Thursday, December 12, 2013

It Should Be Obvious: Wickeder and Wiser

I'm of the opinion that the Bible should be obvious to people. By that, I don't mean there's no nuance or interesting intricacies to study; I mean that the basic core messages should be easily interpreted by even the unstudied. That's the point, right? That anyone can obtain guidance from God's Word, regardless of status, education, capability, all that. That it's obvious. That even the little children can get it.

In that light, I thought back to some things where the "obvious" answer isn't always the right one, but maybe another answer is just as obvious...just overlooked. Part one of this is "Wickeder and Wiser."

For one, this isn't even in the Bible. It's an often-quoted "Biblical urban legend" of sorts. More on this later*. Most people point to it as being related to Revelation, if not actually being in Revelation itself; it's seen as a prophetic statement about the state of the world in the End Times. But insofar as scads of people do believe it's in the Bible, the point of "the world's children becoming wickeder and wiser" is obvious: it's telling us that over time, the world will become more deceitful and try even harder to mislead Christians, being very skilled at such things. In the end, they will be so clever that most people will fall to them. We have to be strong and realize the world is out to get us.

But even if this verse were in the Bible, the other "obvious" answer is clear: the structure of the world will become more evil and more deceitful, but that doesn't at all mean that individuals are evil, or that there is any need to be paranoid about friends and companions and so on. That doesn't mean the world is out to get you.

"Wickedness" has many forms. One of these is greed, which is driving the capitalist world now. Corporations are becoming more brutal, cutting more corners, hiding more illegalities, and in the end, perhaps these megastructures are causing more problems than in the past. I'm not sure, given how most countries have given up the slave trade, that we're more evil than before, but we certainly still have great evil in our fundamental structure. We still have all sorts of ancient cruelties that have lived on through the ages. Sin is no new thing, and we certainly haven't come up with particularly new ways to do it. It's all just a rehash of the old.

So are we becoming "wickeder and wiser"? Wiser, probably. More evil, maybe not, maybe so. Either way, it's not about paranoia -- it's about repairing the structure and function of the world we live in, and the organizations who live in it. It's not about your friends trying to convince you to become an atheist or your neighbor being gay. It's about obvious sins. Great crimes against humanity. Little abuses of the day to day. Not whether your neighbor's son is sleeping with the schoolteacher's daughter. Or son, for that matter.

*This "urban legend" has also been translated as "weaker and wiser," and if you look on the Internet, you'll find scads of sources saying that this does not at all exist in the Bible and could easily be a misparsing of a number of verses that have nothing to do with the End Times.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Blue and Orange (or How Touhou Taught Me About The Nature of God)

Wow has it been forever since I posted.

My recent obsession in the video game world these days has been the Touhou Project, a series of top-down shoot-'em-up games set in a land where all of Japanese mythology is real. I'll spare you the further summaries, as I could go on about this series forever, but a friend and I have written  and roleplayed and so on in the universe for a while, and it led to me thinking a lot about the nature of God.

(Here's where you are these two related? There. Now it's out there.)

Yukari Yakumo is a mythological monster with power over boundaries. That's it, full stop. She is meant to be every bit as absurdly powerful as she sounds, because boundaries define everything. Even the games' creator says she could undermine the very fabric of reality itself. To anyone looking in from outside, Yukari may as well be a god -- perhaps a God, in the monotheistic all-powerful creator being sense, since the Shinto gods all exist in the Touhou universe and are all inferior to her in the sense that they are fundamentally weaker. She has all the physical properties of a God; she is extradimensional, immortal, effectively omniscient, and superhuman in every regard. She is only defeatable in the games because she goes easy on the heroine. As far as anyone can tell, the only limit on her capability is her desire to do something.

Perhaps it is a departure from the series, but in my friends' and my headcanon (this means 'the extended universe we've built that is not necessarily in-game fact but is consistent and we regard as true for our own purposes'), Yukari is a confusing but eventually benevolent being who does her best to ensure that there is maximum net good done in the universe by the point at which it has ended. At one point, another character refers to this as "what the hell is your morality, blue-orange?" as opposed to black and white, which are the traditional colors of good and evil. (Blue-orange is taken from the page, and it is defined as "morality that is orthogonal to normal human morality, and is confusing and alien to us.")

Blue-orange became a curious subject to think about, so my friend and I knocked our heads together (and so did our characters), and we worked it out. Here, "blue" is a sort of cosmic "white," and any action that eventually leads to the greater good of the universe as a whole is considered some degree of blue. Orange is the opposite, and any "orange" action is a cosmically "black" action that decreases the good in the universe eventually. Taken to a large scale, all black and white morality eventually moves to blue and orange, because as one's scope grows larger and larger, "white" must include all the consequences of one's actions over an immense period of time and space, eventually encompassing the universe, and it become "blue." The same applies to black and orange.

As a result of this curious expansive morality, Yukari is one of the most confusing and irritating beings in the known universe. She has immense power, overwhelming knowledge, and absolutely no apparent sense of when to use it. People cry out to her for help; she fails to respond. People try to get away from her; she is there when they most want her to leave. She does strange and irrational things that seem to make no sense in the context of the rest of her situation; she is cryptic and refuses to share knowledge, even sometimes when it is important; all in all, she is eventually considered by most to be fundamentally too alien to be worked with reliably. She is utterly undependable, un-empathetic, and inconsiderate. Many consider her to be evil by inaction.

There are similar PR problems with God. Every religious person who has ever existed has asked the questions of why hasn't God answered my prayers? Where was God when (x) happened? Why can't I ever seem to get a response? Why does God seem random? Why does it seem like no one is out there and everything is up to chance?

Yukari can't just fix everyone's problems, because her interference is inherently orange. It takes away free will and thus decreases the independence and improvement of the universe. Sentient beings must be free to cause themselves problems, to solve their own situations, to struggle and fear and hate and die. Even if someone is begging her to push the boundary of life and death to save a beloved child, the consequences of such actions could be a thousand or more years, even.

A just and moral God is under self-imposed constraints to do what is morally right for the universe itself. What if saving your son or daughter would set off a chain of events that, in two thousand years, would cause great pain to the world? What if curing your sickness would wreck someone else's family in a hundred years, even after you're dead? What if even letting you know that He is there...would cause great problems to the universe somehow? How will you know?

Belief in any omnibenevolent God requires that one accept blue-orange morality as an incomprehensible thing while having faith that it is the right way to go about running a universe...and that what happens must be blue.

Even if you hate it. Even if it seems evil. Even if you can't understand it.

The universe will work out...but humans are just too small to realize why it will. No amount of complaining will change what is blue, and that it will happen...we just have to realize that it is, and it will, and that everything will be okay.

Yukari's got this, guys.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A quick not-post on "teachers"

Back in Jesus' time, teachers were probably not all that common. At least, not religious teachers.

To be a Jewish rabbi, you had to be pretty learned. Pastors are a dime a dozen nowadays. Back then, if you chose one teacher over another, by choosing one when the two conflicted, you were doubtless taking a serious side.

Nowadays, with "teachers" in every shade of gray there is...well, how do you know what teacher to pick? When everyone tries to justify their teachings from the Bible, how do you know which interpretation is true?

Some day, does it matter? Of course it matters. What you think is good and true, will affect your behavior and what sins you do or don't commit.

With a fairly continuous spectrum of teachers' interpretations and opinions, how can you tell if you're choosing just to make your life easier, or choosing what is true? How do you know that you're choosing someone who is false and just reinforcing what you wish were true, rather than teaching what is true?

After all, in order to recognize truth, you must know truth, right?

So what does the seeker after truth do?

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Music Box (2.5 Years Later)

I have a music box in my room. It took me an entire year to find it, or rather, it took my mom a year. It is one of my most prized possessions, and I give it so much sentimental value that I would go ape all over anyone who tried to steal it. Like, irreplaceable so much that I would track you to the ends of the earth to get it. If my house were on fire, I would grab that music box before jumping out the window. If I had to evacuate right now and take only a single bag with me, that box would be in the bag. It's possible I'll ask whoever is around when I'm old, to put that box in a container and set it on my grave when I die. It's that ridiculously important.

The box proper isn't very interesting. It's a little plastic and wood box, about 2x3 inches. The top section is a pale tan wood, and the bottom is clear. You can see the little turning cylinder with nubs, rotating inside the structure, when it runs. It has a silver key that you use to wind it up, and it's purely mechanical. No batteries, just a wire coil that tightens and loosens with the key. Pressed into the top of the box and inked are the words "How Great Thou Art."

As you would expect, turn the key and the cylinder starts moving, and the nubs flick little flaps of steel to the tune of "How Great Thou Art." Classic music box twang.

See, this is so important to me, because my grandmother owned this box. It's certainly older than I am; I don't know precisely how old it is beyond that. When I was a kid, I'd sit on her couch and wind it up as far as it could go, then watch the little cylinder turn, and listen to the music play until it got slow, then I would push the key and make it keep going until it couldn't run on its own. Then I'd do it again. It's just the chorus to the song, but I thought it was beautiful.

My grandmother died two days after my birthday, on March 23, 2010. That's also less than two months before my graduation, which I really wanted her to attend, so she could see a close to my school years. That never happened, though we kept her graduation ticket anyway. I only wanted three things from her old possessions, all of which she left to my mother: a gold locket on a chain, an old sewing machine mounted into a table, and that music box. Mom got the house and everything in it, and she said I could take whatever I wanted. Part of me really wanted to just grab everything that wasn't nailed down, as if I could keep her memory stronger and/or more reverently and/or just better by piling up stuff. I screamed inside at the thought that anyone would own her house, or any of her furniture, or any of her clothes, but us.

But we couldn't keep the house as some kind of shrine, no matter how much it smelled familiar, and how many times I'd played in that crawl space under the side, and how cute the faux-well was at the top of the hill, or...any of that. Some young couple owns it now. I hope they treat it with respect.

So in the end, I shoved back the desire to keep everything, and decided on those three things. Two of them are in Boston with me -- the shippable things, namely the locket and the box.

Two and a half years later, the memory has become more calmly solemn and reverent than piercing and empty in turn. I no longer want to scream at the universe so much about how unfair it was that Grandmother died only two months before she could see my landmark day that she would be so proud of, or that she didn't die peacefully in bed, but instead in a hospital after breaking both hips. I no longer feel quite so bad about fleeing the funeral as quickly as I could, or about having to force myself to cry at the ceremony despite feeling completely blank, just to convince everyone else that I wasn't trying to be an Overly Strong Person. Really it was as if someone had sucker-punched my soul and I didn't have any chance to react. I didn't viscerally get it the way others seemed to; I had these random spurts of intense despair, rather than a predictable "you cry when you see her stuff, or when you go to the funeral, or whatever." I walked around her house and ate the food others left for her family, without much of a thought, and I only cried when no one was around, because I think my subconscious decided that this was the appropriate time for it. Besides, my mom was so sad, that my guardian instincts kicked in and wanted to help her, rather than giving myself any time for much. I cried a lot when I got back to Boston, but not so much at home. I regret not going on the funeral procession, but...I don't know why I didn't.

If I had to say anything to people today, about that incident, I might. I might ask my aunt why she rarely visited her mother, and why she didn't contribute to the upkeep of her house and all that, while my mom was a tireless glad helper. I might ask my uncle why he was such a failure at life, having thrown his money away gambling and mooched off his friends for most of his time, and why he disappointed his mother so much. I might ask the doctors why there was nothing more they could do for a couple of broken bones. I might ask myself why I didn't throw classes to the wind to go sit by her side until something got better or worse, so I could have held her hand while she was moving on.  I might ask God why His sense of timing was so utterly cruel, as if it was deliberately planned to be a trip-at-the-finish-line. I guess I don't have as much of a desire to ask all that anymore, because what is it going to do?

The song from the music box is an old Christian hymn. It became Grandmother's song, over the years, because I always associated it with her, and she spent so much time with me that it rubbed off on her. I asked my mom to have it played at the funeral, and so it was, a music box made real for that while.

I don't pretend to understand why God let any of that happen when it did. I don't even know if God chooses things like that, really. Does God time everything right, to make sure the most good comes out of it? Or does life just really suck sometimes? Is Grandmother up in heaven tending roses and playing the piano? Can she see me? I don't really know any of that.

One point of regret I do have, is that Grandmother couldn't give me her music box herself. I had been asking about it for years, and she had lost it. Turns out it was just in a drawer of her nightstand, and Mom found it while cleaning out her things. So, a year after Grandmother's death, I took the music box home with me. It sits on my shelf and waits there, just like it always waited on the table in her living room. There's not much I can do with the memories these days; they sit like the box does, and they're not so powerful that they show up a lot, but there's always a little gap there when I go home.

Grandmother was a tireless Christian. She had more faith than some entire churches probably do. She firmly believed that God had everything under control, and even when life sucked, God was still there for you. If I had half the faith she did, I could move mountains. Even with an alcoholic husband, a delinquent son, and only one daughter who actually paid any attention to her, Grandmother was an unshakable pillar of stone. You could hide in her shadow, and the wind and the rain couldn't reach you. You could climb onto her strength, and no monsters could find you. She would be standing through Hell and high water. It would take an act of God Himself to make her back down from anything she had decided on. So I guess it's fitting, in the end, that her anthem is a song of praise.

The box is perfectly functional. If you wind it up, it still plays...

"Then sings my soul,
My savior, God, to thee
How great thou art
How great thou art."

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Thing I Read Last Night

1 Timothy 4:3-4: "They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,"


Including all humans.

Everything God created is good. Nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.


Friday, October 26, 2012

That Time I Broke Up With Someone For Two Weeks

Freshman year of college, I broke up with my boyfriend for two weeks. Both of us pretended it was the right idea; both of us agreed to it; both of us knew it was a stupid plan, done for really stupid reasons. There was a lot of crying, a lot of confusion, and a lot of underlying, "You idiot, just forget all this and go back to being happy" throughout the process. But let's go back in time and be really, really blatant.

It all started with the Baptist Student Fellowship and a woman I'm going to call Susie.

Susie was the most well-intentioned conservative Texan that she could possibly be. She was cheerful, had all that Southern charm, and to boot she exuded competence and kindness. She was enthusiastic and invited me to be with the Baptist folks on campus. I went to a couple of their gatherings, and Susie, being a good group cat-herder, said that as the new person I should go to lunch with her and we should get to know each other. I said sure, that sounded fine. I was at a particularly crappy spot in my life and really needed someone to talk to who knew about spiritual matters, and she was there. So we went to lunch.

Susie and I talked over Thai food, right next to the dorm that I would live in two years later. Most of this encounter is a blur. I don't remember a single word of what she asked me, up until the memory becomes quite clear in a sudden zing.

The waitress sets a plate of mango chicken down on the table. Definitely mango chicken. I remember that clear-as-day. The mangos tastes not all that great, but I'm hungry. Susie has something else, I don't remember what. I start eating; she starts eating. She asks me, somewhere in there, who I'm dating.I tell her, this guy from my hall, he's pretty cool, I like him a lot.

I ask her the question I never should have asked her, ever, but it was niggling in the back of my mind and I wasn't about to leave there without asking. "Is it okay if I'm dating him? He's not Christian."

She said that it was a sin.

That oh, but you're not going to Hell, but...well, it is a sin. You shouldn't be dating him.

And she gave me that look, the look of concern, the patronizing look that says you poor thing, you're falling away, let me bring you back. Let me dictate to you the life you must lead, the one that will bore you out of your skull, the one where you won't be able to find romantic options because MIT doesn't have that many people who are compatible with your interests and geeky in the ways you are and Christian and not in relationships already. Let me take something that is making your sad, depressed life better, and smash it to pieces.

Let me put you back in chains.

I lost ten pounds stewing over this issue. I worried so much I ate one meal a day for a month and came out of it lighter than I had been in years. I talked to my best Christian friend, but I couldn't shake it -- this woman was Authority. Susie wasn't just any person; she Knew Things. She was Right, because she was a pastor, and of course all pastors were right. If I thought I was right, well, then all her spiritual education and connection to God was worthless. She had to be right.

I broke up with my boyfriend because he wasn't a Christian, despite the fact that he was one of the kindest, most open people I knew at the time. He was great for me, at that point in my life, and we were very close friends. But Susie said so, therefore God said so, and so I had to do it. I couldn't live a life where I was sinning.

"Do not be unequally yoked." Or something. That verse would haunt me for years of my MIT life.

And in the end, had I followed her advice, I would be a sad, miserable person right now.

I broke the rules. I broke the rules because I refuse to be a Pharisee. I refuse to believe that anything in the world that makes me happy, has to be evil. I refuse to believe that romance, and caring for another person, and love, can't transcend religious boundaries. I refuse to believe that Jesus wants us to stick in our own little enclaves. I refuse to believe that God Himself, who is my Father and cares so deeply for me that He sent His own son to be tortured and killed so my sins would be absolved, would let Satan just run rings around me, that all the people that appeared in my life and loved and cared for me who weren't Christian, were just there to make me screw up. If I was truly a child of God, then God was not going to let "faux-good" things happen to me just to trip me up. God does not plant poisoned candy there for you, just to punish you for having a good thing in life. God does not set booby traps.

These non-Christians I dated had far more of the virtues that God desires, than many Christians I know. Patience. Perseverence. Kindness. Gentleness. Self-control. You know, all the Fruits. The ones that God wants us to have.

"And you shall know them by their fruit."

What Fruits have the conservative Christians I know offered me? Fearmongering. Inflicting pain. Creating despair and depression. Lack of empathy. Self-righteousness. Careless words. There is a time to hurt and a time to heal, but the people I know, didn't heal at all. They were like surgeons who went in and cut something out, then didn't finish the job and left you there bleeding, told you to stitch yourself up. After all, it was your fault you had the sickness, whatever it was in the end, so you should take care of yourself.

I am not one of them, not anymore. Non-Christians have done more for my faith, than Christians have. I'm tired of dogma. I'm tired of chains. I'm tired of being scared, and I'm tired of seeking refuge in the false sense of security that is, "So long as you don't do anything on this long list, you have no reason to be scared." I want adventure. I want experimentation. I want life to be interesting. I don't want to be constrained to boring old...fear.

I want to live.

We got back together, by the way.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

There Are Many Sins (Why I Hate Election Years)

I really don't like presidential election years.

My family doesn't really talk that much about Senate or House elections, but when the Presidency comes around, they're on that like white on rice. It gets a bit bothersome, especially since my dad loves to talk and try to convince everyone else that he's right about everything, while my mom stands by and just sort of lets people do whatever they want. I'm guessing they have never really had a political argument, if only because Mom sees it as a waste of time.

Now's the time of year that Dad appends a few political notes to all his phone calls to me, telling me I better not vote for the dirty liberal atheist Democrats, or else I'm going to be screwing over the country and we're all going to Hell or something. This is sort of exaggerated, but not by much, because dear Dad, for all his awesome qualities, believes that if we so much as sniff at compromise on social issues, we're horribly betraying society, God, and everything else. It got me thinking about how weird conservative priorities are.

I never hear evangelical folk talking about poverty in America. I'm sure they do once in a while, but I never hear one word of it. I never hear about the evils of corporate scandal, corrupt politicians, and environmental destruction. No comments about feeding the hungry, helping the disabled, or making medical care more accessible in any possible way.

I hear about the following topics: abortion, gay marriage, and contraception.

What the hell is wrong with evangelical culture these days? It's like they are centering every possible bit of effort they could ever have, on something that Jesus really doesn't seem to consider a priority in all of the Bible's lesson. The fact that my dad says not to vote for Obama because he favors abortion, strikes me as incredibly short-sighted.

I'm not disclosing who I'm voting for. As far as I'm concerned, both candidates suck, and since I'm in a hardcore Blue state and came from a hardcore Red state, my vote for the presidency has never mattered one whit. Still, the point being, you should never vote for a candidate based solely on one issue, no matter how emotional it may be, unless the issue is "should we blow up the Earth" or something. If the issue is at all controversial, in any significant way, it should not be the only reason you're voting against someone.

I don't care whether you do or don't think abortion is okay; it should not be the reason you're voting for a candidate, as a Christian. If a candidate were to have a proven-to-work, revolutionary program to raise families out of poverty, provide cheap and nutritious food, and promote inexpensive medical care without pissing off hard workers who want to keep their money, but he endorsed legalized abortion, is it really sensible to reject him on those grounds?

In a non-ideal world, we have to work with necessary evils. Even if you think abortion is evil, it is just one more ticker on the scale. Think about it this way: if God says that all sin is sin, and you can't just rank sin and say, "oh, I'll commit some little sins, they don't matter, as long as I'm better than the guy over there cheating on his wife," then we should realize that abortion is no greater a sin than anything else. Sin is sin. If your candidate turns away the poor and sick, isn't that just as great a sin as endorsing gay marriage would be? If your candidate spurns and wastes God's Earth like the Prodigal Son spent all his fortune, isn't that just as great a sin as promoting legal abortion? 

Let's not even get into the arguments of how many times various sins are mentioned in the Bible, and if they are even sins at all, and so forth. In the end, just look at the person in question, and ask yourself, how sinful overall is this regime going to be? Stack the good points on one side and the sins on the other. Make sure to count all the sins, not just anything related to people's genitalia. Despite what many evangelicals want you to think, who you sleep with, when, and in what fashion, are not the only topics for sin. Count all of them: greed, lies, cheating, taking bribes, depriving the poor of aid, fearmongering, selfishness...

Now choose, with open eyes. If you still end up choosing the original candidate you were voting for, that's fine. No one cares if you started out hardcore Romney, looked at both sides, and still said Romney was the right answer. Same for Obama. But at least make a real decision, not one based on the idea that sexuality is the only possible metric for sin.