The Psychological Need for Aesthetic Beauty

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Sometimes it is hard to reconcile the natural beauty of creation with the spiritual call to not love the world or the things of the world, and to instead long for a heavenly country. Now, not to say anything about natural disasters, corrupt civilizations, or human depravity and suffering, there is within most of us a deep reaction to the remaining beauty of the created world: a breath-taking sunset, autumn colors at their peak, the vista from a mountaintop, etc.

In the creation story found in Genesis, what God created at the beginning of human history was good. More than that, it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). As part of God’s original design, he “planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Genesis 2:8). Sometimes we assume that this was a wild, sprawling rain forest – we picture Adam being fully in touch with primordial nature like Tarzan. However, cultural studies of the Ancient Near East indicate that such concepts of Paradise have more in common with walled-in private (even botanical) gardens. Indeed, being left out alone in the wild of our planet as we know it today is not usually a pleasant experience – it is a struggle for survival against the elements.

Rather than untamed jungle in the Garden of Eden, we see the intersection of Nature and Design. “And out of the ground Yahweh Elohim made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9). The Creator not only provided physical nourishment for the first humans, but also aesthetic pleasure – perhaps we could consider this psychological nourishment. Research does indicate that colors can affect our mood. The concept behind ‘seasonal affective disorder’ is that seasonal changes such as cold, gray, short winter days can impact our emotions and behaviors. Whatever the case may be, scripture notes that God specifically chose flora “pleasant to the sight” to be in the Paradise of his design. There is a human need to experience beauty.

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Gamertags for God

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Proverbs 3:6 is for me a lodestar, a guiding verse I return to time and time again – “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”

I’ve been playing videogames ever since Mario first stomped on a goomba, and I have no plans of stopping. Some assume that gaming is something that I would have grown out of years ago. Others find it a shocking contrast to my intellectualism and scholarly pursuits. Still others view it as a waste of my limited free time shoehorned into a busy life of church, multiple jobs, and young children. Regardless of the responses of others, I accept this aspect of myself and own it – in fact, I recently identified gaming as one of my seven core interests. In a future post I will discuss the importance of Christian art, videogame theology, and concepts of world-building, but for now I want to return to the verse posted above.

On November 28, 2010 I posted an entry titled ‘A High Score in Heaven’ on my former-former blog, ‘Thank You Jesus For These Pop Tarts.’ In that post I explained how, in seeking to live out Proverbs 3:6, I agonized over choosing my Xbox Live “gamertag,” attempting to arrive at a clever handle that would also serve to point people toward God. Ultimately I decided on FirstCore925, a reference to just about the only scripture I could find that seemed to apply to video games – 1 Corinthians 9:25: “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.”

However, years later, I wasn’t sure that anybody ever caught on to my clever reference. Nobody stopped to ponder just how meaningless their video game achievements really were in the face of eternity. I fear my subtlety was lost in the hubbub of exploding giblets and score multipliers. Indeed, on the face of things FirstCore925 appeared deceptively generic.

Having upgraded to Xbox One (useful for spousal Kinect work-outs and dropping Titans on things), I decided that a rechristening of my online username was in order. FirstCore925 is dead; long live FlatlandPilgrim.

Inspired by two works of literature, ‘Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions’ and ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress,’ my new gamertag symbolizes both the lifelong Christian journey from our present plane of existence toward the “better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16), as well as the adventures of a Christian’s avatar in the ‘flat’ virtual reality of video games.

An Open Letter to Barnes & Noble

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As a writer I often feel that I was born into the wrong time. The reading proficiency of most Americans has declined over the past two decades. Borders Group, Inc., which operated Borders and Waldenbooks, went bankrupt and shuttered its doors in late 2011. Traditional media as a whole has struggled to adapt to a digital world of low overhead, free content, and instant gratification. The Christian Writer’s Market Guide – 2012 begins on this unenthusiastic note: “We began work on this edition with a myriad of mixed feelings. Would publishers or publications report going out of business or closing their doors to freelance submissions – given the economy? Thirteen book publishers and 21 periodicals dropped out of the guide…” What is an aspiring author to do?

I remember my first exposure to Barnes & Noble. The largest bookstore I had ever seen (with what seemed at the time to be an odd name) opened in my hometown of Burbank, CA and the store and window displays of books, books, books were intoxicating. From that day I could not see a Barnes & Noble and resist going inside, browsing the aisles and savoring that sweet new-book smell. I knew then that I would successfully achieve my dream of being an author on the day that I could walk into a Barnes & Noble and buy a copy of my own book off the shelf.

But will that dream ever be realized? Barnes & Noble’s stock price is hovering around $9.20 per share, down from a high of $46.25 in March of 2005. The company is on its third CEO in as little as two years. Nook sales are down and the company had to drastically stop the bleeding of its e-reader division. I am not a businessman, but as a longtime fan of the brand and lover of books, here are three suggestions for how Barnes & Noble can adapt (or die):

GO SMALL

I have encountered many smaller, independent bookstores that are thriving in their communities. Quail Ridge in Raleigh, NC, Malaprops in Asheville, NC, and FoxTale Books in Woodstock, GA are just a handful of award-winning and profitable local stores with a loyal customer base and active community presence. Barnes & Noble needs to go small – opening concept stores that eschew having thousands upon thousands of books that people don’t want while focusing in algorithmic fashion on the books that sell or that can be highlighted and effectively introduced to readers. You don’t need a warehouse with twenty versions of Monopoly, $50 Blu-Rays, and off-brand Starbucks coffee. Dramatically reduce your overhead while focusing on high quality products sold by a handful of employees with degrees in English and Library Science. Look at how the successful local bookstores are staying profitable and adopt their strategy.

BEAT AMAZON

If Nora Ephron were alive today, she could make a sequel to You Got Mail where the Fox Books corporation is being outgunned by a savvy book web-seller, just as Fox Books forced The Shop Around the Corner out of business. My common experience is that Barnes & Noble carries a million different books… except whatever one I happen to be looking for. I inquire with an employee, if I can find one, if they have such and such in stock. A quick computer check will confirm that they do not have it in store, but I can order it and come back later! Do I ever take them up on this offer? Of course not. I can go home, order the book at a significantly lower cost, avoid sales tax (depending on the state), and have the book arrive at my front door in two days with free shipping. There is no contest. Oh, and would I like to sign up for a paid Barnes & Noble Membership Program? Uhh… no thanks. How can Barnes & Noble beat Amazon at its own game? Here is a radical suggestion: free one-day shipping of any book not currently in stock to the customer’s front door.

DEVELOP CONTENT

The Hunger Games trilogy has sold over 65 million books. Fifty Shades of Grey has sold 60 million. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy has sold 80 million. There is an incredible amount of money to be made with the right books. Publishers now days are more risk-averse than ever, and yet the three examples listed above were all unknown quantities at one point. I have always thought it to be the height of stupidity that the publishing industry takes such a passive role in finding, developing, and promoting talent. Sports agents attend the sporting events of children and teenagers to find the next big thing. In contrast, aspiring authors hammer against the closed and indifferent doors of literary agencies and publishers for years, trying to get noticed. This is nothing if not a market inefficiency – untapped talent wanting to let a struggling industry sell their potentially profitable products. Amazon and Netflix have found great success in getting involved in the production side of audiovisual media. Amazon and Netflix both have produced popular and award-winning television shows. Barnes & Noble should scout untapped talent, nurture that talent, and use its massive platform to promote these new books. As first-time authors are happy to sign a publishing contract for very low compensation, Barnes & Noble could reap massive profits.

If I Were a Superhero

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In the M. Night Shyamalan movie Unbreakable, the concept of superheroes is presented in terms of shared mythology, hieroglyphic language, familiar archetypes, and heightened symbolism that represents actual life events and experiences or common hopes and fears. We’ve all heard the anecdote of the mother who, in a sudden adrenaline-fueled boost of strength, lifted a car off of her trapped son. Many of us have seen footage of Olympic athlete Usain Bolt (aka, the fastest man alive) competing in a race. Most of us are familiar with the Biblical story of Samson who at one time single-handedly slew one thousand enemies in melee combat. Superhuman qualities of strength, speed, and intelligence as well as virtues such as courage, justice, honor and sacrifice resonate with us on a deep level.

Referencing the X-Men, I often joke with my wife that her mutant power is the ability to have an authentic looking smile in every photograph she appears in. A real smile “involves both voluntary and involuntary contraction from two muscles: the zygomatic major (raising the corners of the mouth) and the orbicularis oculi (raising the cheeks and producing crow’s feet around the eyes). A fake smile … involves the contraction of just the zygomatic major…” Each type of smile is controlled by a different part of the brain. Somehow my wife can voluntarily activate involuntary muscle contractions in her face, or at least she has the ability to feel genuinely happy about being in every single photograph. In contrast, my ‘mutant power’ is that the more stressed out people around me get, the calmer I become in inverse proportion. This has served me well in my crisis intervention background.

However, let’s take it a step further. Thinking of symbolic representations, what superhero best represents me in my role and God-given gifts? If the question was which superhero do I wish I could be, the answer would be The Flash. If the question was which superhero is my favorite, the answer would be Daredevil. However, the superhero that best represents me is Black Bolt.

According to the Comics Database: “Black Bolt has the ability to unleash great destructive power through the use of his voice, but even the slightest whisper will release his power. At maximum the force is equal to that caused by the detonation of a nuclear weapon. Therefore, for the most part, Black Bolt remains silent.”

Years ago, God showed me a passage of Scripture that applies to my life. You might call it my ‘life verse’ or more accurately, verses. A life verse is “a verse from scripture that speaks to your heart, almost as though it was written for just you. It’s very personal, and usually there is a story behind why we are drawn to that particular Bible verse. Here is a portion of the larger passage: “He has made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he has concealed me…” (Isaiah 49:2a).

Words can have terrible power. James 3:5 says, “the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!”

In my ten years of work in the mental health field, I have in one form or another had the opportunity to counsel over one thousand people. In five and a half years of crisis and suicide intervention work, I have literally used the power of words, and often nothing else, to talk people off of ledges. As an author, blogger, and occasional screenwriter, the use of language is everything. In my current and future ministry work, again, words are the primary tools that I use to impact lives.

But… just as I have talked people off of ledges, I could just as easily have talked people onto ledges, and over the side. As delusion-of-grandeur as it may sound, I actually believe that I could talk somebody into killing themselves. That is a scary thought. This is not an unheard of phenomenon – there have been many tragic examples in the news of teenagers, for example, being goaded into suicide by bullying peers. At the very least, and certainly in my line of work encountering hurting people at rock bottom, my words have the dangerous potential of creating deep psychological wounds, breaking relationships, and even alienating people from the Christian faith.

I have a fallen, sinful nature. Despite my spiritual rebirth twelve years ago and my ongoing dedication to follow Jesus Christ, evil still exists within me. Indeed, the tongue is “a restless evil, and full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). I frequently must ask God to forgive me for being judgmental and hypercritical. I must continue to bring to mind what Jesus said in Matthew 7 about the speck in my brother’s eye and the log in my own. I need to set myself to the discipline of Ephesians 4:29: “Let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Sometimes it is better to say nothing at all.
As Spiderman’s Uncle Ben once famously said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”