The BOM Musical is a pleasant surprise (and why that pisses me off)!

May 11, 2011 § 3 Comments

So the Book of Mormon musical has been getting lots of attention, and now you can listen to it online. This should go without saying, but because this blog happens to be non-profane I’ll warn you: The recent musical by the creators of Southpark and Avenue Q contains lots of potentially offensive material. If blue humour isn’t your thing, best to stay away. Of course now that I bring it up I wonder if my early decision to run this blog ‘clean’ made any difference at all. Maybe it makes me seem less strident or something.

Back to the musical: all the reviews have been raves, and for good reason. It’s funny, on point, and if not exactly sensitive then at least empathetic to all of the targets of its abundant ridicule. Some reviews, however, are going a bit overboard in their interpretation of the show’s ‘message’. The NPR page linked is guilty of this:

“… The show cocks a skeptical eye at situations and belief systems, but its jibes aren’t malicious, and it never mocks the value of faith.”

I beg to differ. In particular, I think the words that close the entire show (just listen to the whole thing, it’s worth it) serve as a fairly obvious comment on the value of faith– Mormon or otherwise. But this is part of what makes the show so smart: It contains multiple levels on which audience members can both get a joke at someone else’s expense and be the target of another gag themselves. This is a product of the essential weirdness of religious culture as viewed through the lens of some very smart writing.

In contrast to the NPR and other reviews, some people (most but not all of them LDS) are still pissed about the show. But I’m actually more interested in the ones who enjoy it. Specifically, I’m interested in all of the non-Mormon reviewers who are thrilled about how well Mormons are treated by the show. Mostly I’m paying attention because this is the first indication I have ever seen that non-Mormon Christians have the slightest interest in being nice to their suspiciously decaffeinated peers.

Atheists can be jackasses about this stuff. I try not to be on this blog, but rest assured that in person I am very much guilty of this myself. I do try to catch myself though, and I also try to discourage it in others when I can. The other thing is that I’m not actually concerned with getting people to be nicer about religion; I think we should be more honest about it. Needless cruelty is bad, but according to me and many other secularists, so is excessive niceness. Excessive and dishonest, I should add.

Having implicated myself, I’ll get back to my larger observation. I’ve written before about trying to find points of doctrine that all Christians share. That list varies by the day, but at least some of the time it could probably read as follows:

  1. Original sin
  2. Salvation in Christ
  3. The Mormons are nuts

I can’t claim to have really good survey data about this, but I’ve probably tried this particular experiment more than most. The most recent instance was when I spoke to a gentleman at the skytrain station a few days ago. He was very nice; the anti-abortion sandwich board he was wearing less so. In this exchange, as I often do, I brought up the Mormons. I bring the Mormons up when my interlocutors bring up faith. The LDS church is as pro-faith as it gets, but I can also count on most of my typical Christian contacts to disagree strongly with the content of that faith. As usual, the Mormon faith landed like a laugh-line and as usual I felt like a tool for using it that way.

I have yet to introduce the idea of Mormonism into conversation with a non-LDS religious person without getting a dismissive reaction. Sometimes it’s a brief eye-roll, other times it’s actual laughter. Largely it falls somewhere in between. Never have I met a mainstream Christian rep who felt the need to take Mormonism of Mormons seriously. I used to have a very similar attitude, but then I realized that that’s stupid. And if I, as an atheist, can’t stay dismissive about the LDS population then I don’t know why I should allow others to do so.

This lingering and near-universal derision is the source of my suspicion over all of this elation about the BOM musical and how nice it is. I can’t be sure, but I have the feeling that many of the pleasantly-surprised are surprised because they would not and do not give the LDS church such nice treatment themselves. And it’s true that lots of Mormons find it funny as well– that’s because the show demonstrates true empathy for them as well as education in their tradition. They also laugh, I am told, because they have learned to join in the mirth at their collective expense; a defence mechanism that I imagine many readers will understand.

Now, don’t get me wrong: The Mormon religion is crazy. Things like the golden plates, the Old Testament fanfic, and the transparent revision of doctrine are not just worthy of skepticism, they are funny. But so is the story of Jesus. And of Muhammad. And Elijah. And Yahwe– maybe him most of all. Moreover, these stories are funny for basically the same reasons. Bringing up the LDS is a very easy way to show how paper thin most rhetoric about “respecting belief” actually is. I would disagree with this idea even if it were honest, but let’s be honest: It’s not.

Near as I can tell, there’s a kind of club that you need to get into in order to be on the Mandatory Respect List. Much like Fight Club, you need to slug it out in order to get in. Also like Fight Club, everyone pretends it doesn’t exist. There is still tension in private settings, but in public the Orthodox and Protestant denominations appear to be on good terms. They even defend one another against bad guys like me. Same goes for the Jews and Muslims generally; again I’m talking about the mainstream discourse here. It wasn’t too long ago that the Catholics and Protestants were deeply at odds in the US, and the Pentecostals had to take a pretty severe beating before Charismatic worship became a mainstream thing.

The Mormon religion is too young to have made the cut just yet. The other members of Respect Club aren’t quite done hazing the LDS hopefuls, though the mainstream church does appear to be working hard to speed up the process. Meanwhile, the mainstream agressors tip their hand by being shocked when the creators of Southpark show more sensitivity than them. If this seems to have gotten a bit dark, try to keep in mind that it is rather frustrating to observe the dynamic outlined above playing out, and also be painted as the villain as a matter of course.

The most telling thing about the reviews, to me, is that I have yet to see one in which the writer reflects on their own opinion of the LDS Church. I haven’t seen a review indicating that the show changed the author’s opinion, or even motivated them to examine it. So the next time I mention the Mormon religion in a conversation with a Catholic, or a Methodist, or an Evangelical, I bet I’m going to get the same attitude I did before. I doubt it will matter whether they’ve seen the show; if I had to guess I’d say it will be worse. I haven’t yet devised a really effective way of calling attention to this behaviour, but I’m working on it.

I realize that on the whole, the tone of this post is quite bitter. I think I am quite bitter over this phenomenon. Ultimately, I think it’s because I have never once been successful at indicating to someone that this is going on. I feel as if I’ve made a lot of headway in many areas, but this one just seems out of reach. I’m still not burnt out on religious dialogue, and I’m not angry at anyone in particular. But if you happen to be a religious reader, please for the love of whichever god you prefer, think of the craziest faith group you can and then think about how you formed your opinion of them. And when’s the last time you spoke to one of them. Or read from their liturgy, or listened to their music. The things you might well ask of anyone who dared to criticize your faith.

I’m not saying beliefs need to be respected– I don’t think they do. I’m saying that in general they aren’t, except when self-interest is involved. Am I wrong?

The Other America

May 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

It has come to my attention that there is another United States of America somewhere. It is very different than the country in which I grew up. In this Other US, all of the cars are electric. And they fly. There is universal healthcare, and it works perfectly. Everyone can divide by zero as much and as often as they want, and the results are mathematically useful. I learned of this Other America because over there it is a huge surprise that Americans would celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden. I wonder what the night sky looks like there.

I’ll get to my own feelings on the matter in a minute. First I want to talk about other people’ feelings about other people’s feelings.

Pam Spritzer is among the deplorable yippies hemming and hawing over the least surprising thing ever to happen. She scrawled out this piece of self-important garbage for huffpo (world leader in that particular field). If I had to pick one excerpt to encapsulate the fake solemnity and almost impossible unawareness, I’d go with this one:

“Lest we forget, bin Laden too was a human being, born helpless like the rest of us, coddled by his mother, traumatized by the sudden death of his father when he was a boy of ten. Many have described him as considerate, gentle, and generous.”

That’s a good point; some less enlightened folks might have lapsed and thought we just killed a Komodo Dragon, or a moose. Naturally, the rest of Huffington’s op-ed page basically wall-to-wall newage wank over how sad we should be that Osama Bin Laden is dead. They tell us (with varying degrees of truth) that various religious traditions prohibit such displays, and remind us as above that Osama Bin Laden was Still A Person. B’kef.

In case anyone other than Pam Spritzer needs this explained: The people celebrating Osama’s death know that he was a human being. This is not the point on which they need to be educated, and at this juncture I don’t think any number of character references is going to make up for the atrocities he committed either in Afghanistan or abroad. The Americans celebrating his death are knowingly celebrating the death of another human being. You know, the same way they’ve done since the exact beginning of human history. Anyone claiming to be disturbed by this all of a sudden is either too stupid or too dishonest to be worth listening to.

Many people on facebook (check out if you don’t believe me) are posting statements to the effect that celebrating Bin Laden’s death makes us “just like them”. I don’t really know who “us” and “them” are in that equation, but I can’t think of any combination that isn’t incredibly, offensively stupid. Ultimately this is what bothers me about the whole conceit: ‘Other Americans are jerks for being happy, I’m better than them for pretending to be sad.’ Real helpful guys.

So here are a few facts about the America in which I grew up: In my America, people believe that the US military is the single best and greatest thing ever to exist (other than maybe Jesus). In my America, the very same people believe that they must stockpile firearms and ammunition in order to fight that very same military, should the need arise. In my America, posters on freerepublic and stormfront still make veiled references to the assassination of the president. They do not get banned. And in my America, students at my high school counter-protested demonstrations opposing the invasion of Iraq. They threw bottles into a crowd of their peers in order to voice the desire to see their own friends cousins, siblings, and parents sent to war. If Osama Bin Laden was killed and the collective response of American citizenry was solemn contemplation, I’d be forced to wonder where my America went.

I’m not saying that any of the above are good things, or that the death of anyone (even Bin Laden) ought to be met with jubilation. What I am saying is this: a) The celebrations of Bin Laden’s demise are so unsurprising that they scarcely warrant mention and b) Just because it’s wrong or at least unseemly to celebrate the deaths of one’s enemies, it’s not necessarily mandatory to mourn them.

I am glad that Bin Laden is dead. Not throwing-a-barbecue-and-buying-a-commemorative-plate glad, but glad. I don’t know what the tactical value of the killing was, nor do I particularly care. I don’t mourn Bin Laden’s death because I think that the net result is better than the result of him staying alive. I think it would still have been better to arrest him, but I will lose precisely no sleep at all over the fact that he was shot instead. I think that mourning a death is only meaningful if it is somehow connected to a relationship that existed in life. In practice, I do think that almost all deaths warrant mourning. Still, some individuals have such an adverse effect on so many other people that their deaths leave me ambivalent.

The reasons I’m actively glad that Bin Laden is dead have little to do with the man himself. They have much more to do with the name ‘Osama Bin Laden’ and the effect it has had on American politics since 2001. For conservative politicians, Osama was a trump card authorizing them to do whatever they wished. The name curtailed attempts at revising policy in Afghanistan (“We have to get Osama!”) and helped drive us headlong into the bloodbath of Iraq. The conservative base in the US tend to be wound pretty tight, but the unknown whereabouts of Bin Laden in the years following 9/11 drove them to new and psychotic lengths.

When I first heard that he’d been killed, I felt relieved. On reflection, I realized that I was really feeling relief over the catharsis that I suspect has taken place throughout the American conservative population. If their constant fear and anger is in any way mitigated by Bin Laden’s death, if it allows them to relax at all, then I’m glad it happened. And if the celebrations we’re seeing are followed by an opportunity for a slightly less depraved national discourse, I’m not too concerned about them.

Outbursts of glee over this event should not be troubling in and of themselves. They should be troubling because they are the logical, predictable outgrowth of a discourse that has been thriving in the USA for decades now. They should be troubling because of their inevitability. But I don’t think it’s constructive to focus on this one facet of the larger problem. The celebrations, and the attitudes they express, are indications of a miseducated and emotionally damaged populace.

The USA is plagued by factual and moral ignorance, and that is a deeply pressing concern. It is also, however, a complicated concern; one that I would argue would be better served by more empathy toward the living rather than the dead. I agree that Bin Laden’s death should not be cause for dancing in the streets, but I find it equally disgusting to see it used as a cheap means for self-congratulatory posturing. I think that the amount of good that follows now will be proportionate to our collective ability to seriously engage with the issues.

I have risen indeed.

April 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

So it’s been a little while since I updated. School and life have been cutting into my usual blogging hours. Many apologies to my dedicated fan. I still have a few things to get done this week before resuming a semi-regular posting schedule. Just little stuff really; buy mini-to-1/4″ adapters, get summer classes figured out, move into a new place, that sort of thing. I seriously had like eight of those adapters; I have no idea where they all went.

In any case, there’s tonnes of stuff for me to post about once I get started again. Did you know that canada is having an election? Well it is. Did you know that current prime minister Stephen Harper harbours some of the same creepy religious views as American conservatives? Well he does.

There’s also no shortage of excitement in my country of origin. Tennessee senator Stacey Campfield, evidently under the mistaken impression that gay people will go away if she doesn’t think about them, has passed a law banning their mention in public schools. Luckily I don’t need to write a whole post about that because George Takei has already proposed a wonderful compromise. I was going to offer the use of my name, but he beat me to it.

I know that most of my readers had an enjoyable Easter weekend, because I was playing Dominion with them. It’s much more fun than any of the descriptions would lead you to believe. Good company, abundant sugar, and an Afrobeat soundtrack are also significant enhancements.

I hope my other readers have had a similarly enjoyable holiday. I still have the strong impression that the resurrection actually invalidates the sacrifice that precedes it, but I just got done celebrating the (fictitious) slaughter of Egyptian livestock and infants. That being the case, I will question but I will not judge.

Next on my agenda (after getting those damned adapters) is a final update in the Mark Study series. There will be more bible study during the summer but I’m told it won’t follow the same format, so my posts will also need to be arranged a bit differently. I have a few pe topics that I really want to cover as well, so stand by for Stuff I Find Interesting.

Jesus was dead for three days. This blog has been dead for about a month. I’ll leave it for you to decide which resurrection is more impressive.

Mark 4 and 5: Victory Is… Mine?

March 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

I apologize for the belated post, but the news is good. I have now attended two (2) IVCF bible studies. I’ll leave it to my readers to decide whether this means I’ve bested God, God has bested me, or that the both of us are just lousy at getting together and we’ve finally managed to get it right twice in a row. I’m going to cut down on my usual quick reactions so that I can describe the approach that IVCF’s Mark study takes. The structure was completely new to me– I was expecting something closer to the Torah study I did in religious school. I might explain that as well some time but for now lets get into what I’ve been doing at the much-anticipated study. It’s broken into three sections.


I was a bit worried when I was given a folder containing a printout of our (RSV) version of Mark. I felt like that made it… Official? Not to worry though: My anxiety was quickly assuaged by the introduction of several dozen tiny, brightly coloured pens. These are for indicating key passages within the excerpt of the day (always roughly a page) and for indicating breaks. It’s necessary for the members of the study to mark breaks because the text we’re using has no chapter or verse indications, nor does it have paragraphs. I didn’t ask, but I assume this is to be more true to the original scripta continua manuscript. We’re not too preoccupied with that though– spaces between words and punctuation are allowed, along with a number every five lines.

So once everyone is in attendance, an indeterminate amount of time is allotted for us to deface our bible printouts. Bible study veterans have complicated systems using underlines, circled words, and various brackets– all in numerous colours. My system is not as refined; I use at most two colours (my first choice ran out) and have devised a grand total of three symbols. Underlines are for passages I find interesting or that inspire a question, square brackets are for various places where underlining is awkward, and vertical lines like this: | indicate breaks.

I’m a little self-conscious about the inelegance of my annotation, but I also have more important things to worry about. Such as keeping my horns hidden making sure I’m marking up the correct page.


This segment seems to start with a group discussion of breaks. Interestingly, there seems to be a lot of agreement on this. Even my infernal scribbles seem more or less in line with the group on this one. Whatever differences exist seem to get settled by consensus (easy because the studies I’ve attended have been so small). They then determine the structure of subsequent discussion. It occurs to me now that I should really scan in my annotated pages so you can actually see them. Until I do, here are my observations from the first page. Note the way in which these differ from my usual reflexive outbursts. The first section is for observations and questions only; reflections (which is most of what I express) come later.  Here are the bits I underlined:

A lonely placeMy question about this was simply what the word “lonely” might mean. It has some pretty specific connotations in English and I wondered how reflective that was of the original language. I don’t recall us reaching a definitive answer, but reading only the overt denotative meaning of the word doesn’t deeply influence the story.

And there he prayed.I think this is the most interesting question I came up with. What does it mean for Jesus to pray? I suppose this line of inquiry could be neatly derailed into trinitarian tedium, but I wonder if there isn’t a more interesting answer available. Every description of prayer I’ve ever heard from a Christian points to a connection between two separate entities. Moreover, this connection is invariably a highly asymmetrical one. It seems to me that the only way to really make sense of Jesus praying is to either redefine Jesus or redefine prayer (if only in his particular case).

Preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.I honestly can’t remember what my observation or question was here. Likely it just stuck out to me because of it repeats and reinforces the exorcism theme. Reading it again now, it strikes me that the Roman-controlled Middle East was positively lousy with demons. My question now would be whether the demons happened to congregate around the one guy who could drive them out at will, or whether the rest of the world had or has more demons per capita for lack of qualified outcasters. I think most Charismatics would say it’s the latter but I really have know clue about prevalent views Orthodox, Mainline Protestant, and LDS circles (among others).

If you will, you can make me clean.This one made the blog so I won’t expand on it– my observations at the study were effectively identical to the ones online.

“‘See that you say nothing to any one’… But he went out and began to talk freely, and to spread the news.These two were also mentioned online previously, and again my observations were basically unchanged. We never really reached a resolution about where Mark stands on the ex-leper. Spreading the news is generally considered a Good Thing by Christians, but disobeying direct instructions from Jesus himself (issued in person no less) has got to be against several important rules. What to make of the story of someone doing both?

It was reported that he was at home.“He” in this case is Jesus, and I underlined the passage because it doesn’t really seem like he owns the home in question. This could be a sign of an idiom from the original language translated relatively literally. Not exactly a theological conundrum to trigger new schisms and philosophical exploration, but the sort of thing that sticks out to me when I’m staring at my Mark printout and holding a miniature gel pen. I’m less exciting when I’m not on the internet.


I’m fairly certain that some of the above crosses the line between these sections but without credentialed IVCF bible study leaders to reign me in I fear the straight and narrow will continue to elude me from time to time. Basically, observations and questions are meant to be kept minimal and neutral. Explorations of meaning and thoughts about personal significance belong in this final portion of the study. If I’m honest, this third part is my favourite. Still, whatever unease I’ve felt is mostly a product of being a lone Atheist Emissary in a very small study. Once I get the hang of the conventions I’m sure I’ll be more comfortable, and my hosts have been perfectly welcoming and helpful.

On the whole, I’m really glad that I was invited to the study this semester, and that I ended up going. I initially wanted to go in order to learn more about the Christian perspective on the text, and on how to read it. I’ve certainly learned about both of these things, and if that were all I was getting out f the experience it would be well worthwhile. What I’ve been surprised by is the development of my own opinions about the text, and even about Mark, or at least the authors and scribes of Mark. I haven’t studied nearly enough to have a truly informed opinion on these matters, and it’s likely that I never will.

Still, I notice that I’m beginning to relate to the book (in its present form) on my own terms, something I never really did before. What I mean  by this is something a bit more unified than the initial reactions I’ve been posting; that’s mostly scraps of theology and textual history I’ve picked up. I’ve never treated the book as a cohesive work before. From a certain perspective it arguably isn’t, but from another it can be read that way and I’ve found that reading to be both educational and fun.

If any theists are reading the above sensing a conversion on the horizon, I’m afraid I have to disappoint for the time being. I see many things in Mark, but evidence of divine origin isn’t one of them. Admittedly, I’m only a few pages in. If this is to be my road to Damascus then I’ve hardly stepped off of my own threshold. But I hope my religious readers are getting more out of this than the anticipation of one more formulaic testimony. I’m playing a deeper game than that, and I hope everyone else is too. There are going to be both Christians and atheists for a very long time. One convert on either side would be a paltry victory compared to greater understanding between our respective movements.

For any atheists who wonder why I would bother to surround myself with theists, and read their book by their rules, perhaps the following quote will clarify:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

And if the meaning of the above is anything less than perfectly apparent, I hope you’ll forgive me for recommending bible study as a remedy. If you happen to be a student at SFU, I know a great one.




Mark 3: God REALLY Doesn’t Want Me To Study the Bible

February 17, 2011 § 5 Comments

So I was on my way up to campus, in what looked like very nice weather. As my bus got closer it became slightly rainy. Then that turned into snow. And then that became snow and hail. And then the driver announced that all of the buses to campus were to be diverted, starting with the one I was on. So I’m in a Starbucks, trying to decide whether it’s worth trying to go to next week’s study. In particular, the clichéd warning of “fire next time” has taken on an even more ominous ring than usual.

So I’m missing bible study again, but I do have my highlighted .pdf of Mark, and I have an internet connection. So once again, here are my unfiltered reactions to Mark, insulated once more from the perspective of anyone who actually believes in it. So it goes.

General Thoughts

Despite continuing demon-banishment, this page is not quite as interesting to me as the previous ones. Most of my thoughts from the last instalment apply here as well, and the rest of the content here gives me the distinct impression that I’m missing a whole lot– even more than usual– by being illiterate in the original language. Still, most believers don’t seem to have a problem with interpreting the text that we have so I guess it’s good enough for me, at least for now.

As I’ve mentioned, my .pdf of Mark doesn’t have verse markings but today’s page is roughly Mark 1:32-2:2, ESV.

Knowledge in the Biblical Sense

And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.”

This casting out of demons is already pretty interesting, but here we see yet another biblical concept of “knowledge.” Almost everyone is familiar with the lascivious meaning that derives largely from Genesis (although it also runs through the entire Torah/OT), but the idea of knowledge is used throughout the New Testament in what seem to be a few other ways, or maybe just one other way that I can’t quite pin down.

What I think is going on here is an illustration of a tendency regarding demons and all things Satanic. Basically, it seems like the only people who identify Jesus as the Christ with any certainty through most of the NT are people who are under malign influence. Peter notably gets it right, and he’s not evil. But he does go on to do thrice deny his saviour and my understanding is that this is a bit of a faux pas. However consistent it is or isn’t, what’s interesting about this trend is that it plays into the dynamic we see through large swaths of gospel, where Jesus appears to try and fail to play it close to the vest.

But of course he’s God. And there’s a devine plan. I don’t see much room in this equation for trying and failing but I’m told that omnipotence and omniscience haven’t yet been made explicit in Mark (which is true as far as I’ve read). So are we dealing with a finite God at this stage? That would be cool.

Everyone. All the time.

they found him and said to him, ‘Every one is searching for you.'”

This phrase (1:37) really stuck out to me, although admittedly because of its relevance to my particular historical/geographic context and because of how it reads in English. In particular, this message lies at the heart of a particularly North American brand of Christian religion. The televangelists love to harp on this one: No matter who you are, no matter what you want, the way to get it is Jesus. Our Jesus. To the baptists, everyone wants Baptist Jesus– some of them just don’t know it. Evangelical pastors advertise a personal relationship with Jesus (a relationship that they generously offer to facilitate with vanilla rock music and light shows). Give generously, and some Jesus or other will deliver untold riches and these video tapes which you absolutely must see.

The common thread is that anyone searching for anything is really searching for Jesus. The sentiment is so overwhelmingly prevalent these days that to me Mark 1:37 almost seems to break the fourth wall. Could the author of Mark have imagined the future market saturation in his field? Did he actually mean that everyone was searching for his God, without knowing it? Or was this just a snippet of expository dialogue that, like so much other scripture, has taken on additional layers of meaning as it aged?

Cleanliness and Godliness

“And a leper came to him beseeching him, and kneeling said to him, ‘If you will, you can make me clean.'”

This one stuck out to me for two reasons. First of all, it’s interesting that the leper doesn’t directly ask Jesus for help. Instead, he simply informs the messiah that he (the messiah that is) has the ability to help. This reads to me like a very Jewish way of going about it, and not for the reasons you might think. What I’m referring to is the character of Jewish law regarding charity. This spans from levitical law regarding harvests to the later developments of the normative tradition. Without going into too much detail let’s just say that I think to a Jew, knowing that you can help means you help. More so if you can do literal magic, I would think.

Second reason this stands out: Once again we have a theologically significant reference to cleanliness. I wrote before about the idea as it relates to illness, but in the case of leprosy there’s actually a precedent that merges the medical and metaphysical implications. Back in Numbers 12 God hits Miriam with (temporary) leprosy for gossiping. So uncleanliness in the religious sense, relating to sin, coincides with this particular physical illness.

After a bit of telepathy and a frank exchange with some scribes we get this:

“he stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.”

And we move on.

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

“See that you say nothing to any one; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to the people.”

This reinforces Jesus’ weird antisocial tendency. On the one hand, he’s spreading the good news. On the other hand, he’s trying to be low-key about the Benny Hinn routine (a virtual oxymoron, to be sure). There’s an odd tension here between his desire to preach the good news, his reluctance to engage in spectacle, and his consistent acquiescence when pushed. I’m not sure how to square it with the personality traits I usually hear ascribed to Jesus, but it does make for pretty good reading.

My impression so far is that Mark’s Jesus doesn’t resemble the saviours of Oral Roberts, Todd Friel, Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, Rod Parsley, or Rick Warren nearly as much as he resembles the vision of Andrew Lloyd Weber. Go figure.

The Book of Renovation

We’ll get deeper into the story of the “paralytic” next week, but the intro is so weird I’m throwing it in now:

“And they came, bringing to him, a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay.”

I have no clue what to think of this really. They can’t get close enough to see Jesus, but they can get close enough to remove the roof from the house that he’s in? And the owner of the house has no input on this? What kind of house can be easily de-roofed by four ambulatory men with no special equipment and an immobile friend to care for? However they did it, I bet the carpenter in Jesus was secretly impressed.

To be slightly more serious, when I get to a passage like this I tend to think that one of four things must be the case:

  1. The story included details that made sense of this whole vignette, but they got omitted later in the interest of space or efficiency.
  2. There’s something going on with the language (presumably the Greek words for “roof”, “paralytic”, or what have you) that doesn’t come across in translation.
  3. This is a literary reference to another story (perhaps one involving four men carrying someone or something else, and performing ad-hoc structural alterations) and it would make perfect sense if I knew what it was alluding to.
  4. It’s just a really weird story.

Note that 1-3 are not exclusive with 4. Whatever the case, I’m very interested to see what believing Christians make of this but of course that will have to wait until next week. Or until someone posts a comment with their take, whichever comes first.

Final Note

Having recently had a very long and interesting conversation about this, I thought I should clarify once again my reasons for doing this and the motivation behind these posts. The thoughts I’m posting are my initial reactions to the parts of the text that stand out to me. They reflect my existing knowledge and biases. I’m posting them so that some of the gaps in my knowledge can be filled, so that I can be aware of my preconceptions and possibly revise some of them, and so that my readers can see how one skeptic reads scripture.

Assuming I ever make it to one, the bible study will help me build a more accurate perception of how Christians relate to Mark and to scripture in general. I can’t post about the stuff I don’t know because I don’t know it yet. In my earlier conversation the topic of reading for Mark’s intention came up. I’m not sure how comfortable I am with setting that as a goal. If I wanted to know what Mark meant I would need to look at linguistic and textual analyses and learn a whole lot of history regarding the context of early Christianity. And if at the end of the day I had a detailed and accurate understanding of Mark’s intention as an author, I’m not sure I would really know a whole lot more about what contemporary Christians believe.

I’m in this to learn about Christianity as it’s practiced now. If I can pick up some deeper knowledge of Mark along the way that’s great, but I’m really interested in what self-identified Christians get out of the book– and what they put back into it. Hopefully I’ll be able to communicate my perspective to them at the same time.

And if more extreme weather keeps me from next week’s study, I’ll consider it a sign from God that I should stay atheist.

You Know What They Say About the Road to Hell

February 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

So someone named Justin Murray has created a facebook event to raise awareness (I think) of depression and suicide. I’m sure Justin means well, even if he promotes his cause with glurge. If that were all there was to it I would happily let this bit of slacktivism slide, but unfortunately the text on the event pages crosses a few lines that landed it squarely in the “creepy as hell” category. Specifically, this:

My high school crush was a blond-haired, blue-eyed descendant of Heaven with perfect looks, grades, and people skills. She was a person’s person, and would do anything to brighten your day. On April 25, 2007 she committed suicide after battling depression; this left a family, school and community broken. And it left me broken, too. I wondered, and still wonder, what I could have done to make her life better.

I really, really wish people would stop playing up the great looks, grades, and social skills of suicide victims. This particular passage steps it up by taking a weird aryan angle. And look, don’t know how true or not this particular anecdote is, and I don’t want to say anyone’s personal story isn’t valid.

Here’s the thing though: If the goal is to send a message of hope to people who are trying to cope with severe depression and suicidal ideations, what are we saying to people who are depressed and not particularly good looking? What about kids who are struggling with mood disorders and pulling terrible grades? Some people manage to hide their symptoms almost completely, but in many cases depression can cause dramatic changes in social skills and behaviour. What message does the passage above send to them?

Maybe this event is so insignificant that I shouldn’t care, or maybe I’m reading too much into it. The thing is, the clichés I’m talking about are nearly universal in coverage of suicide. Take this recent Ottawa Sun article for example. What do we know about the focus of a recent event?

“They knew her well enough to know what the charismatic, artistic and popular teen would have made of it all.”

An earlier Ottawa Citizen article goes even further, with the headline “Classmates struggle to understand talented and popular teen’s suicide”. I have yet to see a headline that reads “Classmates struggle to understand troubled and antisocial teen’s suicide”. And it could be argued that there’s at least one obvious reason why.

From a news perspective, playing up the attractiveness, popularity, or talent of a suicide victim makes the event seem more surprising and out of the ordinary. This is to say, more newsworthy. Beholden as they are to advertising dollars and readership, it’s at least understandable to me why news outlets would adhere so strictly to this man-bites-dog format. That being the case, I think it’s important that activist efforts make some effort to break from this narrative, because it’s counterproductive from the standpoint of helping people deal with mental illness. Here’s why:

The whole point of playing up how good a suicide victim’s life is on the surface is to make the act of suicide seem more surprising. In other words, it works by playing on a fundamental misunderstanding of mood disorders and particularly depression. The basic assumption underlying the common narrative is that overall quality of life should be a determining factor in whether or not someone is depressed. Moreover, this quality of life should be determined by how attractive, popular, academically proficient, and socially successful an individual is. While all of these things can be contributing factors, it’s simply a known fact that mental illness doesn’t care how many friends you have, or how aryan you look. Depression, psychosis, and other disorders can skew the perception of these things, but the effect is not necessarily reciprocal.

I appreciate the idea of trying to show solidarity and compassion for people who are dealing with mental illness of various kinds, and my sincere condolences go out to Justin Murray and anyone else who has lost a loved one to suicide or anything else. The thing is, this event doesn’t have any practical component. There’s nothing on the page about how to recognize the warning signs that can accompany acute depression, and the anecdote that goes with the pitch has the potential to do much more harm than good.

I don’t doubt that the intentions behind this event are good, but I think my thoughts on that have been made clear.

And hey, if you want to draw a heart on your arm on April 25th that’s fine too. I don’t doubt for a minute that the intention behind it is good.

Fun With Anselm (part 1)

February 15, 2011 § 11 Comments

I haven’t been posting as often as I’d like, but I’ve had less time to track down good topics as well as less time in general. I have a moment now though, and I’ve been meaning to write up some of my thoughts on St. Anselm’s Ontological Proof of the existence of (his particular) God. If people seem to enjoy this one there’s another posts worth of Anselm to talk about, and probably a few blogs (at least) to be done on Pascal.

Okay, so about Anselm… I’ve had the pleasure of explaining this argument to a few atheists for the first time, and trust me when I say it can be great fun. It tends to provoke incredulity and outrage; I’ve been accused of making it up more than once. For those who are not familiar, here’s the summary from wiki:

When we hear the words ‘that than which a greater cannot be thought’, we understand what the words convey, and what we understand exists in our thoughts. This then exists either only in our thoughts or both in thought and reality. But it cannot exist only in our thoughts, because if it existed only in our thoughts, then we could think of something greater than it, since we could think of something than which a greater cannot be thought that exists both in thought and in reality, and it is a contradiction to suppose we could think of something greater than that than which nothing greater can be thought. Hence, that than which a greater cannot be thought exists both in thought and in reality. Therefore, that than which a greater cannot be thought really does exist, and in later chapters of the Proslogion Anselm argues that this being has the traditional attributes of God like being the omnipotent creator.

The reason that this argument causes such distress is that, as Bertrand Russel supposedly observed, it’s much easier to see that it’s fallacious than to explain exactly why. Now, I’m not a philosopher or even a philosophy major. If you want a really comprehensive refutation there are plenty of excellent ones out there. I’m invested in answering this argument only because it occasionally comes up in my interactions with theists. In that context I don’t just need a refutation that works, I need one that gets through to them. While the following is not “field tested” yet, experience suggests that it will be an improvement on my former approach.

Those of you who got really into the wiki page will have discovered Gaunilo’s Island. Without going into too much detail, it’s basically the observation that the form of Anselm’s argument can be applied toward literally anything. The formula of “greatness” combined with the attribute of “existence” allows us to ontologically demonstrate the reality of any “greatest thing” of which we can conceive. The thing is, the island example feels like it’s missing the point, even though it isn’t. Moreover, non-God examples tend to look like parody and as atheists we’re likely to be accused of simply poking fun. Here’s the variation on Gaunilo’s Island that I think has the most promise:

  1. As per Anselm’s original operation, that than which a greater cannot be thought must exist both in thought and reality.
  2. It is possible to conceive of an evil greater than which cannot be thought.
  3. This evil must exist not only in thought, but also in reality.

So far it looks like we’re proving Satan, yes? Well we aren’t, not quite. The thing about this particular argument is that it’s really just the exact inverse of Anselm’s. But this inversion doesn’t alter the scale at which we’re working. Satan is smaller than God– he’s a created being for one, and we need all kinds of theological excuses for why God doesn’t just snuff him out in an instant. Not so with an Anselmian Evil. This variation on the ontological argument, with its reliance on greatness and existence, leaves no room for asymmetry.

If we have a patient audience we can take it further. Since good and evil are opposites and represented here by equally infinite beings, and since there is no mechanism for differentiating them in anything other than nature, their net effect should add up to zero. Any more or less on either side would invalidate vital attributes of the other. Having accepted that existence can be demonstrated in this way, we’re left with the conclusion that the most a Greatest Good and Greatest Evil can achieve is to exactly cancel out the effect of the other.

If we were really serious about these logical devices we could derive our theology from them. The idea that good and evil are exactly in balance could lead to a few beliefs. They could be equal over a very large timescale for example, with long periods of asymmetry in one direction being offset further down the line. Or the followers of our imagined religion could posit many worlds, each world a moral negative image of some other one. The knowledge that doing good in this world entailed an equal amount of evil in another could lead to some interesting moral theories. Followers of the first school of thought might make an art of quantifying and recording good and evil in an attempt to predict future trends.

But Anselm’s argument lead to none of the above, nor to anything remotely like them so far as I know. And to me this is the most damning thing about the whole exercise– all of this careful argumentation is really just an elaborate way of setting up the punchline we all knew was coming; conventional Christianity. Despite earnest attempts to appear otherwise (and likely complete sincerity) Anselm and his ilk never seem to have fully committed to their logical explorations. Instead, they devised ever more ingenius ways of deriving the conclusions they started out with.

Little seems to have changed. Protestants think that Anselm proved a Protestant God, Catholics think he proved a Catholic one. Even hardline Evangelicals and members of Charismatic sects seem to think that Anselm, Pascal, and Aquinas must have had their heterodox theologies in mind. In practice, it’s really only history that gives anyone more of a right to these thinkers and their output. In purely philosophical terms the various proofs and arguments for God are equally applicable to most mainstream Christianities. This feature actually points toward another way of sinking Anselm but I’ll leave that for the next instalment.

As I final note, I hope I’ve made one other point here: The classic arguments for God (some of them at least) are interesting an worth thinking about. Their historical impact alone would warrant learning about them, but they have the added benefits of being good exercises in logic and of illuminating some implicit ideas that pervade most mainstream religion today. And they’re just plain fun to think about.


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