When I was 12 years old, Steve Taylor released Squint, a disjointed solo album that I really enjoyed. The songs were a little uneven, but as a whole I enjoyed them. I was particularly fond of "Smug" and "Sock Heaven," and the opening track "The Lament of..." is a pretty awesome rock track as well.
I was never quite a fan of one of the hits, "Jesus is for Losers," but I accepted the message. The concept of the song is essentially "We're all broken, sinful losers and Jesus came to save us." Taylor was trying to send a classic evangelical message by turning it on its head.
I internalized that kind of messaging hard. I, Jeffrey Nordstrom, was a born horrible and unacceptable, such a horrible being that God had to send his son and kill him in order to make me acceptable.
The issue was, though, that I took it further. When I felt shameful, I assumed it was because I was intrinsically a shame; when people constructively criticized me, I assumed it was due to my sinful, broken nature; when I felt like crap, I felt like I deserved it; when people complimented me or praised me, I talked myself down in order to remind myself of mine and the world's sin of pride. Although I always knew I was an OK person, any time I even slightly felt negative about myself, I had an all-encompassing, supernatural reason to confirm my bias of wretchedness.
In the end, I never stood up for myself. Standing up for myself was evidence of pride. When I'd get yelled at or criticized or told-off, I just thought I deserved it. Sometimes I'd stand up for myself once, but after repeated attacks I'd assume the problem was with me. When I got called names, I'd think "There must be truth to this" and try to own it. It got me nowhere.
It didn't help that this brokenness seemed so virtuous in the religious circles I worked in. I heard so many sermons from so many different pulpits that seemed to back up this message, that I was horrible and only "worthy" if Jesus covered my sins. Being a "slave to Christ" was an ideal that I heard many times, and "turning the other cheek" was seen as a prime directive. Although I've moved on from those beliefs, they still sting in the back of my head every time I see someone act more patient, more generous, more thoughtfully than myself. These beliefs sit deep in my consciousness.
For the last few months, I feel like I've been redeveloping a bit of a sense of self. I'm a little more at peace with myself more than I have for a while. For the last few years, with therapy, counselling, reading, and vulnerable openness with friends, I feel like I've been developing a bit of a... me. I've been learning to accept that I'm allowed to have needs, to set boundaries, and to do things for myself now and then.
But then I realize just how far I have to go. I catch myself cursing myself, calling myself names, the same things I was called through all those years of supplicance. This will likely be a lifetime of deprogramming and trying to learn new systems. I need to set up better routines in my life and need to learn how to use my time more wisely, to motivate myself to do the things that make me happy. I think these things and then I curse myself again and it all starts all over again.
That's all. I have a long way to go because I started at a really low place. But I'm taking steps forward every day. So it'll be alright.
In October of 2016, I voluntarily took a psychological exam. I wanted to see if my perception was all wrong, if I was looking at the world through a decidedly selfish, narcissistic lens. After bouts of therapy and counselling, the dissolution of my marriage, and loads of reading, I felt confused and frustrated. I wanted to see if I was as horrible as I sort-of felt I was. Maybe I just wanted to talk. For whatever reason, I took this exam-thing,
I can't find the online reference I made to it; I wrote a summary post on Tumblr, but perhaps I deleted it. The main thing I remember the psychologist saying, though, was "You seem to be of sound mind, but your values are all over the map." Essentially, I let myself be pulled around and don't really run with anything. Which is likely true.
I still find myself being pulled around this way. I still battle with trusting my gut enough to stand up for anything. When I do stand up for my values and what I believe is a good thing to do, I'm usually wracked with self-doubt. I'd say I'm doing better than I did a year ago, but I still find it hard to really stand up for anything. If someone suggests they have a better way of doing something, I tend to just go along with it. It takes deliberate, mind-wrenching effort to say, "I'd like to do this... this way... and I will follow that through."
I'm sure there's plenty of nature-nurture stuff to attribute this mindset to. Growing up in Baptist churches, I was frequently told told that I was a sinful wretch who didn't deserve anything without God's help, that Christianity was the only lens through which to see the world. My parents wanted me to follow the faith, but I don't think they intended for me to internalize as much of that type of negative teaching. When you have one authority figure after another telling you that you're horrible and incapable of navigating the world, and you really identify with that thinking, it's easy to let others abscond with your sense of perception; when shame and guilt are virtuous feelings to have to back up your wretchedness, and you're prone to shame and guilt, it ices the don't-trust-yourself cake. In my case, I believe it primed me for doubting my perception.
My counsellor suggested that I listen to Brené Brown's "Men, Women, and Worthiness," so I need to order that. I've read one of Brown's books before, but maybe it's time for me to return to her work again. Perhaps I'm a little more in touch with my shame than I used to be, and I might be able to take it on from a new angle.
I'd like to think I'm learning a little more about how it's OK to have values, boundaries, and needs, and that I'm allowed to try to be happy in my goals to be a good dad and good person. But I have a long way to go before I can feel confident in my own perception, confident that I won't hide behind tinted shame-glasses.
One step at a time.
Noisey posted this documentary on December 1, 2016, I Saw The Light. I watched it today. It's a well-made little film about Christian evangelical culture's relationship with music.
I attended a few Christian festivals with my church youth group: Sonfest in Abbotsford and Jesus Northwest in Vancouver, Washington, both in the mid-90s. As a Christian teenager, I had a good time at those festivals. I admit that I enjoyed the concert elements far more than preaching or "worship," so perhaps I didn't get the full experience as described in the documentary. But I remember feeling really good and meeting lots of other Christians who introduced me to really great music. I still listen to some of that music, even 20 years later, even after my faith has long gone.
A few days ago, I was filling up a couple booklets with CDs for my car. Going through the old CDs—all on spools at this point—I was a little bit floored that I had such a significant Christian music collection: Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Daniel Amos, Starflyer 59, etc.. I'll probably keep those CDs forever; they're an essential part of my collection.
Funny thing is, I've had The Hold Steady's "Chillout Tent" running through my head for the last few days, which tells a very different music festival story. Enjoy:
Should I feel guilty about enjoying this lovely, melodic, narrative drug-trip song? The Ottawa School Board might think so.
Makes me wonder what the Shewens are up to these days.
Today, as I rushed through Abbotsford to a job interview, I saw this sign for what appears to be a razed Bar and Grill: "JESUS IS LORD OVER ABBOTSFORD." Even though I was in a rush to get to the interview on time, I felt that I needed to talk about this one. So I did (embedded below).
Seriously. God's obsession with human politics in the Holy Land is absurdly provincial, weirdly local, and entirely irrelevant to people today, or even then. Clearly, the Old Testament is a political text intended to propagandize for particular political ends. As I mentioned in the video above, this bugged me while I was growing up. It was a strange contradiction to me to see how God seemed so political on such a small scale while he also happened to run the entire universe. The largeness of God and the minuteness of his prejudices were a contradiction that I never really sorted out, no matter which apologetics I adopted.
What God cares about these sort of politics? From Judges 3,
It just seems unnecessarily petty for a God of the Universe to use tactics like this.
Or how about this, from 1 Chronicles 11 in the KJV?
This is a whole bunch of political jibber-jabber. Why does God need to be involved in any of this? The answer is that He doesn't need to be there. All the characters would do just fine without the presence of a provincial, political, warrior god.
Again, it seems rather peevish of God to care about this. Such an omnipotent God wouldn't be very concerned about who smiteth who, or who rebuilds a city, right?
I love maps and pored over the maps in my Bibles for many hours in my youth. What about this map?
There we see a line dividing two nations. At some times, God liked one of them; at other times, God liked the other one. There's no way to get around the politics of this: clearly the writers of the texts would have a bias towards their own nation. Note that Jerusalem is on the "Judah" side of the line; guess which nation was usually favoured by God? And wouldn't the omnipotent God understand that political borders constantly shift, that they're arbitrary delineations of human tribal social organizations? I'd like to think that God wouldn't even notice our borders, but instead look directly at our hearts.
Again, this bugged me. And it still does. It seems strange to think that political decisions in the United States of America are often based on an interpretation of a 2000 year old political text from a different continent.
No matter what a person believes, I think it's important to have a clear idea of what type of a being they're worshipping. I, for one, was never at peace with the provincial god who takes sides in battles and sends "his people" to be slaves in other countries. This made it easy to adopt more "ecumenical" approaches to Christianity, ones that focused on unity and personal religious experience. Unfortunately for my faith's sake, that made my faith so subjective that I couldn't seem to reconcile aligning myself with the organizations any longer.
Even though I don't believe in that God anymore, the God I once worshipped was way bigger than the God of the Bible.
NOTE: DUE TO THE SENSITIVITY OF THE TOPIC, CHANCES ARE THAT I WILL BE EDITING THIS BLOG ENTRY A FEW TIMES OVER THE NEXT DAY OR SO. BEAR WITH ME.
The recent, socially and politically complex nightclub shooting in Orlando has prompted a whole load of anti-religion rhetoric. And justifiably so, sort-of: most recent analogous shootings — Dylann Roof notwithstanding — have been performed by people who claim to adhere to a certain religion: Islam. Since there is no reason for us to doubt someone's convictions and claims to follow any faith, we should not ignore or downplay it.. In the case of Orlando, the perpetrator, in his last act before the massacre, admitted his own Islamic religious angle himself. Religious identification is a common factor in the lives of people who perpetuate popularized violence in our worldwide culture today; I have no interest in trying to step around that fact.
However, saying "Muslims" or "Islam" or "religion" is the problem misses the mark by a wide margin. The religion isn't a problem on its own; a combination of factors is the problem.
If I have to identify with a belief system, I will admit that I am a secularlist. I see no need for religion in my own life or in the political sphere. In my experience, and through my reading, I've come to believe that religion in all its facets causes more problems than it solves. It misguides people; it promotes authoritarianism; it defies reason; it obfuscates social and personal development. Religion inherently creates arbitrary, evidence-free lenses that confuse people from a potentially clearer view of reality. I shed my religion in order to better understand my world, and for me it has worked.
But my fellow secularists like to point a singular finger at religion in situations like this, and I think that's also misguided. People are more complicated than their religious beliefs; culture is more complicated than religion, just as it's more complicated than economic factors. Pointing the finger at religion — or any other factor — creates a type of tunnel vision that misses out on the problem as a whole: that humans are animals living a far more complex lifestyle than any other animal has in the history of the world. We've made a real mess in our development as a civilisation and our brains haven't adapted as quickly as our societies have.
Humans need a lot of shit to thrive. We need support networks; we need stability around us; we need autonomy; we need a sense of belonging; we need to feel as if we make a difference in our world; we need to express ourselves; we need medication and therapy. In short, we need a balanced life, as far as we can get it.
And this can look like millions of different things. One balanced person might be a "pillar of their community" while another might be something more subtle. And it goes through changes over time and some people have to watch their balance more carefully than others.
There is one person in my life who found an explicit way to balance out her life: my sister. She struggled in normalized Western life. She was out of balance in the hectic expectations we place on young, beautiful women in our society. She battled with mindless, retail jobs and empathized with people to a degree that would seem to debilitate her. She struggled to maintain her religious identity in a world that expected so much of her time and energy.
But she was strong enough to do something about it, even though it was seemingly drastic.
She joined a convent in late 1997; she has been a nun for almost 20 years. There, she has found a way to live a life that seems as balanced as it can be. It has its stresses, but she found a place where she belongs, where she knows her place and role in the community, where she can make a contribution to her limited, but real world. Drastic move for a Baptist pastor's daughter? Certainly. But it was effective. Essentially, she saw a means to reach the top of Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs and embraced it full force.
Considering the news that's come out about Omar Mateen — that he was prone to rage, that he abused his wife, that he had a history of threatening people, that he would get angry when drunk and would drink in the corner of the bar alone — I think it's safe to say that he did not have a balanced life. I wouldn't be surprised if some sort of religious thinking legitimised his personal hatred of homosexuality. I imagine he had some severe morbidity of psychological disorders. He was a mess of a person, out of balance on many, many levels. He clearly lacked empathy and compassion. And he had access to guns that could shoot bullet after bullet after bullet. This is so tragic that I feel snobbish and elitist even attempting to put it into words.
I'm not going to point at his religion and say "His religion made him do it." That's a gross understatement, just as it is when people say "It was a mental disorder" or "He was ostracised." There is a wide swathe of factors that contributed to this case of "homegown extremism" and "self-redicalization." I refuse to point at a finger at a single snapshot as if it could tell the whole story.
Some secularists might suggest that Omar Mateen was just fulfilling the "essence" of his religion. I've heard many secular activists say things like "The extremists are the ones who are actually practicing the religion the 'right' way." But there is no "right way" for something that's already baseless, already in their own heads. Nobody has a trump card on the "right way" to do something that has no foundation in the first place, neither those who claim the religion or those who criticize it. Successful religions are megamalleable: adaptability is the hallmark of any enduring idea — religious, political, social, or even personal. Religions that cannot adapt to the disparate ideas in people's brains die out.
And Omar Mateen adapted his religion too, just like everybody does. Through his own hateful, distorted lenses, for his own purposes, he killed. His religion was just a part of his already distorted, hateful, mindset. But it was not the cause. It was merely another factor among many, a rack on which to hang his hatred, disillusionment, and insecurity.
Besides, which religion would we blame anyhow? Islam? Or perhaps his internal religion of masculinity? or of hatred? or of honor?
It's just too messy to pinpoint.
To put it another way, if you're a secularist who wants to blame all of this on Omar's religion, or if you're a liberal who wants to pin it to his psychological disorders or family history, and you don't take the whole picture into account, you're no better than the guy who's saying that this happened because Obama let him.
We will always have imbalances in our world; we need to do our best to give everybody a chance to find their centre and balance in their own lives. Our culture's incessant focus on capital and growth thrives on instability, but we — as human being animals — don't.
And when we create a shifty, careless culture and then give people access to handheld, legal WMDs, we pay a terrifying price for this cultural instability.
When we mix religious ideas, politics, and psychological disorders or imbalances, we have a recipe for serious instability. All of these ideas are just that — ideas. And ideas are only real in the minds of people, and they're fluid and dynamic, and they create the mindsets and lenses by which we see the world. All these abstract layers of ideological blame are as unsteady as standing on a top-heavy Jenga tower, assembled on a trampoline.
I think that's what I appreciate about Obama's speech embedded below: he captures a level of pragmatic empathy that I believe is truly admirable in its forthright care for people.
UPDATE JUNE 16
This morning's diatribe on The Scathing Atheist drives this home from a different angle.
And Thomas at Atheistically Speaking also had some interesting conclusions:
YouTube: ephemeral ideas
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