Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Healthy Diabetes Recipe (Stew!)

Nutrition Facts can be found here on's amazing nutrition calculator.
At the request of a vegetarian friend with developing diabetes, I have designed the following recipe.


1 lb Soybeans (mature seeds)
1/3 lb Wheat berries (hard red winter)
1/3 lb Navy beans
1/3 lb Amaranth
1/2 lb shredded coconut
1/2 lb flaxseed
1/8 lb nutritional yeast
1 lb almonds (slivered and/or sliced)

5 onions (mix red, yellow, white)
2 bell peppers
4 Jalapenos
2 lg cans of diced tomatoes
1 lb Swiss chard
1 lb Collard greens
2 bunches of cilantro
2 heads of garlic (yeah, the whole thing x 2)

1 cup olive oil
1 cu apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup of each of the following spices: black pepper, cayenne*, cumin, coriander, paprika, tumeric, yellow mustard seed

*1/4 cup of cayenne will yield a solidly spicy stew. Scale back to preference.


1. Rinse soybeans, navy beans and wheat berries. Divide in 2 and put each half into a large pot. Add water and boil for ~1 hour (until they're still tough, but chewable). Stir occasionally to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom.

2. Chop onions, peppers and garlic. Put into a pot with the cayenne pepper, black pepper and coriander. Add some of the olive oil and fry on high heat, stirring constantly, until onions begin to look translucent (~10-15 minutes). Divide in half and set aside.

3. Chop the collard greens, the Swiss chard and the cilantro. Do chop this carefully (I prefer ~1/2 inch squares) because long, tough greens do make the soup messy. Set aside. Open the cans of tomatoes. Divide all the other ingredients in two portions. 

4. When the beans are finished, put everything that's not in the pot, into the pot. That's right. Everything (including what you set aside in steps 2 and 3). Cook for 15 minutes, or until it's as soft as you'd prefer. Remember, the tougher you can handle it, the better (slower digestion, better for blood sugars; also the more work it is to eat, the less you'll eat). Stir frequently, making sure to scrape the bottom (the stew is quite thick, and it's really easy to burn the bottom layer).

 5. (optional) I like to divvy it up into day-use Tupperware so I can just grab-and-go. Also, I do sometimes freeze a portion of it for later use.


First off, to be perfectly clear, this is not a recipe for diabetes. You won't actually get diabetes by eating this stew. But it is for diabetics, or anyone who wants to get better control of their blood sugar (I'm talking to you, average American). The above is a modification of my previous recipe, but this time optimizing factors important for blood sugar. The most important thing goal for the diabetic is minimizing glycemic index (GI), how fast the food turns into sugar. The faster this happens, the harder it is on you pancreas and cells; a nice, slow gradual release of the sugar is ideal. Coca Cola and white bread are bad. The other thing I found in my reading was that fiber is good. I'm not sure it's entirely clear the mechanism (I've heard some argue that fibrous foods make it physically slower to digest food). Also, to throw a kink in, the particular person I designed this for was a vegetarian. So no meat.

So with some reading and comparing of foods, I decided to go with soybeans as the primary base (the kind that look like nuts in the bulk food section; not the ones that look green that you get at Sushi restaurants). They've got a ton of fiber, really low GI, and high protein. For diversity (and also inspired by Ezekiel 4:9), I decided to add in wheat berries, Navy beans (best-in-(bean)class on fiber and GI), and, partly because Milton thinks it was next to the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, partly because it means "unfading beauty" in Greek, and partly because it has pretty darned good nutritional properties, I added a bit of Amaranth.

In looking at the nutrition facts above, you may think I failed. "626 Calories!?" "34 grams of fat?!" It was deliberate. The first thing you may or may not know is that humans need to eat food in order to keep on living. For most humans about 2000 Calories need to come in one way or another. The goal should not be to try to eat 1500 Calories and splurge up to 2500, but to try to eat a good 2000 Calories.

As for nutritional goals, I think it came out fairly well. One hearty bowl of the stuff and you get all the fiber you need in a day without Metamucil (and I suppose this is as good a place as any for the disclaimer: that much fiber will probably change your bowel habits: get ready for it). The glycemic load is low at 19 for the bowl (~61 if you ate nothing but the stew all day, well below the target 100). Those were my goals, and they were met. And now for the gravy (don't eat gravy; it's bad for you).

Veggies (not bacon) are good for you, especially slow-digesting, nutrient rich ones (i.e. the green-leafies). It's  winter, so the tomatoes locally are about a bazillion dollars a pound; so I went with canned this time (of course, fresh is always better if you can get your hands on 'em). And because I love garlic, I was not sparse with it. For most people, and for people with blood sugar problems especially, veggies are very important.

Let's move on to the fats. Because of (as far as I can tell) very clever "fat free" marketing in the 90's, we have adopted the idea that "fat is bad!" It's equivalent to arbitrarily selecting a class of words and declaring them evil: "Nouns are naughty!" "Verbs are viscous!" In reality, there are good and bad fats. The only "traditional" diet studied with rigor has been shown to be really good for you; it's called the Mediterranean Diet and includes a LOT of olive oil. Coconut oil (which is expensive... dried coconut is much cheaper, and believe it or not, has coconut oil inside of it) has been shown to increase good cholesterol (HDL) and improve blood sugar. Monounsaturated oils (lots in olive oil) also improve cholesterol profile (increase the good, decrease the bad), as well as improving blood sugars. So I included lots of both. I also read that almonds, in addition to the great benefits of their good-for-you fats, were really good for sugar control. And (also because flaxseed extract is expensive) I added flaxseeds; the stew has as much heart-healthy Omega-3 in one bowl as a supplement pill.

As with the previous version, the massive amounts of spice provide anti-oxidants anti-inflammatory which are good at curing everything ("Cancer!" and "Infection!"). Some people even think that diabetes is a problem with "inflammation" (e.g. bariatric surgery can sometimes reverse diabetes; some think this is because people lose their "inflammatory" fat tissue). But we have meandered to the fringes of scientific hypothesis and in the imagination land of nutritional benefits; I have not even heard of people who tried using coriander for cure. The whole inflammation story seems to simple to be true IMHO, but I'd bet that some of the hype is real. Even if it wasn't, spice is the spice of life.

So that's the "Diabetes Stew." The more of it you eat, the better! If you just have a little bit with your meals, it'd have some effect. If you can, as I did, completely replace your diet with this one item (you'd have to sacrifice the Western proclivity for variety and learn to enjoy repetition as the rest of the world does), it'd have big effects.

[For the record, all the health claims are scientific second-hand: I have not read the original papers nor am I an expert in nutrition. I have written the above mostly with what I have learned from (probably) reliable sources (mostly professors at Stanford). If you find sources and/or info that contradicts this, please post in the comments]

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Neuroscience of Empathy

You’re 10. The lunch bell just rang. The epic and thrilling sport of kickball is about to begin. Now it’s time to pick teams. Today you’re relived to get picked in the middle. The other kids are getting picked. Now there’s just two left. You look out with sadness at the last two schmucks. One of them will end up getting picked second-to-last and one sorry kid will have to endure the gut-wrenching feeling of being the only one on either team that didn’t get picked at all. The second-to-last kid is picked. You look out at the face of that last pitiful kid. How do you feel?

If you answered, “Hey! I was that last kid!” you make a really good point. Before we look at empathy, let’s take a quick look at our own emotional pain. Researchers set up a virtual playground where participants were playing the videogame “cyberball” while in a brain scanner (fMRI). And then, in the equivalent of the playground, two of the players rejected the participant. What happened? Ouch. What did the researchers see? A part deep in the brain right between the temples called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) burned bright with activity. They asked the participants how bad it was, and they found that the more distress they felt, the brighter the ACC burned. Getting picked last for kickball is a terrible thing.

But what’s also terrible is watching someone get picked last. The experiment was repeated, but this time the participant watched while another player got rejected. What happened this time? Ouch again. Again, the ACC burned bright. Watching someone else get picked last is also a terrible thing.

It turns out that the ACC seems to be important for feeling any kind of pain. It lights up when you stub your toe or when you watch someone else stub their toe; it lights up when you get dumped, or when you hear about your friend getting dumped. One group even looked at patients who cannot, for neurological reasons, feel physical pain. They found that even these patients were still able to share a pain they never felt; their ACC was active when watching others experience physical pain.

This might lead you to think that the ACC was important in making people altruistic. You may think: the worse you feel about someone else’s situation, the more likely you are to help. The more pathetic-looking they make the African orphan on the commercial, the more likely you’ll donate money. But it’s false. Even though it seems to be an indicator of pain, it doesn’t seem that pain produces altruistic action. In the study of the cyberball watchers, the participants got a chance to write an email to the rejected player, and this was then rated by how helpful and comforting it was. Changes in ACC didn’t predict nice emails. In another study of people looking at pictures of hurricane victims and considering donating money, they found the same thing: ACC was active but didn’t predict generosity.

What did? A part of the brain between the temples near the top of the head (dmPFC). The more dmPFC activity, the more helpful the emails to the rejected cyberball players, and the more money was committed to the hurricane victims. Why?

To answer that, we need another experiment! This time, researchers tested a very strange hypothesis: the most selfless people were actually being selfish. In other words, they tested whether people’s generosity was because they felt bad for people in a bad situation, or whether it was because they considered themselves “one” with the others. Oneness, “reflects a sense of interpersonal unity, wherein the conceptions of self and other are not distinct but are merged to some degree.” They asked people how they would help various kinds of people (from strangers to family), in various situations (from a phone call to helping their orphaned kids) and found that the empathic concern was only important insofar as the people considered themselves one with the other person. Their altruism was driven by their oneness, not their empathy.

So what about our friend, the dmPFC? It turns out that it’s more active when we’re making evaluations about others, particularly when we’re considering others as a part of ourselves, a part of our group.

It seems that the emerging story is that empathy is an important human capacity. You can look at a person in pain, feel bad for him, and keep on moving. In fact, it doesn’t seem to matter how much it actually hurts you to see another in pain. So long as you think of the person as ‘him,’ you’ll probably walk on by (probably crossing to the other side of the road while you’re at it). But the more that you think of the other person as ‘me,’ the more likely you are to let your empathy drive you to action. Jesus may have been speaking quite literally when He said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Disclaimer: Professor Plumb, in the Library, with the Candlestick
Professor Plumb was in the library, but did he actually commit the murder? We see a provocative correlation, a brain region that lights up when you’re about to do good, that same region lighting up when you consider people part of your group, and the observation that feeling “oneness” with others lines up with altruistic action. All the pieces are in line for it to be true, but we don’t know for sure. That is to say, the above goes into the category of “speculative hypothesis.” All these observations might be explained by a third factor. Or it might turn out that some of these observations are actually false. Or an hundred other things. That’s the problem (and the fun) of speculation. So long as the speculation is backed up with a firm Theology (i.e. that we ought to obey Jesus regardless of whether there are discovered neural pathways to support His advice), it’s all in good fun.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Together in the New Jerusalem (4 of 4)

We often hear that we were once a violent race that killed people who believed in other gods. Then we made a great compromise. Some great peacemaker suggested Pluralism, “If you just say that your all-powerful god isn’t all-powerful, we’ll do the same; our gods can share the sky.” And so, by compromising on God’s power, we achieved a cease-fire. And some would advocate that we again accept it. But the advocates are often humanists, and as it is said in business, beware the naked man who offers you his shirt; so now, beware the atheist who offers you his god. Pluralism was a reasonable compromise for two monotheists, but not for an atheist and a monotheist. But what can we compromise on? How can we have peace?

The unique solution to our dilemma is to put our faith in Peace embodied. Jesus came and was the Prince of Peace, and he founded a religion with just the structure to meet the need of our species. The one place where Christianity cannot compromise is where everyone else can (doctrine). Where everyone else cannot compromise, Christianity can. So my dear reader, if your heart is to reconcile all religions, you have the heart of Christ. And if you seek a path that can satisfy all people, you can find it in Christ. And if you seek to bind together all the diversity of humanity in a wonderful unity, your desire can be satisfied by the Church.

Muhammad desired that men might learn humility before God. Christ humbled Himself unto death and bids His disciples do likewise. Confucius was looking for social order. Christ founded His Kingdom on Love to bring perfect order. The Buddha sought an escape from suffering. Christ bore our suffering on Himself, and promised a Resurrection unto joy. Hinduism sought an escape from the unending circle of reincarnation. Christ adjures us to take the straight and narrow path to the Holy City. Yoruba religion sought reconnection with God, others, nature and destiny. Christ tears the curtain of separation between God and man, and demonstrated how love can tie us intimately with all around us. Judaism seeks a Messiah to bring Israel back from Exile. Christ is that Messiah. Laozi was searching for the Way. Christ said “I am the way.”

Many visions of the afterlife, though beautiful in many ways, turn out to be narrow. The blissful unity of Nirvana is wonderful, but it would certainly exclude a man as passionate as Jesus. Buddhist ideas of inner peace are profound, but Muhammad was far too aggressive to find it. The pleasures of Muslim Paradise are easy to yearn for, but the Buddha wouldn’t know what to do with virgins and wine. The freedom and formlessness of the Dao is beautiful, but not a beauty that Confucius with his focus on about cities and politics would appreciate. The structure of Muslim Sharia establishes a firm public order, but not one that Laozi would ever have submitted himself to. There are strange truths present in the words of the mystics, but Rabbi Hillel would much rather know by reasoning. We have all felt the bottomless despair of death so well captured by Greek Hades, but Socrates could never accept an afterlife absent of ultimate justice. But the New Jerusalem is big enough to fit all these men.

In a Christian Heaven we might see, standing at great gates of pearl, Plato and Augustine discussing the City of God. In Heaven, the Buddha may sit silently with St. Benedict and the Desert Fathers under the Tree of Life. In Heaven, Hippocrates may gather leaves of healing with Maimonides and Dr. Livingston. In Heaven, Hector may wrestle with Joshua and Arjuna. In Heaven, Gandhi may join Moses and Dr. King on a freedom march down streets of gold. In Heaven, Solomon, standing in the court of the Final Temple, may explicate the finer points of his administration to Muhammad and Confucius. In Heaven, Laozi may wander with St. Francis and Adam, following the Dao through wondrous Eden.

<== Back to The Universal Church (3 of 4)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Universal Church (3 of 4)

At the opening of the movie Wedding Crashers the priest is about to start reading. John whispers to Jeremy, “20 bucks, First Corinthians.” Jeremy accepts the bet, “Double or nothing, Colossians 3:12.” Jeremy loses the bet, and 1 Corinthians 15 is read. That is the famous “love” chapter (the one opening with “love is patient,” or if you prefer the older translation, “charity suffers long”). At the end of the section, it talks about something that I, as a Bible-clutching believer in Truth never really understood. Love, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” I get the bearing and enduring. But believing? Hoping? Isn’t Christianity about disbelieving things? Aren’t there definitely things that need to be rejected?

Christianity seems to have been specifically designed to be the most universal and unifying thing in the galaxy. And this is very strange. Isn’t is supposed to be close-minded and bigoted? Superficially, so it seems. But let’s review some history.

Jews for Jesus

In the first century, the Church was made up entirely of Jewish converts. They still kept Jewish feasts and really didn’t see Christianity as anything but a Jewish sect. Then, God called some Romans to be Christians, too. When the news of their conversion was shared, it blew the minds of the listeners who, to that point, thought God cared mostly about the Jews: “When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, "Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life." There arose a great argument: wouldn’t the new converts have to first convert to Judaism (and get circumcised…ouch!), or could there be such things as non-Jewish Christians. Because of the convincing (to them) evidence of miracle surrounding the conversions, they decided that non Jews could be Christians, too.

Gentiles for Jesus

Fast forward a few millennia and the tables have turned. Christianity, originally a Jewish sect, is now perceived as a non-Jewish group. But not entirely. Meet Glenn Blank (not Beck), a good Reform Jew who was minding his own business. Out of the blue, he saw a vision of Jesus crucified. He did not understand it at the time, but through a process that included a Bible-as-literature class in college, he eventually came to believe that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. So what did he do? Give up his Judaism and become Christian? On the contrary! He got more Jewish. “I didn't know [my Jewish identity] was important! I thought I'd become a Christian! But in fact, my Jewish identity is important to God, and I began to grow in understanding what it means to be a Jew.” Glenn is an example of what is called today a Messianic Jew, a startlingly large group that has been reported at 250,000 in the US alone; even with only these counted, it would mean that about 1 in 50 Jews worldwide believes in Jesus.

So we see in Glenn something very interesting. The first century question was whether Christianity was broad enough to include non-Jews. Today, it is whether Christianity is broad enough to include Jews. But in both times, God seemed to be calling people in their own cultural contexts not to change cultures, but to believe in Jesus.

Muslims for Jesus. Wait, what?

Now let’s take a look at Islam. Meet Soleh. He was a construction foreman who also taught in the mosque of his remote village. He took a job working on a Christian school for several months. The students at the school were running out of food, and prayed for food, and food came. Soleh believed the coincidental timing of this donation was indeed an answer to prayer. Later, he had a conversation with one of the students about faith, and came to believe in Jesus. He was ready to leave everything to follow Jesus, but was told he didn’t need to; he could follow Isa (the Arabic name of Jesus) without leaving Islam. He returned to his village, gathered his community and, “announced that he was a Muslim who now followed Isa. Not only did nobody seem upset, but many people were very interested, including the village chief who also became a follower of Isa soon thereafter!" The same source also tells the stories of other Muslim followers of Isa like Taufik who “never thinks of himself as being a ‘Christian,’ ... He sees himself being a good Muslim, called to share salvation in the Messiah with fellow Muslims” and Achmad who, “perceives himself as a Muslim who knows Isa.”

How is this possible? A Christian may wholeheartedly claim to be a Muslim, “One who submits.” He may pray 5 times daily facing east. He may give alms. He may fast during Ramadan. He may visit Mecca. He may say and even believe the Shahada (“There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his messenger”). A Muslim cannot accept the Christian idea of Jesus (that he was the Son of God), while a Christian can accept the Muslim idea of Muhammad (that he was a prophet). An orthodox Muslim cannot take Communion, accepting the sacrificial death of the Son of God (because God has no son), or Baptism, taking part in His resurrection (for Jesus never died) while a Christian can observe the Five Pillars. Christianity is a bigger circle than Islam. An orthodox Christian can be a Muslim, but an orthodox Muslim cannot be a Christian.

If there can be Messianic Jews and Messianic Muslims, there can be a Messianic anything. We think of religions as mutually exclusive largely because we, in the West, impose a Christian framework on other religions. We see conversion as a person leaving all that they once knew, and doing something completely foreign. But conversion to Christianity is not a universal rejection; it is a universal acceptance.


Christian universality is possible because Christianity is flexible in the right places and rigid in the right places. Jesus does command that you love him more than your family and your culture. But when the healed man from Decapolis would leave his people to follow Jesus back to his Jewish ministry, Jesus told him to stay. Some are called to literally leave, but most are called to stay, to work within their own cultures.

A Christian may, in the same year, celebrate Holi, Passover, Ramadan and Christmas. She may make pilgrimage to Mecca, Jerusalem and Tibet. She may meditate, pray, chant, sing, worship and do yoga. She may eat meat, abstain from meat; she may eat kosher food, halal food or food sacrificed to Vishnu. She may tell stories about the Jews’ redemption from Egypt, Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, or Rama’s romance with Sita.

St. Paul explicitly encourages this sort of thing. He himself walked amongst the idols of the Greeks and participated in Jewish practices he was freed from. He wrote that “All things are permissible,” even doing very un-Jewish things like eating meat sacrificed to idols. A huge part of Paul’s teaching throughout his life was that Christians didn’t have to keep Jewish traditions.

Real unifying faith

All this allows for a beautiful and unprecedented unity. When we talk about our color preferences, we are talking about something purely subjective. When we enter into the realm of true and false, we cross the threshold into that part of the human experience we can share. Conversations about theology are impossible in pluralism, or at least they’re very short. “Oh! Very interesting. That’s good for you.” True and interesting conversation can only come when people are talking about the same thing. And with Jesus’ audacious claim to be the Truth, the logos, the foundation of rationality, he permits his followers to seek him literally everywhere. The Christian can discuss the truth in a Hindu story, or a Jewish scripture, or a Greek epic, or a mathematical postulate. He can feel the emotional truth in Muslim architecture, Buddhist yoga, or even a secular nightclub [1]. The Christian can baptize a piece of art, or an experience, or a story in the waters of Truth, allowing all that is false or evil or wrong to die, and bringing the rest of it into the Light. GK Chesterton once said that St Thomas Aquinas baptized Aristotle: Thomas found his work and literally saved it from being lost, but also translated the good of it into the new orthodoxy. The Christian can affirm the true and the good in every culture, in every religion, and even in every person. The Atheist must deny all things (certainly all religions). The Pluralist must deny some things (e.g. Christianity and Islam). The Christian, unique in history and amongst philosophies, may truly believe all things.

Calling Christianity intolerant is like saying that the Allies were secretly Nazis. Without context, it might have been confusing to see Patton in Germany with American tanks. Patton’s defection might be a plausible story, or maybe he was a German general all along. But if one simply watched the Battle of the Bulge, it wouldn’t take long to see that the Allies were not friends with the Nazis. Of course, there were Nazi spies amongst Allied ranks, and there were Allied soldiers who poorly represented the group. But it’s difficult to argue that the Allies were pro-Nazi because it was the Allies who defeated the Nazis. And so it is with Christianity.

On Christmas Day, the beaches of Darkness and Intolerance were invaded. Since then, thousands of missionaries, abolitionists, and translators have been broadening the Church. As the Allies marked time from the day of their invasion, so Christians count time relative to “C-Day”. In fact, so do you. In the corner of your computer screen and on your wrist and on the phone in your pocket you can see exactly how many hours, days, months, and years have elapsed since the invasion began (“The Year of our Lord 2012”, abbreviated 2012 AD from the Latin Anno Domini). In 33AD, the Church spoke Aramaic and included Judaism. Within a few decades, its leaders were from diverse parts of the Roman Empire and it included Greek. Today, the Gospel has been printed in well over 1500 languages and the Church includes members from every continent and every major religion. And it continues to broaden.

[1] I have recently discovered the feeling of being ‘one’ with a crowd, moving to loud music in a dark club is true. Of course, there are a million bad things mixed in. But the feeling of unity with strangers is a mystical truth: we are indeed all one blood, and the breath that we draw is from the same Father in heaven. This is the kernel of truth I found at Bootie.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Color, Culture and Christianity (2 of 4)

Culture is Like Color

Culture is like colors. Most of history, there really have been only two options: Conquest and Pluralism. Most empires decided that they would impose their culture, or at least their government, on others. They are like blue panes of glass shattering every pane that would not or could not become blue. The blue panes tried to paint the world blue. The alternative is pluralism, rejecting the idea that any one color should be dominant. There is no Blue Plan or Green Plan; the colors don’t go anywhere in particular. The best we can hope is for them to stop smashing each other. We keep our own color, and, as best we can, practice tolerance for the others. And we can celebrate that red is a different color than blue. Maybe blue panes occasionally go visit the red corner; there are rare outliers who, for work or family, live amongst differently colored panes.

Through the ages, we strove to achieve the ethical goal: “Don’t smash each other.” As a species, we’ve gone from killing the guy next door, to tolerating him (and his goddamn music!). The next step is to love him; to invite him and his family over for dinner. The colored panes, now preserved from violence, can begin to come together. But why should they? Previous attempts have mixed the colors at random simply for the sake of diversity; but inevitably, the panes would retire to their corners. What can bring the green panes from the green corner?

Common Purpose Unites Cultures

A higher vision. A purpose. A picture that requires green and nothing but green right next to blue and nothing but blue. And so, the panes came together and formed a beautiful stained-glass window. And then something new happened. The sun rose, and illuminated the picture. The green glowed with a beauty it had not known in its corner. The red and blue, enemies of old, mingled the light that passed through them into a rich purple. The picture, made up of every color, became alive and dazzling, giving new meaning to each pane’s color, a meaning that was only a mystery and a dream while they were separated from each other and in the darkness.

Language: A Case Study of Culture

On a remote island of the Philippines a year ago, I was working on a healthcare project amongst the Palawano, a people-group of about 50,000. My companion was a tall white man wearing a Hawaiian shirt, big round glasses, and shorts; he had an enviable full beard, white with age and wisdom. As we travelled, he pointed to a Palawano road sign and casually remarked, “They spelled that wrong.” He, of all the people in the world, would know. He invented the Palawano written language.

While Christians pour out their hearts to translate the Bible, cultural Imperialism is on a death march, crushing culture after culture. When I was in Kenya, they had forgotten how to play their traditional music. They wore mitumba, second-hand shirts with all variety of American brands, and only rarely something that looked vaguely Kenyan. As a colony, the British attempted to crush tribal individuality by imposing Swahili on them (while depriving them of the economic benefits of English). Today, their economy mandates that they speak English or never leave the farm. Kikuria, the traditional language of the tribe I worked with, will be soon be forgotten. And so it is everywhere.

The Cruel Western Melting Pot

America has been compared to a melting pot, but it seems that the world has become one. But what seems to be melting away are the distinctive features of the different cultures, like the subtle flavor of saffron consumed into an over-salted homogeneous gruel. Everyone is listening to the same music, watching the same movies, and hearing the same opinions. A thousand teas, honey wines, and tropical fruit juice are being replaced by the very same Coca-Cola. The wonderful variety of roasted, fried, and stewed meat are being replaced by the very same Big Mac (with the occasional hat-tip to the host country). It is true that the offering plate on Sunday has trouble slowing the steamrolling powers of Coca-Cola and McDonalds. But at least we’re doing our best. Who else is even trying?

Christianity Redeems Human Culture

Christianity cares deeply about human culture, so much so it preserves it eternally. There are very few versions of the afterlife that preserve human culture. Atheistic oblivion tells that it will cease to exist when humans go extinct. Eastern versions tell that humans will lose their separateness when they enter Nirvana, when the drop joins the ocean, culture and all. But in Christian heaven, there will be people of every tribe, tongue, people and nation, recognizably themselves and different, but unified and at peace. It is a radical vision of human unity that is symbolically expressed and anticipated by Christian translation efforts. Christians spend a huge amount of blood, sweat and dollars on translating the Bible into languages because the vision of a diverse crowd in heaven is so exciting. This shows Christianity’s relationship with culture. It is not a melting pot averaging out all the flavors into the same gruel. It is the salt of the Earth, bringing out the flavors of the individual cultures, and preserving them from blandness and decay.

What other truth speaks every language? The Qur’an, according to Muslims, cannot be translated; once it enters English, it is not the Qur’an. Part of its holiness is its Arabic. Though few are as strict as this, most religious writings go un-translated. Even the Christian critic Robert Heinlein’s fictional Martian religion cannot be translated. But the Christian Bible remains holy in English or Urdu. Indeed, many of Christian heroes are translators who literally gave their lives fighting the cultural bigots of their day. William Tyndale was burned at the stake fighting those who would confine the Christian idea in the prison of Latin culture. In an irreversible act of defiance, the Bible broke loose into German and English and then every other language under the sun. Where are the Tyndales of pluralism?

<== Back to The Religion Color Experiment (1 of 4)
==> Onward to The Universal Church (3 of 4)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Religion Color Experiment (1 of 4)


Parents: you wouldn't do this...
Daughter: “I love green. Green is my favorite color.”
Father: “NO. Your favorite color is purple.”
Daughter: “But Dad, I don’t like purple. I like gree-”
...So don't do this you do this:
Daughter: “Dad, what happens to us after we die?”
Father: “I’m so glad you asked, sweetie! Allow me to now parrot what my parents told me as a child, thus perpetuating 2,000 years worth of bizarre, backwards, ridiculous beliefs that no one in their right mind would believe unless an authority figure taught it to them while they were young.”
Here is a popular view on religion, presented by perhaps the second funniest web comic on the whole interweb, TheOatmeal (<----the highlighted word "TheOatmeal" links to the original version of the above comic. Warning: TheOatmeal often uses hyperbole for comic effect). It basically says that religion is like a color, an arbitrary preference. Some cultures happened to all agree on favorite colors, maybe red, white and blue in the US of A. But it might just as easily have been black, yellow and red if you were born in Germany.


Let’s run that experiment. What if Christianity was exactly like the color red? Let us imagine that there are people who believe that red is not just a good color, but the True color. We will call them Red Colorists.


The Red Colorists top minds begin to investigate red as a color, reasons for preferring red, and the essence of redness. This process consumes undeniably the best minds of most of European history, as the Red Colorists find the subject of Red-ology so deep its depths cannot be plumbed.

Red missionaries travel throughout the world, sacrificing their careers and their families to spread the good news about the color red, red being the only one by which men might be saved. They spend decades as anthropologists and linguists translating the Gospel of Red into the native tongues of those who like green and purple and yellow. They work so hard because they believe every person should be able to read about red in their own “heart language.” Those who convert exclaim, “I’ve loved blue my whole life, but now I see I’ve been living a lie! The arguments of the Red Colorists have persuaded me! Red is the one, true color!”

Those who prefer red are often persecuted, and even threatened with death. Others, who also take their color seriously make threats, “If you don’t say that yellow is your favorite color, we will kill you!” But the threats do nothing; the Red Colorists refuse to change their preference, or even pretend to change so that they don’t get killed. Some get killed. But it doesn’t stop them. Their love for the other colorists is so intense that they are willing to die so that others might prefer red.


What is the result of treating Christianity like the color red? It makes Christians seem nuttier than a jar of Skippy.  And for some, it may help communicate how crazy religion seems. For those on the fence, maybe it’s a silly enough story to be laughed at. But it doesn’t matter. I tell the story to raise the question: Why don’t we die for our favorite color?

As is always true, when your theory can’t explain something, it might be time to change it. If a guy has the theory, “She wants me sooooo bad,” it may not adequately explain her statement: “Get away from me, creeper!” A new theory is needed. And so it is with the color theory of religion. Even if it is true in part, it doesn’t explain important pieces (like the whole dying-for-a-color part).

The trouble with the word religion is that it’s hard to define. Like the coach section of an airplane, the word ‘religion,’ mashes together very different kinds of people into an identical seat size, some of whom definitely don’t fit. Consider the case of Confucianism and Christianity. Both are concerned about ethics. Also, you may astutely note that both begin with the letter ‘C.’ But that’s about where the similarities end. 

Confucianism focuses on the present world, barely commenting on metaphysics. Christianity is concerned with both, caring that God’s will be done “on earth, as in heaven.” Christianity does a lot of other things that Confucianism doesn’t, like congregational worship, and telling a common narrative. Confucianism seems well described by the color theory; it is closer to a culture or a civilization. It is a beautiful ethical code, and it seems like it works really well in China. But proselytization really doesn’t make much sense.

The color theory just doesn’t work when it comes to doctrine. And Christianity is really the only religion that has doctrine as a central part, the only religion where belief (orthodoxy) is more important and even separable from behaviors (orthopraxy), practices and culture [1]. Confucianism is a Chinese set of ideas and isn’t really trans-plantable. And even if it were, there’s not really much motivation to move it. “It works for us; whatever you’re doing probably works for you.” Judaism is similar but specific to a scattered race rather than a fixed country. But, like a fat man on a coach seat, Christianity’s doctrine spills out of the “religion is a color” coach seat.

When we enter into the realm of ideas, we have crossed an important threshold. When religion is something that exists only inside one brain, it cannot be shared. My preference for blue is irrational. There is no reason I can identify why blue is a great color, a color better than red and orange. I cannot make you empathize with my liking the color blue; you can sympathize with my words, “I like blue,” but even if your favorite color is also blue, you cannot understand my blue preference. But then let’s suppose I move into the common world that we both share when I say, “The color blue is made by photons of wavelengths 450-495nm.” Then you can agree with me or disagree with me. When I say “Blue is [something],” then I’m talking about something that exists in your world and mine.

And Christianity began to say, “God is Love” “God is Just.” When it crossed that threshold, its ideas entered the marketplace or arena of ideas. They must compete like all other ideas. Ideas can appeal to personal narrative (i.e. “I used Sham-Wow, and it was amazing!”), or they can appeal to testable facts (“Sham-Wow can hold 432 times its weight in water!!!”).

But if they are to survive, they need to make appeals in ways that purely subjective things do not. Like a marketplace, ideas must be persuasive to be passed on. Richard Dawkins, Atheist extraordinaire, says that ideas are like viruses. He calls them memes, and those that are able to transmit from one person to another succeed. And what idea has been more successful than Christianity?

[1] This was first pointed out to me by Christian de-convert, Stephen Prothero, in his book God is Not One. I had Christio-centrically assumed that everyone in every religion had doctrine as I had. In so doing, I was imposing my Christian view on religion on religions that didn’t have orthodoxy. It was like walking into the House of Representatives and asking to speak to the king; the Speaker might be the closest approximation, but I wrongly assumed that every government was like my own, and that he had ultimate power when he did not. Hinduism no more has Orthodoxy than a Democracy has a king. In the next section, I’ll give more examples and consequences of this difference.

==> Onward to Color, Culture and Christianity (2 of 4)

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Elephant and the Blind Men

Once upon a time, a blind man was travelling down a road when he ran into an elephant. Feeling its trunk, he said aloud, “I have found something very strange! It feels like a snake!”

He soon discovered that he was not alone. A second man, also blind, had found the tail some minutes before. He agreed that it was flexible, but disagreed about it being thick, “It is a strange thing, but I think it’s a rope!” Just then, another set of blind travelers came to the creature and found its middle. They began to discuss amongst themselves the thing’s rigidity and strength. But when the pair came to talk about shape, they began to disagree vehemently. One hugged the leg and, from the roundness, insisted, “The thing is a tree!” The other pushed against the creature’s side and argued, “It is far too flat to be a tree. Surely it is a wall!”

Yet another blind man passing by heard the commotion. He would not approach the others or what they gathered around, and was astonished at the discussion. He mocked, “How can there be anything there at all? How can you all honestly think you’re right? Can’t you see (but alas, you are blind) that, at best, only one of you is right? If you ask me, I think it most reasonable that there is nothing there at all. You desire to feel ropes and trees and walls, and so your imagination gives birth to ropes and trees and walls.” Annoyed at the foolishness, he continued on his way.

The blind man touching the trunk, heard this rebuke, and had an epiphany. “No indeed! There is certainly something here. But it must be a very wonderful thing! We all truly feel differences, but maybe that is because the thing has no fixed shape. It is not really like a tree or a wall, but it may become like them. Truly, the best picture of this thing is like water. It may freeze solid and feel like a tree or a wall, but its true essence is water. Water may melt and be flexible like a stream and feel like a snake or a rope, but not be a snake or a rope. None of us understands the true essence of the thing and not even sight would reveal it.”

Just then, the Tree Grasper saw a vision of the thing like a thunderbolt from heaven. He and declared with a voice of wonder and conviction, “It is one creature!” There was silence. The others furrowed their brows, clutching tighter to their respective parts. “How could that be?” asked one of them. “It is a living thing, like a snake. But it is more rigid with strong bones, as our friend who felt the wall declared. It is flat in some places, round in others. We are all right about different aspects of it, but united in our error: it is not just one experience; it’s bigger than that. The thing is great enough to include each of our experiences.”

Just then they heard a new voice, one overflowing with confidence and joy. “It is an elephant!” the voice declared. The blind men were thrown into confusion. They stood and waited, turning their heads toward the newcomer. Eventually the Rope Grasper mustered courage and meekly asked, “What’s an elephant?”

Though they could not see it, the stranger smiled wryly. Then, with a voice full of music and authority, he commanded them, “Look and see!” Instantly the veil of darkness tore like a curtain, and light streamed in through the eyes of the once-blind men. They began weeping, but through their tears they saw that it was as the Tree Grasper had said. They all gathered together around the “snake” of the trunk and saw how it connected to the head and they understood how it helped the elephant eat and work. They went to the “rope” and laughed together about how it looked and how it expressed the creature’s mood. They saw that the “wall” and “tree” men had also been right; it did indeed have great strength. They realized that the strong bones and sinews of the creature were the only thing that ever could bind together “tree” and “snake,” “wall” and “rope.”

The men stood now blinking in the sun. In all the excitement, they had forgotten the stranger. And then they turned around and beheld the man. He was strong and standing tall, arrayed in fine clothes and wearing a crown of gold. The edges of his lips were upturned, his teeth were exposed, and his eyebrows were raised. The men looked then at the first smile they had ever seen, and could not keep themselves from returning it.

“Who are you?” they asked together in awe.

“I am the Prince, and this, whom you have been prodding, pushing, yanking and hugging, is my elephant,” he declared with a dramatic gesture to the creature. “She is well trained her to endure all manner of investigations by all manner of people.”

“Why do you have an elephant?” they asked.

“Movement!” declared the Prince.

“But where shall we go? Our homes are in all different parts; where can we go together?” the men asked.

The Prince replied, “You will come into my palace! Today, I am adopting you into the royal family! As of this moment, you are brothers to one another and heirs of the kingdom! Come home with me!”

And so the Prince called the elephant to kneel, and the once-blind men leaped up onto her back. As they climbed on, he set a crown of gold on the head of each one, embraced him, and looking him in the eye he said, “Welcome!” And so all of them began a journey toward the Palace of the Prince, united now as brothers, sighted men, and newly-crowned Princes of the Palace.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Cult of Food – How to Smash the Idol of Food

This is good food.

I have a friend who was not allowed to have candy as a child. He came across a huge sum of money ($10) and decided the best possible use of the money was to purchase candy. He ate the candy defiantly, overwhelmed with the forbidden pleasure. He ate and ate and ate. There came a point when he stopped enjoying the candy, but still he ate. Later, he felt sick, but he did not stop. He continued to eat. Finally he vomited.

We are so busy trying to follow our food taboos, we forget the moral world. Eating is an important human activity because it is a moral activity; animals eat by instinct, but people have spirits. We may be gluttonous and eat too much (as above); we may be vain, desiring the praise of men, and eat too little; or we may be both gluttonous and vain and drink Diet Coke. But though the dog may eat to the point of vomiting, men need not do so. Humans can practice virtue every time we sit down to eat. We can practice Temperance thrice daily, eating that which is good.

Temperance is stopping to think: what actually tastes good? How much of it is most enjoyable? Like all virtues, Temperance does not mean less pleasure, but more. Temperance is stopping eating before you vomit. Temperance is eating enough to prevent starvation. The problem of gluttony is not that we seek too much pleasure, but that we do not seek it hard enough.

John Piper wrote about how we were created for enjoyment, both ours and Gods. God gave us physical pleasure and is glorified when we take pleasure in it. He wrote “How to Drink Orange Juice to the Glory of God.” And I think this is the medicine for our disease: to enjoy eating. To consider the mystical union we have with God and His Creation, when we transform matter outside of us into the flesh and fuel of our bodies. To be mindful of the multitudinous flavor of our food [think grape], to be grateful for having any food at all, to be loving to those around the table. Monounsaturated fat is not a good thing, but gratitude is. Omega-3’s are not good, but community is. Fiber is not good, but beans are. We don’t need experts and rituals to know what is good; just ask yourself, “Did eating that make me feel good afterwards?”

We perpetually talk about ‘health.’ But the first thing to remember that such talk is not truly a sign of health; healthy people talk about the things their health allows them to do, not the thing itself. Sick people are ever concerned about health. We have replaced “Good” with “Healthy” when we really want that which is Good. We should eat because food is Good, not because it is Healthy. The word for “diet” comes from Diaita in Greek, and meant “a manner of daily living.” We have made it into a monomania for a particular food or nutrient. Rather than asking, “Is this food healthy?” ask, “Is this food Good?” Or better yet, don’t ask anything and just get on with enjoying it.  As Chesterton writes in Heretics, “A man ought to eat because he has a good appetite to satisfy, and emphatically not because he has a body to sustain. … The food will really renovate his tissues as long as he is not thinking about his tissues.”

Let us remember that food is Good, and the eating of it. Let our eating be worship, but not an orgy before Pleasure, nor a dirge to Thinness. Let us use food and its pleasure to build friendships. Let us pursue culinary arts to give great pleasure in good things to our families. Let us prevent them from robbing the mystical act like a temple, leaving it sterile and bare. Let us get such pure pleasure from our food that we can thank its Creator with a nourished body and uplifted spirit. Our answer is not to compose some happy life as a food-fearer or food-worshipper. The answer is to smash the idols. Let us reclaim food as a human possession, not a god.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Cult of Food – Anorexia and Obesity as American Idolatry

We have a food problem in America. We cannot seem to decide whether food is a thing to bow before and worship with Super-Size fries or an unclean thing, something to expel from the body like a poison. Should we celebrate it in raucous festivals in red-and-yellow temples, or should we fear it with a violent asceticism?

Like some ancient cult, we are dominated by mystic fears about food. Don’t touch this (it has sugar). Don’t eat that (it has artificial sweeteners). Our “diets” are no better than focused taboos. “Carbs are bad,” “Stay away from fats.” A hundred thousand priests with a hundred thousand rituals have arisen to meet our needs to worship Thinness, the wasting of human bodies, ever chanting that it is healthy. Doctors and nutritionists and psychologists all attempt to describe how to appease the vengeful god. Pious to a god that hates pleasure, we have drained enjoyment from eating like blood from a slaughtered animal.

The ancient and terrible god Molech demanded that his devotees make their children “pass through the fire,” throwing their infants into the welcoming arms of his red-hot idol. One million of our women have been burned by the fire of anorexia. Though we don’t use wood, we offer our young by the fires fueled by glucose, consuming their bodies no less than literal flames; though our fires are secret, they are no less lethal than our ancient forbears'. And according to the ancient tradition, Moloch hungers for the flesh of the most beautiful among us. By ferocious irony, our richest are made to literally starve themselves to death. Millions more are secret followers, mingling guilt with every meal. Women especially are burdened with a perpetual shame, reminded always by the most devoted ascetics on billboards and movies that they are not thin enough.

But our madness has two faces. In this very same society, we also cannot stop eating. One in three Americans is obese. Not just “overweight;” obese. Obesity has spread like a plague of the soul, born out of the South, leaving no corner of the country untouched. The map looks like some zombie outbreak. I wish that, like zombies, we really did hunger for brains; maybe then we’d be able to stop and think. Largely because of this plague, ours may be the first generation in the modern era that will not live longer lives than our parents; the advancement of public sanitation, vaccinations and antibiotics will be reversed by this new kind of blight.

There are two idols before whom we worship, sometimes on the same day. One demands our surrender to pleasure, the other to our body. One worshipper pays homage to food by eating the flesh of creatures raised in horror before golden arches; another worships food by violent asceticism, rejecting pleasure entirely for fear and guilt, and making a carrot stick a meal. Diet Coke has become a symbol of our duality. We lust for the short-term pleasure of sweetness, but fear the consequences of eating. So we eat that which does not satisfy and drink that which does not fill.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Holocaust of Hearts - On the Tragedy of Modern Romance

Rodin's "Martyr"
Last week I was driving to work and listened to the radio for half an hour. The first song was sad and told a story about a broken relationship. So was the second. And the third. As the commute continued, song after song played that told the story of a broken relationship. The stories told of cheating, of changed phone numbers, of emotional scars, of futile attempts to reconnect. For half an hour, a river of lament flowed through my soul as the music played. That morning, there was not a single exception; every story was about romantic pain.

Maybe it was a fluke. So what songs are radio executives playing, whose profit depends on their selecting songs which speak to our hearts? What are the chart toppers? #1 this week is Somebody that I used to know, all about a broken relationship where the man has been completely cut out by his former lover who sings, “Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over.” #3 is Payphone, about a man trying to call his former lover back to remember the relationship, but concludes:
If "Happy Ever Afters" did exist
I would still be holding you like this
All those fairy tales are full of s***
One more f***ing love song, I'll be sick.
Presently the song that’s been on the charts the longest is Lmafo’s “Party Rock Anthem,” (61 weeks) in which the singer brags of his conquest of your girl, “In the club party rock, lookin' for your girl? She on my jock.” Maroon 5 in Moves like Jagger (48 weeks) has to account for the scarred heart he is singing to, “Maybe it's hard/When you feel like you're broken and scarred.” Kelly Clarkson’s Stronger (22 weeks) argues that the pain of breakup is a good thing in the end; after all, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

In music, we feel the mood of a culture. And this cultural mood matches very closely to the experience of many of my close friends. The only thing like the pain of a breakup is death. I’ve counseled friends and family through a lot of difficult times, but breaking a long-term relationship seems to me to be the only thing that can approach the ultimate tragedy of death. It’s terrible. It’s a pain that interferes with daily life and that persists for months and even years. And it’s not rare. It’s like some savage rite of passage, something we all go through before reaching maturity.

And the data bears this out. OKCupid, a very popular (>3 million users) dating site with my generation who boast that “We use math to get you dates.” According to them, we (mostly 20-somethings using the site) have relationships that last 12-18 months, and on average we've had about 5 lifetime sexual partners. Maybe a girlfriend or two and a few flings.

Just consider that for a moment. The data says that our relationships do not last. Most of us want Happily Ever After with one person. And we go into relationships hoping that it’ll end that way, at least eventually. But it doesn’t. Most of the time, with a periodicity of about a year, one member is torn from the union like an arm off a body. And it hurts. We lower our expectations, we try to convince ourselves that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, we make ourselves more reserved and less idealistic. But it still hurts. We make a lament, our voices rise up, and our cries of agony fill the airwaves. We are in torment. Has any other culture suffered as we have? Or have men and women always been tearing each others’ hearts to shreds as a matter of course? Is this just the final station of the train that is the Sexual Revolution? Are we satisfied with the new rules of the game? Can we be saved from this terrible fate?

This is a eulogy of the American Heart, a message to recognize and mourn the tragedy. Unlike most of my essays, I’m not going to pretend like I have all the answers. But I can do is this: I exhort you to pray for the end of this holocaust of hearts.

*For those of you who know me, this is pretty amazing. Plato (in the Republic) joined forces with Oliver Sachs (in Musicophilia) and my roommate Michael Hole (who whistles every single second of the day) to deliver a team flying face kick to my nonmusicality. I discovered that my car was equipped with a radio frequency receiver. There are transmitters, which modulate the frequency, which send out music that my receiver can pick up. Anyways, these devices are wicked cool!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Storytelling and the Meaning of Life (2 of 2)

Rodin's "Walking Man" at Stanford

Telling Great Stories

Learning to tell a good story is perhaps the most challenging and most important thing that can occupy our species. We are ever persuaded to add this or that perspective. And, most of us weary and unthinking, do. But what kind of story do we want to tell our grandchildren? Certainly we want it to include virtue, courage and kindness, loyalty and love. Adventure and romance also should find a part. But how often do we make our decisions with aesthetics in mind? How often do we consider our own decisions as an author considers those of his hero? Do we live the kind of romance that makes it into sonnets and plays? It’s like we’re in a movie and we don’t realize the cameras are rolling, having missed the director shout “Action!” Henry V goads his men to courage by reminding them that their heroism will make a great and oft repeated story: 
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.”
As a society and as individuals, we have failed to answer the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Douglas Adams answers sarcastically, “42”. Apple’s question-answering program Siri (sometimes) answers the question, “Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.” Would Troy have fallen, Odysseus sailed or Aeneas founded Rome with a “be nice to people” script? Would Julius have crossed the Rubicon, Washington the Deleware, or Eisenhower the English Channel if their stories were about living together in “peace and harmony”? This is the question facing us every day. And, in the immortal words of Rush “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” If we wake up without answering it for ourselves, we let our bosses or governments or societies answer for us. Why do you go to work on Monday morning? Why do you drink on Friday night? Why do you do anything?

Who is telling your story?

If you do not have a clear answer, you will be at the mercy of every wind of fancy in politics, economics or religion. Your self-confidence will be at the mercy of every boss, supervisor, racial majority, or whomever else happens to presume power. The conflicts in the story will lead to anxiety and depression at best, and calm slavery at worst. The stronger your story, and the louder your voice, the more resistant you will be to tyrants. And so, in retrospect, I am glad that I discovered my weakness. I am glad that I remembered my own story and learned to tell it in the face of an alternative version. I hope that others would do likewise.

<-- Back to Part I - My Hijacked Story

Storytelling and the Meaning of Life (1 of 2)

What I was doing. Engraving from courtyard in front of MPPC.
My Hijacked Story

When I was young, my dad would tell me stories. And then, as the story continued, he would stop, and it would be my turn to continue the story. The story game would continue as the hero would be controlled alternatively by my dad and I. But I played the game again a few weeks ago. Except this time, it was not with my dad and it was not a fictional story. It was my story. And the co-narrator was the doctor supervising me, my attending.

Like the stories we used to tell, the story she told was very different from the one I was trying to tell. In my story, I was a hard-working medical student with my shoulders in the yoke, and though I didn’t have the mental strength of others, I nonetheless would press on hard. In her version, I was a stupid medical student, lazy and unwilling to do what the work required. And for about a week, I forgot about my version of the story.

Victor Frankyl was a Jewish psychiatrist during WWII. He was captured by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. There he saw what kept men alive. It was not a sexual impulse as Freud suggested, or the “will to power” proposed by Adler, but it was meaning. Those prisoners who could put their struggle into a good story were those who survived. As soon as the events fell outside the story a person was telling, he gave up hope and ran into an electric fence or a bayonet. In Frankyl’s opinion, stories matter, maybe more than anything. The human soul cannot live without them. Frankyl escaped and survived the camps, ultimately founding a third Viennese school of psychotherapy (after Freud and Adler) called Logotherapy, whose focus is on helping patients find meaning to their lives.

So what was my story? I had two, and they were contradictory. That week, I lived in a tension. I experienced terrible anxiety: hands sweating, voice trembling, body trembling. I thought I was the Hardworking Ox, but I was treated like the Lazy Dunce. What was I? How had I allowed this to happen?

This happened because I believed a story that was false. I trusted my supervisor too much. Storytelling is serious business. Everyone but true friends will tell stories about you that benefit them. Business will tell about your being happy when you buy their product; this is the gimmick of every commercial. Government will tell about your being safe when you give up your freedom; this is the underlying message of every dictator. Society will tell about your being accepted when you conform; this is the bad kind of peer pressure. Bosses will tell about your being successful when you work hard; this is the cheese at the end of the rat maze. But none of these stories should be your story. None of these people actually care about you mainly because none of them actually know you.

After that week I remembered: “This is not my story!” And I began to win back my freedom. I wrestled in my soul to remember: “You are the Ox,” no matter how often I was treated like the Dunce. Slowly, I regained my confidence and my identity.

This episode taught me an important lesson. A prince in prison is still a prince. He will maintain his dignity, and not allow any jailer take it from him. His story will be about injustice, and about perseverance in the face of adversity. But if he ever accepts the story of his jailer, he gives up his crown and renounces his throne. So my readers, Princes and Princesses, do not listen to your jailers, masters or slave drivers. Tell your own story. Define victory on your own terms. Do not let their ideas of success or richness or happiness persuade you. This is why the Ancient Greek advice, gnōthi seauton, is so important; it is critical to “know thyself” if you’re going to tell a good story.

--> On to Part II - Telling Great Stories

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Hunger Games, The Philosophy of The

My best Katniss impression.

*Spoiler Alert!!*

I went to the movies, my first time in a long time, to see the biggest opening day of a non-sequel ever. That’s right, I saw The Hunger Games (I read the book a month or two ago). The first thing to note is that opening weekends are crazy. The second is that the people watching the movie were not all adolescent teenage girls. A wide variety of ages and classes seemed to be present in the very, very long line.

In terms of adaptation, I tip my hat. The author was a producer, so I'm not terribly surprised that the movie was quite faithful to the book and the short cuts were on less important matters. It was shot well, and had enough "extra scenes" that it didn't feel like it was a duplicate of the book (ahem, Watchmen). It was cast very well, and they pulled off a good movie without famous actors (except for President Snow, who was very convincing and very creepy).

Of course, the book is better (isn't it always?). Nevertheless, the movie has two distinct advantages. First, the poverty of District 12 can be displayed visually with great power and contrasts powerfully with the Capitol. This effect was profoundly evident when they get off the train from District 12. I flashed back to my return from Kenya, stepping off the plane in LAX and feeling profoundly disturbed and confused by the glitz and glamour of the US; I had "reverse culture shock" as it is often called. The movie was able to create that moment for the otherwise uninitiated audience by making the Capitol downright strange and frivolous. Secondly and most profoundly was the irony involved in going to the movies. I paid $11 for entertainment about people paying too much for entertainment.

Another feature that I’ve seen come up a few times in “young adult” literature is absent parents. Katniss has a dead father and a mother who is severely psychologically withdrawn. Artemis Fowl has almost an identical dynamic; his dad died and his mom was homebound, so he had to raise himself with the help of a faithful butler (named “Butler”). Harry Potter was an orphan. Heroes for today’s teenagers are those who, against the odds, figure out how to grow up without parents.

I'd like to say a word about the Hunger Games universe. thing to note about Panem is that it is a world that contains Evil. It’s not as obvious that it’s a world that includes Good; virtue is clearly present and the Good is at least there by implication. But the Capitol is certainly Evil. President Snow is Evil. And, like any successful movie, this is almost a prerequisite for a good story (or at very least, a profitable one).

The other thought that occurred to me first in the book and then powerfully in the movie (the train scene) is that one of the other critiques is on the present American economy. We in the US live lavish and rather ridiculous lives which can only (presently) be maintained by people from poorer places sending stuff to us. As in Huxley’s Brave New World, we are so tranquilized by our entertainment that our thoughts are ever on trivial matters. People are living in horrific conditions all around us, but we can’t seem to care. Effie is the embodiment of this: ever concerned about desserts and manners when life and death are at stake.

Katniss, the protagonist, is strong, independent, resourceful, shrewd, courageous, and uncompromising. Perhaps most in conflict with the modern hero, she has loving kindness when appropriate and she is violently ruthless, when appropriate. She soberly faces the horror set before her with an unbreakable spirit. She does not cling to life, and would gladly lay down her life for her sister or friend.

I believe it is these virtues, forgotten and spurned by modern American code, which make her attractive. She is the exact opposite of the “good kid.” Her friend, Peeta, is the good kid. And he tries hard, makes a valiant move or two, but would certainly be dead without her. Before the Games, she lived by breaking the law and hunting outside of the gate. She was resourceful and taught herself; she was independent and owed nothing to the state or even her parents. She, unlike everyone else, was her own master. To really stand up to evil, the kind of evil in the Capitol, nice-guy morality fails. Katniss’ morality strikes a blow. And even in failure, it’s not a pitiable thing. Katniss is most certainly not one of those whose “cold and timid souls know neither victory nor defeat.”

What is the message of the story? Should you obey authorities? No; not when their laws are unjust. Is violence always wrong? No; sometimes killing is the right thing. Is evil a fiction? No, it’s very, very real. Is a strong government a good thing? No; it’s a great danger. She’s the ultimate teenage hero, rebelling against those above her with shrewdness and courage. And if I were an evil puppet master, this is exactly not the kind of idea I’d want floating around in teenage heads. Rebellion can be justified? Rebels can be heroes? But fortunately, those in authority are too smart for their own good. I’ve read critiques by more sophisticated thinkers who seem to think the movie is about reality TV, gender equality, football, or mindless violence (though one or two or three see something deeper in it). Sure, there is a critique of our being bloodthirsty and voyeurs. And so they content themselves thinking, “Ah, it’s just about reality TV and violent movies. Nothing disruptive.”

But the most important message of the book has been expressed variously by young teens as, “The government is bad, mmmkay?” and “The people in power want to keep it that way.” The government in the story is bad. And this is what America is (or will become). We must do something, and that something might include violent rebellion.

Those raising the alarm are not rare, but they’re rarely taken seriously. The average American never has to look at the American life and ask, “Is there something fundamentally wrong here?” Alarm raisers tend to get dismissed from the prophet Jeremiah to Ron Paul. Suzanne Collins is not being dismissed. Where fact and authority fail, fiction prevails. The Hunger Games is being embraced en mass. Not by prophecy scholars, political fear-mongers, or culture watchdog-ers, but average, everyday teenagers (and then everyone else).

It is disturbing that even fresh teenage perspectives see the world with such cynicism. Why, to teenage eyes, does the Capitol of The Hunger Games look so much like Washington DC? The government of The Hunger Games is one where security and comfort have been made the highest priorities. Freedom was the cost. And with the cost paid, the peace and security were also lost. The way to fight it is with shrewd, bold defiance and virtue. This is the central political message, and perhaps the central message. And young people are listening.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Let Your Food Be Your Medicine

Super Stew nutrition facts and detailed ingredients can be found here.
I’ve completed another iteration on Super Stew. You may remember my use of Ted Kochanek’s chili recipe back when I was engaged in my Food Stamp Challenge. But the need for healthy, tasty food continues even if my $5 budget does not. The great things about the original recipe stand: low glycemic index (mostly beans and vegetables) and highly anti-inflammatory (heavy use of spices, nutrient-rich vegetables). If I had to target one thing in the American diet to change, I think it would be this. Just slowing down digestion a little bit would have dramatic effects on insulin response and our getting obese and diabetic. So the stew is good on that front (820 calories with a glycemic load of 35).

It’s also excellent in terms of being anti-inflammatory. The idea of inflammation seems to be our latest Grand Unifying Theory of Disease. I’ve heard more than one of my professors tell me that reducing inflammation will cure all our ills. I haven’t looked hard at the evidence for this, but it’s certainly a nice story, with lots of good correlations. For example, obese people have increases in markers of inflammation, and this then correlates with increases in insulin resistance and diabetes. A good case can also be made for atherosclerosis being an inflammatory state.

Maybe it’s true. But even if it’s not, the cure is delicious. Broadly speaking, things with potent flavor tend to be anti-inflammatory (garlic, hot peppers, etc). They also tend to be good anti-oxidants. So basically, the more flavorful your food, the better off you are. And that may be why McDonalds makes you sick. Lots of tasty macro-nutrients, but not much spice. The bottom line is this: the stew has lots of spices. 

I decided to buy spice from not-the-grocery-store, and having a 1lb bag of spice makes me much more liberal with it. I used 1 tablespoon of cayenne, black pepper, cumin, turmeric, paprika and coriander. This was all as per Ted’s instructions (except for measuring the spices). But Ted, as smart as he is, is Polish. And though he has grown considerably these last few years in terms of spice tolerance, he has discriminated against quarter-Mexicans (i.e. me) and our preference for hot peppers. To make up for this deficit, I added 3 jalapenos and 1 habanero to the mix (I chopped them finely and then sautéed them for a few minutes before tossing them into the pot).

Next, though it was highly anti-inflammatory, it lacked some of the better macro-nutrients that are known to be good for you. Particularly important for health is the eating of good fats. The day we started evaluating food on whether or not they were “low fat” was a dark day for our bodies. We need fats, and lots of them. Unsaturated fats in the form of olive oil may be the food item with the single best case for extending life. Old Greeks eating a “Mediterranean Diet” heavy in olive oil actually do live longer, as do people who eat like them.

I sautéed the vegetables in ¼ cup of coconut oil (way more than is actually necessary) to make sure the really-good-for-you medium chain saturated fats (esp. lauric acid) got into the stew, which increase HDL (“good” cholesterol). Also, I supplemented the stew with ½ cup of olive oil with monounsaturated fats that increase HDL and decrease LDL (“bad” cholesterol), as well as 3 oz of sunflower seeds (high in polyunsaturated fats, which increase HDL). None of these significantly affect the flavor of the stew, and the sunflower seeds provide an added crunch. In fact, with the amount of spices that are used, subtle changes to base ingredients are overwhelmed. Also, adding olive oil (if you buy in bulk) and sunflower seeds are both great ways to decrease the cost per calorie of the stew.

Omega-3 fatty acids are also really good for you, and as far as I’m aware, the only supplement from a vitamin store that has good evidence behind it (esp. for heart disease) for healthy people. The argument is that we get way too much Omega-6 because we eat way too much corn-fed red meat. So I added 2 oz of ground flaxseed to the stew, giving a daily “dose” of Omega 3’s, as well as bringing the fiber total in one bowl just over the FDA daily recommendation.

This time around, I subbed out beef for chicken (Whole Food was having a sale) and it worked out wonderfully. Also, because my available time is spotty, I cooked a LOT of stew, tripling Ted’s recipe and making about 24 meals worth (~20,000 Calories :). Also of note, I started shopping at Whole Foods because it ends up being cheaper for me (“Natural” foods go for a premium at Safeway). The total cost of the all-organic ingredients (except the chicken, which was free-range) was $75, bringing my meal cost to about $3.12. All in all, this is a recipe that is actually good for me, probably saves time (vs. fast food), fills me up, and tastes delicious. The iteration will continue! I notice I’m lacking vitamins B and D; I will continue to endeavor to make this the perfect “desert island” food that is also a cure to American disease!

[My apologies for lacking citations… I’ll try to come back and add them later]