Sunday, August 30, 2009

Have You Read It? Part 2

In part 2, I will do a quick book review.

It is hard to find someone who has studied the Bible for many years and still loves it, but also is willing to look at it critically. David Wolpe, Terry Eagleton and John Shelby Spong are a few exceptions. My first Spong book was “Jesus for the Non-Religious”. I thought, here’s a nice book that will help me talk about Christ to my non-religious friends. It took me years to get comfortable even saying Christ, let alone talking about it in mixed (believer and non-believer) company. I figured it would have some of the usual glowing language about how great God is and I would have to work around that, but I hoped it would have some advice I would use too.

I could not have been more wrong. He went through all of the major stories, one by one, and broke down what is historically and contextually wrong with each. About a third of the way through, I started Googling Unitarianism and Buddhism. I was rehearsing what I would say to my pastor when I told him I was no longer going to be attending. Spong kept making references to how he still loved Christianity, so I kept expecting for him to somehow build the stories back up again, but he never did. Very near the end of the book he says choosing how you view or relate to God is ultimately a personal decision.

This is definitely not a book that tries to lure you in and do a sneak attack conversion. The title says it is for the non-religious, and I expect anyone who started out that way will remain so. For the religious, it has some excellent discussion about how the church came to the state it is in today and some suggestions for what needs to be done about it. Chief among them is to stop trying to get people to belief in things that most likely didn’t happen. These are good stories, and Spong gives good guidance on why they were written and why they are still relevant. But he doesn’t need to believe that anyone was actually raised from the dead for that to be true.

If you have questions like, why is there so much effort put in to claiming that Jesus was the Messiah of the Jews, or why are their differences between the four gospels, or why is the gospel of John so unique, this book is a good one for you. If you are interested in how a classically trained theologian can come to understand modern views of war, spirituality and even sexuality, John Shelby Spong is your man. I highly recommend Googling him.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Have Your Read It? Part 1

I have a story I want to tell, but I need to tell a few other stories so that one makes sense. If I were Garrison Keillor, I would just regress in to each one, and come back seamlessly to a humorous and witty ending. But I’m not him. Hopefully each is entertaining on its own. I will introduce a film, a couple books and a document from American history then bring them all together in the story of someone else’s blog. Here goes.

Julia Sweeny is a former character from Saturday Night Live. She was there in the years when the show was not doing so well. Her character, Pat, is fairly well known. For you non-SNL people, Pat was a person that no one could discern the sex of. The joke was that everyone danced around saying she or he and other gender issues. Anyway, after SNL, she did a couple one woman acts, one of which discussed her spiritual history and how she ended up an atheist. It was made into a movie titled, Letting Go of God.

In the movie, Julia completes a course that studies the entire Bible. She is appalled at some of the things she learned. There is a lot of violence in there. She recalls sitting at a stop light and seeing some young people walking toward a church, all in uniforms and carrying their Bibles. She wants to scream, “Have you read it!”

While I’m eating my cereal some mornings, I turn on the TV and watch a very low budget religious program. It’s just one guy, sitting at a desk, reading scripture and explaining Hebrew translations, giving historical context and spiritual interpretation as he goes. I have never watched it long enough to get his point, if he ever gets to one. Every now and then he pauses and says, “You see, you have to follow the law, that’s how you get to heaven, the answers are in here, have you read it?” and he tilts the Bible up toward the camera.

Both of these people can’t be right, and I don’t think both of them are all wrong, but I can’t completely agree with either of them. I have more trouble understanding the televangelist, because I have read “it”, and have not found all the answers or even a consistent set of rules with which to agree or disagree. I have had Julia’s experience of reading something, like the book of Joshua that seems to say God avenges the righteous by helping them kill women and children, and have spent many days and weeks considering radical turns in my spiritual path.

I can’t explain every violent act of God, but I have spent time researching specific passages and found interpretations that are valuable. This does not require explaining away the violence, but it does require understanding the context and purpose of the writing. These can be found in earlier blogs and I’m sure there will be more to come. I can say for sure that the books that come before Kings are bound by time. That Moses did smite the Levites in no way justifies any violence toward current occupants of those same lands.

I will leave you hanging with the “have you read it” question and return soon with part 2.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How to fix Christianity

Okay, so, I was going to build up to this, but since my readership is fairly low, I thought I’d just jump to it. Part of the reason for this blog is for me to organize my own thoughts. You get to observe that and comment as I go. I will make several broad statements this time that require considerable substantiation. If this were a book, that would come first, but it’s a blog, so here goes.

Ultimately, Christianity needs to redefine what it is to be a Christian. That is, accepting Christ as your saviour. Currently, the requirement is too strict, and not relevant to 21st century culture. Understanding Christ as the Jewish Messiah was a mistake of history. It made sense to the people who needed to make sense of what they experienced in the 1st century. It then quickly became something that needed to be explained. Within in a few hundred years, it was irrelevant but ritualized.

People who go to church today understand that the teachings of Jesus have value. They don’t need to first be told that they will go to heaven if they accept Christ in their heart. As an entry point, this is problematic, because the immediate question is, “is that it?” The answer is, “Yes, but, you should follow the teachings too.” Following the teachings is really where we wanted to get in the first, but now this entry point has been artificially added on. The entry point could be, “here are some teachings, let’s learn together.”

Getting churches to change that requirement is probably not going to happen anytime soon. A more likely starting point for change is in the area of tribalism. The Christian cultures and the Jewish cultures before them are based on defining a group of people as special. When that group of people is a family looking to find its own spiritual path, or a race of slaves looking to form its own egalitarian country, I can back that. When it is a small nation looking to conquer other nations to gain power, I can’t. The Old Testament has all of these stories.

I find very little real dialog in the Christian world about the battles in the book of Joshua, or the severe punishments for minor crimes in Leviticus. I find plenty of yelling about it, but not much dialog. The most common responses are defensive and poorly supported, along the lines of, “God says he will punish people for breaking some arbitrary rule, then he does it, that seems fair.” These are rules that defined and controlled a certain culture in a certain time, and they should be viewed only in that context.

That does not mean they are not useful. Parts of the ten commandments for example, are very useful. They are not legislation, but they are good starting points for discussion. The Bible has many stories of a new generation looking back at what earlier generations did, discussing it and deciding to keep some of the ideas, update some others, and toss the rest. It would be nice if it was calm discussion, but its not. Calm doesn’t make a very good story anyway, so it probably happened, we just aren’t reading about it. In those stories, there are usually some who say the only correct thing to do is to keep all of the old traditions. With 6,000 years of traditions in one book, that is pretty much impossible, but there are still people who say it today.

The rules that were once entry points, are now barriers. Many of them are dropping away, but when that happens, there are always those that dig in their heals and scream louder than anyone else. This gives the appearance that these are actually the important issues, and the barrier is strengthened. The opportunity for calm discussion becomes increasingly difficult. One place to look for help on that is to read about cultures that have been through this before, ironically, in the Bible.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Peaceful Warrior

I’d like to wrap up these last few posts with a movie recommendation. The theme has been along the lines of hero’s journey, and this movie is one of the best I’ve seen with that theme. This one did not make the big theatres, but I was lucky enough to have a friend recommend it. It is based on a true story, so who knows just how much is true. The main character is a real person and has also written books which are available in print or audio. He is still around, so you can even get on his Twitter list, if you are into that. He is not a military type warrior, he is an athlete, a gymnast. He had accident early in his life, but through some very special mentoring, went on to be a world champion athlete.

You can find all of this at his web site.

What I really like about his story is that he includes the hard work and setbacks when he tells it. It has the usual magic and its spectacular scenes of soaring to new heights that any good story needs to make it interesting, but it keeps its feet pretty well planted on the ground. When the young apprentice warrior applies his new found ability to visualize his routine, he nails it. He returns to the master, excited to tell him the story of what a good boy is. The master shakes his head because the young man is not getting that you don’t learn to excel, just so you can show off.

I won’t do any more teasing, the web site has movie trailers and plenty of goodies for that. Hollywood rarely does a good job with a movie that has any spiritual element to it, but this one, I like.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull this week. I know, I’m about 30 years behind on that one. I did read Illusions, another Richard Bach short, back then, so I didn’t completely miss the boat. Both are along the lines of the ascetic tradition. That is, forsake the mundane simple pleasures and rise above the rest, go on journey of self discovery, find a mentor or one finds you, then return and pass it on.

Bach uses the symbolism of death. In both books, people or birds don’t die, they move on to a higher consciousness. I like to believe that is what will happen when I actually die, but Bach is not talking about actual death. It is symbolic of moving on. Garrison Keillor often tells stories on the News from Lake Wobegon about people who excel in their little home town, then move on to bigger arenas. It might be a high school kid who does well in athletics then graduates and finds college level competition more difficult, or someone who grows a 200 pound pumpkin then finds out that last year’s State Fair champion was over 1,000 pounds.

In Seagull, Jonathan is outcast from his flock because he concentrates on improving his ability to fly instead of simply using flight as a means to get out by the fishing boats, find a little food and get back. He wants to do more than just survive, and others see this as a threat to their well ordered system. He lives happily but alone, practicing his flight skills, then dies and is led to a small group of highly evolved gulls who are doing the same. He finds out he is not the only one who has made these discoveries about flight. He achieves even more and finds others with whom he can practice and learn.

Robert Bly once said, to some up and coming writers, that they need to be careful when telling these types of stories. Not Jonathan Livingston in particular, but stories of reaching for your dreams. He used the analogy of an old grain silo that is full of birds. The birds can get in through a broken door at the bottom and find some left over grain on the ground. Once inside they see some shafts of light coming in through holes in the ceiling. They fly up to that light thinking it is the way out, but the holes are too small. They flap around up there, confused. Sometimes the way out is through the darker door at the bottom.

But then Bly is a darker guy. I don’t want to be the one who says that you should not think positively. Hard work, concentration on a skill, practice, setting your sites on a higher purpose, those are all good things. Believing that desiring something is all that is needed to make it happen, not so good. A degree of commitment and perseverance is important, but not a guarantee. When I get to the end of my life, I want to say I gave it my best shot, and Richard Bach encourages that. Sometimes he also makes statements that are too absolute for me.

Having not read the book when it was written, I have the advantage of only seeing its affect on the culture. I see that most people are stuck in the first chapter, when Jonathan is figuring out how to fly many times faster than any Seagull can imagine. After a failure, he almost gives in to the words of his father to go back to lead a normal life with the flock, then he gets an inspiration and increases his speed again. The lesson of following your heart is one we all want to get. If only it was so simple.

The lessons of humility, kindness and seeing greatness in the faces of those around you who are just squawking and complaining are not as easy. These lessons come later, starting with his mentor, but we don’t hear much from the mentor about them. At some point in a mentor relationship, the student must find his own path. The rest of the book is Jonathan Livingston on that path. He sees the value of joining the flock and having the patience to explain his vision and guide others to find what he found.

Unfortunately, much of that is easily passed over in the text and lost in long passages about spectacular flights at high speed. Only once does a bird pay the ultimate consequence of such acrobatics, and he is immediately saved from death and returned to earth by our hero. If only we had such a hero.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Truth - Consciousness - Bliss

Okay, it’s still summertime, and I’ve been doing too much of either watching You Tube, or enjoying the last of the warm weather. I did listen to an interview by Bill Moyers of Joseph Campbell. If you were around in the 80’s, there is a good chance you have heard of Campbell. He saw a totem pole when he was young and it sparked a lifelong fascination for the study of myths. That passion culminated in a six part PBS series. Or, if you saw the movie Star Wars, his influence on George Lucas helped make that movie what it was.

There is a lot I could go in to here, but one of his central tenets answered a question for me that I have been working on for a long, long time. The question is, how do I know if something that I feel is right, is coming from my heart or from somewhere more base? Put another way, is it just a physical desire, or something my subconscious senses as a valuable course of action. In religious terms, is it God or the Devil speaking to me?

I can remember discussing it in my college dormitory. I felt I knew how to discern my inner voices, until a guy, who happened to be a raging alcoholic, someone who was very good at following his baser instincts, asked me to describe how I would know. It was more of a challenge really than a question. I couldn’t answer him. Now I could.

Joseph Campbell calls it following your bliss. He came to his understanding while studying Sanskrit. Sanskrit is an ancient language with some of the greatest spiritual writing the world has known. It has been absorbed in to Hinduism and other Eastern practices. When you hear of someone with the title of Sri or Yogi, that is someone who studies and teaches these ancient writings.

A central god of this tradition is Brahman. He has no characteristics, no form. One way to describe him is sachchidananda (I have seen more than one spelling of this). This word has three parts:

1) Sat – Truth or Being
2) Chid – Ultimate Consciousness
3) Ananda – Bliss, delight

As Campbell puts it, how do you know if you know the full truth or have reached the full potential of your being, you don’t. How do you know if you are fully conscious, you don’t. How do you know what excites you, what drives you, well that you do know, and it will lead you to the other two.

This still does leave some questions open as to what is just for pleasure, but in the interview, this came up within the context of laws. One of the functions of myth is to codify what a culture believes is right and how its people should act. This almost always causes trouble because laws need to change with the new challenges that each generation faces. But I don’t want to get too far off on that tangent.

The importance of grouping these three is that you can know if you are making good choices in one area, because you will see progress in the other two. Let’s say you like baseball. If you sit on the couch and watch baseball all day, you probably will not find any insight to higher truth or feel that your consciousness is expanding. If however you dedicate yourself to improving your baseball skills or competing at a high level, you might.

It may take a little time, but I think this will work. I think you can look around and see who is following their bliss and who is going for the short term gain. Those going for the short term pretty quickly develop empty spaces in their lives. They can keep seeking the thrill, but it gets increasingly difficult to get satisfaction. I admire those who found their bliss early and followed it.