How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
As the calendar winds down and eases from one year to the next, many of us turn nostalgic. We wonder where the time went and reflect over the ways we spent the past 365 days. Maybe it’s a matter of clicking through the photos we snapped or reviewing our goals or taking note of what we’ve read or listened to or watched or laughed at. Remembering is a way of marking time and seeing how various ideas and experiences have made us who we are now.
Here in 2019, we have an additional opportunity to review and reminiscence, because it’s the end of a decade. The Christ and Pop Culture team is highlighting some of their personal favorite pop culture artifacts of the past 10 years in a week-long series called Faves of the Decade. We hope you enjoy the entries they share!
The 20th anniversary of the release of Harry Potter falls within this decade, and it is notable because the 2010s mark the first generation of “Potterheads” who became parents and began to pass on our love of this story to a new generation. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (the American edition of book 1) was first released in the summer of 1998, and in the twenty years since, Harry Potter has shaped our culture—and continues to shape it. Six books followed Sorcerer’s Stone, totalling over 500 million books sold, and author J. K. Rowling subsequently became one of the most influential creative thinkers of the modern era.
High book sales are impressive (book sales in the hundreds of millions are very impressive), but sales numbers do not indicate the value of a story. Introducing a new generation to a beloved story is, perhaps, the real test of the enduring legacy of a work. Does it transcend the era in which it was written and the original audience to whom it was targeted? Undoubtedly part of that which has encouraged Harry Potter to continue in the cultural consciousness is the release of eight movies (not to mention the spin-off stories and movies following Newt Scamander and his Fantastic Beasts), a bonus book and play production in the form of The Cursed Child, massive merchandising efforts, and a theme park at Walt Disney World Universal Parks in the form of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But even outside all these extras (and they are just extras), any book publicist will tell you that you really can’t market a book into success—at least not to the degree that Harry Potter has found lasting, enduring, (and now second-generation) success.
The way a story achieves that sort of legacy is by being a good story that anchors deep into the cultural ethos.
There now exists an entire generation of adults who can spout off which Hogwarts House they belong to as easily as what their Myers Briggs personality profile is—and it is meaningful to them . . . to us. This story of a boy wizard that we read in our childhood remains a way of identifying who we are as adults, transcending the fourth wall of the fictional parameters created by J. K. Rowling. She didn’t just craft a tale; she invented an entire ethos. The unique magic of Harry Potter doesn’t have anything to do with casting spells (that’s the internal magic of the story that resides in fantasy)—the unique magic has to do with its power to draw us in and make us see ourselves more clearly as readers and thinkers and dreamers and whole people, even twenty years later.
When does a book become a classic? It’s difficult to say, exactly, but when we can still raise a glass twenty years later to “the boy who lived”—and raise it with a new generation—I’d say that’s a promising start in the right direction.
—K. B. Hoyle
If you ever find yourself in need of inspiration, I highly recommend you watch this clip of Lin-Manuel Miranda at the 2009 White House Poetry Jam. Young Miranda takes the stage with a fresh haircut and an exuberant, fretful pitch about his new project–a hip-hop album about “someone who… embodies hip-hop, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. As soon as the words are out of his mouth, Lin interrupts the audience with a (legitimate) accusation. “You laugh!” he quips, gesturing insistently, “But it’s true!” He then launches into the musical’s opening number, frequently holding up his hand to indicate to the audience that he is, in fact, serious, and that they should stop giggling. Little did they know.
The smash hit musical took American by storm just six years later, and Miranda is now a household name. There’s much to praise in the musical, such as fresh characterization, innovative staging, diverse casting, strong female leads, and, of course, an outstanding range of stellar songs. But perhaps the most enduring aspect of Hamilton is its subject matter, which is, in part, the founding of America. The show focuses on Hamilton’s own life, but his biography includes major historical events such as the battle of Yorktown, the Constitutional Convention, and George Washington’s famous farewell address. All of these moments are played out against the backdrop of Hamilton’s own life, which is marked by personal tragedy and public ignominy. It’s an odd juxtaposition, in a way, to think about a Founding Father trying to simultaneously salvage both his own marriage and a plan to deal with the national debt. But presumably, that’s how things played out.
And that dogged forbearance may be the very thing that characterizes America, the ability to stand her ground despite the unpleasant surprises and unpredictable struggles she faces. Audiences may have been thrilled or moved or inspired by Hamilton, but they almost certainly walked away with a sense of hope for their country. Can America endure in spite of humiliating public scandals, rocky leadership, and precarious moral crises? It already has.
You expect world leaders to be the subject of biopics. Movie stars, musicians, and even authors. But rarely does an unassuming Presbyterian minister committed to healthy child development become important enough to be a cinematic phenomenon—especially fifteen years after his passing. But such is the case of Fred Rogers whose life and work has been memorialized in the recent films Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019). So why Mr. Rogers? Why now?
The easiest answer is that it’s simply a matter of timing. Rogers’s eponymous children’s show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, ran from 1968–2001, the years that Gen Xers and Millennials would have been sitting in front of the television. Today, those children are adults in the prime years of parenting. Remembering the kind, gentle presence of Mr. Rogers, it’s natural that they would want a similar experience for their own children.
But there’s also the explanation that our contemporary challenges mirror those that compelled Rogers to build his neighborhood in the first place. In a 2000 interview, Rogers talked about seeing the emerging technology of television as a kind of necessary evil. “I got into television because I hated it so,” he said, “and I thought… there’s some way of using this fabulous instrument to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen.”
Like the 1960s, the 2010s have been marked by massive shifts in social norms and rapidly developing technology. While the digital age has democratized public conversation, it has also toppled established hierarchies, leaving us disoriented and increasingly tribalistic. Rogers’s current appeal may not be that he represents a kinder, gentler time so much as a model of how to resist social fragmentation, commercialism, and our baser instincts. Perhaps what we need most right now is someone to guide us through “the mad we feel” and show us how to live in community again.
Of course, there’s a third explanation for Rogers’s current prominence and that’s simply that sainthood is conveyed posthumously. As a lifelong Presbyterian, Rogers will never be a formal candidate for canonization, but if he were, he’d easily pass the tests of a life of virtue and a servant of God. All that would remain would be the verification of miracles, and as those of us who grew up under his kindness know, that is easily enough verified. The miracle was Mr. Rogers himself.
Barack Obama’s eight year tenure in the White House (2009–2017) can be characterized by who he was: a black, young, energetic, community organizer who believed in America, and got America to believe in him. Or, it could be characterized by some of his largest policy achievements, including the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and reforms on Wall Street. For many of us, he completed a mission that started years prior when on May 1, 2011, he was able to announce that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. And yet for others, perhaps Obama’s personality, discourse, and significance can best be appreciated only in comparison to his successor. Although many Christians disagreed with at least some of Obama’s policy stances, particularly with regard to the unborn, Obama openly recognized the irreconcilable nature of some disagreements, like those surrounding abortion; what stands out about Obama’s legacy, however, is his intellectual commitment to civil discourse, engaging debate, and “fair-minded words.” Moreover, Obama envisioned that this debate would include all of the nation’s people. He saw an America that was created by—and still consists of—the least of these: immigrants, refugees, slaves and their descendants, workers. And in seeing America as built by the lowly and rejected, he had a patient, persistent view of progress: “As it has for more than two centuries, progress will come in fits and starts. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not always a smooth path. By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock, or solve all our problems, or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus, and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward. But that common bond is where we must begin.” As political feuds and tweets rage, and we end the year with a President facing impeachment, it is easy to become apathetic at the very least. Obama’s words, and a little end-of-decade perspective, remind us that, though imperfect and detour laden, we still more forward.
You should know that I’m a corn-fed white guy who grew up on a farm in the Midwest. That means it’s okay to feel embarrassed for me right now—my perspective on Black Lives matter is hardly the most prescient. Nonetheless, when I look back on the last decade, I can think of few societal happenings that made a greater impact on the way I viewed the world than the influence of Black Lives Matter and the events that inspired it. In that way, maybe the fact that I, of all people, got himself untangled from a mess of unseen presuppositions speaks to BLM’s reach and magnitude.
Black Lives Matter was an intrinsically twenty-first century movement. It forced the issue of race back into the public discourse through the power of social media and online organization. It renewed ongoing national awareness around systemic injustices, implicit bias, and mass incarceration.
It started in 2013. That’s when George Zimmerman, a self-deputized community watchman, was acquitted of killing an unarmed African American teenager, Trayvon Martin. The sheer unfairness of it sparked the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.
BLM’s message was simple. Trayvon would still be alive were it not for the color of his skin and the lesser value American society had placed on his life because of it.
A year later, Officer Darren Wilson gunned down Michael Brown—another unarmed, black teenager—in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s killing prompted weeks of protest and civil unrest in Ferguson. That’s when the dam broke. And #BlackLivesMatter took off. For a lot of us, Ferguson marked the beginning of our re-education, finally viewing history through the lens of the people for whom the promises of equality have never been fully applied.
As we round the corner into a new decade, it can feel like this country is no closer to reaching any true spiritual or societal reckoning around America’s original sin of race-based chattel slavery. But if and when the arc of history bends closer toward racial justice this side of Glory, we’ll have the legacy of movements like Black Lives Matter to thank for it.
The dog is surrounded by flames. He is, certainly, moments away from being engulfed in fire. He wears a hat. His eyes are bright. “This is fine,” he assures us, and himself.
We could demand answers from this meme. What caused the fire? Why isn’t the dog evacuating? What is in his mug? But none of that matters. The meme abides not because we understand the circumstances, but because we understand the dog. As individuals, as a society, as a nation, we have found ourselves, time and again, hat on head, cup on table, scene ablaze. That dog, bless him, is all of us.
And perhaps that is the most curious aspect of this cultural artifact. So many of the meme’s details are vague and unsettling, but one idea that seems settled is that the dog is not really a dog, but a person. Animals don’t wear hats or drink from mugs or take time to evaluate their circumstances–when they smell smoke, they run. But this dog is a human, and so he must smile, and wait, and, perhaps foolishly, hope. Optimism may be misguided, but it is a sure sign of humanity. We see you, Fire Dog. Hang in there.
When Netflix started out, they were the scrappy company that mailed you DVDs in little red envelopes. You could even keep the DVDs as long as you wanted sans late fees. It seemed ridiculous at the time; after all, Blockbuster Video dominated the home video market. But jump ahead to today: Blockbuster is no more and Netflix is dominant. And just as Netflix disrupted the home video market, they’re disrupting the TV and movie industries.
They’ve released and distributed prestigious films from the likes of Bong Joon-ho (Okja), Alfonso Cuarón (Roma), and most recently, Martin Scorcese (The Irishman) while challenging ideas of what constitutes “true” cinema. They’ve made binge-watching the de facto approach to watching TV thanks to popular original series including Stranger Things, The Crown, and Orange is the New Black. They’ve cleverly used technology and user interface design to make TV more immersive and compelling (or pervasive, if you’re feeling a bit cynical).
For better or worse, Netflix has forever changed both what we expect from televised entertainment and how we expect to consume it. If you want proof of Netflix’s legacy and impact, just look at the number of streaming services that have emerged in their wake, as other studios and networks scramble to catch up to Reed Hastings’ juggernaut.
In 2012, I ran into a Reddit post marveling (to put it more charitibly than it deserves) at a woman with pronounced facial hair. Commenters mocked the woman in the attached photo as commenters do. It was a typical day on the internet.
But then the woman in the photo responded. Balpreet Kaur is a Sikh woman and explained how as a Sikh, she understands that her body is 1) sacred, 2) a gift from the divine, and 3) should be kept intact, honouring the divine will that chose that body for her. She said more, carefully explaining herself and her ideals, and the original poster gave an honest apology.
That episode has stayed with me across the intervening years because our bodies are these fragile, sacred things, and we often don’t like or appreciate what our creator gifted us with. As a teen, I had bad acne. In my twenties, a lightning-fast metabolism meant that I had a skeletal cast to my appearance. In my thirties, I suffered immunity issues. And now in my forties, I’ve suffered muscle tears, disintegration of spinal discs, failing knees, and bone-eating tumours. It’s easy to be lazy and become dissatisfied with my body, dissatisfied with God’s gift to me.
It’s not so much courage as faith. Remembering this woman’s faith that her body is a gift and remembering that real faith carries impetus for action, I am encouraged to remember that my God–a different God from the one whom she worships–intended me to have the body I have. That this sacred husk is part of his plan for me, and him being good and giving good gifts wants me to enjoy this world through the gift of this very body that I inhabit. Despite any brokenness, fallibility, ugliness, or weakness that comes with it.
—Seth T. Hahne
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