Monthly Archives: February 2015

Appearing Hell-bound: Terrorists, Racists, Crusaders, and the Whole Damned Human Race

Jesus Christ sees through all our appearances.

Jesus Christ sees through all our appearances.

I have been thinking about the matter of “how things appear” lately.  And I will admit that it appears to me most of the world is heading towards hell.  Literally.

I know by saying that I might appear to be very self-righteous, pompous, and judgmental – in addition to a lot of other negative adjectives.  Please let me explain. 

First, let me get this out of the way: there is no way I deserve heaven.  Second: I would submit that this handbasket is not a conclusion that any Christian should be eager to make. After all, Christians are those who are eager to share the message of how Christ has come to save all persons – how He is the One who pulls us out of the pit.* Like Him, we are to be eager to save and not condemn.

But I will admit that I thought about hell recently when I read an article by a man who has watched and studied all of the available execution videos from the terrorists who threaten us today – something I will not be doing anytime soon.  After carefully watching these videos this man, a former C.I.A. agent, concluded that terrorists take great pleasure in brutally killing their victims.  Even putting the “best construction” on their actions – and yes, I know even thinking about doing this sounds scandalous too many of us – I think that we are still forced to conclude that they want to appear to enjoy the sickening bloodshed of which they are a part. Such is the world that they have now made for themselves and others.

Perhaps very few of us would hesitate to assert that this world deserves to dwell in hell: if people can rationalize even this kind of psychological terrorism – even if it is “just for pragmatic reasons” – what won’t such persons rationalize?  What evil worlds will they not create?

But it’s too easy to think about such brutal thugs being on the road to hell. 

It is not so easy to think about the rest of us as deserving such a fate – surely not us much more civilized Americans! (um…think again – here is the very brief part of this post that goes with the “racist” in the title) Surely, whatever our sins, how we appear on the outside has not given us away – revealing us as deeply evil – as well!  Right?

How well did he know himself?

How well did he know himself?

Or not.

For the Greek philosopher Socrates (according to Plato) it made sense to assert that we only choose what we think is good.  Further, no one chooses evil willingly, he said.  On the one hand, disturbingly, part of Socrates’ view makes some sense: human beings are certainly capable of believing – probably even through an unrealized suppression of what they at some level know – that evil acts are good.  This would indicate not only a frightful, but deeply culpable, ignorance.

On the other hand, Socrates, who said “know thyself”, seems incredibly naïve and un-self-aware here when he says no one willingly does evil.** The Roman poet Ovid, four centuries later, seems far more serious and aware when he says, “I see the better way and approve it. I follow the worse”.  Top it off with Augustine’s famous story about the pear tree, and we should begin to see that our inborn evil – that inevitably displays itself on the outside – is the most lethal of cocktails and needs to be dealt with. 

I become more firmly convinced with each passing day that all of us perpetually underestimate the seriousness of our sin.  “Even murder Brennan”?, replies the well-respected Christian author Philip Yancey to the late Brennan Manning upon his confession that he had broken all ten of the Ten Commandments. To this I can only say: “Well, what did Jesus tell us on His Sermon on the Mount?”  How does a Christian with Yancey’s level of sophistication think such a question is a good one at all?  Do we not take Christ’s words seriously at all?

Taking the pears for no apparent reason.  What does this mean?

Stealing the pears for no apparent reason… not even to eat. What does this mean?

But this lack of conviction about the seriousness of our sin – and accompanying culpability – in these matters of thought and desire are only the tip of the iceberg.  We do not even begin to fear, love and trust in God as we ought…. In fact, the Bible says that we are – or at the very least, were (this would be Christians) – His enemies: all of us to a man have all declared war on Him and His ways.  As one person put it, only God knows what even an “innocent” infant would do to a fellow creature in his rage were he of similar size to us – and sippy cups were not made of plastic.  But our guilt goes far deeper yet: we all would betray Him and His people if it were not for His constant grace and intervention in our lives.

We are those who have committed High treason.   And we know very well the penalty for this is death.***

But what about those who are trying hard to avoid hell?  Do they not appear heaven-bound?  A recent article on First Thing’s First Thoughts blog made the case that not only were the Crusades just wars, but that most of those who fought in them did so out of a deep sense of spirituality. The deeds of these Crusaders, the author says, were “penitential acts”, performed with a view towards their own salvation in the life to come.

No, man does not live in the forgiveness of sins alone.

Man does not live in the forgiveness of sins alone.  We continue to need this knowledge as well.

Even putting the “worst construction” on the evidence these men have left us (perhaps in good “self-hating Western fashion”, some may be eager to insist), they, at the very least, thought it wise to appear that their reasons for fighting were related to their own quest for salvation.  In this time, we are reminded, vast amounts of Westerners were actually were willing to pay money to have their sins forgiven – there was an environment in which a fear of God and His judgment was keenly felt and nurtured.

A rightful fear of God is a good thing indeed – the beginning of wisdom.  That said, it appears that these men’s fear of God often did not lead to where it should have: hope in Christ and His work on the cross alone for their salvation…

In the N.T. we are told that the cross is an offense to the world and so is God’s words taken as a whole.  We recall that among world religions only Christianity has a place for, and in fact is all about, radical grace. This includes the idea not only that we do not “deserve mercy” (an oxymoronic phrase) but that all is a gift, and faith is willing to be nothing but given to.  Like infants receiving milk from their mother, we can only say “what do we have that we have not received?”  That is the message of Christ’s Gospel for us and all persons. The perfect son of God lives the perfect life and dies the innocent death for us – doing what we could never do – that we may have forgiveness, life and salvation from sin, death, and the devil.

Human nature rebels even against that Good News – and even we Christians ourselves have not been fully freed from our “old Adam”.  Our default mode is to want to be justified by our deeds (as well as to live as we see fit!), even as the Scriptures use disparaging words for human efforts – calling them “filthy rags” (menstrual rags actually) and the like. To seek to be justified in this way is, in truth, to declare war against the true glory of God:  He alone is the Source of all love, light, and life in the world.

In truth, there should be nothing more exhilarating for us then to know God through Jesus Christ – and to grow in the knowledge of what He is like and how He would include us in His desires, joys, and goals.  And yet, in the Last Days – which we most certainly are in – Jesus said the love of many would grow cold. “Would the Son of Man”, he further asked, “find faith on earth when He returned”?  Are these not terrible and terrifying words?

ACDC_Highway_To_Hell_AUSIn the end, the Christian mourns to conclude: it appears that the vast majority of the world’s population is on the road to hell.***  Jesus said that He was the way, the truth, and the life and that no one came to the Father except through Him.  He also said that those who rejected Him would be cast into outer darkness forever (Matt. 8:12).

But even with such warnings ringing in our ears – perhaps particularly with such warnings ringing in our ears – He would certainly (no talk of “seems to” or “appears to” here!) have the whole world – as many as possible – to be saved.  He call each one of us – even now – to Him.  There is still room for us at the glorious banquet table that He has prepared for us – there is still a spot for us in His house to partake of His joy and the delights He offers.

Yes, that is the message: Come. To. Jesus (truly the source of all joy: whatever is good, true and beautiful).

Not the fake “Jesus” (see 2 Cor. 11) so many, apart from the Scriptures, have concocted after their own image.  No. The real deal.

Mocked such a statement as “come to Jesus” may be – even made a joke – but there is nothing that is truer than this.  He will judge the whole world and deliver His children from this evil age, even as His blood avails for the whole world – even for you.

Come to His side (yes, even the greatest enemies of God! – heard of Saul of Tarsus?).  Next to Him and apart from this world that is passing away.  This fellow beggar will save you a seat.



* God, whom Christians are to imitate, is eager to love and save – not condemn.  So much so that in Christ’s life and death He was reconciling the world to Himself. The hesitation in this relationship does not come from Him, but from us.

** As far as I am concerned, unsurprising, given that Plato portrays Socrates in his dialogues as being interested in the proper nature and goals of pederastic relationships (given the current state of affairs, I think it is highly naïve, in spite of Jerry Sandusky, to think that these will not be come to be acceptable once again – in a “highly sophisticated form” of course – among Western society’s elites [see here] – and beyond [see here]). Again unsurprising, because I note that Socrates, for all the wisdom he was said to have, also seems to have been a less than exemplary husband and father, to say the least.

*** The Lord declares war on the sin we coddle.  As He appoints even non-Christians in this world to judge – either in greater or lesser accordance with His own laws – He too administers judgment of all persons, and will do so particularly in the life to come.   He puts the enemy down, and yet always does so not with pleasure, but with sorrow.  For He not only desires that none would thirst for blood but that all – like Him – would long for the salvation of even their greatest earthly enemies.

But in many a case, following the sweet proclamation of His salvation for all – His deliverance from sin, from death, and from the devil – the treason persists. And there, literally, will be hell to pay. The suffering in this life will not begin to approximate the next.

All of us must look at how we have treated the Son of God who has come to call us from darkness to light. Those who will not allow themselves to be forgiven and made new by the Son of God retain the guilt they inherited from Adam that releases all manner of evil. And again, it is not only these who do not believe: all of us, with our first parents, have all continually committed High Treason against the only King of Heaven and earth.

I am not excluded – for my neighbor has often not seen the love of God in me.  Yes, this may be human blindness on their part, but I dare not think this is the only cause: when I stand naked in the midst of a holy God I know that I am undone.  I have denied him before men, and in the name of “justice” refused to turn my cheek, refused to forgive from the heart 70 x 7, constantly mixed dung with precious perfume, ignored the unfortunate and outcasts who sense their need for Him more than most, and hated my enemies for whom Christ bled.  I have refused to recognize marriage – my own marriage and resultant family – as a crucial sacramental sign of God’s presence in the world.  While God has been patient and kind with me, granting me repentant faith time and again, I have not always been so kind and patient with my precious children.  My actions – or inactions – have served as an acid that dissolve the Gospel proclamation that brings forgiveness, life, and salvation.  In short, how little I must know my God!  Because of my lack of trust, confidence, and reliance on God – and hence, love – I have caused my neighbor to perish.

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Posted by on February 25, 2015 in Uncategorized


Loving the Sinner but Hating the Sin: It Goes Deeper Than Many Christians Think

"Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"

“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

Almost everyone has heard the pious Christian phrase derived from the great Saint Augustine: “God loves the sinner, but hates the sin”.  I think there is much to be said for this statement, but there is no doubt that it does not pack the punch that it used to: some of those Christians hope to help with such a phrase simply roll their eyes or sneer when they hear it.

Well, I want to suggest that its meaning goes far deeper than many Christians often think it does.  Please let me explain exactly what I mean.

First of all, it is important to clear up some misconceptions about Jesus’ love for those He calls “the lost” in general. There is no doubt that as one reads the Gospels, one is taken with how Jesus seems drawn to the underprivileged, the weak, the poor, the excluded, the marginalized, those “no one speaks for”…. and those whose lives are in disarray, messed up, confused…   And yet, citing Jesus’ words “judge not lest you be judged” persons today wildly misunderstand what He means.  More sophisticated liberal theologians seem to have a bit stronger argument: pointing out that Jesus’ eating with sinners was not just like having a meal in a restaurant, but was a serious act of fellowship, indicating solidarity – and this is why He got in so much trouble with the religious leaders.

The difference, of course, is that when Jesus ate with these sinners, they were well aware that he did not approve of their wrongful behavior, and in fact had called them to repent over it.  Context here is important: the Pharisees, as the pillars of society, were not hated by the people, but generally respected.  People wanted to be accepted and acknowledged by them, and for those who were “too far gone”, they were left out in the cold and had little hope of catching any sort of gentleness or affection from the “non-70×7” Pharisees.  It is not that Jesus comes in and fights against persons that most saw as oppressors, but that He is even more desirable than they were.

From a more worldly perspective, we can even say that He, operating deftly according to both truth and love, “out-alpha-males” the Pharisees – and, from a more spiritual perspective, this not in spite of but because of His utter humility and simplicity.

With that out to the way, we can attempt to get much deeper. It is good and right that we would at times reflect on Jesus’ attention for the marginalized, and in my life, this has, in part, meant trying to better understand what many persons in homosexual or transgendered lifestyles have gone through.

Or, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."

Or, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

I have heard Jonathan Rauch talk in some detail about how difficult it was for him growing up as a young man with homosexual inclinations – and the “happy ending” of his marriage to his partner.  I must admit that his story, which you can hear him talk about here, affected me powerfully.  Further, the other day, someone indirectly made me aware of the “trans activist” Janet Mock – formerly identified as male – and her (“preferred pronoun”) new autobiography: Reinventing Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More.

To be blunt: very powerful stories these folks tell.  One is immediately drawn into their lives, and empathy is certainly aroused by the narratives they unfold – and I myself feel some real affection for each of them (here I should say I think their stories are best heard by Christians mature in their own faith*).  Again, both Rauch and Mock are highly compelling in their words.  At the very least, one is hard pressed to deny that it is a good thing that they are as honest as they are about the things and feelings that they have experienced in their lives.

But.  Yes, the dreaded “but”.

But I can’t go where they go.  Certainly, as a Christian, I feel tethered to a higher story, and one that – I can’t but conclude – has something to say regarding stories such as these.

In sum, these stories must be connected to the stories of every other human being, and if I believe that there is nothing further to add to Rauch’s account, I can no longer insist that it is always a tragedy for a child to be without a father or a mother.  And, as a father of five, I most definitely believe that to be the case: we all come from a man and a woman, and why would we ever think that it is right to celebrate unions that say, in effect, that either fatherhood or motherhood do not matter? (if you don’t think that is intuitive or obvious at all, please note this more empirically-based approach).

No.  Some forms of “discrimination” (think of that word in its broader sense) are good.

Further, if I believe that there is nothing to add to Mock’s account, I cannot but affirm that it is always a tragedy – not an intentionally evil act of course – when some naïve parent, doctor, or midwife, cries out in excitement: “it’s a boy!” or “it’s a girl!”.  Not necessarily true, Janet Mock says.  Ultimately, we should assume that what scientists refer to as “phenotype” and “genotype” are not to be used to help define us in any sense at all.  In effect, being joyful that one has birthed not just a child, but a boy or a girl, ends up being an act of violence against persons like herself.**

Kind of like the original sin.  The original sin of those who are cis, as Mock, along with the transgendered community, prefers to call non-trans persons.

Are there no limits to our interpretations of reality or to what our imaginations can construct and build?

Are there no limits to our interpretations of reality or to what our imaginations can construct and build?

So what would I add here, on the basis of the Scriptures themselves?  I would say this: Christians believe that all men and women are, by nature, both victims and victimizers.  And we sin and we are sinned against.  Here, to explain the problems and puzzles of the world which so vex all of us, we look back to the story of our first parents, when they listened to the serpent, sinning against God and throwing the whole of God’s good creation into chaos with their evil act.  They realized they were naked, fled from God, and passed on their disease to their offspring.  The world was different.

That is true for all of us.  Even those who have been rescued from sin, death and the devil through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection still have this infection of sin raging in their bodies and souls.  Though believers can now really fight against it in faith, we still must face the fact that our sin kills and will kill us – even Christians must physically die, as this is inevitably tied up with what the Scriptures call the “wages of sin”.

I have a friend by the name of Scott Dehn who was born with the condition of cerebral palsy.  Though a highly intelligent and gifted man, he has to bear this cross which affects him negatively in so many ways.  This man is also a fine Christian theologian, and he proposes that his physical body is a sign to all of us of the brokenness of humanity caused by the deeper spiritual disease of original sin (read more from Scott here).  While we are all affected by this, some of us are more susceptible – perhaps even by our original nature alone – to certain temptations than others.  And some of us, it appears, bear in our bodies in more extraordinary ways (and even feelings) the brokenness that is caused by sin.  The terrible effects of sin simply manifest themselves in different ways in each one of us – resulting in certain dispositions (or predispositions), disorderedness, and disabilities (physical and mental).

So we love the sinner (which is all of us) but hate not only the actual sins but the horrible effects of original sin, mourning with those who mourn the brokenness of the world (see here for a vivid reminder of Romans 8:22-23).

At this point, I have some practical thoughts to go along with all of this – along with what I hope you will find to be some strong words of hope.

I remember hearing a father say to his son: “I love all of you – but I have to admit my feelings for your brother are stronger”.  Why, according to him, was this the case?  Because of all of his offspring, he felt that his son’s brother needed his love even more.

Now, I should not be misunderstood as saying that what we believe does not matter – because we are all God’s offspring (see Acts 17).  This would be to do violence to what the Scriptures say.  Even if God’s love for a particular child were stronger, and not just different, that does not necessarily mean that child is in a “state of grace” or will be in heaven.  We can certainly reject the love of a God we imagine to be otherwise – to in effect, tell the real God that we do not think that we need his “forgiveness” for this or that thing He would categorize “sin”.

And that, of course, is the greatest tragedy of them all – on top of the tragedy of Adam and Eve’s sin.

Christians believe that all human beings – without exception – are meant to be ultimately found in Jesus Christ and Him alone.  They are made to be in union with Him, to be one of the many that is called the church, or the Bride of Christ.  These are the ones who do not look for their worth and identity in themselves – the men and women they make themselves to be – but rather find it in Him.

They are sinners who commit real sins – but when they become aware of their transgressions, they are to know they have a Savior who not only forgives them 70 x 7, but continues to tell them, amidst all of their failures and evils, that they really do – perhaps against all appearances – have life abundantly with Him.

And an important thing to add: this world is not all there is.  It is passing away, and groaning as in the pains of childbirth to be made completely new.  Those who struggle with the brokenness of the world – and especially their own brokenness – can know with certainty that our best life is not now – but is yet to come.

Abundantly so – when we see Him face to face, and know Him as even now we are fully known – and loved.



P.S. – And starting today, I am beginning to “Tweet” my posts.  As of now, I do not plan on doing much else on Twitter other than following a few people and sending those who follow me to the articles I write.  If you would like to start following me, you can do so by going here.




*This article from Joe Dallas about “the Transsexual Dilemma”, is a good item for Christians to be familiar with.  This kind of non-theological approach is also a good one to be familiar with.  And this powerful personal account as well.

**In other words, you are not recognizing any sort of reality, but are assigning a “social construct” to the child. Mock writes:

“….People assume that I was in the closet because I didn’t disclose that I was assigned male at birth

What people are really asking is “Why didn’t you correct people when the perceived you as a real woman?” Frankly, I’m not responsible for other people’s perceptions and what they consider real or fake. We must abolish the entitlement that deludes us into believing that we have the right to make assumptions about people’s identities and project those assumptions onto their genders and bodies.” (p. 257, bold mine)

Earlier in the book, Mock tells us an experience she had of a potential romantic interest rejecting her upon discovering her past, and I find the last part of her response to be puzzling:

“I can’t believe this,” he said, not so much to me but himself. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

“Because you’d look at me the way you’re looking at me now, like some creature from a faraway land, void of human feeling”, I wanted to say. I could hear his disgust in his tone, see it in his expression. I was no longer an attractive woman he was eager to see again; he perceived me as something artificial. To Adrian, I was this inauthentic woman trying to deceive him, possibly with the intention to get him into bed. In our patriarchal culture that values masculinity over femininity, my disclosure shook Adrian, challenging his heteronormative and cis-normative ideals.” (p. 160, bold mine)

Mock speaks of rejections like this being connected with valuing masculinity over femininity at least a couple other times in the book, and each time I read this, I was a bit dumbfounded. I don’t really understand what Mock means here – as a man I simply get disturbed and queasy when I think about having sex with men (I often get the impression that, for Mock, anyone who might want to know, for example, about the gender a person was assigned at birth – regardless of why they might be asking – does so from a “space of entitlement”), and since I think the bodies we are originally given matter (see the discussion in I Cor. 15, for example), I can’t think of her as a anything but a man (even though I try to show respect for Mock by saying “her”), regardless of what she feels of even looks like.  I disagree when she says “It’s not OK to say that I was born a man”.

In any case, I would love to have a meal with Mrs. Mock or Mr. Rauch.  I do want to rejoice in their humanity – to “see them”.  As I know my Lord does.

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Posted by on February 12, 2015 in Uncategorized


What’s Not So Good About Internet Technologies?

On the KFUO radio show Reformation Rush Hour Pr. Donavon Riley joined Pr. Donofrio for a show

“to discuss vocation and social media.  First the importance of understanding vocation and how we all serve our neighbor in our work and in this, we serve God.

Then the pastors go on to discuss how we should carry our vocations into our interactions in person and on social media.”

It was a great show and I highly recommend it.

It also put me in mind of a chapter that I wrote for my paper on libraries and new technologies last that I gave last March.  In the chapter, I discuss some of the deleterious effects of the new internet technologies that we should be aware of.  Pastor Riley also talked about Sherry Turkle a bit, and I might do a few more posts in the coming weeks which deal more with her insights (the chapters from the paper that follow this one).

Here it is:

Ethical Issues with Information Technology

Big data is just people in disguise…. Even friendly, consumer-facing Siren Servers ultimately depend on spreading costs to the larger society…. – Jaron Lanier [i]

At this point, we will begin to address some of the ethical issues related to the use of modern “information technology” – in general, is information technology being used in accordance with technology’s rightful purposes, as described above? In passing, I note that technologies always present certain temptations to us, but that with “information technologies” – many arising from those immersed in the MSTM [modern scientific and technological mindset] – the temptation is simply more powerful (much more on this in the next section). Also note that since concerns about privacy[ii], facial recognition software[iii], and all around “dataveillance” have been covered extensively elsewhere[iv], I will not focus on these issues. Later on in the presentation, we will apply what is discussed here in general to libraries in particular.

Ethical issue #1 – information technology tempts us to overly simplify everything

Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier

Jumping off of Croll’s comment from the last section, it is true that the optimal three-wheeled device is indeed something that can be determined – by mathematical engineering and testing – and can thus be labeled a convergent problem. In other words, a variety of solutions are proposed and tested, until finally a design emerges which is “the answer” and remains amazingly stable over time. [v] I will take his word for it that much reliable optimization of this kind can occur via computer without humans doing on-the-ground empirical testing.

That said, life is full of not only convergent problems – where evidently the need for human creativity and activity is in the decline – but divergent ones as well, where human creativity is definitely needed. What is an example of divergent thinking? To give one easy example, one cannot ask whether more discipline or freedom in education is the best thing because it needs to be a complicated mix.   E.F. Schumacher, in his enlightening little 1977 book A Guide for the Perplexed, looks at life in a rather broad fashion and puts it this way:

“Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice. Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom. The problem cannot be solved, but wisdom can transcend it. Similarly, societies need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay. Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims. The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both… Divergent problems offend the logical mind (italics mine).”[vi]

Many recent analyses resonate with Lanier’s observations

Many recent analyses resonate with Lanier’s observations

From where I sit, it seems clear that a focus on the technological tends to crowd out the nuances here. Much of this is simply the nature of computer technology: since Turing’s invention of the computer, for example, it has become a popular idea to simply think about our minds merely as computers – albeit as “wetware” instead of hardware. And as Jaron Lanier points out about computer software, it will always necessarily constrict the world it creates – one must use what has been built into the tools.[vii] I think it is clear that Big data popularizers and proponents Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schonberger are “constricting the world” when they ask: “The possession of knowledge…. is coming to mean an ability to predict the future… the data will take center stage… In a world where data shapes decisions more and more, what purpose will remain for people… or for going against the facts?” and answer with “the spark of invention” – because algorithms would have said that Ford’s potential customers wanted a “faster horse”.[viii] Here, I suggest that truly divergent problems are being passed over – for even with given facts that are not in dispute (sometimes a rare thing!) plenty of problems besides a lack of innovation remain. This is a simplistic approach that sees convergent problems where there is in fact no convergence.   And no, I do not think that we could say that “facts and inventiveness” would belong in Schumacher’s list above!

Ethical issue #2 – information technology tempts us to push real costs on to everyone else

Lanier also points out another major ethical issue that he sees with modern computer technology, and this has to do with its capacity to concentrate wealth and power.   Let me share some of his observations that may not immediately seem to be relevant, but certainly are.

Based on his own personal experiences doing consultation for various institutions, Lanier notes that some health

Lanier: “[terms of agreement] basically do not exist, except for setting the basic rule everyone understands, which is that the server takes no risks, only the users of the server.”

Lanier: “[terms of agreement] basically do not exist, except for setting the basic rule everyone understands, which is that the server takes no risks, only the users of the server.”

insurance companies, for example, have always wanted to only insure persons who did not need insurance. That said, with Big data and better computers, this temptation has now been made possible for those who possess them. In his words, you can now “create the perfect insurance company…” Lanier points out that some companies have bigger and better computers that run faster, are better connected, and built and maintained by the best mathematicians. Those who have the means to do so, are able to create “intense approximations of wealth and power around giant computers”. He notes that what has happened in the financial world (with disaster-causing things like bundled derivatives), the consumer communications world (Google and YouTube, Facebook), and the political world (election winners all use big computers) go hand in hand: the same story is at work.

According to Lanier, if the course of this ship is not somehow adjusted, the end results will be disastrous. And his explanation is convincing. He says that when you try to radiate all the risk to someone else society is not infinitely large and so cannot absorb all that risk. “One might think that all the risk has been loaded on to someone else but eventually you will have to pay for it”. “There is no free lunch”, Lanier asserts, drawing an analogy with what he sees happening here to Maxwell’s demon, the supposedly perpetual motion machine. “This is what happened with big finance… [this is what happened with] Enron. There is not an infinitely large society that can absorb the risks from these ‘perfect’ schemes.”

Maxwell’s demon: it does not work because energy it expended in the very act of discernment.  No free lunch.

Maxwell’s demon: it does not work because energy it expended in the very act of discernment. No free lunch.

In sum, Lanier’s whole book is about how “information should be free” – at least when applied broadly beyond libraries (see Schumacher quote above)! – is a nice and understandable-sounding slogan, but eventually leaves us in the lurch.[ix] He notes that because idealists like him had “insisted that information be demonetized online”, “services about information, instead of the information itself would [inevitably] become the main profit centers”.[x] Therefore, even those who don’t want to play the game have a hard time avoiding it: once everyone else is on Facebook, it is a constant battle to explain why you don’t care to be (as Croll points out[xi], in the future persons who do not participate in things like this may well be considered suspicious).

Lanier’s own answer to this issue is that people who contribute information that is of value on the web should be compensated for the value they contribute online.[xii]   Noting again that the efforts of real human translators underlie all machine translation, he states “the rise of inequality isn’t because of people not being needed — more precisely, it’s because of an illusion that they aren’t even there” and “Big data is just people in disguise”. [xiii] Lanier also takes issue with the idea that companies like Google and Facebook are simply getting revenue from advertising. Rather, we are their product and they are selling anonymized data – which is calculated “off the books” – to companies, who then create behavioral models to subtlely manipulate “what steps are put in front of you” – not communicate with us with what we have traditionally called advertising. [xiv] Again, I will not even get into the tangled thicket that is privacy issues related to Big data here, even as these are certainly at issue as well.[xv]

Play nice and be a “friend”

Play nice and be a “friend”

Ethical issue #3– information technology tempts us to be more self-centered and to increasingly “commodify” the world

Of course another issue presented by current information technologies is that their anonymity and ease of use can readily help us “enhance” our self-centeredness and self-justifying tendencies. We live in what seems to be not only an increasingly quantified but commodified world, where it is easier to treat ourselves and one another like commodities and accessories, where, as a self-help book of 15 years ago put it, we are all about “getting what you want in your relationships”.   Going hand in hand with this, it seems to me, is a recent book titled: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Travis. I can’t tell you why she thinks it happens, but I simply will say that the internet – removing us from the real awkwardness of having to physically face other flesh and blood (yes, like the temptations posed by paper before it!) – certainly has the ability to exacerbate things.[xvi]

Speaking of “getting what you want”, Lanier writes in the N.Y. Times that

“A Siren Server gains influence through self-effacement. There is a Zen quality to it. A big computational-finance scheme is most successful when the proprietors have no idea what they finance. The whole point is to make other people take risks, and knowledge means risk. The new idea is to have no idea whether the security you bundled is fraudulent or not.”[xvii]

This is a concrete example of avoiding responsibility, and of “mistakes being made”, but “not by me”.   He goes on to say: “The point is to be a computational actor — the more meta, the better — but without seeming, or behaving like, an actor. The digital pursuit of reward without risk happens automatically, at arm’s length. Documents are signed by ‘robosigners,’ and prices are set by ‘price bots.’”

Obviously, any idea of “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” can be kept at a comfortable arm’s length here as well. Is it too much to say that increasingly, the subtle message is that others must earn our respect – not only to be seen as a decent human being, but to be treated like one, period?   I submit that the increasing necessity for us to “prove our right to exist”[xviii] in each and every sphere of life is a problem that is enhanced through digital technologies – for example, a recent Pediatrics study talks about how digital devices negatively affect many parents around dinnertime.[xix] Yes, online technologies may occasionally “bring out our best”, but more often than not this is not the case (more in the next section about what might be the deeper reasons for this).

Ethical issue #4– information technology tempts us to forget how to do traditional yet valuable tasks – and tempts us to avoid attention-developing practices in general

Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr

There is one more issue I think should be addressed here and it can be summed up in the terms “memory” and “attention”. Technology and culture watcher Nicholas Carr has recently been addressing the mass “externalization of knowledge”[xx] – both the “know-that” and the “know-how”. He addresses the concern that much knowledge – perhaps some of it necessary – is being lost as we continue to rely on devices and Big data to help us do our work. For example, as an illustration, he shares the interesting example of Inuit eskimos who can no longer rely on the repository of tracking skills hitherto passed on by tradition due to the current reliance on GTS systems.   What kind of responsibility does each one of us have to reflect on what human abilities can or should not be lost? We may worry – rightly – about the crippling effects that a terrorist attack could have on the technological infrastructure that we rely on, but as Carr reminds us, there are other ways that “all can be lost”.[xxi] Carr warns: “Seeking convenience, speed, and efficiency, we rush to off-load work to computers without reflecting on what we might be sacrificing as a result.”   Of course, it goes without saying that businesses, as opposed to things like schools, are going to have a vested interest in making things as easy as possible for their customers – even if this necessarily means that their customers will thereby miss out on learning skills that would be valuable and beneficial to them.   As regards our ability to sustain attention when it comes to things like reading books, Carr also notes in his popular work, the Shallows, “deep and concentrated cognitive exercise changes the synapses between neurons and the structures of the neurons themselves”.

And fighting distraction en route to self-discipline is not only a practical issue, but a deep moral issue as well – and one we can’t outsource. That said, there are those who think even our conscience can be outsourced – or, to be more fair, supplemented via technical means. Ariel Garten, the inventor of a wearable and computerized biofeedback device, Muse, talks about some of the possibilities of this kind of technology: perhaps in the future, your iTunes device, reading your brain’s electrical signature, will say to you “I saw you were depressed….would you like this song played for you?”.[xxii] Even better, certain devices might be able to convince us , through their gentle nudging[xxiii] that, “I can not yell at my kids…”. She says that we will have knowledge of ourselves via technology and be able to make better choices. As her interviewer said, “better parenting through thought-controlled computing.”[xxiv]

Why not?   Why should I not hope for help and guidance from a technology (or, more specifically, the ones who created and programmed it) instead of myself and those others who love me? Human life is so messy after all. As I have been noting, the temptation is very real and very alluring, especially when the MSTM dominates our way of thinking. More on that in the next section.




[i] Lanier, Jaron. “Fixing the Digital Economy.” New York Times, Jun 09, 2013, Late Edition (East Coast). More from his book: “Automation can always be understood as elaborate puppetry….It turns out… that big data coming from vast numbers of people is needed to make machines appear to be ‘automated.’ Do the puppeteers still get paid once the whole audience has joined their ranks?” Who Owns the Future? New York: Simon & Schuster.,. 123-124.

[ii] See Cumbley, R., and P. Church. 2013. “Is ”Big Data” Creepy?” The Computer Law and Security Report. 29 (5): 601-609: “Whilst the mere collection of this information can be intrusive, the privacy risks are multiplied when multiple pools of data are combined. However, data combination is one of the central aims of Big Data analysis. It creates valuable datasets, even when purportedly anonymized… One prominent example is Google…. A footnote says “See, for the example, the analysis of data about users of Everything Everywhere’s network by Ipsos Mori as discussed in Switch on and you become a goldmine, Richard Kerbaj and Jon Ungoed-Thomas, The Sunday Times, 12 May 2013 and Ipsos MORI’s response on 12 May 2013,”

[iii] See

[iv] See Cumbley, R., and P. Church. 2013. “Is ”Big Data” Creepy?” The Computer Law and Security Report. 29 (5): 601-609 and for information on the NSA see Interestingly, this is an issue that unites persons of different political extremities. Lanier notes that the public library is the last place you can learn without being watched, without your data being aggregated. “There’s a remarkable thing about the public library,” he said. “If you go to the public library to learn about something, and you do it with paper books, it’s the only instance in which you can learn in our society today…[where] you aren’t under observation.” “Jaron Lanier on Big Data”. 2013. Library Journal –New York. 138 (19): 18.

[v] For a nice example of this see Schumacher, E. F. 1977. A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Harper & Row, p. 121. “Various solutions are offered which gradually and increasingly converge until, finally, a design emerges which is ‘the answer’ – a bicycle – an answer that turns out to be amazingly stable over time… because it complies with the laws of the Universe – laws at the level of inanimate nature.”

[vi] Ibid, p. 127. More excellent, and I would say very ethical, observations from p. 5 and 125: “What we have to deplore… is not so much the fact that scientists are specialising, but rather the fact that specialists are generalizing…. Convergent problems relate to…where manipulation can proceed without hindrance and where man can make himself ‘master and possessor,’ because the subtle, higher forces – which we have labeled life, consciousness, and self-awareness – are not present to complicate matters. Wherever these higher forces intervene to a significant extent, the problem ceases to be convergent”.

[vii] The New York Public Library. 2013. “Jaron Lanier | LIVE from the NYPL.” YouTube video, October 10.

[viii] Cukier, K., and V. Mayer-Schoenberger. 2013. “The Rise of Big Data How It’s Changing the Way We Think About the World”. Foreign Affairs – New York. 92 (3): 28-40, p. 39 and 40.

[ix] Barclay, Paul. 2013. Jaron Lanier: Reconstructing the Digital Economy. Big Ideas. podcast radio program. Sydney: ABC Radio National, July 10.

[x] Schumacher, E. F. 1977. A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Harper & Row, 207.

[xi] OCLCVideo. 2013. “Alistair Croll: Implications and Opportunities of Big Data.” YouTube video, March 13.

[xii] I simply cite his ethical point. How this could be done is another issue, and some have strenuously argued that Lanier’s prescription for the solution is untenable and unworkable. I wish I could disagree with them.

[xiii] Again, Lanier constantly notes “the persons behind the curtain”. As regards machine translation, AI in the classic sense does not work, but big data does work – but big data is just people in disguise.   Lanier notes that we can’t unlock the “formulas” to translate like Einstein did for space and time. Therefore, the only question is whether or not we acknowledge the amount of value that persons put into the econ or not. Otherwise, wealth and power will continue to be concentrated around those with biggest computers.

[xiv] More complete picture (from my notes): We have decided that the only business plan that’s viable in the information space – because we believe information should be free – is to use behavior models of people or behavior models of the world to manipulate the world….that’s a much better description of what companies like Google and Facebook sell than the term advertising…. Manipulating the options in front of you is not like advertising – it is not a communications act – it’s a subtle manipulation of what steps are put in front of you.

[xv] Notes from Davis, Kord, and Doug Patterson. 2012. Ethics of Big Data. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly: (p. 16): identity (Christopher Pool says multifaceted, Zuckerberg says having more than one demonstrates a “lack of integrity”), privacy (funny 1993 New Yorker cartoon: “no one knows you’re a dog on the internet”…. “what right do others have to make [information about one’s identity] public?…” “Can the creation of data about ourselves be considered a creative act? Does our mere existence constitute a creative act? If so, then do not all the legal protections associated with copyright law naturally follow?” [17] “Why do we expect the ability to self-select and control which facets we share with the world online to be the same as it is offline?” [18]), reputation (ability to manage this online is growing farther and farther out of individual control [18]) and ownership (“do we, in the offline world ‘own’ the facts about our height and weight?”, does info about us or what we can do “constitute property that we own? Is there any distinction between the ownership qualities of that information?” “As open data markets grow in size and complexity, open government data becomes increasingly abundant, and companies generate more revenue from the use of personal data, the question of who owns what – and at what point in the data trail – will become a more vocal debate” [19].

[xvi] Fate has always been a way of avoiding personal responsibility, but perhaps it can now be supercharged with technology.

[xvii] Lanier also notes that “YouTube doesn’t take responsibility for checking if a video, before it’s uploaded, violates a copyright. Facebook isn’t culpable if a tormented teenager is driven to suicide.” Lanier, Jaron. “Fixing the Digital Economy.” New York Times, Jun 09, 2013, Late Edition (East Coast).

[xviii] I admit that I fight being cynical about the world, even as I, for religious reasons, have great hope. In a world increasingly focused on the efficient acquisition of commodities to meet our desires, all are expected to prove their worth, and perhaps, in some cases, their case for continuing to be able to exist, presuming that they their lives are not ended early on. Real love, as opposed to a “love” rooted only in feelings of what the other does for us, has left the building.

The new Pope has some very insightful words here as well, it seems:

The joy of living frequent­ly fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly ev­ident. It is a struggle to live and, often, to live with precious little dignity. This epochal change has been set in motion by the enormous qualita­tive, quantitative, rapid and cumulative advances occuring in the sciences and in technology, and by their instant application in different areas of nature and of life. We are in an age of knowl­edge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power. (p. 45)…

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “ex­ploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”. (p. 46)

“We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idol­atry of money and the dictatorship of an imper­sonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: con­sumption.” (p. 47)

“In the prevailing culture, priority is given to the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional. What is real gives way to appearances. In many countries globalization has meant a hastened deterioration of their own cultural roots and the invasion of ways of thinking and acting proper to other cul­tures which are economically advanced but eth­ically debilitated.”

Catholic Church. 2013. The joy of the gospel = Evangelii gaudium : Apostolic Exhortation, accessed November 2013,

[xix] See

[xx] I think that it is not wrong to talk about “externalizing knowledge” per se, even as I think it is better to talk about “knowledge” that does not reside in actual human beings as information, simply in order to highlight the importance of the personal aspect (here, see Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge). The question simply revolves around what we want to make sure remains in our “working memories” as well. Along these lines, E.F. Schumacher offers some general observations about this kind of internal “mapmaking” that seem to me most helpful:

Mapmaking is an empirical art that employs a high degree of abstraction but nonetheless clings to reality with something akin to self-abandonment. Its motto, in a sense, is “Accept everything: reject nothing.” If something is there, if it has any kind of existence, if people notice it and are interested in it, it must be indicated on the map, in its proper place……What is the value of a description if it omits the most interesting aspects and features of the object being described?

Schumacher, E. F. 1977. A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Harper & Row, 7, 118.

Is all “pattern recognition” valid? Is it reasonable to think that we can creatively “synthesize information” any way we intuit? I submit that reality not infinitely malleable, i.e., “it can’t be carved up just any way” as David Weinberger said a few years ago. The University of Chicago sociologist Andrew Abbot shares the interesting observation, that [even] in library-based work [historians, English literature, etc], there is “a taste for reinterpretation that is clever and insightful but at the same time founded in evidence and argument.” If we go with Schumacher’s map-making analogy above, it becomes clear that we human beings need very complex maps, because as Abbot says: “Meaning has an extraordinary multiplicity that cannot be easily captured by the rigidly limited vocabularies of variables and standard methods”. Quotes from Andrew Abbot, “The Traditional Future: A Computational Theory of Library Research” [pre-print], eventually published in College & Research Libraries vol. 69 no. 6, November 2008, pp. 524-545

[xxi] Carr, Nicholas, “All Can Be Lost: the Risk of Putting All Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines,” The Atlantic, November, Carr starts out the article talking about how pilots have had difficulty working with automatic pilot in some situations – unaccustomed to flying the plane themselves, when the automatic pilot has failed, this has recently led to some major crashes. Perhaps this bit from the article is preview of his upcoming book, The Glass Cage: The first automatic pilot, dubbed a “metal airman” in a 1930 Popular Science article, consisted of two gyroscopes, one mounted horizontally, the other vertically, that were connected to a plane’s controls and powered by a wind-driven generator behind the propeller. The horizontal gyroscope kept the wings level, while the vertical one did the steering. Modern autopilot systems bear little resemblance to that rudimentary device. Controlled by onboard computers running immensely complex software, they gather information from electronic sensors and continuously adjust a plane’s attitude, speed, and bearings. Pilots today work inside what they call “glass cockpits.” The old analog dials and gauges are mostly gone. They’ve been replaced by banks of digital displays. Automation has become so sophisticated that on a typical passenger flight, a human pilot holds the controls for a grand total of just three minutes. What pilots spend a lot of time doing is monitoring screens and keying in data. They’ve become, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say, computer operators….” For more on the difficulties encountered with the automation of fighter jet cockpits, see Bade, David. 2012. “IT, That Obscure Object of Desire: On French Anthropology, Museum Visitors, Airplane Cockpits, RDA, and the Next Generation Catalog”. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly. 50 (4): 316-334.

[xxii] Miller, Matt. 2013. Thought-Controlled Computing. This…Is Interesting. podcast radio program. Santa Monica: KCRW News, July 31. (with guest Ariel Garten)

[xxiii] Carr: “I don’t have a microchip in my head – yet,” says the man charged with transforming Google’s relations with the technology giant’s human users. But Scott Huffman does envisage a world in which Google microphones, embedded in the ceiling, listen to our conversations and interject verbal answers to whatever inquiry is posed.

Ceilings with ears. A dream come true.

It’s clear now that Google and Microsoft  have to bury the hatchet, if only to collaborate on a system combining the Microsoft Nudge Bra with the Google Ambient Nag. So when the Nudge Bra picks up a stress-related eating urge, the Ambient Nag will be able to say something like, “Do you really want those Twizzlers?”

The voice from the ceiling is only the beginning. Eventually, Huffman suggests, the Ambient Nag will become indistinguishable from the voice of your conscience:

Google believes it can ultimately fulfil people’s data needs by sending results directly to microchips implanted into its user’s brains. … “If you think hard enough about certain words they can be picked up by sensors fairly easily. It’ll be interesting to see how that develops,” Mr Huffman said.

Nicholas Carr, “Voice From Above,” Rough Type (blog), December 12, 2013, 4:01 PM,

[xxiv] Miller, Matt. 2013. Thought-Controlled Computing. This…Is Interesting. podcast radio program. Santa Monica: KCRW News, July 31. (with guest Ariel Garten)

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Posted by on February 9, 2015 in Uncategorized


Word & Image Revisited, Again

Word & Image Revisited, Again

What is happening where I work (Concordia St. Paul) this Thursday at 7 pm…

God in the Gallery

Next week I will deliver a lecture on art and the Lutheran Reformation as part of the Reformation Heritage Lecture Series at Concordia University-St. Paul. For more information about the event, go here.

Below is the description of my talk. It will be videotaped so I plan to post it when it is made available.

Art historians, critics, and philosophers have not been kind to Luther. The Reformer is blamed for stripping the evocative mystery from the visual arts in order to privilege the preached word, transforming the sensuousness of aesthetic experience into a didactic tool in the service of illustrating a disembodied, rationalistic word. By subjugating the “image” to the “word,” Luther is presumed responsible for everything that has plagued the visual arts since the sixteenth century, both inside and outside the church.

In “Image & the Word: Art & the Lutheran Reformation,” I will revisit the relationship between…

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Posted by on February 2, 2015 in Uncategorized