Thursday, October 22, 2009

Parable #3

The Parable of the Stoners

Once there was a homeless, unemployed guy named Al who moved into the apartment of a guy named Doug, who let Al live there rent-free. Doug said to Al, "Feel free to use any of my crap you see lying around. You can even dip into my stash if you want to. But if you so much as touch my Walkman, I'll kill you."

During the day, when Doug was gone, Al killed time with Doug's videogames and records and VHS tapes, but he eventually got bored with nothing to do all day long. So Doug hooked Al up with this chick named Edie who decided to crash at the apartment too.

One day, a dude named Stan came over when Doug was gone and Al was sleeping on the couch. Stan said to Edie, "You should totally listen to Doug's Walkman." When she said that Doug told them not to, Stan said, "He won't do anything. It's a demo of his solo stuff. You totally have to hear it."

So she listened to Doug's Walkman and gave it to Al when he woke up. The music was so funny to them that they knew they couldn't look Doug in the face when he got home. When Doug did get home, they tried to hold in their laughter, but they couldn't. "You assholes have been listening to my Walkman, haven't you?" Doug said.

"Stan told us to," they said. So Doug pushed Stan over and kicked him in the side. Then Doug said to the couple, "All right, you guys are out of here. I guess you'll have to follow your loser boyfriend around, huh Edie? And as for you, bro, I guess you'll have to, like, get a job and stuff."

After they left, Doug put a padlock on the door so they wouldn't break in and take his stash.


I believe the moral of this story is obvious.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

They Might Be Giants: Here Comes Science

When I was a kid in the 1980s -- willing and wanting to believe in pretty much anything, from ghosts to centaurs to Robin Hood to the angel Gabriel -- I never doubted one thing: science is real. I never had a problem with that concept. Some things can be believed or imagined or wished for, while other things can actually be proven. Easy enough for a small child to understand.

Apparently, many adults today (and, as a result, their children) don't care much for science, don't "believe" in it--as if it's a belief system and not a method that helps us understand the way things actually are. I don't feel like I have an accurate sense of how rampant this fact-hating phenomenon is, but what I do know is that I have DVDs of Walt Disney movies and TV shows from the 1940s to the 1960s that discussed and taught things like evolution and the Big Bang to an audience of millions of average American children and families without apology. Well over fifty years later, however -- in an age that you'd imagined would have progressed even further -- the band They Might Be Giants feel compelled to make a children's record that attempts to, in the long-awaited words of our president, "restore science to its rightful place."

Friday, September 25, 2009

Parable #2

The Parable of the Keyboard

A man plays a very tiny keyboard, perhaps only two octaves wide. He wants to hit low notes and he wants to hit high notes, but he cannot. While playing a tune, the man moves his fingers beyond the keyboard, left and right, to the place where the notes would be if the keyboard were longer at either end. He hears the notes in his mind, but it is frustrating that neither he nor anyone else can hear them in the air.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


C.S. Lewis properly defined faith as a virtue that allows us to hold on to our reasoned ideas in spite of any mood shifts or other temporary shaky grounds we might encounter. The "reasoned" part is important. Let's take a non-religious example. Let's say that you meet the same friend for lunch every Sunday at noon, always nearly on the dot. You've been doing this now for a year. One day it gets to be four minutes past twelve and your friend hasn't shown up. But you have faith that he will show up or will at least call to let you know what happened. Your faith is based on evidence, on reason, and you remain calm. You don't start cursing his name or thinking he doesn't exist. And sure enough, here your friend is at five minutes after, explaining that he got detoured because of a parade route. You can safely keep your faith.

Unfortunately (as I briefly suggested in the Mere Christianity post), many religious people aren't using this reasonable definition of faith. An example to illustrate their altered definition runs something like this. Your parents call you up and tell you that someone you haven't met wants to have lunch with you at noon and would like to make this a Sunday tradition. So you show up to the restaurant. The person isn't there, but you go ahead and order anyway. Not only do you order your food and begin happily eating, but you talk to the empty seat as if someone is sitting there. You do this every Sunday. Some people around you at the restaurant begin to question you, but you tell them, "I have faith." "Faith that this person will show up?" they ask (thinking perhaps you are in Waiting for Godot territory). "No," you say, "faith that he is right here in front of me. If you don't believe me, you must not have faith."

I don't think this is an exaggeration of what "faith" means to some people where God is concerned. If God is something that you arrived at because of some genuine reason, then fine. There will be reasons to have faith in him. But if you believe in God (or in something about God) simply because your parents told you (or some other "authority"), then you're just as insane as the guy talking to himself at the T.G.I. Friday's.

An actual example I've encountered over and over again that demonstrates something worse than this mentality is the person who was taught the Genesis stories at an early age and took them as literal fact. No harm, no foul yet--but eventually this same person has it proven to them (and this person, in a strong sense, believes the proof) that the earth is billions of years old, that evolution is a fact, that the story of Noah is an impossibility, etc. But, in spite of this proof, this person feels that it is the right thing to do to ignore this new evidence and insist that these Biblical events actually happened... on faith.

This person might be asked, "Okay, you don't like new evidence. What about stories even older than Genesis? What about stories about Ra from the Ancient Egyptians or stories about Marduk from the Mesopotamians? Is it not a lack of faith to have shifted from those works which are at least a thousand years older than the Bible?" The answer is usually something like "Those are just ridiculous" or "I don't know about those" or "That's not what I was taught."

So it turns out that the new and unimproved definition of faith is this: Faith is believing in whatever the very first fucking thing you ever heard was and sticking to it until the day you die no matter what reality has to say about it.

There's nothing wrong with believing almost anything (the literal nature of Genesis included) if you have a good reason for doing so, but can the above example be described as anything but a psychological disorder? If you are shown that something you thought was true isn't true anymore, it's your duty as a sane person to alter your beliefs. Otherwise you're even crazier than the restaurant guy talking to his invisible friend. Suddenly you're like a woman in the delivery room at the hospital watching your own child come out of your own body, loudly insisting that "No! The stork brought me this baby!"

The sad fact is that if you're really interested in knowing something about God, this new perverted definition of faith is the least helpful thing for you. If you're a Christian (for example), wasn't Christ something new that came along, something unexpected, something that went against the old beliefs? Isn't this why he was killed by people "of faith"? Couldn't Charles Darwin (for example) have been the new, unexpected prophet that God sent to show us a fuller picture of the beauty and splendor and drama of the world we live in? (Hint: yes he was.) Does God ever progress, or do we always have to be stuck in 500 BCE?

Faith is a good word. It's not connected with willful ignorance or hate or insanity. It's connected with reason and trust and an actual sense of security. So gimme my goddamned word back.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Parable of the Gay Man

Once there was a preacher whose colleagues felt he was a little too compassionate for his own good. And one day his fellow church leaders came into his office with a young man. Then they said to the preacher, "We have just found out that this man is a homosexual. The rules of our church says that he can no longer be a member of our congregation, but what do you say?" They wanted to test the preacher, so that they could perhaps remove him from his post.

At first the preacher just doodled on a notepad, as if he didn't hear them. But when the men became louder and asked the question again, the preacher said, "Anyone here who feels he is without sin and worthy to be in this congregation, I'll let that man kick this one out of our church." Then the preacher resumed doodling.

Every church leader left the room one by one, until only the young man and the preacher were left. The preacher said to the man, "Where did everyone go? Did they kick you out?" And the young man said no. "Then I won't kick you out either," the preacher said. "You may go now, but sin no more."

Then the young man turned to the preacher and said, " 'Sin no more'? Fuck you, I haven't done anything wrong."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

C.S. Lewis: Mere Christianity


Like a lot of people, I was first introduced to C.S. Lewis through his Narnia books, around the age of ten. I knew they had a basis in Lewis's Christianity, but it wasn't that aspect of the work that interested me the most. It was the magic. When, a few years later (I was still really young), I started reading what I called Lewis's "specifically religious" books, I liked them a lot, and I still like them -- because Lewis's writing style is simple and fun and he's always got smart analogies -- but they certainly weren't as inspiring. This is a good example of how something indirect (fairy tales in this case) can be more effective than something that's direct (Christian apologies). If being a Christian were like being in Narnia, who wouldn't want to convert? But if being a Christian is the life described in Mere Christianity, one might say "no thanks."

When I first read Mere Christianity as an early teen, I certainly considered myself a Christian. I'm not sure I recognized much of an alternative to Christianity then. It's been a long time, so I don't recall my exact experience reading it, but I think I remember agreeing with him for the most part and wondering where he got his info for other parts. The second time I read Mere Christianity a larger handful of years later (maybe in my twenties) is around the time that I started to suspect that maybe I'd never been a Christian after all. I do remember the experience the second reading: I kept saying to the book, "Really?"

So do I consider myself a Christian now? No. I base this answer on the fact that I don't seem to line up with any of the Christians I know, and there are many, of many varieties. At the same time, I can't find (too) much fault in what Jesus actually preached. But apparently being a Christian isn't simply following what Christ said. Apparently it's also following what Paul's epistles said about Jesus (and about everything else). And what Peter said. And what St. Augustine said. And what C.S. Lewis said.

As Lewis reports in the ten-years-later preface to his book, others have the same kinds of questions I do about the definition of Christianity. As they put it (in his paraphrase): "Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?" Lewis then goes on to say that he's not interested in who is most Christ-like, but who is a Christian according to the "original, obvious meaning" of the word. But this meaning is debatable too, his definition being "those who accept the Christian doctrine." Well, what's the Christian doctrine? This, of course, is where his book comes in.

The following is my response to Mere Christianity upon reading it the third time, in my mid-thirties. As you can see, before I even get past the preface, I already have problems. I don't have any sort of extremely focused argument I want to make so much as I just want to respond. There might be a good bit of "killing the father" here, but everyone should know that I will always love C.S. Lewis dearly. He helped me discover a larger world, and he's someone I will continue reading over and over again. This writing itself is proof of his power over me. I grabbed the book to quickly look one thing up and here I am, twelve thousand words later.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Two Miraculous Gifts

There have only been two times in my life when something has miraculously appeared out of nowhere, as a gift for me. The second time happened just this month. I had been searching up and down town for a 3.5 x 3.5 inch memo cube, since I had finally run out of the one I bought back in probably 1997. I've been using these things every day since the mid-80s (their heyday) and I simply can't switch to any other kind of stationary.

The problem is that Post-it notes seem to have the corner on the square stationary market. Go to any store and all you see is Post-its. Post-its, of course, are sticky and smallish, which is fine if you want to stick a little note somewhere, but what if you need a nice-sized, non-sticky square sheet to write a note on or draw a picture on or fold into a non-sticky bookmark? Do we really need this much stickiness? Anyway I don't think so, and that's why I searched for my special memo cube for many weeks.

I had already been to the Office Max where they had nothing but an aisle full of Post-its: one major corporation scratching another's back. My wife Carrie and I went back a second time to get something else, and we visited the stationary isle to see that only Post-its exist in the world. After both of us looked once more (thoroughly) and gave up, Carrie looked in a spot (that we'd already looked in) and said "Hey, what's that?" She then pulled out a beyond-perfect cube of "Astrobrights" that was wedged behind something. Even the colors were fancy. There was no other cube like this in the entire store (or anywhere else in town, maybe not in the country) and I was pretty convinced that God said "Fuck it" and placed it there for me, maybe out of frustration, maybe out of love.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Spiritual Book

Let's play a game. Follow my logic. We'll take this simple premise as a starting point: "The Bible is a spiritual book." We'll pretend that anything within it of any value has nothing to do with anything concrete or factual: laws, politics, history, places, people… Whether it's something that seems magical (a talking donkey, an angel) or something that we know is real (the city of Jerusalem, the Red Sea), we'll assume that all of these "worldly" elements are actually just metaphors for something spiritual, something concerning the inner life, the life of our thoughts and feelings. Let's just take this as a starting premise, just to see where it gets us.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Holy

When I was a kid, the family tendency, as soon as we got home from church, was to strip off all our dressy church clothes, put on shorts and T-shirts, and watch TV the rest of the night. But I resisted this tendency. I don't blame the family for doing it (as I got older, I did it too), but something in me wanted to go into my room by myself, keep my church clothes on, do some quiet activity or do nothing at all (maybe even just go to bed and think), and above all avoid the TV. Something about immediately going back to "normal" just felt wrong to me, made me feel a little sick. I realize now that feeling has to do with the concept of the holy, which I'll attempt to describe here.

Friday, March 20, 2009

William Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

I first read William Blake in high school when I was about sixteen years old: Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. I liked those, but I started really liking Blake when I chose to do my eleventh grade research paper on his life and works. The more I found out about him, the more weirdly familiar he seemed to me, until I eventually started flattering myself with the thought that I must have been William Blake in a previous life (something that still crosses my mind each time I read him).

I was intrigued by Blake as a mystic, his having visions of his dead brother and of angels, of staring at a knot in a piece of wood until he became scared of it, etc. I've never had strong visions or dreams about anything (unless you count my occasional sleep paralysis), but I like the concept of seeing things that aren't there--or specifically, seeing differently the things that are there. I think I do this different-seeing a little, though sometimes I simply see nothing where everyone else sees something. Lots of this world is invisible to me.

I was also intrigued by Blake as a visual artist. He was just as much a drawer, painter, engraver, etc. as he was a writer, and I loved the way he combined the two on the same page (or, in his case, engraved plate). This is how I got my start as a writer, too: writing words to tell stories about my pictures (and not the other way around). Like a lot of my favorite storytellers (C.S. Lewis and David Lynch to name two), the images came first. He also produced everything himself, rather than going to a traditional publisher, creating his books indie rock style, which is way that I've approached most of my art (especially my music), often from necessity but also because I like the freedom.

I became especially interested in Blake's prophetic books, though I didn't begin reading them properly until recently. As a teenager, I liked reading about them, but I must have felt (after glancing at the works themselves) that they were too much to undertake at that young age, so I put them off until later. Every time I read them now, that familiarity hits me again. They get me excited, and they also make me laugh.

I will probably eventually create posts for most of Blake's major works as I read (or re-read) them, but today I want to start with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Primarily I just want to get across some of the ideas he expressed in this work, even just as summary, but I will also give some commentary. You should be warned that some of the commentary will be comparisons of Blake to me more than any kind of real analysis of the work--which might suck for you if you don't know who I am… or if you do know who I am. I'm not sure which is worse.

(Special note: when I quote Blake throughout this post, I have chosen to correct his crazy spellings, capitalizations, and punctuation to more or less "smooth out" his writing for the sake of readability.)

You can and should read the entire Marriage of Heaven and Hell here first. It has both the text of the work as well as his illuminations. And, if you're interested in an analysis of the book, you can read a "run-through" I wrote for my world literature class this semester. The PDF is here.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

No Intelligence Allowed

Sorry for two "origin" posts in a row (though I'm still going to write a true Darwin post one day), but I just watched that Ben Stein documentary on evolution and intelligent design called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. As a movie, it was averagely entertaining. It was like a third-rate Michael Moore (who himself is often third-rate) paired with a twentieth-rate Errol Morris. I've always liked Ben Stein: he has that dry goofiness and he seems like a guy who's full of love and warmth.

The documentary began innocently enough. It seemed to want to explain the idea of intelligent design a little more clearly (and it did), demonstrating that it was more than just "creationism," and the film initially focused on a handful of professors who were fired for (presumably) even talking about this idea in the academy. I'm sort of with the "skeptic" guy from the movie on these firings when he says "something else must have been going on," but I'm mostly willing to give these professors the benefit of the doubt.

But then the movie loses this initial point and goes horribly wrong. The worst offense in the movie is when Darwin is linked to Hitler and the Holocaust and despair itself, taking a weird dark detour that felt like a different film entirely, ominous music playing while Ben stares sadly and accusingly at a statue of Charles Darwin as if he's blaming the theory of evolution for the death of six million Jews.

The sit-down with Richard Dawkins was also just silly, since Ben Stein asks Dawkins where life originally came from and of course Dawkins says "I don't know. No one knows," and Ben (and the editing) takes this answer as an admission of defeat--the assumption being that the correct answer is "God made life." But what if Dawkins had turned around and said, "Where did God come from?" (And maybe Dawkins did; only the editor knows for sure.) Suddenly Ben would have been defeated by his own dumb question. At any rate, the arguments for intelligent design are all but lost at this point and are replaced with a simple insistence that God is real.

But the main problem with the movie is that the premise itself makes no sense: the question Ben Stein is asking doesn't make sense and neither does his central metaphor. He's basically asking "Why can't science pursue the possibility of God as creator?" and his central metaphor is that leaving God out of science is like putting up a (Berlin) wall that separates one thing (God) from the other (science), limiting freedom. What Ben is forgetting, of course, is the definition of science itself. Science is based on things that can be observed. And if God can't be observed, then by definition God has to be on the other side of that wall. Some separations are okay. The movie doesn't make sense because the movie doesn't seem to know what science actually is.

What if we flipped it? What if, in my discussion of Romeo and Juliet in my literature class, I spent the entire time talking about the chemicals that are activated in the body and brain when you are in love? What if I talked about how Romeo and Juliet had high levels of adrenaline and dopamine and low levels of serotonin and that they both released the hormone oxytocin during sex and went on to explain how those things work scientifically? What, I can't allow for the possibility that maybe Romeo and Juliet were simply controlled by chemicals? Is this not an alternative reading of Shakespeare that also needs to be addressed side by side with traditional literary criticism? No, it's not. It has nothing to do with literature. It could only be useful as a joke.

Humanity, of course, needs to examine life from every angle it can: scientifically, religiously, philosophically, psychologically, etc. But it doesn't have to do it all at once and it doesn't have to do it in the same place. Even the Bible suggests that there's a time for everything.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Origin of the Universe (A Cartoon)

Someday soon I'll write a more serious post about Charles Darwin and how The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man actually have some pretty moving passages in them and descriptions of God that rival those of the Bible. For now, however, I'm going to demonstrate, in comic strip form, how those who believe in the Bible shouldn't have any beef with those who believe in, you know, stuff we actually have evidence of concerning the origin of life, the universe, and everything.

First, we have God. Fair enough. Science, hang on tight: we'll get to you in a second.

For the purposes of my comic strip, a Son of God (the yellow dot) was also introduced, but that's not important to what we're talking about today. What's important here is that the little red ball of energy (God's "grandson," if you want to get technical) eventually undergoes a big bang, creating the universe. I never understand when someone says, "I don't believe in the Big Bang Theory. I believe in God." Well, why couldn't God have set off the bang? That's like saying, "I don't believe in an oven. I believe the cook made this dinner." Isn't there sometimes a middle?