Tuesday, March 29, 2011

After these messages...

I know I left this blog on a cliffhanger, and I'm terribly sorry about that. We have family here from overseas right now, so I haven't had much time for updates. I'll be back to my regular schedule very soon. Thanks for hanging in there! I'll be back towards the end of next week.

Please enjoy Ray Comfort on The Atheist Experience for now! Be warned that the playback is extremely loud. It's quite hilarious, though.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Way

"When Jesus said, 'I am the way,' He meant that to have a true relationship with God, you must practice His way. In the Acts of the Apostles, the early Christians always spoke of their faith as 'the Way.' To me, 'I am the way' is a better statement than 'I know the way.' The way is not an asphalt road. But we must distinguish between the 'I' spoken by Jesus and the 'I' that people usually think of. The 'I' in His statement is life itself, His life, which is the way. If you do not really look at His life, you cannot see the way. If you only satisfy yourself with praising a name, even the name of Jesus, it is not practicing the life of Jesus. We must practice living deeply, loving, and acting with charity if we wish to truly honor Jesus. The way is Jesus himself and not just some idea of Him. A true teaching is not static. it is not mere words but the reality of life. many who have neither the way nor the life try to impose on others what they believe to be the way. but these are only words that have connection with real life or a real way. When we understand and practice deeply the life and teachings of Buddha or the life and teachings of Jesus, we penetrate the door and enter the abode of the livind Buddha and living Christ, and life eternal presents itself to us."

-Thich Nhat Hanh
Living Buddha, Living Christ

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Hell hath no...

...anything, actually, because it doesn't exist. Not according to the christian bible, anyway.

No, really.

Fred Clark has been doing a wonderful series on the doctrine of hell, where it came from, how it slithered its way into christian culture, and why it's a particularly nasty worldview. In order:

  1. Team Hell Gets Loud
  2. The epistemology of Team Hell
  3. Should I not be concerned?
  4. Rob Bell vs. Team Hell (cont'd)
  5. The Paradox of Pitchforks, a devilish problem
  6. That chair doesn’t belong in this play
  7. The Missiological Case for Hell
I'll update this list if he continues to write on the subject. The notion that hoping or believing that bad, awful, torturous things will happen to people is counter to christian principles should not be radical. Sadly, this isn't the case.

If you're a christian and you've been grappling with the fear that people you care about might endure an eternity of suffering at the hands of the god you believe to be the embodiment of love, take heart. Let it go. Live in love.

If you're not christian, but you've got loved ones who've been urging you (whether out of concern or malice) that your wicked ways will mean that you burn forever let them know that it's ok. They can stop worrying. God loved the Ninevites just as much as god loved anyone else. If you love each other, things will be ok.

To anyone who identifies as christian, as I do, you can stop hoping for pain and suffering. You can stop delighting in torment. You can stop fearing separation and loneliness. We can feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked and visit the sick.

We can let go of hell and hold on to love.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Indoctrination, part 1

The subject of how my husband and I want our son to be exposed to religion comes up with relative frequency when my mother is around. She's devoutly christian. My husband is Jewish (non-practicing), and more specifically Israeli. We want our son to know and be involved with my husband's side of the family and the culture and traditions that go along with it. My mother is supportive, in a strange she-doesn't-understand-the-difference-between-Judaism-and-christianity sort of way. For example, I've had to explain to her at least half a dozen times that no, Judaism doesn't consider Jesus a prophet, or particularly important, or, frankly, at all.

She means well, though, and I'm thankful she's supportive.

Whenever our son stays with my mother and her husband, he goes to church with them. He's only eight months old, so that just means he crawls around a brightly colored room with a bunch of other babies and toddlers, chewing on stuffed veggie tales toys. I'm more worried about germs than indoctrination. She keeps checking to make sure this is ok, for some reason. This happened again earlier this week, when I met her to pick my son up. It went a bit like this:

Mom: "[Your husband] doesn't mind us taking [your son] to church with us, does he? I mean, I know he's anti-religion."
Me: "He's not anti-religion, mom, he just doesn't practice."
Mom: "Well, remember that time he said he hates all the conflict and stuff like that? I just don't want him to be upset."
Me: "He's Israeli, mom. I'd probably be sick of religious conflict, too."
Mom: "Well, I don't know what that means."
Me: "It means he's not anti-religion, he's anti-douchebag. He just doesn't like it when people are jerks to each other."
Mom: "I just don't want him to get mad if we bring [your son] to church. It's important that he learns about both. I mean, it's just daycare, anyway, but later."
Me: "Well, later it's not [my husband] you need to worry about, it's me. I don't want him going to youth groups. You can take him with you to church, but he can't join the youth group ministry there."

This sparked a half hour long discussion in the parking lot of a BBQ joint in New Braunfels, Tx--a tiny town nearly halfway between San Antonio (where my mom lives) and Austin (my hippy-dippy-wonderful-city). Her husband just sort of stood there quietly, and patiently, shuffling his feet every few minutes and waiting for me to remember to open my trunk so he could move the stroller from their car to mine.

My mother and I have had very different experiences with christianity. This is, I'm convinced, in no small part due to her conversion later in life. Most religions have a sort of "get 'em while their young" mentality. What my mother has learned from and about christianity is mostly of the love your neighbor variety. She believes in being kind, and charitable. It's really quite lovely, and I hope that she exposes my son to that worldview. I have every confidence that she's going to be a positive influence on his life, and I know that her faith will be a large part of that.

What worries me is that she's got an alarming blind spot when it comes to all of the other stuff christian churches tend to teach. I realized after our discussion that, aside from her general predisposition towards naivete, this is because she wasn't actually raised in the church.

My parents became "born again" when I was probably 6 or 7. My childhood was a strange amalgam of the movies Saved! and Jesus Camp, if you're looking for a frame of reference. If you've seen the former film, I started out as a Hilary Faye sort of person and by the time I was in Junior High I was a cross between Chad Faust and Mary Cummings. If the movie had focused on Chad trying to reconcile his faith and his homosexuality rather than Mary and her pregnancy (and, you know, if Chad had been a girl), that probably would've been my high school experience.

We moved from Texas to California and back again, and changed churches with relatively frequency before settling on one for most of my high school years. I've been to mega-churches and tiny churches and churches that were tiny and quickly became mega. They were all "non-denominational" which means evangelical if you're in Texas.

One was charismatic, but we didn't figure that out until someone fell on me while "caught up in the spirit." I was at a youth group meeting, which is where I spent all of my Wednesday nights, standing among the dented folding chairs and singing along with the band as quietly as I could when suddenly, the girl next to me began to convulse mid-hymn. One minute she's singing, and the next she's clucking and hissing and having what I thought was a seizure. She slammed into me and we both landed, sprawling, in the middle of the aisle with her pinning me down, still having spasms and making unintelligible noises. I was pulled out from under her, and the adults all started circling her and praising Jesus. Another teen could tell I was completely dumbfounded and helpfully explained that the girl wasn't sick, but was rather speaking in tongues because she had been touched by the spirit.

We soon switched churches, thankfully.

Most youth groups I joined weren't nearly that exciting, but were quite a bit more insidious.

When you're a young child and you're attending (christian) church you just learn some heavily edited bible stories. Mostly they're from the Old Testament, so it's a lot of Noah and his Ark, Jonah and the Whale, David and Goliath, Joshua at Jerocho, Joseph and his Dream-Coat. They're taken utterly out of context, and taught from a christian perspective which makes them seem surreal looking back on what I was told they meant then, and what I understand them to mean now. Sometimes you might venture into Jesus and the Loaves and Fishes, although it focuses on the miracle of feeding thousands and not the actual Sermon on the Mount, which is a shame. There's also a lot of singing. You sing about god, and Jesus, and pharisees and sadducees ("cause the sadducees were sad, you seeeee" - it didn't make much sense, but we were 6, so we didn't know - shut up).

When you're an adult in a (christian mega) church, you're probably hearing a lot about how to deal with stress--usually related to money, work or family. You still sing a lot, but it's more generic god is awesome, Jesus died for me type stuff. In the better churches you learn a lot about the gospels, although they still inexplicably skip over the sermon on the mount more often than not. In the not-so-great churches they talk about the book of Revelations a lot.

In the terrible churches they only ever talk about homosexuality and abortion. You still sing, though.

You sing a lot, if you're in the Bible Belt. Lots and lots of singing, and very little dancing. You learn a few Hebrew words for the songs, pronounced horribly, and used in entirely the wrong context. El Shaddai gets thrown around in reference to Jesus, which doesn't make a lick of sense. I blame Amy Grant.

If I ever took my husband into an evangelical church I think we'd be asked to leave just because he wouldn't be able to stop laughing at me.

In any case, aside from the terrible churches it's all pretty benign if you're an adult or a very young kid. Your mega-church could be funding all kinds of nasty political nonsense or engaging in sex-scandals and you'd never really know it if you just show up on Sundays.

As you start to head towards adolescence, though, that's when they really try to get their hooks in. That's when all of the really twisted, anti-science, anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-kindness, anti-christian stuff gets introduced because that's when you're impressionable enough to believe it and emotionally vulnerable enough start being desensitized to the idea of victimizing others or being a victim.

This is a really crucial juncture for Bizarro Christianity.

Kids are starting to question things as they get closer to middle school or junior high. They're beginning to wonder if maybe the adults don't' actually have everything figured out. They're starting to care more about what their friends think than their parents. Girls are starting to wonder if it's ok to be brave and curious and adventurous. Boys are starting to wonder if it's really ok to be affectionate, compassionate, and emotional. They've learned the basics of the scientific method, and perhaps taken earth or physical science. They're about to take biology, which means an introduction to evolution. They're probably starting to notice some of the contradictions present in the things they're learning in church, if they're clever. They may even be starting to wonder about some basic philosophical paradoxes, like why does god let bad things happen?

They're starting to realize they don't quite know what all the fuss is about that sex stuff, but it may just be sort of interesting. Perhaps they're starting to notice who they're noticing, and hoping that those people are noticing them, or perhaps hoping the people they're noticing aren't noticing they're noticing them. It's all very confusing and hormonal.

If Bizarro Christianity is going to supplant all of the stories of kindness, love and sharing children learned up until that point, youth ministries have to work quickly and decisively.

The story of how that process manifested in the youth ministries I was part of, in my life, and from my perspective, is understandably a bit long. As such, I'll continue with the next part of the story on Monday.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has stepped down as the political leader of the Central Tibetan Authority, also known as the Tibetan government-in-exile.

In his own words.

Video of part of the speech on the anniversary of the 1959 peaceful Tibetan uprising.

The guardian has some clarifications on the situation, especially for those unfamiliar with the history of it.

USA today coverage that includes the typical (and annoying) "But how will this affect America!" trope.

The Guardian explains a bit on why this situation is so complex for Tibet, and particularly for the Tibetan exiles who exist in a sort of limbo in India.

An introduction to Buddhism:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

And in the end...

I took a creative writing class, about a million years ago, when I was in college. One of the first things you learn in creative writing is to avoid hinging everything on a twist ending. It may or may not be exciting the first read through, has a tendency to backfire completely, and no one will ever pick up your story a second time. A good story can and should stand alone on its own merits with the beginning, middle, and end providing the same amount of enjoyment.

The point of a good story is the journey on which it takes you, not the destination at which you arrive. That's why I don't really mind spoilers, in most cases. If a story (movie, book, television series, whathaveyou) is worth being bothered with then knowing what happens ahead of time rarely diminishes that experience.

Bizarro Christians, however, love twist endings.

They're utterly obsessed with only two parts of the New Testament: the death and resurrection of Jesus, and their extremely distorted "interpretation" of the book of revelations. Honestly, how much more twisty-ending can you get? Their version of the gospels goes:

"This guy Jesus died. The devil won. Everybody was pretty upset about it. BUT! It turns out he was totally god and he comes back to life! We win! The end!"

Revelation goes similarly. Rather than reading it as a piece of literary, historical, or allegorical writing they latched onto the 19th century rise of dispensationalism and view it as some sort of outline for the apocalypse*.

To them, the book of Revelation goes: "Jesus shows up, fights off the devil and his sidekick the anti-christ, tortures everybody we don't like, boots them all into hell, and WE WIN! Again!"

It's honestly the doctrinal equivalent of "My dad can beat up your dad. Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah" except instead of their dad beating up our dad, their dad beats up us which doesn't seem altogether fair. It's a weird thing to wish on other people, but there it is.

So those are the two topsy-turny-twisty endings that make up about 90% of the evangelical doctrine, in the U.S.

I suppose those endings are very comforting, for some people. The message of both is "We win! You lose! Ha!" which would obviously be attractive to a lot of folks. It disappears thousands of years of christianity, and more appallingly the entirety of Jesus' three year ministry. Jesus had a lot to say, and the folks who wrote the gospels had a lot to say about the things he said, and the folks who've been writing about the gospels ever since have yet more lots to say about the things those other people said.

But those stories don't have compelling enough endings, I guess. Most holy books, religious writings, or philosophical texts are designed to indicate how we should interact with the people we come in contact with, navigate the experience of being human, or commune with the divine in some way. They're intended to enrich, teach, or enlighten. At their most basic, they're designed to form a structure to live by, with stories, histories, rules, explanations and mythologies to illustrate a richness of experience for us to draw from as we grapple with who we are and where we're going - individually and together.

Whether you find inspiration and guidance from the Bhagavad Gītā, Tanakh, Qur'an, New Testament, Buddhavacana or from Dandelion Wine, the point is what it teaches you and how it touches you. The point is not to race to the end to justify the rightness of your position over all others.

In summary, I defer to Messrs Lennon/McCartney:

*This reading of the book of Revelation is, of course, not at all biblical. How and why it's such a perverse view of biblical teaching, and christianity in general, has and is being explained over at Slacktivist with an eloquence I could never hope to achieve.