Saturday, February 28, 2009

Paul Harvey

I just heard that Paul Harvey has passed away at the age of 90.

I first heard of Paul Harvey in my seventh grade math class, in which our conservative teacher read to us from his book, The Rest of the Story, before we got to our math lesson. The book contained stories with interesting details about famous people and things in history. Usually, the people or things were identified at the end of the story, which would conclude with "...and now you know the rest of the story."

Paul Harvey was a conservative by-and-large. (I once read that he was pro-choice on the abortion issue). The first time I heard him on the radio, he was speaking out against radical environmentalism. But I don't remember him attacking or making fun of those he disagreed with. Paul Harvey was like Reader's Digest on the radio: folksy, entertaining, patriotic, interesting, family-oriented, warm, conservative--an American institution. Ronald Reagan had the same persona.

RIP, Mr. Paul Aurandt! You certainly made those long car trips go by a lot faster! We'll miss you.

Grand New Party, America, Black History Month

Here are some odds and ends for today:

1. I'm reading a book that Felix recommended a while back: Grand New Party (New York: Doubleday, 2008), by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. The book is not entirely what I anticipated. I expected its thesis to be: "The Republican Party is too darn conservative! It needs to moderate its positions on abortion and homosexuality if it is to make electoral headway."

Actually, the book is sympathetic to the Republican Party's cultural conservatism. For Douthat and Salam, the working class has flocked to the GOP on guns, religion, and marriage, not because they've been duped, but because their economic security goes hand in hand with their cultural stability. The working class is actually affected by crime and the sexual revolution, and negatively at that! As Douthat and Salam point out, the Republicans' "law and order" mantra was not a code word for racial fears; rather, it resonated with the working class because (unlike rich liberals) it has to experience the effects of rising crime rates. And working class people are less able to absorb the costs of the sexual revolution, so they tend to be old fashioned in the area of sex (or so we're told).

I cheered as I read these parts because they highlight how condescending and patronizing the Left can be. I had to shake my head when it said that the judge who forced bussing on South Boston in the 1970's "lived in Cambridge and sent his kids to private schools" (45), meaning he was unaffected by the liberal social tinkering he imposed on others.

The book so far seems to advocate social/cultural conservatism combined with a dime-store New Dealism: an approach to government in which it gives people a hand-up, not a hand-out, in a cost-effective manner. The book is enjoyable because it goes beyond the "us vs. them" mentality that I see on Fox News, as it acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses of the Left and the Right. At the same time, I see from the book that the terms "Left" and "Right" are themselves problematic, since there is variety within those ideologies and among the figures who represent them.

2. Speaking of stability, I'll be watching the movie America tonight on Lifetime. It's a new movie that stars Rosie O'Donnell, and it's about a young adult tossed to-and-fro within the foster system. I can't imagine what that would be like for a kid--not being able to find a place where he can rest in the unconditional love of parents. What a rootless feeling that must bring! I don't agree with Rosie O'Donnell's politics, but I've liked her in some of the movies she's been in (i.e., Wide Awake). I expect America to be a sad yet inspiring movie.

3. Today is the last day of Black History Month. I didn't see all of the movies that I wanted to see, and I didn't write all of the posts that I wanted to write. But there's always next year!

I've thought about this question: What should be my focus when I write about Black History Month? Should I focus on blacks as victims in America? Or should I highlight their accomplishments and contributions? I expected this to be a month in which I would watch Roots and Malcom X, which focus a lot on African-Americans' struggles against racism. But my mom recommended movies that tend to focus more on the accomplishments of black Americans (i.e., Antwone Fisher, Men of Honor). Next year, I'll pursue a balance.

What can people gain from Black History Month? I don't know. I get something out of it for a variety of reasons, so that's why James' Thoughts and Musings will continue to celebrate it.

Have a good day!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Free Market and Fiscal Responsibility My...

I read a book not long ago entitled The Student Loan Scam (Boston: Beacon, 2009), by Alan Michael Collinge.

The book illustrates one of my biggest problems with the Republican Party: with all of its talk about "free markets" and "fiscal responsibility," it's perfectly willing for the government to get into bed with big business interests.

Collinge documents that Congress under Republican control passed a law that eliminated competition in the student loan industry. If a student deals with Sallie Mae, then he will owe Sallie Mae for the duration of his debt. Nobody else can buy out the debt. According to Collinge, this is problematic because Sallie Mae profits from the additional fees that accompany defaulted loans, meaning it gets a windfall from the absence of competition.

Collinge also contends that it is cheaper for the U.S. government to make direct loans, since Sallie Mae overbills the government. But Collinge points out that Republicans have sought to weaken the direct loans program.

My relationship with Sallie Mae has been good, and we should remember that there are two sides to every story. But the scenario that Collinge presents exists in other areas. A while back, I read David Kay Johnston's Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and StickYou with the Bill). One part of that book that sticks out to me is his account of how Rudy Giuliani as mayor of New York spent gobs of money for a sports stadium, even though stadiums usually don't improve the economy. Meanwhile, he sought to cut spending for libraries and museums.

Then there was the time when the Republican Congress in the early 2000's was about to make cutbacks. It tried to go after food stamps and Medicaid funding for the poor. Never mind that Haliburton was overbilling the taxpayers, or that Medicare was giving money to insurance companies, with the approval of even a maverick Republican like John McCain. No, for a lot of Republicans, "fiscal responsibility" doesn't mean that everyone has to tighten his belt!

I remember Cal Thomas writing at the time that, if the Republicans are really interested in finding places to cut spending, then they shouldn't start with the poor. He then went on to enumerate examples of waste, fraud, and abuse in government. Here's a Republican in whom my heart delights: someone who truly cares about fiscal responsibility, rather than cutting off aid to the poor to foster the illusion of fiscal responsibility.

In Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution, Michael Tanner states that the Republican Congress has hindered the construction of hospitals. No wonder the cost of health care is on the rise! The Republican Party has suppressed competition.

Then there was Glenn Beck last night. Glenn showed that Republican Senator Lindsey Graham is supporting a pork barrel project. Of all people!

I'm sick of the Republican Party--of it saying we should tighten up on food stamps or Medicaid in the name of fiscal responsibility, while it supports egregious waste in the federal budget. As for any reductions that Bush and the Republican Congress accomplished, what good did they do? The deficit still rose!

The Clinton Administration is starting to look better to me as I think back. Here was a President who established a commission to reduce federal bureaucracy. He even vetoed a Republican bill because it cost too much!

And, although I didn't vote for Obama, I like some things that he is proposing: a commission on fiscal responsibility, cutbacks in spending on agri-business and insurance companies, etc. I think Rush Limbaugh and the Republicans do well to point out any extravagance in the stimulus package, but why should we always see it in terms of debt? If its tax cuts on the middle class do their magic, then the economy will improve. Shouldn't that lead to an increase in revenue? Isn't that basic supply-side economics?

Republicans are criticizing Obama's health care plan, saying it will raise taxes. For one, the percentage of the tax increase for families making over $250,000 a year appears to be a few percentage points. And, second, even McCain's health care plan would have imposed a tax on employer-based health insurance. If you want a program, then you have to find some way to pay for it. Personally, I wouldn't mind a little tax increase on those making over $250,000 to make health care a little more affordable. Taxes. Premiums. Both can suck the life out of people!

At the moment, it seems to me that the Democrats are the more fiscally responsible ones, even though they want the government to be a little more generous to the poor and struggling middle class. Too bad they're not pro-life on the abortion issue!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Goodness

This post continues my series on Cathleen Falsani's Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008). The topic for today is goodness.

When Cathleen Falsani was in Africa, she met a little boy named Vasco, who had a life-threatening heart condition. The following is her account of what she did in response:

I couldn't fix Vasco's heart myself, but I could tell his story. When I got home to Chicago, I did just that, writing about Vasco and his plight in a column for the Sun-Times. The response from readers was astounding. People from all over wrote and phoned in, offering to contribute to a fund for Vasco's medical needs. My friend from the Jewish Federation in Chicago sent me an email asking what she could do to help.

"Pray," I said.

"I'm not praying," she said. "I'm making phone calls."

My column ran on a Friday morning. By the end of the business day, she had convinced two hospitals to treat Vasco for free if we could get him to the United States. A family in the suburbs that had adopted a child from Africa offered to pay for his travel to the U.S. or whatever else he might need to go for treatment. An immigration lawyer came forward to help with bureaucratic red tape. Hundreds of people told me they were keeping Vasco in prayer, reminding his Maker to keep a special eye on the frail child in his little hut on the outskirts of one of the poorest cities in the world. (202-203)

This quote brings three things to my mind:

1. My impression of the Jewish community (which could be right or wrong) is that it's a big family, which includes doctors and lawyers and politicians and a host of other people. I'm not surprised that the lady from the Jewish Federation of Chicago could get things done by simply making a few phone calls. She had quite a network to draw upon!

2. I'm amazed by the goodness and badness of human nature. People can be extremely generous, yet they can also be callous, greedy, selfish, and uncaring.

People can fall inside the polarities of either good or evil, but often they find themselves in a mixed, murky area. I thought about this last week when I watched Miss Evers' Boys, a movie about the Tuskegee experiment of the 1930's. Essentially, the U.S. government ordered an African-American doctor and nurse to withhold treatment from black syphilis victims, leading to their deaths. Although the doctor and nurse felt guilty, they obeyed the orders because they hoped to gain respect for African-Americans within the scientific community. Their motives were good and evil, in that they sought scientific advancement and the progress of African-Americans, even as they ended up devaluing the lives of those in their care.

At my Latin mass last Sunday, the priest talked about human nature after the Fall. He said that he disagreed with Protestants who view humans as corrupt, as he pointed out that Adam and Eve did not become monsters after they ate the forbidden fruit (which he said could be symbolic). Rather, certain supernatural graces were withheld from them, yet there were good aspects of their nature that remained intact.

I'm not sure what to think about human nature. I can't say it's totally bad apart from Christ, since there are non-Christians who think and do good things. But, to remain a Christian in good standing, I have to believe that human nature is somehow flawed or out-of-whack without Christ.

3. Should the government take care of people, or is that the job of individuals? Liberals would probably say "both," even though there are prominent liberal politicians who don't give much to private charities. And many conservatives argue that charity is the job of the private sector, not the government.

Both sides make valid points. I once heard a conservative argue that the government doesn't need to do charity because the American people are perfectly willing to help others out--after floods, earthquakes, etc. Certainly they wouldn't let anyone fall through the cracks, he maintained!

I think people can be quite generous in catastrophic situations, but would they be willing to make a long-term commitment? Health care in America is expensive. Would rich Americans be willing to pay the monthly health insurance premiums of poor and middle-class Americans? I can't envision them making that kind of commitment!

On the other hand, do we want people to live off the charity of others? The private sector may be less tolerant of that than the government (to a certain extent).

There's something beautiful about people jumping in and helping a kid with a weak heart. At the same time, there are many people in America who lose their livelihoods because they get sick. I don't want to get rid of the spontaneous generosity of the American people as individuals. But I wonder if relying on that kind of generosity is always reliable for those who need help.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Rich Brother Rich Sister

I recently finished Rich Brother Rich Sister: Two Different Paths to God, Money and Happiness (New York: Vanguard, 2009), by Robert Kiyosaki and Emi Kiyosaki. I have to take it back to the library tomorrow, so I'd might as well write my review right now!

Robert and Emi are siblings. Robert is a big-time financial guru who wrote the bestseller Rich Dad Poor Dad, and Emi is a Buddhist nun who was ordained by the Dalai Lama.

The book was not entirely what I expected. From the back cover, I anticipated an account about how two different people helped one another to see the world in a new light. Robert would teach Emi the value of money, while Emi would teach Robert about spiritual values. Because I am drawn to religion rather than get-rich-quick schemes, I thought I'd enjoy Emi's sections more than Robert's.

But things didn't turn out as I expected, at least not entirely. For one, Robert says that the book was written so that Emi would have enough money for her cancer treatment. That's a noble goal, but I'd prefer for a book to be written as a result of a profound experience in which lessons are learned, and there's a felt need to communicate them to the outside world.

Second, Emi seemed to learn more from Robert than the other way around. Emi learned the value of money. She wanted to be a Buddhist nun living a simple life, but she realized that she needed money to cope in the United States, especially with our expensive health care system. Robert gave her tips on how to achieve financial independence.

And what did Robert learn from Emi? I'm not sure exactly. Robert and Emi became estranged from each other in their young adulthood because Robert served in Vietnam, whereas Emi marched in the peace movement. Robert eventually concluded that our involvement in the war had corrupt motivations, but he reached that conclusion through his own experience, not Emi's influence.

The same went for a lot of his spiritual insights. He didn't really get them from Emi, but from walking his own path of success and failure.

Third, I found myself enjoying Robert's sections more than Emi's. Robert writes in a light-hearted, conversational manner about the lessons he's learned along life's way. When he said that the religious people he knew were fine as wives or mothers, but became scary once they talked about religion, he pretty much had me hooked.

I also liked his story about how he became involved in self-help seminars. A girl he pursued invited him to them, and he reluctantly went, hoping she'd go out with him. When he failed to show a lot of interest, the girl told him that he needed that seminar more than anyone, since he was so needy. From that moment on, he tried to become a growing, spiritual, and successful person. He valued learning for learning's sake, not out of competition or stress to earn a degree, to the chagrin of his academically successful father. Robert is open about his past mistakes and failures, yet he affirms that they were necessary to help him learn and grow as a human being. That reminds me of something I heard today from AA's Daily Reflection: Nothing is wasted in God's economy.

Regarding Emi, I got to learn about the Dalai Lama, meditation, and the Buddhist system of karma, but I wasn't entirely clear about why she became a Buddhist. My impression is that it was something she kind of fell into. She talks about learning from her mistakes, since she admits that she wasn't exactly the best mother. But I wasn't entirely clear about how Buddhism shaped her life. That contrasts with a book I read a while back, Gabriel Cohen's Storms Can't Hurt the Sky: A Buddhist Path Through Divorce (see here), in which Cohen discusses how Buddhist insights helped him to cope with his hard divorce.

There were things that I liked about Emi's story, but they didn't have much to do with her Buddhism. She said that she'd always been a shy, socially-awkward person who was trying to escape from life, and I can understand where she's coming from there. She also related that she worked as a Buddhist chaplain in Colorado Springs, a predominantly evangelical city (not to mention the headquarters of Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family). She remarked that the area is quite friendly, as people greeted her when she passed them on the sidewalk, presumably in her Buddhist nun garb. Are friendly areas even real? Maybe!

Rich Brother Rich Sister has its flaws, since it sometimes reads as an infomercial, plus Robert comes across as a hero trying to rescue his sister. But it's still enjoyable because it's about people's experiences, insights, and growth.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Greek and Hebrew Purity Regulations

I've been going through Everett Ferguson's Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1993), and I see there are parallels between Greek purity rules and those in the Pentateuch.

Ferguson quotes the following "rules of purity for visitors to the temple of Athena at Pergamum":

"Whoever wishes to visit the temple of the goddess, whether a resident of the city or anyone else, must refrain from intercourse with his wife (or husband) that day, from intercourse with another than his wife (or husband) for the preceding two days, and must complete the requires lustrations. The same prohibition applies to contact with the dead and with the delivery of a woman in childbirth." (175)

A few pages earlier, Ferguson offers the following description of the Greek priesthood:

"The essential qualification [for priesthood] was that one 'know how' to approach the deity. But the regulations of particular cults specify other requirements. The most commonly expressed requirement is freedom from physical defects or infirmity. In the civic cults it was also necessary that one be a citizen. The conditions relative to age were quite variable. There are several cases on record of priesthoods held by children. This may be related to a fairly frequent demand for celibacy during the term of office. The requirement was not a matter of morality, but of ritual purity, and the assigning of priesthoods to the elderly or the very young conforms to the ancient view that sexual functions were ceremonially defiling (cf. Lev. 22:4-6)."

Similarly, in the Torah, we see a clear attempt to separate the holy from sex (Leviticus 15; 22:4-6), death (Leviticus 21; Numbers 5:1; 9; 14), and childbirth (Leviticus 12).

In a discussion I had with James McGrath under his post, What Do You Say That I Did?, McGrath states the following:

"The sacrifices that ancient Israel practiced did not originate with them. The texts from Ugarit have almost precisely the same terms we find in Leviticus. And so I wouldn't say there is anything one has to cling to in the sacrificial rituals in order to make sense of how we relate to God."

If the sacrifices and purity system in the Torah did not originate with Israel but were practiced by other nations as well, can we say that they have deep religious significance for Jews and Christians? If the biblical authors did not come up with the separation of the holy from sex, death, and childbirth, can we attach to that concept a meaning that is specific to Judaism and Christianity? Can Jews and Christians find spiritual value in rituals that are practically universal?

I've often connected Israel's purity regulations with Genesis 2-3. After Adam and Eve fell, death entered the world. Pain accompanied childbirth. Sex became corrupted, as the woman's desire became for her husband, and he ruled over her. I thought that the purity rules sought to respect a time when things were different--purer, if you will. But can I say that the authors of the purity regulations had Genesis 2-3 in mind, when other cultures without the Eden story had similar regulations? Maybe the connection is still valid, if Genesis 2-3 is based on the purity regulations rather than vice versa.

God may have copied the rituals for some reason, with the intention to teach Israel a lesson. The real ultra-conservative types (e.g., E.W. Bullinger) would maintain that God gave the earliest humans a religion, which became corrupted as time went on. Bullinger says that's why the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish resembles Genesis 1: Enuma Elish is a corruption of the true story of creation that was passed along before Israel came to exist as a nation. And Bullinger may assume that the same thing applies to the sacrifices: God gave the earliest people rules for sacrifice and purity, as we see with Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) and Noah (Genesis 8:20-21). In a Bullinger-type model, their descendants spread these rules to various regions, and that would explain why so many nations have customs similar to those in the Bible.

Maybe, but there are also differences. According to Ferguson, there were Romans who sacrificed pigs (177), yet Noah and the Israelites offered only clean animals (Genesis 8:20-21).

Can anthropology help us find a universal religious significance in cross-national purity rituals? Maybe nations want to protect the holy from unseemly or chaotic events such as death and childbirth. As far as sex goes, I don't know. Perhaps humans respect the power of sex, or believe that men give up a piece of their life when they emit semen, or view sex as an activity capable of corruption, or want to restrict sex to a particular place, or see sex as too messy to associate with the sacred. I don't know.

I have another issue: Paul talks about temple prostitutes in I Corinthians 6:15-16. Apparently, not all Greek cults tried to divorce sex from the realm of the sacred!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Sean Penn on Prop 8

I'm watching Keith Olbermann right now, and he's showing Sean Penn saying that supporters of Prop 8 should "reflect" on the hatred they are causing. Excuse me?!!! What about the hatred that opponents of Prop 8 have demonstrated? Oh, but that doesn't count, I guess. It's the same "logic" that says liberals are "tolerant" and "open-minded." Mr. Penn, with all due respect, you do your own reflection, and I'll do mine.

Four Problems with Asperger's

I'm not really in the best mood today, so this post won't be that long. Here are some problems I have with Asperger's:

1. It's not like a lot of disabilities. People with disabilities act as if they can understand my disability on the basis of their own. And, indeed, there is some overlap, since all of our disabilities hinder us in some way. "You have to deal with your disability," I've been told.

But, if I didn't have an arm, I'd know how to deal with that. I'd try to use my other body parts, or get a mechanical arm, or do whatever else can help me. The problem would be identifiable, so I could deal with it. But a social disability is not as identifiable. I usually haven't the slightest idea when it is manifesting itself! The person without the arm always lacks an arm, so he knows what he's up against each and every day. But I'm not sure when my social impairments are being fleshed out. Or maybe I am sure, but I'm not sure what to do about them.

So there's a clear difference between a physical disability and a social disability. And I wish people would stop acting like they understand what I'm going through, or like they're experts on how I should cope with my disability. Sure, they can give good advice on social skills, but only I know what it's like to "deal" or "cope" with my own disability (Asperger's, as it exists in me).

2. How much are my bad social experiences my fault, and how much are they other people's? Should I beat up on myself? Should I beat up on other people? Surely I'm the problem, since other people have lots of friends, whereas I do not. Yet, other people can be jerks.

You can see that I hold both views simultaneously. I wonder if there is a third and better way to look at it. I'm not really looking for a middle ground, since middle grounds are too murky to me. I'd like a concrete way to look at bad social situations.

3. How do I know when I'm doing socially well? Is it when other people like me? Here, I tend to beat up on myself, since I can try to be friendly, yet many people don't seem to like me.

4. Here's something that really gets on my nerves: Whenever I tell others that I have a social handicap, they dismiss it as a problem by saying that they also have that kind of issue. And, indeed, non-Aspergians can be shy, or socially awkward, or just plain jerks, or challenged in terms of maintaining healthy relationships. But many of them have their circle of friends, and I doubt any of them can truly say that they've never had a girlfriend. So I sympathize with them for whatever problems they face, but they're not in the same boat that I am.

Anyway, that's all I have to say for today. No, concerned family, I don't want to talk on the phone about it for a long period of time, since I'll have things to do tomorrow and the next day. Maybe I'll feel better after a good night's sleep. Then, I'll have to deal with people again, and the inner desolation will come back once more. And if the social experience is good, it won't last. That's life.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Academy Awards (2009)

I will be rooting for Slumdog Millionaire tonight, since it has a cast of virtual unknowns. I tend to root for the underdog! And isn't it ironic that the characters in the movie were underdogs--people who won a millionaire game, even though they were nobodies?

I also want Heath Ledger to win for his portrayal as the Joker. Why? Because he was a good and talented man, and his portrayal of chaotic evil has evoked quite a reaction among many!

I don't want Milk to win, since that would be a nod to political correctness. That's why I rooted for Walk the Line over Brokeback Mountain a few years ago (notwithstanding my admiration for Heath).

Regarding Frank Langella's portrayal of Richard Nixon, I don't know. I saw the Frost/Nixon interviews when they were on C-Span, and I don't remember Nixon showing such a casual disregard for the law.

Here's something interesting about Langella, though: he played the Pharaoh in that Moses movie with Ben Kingsley! Actually, James' Thoughts and Musings fans may remember that Langella won my "Best Exodus Pharaoh" award in my 2008 Moses Marathon Awards. So, Frank, even if you don't win tonight, remember that you're an award-winning actor in my book (or, more accurately, on my blog).

I may not watch the awards tonight, but I'll check the news later to see who won.

Reactions to Sybil (2008)

I watched the 2008 remake of Sybil last night (for background, see here). Here are some reactions:

1. At the beginning of the movie, we are told that a discovery was made in 1998 at the home of Shirley Ardell Mason. "1998?," I thought. "The movie Sybil was made in 1976!" The discovery turned out to be two things: that Shirley Ardell Mason was Sybil, and that her house contained paintings that were painted by the same hand, yet had different styles. The movie treats the latter as evidence that Sybil had multiple personalities. Strangely, wikipedia does not mention the paintings, but it merely states that Sybil's psychiatric records have been sealed (see here). That brings me to (2.):

2. As far as I remember, the 1976 movie did not deal with the controversy over whether or not Sybil had multiple personalities. It just assumed that she did. But the 2008 remake does address it. Prior to the film's discussion of the controversy, I could tell that its author had the issue in mind. Before Sybil introduced her multiple personalities, she showed erratic behavior, as she abruptly changed the subject whenever she talked. That prompts Dr. Wilbur to ask her, "You are not really Sybil, are you?" This scene reflects why some may have concluded that Sybil was creating her "multiple personalities" in response to Dr. Wilbur's suggestion.

3. Sybil developed her multiple personalities earlier in the 2008 version. In the 1976 one, she manifests them years after her mother's death. In the 2008 one, she has them while she is still living with her mother.

4. The 2008 movie got some aspects of Seventh-Day Adventism right, and some clearly wrong. Sybil's parents were obsessed with the end times, which is a salient feature of Seventh-Day Adventism. They also appeared to be perfectionists, for they expected Sybil to feel, think, and behave perfectly. Not all Adventists are like that, but there is a sinless perfectionist movement within the denomination. Where the movie was wrong was in its presentation of the Adventist view on hell. Sybil's family assumed that non-believers or lapsed Christians experienced conscious torment immediately after their death, but that is not the Adventist position. Adventists believe that people are unconscious when they are dead, and that the ultimate fate of the wicked is annihilation (not eternal torment) after their resurrection.

5. The movie got me thinking about religion, therapy, and wholeness. Because of her religion, Sybil did not feel that she could hate or be angry with her mother, so she created a multiple personality (Peggy) that vented that emotion. A key part of Sybil's healing was for her to express her anger, since, once she did so, Peggy's existence would be unnecessary.

Does religion aid in healing, or is it an impediment? Many assume that people would have no inner problems if they simply accepted Christ as their personal savior and became religious, but Sybil and her family were religious, yet they still had clear problems. There are even wife-beaters who are deacons in their church! I acknowledge that there are many cases in which religion makes people better, but there are also cases in which it does not.

At the same time, I did not appreciate Dr. Wilbur's smug attitude towards religion in the 2008 movie. She was open to Sybil going to church after her healing, and she seemed to believe in God, even though she wasn't too crazy about organized religion. But she used the term "ignorant" when discussing religion, and she dismissed the possibility that schizophrenia could be healed through prayer. I'm not a Christian scientist, but who is she to set limits on the great, almighty God?

But I think that Dr. Wilbur and Christianity have the same goal: for Sybil to become a well-integrated, whole, and loving person. Dr. Wilbur may not have liked the "Do not hate" rule in Christianity, but she did not want Sybil to remain hateful. Rather, her desire was for Sybil to express her anger and deal with it. Then, Sybil could hopefully recognize that her mother was a sick woman, and she would be on the path to forgiveness and inner peace.

Christianity is mixed on the anger issue. The Sermon on the Mount says that those who hate or are angry with their brother will be subject to judgment (Matthew 5:22). Ephesians 4:26 tells us not to let the sun go down on our wrath, as if all of us can deal with our anger in one 24-hour period! At the same time, there are biblical characters who could be quite open and honest with God about their anger and hatred: David in the imprecatory Psalms, Jeremiah, Moses, etc.

I prefer to see forgiveness and inner peace as a journey with God rather than a commandment from him. If I see it as the latter, then I may very well develop my own Peggy! As Dr. Wilbur said in the movie, emotions are like air: they will eventually come out!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Sybil

I'll be watching the remake of Sybil tonight on Lifetime. Sybil is based on a true story, and it's about a psychiatrist who treated a young woman with multiple personality disorder, which developed as a result of childhood trauma at the hands of her mentally-ill mother. I saw and taped the uncut 1976 version a few years ago, the one that got Sally Field her first Emmy.

The 1976 version talked quite a bit about Sybil's religious upbringing. "We can't do that on the Sabbath." "I can't kiss you, since I'd have to confess that before the entire church." "The end is near!" It turns out the real Sybil grew up in the Seventh-Day Adventist church! The first and third lines fit the church quite well, but I don't remember any kids or adults having to confess their sins before the congregation. Heck, I don't recall meeting any psychopathic child abusers either, but they may be in a lot of places!

The 1976 version focused a lot on Sybil, both her background and her attempt to cope with her mental illness. One disappointing part of the movie was when the guy she was dating left her. He was pursuing her, since you've got to admit that Sally Field was (and is) kind of cute, and she drew upon one of her more secure personalities to get through their first date. I was hoping that this guy was a keeper, someone who would stick by Sybil through thick and thin. But when he found out that Sybil had multiple personality disorder, he and his son were gone from their apartment the next morning! I guess his reaction was understandable, but I expected more from him than that.

The uncut version was on Oxygen, and it had scenes that many have not seen. At the end, the psychiatrist gets into Sybil's head and meets all of her personalities. Basically, the psychiatrist is in a meadow, and all of the personalities are little kids. She meets the tough one, and the elegant one who is the leader and guardian of all the rest. Finally, she meets the most hurt and troubled one. When she hugs and comforts that one for a long period of time, that meant that Sybil was on the path to healing.

When I first watched that scene, I thought, "Man, this movie is dragging on and on! How many more minutes do we have?" In retrospect, I can appreciate that scene a lot more, since I can somehow admire or sympathize with the personalities, even though they weren't exactly real people.

The version on tonight seems to focus more on the psychiatrist and how she placed her career on the line in her attempt to help Sybil. It is also only two hours, which critics note as a weakness of the film, since the viewer may feel jerked around. The 1976 version was two parts over two nights, so it allowed viewers to get to know the characters and appreciate Sybil's personalities.

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, the 1976 one got Sally Field her first Emmy. Before Sybil, Sally Field played comedic roles (i.e., Gidget, the Flying Nun), and she wanted to pursue more serious work and avoid being typecast as a "bimbo." So she underwent coaching, and she succeeded in her goal through a lot of hard work. Her Emmy was well-deserved! I doubt that the lady playing Sybil tonight will fill Sally Field's shoes, even though she'll probably do a good job. It will be something to see!

Friday, February 20, 2009

My Prayer Morphs

For me, prayer can take a variety of forms. Sometimes, I comment on the text I am reading for an entire hour, or (more often) at some point during my prayer hour. This especially helps me when I'm in a particularly fowl mood, since it gets my mind off of myself. Plus, the words flow out better when there's a bitter taste in my mouth!

When I'm in one of my loathsome giddy moods, however, I have a hard time sustaining a lecture on a religious topic. What I do in that case is to read the text over again. Right now, I'm reading the Koran, and my goal for my current daily quiet time is to read it twice. I read two pages for each prayer hour, and, at some point in the future, I will read all of those pages again. Often, my "catch-up" second reading can be twenty or thirty pages, and it's helpful because it gives me more of a "big picture" look at the Koran as well as solidifies concepts that I may not have understood or even seen in my first reading.

I don't always comment on the Koran for the entire hour. In many cases, the Koran seems to repeat the same information over and over: don't associate compeers with Allah, evil-doers will burn in hell forever, etc., etc. I can only cover the same ground so much! But there are times when the Koran presents something different, such as a point of Muslim law, or a different understanding of a Bible story, or stories of prophets who are unfamiliar to me, or scattered statements that puzzle me and make me think. I usually encounter these things in my second reading.

There are prayer hours when I comment on the Koran, and there are other prayer hours in which I don't discuss it at all. But I still feel like my daily quiet time on the whole is a serious treatment of the book--serious in terms of what I want to accomplish: reading the book and thinking about what I read, whenever such activity occurs. It doesn't happen in every daily quiet time, but it happens in a lot of them.

What do I think about when I'm not meditating on the Koran? Events in my life. My plans for the day, week, or year. Personal growth. Spirituality. Politics. Religion. Movies. TV shows. My personal rants. I'm quite open and honest with God. Some may think this is appropriate. Some may not. Whatever people may think, it's how I pray.

Yesterday, I did something different. I didn't feel like reading, and I didn't feel like lecturing. So what I did was breathe deeply and comment every now and then. I didn't hear a profound message from God in the silence, but it was relaxing! And it was so different! I often feel like I have to be doing something or receive external stimuli. I have to talk, or read, or watch TV, or work, or play around on the Internet. Why can't I just be? And breathe?

I'm not going to make this a legalistic requirement for my future prayer times. Maybe I'll want to read or talk on certain days. But I'll feel free to be and to breathe without guilt. Why should I always have to do something in prayer?

Where Are My Posts?

My posts do not appear on the screen. If you click on the titles on the right, then the posts appear, but they don't when you type in http://www.jamesbradfordpate.blogspot.com/. I wonder what the problem is. All of this took place after I imported my blogger stuff to wordpress.

News

Here is some news about James' Thoughts and Musings:

1. I started a blog on wordpress, which is essentially the same as James' Thoughts and Musings, since it has the same posts and comments. I did this to follow in the footsteps of Ken Brown (C-Orthodoxy), who moved to wordpress in part to preserve his work from hackers. Wordpress backs the posts up, and I don't want what happened to Jim West to be my experience. Ken still writes on both blogger and wordpress, however, and that is what I intend to do.

Here it is: www.jamesbradfordpate.wordpress.com.

Another bonus: I have a wordpress account, so now I can comment on Felix's political blog (The Way I See It, Anyway). Look out, Felix!

2. My blog post from long ago, Asperger's and Religion, continues to get comments. Today, it got one from Arie Uittenbogaard, a Christian Aspie who has a solid grounding in the Bible and science (e.g., quantum mechanics, chaos theory). I checked out his web site, http://www.abarim-publications.com/, and Arie certainly thinks outside of the box! I'm going to add his web site to my blogroll.

I like it when people with an interest in the Bible also study science. I think of the series Joan of Arcadia, in which Joan's genius younger brother went into a discourse about how the existence of God is scientifically possible. That scene reflected the creator of the show, Barbara Hall, who has an interest in the relationship between science and religion. Personally, I've never been that good at science, but those with knowledge of it can open my mind to different ways of looking at God and religion.

Enjoy!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Limp

Source: Cathleen Falsani, Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008) 175. Quotations are in italics.

After discussing her mother's successful battle with cancer, Cathleen Falsani states the following:

So why with all the good news about Mom did I feel so thoroughly lousy? Don't get me wrong. I was grateful, so grateful, to Mom's doctors, who quite literally saved her life; to friends and strangers, who wrote to us reminding us that their thoughts and prayers were with us and, more important, that God was walking by our side--carrying us when necessary--through dark times. It's just that I seemed to have come out of this ordeal with a pronounced limp, spiritually speaking. Having witnessed firsthand the power of faith and prayer to work miracles, I was limping along like a bear with a thorn in my paw.

A lot of people rejoice after God brings them through an ordeal. Cathleen Falsani, however, still felt the wounds.

I've had experiences like that. No, my mom doesn't have cancer, but I've had times when God finally gets me through a situation, but only after I've been raked over the coals for a period of time. Things turn out all right in the end, at least for a little while. But the time leading up to that "end" leaves its scars and gives me a spiritual and emotional limp.

It's hard to have faith during the ordeal, since there's a lot of insecurity. I almost feel as if I shouldn't cheerfully accept the axiom that "things will turn out all right in the end," since that can easily become an excuse for apathy, inactivity, laziness, or just plain inertia. Plus, how do I know that things will turn out all right in the end? It doesn't for everybody, does it? So not only do I have to deal with the ordeal, but also with the insecurity that is attached to it.

Cathleen concludes that we are broken for the benefit of others, meaning our lives are a sort of Eucharist. She may be saying that suffering enables us to sympathize and empathize with other people. I have difficulty with such a concept, for I do not see how my suffering places me in a situation in which I can help people. I'm shy, so helping others is hard for me! But maybe suffering shapes my thoughts so that I can do the right thing when opportunities arise. The focus here is on being and thinking, not necessarily doing, since right being and thinking can lead to right doing.

And maybe suffering can help us to root for other people. One of my favorite scenes in Desperate Housewives is from the last episode of the first season. In the series, Mary Alice Young shoots herself out of guilt, and her spirit is able to observe her friends and neighbors. She sees that they have a lot of struggles and problems that they conceal from others, as she hid her pain from them. But she says at the end that she roots for them, though she realizes that some of them won't make it.

I hope to get to the point where I can root for people to survive and succeed rather than fail. I want to root even for those I do not like, as I see their humanity underneath what I dislike about them.

At the same time, I don't want them to succeed while I do not. Then I'd be envious!

Desmond and Meaning

On Lost last night, Desmond (aka Jesus in the Gospel of John, as I recently found out) got into a little argument with Eloise Hawking over whether he should return to the island.

Ms. Hawking was responsible for Desmond being on the island in the first place. On the island, Desmond had to type in a set of numbers every 108 minutes in order to save the world from utter destruction. Or so he thought. Actually, he was protecting the island from an electromagnetic overload (or whatever that was on the last episode of the second season).

And Desmond had to perform this activity for four years of his life, during which time he was separated from the love of his life, Penny Widmore. Good thing for him that Penny kept looking for him! That was a lot of love on her part!

Now, Desmond is happily married to Penny, and they have a little boy named Charlie. Desmond has a life now. But Desmond recently had an encounter with Eloise Hawking. She told him, "The island is not through with you yet, Desmond," and Desmond responded, "The island may not be through with me, but I am through with the island!" He then angrily left the room.

A big theme that recurs in Lost is meaning versus meaninglessness. As far as Desmond is concerned, those four years of his life on the island were a total waste. He could not start a meaningful life, since he was continually typing in numbers for no purpose (or so he thinks). And his situation probably stunk. Imagine having to type in numbers every 108 minutes! You couldn't sleep for a long period of time, since you'd be up every 108 minutes. You couldn't get too engrossed in a book or a movie, since you'd be interrupted every 108 minutes. I wouldn't want to be Desmond in that situation!

Desmond may see meaninglessness in his activity on the island, but was there actual meaning in what he was doing? And is there a larger meaning in aspects of our lives that appear to be meaningless?

I have one more Lost thought: Every now and then, I watch old episodes of Lost on the Sci-Fi Channel. I recently saw one from the first season entitled "The White Rabbit." On it, John Locke encourages Jack to become the leader of the survivors. That reminded me of how I viewed Locke at the time: as a wise sage, a fair-minded man, someone who was willing to take second place, a larger-than-life figure. But that view has been challenged over time--when Locke hit Charlie, when he threw a tantrum because Ben said Jack was the leader, when he showed no emotion after seeing the long-lost Jin. What's strange is that I still like Locke, even though he was knocked off my pedestal a while ago. Now, I appreciate him more as a human being, someone with wants, needs, and insecurities.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Purpose; Who Is Minding the Store?

I'm not in a big writing mood today, but I want to highlight two points that I learned at my AA meetings this week.

1. Yesterday, I went to a speaker meeting, in which a person tells the story of his recovery from alcoholism. The speaker yesterday was saying that he used to be part of a tightly-knit Big Book meeting that met for years. Eventually, the group disassembled, as people went their own way. The speaker was sad about that, and he related that many attempts to restart the group failed. But he concluded that it was time for the group to move on, for its members had to carry the lessons they had learned to the outside world. He noted that he's met a lot of people with sponsors who were once a part of that special group.

That reminded me of a couple of things. In Stephen King's It, fate drew together the kids in the Loser's Club specifically so they could defeat It. Once their mission was accomplished, their special bond to one another began to fade, as they went on to live their individual lives.

Then there's the Book of Acts. The saints were concentrated in Jerusalem, where they enjoyed God and one another. But persecution drove them out of their comfort zone and pushed them to spread the Gospel to other areas.

One thing I like about being on a spiritual path is that life becomes like a story, in which I can be a significant character with a purpose. As C.S. Lewis once said, Christianity means that our beloved stories are real.

2. The view above assumes that things in life have a purpose. But there are some events that make me wonder who is minding the store. In a meeting today, a man lamented that his fiancee recently cancelled their marriage plans--out of the blue. Where is God in this? Why would God lead them to each other, if their relationship was to end? I ask about this what I ask about a lot of things: What is the point?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Cradling the Torah

Source: Cathleen Falsani's Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008) 159. Quotations are in italics.

I'm not Jewish, and in that little [synagogue] gathering of a dozen or so people, I think everyone there knew it. Still, when the [Torah] scrolls got to me, the woman next to me, without a moment's hesitation, placed them gently in my arms, like a newborn baby. I've yet to conjure up the words how that moment of inclusion felt.

I can identify with Falsani here, but I can't explain why. There have been times in my life when I have been welcomed in this manner, but I don't remember what those moments specifically were.

Many people love to share who they are with outsiders. I know this because I have attended two Jewish institutions of learning as a non-Jew (or so I am in their eyes; actually, I have Jewish ancestry). When I was at Harvard, I attended an independent Seventh-Day Adventist church that was predominantly Latin American and Caribbean, and the people there always made me feel welcome, although my race is different from theirs. Even when I visited an Ethiopian synagogue in New York, in which the rabbi called America "Babylon" and "Egypt," the people there welcomed me, even though I couldn't tell from the sermon if they liked white people or not.

I don't experience that kind of welcome in all houses of worship, so I probably shouldn't expect it everywhere I go. I know of one woman who visited an orthodox synagogue for a class, and no one talked to her. No one even came to take her money when the collection plate was handed out!

But Falsani is describing more than a welcome. There she was, an outsider in a synagogue. And there was the Jewish woman sitting next to her, who put in her arms one of the most sacred objects of the Jewish religion. That's more than a welcome. I'd call it a welcome plus.

And that sort of incident doesn't sound foreign to me, so I must have experienced it. I just can't identify when.

There's one moment I can think of that comes close, though: On Thanksgiving, my cousin's one year old boy handed me his prized giraffe doll and said to me, "Raaa!," which is his word for "giraffe." He was sharing with me something that was special to him. Stuff like that has happened to me, when people could've easily looked on me as an outsider or a creature from outer space. I can still feel the effects of grace, but it's not always clear to me what the act of grace was.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Chester A. Arthur

Today is Presidents' Day, and I decided to celebrate it by randomly selecting a President and writing about him. My mouse fell on Chester A. Arthur, a Republican who was President from 1881-1885. Here's the wikipedia article about him.

Where was he in history? He was President a little after the Civil War. Arthur was Vice-President under James Garfield, a big-time Civil War general. And the Secretary of War in Arthur's administration was Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of Honest Abe.

Here are some thoughts I had as I read Arthur's story:

1. Wikipedia states the following about Arthur's reputation: "Publisher Alexander K. McClure wrote, 'No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted, and no one ever retired…more generally respected.' Author Mark Twain, deeply cynical about politicians, conceded, 'It would be hard indeed to better President Arthur's administration.'"

Arthur did not exactly become President with the best reputation. He was a stalwart in the Republican Party, meaning he supported cronyism and the spoils system. For Arthur, it wasn't what you know that got you a political position, but whom you know!

Arthur was a part of Roscoe Conkling's political machine in New York, and, when he served as Collector of Customs for the Port of New York, his removal by President Rutherford P. Hayes was considered a reform! Arthur later became the Vice-President to James Garfield, who didn't really like him. In 1881, Garfield was assassinated by Charles Guiteau, who exclaimed, "I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts... Arthur is president now!" I wonder if there were conspiracy theories about the Garfield assassination!

But Arthur changed, probably in response to the national grief over Garfield's death. He helped pass the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which replaced the spoils system with a meritocracy for certain positions. Arthur angered many of his old stalwart friends in the process!

The lesson here is that people can surprise you! Harry Truman was once in the Ku Klux Klan, but he integrated the Armed Forces as President. Earl Warren as governor of California placed Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II, but he was the Chief Justice who spearheaded Brown vs. the Board of Education. And many wonder if Barack Obama will be a reformer. Here was a man who may have been part of Chicago's political machinery, who supported earmarks as U.S. Senator. Yet, as President, he has supposedly banned earmarks from his stimulus package, and he has tried to reduce the influence of lobbyists in government. Is Obama someone who has changed? Or are his reforms smoke-and-mirrors, as detractors have argued?

2. Arthur could be pretty bold as President because he knew he was dying of a kidney disease. He didn't know if he had a political future or not, so whom he offended was not that important to him. That makes me wonder if a President should only serve one term, since that would free him from continually running for re-election and appeasing lobbyists in the process. At the same time, it would also make him a lame-duck, who'd be accountable to no one.

His kidney disease notwithstanding, Arthur still ran for the Republican nomination in 1884, a race that he lost. That kind of reminds me of the West Wing, in which the Republicans investigated Democratic President Josiah Bartlett to see if he hid his multiple sclerosis from the American people when he ran for President. Scandal? I guess the Republicans' reasoning was that the American people should be fully informed about a candidate's capacity when they made their decision.

3. Arthur had an attractive wife who died before he became President. Many women wanted to marry him, but he resolved never to marry again. That reminds me of the movie The American President, in which Michael Douglas plays a widower President.

If someone re-marries after a spouse has died, does that mean he or she loves the spouse less? Arthur may have felt that his wife was irreplaceable, since she was special to him in a unique way! But I'm reminded of something a new pastor said on an episode of The Waltons: "I'm not trying to 'replace' your old pastor, since he can't be replaced. But I hope to find my own place in your community." So maybe one can remarry without loving the departed spouse less.

4. Like many people, Arthur was a man of contradictions. As a lawyer, he defended a black woman who was denied seating on a streetcar, a case that led to the desegregation of the New York City public transportation system. Yet, as President, he signed a law that restricted Chinese immigration to the United States. Add to this his personal story: His mom was partly Native American, and there was controversy about whether Chester Arthur was even born in the United States, which would seriously impact his qualifications for the Presidency. Did Arthur's "outsider" status lead him to empathize with other outsiders? In some cases, perhaps. In others, no.

5. The discussion on Arthur's birth in the U.S. sounds like similar debates about Barack Obama, but here's another similarity: both had to do the oath of office all over again. Arthur did so because he was initially sworn in by a New York justice. Obama retook it because John Roberts got the words wrong.

6. Arthur used to take solitary walks late at night to relax. I've done that before. When I lived in Indiana, I sometimes took walks late at night, and that really calmed my mind. Those were some of my best prayer times! But I don't go out late at night nowadays unless I absolutely have to. It's a matter of personal safety! Still, I miss those walks.

I hope you enjoyed our journey through the life of Chester A. Arthur. Happy Presidents Day!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Just Love People

Source: Cathleen Falsani, Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008) 87. Quotations are in italics.

Cathleen Falsani discusses a conversation she had with Jean, who was helping people hurt by Hurricane Katrina.

[G]race[,] Jean explained, is like Narnia from C.S. Lewis' allegorical fantasy books. "It's all thawing and it's all coming to life," he said. "The rivers are flowing and everything is alive, and the grace is real and everything is real, but there continually are new places. The place God has led me in the last few years is taking me to the places in Narnia where I realize it's OK not to be OK. The law could have just beat my ass telling me to love people, and grace took me by the hand and romanced me to Bay St. Louis and said, 'Just love people.'"

This quote stood out to me for two reasons.

1. First, I identified with its criticism of law. I often feel that God's standards "beat my ass," for they seem to command me to suppress my humanity, to be something that I'm not, or to do everything with absolute perfection. "Reach out to people." "Don't hate others." "Forgive others from the heart, or God won't forgive you." "If you say you've forgiven someone and still don't want anything to do with him, then you haven't truly forgiven that person." "If you do good deeds grudgingly, or without the right motivation, then you might as well not do them." "True Christians have this glow of love, joy, and peace that attracts others to them." These are ideas that I've heard in various churches, or read in Christian writings (including the Bible).

No wonder people think that Christianity is a royal pain in the you-know-what! I can't live up to that!

But Jean's statement places the issue in a different perspective. Rather than focusing on if I'm loving others perfectly or even sub-standardly, why can't I "just love people." I may not love others all that well, but this doesn't have to be a contest or a final exam. I may not even be able to do it all of the time. But I can still do something. I can smile at someone, or use the person's name (which people like), or donate to charity, or visit a nursing home on a weekend. And if there are holier-than-thou religionists who want to grade me or beat up on me, let them do it! I don't have to beat up on myself.

In Jean's scenario, it's not a matter of having to love, but getting to love. That allows me to love others without pressure, to seek opportunities to help or reach out to people, to be creative. That's the difference between law and grace!

But I wonder if Jean's view is biblical. I think that the New Testament presents a scenario in which God loves us first, then we love others. At the same time, the Sermon on the Mount presents commands of "don't hate," "don't lust," "forgive, or you won't be forgiven," and "be perfect." And the Sermon on the Mount often acts as if we'll go to hell if we don't obey these commands. It's hard to lead a pressure-free life when Jesus' commands are beating me over the head! Is there a way to embrace Jean's perspective, while being fair to the Sermon on the Mount?

2. Second, the quote got me thinking about the kingdom of God. In the first Chronicles of Narnia movie, the white witch (who represents Satan) traps all of Narnia in a harsh winter. Under her dominion, it is always winter, but never Christmas. But when Aslan (Jesus) is on the move, this very sign of her dominion begins to crumble. The ice thaws, as Narnia begins to return to its previous paradisaical condition. And Christmas arrives! Although the white witch is still technically the queen of Narnia, her tight grip on the land is starting to loosen, as it becomes subject to the righteous realm of its true king, Aslan the lion.

According to many Christians, something similar has been occurring since the first coming of Christ. We are in a state in which the kingdom of God is "already and not yet": it's here on some level, but not in its fullest form.

But I've often wondered what Jesus brought that did not already exist before he came. God forgave people before Jesus' first coming! Jews before his resurrection believed in an afterlife! Also, did Jesus truly make things better? Is the winter of Narnia truly thawing right now?

In Matthew 12:28ff., Jesus brings the kingdom of God to people when he cast out demons, thereby binding the power of Satan. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the new things that Jesus brings include forgiveness (Romans 5; Hebrews 9-10), the hope of the resurrection (I Corinthians 15; Hebrews 2:14), a new creation accompanied by the death of the sinful flesh (Romans 6-8; II Corinthians 5:17), and spiritual enlightenment of the Gentiles (Acts 26:18; Ephesians 2:2ff.).

Maybe Jesus thaws out Narnia through his example, his presence, and the hope that he offers us. When Jesus showed us God's love, he gave us a new paradigm of looking at life, one that differs from our usual selfish outlook. Narnia thaws when we help people and remind them of the love and reign of Jesus, in spite of whatever evil remains in the world. But Jesus is an integral part of all of this: he's the one who empowers the church to free people from bondage (spiritual and physical), and he's the one who is the ground of our hope, since he will one day overthrow evil and raise the dead. On some level, we have a right to dance and rejoice right now, whatever evil may exist! We can bring Narnia to people, as we offer them hope and concrete love.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine's Day 2009

For this year's Valentine's Day, I want to post two quotes from the movie Spiderman (see here). In the first one, Peter tells his life-long crush, Mary Jane Watson, how he feels about her. In the second one, Mary Jane realizes that she actually loves Peter.

Peter: I said...I said, Spider-Man, I said the great thing about M.J. is when...when you look in her eyes and she's looking back in yours and smiling, well, everything feels...not quite normal because you feel... stronger. And weaker at the same time and you feel excited and at the same time terrified. The truth is, Spidey, I call him Spidey sometimes, the truth is you don't know what you feel, except you know the kind of man you want to be and what it is, is, it's as if when you're with her, it's as if you've reached...the unreachable...and you weren't ready for it.

Mary Jane: Sometimes what you want... you have to go to the edge of your life to find out it was right next door. I've been so stupid for so long. There's only one man who was ever there for me, who has always been there for me...who makes me believe that I'm...more than I ever thought I was. That I'm just...me, and it's okay...The truth is...I love you. I really love you Peter.

I like the first quote because it expresses how I've often felt when I've had serious crushes: stronger yet weaker, bold yet nervous, eager yet seeing the object of my affections as somehow unattainable, making me wonder if I'm truly ready.

I like the second quote because it expresses one thing that I seek in a relationship: acceptance--being loved for just being me. That's not to say that relationships don't require work, since the relationship between Peter and Mary Jane took a LOT of effort both sides in the next two movies. But it's good to have love as a foundation in a relationship.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Elvis the Spiritual Seeker

Source: Cathleen Falsani's Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008) 22-24.

For background on this series, see Falsani Series. Quotations are in italics.

Did you know the only Grammy awards Elvis ever won were for gospel recordings?...Offstage, Elvis, who was reared in an Assemblies of God church in Tulepo, Mississippi, spent hours singing gospel tunes with his entourage as a way to relax and, perhaps, self-soothe. According to what his daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, says in the audio tour Bubba and I listened to as we spent a couple of hours moving reverentially from room to room in Graceland, Elvis was a real spiritual seeker, especially later in his troubled life. He was always looking for something and read loads of books on religion and spirituality

...On [Elvis' desk] were several spiritually themed books, including a copy of Khalil Gibran's The Prophet and Erich von Daniken's Gods from Outer Space. I guess he still hadn't found what he was looking for...Many people--many Christians, for that matter--might scoff at the idea that Elvis, with all of his overindulgences, addictions, and peccadilloes, also could have been a believer. I think Bubba and I both left Graceland with the bittersweet impression of Elvis as an incredibly gifted, tragically flawed man who lavished love and outrageous gifts on his family and friends, desperately tried to reconcile staggering fame with personal heartache, but in the end felt alone, empty, and lost.

Yet the faith that Elvis had as a child, and that Bubba and I share, promises that it doesn't matter whether he could pull it together in the end. Grace fills that gap. While it's true that you may lose your religion during the course of a lifetime, you never lose your salvation. Once you let Jesus in your kitchen, he just keeps on making peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and he never leaves.

These quotes really stood out to me, since I can identify and not identify with them at the same time. Like Elvis, I am somewhat of a spiritual seeker. Spirituality is a good, clean way for me to self-medicate. I look for spiritual autobiographies whenever I visit my public library, for I'm interested in how people find meaning as they cope with life.

And the books that I read are not always Christian. I read one about an orthodox Jew who rediscovered his Judaism through a "Jesus year" of intense exposure to Christianity. I recently read a book about a Jewish man who studied the dominant non-belief in Sweden and Denmark, as he asked the people of those countries how they dealt with tragedy and death in light of their lack of religious faith. Right now, I'm reading a book by a Japanese brother and sister, whose spiritual perspectives are quite different from one another. The brother is a financial wiz who writes self-help books, and the sister is a Buddhist nun who was ordained by the Dalai Lama. Their book relates how they have taught each other and grown in the process.

For my daily quiet time, I have read the Bible, but right now I'm reading other books as well. I am about two-thirds of the way through the Koran, and I have books of Hindu and Buddhist Scriptures lined up for my next projects. I still read the Bible every day, however, through a daily Bible reading plan that enables me to read the whole Bible in a year. And I also do my weekly quiet time, in which I study a chapter of the Bible. I'm listening to a sermon on I Samuel 19 right now!

What am I looking for? One thing is consolation. For what I mean by that, read my Joan of Arcadia post, Joan of Arcadia: Desolation and Consolation. I desire inspiration, inner peace, wholeness, and wisdom about how I should live my life. Another thing I seek is knowledge. I wonder what other religions teach, how people find fulfillment in life, and if other religions are necessarily all about self-fulfillment (something tells me that Islam may not be). Sometimes, my search really inspires me. Other times, it does not. But the search is worthwhile either way.

Am I shopping for a religion? I'm not sure. I really did not know much about other religions when I became a Christian, and I naturally assumed that Christianity was right and other religions were wrong. Right now, I wonder if that is indeed the case. Some (e.g., John Hick) claim that God is present in other religions. Is he? I don't know. I'm not even sure if I can know, since we don't directly hear the voice of God, but rather competing claims about what God does and thinks. But I can learn about other religions and see what I find.

Christianity still inspires me on some level, especially when it focuses on grace, God's love, wisdom, and personal growth. When it gets into Jesus being the only way to salvation, however, I feel rather uncomfortable. I was eating at Taco Bell this afternoon, and there was a poorly-dressed elderly woman eating behind me, as she sucked up her sinuses and made me sick in the process. She said "hi" to one of the workers and asked how he was doing, and he replied that he was being bad. She replied, "But that's why Jesus came to earth--for those who are bad."

I'm not sure why her statement turned me off. Part of it may have been that my reading of the Koran and portions of the Bible instills in me the notion that God accepts those who do good, while he punishes those who are bad. "Maybe it doesn't matter if one believes in Christ," I have thought in the past, "as long he or she lives a fairly righteous life." Yet, at the same time, I'm still drawn to God's grace and forgiveness. The idea that Christianity is about what Christ has done for us rather than what we can do for God actually appeals to me. I guess my problem with the woman's statement was that it was so Jesus-specific, and I didn't find it inclusive of people on other spiritual paths. But I think I was wrong to belittle her Christian faith in my mind. I don't want to become hardened and condescending.

I don't entirely care for Cathleen Falsani's statement about salvation, since it evokes for me the Armstrongite stereotype of Protestantism: that one can babble a few words about accepting Christ, go out and live in sin, and still be assured of salvation after death. That's not exactly what I find in the Bible, which emphasizes righteous living and perseverance in the faith (e.g., Matthew 10:22; Colossians 1:23). Plus, I didn't care for Cathleen's reference to "peanut butter and banana sandwiches." That sounded icky and corny to me, and she comes across as much more level-headed on her YouTube videos (e.g., here).

But I'd like to think that God recognizes and honors our thirst for him, even though we are complex, messy creatures who are mostly mixtures of good and bad. Abraham Lincoln may not have been the most orthodox Christian on the face of the earth, but he still felt a dependence on God. Elvis had his hang-ups and looked to drugs to self-medicate, but he still wanted to feel the love, grace, goodness, and healing power of God. Doesn't that count for something? Can saving faith be a thirst for the divine?

I hope so, but there are still plenty of passages about the necessity of believing in Jesus for salvation (John 14:6, Acts 4:12, etc.). I can't just blow those off and remain a Christian in good standing.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Abraham Lincoln and John Locke

I just watched the History Channel's powerful three-hour documentary on Abraham Lincoln, and some of the things on the program reminded me of John Locke on Lost.

1. Several scholars remarked that Lincoln's depression and hard experiences in life actually set the stage for his success as President. One of the interviewees said that, had young Lincoln married Anne Rutledge and gained a sweet, supportive wife, he probably wouldn't have become President.

The reasons were varied. Lincoln was portrayed as a man driven by ambition, so maybe his pain gave him a hunger for success. The argument was made that Lincoln's suffering made him empathetic to the pain of others, especially slaves, and opposition to slavery was a key element of his political career. The narrator said that Lincoln's quest to save the union was tied to his own desire to become personally whole. Someone remarked that depression can lead to introspection and reflection, which can enable one to become a visionary. And, according to the documentary, Lincoln's dramatic encounters with pain and suffering led him to the conviction that God had a plan for it all, for he needed that kind of faith in order to cope!

On last week's Lost episode, John Locke goes back in time to the second season. At that time, Locke believed that a mysterious portal had some sort of divine significance, when actually it did not (see Lost: Season 2). As a result, he experienced a lot of pain. When Sawyer asks Locke why he doesn't tell his past self that the hatch is insignificant and thereby spare himself the pain, Locke responds, "I needed that pain to get where I am right now." I'm not sure what Locke meant. Maybe he was saying that he learned to trust the island when things did not make sense, or that his inner pain made him hungry for the type of home that the Others provided him. But Locke believed that pain was an important element of his destiny. That brings me to my second point.

2. According to the documentary, Lincoln had a sense of destiny from his youth. He wanted to get away from his backwoods life and accomplish something important, and he believed that he would make his mark on the world!

At times, his sense of destiny was challenged. He had a midlife crisis in his 40s, for he felt that his life and career were going nowhere, in contrast to those of his successful acquaintance, Stephen Douglas. Lincoln had just served one term as a congressman and left after taking an unpopular stance against the U.S.-Mexico war. He didn't know where he was going, and he thought he would fade away into insignificance.

But his wife married him because she believed he would be President. And, after Lincoln gave a rousing speech against slavery that excited people of many political persuasions, he figured that he had a political future, notwithstanding his loss to Stephen Douglas in a recent Senate race. Lincoln also had a vision that he would become President. He looked in the mirror while he was shaving, and he saw an image of him as President, with a fading image of himself behind the first image. He interpreted that to mean that he would become President, but he wouldn't survive his second term.

Throughout his Presidency, Lincoln knew he had enemies and would probably be assassinated. But he believed that he had a destiny, which he identified as saving the union and freeing the slaves.

Similarly, John Locke has a sense of destiny. Even though he is a paraplegic before he comes to the island, he believes that he has a destiny to go on a safari to Australia. On the island itself, he steadfastly maintains that he is there for a purpose. On last night's episode, the ghost of Christian Shepherd tells Locke that he (Locke) will die in his mission, and Locke accepts his fate. He is willing to die, so long as he fulfills his destiny and purpose. Before he came to the island, he was living without those things, and his life was rather empty!

Did Lincoln have a lot of pride and arrogance in his desire to go down in history? He may have initially, but that vanished as he grew older and wiser. At the beginning of the documentary, one of the scholars remarked that Lincoln always wanted notoriety, but, once he got what he wanted, he realized that it brought more difficulties than he had anticipated.

I wonder if we'll see something similar with Locke: he has been gun-ho about his mission for the island, but will he learn that he should be careful what he wishes for, since he may very well get it? And will he conclude that his mission is worth the pain and suffering that comes with it?

Abraham Lincoln 2009

Today is the two hundredth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth. And here's an interesting tidbit of knowledge that I learned today: Charles Darwin was born on the exact same day as Lincoln.

I want to focus on Lincoln in this post, but Darwin will come into my discussion at the end.

I learned quite a bit about Abraham Lincoln when I was in elementary school, since Lincoln grew up in my beloved home state of Indiana. We learned that Lincoln had a mother who died when he was young, and that his dad then married a woman who took a special interest in Abe and gave him books to read. We heard that Lincoln had such a knack for rhetoric that his family would listen to his sermons every Sunday. Basically, Lincoln would go to church, hear the sermon, and re-enact it before his family, and that would be their church service! And we often heard that Lincoln got a good education by sitting in front of the fireplace reading law books. The lesson here was that reading could get us far in life, since Lincoln became a lawyer and the President of the United States!

In my reading and things that I heard, I also encountered a Lincoln who did not entirely fit the myth. People can pull out Lincoln quotes that regard blacks as inferiors. While Christians love to quote Lincoln's wish to be on God's side, there are rumors that he wrote an anti-Christian tract when he was younger, and his religious beliefs were not exactly orthodox in an evangelical sense. Some have cited stories in which Honest Abe appears a little less than honest. When I watched a C-SPAN re-enaction of the Lincoln/Douglas debates, Lincoln did not come across as that good of an orator, in either his delivery or content. (But maybe the delivery flaws were the fault of the actor.) And Lincoln's step-mother supposedly said that she didn't hear much from Abe once he left home. (Nice guy!)

The man was complex. People debate whether or not he was a Christian, but he did acknowledge a dependence on God when he was President. He could be kind, approachable, and sensitive, but he didn't stay in touch with the family that raised him. Maybe he cut corners every now and then, but a strong sense of Christian morality guided him, especially when he exhorted the Union to forgive the South once it re-entered the United States. Whether or not he viewed blacks as equals, there was a strong part of him that disliked slavery, since he joined a young party that was formed in opposition to it. He may not have been the best speaker in the world, but one of his simplest speeches (the Gettysburg Address) remains a salient encapsulation of American ideals.

A wise woman once told me that there is bad in the best of us, and good in the worst of us. "God" in Joan of Arcadia said something similar, when he discussed a moral continuum that all of us are on, in which many of us are neither completely good nor completely evil. I thought about this after I watched The Rosa Parks Story, when I read up on James Blake, the bus-driver who ordered Rosa Park to give up her seat. This man was a veteran of World War II. He fought for his country! Yet, he allowed himself to be influenced by the prejudices of his time and place.

There are lessons that we can draw from Lincoln's life. He managed to educate himself, even though his family was dirt-poor. His political career is practically a sermon on not giving up, since he lost tons of elections before he finally became President of the United States. We like to elevate him to the level of sainthood, but he was above all a human being. Some have argued that he was a manic depressant, who didn't want to be left alone with a razor because he feared what he might do.

Whatever Lincoln's complexities or quirks or weaknesses, I think that at heart he was a good man. At least he could rise above the "us vs. them" mentality that pervades the political atmosphere. He even appointed political opponents to his administration! I believe that God brought him to the Presidency for that very time, whatever his political inexperience might have been. That's not to say that God rubber-stamped or approved of everything he did, since critics do well to point out that Lincoln could be quite tyrannical. But, in my opinion, Lincoln was the right man for the job at that time. And, however I may oppose many of Barack Obama's policies, attitudes, and moves, I think that he is the right man for a time such as this. But time will tell! And I probably won't vote for him in the next election!

Okay, let me say a word or two on Darwin, since it's his birthday too. I didn't learn about him in elementary school because I lived in the buckle of the Bible belt. But he too was a man of complexity. His theory of evolution has been associated with atheism, yet he was a Christian at some point in his life, and people have identified theistic and atheistic statements in his writings. Darwin has been linked to racism, yet one of the most racist areas was the anti-Darwinian Christian South, which had slavery and segregation. I guess my overall point is this: People are messy, but we can see good in their lives and hopefully learn lessons from them.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

X

Did you know that the guy who played Elijah Muhammad in Spike Lee's Malcom X is the one who plays Malcom X in Roots: The Next Generation? His name is Al Freeman, Jr.!

As you can probably tell, I'm watching Malcom X right now. I've always enjoyed the first part of the movie because it's about Malcom getting his life back together. It's a conversion narrative, as Malcom is transformed from a beaten-down hustler who is ashamed of his race into a bold and confident leader, who has faith in God, pride in his people, and a mission to help other African-Americans gain self-respect, dignity, and independence. While he views white people as "devils," many of us can understand why after we see the events leading up to his conversion.

The second part is good too, since that's where he learns about the misdeeds of his hero, Elijah Muhammad, and comes to value people of all races. He was a fair-minded man who went where the truth led him, meaning that he did not allow himself to be blinded by unquestioned loyalty to a leader. And he moved from an agenda of helping only his own people, to one of assisting everyone in society. He continued to oppose white racism, but he ceased to view all whites as his enemy. It's the second part of the movie that opens me up to the possibility that Spike Lee is not an angry black man, but someone with hope in his country.

Although I'm white, I loved this movie the first time I saw it. I wasn't exactly a Malcom X fan in those days, for I usually pointed to him whenever I argued that blacks could be prejudiced, too. But I found the movie to be quite powerful! I think part of the attraction was my own feeling of alienation, which led me to enjoy Malcom's confident challenge to a status quo that looked down on people of his race.

There's something that puzzles me, though. If the Nation of Islam views white people as "devils," then why do they come up to me and offer to sell me their newspaper? Many of them ignore me, but there have been some who have approached me, believe it or not. Have they become more moderate over the years? Do they see a need to influence whites rather than opposing them? Is their motivation financial, since their newspaper is a source of income?

ADDITION: Here's something else that's cool. The guy who plays the tough police officer on X ("That's too much power for one man to have") is Ray's dad on Everybody Loves Raymond. Wikipedia says that he played Joe McCarthy in the 1970's, in a movie called Tail Gunner Joe. I'd like to see that some day!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Falsani Series

On and off for the next week or so, I will comment on my favorite quotes from a book that I just read: Cathleen Falsani's Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).

Falsani is an award-winning religion writer for the Chicago Sun-Times. She went to Wheaton College, and she's an evangelical, though she appears to be rather liberal on political issues. She calls herself a "freelance Christian," which somewhat resonates with me, a "sort-of" evangelical (loosely speaking) who has major, big-time problems with organized religion. And her book has endorsements from Lee Strobel, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and Brian McLaren. But not only do evangelical celebrities like it. So does Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

The book has plenty of good quotes that can help a lot of people, but I don't want to focus here on a lot of people. I want to comment on what's important to me! Consequently, I only plan to comment on the quotes that I found especially meaningful--to me personally. There are six quotes that particularly stand out to me. I'll divide them according to the following titles: (1.) Elvis, (2.) just love people, (3.) holding the Torah like it's a baby, (4.) God got me through, but the scars are still there, (5.) goodness, and (6.) God speaks.

I'll start with "Elvis" sometime this week. Stay tuned!

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