Suspension of Disbelief

You can read in the Bible where it says ‘The fool says in his heart there is no God.’ There is another kind of fool that says, ‘There is a God, and it’s the one I worship.’

~Joseph Campbell, Lecture Series I.5.4 – History of the Gods

 

We practice something when we watch a movie called suspension of disbelief. We accept the storyteller’s concocted premise–mutants, superheroes, aliens–and sit back to enjoy the ride. Rules of logic and physics, generally speaking, need not apply. I contend in many respects that is what faith is–suspension of disbelief. For, while in practice one doesn’t, generally speaking, believe in talking animals or a staff turning into a snake, throw a talking ass or such into an ancient tome and then it becomes quite real. Where one would be inclined to scoff and doubt, and often use their reasoning capacity to demolish other faiths and miracles outside their preferred book, when it comes to their own it’s the exception. A miracle. A more creative person might claim some of that other stuff happened, but it was of the devil or evil spirits, not a  holy godly miracle. Each person has their personal line of incredulity.

Of course believers would never blindly accept their faith. They may not have *proof* in a scientific sense, but they do often have intricately woven theses to support their belief, and there’s just no way their book, the universe, and all just came together in this perfect way without their belief being true. Where once the movie is over, and perhaps we’ve taken away a poignant point or understanding if it was particularly moving, we return to our reality, faith keeps going. The church isn’t content to teach a metaphorical lesson. No, it grabs you from cradle to grave, its own nanny state (and please pay your 10%–or more if the spirit moves you). It is dogma. Thus Christians have all sorts of hoops to jump through in order to harmonize the four irreconcilable gospels accounts, Mormons get a pre-Jesus “lost” tribe of Israel over to the Americas (where also lies the Garden of Eden, in my home state of MO as a matter of fact. I never knew I was so close to paradise), Muslims insist the Quaran predicts and “verifies” modern science, and Jehovah’s Witnesses just have to keep on explaining why the world didn’t end with their previous predictions.
Life wasn’t always this hard for these institutions. Before this age of information explosion, before the printing press, the supplicant was left at the mercy of the priest/shaman/witch doctor. It was a hell of a lot easier on the spiritual leaders to keep people in accordance when most everybody couldn’t read and they were the only ones with insight into the mystery. Ah, yes, the good ‘ol days.
No, a simple “because I said so” just doesn’t go as far in the metaphysical as it did back when. Religious leaders must be more circumspect than ever. But religion has never been a purely logical thing, and church services intuitively know this. Logic has little to do with one’s initial acceptance of the divine. They’ll serve a pitch framed within a reasonable sounding hypothesis, but there is always, always, an emotional reach around. They are going to tap into something, be it guilt, hate, regret–something. Else why follow? I’ve seen this change culturally from my youth, as many Christian services have grown from relatively simplistic affairs to full blown productions and “mega” churches.
One of the last church services I attended was Andy Stanley’s North Point Church in Alpharetta, GA. It’s aimed at a younger, thirty-something crowd in general terms, because marketing to the elder generation isn’t what keeps churches alive. This church beams its service into downtown Atlanta’s affluent Buckhead area by satellite, and those attending who were unfamiliar with the production sometimes wouldn’t even realize Andy wasn’t in the building. Its warm-up service is a praise and worship band worthy of recording (and was). They use video from modern movies on huge screens and other thematic elements to try and connect a 2000 year old book with today’s audience. Andy dressed casually in jeans and shirt. Energy is high. And while the speaker was not always Andy, they all shared this in common: they were excellent at delivering their lines. It is a production. It’s about hitting your marks to make an impact, just like an actor in a movie. (At a John Maxwell conference once, I heard some of his staff talk during one of John’s speeches about “and hear comes the tears.”) It is entertaining. Hell, I’d go back. I don’t see any religious epiphany coming my way, but I love it when my theology is entertaining, too. And after you’ve been made to feel good, or feel whatever it is you may need, it’s a lot easier to suspend that disbelief. I’m not saying that all of these people like Andy are insincere, but I am saying it is contrived. It’s designed and rehearsed. They’re going to tug at the heart strings, and failing that, some may resort to fear (once upon a time fear was the go to tactic, but less so in this modern era). Because church isn’t about logic and reason, it’s about feelings.
That’s a high dollar, slick production North Point has going. Or had. It’s been years since I was there, but I assume it proceeds apace. But the basic principles don’t change at your smaller churches. It was no different for me as a child in my small town Southern Baptist church. Most every service ends with a call to come forward and give yourself to Jesus and I guarantee the music they play during this final come-to-god moment is not anything upbeat. As I recall a church favorite in my church was “Just As I Am.” You know, one of those songs that makes you feel sad, pathetic and embattled with the world as you listen but hey, god still loves you. Without this emotional musical lift, most people would just stand there and not move. Music is a powerful, wonderful tool. What you listen to changes the way you think. It can throw you into another state. The point being that logic and reason has less to do with it than this emotional grab. The trick is maintaining that grab. That’s hard and getting harder. And while I speak about Christianity, because those are my roots and familiarity, the tool works across the board. We’re all people, after all. The emotional grab may not always use music. I imagine in some cultures what they utilize is quite angry and brutal. The believer is then faced with the continual struggle of maintaining that emotional commitment, and the arduous road of rationalizing and keeping the loose strings tied together in the face of self doubt and criticism. That’s when reason steps in attempt to justify belief. It’s a solid axiom and true: belief precedes reason.
The explosion of information and education has resulted in another phenomenon–lots of individual ‘experts.’ What the church at large once feared became even more of a reality. Any twit can take an idea or concept from the Bible and have a heyday with it. Somebody is bound to fall in line with you if you’re charismatic enough. People look for answers, and belief is how many reconcile their existence with the universe. We are pattern seeking, looking for that something that will fit with us and make sense of the chaos. Generally speaking, that’s going to be the religion of the culture in which you were raised. For instance, not too many Buddhists or Islamists came out of my small, rural MO home town. Belief, getting to the heart of it, the absolute core, is not, can not, be based on anything substantial or real. It’s based on what feels good/right to the person, what’s pressed upon them from family and friends to conform, with circumstantial evidence at best used to weave a background no more real than the backgrounds that get inserted onto a blue screen for your kid’s school pic. It’s suspension of disbelief in favor of something perceived to be better, to give meaning and purpose. There’s nothing mysterious at all about it. But because it feels “true in the heart” doesn’t mean it’s true outside the heart. Happiness and feelings aren’t truth meters. It’s just what people often respond to the most.

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Sending Up Prayers

He hoped and prayed that there wasn’t an afterlife. Then he realized there was a contradiction involved here and merely hoped that there wasn’t an afterlife. ~Douglas Adams, Life, The Universe, and Everything

One of the mainstays of Christian faith is prayer, which is an admixture of meditation, wishful favor seeking, and port in a storm.
Does God always answer prayer? No. Do Christians seem to pray about most everything? Yes. Are there alternative explanations from distorted memory (research shows everybody’s brain alters their recollection of events) to lack of knowledge? Yes. God is often just a god of What are the Odds of That?? Sending up and interpreting answers to prayer is a bit like finding personal meaning in your horoscope.
A person’s response to prayer is invariably a form of equivocation. When prayer isn’t answered, it’s because one didn’t wait, or waited too long, or the petitioner did it “my way” and not God’s way. Or one asked for the wrong thing, it wasn’t God’s timing, or God had something better planned. Or, when it really gets ugly, God is just mysterious that way and you’ll have to wait until you get to heaven to find out the reason why that infant died, or your spouse succumbed to brain cancer at 24 years old. Just trust it was the Right Thing. God never screws up; it’s all part of The Plan. And, of course, you can never show something isn’t part of The Plan. There is nothing reliable here, there are only the rationalizations that make us comfortable.

And by logical extension, if God intervenes and answers prayer for some, by definition he ignores others. Christians pray for children to be born safe and with all their fingers and toes. But miscarriage is a thing, even for the faithful. This seems like something God should deliver on, given all the pro-life argumentation. But it’s not like God was beneath taking a child sacrifice, even one made foolishly. When Jephthah says, “Hey, if you’ll just deliver the enemy into my hands, I’ll sacrifice the first thing that walks out of my house as a burnt offering to you when I get back,” God has nothing to say about that thing being his daughter (Judges 11:31). God doesn’t step out and say, “Well, I hope you’ve learned your lesson. You shouldn’t promise stupid shit.” I’m aware of the alternative interpretation here, that Jephthah’s daughter was merely “set aside” and could never marry or know a man, but the surrounding text and reactions sound more serious than that. But even grant that for a moment. “Sorry, sweety. See, daddy said something idiotic, and now you get to pay for it by never getting to marry or be with your family. Real sorry.” Nor is God above visiting the sins of the father upon their children because, you know, God is just that way. There is nothing about any of this that we, today, would consider moral. I mean, it’s a great story, fitting for the age and culture that put it to scroll. We don’t do that because it’s barbaric. On the other hand, we do have parents who refuse their children medical care because of the bible’s promise of healing in answer to prayer.

Prayer seems to serves two practical functions in time of crisis–to let those who can’t do anything believe they are helping, and to let those who can do something do nothing while thinking they are (although I find the former more prevalent). Regardless, the efficacy of prayer in either instance is no better than hoping for the best. A Harvard prayer study, the largest conducted, found no correlation between intercessory prayer and recovery after coronary surgery, and other studies have followed the same vein. If there is no reliable, consistent measure from throwing prayer up to the Cloud Overlord, then how can it be regarded as a trustworthy endeavor? Not only that, how does one differentiate the truth of their “answered prayer” from someone whose prayers were answered by a different god? That’s where faith comes in, one might say. But that’s just the other white meat without evidence.

 

Is Anybody Listening?

 

Skepticism is my nature, freethought is my methodology, agnosticism is my conclusion after 25 years of being in the ministry, and atheism is my opinion. ~Jerry DeWitt, CNN interview July 22, 2013

Is anybody really listening is the subtitle for Paul C. Hale’s book An Ordinary Life, An Extraordinary God, published in 2013 by Westbow Press. The book chronicles the story of Paul and his wife Sharon from young newbie Christians, through work and raising nine kids, to their life today near Atlanta, GA. In his prologue Paul writes “much like Job, my wife, our nine children, and I lost everything we hold dear–our home, our neighborhood, our friends and family. All that we had known our whole lives.” So one might be expecting quite a tale. Job, after all, received a hell of a beating both mentally and physically after God gave the nod. Were all of Paul’s kids killed in a drive-by shooting? No. Were all his servants and sheep, or whatever passes for such these days, slaughtered? Nope. Family die in a plane crash? Nah. House burn down? Still standing. Was Paul covered with boils from head to foot? Negatory.

So what did happen? Well, he lost his job, was offered a new one in another state and decided to move. Not so different from the story of hundreds of average Americans, with ups and downs, struggles and triumphs. Were there complexities? Of course. But, ultimately, the loss Paul speaks about is as much the result of personal choice than anything being taken away. It does, perhaps, give a bit of insight into how Paul frames events and should be kept in mind while reading his tales. His story, while not lacking challenges, is not worthy of a Job-like comparison. All Job had was demolished by God. Paul just packed his bags and left.

The book is an easy read, and most of the chapters are only 3-4 pages long. Paul is also a quote whore, and they are peppered throughout the book to the point of distraction. If they were all removed the book would be a hundred pages slimmer. I don’t mind a good quote to head a chapter or to help make a salient point, but good grief! I eventually stopped reading them just because they interrupted the narrative so much it wasn’t flowing smooth. This is by far the book’s largest technical failing. Most of the quotes are bible verses, but there are some from other sources, from C. S. Lewis to Mother Teresa. I’m not sure if the purpose of all the quotes is to make the book read more like a devotional, an attempt to add authority to the author, or simply serve as filler. In any case, if you have to quote other material that much to deliver your point, there’s likely some rewriting that needs to be done.

Paul seems to have been convinced of the validity of Christianity by reading Hal Lindsey and experiencing a Billy Graham television moment while in a patient’s hospital room, while his wife Sharon sounds to be convinced by a variation on Pascal’s Wager. They mark January 1, 1973 as beginning their walk together with God. Paul’s brother had given him a copy of The Late Great Planet Earth written by Hal Lindsey (1971). The book seems to have gone a long ways toward convincing Paul of the Bible’s accuracy, which is a bit odd given how inaccurate Hal Lindsey’s interpretation of the bible and coming End for the 70s, 80s, or any other time have been proven to be.

The answer to “Is anybody really listening?” is pretty simple: there is if you pretend hard enough. If you want to find God’s guiding hand in your life, you won’t have to look very far to find it. Or Vishnu’s. Or Allah’s. Or Satan’s. Or whatever spiritual gurus populate your worldview. When you look at the world through pink colored glasses, the world is tinged in pink. That doesn’t mean the glasses are reliable for conveying truth, however. Paul’s tales, which are anecdotal at best and frivolous at worst, are a case in point. There is no critical examination, research, or much reflection. This is a book by a believer for believers. However, he touches on many themes that are perpetuated by faith. (I recommend taking Peter Boghossian’s advice and substitute the words “pretending to know things you don’t know” whenever the word faith is used.) In the next few entries we will touch on some of these themes, from miracles to prayer to the powers of darkness, using Paul’s book as the springboard.

Lunar Apocalypse

I was dreamin’ when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray. But when I woke up this morning I could have sworn it was judgement day. The sky was all purple there were people running everywhere. Tryin’ to run from the destruction and you know I didn’t even care. ~Prince, 1999

The lunar eclipse is nearly upon us, and thousands of Americans are armed with their special glasses to witness this once in a life time event. That is, if those pesky clouds don’t get in their way. But, you can’t have an astronomical event like this without some doom and gloom, too. The grand misanthropic ancient tradition of interpreting the workings of the universe as impending human peril for their trespasses and sins is alive and well to this day.

As Anne Graham Lotz writes, referencing Joel 2:31, “I knew with hair-raising certainty that God’s severe judgment was coming on America!” Anne says she felt compelled to repeat this warning she had given earlier due to the upcoming eclipse. You see, in the bible Babylonian King Belshazzar was partying the night before the Persians sneaked in and overthrew the empire. Well, a lot of people are throwing eclipse parties and, well, you can see the obvious connection here. Anne finishes hoping that “in the midst of His coming wrath, God would remember mercy.” Because, given his advanced age, we all know he’s been known to be the forgetful sort.

And I just don’t understand this kind of constant fear mongering, whether it’s a lunar eclipse, a Mayan calendar, or whatever happened last week in the Middle East. When people didn’t comprehend how or why things like earthquakes, comets, and solar eclipses happened, sure. But most of these things today are understood, and when it comes to something like an eclipse we can predict with precise calculations, not only far into the future but eons into the past. Which means that, if we are to use Anne’s interpretation of an eclipse as a “warning from God,” we have a pretty good idea of when he’s going to be pissed on our calendars for years to come. And the thing is, even if we all repented right away, the eclipse is still going to happen no matter what. It would seem a more attention grabbing tactic for God would be if the eclipse didn’t happen. Like if the moon took a detour and went around the sun instead of passing over it like we all know is supposed to happen.

Taking an event like this seems to me no different than when my pastor’s told me God had a plan for my life. There’s no way to show there is a plan, but you just interpret the events in your life as if there is one. Likewise, if something terrible does happen, people like Anne can tell us that “God warned us with that eclipse” that was totally going to happen anyway.  Or if nothing happens then God has suspended his judgement (but he’s probably still stewing over how awful we are).

Anne is tame, though, compared to some others. Christian numerologist Dave Meade claims the August 21st eclipse is a harbinger of the planet Nibiru (aka Planet X) colliding with Earth around September 23rd. Of course, this isn’t the first time Nibiru conspiracy theorists predicted this collision.

Party on, friends.

Molding Minions

The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently. ~Friedrich Nietzsche

Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you. ~Robert Fulghum

Every year now there is an online event called the International Day of Protest Against Child Religious Grooming. Not only is it a horrendous freight train of a title, it doesn’t even shorten to a meaningful acronym. This is what serves as a protest against hereditary religion, which the atheists who host the event consider to be child abuse. They argue some children suffer emotional scarring being brought up in a fundamentalist religion and wave research studies about to prove it. So far it remains a cyber event, which may explain why you’ve never heard anything about it.

To some it may seem atheists believe they have the market locked on logic and reason by virtue of position, not believing in the mystical big guy with a beard up in the clouds. There is, after all, a great deal to be said for requiring some measure of evidence rather than accepting  centuries outdated stories that give us warm fuzzies about our place in the universe. But many atheists can come off as intellectual snobs and, given some frictional topic of discord, sound close to being unhinged, behave overly emotional,  are often viewed as driven by anger, and at moments don’t act rational at all. Which is only to say they are like any other  group falling under the larger umbrella of creatures called Homo sapiens, subject to all the human frailties that go with it. (A study by the Yale Cultural Cognition Project shows we all use reason to convince ourselves we are right, even in the face of evidence that says otherwise.) That’s not to say this dichotomy is on equal footing, not by a long shot, but only to point out we’re all people. So, lets see…who else likes to tell people how to live their lives because they have the corner locked on morality and truth, and also wave about research to back it up? Sounds like the Religious Right to me.

Regardless of where on the “sounds reasonable to me” spectrum you fall,  how is any ideological group going to enforce their unilateral vision of we-know-what’s-best-for-everyone’s-kids? This is where the libertarian in me comes out, because what a nightmarish totalitarian state that will be,  trying to control what parents teach their prodigy. Lets not forget there are plenty of abused kids out there without the benefit of God’s guiding rod. And don’t get cozy and smug, because a government with that kind of power will be coming after some ridiculous activity you engage (or avoid) soon enough. The very act of raising a child involves indoctrinating them into certain behaviors and beliefs. Not only religious, but cultural and political ones as well. Somebody is bound to think you’re screwing it up. Maybe you’re not feeding them right, you let them ride their bike without a helmet, or, our overlords forbid, they formed their hand into the shape of a gun and “shot” someone. These absurdities already exist and happen in institutions where somebody has too much power (and likely too much time) in their hands. Like the North Carolina food inspector who said a little girl’s lunch (a turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice) wasn’t healthy enough and sent it home. And what did the school substitute for this horrible lunch? Chicken nuggets. Or the 5-year-old in kindergarten who dropped his pants (under another child’s threat), and was made to sign a sexual misconduct form. Thank you so much, Dysart Unified School District, for protecting us from this potential onslaught of prepubescent deviance. When “policy” and rules outweigh common sense, it’s a good sign we have begun to take ourselves far too serious. Somebody needs to get a cluestick and beat the people who engage in this behavior repeatedly about the head.

The anti-religious grooming protesters are not without their nemesis. The Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF, http://www.cefonline.com) mission is not only to bring their kids to Christ, but yours, too. Their ministry vision is “to reach Every Child, Every Nation, Every Day.”  Their purpose “is to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and to establish (disciple) them in the local church for Christian living.” The CEF, vigorous in its holy mission,  is not without its bit of controversy, either, and has been accused of stealth proselytizing missions violating the separation of church and state in schools across the country, and tactlessly informing children of other religions they are going to hell. Never mind a child much under the age of twelve can’t think abstractly enough to truly understand the concept of God. It might as well be Santa Claus. Not much mention of parental wishes or desires here, either. Because as believers, they know what’s best for your kid and want to save their immortal souls, even if they can’t prove such a thing exists.

Each organization at its core serves its own noble purpose when understood through its worldview. One wants to save kids from out-dated superstition used to frighten and narrow their thinking, and the other wants to save them from hell. And children make such beatific, noble, innocent pawns in the battle for ideology. But despite personal reservations I might have about one’s religious beliefs or their political accord, I’m not going to be the one trying to stop you from raising a particular brand of idiot. Not unless you’re sticking them in the oven to bake or feeding them cock-a-roaches. Though roaches might be better for them than the chicken nuggets.

The protestors argue “the concept of children as the property of their parents comes from antiquity and is part of the legacy of patriarchy. Modern children are conceived as persons in their own right because the notion of one person owning another person amounts to slavery” (www.endhereditaryreligion.com). Children may not be property per se, but you try to take a child away from a mother and tell her it’s not hers, just  because you don’t like the hereditary stories she’s passing along. Children may be “persons in their own right” but they’re very dependent persons. The end hereditary religion peeps argue, in reasonable enough fashion, that any decision to pick a religion should be left until the child has become a “mature adult”–whatever constitutes that. I’m thinking age 30, maybe. George Barna says, “Whatever a child believes by age 13 is in most cases what he will die believing.” (Guess I’m swimming against the tide on that count.) Perhaps the end hereditary religion people believe this as well, which would then tie in neatly to reducing religious pledges in incidental fashion. The CEF believes it, because they had it plastered across the top of a mailer I received once begging for money before it’s too late. I don’t know about the efficacy of Barna’s statement, but I imagine that somebody now is more likely to leave religion after being raised beneath it than to enter it after a secular upbringing. In the public square of debate, where this argument belongs, science and logic have been gaining the upper hand for centuries. It just isn’t going fast enough for some tastes (and is unlikely to ever be fully won).

We seem to suffer under the illusion that if we just pass enough laws, or if we just make government big enough, or implement our holy rules throughout the land–if we could just get those twits over there to cooperate with our righteous vision–then we could solve so much of our bad karma. Like the anti-abortion crowd, there isn’t much word on exactly what would be done with all the religiously abused displaced children. It’s hands in the air and, “Hey, hey! I just said I’d save the kid, not take care of them!” I suppose that would fall to some government function. Joy.

Nietzche said, “At times one remains faithful to a cause only because its opponents do not cease to be insipid.” And Fundamentalism thrives best when it is persecuted. Metaphysical beliefs will never be totally annihilated, that’s the way people are wired, but will adapt and renew in different ways due to discovery and cultural change. Just as it has always done. For the atheist, there is the underlying, unspoken assumption that if religion were gone things would be so much better. In so far as we no longer believe in archaic poetry as literal, sure. Outside of that, we are fully capable of sinking the ship of civilization without the iceberg of religion. The Just So secular society is as much a mythological creature as are the gods. It’s called “heaven,” and there is no individuality there.

Many atheists are also quick to ignore studies that show the benefits of religious faith. What benefits? Some studies show that, as a group, religious people tend to be happier (ignorance is bliss) and live longer lives. They suffer less physical pain. They are more giving, and are less likely to panic under pressure. They are less prone to depression, anxiety, stress, and similar types of associated mental conundrums. Small price to pay, Richard Dawkins would say, to get away from superstition. But according to Nobel laureate physicist and atheist Steven Weinberg “‘it’s hard to live in a world in which one’s highest emotions can be understood in biochemical and evolutionary terms, rather than a gift from God. Instead of the big, comforting certainties promoted by religion, science can offer only ‘a lot of little truths’ and the austere pleasures of intellectual honesty. Much as Weinberg would like to see civilization emerge from the tyranny of religion, when it happens, ‘I think we will miss it, like a crazy old aunt who tells us lies and causes us all kinds of trouble, but was beautiful once and was with us a long time.’ To which (Richard) Dawkins retorted, ‘I won’t miss her at all.'” (quoted from a Newsweek article Losing Our Religion, http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2006/11/09/losing-our-religion.html). But science does leave a void. The discoveries of science are amazing and the universe is beautiful (if harsh), and it provides a greater revelation than any predisposed centuries old theological imaginings. But it is a cold mother. Only our poetic vision and longing can make it anything else.

Least you of religious fervor take the benefits above as vindication of your faith, bear in mind it doesn’t matter the particular flavor of belief to get the joy-joy benefits. Those pagans and people who live down the street and believe in some other god are happier too.  Happiness is not a truth meter. And there is plenty of bad that comes from religion in a diverse society, from fear and hatred of certain groups of ‘other’ people, tribalism, fear (of hell, damnation, disapproval), conditional love, and lack of access to outside information and education, all which some research is showing to leave lasting ill psychological effects. This is most pronounced in cults/sects, but can also be symptomatic of harsh fundamentalism. I understand  that many good things have transpired in conjunction with religious faith but, along with Dawkins, I seriously doubt that it outweighs the bad. You can’t paint over life with a happy brush and make that old oil disappear. It seeps through.

The majority of my family, friends, and people I grew up with are dyed-in-the-wool believers but otherwise normal, everyday people who love their family, children, and friends like anybody else. Sure, many of us now disagree on this tale to make us feel better about our mortality, but that doesn’t make them bad people, or bad parents. I don’t know what my parents believe anymore, if anything, but I do know they love me. Tales of Noah’s ark, Adam & Eve and such as literal realities may be a disservice in this age, but not abuse. Those kids grow up to be like the people who believe Elvis is still alive. But we all live with some degree of personal delusion. We’re all on personal journeys of discovery and wonderment, and our views are bound to get spun around a few times on the trip. Religion doesn’t inherently scar children–terrible people scar children, and they don’t require religion to accomplish the task. Are there children that get abused by religious parenting? The threat of an eternal, burning fire if they don’t behave? Certainly. For some pitiful kids, a “fear of the Lord” is a very palpable, unfortunate affair. And if you happen to be beating your child with a cane to dispense some holy judgment, then likely you deserve a bit of hellfire yourself.  But that isn’t an inevitable result of faith, any more than a well-balanced child is the inevitable result of secular upbringing.

So where should we turn? How should we raise our kids? Turning to religion, especially those with roots in the Levant because they take themselves as serious as that North Carolina food inspector and the Dysart Unified School District, seems a bad idea. Talking snakes and arks full of animals need to join Zeus and Athena in a Rick Riordan young reader novel. Those are the stories now filling the creative void. Stories that set us free rather than stifling us–Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, and so many others. Stories that speak to the human condition without trying to so much condition us. Why else do you think these new and revisionary mythic works have become so popular? We have always understood ourselves through stories, music, and the arts.

The rational, scholarly and scientific part of me loathes seeing those old poetic stretches of our grasp for meaning turned into literal dogma. But from my youth I have loved myth, fantasy, and horror.  Because the stories aren’t real doesn’t mean there isn’t truth behind them, as in any good fable. Joseph Campbell said, “God is a metaphor.” That I find to be true. The problem isn’t that we tell our children fantastic stories to guide their development, but that once they are older the church still keeps their claws in them, teaching these stories as literal truth and historic fact. And then demand an extra 10% tithe to top it off (at least that is less than what the government takes). So unlike the hereditary religion group who say we need to wait until the child is old enough to pick a religion for themselves, to me that is just when “religion” should be letting them go. Just as we let them release Santa Claus, tooth fairies, and other nonsense. But the power of the stories, of who we are and what we aspire to be, of sacrifice, giving and moral character, can remain. Eat the fish and spit out the bones, as the saying goes. Dogmatism destroys those truths when one can’t accept the story as literal, though. That’s when society must, and will, find a new symbolism to cling. And before you enslave your child to a particular “righteous” view, remember how many times your faith and views have been wrong and forced to change in the past, whether that was in regard to science or some End Time failed prophesy. And maybe give them the room to explore that on their own without spoon feeding them your own answers as absolute.

 

Word Borgs

 

In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. ~ George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

 

Language isn’t a static thing, it’s constantly evolving. At times that can be annoying. For instance Merriam-Webster says irregardless is a word, even with the qualification of “nonstandard.”

Some words take on new meaning over time. So when somebody says they are gay or refers to a fag today, it’s a safe bet they don’t mean they’re happy or are referencing a bundle of sticks. Most changes in language happen with little hubbub, but others result in cultural uproar. And that is where we find ourselves today with words that keep bobbing to the surface of the cultural headstream. Not only with respect to what those words mean, but who can say and use them.

Some might say I support gay marriage due to my status as a self-proclaimed freethinker, and that I only wish to oppose religion at every turn. This would be a severe error. My support has nothing to do with my disbelief in any particular cooked up mythological sky god. It’s about liberty. And to me, as long as that person isn’t doing any harm or foul to another person’s life, liberty or property and irregardless of my personal opinion of their life choices, who am I to stand in the way? Most religions just aren’t very Hoorah! when it comes to personal liberty, although their proponents might like to think they are.

See, marriage is just a concept, a union between things. Typically that’s the legal arrangement between two people who want to enjoy misery together for years to come. And in America, it has nothing to do with religion. Religion is incidental. Marriage in America more closely resembles classic Roman monogamy than what is in the bible. Amongst my more tolerant Christian friends who really don’t believe morality can be legislated the word is still a stumbling block, though. “Do whatever you want, get whatever benefits and whatnot, but you don’t get to use the M word. That’s the compromise.” Because apparently Christianity seems to think they have a lock on the rightful use of the term “marriage.” Even though it’s a ritual performed by countless cultures through centuries across the globe of varying faiths (or no faith) with no regard at all for Christianity. For Christians it’s an affront to the sacrament of marriage as outlined by God. But by this logic every marriage performed outside of Christendom is an affront. Surely weddings performed under another god’s name, or no god, is as vile an affront to heaven as gay marriage. I don’t recall any passage that singles out same-sex marriage being worse than any of that. Now I know there are those wishful faithful out there who want to believe God thinks gay marriage is A-Okay, but the OT God clearly condemns it, along with a bunch of other thou-shall-nots. The laundry list of nots in the OT is hefty, and by and large Christians ignore almost all of them. And marriage has changed plenty, too, from OT polygamy to mom and dad arranging it for you to this modern-day notion of marrying the person you love, or some such nonsense.

Others claim this is all an “attack” on Christianity and its values. But Christians weren’t pushed in front of this bus, they leapt there on their own. It runs something like this:

Homosexual: We want to get married like other people.

Believer: Not if we have anything to say about it.

And so we have this cultural battle, as we have had many cultural battles. Dancing and rock-n-roll anyone? Society moves forward. At no point do I recall the gay community coming forth and saying Christians had to change their belief. Some other inane things, yes, but not that. If Christians had just said, “We don’t approve, and it’s likely you’re going to burn in hell just like those strip joint operators, and that’s not a real marriage  whatever you say but fine, go ahead”…do you really think there would be a problem? And who isn’t really minding their own business here?

But Christians are in the trenches still. And really, if you run a bakery and you don’t want to bake a gay wedding cake, peachy. I’m fine with that. The vast majority of people are going to be fine with that. Your business. We shouldn’t need a special law for you to turn business down. That’s just a business opportunity for someone else. But in stomping down with your big outraged moral boots, may I suggest you take it a step further, if but for consistency. Hook up your business to public records and refuse business to sex offenders, drug offenders, and anyone convicted of DUI. Also anyone who has been divorced or remarried, as these are also generally no-nos in biblical parlance. You should probably check their FB page as well. Remember, God is always watching, and you don’t want to serve anyone outside His will. But really, people, WTH? There are so many grounds on this issue that Christians have not answered in a meaningful way. What seems clear is that Christians see this as bruising the vision they have of what America should be–a theocracy, and liberty only in so far as it adheres to their God’s laws. Or at least the ones they think count.

You might as well wake up to this, True Believers. The only person you can put under God’s law is yourself. Even if the courts and law ruled in your favor this remains true. Thankfully we don’t live in a theocracy and the courts, including the SCOTUS,  have decided to respect the liberty of others in many cases. I know many fear that might change. For my part, I don’t believe marriage is a “constitutional” right, straight or gay. The idea of the state being in the business of determining what is and isn’t a relationship doesn’t sit well with me. Then there is Erik Erickson of RedState.com who says gay marriage and religious freedom are not compatible. Say what? Because I can think of a few legal things with which Christianity (varying depending on denomination and so forth) isn’t “compatible” but in no way infringe religious freedom including drinking, gambling, titty bars, and premarital sex…just as a running start at this. What makes same-sex marriage the deal breaker? Don’t forget that Christianity has been less than conducive to burgeoning legalities in the past as well, regarding such things as divorce, women’s rights, and interracial marriage. Bible verses were used to keep women under heel in submissive and sometimes abusive relationships and were used to engender racial bigotry, not to mention to support slavery. But society and culture changed, and so did Christianity. It survived. Now women can talk in church and even preach! Holy Bat Hell!  And where is the loss of religious freedom? Unless, you know, religious freedom to you is keeping people under heel and enslaved.

What Erikson fears is “within a year or two we will see Christian schools attacked for refusing to admit students whose parents are gay…churches suffer the loss of their tax exempt status for refusing to hold gay weddings…private businesses shut down because they refuse to treat as legitimate that which perverts God’s own established plan.” Never-minding why a so-called Christian school would essentially punish a child and not teach them because they didn’t like their parents, or the fact that maybe churches shouldn’t be tax exempt to begin with, does he really believe private businesses will be legally forced to shut down because they disagree with a portion of society’s lifestyle? And again, this is where the line is drawn? Are Christian mechanics going to refuse to fix gay couple’s cars? Christian schools are going to kick out students of gay parents? Christian barbers are going to refuse to cut a homosexual’s hair? Really? Seriously?? Because I’ll just go to a gay barber, who’s probably going to give me a better haircut anyway. Does this seem absurd? It’s the Christians drawing the argument. So real big Clue Stick to the head here. You’re not going to be legally shut down, it won’t be necessary. You’re going to shut down because nobody fucking likes you. You don’t have to approve of or be in moral alignment with people to do business with them. Erikson moans that such Christians will be “labeled bigots and criminals.” I don’t know about criminal, but bigots, yes. Tribalistic bigots.  And there is still no infringement of religious freedom. Refusing to provide a service for a paying customer is not religious freedom. At best it’s a personal freedom and matter of free association and at worst bad business. But for Erikson, who is afraid that under a nation that allows gay marriage Christian businesses won’t be able to express their deeply held conviction that homosexuals are going to rot in hell by refusing them service, this is the crux of the matter.

That’s not to say there isn’t blame to go around on both sides of this argument. There are plenty of over-the-top gay activists with fingers dangling over keyboards ready to pop a blood vessel when, say, Dan Kathy says Chik-Fil-A supports the biblical notion of marriage–like that was a huge freakin’ revelation. But ultimately I blame you, Christian Nation, for making me endure all of this. Because face it, you picked this fight. It’s a fight as lost as was the Confederacy. It’s just a matter of what kind of ideological, screeching divide you’re going to tear between people on your way out. And all of this could have been avoided. It should have been no different from not expecting a Jewish restaurant to serve me pork. I wouldn’t walk into a Christian bakery and expect them to whip me up a penis cake. I’d expect them to say they’re not comfortable with that, and many other family oriented bakeries to say same. Likewise, I see no reason why people should expect them to sell a gay wedding cake. Less so than the penis cake, unless maybe it was a gay penis wedding cake…but I digress. We just say fine and move onto the next baker who isn’t so uptight. The only place it might be problematic is small, backwater town America where maybe there isn’t more than one baker. It doesn’t seem to me it should be necessary to have to go to the next town over because somebody doesn’t approve of how you’re going to use a cake or whatnot. It just seems petty. But nor do I think churches should have to perform gay weddings against their wishes. Marriage is a legal institution in this country, not a religious one, and no particular brand of godhood is required. Look hard enough, you’ll find someone to perform the ceremony you want. We’re diverse like that. (However, for you believers, should you want a purely religious wedding without the blessing/acknowledgement of the state and the benefits/tax burdens it bestows, go for it! Live it. Nothing stopping you. God will know, right? Otherwise, you can keep sharing the privilege with others.)

So here we are, where dissension of view is often no longer tolerable. Say something others don’t like–well, then, there must be sanctions against that. They must be forced to comply with *insert offended group here* ‘s world view and condone it as valid. And then there must be laws, rules and regulations, and committees and research and more bureaucracy to determine if somebody’s feelings somewhere, somehow, were hurt. When, if we just didn’t give a frak about how everybody else lived their life and weren’t looking to be offended at every turn, we’d be much closer to copacetic.

The End Cometh Not

 

“The End is Nigh!” the man shouted.
“Is there still time for hot chocolate?” Riley asked.
The-End-is-Nigh guy blinked. “Ah, maybe, I don’t know.”
― Jana Oliver, Forbidden

I’ve written about this before, and I’ve just learned to live with the disappointment. The End didn’t come. Again. I post this because it is such a constant recurring subject, and it’s good to get it out of the way up front. Take for example Harold Camping’s prediction The End would come October 21st, 2011  (after a previous prediction the Rapture would come in May of that same year failed), which received more ridicule than not. That is, when it received attention at all. He’s far from alone in his failure. And when it comes to failed prophesy, contrary to what one might expect, the end result tends to be strengthened belief as reasons for the failure are explained away. Unfortunately Camping won’t be teasing us anymore with his eschatological buggery, since his own end came on December 15, 2013.

But most End Timers are a bit more circumspect in their approach. There’s a plethora of Christians who are savvy enough not to peg The End with a specific date other than “real soon.” Events in the Middle East are oft presented as Exhibit A, with last week’s natural disaster being Exhibit B, C, D, and so on. These folks aren’t quite brave enough to peg a date, or even year, but the impression is that it’s right around the corner. Often, depending on the age of the given individual, within their life time. They’re really hoping for that Rapture Get-Out-Of-Death-Free card.

Popular Christian end times eschatology today is primarily driven by dispensational premillenialism. Its roots are most often attributed to one John Darby in 1830 (making the position as a coherent whole less than 200 years old) who made sharp distinctions between grace and the law, earthly and heavenly people of God (Israel and the church), and went by “literal” interpretation of the fulfillment of prophecy. Under dispensationalism, history is divided into a number of epochs, or dispensations, in which God works out his plan and exercises his authority and relationship to man in distinctive ways, like a restaurant changing up its menu to keep it fresh. This is not what the position is known for, however, and not too many people seem to care about this aspect. It is the End Times scenario that captures and fires the imagination, with a pretribulational rapture, the rise of the Antichrist, and seven torturous years of tribulation (often especially bad for the Jews). Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins’s prolific Left Behind fictional series are based upon this theological framework. LaHaye is one of those who has been cagey enough not to peg a date, either, but in considering how “close” we may be it’s worth noting the authors found it not untimely to include the now deceased Mother Teresa, who is raptured in the first book ( published 1995). Even though she was Catholic and all.

All predictions that the world will end, regardless of faith or origination, share one thing in common: failure. A small fact the Chosen don’t like to be reminded about. This may be said of them: they are very forward-looking. Just because the flavor of the month/year didn’t turn out doesn’t mean it won’t be a hit the next. More facts will line up, and there will be more reasons to believe than ever before. And thus they’ll say, “The chances now are greater than ever before.” Which goes without saying, given the failure of all previous predictions. Any chance is greater than no chance. The very life blood of modern prophecy is “adapt your view and move on.”

It’s natural for people to want to live at the conclusion of things. To be in the movie’s climax. Some segment of every generation has believed they were living in The End. Not only are we living at the end, things are always Worse Than They’ve Ever Been, contrary to evidence against. And the world keeps spinning.

I was still just a pup when Hal Lindsay’s (some say the godfather of modern prophecy) book The Late Great Planet Earth was released, followed in 1980 by The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon.  The later book warned of something called the “Jupiter Effect,” which amounted to all the planets lining up in 1982 in a straight line perpendicular to the sun (in itself an inaccurate description). This alignment would cause the earth to slow ever so slightly, causing stress to fault lines which would result in tumultuous earthquakes. There would be fiery storms on the sun’s surface, calamity and chaos, dogs and cats living together…typical end of the world stuff. Even after the scientists who had postulated this stretch of imagination said “no way,” Lindsay continued to push it. Yeah, none of that happened. 1982 came and went like most any other year. That does not end the Hal Lindsay story.

The Late Great Planet Earth had made it clear, if not precise, that Christ was to return in 1988. The reason being that a biblical generation is often equated to 40 years, and that Israel had been reestablished as a state in 1948 (the restoration of Israel is a critical component for fulfillment of prophecy in most dispensational circles). The whole “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt. 24:34) is crucial here (ignoring the obvious context that the verse was talking about way back when). 48 + 40…you get the math. Meaning believers (subtracting 7 years for the tribulation) should have been raptured in 1981, leaving the unbelievers and misguided Jews behind to suffer. And while 1988 was quite enjoyable to me on a personal level, it also came and went like most any other year. And again, not the end of the Hal Lindsay story.

Lindsay adjusted his obviously wrong predictions in the 1990s to start in 1967 with the capture of Jerusalem by the Jews. That would put Jesus back…mental math…hey, around 2007. Ooops. But Lindsay’s constant revisionism, of which you might guess there has been a lot, has not dampened his popularity. In a 2007 video he said he would “look at the prophetic trends of 2007…Those events are now occurring at breakneck speed and the pages are flying off God’s prophetic calendar” followed closely by “I am not a prophet. I am, however, a careful interpreter of what God’s word predicts will be happening in the world just before Christ’s return to earth.” Honestly, I don’t know why anybody would think this about him.

And remember the Y2K crisis? When thousands of people were sure they’d be living in the dark and planes would fall from the sky at the tic of midnight? It was a tempting doomsday scenario that sucked in many bible pundits, whether they believed it or saw a quick buck. Grant Jeffries was sucked in by it (but poor Jeffries is sucked into just about every new cock-eyed thing that comes along, after which he promptly writes a misinformed book–or, assuming the worse, he just takes advantage). Jeffries, being not only a bible pundit but also a financial type of guy, was not only predicting doom and gloom, but was also willing to offer his financial cunning to help you through it. But a blurb at the beginning of the book reads “The author and publisher cannot be held responsible for any loss incurred as a result of applying any of the information in this book.” Which is the hallmark of every great Prophet–listen to me, but don’t expect me to take any responsibility for being wrong! Hal Lindsay was right there with them, slinging out a video titled Facing Millennial Midnight: The Y2K Crisis Confronting America and the World. The back read “Y2K is a logic bomb that could do to our civilization what the iceberg did to the Titanic. Are you safe? Is anybody safe? What are the experts saying? Are you ready for Millennial Midnight?” And Christians wonder why they are called naive.

It’s interesting to have a collection of prophesy books spanning time just to see how they change. Some prove amusing after the years have passed. My favorite by far, and the only one I make sure to keep, I found in a bargain bin in 2001 or early 2002. It was entitled 50 Remarkable Events Pointing to the End: Why Jesus Could Return by A.D. 2000 by one Ed Dobson. It has a yellow sticker in the upper right hand corner that reads “Sale $7.97 (reg. $12.99),” and right above the sale price it says “Slightly Imperfect.” That was, of course, referring to the condition of the book, but it gave me enough of a cynical giggle to buy it for 99 cents.

Certainly Christians aren’t the only ones to fail miserably at predicting The End, but they do seem to make an ungodly amount of money perpetuating said fears. It was pushed to new publishing heights with the Left Behind series, and every news-making headline in the Middle East seems to warrant another book (often a “revised and updated” one). Saddam Hussein graced many of the apocalyptic book covers for a time, but he was found hiding in a hole and is dead now. Scratch that. And I think it is the constant rearranging and bargaining that bothers me the most. I don’t really care if people want to predict when The End will be, but you should only get one crack at it. After that, you have to shut the hell up. We’ll shuffle you off to some nice quiet job where you can genuflect on your bad timing.

I’m sure the years to come will be just as entertaining from The End standpoint, and the History Channel (remember when they used to talk about history?) is sure to keep me informed on all Nostradamus has to say…again. Perhaps not as exciting as the anti-climaticism of those interpreting the Mayan calendar in 2012, but like bubble gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe, The End follows us around wherever we go. The aggressive actions of Russia of late are sure to spark the Gog and Magog interpretation (again). Maybe even as a nation the United States is grinding to an end. We are, after all, past the expiration date for a civilization based on our freedoms. But nations come and go. The world keeps spinning.