I recently grabbed a digital copy of The Last of Us on my PS4 with my PS+ subscription, and having just beaten it and its DLC, “Left Behind,” I find myself with many feelings. Not all of them good.

CW: Major plot spoilers, violence, suicide, end of the world stuff, existential angst.

The Last of Us is a zombie game, and like every other entry to the zombie genre, this story takes place in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Civilization has collapsed, martial law rules in the few pockets of humanity that still exist, with small experiments in commune living existing here and there just to add a splash of narrative color.

I am not a fan of the zombie genre, if you couldn't tell. For me it is the Wonder Bread of story-telling. Can't figure out a central conflict to drive your plot? Boom! Infectious outbreak of zombie pathogens. Now you have an easily accessible template for shepherding your story forward:

  • Someone close to the main character(s) will get infected and either kill themselves or be killed by a member of the cast.

  • When the author needs the plot to take the characters away from a location, there will be a sudden and unexplained wave of zombies that overwhelms them and forces them to run.

  • Many many extras will have their heads exploded, preferably by a shotgun.

  • There will be an obligatory leg-grab sequence at least once an hour, wherein the main character(s) will either kick their way free or an ally will come to their aid with a gun or blunt instrument.

  • There will always be a storyline involving a cure, and it will almost always be a fools errand.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Predictable, boring, and overdone.

Yet apparently I'm alone in this belief. The zombie genre, like its subject matter, marches ever onward, unable to be stopped by anything short of nuclear detonation. TLoU is Naughty Dog's attempt at telling a zombie narrative in their interactive/cinematic game style. And in many ways they succeed.

It isn't lost on me that, despite my loathing of the zombie genre and my general dislike for shooters, I played this game from start to finish in less than a week. There's clearly something here that works well.

After my disappointment with Horizon Zero Dawn this summer, TLoU was a much needed palate cleanser. Where HZD's combat felt hollow and confusing, TLoU's felt punchy and straightforward. It does a remarkably good job of making you feel both empowered and also limited. You often find yourself short of ammo and have to get creative with how you take out your foes. The stealth in this game is solid, something that's actually remarkably difficult to pull off. And that's good because you'll need to stealth kill quite a few enemies to try and conserve ammo throughout the game.

The game also gives you your weapons in a very steady, satisfying drip. The assault rifle doesn't become available until the very end of the game, after you're done killing Infected and are instead fighting a paramilitary organization. Battles thus never become about using a bullet hose, but instead about precision, timing, and planning. It's a satisfying recipe that serves the gameplay well.

As a game I was really impressed with TLoU. I'd actually rank it in the top 3 action-shooters I've ever played.

But this game has some problems.

The story starts out pre-decline, having you play as Joel's daughter, Sarah. There's an obligatory “everything is normal” sequence where Joel comes home and does normal heartwarming dad-stuff with his daughter until she goes to sleep.

Then she wakes up and everything goes wrong.

For reasons that are never explained, Joel isn't in the house when Sarah wakes up and hears an explosion. It's clear he was doing something important, because he left his phone behind and takes a long time to get back to the house. His brother, Tommy, has left several voicemails and text messages asking where he's at. The game alludes that Tommy and Joel know more about the situation than they let on to Sarah, but if that's the case we never learn what. This becomes a strange, dangling plot thread throughout the game.

There's an escape sequence, during which Sarah is shot and killed by a US soldier. This moment defines Joel's character throughout the rest of the game.

The game flashes forward 20 years. It's a bold move, narratively speaking, to jump forward that far and focus on the same character. It's the difference between infancy and college, or college graduation and middle-age. It's actually one of the things I admire about TLoU as a story, because they handle this jump really well.

Joel is now a bitter, grizzled old man, constantly sore and perpetually cranky. He's fallen into smuggling, trading gun-fire with black market dealers and torturing people to get the information he needs.

In a series of events that serve as the tutorial, Joel meets Ellie. Ellie needs to be smuggled to a group called “The Fireflies,” a paramilitary rebellion that opposes the US Army (which control the quarantine zones in several major cities). Joel and his partner agree to take her in exchange for a large payment of guns.

This is where the game runs into one of its first major recurring issues: the moving goal post. At the beginning of the game, the whole point is to get Ellie to a location nearby in exchange for payment. This payment, surprise surprise, never materializes. In fact about 3 hours into the game we never hear about it again.

This plot device is used again and again to move the story along in arbitrary ways. Upon arrival at the meeting location, Joel finds all the Fireflies are dead. So he decides to take her to their base. Then they find that base abandoned, so he decides to visit his brother. And so on, and so on. The game uses deferred success to switch locations so often that it makes the game's flow quite predictable after the second bait-and-switch.

There's nothing wrong with thwarting the goals of your main character. Some of the most interesting plot devices involve a twist where things don't go according to plan. But the zombie genre has an annoying trope wherein the main characters never win. And it's exhausting. The constant teasing of the audience that “they might pull it off today!” leads to a sense of frustration that makes for very unpleasant stories.

The focus of the story is clearly about Joel and Ellie and how they form a surrogate father-daughter relationship throughout their journey. This is one of the best features of the game. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson do an amazing job playing off one another and delivering unique readings of a script that could have easily have come off as schlocky in the hands of less skilled performers. It's not an exaggeration to say that the voice acting largely carries the story, and that's not a complaint.

Joel slowly opens up over the course of the game, and by the end comes to care about Ellie. Ellie learns to trust Joel and allow herself to form a bond again, after losing several significant people in her life. It's a slow burn that works quite well, all things considered. The best parts of the game for my money are the ones where Joel and Ellie are just making small-talk while they walk between action/stealth sequences. It's charming, intense, and subtle. It's where the best writing in the game went, and I honor what the team accomplished in their characterization.

Unfortunately, the overarching plot of this game kinda sucks.

Ellie carries a potential cure for the infection. Despite being bitten, she has not turned, and likely carries something in her blood that could be used to synthesize a vaccine. Joel's partner, before dying, makes an emotional plea with him to deliver her to The Fireflies for the good of mankind. Joel agrees. Between this point and the end of the game the narrative is essentially filler. There's a lot of bandits, a cranky survivalist, and lots of ruins, tunnels, and sewers, but aside from some excellent characterization, very little of interest actually happens.

And then there's the zombies.

Despite what is in my opinion one of the best setups for a sci-fi narrative a video game has ever had, TLoU never manages to do anything interesting with its monsters. They stick to standard zombie tropes: some of them run, some of them have a heightened sense of hearing, some are big and take a lot of shots, etc.

At no point is the origin of the Infection ever discussed. Despite the fact that there's actually a scientific basis for fungi that infect non-plant hosts, TLoU seems content to just stick with “these are zombies and some of them have mushrooms covering their eyes.” It's a huge missed opportunity. I would have settled for an audio diary by a scientist, as contrived a game mechanic as those are, just to flesh the backstory out a little more and try to eliminate some of the glaring plot holes in this setup.

For example: why do these spores induce aggression in their hosts and cause them to attack non-infected humans? Aren't spores a far better adaptation for reproduction here, as there is less of a chance of accidentally killing the host? How do the mushrooms stop their host bodies from succumbing to decay for so long? How did the infection begin in the first place and spread so quickly?

These things are ultimately left to the audience's imagination. And the story is poorer for it.

By the time things swing around to the end-sequence, all of these issue coalesce into a singularity, perfectly epitomizing the game's problems.

In what is perhaps the most predictable plot twist ever, in order to get a cure from Ellie, she must die, as the spores have infected her brain and must be harvested for research. Joel goes on a shooting spree to free her, killing most of the Fireflies and the doctors performing the operation.

When she awakes from the anesthesia, Joel lies to her, and tells her that the research failed and they had given up on a cure. Ellie becomes quiet and distant. The final scene flashes forward to Joel and Ellie arriving back at his brother's compound in Colorado, where they will settle down. Ellie, obviously not convinced by his story, asks Joel to swear to her that everything he told her was true. Joel lies and swears that it was all true, and Ellie responds with a very ambiguous, “ok.”

And that's it. Hard-cut to black, roll credits.

This, to me, was the game's greatest betrayal to its audience.

Obviously from a narrative perspective this is the equivalent of “my wife gave me money for groceries but I blew it all on slots.” But what's worse, in my opinion, is that Joel, the protagonist, has essentially made a gigantic loop in terms of character development. He started out selfish, and he ended selfish, just more so. He chose his own comfort over the feelings of Ellie and, critically, the survival of mankind.

This, to me, in an inexcusable conclusion.

It's not that I dislike his decisions. In fact his choices were extremely relatable and, were I in his situation, I can't say whether or not I would choose differently. But ending the story without showing us the consequences of his actions on his relationship with Ellie feels like a huge cop-out.

The Last of Us made a bold choice in having its protagonist choose himself over the world, but in the last moment it lost its nerve. It refused to take a stand on a hill, and instead opted for an open-ended letdown.

What's worse is that the DLC seems to have figured out what exactly the game as a whole was trying to say. Focusing on Ellie before she leaves Boston with Joel, we see her and her best friend Riley wandering the ruins of a shopping mall, having fun and laughing in the middle of a sprawling wasteland. The contrast works well, and speaks to the enduring spirit of humanity and its ability to find joy even in difficult times.

Eventually, of course, Riley and Ellie get bitten. Before dying, Ellie goes through the stages of grief in a very emotional, well written scene. She rages and smashes things, then collapses into a sobbing heap, before trying to bargain and figure out what they do now. Riley states that they could use their gun to “take the easy way out,” but that option doesn't seem right to her. Riley states that they should fight. Ellie understandably asks, “fight for what?” Riley responds that they should fight for time with each other, even if its only a few minutes.

It's a powerful ending to the arc, and one that I think resonates well in a time where the fate of mankind is truly uncertain.

But even with this context, the ending of TLoU seems to subvert this message. What good is spending time with people you love if they lie to you, and betray your trust in them? It's not so much a collapse into nihilism (everything is pointless) as it is a collapse into nothingness. Its narrative arcs ultimately cancelling themselves out and leaving a void in their wake. It is this void that ultimately makes TLoU a failure.

In the end, it turns out it didn't have anything meaningful to say at all.

Let's talk a bit about the Exvangelical community and a recent implosion earlier in the summer the community went through. I think there's some lessons to be learned.

Exvangelicals are, as the name suggests, people that have exited the Evangelical tradition and found each other online. Impressively, at their peak they comprised a nearly even split of “still Christians” and “no longer Christians” (an exceedingly rare feat on the internet when beliefs are centered as part of the group’s identity). There’s a podcast run by one of the group’s founders (Blake Chastain), in which he has guests on to discuss their experience in and outside of the EC church.

The community describes itself as a kind of halfway house for people exiting toxic theology, giving space for people to share their stories and find solidarity. I spent a lot of time in this group during my religious deconstruction, and speaking personally I found it really helpful to have people with common experiences that could empathize with my fear, frustration, anger, and hurt. Early on though there were some warning signs that things weren’t quite right.

First and foremost, the group trended overwhelmingly white. This isn’t completely surprising, given that a large percentage of evangelicals are white, but some black members and mods started speaking out about problems they were having with other members of the group. Coded racism, dismissing of experiences; pretty typical centrist/liberal stuff. They were met with hostility by members of the group, even though the group leaders backed them and stated their commitment to inclusion.

Some people were blocked, rules made more explicit, and after some time had passed these black women decided to come back to the group, every now and again. It seemed the situation had been handled. But I remember feeling unsettled, like something wasn’t quite right. Not just about the casual racism stuff, but also because it felt like the group was treading water. Everyone was talking about the same stuff over and over again. There was no exit strategy from the pain.

Earlier this summer a group of women came forward with a list of grievances against the Exvangelical community. They called themselves “The Magdalene Collective.” The list is gone now, so it’s not possible for me to cite it or even to remember who exactly posted it (I’m sure the victim of this manifesto remembers quite well). But among its assertions it claimed that the Exvangelical community was too white, too male, and too cis, and they basically asserted that the Exvangelical community was ruled by a despot.

Many of the charges seemed to be levied at one of the founders of the group, claiming they were using the Exvangelical community to further their career at the expense of queer people and women of color. This person had a Patreon set up to try and fund a career as a freelance writer, in which they wrote about the dangers of Evangelicalism, in an attempt to give Exvangelicals a stake in the national conversation on religion, domestic terrorism, and the Religious Right. The MC stated that this person wasn't giving enough attention to PoC and queer exvangelicals, and that they were using the Exvangelical platform to get rich.

Then, in one of the many threads that had popped up on Twitter, someone pointed out that the manifesto used TERF language and ideas.

Chrissy Stroop, the target of the manifesto, outed herself as both queer and trans within days of the manifesto being published. She stated that she was doing this under duress to try and save her career and tenuous financial situation, and that she wasn’t really ready to come out yet, but felt she had no choice. She stated that the MC members knew from private group conversations that Chrissy had been questioning her gender for quite some time, and had harassed her privately about being a man. She provided screenshots.

Once this was made clear, the lone woman of color in the MC apologized both privately and publicly to Chrissy and disavowed herself of the MC statement (Chrissy accepted the apology). At that point the entire thing fell apart; any legitimacy the Magdalene Collective statement had was now long gone. But in the interim between these events, the Exvangelical group descended into chaos, with people picking sides, many having never heard of a TERF and having no idea how to identify its dog whistles or the damage it causes.

When the dust settled many people had left the group, a lot of people were traumatized, and both Blake and Chrissy stepped away from the Exvangelical community for extended breaks as they took time to reflect and heal. Most of the signatories of the Magdalene Collective left as well, or were pushed out of the group for the damage they caused and for their continued deception and lack of remorse.

So what happened here? Why did it all go to hell so quickly and what could have been done to prevent it?

Well, despite the absolutely awful way in which these TERFs tried to take advantage of the situation, it’s true that there weren’t enough people of color in the group. From what I saw women were actually quite empowered and given special reverential status in the group, as we all knew how much worse Evangelicalism is to women. We wanted to explicitly flip the power dynamic on its head by elevating their voices.

But still, these women were, by and large, white. That lead to very limited perspectives and really set the group up for a lot of pain.

It’s also true that there was 0 discussion of TERF beliefs prior to this debacle. And while hindsight is 20/20, having someone broach the subject long before there was trouble might have inoculated the group somewhat.

But most importantly I think the entire premise of the group was doomed to fail from the start.

Support groups and survivor’s groups are important to healing from complex trauma, but they are neither a substitute for therapy nor for friendship. In the aftermath of the situation Tori Williams Douglas, one of the former members of the group, started talking frankly about how she had not worked through her issues in therapy yet, and exorted her Twitter followers to stop avoiding dealing with their trauma in therapy by talking with people over social media.

She specifically linked the group's collective trauma to the many issues the group had had over the past year, and started leading by example by talking about some of the things she was learning as she read about trauma and what it does to the brain.

As a former therapist myself, I can tell you that part of the reason support groups have planned endings is because it’s not healthy to keep people in that kind of intensive environment long-term. It has a specific purpose, after which it must end, because to continue it indefinitely leads to negative outcomes. It’s also why therapists often lead these groups; traumatized people have higher fight or flight responses and often need someone to help them work through conflict.

So how does this relate to the fediverse?

Frankly I’m worried for a lot of y’all. I see a lot of the same patterns emerging in the fediverse that I saw in the Exvangelical community. We all need to vent from time to time and I think it’s amazing that we’ve found a group of people that are willing to listen and commiserate. But when 95% of what you talk about is how awful capitalism is, or how cishets suck, or how men or awful, etc, I get worried.

Are you having fun? Do you enjoy the company of the people on your instance even outside talking about your trauma or your frustrations living in a capitalist world? Do you appreciate one another’s presence? Are you friends? Do you have shared interests? If not, I’d urge you to reflect and ask yourself if what you’re doing is healthy. If all you do is drown in yours and the world’s suffering then eventually you will inflict suffering on others.

I love my instance. We’re not perfect by any means, but we found each other because we enjoy games, and Ellie has done a great job of explicitly and purposefully making it a safe place for marginalized people. We vent about capitalism, and racism, and ableism, and transphobia, etc etc. But we always circle around to having fun with each other. And there’s a pretty good sense within the group of when things have gotten too heavy. We don’t even have to say it most of the time.

So I guess what I would distill all this down to is this: forming a group solely for the purpose of being against something is not healthy. It’s necessary from time to time, but in the long term I have never seen a group like this not become toxic. If your community is centrally defined by a negative trait, I’d urge you to have some conversations about what you can create together. What things can you celebrate? What things spark joy for you? What can you do right now to improve the lives of the people within this circle, in affirming and non-judgmental ways?

If your community isn’t interested in that conversation, then for your own health I’d encourage you to find another community. There’s heartbreak on the horizon, if it hasn’t happened already.

I’d also gently remind everyone that most of us need therapy. We’re a pretty traumatized bunch, and while that’s 100% not our fault, we also have a responsibility to deal with our shit so we don’t hurt other people.

Most abusers were abused themselves at some point.

Obviously that’s not financially possible for all of us at all times… but find a way to do some kind of work on yourself, if you haven’t already. You deserve it, and your friends do too.

I recently picked up Path of Exile on PS4 again, and I gotta say I'm really enjoying my time with it.

But this wasn't always the case. In fact I tried and quit PoE at least 3 times before it finally clicked with me. I've been thinking recently about why I was so turned off by it the first few times, and what has made the difference for me this time. Obviously there was something about the game I liked (I almost never pick games back up that I drop), so what held me back?

It was many separate things, as it turns out. And in order to help you get into what is honestly one of the best designed games I've ever played, I wanted to distill my experience and knowledge into some tips for players just getting started.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but I think it'll help if you're on the fence or early into the game and not sure what to do.

If possible, play on console

The only major difference between PC and console, besides integration with PSN/Xbox Live, is the control interface. The PC version is point and click, while the console version obviously uses a controller. I can't begin to tell you how much more intuitive and relaxing the game became when I tried it on console for the first time.

This is similar to what a lot of people said when they tried Diablo III for console. It just feels better. Point and click is a very fatiguing way to play a game, as your body is tense for basically the entire duration of gameplay, hands and fingers needing to exert a lot of energy to get things done. Controllers are almost always more ergonomic, allowing your hands and fingers to rest when not in use.

If you're under the age of 25 that probably won't mean anything to you. If you're over the age of 25 you're probably going “Oh sweet Jesus that sounds amazing.” Trust me. It's just better.

Pick the class and build you want

The leveling system in Path of Exile is an absolute marvel of game design. For those familiar with Final Fantasy, Grinding Gears has essentially managed to take the Materia system (FF7) and the Sphere Grid system (FFX) and combined them in a way that works pretty damn well. Armor and weapons have pseudo-randomly selected numbers of “slots,” which may or may not be linked to each other. These slots accept skill gems (i.e. materia) which give your character access to abilities and spells. Theses skills can be augmented with support gems that can do things like make your skill hit multiple targets, inflict poison, be more accurate, etc.

As you level and complete quests, you gain passive skill points. These can be spent on a massive board of nodes called the “Passive Skill Tree” (i.e. the sphere grid) to make your character really take shape, not just in terms of raw stats and power, but in terms of how they play.

The Passive Skill Tree

The first time you view it you will almost certainly be both awed and overwhelmed. Figuring out where to go and how to spend your points can be stressful, and was hands down the reason I stopped playing the first time. I got really in my own head about making an “optimal” build, which I eventually realized I could never do because the game rewards playing it multiple times as you discover all the ways the various systems interlock.

Don't stress about this tree too much.

It's important, no doubt. But it's also not 100% permanent. The game gives you refund points as you play, and late game you can buy more using rare currency (we'll get to that in a minute). GG also gives full skill point refunds from time to time (usually coinciding with a major patch). Which means you have two completely valid options.

  1. Make up your own build as you play.
  2. Look up a build to play online (preferably somethings new-player friendly).

There's some amazing resources for PoE if you search “Path of Exile Builds” on DuckDuckGo, including full build and progression guides so that you don't have to worry about which nodes, skills, and armor pieces to keep. It's honestly fairly straight forward to find a build that sounds cool, follow the build, and just play the game from start to finish. This is 100% valid if you're stressed about making the “wrong” investment of points and just want to smash some undead.

But I'd also urge you to consider making your own build. It really adds to the level of immersion and investment you have in your character when you decide what direction you want your branch of the tree to go. You'll never get nearly enough points to unlock every node on the tree, or even every node on your own side of the tree (every character starts in a different location), so let go of the desire to make a “perfect” build and just have fun!

Play your first character in Standard League

People are going to get really upset with me for this one, but I don't care. I truly believe that playing the newest league as a first time player is a mistake.

For those unfamiliar with what Leagues are (and who have never used Diablo III's “seasons” system), think of Leagues as a kind of “clean slate” for returning players to use every few months. Your new character is separated from your standard league ones, meaning you don't have access to the endless stream of loot and currency you've collected in your shared item storage, and have to start over. Your league character is converted to a “standard” character at the end of the league (usually right before a new league season begins every few months).

The problem (which is not a problem for veteran players) is that leagues also add new mechanics and systems to the game. Usually this takes the form of a new NPC that gives you quests and has you do things for their specific mini-game. This usually involves unique and novel ways to generate dungeons, alternative loot progression, and so on.

It's a great way to make the game feel fresh for veteran players. But it's also extremely overwhelming and confusing for new players.

The game has a LOT of ways to power up your character throughout the game, and figuring these systems out is a major part of playing the game. Adding another layer of complexity on top of that is unnecessary for someone just starting out.

Believe me, you'll be happier if you play through the game once on standard.

Do the side quests and explore

If you ever watch someone stream PoE, you'll likely see them running around the map like a crazed buffalo, smashing things, ignoring almost everything they drop, and not exploring everything.

This is not your cross to bear, new player.

While the end-game of PoE can become this mad rush of “clear x maps in an hour for optimal loot gain,” early on you are heavily incentivized and rewarded for exploring every nook and cranny of a map. There are optional areas to find, npcs to unlock, and side quests to complete.

And you should absolutely complete the side quests.

Side quests give you big rewards, including passive skill points or refund points. They can also give you items that are hard to find through loot drops. They also come with fully voiced NPC lines that are usually quite well done in terms of writing and voice acting. A lot of people don't care about the story of PoE, but honestly I've found it pretty interesting. So take the time to listen to the NPCs and soak in the atmosphere, if nothing else.

Use NS filters

There are too many damn items in this game.

I don't mean this in the sense that, if you look up items online you'll be overwhelmed. I mean that if you just boot up the game and play, your screen will be covered with way too much loot, even early on.

At first this isn't a problem. As a brand new character it's probably best to vacuum up as many items as possible to get upgrades and currency.

But by Act II you're going to run into a problem where you're constantly portaling back to town to sell, and also getting frustrated by all the crap cluttering your screen.

Enter NS filters. Originally a mod for Path of Exile, it has essentially been adopted as a de facto feature of the game (it's included in the console versions of the game by default). What it does is remove item drops from displaying once you've outleveled them/once they are no longer a major concern for you. It also highlights items of high value in an arguably better way than the default view by making them bigger and color coding them to stand out more.

On PC, go here and scroll to the bottom of the page for installation instructions.

On console, go to Options > Filter, and set it to “NS – Regular.” Boom. You just made your game experience more enjoyable.

On that note, at some point you're going to get fed up with even rare and magical drops. Don't feel obligated to pick something up just because it's shiny. As your character's build crystalizes and you get more familiar with what equipment best works with your build, you're going to start passing on rare items because they don't sell for a lot and you don't need them.

This is a normal part of game progression. When it happens, celebrate. You've hit a milestone.

As you get deeper in game progression, you'll eventually hit a point where even Regular filtering leaves too much on-screen. At this point I recommend you go to NeverSink Filter's documentation and read what things each level of filtration remove. Consider bumping up to semi-strict, or even strict. End-game you'll probably want at least strict, if not very strict, to help reduce the amount of time you spend sifting through loot looking for the upgrade you need. The specifics of each one are fairly involved and best understood by reading the documentation.

Read a guide on currency

Currency is the one piece of game design I've not fully come around to, which is a minor nitpick but an important one.

Basically there is no gold or money in PoE. Every NPC essentially uses the bartering system. When you sell items you don't want, you'll get shards of consumables, like town portal scrolls or scrolls of wisdom (used to identify rare items). Get enough of these shards and you'll get a full version of that item. Some higher level drops can be sold for higher level pieces of currency, like Chromatic Orbs and Jeweler's Orbs. If you buy from an NPC they'll set prices like “3x Orb of Alteration.”

This is extremely confusing at first and really obfuscates the value of each item and orb. Early game it doesn't matter, but eventually you'll get into a situation where you want to buy from an NPC or a player and you'll have to start working out the relative value of everything.

Just read a guide. Don't torture yourself by trying to do the algebra on your own. This is a decent one.

In general you can mostly ignore currency and just play, though pay attention to how NS filter color codes everything as it'll give you clues as to how much everything is worth.

One thing I feel honor-bound to mention though is the “Mirror of Kalandra.” This is an uber-rare item that most players will never see drop for them. It can be used to make an exact copy of any rare item.

That's neat and all, but the real value is that, should you find one, and you don't mind violating the ToS and risk getting your account banned, these can sell for $250 each. Obviously there are risks involved in selling virtual items for real-world cash, but... I'd give up my PoE account for $250 in a heartbeat.

Just food for thought.

And that's it! There's certainly a ton to learn with this game, but I've found it very enjoyable since adopting these rules. I even spent some money on the game for the first time last night to increase my stash tabs. It's free-to-play, so there's not a lot to lose by giving it a try! Happy looting!

While I'll likely never do it again, playing WoW as an “Auction House Goblin” (that is, spending most of my time doing trades and making money) in 2017 was a lot of fun while it lasted, and it actually netted me some real-world value (I actually made enough gold to pay for 4 months of subscriptions, the Starcraft Remaster, and Destiny 2).

In no particular order, here are some observations I made about economies, money, and capitalism after playing a day-trader in WoW.

There were basically two ways to make money in the Auction House: be a supplier or be a commodities guy.

A supplier would be the person that used professions (leatherworking, blacksmithing, gathering, fishing, etc) to gather or create valuable items and would then sell them on the AH. Most people start here, and few ever do more than this. Much like workers in real life, these people create all of the economy’s value.

Commodity traders exploited that value to inflate margins and make profit.

As an example, one of the tricks I learned for gold-making was to look for “scoops,” or items that were being sold for significantly less than their mean value. If an item was worth 100g, and someone listed it for 70g, you could purchase it, relist it (or “flip it”) for 99g, and even after AH fees you’d have made about 25g profit for little to no effort. Most people (even non-leftists) feel funny about this situation. It feels like it’s cheating, somehow.

And it basically is.

Commodities trading only works for people with a lot of money. It requires that your total wealth far exceed the value of the lot you purchase, so that you can move around a lot of money without pressure and slowly squeeze out extra profit from margins. So in essence, this is the quintessential “the rich get richer,” for no reason other than they are rich and bored.

Unlike a normal transaction, no value is created here. The price is just inflated.

To make this more complicated, the default UI of WoW’s AH is so bad that it makes basic transactions nearly impossible. You basically need a mod (like Auctionator or TSM) to completely change the interface. These mods add crucial functionality, like hovering tool-tips that give you the average price listing for an item, the ability to post items in batches, and the ability to group items with specific rules for pricing. The base game’s UI gave you none of that.

What’s happening here is that, without intending to, Blizzard has created a system of systemic inequalities that get exploited by the uber-rich. This web of privileges, knowledge gaps, and inequalities create conditions where small groups of people control the vast majority of wealth on a server. These people are then able to leverage their obscene wealth in ways that give them unique perks like free subscriptions, cosmetic items, and gameplay perks.

None of this even touches the topic of being able to use real-world money to buy large quantities of in-game gold, thus creating a true “pay to win” scenario… but even without spending an extra nickel, I was able to become a mid-weight Goblin on my server because I was patient, willing to grind, and willing to exploit the margins. All told I probably made about 2 million gold over the course of the Legion expansion, playing just a couple hours a night on average.

Looking back I feel kind of bad. While I didn’t defraud anyone (I never did any trade chat scams or anything like that), I can’t deny that the way I made my in-game wealth was by squeezing extra value out of other people’s labor. No one starved or went homeless as a result… but still.

Anyway, like most people I ended up hitting a wall eventually. This is probably the most interesting thing for me, as the conditions at the time I think are mirroring the real world in some ways now.

While token prices have basically always gone up (with the exception of a very large crash in 2018), over the course of an expansion the prices of items tends to trend downward. This is because money is literally being “printed” (i.e. created through quests) faster than it is destroyed. It’s basic economic theory with supply and demand. People have more money and also need to buy less things to play the game, so prices go down.

When this happens, the “Goblins,” who are essentially playing a parallel version of the game that involves little actual raiding or fighting, tend to get desperate as their profit margins shrink. With fewer transactions comes less profits for commodities traders. Without quantity they really can’t make any money.

So a lot of them get into “premium” commodities, and start chasing white whales.

There used to be a trading card game for WoW, and there were several promotions that included codes for special mounts within WoW. These items have never been re-released or resold by Blizzard in any way, as Blizzard takes a pretty strong “once it’s gone it’s gone” stance for rare and limited items in their games.

As a result, these items can go for millions of gold each, and you can go months without seeing them. They’re the Yachts of WoW.

For some goblins the mere act of acquiring one or all of these is the ultimate end-game, and they are satisfied with purchasing them. Others, however, try to commoditize these and other high-end items for massive profit margins. They become obsessed with a new type of farming, where they either use third-party services to ping them when the item becomes available for purchase (you can make purchases on the mobile app) or grind obscure enemies for a 0.01% chance of getting a rare item.

While everyone has their own idea of fun, what I can tell you is that, for me, this led to unhealthy levels of obsession where I was chasing an opportunity that would likely never come, and would not satisfy even if I got it. But because the very act of watching numbers grow larger is addictive, it becomes difficult to stop and walk away.

I managed to acquire some premium items through trades and old-fashioned dungeon farming, and I proudly put them on the AH to await my large payout… only for it to never arrive. It turns out that most of these items sell fewer than ONE per month on average, meaning you could literally sit on it for 3-6 months before someone picked it up. Which makes perfect sense. If less than 100 people on a server have the money to afford these niche and optional items, of course it takes forever.

This is the downfall for many “new money” rich people in real life. They get so engrossed with the act of acquiring wealth that they can’t see how completely out of balance their spending is with reality. It’s a personal economic “bubble,” in a way. In real life this can lead to bankruptcy and poverty if no one bails them out. In WoW it… just kind of leads you back to the normal game.

I didn’t lose everything on these purchases, but I did spend over 50% of my liquid cash on these items, and given how low profit margins were at this stage of the expansion it basically meant I wouldn’t be able to get back to where I was until the next expansion… which I would have to buy for myself, since I couldn’t afford to buy tokens to pay for it.

By this point I was pretty burned out on the game anyway, so this ended up being natural walking away point.

We’re actually in a very similar situation in the US today. While a lot of money is being moved around via the stock market (hence all the “healthy economy” headlines in outlets like the Wall Street Journal and NYT), very little value is being exchanged by the average person. Debt is up, discretionary spending (such as on entertainment, premium products, etc) is down, and most people below the age of 40 are unable to participate in “the game.”

And, much like profit margins shrink and affect less wealthy Goblins first, “smaller” wealthy companies like Applebees are complaining that millennials aren’t eating out long before the major players feel the squeeze.

The difference between money in WoW and money in real life, of course, is that money in real life is needed to live. This makes the act of extracting surplus wealth from workers particularly heinous, especially when many of them are struggling to make ends meet.

This is leading for the “players” (those that are not wealthy) to call for sweeping “patches” (changes) to fix the inequality in the “game” (economy). It's also leading to a not insignificant number of people to call for us to quit the game of capitalism altogether and start over with something brand new.

Regardless, I thought of these experiences today and found some of the parallels interesting. I hope you found them equally interesting.

I recently unloaded my experiences about working in a call center elsewhere on the fediverse. I'm not going to repost that here today (though perhaps I will in the future), but I wanted to post a guide to dealing with call centers when walking away is not an option.

This can be a situation involving a medical condition, significant bill/financial transaction, or a serious, life-altering product like a car or a wheelchair.

In many of these cases, you'll have to interact with a call center employee.

Here is how to do so without becoming abusive to the worker and also getting what you need.

  • Remind yourself that the worker is not the enemy.

Even if your problem was caused by a worker's mistake, it's likely they did so because they are overworked and undertrained, or because there is no auditing built into the system to catch these issues. Remember that these people are often paid less than a living wage, and are NEVER paid enough to deal with the verbal abuse they suffer daily.

  • Remain calm.

This is not because your feelings are invalid or that your anger is bad. Most CC employees are used to being verbally abused when people get upset. No matter how good they are, expressing strong emotions too early in the call can make it less likely you'll get what you need because they have been triggered (studies show that CC employees experience 3x as much stress, 13.5x as much depression, and 24x as much anxiety as others ).

  • If this is not your first call for this issue, lead with that.

“I'm having a problem with x, and this is my second call to get this resolved.” This often gives them more options that are not available on the first resolution attempt. CCs are bound by a very strict set of scripts given to them by their boss, which dictates what actions they can take and when. If they deviate from the script, they can be disciplined or even fired.

  • Most of the time, as long as you don’t act threatening towards the other person, they’ll do what they can to help you.

This is not true 100% of the time, unfortunately, but assume they want to help for now. Impress upon them the consequences of this situation not being resolved. CCs are trained to think in terms of processes, not outcomes. Give them a compelling reason to get creative.

“I’m about to lose my house.” “I need this medication immediately or I could die.” “I’m stranded in an unfamiliar area and am unsafe.” Most people will try and help you get a solution the best they can in serious circumstances. They may even be willing to bend or break the rules to help you.

  • If you’ve done all this and are still not getting what you need (whether this is your 3rd time calling them about a serious issue or the person on the other end is being a grade-A jackass), now is the time to start using your anger.

DO NOT abuse the other person (self defense is acceptable if they become combative). Let some anger into your voice and let them know you are upset and that this is unacceptable. Ask to speak to a supervisor if they are unable to do what you need.

Keep in mind that more call centers are removing supervisors from “call de-escalation” duty. The place I worked had “escalation specialists” who were more familiar with processes than normal employees and were given a bit more latitude to resolve issues than us. But they are not bosses and they don’t set policy. Their job is literally to take the very worst callers ALL DAY.

Be firm and restate the potential outcome. You’re speaking to someone with power now. Give them a chance to help you.

  • Most people will never get to this step, but if the escalation specialist/manager/call center refuses to help you, and your situation is serious, you have now exhausted your normal options.

Depending on how the call has gone, you might try, one more time, to appeal to their humanity (“You don’t care that I’m losing my house?”). Or, it might be more fruitful to become forceful (“It looks like I’ll have to consult my attorney,” “I guess I’ll be talking to [government oversight agency] about this,”).

Neither of these solutions are usually helpful, unfortunately. If they’re comfortable stringing you along for this long then they likely have firm marching orders not to give you what you need. Most of the time they’ve weighed the potential consequences of either being sued or being reported and are willing to write it off as the cost of doing business.

Do NOT call this place 20 times a week and continue to harass the employees. It’s not their fault and they can’t help you.

  • Consult an attorney (many do free consultations) to see if you have a case. Research the law and see if they’ve broken it.

I had a situation during my disability application where my company’s HR dept refused to send me a copy of the Long-term disability policy I had paid for. “Unfortunately Corporate Legal doesn’t allow us to disseminate those policies except for on workstation terminals.” I was very sick and this wasn't possible.

I spoke to my disability attorney and he told me to tell them that this was an ERISA violation, and they could be charged $100 a day for failing to give the policy to me for any reason.

After I calmly explained this to the poor girl that answered at my HR’s call center (yes, companies are switching to this model for internal processes as well), all of a sudden they were able to mail me the policy in its entirety.

Sometimes people won’t help you because they are ignorant of their legal responsibilities. It’s never fun to have to speak to an attorney, but it can be necessary to do so in serious circumstances.

Beyond all of this there be dragons. Your solution at this stage becomes extremely dependent on the specifics of your situation, but you likely won't be dealing with very many call centers anymore.

It's been my experience that once you extricate yourself from the policy meat grinder of corporate call centers, you're able to get common sense solutions, provided you can get the attention of the right people.

Most importantly, I want to stress again that most call center employees are victims of their corporation's greed and mismanagement. Do what you have to to survive, but don't get combative unless you've exhausted your other options.

In my last write-up I talked about my experience growing up in what is essentially the cultish-vein of Christianity: Evangelicalism.

There's no possible way to unpack all of these experiences in one post, even one that's over 2000 words long. So as we move forward I'll be sharing more about my experiences within fundamentalism. Today I want to talk a bit about politics.

When it comes to politics, Evangelical churches are exclusively conservative. To date I have never seen a church, Pastor, leader, or congregant be openly leftist and still be welcomed within the Evangelical movement unless they eventually agreed to change their position, or keep their political leanings to themselves. While some churches are more overt about their disapproval of “liberal” politics than others (shunning, preaching politics from the pulpit, endorsing exclusively right-leaning charities, etc.), they all are defined by their marriage to the Republican party. “The Religious-Right” is a term they embrace, despite its roots in segregation and white supremacy.

As a result, like almost every other child that grew up in Evangelicalism, I started my life extremely conservative. The problem was that I had no idea that I was a conservative. In fact, outside of academic debates around the dinner table (my parents are both poli-sci majors), politics was of little interest to me.

I defined myself as “Apolitical” up until very recently, as a result. In my mind politics were like sports. You could follow it, if you wanted to, and you could even play if you had the talent or the inclination. But they were a hassle for me, and I didn't enjoy conflict. So just like I ignored sports, I also ignored politics. I got very annoyed at people that insisted on talking about it all the time, though occasionally I would engage in an “academic” conversation on the matter.

For fun, of course.

I didn't understand why some people (namely women, POC, and LGBTQ+) would get so angry about it. I saw them as immature rabble-rousers that just wanted to stir up discord and create division.

This fit very neatly into my Evangelical upbringing, which taught me that what mattered above all else was “unity.” Disagreements were fine, but at the end of the day we should be “one body” (which is Evangelical speak for “conform and don't rock the boat”).

It never occurred to me that these people were angry not at me personally, but at the institution I belonged to which oppressed them. They were angry that a boot was crushing their neck, and the person stepping on them was saying “I don't care how this affects you.”

So what changed my mind? How did I become a “liberal” (as my old church would say), and a “commie” (as conservatives would say), and a “progressive” (as I would say)?

It all started with The West Wing.

Depending on how far left you lean, you may take issue with WW for its often neo-liberal stances, trivialization of race, and outright dismissal of any political position left of Bill Clinton. But this isn't really about WW as a political treatise; rather its about how WW helped me to break free of a toxic political stance.

Bear with me, please.

I started watching WW with my wife around 2010-11. It was a show we both enjoyed (rare in our home) that was entertaining, smart, and inspirational. To this day it remains a staple in our home for its quippy one-liners, hilarious situations, and often poignant observations about politics and the disconnect between Politicians and the citizens they represent. I've probably seen it all the way through at least 8 times (though I won't lie, we've started skipping the last season... blegh). And for someone that described themselves as “Apolitical,” watching WW was a significant step for me.

Art is a tricky, insidious thing. While a logical argument or a presentation of scientific data may never sway the heart or mind of an entrenched person, art has ways of weaving around that person's resistance and cutting right to the heart of the issue. Art is powerful in that it can single-handedly change a person's mind, often without them realizing that its happened. This is because our brains are wired for narrative, not facts. Narrative is what cuts through our defense mechanisms and logical bullshit.

As anyone who has ever seriously examined the “apolitical” stance can attest, it really is just a bunch of bullshit reasons to justify the fact that you don't want to engage politically. It's the height of privilege, in that only those who never have to worry about the ramifications of political policy can hold it without penalty. And it's almost always fueled by fear.

My fear had very much to do with losing my support system. I instinctively knew that being political in the way I wanted would lead to my ostracization from my religious and social community, unless I was willing to embrace the Republican platform. I wasn't, so I chose to take the more socially acceptable term “Apolitical.” I also had a deep distrust of government that was ingrained in me by my religious community.

But The West Wing gave me an alternative vision of government. Toby, one of the President's chief advisors, says it best when discussing the term “big government.”

Bartlet: What's on your mind? Toby: “The era of big government is over.” Bartlet: You want to cut the line? Toby: I want to change the sentiment. [pause] We're running away from ourselves and I know we can score points that way, I was a principal architect of that campaign strategy right along with you, Josh... But we're here now, tomorrow night we do an immense thing; we have to say what we feel: that government, no matter what its failures in the past and in times to come for that matter, government can be a place where people come together... and where no one gets left behind. No one...gets left behind. An instrument of good.

The delivery of this speech by Richard Schiff is powerful, and I remember hearing this for the first time and thinking “...Is it actually possible for the government to do something good? For politics to make the world a better place?” That question haunted me for years to come. It set up everything that followed. While small, this one question began the disassembly of a toxic belief system which told me I had to believe in a Christian Theocracy or nothing at all.

I won't spend anymore space here talking about all the ways that WW has informed or inspired my politics, other than to say that Aaron Sorkin's aspirational, optimistic outlook on politics has been a net positive for me, despite the misgivings I've developed about some of the finer details of WW recently.

And this, I suppose, leads to my main point: progressivism is a spectrum. It is not a binary state that you either are, or aren't.

The most common critique of the left is that we eat our young. As uncomfortable as the following analogy may be, I believe it to be true having been on both sides of the political spectrum: we share much in common with right-wingers when it comes to matters of enforcing ideological purity.

I've seen leftists eviscerate allies because they didn't subscribe to their particular vision for a better world, or because they disagreed on how to get there. I've watched as feminists, anarchists, democratic socialists, communists, and liberals engaged in pettiness, vendettas, mob-mentality, unscientific assertions, and ostracization over issues where genuine disagreement and debate should have been embraced and encouraged, but were instead treated as a litmus test for whether someone was “in,” or “out.”

Say what you will about conservatives, but they know how to form a united bloc that moves in lockstep. Its why they've been so effective for so long. It's really the only thing animating the corpse at this stage. While they are awful at self-reflection and criticism of the group as a whole, they are extremely effective at moving together as a unit.

Am I saying that leftists and right-wingers are the same? Absolutely not. At the end of the day, despite our disagreements, leftists agree that humans deserve dignity, respect, freedom, and the chance for happiness. Right-wingers believe that authority trumps autonomy, that pluralism is bad, and that governance is an inherently corrupt exercise. These are irreconcilable differences, and there is really no way to equate the two movements, as some people have naively tried to do with horseshoe theory. Nevertheless, we share the tendency of right-wingers to insist on uniformity in belief, sometimes going as far as attacking our allies to enforce uniform belief and behavior.

Earlier today I had an exchange with a self-identifying “feminist” on Twitter. She was an exvangelical, like me, who was talking about how “side boob” is neither inherently sexual, nor should it be taboo and grounds for disqualification of leadership if a woman's outfit displays side-boob. If this sounds like an absurd conversation to have, I'll assume you've never been entrenched in an Evangelical church before. Someday I'll have to talk about some of the crap taught to me about “sexual purity.”

A commenter replied to this tweet with “No part of the human body is inherently sexual.” Out of a sense of curiosity, I replied “Genitals?” I legitimately wanted to hear the argument for this, and was confused how this would play out given the context of the original tweet. This is a conversation I've never had before (I've only been a progressive for 2-3 years). How on earth do you live in a world where someone can simply expose their genitals whenever they wish? What about issues of consent? What about triggers for sexual abuse survivors? It didn't seem very progressive to me.

The OP responded with a very curt reply. I can't see it, because I have them blocked. But it was something to the effect of “not even this.” I got even more specific, and continued to use question marks to show that I was genuinely trying to understand and not pick a fight. I essentially asked the questions above.

The OP quote tweeted me, essentially making me an example to her followers, and woke-shamed me for not understanding that “I never said you should wear clothing that exposes your genitals, obviously. That would create problems of consent. But some people never use their genitals sexually and have no desire to, and genitals have other purposes such as disposing of bodily waste.”

The comments, predictably, were a chorus of “get em girl!” and “you tell em!”, complete with gifs of (predominantly) black women making check marks with their fingers, snapping, and mouthing “ohhhhhhh shit”. When I confronted the OP on why they quote tweeted me, they said they “wanted to let their followers know how they felt about the subject.” They denied it was a “call out,” and minimized how it had made me feel. They told me I would know if I was being called out because they use a lot of swear words when they're upset. At no point did they apologize.

They gaslit me.

They are now blocked and I will (hopefully) never have to interact with them ever again.

What started as a misunderstanding on what was effectively two separate conversations (1, are genitals inherently sexual, and 2, should people be able to display genitals whenever they want as an extension of sexual liberation), and a request for clarification from another progressive (me), became a concerted effort to shame someone that's “not as woke as we are.” From there it devolved into a pile-on thread, not because I was wrong, but because the “leader” had quote-tweeted me (which in the Twitter world is the social cue for “this person fucked up, let's cyberbully them”).

I'm honestly not all that upset about it, actually. It sucks, but I've been treated worse and in the grand scheme of things their follower count didn't allow for much damage to be done to me before I blocked them.

But it was a reminder that, in the world of progressive politics, our worst interactions are often with ourselves. Ironically, I agree with them, now that I understand their position. I have asexual friends that are impacted by the belief that genitals are inherently sexual, and I can understand the topic with far more nuance now. It's too bad that, in the process, this person chose to attack me over what I didn't yet know, rather than putting in the work to educate me so that I could understand without injury.

It is not possible for a person to become “woke” overnight on every issue. It is not possible for a person to understand the nuance of every argument before they've researched the topic or been introduced to the conversation. And the fact that we expect every person we meet to know everything we do without putting in the work to educate them about the topic is damaging and wrong.

When we shame our allies like this, we weaken our platform. We weaken our ability to effect real, tangible change. Without our allies, we have nothing. The power of leftism is that we believe we are collectively stronger than we are divided. We believe amazing things can happen when a group of people unite behind a common purpose. We believe that a better world is possible, and that the only thing keeping us from it is our will to act cooperatively with one another.

To be clear, I am not saying that we shouldn't call out bad behavior by allies. We absolutely must. It's one of the most important things that separates us from right-wingers. But punishing genuine inquiry, or differences of opinion, or expecting someone to be just as progressive as you are, doesn't lead to a better world. It only leads to more pain from someone that was vulnerable enough to open up to you about how they think and how they feel. It divides us needlessly, and it leads to rigidity in thinking, which is antithetical to progressive thought.

In short: it's a betrayal of the very ideals you claim to hold.

#exvangelical #politics #leftism

The Sunday after I was born, my parents took me to church. I was dedicated to God, I was raised in the basement nursery, and as I grew I worked my way through the various, developmentally appropriate, stages and programs that every good Evangelical went through. My family attended various churches throughout the years, ranging in denominations from Church of God to full-blown Pentecostal. If those names don't mean anything to you, don't worry. Their exact definitions aren't really important for today's story.

What is important is that one of the earliest churches I attended devolved into a full-blown cult.

It started with a Senior Pastor having an affair. I don't know the full details, but someone found out. They blackmailed the Pastor. Suddenly, one morning from the pulpit, the blackmailer was brought up to the stage and introduced to the congregation as the newest member of the church's leadership (I was 5, so I don't remember if they were called Elders, Deacons, or just “Brother Jones”/“Sister Margie”). They were “going to be helping” with the services from now on.

What followed was a series of bizarre, downward-spiraling choices that plunged the church into chaos and madness.

The Pastor was forced out early in the process. His affair became public, as they almost always do. He and his family left the church, and the neighboring parsonage, unceremoniously. They went on to become a “Touring Gospel Group,” which is Evangelical-speak for: they were homeless and had become migrant workers, traveling and living in an RV they couldn't afford while the Pastor plumbed his church network connections to shill for spare change so they could come and “bless churches across the United States with the message of Christ” (and sell homebrew CDs and T-Shirts, of course).

Meanwhile, the new church “leadership” began holding church services in the dark. I don't mean mood-lighting either, I mean pitch black.

People would stand up in the middle of service and run around the sanctuary, supposedly at the prompting of “The Holy Spirit.”

They began engaging in “laughing services,” where supposedly the Holy Spirit would come upon people and cause them to laugh uncontrollably. This would go on for hours, and was definitely not a case of induced mass-hysteria.

This was around the time that my family went “fuck this” and got the hell out of kool-aid-ville. We heard later that they started forbidding people to speak to family or friends that weren't part of their “church.”

My father disconnected from church for nearly 10 years after this. I don't blame him. I'm in a similar place myself. He was extremely disillusioned with the whole institution of church. It had failed him on every conceivable level.

But church was important to my mom, so she continued to take my brother and I to various churches around town. We church-hopped for a long time before we finally landed at a new “home church.” Interestingly, most of the people in attendance were refugees from the cult church I mentioned above. The church slogan was “A safe place to grow.” I felt very welcome and at home with them. We had a common cause and a common origin story. There was a deep sense of solidarity.

I spent 10 years in that particular church starting at the age of 10 or 11. For the most part, my memories of that time are positive. But, as is a theme for most Exvangelicals, things eventually soured.

Sometime around 2004 the Pastor got a “vision from God” to sell the church building and build a new one on a plot of land just south of town. The vision, of course, told him that he would have great success and that the church would “grow” tremendously (i.e. more people would attend).

I've noticed that Pastors rarely get prophetic visions of personal failure, or visions of “you'll have minor to moderate success.” Interesting, that.

In any event, the old church building was sold and we started renting space from the local High School to host our services while the new building was built. During this time the Pastor “prophesied” that we would finish within 1 year. The entire construction crew, aside from a few contractors hired for some key jobs like foundation laying and well-digging, were volunteers. The Pastor made impassioned pleas to the congregation to come and “serve on the construction team.”

The congregation wasn't there for it. Construction ended up taking closer to 2.5 years, after which everyone was exhausted from having to set up and tear down the sound equipment before and after service on Sundays, to say nothing of the manual labor the few on the construction team actually put in. We never did get an answer on whether God had gotten the time frame wrong or whether the Pastor had just made it up.

The church did grow though. There was a lot of emphasis placed on the worship services, something the Pastor's son was incredibly talented at. If you've never been to a charismatic church service, it's hard to explain what it's like. Things are incredibly emotional and expressive, and for the most part I'd say these services were the healthiest part of my attending this church, as they gave me a sense of inner-peace that sustained me through some very difficult personal crises. People, in general, loved the worship at the church, and kept coming back for it.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, however, I had my own personal “vision” from God on where he wanted my life to go. The Pastor was placing heavy emphasis in his sermons on “finding God's calling for your life.” This couldn't be something as simple or mundane as being an office worker. Oh no. “God's Calling” was almost always something sexy like being a missionary, pastor, or part of the worship team rotation. It always involved doing something specifically for the Pastor or his church.

I believed after sitting in many worship services and engaging in a lot of prayer and meditation that God was calling me to be a Pastor.

In my innocence I went to the Senior Pastor and told him about this. I was 17. I told him that I was going to withdraw my application to college and asked him to start training me to be a Pastor like he had with his own sons. In my mind it should have been extremely straight-forward. After all, hadn't he preached that God's word could not be countermanded by anyone, and that we should follow the word of God no matter what? And hadn't he spent the past 5 years training all 3 of his sons to be Pastors in various capacities? Obviously the next thing to happen would be him training me to become a Pastor.

He apparently didn't see things that way.

He visibly panicked and told me that, with my grades, I shouldn't throw away an education (probably the truest thing he ever said), but that if I wanted to become a Pastor he would accept me after I completed my degree at a local Christian College. At the time he was requiring his sons to get degrees if they wanted to be on staff, so this seemed fair to me.

None of them lasted longer than a year in school. He made them staff anyway.

4 years and $40,000 later, when I tried to hold him to his word, the Pastor claimed he had no recollection of this conversation but that he would “let me know” if an opportunity came up. He never did, though it didn't stop him from adding someone with no college education, experience, or character to the staff as “Men's Pastor” a month later.

By this point I was married, and my wife and I ended up leaving the church shortly after, and my attempts to reconnect with the Pastor/Staff professionally over the years have been met with silence and indifference (although the Pastor's wife did recently sign us up for email spam for her real estate business and try to sell us a house, even though we expressed zero interest in buying from her or anyone else).

Within the last few years it came out that one of the Elders was having an affair with the wife of the other Elder, his best friend. The two couples divorced, and the two cheaters got married and moved to Florida.

Full circle.

There's a million other stories I could tell, and likely will someday, but for the sake of brevity I'll state my point: there is no functional difference between the first church I discussed and the second.

While the first example was far more dramatic, the underlying principles, the way they got there, is exactly the same. Ultimate authority is placed in the word of God. This authority is subtly shifted away from a personal, lived experience of God to a man (it's always a man) in authority, who is given titles such as “Prophet,” “Pastor,” “Reverend,” or “Apostle.” This man becomes the source of authority, because only he can accurately divine what God is saying. God chose him, after all.

Some Evangelical churches try to deflect from this reality by saying “We just do what the Bible tells us to,” but this is a lie. It is impossible to “read the Bible literally.” You will always bring your own biases and interpretive lenses with you to anything you read. The question is how honest will you be about this, and where did you get these interpretive lenses from?

After graduation I tried to bring what I had learned in Bible College back to the churches I attended, for free, because I felt that people were misrepresenting scripture and that an education on how the Bible was created and how it should be read (yes, I roll my eyes at this too now) shouldn't cost someone $40,000.

I spent years trying to let people know “You aren't doing what the Bible says,” only to be met with indifference. I offered classes to the church free of charge. I talked with people one on one. I spoke with the Pastors about my concerns regarding their congregation, and in some cases people that were serving in leadership positions.

No one was the least bit concerned about what the book actually said, or whether their hermeneutic was logically consistent. This is because it was never about the written text to them, but about the Pastor's interpretation of the text. If the Pastor didn't preach on it, then it wasn't worth knowing. If there was a debate or question about something in scripture, they would say “Bring it to the Pastor, he'll tell us what to do.”

This is how cults form: When one man, or a small handful of people, are given license to dictate the thoughts, feelings, and actions of an entire group. When their word is beyond critique, and when challenging them leads to ostracizing, hostility, and shaming/shunning.

When one person can tell you “don't speak to your family, they don't believe like we do,” and you seriously consider it.

This is how cults form.

The fact of the matter is that every Evangelical Church in America is either a socially-sanctioned cult, or a few short steps away from being one. Even the “good” ECs are one bad decision away from causing irreparable harm to their congregation. The power structure of their denomination will always pose a danger to those beneath the anointed leader, and without this power structure the tenets of their faith fall apart under the weight of scrutiny, which threatens both the wealth and power of the anointed leader. This is a classic conflict-of-interest, where the interests and well-being of the Pastor are in direct conflict with those of his congregants.

Is it any wonder this keeps happening?

All told I spent nearly 30 years of my life in Evangelical Churches. I met some genuinely wonderful people who really were trying to make the world a better place. A few them I still count as among my closest friends. But my overall experience with ECs is that, from top to bottom, they are dangerous. Not always intentionally, but dangerous nonetheless.

I write about this because America still sees Evangelicalism as “wholesome,” “American,” and “family-friendly.” Bad experiences are downplayed, shushed, and gaslit away.

But my voice will not be silenced. Like my fellow Exvangelicals, I have a story. I have perspective. I've been behind the literal and figurative curtain, and I know what goes on in “God's house” after everyone leaves on Sunday.

For every good story you hear, there is an untold tragedy and horror story. For every person that finds meaning, another's life is torn to shreds. At some point you have to start weighing the scales and asking whether an institution is actually doing more harm than good.

I'm done asking. I have my answer. You should too.

#religion #exvangelical

The last time I tried to write a blog was nearly 10 years ago. I was an aspiring writer who wanted to chronicle his journey of getting his first novel published. I had dreams of following in the footsteps of people like Julie Powell, who started with a lowly blog chronicling her journey and ended up with a publishing deal for her book, Julie and Julia, which was later made into a movie. I was 21 and didn't know my ass from a hole in the ground, but I was trying to become a “serious writer™.”

The problem was that I found out I had nothing interesting to say. What followed was essentially 10 years of writers block while I tried to figure out what the subject matter of both my book and my blog should be.

Obviously it hasn't gone well. Somewhere out there is a sad, abandoned Wordpress blog acting as a crypt to the hopes and dreams of my early 20s.

... This is pretty maudlin for a “new beginnings” entry isn't it?

In any event, what followed in my life was a series of misadventures. Some traumatic, some hilarious (I promise I'll try to get to the hilarious ones so this doesn't feel too much like me going to therapy). My 20s was, quite frankly, hellish. Not 100% of course. There were good times. Life is rarely all good or all bad.

But on spec I'd have to say that my 20s honestly sucked. The silver lining is I have some things to write about now. Not just about what happened to me, but also about my thoughts on politics, art, writing as process, coding, accessibility, and maybe about what all... gestures everywhere... this is about.

I'm also seriously writing again, and I think I'll actually get to the finish line this time. I'm not haunted by the spectre of other people's expectations like I used to be. I've found my voice. I'll probably write about that at some point.

In the mean time, expect something forthcoming soon™.