Monthly Archives: April 2013

On Granfalloons

I’ve had a secret hobby since I was six. I didn’t know it was a thing, or that it had a name, until this morning. I’m a compulsive creator of granfalloons. A granfalloonist, if you like. Or at least, a compulsive creator of imagined granfalloons.

What’s a granfalloon? It’s a good job you asked me now, and not four hours ago!

A granfalloon is an organization that exists only to be an organization. An organization who’s members are distinguished by being members of the organization, where the organization primarily exists to define who are members and who are not. Where the primary qualification for being a member is your desire to be a member (plus payment of a nominal fee).

The organization may have a name, or a mission statement, or an induction course, that declares some purpose. Often a noble and powerful purpose. But this is just rhetoric.

I remember when I was around six or seven, being really fascinated with the idea of being in a secret society. Being a spy. Or something. Anything. Since then, at many points in my life I’ve amused myself by inventing granfalloons. Initially these shadowy organizations keeping the world safe, that nobody knew of. More recently the tendency has sprung into more ‘mature’ topics. Chatting to my wife this morning (who recognized the tendency in me immediately), she reminded me of “The Gourmand Society” that was a fun little fantasy which grew out of a game I wrote, and continued to entertain me for a couple of years (and, even now, I’m remembering it again, and thinking “where did I put the glossy brochure I made for it?”). I’ve created games built around granfalloons, and written stories about them. I’ve never believed these, never done much about them. I perhaps recruited some friends for some of the early ones, though I may have only thought about doing that. But it is certainly something that has been a big part of my imaginative life. Which is great, because now it has a name!

The name comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, where it refers to a group of co-religionists, who believe they are distinguished by sharing some part of God’s purpose, but who’s association is basically meaningless. The analogy with many Christian groups was intended.

It reminded me of the thinking I did around mega-churches (one of the most popular posts on this blog, still). Often mega-church pastors, at some point in their rise, set up an organization that they are in charge of. Often the organization only exists so that other pastors can be members of it. The organization often seeks to speak on some issue, or co-ordinate some response, or resource something or other. It presents itself as being a group of churches or pastors who share some part of what God is doing or wants to do. But none of the members need do anything, just be affiliated. Ultimately the association exists to credential its members. It is a granfalloon.

Similarly today I was looking at the huge juggernaut of pseudo-science and New Age self-help courses, where individuals attend courses to become certified in some modality, then more courses to become master practitioners, then trainers, whereupon they can set up courses to certify others, and so on. A self-propagating granfalloon based on some science-babble, excellent marketing, and a critical mass.

Most interestingly, from this morning’s reading, I’ve discovered the work of Benedict Anderson, who proposed (using different terminology) that a Nation is essentially a granfalloon. The idea that a resident of Rhode Island has some intrinsic connection with a person in Seattle, but less of a connection with another in Vancouver, for example. Or that there is some greater inherent moral responsibility to provide social security for the starving child in London, but not the starving child in Burkina Faso. Or that it is obvious the Indian citizen should vote in Indian elections, but should have no say over American elections. A nation is a granfalloon.

I can see the point, but here the fuzzy boundaries of the idea threaten to make it so indistinct as to be useless. Does it apply to every social group? Is it a meaningless category? I don’t know, I’m only two hours into thinking about it.

But, at the very least it gives me something to call what I’ve been doing since I was six. Although, to be a true granfalloonist, I suppose I need to get serious, and take my creations out into the world.

My wife went out about half an hour ago, saying ‘I expect to find a website for “The Granfalloon Society” built by the time I come back!’


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The Cross As Biographical Detail

Electric Chair Jewelry, by Made By Mammals I was rereading this previous post about what Paul knew of Jesus’s life. And it occurred to me, I’d missed a significant feature of Paul’s writing. Paul consistently and insistently makes clear that Jesus was crucified.

We’re used to reading ‘cross’ and ‘crucifixion’ symbolically, as abstract ideas, and Paul uses it that way too. But would that have been its rhetorical impact on the early Jesus movement? I doubt it. It would have been as visceral as ‘lethal injection’ or ‘electric chair’, and as odd and gruesome too. But I also think that such a specific reference to the method of execution should be seen as biographical too. Jesus didn’t just die – he was electrocuted to death on an electric chair.

Put like that, it is harder to read as an abstract feature of a mythological Jesus. I find it very hard to read Paul as believing in an entirely celestial Jesus. It sounds biographical.

So I decided to put this change of words into the relevant NT verses (tr. based on NRSV):

1 Cor 1:17,18 — For Christ did not send me to baptise but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the Electric Chair of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the Electric Chair is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

1 Cor 1:24 — But we proclaim Christ Electrocuted, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

1 Cor 2:2 — For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him Electrocuted.

1 Cor 2:8 — None of the rulers of this age understood this: for if they had, they would not have put the Lord of Glory in the Electric Chair.

Gal 3:1 — You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as executed by Electric Chair.

Gal 5:11 — Why am I still being persecuted, if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case, the offense of the Electric Chair has been removed.

Gal 6:12,14 — It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the Electric Chair of Christ. May I never boast of anything except the Electric Chair of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been electrocuted to me, and I to the world.

Phil 2:6-8 — [Christ Jesus] who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death in an Electric Chair.

Phil 3:18 — For many live as enemies of the Electric Chair of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears.

Is it helpful to put these passages in these terms? Do you agree that they are too specific to be seen as anything other than biographical: claims about an earthly death of an earthly man?


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Self Confidence and Competence

Noel Burch’s famous model of skill development has four stages.

1. Unconscious incompetence: where you don’t know what you’re doing, and you can’t place your lack of ability in context. You may think you are competent, or you may think the skill is not that hard, or you may undervalue the skill or the effort needed to acquire it.

2. Conscious incompetence: as you begin to acquire a skill, you realise how vast a world you are entering. You can see how far you have to go, and can recognize your deficiencies.

3. Conscious competence: your skill has improved to the point where you can perform well, but only with a great deal of effort and concentration. You marshal everything you’ve learned into demonstrating your skill.

4. Unconscious competence: the skill is so honed and practised, that it can be performed without single-minded effort. It can still be practised with concentration, but a high level of skill is available at a purely intuitive level.

There are various other models that reflect similar processes: the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, and the Japanese Shuhari model, for example.

A lot of the struggle I have discussing evolution with creationists is getting them to realise they are at step one. Creationist propaganda is full of subtexts that evolutionary biology is easy enough for everyone to understand, that it is obviously nonsense, that its refutations are clear and easily available, that any committed Christian should be able to give an account of its problems, and so on. In short, the subtext aims to reinforce the unconscious incompetence of its readers.

The challenge for people with some understanding, is to bring folks through to at least stage two. To understand just how complex, detailed, specific and interconnected the subject is. And help them to understand that their lack of understanding is why they are making basic mistakes. Many (the vast majority, in my experience) refuse to accept their incompetence, and such cannot move to stage 2 or beyond.

I wonder if this is reinforced by our modern western education. Which seems to reinforce self-confidence in us. It tells us we can do anything we put our mind to. Any artwork is great, and story gets praise, a modicum of effort gets a big well done (possibly because, just getting someone to do anything can sometimes be a big achievement, we don’t want to put people off by telling them what they did was at best mediocre). Failure isn’t politically correct. And apprenticeship and commitment aren’t stressed. At least, these were features of my education.

Our default assumption for any skill or area of knowledge should be 2. And our default assumption should be that it is going to take a long time to get to 3.

We pay lip-service to being in 2, but I think often we don’t believe it. We think we get to stage 3 pretty easily (a bit of Wikipedia research, and a few other websites). And that speed is a dead-certain indication we’re still in stage 1.

I wonder how to help people move from stage 1 to 2. Particularly in areas they are predisposed to be antagonistic towards. Any ideas?


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Gangnam Style is an Endtimes Prophecy!

Pass it on folks – its amazing once you see the truth!


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Thom Stark‘s very specific disassembly of some careless arguing from Richard Carrier, included this passage:

Being an autodidact is a good thing…, but it can also be a very bad thing, because when we teach ourselves, we only know to ask the question we think of by ourselves. We tend to only read the material that interests us, or answers our specific questions, and that means we haven’t read all those boring textbooks that are essential to providing us with an adequate grasp of the field.

Which struck home. I have a B.A. in theology (where I focussed on languages), but I’d say 99% of what I know I acquired by reading since graduating. Like Carrier, I am often convinced of my correctness for no better reason that it hasn’t occurred to me that I might be wrong. Being a passionate auto-didact, I suspect, is linked to intellectual arrogance. Something which I have called Carrier out on before, but of which I also regularly partake.


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