When Everything Suddenly Goes "Captcha"

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

worship-planning-when-everything-suddenly-goes-captchaRegular readers of this blog will know that my posts are generally more topical than personal in nature. I tend to reflect primarily on issues related to missional Christianity, early Methodism and our life as United Methodists seeking to embody both, and hardly at all on personal matters.

This post will be a bit different.

Three weeks ago, on two consecutive days, my field of vision suddenly, with no warning, began to "go Captcha." Things were distorted. Text appeared to have parts blocked out. And I was much more sensitive to light than usual. It was sort of like trying to look at the world after looking at the sun or a bright light, and having a blind spot interfere with interpreting what I was seeing. Only this blind spot wasn't a spot-- it was more like a jagged line in my right eye. But since the brain interprets inputs from both eyes, all the time, closing my right eye didn't fix the disturbance of my visual field.

When this didn't go away after 10 minutes, I called my eye doctor and got an appointment. I had no other symptoms (numbness, tingling sensations, headache, loss of motor coordination, etc.), just this new "Captcha vision." Within 30 minutes, it was better. After an hour or so, things were mostly back to normal, though it seemed I now had more "floaters" than usual in my right eye.

Testing at the eye doctor's office showed no damage to the retina and no sign of stroke. The diagnosis: ocular migraine. Treatment: none. Prognosis: this can happen again. If other symptoms start to accompany it, especially any motor disturbance or significant numbness or pain, go to the ER. Otherwise, learn to deal with it.

It did happen again the next night. Once again, no warning. Well, actually, this time I did notice an increase in photo-sensitivity (perhaps because it was dark and so the contrasts were clearer) about a minute or two before "Captcha world" re-appeared. But otherwise, again, it just happened. I was at home, safe, not needing to drive anywhere or read anything, so I just turned out all the lights and waited the 30 minutes or so for the most pronounced symptom ("Captcha vision") to pass.

So far, this hasn't happened again. I hope it doesn't. Based on what my eye doctor told me, however, I would not be surprised if it does. I'm glad I know what to do should it return.

But it's gotten me to thinking about how we see the world in the weeks since.

How do we make sense of things that come with such distortions built into them?

Our brains are apparently built to be extraordinarily powerful and rapid image processors. Neuroscientists would remind us that we do not process text as text per se (as a computer typically would, via the zeros and ones that make it up), but as images. Every letter is its own image. When we "read," our brains compare the image of each letter to other images like it so we can decode what we see into some kind of meaning (one hopes that intended by the original author!) When the images are all fairly similar in size and form to each other (all the same font, for example), we can learn to decode meaning fairly rapidly. But when the images vary widely in size, color and shape (aS In tHis PharSe), the whole process slows down considerably. Words dissolve into mere letters, each of which has to be compared with every other image we have of that letter to recognize what the letter is in relationship to the others around it. Only then can they be reassembled into words and given meaning. Add distortion of the letters to the mix, as Captcha does, and things slow down even more.

That's exactly what the makers and users of Captcha technologies want to happen, of course. Captcha is all about slowing us down, taxing our brains. The makers and users of Captcha technologies want to create a means to ensure that computers aren't responding (most would take far longer to respond that we would, since they're not nearly as good at image processing as our brains are). They also want us to be sure we really want to say and include the content we have, and are serious enough about sending it on that we'll take the time to decode and correctly reproduce the distorted words, some of which aren't even words.

But Captcha gives us two things the world at large does not necessarily give us-- immediate feedback and a second chance. If you enter the letters and number wrong, you know it right away. It tells you. You can then try again. Or you can even request another Captcha image or even an audio Captcha (though it is often garbled as well) if you don't think you can make out the one before you.

While trying and retrying to decode the Captcha may be frustrating, it truly will not let you proceed until you do decode it correctly. Though you may be completely sure that your reading of a particular letter or number is correct, you do not get the luxury of imposing your system of interpretation, however helpful it may have been for you in the past. Captcha knows what it has distorted. You may or may not.

What if We Always Live in Captcha World?

What if the world is not what it seems to our usual means of perception, the usual stories we tell about ourselves, our default assumptions about reality? What if what we see and respond to truly is distorted reality that should cause us to pause and reconsider rather than plow ahead based on our received assumptions and meta-narratives?

It seems to me that we have ample warning and invitation from Jesus to consider that the world as we see it, even in the church, is just such a set of distorted images.

Consider his usual teaching method-- parables.

Last week we were reminded in the gospel reading from Mark that Jesus taught in parables precisely to make it hard for people to see, hard for people to understand, hard for people to decode what he was saying if they tried to apply their usual ways of thinking and seeing and loving God and neighbor to his words. He taught in Captcha, we might say, presenting a "slant" view of reality that causes any with ears to hear and eyes to see to have to stop, think, and try again and again if they expect to align the world to what Jesus presented them.

Many of Jesus's parables were almost insanely distorted. A sower gaining a miraculous harvest, though apparently wasting seed on all sorts of soils where it "obviously" could not possibly grow? Someone intentionally planting mustard weed (something as crazy as intentionally planting kudzu in most places in the American South these days!). A gardener telling a land owner to wait another year for a harvest while he invests even more time on caring for a fig tree that has yet to bear fruit?

If the kingdom of God is ultimate reality, and if the kingdom of God seems as weird as this-- "Captcha weird"-- what are the implications for us as denizens and citizens of that kingdom?

And what are the implications for how we interpret the world around us? Can some of our usual meta-narratives (such as, "the measure of success for the church is how many people attend worship or participate in its programs or give money through it" or "The UMC is in decline in the US so must act right now to fix it or we'll die") help us?

If there were something like a "kingdom of God Captcha" in place that wouldn't let us proceed with our plans to propagate either a teaching, a program, or a church-wide initiative, would that Captcha let us interpret the distorted signs of our times according to such dominant meta-narratives?

Or might it say, "Try again"?

Or might it even refer us to a kind of "audio Captcha"-- the Word of God-- the old-school Captcha of Jesus, and particularly his parables-- for cues about how to look at things? Might we then be captured by the Captcha-weird kingdom of God that seems to value tiny mustard seeds, small bits of starter, and a single pearl above the mythos of "bigger is always better and more is always needed?"

And what might we learn, specifically about the prospects of "denominational death," from what was just about the only parable recorded in John's gospel-- "Unless the seed of grain, having fallen to the earth, actually dies, it abides alone. But if it dies, it brings forth much fruit"?

Perhaps we do live in a Captcha world-- and a world captured by all sorts of distortions of the image of God and the transforming love and power of God's kingdom.

Perhaps it is time we let Captcha do its work among us ecclesially-- slowing us down, making us think and rethink, even stopping us where we're not on track.

Perhaps the one thing most needful for us to move forward is not to rush headlong getting busy about the fixes for the problems we think we have based on our usual meta-narratives... but to stop, captured by the "Captcha wisdom" of Jesus whose crazy-making parables and bizarre pattern of life, driven by the Spirit whose comings and goings we cannot begin to know, may just be the key we need to hear, see, decode and then live reality aright.