Monday, December 26, 2011

My Issues with Eternal Hell

I have a beef with the concept of eternal Hell.

I don't even mean the Dante's Inferno type of Hell. After all, there is very, very little evidence that Hell is going to be full of fire and brimstone; the "lake of fire" is seen as being a place for the devil and demons, not for ill-fated souls, and it might just be metaphorical for something else. But even if it does exist, odds are the humans won't end up there.

My issue is really with the permanence of Hell. I don't even mind the idea of it existing. Now, there are plenty of people who will bring up a lot of scriptures regarding Hell and its existence, but I want to point out a few Biblical passages also. I'm going to paraphrase here; I will likely return and put in chapter and verse numbers later.

"How many times must I forgive my brother? Is seven times enough?" That was one of the apostles, asking Jesus. Jesus replied, "Not just seven, but seventy times seven." As in, we should forgive people and endless number of times, and not hold their crimes against them. This isn't the same as letting them endanger others, but we have mercy upon them and grant them pardon.

"Forgive your enemies; bless those who curse you; do good to those who spitefully use you." That's Jesus again.

Four men lower a paralyzed man down into a house where Jesus is teaching. "Your sins are forgiven," he says to the man, then tells him to stand up and walk. The man does.

Jesus is hanging on the cross, after suffering horrible torture and finally nailed to a couple of wooden planks to die. It's a most undignified death, saved for thieves and traitors and other kinds of scum, and surely the meaning isn't lost on him. He looks down and says, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Notice how, in none of these examples, does Jesus ever put any significance whatsoever on the perpetrators asking for forgiveness.

Forgive your brother, whether or not he asks for it. Forgive your enemies, and they certainly aren't asking. The paralyzed man was probably just confused; we have no record of him saying anything, though his friends had faith -- but we don't know at all if he did. As for the Romans, they didn't care jack squat for this random Jew who the others had decided was clearly terrible enough for the death penalty.

Jesus forgives them. So what's the huge leap between that and forgiving the other poor stubborn people on Earth who just haven't made it to the point of faith yet? If Jesus forgave the Romans, who clearly didn't care what religion He was pushing, what about the people who were raised atheist and simply saw no particular proof to believe otherwise? Jesus was running around throwing miracles like they were candy, and still people didn't believe -- how is modern day life giving anyone a fair shot?

If God tells us to do something, I expect He will do the same thing, only more so. (Worshiping Him notwithstanding, let's all be sane here, I expect God doesn't worship Himself.) If He asks us to forgive someone, I expect He's going to do it all the more. Which basically means...well, everyone. He also tells us to be fair, and just, and He'll do that also. But in the end, whenever that means, whether it's on Earth or in the afterlife, He will forgive all those people He told us to forgive. Because He's God, and He's not a hypocrite.

It seems to be that by the definition of hypocrisy -- of which Jesus accused a huge number of religious officials, so He clearly subscribes to the definition -- God constrains Himself every time He makes a rule for us. He can't violate rules that He set in place, because that would make Him untrustworthy and hypocritical. (A comment on "Thou shalt not kill" -- God is clearly referring to innocents, or people who have not already qualified for the death penalty, because God definitely allows humans to levy the death penalty at least in the Old Testament. We can argue all day about Canaanites and whatnot, but this isn't the point.)

Scripture also says that God chastises those he loves, and he punishes people that he cares for, presumably to let them know the consequences of their actions and correct them. That's what chastising is for -- it's a reprimand, and instruction to do right. Chastising is completely useless if it never ends, because it crosses the line between punishment and cruel vengeance. It's torture for torture's sake; it's straight-up sadistic. It's passive-aggressive ("look what you did, and what you could have done, now sit and wallow in despair forever because you were bad, because you deserve it") and senseless, because once the person has seen the error of their ways, what reason is there for not letting them leave?

In this case, let's think about Hell as a separation from God. No more, no less. It's a calm limbo, where no one is tortured, but where people feel the crucial void between themselves and their creator. They are aware every moment of their "lives" there, that they have fallen short and that they are missing something

You know, this seems a lot like Earth.

Doesn't it seem that way to you? That's what people are trying to make others feel here. However, we have a lot of Earthly pleasures to get in our way, and lots of other people to convince us not to believe, and so on.  By this image, Hell is mostly more of our lives here, only with a focus on the depressing parts, the parts where we feel spiritually unfulfilled and empty. That does suck quite a lot, but in the end, surely someone in Hell is going to figure out that they don't have to do this anymore.

At that point, continuing to rub their nose in their proverbial pee stain is just being mean. If they understand, if the punishment has achieved its purpose of teaching them what they did wrong, if they now decide they want to fix their life...well, why not let them? Jesus never turned anyone away. What's up with this arbitrary deadline of 75-ish years, compared to eternity? At that point, it just seems like God would be saying, "Ha ha, you didn't make it in time, now go shove off." God doesn't do that. He's all-loving and all-merciful, but it seems like people forget the all part of that. It's not "all Christians," it's just all. Everyone. Everything. Every man, beast, plant, stone -- He shaped everything, and God doesn't make junk, and He doesn't throw things away.

A lot of people will start screaming about how human morality sucks, here. Maybe it does, for people who aren't Christian -- maybe at that point, whether the person's morality is right, is a hit or miss kind of question. There are certainly some human impulses that are less than admirable. But in the end, I like to think God gives His followers a sense of right and wrong, and if something is utterly repulsive to us, maybe we should give it a second look and see if we've read it right, or if we're interpreting it right, or what have you.

One of my acquaintances once said that Christianity is scary and depressing, and that it's supposed to be, because we were called to make huge sacrifices and be hurt and tormented for God's sake.

Sacrifice happens. Pain happens. But Christianity is supposed to be the good news, the news that someone has already come by to atone for all our crimes, full stop. That whosoever believes in Him will not perish but will have everlasting life, full stop. Not if they do it in a certain way, with certain ritual. Not if they are perfect.

Not even if they only do it before they die.

For God so loved the world, that He sent His only Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but will have everlasting life.

If Christianity is scary and depressing, we're clearly reading this verse horribly wrong.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Prodigal Son

The story of the Prodigal Son is given as an example of great forgiveness and mercy. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it goes like this.

A man had two sons that worked the land with him. One day, the younger son came to him and asked for his share of the inheritance early, and his father handed it over. At that point, he hoofs it out of town and heads off to the Wild Blue Yonder to live the good life with the money and resources he has. His older brother stays behind to keep working for their father, not wanting his inheritance early.

The younger man spends all his money on food and prostitutes. His life goes off like a bottle rocket, fast and dangerous, and he burns himself out in a matter of a few years. At that point, he is reduced to sleeping in pigpens, eating scraps given to the pigs and living in the streets. A while later, he realizes that he can't live in the sty forever, and he goes home in shame to his father to tell him what has become of himself and his inheritance.

When he arrives, he begs that his father would let him sleep in the stable and work as a slave, because he expects no more. His father has a different agenda, calling in all the farmhands and his older son and throwing a grand celebration for the younger man. He brings out a big fat calf and kills it for a feast, then puts a ring on the man's finger and nice sandals on his feet, and he rejoices that his son has returned.

Normally, the moral of the story is that the prodigal son was lost and now is found; he went off to live the "good life" and figured out that it's not so good after all, then decided to come home, where he is always welcome. His father is all-forgiving and has no lingering grudge over the man's bad decisions.

This is a charming story, but I wonder from time to time -- did the prodigal son have the right idea? Was it necessary for him to go off, spend all his money, understand what the world has to offer, and then reject it? I'll say, yes. Hear me out for a moment.

Every so often, families spawn children who are just not satisfied with a cloistered life. They want to know what's out there in the Wild Blue Yonder, and they're tired of being held back from doing what they want. Now, for most people, what they want is far more wholesome than wild spending and whores, but the point still stands. Let's look at the two brothers for a moment.

The first son in the story, the older one, is happy where he is. He goes about his everyday life without regret, working the land, reaping crops, slaughtering animals, selling food, so on. His life is relatively uneventful and secure. He likes it that way, and he's not oppressed into it, because his father is a kindhearted person. He's probably very stable and not very adventurous.

The second son clearly isn't pleased with his life. He's a "go big or go home" type. He wants to have wealth, luxury, and satisfaction. Instead of getting married young, as was the custom, he's going to go off and live a commitment-free life, where he doesn't work and doesn't have to support his partners. He is dissatisfied with constancy and security. He's probably a risk-taker.

Fundamentally, both of these are reasonable ways to live. They're the difference between the quiet, hard-working student and the one who parties at the frats all weekend and does just enough to get by. You can get by doing both; I'm not even going to bother on the point of which one is better. Unless you get alcohol poisoning and die, both of these will sustain you at the bare minimum, at least.

But in the end, as it often is with bottle-rocket types, the Prodigal Son realizes that he has screwed it up big time. He has no money and no food. He's reduced to living with pigs, which in Jewish culture are unclean animals. He eats what he can steal from them, and he lives in the dirt all day. His life is nowhere near the lap of luxury that he had imagined. So after a while, he heads home to try to clean things up. I expect that afterward, he doesn't bother trying to live the fast and dangerous life again.

What if he hadn't left? Probably he would have been grumpy and unhappy until the end of his days. Some people just have to know what they're missing, to see that they're not really missing anything at all. Curiosity, and sometimes envy, are powerful forces. He saw the men throwing cash around, buying rich foods, and spending the night with all the whores they wanted, and he wanted that life, too. Had he not tried it, he'd probably have idolized it for the rest of his life, sat around being angry that his father and brother were keeping him chained down, generally folding in on himself and being bitter about his inability to go do what he wants.

Did you ever do something utterly stupid as a kid, but realize that you learned a good lesson from it? Maybe you ate three bags of candy, felt horribly sick and threw up, then realized that this was perhaps a terrible plan and you're never doing it again? Or maybe you pulled your cat's tail, got bitten, and saw that you know, maybe it wasn't worth it to see the cat get all riled up? Yeah. I did that stuff. But you know, I'd have been angry at myself for not doing it, had I not done it. There are things in life you have to experience, just so you can see if they're as good as you think they are. You have to take the risk. You have to see what you're missing. And then, in the end, maybe you weren't missing much. Getting drunk and barfing really isn't very interesting, despite what the frat boys want you to think. I suspect that getting high also isn't, although I haven't tried. Lots of things aren't. But hey, try anything once. After all, I did once dare a friend to eat a betta fish, in exchange for me doing the same afterward. A live one. It was an experience. I don't feel the need to do it again, but hey, it was nifty.

Was the Prodigal Son's decision a good one? Not in the least. Did he learn from it? Yes. Was it probably necessary to his eventual happiness and satisfaction? Most likely. Was he a better man for having gone through something dumb and coming back home to fix it? Absolutely.

In short, I don't think it's the end of the world to be the Prodigal Son once in a while. Just learn from your dumbassery.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Assume Positive Intent

No one likes to do this anymore, and I think that's a big part of what's wrong with daily life in America.

"Assume positive intent" means that you assume that others aren't deliberately trying to hurt, impair, or otherwise screw up you or your efforts when they do so. Their motivations are not evil, vengeful, whatnot. They're just people, doing things by accident. Assume that people do what they do because they don't know any better, or because of other circumstances, not because they hate you or they don't care about your welfare.

By this mentality, the average Joe on the street doesn't care one way or the other about you. He doesn't have any ill will towards you, certainly. If he happens to bump into you and knock over your books, he did it because he tripped, or he got distracted, or he couldn't stop in time, or whatever. If you don't assume positive intent, you might think he did it because he thought it would be funny, or because he doesn't give a crap that he knocked your books into a puddle, or because he was thoughtless and couldn't be bothered to move out of your way.

This is even more obvious when you watch drivers in Boston. They automatically assume that other drivers are malicious. They honk a lot, which is the driver's version of yelling at you, as if you intended to cut them off and their being a dick back at you is going to even the score. They don't bother to think that maybe the driver has a sick kid who needs to go to the doctor and is being driven there quickly (and thus the driver is vaguely distracted), or that the other driver may have been urged forward by other people honking behind him, or anything but "that guy is an asshole." Pedestrians do it when drivers cut them off at intersections; they'll flip off people and otherwise get in their way. I knew a guy who stood in front of a car just to piss the driver off, because he tried to move through a walkway when there was a gap in the pedestrian traffic.

This is a dick move on no one's part but yours. Assume that the driver, or the pedestrian, or whatever, does not intend to ruin your existence. Very few people go around thinking, "Huh, today I think I'll scare the hell out of some cyclists by opening my car door into the bike lane." At worst, people are oblivious. They really aren't malicious. So assume positive intent, and forgive the guy.

Positive intent is all about forgiveness. If you assume that others have a reason for their screwups, you're way more likely to forgive them and get over it. You hold a grudge when you think it's their personal nature to do bad crap to you, because then you have the excuse that they're a bad person and it's okay to be angry at them.

I see this on a larger scale in politics. Liberals think that the Religious Right are a bunch of woman-hating bastards for not supporting abortion. If they assumed positive intent, they'd see their guesses change from "they don't care about women" and "they're okay with killing innocent people" to "they have a very strong, fear-driven set of morals" and "they are genuinely worried about others' eternal fates" and all that. You can still not agree with them, but I'm fairly certain you'll treat them differently in conversation if you think about how their motivation isn't to just screw people over for the hell of it.

Have you ever seen someone get pissed because someone else is being ignorant? And then the angry person walks away and does nothing about it? This is a huge issue. It's like they consider ignorance to be an innate, unchangeable trait, or that they assume that the person is being ignorant just because they want to piss you off.

Let's take, oh, random ed. Evangelicals have an absolute crap record for sex ed. They vote for abstinence-only education, and they have a notoriously hard time talking about the birds and the bees. What do people think about this?

- They want to control people's lives.
- They want to confine women to traditional gender roles.
- They want to use pregnancy and disease as punishments for sex.

These are assuming that the Religious Right is a bunch of people-hating bastards. All of these are strictly supervillain-esque evil schemes. "I know! I want people to get horribly sick for their entire lives! That'll show them! Nah-nah-nah nah nah nah!"

These people exist. 99.9% of human beings are not these people.

What's the real problem here? Well, they see someone promoting values that they believe are unethical. So their real motivations are this:
- They want to teach people their values, because they believe those values are what is moral and good.
- They want to convince people to not do things that contradict these values.
- They want people to understand the consequences of their actions.

Suddenly, they don't seem like goatee-twisting villains anymore, because everyone wants to do these things. Any human likes it when they see others abiding by what they perceive to be good morals. They will generally try to steer others away from what they see as bad decisions or actions, and usually that involves the levying of consequences in whatever form they arise, or letting (physics, biology, etc.) levy its own.

The problem is how they're doing these things. The villain schemes are symptoms, not problems. They not malevolence; they're ignorance. The Right needs a better way to get their message across.

For example, say you want to teach your kid not to have sex before marriage. You know, this is a very valid decision to make. I'm sure no one would have any problem if 20-year-old Jimmy said that he chose, by himself, to not have sex before marriage. That's his life and his decision, and he made it himself. No one would mind.

Clearly, someone out there wants Jimmy to make this decision. How do they induce this? Well, right now, they're doing it by means that create lots of pain, fear, and tension. They deprive him of information, say that he'll go to Hell if he does it, and otherwise mess with his head. Right now, this is the only way they know how to enforce their morals, because they go against some pretty serious human instincts.

These are people who only know how to use the stick end of the carrot-and-stick strategy. When stick doesn't work, they use more stick. They don't actually know any positive strategies to get people to live the "right" life.

Instead of telling them their morals suck, we need to start educating them. How do you convince kids to make the right decisions on their own, rather than scaring them into it or forcing them to endure pain and suffering after the fact? It's really easy to punch someone. It's a lot harder to use words to stop them from doing the thing you want to punch them for. Peer pressure, punishment, social ostracizing, mind games, information withholding -- those are easy. They're the natural instincts of desperate people. They're like a kick in the balls -- it's a dirty trick in a fair fight, but it will win you the match, even though no one approves of it and you come out looking like the real bad guy of the two.

We need to teach them how to play fair, but no one wants to do it, because they're too busy being self-righteous and assuming that the other side is evil by nature.

Next time you get in a sparring match with some of these people, assume positive intent. Your values do not trump theirs. Work with them, instead of against them, and you'll get a lot farther.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Evangelicals are not chill people.

They are not calm; they are not level-headed; they most certainly are not quiet. They won't sit and listen to your opinion with hands folded in their lap. They won't smile and nod genuinely when you say something they don't understand or don't agree with. They'd much rather lay the smack down than have a prim and proper discussion. They get their hands dirty.

We have this thing with winning. I swear, it's not me, it's everyone down there. And it's not that they want to go around and toot their own horns, it's that everything feels so darn serious to them, that it really does feel like a legitimate fight.

For many people, issues like abortion, gay marriage, whatnot are political issues. They're issues of the logistical treatment of other human beings. They're issues confined solely to this planet, at this time, right here, right now. Once we die, they cease to matter, because we cease to exist. Acceptance is always good. Rejection is always bad. This sort of thing. But for the southern Christian community, this is a matter of eternal life or death.

It sounds stupid to most people. Most people don't think about it really hard. Think this way: eternity is a long, long time. By definition, it never ends.

Imagine never-ending pain.

Take a moment to imagine the sheer reality of that. Of what would happen if you were in dire pain forever. And ever. And the entire time, you are vividly aware of what you were missing, that it was no one's fault but yours that you're stuck here forever.

It's almost impossible to get your mind around. Suddenly everything becomes really freaking important, something worth fighting for, something worth getting hurt for. There is no such thing as compromise, because compromise is death. Compromise is pain. Compromise is eternal destruction.

This is what these people are fighting about. It doesn't matter if it's real to you, or if you care. What matters is, is it real to them? If I were confronted with the choice between "marrying a chick + eternal hellfire" and "forever celibate + eternal paradise," which one really matters in the end? Assuming that their beliefs are true (which is their point of view), which one is significant? Choosing the temporary sin and the eternal punishment feels a lot like choosing a huge ice cream sundae when you could have a nutritious meal a little later. It's instant gratification. It's foolish, even childish. On a large scale, it becomes a threat, because it becomes a bad influence on otherwise obedient people.

These people spend decades of their lives trying to teach kids, essentially, to stay out of trouble. To learn delayed gratification so they can put off their sins and achieve a reward for doing so for 70+ years. To them, the rest of America looks like a bunch of toddlers crying for the ball that rolled into the middle of the busy street.

Some of them have gotten bitter and standoffish, and this is where you get the egotistical, "un-empathetic" types. They'll tell you to go get your ball, who cares if you get hit by the car? You whine about it enough, don't you? Just go run out there into the traffic and see what happens, see if I was right. Now I can say, "I told you so." Because you never listened. I tried, I really did, but you didn't care. Alternatively, they figure out ways to lock you into the yard so that even if you were to try, it's impossible for you to get the ball. They put up laws like electric fences, and if you touch them, you get shocked. You couldn't run into the street if you tried, and if you try, hopefully earthly punishments will be better than eternal damnation. These people are going for a sort of conditioning approach, where if every time you do something they don't like, you get punished, hopefully you'll stop doing stuff they don't like.

Some people think it's oppressive. That's a completely moot point. I'm not even going to comment. The real point is, you're not going to stop it until you convince them to change their morals. Anything is superior to eternal agony. Anything is a big word. Now realize that these people theoretically have permission to do anything to keep you eternally safe.

Scary, isn't it?

When it comes to social politics and morality, these people want to win far, far more than you. Even if your hatred knows no bounds, they still want to win more than you. They have the sheer energy, stubbornness, and drive to squash you, even if it takes a hundred years to do it. Stop fighting a battle you're doomed to lose, and start figuring out how to reconcile their beliefs with yours, and how to convince them of that. It's the only way. You can't say, "Just tolerate the fact that I don't believe." To them, this is as real as physics is, as real as the sky being blue or the water being wet, and you're all damn fools for not believing, so why should they support a blatant lie?

Until then, they have far more on the line, than you do. After all, you can only hurt for about 75 years. That' s trivial compared to Forever.

Monday, November 28, 2011

What Do You Deserve?

What do we deserve, as human beings? Do we deserve food, water, and shelter? Friendship? Sexual contact? Happiness? Love? Nothing at all?

It's a surprisingly hard question for Christians sometimes. There are two hugely conflicting messages, each with their own pitfalls, that are fighting over the Christian population right now. In this case, I'm referring to the word "deserve" in a sort of "should" sense, as in, "by deserving this thing, it means that you have every right to have it, and you have been dealt bad cards by not having it." (The other use would be, "If you have this, you were meant to have it." This is a different sense of the word that I'm not using right now.)

Point of view 1: you deserve nothing.

This is a popular point of view among evangelicals, the idea that you deserve nothing in life. You are backstabbing scum; you can't manage to pull it together enough to obey God; that's okay, though, because God has extended a hand and rescued you even though you are essentially incapable of rescuing yourself, ever. If bad things happen to you, this is theoretically the way it should be; any crumbs of goodness should be considered a privilege, not a right. Your life is supposed to be difficult and lowly up until death, wherein you finally get all the things you ever really needed in the afterlife. You don't deserve friends; you should be glad and thankful that you have them. You don't deserve love; thank God you do have it. All of humanity is a miserable excuse for a sentient race; we should be glad we weren't incinerated. Yep.

Advantages -- you certainly have a humble view of yourself, and in the end you don't run into entitlement issues and feelings that you deserve all the things in the world without working for them. You weather bad events because you expect them, and because you have already come to terms with them being inevitable and inescapable.

Disadvantages -- you become complacent with feeling crappy and not having your needs met, because you don't deserve that, anyway. You start feeling like that is an okay situation.

Point of view 2: you deserve everything good. Just for being a sample of Homo sapiens, you deserve the entire Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, right up to all the self-fulfillment stuff. You are entitled to all your basic needs -- you shouldn't have to scrape to acquire them. If things in your life aren't meeting your needs, dump them and get something or someone else. Your life is supposed to be joyful and smooth, tempered by a few helpful difficulties that eventually fall off in the end to a sort of wise nirvana. You have friends because you deserve it, because all people deserve friends. You're beautiful in your own way, and that's just great. You have love not because you are lucky, but because you deserve it.

Advantages -- You feel good most of the time, and you have a less stressful life on average because you go after the things that make you feel joyful. You are ambitious in that you run towards a better situation at all times.

Disadvantages -- When things go wrong, you get pissy that your rights and entitled things are being held back. You think that if something is bad in your life, it's the end of the world, and you jump at the chance to get rid of any kind of discomfort. You expect to be handed good things.

POV 1 is generally seen in the evangelical community and is a holdover from the days of corporal punishment and "well that sucks that you're offended, now get out of my face." POV2 is a more liberal point of view, backed by modern feel-good politics and the Self-Esteem Movement (i.e. the parenting style of the Millennials' families.) POV 1 is the hardass drill sergent to POV 2's fluffy guru type. They're extremes, and it seems most people believe a combination of the two (i.e. "bad people don't deserve good things, but everyone else does, so you can tell who is bad/lazy/whatever by their bad lives," is just one example.)

Still, it's a fight that rages on -- do you "claim what you deserve," or do you "eat the crumbs from the children's table"? Are you being a jerk by believing POV 1, or are you being too compromising and wishy-washy by believing POV 2? In the end, the battle is over one basic question: what do you deserve?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Trust Me, I'm a Christian

The South has this interesting phenomenon that a couple of my friends have brought up lately, so let's talk about it here.

Down South, if you're driving around the local town, chances are you will see at least one business with a sign on it referencing something about Christianity. It may be a simple cross; it may have "Jesus is Lord" on it; it may be the Ten Commandments or John 3:16 or some other well-known piece of text. The business can be completely secular, like a fast food joint or a furniture store, and it still has a good chance of doing this. Sometimes there are even symbols on the local water tower, essentially "claiming" the city for a certain faith. At least one of my friends has said that this intimidates her away from said business, because it says to her that they are overbearing, un-accepting, or at the very least are open enough to make her uncomfortable. The merits or drawbacks of openness aside (that's another post with a lot more fire to it), I figured I'd say a few words on why this happens.

First off, it's not an effort to chase away non-Christians. As much as some Christians are squicked out by anyone who isn't of their faith, no one wants to ruin good business. Everyone knows, whether or not they viscerally believe it, that bashing someone over the head with your opinion/faith/anything else is going to just make them go "ow" and rub their head, not believe what you want them to believe. Sure, in some places no one will want the atheist next door to come to their Christmas party, but everyone will want him to buy their product no matter what his beliefs. It doesn't matter how country or traditional or what have you that you are; business is business, and profit is profit.

People do this to draw business to them. In a town where most people are Christian, even if just to shut their neighbors up, people see these really overt signs as a big neon sign that says, "I'm like you! I abide by the morals you respect! You should trust me!"

Think about it this way. How do you become popular with the other kids at school? You wear the trendy clothes, say the right slang, and endorse their values. If they say that pink is totally out this year, it doesn't matter if you like pink, you're not going to wear it. In a more adult setting, people like other people who identify with them, and with whom they can identify. If you walk into a building full of smartly dressed types while wearing only fishnets and a bra, you're going to scare the hell out of everyone else, even if they should respect you and treat you like anyone else. Even if there is no rule or occasion saying that you shouldn't wear only fishnets and a bra, people are going to see you as a social threat. You're foreign and therefore untrustworthy.

It's all about human tribalism, and really, you can't blame us. We're evolutionarily programmed to think that Different People are scary. On the million-year-ago African plain, if some weird stranger comes up to you, they might very well be from a rival tribe trying to shank all of you for your food and women. You should distrust them until they prove themselves reasonable people; after all, life is hard and rough, and you can't afford to screw up here.

Evolution is slow. Today, our monkeyspheres (go look it up, I'm waiting, okay, done) are huge. We encounter far more people than we can reasonable empathize with or know well, and thus our instincts drive us to look for signs that these people are in our tribe.

In a mostly Christian town, having a Christian label on your business says that you don't have a strange and foreign set of morals. You value God in just the same way as your neighbor does, and you say your prayers at night just like they do. You are familiar, and you are confirmed to be friendly because you endorse the same code of ethics that everyone else does. You are an ally.

Will people consciously decide to go to one business over another because of this? Yes. If I had a nickel for every time someone has said around me something like, "Oh, they're good Christian people. See the sign on their door? You should go buy from them," I would have a pretty nice sum of money. This is very conscious; people will stand in front of two doors and explicitly state that they want the Christian one.

People do this in conversation also. If you're down South, you'll notice how often, "I see him in church each week," is used as a statement of trust. If someone is Christian, he gets a lot of brownie points in random strangers' books, so when he finally walks into your office, you know he's a good guy. It's just how things work there. If someone goes crazy and shoots up his workplace, but he was the kind of guy with a cross around his neck, everyone will throw their hands up and say that there is no way at all they could ever have guessed he would do such a thing -- mostly because their assumptions about his morals or mental state were set in stone by his overt displays of religion. It's an instant badge of trust. Of course, that trust can be ruined, but it starts you out ahead of the game.

This isn't just a religious phenomenon. Bumper stickers do a similar thing. They're an easy way to tell others that you are like them, or tell others you are against them. You're making yourself easy to read, condensing your tome of morals and opinions down to a kid's book, so that other people can process it with a glance and immediately trust you. Look at the "evolution fish" tag. It's an obvious mockery of the Jesus fish -- an alpha-shaped fish with two little legs -- and it's a big declaration to the evolution-accepting community that you are one of them, while declaring to the religious anti-evolution camp that you aren't just disagreeing with them -- you're hostile. You're willing to ridicule them in public and disparage their symbols. It sums up your opinion and mannerisms in one little symbol, so that others can already know whether or not you're worth their time. Flags outside your house are yet another way of doing this -- "I am the vocally patriotic type." You get the idea.

Is this bad? No. No, it isn't. Yes, it scares away some people (usually those who had a bad experience with extreme Christians), but in the end, when in Rome, you have to appeal to the Romans. As a religious person, I wince at the idea of lying about your faith just to suck up to someone, but what I don't mind is a religious person advertising their already present beliefs to get others to feel closer to them. It will push away a few, but think about it this way -- business is business, and if showing off your beliefs will endear you to more people than it rejects, why not do it?

Just as we can consciously decide to choose the door with the cross on it, so can we choose to ignore the signs. For people out there who are turned away by a John don't have to pay attention to it. By demanding that a business bend knee and remove their religious references, you're slighting the owner and saying he should keep his religion out of sight. You have no right to do this, and I'd be tempted to say you don't have a right to call offensive the act of someone else being open about his beliefs. (See the SMBC Comic about "It's offensive" vs. "I'm offended." You're offended, but it isn't offensive.) I would absolutely not mind walking into a store with someone else's religious symbol on it, just like I don't really care if someone is wearing the little Jewish hat or a head scarf or what have you*. It's all about who you are advertising to.

Now, in Boston, for example, it's probably unwise to put up your sign, mostly because there are enough members of other faiths that you want a more generalized advertising campaign, and the number of people you turn away by such an overt description starts getting large. But in Small Town, The South, this is basically putting a huge halo on.

There you go.

*I apologize for not knowing the technical term for these pieces of clothing.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Humans Suck?

There are a few dilemmas I've yet to work out, that I hear from Christian people. In today's short (but no less verbose) post, here they are.

1. Desires are bad vs. Desires are fine

No one ever really says that desires are good; the real debate is whether your personal wants are in fact okay to have. You get the sorts of people who seem to think of humans as completely dependent types, not just in the way that we depend on God for help, luck, guidance, what have you, but in that we can't do absolutely anything at all without an edict from God as to what we should do and how we should do it. Anything we want as a human, they say, is inherently bad, because humans are inherently bad. If you want to date that person, you should wait on a response from God. If you want to get that job, you should wait on a response. If no divine answer comes, it must be born of your own evil desires, and you shouldn't do it. Things that fall into your lap are okay, because they were clearly sent from God. Stuff your Christian authorities tell you are also okay, because God talks to them. But you, within yourself, are completely incapable of making a decision.

This is a big circular problem. Human nature, here, would say that this is crap, because we're independent thinkers and can at least try to solve problems without being hand-held every step of the way. The logical response to that, given the above paragraph, is that of course you think you can do it yourself, and that thought within itself is wrong and evil, because it came from your innate desire to rebel and do whatever you want to do. Ergo you can't even question the "human desire is bad" premise without invalidating your own argument against it. It's like, "Are you an alien in disguise?" "No, of course not." "That's exactly what an alien would say!" You can't win.

2. Bad thoughts are just as evil and sinful as bad deeds vs. Bad thoughts happen, get over it

Do you ever think about punching that guy who cuts you off in traffic, or leers at you when you're lounging on the beach? Apparently this means you're a terrible person. I'm quite a victim of this also; I believe that motivations are half of what makes you a good or bad person, not just your actions. You can save all the puppies you want, but if you're doing it for bad reasons, you're still a bad person. This is backed up by the single verse that comes to mind about this: "If you look at a woman, and lust after her, you have committed adultery with her in your heart."

This verse pretty much says that any thought you think, is the same as doing it. Ever thought of bashing someone's face in? You just did it. Ever wanted to trip the obnoxious kid at school? You did.

Ever thought about having sex with someone who wasn't your partner? You did.

Ever thought about killing someone?

You did.

Isn't that terrifying? You can't even be safe in your own head anymore. Does this mean that the average person has committed a huge battery of very heinous sins without even leaving his armchair? Does this mean that most people are horribly adulterous, violent, even murderous monsters? That most people have stolen a number of things, alienated their families, kicked their neighbor's cat and more?

Does this mean we're really all terrible people, because we don't have the mental strength of Buddhist monks? Because we don't keep control of everything we think at all times?

This gets scarier: what about appreciating the looks of others? What if you're dating/married/whatever, and you see a hot woman, and you're like, Wow, she's really hot. Is this a problem? Doesn't everyone do this? Does this mean we're all just jerks?

It's a little unnerving. I like having the peace of mind that I can do whatever I want in my own head, and as long as it doesn't come out, it's fine. I can do all the daydreaming about being a superhero and punching out all the bad guys or whatever have you, and it's just a dream.

Or is it?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Off Topic: World War II

So, I've been reading a lot of Maus these days. (Wikipedia it -- in summary, it's an account of an Auschwitz survivor through the artwork of his son.) Which got me thinking about World War II and if I had any connections to it at all. Turns out I do, and I only recently learned about them.

Now, my family isn't Jewish, or any other ethnicity/group that the Nazis were rounding up. We're as white and Western European as you get. My biological mom, I'm not particularly connected to, and while I know her family was at least partly Russian, I don't really have any people I can point to there. The people who raised me, have had heritages in America since the Civil War at least. Basically, we were spared any traces of the Holocaust in any way. Thankfully.

Still, after my grandmother died, I found something cool in her house. Turns out my grandpa didn't entirely suck, and he went through some crazy stuff.

Some backstory: my grandfather, on my mom's side, was kind of a deadbeat dad. He was an alcoholic and didn't really bring in much money for the family. This was particularly bad for a poor family in an agricultural zone, where the man of the house was expected to go work his ass off and bring home the bacon scraps. Instead, it was my grandmother, raising three kids and a husband by herself, working at the sewing assembly line while my mom, her eldest daughter, worked at the local five-and-dime for pocket change. They were nowhere near what you could call well off. Once her kids grew up and got married, Grandmother divorced her husband and lived happily ever after by herself, never having the desire to remarry and enjoying her life as a single woman. She moved to another town and never looked back.

I saw very little of Grandpa Roscoe. He died a couple years after I was born, so all I really remember is an old guy in a hat, in a couple of fuzzy memories from Christmas gatherings. I never got to talk to him past little kid babble. I especially didn't get to ask him any real questions. I also didn't find out until 20-ish years later, about some other things he did in his lifetime.

Turns out that before he was an irresponsible drunk, my grandfather landed on the beaches at Normandy.

No joke. I found a box in my grandmother's house that contained his medals, papers, an American flag, and records of his capture and release, as well as an account that he had indeed fought on D-Day, in the initial landing. She had told me that he fought in World War II, but I didn't know that he was down on the ground when the boats were coming in, when Allied soldiers were drowning in the waves before even getting to fire a shot, and a few of the boats sank before making landfall, and there were bodies all over the sand and the water ran red with blood and the paratroopers missed their landing point and all kinds of other hell happened before we finally won.

This drunk grandfather of mine, the guy who essentially abandoned his kids and wife for the bottle, what did he think when he was throwing himself off the boat and landing on the stained sand? How many men beside him died? How many enemies did he kill? He was clearly wounded in some way -- he has the Purple Heart to show for it. How bad was it? Did he have a field medic patch him up while agony blazed around him? Did he grin and bear it and help break the German defenses? How far did he get before he was captured? Did he simply pass out with the other bodies, and have Germans carry him away later?

Right. After the battle of Normandy, a number of American soldiers were captured and set off to stalags, which were German POW camps for military captives. Roscoe went to Stalag XIII-C (you can even Wikipedia it, I'm so thrilled!), near Hammelburg, where he was held until the end of the war. If you look at the timeline, after the Normandy troops were carted in, later there was an exodus from Stalag XIII-D to C, where a number of prisoners trudged 500 miles to get to Stalag XIII-C and arrived there in terrible condition.

On April 6, 1945, Stalag XIII-C was liberated by American troops, and Grandpa Roscoe got to go home.

My mother was born after the war. How easy would it have been, for me to simply not exist? For some German bullet to cut down my grandpa on the shore? I wonder what sheer luck he had, such that he made it to safety. And also such luck that he was sent to a POW camp that didn't shut down and force him to death-march through the hellish winter like the folks in XIII-D.

I hesitate to call him any kind of hero, since he was only one of the scads of people who ended up on the beach that day, and he was captured right off the battlefield there and didn't go any farther, and since he came home and was a sorry excuse for a father to his kids, but in the end he surely did something worthwhile in his life, that I can say. I wish he were still alive, so I could ask him questions about what he experienced on the beach, in the POW camp, all that. But it's gone and buried, and from what I can tell he kept a lot of the stories to himself, because my grandmother didn't know very much about his actions there, only that he went to Germany, fought, and was captured.

Grandpa Roscoe, you may have been drunk off your ass for a lot of your life, and you sure sucked as a family man, but you did some really awesome things.

Edit: I found out from my family how he got his two Purple Hearts. One was due to starvation during his imprisonment; he lost 60 pounds on a frame that was already not particularly chubby. At some other point in time, he was shot in the shoulder.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Say what you will about Southern churches, but there is one thing they do tremendously well: energy. Huge quantities of energy. If you could somehow translate the energy of a Pentecostal church service into electricity, you could probably power a small city for at least a few minutes. Churches up here in the Northeast are, frankly, pretty darn boring from what I can tell, as are a number of very ritualistic, liturgical denominations. I love me some Lutheran services, but honestly, it feels like everyone there needed to get a little more sleep and about ten pounds of caffeine more than they've had that morning. Everything is slow and quiet. People are afraid to sing loud and proud.

Not so down South. I don't care if the service only gathered five people that day -- those five people will be jumping up and down, flailing their hands, and singing as loud as they possibly can until their voices run out. They will be a five-man crowd. Even the pastor will be in on it, jumping around with microphone in hand and waving his hands in the air. (I think it's some kind of unspoken mandate that Southern pastors have to be good singers? Okay, not really, but lots of them are at least competent and lead songs.)

What is with this formalized, squashed church service idea we have up here? Music is a powerful tool, and not just for slow meditation. I believe that God created rock music for a reason, and you can make awesome church songs with just about any genre. I'm pretty sure there's even Christian hip-hop and metal and stuff. Musical styles aside, you owe it to yourself to see the sheer momentum involved in a Southern church service.

We're enthusiastic, shameless people down there. We don't care if someone sees us shaking our booty to the music, or doing a very sports-stadium kind of arm-waving, or singing louder than anyone else. I was taught as a kid to project -- to really ball up your volume in your diaphragm and then use your abs to throw it out there like the song leader is a drill sergeant and he just told you to drop and do a zillion situps. We love the sense of being swept away, of giving up life's troubles and being thrilled to bits for an hour or two. We want to show how enthusiastic we are for God and all the awesome therein. So we're not going to sit on our little kneelers, no, we're going to get up and dance!

Apparently the concept of a "praise band" is a distinctly conservative thing. It's usually the Pentecostals and other fundamentalist and/or evangelical types that really do the loud church singing thing. "Shout to the Lord" is meant to be sung with the amps to 11, if you ask me, none of this wussy piano and quiet singing business. I was happy when we did Christmas carols at my church last year, because then I got to actually project.

I'm not sure what this entails. Does this mean that Southerners are more open and brash, more in-your-face? Does it mean they're more relaxed, or more enthusiastic about their faith? After all, these are the people who are okay with getting in your face about their beliefs; maybe that is yet another trait of people who are open and used to being received warmly for their religion. In contrast, I've experienced a lot of cold shoulder in the Northeast, a lot of "well, that's what you think, good for you, little kid," a lot of looking down the nose at the specimen of the "privileged majority." Down South, Christianity is a point of pride, and people will assume you're a trustworthy person until proved otherwise, so long as they've seen you in church each week. They respect that. Up here, people are expected to keep that kind of thing under wraps. God forbid you insult someone by suggesting that you have beliefs.

We should take a lesson from the South. Be proud of what you believe. Stand behind it. Fight like a beast for it. Don't be afraid to sing it loud, throw your hands in the air, dance like an idiot, whatever gets your blood going. If anyone else has a problem, they can shove off. The Christian has the same right to celebrate and enjoy their faith as anyone else, so make sure to claim your space and your voice. Don't be a shrinking violet, trying to shrivel up and disappear. Challenge assumptions, and don't let other people put you in a box so they don't have to look at you.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Feminism Part 1: Paul's Missed Quote

Hello there, all! Today, we're going to talk about the F-word.

No, it's not "fat." Or "fart," as my family finds hilarious even to this day.

It's "feminism." Namely, one of the passages that lots of people get hung up on, which is 1 Corinthians 34-35. For my explanation and discussion, I have extended it a few verses.

34 Let your women keep silence in the churches, for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.

35 And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home, for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.
36 What? Did the Word of God come out from you? Or did it come unto you only?
37 If any man think himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.
38But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant.
39Therefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak in tongues.

This is the King James Translation, which has the most blatant Verse 36. If you look at the first two verses in the passage, it seems obvious that Paul is trying to tell the church to not allow women to speak up in church or to ask questions when the guys are talking. Don't get in the way, ladies, wait until you get home so your husbands can tell you what you want to know.

But then look at how Paul follows it up. Imagine, if you will, a voice of outrage and sarcasm. "What? Did the word of God come out from you? Or did it come to you only?"

This entire book is a letter from Paul to the Corinthians, and we don't get to see what he is replying to. But in the most dated Greek transcripts we have, the letter contains a funny little mark near Verses 34-35, a symbol that serves as primitive punctuation and means that the section is being quoted from another source. It's the very basic form of what we now know as these: " " .

Paul is quoting someone else, about the expected behavior of women in the Church. If he isn't, then what exactly is Verse 36 responding to? It makes no sense to have that kind of juxtaposition, and especially those two anti-female verses, in a paragraph about encouraging people to speak in tongues and prophesy. They stick out, a massive blot of forbidding among a large chunk of encouraging. So what Paul is actually saying here, is that traditional laws in the Church -- not made by God, but put there by society and culture -- have disallowed women from speaking during services. But Paul says, essentially, "Wait, what? Do you somehow think you made up God's Word, that you're mandating this? Do you think that you and only you are privy to it? That you're cutting out half of Christ's followers?"

In doing so, he's vouching for women, saying to let them talk, and let them prophesy, and let them speak in tongues right alongside the guys.

Now, I'm usually one to question apologetics, to make sure the people are coming from a reasonable place and not just pulling stuff out of the air. What really got me here was the mention of that quotation mark of sorts, the little engraving that has been seen to mean that the text is from a different source and should be considered a recitation of something said elsewhere. You can't deny a piece of the text, and presumably it fell by the wayside at some point during translation and the manuscript that survived natural selection was the one that didn't have it, or else the translators didn't understand what it meant. I can't really say what was going through their heads.

Check this out, for more information:

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Burden of Moral Superiority

2 Timothy 1:7

"For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind."

It has come to my attention, in the past few years, that Pentecostals have to be getting it wrong somewhere. I didn't notice until college, despite the fact that warning signs really should have showed.

Today, I am afraid of my own religion, in a way. Mentions of "Jesus" in public actually make me wince. Not because I have a beef with Jesus -- He's a pretty cool guy, forgives sins and doesn't afraid of anything -- but because I have a beef with the people who preached at me for ages.

I was always told that I was supposed to be Different. That I had to spend my entire life not looking like Them, like the Others, like the people who went about their lives and didn't believe in God. I was supposed to be a shining beacon of goodness, purity, and God-fearing obedience. Now, that's all well and good, but in the end, the nice little messages of "be good" and "don't do evil" turned into "it is your responsibility to show to everyone you meet that you are Christian and therefore you are morally pure and don't even resemble these heathens you're talking to." The implications here weren't just "don't abuse your fellow man"; they involved "don't get piercings or tattoos, don't read Harry Potter, don't date non-Christians, don't watch movies with sex in them, don't swear, don't..." And the list goes on and on. The real way that Pentecostal morality gets you, isn't in the conditions for salvation. They never do say, "Do this and even if you believe, you're still going to Hell." They say, "In order to consider yourself truly faithful, you are going to have a lifestyle that looks like this."

What a horrible burden this is. And in the end, I'll admit to the world -- I couldn't do it. I just can't. And the process of breaking down and discovering that I was miserable trying to be what they wanted me to be, is one that added heaps upon heaps of terror and despair upon me. Note that "guilt" is not in there anywhere. My moral compass is not telling me to feel guilty. Instead, my past teachings are haunting me like ghosts, whispering in my ear that maybe I'm wrong, maybe the world has tricked me, maybe the way my parents taught me to live is the only way I can possibly live and still be the person God wants me to be. Maybe I can't ever have things I want. Maybe I can't ever have the life I want. Maybe everything I want is evil, because that's how it works, right? Desires are bad. Wanting things for yourself is bad. You should be on your knees all the time, asking God what He wants, and theoretically He is going to answer and you should do it. If He doesn't, maybe you're doing it wrong. Or maybe in the end, your motives aren't good enough. Do you look different enough yet? What are your hobbies like? Are they things The World prefers? What about your education? Are you learning good things? Or...

I broke down.

I found teachers who told me that it was okay to look like everyone else, to wear the clothes I wanted and get whatever piercings I wanted. To make immature sex jokes when it was appropriate. To date people who weren't Christian. To have the same hobbies. To acknowledge that evolution is actually not the opposite of religion and is an okay thing to agree with. To choose sides on social issues, the way that I saw fit. To trust myself and my desires. To be okay wanting things for myself. And you know, once I started talking to them, I felt better about life, like maybe God wasn't all about having to shove yourself into a little box labeled I Am Different And Better Than You. Like I didn't have to spend my life proving my moral superiority to the world for the greater good of God.

And yet, did you know there's a verse for that, or more than one? They say that people will choose teachers that tell them what they want to hear, not what is the truth. So once I gathered my little posse of sanity-saving people, the ghosts changed their message: Now you're just doing what you want, so you don't have to confront the truth. You're hiding your head in the sand, so you can be happy. You have put happiness ahead of God.

How do you argue with that? Yes, I was horribly unhappy. Yes, I felt like I'd been given the shaft and everyone else got to do cool things while I had to sit by and pretend to be Miss Goody Two Shoes in the most traditional way. Yes, about 90% of the college world made me horribly uncomfortable because I had never been taught a sane way to react to the presence of "sex-drugs-rock-and-roll" around me, and how to deal with social life when people consider their lives to be totally fine and you have always been taught otherwise, but you're not sure why you have to believe that. Yes, I couldn't find a particular reason why a lot of my arbitrary standards were the way they were except "someone told me God said so."

But in the end, it all boils down to, what if? Those few verses always pose the question, what if you're wrong? What if you've let your desires run away with you?

In a world where every theologian has his own entire method of interpretation for the Scriptures, and where every Joe Schmo can be an armchair preacher, there is just about no way to know if you're actually living an okay life or if you're just deluding yourself really hard. Add in the Pentecostal commentary that you can never trust yourself because you're human and will always incline to evil, that basically means you have to get your moral advice from other people. (Paradoxically, given that they too are inclined to evil. Presumably you find the most pure and well-studied person in your religion to ask. Like the Pope or something, wait, wrong denomination, oh well.)

You'd think all this would have surfaced years ago, back in middle or high school, when I was actually being a teenager and thinking about my life. The reason it didn't, was because I never encountered a situation where questioning this view on life actually mattered. I never had a boyfriend, so I never had to think about romantic relationships. I had only one friend, ever, who wasn't Christian, so my peers at least passed muster there. I got lots of incentive to feel proud of my conservative social viewpoints (handed to me by fellow churchgoers) and my hatred of evolution as a conspiracy to kill Christianity (handed to me by those evangelical tapes my dad always listened to in the car).

This all clashes with the verse I put at the top of this post. If God hasn't given us a spirit of fear, than this nerve-wracking conflict should not even exist. Do we really have an obligation to spend our lives trying to look more moral than everyone else -- and have the package of fear along with it, that says that if we don't, we're evil? Do we really have to keep looking over our own shoulders to make sure we're not letting our Innately Evil Brains screw up our lives and kill our salvation? Do we really have to think about the nitpicky points of morality all the time?

All of that just labeled a thick repulsive film over most of Christianity for me, not the core of "Jesus Saves," but of everything else. People talking about Jesus make me want to flee, because they look just like the old evangelicals I knew who told me that most of what I didn't think was bad, was. Churches look to me like courtrooms, where you go to be judged and your punishment declared, where you are encouraged to go up to the front and try again and again to apologize for something you're not even sure you did wrong. Pastors seem like executioners just waiting to put my head on the chopping block, to cut off huge parts of my life that I care about and don't want to give up (and of course, I only hold onto these things because I'm evil and can't manage to ditch them For God).

By contrast, everyone else looks really welcoming. "We don't care about your personal life; we care if you're good to people. Are you a dick? If not, you're fine."

This is what I like. I want to be free to pursue my own spiritual questions without the burden of having to be The Most Best Straightlaced Christian Ever. I'm just not that kind of person. You have to break my bones to stuff me in that box.

So I guess, you could say I was traumatized away from Christianity, not in the way that I flee in terror literally, but I get exceedingly nervous and shaky and pull into myself and hunch up my shoulders and am always waiting for the shoe to drop when I talk to Christians. I wait for the inevitable "you're not like me" judgment, upon which point they will drag me to their church and attempt to convert someone who likes to think she is already converted, to an even more extreme form of faith, to drag me back to where I used to be.

They may call some things I do backsliding, but I call them the same way, because giving up what I have would be backsliding into fear and lifestyle jail.

I want peace.

The ghosts keep saying, But at what cost?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Humanity's Burden is Heavy

"My yoke is easy, and my burden is light." -- Matthew 11:30

There is a sentiment about, especially where I come from, that "no one promises Christians they will be happy." That there is nowhere in the Bible that says that Christians get to have a better life than anyone else, just because they're Christian, that the reward is all in the afterlife. That these 70-odd years (or however much or little you end up getting out of life) are something to be suffered until we can get it over with and go on to heaven where things are perfect and we don't have to deal anymore. In fact, because you're Christian, the world will often treat you like a sack of old cow manure. No one will understand you, and everyone will think you suck, and this is something you should expect and get used to -- in fact, encourage. Because, apparently, if you aren't suffering, you are following the world too closely. You should be under attack from Evil at all times, or else you're cooperating with it.

So I always turned to the verse at the top of this post, scratching my head, and wondered where it fit into things. How does that fit into the "suffer valiantly" mentality? How does it fit into things when being a Christian seems like the hardest part of life? How can Jesus say that his yoke is easy, when we don't get to do anything cool and we're bound by rules that demand we socially embarrass ourselves and make people think we're obnoxious? When we're the ones people are pointing fingers at and saying we're what's wrong with America and the rest of everything? Saying we're obsolete, or misguided, or foolhardy?


Jesus never caused any of that, not really.

First, here are all the rules for Christianity. All of them. I will list them all here.

"Love God."
"Love your neighbor as yourself."

There, that's it. This is straight from the New Testament -- all commandments boil down to this. All that shenanigans about adultery and stealing and not doing them, that's all in the second. All that about keeping the Sabbath holy and not worshiping idols, that's all in the first. Every little nettling piece of instruction from God will fall into one of these two categories. That means that if you let yourself look at your thoughts and actions broadly, you can drop all the nitpicking and simply ask yourself, "Am I loving God through this?" or "Am I loving my neighbor and/or myself?" I don't mean "greed" by "love yourself"; I mean "treat yourself like you would treat a neighbor, and a neighbor as you would treat yourself." Ironically, in that second commandment is a statement that you are assumed to already love yourself. You should treat your neighbor well...because of course you treat yourself well, right?

This means that all the shenanigans about "your desires are bad" or "you should not serve yourself" are sending the wrong message. What is supposed to be a sermon against mindless hedonism seems these days to easily devolve into a rant against having anything that we could want. Preachers are all too eager to tell us to give up things, and in the end, hearing that day in and day out can make one feel pretty guilty about taking breaks, or eating that nice food just because it's nice, or buying that sweater we really want. Doing nice things for ourselves is a key part of life. So is doing nice for other people.

It's not about the specifics of telling lies and whether little white lies are okay and whether telling someone they're not looking fat in that dress is a bad thing. It's about whether you hurt or help. That's all that matters -- are you hurting people? Are you helping them? Are you doing your best to hurt as little as possible, when there's no alternative? That's really, really it. It's not about the movies you do or don't watch. It's not about what you do or don't draw or write or sing or listen to or whatever, not really. It's all about the general case.

So now that we've eliminated all the legalism in one single cut, that allows Christians to suddenly do anything cool that anyone else can do. We can get tattoos. We can marry whoever we want. Sorry, Catholics, but we can choose contraception. We can do anything as long as it falls within those two boundaries.

Looking at the other sources of religious-induced pain in our lives, there is a reasonably long list:
- People saying we suck, for whatever reason
- People treating us less than others because of our beliefs
- Spiritual doubt and confusion
- People trying to 'disprove' our beliefs
- Feeling alone and alienated because of our beliefs

Note that the real common thread here, while it seems to be "our beliefs" is actually "other people."

Other people are what burden us, not God. God tells us that we have reasonably free rein over our lives, and that so long as we abide by two concepts, life is pretty awesome. People, though, tell us we're wrong or stupid or not good enough or what have you. People are the problem. The reason we suffer isn't because Jesus' burden isn't easy or light, it's because people's burden isn't easy or light.

People are amazing, and people really suck. They can both make you feel like you're on top of the world, and squash you until you think you're never going to get back up. People are what's wrong with this world, and that is definitely a Christian concept right there. Sin is what's wrong, but people have to do the sin. Sin isn't a cloud of smog that hangs around and floods the world and does bad things on its own. People have to do the bad things. People have to hurt people. People have to kill people. People have to belittle others and strike them down.

People can include ourselves. We can self-sabotage, or we can be inhibited by what has been done to us in the past. For some, it's still hard to see spiritual questioning as anything but a horrible concept that must be squashed whenever it appears, and then they feel unfulfilled and like they're following a trail that they can't see and don't know why they're on it.

In the end, it's all about people.

Jesus' yoke is easy and light. You just have to take off the layers upon layers of sandbags that humanity tries strap to the yoke, then pretend that this is what the yoke really looks like. So if you're thinking that the Christian life is all about being boring and lame, or about feeling intellectually unfulfilled, or what have you...take off the yoke humans have glued to the real one underneath.

It's like a contact lens. If you're doing it right, and there's no dirt and grit contaminating it, you won't even know it's there, and it will help you, and you will carry it with you gladly.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Off Topic: No Blu-U for You

This post brought to you by Beauty Schooled, a blog I occasionally read, and its article on chemical peels.

I was a teenager with acne. Not "ice-pick scar" acne, as they call those quarter-inch heavy lines you get after serious huge amounts of acne, the kind you imagine stereotypical unwashed nerd teens to have. No, I just had persistent small acne, that made my already easily-flushed skin splotch red, even when there were no particular pimples. Just red splots, all day, every day. It sucked.

My mom and I tried everything. Salicylic acid did nothing. Astringents removed oil for maybe 10 seconds -- I have such oily skin that the oil will get into my eyes and then they start burning, seriously, I could not make this up. I tried a bunch of prescription ointments that my dermatologist neighbor suggested.

And then there was Blu-U. I'd like to tell you now to stay the hell away from Blu-U, and while I ask you to pardon my language, I also mean that French right there with every ounce of my being. I don't care if most people who get Blu-U don't have the catastrophe that I did, but seriously, if you ever do, you will be so unhappy that you will be preaching this same sermon, like me, all over creation.

Blu-U seems innocuous enough. You go into the dermatologist's office, he wipes down your face with what feels like a big felt marker until it's covered in liquid, and then he shines a bluish-purple light on your face for 10-20 minutes. It looks like this:

Then he says to wear heavy sunscreen for the next couple days, a hat for a week, don't go out in the glaring Florida sun. Peachy keen, right? So I let him marker up my face, and it tingled. Not bad, though not comfortable. He shone the light at me. A little twitchy, still not horrible or anything. So I went home.

All was well. It looked like it had helped, after a while, but all the acne still wasn't gone, so my mom drove me back over, and we tried again. For the record, it was after enough time that I was fully recovered from whatever, and I didn't have to wear the hat. Like, a while later. The two incidents were not related.

The second time I got there, the guy markers up my face, and I know something is wrong. The marker fluid burns this time, the hot and itchy and dry feeling you get when you're sunburned. Ugh. But okay, I'll stick it out, it'll go away when he washes it off. He puts me in front of the light. It hurts more this time, but I deal with it, and I count the minutes until he turns the stupid blue light off that is seemingly boiling my skin. He washes off the fluid. My faces is red and ruddy like I've just been running a mile in the sweltering Florida heat.

Ugh. So I put my hat on, put a scarf over my face this time to keep the actual sun off it when we get in the car, and Mom fires up the car.

It only gets worse from there. On the car ride, something isn't okay. The pain never left once he washed off the marker only got worse. And then I realize -- my face is covered in second-degree burns. Everywhere that guy put the marker has been chemical-burned. And oh hell it hurts.

This is someone whose face is covered in second-degree blisters. It looked similar to this, only with much more reddening and a brighter yellow-white color to the blisters. It felt like my skin was floating on a layer of hot liquid, and when I touched it, I felt heat and squish, and the skin peeled away where it clung to my finger.

I swear, I could not make this crap up. The worst burn I had ever had before that, was a wimpy little thing where I touched a hot piece of metal with the edge of my thumb and then I stuck it in cold water and it felt better after a few hours. This was way beyond "oh no, grab a cup of cold water."

Wikipedia "burn." Here is a nice reference pic. I am not talking about the barely-second burn, where you have a couple of clear blisters and it heals up and you're okay in a couple of days. I'm talking about nasty red and white patchworks of blisters, and an entire layer of yellow-white skin that has up and died and is now thick and peeling off in big, thick, wet layers. Between fluid and pus, it looks and feels like raw chicken skin, stretchy and squishy and dimpled. The fluid underneath coats your skin and breeds bacteria, but it hurts too much to wipe it off, so you have to settle for wincing and dabbing softly, and even then it hurts. When the blisters break, sometimes they bleed. And then, when they're done bleeding, they get infected. I drained them out and cleaned them several times over with hydrogen peroxide -- which hurts like a bitch if you've never done it to a big open wound the size of a quarter -- and then I let them dry out until they were big scabs on my cheeks. And even then, once they heal, the spots that the skin has peeled away from is red and burning until it finally manages to transition into normal skin again.

This entire process hurts like hell. Think of it like a nasty sunburn, hot and throbbing and painful, only a whole lot worse, and no amount of lidocaine is going to save you. I had a special very large canister of burn ointment, something involving a compound with silver in it, and while I'm sure it helped, it didn't cool anything off. The entire time it took me to heal to the "cleaning up wounds" state (where at that point, I was mostly fighting blister infection as opposed to why are you holding my face to a hot object), I was wrapping my face in ice-pack gel -- it comes in strips, don'tcha know, and you can wrap the strips around your face and it feels wonderful when your skin has been lit on fire by chemistry. But the strips warm up, and they don't cover everything, and I spend my time wishing that I could bury my face in ice water and breathe through straws stuck up my nose for the next N days. The worst part was the 5-hour car ride to Georgia, where I couldn't get access to any kind of refrigeration for the strips. It was a matter of shoving my face at the A/C vents and sucking it up.

Check this out. This kind of thing was all over my face. My mom says that if the blisters hadn't started to heal after (day whatever it was at the time), she was going to take pictures and press charges. Luckily, the human body is actually pretty awesome, and it did manage to show signs of healing before we all went nuclear. It stopped burning all the time after a while, and then most of the pain was from skin peeling off in layers. Then the infections. Then the redness. And face was back to normal.

It's amazing, really, that I have no scarring from this. You can't tell that my face was one big painful mass of blister, ever. I'm thrilled to bits that this is true. But in the end, I swear that the next time someone comes up to me and says they're thinking of getting this Blu-U thing, I hear it works, I am going to show them a picture of a nasty blistered burn and say, "This was all over my face. Do you really want this? I don't think you do. Go try something less likely to melt your face off."

I'm aware that this was probably a rare failure mode, some kind of screwup on part of the doctor, whatever. I do know that the marker fluid is some kind of acid, and as a result, he probably screwed up the formula or the quantity or the time or whatever, and it was medical error. Or maybe my face in particular just sucks at dealing (though it didn't happen the first time).

But really, if having your face scorched up this badly is the consequence for medical error here, does your acne really need this kind of treatment? Seriously, think about it. Things like salicylic acid have very few, if any, side effects. A little bit of sun sensitivity. Benzoyl peroxide makes your skin kind of dry.

Even if you have horrendous ice-pick acne, really think about whether you'd like to try other treatments before the Face Melting Acid Bath. Really think about this. And really, here's the kicker:

Blu-U, if you think about it, is going to be temporary in any positive effect it has. What it does, is kills bacteria in your pores and stuff. Theoretically, it really is supposed to melt your face off, just to a lesser extent, so the bacteria aren't shielded by all the nasty buildup and so you can get the light to your skin. But bacteria grow back, and epidermis toughens up again, and then all your acne comes right back.

If Blu-U were permanent, I'd tentatively recommend the risk if you're just that horrified by your massively scarring acne. If you really can't find anything that will touch your problem, at all, and you understand that your face could become this horrible monstrosity that hates you and your life for a nontrivial amount of time, then yes, do it. But really, this crap is not worth it.

"How long is a BLU-U light therapy session?

The doctor will prescribe the most appropriate time frame for your acne, but typical sessions last roughly 17 minutes. "

17 minutes to burn your face off.

So don't do it, kids. I swear, chances are that when you get 20, you'll just have some splotches on your chin when the humidity picks up, and some benzoyl peroxide will clear it right up. Oh yeah -- my solution, after all the face-melting, turned out to be exactly that. Maximum strength benzoyl peroxide. Fixes you right up, with a lot of patience.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Boogeymen

Let's talk about scary things.

Namely the scary things the Liberal Academic Bubble wants you to believe about evangelicals. I know I just made a post that essentially told you that everything you know about them is true. I'm now going to say that I was lying.

Yep, I was. Because one other thing you're going to hear is that they're essentially a conspiracy. They're Big, Bad, and Out To Get You. They want to kill women instead of abort the babies threatening them. They want to hurt you to keep you from practicing your religion. They want kids to grow up sheltered and screwed up. So on and so forth.

The key here is that lots of people are painting evangelicals as malevolent, as if somewhere in their moral code they are allowed to be sadistic sociopaths. As if they are foot soldiers solely focused on the war and never on the results of their actions.

This is patently false, at least for the greater community. I'm sure there are people like this around. Every group has its nutcase, its monster, its boogeyman in the closet who is going to come out and get you once you turn your back. Everyone has a Fred Phelps, whether you like the thought or not.

That being said, evangelicals are not motivated by hatred or sadism. They're mostly motivated, actually, by fear and worry. Just about everything they do that offends you is done out of self-protection on their part. Protection from you, in fact. They are genuinely afraid of you and yours, and they would be thrilled if the world would just stop encroaching on them and punching holes in their standard for how their community should be run. (I'm sensing a pattern...could it be the same complaint you have about them? Yes, in fact.) They

If you look at things from their point of view, they were trundling around going about their daily lives, and someone came in and told them that what they were doing was terrible and offensive.

Taking prayer out of schools. Complaining about "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. Convincing kids to say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Carping about the Ten Commandments being in courthouses. Disallowing religious symbolism in holiday media in the workplace or academia. Lamenting that non-Christians have a hard time getting elected President.

I'm not going to assign a moral value to any of those claims. These are simply a partial list of what is happening, that is genuinely terrifying to these people. Their way of life is falling apart. You -- yes, you -- are standing on a pedestal and declaring that how they live, and how they wish the world could live, is obsolete and backwards and barbaric. That they should shut up and mind their own business, and by that you mean don't talk about this Jesus dude to me, it makes me twitch.

But the problem here, is that their branch of Christianity -- and quite a few others that are varying degrees of similar -- are all based on the sort of "country-esque" ideal that everyone's business is their business.

Where I come from, everyone watches out for his neighbor. Right now, despite its megachurches, Pentecostalism in particular is the farmhand's religion. It wasn't born out of huge elegant cathedrals and rows after rows of stuffed pews. It was a family religion, and a neighbor's religion. You got up, and you went to the little church down the road after you milked your cows that morning, and the pastor there wasn't only a religious teacher, he was the moral cornerstone for the community. Pastors were really holy men then, not in the "corruption didn't exist" manner, but in the "people treated them that way" manner. They were Special. They were called by God Himself, and while they were imperfect, they were there to tell you how life was to be lived. You obeyed, because that way, everyone was on the same page and at peace with themselves and their neighbor. And every single person in that church was your friend, or your aunt, or that guy you go squirrel hunting with on the weekends, or your dad's fishing buddy.

In a small town, everyone knows everyone, and this is what contributes to the lack of privacy. It's not that people are nosy jerks. It's that once you get to know someone, you get comfortable prying a bit. You'll ask your friend invasive questions, knowing that there is trust between you, and you will tell you friend secrets too. When everyone is like this, when everyone trusts everyone and everyone is everyone's friend, this means an entire community essentially pools their personal information to form a greater entity. The Community is a living thing, the closest thing to a modern hivemind that exists. Everyone knows the state of the whole, in all its details, at all times.

And that means, yes, they are going to treat you the same way as their neighbors, as if your life is all of their business. They do want America to be part of The Community. Their vision of a country is a big Community where everyone is held to the same standards and is accountable. They really just want everyone to trust everyone, and everyone to be open. They want the entire nation to follow their standards, because that is what they know is good and what has kept them alive. Realize that you're working with moral absolutists who have every firm belief that "God should be on top of things in America" is something they hold to with the same passion you're holding to "I should be allowed to practice whatever religion I want." You both are putting your flags down, and you are no better than they; you just think your mission is better. Objectively, you're just two people who have drawn lines in the sand. Realize this when you're interacting with them. They and you are very, very similar. You are both trying to convince the other that your way is right, or at the very least to leave you the hell alone if they won't understand.

"Except I'm right." You've got to stop that, or you're screwed from the start, because you can't understand people if you're taking the high ground and turning up your nose. Keep reading. Understand.

Their entire mission is for your business to become their business, and their standards to become your standards. And the more you fight, they more scared they are that you won't accept this, and that their dream for a grand Community will never come true, and the harder they'll try. This ranges anywhere from "uncomfortable" to "earth-shattering and terrible" in various people's books. But in the end, if you don't want to be treated this way, you're better off not getting into their space. If you go to Rome, they'll treat you like a Roman. Know what you're getting into.

Yes, all this is detrimental to the person who is born with or acquires traits that distance them from the Community. Gays, non-Christians, people whose social behavior defies the norms, so on. They will inevitably be shafted just because the boat tends to fail if it gets rocked. There's a reason the people who deviate, move on to the wider world -- because there unfortunately isn't much place for something new and world-shaking in a place that is still convinced that it is living out on the plain where any neighbor who doesn't contribute and doesn't fit is shafting everyone, sometimes critically.

Still, now you start to see where this homely little denomination gets its fear. If you boil down lots of the complaints from non-Christians about evangelical practices, you get a basic one-liner. "It's none of your business." My uterus is not your business. My marriage is not your business. My sexuality is not your business. My religion, my clothes, my hair, my piercings, my spouse, my friends, none of that is your business. My life is not your business.

That defeats their entire form of living. They rely on that mutual trust between every node and every other node in the web, and as a result, anyone who isolates himself and declares himself independent is breaking trust. He has something to hide. He is suspicious. He is disquieting. His life becomes even more of people's business, because he upset the apple cart and now he is screwing up everything by coming back and insisting that everyone should be this way, that no one should tell the Community anything, that the Community should have no sway over any one man's way of life.

The Community is bound together by trust, friendship, and moral standards. They live alike in their actions and ways, and while they are of course different people with different ways of doing things, they have many common threads that cement their bonds together. It's a very rural way of doing things, where people are sparse and the Monkeysphere (look it up) is actually not very strained and back in the day, every man depended on his neighbor just to live. The city, by contrast, is a place where so many people are crammed together that each individual lives in a sphere of His Own Business, where other people shouldn't intrude. Everyone is used to not asking questions, because there are so many other people that it's impossible to trust them and/or keep track of them. If rural towns are like webs, cities are like lumpy batter, with certain social groups clumping together and having the occasional stray tie to another social group. There is so much diversity that people just stop caring what other people are doing. It's a very "bubble" way to live. As such, communities evolve like animals, shedding traits that don't do them good and gaining ones that give them advantage against the hostile wild world.

The evangelical community, on a broader social scale, has shed certain evils for certain others. There is lower crime and more personal accountability, but there is much more social policing. There is much more unity and cohesion, but also more intolerance. There is more trust, but also more nosing around in people's lives. There is more peace, but less freedom. There are people for whom this tradeoff makes perfect sense.

What America is doing right now, is pissing and moaning about the fact that these rural hick folk won't suck it up and do things the right way. This is the utterly wrong way to think. Evangelicals have had years up on years of conditioning in how to do what they do, mostly because it served them very well. They have evolved to suit their environment. They are horses on the plain. And now you want them to swim like fish? No wonder they're furious and terrified.

Don't go into "privilege" and all this political and social mumbo-jumbo. It boils down to something much more primal than that. You're asking a creature to do something it is physically incapable of doing without growing over time to fit its new situation. You are asking the horse to swim a mile, when right now, it can barely cross the river. You have to take it to the riverside, let it see that there is no threat, and have it walk around in the water some. Swim it out for a few minutes, bring it back. Do this day after day. Once its endurance builds, now you can swim it longer. You have to get people used to this change.

You can't ask the Pentecostals to accept things like gay marriage and abortion and "my religion is not your business" straight off the cuff. It's no wonder they're howling and biting like wounded dogs. You have to present these things in a way that makes sense to them, that appeals to the Community, that encourages their way of life while changing some of its nuances. They will not give up the Community -- you have to meet them on their ground, not yours. Make your changes play as close to their rules as you can.

If you want to convince a Pentecostal of something ground-breaking, you have to do it through religious channels. Note that the main reason Pentecostals hate evolution, and parts of greater science, is because they feel it has been pitched as a way to prove to people that God does not exist. There are people out there who legitimately say this -- that because science, God has no place. And this is where science got the horrible rap for Pentecostals.

If you want to save science for them, you're going to have to convince them that the Bible and science do not contradict each other. Same goes for any other issue. Gay marriage will have to pass the Bible test. Abortion. Environmentalism. So on.

Want proof? Look at feminism. Never once in my entire life, from any visitors and any people in my town that I've seen preach from the Pentecostal way, have I heard them condemn or vilify women. They say nothing but good things. Look at Esther, the woman with steel nerves who made her way from ordinary woman to queen by having the balls to go get the position for herself, and oh by the way she saved scads of Jews while she was at it and got the villains taken down. Look at Mary, whose task it was to raise the Son of God. Ruth. Naomi. Hell, the woman who was brave enough to fight back when Jesus tested her with "dogs do not get children's food." (Look it up! She actually faced down Jesus, asked to be treated like everyone else, and Jesus was proud of her and did so. He was not afraid to treat women like the real people they are.) All these women are hailed as heroes, because the Bible shows them as such. And as a result, women are shown these stories instead of shoved in a corner. You can be a queen. You can save lives. You can change the world. Go get it, girl, God is with you.

If you want to change what these well-meaning country folk are doing, you're going to do it on their playing field. Until then, everyone thinks everyone else is just the boogeyman under their bed, and all they want is for it to go away and leave them alone.