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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

On "Worshiping the Same God"

Religious buildings (churches etc) with symbols of various religions: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Image source.
So if you haven't heard what's been going down at Wheaton College, here's a summary: Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a tenured political science professor at Wheaton, decided to wear a hijab during Advent to show solidarity with Muslims. She made this statement: "I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God." Then Wheaton put her on administrative leave, because it's not okay [in evangelical Christian culture] to say Christians and Muslims "worship the same God."

(and here's an article with some more information)

Since then, a lot has been written on the question of whether Christians and Muslims "worship the same God," like this post which says that both Christians and Muslims trace their faith back to Abraham, so it's the same God.

This strikes me as a bit odd. To say whether something is "the same God" or not is just a question of language- there is no objective right or wrong here. Christians and Muslims believe different things about God- are those differences great enough that we're actually talking about 2 different gods here? Or are they both describing the same god, but one side has a whole lot of incorrect information about that god?

This is literally a matter of opinion. It's all based on the context you're applying it to, and the most helpful way to conceptualize different views of God in that particular context.

For example, I have said before that the God I believe in now is a different God than the one I believed in when I was a Real True Christian, and that I actually follow a different religion now- even though I am still a Christian. Because in the past, I did the whole "personal relationship with God" thing, and I truly did have a very close personal relationship with ... something. With a nasty god who believed nasty things about people- believed that everyone deserves to go to hell, believed LGBT people are "confused" and wrong about their own identity, believed that people are so sinful we can't be trusted to make our own decisions, believed that atheists secretly know God exists but they hate him, believed that women who aren't "pure" don't respect themselves, etc etc etc.

If I just say that back then, I believed in the same God but had some incorrect perceptions, that doesn't really capture the truth about my experiences. That nasty version of God controlled my life- I was 100% devoted to him, and I prayed every day to find out what he wanted me to do, how I could be more obedient to him. It's not enough to say I had a few things wrong about God back then. That thing I followed was REAL. Not "real" as in, the actual all-powerful creator of the universe, but "real" as in, I actually felt a connection, and I did my best to obey everything it wanted me to do.

And now, my entire concept of God is different. My entire religion is different. And the best way to describe this situation, the most accurate and succinct way, is to say that the god I follow now and the god I used to follow are actually two different gods.

It's a question of language and point of view, and there is no objective "right answer." But those are my reasons why it's most helpful to conceptualize it as two different gods.

On the other hand...

Whenever I talk about how evangelical Christians judge other religions- and even judge other Christians as "not real Christians"- I frame it in terms of everyone following one God, with varying degrees of wrongness in their beliefs.

Like, in church I learned that you have to believe a specific set of facts about God in order to have a "real relationship with God" and go to heaven. But why those facts? Everybody has some wrong beliefs about God- why would those specific ones be dealbreakers?

For example, I was taught that Mormons aren't "real Christians" because ... uh ... something about believing Jesus was created by God the Father, err... I don't know, the details were unimportant, all that mattered was that they had an error in their understanding of the structure of the Trinity, and that was a dealbreaker. That meant the entire Mormon church is all wrong and bad and a cult.

Also, I believed that Christians go to heaven and non-Christians go to hell. Which translates to, as long as you refer to your god using the name "Jesus", you're good. Seriously, what? I think that anyone who values love, equality, and justice (no matter their religion, or lack thereof) is closer to the truth about God than a Christian who believes God hates all the same people they do.

In the context of drawing lines to say who's in and who's out, it's much more helpful to view all people (with maybe a few exceptions) as following the same God, but we all have some incorrect beliefs about that God. Some are more incorrect than others, but does that really matter?

So, when faced with two different descriptions of who God is, the question "Are we dealing with two different gods here, or the same god but one [or both] parties have some incorrect beliefs about that god?" has no objective answer. It all depends on the situation, and which language is more helpful in describing that situation.

Which brings us back to Wheaton College.

It's useless to argue about whether the statement "Christians and Muslims worship the same God" is, by itself, true or not. As I've said, there is no true or false about a statement like that. It's a matter of which language fits the context in which the statement is made. So it's clear that Dr. Hawkins and the leadership of Wheaton College have very different views on what that context is.

Dr. Hawkins's goal is showing support for Muslims, especially since anti-Muslim hatred has been growing in the US. So she said "Christians and Muslims worship the same God" to emphasize what we have in common. So that Christians will see Muslims as our brothers and sisters and siblings, rather than some scary "other." To set an example of what it means to "love your neighbor as yourself." The statement "we worship the same God" by itself is unimportant- what matters is this context and the example that Dr. Hawkins is setting, inspiring Christians to support and love Muslims.

And on the other side, we have the good evangelicals for whom the phrase "worship the same God" raises all kinds of red flags. No, we can't say Christians and Muslims worship the same God! That makes it sound like Muslims' beliefs are okay! But in reality, Muslims go to hell, because, obviously, for everyone who is not a real Christian, their life sucks and they will go to hell. It's dangerous to imply that there's anything OKAY about following religions which are not the RIGHT religion. People are going to hell and we have to WARN THEM!

So really, it's a question of which approach Christians should take towards Muslims: show support and empathy by emphasizing our commonalities, or send a warning about beliefs which lead to misery and hell by emphasizing our differences.

(I don't believe in hell, and I don't believe non-Christians are intrinsically miserable, so you can guess where I fall on this question.)

And Dr. Hawkins was put on leave not because there's any conflict between her statement and Christian beliefs, but because "we worship the same God" is not a helpful way to conceptualize things if your goal is to show non-Christians how wrong they are and how they need to convert- or else.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Blogaround

An adorable fluffy cat sleeping on top of an adorable fluffy dog. Image source.
1. #FeministXmasSongs Will Bring Joy to Everyone Who Wants Equality This Year (posted December 23) "Rudolph the red nose reindeer/ Had a very shiny nose/ & if you ever saw it/ You wouldn't pass judgement b/c yr body positive"

2. How the BB-8 Sphero Toy Works [video] (posted October 1, so no spoilers for episode VII) You know the BB-8 droid in Star Wars Episode VII? That technology is real. Check it out here.

3. This tweet:

Text:
Leia: help me obi wan kenobi, you're my only hope
Obi Wan: sending thoughts and prayers
Image source.
4. The Biggest Justice Movements of 2015 (posted December 23)

5. The North Carolina town that's scared of solar panels, revisited (posted December 18) "It's easy to mock goofy and irrational of fears about solar farms, but they are only an expression of deeper anxieties."

6. How "White Christianity" Beat Academic Freedom at Wheaton (posted December 22)

7. Rey is not a role model for little girls (major spoilers ahead) (posted December 21) "Do you think in their play time that girls don’t fly the Falcon?" THIS. Read this. (But watch "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" first, because this article has spoilers.)

8. Star Wars Merch’s Sexism Problem: #WheresRey Highlights Dearth in Female Toys (posted December 22) "The #WheresRey hashtag first trended over a month ago when Star Wars fans noticed a shocking lack of Daisy Ridley in Disney’s onslaught of The Force Awakens merchandising. The hashtag took aim at the glaring lack of Ridley’s Jakku scavenger heroine Rey from a Target exclusive toy six-pack that included her three new male co-stars John Boyega (as Finn), Oscar Isaac (as Poe Dameron), and Adam Driver (as the Sith junior lord Kylo Ren) alongside Chewbacca, an unnamed Storm Trooper, and an unnamed First Order pilot." SPOILERS HERE.

9. Why Grand Juries Don’t Indict Cops When They Kill (posted 2014) "Even after the fact, the American legal system consistently judges these decisions as reasonable, even when there is seemingly incontrovertible evidence that police acted irresponsibly."

10. This image I made:

Image: Kylo Ren. Text: "Turn to page three hundred and ninety four." Image source.
because I agree 100% with this tweet:


11. Please be impotently polite in responding to our uncivil abuse of power (posted December 22) "That’s nonsense. Suspending a tenured professor based on an implausible twisting of her words is not polite."

12. Tribune report contradicts Wheaton’s sanctimonious official story (posted December 23) "So, then, everything that has gotten Hawkins in trouble with the white male administrators of Wheaton College has had something to do with either race or sexuality. But those same white men insist that their determination to find some reason to fire the first black woman to get tenure in the 155-year history of the school has nothing to do with her being a black woman."

Monday, December 28, 2015

Why on Earth Did I Ever Expect the Bible to be Anything Other Than Incredibly Weird?

Tatooine, a planet with two suns. Scene from "Star Wars: A New Hope." Image source.
So last week I thought, hey it's Christmas, I should read the Christmas story from the bible. (I don't read the bible regularly, and I don't feel guilty about it.)

So I go over to Luke chapter 1 and I start reading.

So we meet Elizabeth and Zechariah, and Luke says they were both "righteous" and "observ[ed] all the Lord's commands and decrees blamelessly." Hmm, that's interesting, because in church it was very much emphasized that NO ONE is righteous and you should NEVER EVER think you're anything other than thoroughly bad and sinful, or else you'll be on a slippery slope that leads to pride and thinking you're so great and you don't need God. So what's this about Elizabeth and Zechariah being righteous? Did they earn God's approval through their good works? Because that's also a huge red flag in evangelicalism. Er, wait, is it only a red flag when in the context of anything related to salvation? Because the church does preach that we will be rewarded for obeying God. So, hmm, what would the "Real True Christian" view on this be? Is it at odds with what Luke says about Zechariah and Elizabeth? And how do I interpret it now that I'm not a "Real True Christian"?

And what's going on here when Zechariah is on duty burning incense? Chosen by lot? So, they just randomly picked one priest out of the group? Did they believe God influenced the "random" choice? And what was the meaning of burning incense? Pretty ceremonial and public, right? Not so much on the personal-relationship-with-God side. But it involved praying, I guess? Luke says "all the assembled worshipers were praying outside." Like, all individually, or like one person leading a prayer? Worshipers? Who were they? Yeah I have a lot of questions about this ritual.

Let's skip ahead to where the angel talks to Zechariah. Does anybody think it's a little odd that this angel is dictating what John should and shouldn't do before he is even born? Doesn't John have any choice in this? I guess in that culture, the family unit was more important and it was less individualistic, so maybe it was normal for parents to decide their kid's vocation? So this isn't that weird? I guess? Are we okay with that? John's never going to be allowed to drink alcohol, and he has to be a prophet and do all these things for God, and he won't even have any say in this?

And then the angel makes Zechariah unable to speak until the baby is born. Wow, that is not right. That is an abuse of power by this angel. Not cool.

And I come to this point and I'm like, geez, I have more questions than answers. I keep getting stuck on all these little details and I can't just appreciate the story. I can't just relax and let God speak to me through it. I'm just so rebellious and messed-up, I can't even read the bible like a normal person. How can I even be a Christian if it's this confusing and stressful to read the bible?

But wait a minute.

This was written 2000 years ago, in a different language, in the Middle East, for an audience whose culture was completely different from anything I've experienced. Any type of communication, any language, speaking, writing, etc, relies on shared knowledge of what these words mean and what are their connotations and what kind of situation is this and what would be normal, etc etc etc.

There are so many things that are literally impossible for Luke to communicate to modern American readers, without some kind of massive appendix much longer than the original text. Written by someone who understands modern American culture and can catch all the ways that what Luke means might not be obvious to us, and clarify them. (Living in China has taught me all about this.)

Of course the bible is going to be incredibly weird to me.

Like, why did I ever expect that I could just sit down for 15 minutes and read a passage and think oh isn't this nice, I learned all about morality and the nature of God, how wonderful. Like, why would anyone ever think it could be that simple?

Like, what the heck?

It's an ancient book from a foreign culture. Sure, I guess I believe it's "inspired by God", though I don't actually know what I mean by that. The bible is special, but that doesn't mean it's unaffected by cultural differences- that doesn't mean it's magically able to be understood by any random passerby who has a good heart devoted to God or whatever.

Back when I attended bible study groups in college, we would read a passage and ask all kinds of questions, and then work together to answer the questions and find some life-applications from the text.

All questions were okay- I never bought into that "just have faith and don't question" stuff, no matter if I was a Real True Christian or not.  But what wasn't okay was, after an hour of discussion, saying "no, I'm still not okay with this." We could ask anything, but we had to believe that there were answers- that there would always be an answer to "this thing in the bible seems really messed-up, so could someone explain to me why it's not?"

So back when I did "daily devotions", I would carefully write down all my questions and analyze them. Maybe I wouldn't be able to find answers on my own, but I trusted that everything the bible said (or "affirmed") was good and right and true. And I would move on from the questions and discover how the passage applied to me. And I "got closer to God" and all that.

But now, I can't even read the bible, because the questions are overpowering. I can't just ignore them and find a nice tidy life lesson. And I feel like that means there's something wrong with me.

But, seriously?

Like, why did I ever think it would be that simple?

The bible is just SO WEIRD, and the church carefully trains Christians not to notice that. As a kid, I read the little children's bible, which tells the PG version of selected stories (seemingly selected based on how cool the illustrations would look. Noah's ark with 2 of every animal? Adorable, draw that for the kids! Isaiah warning people to repent? Nah skip that). Kids are taught one specific lesson from each bible story. Esther is about courage. Joseph's coat of many colors is about forgiveness. Abraham is about obedience and faith. Adam and Eve is about temptation. David and Jonathan is about friendship. Ruth is about loyalty.

So now, I find myself reading the bible, and I know what each passage is supposedly "about", but there's just so much WTF that it's impossible for me to see it as a story "about" that.

What's wrong with me?

And then I realized, it's not something wrong with me.

There's something terribly terribly wrong about the way evangelical culture views the bible. We expect it to be a "guidebook for life", a source for inspirational quotes, a collection of lessons about ethics, stories with characters we can relate to and follow as role models. We're supposed to not notice that the bible is full of foreskins and genocide and locusts and stories where the bad guy wins.

And since I've lived in this culture my whole life, now when I read a chapter and there's just so much WTF that I can't ignore it and find a nice platitude about faith and then go about my day, I feel like I'm not a real Christian.

I see the emperor has no clothes, and it feels like there's something wrong with me.

I mean, how ridiculous is that? Like why on earth would anyone expect an ancient religious book from an extremely foreign culture to be a bunch of simple lessons about life, rather than a continuous series of completely weird passages?

So now, I think it's better to view the bible not as a "guidebook for life" or a bunch of simple stories about right and wrong, but more like the Star Wars universe. So complex and amazing, with levels of meaning that go deeper and deeper and deeper. You could spend your whole life studying and analyzing and developing fan theories.

Start with simple questions, and move on to more and more obscure ones:

[there are no spoilers for episode VII here- spoilers are the path to the dark side]

Did Han shoot first?

Who exactly was at the tomb on the morning of the resurrection?

In the prequels, the Jedi have an organization with a council of Jedi masters which plays a role in politics- is this a good thing? What kind of organizational structure should Jedi have? What is their role in society?

What if Abraham had said "no" when God told him to kill Isaac?

What if Luke had joined the dark side, because the emperor said that was the only way to save his friends' lives- like his father did?

There's an interpretation that says Jephthah didn't kill his daughter- instead, she was dedicated to serve at the temple for the rest of her life, sort of like Samuel.

There's a fan theory that says Yoda died sometime before episode V, and Luke interacts with Yoda's ghost. Because, anybody think it's suspicious that Luke is the only one (besides Obi Wan's ghost) who can talk to Yoda? And Yoda can't leave Dagobah?

(If someone says to a Star Wars fan, "I think the Sith have a way better outlook on the Force than Jedi do," they respond with "what? Tell me why! Wow, what a cool fan theory! Let's talk about the evidence and see if it holds up!" They're so happy to find someone who cares about the canon as much as they do. They don't say "...how could you say such a thing? How can you call yourself a fan and say that?")

The bible presents a universe which is rich and amazing and full of truths about what it means to be human. But the problem comes when we are required to believe that everything the God character does is right and good- that the God character is 100% good and loving and just. And when we are required to believe that the universe described in the bible is the same universe that we live in, and the God is the same God that exists in our world. 

The problem comes when, because we are required to believe those things, our research into the bible and development of fan theories is limited. We can't venture past the simple, black-and-white morality lessons that we were taught as little kids in Sunday School.

And then we read the bible, and it's incredibly weird, but we're not allowed to see it. The goal is to just have a "daily quiet time", to "get closer to God", to "get fed by the spirit."

But that's not what the bible is at all. And I can't believe I never noticed that before.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve Blogaround

I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It was great!!! Image source.
1. JK Rowling Endorses Black Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (posted December 22) Cool!

2. 2015 Lie of the Year: the campaign misstatements of Donald Trump (posted December 21) "Pants on Fire. There is no video of thousands of people in Jersey City cheering. Weeks later, Trump continues to stand by his claim but has not been able to point to evidence to back it up. Public safety officials on the ground in New Jersey say it never happened."

3. Grand Jury Declines to Indict Anyone in Death of Sandra Bland (posted December 21)

4. You guys, look at this article called When No One Comes to Christ. Here, I will summarize: "Sometimes you're doing your ministry/evangelism and no one comes to Christ. But don't blame yourself or God- you have to keep trusting God and doing the exact same unsuccessful thing you've been doing. Don't evaluate your methods and try to figure out reasons why they're not working. Instead, we will ask you guilt-laden questions about if you're REALLY trusting Jesus or not, and we will act like your desire to see results is suspicious and probably means you're not satisfied in God." Yeah. That's messed up.

5. Curriculum for White Americans to Educate Themselves on Race and Racism–from Ferguson to Charleston (posted July 10) Yeah, white people, go read this.

6. TTUAC: Pacifiers Make Children Fat (posted December 15) "I’ve met way too many graduates of fundamentalist Christian homeschool families influenced by leaders like Michael who grew up watching their infant siblings cry in hunger, forced to eat on a schedule because feeding on demand (i.e. what you’re supposed to do) would create selfish children."

7. Did You Know Hospitals “Sell” Body Parts? (posted December 17) "By phrasing the issue as “selling baby parts” they were able to make the public incensed about an ordinary medical practice—organ and tissue donation—that virtually everyone is familiar with and virtually no one blinks an eye at. And as Gunter also notes, that rhetoric was enough to call one anti-aboriton activist to murder."

8. Things that, as a mentally ill person, I do not find offensive/ Things that, as a mentally ill person, I find incredibly offensive (posted December 15) "The fact that when people push for not allowing people who can’t use them responsibly to own weapons, they always seem to start at “mentally ill people” on the list of people who shouldn’t be allowed handle weapons, even though there’s no correlation between mental illness and violence."

9. Wheaton College suspends its own credibility (posted December 16) "Wheaton administrators are asking us to accept that this black woman’s suspension has nothing to do with her gesture being, in part, a rebuke to the viciously anti-Islamic rhetoric of political candidates (and a home-state governor) from the party they explicitly support as an article of faith. That’s not credible."

10. Happy Holidays from Boston Dynamics. Awww I love this.

11. Star Wars FanTheories #3: Emperor Palpatine Killed Padme. (Don't worry, no spoilers for episode VII here.)

12. Star Wars Theory: Darth Jar Jar (does not contain spoilers for episode VII)

13. Why you should always buy the men’s version of almost anything (posted December 23) "Radio Flyer sells a red scooter for boys and a pink scooter for girls. Both feature plastic handlebars, three wheels and a foot brake. Both weigh about five pounds. The only significant difference is the price, a new report reveals. Target listed one for $24.99 (all dollar figures U.S.) and the other for $49.99."

14. ChriFSMas (posted December 24)

15. The New 'Star Wars' is Feminist AF (posted December 24) "As a longtime fan, I never thought I'd see the day when the hero of a 'Star Wars' film would be female." [no spoilers, but it does give some basic info about characters in Star Wars: The Force Awakens]

Merry Christmas Eve everyone!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Blogaround

Adorable soft gray cat sitting on a stool, with its head tilted slightly. Image source.
1. White man in the photo is the 'third hero' that night in 1968 (posted December 9) "They would receive their medals barefoot, representing the poverty facing people of color. They would wear the famous black gloves, a symbol of the Black Panthers’ cause."

2. We talk like people who live in infamy (posted December 8) "Attacking non-combatants may, sometimes, be militarily effective. It may, sometimes, lead to military victory that ensures no one will have the power to punish or impose sanctions against such a “forbidden” act. And yet it remains impossible to violate this rule without becoming a violator of this rule. Which is to say, more bluntly, it remains impossible to attack non-combatants without defining oneself as a complete asshole, a coward, and a shameful murderer."

3. ‘If X is not wrong, then nothing is wrong’ (posted December 10) "That would be a radical step — a drastic and dramatic rewriting of what we had previously taught about the status of a fetus. But the implications of that rewriting were irresistible. What if we began to say that a fetus, an embryo, a zygote — even a fertilized egg — was a person, morally indistinguishable from any infant or adult? Abortion would no longer be a complicated question best left to women and their doctors, it would become a crude question of murder — a stark, blunt, obvious moral issue on a par with … oh, yes! oh god, yes! at last! … on a par with slavery."

4. Deck The Gals With Neon Duct Tape: Photographer Declares “Peace On Earth” By Silencing Women In Family’s Holiday Photo (posted December 15) OH GOD.

5. You Don’t Need a Date Night (posted December 16) I like this article because it says the opposite of all those Christian advice articles/books about how you NEED to do this this and this or else you can't have a good life/family/marriage/etc.

6. Why we, Wheaton College students, are condemning Jerry Falwell Jr.’s remarks on guns and Muslims (posted December 10) Preach it.

7. Nation’s Oppressed Christians Huddle Underground To Light Single Shriveled Christmas Shrub (posted December 10) "A number of the Christians recounted how they had secretly carried a brightly painted plastic nativity scene and an inflatable 7-foot-tall snowman to the secret site, the latter item having been trafficked across three states in a truck with a false bottom."

8. Creationists didn’t do all the reading (posted December 12)

9. No More Lying About Mary (posted December 3) "Her recitation of the Magnificat is a political manifesto, delivered fairly publicly, in the home of an official temple priest, who is married to her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant, with John the Baptist."

10. An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar. "Speed was involved in a jumping-related incident with a lazy dog and a brown fox."

11. Pope Takes Sides Ahead Of Tomorrow's Marriage Equality Referendum In Slovenia (posted December 19) "When he was first chosen to lead the Catholic Church, Pope Francis sparked the hope of gay Catholics that they would be accepted by the Church, when he responded to a question about gays by asking "Who am I to judge?" Unfortunately, that rhetorical question has been followed by nothing but anti-LGBT actions, including this most recent attempt to influence the Slovenian marriage referendum."

12. My Amends to the LGBTQ Community (posted December 20) "Along with many of my friends and classmates, I teased him; I ostracized him; I “lovingly’ tried to explain to him how his “choices” made him an abomination in the eyes of God, and felt not only justified but completely vindicated in doing so."

Thursday, December 17, 2015

8 Reasons Jedi are Totally Evangelical

Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. Image source.
Over the past few weeks, I've watched all 6 Star Wars movies (awesome!) and was struck by the similarities between Jedi and American evangelical Christians. Specifically, I mean I saw many of the same unhealthy perspectives I was taught in church also taught by the Jedi.

I present: 8 Reasons Jedi are Totally Evangelical

[this post contains spoilers for Star Wars episodes I to VI. I haven't seen episode VII yet, so no spoilers for that]

1. People change suddenly.

In "The Empire Strikes Back," Obi-Wan's ghost and Yoda warn Luke that he shouldn't go and face Darth Vader yet. He's not ready, and they're worried that he may "turn to the dark side."

In other words, if Luke goes and interacts with Darth Vader, Luke may, somehow, suddenly decide to join the dark side. Under the influence of temptation, Luke may suddenly become a completely different person.

Does this sound like evangelical Christianity? Yes. Oh my goodness yes. We have to be careful about the influences in our lives, the people we interact with. If we start listening to someone who's teaching something that goes against "what God said", then we may be "led astray." Our minds are so powerless and tainted by sin that we should fear even listening to other people.

In reality, turning to the dark side is a long and gradual process, with many massive red flags along the way, as we see in episodes II and III. There were so many points where Anakin could have and should have realized "no, this is terribly wrong." It's not like you just take one step and then the rest is an uncontrollable fall into pure evil.

But evangelicals and Jedi fear that first step so much that they're afraid of any situation that sort of resembles something where a potential "first step" into sin might happen.

(Interestingly, in episode VI, the Emperor also seems to believe that "people change suddenly." He says Luke just needs to pick up his lightsaber and use it in anger, and "your journey towards the dark side will be complete." Uh, what journey? That would only be a first step.)

Or, on the flip side of the "people change suddenly" concept: In "Episode VI: Return of the Jedi," Luke thinks he's just gonna go convince Vader to become good again. He thinks if he just goes to see Vader and says and does the right things, Vader will turn back to the light side.

Sort of like back when I was always doing evangelism- I thought that for each person I encountered, there would be some particular thing I could say which would convince them to become a Christian. I thought if I just presented more and more logical arguments and answered all their objections, it would just "work." I never thought about how each person has their own very complicated life and has developed their own perspective on religion over the course of many years.

I did evangelism always hoping for big, sudden changes. But people don't really change suddenly like that.

However, at the end of "Return of the Jedi," Darth Vader does appear to change. When the Emperor tries to kill Luke, Vader intervenes and throws the Emperor down one of those big holes above which every fight scene in Star Wars seems to take place.

And suddenly, Luke totally trusts Vader and sees him as a "good guy." Suddenly it's all about how father and son love each other. Darth Vader had killed millions of people (including the entire population of the planet Alderaan), but suddenly it doesn't matter. Suddenly all is forgiven.

That's how it is in evangelical Christianity too. You can do any number of awful things, you can kill millions of people, and then "repent" on your deathbed and that means you're all good with God and you'll go to heaven.

(Does this seem like the most unjust thing you've ever heard? Actually, Christians see this as a selling point. It doesn't matter what you've done, God can still accept you. Isn't it wonderful that you can commit murder and not be considered by God/Christians to be a bad person?)

This "instant forgiveness" has been used by the church to cover up sexual abuse of children. Churches be like, oh, yeah our pastor abused someone [or, actually, a long list of someones], but he repented so it's all good! God forgave him, so the victims should just get over it.

Yeah. That's disgusting.

2. The dark side is the easy way out, and the light side is all about discipline.

Yoda explains the dark and light sides of the Force:
Yoda: Yes, run! Yes, a Jedi's strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan's apprentice.

Luke: Vader... Is the dark side stronger?

Yoda: No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.

In contrast, it is explained that the light side- the Jedi side- is all about discipline. It's all about controlling yourself. It's easy to follow the dark side and use your emotions to power you in a fight, but that's bad. In the long run, you'll be stronger if you discipline yourself instead.

This is just like evangelical Christianity. They say that sin is easy and fun in the short run, but it's better to deny yourself that pleasure and follow the rules instead. I have seen this line of reasoning used to imply that pleasure itself should be viewed with suspicion, that doing something that makes you happy is "selfish" and it's better to not do it.

The best example of this is the church's rules about sex. Supposedly, all sexual experiences or thoughts that don't involve your (opposite gender) spouse [whom you may not have even met yet] are sinful. This includes everything from consensual sex to porn to masturbating to noticing that a person is attractive. Many books have been written about how it's easier to just "give in to temptation" but we shouldn't do that; instead we need to stamp out our sexuality if we're not married.

But seriously, why? All those supposedly sinful examples of "taking the easy way out" aren't actually sinful at all. Just because something is harder and requires more sacrifice doesn't mean it's a better thing to do. I no longer believe that sex is sinful- I think it's sinful when you don't treat people with love and respect. And all those rules and how we worked so hard to "discipline" and repress ourselves- it's all for nothing.

Discipline and denying yourself pleasure isn't intrinsically a godly and healthy thing to do.

3. Repressing emotions

When the Jedi council meets Anakin at the end of "Episode I: The Phantom Menace," Yoda says this: "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you." The Jedi council can sense Anakin's emotions, and they use them against him- as a reason that he should be ineligible for Jedi training.

Same thing with Christianity. The church teaches that normal human emotions are dangerous, and we have to stay constantly vigilant and control how we feel.

The Jedi never taught Anakin how to actually handle his emotions. They just acted like he was bad for even feeling in the first place.

4. Rules about relationships

A major plot point is episodes II and III is Padme and Anakin's secret relationship (and secret marriage). Jedi are not allowed to be in romantic relationships. This leads to Anakin's sneaking around and not trusting the Jedi council. Later, when Padme is pregnant and he's worried that she could die, he can't get support from any of the Jedi because he has to hide the whole thing from them. Nobody understands what he's going through, except Darth Sidious, and that's why Anakin turns to the dark side.

Same thing in the church. If you have any kind of relationship issue that involves anything other than two people of the opposite sex who wait until marriage before doing it, you can't talk about it in church. You'll be judged. You're only allowed to say it in church if you frame it as "this was a sinful thing I did in the past and God has made me a totally new person and of course I follow all the sex rules now" or "I'm struggling with this, can you guys pray for me to be able to follow the sex rules?"

There's a culture of shame and silence, and it means people aren't able to get support from each other.

5. "Let go of everything you fear to lose."

In "Episode III: Revenge of the Sith," Anakin has visions of Padme dying, and he goes to Yoda for help. Yoda tells him, "Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose."

Yeah, that advice wasn't so helpful. Anakin pretty much concludes that the only person who can help him save Padme's life is Palpatine aka Darth Sidious.

Because seriously, Yoda's telling him he just needs to force himself to not care when people die?

When I watched that scene, I was reminded of this video, where John Piper says it's right for God to kill women and children. Piper was asked how on earth it could be okay that God killed so many people in the Old Testament, and basically his answer is that it's always okay for God to kill anyone. God doesn't owe you life. If you died, well, it wouldn't be wrong or unfair.

If someone dies, don't go asking God "how could this happen?" because eh, God kills people sometimes, and that's fine. Whatever.

In fact, according to evangelical Christianity, we all deserve to go to hell anyway, so yes, we totally deserve death. (And if you think that sounds awful and unjust, that's just your emotions, and you need to get your emotions to SHUT UP about it.)

I'm also reminded of the cliches that Christians use to respond to tragedy, trying to put some kind of positive spin on it- "God has a plan", "all things work together for the good of those who love God", etc- instead of just saying "yeah this sucks."

And Yoda's advice to Anakin is scarily close to that whole attitude of "just trust God more and force yourself to believe bad things aren't really bad."

6. They're not telling you things.

In "Revenge of the Sith," Anakin is drawn in by Palpatine's descriptions of what the dark side can do. He had never heard anything like it before. All he knew about the dark side previously was the one-dimensional view that the Jedi teach: Sith are selfish and evil, and Jedi are good.

Palpatine (aka Darth Sidious, aka the Emperor) tells Anakin about a Sith named Darth Plagueis, who had the power to create life and stop people from dying. Then this happens:
Anakin: Is it possible to learn this power?

Palpatine: Not from a Jedi.

Yeah. And he's right- the Jedi had never told Anakin about this. They would never even acknowledge that those dark-side powers existed.

Turns out there was a lot that the Jedi don't tell you, probably because they fear that if people had that information and were able to make an informed decision about it, they might choose the dark side instead of the light side.

This is just like the church. All my life, I heard one-sided arguments about how evolution is clearly false because of blah blah blah, and Christianity is better than all the other religions because blah blah blah- but those were just caricatures. I never knew what people who disagreed with us actually believed. I was afraid to go read something on these topics from a non-church-approved source, because what if I was led astray? (See point number 1, "people change suddenly.")

And this same thing definitely applies to abstinence-only education. The reasoning goes like this: we mustn't give kids actual information about sex, we mustn't educate them about realistic risks and ways to manage those risks, because then they might decide to have sex and that is a terrible thing that must be avoided at all costs. Instead, abstinence-only education and purity culture exaggerate the dangers of sex, using fear to get you to obey the rules. "Condoms fail most of the time! If you have sex, it will ruin your life! If you're not a virgin at your wedding you'll never be able to have a good marriage!"

I believe that what Darth Sidious told Anakin was also very one-sided. He wasn't interested in helping Anakin save Padme at all- he just wanted Anakin to help him defeat the Jedi. If only there had been someone who was honest with Anakin- who could say, yes the power to stop death exists, but it comes with certain risks, so you should consider all this information and decide for yourself if it's something worth pursuing.

7. "Twisted"

In "Revenge of the Sith", after Anakin becomes Darth Vader, Obi-Wan tracks him down and they do some yelling at each other before an epic lightsaber battle. Obi-Wan say this: "You have allowed this dark lord to twist your mind, until now...until now you have become the very thing you swore to destroy."

Let's talk about how he uses the word "twist."

So up to this point, Anakin has pledged his life to Darth Sidious, murdered many Jedi (including a whole group of children), murdered the Separatists who were on Mustafar, and force-choked Padme. And yet, somehow, in an attempt to convince Vader that what he's doing is wrong, Obi-Wan says "you have allowed this dark lord to twist your mind."

Really? In other words, "you're wrong, but you've become so screwed-up that it's impossible to explain to you why you're wrong." Umm, how is that going to be convincing to anyone?

And Christians use the term "twist" in the same way.

Anytime someone makes some kind of argument for a position that's not the church-approved position on a particular topic, and they cite bible verses to support their argument, Christians say "you're twisting Scripture." You try to tell evangelicals that the bible DOESN'T teach that hell is a place of infinite torture and we all deserve to go there and we can only get out by believing particular facts about Jesus, and that's what they'll say: "you're twisting Scripture."

In other words, if you look at it from one perspective, it has this interpretation, and if you look at it from the other perspective, it has that interpretation, but the first perspective is clearly the straightforward correct one, and the other perspective is "twisted."

They're telling you you're wrong, but they're unable to give any reasons why you're wrong. Just that it should be obvious the bible says this, and you can only get it to say that by "twisting" it. Furthermore, your mind must be twisted by sin, and that's why you think that "twisted" interpretation sounds reasonable, when everyone else can see that it's self-evidently wrong.

"Twisted." "Twisted" is a word used to gaslight people, to make them think that they're incapable of logical thought and they just need to trust what the church teaches.

8. All the times when Luke is in his own little world

Luke is connected to the Force, so he senses things that his little group of friends- Han, Chewbacca, Leia, C3PO, and R2-D2- are unable to sense. And this means sometimes he says or does seems that make no sense to everyone else.

Like in "The Empire Strikes Back" when he suddenly leaves the group and goes off to Dagobah- a planet he knew virtually nothing about- because the Obi-Wan ghost told him to go look for Yoda there.

Or in "A New Hope" when the Obi-Wan ghost tells him to turn off his computer while attacking the death star.

Or, after he finds out that Darth Vader is his father, all those times where he senses some kind of telepathic connection and says "father" longingly. And knows Vader is on that ship or that planet or whatever. And "I'm endangering the mission. I shouldn't have come."

From the perspective of everyone else, Luke just now and then spouts random nonsense, and they have no way of verifying if any of it is correct.

Same thing with "having a relationship with God." You have this connection which nobody else can see. Maybe God will tell you to do something! Maybe God will give you some information you couldn't have known through any natural means.

Evangelicals emphasize so much that it's just about you and God, and then you find yourself saying "Vader's on that ship" without even realizing how insane you appear to everybody else.

All that matters is this connection you have with the spiritual world, they say- that's more real than the physical world.

But seriously, living that way means you're out of touch with reality.

--------------

The Jedi are similar to American evangelical Christians in some scary and unhealthy ways. They try to keep everyone in line, suppressing their emotions, not asking too many questions. They have secret knowledge that can't be verified by anyone without that spiritual connection, and they think they have the right to tell other people what to do based on that knowledge.

And even though "fear is the path to the dark side," their whole philosophy breeds fear. Fear that "temptation" or listening to "bad influences" could suddenly change them into evil people. Fear that if you challenge the rules, it'll have disastrous consequences. Fear that your own emotions and desires are shameful and evil.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Star Trek: Incarnation

Counselor Troi and Captain Picard. Image source.
"The distress calls from the planet are almost continuous. It's time we did something," Deanna Troi said with concern in her voice.

"I understand, Counselor," Captain Jean-Luc Picard answered. "But this is not a simple problem. As you've said, we're receiving distress calls from all over the planet, for so many different reasons. Wars, famine, seismic activity- if we did interfere, the question is, where to even begin?"

"The problem is deeper than that, actually," added Data. "On this planet, every one of the cultures I have studied is characterized by inequality. For example, inhabitants of the planet generally regard women to be inferior to men. It will not be easy to overcome this belief."

"I know that it would be difficult, but we can't just sit here and do nothing!" Troi said. "They need--"

Picard interrupted, "But the Prime Directive--"

"Captain! Don't you care? Captain, I hear them constantly. I feel their pain. They know we're up here. They know we could help if we wanted. How can you just do nothing? How can you just leave them?" She was indignant.

Captain Picard sighed. He looked down at the table. "I do hear them. I wish there were an easy answer." He looked at Troi. "But there's no way for us to help them. It would require a society-wide transformation, and that's something we can't force. The people of this planet have the ability to better their society. They have the resources. In time, they will develop technologically and evolve past their prejudices."

"That's convenient for you to say," answered Troi. "We have a responsibility to them..."

"Counselor, don't say I don't care. I do care about them." He glared at her.

"But how, Captain? How can you really care? We've sent away teams, yes, but they've always known they'd be able to beam out at a moment's notice. There was never any danger for us. We're here, in the Enterprise, above it all, safe from all their problems and suffering. From this position, can we ever truly understand them? Can we ever truly care?"

The captain sighed, unsure about what to say. Data looked at both of them, then said, "If I may, Captain. I believe I understand Counselor Troi's concern. I myself have studied human emotions extensively, but they remain a mystery to me, because I am unable to experience them. Perhaps we are in the same situation with regards to this planet."

"That's exactly it," said Troi. "We can study the planet, we can learn about the people, we can hear the distress calls, but we can't truly understand their suffering. And when we sit in the comfort of our ship, orbiting above the planet, and say we care about them, our words ring hollow. How can we care, if we ourselves remain above all of it?"

"I understand," said Picard. "But the Prime Directive exists for a reason. As outsiders, any action we take would cause a major disruption in their society. They need to fix these problems themselves. I fear that our attempts to help them would introduce new problems."

"That is quite likely," answered Data. "If we provided them with the technology they needed, based on this history of this planet, it is probable that those with the technology would use it to gain more power for themselves and control others."

Troi gave them both a worried look. "So we should just do nothing? We should wait for them to solve this themselves?"

"If only we could teach them, in a way that would not be intimidating or forceful," said Picard. "But any action we took would be frightening to them."

"Teach them?" said Data. "Captain, I may have an idea. Perhaps if we built some kind of probe, which looked like them and could live among them. I could control the probe from here. Then I could understand their society and teach them to cooperate with each other."

-----------------------------

Data, with a cable connected to his brain. Image source.
Data stood next to a mess of wires, holding a tricorder. A section of his hair has been opened, revealing the positronic components and blinking lights that made up his brain. "I will be able to interface with the probe directly," he explained. "After the probe is initialized, for all practical purposes I will no longer be aboard the Enterprise. I will only have access to the sensory information and cognitive abilities of the host body."

"Cognitive abilities?" said Troi. "Data, you'll be in an infant's body. You mean you won't even be able to reason beyond the abilities of an infant?"

"That is correct, Counselor," said Data. "It will take some time for the brain of the host to develop to a point where I can begin the mission."

"I must warn you, this is risky," said Picard, in a serious tone. "You'll be as vulnerable as they are. We won't be able to help you from here."

"And how will you communicate with us?" asked Troi.

"I will only be able to communicate as the inhabitants of the planet do," said Data. "They direct their thoughts up here to us, unsure if we are even listening."

"Commander, I can't order you to do this," said Picard. "It's too dangerous."

"With all due respect, Captain, this is what I have always wanted. Finally I will experience human emotions. I will be able to truly understand what it means to be happy, or sad, or angry, or worried," Data said as he sat down in a chair. He attached a cable to his brain and turned toward a panel of buttons. "Initializing ... now." The top button lit up as he pressed it. His eyes closed and his body fell lifeless in the chair. Small lights in his brain continued to blink.

-----------------------------

Down on the surface of the planet, as night fell on a tiny settlement, Data opened human eyes for the first time. They wrapped him in clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Blogaround

Image description: A totally adorable shiba inu dog, wearing a red and white scarf and sitting next to a wrapped gift and Christmas lights. Image source.
1. A fundamental quantum physics problem has been proved unsolvable (posted December 9) Cool!

2. The Parable of the Good Muslim (posted 2013) This is worth reading.

3. A Christian University Toughens Its Anti-LGBT Stances (posted December 11) "Biblical marriage consists only of a faithful, heterosexual union between one genetic male and one genetic female, and biblical marriage is the only legitimate and acceptable context for a sexual relationship." Disgusting. DISGUSTING.

4. This bit of tornado safety advice:

A test question: "In your opinion, which location would be the most dangerous during a tornado?" Below, it has these phrases: "Circle one", "In school", "At a park", "In a store." The test-taker has circled "Circle one." The test then says, "Explain your choice," and the test-taker has written "it is way to dangerous to circle a tornado." Image source.
5.  5 Ugly Things You Learn As A Sex Slave In The Modern World (posted December 3) "He saw a criminal, not a victim."

6. Working at Planned Parenthood: 'Every day, someone threatened to kill me' (posted December 1)

7. Risk of being killed by police is 16 times greater for those with mental illness (posted December 10) Oh god.

8. The Washington Post Style Guide Now Accepts Singular ‘They’ (posted December 10) Great!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Christians and Tests

A question on a geology test: "Extra credit: What is the strongest force on earth?" The test taker has written "love" but unfortunately it was marked wrong. Image source.
So Ben Carson told a story about a test which turned out to be, well, a test.
  • Ben gets notice that all the final exams in Perceptions 301 were accidentally lit on fire. He goes in for the retest.
  • The new test is really, really hard. A girl near Ben tells her classmate they should leave. "We can say we didn't read the notice."
  • Everyone starts leaving. Ben is conflicted. "I was tempted to walk out, but I had read the notice, and I couldn't lie and say I hadn't."
  • Eventually Ben is the only one left. The professor comes back in with a Yale Daily News photographer. The whole thing was a hoax, she said. "We wanted to see who was the most honest student in the class. And that's you."
  • Ben concludes the story: "The professor then did something even better. She handed me a ten-dollar bill."
  • End scene.

The article goes on to say this:
And after he finds God, he needs to exaggerate how great everything turned out. This culminates in the absurd story about his psychology class. No one who's not an evangelical Christian would believe it for a second. But evangelicals hear testimonies like this all the time. They expect testimonies like this, and the more improbable the better. So Carson gives them one. It's clumsy because he's not very good at inventing this kind of thing, but that doesn't matter much.

Yeah. "But evangelicals hear testimonies like this all the time." This type of story is so common in evangelical culture. A story about a "test."

So let's take a look at this genre of "test" stories. I would categorize them into three types:
  1. Tested by God.
  2. Tested by someone else who's obviously evil.
  3. Everyday situation which turns out to be a test.
All right, here we go.

1. Tested by God.

So in this type, God tells you to do something, and then you have to do it. It seems like it's going to be something really tough and painful, but because it's a test, it won't actually turn out to be as tough and painful as you thought- no, instead God will reward you for your willingness to obey.

The best example of this is when Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac. (See Genesis 22.) God commands Abraham to go up on a mountain and kill Isaac, as a "burnt offering." So Abraham obeys. He takes Isaac up the mountain, ties him up, and then just as he's about to kill Isaac with a knife, an angel shows up and tells him to stop. Turns out that God didn't really want him to kill Isaac- just wanted to test if he was willing to do it or not.

Here's an example from my life: So, many years ago, I was dating this guy, and we had an argument and I was really worried he was going to break up with me. So I prayed and prayed and prayed, and worried and worried and worried. And somewhere in there, I had this thought: maybe this is God testing me. Maybe God wants to see if I would be willing to lose my boyfriend. Maybe God is testing if I put God first.

An interesting twist on this idea is to bluff through it. You suspect "maybe this is a test" so you act like you're willing to do it, hoping that someone will stop you just before the point of no return and reward you for passing the test.

Here's another, more heartbreaking example, from a post that Rachel Held Evans wrote about parents with LGBT kids:
We cannot condemn parents for not supporting their LGBT children without first asking them why they feel like they can’t, without first hearing the story of the father who told me, “I felt like Abraham. I believed I was being tested to see if I was willing to sacrifice my son in obedience to God.”
I am not okay with this "isn't it great how someone obeyed God when God told them to do something completely absurd and seemingly evil" crap. For real, if God tells you to kill someone, you find a new God. Period.

Jewish rabbis have had way more time to think about this than Christians have, and some interpret the story to say Abraham failed the test. He should have said no to God.

And I also like the Slacktivist's take on it: "I’ve got it backwards, they say. The story isn’t about Satan pretending to be God. It’s a story about God pretending to be Satan. I don’t think that helps."

2. Tested by someone else who's obviously evil.

The typical example for this type is the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from Daniel 3. The king built a statue and ordered everyone to bow down and worship it, or else they would be thrown into the fiery furnace. Our three heroes refused. They were thrown into the furnace, but God protected them and they didn't die. Hooray.

The "tested by an evil person" subgenre is very strange. An evil person sets the rules of the game, and you are expected to act within the framework of the rules that they set up. And God is very interested in how you play the game that was set up by the evil person. God will judge you by the evil person's rules. So weird.

Let me give you another example, and you'll see what I mean. So, there was a shooting in Oregon this year where some sources were reporting that the shooter was targeting Christians. (Bo Gardiner at The Friendly Atheist blog has done a bunch of research on the victims to disprove this idea.) According to this story, the shooter asked victims about their religion, and then shot them if they said they were Christians.

It seems like that's not really how it happened, but the evangelical Christian world was happy to take that story and run with it. Because, as I said, this type of "test" story is really common, so it sounds very believable in that culture. (And they're also always imagining that American Christians are persecuted, and it fits right in with that too.)

Like I said, this type of story is so bizarre because the evil person sets the rules. King Nebuchadnezzar says bowing down means you're worshiping the statue. Dangerous Shooter Guy says if you're really devoted to God, you'll stand here and answer my questions honestly. But why? Why on earth would you listen to these people? Why would you take them seriously and obey them?

And why would God judge you on whether you did what this violent person defined as honoring God?

Seriously! Let's ask our hypothetical Christian-who-believes-in-this-test-stuff a few questions:

Perfect Number: So, what should you do if somebody starts shooting people?

Hypothetical Christian: Get out of there, try to save others, call the police, maybe even fight with the shooter if you can.

Perfect Number: And then what if, as you are running away, the shooter asks you a question about your religion?

Hypothetical Christian: Oh, well then you have to quit all that "running away and trying to help save people" stuff and go back and submissively give honest answers. You know, stand up for God.

... Yeah.

Here's another example: remember when the devil tempted Jesus in Matthew 4? The devil said "if you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." Jesus didn't play by those rules though. He didn't think "oh, I have to tell the stones to become bread, otherwise I'm not standing up for the truth about being the Son of God."

(He seemed to be playing by a different set of rules though- the "you can't say no to something unless you have a bible verse to back you up" rules, which I also have a problem with.)

So, the point is, in this type of story, you pass the test by doing what a clearly violent person defines as devotion to God, even though they will probably kill you for it. It's pretty messed up that Christians take a violent person's definition of devotion to God so seriously. It's pretty messed up that, in these stories, God takes that definition seriously too.

And what if you were there with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, but you didn't play by Nebuchadnezzar's rules? What if you bowed down and said "Nebuchadnezzar counts this as worship to the idol, but he's wrong. I'm bowing down because my life is more valuable than proving a point about how devoted to God I am. And I think God values my life too." And then when God saves those three guys from the furnace, what does that say about how God sees you? God is saying they were right and you were wrong, right? And that's messed up too.

(Or maybe God is saying "oh myself, what have those three gotten themselves into? Don't they know they can just fake it? Geez, I'm gonna have to go save those losers.")

It should be noted that this subgenre is different from the others because in the others, if you pass the test, you are rewarded. But for stories where you're tested by an evil person, passing the test means they will definitely try to hurt or kill you. Maybe God will save you, maybe not.

It is also unique in that the situation presents itself as a test, where the other types do not and only later is it revealed that they were tests.

3. Everyday situation which turns out to be a test.

So in this type, a situation arises where there's an "easy way out" by doing something that's immoral. But later it's revealed that the whole thing was set up by someone to see if you were a moral and honest person or not.

Ben Carson's story about the psychology test is definitely this type. He was (umm, supposedly) in a situation where he had the option of walking out and claiming he didn't know about the exam. The professor wasn't even there- who would know? But lying is wrong, so he didn't do it. Then he finds out the professor staged this whole thing to test if the students were honest or not. Hooray! Ben passes the test.

Here's another example: In the Christian movie "Courageous", there is a scene where a boss tells an employee to enter the wrong number in a file about inventory or something like that. The employee, Javier, spends maybe a couple days conflicted about what to do. If he doesn't do it, he might lose his job! But his family really needs the money! But if he did it, that would be dishonest and wrong! Finally he tells his boss he won't do it. The boss reveals that it was all a test to see if he was honest, and gives him a promotion.

You guys. If I was Javier, I would have asked some more questions. Maybe "put the wrong number here" isn't as unethical as it sounds. Maybe there's some reason for it. Maybe they're using software that was progammed 10 years ago and they need to enter the data in a certain way or else the whole thing crashes, and nobody knows how to fix that bug so they all use this workaround and everyone understands that the number there isn't the actual number.

Like, Javier understands this as "my boss just told me he is a dishonest man" and he acts like that's normal? Is this because Christians think "the world" is so thoroughly sinful? Wouldn't any normal person ask the boss "wait, I don't understand, isn't that dishonest?"

But it's always black and white in these tests. It's always "clearly, if you are obedient to God, you will do this, and if you are not, you will do that." There are no other possibilities. There is no "I bowed down but didn't worship the statue." There is no "let's evaluate the morality of what this supposed God is telling me to do." There is no "maybe I can reason with this person, explain my concerns and try to understand why they want me to do this, and we can reach some sort of agreement."

No nuance. You know from the outset which option is right and which is wrong, and that's it. You either pass or fail.

Yep, Christians love tests.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

I Went to a Buddhist Site and Nothing Was "Sad"

Ancient Buddhist statues carved into a rock wall

I want to show you all my pictures from Lingyin Temple (灵隐寺 líng yǐn sì) in Hangzhou (杭州), China. (I posted photos from Hangzhou's West Lake a while back too.)

Rock stairs with a huge sagging tree branch growing above them

The area surrounding the temple is incredibly beautiful. There is a park with walking paths, full of trees and huge rocks, and the coolest part is the rock carvings. Hundreds of figures have been carved from these rocks- figures of important people in Buddhism.

Visitors looking at Buddhist carvings on a rock wall

I mean, wow. If you're ever in Hangzhou, you need to come see this. The place is so beautiful and ancient.

And as I walked around looking at all this incredible art, interested to know about the people depicted in the carvings and the significance of this place for Buddhists, I was very happy to realize this: Not once did I think "this is sad."

Very low opening you can duck through under a huge rock

So back when I was a Real True Christian, I knew that Christianity was the right religion and every other religion was worthless. I knew that, for followers of those "wrong" religions, all their dedication and faith meant nothing, because they referred to God by the wrong name. I knew that only Christians could go to heaven.

And so, when Real True Christians learn about other religions, to some extent they may admire the good and beautiful things that the religion inspired people to do, but at the end of the day, they're sad. Because look at all the hard work that artists did in ancient times to create these carvings, but all of it was for the wrong God and so it was all meaningless. Look at the monks walking around in the temple- so sad that they've dedicated their lives to something that is worthless. No, not worthless, evil actually. Christianity is the right religion for everyone, so any religion that is not Christianity is actually harming its followers, keeping them from searching for Jesus.

group of monks looking at a tower

Geez, I'm so glad I don't believe that anymore. Seriously, how terrible is that, to judge another religion when you know nothing about it, except that it's not Christianity? What I believed back then was literally "I don't know anything about Buddhism, except that it's wrong and evil and its followers are all wasting their lives."

We believed that non-Christians go to hell. We knew their greatest need was to get rid of their beliefs and believe in Jesus instead. We didn't respect other religions- no, of course not! But we pretended to respect them, so that their followers would think of us as friendly and loving and be receptive to our message.

Yes, we believed it was worthwhile to listen and learn about other religions. But only so that we had the information we needed to create a plan of attack.

I mean, that's horrible, right? But when you believe non-Christians go to hell, you have to treat them this way. If you care about them, you have to try to force them to give up their beliefs. Hell ruins anything good about Christianity.

River with Buddhist carving on the rock face above it

Back then, I could look at a religion I knew nothing about, and confidently claim that it was "sad."

You know what actually is sad though?

It's so sad that girls in the American church grow up believing "your virginity is the most precious gift you can give your husband." It's sad that children are taught that they deserve to go to hell and Jesus is doing them a huge favor by loving them even though they are clearly unlovable. It's sad that I had depression and needed therapy last year because I believed God thought I was dirty for living with my boyfriend.

It's sad that the idea of hell drives Christians- who truly feel love toward their neighbors- to treat said neighbors in disrespectful and hurtful ways. It's sad that so many evangelicals believe they need to balance human compassion against "what the bible says."

Buddhist statue

I can say these things are "sad" because I have experienced them firsthand. But about Buddhism, I don't have enough knowledge to judge it. Surely it has been used in ways that hurt people and are "sad"- because every religion has. Every religion- including Christianity- can inspire people to love and help others, or can be used as a tool to control people and gain power.

Rock stairs going up to a little pavilion on the side of a rock face

I'm a Christian, so I disagree with Buddhism on certain beliefs. I believe Buddhists are factually wrong about those things. But so what? What really matters is human happiness and the way people treat each other. There's no reason to think that if someone corrected (what I see as) misconceptions about God by converting to Christianity, it would actually benefit them in practical ways. (And I also have a lot of incorrect beliefs about God. Everybody does! Even if "Christianity is true", [whatever that means,] who's to say that, just because a person uses the name "Jesus" to refer to their god, their perception of God's characteristics is actually closer to the true nature of God than someone who doesn't use the name "Jesus"?)

Buddhist carving at the top of a rock wall

Anyway, the point is, I'm really really glad I no longer judge religions that I don't have a clue about. I'm really glad now I'm genuinely interested in learning more, and not with any evangelism-related ulterior motive. I'm really glad I don't believe in hell anymore, so I'm able to actually treat non-Christians with love and respect.

And please enjoy the rest of these pictures of the beautiful scenery at Lingyin Temple.

A line of Buddhist figures carved into the wall of a cave

Rock cave opening

Tourists at a site with Buddhist carvings

Rock stairs going down a mountain with trees

Chinese lion statue

Colorful Buddhist statue. Wild and creepy facial expression.

Creek with rocks and trees. Beautiful.

Buddhist statues carved into a rock wall

Trees growing out of a bunch of rocks

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