Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Rebel Jesus

The Bishop of the State of Minnesota introduced me to this song recently. I love Christmas songs, not the ones that were written 200 years ago and now sung by country singers, but ones that capture what Christmas feels like if you are walking down 5th Avenue in New York or in a cabin in Montana contemplating the insanity of another year and feeling thankful for what you have at the same time.

Jackson Browne draws you in with this song, then hits you with the thought of what would happen if all of us really started giving in the way the Christmas story points us. Here are the words:

All the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants' windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
While the sky darkens and freezes
Will be gathering around the hearths and tables
Giving thanks for God's graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

Well they call him by 'the Prince of Peace'
And they call him by 'the Savior'
And they pray to him upon the seas
And in every bold endeavor
And they fill his churches with their pride and gold
As their faith in him increases
But they've turned the nature that I worship in
From a temple to a robber's den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

Well we guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

Now pardon me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judgment
For I've no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In a life of hardship and of earthly toil
There's a need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure
And I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Botany of Desire

In “The Botany Desire”, Michael Pollan comes up with a surprising section about what he calls the Natural History of Religion. Michael Pollan is a farmer, who writes about food and the modern farming industry. In this book he covers the apple, and the history of Johnny Appleseed, the tulip and the financial bubble it created a few hundred years ago, the potato and its famous famine, and marijuana. The book is about how humans and plants have co-evolved and sometimes uses imagery from mythology to discuss changes in culture. One common thread is the pull between Apollo as the god of rules and order and Dionysus as the god of nature and wildness.

At the end of the marijuana section, he begins to speculate on the connections between hallucinogenic drugs and religion and notes that there is no definitive work on the natural history of religion. There are some examples of drugs being involved at the start of some early religions. The cult of Soma claims in its scripture, the Rig Veda, that such intoxicants are a path to divine knowledge. I hoped this section of the book would pass quickly. I have heard of books about psilocybin mushrooms leading to religion and know they are widely accepted. But fortunately Pollan did not stop at that simple premise. He follows this idea through the history of philosophers and connects it to modern chemistry.

Pollan suggests that drugs take the mind to the point where matter meets spirit, where our knowledge of the physical world meets the unknown edges of our awareness and intuition, or in modern terms, where chemistry meets consciousness. He notes that the era of Romanticism in Europe coincides closely with Napoleon bringing hashish back from Egypt. English and French poets are known to have used opiates. Certainly Stephen Taylor Coleridge’s concept of the suspension of disbelief could be a drug induced insight.

Modernism, Cubism, Jazz, Surrealism have all been nurtured by Coleridge’s ideas of a transforming imagination, the disillusion, diffusion and dissipation of the consciousness. All of these also owe their roots to classical philosophy, going back as far the Greeks. We have less information about their lives but we do know of rituals involving ergot, a strong hallucinogen. The Greeks respected these transforming chemicals and used them in highly ritualized ways. Much of this was also quite secretive.

So, can we learn anything from all of this? In attempting to do so, Pollan also traces the chemistry and neuroscience of marijuana. The chemical responsible for the alterations of experience, the “high”, have been found, tetra hydro cannibal. Also the receptors in our nervous system for that chemical have been found. And our bodies produce a chemical for those receptors, anandamide. So there appears to be a system, a function of chemistry. All of this says very little about why we have this system or about the individual reaction that each person has for the drug. Pollan notes that the wide variety of experiences reported from smoking pot indicates that dismissing it as pure chemistry is failing to recognize the individual’s contributions to the experience.

Is there any value for a built-in system that causes us to forget? Howlett and McCallum, two of the scientists who have done this research speculate that the ability to forget, such as forgetting pain, could be very important in motivating us to get up each morning and face the potential of being hurt again and again. Perhaps what we usually consider a breakdown of the operation of remembering is actually a perfectly functioning operation itself. We receive so much sensory data each moment, we have to filter it. But when Pollan tries to press the neuroscientists for more about just what the marijuana experience is, they say they will have to leave to the poets.

Fortunately, there is ample data from the poets. Even one who was is also a scientist. Carl Sagan wrote an essay on the effects of marijuana and published it under the name Mr. X. After his death, his authorship was revealed. Sagan spoke of the common phenomenon of having what seem to be profound insights while high, that seem trivial the next day. He was convinced that these should not be dismissed. That it is not a question of self-deception, but a failure to communicate from our high selves to the straight. The inability to articulate the insight is not evidence that the insight is false. It can’t be put into words because they are perceptions that precede words.

Nietzsche describes transcendence, when all of your being is focused on a single thing and all else drops away, in his essay, “The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life”. He says,
“Consider the cattle, they do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they leap about, eat, rest, digest, leap about again, and so from morn ‘til night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure and thus neither melancholy nor bored. A human being may well ask an animal, ‘Why do you not speak to me of your happiness, but only stand and gaze at me?’ The animal would like to answer and say, ‘The reason is I always forget what I was going to say.’ But then he forgot this answer too, and stayed silent. “

Aldous Huxley says in “The Doors of Perception” that we have a reducing valve of consciousness. This valve helps us deal with the mass of data coming in, but it also prevents from perceiving that data. Opening this valve opens us up to a sense of wonder. As Pollan says, “Memory is the enemy of wonder.” The less filtering, the more heightened our senses, time seems to slow, we live in the present moment.

There are many paths to this sensation. They have been written about in religious texts as well as by philosophers and experimenters with drugs. Huxley suggested that the reason we don’t see as many mystics today is that nutrition has improved. A healthier body means a healthier brain, healthy being defined as the ability to keep that reducing valve strong.

But to bring all this philosophizing back down to earth, the idea that spirituality and getting high from a freely growing plant are related is an affront to Western Christianity and capitalism. Both require that we set our sights on the future; both ask us to reject pleasures of the moment for a fulfillment yet to come. And, as the early Greeks knew, living in the moment is not something to be done every moment. Remembering what caused us pain in the past and being able to apply those lessons to the future are just as important and each should have its place for humanity to flourish.

Pollan traces how our current culture developed its aversion to marijuana through the stories of Hassan ibn-al-Sabbah from the 11th century and the condemnation of cannabis as a sacrament for witches by Pope Innocent the 8th in 1485. I will leave the retelling of those stories for another time, or you can read his interpretations. He also discusses how the alchemist Paracelsus successfully transferred the Dionysian pagan potions of sorcery to what we now consider the rational Apollonian healing medicines.

Pollan relates this to the story of Adam and Eve, rather ingeniously. He dismisses any discussion about what type of fruit the tree of knowledge was or exactly what the knowledge was. The important thing is that the tree was there at all. Those story tellers could not dismiss the idea that plants held powers of healing and of insights, because everyone knew that they did. So the new god, Jehovah, who supposedly creates everything and has all of the knowledge, puts the tree in the garden with a warning not to yield to its temptations. Of course they do yield to it, and the rest is history.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Guide to Winter Holidays

Not sure what to say to people instead of "Merry Christmas"? Here are a few of the other celebrations going on this time of year.

Hanukkah December 1-9

A minor Jewish holiday with some confusing history. It is not covered in the Bible.

Kwanzaa December 26-January 1

An African American celebration

Solstice December 21 6:38pm

The shortest day of the year. A turning point from increasing darkness to increasing light. Formerly celebrated as the feast of Saturnalia by the Romans and by burning the Yule log in ancient Britian.

St. Lucia Day December 13

Celebrated in Sweden for the patron of light.

Bodhi day December 8

Buddhist commemoration of the Buddha’s enlightenment, after sitting under a Bodhi tree.

Eid-Al-Adha January 10-13

A Muslim feast following their pilgrimage to Mecca.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Bold and Clear

Recently, I attended a meeting at my church that still has me as a member. There was a presentation from the district supervisor. She challenged us, the local leadership, to speak out more boldly and define a clear strategy. After the meeting, I asked her to take that same challenge back to her leaders. I’m in that church that Jon Stewart of the Daily Show compared to Phoenix University. Like many protestant denominations, you can go to two different churches under the same name and not see similarities in the theology.

I have tried to discern the beliefs of the leadership, and it sometimes seems that they are trying to determine the same thing from us. Maybe they are just trying to figure out what will be acceptable to those in the pews, what will keep the offerings coming. If that seems counter to an organization based on firm and long standing beliefs, well it kinda is. If a leader claims to know what was in the minds of people 2,000 years ago, I usually don’t talk to them again. I have become increasingly demanding for what I accept as a modern interpretation old scripture.

So, what would I consider a “bold” statement? One like this one from a bishop of a megachurch in the South would be good. You may have heard of pastors or bishops getting caught with gay prostitute drug dealers, but this is not that. This is a man who had a good family life, but he always knew he was gay. He tried every religious “cure” he knew for how he felt. He now understands that it is not a choice, or a disease. It still took a long time for him to come out, no doubt at least in part due to what he knew it would do to his career. I provided a link to the local news station, there are plenty more YouTubes, NPR stories, and of course blasts from conservative bloggers.

He also knew that he could no longer live a lie. If he believes that being gay is not anathema to being Christian, he should not keep it a secret. If he is asking his congregation to live their faith out loud, nothing hidden, he shouldn’t be hiding anything. He was already preaching inclusiveness, so he did not need to make any changes there.

I think this is going on a lot right now. Not that there are lot of gay bishops around, I mean there are a lot of spiritual leaders who are not clearly stating their personal beliefs. They leave it nebulous and let their congregations believe what they want. If you think that is not harming anyone, then you haven’t been paying attention to the news of young gay people killing themselves because they are told that being gay is disgusting. Or perhaps they are being told that God has global warming under control, or the end times are coming soon anyway. Or they are being told they have to make a choice between believing in something that is increasingly difficult to justify in a modern scientific world or risk an eternity of disconnection from their loved ones.

I think we have plenty of disconnection as it is.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Are you ready for some football?

Rick Reilly ESPN Sports The Oddest Game

This American Life Show #378 from April 17, 2009 This I Used to Believe

Two of my area High School Football teams are in the playoffs, so it’s a good time for a football story. This one came to me via “This American Life”, or you may have heard about it via Rick Reilly on ESPN.

It is the story of a High School football coach at a Christian school who didn’t just teach football, he tried to instill some sense of values in his kids. They put their faith into action, such as the time they helped raise money for an opposing team affected by a hurricane. You might want to read the ESPN story first, that is where the story really starts. The executive summary goes like this; a Baptist High School team plays a team from the Gainesville State Boys School, criminals in other words. The Boys School team rarely wins a game and has almost no fans, no family support, so this coach gets half of his fans to learn about and root for them, even providing them with cheer leaders for the game. It is a great experience for the kids on both sides of the ball.

When Rick Reilly of ESPN picked up the story, it went viral on the Internet, follow up stories are still being written, two years after this happened. One of the people who heard about it was a woman, Tricia, who recently had a friend who died of cancer. While her friend was dying, she prayed. When her friend died anyway, she no longer believed in God. On Christmas morning, she finds herself alone in her apartment and decides to email the coach and acknowledge him for doing this great thing and for setting a good example for Christianity. She also tells him a little about herself.

Coach Kris Hogan has received a lot of email about his game against Gainesville State. Six hours after sending her email, on Christmas morning, the coach sent a reply. Her story touched his heart, and he wants to “witness” for her. At first she declines but he is insistent. This is when Ira Glass from “This American Life” gets involved. If you want to listen to that story, click on the link above, it is “Act 2”, about 19 minutes in.

For all his interesting approaches to Christianity, it is surprising how poorly the coach does in his discussions with this woman. She is experiencing a pretty standard lapse in faith. Survivor’s guilt is a common reason for questioning God, it is exactly when any good Christian would look to the sky and ask, “WHY?” Baptists frequently use funerals as an opportunity to preach to that very question. That always seemed in poor taste to me. In this conversation, he does very little listening to what she is feeling and focuses on technical discussions about what God is and the truth of his existence.

For Tricia, some time has passed since her friend died and she is still feeling that she should have been the one who was taken. She feels her friend was a better person. This is definitely someone in need of a good listener, or at least the shoulder of a good friend. Coach Hogan should be looking for the comforting passages in the Bible, maybe something from Psalms, instead he gives her Christian apologetics.

It seems coach has not thought this one through too well. When she brings up questions of subjective judgments of good and evil, he brings up Hitler. In the language of Internet discussion forums, this has been labeled Argumentum ad Hitlerium. If someone mentions Hitler, it is an indicator that the discussion has gone as far as it can go with those currently participating and no new insights are on the horizon.

I’ll give him a little credit that he leaves decisions of life and death to God, and does not claim that God answers all prayers. His worldview is that we live in a broken world, one where everybody sins, and we can’t know the plan and we can take comfort knowing everything is in His hands. This works for him, but not for Tricia.

Instead, it is Ira, the atheist, who senses what Tricia needs to hear and helps her to accept that things just are the way they are. To Ira, she is comfortable saying that she wants to believe, something she never said to Hogan. I wish this story had an ending that wrapped everything up nicely, like a half-hour television sitcom, queue the voice over with some words of wisdom. But all we get, and maybe we all we have for now, is a definition of the gap between believers and non-believers.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Prophet Hen of Leeds

I haven’t been focusing too much on the old blog lately, but I do have a list of fun things to draw from just for weeks like this. For those who are worried about when the end will come, it is good to occasionally look back at the many times that has been predicted and not come to pass. My absolute favorite has to be the hen that laid eggs with a message from God.

Unfortunately, this was in 1806, so there is no YouTube for this one.

The Hen, and a few others

Thursday, October 21, 2010


Lamed-Vov means 36 in Yiddish. It refers to the 36 just men that are needed to support the world from the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97b, Sukkot 45b. These men receive the Divine Presence. It is an ancient oral tradition so, as you might guess, there are many interpretations of it. These are mortal men, living regular lives and dying normally, so what if the number dips below 36? Are the difficult times we are experiencing indicators that we have indeed dipped? These men walk among us, but they are hidden, so how do we know?

So, lots of great stories get told about the Lamed-Vov. Some think that the one Messiah will come from the 36. So, you better be nice to anyone you meet, they could be the Messiah. The world somehow depends on these men for continued existence, although I’m not sure if it is ever explained how that works, or how the world will come to an end.

The story where I first found out about the Lamed-Vov was in the book, “If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him.”

The story goes that a boy is informed by his grandfather that he, the boy, is to be a Lamed-Vov. This distresses the boy, and he tries to figure out what he needs to do. He holds his hand over a candle flame to learn about suffering. His grandfather hears about this and gets distressed too. He explains that it is not necessary to do anything, just be yourself. The Lamed-Vov are not able to change anything, they can’t stop suffering or prevent people from dying. Their job is to be open to the suffering of others, so no one suffers alone.

He eventually gets it. He learns that love is more than simply being open to experiencing the anguish of another person’s suffering. It is the willingness to live with the helpless knowing that we can do nothing to save the other from their pain.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Spacey Odyssey

If you are looking for something that seems sorta spiritual, but you want some scientific backing, this guy is for you. He’s a physicist. He draws on Star Trek and Buck Rogers for his analogies. He claims to have worked with Stanley Kubrick on the development of the “2001: A Space Odyssey” story. I have seen some comments that this is an exaggeration.

It is an interesting idea though. Given the speed limit of the universe, getting to other worlds is unlikely any time soon. However, we could send ships out and plant big black monoliths. Even if whomever or whatever found them couldn’t understand whatever we wrote on the monolith, it would at least give them evidence that there is something else out there. Imagine that something like that had been found 10,000 years ago.

This video discusses some of the science involved in vastly different species interacting.

This next one shows him as a bit more cuckoo. He talks about his role in the 2001 movie at the end. He starts out explaining his type 0,1,2,3 civilizations theory, something he talks about a lot. Note that he uses some language that I see as designed to tug at your emotions and then consider his ideas. Language such as, “privileged to be alive” at this time and how he sees “evidence in the news” that we are about to transform to the next level of civilization. He really sucks up to America and American culture as having signs of leading the world into this next level.

Good for a laugh if nothing else.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Should Americans Fear Islam?

Link to the television debate on ABC

I happened to be visiting some people this weekend who watch a lot of television, otherwise I would have never seen this ridiculous display of journalism. I did not watch the entire broadcast, and parts of it were drown out by those in the room yelling at the TV or saying, “maybe we should go do something outside, it’s a beautiful day.” If I was a television executive and the idea had been pitched to me, I would have said, okay, but change the name to “Should some people whose parents had sex in a certain country be afraid of other people who claimed a certain religion, then had sex.” Hopefully those pitching the idea would realize how inane their idea was and walk out of the room in shame.

That didn’t happen. Fortunately, they did include at least one normal person, Donna Marsh O’Connor a woman who had lost a daughter who was pregnant on 9/11. When asked, “Do you think you, America, should be afraid of Islam?” She was sharp enough to not respond to the intimation that she somehow represented the entire country. She said,

“I think Americans should fear criminal behavior. I think we should do the best we can to control criminal behavior. But I can't raise my two remaining sons to fear the people who live next door to them. That is not what my grandparents came to America to escape you know, we are a group of 9/11 family members. I know a lot of family members are here. We share that pain and, you know, I think the unfortunate piece of this is that we don't agree on this.”

Seeing nothing controversial there, nothing that would lead to some yelling, Chrisitiane Amanpour turned to Billy Graham’s son who said something ignorant that I won’t repeat.

Most of the rest of the show went something like this:
AMANPOUR: Why do you call it a wicked religion, an evil religion?
GRAHAM: I think to -- to take your daughter, because you think that -- and the religion gives you the authority -- Sharia gives you the authority for honor killing. And we saw the young girl in Ohio just a few--
IMAM: It does not.
AMANPOUR: But does it?
IMAM: It does not.
GRAHAM: It does.
IMAM: It does not.
GRAHAM: It does.
IMAM: No it does not.
IMAM: -- justify those honor killings.
GADIEL: -- justify it. You can't deny that--
GRAHAM: It's true.
GRAHAM: But that's true.
Such is the state of the debate in America and the state of leadership and of journalism. What we should fear is ignorance. We should fear our inability to listen to each other. This program could have benefited from techniques for working in groups that have been available in self-help books since the 1970’s. Instead we get this,
GADIEL: …. And you can't deny it. And you may, for all I know, not be a moderate you pretend to be, because you may be engaging in takia and be engaging in lying for the purpose of furthering your religion.
GADIEL: Why should I believe you?
KHAN: I'm shocked at the inference that I am not -- my intention is not good. Have you looked in my heart? Have you --
GADIEL: No. No, I don't. You're right. You're right.
KHAN: Have you cut my chest and looked in my heart to see what my intention is? I think it's wrong for you to say that somebody's engaged in takia. You don't even know what the word takia is.
GADIEL: It means lying for the purpose of furthering your religion.
KHAN: Why would I do that?
GADEIL: Lying to people who are non-believers. .
KHAN: Why would I do that?
GADIEL: Why? Be it said -- are you not instructed to do that?
KHAN: No! Absolutely not!
I have a little bit of hope though because this statement got applause:
O'CONNOR: No, no, no. You let me finish now, please. With all due respect, I listened for a long time. You know, I don't know why on earth you would think that there is an address in America where, you know, Muslim people can't practice their religion. Number one, this is not a mosque; it's an Islamic cultural center. Number two -- and this is really important -- it is not at Ground Zero, it's two blocks and a half away. It's two blocks and a half away. I am not a religious expert. I only know when I was promised when I was born here and that this is a land where all people -- regardless of how difficult it is to have this democracy -- all people are allowed to practice their faith. I don't know Daisy Khan. I don't know Imam. I am not going to read his book to see if he's a good enough Muslim. I believe that in this nation we hold people accountable for crimes after they commit and never, never before.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Fonz

Some of you won’t remember, but there was a very popular television program in the 1970’s that was about the 1950’s. The show was loosely based on the movie “American Graffiti”. It was my first experience with nostalgia, so I don’t know if people in the 1930’s ever got nostalgic for the 1910’s or not. I have notice that only rather odd people get nostalgic for the 1970’s.

The stars of the show were the teenagers. They hung around at the malt shop and had problems with their boyfriends and girlfriends or their cars or whatever. They were generally clean cut kids with names like Richie and Potsie. One character that had a bit of mystery about him was the Fonz. You never saw his family, he didn’t go to school, he wore a leather jacket, he could tap the juke box on the side to make it play and he could undo a bra clasp with one hand.

He was also the guy you wanted on your side in a fight. Whenever some kids from another town were giving Richie and Potsie trouble, they called upon the Fonz to help them out. This was not “West Side Story”. There was never any fighting on the show. Someone would do something clever or say something that needed to be said, and the fight would not happen. The conflict would not always be resolved, but at least avoided.

Over the course of seasons of the show, more about the Fonz was slowly revealed. One Thanksgiving he was seen eating a can of beans alone, and you found out there were some unresolved family issues and a lot of sadness around his lone wolf exterior. During one episode where a fight seemed to be inevitable, Richie and Potsie asked for specific help on how to engage someone in hand to hand combat. The Fonz asked the boys if they had ever actually seen him hit anybody.

They thought for a second and realized they had not. The Fonz was always cool. His tag line is always a very deep and mellow, “Haaaaay”. His hair was always perfect. Somewhere, back in some mythic past, he developed a reputation that he was capable of taking on anyone, that he could do major damage without breaking a sweat. If it was true that he had ever actually done that, it didn’t matter, it was no longer necessary to demonstrate it. Simply knowing that the Fonz was coming to the fight was enough to bring the opposition to the negotiation table.

This is similar to the tradition of many of the martial arts that borrow their philosophies from Buddhism or Taoism, Shaolin Kung Fu, Aikido, Tai Chi Chuan. The masters don’t need to use their sting. If they were to use it, it would diminish their ability to use their power of language and presence. That power does more to maintain the stability of their culture than any slap across the face to someone who deserved it would.

This can be seen in the writings of spiritual leaders also, such as the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hahn. These men could lash out and attack a great power like China or the United States with scathing commentary on their inability to lead, their poor example to the world, or their dumping of garbage into the air or water. But like a bee that can only sting once, then dies, if they did that, their ability to do it a second time would be severely diminished.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ariadne and Theseus

According to Greek legend, Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos of Crete, gave a magic ball of twine to Theseus so he could find his way into and out of the labyrinth of the Minotaur. Theseus was an Athenian and was selected as one of the seven youths and seven maidens that were sacrificed each year as their tribute to Crete. Athenians were growing tired of this as you might suspect. He successfully slew the Minotaur and returned to Crete and made Ariadne his wife, as he had promised. Then he snuck away back to Athens while she was asleep.

Prior to 14oo B.C. Crete was the greatest naval power in the Mediterranean and bull worship was common in its religion, so this legend probably symbolized that. The capital of Crete had a great palace called Knossos with so many rooms the less sophisticated Athenians may have thought of it as a labyrinth. Why Theseus snuck away from his bride has no known connection to history.

Traditionally, Athens is thought of as early Greece, but no early culture considered itself Greek. For most of modern history, it was thought that this was the legend of how the Greeks overthrew the Minoans. Fairly recently archaeological evidence included a written language found in Crete that was similar to Greek, known as Linear B. This seemed to confirm it. That archaeologists even wrote to the then King of Greece saying, “I have seen the face of your ancestors”, neglecting to remember that the King was of Danish descent. When Linear B was better understood, and additional digging was done, it was determined that the people of Crete had conquered the Athenians.

This is the trouble you get into when you go on a fact finding mission with a pre-determined notion that you are going to prove a legend. There are surely truths to be found in that legend. There will also be falsehoods and parts that make no sense at all. The trouble begins when you look at a legend as a coherent story written by a single author. This has been a common practice for thousands of years.

On the other hand, once you have determined that a legend has been altered by multiple authors, or it was handed down verbally and altered before it was written down, or there are language translation errors or discovered other ways to discredit the accuracy of the legend, that does not necessarily need to lead to completely dismissing it. For one, it is all we have of voices from our own history. For another, the reasons for why it was altered, or what cultures combined to make it what we have today can be rich and illuminating stories in themselves.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Shack


I am glad that I did not pay full price for this book, and that it is short. I offer this review as a public service. I hope it saves you the 6 or 7 hours of life that I will never get back. I won’t bother to offer my own thoughts on the theology of the book. Others have already covered that, here is one: A theological review of the The Shack


Although the main character, Mac, seems to be someone who has separated himself from God, that is, he is a non-believer, this book is definitely for believers. By the end, Mac is brought back fully into his relationship with God, but he never would have got there if he didn’t have belief to begin with. This book does not explain God or The Trinity or answer questions about of why God allows evil to exist. Mac is not a non-believer in the sense that an atheist is. He is a “lost sheep”, someone who is angry with God and is struggling to understand what he has been taught about what God is.

I doubt the book would do much for a Christian that is angry with their church or disappointed in their religion. There are a few lines here and there about relationships and forgiveness that could be helpful for someone who has experienced a great injustice, but there are much better sources for that. It might be useful for someone who is hanging on to a little bit of belief, but wants to see a miracle to be convinced. Mainly, it will be embraced by those who are already full believers and want to hear another story of someone returning to the fold. They also get some modernized analogies for God along with it.

The problem of evil

It really can’t be ignored in this book. The shack is the place where Mac’s daughter, Missy, was murdered, at 6 years old, by a serial killer who is very good at covering his tracks. He attempts to confront God several times with his anger over how God did not protect his child, which is also clearly stated to be His (God’s) child also. Each time we hear that Mac is not ready to understand, or that he will never understand, or that it can’t be explained, or that God was “especially fond” of Missy.

Eventually, Mac’s anger is revealed to him as covering up his guilt, and he sees that no one else blames him for his daughter’s death, only himself. Mac is cleansed of the guilt, and we never have to worry about that pesky problem again. Near the end of the book, there is a short, but very good discussion about forgiveness. It talks of how holding on to anger toward the killer gives the killer power and that forgiving does not mean that anyone has to forget what the man did, or allow him to walk around freely. That conversation gets cut short and returns to the same old “let God rule your life” conversation that pervades the rest of the book.


There are a few fleeting moments where it seems like an honest and truthful expression of the value of human relationships will take the spotlight, but they pass so quickly I suspect they are just accidents. The text always returns to Jesus telling Mac that he must have a relationship where Jesus “lives through him and in him”, where he completely submits himself to that relationship. No mechanism is described. No methods are presented for how this relationship with an invisible entity is carried out. To the atheist, this is obviously not possible to describe, since no mechanism exists, but someone seeking spiritual guidance may continue to look for clues in this book.

In the most frightening part of the book, Jesus even describes being in relationship with Missy as she is being driven by the killer to the place she will die. This is not frightening because of descriptions of gruesome acts, there are none. It is frightening because Jesus talks of the love and warmth that Missy felt while this was happening. We are spared the details of the murder act itself, and we are denied the details of how Missy’s relationship with Christ made any difference. We are just told that it did, and that she is happy in heaven now and she is a spirit with great wisdom. What frightens me is that the author didn’t put down his pen or shut off his computer and say, “this is completely incoherent, who is this Jesus character, I can’t possibly make this story work.”

The Shack gets it right that our relationships are important. It is true that the power of our being in relationship with our fellow beings, human and otherwise, is difficult and perhaps impossible to describe, explain and teach. They are what binds us to our past, comfort us in the present, and give us hope for the future. They also cause us pain and no system of rules or guidelines has yet been able to prevent that. The solution the book gives for this conundrum is to have a relationship with characters from a series of very old books. I understand and appreciate the value of relating to characters from ancient stories, but I would never submit myself to one of those characters or depend on them for anything except perhaps some temporary comfort.

Euthyphro’s dilemma

The problem of evil has a few solutions, each with its own problems. You can say that we are we too limited to understand why God does what he does. That answer is presented more than once in “The Shack”. Or, you can say that God actually is the source of evil. No theologian, amateur or otherwise will ever come out and say that, but William Young does offer the Zen version when he has Jesus say, “it is what it is”. Jesus denies being a “Christian” or any affiliation with any institution and claims he comes to the world through the path of all religions and viewpoints, once again avoiding any explanation of how that works. Then he says he “has some things to do in the shop”, and excuses himself. The concept of God as everything, presented in a folksy Bob Vila like caricature.

Another answer to the dilemma is to say that God is limited, that evil exists and God can only do so much about it. It is not stated explicitly, but this book comes pretty close to saying it. It also does the classic Christian turnabout and puts the blame back on us independence seeking humans. Because Adam, with a little encouragement from Eve, decided to eat from the tree of knowledge, we live in a broken world. We complain and fight and struggle when all we need to do is get back to a dependent relationship with The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost and everything will be okay. God is good, and we take that goodness and screw it up.

At one point early in Mac’s talk with God, God explains this using the Adam story and says, “and Adam did what we expected him to do.” He never addresses why He didn’t create a different universe or a less stupid Adam, other than to say something better is coming and we can’t understand it. We are left as we always have been, alone in a universe that has unbelievable joy and energy and one that has unfathomable and unexplained horrors.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


One of the terms I have learned a lot about lately is dualism. There are many things that are very different about Christianity compared to other religions. One of them is dualism. In Christianity, and Judaism, there is this world and there is a place inhabited by angels, demons and God himself. One of my pastors once said that Christians see the world as a two “scene” world, referring to scenes in a play.

Other religions see the world as cyclical, or that supernatural beings normally inhabit the earth and walk among us, not just on rare occasions. Some practices, such as Buddhism don’t concern themselves much with the afterlife at all. Christians definitely do.

This was sort of interesting when I first read about it. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. But a couple things recently have made me rethink that. Brian McClaren, a Christian who is about as far on the edge of Christianity as you can get and still get invited to speak at Christian churches, pointed out that we have a lot to deal with down here on the earth. If we are focusing on our exit plan and figuring things will be better when we leave, then is it surprising that we are not doing what needs to be done here and now?

Brian McClaren on the relevance of faith

After clicking above, look for the links in the upper right. You can listen, read or watch video. McClaren does an excellent job of examining Christian faith. For example, he points out that the Lord’s prayer does not say “your kingdom will be in heaven, unlike here on earth”, he notes that it says, “your kingdom come here on earth, your will be done here.”

Another spiritual leader, this one a monk from Vietnam, a man who many people don’t know much about, but had a very big hand in why America got out of the Vietnam War, also recently came out with a statement that included some thoughts on dualism. He begins by talking about how America’s desire to consume is a symptom of a larger problem. We need to address our disconnection with the world.

He addresses this with language about feeling the spirit within us, which may or may not be language you embrace, but his message that we need to find the feelings in us that bring us into tune with the place we inhabit comes through clearly. He does not take a Pollyanna approach to this. He says we need to listen to the sounds and smells of our toxic environment that is leading children to kill each other or themselves so we can find our place in that. Only then can we know what to do about it.

Thcih Nhat Hahn on dualism and sustainability of the American lifestyle

Last, and possibly least, depending on where you stand, is Christopher Hitchens. He is one of the most visceral of the atheists. I would speak ill of him, but he has recently been diagnosed with cancer, so I will let you research him for yourself. He does occasionally say things I agree with. In a blurb on the jacket of a recently published book, “Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist”, he said,
“The human thirst for the transcendent, the numinous – even the ecstatic – is too universal and too important to be entrusted to the cultish and archaic and the superstitious.”

I have no problem with people who have seen magical things, or have been transformed through the experience of a ritual or by simply reading something mystical. I love hearing these stories and sharing in their enthusiasm. The problems begin when people say that their experience means something about the rest of the world and the rest of us should repeat the experience exactly as they did and we all need to make the same leap of faith they did. A quick review of conflicts past and present finds many of them based on one person saying there is something wrong with another person simply because they won’t make that leap or won’t try that experience.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Good Mexican

Just the title of this story should make you feel a little uncomfortable. What I want to attempt is a modernization of the Good Samaritan parable. We are so used to thinking of the Samaritan as good, that we often drop the adjective. Why bother re-stating the obvious? We know the Samaritan is the guy who helps the poor sick man when nobody else does. Samaritans are good. We don’t need to say “Good” Samaritan because Samaritan itself is synonymous with “helpful”.

But if you have a Bible that adds in titles, it will most likely say “Good” Samaritan. Why? Because when the story was told, Samaritans were not considered part of the Kingdom of Israel, a “good” Samaritan would be unusual. They were a mixed race of Israelites from the old Northern Kingdom and Assyrians that had taken over the area. Their religion was also mixed. This is not a simple story of a few people being too busy to help a man in need, then one comes along and does help. Examine a little closer just who passes by and it becomes more obvious just who Jesus is attempting to make comments about. If you take those old descriptions of the people in the story and transfer to today’s common terms, the story becomes relevant again.

It would go something like this:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test his spiritual leader. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to find happiness and comfort and the respect of my fellow human beings?"

"What is written in the wisdom of he ages?" he replied. "How do you read it?"
He answered: " 'Love all that there is with all your heart and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

"You have answered correctly," the spiritual guide replied. "Do this and you will live."

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked the guide, "And who is my neighbor?"

In reply the guide said: "A man was going down from Central Park to the Financial District, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A televangelist happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a member of your congregation, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Mexican, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on calamine lotion and cortisone cream. Then he called a cab, took him to a hotel and took care of him. The next day he took out two Benjamins and gave them to the hotel clerk. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."
The spiritual leader told him, "Go and do likewise."

Does it seem that I just replaced the names of priest, Levite and Samaritan with modern names and made my own political statement? Maybe, but why did Jesus choose the characters of priest and Levite as the ones who pass by the man, acting in a most un-neighborly way? Jesus came to die for our sins, but he did much more. He changed rituals that had been celebrated for centuries. The Passover, a celebration of God passing over the houses of the Levites and sparing their first born in the time of Moses, became the Last Supper, Good Friday and the most important week in the Christian calendar.

In the Old Testament, Moses instructs the Levites to kill 3,000 men, women and children because they broke one of the rules of a covenant that they hadn’t even been told of yet. Jesus is saying it is time for those who consider themselves special, separate and better to take a look not at their heritage, but at what they are doing. When they see people showing mercy, go and do likewise.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Wheel Dog

This doesn’t have much to do with religion, but I was recently reminded of the wheel dog. The wheel dog is a member of a sled dog team, attached directly to the sled. There can be one wheel dog or two, but they must be tied to the sled. Everyone is familiar with the lead dog, and that all the other dogs have the same view. You can google wheel dog and get a sense of what they do, but the best explanation I have found is in James Michener’s “Alaska”.

The wheel dog takes the power of the team, the brute force of the dogs in the middle who are not leaders, and transfers that power to the sled. A good wheel dog can make for a very smooth ride. Without a good wheel dog, the guy in the sled is going to get jerked around and will be very tired by the end of the day.

I prefer this position on a team. Trouble is, when it comes to people assembling people teams, most people have never heard of it. The guy hitching up the team puts the leaders up front and just randomly throws the rest together. Or worse, the team is expected to sort itself out and hitch itself up, without the benefit of opposable thumbs. When one person shows some initiative to organize or to speak for the group or just remember the agenda, that person gets pushed up to the front.

In rare cases, the wheel dog is able to also be a lead dog, and someone fills in the wheel dog position. The story of Aaron becoming a spokesman and assistant for Moses is one of those rare cases. Usually, the team becomes a team without leadership. Team members complain to whoever they think the leader is, and that person complains that they are not the leader. No one is absorbing the complaints and the work turns into a death march toward the deadline.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Salir de Iglesia

In Spanish, the word for “story” is “historia”. That is also the word for “history”. So when using the word “historia”, you usually are indicating a mostly truthful story. Another word for “story” is “cuento”. This word indicates there is some fantasy in the story. You would use this to indicate someone is telling a “tall tale”. There is probably some truth, but there is at least some exaggeration. It is not as strong as our word “mythology” which in Spanish is “mitologia”.

This is a cuento.

The UMC has a slogan “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors”. What that means is, they do not have a specific set of fundamental terms or conditions that must be met in order to be considered for membership. They have no requirements for anyone who wants to come in and share communion. As an example, if you have ever attended a Catholic service, you may have noticed that they do have requirements.

Recently the Methodists have begun to take this a step further and encourage members to walk out of the doors of their churches and meet their communities face to face. Many church members are already connected to their communities in many ways, but church leadership is specifically suggesting taking actions as a church, such as cleaning up a park, or organizing some events for families.

I was privileged recently to be with a few members of a little church in Northern MN as they did this in a very profound way. They went all the way to the country of Colombia and then further into parts of that country that even citizens of Colombia rarely visit. We helped to complete construction on a clinic there and brought soccer balls and other sports equipment for the children.

We also visited the growing United Methodist churches. It is a very different culture. People live on “Colombian time”, things start when they start, and some people show up late, and some leave early. The children put on dance numbers for us that would be the talk of the town if they had been shown on television here, let alone in a church.

On the last night of the trip, we crammed two visits to churches into one evening. This involved a couple hundred kilometers of driving and the usual amount of hurry up then wait that is involved with any group excursion. After a long day of work, this adventure was quite exhausting. We did not find time for dinner until 10PM.

Did I mention it is also very hot. When we arrived at the 2nd church, the musicians were just getting set up, so I knew I had a few minutes. The service was in the upstairs of the building. It was open to the air in parts, but the downstairs was several degrees cooler and had a breeze. I could feel myself getting light headed when I was sitting in the area for the service.

We were travelling with the Bishop of Colombia and his personal assistant, who needed to keep us in line and organized. Every move we made was a big production, so instead of asking permission, I decided it would be easier to apologize later, and I walked off. I walked past our driver, who was more than a driver, he had become a friend and he was a member of the family of the Bishop. Within a couple minutes, I bumped in to two other members of the team buying water at one of the stores, so the team knew where I was.

We had drove through the town square to get there, so I decided to walk up there and look at what food they might have for sale. My Spanish was “broken”, but I was gaining confidence, and I had met enough Colombians to know they would help me through it. There were many open businesses and people, so even though there are still paramilitaries in the country, I had no reason to believe they would be bold enough to pass through all of the Colombia police forces and into the center of town.

Bananas have always worked well for me as a snack food. They seem to have just what I need when I am starving. In tropical places like Colombia, they are quite easy to come by. I went into one of the stores and said, “es posible, dos bananas?” The somewhat quizzical look on his face told me my accent was terrible, and I was the only white person anyway, so I’m sure he was curious about why I was there, but he understood me. When learning a language, lessons usually start with the basics, using proper grammar. When going into a store at 8:30pm in Sampues Colombia, you can expect some slang. After setting down the bananas in front of me, he said something like, “temas”. I responded with something like, “huh?” After a few more exchanges I understood that he was asking if I would like anything else, and I said, “oh, yeah, nada mas.”

Next was the money part. Minnesotans generally don’t negotiate price. This was not a price negotiating situation fortunately. He said the price, but because he slurred together the number and “ciento”, the word for 100, I didn’t quite get it. I pulled out a 20,000 peso bill. This would be the equivalent of using a US$20 bill to buy a pack of gum. I was going to need some change for cab rides the next day, so I actually knew what I was doing, but his eyes went quite large and he laughed a little, as if I was willing to pay that much for such a small item.

These stores are not unlike convenience stores in large American cities, they don’t carry a lot of change. In America they make frequent deposits into safes that the employees put money into, but cannot open, so if they are robbed, the robber won’t get much. He asked for a smaller bill. I wasn’t up to trying to explain why I wanted change, and also I just wanted to be nice, so I dug out my smaller bills. To them, this appeared more like they were helping me understand my money. In English, out loud, I said, “you know you guys could have took me for a lot more”, they didn’t understand the words, but they knew what I meant. I am getting close to being able to tell and understand jokes in Spanish.

At that point, the conversation switched to asking about who I was and who they were and why we were all there. One of them motioned to another, a very handsome and well built young man. Colombia is full of beautiful people. He came over and spoke very clear English with me. He had learned the language serving with the Ecuadorian army in Iraq recently and he was due to return. I didn’t quite understand why a Colombian was serving with the Ecuadorian army, but it wasn’t important. I thanked him for his service and told him I was glad that he had returned and wished him luck. We shook hands and I went back to church.

I sat down on the steps of the church and ate my bananas. I hope I didn’t give them a bad reputation when I fell asleep and snored like a bear. Members of the church were arriving late, leaving early, and one family left then came back, maybe to get some ice cream for the kids, I don’t know. I had a nice chat with them, just simple stuff about the weather and that my home is “circa de Canada y los lagos grande.”

I am not much for ritual, but I am religiously curious, so when I could hear the familiar sound of the Bishop’s voice followed in each sentence by the voice of our interpreter/pastor, I drug my tired body upstairs to hear the sermon. The sermon was about getting out of the walls of the church, the theme I mentioned above and thus the title of this blog entry. Next time you are in an airport or anywhere multilingualism is the norm, you might notice the signs near the exits that say “salir”.

Later, I found out that my fellow mission team members were not too happy about me walking off. They were concerned about the paramilitaries and I think they were still operating as if this was Minnesota, where everyone is expected to be in their seat when the service begins, I’m really not sure what it was that we misunderstood about each other’s actions. I’m sure they were just generally concerned for me personally and I appreciate that.

But I wonder if they heard the same sermon I did.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ghandi on Faith

I dug out my old notebook of quotes that I have collected over the years. I didn't find what I was looking for, but I found something else apropos to the moment. Hope you like it. It is from Ghandi, who usually has something worthwhile to say.

Faith gains in strength only when people are willing to lay down their lives for it....Faith is not like a delicate flower which would wither away....Robust faith in oneself and brave trust of the opponent, so-called or real, is the best safeguard....A living faith cannot be manufactured by the rule of [the] majority....What is faith if it is not translated into action?...Faith is not imparted like secular subjects. It is given through the language of the heart....Every living faith must have within itself the power of rejuvenation if it is to live. Just as the body cannot exist without blood, so the soul needs matchless and pure strength of faith....My effort should never be to undermine another's faith but to make him a better follower of his own faith....Even as a tree has a single trunk but many branches and leaves, there is one religion-- human religion--but any number of faiths.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sermon - Liberation Theology

Exodus 5:10-21
Acts 5:27-39
Matthew 25:24-30
Psalm 146

Opening Greeting
Peace is letting go
Returning to the silence that cannot enter the realm of words
Because it is too pure to be contained in words.
This is why the tree, the stone, the river, and the mountain are quiet
- Malidoma Patrice Some

Music: Ripple, The Grateful Dead
We Shall Overcome
This Little Light of Mine

Before the sermon, we have a time with the youth. This is an interactive time of the service, so I will just list the questions that I asked and discussion highlights.

Do you know what it means to protest? Well, what if I said, “I want you to go clean the Sunday School room, give the table a good scrubbing, I’ll be down there in 15 minutes to inspect it and it better look nice or no dinner.” Okay, so now you are protesting. You are having a sit down strike and telling me your grievances. I’m not being fair, am I?

80 years ago, in this country, right here in Minnesota, people were treated very unfairly, adults and children your age were given the choice of a job working 12 hour days with no lunch break in dangerous conditions, or they could live on the street. It took years, but they protested, they organized, and formed unions and worked with their employers to make life better for everybody.

Before you go, let me make this perfectly clear. When your mother tells you to clean your room, she is being fair. When you protest, you need to have a good reason.

Liberation Theology

In 1963, Rabbi Abraham Heschel gave a speech at the Conference on Religion and Race and said, “At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses [audience laughter and clapping]. Moses' words were: 'Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let my people go that they may celebrate a feast to me.”
Heschel was a great man, he marched with Martin Luther King. Our bishop, Sally Dyck has quoted him recently, the quote she used was, “when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.” He said in that 1955, an uncertain and difficult time, not at all unlike today.

The challenge of each generation is to keep our faith from becoming an heirloom, to apply it to the new problems of the day without simply wishing for the good ole days.

How you go about doing that has a lot to do with how successful you will be.

First there is first some due diligence. I do believe there is value to simply picking up a Bible, reading a passage cold, and seeing if it speaks to you. This can also lead you away from what its original author meant, so looking in to what other Bible readers through history have said about the passage and what modern archeology has discovered about the time it was written and understanding of the ancient language itself, is also important.

Now ancient languages might not interest you, I do this as just a sort of hobby. I like the study of history and culture and religion is an important part of that. I also believe the answers to some of our more perplexing problems will come with the help of these ancient traditions. But since I am an amateur, you are allowed to not take me too seriously. Some of what I will say today goes a little against the grain. But then, going against the grain is also part of the Christian tradition.

Around the same time Abraham Heschel was marching with Martin Luther King Jr., our pastor, Rick Edwards was going to seminary and had been in the Peace Corps in Colombia. When he was back in New York, working at an information table at a conference for the North American Congress on Latin America a man came up to him and said, “Ud es un comunista!” “You are a communist”. He said this jokingly, trying to get a rise out of Rick, which he didn’t get, so they both had a good laugh.

The man was Gustav Gutierrez, who had recently published a book, Teologia de la Liberacion, Liberation Theology. This was the time of Vatican II and in Latin America, Christians were participating in the movements for freedom and solidarity with the poor and workers rights and equal rights for different races and indigenous populations, just as people were here in the United States. And some of them were being called communists.

I’m not going to try to sort out the politics of the 60’s here today or take sides in a debate about socialism. Just as I quoted Heschel earlier saying we don’t want to return to a time of strict rules, I am not suggesting that we return to a time of doing whatever feels right and dismissing anything said by anyone over 30 years old. Many good things came out of that time, but there were mistakes made then and we can learn from them.

Part of my education on this has been books on liberation theology that Pastor Rick has supplied for me, so let’s take a look at what they say. First, if you are going to declare yourself in solidarity with the poor, you need to define what that means. Most of us are surviving fairly well.

Who are the poor?
Those with no money or land, that’s obvious.
Poor in mobility, discriminated against, no advantages.
Evangelically poor – everybody else who puts spirit before stuff. Those who may have, but are aware that if you have, there then is a responsibility to give.

Rather than go into more detail, I think it would be more interesting to show how this is applied. I choose the reading from the Old Testament about Moses, this is has been used by many enslaved people throughout time to build a resistance, right up to the slaves in this country. The entire book of Acts is about building a movement, and I also choose the Parable of the Talents.

I picked the part that many speakers have trouble with, that poor 3rd slave who gets cast out into the outer darkness where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. When I reviewed the common interpretations of this parable a few years ago, it struck me as odd and not quite right. Fortunately, finding the handful of people who are preaching an alternative interpretation is a lot easier to do these days, and that is when I first discovered liberation theology. At the time, I didn’t even know that it had a name.

Parable of the Talents

It begins with “for it will be like”, so we know it’s a parable. Often a master in a parable is an analogy for God or Jesus. The master gives his slaves some money and 2 of them do something with it. When the master returns, they have increased their wealth. The analogy works okay up to this point and we get commonly used phrases like “those who have will be given more” which could mean; accept the gifts from heaven and you will be rewarded with more, or from a related text in Luke, “to whom much is given, much is expected.”

And then you get the third slave fessing up that he hid his talents, he even says that he is acting out of fear. In similar situations, Jesus has forgiven people and encouraged them to do better in the future, this master gives the guy a lecture.

Do we have any reason to believe the 3rd slave? The slave says: “you reaped where you did not sow, and the master does not refute it, he just responds angrily. Now, I know Jesus isn’t all sweetness and nice, and that is a long discussion in itself, but this passage is just too out of character for me.

The master also says, “You should have put it in the bank.” I find no other Judge, King or prophet suggesting this. In fact Moses specifically forbids the use of money to make money. So these are clues that maybe the analogy to Jesus is not correct.

If it is not, then we need an alternative interpretation. In parables, the message is often carried by the third person in a group of three. Jesus’ audience would have known that and he usually preached to slaves, so we can expect that they would have picked up on this pretty easy. This parable is also at the end of his ministry, so what could be going on here is a warning of what it is going to be like when he is gone. If you speak up against your cruel and wicked master, you’re gonna get it.

In the end, I don’t think the parable gives us enough information to know for sure what it means. If the master was indeed wicked, then the third slave had a right and perhaps a duty to speak up. That doesn’t make the other two wrong. If he was tough but fair, then the lesson is that life is hard, and you should do your best with what you have. Maybe it was intended to be somewhat ambiguous, deciding if you should keep your job even though conditions are poor, or quit as a matter of principle even though there will be consequences for your lifestyle and your family, is not an easy decision. Making that decision in a real life situation today is no easier than attempting to figure out what someone from 2,000 years ago, speaking in a language that is no longer used, was trying to say.

For the youngsters here, I want to be real clear that this does not apply to all jobs. If your boss tells you to do something, you do it if you want to get paid. It is not illegal for a boss to be mean. There are boundaries that they can’t cross, and if they do, they should be reported.

I’m not suggesting that everyone join in on a giant sit down strike. We have laws today that are much better than what slaves had in Roman times. To apply this parable to today, what I hear it saying is, we need to work together to build a just and peaceful world where workers are respected, and capital investments protected and given a reasonable return. It may mean protesting actions by corporations, or thinking about what jobs we choose to apply for, or how we conduct ourselves in meetings. It may be as simple as starting an office paper recycling program.

When applying theology like this, the authors of Liberation Theology also warn against possible pitfalls:

Don’t forget the mysticism
The universe is vast and unknowable and we can learn from even the tiniest things that are happening right at our feet. We have our committees and our spreadsheets and phone bills and we need to be doing all of that, but we can’t forget that there are things we can’t control.

This is not the next thing to franchise.
I hope this does not come across as something that I am selling. A movement such as this must acknowledge other religions and other theologies. This is a movement that will end, and disperse into the world. In many ways, it already has.

Don’t forget celebration, joy and song while working on technical issues.
I think that is a good queue for a song. Let’s celebrate our two slaves that put their talents to good use with “This Little Light of Mine”

Friday, July 9, 2010

Mid-July blog

So what’s up with this blog anyway? Well, that’s the thing about a blog, it doesn’t have to go anywhere in particular. I have started a few themes and dropped them, Robert M. Price did not hold my interest, although I may have said he would, The Charter for Compassion kinda fizzled out, although I still get their emails, probably some other things that I said I would do that I just forgot about. Plus its summer, I should be outside.

I did pick up an old copy of “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him”. It is written by a therapist, but it argues against traditional therapy. It contains a lot of old stories, so I might be drawing off that a bit. I have also discovered something called “Liberation Theology”; a very practical application of Christian teachings to social justice, along the lines of Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonnhoefer.

So, as parents often say, we’ll see.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The 3 Questions

A friend of mine used to drive a cab, so he met all sorts of interesting people. One day he had a fare to the airport with some guy who looked like he was from India, complete with the robe or sari or whatever that is. My friend was culture and religion curious, so he started probing this guy with questions, “where you from “, “what’s it like there”, “Do you think god is the ultimate consciousness or just a part of space time”, stuff like that.

The guy looked at him in the eye through the rear view mirror and checked my friend out, then asked three questions. Short ones, direct, and my friend gave him direct answers. After that, they had what my friend reported as the most wonderful conversation all the way to the airport. Now, if you’re like me, you want to know what those 3 questions were. Well he didn’t remember, and he wished he could, and we both set off in our separate ways to find them.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the man from India had a deep and broad knowledge of people, religion and the world. His first question was probably chosen based on my friends probes, the next two were based on the answers that he got. If my friend had answered differently, the man from India might have switched to talking about soccer.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - Final Summary

Now that I’m done, I will update the best of list, I think there is one new one since I originally gave this summary. All in all the exercise was a bit more tedious than I had hoped. I hope some of you found it worthwhile. It did provide many opportunities to comment on a wide range of issues from psychology to mushroom gods. I am an advocate of soliciting opinions without editing as these authors did, it helps to broaden the conversation, so I acknowledge the editors for their work. I am also an advocate of critical thinking and doing some fact checking on anything you read. The editors leave that up to you.

Overall, I categorize the essays into three groups.
1. The really good ones.
2. The “what’s wrong with religion” ones. Mainly complaining about fundamentalist Christians or Muslims.
3. Logical arguments about the non-existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, all-knowing, all-loving God who consciously manages the universe.

The third group doesn’t interest me much anymore because I have been over them a few times. It always ends up with a matter of choice or faith or a premise that can’t be proven. If you have never been through these arguments and you want to know about them, this book covers them all pretty well. There is some repetition, which is good for getting perspectives, but you might be tired of them by time you are done.

A lot of people reject the theology of their parents or their teachers, without considering that there are other theologies. A lot of people reject any theology once they realize there is more than one. There is some logic to this, especially when you consider there are currently thousands of options, but it rejects the notion that there might be some good found in one or in similarities in the many.

The second group is interesting, but I’m not sure short essays are the best approach. Again if you are familiar with none of the issues, this is a good place to start. However there are much better sources to learn about the rise of the religious right or the roots of fundamentalism or the history of Islam. Focusing on one expression of religion does not necessarily lead to a conclusion about all religion. Frieder Otto Wolf, in my last review of the 50 (A Voice of Disbelief in a Different Key) was one of the few who made this distinction.

Buy the book for the best ones, they are:

Why Am I a Nonbeliever – I Wonder (This is the best one on evolution)
Confessions of a Kindergarten Leper
The Accidental Exorcist
The Unconditional Love of Reality
He has published the whole essay on his site
Giving Up Ghosts and Gods
A Voice of Disbelief in a Different Key

And a sub-group, a couple more on evolution
Gods Inside
An Ambivalent Nonbelief

50 blogs on disbelief - The best for last

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 236 Freider Otto Wolf “Not Even Begin to Ignore These Questions” A Voice of Disbelief in a Different Key”

For the most part, I selected the essays randomly, except for a few that attracted me by their titles, or by the author. I started reading this essay back in March, but did not have the time to devote to it that it deserved, so I eventually decided to leave it until last. It is the longest essay but that is not the only reason it earned its place as my final blog of the 50. It accomplishes what I was hoping the book would accomplish. It looks past the God debate, and creates new ground for discussion.

Frieder Otto Wolf lives in Berlin. I could not find other works of his on the web relating to this topic. I will reproduce much of his essay here. The actual essay is worth reading.

The “Not Even Begin to” part of the title comes from an Austrian German idiom of a way to state that you so don’t care about something that you won’t even recognize it enough to say you are ignoring it. He eventually does give reasons to acknowledge religion in some circumstances and he also gives some reasons to ignore the claims of the role of science. The theme is that the framework of the debate for the last 200 years has evolved due to historical circumstances, and it is time to review how we got here and reframe how believers and nonbelievers relate to each other. Most of the essay is taken up with defining where we are. There isn’t an action plan at the end. There are some very specific suggestions for where our priorities should be.

He ends with a statement about the things that I have been supporting throughout my reviews of the other essays. I hope that this book helps believers and non-believers gain some understanding of each other and work together. As he says at the end of the essay:

“The urgent task of human liberation has, in fact, far more important aspects – starting from the challenges of world hunger, pandemic diseases, and the ongoing expropriation of human beings from their personal belongings which is currently highlighted by the “financial crisis” or casino capitalism. Whoever is willing to help in liberating human beings from these plagues should be accepted as an ally by all practical humanists – irrespective of the belief or faith in fact accompanying such a positive and practical attitude.“

To reach this conclusion, Frieder works through history and the definition of many terms. The first thing he defines is the name for those who currently use terms such as “non-believer” or “atheist”. He points out that both of these are reactions to something so they are, in a way, an acknowledgement that theology is a legitimate practice that possibly has something to offer.

An important aspect of this is just what is it that you don’t believe? In America, the voices of fundamentalist are loud and have the ear of our highest government officials. Frieder points out that considering those voices to be the core of Christianity, as they certainly claim, is dangerous and bordering on paranoia. To do so is to ignore important figures that used theology in their social movements such as Deitrich Boenhoffer and Martin Luther King Jr.

Our cultural views of science also need to be examined. He traces our current views back to the early reactions of science to the Catholic Church. This developed into what is now sometimes referred to as the “God of the gaps” argument, that God and gods were once used to explain natural phenomenon and as science figured them out, they had to be relinquished from theology. This approach to religion is clearly wrong, but as an approach to science, it is also problematic.

Against False Simplications

Science can no longer be viewed as a march toward determining the entire book of nature. To still believe that we will accomplish that is to not understand science today. It is a view developed in the Elizabethan era. Nor is science simply a statement of facts, cold and hard, that we can then draw from to solve a given problem. To examine something scientifically requires speculation, theorizing, and holding on to an assumption for perhaps years. The application of scientific data and its conclusions is not as simple as selecting the right tools from a toolbox.

So, Frieder suggests we abandon this “positivism” and the notion that “positive scientific knowledge” is somehow replacing religion. This does not reject either approach entirely. Instead we must cope with our lives as each generation has, creatively appropriating the cultural heritage that is available to us.

Frieder notes that we, at least in the West, no longer live in an age where Christian theology is central to an exploitative and repressive structure. Consumerism has taken over the legitimating function of government and domination. The details of these structures of domination can be argued, but he suggests three important ones:
1. “economic necessity” over human liberty
2. human objectives over natural processes
3. male domination over the female gender

In the section sub-titled “Transforming Metaphysical Questions from Urgent Problems Into Interesting Puzzles”, Frieder discusses some history of metaphysical thought, touching on Kant, Keirkegaard and Wittgenstein. He concludes that there may be some value to delving into these interesting puzzles, but that we need to eliminate them as urgent problems.

In the next section he warns against regressing into delegating the hard work of determining how to live our lives to “New Age” thinking. This does not mean that we should leave these decisions up to every individual either. Some people do not have the proper tools available to them. We need to develop ways of helping each other without having that lead to domination as it sometimes does and often has. For intellectuals, this means:

“think beyond their customary dichotomy between producing scientific insights, as results of research, and popularizing them”

It means including everyone as “equal participants in public deliberation.”

Scientific Solutions to Problems and Philosophical Answers to Questions

Frieder points out that questions about the soul, or whether or not laws are ordained by God will not help us with questions about the planetary “biosphere” or other pressing problems of the day. We should not expect science to provide answers to these metaphysical questions either. Nor will science make us capable of defining a “one best way” of action.

Science will no doubt make progress and provide solutions. However some of our problems are pressing and science must proceed at its own pace. Problems are not always well defined and scientific solutions can’t be relied on to come to fruition as they are needed. At some point, scientific deliberations cross with political deliberations and “ethical” discourses. Frieder says, “radical philosophy can take up the part of critical mediator, bridging the gaps” between these. I’m not sure if I got what he meant by “radical philosophy”, but he did say that it would be a “vanishing mediator”, helping people advance their arguments then moving on. Not becoming a dogma or something that itself would be argued about.

Struggling Toward Humanism

He concludes with a brief history of humanism, where it started and how it has evolved. There were high hopes for humanity in the nineteenth century, but after what Frieder calls the “night of the twentieth century”, the light of those hopes does not seem so bright. I agree with him that it is time to again take up this notion of seeking common ground.

Go back to the first in this series

Thursday, June 17, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - Reasons

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 165 Sheila A. M. McLean “Reasons to be Faithless”

Sheila went to church as a child, but religion was not particularly forced on her. She does not have a story of becoming atheist, but she has plenty of reasons. She covers them in just two pages.

She can’t figure out what we all would do in an afterlife. She has a big problem with religions believing they are the only right way and notes that this goes against claims of tolerance. She finds it annoying that people claim to “know” what their scripture means anyway. And while religions claim to be peaceful, there is plenty of violence to be found in their source material and in their histories. The discrimination against women that is dogmatically encouraged is also a big problem for her.

She covers the variations in the New Testament gospels and wonders why this would not lead anyone to questions them. A key factor of being Christian is accepting Jesus as the one true Son of God. She can’t reconcile this by scripture or history.

She ends with something that is either cynical, or she is joking; that she likes the part where you can repent at the last minute, and still be saved. But for now she will be fine without it.

Next week, the 50th essay. It is a very good discussion of what we should be doing.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - Cold Comfort

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 177 Ross Upshur – Cold Comfort

I’m almost through all 50 essays, and I continue to find something new. Ross presents no arguments at all. He remembers being an atheist as early as age 5. This despite being brought up in a family with one Catholic grandmother and one Anglican vying for his soul. His parents encouraged his scientific interests and later philosophy and politics. His atheism continued throughout his undergraduate study, although he did cultivate some appreciation for the importance of theology through the studies of Hume and Spinoza.

In adulthood, he married a woman who was brought up in the “gentle, open-minded, social-justice oriented United Church of Canada.” To support her and their daughter, he returned to church service. He bides his time reading the Bible and is tolerated by the other members. He has found the experience worthwhile as his understanding of literature, architecture and symbolism has improved.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - Happy

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 161 Lori Lipman Brown “Who’s Unhappy?”

Lori is one of the more high profile atheists in the book as the former director of the Secular Coalition for America. As such, she has had some direct confrontations as part of her professional career, not just with priests or her family. Some of them question how she could possibly be happy without God in her life. From her perspective, she looks around at her life as an America and supposes that most of us are happy, what with all we have and are free to do. She makes some general statements on this, perhaps with a little more conviction than I could muster,
“Absent a small number of sociopaths, human beings are fully capable of understanding the need to work co-operatively with others and to strive to do no harm.”

Her work has brought her in contact with theistic people. There are many that want a religiously free country, and understand that includes the non-religious. Of those, she has found that the happiest are the ones who are not terribly concerned about the non-religious. She has worked with organizations such as the Interfaith Alliance and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty to ensure our government remains secular, and found most the people from those groups to be quite happy.

The unhappy ones tend to be the ones with the foul mouths, upset because she doesn’t share their god. One email she received said, “We have religious freedom in this country, so you should leave.” Her analysis of this was similar to the Garrison Keillor statement I posted earlier.

One of the problems these angry believers have is understanding how someone can be happy knowing their existence will end at death. Lori responds in a way that I have also heard from Dale McGowan,

“I wasn’t upset throughout the infinity of time before I was born that I didn’t exist. I won’t lament not existing for the infinity of time after my death that I won’t exist.”

She concludes with a couple paragraphs on all the reasons to take pleasure in everyday life and in being part of a great country in a great time. All in all, she’s pretty happy.


Monday, May 31, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - Evil

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 157 Gregory Benford “Evil and Me”

Gregory was raised Christian and in a military family immediately following World War II. He saw some rather gruesome scenes in Japan and Germany at an early age. So, as like many of the essayists, he confronted the problem of evil. He covers it quickly and succinctly.

In this century, he lost his wife and his father in a matter of months. When he took no comfort with them being in a heaven he couldn’t believe in, it was the “emotional conclusion” of his loss of faith.

He concludes with a paragraph on the possible genetic origins of religion, ideas that are covered in more depth in other essays. And that he now does not believe evil is a problem to be solved, “It’s just a feature of our world.”

The machinations that people go through to solve the problem of evil can get rather out of hand. It seems we might have better things to do. The only solutions are choices of faith; that is accept that there is a plan you don’t understand or is beyond human conception. Sin and free will get used to create some logic, but get complicated when concepts of heaven, hell, redemption and End Times get thrown into the mix. The Bible can be most unhelpful in sorting all this out.

Gregory has pondered these ideas and concluded his experience of the universe makes more sense without God. I don’t think that is a necessary conclusion, but we could put aside the arguing about it for a while.


Sunday, May 30, 2010

In The Beginning

Around 500 years ago, some people encouraged everyone to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. There is more to it than that, but for my purpose today, that is good enough. Today, fewer people get a complete Bible education when they are young, so if they attempt a read of the Bible on their own, they probably start at the book of Genesis, which is a very odd story.

It may not seem quite as odd, if you did not approach it with the baggage of your culture. This baggage informs us that this is one of the oldest stories in history and that it is part of a larger narrative of perfect creation, the fall, sin and salvation. Even if that narrative is true, the people who originally told and heard the story could not have known it. They would however have been very aware of events that were happening in their time. Those events were temporarily lost to history.

The Perfection/Fall/Sin/Salvation narrative was completed sometime after 200 AD by people who had very little awareness of the Sumerians or of the early cultures that broke away from Egypt some 1,200 years earlier. For them, the Bible was history. We now know that there was quite a bit of history before that book.

We have the story of Gilgamesh for example. It is an ancient document that actually fits the Hollywood picture of ancient documents that cause a shift in everyone’s’ understanding when they are discovered. The story goes that as the translator realized that he was uncovering a story of a flood and a boat and animals being carried two by two that predated the writing of the Noah story, he got very excited and started running around the lab, taking off his clothes.

We also now know something about the creation stories that came before the Genesis tale. In those stories, there was usually chaos, or some other monstrous creatures inhabiting the universe, then the gods come along and defeated them, or at least were able to control them. They then create humans to serve them. Kings and Queens were keepers of these stories, and the voice for these gods.

Now think about Genesis. The god of that story creates everything out of a void. He doesn’t have to defeat the great creatures of the sea, he created them. After he has created this paradise, he creates a man, who is asked to take care of it, and then a woman for a companion. The second creation story gets into rules and I think we still have some digging into history and psychology to do before we really understand it. But it is clear to me that this story was not just claiming to be different or better, but directly commenting on the stories that supported the existing power structures, saying they really had nothing.

If you want some more detail on that, I found a lecture at The Faraday Institute website by Ernest Lucas, “God and Origins: Interpreting the Early Chapters of Genesis”. You have to search a little once you go to this link.

So what is different about the people that put this story together? I started listening to a history class on the Mediterranean recently using iTunes U. When the professor gets to 1200 BCE, she talks about an area called the Levant, basically where Palestine and Israel are today. At that time, it was under the control of Egypt, a very bureaucratic, King/slave system that had lasted for 1000’s of years. Within a couple hundred years the Levant was populated by a few small states, ruling themselves with systems based on justice and a moral order.

What happened? There are a few theories, none of which is completely supported by the archaeological evidence. My favorite is that there was a social revolutionary movement, and they threw off the chains of their oppressors. Unfortunately, no one stopped and documented how it happened. I’m sure the Egyptians were not too happy about it, so they would have kept quiet. As the professor says, one of the communities reflected back and wrote stories about it, unfortunately in an extremely difficult form for us to use for an historical source. That source would be the Torah.

I don’t know how to link to iTunes University, but if you go there and search for UC Berkeley, History4A The Ancient Mediterranean World with Isabel Pafford, you should find it.

I think there is more to the world’s fascination with this story than just a mystery to be solved. I think the struggle of people against their governments continues and we want to hear a story of someone who succeeded. We would like a solution that involves something other than just a cycle of violent revolutions. I would anyway.