Not All Conspiracy Theories Are Equal

One of the most common pejoratives used these days is “conspiracy theory.” Media pundits often apply it as a term of derision to conveniently dismiss a person or view they don’t like, and this almost always goes unchallenged. Even otherwise nuanced intellectuals often categorically impugn conspiracy theories as foolish. Novelist Oliver Markus Malloy has said that “conspiracy theories are popular among the ignorant, because they offer simplistic answers to difficult questions” (Inside the Mind of an Introvert). And neuroscientist Abhijit Naskar insists, “all conspiracy theories are the product of the subconscious attempt of an ignorant yet creative mind to counteract the fear of the unknown with tales of fantasy” (Mucize Insan: When The World is Family). While perhaps satisfying to the uncurious, superficial observer, such claims are remarkable for their dogmatic assumptions not only that all conspiracy theories are irrational but also that the root psychological cause of conspiracy theories is the same in every case. If for no other reason, such quick and haughty reproaches should give us serious pause to consider the possibility that they protest too much.

Like most cultural memes, the term “conspiracy theory” is rarely carefully defined. The Oxford Dictionary defines a conspiracy theory as “a belief that some secret but influential organization is responsible for an event or phenomenon.” Some examples of obviously absurd conspiracy theories include the claim that the U.S. moon landings were hoaxes, staged in a Hollywood backlot and that the 9-11 attacks were orchestrated by U.S. or Israeli operatives or didn’t happen at all, in which case it is claimed that bombs destroyed those buildings, not commercial jets. While it might be appropriate to say that such claims should not be dignified by a critical response, it should be with the understanding that a truly critical response can overwhelmingly demonstrate the ludicrousness of these theories.

But are conspiracy theories always without merit? And should we automatically condemn as irrational anyone who espouses a conspiracy theory? In fact, there are many significant historical events which are widely recognized to have involved conspiracies. The assassination of Julius Caesar was certainly conspiratorial in nature. The Watergate burglary involved a conspiracy of at least five people, probably many more than this, and the later cover-up expanded the circle of conspiracy even further. And numerous Mafia organizations have been exposed over the years, all of which constitute conspiracies of some kind, whether or not those infiltrated high echelons of government. It is an uncontestable historical fact, then, that some conspiracy theories have turned out to be correct. Moreover, many of these seemed absurd to most people at the time, until evidence eventually proved them to be true. The simple lesson, then, is that such theories should never be dismissed tout court. Each should be assessed on its own merits. And failure to do so, as is so typical these days, especially on the American left and in mainstream media, is manifestly a fallacy of faulty generalization.

So it seems that not all conspiracy theories are equal and that some are actually quite rational. Therefore, it is for good reason that certain conspiracy theories are accepted by those open-minded enough to carefully examine the evidence. Ironically, then, Oliver Markus Malloy’s condemnation of all conspiracy theories as problematic because “they offer simplistic answers to difficult questions” actually applies to his own categorical dismissal of conspiracy theories, as his is, indeed, a simplistic answer to a difficult question. Similarly, media pundits and cultural commentators who hastily apply the phrase as a convenient pejorative reveal their own failure to think critically even while accusing others of the same.

So why have such categorial dismissals of conspiracy theories become common parlance these days?  Perhaps, at least in part, it is because of the widespread irresponsible appeal to conspiracies, due in turn to the fact that they are entertaining and more likely to draw “clicks,” “likes,” and website traffic. Perhaps also because of cognitive laziness and an impatience with the process of critical inquiry and the sometimes painstaking evidential scrutiny this entails. More likely, it is because dismissing all such theories is an easy way to further one’s own narrative and hamstring competing views. After all, a sweeping demonizing of all conspiracy theories is a very efficient way to rule out any such theory that threatens one’s political perspective. The problem is that this approach also effectively poisons the well against the discovery of actual conspiracies, however rare these might be.

So, setting aside the more obviously absurd conspiracy claims about flat earth, hoaxed moon landings, and the like, are there any diabolical conspiracies associated with, say, the World Economic Forum, the 2020 presidential election, a Chinese takeover of U.S. businesses, Covid-19 vaccine mandates, or recent U.S. riots? With regard to any of these things, might there be powerful people and organizations working behind the scenes to expand their power or bring about their preferred political aims? We will only know one way or another through critical inquiry. Rejecting all such theories from the outset not only closed-mindedly rules out the discovery of possible truths but also places us in greater danger of being victimized if one of these theories turns out to be true.

History has shown that sometimes evil people band together in secretive ways to do sinister things. And in many cases those who had veridical suspicions about these plots were ignored, ridiculed, or denounced as loony for the accusations they made. Might some of today’s “conspiracy theorists” be correct as well? Time will tell. But dismissing all of them as equally ignorant or psychologically twisted will only slow our progress toward the discovery of truth in each case, and to do so is no more rational than uncritical acceptance of flat earth theory or a moon landing hoax.

Being Pro-Choice

In a historic decision, the Supreme Court has been asked and has answered a fundamental question regarding personal autonomy and freedom: under the law, does one have the basic right to secure one’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? The Court has resoundingly denied that freedom. This decision creates two classes of citizens; one free to go about their daily lives unencumbered and often enjoying pleasure at the expense of the other, subjugated and less powerful class. This class is forced to carry the burdens of others without the right to determine their own future, unable to pursue their dreams and to develop their potential.

I am speaking of course of the monumentally misjudged case of Dred Scott vs Sandford (1857) in which the Court ruled that Scott was the property of another human being and therefore had no legal standing under the Constitution. To me, the parallels between this horrific blot on our nation’s legal legacy and the now overturned Roe vs Wade scream out for comparison. In both cases, the rights of one citizen were denied for the convenience of another. In Dred Scott, he, along with millions of other black Americans, were denied their freedom for the financial gain of their masters. As a result of Roe, tens of millions of children have been stripped not only of their legal rights but their very lives. In both cases, the vulnerable were left unheard and not seen as human beings, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

Another similarity between the two is that the arguments made in defense of the unjust actions of the Court often fail to address the fundamental issue being debated: is this a human being who, through no fault of his or her own, has been made dependent and at the mercy of another? Once one recognizes the undeniable fact that we are all one race of human beings, no matter what the color of our skin or the stage of our development, the argument is over. But, at the time of Scott, many argued about the financial devastation which would befall the South if slavery were to be ended just as now people argue about the economic consequences of an unplanned pregnancy for the mother and society. There were even arguments made that slaves were better off as slaves rather than fending for themselves just as many argue that children of unplanned pregnancies or those suffering from various genetic issues are better off dead than alive.

While the unmet needs of women and their children are certainly something we should consider and address, this does not justify the killing of one let alone millions of innocent and helpless children, any more than it justified the enslavement of millions of slaves. Look at the millions of dollars devoted to treating sick and injured children each year in this country; or the enormous economic cost we were asked to pay as a nation and individually through loss of income and other various government mandates during the pandemic. If those situations justify such great financial outlays, shouldn’t we be willing to do the same in order to save the millions of children aborted each year? I’m certainly willing to support various agencies designed to do just that; are you? One would certainly question that willingness on the part of some in the pro-choice movement given the recent wave of vandalism against crisis pregnancy centers.

I think it is also worth noting that the proponents of both slavery and abortion profited handsomely from its continuation. Planned Parenthood, the most recognizable abortion provider in the U.S., makes millions of dollars a year through the dismembering of the unborn. This is done at the expense of not only those children but also their mothers who, we can all agree, are often in a vulnerable place themselves. It is well-documented that not only do PP workers lie to and pressure women into abortions, but also fail to report those who are being exploited by sex traffickers and abusers. Those who call for the pro-life movement to step up and provide resources to pregnant women, as they should and often do, should be equally vocal in their condemnation of what is clearly not an isolated phenomenon. On the topic of Planned Parenthood, it should be noted that like slavery itself, this organization was founded by racists who sought to limit the influence of those they deemed subhuman.

The final comparison I will make between these two cases is the obvious one: they have both been overturned, righting the wrongs of decades of immoral behavior and illogical thinking. In the case of Dred Scott, it was overruled by the 14th amendment which granted citizenship to all those born in the United States regardless of their skin color. In the case of Roe, of course, it was overruled this month by Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The 14th amendment by no means brought immediate equality and was only accomplished after years of bloody battles, not in the courtroom but on the battlefields. But it did bring about an age when former slaves and their descendants were free to contribute mightily to our nation’s legacy. They were free to become lawyers and continue the fight for freedom; free to become doctors and advance our understanding of what it means to be human; free to enter civil service and even rise to the highest offices in the land, including the White House and, yes, the Supreme Court of the United States.

In the case of Dobbs, despite what some seem to think, this decision is very pro-choice. It has not made abortion illegal; rather it has sent the issue back to individual states who now have the freedom to stand on the side of justice and morality or to stand on the side of oppression and murder. The choice seems an obvious one, just as Dred Scott seems to us now. I hope that, in whatever state you may live, you will find yourself making the right choice: the choice to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, that we can truly become a nation “indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

The End of a Matter

There is a passage in the book of Ecclesiastes that has always fascinated me. It is Ecclesiastes 7:8, which says, “The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride.” Specifically, the first clause has always struck me. Why is the end of a matter better than its beginning? Why is finishing better than starting? My quest for a better understanding of this idea naturally prompted me to consult biblical commentaries on the passage, but I found that in most cases the commentators skirt past this clause to focus on the second clause which is far easier to understand and explain, however strange it might be to contrast patience with pride (as opposed to impatience).

So I’ve essentially been left to my own devices to understand why the end of a matter is better than its beginning. Fortunately, personal experience has proven to be an effective interpretive tool in this case. As the years have passed, I have been struck by the vivid truth of this passage as it applies to various events in my life and in human experience generally. It hit me again two weeks ago as we celebrated the graduating class of Lighthouse Christian Academy where I serve as head of school. And it hit me a week before that when our oldest son, Bailey, graduated from Taylor University. In both cases, there was a celebration of completion, the attainment of long sought goals, the realization of the telos for which the students strived for so many years. And that is most definitely a very good thing, even better than the beginning of the journey for each of the graduates, however fun or exciting that might have been for them.

Graduations are positive outcomes, of course. But many human experiences are quite negative, even horrifically so. Here again Ecclesiastes 7:8a is clearly applicable. Whether we are talking about a painful trip to the dentist, an unhealthy dating relationship, or any number of other negative experiences, it is certainly good when such things come to an end. After some such event, it is not uncommon to hear people say, “Man, I’m glad that’s over with!” This seems to be a tacit affirmation of the negative pole of the Ecclesiastes 7:8a principle.

So I would sum up my analysis like this. The end of a matter is better than its beginning because any particular “matter” (experience/event/project) is either good or bad. If the matter is bad, then it is good to have it over with. And if the matter is good, then you still benefit from and even enjoy and celebrate the achievement. Either way, then, the end is better than the beginning.

One might object, however, that it is sad when good things end, such as when a virtuous person dies or when a good friend moves away. How could the end of wonderful things like this be better than their beginning? One of Aristotle’s observations about happiness is useful here. He notes that you cannot know you have had a happy life until it is over. This is because until a life is actually completed it is always possible that it can go awry in some way. Only when a person is dead can it be truly said with confidence that that person had an overall good life. And what is true of an entire lifetime is true of particular events (e.g., a good game or a good evening with friends). So for all of the sadness of saying goodbye to a loved one or to a sweet phase in one’s life, it is nonetheless a blessed thing to be able to say with confidence, “Old Joe was a tremendous guy” or “Didn’t we have wonderful times together!”

All of this thinking about “ends” naturally prompts me to think about the ultimate end of things—the culmination of human history as promised in Scripture. Numerous times in the Bible we are reminded that the end of the matter when it comes to the course of history will be marked by the return of Jesus Christ in power and glory. And that will be goodness on a colossal scale. The writer of Genesis says that when God created the heavens and the earth and everything in them, he repeatedly declared them “good.” But as great as that was, it doesn’t compare to what will be achieved in the end—a glory that we are told, often cryptically, is beyond our ability to fathom (cf. Rom. 8:18, 1 Cor. 2:9), a time when “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” A time when Christ will rule with perfect justice and righteousness, and perfect joy and fellowship among his people will be established forevermore (Isa. 9:6-7). Now that is an end that is truly better than its beginning!

Thoughts on the “Body of Christ” Metaphor

In numerous places in the New Testament the apostle Paul refers to the church using the metaphor of the “body of Christ.” For example, he addresses the church at Corinth saying, “you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Cor. 12:27). In Ephesians he says, “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior” (Eph. 5:23). And elsewhere he declares, “my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God” (Rom. 7:4).

In using this metaphor, Paul deploys the standard teaching methodology of Jesus, who constantly used figurative language (e.g., “born again,” “light of the world,” “living water,” sheep and shepherds, etc.) to convey deep moral-spiritual truths. Like all recurrent biblical metaphors, the “body of Christ” concept warrants close attention. What are the features of a literal body and what are the implications for this metaphor used by Paul?

  • A body is composed of many parts working together. The same is true of the church, as it is a collection of individual persons who work together to do God’s work on earth;
  • A body’s parts (e.g., hands, feet, lungs, kidneys, etc.) perform a variety of functions. Similarly, the various people in the church serve different functions (teachers, prophets, administrators, etc.);
  • The parts of a body must be nourished to grow and function properly. Each individual Christian must practice the disciplines of the faith (i.e., prayer, study, worship, fellowship, etc.) in order to effectively function in the work of the church;
  • If a body part fails or is damaged, the whole body suffers. Just as tissue damage in one part of our physical body compromises the ability of our body as a whole to carry out its functions, when an individual Christian suffers or struggles in some way, the church suffers as a whole;
  • Tensions between parts enable growth. Just as pressure and tension are important for the building of muscle, the different parts of Christ’s body—individual people—grow through suffering; this may even include conflicts with other people (cf. Pr. 27:17—“iron sharpens iron”).

The “body of Christ” metaphor also suggests some significant parallels between Christ’s body and the Church which we should find encouraging. First, as Christ suffered, so must his body (the church) suffer. As Christians in this world we tend to regard our troubles and difficulties as nuisances that get in the way of our primary occupations in this world. But what if our suffering is actually the better part of our business here on earth? As the prophet Isaiah tells us, Jesus was the “man of sorrows,” purposefully stricken, afflicted, and oppressed for a greater good. As members of Christ’s body, we should take a similar perspective on our own suffering. After all, James tells us toConsider it pure joy, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4). Apparently, our trials are essential to our spiritual maturity, an immense good to be sure.

Secondly, as Christ’s body died and then rose again, so too will his metaphorical body (the church) die but rise again. The great promise of the Gospel is that those who are in Christ—who are members of his body—will live eternally with the Lord and his people. This is precisely because of our being united with him in his death. As the Apostle Paul says, “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin” (Rom. 6:5-6).

Thirdly, our being united with Christ in this way, as members of his body, implies that a premium must be placed on personal repentance, as Paul emphasizes in that Romans 6 passage. If we are united with Christ, and thus crucified with him (cf. Gal. 2:20), then our lives now should reflect this. As Paul says, “do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life” (Rom. 6:12-13). This means daily renewing our resolve to resist temptation and honor God in all of our thoughts, words, and deeds. And this, of course, requires that we pray faithfully, remain steadfast students of Scripture, and practice other spiritual disciplines as well (e.g., fasting, confession, meditation, fellowship, etc.).

These are just some of the lessons we can glean from the biblical metaphor of the church as the body of Christ. Rich and inspiring stuff!

The Stargazing Christian Leader

In his classic work The Republic, Plato uses the analogy of a shipmaster to illustrate some important points regarding leadership of a state. In order to properly steer a ship to its destination (in Plato’s day anyway), the shipmaster must always consult the stars to orient himself geographically, since the stars are the only fixed directional guide out on the open sea. And yet one who observes a good shipmaster continually consulting the stars in this way might think he is distracted—an impractical stargazer!

The situation is similar with good Christian leaders, who are properly also theologians, since they, too, must constantly “look up” in the course of their work, consulting eternal, lofty truths as a directional guide. And they, too, might appear to be distracted from practical matters. Yet, they are actually being very practical. Like the shipmaster, they orient themselves morally and spiritually according to what is constant and unchanging in order to steer their “ship” (their local Christian community) through the turbulent waves of life.

So what are some of those immovable biblical truths according to which Christian leaders should steer their ships? It seems to me that a good Christian leader, whether a pastor or leader in a Christian school or other organization, must do two things: remind those they lead of their identity and their purpose. Many leaders fail to do this, perhaps because it seems to them ponderous, abstract, or simply impractical, given the many pressing issues they face. But I can’t imagine anything more practical than to know your identity and purpose as a Christian.

The apostle Paul, one of the leaders of the early Christian church, does exactly this in all of his epistles. A good case in point is Ephesians 2:1-10. In this passage Paul reminds us of who we were before our transformation in Christ: dead in our sins, slaves to fleshly desires, and servants of the devil, thus “by nature deserving of wrath.” He also notes who we are now—our identity as Christians: alive in Christ, saved by grace, and destined for eternal riches. These observations culminate in Paul’s remarkable observation about our purpose: that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do” (v. 10). That is, we are the handiwork of God who are also ourselves handiworkers. So Paul is telling us that we are working handiworks.

This might seem ponderous and abstract, but it is profoundly practical as all good theology is. And the practicality of these truths are evident in the fact that they are encouraging, affirming our value as children of God, and highly motivational. What could be more motivating than to know that your work has eternal significance?

So as a Christian leader, I will always dwell upon and remind those I lead regarding their identity and purpose in Christ. This might make me appear to be a theological stargazer, but it will help me get the ship I captain to its destination!

The Best and Worst of 2021

It has been another eventful year for the Spiegel family. After 27 years in Grant County, Indiana, we relocated to southern Indiana, where Jim assumed the position of Head of School at Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington. We love our new community there as well as the town of Bedford, where we live. As usual we are closing out the year with summary remarks about good and bad stuff related to film, music, books, sports, food, and family.

Film Experiences

Jim:  It was good to get back to movie theaters after a year of Covid-induced cinema shutdowns. I enjoyed No Time to Die, Daniel Craig’s worthy swansong as the eternal James Bond character. And Free Guy was a lot of fun. Ryan Reynolds is tremendous in this creative adventure that blurs the lines between reality and digital fantasy. The long-anticipated Beatles’ Get Back documentary was wonderful to experience. For those who don’t know, this is Peter Jackson’s extensive re-editing of the original footage made of the Beatles during their writing, rehearsals, and recording in January 1969, which culminated in their famous EMI rooftop performance. Jackson casts this chapter of Beatles history in a refreshingly positive light, as he captures the Beatles’ wit and playfulness in a way that was missed by the original Let it Be film. It is six hours of pure joy for Beatles fans. As for disappointments, the most notable of these was Oslo, August 31st. Brilliantly directed by Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier, it is the most dark and depressing film I’ve seen since Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Trier’s storytelling about a relapsing heroin addict is excruciatingly believable. I kept waiting for some light to dawn in the main character’s life. I’m still waiting.

Amy:  Not many in-theater experiences to reflect on this year, but I do agree with Jim that Free Guy was a highlight. The Netflix series Maid was a well-acted look into domestic abuse and the razor’s edge woman trying to escape their abusers. Impressively, it is a well-balanced depiction of how broken many aspects of “the system” are without villainizing everyone who is involved in the system.  If you are looking for a quirky, dark but touching series, The Cleaner is a good choice. If you are a true-crime addict like myself I highly recommend Heist, another Netflix series and This is a Robbery.

Food and Music

Amy’s Best Food Experiences of the Year:  For food experiences, I’ll lump together all the lunches and dinners we have enjoyed as a family since moving to the Bloomington area. We have really enjoyed the variety of choices, everything from Indian and Thai to Turkish and Traditional American. The food has been great but also the joy of being together as a family, which with three of the kids living away from home, is priceless.

Jim’s Best Musical Experiences of the Year:  I discovered and journeyed through the discography of the moody Canadian band Metric, whose musical style has ranged from new wave to dance pop to synth rock. I also enjoyed doing a deep dive into the music of Sia, whose addictive pop driven by her powerful, quirky vocals, feels like a guilty pleasure. It started with her Everyday is Christmas album (easily the most catchy, if utterly secular, Christmas album I’ve ever heard), and from there I traveled back to her early days in the alternative band Zero 7. She’s had a fascinating musical evolution. My favorite albums of the year were Flyte’s This is Really Going to Hurt, the Bleachers’ Take the Sadness out of Saturday Night, and Lord Huron’s incredible Long Lost—my favorite album since Cage the Elephant’s Melophobia. But the musical highlight of the year was seeing Bob Dylan in concert for the 7th time, with my daughter Maggie at Indiana University in November.


Jim’s Favorite Sports Moments of the Year:  The Atlanta Braves are World Series champions! Oh yeah, baby.

Amy’s Favorite Sports Moments of the Year:  Jim, Andrew and I have created a weekly family NFL pool. Winner picks our Sunday lunch spot and the loser mows the yard or does the dishes for the week. I consider having beaten Jim and Andrew three times a lifetime achievement.

Jim’s Most Disappointing Sports Moments of the Year:  The Chicago Cubs let go of Javier Baez, Chris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo! What were they thinking? Combined with the previous dismissal of Jon Lester and Kyle Schwarber, this ridiculous fire sale cut the heart out of the team. Still, the Chicago Cubs will forever be the 2016 World Series champs. At least the Cubs’ front office can’t take that away from us.

Amy’s Most Painful Sports Moment of the Year:  Bryzzo, say it isn’t so!

Good Reads

Jim:  In 2021 I devoted more of my reading time to classic literature, which was a welcome break from virtually non-stop technical scholarly reading for the previous 30+ years. A definite highlight was Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I also greatly enjoyed reading the science fiction of H.G. Wells, including The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, and The War of the Worlds, all of which are replete with interesting lessons about human nature and the ethics of technology. Recently I began reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I’ve purchased four different translations and so far am most pleased with the rhymed version translated by Addison, Dryden, Pope, et al.

Amy:  Reading The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs had the unique effect of a balm to my battered spirits but also continually challenged my earthly perspective and called me to a deeper faith. I believe every committed Christian should read this book. Live Not by Lies by Rod Dreher helped me to articulate my feelings regarding our government’s approach to Covid and inspired me to hold the line of my convictions. Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey was as insightful as it was entertaining, and sometimes weird. I also discovered mystery writer Anthony Horowitz and only regret I have now read all of his books.

Best 2021 Family Memories

Jim: My favorite memory of the year, and one of the best of my life, was our son Bailey’s engagement to Grace Bennett a few weeks ago. The Bennetts and our family conspired for surprise get-together at the Bennetts after Bailey’s proposal. Fortunately, Grace said yes!

Amy: We have a little nook off our living room which I have spent a few afternoons curled up in listening to the kids joke around in the kitchen together. Also Austen and I have enjoyed many a delightful walk on the trail behind the new house, contemplating the universe and stalking squirrels.

Best Kids’ Quotes of the Year

  • Maggie (about her brothers preparing steaks for dinner): “You’ve gotta love the mutilated bodies of tortured animals.”
  • Bailey: “Before the Internet people were stupid.”

New Year’s Resolutions

Amy: To beat Jim in our fitness challenge, read more, and figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

Jim:  To continue to pray every morning on my knees.

 Happy 2022 everyone!

Ho Ho No: Why the Santa Myth is Hazardous for Children

In American culture the Santa Claus story is generally considered to be a fun and entertaining aspect of the holiday season. Parents everywhere get a kick out of convincing their kids that Santa is real. This deception is, of course, reinforced through popular Santa songs, Santa films, and assorted books, games, and toys, such as the now popular Elf on the Shelf interactive toy which many parents use to motivate their kids to behave better, premised on the idea that the toy elf on their shelf is actually a moral scout for Santa.

Even committed Christians tend to see the Santa story as innocuous, though some find the tale of ole St. Nick to be an unfortunate or annoying distraction from the true meaning of Christmas—a celebration of the arrival of the Christ child to a world in need of salvation. Rarely, however, is the Santa myth regarded as a direct threat to Christian belief. After all, every adult understands that Santa isn’t real and that playing along with the story is, well, all in good fun. What danger could there be in the fable of a jolly, chubby old man soaring through the sky on a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer to bring joy to little boys and girls all around the world?

But let’s think this through. Consider the attributes of Santa Claus, according to the standard story. In order to visit the requisite 1.5 billion households worldwide, Santa would need to travel at a speed of more than 1,300 miles per second in an open sleigh while taking a fraction of a second (.0003 seconds, to be exact) to complete his deliveries at each stop. Such power over the laws of nature suggests something along the lines of omnipotence.

Furthermore, according to the Santa myth, he has exhaustive knowledge of all of our lives. As we all affirm when singing that popular Clausian hymn every Christmas season: “he sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake; he knows if you’ve been bad or good.” Clearly, then, Santa is also omniscient.

And, of course, Santa isn’t merely aware of these things. He is also our moral judge, making meticulous assessments of little boys and girls (and adults as well?). And Santa’s judgments have significant practical consequences in the form of rewards (wonderful presents) and punishments (bags of coal). Therefore, we had better “be good for goodness sake.” After all, Santa’s judgments are always right and executed with perfect justice. So Santa must also be perfectly good, an omnibenevolent being.

What all of this adds up to is a being who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good—a being that is essentially divine. Of course, again, it’s just a silly popular story that we all know to be fictional. But that is not what millions of American parents tell their children. According to some surveys, as many as 85% of children in the United States believe that Santa Claus is real, in most cases, presumably, because their parents have told them so. Many parents personally embellish the tale and play along by, say, eating the cookies and drinking the milk that they leave out for Santa on Christmas Eve or by making a point of taking their kids to the mall to tell Santa what they want for Christmas. And when their kids get old enough to register skepticism about the whole story, they are often told to “just have faith.”

So what happens when a kid discovers that the Santa story isn’t true? Some aren’t disturbed too much by it. However, many of us vividly recall what a crushing realization this is. I certainly do. And for most kids the disappointment likely has nothing to do with the number of presents they believe they will receive in the future, since the discovery that there is no Santa Claus is likewise a discovery that one’s parents are reliable providers of Christmas gifts. Rather, this revelation is a discovery in the direction of naturalism—that the world is not as magical or enchanted as one had been led to believe by the most significant authorities in one’s life: one’s parents. What else have my parents been teaching me that is actually false? What other authorities in my life have been deluding me? No doubt the questions in the mind of an eight- or nine-year-old kid are not this well-formed, but this is the basic train of thought that I have heard adults report of their own experience as kids when first learning that the Santa story is fiction.

If the Santa myth ultimately serves to generally undermine a child’s belief in world-enchantment, the skeptical effect is more specifically associated with the classical theistic traits of Santa Claus. If a kid is told for years about this omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being, only to have faith in that being dashed, then how might this impact her regard for biblical teachings about a God possessing precisely these same attributes? Again, the skeptical associations may not necessarily be conscious, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t real.

This is on top of the more obvious problem with telling one’s kids that Santa is real, namely the fact that to do so is to lie to them. And it is not an inconsequential lie, I would argue. It’s difficult to see how a conspiracy of parental deceptions wouldn’t have the psychological effect of sowing distrust in a kid’s mind regarding their parents’ other teachings, including—perhaps especially—teachings of a theological nature.

So however popular and entertaining the Santa myth may be, deceiving one’s kids about Santa is problematic. The fact that it is a lie that undermines parental trustworthiness is sufficient reason for parents, especially Christian parents, not to participate in the deception. But the fact that it could also set kids up for religious skepticism might be the most compelling reason not to play along. Perhaps more of us ought to take seriously the possibility that the Santa story, for all it’s fun, is actually hazardous for children.

Running up the Score

In the world of sports it is common to hear people complain about teams “running up the score”—playing hard to score additional points or runs even after the outcome of the game has been decided. Some cases of running up the score in professional football and baseball are legendary. It is supposedly an “unwritten rule” that such superfluous scoring is unsportsmanlike, impolite, or even immoral. I have never been moved by this complaint, which, as a huge sports fan, I have heard hundreds of times over the years—about athletic competitions at all levels, from pee-wee soccer to NFL football.

To those who make such complaints I have often asked why they take offense at teams who run up the score. What exactly is wrong with playing your hardest even when your winning the game is no longer in doubt? The standard response is that this humiliates the losing team or that scoring “needless” points makes the other “look bad.” Some even appeal to the Golden Rule—would you want the team you’re playing to run up the score on you?

None of these arguments have ever moved me, and I’ve often wondered why. I was prompted to reflect a bit more deeply on the question after my son’s high school soccer team was on both ends of blowouts in consecutive games, losing 9-0 and then a few days later winning 8-1. In each case I was made aware that some parents were bothered by the winning team’s piling up the points long after the game’s outcome was decided. But in neither case was I personally bothered by this. Why not?

First, to address the standard arguments, it could be said that any outplaying of one’s opponent “humiliates” them or makes them “look bad.” After all, by defeating your opponent you literally make them a loser. Isn’t that humiliating in itself? So if avoiding humiliating situations is so important, then one should avoid competitions entirely. But, of course, that would be silly. And as for the Golden Rule, at least speaking for myself, this doesn’t enjoin me to stop playing my hardest because I have never wanted my opponent in any sport to stop doing their best. In fact, I would find it patronizing if my opponent decided to “take it easy” on me because they were beating me so badly. I would feel insulted and, yes, offended by this. So, for me, the Golden Rule dictates that I always try my hardest against my opponent. (Though I must admit that I have sometimes failed at this, such as when playing a vastly inferior racquetball player.) Of course, I am referring to contexts of serious competition, as opposed to when, say, playing a sport in an instructional context, when bowling or playing a board game on a date, or when teaching one’s kid how to play certain sport.

There are several positive reasons to keep doing your best even when winning big. First, to not try your hardest is to give your opponent a false sense of their own ability and level of achievement. To return to the Golden Rule, when I play someone in racquetball, among other things, since I am a serious player, I want to improve my sense of my own ability when playing them. If they take a big lead and then “let up” when a comeback is virtually out of the question, this invites me to think I am better than I really am, and this does me a disservice. It is not merciful to give me an inflated sense of my own ability. It is a deceit dressed in compassion’s clothes.

Second, there is the matter of discipline and self-control. When the win/loss outcome of a game is no longer in question, this tempts both teams to get lazy. If teams are only playing to win, then I suppose it might make sense for players to relax and not try so hard in such cases. But, as the old adage goes, it isn’t just about whether you win or lose. It is how you play the game. Even when losing by six touchdowns in the fourth quarter you can and should still strive to play the game well. And so it goes for the team who is on the winning end of such a blowout. In other words, no matter the score and no matter whether one is winning or losing, you should always do your best. This is to honor the game as well as your opponent. Playing your best is always the most dignified thing. But I would hasten to add that dignity and athletic virtue also demands that players not “rub it in” when winning big. Mockery or otherwise belittling one’s opponent when beating them badly is always wrong. And here is yet another way in which lopsided games provide opportunities for self-control. Such games challenge winning players to restrain impulses to be haughty or arrogant, and this is an important moral skill.

This leads me to my final point in defense of playing your hardest even when winning by a large margin. A severe trouncing provides the losing team with an opportunity to display poise even under adverse circumstances. Athletic competitions are a powerful and important training context for real life. They are most important as means to ends, not ends in themselves. The achievements of putting a rubber ball through a metal ring or hitting a cowhide sphere with a maple wood stick are essentially meaningless in themselves. But we contrive the games of basketball and baseball in order to develop character and provide entertainment for those who observe. This means that sports are most valuable as preparations for real life challenges, difficulties, triumphs, and failures. And among the many real life situations that we all experience are humiliating and failures. To have experienced humiliating losses in athletic contexts provides us with helpful, if painful, practice at maintaining our poise and dignity in such situations. And that is a moral good.

So there are good reasons to think that there is nothing wrong with “running up the score” in contexts of serious athletic competition, notwithstanding the common appeal to the “unwritten rule” that this is a bad thing to do. Indeed, perhaps there is a reason that this supposed unwritten rule is unwritten.

The Starting Point of Sin

Some of you may know that month Jim, the kids, and I moved to southern Indiana as a result of his accepting a new position as head of school for Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington. While this is the third time our family has moved premises, this was by far the biggest change of scene for us all. The distance wasn’t the only factor, though moving hours away is a far cry from the puddle jump moves we have made in the past. We were leaving behind the only community the kids have ever known, as home base at least. The church they were baptized in as infants; neighbors, schools, childhood friends, and on and on it goes. It has been disorienting to say the least.

Packing up the house, we discovered all sorts of things, some good and some not so good. Items we thought were lost were found; dirt and dust we didn’t know were accumulating was discovered, etc. And then we went about the process of repositioning old furniture in a new setting, sorting through forgotten boxes and deciding what to keep, what to pass on to others, and what to throw to the curb. This new setting has helped me to see our possessions in a new light, both literally and figuratively. And this is true of me as well.

The combination of quitting my job which, for the last two years has consumed so much of my time and energy, and moving out of the community I have spent my entire adult life in has been a great opportunity for self-reflection. For me, as I am sure it would be for many of you, self-reflection is usually an opportunity for self-berating. Critical evaluations of oneself aren’t always a bad thing, but too often I use it as a chance to focus on my flaws, cry to God about what a failure I am and crawl into a hole of embarrassment and shame.

Recently, however, I have been trying to take a different approach. I’ve been attempting to see my moral failings with gratitude. If I never see areas where I am weak, how can I grow strong? Yes, it’s unpleasant to have one’s frailties and faults exposed but the alternative is much worse. I must ask myself, do I want to have the appearance of goodness all the while hiding my sinful thoughts and deeds or do I want to expose them in order to grow?

Imagine going to the doctor because, while appearing perfecty healthy, you know there is something internally wrong with you.mThe nurse comes in and hands you one of those delightfully revealing paper gowns and tells you to get undressed so the doctor can diagnose the issue. Are you going to be uncomfortable? Clearly yes, but you have a choice: get uncomfortable and be exposed or stay clothed and continue to get sicker. We are faced with the same choice when dealing with our sin and the Great Physician. He cannot heal us unless He first exposes our disease.

Now I am not calling for some sort of celebration of sin. Not saying that we should all start indiscriminately dropping our metaphorical drawers and glorying in our exposed failures. There is both a time and place for sharing our sin through confession, both with God and with others. Just as none of us particularly want to see people traipsing through the malls in paper medical gowns, I don’t think we should go about broadcasting our moral failures in an attempt to normalize behavior which we are biblically told is wrong.

What I am calling myself to do is to see my sin coming into focus as a starting point to begin from rather than a finish line I failed to cross. From this starting point, I can start the journey, first to repentance and then to growth and freedom. The diagnosis is just the first step; it doesn’t immediately bring the cure. But it is a necessary one without which there can be no healing.

This move was not one that I looked forward to. But I am grateful for the chance to see myself in a different light and to grow as a result. One day, I will make my final move, from earth to my heavenly home. Then I will have the chance to see myself in the light of God’s Glory, clothed not in a flimsy exam gown but in Christ’s righteousness. Then I will be diagnosed, treated and cured, surrounded by the saints and home for good.

Resign to the Grind

This week begins my fourth week as head of school at Lighthouse Christian Academy—a K-12 school in Bloomington, Indiana. There are lots of wonderful, dedicated people there whom I’ve enjoyed getting to know. I’m excited to see what the coming school year will bring. Although none of us know the future, we can absolutely count on two things: 1) God will be faithful to us along the way and 2) the work will be a grind, and by that I mean consistently hard and often tedious work. But that’s okay, because all jobs are, in one way or another, a grind. At least if one is going to do them well.

Before this job, I worked as a college professor for 28 years, and that was certainly a grind. Preparing lectures, giving lectures, advising students, serving on committees, attending faculty meetings, filling out forms, and endless grading. And the research and publishing part was just as difficult and tedious, if not more so. But that’s what it takes for success as a college professor—a willingness to push through, day after day, semester after semester with the tedium.

This is no less true in those fields that are typically considered glamorous or prestigious. Professional athletes are exalted in our culture, envied by many. Yet their work involves enormous amounts of repetition with training drills, weight-lifting, dietary regimens, constant travel, and media interviews. It’s an exhausting lifestyle, to be sure. Of course, we rarely pity them, because—at least in the case of major sport male athletes—they make a lot of money. But that doesn’t keep their work from being a grind.

The same is true in the entertainment world. A successful Hollywood actor must work through countless scripts, repeatedly rehearse lines and prep for their roles, work through conflicts with directors and fellow actors, and do tons of photo shoots and interviews, all the while working with their agents to establish their next acting gig. And the more successful they are, the greater the demands on their time. Likewise for rock stars; whether working in the studio or going on exhausting tours, their work is a tedium of repetition, and success (and sometimes even survival) hinges on how well they can keep the grind from crushing their souls or tempting them to abuse drugs or alcohol—a common problem in the entertainment world for just this reason.

Or consider a successful CEO of a company. Even the multi-millionaire mogul must endure daily briefs about the business, constant number crunching, and all that goes into monitoring product development, marketing, financials, and personnel issues, and pressures often created by rumors of scandal, social media issues, and one’s competitors, not to mention backbiters within one’s own fold. A truly stressful tedium indeed. Again, we never pity the Jeff Bezoses, Bill Gateses, or Jack Dorseys of the world because they are so wealthy. But their professional lives are every bit the grind of any other successful worker.

And then there are the other fields of work that are more obviously grinds—those who work in auto factories, retail management, manufacturing, accounting, mail delivery, truck driving, medical research, communications, informational technology, counseling, landscaping, dentistry, and law. Each of these industries, whatever one’s role, is in one way another a serious grind—again, assuming one is doing reasonably good work. One can avoid the grind by slacking off, of course. But that is simply to choose failure.

Bottom line: to be successful in this world you must resign to the grind. Real achievement necessarily requires a dedication to doing dull, monotonous, repetitive tasks and doing them well. (My latest YouTube video fastens on this point.) This is a fact about the human condition that the writer of Ecclesiastes sums up well when he asserts, “All things are wearisome, more than one can say” (Eccl.1:8). Amen to that.