Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Resolution

It struck me out of the blue as I was driving home for the holidays. I was bewildered as to why I didn't think of it before. I've hinted at it and even mentioned my uneasiness yet I have decided to live up to the spirit of this blog: for the next year I will spend time with people of other faiths in prayer, study, and even worship. I honestly don't know what that means or what I intend to do, but I do know that I'm sick of just talking about understanding and loving our fellow man. I can't hide behind books and articles spouting from a digital pulpit that I am accepting of people of other faiths when all I interact with are Christians. I do know that I would like to focus on one faith a month in dialog, worship, study, and prayer for the next 11 months. I am reserving December of next year as a month of reflection and meditation covering what I've learned. I do not know how I will attempt this but I do know that I will try. I am unsure as to which religions I will choose to delve into or even how deep.

Some may see this as a grievous error which will lead me down a path of no return. I can not guarantee that I will escape uninfluenced by what I will encounter, in fact I am doing this because I feel my spiritual journey has run aground and has become stagnant. I am also not seeking a particular faith to follow, although many will try to convert me, what I seek is understanding, awareness, a deeper embrace of what humanity holds dear to its heart.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Literal Interpretation of the Flood

Genesis 6:17-22 (ESV)

17 For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. 18But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. 19And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female. 20Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground, according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you to keep them alive. 21Also take with you every sort of food that is eaten, and store it up. It shall serve as food for you and for them." 22Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.

My little girl loves her new Ark she got for Christmas even though she doesn't have two of every kind of animal. Do you know how hard it is to find an Aye-aye 3 days before Christmas?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The War on Christmas is Bullsh*t.

And the use of language is very necessary. Why? Because this faux war on Christmas is a defense of the definition of Christmas and the underlying beliefs and traditions. Those who cry that Christmas is under attack by secularist (and liberals) are not only ignorant of the history of secularization and pagan influence on Christmas but they condemn their "attackers" for expressing the very spirit of Christmas the "true defenders" claim they are defending. Although I'm wary of quoting from the Washington Times, I found this recent article very revealing on the true nature of the War on Christmas.

Focus on the Family's annual Stand for Christmas project invites shoppers to rate retailers based on their "Christmas-friendliness" which is measured by how much each retailer promotes Christmas via displays, background Christmas music, and if the sales associates wish the customers a "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays".

"The idea is to encourage retailers to keep the Christ in Christmas and counter the recent drift toward the secularization of the holiday", said Focus on the Family's Carrie Gordon Earll. [Quote from above article]
Yet, retailers aren't concerned over the preservation, or even removal, of the traditional definition of Christmas, their main concern is profit! Although I only have 4 years experience in retail and a meager understanding of marketing from my college education it's pretty obvious that a retail store markets their store image to pull in the greatest amount of customers. Once the customers are in the store they use various methods to keep them shopping (end cap displays, impulse items, signs for easy navigation, etc.). ALL retailers use the holidays as a marketing tactic especially during the Christmas season. The switch by some retailers from the use of Merry Christmas to include Happy Holidays is because the retailers are AWARE that society is diverse and if they marketed universally to include other holidays they would be welcoming more customers. Isn't a universal message of love and acceptance for your fellow man a part or even the core of the Christmas spirit? Or should we only love those within our tribe, who share our beliefs, traditions, and values? In the mind of the defenders, The War on Christmas is really a war on Christianity, specifically the exclusivity of Christianity. Again retailers aren't warring against Christmas nor are they attempting to remove Christ from Christmas since this would only alienate a huge market. If the true spirit of Christmas is to only love and embrace only those who are like minded I want no part in Christmas. However, I believe this is bullsh*t, as well as the War on Christmas.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

TV: Toddler Vision

My 3 year old son has incredible eyesight who he must get from his mother (I'm as blind as a bat), and coupled with his enthusiastic personality makes for some interesting trips to the store. He has to point out EVERYTHING. If it comes into his range of vision he has to comment on it.

"Look daddy a car! Look daddy, is that a cat? Look daddy a tree, a tree! Look daddy, DADDY!!!"
And if he doesn't know what an object is called, he soon finds out after asking his daddy. "What's that daddy? Daddy? Daddy what's that over there? No, over there?"

One day we were walking through Wal-Mart, his favorite store, when he yelled out, "Look daddy! A Mickey Mouse balloon!" I stopped looked up and couldn't see anything. I asked him to point it out and he kept pointing towards the empty ceiling. In these situations I just humor him and keep moving but I was worried: is my son seeing things or is my vision getting worse? I stood there for 3 minutes, which is an eternity if you're staring at a ceiling, and could not see it for the life of me. My son then started yelling for me to acknowledge that I had also seen the balloon.
"Yes son, I see it." but he didn't believe me and people started to stare as my son continued to yell. And right before I had a chance to raise my voice at him to calm down there it was. It was a red Mickey Mouse balloon that had gotten loose from the party supplies aisle and was wedged behind a light fixture. I could have sworn it wasn't there a minute ago but there it was. I apologized to my son and was relieved that not only was my son not imagining things he has incredible vision.

How much more then would we see, hear, touch, and feel if we only gave as much attention to our surroundings as our children? And with their enthusiasm, what great things would we be able to accomplish and experience in life? My children are rarely bored and are constantly interacting, experimenting, and examining the world around them. I know I find myself bored sometimes, yet why should we ever be bored? There is an amazing world waiting to be discovered, when did we lose our passion and enthusiasm for discovery? And how do we gain that passion back so that we may truly enjoy life?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Wrestling with God and Man: Part 5- Wrestles with God

Genesis 32:24-30 (NIV)
24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak."

But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."

27 The man asked him, "What is your name?"
"Jacob," he answered.

28 Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."

29 Jacob said, "Please tell me your name."
But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there.30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared."

[Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, By Gustave Doré, 1855]

Jacob felt that he could not live a truly blessed life until he faced his brother once again. Throughout his life Jacob wrestled with the deceptive part of his personality, yet that did not stop him, and his wife when they cleverly swindled more wealth and blessings from Laban before departing. I found it interesting to note that in verse 3 of chapter 31 the Lord said to Jacob "Return to the land of your forefathers and to your birthplace, and I will be with you." Was God not with him during his stay at Laban's? In the following verses Jacob stated that God had been with him and was protecting him from Laban's mistreatment. Yet I believe there is something deeper meant by this verse than just a restatement of God's promise (how many times does God have to repeat himself before we get the message?). I believe the verse sums up the yearnings, hopes, and fears of Jacob returning home to his family. God is found in the love of a restored family, reconciliation, and forgiveness. God will be with us when we humbly approach those who've we hurt with our words and actions. Whether God literally spoke to Jacob or not is no importance, Jacob knew deep down that he would receive true inner blessing by returning home to face those he wounded.

As he nears home, Jacob is approached once again by the Divine (Genesis 32:2): angels, as Rashi comments, who are to escort him home. Jacob sent the angels ahead of him with a message to Esau, and they returned with news that Esau was marching at the head of 400 men. I enjoyed Karen Armstrong's summary of Jacob's response.

Then he took refuge with his God. No longer confident of his own cleverness and subtlety, he felt unworthy, too small for the divine blessing which had enabled him to return to Canaan a rich man. Yet he realized that he must go forward to confront the past; he had to come to terms with the complexities of his youth in a way that his father, Isaac, for example, had never done. Jacob was the first of the patriarchs to make a return journey. Henceforth the whole notion of return would become an important symbol of integration and reconciliation in the faith of Israel. It was no longer sufficient to "get up and go". The patriarchs had to learn that no one could move forward creatively into the future without having made peace with the past. (In the Begining: A New Interpretation of Genesis. Jacob Agonistes.)

His prayers before and after his journey are a window into the struggle and growth Jacob had endured. On his way to Laban's, immediately after his encounter with the Divine at Bethel, Jacob cut a deal with God: if God would watch over him, Jacob would accept him as his God only after his safe return home. Now after years of service and running from his past Jacob offered a prayer of humility when all hope seemed lost.

10 I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. 11Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children.(Genesis 32:10-11)

An interesting Jewish interpretation I've come across states that Jacob wrestled with Esau's guardian angel, Samael, that night instead of God himself as has been interpreted by Christians. Jacob would then be both facing Esau on the spiritual and physical battlefields. An even more interesting interpretation states that Jacob was literally alone (32:24) and therefore wrestled with himself. Jacob had to conquer the Esau within before he could face his brother. The story of Jacob is an inner spiritual journey to discovery of the Self and reconciliation with his past life, and at the end of his journey he found God waiting to bless, forgive, and comfort him. However one may interpret the text, the heart of the tale is in the transformation of a man from a supplanter/deceiver to one who wrestled with both the physical and spiritual realms. Jacob could have easily lost to both the angelic being and Esau and his men, yet Jacob was given a new identity because he struggled. He was granted a new life (Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel...) to start over, another chance to undo the damage that had been done. Another chance for forgiveness and love.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Understanding the New Testament

During our last Jesus of Nazareth class session my professor handed me back a quote along with my graded homework. Most of the papers I turned in over the semester bordered on a Liberal Christian "let's-not-interpret-the-scriptures-literally" view and I think this quote is his subtle final response to my work over the semester.
"The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament." by Søren Kierkegaard.
Yes, I agree that the minute we understand (to grok!) the New Testament we will act accordingly although not because we feel we are obliged but because the Spirit of the New Testament moves us to act accordingly. It is not the obligation to follow the New Testament blindly to the letter but to incorporate the Spirit of the New Testament into our being. (I have yet to read any of Kierkegaard's work so forgive me if he touches on this topic.) We are caught in a lifelong struggle to incorporate what I believe to be the core of Christianity, unconditional love for your fellow man. Unconditional Love is, or at least should be, at the heart of Christianity and yet we (the church) have replaced that core with doctrine, beliefs, and theology about the man who is an earthly expression of Unconditional Love. My personal issue with the Bible is not that it is too constricting to follow (although the Old Testament Laws may be a bit difficult to follow to the letter) and might hinder my personal life, but that it should be read as a guide book to becoming Love Incarnate and not a rule book since it is a product of man. Being alone with the Spirit of the New Testament, or with scripture from any faith, is to admit that we need to transform ourselves from broken and fallible creatures to beings of Love.

Yet, I would go one step further and say it is dreadful to be alone with God! For to move into the presence of the Divine is more dreadful than embracing the structures, beliefs, thoughts, morals, and philosophies of man for it is our interaction and communion with the eternal that reveals to us the significance of living and loving every moment of our short lives. When we peak through the curtain that divides the mortal from the immortal we return with a fragment of love beaming from our faces. When we pray and commune with the Divine, help and walk justly with our fellow man, when we as a community come together we share our fragments of light and bask in its tremendous, eternal, and warm beauty. It is this light of love which humanity seeks in a dark and troubled world, and when we share it, God is found.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Fountain Revisited- Part 2: The Road to Awe

The Fountain is by far my favorite film of all time. I thought it was a beautiful film the first time through but the second round just blew my mind. The film is vague in it's meaning and ending leaving the audience to come up with their own conclusions. This series will take a second look into my revised thoughts on the film's spiritual and religious themes.

[Mayan Priest guarding the narrow path to the Tree of Life]

Warning: Spoilers there be!

The Western mindset has us think that if we can only skip over or even avoid death that we may enter into an existence free of pain and aging. Thomas, and at times Izzy, play out this mentality in the film but eventually find that only by accepting the natural order of the human experience will they come to find peace.

In Izzi's book, which captures her emotional and mental struggle with cancer, 16th century Tomas sought the Tree of Life to rescue Queen Elizabeth and Spain from the cancerous growth of the Inquisitor's lust for power. They tried to avoid the inevitable without fully realizing what they were seeking. Tomas' men are trapped and killed by the Mayan's as they approached the hidden temple and take Tomas to their priest.

The Priest guarding the path to Life challenges Tomas to join the fate of First Father who sacrificed himself for the Tree of Life. For the Mayans, and for all three incarnation of Thomas, eternal life is found only by first experiencing death. Death is the road to awe. It is through this mortal experience that we can enter into and become a part of the cosmos, a part of eternity. Not to confuse this with the universe itself which, in my belief, has not always been, but the creative and eternal Spirit of Life which has been since the beginning. When we die, we not only pass on that creative Spirit to those who are still alive but we join together and become a part of that Spirit.

As Tomas greedily drank from the Tree of Life he experienced a vision of Xibalba and collapses as flowers exploded and burst from within his body. The individual Tomas no longer exists but his death brings forth new life and a part of Tomas lives eternally through that new life. Tom, the 26th century space monk, stayed alive for 500 years as he traveled with his beloved Izzi (her essence "grew into the wood") in hopes of being reborn in Xibalba. His efforts in avoiding death only twisted Tom into a fearful and obsessed creature haunted daily by the Izzi that once was. His 500 year quest ends with the one path he had avoided, death as the road to awe.

During the last few months of my wife's pregnancy with our first child I had literally thousands of questions racing through my head. One of the them being how does the child know when it's "time"? My wife attempted to explain to me something about chemicals or hormones which her medical explanations always fly right over my head. Yet in the end the baby follows the instinctual instruction embed in their genes, they just know. Why is it that we follow our instinct during our introduction into the world and fight tooth and nail to avoid our "exit"? If we accept death as naturally as the rest of the animal kingdom would we begin to enjoy every minute of the NOW instead of worrying our lives away about the future? If death is truly the road to awe then we can rest in peace knowing that through our death new life can emerge, flourish, grow, love, and experience all the wonders and beauty of life.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Finals Week

I know it's been pretty slow here but I've been slammed working on final projects. Once I get through finals week I'll be back on my feet commenting and writing daily articles on topics like the Vatican exploring the possibility of alien life.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Gold, Frankincense and Mars - Guy Consolmagno
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorU.S. Speedskating

Alien life on other planets, a waste of time and resources or a noble venture? I've written a few posts on this topic earlier this year and I'm currently reading The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell which follows a Jesuit funded expedition to the planet Rakhat. Interesting book so far even though it's taking me months to read through.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Mass We Pray: The Video Game

EA Games is at it again with another viral marketing campaign to promote their upcoming game Dante's Inferno.

I couldn't help myself from visiting their website after viewing this video. It's obviously fake, and when you click to pre-order the game a message pops up condemning you as a heretic.
He who betrays the beliefs of the Church blackens his soul with the sin of Heresy. A Mass not celebrated by ordained priests or on consecrated soil is naught but false ritual condemned by clergy. Thou hast befouled thine eyes with the filth of profane works and betrayed all things sacred. For thy punishment, thou shalt be damned to burn in flaming tombs and hanged from enflamed crosses. An eternity of infernal fire will not cleanse thee.
Entering your date of birth will allow you to watch an exclusive Dante's Inferno trailer. The trailer isn't all that different from the last one I posted earlier this month, but EA Games has pulled in over half a million views from this We Pray mock video. Unfortunately, Dante's Inferno is not being released for the Wii which wouldn't be able to handle the graphics and EA would have to design the game to be compatible with the Wii. Seems like a tongue-in-cheek jab at the Wii (only heretics would own a Wii) and at the Church to promote the game. EA also faked a protest at E3 2009 (the fake protest group, S.A.V.E.D, also set up a website) and ignited a bit of controversy with their "Sin-to-Win" Twitter contest by asking people to commit an act of lust. I have yet to hear of any official response from a religious leader or church condemning the game which would only result in throwing more fuel on the fire. The church's best course of action would be to ignore the game altogether, but then again how can you ignore two kids pretending to celebrate Mass.

"Quick! Baptize the sinners!"

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Fountain Revisited- Part 1: Paradise Lost

The Fountain is by far my favorite film of all time (and it's the only movie I allow myself to cry in front of my wife). I even wrote a paper on the religious and spiritual themes of the film for my Religion in Popular Media class. When it was released in 2006 it got a few bad reviews mainly because of the vague and confusing ending which is why I recommend watching it twice. I thought it was a beautiful film the first time through but the second round just blew my mind. The film is vague in it's meaning and ending leaving the audience to come up with their own conclusions. This series will take a second look into my revised thoughts on the film's spiritual and religious themes.

[Promotional poster for The Fountain, Copyright Warner Bros. 2006.]

Warning: Spoilers there be!

This film can get quite complicated and highly confusing to a first-time viewer, especially the ending. Yet, it is in this confusion that each viewer can carve out his or her own interpretation and meaning from the film. The film revolves around the core theme of life from death. Each of the characters wrestle with the fear of death in hopes of escaping the inevitable yet it is only when they accept death as an intricate part of the human experience are they freed from their mortal cages and earn true immortality. Most Westerners envision immortality as a prolonged existence in this life wherein we decide our moment of death. We struggle all our lives in avoiding that specific experience as we overlook the joys of the present.

You can read my synopsis here but to quickly summarize our main characters, Tommy and Izzi Creo, battle with death in all three ages: the 16th, 21st, and 26th centuries. The film is set in the 21st century where Tommy, a research oncologist, races against time to cure his wife's brain tumor. Meanwhile, Izzi is writing a book set in 16th century Spain where the two main characters, Tomas and Queen Elizabeth, race to find the Tree of Life in the new world. The film flashes back and forth between these two centuries and one set in the distant future. In the 26th century Tom, the space traveling monk, is headed towards a distant dying nebula traveling with an aging tree in an ecospheric spaceship. He is traveling with a Tree of Life, which is carrying Izzi's essence (or soul), to Xibalba, the dying nebula representing the Mayan underworld. Although the main plot of the film is set in the 21st century, the story is told through the eyes of the space traveling Tom recalling the events which set him on this journey.

Unfortunately, although 21st century Tom discovers a cure it is too late and the viewer learns that it is Izzi's tragic death which causes Tom to travel to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld where souls go to be reborn.

Hours before her death Izzi shares a story with Tom about Moses Morales, Izzi's Mayan guide on a trip she took to research her book, and the death of his father. Moses said that if they dug his body up he would be gone. They had planted a seed over his grave and that his father became part of the tree. "He grew into the wood, into the bloom. And when a sparrow ate the tree's fruit, his father flew with the birds. He said, death was his father road to awe." At the end of the film you see Tommy planting a seed over Izzi's grave then look up into the sky at Xibalba. The tree in the ship is the same which Tommy planted 500 years prior. This was my original interpretation and understanding of the film: Tommy loses Izzi and then travels through space to be reborn together in Xibalba. I had interpreted the film with a "literal lens" and lost the meaning the film was desperately trying to present.

I knew that Tomas and Elizabeth were fictional characters in a book, yet I interpreted the trip through space as literal when it is a symbolic representation of Tom's inner journey from pain and suffering towards peace and acceptance. And it is through this acceptance that we begin to see, hear, and experience life more fully. The fear of death governs our lives, and as it inches closer we wrestle, claw, and fight tooth and nail with the mortal and immortal powers which have kept us alive thus far. We demand for more time calling God unjust for creating us mortal. Why can't we just live forever? Maybe we can although not in the literal sense. All we can do is try to enjoy the eternal moments we have NOW instead of worrying about the lost moments we won't have later. If we truly enjoyed the NOW then the it won't matter if we lived 20 years or 70, what is important is that we lived, loved, and connected with one another.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Elementary Penguins...

I was late for class. [Expletive Deleted] I finished printing my homework, shoved it into my bulging backpack and started my trek across campus. As I exited the library the only thoughts on my mind was on the quality of the project I threw together last night in the recording studio. At this point I was too tired to care, I just wanted a passing grade.

It seemed everyone else was in the same state I was in, dazed from lack of sleep worried about their GPA as finals inch closer by the minute. We all buzzed by each other solely focused on our own issues unaware that we are all in the same boat. I passed a Rabbi to my left on his cell phone as he chatted away with an expression of surprise reacting to the words transmitted through the air and into his phone. To my right, smokers were inhaling their last few moments of sweet nectar before diving into the massive 4 story library. Ugh, it was cold, wet and I wished I had a bike, but then I wouldn't have met the monk on my way to class. At first I thought he was a former classmate who had recognized me until he pulled out the Bhagavad-Gītā As It Is, a commentary by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. I recognized the text as Hindu as he proceeded to show me a copy. He did ask for a small donation (which I hope wasn't his main concern for passing out copies of the Gita) and I informed him I couldn't at the time (I rarely carry cash). I told him I was late for class and gave him my email so that we may discuss these matters at a later time. The whole exchange took a matter of minutes but I left with more than just a pamphlet.

He seemed to emanate a genuine friendly and kind personality which is rare to find. And his approach to distributing religious literature was far more affective than the preachers from Pinpoint Ministries spouting wrath and hate from their lips. He seemed focused, centered, and showed more attention to another person than anyone else on campus. We all have busy lives but it is refreshing to come across those who will take the time out of their day to even speak to you. I did not catch his name but I hope he will contact me in hopes of dialoguing and developing a lasting friendship. So to my Hare Krishna friend I say peace and blessings be upon you brother, may we meet again.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Why We Suffer: Introducting Job and How We Respond to Suffering

I've been meaning to read, analyze, and ponder the issue of justice in the book of Job but only until I've read it at least twice in its entirety. Until then I've been reading Rabbi Harold Kushner's When Bad Thins Happen to Good People as an introduction to the theme of God's role in our lives when disaster strikes. In the Book of Job, the protagonist, Job, faces all sorts of horrors and yet remains a righteous man. Job the innocent cries out to God, and God enters in all his glory. God does not give a reason for Job's woes yet only responds by displaying his power over creation. How then do we deal with life's troubles when we're comforted by half-baked unreasonable answers? If we were to lose someone close to us is "it's all a part of God's Plan" a reasonable enough answer? Does that really brings us any comfort whatsoever? Can we find any love ringing from such a cold and distant response?

In chapter one, "Why do the Righteous Suffer?", Kushner introduces five main responses (or excuses, for the truly cynical) given by those who attempt to explain why good people suffer in order to make since of life. I will briefly touch on each response and expand on it later in the series.
  • We deserve it
  • God has his reasons
  • Educational
  • Test of Faith and Spiritual Strength
  • Liberate us from our mortal coil

We deserve it
Let's face it, we are sinful people and if we fail (even once) to please God in any way we could pay for it, eventually. But why good people? Of course we believe that bad people deserve what's coming to them, except we call it justice. Yet, if good people are trying as hard as humanly possible to follow God's will then we can't be punished for our fallibility, can we? Would it be Just to punish the good in the same manner as the bad? I don't punish my toddlers for using bad words that I myself accidentally let slip out (and believe me my son has been building a very colorful vocabulary). If people are truly trying to be as good as humanly possible then God's standards are too high for mortals, God is unjust (gasp!), or maybe God is not punishing us for our sins (gasp again!). If God is not punishing the good, what then is causing bad things to happen to good people (including faithful Christians)?

God has his reasons
"God works in mysterious ways" is the most common response I hear when it comes to events we can not explain. There is a reason but we live finite lives with limited brain power so we could never understand God's intricate tapestry. But when something disastrous as the loss of a child is used by God to further his will, this reeks of injustice. Why would God cut a new life just to further his will? Is it right for you to suffer to further the will of a God who sprinkles suffering on the good and the bad? Why can't we accept that these things just happen instead of tying every single event to God? If a hurricane wipes out a "sinful city" some may call it Justice. But if an earthquake were to take out the Vatican, what then? How can a loving creator God justify destruction of life as Good? Sure we can always look back after the horrendous event and say that people were brought together because of destruction, but this lacks compassion and love. The ends do not justify the means, even if we can not comprehend the end game.

Compared to the monotheistic, sittin' on a cloud God, us mere mortals have no greater intellect than a turnip. So a third response is that these bad things happen to good people to teach us something important about life. God gives a couple a baby with down syndrome to teach them and others to be kinder and more compassionate to people born with disabilities. But what about the kid? He's done absolutely nothing wrong (he never had a chance to sin) and already he will experience his life on earth in pain and torment. Kushner states that both the Educational response and the response on God's mysterious Will both have a bright side: the good will go to heaven in the afterlife, so it's all good. The sad fact is that we don't know that there is a heaven we just hope there is one and our energy is better spent in attempting to build a heaven on Earth instead of focusing on the one that might not be there after we pass on. And like the response on God's mysterious Will, this response also sounds downright monstrous.

Test of Faith and Spiritual Strength
Abraham is probably the most quoted Bible character when it comes to the topic of testing our Faith. Abraham having to sacrifice (God wanted a human sacrifice) his only son was a major test of faith. But what about Isaac? How is being sacrificed to a God his father speaks to a test of Isaac's faith? Poor Isaac didn't even know he was being sacrificed until the last minute. There is a Jewish Midrash that puts a twist on the story with Isaac running off to join his brother Ishmael after his crazy father tried to turn him into barbecue.

We use this response because 1) we believe God is in total control and 2) we believe he knows what's best for us. Yet the last thing ANYONE wants to hear after the loss of a child or news of terminal illness is that their faith is being tested. Again, it is simply monstrous that our pain and suffering is simply a way to test our allegiance. Rest assured that if I tried to "test" my family's allegiance in anyway similar to that of God in the Bible I would end up in prison or in the loony bin.

Liberate us from our Mortal Coil
The fifth reason is that if we're good anyway there's no reason to complain over earthly suffering when Heaven awaits us in the afterlife. As I stated earlier, anything that happens to bad people is justified by the belief that the good will get their reward after death. But the sad fact is that we don't know that there is an afterlife, we hope. Kushner calls this wishful thinking, and can you blame him? We want a reward, a reason for our suffering. Suffering in vain is too depressing to be an option so we have Heaven and Hell. Those who didn't learn from their suffering, did not pass their faith test, or those who questioned God's Master Plan will be sent into the hellfire. Everyone else will go to a lovely place and live forever with their loved ones. Sounds nice and reassuring, doesn't it? So why then do we cry at the loss of a child to a terminal disease, or mourn those who were killed in a terrorist attack? I believe it is because even though we may try to comfort ourselves with the notion of Heaven we are still human, with human emotions and we fear that death may be it.

Kushner brings up the most challenging, yet truthful common theme that underlies all of these responses to human suffering: "they all assume that God is the cause of our suffering, and they try to understand why God would want us to suffer, " (Kushner, pg. 29). This is not an attack on God but an honest questioning that millions, if not billions of people echo throughout history, "why?" If God is in total control why would he want us to suffer? Maybe we are just asking the wrong question. Instead of asking why do good people (or anyone) suffer, maybe we should be asking ourselves what do we do now that we have suffered? Where do we go? Suffering is a part of being human, instead of looking for a reason or someone to blame, maybe we should look forward with a new understanding of our humanity and see if there is something we can do to alleviate someone else's pain.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dante's Inferno Update

Back in March I wrote about a new game being developed by EA Games loosely based on Dante Alighieri's, Inferno. You play as Dante, a veteran of the crusades, seeking to rescue your lover Beatrice from the Devil. You have to travel down through the 9 circles of Hell battling all sorts of demons, monsters, and damned souls to save the woman you love. The following trailer is rated 18+ (it gets a bit graphic).

I guessed right on a few of the level bosses that have been confirmed so far: Cleopatra, 2nd Circle (Lust), and Cerberus, 3rd circle (gluttony), and of course Satan himself in the 9th circle.
It is set for release on February 9, 2010.

The graphics look great, although all I have is a Nintendo Wii so just about anything on XBox 360 or PS3 is going to look great to me. But all the graphics, action, and intense gameplay in the world is not going to spare EA Games from controversy when they include demon babies with razor blades for arms. When it comes to video games and matters of faith, religion, and morality there will always be controversy. Although I thought it was clever for EA Games to fake a protest rally outside of E3 2009 earlier this summer.

"If you're going to kill a baby, you better make sure it's baptized first."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Adoption Update!

Back in April I wrote about a poor Indonesian boy, Fiki, who I stumbled across on a Christian child sponsorship program, Compassion. I visited their site again today and to my surprise Fiki was nowhere to be found. I wanted to sponsor him myself, but my American life kept me busy with more "important tasks".

Fiki, wherever you are I hope you are all right. I pray that you have a roof over your head, and food in your stomach. Although I never met, nor will ever meet, you in person I wish you a full and joyous life regardless of your beliefs. You will probably never come across these words, but know that I meant every word. May you find all which you seek in this life and the next.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A God-Sized Puzzle: Year One

A year ago today I began my journey here on A God-Sized Puzzle. My personal journey exploring my own faith began years before I started this blog, but I feel that it wasn't until I started blogging that I really began to push myself to question, to seek, to search. I started out with a mission statement: to learn from the wide variety of religious beliefs in seeking to find common grounds, common goals, and common love. The highlighted texts below link to previous posts are snapshots of my spiritual growth so far.

[A Jigsaw cake made by Hope over at A Little Imagination. She makes some really cool looking cakes like this one!]

I began this blog after taking the Religion in Popular Media class in the fall of 2008 by the inspirational Rabbi Rami (check out his blog here). The class inspired me to relentlessly question and search into all areas of the sacred, the secular, and places where the two converge. I soon realized that these two spheres cross A LOT more than we realize in film, literature, society, and in our everyday lives. My journey had a rocky start, and it has been difficult trying to communicate to others what I believe. I soon understood that even if we don't initially see the secular and the sacred as compatible they are interconnected and weaved throughout every aspect of the human experience. Some may be blinded by hatred, others by fear, to see the bonds that tie us to one another. We are all brothers, equals, in this life and the next.

Here are a few interesting facts collected over the past year (well since April, so this might not be completely accurate).

The top 3 visited posts.
  1. Sunday School Stories for Naughty Children-A post on the violence in the Bible and the cautions of teaching certain Bible stories to children (This is probably the most controversial and most visited post I've written).
  2. A Timeless Hero: Part 2- The Triforce- The second post in a series on the religious symbolism and spirituality found in the Legend of Zelda game series.
  3. Abraham's Test- A post on the "test" that Abraham and Isaac went through on Mount Moriah.
The top 4 countries with the most visits: USA, Canada, U.K, India.
The top 4 U.S. states with the most visits: Texas, California, New York, Virginia
The number 1 city with the most visits: Dallas, Texas (I wonder who that could be? *Cough* Don.)

It has been an interesting year and I have learned a lot. But I know I have only hit the surface and there is more to discover, learn from, and grow. Over the next year I hope to take the next step from studying religions to interacting with the practitioners. I have mentioned my timidness to visit other places of worship and I hope to overcome this and actively participate and interact with people of other faiths. Many thanks to those who've commented and dialogued with me on this blog. I hope to continue our talks and share in our spiritual travels.

Peace and blessings to you and yours.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Power of Choice

"This is Christianity. This is real true Biblical Christianity.

"Anyone who doesn't agree with me is actually giving Christianity a bad name."

"If my words are the Truth, they will offend."

-Kerrigan Skelly-

Last Tuesday, October the 27th, MTSU was visited by preachers from Pinpoint Ministries. I passed by these preachers as I was heading to my next class and did not have the time to stop and listen. Although I knew exactly what he was preaching: sinners must repent or face the hellfire. Who are sinners? Fornicators, immodest women, homosexuals, drunks, the list goes on and on. I've written on this type of evangelism before and prayed to Yahweh it wouldn't come to MTSU. Confrontational Evangelism is a method used by some evangelists to spread the gospel by grabbing their audience attention by intentionally being confrontational. I'm ashamed this happened at my school, and worse that they may even return in February.

[Photo by Kurt Lee Mullen]

You can read the full story here, and watch videos here and here. You can check out Pinpoint Evangelism's video at the campus of MTSU here. Here are some of the more interesting parts.

10:00 Immodest woman at fault for being raped
17:00 Restates his mission and beliefs on sinners (crowds begin to gather)
22:50 Argument over Shellfish being an abomination (Leviticus 11:10)
26:03 Skelly states he's fit to judge others
37:30 Varying levels of Sin and Sinners
46:50 Question on Evidence for Christianity
50:00 Explaining 'the peacemakers' from the Beatitudes
54:10 "I have Holy Sex"
58:50 Testimony of a Rape Victim
1:02:15 The crowd attempts to reason with Skelly
1:02:45 A person can not be a Christian and a Homosexual
1:03:30 Original Sin is a False Doctrine

The preachers say they came to spread the Good News but I can guarantee you that not only did they fail to win anyone over to Christianity with their gospel of hate, but they probably turned some Christians away from Christianity. One theme ran throughout Skelly's preaching and the events that resulted in the arrest of one student: the power of choice. Even if Skelly and McGlone had the right (and the permit) to preach on the campus of MTSU they chose to preach words of hate. The preachers see their ministry as words of truth not hate and there is nothing we can do to change their view. They believe they are preaching the damnation of God out of love, yet there is no love in saying that an immodestly dressed woman is partly responsible for being raped. Nor is it loving to say that the homosexual chooses to carry an "unrighteous" lifestyle because he/she loves to sin. I can't think of anyone who would willing choose to face a lifetime of discrimination (especially in Tennessee) because they love the lifestyle. Skelly made a similar argument stating that the early Christians would not have suffered and died for what they believed if they had not experienced the resurrection.

Regardless of what actually happened or what may have happened, both parties (Michaela Morales and the Preachers) were in the wrong that afternoon. Michaela for pushing the preacher (although she claimed she was defending herself) and the preachers for spouting hate. At the end of the clip, the video asks MTSU if we're ready to apologize for the lies and slander (about God, homosexuality, sin, the incident etc.) we have been spreading. A better question would be: are we willing to love others even when we're confronted by hatred?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Great Value Caskets?

I didn't know whether to laugh, cry, or be horrified when I first heard this latest news. Yet, when I heard on NPR that Wal-Mart had started selling caskets online I knew then that the company I once dedicated 4 years of my life stocking its shelves and unloading its trucks will continue to influence every stage of my life. From infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, my sunset years, and eventual death, Wally World will always be here to provide us with our every need at everyday low prices.

Let us stop and give thanks to the Great Provider and his messenger, Sam Walton.

Our Provider, who art in Bentonville,
hallowed be thy shelves,
thy people come to browse and buy,

the pious stay to serve you nigh.

Thy will be done
from west to east
on Earth as it is Bentonville.

Give us this day our Great Value Bread,

and forgive us for shopping at Target,

help us save money, so that we may live better

for thine is the market, the profit, and the shares

forever and ever,

Now I can rest in peace with the knowledge that my death won't be a serious financial burden.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Good Times Being Slain in the Spirit

In Novemeber of 2007, the news broke that Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa was spearheading an investigation to probe 6 prominent televangelist to see if they're misusing tax-exempt donations to live lavish lifestyles. A few of these televangelist preach what has been called the Prosperity Gospel, which is the notion that God showers material prosperity on those whom he favors. God wants you to be successful but if you don't follow his Will, God will punish you with poverty. Of course these televangelist must be doing something right to live in luxurious homes, fly in private planes, and own marble-top $23,000 toilets, right?

Benny Hinn sat down recently with Dan Harris on ABC Nightline for a rare interview. Check it out.

A part of me hopes they nail this guy for misusing tax exempt donations, but what happens then to the millions of people who draw hope from Hinn's ministry? Yes they'll be enlightened to his greed but at a great personal cost: the donations they've sent in, the prayers they prayed, the hope they put into the healing power of Benny Hinn's words would have all been in vain. Some will be angry, some might fall back into depression, while others might be thankful for having their eyes opened to the truth. Where will those millions of people go? Wherever they might find solace for the pain they endure in this world. Even though some may find religion as poisonous and primitive it does bring hope, comfort, and peace to millions. So if we're not personally willing to go and comfort those in need, they will find it themselves even if it costs them every penny.

I personally can't take Benny Hinn very seriously. A man who claims to be a man of God while sitting on that much wealth, and thinks he needs it all to survive, is depressing when you think about how much good he could do with it. And the fact that his name reminds me of Benny Hill doesn't help much either. Priceless!

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Jewish Gospels: Part 2- Fall of Jerusalem

In my previous post I brought up the importance of Jesus' Jewish heritage. This is hard to grasp within Christianity because his attributed divinity tends to overwhelm his humanity. What aspects of Jesus stays within the realms of his attributed divinity and his humanity? If Jesus was Jewish how closely did he follow the Torah and Jewish rituals? If we take Jesus' Jewishness seriously should we not also take the Jewishness of his followers into account including their writings of him? At what point did the early Christian church begin departing from their Jewish roots?

[The sack of Jerusalem depicted on the Arch of Titus]

Bishop John Shelby Spong greatly illuminated this subject for me in his book, Liberating the Gospels. Spong explains that it was the fall of Jerusalem and the fight over the Jewish Scriptures (the OT) that caused the early Christian church to begin moving away from their Jewish roots.
"It was the fall of Jerusalem, with its resulting destruction of the Temple and the priesthood, that raised the price of that uneasy accommodation to such painful levels that fracture was inevitable. The intolerable quality of this event did not appear all at once. Rather its intensity grew from the moment of Jerusalem's defeat over the next twenty years, until the separation was so total and so hostile that finally the Jewish Christians were literally expelled from the synagogues. As this tension built towards its climax, both Christian hostility toward heterodox Jewish Christians expanded. Echoes of this rising hostility can be found quite overtly in the Gospels. As the rhetoric heightened, the lines around what Jews could tolerate inside Judaism tightened considerably and those heterodox Jewish Christians, offended by this increasing hostility, began to move more and more into gentile circles." (Liberating the Gospels, "How These Jewish Books Became Gentile Captives")
With the heart of Jewish life demolished the one thing that kept, and continues to keep, the Jews together was their scripture. Judaism depended on their scripture as the final existing thread to their identity and their survival. Without it Judaism may have disappeared into history only to be mentioned in Christian history books. The post- 2nd Temple Jews also developed a new form Judaism, Rabbinic Judaism. In this new form of Judaism both the written and Oral Law took center stage, which caused a widening rift between Jews and the Early church, which at the time was growing into a Gentile majority, to become a full blown break over the battle over scriptural interpretation. The Jews protected the one link that bounded them together, while the gentile Christians found new interpretation in the Jewish scripture that they saw pointed to the Risen Christ. The Jewish Christians, caught in the middle, lost out in the end as the movement became overwhelmingly gentile the Jewish born Christians would eventually die out. Yet without the connection to Judaism through the Jewish Christians, Christianity may not have had a strong enough root to compete with the ancient Greco-Roman religions. It's tough being the new kid on the block, just ask the Mormons.

I agree with Spong that the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent battle over the Jewish scripture were the main causes of the Jewish Christian rift in the Early Church. Spong brought up an intriguing although highly controversial view of the development of the gospels: the gospels were written as "collections of expository teaching or preaching that had been created in the same way that the rabbis would create what came to be called the midrash rabbah." ("How These Jewish books became Gentile Captives", pg. 52) The gospels were written to help explain (and later remember) what they experienced through the Risen Christ by searching through the Jewish scripture for new meaning. To traditional Christians this translates as the early church invented Jesus as a vehicle for new teachings, yet this creative writing is riddled throughout Jewish literature. So the question then becomes how do we read the "eyewitness" accounts found in the gospels? How much of the gospels were elaborations made by the Christian church and how much are historical? All, some, none?

In this case, pronouncement stories, stories which surround a particular teaching or saying of Jesus, could have been written by the Jewish Christians as a creative foundation for a teaching of Jesus. The focus of the pronouncement stories is the pronouncement itself and not in the detail of the story, which gives the story flexibility when retold. A storyteller knows the basic structure of a story while she/he weaves his or her own creative aspects into the tale. This is how oral stories were told and retold until they were preserved in writing. It was when the story moved from the oral tradition to written, from Jewish to Greek that the words in the gospels moved from a new creative interpretation on experiencing God towards Christian Orthodoxy.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Hell House

"A part of Salvation is being afraid of going to Hell." Youth Pastor Tim Ferguson

In 2001, director George Ratcliff came out with his documentary entitled Hell House, on Christian haunted house attractions bearing the same name.

"Hell Houses are a distinctly American phenomenon which began in 1990 just outside of Dallas, at the Trinity Assembly of God Church. The original Hell House was conceived as a modern-day fire-and-brimstone sermon. Today, this religious ceremony of sorts is replete with actors, extensive lighting equipment and full audio-visual tech crews." (Hell House Site)

But the vampires, ghosts, and demons of a traditional haunted house have been replaced by scenes of family violence, suicide, abortion, drug and alcohol use. Instead of scaring kids with Freddy Krueger their using real life situations and the fear of eternal damnation to spook them into salvation. Is Christianity really about being afraid of Hell? Is their any room for fear in a message of Love? What do we do with this message of Fear?

Back in 2006, a coworker invited me to attend a Christian haunted house and I gladly accepted. At the time I had recently begun immersing myself into studying all kinds of religious beliefs so I thought it would be interesting to see how Christians would pull off doing a "Haunted House".

The church was packed! It was a 45 minute wait until I got to go through this Christianized haunted house attraction. They moved us in groups of 15 from room to room (with Demon guards yelling to keep moving) as we watched the events surrounding a troubled family: suicide, abortion, drug use, you name it. Demons and angels argue and battle over the family throughout the attraction representing the struggle within the character, with short monologues by the forces of good and evil explaining the plot. As the events climaxed half the family had died in sin, the other half repented. The Hell House I went through did not comfort nor support the sinners. Yet those who repented even on the verge of death were granted eternal life. After walking through the Hell scene with sinners trapped under plexiglass clawing, begging for escape we entered into through the gates of Heaven to be welcomed by Jesus, angels and the saved. The production was phenomenal, the acting was great, but the plot along with all of its assumption was downright frightening.

At the end of this judgmental house of horrors we were invited to sit and talk about what we experienced. Out of a group of 15 only 6 of us stayed for the do-you-know-where-you're-going-after-you-die speech. After a 5 minute crash course on salvation found through the blood of Christ the speaker gave us two options. 1) Those who know their saved are welcomed to leave and 2) those who are unsure about their salvation are encouraged to stay. In retrospect, I'm now curious to know what was said to those who stayed. Yet, I did not want to get into an argument, so I smiled, got up, and left. There would be no benefit in pointing out the lack of compassion, and contradictory message of love and fear that they were sending out. The most I would have received would be a prayer for my salvation, and if things got heated, an escort off the premises.

The Hell House I went through is almost exactly like the one seen in Ratcliff's documentary. Here is the trailer to George Ratcliff's 2001 candid documentary, Hell House.

No earthly redemption is found for the drug addict, the pregnant teen, nor the abusive father. The crowd receives the message that those who suffer in this life will also suffer in the next. My heart went out to those in Hell because they were condemned for losing hope. They lacked the strength to bear the errors they made in this life, so they are punished for not reaching out to the divine. The suicide who lost the will to live, the teen trapped in the world of drugs, the pregnant teen who aborted her child, and the father who found little solace at the bottom of the bottle. All these people are condemned without a loving embrace or a hand of encouragement. They are portrayed as unrepentant sinners in the hands of an angry God. But why exactly are the hopeless damned? Is it for theological reasons? Is it because they made the wrong choices? Is it because they are sinners and as sinners they MUST seek out Christ? The church would respond with an emphatic YES! But are these not the very same people that the gospel claims Jesus came to comfort, rescue, and love? Are these not the disenfranchised, the outcast, the sinners, the hopeless, and the unloved? Are we not responsible for reaching out to the downcast not by striking them with the Fear of God but reaching out with the Love of God? There is no love found in fear, and setting up an attraction of fear to encourage a message of love may bring in the curious but will push away the seekers.

If you haven't seen Hell House I highly recommend it. If you have a Netflix account they are now streaming it over their site. Or if you're feeling adventurous go and visit a local Hell House and experience it for yourself.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Dr. Seuss Bible

In America, there was once a time when one could stay up into the wee hours watching Comedy Central and come across, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson trying to convince Bruce McCulloch to pray at the altar of Compensation on a little Canadian show called The Kids in the Hall. If you're unfamiliar with the Kids in the Hall just imagine 5 grown men doing sketch comedy in drag, occasionally wearing cabbage on their head, while collecting armpit sweat that ushers in a new era of world peace. Great stuff, eh. Unfortunately, we received the censored sketches in America. Apparently Americans can handle watching people eating animal organs on Fear Factor but can't stand to watch Jesus Christ getting crucified on Sam Ziddle's Crucifixion machine.

Shocked? Irreverent? Some of our Bible stories should seem shocking yet we read them with glossy eyes not appreciating, nor understanding, what is being said. Yet, when we take that event and dress it up (as in the Dr. Seuss Bible sketch) a part of us is horrified not because it has been turned into a comedic work but because it reveals the brutality of the event. Each of us interprets events differently and place meaning on those events. To Christians the crucifixion is an act of universal and transcendent love, to others it is sheer horror. It is the meaning behind the event that holds power over the individual not the event itself. Thousands of people were crucified by the Romans yet the crucifixion of Yeshua the son of Mary was remembered. Why? Maybe so that we can appreciate the preciousness of life itself and pass on that understanding to our children, hopefully a bit more tactful than The Kids in the Hall but you get my point.

Again, the Kids in the Hall are not having fun at God's expense but at the expense of those that sit, bicker, and argue over things that can't be proven (maybe they argue because they walk in toe-crappity shoes). And if the object of our debates were proven, our minds would be blown and the world would keep on spinning. Unfortunately this is not the case with 21 century religious believers with 21st century weaponry at their disposal. To quote another show on Comedy Central "isms are great for those who are rational, but in the hands of irrational people, isms always lead to violence."(South Park)

Although not related to religion, this is one of my all time favorite Kids in the Hall sketches. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mr. Deity Season 3

A little over a year ago I was introduced to Mr. Deity in Rabbi Rami's Religion in Pop Media class. Mr. Deity is a series of short 2-7 minute comedy films by Brian Keith Dalton about the behind the scenes workings of the universe surveyed by Mr. Deity (God) and his assistant Larry (the Holy Spirit). I detailed my views on the show and why I don't believe they're trying to be offensive back in November of last year. (Although I understand why some would be offended.) Religious comedy isn't for everyone but if it is I'm sure you'll get a kick out of all 3 seasons of Mr. Deity. Here's the first episode of season 3 which started last June. Enjoy.

Click here to watch Season 1, Season 2, and Season 3.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Quarter of the World

A new comprehensive study by the Pew Forum On Religion and Public Life has found that a quarter of the World's population are Muslim. More than 60% are found in Asia and 20% of worldwide Muslims reside in the Middle East. There are a lot of interesting figures and interactive maps in this new report which can be found and downloaded here. Here are a few more interesting and random findings from the study.

[Prayer in Cairo, 1865,By Jean-Léon Gérôme]
  • 1% of Worldwide Muslims live in Russia (11% of Russia's population) figuring for roughly 16.5 million Russian Muslims
  • There are roughly 1000 Muslims living in Puerto Rico where my father was born.
  • .2% of Worldwide Muslims live in the U.S. (.8% of U.S. population) just under 2.5 million Muslims in America.
  • 2/3rds of Worldwide Muslims live in the following 10 country with the largest percentage of Muslims per country: Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria, Iran, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco.
  • Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country at 13% of world wide Muslims around 203 million.
The report also broke down the number of Shias and Sunnis by country and region. The Pew Forum also stated that "These findings on the world Muslim population lay the foundation for a forthcoming study by the Pew Forum, scheduled to be released in 2010, that will estimate growth rates among Muslim populations worldwide and project Muslim populations into the future. The Pew Forum plans to launch a similar study of global Christianity in 2010 as well." So what does this all mean? Well other than the fact that most of the world's Muslims are NOT Arabs they're also not living in the Middle East. I am highly interested in seeing the growth rates for both Islam and Christianity to see which areas have had a population boom in either religion. Although Christianity does put a heavy focus on missionary work and spreading the Gospel, what would would the major Christian leaders do if the 2010 report found Islam had a faster growth rate than Christianity? How would the rising Spiritual but Not Religious group in the U.S. (which I count myself a part of) react to next years findings? Now that we have this information what will the world do with it? Will Christian extremist push for eradicating this rising "evil"? Will Christians in general try harder to learn more about their Muslim neighbors? (Which I recently found out I have a few Muslim living in my neighborhood) Now that 1 out of every 4 people on the planet may be a follower of the prophet Muhammad, how do we reach out to them?

These numbers may mean little to most people out there but to those seeking to connect with a spiritual community this might mean a lot. A year ago I even considered converting to Islam myself. The first thing people ask me is "what kept you from converting?" as if I had learned some dark secret in my studies that kept me from joining. I tell them that I could not find any skeletons in Islam's closet that are any more horrifying than the skeletons in the closet of any other religion. The only thing that keeps me from joining a religion is exclusivity. Although I yearn to find a community to connect with, it would be devastating to my spirituality if I shunned all others. I may one day find myself (when I have free time and strike up the nerve) praying at a Hindu temple or Muslim Mosque but more as a way to connect with and learn more from my fellow man.

There is a LOT I love about Islam (which most of my knowledge of Islam comes from boring history books) but there is also a lot I love about Christianity. Judaism currently has my attention and I also admire the teachings in Buddhism and Hinduism (I tried meditating for a couple weeks straight during the summer and fell out of the habit). Some have said that I am creating a new religion by picking and choosing what I want from each, and that I'm doing this to cover my own rear end (fire insurance). The core idea that causes this line of thinking is the assumption that ONE AND ONLY ONE religion has it right. I do not believe that any one faith owns a monopoly on the divine and even if one did, it would be impossible to figure out the right combination of beliefs. Life in this world is not about right beliefs but about right actions (not to confuse that with works). I pull from multiple religions that help me on my spiritual journey towards acting justly and loving. All religions (that I'm aware of) teach that in the end it is all about love, including Islam. We need to reach out to the Muslim quarter of the world not because Jesus instructed us Christians to love our neighbors, but because they're human, and all humans yearn to be loved.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Lord, I Pray, Smite My Enemies

Psalm 35:1-9 (NIV)

1 Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me.
Take up shield and buckler; arise and come to my aid.
3 Brandish spear and javelin against those who pursue me.
Say to my soul, "I am your salvation."
May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame;
may those who plot my ruin be turned back in dismay.
May they be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the LORD driving them away;
6 may their path be dark and slippery, with the angel of the LORD pursuing them.
Since they hid their net for me without cause and without cause dug a pit for me,
may ruin overtake them by surprise—
may the net they hid entangle them, may they fall into the pit, to their ruin.
Then my soul will rejoice in the LORD and delight in his salvation.

[Osteographia, or The Anatomy of the Bones by William Cheselden, 1688-1752]

Within Christianity where is the line between praying for someone's downfall and actually committing it? When we pray imprecatory prayers (to invoke evil upon; cure) are we asking God to invoke harm on our behalf thereby placing responsibility to commit evil upon the Divine? Although I am familiar with people praying for their enemies downfall (and conversion, be it spiritual or sexual orientation) I never knew there was an actual term for it. In the Bible imprecatory prayers (like the one above) can be read as prayer for divine protection and victory in battle. The righteous pray that justice will be on their side and is more of a battle cry prayer to rally the troops before launching at the enemy. In the ancient world, the gods were seen as having total control over every aspect of life from the weather and health of newborns to politics and war. Petitioning the gods for protection was common to them and the idea that the divine is supportive of our current wars still continues to this day.

Imprecatory prayers sound contrary to the core message of love in Christianity. There are some who defend imprecatory prayers as a prayer calling God to deliver justice upon the wicked, but this can portray God as our pocket-sized guardian. When we pray for people we think deserve punishment we are still basing that judgment call on our perception of evil. God then becomes a deity we can pull out of our pocket to handle those who WE think deserves punishment. Furthermore, instead of dealing with the situation itself we ask the Divine to act on our behalf. What happens when people like pastor Wiley Drake pray for Obama's death and God doesn't come through? Did God not answer pastor Drake's prayer because it was immoral or does that mean that "someone" should enact God's will? This is where imprecatory prayers can get outright dangerous! Someone, somewhere will cross the line between prayer and action. So what then do we do?

Why the need to pray for anyone's demise? If, as Christians, we are to love and even pray for our enemies why continue to justify praying for someone to be struck down by God? If we are to believe that God is a God of justice than there is no need for us to ask him to take down those WE think are unjust. Yet injustice continues in the world, should we not try to repair the harm caused by it? I believe that if we tread carefully we can do somethings about injustice but this is different from taking matters into our own hands. We have governments and laws to keep us from becoming vigilantes, yet we do not have laws (that I'm aware of) asking us to help the victims, the needy, the hungry, the unloved, the sick. This is the domain where I believe mankind can redeem itself from its own handiwork of evil. This is the Kingdom of God.

This video contains C.S. Lewis' thoughts on imprecatory prayers found in the Psalms and a Christian response defending that the curses are actually from God and not David.

If we strive not to wish or pray for harm to befall others in the first place we might avoid having to clean up the mess afterward. Let us pray for the well being of others regardless of their beliefs, social status, sexual orientation, and even their past.