Friday, July 18, 2014

Land of confusion

Watching world events of late has made me think about the Genesis song Land of confusion, also covered by Disturbed. The videos are shown below and are quite different in intent. The Genesis video uses the puppets Rubbery Figures to mock Ronald Reagan's cowboy politics. Recently reading An Angel Directs the Storm by Michael Northcott, I'm really struck by the influence of John Locke and dispensational premillenialism on US conservatism - neither of which strike me as biblical Christianity. American exceptionalism based on this and some idea of manifest destiny is truly frightening.

The Disturbed video is in one sense a better match to the music, with its view of empire, endless warfare and freemarket capitalism as a nationless fascism that only represses. As a Christian however, the idea that a violent uprising is the solution is repulsive - when violence is used to combat violence, violence wins.

To quote the song:

There's too many men
Too many people
Making too many problems
And not much love to go round
Can't you see
This is a land of confusion.

What is lacking is love. Lack of love in violent responses to old enemies, lack of love in public policy on climate change, refugees, the poor and so on. People make the problems, and love is crucified on a cross to put things right.

But regardless of your religious outlook, can't you see that only love will bring clarity to the confusion?

This is the world we live in
And these are the hands we're given
Use them and let's start trying
To make it a place worth living in.

Use your hands in love to make the world worth being in. I believe in the Christ, his kingdom come and still to come, and to love until it does.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

History, world views and public policy on guns

Gun ownership and control is a contentious issue for many people and often polarising. I recently had a discussion with an American friend over this. My challenge was, what's a Christian to do with something designed to kill and kept for "self defense" i.e. killing someone else to save at least one's own property.

That aside, and any issue of what policy might look like, why is gun ownership more of an issue in the USA than Australia? This is not a judgment on right and wrong as much as a genuine question. And a few thoughts came to me.

Firstly, America fought for its independence. Australia never really worried about this, and no doubt the complexities of history are such that we didn't need to. The closest we came was the Eureka Stockade, over mining permits. I suppose there are some superficial similarities with the Tea Act.

Secondly, we've never fought each other. Sure there is resentment about "Mexicans" in the south by those from the north, but we've never been at war (State of Origin Rugby Leasgue doesn't count).

I wonder if these two events have normalised guns in the USA in way in which Australian history never has. Even when Gallipoli is used as some kind of "forging of a nation" myth, much centres on character - the laconic Australian who is good under pressure, as much as the fighting ability of the troops. Many accounts show their respect for "Johnny Turk", and the attitude of Attaturk to our war dead often gets a mention (and always reduces me to tears).

The third difference is kind of sinister on both sides really. I grew up with toy soldiers (US) and cowboys and Indians. I've watched many Westerns as a kid. For so long, it appears as if Hollywood sanitised and valorised genocide. In Australia, we've tried hard to sweep it under the carpet, and culture wars have been fought over it (and still are).

So I think history has framed the debate on both continents. Whatever else you think about gun control or anything else, understanding history means you are not doomed to repeat it.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Everything is awesome - theology part 3

One of the things that might concern some Christians about using the Lego movie for theological illustrations is the fact that "the man upstairs" is a kid. This is not a high view of God they might say. The (Lego) universe is being run by a child. But apart from this, I see some fruitful areas for thought.

One of the things I like about the movie is the way in which the kid deals with the problem - that of the desire for static control, a limiting of freedom. He tells us story. For some people, the bible is a collection of aphorisms or sayings to pick and choose from. For others, a set of devotional readings to draw spiritual succor from. Sometimes this personal value taken is at the cost of any sense of who wrote the book or to whom they wrote it. Still others read the bible as a big rule book. I remember reading that some US Baptist group didn't have a view on climate change because there was no verse on it!

When I say the bible is a collection of stories, I'm not saying it's all made up. To be sure there are parables, mythopoetic passages and so on. But I believe in the empty tomb and the resurrection, in accounts of people who saw things with their own eyes.

The bible as story says that there is a plot, a story teller, characters, and so on. And I don't think that means that the characters are 2D with no substance or indeed will. Emmett, when in the human world still moves for himself. But the story idea means it isn't a bunch of rules to remember (though there are those too) or a privatised experience to be had (though they exist too, more particularly a relationship). The story is something to enter into, to act out, to see through to its conclusion. And there is a conclusion, where the issue at hand, the evil of the hell of fixed existence (the movie) or a world out of shape apart from God (reality) is brought to its end.

Everything is awesome, because the story is headed somewhere!

Now if you aren't religious like me, in a sense the point still stands. Tell stories to motivate change, not just state facts. Even if you think the only people writing the story are us, make it one that is realistic but positive, work towards the goal. There are many problems to be solved; tell a story where they are solved and then act it out.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Everything is awesome - creativity part 2

A while ago I watched some videos from a Coursera MOOC (I didn't really do the course as such) on creativity. The Lego Movie is very much about this idea.

The idea behind this MOOC is that everyone is creative, it is just that there are different types of creativity. Emmett is creative in the sense of following formulaic approaches. Now I know what you are thinking, if you follow instructions, it isn't really creativity. But if we leave behind the idea of following instructions like Lego instructions, there are still well constrained areas that permit a lot of creativity.

Music is fairly well constrained in the West. A limited number of scales, and some basic chords based on them. With just three major chords, and maybe a minor chord and a major seventh and you can write a whole lot of songs. Likewise, engineers follow some well constrained principles, perhaps with a lack of creative style - but who cares as long as they stay up!

Genuine creativity is probably less common than we think - newly emergent ideas, processes, styles, theories, etc. This is often done by trying to combine things not normally associated with each other.

I guess the key point is that we can all have rules we follow, and still be creative. Hopefully thinking this way can open up possibilities of doing new things and seeing otherwise more mundane tasks as adventures in making new, creative things.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Grappling for Christ

Martial arts and Christian mission

Mission minded

The raison d’etre or reason for the existence of the church is to ‘know Christ and make him known’. This has often been reduced to ‘spiritual disciplines’ and evangelism which has usually been along attractional lines. Attractional mission is where we organise an event like a guest or seeker service, and invite our non-Christian friends along. Over many years I’ve enjoyed many evangelistic sermons along with all my other Christian friends. My point is, that as the Church increasingly looks irrelevant, if not is irrelevant in people’s lives, we need to do good, be good and speak the good news out of our familiar contexts and into those of others. That means often (but not always) leaving behind the four walls of church.

The idea of incarnational mission (see for example Hirsch and Frost in The shape of things to come) is being where people are at, really being with them in what interests them. And this isn’t simply forcing yourself to engage in an activity simply so you can share the gospel (read, be able to trot out a standard tract-like approach). This means doing what you love, being with people you care about, and being the gospel. At times, you will also get to use words. For me, that doing what I love is the martial art Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

This isn’t Kung Fu fighting!

I’ve been a martial artist longer than I’ve been a Christian. And yes I’ve encountered all of the arguments about how the martial arts are demonic and violent. On violence I assume all of those people who are critical abhor the footy punch ups, western boxing and most TV and computer games, as well as foreign policy of most western governments over the past several centuries. On demonic influence I’m assuming none of the detractors have a problem with lust, money or any of the other idols the New Testament tells us have demons lying behind them. Yes the martial arts are often Eastern in their cultural form and carry religious elements either as echoes or implicitly. Stop celebrating Easter and Christmas then. Or learn that most things can be redeemed.

You can see I’ve been in these arguments; I don’t mean to sound impatient, but when you see what gospel opportunities can open up, particularly with young men, you’ll see the value in it. One certainly has to work through the issues. When I studied Judo there was a maxim from the founder Jigoro Kano that reads “maximum efficiency with minimum effort”. It is a great principle for martial arts, maybe too for business. But who wants efficient relationship? They are meant to be inefficient, time and effort costly. Likewise, when I did Goju Kai Karate, one of the five pillars we recited was a respect for Samurai chivalry. Sure they produced poets and artists, but that same spirit meant that an offended Samurai could cut the head off a peasant, or a disgraced Samurai had to commit suicide. Their noble “never surrender” attitude shaped the treatment of prisoners of war. So never be uncritical.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) is an adaptation for traditional Japanese Jiu Jitsu for self-defence and a combat sport. I remember once a famous instructor from Brazil explaining that we shook hands in BJJ instead of bowing (as in oriental arts) because one only bowed to God. Brazil is a good Catholic country, and while many are nominal, that Christian attitude has influenced at least this aspect of the sport/art.

The sport of BJJ allows people to engage in vigorous exercise with little risk of serious injury if practiced safely, with due regard to you and your partner’s health. It consists of taking an opponent down, controlling their movement and applying a submission hold such as the hyper-extension of a limb or the constriction of blood to the brain. This might sound violent, but the goal is to obtain the submission, the tap, and not the snap or nap. Supervision is key, and the ‘law of the jungle’ often ensures that the overly violent or aggressive don’t last long at a club, while the younger, fragile or women are often protected like family.

Shared values

I see three key intersections between BJJ and faith, and this is a speech I’ve given at least once in training contexts. Firstly, one must always be humble. There is always someone better skill-wise or athletically. Sometimes you are the hammer, sometimes you are the nail. You are only as good as your last roll. The goal is not always to dominate but to work together. Jesus coming off his throne to be born human and die for sinners (Philippians 2) shows us what humility looks like, and it often comes to mind when I am training.

The second intersection is community. There have been times when I have felt more at home on the mat than at church. People you struggle with, you relate well with. You share a vision, a goal. In the case of BJJ it is the journey of improving your technique, learning to flow better. Sweat makes close brothers. If only church were more like that! And this mat community should include young and old, men and women, athletes and strugglers. The church likewise is a body of many parts (1 Corinthians 12).

Finally, as one rises in the ranks, one is to serve. Help new students, run classes, coach and support at competitions. Far from individual ego, the ideal club member is always willing to help. As a brown belt with over 12 years of experience (no, we don’t hand out black belts like you six year old gets at the local Karate school), I run classes, coach students and am always on hand to answer questions, or indeed learn from anyone above or below me in rank. Jesus said he didn’t come to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45). Service is meant to be a key lifestyle for Christians. BJJ reinforces this, not detracts from it.

Martial mission

So what does this mission look like? Well it looks like any number of things. The club I train at and help run, Renegade MMA, is run by brown belt and theology student Jamie. He in turn was inspired to open a club with an evangelistic shape by our friend Ninos, who runs a number of clubs under the banner of Australian Elite Team (AET). Ninos is Syrian Orthodox and one of the most Christ-like men I have met, as well as an excellent BJJ practitioner and coach. In turn, Renegade has inspired the Grappler’s for Christ club run by Woon in Geelong, at a Baptist church. Each club is different in the way it goes about its work, but with the same goal of sharing Christ and loving and serving the people who train. Let’s look at some of the key ideas.

Of course to be involved in an incarnational mission means you have to live it. As I emphasised at a workshop run by Stirling College and Urban Neighbours of Hope, you have to really, really, really love BJJ to do it as mission. Whatever project you choose, particularly trying to reach men for the gospel, they will smell insincerity a mile away. All of us who teach it, love it. I think about it at work, under the shower, on the drive home from training, and on rare occasion, dream about it. So always pick something you love. This will lend integrity to what you do. A martial arts club that teaches poor martial arts has little to make it attractive to other people interested in learning a good martial art. Anything you love, you put in a lot of effort to perfect. All of the clubs mentioned above have a good standard of Jiu Jitsu with coaches who care about the quality of the technique.

There is another key element of a good club, and that is mat culture. As the common myth purports, martial artists are violent, competitive and selfish. And clubs can become this way. You might apply techniques roughly because all you want is the tap and are not interested in the welfare of your partner. You might not roll with someone because they are better than you and it hurts your ego. Or maybe instead, if the coaches are Christian and set a good example, building a good mat culture that is shaped by the gospel without explicitly being so (preachiness not allowed), then this will create a safe environment that people actually enjoy being in. Egos are left at the door. There is no sense of superiority because we are Christian because this is a culture that most people can embrace and will sort people out – embrace it, enforce it or ask people to leave.

This all goes out the door in one sense at Grapplers for Christ, a BJJ club that meets in a church hall, and begins and ends in prayer. With a mix of Christians and those who are not Christians, meeting in a church hall gives them ‘permission’ to engage in Christian practice. At Renegade, apart from posters featuring the Grapplers for Christ organisation and competition sponsors, and patches on our Gis (uniforms), there is little explicit on the mat. At Australian Elite Team, culture and personal history mean that the cross features on the club patches. So, when thinking about incarnational mission, explicit branding as Christian needs to be done with care. First and foremost is a Christian shaped ethic. Opportunities to share the gospel will come.

People coming into a martial arts club, men in particular, are looking for something. Sometimes it is wanting to be a fighter; often the insufferable sort with lots of testosterone and little idea of what the implications are for amount of training, how long for, diet, etc. Some are looking just to get fit, some have seen BJJ before and know it is effective and fun. And some come with issues of self-esteem, spiritual need (expressed), histories of substance abuse and so on. Conversations do happen. Jamie, coach of Renegade is very able in introducing Jesus into the conversation at the right moment. New students will often hear that Jamie is a Christian and that this influences his business practices and club ethos. Such a clear introduction makes it easier for Jesus to get a mention.

Both Renegade and AET have bible studies on a Wednesday night, which are open for all to attend. In the early days at Renegade, the studies were small, rough and intense. Christian men shared in a real way their struggles – no pretend everything is fine – in a way that would not be possible in mixed groups. Over time however, this group morphed into one focused on outreach. Studies are at a basic level, free from theological sophistication or debate. The emphasis is on Jesus and on how faith affects basic issues of life. Regularly, those of no explicit faith commitment outnumber those of us who are Christian, and these are the best nights. Jamie is also in a position to one on one disciple new Christians and those struggling with various issues. What is clear is that men of integrity and respect in one area (teaching martial arts) can receive respect in other areas and opportunities for Christian service and witness will open up.

After some 28 years in and out of the martial arts scene, I have never experienced such a culture as I do at Renegade, nor had the opportunities to share the gospel with people so easily. When the gym was started, all I had in mind was enjoying rolling with my friends. What we have seen develop is a very successful business, competitive club and place shaped by the gospel. Lives are changed, from a physical to a spiritual level. While such an environment is not for every man, I can’t think of a single reasonable theological objection to this kind of ministry, and have seen too much of God at work to stop now.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Everything is awesome - theology with Lego part 1

There may be spoilers in this if you have not see the Lego Movie.

I enjoy kids' movies. A lack of too much sex and violence, often times a gentle world, but often by no means babyish. Sometimes there are explicit or implicit themes that be picked up on. Other times, they can be an opportunity for spin off ideas.

The first theme I want to deal with is that of belonging. Emmet tries so hard to fit in, to follow the instructions. He is so much like everyone else, he has no distinguishing features. When he goes missing, most of his workmates don't even remember him. Everyone else has a distinguishing feature but him.

At one level, it is rather sad to try so hard to be like everyone else. Yet at the same time, humans are social creatures. Most animals look pretty much the same, but many have differences in personality. Having known four Labradors now, they look similar but not identical; they have similar traits bit differences in personality. So identity means belonging, and we often try to "look" like others, while thinking we are being different.

Take the hipster trend - so many similar beards and dress sense. There's nothing wrong with the particular trend, but in seeking to be unlike others, they are often much like each other. Same for goths, punks, etc, etc. Of course, unlike Lego, we are quite different from each other.

And yet our humanity is what unites us. In theological terms, this is the image of God. We are all really the same, exactly in our differences. We should however be thoughtful in our attempts to fit in - sacrificing neither our humanity or our individuality. That said, elevating individuality to God itself has gotten us into a lot of trouble.

Everything is awesome when we are individuals who use our individuality to build a better society.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Playing jiu jitsu

I've been training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for 12 years now. It doesn't make me an expert by a long shot, but I have enjoyed it. I'm a brown belt, but no grappling gun, an assistant coach, but more of a crash test dummy. But I'm also an educator, and have spent some time thinking about gamification, the use of game elements in other contexts. In that setting, I've thought a little bit about play.

I think it was Rigan Machado who said that you don't fight jiu jitsu, you play it. When we think of play, it involves operating within limitations - we don't strike, use some submissions, follow guidelines of etiquette etc. These things do not limit what we do, but enable it.

I'm going to take four ways of playing and apply them to jiu jitsu training.

1. Easy fun

Easy fun is fun precisely because it is easy (in a relative sense). Warm up rounds are for that reason, not for tapping your opponent, or to win. It is about working together to get ready for more serious rolling. To perform at your best you need to be warm - going straight from cold to full bore is a good way to get injured.

Saying you are going light, and then going hard is not easy fun. Going light and playing jiu jitsu gives you and your partner more time to think about what is happening, maybe to back track and ask questions. Know the difference between light and hard and keep to it. Easy fun means it isn't about winning or losing but learning.

Flow rolling is fun because it can be fast or slow, and develops timing and a sense of "flowing with the go" (Rickson Gracie) rather than "going with the flow". Rolling without finishing submissions, but focusing on the form of jiu jitsu, the perfection of technique and timing is a lot of fun. You are working against, but also with your partner. To hold them down to death is to break the rules, miss the point, and stop playing.

Drilling, or doing situational drills doesn't always have to be 100%, you need time to think about technique, develop reactions and not rely on strength.

2. Hard fun

The name might suggest "going hard" and grappling ferociously, and while this might be the case for competition rounds and comps, you have to remember that that there is a difference between hard training and "fighting for the farm" as an old instructor of mine used to say. We aren't in the Octagon getting paid tens of thousands of dollars. Wanting to win and wanting to hurt someone are not the same in BJJ.

Part of the "going hard" thing is that using strength can be detrimental to your development - technique is primary. Strength is what you use in competition to accompany technique, but strength itself is not enough. Strength and conditioning should be essential cross training, but to roll better, roll more.

Hard rolling is fun given the satisfaction of having given your all. Winning is not everything, but it is the aim when competing. Being competitive is good in training, but at the right times.

There is an idea known as fiero, which game designer Jane McGonigal defines in her book, Reality is Broken as:

Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity. You know it when you feel it – and when you see it. That’s because we almost all express fiero in exactly the same way: we throw our arms over our head and yell.

This is what we feel when we tap an opponent, and what makes hard fun, well fun. But it is play. We work within rules, time limits, a concern for the other person's safety.

I remember once watching some MMA on DVD with a fellow who had been on the front of the Iran-Iraq war for seven years. When the commentators described the fighters as warriors, he scoffed. And with good reason.

3. Social fun

A lot of people I know like to hang out after class and shoot the breeze, chat about BJJ and life in general. Many people socialise after class. BJJ is social fun because of two reasons. Firstly, it is very hard to do much BJJ on your own apart from a few drills. BJJ might not be a team sport like soccer or rugby or cricket, but you are only as good as the training partners around you, and no one likes the person who always sulks after losing (some of us get frustrated at ourselves, but should always acknowledge the skill of others), always goes hard (see above), doesn't talk to people, or hurts people often.

The second is, as I saw somewhere on the internet "I'm at the stage of life where I've been choked by most of my best friends". Hard training, sweating together, urging each other on. All these things lead to the building of friendships. We learn to respect (hespect ;) ) each other for their dedication, hard work, ability, helpful nature and so on.

Where I train, we work hard on mat culture - always be willing to roll, show hespect, look after each other, and so on. The best gym may not be the one with the best BJJ, but be the place where people feel comfortable enough to keep coming back, invite their friends, etc.

I think a mark of a good club culture is one where visitors feel welcome, and women feel comfortable. I mean, a room full of sweaty blokes, and grappling being up close and personal. Good culture is everything, sleaziness is no fun for women.

4. Serious fun

The last type of fun is serious fun. We train because it is fun, we train to get better at BJJ. But what if in the process you get fitter, lose some weight, make friends, gain self confidence, get over addiction problems, find some purpose in life? Martial arts has been around a long time, and often has led to betterment. Of course, there is no shortage of less than honourable people in life, and in martial arts. In general though, a lot of people I've met over many years of different martial arts are decent people. I believe their training has played a role (or in the case of BJJ, played a roll ;) ).

So when next you roll, play jiu jitsu.