Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Guard Your What?

"Above all, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life." - Proverbs 4:23.

This is probably one of the most altered, mistaken, and perverted (in the old sense, not the creeper sense) verses that is talked about in the church.

There are twelve words in that verse. None of these twelve include any of the following: virginity, penis, vagina, body, nakedness, sexuality, marriage. And that's just a partial list of all the words that aren't in this verse.

Proverbs 4:23 is unequivocally not about sex. This is not a pro-abstinence tract, nor is it restricted to women. This verse has been used for restriction, laid down like some kind of law, as if there were a punishment attached to the end. As if there were eighteen words instead of twelve, and the remaining six were, "Or you will go to Hell."

Guard your heart. What is the heart? It's the metaphorical center of love and caring. It's the part of the analogy-body that feels and empathizes. Even if people thought the brain was a giant radiator, the mind was the center of thought, wherever in the body it was thought to lie. The heart is reserved for pure emotions. So in the end, what are you guarding? You're guarding feelings, emotions like trust, love, dedication, kindness, and empathy. You're not expending your every last drop of energy on the pigs, who will not appreciate the pearls you've thrown before them. You're making sure to take care of yourself, not in a self-centered way, but in a way that will protect your stability and energy and enthusiasm for life. You're not letting other people take advantage of you, even though you may care for them and help them. You maintain a center, where you can be strong and capable, despite what the world may throw at you.

Guarding your heart isn't about keeping it in your pants. There's no mention about pants here, or any of the body parts under those pants. What it's about, is keeping your priorities straight, and not throwing yourself away. Wanton promiscuity is a definite danger, don't think I'm saying otherwise. Throwing caution to the wind and ruining your body is not taking care of yourself. Disease and unwanted pregnancy are torments to the mind and heart. But the point is the damage they're doing, not the overgeneralized whole.

Guarding your heart means having respect for yourself. It means choosing good lovers and good friends and good coworkers. It means not letting anyone crap all over you and not being a pushover. It means maintaining your cool and your stability among the hurricane that is humanity. It doesn't mean alienating yourself, or being prissy, and it certainly doesn't mean being abstinent, or not dyeing your hair, or not shaving your head, or not getting a tattoo, or caring about this or that political issue and not the other one, or preaching to every person you see, or...

It means, have respect for yourself. Take care of yourself. Treat your body right, and your mind right, and your heart right. Don't let humanity drown you. Don't let others destroy you. Don't throw yourself into a situation where you know you're just going to come out a ruined shell.

Does that happen to people? Yes. Does it mean they didn't guard their hearts? Not always. But sometimes you can see it coming.

You can only do so much. This verse is asking you to do just that: what you can do. Not what you can't, not what you couldn't account for. But what you can do, right now, to be good to yourself, to protect yourself.

Guard your heart. And go be free.

Friday, August 3, 2012

What I Learned from "Dogma" (spoilers)

Since it's a movie I've wanted to see for years now, I finally got around to watching Dogma. For those of you who don't know, it's a Jay and Silent Bob satire film about a couple of angels who, in a fit of drunkenness, lay aside their heavenly duties and get thrown down to Earth for all of eternity as punishment for their flippancy and disobedience. (Also, angels are no longer allowed to drink.) Now one of the half-related descendents of Jesus Christ (through Jesus' brothers' bloodline), a couple of modern prophets, and a reincarnated thirteeth Apostle named Rufus have to go keep the two angels from exploiting a cosmic loophole in their punishment and getting back into Heaven, which would reverse a mandate of God and end the universe. Along the way, the mob encounters the Metatron (angel serving as the Voice of God), demons appear in the form of hockey-stick-wielding teenage thugs led by fallen angel Asrael, and lots of wackiness ensues.

Anyway. On to the things I learned.

The beginning of the movie was the most satirical part, if you ask me, and the biggest punch in the gut came right at the entrance. It's the closest I came to being legitimately offended, and then I realized why.

At the very start of the movie, a cardinal at the local Catholic church has decided that he's going to try to make Catholicism hip and modern now. Being Catholic is antiquated, he says. Nobody finds it relevant anymore, so may as well fix it up so that people feel attracted to it again. It's a two-millennium-old religion, and the reason they're bleeding followers is because they need to shiny it up for the young folk. So, the cardinal decides to "retire" the crucifix as a symbol of Christianity and replace it with the "Buddy Jesus," a statue of a traditionally-attired European-looking Jesus (the one you usually see around America) making a thumbs-up gesture while smiling and winking at the onlookers. Jesus looked too morbid and pained before, says the cardinal. He's not a downer; he's a supporter and a friend, so why not show him as happier and more supportive?

This is...a surprisingly accurate view of two things: what many churches are trying to do to bring in more followers, and what the conservative folk say is screwing over Christianity as a whole. Let's start with Point One.

Lots of churches are trying to be modern and "cool." They have slick 21st-century-style logos, catchy names, and even ad campaigns to try to convince random onlookers to go for a visit. One church in Boston must be paying through the nose to post ads all over subway stops, and these ads even bribe onlookers with the promise of coffee and food after services.

What has the world come to, that we have to offer bribes and rewards and shiny new toys to people who are supposed to be coming to church to seek their spiritual value and fulfillment and all that? If you're going to church because they have free food and it's the most convenient one and you feel guilty not going to church so you may as well, does that mean anything? How does that help build community? Do these people really think that visitors won through shameless marketing are going to be committed or even care?

Back where I come from, you go to a church because your family goes there. The young folk grow up to be adults who have kids or invite their neighbors, and then they become old folk who mentor the new young folk. Alternatively, you get invited or check out a few churches and then stick with one because it particularly speaks to you. No one bribes anyone. There are no ads. You're just there, and you get to know the church and its people.

(I think I know why there are so many churches in America. The whole one-on-every-corner thing seems silly and hackneyed to a lot of people, but I think it's the nature of humans to want small tight-knit communities. When churches get too big, someone will inevitably start a new one, and a few people will gravitate there. Eventually, you get the little churches full of old people, that little pack of followers who really love the place, and someday they'll probably all die and someone will buy the building, but in the end, they like their twelve people. Not all pastors want hundreds of followers. In fact, I'm guessing the reason we have so many churches is because of this exact reason: people naturally group off into little packs when they want to be close to others. Sorry, off topic.)

What is going on now, smacks of materialism and modern advertising shenanigans. And I don't like it. I'd rather look in the Yellow Pages and find churches, or on the internet, and then try them out on their own. I don't want them to throw cool-looking logos in my face and go on and on about how modern and cool they are. This isn't a competition, guys. Communities are supposed to be small and tight-knit here, not to mention, if people don't come to church because they want to be at church, what are you really accomplishing? (Seriously, be honest, how many converts happen because some poor person wanted free food, or something like that?)

What is the solution here? Go old-school. Ditch the modern shenanigans and go back to the reason we really went to church. Cut the silly socialization games and the bribes and the advertising. Stop trying to hold a carrot over our heads and get us to jump. Focus more on community prayer, perhaps, or study classes, or maybe just days where people can come and spend time in silence in the sanctuary. Make church feel really holy and special again, rather than just a social playdate with a sermon once a week. Stop holding church in crappy old buildings and bring back the beauty and iconography when you can. Put down an atmosphere where people leave their lives behind and really talk to God. I'd also like to see "office hours" of sorts where authority figures in the church just talk to members and try to help them on their spiritual paths. Make this really be mentor-mentee style relationships. Go back to when church really felt like it was about something.

Second, a completely unrelated point: the conservative church basically sees the liberal church as the cardinal in Dogma. Liberals are, as they say, trying to put a pretty face on what should be a scary, intense, exclusive sort of religion that is supposed to really get all up in your grill and show you the Dark Frightening Things about reality that you should really care about. All the hellfire-brimstone gets swept under the rug in favor of this "Buddy Jesus" kind of figure, who is really there just to make you feel good. This follows pretty quickly to "churches that don't tell you about Sin and Punishment are evil" and so forth.

Some of this, I'd say is true. The modern church kind of does like to cut corners and talk more about what God likes than what God doesn't like. The concepts of sin and punishment get swept under the rug, and people really don't like discussing Hell and what it means. Oddly enough, televangelists (who are often very conservative) tend to push these points more, because they get more views if they spread around feel-good messages rather than moral lessons. I can't say I've particularly encountered How To Be Moral sermons up in Boston, and I expect this is because the churches up here try to focus way more on "how God is nice" rather than "how God is a Father who expects you to obey His rules regardless of how much you think it'd be fun not to."  Both of these points, when taken to an extreme, are both misguided. God is nice. God is also serious business. Both of these must be acknowledged.

There you go, things I learned from satire. Most of the rest of the movie is just fun plot shenanigans, and watching the two angels evolve as characters as well as the Last Scion (the descendent of Jesus' family) accept her mission and really go for it. Good movie, watch it.