Christian Commentary

We Can’t Eat Cookies Anymore

Kari Atalla, Blogger-Singer-Songer-Writer

7 October 2018

I’ve arranged and rearranged this article a number of times. My husband said, “You’re hitting on so many subtle points, but I don’t know how you’re going to organize them.”

“I know. It’s kind of a rant. What can I cut out?”

He laughs, “If something doesn’t belong, then none of it does. Because it’s all loosely connected, everything still fits. You need all of it. It’s exactly how I would not write an article, but I love it.”

“Well, that’s how I experienced it. I think I’m okay with that. Somebody’ll get it.”

Wide awake in the wee hours of the morning, I recently stumbled across a slideshow about the taboos of history. One slide described a cultural custom called cranial deformation. If you haven’t Wiki-ed that, you should. Basically, the soft, malleable head of a newborn is either wrapped tightly in strips of cloth or pressed between two boards over time until the skull has grown into the desired distinctive shape. Motives vary, but the reasons range from strong ethnic identity to believing that people with longer heads were somehow more tuned in to the spiritual realm. The ancient practice continues today in a few places around the world, including the island nation of Vanuatu.

Abstractly, however, cranial deformation is widespread. All the time every day, we don’t realize how much we are conforming. Consider this:

Cranial Deformation

Photograph: Wikimedia

Peter Rubin, an editor for Wired, timed the release of his book Future Presence to coincide with Ready Player One in theaters, emphasizing to readers that the movie is closer to science than fiction than we realize. I picked up the book on a whim, expecting it to be a sort of cautionary PSA about the risks associated with surrendering more of our lives to gadgets and eroding our ability to connect with others in relationships.

Not so, however. The man is enthralled, and I was ready to join him in his optimistic wonder until, dutifully skimming the preface, I read, “In Chapter 9, I’ll take you on the set of a porn shoot. . .” Wait— what book did I just buy?! Much like the thought I just read in your mind, reader: Wait—what article did I just click on?

In historical Japanese culture, suicide was primarily the noble death of heroic samurais and the very elderly

A quick flip forward revealed the promised title: “XXX-Change Program: Turning Porn Back into People.” The book was building up to this? I all but abandoned the previous eight chapters in order to figure out what his ultimate points were going to be.

Rubin follows the story of “Scott” who describes not only his experiences with VR porn but how it impacted him differently than “regular” porn. I won’t go into all of it, but basically, the man was surprised by how connected he felt to the actress. Before virtual reality, it was primarily voyeurism, but this format offered him intimacy. When he finally told his wife, who already knew of and tolerated his appetite for porn, she said, “This feels like adultery.”

In a society increasingly lenient about sin, it is indeed ironic to hear an objection on the grounds of fidelity over virtual cheating. After all, “for tens of thousands of years, the vast majority of erotic art has depicted [action], not reaction.” That “fundamental shift is hard to overstate,” he writes, his tone of wonder only underscoring the naïveté of his unregenerated mind.

He’s genuinely fascinated by the revelation as though it were profound and new—and his. Without realizing it, Scott, his wife, and Rubin, and everyone he interviewed in the porn industry are just proving that God has been right all along. According to their own theories, before, everyone could relax about pornography because it was not intimacy, which was worth reserving for real relationships. Now, with virtual reality technology, it turns out that intimacy isn’t so much worth reserving for real relationships, and, therefore, everyone should relax about intimate pornography, too. The lie in that mix is that sex is ever non-intimate (which works positively for couples with healthy marriages and negatively for everything else, including rape). The Christian, however, already knows what Jesus said about thought crime: ““You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).

Intimacy in pornography has shifted from an objection by the Fuddy-Duddy Club to a selling point for the porn industry. The world is no longer arguing with the church that there is intimacy in pornography, but whether intimacy is valuable. Our culture is molding our passive minds, groupthink-barreling down the route of acceptable infidelity, and marriage means less and less to anyone outside the church with every passing day.

Intimacy in pornography has shifted from an objection by the Fuddy-Duddy Club to a selling point for the porn industry.

Thanks to the generally diluted education of our people and social media algorithms, just about every group of anybody based on anything faces the problem of groupthink. As we connect and connect more and hyper-connect, we increasingly succumb to the temptation of shopping for conclusions, good or bad, from trusted others instead of working out ideas on our own. Unlike the millions of years it took in The Time Machine, we take sides on hashtag issues in a matter of hours. Everyday, there’s a new Eloi-Morlock rivalry, and because it plagues every community, we’re not only tearing ourselves apart but losing the ability to function from one moment to the next.

Any decision a person can make has become such a fierce crisis of conscience that both Yes and No are damnable choices. The result? People celebrate the inane and mundane as monumental victories over whatever perceived obstacle. Yesterday, I ate a Girl Scout cookie because I love myself flaws-and-all no matter what society says. Today, I’m not going to eat a cookie because the Girl Scouts organization supports Planned Parenthood. Tomorrow, I will eat two cookies because I deserve the treat, but I will write a check to the Boy Scouts of America to cancel out that extra cookie— but then tear it up because now they’re welcoming non-boys. Oooooh, you know what would be awesome? A gender-neutral cookie company. It doesn’t matter that there are hundreds of these cookie companies already in business. Mine will be different because it will raise awareness and promote conversations about gender.

Great, now I hate cookies. (Or maybe I’m onto a new diet trend: Lose weight politicizing your cravings away. . . Why do I feel like I’ve won and lost?)

Cookie Monster

by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

In the above hypothetical, I managed to offend the self-love group, the pro-life group, the pro-choice group, anyone with an opinion about gender norms, capitalists, socialists, decisive people, and people who think dashes are overused punctuation these days. It’s maddening, but I’m only semi-exaggerating.

Even believers fall into this. We’re molding our heads—not to inspired Scripture, but to scripts.

In my limited personal Facebook presence, I’ve been ignored in threads for sharing a link from a website there was no way I could have guessed was being personally boycotted by a friend of mine and privately approached by another concerned that I would appear to support bisexuality because I innocuously shared a silly meme about pasta that had been originally posted from a pro-bisexuality page. (To their credit, all of our discussions were private, and I really do appreciate that.)

These weren’t random acquaintances. Both were people who have known me and my vocally Christian context for a long time. What is happening to us?

Groupthink is happening to us. We’ve conditioned ourselves to seek out and self-identify with algorithms, good and bad. Have we not all seen someone’s eyes glaze over as the rhetoric of a news anchor, a president, or a preacher washes over him, wielding not merely words for quotation but the very will of mind? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t know concepts like the backs of our hands, but good grief, we ought to be able to recognize when we’re slipping into autopilot. We’re being invaded by the body snatchers.

Sometimes, we are the body snatchers. Instead of listening for the principles of sound essential doctrine, we listen for the words and phrases that we believe define this position or that and judge accordingly. In the absence of those phrases, woe to that person who describes something rightly but differently. Heck, we wonder if we should even be talking to that person anymore.

Instead of listening for the principles of sound essential doctrine, we listen for the words and phrases that we believe define this position or that and judge accordingly.

In the absence of real-world relationships, the mirage will do. It’s no accident that RPO’s virtual world is called OASIS. Our online presence is influenced by every click we make. Give it time, and we can curate an experience that introduces absolutely no new ideas to us, only extensions of the same ideas we’ve already accepted.

This includes the experience of believers, who, in the strangerliness of our existence in the unbelieving world, craft pervasive fellowship networks, all too often based on a single doctrine, that threaten to usurp in-person relationships. There is a cadre of inarguably amazing authors, pastors, bloggers, and whatever else that we’ve just kind of collectively lulled ourselves into adopting without question and spend most of our time floating memes and links of theirs around. I’m not saying there’s something inherently wrong with using social media as an OASIS, but if we’re not actively trying to learn about things we don’t endorse, we end up running on a closed track, insulated from not only the world we’re trying to reach but other genuine brethren who think differently about something. We’re stunting our own growth.

Chamelion on a Towel

Photograph via Brightside

So, how do we move from happenstance introductions to deliberate yet organic, meaningful interactions? One answer is to resist the algorithms. According to Elan Morgan’s 2014 Facebook experiment, everything we like and click on is another tweak to the customization of our social media experience. The co-founder of Gender Avenger advocates the drop of the Facebook Like from our habit:

When I used to like everything that did not actively bore me or make me feel hateful, my stream of Facebook updates was more like a series of soapboxes spouting outrage dotted with weddings, cute baby animals, and only occasionally real content worth pursuing. Since I stopped liking altogether, though, my Facebook stream is more akin to an eclectic dinner party. There is conversation, there is disagreement (mostly) without hostility, and there is connection. . . It turns out that your friends might actually be more likeable than Facebook’s Like disruption makes them appear, and the growing sense of disconnection that many of us experience might just be due to a tone-deaf algorithm.

What about going the other way, as Mat Honan did, and liking everything available to like in his news feed? For two days, that’s exactly what he did:

After checking in and liking a bunch of stuff over the course of an hour, there were no human beings in my feed anymore. . . Also, as I went to bed, I remember thinking “Ah, crap. I have to like something about Gaza,” as I hit the Like button on a post with a pro-Israel message.  By the next morning, the items in my News Feed had moved very, very far to the right. I’m offered the chance to like the 2nd Amendment and some sort of anti-immigrant page. I like them both. I like Ted Cruz. I like Rick Perry. The Conservative Tribune comes up again, and again, and again in my News Feed. I get to learn its very particular syntax. . . Just as my News Feed had drifted further and further right, so too did it drift further and further left. Rachel Maddow, Raw Story, Mother Jones, Daily Kos and all sort of other leftie stuff was interspersed with items that are so far to the right I’m nearly afraid to like them for fear of ending up on some sort of watch list.

Okay, that last sentence deserves an article all its own.

Both Morgan and Honan are liberals (perhaps even leftists, but I haven’t looked into it) with whom I would disagree on much. About this, they’re both right to be annoyed and even alarmed. Our solutions to the problem would probably be different, but we can’t discuss anything unless we’re all willing to listen to things we don’t like—something that algorithms silently help us avoid.

As society polarizes more and more, it becomes difficult to persuade anyone, even ourselves, that we may be perceiving others not as they are but through algorithmic lenses. Facebook is designed to reinforce what we already believe, no matter which side of the aisle we’re on. No growth. No discussion. Just division.

Some of you who follow me on Facebook have seen my posts asking for solid church recommendations for people sincerely trying to understand life in various parts of the world. These atheists and agnostics have no idea who I am, not even my name or what I look like, other than the fact that I am a Christian who seems not to be a nut. I also know nothing about them other than what they confide in me about their spiritual struggles. Of course, thanks to a decade of apologetics ministries and sermons from too many preachers to name, none of the questions are too hard to answer.

Still, it’s so strange that fish jump into the boat this way. On the one hand, it’s a God-given blessing to be able to get the gospel into the lives of people I will never meet in places I will never go. At the same time, the very access to a tailor-made world has also isolated these people. The site where I’m most active is predominantly secular. For that reason, when an unbeliever takes the road less traveled, seeks out a believer, and asks in all sincerity that golden question we all want to hear: “I hear you have hope. Why’s that?” I cannot take it lightly. By social media design, people aren’t supposed to bump into different kinds of people, only those who share the same interests. The choice to explore beyond the comfortable customization of their online world is incredibly difficult to make. My answer should make the effort worth it.

Personally, I’m approaching life as open-ionated. I have strong opinions and convictions, but I am open to conversation. When did listening become tantamount to compromise? Lately, I’ve been      actively trying to read and watch and listen to what I don’t like or disagree with. It’s not for the purpose of jumping into arguments. I just want to understand as much as I can about the backstory of an idea since too often conclusions are confused with premises. The result? Not only is the conversation more peaceful and thoughtful, but usually at some point, the other person remarks, almost confused, about how no one has ever presented whatever the issue is to him or her in such an empathetic way.

That’s so sad, y’all, but knowledge is power. I’m no one special, just a person interested in reaching the people I used to be like as someone did for me ten years ago. We don’t have to be career evangelists (though the folks that are have my respect and my prayers). We don’t have to have written books or blogged/vlogged. We just need to be patient and willing to listen. The world is hurting, and we have no idea how profoundly our gentle spirit in speaking truth will strike a hurting person. Who knows? That may be the reason that person continues to talk.

Pretty birds, pretty birds

Photograph: WallPaperCave

When I was in college, an art professor assigned an in-class project. There were too many of us to stay inside the small classroom, and so some of us spilled over into the halls. We were separated from the students in the classroom for 90 minutes. After time was up, we all brought our projects back for display and grading.

Had we asked, any random passerby could have walked in and picked out most of the projects done by students who had tackled their assignments in the classroom. Though there was definitely a discernible theme to all of them, the projects of those of us who had worked elsewhere stood out like sore thumbs (particularly mine, which had called for so much glitter that I had finished mine outside the building altogether). We laughed—albeit a little nervously, fearing we had misunderstood the instructions. However, our professor loved the range of creativity. She was right. Though some students that had stayed in the class obviously excelled, it was truly beautiful to see everyone’s self-expression represented so differently once we set them all up side by side.

It was inspirational. It was individual. It was beautiful. Like life, even in close adherence to the truth, can be. And should.

Kari Atalla is a blogger-singer-songer-writer. Intentional typos like that one are a delight to her ear, and she loves to consider and play with language and thought as with a Rubik’s cube tethered to a core of truth, especially in the necessary condensation of ideas for the narrow space of lyrics. She regards the Bible as miraculously short for the vast and deep wealth of concepts within its pages. Her Lord is Jesus Christ, and apart from Him, she’s a hell-deserving wretch. The joy of His salvation gives her a faith unafraid to explore and meet anything in the world, the principles of Scripture not as oppressive laws but enlightening wisdom as her guide, and the unparalleled Christian-based freedoms afforded her in America are occasion for the praise of the Lord and worth preserving. She gets things wrong like anyone else, but by God’s grace, when believers fall, they fall forward.

She’s an INFJ. Her husband is her favorite person on the planet. He’s the otherling she always hoped she’d find. God has been so good to her.  Find her on Facebook, YouTube, iTunes, Amazon, and Me We.


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