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Review 191: The Great Derangement

The Great Derangement by Matt Taibbi

There is an essential flaw in human nature that makes us think we’re special. It used to make us think that we were literally the center of the universe, which it turns out we aren’t. It makes us think that we’re all going to grow up to be movie stars and astronauts, which we aren’t; our children are all brilliant and well-behaved, which they aren’t; and that God is on our side, which It isn’t.

Oddly enough, though, there is one place where this boundless optimism is flipped on its head. Every generation is absolutely convinced that this is the nadir of human accomplishment, that we are well and truly screwed and that there has never been a more messed-up, terrible time to live. The past was better, we think, and we look back on the days gone by as a golden age when things were simpler and no one had the kind of troubles that we have today.

When you join us, all will be perfect. Join us. Join us.

Of course, that’s not true. We are healthier, freer, and generally better off than generations before us, who were healthier, freer, and generally better off than the ones before them, and so on. While things certainly aren’t perfect, they’re not nearly as bad as we like to think that they are. If people were able to look at their world with an unjaundiced eye and a fair heart, we would realize that and maybe start living our lives accordingly.

Of course, if we were able to do that, then Matt Taibbi wouldn’t be able to sell his books.

To be fair, the first decade of this century was messed up on a grand scale. Not the same way the 60s were, or the 30s, or the 1860s, but truly twisted and burdensome in their own special way. We had been attacked, seemingly out of nowhere, by a shadowy cabal of extremists who managed to make a laughingstock of our supposed invulnerability. We reacted by flipping out and invading the wrong country and passing reams of knee-jerk legislation designed to chip away at civil liberties wherever they could. Our government, when it wasn’t handing us lies that were about as transparent as a window where the glass has been removed and replaced with nothing but pure, spring-fresh air, was telling us that there was nothing to see here and that the best way to get involved was to go shopping. And if you did have to get involved, you’d better be with us.

Because we know who’s against us. The tehrists.

Overseeing all of this was a simplistic frat boy idiot manchild of a President and the band of Washington technocrats who had been itching to bomb the hell out of the Middle East since the 70s. The media, for its part, was playing along, doing what it was told, and making sure that the people, with whom sovereign power resides in the United States, had no way of knowing what its government was actually doing at any given time.

This could probably be a campaign sign for whatever politician is running near you.

Americans had been lied to over and over again for decades, starting with the post-ironic age of advertising (which Taibbi pinpoints as the Joe Isuzu ads) up to the utterly unswallowable “They hate us for our freedoms” line that we were supposed to believe when it slid, wet, horrible and putrescent from the mouth of George W. Bush. And then, if you raised your hand and asked questions about the story you were expected to buy into, people turned around and accused you of being a faithless traitor. So what are people to do when they can’t trust the narrative that their leaders are giving them?

Why, they turn inward, of course, and build their own narrative. Their own bubble, as it were – a space within which everything makes sense. Everything can be explained, people can be trusted, and all the rules work. It is utterly incomprehensible to outsiders, but that’s okay because outsiders are the whole reason the bubble exists in the first place. As Taibbi discovers, there is far more in common between the far right hyper-Christians and the far left conspiracists than you might expect, and that there are far more of them than you really want to know.

This book is basically two interwoven parts, with a few interludes to keep the story on track. In one part, Taibbi goes down to Texas, uses a fake name and gets involved with a Megachurch in San Antonio. He joins the church to find out what brings these people together in a time when the government and the media can’t be relied upon, and what attracts people to a life of fundamentalist Christianity in the first place. He goes to meetings where demons are cast out, to small group discussions in beautiful Texan homes, and listens to people explain why it is that they’ve given their lives to Christ, something that Taibbi would never do himself, were he not researching a book.

Woah.

He also finds himself drawn into the shadowy world of the 9/11 Truth movement, a group that believes that – to varying degrees – the Bush administration bears some of the blame for the attacks on New York and Washington D.C. Some believe they knew about it but chose to do nothing, so that they would have a reason to launch their war against Iraq. Others believe that they directly caused the attacks, mining the collapsed buildings and aiming the aircraft. The more elaborate theories involve holograms, missiles and a conspiracy of silence that is continually upheld by thousands of otherwise loyal Americans.

Much like the fundamentalist Christianity, Taibbi immerses himself in Truther culture, trying to find out what it is that keeps them going, even when they – like the Christians – have no real evidence to support what they believe. Even moreso for the Truthers, there is actually a lot of logical, circumstantial and physical evidence that outright debunks their theories, but they soldier on anyway, utterly convinced that they are the only ones in America who haven’t surrendered to the lies of the political and media machines.

So what do these two groups have in common, and what do they say about America?

American politics are, generally, about Us versus Them. All politics, really, but we do it really well. The parties in power do their best to say that they stand for Us against Them, regardless of which party you vote with, but it’s become increasingly evident that the parties in power are not really for Us – they’re for Themselves. They push the same canned platitudes and wedge the same minor issues every election cycle with the sole purpose of keeping their jobs, and that is finally becoming evident to the public. Rather than governing, which is ostensibly their jobs, Our Representatives in Congress are doing what they can to help themselves, their parties and their friends, and this is more and more evident the closer you look. To have them then turn around and say, without a trace of irony, that they’re doing their best for the country they love, that they actually care about the concerns of the voter, is enough to make even the most optimistic Pollyanna turn into a Grade-A cynic.

“A riot is an ungly thing… undt, I tink, that it is chust about time zat ve had vun!!” – Inspector Kemp, Young Frankenstein

But rather than rising up as one and kicking the bastards out, the public turned inwards and went into their bubbles. If the game we’re playing is Us versus Them, then let’s do it right. Now we’re not just one group of people with a certain set of political views, we are the anointed of God or, depending on where you are, the only intelligent people in a world of sheep. And who are They? They are not just corrupt politicians. They are agents of Satan, sent to bring about the end of the world. They are power-hungry chessmasters, bent on ruling with an iron fist.

It’s a world view that makes sense to the people who have chosen to live in it, more sense than the “real” world does.

Now this book was written back in 2006 and a lot has happened since then, so it is very much a book of its time. Since then, we have seen our political theater change in many interesting ways, not the least of which is the Tea Party, which is kind of the coming-out party for a lot of the people who felt they had been left out of the discussion for so long. They’ve had their chance to incubate in the churches and on the internet, and now they’re out in force and ready to change the way politics works. A later addition to the party is the Occupy movement, bound together in its view of a nation run by plutocrats and their puppet government. They’re what happens when the Left sits in the echo chamber for a while.

Whether they will ultimately be successful is still up for argument, but so far, well… They’re all kind of freaking me out.

The take-home message from the book is this: There have been far worse times to be in the United States, and our nation has seen its way through far greater trials. But each one is different, born of different causes and with different effects, and we do not have the benefit of being able to look back and see how everything works out. It is much easier these days to find people you agree with and isolate yourself with them, and every time Congress or the President or the Media lets us down, it’s more and more tempting to do so.

HAVE YOU ACCEPTED JESUS CHRIST AS YOUR PERSONAL SAVIOR?!?!

But that way lies madness. The madness of an evangelical movement that is anticipating the end of days, the madness of a conspiracy of vast and perfect proportions. The answer is not to isolate ourselves with the like-minded but to seek out those with whom we disagree and make sure that we’re all living in the same world, no matter what it’s like. Rather than dividing ourselves into two giant camps of Us and Them, pointed and aimed by people whose only interest is in seeing us rip each other to shreds, maybe we can finally see what it is that unifies everyone.

Once we can do that, once we can fight the derangement, perhaps we can see our way to making our country into the one we want it to be.

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“Washington politicians basically view the People as a capricious and dangerous enemy, a dumb mob whose only interesting quality happens to be their power to take away politicians’ jobs… When the government sees its people as the enemy, sooner or later that feeling gets to be mutual. And that’s when the real weirdness begins.”
– Matt Taibbi, The Great Derangement

Matt Taibbi on Wikipedia
The Great Derangement on Amazon.com
Matt Taibbi’s blog at Rolling Stone

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Filed under american history, analysis, Christianity, culture, economics, Matt Taibbi, memoir, nonfiction, politics, religion, society

Review 109: The Origin of Satan

The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics by Elaine Pagels

Let me get this out of the way right up front: I can’t think of the title of this book without the Church Lady from the heyday of Saturday Night Live popping into my brain. And now she’s in yours, too. You’re welcome.

Well, isn't that SPECIAL?

So. Who is Satan? A fallen angel? The great adversary of God? Saddam Hussein’s bitch? If nothing else, Satan is the great scapegoat, the one on whom we tend to pile all our troubles. Your church is running out of money? Satan. Your kid is doing drugs and listening to that awful hip-hop music? Satan. Queers getting married? Definitely Satan.

For some, Satan is an actual being, a true agent of evil whose purpose is to ruin all that God has made. For others, Satan is a symbolic representation of the evil inherent in the human condition, an abstract form made real in order to better understand it. In other words, there are as many versions of Satan as there are people who invoke him.

But how did the whole Satan thing get started? Where did he come from and how did we get to the Satan that we all know and loathe today? That’s what Elaine Pagels was determined to find out when she wrote this book.

While most of the book focuses on the New Testament and a history of the early Christian church, it was the ancient history of Satan that I found most interesting, mainly because it concurred with a pet theory that I’ve had for a long time: Satan was never an enemy of God. Satan was God’s quality control guy. It was his job to look for weaknesses in the system, to probe Humanity for its faults and flaws so that it could be made better. Thus the serpent in the garden (which, just as a note, was never actually revealed to be Satan), and especially the story of Job, where God allows Job’s life to be ruined on a bet. My guess was that he won a nice, crisp one-dollar bill.

Employee of the Millennium (photo by Nathan Rupert)

The Satan of Olde was an agent of God, there to make sure that things went the way they were supposed to. He caused trouble, he stirred things up, yes, but that was his job. Much like the office manager that you despise because he always harps on you for checking your Facebook account during company time, even though you both know there’s nothing better to do right now, but he just enjoys watching you suffer and enforcing his stupid little rules…. That guy is, at least in his own mind, working for the greater good of the company. He may be a dick, you may wish great misfortune heaped on him and his progeny, but he’s doing the job he was given to do.

Sounds great, but Satan’s downfall from “annoying but necessary agent of God” to “vile and demonic enemy of god” was planted a long time ago, before Christianity was even on the horizon.

The Jewish religion, from whence our concept of Satan arose, has always been one of Otherness. Israelites and Enemies. Us and Them. From its earliest days, God made sure the Israelites knew that they were a small force against the world, with only Him to protect them. He told Abraham straight out that He would bless him and curse his enemies. Therefore, the descendants of Abraham had to be on constant guard from enemies both from without and within. With a Satan already set in their theology as a tester and troublemaker for God, it was not a far leap to look to him as the cause of the multiple troubles that the Jews had over the years. Around the time of Christ, the Essenes were a distillation of that concept. They were a small Jewish sect – a minority within a minority – which believed that they were the only true Jews and that everyone else had gone soft. The Jewish majority was corrupt, led astray from the true path to God, probably by Satan.

When the Christians showed up, a minority with an even more tenuous existence than the Essenes, they found this concept very useful. Telling their story from the point of view of an embattled minority, they found Satan to be a very useful opponent against whom their Messiah could fight. He was an excellent symbol that stood not only for the earthly conflict that was taking place between the Christians, Romans and Jews, but a greater spiritual conflict that involved all humankind in a battle between good and evil.

Really he just likes to watch

Pagels’ basic thesis is that the concept of Satan, whatever else it may be, was used to not only encourage persecution of The Other – Jews and pagans, to be precise – but to also keep the Christians themselves in line. The book is actually a history of the early Christian movement and how that history was reflected in the writing of the Gospels. In fact, just like in the Bible, Satan doesn’t really appear much in this book. Rather Pagels looks at how the early Christian movement fought for its survival against enemies without and within, and then how Satan became a spiritual catch-all for those who disagreed with them.

It’s a great analysis of the early days of the Church, and just how chaotic and tumultuous it was. There were so many churches with so many different interpretations of Jesus’ life and death, so many Gospels being written and so many opinions on the very nature of God’s universe that it’s surprising the whole thing managed to come together to be the world’s largest religion.

What’s more, it shed some light on something that’s always annoyed me: the persecution complex that so many Christians have. The best time to catch this is in December, when pundits in the States start going off about the War on Christmas as though the last twelve Christians in the country were holed up inside the Topeka Christmas Shanty with shotguns and eggnog. Every time a judge tells a town that they can’t have the Ten Commandments on the lawn of their town hall, or a Wal-Mart tells employees to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” there is always a vocal group of Christians who claim that they’re being persecuted and that they’re on the edge of extinction. All this despite the fact that Christianity is the most popular religion in the world, that there are more Christians in Congress than any other religion, and that every single President in US history has been Christian. Despite all that, there seems to be a knee-jerk need to feel persecuted.

One of the Prince of Darkness

This book offered a very good reason why this is: because that was how the religion was founded, and it is the fundamental narrative of Jesus’ story. If Jesus had been part of the Jewish majority, his story would have ended very differently, no matter how radical his ideas. The early church was born of persecution, first from the Jews and Romans, and when they were no longer a danger, from pagans and heretics. And under all that, the hand that is always set against them, is Satan. As long as Satan is there, the Christians will always have someone there to persecute them. Without that cosmic, deathless opponent, Jesus becomes just another political rabblerouser executed by Rome. Certainly no Messiah would have allowed himself to die unless it was a gambit in a much greater game against a much more powerful opponent. Without Satan and the relentless threat attributed to him (and, by extension, those who are seen to ally with him), Jesus’s sacrifice becomes meaningless, and the whole religion follows with it.

It’s a fascinating book and a great look at the early days of the Church. If you’re into that kind of thing, go pick it up. Many thanks to my mom and stepdad, who pointed my attention towards it.

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“How, after all, could anyone claim that a man betrayed by one of his own followers, and brutally executed on charges of treason against Rome, not only was but still is God’s appointed Messiah, unless his capture and death were, as the gospels insist, not a final defeat but only a preliminary skirmish in a vast cosmic conflict now enveloping the universe?”
– Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan
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Elaine Pagels on Wikipedia
The Origin of Satan on Amazon.com

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Filed under Bible, Christianity, Elaine Pagels, good and evil, history, Jesus, Judaism, nonfiction, religion, Satan, theology

Review 64: Lamb


Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

If you’ve been following my reviews over the last few years, I don’t see any reason why I should have to put a caution into this, but here it is: if you’re not interested in speculative fiction, open to the reinterpretation of the life of Jesus, speculation on the gaps in the gospels and the possibility of pan-religious values having been vital to the formation of Christianity, then you should probably not read this book. Nor should you really be using the internet – there’s just too much nasty “Free Thinking” out there. Take your hands off the keyboard and back away slowly.

Okay, that’ll weed out the wusses. Although, as I think about it, perhaps those are exactly the people who should be reading this book. I’m sorry for all the nasty stuff I said – come on back!

Each time I read this, I love it more. For one thing it’s Moore’s best work, without question. Not only is it blindingly funny, which is a hallmark of Moore’s style, but it’s also thoughtful, philosophical, and is supported by obvious research. Because he’s dealing with real places and real people, Moore has made sure that his depiction of first-century Israel is as accurate as he can make it. It’s all there in the details about the lives of the characters, the struggles they go through and the understandings they come to. Without hours of research as its foundation, the book would have failed almost instantly. Moore didn’t have to do it, but it is a great sign of his character as an author that he did.

This is also by far my favorite interpretation of the life of Jesus. It is the Gospel According to Biff, the best friend of Joshua bar Joseph, the man who would one day be called Jesus Christ. Of course, when Biff met him, the young Son of God was occupying himself by resurrecting lizards after his brother smashed their heads in. But they grew to be fast friends, and everywhere that young Joshua went, so went his buddy Biff.

The best way to describe Biff would be Jesus’ Sidekick. He’s a troublemaker, sarcastic, and far too prone to succumb to temptations of the flesh. But he’s clever and resourceful, and mindful of his friend’s mission on this earth. He’s young Joshua’s best friend in every way, so when Josh goes searching for the three Magi who attended his birth, Biff knows he has to go with him. The way to finding Joshua’s destiny will be long and hard, and Biff knows that his friend needs him.

The main part of the book has to do with Biff and Josh’s search for the Magi, to learn from them how Josh can be the Messiah. On their way they face demons, death and certain temptation, but also wisdom and experience from the wisest men in Asia. From Balthazar in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, Joshua learns of the Tao, contemplating its Three Jewels – compassion, moderation, and humility. He learns about suffering and mercy and kindness and the effects they bring.

Biff, on the other hand, learns about the ways in which eight Chinese concubines can make life a wonderful place, night after night. He learns how to make potions and explosives, how to cast metal and read Chinese. He learns vital skills that the Messiah cannot – or must not – know.

From there they go to China, to a monastery high in the cold mountains to study with Gaspar, a monk of the Zen school. From Gaspar, Josh learns stillness and mindful breath, compassion for all things and, oddly enough, how to turn invisible. He discovers the divine spark that exists in all things, a holiness that no one can claim or take from you. He also learns what it’s like to be the only one of his kind, and foreshadows the tragic end that can bring.

Biff, of course, is learning kung fu and how to break bricks with his head.

Finally, they go to India to seek out Melchior, an ascetic yogi and the last of the wise men. Joshua here learns about sacrifice and blood, and the horrors that are perpetrated in the name of religion. He discovers the injustice of denying the Kingdom of God to anyone, Jew or Gentile, and the futility of trying to teach yoga to an elephant.

Biff, for his part, manages to put together a truly spectacular version of the Kama Sutra.

Don’t get me wrong – while Biff is certainly more earthly than his friend, he is also devoted to both Joshua and his mission. He is Josh’s anchor to the real world, always reminding him of his mission and making sure he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Biff, in this rendition of Jesus’ story, is a necessary element in the ultimate teachings of Christ.

As he admits in his afterward, Moore has tackled a very tough subject here, one that he knows is likely to rile people up. Jesus is one of those characters that is very set in peoples’ minds – he is the tall, beatific figure with a gentle voice and blue eyes who glides around in robes followed by insightful and worshipful men.

He certainly never ate Chinese food on his birthday, nor did he get hopped up on coffee or learn kung-fu. He’s never had a sarcastic best friend who was willing to risk damnation to describe what sex was like to the young Messiah, who was pretty sure that he wasn’t allowed to Know women. We haven’s seen Jesus get frustrated and yell at his disciples because they didn’t get the message he was trying to send, or be torn between what he has to do and what he wants to do. The Jesus in this book is an excellent meld of the human and the divine. He has the miracles and the powers, but his mind is human. He knows that he’s the son of god, but he feels like just a regular guy who’s been tapped to save humanity from itself. It’s a very difficult situation to be in, and Moore does a really good job of getting us to understand that.

More importantly, the life of Jesus hasn’t been this funny before. This is the kind of book that will piss off your family or co-workers, because you’ll want to read out passages from the book every five minutes, but you won’t get it out right because you’ll be laughing too hard. The way the book is set up, Biff has been resurrected by the angel Raziel in order to write a new gospel. Unfortunately, he’s been resurrected in the modern age, about two thousand years too late to help his friend avoid the awful, horrible sacrifice that he knows he has to undergo. So he writes in the modern American vernacular, assuring us that while the words may not be a direct translation of first-century Hebrew, Latin, Aramaic, Chinese or any of the other languages they encounter, the tone is accurate. And the tone is comedy, all the way through.

Of course, the comedy kind of drops off as the book races towards its unpleasant end, which is where my troubles with Moore as a writer usually lie. He tends to write endings that are abrupt and unfulfilling, as though he just wants to finish writing the book so he can, perhaps, get on with the next one. Even though we know how this story ends, it still feels rushed. Biff’s attempts to save his friend from horrible death make sense, but I would like to have seen them drawn out a bit more. I have a feeling that Moore could have added another hundred pages without breaking a sweat – and I wish he had.

The best thing, though, is that Moore treats his characters with the utmost respect. Nothing that Jesus does in the book is out of character for him, insofar as we know his character. And Biff is more than just a goofy friend of the Messiah – he is the reminder and the anchor of Jesus’ humanity. I’m not a Christian – I don’t claim any religion, in fact – but this version of Jesus would be one that I might be willing to give some time to.

It’s a brilliant book, in my top ten….

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“Josh, faking demonic possession is like a mustard seed.”
“How is it like a mustard seed?”
“You don’t know, do you? Doesn’t seem at all like a mustard seed, does it? Now you see how we all feel when you liken things unto a mustard seed? Huh?”
– Biff and Josh, Lamb
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Christopher Moore on Wikipedia
Lamb on Wikipedia
Lamb on Amazon.com
Christopher Moore’s homepage

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Filed under angels, Christianity, Christopher Moore, coming of age, demons, friendship, good and evil, humor, Jesus, quest, religion, travel

Review 26: Hardcore Zen

Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner

This book is very different from most other Zen books out there.

A lot of books on Zen and Buddhism in general tend to be… how shall I put it… flaky. They tell you that if you eat a certain way or chant certain mantras or take certain drugs, you will attain the state of Nirvana, in which all your suffering will end and life will be an eternity of bliss thereafter. It’s the classic self-help contradiction: happiness is just so easy to find, but you won’t find it unless you read My Book. And also buy the candles, incense, mandala cloths, chanting CDs, windchimes, power crystals…. Despite claiming that they’re not in it for the money, a lot of those purporting to offer enlightenment to the masses have a whole lot of stuff to sell.

Warner, to put it simply, calls this “bullshit.” He doesn’t try to affect the “wise and learned sage” voice in his writing. I imagine him more as a jittery skinny guy, telling you about the time he saw the entire history of the universe unfold around him in a dream. His writing is energetic and colloquial, and he talks to the reader as an equal, if a slightly less informed equal than himself. He tells you right from the beginning that you have no reason to do what he’s done, or even to believe anything he has to say. But he’s going to say it anyway because, as far as he knows, it’s the truth.

He has an unusual background for a Zen Master. If you’re anything like me, when you hear those words you think of a little bald guy in the mountains, calling people “grasshopper” and staring at nothing. Warner is not that. He talks a lot about his experiences as a punk rocker back in the days when being a punk rocker actually meant something, and this is pretty important.

You see, one of the driving forces of Punk, at least when it first emerged, was the idea that doing what society approved of was not being “real.” In an era of power ballads, disco and soft hippie pablum, Punk music went the other way – loud, fast and hard songs full of anger and blasphemy. While everyone else was growing out their hair and trying to make it look like John Travolta’s, punk rockers were wearing mohawks or shaving it all off. The basic message of punk: whatever is acceptable to society is unacceptable to me.

While that spirit of individualism and rebellion only lasted a little while, it did, in that time, share something with Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism in particular: Question everything. Never take anything at face value or accept it just because someone tells you to. Ask questions, criticize, poke, prod and be a general pain in the ass until you’re happy with the answers you’ve got. And even then, keep questioning your own conclusions.

Another thing that Warner brings up again and again is that, with Zen, there is no requirement that you actually do what people tell you. There’s no such thing as a Zen evangelist or Zen missionaries going out to convert the heathens. Buddhism, at least the way Warner sees it, is a path for the individual, not the group. The only person who can find the way is you. There will always be teachers out there who can make suggestions, but what it really comes down to is the individual doing the hard work – meditating, thinking, and questioning every day.

I like this approach. One of the things that turns me off from your standard religions is that they generally frown on independent thought. You’re not supposed to think about what Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross meant, you’re just supposed to thank Him for it. You’re not supposed to think about why God doesn’t want you to eat pork, or why He wants you to abstain from alcohol, or why He thinks women should cover their heads, you’re just supposed to do it. Religion, in my mind, stifles creativity and tries to absolve people of the responsibility of running their own lives.

And Buddhism is not really that much different, despite Warner’s presentation of it here. It has its scriptures and its prohibitions, its rules and regulations which many people around the world follow without question. Just look at the “Free Tibet” people and you’ll see how even Buddhism isn’t free from the virus of the Argument From Authority. I’d bet that if the Dalai Lama announced tomorrow that eating cats was a sacred and venerable tradition for Tibetan Buddhists, Richard Gere would start eating kitty steaks within a week.

But the idea is sound. The idea is that there is no such thing as Authority. There is no human being, past, present or future, who is more qualified to tell you how to run your life than you are (even if you aren’t all that good at it yourself). All it takes is dedicated thought and concentration to figure out how to live your life well, and the weird thing is that most people who do this tend to come to the same conclusion: the best way to live your life is to do the right thing, right now.

What is the right thing? Only you can figure that out.

Zen interests me, for many reasons, and a lot of them were addressed in this book. The idea that the past is the past and the future doesn’t exist is one that I picked up years ago and has made life a lot less stressful. The focus on personal responsibility is another aspect that is quite attractive. I find that people in this modern age like to dodge their responsibilities to themselves and others, and I find that disturbing. We need to take responsibility for our own actions, and blaming the government or our parents or video games for our suffering really isn’t going to make the world a better place.

The first step to having a better life is taking control of it. But don’t just take my word for it, and don’t take Warner’s. Work it out for yourself.

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“Question Authority. Question Society. Question Reality. Question Yourself. Question your conclusions, your judgments, your answers. Question this. If you question everything thoroughly enough, the truth will eventually hit you upside the head and you will know. But here’s a warning: It won’t be what you imagined. It won’t be even close. ”
– Brad Warner, Hardcore Zen
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Hardcore Zen on Wikipedia
Brad Warner on Wikipedia
Hardcore Zen at Amazon.com
Zen Buddhism at Wikipedia
Introduction to Zen from Kodaiji Temple

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Filed under Brad Warner, Buddhism, nonfiction, philosophy, religion, Zen

Review 23: American Gods


American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I remember waiting a long time for this book. Neil documented the process of writing it on his blog, so every few days I would get a little glimpse at what he was doing – and it drove me nuts. Living in Japan, I can never be sure when my favorite entertainment will make it over here. Movies and books can take months to get from the US to Japan, and while I’m waiting not-so-patiently, all my friends at home have just devoured it and are in the process of raving about how awesome it is. Oh, sure, the hyper-sellers like Harry Potter might have a worldwide release, but Neil wasn’t exactly a mainstream superstar when this was written.

So yes, one of my main memories associated with this book is frustration. Fortunately, when I picked up the book during a trip home back in 2001, my frustration was erased and replaced with profound satisfaction.

American Gods was one of Gaiman’s first full-length novels, though I may be wrong about that. It was not, of course, his debut – he had made his name a household word in fantasy-reading households by penning the epic comic book series Sandman, in which he proved that he was able to marry huge metaphysical themes to personal narrative. He could make the dissolution of worlds pale beside a broken heart and make you believe that even the simplest of life had vast meaning.

In other words, this man has some serious writing chops.

As the title implies, in this book Gaiman takes on the gods, and asks a very interesting – and important – question: what happened to the gods that came to America? I’m talking about the Old Gods, the gods that had been living in the hearts and minds of people for thousands of years. Leprechauns and dryads, three-in-one forces of fate and representations of the seasons. Easter and Odin, Bast and Anubis, gods of once-great nations and unknown villages. As their people came to America over the millennia, they brought their gods with them.

But as the people stayed in America, they changed. They grew. And the gods discovered that America is not a good place for them.

Now the old gods are small and unworshipped, save by a few tiny, dwindling pockets of their old culture. What’s more, new gods are rising, gods of media and internet, highway and television and government. And, as has been said in countless westerns and cowboy movies, there isn’t room for all of them. There will be a reckoning, and a man named Shadow is in the middle of it.

Shadow is a convict, nearly at the end of his time in prison. He wants nothing more than to get out of prison and rejoin his wife. He gets one of those wishes when he is released early. Unfortunately, he is released early to attend his wife’s funeral.

Without friends or family, Shadow is aimless and alone. It is in this condition that he meets the enigmatic Wednesday, a man who seems to know Shadow and his situation, far better than any stranger should. He offers Shadow a job – to assist Wednesday when he needs it, protect him if he has to, and sit a vigil for him if he dies. With nothing to lose, Shadow accepts the deal. In so doing, he finds himself facing a war of gods that he never knew existed.

It’s a great story, on many levels. In one sense, it’s a love letter to America. Shadow’s journey takes him through small towns that have yet to be subsumed into the ever-devouring maw of the modern American monoculture – from roadside attractions to tiny motels to strange lakeside communities, the unacknowledged weirdness of America is put on display here for all to see. As is its history, in the form of flashbacks to the journeys that people made from their homelands to this land, voluntary or not. The book reminds us that there is a complexity to not only American history, but also to American culture, which gets lost in the ubiquity of McDonald’s and Starbucks.

The metaphysical angle of this book is also something to give you pause. It asks the questions about what gods are, how they’re born and how they die. Most importantly – how they flourish or wither, and why. It is said over and over again that America is a bad place for gods, although it’s not clearly explained why. Perhaps something to do with its geography – a vast, variable landscape that’s too big for small tribal gods to get a hold of. Perhaps it’s the people, brought from all over the world, who can’t help but wonder what other cultures can offer them. Perhaps it’s just the nature of its people – always moving, independently-minded. The old gods, who were gods of small nations and regions, simply didn’t have the power or flexibility to stay on.

Which really makes us wonder, how did capital-g God manage to get a foothold? As one of the characters notes, Jesus has done really well over here. Perhaps because the God of Abraham can be all things to all people – a god of vengeance and justice, a god of mercy and love, a creator, a destroyer, a personal friend or a distant observer. There is something to be said for non-specialization, I suppose….

This book is a journey, and it’s a long and complicated one at that. But it’s enjoyable and personal. Gaiman writes with great empathy, so that the reader may even understand the gods themselves, as reduced and attenuated as they may have become. Though Shadow is not exactly the protagonist of the story – he spends most of the book doing what he is told to do, only taking initiative on his own towards the end, he is observant. Through his eyes, we learn more about America. Its triumphs, its flaws and its potential all become a little bit clearer, and upon finishing the book, those of us from that strange, turbulent land can perhaps appreciate it a bit more.

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“This is the only country in the world that worries about what it is.”
– Wednesday, American Gods
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Neil Gaiman on Wikipedia
Neil Gaiman’s homepage
American Gods on Wikipedia
American Gods on Amazon.com
Neil Gaiman on Twitter

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Filed under death, fantasy, gods, murder, Neil Gaiman, religion, The United States

Review 13: Misquoting Jesus


Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman

I saw this guy on The Daily Show a few years ago, and his book sounded like a really interesting idea – study the ways in which, over the last two thousand years, the text of the Bible has been altered. Sometimes it has been altered by mistake and sometimes on purpose, but it has been altered nonetheless.

Now this is a claim that angers a certain section of Christianity – often known as the Biblical Literalists – who believe that every word of the Bible is true, the revealed Word of God. Unfortunately for them, once the text is analyzed, once source texts and translations are looked at carefully, there are too many discrepancies for that to be true.

What makes this book interesting is the author’s background, which he explains in detail in the introduction. Bart Ehrman is not an angry atheist, looking to tear down the New Testament. Quite the contrary – in his teens, Ehrman became Born Again, filling the void in his life with 100% Jesus. He threw his heart and soul into Bible study, convinced that the book was the inerrant, incontrovertible Word Of God. It was only when he began really studying the Bible that he started to get the feeling that something wasn’t quite right.

And when I say “studying the Bible,” I don’t mean just reading a few passages before he went to bed at night. Ehrman is the kind of person who learned Latin and ancient Greek and Aramaic so that he could read the oldest known manuscripts for the Gospels and the Epistles. He immersed himself in Biblical history, arming himself with every tool he would need for textual criticism and a better understanding of the text that meant so much to him.

An explanation of textual criticism takes up a great deal of the book, since it’s a branch of academia that most people aren’t all that familiar with. Textual criticism is the analyses of ancient manuscripts in an attempt to determine what the original text was. This is done by comparing manuscripts. It attempts to determine what changes were made and when. It’s very difficult, even worse so the older the work is, but it’s a task that has absorbed Biblical scholars for centuries. This brings up two questions: why is that difficult to do, and why is it important?

As to the first, it’s difficult because these manuscripts were, before the printing press got into full swing, copied by hand. By humans, to be specific and if you’re a human – and there’s a very good chance that you are – you know how hard it is for us to do things without making errors. A pen might slip, your eye might skip a line, or you just might be tired and misread a word. That error then gets around, and someone else copies it, probably adding their own errors as well. Many of the original copyists of the New Testament weren’t professional scribes, and even some of the pros were barely capable of actually reading the text they were copying.

What’s worse, there’s no guarantee that the “correct” text is the one that gets the most exposure. You might have fifty copies of, say, the Gospel of Luke that say one thing and five that say something else, but those fifty copies might all be wrong. It’s kind of counter-intuitive, but there you go. And age isn’t always reliable either. You might think that an 8th century text is more “correct” than one from the 10th century, but not if that 10th century text had been copied from a 4th century manuscript. You can see how problems emerge.

Ehrman lays out, as simply as he can, the criteria by which textual critics judge a manuscript. It can’t be called scientific, as there are a lot of judgment calls to be made, but within the field there are a lot of very good guidelines, and the peer review process is relentless.

The bigger question, then – why is it important? Well, the biggest reason is because there are over a billion people on the planet who live their lives, to one degree or another, by the words of the New Testament. They look at the Gospels and see the stories of Jesus and his miracles, they read the letters of John and his instructions to the newly-birthed churches of the first century to try and find out what Jesus would have wanted. And because Jesus himself never left us any notes, the words in the New Testament are all they have to go on. Isn’t it vital, therefore, to know what the writers originally wrote? If you’re basing your faith off of inaccurate writings, does that mean your faith is flawed? If you’re living your life based on ideas that were not inspired by Jesus, but by a third-century scribe who, for example, had certain ideas about a woman’s place in the church, does that mean you’re living wrong?

And if you are one of those who believe that God transmitted His words to the writers of the New Testament, what does the fact that we no longer have those original words mean to your faith?

That’s the big thing here – we don’t have Paul’s original letters to the early churches. We don’t have the notes that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John used when they were writing their Gospels. We don’t even have copies of copies of those notes. What we do have, and what Ehrman demonstrates in detail, are many manuscripts over many centuries that have thousands of points of divergence. Sometimes those differences are minor, but some of them affect the very foundations upon which Christianity is built.

Like the famous story of the adulteress, where Jesus gave his “Let he who is without sin” speech. It doesn’t show up in the earliest and best texts, but gets wedged in a few centuries later. Or the bit in Luke where Jesus sweats blood? That, too, appears to have been a later addition to an otherwise well-constructed section of that Gospel. Even the famous King James Bible is not immune – it was based off a Greek New Testament that was written earlier, parts of which were constructed by a man named Erasmus, who did it not by using original Greek writings, but by translating later Latin translations back into Greek. Why? Because those original Greek writings were lost, but they had to have something….

Ehrman tries to look at the possible motivations for these changes, and they are necessarily speculative. The early Church was a turbulent and unstable entity, with many different groups pushing their rendition of who Jesus was and what he wanted of his followers.

Was Jesus an emotionally turbulent rabblerouser or was he a calm and serene figure of peace? Was he the begotten son of God or just adopted? Did he die with quiet dignity, willingly surrendering his spirit up to God, or did he die in torment, forsaken? Was he entirely human, entirely divine, both or neither? Christians of the early Church knew these to be vital questions – with a variety of answers. The New Testament we have today is the result of who had the most power to enforce their interpretations of Jesus’ life, times and teachings.

This book covers a whole lot of ground in 218 pages – Biblical history, Christian history, textual criticism, politics, sociology…. The history of how the New Testament came to be the way it is today is a complicated and fascinating one, and Ehrman casts it in an interesting light.

You see, rather than spend 200 pages noting the history of alterations in the book, he doesn’t say, “And that’s why we should just throw it the hell out!” Rather, he encourages readers to look at the New Testament as an ornate human creation, a text (or, more accurately, a collection of texts) that has survived the millennia by being complex enough to survive interpretation after interpretation. The inerrant Word Of God? Sorry, but no. But it is still key to understanding human history in the last two thousand years, and is therefore worthy of study.

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“What if God didn’t say it? What if the book you take as giving you God’s words instead contains human words? What if the Bible doesn’t give a foolproof answer to the questions of the modern age – abortion, women’s rights, gay rights, religious supremacy, Western-style democracy and the like? What if we have to figure out how to live and what to believe on our own, without setting up the Bible as a false idol – or an oracle that gives us a direct line of communication with the Almighty?”
– Brad Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus
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Misquoting Jesus at Wikipedia
Bart Ehrman at Wikipedia
Bart Ehrman’s homepage
Textual criticism at Wikipedia

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Filed under Bart Ehrman, Bible, Christianity, criticism, history, Jesus, nonfiction, religion, textual criticism, theology

Review 07: The Demon-Haunted World

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

I miss Carl Sagan.

Ever since I was a kid, Carl Sagan has been the face of science for me. I would watch Cosmos and feel a sense of amazement that the universe was as wonderful as it was. He’d be there in his turtleneck and his blazer, smiling as though he’d just heard the coolest secret and he wanted to share it with you. And he did, except that it wasn’t his secret. Hell, it wasn’t a secret at all – it was the combined results of thousands of years of thoughts, deductions, mistakes, missteps, experiments, accidents and achievements. Whether he was talking about the orbits of the planets or the genetics of peas, or measuring the Earth with shadows, you could feel an almost palpable sense of wonder coming from him. You’d listen to him and think, “Y’know, maybe we humans aren’t too bad after all….”

Then the smile would fade, his eyes would get serious, and he would explain how, for all our achievements as a species, humans were still terribly fallible creatures. Our knowledge has, perhaps, outpaced our morals, and we are only a few simple steps away from losing everything that we’ve gained. Our mastery of nuclear technology could wipe out civilization in a day. Our carelessness with industry could do the same in a century. His earnestness was clear, as was his disappointment.

It was in this latter mood, perhaps, that he wrote this book. Simply by looking at the title, one can glean his attitude not only towards science, but towards the world around it. When he looks at the world, he sees a place filled with demons – not literally, of course – the demons of irrationality, superstition and an unfortunate willingness on the part of people to believe in things that just aren’t so.

This book is about the advocacy of skepticism and critical thinking. In a world where people are obsessed with celebrity, where people trust their feelings over their observations, where rulers make decisions based on the predictions of astrologers, Sagan feels rather threatened.

I can certainly understand why.

It still angers me that now, in the 21st century, we are still arguing about evolution over creationism. It amazes me that newspapers even print horoscopes, to say nothing of the fact that there are people who take them seriously. It horrifies me that evil men are still able to use fear and superstition to convince people that they should kill in the name of God. And it saddens me that so many people have given control of their lives over to their concept of a deity rather than taking responsibility for it themselves.

Sagan’s premise in this book is simple: knowledge is better than ignorance. Full stop. Whether it’s witches, “intelligent design,” UFO abduction or anything else, it is always better to find the truth rather than to rest comfortably in a lie. The truth is hard, yes, and it may feel better to stay wrapped up in our illusions, but no matter how comfortable they are, they’re still illusions. Still lies.

He spends a lot of time on UFOs and abductees, actually, and uses that as a bridge into other areas of skeptical inquiry. This is because UFO abductees (and the legions of enablers who encourage them – psychologists, writers, newspapers, and conspiracy nuts) exhibit the same behavior that allows unreason to flourish: an unwillingness or inability to consider other options. Yes, you see some lights in the sky that you can’t quite explain – the alien explanation would be a romantic and weird one, but wanting something doesn’t make it so. There is probably a reason why you saw things out your window, and that explanation is probably perfectly terrestrial.

Whether you’re talking about UFOs, reiki, power crystals, witchcraft, tarot cards, channeling, telepathy, past lives, Indigo Children, psychic surgery, miracles, visitations by angels, demonic possession, the hollow Earth theory… The evidence just isn’t there. As interesting and entertaining as a world containing such things would be, they’re just not so.

Wouldn’t it be better, Sagan asks, if we could all dismiss such things? If everyone could think critically about them, dismiss them, and turn their vast amount of energy and resources towards actually making the world better? If, instead of putting together high budget shows about ghosts and Bigfoot, networks made programs about scientific inquiry and achievement? Or perhaps a show about mysteries that science has solved? Instead of portraying scientists as either nerds or maniacs, why not show the scientists who are looking for ways to make safer materials, better medicines and more efficient cars? I suppose that the Discovery Channel has done a very nice job of trying to realize this dream, with shows like Mythbusters, and Penn & Teller strongly advocate critical thinking in their Showtime program Bullshit! But I reckon Sagan would want more.

This is where he does come across as something of a curmudgeon in this book. You get the feeling that if Old Man Sagan had his way, there’d be no X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Flintstones. Science fiction would all be something like Contact – nothing that isn’t reasonably explainable by our current understanding of science. No evil robots or planet-busting Death Stars would survive such skeptical scrutiny. Indeed, you get the feeling that he would not only disapprove of those shows, he would definitely look down on those of us who do.

This is an attitude I’ve noticed a lot of in modern skeptics – a certain annoyance with fantasy and a rather condescending attitude towards those who haven’t signed on to the skeptical view of the world. I am a regular listener of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, and I enjoy it – except when they turn on the arrogance when talking about people who believe in things like religious revelation, alien visitation and the like. I can understand the attitude towards scammers – they deserve nothing but contempt – but there are people who take real comfort in their world view, regardless of how irrational it might be. Sagan addresses this as well in his book:

“All of us cherish our beliefs. They are, to a degree, self-defining. When someone comes along who challenges our belief system as insufficiently well-based – or who, like Socrates, merely asks embarrassing questions that we haven’t thought of, or demonstrates that we’ve swept key underlying assumptions under the rug – it becomes much more than a search for knowledge. It feels like a personal assault.” 

He goes on later to say:

“In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many ways consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.” 

So in other words, even if you know a lot, don’t be a know-it-all.

Sagan had a lifelong love of science and the wonders that scientists have performed. The world today, every part and parcel of it from that computer that you’re reading this on to the fact that you didn’t die before you were five years old, is attributable to the work of dedicated scientists trying to better understand the world. And that is the key message of this book: knowledge makes the world better. Science has performed wonders that aliens, witches and apparitions of the Virgin Mary have never been able to do.

A well-educated, rational populace is the greatest protection we have against tyranny, and it behooves every citizen to acquaint him or herself with the methods and principles that science uses. It is the greatest tool available to us if we want a better world. Yes, there will be missteps along the way, but the errors of science can – if we act out of clarity and reason – be repaired. Science is self-correcting.

Teach your children, encourage them to think critically about the world and no one will ever gain mastery over them. For an educated person is a free one. And if you can spread this kind of freedom, then perhaps Sagan can rest well.

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“We can pray over the cholera victim, or we can give her 500 milligrams of tetracycline every 12 hours.”
-Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World
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The Carl Sagan Portal
Carl Sagan at Wikipedia
The Demon-Haunted World at Wikiquote
The Demon-Haunted World at Amazon.com
Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe
The James Randi Educational Foundation

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Filed under Carl Sagan, pseudoscience, religion, science, skepticism