Saturday, December 24, 2011

What CHRISTMAS means to me (CS Lewis)

About ten years ago I stopped giving and receiving Christmas presents. It seemed perfectly clear to me that the entire holiday had become nothing more than a swap-fest. I thought, people only give presents to other people who they expect to get one back from, so it isn’t really a present—it’s a swap. What could be sillier? I was very happy when I found the following essay.

What CHRISTMAS means to me...
by C. S. Lewis
From God in the dock

Three things go by the name of Christmas. One is a religious festival. This is important and obligatory for Christians; but as it can be of no interest to anyone else, I shall naturally say no more about it here. The second (it has complex historical connections with the first, but we needn't go into them) is a popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality. If it were my business too have a 'view' on this, I should say that I much approve of merry-making. But what I approve of much more is everybody minding his own business. I see no reason why I should volunteer views as to how other people should spend their own money in their own leisure among their own friends. It is highly probable that they want my advice on such matters as little as I want theirs. But the third thing called Christmas is unfortunately everyone's business.

I mean of course the commercial racket. The interchange of presents was a very small ingredient in the older English festivity. Mr. Pickwick took a cod with him to Dingley Dell; the reformed Scrooge ordered a turkey for his clerk; lovers sent love gifts; toys and fruit were given to children. But the idea that not only all friends but even all acquaintances should give one another presents, or at least send one another cards, is quite modern and has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers. Neither of these circumstances is in itself a reason for condemning it. I condemn it on the following grounds.

1. It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure. You have only to stay over Christmas with a family who seriously try to 'keep' it (in its third, or commercial, aspect) in order to see that the thing is a nightmare. Long before December 25th everyone is worn out—physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making; much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act. They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.

2. Most of it is involuntary. The modern rule is that anyone can force you to give him a present by sending you a quite unprovoked present of his own. It is almost a blackmail. Who has not heard the wail of despair, and indeed of resentment, when, at the last moment, just as everyone hoped that the nuisance was over for one more year, the unwanted gift from Mrs. Busy (whom we hardly remember) flops unwelcomed through the letter-box, and back to the dreadful shops one of us has to go?

3. Things are given as presents which no mortal every bought for himself—gaudy and useless gadgets, 'novelties' because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before. Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than to spend them on all this rubbish?

4. The nuisance, for after all, during the racket we still have all our ordinary and necessary shopping to do, and the racket trebles the labour of it.

We are told that the whole dreary business must go on because it is good for trade. It is in fact merely one annual symptom of that lunatic condition of our country, and indeed of the world, in which everyone lives by persuading everyone else to buy things. I don't know the way out. But can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter just to help the shopkeepers? If the worst comes to the worst I'd sooner give them money for nothing and write if off as a charity. For nothing? Why, better for nothing than for a nuisance.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Just A Little Appreciation For Bob Bennett

Bob is in my opinion the best Christian songwriter of all-time.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

I Survived . . .Beyond and Back

We’ve all heard near death stories, but I thought the three individuals in this particular show were quite convincing compared to many. One man talks to Moses, one girl goes to Heaven and talks with her dead uncle, and one man goes to the entrance of Hell and sees a demon.

A common question is whether or not people see things during NDEs that relate to their own background, including their religious beliefs. Unfortunately, this does seem to be the case the majority of the time. An American Indian may see forest nymphs, a Chinaman may see Buddha etc. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something real and of great value happening during these experiences. Quite often the person involved will attain information about the future or about other people and situations that is accurate and exactly what they needed to know in order to live a better life when they return. While I believe Christianity is the closest thing we have to a religion God approves of, I think stories like these only go to prove that God is very different from what any of us think he is.

The following 45-minute TV program is embedded by way of Hulu and is set to expire in about one month, so don’t wait too long to view it.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Very Short Discourse On Faith Healers

I posted this at Shadowland's (Ros) blog tonight and thought I would post it here too since I had never written anything on the subject of faith healers before. I guess I figured that anyone who had read me would already have a pretty good idea of how skeptical I would be of such people. The subjects of Smith Wiggelsworth and Nathan Morris had come up:

Smith Wigglesworth was in my opinion the Benny Hinn of his day. Like ALL faith healers since the apostles, he was a fraud. (His own daughter who assisted at his meetings was deaf until the day she died.) As is Nathan Morris. The very fact that he has allied himself with a mountebank like Bob Kilpatrick should tell you all you need to know about him. Delia Knox, incidentally, and despite numerous requests, has refused steadfastly to show any medical findings from her doctor (whose name she will not give either) that would substantiate any healing. Unlike most of you, I grew-up in a charismatic Assembly of God Church, the congregation of which personified the term Holy Rollers. Faith healers are a dime a dozen in those circles. I had to endure more faith healing rallies and revivals before I was eighteen than most people will their entire lives. Everyone from Ernest Angley to, well, name any faith healing evangelist who traveled the Midwest USA during the 60 - 70s and I probably saw them. Not one of them ever convinced me they had something real going on. It’s amazing how ALL their so-called healings happen internally where we can’t see them. I’d look around at people in the crowds, men who had come back from WWII or Korea missing hands, legs, and fingers, and not one of them ever grew a new one. Either God lacks the power to heal people of external afflictions or these faith healers are frauds. Or they may be something just as bad—self-deceived lunatics. When I see a hand grow where there isn’t one I’ll believe in them, and not one minute before. I’m not a Doubting Thomas. He had seen Jesus perform so many miracles (including restoring an ear that had been cut off) that it was more irrational NOT to believe Christ had risen from the grave like he said he would. We have every reason to be skeptical of modern day faith healers though, many of whom have been caught in outright lies and fraudulent activities. Some have even gone to jail for them. I approach faith healers with the same incertitude as marriage proposals. Either way, I’m a tough horse to rope.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Cistaphasmatis by Charles Seper

Update: It's now available at the following Amazon locations in Kindle (mobi) format:


Epub format in the near future for those who own e-readers other than Kindle.

If you'd like to read this story long with others from Amazon that are in their AZW (mobi) format and don't have an e-reader, you can still read them on your computer by downloading the free Kindle For PC and Kindle For Mac apps from Amazon here:

Kindle For PC

Kindle For Mac

There are also Kindle apps for reading on iPad, iPhone, Blackberry, and Android.

This is a novelette I wrote some months ago of around 12,000 words. It's been completely reworked recently and is now available on Horatio Press via digital download for only a dollar.

Book Blurb:
The Cistaphasmatis is about a young man from Nantucket named Clifford who feels compelled to try and contact his deceased girlfriend on the other side of death's door using an age old mirror gazing technique in a home-built viewing chamber called a cistaphasmatis. About this time, he also finds himself becoming quick friends with the sexton at the graveyard his girlfriend is buried at, a retired Episcopal Priest named Bud Buchanan. Clifford soon finds that this priest has knowledge of the way the world works that's rather unique among men as Bud tries to keep Cliff from getting in over his head in "the void."

Excerpt 1

The main branch library in Nantucket has a large number of books on occult subjects, and it was here (unfortunately) that I found the title by Mr. Seagraves. It was called: Visions of the Sybil (seeking advice from the dead). This book held the answer to what I was looking for.

In it he described how the ancient Sybils in Greece used to sit in caves, usually over a fissure where the ground had split open and left a deep gulf. They thought it went down to an underworld that existed beneath the surface of the Earth, and here the dead lived. It was said that those who were deceased had an uncanny ability to see the future, and this is why kings consulted Sybils before going to war. The Sybil would sit in the cave with nothing but a small, dimly lit torch and would stare into the void of that gulf until she began to have visions. Other Sybils would look into a mirror or a pool of water.

I gathered from this book that when attempting to do this it was important to allow your eyes to sort of go numb. It's not so different from the way you look at one of those Magic Eye books to see 3-D objects. If you try to see the objects you never will. The harder you concentrate, the less likely you are to see anything. You have to be unfocussed and allow your eyes be completely relaxed.

The contraption Seagraves invented in 1821 aided him in doing this. It was like a sensory depravation chamber, basically just a wooden box painted black inside and just big enough for a man to sit in comfortably. It was actually a box within a box. He glued blankets around the entire outside of the first box and then nailed a second round of wood around it. The blankets acted like a buffer between the two layers of wood to help keep out sounds. He left an opening for a door, and inside the chamber he had attached a mirror to one wall. He brought one small, solitary candle into the chamber with him and set it on a shelf that stuck out below the mirror. The mirror was positioned above him so that he couldn't see his own reflection when gazing into it, only the blackness of the wall behind him and the dancing flame of the candle just below the mirror. Also, if he wanted to contact someone specifically, he found it helped to bring some small item the deceased person had owned before they died, something that they were very attached to, a wedding ring for example.

I found that other people had built similar chambers since his and referred to them as psychomantiums. Seagraves called his a cistaphasmatis, which as near as I can tell is from the Latin words cista meaning box or chamber, and phasmatis which means ghosts or spirits. His differed in one aspect however, and this I found to be strangely interesting. He claimed that trees had certain properties which the ancients thought of as magical, and that, being living creatures, they held the memories of all that happened on the Earth, not only while they stood, but from the generations of trees before them from which their seeds had sprung. It's possible that all plant life held memories, but trees could grow to be very old. Some had stood for well over a thousand years. He surmised that the oldest trees had absorbed more of humanity into them as well as something of the divine (although the reasons he gave seemed vague to me), and this was why ancient man all over the world worshipped trees, especially the very oldest of the oaks. They made some sort of conduit between man and the spiritual realms. If one were to build a cistaphasmatis, it would be best to build it of the oldest oak lumber you could find.

Fortunately, this is Nantucket, home to some of the oldest whaling ships that ever sailed. The ones from the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries were made from large oak timbers that must have come from very old trees. Very few of the most venerable whalers are left, but their timbers were reused for all kinds of things.

I knew of an old farm up for auction not too far away where the owner had claimed that the wood used for his barn came from the wreck of the Sheraton Whaler. The farm was such a mess that no one bid enough to make a sale worthwhile. I contacted the owner and made an offer for the huge barn door. It was off its hinges and laying against the side of the building, and truthfully, the entire barn was slanted to one side so severely that it couldn't possibly stand much longer anyway. They let me have it for next to nothing. The following morning I began construction of my cistaphasmatis in the back of my aunt's garage. I only used the old oak wood for the inside chamber. I used pine for the outside so it wouldn't be quite so heavy in case I had to move it, but it still must have been a little hefty at four feet in height, four and a half feet in length, and three feet in width. Instead of a door, I made the top hinged like a chest lid so I could simply slide over the side to get in and then pull the top back down. I also left a small air hole on the backside for the candle smoke to escape through and stuffed it with a piece of black foam so it would hardly be noticeable. I placed a pair of locks on it to finish the project. If anyone asked about it, I would simply tell them it was a storage bin for some expensive tools. By the following evening it was ready for use.

I waited till Aunt Caroline went to bed before I entered the cistaphasmatis. I wasn't nervous because I didn't particularly think it would work. A couple of weeks had gone by since I had heard Diana's voice at the cemetery, and that's just enough time for a person to forget how real an otherworldly experience can be. By now I had begun to convince myself that the whole thing had been a simple hallucination (whatever those are). Still I lit the candle and waited. Everything I knew of that Diana owned was burnt in the fire. We did, however, each have a copy of a photograph of us together that was taken by my mother last Christmas. This was the closest I could get to bringing an item she owned with me into the box.

According to Seagraves, part of the trick was to blank your mind, and I found this to be much harder than it sounds. It's amazing how little time goes by, just a matter of seconds, before some thought enters your mind or maybe a song, and the next thing you know you're in deep thought again. It must have taken me close to an hour of practice before I could manage to keep my mind free from thought for periods of just a minute or so at a time. This went on for several hours. Seagraves had come up with another aid for this sort of meditation. He used seashells large enough to cover each ear and glued them to a scarf-like strap that he tied around the top of his head to the bottom of his chin. He found that the airy sound they produced helped take him to the trance-like state that was needed. It was easy enough to make a similar head strap, but even though I had brought it into the chamber with me, I was very reluctant to use it. After all, I felt silly enough sitting in this contraption to begin with without having seashells glued to a strap around my head! Eventually, around 3:00 o'clock, I finally gave in and put it on.

I noticed immediately the effects of the shells. It was like focusing on someone else's breathing. Then again I thought it was also like a steady rain. You know, the kind that can lull you to sleep so easily. In only a matter of minutes I started to see something coming into view in the mirror. It was the outline of a woman. The light was so dim around her that I couldn't make out much. She walked with a heavy limp and had a cane or walking stick in each hand. As she came closer to the candle, which seemed to illuminate both our worlds, and although she was still difficult to see, there was no mistaking that face—it was Diana.

Excerpt 2

"Do you think you're the first person to gaze into a mirror and see another world? Man, that stuff's old hat. That's along the lines of parlor tricks any first year adept could do."

"First year what?"

"Clifford, people have been doing this sort of thing since the world began. Diana herself made mention of the Eleusinian Mysteries to you. It's an art that can, and has been, taught since time out of mind. Any fool can jump into the nearest sensory deprivation chamber and have a vision. But not just anyone can have a vision from God Clifford, and that's what I want you to understand. There are visions, and there are visions, just like most people have a dream that comes true at some point in their life, but not all of their dreams."

"So the other million dreams are just hallucinations?"

"I didn't say that. Most are fiction. Maybe being a character in a fictional tale is the best way for us to learn some things. But not all those tales are sent from God. You have to test them."

"And the same goes for the things you see in a mirror I suppose?"

"No; you can never trust anything you see in a mirror Clifford! You cannot force true visions. It just doesn't work like that. Visions have to come to you, and they usually come when you least expect them. I'm not saying that proper meditation in conjunction with prayer is bad or that it can't lead to a true vision. No priest would tell you that. Opening your mind to God should always be a part of prayer. People think prayer is talking to God when in reality you can't tell God anything he doesn't already know. Prayer should mostly be about God talking to you. That's what the true Mystics have always done. You've spent so much time reading all this occult nonsense. Have you ever spent any time at all reading about the lives and visions of the Mystic Saints? If you ever do, you'll soon come to realize that all these goofy theosophists and the like are just children playing as men. They're the biggest know-nothings since the priests of those Eleusinian Mysteries. And what's worse, the leaders among them know it. Oh they'll gladly sell you their books and take your dues, but they themselves have been practicing meditation techniques long enough to know that it all leads to the same dead-end."

We fell silent for a minute as an endless stream of bicyclists came by, apparently part of some kind of organized event, and I was glad. I needed time to regroup. Once they were out of earshot I was ready to go on.

"There's one problem with all this Bud. I know Diana. I know her as well as I know myself. I can see no good reason she would want me to deliver that small handful of hair to her unless she actually does need it for what she says she does. Who else in any world would care about having that hair for anything? What could they possibly do with it? I guess you'll say they want it for some sort of magic spell."

"First let me tell you that I don't believe you. You say you're sure this is Diana because you know her so well. But didn't you also just get done telling me that she was saying some things and acting in certain ways in that world beyond the mirror that took you by surprise? Wasn't she rather quick to rid herself of all her former religious beliefs on the word of some boy she had only just met?"

"Well, yeah, but—"

"And didn't you tell me that she was suddenly being alluring in a sexual way, a way that made you want to jump through the mirror?"

"But I didn't mean it to sound quite like that."

"Secondly, there's no such thing as magic. At least not in this world, not today. And probably not in that one. But I'll tell you one thing. She was right about the thin places. I know exactly what she's after, but I'll not tell you."

"Why not? Why shouldn't I know?"

"Because you probably wouldn't believe me. And because, if you did, I'm afraid you might try to prove it to yourself, and I'm just old enough that I would like one of my last great pleasures in life to be that of proving it to you."

I shook my head again. "You've lost me. I have no idea what you're going on about. How can you prove anything to me?"

"By letting me be the one who gets in that box tonight."

"It's called a cistaphasmatis, and are you nuts?!"

Excerpt 3

He was a man of his word. Bud pulled up in his pickup truck at exactly two o'clock. I opened the garage door manually as slowly as I could, not wanting the electric motor to wake Aunt Caroline.

"I hope you won't mind if we put these on your invention here," he said as he held up a pair of padlocks complete with hinges.

"No need," I said. "I already have locks on it. But why do you want them on there?"

"Maybe I don't want to be disturbed. Now how about that photograph? And the candle and matches?"

"I keep all that in a bag inside there. You shouldn't need the photograph anyway since you'll be carrying some of her hair. I think we're good to go."

The cistaphasmatis was lighter than I thought it would be, but it was still plenty heavy, and we struggled to get it into the truck. As we pulled away, I still had no idea where he was taking me. I didn't know it yet, but the real struggle was yet to come.

"You look awfully chipper for two in the morning," he said.

"I just don't feel the need for sleep very much lately."

"That's understandable. They say some of the Mystics never slept."

"Is that what I am, a Mystic?"

"Not quite. What you did was for selfish reasons. You wanted to mitigate your conscience after your girlfriend died for having tried to manipulate her for your own lascivious purposes. Don't get me wrong Cliff, I'm glad you still have a conscience and tried to make a wrong right, but that doesn't make you a Mystic. A Mystic has no self. He doesn't meditate to try and contact the dead or to know the mysteries of the universe. He has no motive whatsoever but to seek the face of God."

"Okay, I'll buy that. But what's with the lack of sleep?"

"That's a byproduct of having transcended reality. Everyone does it when they sleep, but it's normally a slow process that can take as long as eight hours or more. The best way I can explain it is that we all have an attachment to another world. Let's think of that attachment as being something like a rubber band."

"Wait, another world?"

"Yes; nearly all religions preach that this world is not our true home. Our bodies may be part of it, but the portion of us that makes decisions and has a will is from much deeper in the heart of God. When we die, that part of us will go back to God in some way."

"What about Hell?"

"There are a lot of differing opinions about that, more than I care to get into at the moment. But the thing to remember is that, the part of us that's the real us was not made for this world and can only stand to be in it for just so long before it has to come up for air so to speak. That's what sleep does. It's like a whale coming up for air. He lives in the ocean, but he was not made for the ocean. The ocean was made for him.

"But let's get back to that rubber band. The bible refers to it as the 'silver cord.' Throughout the day it winds itself tighter and tighter, and the longer we stay self-aware in this world, the tighter it gets. It can only get just so tight before it has to unravel itself. And the only way it can do that is by loosing the ties of consciousness in this world and going back to where it came from."

"Which is where?" I asked.

"To the timeless void, the great sea which is God and which is everywhere and nowhere, the place from which all things have their first form (as Plato would have put it). Before anything was anything, it was a thought in the mind of God, and it still is. 'In Him we live and move and have our being,' Epimenides said, and he couldn't have been far wrong even if his own concept of God and reality was a bit skewed. There are probably many worlds. A creator is always about the business of creating. But he not only creates, he sustains what he creates or there'd be no point in creating it. Think of all the worlds, however many there are, as horses on a carrousel ride and God as the hub in the middle to which they're all attached and which continually spins because he makes it so. The void is the closest thing to the imagination of God we can conceive of (and we can't conceive much). It's a place where anything can become anything else just as a particle can become any other kind of particle in the material world after it first enters the place scientists call 'nonlocality' where time and space cease to exist, and even that I surmise is just another word for the void. But even that world, the void, is not without its rules, though I suspect many of its inhabitants don't know them, and their dreams and visions are as false and phony as the church doctrines which came from the sword-tip of Constantine.

"They say that St. Francis, and others like him, never slept. When a man transcends the material world, it's as though he unravels that rubber band in the blink of an eye—that same rubber band that most people have to sleep all night to loosen. It's not only holy men who do this, but only the holy men find the Divine during their moments of transcendence. You'll find more instances of it in the bible than just about anywhere. Men to whom the heavens were opened, and the light of God filled them with a lifetime of truth in an instant."

"That's quite a sermon," I said, not knowing how much of it, if any, was accurate or simply conjecture.

"That's what you get for inviting a priest to come along."

"The priest invited himself, but I'm glad you're here just the same."

He had no sooner said this than we pulled up onto a sandy beach. I had been listening so intently to him that I hadn't paid any mind to where we were going. I had to spend a moment taking in my surroundings before I realized Bud had driven us clean out to the other side of the island, out to Coskata Pond.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Outer Limits - "The Conversion"

If you have 44-minutes to spare, you could do a lot worse than to use it watching this particular episode of The Outer Limits. A lot of the second generation Outer Limits shows weren't particularly good, but this one was exceptional. There have been several films about angelic intervention changing people's lives over the years but none quite like this. The angel is played to the hilt by John Savage, who shows a troubled man, played by Frank Whaley, that his actions affect everyone and everything. Pointing upwards he indicates that even the angels are not immune from those effects. Indeed, if all the angels in heaven rejoice when there's a soul saved, perhaps they also share in out sorrows and cares. In the end, this angel shows what it truly is to take on the burden of another, and that from an angel's point of view, this is a joy to do and not a hardship at all. Perhaps taking on the burdens of others should be a joy for us as well.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

"Apparitions" with Martin Shaw

First let me say there seems to be some debate as to whether "Apparitions" was a mini-series or whether it was intended to be an ongoing series that was cancelled after just six episodes. I can only tell you that after the sixth episode, I felt it had ended, and ended well, but also felt it could go on if they wanted it to. So if it was meant to end at six episodes, I was well satisfied. If it was meant to continue, it's a crying shame it didn't. Don't be afraid to watch the six as-is though because it's like watching six 1-hour movies of the best religious programming I've ever encountered.

"Apparitions" appeared on the BBC in 2008. It starred Martin Shaw as Father Jacob, a Catholic Priest who has the job of advancing people to sainthood. However, he is friends with the priest who is in charge of performing exorcisms. He more or less takes over the job (unofficially) after this friend is forced to relinquish the position following strange and diabolical circumstances.

This is not an official trailer. It was edited by some kid on YouTube who put some music to it by his favorite band or something. It actually works pretty well though and will give you some idea of what you're missing.

This is not some corny horror series with projectile vomiting and heads spinning round meant to appeal to children. It's more along the lines of "The Omen" but with better acting and great scripts. Never have I seen the forces of good and evil so clearly brought out and shown for what they are in a story of any kind. A story-line in the first episode involving a young priest who's troubled by homosexual lust manages to perfectly show the profoundly wicked and perverse essence at its core, so much so that even the most adamant homosexual could not help coming away questioning his choices. It manages to put onto the screen exactly how I've always felt about homosexuality but could never quite put into words. However, this is just one short story-line in one episode.

Each episode connects to the one before with a subtext pertaining to a coming calamity of irredeemable quality. Among his Catholic family, only Father Jacob sees it coming and is prepared to meet the opposition head-on as every new episode finds him battling the same evil in a new form.

I've been reading amateur reviews of the show at both Hulu and the Internet Movie Data-Base, and one thing that testifies to the greatness of this show is how many atheists and agnostics can't help but love it. Their reviews generally start saying, "I'm an atheist, but...." The following short review at Hulu is my favorite:

Devout Agnostic Almost Converted

"This show almost...Almost converted me to Catholicism. No joke. Just saying. It's that good."

The only place showing this show on the Internet that I've seen is Hulu, but you must live in America and have a paid membership to Hulu Plus. See it here: Apparitions

You can rent this show on DVD if you're a member of Netflix. They have it here: Apparitions

Blockbuster doesn't carry it yet. I'm afraid the show may be impossible to find at local video stores in the USA, although people living in England can likely find it all over the place. If you're game to buy it, Amazon has copies listed in both Pal and NTSC format.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Thoughts On Dispensationalism

Some people think that the Old Testament God and the New Testament Christ are so different in word and deed that they believe God may change the way he deals with mankind during different eras. It seems to them as though God reveals certain aspects of himself, and blesses mankind with particular gifts "when we're ready for it." That is, when we've more or less evolved to a certain state.

Now there are some people who believe just the opposite. They think that mankind has devolved over the years. That he once had certain gifts and abilities (usually psychic phenomenon are mentioned) which he has now lost. They often point out that the human race now uses only a small portion of our brains, and this is especially true of the frontal lobe of which little is known, and very little brainwave activity emits from that region.

I for one would also point out that anyone who has truly studied Greek, Chinese, and Jewish philosophy will recognize right away that those ancient super-thinkers were way ahead of anyone who has come down the pike since. Reading Kant, Berkeley, Descartes, and Kierkegaard may be a pleasure. But reading Plato, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Aristotle, and the words spoken by Jesus Christ is a revelation.

I probably fall into this latter camp of unbelievers for the most part. Still I hold onto the possibility of what may be called limited dispensationalism. But I see no big changes in mankind or God's relationship with man that appear to be in an ever evolving manner. I'm going to include the following letter to a gentleman named Adam who recently wrote to me, asking what both George MacDonald and myself had to say on the subject.

Hi Adam,

Nice to hear from you again. I don't remember GMD ever actually using the term Dispensationalism or anything like it. I may be wrong, but I really don't think he ever thought anything along those lines. But then again, I don't think it was a very widespread teaching until the 20th century (you probably know better than me though).

There are times I've wondered if perhaps God had carried out such stages in a sort of evolution of man, but it seems that every time I begin to think along those lines, something will happen to swing me back to where I started. For instance, I recall skimming through a book at the store one day by what I believe was an anthropologist who said that it seemed clear to him that mankind didn't become a self-conscious being until around 13,000 years ago. And this is about when the first civilizations that we know of came into being. People started farming and breeding livestock. Villages were built. Building projects as a group began for things like ziggurats and mounds. It sort of made sense that it took some kind of self-consciousness to allow people to think like this, and I wondered if it was a stage of development that God put into the mind of man.

But then I remembered GK Chesterton's comments in The Everlasting Man about the 35,000 year old cave paintings found in Lascaux and what wonderful works of art some of them truly were. Some were indeed quite good and showed that "feeling intellect" which Wordsworth so aptly named. These paintings weren't the work of a person or persons without self-consciousness. They showed a great ability to reflect on one's emotions, particularly one painting that showed a bison looking back over its shoulder.

I found The Everlasting Man online and copied what I thought was pertinent:

"They were drawings or paintings of animals; and they were drawn or painted not only by a man but by an artist. Under whatever archaic limitations, they showed that love of the long sweeping or the long wavering line which any man who has ever drawn or tried to draw will recognize; and about which no artist will allow himself to be contradicted by any scientist. They showed the experimental and adventurous spirit of the artist, the spirit that does not avoid but attempt difficult things; as where the draughtsman had represented the action of the stag when he swings his head clean round and noses towards his tail, an action familiar enough in the horse. But there are many modern animal-painters who would set themselves something of a task in rendering it truly. In this and twenty other details it is clear that the artist had watched animals with a certain interest and presumably a certain pleasure. In that sense it would seem that he was not only an artist but a naturalist; the sort of naturalist who is really natural.... So far as any human character can be hinted at by such traces of the past, that human character is quite human and even humane.... When the psycho-analyst writes to a patient, 'The submerged instincts of the cave-man are doubtless prompting you to gratify a violent impulse,' he does not refer to the impulse to paint in water-colours; or to make conscientious studies of how cattle swing their heads when they graze. Yet we do know for a fact that the cave man did these mild and innocent things; and we have not the most minute speck of evidence that he did any of the violent and ferocious things."

So, to bring an end to a long winded letter Adam, it seems to me that mankind has not really changed all that much no matter how far back we look. We might be a little less violent now, but that's about it. I see changes in science and its influence upon culture in every age, but I don't really think this has touched the heart of man. We certainly see a NT Jesus doing things very differently from the OT God, but I'm not convinced this has to do with the development of mankind and any sort of special dispensation. I have a lot of thoughts on that, but it's too much to go into presently.

I don't think I'm a believer in dispensationalism just yet. But who knows what the future may bring?


Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Mom I Never Knew

I was on my way out to the back-roads and wooded areas Friday night looking for something interesting to videotape when I noticed there was some kind of parade about to start in town. I had no idea what it was about but decided to stick around and shoot some video of it, partly for kicks, and partly with the hope of selling some footage (that's always the hope!) to one of the local TV networks. Well, I wasn't able to get any of the news stations interested in my footage this time, but the outing wasn't completely wasted.

I parked a couple of blocks away from the city square and walked the remaining distance to the front of the courthouse lawn which sits right across from it. Actually, "square" is a bit of a misnomer since ours is a roundabout with a large fountain at its center. There were people lined up all around the fountain and main street, most with beach chairs they had brought, while others just sat on the curb or used blankets spread on the sidewalk.

I couldn't believe my luck! The courthouse front lawn rises above the sidewalk some ten feet or so, giving a perfect view down upon the street below. It's beautifully landscaped and shaded (this proved to be of some importance since it was over 90 degrees that evening) and has about a half dozen benches along with a most pleasant little water garden. For some odd reason, most folks had taken to the street and left the courthouse lawn nearly vacant but for a few young people mulling around. I noticed a pair of benches facing one another at just the right spot to set up my tripod. There was an elderly couple seated on one of them, and I began to chat with them as I set-up the rest of my gear.

The parade turned out to be one for the Shriner's Circus that will be here over the weekend they told me. They had a nephew who would be in the parade, but I think they mostly were just looking for a night out and something to do. They were quite friendly, although the woman was a little on the quiet side and seemed content to let her husband do most of the talking. I soon found out that this man, Bob, was originally from the same nearby town that I was from and where my dad grew-up as well, so we had a lot in common and did a good bit of reminiscing about the old days. At some point I made mention of something that one of my uncles used to do, and Bob realized I was talking about someone he knew. Once he realized what my last name was, and then found out who my parents were, his face began to beam a bit.

(Bob accidentally steps into a frame.)

It turned out that Bob knew almost everyone in my family from childhood and was once very good friends with both my mom and my dad when they were all three just teenagers. Actually, Bob and my mom were much more than friends. Apparently she was the "one that got away," and Bob was very nearly my father. Mom was very young at the time. He knew things about her childhood that I didn't. But there were also some things she didn't tell him.

My mom's parents divorced while she was very young. Both remarried. Her dad was a poor Tennessee share cropper and remained in the same small town all his life. Her mother remarried a man from Indiana and they eventually made their home there. But immediately after WWII, they lived in some other parts of the country, and one of them happened to be the same nearby town that my dad grew-up in. After a series of events (which I'll get into momentarily), mom decided to move in with her mother and stepdad here in Illinois when she was fourteen, while her brothers and sisters stayed behind in Tennessee. She had dropped out of school and was working as a cashier in a big St. Louis department store. It was during this time that she met Bob.

It was easy to tell that Bob really loved my mom. They dated for about a year until he joined the Navy and had to ship out. He wanted to pursue the Navy as a career (which he did) and was too young to get married he thought. So it was best to break thinks off and leave mom behind. I'm not sure how old he was then, but he told me that mom was still only fifteen. He said she cried and cried and begged him not to leave her there alone. He said the reason she felt alone was because both of her parents were terrible drunks. To make matters worse, they weren't getting along at the time. He told me that when they came home from work, grandma would leave the house headed for a bar in one direction, while Renos (her husband) would head for a different bar in the opposite direction, while mom was left to herself. They also had many terrible fights.

Mom had told me that her parents spent a lot of time in bars when she was younger, but I had no idea how bad it really was. Bob said it was about as bad as it gets. Quite honestly, I never knew what to believe half the time. Mom could embellish the truth with the best of them. But the more I learn about her, the more I can see that her lies were a defense system for her. She had a lot to be embarrassed about, including one important thing that she never told Bob.

Mom quit school in the 9th grade after she turned fourteen and ran off to get married to a Tennessee boy. It only lasted a couple of months and the marriage was annulled. I guess mom felt foolish and wanted to basically get out of town, and that's why she moved to Illinois with her mom and stepdad. Bob looked genuinely shocked when I told him that. Apparently she wanted to keep her short-lived marriage a secret. Who cold blame her?

The following year, mom started dating my dad while Bob was away, and the rest is history as they say. The one thing I can't get over is Bob sitting on the bench next to me, shaking his head, saying, "I felt so sorry for her." I never I my life heard anyone say they felt sorry for my mom before. She could be your best friend or your worst enemy. She had a temper and could be as selfish as any other woman, but she could also be very compassionate at times. She had a bad side, but I'm slowly beginning to see how the events in her life brought that out in her. The older I get, the stranger the world is.

They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks. That's an absolute lie. A day doesn't go by that I don't learn something new, or see an old thing in a new light. If it's like this now, I wonder what it will be like in Heaven where all things hidden are revealed? I'm sure that the afterlife will be full of new things and many surprises. But I suspect seeing the world we left behind through the eyes of God will be the biggest revelation of all.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Cream Of Whose Jest?

During the early 1900s, James Branch Cabell wrote a long series of books throughout his life that were all tied together as part of a whole. The series is known as "The Biography of Manuel," and in it, at least one or more of the main characters is always a descendant of one Dom Manuel from the first book who thought he lived on through them. In the book I'll be commenting on here, The Cream of The Jest, it's his youngest daughter, Ettarre, who shows up, as she does in many of Cabell's other works. Speaking of characters, another who is nearly always present (as he is in this book) is Horvendile. In Cabell's other stories, Horvendile represents the author himself entering the tale. In Jest, however, Horvendile represents a fictitious author by the name of Felix Kennaston (who in turn may represent Cabell). These are the only two characters we're going to concern ourselves with because the others only play small supporting roles and have little to do with Cabell's philosophical and spiritual outlook, and this is what I'm mainly concerned with.

The main theme in all the stories from "The Biography of Manuel" is a quest for an object of beauty or happiness (usually a woman, and usually Ettarre) and almost, but not quite, attaining that goal. Thus, every book ends in loss but with the hope that some day happiness may yet be found.

Jest is a story about the dreams of a famous author by the name of Felix Kennaston and his then using those dreams as the basis for the stories he writes. These dreams take place in several different geographic locations, but most of them are in the land of Poictesme—a fictional province somewhere in Europe. When Kennaston enters his dreams, he does so as a different man, a much younger man by the name of Horvendile. Kennaston always finds Ettarre waiting for him in those dream worlds. And once there, he is never eager to return to what he perceives as a the mundane life of a middle-aged man in a loveless marriage during waking existence:

Thus he walked in twilight, regretful that he must return to his own country, and live another life, and bear another name, than that of Horvendile.... It was droll that in his own country [waking life] he should be called Felix, since Felix meant "happy"; and assuredly he was not pre-eminently happy there.
Kennaston invented the province of Poictesme and it's characters just as any writer of fiction invents the people and places in his books by way of imaginative day-dreams, the substance of which may be found in the heart of God as George MacDonald suggested. But Kennaston hasn't learned this yet, and he still believes that he himself is the force behind the world of imagination just as many inconsiderate people often do.

Imagine that you are wide awake in your dreams (as I have often been) and that you try to make the people who populate your dreams understand that you are from another world and that they are mere creations of your inner self... as many foolish psychologists have claimed.

"I will tell you," Horvendile replied, "though I much fear you will not understand—" He meditated shook his head, smilingly. "Indeed, how is it possible for me to make you understand? Well, I blurt out the truth. There was once in a land very far away from this land—in my country—a writer of romances. And once he constructed a romance which, after a hackneyed custom of my country, he pretended to translate from an old manuscript written by an ancient clerk—called Horvendile. It told of Horvendile's part in the love-business between Sir Guiron des Rocques and La Beale Ettarre. I am that writer of romance. This room, this castle, all the broad rolling countryside without, is but a portion of my dream, and these places have no existence save in my dreams, and fancies. And you, messire—and you also, madame—and dead Maugis here, and all the others who seemed so real to me, are but the puppets I fashioned and shifted, for a tale's sake, in that romance which now draws to a close."
This statement appears early in the book during a day-dream as Kennaston walks through a garden. He is apparently thinking about his book and the things he will write in it and how he will end his story. It seems very odd that he would say such things to characters in a mere day-dream, a reverie. But at this point reality and imagination cross paths. Before he left his day-dream, Ettarre gave him half of something along the lines of a brooch which she wore as a pendant around her neck. (How she managed to break it in half is unknown since it's made of metal.) This brooch/pendant is called "the sigil of Scoteia." Of course a day-dream character can't give you an object that you can take back with you to waking reality. But as Kennaston walks in the moonlight he spots something glowing in the path and stoops down to pick up what is obviously the same half of the pendant which Ettarre had given him in the day-dream. He decides that he must have glanced at it much earlier in the day and then incorporated the likeness of the object into his reverie. Of course, this doesn't exactly turn out to be true as you'll find out later in the story.

One thing you need to know, however, is that Kennaston finds that if he lies in bed and allows light to shine on the sigil at just such an angle, he will soon find himself in another world with Ettarre. The book never refers to the phrase "out of body," but we may assume that some such thing has happened. In any event, Kennaston finds himself, or at least his consciousness, in a different kind of reality, and unlike his day-dreams, he has no control over his destination, nor much of anything else.

"Things happen so in dreams," he observed. "I know perfectly well I am dreaming, as I have very often known before this that I was dreaming. But it was always against some law to tell the people in my nightmares that I quite understood they were not real people. To-day in my daydream, and here again to-night, there is no such restriction; and lovely as you are, I know that you are just a daughter of sub-consciousness or of memory or of jumpy nerves or, perhaps, of an improperly digested entree."

"No, I am real Horvendile—but it is I who am dreaming you."
And thus he comes to understand that this world is very different from the day-dream worlds he created, for here he surely is not the creator. But is she just teasing him? Is he really part of her dream? How does a dream character have the power to dream us into their worlds? He finally decides that neither is dreaming the other into existence, but rather, they are somehow equally a part of the same dream, and that the sigil has something to do with it. He also quickly comes to realize that something else is quite different from his mere day-dreams. In those, he could touch Ettarre. Here he cannot. If he tries to, the dream ends, and it's the same in every dream he has of her thereafter. This woman whom he thought he had invented through sheer will applied to imagination, and who he grows to love as such, has become untouchable. Even his travels through other worlds with Ettarre is something he believes he has unwittingly invented through that psychological fiction called the subconscious. He even begins to show some excitement about this newfound power he has.

"He looked at her; and again his heart moved with glad adoration. It was not merely that Ettarre was so pleasing to the eye, and distinguished by so many delicate clarities of color—so young, so quick of movement, so slender, so shapely, so inexpressibly virginal,—but the heady knowledge that here on dizzying heights he, Felix Kennaston, was somehow playing with superhuman matters, and that no power could induce him to desist from his delicious and perilous frolic, stirred, in deep recesses of his being, nameless springs. Nameless they must remain; for it was as though he had discovered himself to possess a sixth sense; and he found that the contrivers of language, being less prodigally gifted, had never been at need to invent any terms wherewith to express this sense's gratification. But he knew that he was strong and admirable; that men and men's affairs lay far beneath him; that Ettarre belonged to him; and that the exultance which possessed him was the by-product of an unstable dream.
It's not long after this that twice Kennaston is queried about his book—Men Who Loved Allison—both times by men who might be considered influential and/or powerful. They seem concerned about the sigil of Scoteia (Kennaston has written it into the story), and they talk of white pigeons (essentially doves) and hold small mirrors in their hand. One of these men is a Church Bishop by the name of Arkwright.

"Yes, I was often a guest at Alcluid—a very beautiful home it was in those days, famed, as I remember, for the many breeds of pigeons which your uncle amused himself by maintaining. I suppose that you also raise white pigeons, my son?"

Kennaston saw that the prelate now held a small square mirror in his left hand. "No, sir," Kennaston answered...

"The pigeon has so many literary associations that I should have thought it would appeal to a man of letters," the prelate continued. "I ought to have said earlier perhaps that I read Men Who Loved Alison with great interest and enjoyment. It is a notable book. Yet in dealing with the sigil of Scoteia—or so at least it seemed to me—you touched upon subjects which had better be left undisturbed. There are drugs, my son, which work much good in the hands of the skilled physician, but cannot without danger be entrusted to the vulgar."

He spoke gently; yet it appeared to Kennaston a threat was voiced.

. . .

"Since then, sir, by the drollest of coincidences, a famous personage has spoken to me in almost the identical words you employed this evening, as to the sigil of Scoteia. The coincidence, sir, lay less in what was said than in the apparently irrelevant allusion to white pigeons which the personage too made, and the little mirror which he too held as he spoke.... I could find it in my heart t o believe it the cream of an ironic jest that you great ones of the earth have tested me with a password mistakenly supposing that I, also, was initiate. I am tempted to imagine some secret understanding, some hidden co-operancy, by which you strengthen or, possibly, have attained your power.

"Think well, my son! Suppose, for one mad instant, that your wild imaginings were not wholly insane? suppose that you had accidentally stumbled upon enough of a certain secret to make it simpler to tell you the whole mystery? Cannot a trained romancer conceive what you might hope for then?"

Very still it was in the dark room....

Kennaston was horribly frightened....
So into the mix comes the suggestion of a secret society with an occult power that enables them to be in power the world over.

Upon first reading of the sigil I was taken aback at the name because typically I think of a sigil as a symbolic drawing used in magic. It later dawned on me however, that a sigil can also be something used as a seal like the signet rings kings used in ancient times, and that's what this pendant in the story is for. It's three inches in diameter (when both halves are together) and has a long line of reverse writing on it which will be read forward after the seal is stamped with the sigil. There's an illustration of the sigil on the book's frontispiece. The writing reads:

James Branch Cabell made this book so that he who wills may read the story of man's eternally unsatisfied hunger in search of beauty. Ettarre stays inaccessible always and her loveliness is his to look on only in his dreams. All men she must evade at the last and many are the ways of her evasions.
So Cabell is just having a little fun with the sigil's writing. There is some talk about the material that makes up the sigil, who manufactured it etc., but none of that is important. What's important is the fact that Kennaston eventually finds the other half of the sigil in waking life, and it belongs to a woman he knows quite well and whom he never would have suspected it belonged to. This discovery changes everything, as you will see, and reality takes yet another bizarre turn.

Cabell may owe something to Mark Twain's short story—My Platonic Sweetheart—written in 1898 (though not published until 1912, well after Twain's death). Cabell claimed to have written Jest sometime between 1911 and 1914. Both stories are essentially about a man who meets a woman during recurrent dreams who is the love of his life, (though not necessarily in the way you may be thinking). They always look a little different from dream to dream, yet they always find one another, and each knows the other straight away even though their names may have changed as well. In Twain's story, the man (Twain himself) is always seventeen and the girl fifteen no matter what Twain's age was in waking life. In Jest, Horvendile and Ettarre are also young in all of Kennaston's dreams except for one (as I recall anyway), while Kennaston is in late middle-age during waking life. We also find in both stories that our young couples occasionally travel to exotic localities in the Earth's past and meet historic figures.

While Twain is able to hold his dream sweetheart and kiss her (though nothing more is mentioned), Horvendile cannot touch Ettarre. If he does, the dream ends and he awakens. Thus, while Horvendile deeply loves Ettarre, he can never have her as anything more than something like a friend, and yet something more special and quite uncommon than merely a friend. This may sound different from Twain and his dream girl, but Twain makes an odd remark in his account:

The affection which I felt for her and which she manifestly felt for me was a quite simple fact; but the quality of it was another matter. It was not the affection of brother and sister - it was closer than that, more clinging, more endearing, more reverent; and it was not the love of sweethearts, for there was no fire in it. It was somewhere between the two, and was finer than either, and more exquisite, more profoundly contenting. We often experience this strange and gracious thing in our dream-loves; and we remember it as a feature of our childhood-loves, too.
Journalist, Burton Rascoe, wrote in his introduction to the 1921 edition of Cabell's book—Chivalry: Dizain des Reines—the following:

It is perhaps of historical interest here to record the esteem in which Mark Twain held the genius of Mr. Cabell as it was manifested as early as a dozen years ago. Mr. Cabell wrote The Soul of Melicent, or, as it was rechristened on revision, Domnei, at the great humorist's request, and during the long days and nights of his last illness it was Mr. Cabell's books which gave Mark Twain his greatest joy.
So we know that late in the life of Samuel Clemens, he befriended Cabell, and even had some influence on his stories before he died. It is perhaps not unreasonable to consider that Jest may owe something to My Platonic Sweetheart.

What Jest has to say to us is really nothing more than the echo of what every great mystic had said before him—that reality isn't what we think it is. That there are binding strands which link waking existence to both the worlds of dream and imagination. At first Felix Kennaston's love for Ettarre is such that all he can think of are those dream worlds and being with her as a man loves a woman. But by the end of the tale, he begins to think more deeply about things like creation, life, and a creator. His dream lover becomes for him, just as those dream lovers did for so many other writers before him, a personification of God, for that's what the Helen of Troy motif represents for writers, dreamers, and lovers. She's the object of desire who symbolizes all that is beautiful, good, and perfect. She's always to be admired, but never to be owned. She was Beatrice to Dante. She was the Marble Lady to Anodos in George MacDonald's Phantastes. She was Mark Twain's Platonic Sweetheart.

She certainly takes center stage in many of my own dreams and probably in many of yours. I've been dreaming of my Helen for at least a decade now. I've never quite been able to have my dream lover either. We're always playing cat and mouse—always a little leery of one another. And yet we're always together. Not lovers, but more than friends. Yet the relationship is deeper than either lovers or friends as Twain said. It's only been during the past year or so that I've come to realize that she represents...well, many people at times, but on the highest level she's symbolic of the "Holy Other". Hers is a love we must all strive for, and I believe it is a love we will find if we keep knocking at love's door long enough. She is nothing less than God calling out to humanity saying, "Come and dine."

I'm not sure if Cabell's story expresses this in quite the way I would have hoped. For a time in his life, he did become interested in magic and secret societies. (The episode about the white pigeons and mirrors surely owes itself to the "magic mirror of Solomon" to some degree.) He seemed to move away from all that rather quickly though, and when none other than freemasonry's class clown, Aleister Crowley, tried to correspond with him, Cabell was cordial enough, but in private seemed very put off and had very little use for Crowley and his type. (Crowley did write an essay on Cabell that appeared in a Virginian publication called "The Reviewer" that was actually pretty accurate in most ways, but failed to truly understand what Cabell was trying to say on a deeper level.)

Mostly I find in Cabell's Kennaston someone whose search for Helen hadn't quite reached fruition yet. But, does anyone's this side of Heaven?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

That'll Be 20 Our Fathers And 10 Hail Marys—Now Bend Over And Grab Your Ankles

Isaiah 40:1 & 2

Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.

I ask you, is there anything at all in the NT that reads like the above? This is typical of OT thinking, and is the way we deal with people in the secular penal system today. Commit the crime—do the time.

But is this what Jesus taught or did? When a woman drew water from a well for him, and he told her about all her husbands among her many sins, did he then tell her to go sacrifice a lamb? Give money to the church? Did he repeat his now famous "Our Father" prayer for her and tell her to repeat it until she was sick of it to atone for her sins? Hardly. What he did was to atone for her at the cross.

There is nothing I've ever come across in the NT that shows anyone doing anything to atone for their sins. Only Jesus made an atonement—once and forevermore. No penitence was, or is, necessary. Repentance—yes. Penitence and atonement—no. "To obey is better than sacrifice." "Go, and sin no more." This is the NT recipe. Jesus says to let him worry about penitence and atonement. That's his job, and the toughest of all jobs it was/is. He did away with our atoning and penitence at the cross. Will someone please tell me why the Catholic Church decided to defile the cross by trying to undo everything the cross was ever about?

The Catholic Church is very big on penitence. This is carried out by atonement and absolution. The atonement is a kind of punishment handed out by the priests, usually nothing more than a rather dull and mundane repetition of prayers over and over. This is unbiblical, pointless, and anti-Christian. I've yet to find anything within Catholic doctrine that links any NT teachings of Christ with punishments being meted out by priests. He told his disciples to forgive people's sins—not to punish them. Even the woman brought before him on grounds of adultery was forgiven and sent on her way. Jesus made no demands of penitence by way of punishment with her, nor with anyone else that we're aware of. He simply says, go and sin no more. However, he also says to pay our debts and the like, so I think he certainly expects retributions to be paid for harming people or damaging their property in our sinning. But beyond that, he just wants us to stop sinning, to be better people, to try our best. Why the change? Jesus taught us something completely new at the time, to be good servants, to constantly look for ways to serve others. Could it be that our good works take the place of any need for punishments and sacrifices? Isn't a good deed a sacrifice in itself? And of course, all atonement was settled at the cross.

The Catholic Church has not only rejected the work of the cross by their demands of penitence, they've done it in a harmful way in my opinion. Does it really make any sense whatsoever to make prayer a form of punishment!? Demanding people to pray the same repetitious prayers over and over as a form of punishment can only serve to make those same people hate prayer! What good thing could possibly come from it? Mark tells us that Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, went and prayed that the agony of the cross might in some way not have to happen, but to let that "cup pass" from him. A short time later it says he went back and prayed "the same thing." So yes, it appears even Jesus prayed the same prayer at least once, though I doubt he used the exact same words. But he was in distress at the time, and had every reason to be. We often find ourselves praying without ceasing during times of distress, and truthfully, it's during those times that our prayers seem to be answered most fully. But this is very different from vain, repetitious prayers as mere punishments—something that belittles the work of the cross. Something like praying the Rosary may be a good thing, though repetitious, if done in the proper frame of mind and spirit. But it should never be a punishment.

Personally, I think Catholics would be better off to avoid confession, and especially not to send their children to confession, lest you want them to grow-up hating prayer, the very thing they ought to learn to love doing most. Prayer, when done properly, transcends the hard turf of materiality, passes through the thin places (made thin by the power of the resurrection), and seeks out the Light of Heaven. Prayer is our only connection with our origin. It's a call home from a homesick boy at camp-Earth.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why The Bible Is Different

About fifteen years ago I began to read a lot of writings from the Mesopotamia. I also read a lot of American Indian myths and quite a bit of Hindu writings. After a year or so of this little journey, one thing became abundantly clear. There is nothing like the bible despite its faults.

The first thing I ever read by Plato was The Republic. Two things struck me about it. The first was that Plato actually chastised the writings of Homer and others who had presented the Greek gods as being corrupt. He actually suggested changing them! (The stories—not the gods). The second was that Plato believed in the gods, but didn't seem to believe much at all that had been written about them. You'll find this is true of most Greeks from his time and the later Romans as well. Almost none of them believed their mythology to be non-fiction, let alone journalism. They knew the stories were made-up. They had festivals and celebrations based around these stories at times because they enjoyed the parties. The wine ran like a river at them. No wonder they had such respect for so detestable a character as Bacchus! Their mythology was nothing but fun and games for them. It was like reading comic books. They just weren't taken seriously.

We might say something similar concerning Plato's writings about Socrates. I doubt that anyone believed these stories about Socrates were anything other than Plato's own tales being put into the mouth of his hero and teacher. It might be true that Socrates said many of the things Plato wrote, but obviously Plato invented the bulk of the dialog that went with it. Of course no one could put down from memory long conversations that took place between people years earlier, so Plato had to invent most of the conversations and probably many of the settings and characters as well. Nobody minded this because this was the way stories were passed down in those days. They got the gist of things right more often than not, and that was all that was important. Virtually 90% of everything you'll ever read from ancient authors that involved real people was heavily embellished and fictionalized. In fact, if other of Socrates' peers hadn't also written about him, most of us today would probably think he never really existed at all and was just a character Plato invented from scratch.

CS Lewis said that part of what convinced him of the truth of Jesus was that the stories about him in the four biblical gospels read more like a person's diary, and at times even outright journalism. The writers seemed to just be reporting the facts of what they saw and heard. That doesn't mean there wasn't any sort of embellishing of those stories. They weren't written until decades after the Resurrection. I doubt very much if any of the early churchmen took the stories and all those long conversations, such as the sermon on the mount, as being told verbatim. Like Plato, the gospel writers probably had to invent some of the dialog. They obviously couldn't remember long conversations from decades gone by, and since no one's memory is perfect, this accounts for their versions of certain events all being at least slightly different. It's probably also true that later writers like Mathew and Luke took the earlier gospel of Mark/Peter for reference in their own writings. John's gospel is of course very different from the others. And it may be that some things in those gospels were simply made-up. This is especially true of Mathew's gospel. We don't know for sure. Did the virgin birth really happen? I've personally always doubted it. I think it's quite possible that Mathew and Luke both invented this to keep up with the Romans around them who had many heroes that were said to have been born of a union between a god and a mortal. Could it be that these writers were only human and caved in to peer pressure? After all, aside from Mathew and Luke, no other NT book makes mention of the virgin birth at all. My question is, does it matter? Can't we be happy and live the lives God wants us to live whether the virgin birth story is true or not? What possible effect could that have on my life? None that I can think of. But embellishments aside, the gospel stories mostly do not read like fiction. They mostly read like true stories about real people. You simply don't get the impression of "fiction" when you read them.

One of the more important discoveries that came from my reading ancient texts was how honest the Jewish writers seemed by comparison. I recall a guy named Peter that I mentioned this to one day, and I really think it was the biggest part of what made him re-evaluate his life and get back into the Christianity he had known as a boy. Pete was very interested in all things Egyptian. He had even been to Egypt a few times. He, like a lot of people, was convinced that the Egyptians were an advanced race just like those fables of Atlantis. I mentioned to him that the biblical writings seemed the most truthful of all ancient manuscripts to me because the bible actually told you all the bad things the Jews ever did right from the beginning. Adam and Eve messed up. Solomon built temples in the "high places". Cain killed Able. David and Bathsheba. Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery. On and on. Kings and Chronicles will tell you not only the great achievements of Israel's kings, but they'll also tell you every little thing they did wrong. I've yet to come across any other ancient writings anywhere in the world that did that. I told Pete to go and read all the Egyptian priestly writings and then come back and tell me all the bad things the Egyptians did. He thought about that for a very long while and realized he obviously wouldn't come back with very much. There's simply nothing about them that seems realistic. And it's the same with their gods. Who on earth would read the stories about Horus, Osiris, or Isis and believe them to be anything but fiction? If you read those writings along with those from the Babylonians, the Sumerians, the Akkadians and others, they read as though they had never lost a war and how all the peoples of the Earth were subject to them. We know they're dishonest because their neighbors wrote entirely different accounts about them (and the writings of all their neighbors matched). Where do other ancient texts tell you all the bad things they and their forefathers did? I've yet to come across such a book.

The Jewish writings were simply like nothing else on earth. That doesn't mean they're completely accurate or that God inspired them all. But where we find truth, we find at least a glimpse of the Divine, and you simply won't find that kind of honestly where people are actually self deprecating in any other ancient work. Homer and Virgil probably came closest, but it was seldom the actions of their own people they condemned. It was the actions of their gods!

At any rate, this has been one of the more effective arguments I've used for years when talking about Christianity to people. The self deprecating honesty of the Jews sets their writings apart from all other ancient peoples. I don't think anyone said it before me fifteen years ago, though someone certainly may have. But you're welcome to take this argument and make it your own just as several people already have.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Power Of Servant-hood

When I was young I used to love playing jazz. I was convinced there was some higher power in music you could magically tap into if you were in the right frame of mind. But when I got older I realized that you couldn't play your way out of a really bad mood. And I also came to know that music is mostly just numbers. It could bring a certain state of pleasantness to the mind, but it was merely a sense of beauty that's not so different from the same sense of beauty Einstein saw in a perfect equation built upon—you guessed it—numbers. Furthermore, I'm convinced that art in painting also draws upon this balance of numbers. Even in writing and storytelling there's a certain meter that's pleasant to the ear. Poets realized this thousands of years ago, and so they divided sentence structures into repeating rhythmic lines, so numbers is still a part of it all. Writing and storytelling can go considerably deeper than other art forms though because words can express thoughts in a more exacting detail. Not only can you paint a picture with words, you can tell what the picture means. I think that's why Christ came to Earth as a storyteller rather than a musician, a painter, or a sculptor. He wanted to make the best use of the limited amount of time he had to be here in the flesh. But as much as we like to read about the things he said, the stories he told, and the philosophies he conveyed, this was really something that only took up a small portion of his time. The vast majority of it was taken up with playing the role of a servant.

The bible tells over and over of how Jesus healed everyone that came to him. Can you imagine how much time that took to go to each person individually and heal them? And unlike most physicians today, he actually made quite a few house calls. When he wasn't healing the sick he was feeding the poor, making wine at weddings, calming storms, even playing with people's children. John says this in the very last sentence of his gospel: "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written." You'll notice he said that Jesus did many other things, not that he said many other things. That in fact, he did so many things that it would be impossible to tell about them all.

Something that's become quite popular today among Christians is meditation. They think that if they can just get into the right mode of consciousness that God will bless them for it and reveal all the secrets of the universe or some such thing. And for sure, there is something to be said for quieting the mind and allowing God to fill it. That may in fact be what the Sabbath is all about. But even so, the Sabbath comes but one day per week. Jesus spent time in prayer, and he spent time teaching and storytelling. But the vast majority of his time was spent in work. It was spent serving others day in and day out. He could have healed all the sick on the face of the Earth and fed all the poor with the wave of his hand. Instead he chose to take the hard road and make an example for us to follow in meeting people's needs individually by the sweat of his brow. I can envision Jesus on many hot summer afternoons refusing to leave a place until every one of the thousands who came to him had their needs met. I can see him drenched in sweat, knees aching, back hunched over till he looked like death, all out of love for others to the point of placing their needs before his own.

The bible tells us time and again that the only good religion is the one that defends the cause of the orphan, the widow, the poor etc. I don't care how well you know your bible, or how much time you spend in prayer or meditation. If you aren't sweating and aching in the service of others, you don't yet know Christ, and all your prayers and bible studies are futile.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Job 14

Job 14
1 “Mortals, born of woman,
are of few days and full of trouble.
2 They spring up like flowers and wither away;
like fleeting shadows, they do not endure.
3 Do you fix your eye on them?
Will you bring them before you for judgment?
4 Who can bring what is pure from the impure?
No one!
5 A person’s days are determined;
you have decreed the number of his months
and have set limits he cannot exceed.
6 So look away from him and let him alone,
till he has put in his time like a hired laborer.

7 “At least there is hope for a tree:
If it is cut down, it will sprout again,
and its new shoots will not fail.
8 Its roots may grow old in the ground
and its stump die in the soil,
9 yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth shoots like a plant.
10 But a man dies and is laid low;
he breathes his last and is no more.
11 As the water of a lake dries up
or a riverbed becomes parched and dry,
12 so he lies down and does not rise;
till the heavens are no more, people will not awake
or be roused from their sleep.

13 “If only you would hide me in the grave
and conceal me till your anger has passed!
If only you would set me a time
and then remember me!
14 If someone dies, will they live again?
All the days of my hard service
I will wait for my renewal to come.
15 You will call and I will answer you;
you will long for the creature your hands have made.
16 Surely then you will count my steps
but not keep track of my sin.
17 My offenses will be sealed up in a bag;
you will cover over my sin.

18 “But as a mountain erodes and crumbles
and as a rock is moved from its place,
19 as water wears away stones
and torrents wash away the soil,
so you destroy a person’s hope.
20 You overpower them once for all, and they are gone;
you change their countenance and send them away.
21 If their children are honored, they do not know it;
if their offspring are brought low, they do not see it.
22 They feel but the pain of their own bodies
and mourn only for themselves.”
Is there anything more beautiful in all the books in all the world? The entire chapter of Job 14 is utterly perfect. "So look away from him and let him alone, till he has put in his time like a hired laborer." People are always praying for God's intervening into the affairs of mortals, but Job knew better. Miracles are rare. They're supposed to be. More often than not it feels as though God created the world and then walked away from it. Job felt it too. It's like when a kid leaves the nest and has to make his own way in the world. The parent has to let them go. That's what God did when he created the universe. He made it for us, and then let us go, knowing full well that we'd return to him one day. Maybe we demanded our freedom. But we had to experience material life with all the joys and all the pains that go with it if we were ever to be anything more than mere puppets.

You have to read Job with the same honesty he had when he said these things. One moment he's full of understanding. The next he's full of questions that almost end in despair. One moment he's certain of his place in the world. The next he feels abandoned: "Mortals, born of woman, are of few days and full of trouble." He's wiser and more honest than any man the world has ever known. Theologians, philosophers, and psychologists try to make God fit into their own life's context. Job will have none of this. Some questions were meant to go unanswered, and he knows it. But it doesn't stop the questioner from making his queries known. Life is certainty followed by uncertainty over and over in a never ending cycle till: "All the days of my hard service I will wait for my renewal to come." Job bottom lines it for us. Most people think life is about survival, first of the self, then of the human race as a whole. But that's not at all what life is for. Life is about work, but not in self survival. It's about finding joy in service to others and letting go of the self. The Christian life is antithetical to politics. Politics is about getting what you want, whereas the Christian has no self and instead says, "How may I serve you?" We had Jesus to teach us this. Job had to figure it out on his own. There was never a mortal like Job.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Holy Synchronicities

One point I've been trying to drive home with people for nearly twenty years now is that God doesn't care what your opinions about him or the bible are. That's not what's meant when Christ talks about believing in him or having faith. Belief and opinion simply do not equate. He didn't say that if you believe he exists you can gain entrance to Heaven. When he uses terms like belief and faith, what he's always talking about is something along the lines of putting your hope and trust in him.

Well either someone's been listening to me, or what is more likely the case, God plants seeds in several people simultaneously for the sowing. I've always thought the latter to be true. That is, God plants certain notions and inclinations in people here and there the world over when he wants to make a point or bring about a change rather than relying on just one person to do it alone. Besides, if only one person was given the message it might swell his head and make him think he's special or better than others. God's too good a parent to set someone up for moral failure (except for on certain occasions when he's trying to teach us our shortcomings).

I'm finishing up on Orson Scott Card's Ender Quartet. Now there are some things I have a great aversion to in Card's writing style. He's a stream of consciousness writer, and that generally means (and certainly means in Card's case) an author constantly telling you exactly what his characters are thinking instead of allowing you the satisfaction of figuring it out yourself. But regardless of writing style, Card does make some potent points now and then, and in the final book of the series, Children Of The Mind, he writes the following:

"I certainly do too believe in God," said Ender, annoyed.

"Oh, you're willing to concede God's existence, but that's not what I meant. I mean believe in him the way a mother means it when she says to her son, I believe in you. She's not saying she believes that he exists—what is that worth?—she's saying she believes in his future, she trusts that he'll do all the good that is in him to do. She puts the future in his hands, that's how she believes in him. You don't believe in Christ that way Andrew, [Ender]. ... You aren't leaving anything up to God. You don't believe in him."

Card says it better than I ever did. This in fact is exactly why I've taken to writing fiction and is also the reason Christ taught short stories known as parables to his followers. You can set up situations between characters to express a moral truth in such a way as to make the reader see it more clearly, make it seep in more deeply. It's what writing's all about, expressing the things God places within you to others, and doing it with the best clarity and simplicity you can muster. Simplicity has been the key to what God's been trying to bring out of me as of late. Oddly, writers tend to think that filling pages with indecipherable terms and six syllable words will gain them respectability in their profession, but it seldom works out that way. We have a whole genre of literature called Literary Fiction which is devoted to exactly that, and the amount of memorable works that have come from that field are infinitesimal. It's all just lofty words with no heart in them more often than not. If you're expressing something from God, you should want as many people as possible to understand and learn from it, and that means clarity and simplicity. God will bless that.

And pay attention to those holy synchronicities when they crop up in your life. It usually means you're on the right track.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Could It Be? - CS Lewis

I guess most people know that I've been searching for some film footage of CS Lewis for several years now. I know both in my heart and my head that it must exist for several reasons. The catch is that any such footage, while rare, would probably be fairly unexciting. If any is found, he would probably just be another face in a crowd at some event at Oxford or Cambridge. I've been mostly searching through various archival footage of "events", "commencement ceremonies", and "graduation ceremonies" at these schools. I think today I may have finally hit pay dirt. The above is a still I've taken from a ceremony at Oxford where various ally leaders from WWII (most notably General Eisenhower) were given honorary degrees. As near as I can tell, this film was made in 1945, or at least NATO's web page lists Eisenhower as having received such a degree that year:

Nato's Eisenhower Page

This still is from low resolution footage from an 8-minute film, but I ask you, does this not look like Lewis' round Irish mug? You'll notice from the collar that he's wearing an Oxford gown. I thought I'd post it here to get a few opinions first before I lay out the money to the film news agency who owns this for higher resolution footage where I'll be able to see his face much better.

To be honest, the more I view the footage, the less I think it's him. The man here seems to almost be a little too bald. His face comes up in the footage several times. There's an extremely good chance though that Lewis and JRR Tolkien both are in this crowd along with Lewis' brother Warnie (all were war vets). Even if they are not, it's fun for me to watch a ceremony where many of their peers and friends must be present, and to see how life was during this time at Oxford. It gives me the feeling of what it was like to almost be with him. You can watch it for yourself here at Pathe Films.

Here's another film Pathe has of the same event which mostly shows the people coming into the hall. It's also much shorter in length: Second Film

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Setbacks? We Got Plenty

I told my dad, just before he died, that I was working out again and trying to get back into the kind of shape I used to be in. I know that made him real happy because he was worried about my health among other things. I was a pretty dedicated power lifter for a number of years. When I quit lifting ten years ago I was 41 years old, 6'5" tall, weighed 260, and could dead lift and squat around 600 Lbs. Now I'm way over 300 and get out of breath just doing basic things around the house.

It was nice to be working out again. I was doing pretty darn good I thought. I had already dropped about twenty pounds... and then dad got sick. Going to the hospital and later the nursing home every night left little room for working out. I had something more important to do now.

Then after pop passed on I went through a nightmare with Citimortgage Company. The bank my dad had his home loan with was bought out by this company, and a worse company I have never come across. They have no local offices, and if you call them you'll have a very hard time getting anyone on the line who can speak proper English. (Yes, it's that bad). I was the executor of the will and my sister's name and mine both were on the deed to dad's house. I wanted her to have it. No one was contesting anything. But still, this world's worst excuse for a mortgage company insisted I go to court and pay hundreds of dollars to get a Letter of Office before they would allow me to make any changes to the deed. It was just absurd! Dad didn't owe much on the house, and my sister had enough with her share of the life insurance money to pay it off completely. I finally had to get a lawyer to handle things. Of course the first thing he said was that I shouldn't need a Letter of Office for putting the deed solely in my sister's name since we were both already on it, and I just wanted to take my name off. Once a lawyer got involved the mortgage company quickly gave in. Why didn't they relent without us having to pay a lawyer? It was just a matter of doing the right thing, something they had no intention of without a lawyer to threaten suit against them. Mortgage companies, usury, it's an evil road to travel.

Finally winter came, work slowed, the mortgage thing was settled, we were done with all the other normal things you have to do when there's a death in the family, all was well with the world, and I was ready to get going on this workout routine again. I cut myself down to 1,500 calories with less than a hundred grams of fat and a hundred of carbohydrates. I settled into a pretty grueling routine of two to three hours per day. An hour and a half of lifting weights and riding the stationary bike followed by an hour of climbing steps and maybe a little bit of clobbering the big bag. Things were going swell! Then I suddenly got hit with insomnia. I've never had it this bad. I went three nights in a row with a total of six hours sleep. The following day I started getting cold symptoms. And then it hit me hard! Man I don't know if I've ever had a cold that made me so run down. I couldn't move. Unfortunately I've found that old saying about feeding a cold and starving a fever to be correct. Your body will reject food if you have a fever. It will also crave carbs if you have a cold. That's just the way it works. If you have a cold and you want to get well, you have to eat.

So here I am hoping and praying that I haven't been knocked back to square one. I feel a bit better today. Perhaps the end of the bad times is in sight. I'm down, but still kicking. No one will care about this post. This one is just for me. It's just to remind myself of the best adage in the world: "When the going gets tough, the tough get going!"

Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.
~~ St. Paul
As Batman... ur... Fatman would say: