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What Would People Think?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Four words: "Jeff Woodhead, Rock God!"

That is all. An explanation may follow at some point.

[Update]: While I'm remarking upon the awesomeness of my friends, here's four more words for ya: "Kenny Ching, Published Author"

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Thoughts While Sick, Day 2

So I'm still sick. Yesterday I attempted to go into work and got a half day in before I realized I'd made a terrible, mucus-ridden mistake. Today, after the worst night of half-sleep imaginable, I decided going to work wasn't worth the effort. Let's hear it for sick leave! Hope I'm not still sick tomorrow, since I will be traveling.

On with the random collection of thoughts.....

1. The Air Out There

Normally, Atlanta is a great place to live. Lots to do, a variety of cultures, a vibrant series of festivals, several excellent parks, and so forth. But the air quality during the summer in this car-addicted city leaves something to be desired. Especially when smoke from the South Georgia wildfires travels 250 miles to cover the city. Needless to say, this doesn't help when you're sick. And poor Christy, who has used up all her sick leave, is having to walk in this stuff in downtown Atlanta. Breathing is getting to be a real pain.

2. Relient K Concert

On Friday, before the sickness struck, I went to see Relient K in concert. Relient K is a Christian pop-punk group that stands a step above both the usual pop-punk crowd and the usual Christian music. Their lyrics are often witty and/or spiritually insightful. Their music - at least, their music 2 albums ago - is interesting and moderately experimental (for their genre). Thus, I've included a lot of their stuff on my mix CDs. Their latest album is a real disappointment, though. It seems, after finding success with the MTV generation (by which I mean "teenagers") they've decided to tone down the wit, spiritual insight, and experimentation for an album heavy on bland love songs. There are a few highlights, which will inevitably make it into a mix CD of mine....but not much.

So, when I went to the concert, I wasn't surprised to find myself surrounded by teenagers. It's weird, being 26 years old and feeling like a geezer. To the people in my office, I'm the kid. To the people in the concert, I was probably the creepy old guy. It didn't help that Christy had to bow out of attending with me because - in case you haven't guessed - she was sick.

Still, overall, I liked the show. Lead singer Matt Thiessen exudes enthusiasm and, well, niceness. When the opening act was performing, he ran out with a bullhorn to join the song and encourage the audience to cheer for the band. I liked that. I also liked that he showed that all-important willingness to make an absolute fool of himself (i.e. by introducing one song with a ballerina twirl). My favorite moment of the night came when they covered Weezer's "Surf Wax America" off the blue album. In introducing the song, Thiessen admitted they had picked an odd cover since nobody at their shows knew the song. After all, Weezer's blue album came out in 1994 and, as Thiessen told the teenage crowd, "I realize that many of you probably came out after 1994."

In the end, of course, I enjoyed the show by being Ben - full-on air guitar and singing badly at the top of my lungs. By the time they closed with "Which to Bury - Us or the Hatchet" (then the 3 song encore ending with, of course, "Be My Escape") I felt totally connected with the audience of people 10 years younger than me. (Incidentally, this night wasn't particular great for the venue's bar sales. Wrong audience, dude. A bunch of Christian kids under 21, some with chaperones. The bartenders looked kind of bored.)

3. My Character Flaw (well, one of my character flaws)

From concert reviews to introspection, here we go! Some time as I was standing there feeling like an outsider it occurred to me - I was feeling insecure because a bunch of teenagers I've never met and will probably never meet again might think poorly of me. Is my crippling need to be liked really THAT bad?

Apparently it is. In the aftermath of the theological debate on my blog, I called up Zhubin out of the blue to ask if he thought less of me now. Zhubin assured me that he did not, but nevertheless it must have been a bizarre phone call for him. After all, he and I have spoken maybe 2 or 3 times in the 4 years since we graduated Vanderbilt. (Not counting comments on each other's blogs.) Even at Vanderbilt, we were more friendly acquaintances than best buddies. So why should I be so concerned about his opinion of me that I call him while he's having dinner with his family for the sole reason of asking his opinion of me? But I'm sad to say that my biggest fear in writing those 2 blog posts was not that I would fail to represent my faith well, but that I would say something that would make people not like me.

A related manifestation of this problem - after I had satisfied myself that Zhubin didn't hate me, merely disagreed with me, I came across this comment on Zhubin's blog by an anonymous commenter with a chip on his/her shoulder. And I again spiraled into depression that this person thought so little of me. That's right, I was driven to depression by the low opinion of someone I had never met and never will meet who fails to even identify himself/herself.

I'm not sure how this crippling desire to be liked by everybody began - perhaps when I was at the bottom of the social ladder in middle school. But I find myself constantly worrying about what people think of me. This isn't a good trait to have. It's not a good trait as a lawyer - if I get too concerned about what opposing counsel thinks of me, I open myself up to manipulation by someone who doesn't have my (or my client's) best interests at heart. It's not a good trait as a Christian - as has been amply demonstrated, sometimes openly saying what I believe will piss people off....and I should not try to hide my faith to make it or me socially acceptable. Overall, it's a desire that's impossible to fulfill. It's impossible to have everybody like me. Some people are just diametrically opposed and that's that. If I try to make people on both "sides" like me, I'll just end up twisting myself into contortions and losing my integrity.

Not that it's a bad thing to be liked or to behave in a such a manner that most people who know me like me. As a lawyer, it's helpful to my clients if I am well-respected in the legal community. As a Christian, my witness comes off a lot more authentically if I'm not a loudmouth asshole (see Falwell, Jerry...next section of this post). And - hopefully - if I am a man of integrity people will like me for it. But I can't let other people's opinions control me. Right now, that's exactly what I do.

4. On Jerry Falwell

Jerry Falwell's death created in me a mix of emotions. I've been called out in the past for celebrating the death of people I don't like (actually of someone far worse than Falwell), and I like to think I've matured enough not to do that anymore. But let's be clear - I didn't like him.

Jerry Falwell was a man for whom I had no respect. In fact, I considered him a blot on the name of Christianity. One reason is that I think he's done more than almost anybody else to smother the social/political conscience of a generation of evangelicals. Falwell - along with folks like James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and Ralph Reed - funneled evangelical political energy into only 2 areas: abortion and opposition to gay rights (and perhaps the occasional Ten Commandments monument or "War on Christmas"). Meanwhile, the following issues were completely ignored: poverty, justice for the oppressed, peace, environmental stewardship. These are all issues which Scripture teaches us to be concerned about. But ignoring them allowed Falwell and his ilk to form an alliance with the business interests in the Republican party.

Whenever anybody challenged Falwell and his allies about this alliance or suggested that Christians should expand their concerns beyond his core issues, he accused the questioner of being anti-Christian. This is what I truly detested about Falwell - his bullying willingness to personally attack anybody who disagreed with him....to question their motives and, if they were Christians, to question their very Christianity. He accused the Reverend Jim Wallis of being "as much an evangelical as an oak tree" because Wallis said poverty, torture, peace, and the environment are issues Christians should care about. He called the growing concern - even among Christians - about global warming "Satan's attempt to redirect the church's primary focus" from evangelism to environmentalism - as if he hadn't done plenty of "redirecting" for his own benefit. (By the way, if any of my Christian readers think it's a zero-sum game - that Christians must be either about evangelism or social issues - I suggest you read this quote from New Testament scholar N.T. Wright.)

I'm glad to say that Falwell's influence on evangelicals has been fading. A new generation of evangelicals has recognized - and taken principled stands - on issues like torture and global warming. Groups like International Justice Mission are literally rescuing people from slavery. Even the Southern Baptist Convention is endorsing universal health care for children.

But for all our differences, Jerry Falwell and I shared one fundamental similarity: we both believed Jesus Christ is the Son of God who came to earth in human form, died for our sins, and rose again. This is no small thing. My first thought is to recoil at the thought of considering Jerry Falwell my Christian brother, but Scripture won't let me: "If anyone says 'I love God' yet hates his brother, he is a liar." 1 John 4:20. The Bible speaks of Christians as being of "one body" and makes it quite clear that one part of that body cannot spite another without the entire body suffering.

So, as much as I despise their tactics....as much as I will vehemently oppose their politics....I cannot hate Jerry Falwell or others like him. In fact I am called to love them. I have no idea how to do that. All I know is that I share the same deep spiritual bond with the Falwells of the world as I do with Christians that I like.

So, rest in peace, Jerry. We'll find out soon enough who was right in our areas of disagreement. Or, indeed, if any of the things we Christians fought so passionately about really mattered.


Aaaaaaaand that's it for "Thoughts While Sick." Hopefully, I'll be better tomorrow. I wrote this post - in between sleeping and staring at the television - over a 5 hour period. While I'm glad to get all my thoughts down, part of me hopes I won't have this much free time again. At least, not for the same reason.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Thoughts While Sick

Seems the only time I find time to blog is when I'm sick. I'm home in bed for the 2nd time in 3 weeks. A cold so bad it feels like my head is going to explode. So, logically, I might as well blog. You can draw parallels between my thoughts and mucus, but that's just gross.

So here's a random assortment of things I've been meaning to blog about.....with absolutely no connecting theme!

1. Happy Feet [Caution: here be spoilers]

Happy Feet won the Oscar for best animated film over Cars, a film that I and my toddler-age nephew love with equal fervor. Christy and I finally got around to watching it this weekend while - you guessed it - we were both sick.

It's.....kinda weird. It starts with cuteness which is made all the funnier if you've seen March of the Penguins and had to listen to Top 40 radio in the late 80s-early 90s. Dancing, singing, marching penguins. I'll accept that. Then our hero, Mumble (voice of Frodo Baggins/Kevin) gets kicked out of the pack (or whatever you call a group of penguins) because he can't sing...only dance. Typical animated fish out of water who must prove his worth. Ok, fine, I can accept that if done well. The big problem Mumble has to solve is why there aren't any fish to eat anymore. And the problem turns out to be - big surprise - humans.

Early on, this is effectively presented indirectly. Mumble almost gets run over by an abandoned bulldozer in an avalanche....a character named Lovelace claims mystical powers from the fact that he has one of those six-pack plastic things around his neck. But then things just get weird. Mumble gets caught and put in the zoo and when he looks out he sees....actual human beings. I mean, not even animated human beings....but actors. This totally wrecks the reality of the movie. It's hard to suspend your disbelief about dancing, singing penguins when there's actual human beings staring at these animated creatures. It kind of freaks you out, too. And then the movie gets all preachy with something like a U.N. meeting where the human world decides to stop over-fishing.

Sure, I agree with the environmental message. But how could this awkward message film beat out the imaginative wonder that was Cars?

Oh, crap. I need to go drive, while sick, through rush hour traffic to pick up Christy from work. Because she's sick, you know.

Coming up on Thoughts While Sick (if I have time): Spider Man 3, my report on the Relient K concert, my dilemma about Blogger ads, my discovery of one of my character flaws, and my thoughts on Jerry Falwell.

If I don't have time to write about all of those, is there any one you would particularly care to hear about? "I don't really care to hear your thoughts" is a valid answer, but not a particularly nice thing to say to sick person.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Follow-Up Question

An interesting question arising out of the discussion in the last post.

Imagine you are personally in charge of designing the spiritual reality. Not just designing a religion, but designing the way things are.

Assume also that there is something like a Heaven and a Hell. (In my belief, as I state below, Heaven is a relationship with God and Hell is separation from God.....but for the purposes of this question I'm talking about any sort of reward and/or punishment.) I know not all of you believe in such things, but let's imagine for the purposes of discussion.

What would be a perfect or correct system to decide who goes where?

Christians trumpet as great mercy the idea that all you have to do to obtain salvation (that is, re-connect with God) is.....well....ask for it. Afterwards, as I explained below, much is demanded in terms of love and self-sacrifice, but it's quite simple at the start.

Zhubin tells me he finds such a system abhorrent....a system where only loyalty is demanded no matter how loving or cruel you are.

So I ask my readers, how should it be? If there is a Heaven/Hell, what would be the right way for deciding who goes where?

If it's a merit-based system, where should we draw the line and why? If it's on some other basis
, what is that basis? Or should we just let everybody in?

I personally like a system which is simple to get into (ask for it) but demands much of you afterwards (love). But I would....I'm a Christian.

What system would you choose and why?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Response to Zhubin, Part 2

In this second post (for the first post, see here), I want to respond to something Zhubin said which has less to do with the truth or falsehood of Christianity, and more to do with why Christians annoy the everlovin' crap out of him:

[I]f you can reduce the unfathomable diversity of spiritual thought throughout human history to a set of enumerated beliefs that must be literally accepted, and you honestly believe that anything less will be punished with eternal suffering, then our conversation is over, and you can shut the fuck up about the beauty of your faith. It's ugly, through and through.
How did this happen? When did "God loves you so much he sent his Son to die for you and freely offers you grace if you will accept it" become "join us or die"?

Certainly much of the blame falls on Christians. From the fire-and-brimstone preachers to the smug bumper stickers, Christians have often portrayed hell as eternal, horrific torture meted out on people for not being Christians. I can't read Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God" without getting pissed off. The God who "holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire [and] abhors you" is not the God I recognize.

But let's start over. Let me explain precisely what I think is beautiful about the faith I follow and the Christian God I believe in. This may not interest you, but if any of my readers believe, like Zhubin, that Christianity is "ugly, through and through" I'd appreciate if you'd at least listen to my reasons for disagreeing.

It starts with the ugly - but hard to dispute - idea that we humans screw up. A lot. Just look around you. There's war, addiction, emotional cruelty, injustice, broken friendships, failed marriages, ruined ecosystems, lies, manipulation, poverty, selfishness. Who among us has perfectly lived up to even his or her own standards of right and wrong, much less any external system of morality (whether that system comes from religion or otherwise)? If we're not guilty of murder, then I bet we're still guilty of indifference or even the occasional cruelty toward our fellow human beings. The religious term for this state is "sin", but you can call it what you like.

The other opening idea of my faith is a perfect God who (a) desires a personal relationship with each of us and (b) knows what's best for us. (Hey, he made us. Just like the manufacturer of an I-Pod knows best how to operate it and how not to.) But here's the key - by acting out our moral failings....by choosing our own way instead of his, we are personally rejecting him. We are severing that relationship. If we keep it up for a lifetime, we have freely chosen to be apart from God and He finally lets us stay away from him.

And that's what Hell is. It's an eternal separation from God. It's not, as is sometimes popularly portrayed, an eternal torture chamber to punish people for not being Christian. Don't get me wrong, eternal separation from God is horrible....we were designed for a relationship with him. But it is something freely chosen, not something imposed upon people for being in the "outsider" group.

Here's where the beauty part comes in. Despite our freely chosen rejection of him, God reached out to us anyway. He chose to come down in human form to be among us. While here, he healed the sick, hung out with society's rejects, and taught about radical, self-sacrificing love. And then, while we were still mired in our failings and self-absorption, he backed his words up with actions. By willingly suffering a horrific death and rising back to life, he took the guilt for our wrongdoing and re-opened the path to re-establishing our relationship with him. It's still our choice whether we want to take that path and establish that relationship; he hasn't robbed us of our free will. But he's given us a way.

A God who doesn't just look down from on high at our plight as screwed-up, broken souls....but who actively joins us and suffers with us......who makes the ultimate sacrifice so that we have the choice of a relationship with him. There's a word to describe that: Love.

In addition to the ultimate example of love in the form of Jesus, Christianity gives me teachings like "love your neighbor as yourself" and even "love your enemy", teachings so radical and earth-shattering that they would transform the world if only they were lived up to....and have transformed the world in part whenever people have lived up to them. (I once discussed the radical nature of these teachings here. Zhubin commented extensively on that post, though for some reason his comments are now attributed to "anonymous.") Beautiful? Damn straight it is.

The great failing of the church is how rarely we Christians have lived up to those teachings, and how often we have failed to convey the beauty of the teachings and of the actions of Jesus. But that's an indictment of Christians, not Christianity. (And that's not really what Zhubin was complaining about in the quote above, anyway.)

So, if you want to criticize the James Dobsons and Ralph Reeds of the world, I'm right there with you and will join you. (Heck, it's how I began this blog just over 2 years ago.) If you want to criticize the Jim Wallises and Tony Campolos of the world, I'm willing to listen and maybe agree. If you want to criticize the Mother Teresas and Martin Luther Kings of the world....well, I'll have to respectfully, but vehemently disagree with you. But still, let's talk. If you want to criticize me.....well, I may well deserve it and I hope I'll be grown-up enough to listen.

Christians are often - but not always - an ugly bunch, which is a damn shame given the beliefs we supposedly espouse. But Christianity is beautiful and no, I will not shut the fuck up about it.

A Response to Zhubin, Part 1

[Note: I have time to write this post only because I'm at home sick. Since I might set off a lengthy discussion here, I hope I have time to actually participate in it.]

Zhubin Parang is a fellow Vanderbilt grad whose blog I read with regularity and with great pleasure. He's by far the wittiest blogger that I know - if I ever get around to that "funniest blog post" contest I said I was going to do months and months ago, he will have at least two entries that left me laughing so hard I cried (and I'm probably forgetting some). And since we share many of the same political opinions - especially a dedication to the rule of law - I enjoy reading as he says the things I want to say, only with more wit.

Several weeks ago, Zhubin wrote two posts attacking (he might say debunking) Christianity and Christians, based on his reading or Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. It has taken me a while to figure out how to respond. My first instinct was to respond in the strident, sarcastic manner of Dawkins - but I realized that all I could accomplish there was a flame war. My next instinct was to go into full-blown apologetics - before I realized that (a) that would practically require writing a book to go into all the points and counterpoints made throughout history, and (b) I'm not sure I would convince anybody of anything. Christy wanted to tell her personal story - how she went from sharing some of Zhubin's opinions about Christians (she once found evangelicals like myself to be "cultish") through her struggles with faith and God to becoming a Christian herself. That's a worthy story to tell, and maybe someday I'll post her story on this blog (or my own story, for that matter)....but not today.

Today, my ambitions are limited - and more blog-post length. I want to respond briefly to two of his assertions. Maybe this will lead to other discussions in the comment section or future blog posts. (Hopefully, they won't be one-sided discussions. The other reason for my delay in writing was that I haven't had time for more than the occasional one-sentence comment on friends' blogs, much less discussions which require actual thought and time commitment. How does a first-year law firm slave like Zhubin find the time to do this stuff?) (That was a dig at law firms which overwork their attorneys, not at Zhubin.)

The first assertion I want to respond to:

[A]ny assertions of divine intervention are actually scientific hypotheses, testable and falsifiable through the scientific method. . . .

Here's where it sucks for you as a Christian: because your religion wholly depends on divine interventions, and claims of divine interventions are subject to empirical analysis, you have committed yourself to hinging your religious beliefs on scientific analyses of those claims of divine intervention. And there is NO scientific evidence to prove a single damn one of any miracle Jesus made, let alone the Big One.

But come on, you say, it's impossible to find samples of Jesus's DNA to prove his divine heritage, or of evidence to prove his miracles two thousand years ago. Well, tough shit for you. It's on you to prove his divinity, and if you can't gather the evidence for it, what possible reason should anyone have to give your claims more validity than Scientology's claims of Xenu? You have NOTHING more going for you, you realize that? YOU HAVE WHAT SCIENTOLOGY HAS.

Tell me, Zhubin, do you believe in the existence of Julius Caesar? Do you believe he was a military leader in an ancient empire called Rome? Do you believe he was assassinated by a group of senators? That among his assassins was a guy called Brutus (or some variant on that name)?

I'm guessing that you - like any person with a reasonable grasp of history - do believe these things. What basis do you have for believing these things...or believing in the existence of any events in the ancient world? You have documentary evidence...things written by or about Caesar, as near to the time of his existence as possible.

And I have the eyewitness accounts as written in and/or recounted to the writers of the Gospels. (Along with accounts of historians hostile to Christianity in latter decades that confirm at least some of the details of the Gospels.)

Before you scoff and say I'm just making the fallacy of relying on a sacred text to prove its own truth, wait up a second. I'm only asking that they be judged on the same standard as any other historical document.

What makes a historical document reliable in the eyes of historians? 3 things come to mind:

First - Eyewitness accounts (or first-hand writings of the person himself) count more than second-hand accounts. The reason for this is kind of obvious. Same reason courts prefer direct testimony over hearsay.

Second - Number of manuscripts. This allows comparisons of one manuscript to another for accuracy and discrepancies. If an event is significant, many manuscripts would be produced. The greater the number of manuscripts shows greater circulation, geographical spread, and widespread public acceptance and knowledge.

Third - The time between the event and the earliest manuscript found to date. The more time, the more room for manuscript makers to insert embellishments and the like. If an event happened 1,000 years ago and all we have is current manuscripts, who's to correct an error in the manuscript? It's at least a lot harder than if....say, someone said the planes on 9/11 flew into the Sears Tower and the White House. We would instantly refute that assertion based on what we saw with our own eyes on TV. If someone said JFK was killed by a car bomb, we'd call him a liar...even though we personally weren't alive then, many who are alive could have conclusively refuted him and laughed him out of town. If someone said the south won the Civil War or the American Revolution was fought against Holland, we'd make sure she wasn't a history teacher that's for damn sure. Nobody alive now was alive then, but we are still close in time to know events did not happen that way.

Caesar's account of the Gallic Wars describes events happening in his lifetime (eyewitness accounts, that's good), 100-44 B.C. The earliest copy we have of his works are from 900 A.D., 1000 years after the event. We have 10 manuscripts from that era. Take most other ancient writings, and the story is the same...the works of Sophocles (496-406 B.C.) - Earliest Manuscript: 1000 A.D....Time lag: 1400 years. Number of Manuscripts: 193.

The New Testament (written about 40-100 A.D.). Earliest known manuscript: 125 A.D. Time lag: 25 years. Number of manuscripts: 24,000. (Caveat: not all are complete manuscripts of every part of it...some are only portions.)

We believe in the existence of Caesar, Sophocles and the like...and believe we are reading at least a rough approximation of their words. And we believe it based on much less - and much weaker - documentary evidence than we have for the eyewitness accounts of Jesus.

But, you say, these are religious texts...not to be believed. First off, ancient historical documents are rarely written without an agenda, but we still believe them in at least the broad strokes. (And most documents written with an agenda wouldn't make their heroes look like such losers...as most of the main characters of the New Testament except Jesus look. Someone who was more concerned with truth might be less willing to make themselves look better...and would record even their dumb moves.) Second, the fact that - decades after they were written - early church fathers chose to group these eyewitness accounts into a sacred text and call them the Gospels doesn't really affect whether they were true or not. Third, secular historians like Flavius Josephus and Cornelius Tacitus wrote about the Christian movement around the same time, confirming it in broad strokes and without any sympathy to their cause.

Okay, now I'm just rambling. I don't expect to convince people of the truth of Christianity with this. But I do intend to show that we have more than Scientology has. My point was to show that, contrary to Zhubin's assertion, Christians have evidence of their faith - documentary historical evidence. Does this prove it a 100% certainty - the same certainty with which we can say that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius? No, but neither can we prove the existence of Julius Caesar to any greater certainty. How, aside from the historical record, is the assertion that any event took place in the ancient world "testable and falsifiable"?

I will respond to another of Zhubin's assertions in my next post. I've decided to split them into two posts because they would likely spark two very different discussions and I don't want one discussion to dominate the other.