Detail of frame from "Darker Than Black: Gemini of the Meteor", episode 9, 'They Met One Day, Unexpectedly ...'.  L-R, Kiko Kayanuma, July, and Suou Pavlichenko discuss the profitability of a cat café versus more mundane work as a book editor, and Mao (lower right) hides in Suou's satchel.

“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

“Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Matthew 6.1-8 (RSV)

Prayer is certainly something to do if you cannot or will not do anything more useful.One starts to wonder what God’s spam filter looks like. In the age of social media, the great testament to humanity seems to be a flood of cat videos and calls to prayer.

One could simply sever ties with their friends who are religious, but that seems stupid to the point of bigotry, and, besides, it will do nothing about the cat videos.

No, really, do you realize cat videos are a cartoon joke? As with hikikomori, the shut-ins, anime jokes about the Japanese obsession with cats are a societal critique, as gentle a prod as possible to remind that something is amiss.

In these United States, we are starting to adopt the cat obsession, and while the idea of becoming a shut-in because one owned only one pair of trousers that fell out the window one day while drying so he decided to just never leave the house again might seem obscure―and probably makes much more sense to the Japanese―what, exactly, would the joke look like if it was about Americans and prayer?

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Those annoying details

At first it seems like a simple notion: If you root against Tim Tebow because he openly expresses his faith, raise your hand.

Tim Campbell, January 12, 2012 (detail)Cartoonist Tim Campbell raises the issue in an editorial cartoon, that he might demonize—quite literally—those who would criticize the Almighty Tebow; the frame includes what appears to be Satan raising his hand.

Yet such questions are not so simple.

Some are disgusted by the idea of Tebow’s greatness, since he’s not actually that good of a quarterback in the context of the NFL; despite his wins, he finished the regular season with a 72.9 rating, which works out to about twenty-eighth in the league, behind such luminaries as Tarvaris Jackson (79.2) of the Seattle Seahawks (7-9), and Colt McCoy (74.6) of the Cleveland Browns (4-12). Tebow’s success, such as it is, owes much to his fellow Denver Broncos (8-8).

And, certainly, there are some among those critics who would focus on the fact of Tebow’s faith alone.

But Tebow’s faith is a Christian faith, and one wonders as he “Te-bows”, much as one might wonder about other players sharing that Biblical faith, when and where Jesus comes into the picture.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds:

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.

But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Then, of course, are the rumors that Tebow, in his autobiography published at the ripe old age of twenty-three, distorted the story of his gestation and birth for political reasons.

Which, in the end, makes Tebow’s faith seem more an advertising pitch to increase his monetary value in the American capitalist marketplace. And that might mean that the real devilish work is from those hands not raised in Campbell’s cartoon; the people who would celebrate Tebow’s blatant disregard for the words of Jesus Christ and willingness to deceive people in order to spread the Good News.

Oh, for the love of ….

Lily Burana decided, for some reason, that Anne Rice’s recent decision to quit being a Christian meant she needed to tell us her life story.

At some point when I wasn’t looking — I was distracted by punk rock, alt.feminism or maybe yoga — the dominant tenor of Christianity became almost unbearably shrill. As America in general became more stratified along religious and political lines, I slunk to the margins, caring less and less. Now, something rebellious and itchy has awoken in me, and I care a lot. Despite the frequent impulse to just keep quiet and hope that someone will rescue Christianity for the rest of us, I want to engage. Even if I have to start a lot of sentences with “I’m a Christian, but…” Even if I end up sounding like a two-bit Anne Lamott with anger-management issues.

After all, the self-satisfied and self-righteous have come for me, too: “YOU, a Christian? With those politics? With that past? Not with those go-go shorts, missy, your Queer Nation stickers, your unrepentant cursing, and your premarital everything.” I knew they’d show up, those stingy, uncharitable moral goalkeepers, with their underlined passages in Leviticus and their pointy-finger God. It just ain’t a Jesus party without this particular turd in the spiritual punchbowl. Maybe it’s the believer’s rite of passage — until you’ve encountered this type and had them declare a fundamental component of your identity an “abomination,” you kind of haven’t lived. The challenge is to have your faith tested this way and not blink.

And it’s testimonies like these, and Rice’s announcement via Facebook, that remind us so acutely that faith is something best kept between the believer and God.

Having run the religious gamut myself (I’ll skip the liturgy) the one thing I can say, after years of discussions both spoken and written, countless observations of diverse people’s behavior, and witnessing the train wreck that “Christianity” has become in our public discourse, there is no greater testament against conversion to faith than the faithful themselves. Seriously. In the name of Christ, she’s no longer a Christian? Or Anne Rice can leave, but Lily’s staying?

How about, fuck off?

Really, how is it that alleged Christians can rally behind lies as a call to arms? How is it that a Christian conscience can advocate torture? How the hell can a bunch of homophobes rally up behind gay preachers denouning homophobia? Perhaps it has something to do with the static superficiality of the discourse. No, seriously: This is what it comes to?

Why should we care? Aren’t there better things to worry about? Oh, right, here’s why we should care: 76% of American adults identify as Christians, according to Wikipedia. That’s a three to one margin over all other religious outlooks combined. This is the driving moral and philosophical force in American culture and thought, and this is what it’s come to?

Why would anyone ever want to be like these people?

Quadrennial quotes

It’s a long story of how I came to find this one. Okay, not so long as it is boring. And irrelevant. Well, not quite. I was toying with the idea of treating symptoms instead of diseases, and was looking for a Biblical verse. Along the way I found this story, littered as it is with amazing quotes:

“I gave my life to Jesus when I was 21, and while reading the scriptures one day, I saw a passage about Jesus telling people to chop off their hand if it causes them sin or troubles, so that’s what I did. I had a compulsive urge to grab my rod/staff and stroke it which ended up with me spilling my seed, so I knew something was wrong with me …. I tried holding my staff and spilling my seed with my left hand, but it just didn’t feel the same to me, so I decided to chop off my right hand because that was the hand that was giving me the most pleasure and guilt at the same time. I was in a real quandary and was very confused and emotional.”

• • •

“While I was in the emergency room getting sewn up, I met my current wife who was there because she had plucked out her left eye with a salad fork and she was bleeding almost as bad as I was”….

“As we were both lying there on our gurneys, she looked over at me and told me that she was addicted to winking at men she found sexually attractive with her left eye, and that after a while, her left eye seemed to have a ‘mind of its own,’ and that it had gotten her into all kinds of trouble over the past few years.”

“I couldn’t control it, and that’s why I plucked it out, just like Jesus told people to do,” she said.

• • •

“I was afraid our new baby girl might be born without a right hand because my husband had chopped his right hand off, but Dr. Shinto cleared up that evolutionary faux pas in my mind, and I now trust him with my husband’s life and also with his new right hand, whatever it turns out to look like.”

It’s not particularly well-written from a fictional perspective, and the only Google references to Timothy Ringstob I could find lead back to this story. So there’s no follow-up, like how his hand is doing four years later. And I didn’t find any major media coverage, which is odd since they’ll cover a bunch of migrant workers flocking to Yakima, Washington to see an apparition of the Virgin in the oily sheen on the back of a freeway sign.

So I’m really, really hoping this is fiction, because those are some of the funniest quotes I’ve read in a while. Seriously, adapt this thing for the screen, get actors who can deliver those lines straight, and you’ve got … well, okay, not a blockbuster, but an art-house Oscar contender.

Yeah, I know, I know. I’m four years late to this one. But, still ….

A dubious season

‘Tis the season to make the point, I suppose. Harold Meyerson brought us this little gem in Wednesday’s Washington Post:

As Christians across the world prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, it’s a fitting moment to contemplate the mountain of moral, and mortal, hypocrisy that is our Christianized Republican Party ….

…. My concern isn’t the rift that has opened between Republican political practice and the vision of the nation’s Founders, who made very clear in the Constitution that there would be no religious test for officeholders in their enlightened new republic. Rather, it’s the gap between the teachings of the Gospels and the preachings of the Gospel’s Own Party that has widened past the point of absurdity, even as the ostensible Christianization of the party proceeds apace.

There is a spectre haunting American Christianity, and in the grand American tradition it is a Devil of their own making. Satan himself might rise and declare, “I accuse”; the faithful, for all their dependence on this ancient symbol given by their belief the power of flesh and blood, would be deaf to the call.

Meyerson concerns himself with national politics, which is indeed a fitting object for examination. He targets the White House, the House GOP, the Republican presidential candidates. The indictment, on the surface, seems to describe just another day in American politics. Contrasted against the religious faith alleged at the core of GOP support, though, and juxtaposed to the rhetoric of so many Republican politicians, it is a damning accusation, and if the Devil of Christian lore has nothing to say about the course of things, it is because he is so very pleased by what he sees. Any pro athlete will tell you: don’t mess with a winning streak.

The idea of a group so dedicated to Christian expression as to childishly reiterate supremacist ideology a few years ago when the court considered the Pledge of Allegiance seemed odd enough at the time. Treading at the edge of absurdity is the idea that such a Christian expression should reject what Jesus said in order to take up, in a twist nearly infinitely ironic, a superficial jihad: the last thing these “Christians” will do is turn the other cheek. Rather, they would pretend America blameless, assert that no hostility toward our nation and its people could ever be justified, and proceed to fight back until aggression ceases. It’s like the bully who grabs your face and slams the back of your skull against a locker at school. When someone finally hauls off and punches him, he pretends innocence. “I never hit him,” says the bully. And it’s true. Instead, he merely extorted, pushed around, tripped, harassed, threatened, insulted, kicked, vandalized, and stole. None of those actually describe the closing of a fist and throwing of a punch. And in a way, I am brought to recall any number of schoolyard fights where the  aggressor would shove his target, and the intended victim would not have it. “I’m gonna kick your ass,” the bully would sneer. “So go on. Throw the first punch.”

In retrospect it seems almost perverse, but bullies are human too, and will presume themselves innocent and oppressed. After all, psychologists will tell you that few bullies are actually psychopaths; the vast majority of bullies are simply redirecting other conflicts, many of which originate at home.

To a degree, then, we do owe the bullies a measure of sympathy. But how far should that sympathy extend?

It is a valid question because one thing terrifies Americans more than death itself. (And why should death be terrifying, since a majority of Americans, by their Christian faith, look forward to the end of the world?) Generally, Americans are frightened senseless at the notion of being called bigots. Even the bigots don’t want to be seen as bigots. They recognize that their hatred is foul, so they pretend to be holy warriors, righteously xenophobic victims beset by hordes of evil outsiders. Among Americans, everyone, including obvious aggressors, fights defensively. It is tactically wise and politically effective, even and especially when that defensive stance is counterintuitive. One might look at laments coming from various Christian quarters of late and wonder, How can you be oppressed when you’re in charge?

Although the situation seems blatant, the players clearly identifiable in the age of modern media, understanding the factors can be a bit challenging. Ideological currents running back to the early twentieth century, or into the nineteenth, make for discussions unto themselves; speak nothing, then, of those enduring nearly two millennia. Indeed, grasping the logic exercised by modern profiteers prophets can be a tricky issue, as the faith of personal prosperity appeals to contemporary American greed, borrowing as it does from the Calvinism so closely tied to the roots of the nation’s history.

What we must remember, at the outset, is that redemptive monotheism is an appeal to greed. In declaring an abstract concept that cannot be demonstrated true—e.g., the immortal soul—the most important, most valuable, most cherished thing in the whole of existence, redemptive monotheism essentially bribes (at best) the faithful with unverifiable promises. This idea, alternately described as a bribe, extortion, or a gift, is commonly known as Pascal’s Wager. It is not entirely irrelevant to consider that in the hands of twelfth-century theologian Peter Abelard this wager, then called the Slave’s Wager, was considered the weaker argument since it was offered by a theoretical devout Jew.

We should not be surprised, then, that greed is a recurring theme throughout the history of one of the greatest wild-eyed promises ever made. There is in history a coherent story of how we came from rumors of Christ to the present condition, but it is neither easy, friendly, nor definitive. And almost any rational consideration of such a tale would describe it as a tragedy. I say almost because we simply cannot know everything, and someday we might discover or recognize something that changes this measurement of the outcome.

Stay tuned.

They … will … believe … anything!

You know, I once actually heard a Catholic priest debunk a sighting of the Virgin Mary by pointing to a lamp. An unlikely combination of factors apparently caused the light reflected off the lamp to cast a distorted image on the wall that looked much like the Virgin.

And, yes, that was a long time ago. Probably about the time devout pilgrims were gathering to see the Virgin in the iridescence on the back of a road sign near Yakima.

Then there was the time that some of the Medjugorje witnesses came to speak at my Jesuit high school; the one thing I can remember from that day is that they were quite sincere. They really believe what they’re telling people.

And that’s well and fine. I still remember that one priest who tried to stay rational.

But this?

Flaming Pope

Nick Pisa reports for the Daily Mail:

The image, said by believers to show the Holy Father with his right hand raised in blessing, was spotted during a ceremony in Poland to mark the second anniversary of his death ….

…. Gregorz Lukasik, the Polish man who took the photographs, said: “It was only afterwards when I got home and looked at the pictures that I realised I had something.

“I showed them to my brother and sister and they, like me, were convinced the flames had formed the image of Pope John Paul II.

“I was so happy with the picture that I showed it to our local bishop who said that Pope John Paul had made many pilgrimages during his life and he was still making them in death.”

You know, I think when I was a kid, there was an episode of That’s Incredible! or Real People that featured a picture of a house burning down; the family took comfort, though, when one of the children spotted Jesus Christ standing in the doorway. It was sort of the same kind of thing you see here.

And at least this is cooler than the road sign outside Yakima.