Monday, December 18, 2006

Gloria in Excelsis Santa?

I briefly considered titling this one "He doesn't look a thing like Jesus, but he talks like a gentleman, like you imagined when you were young", but I decided it would be a bit too long. Santa Claus is a fascinating subject to examine in relation to Christmas, mostly because of the cultural impact of this mythic figure on Western culture. While Jesus is supposedly the reason for Christmas (after all, the word actually contains "Christ" in it), everybody knows that culturally, Jesus takes a backseat to the jolly man in the red suit. Heck, when I was a kid, I didn't even know that Christmas was Jesus' (supposed) birthday, but I sure did know that the big red sock I left by the fireplace on Christmas Eve would be filled with goodies come morning.

Many Christians are not real happy about Santa's overshadowing of Jesus at Christmastime, and really, it's understandable. As a Christian, you probably wouldn't want anybody overshadowing Jesus at any time, much less on his birthday. Some can take it a little too harshly, a la that old Saturday Night Live classic skit in which Dana Carvey's "Church Lady" points out the similarities between Santa and Satan (red suit, beard, etc.), finally highlighting that the two names are anagrams of each other. While I think that's over the top, I also think that every Christian who is raising a child should take some time to really think about the implications of mixing reverence of Santa in with worship of Jesus Christ, and be smart about it.

Years back, before I had kids, I heard a pastor on the radio take a hard line stance against Santa. His reason for doing so was actually very well-reasoned logically, and I took some time around my kids' first Christmas to discuss it with my wife. Look, this pastor said, you raise your kid with Christmas being a big focal point of every year, it's just the way things are. Every year, you teach your kids about Jesus, and how he comes into your heart with grace and love, and also about Santa, and how he comes to your house with presents and the spirit of giving. When your kids get older, and they find out all about Santa, and how you may have not been entirely truthful about him, and it will very likely call into question the now-related concept of Jesus. Surely you don't want that, right?

There's something profound about this to me. I've heard atheists point out, in a manner that I'm fairly sure is meant to be disparaging of Christianity, that Santa Claus is like God for kids. Kids can't really grasp the concept of God as well as adults sometimes can, so the story is given of a kind old man with a long white beard who lives far away in a magical land where everything is white and shiny, and you can't go there, but you can send requests to the man to use his magical powers to send you gifts of all kinds. If you're good, he will answer your requests, and if you're not, then he will punish you; and don't be mistaken in thinking you can fool him, because part of his magic is that he can see you wherever you are and whatever you do. I suppose one could draw a parallel between angels and elves if one desired as well, but the point is clear: Santa is God with the training wheels on.

Whether this suggestion truly is meant to be disparaging towards Christianity or simply a clever observation of a cultural phenomenon, I think it would be foolish to dismiss it outright. There's a truth there. Whether people are having their view of God formed by their early views of Santa, or people are imposing God-like characteristics on Santa subconsciously, that mixing of two separate but related phenomena is an issue that people of all faiths need to consider. Do atheists that celebrate Christmas include Santa Claus as part of the celebration, and if so, are they inadvertently teaching a sort of religion to their children? I would think that most atheists likely feel somewhat strongly against teaching religion at all, much less a pseudo-religion that no adult takes seriously. Do Christians want to risk the potential of confusing their kids by mixing orthodoxy with the oddities of a modern tradition? Does it really patch up the rift between the two concepts by mashing them together in some unlikely fashion?

Of course, while having Santa visit the crèche may be silly, the idea of an overtly Christian Santa Claus is not a completely new concept. In fact, as most people know, he has his roots in Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century church leader who was known for his generosity to the poor. In an apocryphal story, he once reached through the window of an impoverished local family with three daughters and put some gold coins in their stockings hanging to dry by the fire so that they could have dowries. Later he was canonized as the patron saint of children. The values that Nicholas stands for are values that Christians can get behind, and probably many non-Christians as well. Does that kindness and generosity form a part of what Christmas is about? Is that what we think of when we think of Santa?

The other day, my family was all together in the car, and the song "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" came on the radio. My wife leaned over to me and asked, "Promise me we'll never use Santa Claus to threaten our children?" I knew what she meant, and agreed. The Bible says in Romans 5:8, "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." That's the generosity and selflessness of Jesus, "Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:6-8) Are we going to use the holiday to teach about the unconditional love and selflessness of Jesus, and at the same time mix in the image of Santa Claus as a man who clearly has the resources to bring gifts to every child in at least North America, but might decide not to bring anything to your child because she had the bad judgment to pull the cat's tail one week before the Big Day? Is this holiday icon meant to embody the values of Christian charity and the spirit of giving, or is he a capricious and judgmental bastard that extorts good behavior out of children in Skinnerian fashion?

No wonder so many people grow up to have a warped sense of God as the above-implied white-bearded judge on a distant throne who demands strict controls on your behavior! So many parents are unknowingly (or maybe even knowingly in some cases?) teaching their children the moral laws "Be on your best behavior in order to receive rewards. Give to others so that they will want to give to you." and the worst of all, "There are certain times during which you need to be on your best behavior more than others so that you can earn the right to be loved." Doing the morally right thing is a value in itself, and one that is not meant for special occasions. And love, true love, is not conditional.

Santa will be visiting our house this Christmas, but not as a judge, not as a means of payback for good behavior. Santa will hopefully be an iconic representation to our children of what it looks like to love unconditionally, give unselfishly, and honor the spirit of celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior by bringing a merry Christmas to all. And to all, a good night.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The myth of homosexuality

Love that title? I thought it would be an attention-getter. Don't judge too harshly before you read, but do know that this may get a PG-13 rating if not worse. I started to write this entry on Monday, and as so often seems to happen, I get a fair way into a bit of clever writing and somehow manage to do something to screw it up and lose it. In this case, I shifted in my seat and kicked the computer's plug out, losing not only my writing, but other documents that had actual importance. Still, I had this clever bit about how I should rename my blog "Theologian Rants Always on Something Homosexual" since it seems to be a far too prominent topic for what I had intended this blog to be; oh, well. On the positive side, I've decided to take a different approach to the topic here which I think will cover a broader topic than my initial attempt. But I ought to get to where I'm going.

Ted Haggard. You've probably heard of the guy. If you didn't, here's what you need to know: Ted Haggard was (and perhaps still is) the leader of a prominent evangelical organization that had a lot of the standard fundamentalist views on homosexuality and drug abuse; in any case, those views were expressed in Haggard's sermons, that much is for sure. Then not so long ago (about a month or so) the story broke that Haggard had had an affair with a male prostitute from whom he had also bought drugs. Haggard claimed that he had only gone to this guy for a massage, and while he had indeed bought the drugs, he had not used them.

Whether or not Haggard had indeed had a same-sex affair or been a user of illicit drugs is not the issue. He and the other leaders of his organization agreed that he had done something wrong, and needed a time to himself for repentance and healing. The public had largely cast its judgment as well, and many of them had decided that clearly, Haggard was a closeted homosexual. It's this judgment that I really wish to focus on here.

Some have said, and I don't think that the view is so very alien and uncommon, that the root of the problem was Christianity's decision to treat the "sin" of homosexuality so harshly, or even to consider it a sin at all. No doubt, Haggard was gay, had always been gay, and had simply spent most of his life burying his true desires under a persona of religious zealotry. If only he had been allowed to live freely, he would have had a simple, happy life as an openly gay man.

I don't buy it. The guy has children, and has been married for a long time--to a woman, natch. A guy spends most of his life having a woman as his sexual outlet, and then has a single same-sex affair, and that means he's gay? I can think of a number of other possibilities that seem more likely, at least to me. Sure, he might be gay, but then, he might be bisexual. Or he may even be a straight man who somehow got tempted to try something that didn't immediately seem pleasing. Sure, the latter seems at face value to be very far-fetched, but I don't think it's out of the question; smoking tobacco is not a pleasant experience for people who try it at first, but many people do it anyway.

In thinking about this topic, I spent a fair amount of time thinking about the word "pervert". Generally, the word is used to refer to someone who has an unnatural sexual desire, but since there is a great deal of debate as to what is "natural", this generally gets used to mean: "Someone who has a sexual desire that *I* don't like/approve of." It's far too arbitrary in that sense, but I think there's something telling in what the word means in a more technical sense. Stripping away the moral implications of the word (which is hard to do, since it's a big part of what the word is about), the idea is that perverting something is to redirect it away from its intended use in an unexpected way. (Now, if you're certain that God intended sex to only be between a man and a woman, then any homosexual is a "pervert" in that sense, but I'm not trying to simplify this issue; I'm intending to hugely complicate it!)

Morality aside, if indeed Haggard is gay, and indeed being homosexual is a characteristic that you are naturally born with, then the perverted thing that Haggard did was to get married to a woman! Someone who is truly homosexual should not try to pervert those natural desires by pretending and/or attempting to act in a manner consistent with heterosexuals. But then, if they find they are easily able to do so, perhaps they are not homosexual? They must be bisexual; but then, if we as a society only accept monogamy, how does a bisexual stay true to their sexuality?

Now I've ventured back to the arena of morality again, and I do want to view this issue both from within that arena and without. There is a tendency I feel I have seen in society as of late, and I don't know how prevalent it is. I don't exactly hear about this sort of thing happening very often, but then, it probably doesn't happen so often anyway. The scenario is presented of a man who has been in a long-lasting marriage that to all outsiders seems to be a happy and successful marriage, but then one day, he admits that he has spent his life as a closeted homosexual. Essentially, he says, "I have realized that I need to be honest and true to myself. My wife is a good woman, but I have a desire to have sex with men, and as such, I am leaving my wife to be with a man." A large portion of society seems to applaud this decision. The man is liberated, he's being true to himself, and casting off the chains of an outmoded societal standard that was keeping him from the pursuit of happiness.

Now let's take another man, a man in the same situation before the revelation. He comes to a realization about his true desires, and he decides it's time for him to likewise cast off the chains of outmoded morality and pursue his happiness. "I have realized that I need to be honest and true to myself. My wife is a good woman, but I have a desire to have sex with twenty-year-old blondes, and as such, I am leaving my fifty-year-old brunette wife to be with one." Does society applaud this man? I don't think so. But really, is there such a difference between him and the previous one? If you're in a long-term committed relationship with another person, I think you have a responsibility to stay true to that person. That doesn't mean that separation is never an option, but it's something that shouldn't be taken lightly, regardless of the issues involved. (I'd even go so far as to say that goes for a same-sex couple in which one partner becomes convinced that homosexual relations are immoral; I don't think I'd advise such a person to just "drop their partner like a hot rock," so to speak, but find a way to make the transition out of the relationship as smoothly and respectfully as possible.)

But perhaps you'll claim that in the latter case this is not a matter of a person's orientation, but a matter of a "dirty old man", but that's subjective. The fact is that society as a whole, and various sub-sections of society make up their minds as to what is perversion and what is not, in both a moral and non-moral sense. It's not just Christians that do it, everyone does, and really, I don't think that's wrong per se. We have to judge others because that's how we interact personally; and we have to likewise judge ourselves, because that's how we make moral decisions. What makes choosing a sexual partner based on gender right, and choosing one based on age wrong? Isn't that just another kind of "sexual orientation"?

My big realization (while it may be complete crap, as I'm sure so much of my writing is) is that I was both wrong and right about something I used to think years ago. See, I used to think that people were not born homosexual, but to be fair, they weren't born heterosexual, either. I figured they were born bisexual (although perhaps "asexual" is more to the point) in that what sort of sexual partner one would prefer in adulthood was largely a preference formed by a variety of childhood experiences. Most people ended up going one way or the other, although some people stayed somewhere in the vague middle. I think now that I was right in that potentially each person would be open to a variety of placements on the sexual spectrum based on their early psychosocial development. But I was wrong in a bigger way.

I think I am now convinced that "sexual orientation" is a myth.

Because we as human beings like to judge people and pigeonhole them, we look at a man like Haggard and put him in a box. We say, "He's a homosexual." Really, that's where the word came from, as do many words; there were people that acted in certain ways sexually, and we wanted to put a simple handle on this behavior and build a box where we could contain it. Homosexual. As opposed to heterosexual. But this pigeonholing of people causes the sorts of problems that we have with gays in the military. The people against gays in the military feel that homosexuals will cause morale problems. Why? Because a soldier will always be wondering if there's some guy in his platoon who wants to have sex with him, although he has no interest in that, I guess.

Look, though. Where did the assumption come from? We say, "homosexual males are sexually attracted to other males," and it frankly must sound to some homophobes that there must be thousands of gay men out there somewhere who would like nothing better than to catch you with your pants down, right? But do you assume that every heterosexual woman in the world is looking to sleep with you? Do you want to sleep with every single woman in the world? (Maybe you do, and maybe there are indeed gay men who likewise would be amenable to sleeping with any other man, but it's certainly not the norm.)

The simple labels that we put on sexual orientation make the subject look like it's a simple matter, but it simply is not. The number and scope of the issues are huge enough that several books could be and have been written on the subject. If a person enjoyed masturbation, isn't that sex with a person of the same gender? Is a bisexual really a bisexual if they've never had sex with a member of the same gender? People say that pedophilia has nothing to do with homosexuality, but I wonder; aren't there male pedophiles that only molest young boys? Aren't there others that only molest young girls? Might one say that the former is a homosexual pedophile while the latter is a heterosexual one? Nobody wants to be associated with pedophiles, so if you're in the homosexual "box", you don't want (homosexual) pedophiles in the box with you, surely. Is sexual orientation about finding certain people attractive, desiring to have sex with certain people, or being sexually turned on by certain people? I once knew a woman who was a lesbian, but she was turned on by watching gay men kiss; what does that say about her "orientation"? What about the whole can of worms of the sexual orientation of transsexuals and intersexed individuals?

The fact is, the world does not consist of merely two types of people, homosexuals and heterosexuals. The world consists of six billion individuals each of whom has their own particular sexual desires. This is neither right nor wrong, it is simply a fact. Perhaps each and every one of us is a "pervert" in someone else's view?

Friday, November 10, 2006

Red, white, and mostly just blue

I don't know if I've expressed it here in this blog before, but despite the stereotype of evangelical Christians, I am actually a registered Democrat. Not that my official party registration necessarily means much, since I didn't vote for any Democrats in 2000, and the next time I voted Democrat was in the California gubernatorial recall election (is that the proper way to say that?) in which I voted to keep Democratic Governor Davis and, should he be recalled, to put Democratic Lieutenant Governor Bustamante in his place. That was largely on principle, though, as I thought the whole recall process was a bunch of crap. No matter, I'm going too far with this tangent.

As a Democrat, and even someone who has felt a lot more affinity for my official party pretty much since we invaded Iraq, I've got to say once again despite expectations that I'm a little worried about the overwhelming results. On election night, I heard on television that this election was unprecedented. Never before (since the Republican Party formed in the mid-1800's I assume; I hate statistics in a vacuum) has there been a national election in which Republicans did not gain a single seat. While as usual, the majority of the offices up for a vote ended up going to incumbents, six seats in the Senate switched party, around 25 seats in the House switched, and seven state governorships switched, all from Republican to Democrat, not a single one the reverse. After what certainly seems to many like a long period of either a very incapable and/or corrupt Republican rule of this country, we're swinging back Democratic. Given my party affiliation and general disdain for the way the country's been run lately, you'd think this would be positive news.

I worry nonetheless. Part of it has to do with the situation. Because of how badly the GOP has been handling things of late, the strong shift to the left may be far less an indication of nationwide support for liberal policies than a nationwide rejection of conservative policies. The thing is, the two are not tantamount to the same thing, but we live in a country with a political system that has come to so often endorse the concept.

How many of you heard in 2004 that "A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush!"? Bush and Nader didn't stand for much of any of the same things, if any at all, but the idea is that any vote that went to Nader as a third-party candidate (and yes, I know he was technically independent in 2004) was one vote less that Kerry would get. Perhaps more aptly, but showing up what's so offensive to this idea in my view, a friend of mine said that if your second choice was Kerry, then a vote for Nader was like a vote for Bush, but if your second choice was Bush, then your Nader vote was in that case a vote for Kerry!

You understand the idea, and that is that there is no possible way that a person could get elected in this country unless he or she is a member of one of the two main political parties, despite the fact that we actually have Libertarian, Green, Constitution, Natural Law and Reform candidates that have real plans on how to make this nation great, and they might even be good plans. In 1996, The Simpsons aired their annual Halloween episode with a political bent to it. (YouTube clip) In the story, Clinton and Dole get abducted by aliens who take their places so that no matter the outcome of the election, they will take over the Earth and enslave humanity. On Election Day, Homer finally manages to reveal this plot to his fellow citizens, unmasking the two aliens:

Homer: America, take a good look at your beloved candidates. They're nothing but hideous space reptiles!
Kodos: It's true, we are aliens, but what are you going to do about it? It's a two-party system. You have to vote for one of us.
Man in the crowd: Well, I believe I'll vote for a third-party candidate!
Kang: Go ahead, throw your vote away!

Sure enough, the next day Kang is declared the winner. The disturbing thing about this episode is that every time I see it again in reruns, I think to myself that while I find it unlikely that aliens with superior technology would try to infiltrate our government in such a manner, I can totally believe Americans would vote for an unsavory candidate because they thought they had no choice. Let the Democrats run Stalin for President, and the Republicans run Hitler, and Perot and Nader would still get less than 10% of the vote it seems.

Then again, maybe there is hope. After all, defying everyone's expectations including my own, after Joseph Lieberman refused to drop out of the race after losing the Democratic primary, he managed to win Connecticut as an independent. Also, the Vermont Senate seat up for a vote was kept by independent candidate Bernie Sanders who, I have been told, is pretty much a socialist. (That was, however with no Democrat opposing in that race.) But third party candidates, while an interesting subject, are not the only subject that concerns me here.

Back in 1994, there was a similar upheaval in which the Republicans managed to gain control of both houses of Congress. At that time, some amazing things happened. Thinking that their substantial gains in Congress indicated widespread approval of their conservative issues, they proceeded to go wild and push through legislation at an impressive pace. There seemed to be no stopping them. And then before long, Congress went back to the Democrats. Why? I think political parties these days are often getting high on their own sense of power. We're not a nation of people represented by politicians anymore so much as a nation of political parties. How many people vote for candidates anymore rather than voting for parties? If we see this election as a victory for the Democratic Party rather than as a victory for several politicians many of whom happen to be Democrats, then the country comes to be run not by 500-odd human representatives of their constituencies, but by two grotesque, inhuman creatures battling over who gets to feast on the carcass of representative democracy.

Will the Democrats take this opportunity to make real changes and make this country better, or will they see it as a chance to take their power and gloatingly use it to their own selfish ends? Note that I'm not saying this is characteristic of the Democratic Party, but characteristic of politicians in general. I think to a great extent this happened to the 1994 Republican Congress and to the Bush administration, despite lack of a strong victory in the latter case. As Jon Stewart asked DNC chair Howard Dean the day after the election, "How long...before power corrupts you absolutely?" Dean shrugged it off as a joke, but I tend to think it's a question every politician should ask themself and their party.

Maybe nothing in particular will come of this election. Maybe only real change will occur once a new Presidential administration is in place, whatever political party it may be. I don't know. Sometimes I weep for this country. I don't believe that there is a political party out there that has a better chance than any other to make this nation great. All they need is to stand up for ideals rather than the quest for money and influence. What kind of a Congress will the 110th be? As every year, I look to my government with hope for the best, but little expectation for great things.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Asking for pain?

Now Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, "Because I bore him in pain." And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, "Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!" So God granted him what he requested. -1Chron.4:9-10 (NKJV)
Prayer is a funny thing. I've honestly been thinking about it much more lately than actually doing it, which is surely rather unfortunate for a Christian. The thing is, though, I tend to like to lean on logic and rational understanding for the most part (I realize that there are many aspects of religion that attempt to transcend such things from time to time, but that's neither here nor there), and as such, prayer has always been a bit difficult for me.

Over time, and especially in more recent times it seems, there have been attempts to scientifically explore the things religion has to offer, and see if there is an objective basis for belief. I'd tend to believe that while there is an objective truth that underlies religion, the problem in trying to understand that scientifically is that the experience of it is nonetheless very subjective. Sure, I believe that God exists, I believe He answers prayer, I believe that prayer is a worthwhile activity to pursue, but at the same time, I feel that you can't really have too many expectations of it.

Case in point, a few years ago I recall reading that there was a scientific study attempted to find out if sick people recovered faster if they were being prayed for. It shouldn't be a big surprise to anyone that the results were inconclusive. I can think of a number of reasons for the failure of such a study. In a scientific study, there needs to be a control group; and there was one, as I think I implied. A group of patients were supposed to be recovering without the aid of prayer for the purposes of the study. But how exactly can you determine that nobody is praying for them? If the group of people who were assigned to pray for the people in the study were informed that there was a control group, what would stop them from praying for that group? If they didn't pray for that group, would God honor the prayers of someone who was deliberately not praying for one person so that they could favor another? If God would honor such a prayer, is God truly good? On those same lines, is God really good if He only heals people who are being prayed for?

These are tough questions, because such can be applied to any situation involving prayer, really. Even when there is no study involved, we can and probably should ask, why does God heal this person, but not that person? And the only answer we have is the often unsatisfying, but also true statement that "God's ways are higher than our ways." In other words, we're just not going to understand, because we're not God.

As such, it can be hard at times to understand prayer at all. We can't change God through prayer, nor His will, which reigns over all that exists. So why ask for anything at all? It truly seems to be pointless, and yet the Bible seems to insist that it's one of the most important things there is! Even Jesus, who was God (the Son) spent a great deal of time in his ministry praying to God (the Father), especially towards the end of his ministry that He would send the power of God (the Spirit) to his disciples. That's mindblowing to me. Not only could Jesus not have changed the will of the Father, but we are to understand that He was 100% in accord with the Father, so He would have had no need or desire to do so anyway! Yet Jesus demonstrated that there was a clear and urgent need to keep reconnecting with God.

Do we pray only because, as many theologians have said, it changes us? Does that mean that it is impossible to have real, significant change in our lives without prayer? Does it lend credence to the idea that the effects of prayer are more a matter of psychological effect than real supernatural power? Is it even possible that the answer to that question is "Yes," and yet it still is the power of God working within us? It's a misunderstanding of the nature of miracles and the power of God to state that miracles are always supernatural. If I prayed to God to make me rich, and I then won the lottery, that could be considered a miracle despite the fact that it takes no supernatural power to win the lottery. (It would definitely be very impressive since I don't play the lottery.) It's a miracle that the non-profit Christian organization I currently work for has touched the lives of billions of people, bringing hundreds of millions to faith. It's also a miracle that my family hasn't starved on the pittance they pay me for my work. (Not that I want to sound complaining; there are people working for this organization in other countries that are probably being paid as much in a year as I make in a month, and no doubt doing a much better job of reaching the lost.)

So is it productive to pray for a miracle? In a sense, isn't that what prayer is all about? We all pray for miracles, some small, some big. I've decided to try and start praying big. Yep, for those who got it when they read my opening Bible quote, and especially those who got the joke when I dropped a little sarcasm to the idea a little over a year ago, what you may have guessed is true. I'm praying the "" this month. The book was better than I expected. I think most Christians who are skeptical of it see it as a new page from the "name it and claim it" prayer book, I know I did. But the book explained that the idea is not about making yourself rich and prosperous in worldly goods, but in increasing the scope of your ministry as a Christian. Asking God to give you His power to do whatever He wants you to do fully and effectively? That's a prayer that seems very good and spiritual.

Maybe it will profoundly change my life; maybe it won't. As the author of the book himself says, the prayer isn't a set of magical words that, when repeated, will have a specific effect. If there will be a change, the change will no doubt be within my heart first and foremost, and in a very big way, that's the most important thing of all.

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Do as Foley says, not as he does

Something happened recently in the news that I'm sure hundreds of people are blogging about. Republican Congressman Mark Foley was recently accused of being a pedophile, and the evidence looks pretty damning, I guess. (I haven't been following the story in great detail.) In addition to the damning fact that he was propositioning teenage boys online, there was the ironic fact that he was a founding member and chairman of the "House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children". Now as a lot of people are blogging on this, there's no need for me to go into the hypocrisy of the Republican party's self-proclaimed reputation of being the party with the high moral ground, the possibility of Democrats intentianally pushing this information into the light at the most politically opportune time, FoxNews' repeated incorrect labeling of Foley as a Democrat, or the most obvious and straightforward critique of Foley as simply being a creep who might need to be locked up, regardless of his political party or social standing. (From what I hear, it's not clear whether or not Foley has actually broken the law. You know, when I was 16, I was sexually a fifteen-year-old female schoolmate, which as far as I know is perfectly legal, raising some possible interesting questions for a future post on the technicalities of sex laws.) Instead, I'm going to take what I think will be a unique approach and use this event as a jumping-off point for a positive moral lesson that will give, I hope, insight into the Bible in specific, and human nature in general.

I wish to neither condemn nor defend the actions of Foley that are at the center of this scandal, but point out something interesting about the irony of his position and various public statements. As someone who had worked a great deal on protecting children and had been very publicly outspoken on the matter of tracking down sexual predators and taking away their civil liberties, it may be very easy to call him a hypocrite, and you'd probably be right to do so. If you stop there, however, you'd be doing a great disservice to the message itself.

Foley's guilt or innocence aside, the purpose of the caucus he was chairing is one that most of us, regardless of our political views, can get behind. At least on an idealistic level, I'd guess that 99.9% of the population would like to see children guarded from exploitation and abuse. While most of us may have different opinions as to the manner in which we choose to protect our children, we all agree that protection of some sort is needed, and hopefully we admire the fact that there are people doing something about it. Whatever Foley may have done in his personal life seems to me to be something that we can separate from the aims of his political committee. Yet I don't know if anyone is taking the time to talk about the committee itself, and what it has or has not accomplished. I certainly haven't heard anything. Is it because the issue is unimportant?

When I was growing up, my stepfather used to punish me if he caught me swearing. I always thought it was the height of hypocrisy because, well, I'd say he swore like a sailor but I never met a sailor with a mouth that foul. For whatever reason, my stepfather had the annoying habit of seemingly being unable to get out three sentences in a row without using some form of the f-word. And that was when he was in a good mood; when he was angry about something, yikes! So I often wondered how he thought he had the right to tell me to watch my language. I even asked him once, to which he actually replied, I kid you not, "Do as I say, not as I do." The fact is, swearing is not a good thing to do, and while his hypocrisy made me more inclined to disrespect his words, he was nonetheless right that I should not be using vocabulary like that, and as my (more or less) parent, he had a right to have a say-so in my behavior.

As a child (heck, and as an adult) one often comes up against this sort of situation often in a non-hypocritical context. Upon being told of some rule in life that we have to abide by, there's often a tendency to point out that there are plenty of people that break the rule. "Why can't I go see that movie? All my friends are going to see it!" or "You mean I can't go to the party because there's drinking? Lots of other parents let their kids go!" or even "It's not like making marijuana illegal is going to stop people from smoking it!" It's not that the person who told you what you have to do is violating their own standard, but that you know the standard is being violated, and feel that it somehow lessens the standard anyway.

So what does all this have to do with the Bible? Well, if it's not obvious, there are a lot of people in the Bible that seem like very bad examples of morality, and it seems like people who wish to play down the validity of Judeo-Christian morality often point to these people as evidence that the Bible and God do not represent morality. Who in the Bible made a poor choice and did something immoral that led to something unfortunate happening? It would be easier to ask who didn't! Essentially, of all the major characters in the Bible, you've got about half a dozen, if that many, that don't have some tale of their personal moral failure included in their life story. Adam chose to disobey God in the one and only way he could. Noah was a drunk. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all liars. Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of soup. Judah had sex with his daughter-in-law because he thought she was a prostitute. Moses was a murderer. Aaron encouraged the Israelites into idolatry. Miriam was racist. And the list goes on.

How can we look to these people as examples and models for how we are to live our own lives? Isn't the Bible contradictory and hypocritical to tell us about all these people? Well, no, and I don't think it takes a genius to figure it out. I remember as a child trying to read through the Bible on my own for the first time to really understand what it was about, and thinking to myself what a horrible bunch of people these were. It hit me then that these people's flawed lives were being laid bare before us as object lessons.

One of the most difficult to fully understand but important characters in the Bible is . (I have intended myself to write a post to this blog with the very same title as the post linked, although you might guess that mine would be different in many ways.) The guy is full of all sorts of character flaws, does a number of terrible things, and when you read everything the Bible says about him, it certainly can be difficult to understand what exactly it was that God saw in him. In the end, though, David is a prime example of what this is all about. Yes, David was flawed. He had sexual problems, he had violence problems, he had parenting problems, and he screwed up a lot of that stuff like nobody ever did. But God wants us to look at David as one example among many of people who mess up their lives and do the wrong thing as indeed, we all do. After it all, despite his failures David kept trying to be a better person. David kept turning to God to ask for forgiveness and guidance in how to make things right again. The Bible isn't there to show us perfection (except supposedly in the person of God), but to show us the flaws in all of us, and make us understand that we're a whole planet full of screw-ups--but lovable screw-ups!

My hope and expectation is that in the wake of the Foley scandal, our national leaders will continue the fight to protect our children from exploitation. It would be wrong to dismiss the seriousness of the cause because it was sullied by contact with someone of questionable moral standards. It is also my hope, but not at all my expectation that people would not reject the Bible on the basis of the questionable moral character of some of the people featured within it. They are neither better nor worse than any of us, they are just people, and the message that they are a part of conveying doesn't rest on their perfection, but the power of what it means in our lives.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Angels watching over my ass

About a week ago, I came across a sappy little . I'm not sure whether this is supposed to be cute or inspirational or what, but there it was in the paper, and thank goodness that Thel was attentive when that angel tapped her on the shoulder, or little PJ would have had a very bad day indeed. But you know, the whole thing bothered me, and it bothers me in the same way that hundreds of other stories like it bother me. I mean, even if you believe angels exist, isn't this sort of BS?

My mother, who is not a Christian, (at least in the more theologically conservative sense that I am: she's a Unitarian) had an incident in my own childhood that she attributes to the supernatural. See, one day she was making me macaroni and cheese, and I, a mere three-year-old at the time, thought I knew how this cooking thing was done, so I decided to get the noodles off of the stove myself, and in the process, poured about a gallon and a half of boiling water down my front. This is the sort of thing that would give most children a rather large scar for life, but my mother rushed into the kitchen, scooped me up, ripped off my clothes and dumped me in the bathtub under cold water. Having had no first-aid training, she confided to me many years later that the fact I am completely unmarked by that accident today is something she attributes to God. Surely, God somehow spoke to her and told her what to do. Do you see what might be lacking from this reasoning?

Well let me explain it with one more story that's truly my own, not my mother's. On a normal day in 1998, I was on my way to work. I was traveling south on a six-lane portion of Southern California freeway during rush hour at about 60 mph. There were four lanes to my left, and one lane to my right with a small concrete abutment separating it from an exit lane. In that lane to my right was a car being driven by a woman whom I somehow sensed was having trouble a second or two before anything happened; maybe I caught something in her facial expression out of the corner of my eye, I don't know.

In fifteen seconds, the following happened: Her car began to zigzag just slightly, and then spun out. One of the rear tires of her car made contact with the abutment and her car ricocheted off of it, and then her car was going straight, but at a 90-degree angle from the rest of rush hour traffic. The right front corner of her car plowed through the right rear corner of mine, and kept going across the freeway, leaving my car at a 45-degree angle to traffic, but still traveling in the same direction. As her car traveled across all lanes to my left, finally striking a pickup truck in the leftmost lane, my car resolved its contradictory momentum and position by flipping up and rolling end over end across the lane to my right, over the barrier and the exit lane, finally landing in a drainage ditch right side up. The pickup truck had landed on its roof, and the car that had started the whole thing came to a stop on the leftmost side of the southbound freeway. All three cars were demolished, but all three drivers were left without a scratch.

Later, someone commented to me upon hearing the story, "Wow, your guardian angel must have been working overtime that morning!" I responded with a polite nod, but was bewildered. It's not that I don't believe in angels. I believe in the Bible, and while it doesn't say much about angels, at does seem to be pretty clear that their existence is attested to in Scripture. It's not even that I don't believe in "guardian" angels. There's a bit of evidence for them in the Bible, and if angels exist at all, why not have them work as guardians? The problem is that if you suppose they exist and are going around tapping moms on the shoulder, delivering first aid advice and acting as divine airbags in serious auto crashes, you've got a lot of explaining to do.

Why would the Family Circus angel go tap Thel on the shoulder rather than just stop PJ, or even push the lamp out of the way? Why would my mother get a message on how to treat her son's burns rather than a message to go into the kitchen a few seconds earlier and stop me from doing something stupid? If angels can keep the accident that morning from effecting more than three cars, why not hold it to two cars, or one, or none? And what about all the children who do pull objects off of shelves onto themselves, be they lamps or pots of boiling water, and are injured and scarred for life? What of all those who are killed in auto accidents, whether they be believers in angels or avowed skeptics? I can't help but think that logically, it's all a bunch of hooey, you know?

Allow me to switch gears, though. I've been thinking about this subject off and on since I saw the cartoon, and that was over a week ago. I'd originally meant this as one of a series of posts talking about things that Christians generally believe that I find more than a bit dubious. I probably will still throw in a few things in future posts, but for some reason, I found myself rethinking this.

It's interesting to me that atheists do tend to point to religion as a practice of "blind faith". The truth is, there's not really any such thing. It's not like there are people who find a scrap of paper with the word "Jesus" on it and decide on the basis of that alone to become Christians. No, people have reasons, and one person's reason is different from another's. Some people were brought up in the culture of Christianity and never bothered to question it. Some people may have read the Bible and found it fulfilling something they thought they were lacking. A lot of people experience some sort of trauma in their life that makes them turn to spirituality to find meaning. I don't know anyone that became a Christian for no reason whatsoever.

It's that last point about traumatic experiences, though, that seems so suggestive. People who argue against God often bring up the bad things, the suffering, the hypocrisy, the disasters, etc., as a reason to disbelieve in God, but oddly enough, there are a lot of people who believe for those very reasons. A friend of mine who is a "pro-life" activist is not an activist because of her religious convictions, but developed religious convictions due to her activism. "When I saw the evil and violence that was at work in abortion, I was sure that nothing could be so evil unless there was something supernatural behind it. If there were supernatural forces at work in the world, then it made sense to me that God would be one of them." While her experience is quite different than most, I've met scores of people who decided to give their lives in service to Christ when they found they had reached rock bottom.

What is my point? Maybe it doesn't make much sense; it often doesn't to me. Still, could it not be possible that many instances of suffering are allowed by God and His angels for the purpose of a greater good? I remember years ago being at a Christian evangelistic rally at which two mishaps occurred in sequence. First, the P.A. system blew out, and those people who had gone forward to make a commitment to Christ were forced to crowd in closer to the stage in order to hear the pastor. Secondly, after the pastor was finished speaking, a technical problem occurred that would have easily killed someone who had been standing in the area many people were standing before the P.A. mishap forced them closer to the stage. Many in attendance chalked it up as a miracle that the P.A. system had gone out at such an opportune time, but I was skeptical; did two wrongs make a right? Why not have everything function properly with no mishaps at all? Perhaps for the person who had been standing on that spot, the malfunctioning P.A. system would somehow empower them to find greater faith than if they had just stood there with nothing happening.

In a perfect world where nothing ever went wrong, I doubt anyone would ever notice God.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Good grief!

I recently came across some material on another site trying to point out the old argument that there can't be a loving, omniscient, omnipotent God and suffering at the same time. It's an old argument that many far wiser heads than I will ever be have argued from either side, so I won't delve into the full argument, mostly to save space. (I dip into it in a later post anyway...)

The thing is, I remember discussing the topic a long time ago with an avowed agnostic. It was interesting to me at that time that the discussion turned to that topic, because at first, we had been discussing the idea of miracles. He referenced an argument from David Hume which I remember differently (and the given link seems to tell it the way I remember), but took his word for it. His version of the argument was as such:

A: A "miracle" is an event that defies the laws of nature.
B: An event that defies the laws of nature cannot be explained by science.
C: One cannot say with certainty that any event is impossible to be explained by science, only that with our current knowledge of scientific principles, we cannot understand it.
D: Therefore, rather than accepting an event as being a "miracle", it is more rational to assume it is simply something that future developments in science will explain to us.

Now, if you accept the definition of "miracle", which is reasonable enough for most people's purposes (although there's a bit more to "miracles" than that), then I think this argument, which was presented to me in less sloppy fashion than I have presented here, holds water pretty well. I admitted to the agnostic that he had a very good point, and as I think I have said in this blog as well, I don't doubt that science will one day explain everything, or at least has no limits to what it could potentially explain.

But the discussion went forward and evolved, as online discussions do, and it turned to what he presented as proof that God (as per the Bible, at least) does not exist. This argument was the argument from my first paragraph here. Now while his form of the argument was better than most I have heard, and he had managed to plug up most of the logical holes that exist in such arguments, I seem to recall two problems with his conclusions. One was very metaphysical, and I won't go into it here. The other was, to my delight, one that I presented in the same form as his previous argument. So many of these arguments for and against God are double-edged swords, and in the end, those who make them feel that they've closed the case, while at the same time, those on the other side remain utterly unconvinced. Oh well.

My argument? Well, the problem, as most people who argue for God to be able to coexist with suffering claim, is that it seems quite possible that good cannot exist without evil. Pleasure cannot exist without suffering. In order to make the world a truly wonderful place, God must allow some to suffer, and it may be beyond our comprehension why. A personal example from my own life was that I dated this woman for a while in college, but the relationship didn't go well. We broke up, and it was painful for both of us. Why should I have suffered that painful relationship and subsequent breakup? Well, I happen to know for a fact that if it were not for that failed relationship, and certain events that happened in the fallout from it, I would never have met the woman who became my wife. At the time I was suffering, I didn't know where it would lead, but it led somewhere good in the end.

That's a small example, but many Christians have heard of a more interesting one from the Holocaust. Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch woman whose family hid Jews in their house during the Nazi occupation, eventually ended up in a prison camp infested with fleas. She and her sister, who were in the same barracks, had smuggled in a Bible and were holding regular prayer meetings. Corrie was appalled on the night when her sister insisted that they should thank God for the fleas the barracks were infested with.

The fleas! This was too much. "Betsie, there's no way even God can make me grateful for a flea."

"Give thanks in all circumstances," she quoted [from 1Thess5]. "It doesn't say, 'in pleasant circumstances.' Fleas are part of this place where God has put us."

And so we stood between tiers of bunks and gave thanks for fleas. But this time I was sure Betsie was wrong.

Later, Betsie made an interesting discovery.

"You're looking extraordinarily pleased with yourself," I told her.

"You know, we've never understood why we had so much freedom in the big room," she said. "Well--I've found out."

That afternoon, she said, there'd been confusion in her knitting group about sock sizes and they'd asked the supervisor to come and settle it.

"But she wouldn't. She wouldn't step through the door and neither would the guards. And you know why?"

Betsie could not keep the triumph from her voice: "Because of the fleas! That's what she said, 'That place is crawling with fleas!' "

My mind rushed back to our first hour in this place. I remembered Betsie's bowed head, remembered her thanks to God for creatures I could see no use for.

And that's the sort of thing that I thought of when I was told that the world is too full of needless suffering. Just as he had faith in science being able to explain all, I had faith in God and His providence to explain all.

You cannot prove that any given instance of suffering has no point, you can only make the claim as an opinion. Therefore, there is no such thing as pointless suffering, only suffering that we do not yet understand the purpose of.

(Excerpts from Corrie ten Boom's The Hiding Place)

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Pluto is not a bird, he's a dog

I had been rolling around the idea of a post about the recent downgrading of Pluto from "planet" to "dwarf planet" in the back of my mind, but I wasn't sure it was worthwhile. Last night, I was reading the letters section of Newsweek, and there were many, many letters from people responding to a recent article about Pluto, and what I thought was funny about the letters was the manner in which so many of them seemed to be expressing the sentiment that it just wasn't something to get worked up about. What made this funny for me is that these people actually took a chunk of their valuable time to sit down and write a formal letter to express to others that this was a non-issue; it reminds me of those people who call in to news programs to answer their polls with "I have no opinion." I myself have never written a letter to the editor of any publication, so I'm not sure what gets people so worked up to do such a thing, especially if they're worked up about how getting worked up--oh never mind, you get it I'm sure.

So I thought I'd let the issue drop. It really isn't a big deal for the most part, and by now, it's pretty much old news. Here in the 21st century, we seem to absorb information and quickly move on to the next big thing as soon as possible. Things must go more slowly on Pluto, where, as one letter writer pointed out, only about a quarter of a Plutonian year (248 Earth years) has gone by since it was discovered and placed on the list of planets in the first place. Pluto didn't change, our system of classifying celestial objects changed.

But that's what hit me with profoundness after setting down the magazine. It's something profound in its simplicity. For someone like me who spends a fair amount of his time explaining away the nitpicking of skeptics towards the Bible, this is a current-day moment that we can reflect on in light of some scientific issues people have with the Bible. Follow me here...

Back in junior high school, I took an astronomy class. In that astronomy class, among the many things we were taught was that Pluto was a planet: one of nine, actually. Since this is a new thing that has changed, you'll find Pluto called a planet in most science textbooks today that talk about planets; you'll even find it all over the internet. I ask you, were those textbooks and my instructor wrong? No! To say now that Pluto is a planet is technically wrong, but up until we changed the definition just a short time ago, it was not wrong. For 76 years, "Pluto is a planet." was a true statement. The fact that it has changed now is not the fault of those who said it then, but a natural result of a paradigm shift in astronomy.

Oddly enough, this is not the first time we have had a major paradigm shift in the definition of "planet". If you look up the word in the dictionary, and look at the etymology, you'll note that the word originally meant "wandering" and referred to "(def. 1c) a celestial body moving in the sky, as distinguished from a fixed star, applied also to the sun and moon." While until a couple months ago, we had nine planets which were Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, before the Copernican heliocentric model of the cosmos became popular, we had seven planets, which were Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. A planet was an object that you could see in the sky that didn't stay in one place like the stars did. This ruled out the earth, since it was not in the sky, and included the sun and moon. Pretty much from Ptolemy to Copernicus, it was acceptable and entirely correct to say "The sun is a planet." simply because the word meant something else then.

So, to get to my point... A verse that's often been a darling of the Bible skeptics is , which reads:

And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: {long list of various birds, ending with} and the bat.
People love to point to this excerpt from the Bible and point out triumphantly that bats are not birds, some as though they are the first enlightened messenger in the history of Christendom to notice this fact. You are correct, bats are not birds. So what?

Do you think the Israelites thought that bats had wings and beaks and laid eggs? If you live in a place that has a lot of bats and you're interested in studying them, it's not hard to do. For a couple of months when I was a kid, I lived in a drafty old cabin in the mountains, and there were bats that nested in my bedroom. At night they would go out and fly around eating bugs, but in the morning when I got up for school, I could get out a flashlight and peek around in the nooks and crannies of the cabin and find them nestling down to go to sleep for the day. They don't look anything like the creatures we call birds; to me they actually looked like little furry winged pigs.

The Israelites knew the difference between bats and "other" birds, I assure you. It wouldn't be hard to figure out. So why does the Bible call them birds when they most surely are not? For the same reason the ancient Greeks called the sun a planet: at the time, it was the correct terminology. The word translated as "fowl" in verse 13 is a general-purpose word that might translate better to "flying things" than "fowl" or "birds". Case in point, the same word is actually used in verse 21 of the same chapter to refer to insects, and is translated "flying". The word is not wrong; the best one could say is that "fowl" is a questionable translation.

For those who wish to continue to think of Pluto as a planet, I personally don't care. By the 20th-century meaning of that word, it is a planet, after all. It's going to take some time for everybody to get used to the 21st-century definition, and in the meantime, while technically wrong, the old definition will still have cultural acceptance. For those ancient documents that want to commit the unforgivable sin of using terminology consistent with the time in which they were written rather than modern scientific terminology, I'll accept you, even if some people want to pick on you just for being what you are.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Whys and wherefores without wherewithal

What happened five years ago on September 11, 2001 means something different to everyone, but for just about every American, it was a life-changing moment in time.

The people of my generation were told that we would remember 9/11 vividly the way a previous generation would remember the assassination of President Kennedy. I do actually remember fairly vividly many of the details of that morning. I remember sleeping in on that morning, as I had already decided to take the day off of work for personal reasons, and the phone rang. It was my mother-in-law, who urged me and my wife to turn on the television. "Somebody's bombed New York or something!" We turned it on in time to see the first building collapse.

For me though, there was an eerie quality to the whole first half of September that I occasionally play over in my mind. For me personally, the events of 9/11/2001 were one tragedy in the midst of a string of several that happened in my life. In my life, but not directly to me, I suppose, tragedy is a strange thing. Tragedies come with a factor of distance and severity. The other tragedies were closer to me but of course less severe than a pair of 100-story buildings collapsing to kill several thousand people. Still, the exchange in those factors made them all seem fairly even to me in a fashion; does that make sense?

Many of the things that happened were too personal to discuss here, but I will speak of the first and the last of them all. First, a beloved family member passed away. There had just been a funeral, right at the start of the month. He had gone to the doctor complaining of some problems, and the doctor had told him nothing was wrong, he should go home and rest. So he did. A couple days later, he was dead.

Why did the doctor miss his diagnosis? Why did this man accept the diagnosis without question, even as his symptoms grew worse? Why did he have to die? Why does it hurt for those of us left behind even though all of us who were believers in Christ were certain of this man's salvation, and felt it safe to assume he was in heaven? None of those are questions that are easy to answer.

The last thing that happened, to me anyway, was that I received notice of a friend and co-worker from a couple years back having committed suicide. She was an intelligent, beautiful, fun person that everybody liked, and she seemed to have a lot going for her as far as anybody knew. But apparently on the 9th of September, she hung herself in her apartment, and wasn't discovered until nearly a week after. She left no note.

Why did she kill herself? What was it that was causing her enough suffering that dying seemed like an improvement over her situation? Was there anything that I myself could have done, either at the time or back years previously when I had known her better, to change her mind? Does suicide really relieve one of suffering if there is an afterlife? Might she have suffered worse or found a reason to live if she had waited a few more days and seen the horror in New York? These are questions that are virtually impossible to answer.

But while I had never been to New York, while I had never seen the towers in person, while I didn't know any of the people who died on *that* day, some of the most nagging questions linger on that central event. When two planes crashed into towers in New York and two tried (one unsuccessfully) to crash into buildings in Washington, DC, we were left with a lot of questions that I sometimes wonder who is asking.

Why? Don't we want to know why? This isn't about 72 houris awaiting each hijacker in paradise, not to Osama bin Laden. This isn't about "" who "hate freedom". I don't buy that. Osama bin Laden wanted to send a message to the world. Even if we refuse to respect that message, even if we condemn that message for the brutal manner in which it was sent, doesn't the severity of that make us want to sit up and at least hear what it was he was trying to say? If only to respond intelligently?

It's an odd thing about myself. My religious beliefs lead me to hold the view that human beings are, at their heart, evil. Yet at the same time, I believe that there also exists a drive in people that makes them desire to do what they think is the right thing. Bin Laden and his cohorts who planned out and executed the attacks of 9/11 may appear to be evil, and indeed, they most likely are. Isn't it not just possible, but likely that they believed that what they were doing was the right thing to do? The 19 hijackers were willing to give their lives for it. The al-Qaeda organization, while maybe weaker than it once was, still exists, so I assume its members didn't look at 9/11 and say, "My, that was a bit too brutal for my tastes!"

The majority of the people of the world heard about what had happened to our country on 9/11, and their sympathy and support went out to us as a nation. That is a good thing. However, there exists a minority of the world's population who, upon hearing the news, celebrated. Some of these people are in fact so elated by this attack, that if they had the chance to be a part of another attack like it in the future, they wouldn't hesitate. This is a phenomenon that makes me want to ask "Why?" but unlike the other things that make me want to ask "Why?" there are people who are willing, able, and probably eager to answer it. Shouldn't more of us be asking?

Monday, August 28, 2006

My neighbor's dog can say "Hello", and I think she's a lesbian

Two dogs are having a conversation. One of them says to the other, "Woof!" The other replies, "Moo!" The first dog is perplexed. "Moo? Why did you say moo?" The other dog says, "I'm trying to learn a foreign language."
I was planning to eventually do another piece on homosexuality, and my opinion on what the Bible says about the prospect of "reforming" homosexuals. I was putting it off since it seems to have turned out to be much more of popular topic for my blog than I meant it to be, and I wanted to do some more stuff on comics as an art form. Then I was reading some of the archives on and came across a link and commentary on this: (Note that many of the things linked to in this post require Flash to view.)

Okay, um... There are a number of interesting current events that I like to comment on, and I'm rather fond of constructing a good metaphor to illustrate my point, as anyone who has read my stuff or talked to me in person knows. (Yes, readers, I actually talk like I write if you get me started, just with less parentheses.) I don't always know when a metaphor is particularly good, but I sure think I can spot a bad one.

Let's summarize: Colorado doesn't need domestic partnerships because DOGS DON'T GO "MOO"! Wow, you've got to hand it to them; if there were any valid points to be brought up about this issue, they were completely overshadowed by the ridiculousness of the really awful metaphor. Although the dog is pretty cute, I guess. I really do think they brought up some good points, but before you really get to them, you get loaded up with some really odd baggage. Let's walk through it, shall we?

When I first opened the site, I didn't have my headphones on, so what I saw was a dog with a line connecting to the word "sherman". That alone was quite odd, as it looked like the sort of simplified quote balloons some cartoonists use, and in fact, the very same animation uses only two seconds later with "woof". My first thought was not that this dog was supposed to be Sherman, but that the dog was calling to Sherman, and we were about to be treated to a new episode of . I expected, "Sherman! Come set the WABAC machine for 1955, when even liberals had respect for traditional family values!"

Okay, once the short animation (so short and simple that it's hard to understand why they bothered with flash at all) was over, it was clear this wasn't going to happen, but instead, we're treated with the claim: "If dogs were born to bark, why are some people trying to convince you they can moo?" Wow, I thought, who's trying to do that?

After some web searching, I discovered that they really exist, apparently. I'll get to them in a moment. For now, let me just say that I found the site rather confusing because I had no idea what they were talking about. A reference to the original mooing dog would have been quite a bit helpful in determining that while they were partaking in this nonsense, at least they weren't the originators of it. I guess they assumed that residents of Colorado would know about it, and that's what's important.

They're talking about , which apparently is an ad campaign to convince Colorado residents that homosexuality is just as normal as a dog that goes "MOO". Boy, if I wanted to convince people that gay people are weirdos, I think I'd be behind this message 100%. Which brings me to a new strange thing about the "No moo lies" site that I wasn't even thinking of when I began to write this post: If these guys are trying to be taken serious for their mooing dog, I'd think the best way to counter their message is to echo the message back and say, "Gay marriage is as natural as this dog who moos? We probably couldn't have put it better ourselves!" As I myself said in a comment to the site:
Moo? This doesn't make any sense. What does mooing have to do with sexual orientation? I don't think making Norman your spokesdog if you will is winning too many points. Some dogs hump their owner's legs, which comes closer to the concept of sexual orientation than mooing. Is this a connection you want people to make? If you're gay, you're just another person. If you're a dog that moos, you're a freak for the sideshow. C'mon, now.
A commenter back at Wonkette says (in response to the Sherman site's question "Why can't we base our behavior on what animals do?"):
Indeed. I'm off to lick my balls and take a dump on the sidewalk.
I'm not sure who that sarcasm was aimed at, as I'd originally thought it was at the anti-gay marriage site, but the link given goes to a page that is intended to point out the ridiculousness of the idea. As they say on that page, animals do a lot of stuff, including (as I said, but they refrained from, no doubt in order to be family friendly) attempting to have sex with other species. I don't think the pro-gay marriage people want to support bestiality, as that would just be begging for a slippery-slope argument that, well, nonetheless might be worth pondering.

Now, one of the odd things that get brought up by both sites is the timely, important issue of . I wish I could have made this up, really. Born Different points to the story of two male penguins in New Zealand that have been nearly lifelong partners, choosing each others' company over that of female penguins. For some reason, they refer to them as the "unlikeliest gay couple". I don't know if that's because they have some stats on how penguins are the least gay species on the planet or something, or maybe it's because, as the article says:
"They don't actually bonk," says [bird curator Rochelle Deane]. "But they're totally out there."
You know, in college I had a roommate for three years. We were both men and we lived together, cooked food for each other, went to movies together, and spent far more of our free time with each other than with members of the opposite sex. We didn't "bonk" each other, though. Still, I suppose we may have been gay and I just missed it. No-Moo-Lies points to another same-sex penguin couple in New York, who not only kept a monogamous relationship with each other for several years, but was allowed by the zookeepers to hatch an egg and raise a daughter together. They of course point to this because of the twist ending: a female named Scrappy was introduced into the mix, and one of the "gay penguins" became "perhaps the world's first documented ex-gay penguin". You know what I like about the way the traditional-values people bring up these penguins in response? Two things. First, the way they refer to Scrappy as "a hot little bird" or "a saucy female penguin". I'm wondering if there are any sites out there that refer her as a "darling little God-fearing penguin seductress"? I guess I just did; can I copyright that? Second thing to note is that it's funny that the anti-gay marriage folks want to point to the ex-gay penguin as evidence of anything (perhaps I'm misunderstanding their intentions), because it seems like they're giving credence to the idea of gay penguins meaning something in the first place. If so, what does all of this really mean in light of the fact that the little girl penguin they raised is now apparently in a committed relationship with another female? There's some sort of gay animal soap opera happening at that zoo, I tell you.

Both sites talk a bit about sexual orientation and genetics. Born Different points out that there are identical twins that are both gay, such as Canadian musicians . (Pretty good musicans, actually, I've heard their stuff.) We are told that "[I]f one twin is born gay, there is a higher chance (52%) that the other will be gay as well. [S]ince identical twins share DNA, this tells us that genetics plays a part in sexual orientation[. T]hat means some people are born gay." While there is no citation given for the initial statistic, I'm more than willing to believe it. However, I don't buy the claims that follow. Consider replacing the word "gay" with "blond" in the first sentence. What would you expect the percentage to be? I'd expect 99%, maybe more. There may indeed be a genetic component to sexual orientation, but I don't think the stats given are showing anything of the sort, and it certainly is not proven that people are "born gay". They may be, but I know of nothing (certainly not this statistic) that would prove this. (Forget "blond" now and replace "gay" with "affluent"; genetics thus plays a role in personal net worth, right?)

Now, despite the (suggested) fact that people are not born gay, the people at No-Moo-Lies admit that "Same-sex attraction results from a combination of factors...which can begin in the earliest stages of childhood." Now, while I don't see them explicitly making a bad assumption here, it does seem to be implicit all over their site: that if you weren't "born gay" then you must have chosen it, as though those are the only two possibilities. Both my mother and I were born with blond hair. As we entered our late teens, our hair turned more of a light brown, and then eventually, in our early 30's started going rather grayish. I wasn't born gray, but I didn't choose it either. Nor do I mind, I rather like the look. Of course, I could dye my hair whatever color I want, and be an "ex-gray".

Does genetics make something right to do, or wrong to deny? I knew a guy in school who strangled his girlfriend to death. His older brother did, too, a few years later. It was later found out that their father (who had not raised them, and therefore only influenced them through his genetics) was in prison for strangling his own girlfriend to death. It seems like this family carries a genetic disposition towards girlfriend-strangling. Does that make it right? Of course not. Is homosexuality the moral equivalent of girlfriend-strangling? Let me be crystal-clear that I don't want to imply that at all! I only point out that genetic inclination doesn't imply a moral high ground. It seems that some gays can change. (And I assume that not everyone who has a desire to kill their significant other acts out that desire.) Maybe all can, who knows? Maybe it's all an illusion, and as some people have claimed, "ex-gays" are really reoriented bisexuals. I don't know. No-Moo-Lies doesn't really address the issues of homosexuals who failed to be changed by the therapy, and Born Different doesn't address the few successes as far as I can find. One report linked to states:
To date, there are no scientifically rigorous outcome studies to determine either the actual efficacy or harm of "reparative" treatments. There is sparse scientific data about selection criteria, risks versus benefits of the treatment, and long-term outcomes of "reparative" therapies. The literature consists of anecdotal reports of individuals who have claimed to change, people who claim that attempts to change were harmful to them, and others who claimed to have changed and then later recanted those claims.
In other words, we all seem to have opinions, but nobody seems to have conclusive hard data. In lack of such data, where is a Christian to turn to? Maybe this is a place where the Bible gives some insight, at least if you're of the theological stripe to recognize the Bible as the Word of God. From :
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
Gee, harsh words. Some people love to trot out this verse to condemn homosexuals, probably because it's one of the very few that actually mentions homosexuality. But note that "homosexual offenders" is only one of ten different types of people that are mentioned. I think there are few people who won't find themselves on this list somewhere, if not in more than one of the items. I know most of them would have been appropriate labels for me at some point in the past. So where's the hope? Did we forget to finish out the paragraph? Next verse:
And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
A good lesson not to take a verse out of context is here. If you are a Christian, and you believe that God will not change some aspect of you because there is nothing wrong with it, then that's a moral position that may be defensible. If you are going to claim that God cannot change you, you're making a theological statement about the power of God. Maybe God thinks being gay is alright. Maybe not. I do think it's quite likely that God would rather see us spending time and energy on things other than mooing dogs and .

Oh crap, and I just wrote my longest post ever on the subject, too.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Rising to the Challenge, part III: Dog on, "Well, it's DNA!" and still, "Ew, no God."

I'm going to take a moment to go back to the comments of both Zondo Deb and Jono, and continue to expand on a concept I touched on in part I of this series of posts.

What if there was found in nature a message that unambiguously pointed to a higher power? Call me naive, but I still think there is. It's a message found inside every living thing on the planet, and it's called DNA. Now I admit I'm no biochemist, or whatever it is one might need to be to become an expert on DNA and all related sub-cellular information-carrying and processing molecules, but there is something fascinating going on at the microscopic level in living cells. Maybe it's the sort of thing that one would write off as creationist propaganda, but while I realize some creationists like to grasp at scientific and pseudoscientific straws, a lot of the things I plan to discuss here were things that I had mused over back in the days before I was a Christian, and I've never been a strict Biblical Fundamentalist Creationist. (Some of my views on creationism can be found at my other blog, mostly back about a year ago.)

What is DNA? It's a complicated molecule that carries within it a sort of chemical code. The code is written in four different chemical letters called "bases" which essentially come together to form various three-letter words that spell out sentences called "genes". Those words correspond to amino acids, which according to the gene they are in will be strung together to make a protein. Human DNA has about 3,000,000,000 bases which code for about 30,000 genes.

Now, admittedly human genetics are more complicated than those of lower forms of life, but you have to consider that the complexity goes down to a cellular level. Each individual cell of any living creature is made up of complicated little machineries which exist to process fluids, move minerals and burn fuel. The various genes coded onto DNA are accessed to formulize the creation of all the little proteins that make the parts that run the machinery of the cell.

Imagine trying to create a functioning automobile out of tinker toys. (Such a car would be huge, but scale isn't so important in imagining it, as the tinker toys at the cellular level aren't visible to the naked eye.) Just imagine fitting together tiny little pieces to make a machine that can transport things from one place to another under its own power, and has the standard amenities like power steering, anti-lock brakes, etc. That's an approach to the complexity that exists in a cell, but a cell is actually far more complicated than that. And aside from the complexity of the structures that make a cell simply function, there's also the fact that living cells have the property of self-replication. That is to say, imagine not only building a car out of tinker toys, but in the engine of your tinker toy car, you've got a sort of tinker toy encoded blueprint of the car that, rather than sitting there statically waiting for some tinker toy virtuoso to come along and read it to build another car, the car itself will gather loose tinker toy parts it finds and build more tinker toy cars as part of its normal function. Imagine building a car like that made from any material! And that's just a cell; imagine the further complexity of building a whole body!

Irreducible complexity is a popular concept among "Intelligent Design" proponents these days, but has some serious flaws scientifically, some of which I expect to address at a future date. The thing that really fascinates me, and something I've never heard addressed by any ID people, is a sub-cellular chicken-or-egg problem. (I actually heard this from an author who I believe is an atheist.) You've got DNA, right? It's a coded message that tells you how to build a human being, an amoeba, a redwood tree, whatever sort of massive "tinker toy car" it's a part of. How is the code read? Well, there are various sub-cellular structures such as RNA that serve various purposes like reading the code off, gathering the appropriate amino acids, stringing them together, checking the code for errors, making copies of DNA, and even cellular-level immune systems to protect from virus intrusion (these are totally separate from the system-level immune systems such as your white blood cells). All of these structures and systems are like the hardware on which the software of the DNA code is run.

Where does that hardware come from? Answer: it's built from certain parts of the code integrated into DNA. So you can't have the machineries that build living things on the cellular level unless you have the machinery to build them already in existence. Put raw DNA in a beaker and wait to see what happens. Nothing. Try with water, cold or hot. Nothing. Add a bunch of carbon, nitrogen and trace amounts of other important minerals. Still nothing. How about a warm soup of amino acids in varyingly oxygenated and heated environments? It will do nothing. Nothing whatsoever. No, DNA only functions in its natural environment, surrounded by a living cellular structure. And living cells don't come from nowhere.

So as usual, getting to the point after a wild series of paragraphs of blah-blah-blah-blah... Where does life come from, if not from an intelligence that is not life, at least, not as we know it? A DVD without a DVD player is useless, and vice versa. DNA without life does nothing, and if you somehow could remove all the DNA from a living organism, it would cease to function in fairly short order, and certainly would never fulfill its primary evolutionary function, which is to reproduce itself. So it seems logical, to me at least, that there must exist (or once have existed) an intelligent being that is not an earthly life form. While that intelligent being may not be "God" in the sense we tend to think about it, I have a hard time thinking of any alternate ideas that don't approach ridiculousness. It is for this reason that I have been fairly confident that there is a divine Creator, even in the days before I was a Christian.

I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on this.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Rising to the Challenge, part II: A freakin' miracle!

Back from my short vacation (or maybe longer one from the Internet if I don't finish this until Monday) I resume my commentary on the responses to my "" inspired in part from my posting on Goosing the Antithesis.

I might as well address the response given by Sharon, who, although not an atheist, is very close friends with one who makes an interesting suggestion that God might simply alter our brain structure so that we become believers. Aside from the logical problems I have with that and address there, my desire is definitely to address the question with the understanding that free choice continues to be a part of the process. (On a side note, if free choice does not exist anyway, then the question is in many ways meaningless.)

Finally getting back to the response by bookjunky, he makes one of the best suggestions I have heard, I think. He suggests that if the earth's rotation were reversed without harm being caused to life on the planet, that would be a clear-cut miracle, as such a thing should simply not be possible. I think this is a good answer, as this indeed would be hard to explain, and pretty much impossible as a natural phenomenon, as he suggests. The following suggestion that God would need to give an explanation to everyone on earth is probably a necessary part, as the miracle itself would have no reference. Some people might find it hard to fully understand why, but Jesus coming back from the dead or raising someone else from the dead is more meaningful than someone coming back from the dead without some sort of prophet around. A miracle without context is interesting, but meaningless.

Other suggestions given are parting the Pacific Ocean, and moving of the stars to spell out a message in all languages (possibly a logical impossibility). This latter suggestion is also essentially given by Jono. All interesting responses, but I believe flawed at their heart for the real reason I think is at the center of this question. As bookjunky says:

Would I then believe in a Christian version of God? Hell, no.
Ouch. I think this is significant. Is it enough to simply believe that there is a higher power out there, or is it necessary, in God (be it the Christian God or not) wanting us to believe, that we believe properly? This seems to be a foundational truth of most religions, despite some people claiming the contary. It's not enough just to "be sincere in your belief". You have to be sincere in the belief of the right thing.

Hey, maybe there's a good reason somebody has to disbelieve in the God of the Bible. Then again, there are some people who feel that they have good reason to disbelieve that God exists at all in any form. That's part of what makes Francois' response so appealing to me. He doesn't simply say he has no answer, he positively asserts that the answer does not exist! Even though I happen to believe in God, I, too believe there is no answer to this question, specifically because of our will to deny whatever we will. It may be faith, it may be logic, it may be a number of things, but there are people out there who do believe, people out there who would be willing to believe (or think they would), and people who will not believe. I don't think God can please them all.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Rising to the challenge, part I: My goose cooked?

Well, as I may have hinted in my last post, I have a number of subjects on deck, so to speak, and just haven't gotten around to polishing them up and posting them due to them being not up to my usual quality (insert self-deprecating blog humor here). In particular, let me foreshadow that I had a few things to say about the evolution vs. creation debate that I think will be thought-provoking, but maybe I'll break it down into several posts like I did with the separation of church and state posts (1 2 3 4).

At the moment, I am going to go back and revisit one of my previous posts that's one of my favorites, and has now become a much more popular one thanks to my sneaking a link into a much more popular blog. I think the post itself doesn't need much in the way of restatement, but various responses I have finally received lead to further discussion.

Francois Tremblay says something that I think cuts to the heart of the matter, partially because I asked for an opinion on whether the suggestion of God proving Himself or my responding challenge really has meaning. He says "it is quite impossible for us to know that any given event is non-natural" which I hope believers in the supernatural will see to be quite true! Hypothetically, if there was an event that was non-natural, how would we be able to tell? (I may take this in more detail as a future post soon.) He also points out that believing that God could exist implies living in a completely different mind frame than believing that God could not exist. What little significance the "atheist challenge" has, if any, depends largely on what sort of atheist a person is. A person who knows God does not exist will see it differently from a person who is of the opinion that God does not exist, who will in turn see it different from someone who simply doesn't know whether God exists or not.

On a side note to this last point, I've heard atheists make the clever comment that most people are atheists of some sort or another. I may believe in Jesus, but I am an atheist in respect to Zeus, get it? So one interesting restatement of the original question that will allow Christians and other theists to play along in this sort of philosophical train of thought is:

3: Give a hypothetical undeniable proof of the existence of the God of the Quran. (If you're a Muslim, you could still use the wording of challenge #2.) Essentially, suggest a way that "Allah" could send an unambiguous message to the world so that everyone could understand fully that our purpose in life should be to follow the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. You may have a good answer, or you may see from this perspective why the original question is not so meaningful.

Bookjunky makes some suggestions that I think are very good, but I will save for my next post. Partly because I he reposted much of his comment in my blog, and I'll respond to those posted here separately, and partially because his response is in an odd fashion related to Zachary Moore's response, in which he points out that while surely there may be miraculous signs that would make you give consideration to God, you might still not "worship a being so immoral". This is oddly enough a more difficult hurdle for people who do not believe than lack of physical evidence. People don't believe because they don't want to, and they feel perfectly justified in denying a perceived cruel deity.

Zendo Deb refers to the ending of Carl Sagan's book "Contact", which he says was "expunged" of all religious references when made into a movie. Oddly enough, I found "" to be an incredibly spiritual movie myself, so I'm more eager than ever to read the book, which is high on my list of books to read sometime soon. His suggestion?

Obviously non-random information would have to be hidden in various computations. The digits of pi, when expanded to some large number of digits would be seen to contain certain messages, and so on for other non-rational real number representations.
I find this a fascinating suggestion, and one that I could devote a whole series of posts to. I may do at least one. My thought on this? In the movie "Contact", Jodie Foster's character hears some radio pulses coming from outer space and says, "Those are primes! 2,3,5,7, those are all prime numbers and there's no way that's a natural phenomenon!" If the pulses did come from a natural phenomenon, say a radio source that had a fifty/fifty chance of either pulsing or pausing, the chance of that particular sequence coming up is one in 1,048,576. That alone was enough to convince her that this was not natural, but on top of that, there was encoded within the signal the blueprints for a massive and complicated machine.

For me, the idea that we could discover a complicated code that gave instructions for the building of an elaborate machine that was not created by human intelligence would be evidence enough for me to assume a higher intelligence was out there and was interested in talking to us. Of course, as far as I'm concerned, that's a good description of DNA. Living things, down to the very cellular level are perplexingly intricate machines that are far beyond the ability of any human engineer to design. This message is obviously not unambiguous enough for everyone to believe there's something more than mere random effects of evolution walking about on our planet, but for me it tends to be enough to wonder. Is it enough for Zendo Deb or any other skeptic to at least consider agnosticism?