A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Christian

May 24, 2016 § 1 Comment

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Beginning to explore the world in Venice, age 21

It wasn’t easy being the weird outsider creative kid growing up in the Fundamentalist church. I constantly berated myself for being an “over-analyzer” as though this was a fault rather than an asset. I struggled to conform to the unified whole, but was always left with the same person hiding inside my head. Secretly, I knew that the only path to my complete self was through diversity—of thought, of lifestyle, of culture. I knew this, though everyone around me kept saying over and over, “Be in the world, but not of it.”

I began drawing obsessively from about the age of seven, and by my teens was doing figurative paintings in oils. People were often impressed by my work, yet the feedback I most remember is, “These are beautiful, but when are you going to start bringing glory to God?” I took this to mean that if I wasn’t painting scenes from the Bible, my art had little value. This was the basic concept of what an artist should be. The entire back wall of the church was covered in tacky oil paintings depicting the life of Jesus.

I was trained to mistrust everything outside of our tightly woven sub-culture. I not only looked down on people who were not Christian, but I feared them as well. I absorbed these lessons of conformity, and though none of it felt right, I was afraid to ask questions. A question meant doubt, and doubt could result in my family, my friends, my church, my school, rejecting me. It was a narrative I had observed before, and one I was to experience to some extent later on.

These memories came up strongly for me as I did research from two books written by Christian writers—Art For God’s Sake by Philip Graham Ryken, and State Of The Arts by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. The two authors seek to “educate” the reader with a call to reclaim art for their faith, as though art should not be determined by the artist, but by the establishment. Ryken begins by observing the issues within the church for artists, with words that ring true to what I experienced:

“If anything, things are even more difficult for Christian artists. Some churches do not consider art a serious way to serve God. Others deny that Christians in the arts have a legitimate calling. As a result, Christian artists often feel like they have to justify their existence. Rather than providing a community of support, some churches surround them with a climate of suspicion (Ryken, 9).”

The individual artist is not only underestimated in their role, but also feared in their ability to examine and critique the system. The church is leery of this type of behavior since their ideology is based on faith rather than fact. From his fair assessment, Ryken’s treatise quickly devolves into a derailment against the art world, and the two writers—Ryken being strongly influenced by the work of Veith—go on to display their lack of education on modern art, and their inability to explore the work beyond face-value:

“In many ways the art world has become—in the words of critic Suzi Gablik—a ‘suburb of hell (Ryken, 13).’”

Along with sweeping generalizations of the non-believing artist:

“It has always seemed to me a great evidence for the Christian faith that those who reject it acknowledge, if they are honest, that without God they have no hope in the world (Ephesians 2:12). Great unbelieving artists generally do not pretend that the absence of God in their lives is in any way fulfilling or a cause of rejoicing. Lacking God, they express their own emptiness. Looking outward, they probe and find that everything—other people, their society, nature itself—is a sham and a cheat. Is not their experience exactly what the Christian would predict (Veith, 210)?”

Veith’s observation here is a classic projection of his own beliefs onto those with an entirely different set of values. He holds assumptions about their worldview and their experience, concluding that they must be depressed and confused. I can’t comment for other artists, but since I am an unbelieving artist with greatness left to be determined, I take offense to Veith’s view. The only sham is the idea of God itself. With a bit of historical research, it doesn’t take much to understand that all gods pass away. The people who have created them, however, continue on in their formation of ideas.

Personally, when I first realized that God does not exist, I suddenly understood the concept of self-responsibility. There is no outside source directing my course. It is all on me—my choices, my initiative, my discipline. There is no one to blame for a misstep but myself. This redirection brought a sense of presence. I became more of a problem-solver. Fully embodied in nature, I no longer found it suspect. Rather than looking beyond this existence, I found the enormity of the present. There was nothing empty about this experience, and it improved my work as an artist.

“But whatever stories it tells, and whatever ideas or emotions it communicates, art is true only if it points in some way to the one true story of salvation—the story of God’s creation, human sin, and the triumph of grace through Christ (Ryken, 40).”

If a believing artist chooses to fall in line by directly promoting the church—as the church so often requests—their art degrades into propaganda. The general viewer is not interested in an art show as a form of religious proselytization. Rather, the audience seeks metaphor and examinations of established ideas. When a power structure uses the artist as a vessel for the promotion of a prerogative, the artist is subtracted down to the role of artisan. Yes, under a patron the artist may toy with the limits of their role, or use their artistry to go above and beyond, but the subject matter is typically chosen for them. Before the Renaissance, artists were generally viewed as artisans, and they received little respect in society.

Through many centuries of power, the Catholic Church understood the sway that art could have on their congregation. They staked their claim on visual artists, funding them and commissioning major works of art. Since most people could not read, the art served as the narrative. Though this set-up has changed drastically since then, the view that the church should direct the course of the art, still persists.

During the Reformation, as early Protestants sought to differentiate themselves from Catholicism, they destroyed many works depicting saints, and their fervor led to a general mistrust of art as being idolatrous. As a result, artists in Northern Europe faced a shortage of patrons for their work, and suddenly they had to paint of their own accord, without a commission directing their course. Subject matter shifted from religious and mythical depictions to scenes from everyday life.

Inadvertently, this rejection of visual art by the Protestant church led to the artist as a free agent. As the ideas of Humanism developed, art evolved as an ever-shifting landscape, wide and varied. It went beyond the limits of “beauty” and became a process of experimentation and exchange. When the individual is given value, there are no borders on creativity. We now benefit from the conceptual artist not only in art itself, but also in science, technology, and so many other aspects of contemporary life.

The problem between Christianity and art lies in the essence of both. Christians are told to not ask questions by accepting the mythical as being true. The artist is instructed to examine the details of every concept, and dissect the visual down to its basic elements to build it back up again.

It makes sense that everything I wanted to express as a young girl was in opposition to the limits imposed on me. In response to being instructed that a woman must be submissive, I painted strong women that I wanted to emulate. In order to work through my fear that the “darkness” would consume me, I dove right into it, and found that if you face it without fear, it has no power and does not even exist. I wanted to understand what made the world evil, and all I found was a world full of stories that only make sense when you listen, when you search, when you read from start to finish.

The thing is, even when you make these realizations, you still have to live in a world inhabited by people who think that myths are true. I have let go of my anger enough to have a dialogue with the people who tried to make me something that I was not. And since I am not a Christian, I can ask as many questions of believers as I choose. I keep them on their toes, and we have all grown for it. Every day, I lose another piece of the fear that I was raised with. It turns out, that being an “over-analyzer” was my greatest strength, not my greatest weakness.

 

Pastor’s Picks For Dealing With People Like Me

December 24, 2015 § 3 Comments

My parents had some talks with their pastor about my views, and I’m wondering what they told him. I’m an Atheist—that dreaded word that no Fundamentalist Christian wants to hear in regards to their offspring. On top of that, I am writing a book about my views, and even worse, delving into the history of how religions grew, which reveals that ideology is as fragile as a house of cards.

My partner and I love to debate with my parents every time I uncover some new piece of research. I get excited about my project and love to share what I’m working on. Michael, on the other hand, struggles to understand why my parents believe. He has a high opinion of them, which doesn’t match up with his low opinion of their bizarre faith. In response to our queries, my parents offer up quotes, though we keep hoping for words that come straight from their own thoughts. It never happens. Instead, they run through the usual church-approved clichés of Pascal’s Wager, the fiction of science, and “don’t believe everything you read,” which can easily be used against their literal belief in the Bible.

So Pastor Lee gave my parent’s some guidance on how to counter my arguments with “evidence.” This led to two books by Josh McDowell—77 Faqs About God And The Bible: Your Toughest Questions Answered and The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict. Though I wasn’t interested in borrowing the books, somehow I was sent home with them anyway.

McDowell’s bio reads like the usual bag of tricks lifted straight from the pocket of C.S. Lewis. He was a 19 year-old agnostic who wanted to prove faith wrong. With five more years to go before his frontal lobe was fully developed, he found evidence for faith. From there he attended all manner of Christian universities to become the big-time Christian author that he is now. He has 115 books to his name, many of them co-authored. That’s at a rate of about 3 books a year.

The first book I was given, 77 Faqs About God And The Bible: Your Toughest Questions Answered, had me at the title. It’s important to note the spelling chosen here—not Facts but Faqs—either way it’s ridiculous. Each chapter begins as an apologetics question followed by an “answer.” But that’s the problem—there are no answers to be found. There are opinions, suppositions, feelings, but nothing founded on fact or even research.

My favorite example is, “Does God have a gender?” According to McDowell, God does not have a gender based on the scripture where Jesus refers to his followers as a brood of chicks that he wants to protect like a mother hen. Therefore God is both paternal and maternal.

McDowell is missing the big picture. This is mainly because I’m sure he’s part of the crowd that believes the world is only 5,000 years old. The invention of patriarchal Abrahamic religion—which evolved from the Indo-European religion of the Storm God—was a direct attack against Goddess-centered beliefs and matriarchal societies. Over the course of thousands of years, beginning in the Neolithic period, women slowly began to lose their rights as the god of war succeeded the gods of agriculture. Eventually women went from being landowners and traders to becoming the property of men.

Gods always have a gender. Man is the author of the current god, and that god is most certainly male. He began as the Father God, and within Christianity, he is the father and son in one. It is now forgotten that the Mother Goddess birthed him, and that she was once the head of the trinity. The mysterious Holy Spirit now holds her place at the table.

Lets move on to McDowell’s magnum opus, The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict. In this book he claims that since all ancient cultures have a story about a massive flood, the story of Noah must be true. McDowell missed the course on metaphor. I’m sure there was a massive flood at one time, and this natural disaster spawned many legends. Legends grow, and legends evolve. Every culture had a different hero in the tale and a different version of the story. These cultures thrived on myth—the spoken word tales were both an entertainment and a cautionary tale. Ideas spread throughout the globe in the same way they do today—just a lot more slowly. The beliefs of Ancient Mexico share similarities with the beliefs of Ancient Egypt. It is absolutely incredible that distance makes no difference in the spread of legends and beliefs. This does not make the Bible factual. It is not meant to be—it is a religious book after all, and nothing about religion is based on facts. It’s based on politics, power, and control wielded through the weaponry of fables.

McDowell also shares that since several historical sources mention the existence of Jesus (Josephus for example) the story of his life must be true. Existence and story, however, are two different things. All you need to do is read a celebrity gossip magazine to understand this truth. What people say and what really happened are two different things. None of McDowell’s sources verify claims to a virgin birth or a resurrection—claims that were also made around all other savior gods in history, some who “lived” thousands of years before Jesus, displaying all the same signs of divinity that he apparently did.

Reading McDowell’s vague allusions brought up some anger issues that I thought I had fully worked through three years prior. For every Atheist argument, McDowell claimed that the research—which was directly quoted from the Bible—was taken out of context. This was all he could come up with. Perhaps what McDowell is really saying is that it’s taken out of the context of being in an obsessive relationship with a violent and jealous god whose misdeeds are ignored in order to fantasize that he’s all-loving and all-forgiving. Since I am no longer in a relationship with an imaginary deity, I can see the contradictions clearly, and in truth believers see them as well, they simply choose to ignore them.

Emotionally, those two books brought up all my fears about being trapped in stupid. My nightmares came back—the ones where I can’t escape Christian high school and I can never get out or grow up or have my own views. At least this time, I had the strength to say, “I don’t belong here.” After about a week, I wrote my feelings down, and the dreams went away.

The problem with McDowell’s books is that they only make sense to believers, which is of course his target audience. Christians say that those who don’t believe are sinners, but I say that not believing is the ethical choice. Growing up, I always knew it was wrong that we looked at outsiders as fallen people who couldn’t help themselves. I always knew it was wrong that as a female I was less than. I knew it was wrong when I was told not to ask questions. Looking back, I can’t imagine how my superiors actually succeeded in getting me to believe that the Bible was true. Sure, I wondered why stories like that didn’t still happen today. Religion is a game of pretend—seek and you shall find smoke and mirrors.

My parents are never going to let go of the hope that I will come back to God. Though we communicate our feelings and views openly, it still feels like I’m barely ever heard. My mother used to condemn people for their superstitions. She didn’t realize that she was at all superstitious, but that’s what religion is. I wish that they could see it. Maybe it’s just enough that religion ends with me.

 

 

Creating Change Through Art

September 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

In my last post, I stumbled on the idea that religion teaches us to see the world from a specific point of view, while art teaches us to see the world from all points of view. This topic deserves to be expanded. The word “art” can be a little vague because we forget the wide breadth that this covers within culture. To name just a few areas where art is who we are—film, television, literature, journalism, architecture, fashion, visual arts, theater, the art of making a speech, the art of making a meal, the art of conversation.

Art provides empathy. Empathy is the greatest experience that we can achieve. Through all of the means I have listed (and then some) we strive to share something special to us in order to give that feeling to others. We find a breakthrough in our craft, which leads to the completion of a story, which leads to the beginning of another story. By sharing this, others may feel what we feel. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they are opposed to what we feel, and they will create a different story out of that experience.

By sharing, we spread the meme, and the meme grows. It is an organic process—ever-evolving. Through that evolution, life continues to change, only remaining the same in its substance. When we do not allow the story to shift and change, we’re in danger. If we do not allow metaphor and symbolism to have their way, we’re lacking in the imagination that can save us.

In my research, I’m currently studying the process of the mystics. Mystics often come from a traditionally religious background, but they have also been some of the great non-practicing figures, such as the poets Rimbaud or Walt Whitman. Writer Gershom Scholem shares:

“The most radical of the revolutionary mystics are those who not only reinterpret and transform the religious authority, but aspire to establish a new authority based on their own experience… The formlessness of the original experience may even lead to a dissolution of all form, even in interpretation (On The Kabbalah And Its Symbolism, 11).”

The word mystic can easily be substituted here for artist. Through persistent study, the artist breaks down what came before to create a new language. This language not only captures the zeitgeist, it transforms it.

The literalist, on the other hand, sees the words within holy books as stagnant, unmoving, ever the same. This causes a conservative rigid outlook on life—black and white, good and evil, wrong or right. To get beyond the words, we must stare at the words for a long time. We must examine their meanings. For example, the word good comes from god. The word evil originates from devil. Our language is steeped in religious concepts. The more I have examined these two words and their meanings, the more I have realized that they don’t actually exist. They only exist as a cultural concept, and not as a reality. Good and evil creates false judgments against outsiders, against people who have a different lifestyle or culture than our own. Within the parameters of good and evil, there is a language of conformity. These terms allow people to persecute others on the basis of differences and a lack of understanding.

We are an animal, and animals have motivations for survival. The greater portion of our faults come from being easily spooked. We over-compensate when we perceive the slightest threat. We are over-crowded in cities, stressed out and impatient, over-worked and struggling. News stations work hard to keep us uneducated and afraid. This in turn makes us want to commit atrocities against perceived threats.

Democracy is extremely fragile. We must be vigilant, because at any moment democracy can turn back into fascism. Last week the president of China visited Seattle. He had dinner at Bill Gates’ mansion. Fascism is happening right now in China. Activist artists such as Ai Wei Wei, Liu Yi, Zhao Zhao, and Chen Guang are threatened by the government on a daily basis. Leading up to June 4th, over 100 activists were taken into custody before the 25th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Some were imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Others were spirited away by police on forced vacations. Anything in order to silence the voices that are determined to remember the protesters who lost their lives in 1989. It is clear that not much has changed since then. Art is a threat against those who spread fear.

We must be grateful for our freedom of speech. In the US, just sixty years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find a copy of Lady Chattely’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence (one of the greatest novels ever written). Allen Ginsberg underwent an obscenity trial for his poem Howl. Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer was banned for close to 30 years until the early 1960’s. People in Hollywood were blacklisted from working in film, and censorship was around every corner. Communism became a dirty word, and the American government used that fear against us. We are told that we live in a democracy, but vigilance is necessary in order to fully achieve that.

This week is Banned Books Week, highlighting some of the great truth-tellers of our time and of the past. Some of the works epitomize the statement that you should write as though no one is ever going to read your work—they are daring and free. Other books might seem commonplace to us, but in other cultures they are viewed as dangerous. By empathizing with the characters in these books we are taken into a different point of view than our own. We are given the possibility of a mind expanded. For the fundamentalist or the fascist, that is a truly dangerous prospect.

To view 196 banned titles, click the link to visit Powell’s Books

Questions For The Rabbi

September 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky in regards to some questions I had for the book I’m writing on the origins of religion. Beforehand, my contact gave me a study guide entitled Judaism Decoded. Like every faith, Judaism has an argument for why their religion is chosen above the rest. In the guide I learned that while other belief systems began with the visions and experiences of just one to a few people, the Jews say that millions of people witnessed God at Mt. Sinai when Moses was given the commandments and instructions on how to live. Apparently, every eyewitness relayed all the same details and shared the same memories—blaring trumpets, bad weather and all. And yet, only Moses was allowed to ascend the mountain and be in God’s presence. It made me wonder why one has to believe the unbelievable to subscribe to a religious way of life.

This brought me to a point that the writer Karen Armstrong makes in her lectures. She has a fascination with the many Jews and Orthodox Christians who do not put any emphasis on the act of belief. Rather, they find their spirituality through the expression of ritual. Faith is not the main goal, but rather it’s the ritual that transforms the individual. I wondered if the Rabbi felt the same.

Rabbi Bogomilsky is a very busy man. After a day of playing phone tag, he finally had some time to talk. I was glad that I had taken time to prepare. In response to a question on the continuity of Judaism, he spoke of the Torah and why the oral tradition is so important. Today, we can barely understand the ancient texts that tell us of the events surrounding Moses. In comparison, the oral tradition stays current to contemporary language. “The Torah never changes, but our application of it changes.”

I asked him if he agreed with Karen Armstrong’s summation of Judaism as not being belief-centric, but rather ritual-based. He strongly disagreed. “We are not commanded to believe in God, but we are commanded to know God… The world is mundane. God elevates it from mundanity. In Hebrew the term for the world is olam, which means concealment. Through God we are given the tools for how to take a mundane world and elevate it. It’s a mental act, not emotional.”

Of course, different sects of Jews believe different things. In regards to the majority of Jews in Seattle who are non-practicing, he chooses not to judge. He understands that it’s a big commitment. And then he made my favorite comment: “Most people don’t think about their mission or purpose, they think about their existence—what job to take, who to marry, etc.” Right then, I felt a kinship with the Rabbi. Though I do not subscribe to a faith, my study of religions through history, and the expression of that study through writing and art, is my purpose and mission. The main difference between religion and art is that faith teaches a person to see the world from a specific point of view, while art teaches a person to see the world through all points of view.

Even in the most routine of days, I have a hard time comprehending how anyone could see the world as mundane. In fact, it is often within the routine that I find my most elevated moments. Through the exercise of a discipline, there is either frustration or a breakthrough. Each offers a new lesson. In each moment we are growing. Perhaps “olam” features well into this daily discovery. There is always something hidden to discover.

In this same vein, I have reached a new phase in my research of religion. Mainly, I’m no longer angry, and I no longer care about my own personal story of escaping the grip of Fundamentalist Christianity. Rather, I am in love with my topic. All religions are connected to each other, whether adherents would like to admit that or not. It makes for an incredibly fascinating story. And though I can recount the horrific details of conquest, torture, and sublimation within religious history, there is also so much we can learn about ourselves through an understanding of what we have believed throughout time. It has become my key to understanding human nature.

Heaven Is For The Living, Not The Dead

July 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

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“If I believe in God, and it turns out to be true, then I go to heaven. If I don’t believe, and it’s true, I go to hell. The safest bet is on believing, and if it turns out to not be true, than what have I lost?”

This is an argument that has been posited to me many times by family members and people within the church. It is known as Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal was a seventeenth century French philosopher, physicist, and mathematician. He believed that there was more to be gained than lost by believing in God due to the potential for heaven or hell in the afterlife. For those who believed, he saw only a finite deficit of pleasure in the present. For those who didn’t believe, the possibility of hell was too great a loss.

If a person struggled to have faith, Pascal advised that they should not look for more proofs of God, but rather they should abate their passions and follow the rituals of the church. Through these actions, they would be cured of their ill—ritual creates belief.

This is a weak argument from every angle. The wager presents an issue that always seemed like a shoddy reason for believing—fear. Pascal tells us that we need to do our utmost to believe on the basis of fearing hell. However, there is no evidence of hell; and there is no evidence that aligning ourselves with a savior figure will take us to heaven and a new earth. Viewed from the outside, these tales seem ridiculous—ancient leftover legends that somehow still make an impact on the gullible.

The concept of heaven and hell did not originate within Judaism. At the time of the Old Testament, they believed in Sheol—a Hebrew word that is said to have meant abyss, dirt-pit, or grave. It is a place underneath the earth where the dead congregate. Families were buried in the same location so that they could continue to commune together. However, the main preoccupation of the dead was sleep. Sheol did not differentiate according to belief. Everyone went to the same place and never came back. There was no soul or spirit that departed from the body. The gate to Sheol was in the West, because the sun sets in the West—an idea directly borrowed from the Egyptians. As time progressed, our current conception of heaven developed from a mixture of sources within surrounding religions. Within the Bible, the gates of heaven are well described, but what lies beyond is quite vague. Perhaps the glory of heaven is best left to the imagination, where it remains until we go to Sheol—the grave pit.

The second part of Pascal’s Wager is the recommendation for non-believers. He assumes that the non-believer is ruled by passions, and because of this, they cannot find their way to belief. By comparison, the Christian is taught to repress their natural instincts. By suppressing an action, the thought of that action grows over time. So it is assumed, that a non-believer who doesn’t subscribe to this repression must be driven by lust and a desire for 24/7 intoxication. But this of course, is not the case.

The illness lies within the repression and remains in the idea that nature is evil. The well-balanced non-believer does not struggle with unbridled tendencies, which is to say that not all non-believers are well-balanced. There are many who have recently left the faith, and are still struggling with leftover dogma. For those that are far beyond that, or never had to deal with it in the first place, “pleasures” are a nonentity, experienced freely and hardly given a thought. They are not an issue of control; rather they are a natural part of life. There is no internal battle going on. People are not driven by “sins,” rather we are driven by the human needs for happiness, health, community, food, and reproduction. Our actions are swayed towards surviving and thriving—a phase of excess is put to bed in lieu of this.

The “sin” is an aspect of a particular belief, and is not a negative for the non-believer. It is a system of control for the group that believes—such as modesty, laws about what foods you can eat, sex before marriage, or resting on Sunday. These “sins” have nothing to do with the person who does not believe. They have no bearing, and are a means of unification for the tribe of the faithful. Avoiding these “sins” is a way for the religious to separate themselves from the pack.

The second instruction for the non-believer is to engage in the rituals of belief in order to start believing. This is another way of saying, “fake it till you make it.” In Judaism and Orthodox Christianity, ritual is the basis of the religion. Believing is not the essential ingredient. The religion is made real through the actions of ritual. But in Western ideas of Christianity, belief is the foundation for entering paradise. One must believe that Jesus existed and rose from the dead, and they must live their lives in accordance with him in order to join him in the afterlife.

When Pascal tells the non-believer to not look for more proofs of God’s existence, he is adding to the marketing campaign of every religion. Religion crumbles through the search for truth. This is why the religious are told not to question. There is nothing original to the faith of Christianity. Within other beliefs, all of the basic tenets were there for up to 3,000 years before the birth of Jesus. Yet, Christians would like to think that their faith magically appeared from the sky. Instead, it was an evolution of ideas, a borrowing of myths, and a copycat of rituals from other religions. The story of history reveals itself as a series of political maneuvers where beliefs reflect the reigning leaders. Rather than spirit, there is conquest.

This borrowing of principles and rituals was nothing new at the time. This is why from Tezcatlipoca in Ancient Mexico to Tammuz of Babylon (to name just two of many more) people worshipped the dying and rising savior figure according to the time of year. Over thousands of years, sacrifice evolved into sacrament, and today we worship the current incarnation of the dying and rising savior—Jesus Christ.

The collective consciousness creates our story and our reality. Belief began as a form of magic in order to fulfill the desire for control over nature. At this point, we have so much control over nature that we may just succeed in destroying it.

The only thing proven by religion is that beliefs spread like a virus, and those beliefs form our culture. I would wager that the single most motivating force for conversion to Christianity is the threat of hell and the promise of heaven. It is a great marketing tool for gathering followers. So much so, that ever since, people have been saying, “Better to be safe than sorry.”

Fear controls the masses. It is a method of herding people into doing what you want them to do. When you take the veil off the fear, the fear has no power. Unmasked, we can see it for what it really is. It loses its mystery and mastery over us. We gain, rather than lose from this process, and only then can we find freedom.

 

Learning How To Talk About Differences With My Evangelical Family

March 19, 2015 § 1 Comment

“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter in-law against mother in-law (Luke 12:50–53).”

It’s been fifteen years since I first came out to my family as a non-believer in Evangelical Christianity. From my current vantage point, I see now the evolution of not only myself, but of how my family has dealt with the situation. We’ve all changed in the process, and who we are today has little resemblance to who we all were when I was twenty-one years old.

At that young age there was the added pressure of two parents struggling to let go of their youngest daughter as I entered adulthood. With that letting go came a release of control. Because I’d spent my entire youth living in secret, I suddenly was not the person that anyone had thought I was. In fact, I was what I had feared all along. I was exactly what I had repressed. And more than that, I realized, it wasn’t a bad thing. I was learning how to be happy. What was bad was the amount of rejection I experienced – not only losing 99% of my all-Christian friends, but also being threatened with losing my family for being what my father termed as “a whore.” Lately I’ve been re-appropriating that slur to mean, “a female that cannot be controlled.”

We all got off to a rocky start. All I knew at that point was that the church was not for me. Within those confines I was suffocated, depressed, bored, and dead inside. I realize now that this is because I was and am rooted in creative expression. The artist needs diversity in order to breathe. The artist needs questions. Flat answers that defy all logic are merely roadblocks. The constant question, rather, is conducive to taking what is faulty, and transforming it in order to make it better. I saw clearly that the church does not do what it says it will. The church is for charlatans and blind followers who are told that if they question, they are heretics and outsiders. This keeps people in a place of fear and is a form of Fascism.

I am currently writing a book on religion from the point of view of the insider who became the outsider. Because my husband critiques my chapters in our writers group every week, my words are at the forefront of his mind at family dinners. He struggles to understand why and how my family believes what they do, so he asks questions. It’s gotten to the point where we talk about religion every single time we’re with them. The elephant in the room is now our go-to.

Though it’s awkward, though I sometimes feel offended, and my mother often gets emotional, it appears that we’re traveling through some necessary therapy. Reaching towards middle age, I have come to the point where I need to be respected as an adult within the construct of my family. I will no longer allow them to undermine me. By my side is my warrior husband who never backs down. I doubt we would all be so open without Michael’s curiosity and his need to defend me.

Michael has had little experience with the faithful. He still feels shocked that when asked, my parents relayed that we will go to hell without Jesus in our lives. All along, I had told him that this was the case, but he couldn’t believe it until he heard it directly from them. He told my father that he now understands when my dad says, “We worry about you.” And of course, they pray everyday that we will be with them at family dinners for eternity – as though life continues on as normal in “paradise.”

It would be morally incorrect of me to believe in something that I know is inherently false. Not only false, but the single cause of more abuse, tortures, deaths, genocides, conquests, and fear than anything else in the history of civilization. My father and sister have said, “If I believe and it isn’t true, then I’m wrong and there’s no harm done. If I believe and it is true, then I go to heaven.” But at what cost? The message is love but the giving is conditional. “The Other” is demonized for being under the sway of Satan – therefore outsiders can’t be trusted.

My sister and I are now finally opening up to each other. Though we grew up in the same family, we had completely different experiences of the same exact events. Our roles were such that we were treated very differently – she was and is the much older sister who can do no wrong in the eyes of my parents, while I am the stubborn younger sister who brayed at every perceived injustice. She will do whatever it takes to achieve harmony, while I prefer to tell it like it is to get to the core of the truth in a person. Our personalities created divergence in cause and effect. She and her family have been on the mission field in Papua New Guinea for close to twenty years. I thought that I could live with her silence on into the future, but now that she is finally talking, I see that we have reached a place that is necessary and important. It’s allowing me to let go of the anger that I feel when her idea of “harmony” equals not allowing anyone to know what she really feels.

Though it’s good to understand where all of us within the family are coming from, I’m not sure where it all leads. On the one hand, talking openly brings me closer to them, on the other there’s only so much we can say before hitting our heads against a wall. I find their beliefs in an antiquated mythology to be embarrassing – embarrassing that anyone could possibly believe what they do. On their end, they will never accept my views until my views become their own – an impossibility. If you return faulty merchandise, you don’t go back to the store to buy it all over again.

The perceived need for a Savior did not begin with Christianity. There are at least sixteen crucified and resurrected Saviors, which predate Jesus. Most of which are said to have been born of a virgin on December 25th. They all share variations on the exact same story including time spent in the desert withstanding temptations; turning water to wine; riding in a procession on a donkey; sacrificed to save humans from their errors, and resurrected to bring eternal life. These stories stem from Egyptian beliefs to Greek and Roman Paganism to Hinduism and Buddhism. Jesus is much less a Jewish story than a Pagan one. In the transfer of the telling from the Jews to the Gentiles, Jesus took on the traditional Pagan narrative. The story would have gained little traction without the details of deity come to save us.

Instead of being saved by religion, the modern narrative has shown that we need to be saved from religion. Though civilization is evolving fast, the faithful threaten to devolve our communities at every chance. One of the most important ethics for Millenials is the issue of equality. Western culture is moving beyond the place of women as property. “Good versus evil” is merely code for “us versus them” or tribalistic instincts. And though the church has always been the last to accede in the acceptance and freedoms of minorities and differing cultures, our attempts at democracy have shown that with respect, we can all co-exist and learn from each other. Faith, however, often gets in the way of this with the problem of, “My belief is the only way, and everyone else is an infidel.”

The God of the Bible has a faulty sense of ethics more akin to a gang leader, and hardly seems perfect at all. He requests that people commit atrocities in order to prove loyalty to him, and by the book of Revelation, it is clear that Satan is a mere puppet rather than a mighty foe. God admits that creating earth was a mistake – he wants a do-over. His codes pale in comparison to what we now know as right and wrong. He is faulty, and it is obvious that his author is man.

As a young Christian, I used to berate myself for being an “over-analyzer.” I thought this was a bad thing – mainly because it threatened to disrupt my faith. I’m happy now that it did. Analyzing is what I do best. I love research and games of connect-the-dots. I love the story of how religions grew, and the politics behind why they grew. It’s a fascinating story – rife with myth, clichés, and superstitions. Though we can now understand much of our world through scientific terms, there will always be questions about what lies beyond, and why are we here? These are good questions and an expansive space to exist within. All answers are counterfeit and meant to lead to more questions. We are merely tiny breaths in time. We are what the earth is – things that grow. Our growth is shaped by individuals, but driven by passing generations. The truth is that it’s the people who ask questions that shape the world we live in. Some have died for it. But in the process they cleared the way for more asking. No one grows by staying in line, they grow by exploring.

It’s clear that the largest hurdle most families face is a lack of communication. We hear it in reminders not to talk about politics or religion at family dinners. Many people don’t see a way of discussing it without becoming heated and upset. But until those issues are discussed, there can be no movement towards mutual respect. How can we see through the eyes of the other until we are given a chance to understand their motives and views? It’s not about coming to a place where everyone can be on the same page – it’s about understanding our differences.

By making my views clear to my family, they can come to the conclusion that I am not simply a “fallen soul” or a “rebellious person.” They can see that I have actually thought these ideas out, and that I have reasoning behind the different direction my life has taken. Our open communication is important in the respect that it can break clichés. I wish however, that their side of the story would break clichés as well. They recite words that I have heard since I was a small child. But it’s still fair to make an attempt at breaking through that version to get to the heart of our true stories. I’m doing my best to get to know them beyond their recitations.

I still exist within that role of the child they couldn’t keep in line. My words never come out as clearly with my parents as with other people. This really frustrates Michael. It’s exhausting for me to exist within the place where my parents think and the place where I think as well. I know their thoughts exactly because I used to think the same way. This can be vocally stunting, because I don’t want to hurt them. There’s a fine balance between being oneself and respecting the feelings of others. My mother was incredulous when I told her that I try my best to respect her faith, as though this should be a given. They think that I am deceived, while I think that they are deceived. Perhaps we are two sides of the same coin. But perhaps not. Faith is static and fights to never be challenged by new information. I welcome openness and fresh thought.

All of this makes me wonder how our story will unfold. Will we continue in this vein, or will the talks on religion come to an end with the end of writing my book? I watch them, with their hopes that I will come around, and cringe over their pain. I want to be understood but know that I never will be – my husband fills that gap. As a family, we all come to terms with this through focusing on our common features instead. I have my father’s personality, while Michael is very much like my mom. We all joke over our similarities. Half the table orders one thing and the other half orders another. We all love each other and have a strong bond of friendship – simply being related is no guarantee of that. I know for sure that I am luckier than most.

Busting The Myth Of Good And Evil

October 8, 2014 § 2 Comments

We have a friend who stays with us intermittently between foreign travels, hiking trips, and constant moves. He enjoys shedding life belongings to experience the freedom of living out of a few packs. In between hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and moving to Washington DC, he left a couple of bags of stuff here and a few cameras. One bag had been sitting in the corner for a week, so yesterday I finally pulled it out. Underneath a nondescript pair of grey sweatpants, I found his most abhorrent belonging – a bottle of mezcal with a dead viper biting onto a scorpion inside.

I am a big fan of mezcal, but not of the dead things people put in it. Dead animals completely nauseate me. I used to cover for my husband at the old building we managed, and picking up dead rats off the street made random heroin needles and used condoms seem like a breeze to clean up. Trying to shake off the blood, guts and gore; the weight of a two-pound dead animal in my garbage bag after placing it there with gloves and paper towels – it was enough to ruin my day.

The bottle of mezcal was bothersome. First off, I wondered about the process of killing the animals inside. Does it occur before or after they’re bottled? Who handles the deadly creatures before they’re dead? Having dead animals in the house was nauseating (curiously, my preserved butterfly art piece has never given me this feeling). On top of that, the bottle seemed like a sick form of hoodoo that I didn’t want around.

Dizzying things kept happening throughout the rest of the day. My husband started moaning from the bathtub, asking me to pull a piece of glass out of a cut in his foot. I refused to dig into the gash, but obliged in holding up a flashlight for him to see more clearly. Then after that, he vomited up his lunch – he has an incredible reflex for removing any tainted food from his body. I made a delicious roast chicken with herbs, but afterwards, I couldn’t digest properly because Michael was so stressed over the non-responsive Internet.

It all came to a head as we were watching ‘The Strain’ – which includes more nauseating things like preserved organs in formaldehyde, and zombie creatures that suck blood with their enormous lurching tongues. It seemed like my day had been steamrolled by the bottle of dead things. I thought longingly of my beautiful time spent editing, out in the square in the sunshine, when everything felt right and wonderful and full of Umbrian chocolate squares next to Americano’s.

“That’s it!” I said, getting up in the middle of the show. “I’m getting rid of that bottle. I don’t even want it on our balcony or in our storage unit or anywhere. I feel bad, but it needs to go. I don’t like people leaving things here when I don’t even know what’s in my own home.”

With that, I grabbed the bottle which Michael had put outside in a grocery bag, and stormed down to the first floor, through the long garage, out to the street, where I gently tossed it into the trash bin with the garbage man idling behind the bar next door. My mezcal hand buzzed with wacky energy. It wouldn’t stop for ten minutes. Then after a half an hour, all was well with the world. Michael was amazed by my sudden bout of sensitivity.

“Okay,” I admitted, “so I had a moment there where I became my mom. So what.”

“A weird superstitious moment. Though that thing really was disgusting.”

Beyond the dead viper instilling an extreme ick factor in me, it was the intention behind it that bothered me – whatever that was. I don’t believe in religion, but I believe in intentions – if people believe something strongly enough, they are bound to make it true for themselves and affect the people around them too. I couldn’t trust what the intentions were behind the bottle (though it was most likely just a novelty item). The sight of it was enough to make me not want to dig that deep – a leftover instinct from my superstitious upbringing.

As a young Christian, I really thought that all of that stuff I was told was real. The devil was always in the bushes, waiting for my weak moment so that he could claim me. God was always judging everything that I did, though I barely ever actually heard his voice – the voice in my head that told me I would escape doom and destruction. The end times were coming, and the mark of the beast was on everything.

There are such things as hexes and energy vampires and wigged out people in cults. Yet still, after all that I’ve seen and experienced – the miracles, the covens, the energy sucking, the Santeria space cadets in white, the voodoo packets left in people’s houses, the full moon rituals – I still find that now I no longer believe in good and evil. To a great extent, there is quite a lot of fakery that goes on. This leads to belief, which spreads intention. The mind begins tripping on itself, and tripping others up in its wake. Fear plays a major role in all of this. Buying into extremes of good and evil can drive people crazy, and has caused more wars and deaths than we can count.

The idea of “good” is just as faulty as the idea of “evil.” What is good for one person is horrible for the next person. There is no one size fits all in goodness. Even one person’s form of love can be humiliating and suffocating to the next person. “Goodness” is often a cultural badge of customs and traditions, and a way of seeing outsiders as evil. Goodness comes from the Middle English word godness.

Likewise evil is an idiom for devil or Satan. Our language is built on Christian mythology. Evil is most often used as a label for cultures or people groups we don’t understand. The villains in stereotypical action movies all have vaguely Arabic names and features, or in ‘The Strain’ for example, the enemy is a Nazi German who gained immortality through the Master – a Satanesque creature. In film – the hero so often bears a square jaw, corn-fed muscles, and symmetrical features, while the villain bears a prominent nose and olive skin. Evil is an idea that is ingrained in us from the time we’re children – beginning with the propaganda of popular films.

In politics, when a country counters by arming in the same way that the U.S. continues to do, that country is looked on as “evil.” There is no thought involved in how all of our bombs must make people in other countries feel. Instead, it becomes a war of egos – any country with an ego as big as ours is a threat of mass destruction. Yet the truth is, the U.S. is responsible for more mass destruction internationally than any other country, and it’s not hard to see why we receive threats and attacks from Al-Qaeda and now Isis. Our attempts at “rescuing” other countries are something that Americans have seen as “good” while those who have lost their homes and families see as “evil.”

Religion causes these ideas of “good” and “evil” to be magnified into an international battle of spiritual warfare. In this mindset, we are not dealing on a human level, but in a demons against angels level. In other words – life doesn’t exist in reality, it exists in a blockbuster Marvel movie. Differences are magnified rather than what we commonly share. There is no seeing the issues from the opposite point of view.

It’s true that we’ve seen a great deal of dictators in the past and present that seem to be “evil.” They often got to their position of power through deep-seated psychological issues that became magnified as their position increased. The more power you have, the more you can get away with. The more people fear you, the more it becomes difficult to empathize from on high. Mega-church pastors are susceptible to the same course as they gain more and more power over their congregations. Watch how quickly they fall.

Good and evil are two categories that lack honesty and are rooted in myth. What I want to know is how did that person go from point A to point B and what caused their need for that trajectory and the actions that followed? There is a story behind everyone, which doesn’t make them less guilty of crimes, but explains the situation through critical analysis rather than through basic archetypes of heroes and villains. If we’re all honest with ourselves, we play both the hero and the villain on a daily basis.

When I was a Christian, deep superstitions were ingrained within me so deeply that I couldn’t see outsiders for what they really were – people just like me. Instead, I saw them as wicked creatures lurking to tempt me or take advantage of all my weakness. If you weren’t a Christian, you spent your life in a bar, abused your family, and ended up in prison. It’s amazing that I actually thought this. If I had looked around my own neighborhood for example, I could have seen that non-Christians were not slaves to vice, but hard working people just like my parents. However, I was only exposed to outsiders on a very limited basis. My Christian school, my church, my home – these were the places I lived. There was barely a window with a view.

On one hand, it’s embarrassing to think of my extreme reaction to the dead viper biting the scorpion in the bottle of mezcal. It reminds me of the way I thought under the myths of good and evil. When we hid in the basement on Halloween from the frightful creature people asking for candy; the dolls I couldn’t have because they might be possessed by demons; the way my mother cheered when she saw that a Psychic’s hut had burned down on the way to the Six Flags Amusement park.

The bottle also represents a culture I don’t understand – a sense of machismo in dead deadly things; a last laugh; a who is the victim now; a power trip against the dangers of nature. The bottle holds a reality that I am sheltered from in a northern city with only rats, fleas, and fruit flies.

Snakes are a shiver-inducing animal. The way they slither; the way they eat their prey whole; their sinister existence. Cold-blooded animals are foreign to us – the opposite of our species. Lacking in bonds and solitary in their daily aim to sleep and kill and be on the move. They are difficult to understand. And though I spent one summer fascinated by the garter snakes that swam in the backyard pond, I was sickened by my own obsession and had nightmares that the snakes were slithering all over me in a sea of grass.

Before I ever saw real snakes, I was obsessed that one would slither up through the toilet and bite me in the ass. For a long time after I was potty trained, I made a habit of washing my hands before flushing the toilet, so that I could run out the door and escape the snake if it should come up.

Maybe my issue with snakes comes from some Freudian issue surrounding toilet training. Who knows. I am as much fascinated by the way they move, as I am horrified. Nature is wide and varied. Our response to certain animals has a lot to do with self-protection. If you see a snake in the wild that is something beyond garter, it’s best to get away. A healthy dose of revolt is built into our DNA. Even snakes, though at times our enemies, are not evil. As much as I think living rats are cute, someone needs to eat them to keep the population down – snakes are very good at that – and there’s no flattened, bloody rat carcasses to clean up afterwards either – the beauty of eating your food whole.

 

 

 

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