Thursday, 20 November 2014


I've been reading J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy every few years since I was a little kid.  And I've been an avid follower of all the extra behind-the-scenes information about exactly how they made the movie adaptations, with a particular interest in what story they thought they were telling.  On the DVD extras, this one man kept making the most interesting points about Tolkien as a person.  Since I first sat down to the watch the extended Fellowship of the Ring DVD with all the extras, I've been seeing Tom Shippey, author of J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, talking about Tolkien and I've been impressed by the insights in his points.
    The older I get, the harder time I have getting drawn into new things.  Music, books, television, movies, whatever.  And I find that in the information age, I can get an almost limitless supply of information surrounding the old stuff I already like. I watch every interview or documentary about favourite books, movies, albums and TV shows.  So I bought the Kindle version of Tom Shippey's book.  Pretty into it.
    The idea that is interesting me right now is something Shippey termed "wraithing."  He explained that he feels the very best, most lasting, most widely read and quotable books of the twentieth century, are George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984, C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, and Tolkien's writing, along with people like Kurt (Slaughterhouse Five) Vonnegut and Joseph (Catch 22) Heller.  He feels that these books, more than any others, are quintessentially twentieth century.  He says that the reason why these books were so ground-breaking is that these men had first-hand experience of the new realities of war and abuses of government power that heralded the twentieth century.  He says that as a result, they chose to (needed to, really) create works of imaginative fiction to try to solidify the new stuff that was going on all around them.  To make portraits of it so it could be clearly looked at for the first time.  Because they needed new ways of viewing courage, honour and evil and corruption and tyranny.  Nothing quite like what they were now seeing had ever happened in the world, and had, consequently, never been written about before.
    Tolkien's really frightening evil characters, Shippey argues, are "emptied" figures, barely corporeal at all, faceless, heartless and cold.  They are shadow.  He talks about Gollum, Denethor, the Nazgul, and Sauron (and even Frodo and Bilbo) as beings that were once genuine, vibrant, fully-realized people.  Walking around, knowing how to respond with joy to nature, to food and drink and music and the company of others.  But then, somehow getting drawn into something that subsumed/consumed them.  Hollowed them out.  Made them at first empty shells, and eventually, wraiths.  Barely there at all.  Never dying, never living.  Feeling like butter scraped over too much bread.  Forgetting what strawberries tasted like.  Hiding from the sun. Ceasing to be themselves.  Being placeholders.  Empty spaces with nothing really to offer to the world but resentful, jealous, toxic, destructive malice.
    Giving all there is of themselves to a cause, an agenda, a goal, an ideology, until there is no "them" left to give, and no longer any "them" left to be.
    I never gave my identity and my life to follow Hitler or Stalin, of course.  But I do know a bit about being asked to sacrifice everyone I was or would ever be, to a system.  To a religious collective.  To a job, also.  Or to a cause.  I know that feeling of being used up.  Of no longer being full of whatever it is that is supposed to make me be myself.  Of feeling hollow. With nothing but a thin, sour, cold venom flowing in my veins, some days.  Spattering venom everywhere I go, because love's not going in, and not flowing out.  Walking around and having jokes and sunsets and food and music kinda go past me. Over my head.  Heart tightly closed.  Alone.  Forgetting what I even like to do. Leaving poison footprints.
    I think it's a real danger for working people.  Working middle-aged people especially. Forgetting who you once were and becoming a Gollum. A mini-Sauron.  A driven, desperate, hateful Denethor.  All the while giving very sensible, logical, knowledgeable Saruman-style reasons why there's no other path to take.  Why nothing else is possible or important.  Why you're just being sensible.  Why there are, really, no other choices but self-abnegation.
    Sometimes I feel very, very used up.  It's not something that gets better with age.  And that's when I have to remember what makes me most myself.  I was raised to sacrifice who I was, because who I was, was "bad."  Well Tolkien and Lewis and Orwell all knew that there's something worse than being full of yourself and self-centred and arrogant: not being yourself.  Being an empty, sour shell, shambling around in the shadows, just like you were still a person.
    In times like these, it's important to remember what and who makes me myself. And to reach out and recharge.

Saturday, 8 November 2014


You see it all over still; the "theology" that no doubt most people think we Christians believe: 

Satan is in hell.  And he wants to negotiate with you and have you "sell your soul" to him, so you'll end up in hell, having enjoyed musical talent, beauty, or something like that, in your earthly life.   

You see this on Supernatural, Constantine and all the rest.  Retelling Faust, the story of a man who makes a deal with the devil: he will spend eternity in hell, so long as he gets wealth and knowledge and wisdom and power on earth.  Like souls are currency, rather than being us.
  Because music, joy, beauty, sex, food, drink, dancing and the rest?  God wouldn't just give us all of that, would He?  You'd have to buy it, wouldn't you?  From Satan?  God's not like that, is He?  Surely you'd have to sacrifice it all if you wanted His approval?

The World, As Depicted in the Bible
Now, obviously all this is deeply unscriptural.  It's coming from Faust, after all, rather than the bible.  It's coming from simpler, stupider stories.  Stories that Harry Potter-burning fundamentalists seem to believe, rather than the bible itself.
    Because in the bible, the devil's not in hell.  He's why the world's like it is, like it's always been.  America didn't used to be Christian, but now "they're ruining it."  It is under Satan's government as it was from the very beginning, just like the rest of the world.  He's ruling it.  Running it.  Structuring it.  Managing it.  Presiding over a network of systems that makes sure that Murphy's Law is the universal law of a human life, and that no good deed goes long unpunished.  Making sure genocides happen.  Systematically facilitating rape and silencing victims.  Making sure child porn and molestation are covered up.  These aren't failures of the system.  They are built into the system.  The system has built-in refuges and loop-holes for exploitative people.  For rapists, molesters, extortioners and others of that ilk. And that's by design, if not human design.  This is a world where the scum rises to the top, rather than the virtuous, honest, giving and principled.  A world where the only way to think you've conclusively, finally won is to lie and cheat and backstab others.
     All this while doing only as much, and the precise kinds of, good required to glue a good veneer onto yourself and pretend you're solid oak right down to your core.  To justify your having more power than the rest of the world.  A world where no one wins for long.  A world where not even the most powerful men and women are really in control, aware of, or in charge of it all.  A world where atheist, Muslim and "Fundamentalist" Christian ideologies all work seamlessly together to serve to make the exploitation and oppression of millions possible.
   This is the world depicted in the bible.  A messed up world.  A not-okay world.  A world that does not reward virtue.  Not a world where everything's more or less okay, and most of us are going to heaven unless we sell our souls to the devil.  Because we're fine, right?  Doing great? Everything is awesome?
  Nope.  The bible, in fact, depicts a world where everyone's FUBAR, eventually, deep enough down, and we are going to hell as defective projects unless we reach out to Jesus, who is reaching out to us as we dance drunkenly on the edge of the abyss, as whitegurl as we can.
   Because the simple fact is, if we're at all honest and self-aware, we know that every one of us is imperfect and messed up.  The oak is just a veneer.  And we're so certain that God can't and doesn't want to simply work with us to help with that.  So, instead of letting God perfect us and help us grow, we'd rather resent Him for recognizing our imperfections and flaws and general neurotic psychoses at all, and for then taking steps to save us.  (How rude.  Why can't He accept us being messed up, and just tell us we're very, very special and leave us like that?)
   We'd rather go through the world, telling ourselves we're pretty much as good as it gets, more or less.  That we couldn't be and don't need to be much better than we are.  Don't need to be more whole, deep down.  More inspired, enlightened and wise.  We'd rather use the religions we create, in order to feel righter and better than everyone else, than have to actually reach out to God, sans religion and certainty and dogma. Reach out to God Who wants to work with us to make us better, throughout our lives.  Who wants to make us more, rather than just watch us suppress and hide our inadequacies, flaws, weaknesses and darkness.
     Because we've all got darkness.  And we protect it, rather than allowing light to be shined into it.  We're all like that.  We don't want upgrades, though we need them.  Badly.  We're determined to fruitlessly keep trying to run Windows 95 on our iPhone 7.  Rather than download the latest OS for free.  Because saying "No" always feels like we're in control and making cautious choices.  Even if it's all we have ever learned to say, and isn't therefore, a choice at all.
    The bible paints a series of pictures of a world that's filled with men and women trying pretty hard, yet perpetually creating miniature hells on earth for themselves and everyone around them, on a daily basis; leaving God little choice but to send them to the huge incinerator for defective beings, originally created to display pictures of Who God is and what good looks like.  We were created in His image.  We are daily giving a very false picture of what goodness, and mercy, hope, love, faith and joy and all the other good things that exist only in and through God, really look like.  We are ensuring we have to be rejects, rather than refurbished products.  We are choosing annihilation over rebirth.  And we'd rather people tell us we're no worse than anyone else.  That we're fine.  Normal. Okay.  Maybe even special.  So long as we don't need to actually grow or think about various troubling realities.
   And we live in our communities, and we know that every week children are being neglected, abused and molested here, women are getting raped, people are dying from addictive substances sold to them, and old people are being shut away and neglected, abused and molested.  We know all of this is happening.  So we donate money to shelters for cats and dogs, and stop eating refined sugar.  And we feel a bit better about ourselves, and tell ourselves our world's getting better all the time. Everything is awesome.
  And in our movies and in all of our stories, we want to believe we're safe, and where we live is okay. And for us, a horror story is that something evil escapes from hell into our safe, normal world.  And wrecks it.  Which, we tell ourselves, is fiction.
    Fact is, there is nothing evil in existence that is not already in our world right now.  It's all happening within a short drive of where we sit right now.  And people are gaining money and power through supplying and enacting it.  There is nothing evil that does not already have seeds planted in us right now.  And the whole system is designed to be the natural habitat of that human-germinated evil.

Faust and Jesus
But the Faust myth persists.  A man wants musical talent, so he sells his soul to the devil, who sends a customer service representative up from hell (which is apparently a terribly well organized institution where devils punish sinners for sinning?!) to sign all the papers.  And hell then faithfully provides creativity and soul to the man's music, which is something God could apparently never do.  
    Well really, you don't get music with soul by selling yours.  You get music with soul by having soul.  By being deep and aware and able to touch and be touched by life and love and others.  Because all good stuff comes only from God.  If it's good, you know it didn't come from hell. (Nothing "comes from" hell. Not a thing.  Not even bats fly out of there, all album covers to the contrary.)  Hell is nothing more than an incinerator for defective stuff.
    The devil doesn't have the best tunes.  He has none at all.  Not even elevator music.  In fact, he's got no capacity to emote, feel empathy, reflect good, compose or create anything whatsoever.  These are human traits that are reflections of God, who is love.
   I think the popularity of the Faust myth comes from a childish view of the temptation of Jesus, in the wilderness, by Satan.  But it's getting several things wrong: Satan's not in hell, in that story.  Has never been there.  Is ruling the earth, as he's done from the beginning.  And has no talent or beauty or creativity to offer Jesus.  All he's got to offer, in fact, is status and power.  And to sell it properly, he needs Jesus to doubt.  Or get impatient.
    And Jesus is getting tempted, not to sell his soul to the devil, or spend an eternity in hell, but to not act like himself.  To lose sight of his goal.  To forget what he's achieving.  To cut corners.  To betray his life path.  (Which is, admittedly, a much more important life path than mine.  I'm never going to be offered so much as the office of mayor of a small town, if only I were to give up my life path.) 
   So, Jesus isn't being tempted to "sell his soul."  He's being asked to submit or defer to Satan, who was lord of this world and the governments in it then as he is now.  Satan is clearly deeply bugged by a guy who goes around dissing his religious figures and government officials.  Who walks the streets spouting God-grade wisdom, free, from the streets and hillsides, to illiterate nobodies who haven't earned it in any way.  Illiterate nobodies who then get internally free from Satan's power just by listening.  That's not how it's supposed to go.  You're supposed to have to pay for that.  And it's supposed to need repeated resubscribing and additional fees.
   In the story, Jesus has been fasting for a month.  And Satan's trying to make him eat something.  He's not offering to give him a recording contract.  He's not even holding a cheeseburger.  He's trying to get Jesus to make himself some bread.  And he's trying to quote the bible and get Jesus to do what he says, now that he's "proved it" with scripture.  People love to try to control each other with scripture.  And he's offering to let Jesus rule over kingdoms of the world, as a gift from Satan, CEO of this world.  He's offering the Son of God... political power?  In exchange for bowing down to Satan.  (And Jesus was, in a very real way, here to eventually replace Satan.  As the ruler of the world.)
    This is really, really dumb.  Jesus didn't fall for it for a moment.  Yet still the Faust/Tommy Johnson/Robert Johnson myth persists.  A talentless hack whom the Creator didn't choose to give any creativity or talent to, sells his soul to the devil to be able to write music with so much soul in it, that he can become rich and famous.
     The fact is, Tommy Johnson and Robert Johnson were both given profound musical talent by God Himself.  But they knew no one would believe or be interested in that. 
    "How did you learn to play guitar in such a unique, soulful, beautiful way?  I've not heard anything like it before..." 
    "Oh, I sold my soul to the devil to learn how to play like this." 

You're FUBAR, I'm FUBAR?
And today, it struck me: what is the corollary myth that we Christians have been telling our teenagers for centuries?  This one: a man, whom the Creator is going to send to hell for enjoying himself, sells his soul to Jesus, to pay for his salvation.  In Faust, he'd accept an afterlife of misery and suffering, to pay for a life filled with pleasure and joy.  This "Christian" version tells of a man who accepts a life filled with boredom, misery, tedium and suffering (having sacrificed all pleasure and joy) as payment for an afterlife which is, at best, safe.  As depicted in Sunday School and movies, it is boring as hell.  Empty white rooms.  Sappy music.
    Is this the message of the bible?  Sell your dreams of being creative, of enjoying music, of dancing and celebration with others, and maybe you'll get to spend Eternity in the Great Waiting Room in the Sky?
    That's not the bible.  The bible says something very different.  In the bible, there is drinking, eating, song and partying with friends.  And I believe the bible.  It has a much deeper and more mysterious story going on.  And it's good news and concerns a free gift, rather than a bargain or contract.  And the God of the bible is the source of the joyful stuff, not a being who demands it be sacrificed to "pay" for blessing.  The God of the bible has a problem with waste, excess and missing the value in good things, rather than with the enjoying of said good things.  The God of the bible has as much problem with a wedding reception running out of wine, as with a drunkard in the gutter, drinking away his kids' dinner money.
     Despite being tempted with lesser things, Jesus kept on his life path.  He sacrificed joy and power and comfort and safety and longevity for us.  He gave his life.  That's all done, long ago.  And it's a gift.  And like all gifts, if you have to buy it or earn it, it's not really a gift.  And he did it to reconnect us to God, to arrange it so we're fine by God.  We're not perfect, but instead of being defective products, giving the world a very insulting image of who God is, in our function as Images of God, we're children.  Wayward children.  With whom God is nonetheless willing to work.  The working with us of Whom will only display more of His good: Forgiveness.  Mercy.  Grace.  Kindness. Sacrifice.  Patience.  We get to be vehicles for the world to see what all of those look like.
   But we're not innocent like in the Garden anymore, nor can we get there, or raise children to be that.  The train's sailed on that one.  But we're back in the same relationship of getting to walk around with God, knowing He wants us to experience all the good stuff He put in the world, all the joy and pleasure and worth and excellence.  To bask in what He Created.  We get to soak that in, with Him.  He did not put beauty in the world so we could turn our eyes away from looking at it, and warn of the dangers of it, in order to please Him, the Author of it. Turning away from joyful, excellent things is not a gratitude response.  And it doesn't "buy" us anything with He who make it.  It's certainly not sane.
   We get to explore it all.  We get to ask Him what He was thinking, making all that stuff.  But He mostly wants us to just interact with it all, rather than talk about and analyze it.  And although in some ways, things haven't even begun to get good, because we ain't seen nothing yet, and live in a world that is (still) ruled by Satan, whose central motive is to prove once and for all that we human beings all suck and should be burned?  The tide has, nevertheless, irrevocably turned.
    Jesus lived a human life.  Was there ever an incorruptible human?  Yes.  Jesus.  Just as there was a Noah, a Lot, a Rahab, there was a Jesus.  The Pharisees failed to make Jesus join their ranks and preach a less honest, less spiritual, far more pious, image-focused message.  And they alike failed to threaten him into silence. And their attempts to get him killed only resulted in millennia of Jesus stories and songs and lives touched by an important idea: Maybe, to be good and pleasing to God, you should actually avoid being a religious douchebag, rather than parade around like one, without even realizing how embarrassed you should be.  That maybe you should embrace a life of learning and growing, rather than one calculated to try to showcase your splendiforousness as a finished, exemplary Spiritual Entity with correct doctrine.  That you should have more the attitude of the returned prodigal, rather than the finger-pointing, whiningly obedient, nitpicking elder brother, whose heart had none of the love his father's clearly did. Who didn't know how to celebrate with others, when it was time.

A Choice
I think we have a choice:

To put out the idea that we're more or less Right.  That we've arrived.  That we're the Special Ones.  


To embrace the idea that we're just people on the path.  Following the way.  Following Jesus.  Not there yet.  Not "right."  Excited to see what's coming.  A bit scared.  But not up on our raised pulpit/platform, waving our bible around like it exists mainly to certify our rightness.  Ours and that of the traditions we have made into idols which block our view of God.  Not needing to have all the answers.  Not needing to use social media to broadcast our disgust at there being people in the world who actually sin and don't want us judging them for it.  Not needing to have our pronouncements proclaimed "infallible."  Not needing to punish people for disagreeing with our dogma.  Not settling for "tolerance" when forgiveness, kindness and love are the actual Christ-grade virtues.

"But what about if we mess up, even once we are following Jesus? What then?  Don't we have to resolve and vow and exert a huge amount of our own flawed, human willpower to try to be blessed and kept in the Christian faith?"
   Certain kinds of people feel terribly unsettled unless that topic is addressed immediately.  Won't God remove blessing from us if we screw up?  If we don't walk worthy of our calling, won't God smack us?
    Maybe.  Maybe not.  We get to mess up.  Good thing.  Because we do.  And it doesn't even threaten the loss of our relationship with God.  He's not going to stop accepting us, and working with us, because we made bad choices.  He's going to, in fact, work with us more.  Maybe "harder."  So there's that.
    But we really want something, anything, to depend on our success. On us.  We want to be important. (We want, truth be told, everything to depend on our choices.)

God's Motives, As A Character
I'm a high school teacher.  I teach kids.
    If they behave, that is.  If they swear at me, or threaten me, or anyone else, or break stuff, they get kicked out.  No more lessons for them.  At least for a couple of school days.
   God's not like that.  God does not "expel" children.  Because He's not fair.  It's a good thing, too.  God doesn't punish every time He "ought" to.  And He rewards and blesses and is great to us, because He feels like it, and not only when we've "earned" it.  In fact, because we can't earn any of that, every time we think we are "owed" something, and are upset because He's not doing what we ask, we're being stupid. Childish.
   I think God's much more interested in making His children into more inspired, creative, wise, strong, insightful, strong, healthy, balanced beings.  I think the jobs and cars and money and romances and kids and stuff are just toys we want for Christmas from Santa.  And I think He's often willing to give that stuff, even if we don't ask for it.  I think He's more concerned with our education and our maturation than with what we want for Christmas, though.  But He really does make the best Christmas pies, cakes and cookies.

Read It
I could quote several pages of scripture here, to "make this point."  I could copy and paste them, after googling them, without even half looking at them. But I won't.  In fact, I will instead encourage you to do something fewer and fewer people do anymore: 
    read the whole thing.
 I am speaking from the lifelong experience of what I believe is an actual relationship, an actual give and take, with an actual God who is an actual person.  With feelings and responses and longings.  With humour, temper and hurt feelings and sorrow. Insane to think like that, I know.  And I also don't lift a finger to justify the existence of God, so don't ask me to.  He justifies my existence. 
    Read the bible. You'll see all of that.  Sometimes in terrible, naked honesty.  Can you believe God would allow Himself to be depicted with His feelings hurt, clearly having a temper tantrum?  Can you believe God would allow Himself to be depicted changing His mind?  Believe it.  Read it. Don't argue.  Just have a look.  Deal with what it says, and don't waste time trying to make it unsay what's clearly in there, so you can pretend the bible is more religious, more devout and more simple than it is.  And don't waste time attacking people who believe differently from you.
    And read Faust, too. And Paradise Lost.  And Dante's Inferno/Divine Comedy.  They're hilariously clueless.  Creating all kinds of far-fetched, non-bible characters and places and stuff because they can't believe what the original actual is and says, nor do they find it sufficiently dramatic.  Cluelessly providing something a little more explicable, simple and comforting: The devil is in hell right now.  The world, and the people in it, are more or less okay, rather than remaining clearly FUBAR, generation after generation, country by country, century after century.  Imagine if the devil got out of hell (because someone played Dungeons & Dragons) and started to take over the world and make it run according to his own plans?!  What would that be like?  The world being ruled and run by forces that are parasitical, destructive, tyrannical, controlling and without mercy?!  Forces which don't even have our own interests at heart?  Forces which don't care for the weak?
   We haven't even done two decades of this century, and how many things should we already be apologizing for?  As a race of people, if not as images of who God really is and what good looks like?   (Oh, all that stuff was those other humans, was it?)
   But read those stories and delight in the clownish theology, the mixed motives, the tales of people who have to sell their souls to buy creativity from the destroyer, and then get thrown in the incinerator for it; of a being who wants to "purchase" souls rather than destroy the world and every single life and instant of joy in it, on a moment by moment basis, as well as an eternal one.  Of a world where you can buy creativity from the destroyer and accuser, rather than have it built in by the Creator.  Of a world where you can get good stuff, from the Evil One.  Where you can get insight from Darkness and learn the truth, from the Lord of Lies.  Where, if you're having fun, you're probably enjoying something evil, rather than simply living the life God gave you, and responding appropriately and sanely to things in it.  Music, beauty, food, drink, sex, sports, stories, nature.
    I know a lot of people who can't believe the bible, who can believe horror movies.  At least for an hour.