Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Son Shines Bright

Morning running is necessary for a couple of reasons: (1) work and class schedules often preclude evening trail time, and (2) the Houston heat tends to be less punishing then also. One of the benefits is that sometimes it's timed with the sunrise. This can make for a rather lovely running track, with its multitude colors and long shadows. That's when running away from the rising sun; however, on the return trip, when facing the light, the experience is greatly different. Staring into the bright light low in the eastern sky hurts the eyes, and so you have to gaze down at the pavement just a few yards ahead of your pace. Sure the path is brightly illuminated, and there's no danger of tripping over unanticipated obstacles, but the long view is unavailable. The sun keeps you from peering too far down the way. You know it's there, feel it's warmth, but can't look at it straight on just now.

It occurred to me that the walk with Christ can be similar at times. There can be times when the presence of God in one's life is healthy and dynamic, but precludes looking far down the road. In fact, the Son of God shines too brightly in our hearts to allow looking far down the way. The lack of foresight isn't always evidence of lacking direction from God. On the contrary, it can instead be a symptom of intense training from the Holy Spirit (our "Faculty of One"), who is conducting a rigorous "CrossFit" for the soul. Staring straight out at God's purpose, hoping to peer down the trail for where this is going, doesn't work right now. So you keep your pace, feeling the warmth of the Light, knowing that those potential trip hazards are being exposed enough to avoid.

Analogies drawn from exercise abound in the Scriptures for training the spiritual life; and while exercise for the body is of some benefit, realizing its lessons for training the soul have benefits not only for this life, but the life that is to come also. Sometimes, sunrise running directs the soul to realize those ways that we are trained when the Son is rising in our hearts. We may not be able to peer far down the pathway, but we know that the trail is good and that our steps are being illuminated so that we may continue running well.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Folly of the Defining Opposite

The 2016 Presidential race have proven to be a epic collection of lessons on ethics, principles and history being ignored. Commitment to political party has become so entrenched that two of the most flawed candidates in American history are now the Republican and Democrat nominees for President of the United States. On the Democrat side, it's understandable that, though Hillary Clinton may not be their preferred candidate, she is less of a deviation from the principles of the Democrat platform than the divergence experienced on the Republican side; which is where I am focusing my analysis.

I grew up in an independent, fundamental, Baptist church (yes, you MUST say "independent, fundamental, Baptist" three times fast to ward off evil spirits) that taught many things including the evils of rock music (this was the 80's after all), how universities are stealing our kids' faith, and that the world is coming to an end any minute. The strongest teaching we received, however, was in all the ways we were not like the "charismatic" church across town. Bethel Church (formerly Bethel Assembly of God) was a flamboyant, lively, "pentecostal" leaning, "3rd wave" congregation that was experiencing much of the excitement fallout from the "Vineyard movement" at the time (yeah, I know I just threw a bunch of "inside baseball" at you. Bear with me though). The exact details of Bethel's dynamics are not important to the story. What is important is that the congregation at North Valley Baptist Church was unified in NOT being like "those charismatics" across town (meaning Bethel). Bethel became what I later would call a "defining opposite."

Defining Opposites serve multiple purposes, among which is absolving people from the responsibility of knowing what they stand for. Group A doesn't need to perform the hard work of defining themselves when it's much simpler to state they are NOT like Group B. At my church, we couldn't tell you jack squat about the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, or articulate the Gospel. But we could clearly state why we weren't like "those charismatics." Defining opposites allow you to know your own position only insofar as it's not theirs. Bethel wasn't the baptist's only defining opposite though. Science, art, society, technology offered other examples to declare "we're not THAT," or that, or that over there.

Ethically, defining opposites absolve you of responsibility to principles, replacing it with the pragmatism of "whatever is not THAT [the perceived evil] must be good." Moral and ethical erosion, however alarming, is irrelevant compared to the mandate not to be the defining opposite. In a religious context, doctrine and reasoned praxis are subservient to defining opposite avoidance. Another of the baptists' defining opposites were the Roman Catholic Church, with it never occurring to them that other catholic traditions exist beside being Roman, or that perhaps there may be instructive clues to their staying power over two millennia. But I digress...

Where the folly of the Defining Opposite has been most on display in recent years is in the political process. My disappointment as a former Republican (there, I said it!) is even greater than my disappointment was as a former Baptist. Why is my disappointment greater? Because the political options are fewer. While I have acknowledged for a long time that more parties exist than merely the Republican and Democrat parties, I paid them no attention because of the perceived binary choice between red and blue states on the election night newscasts. What's more? I considered third party movements a work of the devil (I'm only 60% kidding) in light of the 1992 advent of Ross Perot, which gave us eight years of Bill Clinton. This attitude was reinforced by talk show personalities I enjoyed like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity (who with careful wording and editing has managed to come just short of declaring he wants to have Trump's baby). In religious circles, I learned that more Christian options existed than merely to be Baptist or an infidel. With politics, however, the options seemed much more limited.

At some point though, I looked around and observed that the foolishness of the defining opposite was in full political swing. Just about any moral and ethical stance became negotiable under the mantra of "Well. You don't want Hillary in office, do you?" Donald Trump declared that his people were so loyal that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and not lose their votes. The tragic truth lies in how correct he was. The Republican National Convention this week was a showcase in how this folly is running its logical course. The math goes like this:

  • Hillary Clinton embodies all that is evil (enter Defining Opposite) 
  • Donald Trump wins GOP nomination on fear and progressive populism
  • Trump is now the "champion" against the Hillary
  • All things Trump are acceptable and "moral" compared to the prospect of Hillary
  • All those opposed to Trump must therefore want Hillary in power 
This is so similar to how all cults begin as to not warrant further explanation; only in cults, the subject is first religious, then it turns controlling. In the case of Trump, it starts political but will turn "religious" as the demand for total devotion echoes my previous writing about "religious statism" in America. For all of their rhetoric about "fighting tyranny" here in the US, the GOP has elected to follow the pathway of historic tyrannies of the past. Note how Trump attacks his political enemies that dare to withhold their endorsement, or suggest that principles come before personalities. The dynamic interplay between the egomaniac and the support of his followers is also a recurring paradigm in history. No one ascends to power alone, but is also the recipient of support from those willing to prop them up. Why? Because enough have sold out to the defining opposite mentality. 

As I listen to Trumpkins articulate their rationale for supporting such a ghastly grotesque, and the reasons seeming to frustratingly fall away under the onslaught of casual conversation (not even heated debate), the defining opposite argument becomes inevitable. Locked into the binary worldview of A or B (nothing more), they cannot admit to anything that might make them question their vote for Trump. Indeed he could shoot someone, shoot several people for that matter, and their predictable response would be, "Well. At least he ain't Hillary." One wonders where their principles went, if they even had them. Moral and ethical absolutes are the bane of such reasoning, because it leaves the follower knowing that Jesus' na├»ve question ("What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world, yet lose his own soul?") was at best misguided, and at worst a vote for the enemy. 

I offer no endorsement of any third party candidate here, only the admonishment that a vote for Trump is not merely a vote against Hillary; it's also a vote FOR Trump... a vote that should rightly plague your conscience with each opening of his mouth or bullying from his surrogates. I have learned that other parties, and their respective candidates do exist(!), so the supposed "binary choice" of Republican or Democrat is a prison from which many must escape. There is no "perfect" candidate, but perhaps there is one of the others that strains your conscience less than ClinTrump. I encourage you to look into them. But if your political/ethical choice is to be ever governed by the Defining Opposite, the rest of us get to wonder what violation of principles could your candidate ever do to lose your support, if indeed you ever had principles that your "champion" could break at all. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

I want to be Christian, dammit!

I aspire to be Christian.

The label is supposed to frick'in mean something! I don't mean the "okay, wait. Let me think up some squishy Jesus Christ Superstar, peace-love-happiness, tidied shirt" American definition of that label. I mean the badass "love-unconditionally but never back down from a serious philosophical, doctrinal, moral, theological brawl, no matter what it costs me" definition of that label. The message from the Savior (as recorded in the Gospels), and the subsequent teaching of the Apostles (which must be seen as ONE teaching with Christ; for how can the teaching of the Savior be separated from the teaching of those who we believe faithfully delivered his teaching to us?), is so alarmingly balanced! The love for the sinner shares equal time with the call to forsake their sin, repent and follow Christ. The love for all believers shares equal time with the fiery admonishments to remain faithful to The Faith. No compromise. No quarter. THIS...IS...CHRISTIANITY! could very well be spoken in the manner that Gerard Butler delivers the line "THIS...IS...SPARTA!" though it admittedly doesn't roll off the tongue with the same flare. You get my meaning, though.

When I first converted to Anglicanism in 2009, I had already been a product of the Promise Keepers movement in the 1990's, longing for some recovery of manliness in American Christianity that appeared to be lacking. As movements go, though, they seem to raise awareness for a time, but then they die off if no deep foundational transformation has taken effect. It's not unlike someone new to gardening discovering the difference between annuals and perennials for the first time. You plant something, thinking it's going to grow and create beauty for generations to come, only to discover that it died and a new plant will have to be purchased at Home Depot next season. Ugh. Not what I was after!

Anyway. After the masculine "chrysanthemum" seemed to wilt Evangelicalism, I wondered if I had bought the correct plant. Oh "men's ministry" seemed to really have taken hold (sarcasm is difficult without its own special font), but everywhere we turned, men were still being expected to emote, swoon, sigh and get hot flashes in church like the trends that had seemingly created the need for a "men's movement" in the first place. The masculine Christianity, with a steely spine and ancient grit, that I longed for, appeared something that would have to be re-planted in a future season. Then I encountered an Anglican church in Dallas. The pastor there (also called "rector" for those new to class) was not a physically imposing man. From the looks of him, and the gentle voice delivery, I wondered if this was the right place. Unacquainted with various colors, symbols and decorations, I figured I'd suspend judgment for a bit and see where this goes. It wasn't long before the short fellow in purple was saying things like, "We have kneelers in church because we kneel when we pray. If that's not your's ours, and we do things for a reason." In other words "Get over yourself! It's not all about you!" (my words, not his). I found the apparent unwillingness to revamp church tradition so that the newest newbie that ever stumbled in could "feel comfortable" unspeakably satisfying. This was one example, but there were other areas where I got the distinct impression that they were here for the long haul. You mean to say that some Christian traditions pre-date America? And you keep them so that Christianity continues to thrive even after America? You're joking, right! You're not going to budge? You've got a spine?!

That was my first exposure to catholic traditions, and the joys and feeling "planted" in a way that might just last beyond a season, or two, or two thousand. That flavors of Christianity can be found that don't follow the latest trends, succumb to social pressures, change with the times, or stick a wet finger in the wind to see which way it's blowing, was a refreshing revelation. Being "Christian" appeared to mean something again. There wasn't this distinction between being "Jesus follower," a "born-again believer," a "charismatic," or a "non-denominational, lights-camera-action, singing 'It's All About You, Lord' when it really all about me, Sunday marketing arm of the evangelical product industry" kind of "Christian." There was just "Christian," in its ancient, serious "your baggage with the label is not my problem."

The catholic (note the lower case "c") traditions (note the plural) of Anglican, Roman and Orthodox are the three major expressions of Christianity that predate the American experiment and it's influence of free market Christian-like spirituality. Those within the American-Christian hybrids that demonstrate their longing for greater depth and longevity, predictably, began adopting elements they saw growing over in greener, more ancient pastures. Smells and bells magically appeared in "postmodern" worship formats, forgetting how often perennials must be planted outside, where their roots can dig deep. Those trendy little pots just couldn't cut it.

Back to wanting to be Christian (dammit!). How frustrating it is when you see traditions that are SUPPOSED to be planted for the long haul, adopting the habits of plants that won't survive the winter. This is the crisis that many in Anglicanism face today. In some circles, the desire arises to achieve the "success" of the mega-churches of the latter half of the 20th century, forgetting what it produced: fractured believers in Christian-like spirituality, gathering weekly for a spectacle, then inwardly longing for another men's movement. If they didn't experience the rollercoaster of Evangelicalism's fickle tossing about from the inside (they were fighting liberal factions of their own; i.e. Gene Robinson), they don't have the experience to realize that trendiness left the faith of Millennials anemic and open to the heresies of the Emerging Church movement. Anglicanism was supposed to be my opportunity to just be "Christian," liberated from the habits that retard Christian maturity, longevity and a sense of "tribal identity." 

Why can't we just be "Christian" like when the Church of the first millennium who, while seemingly not having a sophisticated doctrine of the Holy Spirit, were "filled with the Spirit" enough to stare down the Roman Empire? Why can we just be "Christian" like St Nicholas who, balanced his benevolence to the needy with his firm stand at the Council of Nicaea? How's about just being "Christian" like those courageous Orthodox believers in Russia that outlasted the Soviet Union? Or those Christians that found the Roman Colosseum a petty annoyance compared to the glories of Christ? Or those Christians that have kept their unbroken liturgy of worship since before the time of PowerPoint, microphones, and electric instruments? I want "Christian" to mean something that doesn't need to be updated, improved upon, or made sexy. I want to be Christian in the way that people (men & women) wanted to be "Spartan" after Zack Snyder brought Frank Miller's vision of "300" to the silver screen. 

In my work, I'm around people of many different religions. "Muslim" means something, and few approach the Muslim expecting them to reinvent their beliefs to suit the curious. "Jewish" means something, and gets a similar reaction. But when people say they're "Christian," I find them accessing the creative part of their brain when asked to define it (you can tell by the eye movement). I want to be Christian in that sense that world powers used to respect. Oh they'd persecute it alright, but respect it too. The American-Christian hybrid doesn't need persecution; it'll rollover for anything practically without any prompting. 

When I see the loss of faith in Evangelicalism, it's no surprise. It remains the best "fishing hole" for the various pseudo-Christian cults invented in the United States (LDS, WatchTower, etc.). When I see the loss of faith in other "mainstream" denominations (Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.), it's no surprise because of the various ways they became tied to social trends. When I see loss of faith in the catholic traditions, it's a little more surprising, for they have culture, history and distinction. Yet some trends within Anglicanism (evangelical, trendy, etc) make it seem like its shelf life is shorter than I think, and Pope Francis is doing little to make Romans feel comfortable either. But I won't regress to forms of worship that have proven the most fleeting. Longevity, and having "Christian" mean something serious for a long time to come, are monumental values. 

There is no perfect church. I suppose that disclaimer should have been stated earlier on. But there are forms of living as a Christian that are seemingly more mature, longer lasting, and offer a sense of being seriously "Christian" beyond the trends, geopolitics and cultural fancies of the day. In that way, it would be satisfying to be Christian in a manner that will still be around for a while to come. I want to be Christian! And I want that mean what it means a thousand years from now, because it meant that a thousand years ago. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

On The Power of Myth and How DC Films get it Wrong

     Modern film serves an important role in culture, and older generations that fail to recognize it are doomed to either do it wrong, or misunderstand its power altogether. As they display the stories of a culture on the big screen, they undertake, through an audio/visual medium, to tell tales that have a history stretching back into the ancient world that fall into three distinct, yet overlapping categories: stories about (1) gods, (2) demigods, and (3) mortals. These tales often spill into each other, but will have emphases that spotlight very different needs of the people that spin those yarns. Let's briefly discuss below what each does for us.

Stories about the gods: From the Enuma Elish of ancient Mesopotamia to the Greek legends of Olympus, stories about the gods and the heavenly realm have helped humankind to organize the world in our mind. The inexplicable is made relatable by means of attaching it to the diversity of deities given expression on those epic sagas. Why does the thunder and lightning appear so violent in the sky? How did the diversity of creation first come to be? Who oversees the chaos that is the vast mysteries of the oceans? Why does the natural order sometimes get out of whack, resulting in natural disasters with which the mortals must contend? The "old world" had its share of the deity tales, but so did the "new world" also. Aztec, Maya, Mixtec, Inca cultures all had the myths and stories of the gods that helped explain why creation operates how it does, and what obligations humans have to those deities because of it. Stories of the gods are not designed to make them relatable characters. Audiences do not gain inspiration from them to better themselves. Instead, they receive information and instruction on the nature of the gods, and their spheres of responsibility, in story form. The ancient world did not seek to write propositional doctrines and systematic theologies as began in the West during the medieval period. Instead they taught of the gods (their nature, their power and their behavior) by means of creation and clash mythologies.

Stories about demigods: While mortals and gods may be completely separate categories, so that mortals have no need to find the gods relatable or even interesting, the middle area is needed that would inspire humans to reach beyond the mere drudgery of everyday life. After all, credible histories could account for heroic feats among the ranks of men (and in some cases women) that far exceeded the abilities and accomplishments of the average person. Even actual history can be mythologized over time, exaggerating the deeds of heroes to keep them awe-inducing for subsequent generations. Thus, the tale undergoes subtle revisions to eventually make them a child of the gods, or a product of deity/human union. In the ancient world, these become not just examples of divinely enhanced human potential, but also can serve as lessons for teaching ideal human behavior. The self-sacrificing hero battles the forces of the netherworld, or some monstrous aberration, for the win... and their story is told to inspire the hearers to comparable deeds. This, or they serve as a morality tale to instruct on what virtues the gods find praiseworthy, rewarding the hero with victory because of their own journey of character. The hero is superhuman, but relatable to the human experience, opening up a wealth of applicability for the audience.

Stories about mortals: Human life, with all of its peaks and valleys, drama and drudgery, has always provided rich material from which to glean lessons for wise living. Relationships of all types, struggles and celebration, adversity and elation, are rightly dramatized into tales with which the audience can empathize and emote, gaining wisdom and practical knowledge for enjoying life to the full. The documentary, the comedy, the crime drama, the romance tale (sometimes called a "chick flick"), all have their place in that repository of human stories that the audience, in exploring the themes and imbibing the sentiments along with the storyteller, actually become more "human." The varied recesses of the human soul are exercised and quickened by considering how the story illuminates the nuances of relationships, the diversity of human experience, the joys of laughter or the messiness of justice. We need stories that often expose or remind us how the world really is, and not just trafficking in how we'd like it to be.

     Along a literary spectrum, it could be said that the gods are fully "two dimensional characters"(lacking struggle, development or growth through a lesson journey) with the mortals being fully "three dimensional" (relatable to the audience in areas of human experience). This would place demigods somewhere in between, with considerable overlap. The short version is: gods are boring, people are interesting. So if you're going to tell a tale of superhuman heroes, it's necessary to "humanize" them considerably so that they can be analogous for or inspiring to the human audience. Demigods that lack development through lessons, romance, tragedy or joy, or lack the humor found in human relations, slide precipitously toward the genre of "gods" mythology. This is as much a detriment to the demigod category as if it were to lack superhuman ability and thus become just another mortal tale. In a sense, the demigod story is a balancing act in which the storyteller keeps the superhuman nature and the mortal nuances in a delicate tension. If we don't believe the hero was in love, we don't care that he saved the girl AND the world too for that matter.

     Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the latest installment in the new DC films cinematic depiction of their comic book repertoire. It builds upon the groundwork laid in 2013 by the reboot of the Superman franchise, Man of Steel. According to Rotten Tomatoes, a movie/television review aggregate web site, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has received a current score of 29% out of a possible 100, with audience reaction being tepid at best. Opening weekend, predictably, found DOJ (Dawn of Justice) making considerable money because of the hype and subject matter. However, audience reaction can often be responsibly gauged by repeat viewings. For DOJ, second weekend grosses had dropped dramatically. Reports of second weekend declines are commonplace, but movie news articles add that a 68% drop for the second weekend is quite extreme. Being a lover of films, my daughter and I saw it opening night as well, and later shared critiques that ranged from objective evaluations to inside jokes that only we understand. To date, we appear in in the majority of viewers that found it an adequate spectacle to witness at a theater, but not remotely worthy of its hype, and unworthy of money spent on repeat visits.

     As an anthropologist, I am quite curious as to what explains this phenomenon beyond the mere nuts and bolts of good film-making. Lessor skilled directors have been able to grasp the sentiments of audiences and conjure them back to ride that ride over and over again. What makes DOJ different and less able to connect with moviegoers? Incidentally, among the more pointed critiques leveled at "Man of Steel" in 2013 was that it "was not inspiring." This has not been true of all DC movies. On the contrary, the Dark Knight trilogy (started with Batman Begins in 2005) directed by Christopher Nolan, enjoyed tremendous success, and appears to have been as much a watershed breakthrough for comic book hero films as was the 1978 blockbuster Superman with Christopher Reeve. In addition, audiences appear well conditioned to receive these fantastical tales and enjoy them repeatedly (rf. the current Marvel comic universe, beginning with Iron Man in 2008, has enjoyed positive response from critics and audiences alike). The Marvel success stands in stark contrast to the DC films in those two areas; critics have praised them and audiences have affirmed them by spending dollars on repeat visits to the theater. I believe this is explainable through the lens of the role for ancient stories described above.

     Societies and technology may change, but people don't. Many of the basic human needs in the ancient world still are plainly evident in the modern day; with this exception though: audiences today are even less interested in stories of the gods than in ancient times. To keep the modern (and especially postmodern) audience engaged for a superhuman story, you must go easy on the "super" and heavy on the "human." The powers must be incidental to the struggle, with emphasis on the seemingly "mortal" experiences of romance, remorse, joy, laughter, wit, wisdom, multiplicity of motives, etc. Without it, people may show up once to watch the "gods do battle," but be quite satisfied to have taken in the data it conveyed, with no need to return and experience it again. What's more? They'll share that "data" with friends, essentially negating the need for those friends to go see the film and get that data themselves. The characters are not "heroes" that we empathize with or are inspired by. They are deities that held their apocalyptic conflict, and that explains why we have the occasional geologic phenomenon of destroyed cities.

     It's not that Zack Snyder, the director of Man of Steel, DOJ and upcoming Justice League movies, isn't a skilled moviemaker. On the contrary, he's demonstrated considerable prowess in the past. It's just that he (and DC studios) has adopted a storytelling strategy that falls mostly in the first of our categories listed above. They're not attempting to tell a relatable story from which mortals should glean inspiration for achievements or analogies for life lessons. They're essentially sitting around the campfire, like old fellows wrapped in a thick cloak to protect from the night breeze, and regaling us with the myths of the ancient Greek gods, and how their conflicts resulted in the natural world we experience today (coincidentally, Snyder directed the film 300, which was a decidedly mortal tale, stylized to appear more like a deity story also).

     Comic book hero films cannot fit within the realm of mortal stories. They are not meant to reside in the ordinary, mundane aspects of everyday experience. This leaves two categories remaining they can fall under: stories of the gods or demigods. DC appears to be choosing the former, and Marvel the latter. This is ironic because before their cinematic manifestations, comic enthusiasts recognized that DC enjoyed greater readership than Marvel for the exact same reasons, only reversed. In this way, Nolan's success with the Dark Knight trilogy was attributed to being "so true to the comics." The DC comics were demigod stories (heavy on the human, easy on the super), with Marvel comic heroes pushing the limits of fantastical. Now the roles appear to have switched. Marvel seems to have understood the above analysis and is cashing in on it, but DC will continue to suffer mediocre results if they do not.

     I, for one, have likened the contrast to two roller coasters at a theme park. One is loud, shaky and exhausting; the other is thrilling, joyful and exciting. After getting off the second one, you look to see if the line is very long, and if not, exclaim "Let's do it again!" But after exiting the other one, you wiped your brow and sighed "Whew, I'm glad that's over." I believe stories are important. They are not mere movies, and not merely comic book heroes. These are tales from which we, as humans being, are supposed to glean inspiration for achievement and analogies to unravel the enigmas of our mortal experience. Storytellers, as writers of novels or directors of films, are custodians of those stories, and are to convey them in a manner from which the audience will derive the greatest benefit. It's too bad DC has decided to tell campfire stories of the gods. The relatable demigods on the screen are turning me into a Marvel guy.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Houston Spartan Race SPRINT Review

     Imagine my surprise when, following past race reviews, others would be sought by my peers. Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) has been a passion of mine since first discovering it in 2012. That was the year that my yearnings for athletic activities looked beyond the normal local 5K race for charity, and sought to interject a sense of adventure. A banner ad at the time intrigued me, which included a self-playing video clip of OCR legend Hobie Call jumping over fire, followed by the caption "Could a race change your life?" That was enough. I was instantly hooked as a "Spartan" and didn't even realize it. Spartan Race quickly became the go-to focus of a family wanting to increase our list of camaraderie and character building activities. We volunteered at the BEAST in Glen Rose, TX that year so as to earn our race registration for the following May where a SPRINT would be held in Burnet, TX. Our first exposure to Spartan Race was as volunteers, only later to actually run the course and fully understand how appropriate our passion had been. 

     That first race also introduced us to the larger world of OCR, the culture, personalities and ethos of it. In 2014-2015 we had opportunities to participate in several OCRs other than Spartan Race. I will tell you that our experiences with those OCR companies have left me quite content to simply fill my race calendar with Spartan races, unmotivated to attempt fitting others in. Either those others were in some way quite disappointing, or merely not spectacular enough to attempt fitting them in around the SRs that I already know I'll want to do. If it seems that my reviews are not entirely objective, at least I've disclosed my rationale. 

My race evaluation has come to include five categories of significance to me. The list is, of course, open to expansion, but these have been key areas according to my experience. The list described below is pasted from an earlier review

"Our evaluation score is based upon five categories or experience that we comment on to each other as we work as volunteers, run as racers together, and then later debrief about after the event. These five categories are:

  • Staff - Were the event staff friendly, professional and patient? Were they accommodating of needs for water, food or bathroom breaks? Did they make an effort to help us volunteer together? At registration, were they warm, welcoming and organized?
  • Logistics -  Did the event seem organized and well thought-out? Were sufficient materials brought to meet the attendance demand? How well were staff supplied with materials to perform their tasks (shirts, medals, radios, water, etc.)?
  • Obstacles - Were they well-constructed? Did they offer an athletic challenge? Did they need explanation or were they self-explanatory? Was there a penalty for failing the obstacle? Was it also safe while being difficult?
  • Trail - Was the course designed for a decent trail run? Did the outside venue (ranch, field, stadium, etc.) allow for the run itself to be part of the challenge with topographic variety (hills, canyons and plains)? 
  • Festival area - Was the atmosphere electric and exciting? Were examples of obstacles constructed for contests and practice? Were exhibits, vendors, restrooms, showers, start and finish lines laid out in a sensible way? Were start and finish line experiences exciting and satisfying

On each of the above categories we offer 0-20 points, resulting in an accumulated score out of 100 points (making a letter grade easy to calculate)."

     For the Houston Spartan Race SPRINT, we volunteered in the morning and raced in the afternoon after having been relieved of our duties at the end of our shift. This has largely been our repeated custom from the beginning. The result has been that at any given OCR, we get the perspective of a worker for the event before we are a participant. For the Houston Spartan SPRINT, I score each category below:

Staff - While I've yet to have a negative experience with Spartan Race staff, some races stand out more than others in terms of staff care. For the Houston SPRINT, not only were they their usual professional, gracious and helpful selves, but they did so in the face of unexpectedly challenging conditions. For several days before the race, heavy rains had soaked the race venue, leaving the planned parking area unworkable. Thus at the last minute, a new location was selected, and school buses were contracted to shuttle racers from the new site to the festival area. These logistical obstacles faced the staff mere hours before race day, yet not a single attitude was out of sorts as droves of participants and volunteers showed up late because of the changes they also were having to adjust to as well. Volunteer registration was relatively smooth despite the changes that had been foisted open the process. 

     I'll admit to being at somewhat of an advantage for having volunteered so often that, without much direction, those with me and I were able to march purposefully to our assigned area and begin working, meeting our staff contact at the finish line, without any other assistance. At the finish line, our staff contact moved about regularly to make sure people drank water, had the necessary snacks, and felt freedom to check out other areas when heavy waves of finishers weren't keeping us busy. When our volunteer shift came to a close, the staff member did not need to be reminded to relieve us. They were on top of it, and we were released with plenty of time to prepare for our own race. Staff Score: 20 points

Logistics - As was mentioned above, heavy rains had required a last minute, major shift in racer/volunteer entrance to the venue. Spartan Race sent out an email alerting of the change, and out party was able to adjust accordingly. We parked where instructed. The school buses that had been procured were not on scene at the announced time though, allowing some lag time for a considerable crowd of people waiting at the new parking location. Nevertheless, the buses did arrive in force and shuttle services remained steady after that. To describe the race venue (Lazy W Ranch in Hempstead, TX) as "muddy" from all the rain is an exercise in understatement. In many respects, this was an enhancement, but that will be described later. In terms of working the race, tables sank and threatened to topple supplies, with considerable ponds of standing water where venue traffic areas might have otherwise allowed people to congregate. 

     Photography continues to be an area where hiccups can arise. Because timing pads are sometimes situated distant from an auto-camera location, finding one's self in the repository of action shots can be challenging. Finding photos actually tagged to your timing chip is hit-or-miss. I found all of mine, and those my companions, by scrolling through every single picture time-stamped between our start and finish times. Another trade arises in the presence and skill of photographers. Without them, auto-cameras (such as GoPro), do not know to turn and snap a shot of each racer in a pack of friends. Thus actions shots are missing for some racers when a herd of muddy participants stampede across the timing pad or by the GoPro station. I understand its a trade though, for hiring more photographers costs money, and some find registration costs already eyebrow-raising. However, concerning photographers, it often appears that photographers that are hired have a time limit themselves. More abundant, and more detailed pictures can be found for racers earlier in the day. This is not merely for elite racers; open heats starting before noon have a greater collection of action shots than those starting later (oh say, in a volunteer's heat). The photographers leave before all racers have passed their area. This is just my perception. Logistics Score: 17 points

Obstacles - By far the greatest obstacle of this race was the mud. In this way, the open heat racers can boast a greater toughness and grit than any of the elites that finished this SPRINT in less than an hour. Yes, the elite racers had some mud and water with which to contend, but they certainly did NOT struggle against 4.2 miles of earthen purgatory affixing itself to one's body like an animated horde of demons from the mythic underworld. The barely viscous and unholy sludge ranged from ankle to waist deep for most of the course. This would be exhausting enough, but it also made each obstacle 143% more difficult. I have never struggled to get over 8ft walls before (with the exception of the BEAST in Glen Rose last Oct which had similar ground conditions), but in this case the ground would simply not release my feet. Teamwork was an absolute requirement. The teams might have been pre-planned by friends racing together, or the team may have been spontaneous as Spartans stopped to assist one another, but only teams could overcome these walls once the ground began to deny any jumping whatsoever. 

    The mud enhanced some obstacles to make them more of a challenge than ever before. In previous races, nailing the spear throw was aided by taking a few steps for momentum. The mud disallowed that. Fortunately, I still got it, but it required a different throwing strategy and the collection of burpee penitents nearby was greater than normal. Sand bag carry, gravel buckets, and the atlas carry all were transformed into something far more epic and daunting. There were no particularly noteworthy obstacles that differed form what has become standard for Spartan Races. There's a comfort in knowing that I've become familiar with these varying tests of skill, strength and endurance. Without the mud though, this might have been a rather unremarkable event (within the normal range of Spartan Race; which is itself excellent, challenging and fun). For my part, I failed at just one obstacle. At the end, the multi-rig assembly of bars, rings and ropes created a large burpee corral that needed wide expansion after racers began bunching up there. The multi-rig continues to be the "Bane" of my existence; and I WILL conquer it! Perhaps if it was near the front, like the monkey bars were, but instead it was at the end, after the mud demons has sapped all of the energy away. The obstacles were within normal range, not particularly creative; however, they do get a boost from the mud enhancement.  Obstacles Score: 18 points

Trail - Even more so than the obstacles, the trail benefitted from the advent of the apocalyptic mud in our score. Without it, the course would have been topographically underwhelming. I'm simply not used to a Spartan Race lacking any hills. Previous SRs for me have been in either the Texas hill country or the Sierra-Nevada near Lake Tahoe. I'm used to shouting my "AROO!" as a means of encouraging others trudging up a woeful incline, or in denial about my own exhaustion. This course's trail contained no such elevation changes. Were I among the elite racers, I might have been wondered what all the fuss was about, but after it had been pulverized by several thousand racers into moon dust (just add water!), the trail became a living thing bent on resisting your progress. Don't miss understand! The trail was beautiful, the ranch picturesque in many places and the water obstacles a joy, but the mud adds approximately 5 points to the overall level of satisfying difficultly, which Spartan Race could not have anticipated...Unless of course we include God among the Spartan staff performing course design. Trail Score: 18 points

Festival Area - As with the rest of the course, the mud was the star of the show. Imagine a rodeo arena being doused with six inches of water, then thoroughly tenderized with horses and cattle, then add some low depressions that fill up to create inconvenient lakes. None of this was the fault of Spartan Race, however it created a complete lack of anywhere to set your gear down or rest in the festival area. Seating has always been at a premium at OCRs of all types, but this was exceptional. A couple more hay bales here and there might have helped, or perhaps some plywood laid down for major foot traffic routes. Admittedly, those are my "armchair" suggestions, not fully appreciating what goes into those tasks. But enough about the mud already!

     The layout of the festival area was well planned. "Spartan Rigs" had practice obstacles for warming up or even competing for a free future race. All the booths and merchandising were well placed. There were adequate restrooms, and I experienced no lines or gross lack of maintenance for them. At other races, the "showers" (water pumped through hoses and nozzles) have suffered from intermittent pump operation, sometimes losing water pressure or stopping altogether; not so here. The equipment was well attended and no hiccups occurred. The D.J. kept the music upbeat and constant, and even made the announcement at one point that a dog had been left in a car and law enforcement was about to break into the car if the owner didn't see to it soon. Staff were ubiquitous and helpful in the festival area. It just took 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other because of the mud. 

     The announcing was adequate, but unremarkable. Previous announcers have created such an air of electricity and excitement at the starting line that you truly felt immersed in the adventure you were about to begin. I understand that some up and coming announcers need to be given a chance to really get into their groove, but there's a certain amount of talent for it that comes into play also. With examples like Dustin Dorough of Spartan Race, or Dewayne Anderson of Battle Frog Series, having raised the bar so high, OCRs do well to keep announcing as something they look to maintain high standards for in talent, excitement, charisma and delivery. Some have even suggested this deserves it's own category in OCR reviews. I'm not sure of that. For now I'll leave it as part of festival because start/finish line experiences are part of it. 

     To balance that out...finish line experience doesn't have announcing; it has fire. The fire jump is the last obstacle to overcome (it used to be gladiators in SR's early days) before the finish line. It contributes most to the excitement before getting the medal around your neck and completing the day's epic struggle. Note to Spartan Race: PLEASE don't let the fire die down! Depending on how often the staff stoked the fire jump, some racers leapt over glorious, Michael Bay sized flames, while others just had to skip over some smoldering coals. This affects both the excitement of the finish and the brag-worthy photos people want to make their Facebook profile pic later on as well. Festival Score: 17

     With an overall score of 90, this places the Houston Spartan Race SPRINT in the A-/B+ range, depending on how you divide the letter grades. I try to be objective, but admittedly Spartan Race is also like "family" after a fashion, and it's tough to critique "family." Nevertheless, because I'm so fond of Spartan Race, I'll share ways that possibly they could be even better. If you don't have that connection, you won't say anything; you'll just go somewhere else, claiming the "grass was greener" at the other race. Every Spartan Race is different, and I have no doubt that some of these challenges were unique to this venue and weather conditions. Having said all that, Spartan Race's strengths are very well executed, and I'm looking forward to many more.