The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Yuruba Faith Encounter

December 11th, 2019 · Uncategorized

As a pagan, I have throughout my life chosen my own gods. A significant part of this is an anti-authoritarian impulse driven from trauma associated with modern Christianity. I’ve never taken on a deity because I belonged to a group or because some guru directed me to, although I have participated in deistic rituals without any connection to those deities. Mostly what this has meant was turning to the Greek gods I first learned about as a young child.

While I was born in Texas, I haven’t adopted any Native American theology (at least not consciously), but I’m also not Greek, either, but Irish/English. The Greek gods were just the first ones that I knew stories about, so they represented the oldest archetypes for me. All I know is that when I call to them, I hear them answer, so that’s really good enough for me.

I have heard other gods speak.

When trying to replicate something of what ancient pagans may have done to construct their faiths, I adopted some techniques to recognize deity “in the wild”. There are a multitude of gods in nature, and gods in the arrangement of nature, and gods in the process of nature. Many of these gods you can watch if you have eyes to see. Quite a few of them have things to say, and they’d really like us to listen. Yet it’s still hard to learn about these gods, to understand what they like, and how they influence our world.

Working with deities that others have already codified and contiuously celebrate is much easier. For example, my encounters with variations of Yuruba faith have been fascinating and fruitful.

The Yuruba culture spans several modern countries in Western Africa, encompassing many different tribes and sub-cultures with an extensive history of having been captured and sold as slaves somewhere in the Americas. They brought their gods and ancestors with them, and today in many places, their descendants are holding reverence for them as well. It’s called Candomble in Brazil, Voodou in Haiti, and Lucumi or Santeria in Cuba. Spellings differ, but the underlying continuity of faith in each case is clear.

Some of the secrets of the faith are preserved in Spanish (or Portuguese), or rendered within a Catholic framework of saints and miricles. The root of the faith is still spoken in the Yuruba tongue, and its deepest secrets are still hidden there. They worship their ancestors, their heroes, their gods, and the spirit of their people, just as ancient pagans did before the Christians came. They work with the spirit of their people, the spirit within themselves, and the spirit of ideas and emotions. Watching these people work is as close to watching my own ancestors as I’ll ever get. Even though I’m very white and very square, every practictioner I’ve ever met has been nothing but friendly and kind, and delighted to share their faith (or at least, the public parts) with me.

Beyond this, I have only a skeletal understanding of their theology, but I have nonetheless had several encounters with Orisha, which seem a lot like my Greek gods in many ways. I have heard them speak. They’ve been friendly. Each time was in the company of a believer, so I’ve not really worked with them in my own private rituals. I’m given the impression of being an honored guest, with an option to be at the table.

To be honest, the Orisha frighten me. They are very present and very near, they don’t ask for permission, and if they have something to tell you, it’s a good idea to listen. They don’t have much to do with folks who don’t work with them, but for those who do, they are always right there. If you’re on their good side, then great! But if you’re not, you should take out a good insurance policy or two.

I knew a Santero from New Orleans: he had been crowned in the faith, meaning he was a priest, but has since joined the ancestors. I got a reading from him once and could hear the voice of Elegua in my head. Since the deity I’ve followed for the longest has many aspects in common with Elegua, I didn’t find this all that unusual, but I did notice the differences — and not just the gender and race, but also their ranges, attitudes and types of tools they liked to use. Mostly, they’re different because the history of their respective cultures was different.

The cool thing about the reading for me was watching the form of divination he used. I’ve long studied various forms of divination, and I’m fascinated by looking where-ever humans have found eternal patterns. In this case, he had a collection of cowrie shell beads that he threw to a mat, and read the oracle from how the shells had fallen.

Very recently, a close friend recommended I see a priest of the oracle called Ifa. This time, the dinivation was done with a chain of beads and shells that were compulsively hoisted and dropped along with a rhythmic utterance of prayers in Spanish and Yuruba. The rite obliged me to work with four different Orisha. While the requests seemed unusual to me, they were relatively pedantic by local standards, so I gladly did as I was bid and my hosts guided me along.

As a result, I now feel a closeness of those four Orisha, and I’ve got an interest in learning more about them. Perhaps when they speak to me, I’ll be aware enough to understand them. I don’t yet feel the same bond with them as what I’ve made with my usual pantheon, and I’m discouraged from really interacting with them further without assistance. And frankly, my inability to speak Spanish fluently (to say nothing of Yuruba) makes integrating with that culture challenging before my own race is even considered.

But I can stand across the water and admire the beauty and life inherent in these African cultures still vibrant at my front door. I can see the truth in their practice and be totally jealous of the vast community that supports it. It’s beauty and love and understanding and solice: it’s a library of human experience and a map of man’s relationship to the gods. With I work with modern Yurubans, I am touched by their ancestors in a profound way.

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Christianity, version 2

April 20th, 2018 · christianity, history

Most Roman Emperors were fakers, usurpers, and grifters. If you want a summary answer for why the Roman Empire fell, that’s really the best you’ll get. Really smart, motivated, and effective emperors were rare like hens’ teeth. The third century was a particularly harsh time when reigns were short and most ended at the tip of a dagger. Septimus Severus was the last emperor for a century to die of natural causes.

At the end of this crisis, the Empire developed into a new form under a particularly clever and thoughtful hand: Diocletian backed into the job, but took it more seriously than had the two dozen power-hungry egotists before him, reforming every aspect of the government and economics. He reshaped every province, created a new layer of governance, and defined a structure for four co-emperors to simultaneously and evenly rule the whole empire. (That new layer of government? Those were the “dioceses”, each ruled by an “episcopos” or “bishop” who held power equivalent to an emperor within the three provinces of their respective diocese.)

Diocletian eliminated the long-failed silver coin-based tax system in favor of direct bartering. He reorganized his administration into a top-down autocracy, with ministers in charge of finance and governmental tasks. He codified his judicial rulings in books that enabled lower courts to use precedent to resolve most issues. He also restricted the mobility of citizens: if they were farming serfs, their children would also be farming serfs. The children of blacksmiths became blacksmiths, and the children of soldiers were recruited once they were of age.

Among many other changes, Diocletian made major reform of the Imperial Cult. Setting aside the prior century of practice, he replaced the Sun-centered Christianity (version 1) with a fundamentalist recreation of ancient Roman religion, honoring Zeus and Hercules. Opposition to his changes was predictable, but the change to the Imperial Cult upset folks in the eastern (Greek) half so much, that Constantine used the adoption of Christianity as leverage to gain the aid of the people and armies of the parts of Empire he didn’t already have control over.

But before I get ahead of myself, let’s be clear about Constantine’s position vis-a-vis Diocletian. Constantine had been trained in the court of Diocletian, and he learned his lessons well. Constantine’s dad had been one of the four co-emperors, and when he was passed over to become co-emperor after his father died, Constantine took control of his father’s legions and became a usurper against the established government of Diocletian’s Tetrarchy.

So when Constantine took up arms against Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge, the myth of receiving the specific blessing of the Christian God — referencing the prior chain of Caesars before Diocletian’s changes — positioned Constantine as the Savior and restorer of the Glory of Rome. He sent teams of spies into areas of the Empire held by the co-emperors to spread the Gospel of the second coming of Christ in Constantine. They carried with them a new book, the Revelations of St. John, that equated Diocletian’s changes to an apocalypse, and “predicted” Constantine’s arrival as the return of Christ to usher in a new Kingdom of Heaven.

Groups of people who gladly returned to the faith of their grandfathers became the Christians who were actually persecuted by the Zeus-worshiping Tetrarchy. The one time Christians really were persecuted by the Roman government, and it was because they were revolutionaries and spies. These Christians infuriated their captors by refusing to pay homage to their images of Zeus — they would only bow to images of Constantine, their returned Christ and Savior, their living god.

After Constantine had vanquished the last of the Tetrarchy, he needed to make sure that all of the officials of the eastern empire would go along with his leadership. So he summoned all of the Bishops of the eastern empire to congregate in the port town of Nicea for the first ecumenical conference of Christianity. There had been some trouble between the various of the wealthier cities regarding whom would rank highest in the new hierarchy, and part of the agenda was in resolving what was ostensibly a theological issue. In the end, the emperor forced an unworkable compromise on the topic, thinking himself very clever in how he resolved it. However, by bringing together the various bishops, he inadvertently created a political body more powerful than any senate before them: the College of Cardinals, which continues to rule over the Catholic Church.

This Christianity, version 2, was much the same as its predecessor. Instead of just the Gospels, the holy book for the new version of Christianity included the sacred scripture of the Jews, Epistles of the Apostles, and the Book of Revelation. A program of church building  was begun, the new Bible became part of the regular ritual, and Constantine became the new object of worship. Burial rites had become common at some point during the prior form of Christianity, so they continued here. There is also a specific nomenclature to distinguish this version of Christianity from the prior one: this one is “Trinitarian” Christianity. The prior one was “Arian” Christianity.

Even though Christianity was the official state religion, it was not yet the exclusive faith of the empire. Instead, it existed as one of dozens, if not hundreds, of simultaneously functioning cults available in every city in every province of the empire. It was the patriotic faith that everyone easily subscribed to, because everyone was a good Roman. But you still praised your ancestors and city heroes and local gods and trade gods and weather gods like you always had before. Christianity wasn’t expected to be all things to all people, just accepted by all people. And in general, it was — especially in the urban areas where the early churches were first built.

When Christianity became the exclusive faith of the empire, though, it transitioned once again into a new form.

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Christianity, version 1

April 19th, 2018 · christianity, history

Before Constantine became the sole emperor of Rome, Christianity was not the official state religion, but after Constantine, Christianity was the official state religion. I think this is a reasonably uncontroversial statement.

We have very little written information about the history of Christianity prior to Constantine, mostly because he had all of it burned. In its place, we have been given the Early Church myth, in which the apostles of Jesus spread the Gospel to the corners of the world. The primary problem with the Early Church myth is that it depicts people doing things in places that, due to cultural limitations at the time, and the heavy presence of Roman legions, really couldn’t have been done.

The Early Church myth also posits a great deal of state persecution was inflicted upon true believers. History indicates otherwise. State persecution against any religious groups was very rare, and until the time of Constantine, never held against Christians.

But what really happened is lost to history, as far as I have been able to determine. Based on what I do know, I can make some educated guesses and draw some lines based on cultural habit. When I do this, some other things come into focus. Here’s the web of assumptions I have woven:

The text of the Gospels was created by Josephus as a witness artifact to his history of the Jewish Wars, which itself was a tribute to his captor and ruler, the Flavian Emperor Titus. In this context, the Gospels predict the appearance of Titus as the prophesied messiah, who brought order and peace to the land of Judea. The character(s) of Jesus  forecasts the actions of Titus, only forty years later.

It was Titus’ little brother, and successor, Domitian, who established the emperor cult in honor of Titus. The formation of this cult would have been through existing buildings and priesthood already established honoring the Caesarean emperors before them. Presumably, this was Christianity, version one. Although we don’t know what it was really like, there is a lot we do know. As an extension of the Imperial Cult, this early version of Christianity probably praised Rome as the “light of the world” and the “city on a hill”. It likely celebrated the holy Spirit of Rome, its Senate and it’s People. At the center of worship stood the Father — the prior Emperor — and the Son — the current Emperor — who were worshiped and glorified as Saviors of the world.

We know there wasn’t any worship or adulation of crucifixes, no Mary myths yet, and no marriage or death rites. It’s not clear if a communion rite would have part of this early form of Christianity, although eating together was a favorite Roman social pasttime. Baptism by water likely had a role, if was celebrated this early, in distinguishing these initiates from those of Mithraism and their baptism by blood. None of the hymns sung today were present in these first years, no saints, and no holidays — save one for the birthday of the Emperor.

What Christianity, version one, likely included was: incense, chanting, call-and-response prayers, incense, processions, bell-ringing, sermons, incense, fraternal greetings, and feasting. These are easy guesses because these were elements of most of the other religions practiced in the Empire at the time (in the mid-first century). More than anything this cult would have been a celebration of Roman culture and history. And incense.

Due to the direct mention of the seven churches of Anatolia (modern Turkey) in the book of Revelations, we could assume that these seven churches were probably of greater importance than any other churches. Perhaps these were the last ones that remained true to this original faith until the time of Constantine. Or perhaps these were the first established by the Flavians, or their proximity to Judea gave them a leadership position by glint of geography. It just occurs to me that they may have been the major cities mentioned in the Epistles, so they were mentioned so as to help bring the book of Revelations into the whole of the New Testament.

Probably the most important element of this exploration is the recognition that the theology of Christian writers prior to Constantine would have been working in a different context than those who came after. Since Constantine burned everything associated with the original Christian cult, and wasn’t beyond adding his own ideas into the writings of prior works, we can’t actually be certain of any texts. We can presume that any changes made would have been to bring the older texts into regular order with the new theology, but also that any such changes would have been minimal.

In other words, the differences between Christianity before and after the transition of Constantine were minimal, and largely confined to areas of doctrine. Whether the nature of God is trinitarian or singular is irrelevant to the lay participant. What was important was the incense and the bells and the chanting. Sharing the hearing of the sermon with his fellow Romans was important — that fellowship was important. Being Roman was important. Not to put too fine a point on it, but being the right kind of Roman was important: a Christian Roman was best. And that is what Christianity, version one, celebrated.


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April 17th, 2018 · christianity, history

I grew up in the Church, attending regular Sunday services, and assisting with ritual in my teens. I was a believer of all that I had been told, but yet there was a nagging suspicion that things weren’t exactly as I imagined them. My first clue, at sixteen, that the whole thing was a house of cards was my discovery of the Heresy Wars.

In Christian parlance, “heresy” is an act or a belief that runs counter to the teachings of the Church. A heretic is someone who spreads heresy to others, like a deadly virus. From the re-establishment of Christianity by Constantine, until about 800, Church authorities fought amongst themselves and frequently sent armies to eliminate groups of heretics where-ever they were found. Since the rationale given in most cases was a conflict of theological points, these actions are all considered part of the Heresy Wars.

My understanding of the Early Church narrative said nothing about heretical bishops or ethnic cleansing. I was told that the early Christians were frequently assaulted and harassed by Roman authorities for the crime of being Christian. These persecutions were writ large in Early Church legend, and included a handful of specific personalities with biographies and heart tugging scenes of torment while they held fast in their faith.

But the Early Church myth is fiction, and the Heresy Wars really happened.

There were three distinct causes for the Heresy Wars. The first was that the bishops of the richest cities in the empire were all competing to become the apex bishop. They used theological pronouncements as a means to identify each group, and fought a pretty standard Roman civil-war style battle, both with soldiers and with spies, until Rome came out on top. In the meantime, each bishop would claim that their competing bishops were heretics and anyone following them were heretics. This lead to a lot of hurt feelings, I imagine, but it mostly sorted itself out after a century or so.

The second cause of the Heresy Wars was the little matter of the prior form of Christianity that wasn’t really being followed so closely anymore. A presbyter named Arius, in a kind of foreshadowing of Luther, declared that this new theology being dictated by these competing bishops was heresy. According to the original form of Christianity created by the Flavians, all the Trinitarian gyrations in Nicea were irrelevant since God the Father was always superior to the Son. Instead of calling it “original” Christianity or “Flavian” Christianity, the Bishops called it “Arianism” so as to dismiss the older church as the work of an old crank and not an emperor. Naturally, this lead to a sort of prolonged inquisition of each Christian community in the empire where nonconvertible Arians were slaughtered.

The third cause of the Heresy Wars was a later period of regularization. Occasionally, a Christian community would be found who, while not Arian, still possessed unusual theology or ritual. When they could not be convinced of the error of their ways, the Church tended to kill them all. Most often, these were groups who had practiced as pagan organizations prior to the imposition of Christianity. While they may have changed their deity names and added some elements of Roman rite, they still mostly did whatever they had done before. Interestingly, the Church lost interest in this task after several centuries, meaning there still remain a number of Christian communities in Europe and North Africa that still practice their earlier pagan rites alongside Christian ones.

The primary fruit of the first cause of the Heresy Wars was the doctrine of the Trinity. The very nature of God, and Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, was the subject of intense and sometimes violent debates. There was no formulation which satisfied one and all. The Trinitarian formula was a compromise which pleased no one, but brought an end to the virtual civil war the subject had brought about. It was also so convoluted as to be patent nonsense. God, the one in three, is one, not three. Yet the three are distinct and not God, while they are also God. So debate that, Aristotle!

Before the Trinity, “God the Father” was the prior Caesar, and his “Son” was the current, living Caesar. The Holy Spirit was the Spirit of the Senate and People of Rome. Because that’s how the Flavians built it. Constantine had all of the prior order’s written materials confiscated and burned, and the Arian heresy died out with the older generations.

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Apocalypse 2018

April 13th, 2018 · christianity, culture, history

Internet rumors are swirling that April 23, 2018 will bring about the end of the world. Quick! Look busy! Jesus is coming!

Predictions of the planet’s imminent demise have been the mainstay of crank prophecy circles for centuries. Most often, these predictions presage a “second coming” of Christ as predicted in the book of Revelations. Few people can read the book of Revelations and agree with anyone else about what it means. Consequently, it’s often taken to mean whatever was convenient to believe at the time.

Rather than making an accounting of all the times this has been predicted and hasn’t happened, I wanted to discuss the two times it’s already happened.

The first return of Christ occurred about 40 years after the stories in the Gospels. He returned in the form of the Roman Emperor Titus. Christ’s journey mirrored that of Titus’s as he (Titus) rolled through Judea with a handful of Roman legions, laying siege on one town after another, starting with Galilee and ending in Jerusalem. As Christ predicted, Titus-as-Christ tore down the Temple of Jerusalem and left not one stone atop another, as it was pushed down the hill into a great pile of rubble.

Since the first appearance of the Gospels was with Josephus’s book on the History of the Jewish War, it’s pretty easy to link Josephus with the creation of the Gospels. Titus’s family, the Flavians, are thus linked to the creation of Christianity as an emperor cult for Titus.

The second return of Christ happened centuries later, with the appearance of Constantine, who restored and popularized a new strain of Christianity that included the book of Revelation. Much of the imagery of that book is primarily a caricature of Diocletian, whose structure of imperial governance Constantine destroyed. The four horsemen of the apocalypse, for example, was a direct reference to Diocletian’s “Tetrarchy” in which four co-emperors ruled the empire, and were symbolized by four horsemen.

Some time after the bishops of Western Rome decided that they no longer needed an emperor and simply stopped electing new ones, the theology of their faith was subtly changed. Without an emperor to worship, there was only left the mythology that originally justified each emperor’s position. And after a while, the emperor was no longer part of the story told and they were forgotten (in the faith, at least).

Fast forward a thousand years, and we have the Protestants, whose position is that Rome subverted the original, pure Christianity and who deliberately strip everything “pagan” from their flavor of faith, leaving it largely bereft of tradition and symbolism. Consequently, the “Second Coming” of Christ has special meaning to them — since they refuse to believe that it referenced events in the past. Catholics tend to reject tales of future apocalypse as fear mongering, but it’s the bread and butter of most Protestant strains. It’s no wonder there’s such a huge audience so ready to anticipate an event that already happened.

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The New Touchstone

April 10th, 2018 · culture, Illuminations

Let’s start with some definitions.

“Religion” is a set of tools and practices that bring about specific reactions in people — primarily useful in enhancing memory, reducing anxiety, and providing a context for existence.

“Christian” can reference a cultural fundament, or a type of religion or organization, or a niche of media expression, or an element of self-image. Once useful to distinguish the disparate peoples of Rome from the barbarians around it, the title of “Christian” now provides authority to define normals of behavior and interaction among the nearly as disparate modern religious organizations that claim such a title.

“Christianity” is a word that means everything and nothing. In the modern world, and especially in the US, the definition of what makes an organization Christian is extremely elastic, to the point that there are very few elements common to them all.

This is also a good time to point out that I’m not opposed to Christianity in modern practice. Folks today who can get benefit from modern Christian practice — where ever they can find it! — are heroes in my book. However, I’m a big fan of religion, and I know that the world of religion is so much larger (and so much more helpful) than mere Christianity that it’s a good and helpful thing for me to show people where it’s at.

“Atheism” in the modern sense has a lot more to do with an opposition to the cultural and judicial dominance of Christian fundamentalism and Calvinistic tendencies toward deprivation and cruelty, than any sort of sustained disagreement about the nature of God. In Christian Early Church mythos, the early persecuted Christians were called “atheists” for denying the gods commonly worshiped by their neighbors, so classically, it’s less of an anti-religious term than a denial of an authority claimed by a faith organization.

I once upset a fellow by summarizing Christianity as an authority cult. While I’m disappointed to have upset the fellow, I stand by my summary. Pretty much any element of practice or theology that you encounter in one Christian church can be found to be absent, if not taboo, from another Christian church. Expectation of submission to their authority is consistent across all forms of Christian religious organizations. Further, since Christianity started as an emperor cult, submission to the emperor and Empire and the spirit of the Roman people was baked into the foundation of the faith. And so very often, this tendency to cling to tyranny becomes its fatal flaw.

The Gospel stories are beautiful and full of wonderful ideals and the highs and lows of human experience. I certainly do not think less of anyone who reads those words and finds beauty therein, because it’s there to be found by anyone. However, I recognize the Gospel stories as being fiction — sacred and beloved, but fiction. Consequently, the myth of the Early Church, with Christ’s apostles spreading the word throughout the Earth, is equally fiction.

The reason for making this decision is based on simple logic. In the Gospel tales, a man dies, and then returns to life several days later — and his name is Lazarus. Further along in the tales, the character Jesus is shown as dying on a cross and appearing as living some days later. In real life, people who die, and remain fully dead for several days, never return fully back to life. Death is never defeated, that’s a fact of life. So a story in which two men return to life after death is a story that begs me to understand it to be fiction.

But it’s not just fiction — it’s the mythic standard by which a culture from two thousand years ago drew the lines into the future we still run our legal systems on today. I am not relieved of my desire to know the truth of it all by knowing the Gospels to be fiction. If anything, it cranks my desire further.

So the question becomes: where did these stories come from? Who would write such tales, and to what end?


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Ruminations 2015

December 26th, 2015 · Uncategorized

This is my first, and likely last, post for 2015. It was a good year for life and home, and I mostly relaxed and did things other than writing or thinking about Christianity. Although, the topic never seems far away. The Atwill book caused a major rethink on my part: it made sense, and it addresses many of the outstanding questions I had in my own theories. At the same time, it opened up a variety of other avenues of research, and presents some of its own questions.

Authorship of the New Testament hasn’t been something I’ve wanted to really dig too deeply into, but it’s a key part of the whole story. Atwill’s book game me something to pin the Gospels to, and I had a good candidate for someone who had the will and means to create the Epistles from repurposed pagan evangelicals. Now, I assume that Josephus wrote (or directed to have written) the four Gospels and Acts, and that Eusebius of Caesarea created the Epistles a few centuries later. I’ve seen enough arguments about the timing and placement of the final book — Revelations — that I don’t know if it was part of Eusebius’ efforts or something appended later. My current best guess is that it was appended about a century later as part of the heresy wars.

I’ve seen a few recent connections worth noting. Part of my understanding of Constantine the Great was that he was a keen student of history. When he became Emperor, he took the name “Flavius”, perhaps to indicate his intention to rule as did the Flavians. This could imply that his adaptation of Christianity was a part of this adoption of a Flavian lineage. If so, his father took the name “Flavius” as well. Had Constantius been the one to revive the old Flavian cult?

Another connection is from the study of imperial cults. The highest honor an imperial cult would give is something called a “Triumph”. It’s basically a parade to honor the Emperor’s victory in war. The period leading up to a “Triumph” is a period of time called “Advent”. In the modern Christian calendar there is a period called “Advent” that occurs prior to the Christmas season. Is there a connection between these two “Advents”?


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Irrational Animus

October 9th, 2014 · christianity, culture, media

In response to Damon Linker’s essay Why do so many liberals despise Christianity?:

First off, it’s ludicrous to posit that all, or even many, liberals hate Christianity, simply because there are so many liberal Christians. From what I can tell, for every annoying, conservative, evangelical Christian, there are two liberal, mainstream Christians who simply don’t get in people’s faces. When you paint with a broad brush, you can be sure to get sloppy results. But I don’t think this is an accident.

The whole point of an argument that starts with “liberals despise Christianity” is to further demonize a political group. This isn’t about convincing anyone to change their behavior, it’s about generating outrage. And frankly, Linker’s being a real chump about it. He’s not discussing stories he found while trolling mainstream news sites, but instead regurgitating well-chewed arguments from other conservative bloggers. Here, he discusses two such stories, ending both with a series of leading, rhetorical questions.

The first story is about Brian Palmer’s essay in Slate about missionary doctors in Africa. His complaints can be summarized in two points: he doesn’t like that they are underpaid or even unpaid; and he doesn’t like the evangelism component of their work. Linker doesn’t understand why either is a problem. Instead, he sees the whole essay as a generalized argument to promote secularized health care.

The second story references a small Christian college in Boston that stands to lose accreditation for its anti-gay policies. As much as Linker tries to reapply lipstick to this pig, it’s pretty clear that the school isn’t following a general rule to avoid discrimination, and would rather shut down than allow gays to do their gay thing around them. This, again, is being presented as horrible oppression by those dastardly atheistic liberals.

Let’s be clear: this isn’t an organized conspiracy against the good and true by the evil henchmen of the cruel world. I understand how someone from their mindset may not recognize just how offensive and inappropriate Christian evangelicalism is. They may not see how selective enforcement of racist or sexist laws from ancient traditions is outdated and out of place in the modern world. It’s likely that their embrace of victimhood is more a feature of their world view than anything anyone else may or may not do, but it still feels authentic to them.

What’s missing in Linker’s ledger of woe is any actual anti-Christian sentiment, activity, or even thought. While I agree that the stories both include Christian organizations on some level or another, at no place is anyone saying that folks shouldn’t believe in something or profess a particular faith. There isn’t a pogram of Christians being rounded up and shot. There’s not a special rule that only applies to Christians, or only to non-Christians. These are complaints about poor behavior on the part of some Christians, and Linker is confounding these into an attack against all things Christian — as if he could speak for every denomination.

From the first story, underpaid doctors and nurses is a problem because people who do work should get paid well. Clearly, this isn’t about religion, but economics. The fact that Linker doesn’t see this as a problem reflects his political biases, not his faith. The degree to which he fails to see this as a legitimate problem is shown in how he deflects this complaint as mere camouflage for the Slate writer’s obvious hatred of all things Christian.

Again, from the first story, is the point that Palmer expresses displeasure with evangelical doctors and nurses, but again this is not a stab at Christianity or Christians. This is a fundamental disagreement with the notion that doctors and nurses might (a) take time away from their work, to (b) insult and minimize the culture and traditions of (c) folks too poor and/or sick to escape this humiliation. Linker may feel that evangelism is the milk of loving kindness, and it’s sad that he can’t recognize this boorish behavior for what it is. If folks want to sell their flavor of faith to people who don’t share their language, customs, or world-view, then good luck to them, but they should sell it on its own merits, not as the stick behind the carrot of medicine.

The second story doesn’t even apply to Linker’s thesis very well. The only thing about it that make it even slightly relevant is that it’s a Christian college. The thing is, the accreditation rules apply to all schools, not just Christian ones. If a non-religious school decided to make rules about sexual behavior of any sort, they, too, would stand to lose their accreditation. Linker may feel that their religious connection justifies their actions, but that’s not how rules work. You don’t get to make justifications for bad behavior based on the flimsy foundation of faith, and pretend that your faith is being attacked when being told your behavior is inappropriate. Perhaps I should say that you shouldn’t: because I see evangelicals trying this tactic all the time, and it’s just as stupid every time I see it.

I know that victimhood is an easy rhetorical fallback position for Christian apologists, and it’s clear here that the intended recipients of this message are other conservative evangelicals in order to pump up the outrage-o-meter. But on behalf of all the liberal Christians I have known, especially those who were there for me when I was a child, I couldn’t read this and not point out that Linker’s Christianity isn’t all Christianity, nor is it even representative of all Christianity. And it’s really inappropriate for him to assume that people aren’t Christian because they don’t follow his political world view.

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Fellowship: Ritual and structure

September 23rd, 2014 · fellowship, ritual

Quick recap: Go to the Fellowship category there on the right to see all of the Fellowship essays. This continues from a recent set of essays here and here.

Ritual is rightfully a topic of research and invention in and of itself, and for its own sake. It is distinct from faith, belief, habit, mime, and dance. Ritual is a set of tools and techniques that reliably initiate specific reactions in the physical and mental systems of participants and observers. With the right mindset, changes on a spiritual realm can also be observed.

The use of ritual in a religious context is a deliberate choice, so the tool or technique chosen should be harmonious with the principle being honored and the people performing the ritual. Time of day, the weather or the space itself may help determine appropriate activities chosen. The key, then, is to not be hung up on what ritual tool is used, but to give people several different tools to use at their own convenience. Some rituals require specific gear and costume, location and time, others require none of these things.

Visualization skills can help make a ritual seem more real and be better remembered. Projecting imaginary lines of light or energy as needed into the environment helps keep the ritual oriented and focused. For solitary ritual, visualization of the entire ritual can be sufficient, while for group rituals, more effort must be exerted to sharing a visualization. From experience: so long as the ritual leader has a clear visualization of the ritual, it can aid the larger group in “seeing” it as well.

Ritual is a stylized transaction between two or more people. In the context of ritual, the definition of “people” is very flexible. Human brain function has evolved with human inter-personal activities given the greatest slice of the cognitive pie. When a human face or personality is applied to a force of nature, what had been an unapproachable phenomenon becomes something that can be remembered, understood, even negotiated with. This principle drives a great deal of pantheistic ritual, such that gods and spirits are encountered as if they had a human presence, because that is the thing we are most comfortable dealing with, remembering, and understanding.

The structure of ritual is fairly consistent. First the space is prepared, then the participants are prepared, the gods and/or ancestors are invoked then greeted as arriving guests. Any gifts or offerings are presented before making requests or announcements. This is sometimes followed by a meal, a song, or some other presentation in a group setting. In some situations, divination is performed, talismans are charged, or oracles consulted. The ritual is concluded with farewells to the invited guests, and a bonding of friendship among the participants.

With just one to three people performing ritual, typically much of the performance element is left out, and visualization is heavily used. It may be as brief as a greeting, an offering, divination, and closing. With groups of 7-13 people, shared activities like chanting, singing, and dancing can be used to great effect. With large groups of people, care must be taken to insure as many as possible can participate, meaning more of the performance is done by a limited group held apart, perhaps on a stage, while participation by most limited to group chanting or simple movement.

Planning a ritual for many is well served by the use of theatrical-style scripting. Defining the space in terms of stage and seating, walkways and storage The best use of a particular space is often determined through trial and error, although very small locations may only allow a small number of participants. Planning for a ritual with a very large number of participants requires several extra levels of management to handle logistics, people management, and security, along with more requirements for artificial lighting, sound amplification, seating, parking, and restrooms.

The content of a ritual is surprisingly diverse: this template can accommodate a great many different occasions and situations. Generally, content is determined by the reason for the rite, be it a sacred remembrance, a change in family structure, or the launch of a ship. Relevant gods are determined by the situation, the participants, and the preferences of the ritualists. Astrological connections by meaning or event can also suggest colors, incense, sounds, and visualization clues. A good deal of preparation for a ritual can be in the research of appropriate god forms and relevant decorative elements.

There are many sources for deities from various cultures across the planet and throughout time, but there is no particular reason why new names can’t be discovered. The ritual for the unnamed god is used in situations where the deity related to a particular location or activity isn’t familiar — perhaps the activity is new, or the peoples that had known that location were all gone away. As a part of the invocation of the nameless god, the areas of dominion are carefully described, and the relationship between the deity and the participants is clearly defined. Sometimes, after a period of divination, a name can be determined, along with relevant associations. Sometimes a name is chosen by the participants, based on similarities to gods in other pantheons.

With events like Pentafest or a seasonal celebration, there may be several rituals within a larger ritual, there may be more performances, and more participant interaction. Some rituals, done individually be each person at specific times or occasions, are entirely idiosyncratic. The ritual template is a generalization, not a rule, and effective ritual can take many shapes. Be ingenious when creating ritual and the impact will be stronger.


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