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.