Angry Muppets in the Balcony

Statler and Waldorf by kurnmit, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0/Original

I have to be honest: I have struggled mightily in recent weeks to find the “right” words to share here. Overthinking it, perhaps — wanting to find topics and themes that I know the RedState readership will appreciate. I realized this morning that I need to get back to writing from the heart — and readers will either appreciate what I have to say, or not. Either way, I appreciate those who take the time to read it.

The topic nearest and dearest to my heart is my faith. It is an integral part of who I am and whatever strength I have rests firmly in it. I’ve written of it here before. (See, Keeping the Faith: It Is Well With My Soul; Keeping the Faith: Be Still; Keeping the Faith: Keep Playing.) As alluded in some of those previous posts, the reason I love my church so is that it meets me where I am and inspires me to do better — to be a better version of myself, albeit a continuing work in progress. Frequently, the week’s message hits me right between the eyes and stirs my soul. As it did this morning.

I won’t be able to do it justice, so I invite you to view it below. (The entire service is great but the message begins at about the 32:37 mark, which is where I have it queued up.) But here was the gist of it: While technology is a wonderful tool — one on which we all rely these days, in particular — it has its downsides, too. Most notably, by its very nature, it is designed to hew to our individual needs and interests, the natural result of which is to further reinforce our own preferences and views and further isolate us from others.

It is tempting to view this solely or primarily as it applies to politics and our current political discourse — and it most certainly does apply in that context. But it applies, truly, in all aspects of our interactions with others, whether they involve sports, religion, parenting, culture — particularly as they are funneled through the conduits of social media and the Internet. This isn’t just a feature of our modern age, however — it has held true throughout the ages:

“Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions.” — Proverbs 18:2

We love to share our own opinions and thoughts on all manner of things; we are loath to listen, much less understand those of others. And the pointed question from the Pastor: “Does that do the Kingdom any good? Does it do your insides any good?”

He then pivoted to the perfect analogy — Statler and Waldorf (of Muppet fame — I expect most readers are old enough to recall these curmudgeonly fellows.) As he noted:

We live in this anxious world…angry world…we’ve talked about that. What I want to do for just a second…I want to see if I can explain to you just how it is that we — if we’re not careful — fall into a trap and start dancing a dance that is presented to us, and before you know it, we are like those angry muppets in the balcony….Some of you are old enough to remember Statler and Waldorf — they’re the two old guys, you know, they’re cynical, they’re cranky…they’re always lobbing judgment bombs and zingers and one-liners over the edge of the balcony, but here it is — they’re always spectators.

What I want you to understand is — when we do this, when we start screaming, we are mostly screaming at other muppets in the balcony….There’s a technological thing happening here that I want us to be aware of — understand the times — remember 1 Chronicles 12 [“from Issachar, men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do“]. You see, we tend to seek out information and viewpoints that line up with ours. Researches will call this “selective exposure.” It means that we will only expose ourselves to information and to viewpoints that are like ours. We don’t want — and things are not presented to us that disagree with us.

He fleshes the analogy out further but you get the point — as noted above, we are increasingly bubblizing ourselves and our viewpoints and otherizing those who don’t share them.  So much so that, “You get to a place where you can’t even imagine a sane person not agreeing with you.” He offers a prescription of sorts, for how to combat this:

  1. Watch your (digital) diet — consider the content you’re selecting; recognize that there are certain topics that deserve more bites (bytes); there are also times when you should go on a (media) fast — give yourself a refreshing break; consider turning off your notifications for a period of time;
  2. Be a savvy consumer — ask yourself: “Why did this come to me?”; check the source; be aware that all content is monetized and filtered to you with that aim in mind;
  3. Do a deeper dive — learn to discern; try looking at it from a different angle; pray for God’s guidance; and
  4. Guard against demonizing — guard against the way the digital world encourages us to dehumanize those who disagree; understand that these platforms have been weaponized — designed to polarize us to the demise of families, friendships, democracies.  “When the followers of Jesus proudly pronounce the damnation of another person because they disagree with them, this is not the way of Jesus.” Don’t allow yourself to be manipulated — to fall into that trap.

That last one brings me to an instance I observed just this morning on a friend’s Facebook page. The friend shared a post/meme from someone else, which essentially said this:

Whether one supports Candidate A or Candidate B [I’m intentionally ommiting the names here to illustrate the larger point], they are still my friends. However, if one feels the need to degrade others who feel differently than they do, perhaps they are not my friends.

My friend included their own affirmation of this, noting that while they support Candidate A, they have people they care about of differing views, and differing political views are not dealbreakers for them. What is a dealbreaker is a lack of respect for those differences. All good, right? “I support you and consider you my friend, even if we see things differently.” That used to be non-controversial — a given for most people in most of their dealings. Not so much anymore. While there were several comments agreeing with the sentiment, there were also multiple comments expressing dismay, an intention to cut my friend off (merely for posting a meme that stated they accept as friends those with differing views). One even asserted that those who support Candidate B should die. (Again, the specific names matter not — don’t kid yourself — you can find examples of this thinking from both/all sides.)

This is untenable. And, again, it isn’t limited purely to the political realm. But whatever the realm, if we don’t take a step back and understand the times — if we allow ourselves to get sucked into this trap — we are all just angry muppets, screaming at one another in the balcony. We’re not even funny or entertaining. We are sad, silly creatures, having our strings pulled.

We have to change the way we’re doing things. The Pastor continues:

Does that mean we’re going to be silent? No. Does that mean that you’re going to stop having strong opinions? No. I want you to have those opinions. I want you to ask God what you need to be doing and how you need to be a part of what He is still doing in this world. It does mean that one of the refreshingly different things the followers of Jesus can do is to have strong opinions and to feel convictions and to still state the problem — and to state their case — with grace. We can ask the hard questions, the humble questions, the curious questions. And then we can listen — and listen when it’s hard to listen.

I’m not saying that the shouting goes away in the world. I’m saying that we can begin to do something differently. And that starts the chain reaction. I’m not saying that we’re all going to agree in the coming weeks on everything. But I am saying it has now come to the time when we, the followers of Christ need to lock arms and say…our stances may not even change on such-and-such, but we believe Jesus is King, and we’ve got to get back out there in the world and get things done again. I don’t want to wait ’til the end of 2020; I don’t want to wait ’til somebody pronounces this pandemic is over. The people of Jesus are called into the game now.

So, another way to put that is — if you get caught in a cycle and a loop of anger and you’re going: “Is there anything to do?” Here it is: Jump out of the balcony.

To sum the message up, he turned to the book of Esther, relaying her story. There’s an intriguing backstory, regarding the rule of Xerxes and how it came to be that he was calling for the annihilation of all the Jewish people. Esther, now his wife (and unknown to him, also Jewish) is implored by her cousin, Mordecai, to step in and stop the massacre. When she hesitates, understandably fearful of what this may mean for her, Mordecai responds: “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14.) In short, Esther was being called to get out of the balcony.

As are we. Each of us. We may not be able to effect change on a national level, or even a regional one. Maybe what we do and say will only reach the ears and eyes of a handful of people. But what we do and say does influence the world around us. And, as it did for Esther, getting involved carries with it risk. We cannot allow fear to keep us in the balcony. As the Pastor notes, “It might be the fear that we’ll become the next target….This world is thick with threat, and the ground is strewn with rocks that people can pick up and throw at other people’s heads.”

It could be simple doubt — the belief that we’re not up to the task. But, the Pastor reminds us “the God of the universe knows you and has called you by name. And He has a plan for you right now, and has equipped you for that plan.”

We are called to be more than angry muppets in the balcony.

 

Again, I encourage you to watch the message below — and also, the song and video at the end of it.