Saturday, December 31, 2011

Notes From the Cave: Elissa's Kitchen Edition

1.  Blogging from the kitchen of my sister, Elisser.

2.  Happy Frickin' New Year.

3.  It is officially 11:02 p.m.

4.  It's still 2011 but it will soon be 2012.  Thank God.  Because it was a bad year.  According to Elisser.

5.  We just talked about Manfred von Richthofen.

6.  My youngest daughter had her allergies tested last week.  She has outgrown her milk, egg, seafood, and tree nut allergies.  This is good news.  Celebrate with me.

7.  The words to "Rocket Man" by Elton John are: " Burning up the fumes up here alone."

8.  When I was a child my family would travel down by the Green River where Paradise lay.

9.  The above is by John Prine, from the song "Paradise."

10.  My sister and I just argued over whether there should be a comma between "Prine" and "from" in the bullet point above.

11.  My sister and I really miss our parents and wish they would move here, goddammit.

12.  My sister is being ridonkulous.

13.  My sister is pretty sure she died on the Titanic, but if that's the case, then she must have died as a child during the Great War.

14.  Yes, that's the kind of shit my sister and I talk about.

15.  My sister's best friend reminded my sister that she was a Bingham of Louisville in a past life.  If so, her current incarnation has failed miserably.  

16.  Eight more miles to Louisville, the hometown of my heart.

17.  I love Rush.  My sister does not agree.  Screw her.

18.  In a past life, my mother thinks she was.........well, we can't actually mention that.

19.  The UK Wildcats men's basketball team beat the U'll of Ell Cardinals today in the Dream Game series. This makes us very, very happy.  But we still like Denny Crum.  My mother has a thing for him.

20.  The Cincinnati Bengals could go to the playoffs if they win tomorrow.  I don't care either way.  Football is for pussies.

21.  I was Henry II in a past life.

22.  My father doesn't believe in past lives, but we are pretty sure he was Marie Curie in a past life, primarily because he is a chemist, and he is remarkably in touch with his feminine side.

23.  My sister had a very bad 2011.  But hey, in 2012 she turns 40, so problem solved!!!

24.  Elisser and I are STILL arguing about commas.

25.  Come dancing.  Come on sister, have yourself a ball.  Love you Lisser.  :)

26.  She's crying over #25.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Taking God's Name in Vain

If you are a regular and long-time reader of my blog, or if you have purchased my book "Christianity is a Verb," you will know that I have written on this topic before.  Never fear, my intention is not to rehash my arguments, but to provide an "update" of sorts.

In that previous post, I broke down the individual Hebrew words of the 3rd Commandment and argued that it is not talking about using God's name as an expletive (i.e., stubbing your toe and saying "Goddammit!"), but rather, it is talking about not accepting the name of God upon yourself if you don't really mean it; in other words, don't claim to be Godly (a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, etc.,) if you aren't really living the lifestyle that goes along with it.

Everyone is familiar with this sort of argument - within Christianity, the notion of someone claiming to be a Christian, but not living like a Christian, is so widespread as to be almost banal.  When we hear of someone committing murder in the name of Jesus, we say they aren't really a Christian.  When we hear of Christian priests and monks fighting in the Church of the Nativity at Christmas, we say they aren't acting like Christians.  On the other hand, when we see someone who is a good, upstanding, ethical person, we call them a "good Christian," and say they are truly living like Christ.

This is what the 3rd Commandment is talking about.  Claiming to be Godly, but not acting Godly; claiming to be a Christian, but not living like a Christian.  The focus of the commandment is to be sincere in your devotion to God.

It has nothing to do with using words like "God," and "Jesus," and "Christ" as cuss words or expletives.  Many people find such language offensive, but when they point to the 3rd Commandment to back up that view (i.e., "Don't take the Lord's name in vain!!" after hearing someone say "Goddammit!"), they are simply misunderstanding what that commandment meant in its original context.  Saying "Goddammit" is not taking the Lord's name in vain.  Saying you are a Godly person, and then doing ungodly things: that is taking the Lord's name in vain.

It's true, of course, that many people would consider "foul language" to be ungodly.  In that sense, then, you could argue that the 3rd Commandment encompasses using God's name as an expletive - as well as any other explicit or foul language a person might use.  But I've sure never heard anyone scold someone for saying "shit" by telling them not to take the Lord's name in vain.

The fact is, when you read what the verse actually says, there is simply no reason to assume it had anything to do with using God's name as an expletive.  It's interesting to point out that the verse does not say: "Do not use the name of the Lord in vain," or "Do not speak the name of the Lord in vain."  It says: "Do not take the name of the Lord in vain."

This is interesting because in many modern English translations of the Bible, they have done away with this King James phraseology ("take in vain") and translated the word as "misuse" - "Do not misuse the name of the Lord."  This is true in both the popular NIV and the favorite of New Testament scholars, the NRSV.

But the word in question didn't mean "misuse."  I can only chalk this up to the modern translations being influenced by modern notions of what this phrase means (i.e., that it teaches not to use God's name as an expletive).  If you read Strong's Concordance with Hebrew and Greek Lexicon - which is the authoritative publication on the translation of words and phrases in the Bible - it is very clear that the Hebrew word in question meant nothing like "misuse."  It means "to take" or "to carry" or "to lift up."  When you read this same word in other passages, it's meaning becomes perfectly clear.  To give just one example, Genesis 13:10: "And Lot lifted up his eyes and beheld all the plain of the Jordan."  This word absolutely does not mean "misuse."

If the writers of the Jewish scriptures (or, God, if you prefer) had meant for the 3rd Commandment to be talking about using God's name as an expletive, wouldn't have the sentence read: "Do not speak the name of the Lord in vain"?  But it doesn't say that.  It says don't "take" the name of the Lord in vain.  "Take" doesn't mean "speak."  It means to grab something, or carry something, or accept something.  If I say: "Congress is useless," would you describe that as me taking something about Congress?  Of course not; that doesn't even make sense.  I have said something about Congress, not taken something.

"Taking" God's name in vain has nothing to do with speech or utterance.  It means exactly what it says: "take" means to carry something or accept something.  Thus, the commandment is telling us not to accept the name of God, not to carry the name of God on our shoulders, while at the same time doing nothing to imply that we are actually people of God.  A Chicago Cub wouldn't wear a Cincinnati Reds jersey, because he's not a Cincinnati Red.  He's a Cub.  In the same way, a person shouldn't take the name of God upon themselves if they aren't really a Godly person.

This is what the 3rd Commandment means.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas With the Christmas Family

People always ask me: "What's Christmas like in the Christmas family?"

Okay, actually, I've never been asked that question in my life.  But I'm going to answer it anyway, with a pictorial history of the Christmas family at Christmas time.


The Louisville Courier-Journal ran an article sometime in the 1950's about my father's family.  The headline read "Christmas With The Christmases" and this was the picture that went with the article.  My father is the young lad in the center, holding his prized Christmas robot.  



My mother, with her grandfather, probably taken sometime before I was born.  In the box is a clitoral stimulator, which explains my great-grandfather's stern, yet curious, expression.  

  
I admit it.  I love nutcrackers, and I collect them.  This is a shot from a few years back, when they were arrayed atop the TV cabinet.  


I'm about 99% certain this isn't actually a picture taken at Christmas time, but rather, Thanksgiving.  Still, it's the Christmas family in Baptist party mode, circa 1985.  I'm pretty sure my grandmother is beseeching Jesus because my aunts were fighting again.  


Right after this picture was taken, I stood up and began singing O Tannenbaum.  Check out those sneakers, and that hi-tech TV!  Yes, that's a VCR on the top.  This is probably about 1987ish.

  
Merry Christmas from the Christmases, circa 1981.  My Dad got laid a lot.  Thankfully, that hideous couch was in my aunt's house.  Notice how pissed I am that I got clothes for Christmas.  


This is just to prove that yes, I did have hair as an adult.  This was Our First Christmas, 1997, in Our First Apartment.  I have absolutely no idea why there is a Rambo knife lying in the floor.  Oh wait, I was using it to commit suicide with before this picture was taken.  I'm not kidding when I say that the glasses I was wearing in this picture were just replaced about 2 months ago.  


Circa 2000ish at my parents' home in Texas.  My Dad still gets laid a lot.  My wife started looking for the Rambo knife after this picture was taken.  

My sister's Best Christmas Gift Ever.  Just revel in this picture for a while.  My grandmother is saying: "There's a black man on that shirt!"


According to the date on the picture, this was Christmas, 1956.  That's my mother, as a little boy, drunk.  


This was taken at my aunt's house, probably around 1990.  My mother was in her James Brown hair-do phase, while my aunt was doing her best to look older than my grandmother, and also, to look like she was having a bowel movement.

At my parents' house in Texas, about 2001.  My wife and I went down there with my sister for a 4-day weekend, and my sister was a complete and total neurotic bitch the entire time, and I wanted to pull the Rambo knife on her.  Happy Holidays!


Just revel in it.


This is about 1978, I would guess.  My cousin, dressed like one of the Brady's, is as happy about my truck and car set as I am.  My sister has been strangled to death.  



No, that's not me in the long john's.  That's my cousin - I think the same one as in the picture above.  Judging by my sister's age, and the well-formed lump hiding behind my mother's hands, this must have been Christmas 1974, right before I was born.  My Dad is behind the tree, looking like Warmed Over Death.


Merry Christmas honey, here's a fucking dishpan.  My guess is that this is about 1971 or so.  Why is my father always near plastic robots in Christmas pictures?  Is that the Tin-Man?  


Yeah, I was pretty much Kick Ass, rockin' the cowboy outfit.  


This is 2006, at my sister's house, right after a huge argument wherein my mother decided to throw out all the booze, upsetting my sister greatly.  Dad was passed out on the porch.  


This would have been 1973ish, well before my birth.  I remember playing with that hippo as a child.  I'm pretty sure I used scissors to cut a butthole for it.  



My sister's first Christmas, 1972.  She was born about 40 pounds.


1989ish.  Fortunately, I put some clothes on for this picture with my grandmother.  Yes, my jeans are tight-rolled.  Yes, I was a virgin.  


My youngest daughter, Christmas 2009, ordering up some weed for the festivities.  


Christmas 2010.  I don't think a single one of these toys has been around since roughly January, 2011.


My Dad, sporting the Man-Stache, and my Mom, sporting her 'Fro and holding my cousin's baby.  This is about 1988.  The honeymoon was definitely over.


Christmas Eve dinner, 1987.  I remember posing for this shot, trying to look goofy.  Not that the camo outfit required much help.

  
Obviously, the same Christmas.  Have just received a Swiss Army Knife.  My Mom is laughing because it was Swiss Army Knife number 2 for that Christmas.  Which was okay with me, because I was an army guy, and needed both.  


Christmas train set my Dad and I made to sit on top of our TV stand.  We later added snow and trees and shit.  I was pretty damn proud of this.  Circa 1989.  


Christmas in West Chester, Ohio, circa 1988, fake tree in the Family Room, live tree in the Living Room.  Dad with his photo-grays on.  Looks like a white Christmas out that window, eh?  


Same Christmas as above, different room.  Damn that light chain hanging down from the ceiling fan and ruining the postcard scene!  


In my mind, I was thinking: "Fucking pajamas."  But they were Transformer pajamas, which was pretty cool.  Yes, my Mom was wearing a full-length apron, even after dinner was over.  


Christmas, 2003, at my sister's house.  This was my sister's last Christmas, before she died of malnutrition.


And that, my friends, is Christmas With the Christmas Family.  Happy Hanukkah!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

10 Fun Facts About Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor, the 12th President of the United States

1)  Born in Virginia in 1784, Taylor came from a distinguished line of American families that included three passengers on the Mayflower.  His second cousin was future President James Madison.  The family moved to the frontier of Kentucky when Taylor was still a child, and he grew up in a log cabin near present day Louisville, where his father - a prominent Revolutionary war officer - became a large landowner.  

2)  Because of his frontier upbringing, Taylor had virtually no formal education, and this is illustrated in a number of personal letters where he routinely misspells words and uses poor grammar.

3)  Taylor entered military service around 1808 and served throughout the War of 1812.  His duties with the military eventually took him to New Orleans, and he ultimately bought a plantation and settled in nearby Baton Rouge.  Shortly after entering military service, he met and married a Maryland woman named Margaret Smith.  Together, they had 6 children.  Taylor's only son, Richard, would later become a general in the Confederate army.  One of his daughters, Elizabeth, fulfilled the duties of First Lady while her father was president; Taylor's wife Margaret, by this time, was a virtual recluse and took no part in official functions.

4)  In 1835, another daughter, Sarah, met and married a young West Point graduate named Jefferson Davis.  Taylor disapproved of the marriage because he didn't want a military life for his daughter.  In order to get Taylor's blessing, Davis resigned his commission in the military.  Sarah, however, died after only three months of marriage.  Davis, of course, would go on to become the President of the Confederacy during the Civil War.  He and his former father-in-law remained estranged until serving together in the 1840's.

5)  Taylor rose to prominence for his service in the Mexican War of the mid-1840's, where he won a number of decisive victories against superior Mexican forces.  When he returned from the war, he was welcomed as a hero, with many people comparing him to the likes of George Washington and Andrew Jackson.  He was commonly known by the nickname "Old Rough and Ready."

6)  Taylor was courted as a presidential candidate in 1848 primarily because of his prominence as a war hero.  Prior to running for president, Zachary Taylor had never even personally voted in a presidential election.  Pursued by both the Whig and the Democratic parties, he eventually declared himself a Whig and easily won their nomination for president.  With the Democratic party partially split by an anti-slavery third party called the Free Soil Party (which nominated former president Martin Van Buren), Taylor managed to win the election, despite only garnering 47% of the popular vote.

7)  Taylor was the last U.S. president to own slaves while in the White House.

8)  The issue of slavery - and, specifically, the question of whether slavery should be allowed to expand into new western territories won in the Mexican War - dominated most of Taylor's time in office.  Though he was a slaver-holder himself, Taylor supported the so-called Wilmot Proviso, which would have effectively outlawed slavery in new western territories.  Southern states threatened to secede over this issue, and Taylor - a nationalist to the core - promised to lead the armies himself, if necessary, to preserve the Union.  In a meeting with southern leaders in February of 1850, he is said to have stated: "Anyone taken in rebellion against the Union, I will hang, with less reluctance than I hanged deserters and spies in Mexico."

9)  While discussions were taking place among the leaders of Congress on a compromise solution to the question of slavery in the western territories, Taylor took a break in July, 1850, to observe the groundbreaking ceremonies, on July 4, of the new Washington Monument.  It was a hot day, and he cooled off by consuming fruit and milk.  Within several days, he was battling a severe digestive ailment, possibly cholera, and succumbed to the illness on July 9, 1850, only 16 months into his presidency.  He became the second president in less than a decade to die in office from illness.  He was buried near his childhood home in Louisville, Kentucky.

10)  In the 1980's, questions began to be raised about the possibility that Zachary Taylor had been assassinated by poisoning.  The theories pointed to the unusual circumstances of his death (there were no known cholera outbreaks that year in Washington, and his symptoms are not entirely consistent with other food-born illnesses, like typhoid), and to the fact that he had many political enemies in Washington, due to his refusal to compromise over the issue of slavery.  It is a historical fact that, without Taylor's death, the Compromise of 1850 - which allowed California into the Union as a free state, but which kept slavery possible in other territories - may never have happened.  As a result of this speculation, Taylor's body was exhumed in 1991, to be tested for arsenic - which tends to remain in the body after death.  The tests showed conclusively that Taylor was not poisoned by arsenic.  The medical examiners who opened his casket reported that his body was well-preserved, and was recognizable from photographs of the long-dead president.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

10 Fun Facts About Warren G. Harding

Warren G. Harding, the 29th President of the United States

1)  Warren G. Harding was born in rural Blooming Grove, Ohio, in 1865.   His parents had the unusual 19th century distinction of both being doctors - his mother had been granted a medical license because of her work as a midwife.  The family eventually moved to nearby Caledonia, Ohio, where they bought, and began operating, the local newspaper.  Warren was known by the nickname "Winnie."

2)  An advanced student, Harding earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1882 at the age of 17.  He was known as an accomplished cornet player while in school, and also edited the school's newspaper.

3)  After college, Harding raised money to purchase a newspaper in Marion, Ohio, which he built into a successful publication, respected state-wide.  The Marion Daily Star is still published to this day (as the Marion Star).

4)  Harding's principle opponent in the newspaper world was Amos Kling, the financier of Marion's most popular newspaper, the Marion Independent.  Competition between these two newspapers got so heated that one argument was, apparently, settled at gunpoint.  Harding, however, ultimately got the best of his rival - he married Kling's estranged daughter, a divorced woman named Flossie Kling DeWolfe.  Her father was so upset he didn't speak to either of them for eight years.  Winnie and Flossie never had children, but Flossie brough a young son to the marriage, who was raised, in part, by the Hardings.  Named Marshall DeWolfe, he eventually married and had children of his own, but died of alcholism in his early 30's, in 1915.  When Harding later came to the White House, the fact that he had a stepson who had died of alcholism was not widely known or reported by the contemporary media.

5)  A lifelong Republican, Harding entered politics around the turn of the century, and served several terms in the Ohio legislature, before serving as Ohio's lieutenant governor from 1904 to 1906.  He ran for governor in 1909, but lost.  During these years, he also continued to run his newspaper business, and eventually reconciled with his father-in-law and former nemesis.  A rising star in the Republican party, he gave the nominating speech at the Republican National Convention in 1912, and went on to chair the 1916 convention; in between, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1914.  By 1920, he won the Republican nomination for the presidency.

6)  During the 1920 campaign, Harding revolutionized political campaigning.  For the first time, newsreels and photo-ops became the norm in presidential campaigning, and campaign results were broadcast on the radio for the first time.  Harding brillaintly marketed his own quaint home in rural Ohio as his primary podium, instituting what he called a "front porch" campaign, in which he was routinely depicted in photographs on his front porch, and gave numerous speeches there to enormous audiences.  He was also widely regarded to be a handsome, and thus photogenic, man, and although there were many rumors of extra-marital affairs, Harding was popular with female voters, primarily because he had supported Women's Suffrage and not, as the legend says, because he was so good-looking.  The 1920 election, of course, was the first in which women were permitted to vote.  All the campaigning and women voters paid off; he won the largest landslide in U.S. history, taking more than 60% of the popular vote.  He defeated Ohio governor James Cox, whose running mate was a little-known Navy bureaucrat named Franklin D. Roosevelt.

7)  Rumors of African-American ancestry dogged Harding throughout his life (this was, apparently, the source of the gun-pointing episode with his future father-in-law, referred to above).  The rumors, apprently, had been around for a very long time, from even before Harding's own birth.  During the 1920 election, the rumors came to the forefront of a smear campaign, and were published, though without much widespread effect.  Historical research into Harding's family tree has never uncovered any African ancestry.

8)  As president, Harding made it his mission to reduce federal spending and cut taxes across the board.  He succeeded: by 1922, federal spending was only about half of what it had been in 1920, and taxes had been cut for every income level.  Harding was also instrumental in passing the first major budget and accounting bill in U.S. history, which helped establish the federal budget process still in place today.  Included in this bill was the establishment of the Office of Management and Budget, and the Government Accountability Office. Harding also established the Veterans Bureau - the first of its type in the U.S. - which later became the Veterans Administration.

9)  Harding's accomplishments in office were largely overshadowed by a series of scandals, many of which did not fully come to light until after his time in office.  Harding's primary involvement in most of these scandals was in his tendency to place friends and financial contributors into powerful government positions for which they were otherwise unqualified - and then turn a blind eye to how they operated.  Many of these appointees went on to take bribes, create under-the-table deals, and generally run crooked enterprises with government resources.  Several of Harding's Cabinet members eventually served prison time for various crimes, and at least one person committed suicide.  For this reason, Harding has been primarily remembered as a president who fostered a culture of corruption, and historians have generally ranked him quite low among other presidents.  During his own time in office, however, Harding enjoyed widespread popularity.

10)  As news began to leak out relating to various scandals in his Cabinet, Harding decided to take a long journey across the country to give a series of speeches, traveling as far away as Alaska.  His health noticeably declined on this trip, and on August 2, 1923, he collapsed and died while in conversation with his wife.  His sudden and untimely death left most of the questions unanswered in regards to his involvement in, and knowledge of, the scandals that rocked his Cabinet; his wife made matters worse by destroying virtually all of his private papers immediately after his death, in order to protect his legacy.  Serving a little over two years, he was the shortest-serving president of the 20th century.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Theology of Jesus

I've been thinking a lot recently about the theology espoused by Jesus.  Yes, I admit, I sit around thinking about things like this.

In thinking about these things, I have come to realize - and even marvel at - how different Jesus's theology was compared to modern Christian theology.  For those who read my blog a lot, it may come as a surprise to discover that I have only just recently come to grips with a firm and clear understanding of what Jesus's basic theology entailed.  More on that in a minute.  

First, it might be important to define what I mean by "theology."  Simply put, theology refers to what you believe about God or supernatural things.  Ancient Egyptians, for instance, believed that when you died, you were judged by a divine tribunal, headed by the god Osiris.  Your heart was weighed against the feather of the goddess Ma'at.  If you had lived by Ma'at's precepts during your life (in other words, if you were a "good" person), you would pass that test and be presented to Osiris, who would ultimately grant you eternal life.  If your heart did not pass the test against the feather of Ma'at, you would be fed to the goddess Amemet, who was part hippo and part lion, with the head of a crocodile, and who had the job of devouring the hearts (and thus the life force) of the wicked.

This, then, is theology.  It's what you believe about divine things.  

When we look at the theology of modern Christianity, we find, of course, that it is all over the map.  This is why both Mother Theresa and a member of the KKK can claim to be Christians.  But it is certainly possible to describe the most common aspects of modern Christianity - those theological beliefs that are most widely adhered to by everyday, practicing Christians. 

In a nutshell, modern, mainstream Christian theology states that Jesus was the divine son of God who became a great prophet and healer, doing the work of God and spreading God's message to his followers.  He was crucified and buried, and then was physically resurrected through the power of God.  Because of his resurrection, human beings can be reconciled to God by accepting Jesus as their savior and asking forgiveness for their sins.  If they do this, they will go to heaven when they die, to live eternally.  If they do not accept Jesus, they will spend eternity in separation from God, which, for most Christians, means going to hell.

But when we turn to the pages of the New Testament itself, to see what Jesus, himself, actually did and said during his life, we find something completely different - virtually nothing like the theology of mainstream Christianity.  

Before I even begin here, I want to point out that what follows is not my own pet theory about Jesus.  It's not some harebrained idea that I've put together.  It is basically Jesus Theology 101, similar to what any student would be taught at any mainstream seminary across the country.  I stick to the basics and discuss only those things that are widely-accepted and established among scholars, historians, and theologians.     

To begin with, Jesus said explicitly that his message was only for Jews - for the children of Abraham.  This wasn't an effort on Jesus's part to be ethnocentric, or to exclude someone who was not ethnically Jewish.  Anyone could follow him, but following his teachings included following the teachings of the Jewish scriptures - including all the purity laws of Moses.  Doing so, however, would by definition make you a Jew.  A Jew is not just someone of a specific ethnic background, but also of a specific religious background.  In the same way that a person today can be ethnically non-Jewish, but Jewish by religion, this was true in the 1st century as well.  Jesus welcomed everyone, but he also taught that Jewish laws and customs had to be followed, because they came from God.  Ethical teachings from the Jewish scriptures were essentially the basis of Jesus's own ethical teachings.    

Secondly, Jesus was a firm and outspoken apocalyptist.  What I mean by that is that Jesus believed the end of the world was right around the corner.  He says this explicitly in the gospels, even affirming that the end would happen within his own generation, and within the lifespans of many of his followers.  No matter how uncomfortable this might make people, it is a fact that simply cannot be ignored.  It's right there in the texts of the New Testament.  For instance, in Mark, chapter 13, he tells his disciples all the things they are going to see at the end of the world, and then goes on to say: "When you see these things happening, you will know that [the end] is near, right at the door."  He follows this up even more explicitly by saying: "This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened."  

So Jesus was a dyed-in-the-wool apocalyptist, believing that the world was coming to an end.  But what, exactly, did this end-of-the-world scenario look like?  What was going to take place?

In short, the world would descend farther and farther into chaos.  Wars would occur between nations.  Many people would die.  Eventually, Israel itself would be consumed and overrun.  But then God would intervene and establish what one scholar has called "the Great Divine Clean-Up" of the world.  His agent for this clean up would be a figure called the Son of Humanity (or "Son of Man" in earlier Christian parlance).  Many debates exist about who Jesus thought this person was, with the most common conclusion being that it was Jesus himself; but many other scholars argue that Jesus was talking about a different person all together, or maybe even using an expression meant to refer to the Jewish people as a whole.     

In any case, how can a person ensure that they are on the right side of God when the Son of Humanity comes to institute the Great Divine Clean-Up?  Easy; by following the path of righteousness taught by Jesus, which essentially meant being a good person and following God's commandments as outlined in the Jewish scriptures, especially the commandments about loving others, helping others, and performing acts of loving-kindness.  If you do that, Jesus said, you will be among God's chosen people; you will be on the right side of the fence when the end of time occurs.

So what, then, will happen during the Great Divine Clean-Up?  Put simply, God will sweep away all the powers and nations of the earth, which have grown out of the corruption of sin, going all the way back to Adam.  Essentially, God will push the "reset" button.  The kingdom of God, sometimes called the kingdom of heaven, will be enthroned here on earth, and will rule a new earth, transformed from the old, corrupted earth on which we now live.  It will be an earth like God originally envisioned for humanity, where human beings will live in harmony together, loving God and one another, and living for eternity in this blissful paradise that is essentially a remaking of the Garden of Eden.  No one will "go to heaven."  Instead, heaven, essentially, will come here, to this planet, to earth.  

Jesus says that the coming Son of Humanity will institute all of this, and will "gather his chosen ones from the four corners of the earth."  In other words, all of those who followed Jesus's path of righteousness will be gathered together, where they will become the inheritors of God's renewed earthly kingdom.  When Jesus said that "the meek" and "the poor" and "the persecuted" will inherit the earth, he wasn't talking metaphorically.  He meant that statement quite literally.  The ones who follow God will literally become the future rulers of God's renewed earth.

So what about evil people?  And what about those who are already dead when all this takes place?

As for those wicked people who are still alive at the end, they will effectively be cast out of God's renewed earth.  Their bodies (presumably still living), will be thrown into hell.  Hell, for Jesus, was not the supernatural dimension of Medieval Catholicism and modern day fundamentalism, but was instead a quite literal place, right here on earth - just as God's kingdom is a literal kingdom right here on the literal earth.  The word Jesus uses, which is translated into English as "hell", is the Greek word "Gehenna."  This Greek word, in turn, was a reference to the Valley of Hinnom, which was a literal valley on the southwest side of ancient Jerusalem that you can still walk through to this day.  At its most southern point, it met up with the Kidron Valley, which is also mentioned in New Testament writings (in the Gospel of John, Jesus crosses the Kidron Valley to get to the Garden of Gethsemane).

In ancient times, the Valley of Hinnom was essentially where Jerusalem's garbage dump was located.  As such, it was an immensely "unclean" place, where no self-respecting 1st century Jew would ever venture.  In addition to dumping refuse there, corpses would be placed there as well, if the deceased had no one to pay for a burial (such as a homeless person or criminal).  Ancient writers indicate that this enormous pile of garbage burned year-round.  

The Valley of Hinnom had long been associated with punishment and judgment in Jewish thought.  Jewish scripture (specifically, 2 Chronicles and Jeremiah) indicates that the Valley of Hinnom was the place where Canaanites performed religious rituals, including the sacrificing of children in fire, and another account - this time in Isaiah - indicates that the fires of the Hinnom Valley would consume the enemies of Israel (specifically, the Assyrians).  

So by the time of Jesus, the Valley of Hinnom was viewed as the unclean place where pagans, in the "olden days," had burned their children in sacrifices to their evil gods, and where now an enormous pile of garbage, topped with the corpses of criminals and other evil-doers, burned in perpetuity.

It is not hard to understand, then, why Jesus, and other Jews of his day, began imagining the Hinnom Valley as a place of divine retribution - Isaiah had indicated that very thing more than 700 years earlier.  

So whenever Jesus mentions "hell" in the New Testament, he is explicitly referring to the literal Valley of Hinnom, ancient Jerusalem's burning garbage dump.  His teachings indicate that the wicked who are still alive at the end of time will be cast into the Valley of Hinnom, where their bodies will be consumed and ultimately destroyed by the fires that never go out.  

And this is a key, and quite eye-opening, aspect of Jesus's theology.  He never says, not even one time, that wicked people will go to hell and suffer there forever (as many modern Christians, particularly evangelicals, believe).  I remember growing up and wondering how someone could live forever in hell, without ever dying.  It made me shudder to imagine experiencing the scorching pain of fire, for all eternity, without the ability to "die" and make it go away.  In fact, Jesus never, ever, ever, not even once, says such a thing about hell.  Instead, he says that the bodies of the wicked will be destroyed there.  It is the fire that is eternal, not the body inside the fire.  

For many modern Christians, the punishment of not following Jesus is having to burn eternally in hell.  Jesus wasn't nearly that vindictive.  For Jesus, simply dying, having your body permanently annihilated, and not getting to take part in the renewed earth, was punishment enough. 

As for the wicked who have already died, Jesus never really mentions this group of people explicitly, but one can assume that they will simply remain dead.  Their bodies have already been destroyed by natural processes.  They have already gotten their just desserts.  

So what, then, about the good people who have already died?  Those who followed Jesus's path, but who died before the End?  Unlike the wicked who have died, the righteous will be resurrected - their bodies will literally come back to life and rise up out of their graves and tombs.  The Son of Humanity, through God, will restore them back to life, to join up with the others who were are still alive.              

All these things, then, make up the gist of Jesus's theology.  The world is coming to an end, very, very soon.  Jesus, himself, brings the good news of the coming kingdom of God, and tells people what they need to do to prepare - essentially, they need to follow the teachings of Jewish scripture.  When the End comes, God will send the mysterious Son of Humanity, who will gather the living from around the earth, and separate the good from the wicked.  The good will inherit God's renewed earthly kingdom, and becomes its rulers from Jerusalem.  The wicked will be cast into the Hinnom Valley where their bodies will be destroyed.  Of those who are already dead, the righteous will be resurrected to join in the festivities of the new earth.  The wicked who are already dead will, presumably, just remain that way.  All of this is going to happen within a few years, or maybe a few decades at most.    

This is Jesus's theology in a nutshell.

And, of course, it doesn't take a theologian or Biblical scholar to point out that it is practically nothing like what modern Christians believe.  To modern Christian sensibilities, in fact, it would no doubt seem absolutely preposterous.  Heaven isn't on earth, it's up in the sky, or it's in some kind of otherworldly dimension.  You don't have to wait until the end of time to be resurrected - your soul is resurrected to heaven immediately upon your death.  People aren't sent to hell to be killed, they go there after they die, and they live there forever in torment and agony.  Jesus's message wasn't just to the Jews of his own day, it was to all people in all time periods.  Jesus didn't expect the world to end in the 1st century - that would mean Jesus was wrong about something!  

Unfortunately, these things simply are not consistent with what the New Testament gospels explicitly tell us about Jesus and his life and beliefs and theological dispositions.  For Jesus, heaven was the place God lived, not the place where humans go after death.  Human beings don't go to heaven.  They die and await resurrection at the end of time, where they will be raised up to live again on a renewed earth.  The end of time is not thousands of years in the future; it's literally going to happen in the next few years.  Jesus's message is for anyone who wants to hear it, but it involves essentially becoming Jewish by following Jewish laws and religious customs.  Wicked people don't burn in hell for all eternity.  If they are still alive at the End, they are thrown into the burning garbage dump of the Hinnom Valley, where their bodies are destroyed.  

It is my firm and passionate belief that if Christians want to step more fully into the lifestyle that Jesus taught and gave his own life for, it is vitally important to understand who he was, and what he taught, and why he taught it, even if those things are uncomfortable.  As many great theologians and Christian scholars have come to realize over the centuries, the fact that Jesus was, effectively, a failed apocalyptist, does not mean that Jesus, himself, was a failure, or that Christianity is a fraud.  It simply means that Christians have to come to a deeper understanding of what it means to follow Jesus and to be a practicing Christian in the 21st century.  And this frequently means jettisoning old ideas and old ways of thinking that simply do not hold up to scrutiny of the texts of the Bible.  It means joining Jesus on his path of righteousness, following him in his lifestyle of love, kindness, and living for others.  For Christians in the 21st century, this is what it means to attain salvation and commune with God.    




Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Was Jesus Born in a Stable?




Outside of his death and resurrection, there is perhaps no story from the life of Jesus as well known and widely imagined as his birth in a Bethlehem stable.

Though we have two New Testament gospel accounts of the events surrounding Jesus's birth, the version of events found in the Gospel of Luke has easily played the most significant role in developing Christian images of the Nativity.

From the King James Version of Luke, chapter 2:

And Joseph also went up from Galilee...unto the City of David, which is called Bethlehem...to be taxed with Mary, his espoused wife...And while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.  And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.


Although Luke's account provides most of the commonly-known details of Jesus's birth, we use the Gospel of Matthew to add a guiding star "in the east," leading three wise men to Jesus's side, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

As a result, Christian tradition has created a sort of combined image of the Nativity: wise men together with shepherds, worshipping the baby Jesus, who lies in a wooden manger inside a covered stable, cows and lambs resting contentedly in the background, as a magnificent star glows in the sky overhead, superimposed over a host of singing angels.

This image is reinforced in everything from great works of art by Renaissance masters, to modern Christmas hymns and nativity scenes.  Ask most people to describe the scene of Jesus's birth, and they will talk about stars and stables, mangers and three wise men, shepherds and a "heavenly host" of angels, and the gentle lowing of the cattle.  A few might even throw in a little drummer boy in the shadows.

Of course, as many folks realize, a number of these images are either downright absent from the New Testament accounts all together, or are twisted out of context.

I have written before about the varied discrepancies between the birth accounts of Matthew and Luke, including how we tend to combine images from these two otherwise differing accounts of the same event, to effectively create a third account that does not actually exist, so I won't repeat myself here.

Instead, I want to focus on the actual place where Jesus is said to have been born - inside a stable in Bethlehem.

To begin with, it may come as quite a surprise to many readers to discover that, in fact, no writer in the New Testament ever once mentions anything about a stable.  There is, quite simply, no stable in any New Testament account of Jesus's birth.  


This may almost seem shocking to some people.  Why in the world do we imagine Jesus born in a stable when the birth stories of the New Testament don't actually mention any such thing?

The widespread nature of Christian belief in a stable can be illustrated by a very brief survey on the Internet. At a website called www.JesusAnswers.com, they have this to say: "When they arrived at Bethlehem in the evening, Joseph wanted to find a comfortable place for his wife Mary...The only place they found was a stable with camels, donkeys, and sheep."

Apparently this website doesn't realize camels aren't native to Palestine, and are also considered ritually unclean.  But I digress.

Another article, this time at www.christianity.about.com, puts it like this: "While in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to Jesus.  Probably because of the census, the inn was too crowded, and Mary gave birth in a crude stable."

Clearly, the notion that Jesus was born in a stable is quite widespread, and it would seem that very few people actually realize that no writer of the New Testament ever places Jesus in a stable at birth.

It doesn't take a scholar of the New Testament to figure out why the image of the stable has developed in Christian tradition.  The Gospel of Luke does tell us that Joseph and Mary were unable to find a place to stay in Bethlehem, and therefore Jesus was placed "in a manger."  And a manger, after all, is a feeding trough.  Surely, some might argue, this implies a stable?

As it turns out, the answer to that question is no.

There are two reasons why Luke's account cannot be taken to imply a birth in a stable.  One is a purely archaeological reason, the other is essentially a historical reason.

Archaeological discoveries in modern Israel have demonstrated that within ancient Jewish cities, feeding troughs - or mangers - were stone basins placed, essentially, along the curb in front of ancient buildings.  To put it simply, when travelers brought donkeys into the city, they tied them up in front of the building and left them there to eat - much the same way that a cowboy in the Old West might have tied his mount in front of the saloon.  If a resident inside an ancient Jewish city owned a donkey or some other grazing animal, that animal would typically be kept within the courtyard of the house, where a manger would be situated.

This is evidenced, among other things, within another passage from the Gospel of Luke itself.  In chapter 13, Jesus is teaching about working on the Sabbath, and states: "Does not each of you, on the Sabbath, untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?"  Animals were fixed to the feeding trough, which itself sat on city streets or within residential courtyards.  If mangers were understood to be situated inside an enclosed structure like a stable, what reason would there be to have the animal tied to the manger?  

Simply put, when Luke tells us that Jesus was placed "in a manger," because there was no room inside the inn, he is saying, in effect, that Jesus was born either on the sidewalk in front of the inn, or perhaps more likely, in the courtyard appended to the inn.  But in either case, there would certainly have been no stable involved.  (Interestingly enough, the word translated in this passage as "inn" is probably better translated as "guestroom," implying that Joseph and Mary weren't trying to get lodging at an inn at all, but rather inside a relative's house.)  

And this moves us to the second reason why Luke could not have been implying a stable for Jesus's birth.  From a historical standpoint, stables simply didn't exist, in any widespread fashion, in ancient Israel.  The climate of Israel is mild, with average temperatures ranging from the low 40's in winter to the mid 80's in summer.  Some areas are dry, and others are more rainy, but snow and bitterly cold temperatures are a rarity.  There was simply no climatic need for stables - or barns - to house cattle.  It's interesting to note that at least one ancient stable area has been excavated in ancient Israel, in the area of Meggido, a city which was abandoned around 500 B.C.E.  This stable, however, was made of stone (unlike the typical Nativity image of a wooden stable looking like something found in 16th century Europe), and there are a number of archaeologists who have argued that, in fact, it wasn't a stable at all, but a warehouse or storage building of some type.

The simple fact is, people in ancient Israel kept animals in pastures or within residential courtyards.  They did not house them in stables or other walled and covered structures.  Such structures, for the most part, would have been unnecessary, except, perhaps, in cases of kings housing their battle horses and so on.  Regular cattle and beasts of burden - donkeys, cows, oxen, sheep, etc. - would have lived out-of-doors.

In the end, it seems that we are forced to accept that our common and widely-accepted image of Jesus's birth in a stable simply is not true, whether from a Biblical, archaeological, or historical standpoint.  The New Testament does not tell us Jesus was born in a stable, and archaeology and history demonstrate that there is no reason to suppose an implied stable in Luke's account.

Based on historical context, the implication in Luke's account is that Jesus was born in an open-air courtyard (or maybe even on the side of the road!), placed in a feeding trough for lack of a bed, and bundled in soft blankets to protect him against the night air and the cold stone interior of the manger.  

Sunday, December 11, 2011

10 Fun Facts About George Washington

George Washington, the 1st President of the United States

1)  George Washington was born in 1732 in Virginia, to a family who owned tobacco plantations and numerous slaves.  A number of Washington's siblings died at young ages, and his father died when he was only 11 years old, leaving him largely brought up by his eldest half-brother and that half-brother's father-in-law, William Fairfax, who was himself a cousin to Thomas Fairfax, the wealthiest landowner in Virginia.  When his half-brother Lawrence died in 1752, George inherited the estate of Mount Vernon from him.

2)  Through political appointments, Washington entered military service in the early 1750's, very quickly earning a reputation as a competent leader and battle commander.  At only 23 years of age, he became the commander-in-chief of the Virginia colony's militia, and fought numerous battles against hostile Native American tribes scattered along the borders of the colony.

3)  In 1758, on a mission to capture a French fort, Washington's unit was involved in an exchange of fire with what they believed were enemy combatants.  Fourteen men were killed and another twenty-six wounded before both sides realized they were firing at friendly troops.  Whether because of this mishap or not, Washington resigned his commission after the expedition, and returned to private life on his Virginia plantation.

4)  In 1759, Washington married the very wealthy widow Martha Custis, who brought two children with her to the marriage.  George and Martha never had children of their own; it has been suggested that George Washington may have been sterile due to a bout with smallpox in the early 1750's.  In any case, they raised Martha's children at Mount Vernon, and later (after both those children had died as young adults), Martha's two grandchildren.  The couple became one of the most prominent and wealthiest of Virginia's landowners in the 1760's.

5)  When the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Washington came out of retirement to volunteer his services, and was immediately named as the commander-in-chief of the newly formed Continental Army.

6)  Following his success in the Revolutionary War, Washington - to the surprise of virtually everyone - resigned his commission to return to private life.  Apparently dedicated to the old Roman ideal of serving only when needed, his actions gave rise to the so-called Society of the Cincinnati, which was named after the 5th century B.C.E. Roman consul Cincinnatus, who had left his plow to lead Rome during a crisis, then returned to his plow when the crisis was over (rather than use his influence to become a dictator).  Washington became the society's first president, holding that office until his death.  The society was a key supporter of land grants to war veterans, and the city of Cincinnati was founded primarily by veterans who had been beneficiaries of these grants.

7)  After presiding over the formation of the Constitution, Washington was unanimously elected the country's first president in 1789.  However, his term was considered to have officially begun when the Constitution was approved in 1788, and as such, the term ended in 1792, with Washington having only served three years.  He was re-elected in 1792.  In both those elections, electoral college members were selected by the states, and those electors were then required to place votes for two people to be president - their "favorite two," as it were.  Whoever ended up with the most votes became president, while the runner-up would become vice-president.  Some states did not actually use a general election, or a "popular vote," to determine electors; instead, those electors were simply appointed by the state legislatures.  As a result, many Americans did not actually get to vote in either of these elections - the outcomes were determined by electoral college members, who were in turn chosen by a variety of methods among the states.  It is estimated that only 0.5% of the U.S. population actually voted in the 1792 election - and those few who did get to vote only voted for electors, not for the actual presidential candidates.

8)  During his time as president, Washington worked out of New York and Philadelphia.  In 1790, a resolution was passed allowing the president to choose the permanent location of the federal government, and so Washington - a Virginia native - chose a parcel of land along the Potomac River in northern Virginia - modern day Washington, D.C.

9)  In 1796, after declining to run for a third term in office, Washington delivered a farewell address, in the form of a letter, to the United States.  He spent no less than six paragraphs within this document talking about the evils of political parties and encouraging American citizens not to form them.    

10)  George Washington died in December of 1799 after inspecting his fields in bad weather and developing a throat infection.  He missed seeing the turn of the century by just 17 days.  In his will, he freed all of his slaves.  After his death, a writer interviewed people who had, supposedly, known Washington as a child, and it is from these accounts that we get the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree.  However, this writer is known to have forged many other stories in his book, which was published in 1800, and today most scholars assume the story is fictitious.

Friday, December 09, 2011

El Caganer: Feliz Navidad!

El Caganer

From Wikipedia: "A Caganer is a figurine appearing in nativity scenes in Catalonia [northern Spain]...The figure is depicted in the act of defecation."

That's right.  This is a very popular tradition in the Catalonia region of northeastern Spain.  This little guy goes somewhere in the background of a nativity scene.

WTF?

Apparently, no one knows how this tradition got started.  But it's a really popular one.  And they like to make caganer figurines of famous people too.

Yes, that's Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge.  Shitting.
A few years back, the city of Barcelona put up a nativity scene that did  not include a caganer.  Their reason was because it set a bad example in light of a recent law that banned public urination or defecation.  The public outrage was so great, they capitulated and stuck the caganer back into the scene.

I don't know what else to say about this, so I'll just let you think about it a while.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

10 Fun Facts About Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States

Be sure to check out my newest book, Washington's Nightmare: A Brief History of American Political Parties, available now at Amazon.com! 


1)  Born November 23, 1804, in a New Hampshire log cabin, Franklin Pierce was one of eight children, and would later become the first U.S. president born in the 19th century.  His father, Benjamin Pierce, would later become a two-term governor of New Hampshire.

2)  Barbara Bush, former First Lady, and the wife and mother of two U.S. presidents, is distantly related to him (her maiden name is Pierce).  She and Franklin Pierce are 4th cousins, 4 times removed.

3)  Pierce studied law at Bowdoin College, in Massachusetts, where he was classmates with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, both of whom would go on to be great 19th century American writers.  Pierce had a particularly good friendship with Hawthorne, and Hawthorne wrote a brief biography about him in 1852, during his presidential election campaign.

4)  Entering politics after leaving college, Pierce served first in the state legislature of New Hampshire, before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1832 as a Democrat.  At 27 years of age, he was the youngest congressman in Washington.  He would later become a U.S. Senator.

5)  Pierce met and married a woman named Jane Appleton.  Their first two children, both boys, died in childhood of illnesses.  Their third child, also a boy, was killed in a horrific train accident shortly after Pierce was elected president.  The child was apparently decapitated right in front of his mother and father, and the tragedy haunted Pierce's presidency.  They had no other children.  Pierce's wife had not been particularly keen about his political ambitions, reportedly fainting at the news that he had been nominated for president in 1852, and came to view their last child's death - just two months before he took office - as God's punishment.  She lived as a virtual hermit during his time in the White House, not making her first official appearance as first lady until halfway through his term.

6)  Pierce served in the military during the Mexican-American war, where he sustained a serious leg injury.  Still serving in battle following the injury, he collapsed and was forced to be carried off the field.  This was later used against him, in the 1852 presidential election, with his political foes suggesting he had left the field of battle because of cowardice and not because of any real injury.

7)  Pierce won all but four states during the 1852 presidential election, and became, at age 48, the youngest president in U.S. history.  He was widely regarded as handsome and dashing, and rode a strong wave of popularity into the White House.  Following this election, the Whig party, which lost in a landslide, became splintered, and eventually gave rise to the Republican party.  The Democrats had last won the White House in 1844, under James K. Polk, and for that reason, their slogan in the 1852 campaign was: "We Polked you in 1844; we shall Pierce you in 1852!"

8)  During his inauguration, Pierce chose not to swear his oath of office on a bible, choosing instead to "affirm" his oath on a law book.

9)  Pierce's time in office was tumultuous.  His love affair with the American people soured very quickly because of perceived poor leadership.  He was also viewed as easily manipulated by powerful advisers.  After supporting the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which opened the door for the spread of slavery into new western states, Pierce lost favor with many anti-slavery advocates in the north.  In 1856, Pierce failed to win re-nomination by the Democratic party, and the nomination went instead to James Buchanan, who ultimately won the White House.  Pierce was effectively forced into retirement.  By the end of his term, he had become so unpopular that he became the first U.S. president to hire a full-time bodyguard.

10)  During the Civil War, ex-president Pierce came out as a supporter of the Confederacy, and was known to be close friends with Confederate president Jefferson Davis.  Letters Pierce sent to Davis, criticizing President Lincoln, the war, and abolitionism in general, came to light in 1863 - after Davis's home was captured - and Pierce's reputation suffered even more.  A lifelong alcoholic, Pierce died of liver failure in 1869, and was buried in New Hampshire, beside his wife (who had died in 1863) and two of his three sons.

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Psychology of Following God's Will

I've been involved recently in a discussion with several people, including a faithful Mormon, about seeing God's blessings in your life as a result of following God's will.

The Mormon in these discussions has been arguing that one of the reasons he feels so confident in his faith is because once he started making the decision to listen to God and do God's will, things started turning around in his life.  He uses several examples of personal experiences, which he believes are simply too astounding to be coincidental.

To repeat just one of them, he had been out of work and applying frantically for jobs.  He wasn't able to find one and eventually his unemployment insurance ran out.  Just two weeks after this, he got an interview at a place he had applied for more than two months earlier - and had more or less given up on.  He ended up getting this job, which was a blessing in its own right, but after he started, his boss there told him an interesting story.  He said that he had been going through applications, and had been set to hire someone, but for whatever reason, this person turned out to be ineligible for hire.  On the same day that he called this person to let him know the bad news, the Mormon's application appeared in his email inbox.  Recall that the person in question had sent this application two months earlier.  For some reason, however, it came to the hiring manager at just the right time, he called the guy, and the guy got the job.

My Mormon friend regards this as a blessing from God for following God's will and making God the center of his life.

He has also argued that since he listens to God - waits for God to give him direction on big choices - he always knows that his choices will turn out good, and he can always look back and see how God has blessed him.  This is a very common idea within Christian circles at large - the notion that sometimes you find yourself in what seems like a bad situation, but if you trust God and do God's will, you will eventually come to see how God was working through your life.

Most Christians, I believe, could probably give examples of situations like this.  I'm immediately reminded of an old Garth Brooks hit called "Unanswered Prayers," which tells the story of how badly he wanted a girl in high school, and prayed ceaselessly about it, didn't have his prayer answered, then saw her again many years later and realized that she was nothing compared to the wonderful wife that God did give him.  The moral of the story is that God is in control, and if we simply trust God and follow God's will, we will always see God's hand at work in our lives - even if we can't see it until much later.  (I've always found it highly ironic, and I must say, a bit amusing, that Garth Brooks eventually divorced this wife and ran off with Trisha Yearwood.)

In any case, these discussions got me thinking about the psychology underpinning this sort of faith.  It seems to me that what people like my Mormon friend call "God's hand at work," people in secular society simply call thinking positively and looking on the bright side of things.  When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

Anyone, Christian or not, can look back on events in their lives and see experiences that seemed terrible at the time, but which turned out for the good.  In my life, for instance, my family moved to a new city during the summer between 7th and 8th grade.  The experience was horrific and traumatic for me, and quite frankly, scarred me emotionally in many ways.  Yet I have always looked back and thought about all the things that wouldn't have happened if we hadn't moved.  I wouldn't have met my wife.  I wouldn't have gone to the college I went to, and met all the friends I met there.  I wouldn't have the job and the friends I have today.  I wouldn't have the children I have today.

If I were a secularist, I would just call this a positive attitude - finding the good in things.  If I were a Christian, I would call this God's will playing out in my life.  The phenomenon is the same - it's the language we use to describe it that is different.

In any case, I think this particular tendency among Christians can also certainly have a negative impact.  When we expect God to move in our lives, and when we interpret good things as God's blessings in our lives, if those things end up turning to crap (to put it bluntly), where does that leave us in regards to God?  Take, for instance, someone looking for love and finally finding someone they believe is their "soul mate."  They attribute this wonderful experience to God.  Two months later, the soul mate gets hit by a bus.  Now what?

As a matter of fact, I even have experiences in my own life that are related to this, and perhaps this goes a long way towards explaining to people why I have more or less given up on the religious beliefs of my childhood.  I'll tell you a story, and I hope you'll stick with me, because this story gets right to the heart of what I am trying to get at here.

In 2007, I was a year into a degree program in Radiology.  I already had one degree, but had gone back to college at age 31 to get a second degree.  I was now far enough into my program that I could begin working as an X-ray tech in doctor's offices.  I was not yet able to work in hospitals.

For the first 9 months of my program, I had taken classes four hours each night, while working full time during the day.  I essentially left the house at 8:00 every morning, went straight to school from work, and didn't get home until 9:30 or 10:00 in the evening.  I did this four days a week - there were no classes on Friday.

Beginning in September of 2007, I had to start doing clinical rotations during the day, which forced me to resign my day job and get a part-time job in the evenings and on weekends.  I went to work for about 9 bucks an hour inside the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant.  This was a huge financial loss for me, because not only was I getting paid less, but I was also only able to work about 20 hours a week.  Furthermore, I was now having to work on weekends, which essentially meant I was going 7 days a week between clinical rotations and work.  It was a very stressful period.

In December, I finished that particular round of clinical rotations and was now qualified to get a job as a doctor's office X-ray tech.  My plan, and my sincere hope, was to get a part-time job at an office somewhere, working in my new field and getting paid pretty well, while continuing with my schooling and clinical rotations.  I would go so far as to say I was desperate for this.

Around this same time, in December of 2007 - and totally unrelated to my work/school/financial situation - I decided to take a hiatus from blogging in order to do what I called a "Spiritual Quest."  In the post where I announced this, I said that I was wanting to take some time off to better understand God.  I had spent several years formulating new ideas about religion, but still felt confused and uncertain about what I actually thought of God.  Who is God?  What does God do?  How does God impact my life?  What, essentially, is my basic philosophy on God?  I didn't have answers to these questions, but I hoped that by going on this "spiritual quest," I might figure it out.

As laid out in that post, my quest involved prayer, meditation, and directed reading.  Specifically, I was going to read three books - one scholarly book on the "history of God" within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, one book by an atheist about why God doesn't exist, and one book by a former atheist who changed his mind and embraced Deism.  I hoped that by reading from among these three perspectives, I might better formulate my own ideas about God.

I felt, at the time, that my decision to do this was in some ways serendipitous.  I had just finished the famous self-help book "The Road Less Traveled," which talked a lot about concepts of God, and I had also just finished a novel called The Source, which traced - in fictionalized form - the history of Judaism and dealt quite a bit with the evolving concepts of God within Judaism.  I had known that The Source would involve topics like this, but I had not expected The Road Less Traveled to deal so much with philosophical concepts about God and religious faith.  The fact that I had, quite accidentally, read these two books at the same time, seemed serendipitous to me, and it is what ultimately inspired me to begin this "spiritual quest," where I took about two months off from blogging and writing about religion, and focused all my energy on, basically, "finding God."

So this was all going on at the same time that I was finishing up the first part of my degree program and frantically trying to find work as an X-ray tech while I continued on with school.  I wanted out of the Mexican restaurant, I wanted to work in my chosen field, and I wanted the better money that I knew would come with that change.

In early January of 2008, I got an interview with a chiropractor who was interested in hiring a student X-ray tech.  Another of my classmates also interviewed for the same job.  To my great surprise, I ended up getting hired, even though I had fully expected my classmate - who was every bit as qualified as I was - to beat me out.  He had actually been more aggressive in going for the job, and I figured this would probably give him an edge.

I was very relieved and excited to start working in my field and receiving significantly better pay.  I went in to work at the Mexican restaurant on a Sunday, planning on telling them that I was quitting and that this would be my last shift.  I was starting at the chiropractor's office on Monday.  When I arrived at work that day, I found out that the restaurant was shutting down - closing its doors for good - that very night.  The lunch shift I was working, in fact, would be the restaurant's last shift.  We had been given no prior warning.  We all just showed up for work to find out we were unemployed.

I felt immensely blessed.  I could not believe my good fortune.  Had I not gotten this job at the chiropractor's office just two days earlier, I would have found myself in an even worse situation than I was already in.  I hated the job at the restaurant, but I definitely needed the job from a financial standpoint.  If not for the incredibly fortunate timing of this new job, I would have been out of work with no unemployment benefits.

Naturally, I began very quickly connecting this situation to the "spiritual quest" that I had been on, by that time, for about four weeks.  Here I was, explicitly and intentionally "seeking God," focusing all my creative and spiritual energies on understanding God and my relationship to God, and voila, this incredibly good situation seemingly drops into my lap.  I avoid unemployment, get a job in my chosen field, increase my pay - and all this happens with unpredictably good timing during a period of deep spiritual reflection and meditation.

Surely, I reasoned, there must be a connection?  How could there not be?  The coincidence was simply too great.

I started my job at the chiropractor's office the following day.  From virtually the moment I walked in the door, it was a horrific situation.  I had actually sensed this even during the interview, but had more or less tried to ignore it.  I could write 50,000 words on everything that was terrible about this job, but I will attempt to condense it.

The chiropractor I worked for was what I can only describe as a "fundamentalist Catholic."  I hadn't even known, up to this time, that such a thing really existed.  He had actually asked me about my own religious beliefs during the interview, and had more or less implied that he wouldn't hire a non-Christian to work for him.

He was training someone in the office to take X-rays along with me, even though you have to have a state license to operate X-ray equipment - which this person didn't have, and couldn't get without going through an accredited program.

He was an herbal-medicine charlatan who essentially told his patients that all prescription medicines are poisonous.  This includes everything from ibuprofen to antibiotics.  I explicitly heard him tell a patient one day that antibiotics weren't as effective at attacking bacterial infections as garlic supplements (I think it was garlic - anyway, some herb).  He once criticized me for talking about how I had taken Advil that morning for a headache.  His comment was something to the effect that if I wanted to "pop pills" on my own time, that was one thing, but don't be talking about it in front of his patients.

He asked us to pray for more business.

He had a machine in his office which he claimed could diagnose any disease known to man, including cancer, AIDS, and anything else - simply by hooking up a few leads to your wrists and forehead and evaluating your energy fields.

He claimed that he once saved his son from death during an asthma attack by giving him an emergency back adjustment.

He performed a ritual on new patients that involved putting a bottle of the discontinued anti-inflammatory Vioxx onto a patient's area of pain.  With the bottle held at the source of the pain, he would then perform a strength test on them which was aimed at demonstrating how the body knew that the medicine was poisonous, because the muscle strength would weaken.  He would then pull out a trusty bottle of his magic herbal pills, stick that bottle on the source of the pain, then perform the strength test again.  Magically, the strength test would now be positive, because the body knew the herbal medicine was effective.  The entire thing, of course, was a magic trick that involved him using differing levels of pressure during the two strength tests.  I watched these performances in horror, and so did many of his patients.  I know of at least one who never came back.

He was committing insurance fraud by billing Medicare for therapeutic treatments that he was not actually performing.  He would do some other treatment - which Medicare would not pay for - but call it the thing that Medicare would pay for.  I know this, because the other chiropractor who worked in the office told me.  

He once paid me and another employee cash out of his wallet for working with him at a vendor show.  This was done "under-the-table," not reported to the IRS.

There are so many other things I could talk about, but I've already failed to "condense" this the way I had wanted to, so I'll just note that, in short, he was a lunatic, a charlatan, a virtual dictator, and a criminal.

Within three weeks of starting this job - still in January of 2008 - I was already trying to figure out what I was going to do and how I was going to find another job.  He solved that problem for me by laying me off, claiming that there just wasn't enough business to justify keeping me on the payroll.  I briefly considered reporting him to authorities, but decided to wash my hands of the whole ordeal and move on.

As a result of this horrific situation, several things happened.  First of all, I was out of work with no income.  Secondly, I was questioning whether I was even doing the right thing by going into the medical field.  Are all jobs like this?

I ultimately decided to stick with Radiology, realizing that the bad job experience really didn't have anything to do with my own career field.  But I also decided to simply go to school full time and not work.  I felt burned, as it were.  As a result, I had to take out living expense loans to help support my family financially.

Fast forward almost four years, and here I am today, working full time as an X-ray tech in a hospital.  I love my job and my co-workers, and I get paid reasonably well.  My wife and I have a dual income and we have a new house.  However, we are immensely burdened by school loan debt, a significant amount of which comes from those living expense loans.  Had this horrific job situation never cropped up, I may never have decided to stop working, and may never have taken out all those loans.  This would make life, today, considerably less financially tight.

What all this means, of course, is that the entire situation was a negative one.  Virtually nothing good has come from it, except an emotional scar and a burden of school loan debt.  It most definitely had nothing whatsoever to do with God working in my life, rewarding me for faithfulness because I was on a "spiritual journey" and seeking out a better understanding of God.

It was just a coincidence that seemed wonderful at the time, but turned to crap.

I wish I could say this was the only time I had experienced something like this in my life - a situation where I thought God was at work, only to find out later that it was nothing of the sort.  Unfortunately, I've had several of these experiences.

And of course, these experiences are one of the biggest reasons why I tend to be skeptical when I hear others attribute good fortune to the workings of God.  It's one of the reasons why I tend to view it as being underpinned by psychology - seeing the good in things, making lemonade out of lemons, having a positive attitude.

The fact is, we all face choices every day, and sometimes we face very important, life-altering choices.  What I have come to learn, however, is that most of the time, life will be okay regardless of what choice you make.  Human beings are enormously adaptable creatures.  It's written into our very biological code because it provides a significant evolutionary advantage.

So if someone is deciding whether or not to move the family cross-country, there may be good things that will result from that, and bad things that will result from that.  Similarly, there will be bad and good that comes from staying put.  If you move, you may have to get used to a "new normal," but you will ultimately adapt.

If you are a Christian, you might look back on the situation and remark at how many wonderful things have happened since moving, and attribute those things to God's blessings for following God's will.  But, of course, that conclusion would ignore all the possible good things that might have happened if you had stayed put.  Maybe you would have won the lottery.  Who knows?  The possibilities are endless.  In the end, you adapt either way.

I believe this is the psychological underpinning of attributing good things to following God's will.  Maybe God really does respond to those who follow God's will.  But if that's true, then God also responds to people who are not explicitly trying to follow God's will.  Both good and bad things happen to everyone.  It's ultimately your attitude that determines whether you view events in your life as a blessing or a curse.  If you choose to couch that language of attitude in religious terms, that's certainly fine, but attitude is what it's ultimately all about.

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