God is Not Great: first impressions and thoughts on book and author

I’m three chapters into God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by the late, atheist debater and journalist Christopher Hitchens, and I’m getting a few distinct impressions of the author’s overall argument and personal qualities.

At the end of the first chapter of this book, I wrote, “So far, I’ve found this book alternatingly entertaining, saddening, thought-provoking, wise, foolish, absorbing, and irksome (sometimes several of these at once). I can’t wait to continue.” That remains true.

A few initial thoughts:

Who was Hitch really mad at?

It seems his original gripe was with 20th-century, British-American, pietistic, ideologically-driven, shallow, pseudo-Christian religion, of the kind that is commonly seen in the U.K. and U.S.A. today (and about which there’s certainly plenty to criticize). I sense his complaint started there (very legitimately) and grew with his experience to encompass all forms of legalistic, domineering religious belief and practice (of which there’s been no shortage in world history).

He accurately sees and rightly repudiates much that is vile, regressive, and unjust in many religious people, factions, and organizations across the world.

Are “religious” conflicts religious?

In any conflict in which the opposing sides have claimed different religious denominations, Hitch seems to automatically assume that religion must have been at the heart of the conflict (or at least an intensifying factor). I mean conflicts like the Roman Catholic Croats vs. the Orthodox Serbs, or the Northern Irish Protestants vs. the Southern Irish Catholics.

I have a problem with that automatic assumption: it seems plain to me that, in cases like these, religion has been completely assimilated into nationalism. As Hitchens says, “To be Croatian…is to be Roman Catholic.”

The transition from religion to religion-as-nationalism is easy, natural, and common, but I don’t think that’s because religion is predisposed to it: it’s because people are disposed to be nationalist and tribalist, and nationalists will seize on any difference at all to puff themselves up at the expense of the “others.” And once religion has become “baked into” a culture—once the form is everywhere and the substance is gone—then one of the most obvious differences between the nationalist’s culture and the “enemy’s” culture is their religion. So this too is chewed up by tribalists—and readily received by the outwardly religious who’ve lost any real substance of what their ancestors believed.

His doctrine

So far, he doesn’t strike me as having well understood the claims the Bible and Jesus Christ actually make about themselves and God. Then again, for all I know at this point, that could be because the people he most criticized didn’t well understand these things either.

His language

He was a commander of words, with a sharp and incisive mind—a true reporter’s eye and satirist’s wit. I’ve greatly enjoyed the quality of his writing.

His sweeping claims

So far, I’ve read at least one statement in this book that is plain bunk (there’s another possible one that I’m still holding in suspension of judgment).

The statement, from chapter 4, is, “The attitude of religion to medicine, like the attitude of religion to science, is always necessarily problematic and very often necessarily hostile.”

Always? Necessarily? This was too much for me. Did Hitchens honestly not know of the faith of Galileo, Kepler, James Clerk Maxwell, Michael Faraday, Copernicus, Mendel, or a host of other great figures in the history of modern science and medicine? Not even of very contemporary figures like Raymond Damadian, co-inventor of the MRI scan? What about Christian theologian and Oxford biophysicist Alister McGrath? Or even Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian, whom Hitchens chose to supervise his medical care during his battle with esophageal cancer?

I mean no acrimony towards Hitchens in saying all this. The statement I’ve highlighted is simply exasperating. It puts me out of patience, as the old idiom goes.

I suppose the most charitable interpretation is that Hitchens grew up (as seems likely) in a pseudo-Christian community that discouraged and deplored science as a menace to faith; from there, perhaps he bought into the popular narrative that faith and science are inherently opposed. This blatantly false narrative is now so common that many people seem to think it self-obvious, and Hitchens may have been one of them.

Other impressions of Hitchens

In no particular order, it seems to me he:

  • had a fine aesthetic sensibility
  • was wise enough to wonder at the marvels of the universe
  • could be crude and vitriolic
  • was very well-read
  • was well-traveled and, if there’s anything to his brief sketches of his journalistic journeys (which I see no reason to doubt), physically courageous

Last words

Just to be clear, Hitchens and I would have disagreed on nearly every fundamental question of life, especially the question of who is Jesus of Nazareth.

All the same, had circumstances concurred, I think he and I could have been friends. At the very least, I would’ve enjoyed a chance to talk with him. I hope he had someone in his life to show him plainly, not in words and arguments but in deeds and manner, who Christ really is.

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What Tolkien’s greatest tragedy teaches us about how to live

Though Túrin, a mighty warrior, was cursed by Morgoth (Sauron’s master, from way before the events of The Lord of the Rings), he had the opportunity to escape the curse—but he continually made terrible choices that brought pain on himself and ruin and death to everyone around him. He tried to do the right thing, but his pride continually prevented him from doing what was best.

Túrin had his excellent qualities: he was strong, skillful and brave in battle, and compassionate to the needy, and he had a strong sense of justice. But all of these could not overcome his pride, hotheadedness, desire for glory, and refusal to listen to wise counsel. In fact, his strength and charisma only made the effects of his pride and rashness even worse.

What Túrin teaches us is that a strong and compassionate person will still cause suffering and bring ruin if they allow themselves to be arrogant and foolhardy, ignoring good advice and seeking glory and revenge.

His story is told in a chapter of The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s great history of Middle-Earth from its beginning through millennia of the war of the elves with Morgoth, and in The Children of Húrin, a novel.

I graduated from an extraordinary place of learning, and now I get to encourage others to go!

Vision of Inner Thoughts 0007 by agsandrew

A couple weeks ago, I noticed a student in the Sunday school class that I help teach. She answered the questions in a weary tone, looking bored.

That sparked something in me. I guessed she was bored with the lesson because she was already far beyond it. She was ready to learn more sophisticated stuff than the basics being taught.

I remembered what it was like for me in public school — constantly frustrated that we couldn’t move ahead more quickly.

While keeping an eye on the class, I started writing on an index card. While the other teachers were cleaning up at the end of the lesson, I called her over.

“I noticed that the lesson seemed a little simple for you. You get easily bored in school, don’t you? You get frustrated because you could be learning much faster than the class?”

She confirmed exactly that.

I told her what I’d written, then handed the paper to her. Here it is:

Try to get your parents to send you to Trinity Classical Academy. There, you will learn much more and more deeply than at public school.

Whether or not you can go to Trinity, go to The Master’s College. There you will learn to divide and discern the truth, rightly handle the word of God, and know yourself aright. You will find true learning, guided by the light of God’s truth, administered by teachers and staff who really care about their students.

If you go to Master’s, work as hard as you can to get scholarships. I recommend the book How to Go To College Almost for Free, by Ben Kaplan.

Good luck, and God bless. Never stop learning.

-Nathan Paul, alumnus, The Master’s College

She glanced over the paper, looked up at me with a big smile, and left.

Book TunnelOnward and upward!

Image credits:
“Vision of Inner Thoughts 0007” by agsandrew [CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 License] via DeviantART. No changes made from original.
“Knowledge tunnel” by PublicDomainPictures [CC0 Public Domain license] via Pixabay.

Won’t fascists just go away if we ignore them?

Image result for nazi rally

From Joe Messina, a local Republican Party chairman, in the Santa Clarita Signal:

“Chairman Messina argued that if counter protesters hadn’t shown up in the first place, nothing would have happened and the white supremacist message, which he and his fellow 38th District Republicans strongly oppose, would not have been broadcast on an international level . . . ‘You let those idiots over there go do their thing, leave them alone, don’t give them any attention and they burn themselves out,’ Messina said” (A5).

No, they don’t. They don’t stamp and scream for attention and tucker themselves out unheeded. They’re not toddlers. They’re ideologues. It’s ignorant and shortsighted to suggest that the best strategy is to simply ignore them until they go away.

White supremacists are dedicated to white power. Their “great cause” carries quasi-religious tones. They will no more starve from lack of attention than will ISIS. They imagine their culture, their way of life, and their very bodies are threatened. When you believe you’re threatened this way, do you just quiet down because no one’s paying attention? No: you yell louder.

Fascism will be a danger for as long as the United States exists. As long as there are people frustrated with the political process who are willing to justify violence to get their way, fascism will be a threat. Fascism will be a threat as long as anyone buys the myth of racial superiority.

Evil must be called out for what it is, because evil does not die in the dark. It festers.

 

 

Citation:
Ender, G. and Monterrosa, C. (2017, August 15). SCV reacts to Charlottesville events. The Santa Clarita Valley Signal, pp. A3, A5.

I had a dream: I must master kung fu

Lightning Storm at Beach Over the Atlantic Ocean

I had a dream that said I’m destined to master kung fu. I’m doing it.

I was in a videogame, watching myself, not sure I was controlling my actions. The action climaxed on a tropical beach. The clouds turned crimson and thundered, and from the lightning over the water a giant rubber ducky appeared. This monstrosity shot lightning bolts at me; I found myself dodging at incredible speed with martial mastery. Then I woke up.

So kung fu? Essentially, it’s not a martial art, but “skill gained through long effort and application of prolonged practice” (according to Victor Mair of UPenn).

As a citizen, debater, employee, speaker, and soon-to-be teacher, the skill I’m destined to master is kung fu of the mind.

Here’s how I read the dream: whether real life is illusion (videogame or otherwise), whether I really have agency over my actions, whether this dream was a sign or subconscious gibberish, whatever horrors strange or mundane may come, I must do the best I can with my abilities and circumstances. So I’m learning to ground myself and discern and interpret all things nimbly and skillfully, whatever their source: to engage with information and argument, take it all in, take it apart, critique it, digest, and apply it, whether in the realm of literature, teaching, science, business, or anything — to see the lightning coming, dodge, and (eventually) learn to redirect it back.

I know kung fu. And it will empower everything I do in life, for building my students, others, and myself.

 

This short and somewhat silly (but mostly serious) submission was created for Unigo’s I Have a Dream scholarship.

[Photo cred Kim Seng via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Answering ancient questions: what is goodness?

death-of-socrates-cropped

People’ve been asking this question for a long, long, long time.

About 2,300 years ago, in ancient Greece, a very wise man named Plato recorded many of the words of his master, Socrates. Once, Socrates had a conversation with a priest of the gods, whose name was Euthyphro. Socrates loved to ask people questions about all sorts of things. In this case, he questions Euthyphro on the nature of “piety” or “piousness:” that is, following what the gods command.

The fundamental question becomes: is the pious pious because the gods ordain it, or is the pious some higher standard that the gods adhere to?

This question has come down through history to us like this: is goodness good because God commands it, or is God held by some higher standard of good? Both answers have problems. (more…)

Love came down at Christmas time: why we celebrate


Perhaps the greatest mystery of the faith is this: God gives us no less gift than Himself, through the person of Jesus Christ, facilitated by the work of the Holy Spirit.

It may be partially understood this way: the greatest gift a good parent can give is themselves. Ultimately, your children don’t want your money, gifts, or any other material thing: they want you. They want your love, time, play, and affirmation. Don’t we see how children simply want to be near mom and dad? To children who are secure in the love of their parents (a desperately rare thing), their parents themselves are the cure for what ails them.

In much the same way, God’s ultimate answer for a broken world, a world crying out for peace and justice, was not the flame and the sword; it was not to appear in terror and execute the evildoers in one fell stroke; it was not welfare programs or money or food; it was not education, law, or medicine; it was not setting a code for people to live up to, to better themselves by their own willpower. It was Himself.

It was Himself — the unimaginable, unanticipated thing — God Himself in human form; and not just any human, but a baby boy, born in a stable to a pair of poor peasants in some no-name backcountry, far from the seat of nobility and worldly power, turned away by all and heralded to no one except a few outcasts and foreigners.

With the poor, oppressed, and lowly

Lived on earth our Savior holy

When a king or president returns to his people or visits a foreign country, he is attended by great pomp and circumstance: soldiers, parades, dignitaries, receptions, lavish gifts, etc. That is the world’s way. That was not God’s way.

The people of the time were looking forward to a military Messiah, come to ride in victory and cast off the shackles of Rome, come to make Israel great again. What they got instead was a baby: the God-man, the perfect man, destined to die a traitor’s death and rise again so that we could be near Him and become like Him.

That is the greatest Gift of all, and that is what we celebrate at Christmas.

That is why we say “merry Christmas” to total strangers; that is why we put up lights in remembrance of the Light of the World; that is why we bring evergreen trees into our homes to symbolize the eternal life; that is why we deck out in green for peace and life, red for love and the blood of Christ, and white for purity and holiness; that is why we ring the bells and go a-caroling for the music of heaven and choir of angels; that is why we give gifts in remembrance of the greatest Gift of all.

And our eyes at last shall see Him,

Through His own redeeming love;

For that Child so dear and gentle,

Is our Lord in heaven above:

And He leads His children on,

To the place where He is gone.

So, everyone: merry Christmas!

Two servers: a short, simple story

CafeOne day in a little café, a man ate a sandwich, paid his tab, and left. As the server moved to clear the table, he was astonished to find $1,000 in cash left there by the man. He ran outside to find the customer, but he was gone. Trembling, he told the other servers, the cook, and the owner of the cafe. The owner advised him to keep it, since the man had obviously left it there on purpose. The server tried to distribute it among the other workers, but they were afraid and wouldn’t accept.

Having waited on him, the server felt sure there was no harm in the man. He’d been gracious and quiet, and strangest of all, after the server had taken his order, he had looked up in his face and asked, “And is there anything I can do for you?” The way he had looked and the tone of his voice had made the server feel as though the man meant what he said—but he had averted his eyes, embarrassed, and answered, “No, thank you.”

The server thought he had given decent service, but knew that even his best could never have earned this. From that day forward, he served every customer, no matter how rude, as though they were that man again.

The next day, the server was not there, so no one recognized the man when he came in again.

He did just as he’d done the day before. This time, he had a different server: one who took the question, “Is there anything I can do for you?” as a subtle sarcasm, a snare to see if he’d presume on the man’s kindness.

The man again left a $1,000 tip. His server was just as shocked as the first one had been, but decided it would be better not to make a fuss and slipped the money in his pocket without a word to anyone. All that day and the next, he could think of nothing but the tip.

He began to think this man must have recognized how great a server he was, and had rewarded him appropriately. How gracious, he thought, how discreet, how friendly, how professional and crisp! Why, anyone in the world would be lucky to be served by him.

He went to work from then on confident that he was the best server in the world, even, he thought, if his self-centered, ungracious customers lacked the discernment to see it. This made such a change in his conduct that he was fired in short order.

The hundred things I’d rather do than achieve my dreams

Alright, finally sitting down for another installment of chasing my calling with hard mental labor, in the form of studying for the GRE. And then the malaise hits. Suddenly playing Bejeweled, scrolling through Facebook/Twitter, calling a friend, getting a donut, cleaning my desk, or hacking through my ever-expanding reading list all sound way better than studying.

I know what will happen if I don’t: I won’t score high on the GRE or won’t take it in time, and if those don’t happen, I (most likely) won’t get into any of the grad schools I want and I’ll have to wait another year to apply again, which means putting off another year my dream of becoming a full-time English professor with benefits (yes, in this economy. I know the odds I’m up against.)

Every time I finally sit down to study (or do anything else productive), that stupid little mind-goblin is at the back of my thoughts, whispering that hey, it’s been a long week and I deserve a break, and I’ll have plenty of time next week.

Beating off that stupid little goblin is one reason I’m rushing through this blog post and not taking time to edit, so I can start afresh on the business of chasing down my dream, wrestling it to the ground, and riding it like a majestic ostrich across the sun-kissed plains of the savanna.

Totally yes.

Using Snagit to instantly let all your friends know about the “double-decker couch”

Say you’re watching a “trailer” for a “movie” (that hasn’t come out yet at the time of this publication) and the phrase/image “double-decker couch” appears (this could really be any movie). By the time you’re done peeling yourself off the carpet after falling out of your chair because you’re laughing so hard, you know you have to share this momentary comedic masterpiece with absolutely all your Facebook friends, from your most treasured comrades to those people from high school that you haven’t talked to in years and with whom you only remain connected through mutual negligence.

What do you do? Post a link to the video with directions to “omg watch this hilarious vid to 1:53 #waitforit #dyingoflaughter #rofl #rollingonthefloorlaughing #incaseyoudidntgettheacronym #goonwithoutme #mywillisintheorangecrateinthegarage”? That might be what you’d do if you didn’t have Snagit©® (and were a 15-year-old girl). With Snagit©®, you can use ©®Snagit to take that video, pause it at the exact moment of the pièce de résistance, and Snag©® It©®!

Now, you can post that photo to Facebook — or, if you’re a really smart monkey, you won’t have to, because you’ll already have set up ©®Snagit®© to automatically post it for you (which is totally a thing that it can do)! Now you can have all your friends laugh alongside you from the comfort of their electronic device of choice so you can all be buddies together!

If nothing else, it’ll be a great way to remind all those high-school people that you’re still Facebook friends so they can delete you and save you the trouble.

* * *

[This has been an exercise in comedy advertising, and the blame for its existence may be squarely laid upon this man. The next 10 seconds of history will long remember what hath been visited upon the Internet at his behest].

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