That I Am a Christian is not Religulous

As a teenager, I was watching a foreign film on Showcase in the middle of the night and was rewarded with a simple message delivered in subtitles from a Catholic priest.

The essence of the priest’s sermon can be summed up in one line: “Christianity is not an ethic, but a lifestyle.”

As someone who was already trying to figure out what salvation meant to me, the point really struck home.  Christianity is much more than a shared system of beliefs and values – it’s the complete expression of the person who is committed to Christ and his teachings.

It is this understanding that has kept me firm in my belief in God despite the growing voice of criticism that has been aimed at religiousness in general, although I do think this criticism has been well earned by those religious types who prioritize system over kindness.  The movie Religulous is a perfect example of a much needed call to reason.  I openly admit that I’m fond of this movie, and I admire Bill Maher for trying to convince religious fanatics to open their eyes to the implications of what they profess to believe in – how willful spiritual blindness is an affront to both common sense and compassion.

However, if there’s one thing Religulous didn’t do, it was convince me that my Christianity was ridiculous.

For me, the comparisons between Horus and Jesus that have become more public over the years have actually strengthened my faith.

When someone isn’t apologetic or ashamed of our humanness or concerned with moral perfection, salvation isn’t very high on the list of reasons to pursue a spiritual life.  My spiritual life is all about making sense of God’s mystery, growing in knowledge, and living as peacefully as I can with all living things.  My hope is that our experiences in this world are meaningful and that life now suggests a continued existence beyond the veil.

But I’m not overly concerned about the accuracy of the historical Christ, the efficaciousness of his mission, nor do I care if his life is depicted in the literary shell of Horus or manipulated in ways that fulfill Messianic prophecy.  These things have no impact on my faith.  All I have to remember is that the world changed after Christ is said to have lived, and that’s as far as I have to look for any literal transfiguration.

If we take the time to try and make sense of Horus’ place in Egyptian mythology and then contrast his story to Jesus’, some of us will conclude that the archetype for redemption has psychological significance – but I’m not sure how we can use their stories to form uncompromising conclusions about sin, atonement, and salvation in particular.  It’s when we try too hard to create dogmas out of interpretive events that we risk becoming religulous.

The chart below is from the a series of essays called Parallels Between the Lives of Jesus and Horus, the Egyptian, which can be found on www.religioustolerance.org.  This website also provides a more detailed comparison of Horus and Christ, as well as some scholarly insight.

Comparison of Horus and Jesus:
Event Horus Jesus
Conception: By a virgin. There is some debate among scholars about this. By a virgin.
Father: Only begotten son of the God Osiris. Only begotten son of Yehovah (in the form of the Holy Spirit).
Mother: Isis-Meri. Miriam (now often referred to as Mary).
Foster father: Seb, (a.k.a. Jo-Seph). Joseph.
Foster father’s ancestry: Of royal descent. Of royal descent.
Birth location: In a cave. In a cave or stable.
Annunciation: By an angel to Isis, his mother. By an angel to Miriam, his mother.
Birth heralded by: The star Sirius, the morning star. An unidentified “star in the East.
Birth date: Ancient Egyptians paraded a manger and child representing Horus through the streets at the time of the winter solstice (about DEC-21). In reality, he had no birth date; he was not a human. Born during the fall. However, his birth date is now celebrated on DEC-25. The date was chosen to occur on the same date as the birth of Mithra, Dionysus and the Sol Invictus (unconquerable Sun), etc.
Birth announcement: By angels. By angels.
Birth witnesses: Shepherds. Shepherds.
Later witnesses to birth: Three solar deities. An unknown number of wise men. 3 They are said to have brought three gifts; thus the legend grew that there were three men.
Death threat during infancy: Herut tried to have Horus murdered. Herod tried to have Jesus murdered.
Handling the threat: The God That tells Horus’ mother “Come, thou goddess Isis, hide thyself with thy child. An angel tells Jesus’ father to: “Arise and take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt.
Rite of passage ritual: Horus came of age with a special ritual, when his eye was restored. Taken by parents to the temple for what is today called a bar mitzvah ritual.
Age at the ritual: 12 12
Break in life history: No data between ages of 12 & 30. No data between ages of 12 & 30.
Baptism location: In the river Eridanus. In the river Jordan.
Age at baptism: 30 30
Baptized by: Anup the Baptiser. John the Baptist, a.k.a. John the Baptist.
Subsequent fate of the baptiser: Beheaded. Beheaded.
Temptation: Taken from the desert of Amenta up a high mountain by his arch-rival Sut. Sut (a.k.a. Set) was a precursor for the Hebrew Satan. Taken from the desert in Palestine up a high mountain by his arch-rival Satan.
Result of temptation: Horus resists temptation. Jesus resists temptation.
Close followers: Twelve disciples. There is some doubt about the actual number of disciples. Twelve disciples.
Activities: Walked on water, cast out demons, healed the sick, restored sight to the blind. He “stilled the sea by his power.” Walked on water, cast out demons, healed the sick, restored sight to the blind. He ordered the sea with a “Peace, be still” command.
Raising of the dead: Horus raised Osirus, his dead father, from the grave. Jesus raised Lazarus, his close friend, from the grave.
Location where the resurrection miracle occurred: Anu, an Egyptian city where the rites of the death, burial and resurrection of Horus were enacted annually. Hebrews added their prefix for house (‘beth“) to “Anu” to produce “Beth-Anu” or the “House of Anu.” Since “u” and “y” were interchangeable in antiquity, “Bethanu” became “Bethany,” the location mentioned in John 11.
Linkage between the name of Osirus in Egyptian religion and Lazarus in the Gospel of John: Asar was an alternative name for Osirus, Horus’ father. Horus raised Asar from the dead. He was referred to as “the Asar,” as a sign of respect. Translated into Hebrew, Asr is “El-Asar.” The Romans added the sufffix “us” to indicate a male name, producing “Elasarus.” Over time, the “E” was dropped and “s” became “z,” producing “Lazarus.1 Jesus is said to have raised his friend Lazarus from the dead.
Transfigured: On a mountain. On a high mountain.
Key address(es): Sermon on the Mount. Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 to 7); Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49).
Method of death By crucifixion or by the sting of a scorpion; sources differ. 2 See note above. By crucifixion.
Accompanied by: Two thieves. Two thieves.
Burial In a tomb. In a tomb.
Fate after death: Descended into Hell; resurrected after three days. Descended into Hell; resurrected after about 30 to 38 hours (Friday PM to presumably some time in Sunday AM) covering parts of three days.
Resurrection announced by: Women. Women.
Future: To reign for 1,000 years in the Millennium. To reign for 1,000 years in the Millennium.
Nature: Regarded as a mythical character. Regarded as a 1st century CE human prophet by Jewish Christians. Viewed as a man-god in the Gospel of John, and by Christians in the 2nd century CE and later.
Main role: Savior of humanity. Savior of humanity.
Status: God-man. God-man.
Common portrayal: Virgin Isis holding the infant Horus. Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus.
Title: KRST, the anointed one. Christ, the anointed one.
Other names: The good shepherd, the lamb of God, the bread of life, the son of man, the Word, the fisher, the winnower. The good shepherd, the lamb of God, the bread of life, the son of man, the Word, the fisher, the winnower.
Zodiac sign: Associated with Pisces, the fish. Associated with Pisces, the fish.
Main symbols: Fish, beetle, the vine, shepherd’s crook. Fish, beetle, the vine, the shepherd’s crook.
Criteria for salvation at the time of judgment

 

“I have given bread to the hungry man and water to the thirsty man and clothing to the naked person and a boat to the shipwrecked mariner.” “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me…” Matthew 25:35-36 (KJV).
“I am” statements

 

I am Horus in glory…I am the Lord of Light…I am the victorious one…I am the heir of endless time…I, even I, am he that knoweth the paths of heaven.” “I am Horus, the Prince of Eternity.” “I am Horus who stepeth onward through eternity…Eternity and everlastingness is my name.” “I am the possessor of bread in Anu. I have bread in heaven with Ra. I am the light of the world….I am the way, the truth and the life.” “Before Abraham was, I am.” “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today and forever.” “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. (All from the Gospel of John)

 

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Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven

When I was checking my Kindle to see if a book had become available in this format, Don Piper’s book, 90 Minutes in Heaven, came up as suggested reading.

Since it seemed like a great value and I like reading about case studies involving NDEs, I decided to give it a chance.

I really liked the way the book is written.  The tone is sincere and personal, and Piper seems to provide a credible account of the afterlife, as spectacular as he makes it sound.  Like any person who tries to find words to describe a near death experience, language seems to be inadequate.  Even the brilliance and the intensity of the colours he witnessed are difficult to describe, and, understandably, he struggles to convey existence without the constraints of time.

To go from his depiction of an afterlife to his suffering in the hospital is traumatic even for the reader.  His pain is intense and drawn out, with no end in sight.  You can really appreciate the resistance he experiences when people try to help him, and how he comes to the conclusion that denying others an opportunity to do something nice for him is ultimately selfish on his part.  I found myself relating to this kind of pride, and I think the message is transferable to our own lives.

There are couple big question marks for me.  Don believes he was given his life back because of prayer, which seems reasonable from his perspective.  First, there’s the heartfelt prayer of a pastor who felt compelled to join him in the car when he was already declared clinically dead. Then there were the prayers of family, friends, people in the church, and even strangers who had heard of his accident that he believes helped him survive his injuries.

I’m pretty skeptical when it comes to the power of prayer and its influence on God, but I’m a firm believer in the placebo effect.  But in all fairness to prayer in this particular case, Don had no desire to return to life and he was indifferent to those who prayed for him in the hospital because he wanted to die anyway. His recovery is, indeed, a miracle.

The second question mark is something that is rather disappointing to me.  Don is a baptist minister who has this incredible taste of the afterlife, and yet he comes back to life just as convinced as ever that some people are meant to experience heaven and others hell.  To me, this is the most discrediting part of his story: his theology didn’t change.

When I finished the book, I found myself thinking about John 3:16:  “. . . that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Is it a coincidence that the most popular verse in the New Testament is one of the most polarizing?

The danger is that the verse makes it easy to reduce salvation to a matter of belief.  To someone with Don’s theology, it makes perfect sense that you have to believe a certain way or you won’t be permitted to experience life after death as he describes.

If Don would have had this incredible experience and came back to life prepared to change his fundamentalist ways, I would have an even higher opinion of his book.

So, it’s with a grain of salt that I recommend 90 Minutes in Heaven.  If you fear death, I imagine it can be of comfort to you.

 

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A Day in the Life of a 4th Grader

That boy Derek caught me from behind. He hit me in the back of my head and I fell. He kicked my knapsack open and looked in it. He emptied it. I told him no, that I had to take the paper home. He tore it up to pieces. So I punched him because I was angry and scared. He punched me harder. I didn’t want to fight. We both were hurt and went home.

The next day my mom signed my report card. I was scared because I did not have the paper. I hoped my teacher would not remember. On the way to school Derek caught me again. He rubbed my face in the snow and punched me. I swore at him. He just laughed.

When I was in the classroom I gave Mrs. Edmyn my report card. She said the signed paper was not there. I told her that I lost it. She got very angry at me. She yelled at me. She said my parents were supposed to come in for a parent teacher interview.

I cried right there in class. I did not cry because she yelled. I did not want to tell her what happened to the paper. I did not want Derek to get in trouble. I cried because I felt bad for my mother because I was bad. I felt sorry for her. Not me. I couldn’t stop myself from crying.

The kids made fun of at recess for crying. It was a bad day. I felt sick. Mrs. Edmyn said she was going to call my mom.

After school I walked home by myself. I felt so scared and sick. I felt all alone. I didn’t want to go home. I wanted that boy Derek to stay away. I walked slowly so that it would take me long to get home.

My dad pulled up in the car. He said to get in. He looked serious and I felt scared. We drove down to the park. Nobody else was there.

He asked me if I had a bad day. I said Yes. He said he had just got back from talking to Mrs. Edmyn. I thought I was in big trouble. He said that I wasn’t in trouble. Nothing she said made me seem bad. I told him I lost the paper. He said it was ok and not worry about it anymore.

This was the day I remember. This is my real Day in the Life of a 4th Grader. It’s the day my dad made better.

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Preface to Stages on Life’s Way: Recollection vs Remembering

On one particularly hot, lazy summer afternoon, my wife complained that she was bored. After numerous sighs, I finally helped her pass the time by placing one of my favorite books, “Stages on Life’s Way,” by Soren Kierkegaard, in her hands to keep her occupied. After all, it is her life to live, and I can only offer her tools to making the most of it.

Little did I know that my attempt to discourage her from bothering me when she was bored would come back to haunt me. It wasn’t like her to engage in meaningful discussion about books, but there was something about “Stages” that immediately aroused her curiosity.

Sure, she was well read and quite versed in literature and philosophy, but I thought that passing the responsibility for her amusement to my writer-of-choice would decidedly end such complaints in the future.

So, as we’re lying there in bed last night, Jenna started talking about the Preface to “In Vino Veritas” as though it was a matter that demanded immediate clarification.

“Joel, I don’t understand why Kierkegaard makes his first order of business to distinguish between “recollecting” and “remembering” an event,” Jenna said, turning the lamp on.

“I’m trying to sleep,” I replied, trying to nip the idea of having a full conversation in the bud.

Jenna looked at me with insistence in those gorgeous blue eyes of hers. “We’re both not going to sleep unless you help me understand.”

“Gosh darn it, Jenna,” I said playfully.

“What?”

“Well, if that’s the way it’s going to be, I may as well satisfy you,” I conceded. “Otherwise I believe you really will keep me up all night.”

“I would for sure,” Jenna said with a smile. “However, if you help me understand this book I’ll reward you for it.”

“Feels like bribery,” I observed.

Jenna nodded. “Don’t tell me you’re above being bribed.”

“I’m really not,” I admitted with a laugh.

“Well?” Jenna asked with an expectant tone.

“Hmmm . . . I think if he is about to go into detail about stages, he wants you to be able to recognize the role of “recollection” as your life plays out.”

“Still, how is recollection different from remembering?” Jenna asked.

“When we first met, Jenna, you were serving us beer, and were wearing a black, short-sleeved shirt as well as a skirt. My friend was flirting with you and you were humoring him, but I could tell you weren’t really interested in him. The first time I piped in and said something, you winked at me.”

“What’s your point, Joel?”

“That would be remembering,” I explained. “It is detail oriented, with little emotional attachment to the occasion.”

“So what would a recollection be?”

“When I first saw you approach our table, there seemed to be something different about you. The sun felt warm and the smell of the harbor and good food and the festive atmosphere seemed to disappear as you captured my attention. I wanted to do anything to get you by myself so that I could get to know you better.”

“So you’re saying a “recollection” is like mentally transporting yourself to a moment in your past, like you are reliving the moment, sensations and all?”

“Yes, I think that this is a fair statement. But I think Kierkegaard qualifies this mental transportation by acknowledging that the moment relived is somewhat idealized.”

Jenna sat up in bed and stared at me. “Would your recollection of our first meeting be idealized then?”

“No way,” I said with conviction. “In fact, my senses were so confused that the idealization would be in deciphering any rational thought at all.”

“Sure Joel.”

“I like that he talks about recollection in relationship to repentance – that you can’t just remember the details. In fact, you can be distracted from true repentance by remembering the details instead of recollecting the offense. He says that to repent requires the idealization because you have to relive the transgression in order to repent of it.”

“So when you brushed me off to watch football and apologized the next day, you really wished that you had that decision back?”

“Absolutely,” I lied. “Believe me, it wasn’t worth it.”

“For some reason I doubt your sincerity,” Jenna said with a smirk.

“But you have to think that Kierkegaard chooses to define recollection as a way of setting the table for the recreation of Plato’s Symposium and the discussion of love that takes place at the banquet he had with his friends.”

“Can you recollect the moment you fell in love with me?” Jenna asked innocently.

“Sure, it was the moment I first noticed your ass.”

“Quit playing with me or there’ll be no reward for answering my questions so late at night.”

“Alright, alright. I think I knew I loved you when we stayed at the bed and breakfast at Niagara on the Lake. As beautiful and scenic as Niagara on the Lake is, it paled in comparison to how beautiful I considered my company.”

Jenna shook her head as though dismayed. “You know you’re a suck up.”

“Perhaps I’m just one of those guys who can get flowery when given the proper incentive.”

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Pulp Christian – Pulp Fiction vs. Passion of the Christ

One offers brain particles all over the interior of a car, the other a drawn out, bloody journey to the cross.

One is viewed as gratuitous violence, while the other is praised for portraying the anguish of the Savior.

Let’s face it, Pulp Fiction and The Passion of the Christ rival each other in brutality.  However, I left the one movie feeling like I had witnessed a miracle while leaving the other feeling like the extreme torture and suffering were imposed on me.

To start, let’s take a look at the two examples of grace in Pulp Fiction.

The first scenario has Jules and Vincent narrowly escaping with their lives after a round of bullets misses them from pointblank range. Jules calls the experience “Divine Intervention,” and he upholds this view even after Vincent’s gun goes off by accident and blows a kid’s head off in the back of the car. To be fair, Jules’ understanding of grace is flawed. According to his logic, we have to conclude that if God saved them from the bullets the reverse is true as well: God’s equally responsible for the kid’s unfortunate, untimely—not to mention inconvenient–demise.

From this perspective, a depiction of God’s grace is ambiguous at best.

Then there’s the other storyline involving Butch, a boxer in the twilight of his career who’s being paid by Marcellus—Jules and Vincent’s boss—to throw his upcoming boxing match. Butch, always feeling underestimated, find himself at a moral crossroad and ends up double-crossing Marcellus so that he could walk away with a good chunk of change and every last ounce of his pride.

It would have been the perfect plan if Butch didn’t end up crossing paths with Marcellus while retrieving his most precious possession, his watch. After they nearly kill each other, Butch and Marcellus are captured while both of them are in a weakened, vulnerable state. When they wake up, they find themselves tied up and gagged by a redneck store-owner and a dirty cop, who have extremely ill intentions. When Marcellus is dragged into the back room so that these perverts can have their way with him, Butch frees himself and heads for the door. He could have abandoned Marcellus, but something “within him” compels him to turn around. Butch chooses to make the compassionate decision and saves Marcellus, putting his fate back in his boss’ hands.

So I have to say, it’s only appropriate, after Butch and Marcellus have a no-nonsense discussion where they come to a mutually satisfactory arrangement, that Butch rides off on a rather loud chopper with the word “Grace” airbrushed on it to collect his girlfriend and start a new life with her in a new city.

Now let’s take a look at Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ and see how he handles what’s “supposed to be” the ultimate religious example of grace.

When Mel Gibson brought out his Passion of the Christ, I wasn’t interested enough in the theme to see it in the theater. I think many Christians allowed themselves to be emotionally swept away by the image of the tortured Christ and all the bloodshed he endured on their behalf. But after taking the time to watch the movie and form a reasonable opinion, I found that I wasn’t touched by this graphic recreation of Christ’s execution at all. In fact, I felt that by reveling in Christ’s flogging and eventual crucifixion—when I say reveling, I mean allowing ourselves to be emotionally swept away by it, sickened and saddened—we were indulging the dark side within ourselves that would entertain the idea that this gruesome episode was required by God to atone for our sins.

If there’s an example of grace in this movie, it would only be from Christ’s point of view—I mean, if he did, indeed, think he was enduring all of his torture and punishment as a way taking the sins of the world upon himself. This would be a monumental sacrifice, no doubt about it.

The way I see it, Pulp Fiction brings out two very important elements of grace. In the first scenario, Jule’s convinced that God saved him for a reason. This conviction leads to a spiritual transformation, the miracle, which we see come to life when he doesn’t kill Ringo in the cafe in the final scene of the movie. So the miracle really happens within.

In the second scenario, we see Butch come face-to-face with his humanity. He chooses to save the very man who was trying to end his life only hours earlier. Not only is this compassionate, but this mercy is born under conditions where he was willing to risk his life to do the right thing.

I think that all of us are our own worst critic and that it’s difficult to forgive ourselves. Grace isn’t exactly forgiveness. It’s more powerful than forgiveness. Grace isn’t extended because one asks for forgiveness (although asking for forgiveness can have a role). It’s granted regardless, and wipes away the slate as if the transgression never occurred. For Jules, the bullets missing him allowed him to wipe the slate clean with himself and go on with his life with the intention of being a good person from that point forward, and he did so feeling validated by God.

With Butch, it was all about what he was willing to live with. When it came to the boxing match, he couldn’t live with himself if he threw the fight. In the situation where he saved Marcellus, he went back because he couldn’t leave anybody, even his most deadly enemy, to the devices of such degenerates, and he couldn’t have lived with himself if walked out of the store without helping. This is the type of grace that’s born for goodness sake—the selfless kind, grace in its purest form.

As for The Passion of the Christ, I don’t think there’s much we can learn about grace from this depiction, unless you consider the opposite of grace—which has plenty of material available in this picture. One man’s obsession with the torture of another human being does not transfer really well. The true miracle of the crucifixion is the difference it made in the lives of those after Christ, not the pain he endured.

There’s no need to be a pulp Christian and obsess over blood and guts. If you yearn for grace, consider the miracle of your own existence—that you were introduced to this world with so many experiences ahead of you and so many people to love. And then look to the love, forgiveness, and kindnesses people afford each other, for that’s where you’ll get the best representation of the grace of God presently active in this world.

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Conscience Jolted and Yet No Apology

I’ve maintained for a long time that men need to hold each other accountable, at least to a certain degree. A few months ago I was on the receiving end of some firm advice and since then I’ve taken the time to digest the experience.

It was a late Saturday afternoon–gray and overcast, the roads still shiny after a light drizzle–and my wife and I were making a last second trip to the grocery store.

When I signaled to enter into the left hand turn lane, a weathered, aquamarine Toyota Echo darted across three lanes, forcing me to brake hard to avoid a collision. I could have stopped, but the maneuver slowed me down to about 30 km/hour. So, in total disregard of my wife’s protests, I zipped around the beat up compact and made the left-hand turn.

Appearances, especially during moments of indiscretion, can definitely be deceiving. When the car had cut me off, I assumed the vehicle was being driven by either an old lady or a teenager. I mean, who else pulls out in front of you and reduces their speed like that?

Well, I didn’t know it at the time, but I was to find out his identity soon enough. When I was weaving my way through the parking lot looking for some prime real estate, my wife pointed out we were being followed. Now that I was aware of this, I chose the closest available parking spot to the store. The Echo didn’t park, but stopped behind me with the engine still running.

In my rearview mirror, I watched an absolute brute open the passenger side door and stand there looming at the edge of my bumper. He looked apprehensive, unsure of who he was confronting, but determined to make his point.

“He’s waiting to talk to you,” my wife said, disgusted and embarrassed.

Slowly, I undid my seatbelt, opened the car door, and calmly walked over to discuss the incident.

In such a moment, it’s amazing how resignation can be so calming. As I approached the man, I could tell he was a hardworking blue collar, and as I drew even closer to him and saw his face I could tell by the scars and harshness of his eyes that he had been in countless fights.

“Do you always cut people off?” he asked.

“No, I try not to,” I said.

“You cut my wife off,” he said, poking me hard in the chest.

“Get his license plate,” his wife said, her face visible in the open door. I could tell by the look in her eyes she was concerned that it was going to get ugly.

When you’re a man getting poked in the chest, regardless of the physical prowess of your provoker there’s a rush of adrenaline that kicks in. I could feel it flood over me, leaving my fingers and toes tingling. I started to wonder if I was going to have to defend myself.

“I’ll bury you,” he hissed, poking me hard in the chest again.

I figured there was no point in telling him that his wife cut me off first. Everything about his demeanor said he was looking for an excuse to snap.

People were walking by, and I could tell the confrontation was turning into a spectacle. I glanced over my shoulder and saw my wife still standing by the car. She was observing the encounter with little emotion on her face. In her opinion I was getting what I deserved.

But I wasn’t concerned about being embarrassed. I was certain the brute could hurt me badly, but I was thinking about the repercussions of getting into a skirmish in public that would certainly draw the attention of the authorities.

On the other hand, I was feeling contrite – especially seeing the woman driving the car absolutely mortified by her militant husband. But no apology left my lips. I don’t know if this was my way of fighting back – the calmness, the lack of remorse . . . But it certainly managed to irritate him.

“Are we through?” I asked, meeting his gaze. I had hoped he noticed the apology in my eyes.

He stepped out of my way and I walked toward the store as though the incident never occurred. Although I had lost sight of my wife, I knew she was nearby. While I looked around for her, I heard him screaming, “If you ever do something this again, I’ll bury you! I’ll bury you, you here me!”

I didn’t acknowledge this ostentatious temper tantrum in the slightest.

Finally, my wife appeared and joined me. Before we went it, we talked in the grocery store lobby. She seemed more shaken by the incident than me. In a sense, I found it almost comical, but I also felt bad.

When we were shopping for our groceries, we crossed paths with the couple several times and neither of us said a word. Now that the brute was calm, I wanted to apologize to both of them, but I was also reluctant.

He was right. I was wrong. I don’t think I cut them off badly, but I know my driving showed lack of respect and impatience. He cared enough about his wife to defend her against the slight. I can appreciate that.

For me, my Christianity is less about what I believe and more about what I embody. I fell short that day, and in hindsight I consider it to be providence that there was a man out there willing to help me find my humility.

Men should hold each other to a certain standard, but there’s no harsher judge than a conscience jolted out of its dormancy.

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First Speech on Love at the Banquet: The Young Man

After a long day in the office, I walked into the house to find my wife waiting for me with her hand on her hip.

“Hey beautyterrific,” I said with forced, friendly enthusiasm.

Lee Anne just glared at me.

Oh no,” I thought. “It’s going to be one of those nights.”

When I averted my gaze to kick off my shoes, a heavy object hit me in the side of the head, nearly taking me off my feet. It was the copy of “Stage of Life’s Way” I had lent to her.

“Ouch, what was that for?” I complained, rubbing my now throbbing head.

“Why do you think?” Lee Anne replied.

“You know, if you’re going to arrive home ahead of me – a nice dinner would be a lot more pleasant. Coming home to a big, fat steak after a hard day and a cold beer, now that’s what I call love.”

“Don’t try to be funny, Joel. I’m serious right now.”

“I think the lump on my head is convincing enough. Do you always have to be so dramatic?”

“That’s nothing,” Lee Anne stated. “You don’t even want to know the tortures I devised for you. Believe me, you’re getting off easy.”

I nodded in understanding. “I’ll take your word for it. I still don’t even know what I did.”

Lee Anne’s expression became dark again.

“I want to know if this represents what you and your friends think about women,” she demanded, pointing to the book on the floor. “Were you trying to communicate something to me when you asked me to read this?”

I looked into her accusative eyes for a second, trying to figure out what could have offended her.

“Oh yeah . . . ” I replied slowly, suddenly understanding. “Maybe I should have warned you. You must have read the banquet speeches from “In Vino Veritas” and stopped reading before you could give each character’s unique positions some context.”

“Oh yeah . . . ” Lee Anne mimicked, trying to get a rise out of me.

“Well, if we would have drank that whole bottle of wine together like I wanted to the other night, maybe I would have warned you that there was some material you were going to encounter that could be considered . . . well. . . misogynistic.”

“Is that what men do?” Lee Anne demanded. “Get together and philosophize about the various ways women inevitably seek to destroy the spirit of men?”

“Men do like to commiserate,” I said with a smile.

“So which one are you, Joel – the boy who’s afraid of love because of the pain of possibly losing a woman’s affection . . . or the man who thinks love’s a big joke . . . or the man who thinks the greatest service a woman can do for a man is break his heart, or, excuse me, by dying . . . or the fashion designer who thinks that women only care about how they accessorize themselves . . . or are you secretly the seducer who’s wise enough to take the bait and then move onto the next victim?”

“Right now, I can see why the seducer is the only one who escapes with the bait,” I joked.

Lee Anne shook her head in disbelief. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, if our relationship was only superficial, I don’t think we’d be having this discussion. I imagine that a seducer would think that a conversation like this wouldn’t be worth the reward. ”

“That’s true,” she acknowledged.

“So how about you have yourself a glass of wine and I’ll have a beer?” I asked.

Lee Anne nodded. “That sounds good.”

I walked over and gave her a hug. She actually allowed herself to be held.

I then whispered in her ear, “You’ll find the beer in the fridge downstairs.”

“No, my dear,” Lee Anne replied, “you’ll find the wine in the kitchen.”

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Spell-Binding Sunset – Response To Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”

After finishing Dostoevsky’s The Devils again, I was struck by how sad Stavrogin’s decision made me despite the atrocities he committed; and I also found myself thinking about spell-binding sunsets.

Whenever I find myself awed by the brilliant colors of a setting sky, two scenarios take place: I either enter into a mode of appreciation and become distracted from my life; or I experience deep, untapped other-worldly emotions en route to a moment of transcendence.

When I’m spell-bound, I can experience it in two ways: Incapable of thought or overwhelmed with thought.

And from my experience, either predicament leads to paralysis.

In the past, whenever a woman has made me pull over the car to look at a sunset, I’ve always been more spell-bound by the girl and her deep appreciation for beauty—and her willingness to share that beauty with me—than the sky itself. Afterwards, I reflect on the experience and wonder how sharing something so small with someone else can prove to be so meaningful.

The truth is that you sometimes have to move out of the moment to process things. Kierkegaard said that to reach the spot you have to move away from the spot, and I’m not so sure any of Dostoevsky’s characters are willing to take a step back so they can see themselves in light of their own views about God and politics.

Once I learned the fate of Stavrogin and closed the book, I was left with the impression that almost all of the characters are spell-bound by their own idea of a beautiful Russia, except for Stavrogin, and perhaps Shatov. I also found it interesting that almost every character had the courage to act on his or her beliefs, which makes reaching a belief the core value of the book.

Apparently, for Stavrogin, the resulting guilt from his actions could not be reasoned away. He was spell-bound alright, but by his acts of nihilism, which no philosophy could provide an escape. When he ended up taking his own life, I get the feeling he did so quite certain in the existence of God.

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Beckoned

I woke up beckoned. But to what? At the time I knew not “what” and yet there was a stirring within me—a desire to succumb to my unquestioning, absurd obedience to a feeling I could barely comprehend. Full of desire, I hopped in my car with no object or direction or plan. It was as if my past was before me, behind me, and under me while I tried to find a place where I could be alone in the most solitary sense that alone could be.

I picked up a few items at the store and drank back a coffee while feeling the stirring within me intensifying into a thought. And then, quite spontaneously, I “knew” where I had to be. There was a place from my past—a happy place full of memories—that I had not visited in years, and its very quality was its remoteness. And so my obedience to a “yet-to-be-revealed purpose” brought me along unpaved roads with old farmhouses, fields of wheat, silos and wooden bridges under a sky stretching itself thin with wispy clouds fading in the distance.

When I arrived at the shadowy edge of the woods I began to doubt. As I remembered it, the road was supposed to branch to the right and yet I pressed on. Just when my faith was about to fail, the road forked, leaving me little doubt as to what direction I would take and I began to feel my apprehension dissipate. I parked my car in a little clearing by the riverside and when I got out of the car I could hear the sound of running water below a tiny, rickety bridge that let me know I found the right place. At first I thought I was being called to fish, so I rummaged in the back of my car for my rod. I then put my headphones on and allowed myself to enjoy my singularity while the sounds of nature merged with my choice of music.

“What’s to become of me?” was the prevailing thought that penetrated even the golden satisfaction I was taking from the golden sunlight that bathed everything: the tall grass, the shrubs, the reeds, the lilypads, the dark waters concentrated with vegetation and the small fish just below the surface. It was a dark thought that seemed strangely appropriate given my proximity to living poetry itself.

I walked along the shore until I found an appropriate spot to fish, and with every step I felt the tall grass rubbing against my exposed legs, leaving me itchy. With a snap of my rod, I flung my lure to a spot vacated by weeds and began to reel it in. The sun caught every bit of silver during the lure’s descent, from the splash of its landing to its retrieve past weeds and gnarly old roots protruding above the surface. In all honesty, it was quite difficult to avoid getting a snag and there were no signs of hungry fish. Since it was apparent that I was not meant to hook on to a literal symbol of my childhood past, I walked back to the car and put my rod away.

With my headphones still on, I went and sat on the bridge while trying to come to terms with that part of me that wanted me here, for whatever reason. I looked down into a portrait of life in the water framed by the weeds swaying in the current. Little fish swam back and forth, each with their own personality. Several catfish would swim through the picture, two of them almost affectionately swimming together, like lovers. There were potential meals all around these fish and yet it was not time to feed. There was no fear between them, like an unspoken truce, an unspoken understanding. My understanding was unspoken, too. It was felt. I was beckoned. But I certainly wasn’t beckoned to sit on an old bridge from my past and contemplate fish.

“What’s to become of me?”

While I sat there completely obedient to a sense of somehow belonging to this picture, I hummed to my music in full acceptance of the patience required of me. I watched a dragonfly repeatedly dipping itself into the water, a rhythm totally unto itself. I truly had no idea what this creature was trying to accomplish. I watched a bird in the distance stop helicopter-like, scanning the surface for potential prey. And yet it never dove. Every image around me contributed to this overall sense of life and fecundity, as opposed to the normal reality one experiences where life and death are present as unified opposites. It was a remarkable moment.

And then I felt beckoned again. But to where? I had been here countless times and had never known another path other than the one I took along the waterside. My eyes were opened, though, and a sandy trail leading back into the forest suddenly revealed itself, summoning me to my feet. I walked again, not necessarily expectant of anything profound or meaningful. The forest quickly gave way to a clearing and once again it forked, leaving me with a choice. I decided to follow the path that ran closest to the water, and I felt my spirit soar when I completely exited the forest and came upon a bird sanctuary so vibrant that it’s beyond my talent to describe.

The emotions in me swelled, and as I walked I tried to come to terms with my happiness and delight in contrast to my melancholy and malaise. I wanted to sing, and yet I wanted to be sick. “It’s f—ing beautiful,” I said aloud to myself in awe. I wanted to be alone with its beauty and yet I wanted to share it with her, too. I wanted her to see it with her own eyes, and I imagined bringing her here during the autumn when the colors would be even more intense. The whole thing was too much for me to process. Grandeur is infinite and yet I felt so limited in what I could understand, in what I could allow my spirit to feel. It was overwhelming.

As I walked further into the sanctuary, I began to feel the “stirrings” within me starting to calm and the emotional extremes finding resolution. The water glistened and birds were everywhere. Each step I took resulted in frogs leaping and grasshoppers taking flight. The wind was mild and the osprey hovering effortlessly in its current of air seemed mindless of my presence. Eventually I came across a tower for watching birds and without hesitation I climbed the steps to the top. I imagined what it would be like to take her here and have her in the moment. It seemed that her presence was everywhere. It started within me and radiated outwards, illuminating the hills in the distance, the water shining before me and the water fowl dipping their beaks below the surface. I swear I could smell her in the breeze, in the fragrance of grass and vegetation at the height of summer.

I climbed down from the tower renewed, and yet I pressed on. I found myself singing to my music again and I felt peaceful. It was as if my soul had spoken to me. I imagined a bench in the beyond and I knew if I pressed on she would be waiting for me. I just knew that she would. It became hot as I walked along and since I brought nothing to drink I yearned for even a sip of the stagnant water that was worthy of mirroring the sky and yet undoubtedly unfit for quenching human thirst. It was at this time that I came across a Canadian goose that was killed in the middle of the path. All that remained were a few feathers scattered in memorial. Undeterred that death’s signature had etched its place in the pristine sanctuary, I walked on, as if into the haze of a long forgotten memory just about to surface.

Once I could see that the path came to a “T” in the distance, I knew I was upon my destination. As I approached, a wooden bench sat poised for a breathtaking view of the marsh, with a pastoral portrait of farmland in the distance and blue herons all around. I sat on the bench and spoke to her like I was expecting her to be truly there all along.

“I knew you would be here,” I found myself saying.

I could feel her response.

“I knew you would come,” she replied.

“It’s so beautiful here, we were meant to share it,” I said with excitement.

“Let’s enjoy this moment together, but understand that you’re to walk back without me.”

“I’m to return to alone?” I asked, feeling sadness creep in.

She nodded.

“I don’t know what’s to become of me?” I said. “I still don’t know why I’ve been beckoned?”

She had compassion in her eyes. “So that you can leave me behind.”

“I don’t know how to,” I confessed. “I see you in everything, I feel you in everything.”

“It’s time you get going.”

“But what’s to become of me?”

“You’re to become stronger, more loving, less controlled with your emotions. Most of all, you’re to allow God to enter your solitude while you reinterpret every image of every step you took here. You will not think of me.”

At that moment, for the first time all day, I felt my solitude wash over me and I felt no resistance. I retraced my steps, from the herons past the memorial of feathers. I continued along the waterside path until I got back to the tower. An old man now stood in the tower and I felt fear and apprehension as I approached him, believing that it was important that my aloneness remained undisturbed.

“It’s a great day to be out here,” I said.

He looked down on me, shirtless, aged from the sun, and replied: “Have you made the full circle?”

“I only walked to the end of the path,” I confessed.

“A tip for you,” he said. “Use a bike.”

Sure enough, leaning against the tower was a rusty, old bicycle that he used to circle the marsh.

I continued back to my car with this sense of being profoundly disturbed into health. It felt like I was departing with the knowledge that I had been pursuing my idea of her all along.

In the end, I was beckoned deep within the sanctuary so that I could surrender my love to an ideal more beautiful than my memories.

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Inspiration of A Dog’s Religion

When it came to writing the book “A Dog’s Religion,” I thought about my subject for three or four months before I started to even make notes. The inspiration for the book came when I was attending a church in Warren Ohio.

Often I would choose a church with a theology I disagreed with because I found that I emotionally interacted with the material more. In the end I seem to get more out of the service. In this particular case, the pastor was talking about having a relationship with God. This was a subject that got my attention. He went on to talk about the “lost souls” and how it was Christ’s commission for us to make disciples so that others might be saved as well. I’m curious when people talk about being “saved” because I’m never quite sure what they mean. Saved from death? Saved from eternal punishment? Saved from their sins?

Of all the questions posed above, I’m most intrigued by being saved from sin – in a certain sense anyway. The fact is we cannot undo what we’ve done. Our actions in this world are indelibly traced into our history and there is no disconnect. It’s mortifying to think of some of the things we’ve done, and I’m sure most of us would love to erase moments in time when we’ve made a decision that hurt someone badly.

But I’m not sure this is what the pastor was concerned with when he talked about saving souls. He wasn’t talking about self-forgiveness as a result of believing in God’s forgiveness. He went on to make the congregation think of the faces of people they work with, their friends, their relatives, and how these people were in eternal danger as a result of their failure to acknowledge Christ as their savior. He even made the comment that other religions were not efficacious enough for salvation because believing in Christ was the key.

While I was listening to him describe the urgency we must adopt in order to accomplish this task, I started to look at the faces of the congregation around me. Were they buying this? Sure, some people stared ahead with glassy eyes, already thinking about the football game or what they were going to have for lunch. Others were nodding with a certain fierceness in their eyes. And then others, at least in the moment, looked rather ill or saddened as they sat there considering the fate of many of their loved ones.

Instantly, I formed this connection. The pastor said that the greatest joy in life was to have a relationship with God. However, if you do not form a relationship with God in your lifetime you are not only deprived now, but deprived for all eternity as well. As far as I was concerned, there had to be a way to create a circumstance that illustrated the cruel and unsympathetic nature of this type of thinking. The ability to believe in God, and even better, have a relationship with God, is a very special gift for the individual, and not all of us are “chosen” to receive this gift without a great amount of struggle (or at all for that matter). So if people lack that sense of spiritual connection and go about their lives with a void, it seems to diminish the “miracle” of that gift by simultaneously making it the vehicle by which people are eternally separated from God as well.

Kierkegaard wrote thousands of pages on this subject, and in the end I’m not sure if he believed in God or not. But he’s a great example of a man who wanted to. He “chose” to try to the best of his ability. If having a relationship with God is so fundamental to a meaningful life, the commission should be to share with people how you’ve been spiritually enriched by finding this connection so that they can make the choice to try to develop this in their own lives (and then pass it on themselves).

So “A Dog’s Religion” was born from a situation where I decided that even one person holding an exclusive view of salvation was too many as far as I was concerned. Instead, I decided to write a book that would leave the impression that God will make every individual’s struggle worthwhile when all is said and done.

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