Killer Conundrums

Her unfamiliar face and obvious baby bump solicited stares and hushed whispers. She was new and different in a community which wasn’t accustomed to the like. The only new and different things making an appearance were those speeding through the only four-way stop in my tiny town. However, here she was at a full stop, parked in my home room with a compelling story very few were willing to approach or inquire about.

Cigarettes & Short Skirts

Sadly, I confess I never spoke to her. Her “condition” was far outside of my comfort zone. Besides that, my parents would have grounded me if I had done so. I was already out of their good graces for coming home smelling like cigarette smoke. My girlfriend had borrowed my jacket, lit up and left me with the lingering odor of rebellion.

In case you’re wondering, that is the truth and surprisingly my parents actually believed me. Nonetheless, I was buried alive under loads of extra-chores because… having a girlfriend was forbidden! The fact that she was a cheerleader made my offense seriously grave. My parents cringed when they thought of how every Friday night she could be found dancing around the gym floor in a short skirt before a rowdy home crowd.

Sternly, they warned me how I was to “live in the world” but “not be of this world.” From now on I was to avoid scandalous relationships, which could potentially screw me out of experiencing God’s perfect plan for my life. Clearly, I would have to be careful around the new girl in my home room. Thankfully, I had a lengthy chore list in hand. My dad believed firmly that manual labor would cleanse my soul, and I honestly had no reason to doubt him.

Inoculated

My off-the-beaten-path public school was a perfect place where pregnant teens could lay low for six months. Then, as spontaneously as they had appeared, they disappeared, arriving home alone as if returning from an exchange student program. Sorry to say, due to the general ruse and temporary nature of the situation, befriending them wasn’t a high priority. Furthermore, heavy doses of religious fear, swallowed three times a week on Sundays and Wednesdays, served to inoculate me against having a conscience.

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The drama of teenage pregnancy is as old as the Bible and still much older. During the Christmas season, it’s rigorously celebrated with ritualistic fervor. For weeks on end, the airwaves swell with tunes and melodies extolling the pregnant maiden who was whisked away by her gobsmacked fiancé to give birth in a stable. Certainly a scenario like this today would prompt someone talking to someone, an intervention at the very least or maybe even criminal charges. But who wants to be a “scrooge” by disparaging a beloved tale?

Killer Conundrums

Amidst plastic replicas of singing angels, serene barnyard animals and eastern wise men illuminated by a cheap star blinking overhead, the matriarch of teenage pregnancy is enshrined. People of faith worldwide gather to stand silently in reverence before the blessed maiden and her holy child. They rehearse her story with hushed whispers and humbly bow to the fruit of her womb, a molded plastic baby representing the “Sacrificial Lamb,” a.k.a the ultimate human sacrifice.

Obviously, to this day, remnants of ancient blood rituals live on in the religious psyche, enlivened by centuries of sacred paranoia. These time-honored superstitions serve to provide irrational justifications for a host of killer conundrums and bad behavior. Sadly, opportunities for dialogue, understanding and meaningful relationships often get placed on altars of blind obedience.

Rarely do faithful adherents consider what has truly been sacrificed. I should know. For the longest time I never stopped to think, just like I shamefully never thought to speak to the pregnant teenage girl sitting in my home room.

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Lightning Rod

For most religious devotees, their particular faith tradition is inherited and reinforced by their immediate culture, i.e. legacy. Rarely are they challenged to seriously consider another viewpoint. And if they are, it’s generally opposed with extreme bias, lacking in fact and objectivity, i.e. cult, false religion, idolatry, perverts and satan worshipers.

Certainly, this was true for me as an evangelical in the American Midwest. To say the least, my general knowledge was firmly rooted in cliquey, sheltering group-think. It’s taken me years, but I’ve since remedied my deficiencies.

Atheists Know More?

In 2010, the Pew Forum Research Center conducted a Religious Knowledge Survey involving 3,412 participates. Out of the thirty-two general religious knowledge questions, the average participant answered only sixteen correctly.

Recently, I reviewed the sample questions and got a perfect score. The questions were so basic, I was saddened by how poorly participants performed. However, I wasn’t surprised. Ironically, atheists and agnostics got the most questions correct with Christians coming in dead last.

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In 2013, sixty-three related studies were reviewed and the results showed a “significant negative association between intelligence and religiosity.” Experts theorized as to why this was so, offering a hypothesis summed up as such: more knowledge = less belief in God.

Open to Experience?

In my opinion, the focus on intelligence versus belief has merit but is narrow. It doesn’t fully capture an understanding as to why people choose to believe in the supernatural. I personally know a number of very intelligent persons who practice their faith with great commitment. For me, offering clearer insight is a Harvard study done by Shenhav, Rand & Greene. Rather than focusing on IQ levels, their research honed in on personality traits.

Their findings suggested that the deciding personality trait is being open to experience. This type of person displays a willingness to re-examine social, political and religious values. If he/she is an intuitive thinker, cultural influencers often steer them in the direction of spirituality. If he/she is an analytical thinker, the same often motivates them to be a skeptic. Clearly, for either type there is more common ground than most are willing to acknowledge.

On a personal level, this explains why my closest friends are either humanists or spiritualists, and why my marriage works so well–me, an amiable skeptic and she a delightful mystic. In contrast, it sheds light on why I, and my spouse, have always been lightning rods for closed-minded fundamentalists.

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Don’t Call Me An Ass

Some might say I’m an apostate, agnostic, atheist or anything else starting with the letter “A” deemed derogatory. I’m resolved to not take issue, so long as no one calls me an ass.

I once was a religious insider myself, well versed in the labeling and categorizing of heretical outsiders. So, it doesn’t take much of an imagination to divine what many may be postulating about me personally: 51-ZTwr3slL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_“Is he possessed? Has satan deceived him? Is he delusional? Hurt? Confused? Rebelling? Why in God’s name would he turn his back on his upbringing and walk away from his calling?!” Thus it is for all those who’ve dared to question their inherited, deep-seated beliefs, and even more so for those who once served in a professional capacity such as I did for 25+ years.

The stories of former clergy like me are heart-wrenching and too numerous to recount. Sadly, the tragedy of being ostracized, humiliated, shunned and often terribly impoverished is a common thread running throughout. For a society [the Church] claiming to be built on foundations of grace and unconditional love, the question which begs to be answered is: “Why is it necessary to demonize and shun those who doubt, question and/or choose to simply be a good human being apart from all the religious trappings?” Some have suggested the answer lies in the past, starting with the early European settlers of America.

Puritanical Heritage

It’s been my observation that most churchgoers throughout the Bible-belt and America’s Heartland possess very little knowledge of their particular sect’s history. Furthermore, in my opinion, they are woefully lacking in objectivity as it concerns the cognitive behavioral motivators both past and present. From sea to shining sea, the American Christian culture remains deeply influenced by the puritanical heritage originating with the first Thirteen Colonies. Researching this history of Puritan influence, the historian John Coffey has noted:

New England exercised a disproportionate influence on American ideals…thanks to a powerful intellectual tradition disseminated through its universities, its dynamic print culture and the writings of its famous [Puritan] clergy.

Today, the Puritan’s ideology is largely championed by the rise of Evangelicalism and the Religious Right. Emphasizing this, is an article published in 2015 by The Gospel Coalition entitled 8 Reasons Why We Need The Puritans. The article concludes with the following quote by the contemporary theologian John Piper:

My own experience is that no one comes close to the skill they [the Puritans] have in taking the razor-like scalpel of Scripture, and lancing the boils of my corruption, cutting out the cancers of my God-belittling habits of mind, and amputating the limbs of my disobedience. They are simply in a class by themselves.

It’s been my experience that very few evangelicals would privately disagree with Piper’s summation, though publicly opting for a softer, more digestible, “seeker-sensitive” version.

Scarlet Letter

Piper’s “lancing, cutting and amputating” are obviously figures of speech. However, it is reminiscent of a familiar aggressiveness known to his Puritan ancestors whom he puts in “a class by themselves.” Certainly, when it came to dealing with so-called sabbath breakers, smokers, merry-makers and dissenters, “no one comes close.” Employing the same torture devices they had once fled, they religiously shackled, branded, cropped ears and stitched scarlet letters on the clothing of so-called sinners.poster8x-whi-z1-t-the-scarlet-letter

For persons of differing faith traditions, namely Quakers and Catholics, tolerance was in short supply. Often, their ears were cut off, and hot pokers pushed through their tongues. Others were publicly flogged, imprisoned and either hung or burned at the stake.

Fortunately, in our modern society, such physically brutal reprisals are forbidden. Sadly though, the wording Piper uses implies old, puritanical attitudes which remain to support harsh, cruel behavior. For instance, with those who dare to question inerrant, sacred text, they are told to “cut it out” or risk being “cut off” from fellowship. Almost instantly, news of their offense travels quickly in the form of “benign” prayer requests dripping with juicy, exaggerated gossip (i.e. lies).

Usually, the resulting drama is enough to bring the backslider “back into the fold” quite quickly. However, for those who persist, reprisals akin to shunning end up producing tremendous, physical pain. For former clergy, the price that is paid is horrific (i.e. divorce, loss of income, no network to find another job, broken relationships with friends, family, children, grandchildren, stress related illnesses, depression, PTSD, etc.). Adding injury to loss, the “razor-like scalpel of Scripture” in the hands of the religious zealots produces horrific scars for life.

Abduction Please!

Interestingly, in Puritan times, life was so hard for children, some often preferred to be abducted by the neighboring Native Americans who were freer in thought and practice, valuing equality between the sexes. I guess it comes as no surprise so many, led by today’s evangelical youth, wholeheartedly refuse Piper’s amputations and dream of abduction by progressive, critical-thinking tribes. While doing so, many brave the constant threat of being branded and forced to wear the scarlet letter (i.e. apostate, agnostic or atheist). I would implore all rational, compassionate minds to not consider them an ass for doing so.


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Take Your Time God

Tragedy strikes in a variety of ways. Storms, wrecks, sickness, death, job loss, the list is endless. Adding insult to injury, are those wishing to assign purpose and meaning to misfortune. They seemingly can’t help themselves when it comes to offering senseless, pat antidotes–especially on social media.

This past weekend, while people were fleeing the raging wild fires consuming homes and businesses near Redding, CA the following post popped up in my FB newsfeed:

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We know this is creating space for God to show up and do some amazing things in peoples lives… Jesus be near.

In my former, religious frame of mind, I never really liked such sentiments, but idly stood by without opposition. Now however, when reading this free of my past superstitions, everything inside of me bristled! It left me troubled and upset for hours. I couldn’t shake the sentiment being conveyed: God will show up AFTER everyone has suffered and lost everything.

Time to Show Off

For centuries, religion has sought to answer the ageless quandary of suffering. Countless theologians have weighed in with too many cooked up antidotal recipes to post here. Regardless, the choice dish devotees prefer to serve up to the hurting masses is: the divine uses calamity in order to show off his greatness.

Along this line of thinking, it’s not tasteless for God to quietly stand by while people are abused, enslaved and consumed. After all, there is a biblical precedent for this. In Israel’s ancient past, he waited 500 years before showing up and showing off. At first, neither the Hebrew slaves nor Pharaoh their oppressor were convinced of his power and intentions. But the final dish God served, featuring roasted lamb for the Hebrews and dead babies for the Egyptians, motivated everyone to be compliant.

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Continuing in this same line of thought, perhaps it’s reasonable for God to let the nations rage for countless millenniums? According to ancient prophecies, he’s just waiting for the right moment to make his grand entrance! His first order of business will be to slaughter the majority of earth’s human population, serving their flesh up as a hearty meal for the birds of the air.

Afterwards, he will sit down to a victor’s feast with his chosen few who gleefully assisted him in committing mass genocide. Apparently, roasted lamb will be on the menu again. Following the dinner party, he will graciously provide the earth’s remaining population with eternal peace and prosperity as they recover from PTSD.

Heavy Lifter

No one in their right mind would ever entertain such unconscionable reasoning or behavior. And if they did, they’d need to enter a temporary insanity plea to hopefully avoid an extended lockup. Sadly, God and his chosen people persist in this line of thinking. Theologians, ministers, rabbis and mullahs are eager to supply them with creative loopholes and exemptions.

Thankfully though, humane laws exist to prohibit the earthbound faithful from preemptively acting out in the hopes that God will be enticed to show up, show off and finish off.

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Meanwhile, back on social media, while the religious continue to post their mindless antidotes and dark predictions, humane reasoning quietly does the heavy lifting behind the scenes.

Breakthroughs in medicine and science continue. More effective building codes are enforced. Relief aid is funded. First Responders evaluate and test improved procedures. Environmentalists combat pollution and promote healthier food sources. Peace keepers protect the innocent. Industry gives bonuses for maintaining clean, safe workplaces.

I’d say, the work of showing up is in good hands right now.

So… take your time God.

Save Your F**ks

I’m sitting here waiting on a call from someone I haven’t spoken with in a long time: a once fellow evangelical minister.  Like me, he is no longer in Christian ministry.  He lives on the East Coast, and I a few miles west of Lake Michigan. We’ve kept in touch via Instagram. He messaged me earlier today asking if we could talk tonight. Apparently, a lot has changed with him recently.

Oh, my phone is ringing!

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My friend is the analytical type, very thorough and exact. However, differing from others with the same gift of precision, he’s capable of adjusting the level of transferable data according to the capacity of his audience.

Since it was me he was talking to, he started by downloading the 5-minute CliffsNotes version. Apparently I’ve lost some of my intellectual capacity through the years?!  LOL!

Beautiful Disaster

His story reminded me of Kelly Clarkson’s song Beautiful Disaster:

He drowns in his dreams, an exquisite extreme I know… He’s magic and myth, as strong as what I believe,a tragedy with more damage than a soul should see… Such a beautiful disaster.

What he shared was something akin to a tragicomedy, highlighted by abuse, betrayal, false accusations and extreme loss. It had all the makings of the numerous ancient crucified messiah tale.

Apart from the terrible sh*t, he did share some amazing, wonderful shizz. In the midst of extreme pain and loss, he’s experienced his own miraculous version of resurrection! To his surprise, the power that raised him from his grave came via… a lovely humanist!

She shared none of his religious beliefs or inherited convictions. With excitement, he told me, “She doesn’t even believe in God! But, she applies Scripture in context with greater clarity than I ever did as an evangelical minister!”

maxresdefaultHis story is not uncommon. Countless ones have plenty to share, but remain largely unheard. Pop culture is obsessed with the Kardashians and the like. As it concerns Evangelicals, they are simply ruthless when it comes to suppressing objectivity and keeping things hidden. It’s not so much an organized effort, as it is an inherited culture of denial and blame shifting.

They are masterful with the cup and ball game, always distracting attention away from what they are skillfully concealing. Misogyny, sexual abuse, gender biases, impoverishment, racism and mindless servitude shift from one cup to the next. The faithful masses remain entertained by their divine, loving “Father” figure who knows best, while carelessly tossing their time and money away.

A headline mega-church pastor once told me:

What’s happening with the Catholic sex abuse scandal is nothing compared to what will eventually be exposed in the Evangelical Church.

For many, the only way of escaping or surviving the madness is via self-sabotage or silent compliance. For my quoted mega-church friend, it was self-sabotage. His scandal provided Oprah, Barbara Walters, Bill O’Reilly and HBO a momentary surge in ratings. It was big news nationally, but on the local level the grassroots cup and ball games never paused or stopped. The status quo remained intact.

A New Found Faith

Presently, my friend’s relationship with his lovely humanist has taught him how to truly love himself for the very first time in his life. With this, he’s experienced a new found freedom with problem solving and decision making. Furthermore, he’s learned to place his former zealous faith in… wait for it… wait for it… IN HIMSELF!

Recently, he put his new humanist faith to the test and started his own company. Currently, he’s well on his way to financial freedom! #applause

“Even so,” he woefully confessed, “I’m a complete f**k up; seriously man, I’m just a f**k up.”

What do you say to that?

I completely understood where he was coming from. After all, we both share similar religious backgrounds, trained from an early age in the self loathing art of condemnation and repression. However, I no longer practice those dark arts. YouTube sensation “Sweet Brown” famously said it best when she exclaimed: “Ain’t nobody got time for that!

Aint-nobody-got.jpgSo how did I respond? Well, sometimes I surprise myself by saying something amazingly profound. My close friends refer to these moments as “rare flashes of brilliance” — emphasis being on “rare” and “flash.”

In those brief moments, I’m often moved to scratch my rare brilliance out on paper. Thinking, later I’ll put it to text on the background of a cool pic and then post it to Facebook? It’s sure to go viral!?!

Well, thankfully in this particular moment the brilliant wisdom of Instagram was close at hand. Thank you high speed internet! Here are the anonymous wise words I successfully transferred to my friend in less than 7 seconds:

You should give a f**k. You really should. But only about things that set your soul on fire. Save your f**ks for magical sh*t.

And with that, we both sighed and exchanged heartfelt “I love you man” valedictions and promises to talk again very soon.

Goodnight. Sweet dreams my friend.

Splash! Splash! Splash!

For those who have been reading my Patheos postings, you’ve no doubt noticed I keep referencing Icarus, the mythological risk-taker who flew too close to the sun and perished from his tragic fall back to earth. The inspiration which sparked my recent article came from an Oscar Wilde poem:

Never regret thy fall, O Icarus of the fearless flight. For the greatest tragedy of them all, is never to feel the burning light.

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Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (ca. 1558) is famous for relegating the fall to a scarcely noticed event in the background — red arrow [added by me] marks the spot.

Lately, I’ve been questioning why I’m obsessed with making inferences to Icarus. After all, it’s a tragic story traditionally accompanied with warnings for the over-ambitious and reckless. There’s even an attributed psychological term called The Icarus Complex: a person who is fond of heights, narcissistic and obsessed with fantastical, far-fetched, imaginary cognition.

Psychosynthesis ties this complex to those whose religious/spiritual ambitions exceed the reasonable limits of their own personalities. They are characterized by self-gratifying, attention-seeking behavior and obsessions with apocalyptic “crash & burn” predictions. Interestingly, they also have an emotional fascination with fire (e.g. burning sexual desires, moral works tried by fire, scorching eternal punishment, etc.).

To say the least, there’s enough with all of this to keep me busy for months, writing and making inferences!

The Red Arrow

As it concerns my recent articles, my chief motivation can be found in the painting above. Icarus’ fall (red arrow marks the spot) is depicted as an unnoticed non-event. Farmers, travelers, fishermen, sailing merchants, they all continue their day-to-day tasks, unconcerned with the tragic splash below.

So, what is it that best represents the uninteresting splash? Without knowing the painter’s intentions, I’ll attempt to offer my own insights.

Splash! Splash! Splash!

Maybe the uneventful splash is symbolized by all the rising/falling religious-spiritual fads, trends, obsessions, predictions and ever changing, contradictory dogmas? You know, the elusive transcendental stuff. If this painting were a contemporary work, we could theorize the splash to be the numerous rapture theories or Zionist Temple Mount predictions featured by Charisma Magazine each month.

Or, we could point to the televangelists’s hyper theatrics serving up hot, steamy love songs to God followed by oratory hell-laced admonitions to the Divine’s captive bride.

Or, our thoughts could turn to Oprah’s recommended reading list and all the eager Super Soul Sunday guru guests.

The splash of week-old TV ratings certainly constitutes as a non-event.

Cable specials about angels and demons, books left out of the sacred canon, dinosaur-sized giants, ancient aliens, Nessie and Bigfoot exposes and alchemy secrets revealed… splash! splash! splash!

The latest, greatest study bibles promising word-for-word translations, religious programming’s annual pledge drives, right and left wing talking points, political call to arms and Church/State promises to use your tithes and taxes to honor God and country… SPLASH! SPLASH! SPLASH!

Who Gives A Crap?!?

For many, if it doesn’t impact grocery and gas prices, vacation resort deals, or 401K gains… who gives a crap?!?

Week after week, month after month, and year after year, many have learned to ignore the splashes. It’s just entertainment after all, right? Umm…

I’m a romantic, so I like to think the splash is not Icarus sinking into Davey Jone’s Locker. I like to envision him getting close enough to the burning light of reason, he realizes his world is upside-down. He no longer fears falling and sheds his father’s wings. He’s actually flying; for real, he… is… flying!

Think Neo being unplugged from the Matrix.

My romantic self likes to think of the splashes as being all the social, religious, political, inhumane mechanical bodies–the dim promises of transcendent flight–plunging into the waters of stupidity far below. Like Icarus, I envision myself shedding my inherited biases to soar high, far above the superstitious storytellers, religious dogma and prejudiced contemporary philosophers.

Together, we live without regret in the brilliant light of free thought and discovery.

Have I peaked your interest?

More romantic, sentimental musings to come soon… #Icarusflew #noregrets

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Daedulus and Icarus drawing by Lyle Saunders – click pic for link

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