Weaponized Aryan Jesus?

Not the real guyThe term “weaponized Jesus” comes from an article I read on politicsusa.com, from November 2013, titled “The Religious Right With Their Weaponized Jesus Are Not Christians.”  It’s worth a read, if you enjoy the political-religious debate.

I eventually traced the phrase back to a 2010 story in Mother Jones. It’s a good description of the way some fundamentalist Americans are taking their religion. But that’s not at issue right now. It’s the guy on the left of the movie still that I want to write about.

Someone on my Facebook stream recently posted the picture above and talked about how she loved the show. It shows a still short from a movie called “Son of God.” I hadn’t heard of the movie before this FB post, so I had to read more about it because I’m pretty sure that the hippie guy in the still doesn’t look anything like what a Middle-Eastern, radical Jewish preacher called Jesus* would have really looked like.

This guy looks a little too much like Russell Brand, or a younger Brad Pitt, and not quite enough like the Roman-era, Palestinian Jew he would have been. And where was his hat?

If you watch the trailer, you’ll see I’m right.  That might be one reason the movie got a one-star rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but there are many more. The movie, it turns out is a spin-off from the History Channel’s apparently successful Bible series (didn’t see it), but the film was apparently crafted from content edited out of the TV series. As it says on the IMDB site:

…there was a reason all of that footage was cut. If it wasn’t good enough for television, how can this possibly be good enough for the cinema? Well, it’s not. This movie is a bore. With an unnecessary 138 minute run-time, the film drags through dialogue delivered at a pace slow enough for the slothful to keep up. Even then the script isn’t interesting. The selections of the gospel that get quoted are mercilessly butchered. And that’s another thing, if not the most important criticism of a movie of this caliber — the filmmakers had no respect for the source material.

But this isn’t a movie review, per se, since I haven’t seen the film (nor have I seen Mel Gibson’s overly-violent Passion of the Christ, although from the stills I’ve seen, actor Jim Caviezel, playing the Jesus role looks like he, too, is miscast…). It’s about history, ideology and cultural prejudices.

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Taoist Lessons for Politicians

Verse 29Those who look down upon this world, will surely take hold and try to change things. So begins verse 29 of the 4th century BCE Chinese classic (Jonathan Star translation*), the Tao Te Ching.

That verse suggests that those who feel themselves superior to the world and to others, who feel their actions, thoughts, views and beliefs are above those of others, will attempt to impress their own rule on others. And, as the verse continues, they can only fail in their attempts to control things. Control slips from their fingers.**

There’s a lesson here in verse 29, that winds throughout the book. It’s not simply for mystics and those who seek philosophical answers: it’s for politicians, including local candidates, too.

Moderation, humility, compromise, Lao Tzu suggests, is what works best; blunt attempts to control the world through confrontation, anger and challenge fail.

Some of his words of advice would fit the medieval “mirror for princes” books, which Machiavelli challenged in The Prince, but which Balthasar Gracian remade in his Art of Worldly Wisdom.

A couple of millennia have proven Lao Tzu right. Many others have shared his views over the ages – not necessarily because they read him, but because they came to similar conclusions about people and power. You can’t simply be negative and look down on things as if you could rule the world. A sense of superiority just isn’t enough to make a difference: you need virtue. Michel de Montaigne wrote:

Every other knowledge is harmful to him who does not have knowledge of goodness.
Book I, ch. 25

Lao Tzu’s small book is peppered with similar advice. It’s short enough to be read in an hour, but rich enough to be returned to through a lifetime.

The Derek Lin translation gives this rendition for verse 29:

Those who wish to take the world and control it
I see that they cannot succeed
The world is a sacred instrument
One cannot control it
The one who controls it will fail
The one who grasps it will lose

Because all things:
Either lead or follow
Either blow hot or cold
Either have strength or weakness
Either have ownership or take by force

Therefore the sage:
Eliminates extremes
Eliminates excess
Eliminates arrogance

Other translations concur, albeit offer alternate renderings. Regardless of specific wording, or which translation you prefer, all have a similar message that resonates in today’s politics. ***
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Happiness & Fulfillment

There are ten methods for meditating on the world, begins one scroll in the 1,300-year-old collection of Tang-dynasty sutras from Xian, China, that can lead us to happiness and fulfillment.

I realize that sounds like the opening of a New Age piffle book, but the sutras were actually discovered in a cave near a Buddhist monastery, in the far western region of China, in 1900. The scrolls were looted and sold to collectors and academia, and until 1998 were pretty much lost. Now the public can read a few selections from them in the book, The Lost Sutras of Jesus, by Ray Riegert and Thomas Moore.

The majority of the scrolls were Buddhist texts from the seventh century CE. Only eight of them were Christian – the efforts of early Christian (Persian) monks who arrived in Xian along the Silk Road, bringing their faith into contact with both Buddhism and Taoism. Those sutras, their legacy, are an intriguing blend of Christian and Buddhist views.

It’s also reminiscent of the Epicurean views I’ve been reading about in classical works.

The story of the scroll is a fascinating history and I would dearly love to read much more of these works, but there are few printed sources I have been able to find.

The cross-pollination of ideas between Buddhism and Christianity has not been very well explored, and I would like to learn more. I have read there were Buddhists in Alexandria in the first century CE, whose ideas and writings may have influenced the Gnostics. Did their faith also influence early “orthodox” Christians?

And how much did Christian beliefs influence Buddhism in this era? I simply don’t know, but there is a glimmer of light in these scrolls that suggests both faiths were malleable enough at that time to absorb something from the other. Too bad there was a “hardening of the faith arteries” that prevented more sharing.

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American belief in evolution is growing: poll

Alien SaintA new Harris poll released this month shows that Americans apparently are losing their belief in miracles and gaining it in science. The recent poll showed that American belief in evolution had risen to 47% from its previous poll level of 42%, in 2005.

True, it’s not an overwhelming increase, and it’s still less than half the population, but it is an improvement. Belief in creationism dropped 3% during that time, to 36%. Good news, of course, but don’t break out the champagne yet. There’s other data and it’s not all so good.

At the same time more Americans are believing in the science of evolution, American belief in many religious teachings is falling. Belief in miracles, heaven and others has dropped since the last poll:

  • 72% believe in miracles, down from 79 percent in 2005;
  • 68% believe in heaven, down from 75%;
  • 68% believe that Jesus is God or the Son of God, down from 72%;
  • 65% believes in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, down from 70%;
  • 64% believe in the survival of the soul after death, down from 69%;
  • 58% believe in the devil and hell, down from 62%;
  • 57% believe in the Virgin birth, down from 60%.

CNS News also tells us the poll shows:

  • Absolute certainty that there is a God is down vs. 10 years ago (54% vs. 66% in 2003).
  • Outside of specific religious samples, the groups most likely to be absolutely certain there is a God include blacks (70%), Republicans (65%), older Americans (62%), Baby Boomers (60%), Southerners (61%) and Midwesterners (58%), and those with a high school education or less (60%).
  • There continues to be no consensus as to whether God is a man or a woman. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans (39%) think God is male, while only 1% of U.S. adults believe God is female. However, notable minorities believe God is neither male nor female (31%) or both male and female (10%).
  • 19 percent of Americans describe themselves are “very” religious, with an additional four in ten (40%) describing themselves as “somewhat” religious (down from 49% in 2007). Nearly one-fourth of Americans (23%) identify themselves as “not at all” religious – a figure that has nearly doubled since 2007, when it was at 12%.

The Harris Poll has some not-so-good news to report, as well. According to the pollsters, more Americans believe in ghosts, reincarnation and UFOs than in 2005:

  • Reincarnation: 25%, up 3%
  • Ghosts 42%, up 1%
  • UFOs 36%, up 1%

I’m not sure whether to blame this lapse in critical thinking on ‘reality” TV or the internet. Either way, it’s troubling.

Belief in witches is down to 5% to 25%, and belief in astrology remains unchanged at 29%. Belief in angels is down 6%, but still staggeringly high at 68%. Imaginary beings are losing followers, while pseudoscience still hangs in there. The good news, if one reads it thus, is that belief in the science of evolution is finally higher than the belief in witches, ghosts, UFOs, astrology, creationism and reincarnation. But not angels.

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Burning Books, Burning Bibles

Pastor Marc Grizzard, of Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, NC is back in the news this week, but I’m not really sure if it’s because of something he did or something that was dredged up online from a few years back and has just been regurgitated.

This week, a story in The Telegraph about Grizzard resurfaced on Facebook. But it’s from 2009, not dated 2013. I’m unable to find a contemporary reference that doesn’t refer back to the 2009 story. Mayhap it’s a hoax. But it’s fun and informative to revisit, anyway.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FkbgeR8LKs#t=11]

Back then, the Telegraph reported that Grizzard intended to burn books in his North Carolina church. Religious books in particular, especially those of a Christian nature, albeit just not his particular – and peculiar – Christian nature. Bibles, too:

Marc Grizzard, of Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, North Carolina, says that the first King James translation of the Bible is the only true declaration of God’s word, and that all others are “satanic”.
Pastor Grizzard and 14 other members of the church plan to burn copies of the other “perversions” of Scripture on Halloween, 31 October.
The New Revised Version Bible, the American Standard Version Bible, and even the New King James Version are all pronounced to be works of the Devil by Pastor Grizzard and his followers.
Pastor Grizzard said: “I believe the King James version is God’s preserved, inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God… for English-speaking people.

Grizzard also wanted to throw in books by Christian authors onto the flames as well:

…the pastor and his associates will be burning books by various Christian authors, as well as music of every genre.
“[We will be burning] books by a lot of different authors who we consider heretics, such as Billy Graham, Rick Warren… the list goes on and on,” Pastor Grizzard told reporters.
Mother Teresa is also on the list of Satanic authors.

Mother Teresa? Yeah – she was Catholic. Fundamentalists believe all Catholics are going to Hell. One fundie write says its because “Catholicism is a manmade religion.” Well, I thought they all were. I mean, do we have polar-bear-made religions? Spider-monkey-made religions? Dolphin-made religions? Jack-Russell-terrier-made religions? I don’t want to digress too much from the smoldering books, but this stuff is pretty wacky.

So you can’t be just any sort of Christian writer; Grizzard wants you to be one of his sort of Christian, which is apparently a pretty narrow field. Otherwise, anything you wrote is tossed into the flames (assuming the law lets them…). Which is, of course, merely a thin metaphor for burning someone at the stake, a favourite hobby of fundamentalists past.

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What’s it all about, Alfie?

Facebook image“What’s it all about, Alfie?” sings Cilla Black in the title song for the eponymous 1966 movie. But it could be the anthem for the human race, or at least those with a philosophical bent. “What’s it all about?” is certainly a question that springs to my mind daily as I listen to the news, read a paper or surf the internet.*

What “it” is all about was raised this week when the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal granted that atheism is a “creed” that deserves the same protections in law and public policy as any faith, equal under the Human Rights Code.

David A. Wright, associate chairman of the tribunal, made the statement that,“Protection against discrimination because of religion, in my view, must include protection of the applicants’ belief that there is no deity.”

A delightful victory for secular humanists and freethinkers. Atheists of all stripes should have the same right to spread their beliefs or proselytize like any other person who does it in the name of faith. Rights of expression should not be constrained by having no faith. By the same token, they have to obey he same rules as to where and when it is appropriate to do so.

Fair enough. But don’t expect to see atheists showing up at your front door wanting to give you a copy of Skeptic magazine, hoping to be invited into your living room for a chat about your salvation.

The decision also sparked a lot of lively debate about just what atheism is. What is “it” that deserves protection and is there anything definite, some commonality that clearly defines just what an atheist is? Spoiler: the answer is no.

It has also brought to the surface many misunderstandings about atheism – as well as general misunderstanding about what the words “religion” and “creed” mean. As reporter in the St. Catherine Standard, “Commission lawyer Cathy Pike argued in part the tribunal didn’t need to determine if atheism or secular humanism is a creed.” Quite right. But they did anyway.

The decision was a topic on the recent CBC radio show, Day Six, which asked “Is atheism a religion?” – a question not unlike asking “is a fish a bicycle?” Or as one poster on the CBC site wryly commented, “It has been variously said that atheism is a religion as: bald is a hair colour; “Off” is a TV channel, and; abstinence is a sex position.”

Many writers commenting on this decision share similar confusions over the idea of atheism, and mistake atheism for religion (a bit like mistaking a bicycle for a bus because they both have wheels). Perhaps most comments I’ve read come from writers who have a religion they want to defend and have a difficult time understanding a life without faith, so they need to put non-belief into a context they can comprehend.

For example, Licia Corbella, columnist in the Calgary Herald, wrote:

This may be a leap of faith, but here’s hoping that maybe now, atheists — many of whom have proven themselves to be a highly motivated evangelistic group accustomed to ramming their minority religion down the throats of the majority — will face the same scrutiny of their beliefs as traditional faiths have been undergoing for decades in Canada at their behest.

Corbella’s desire to punish atheists for their presumption notwithstanding, that atheism isn’t a religion can be proven by the semantics. While there are many variant definitions of what a religion is, Wikipedia’s is fairly good (emphasis added):

Religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to the supernatural, and to spirituality. Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that are intended to explain the meaning of life and/or to explain the origin of life or the Universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, they tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.

Dictionary.com adds this (emphasis added):

  1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
  2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
  3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.
  4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.
  5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.

Austin Cline quotes an “Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (undefined as to which publisher, since there are numerous such works) for this rather exhaustive definition:

  • Belief in supernatural beings (gods).
  • A distinction between sacred and profane objects.
  • Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.
  • A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods.
  • Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual, and which are connected in idea with the gods.
  • Prayer and other forms of communication with gods.
  • A world view, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an over-all purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it.
  • A more or less total organization of one’s life based on the world view.
  • A social group bound together by the above.

Almost all definitions state that a religion is a collection of formal beliefs that include a supernatural or superhuman agency. But what agency or organization determines or collates this collection for atheists? None.

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Hell 2.3

IncubusBefore I carry on with my exploration of Miriam Van Scott’s Encyclopedia of Hell, I wanted to note that I just got my copy of her other book – the Encyclopedia of Heaven, from Abebooks. It’s dated 1999, so it’s a year later than her book on Hell. Yet it has many related topics – like Goethe’s second Faust. And it has lots of pop culture – like movie references – but nothing post 1999.

Miriam, why not consider a revised, updated “Encyclopedia of the Afterlife” to combine everything in one book? Lots has happened since the last editions. I’d be happy to help… okay, moving along.

Oh, and try not to make this out to be some sort of allegory for local politics. Sure, last term was Hell at times, but that’s not what this is all about. We left off in the letter I…

Incubus (plural incubi), we’re told, is the male version of the succubus. Both are seductive demons meant to lure humans to give in to temptation and have sex with them. Apparently if you succumb to temptation you open the door to damnation. It’s too late for me: flee, save yourselves… should have said that back in the 60s.

Scott doesn’t tell us that incubi are actually holdovers from ancient Mesopotamian religion (Mesopotamia is Greek, by the way, and it means between the rivers, because the civilizations rose between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers). Thank the river gods for Wikipedia and some “Small Latine and Lesse Greeke” in my education.*

Nor does she mention that incubi can father children (called cambion) and that Merlin, the legendary British wizard, was supposed to have been the child of an incubus and a human woman (in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, a nun) named Aldan. But not all legends tell the same tale, and some are rather more prosaic about his birth. But Geoffrey’s book, the History of the Kings of England, is a delight to read anyway, despite the rather fanciful and fantastic bits.

Some succubi can be impregnated, others merely collect the sperm which the incubi use to impregnate females. Seems artificial insemination was thought of a long time ago. But as Wikipedia tells us, it might not be a fun act for the guys:

It is said that the act of sexually penetrating a succubus is akin to entering a cavern of ice.

That should lead me to a joke about my ex-wife, but I’ll avoid that temptation.
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Hell 2.1, a small update

Get out of Hell free cardI left you in my exploration of the Encyclopedia of Hell pondering which version of the Faustus story was better: with or without his final redemption. Personally, I prefer without, because it offers greater dramatic opportunities. I also don’t like the notion of redemption: it seems like a “get out of Hell free” card.

Christianity is the only religion I know of that offers this particular way out of your bad deeds: accept Jesus as your personal saviour and you’ll get diverted from Hell. So basically you can be evil until your deathbed, not take responsibility for your actions, then repent and avoid the punishment of the afterlife. Somehow to me, that’s cowardly. Take responsibility for your actions, like the Buddhists do.

Christianity’s redemption is tied into the notion of salvation (Christian belief in a deified saviour is, as far as I understand, also unique), the personal relationship with its deity, and is a lot more complex than I can get into here. But some Christian faiths believe in redemption or salvation after death, too, which lessens the whole hell thing (saying a mass for the dead, for example).

After all, if you can be pulled from the pits into heaven by living people praying for you, it makes Hell look more like a bad parking ticket than eternal damnation.

As an allegorical tale, Faust lacks the punch if he avoids damnation through some theological prestidigitation. I prefer it when he gets his just desserts. Might not be redemption, but it does bring closure.

Buddhists have a different type of Hell and redemption: you need to balance bad deeds with good: your accumulated karma determines your afterlife (and reincarnation, for those who believe in it). You redeem yourself by being good. You gotta work at it; nothing is free.

There’s another version of redemption in Judaism, but it’s not a personal one (except for the pidyon haben, which is ritualistic rather than theological), but rather a collective one to do with the diaspora.

On to the rest of the F chapter. It’s fairly short, even if I am verbose as I meander through it.

But first, for your reading pleasure, two more books: The Origin of Satan, by Elaine Pagels. Pagels is one of my favourite theological writers and her books on the Gnostic scriptures, Beyond Belief and The Gnostic Gospels, are a great introduction. The former is also available in audio book format at the local library. The other title is Hell: An Illustrated History of the Netherworld, by Richard Craze. It’s a fun little intro into various visions of hell in world mythology.

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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)

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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.

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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 “Review: The Life of Pi”

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What if you’re wrong?

[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=beYYZRN1sEs]

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 “What if you’re wrong?”

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Religion, Logic, and Tornadoes

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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 “Religion, Logic, and Tornadoes”

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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?

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* 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.

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America’s Intolerant WBC Fundamentalists

[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=2JAErHl7lZ4]
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:
[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ra_fAYl4Th4]
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:
[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTVH0r6D8i4]

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:
[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlcbgnHtnQY]

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:
[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqyUU66qNuE]
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:
[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAeJC9_UWOQ]
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:
[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMbfQ117Jts]
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.
[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9dD9v2cIMU]
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.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hmIr9P-vkSQ]

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.

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* 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.

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