, but Lee should not be rewarded with the American civil reverence associated with our public monuments.

Though I think this is clear, others may genuinely disagree with me, and I look forward to making my case and hearing the counter-arguments, because, though I am confident in my view of Lee and his Confederates, there are other American historical figures about whom I am less certain. So long as our historical arguments are evidence-centered and contain respect and passion in equal measure, they will help reveal our values and define that set of common standards around which the public decides whom to venerate. That is a wholesome and healthy exercise for an America constantly grooming its public conscience.

The result of our debate, and, we hope, the goal of our monuments, will not be a dreary monotone of political correctness nor a cacophony of undiscerning opinions, but rather a harmony of diverse voices singing together the great American song. To be sure, few local politicians would voluntarily choose this moment to oversee such an uncertain exercise, but there is real civic value hidden in it. And, as another towering American figure once wrote, the time is always ripe to do right.

Hey Dad, Read This

A book is a very welcome Christmas gift at our house. More even than a piece of clothing or jewelry, the selection itself carries with it the special intimacy of what one specific person thinks another ought to read. So, last Christmas, when my daughter, Austin, presented my wife and me with a large, wrapped bundle of volumes we were eager.

“I wanted you both to have these books because they were important in making me who I am”

Who she is, I should say, is a feminist.

When she went off to college a decade ago and returned with a degree in Women’s and Gender Studies I knew something was up. But for me, a 60’s-something white guy, feminism was just an idea, a set of social preferences, the political team you were rooting for; not your identity.  But, unwrapped, here they were: Naomi Wolf, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Caitlin Moran, and Rebecca Solnit. Not one I was likely to have chosen of my own accord. Later, she rounded them out with Katha Pollitt and Rosemary Radford Ruether. These, she said, were the women who had helped form the very person she had become, and they were still doing so.

In some ways that is hard for a parent to hear; we’d much prefer to believe that our children had been so well equipped by our example and so well prepared by our instruction that they needed nothing more to thrive. But now it was my daughter doing the instructing, and to help she had chosen these women, these feminists. It felt less like the circle of life and more like a boomerang: a child heaved into adulthood only to return in a great spinning arc to wallop the back of a parent’s head with her own individuality.

Not that I was opposed to feminism, merely indifferent to it; it didn’t feel like my team. I was not full of antagonism; merely full of holes. As for her books, they are challenging, not because they are always persuasive to me, but because they provide unique insights into a woman I love and force me to consider perspectives that have not come naturally. Of course, to imply that she let the books alone speak for her would be unfair. We talk a lot, laugh a lot, and argue about any number of things. She recently speculated how grateful I must be for our new president because now she and her mother finally have another old white guy to complain about rather than me. I’m pretty sure she’s kidding.

During the recent campaign, some women condemned male politicians for prefacing their criticism of candidate Trump’s pussy-grabbing with “I have a daughter or a wife”, as if valid outrage could stem only from a male’s proximity to potential victims rather than the innate dignity of women. I understand that. But I hope women are not blind to the peculiar power that familial proximity to feminism has to change men’s perspectives.

Because when you see this old semi-pseudo-proto-feminist at a women’s literary festival you should know that my daughter and her books have helped make me who I am becoming.

This post was originally published as part of the Women Galore Literary Festival 

Gorsuch and Such

141212181108-tsr-bash-spending-bill-drama-00010204-story-topThis might get me into trouble, but here’s my take on Gorsuch. He deserves to be confirmed. I don’t agree with his legal philosophy but, from what I know so far, he is competent, by all accounts intelligent, has regard for the rule of law, and seems like he would fit on this court. Unlike other Trump nominees (I’m talking about you, Betsy) he is a legitimate selection.

Until he is impeached, Trump has the right to pick a capable jurist for the High Court that fits with his party’s perspective, and he seems to have done that here. If you are a progressive and have a problem with it, then I hope you voted for Sec. Clinton. If you stayed away, then one price you willingly chose to pay was the difference between Garland and Gorsuch for the next 30 years, give or take. So, show up next time.

But here is where it gets interesting. The confirmation process could be surprising and encouraging, or hard, polarizing, and exhausting. When Republicans refused to consider Merrick Garland in March, 2016 they set a cynical new Senate standard: a Chief Executive will only be assured of having his (or her) Supreme Court nominee considered if his party also has control of the Senate. Less than a year later Republicans could further change the filibuster rules for Supreme Court nominees, continuing the downward slide of short-sighted, tradition-busting expediencies which simply set new precedents that the other party will eagerly use in 4 or 8 years. The Democrats could use any number of tactics of their own to obstruct or delay Gorsuch, like refusing to provide a quorum, or attempting to hold hostage other Senate activity, thereby continuing the downward slide of short-sighted, tradition-busting…(see above).

But what if Senate Democrats promised to confirm Gorsuch without Republicans having to resort to the “nuclear option”? In return Republicans agree to support certain Democratic proposals, or reject some other particularly unqualified cabinet nominee (I’m talking about you, Betsy) and replace with a more broadly acceptable and qualified choice. The Republicans get their Justice without further damage to Senate rules, the Democrats get some movement on an important issue, and Americans get a taste of good, old fashioned political compromise. Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer start looking like Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan. Best of all, the process doesn’t require permission from the executive branch and it could begin to define for Republican legislators a line of independence from the White House which I expect they will desperately want by 2018.

It only works, of course, if legislators believe there is value in the rules and traditions of governance that have built up over the years. I do. Both sides would likely get excoriated by their most ardent supporters but I, for one, would send Democratic and Republican Senators a thank you for preserving the types of rules that limit partisan heavy handedness, even demagoguery.

I am not at all worried about a new conservative era on the court. I firmly believe in “the arc of the moral universe” and all that. It may take a bit longer with Gorsuch instead of Garland but we are bending toward justice, of that I’m convinced. What I do want is to see in the meantime, is useful governing traditions honored rather than partisan procedural extortions with every change in administration.

So, c’mon ladies and gentlemen of the Senate…do some horse-trading and give us a break.

Resolute in Resolutions


2016 has shaken me, I’ll admit it. I feel alienated from people I thought I knew well, whose civic and spiritual judgement I had once counted upon but now suspect. I used to assume that my political disagreements were with individuals who quarreled with me on the tools and methods best suited to best bring about our shared vision of America. This year, for the first time, I sense that we may not actually share a common vision.

What, then, to do? How do I relate to a new political administration without seeming to normalize, or worse, endorse demagoguery? How do I resist parasitical injustice yet still respect the institutions of government that might host it? How do I speak to friends with whom I disagree, and not so shun and condemn them that I make them permanently disaffected from me and my views?

I remember when I was a young graduate student preparing for a series of oral examinations before a panel of my professors. A classmate, who was also readying for similar exams, and I were in the library exchanging preparation techniques during a study break. What were you concentrating on? How were you approaching a particular topic? After sharing ideas for a few minutes he leaned in closer, as if he were divulging the password to some Prohibition speakeasy.

“Here’s the thing,” he whispered, “I just want to be a clear, shallow pool of information into which each of my examiners can see his own reflection.”

Back then I considered his strategy brilliantly cynical. But today, I take a different view. Perhaps it is not cynicism at all, but simply persuasion of the highest order. After all, as a Christian, I celebrate the notion that Jesus did exactly that. Through the Christmas incarnation in the manger, we could suddenly look directly at God and see humanity reflected.

The practical consequence of this to me is that instead of screaming (at least in my mind) “how could you?”, I need to ask sincerely “how do you think we got to such different places?”. Then I need to listen well and speak back truth in boldness, but also respect. This itself has become controversial because a vocal segment of the citizenry has come to view any meaningful discussion across the philosophical aisle as capitulation. I reject this. It is wrongheaded and merely reinforces the tinny narrative that opposing sides can only engage via Twitter insults. We do not win by allowing the opposition to choose the field of intellectual battle, particularly if it is circumscribed by 140 characters.

So, my very tricky resolutions for 2017 are: Resist and Relate.

  • Resist. Oppose demagoguery, injustice, unkindness. Period.
  • Relate. Win converts, not arguments.

I’ll try and do this by restricting my most vocal opposition to political philosophies, actions and policies, not people. And I will attempt to determine which actions and policies demand the loudest response. Not all opposition policies will be bad, and not all bad policies are equally consequential. If we do not temper our volume to the most important, then we shouldn’t wonder that people weary of our constant fortissimo. Where people and their character really become the issue, I will try to focus on public officials, not family and friends. And, when the issue is inescapably with family or friends, I will attempt to refrain from demeaning or condescending comments. I plan to maintain credibility and relationship and hope that, over time, they can see enough of themselves in me that they have a place to come when the events of the coming years cause their positions to soften. That’s how minds change.

I am sorry that 2016 has forced me to these resolutions. I’d rather be concentrating on getting more exercise, learning Spanish or taking up some new hobby. But it’s serious. Those that comfort themselves in the certainty that our political institutions will moderate systematic executive malfeasance are unwise.  There is no inevitability to the democratic experience. Demagoguery threatens its core, yet we have cavalierly chosen exactly that in the misguided pursuit of “blowing up the status quo”. And history suggests that if accepted political norms of political behavior are truly exploded, those left to build new ones are only rarely Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. More often they are Lenin, Hitler, and Robespierre.

But how can I convince anyone of these views unless they can see in me some story that reflects their own interests, dreams, and experiences? And how can reflection happen unless we maintain proximity to each other?

I read once where, after World War II, British computer pioneer Alan Turing wryly responded to a debate about whether machines will ever write sonnets, by noting that they very well could, but “a sonnet written by a machine will be better appreciated by another machine”.  Surely the reverse is also true. If I want another human to understand the poetry of my life and perspective, I won’t do so by becoming an overheated argument delivery machine; I will do so by maintaining genuine personal engagement, reflecting humanity to humanity. However difficult.

So that’s my plan for 2017. Resist and Relate. Hold me to it.

Happy New Year from the Stubborn Glebe.

Out of the Fog


The “fog truck” is an abiding childhood memory for anyone who grew up in the Deep South in the 1960’s. Often at dusk, just as the family was settling down to dinner, a happy cry would go up from house to house that the city mosquito control truck was coming through the neighborhood. Children begged permission from their parents, then raced outside to form an impromptu bicycle parade merrily weaving in and out of the billowing white fog of bug-destroying chemicals spewing from the back of the city truck.

The pesticide smell was terrible and I expect we must have known, deep down, that it was bad for us. But the experience was so exciting, and the fog was so wonderfully disorienting as to be irresistible. And, of course, we didn’t remain behind the truck for more than a few minutes. As it made its way out of our neighborhood we woozily rode back to our homes for the remains of our dinner and cleaner air. Still, who knows the long-term damage we may have done ourselves by gulping poison from breath to breath?

Now, years later, I feel as if we’ve all been riding behind another fog truck. As the election nears we have been enclouded in an unrelenting news and social media miasma, weaving back and forth, light-headed, between the twin poisons of indignation and condescension. Who knows the long-term damage we may have done ourselves by gulping outrage from meme to meme?

To be honest, I learned a whole lot about America this election year that I wish I hadn’t. It has not been pretty and I don’t suppose I can unlearn it at this point. The electoral choices were so stark that I struggle to understand how some of my friends could decide so differently from me, just “bumfuzzled” as one fellow Texan described the sensation. Of course, I am going to be livid if my candidate loses this election. But I have dear friends about whom I care very much, who will feel equally bad if my candidate wins. Instead of lamenting that I have friends who, to me, have gone off the rails, perhaps I should be rejoicing that my circle of relationships is not yet so narrow and self-reinforcing as to exclude all those who have different perspectives and think that I’m the one who has lost his mind.

“Each man kills the thing he loves,” wrote Oscar Wilde. The campaign toxicity to which we’ve all been exposed may not disappear in November, but rather find new public spaces to infect. Everyone professes affection for the United States but the survival of the American democratic experience is not an inevitability. It is entirely possible for us to embrace our positions with such force and fervor that we squeeze out the very breath of civil discourse from the democracy we profess to love.

We have two choices: shun those who deeply disappointed, even offended us, in their political choice, or reassert an American community. I propose the latter, not because I believe the issues that divide us are simple or unimportant but precisely because of their consequence. No one has ever changed my mind about any big issue with message alone; the credibility of the messenger has always been as important: my own experience with his or her perspective, judgement, precision, and demeanor. The more significant the opinion, the more confidence I must have in its agent.

So then, it stands to reason that if I sincerely want to change minds I should begin by exhibiting those selfsame attributes. But that sort of modeling cannot happen if we have chosen to cut ourselves off from each other. Perhaps we should love America with a little less devotion to our fiercest positions, and a little more readiness for diverse thought, openness to correction, and dignity even in disagreement. We may prove Wilde wrong simply by attending to that timely Biblical admonition to “bear with one another”.

Finally, it’s almost over. So even though we may all still be smelling of poison as we leave the voting booth, it’s time to ride together, for home and cleaner air.

I’m With Her?


I normally don’t join in the great quadrennial teeth gnashing that is the American presidential campaign. But this year I find Donald Trump’s message so odious that as a husband, a father of a son and daughter, a colleague to people of color, and friend to those of diverse ethnicities, religious backgrounds, and sexual orientations, I need to be able to say that I took no part in him.

I am a white evangelical Christian and I am voting for Hillary Clinton.

Clinton’s competence, experience, and demeanor are in sharp relief to Trump’s thin-skinned superficiality so unsuited to the stewardship of American military and economic power. On issues of importance to me (gun policy, the economy, security, health care, foreign affairs, immigration, criminal justice reform, etc.) she reflects more the America I want to help build. She wasn’t my first choice, I will admit, and I am aware of her considerable shortcomings. But any lingering reservations completely evaporated after comparing the message and tone of the two competing party conventions. I’m with her.

Here’s hoping that my fellow evangelicals will be as well. Recent Pew studies suggest that over 70% of white self-identified evangelicals plan to vote for Trump. Christian author and speaker James Dobson recently endorsed him saying “most evangelicals I know have decided ­ for various reasons ­ that they will really have only one choice for president, and that is Donald J. Trump…I believe it’s a good choice. America needs strong and competent leadership.”

I understand and agonize with my brothers and sisters who are genuinely tormented by the “lesser of two evils” predicament and who view their potential Trump ballot with quiet revulsion. But what I do not understand and what I condemn is the hearty public approval of Trump from other evangelical leaders and their full throated endorsement of a budding despot who, by self-admission, has never asked God for forgiveness; and whose biography and philosophy are so antithetical to God’s call for justice, kindness and humility. Their public testimonials will have grievous long term consequences for a religion already perceived by many as having too eagerly traded away its enduring spiritual banquet for the temporary scraps from a political table.

Permission to Dissent

Evangelicals respect orthodoxy in matters of faith, but that respect may cause us to imagine orthodoxy in what is only conformity, especially when opinions from leaders like Dr. Dobson are received “ex cathedra”. The breadth of evangelical support for Trump may be nothing more than an instinctive response to his unrelenting message of fear and threat. But, as George Orwell observed, such instinct doesn’t necessarily result in people doing the right thing…merely the same thing (“like a herd of cattle facing a wolf”). Individual evangelicals must give ourselves permission to dissent politically, to be more than a part of the herd, to think for ourselves with the sound mind God has given each of us. Because now and in future generations there will always be those who yearn for credible witnesses with whom to explore the claims of Christianity. We will not be convincing to those seekers if we are seen as the commandeered church; the expropriated tool of Trumpism.


I am proposing that evangelicals can and should vote for Secretary Clinton. Notwithstanding the bewildering intensity of the 40-year vilification machine directed at her, she is clearly the most capable and credible candidate. I know, however, there are those evangelicals whose ideological disagreements on abortion, the Supreme Court, or other issues, make a Clinton vote simply intolerable. Even for them there are options. Some analysts suggest that not voting for Trump is a vote for Clinton or a wasted vote but that is not entirely true. A presidential election boycott that produces a massive vote differential between the top of the ticket and down ticket candidates would send a powerful message to the Republican party and its future candidates that voters deserve better. More importantly it would do so retaining some sense of integrity for the dissenting evangelical base.

What evangelicalism cannot afford is a broad capitulation to Trumpism. If that happens our children may look back in one, or in ten, or in 70 years and ask, where was the modern American confessing church that should have stood up to hate and demagoguery? If the church is not there today for our children we shouldn’t expect our children to be there tomorrow for the church.

Why Hold Trump to a Different Standard?

But is there no fear that an evangelical vote for Clinton could be seen as just as troubling to those examining Christianity? Why such concern for Mr. Trump’s character and not Secretary Clinton’s? There are three considerations. First, her inconsistencies as a candidate, however real, bear no equivalency in magnitude to Trump’s. Clinton’s policies may threaten conservative ideology, but when Trump careens from utterly offensive to heedlessly divisive he threatens the American ideal itself.

Secondly, we don’t have to measure our support of Clinton in the way we do Trump because there is no contention that she speaks for evangelicals; she has not become our de facto standard-bearer. By contrast, the Republican candidate specifically brags of his evangelical backing. “Every poll says how well I’m doing with them,” he claims. Unless we specifically reject him, we cannot escape being painted by his brush.

Finally Trump himself has made this election a referendum on his character and temperament. He speaks of his opponents using character questioning nicknames, “Lying Ted”, “Crooked Hillary”, “Crazy Bernie” with which to differentiate his own cult of personality (“I alone can fix it”). Because of this Trump has left us no room to support his policies without sanctioning the Trump persona. We cannot vote for him without endorsing his dangerous narcissism.

I am a center-left evangelical so for me the vote poses no great personal dilemma. It is an easy choice. But my wonderful rightward-leaning evangelical friends are left with a tougher decision: what to do if political support of their most important values requires that evangelicals marry their fortunes to a demagogue? I believe we must forfeit that support in return for retaining our credibility as believers in a different King. For after November the horrible high tide of electioneering will once again recede. If Christian values have been broken on the rocks of the Trump expediency, the shoreline will be so spoiled by the flotsam of our political imprudence that it may become permanently unappealing to those looking for an inviting vantage from which to contemplate their spiritual horizons.

We should not let that happen. So I’m with her.

The Poetry of Business


For twenty years the Dai-ichi life insurance firm in Japan has run a short-form poetry contest specifically directed at Japan’s so-called “salarymen”, the country’s white-collar workers. These salaryman poems have become intensely popular across Japan and throughout the world as they capture the ironies and perversity of daily office life.

Perhaps, in this American season of relentless election commentary and overwrought headlines, those of us in the commercial world would do well to refresh ourselves by reflecting on some verses of our own.

So here is my brief collection of business poetry chronicling the trials and exhilirations of the office worker. The first is from the Japanese short-form master, Sumi. The next is an unconventional sonnet from Lord Byron’s little known drinking companion, Jonathan St. Love. The final two are from the largely overlooked Irish limericist, Paddy O’Donagh. Enjoy them.


By Sumi

Reduce staff, boss cries!

So we each lost ten pounds.

It’s good to comply.



By Jonathan St. Love

When gallant Thor the thunders broke, he wrought

True Mjolnir’s ancient stone to break the night.

With sandals bringing earth’s caress to naught

Young Hermes’ trodding feet were set to flight.

The armor of Achilles full encased,

The warrior’s pow’rs upon the field increased.

When Neptune’s fist his glist’ning trident raised

The desperate shudders of the earth released.

What spear, what shield, what weapon from the gods

Can make my worldly foes to bend the knee?

I need not one! No more repair the odds.

For I have mighty Powerpoint, you see.

My foes from quiet aching boredom weep,

Still others it compels to deepest sleep.



By Paddy O’Donagh

Fenwick had no time for me

He only saw folks for a fee

He thought of aspiring

Then came the firing

Suddenly Fenwick was free



By Paddy O’Donagh

The CEO talks to the Chairman

The Chairman talks to the Board

But when quota’s unmet

And the family’s in debt

It’s the salesman who talks to the Lord   


Just remember: not everything you read on the Internet is true.

2016: The Movie

s-l300Several years ago, at the encouragement of friends at church, I read Story, Robert McKee’s guide to screenwriting. My friends and I did so not with the idea that we were going to start producing screenplays, but rather as an illuminating exercise in thinking of our own lives as a dramatic narrative.

It is hard not to perceive our ordinary existence in terms of action. We careen from event to event as life reveals itself. While there is much to be said for simple perseverance, Story allowed me to look at my life not through the unique series of completed tasks and experiences, but rather, as the screenwriter would, through the narrative of the character change brought on by living through them. For McKee makes it clear that, in storytelling, activity alone is not enough to sustain interest:

“If the value-charged condition of the character’s life stays unchanged from one end of a scene to the other, nothing meaningful happens. The scene has activity—talking about this, doing that—but nothing changes in value. It is a nonevent.”

There is nothing wrong with buying detergent, clocking in at work, picking up the kids at carpool time. Accomplishing tasks brings happiness. We should admire those who quietly and consistently contribute as citizens, parents, spouses and friends, day in and day out. Most of my life is lived within this realm of the ordinary where, if I am honest, my values and character remain largely untested. But at some point we all experience unexpected challenges, internal or external opposition, which disrupt a “normal” life. According to McKee that is precisely where a screenplay gets interesting:

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

While we naturally focus entirely on the actions required to overcome our obstacles and reinstate equilibrium, those around us (our audiences) pay attention because of how our choices reveal the state of our true character. Our fascination with great movies is stoked by character change. The same is true for our fascination with each other.

“From the worst of experiences something positive can be gained; for the richest of experiences a great price must be paid. No matter how we try and plot a straight passage through life, we sail on the tides of irony.”

Of course, most of us don’t go around seeking out adversity. But no matter, it finds us all anyway. The abiding lesson in thinking about your life as a screenplay is that it is precisely our response to opposition that makes us interesting people at all. We “sail on the tides of irony” when negative events create positive changes in our character. Were movies really made from our lives they would be about little else.

The folklorist J. Frank Dobie wrote, “well, I have gone in one canyon and come out another,” and it is a good line to consider at the beginning of a new year. Things happened in 2015 that I just didn’t anticipate as I was riding into it last January. It is easy to regret the bad things and venerate the good. And I’m sure I will be grateful for many unanticipated blessings in 2016 as well. They will make me happy. But here’s hoping someone will remind me to be grateful for the challenges and dilemmas as well.

For they will make me interesting.

Happy New Year from The Stubborn Glebe.

Talking About Talking About Politics

social-media-logos (1)The acerbic literary critic, Dorothy Parker, once chided Sinclair Lewis because “the thing he desires to believe is the thing he feels he knows to be true.” It doesn’t require much attention to realize things have not changed much.

“Hey, Bill, Bill, am I gonna check every statistic?” Donald Trump’s recent complaint to Bill O’Reilly were those of a man for whom facts were inconvenient to his bullying intentions.  Trump’s litany of absurd and demonstrably inaccurate statements reflects his deliberate investment in volume over veracity. As Dorothy Parker reflected on Lewis, “he says it so loud and so hard that it sounds to him like the truth.” Ditto Trump, almost a century later.

But we expect that of candidates. Far more worrying is when we as citizens embrace the very same attitude, that the important thing is not whether a statement is true but whether we think it ought to be true. Nowhere is it more evident than social media during campaign season.

Daily I am bombarded with memes and tweets from people whose opinions I once considered thoughtful, supporting their political positions with the most obvious, often odious, factual misrepresentations. False statements which would take less than 30 seconds to fact check get re-tweeted, liked, shared, and posted solely because they affirm a preconceived bias. It is not a partisan disease. In my own small social media sampling I see it more often on display from the right than the left but not exclusively so.

We may simply have forgotten that by what we re-tweet, post, and share, we are all being judged as to our reliability as witnesses to truth.

And this is particularly so for people of faith of which I am one. It saddens me that many of my Christian friends are often the worst offenders when, regarding truth, we should be the best behaved. The most profound weakening of my own faith in recent years has been as a result of seeing other Christians whose influence I had once cherished prove themselves unreliable witnesses. Once bright lights have become dim bulbs not from personal moral failure but simply from the demeanor and imprudence with which they handle opposing opinions and willingly spread misinformation in support of their point of view.

The Apostle Paul wrote “For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment.” As we enter the quadrennial Christmastime before a presidential election perhaps now especially believers should ask themselves three questions before a sketchy re-tweet:

If my friends cannot trust me to show integrity with the facts of civil government, how can they trust me to tell them the truth about the Kingdom of God?

If I am so easily duped by propaganda and exaggeration, how can my friends believe I have good judgement about some obscure Jewish carpenter who lived 2,000 years ago?

If I rejoice in the vilification of those holding opposing views, how can I expect my friends to become curious about grace and lovingkindness?

Not all are spiritual believers, of course, but we all represent something, and whether as ambassadors of our God or simply our political persuasion, class, gender, ethnicity, or whatever, we are all being judged as to our reliability as witnesses to truth.

Americans have historically been hard headed and soft hearted, committed to the hard headed discipline of fairly evaluating competing ideas yet exhibiting that general compassion which de Tocqueville viewed as inherent in American individualism. Yet either from fear or from want of intellectual discipline we appear to be becoming soft headed and hard hearted, unopen to opposing ideas, unwilling to demand critical thinking from ourselves, and trusting invective instead of empathy.

When that happens we diminish ourselves as individuals and as a nation. So from now until the election, before I forward a meme or article or re-tweet a post, I am going to take an extra minute or two to reflect: Is it true? Is it helpful? How does it reflect on my reliability as a witness?

Call me out if I mess up.