There's a Trick of the Light I'm Learning to Do

This is a collection of songs I wrote and recorded in January - March, 2020 while on sabbatical from ministry. They each deal with a different aspect or expression of the Gospel. Click on the image above to listen.

Three Hands Clapping

This is my latest recording project (released May 27, 2019). It is a double album of 22 songs, which very roughly track the story of my life... a sort of musical autobiography, so to speak. Click the album image to listen.

Ghost Notes

Ghost Notes
A collections of original songs I wrote in 2015, and recorded with the FreeWay Musical Collective. Click the album image to listen.

inversions

Recorded in 2014, these songs are sort of a chronicle of my journey through a pastoral burn-out last winter. They deal with themes of mental-health, spiritual burn-out and depression, but also with the inexorable presence of God in the midst of darkness. Click the album art to download.

soundings

soundings
click image to download
"soundings" is a collection of songs I recorded in September/October of 2013. Dealing with themes of hope, ache, trust and spiritual loss, the songs on this album express various facets of my journey with God.

bridges

bridges
Click to download.
"Bridges" is a collection of original songs I wrote in the summer of 2011, during a soul-searching trip I took out to Alberta; a sort of long twilight in the dark night of the soul. I share it here in hopes these musical reflections on my own spiritual journey might be an encouragement to others: the sun does rise, blood-red but beautiful.

echoes

echoes
Prayers, poems and songs (2005-2009). Click to download
"echoes" is a collection of songs I wrote during my time studying at Briercrest Seminary (2004-2009). It's called "echoes" partly because these songs are "echoes" of times spent with God from my songwriting past, but also because there are musical "echoes" of hymns, songs or poems sprinkled throughout the album. Listen closely and you'll hear them.

Accidentals

This collection of mostly blues/rock/folk inspired songs was recorded in the spring and summer of 2015. I call it "accidentals" because all of the songs on this project were tunes I have had kicking around in my notebooks for many years but had never found a "home" for on previous albums. You can click the image to download the whole album.

blogs I follow

Readings, 2020

Readings, 2020
Paradise Lost, John Milton

Adorning the Dark, Andrew Peterson

The Soul of Shame, Curt Thompson

Cure for the Common Life, Max Lucado

Halos and Avatars, Craig Detweiller, ed.

Fool's Talk, Os Guinness

Brendan, Frederick Buechner

The Screwtape Letters

Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis

The Pilgrim's Regress, C. S. Lewis

Becoming Whole, Brian Finkert and Kelly Kapic

Real Sex, Lauren Winner

Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis

Voyage to Venus, C. S. Lewis

That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis

random reads

Conspiracies Exposed (Part II): But then again, Conspirators Do Conspire

<< previous post

Many years ago I knew a man who had lived all his life in South Africa before immigrating to Canada. He was a highly successful, well-educated professional, a committed Christian and a respected member of our community. He was also adamantly convinced that the Catholic Church was the anti-Christ, the public face of the Freemasons, and part of a sinister plot to dominate the world.

I disagreed with his theory, and he and I had many long, intense conversations about why. He had, after all, oodles of reasons to make his claim. He shared with me a whole library’s worth of video tapes, lectures, and talks that laid it all out.

Why, for instance, was there the image of a winged lion depicted on the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, when the winged lion was notoriously the symbol of Babylon?

I tried in vain to explain that the winged lion also happened to be the traditional symbol for St. Mark the Evangelist, based on John’s glimpse of the four living creatures in Heaven (Revelation 4:7) and Ezekiel’s glimpse of the creatures with the head of a lion and the wings of an eagle, surrounding the throne of God (Ezekiel 1:10). I then tried to explain that St. Mark’s Gospel is traditionally associated with Peter, since Irenaeus (ca.180 AD) calls him the “disciple and interpreter of Peter.” It therefore makes sense that in St. Peter’s church in Rome there would be the image of Mark’s winged lion.

Doesn’t it?

My friend was decidedly unconvinced. We batted “evidences” back and forth more furiously than two ping-pong masters in a championship match. At one point I asked him, somewhat exasperatedly, why was he so convinced that his theory had to be true. Where, I asked, did all this suspicion come from?

I’ve never forgotten his answer. It’s because, he explained, he had lived in South Africa during apartheid. And when that oppressive system came to its final, inglorious end, many ordinary South African citizens were shocked, appalled, and flabbergasted to discover all the secret, even diabolical government conspiracies that had been festering for years under the surface of their presumably civilized society. People were disappeared in the dead of night; extrajudicial killings were carried out by government sanctioned death-squads; propaganda was printed in papers; lies were taught as fact in schools.

"I’m suspicious," he said, "because I’ve lived through a conspiracy before. I know that they are possible."

This brings me to the point of this second post in our series on conspiracy theories. Simply put: people sometimes conspire. This is both the draw, and also the great danger of a conspiracy theory.

I’m making this point in particular because of some of the feedback I received from my last post. I was surprised, and even a bit perplexed, by how many readers pushed back on my basic premise, that conspiracy theories are a “hole you don’t want to fall down” (to borrow a phrase from another blogger). I heard comments like (or to the effect of): “Even so, I don’t think you should just blindly accept the mainstream narrative.” Or: “Just because an idea isn’t accepted by the general public doesn’t mean it’s crazy.” Or: “I expect there were a lot of ‘conspiracy theorists’ rounded up under the regime of Hitler because thy spoke up about their ‘theories’ that the Nazis were ‘conspiring’ to take over the world.”

Without unpacking each of these comments, I would suggest that all of them touch in one way or another on the same thing that my South African friend was getting at.

History shows that people do, sometimes, conspire. Sometimes disastrously. Sometimes diabolically.

But if I may, let me suggest that even so, a conspiracy theory is not a helpful way to process, or respond to this truth.

And let me suggest this by clarifying some terminology. I have noticed in the discourse surrounding the recent Covid-19 conspiracy theories, a certain imprecision, even sloppiness in the language that is especially unhelpful when it comes to something as psychologically complex and epistemologically subtle as a bona fide conspiracy theory. People seem to be using the term to refer, on the one hand, to any suspicion that “we’re not getting the whole story here,” any hunch that people in power may have ulterior motives we’re not hearing about. On the other hand, of course, it’s still being used to refer to (and often to ridicule) the most egregious instances of neurotic paranoia, the tin-foil hats and chem-trail fears of the Info-Wars variety.

I call this imprecision unhelpful because it has two equal and opposite effects. First, it allows us to silence dissenters with scorn—next thing you know they’ll have us wearing tin-foil hats, right? But second, it closes us off to the possibility we might be wrong-- after all, no one wants to discover they've all this time been the dupe of a conspirator, right? Both these effects together leave us less likely to ask probing questions, less likely to hear ideas we don’t already agree with, and more likely to be manipulated.

Given that, it may be helpful to distinguish a “conspiracy theory” from a “conspiracy hypothesis,” and to use these terms more precisely in our discussions. The word “theory” itself comes from the Greek word theoria, “to look” or “to see.” As far as I can tell, this is because a “theory” is an abstract, generalized way of thinking about a set of phenomena that allows you to “see it all,” in a sense, as a whole. The value of a theory is its explanatory power. It accounts for “all the data” and it allows you to make comprehensive predictions about the world. The challenge of a theory is its “completeness.” The theory has already, in a sense, settled the question, and so any data that doesn’t fit the theory is either ignored, over-looked, or pounded into the round hole of the theory until it’s no longer square.

A hypothesis, by contrast, is less generalized, less abstract, more of a “working model” for explaining particular phenomena. Consequently, hypotheses are much more responsive to the data as it is. A hypothesis doesn’t have to “see it all as a whole” the way a theory does, and so any data that disproves it doesn’t create cognitive dissonance, rather, it simply suggests adjustments to the hypothesis are necessary.

Any real scientists in the room may argue that I’m butchering the use of these terms as they are used in the laboratory. Fair enough. But in epistemological terms, I think this is an important distinction. A “theory” must explain all the data, whereas individual data suggest “hypotheses.”

This distinction sheds profound light, I think, when we bring it to the issue of conspiracy theories. What makes a “conspiracy theory” more than just a simple “suspicion that something’s afoot,” is not that it expresses skepticism about generally held beliefs. It’s that it requires the adherent to fit all the evidence—even the evidence that disproves the theory—into its framework, however ruthlessly you have to distort reality in order to get it all in. A conspiracy theory, you might say, is not so much about “what you believe” as “how you believe it,” a certain way of holding one’s beliefs, more than it is any specific set of beliefs, per se.

If I’m on to something in this definition, I would argue that many of the ideas that get dismissed in public discourse as “conspiracy theories” would probably turn out to be a “conspiracy hypotheses,” if we could sit down and discuss them at length; and if they weren’t they would certainly be more healthy and helpful if they were expressed as one.

How would you know the difference? I think a simple litmus test would be: A) how open are you to humbly engage with perspectives that disagree with your own? B) how willing are you to hear facts that disprove your hypothesis and modify it accordingly? and C) (this one is the hardest) how much does your skepticism emerge from the darkest flotsam of the human heart—pride, ideological obstinance, rebellion against authority, xenophobia, paranoia?

If I answered “very closed,” “unwilling,” and “mostly” to those three questions, chances are that I’ve bought into a conspiracy theory, the way I’ve been defining it here.

And chances are, too, that instead of becoming less likely to be duped, I’ve actually made myself more likely to be.

I say that because of the premise I started this post with: that history proves that people do conspire.

It’s true; but fascinatingly, history also proves that one of the methods the conspirators have used to get away with their conspiracies, is to convince the public to buy in to a “conspiracy theory” of one sort or another. Speaking precisely, Hitler did not round up and kill “conspiracy theorists” during Nazi Germany. He rounded up and killed political dissenters (among many others). But one of the reasons he was able to do this with impunity was because he had convinced the German public to believe a conspiracy theory, in the fullest sense of the term: that a secret cabal of Jews was conspiring to take over the world, and the only thing that stood between them and Jewish domination were the horrific “solutions” of the Nazi regime. If we did some digging, we could probably think of more examples, both historical and contemporary, of times when the real conspirators used the epistemological shell game of a conspiracy theory to distract the public from what was really going on.

After all, the lesson of history is not just that people conspire. It’s also that people are often far too willing to let a political ideology, a xenophobia, a paranoia, a fear of honest dialogue, or some combination of all these things, do the thinking for us, sometimes with disastrous results. The solution, of course, is not blind naivete, any more than it is blind skepticism. The solution is actually opening our eyes. It's to look at the world with a earnest desire to know the truth, however wrong the truth might prove us to be on this or that assumption, and in so seeking it, to let the truth set us free.


3 comments:

Joshthejuggler said...

I like your definition of a conspiracy: “not so much ‘what you believe’ as ‘how you believe it,’ a certain way of holding one’s beliefs, more than it is any specific set of beliefs...

I know this isn’t the point of your blog post’s definition but if it works, it should work with other conspiracy examples. For this thought experiment, take the resurrection which is often accused of being the result of a conspiracy between the apostles. So according to the Litmus Test:

A. - the NT itself, as well as the last 2000 years of Christian scholarship have bent over backwards to engage other possible perspectives (and even sometimes humbly :).

B. - according to Paul’s own testimony, if the resurrection is false, then our faith is a sham; This is why so much ink has been spilled on this question; after all, for the one who believes it is the ultimate question determining one’s eternal destiny. Since so much is at stake it is hard to hold the hypothesis loosely. It isn’t surprising then that for many Evangelicals it becomes the way you believe in the resurrection that matters (Rom. 10:9 as key text). It’s hard to be open to disconfirming facts when “how you believe” is what saves you. I am glad for the new perspective reading of this passage that N T Wright has made popular, which emphasizes that the resurrection is something God has done to demonstrate his faithfulness, thereby showing how all people can enter into the new humanity by way of faith not by ways of ethnic privilege (Paul and the Faithfulness of God).

C. - accepting the resurrection and all of its implications means renouncing the old badges of identity and embracing the new humanity, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. Truly embracing the gospel means renouncing the dark parts of your heart and embracing everyone as image bearers, regardless of worldly badges or status.

I think it works...

Dale said...

Yes. This is an important and related question--are we willing to subject our deepest held beliefs about God to the same kind of scrutiny. Like you, I think that it stand up to scrutiny very well, but then again, I'm arguing from the "inside" as it were, and I think it's easy to over estimate one's own objectivity. That's why I think "B" and "C" are so important-- like you've said, it's easy to make "the way you believe" more important than the content of your beliefs, and when you do that, you're on similar ground, I think, as the conspiracy theorist (more on that to come....)
Thanks for engaging with these thoughts!

Joshthejuggler said...

Recently I read a book by Alec Ryrie called Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt. I am sure it would interest you right now! It argues that unbelievers are often just as subjective (or emotional) regarding their doubts and their scrutiny of religion as believers are towards their faith. Essentially, he concludes that doubt (of the atheist variety) is the flip side of faith and that the two have much more in common than agnosticism.