What The Dress Says About Us

Yesterday the primary disagreement in the world focused on a single dress and its mysterious color—white and gold or blue and black? #TheDress swept social media and took center stage over news about a potential shut down of Homeland Security, 2000 Christians kidnapped by ISIS, and net neutrality. What does this say about us? I’m afraid to answer, but also not surprised.

I get tired of hearing about how selfish our country is, the growing apathetic majority, and a decrease in civic engagement. Those things might be true, but they are also depressing. I try to be hopeful, rooting for my fellow humans and trusting that things can change. And then the Internet breaks over colors, something we all thought was a definite as black and white—or would it now be gold and blue?

The reason #TheDress caused such an uproar is because it targets our very notions of fact and truth. The United States is a culture polarized by a desire for clear answers. Things are either right or wrong, here or there, Republican or Democrat. You either believe in this, or you don’t. There are some people who try to champion the middle ground, but even that turns into its own separate platform.

In contrast, The Dress highlights the subjective nature of our world and makes us question things we thought were certain. Despite the overwhelming attempts of optometrists and graphic designers to explain the science behind it, many of us skim over those parts of the news story (I know I did). I don’t want to hear that it is “subjective” or “based on lighting” or “fluctuating between our optical rod and cones.” Technical intricacies are annoying. I want a definitive answer.

But that isn’t how the world works. During the semester I spent abroad in India, I was constantly frustrated by the pluralistic nature of things. People were so comfortable with uncertainty, every Hindu god had multiple names, and there was never an easy answer to even the most basic problems. In many eastern cultures this is the case, and people live within that conflict in a way that baffles my American mind. Now I wonder if they would even care about what color that dress is.

As silly as #TheDress phenomenon is, it points out some important things about our culture, beyond our sad obsession with news that is not really news.
  • We are easily upset by disagreement
  • We want definitive answers
  • It is hard for us to accept subjectivity

Even for those who pretend to not care, deep down you wonder how it is possible and what the truth is. Anne Lamott described this sensation well in her newest book Small Victories:
     “Redefinition is a nightmare—we think we’ve arrived, in our nice Pottery Barn boxes, and that this or that is true. Then something happens that totally sucks, and we are in a new box, and it is like changing into clothes that don’t fit, that we hate.”

Sometimes you have to redefine what you think you know for certain. In a culture that clings to absolutes of right and wrong, this truly is a nightmare. Trying to admit that The Dress is a different color than how you see it will be as uncomfortable as actually wearing it (because let’s be honest that dress isn’t the best).

In the end, the color of that dress really doesn’t make any practical difference in our world. But it matters for our sense of self, the security in what we think we know, and how sometimes we need to accept the possibility that something else might be true or someone might see it a different way.

Does uncertainty make you uncomfortable?
What can we take away from this sensational disagreement?

I Believe in a Thing Called Love

We all have to believe in something, it is the life blood that colors our character and outlines our lives as individuals, a crowning glory for most Americans. We define ourselves by these opinions, whether it is believing in a higher power, in freedom, in the American dream, in anger, in sex, or in money. Even those who say they don’t believe in anything, well their denial is actually a belief in denial, a belief in believing nothing.

I believe in love.

Some people call my kind “romantics.” For me, I think it developed out of a childhood watching Disney movies. Despite all the critics of Disney, I think it taught me more good than bad, especially since that’s where I learned to dream big and wish bigger. That quality also taught me to believe in a love so pure and unrealistic we can only find it in fairy tales. It wasn’t until I was many years older that I realized this love could also be found in God.

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Surprised by Joy… at the DMV

Yesterday morning I had an appointment at the DMV. Similar to most, I was not excited about the prospect of grumpy office workers and long trains of people herded from here to there.

I arrived a half hour before my scheduled appointment time in anticipation of lines more tedious than Disneyland. After parking and walking the long trek to the building, I was faced with the first of such lines before even entering the doors. I was in a pleasant enough mood that this wasn’t too upsetting, I stood patiently watching one person after another disappear through the wooshh of an automatic sliding glass door. I imagined it similar to watching people stand at the gates of heaven or hell – no one really knew what awaited us next.

Shortly enough my time approached. The door almost closed shut on me as I tried to enter, halting my thoughts and starting more fearful questions.

“Did I bring my paperwork?”
“What am I even doing here?”
“Oh right my license renewal.”
“But what if she gets mad at me for being earlier than my appointment?”
“or for asking a stupid question?”
“What if she just gets mad at me?”
“Darn it I already did something stupid – that line over there has a sign for registration appointments”
“Oh well just stay where you are, getting out now would be more stupid.”
“I’m a friendly person, she can’t be too mean. just smile.”

After my brain had finished it’s spiral-loop-double twist I’d made it to the front of the line. Breathe. It’s just the DMV, they are just people, no reason to be intimidated.

She grumbled, “What do you need?”
“Well I have an appointment, but I’m kinda early, but I just need my license renewed,” I flubbered.
All in one breathe she responded “Here’s your number. Give me that appointment sheet. Take a seat.”

Exhaaalllleeeeee. Phew. Ok. Where do I sit? Well right there looks about right, sure ok. I found a place on the end of the row, figuring that at least gave me one side that wouldn’t be smashed against someone else. I had made it through the first line and hadn’t suffered any terrible blows yet. Now I indulged in the only bonus of having to wait – reading my book.

Consumed by the tale of Adam Trask and his haunting wife Cathy, I didn’t hear when they first called it out – “number F004?” The second time only barely rang louder in the back room of my brain – “NUMBER F004?” I fumbled for my ticket stub and paperwork, clutching my book and bag at the same time, I looked around for who could have possibly made the call. Lucky for me, the first window in front of me seemed to be empty, so I tried there first, ready to meet the real beast. It felt like reaching a final level of Zelda, I approached the boss, ready for the worst, but unsure of how to conquer it.

“Good morning! Are you F004?” He smiled with not just his face but his eyes too, filled with a brightness that was mysterious in my imagined dungeon. The Disney lanyard around his neck was dotted with pins for various causes: a light pink breast cancer ribbon, a purple one for Alzheimer’s, and a small waving American flag.

Startled as I was by the sunshine he had just splintered into my cloud fortress, I gathered myself and told him what I needed. “Well I need to renew my license, but I noticed awhile back that my  middle name is spelled wrong, though I don’t know if that matters.”

He kindly explained that it wasn’t a big deal as long as it still looked similar, really they don’t ever look at more than the first initial of the middle name because it is the first and last that matter. Plus, unless I had official documentation showing the correct spelling we couldn’t change it so I told him I was fine to just proceed with renewing the license.

As we went through the required transactions, he kept up a friendly conversation with me of genuine interest. He asked if I’d seen Prometheus, wasn’t too surprised when I explained that no I don’t really enjoy alien movies, but then proceeded to tell me how it is actually an amzing movie because it is all about keeping faith in God.

This was again surprising, because somehow I was discussing God in the DMV. Yup you read that right – religion and civil service had just crossed lines.

Soon enough I learned that he was Catholic, and not a lax one but one who has his family say the Rosary every night before bed. He went to get me change for the $34 my renewal cost, came back singing American Pie.

He tells me “That song is about God too, you know?”
Then resumes singing as he counted out my bills from the Treasury –

“And the three men I admire most-
the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost-
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died
And they were singing

Bye Bye Miss American pie…
bum buh duh dum duh da da da dum”

 
Somehow I was still a little shocked at what was happening – is this guy still smiling? I’m in the DMV right? Did he just ask me about God again?

Stuck in my head again, he woke me up by handing me the six dollars of change and my receipt of temporary license.

Before sending me on my way, he simply mused  “It’s cool how God shows up in things like that huh? Movies or music or just ordinary stuff.”

Then he jumped clouds to tell me about his upcoming family vacation to go jet skiing on the lake, and with a smile and a “Have a great day!” he wished me off.

 After getting my picture taken the next line over, I couldn’t help smiling as I left the DMV that day. It certainly wasn’t what I had prepared myself for, and somehow the surprise of joy I found in that one Catholic DMV worker was enough to keep me smiling all day. Because it is truly amazing how God can show up in things like that, the places where you don’t expect him, like Alien movies or the DMV. It wasn’t an epiphany or a huge revelation, but it was pure, unhindered joy that spreads a sunshine of hope in our lives that there is light out there in the darkness, even in the darkness of government services.

 Where have you had a moment of joy in the last week?
Have a great weekend everyone :)

America (in)dependence – Where Freedom Falls Short

Happy fourth everyone! This holiday is always funny to me, I like the irony of celebrating the treason committed by 56 men signing a remarkably well-written document in the heat of summer. Plus the fireworks are good too.

It is clear though that this treason is no longer what we truly celebrate on the fourth of July each year, instead we celebrate the bigger notion of our country, and the even bigger dream of freedom it represents.

What does that freedom really include though? And what does it cost us?

Monday night I caved in and went to see the movie Magic Mike with two friends. I had pretty low expectations, which were unfortunately proved true, but it was a good experience to help me see where our culture is at. I will probably write another post on it soon so stay tuned.

There was a scene that stuck out to me in relation to today being the Fourth of July though. One of the many dance scenes in the movie included a special tribute for the very occasion of Independence Day. The boys marched out in camouflage uniforms, did their thing, then lowered their ranks till they were down to nothing but some very small red white and blue thongs. As they struck their final pose, their audience hooted and hollered for the grand finale of a large American flag to be lowered behind them.

is this what makes our country great?

My response – a strongly sarcastic “God Bless America” under my breath. My two friends I was with still say that was the best joke I ever made (not hard to believe) and the funniest part of the night.

Let’s be honest though – I wasn’t trying to be funny when I said it. Admittedly, I tend to use that phrase more often in times of frustration or despair than as an exclamation of pride. That was it’s initial usage anyways, to say a small prayer that God may bless this country, that He would save it from evil and help it to live up to its noble intentions.

On this Independence day, I would say we need that prayer now more than ever. We are supposed to be celebrating freedom, but is freedom really free? What cost have we paid for these things, or who else is paying the cost for us?

Don’t get me wrong I think the ideal of freedom is a great one, and it is part of why I can support our country, but we must admit that we fall short of true freedom in many places. Some people would bring up immigration, our prison system, or various human rights violations around the world. After seeing a movie like Magic Mike – the first thing I think of is our bondage to sex and the importance it has gained in our culture.

The way that Hollywood portrays sex, in movies like Magic Mike, makes it seem carefree and fun. Maybe it is in the moment, but they don’t emphasize the way that it imprisons people in loneliness, traps them into unhealthy relationships, or forces them to view love as defined by sex. Sex can be a good thing, the way God intended it, but the way that our culture has championed it as an independent choice free from consequence is a lie that only breeds further dependence.

Women in real strip clubs or prostitution houses, ones who are stuck in a system we allow, they are not free. Those traded into human trafficking who are herded like cattle for these industries, they are not free. The girl on the news, who was raped and abused, she is not free. Even the men, who are locked into the unrealistic expectations generated by Magic Mike of Fifty Shades of Grey, they are not free.

As a Christian, I hesitate to say that I am ever truly independent, or that I want to be. On one hand I completely support the tolerance freedom allows, and I support the belief that we all have our right to choose what we believe in. Yet I must remind myself that when I committed myself to following Christ, I gave up all independence to surrender myself to God’s will – and in all honesty, I am much happier without that freedom. When I trust his commands for my life instead of what culture demands of me, I am happier. That includes taking God’s word on sex instead of Hollywood’s.

It is difficult when everything about our American culture denounces rules and regulations, things that hold us back and restrict the dream of freedom. I think that’s why a lot of times people turn away from the church, because they don’t like to be told what to do. But we must remember that we are broken people, we all sin, and when given independence we often trade that for other forms of slavery because we don’t know how to use it correctly.

Celebrating freedom today is a good thing, it is good to remember what the founders of our country fought so hard for. It is also good for us to remember that we need to keep fighting for it. Freedom does have a cost, and personally I would much rather be a servant of Christ than a slave to sex or drugs or money. Believe it or not, true freedom is found when we submit to God first, then we can really hope for God to bless America.

What holds you back from true freedom?

 
How could we improve as a country to actually give freedom to everyone?

Working Through the Car Wash

A few days I ago I decided to take my car in for a long-overdue wash, but because of my poor financial situation I could only go for the $5 drive-through one. Funny enough, God always finds weird places to teach me things – and this time it was in the car wash. The last time I went through one of these I was a child, so it was a whole different kind of experience now.

After giving the attendant my money, he ushered me forward, directed me to put the car into neutral and not to touch the brakes as I went through. When I was little I would’ve given no thought to this, but now being responsible for a car meant that the idea of putting it in neutral and having no control over what happened was somewhat unnerving. I did as told though and waited to enter into the tight squeeze.

I remember as a kid this was a magical sort of experience, wondrous as the water tumbled over the car and I sat inside safely watching from my dry bubble. Waterfalls spilled over the top as squirts of soap began to dash across the windshield. Then the thundering roar of thwapping sent suds in every direction as the bristles and giant loofas took over the car.

Again, as a child this was a magical experience. Yet as an adult I found myself questioning the force of the jet streamed water and monstrous towels whacking against my car. I knew there was very little chance that something would go wrong, after all this had been planned out, but even still I didn’t trust every scenario terrorizing my imagination.

how is that not scary when it’s coming right at you?

That’s when I realized it was all too similar to what happens when I don’t trust God. It always starts by me paying for something I think I can’t afford, then I worry about giving up control because I don’t like putting my car in neutral. I want to be able to put the brakes on if something happens, but instead I sit in a perfectly safe bubble still afraid that something might go wrong.

In the end I come out cleaner with a fresh shine and blow-dried windows that I can see through much easier. No matter what in the end I will come out that way, but when I don’t trust God in the process of that change it isn’t as fun as when I can wonder at the magic of it like I did when I was a kid.

Just as Jesus said in Matthew 18, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” That change requires trusting God with a child-like faith – one that can see the majesty of something new and know that they are safe inside a bubble the whole time.

In the end, the most amusing part was realizing that the car wash was only five minutes of so called “terror” and “change,” but $5 and 5 minutes is nothing in comparison to the real fear and change we must endure as part of a roller-coaster faith. Those periods can last years sometimes, and certainly they seem to cost a lot more, because God takes longer and costs more for good reasons.

Overall it was a funny experience, especially as it can seem inconsequential in retrospect. Even so it’s reassuring to know that even in our American drive-through version, God can still show up to remind us that change isn’t always a bad thing, and we can trust Him by leaving the car in neutral while he directs us through.

Have you ever had an experience like this that helped you understand what it means to trust God?

How is a drive-through car wash an “Americanized” version of real struggle?

Happy (or unhappy?) Hunger Games

Before I start with my official post, I want to officially announce “Movie Monday” as part of the weekly schedule! Movies are great reflections of culture in several ways, mostly because what makes it in Hollywood is only successful if there is a wide audience of interest. So the movies we like say a lot about our lives, interests, and possibly even our beliefs. Since a lot of this blog is about the way definitions in culture clash or compliment Christian understandings, looking at movies can give us a lot to think about. If you have any suggestions for movies you would like me to review post it in the comments.

Today I want to open the discussion with one of the hottest movies of the year: The Hunger Games!

I like to brag that although this became the trendy must-read of the year, I was ahead of the trend and read it over a year and a half ago before anyone had really ever heard of it (thanks to the suggestion of a friend). Too cool, I know.

Now it has become one of the most read books of the year, and it quickly became one of the most anticipated movies as well. However, there is also a good deal of discussion surrounding the debate of whether it is wrong for us to cheer on a book about teenagers killing each other.

My personal opinion is that we have to remember it is fiction. As an English major, I will also insist that part of reading fiction is understanding the sub-context and deeper implications of the story. As a culture, I think we have lost a lot of our ability to go deeper in understanding what a book or movie or song or other art form is really saying. Sadly this has produced a culture that applauds one-note, surface level dramas and songs like “Call Me Maybe,” which besides being funny and a good beat really has no further point to it.

In regards to the movie, I think the director did a good job of ensuring the fact that the violence and killing wasn’t at the forefront of the story. It was a side-effect, a consequence of deeper corruption and social turmoil. Actually, I would insist that in this case the violence is a necessary evil to help us see how bad the reality is. This is an essential element of satire: taking something to the extreme to show the dire possibilities of a present problem. No it isn’t the type of satire we see on Saturday Night Live or the Colbert Report, but it is reminiscent of original literary satires like Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal or even George Orwell’s 1984.

But what is the deeper meaning and what does it say about our current culture?

Well one of the first points people infer is the parallel between the United States and the Capitol’s grossly extravagant way of living based on selfish desires. We must admit that if we took a good look around at the extreme measures we take to change our appearance, to buy luxury things, and to watch people suffer on television for entertainment it isn’t that far-stretched.

Capitol style or United States style?

Even just that implication points out a lot of things in our culture that clashes with Christian teachings. Why do we spend thousands of dollars on material items when we are commanded in the Bible to focus on our wealth in Heaven more than the treasures of earth? Is it right for us to waste food when others are starving, or to have so much when others have so little?

Please understand that I am no less guilty of this than others, so these questions are directed first to myself and then to the world around me. Yet as I ponder these complications I find it necessary for us to realize how deep the cracks are between the Christian life we say we live and the life we are really living.

Next then, many think that if the United States is a parallel for the Capitol, then the districts must be representative of other countries around the world. Larger, wealthier districts like 1 and 2 would probably be some European countries that are close allies with the United States, and then the lower, poorer districts represent some of the third world countries. This too spins off into plenty of questions about how can we live in such opulence here, while people who are producing the goods we use starve in other places, or possibly even in our own country.

Although the basic story of the Hunger Games seems violent and cruel at first, one must understand the deeper implications of the story to see how it is really just reflecting a violent and cruel world.

What do you think?

Is it ok for us to be entertained by a story about violence and murder, or is it redeemed by the deeper context?

What does it say about culture in the United States?

How is that different from Christian teachings?