Chatting with Len Sweet

SemioBytes Episodes 2 and 3


Leonard Sweet is a scholar of USAmerican culture; a semiotician who “sees things the rest of us do not see, and dreams possibilities that are beyond most of our imagining;” and a preacher and best-selling author who communicates the gospel with a signature bridging of the worlds of faith, academe, and popular culture. In 2006 and 2007, Len was voted by his peers “One of the 50 Most Influential Christians in America” by ChurchReport Magazine, and in 2010, he was selected by the top non-English Christian website as one of the “Top 10 Influential Christians of 2010.” His popular podcast, “Napkin Scribbles,” is widely quoted, and he wrote for for eight years. 

Yoni and I have a chat with Len about the focus and purpose of our podblog (about 15 minutes).

Yoni and I look back on our interview with Len (about 30 minutes).

Our Doctor of Ministry (DMin) cohort with Len as Lead Mentor held its 3rd and final in-person gathering as group from Monday, May 28 through Friday, June 1, 2018. The group traveled to the Sweets home on Orcas Island, known as the "Emerald Isle" of the San Juan Islands. The Sweet family owns and operates the Salish Seaside Escapes on Orcas, and the cohort members were lavishly hosted throughout the entire week. I'm sure Yoni joins me in encouraging you to put a visit to their secluded coast retreat on your bucket list!  

In Episode 2, Yoni and I were honored to spend 15 minutes or so with Len, talking through a few questions related to the theme and goals of our podblog. We had talked about the questions we'd ask before we met with Len and having studied with him for two years prior to this Orcas Advance, we thought we had a pretty good idea what Len's replies and comments would be. As usual, however, he caught us by surprise -- always one to 'nudge' his proteges along on their faith journeys in unexpected ways! Len is as playful with his semiotics as he is with his pets, which is evident in all his books, podcasts, sermons, speaking events, and other ministry activities. 

In Episode 3, after returning from Orcas to our homes in Portland (Yoni) and central Florida (Terry), we looked back on that interview experience and realized how sharply Len had piqued our interest in gaining a better understanding of what our podblog is about. This is evident from the discussion we have in Episode 3, where we tripled our intended goal of keeping our episodes in the 8-10-minute range. We could have tripled it again, actually, but managed to rein ourselves in, hoping this longer duration will be an exception, and fully expecting this dialogue has surfaced several key themes that will reappear in numerous future episodes.   

So, queue the podcasts, settle in, enjoy our posts and remember -- follow us for updates, and participate by contacting us at SemioBytes anytime! Our podblog is an artifact for our DMin dissertations, but more importantly it's a ministry to Christians and Jews, and to all others who may be interested in how semiotics works in religious contexts.

Thanks for visiting us at SemioBytes! 


A Boomer's Futile but Earnest and Urgent
Apology to Postmodern Millennials

Through no fault of their own, post-moderns, Millennials especially, have no past, no present, and no future. The past is a lost 'back there back then,' an unreality without meaning or relevance. The future is 'some there some then' of mysteriously sheer futility. The present is the 'here now' they survive and endure only by past-posting it. Knowing no hereafter or thereafter, they only know a singularity of 'after' with no duration at all, as if some rogue ronin sliced all time away so quickly and cleanly they don't have to feel it as long as they can just stay in the standstill immediacy of that after-life hack. 

Joe Black (Brad Pitt as the Grim Reaper in Meet Joe Black, 1998) is the inside-out upside-down tunnel-tag It-meister just met on the playground at the event horizon of now and then and here and gone. Under his lifted leg lie only nowhere, nowhen, noafter and every slope on every terrain slip-slides beneath it. There is only the inexorable after of the game until not. Oblivion lived forever -- not an oxymoron -- is the next singularity.

Postmodern Millennial life is neither bygone nor forthcoming or upcoming. In the grey shroud of after-fog unlight, mysty mundane masterpieces enthrall and enchant. Yet dead and buried beyond the semiotic dissonance of past-posted post-toasted after-thought, the same bargain-basement GloNation rotted-fruit still life crass-crafted onto cheap black velvet subliminally induces blase blind belief in the emperor's haute couture of naked angst, greed, hubris, and despair.

Joe Black's sting is the penultimate longest con possible; postmodern millennials are his easiest marks, passe-deceived by viral greed and desperation transparently costumed as twice-told truth and raw-boned reality. The truth and Truth are real and Reality then and there; but fast-past-frozen in the grim-lit after-fog, they aren't really there after all.

Finally, Boomers are the last gasp and the death rattle of modernity. Our inescapable spiral into Joe Black's long con set at his event-horizon playground was a war lost before the battle began. Our convoluted homogenized pasteurized God was kidnapped by post-Enlightenment beyond Belief positivism as we pissed away metaphysics and shat theology. We sold our souls and drowned our babies in liquid-modern superacid baths to rake in ransom with compound disinterest. Yet soulless, we lost our minds and spines, stole it all for ourselves. We decorate our dying with those faux masterpieces rather than paying you free with redeeming legacy. Stupid just can't be fixed, we rediscovered, so we blithely passed it on to our progeny. Then, like Pilate, we washed our hands of the blood of crucified Truth. Again. 

Who could blame him if he just chose, this time, not to rise, again, from the after-death we always condemn him to? Who could blame him if, this time, he decided we just weren't worth the journey, troubles, trials, and tribulations of another Coming after he's gone all-in already? 

Sorry can be the merest and meekest of signs. A Boomer's whimpering simpering death is the only audible apology and it's squandered already. A Millennial whine of forgiveness is pardon enough and grace sufficient.   

Plato's Cave Revisited

[Note: this post was prompted by a Quora question. My answer is provided in this blog post. Others are given on Quora at the hyperlink.] 

Atheists: Where do you stand in Plato's cave, and what are the other three groups of people from your perspective? As you can see in this picture, there are four kinds of people: 

  • those watching shadows
  • those who understand shadows
  • those who are on the way out of the cave
  • those that are out of the cave

My Answer

I’m puzzled that the question is directed to atheists. The heart of the allegory of the cave concerns fundamental epistemological and cognitive issues. Its theological and spiritual aspects are interesting but secondary, I think, to those core concerns. Theistic, agnostic, and atheistic views are likely to vary, but they are all capable of presenting a viable answer. To me, the question is better addressed to philosophers in general, or to no particular group at all, since all those answers are likely to invoke (or reject) theological and spiritual aspects of our cognitive abilities and capacities.

As an example, atheists' answers in particular must rely on scientism alone as it is rooted in Enlightenment naturalism and rationalism. As for where they would sit or stand in the cave or outside it, or on the way to or from one or the other, I expect they would be among all those groups - none of the four groups specified necessarily rules out atheism (or any other theology or religion). 

Regarding the four groups:

  • Did everyone out of the cave come from the cave, or are there fifth and sixth groups who either know nothing of the cave or know of it but have never entered it? 
  • Where do the people come from in the first place? Are they born into the bottom level or placed there as newborns? Is this a subtle view of a class-ordered or caste society? 
  • Where did the cave come from? Is it a natural formation or was it constructed in this form? Either way, who put it to this use and who oversees its ongoing operations and activities? 
  • Is there any conclusive evidence that "out of the cave" isn't just a vastly more complex and cognitively convincing "cave?" 

It may help to consider contemporary allegories dealing with the same concerns - cognition and epistemology. Two I expect many of us will easily recognize are The Truman Show and The Matrix franchise. These movies are equivalent to Plato’s allegory, transformed by Hollywood craft and effects, but keeping the arc and theme of the story intact. Here is the essence of what both the ancient allegory and those contemporary movies are about.

  • cognitive dissonance - basically, Cognitive dissonance as explained in that Wikipedia article as “the (internal) mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, performs an actions contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas, or values, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.” I prefer the concept of 
  • semiotic dissonance, however, which subsumes the conventional definition of cognitive dissonance but expands and extends beyond it to include states of complete and total cognitive deception and delusion constituting a false reality or ‘irreality’ that may be self-imposed or even independently conceived, engineered, constructed, and implemented by external parties, powers, and forces for the explicit intents and purposes of mass totalitarian oppression, enslavement, tyranny, and control. This irreality establishes  
  • epistemological imprisonment - through which all sentient and sapient aspects of cognition are constrained and distorted (if self-imposed), or (if externally devised) manipulated and controlled for the creation, maintenance, and exploitation of the irreality thus created and the captives within it as means to achieve the ends of the ruling power elite.

It is especially important to realize that the most effective irreality of semiotic dissonance and epistemological captivity is not necessarily unpleasant, painful, or even stressful. In this most insidiously seductive form and nefarious mode, most of its victims will have no awareness or recognition of their enslavement. On the contrary, most will adamantly reject the idea that they are in any way deceived or delusional, and will forcefully insist that their lives are true and real, even quite meaningful, fulfilling, and rewarding. 

Hence the crucial question: which of the following is the true reality, and which is the dissonant irreality?

  1. We the people of earth freely exercise our inalienable rights, including those of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. The US is a constitutional republic and representative democracy. As the most powerful country on earth, the US has moral obligation and authority to empower other people and nations to recognize and exercise those same rights and to adopt the same governance. Furthermore, the US has manifest destiny and just cause for the judicious use of military power and force to defend those rights and to establish and uphold that governance against all enemies foreign or domestic.
  2. The vast majority of humans are victims of semiotic dissonance and epistemological imprisonment orchestrated and exploited by an elite plutocratic oligarchy and their corporatocracy. They exercise global power with virtually absolute control, lacking any humane, moral, or conscionable character or bearing, driven solely by greed, hubris, and depravity. This irreality is imperceptible but the oppression and tyranny hiding wide open within it is nonetheless totalitarian to the core.   

Are these two scenarios jointly exhaustive and mutually exclusive as factual and true description of life on earth today? Or is it a false dilemma with a path between its horns to a different, truer, actual reality? If semiotic dissonance and epistemological imprisonment are the actual but imperceptible facts of human life today, is escape even possible? Can the cave be destroyed, The Truman Show cancelled, the red pill acquired and swallowed, and The Matrix overthrown? 

Exercise for the reader: can you name other highly similar or equivalent allegories (e.g., in film, print, or other media)? Would Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, or Eyes Wide Shut qualify? How would you interpret current events (such as the presidential 2016 election) from the perspective of the two alternate realities described above? Does Noam Chomsky's documentary film, Requiem for the American Dream, imply that #2 above is correct? 

P.S. As an evangelical Christian, of course, the spiritual and theological issues are anything but "secondary." They are both primary and transcendent. But the aim of this post is to present a more inquisitive and religiously unbiased perspective. Obviously my sociopolitical biases are showing, but I think that's precisely what Socrates would have wanted, especially since the cave allegory appears in the political philosophy context of The Republic.