Thursday, December 16, 2010

Santa Claus

My parents never lied to me about Santa Claus. It may be difficult to convince some that this didn't hinder my fun as a child at Christmas, but it didn't. Though Mom and Dad were always straight with me and my siblings about Santa's nonexistence, we still got to "play" Santa Claus. We would sit on his lap at the mall, get excited when the news would show Santa's sleigh on radar, set out milk and cookies before going to bed, earnestly listen for jingle bells, and wake up to find presents in front of the tree that weren't there the night before--with tags on them that read "From: Santa Claus."

Was this play just as fun and magical for us as it was for those children who actually believed? I'm pretty sure that it was. Think about it: children play at things that aren't real all the time. One way is to pretend to do something that is based on reality, such as playing house or school. You couldn't possibly spoil a child's fun if you broke in to say "You know you're not a real mother" or "You know you're not a real teacher." The child would just think you were stupid, someone who's grossly missed the point. Another way to play is to pretend concerning something that is completely fantastic, such as imagining you're Superman or that you're chasing unicorns. Children know that Superman and unicorns don't exist, but it's still fun to pretend, and -- for a child -- imagination feels very real, even while being fully aware of actual reality. If you told a kid these imaginary things weren't real, you'd be the stupid fool, not them.

In elementary school, when most of my friends either believed in Santa Claus or were questioning their belief (as all children eventually do), they would ask me if I believed. Sometimes I simply said no, but my favorite answer was, "I like to pretend that he's real." As nearly any kid naturally would, I enjoyed the image and idea of Santa Claus. There's no reason to deny a child (or an adult) the mythology of Santa Claus, since it is possible to celebrate him without taking the next (stupid, foolish?) step of forcing belief.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Girl Who Cried Dragon

What if, instead of hearing the story of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," someone told you the story of "The Girl Who Cried Dragon"? Instead of a boy who constantly lies that a wolf is attacking his sheep (only later for the lie to come true, when no one believes him), you're told a story about a girl who lies about a dragon who attacks the town's magic treasure? What would your response be? Would you think the story was nonsense because it wasn't how you were taught it? Would you knowledgably declare that dragons don't exist? Would you have a problem with the hero being female instead of male? Would you puzzle over the meaning of the magic treasure?

If you find these cosmetic differences in the two stories so big of an obstacle that you don't understand the basic moral -- namely that liars aren't believed even when they tell the truth -- then you're hopeless. But if you see why these minor changes in character, animal, sex, etc. don't affect the moral of the story one bit, then you can begin to understand the universal nature of myth and the language of God.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Rusty Consumes the Holy Books

International Burn a Koran Day may or may not be held this Saturday. Whether or not it is, I figured I'd use the opportunity to treat holy books a little differently than Pastor Facialhair...

I started by reading the Koran rather than burning it. Boy, did I learn a lot! Did you know that Jesus is in it? Did you know that the god in it is the same god of Jews and Christians? It's part three of the Yahweh trilogy!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

HEADLINE: Citizens Angry at Landowner Over Dumb Misunderstandings

One of my favorite aspects of America comes from the very first sentence of the very first amendment of the US Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The idea of separation of church and state (which Jesus himself advocated when he said to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God) is a beautiful thing, allowing us to be a republic/democracy (not a theocracy) that protects your rights to be a Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Wiccan, Atheist, or someone who's completely indifferent to the entire god thing.

And yet, though this simple and beautiful concept would work in practice if we'd let it, often we don't. Growing up (in Mississippi, if you're curious, not that that means anything), we had prayer in public schools all the time. I don't really know what they were thinking. Most probably, they weren't thinking anything. I student-taught once at a place where they did prayer over the intercom system. The principal said to me something like, "We could get in trouble for doing this, but I think it's worth the risk." My memory is fuzzy, but I think she even said, "Everyone here is a Christian anyway." Not only would that be beside the point, but it's quite an assumption. When my public school prayed when I attended, I considered myself a Christian, too, but I hated that they prayed in a public school. I knew it was wrong. Even if most of us could be filed under the broad label of "Christian," I knew that they weren't praying to my god. The god I believed in wouldn't have liked what they were doing. Especially since I knew for a fact that some of my friends were non-Christians and Atheists and may have cared for forced prayer even less than I did. During these prayers, with "every head bowed, every eye closed" (as they commanded you), I looked around the room in an angry mini-rebellion. I sometimes caught eyes with others who were probably doing the same.

Then of course I got to hear nonsense my whole life like "Everything gone downhill since they took prayer out of schools," which happened -- you know -- in 1964, so that shows how outdated a statement like that was (not to mention that the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791). Sometimes they'd go this far: "There's been another school shooting. Well, what do you expect when you take God out of the schools?" Which means, one must assume, that these statements were made by those who choose to worship a god who will murder innocent teenagers in the guise of a disturbed child with a shotgun (who now gets to spend the rest of his life in jail), just because he's upset that no one is talking to him during federally-funded education hours.

As I say, I don't know what people are thinking when they willfully combine church and state and impose their religion on others, but the sentiment sounds, to me, something like this: "Our ancestors came to America to flee religious persecution. The founding fathers included freedom of religion in the first amendment. That means that today every American is free to worship Jesus, and if any fuckers who believe in anything else want to do otherwise, I will eat the American flag and shit it down their pagan necks."

Sound demonic? It is.

This mentality is alive and well right now with the "controversy" over the Muslim community center (which is being built in order to improve Islam-West relations) being built several blocks from so-called "ground zero," where the World Trade Center used to be. I don't like to write about current events on the God Blog, and in a way I'm not, since this is just a manifestation of something that's been going on and will continue to go on: a continual struggle to uphold our constitutional right to freedom of religion.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Phrase To Avoid

Never say this again: "Well, I'm a Christian, so..."

There are a few reasons for this request. If you were to say, "Well, I'm a feminist, so I believe in equal rights for women," it might be okay, but even in this example you can see that it's redundant: you're just defining what a feminist is. You could just say "I believe in equal rights for women" and it would mean the same thing. Also, you don't believe in equal rights for women because you're a feminist, because you have this feminist label. You are called a feminist because you believe in equal rights for women. Similarly, when you say "Well, I'm a Christian, so..." you're mixing up cause and effect.

Unfortunately, you're not even being redundant if you say "Well, I'm a Christian." You're simply not communicating anything. Because the label Christian has no real meaning. You can hear that the word has no meaning when you listen to what comes out of different people's mouths after saying this phrase:

"Well, I'm a Christian, so I believe in the trinity."
"Well, I'm a Christian, so I don't approve of homosexuality."
"Well, I'm a Christian, so I am a member of the Republican party."
"Well, I'm a Christian, so I believe we need to do missionary work."
"Well, I'm a Christian, so I believe the Pope is infallible."

Et cetera.

You couldn't get all Christians to believe in any one of those things. I'm not sure that an umbrella definition for Christian exists, and there certainly isn't a shared belief system, in spite of some apparent similarities. (The best you could say, and be universal, is "Well, I'm a Christian, so I have some belief having something to do with Christ." Maybe.) So when you use this phrase, what you're really saying is, "Well, my version of Christianity forces me to believe this..."

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Question of Grammar

Should pronouns referring to God be capitalized? (For example: "God will do whatever He wants.") No. There's your quick and easy answer from a real life English professor: me.

But maybe you want to know why. First, it's ugly. That should be enough.

But there's more. Let's take a look at some examples. Let's say you're a religious person writing about God. You write something like the example above: "God will do whatever He wants." My thought as a reader is stop preaching to me. Rather than getting across whatever message you're trying to get across, you're simply condescending to me, invoking some capitalization trickery to show me that your point is valid and mine isn't because your God is Big.

Let's say you're a religious person writing about God and you write the same example, but without the capitalization: "God will do whatever he wants." A reader will be more willing to read more from this person. No disrespect has been shown to God or to the reader.

Let's also imagine that you're a non-religious person writing about God. "God will do whatever He wants." The condescension of the religious person has become the mockery of the non-religious person. The "He" may as well be in quotation marks as the mocker prances around the room. In both situations, using non-caps allows people to write to each other in a civilized manner.

More important, you can write in a more objective manner. I consistently (well, when I have time for proofreading) correct my student's papers when they summon the capital pronoun. "God placed a rainbow in the sky to show that He will remember His promise." Is there anything less academic? I've never seen anyone do it for Zeus. "Zeus transformed into a swan so He could have sex with Leda." In an academic situation, the capital pronoun tells us too much about your personal life and takes away your credibility as a dispassionate critic.

C.S. Lewis argued that you should use capital pronouns for God based on the idea that it's a nice little grammar convention that prevents confusion (i.e. that you will be certain what the pronoun is referring to). But C.S. Lewis was a man who always employed what seemed like good common sense simply in order to get what he wanted (God love him).

He, like others, wanted to show "respect." Seems an odd way to show it, but I do understand the impulse. I suppose, then, that this kind of capitalization is allowed (reluctantly) in one situation: a religious person writing to an audience of religious people. But even in that case, you should know that what you are doing is "preaching to the choir." You're saying "Isn't God great?" and your readers are saying "Surely He is" and you're saying "Kind of comes across as an empty religious cliché, doesn't it?" and they're saying, "Yes, but don't it make us feel good!" Et cetera.

So there you have it. If you want ugly, condescending (or mocking) sentences that discredit your arguments and makes your words seem hollow, go ahead and capitalize. But don't be surprised when Zeus strikes you down with His thunderbolt.

BONUS GRAMMAR (in case you didn't know): Capitalize the word god only when it is used as a proper name: "Our god is named God."

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Two Ways of Looking at a Tree

Consider these two stories:

Story One: A prince is born supernaturally out of the side of his mother. His father, the king, never allows him to leave the palace, preventing him from seeing old age, disease, or death. But the prince makes it outside one day anyway, and the gods allow him to see these things, which makes the prince want to learn more. The prince sits beneath a tree and declares he won't leave it until he gains the knowledge he wants. A supernatural snake encourages him to do so, declaring that this will be the day he will enjoy the divine fruit. While demons try to prevent the prince, the gods encourage him. Eventually the prince gains the knowledge he wants and becomes enlightened about the nature of suffering. He is now able to help others to do the same.

Story Two: A man is born supernaturally from the ground and then a woman is born out of his side. Their father, a god, shelters them from all suffering within a garden, not allowing them to experience shame, bodily pain, hard work, or death. There is a tree that can give them this knowledge, but their father forbids it. A supernatural snake encourages the woman to eat the fruit of the tree anyway, telling her that she will gain knowledge if she does. She eats from the tree, shares the fruit with her husband, and they become aware of themselves and experience shame. Their father curses the snake, makes the woman (and all women) suffer in childbirth, and makes the man (and all men) experience hard work. They are forced out of the shelter of the garden to eventually age and die (as will all mankind as a result).

The first is the story of the Buddha and the Bodhi tree. The second is the story of Adam and Eve and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They are both essentially the same story (birth from side, sheltering father, encouraging snake, tree of knowledge, recognition of suffering), but with one major difference: in the first one, the knowledge tree is good; but in the second, the knowledge tree is bad.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Genesis Retold: Part One

Based on the New Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible

Chapter One

Before there was earth and sky, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the chaotic waters. A strong wind and lightning swept over these waters and light appeared: sometimes it was light and sometimes it was dark.

A dome began to form around the earth, separating the chaotic waters, forming a sky. The waters on earth began to gather into one place (the seas) and dry land appeared (the ground).

The ground began to bring forth vegetation: plants and fruit trees and trees of every kind containing seeds.

Stars and other lights were in the sky, which were used for seasons, days, and years. The greater light was the sun, which shined during the day. The lesser light was the moon, which shined during the night.

The water brought forth swarms of living creatures, and birds flew above the earth in the sky. There were great sea monsters and every living creature the water swarms with. These sea creatures were fruitful and multiplied and they filled the waters of the sea, while the birds multiplied on the land.

The earth brought forth living creatures: cattle and creeping things and wild animals.

Humans appeared, male and female, and they became thinking creatures, and they had dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, the wild animals, and every creeping thing. They were fruitful and multiplied; they filled the earth and tamed nature.

Every plant and every fruit tree were the food for the humans. Every green plant was food for the beasts, birds, and everything that creeps on the earth.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Belief in God: An Analysis of My Early Years


I'd like to analyze my earliest beliefs about God, to explain why I believed what I believed as a young boy and young man. I'd also like to stop shy of my current beliefs, since those don't really matter for this post. I also do not want to argue any belief or disbelief in God. I'm not trying to convince you of that (even if I write in the second person). This is a self-analysis of what started it all, but not a statement where I ended up or of what you should think.

Friday, May 7, 2010

500 Page Tome vs. 12 Line Scrap of Paper

I ordered, online, a used copy of Christopher Hitchens' The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever in which Hitchens collects atheist writings by 47 authors from the past more than 2000 years. Hidden inside was this tiny square of paper:

I feel that the universe is in balance.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Parable #4

The Parable of the Wooden Talents: A Lost Parable of Jesus Christ

When Jesus and his disciples had departed from the house of Simon the leper in Bethany, the Lord gathered his disciples together and spoke unto them a parable. Thus he spoke: "There lived a man who collected for himself wooden talents. Other men collected talents of gold and lived richly, enjoying the pleasures of the world. But the man who collected wooden talents could not live as they lived, for the wooden talents were worthless and of no value. Other men mocked this man, saying, 'See this man who collects only wooden talents! They are useless, for they are made of wood and not fine gold. He will die a poor man who has not tasted the pleasures of life.'

"But the man who collected wooden talents did not heed the other men, for he had found a greater happiness for himself than that which can be found in gold. Though the wooden talents only brought him a life of poverty and depravation in life, he felt that they were holy. And the day that the man died, he gathered his wooden talents around him and said aloud, 'I have spent my life, indeed my youth and my old age, collecting these holy wooden talents. The wicked that collect gold around me die, the same as I am surely dying now, but they have lived lives of pleasure. I have lived the life of a man who only collects wooden talents.' And the man died."

Then the disciples, who had heard Jesus speak many parables in the past, hastened to interpret the meaning of the parable. Peter spoke to the Lord: "Rabbi, I have an interpretation of your parable." Then Jesus spoke, saying, "Let us hear." Peter spoke, interpreting: "The man with the wooden talents is likened to the disciples of the Lord, who are few in number. He is not great in wealth, but he has in his possession the secrets to the Kingdom of Heaven. The other men with the golden talents are likened unto the world, who are great in number. They have great fortune, but their happiness only lies in worldly things. Therefore we should be as the man who collects wooden talents, separating ourselves from the sin and flesh of the world." And Jesus heard Peter's words, but he spake not.

When the other disciples lay themselves to rest, Judas Iscariot approached the Lord, saying, "Rabbi, tell me the true meaning of the parable of the wooden talents." And the Lord spoke to him, saying, "The man with the wooden talents are indeed as the disciples of the Lord, as Peter has spoken. And the men with the golden talents are the world. But verily I say unto you that the wooden talents are made only of wood and are worthless. If they make a man happy, it is a fool's happiness. If it make a man happy to spit upon those who spend gold, it is a prideful man who spits, and a fool. If a man say that wood is holy, he is a fool. The gold, however, is likened unto happiness and of life, for it contains something of value. Man should enjoy what riches can be found in life and not hoard things that have no value, calling it 'holy.' Therefore, live in the world, Judas, and do not waste your life as a man who collects wooden talents."

When Judas heard these words, his eyes were opened. He said unto the Lord: "If then, Lord, I should happen to find true wealth, and not a fool's wooden talent, shall I then accept it? What if not gold, Lord? What if I am given thirty pieces of silver to do a task? Shall I accept even silver, trading in my wooden talents, seeing as silver has true worth?" And the Lord spake: "It would be wise for you to do so, Judas Iscariot." Judas then departed from the presence of the Lord, and Jesus began that day to make preparations for the Passover.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Charles Darwin, Prophet of God: On the Origin of Species

If you do a Google search for "God," "prophet," and "Charles Darwin," you'll see that I'm not the first to suggest what I'm about to say, that Darwin was a prophet of God. (Luckily, the point of this writing isn't simply to make that claim.) You know how both believers and non-believers are always asking why God doesn't speak to anyone anymore like he did a few thousand years ago? Or those who say that God will reveal more about himself one day, but we'll just have to wait? Those people have obviously never read Charles Darwin.

When Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, we learned more about God than we had in hundreds of years. We arguably learned more than we ever had from any other book, sacred or otherwise.