Calvinball and the Art of Changing the Rules

Who here has played Calvinball, or its equivalent? This is the famous game played by Calvin and Hobbes where they constantly change the rules. Playing a game where the only rule is who can change the rules to their advantage can seem fun at first, but in time, it really becomes exhausting. If you have ever played games with a grade school boy, you might have experienced this and it can be difficult to keep up.

The challenge isn’t just related to being the most creative, but also dealing with the fact that a previous concrete expectation has now been smashed to bits and replaced by something more jello or quicksand. Instead of certainity, we only find uncertainity. When you go to lean against the wall of the building, you find it is just a facade that falls right over.

This is an amusing endeavor, but it is no way to live your life. We depend on boundaries and order to live our lives. For 19 years, I lived in a different country. It may not have always played by the same rules of the country of my birth, but it did have its own rules and way of doing things. Part of living in a different country is learning the cultural norms of that country so that you are able to function there. Some of those rules need to be adopted, but they all need to be understood, otherwise you’ll find yourself living out of sync with the reality you find there.

In the United States, there are many cultural norms that we take for granted. There are laws of the land and common practices that we sometimes treat as normal as gravity. Just driving down the road, we expect people to stay in their lane (something I couldn’t always depend on in Turkey). When people move to our country, most people expect them to learn our laws and cultural norms and adapt. The video below was made by an Italian which demonstrates the challenge of living by 2 standards of cultural norms. Italians are both Italian and EU citizens.

When I’m overseas, I’m often asked about cultural norms for America. Questions like, “What do Americans think of ….?” or “What do Americans say for….?” If you have never lived outside of one small region of America, it might be easier for you to answer that question, but if you have traveled around, you have probably noticed the amazing diversity in America. We are more like the EU than a single country, such as Turkey. States sometimes have different laws and cultural norms even than their neighboring states, but they all have them.

The vast majority of society desires to live their lives by the rules and cultural norms. I studied psychology and counseling and there are actually several psychological disorders that are defined by people’s inability or complete unwillingness to follow these guidelines. For most of us, when something happens in society, we expect it to follow the rules laid out for it. There is comfort in that and people can find peace in knowing that while the outcome might not be determined, the road that leads us to that outcome are clear.

As a lifelong sports fan, I can attest that it is much more frustrating to believe you were cheated out of something than to lose because of an exceptional performance by your opponent. We want the life we live, just like the games we play, to be “fair” and “just”. We desire boundaries and right and wrong. I believe this is something that is inside of us, created by God.

The problem with this is that there are many in society that desire to play their own form of Calvinball. They either want to have the right to change the rules, or they want the rules to be so obscure and ambigious that no one knows how to intrepret them. This allows for a redefinition of conduct as we go. One famous example occurred recently during the confirmation hearings for Justice Barrett. She used the term “sexual preference” when answering a question. This term was redefined on the spot to be offensive in an attack on the candidate. Webster’s dictionary even joined the fray, by changing their dictionary defintion that same day. Link

In some ways, this is just a more sophisticated form of Calvinball. Shifting the norms and rules so fast that people don’t know what to expect even in the moment. Some people seem even more willing to be complicit in this than others. This is incredibly problematic when it comes to cultural norms, but it is even more troublesome when it comes to the laws of the land. When people go out to drive their cars, run their businesses or even cast their votes, they need to know that the rules of engagement will remain constant. If they find that they have been changed after the fact, it not only demoralizes, but over time destroys people’s willingness to abide by any laws.

As a Christian, as much as I dislike it when something like this happens, I shouldn’t be surprised. There is absolutely no reason for any man without God to behave any differently.

““The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? But I, the Lord, search all hearts and examine secret motives. I give all people their due rewards, according to what their actions deserve.””

Jeremiah 17:9-10 NLT

As much as we want to focus on obedience to laws that govern behavior, God is more concerned with the heart. We may try to enforce laws that will keep things “fair” and “just”, but if we have secret, sinful motives in our heart, then we have sinned and broken God’s law.

“Everyone who sins is breaking God’s law, for all sin is contrary to the law of God.”

1 John 3:4 NLT

As Christians living in this country, we must in some ways, be like the Italians living in the EU. We are here, living our lives according to 2 different standards, the law and rules of the land, and the law of God. Only one of the those laws is of eternal significance. God has given us a new covenant.

““This is the new covenant I will make with my people on that day, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” Then he says, “I will never again remember their sins and lawless deeds.””

Hebrews 10:16-17 NLT

As children of this new covenant, we are “aliens and strangers” in this land (1 Peter 2:11) and we should live our lives according to the standard of Jesus, rather than the standards of man. Many times these standards will align, but we know that God’s standard will never change. He provides us with that solid foundation that we can build our lives upon in an every changing world. In that foundation, you will found hope, peace and true justice.

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