Sunday, August 9, 2015

I realize it's been awhile since I've done a Geek List, and a friendly debate over on our friend Sam​'s wall gave me an idea. So, here it is- every Star Trek movie from best to worst. Disagree? Bring it on, nerd-boys.

1. The Wrath of Khan
2. The Undiscovered Country
3. First Contact
4. The Search for Spock
5. The Voyage Home
6. Generations
7. Star Trek the Motion Picture
8. Star Trek '09
9. The Final Frontier
10. Into Darkness
11. Insurrection
12. Nemesis

I like and frequently re-watch everything down to #5. #6-8 all have redeeming qualities, though they aren't great in my opinion. 9-12 are just about completely schlock and I only watch them when I'm feeling OCD completist or sadomasochistic.

Bonus Content! The Star Trek Series from best to worst:

1. The Original Series
2. Deep Space Nine
3. The Next Generation
4. The Animated Series
5. Voyager
6. Enterprise

The original always maintains it's place in my heart. The effects haven't aged well, and probably weren't great even at the time, and Lord knows it's melodramatic and absurd frequently, but the dynamic of the big three and the fact that it was an optimistic view of the future without quite as much socialist utopianism in it keep it fresh for me. Also, this version of Starfleet has "General Order 27," which, if invoked, triggers a starship to sterilize a planet of all life. Not only do they consider it a viable military option- they have goddamn General Order for it! Quite a shout from Picard's, "Starfleet is not a mil-ih-tar-y organization."

Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 really introduced the idea of extended story arcs for American Science Fiction television. DS9 explored more thoroughly the theme of a ultra-enlightened utopia having to survive against opponents who do not share their sentiments. As a result, Sisko was a deeper and more complex character than the other captains. See the season six episode, "In the Pale Moonlight," for evidence.

Next Gen comes right in the middle of the list. The crew of the Enterprise D get full marks for many things, reviving the franchise, for one, sticking the landing with, unquestionably, the best series finale of the lot for another. But Picard, brilliant as Patrick Stewart may be, is boring and predictable next to either James T. Kirk or Benjamin Sisko. And aside from Picard the cast is kinda, meh, except for Data.

The Animated Series is basically the Original Series. It surrenders two positions because the animation is 70s filmation (note the similarities to He-Man if you watch it in both visuals and sound effects) and because to fit Star Trek style philosophizing into a half-hour package, well, they're incredibly talky, dense cartoons. I like 'em, but I can't honestly recommend them to someone who isn't already pretty in love with Trek.

Voyager, so much potential squandered. By the mid point of the season the only interesting characters were a well-endowed former Borg drone and the holographic doctor. And yes, some of their episodes were entertaining, thought provoking and hilarious, but when the camera wasn't on them, I was bored out of my mind.

Enterprise. I have tried to watch Enterprise on four separate occasions and failed to get through the first season each time. I keep hearing that the last two season are better, except the finale, but the opening sucks so hard I've never gotten to them.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Books You Should Read, Epsiode 1: Gordon R. Dickson’s Dorsai!, The Silver Medal of Classic Military Science Fiction

I first read Gordon R. Dickson’s novel, Dorsai! (the exclamation mark is part of the title), when I was eleven years old. The novel follows the quasi-transcendent, mercenary genius Donal Graeme from his graduation of his world’s military academy through his ascent to the commander of the largest military force in human history.

Being both military minded and a little (maybe a lot… definitely too much) in love with my own intellect, the themes of the novel greatly appealed to me as a boy. It was good enough to stay on my re-reading cycle for several years, but I realized the other day that I hadn’t read it in the last half-decade or so.

Re-reading it as a thirty-two year old veteran and aspiring author, I find it’s still a good book but its flaws are a little more apparent.

Dorsai! and its attendant sequels, prequels and related books occupy a universe in which humanity inhabits eight different solar systems. Interstellar civilization is marked by an arguably unrealistic degree of specialization by each colony world. The resultant trading of skilled personnel back and forth between the worlds is the basis for the galaxy’s economy.

Some, like Venus and Newton, focus on feats of science and engineering, but the real stars of Dorsai! and every the other novel in this universe are the Splinter Cultures, each of which is focused on some particularly extreme philosophy.

The first are the Exotics who practice a combination of Hari Seldon’s psychohistory, Bene Gesserit breeding programs, and Hindu mysticism/philosophy. They are personally non-violent, but not philosophically pacifistic, ergo they have a closer relationship with the mercenary Dorsai than most despite their philosophical differences.

Then come the ironically named Friendlies who are all fundamental monotheists of various flavors and embody, in various characters, the potential for both extreme decency and irrational zealotry inherent to religious convictions.

Finally, we have the eponymous Dorsai of the planet Dorsai. They are the galaxy’s most elite mercenary soldiers. The Dorsai maintain a libertarian confederation of extended family units upon their world whilst exporting their military talent to the other worlds to support life back on their rugged and beautiful but resource-poor planet.

The novel’s primary strength is a compelling, if clearly overpowered, protagonist in Donal Graeme. A son of the Dorsai’s most prominent family, Donal engages in a meteoric political and military career in the pattern of a soldier/statesmen of the classical Mediterranean. He’s a science fictional Julius Caesar or Alcibiades, if you will, but with a morality more palatable to our modern sensibilities. Donal Graeme is both superhuman and super-humane in his goals and methods.

The novel’s primary weakness is its bloodlessness, both in its philosophy towards war and in its treatment of its characters.

Dickson does posit a few valid notions about war. First among these is the emphasis on simplicity in equipment and disdain for over-engineering—specifically with regard to infantry weapons. Dickson’s far-future mercenaries still use projectile rifles much like our own due to the impossibility of gimmicking such weapons from a distance.

The modern Army could take a cue from the ideas here. I’m not a military luddite, advanced weaponry has its place. Any weapon that relies upon a GPS or any external wireless signal to function at all, however, is going to be easily blunted in a fight against someone more advanced than Iraq. We are entirely too reliant upon radio and computer networks; so much so that the notion of a runner carrying orders back and forth is alien in practice, if not in theory, in the US Army.

But the primary military thesis of Dorsai! is the promotion of the indirect theory of maneuver warfare. That is, the idea that the primary aim of any commander should always be to maneuver and deceive his enemy into an entirely untenable position before engaging in battle, or better yet, accepting the enemy’s surrender when he realizes the hopelessness of his situation.

Tom Kratman examines the flaws of this theory and its relation to Decision Cycles in modern American military theory more skillfully than I could here at the Baen website.

From the standpoint of the novel, this translates into all of Donal’s victories being the result of clear, quick decisions on his part with few if any enemy actions or random factors bearing on the tactical problem. Each victory is decisive from his first outing as a platoon leader to his final triumph as commander of a multi-planetary joint space/ground force.

The issue I have with this, the issue anybody who has led in combat, or even seriously trained as a combat leader should have, is that it captures none of the chaos, confusion and ambiguity of war.

Every time a ground combat leader makes a decision, he does so with less than perfect information about the enemy and about his own forces, almost always under duress and, depending on echelon, while in personal danger. He then issues his orders not to unfeeling machines, but to troops who, no matter how well-trained, are themselves susceptible to the stresses of the environment and combat. The result is virtually never the neat, orderly action that Dorsai portrays.

Furthermore, aside from Donal and his antagonist, William (an evil super-genius commodities/stock trader), the characters are almost uniformly flat. The biggest offender is the love interest, Anea. I’m more willing than many to make allowances for generational differences in how women are perceived when judging books, but Anea is just plain boring in any era. Despite being allegedly bred for superior intellect and moral judgment by the aforementioned Exotics, she spends the majority of the book being a childish ninny until at the very end when she decides she loves Donal for no apparent reason.

No reason that is, until the head Exotic explains that she was bred to have the hots for the most powerful man in the galaxy- so much so that she couldn’t resist marrying him, whoever he was. They actually wanted her to marry the bad guy, William, to smooth his rough edges. But since Donal beat William, lucky her, she gets the hero instead. Phew!

And she isn't even pissed when they tell her this.

Compare Anea with any of Heinlein’s talented and valiant heroines from Podykane of Mars to Wyoming Knott to Hazel Stone or even Carmen Ibanez for her brief appearances in Starship Troopers (THE MOVIE NEVER HAPPENED) and she’s just a sad, sad character. To be fair to Dickson, though, he proves that he can write compelling women in later works. Specifically, Amanda Morgan the First in Spirit of the Dorsai is a multi-dimensional and sympathetic treatment of the stern-matriarch archetype.

Despite all the harsh criticism I’ve just leveled at the book, it is still a classic and well worth the read, especially since it is such a short read. Dickson uses the super-competent arch-rivals trope about as well as anyone in Donal and his archenemy, William of Ceta. The conflict is more interesting for the mismatch of professional soldier versus economic genius. The concepts behind the setting are cool and make for a good milieu—even if they’re not terribly plausible in my opinion. Furthermore, it’s foundational to the Dorsai Series, also known as the Childe Cycle.

There are many superior volumes in the Childe Cycle, including the two other Dorsai books; Spirit of the Dorsai and Lost Dorsai. Each of these is actually two novelettes combined. All four stories are exceptional. The story of Michael deSandoval in Lost Dorsai actually contains the only pacifist in all of fiction that I have ever found sympathetic. I also recommend Soldier, Ask Not and Young Bleys, which showcase protagonists from outside the Spartan culture of the Dorsai. You can read the four books I’ve just named with no background, but the experience will be richer if you start at the start with Dorsai!.

David Drake, himself a luminary in the sub-genre of military science fiction, claims that Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Dickson's Dorsai! are the standards against which all other military science fiction should be judged. I don’t necessarily think he’s wrong, but I think there’s a clear reason Starship Troopers is the better known and more widely read of the two. Dickson wrote an important book, but Heinlein wrote one that was just as important and much more fun.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Justin's Moderate Length Opinion

There's so much crap going around about the SCOTUS's ruling, I'm actually kind of sick of it and lost my will to write one of my dreaded walls of text (TM). Here's the short (for me) (no pun intended) version:

I wish this had been allowed to happen through legislation rather than judicial fiat. The justices are nigh irremovable from their office and their rulings basically insurmountable once made. The hardest check on them is the extremely limited scope of their power. Perhaps there is wiggle room to argue that they didn't overstep their bounds given the precedent of Marshall's opinion on the broader purpose of judicial review as stated in Marbury versus Madison, but I still say they overstepped the spirit of their constitutional duties, if not the letter of them. My lawyer friends are free to chime in with their opinions.

Yes, I have friends who are lawyers, like you don't have shady acquaintances.

That being said, going hog-wild and completely redefining the entire process of judicial review, nomination, confirmation and allowing congress to remove justices they don't like would be an even bigger fracture in the system, so, no, we shouldn't do that either.

I just want everyone to start respecting the damned rules again. That is a bipartisan complaint, btw. The thing that keeps us from shooting each other is a functioning republic, once that truly breaks down it becomes a matter of who can bribe, coerce and, eventually, kill their way to what they want. Yes, that's dramatic, but seemingly stable societies have collapsed numerous times in history. The results are inevitably worse than the status-quo-ante-collapse.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Justin's Lengthy and Unsolicited Opinion, Episode 3

Race and the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia

This is may be my most complex rant to date, so please, if you start this, finish it. If you’re going to be pissed at me, I want you pissed at me for what I actually believe, not a sentence fragment.

I was going to leave this subject alone, I swear, but Andrew Walton, my battery First Sergeant and a man whom I respect a great deal, posted this video on the subject. It is too reductionist in that it implies the only reason to fly a Confederate battle flag (or, more properly, the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia) is to support racist ideals, but there are still some valid points here.

I personally do not fly the battle flag, nor would I fly any confederate flag. Whatever else it represents, and I do think it's more complex than slavery/segregation/racism, it was the battle flag of an enemy army. I am a citizen and was a soldier of the United States of America. That we reconciled with and reintegrated the Confederacy, that some of my own ancestors fought for the South, does not change the fact that my primary loyalty is always to my country, not just to any one region. Ergo, while I respect and even admire the martial virtue of the Confederate Army, I will not fly their flag on my vehicle or outside my home.

Furthermore, I really don't like the argument of omission that slavery was a minor factor in the Civil War and it was all about "state's rights." Yes, it was about state's rights, the right to own slaves.

Admittedly, it was not about slavery from the Union's perspective. There's no freaking way Lincoln was going to start the Civil War for the purpose of abolishing slavery. From politician to private, the Union's war aim was primarily to preserve the Union, freeing slaves was an incidental, and only applied to confederate states during the war, not slave holding states that remained in the Union.

But from the Confederacy's perspective, the continuing addition of more and more free states to the Union caused them to worry they would eventually be forced to abandon their "peculiar institution" by the majority. It was an essential factor in their decision to secede. In summary; the Union was not the shining force of abolitionist paladins we read about in third grade, but the Confederacy wasn't the not-really-racist, liberty-loving rebels some people want to pretend they were, either.

Let’s see, some other arguments I want to debunk before we go on…

From the Confederacy’s sympathizers:
“Well, if the South had just won, they probably would have abolished slavery eventually on their own AND it would’ve been a great victory for states’ rights,” Maybe. I don’t know. And neither do you. Counterfactuals make for fun novels and useful mental exercise, but the fact remains that we don’t KNOW that slavery was going to end due to anything short of war.

"But the vast majority of Confederate soldiers didn't own slaves, it was mostly the rich in the south who owned slaves." True statement, but those average, middle class and poor soldiers were taking orders from senior officers and politicians largely drawn from the slave-owning class. Thus, while their personal motivation may have been to repel what they saw as an invading army (and who can argue with a man’s right to defend his home?), they were, in effect, defending the institution of slavery. I'm not trying to demonize them, they were probably largely regular guys doing the best they thought they could, but they fought for an evil cause. Historically speaking, they’re hardly alone in that.

From the Left-wing contingent of our audience:
“So, Justin, we SHOULD order it taken down then, right? See- you’re actually a liberal!”

No. We shouldn’t, and no, I’m not. While I wouldn’t fly one personally, there are places where the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia is utterly appropriate. A memorial for the Confederate Army is one such example, and, yes, the Confederate Army deserves to have its memorials. Jesus, even the WWII Wermacht has its memorials.

“But you’re denouncing any private citizen flying the ANV battle flag as a racist, right? Come on, give in to the power of intellectual snobbery and be a ‘'smart' conservative by bashing the rednecks with us...”

No, I’m not doing that either. I disagree with individuals flying the battle flag of the ANV in a place where they might display the stars and stripes instead for reasons stated above. But I do not presume that anybody who disagrees with my reasoning hates black people or wants to return to the antebellum wholesale- because that’s a stupid assumption. I know guys who have displayed the battle flag who are as demonstrably not racist as you can possibly be. As an aside, it’s incredibly difficult to prove a negative, which is what makes a charge of racism such a handy tool for anyone losing an argument. Let us just say I saw the content of their character in garrison and combat and could not detect the slightest hint of racial favoritism or antipathy.

It is possible to take pride in your ancestor’s virtues while acknowledging their sins. No, it’s not just possible, it’s essential. You know why? Because if you examine your family tree with any degree of honesty, there’s going to be a lot of shame there- I don’t give a damn what ethnicity you are. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still be proud of your heritage, because there’s also likely something there to be proud of.

White southerners should not lie to themselves about the Confederacy, but they should be allowed to retain some pride for those ways in which their antecedents were admirable. And the fact is the CSA fought a better supplied and numerically superior enemy to a standstill for years- from a military perspective, they were impressive and, as aforementioned, the common Confederate soldier probably did believe he was just protecting his homeland from invasion. He was wrong, he was also keeping black people in chains by default, but his motives weren’t quite as purely evil as some are trying to paint.

I truly believe that most folks who embrace the rebel flag aren’t trying to show support for the KKK, or segregation or any number of other racist ideas or causes. They’re not thinking of George Wallace, or Woodrow Wilson or LBJ, they’re thinking of Robert E. Lee as portrayed by Martin Sheen, or Tom Berenger as Longstreet, or Richard Jordan as Armistead. And while Ted Turner did give us a squeaky clean vision of the Civil War in the movie, Gettysburg, the fact is there were admirable qualities about those real men, even as there were things we rightly revile about the Confederacy.

So, no, I don’t assume someone flying the battle flag is racist. I’m not sneering at you if you’ve got one outside your house or on your bumper. I get it. Separately, but related, I also would violently oppose, and that’s not hyperbole, any attempt by the government to force citizens not to display the battle flag or any other symbol, however controversial. This is America and if we give up on something as basic as freedom of speech we will have lost too much, no matter how offensive the voices we silence.

But when Top tells me that he sees the battle flag as hateful and that it offends him, it damn well gives me pause. Andrew Walton is not part of the screeching horde of the perpetually offended. The great American people have basically destroyed the meaning of the word hero by hanging it on every swinging Richard in a uniform, not to mention anyone who has ever been trolled on the internet for an unpopular life style choice, but Top is actually a certified freaking hero. He was decorated for valor for saving another man’s life in Iraq (while being wounded himself in the process) and, furthermore, is one of the most capable, self-motivated people I know- this is not one of the world’s professional victims.

That doesn’t mean I defer to his opinion because badass. I didn’t even do that when I was his commander, although I damned well listened carefully to everything he ever had to say to me… except maybe a few entreaties to be more politic when dealing with my superiors... oops.

But if he thinks the flag is offensive, then that’s at least one honest man who thinks so; not a race baiter, not a bigot- a damned good man. The least I, and you, should do is not dismiss that opinion out of hand.

I’ve rambled a bit more than usual, but I’ll try to tie it up neatly as possible.

1. No, the South should not remove all confederate symbols from everything ever and wear hair shirts for being descended from a slave-holding society.

2. It would probably be a nice and considerate thing to question when, where and in what manner it is appropriate to display those symbols not as a matter of law but as one of courtesy. No, that won’t be enough to appease the shrill cries of the professional race baiters, but to hell with them anyway, I’m worried about what’s actually right, not what demagogues think.

3. When you see some dude with a battle flag on his truck, there’s a good chance it’s got nothing to do with racism in his mind. Likewise, when someone objects to the battle flag, you should consider the possibility that it’s not about white guilt, but upon his honest evaluation of the flag’s symbolism in history. We have to go back to assuming good faith until conclusively proven otherwise in this country. It's difficult, I know, but that leads me to-

4. Ad hominem may be a fallacy, but considering the source is still a valid practice. If a whiny college kid is bitching about your privilege and the evils of white patriarchy, I'm probably going to ignore it. We're all entitled to our opinions, but some have backed those opinions with more than hot air.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Justin's Lengthy and Unsolicited Opinion, Episode Two

Justin’s Lengthy and Unsolicited Opinion, Episode Two- now lengthier, and with anecdotes!

Well, really episode five hundred and something, more likely, but I’ve just started numbering them, so we’ll go with two.

A Tale of Four Christians

Yes, there is an actual story here, but first some background and scriptural stuff.

The genesis of this essay lies in a comment from my friend Ori’s FB wall where he reposted my first L&UO regarding homosexuality and the Church. It was a great discussion, but I eventually walked away due to internet argument fatigue (yes, even I am susceptible). One of the commenters there opined that shunning open and unrepentant homosexuals would be an appropriate and scripturally sound policy on the church’s part.

This individual’s argument, troubling as many of you may find it, is not without basis in the Bible. Amongst other passages, 1 Corinthians Chapter 5, Romans Chapter 16, 2 Thessalonians Chapter 3 and 2 John Chapter 1 all indicate that followers of Christ should avoid the socializing with unrepentant sinners.

The low hanging fruit would be to point out that the church, to avoid a great big plank in its own eye, would also have to ferret out and shun everyone who hadn’t repented of greed, drunkenness, idolatry (and keep in mind, there are far more subtle and varied forms of idolatry than dancing naked around a golden statue), and all other forms of sexual immorality. That argument hardly proposes a solution, though, and this fellow’s opinion might be that the church should do just that, so let’s not linger here.

Tangentially, it is important to note that some of these passages refer specifically to other Christians who are flagrantly immoral, and not necessarily unbelievers, in 1 Corinthians 5:12 (ESV), Paul writes, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?”

In 1 Corinthians Chapter 6 Paul notes of sinners, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” And in Galations 6:1, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” I don’t think I need to number the occasions Jesus reclaimed those who were lost. Clearly, grace abounds.

I do not mean that these scriptures contradict each other- they don’t. I mean (and this should be no surprise to anyone who is trying to live a Christian life outside a hermitage) that there is always a tripartite tension between standing up for what is right, allowing room for those that have strayed to return to the fold and trying not to stray yourself in the process.

I believe this is God’s intention for Christian life to balance and strengthen our own faith and convictions with patience and compassion for others. You have to do all three at once or you’re not doing it right. Pro-tip: None of us is doing it right, but that shouldn’t stop you from doing your best.

Which brings me to Lassen Union High School, just before the turn of the century.

As a teenager, I was utterly assured that the collection of Hebrew mythology known as the Bible was no more real than the fantasy novels I devoured and not as fun to read (except for the stretch from Joshua capturing the promised land to the reign of Solomon, those chapters make Game of Thrones seem tame).

If there was an intelligent Prime Cause, a possibility I grudgingly conceded, why would He/She/It favor some random Semitic tribe of sheep herders with the ONLY spiritual truth over, say, the ancient Egyptians or the Athenians or the Han Chinese? It seemed too random to countenance.

Being in love with the sound of my own voice (some things never change), I was not shy about my opinion on religious matters.

The first eponymous Christian of this tale is a girl I will not name. We traveled in many of the same circles because of honors classes and other nerdy school things. We were, if not friends, then friendly acquaintances.

Right up until the day she told me with smug assurance that I was going to hell, as were all my other atheist, agnostic and Mormon friends and family. There was no sorrow, no regret, no hint of empathy, not even the faintest echo of, “Forgive them for they know not what they do,” just the self-righteous satisfaction that she was the elect, favored by God over her fellow man. In retrospect and fairness, I’m sure I had antagonized her as well in that conversation, so she probably deserves a little more slack than I’m cutting her, but that was the impression I received.

Regardless, have you any idea how easy an interaction like that makes it for a prideful young person to dismiss your beliefs? Oh yeah, not only do you believe some bronze age nonsensical fairy tale with talking snakes and donkeys, you’re also a bunch of uppity A-holes.

The second and third Christians I will name. They are my dear friends, Jake Hosier and Stacy Reger. They were far from my only Christian friends. In fact, I remember a few theological discussions with Anthony Prince, who is now a pastor, and my friends Joseph Turner and Beau Haertling were never ashamed of their Mormon faith. That’s hardly an exhaustive list of Christian friends in my high school.

But Jake and Stacy were the closest friends I had in that phase of my life. Jake stayed at my house so frequently that my parents might as well have had joint custody of him. Stacy is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a sister and was my confidant through the now-trivial problems of adolescence as well as the genuinely dark days that followed high school.

When the subject came up, and when you’re that close it does pretty frequently, neither gave up an inch on their faith. Neither of them nerfed the scripture to make me more comfortable. Neither of them made me feel like they loved me one iota less for not sharing their belief.

Predictably, I’m the fourth Christian from the title. Why I came to accept Jesus in college after an adolescence of unbelief and merry debauchery is another story. Suffice it to say, I had a personal, internal and revelatory experience in which God made it clear to me it was time to accept or deny Him. I accepted Him, and I struggle to keep accepting Him every day.

Afterwards, I saw the hypocrisy of painting Christianity with one broad brush because of the Self-Righteous Girl and her ilk when I’d had many Christian friends who were absolutely wonderful to me, despite my unbelief and the fact that I was, well, am, a smartass, opinionated little jerk sometimes.

As I said, grace abounds.

Furthermore, I recognized that those friends, and especially Jake and Stacy, were given to me as examples of how to interact with friends and loved ones who do not believe without compromising my faith. Even though I was never swayed during those teenage conversations, their conduct and words stayed with me, laying a piece of a foundation I didn’t know existed. Truly, they prepared the way of the Lord.

All this to say, when you interact with others, you don’t know what’s going to stick. My brothers and sisters in Christ, only God can save a soul, it’s true. But when you face the maker of Heaven and Earth, would you rather be the one who planted a mustard seed or gave an unbeliever pause to consider Christianity in a more positive light through your deeds and words, or the one who pushed them away through being a self-righteous douchebag?

Sin is sin, in a spiritual sense no one sin is worse than another, but my spiritual state was arguably much worse than a homosexual Christian’s. I wasn’t just engaging in sinful behavior, I was in utter and total rebellion against God. And yet those who had patience and empathy with me, without surrendering their own faith, were the ones who mattered in the end.

So am I saying we can ignore all those pesky passages about staying out of the company of unrepentant sinners?

No. It’s the Word of God, we don’t get to ignore any of it. We wrestle with every jot and line or we’re not being faithful.

Yet another pro-tip, all of us are unfaithful sometimes, just repent and get your ass back on the wagon. Read the bible, most of the folks depicted in it made a career of doing just that.

Third pro-tip, the scripture is inerrant, your understanding of it is not. That’s why I say we wrestle with it, always invoking the aid of the Holy Spirit.

Two things to consider here- whether we’re talking about homosexuality or some other sin, many people have not accepted Christ and your shunning isn’t going to have much effect on them, if anything, it will simply make any steps towards faith and salvation more difficult.

And two, all followers of Christ have ongoing sin in their lives. Every last one of us, it’s why Christ’s intercession is foundational. Try as we might, we cannot earn our salvation. Kick out everyone who has a sin they haven’t repented of yet and the sanctuary is going to be mighty empty come Sunday.

So when do you shun? In my opinion, you shun when you have talked, and ministered, and reproofed and loved as much as you possibly can and there is nothing left for you to do in that person’s life. When that person becomes a temptation or a poison, which is not to say merely a challenge, to your faith. When the only likely result of your relationship is damage- then you shun.

It’s not an easy answer, it requires case by case judgment and we, as “rational” Westerners, break into hives at such subjective criteria, but if you do not engage with unbelievers and Christians whose interpretation you disagree with, you’re not doing much to spread the Word.

And engagement isn’t just flinging bible verses from across the room hoping that they’ll stick. It’s relational and requires actual empathy, not just judgment. Don’t ever change God’s word in an effort to be popular or PC, but don’t forget that you are talking to another human being and, whether they have acknowledged it or not, another child of God. No matter how screwed up they are, God loves them and would have them come home. You can't lie to get them there, but a browbeating or cold shoulder may not move them along the road, either.

Yeah, I know, the guy who killed people for ten years for a living is lecturing you on empathy. Empathy was the primary reason I took and kept that profession as long as I did in the first place, but that is yet another essay.

Finally, even if you're really good about this, even if you are extremely careful about separating sinner from sin in your dialogue, people are still going to call you stupid, backwards, ignorant and bigoted for holding to the scripture- but you will know you're doing your best to love God and love your neighbor. More importantly, God will know.

Thus ends the rant. I’m no theologian, but I hope I have given you something to think about and maybe a small chuckle or two along the way. Peace be with you.

Justin Lengthy and Unsolicited Opinion

It’s time for Justin’s Lengthy and Unsolicited Opinion, slow Friday afternoon edition.

Religion and politics in one post. No matter who you are you will probably disagree with and possibly be offended by something I’m about to say. Also, if you’re not a Christian or interested in theology, you may just not care about the lion’s share of this essay. You have been warned.

I openly support marriage equality as a secular concept, though I utterly despise the tactics of a lot of gay rights activists with regard to this particular debate. Specifically, the law is not a club to get people to approve of your way of life. To protect you from physical harm, slander or libel, yes, but not to violate others’ right to free association or punish them for their opinions- no matter how objectionable you may find those opinions. It’s called rule of law, not rule of feels and it protects asshole and saint equally. The being said, the government cannot pick and choose which ostensibly lifelong romantic relationships it’s going to recognize based on religious criteria.

But don’t get too happy with me, my liberal friends, because…

I cannot pretend that homosexual marriage is in accordance with anything remotely resembling sound Christian doctrine. I really, really, REALLY want to, believe me, and I’ve been wrestling with my opinion on the issue for a few years now.

I’ve always described myself, simplistically, as something like a moderate libertarian within our borders and something like an unrepentant imperialist outside them. I was these two things long before I accepted my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Ergo, my two ingrained philosophical instincts, and I fully acknowledge I am not entirely rational where they are concerned (then again, who is?), are:

1. The United States of America is awesome and unique, despite her myriad flaws and sins.

2. All human beings should be allowed to do whatever the hell they want as long as they are not demonstrably harming their fellow man. In terms of secular law, if not religious and spiritual conviction, this is still the basis of my opinion on any given issue.

But just because the Church cannot and should not enforce scripture via the government does not mean she should simply surrender her principles in those debates where sin and law clearly do not overlap. The Church should not ignore the inspired word of God because it has become inconvenient and highly uncomfortable to live it. In short- the Church should not lobby against secular homosexual weddings- but pastors and priests shouldn’t be performing them either.

Have I managed to piss everyone off, Left and Right, yet? Wait, there’s more!

I’ve attended Methodist churches since I became a Christian. In complete honesty, this was the default choice largely due to Michele growing up a Methodist. Regardless, it has been, I think, a good fit. Methodists run a wide gamut politically, philosophically and theologically. Base on my own anecdotal experience, I’d guess the average Methodist is more liberal than an average Southern Baptist, more conservative than an average Episcopalian.

Episcopalians already allow openly homosexual priests and leave their clergy latitude to perform homosexual marriages. I doubt Southern Baptists, by and large, will ever accept homosexuals with anything other than gritted teeth and attempted conversion therapy. Methodists are wrestling with the issue at present, I expect the denomination will have to sway one way or another and possibly schism over it.

My emotions are with the liberals on this. I want to be accepting, I want to tell my homosexual brothers and sisters in Christ that their sexual orientation doesn’t violate the scripture and they should feel free to love whomever they choose, provided we’re talking about consenting adults, of course.

But I just can’t. Oh, I can like and love homosexuals, but I can’t pretend that I know their behavior isn’t sinful. It’s not in accordance with the scripture, even if you squint and look sideways, it’s still not quite there. I know- I’ve tried.

I’m going to unpack the most common arguments I hear in favor of Christian recognition of homosexual marriage and why I think they fall apart under scrutiny.

1. Well, Leviticus/Deuteronomy has all kinds of dietary/clothing/customary restrictions you don’t follow, how is homosexual conduct, and therefore gay marriage, any different?

Response: Jesus Christ did not abolish the law, but he did fulfill it. Many of the disciplines of the ancient Jews are not necessary for Christians because our new covenant takes their place. You can find elaborations on this topic in the gospel of Matthew and in Paul’s letter to Timothy, off the top of my head, I’m sure there are other places. There is no such easement when it comes to the restrictions against homosexual conduct. I am dying for someone to prove me wrong on that.

2. Jesus doesn’t say anything about homosexual conduct in the gospels.

Response: Well, he does reiterate what the book of Genesis said about marriage, “for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, etc.,” but I’m going to go ahead and give my imaginary opponent the point, the gospels do not specifically condemn homosexual behavior. But the Old Testament does without being specifically modified by the New Testament and so do a couple different epistles IN the New Testament. Is the cornerstone of your argument that being Christian entitles you to ignore the other sixty-two books of the bible? How is that sound theology?

3. Jesus says to love your neighbor as yourself, how is counseling homosexuals that their only holy options are abstention from romantic and sexual love or “conversion” therapy loving in any way?

Response: The best argument of the lot, in my opinion. I’ve used it myself. And based on my own limited experience, it does seem cruel to tell homosexuals that they are simply wired so that they can never have a romantic relationship that isn’t sinful. I’ll come out now (no, not that kind of coming out) and say I suspect conversion therapy is ninety-nine and forty-four one hundredths percent pure bullshit. I don’t believe I or anyone else can convert a gay man into wanting sex and romance with women any more than one could convert me into wanting sex and romance with dudes. That just doesn’t make any fucking sense.

This third argument continues to haunt me and sow doubt, because I know how deeply sad my life would be without my wife and it is not beyond my capability to imagine that a gay man might feel as deeply for another man what I feel for her. I cannot reconcile it except to say that we are not supposed to follow Christ only when it makes us feel good, only when we know it’s going to turn out okay, or even only when we agree with him philosophically. We are supposed to follow, not mindlessly or unquestioningly, but in genuine faith and, uncomfortable as this word is for modern Westerners, obedience.

What does that all mean in practical terms? Well, to reiterate, nothing legally. The Church does not wield the authority of the government, and the government does not wield the authority of the Church. As it applies to how Christians should treat homosexuals on a personal level, it sure as shit isn’t a justification for anyone to be an asshole towards or exclude homosexuals, including open and unrepentant homosexuals, from worship.

If you’re reading this then you’re likely one of my friends, which means you’re friends with someone who has sinned and does sin and will continue to need Christ’s intercession for his sins. No, I’ve never wrestled with same sex attraction, but I’ve got plenty of other deeds and thoughts in my ledger that would send me straight to hell with a first class ticket on an SR-71 if it weren’t for Jesus. We are all broken, our fractures are just in different places. I understand that you have repent of your sins to be forgiven of them, but how the hell do you expect anyone to repent when you try to exclude them from the body of the church or make them feel like their special sin makes them double bad because it happens to be a hot topic right now?

If anyone has a good scriptural argument to prove me wrong about this, please, by all means, lay it on me.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Trauma, Coping and Parenting

In which Justin starts talking about PTSD and ends up talking about parenting… yeah, you’ve been warned.

The other day I read an interesting blog post by mil-fantasy author and Coast Guard veteran Myke Cole regarding PTSD. In the post, Coyle challenges the classical violent nightmares/flashbacks/delusions perception of PTSD. He posits that PTSD isn’t as much a somehow curable disorder, but rather a world view that results from experiencing elevated danger for extended periods of time, or abuse, or excessive hardship, etc. For those of you interested you can find it on his blog here:

I’ve been wrestling with the notion of PTSD since it started garnering significant public attention early in the war. Like most veterans, I know many fine soldiers, courageous, switched on, bad ass motherfuckers, who have needed help dealing with the stresses of not just combat but multiple 12-15 month tours away from their families. Unfortunately, I know many more irresponsible and spoiled overgrown children who end up in trouble due to their own weakness of character. Yet these individuals are often the first to claim they have been traumatized by the Army, even without having experienced combat, or having had only one relatively tame deployment. Keep in mind that just because one deploys does not mean one experiences combat trauma, mentally or physically. I can actually count the times I felt I was in immediate danger without exhausting my fingers; the number of experiences I would consider actual combat are even fewer. There are soldiers out there who spent months in the shit, but a lot more who spent months on the FOB punctuated by a couple hairy days, and still more who ain’t ever seen the elephant at all.

Naturally, one type of patient garners my sympathy more readily than the other. I’m told by a psychologist friend that I shouldn’t judge, that stresses affect different individuals differently and I can’t know what goes on in someone else’s head. Logical, but speaking as an officer, we can’t have soldiers who crumble at the first major stress. And, as a soldier, I have a hard time respecting someone who succumbs to pressure too easily- what constitutes too easily? Well, as a Supreme Court justice once said famously, I know it when I see it.

As an aside, I’m addressing the form of trauma with which I’m most familiar. I know there are countless legitimate tragedies that could cause a person PTSD that have nothing to do with combat. I’m not seeking to discount any of these and, in fact, I’m trying to be respectful by staying on a topic I know something about rather than offering dime store psychoanalysis for traumas I’ve never suffered.

There are many comrades who have had a rougher go of it than I have. Some were maimed, some suffered impairing brain injury, some witnessed legitimate horrors and some never came home at all. Whenever this topic comes up I always feel the need to establish up front that I got off light. I’m still converting oxygen to carbon dioxide, I still have all appendages where they are supposed to be and I’m still making babies with Michele, all of which constitutes a not so minor miracle. I do not feel sorry for myself in the least.

But I did suffer significant trauma; bad enough that I was in the hospital for a month and in physical therapy for a year. By societal expectation, I should be a ticking time bomb, ready to snap on friend or foe alike. I should at least be on a steady cocktail of mood enhancers or anti-depressants or whatever. Yet, I’ve never felt the need. It’s not that I don’t get angry and sad over everything that’s happened in the war, I do. And I feel irrationally guilty as hell every day of my life that two good men are dead and I, after all the dust settled, came through the same blast with relatively minor wounds. On a philosophical level, you could say I stay angry about the war.

But that’s how you’re supposed to feel. I don’t want the pain and sorrow and anger or even the guilt dulled. Those emotions are appropriate reactions to horrible events. They give me focus and remind me why what I do is important, even when it feels like I’m just a cubicle monkey in a uniform. Why would I try to escape that?

I understand for some folks, it gets overwhelming. They do abuse alcohol or drugs. They do take out their pain on the wrong people. I would never begrudge someone who has been through something like what I’ve been through or worse psychological help. It’s far better to get treatment than to lay hands on your spouse or take it out on your kids, or off yourself.

I can’t help but wonder, though, why some of us need the help and some don’t. Why some folks do their duty in an exemplary manner but then fall apart, why some fall apart before the battle even starts.

In the here and now, I credit most of my stability to Michele. I have a fantastic internal support mechanism in the form of my family. I know how lucky I am in that. But I know guys who had loving wives and seemingly happy marriages and families who still ended up breaking down.

Not that it’s a terribly original idea, but I think it boils down to early role models, and especially parenting. Talking to guys who are on the Zoloft diet or some of the shrinking violets who break down before they ever hear a shot fired in anger, I see a common thread of issues in their childhood. Not necessarily abuse, either. While a lot of guys who just can’t cut it as soldiers are the result of abusive or neglectful parenting, another large percentage seem to have parents who convinced them they were special, beautiful snowflakes who deserved consideration over and above what the other children get because they are just so darn special.


Fellow parents and parents to be (which potentially encompasses all of you with fully functional reproductive systems) - we all love our children. We all want to give them the affirmation they need, develop the self-confidence that will allow them to stand up for themselves, and hopefully stand up for what is right. Here’s the thing, though; if the kid grows up with a steady diet of how awesome they are with no discipline, no expectations of performance, no adversity, they turn into one of two things; a sociopath or a god-damned sissy.

It’s a fine line. I get it. I’m not advocating the Great Santini style of parenting. I wasn’t denied paternal affection if I didn’t measure up (and believe me, I disappointed my parents plenty). My dad hugged me and told me he loved me and was okay if I broke down and cried given an adequate reason according to my age. But he expected me to make progress towards being a man who could love and provide for a family and, if necessary, successfully defend them, not a self-serving douche or a coward.

When I was older, he shared some of his war time experiences as well as those of my grandfather. He exposed me not to gratuitously violent movies (I found those on my own), but to the real and often horribly dark history of the human race. He didn’t try to hide evil and suffering from me, he tried to prepare me for it. He encouraged me towards role models, real and fictional, for appropriate behavior when the fecal matter hits the rotary air impeller. He was such a role model. And that has made all the difference. I’m not even remotely a hero by any reasonable definition of the word, but I can live with the guy I see in the mirror every morning.

I’m speaking in broad generalities here. Obviously there are people who come from great homes and still turn into serial killers. There are folks whose parents treat them like shit and who turn into heroes. Despite these exceptions, we as a society need to reemphasize parenting, and not helicopter parenting. Not one-upsmanship parenting, and not “baseball” parenting. We need good old fashioned measured discipline and affection from parents. We need kids to know they’re loved while simultaneously learning that the entire universe doesn’t revolve around them. That the world outside the house may not even give a rat’s ass about their well being and it’s up to them to take care of themselves and stay true to their principles, regardless of what feels good at the moment or what their peers think.

And we need them to be tougher. I think the situation in this country, and around the world, is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. Being the children of the baby boomers, we lack grit on a grand scale. The next generation needs to be tougher, especially mentally. Physical toughness comes in mere weeks if necessary, but mental discipline and resilience take a life time to build. Children can’t build those virtues if they never have to take responsibility for a bad grade, or stand up to a bully or take orders from a parent, even when they don’t agree.

It’s not your job to make your kids like you all the time. It’s not your job to be the cool parent. It’s your job to provide them with the basic tools to be a moral, effective human being. If you can’t handle that, for God’s sake, don’t have kids.