RUNNING ON THE BEACH”
Clothes are too trivial
for such breasts. Such knees.
So globed with light.
The sea is blue without
sky, an open mouth.
The blue air quickens
their gritty steps. Barefoot,
bare-breast, they run.
Not to their lovers.
Not with the wind.
the wind. Hair drunk
on speed, they run
out of nothing into this
primary blue and white.
Their shadows run,
cross-hatches on the sand.
What I love
is that the women
never stop. They run.
us, who do not yet exist.
~ Oriana © 2015
THE POWER OF THE “OR” QUESTION: A DIFFERENT VISION OF THE FUTURE SELF
After receiving his ALS diagnosis, Stephen Hawking was in despair and started drinking. According to one story, a professor of his asked him a question, “You have a few years left. Do you want to spend them drinking yourself to death, or do you want to try to make a contribution to physics?”
This story went through me like a brief burst of electricity. Then, on the conscious level, I pretty much forgot it. I did not yet see brooding over misfortunes as equivalent to drinking, so that was just a wonderful story about a completely exceptional individual. It took mortality to corner me into a choice: do I want to waste the rest of my life on brooding, or do I want to do something productive?
Not that I thought my writing would be a significant contribution . . . but perhaps a tiny contribution. Perhaps I could touch a few lives — just as, at a poetry reading, there tends to be just one person in the room who responds to a particular poem at a deep personal level, or maybe just one line in that poem, a few lines that seem to have been written specifically for her, that fit into her central problem like a key into a lock — and that is enough. If the poet is lucky, that person will come up to you after the reading. Or ten years later, meet you and talk about that poem. That gives meaning to all the work (a lifetime, really) that went into writing the poems, and the hours put into preparing that particular reading.
And that reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain
One day in May 2009, as I was brooding again, thinking what a failure I was, I did finally ask myself the most important OR QUESTION in my life: Do I want to spend the remaining years of my life brooding and weeping, OR do I want to write and try to make a tiny contribution?
Do you want to spend hours crying until your face is red and swollen, or do you want to spend that time creating beauty and meaning? Once the problem is presented this way, then, as the popular saying goes, “It’s a no-brainer.” The question is rhetorical, but it must be asked. Before it can become a no-brainer, the brain must become aware of it.
Behind that question lay another one, just an elaboration of the theme. At eighty, do I want to look back at my life and say, “My life went badly. I wasted my life. I did a lot of brooding and weeping over my misfortunes” — or do I want to say, “I had a fabulous life. I got to do the work I loved. I wrote poems and essays; I got to create and enjoy beauty”?
The “or” question did the work. It’s a rhetorical question, really. It simply clearly presents the choice. Do you want to be a complete failure, or do you want to try to be a modest success? I didn’t have to re-analyze my mis-steps and bad luck. I didn’t have to figure out which primary life mistake led to all other mistakes. Debunking various old perceptions became irrelevant. Even if they were true, it didn’t matter. I didn’t have to sort out free will from determinism, my personal responsibility from the force of circumstances. The theoretical side of my life was utterly irrelevant. There was some writing that needed to be done, some tiny contribution to be made. And time was running out.
This also connects with the movie “A Dangerous Method,” when Sabina Spielrein says that the essence of healing lies in the patient’s forming a new idea of the future, A VISION OF A FUTURE SELF. It’s not about solving old problems or reworking all that went wrong in childhood. When a new life and a new self starts being born, it’s so exciting and overwhelming, the deluded thinking of the past is forgotten in an instant. It’s simply of no use and no interest.
Once we have this new perception, we can see the wisdom of the saying that we do not resolve our problems in life; we outgrow them. I did not acquire a new understanding of my past misfortunes; I simply lost interest in them.
But wait, didn’t I first have to see that my mother was the blame, and to work on forgiving her, especially since she was already dead? No. My task was my life NOW. There was real work to be done, a to-do list greeting me at breakfast.
“You can practice falling apart, or you can practice being strong” also had a profound impact. Sure, the word “strong” was attractive, but just the word OR had power. So ANOTHER OPTION EXISTED!
I could chose to be strong rather than to keep falling apart (practice makes perfect, so I was very good at falling apart). Whatever life threw at me, I could try to cope with rather than break down. I could be a doer instead of a brooder, a non-productive over-thinker. Self-pity, or productivity? It was indeed a no-brainer.
Don’t ask me why I never thought of it on my own. Sure, bad things had to happen to make me feel like a total failure. Those things are not relevant anymore. Here is how the recovery happened: I came across an OR statement.
Two side points here. 1. Freud said that the most important things in life are love and work. Alas, we tend to get hung up on love. If love doesn’t quite work out, it’s easy for a woman to get depressed. Here is where women have something to learn from men (especially those who get laughed at for always “tinkering in the garage”): nothing works like work. Work is always there for you.
2. Another bit of language that helped me was a title of a completely forgettable self-help book. The book wasn’t worth reading, but the title brought another insight: EATING, DRINKING, OVER-THINKING. The title equated over-thinking (the book used the term as a synonym for “brooding”) with alcoholism and compulsive eating, rather than with noble existential angst. And there was nothing noble about alcoholism. I found drinking repulsive.
It also made brooding a behavior rather than a feeling. When we think of depression, we usually think of the FEELING of sadness, rather than the BEHAVIOR of brooding. Behavior can be changed.
I saw the power of “or” — of being presented with another option —work in a different situation that also proved life-transforming. All my life I was good at saving money. Spending money hurt so much that I had to be getting a terrific bargain or exceptional quality for the reward to be stronger than the pain of parting with money.
To most people, it’s probably only natural to think that if you had money, you could spend it in ways that would make your life better. But if you grow up in the SAVE mode, that idea just doesn’t enter your head. Was I the only such person in America? No, though my pattern was more characteristic of the generation before me. Friends told me, “My parents don’t enjoy spending money on themselves. They know only how to save, not how to spend.”
You may have heard of the “millionaire next door.” I happen to live in the same cul-de-sac as an extremely rich widow. She could travel in luxury. She could move to a mansion with a view of the ocean. She could order the finest food. Or she could devote herself to various causes. But none of this has entered her head.
Two years ago I found myself face to face with a banker at my branch of Chase. He noticed I had saved up a certain sum — nothing spectacular, but enough to interest him. He asked me, “What do you want to do with this money — do you want to invest it?” If he stopped right there, he’d have had his way, but he made the mistake (from the bank’s point of view) of continuing: “Or do you want to spend it?”
“OR do you want to spend it?” he asked, not realizing this would be a life-changing question.
That’s how he handed me a different future — contrary to his plans. Funny: his last name was Contreras, which makes me think of “contrary.” He planted a contrary idea in my mind, and that was it. He uttered the word “or.”
Words, words, words . . .
One more point: the “or” question presented to Stephen Hawking may remind the reader of the difficult question that’s usually stated as follows: “If you had only one year to live, how would you choose to spend that one year? What would you do?”
That question is difficult because it is AN OPEN QUESTION. It’s not an either-or question. “What would you do?” implies a lot of possible activities, a huge menu of choices. More is not better. Choice is stress. Trying to choose one thing among many can leave us paralyzed. Given too many choices, potential buyers often simply walk away.
“WE SEEM TO CARE MORE ABOUT SAVING WHALES THAN SAVING MALES.”
“This is the first time in U.S. history that our sons will have less education than their dads.
Boys' suicide rate goes from equal to girls at age 9 to five times(!) girls' in their twenties. Men over the age of 85 commit suicide 1350 percent as frequently as women over 85.
More U.S. male military were killed by suicide in one year than were killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in all years combined.
Virtually all societies that survived did so based on their ability to train their sons to be disposable—disposable in war, disposable at work.
The evidence is ubiquitous. 92 percent of workplace deaths occur to men, jobs few women would take: oil rig workers, long-haul truckers, roofers, coal miners. Yet there isn't the political will to create regulations that would afford them more protection for these workers. Meanwhile, when women have a less life-threatening deficit, for example, underrepresentation of women in engineering, there's massive expenditure to redress. Although male-only draft registration is a violation of both the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause and the 5th Amendment’s due process clause, it is so unconsciously accepted it isn’t even questioned. Only men can serve in direct combat so 98 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan deaths were men. We seem to care more about saving whales than saving males.
But both sexes should be walking a mile in each other’s moccasins.
Marty Nemko: You’ve done such trainings, right?
Warren Farrell: Yes. I used to tell college audiences, “Every woman is in a beauty contest every day of her life.” I then invited all the guys on stage to experience that. I had those guys wear bathing suits and had the women be the judges. The guys were stunned at being unseen for their integrity, intelligence, or values. They felt objectified.
Marty Nemko: What did you do to help the young women walk a mile in the guys’ moccasins?
Warren Farrell: I had the women “ask-out” the guys they were most attracted to on a 20-minute “date.” Some did just what they criticize men for, for example, lying to get an attractive guy to go out with them. Others went after a less attractive guy to reduce the chance of getting rejected. The guys totally identified with that.
Marty Nemko: What was the outcome of those workshops?
Warren Farrell: Greater compassion for the other sex’s vulnerability, and I formed hundreds of men and women’s groups so they would continue to deepen their compassion after I left campus.
We don’t need a women’s movement blaming men, nor a men’s movement blaming women. We need a gender liberation movement. We need both sexes walking a mile in each other’s moccasins.
George Caleb Bingham, Fur Traders on the Missouri, 1845. It's not a cat, but a bear cub.
“SEX WITH MOM WAS BLINDING”
~ this is how a tabloid would headline the story of Oedipus. Alain de Botton calls this an uncompassionate view. “It would be ludicrous to call Hamlet a loser,” he says. In the Middle Ages, some people were seen as “unfortunate”; now they’d called LOSERS. Meritocracy divides people into winners and losers without taking into account the accident of birth and other circumstances (what used to be called “fate”).
What is success? Is it making a lot of money at a job one hates, or is it having a job one loves, even if it doesn’t pay well? Is it perhaps being “rich in time” rather than financially rich? Is it having one deep relationship rather than being a “successful” womanizer?
The culture used to be particularly ruthless when it came to men’s “success”; now the pressure is on women as well. They are supposed to be “successful professionals” while being great wives and mothers — all this while looking great at any age: “it’s beauty contest every day.” No wonder women’s cortisol levels are sky-high, and we see a lot of adult acne and premature menopause.
De Botton wants us to adopt a “gentler” and personal rather than collective view of success. He also states the obvious: you can’t have it all, and there is always some area of life in which you are going to “lose” -- that’s the price of success. A terrific video, brilliant and entertaining.
THE CULTURE OF “HONOR” VERSUS THE CULTURE OF DIGNITY: REVENGE AND GROUP LOYALTY VERSUS RESTRAINT AND INDIVIDUALITY
I’ve come across an amazing book, “The Wisdom of Psychopaths” by Kevin Dutton. The functional ones are found among politicians, lawyers, and CEO’s; Navy Seals show that psychopaths can be useful in “special operations.” Psychopaths show no fear and take big risks; whether that can be called courage or ruthlessness depends on the context. Like most psychological traits, psychopathy falls along a spectrum: there is a at least a bit of a killer in all of us.
But what most caught my attention was the digression about cultural evolution. When we look at the Middle Ages with their insane levels of cruelty and violence, we find a “culture of honor.” In practice, “honor” = revenge.
Suppose that A insults B. Never mind how small the insult: B feels obliged to redeem his “honor” by killing A. Now A’s brother feels “honor-bound” to kill B. B’s nearest relative then has the sacred duty to kill A’s brother. Never mind religion. Every priest will understand: the family’s “honor” comes first, never mind the price of revenge. This can go on for generations.
We still see this “culture of honor = revenge” in prisons and gang warfare. Allegedly there are still some vestiges of dueling in all-male academies. The honor culture is highly masculine. You constantly have to prove that you are a “real man.” Unfortunately, much of the world still lives in an “honor culture.”
The average Western person, however, does not live by this strict and murderous “code of honor.” Dutton quotes Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, the author of the much-maligned “The Better Angels of Our Nature”: “Beginning in the eleventh or twelfth century, and maturing in the seventeenth and eighteenth, Europeans increasingly inhibited their impulses, anticipated the long-term consequences of their actions, and took other people’s thoughts and feelings into consideration. The culture of honor — the readiness to take revenge — gave way to the culture of dignity — the readiness to control one’s emotions.
These ideals originated in explicit instructions that cultural arbiters gave to aristocrats and noblemen, allowing them to differentiate themselves from the villains and the boors. They were then absorbed into the socialization of younger and younger children, until they became second nature. The standards also trickled down from the upper classes to the bourgeoisie that strove to emulate them, and from them to the lower classes, eventually becoming a part of the culture as a whole.”
Dutton agrees that in the West the rate of violence has gone down in a spectacular way. However, he worries that today’s “cultural arbiters” are mostly media celebrities, and some are “behaving badly.” The same goes for the greedy CEO’s that are willing to bend ethics. Dutton concludes: “On the one hand, we have evidence that society is becoming less violent, while on the other there’s evidence that it’s getting more psychopathic.”
But the media can also help spread the culture of dignity. Along the coverage of the shootings and bombings there is also quite a bit of coverage of the courage of “ordinary” people who rush to help. They often say, “No, I’m not a hero. This is what any decent person would do.” There are stories of schoolteachers, mothers, boyfriends, and even strangers who sacrifice their lives to save others. TV shows family members talk about their grief; viewers see even grown men cry without apologizing for it (which is as it should be). The media affirm that life of the average person matters, that we all have value, and that indeed “no man is an island.”
Jesus and the Buddha were ahead of their times in condemning the “culture of honor = revenge” and stating that hatred by hatred never can be ended. Words are never “just words.” The right words shape thinking; over time they transform consciousness. The Vikings had a culture of honor; modern Scandinavia is an outstanding example of the culture of dignity.
In addition to recognizing the value of each individual, the culture of dignity requires a strong state and effective law enforcement. We take it for granted in liberal democracies. In harsh, lawless places, the certainty of revenge may be necessary to survival. By the way, returning favors is also a strong requirement, as seen in the laws of hospitality, so people living in a culture of honor can give the impression of being very friendly. These are collective cultures. Alas, the dark side, the enslavement to the law of revenge, preserves clannishness and nurtures inter-group hostility.
In spite of setbacks, humanity inches forward. I think we are moving deeper and deeper into the culture of dignity.
IS THE BIBLE THE BEST EVIDENCE THAT YAHWEH WAS INVENTED BY HUMANS?
Perhaps the best evidence against the existence of the biblical god is the bible itself, with all its contradictions and archaic mentality regarding slavery and witchcraft, for instance. A recent article in Patheos made me ponder this. But even before I read it, I had some thoughts of my own on how Yahweh reflects the culture of the Ancient Near East (and the Ancient Middle East, assuming Mesopotamian roots and undeniable Babylonian influence).
Actually I love it the way the biblical god is so anthropomorphic. Thus, he strolls in the garden “in the cool of the day.” Why — is the Almighty affected by the mere heat of noon? If the temperature is 110 in the shade, can it affect a non-corporeal spirit? And since the garden was paradise, why not give it a perfect climate, so that the time of the day wouldn’t matter?
Again, I actually love phrase “in the cool of the day” — the long (and ever longer) California summer made me appreciate the wise adaptations of hot-climate cultures.
Some have defended Yahweh’s ordering Abraham to kill Isaac by saying that it was a religious custom in the region to sacrifice your eldest son — and regarded as an honor to both the father and the son to glorify god in this manner. Yahweh’s substitute of a ram points to some effort to transcend the culture, but the story still horrifies as we imagine the father’s suffering and the boy’s trauma (one writer wrote that Isaac’s trouble with eyesight began when he saw his father’s knife over him). And it’s telling that Jephta’s daughter, a mere woman whose first name is not even given, is not spared from becoming a human sacrifice.
Forget Yahweh, some progressive Christians would say. Whose idea it was to combine the Old and the New Testaments? Let us just focus on Jesus as the true god — and Jesus was countercultural.
In many instances that is true. Jesus stressed the spirit, not the letter of the law, opposing the excessive legalism of the Judaism of his day and its emphasis on scrupulous, oppressive observance. This impresses me so much that I'm willing not to carp about the cursing of the fig tree and the ethnocentric episode when Jesus refers to non-Israelites as dogs.
Alas, there is also the matter of all the apocalyptic prophecies whose specificity defies a strictly metaphorical interpretation. When someone encourages potential followers to abandon their wives and children “and follow me,” it’s hard to dismiss this as merely Jesus’ opposition to the “idolatry of the family” (Christian apologists can go to amazing lengths). If Jesus really happened to be divine and thus omniscient and all-good, we would not have these false prophecies of the end of times causing outbreaks of religious hysteria over the centuries. Nor would the principle of non-judgment be contradicted by the vision of the Last Judgment.
(a side note: Jesus did not believe in a soul — “the breath of life” — separate from the body. The body would have to be resurrected in order for a person to be judged and sent to a place of reward or punishment. Hence the graves opening up and angels waking up the dead.)
IF THE BIBLE HAPPENED TO BE DIVINELY INSPIRED, then rather than reflect the ignorance and prejudices of an ancient culture in a tiny speck of the world in which it originated, it would be a perfect, glorious book containing at least hints of the kind of knowledge that people couldn’t have had thousands of years ago.
Imagine if it revealed that the sun was actually a star. Instead, the authors of the Bible “seemed to think the stars are nothing more than little lights in the sky that would fall to the earth in the last days (Revelation 6:13).”
And instead of violating the rule about washing hands before eating, Jesus would have been its ardent supporter, perhaps also hinting that it might be best to boil drinking water.
“If God is all-knowing and all-powerful and infinitely intelligent, his book should be the most amazing piece of literature in history. It should be so brilliant and so glorious that no human author could write anything that compares.”
(Oriana: Now, the King James translation happens to contain some wonderful language, and some of its passages can indeed be called glorious. But this is not so in other languages. The Polish translation strikes me as pedestrian.
But style is not the most important matter. Above all, I don’t think a divinely inspired book would contain passages like this one in Deuteronomy:
32:41 If I whet my glittering sword, and mine hand take hold on judgment; I will render vengeance to mine enemies, and will reward them that hate me.
32:42 I will make mine arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh; and that with the blood of the slain and of the captives, from the beginning of revenges upon the enemy.
32:43 Rejoice, O ye nations, with his people: for he will avenge the blood of his servants, and will render vengeance to his adversaries, and will be merciful unto his land, and to his people.
32:44 And Moses came and spake all the words of this song in the ears of the people, he, and Hoshea the son of Nun.
There is also the problem of redundancy and contradictions. “What does an all-powerful writer need? An all-powerful editor, apparently. When God spoke through his ghost writers, one of his angels should have spoken up and said, “Hey, you might want to fix some of those contradictions.” I mean, come on, there are hundreds of them. Am I really supposed to believe this book was written by the same being that created all the billions of galaxies throughout the universe?
Take the gospels, for example. (By the way, why are there four of them? What sort of author tells the same story multiple times? Why isn’t there just one detailed story that includes every element from the four gospels?) Let’s focus on the resurrection story.
Matthew says Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb (28:1), an angel rolled away the stone and sat on it (28:2), and that Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (28:9).
Mark says Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb (16:1), a young man was sitting inside (16:5), and that Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene (16:9).
Luke says Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and other women went to the tomb (24:10), two men in shining garments were standing inside (24:4), and that Jesus first appeared to two of the disciples (24:15).
John says Mary Magdalene went to the tomb (20:1), no one was there although later there were two angels in white siting inside (20:12), and that Jesus first appeared to Mary (20:14).
These are just a few of the problems with the resurrection story. It doesn’t sound like a true story told by God. It sounds like a made-up story told by men who couldn’t get their story straight.
I would add to this the constant failed prophecy of the imminent coming of the kingdom within one generation: “Some who are standing here will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:28). The very word “kingdom” shows the archaic, hierarchical nature of that ancient world order, but it’s some other, very concrete details in the other apocalyptic sayings (not to mention the Book of Revelation) that don’t let us simply metaphorize away this central prophecy presumably made by an omniscient divine being. What could be more sadly “human, all too human” than this kind of longing for a perfect world (after some ghastly mayhem first) and the failure of that longing?
(As Aflred Loisy observed, in a career-ending aphorism, “Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom, but what arrived instead was the church.”)
Pieter Lastman, Jonah and the Whale, 1621 (surely this is a giant bass)
Now, the bible is fascinating in its own way, precisely because it is so blatantly human and culture-bound. And I'm willing to repeat that the King James Version contains passages of literary beauty that greatly influenced English-language literature. I hope nobody misunderstands this post as a call to toss the bible as worthless. It has a human worth. True, some passages have caused great evil over the ages, but on the whole the bible is a gift from from one ancient portion of humanity to humanity at large — mostly in the sense of a historical document revealing ancient mentality, a record of evolution from a nomadic tribe to a settled state, as well as an evolution in ethics, e.g. in Ezekiel the proverb that the children's teeth are set on edge because their fathers ate sour grapes is rejected, a glimmer of individual responsibility rather than collective guilt.
The main thing, though, is to firmly understand that the bible was written by men. It was written and re-written, edited and re-edited, translated and re-translated, etc, etc. It could have turned out even worse and more full of contradictions than it is. Human, all too human.
A quick summary:
Ah, someone may say, why get stuck on the bible? Obviously it’s archaic, written by men who didn’t know where the sun went at night. What matters is your relationship with Jesus. Here are excerpts from a wise article on that particular strategy.
LOVING JESUS, BUT NOT THE BIBLE
“I don’t follow the Bible, I follow Jesus.”
When I was a Christian, I used to say things like this all the time. I used to say “It’s about Jesus, not the Bible” for the same reasons that I used to say “It’s a relationship, not a religion.” I was trying to distinguish my own particular variety of the Christian faith from all those lesser creations of men because unlike theirs, mine was The Real Deal. I had recovered True Christianity™ unlike all those millions of misguided yahoos who insisted they had done exactly the same thing but with wildly divergent results.
I once sought to present a portrait of a God who was attractive and winsome. “It is his kindness that leads you to repentance,” I would maintain, hoping to convince others (as well as myself) that my Supreme Being was supremely likable, and far more concerned with “fellowshipping” with us than with judging or condemning us.
This perspective allows us to dismiss the less savory parts of the Old Testament which portray God as an angry, vengeful, fickle deity who wipes out entire races or even entire species because he’s so upset with them for not following his rules. The God of the Old Testament killed off an awful lot of people (and animals) both directly and indirectly. But never you mind, folks! The good news is that the same book that says God had people stoned for Sabbath breaking and ordered all the Canaanites to be killed later says that God sends his rain on the just and the unjust. “You have heard it said,” Jesus said, “but I say to you…”
The letter to the Hebrews begins this way:
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.
You can see the struggle to reconcile the Old and New Testaments had already begun at the very beginning. But there is a much simpler (and to my mind more likely) explanation: They’re both made up, and they’re both wrong. Of course, I won’t likely be convincing them of that, but that’s not even what I’m trying to do here. I’m just trying to explain that presenting Jesus as more authoritative than the Old Testament carries very little weight for people who don’t see any reason to implicitly trust either source. They both come to us today between the pages of the same book.
For us today, both Moses and Jesus are literary characters in stories that we don’t believe. Yes, Jesus is far more palatable than Moses in most places. At times Jesus even comes across as an enlightened and liberated proto-humanist.
But it’s not just about the New Testament disagreeing with the Old. In many places, the New Testament disagrees with itself. In response to this problem, many simply pit Jesus versus Paul, as if the man most responsible for sketching out early Christian thought somehow got Jesus totally wrong. In all fairness, I see a lot of sense in this notion myself, except that I no longer share any ideological commitment to defend the integrity of the Christian religion, so this doesn’t present a problem for me. But if you subscribe to the notion that a guiding intelligence was supposed to be shaping the early Church in any way, admitting this dichotomy would seem to undermine your whole system.
Truly, when you read Paul’s letters and then go back and read the gospels, there’s so little repetition or overlap that you wonder if Paul had ever even heard of those stories. The ethereal cosmic figure Paul wrote about seems like a trippy departure from a guy he never really met in real life. Paul knew Jesus only from visions and from weaving together a kind of literary character out of Hebrew scriptures which, when you go back and read them in their original context, say nothing of the sort. Come to think of it, even Paul contradicts Paul in such key ways that most scholars who aren’t personally bound by religious loyalties to inerrancy will admit that much of what we were told was written by Paul wasn’t written by him at all. In other words, even Paul disagrees with Paul, so it’s no surprise that he represents a departure from Jesus as well.
But now comes the group that exasperates me most of all lately. Some people are prepared to concede that even the gospels get Jesus wrong sometimes, and they argue that places where Jesus seems to advocate judgment and condemnation aren’t really giving us the real Jesus after all. So now we’ve got Jesus versus Jesus. And yet somehow despite this debacle they are still certain that they can discern which portrait of Jesus is the right one: It’s whichever one is the most likable and which, coincidentally, happens to agree most completely with all of our most cherished modern virtues. Sure, they tell us, the Bible says Jesus spoke of Hell more than anyone else in history up until that point, but maybe that was added later. And yes, they admit, it appears that Jesus had some harsh and dismissive things to say about family life. But maybe the real Jesus never said such things because “that’s not the Jesus I know.”
How is it that you—living two millennia later than the original writers of these stories—can discern better which stories are “real” and which are “fake?” Your own personal feelings? Is your gut leading you now? I just don’t get the cherry picking. Or more to the point, if you have any self-awareness about how much cherry picking you’re doing, I just don’t get how you can then turn around and say you worship and love something you know you just built yourself with scissors and tape and glue. All I can figure is that you’re convinced your hard work has simply uncovered the real Jesus as he was meant to be known. But you have fashioned this person yourself.
The only reason any of this presents a problem in the first place is that all of these people are trying to save the Bible from itself. But have you seriously considered the possibility that it’s a hopeless mess? The Bible is a messy collection of the pious imaginings of many, many groups of people over a very long period of time.
The emperor has no clothes. Hearing [anyone] profess that they don’t trust the Bible but that they love Jesus is like hearing you say that you know the emperor’s weavers were charlatans, but didn’t the coat they made look splendid!
I don't mind if people construct their own Jesus, devoid of any shadow, as long as they are aware that they are doing this. There is something to be said for cherry-picking what appeals to us -- but with awareness that we are doing just that. But when a person think their Jesus is THE true Jesus that everyone else should adore and wait for the Second Coming when most of humanity will be hurled into hellfire forever, that's when I see that thinking has not taken place and childhood brainwashing still rules.
Jesus fell apart for me and lost my interest because of the failed (and ludicrous) apocalyptic prophecies, but also because of the contradictions described here: "Some people are prepared to concede that even the gospels get Jesus wrong sometimes, and they argue that places where Jesus seems to advocate judgment and condemnation aren’t really giving us the real Jesus after all. So now we’ve got Jesus versus Jesus. And yet somehow despite this debacle they are still certain that they can discern which portrait of Jesus is the right one: It’s whichever one is the most likable and which, coincidentally, happens to agree most completely with all of our most cherished modern virtues. Sure, they tell us, the Bible says Jesus spoke of Hell more than anyone else in history up until that point, but maybe that was added later. And yes, they admit, it appears that Jesus had some harsh and dismissive things to say about family life. But maybe the real Jesus never said such things because “that’s not the Jesus I know.”
Anyone can make up an imaginary friend who has no flaws — and there is nothing wrong with that as long as we realize that this is our imaginary friend, and not reality: if Jesus existed (there is some debate on this), that's not how he was.
If a perfect Jesus is assumed to be real, a crash into reality can follow. Both Bart Ehrman and Reza Aslan tell a similar story: in their teens they went to a fundamentalist summer camp where the preacher presented such a wonderful picture of Jesus that both Bart and Reza (at different camps), and probably many other attendees “fell in love with Jesus.” Both Bart and Reza loved Jesus so much they decided to go into ministry. In the seminary they learned Gospel Greek and studied the earliest manuscripts. The problems of translation and forgery aside, simply studying the texts word by word showed them a “different Jesus.” The ideal did not hold up.
But I am not against conscious “cherry picking.” We can take whatever stories inspire us from ANY religion. We don’t have to take anything else from that religion. Nor do we need to read ALL of Shakespeare. Even when it comes to Shakespeare, there is the best, and the mediocre. Life is too short for the mediocre.
Let me end with a humble prose poem.
SLIDING INTO HISTORY
In childhood and beyond I loved best the old, shiny, hollowed out and really slippery pews. You'd slide in and wheeee! fall into the hollow and then by sheer momentum out of it, almost to the middle of the pew, falling over unless you managed to grab the railing. There was something very authentic about it, the buttocks of ancestors having made the old pew that kind of wild slide. Ah, history . . .
The concept of the rhetorical OR QUESTION is huge for a person that likes to think small.
New goals equal new life. So true what you are saying about outgrowing old problems. Great concept.
Who would have thought that the banker was an inadvertent philosopher for you, catalyzing a moment of enlightenment? Certainly not the banker.
Love you essay on Culture. Pure insightful genius.
Re: painting, it’s definitely a cat.
You did a good job of putting bible in context.
Re: the painting. It looks like a cat, and everyone thinks it’s a cat. But note the animal’s size, rather large for a cat, and the fact that it’s chained. I googled the painting, and the consensus is that it’s a bear cub.
The banker, Mr. Contreras, has indeed accidentally become an important teacher of a life lesson. If he knew, he might be upset — after all, from a banking point of view, he made a fatal mistake, making an OR statement, presenting an option other than investment.
An “or statement” works by providing sudden clarity about two choices, two contrary modes of action where one of them is unquestionably better. Once the question is asked, it becomes rhetorical.
I assume your praise is for the “culture of honor versus the culture of dignity.” I can’t really take the credit for writing more than the introduction. I take credit mainly for recognizing the importance of this topic. The word “honor” is so positive that few realize that dark side: the culture of honor is a culture based on revenge.
The bible definitely needs to be seen as a product of its culture and the history of the region where it was created and revised (and revised and revised). It’s interesting that the bible doesn’t have a central place in modern Judaism that’s comparable to its importance in fundamentalist Protestant churches.
My apologies for the accidental underlining of most of the text in this blog post. I tried every method of removing the glitch, but nothing worked -- it would take a lot of repasting.