Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

The Thinker

Going to the dogs

It was a brief moment today. I was driving to work through a residential neighborhood. As I often do on Tuesdays, I had to wend my way past the trash truck. I give these guys a brake and wait for them to say it’s okay to pass them. Today though the guys on the trash truck were oblivious to me. They were petting a dog.

One of the homeowners had her dog on a leash and was doing walkies along the sidewalk. This dog, like most dogs, is a friendly dog, as was evident by its wagging tail. I didn’t quite catch the breed, but it was smaller than most, and black. The guys hauling the trash, unsurprisingly I am sorry to say, were also black. There were two in the back and one in the cab. The two in the back normally gather trashcans from both sides of the street at once, and the guy in the cab drives.

Today though the crew had gone to the dogs, er, dog. Both of them had stopped the hauling and were petting the dog that was happily making their acquaintance and straining at his leash as if he wanted to sit on their nonexistent laps. The lady at the other end of the leash was laughing. The guys on the street were laughing as they petted the dog. The guy in the cab smiled through his side view mirror at the encounter. I pulled around them cautiously and made my way to work, smiling as well.

That one dog provided a lot of happiness. Moreover, like most dogs, this was a colorblind dog, both physically and metaphorically. Dogs, bless them, have no sense of social class. One friendly human is as good as another to them. Black face, white face, brown face, red face – it just doesn’t matter to them. All that matters is their sense of you and how you relate to them. Everyone in this encounter appeared to be a dog lover, at least for that moment. No one cared if a minute or two of productivity was lost. There was a friendly dog that wanted some attention and was glad to give some attention. At least until that encounter ended, social class simply did not matter. The dog had brought together people who would probably never talk to each other otherwise.

In the gospels we learn that Jesus was a man from Galilee, he was definitely human and that he was also a holy man who many believe was God in human form. Jesus of course spent some years in Galilee and Judea preaching about love and inclusiveness. It’s hard to know where Jesus was in the social class of Judea at the time. If he was truly a carpenter’s son, he could probably be considered middle class for those generally impoverished times. For a while he developed quite a following, at least according to the Gospels, but he also developed enemies. The priests in the temple did not like him because he was so different and because people called him a rabbi. The Romans put him to death. And it appears he drew the scorn of many because he hung out with losers like Mary Magdalene, a common prostitute in the eyes of many, as well as lepers, the homeless and general miscreants. Our understanding of Jesus is of course imperfect. We have only the legend of Jesus, as there is no scrap of evidence that he actually lived, and the original gospels have long ago returned to dust. But Jesus as he is depicted certainly believed in transcending class, and in universal love, and in recognizing our common humanity.

Jesus, in other words, was a man who had gone to the dogs. It would not have surprised me if his family had a dog. For if you have to learn about love and have no other guide, in most cases you can get it courtesy of the family or neighborhood mutt.

I am a cat person more than a dog person, simply because my wife introduced me to cats and I had no pets to speak of growing up except for a family parakeet. I have spent enough time though with dogs to know they are fundamentally different than cats. Cats are Republicans. They want to know what’s in it for them and it’s almost always me first. In general, they will only return affection when they first get some. They may rub at your heels for attention, but their attention tends to be fleeting. If you ignore them for a few weeks, you will probably lose any affection they had for you.

Dogs, on the other hand, are Democrats. Certainly not all dogs are friendly, and many will be affectionate only with their master. But once you have earned their trust, and it usually takes nothing more than a chew toy, snack or just a scritch of their heads, you are part of their tribe. It may be fleeting or it may be permanent. Dogs are all about finding joy in life and in getting in touch with the feelings of creatures around them. Class means nothing to them. Most of the time they will radiate love, particularly with their owner, but often with anyone in their locality. If you don’t look happy they will sense this and come over to you, and darn well try to make you happy. It’s their nature.

Christians are still waiting for the second coming of Christ. Many believe he will descend from heaven through the clouds, with his radiance pouring down across the earth. Then the saved will be saved and the damned will be damned. As for me, today’s encounter makes me think that Christ has already returned. In fact, he’s been here for a long time and you can find him nearby. Just seek out your family or neighborhood dog. Feel their love, feel their radiance, feel the cares of the world recede when you are with them or, as I saw today, see class barriers momentarily disappear. If you want to be more Christ-like, perhaps you could just imitate your mutt more. Be friendly, be open, be loving by nature and if you sense someone is hurting go over and say you want to help them feel better.

We should all go to the dogs.

 
The Thinker

Decking the secular halls

So an atheist, a Buddhist, a Unitarian Universalist (me), his un-churched sister, her sarcastic college age son and the cynical brother who says he only worships Baal get together for dinner. The occasion: Christmas, of course.

That’s right, our Christmas tree is festooned with lights and bulbs. An angel adorns its top proclaiming the good news of Jesus’s birth. Our halls (such as they are) are decked out. There are cookie tins stuffed with ginger snaps and butter cookies.  Charlotte Church’s coloratura voice is coming out of speakers singing, of course, Christmas carols. Our porch and garage door are lined with blue lights that I put up weeks ago to celebrate the Christmas season. We have all the signs of Christmas except for the Christ part. We’re having ourselves a fully secular Christmas.

If you had to pick a Christian among us, I would come the closest. The roots of Unitarian Universalism are in Christianity. There are in fact many practicing Christian UUs, although I can’t find them in my “church” which seems to be at least half atheists. Still, UUs generally admire Jesus, such as he is imperfectly revealed to us in the gospels. I don’t think he was divine, as is true of most of us UUs. Also I don’t put much faith in prayer or miracles, but I do think Jesus probably existed and obviously inspired enough people so that his ideas carried forward after his death in a viral manner. There is no historical record of his existence outside of the Gospels, but that’s good enough for me; it passes my Occam’s Razor test.

Of course there is no evidence that Jesus was born on December 25th anyhow, but it is convenient to the winter solstice, which was likely why it is celebrated on this date. There used to be a lot of heathens around and if you are going to convert them you have to work with their natural worship dates.  So most likely we are celebrating the birth of a man who might well be fictional, that most rational people cannot consider divine, whose birthday we don’t know and whose legend is known only because oral tradition was eventually written down and then rewritten, often with errors and omissions, over the centuries. Along the way we picked up saints, including a Greek bishop called St. Nicholas, and morphed this single aesthete into an obese citizen of the North Pole who dwelled in his own small kingdom full of elves and flying reindeer, and that fly despite the absence of wings. St. Nick magically supplies toys just one night a year to all the good Christian children in the world and keeps up an impressive schedule making appearances at local shopping malls. As adults we of course laugh at this childish nonsense, even while seventy three percent of us Americans also profess to believe that Jesus was born to a virgin.

Myth has morphed into rarely challenged creed. A compelling new book suggests Judaism was simply made up by a bunch of elders in an attempt to unite the Judeans and the Galileans so they could fight common encroachers. If correct there was likely no Abraham, no Moses, no enslavement of the Jews in Egypt (for which there is no independent record), no burning bush, and no forty years of wandering in the desert of the Sinai which, lacking an oasis, would probably kill a large group of Jews dead within a few weeks anyhow.

And yet still we celebrate Christmas, and this includes the hopelessly secular among us like most of my family who, sadly, were raised as devout Catholics. My adult daughter, a professed atheist and now back in her bedroom after graduation, is fully into the Christmas season. She was pushing us early to put up Christmas lights and the Christmas tree. She was ready to deck our halls and could be heard singing Christmas carols in her bedroom. She was aghast that I forgot to buy some kielbasa for Christmas breakfast, a tradition that dates back to my deceased mother and which we carry on, if I don’t forget about it, on Christmas mornings. So it was off to the Food Lion before they closed Christmas Eve for some of the sacred sausage, served with scrambled eggs somewhat hurriedly before unwrapping presents under our Christmas tree.

No White Christmas this year, which is actually par for the course here in Northern Virginia. You can expect one every fifteen years or so. However, it was cold enough to qualify for Christmas, with temperatures that never made it officially above freezing despite clear skies. Walking this afternoon for exercise and bundled in my warmest parka, I felt gratitude, not just for Jesus but also for warm houses. Living outside in this weather like our distant ancestors did must have sucked. The only people these days who have an inkling of what it is like are our homeless, the exact sort of people Jesus would have cared the most about. As we raise our eggnog and sing our carols, we try not to think about them. Let them sleep in the woods in a tent and get dinner out of a dumpster. Sadly, some of our leaders clearly want to increase their ranks, and in the recently passed budget agreement succeeded by reducing food stamp allowances and heating assistance and ending long-term unemployment benefits. This is based on the curious and erroneous belief that this will make them get off their duffs and earn a living, but really was done because they are sadists absent compassion for anyone not like them. For many of these poor, 2014 will be bleaker than 2013.

For those of us lucky enough to have some wealth and privilege, we can wrap ourselves up inside our houses, sing carols in front of a hearth (probably with a gas log), tell and retell dated family stories, eat too much food and mostly forget about Jesus. If he were alive he’d probably be suggesting that we bring some food and eggnog outside to our neighbors in the woods, or maybe invite them inside our house for some home cooking, a shower, use of our washing machines and a night in a clean bed. Most of us are not that brave, convinced that the homeless are mentally ill, thus likely to strangle us in our sleep. We like the idea of being kind to those less fortunate to us more than the soiling our hands through the actual doing of deeds. Some of us will work in a soup kitchen for a day or two. Some may even give out blankets to prevent hypothermia for the homeless. To the extent that I put my values into action this year, it was to talk for five minutes with the guy from Goodwill who empties my trash in the office on Christmas Eve, learn about his son and daughter and wish him a happy holiday. I also bought $75 in gift cards for a local 16-year-old teenage girl through the Secret Santa program at our church. I also give money to charities, but this is an implicit admission that I want others to do the work that I can’t seem to do personally. I too am hypocritical, although perhaps less than most.

Yet still we huddle around our tree on Christmas Eve, unwrap our presents on Christmas Day and listen to holiday tunes on the player, many of which proclaim a savior was born today. Looking at our actions toward each other, there’s not much evidence that Jesus succeeded. And while none of us believe in Jesus’s divinity, we do sort of wish, like Santa Claus, that he actually did all those wonderful things. We just haven’t drunk enough spiked eggnog to short-circuit the logical parts of our brains.

If we could actually minister like Jesus, well then perhaps Christmas would be worthy of our celebration.

 
The Thinker

The Antichrists have arrived and they are called Christians

Sorry, Jesus. But it appears that most of the people who claim to follow you are more in line with Satan than with God. At least that’s the way it seems lately. Yes, I know my observations are judgmental and you warned us not to judge others. So I’m judging. So are, best as I can tell, most of the so-called “Christians” out there.

The most recent and egregious example is “Pastor” Charles Worley of the Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden, North Carolina. He wants to exterminate all gays and lesbians, not just shooting them outright but through starvation. He’s got a plan: build two big pens and make each, say, a hundred or 150 miles long. Put all those homos and lezzies inside, one camp for each. Don’t call it a concentration camp. That might be too good for them because at least the Jews in concentration camps got fed, at least some of them, before eventually going to the gas chambers. No, put all our gays and lesbians in big pens and don’t feed them anything. They eventually die. Thus endeth our problem with those sinful gays and lesbians. And his congregation cheers “Alleluia!”

Gah! As if killing gays and lesbians will mean there will never be another gay or lesbian again? Where does he think they come from? In vitro fertilization? Maybe in a handful of cases, but clearly at least 99% of gays and lesbians come from heterosexual parents. Oh but that’s right, he also believes that your sexual orientation is a choice. Like you can turn heterosexual with the right prayer or something. Clearly, science doesn’t matter much to him, but he also probably believes the world was created six thousand years ago as well.

It seems that most Christians here in America are doing the complete opposite of what Jesus preached. If there is one word that defined Jesus it is simply this: love. More specifically, love broadly and universally. How on earth can someone like Charles Worley become a pastor and not get that? Love, love, love! Love people! Love everyone. Jesus was very clear about this. He made this clear in numerous parables, but particularly in the parable of the Good Samaritan. At the time most Jews in Judea scorned Samaritans. They thought of them as apostates. Jesus went out of his way to make sure his followers understood that they were brothers too. You had to love those who are very different from you, and everyone has the same capacity to love.

Jesus was not about exclusion; Jesus was about inclusion. He hung out with the dregs of Judea: the lepers, the thieves and the prostitutes. About the only thing he hated were the moneychangers at the temple. Jesus was not about hate; Jesus was about toleration. Jesus was not about getting rich, he was only concerned about spiritual riches. In fact, he told us it was hard for a rich person to get into heaven, perhaps because their priorities were misplaced. The currency that really matters, he told us, was your ability to live a compassionate life and thus model what God believes.

How on earth could such an overwhelming message get totally missed? “You will know we are Christians by our love,” we used to sing as a youth when I was a Catholic. Now the Catholic Church is sending goon squads to make sure its sisters spend their time keeping women from getting health care.

This is all so terribly wrong, so antithetical to everything Jesus preached. You can argue about whether Jesus thought homosexuality was a sin or not, but his approach would not be to cast judgment (he specifically said do not do that) but to love them unconditionally instead.

I think it might help if Christians threw away the Old Testament. Trying to resolve the dichotomy between the Old and New Testaments seems to be driving “Christians” crazy, and the Old Testament seems to be winning. “Christians” seem crazily focused on select passages from the Old Testament, like killing homosexuals and adulterers, while selectively ignoring the ones that should bother them, like their self imposed views against polygamy. (Look up how many wives David and Abraham had, just for starters.) There is plenty in the New Testament to throw away too. Paul said we should be kind to our slaves. Doesn’t that imply it’s okay to own slaves? Paul said it was better to marry than to burn. Doesn’t that imply we should avoid marriage to prove we are sufficiently spiritual? Or that marriage, rather than being sacramental, is kind of a moral failing?

I am not a Christian. I am not a Christian in part because I don’t believe Jesus was divine, just very wise. But also I don’t want to be associated with most Christians because like Charles Worley they march off in a completely different direction than the one Jesus tried to lead people toward. However, if I did believe in Jesus’s divinity, I would be a member of the United Church of Christ. It’s one of the few denominations out there that seem to get real Christianity.

Christianity as Jesus preached it is about loving universally, sharing communally, being tolerant, open and accepting and giving your whole heart and soul to all people. You do this so they can be free of misery, to help them find God and to understand Jesus’s true message. Real Christianity is about a welcome table.

So yes, I, a judgmental non-Christian (but in some ways a follower of Jesus) must say simply that most of you Christians are not the least bit Christ-like, but are modeling the Antichrist. You have a twisted and frequently sick theology based on exclusion, hate and misery, rather than universal love and brotherhood. If you want to experience real Christianity, the closest you are going to get to it will be at a United Church of Christ congregation near you. So why not attend a service and get the real Jesus?

 
The Thinker

Never enter hell on a full bladder

While a new year has arrived, there is plenty of evidence that as we begin the second decade of the 21st century, for many of us our minds have not evolved past 33 A.D. That is the year that some Christians believe Jesus died on the cross, was resurrected and later that year ascended into heaven. Since 33 A.D., Jesus has been cooling his heels, presumably at the right hand of The Father, waiting for the moment for his return to Earth. Then, according to the Bible, the faithful get raptured and depending on which Left Behind book takes your fancy all sorts of things that are really nasty will happen to the rest of us. The bottom line is that for us damned either (a) we will descend into Hell for all eternity (not a pleasant prospect) or (b) we die, and not just our physical body but our immortal soul as well. Poof. We turn into nothingness. We are declared a factory reject and discarded like used toilet paper.

As for The Saved ™, it’s off to heaven for all eternity I guess (although some think they will dwell here on earth, which will become an earthly paradise). There life must be wholly spiritual, you are never too far from God or Jesus, you can be pals with St. Jude, harp and lute playing is all the rage, and days beyond count will be spent in rhapsody singing Hosannas. It’s sort of like having an orgasm forever, only better because it’s clean, not dirty and it lasts forever. Remember that cheerleader you nailed behind the bleachers in high school, who threw her legs over your shoulders while you plunged away into her like Superman? Heaven is much better than that.

Now we can put Judgment Day on the calendar. Mark yours now. Put it in your Google Calendar as an all day appointment: May 21st, 2011. At least that’s what Harold Camping of Oakland, California believes and he ought to know because he runs an organization called Family Radio. It is true that the Bible says that no man knows the exact date of the Last Judgment. It turns out that if you study the Bible it’s a solvable problem. A convenient calculator helps with the math. Here’s how he figures it:

The number 5, . . . equals “atonement.” Ten is “completeness.” Seventeen means “heaven.” Camping patiently explained how he reached his conclusion for May 21, 2011. “Christ hung on the cross April 1, 33 A.D.,” he began. “Now go to April 1 of 2011 A.D., and that’s 1,978 years.” Camping then multiplied 1,978 by 365.2422 days – the number of days in each solar year, not to be confused with a calendar year. Next, Camping noted that April 1 to May 21 encompasses 51 days. Add 51 to the sum of previous multiplication total, and it equals 722,500. Camping realized that (5 x 10 x 17) x (5 x 10 x 17) = 722,500. Or put into words: (Atonement x Completeness x Heaven), squared. “Five times 10 times 17 is telling you a story,” Camping said. “It’s the story from the time Christ made payment for your sins until you’re completely saved. “I tell ya, I just about fell off my chair when I realized that,” Camping said.

Yep, it’s all there! Camping is a former civil engineer, but he sure has studied his Bible. Apparently, Jesus left little breadcrumbs that enlightened Christians could follow. It’s all so clear now. No point in paying any insurance premiums beyond May 21st. You will need a different kind of currency in the next world, and it has to do with the purity of your soul and how much you grokked Jesus as your Personal Lord and Savior ™.

I should be quaking in my boots because, no, I have not accepted Jesus Christ as my PL&S. Which means if Camping and his amazing math are correct, in 132 days my life of reckless hedonism is over. It’s hell and brimstone for me and my Buddhist wife, my daughter, my cat and my siblings. My father, age 84, will probably make it as he has lived a very virtuous and religious life and presumably my late mother is already there, ready to hold the gate open for him. My Dad ushers at church and attends Mass faithfully. He is Catholic, however, and I’m not sure but I suspect Mr. Camping doubts any Catholics will make it because of the papal infallibility thing. Or something.

132 days. I was thinking that since I put on a few pounds over the holidays, it’s time to take them off. Now I’m thinking it’s time to put more pounds on. If I only have 132 days left, I need to eat plenty of chocolate, and the good kind. I’m talking Godiva and Ghirardelli. I also need some serious debauchery because, alas, my life is sadly absent of fleshly sins. It’s time to put an ad in the Craigslist Casual Encounters section for a sleazy hookup with 420, which I have never tried. In general, I need to refresh myself on the Seven Deadly Sins because I forgot what most of them are and I need to make sure I sample them all. Times a wasting.

I feel so foolish for donating all this money to charity recently. With the end of the year, the pleas arrive in the mail and perhaps anxious for a few extra charitable deductions, I start cutting checks. In December, checks went out to So Others Might Eat, Friends of Homeless Animals and more prosaic places like Washington Consumers Checkbook. I hope they spend my donations quickly because after May 21st apparently it won’t matter. Presumably, all but a handful of those homeless bums and families being fed and sheltered in D.C. in part with our money are damned like me. Homeless cats and dogs may be nice creatures but don’t get to entertain us behind the pearly gates. How can a nice purring fuzzy thing top The Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Hopefully, there is still time for me to accept Jesus as my PL&S, but not according to Allison Warden. Today’s Washington Post shows a picture of the fine looking young woman. She has had her car professionally detailed to make sure we know the date, which conveniently provides a link to the wecanknow.com web site where I am sure all these things are made perfectly clear. According to Warden, it’s probably too late for me. Despite Jesus’s teachings that “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”, she says it’s too late for me and probably for you if you are Unsaved ™. So you should definitely join me and consume large quantities of Godiva chocolates while you can.

The sad reality for the Allison Warden and Harold Campings of the world is that come May 21st I will have forgotten all about the end of the world. And the truth is, on May 21st I am infinitely more likely to die from a lightning strike than because of Armageddon. Moreover, even if Jesus did populate the Bible with clues like these, me thinks that Harold Camping’s calculations are probably a bit off.

Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Jesus was 33 when he died, and the year 1 A.D. is an estimate anyhow of his birth, if he existed at all, which we have to take wholly on faith. The number zero did not even exist back then, so maybe he died in 34 A.D. Then there is the minor matter that calendars were all askew back then, we switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, then there are all those leap years, some of which we accounted for and some of which we did not. All those leap seconds over the years must have added up to an hour or two. Moreover, his calculations for all their precision don’t address the time of day when Armageddon is to commence. I’m guessing Christ will split the difference and make it when the sun is at the prime meridian over Jerusalem, as a courtesy to his followers who might want to make one last stop to the bathroom before The Rapture begins. God probably won’t save you if you are taking a crap during the big event.

No matter. Come May 22nd, 2011 Harold Camping will doubtless discover a small error in his calculations so the time and date will be reset once again for the next group of devout suckers. As for me, I will be sleeping in late because that’s what I do on Saturday mornings. Just to be on the safe side though, I will try to hit the bathroom before the sun reaches the prime meridian in Jerusalem. If I am going to hell, I don’t want to do it with a full bladder.

 
The Thinker

Burning Jesuses and other signs of the Apocalypse

Perhaps there is a good reason why Muslims get so upset with depictions of the prophet Muhammad. Of course, devout Muslims, or at least the Sunni sect, generally consider any depiction of their prophet to be blasphemous. Perhaps Muslims were far thinking. Because if they had an idolatrous statue of Muhammad, it too might have suffered the recent fate of a 62-foot “Touchdown Jesus” statue, which was destroyed by lightning on Monday in Monroe, Ohio. It just would both blasphemous and horrific if a 62-foot statue of Muhammad suffered the same fate.

"Touchdown Jesus" in better days

The quirky statue was a landmark in front of the Solid Rock Church of Monroe, Ohio. It both puzzled and entertained residents and travelers on nearby I-75, but no longer. Only a steel frame now remains. Flames created by lightning striking the statue consumed the structure on Monday. Perhaps parishioners can take comfort in that it was never quite a proper statue, as it depicted Jesus only from the torso up. This Jesus appeared to be a giant, because he overshadows his own crucifix. I guess resurrection of the body can do that to a savior.

God must be pissed because according to that secular rag, The Washington Post, there have been a host of burning Jesus statues in recent years. The city of Golden, Colorado, which I visited twice last week, has a 33-foot Jesus statue. Lightning blew off one of Jesus’ arms back in 2007. Perhaps the largest well-known statue of Jesus, the 133-foot Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks Rio de Janeiro, suffered the indignity of having Jesus’ eyebrows and fingers singed in a lightning strike in 2008.

You would think that Christians everywhere might be reading something into these events. Jesus must have really been sending a message when actor James Caviezel, who portrayed him in the 2003 film, The Passion of the Christ, was actually struck by lightning while making the film. Most likely devout Christians read his survival as Jesus letting us know that he approved of the Mel Gibson version of his life, because he let Caviezel live. Or perhaps Caviezel was technically dead for a short while, then brought back to life by Almighty God. Wouldn’t this be a miracle in itself? Praise the Lord!

As for burning Jesuses, the co-pastor of Solid Rock Church, Darlene Bishop, is glad Jesus took the hit instead of a nearby women’s shelter. So in a way Jesus does save, or at least may have saved the lives of abused women living in and around Monroe, Ohio. However, we do know that lightning tends to find the most direct conductive path between cloud and ground, and this tends to be the highest metallic structure, which was likely the Touchdown Jesus. While the statue’s steel infrastructure kept it strong, it also made it vulnerable to lightning strikes. So perhaps its destruction by lightning was preordained.

Or perhaps this event could have been avoided had the statue been constructed using sounder engineering principles. For example, the statue could have had a convenient lightning rods protruding from Jesus’ outstretched arms. I guess that would have been unaesthetic. Still, given the $300,000 cost of the statue and the $400,000 cost of the amphitheater, both which were destroyed, a couple nearby lightning rods would have been a sound investment. One hates to think how much tithing may now decrease at the Solid Rock Church with its main recruiting tool just an ugly frame of steel.

All these burning Jesuses could be signs of the Apocalypse. I am starting to think maybe the Apocalypse is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, since many of those thinking the end is near are often the same folks who also do not believe in global warming. If the Apocalypse is just around the corner, then what’s the point? Drive those Hummers! Flick those cigarette butts out the window as well. You might let some Jesus statues burn as well.

For those looking for them, signs of the Apocalypse are now easy to find. We have what appears to be the worst manmade natural disaster unfolding in all its oil-stained glory in the Gulf of Mexico. We have a Negro as our president. We have Greece, where democracy first flourished, quickly devolving into poverty and near anarchy in a debt-induced death spiral. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have formed a joint government in the United Kingdom. Arctic sea ice is receding to levels never recorded in our history books.

So I started thumbing through my Bible. 2 Timothy 3 gives signs so that we will know the end of times:

“Men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, self-assuming, haughty, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, disloyal, having no natural affection, not open to any agreement, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, without love of goodness, betrayers, headstrong, puffed up [with pride], lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of God, having a form of godly devotion but proving false to its power.”

This sounds like a few Tea Partiers I know, including Rand Paul. Maybe I should be scared. Maybe God is trying to tell us something, and burning Jesuses as well as all those periodic sightings of weeping Madonnas are just confirmation.

I will be watching warily to see which next statue of Jesus draws God’s wrath. Just between you, me and that good Mormon Glenn Beck, I don’t think that owning gold is going to get me admitted into heaven. Time for me to repent, perhaps for the sin of thinking our world is a rational place. It probably would be, except for all us humans.

 
The Thinker

The Pastor Warren Gambit

I am one of many people who have been puzzling over Barack Obama’s peculiar inaugural invitation to Pastor Rick Warren. Just in case you have been living in a cave these last few weeks, Warren is a jet-setting pastor of the evangelical Saddleback (California) Community Church (a mega-church) and the best selling author of The Purpose Driven Life. He befriended Barack Obama a couple years back. Obama even spoke to his congregation. Warren also happens to be against homosexual marriage. Obama has at times sounded both pro gay-marriage and anti-gay marriage. However, he clearly is for civil unions, which he sees as the legal equivalent of marriage, and is opposed to all discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The gay and lesbian community is outraged over Obama’s invitation to Warren to say a prayer at his inauguration. They were among his staunchest supporters during his campaign and feel his invitation was a slap in their faces. After all, Rick Warren had equated gay marriage with incest and pedophilia. I am not gay and I sure found those words offensive when I read them. Yet, realistically his words were no more offensive than a lot of other tripe coming out of the conservative Christian community. As I pointed out in this recent post, polygamy is also Biblically sanctioned but I do not hear Pastor Warren sanctioning that.

As I expected, Rick Warren has quickly toned down the rhetoric. Today he asserted that he is not anti-gay, just anti-gay marriage. He has also said he regretted his choice of words when he associated gay marriage with incest and pedophilia. His church also removed wording from its website that said gays were welcomed as members only if they first repented for their homosexual lifestyles. It is unclear though whether homosexuals can now become members of the church.

Warren also recently shared the stage with songwriter Melissa Etheridge, a rather public lesbian and who is legally married in the State of California to her lesbian spouse. How much longer her marriage will be legal is an open question, given that people like Warren worked tirelessly to ensure the proposition’s passage. Sharing a stage though gave Etheridge and Warren a reason to talk about their differences on these sensitive issues. Etheridge for one is willing to cut Warren some slack on his past remarks.

I can understand why most in the homosexual and lesbian community would be irate with this invitation. If I had been discriminated and scorned much of my life for my natural sexual preferences and my perfectly understandable desire to have my marital state sanctioned by society, I would be hollering too. Why would our president elect do such a thing?

In the interest of balance, Pastor Warren is not be the only minister Obama asked to speak at the inauguration. Joseph Lowery, a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, accepted an invitation to give the benediction. Lowery’s views are far more inclusive than Warren’s. Obama himself said, “It is important for America to come together, even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues.” To gays and lesbians in particular, their rights are more than mere “social issues”.

Obama must have known that by inviting Warren he would raise a ruckus. What is Obama really up to with his invitation? Is he trying to win the respect of those who did not vote for him, and thereby increase his chances of rallying the country on painful changes that will be hard to swallow? Is he telegraphing that his support for gays and lesbians was half-hearted and his appeals to this community duplicitous? Is he making a statement that in the grand scheme of all the severe problems facing this country that gay and lesbian rights are not that important?

While I cannot read his mind, I think I understand Obama’s strategy. Those who are most virulently against extending full civil rights (including marital rights) to gays and lesbians are, in my observation, those who spend the least amount of time interacting with them. Sure, they are among us but unlike skin color, which you cannot hide in ordinary life, it is easy to hide your sexual preferences.

If we are to end the polarization on this issue, those who are opposed to gay and lesbian rights must spend time in civil dialog with openly gay and lesbian people. It is especially important for prominent people on both sides to have civil dialog. By talking to Melissa Etheridge before their appearance at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, as well as sharing a stage with her, Warren had the opportunity to have his beliefs challenged in person and in a way that did not make him defensive. It turns out that Warren is also a big Melissa Etheridge fan, which doubtless helped Etheridge get her views across. While I am sure she is not the first overtly gay or lesbian person he has met, repeated encounters help people like Warren understand that gays and lesbians are not freaks or a special class of sinner but completely ordinary people.

The full enfranchisement that gays and lesbians seek will not occur through noisy in your face confrontations. Such confrontations may feel good, but their effects are likely to be counterproductive and inflame passions on both sides. Such actions are also likely to retard the progress that gays and lesbians seek. Barack Obama is forcing a dance between these two social forces in a way that promotes genuine dialog rather than hate and vindictiveness.

An enemy ceases to be your enemy once you can relate to them. It is through dialog that conservative Christians and others opposed to homosexual rights will eventually be won over. There are far more vitriolic ministers on this issue than Pastor Warren. Warren though exhibits a certain amount of common sense and reasonableness. It is through changing influential minds like his that much larger groups are persuaded. Obama’s timing may be inflammatory, but I think his judgment with this invitation will be proven sound.

Social change is always painful, so this invitation is bound to be painful to many who fight valiantly for full civil rights for gay and lesbian Americans. However, it may turn out to be a significant step toward achieving the full enfranchisement that gay and lesbian Americans seek. If America can break the color divide by electing an African American president, can healing the divide between gay and homophobes really be that far away?

 
The Thinker

Materialism in Perspective

Supposedly, the United States is one of the most religious nations in the world. Surveys tell us this is so. It is hard to traverse even a few blocks without running into a house of worship. Since most of us in this country who are religious claim to be Christian, you might expect we would be busy scrupulously following Jesus’ words and deeds. As I recall Jesus preached that possessions acted as obstacles toward knowing and serving God. Jesus told us that if we have things then we should give them away to the poor. Free of the burden of materialism we could concentrate on what matters: loving each other, improving our souls and spreading the good news of salvation. We should all live our lives like Mother Teresa’s. What good is the obsession with the number of coins in our pockets if in the process our souls are damned? The book of Timothy even tells us that “For the love of money is the root of all evil”.

For an allegedly Christian nation, we seem to have a few wires crossed. As much as recent revelations about Mother Teresa shocked me, at least she felt a genuine calling from God. At least she took the words of Jesus not as just good advice, but as a commandment. As for the rest of us, well it is not as if we do not do our share of tithing and charitable work, but it is for most of us a very part time thing. Ideally, instead of demonstrating our values in actual charitable work, we are rich enough where we can just write checks to charities. These checks are not large enough to empty our bank accounts, but measured doses of monetary kindness that allows us to help the poor a bit while making sure we still have our McMansions, SUVs and Hawaiian vacations.

Perhaps Jesus is looking down on us from heaven and saying to himself, “Tsk, tsk, tsk. Here I was busy dying for their sins and they still don’t get it!” Yet arguably, it is due to our material riches that we can lift any of the poor out of poverty. I suspect though that Jesus was not calling us to make the poor richer, but to relieve their misery. He wanted us to lead them and everyone toward beliefs and values that will enrich their souls, not our pocketbooks. I suspect he is hearing something like this from us instead:

Yo! Jesus! Get off my case, big guy! I am a bit distracted now. I am having way too much fun creating my avatar for Second Life. Spiritual rewards are all fine and everything, but heck, they are intangible buddy! I would much rather get my reward right now, while I am alive. An iPhone will do for starters.

Americans really worship at the Church of Mammon. We love money but if we cannot actually possess lots of money, having lots of stuff will suffice. Why are financial markets roiling all over the world right now? Because the American appetite for having our rewards now appears to be insatiable. If the love of money is the root of all evil, then credit cards must be the must be a beeline straight to Hell’s gates. Americans just love credit because it gives us things we want now even though in many cases we cannot really afford them. Until recently, owning our own home was out of reach for many of us who are financially challenged. This uncomfortable fact of life though could be overcome thanks to the cleverness of American capitalism. The mortgage industry invented no money down home loans and adjustable rate mortgages. This gave us the illusion that the financially challenged could become homeowners too. This worked fine until we discovered we had not read the fine print and we were way overextended. We eventually realized that a home loan was not like a charge card and adjustable rate mortgage payments could go up rather dramatically. Uh oh.

In the 21st century, we Americans measure our happiness not by how spiritual we are on the inside, but on how much we can super-size our lives. A station wagon just will not do anymore. We want a Ford Explorer. A three bedroom, one and a half bath ranch house is so 1950s. We want a McMansion, with a three car garage, with an upgraded kitchen (marble countertops please) and cathedral ceilings in the foyer. We will not be denied, even if we have to drive three hours each way to work to afford our lifestyles.

We deal with the hypocrisy between our espoused values and our actual practices by living lives effused in glorious cognitive dissonance. Rather than play lip service to our house of worship which, if we are reasonably devout we may visit once a week, we pay daily visits to our houses of capitalism. From the cup of java from the local Starbucks we grab on our way to work to the hours we spend traipsing from store to store at our local mall, there are endless ways to acquire newer and shinier stuff. Now we no longer have to be bothered to actually go out and buy many things. We can shop from the convenience of our computers. If we do not actually have enough cash on hand to buy what we want, we can plastic it. What possible virtue can there be in putting off for some nebulous future day what we can have right now?

With every passing generation, our obsession with achieving happiness via materialism becomes ever more myopic. Our spending habits are endlessly analyzed and probed by marketing wizards. Every conceivable variation of product must pondered for its potential profitability. Materialism speaks to an inner angst inside us that whispers that happiness is only a purchase away. It is the collection and variety of things in our lives that are our Feng Shui. We want to live in harmony with the environment, providing it is our environment. Living in harmony with nature is clearly a distant second.

In the end of course we die. Since our stuff does not disappear when we die, it appears we cannot take all this happiness with us after death. At least we will have lived a distracted life. Whether we achieved happiness with all our material stuff or merely received its illusion will perhaps be made clear in the afterlife, assuming there is one. If Hugh Hefner’s hedonism is too scary for us to emulate, we can at least emulate Ayn Rand. Like Ms. Rand, perhaps we should explicitly state that the pursuit of wealth and the outsized freedom it buys is our most cherished value. Perhaps like Ms. Rand we should go to our deathbeds with a dollar sign hanging above on the wall next to us. At least this way we would not by hypocritical.

Capitalism of course gives us the means to stay out of poverty. If you have been there, poverty does not so much purify your soul as give you incentive never to be impoverished again. This should be obvious. It explains why millions of Americans are not sneaking into Mexico. Beyond a certain nebulous point though, materialism appears to become a philosophy of life. In its extreme manifestations, it is tantamount to a religion. Ayn Rand appears to be one of its saints. Her religion of sorts, which she invented, was called Objectivism.

Can one be truly both spiritual and materialistic? As I understand the Christianity as it is presented in the Bible, the answer is a resounding “No!” I am not a Christian, but as I have known poverty and have no desire to experience it again, I also know that I will not give up my fundamental possessions. I see no value to a vagabond life living in boxes under highway overpasses. For me having stuff is not evil. In fact, I think we are programmed to move from misery toward comfort. Although materialism does not seem to truly make many of us happy, at least it is a tangible expression of what we imagine heaven to be: a place of comfort. The real world is a tough place. Our degree of materialism is something of a benchmark that shows us how far we have moved from our inner caveman. Somewhere in our DNA are distant ancestors that lived short, squalid lives wrapped up in fear. Materialism is a balm of sorts. It moves these distant but powerful memories further from our sight. That is its value. It is almost a form of therapy.

Yet materialism does not cure the angst so much as momentarily relieve it. This could explain why, like a junkie getting his next high, or Homer Simpson reaching for his next box of doughnuts, we eventually need a new materialistic fix. To cure it we must look deeper into each other and ourselves. Giving away our stuff, as Jesus recommended, is probably not the real cure. Human connectedness, manifested through mutual expressions of love, is likely the cure manifested by our materialistic angst.

It is my belief that anything taken to excess, be it religion or materialism, is fundamentally unhealthy. Moderation in both our materialistic needs and our spiritual demands may be the key that truly move us toward enlightenment. I suggest using materialism as a means to help you enrich your spirit and to help form mutually enriching connections with all life. When used in this way materialism can be ennobling.

 
The Thinker

Speaking of faith

Well, it has taken a few centuries but it looks like there is a small, tiny hairline fracture in the religious space-time continuum. When atheists and devout Christians can sit down together and learn from each other without dismissing or proselytizing to one another, this is news. Yet somehow, this momentous event was largely overlooked. Yet it is actually happening, albeit in a relatively small way.

Mehta, now an honors graduate in mathematics and biology, has not converted, but the two have become friends. Mehta has started his own blog (friendlyatheist.com) and travels to speak to churches and humanist organizations. He has written a book – “I Sold My Soul on eBay” – that explains why he is an atheist and gives churches advice on what it would take to reach nonbelievers.

This is not to suggest that interfaith dialogs never occur. They do. Even the Pope occasionally catches the ecumenical wave and is seen openly praying with Muslims, Jews and assorted Protestants. The problem with most of these dialogs is that no real understanding occurs. These dialogs serve some other purposes but mutual learning is not one of them.

Nevertheless, when atheists and devout Christians can actually hear what the other is saying and take some actions based on their learning, I begin to feel that there is hope for humanity. It makes me wonder if seemingly intractable problems like global warming can be solved too. In the case of Jim Henderson, a former evangelical pastor, he is learning from atheists what I suggested back in 2004: Christian marketing practices suck. They suck because they are based on the model of the ignorant savage. There are not many of us still running around the bushes. Evangelicals hoping to draw in new adherents had better understand where the modern unchurched are coming from.

As for the “friendly atheist” Hemant Mehta, he is getting an eye opening in contemporary Christianity. If he was inclined to believe that Christians are starry-eyed myopic zealots, his understanding is now clarified through actual experiences. It seems that Christians are not necessarily always studying their Bible on break, or spending their weekends knocking on doors bringing the good news to the unenlightened. It seems that Christianity does not necessarily wholly define the lives of all Christians. Who would have thunk?

If you ask me, both the religious and the non-religious should spend much more time listening to each other. Talking at each other is easy. Listening is hard. When you listen, you have to acknowledge the point of view that you are hearing. When you listen, some part of your mind must see the world through the eyes of the person you are hearing. When you listen, it is hard not to develop empathy with the person talking. The person you are tuned into is no longer objectified as the heathen or the unenlightened. Instead, they become a human being. They become personable and real.

Many issues needlessly divide us from one another, and one of our most polarizing differences is religion. I count here atheism as a religion too. I am sure many atheists will want to harass me on the point, but there are many similarities between the religious and the atheists. Christians and atheists have this in common: certainty. Christians are certain that Jesus is our Savior. Atheists are certain he is not and God is a fiction. Both are dogmatic. Only now, maybe they are a little less so than they used to be.

Here is one of life’s lessons that I fortunately learned quite early after I pulled away from Catholicism: what religion you do or do not practice doesn’t really matter. Religion is the window dressing. Values are the window itself. I am guessing that you think that Christians and atheists do not have many values in common. Guess again. Both likely have a reverence for life. Both likely believe in love, fidelity and family. Both share a passion for the truth and only differ in how the truth should be interpreted. Of course, they also have other values that are not in common. That is okay because we are all unique. We all arrived where we are at via different paths. Consequently, we are not all going to believe the same things. So of course, we are not always going to share the same exact perspectives. We are each like a unique mold of gelatin, but we are all made of same gelatin. Our mold just happens to be our path through life. We are different but simultaneously we are also the same. This is natural for us. This is the way it was meant to be!

We need to never forget this. Truly, far more commonalities tie us together than pulls us apart. Your religion, your lack of it or your complete indifference to it should not matter any more than your eye color. The world would be a less interesting place if we all had brown eyes. The same is true with our many faiths and spiritual practices. Why not embrace our differences, instead of feeling affront if your beliefs are different from mine? If we were all the same then this world would be deathly dull. You can see how exciting the world was when much of it lived under communism. Was it better when everyone lived in the same kind of drab block apartments? How much more interesting life becomes when we celebrate, respect and realize we draw collective strength because of our differences.

My inner theist almost thinks this meeting of minds between religious and irreligious must be divinely inspired. How wholesome it is. How intuitively right it is. Now what is needed is much more of the same. Let us bring many more of the churched and unchurched together. Let us get them talking in measured and respectful ways. We have nothing to fear from open and respectful dialog and everything to gain. We are simply who we are. Yet almost all of us want to be listened to with respect. When we are not heard in a respectful way that is meaningful to us, the extreme cases can end up wreaking their vengeance in horrifying ways.

Look, I know it is not easy to listen. It is as hard for me as it is for you. Nonetheless, we need to make active listening a conscious and regular habit, particularly with people we are most prone to disagree with. Let us listen to each other with a kind and open heart. Let us find common connections with each other. There may or may not be a heaven in the hereafter. However, we can all agree that there is plenty to do in the here and now to make our world much better, kinder and gentler place.

Genuine dialog is the means to achieve this end. So step one is simply this: to listen.

 
The Thinker

Hypocrisy is, after all, only human

“Bless me Father, for I have sinned.”

That is what the Rev. Ted Haggard would be saying in confession today, were he were a Catholic. Alas, he is not a Catholic, just a prominent evangelical minister. You might say that until yesterday he was the nation’s No. 3 evangelical preacher, right after Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Before yesterday, Haggard held the lofty title of the president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Now, as you have likely read, Haggard appears to be the latest casualty among prominent Christian hypocrites. Specifically he is accused of buying methamphetamine and paying for sex once a month over a three years period with a gay Denver masseur. Both are vices far removed from those he has consistently preached.

It should be time for a full confession from Rev. Haggard. What we got today was a qualified confession: while sorely tempted, he never really succumbed. So what he did was okay, sort of, except for the hypocrisy thing and the small fact that buying methamphetamine, even if you never use it, is a serious crime. He is like Bill Clinton claiming that he never had sex with Monica Lewinski because intercourse never occurred.

Needless to say, I do not believe that Haggard passed on either the meth or the gay sex. Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights in the desert. He too was tormented by the Devil. Reputedly, he succeeded in keeping Lucifer at arm’s length. Haggard may want to emulate his Lord but Jesus did have the tiny advantage of being God. Haggard, however, is not God. He is a human being like the rest of us. Therefore, his assertions are not plausible. They fail the Occam’s Razor test, to say the least.

I am sure the 14,000 members of his New Life Church are very loving and forgiving people. Yet somehow, I doubt many will accept his explanation. Evangelicals may be passionate in their faith, but they still inhabit the real world. Likely, many of them are struggling with their demons too. Their demons may not be gay sex nor getting high. Yet it is clear that they do not go to church because they are saints. They may want to become saints, but, like their minister, they remain fallible human beings. They are searching for a permanent way to act contrary to their innate and fallible humanity. Like their minister, they are likely searching for Godot.

Likely, the full scandalous details of his relationship and drug use will soon come out. Perhaps he can join former Florida congressional representative Mark Foley in rehab. The parishioners of the New Life Church will be left scratching their heads wondering why they had such faith in this charlatan. Maybe the devil led them astray.

Haggard preached against homosexuality, although curiously not as forcefully as other prominent evangelical ministers. It is unlikely he found the masseur Mike Jones by thumbing through the Yellow Pages. Moreover, I doubt he was complaining to his wife about lower back pains before making those many trips to Denver for “massages”. Finding vice is now very convenient. My bet is that he simply used his local web browser and searched through the Denver Craigslist erotic services for men looking for men. To find the meth, perhaps he browsed the Craiglist casual encounters page and looked for homosexual men who wanted to go “skiing”.

There is no question that I do not like hypocrisy. I have railed against it with politicians, and it would be inconsistent of me not to decry preachers who are also charlatans. While we should be used to it by now, we should not be surprised when it happens. For none of us are perfect: we are all human beings.

Yes, we are all sinners, and that includes prominent evangelicals. We are all driven by itches that we need to scratch, but we know we should not. Therefore, while I castigate Haggard for his predictable hypocrisy, I also feel a small sliver of compassion for the man. For I know, like everyone on this planet, I have a few demonic itches lurking inside of me too. While a prominent part of me does not like having these itches, in one sense they give me comfort. They tell me that, thank goodness, I am no saint. I am a human being. Moreover, as a human being, I have free will. I can choose to “sin” if I want to. Having these itches means that I am free. It tells me that I am alive. It tells me that at least someone else cannot control some part of me. Perhaps these sins are tickets to our own personal destruction. Nevertheless, these sins might also be something else: messages asserting that there is an authentic human being inside of us. It is not necessarily God-like, but it is genuine 100% authentic fallible humanity.

Since we are human beings, sinning is in our nature. We can no more purge sin from our lives as we can change our eye color. However, sinning is not the only thing in which we can excel. We can also excel in loving. And in taking pleasure in food. And in drink. And in enjoying a good joke. And in swearing. And in having good, dirty sex. And in the pleasure of hearing an opera. And in feeling some vicarious satisfaction when a hypocrite like Haggard gets his just deserts. By accepting my humanity, I even have the freedom to feel defiled and loathsome about myself if I want to. All this freedom may not bring me happiness, which by its nature is elusive, but it at least it demonstrates that I have free will, and that I am someone entirely unique. I am not just alive, it means I feel alive.

So welcome to the human gene pool, Reverend Haggard. I am sure you genetically were programmed to excel in informing the rest of us on how we are sinners and how we can move from sin toward holiness. Still, you remain a sinner just like me. I take both pleasure and comfort in this fact. I do not want you to be the upright and moral man that, until a few days ago, you appeared to be to your congregation. I want you to be a human being with failings just like me.

I am a human. You are a human. We are sinners. We are brothers too. Perhaps instead of drowning yourself in a predictable orgy of repentance and confession by parroting someone else’s words and ideals, you should say some things that perhaps are authentically you instead. My guess is they would go something like this:

“I am a human being. Like the rest of you, I make mistakes. While I try to learn from my mistakes and become a better person, some part of me will always be a sinner. I accept that this is part of the human experience. It is part of who I am and always will be. I will do my best to live my life by being faithful to the person I really am, rather than the one I want you to perceive. While I have hurt many people, including my family, and myself I have also learned some important things about myself. I have learned what it means to be a human being. In some mysterious way, perhaps God wants me to embrace both my good and my bad sides, and be humbled by the complex, fallible, mysterious but embracing mystery that makes me a human being.”

I wish he would say this. I would chime in “Amen, brother!” That is what I would like him to say. Somehow, I doubt this will be forthcoming.

 
The Thinker

Review: The Da Vinci Code

Full disclosure: I have not read Dan Brown’s now ultra-famous book The Da Vinci Code. My daughter has read it and greatly enjoyed it. My wife got a few chapters into it before putting it down. She felt the quality of the writing was too poor for her to endure any further. Between the endless publicity, the hype about the movie, and the recent plagiarism case in Great Britain against Dan Brown, reading the book seemed superfluous. Anyone in a first world country who does not know the book’s central thesis is likely living a cloistered life. In that sense, seeing the movie is probably anticlimactic.

However, my 16-year-old daughter saw the movie when it first came out. She said it was a good movie, and volunteered to see it again with me. So partly to have an opportunity to get away with my daughter, we saw the movie together yesterday.

I assume you know the basic key points in the book, so consequently there is little to spoil. However, if you were recently released from cloisters then read no further because I will spill some of its main plot points and dubious assertions.

The Washington Post says the movie may be the first movie that takes longer to watch than to read the book on which it is based. At times, it certainly felt this way. Since my daughter read the book and liked the movie, I strongly suspect your appreciation for the movie will depend on how vested you felt reading the book. As for the rest of us, you may find that the movie to be an over-hyped disappointment.

I do not think that the movie of The Da Vinci Code is bad. Another movie I have seen lately truly qualifies as a bad movie. Instead, it is a mediocre movie. It is a movie that with a different director and cast maybe could have pulled off a satisfying movie. Tom Hanks is an excellent actor. However, that does not mean he is right for every role, even when a movie is formulated to be a blockbuster. He struck me as out of his element as Robert Langdon, an apparently real expert in symbology at Harvard University. In The Da Vinci Code, Hanks seems unable to find a way to express the character, so he wings it and in the process badly misses the mark. Perhaps this is because his character is never well defined by either Brown or Ron Howard, the director. In the movie, Langdon is simply a catalyst to move the movie forward. Hanks though really looks like he wishes he were doing some other movie. Maybe he knew this movie was a waste of his talents, but he could not turn down the millions of dollars he was offered.

However, Hanks is positively brilliant compared with Audrey Tautou. She plays Sophie Nevue, a.k.a the latest direct (and for a while, believed to be the last) living descendent of Jesus Christ. I have to assume she too was stunningly miscast, since this is the same woman who delighted millions with her performance as Amelie in the French made subtitled movie of the same name. Granted in Amelie her role was more of a comedic one. Perhaps she is more suited to comedic roles. Here she comes across as mostly one-dimensional and she is about as interesting as a flat soda. For someone who should be very excited by all the discoveries being unearthed, she seems largely dispassionate.

The movie is supposed to be suspenseful but largely failed to engage me. A few scenes may frighten you a bit. Most of the twists and turns are not hard to anticipate, even if you have only a passing familiarity with the key revelations (as I had). Ian McKellan, as Sir Leigh Teabing, helps to enliven the tedium. Like Robin Williams in the otherwise dreadful movie Cadillac Man, McKellan can help make an otherwise mediocre movie endurable. Paul Bettany is also suitably creepy as the brainwashed masochistic Opus Dei cult henchman Silas. (It was hard to believe this is the same man who played Stephen Maturin in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. He certainly is a versatile actor!)

The book is apparently filled with short chapters. Each chapter end with a cliffhanger. This makes it difficult not to turn the page. The movie tries to emulate this aspect of the book. It certainly does move along at a brisk pace. Unfortunately, in spite of this the movie largely failed to engage me. It is not that I do not find conspiracy theories interesting. I think it is certainly plausible that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. She could well have been pregnant at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. Most Protestants take it as given that when the Bible speaks of James as Jesus’ brother, he was his biological brother, not a fraternal one. Naturally, the Catholics would find the notion of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ wife the most offensive. Since for all but the last 500 years or so they controlled the Christian church, it is plausible that they would want to hide or minimize Jesus’ affection for Mary, since it would go against doctrine.

No, the whole notion of Opus Dei and a plot to keep “the truth” about Jesus obscured for 2000 years is where The Da Vinci Code breaks down for me. It fails my Occam’s Razor test because it is just too far out in left field. Heck, even Jesus’ divinity is more plausible than this preposterous tale of the search for the Holy Grail. At least Monty Python’s movie was funny. This one tries to make you believe the ludicrous. Perhaps as a result the longer the movie went on (and it never seemed to end) and the stranger the plot twists became, the more I started yawning and the less I cared about the conclusion.

If director Ron Howard had at least taken the time to throw in a little romantic tension, perhaps the movie would have been more enjoyable. Yet Hanks and Tautou are not given any opportunities to develop chemistry. Their mutual interests are wholly academic. The closest they come to any sign of affection is a chaste kiss Hanks gives Tautou on her forehead at the very end of the movie. When it finally ends after 149 minutes, I felt mostly relief.

The result is a B movie masquerading as an A movie. It gets 2.7 on my 4.0 scale.

(If anyone wants my take, not necessarily on the movie’s central thesis, but on the meaning of Jesus’ life, read this entry.)

 

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