Friday, June 16, 2017

All the Bells and whistles

The first time that I fully realized that "Rob Bell" had become a distinct indicator of a particular worldview within Evangelical Christianity was just before I moved back to Saskatchewan. Sure, I was aware that he had become persona non grata in many circles when he published Love Wins - I even wrote a blog post about the controversy when the book was released - but I was not quite as aware as to how deep the anathema toward Bell ran, particularly in the Bible belt here on the prairies - and believe me, it's deep.

It seems as though when people hear that I like Rob Bell, they have one of a few reactions, of which the most direct and obvious are those who are virulently opposed to him and what they perceive that he represents - namely, a "watered-down" Christianity that they believe does not (and cannot) represent a life devoted to following Jesus Christ. They may react with the aforementioned repulsion and disgust at his heresy, and they may lump me in with his lot. Or the reaction may be softer, despite the fact that they still believe that he is a heretic, and they may more gently wonder and question how I can like him and his work when he seems to them to be far from the Christian worldview they know.

There are some people, however, who react with far less vitriol, derision, or vehement opposition. Their responses vary: confusion ("He was that pastor in Seattle, right?" "No, that was Mark Driscoll. Bell was at the other Mars Hill..."); mild recollection ("Wasn't he the NOOMA video guy?"); slightly fond nostalgia ("Oh, so that's what he's up to now - I read that Elvis book a long time ago"); or even mild interest ("Huh. Sounds like he's up to some interesting things - maybe I should get his new book").

And then there are those of us who have stuck with Bell over the years. We have journeyed with him as he left ministry in the wake of the furor over his supposed universalism of Love Wins. We have continued to read his books and follow him on social media as he has partnered with Oprah and Carlton Cuse and written some very interesting books and generally been freed from some of the shackles of the expectations and limitations of being a prominent author in the Evangelical Christian world. It has been a fascinating journey, and I thought it would be valuable to recount how Bell's journey has interacted with my own over the years.

My journey with Rob


I first read Velvet Elvis a year or two after it was released, sometime in 2006-2007. It was a period in my life in which I was working through what I thought about church and Christian culture, and in which I was really starting to expand my worldview and the way in which I thought Christians and the church should interact with the world. Bell, along with authors like Donald Miller, Brian McLaren, and Bruxy Cavey, started to give me a new lens through which to see the world around me and a new language with which I could express the ways in which I could already sense my previously narrow Conservative Evangelical worldview expanding.

I appreciated Bell's early works, including Velvet Elvis, Sex God, and Jesus Wants to Save Christians. I should actually revisit those works, since it has been a decade since I have read any of them, and I read them all before I started writing reviews on GoodReads. I particularly identified with his work on creativity and suffering, Drops Like Stars, as an artistic endeavour, and I have recently been feeling a need to return to that work as inspiration on my own creative journey.

And then there's that crucial book in his journey, Love Wins, which was superficially about hell. It was the book that marked the turning point in the general attitude toward Bell, as he was accused of being universalist and turning his back on Christianity by more conservative Christian authors and leaders. Bell went from being the mostly innocuous bespectacled NOOMA guy - although there were some pockets of Evangelical Christianity who had virulently opposed his work from the beginning - to a divisively heretical force who was distracting people from Jesus and Christianity and acting as a poison in the church - at least according to his critics; as a result, he (and arguably the reader of his books) was summarily "excommunicated" (or at least ostracized and delegitimized) from fellowship in the general Evangelical ether.

Here's the thing with Love Wins: I read it at the time, and I appreciated it for what it was - a conversation starter. I did not think at the time that it was his best work, and I think there are more problems with the book in terms of his presentation and even some of his arguments than with any other books, but I still appreciated that he was putting something into the conversation. And although I understood how it was controversial, I did not think it should have been.

What he was saying was not what he was being criticized as saying, and it became clear that there was a lot of agenda on the side of the people who were attempting to exclude him. There was some legitimately interesting dialogue at the time, including Francis Chan's response book Erasing Hell and Hellbound?, a documentary from a Canadian filmmaker who had already been working on his project and was able to use some of the controversy to promote his film.

But I lost track of Bell for a few years after that, and I do not really know why; I was not avoiding Bell, but I was not really engaging with his work, either. I can look back at the books I read in that time using my history on Goodreads, and although I owned his next book - What We Talk About When We Talk About God - for several years, I just never got around to reading it. But I still considered him to be very influential on my life and one of my favourite authors - enough so that he was often one of the first names I would list when I was asked about my favourite people who were writing about faith.

Then, last fall, I read Bell's then-most recent book, How To Be Here, and it reignited something in me and inspired me to catch up on what I had missed in those intervening years. I have since read his previous two books - The ZimZum of Love, which is about marriage, and What We Talk About When We Talk About God, which is about, well, God - and I am looking at revisiting several of his other books over the summer; after all, they are all very easy to digest, and they will make some great summer afternoon reading (not to mention great fodder for a future blog post in which I rank his works).

I am also planning on finally watching all of the NOOMA videos, of which I had only watched a couple when they were popular back in the early aughts; it's kind of funny, actually, that I never really caught on to Bell through the series that made him popular. For that matter, it's kind of funny that I have rarely interacted with Bell through his audio/visual presentations, including his current podcast, the RobCast (I'm too full on podcasts right now to integrate another one, but his would be at the top of my list), considering that he is arguably much stronger a speaker than he is a writer.

It has been a lot of fun catching up with him and seeing how his space connects to my space; it has been kind of like reconnecting with a long-time friend after a few years - one of those friends with whom you just lost touch for awhile until you found a really meaningful point of contact. And then once you have reconnected, you start to have a really significant relationship again and you wonder how you ever were not in contact and you realize that this person is really important to you. That's where Rob and I are at.

What is the Bible?


Part of the reason I have been excited to catch up on Bell's bibliography (pun intended) was the release of his new book this spring: What Is The Bible? I was excited to see where he had been and where he was going, so I made sure to read his earlier books before starting on this new one. Here's the review I posted about What is the Bible? on GoodReads:

What Is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About EverythingWhat Is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything by Rob Bell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"What is the Bible?" It's a big question, and it could be very problematic for someone like Rob Bell to wade into these waters. But Bell seems to fully have embraced his status as someone who is not received by much of the church, and he is pushing ahead with writing the things he needs to write for the people who will receive them; I, of course, am one of those people, and I have been since I first read Velvet Elvis well over a decade ago.

There's a point well into this book in which Bell relates a story about delivering a sermon when he was in school. He knew he wanted to do something different from the norm, so he did, and as he tells it, his professor's reaction was: "You can take it further". Well, in What is the Bible?, that's what he does, and I think he does so with great success.

In fact, this might be the furthest that Bell has ever gone - or at least as far as he has gone since Love Wins - and there is an argument to be made that this is his most significant work, period. Velvet Elvis might still be the best entry point to Bell, as he brings up many of the ideas that he explores in further detail in his later works in that book, but I would posit that What is the Bible? might be the one that I recommend people read once they make it through Velvet Elvis.

He spends the first 70% of the book working through the idea of why the Bible matters, as well as how to read, interpret, and apply the Bible (so to speak), but his point really boils down to one emphasis: the Bible is a collection of stories written by people with a particular cultural lens about their understanding of their experience with the divine.

He spends a lot of the book repeating variations on this idea, but it's worth the repetition, since he is quite deliberately working against some very entrenched ideas in the way that the Bible has come to be understood by a large segment of its adherents. Bell is much more in line with a post-modern deconstructionalist view of the text, and he seems to be much more cognizant of current literary critical trends than many other faith-based writers are.

The final section, in which he processes some of the key questions he often receives, is bound to be the most problematic for people; of course, anyone who starts a Rob Bell book is usually already on a certain track of thinking, but it's the final portion in which he really takes it further. Bell really digs into some of the ways that the Bible has been treated and perceived and the descriptors that are used to defend and argue the validity of the Bible - authoritative, inspired, inerrant - and he moves toward some very interesting and valuable interpretations of those concepts.

As usual, I find myself agreeing with most of what Bell says, and I am able to see past the 5-10% that I find somewhat problematic. I really appreciate how he states things, and I often find that he helps me have language to describe my own positions. I think the best takeaway I had from What is the Bible? was when he wrote that we are to read the Bible "literately", rather than "literally"; in fact, I think that short statement essentially sums up the entire book.

I love that Bell continues to frame his work in a pastoral and conversational lens, and that he writes in such a way that his books serve as a valuable entry point for much more discussion. That said, he himself acknowledges in a short epilogue that people reading this book in particular need to be ready and able to engage in a different way of thinking, and that not everyone is ready to go there. I am glad that he continues to take it further, and I think that What is the Bible? is invaluable for helping a new generation approach this text in a new way.

View all my reviews


For whom the Bell tolls


I know that even reading Bell's books - much less writing a post like this in praise of Rob Bell - could be problematic for me, since it further entrenches me in a particular corner of the Evangelical Christian world - one that is perceived as being further from "the truth" - and, quite frankly, I am okay with that. I'm not in the same camp as much of the "Gospel Coalition" or contemporary North American Evangelical churches, and I, for one, tend to think that's a good thing.

Even if you do not know me well enough to know that I share a lot of Bell's viewpoints, you can get a good sense of where I am at by taking a look at the kinds of authors on my shelf: Brian McLaren, Matthew Paul Turner, Shane Claiborne, Sarah Bessey, Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and Peter Rollins, for starters. I recognize that there is a lot of criticism toward Bell and these authors from a segment of the Evangelical church, but it does not matter to me.

I appreciate the fact that these authors - among many others - are exploring new ways of living out faith and expressing themselves and finding themselves in new contexts and constructs. I find a vitality in their journeys that mirrors my own experience in my faith journey, and I am excited to see how Bell and these other writers are wrestling with many of the same big questions which which I find myself confronted.

And look, I get that Rob Bell is not perfect, and I am not saying that I think he is. I do not agree with everything Bell says or does, and it would be ridiculous if I did; I doubt even Bell himself does. But I can say that I agree with a lot of what he says, and that the value that Bell brings to the general dialogue is not just in what he says, but the very fact that he says it. He is engaging some very difficult issues, and I generally think he does so in a way that is responsible and gracious and intelligent and well-informed and beneficial for those who are willing to take the journey with him.

Perhaps what I continue to appreciate most about Bell is that as he writes and speaks and lives, he continues to cultivate a pastoral presence as he seeks to guide others to Jesus. He has never wavered from that goal, as critics have accused him of doing so, and he just happens to be "pastoring" a much different community in his current life in California than he did when he started writing books over a decade ago.

I consider myself to be part of that community by extension through his writing, and I am glad that Bell has been a pastoral influence on my life, as I strongly believe that he has been integral in my own journey with Jesus. I am glad that he continues to "take it further", and I am excited to be a part of his journey and to have him be part of mine.

Friday, June 09, 2017

The Legend of Perler: A visual essay


It started off simply enough: I decided that I wanted to start a new Perler project over the April Easter break. I was feeling inspired by playing the new release The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, so on a whim I decided to dig back into the archives and to try to make a project that had been on my radar for a long time: the logo from the original NES The Legend of Zelda.

I (wisely) realized that doing the whole screenshot might be a bit much, especially without mini beads, so I settled on creating just the main part of the logo, using a T-shirt I had recently acquired as my inspiration.

I had never attempted anything this large or ambitious before, but I figured I would just start and see what happened. It was at about an hour in that I realized that I had perhaps started something that might take a bit more time than I had initially expected. I did, however, (mostly) remember to take pictures of my travails at various points through the process, so I thought it would be interesting to recount my journey in a visual essay.


The Start


Here's my progress after the first and second hours, respectively. It was at this point that I realized that this project might take a bit more time than I had expected, as it took an hour to do the initial outline alone. I also realized that I did not have enough boards or enough space to do the whole project at one go, so I knew I would have to finish it in pieces.

Hour 1 - The basic outlines

Hour 2 - Filling in the Triforce
Hour 3 - Filling in the middle letters 
Hour 4 - After filling in the greenery and the sword, the first section is ready for ironing!

Hour 5(ish) - The starting section is ironed!

The Legend continues...


I knew by this point that it was only going to become more complicated as a result of my insufficient planning at the start of the project, and I realized that I would likely have to add the other pieces - the top, the "Z", the "A", and the tip and hilt of the sword - one by one. I realized that the main difficulties would be in figuring out how to line up the beads on the boards, as well as lining up the ironed sections successfully.

Hour 6 - It took awhile to figure out the beading, but it looks good so far.

Hour 6.5 - The top and "A" are ready to be ironed!

It was at this point that I decided to try something I had not tried before: the "masking tape method". The method involves placing masking tape over the top of the beads on the board; I used painter's tape since it is wider and easier to remove afterward. Once all of the beads are taped down (overlapping the edges of the tape, of course), it is easy (in theory) to flip over the boards, keeping the beads in the same arrangement. This method is recommended for preserving the boards, since they can warp from the heat of the iron if the beads stay on the board during the ironing process; it is also recommended for larger projects that will be completed in pieces, like this one. It is also not easy, as I soon discovered.

I struggled with the initial tape placement, and I had to do a fair bit of Perler surgery to make it work after I flipped it over. Despite my best efforts, however, there was still one small section that I had to give up on and rework later; of course, it happened to be the most intricately detailed portion of the whole piece that used the most colours.

Hour 7.5 - The top and "A" that survived to be ironed using the masking tape method.

Hour 7.5 - The aftermath of the small section that did not survive the initial taping.
It took a fair bit of effort, but I managed to get the rest of the top lined up fairly well with the existing piece. I wasn't able to connect the "A" at that time, but I was just happy that it was working so far.

Hour 8 - The pieces that ironed together.

Getting closer to finishing...


After some time away from the project in part due to silly things like work and life (as well as needing to go pick up another bag of red beads), I resumed work on re-beading the top and adding the "Z" on the left side of the logo. My three-year-old nephew was particularly keen on helping with the beads, but of course it happened to be in that most intricate section that had not worked with the tape method previously. It was also quite fortunate that the edge of the "Z" ended exactly on the edge of the board. I had not planned for that to work out that way, but I was glad it did.

Hour 8.5 - The restoration of the section that did not survive the first attempt at the masking tape method.

Hour 9 - The last letter is outlined!
I neglected to take pictures for a couple of intermediate stages at this point, but suffice to say that the whole process was becoming a lot easier by this time. Despite my previous failure, I decided to again attempt the masking tape method - and it worked this time! I knew that my troubles were far from over, though, as the real trick would be managing to line up this new ironed piece on both the top and the sides in such a way as to hide the seam. As you will see, I was proud of the result, even though it took a lot of ironing.

Hour 10 - The masking tape method worked this time!

Hour 10.5 - The ironed piece to be added to the existing base.

Hour 11 - It worked!


The Finishing Touches and the Final Product


At that point, there was not much left to do to finish the project. I had to add the already-ironed "A" to the right side of the base as well as designing, ironing, and attaching the hilt and tip of the sword.


Hour 11.5 - The final two pieces
And suddenly - DA DA DA DAAAAAA!!!! - it was finished! Here's the final breakdown of some of the numbers I calculated:
  • 5,852 beads
  • 9 colours used
  • 16 boards (including two with one and three beads, respectively)
  • Over 12 hours total work over the span of three weeks
  • 6 ironing sessions, for a total of about three hours
  • 2 trips to Michael's to purchase extra beads (black, red, and cheddar)
  • 1 mistake that no one except me will ever notice
Hour 12+ - The final product!

Conclusion


Image result for it's dangerous to go alone take thisThis was by far the largest bead sprite project I have ever undertaken, and it was my first large project in years, so as you might imagine, I learned a lot throughout the process. I was happy to finally use the masking tape method successfully, but I also learned that I will need to do more preparation for future large projects in terms of planning for boards, beads, physical space, and time. I don't know if I will attempt another similarly ambitious project in the future, but I did really enjoy getting back into the hobby, so I imagine that I will work on some smaller projects over the summer, like some coasters and fridge magnets.

And for anyone wondering where I managed to convince my wife to allow me to put this up in our house - I didn't. I ended up giving the piece as a wedding gift to friends of mine who had initially introduced me to bead sprites when they were working as my camp staff five years ago; as I think about it, however, I probably should have made this scene for them. Maybe I already have my next big project lined up...

Thursday, June 08, 2017

A review of Peter Rollins' Insurrection

Insurrection: To Believe Is Human To Doubt, DivineInsurrection: To Believe Is Human To Doubt, Divine by Peter Rollins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Peter Rollins has been on my list of authors to read for a long time, as he is one of those authors that a lot of authors I read and people I respect have mentioned and recommended. Although it took me years to finally get to reading one of his works, I would not be surprised if I read through all of the rest of his books in the next few months, judging by how much I appreciated his writing and his thought process in Insurrection.

I started reading my way through Rollins with Insurrection, his fourth book, because it seemed from what I had read about his work that this is the point at which much of his philosophy of "pyro-theology" started to emerge in a more clear manner. Rollins discusses pyrotheology as the burning away of any and all presuppositions and worldviews that would otherwise interfere with our theology, including (especially) the elements of religion and Christianity that have served as a security blanket to followers of Jesus. He deconstructs many of the ways that churches have come to believe and practice in order to reach back to the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ without the trappings that have obscured those events over the past two millennia.

I have read similar works that have contained similar arguments by authors such as Bruxy Cavey, Brian McLaren, and Rob Bell, but Rollins' take is, in my estimation, the most philosophically driven and abstract of these kinds of works. Cavey, McLaren, and Bell have some investiture in "pastoring" readers through their new understanding as a result of their vocation as pastors, whereas Rollins seems to have much more interest in pursuing the thought experiment to its logical conclusion (or even past that point at times) as a philosopher and thinker, without the same kind of regard for caring for his audience as in those other works, a factor that seems to unfetter him in order to allow him to craft a "headier" argument.

It is not difficult to see why Rollins' work has become so influential on those other writers or in the context of the post-modern church movement of the past decade (a movement that is often labeled as "emergent" even though that is somewhat of a generic misnomer). He has taken a lot of the ideas that have been espoused within the context of deconstructing theology and expressed them in a way that is accessible and meaningful.

That's not to say that Insurrection is necessarily that palatable or easy; in fact, it is quite challenging at times to make it through, as evidenced by the fact that I had to restart it after several months away and then it still took me a lot longer than I had expected to make it through the text. Its difficulty lies in just how much Rollins packs into his writing and thinking and the level of deconstruction that is happening; it seems as though, just at the point at which he can't go any further that he does, and that step opens up a variety of questions about institutional implications and personal ramifications.

That said, I think it's worth it to read Insurrection if you're like me and attempting to engage on a journey of reflection and deconstruction in order to peel away the layers of culture that have obscured the character of Christ within the church. On the other hand, if you have not started to ask questions about the Christian culture and worldview, you might need someone else to ease you into this kind of thinking. I would not recommend Rollins as a starting point - Bell is the obvious gateway author for that kind of thinking - but I would say that a journey that begins with Bell logically leads to Rollins.

I felt as though I missed so much as I was reading through this book, whether it was because I could not nearly hope to consume it all on a first reading or because I do not yet have the faculties to be able to process everything that he was saying. I think this is definitely a book that I will have to read again, particularly after I have read the rest of Rollins' works. I think it has the potential to be quite the journey, and I'm looking forward to it.


Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Thoughts on Survivor: Game Changers

[SPOILER ALERT for Survivor: Game Changers, obviously.]

Survivor's 34th season ended two weeks ago with an eventful finale, and as has been my tradition for over a decade, I have a few thoughts to share about the season that just passed. I really enjoyed this season for the most part. There was a lot of great strategic moves in the game, many memorable moments (some for unfortunate reasons), and a lot of entertainment in addition to the generally heightened gameplay.

(As somewhat of an aside, I find it somewhat strange that I have not written thoughts after each season - just mostly after the even-numbered seasons that air from February until May. I wonder why I do not seem to write out thoughts after the seasons that air in the fall, but I think it's likely mainly because the narrative for the "year" of Survivor feels much more complete in May than it does in December. Then again, I did write a piece after Survivor: Cambodia - Second Chance that December, so maybe it just depends on whether I feel as though I have much to say about the season or not.)

Sarah was a deserving winner, to be sure, although I was slightly disappointed that Brad Culpepper did not get at least one more vote from the jury. Although I was initially not as sure where to rank Sarah in terms of my overall ranking and classification of winners, I think she slides in the top half of my ranking at number 15 near the top of the "Managers" category, just behind Yul Kwon from Cook Islands and just ahead of Adam from Millennials vs. Gen X and Denise from Philippines. She, like Adam, managed various alliances and game circumstances, and they earned their wins. I think, however, that it's going to continue to become more difficult not to rank winners in more recent seasons higher in the overall rankings because the competition is generally more intense and the game is getting more convoluted - more on that later - and the game is just stronger overall.

There were three overarching observations I had about this season, particularly as it relates to the overall narrative and progression of the game as a cultural phenomenon and an example of game theory. This season demonstrated the need for the producers to pull back on the twists, the benefits of including returning players, and the continued development of narratives both of the show in general and of specific players.

Too many twists


Survivor: Game Changers continued to demonstrate how the game is changing in terms of strategy and quality of competition. I have alluded to how Survivor has been changing in posts on recent seasons, including my thoughts after Survivor: Cambodia - Second Chance, the most recent season to feature an cast entirely comprised of returning players, but I think it's worth making it clear what I think is going on with the game in general.

Game Changers demonstrated that the evolutions that have been solidified in recent seasons seem to have taken root in the DNA of the game. Alliances are more fluid than fixed, social gameplay continues to be more prominent, and players (like Sarah) who would have once been considered "flip-floppers" because they shifted alliances are now winning the game; in fact, three of the four most recent winners were known for their movement between alliances. This shift remains one of the few genuine strategic changes in the game in its 34 years, and it is arguably the most vibrant and vital to the game's continued development, which is why it is so disappointing that it seems like it may be ruined by the producers' reliance on gimmicks that interfere with the progression of the game.

It was less than a year ago - just before Millennials vs. Gen X - that I sorted through all of the twists in Survivor history and ranked them in my list of Top Survivor Twists. At that point, I had no idea that, only two seasons later, they would use half of them in one season, in addition to adding a new one - two tribes going to Tribal Council voting out one member between them, ultimately resulting in Malcolm being voted out by another tribe.

Malcolm's unfortunately early ouster, which came in just the third episode, was the first sign that the game designers would be mucking around more than usual with various twists this season, but it was not the last. It seemed like almost every episode (each of which usually represents three days on Survivor) had its own twist, and it seemed that by the end of the game that there were at least a half-dozen twists in play at any given time, which, in the opinion of this long-time fan, represented too many twists.

Twists have been a part of Survivor from its onset, and I think that there should be some twists to keep the game fresh; after all, the game is better when it provides moments for unexpected things to happen. It is still surprising, after all, that the show lasted so long without instituting some of these twists in the first place. But the scales have tipped too far in favour of the twists, and there is now too much affecting the game, as demonstrated not only by what happened to Malcolm, but also by the Tribal Council in the finale, which started with six players remaining.

Since Survivor moved to a Final Three, the Final Five (rather than Final Four) has become the line for being able to play any Idols or Advantages, so players will often play an Idol at that point because it is useless afterward - and this case, they all were played. Brad had Immunity from the challenge; Tai played his two Immunity Idols to save himself and Aubry; Troyzan played his Immunity Idol to save himself; and Sarah played her Secret Advantage to save herself. All of that action ended up with Cirie, who had received no votes in the initial vote before all of the Idols and Advantages were revealed, being left as the only person who could receive votes. In the end, Cirie was forced out without a revote; technically, she did not receive any votes against her, yet she left the game (though at least Jeff let her say that "the tribe has spoken").

There was a symbolic nature to Cirie's exit, as she has had a reputation as one of the better players in Survivor history yet she was unable to do anything to prevent her own ouster. Sure, she could have found an Idol earlier, but my point is that not having found an Idol or Advantage should not necessarily mean that she could not win; rather, the twists should be able to played in order to help a player win, rather than being needed to win, as seemed to happen in this season.

The end result is that I felt as though the game was affected too much by its twists, and I believe that it ultimately negatively affected the game. Two strong players ended up being victim to very unusual circumstances, and I believe that the season - and the game - suffered for it. I sincerely hope that the presence of twists was increased for the "Game Changers" theme, and that the producers reduce the external ways that the game might be affected in future seasons. In fact, I think it would be really fascinating at this point to see a "pure" game of Survivor with no swaps, idols, or twists - just all strategy, social navigation, physical competition, and random circumstance.

On Returning Players


The key to a successful season of Survivor is not in the location, the twists, or even the theme: it's in the players and personalities who play the game. Great seasons invariably have great players, whereas weaker seasons have players who are not as strategically or socially aware or who are just not as interesting. And the best way to ensure great players is to feature players who are known commodities who have played the game before.

Survivor seems to have realized this fact about five years ago, which is why there have been more seasons with returning players in the most recent third of the show's history. Ten of the thirty-four seasons have featured returning players: seasons 8 (All-Stars), 16 (Micronesia), 20 (Heroes vs. Villains), 26 (Caramoan), 27 (Blood vs. Water), 31 (Cambodia), and 34 (Game Changers) have featured casts consisting of at least half-filled with returning players; seasons 11 (Guatemala), 22 (Redemption Island), and 25 (Philippines) included one returning player per tribe. Four of the seven seasons with at least half the cast of returning players have aired in the show's most recent nine seasons, and there has not been a stretch of four consecutive seasons without any returning players since seasons 12 to 15. In short, Survivor is featuring returning players more frequently, and that's a good thing; in fact, there's a good argument to be made for featuring even more returning players.

There have been a total of 498 contestants on Survivor, 91 of whom have competed multiple times (69 twice, 18 thrice, and four - Boston Rob, Rupert, Cirie, and Ozzy - at four times), leaving over four hundred contestants who have not yet had even one chance to return. I would imagine that the nine players who were not chosen by fans to participate in Survivor: Cambodia - Second Chance will join the group of returnees at some point, as Brad and Troyzan have already emerged from that group, but there will likely be more to join those ranks in the near future.

Granted, many of the 403 living players who have not played again did not demonstrate enough strategic, physical, or social skills, or entertainment value to warrant another shot, but there are definitely enough names remaining on that large list that it would not be difficult to stock several seasons with genuinely interesting returning players - enough so that it is hard to imagine that every third or second season should not be comprised significant from that existing roster of players. I think at this point in the show's history, that a new player really has to set themselves apart - as many of the returnees in Game Changers did - in order to play again.

I know that some fans remain mixed on the inclusion of returning players, or at least cynical of the producers' seeming over-reliance on them, particularly in regard to certain personalities, but I remain convinced that including returning players is better for the game and for the entertainment value, and I believe that returning players are particularly key to the development of narratives both within and beyond the construct of the show.

On Narratives


I wrote about the idea of story and narrative in the context of Survivor back after Philippines aired in the fall of 2012. It was in that season that Jonathon Penner brought up the idea within the game of how players wanted their narratives shaped for what I felt at the time was the first time in which a player within the game brought up the idea of overall narrative in a way that shaped the game. Probst, of course, has constantly sought to have players reflect mid-game and post-game on their story and how Survivor has been a part of it, but I felt a real resurgence to that concept again this year. (There is, of course, also the narrative of the game itself, but I will leave that for the Conclusion to this post.)

Perhaps the reason for that renewed focus is that it is much easier (and perhaps only possible) when a player is returning to the game, particularly after their initial return. New players often seem to (necessarily) be so focused on the development of the game that they do not seem to be able to devote much (if any) time to the kind of self-reflection that indicates an awareness of life outside the game (or, if they do, it is not conveyed to the audience). So in seasons that have a significant portion (or entire constitution) of returning players, the idea of narrative is heightened. But even in the midst of a season full of returning players, there were a few whose narratives stood out, and I have a few thoughts on those players, particularly the ones who returned for a third or fourth time.

Ozzy and Cirie were returning for their fourth times, and it was hard not to see there being some clear conclusions to their respective narratives, especially since they rank number 1 and number 2 in all-time days played on Survivor after this season. I would not be surprised to see this season being the end of Ozzy's narrative, as he has now been the second person voted out after the merge in his past three seasons and seems not to be able to apply the things he should have learned from previous editions of Survivor. Although he remains one of the most popular Survivor players ever, I wonder if he will be asked to play again, or if we have seen everything he has to offer. Cirie's future in the game is a little more difficult to guess, but if I had to venture a guess, I think she would play again if asked.

There were several players returning for a third time, each of whom merits at least a short mention. Jeff Varner's Survivor story is certainly done after what he did this season (more on that in a bit), and I would imagine that Ciera's narrative might also be finished after her last-place finish. I think former winners J.T. and Sandra are probably done, although I could see them wanting to come back in the future (especially if the long-rumoured All-Winners edition ever actually materializes).

But there are two other third-timers who deserve a bit more attention: Malcolm and Andrea, both of whom were playing for their first since Season 26, Caramoan - Fans vs. Favourites 2. Both returned for Caramoan as young players shortly after their initial seasons, and both have demonstrated a high level of social and strategic acumen in their three seasons. I would not be surprised to see both of the two return in the future, especially as they remain quite popular, and I think that both could still find a way to make it to the Final Three (which neither have done).

Of the second-time players, I think that Sierra, Aubry, and Michaela are the most likely to come back in the future, although there is one more player who needs to be mentioned here: Zeke, who was victimized in one of the most brutal moments on the show when Varner outed him during Tribal Council as transgender. Zeke's conduct both in the moment and since has been admirable, and I wonder what is in store for him both as a Survivor and in his new-found role as a public representative of his community; for what it's worth, I don't think his Survivor story is over yet.

Conclusion


Despite the shortcomings of this season in terms of the preposterous prevalence of twists and their influence on the game, I would rank this season somewhere in the mid-teens in terms of the history of the show. There was enough entertainment value, strong gameplay, social strategy, and physical prowess to continue to draw me in, and, aside from a couple of odd casting choices, I think this was one of the better casts of contestants that have competed on the show.

The show is consistently strong, and I still think that many of its best seasons have been later rather than earlier in its run, so I still hold out hope that there there is yet a lot of life left in the concept of the show even after 34 editions. I continue to be impressed with how the show and its competitors are constantly undergoing reinvention, and I think that is mostly a positive thing for the show (especially if the producers rein it in with the twists).

I did want to make one final comment on what was arguably the most memorable moment of the season: the Tribal Council with Varner and Zeke. It was one of the first moments that went viral and really seemed to transcend the show in years - maybe since Russell Hantz' first appearance in Samoa (season 19) or Boston Rob's victory in Redemption Island (season 22). I think that moment - aside from being genuinely compelling on a human level in the moment and as part of a much larger narrative about the place of transgender people in society - was an example of why Survivor continues to set itself apart from its reality TV companions.

In its best moments, there is an ability that Survivor has to function as a commentary on the human experience that I believe few - if any  - other reality shows can match. Sure, there is an aspect of Survivor that is functionally "reality television", and there are some constructed realities and personalities within the show, but I really believe that there is a realness in the show that cannot be matched by other shows.

The combination of social, psychological, physical, emotional, and strategic stamina, perseverance, and skill required to navigate Survivor continues to make it unlike any other show on television, and its narrative continues to shift and change and grow. The narrative of Survivor - the show, the game, and the phenomenon - is far from over, and the game is still changing, even after 34 seasons, which is why I still love watching it after 17 years.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Politics and social media are strange bedfellows

Last weekend, the Conservative Party of Canada concluded an almost two-year-long process and finally selected its new leader to succeed former Prime Minister and party leader Stephen Harper: Andrew Scheer. Scheer, who happens to represent my riding in the House of Commons, is a very young politician at only 38 years old, though he is quite accomplished even for his age, having served as Speaker of the House - essentially the moderator who makes sure that other Members of Parliament are well-behaved during Question Period - for several years.

Despite his experience within the party, however, Scheer is still relatively unknown beyond the Conservative base, and he was not expected to win, even as the votes were revealed during the Conservative convention; many, like me, expected him to end in second and to vie for the leadership in a few years once he had established a larger profile on the Canadian political scene. Scheer did not win until the thirteenth and final ballot over his primary competitor, Quebec libertarian Maxime Bernier, and he did so with a narrow margin - 50.95% - which was only slightly higher than that of the proportion of Quebecers who voted to stay in Canada in the 1995 referendum (50.58%) and slightly lower than the number of voters in the UK who voted to leave Britain last year (51.89%).

So, it was not necessarily a decisive win, but a win is a win, and Scheer is now the party's leader. For what it's worth, I think that choosing Scheer as leader is an intriguing decision that signals the party's continued devotion to its western base and social conservatism, and I think that he has one of the higher possibilities for a positive outcome for the future of Canada within the field of candidates, at least from my perspective outside the party.

I will be interested to see how Scheer leads the Tories through the 2019 election, which seems like it will be very difficult for them to win against Justin Trudeau (who nevertheless seems to be doing his best to be Canada's first Prime Minister to serve only one term with a majority government and no subsequent minority governments since Conservative R.B. Bennett in the Great Depression), and the subsequent 2023 election, which might be the target on which the Conservatives seem to have their sights set by electing him in the first place.

That's the joke


But regardless of Scheer's policies (which were scant during his leadership campaign) or his potential electability (which is arguably higher than any of the other Conservative leadership canadidates), there is one significant criticism that has emerged throughout Scheer's rise to power: many Canadians do not know who he is. In response to this critique, as well as to the general "whiteness" of culture of the Conservative Party (a topic that could take a long time on its own to unpack, but that I will merely mention in passing here), The Beaverton - Canada's version of The Onion - posted this article in response to Scheer's victory.

I laughed out loud, particularly at the part about how Conservatives were too cheap to pay the money to remove the watermark, and so I posted a link to the article on my Twitter, which in turn automatically posts to my Facebook page. I did not think much of posting it, other than a number of people would chuckle and move on - but then it started.

There were initially a trickle of likes and comments from some of the usual suspects, including a couple of comments to which I responded. But then, the post started to take on a life of its own. Within a couple of days, there were over fifty comments on the thread, and they varied from people debating the racial implications of the article to the merits of our current Prime Minister to whether the joke was funny at all to correcting the assumption of the article by writing out Scheer's accomplishments as a parliamentarian.

By the third day, I had friends messaging me about what was going on, which is generally the point at which it seems that most people disengage and leave it behind, which I did. It seemed to be finished anyway, but I was left with a distaste about how the whole situation has unfolded, which is partly why I felt the need to work through and express my thoughts in its wake.

It was all kind of tiresome by the end, and as has happened in previous instances in which this kind of firefight has erupted on my wall, I went from being amused by the goings-on to slightly apprehensive about what was happening to just plain exhausted by the whole distraction. But, along the way, I had a few thoughts about political discourse, social media, and cultivating the combination of those two that I felt that I needed to share in the wake of this unexpected storm on my wall, so here are those thoughts in much longer form than what Facebook could provide.

The problem of political discourse


I do not often wade into politically partisan waters online, and circumstances like this provide good reason to avoid such diversions. It seems as though there is only a downside to posting political things, with little to no benefit in doing so. In this case, the intended positive effect was to make some people laugh - and I do know that a number of people had a good laugh according to their "reaction" on Facebook - but I ended up in a situation in which I was genuinely concerned about how a few people were reacting. What started as a joke - and had no reason not to stay that way - ended as something more serious, which is a big part of the problem.

I got myself into a couple of similar situations last year during the rise of Trump, when I posted a few articles that I found interesting. Some were pro-Clinton - though a couple were critical of her - but most of the dozen or so links I posted (over the course of eight months, mind you) were critical of Trump. There were, of course, hundreds more links that I could have posted, but I chose to only link to articles that I found particularly interesting and that I thought added to the general discourse.

A number of people, however, disagreed with me, whether that was with the conclusions that those articles were reaching or the fact that they were posted at all, and a number of those posts created similar firestorms on my wall. There were some instigators who I removed from my social media because they were being belligerent and disrespectful, but I also had a lot of really great interactions with people as a result of those posts, so despite the momentary problems that arose, I still see the overall process as valuable.

I learned my lesson (or so I thought), and so I stopped posting political things, particularly about the United States. Moreover, I eventually stopped taking in a lot of those sources in the first place because I realized that my consumption of that discourse was actually negatively affecting my daily mental health. I feel a lot better now not taking in most of that negativity, and I have found a much healthier balance in terms of staying aware of what is happening (particularly south of the border) without letting it drag me down.

That is, of course, not to assert that I want to be ignorant or that I do not want to be politically engaged; it's just that I need to curate my involvement much more carefully. I have attempted to do that, particularly in the wake of Trump, but also in regard to politics north of the border, which feel almost as contentious at times as those of our southern neighbours. I generally enjoy Canadian politics, and I do enjoy dipping my toes into the waters every so often with a post or two when something interesting comes across my metaphorical desk.

But part of the problem in this case, as I see it, was that I did not think that I was being political in sharing this post. Sure, it is pointed against a particular party, but I did not see this as a "political post"; it was a piece of satire that I wanted to share. I forgot, however, that most people do not seem to have a sense of humour about politics anymore, so nothing can ever be political and funny. (The italics are intended to help indicate a slightly sarcastic, embittered tone about this whole issue, in case you missed that.)

As an aside (or maybe not), I blame Stephen Colbert for this loss of humour, as The Colbert Report and his performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner established the new norm for political comedy. The Daily Show had started down this road, but it was Colbert's brilliant assumption of the character of a right-wing blowhard that I believe has ultimately resulted in this lack of ability for most people to appreciate political humour. He was so good at his character that people on both sides believed him, and now the lines between parody and reality have been so blurred that many people do not know how to tell the difference between the two, or they do not care to even if they do. So thanks, Stephen Colbert, for ruining political comedy; but I digress...

Perhaps part of the issue is that I do not often post openly political things, so in the rare case that I do, people seem to take me more seriously. I suppose it's not a stretch to conclude, if the only "political" post a person sees on my wall is critical of the Conservatives - regardless of how satirical or tongue-in-cheek such a post may be - that I am against the Conservative Party and that I need to be corrected. Whether there is any validity to that assumption is not the question here - it's the fact that it could conceivably be made at all that is part of the problem; the other part is that people then seem to feel the need to correct me, which is a different conversation entirely.

Still, even if that assumption is reasonable, there are still more issues that need to be addressed in regard not only to my situation(s) but about the nature of political discourse in general. Most of those may not have to do with political discourse in its entirety, but about those particular interactions that occur online through social media and Facebook in particular, which is why it's time to switch gears and talk about

My philosophy and practice of social media


Hundreds - or maybe thousands? - of thinkpieces have been written about the emerging nature of dialogue on social media, so I do not want to go too "macro" on the topic right now, but I do think that situations like this do help me to understand the very strange nature of social media and Facebook in particular, so I have a few observations from my own experience. I am certain that I have discussed some of these aspects of my personal philosophy and practice of social media before, but I feel that it merits explicit explanation here, given the context and circumstances of this post.

My wall - as is those of anyone who has a social media feed - is essentially a limited "intranet" that provides a stream of content moderated by me to a group of people whose access to that content is also moderated by me. The common point in all of this is me, so it is essentially a part of the internet that is both directly and indirectly about me. All of the people on my wall know me (to very varying extents, of course), but many of them do not know one another.

I have always tried to be more careful about not only what I post, but also what I allow on my wall in terms of style and content. I curate and moderate and often remove messages that should be sent personally from my wall. I generally avoid coarse or vulgar material and language, and I usually encourage participants on my wall to do the same for the sake of others, though I tend not to worry as much if a random profanity is included in a comment buried in a thread.

Furthermore, I am careful about my presence on other's walls and feeds, and I often do not go as far on Facebook as I would in real life in regard to use of joking and language, because I recognize that everyone's online community is different and I try to respect their space as well. I also realize that, for some people, their only understanding of who I am is through what I post on other people's feeds, so I need to be careful about cultivating those impressions (particularly because there can be professional implications for me as a teacher, especially in a community as small as Regina).

I generally try to post things that are informative and interesting and not too contentious, and there is a lot that I do not post as a result. I am not overly concerned about offending people, but I am also aware that not everyone is as self-aware of themselves online, so I do not try to start a fight if I don't have to. At the same time, there are some things that I feel the need to share, and if that means that some people choose to voice their disagreement with my point of view, I will do my best to engage them respectfully and appropriately, including through personal messages if necessary. In short, I am a responsible online citizen, and I believe that I generally model positive behaviour in the way that I conduct myself online.

The problem for me is that even though I know that not everyone has as robust a sense of self-awareness and self-control in their online interactions I still functionally make the mistake of assuming that people on my feed are generally acting in my best interests according to my principles in the way that I do with their feeds, and that is just not true. Facebook is a new frontier, a wild west in which everyone is out for themselves and few seem to be thinking of much beyond themselves. (The less said about the haven that Twitter provides for trolls, the better.) So I need to remember to adjust my expectations and assume the worst; for example, when I post an innocuous satirical post about a political leader, that a storm will rage for several days.

How to solve the problem of social media


Social media, particularly in regard to politics, is a problem that many people have tried to solve, so far be it for me to suggest that I can solve the problems that arise from the intersection of these two volatile fields. I do believe, however, that there are a few options that I, along with any other responsible online citizens, can consider as we seek to civilize the wilderness that is the internet, so I want to present those here.

I want to be aware and careful about my online content without feeling restricted or censored, and I want to be able to post things without fear that the comments are going to go crazy. I know that I could just stop posting anything that could be an issue, but I'm not a fan of censoring myself. And even if I was, I do not think that would solve the problem, since all that would do is make it worse by legitimizing the trolls. Perhaps I just need to let go of the need that I feel to moderate the conversation on my wall, and just allow those conversations to happen; then again, I probably need to do that anyway, regardless of which option(s) I take in attempting to address this issue.

I could just simply remove people who disagree with me from my social networks, but I do not want to do that; I appreciate the dialogue and the discourse too much when it is done well, so I am reticent to create an echo chamber with no conflict (if that's even possible). I want to have people who do not see the world in the same way that I do as part of my social media and my life, and I want to give them the space to see the things that I am posting that might challenge their worldview in the same way that their posts often challenge me.

I will continue to carefully moderate conversations that occur on my wall. At this point, if someone is an issue - particularly if it happens repeatedly - I initiate a private personal conversation to address the issue at hand, whether that is the content or style of the posts. These interactions have, at times, led to some very positive dialogue, but they have also led to unfriending, though I do my best not to assume and project an outcome onto the conversation before it begins.

I will continue to model positive online citizenship and to establish a higher baseline for interactions on my corner of the internet. I will not abide misconduct and disrespect, and I want to make sure that anyone who enters my online space understands my intent, my principles, and my participation on social media and in politics, which is why I have written this post. So, in an attempt to resolve this situation and perhaps dissolve similar future situations before they start, here are the guidelines that I am "officially" establishing for engaging in my online space; consider them like the classroom conduct guidelines that I establish with students to ensure that everyone is clear on expectations, responsibilities and privileges.

Guidelines for my online space


1. Consider the intention of the post. Ask yourself "is this a joke?" If it is, laugh (or don't) and move on, unless you really think there is something being written in poor taste that needs to be addressed. I generally try to be careful about the kinds of humour that I post, and I carefully consider the kinds of posts that I see as I scroll through Facebook, as well as the people who are posting such things. I generally do not engage with jokes I appreciate other than with a mild reaction or perhaps an "LOL", and I usually ignore jokes I don't appreciate; it's just easier that way.

2. Assume that I am cultivating a dialogue that is well-informed, aware, and educated. I know that this is not always the case, but you can generally assume that I have carefully considered what I am posting and why I am posting it. I generally do not post fake news or incendiary posts or items from questionable sources, mostly because I do my best to investigate and curate my links ahead of time. There are times in which I am not aware of something and in which I might post a link with faulty information in which I need to be corrected, at which point it would be appropriate to comment.

Otherwise, you can assume that I know what I am doing and that I am aware of the ramifications of the links I post and that you do not need to educate me on such things. I do recognize, however, that the same cannot be said of everyone on my feed, and that many of the comments are directed toward their perceived or expressed ignorance rather than toward me; while that can be (and often is) valid, please assume that the level of discourse is intended to be higher in content and conduct on my wall than on most of the rest of the internet swamp.

3. Do not push your agenda in my space. My wall is not your place to push your agenda; quite frankly, I do not see my wall as a place to push my own agenda, which is why I tend to avoid overtly politically and religiously loaded links in the first place. I want to engender critical thought, conversation, and consideration, rather than polemics and rhetoric. I recognize that some people will interpret what I post as being driven by a particular point of view, and I understand that they may feel the need to express an alternate point of view. I think that's great, as long as it does not become obvious that your intent is to push your agenda.

4. Use your WITS. The acronym "WITS" - which represents the process of "Walk away; Ignore; Talk it out; Seek help" - is used to teach elementary students how to deal with bullies, but I think it's just as applicable here - particularly the first two steps. Just ignore it if you can and do not engage, particularly if it seems as if someone is trolling (which, unfortunately, does happen on my page from time to time, despite my best efforts otherwise).

5. Engage respectfully and appropriately. If, after all of those other points, you still feel the need to express yourself in my space, feel free to do so, as long as you are respectful and appropriate. If you choose not to do so by my standards (not your own - it is, after all, my space), then you may be asked to stop or ultimately, to leave that space, in much the same way that I would not tolerate similar conduct in my classroom or in my house.


Conclusion


The problem that I have right now - and the reason that I have had to write this post in the first place - is that I do not feel as though my own space - that is, my Facebook feed - is safe for me to post my own thoughts, and that's not okay. My lack of a sense of safety within my own social media has led me to feel the need to have to write this all out very explicitly, whether it was warranted or not.

To that end, I am slightly annoyed and resentful that I felt the need to write this post at all - a tone that I realize came through a little bit more powerfully and perhaps snarkily at some points, particularly in my Guidelines. I do have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about this entire situation, and I do not think I'm wrong in feeling that way; then again, I might just be extra sensitive and making a problem where there is not one.

So maybe I did not have to write this post in the end; maybe I am overreacting to what has happened and I needed to have one or two conversations with people who were involved in this particular altercation, rather than writing a manifesto about the situation and the nature of being political (or religious, for that matter) online. Or maybe this is just the way things are now, and I need to learn to accept it as it is, firestorms and trolls and runaway comment threads and all.

But, much like the state under President Trump, I refuse to accept that the status quo is normal; as Dr. Horrible said, "the status quo is not...quo." It is not okay that social media - not to mention the White House - is being overrun by trolls who show little respect for authority or institutions, or that common decency is no longer that common.

To be fair to the people on my feed, I don't think that many (if any) have been truly disrespectful or troll-like in their interactions, and I am extrapolating a larger problem from a small arguably not accurate sample size. But it has been present enough not only on my feed but on others' feeds that I do not feel that it is entirely out of context to express my concern in regard to my own corner of the internet.

I think that, in the end, it has been a positive thing that I have worked through this and written it out. I am choosing to be as clear as I can be at this point, and now I have an expression of philosophy and practice about politics (and religion) and social media to which I can point others as well as to which I can return in the future in case I find myself the next time I post something that sets off a similar set of reactions within my social media.

Furthermore, I can see a future in which I might become much more directed in the kinds of things that I post in contentious realms like politics and religion and in which my personal viewpoints will become more partisan and pointed, and I think that experiences like this one are invaluable for learning how to conduct myself in such circumstances. I imagine that, as both the Canadian and American elections approach in two years, the rhetoric will accelerate exponentially and that I might find myself needing to rely on the processing that I have done here to ensure that I am acting in accordance with my own wishes.

There are, of course, a number of issues that I have mentioned obliquely or even avoided entirely, such as freedom of speech, the future of the internet, the nature of political comedy, the conflation of different types of relationships as a result of social media, common decency, and the role of the government in ensuring that there is fair and equitable access to information. Some of those are topics that will require a lot more unpacking, and some are even topics that will be subject to political scrutiny and government intervention, so I'm going to leave them for another time. After all, I suppose when it comes down to it, that I could always just contact my MP about those issues...what's his name again?

Attribution

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