07/22/13

Hell 2.0


Diablo or someone like himI left you last time after finishing the letter D, in Miriam Van Scott’s Encyclopedia of Hell. I’m back in book form to take you through a few more entries in her exploration of the afterlife. But first a couple of additions to your reading material.

First on the list is Alice Turner’s 275-page The History of Hell. It’s an illustrated guide to how Westerners have come to think of Hell, It starts with the ancient influences – Egypt, Greece, Rome and Judaism – but its main focus is on the evolving Christian imagination. She has a lot to say about the popular imagination and culture, too.

A more comprehensive, and significantly longer work is Alan Segal’s 866-page tome, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion. Very theologically-oriented and dry, Segal’s work isn’t as much fun to read as Turner’s, but delves considerably deeper into scriptures (Jewish, Christian, and less comprehensively, Islamic).

Neither Turner nor Segal given any attention to non-Western thought. There is nothing on Buddhist, Shinto, Confucian, Hindu or other non-Western faiths. Nor do they go far from mainstream religious thought: nothing on any cult or fringe group like Scientology, Wicca, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon or Seventh Day Adventist afterlife.

And today’s last choice is the fun little book by Augusta Moore and Elizabeth Ripley, The Pocket Guide to the Afterlife. A great intro to the world’s thinking about what happens after death. Just about every faith you can name, from Astaru to Zoroastrianism is covered in short, fun, illustrated descriptions. It’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek in parts, it is actually quite good in describing what are often complex and arcane beliefs.

Anyway, when I left you, I had plowed through Drithelm, Drugaskan and Duat. If you have been following along in your copy, you will remember these are a 7th-century Briton whose visions of Hell made him become a monk; the lowest level of Hell in Zoroastrianism, and the landing zone in Egyptian mythology where the dead arrive to find eternal retribution or rest, respectively.

Ever wonder why we call everyone else’s idea of the afterlife and their gods “mythology” while we claim ours is the only truth, capitalizing everything, like our God but their god? Just our parochial, narrow-minded perspective I suppose. But let’s go on (and save parochialism for another post)

Continue reading

07/19/13

What in Hell…?


DemonHades, you know, isn’t a place. It’s a guy. The Greek god of the underworld. His territory consists of a bunch of domains, including the rather unpleasant Tartarus, where souls – called shades – suffer eternal punishment. Hades wasn’t a fun god. If you weren’t getting your skin ripped off in Tartarus, life sucked in other ways. You moped about in the other domains, lethargically meandering around the afterlife without much purpose.

Sort of like former politicians or local bloggers.

That’s the sort of thing you learn when you read books. And the sort of thing that gets me labelled a “pompous ass” by local bloggers for whom reading anything more complex than a soccer jersey is an elitist act. But I haven’t been on the library board for the last two decades just for my pretty face. I have that odd notion that books – and libraries and learning – actually matter.

Reading matters. You should never stop learning. When you stop, you start to die. Learning is how we grow, how we develop,how we expand our horizons. And we learn by reading.

After my post on The Know-It-All, I looked around my bookshelves for something encyclopedic to read, not quite Britannica (which I don’t have, yet); something readable in bed. No, not the dictionary (although Dr. Johnson’s has been a nighttime companion). Something zippier. I turned to my bookshelves.

The Encyclopedia of Hell caught my eye. Three hundred pages of minutiae about the afterlife. Well, one part of it. The downside, so to speak. From Abbadon to Zoroastrianism. The author, Miriam Van Scott, also wrote The Encyclopedia of Heaven, which seems a good follow-up once I get through Hell. Get both sides of the picture (I know, odd books for a non-religious person, but they’re part of my research). The EoH will be my guide for a while.

Of course, I’ll use the internet to follow along, picking up the extra scraps of knowledge not in the book. A bit like when my dog Sophie follows behind me when I have food, vacuuming those fallen chips and salsa bits from the floor. Wikipedia will be my mental salsa picante. Not the floor bit, of course.

Continue reading

06/23/13

Review: The Life of Pi


Life of PiWe watched Life of Pi last night, a film that has garnered much critical acclaim and won four coveted Oscar awards (although it has not been without controversies). I had struggled somewhat with the book (for reasons given below), but the lavish praise for the film made me decide to try again.

I had read about the movie’s stunning camera work and CGI graphics, and these do not disappoint. It’s a beautiful film, and the CGI is amazingly lifelike. I puzzled over what was real and not in many scenes. But the story itself…

While sometimes described as a “fantasy adventure”, the novel is really an allegory about the search for meaning in religion. It’s also about the relativity of truth.

One of the delights of fiction is than an author can conjure up a situation, a landscape, an event and give his or her characters the chance to explore that imagined world and determine what it means to be human under those circumstances. That’s one reason I like science fiction: it has no boundaries to the imagination. But sometimes an author is trying not just to use this world to explore the human condition, but rather make a point, to teach, to pontificate what he or she believes is the message we readers need to absorb.

I felt Martel’s message, lumbering through the pages, was heavier-handed than his actual words. And that too often he meandered down his path rather than walked us towards it (compare the 300-plus pages of Life of Pi to  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s brief little allegory, The Little Prince). Even Paul Coelho, that author of so many allegories, is briefer in his tales of self-discovery.

Martel’s writing is fairly smooth and light throughout most of the book, but I personally found it dragged, especially in the beginning. The core of the tale – Pi’s survival at sea with a tiger – doesn’t being until Chapter 37, a third of the way into the story. By then I was muttering “get on with it” to myself as I read through the pages.

The tale – when it finally began – struck me like a modernized Book of Job: a human suffering the vicissitudes of life and his hostile environment while struggling to keep faith, illogically at times, with an arbitrary, unresponsive or sometimes downright cruel deity. Again, I found it stretched on longer than necessary. Like Job, our Pi has to go through numerous challenges to test his faith. Continue reading

06/9/13

What if you’re wrong?


Great visualization of the now-famous response from evolutionary biologist, author, and well-known atheist, Richard Dawkins, when asked in 2006 about his argument that there is no god, “What if you’re wrong?”

Flying Spaghetti Monster pin“Anybody could be wrong, ” he replies. “We could all be wrong about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Pink Unicorn and the Flying Teapot.”

All of these refer to various arguments used to illustrate the weakness in faith-based statements and arguments.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster (aka Pastafarianism) was, according to Wikipedia, created as a satire against creationists (a group notoriously shy of a sense of humour…):

The “Flying Spaghetti Monster” was first described in a satirical open letter written by Bobby Henderson in 2005 to protest the Kansas State Board of Education decision to permit teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in public school science classes. In that letter, Henderson satirized creationist ideas by professing his belief that whenever a scientist carbon dates an object, a supernatural creator that closely resembles spaghetti and meatballs is there “changing the results with His Noodly Appendage”. Henderson argued that his beliefs and intelligent design were equally valid, and called for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism to be allotted equal time in science classrooms alongside intelligent design and evolution. After Henderson published the letter on his website, the Flying Spaghetti Monster rapidly became an Internet phenomenon and a symbol used against teaching intelligent design in public schools.

The FSM has its own website and a huge following. You can buy FSM pins, T-shirts and other accessories from Evolvefish.com. You could even become an ordained FSM minister for a few dollars. Continue reading

05/24/13

Religion, Logic, and Tornadoes


Facebook image
What has a tornado in common with prayer in schools and US President Barack Obama? Rhonda Crosswhite. Yes, the Oklahoma teacher praised as a hero for saving several children when a massive tornado ripped through her town of Moore, earlier this week.

And no doubt she was. But there were many other teachers who were heroes that day,  none of whom have become a rallying point for the religious right, as far as I can tell. Crosswhite was, from all accounts I’ve read, the only one to mention praying during the tornado. That comment made her a different sort of hero to the religious right. The rest have generally been ignored.

Crosswhite told media that she prayed while the tornado carved its path of destruction around her.

“I did the teacher thing that we’re probably not supposed to do. I prayed — and I prayed out loud,” she said in an interview with NBC News following the violent storm.

No surprises. Even for nonbelievers, the no-atheists-in-foxholes theory rings true when confronted by big, scary, life-threatening events like tornadoes or wars. When you’re having the bejeezus scared out of you, your mind is not likely parsing the intellectual debate about whether a particular deity exists. And believers of any faith are naturally going to delve into their faith for support in times of crisis. Nothing unusual or conspiratorial about that.

Even her comment that she prayed “out loud” is unexceptional. I suspect I would be very loud in the same circumstance, albeit more expletive-laden than religious.

Of course, it may simply be a biological reaction rather than rational. It might be because of “vesicular monoamine transporter 2” or VMAT2, a protein involved in neurotransmitter functions that geneticist Dean Hamer associated with human spirituality in his delightfully irreverent and thought-provoking book, The God Gene.

Almost immediately, a photo of Crosswhite appeared on the Web with almost her words:

“And then I did something teachers aren’t supposed to do.
I Prayed.
I prayed out loud.”

Not an exact quote (so little on Facebook is…) and subtly different. This was quickly spun by the religious right into a rallying cry to reinstate prayer in America public schools. To be fair, I have no idea if Crosswhite agrees with any of these demands, or likes having her words used for such a purpose. But I have read of no protests by her, either.

Yes, yes, you are wondering as I did what the connection is. But you are using logic and reason to try and understand an issue of blind faith (and right-wing American politics).

Continue reading

01/28/13

Forgery!


ForgedForgery. It’s something that one normally associates with criminals; passing counterfeit bills, scammers, online pirates, people selling fake relics or fake ID. It’s something I would not normally associate with religion. But it’s a significant problem in the book millions of people cherish as infallible, perfect and absolute: the Bible. At least that’s what Bart D. Ehrman contends in his latest book, Forged.

If you are not familiar with Bart D. Ehrman’s writing, then you are in for an intellectual treat. He writes about a fascinating subject: the development of early Christianity, including all the fringe groups, challengers like the Gnostics, docetists, Marcionites and others, their alternate beliefs; about the development of the canon and the fight to establish orthodoxy.

Gripping stuff, if you are a history buff. But even if not, if you have any interest at all in faith or religion, it is well worth the read. As a lay historian, I find the history of Christianity fascinating. It’s a rich story; replete with politics, murder, armed insurrection, sex, violence, intellectual and philosophical challenges, forgers, liars, cheats, madmen, cults, deception, secret agents, assassination, sorcery and war. Its threads run through all of Western history.

While reading the whole history of Christianity may be a bit much for some folks (but if you’re up to it, start with Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 1,000-page tome, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years), Ehrman’s books break down some of the more interesting bits into more digestible chunks. The early bits, that is – Ehrman’s focus is on the first three or four centuries of Christianity. But it is easily the most important period for the development of what we know today as Christianity: he delves into how it developed, how the beliefs were established, what challenges the early church faced, what groups were contending for the upper hand in the battle for orthodoxy, and –  perhaps most critically – the creation of the canon we know today as the New Testament.

I’ve been reading some of the alternate texts and books that either never made it into the Bible or were later cast out, since the early 1970s. Then I came across an odd title called, Lost Books of the Bible and Forgotten Books of Eden. It was first released in 1926, and remains in print today. The description at Amazon.ca says

This is the most popular collection of apocryphal and pseudepigriphal literature ever published.

It was certainly influential for me. It led me to read about and the texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi Library, and various collections of apocrypha and Gnostic writing – books that still fill my shelves today. Some of this stuff is amazing. Some of it is crazy. Some of it seriously challenges existing beliefs; and some of it contradicts the canon in remarkable ways. Some of it is beautiful, some awkward. And some of it is simply too odd and wacky for comfort.

Ehrman’s books (26 in all), along with a few others about the same topic*, answered many questions I had wondered about: who wrote the books of the Bible and when? Who chose what books were included? What books didn’t make it and why? And the answers were sometimes astounding. (NB: You can also get his lecture series called Lost Christianities from The Great Courses – among other related courses – good audiobook stuff!)

I had realized long ago that many of those biblical books were not written by the people whose names they were associated with. In the Old Testament, for example, the books of Daniel, Isaiah and Ecclesiastes were written not by Daniel, Isaiah and Solomon, respectively, but a few centuries after they lived, by now unknown authors.

Most of the “pseudepigrapha” and wrongly attributed works are in the New Testament.** Some of these are deliberate forgeries, Ehrman contends (his blog has even more controversial claims).***

Ehrman’s latest book confronts the issue of authorship and he clearly states that many NT books were forged in the name of apostles or Paul. While that’s not really new, Ehrman is the first I’ve read to call these fakes forgeries, rather than find some philosophical or theological excuse for them. He makes it clear that they were written to deceive readers about theological or liturgical issues. And he both defends his position and dismantles counter-arguments from apologists.

What’s fascinating – for me at least – is the question: who knew? Did the early church fathers who accepted and rejected various books and created the canon (Irenaeus, for example) know or suspect that some of these books were forgeries? And what does that mean to the Bible and its followers today?

~~~~~
* Barrie Wilson’s book, How Jesus Became Christian, Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ among them, both highly recommended.
** Authorship is questionable even in the synoptic gospels, and scholars argue about who actually wrote them. The attribution to the apostles is from early church fathers and based on tradition, rather than evidence.
*** One of the problems for people like me when trying to follow these arguments is that I have never read the Bible. I have, like most of us, read a translation (or rather, several translations) of it, but in order to claim to have read the Bible, one has to have read the actual books – in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

12/10/12

America’s Intolerant WBC Fundamentalists



I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I watched this. laugh because Russell Brand* just runs circles around these guys from the Westboro Church and they don’t seem to realize when they are being mocked. Fish in a barrel, I suppose. Cry because they obviously believe their hatred; they obviously believe that their narrow, bigoted and violent take on their scriptures is not only right, but the only one. I don’t think they got the message Brand was trying to push on them: they are too righteous in their prejudice for alternative ideas. Or maybe they do and they just don’t care because mockery doesn’t synch with their rigid ideology.

This is hardly new stuff, of course. Michael Moore did a piece on the Westboro Church’s religious hatred towards gays back in 2008, again with his usual humour and in-your-face tactics:

This morning I did some researching online. I was surprised that I knew so little about a group that has had so much attention given to it.

Before this video, I had paid little attention to the Westboro church. I had seen the name in news items, of course, but since they protest in the USA, I didn’t give them a second thought. I recall they hate Canada too, and most were barred at the border from entering this country to protest at a funeral of a man slain on a bus in Manitoba. Being kept out made the church very angry about the “faggy-Nazi regime” in Canada:

I’m not sure why the Westboro Baptist Church spews all this hatred, but there are dozens of videos about them on YouTube, including some disturbing documentary stuff. These folks are scary in the way the KKK, or the Neo Nazis and the Aryan Brotherhood are scary, but even more dangerous. They almost make Scientologists look normal, and you have to be pretty far out on the fringe to do that.

The church has long been subject to reporting, study, commentary, analysis and conjecture. And a lot of ridicule, anger and even hatred, especially online. But I didn’t find a lot that explained them.

In 2001, the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote about the church’s late pastor and founder, stating that (based on testimony from his own children) Fred Phelps was abusive, violent and manipulative:

In a series of newspaper and television interviews over the years, three of Phelps’ children — the only three who are estranged from their father — have alleged that they were attacked both physically and psychologically.

Fred Phelps, they say, meant to hurt his children and to turn them against the rest of the world.

Mark and Nathan Phelps and sister Dortha “Dotti” Bird offer plenty of brutal details — details that their father has long dismissed as “a sea of fag lies.” Nathan told the Intelligence Report that he was beaten with a leather strap regularly. Then, he says, Fred Phelps switched to a mattock handle — like an axe handle — and beat Nathan until he “couldn’t lie down or sit down for a week.” The three charge that Phelps also beat their mother, forced the children to fast and more.

But Phelps’ alleged violence — which his nine loyal children deny — never really caught up with him. A child abuse case was brought against Phelps for abuse of Nathan and his brother Jonathan, Nathan says, but was dropped when the children refused to cooperate with the prosecutor, fearing their father’s reprisals.

The estranged children say that most of the family has stayed loyal because their father has filled them with the fear of God. “He would tear you down and make you feel terrible and there wasn’t any way but his way,” Dotti said.

Looking what they do to their own children in these videos, it’s not inconceivable:

Pretty sad that children are brought up like that, as the brainwashed child soldiers in a bizarre war against reason and values they clearly don’t understand. It’s clearly a cult, and the children are their hostages.

The interviewer below gets some good points that Nat Phelps can’t answer, about contradictions in how they interpret scripture:

But of course, the hypocrisy doesn’t seem to make itself through to the interviewee.

I can’t understand how they aren’t shut down for hate speech, and promoting hate crimes. If I stood on a corner spouting such homophobic drivel, I’d be arrested at least for disturbing the peace. Why aren’t they? How can hate speech be protected by the Constitution?

Gay men and women aren’t their only target, either (although they are certainly the top of the hate list, but the list is long: it basically includes everyone not within their own church circle).

Jews are given time on the hate roster and may be a close number two:

Catholics are targets. So are American soldiers. The church eagerly and joyfully pickets funerals of American soldiers who have died in Iraq or Afghanistan, glorifying in their deaths because, as their church teaches them, these deaths are punishment for Americans being lenient towards homosexuality. “Soldiers die, God laughs” say their signs.

They also carry signs that read, “Thank God for 9/11,” celebrating the deaths of workers in the Twin Towers. They’ve protested in front of girls’ schools, too, with anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-Obama signs. They delighted in the destruction and deaths caused by Hurricane Sandy, calling it the “wrath of God” in tweets from their new leader, Shirley, daughter of the late Fred. They celebrated the deaths of miners in West Virginia as sign of their deity’s displeasure.

They glorified the shooter at the Batman movie for killing members of the audience and picketed the prayer service for the slain. Tweets from church members after the massacre read, “God is at work in Colorado” and used the hashtag #ThankGodForTheShooter. They protested at Whitney Houston’s and Steve Jobs’ funerals. (ironically tweeting about it from their iPhones…).

Any and every death, tragedy, natural disaster and accident in America is cause for them to openly and loudly celebrate and express their hatred. Pretty sick, pretty twisted by any standard within a wide range of normal.

Every documentary about the church amazes and disconcerts me:

Look around 12:40 and 14:40 and see brief clips of film from the church about Jews that is almost identical to those produced by the Nazis prior to WWII. And how is this not hate speech?

Now, I’m not an expert on Christianity by a long shot, but when I look at their posters lauding death for American soldiers dying in the Middle East, and hear their comments about how they hate America and American soldiers, I think of Islamist radical fundamentalists, rather than Christians.

I think of similar comments I’ve heard and read in the past from Al Qaeda, from the Taliban, from Hamas, from Hezbollah, from Fatah, from Iranian clerics and leaders. The only difference I can identify is that the Westboro group says they are Christian, not Muslim.

Maybe it’s all play acting. Maybe they are an Al Qaeda cell disguised as Christians trying to infiltrate the religious community and get publicity for their cause. It’s easier to believe that than to believe these people are in any way Christian, at least according to what I think of as Christian teaching (compassion, sharing, caring, tolerance).

Or they could be a cell of Satan worshippers trying to discredit the Christian faith by showing it as a malign, unpatriotic voice of evil?

Of course there may be another explanation. This church consists mostly of members of a single, extended (and rather prolific) family from small one part of Kansas, and I can’t help but wonder if inbreeding plays a role in their collective mental development. That’s also not a new idea – just Google it and read any number of conjectures about the family being inbred.

Freedom of speech is a right, but it has to come with responsibility, too, otherwise it can become mere hate-mongering. You shouldn’t be able to say just anything you want – but these folks can, apparently. They can make the most horrific, nasty, demeaning, bigoted and malevolent statements without fear of legal or social retribution.

In 2006, they picketed the funeral of Matt Snyder, a US Marine killed in Iraq, with their horrific signs saying “Matt in Hell” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” The upset father sued the church, and they were found guilty of hate speech not covered by the First Amendment. The court ordered the church to pay $10.9 million to the father.

The church used the judgment to get more publicity, then appealed. They won their appeal in 2011 on “protected free speech.” The Supreme Court then ordered the bereaving father to pay the church’s legal bills.

That is a stunning injustice and condemnation of the First Amendment

Subsequently, 42 states have put restrictions on picketing at funerals to prevent them from getting so close again. Meanwhile, they use the internet and social media increasingly and with greater sophistication to spread their venom.

But it’s not all mockery and derision on social media and YouTube. The video below is the first of an eight-part documentary on the family and the church, and it’s actually quite chilling to watch. Hannibal Lecter was easier to view onscreen, at least from my perspective. Perhaps that’s because I knew he was just an actor, but these people are real, yet more twisted than I could have ever written about in fiction.

Watch all the parts. Each one will reveal to you yet another disturbing facet of their madness. In part three, around 2:30, you’ll see them protesting a local hardware stores for selling Swedish vacuum cleaners, because Sweden allegedly jailed one of their supporters. Try to unravel that logic.

Now I know quite well that this family doesn’t represent all of America, doesn’t represent all Christians, and doesn’t even represent most fundamentalists. They only represent themselves and their twisted, malevolent, diabolical views. Still, I’d have a lot more respect for American fundamentalist Christians if the rest of them collectively disowned this group and made a public statement that Westboro is a cult. It is neither Christian nor their ideologies supported by other Christian groups.

~~~~~~
* Because I watch so little TV, I didn’t know who Russell Brand was before I saw this video. Thanks to my Facebook friends for enlightening me. I also read the Wikipedia entry about him. I have to admit I’ve never seen any of his movies or his TV shows, with the exception of 3 Lions (which I bought in London last fall…) And yes, I know of Katy Perry, his ex-wife and I’ve even heard some of her music, but I’m completely out of the loop when it comes to what or who the glitterati are doing, so I didn’t make the connection with her until I read the article.