Friday, August 29, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 81


Anita Sarkeesian has released the next video in her "Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games" series!  This one, "Women as Background Decoration, Part 2",  is a continuation of the last one, but further explores how women are used as objects and perpetual victims of violence, most often perpetrated by males.

MAJOR content warning for depictions of violence, particularly against women, and language.


In the video games Sarkeesian critiques here, women are rarely shown to be autonomous individuals, and are often depicted as vulnerable victims of violence, but not in a sensitive way meant to raise awareness of a serious issue.
On a shallow surface level, these vignettes seem to contextualize violence against women in a negative light; however, these narratives are never really about the abused women in question. Instead depictions of female pain and victimhood are flippantly summoned to serve as sideshow attractions in storylines about other things altogether.
She describes a scene that plays repeatedly in one particular video game, where a man approaches a woman on the street and they have an argument about her leaving him. If the player intervenes too early, he scares the would-be attacker off, failing the mission and receiving no points. If the player intervenes during a specific 10-second timeframe, the player can rescue the woman by killing her attacker. If the player is too late, the woman is killed and the player can hunt down her fleeing murderer. The game does not provide any other options. Players can't call for medical help, administer first aid, or even check on the woman.
...these female characters exist to be assaulted in order to give the player something to do, a reason to chase down the bad guy, exact vigilante justice on him and gain the allotted experience points. After which the women are casually discarded, forgotten by the game and its characters.
These scenes serve no real purpose in the plot other than to let the audience know that the perpetrators are truly deplorable monsters...It’s a lazy shorthand for “evil” meant to further motivate the protagonist to take the villain down and help justify the excessive violence committed by the player in these games.
And here's the kicker:
These women and their bodies are sacrificed in the name of infusing “mature themes” into gaming stories. But there is nothing “mature” about flippantly evoking shades of female trauma. It ends up sensationalizing an issue which is painfully familiar to a large percentage of women on this planet while also normalizing and trivializing their experiences.

While some games are more "gleeful" about their depictions of violence against women then others, simply avoiding the direct glorification of violence is not sufficient.
There is a clear difference between replicating something and critiquing it. It’s not enough to simply present misery as miserable and exploitation as exploitative. Reproduction is not, in and of itself, a critical commentary. A critique must actually center on characters exploring, challenging, changing or struggling with oppressive social systems.
But the game stories we've been discussing in this episode do not center or focus on women’s struggles, women’s perseverance or women’s survival in the face of oppression. Nor are these narratives seriously interested in any sort of critical analysis or exploration of the emotional ramifications of violence against women on either a cultural or an interpersonal level.
The truth is that these games do not expose some kind of “gritty reality” of women’s lives or sexual trauma, but instead sanitize violence against women and make it comfortably consumable.

Pop culture, including video games, has a powerful influence.  It's never "just for fun"; there's always a message.
We must remember that games don’t just entertain. Intentional or not, they always express a set of values, and present us with concepts of normalcy. So what do games that casually rely on depictions of female victimhood tell us about women vis-a-vis their place in society?
Well, the pattern of utilizing women as background decoration works to reinforce the myth that women are naturally fated to be objectified, vulnerable, and perpetually victimized by male violence. These games also tend to frame misogyny and sexual exploitation as an everlasting fact of life, as something inescapable and unchangeable.
Sarkeesian points out that one of the responses she hears most often when she critiques violence against women in video games is that the games wouldn't be "realistic" without it. That's rather an ironic statement to make in games that include so many "realistic" features like "multiple lives, superpowers, health regeneration, and the ability to carry dozens of weapons and items in a massive invisible backpack", not to mention occasionally fantastical creatures like dragons and ogres.  So we can imagine worlds where all of those things are possible, but a world without violence against women is too far out of the realm of "realism" to suspend our disbelief?  That's the saddest commentary I've heard about our society in a long time.

But Sarkeesian ends on a hopeful note:
The truth is that objectification and sexual violence are neither normal nor inevitable. We do not have to accept them as some kind of necessary cultural backdrop in our media stories. Contrary to popular belief, the system of patriarchy has not existed for all of history across all time and all cultures. And as such it can be changed. It is possible to imagine fictional worlds, even of the dark, twisted dystopian variety, where the oppression and exploitation of women is not framed as something expected and inevitable.
When we see fictional universes challenging or even transcending systemic gender oppression, it subverts the dominant paradigm within our collective consciousness, and helps make a more just society feel possible, tangible and within reach.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 80


Photo courtesy Ben Eekhof via flickr
Nuns are so cool.  I've found many of them admirable over my lifetime: Mother Antonia (the Prison Angel), Mother Teresa, Sister Madonna Buder (the Iron Nun), and most recently Sister Elizabeth Johnson.

And now, Nicholas Kristof sings their praises in an op-ed in the New York Times here.
Forgive us for having sinned and thought of nuns as backward, when, in fact, they were among the first feminists. And, in a world of narcissism and cynicism, they constitute an inspiring contingent of moral leaders who actually walk the walk.

These next two articles have been making the rounds over the past week, but I thought they provided very interesting counterpoints to each other.  The first, "I Liked Everything I Saw on Facebook for Two Days. Here's What It Did to Me." by Mat Honan, draws a scary picture of how Facebook manipulates what we see based on our "likes" and how we are quite literally - and voluntarily - the product they are selling to their advertisers.  The author points out:
My News Feed took on an entirely new character in a surprisingly short amount of time. After checking in and liking a bunch of stuff over the course of an hour, there were no human beings in my feed anymore. It became about brands and messaging, rather than humans with messages.
And then he hits on a communication trend that has been troubling me.  My sister mentioned it in her recent post on the Book of Mormon musical.
This is a problem much bigger than Facebook. It reminded me of what can go wrong in society, and why we now often talk at each other instead of to each other. We set up our political and social filter bubbles and they reinforce themselves—the things we read and watch have become hyper-niche and cater to our specific interests. We go down rabbit holes of special interests until we’re lost in the queen’s garden, cursing everyone above ground.
And then interestingly, the influence of his "likes" didn't stop with the author. It affected his friends' feeds as well.
The next morning, my friend Helena sent me a message. “My fb feed is literally full of articles you like, it’s kind of funny,” she says. “No friend stuff, just Honan likes.” I replied with a thumbs up. This continued throughout the experiment. When I posted a status update to Facebook just saying “I like you,” I heard from numerous people that my weirdo activity had been overrunning their feeds. “My newsfeed is 70 percent things Mat has liked,” noted my pal Heather.
Definitely food for thought, especially when coupled with...


On the flip side, we have a two-week experiment by Elan Morgan: "I Quit Liking Things On Facebook for Two Weeks.  Here's How It Changed My View of Humanity."  Not surprisingly, she found the exact opposite effect on her newsfeed from what Mat Honan experienced.
Now that I am commenting more on Facebook and not clicking Like on anything at all, my feed has relaxed and become more conversational. It’s like all the shouty attention-getters were ushered out of the room as soon as I stopped incidentally asking for those kinds of updates by using the Like function.
A lot of people I know say the main reason they're on facebook is so they can connect with old friends and people they don't see very often.  But in the midst of this desire for connection, there seems to be a disconnect as well.  Morgan addresses that sense of loneliness and how forgoing the "Like" function can help:
I had been suffering a sense of disconnection within my online communities prior to swearing off Facebook likes. It seemed that there were fewer conversations, more empty platitudes and praise, and a slew of political and religious pageantry. It was tiring and depressing. After swearing off the Facebook Like, though, all of this changed. I became more present and more engaged, because I had to use my words rather than an unnuanced Like function. I took the time to tell people what I thought and felt, to acknowledge friend’s lives, to share both joys and pains with other human beings.
I love her description of her current newsfeed:
Since I stopped liking Facebook stream is more akin to an eclectic dinner party. There is conversation, there is disagreement (mostly) without hostility, and there is connection. It seems as though I am getting more of what I actually want rather than just being served more extreme versions of what I Like.
I've never been a big "Like-r" of stuff or companies, but I frequently "Like" friends' statuses.  I'm not entirely ready to give up on the "Like" since it can be handy to keep track of organizations or entertainment sources I really do like and want updates from, but I'm going to go do a purge of my "Likes" list and I'm going to consider very carefully what I can add to a conversation with a comment rather than a simple "Like."


Everyone who doesn't live under a rock has heard of the ALS ice bucket challenge by now.  Yesterday afternoon I was challenged to something slightly different.  Tracy Simmons, the Executive Director of SpokaneFAVS, and Skyler Oberst, the Board President of SpokaneFAVS, completed their ice bucket challenge (watch the video here) and then challenged me, along with five others, to a Random Acts of Kindness Challenge.
The #FAVSChallenge dares people to partake in at least one random act of kindness within one week from the day they were challenged. The challenge must be on video. Be creative! Those who fail must donate $25 to SpokaneFAVS. We hope this will inspire a wave of goodwill across Spokane, the Inland Northwest and beyond!
I'm thrilled and excited to accept!  (And I'll even donate in addition to the random act of kindness.  No reason for them to be mutually exclusive!)  And I invite all of you to do the same, even if you don't happen to get called out by name.

The hardest part is going to be remembering to have the camera rolling when I do something nice for someone...

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 79


The fabulous and motley crew after hiking to Cliff Lake
I spent the last four days on a camping trip with the young women in my ward.  We got to go whitewater rafting and hiking and crafting and laughing and just generally had a fabulous time.  I am tired and stinky and now that we've got most of the camping gear cleaned and dried and put away, I'm going to go take a shower and a nap, not necessarily in that order, as soon as I hit "publish" on this post.  

Our theme this year - going off the whitewater rafting - was from Isaiah 43:1-2, 5:
But now thus saith the Lord that create thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine.
When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee...Fear not: for I am with thee...
It was awesome to see these young women face their fears and challenge themselves - whether it was going to camp with a bunch of girls they didn't know, or the whitewater rafting, or hiking, or using vault toilets or thunderstorms, or just camping in the first place - and discover for themselves that they are strong and capable and they can do hard and sometimes scary things.


The forecast called for some rain, so I made sure to tell everyone to bring rain jackets and/or ponchos.  But I don't think anyone was completely dry at any point after we got in the rafts Wednesday morning.  Of course we got wet on the river - that's kinda the point - but it started sprinkling just before we got to the takeout point and then it vacillated between sprinkling and down-pouring until we left Friday morning.

Our campground flooding on Thursday...


We also had a tree fall on a tent.

The unlucky tent...
Fortunately, we weren't in camp at the time because my car wouldn't start after we got done whitewater rafting and we had to get a jumpstart.  This tree broke off in a brief windstorm about half an hour before we got back to camp.  We used a carjack to lift the tree enough to get the tent and the girls' gear out from underneath it.

Astonishingly, none of the poles broke!  There were a couple of small tears in the nylon, but we covered them with duct tape and the four girls in this tent continued sleeping in it for the rest of the trip.  We did move it to a different location, though.


The next night a tree fell across the only road out of our camping area.

I am grateful for trucks and tow straps and
husbands who come to Girls Camp to support me.
We didn't have cell reception at the campground, and late Thursday night one of the adults had driven in to Superior, about five miles away, to call and check on a family situation.  While he was gone we heard a sharp crack that sounded like a gunshot, but didn't think too much about it, until he walked back in to camp telling us that a tree was blocking the road.

So we jumped in Gene's truck and drove back to the tree.  He hooked it up to the truck with a tow strap and dragged it out of the way while the other adult and I grabbed all of the branches and huge chunks of bark that broke off and tossed them off the road so we could get by when it was time to leave in the morning.


It was crazy, the number of random, insane things that happened on this camping trip - the things I've mentioned above are only the tip of the iceberg - but it was awesome to watch these girls step up and rise to the challenges they faced.  They were ready and willing to help; they stretched themselves outside of their comfort zones; they befriended and supported each other.  It was a great experience and I'd do it all again in a heartbeat.

After a shower and a nap.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Book Review: I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells

Dan Wells has done what I would have thought well nigh impossible.  He created a startlingly sympathetic sociopath.

John Wayne Cleaver is a teenaged boy who lives with his mother in the mortuary she owns.  His father is long gone, with only the occasional card or overdue Christmas present to remind them of his existence. John is quiet.  He enjoys working with the corpses the coroner delivers to the mortuary.  He is obsessed with serial killers, and realized at a young age that he was different from other kids.

"The idea that I might be sociopathic was nothing new to me--I'd known for a long time that I didn't connect with other people.  I didn't understand them, and they didn't understand me, and whatever emotional language they spoke seemed beyond my capacity to learn...sociopathy wasn't just being emotionally deaf, it was being emotionally mute, too."

But John wants to be good.  He developed strict rules to keep other people safe and to prevent any of his dangerous behaviors from escalating into actions that would harm others.  Don't have anything to do with animals.  If he starts having negative or hateful thoughts about someone, immediately compliment them.  No aggression towards other people.  If he starts obsessing about someone, he has to ignore them for a week.  His therapist, Dr. Neblin, points out that "You are always the one who makes your own choices--no one else.  The fact that you have those rules, and that you follow them so carefully, says a lot about you and your character.  You're a good person, John."

John's loneliness comes through almost every page.  "I wanted to be a real boy," he laments after feigning emotion he doesn't feel.  "The lack of emotional connection with other people has the odd effect of making you feel separate and alien--as if you were observing the human race from somewhere else, unattached and unwelcome."  John mentions that his reaction to this distinguishes him from other sociopaths:
This drives some sociopaths to feel superior, as if the whole of humanity were simply animals to be hunted or put down; others feel a hot, jealous rage, desperate to have what they cannot.  I simply felt alone, one leaf sitting miles away from a giant, communal pile.
And then a serial killer strikes in Clayton County, John's hometown.

Dan keeps the tension high throughout the book on several fronts.  We're worried about the serial killer - who will he get next?  Why is he mutilating the bodies in such a grotesque fashion?  Is he going to figure out that John is on to him?  We're worried about John - will his obsession with serial killers in general, and this serial killer in particular, push him closer to the edge he has so assiduously avoided for his entire life?  What lengths will he go to in order to find and stop the murderer?  We're worried about all those that John cares for - will his single-minded obsession endanger them?  Will they see the terrible thoughts that reside in his head and reject him, leaving him even more alone than before?

There's a twisty revelation about the killer about 100 pages in that caught me by surprise and increased my interest in the story by several orders of magnitude.  But I'm not gonna tell you what it was, you'll have to read it yourself.

I Am Not a Serial Killer is not in a genre I usually seek out, but I was sucked in completely.  It's a bit unnerving to find yourself rooting for a sociopath, and it's a testament to Dan's writing skills that both the sociopathic protagonist, and even the serial killer to an extent, are sympathetic characters.

Trigger warning: There are a couple of fairly disturbing violent passages and descriptions of the brutally murdered bodies.  If you have a sensitive stomach, you may want to avoid those parts or the book altogether.

Disclosure:  Yes, this is the same Dan Wells who wrote the Partials trilogy which I reviewed recently, so yes, this is the same Dan Wells I knew and hung out with my freshman year at BYU.

I Am Not a Serial Killer
by Dan Wells
ISBN: 9780765322470
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 78


Along the lines of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved, I just discovered another web series, this one called Classic Alice.  Alice, an overachieving college student, just received a "failing" grade on her paper.  (Hey, a B- can be devastating!)  Her professor criticized it as too analytical and told her she wasn't emotionally connecting to the material.  So Alice decides that she is going live through classic literature, selecting different novels to help her spice up her life and prove that she does, indeed, connect with the material emotionally.

The first one she picks is Crime and Punishment.  Predictably, it doesn't go smoothly.

Check out the 14 current episodes here.  New episodes are released every Tuesday and I can't wait to see what she selects next.


With all the complicated situations, wars, violence, and histories between countries and organizations and individuals in the Middle East, it can be overwhelming to try to sort through.  This chart, even though it still simplifies the relationships to three options ("friends", "enemies", or "it's complicated"), was immensely valuable to me.  You can click on each cell to get more details regarding the relationships.  It's a great starting point for learning more about this important and volatile area of the world.


Photo credit: Flavio via flickr

I took piano lessons for several years as a youngster, but I hated practicing.  My mother got tired of the fighting, so she let me quit.  A little while later I decided playing the piano wasn't so bad and continued to play, accompanying choirs, learning pieces that interested me, and just enjoying the music.

Now, with three kids of my own, I'm trying to avoid the fights by letting them work through piano lesson books at their own pace.  They'll never be concert pianists, but I firmly believe it's an important life skill for them to learn.

This article, "Science Shows How Piano Players' Brains Are Actually Different From Everybody Else's", talks about what learning how to play the piano does to your brain.  And it's pretty cool.
[P]ianists are able to make their brains into better-rounded machines. But it turns out the heavy-tax of piano playing makes their minds efficient in every way. A study by Dr. Ana Pinho (whose name kind of explains her research focus) showed that when jazz pianists play, their brains have an extremely efficient connection between the different parts of the frontal lobe compared to non-musicians. That's a big deal — the frontal lobe is responsible for integrating a ton of information into decision making. It plays a major role in problem solving, language, spontaneity, decision making and social behavior. Pianists, then, tend to integrate all of the brain's information into more efficient decision making processes. Because of this high speed connection, they can breeze through slower, methodical thinking and tap into quicker and more spontaneous creativity.
That's worth a little bit of extra effort, don't ya think?


Science fiction and fantasy were my first literary loves.  This list of 21 Books That Changed Science Fiction and Fantasy Forever was going back through some great memories of reading Jules Verne, Tolkein, H.G. Wells, Heinlein, LeGuin, Bradbury.  And I even have a few more books to add to my list now. (How have I never read Dune?)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Book Review: Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans

In Evolving in Monkey Town, recently re-released as Faith Unraveled, Rachel Held Evans chronicles her spiritual journey from fundamentalist evangelical Christian to progressive evangelical Christian.

Wait – What?  Those exist?

Yep, they sure do.  I've admired several, including Rachel Held Evans, from afar and I've even met several in real life!

While I’m sure some of the specifics of our faith differ, Rachel and I share similar views on the application of the gospel, on the necessity for individual journeys and asking questions.  We share a confidence that God is bigger than all of us and when we try to hard to insist that we really know the One And Only True Way God Sees Things (which happens to coincide very neatly with the way we see things), we’re more likely than not getting in our own way.

Raised in a conservative Christian home, a self-described "Jesus freak", winner of the Best Christian Attitude Award at her private school for four years running, and determined to be "the right kind of Christian", Rachel learned Christian apologetics at a young age and only got better and more effective over time.  But then some doubts started to creep in.
It occurred to me that in worldview class, we laughed at how transcendentalists so serenely embraced paradox and contradiction, but then when on to theology class and accepted without question that Jesus existed as both fully God and fully man.  We criticized radical Islam as a natural outworking of the violent tone of the Qur'an without acknowledging the fact that the God of Israel ordered his people to kill every living thing in Canaan, from the elderly to the newborn...We claimed that ours was a rational, logical faith, when it centered on the God of the universe wrapping himself in flesh to be born in a manger in Bethlehem.
Most worrisome, however, was how we criticized relativists for picking and choosing truth, while our own biblical approach required some selectivity of its own.  For example, I was taught that the Bible served as a guidebook for Christian dating and marriage, but no one ever suggested that my father had the right to sell me to the highest bidder or to take multiple wives, like Abraham.  Homosexuality was preached against incessantly, but little was said of gluttony or greed.  We decried the death of each aborted baby as a violation of the sanctity of human life but shrugged off the deaths of Iraqi children as expected collateral damage in a war against evil.
What to do with all the contradictions, with all the questions?  Rachel describes her state of being at this point as more of a "faith malfunction" than a full blown "faith crisis."  And then she sees footage on CNN of the execution of a Muslim woman in Afghanistan for allegedly killing her abusive husband (a confession which had been extracted from her after two days of torture). Zarmina's death shook Rachel to the core, not only because of the injustices heaped on Zarmina during her life, but because "twenty years of Christian education assured me that because Zarmina was a Muslim, she would suffer unending torment in hell for the rest of eternity."  She had been taught that only born-again Christians went to heaven, but it just didn't seem right that "hell will be populated not only by people like Hitler and Stalin, Hussein and Milosevic but by the people that they persecuted."

Now in the throes of an honest-to-goodness faith crisis, Rachel commented that:
What makes a faith crisis so scary is that once you allow yourself to ask one or two questions, more inevitably follow.  Before you know it, everything looks suspicious.  Doubts I'd been shoving to the back of my mind for years came rushing forward in an avalanche of questions: If God is really good and merciful, then why did he command Joshua to kill every man, woman, and child in Jericho?  Wouldn't we call that genocide today? How can God be fair and just if he preordains our eternal destiny, if most people have no choice but to face eternal damnation?...If all truth is God's truth, then why are we so afraid to confront the mountain of scientific evidence in support of evolution?  Isn't it a little suspicious that the only true religion is the one with which we happened to grow up?
And the questions just kept coming, piling higher and deeper, and no one seemed to have any good answers.  Finally, Rachel decided to immerse herself in what the incarnation of God had to say about her questions. As she worked her way through the Gospels, she rediscovered Jesus. "Something about Jesus made me ask better questions.  Something about Jesus gave me just enough hope to decide not to give least not yet."
Needless to say, that was a strange summer. It wasn't the summer that brought an end to my doubt, but it was the summer I encountered a different Jesus, a Jesus who requires more from me than intellectual assent and emotional allegiance; a Jesus who associated with sinners and infuriated the religious; a Jesus who broke the rules and refused to cast the first stone; a Jesus who gravitated toward sick people and crazy people, homeless people and hopeless people; a Jesus who preferred story to exposition and metaphor to syllogism; a Jesus who answered questions with more questions, and demands for proof with demands for faith; a Jesus who taught his followers to give without expecting anything in return, to love their enemies to the point of death, to live simply and without a lot of stuff, and to say what they mean and mean what they say; a Jesus who healed each person differently and saved each person differently; a Jesus who had no list of beliefs to check off, no doctrinal statement to sign, no surefire way to tell who was 'in' and who was 'out'; a Jesus who loved after being betrayed, healed after being hurt, and forgave while being nailed to a tree; a Jesus who asked his disciples to do the same.
Rachel realized that salvation means something different from what she had always thought.  "We are not saved by information.  We are saved by restored relationship with God, which might look a little different from person to person, culture to culture, time to time." She came to the conclusion that it's not only our ultimate ending point that matters, but that this life is important too. "Perhaps being a Christian isn't about experiencing the kingdom of heaven someday but about experiencing the kingdom of heaven every day."  And the single most important factor in being a Christian and following Christ is love: "Taking on the yoke of Jesus is not about signing a doctrinal statement or making an intellectual commitment to a set of propositions. It isn't about being right or getting our facts straight. It is about loving God and loving other people."

The ability to change and adapt is vital to faith.  Rachel says:
I am convinced that what drives most people away from Christianity is not the cost of discipleship but rather the cost of false fundamentals.  False fundamentals make it impossible for faith to adapt to change. The longer the list of requirements and contingencies and prerequisites, the more vulnerable faith becomes to shifting environments and the more likely it is to fade slowly into extinction.  When the gospel gets all entangled with extras, dangerous ultimatums threaten to take it down with them. The yoke gets too heavy and we stumble beneath it...
In a way, we're all fundamentalists.  We all have pet theological systems, political positions, and standards of morality that are not essential to the gospel but that we cling to so tightly that we leave fingernail marks on the palms of our hands.
But, she continues, "Faith isn't about being right, or settling down, or refusing to change. Faith is a journey, and every generation contributes its own sketches to the map. I've got miles and miles to go on this journey, but I think I can see Jesus up ahead."

I could go on quoting large blocks of text from the book, but at this point I just encourage you to pick a copy up for yourself.  Rachel's honest and vulnerable account of the changes in her understanding of and approach to God is touching and reverberates across religious lines.  Her observations are humorous, poignant, and pointed in turns and are open invitations to all of us to examine our own lives and our own faith journeys as well.

I'll finish up with a couple of Rachel's final observations:
If I've learned anything over the past five years, it's that doubt is the mechanism by which faith evolves.  It helps us cast off false fundamentals so that we can recover what has been lost or embrace what is new. It is a refining fire, a hot flame that keeps our faith alive and moving and bubbling about, where certainty would only freeze it on the spot.
Those who say that having childlike faith means not asking questions haven't met too many children...Questions are a child's way of expressing love and trust. They are a child's way of starting dialogue. They are a child's way of saying, 'I want to have a conversation with you.'"
I join with Rachel in a firm belief that God wants to have those conversations with us as much as we do with Him.  So we'll keep asking our questions and exploring our doubts and learning more about God as we go.

Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions
by Rachel Held Evans
ISBN: 9780310293996
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperback, audiobook, ebook [under the new name "Faith Unraveled"])
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Monday, August 4, 2014

Dusting Off: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

I mentioned this book in my Friday Four last week and got to thinking about it again.  And the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to re-read it and the more I wanted my friends to read it so I'd have people to discuss it with.  So I'm doing my first "dusting off" post in a year or so, hoping to inspire some of you to pick it up and accept the challenge to your assumptions.


Jonathan Haidt's look at the psychology of why politics and religion are so divisive - and getting more so - is fascinating.

For all of our vaunted reasoning powers as human beings, we actually are more accurately described as creatures of intuition. Dr. Haidt outlines dozens of studies that have shown that our initial "gut" reaction comes first and then our reason works to find justifications for our reaction. Linking this to politics, he says that "part of what it means to be a partisan is that you have acquired the right set of intuitive reactions to hundreds of words and phrases" such as "taxes," "welfare," or "pro-life." In fact, due to the hits of dopamine the brain gets when one feels justified or apparent contradictions are resolved, Dr. Haidt states that "extreme partisanship may be literally addictive."

Dr. Haidt uses dozens of effective analogies in his book which help the reader to understand how our brains work - the main one compares our intuition to an elephant and our reason to the elephant's rider. I like this one: "Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth."

Confirmation bias - "the tendency to seek out and interpret new evidence in ways that confirm what you already think" - figures heavily into this theme. "People are quite good at challenging statements made by other people, but if it's your belief, then it's your possession--your child, almost-- and you want to protect it, not challenge it and risk losing it."

I'd never heard the term WEIRD - referring to cultures that are "Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic" - but I appreciate him pointing out that WEIRD people are statistical outliers. "They are the least typical, least representative people you could study if you want to make generalizations about human nature." And, of course, Americans are more extreme outliers than Europeans, and the educated upper middle class in the US is "the most unusual of all." He sums up the greatest peculiarity of WEIRD culture in this sentence: "The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships."

The Six Moral Foundations was eye-opening to me as a way to differentiate between those of a "liberal" mind-set versus a "conservative" mind-set. Whereas "liberals" generally put greatest emphasis on Care (lack of harm), Fairness (in the sense of equality rather than proportionality), and Liberty (versus oppression), "conservatives" define Fairness differently (in the sense of proportionality more than equality), put less emphasis on Care, and add the moralities of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. My summary here doesn't do it justice, of course. I highly recommend you pick up the book yourself.

I appreciate Dr. Haidt's summations of each chapter. It's easy to lose track when so much new information is thrown at you at once, and his concluding section in each chapter is very useful in keeping the most salient points in mind.

He ends the book with two valid points he feels liberals have that conservatives should pay more attention to, and two valid counterpoints conservatives have that liberals would do well to heed.
* Governments can and should restrain corporate superorganisms
* Some problems really can be solved by regulation
* Markets are miraculous
* You can't help the bees by destroying the hive.

In other words, both sides have important contributions to make and neither is all right or all wrong. We need to listen better, recognize when our "elephant" is in charge, and determine to seek common ground.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics
by Jonathan Haidt
ISBN: 9780307377906
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverpaperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 77


We humans tend to think we've got stuff all figured out after a few brief exposures to a topic.  We're often very quick to form an opinion and find "evidence" to support it while ignoring more nuanced views or facts that contradict our already-formed opinion.

(For a great in-depth look at this phenomenon, read The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.  It changed the way I approach learning and addressing facts that challenge my assumptions.  Fascinating.)

Anyway, I've seen several interesting articles lately that encouraged readers to challenge their assumptions about sensitive topics including depression, other mental illness, and homelessness.


After my oldest son was born - a month ahead of schedule and with a now-resolved condition that caused him to "forget" to breathe occasionally - I fell into a deep post-partum depression.  I didn't recognize it at the time for what it was, but I knew there was something wrong with me when other new moms seemed truly happy despite the stress and isolation and lack of sleep, and I just couldn't feel anything but sad and disconnected.  The contrast was very apparent after my second child was born and the fog I'd been bracing myself for never came. (Check out Brooke Shields' memoir Down Came the Rain for an intimate portrait of her experience with postpartum depression.)

For a long time, I was ashamed to admit to anyone that I had been depressed after what was supposed to be one of the happiest moments in my life.  Obviously, since I'm now publishing it to the world at large on my blog, I'm not trying to keep it under wraps anymore, but I still appreciate the courage and strength it takes to "out" yourself to people who may or may not understand.

So I'm grateful to those profiled in this article, "These 12 Incredibly Successful People Will Change the Way You Think About Depression."  Buzz Aldrin, Ellen Degeneres, Abraham Lincoln, J.K. Rowling have all been open about their struggles with depression and have helped countless others because of it.

Buzz's official astronaut picture from 1969
Image credit


Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses, but it's by no means the only one.  Another article by the same author, this one titled "These Wildly Successful People Will Prompt You to Rethink What It Means to Have a Mental Illness", highlights celebrities and others in the public eye with bipolar disorder, ADHD, and OCD.  Howie Mandel, Adam Levine, Carrie Fisher and Ludwig van Beethoven have all dealt with various mental illnesses in their lives.

If you're interested in reading more about schizophrenia, I can recommend two fascinating books about individuals with this disorder.  The first is The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music, about a talented musician enrolled at Julliard who ends up homeless after his diagnosis.  It was later made into a touching movie starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr.  The second is called Recovered, Not Cured: A Journey through Schizophrenia and is written by Richard McLean, a man with paranoid schizophrenia.  A slim volume, it is powerful and personal and includes sketches McLean drew to explain his mental state better than words could.

And for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Once a Warrior, Always a Warrior by Charles W. Hoge is a thorough approach that was recommended to me by someone dealing with PTSD herself.  If you or a loved one are struggling with PTSD, it can be a life-saving book.


On a slightly different note, there are many assumptions made about homeless people.  This short video called Homeless in Orlando produced by Rethink Homelessness demonstrates that - to use the tired cliche - you can't judge a book by its cover.  We are all more complex than one facet of our lives.