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Life | Noah Stepro

Noah Stepro

Noah Stepro

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Life Lessons from North Korea

The recent hubabulu with North Korea hacking Sony Pictures, releasing copies of current films, damaging emails, publishing financial document and threatening US theaters that premier the film has created a tense situation in the entertainment world in the last few weeks. The Interview, in which Seth Rogen and James Franco infiltrate and kill the Supreme Ruler of the most closed society on earth seems almost like a work of fan fiction for the Bush doctrine…and that is probably how N. Korea should take it…a real life version of Team America viewed by folks like Rogen.

Now the last time I checked, post college (or college dropout) stoners lacked in militant organization and violent insurrection…semper fi is not the first thing they say when they are ordering pizza at 1am. The threat The Interview posses towards N. Korea’s national security is about as powerful as a SNL skit. But when you live in isolation and fear, molehills quickly become mountains.

 

In a recent conversation with some parents of adolescent and grown children we broached the subject of honesty with your kids. One parent’s approach to honesty with their kids was continual support, encouragement and positive reinforcement with little to no reality…i.e. “you are good at everything and everyone loves you”. The other parent was equally supportive and encouraging but tried to balance that with a healthier dose of honesty. They would tell their kids when they were being obnoxious or level with them about their strengths and weaknesses. The result was that the first group of children group up feeling very loved and very sensitive to any criticism…making it harder for them to fold into society where you will have performance reviews, fights and failures. The second group felt equal loved, but a little more equipped to deal with real life by having a bit tougher skin. Interestingly fear was a major component to this first group who tried to shelter their children…they tend not to handle things too well.

 

What does all that have to do with N. Korea? The dictatorship of Kim Jong Un is a macro specimen of what happens to us individually when we live in isolation and fear. Hacking the picture studios and threatening to attack U.S. theaters seems like…an overreaction, but they’ve gone a step further this week. Apparently the Korean government has issued threats against the White House, Pentagon and the U.S. mainland. This is equivalent to the rich kid who’s parents bought friendships and popularity trying out for a sports team in college, being told he isn’t good enough and then threatening to get the coach fired…oh wait and then burn down the school and poison the local drinking water.


When we isolate and shut of from criticism we become devastatingly unaware of our real strengths and weaknesses. When we win popularity through coercion or bribery insecurity lives in the recesses of our personality…making us more irrational and desperate. When we make fear the determining factor for our decision process paranoia and control take over. So parents take a note…a healthy dose of reality for your children could keep them from becoming the next totalitarian dictator…unless that is what you’re going for.

Interstellar: The Burden of Vision

Last week I got to see interstellar… I still haven’t made up my mind about what I think… But I definitely think something.

Besides weirding me out and giving me that “don’t think about the space time continuum/ flux capacitor/cluster flub” – the film stirred up al kinds of thoughts about leadership.

Interstellar-Ending-Explained-Time-Travel

Interstellar spoiler

The most frustrating thing about watching interstellar was watching someone with clairvoyance of the future be impotent to change the present. There is a burden that comes with vision… vision is the nonnegotiable of good leadership. Good leaders see where a group, company, family or movement is and where they need to go and calls for changed birthed from vision. But if you are in capable of changing the current circumstances, choices, or prejudices, vision can be the greatest burden a leader can carry.

Many of us have been in positions where we’ve seen what needs to happen but have been a minority of opinion when it comes to how to move forward. The black hole scene where McConaughey is trapped viewing the past without a way to effect the outcome haunted me for days after viewing it. In terms of cinematic power, the movie could have (and possibly should have) ended there. The poignancy of the movie seemed to rest in our inability to change the past based on what we know in the present.

While the film focused on the future it played with the terms future, past and present to the point that they were all interchangeable based on the time in which we are talking about them. The frustration we all experience at wishing we could change the past is the same lament leaders go through in moments of clarity and foresight.

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So what are our options when we can see clearly into the future but realize we are powerless in the present?

1. We can escape. The maxim in poker is to know when to fold ’em. The sad reality is there are times when we need to stop trying to help people and just set up boundaries; when we need to leave the company that is fledgling; when we must stop supporting a movement or candidate because we can see where it will all end.

2. We can give in. Easily the worst of the options. This is when folks refrain from blowing whistles on corrupt companies because they will lose their paycheck; when countries become Nazi collaborators because they fear the consequences; when abusive leaders remain in power because no one wants to rick the boat.

3. We can form resistance. Just because we realize we cannot affect change where we are does not mean that we need to become apathetic and complacent. We can strike out in the revolutionary ways of rebellion: prayer, confrontation and reform.

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This isn’t just at a corporate or political level…I’m thinking of someone standing up to and resisting a group of friends bent on destruction, a spouse committed to dysfunction, a church no longer following faith, an education system committed more to bureaucracy than students. At the end of the day none of these options lessen the burden of leadership, but resistance does lighten the feeling of apathy, complacency and corruption that come with serving a group, person or system that we know to be wrong.

 

 

The End of Adulthood in American Christianity

Sunday morning has typically come to mean two things in America: Church or Sports. This bifurcation of leisurely and religious pursuits in our culture is a development of the past 20 years…and it is a major sign of the end of adulthood in the American Church. A. O. Scott recently published a profound and possibly prophetic article in the New York Times entitled “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” in which he suggests that we have witnessed the death of the mature male lead in pop media. This is a long developing trend in American literature, film and tv in which we see fulfillment come through friendships and personal journeys of adventure and rebellion, not the deep challenges of relationship and responsibility. What started as organized rebellion against injustice and stifling of creativity mutates a generation later into “bro comedies” of idle consumerism.

Put another way:

“We are an immigrant nation. The first generation works their fingers to the bone making things. The next generation goes to college and innovates new ideas. The third generation snowboards and takes improv classes.” -JACK DONAGHY

 

The general malaise of adulthood in American culture manifests in Evangelical Christianity in pronounced ways. Scotts’ thesis perhaps clarifies feelings of decay that many in the church have sensed for a long time. Between the declining percentage of self-identified, practicing Protestants in America, the shrinking number of churches in our landscape and the feminization of religion (70% of church participation is female) in the West it is no shocker that things are amiss in the Church at large. For every reason the Church identifies for it’s decline we create solutions with buzzwords: Missional, (Neo) Reformed, Emergent, Social-Justice, Etc. While all of these groups/movements care about this pandemic and address various symptoms of decline, rarely do they penetrate to the cause of decline; perhaps the root cause of decline in American Christianity is a lack of maturity among Christians?

In Scotts article he identifies several signposts of perpetual childhood in American Culture; these signifiers are often alive and well in the American Church:

Fulfillment is found in among peers

Away from the overview of mothers and lovers, the modern “man” finds happiness in the challenge free environment of friends that “play” and “adventure” with their energies.

When we survey men in the church do we see something different? When we listen to men addressed from the pulpit do we hear another narrative offered? Preachers typically offer either a “try-harder spiritual chauvinism” that is found in the complementarianism of the Neo-Reformed, or the complacent validation of the status quo. Men need to be better, try harder and lead their families by making unilateral decisions and having lots of sex with their “smoking hot wives”; or they are offered a patronizing version of Christianity as a cultural rubber stamp that pats them on the back for drinking beer, watching football, voting republican and being “Christian”.

The problem with both of these narratives is that they envision maturity for men through the lens of individualism. Individually men are supposed to “lead their families” and take on responsibility. We are typically offered the unattainable challenge of being perpetually responsible and competent or the impotent invitation to validate the life of comfort we find easy, but unfulfilling. We rarely merge these together with the additives of guidance and wisdom from someone beyond our peer pool. For the church to mature we need formative and involved discipleship. We need peers, but we also desperately need mentors.

Adventure and rebellion prolong maturity

The American male protagonist is most at home on the road or embroiled in rebellion against a cause. Adventure and rebellion can be a great rite of passage but, as Scott outlines, when this becomes our place of abiding rebellion quickly erodes to tantrum and adventure retreats into irresponsibility. The riddled angst of A Street Car gives way to the “bro comedy” of The Hangover. The entropy of American Christianity is driven by the gravity of comfort…we give up on the challenge of the road but embrace its lawlessness.

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Where is this alive in the Church? Do we give up on the struggle of maturity, self-sacrifice and accountability but embrace the “journey” of spirituality…taking our time to “find ourselves”.  Scott argued that “grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things.” Have we structured out the drive for maturity in our own churches? Paul warned against this to the Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Has the idea of “spiritual journey” and “self-help” Christianity lead to a crisis of maturity in the Church?

I don’t mean to single men out in the spiritual “journey” of self-absorption…but we need to realize men and women, generally speaking, are at different points in their spiritual devolution (as it relates to and corresponds with American culture). Women are a step behind in their descent into egocentrism…the female of today is facing the same post-coming-of-age transition American men found themselves in during the 80s and 90s. They are encouraged to embrace the “me” mantra of feminism and find the self-actualization offered in contemporary spiritual traditions. As feminism meets our long standing belief that women are naturally more virtuous and faithful, biologically inclined towards religion, women become the heroes of the Church…selflessly pursuing righteousness, family and holiness while we celebrate their spouses just showing up on a Sunday. In the culture of Christian self-realization, family and “holiness” can easily translate into image, success and pride.

Where do we remedy this? In community! Experiencing faith, serving others, pursing reconciliation with committed friends pushes us out of the nest of self comfort and into the maturity of the other-centered-life. Making faith explicitly communal stretches us from our singular, individualized spiritual journey and places us firmly in the narrative of the Kingdom. We find accountability, leadership, challenge and guidance when we try to grow with others involved in our process of spiritual maturity.

Existentialism breeds contempt

I recently wrote a blog on the Maslow Hierarchy and our need to seek intellectual fulfillment , often at the expense of our physical and emotional  needs. In American culture we can see the digression from the existential quest of the 1960s and 70s into the narcissism and self-absorption of the 80s and 90s into the sarcasm and cynicism of the last decade and a half. It appears there as been a similar trend in Church sub-culture over the same period. The general openness and rebellion of the Jesus Movement gave way to the seeker-sensitive mega trend of your-best-life-now spirituality (see below). This inward focused narrative of Christianity then produced a now emerging generation of “missional” practitioners who are disillusioned with power-Christianity and self-actualizing, Jesus-is-my-boyfriend worship. Questioning these polemics of power and (sometimes) abuse/coercion is a health movement and deconstruction can remove toxic elements to the religion. However, the void of this discontentment often becomes a breeding ground for cynicism.

What this looks like in most churches today is the act of spiritual voyeurism – we watch from the sidelines, without engaging in the maturity process. Our intellectual development allows us to critique everything from worship music and theology, to community and transparency. When we engage in this trend of snarkiness we are grapes left unplucked, criticizing the tannins and fruits of every vintage safely from beyond the boundaries of fermentation. We are not called to have sophisticated language of critique or developed prose of argument, but to keep with repentance that will bear fruit. In an age where we are used to making judgments about  restaurants based on Yelp or classify people from a Tinder account without any encounter, is it any wonder we do this with God and community?

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Our voyeurism keeps us safe from engagement and challenge. Can we move out from our gated communities of ideas and join the neighborhood of practitioners? Embodying practices that aim at formation over information, experience beyond explanations. When churches first seek to live Scripture instead of memorizing it we see spiritual growth; when we seek to be mastered by doctrine, instead of master it we see transformation. When we stop passing judgment on entire groups of people and insist on engaging individuals, we are no longer free to distance ourselves from our neighbors and live in false self-righteousness. When we give guidance by the Holy Spirit priority over strategy and skill we remedy the cancer of cynicism with the treatment of vulnerability and the antidote of openness. Vulnerability…true vulnerability produces humility and openness to change…to repentance…something we need greatly if we are to grow.

There is no silver bullet

The actions and values we proffer as “mature” are often some of the most infantile of masks. We will never bear fruit that matures unless we seriously examine what we currently consider mature and healthy. If churches are going to be places that nurture, grow and reproduce the life of Jesus in their members we should stop offering diets of emotional candy and spiritual junkfood. Stemming the tide of consumerism is the beginning point to address immaturity in the Church, but we need a clear picture of what it looks like to be an adult in the way of Jesus…we need leaders willing to be vulnerable and transparent, willing to walk hand-in-hand with people through the adolescence of life, willing to live a life of shared community as an extended family on mission together.

Michael Brown, Reconstruction and The Great War

Police make me nervous. Seriously. I realized most of the people I know don’t share this sentiment. When I’m at the park playing basketball or barbecuing and I see a patrol car come through I just assume they are going to harass me. Now I am a law abiding, middle-class, Anglo, family man…I don’t get harassed by the police nor do I give them cause to harass me. I didn’t give them cause as a child or teenager either. The only difference is that I lived in not so nice areas of the Antelope Valley. So I don’t get the sense of security and goodwill that my friends and coworkers who grew up in affluent communities do. In my history police equaled problems. I have quite a few good friends in law enforcement and realize that this is a jaded perspective. However, it is a perspective that persists.

Ferguson

This is what is at stake in Ferguson. You have outrage at another shooting of an unarmed citizen by the police…something that happens alarmingly often in the Black community. Race as a social construct is most definitely a primary issue at play here, and many Black thinkers and leaders are highlighting this. We all need to listen. From my own experience, I also see the issues of power and privilege that are often underneath and interwoven with matters of race, and they seem to be rearing their ugly head in Ferguson. For this article, I want to focus on this element of power and privilege. There is a problem behind Ferguson, behind fueling race riots, arrest murders, and labor disputes, and it is power and privilege. Affluent folks view law enforcement as an extension of their will (maybe with the exception of speeding tickets). Disadvantaged people view the police as antagonists to their well-being. One of the biggest problems with the Michael Brown shooting is this divide. In many ways the outcome of this incident has little to do with Brown and the officer and much more to do with a historical rift between the poor severed from the resources they need and the rich controlling these resources (and law enforcement) to protect their privilege and security. ferguson-missouri

Reconstruction

In the aftermath of the Civil War the executive office and Congress were faced with the impossible problem of not only reincorporating peoples and institutions that had waged war on the Union, but also embracing and empowering a nation of freed slaves who had little-to-no property, education or self-governing life skills. Radical Republicans called for property redistribution and enfranchisement while the elite, defrocked Planter class attempted to impose a new order of slavery through intimidation and coercion (black codes, sharecropping, etc). This latter group formed militias to promote white supremacy (the Ku Klux Klan being the most infamous of these groups). These paramilitaries would harass the newly freed people and use violence to keep them from utilizing their recently amended civic and Constitutional rights. The Radical Republicans in Congress were able to employ the US Army to break up these militias and ensure the protection of these people. Through a whole convolution of events, the radicals fell out of power, federal troops were withdrawn from the South and the swift disenfranchisement of Black Americans ensued. In the shadow of this unraveling, Congress passed a law called Posse Comitatus  stating the federal government cannot use federal troops to enforce the law. Track with me on this…most Americans would see this as limiting the power of the federal government for the protection of the common people. WRONG! The point of Congress’s action was to keep disadvantaged people in the mercy of the powerful. This was not meant to protect people from the US military or a growing police state…that still takes place. Under Posse Comitatus the National Guard is still allowed to be called in to establish law and order under the Governors direction. On more than one occasion the president has used federal troops to break up strikes and protests. We have established federal armories (we have one of these in Palmdale) to provide weapons for troops during a state of emergency (which is most likely a riot or grassroots movement, not a Red Dawn type Russian paratrooper invasion of the West Coast). This federal legislature was composed to prevent the federal government from ensuring black Americans would live without fear of violence or persecution and forfeit the right to vote.

The Great War

It is often the case that the events of history offer us two messages – a superficial answer and a deeper underlying meaning. This is the case in Reconstruction; this is also the case of World War I. This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the Great War’s outbreak and historians and commentators have been debating the root causes and effects of the war for the past century. In a truly Marxist interpretation (don’t worry, I’m neither a Communist nor a Marxist)…WWI was neither about class nor nationality nor race (ethnicity, linguistics, religion)…it was about power for the powerful. Marx assumed that the next great international war erupted it would be countered by a revolution of the workers…those who produce v. those who own the means of production (the bourgeoisie v the proletariat). Marx underestimated the power of patriotism…he wrongly presumed that poor factory workers and struggling farmers in England would identify with poor factory workers and struggling farmers in Germany (or Russia or the Austro-Hungarian Empire) over and above the rich industrialists of their own country. The problem: they didn’t! The ideologies of togetherness, solidarity and patriotism trumped those of like-mindedness and self-interest.  he events in Ferguson are not so unrelated to the events of Austria a century ago. Is the Brown shooting only about race? The result of believing this may end up turning poor people against poor people; the imperial leaders told European peasants it was all about nationality – turning factory worker against factory worker. Planter elites told Southern people it was all about race – turning poor white farmers against poor Black farmers. The problems of Reconstruction, WWI, and Ferguson have common ground that extends beyond race, nationality, or ideology. They are all about power and privilege.

 class-war

These are a few divides I choose to look at, but certainly many (if not all) historical conflicts fall into this category (The Cold War is a great example). I want to propose to thoughts that challenge the polemics offered on cable television today:

  1. Race Is An Issue – But Class Is Underneath.

The pain of slavery and reconstruction is alive and well today…in the South more so than anywhere else. Men of color have far greater reason to suspect the police of undue harassment and profiling than I do. However, race can be misleading if we don’t follow its trail toward other issues. Many civil rights leaders started at race and moved towards the issues of class: Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Caesar Chavez. The Great War wasn’t really about nationality…this was used to incite the passions and fears of nations. Ferguson isn’t only about race…race as the end all can become the faux amis employed to rouse suspicion of our neighbors. Can I go so far as to claim that race can be utilized as a misnomer during reconstruction…aimed to divide White and Black in a pitch to win White support for the dominant power class? There is a powerful TIME article that elaborates on this much more eloquently than I ever will.

  1. Violence Isn’t Powerful Enough. 

I have a friend and teacher who once told me that Jesus was a pacifist because “violence wasn’t powerful enough.” In a recent post on Ferguson David Fitch penned: “This is the dilemma of violence. It never gets us anywhere in the long term. It’s the devil’s way to keep the sin ongoing.” It has taken me several years to understand what he meant; it has taken Ferguson. The National Guard is called in to establish law and order – and maybe they will…however…Law and Order is much different than PEACE! The National Guard will never establish peace!

  1. Peace isn’t a tranquil state, but a new order.

I don’t mean a new political order…that is what Woodrow Wilson called for in his New World Order mandate for a great League of Nations. A new political order will always turn into another establishment wielded by the power of the privileged. We need a new social, relational order. We are doomed to repeat Reconstruction, WWI and Ferguson until we stop viewing each other in binaries that alienate. Jesus, the greatest pacifist ever, called the world to live under his new order (the Kingdom of God) were mercy triumphs over judgment, where we treat each other with dignity and respect, where love is the organizing principle and not privilege or power. The League failed and Reconstruction faltered not because they are bad, but because they aren’t enough!

We need an interior revolution that starts within communities and homes…not an imposed mandate from an institution.

Thoughts on the World Cup

A few months back I posted some thoughts on the Super Bowl that got me into some trouble. Now let me touch the Golden Calf of the day, THE WORLD CUP #worldcupproblems

I figured, “hey, people defriended you after that post about the Super Bowl…why not slam the world cup?” – right? It is no secret, I enjoy futbol more than football…but there are some serous problems with what is going on in Brazil at the moment.

1. Human trafficking: The amount of human sex trafficking expected for the events around the developing country of Brasil is expected to dwarf that of the Super Bowl. This isn’t brought to the country by FIFA but is enhanced by this event (much the same way that sex trafficking was not brought to Seattle or San Diego by the S.B.). I have a good friend on mission in Sao Paulo right now trying to combat the inflammation of this industry brought by the Cup.

2. Poverty: The displacement of many of Brazil’s urban poor has brought sharp criticism of the countries priorities and disbursement of funds. This has brought on a slew of protests and rebellions…time will tell if FIFA really enhances the countries economic stability, wage equity and social welfare (many are doubtful).

3. Nationalism: It is a bit surprising to see the unabashed worship of patriotism and nationalism. I have been cheering the US as much as any other red-blooded American, but I am still a little perplexed by the worshipful nature of sports. Can we enjoy, revel and root for athletes without verging on idolatry? When I juxtapose this with religion and gender in America, most guys will spend money to go to a bar, exuberantly celebrate by cheering, raise their hands and stand up for a team….but when it comes to times of worship…crickets.

world_cup

Here are a few differences that I see between the World Cup and the Super Bowl

1. Comradery – the sense of international sportsmanship is akin to the Olympics (minus a biting incident).

2. Materialism – this is certainly part of the Cup, but it takes a backstage to the event itself. There are only three main points of commercial interest. Before the game, half-time and after the game (baring extra-time).

3. Sexualization – the absent of a half-time show diminishes the role of sex and objectification within the World Cup.

Are there more problems with the World Cup? Sure! Are there somethings that the NFL does better than FIFA? I’m sure that is true as well. I just offer a few observations…defriending worthy observations;)

(SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT…SLIGHT)

“Family supper at Burger Chef”…This is the brilliant, enticing line for the new fast-food franchise the men and (more prominently) women from Madison Avenue are selling America at the closing of season 7 of Mad Men. This is why we love Mad Men…able to sum up the allusive and leering reality so many of us feel by packaging feelings and fears in order to sell the hope of security, peace, family, and fulfillment we all desperately desire. The secret-sauce (slight pun) is that the sales people proffering such a dream are the very antithesis of the very product they are pushing.

 

For Mad Men fans, we have been through 7 (6 1/2) seasons of ups and downs (mostly downs) with these characters…and one consistent theme that emerged from the first time we saw Don giving his Kodak Carousel pitch to the melt-down with the Hersey’s rep…SPIRITUAL HEALTH MATTERS IN THE WORKPLACE. It is as if AMC created an 85 episode melodrama to convey the importance of soul care and the dangers of the pursuit of wealth, power and sex all any cost.

 

Some friends of mine at 3DM recently published a short book on the idea of Oikonomics…that is the economic exchange that places value in every aspect of our lives, not just our financial worlds. The premise is brilliant and it is one that the likes of Don Draper and Roger Sterling would do well to take note of. In the human economy we have at our disposal five capitals, or resources, to which we can spend and gain as we leverage one or two of them for greater quantity of the others. They are in ascending order:

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  1. Financial Capital (Dollars and Cents)

  1. Intellectual Capital (Concepts and Ideas)

  1. Physical Capital (Time and Energy)

  1. Relational Capital (Friends and Family)

  1. Spiritual Capital (Wisdom and Power)

 

We all poses in different measure and pursue these by varying importance. We are also called by Jesus to invest what we have and leverage it to gain the things that matter the most in life…The Kingdom (Mt25.14-30 and Mt13.45-46). I was not born with a high degree of financial capital, but was inherently given a great deal of relational capital from the church I came into as a teenager. I received investment from others and in turn invested in some folks around me…years down the road those relational investments have produced a return in financial, intellectual and spiritual capital. The people from Sterling Cooper certainly have a great deal of Financial and Intellectual Capital…but they are physical, relational and spiritual bankrupt. This is the ultimate ethos of the show.

peggy

This is also why these capitals have an ordering to them…financial capital is very important, but if you don’t have the intellectual power to manage it, it is useless; if you have no time or energy to use your financial capital or relational equity to spend it with what good is it? If you gain the world but lose your soul what good is it? Is this the not-so-subtle message Bert Cooper gives up in the closing of our half season as he is singing “The Best Things in Life Are Free”? The idea behind Oikonomics is that the best things in life do not cost money, but they do require a costly and very worthy investment.

Don Draper and the Economy of God – Oikonomics

“Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb, too. The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes…. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations…. Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.”

—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Liechtenstein

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