Saturday, October 31, 2009

All Hallow's Eve (UPDATE)

When we lived in LaMoille, IL, the pastor of the Congregational Church, at least for a few years, was a fundamentalist. He and his wife held a meeting at the release of the fourth Harry Potter book, which prompted me to start reading them. They also refused to allow their children to participate in Halloween activities, and they didn't pass out candy. These latter traits betray the historical ignorance of fundamentalists; since the day references the simple fact that tomorrow is All Saints Day, it is nothing more or less than a bit of a celebration before a holy day.

An opportunity to dress up, especially as creatures of darkness, before we celebrate the lives of those who have led us to the light, is a good way to relieve existential and spiritual tension. Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans function in much the same way. There is neither harm nor foul in masking our identities, having a bit of harmless fun, and reveling, in some small way, in the darker side of our natures. Indeed, by doing so with the conscious intention of limiting this darkness to an alternative identity for a specific purpose, we force a control over that darker side of ourselves that might otherwise control us. It might even be said to be a kind of playful discipline, or perhaps disciplined form of play, in order to prepare ourselves for the somber yet happy thought that our lives have been influenced by those who have gone before us.

To those Christians who find something evil or horrible about Halloween, all I can say is, get over it. Dress up, relax, and remember that the night (Eve) is not stronger than the light (the Feast of All Saints).

UPDATE: Courtesy of Tintin at Sadly,No! comes this example, proving me right.
The word "holiday" means "holy day." But there is nothing holy about Halloween. The root word of Halloween is "hallow," which means "holy, consecrated and set apart for service." If this holiday is hallowed, whose service is it set apart for? The answer to that question is very easy-Lucifer's!

The best line in this article comes immediately following this quote, in which she calls Lucifer part of "the demonic godhead". And to think I pay $35 a month for this kind of rich, sugary goodness . . .

Saturday Rock Show

I said the other day that the videos by the band Tool show me a vision of hell; they are disturbing to watch, and rarely deal with the subject matter of the song. In the case of "Parabol/Parabola" from the Lateralus CD, however, I think there is a closer fit, depending on how one interprets the song. This is one reason why I think Maynard Keenan is the best lyricist in rock; I first heard this song as positive; then read online interpretations that discussed it in terms of suicide rather than sex. Of course, since sex and death are often linked by poets, it may be that this is a false choice. In any event, this disturbing video of a song that might exemplify the healing power of sexual love or draw a grim portrait of a dying individual's final thoughts still sends chills through me.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Some Actual Evidence Would Be Nice

This piece at Alternet, which I would ask you to read in its entirety, is a piece of garbage. The beginning has nothing at all to do with the substance of the piece. The "silly ideas" are offered without any links or quotes to those who allegedly hold them. Furthermore, the ideas she presents are a parody of fundamentalist ideas gussied up.

God guides evolution . . . The human soul . . . A sentient universe . . . I'm trying to think of a liberal theologian of whom I'm aware (other than Tielhard de Chardin, hardly a major influence on contemporary thought either Christian or otherwise) that comes close to these ideas. The last one, especially, is weird, anthropic-principle sounding stuff that is just gobbledygook.

I was figuring she was going to smackdown on liberals (like me) who believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, say, or the Trinity. Instead, she invents stuff out of whole cloth to smear people with.

She's like a low-rent Sam Harris, who is already in the public-housing division of anti-religious crusaders.

Why Pundits Suck

This summary counter-argument to the craptastic Charles Krauthammer should, in a sane world, make him and others like him, ashamed enough never to submit another word for public delectation (I have been wanting to use that word for so long):
George W. Bush, on the other hand, inherited a country at peace and going through an economic boom. He left it in the midst of two wars and a crippling recession. If that doesn’t put him in the mix for Worst President Evar, I don’t know what does.

The reason pundits suck is simple - to Krauthammer and the rest of them, this is just "Blah, blah, blah".

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Set Up

Resolved - one does not have to have read everything on a theological topic in order to have an informed opinion.


It is more than a little synchronistic that I saw this article at TPM on the same day I had decided to do a little post on hell. I continue to find it amusing that the best these folks can come up with in their visions of eternal damnation is rooted in an early Renaissance poem. Not only are they unbiblical, they are unoriginal as well.

Most takes on hell - in literature, music, and the graphic arts - rely on Dante's poem as a guide. To think that the worst anyone can imagine is to be physically tortured by fire for all eternity shows a lack of understanding about what hell actually is. Hell is nothing more or less than complete and utter separation from God. Not the kind of separation we experience in this life, with its pain, temptation, more than occasional horrors, and the inevitability of our own deaths. It is a separation that leaves a hole that can never be filled. One may still be aware of God's existence; yet one will be forever cut off from that avenue of assistance.

As a Christian, I cannot imagine a torment more horrible than that. To exist knowing that one will never again be in any kind of communion with God is far more horrible than having demons burn me with pokers, or sinking in a vat filled with human excrement, or even rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again just as I reach the summit.

The best visual representations of this idea, to my mind, are videos by the heavy metal band Tool. These little animated explorations of the bizarre and strange offer, to me, a glimpse of what it would be like to exist in a place without God's presence. Creatures that cannot exist roving about. A place where the relationship between cause and effect does not exist. Most of all, these videos portray an aloneness that is irredeemable. The videos always strike me as horrific precisely because the little characters seem unable to access others when needed. It is through others that we confirm the basic rationality of our existence. It is with others that we console ourselves at our darkest moments. It is by others that our understanding of the world is confirmed. In an existence without any access to others there is no way to confirm our suspicions about the world. In hell, there is no sympathy, no fellow-feeling, no others that can agree with us, confirm our suspicions that what is around us makes no sense, or might make some sense. It is an existence without rules, without sense, without any escape whatsoever.

The kinds of "scary" offered up by fundamentalists and others just don't cut it for me. If Randall Terry showed up somewhere near me, I'd just laugh at this kind of thing. I can imagine something far more horrible, especially for people like Randall Terry who are willing to kill in the name of life - that's hell on earth.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


With the gothic revival, Twilight. The Vampire Diaries, and all the rest of this hokum, it is easy to forget that vampires aren't exactly Euro-trash in white pancake.

My daughter is obsessed with Twilight, as are many tweens and young teens. Perhaps it's the Sturm und Drang of the love affair in question (I told Moriah that it was just Romeo and Juliet with vampires, and that the original was better because it had sword fights). Perhaps it's the allure of being tempted to bad in a good cause. The appeal, whatever it may be, is lost on me; perhaps I have no more romance in my soul, but the thought of running down deer rather than people just doesn't strike me as, I don't know, cool. Hasn't anyone told the kids who read this that part of the allure of vampires is turning other people in to vampires?

My daughter's obsession worried me enough this past summer I offered, as an alternative, Stephen King's delightfully scary, pulpy 'Salem's Lot as an alternative, and far more traditional, take on the vampire myth. In Barlow, we have the vampire as an incarnation of evil, even killing a child as a sacrifice to the Devil early on in the book. The most frightening moment in the book, for me, has always been the scenes of the young boy, lying in bed, seeing the vampire outside his bedroom window, scrabbling at the window and begging to be let in. It was weeks before I opened the curtains in my bedroom, the first time I read that.

More to the point, even Stoker's original had enough of a sheen of the gothic romance about it to rob the myth of its more frightening aspects. The contemporary take on it - Interview With A Vampire crap, Twilight, the vampire-rock of Atreyu and other neo-Goth metal bands - renders the whole myth less than frightening. Yet, at its heart, the vampire legends concern themselves with an abomination, the antithesis of the Christian proclamation of the resurrection of the dead. Rather than a life of glory before the throne of God, vampires are condemned to endless hunger, unquenchable thirst for the blood of the living. There is nothing romantic about it; it is a surrender to the most basic instinct human beings have - hunger - for an unfulfillable promise (everlasting life and youth).

Which is not to say I am going to bar Moriah from seeing New Moon when it comes out next month. Nor am I going prevent her from being a vampire for Halloween. I just wish we had better pop-culture guides to this story of evil incarnate than currently exist.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I'm Glad There's Not A Brick Wall Around, Because I Would Beat My Head Against It

Is it at all possible for people to write and talk about science without using the word belief? One does not "believe" in Newton's law of universal gravitation, or Mendelian genetics, or quantum mechanics. These are general descriptions of actual physical phenomena, open to any person's understanding. While not "true" in any philosophical sense, they are good for getting on with as descriptions of the way the universe seems to operate, at least as we understand it thus far. Belief, in any manner fashion or form, doesn't enter the picture.

I am so tired of people talking about "believing in" evolution, with climate change now added like an aperitif of stupid. One neither believes nor doesn't believe in the science behind the theory of global warming. One can read any of the hundreds of scientific papers and monographs on the subject, consider the methodology, the inherent limitations, and conclusions involved, and accept or not accept it. If anyone says, "I believe in evolution," that person isn't talking about a scientific theory of which I am aware. Or, perhaps, they are dumb enough to think one can "believe" the sun is a big ball of hydrogen without any reference to whether or not it actually is a big ball of hydrogen.

Isn't it possible to talk about science in a way that is clear? Pretty please with sugar on top?

Brad Hirschfield Is Stupid

Punishing individuals for what they believe and not what they have done is a scary precedent which avoids the real cultural challenges we face and potentially devalues the significance of crimes not rising to the level of a hate crime.

For the eleventy-billionth time, hate crimes do not punish thought, speech, or belief. They punish acts. How is it possible, considering we as a nation have been discussing the issue for roughly a decade now, this isn't clear? Is Rabbi Hirschfield that stupid?

Or is he deliberately misrepresenting what hate crimes are?

I suppose offering the choice is disingenuous of me; he could be both. . .


I realized yesterday that, with Halloween coming, I had written a post entitled "Evil". I decided, more out of a sense of fun than anything else, to do some other similarly themes kinds of things until this Saturday.

I am old enough to remember when The Exorcist was scary. To be honest, the first time I saw it, some (although not all) of the scenes really scared the shit out of me. The sounds from the attic early on, especially; my parents' house has a big attic and while it was never really scary, forever after I would wonder whether I would hear sounds portending something horrible from up above.

My view of the movie, and its subject matter, has changed drastically over time. I guess I really didn't think much about the topic - demon possession - until I was a bit older. After studying theology and all, though, I have to ask a question: Why would they bother? Furthermore, I have to wonder about the Roman Catholic view of exorcism, at least as presented in the movie.

It seems to me that declaring the name of Christ would be enough to banish the demon back to whatever circle of hell it usually occupies. Or are demons more powerful than the Second Person of the Trinity?

While I'm at it, why are demons, and evil things in general, very often offered up to audiences as erudite, refined, well-educated, just kind of short-tempered with weak stomachs and silly ideas about what might be considered blasphemous (Linda Blair projective vomiting pea soup on the priest isn't scary, it's just kind of gross; the whole masturbating with a crucifix is actually disturbing, although not in a theological sense)? Does that mean that well-mannered, educated humans are actually demons in disguise? Stephen King pulled the same trick in the novel Salem's Lot (the original TV movie version had the vampire Barlow more a Nosferatu-type of creature, rather than dandyfied Euro-trash like the book). Just because a demon, or a vampire, or whatever evil creature we may be referencing, has been alive a long time doesn't mean it is intelligent. Isn't it possible there are demons who are as stupid as stumps, and that stupidity is reflected in their speech?

In all, while it has provided fodder for one moderately scary movie, as a possible paranormal event, I just don't accept the idea that there are metaphysical creatures from hell just itching to "take over" us human beings. Considering the horrors that we human beings routinely visit upon one another without the direct intervention of such alleged creatures or events, I for one would want to ask a person who claims to be possessed, "Wasn't Rwanda evil enough for you?"

Monday, October 26, 2009

Music For Your Monday

In honor of the upcoming festivities. . .

"Black Sabbath" was written, in part, from an alleged experience bass player Terry "Geezer" Butler had. Also, it was written to set out a template for future songs by the band, which took its name from a Vincent Price movie. Butler was a fan of horror films, and wanted to separate out the music the band was playing, originally a bluesy kind of thing (at the time, the band was still known as Earth, which created booking issues, cause there was a British hippy-dippy pop band by the same name with a minor UK hit). Coming from the industrial working class, their experiences were not all happy-smiley- let's all drop acid and make love not war. While they would expand their musical horizons over the decade, this song still works pretty well (a warning - Ozzy's intro is NSFW)

The first round of death metal bands to emerge in Europe - Mercyful Fate and Venom being among the better ones - were over the top in terms of their dress and general presentation. Metallica drew a lot of early inspiration from Venom, toured with them for quite a while, but didn't copy their studs-for-Satan personas. They aren't to be taken seriously, really, beyond being a good band that managed to create a lot of press by being outrageous. This song, "Welcome to Hell", is one of their better ones.

Rob Zombie has turned more and more to film direction, with his recasting of the Halloween franchise not just different from the original, but quite good in and for themselves. His fascination with schlocky horror kitsch is evident in his music as well. I think "Living Dead Girl" is one of his better songs; a few years ago, I offered it as part of a soundtrack for a community theater production of "Dracula". That and "Bela Lugosi's Dead", of course. . .


One of the sillier things one read and heard far too often in the wake of President George W. Bush's name-calling of the 9/11 hijackers as "evildoers" was that we liberals are incapable of seeing and calling out "evil". I am about to prove them wrong. Ahem.
Michael owed 15-year-old Matthew Bent $40 for a video game, but hadn't paid up. So on Sunday, Bent tried to steal Michael's dad's bike as compensation. Micheal thwarted the theft, and his family called the cops. Bent was arrested.

But he was sent home after a brief stay in juvie. Michael skipped school Monday, fearing payback. Bent didn't go to school either.

Monday afternoon, Michael went over to the Lime Street Apartments to visit a friend. Bent just happened to be there as well. Michael was sitting by the pool when he was surrounded by five boys: Bent, Denver Colorado Jarvis, 15; his brother Jeremy Jarvis, 13; Steven Shelton, 15; and Jesus Mendez, 15.

They grabbed a bottle of rubbing alcohol they found and surrounded Michael. Bent called him a rat. Michael tried to leave but couldn't. Bent ordered the rubbing alcohol poured on Michael. Denver Jarvis doused him with the fluid, then Mendez set him on fire.

It should be obvious to any but the most sociopathic brain that such a horrific act is evil.

Do evil acts, however, make the individuals who perform them morally vicious, and therefore outside our circle of concern and even love? Certainly, it is more than troubling that a group of teenagers would not only conceive of such an act, but actually carry it out. Keeping them away from others is best for all concerned, to be sure. Yet these practical, legal, matters don't address the question of whether or not they are evil.

Any thoughts? Anyone?


Via Crooks and Liars, I stumbled across this little tid-bit of dumb. In all honesty, why do people even bother?

This is the kind of undergraduate-debate-society topic that resolves nothing, creates more tension and anxiety than it relieves, and offers little hope of real communication.

Had I been present, I might just have said something like, "God does not ask us to be good, God asks us to be faithful in love. Whatever flows from that is, by definition, good whether or not it conforms to whatever passes for morality." Since the whole issue begs far more questions than it settles, I can't really say I find it either meaningful or interesting.

But, then again, I'm a false teacher, so what do I know.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Hazards Of Cheap Spiritual Enlightenment

I hadn't heard about the deaths. In fact, I have never heard of James Ray, and now that I have, I don't feel like my brain has expanded because of that information. Yet, to describe what happened in Sedona as part of a problem with "self-help", as Christine Whelan does, is to completely misunderstand what occurred. Is Ray criminally responsible for the deaths of two people in a sweat lodge in Arizona? Perhaps, although if he is found so guilty, that doesn't mean there is a problem with "self-help" per se.

The real problem is that, like most middle-class, moderately educated Americans, the folks who listened to Ray and paid him nearly $10,000 for the privilege of a weekend getaway had absolutely no idea what they were getting themselves into. My guess is neither did Ray. Ours is a society that, for the most part, is bereft of any spiritual understanding whatsoever. Far too many Americans view "religion" and "spirituality" as synonyms, life-commodities to be traded at will on the open market for a "best fit". Witness denomination-hopping as a kind of surface-level example of what I'm describing.

The desire for spiritual cleansing is understandable. Yet Ray, by providing at a high price the promise of some kind of fulfillment over a weekend, in all likelihood neither believing nor caring about the potential hazards involved, does not provide any spiritual cleansing at all. Before entering a sweat lodge, or venturing out on a vision quest, or going to Australia and attempting a "singing", it takes years of physical, psychological, and spiritual preparation. Ray is a snake-oil salesman who has been given a real cure for once; except, of course, he not only neither knows nor cares, he has no idea that some of the possible side-effects of this cure can be dangerous. For what were, in all likelihood well-fed, pampered, relatively physically inert groups of people to attempt a sweat lodge is not only physically dangerous; it courts spiritual dangers as well.

I wish I could recall where I read it, but the phrase, "Never fuck with the eternal", popped in to my head while I was reading this piece. Ray is an ignorant yahoo, looking to make a quick buck off the even more ignorant yahoos who think that a "spiritual experience" can be bought with something as easy and cheap as money. Sometimes, spiritual enlightenment comes with a very high price tag indeed. Anyone with even a modicum of understanding of the history of these and other rituals would have been able to tell Ray that he was standing with his toes dangling over an infinite drop, believing he could lead people over the abyss without any harm done.

The path that leads to a deeper spiritual awareness very often intersects the path that leads to death; without any understanding of the hazards involved, one can easily stray off the way. Indeed, sometimes even with that understanding, it happens, anyway. James Ray has no idea that he is offering not the chance to be a "Spiritual Warrior", but the chance to stare God in the eye and live. Few can really do that; those that have done it usually end up slightly crazy afterward (read Ezekiel if you think I'm kidding). In the battle between our fragile selves and the unending point that is both everything and nothing, beyond what we can imagine, most human beings wind up like other warriors before them - quite dead.

Virtual Tin Cup

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