Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Outhouse: Reflections on The Shack, Part Four: The Hell of Heaven

[The Shack by William Young is a major bestseller and worthy of comment. This is the fourth of five quick looks at The Shack from my perspective.]

The Shack ends with Mack having a vision in which he sees his murdered daughter and his abusive father in Heaven. Right away I’m thinking, “Run, Missy, run! Grandpa is a child abuser!” But it seems that grandpa has repented his ways, and Mack asks his dad for forgiveness even as he forgives him himself.

This is troubling: was the abuse Mack’s father heaped on little Mack somehow Mack’s fault? Isn’t that what his dad told him after every abusive episode? Isn’t that what all abusers say, “You made me do it”? Maybe Mack is more troubled than we think. God suffers from Munchausen’s disorder and Mack suffers from Stockholm syndrome—The Shack is one sick hut.

What brings Mack some solace is his discovery that everything turns out all right in Heaven. He sees his daughter Missy playing happily in the fields of Heaven far beyond the garden of good and evil in which her rape and murder took place. This world is just a shack, God’s Mansion awaits. So don’t become overly concerned with justice in this world—certainly God doesn’t seem to care—and take heart that heaven is the reward for all those who repent.

This comforted Mack—his little girl spending eternity as a little girl. He isn’t bothered by the fact that she will never learn anything, never graduate high school or college, never meet someone and fall in love, never have children of her own. Well, I’m bothered by it!

First Missy is robbed of her life, and then God freezes her in perpetual childhood. Is that what Heaven is—forever frozen in the body you had when you died? Does that mean the crippled are eternally crippled? Does that mean SIDS victims spend eternity on their tummies in a cradle? Or is Mack’s vision of Missy and his dad just his own private reverie and heaven is a fiction? The Shack cannot accept the latter, but its view of Heaven seems hellish to me.

This is the problem with all attempts to make people feel better by feeding them mindless drivel. I can understand how Mack can be comforted for a moment to think that his daughter is still enjoying being eight, but how is he not raging at God for making eight last for eternity?

I have no problem with people who want life to be just and hopeful and, in the end, to spend eternity with God in some blissful paradise. What I find so troubling and even offensive is when they settle for so little. And Mack has settled big time. I think Mack is just afraid to vent his rage at God and so he takes refuge in nonsense. I don’t want a god who suffers along with the victims, I want a god who suffers because he/she causes suffering. I want god to repent. But god will never repent as long as Mack refuses to demand justice for Missy.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Outhouse: Reflections on The Shack, Part Three: Free Will

[The Shack by William Young is a major bestseller and worthy of comment. This is the third of five quick looks at The Shack from my perspective.]

Papa (God) tells Mack that she was powerless to interfere in the brutal rape and murder of his baby girl because if she were to stop the crime she would be robbing humanity of free will, and without free will we humans are nothing.

At first this may make sense to you, and it certainly placates Mack, but it bothers the hell out of me. When God talks about protecting free will she subtly shifts our focus from Missy to Missy’s murderer. The only free will God is protecting by allowing the brutal rape and murder of little Missy is the free will of the murderer. God robs Missy of her free will without batting an eye!

Of course if you believe in The Secret and its backwards Law of Attraction (like attracts like), then you might say that Missy’s free will was also honored because she brought about her rape and murder by thinking thoughts of rape and murder. According to The Secret everything that happens to us happens because we attract it to ourselves through our thoughts. How a little kid has such thoughts, however, is beyond me, and only a heartless fool would imagine that little Missy chose to be raped and murdered, but if heartless idiocy is what it takes to excuse God of the crime of callous indifference then millions of The Shack readers are willing to do just that.

So which is it, Papa—whose free will are you really concerned with: the murderer’s or the victim’s? Papa’s logic demands that we see that she is siding with evil. Unfortunately, Mack doesn’t see this. He is content to let God squeak by with this silly argument about free will. But you shouldn’t!

Hold on a second, Mack might object. God is talking about the big picture—human free will in general and not the murderer’s in particular. If Papa were to save Missy she would have to end free will for all of us!

This is absurd on at least two counts. First, if you believe the stories in the Bible as most of The Shack’s readers do, then you know that God overrides free will. What, for example, is the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart if not the theft of his free will? Second, if God refuses to intervene in life because of free will, and this callousness allows the free will of the powerful and wicked to override the free will of the weak and innocent, then God is simply enabling survival of the fittest at its most brutal. In fact if this is the theology of The Shack, the its author is a deist of sorts believing in a God who created the world and then leaves it to its own devises.

The simple fact is that little Missy died because God let her die, and if Mack let’s God off the hook for this murder he is just enabling God to perpetrate further evil while pretending to be powerless to stop it. The God of The Shack suffers from a type of Munchausen’s disease. She let’s evil happen so she can pretend to suffer with the tormented and thus earn the love of the survivors. Papa/God is one sick black lady. How can people find this comforting?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Outhouse: Reflections on The Shack, Part Two of Five

The Outhouse: Reflections on The Shack, Part Two: Where was God?
[The Shack by William Young is a major bestseller and worthy of comment. This is the second of five quick looks at The Shack from my perspective.]

Mack’s young daughter Missy is kidnapped and murdered. Mack wants to know where Papa was during the murder. Papa is Missy’s name for God who turns out to be a large black woman. Papa assures Mack that “There was not a moment that we [God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, who it turns out is an Asian woman] were not with her” (p. 173). Mack finds that comforting. I find it infuriating.

They were there and they didn’t stop the murder? You would think that God would be in favor of a Good Samaritan Law that holds bystanders culpable for not saving a person like Missy who found herself in such dire straights. Apparently Big Mama and the Asian Chick weren’t paying attention when Jesus shared this particular parable.

Of course Mack, too, wonders why God didn’t intervene, and Papa tells him that she was powerless to do so. You see, God gave the world over to humans and promised not to interfere. It is a matter of free will, God’s and ours. If God interfered we wouldn’t be free to love him (her?), and God wants us to love him, but only if we do so of our own free will.

God is, of course, lying. God interferes all the time. What is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, the destruction of almost all life on the planet with the Flood, the choosing of Abraham, the opening of wombs, the sending of Moses to liberate the Israelites, the murder of the tens of thousands of innocent Egyptian first-born, the revelation on Sinai, the genocide of those who stood to interfere with the Israelite take over of Canaan, the story of Jonah, and… wait for it… Jesus himself? Of course God interferes! And anyone who believes God heals some and not others knows that God interferes. God just chose not to interfere in the case of the kidnap, rape, and murder of little Missy.

I would have felt more comforted if Papa had told Mack that she was at an Elvis concert on Venus rather than that she was right there the whole time and did nothing! I understand being out of town, but I cannot forgive callous inactivity. God herself commands us not to stand idle while our neighbor bleeds (Leviticus 19:16), and yet Papa admits to doing just that! “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” (Genesis 18:25)

Why is Mack, and by extension the millions of Shack fans, comforted by this cop-out? Get angry, man! Be outraged! Demand an accounting from the Great Accountant! But that is too Jewish for our Protestant Mack. This is an aspect of Christianity that just breaks my heart. Christians can’t get angry with God. Jews are nothing without our tradition of arguing with, indicting, and even convicting God of unspeakable crimes against humanity. Being angry with God isn’t a betrayal of faith, but the firmest articulation of it. Love God so much that you demand God be holy rather than cruel. Mack doesn’t so much love God as enable God to go on claiming powerlessness when in fact God is simply callous.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Outhouse: Reflections on The Shack, Part One: The Mother Returns

The Outhouse: Reflections on The Shack, Part One: The Mother Returns

[The Shack by William Young is a major bestseller and worthy of comment. This is the first of five quick looks at The Shack from my perspective.]

Here is the plot: Mack a married father of three who grew up in an abusive home, struggles with faith when his youngest daughter, Missy, is kidnapped and murdered. Mack blames God and himself for Missy’s death and is enshrouded by a Great Sadness. One day Mack receives a note in his mailbox urging him to return to the shack where his daughter’s bloody dress was found. The note is signed "Papa," the name Missy called God. Mack goes to the shack and finds Papa, who is in fact a large and jolly black woman, Jesus, and another woman named Sarayu who turns out to the be the Holy Spirit.

Representing God as a black woman seems like the punch line of an old joke, but I think it is exciting that The Shack has two of the three Gods of the Trinity manifest in female form. The classic Trinity is all male, and The Shack brings some needed balance to this. To picture the Trinity as the divine version of the seventy’s comedy Three’s Company may begin a process of gender modification much needed in western Christianity.

Making the Holy Spirit a woman is closer to the Jewish roots of the idea. In Judaism the Presence of God is called Shekhinah, a feminine gendered noun, suggesting that the intimate experience of the immanent God is somehow “feminine.”

The fact that a black woman is called Papa is even more enticing. Young is clearly muddying the gender issue. Perhaps taking God’s self revelation to Moses in Exodus, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, I will be whatever I will be,” seriously, Young is telling us that God can appear to us as either a Father or a Mother.

As anyone who has read my book The Divine Feminine knows, the return of the Mother is an integral part of the spiritual maturation of humankind. While some religions, notably the many faces of Hinduism, never lost contact with the Mother, and while mystical Judaism makes much of the Feminine, western religion in general (Protestant Christianity and Islam especially) have relegated the Divine Feminine to the background at best. Catholicism has Mary and the cult that has grown up around her, but Protestant Christianity stripped itself of the Mother. Such an imbalance leads (as we see in Jewish, Protestant and Islamic militants) to a religion of armed adolescents (both chronological and intellectual) whose faith in God is limited to and strengthened by a warrior mentality. The fact that The Shack is a book aimed at and capturing the hearts of Protestant Christians is a very exciting sign of a quiet and deeply promising spiritual evolution in that tradition.

Once Southern Baptists take to the idea that Papa is also Mama (and Big Black Mama at that) who knows what will happen to both women’s stature in the church and civil rights in the society at large. While I do have nits to pick with The Shack, this isn’t one of them.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Happy Birthday To Me

Today is my 58th birthday, and three TSA agents just pulled me aside at the John Wayne Airport for a special frisking. It seems that there is a strange bulge protruding from under my jacket. It’s my stomach, but the TSA agent has to rub it to be sure.

“Today’s my birthday,” I say.

“Lot’s of terrorists blow themselves up on their birthday,” he says. “Seventy-two virgins beats a birthday cake any day, don’t you think Rah-me?” He pronounces my name to make it sound Palestinian rather than Israeli. I’m neither,

“Recent scholarship into older manuscripts of the Qur’an suggests that the idea of virgins is a misreading of the original Arabic which may actually say ‘raisins.’ Martyrs are rewarded with seventy-two raisins.”

“Like raisins, do ya?” the agent asked. “Are raisins worth dyin’ for?”

“No,” I said, “but I often travel with prunes. I get constipated.”

The search took longer than it should. You shouldn’t banter with TSA agents about the Qur’an. Or constipation.

My seat on the American Airline flight from John Wayne airport to Dallas puts me next to a very large woman who has lifted the armrest between our seats so she can use half of mine as well. Very intimate. And sweaty. I think she uses Ice Blue Secret antiperspirant.

I cram up against the window of the airplane, and hum “Happy Birthday to Me,” but no one inquires why, or even seems to notice. Did I mention that today is my birthday? I’ve been on this planet for fifty-eight years.

I’ve had a few successes during that time. When I was very young I learned how to shit in the toilet rather than my pants. It is skill I worry about losing. Sometimes I stand in the adult diaper aisle of Wal-Mart wondering if I should stock up now as a hedge against inflation. Note to manufacturers: it would be cool if there were superhero diapers for adults as there are for toddlers. I’d feel better shitting in my pants if they had the face of the Incredible Hulk printed on them.

Anyway, I’m happy to be fifty-eight. I don’t mind getting older. I’m even looking forward to turning sixty, but that’s mostly because turning sixty comes after turning fifty-eight so looking forward is really unavoidable.

Sometimes when you say you’re getting older someone says, “Consider the alternative.” They mean I should think about being dead. I don’t see the value in that. I’m thinking of treating myself to a birthday snack from the cart on the airplane, instead, but paying $12 for a bag of stale peanuts seems extravagant given the economy. So, I think I’ll just ask for water and tie my shoelace to the cup after I drink all the water, and wear the cup on my head like a party hat. Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birthday dear Rah-me, happy birthday to me.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

I Know What You're Thinking

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is following me on Twitter. Is that cool or what? Actually it is kind of freaky. I feel His Holiness following me everywhere… he is kind of stalking me. I mean right now, it’s five in the morning, everyone is asleep but me, and I swear I can hear the Dalai Lama behind me whirling his prayer wheel: aum mane padme aum, aum mane padme aum, aum mane padme aum.

Of course if you’re going to be stalked it is better to be stalked by the Dalai Lama than, say, Jeffery Dahmer. I’d rather be haunted by a man whose religion is kindness that one whose idea of a snack is my right thigh. But still there is something creepy about being stalked at all.

I know what you’re thinking. OK, I don’t really know what you’re thinking, half the time I don’t know what I’m thinking, but I know what I imagine you’re thinking, or I’m thinking what I think you are thinking or should be thinking or will be thinking as soon as you read what I think you are thinking which will cause you to think it—you are thinking that Twitter is getting the better of me. And you are right.

Of course I know what you’re thinking now—namely that you were not at all thinking what I said you were thinking. But don’t be too sure since the only way you know you weren’t thinking it is to think it and then go back to see if you are thinking it only now and not then in which case I was wrong then but not now since you are thinking it now. I can’t lose.

Anyway, whether you were right then or you are right now, you are right—Twitter is getting the better of me. But where else can I learn that Lauradoglover is buying Kibbles for Nunsy? Or that Mikethehardhat is downing his seventh beer and is late for his AA meeting? Or that the Dalai Lama is hanging with the Buddha in the Bardo?

I don’t share such personal material on Twitter. I send out snide comments intended to bring a smile to Wayne Dyer’s face. At least I hope he’s smiling since most of my material is inspired by (OK stolen from) his material. I am the Bizarro Wayne Dyer turning all of his sweet sayings inside out just for the sheer delight of being contrary.

You could follow me on Twitter just like the Dalai Lama, by the way. And then I could follow you the way I follow him. And then as we are following one another we might actually bump into His Holiness, which would be awkward because I don’t think you’re supposed to touch him, and because there would so many of us bumping into him he would fall over and drop his prayer wheel and we’d have to pick it up and because there are so many of us we would be falling all over one another to do this and we’d probably break it which would mean that when he dies his followers can’t use it to help determine who the next Dalai Lama is and so the Chinese would get to install their own Dalai Lama who would most likely be Han Chinese rather than Tibetan and who would end all hope for Tibetan autonomy and independence and allow the Chinese to turn Tibet into a Disney-like Buddhist theme park and it would be all our fault.

Of course I know what you are thinking…..

Sunday, April 19, 2009

"They emptied Egypt"

Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus is the new president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the rabbinic arm of Reform Judaism. I am a huge fan of Reform Judaism, especially the early days of the first Pittsburgh Platform when Reform held out the promise of a radical recasting of Judaism, and I wish Rabbi Dreyfus only the best. That said, while reading a copy of her “Remarks Delivered at the CCAR Convention on February 28, 2009” I couldn’t help but shout out loud, “What the frak is this?!?”

In her commentary on the week’s Torah reading, Rabbi Dreyfus quotes Exodus 35:5, “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved.” The gifts God wants are gold, silver, copper, turquoise, purple and scarlet wool, linen, goat hair, red-died ram skins, acacia wood, lamp oil, and other precious oils and stones (Exodus 35:5-9).

A few sentences later Rabbi Dreyfus muses, “I sometimes wonder where the Israelites got all that stuff in the wilderness.” Is she kidding?

Rabbi Dreyfus needn’t wonder where these newly freed slaves got such wealth, all she has to do is read Torah: Broken with grief over the mass murder of thousands of innocent first-born Egyptians at the hands of the Israelite god, the people of Egypt beseech the Israelites to leave the country as quickly as possible for, they say, “We are dying!” (Exodus 12:33).

The Israelites grab their unleavened bread, bundle their few possessions on their shoulders (Exodus 12:34) and race out of Egypt. As they do so they “request” from the shattered Egyptians “silver vessels, gold vessels, and garments… they emptied Egypt” (Exodus 12:35-36). They emptied Egypt! In other words the Israelites used the death of the first born to extort the grieving Egyptians of their wealth. And all of this—the murder of the innocent and the sacking of Egypt—was sanctioned by God!

This is the second time the Israelites devastated Egypt. Joseph, as the Book of Genesis tells us, devised the scheme that stripped the people of Egypt of their ancestral lands, leading to a forced removal of the entire population from their farms to the cities where they were enslaved to Pharaoh (Genesis 47:20-22). The Pharaoh, his priests, and the Hebrews profited from this evil (Genesis 47:27); the latter’s enslavement at the hands of a new pharaoh was just the chickens coming home to roost.

Rather than wondering where the fleeing slaves got their riches, Rabbi Dreyfus could have used the text to explore the dark side of God and Jewish history. Instead she did as she was taught to do, she glossed over the Israelite extortion of Egypt with a cute wink to terror saying, “I picture them (the Israelites) carrying it (the extorted wealth of Egypt) in their backpacks, along with the granola bars and first aid kits and sunscreen for their forty-year hike in the Sinai.” It is just this kind of pabulum that drives thoughtful Jews out of the synagogue.

Why do we do this? We have this fantastic book filled with all the genius and genocidal madness of which humanity is prone, and we reduce it (and ourselves) to silliness. Why? Because we are victims of our own propaganda, insisting we are the suffering chosen who, while often failing to live up to the arcane ritual standards of our god, nevertheless hold the moral high ground when it comes to our fellow humans. We are so addicted to playing the hapless victim of inhumanity that we can no longer see that we have been, and in some cases still are, the perpetrators of inhumanity.

This is not a jab at Rabbi Dreyfus. This is a plea for a new kind of rabbinate; a rabbinate that is at least as honest about Torah as Torah is about herself; a rabbinate devoted to the prophetic call for righteousness and true spiritual renewal rather than the priestly obsession with ritual and the Disneyfication of Israel; a rabbinate that is unafraid to shine the healing light of truth in the dark corners of the Jewish soul; a rabbinate that can offer our people a way to spiritual greatness that honors the past without excusing or imitating it.

I wish Rabbi Dreyfus well, but if this is the Torah of our movement, there is little hope for the future. When Reform Judaism dies, and it will, we only have ourselves to blame.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Sister José Hobday, RIP

One of my beloved teachers died this month. Sister José Hobday passed away on April 5, 2009, at Casa de la Luz Hospice in Tucson, Arizona. She was 80 years old.

Sr. Florence Deacon, director of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi in St. Francis, Wis., wrote in the National Catholic Reporter that Sister José was “a very charismatic, warm woman, both down-to-earth but also fanciful. She was holistic long before it was in vogue, encouraging us to have a zest for living and to experience the spiritual life with all our senses. I can still see her purposeful stride, rhythmic and strong, beneath the skirts of her flowing religious habit. She led us on a five-mile walk to a park so we would discover that we, too, had much more strength and endurance than we realized.”

Sister José was born in Texas to a Seneca-Iroquois mother and a Southern Baptist father. She was both a Seneca elder and a Sister of the Franciscan Order. She held Masters' degrees in theology, literature, architecture, and space engineering.

I first met Sister José eight years ago when we taught together at a Spiritual Paths conference in Aspen, CO. She told me about her visit to the Dalai Lama, and how the monks warned her against touching His Holiness. Sister nodded in agreement, and when she stood face to face with the Dalai Lama she grabbed both his cheeks in her hands and pinched his face saying, “This is my baby brother.” Both she and the Dalai Lama laughed at her recognition of their oneness.

It was Sister José who first encouraged me to speak and write about my experiences with the Divine Mother, and who gave me the title Holy Rascal, pronouncing this at a conference at the completion of a presentation I gave about something or other. She was a powerful presence in the world, and will be sorely missed. I encourage you all to learn more about her.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tea Party 2009

Obama and his jack-booted thugs are about to take away our guns, our country, and our children. This is what I learned yesterday as I joined a crowd of five hundred protesters at a Republican Party sponsored Tea Party on the steps of the Murfreesboro Court House. Standing in the shadow of our Confederate Soldier Memorial the nearly all-white crowd carried signs that insisted America had been high jacked by liberals whose only desire was to sell America to the Iranian leaders of the International Union of Islamic Terrorists (IUIT). I counted two African Americans and one Mexican in the crowd. The Mexican made a point of saying he was here legally, and the two African Americans thought it best not to mention that they were here because of the parents and grandparents of the dead Confederate soldiers in whose shadow we stood.

The rally was supposed to be just like the Boston Tea Party of 1776 when a bunch of Bostonians dressed up as Indians and threw tea into Boston Harbor to protest taxation without representation. And it really was just like that except that we were hundreds of miles from the ocean, had murdered almost all the Indians, didn’t have any tea, and were protesting taxes our representatives in the Republican Congress of George W. Bush passed during his last years in office. But other than that it was just like 1776.

As the crowd grew larger and blocked a parking lot a woman in a silver Honda just trying to get home drove at a snail’s pace through the crowd. “Look out! Look out! She’s trying to kill us! Terrorist attack! Terrorist attack!” The screaming was intense and wild and ringing in my ears. But that was because I was the one screaming; the only one as it turned out. But the woman did have an Obama/Biden sticker on her car and people did boo her, so its just a matter of degree. I tend to be more out there, I guess.

As we waited for the Tea Party to start, country music blared from loud speakers. There was one very moving poem about America read by John Wayne and backed by some patriotic country tune. And then everyone joined in to accompany Toby Keith as his recording of “Courtesy of The Red, White & Blue” was played. “We’ll put a boot up your ass; It’s the American Way” was my favorite part of the song.

I turned to the man next to me when the song concluded and said, “Do you think that Muntazer al-Zaidi, the journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush, got the idea to toss his shoes from Toby Keith? Or did Toby get the idea of boots up your ass from Muntazer al-Zaidi in which case it’s really the Iraqi way and not the American way? Or maybe it’s the American-Iraqi way and that’s why were are over there because we both like to use footware to make our points?”

“What are you talkin’ about?” the fellow said and turned away.

After Toby we saluted the flag and prayed to Jesus. The pastor who led the prayer praised Jesus for teaching us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.

“What kind of liberal crap is that,” I said to a woman next to me when the prayer ended. “This is an anti-tax rally, we don’t want to render unto Caesar one red cent. Jesus was telling the Jews to pay their taxes, we don’t want to pay taxes. You don’t think Jesus was a socialist, do you? We’re not anti-Jesus are we?”

“Jesus is God,” she told me flatly. “Jesus believed in God, guns, and country. He was a good Christian.”

“Down with socialism,” the person next to me cried.

“Damn right, “ I said. “Where do we go to burn our Social Security cards?”

“What?” he said.

“You know, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid—socialism! Where do we go to opt out of these programs and register our refusal to participate in socialism?”

The man moved away muttering something.

I walked over to a woman whose sign read, “The Constitution is not a living document.”

“Damn right,” I said. “Where do I go to buy a musket for the Murfreesboro militia?”

“What?” she said.

“You know the second amendment. We have the right to bear arms. The founders meant muzzle loading muskets not M-16s, so where do we go to turn in our automatic weapons for muzzle loaders?”

She walked away patting a bulge in her purse. Smith & Wesson no doubt.

The rhetoric of the Tea Party was anything but party-like. These people were angry, frightened, and armed. They were out for bear, though one man actually mumbled “coon” when I made the bear reference. They hate President Obama.

“I want his policies to fail,” another man said.

“Damn right,” I said. “But won’t they fail anyway?”


“You know, we believe that only free market capitalism can succeed and that Obama is an enemy of free market capitalism, so he has to fail. I mean, if he doesn’t fail that would mean we’re wrong, and we aren’t wrong are we? He has to fail because if America thrives under his policies that would mean free market capitalism is not the only way to go, but it is the only way. It is! Isn’t it?”

“Stupid ass,” the man said as he turned away to listen to the next speaker who told us that it is our fault that the socialists have taken over the government. We were asleep for decades, the speaker said, as liberals slowly took over local school boards and city, country, and state governments. While we celebrated the Reagan Era they were plotting the Islamic Socialist state of America under the Kenyan Barack Obama.

“Isn’t that what the left said about the right during the Reagan and Bush years?” I said to no one in particular. “Aren’t we just recycling the same old rhetoric? Isn’t this rally, and perhaps any rally in a two-party system where both parties are run by the same multinational corporations simply a distraction from the fact that we are an oligarchy of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich?”

I saw another man whose sign said he was on the Homeland Security Watch List. “Is that true,” I asked. “You can’t fly?”

“Not that list,” he told me as if I were some dumb immigrant Jew-bastard commie liberal socialist nazi. “I’m on the new Homeland Security enemies list.”

“Who’s on that list?” I asked.

“Christians, veterans, and anyone else against Obama.”

“Damn!” I said. “You think that’s why he is sending more troops to Afghanistan, to keep them out of America, and maybe kill off vets who might otherwise stage a coup and take over the government.”

The man just stared at me. Then he said, “Maybe. Maybe,” and walked away, no doubt to get a magic marker to add my idea to his sign. At last someone listened to me. My work was done.

As I turned to leave I spied a woman who looked just like Ayn Rand. I swear it was Ayn Rand back from the grave. I walked over to her, leaned in close and whispered, “My name is Galt, John Galt.”

Ayn looked at me for a moment and said, “Asshole.”

Maybe I should have dressed up as an Indian.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Yeas Have It

The Yeas Have It

The results are in on yesterday’s poll to determine whether or not to continue this blog. As I feared none of my Yemeni readers responded, and I was forced to listen to people who, as Google Analytics suggests, are white North Americans of European extraction between the ages of 25 and 100 who make less than $500,000 per year, mostly male or female, and mostly employed in the working sector of the economy.

Am I disappointed that the Yemeni’s didn’t respond? You bet. Does that mean I value your opinions less than theirs? You bet. But does it mean I can ignore all those who wrote in urging me to write on? No.

Of course when I say “all those” I mean the nine people who bothered to write in. I understand that my fans in Yemen may not have access to a computer quickly enough to meet my deadline, but where were the other 2084 American readers? Can it be that only nine people care if this blog continues? Can it be that I would be willing to continue this blog when less than .005% care about it? Can I really be that shallow? Yes, and again, yes. Here’s why:

First, I think I am brilliant and often funny. True, I don’t bother to check my facts, and yes if I can’t find the facts I need I make them up, but that is what every religious leader does, so no problem there.

Second, I just can’t help myself. I read something, hear something, or meet someone odd and I have to comment. True I could just talk to myself, something I do anyway, but myself and I are both convinced that I am too interesting to be limited to the two of us. And there used to be three people in Yemen who thought so too, so there.

Third, I have an obligation to the people of Yemen, specifically my three Yemeni readers… I wonder what happened to those guys? Jeez, I hope I didn’t get them in trouble by singling them out. Maybe they were arrested and jailed and that is why they didn’t write in about my writing on. Damn! I bet that is exactly what happened. They probably don’t allow free speech in Yemen. I have no idea if this is true or not, but now I’m sure of it. Otherwise they would have responded. I know it. They’re my fans!

OK, Yemen, you’ve gone too far. Release my readers! I command you! Release them I say, or feel the wrath of … the wrath of… whatever, just feel the wrath— wrath I say!

Where was I? Oh, yes, why I must write on.

Fourth, I keep hoping to make a book out of this blog and for that I need 200 quality essays that can stand on their own, and, quite honestly, I doubt I have them yet. Following the Pareto Principle, I assume that 80% of what I write is garbage, so I need one thousand essays to find the 200 essays that might be worthy of a book.

So there it is. Narcissism rules. So hang in there, TOTO fans, more is on the way. And speaking of hanging, maybe we should mount a movement to free my Yemeni fans. If one of you wants to take on that responsibility let me know.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Five Hundred Posts

Five hundred posts.

No I’m not talking about building a fence between the US and Mexico, I’m talking about this blog. With this post, the one you are actually reading at this very moment, I have reached a milestone: 500 TOTO blog posts.

To understand how incredible this is imagine laying out all these posts end to end. If the wind didn’t blow them away, they would be 500 pages long. Given that a page is 11 inches long and 8 ½ inches wide, that would be five thousand five hundred inches long and four thousand two hundred and fifty inches wide, which, if an inch were equal to a mile, would be enough to cover entire continent of the United States. The entire continent!

But that ain’t nothin’! If an inch were equal to 5000 miles, 500 blog posts would stretch from the earth to the moon! Can you imagine that? If not for reality, I could claim to have written enough blogs to paper the entire distance from here to the moon. I’m humbled by this, truly I am.

When I started TOTO a few years ago I never imagined it would become the international phenomenon it is today. And when I say international, I mean international. Let me explain…

A few weeks ago I signed up with Google Analytics to track how many people visit this blog, and from whence they come. As of this morning I have over 2093 readers in the US and three in Yemen. There are also seventy-two Canadians, two Saudis, one Iraqi, two Egyptians, and two Chinese reading TOTO as well. Add to this an assortment of Europeans, Africans, Indians, Australians, and not as yet illegal immigrants from Mexico, and Latin and South America, and you can see that TOTO has gone global. No one in Israel reads it though.

I even heard that President Obama reads every TOTO post, though I admit to having heard it only from myself when I thought it up a moment ago. Still the rumor is out there now and it is only a matter of time before Yemen is convinced that I have the ear of the president. (Please, my Yemeni friends, this is an English idiom, a figure of speech, so don’t take it literally. I don’t mean that I have the actual ear of the President, only that he listens to me, which of course he doesn’t, so don’t write in requesting a piece of the ear for some anti-American ritual or whatnot.)

Anyway, when I realized that I would actually make it to 500 posts, I thought about sending TOTO over Reichenbach falls (look it up), and putting an end to the whole thing. Five hundred is a good number, and if I continued I’d have to reach one thousand posts before having another chance to end this with a sense of numeric elegance. Writing another five hundred posts is a huge commitment, and I’m not sure I want to make it.

So as with all big decisions in my life I have decided to turn this one over to others rather than make it myself. I am leaving the fate of this blog up to you, my readers. Especially my three Yemeni readers. If you want this blog to continue, let me know. Write your decision, yea or nay, in the Comments section of the blog, and I, your loyal servant, will act accordingly.

So it is up to you. I’ll report the results tomorrow.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Backside of the Tablets

I was reading the Torah yesterday and came across this very interesting passage, “Moses turned and descended from the mountain with the two Tablets of the Testimony in his hand. Tablets inscribed on both their sides; they were inscribed on one side and the other.” (Exodus 32:15).

Both sides? One side and the other?

Think about that. We usually imagine Moses holding two tablets, two separate “tombstone” shaped pieces of rock, side by side, one in each arm. On the front of the tablets are the Ten Commandments—five on one tablet and five on the other. That is what we normally take “sides” to mean. But that image is due more to Cecil B. DeMille than Lord God Almighty.

The Torah says Moses had two tablets and God wrote on both sides of each of them! When we focus only on the Ten Commandments we are reading only half the message. What was written on the other side? I checked a few standard commentators and they ignore the issue. But I can’t.

Maybe God wrote a message for Moses’ eyes only, like: “Mo’s my main man,” or “Remember, all I care about is not cooking a calf in its mother’s milk; don’t get carried away.” Or maybe God wrote disclaimers or warnings on the other sides:

1. The opinions expressed in these tablets are those of the Author only, and not those of Moses, the People Israel, or tablet retailer Hewers of Stone, Inc. Or,

2. These tablets are for viewing only. Do not use for any other purpose than impressing people with the Word of God or violating the First Amendment. Or,

3. Remember—What happens on Sinai, stays on Sinai.

Or maybe the flip side of the tablets might explain the commandments on the front side. For example, on the flip side of “You shall have no other gods before me,” it might say, “But you can have some after me.” Or maybe on the other side of “Honor your father and your mother” it says, “Buy them a condo in Boca.” Or on the flip side of “You shall not murder” it might say “And by murder I mean kill, and by don’t I mean don’t kill anyone regardless of what they say about me, where they stand on a woman’s right to choose, or whether or not they have drawn cartoons of my prophet Mohammad.”

Of course I can’t be sure of any of these, so I put it to you: What do you think is written on the flipside of the Tablets? Please post your answers in the comments page of this blog.

I have it on good authority that God reads this blog, and if He likes any of your ideas, or if you happen to hit on the actual wording of the backside of the Tablets, He will provide you and a loved with a Get Out Of Hell Free Card. Good for one incarnation only. So send in your suggestions today.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Why is this Night Different?

Tonight at sundown, the anniversary of the night before my people’s exodus from slavery, Jews all over the world will gather to celebrate our god and good fortune. Yet this very night is the anniversary of a horrifying mass murder as well. This night our god slaughtered thousands upon thousands of innocent first-born Egyptians boys and men to make a point: that Yahweh alone is God (Exodus 7:2-5). As the Ten Plagues are read during the Seder Jews diminish the wine in their cups so as to take no joy in Egyptian suffering, but this is an insufficient gesture in the face of the needless horrors inflicted upon the ancient Egyptians.

The plagues in general and the tenth plague in particular are examples of collective punishment unparalleled until the time of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the Holocaust was not punishment but genocide). It was Pharaoh, not the Egyptian people who enslaved the Hebrews. It was Pharaoh, not the Egyptian people, who ordered the death of the newborn Hebrew boys. The murder of the first-born sons of Egypt, the innocent along with the guilty, is not an act of justice, but of madness perpetrated by a god whose thirst for blood, both human and animal, seems endless. Is this the god I race out of Egypt to follow?

Those of you who are Christians may imagine you have escaped the clutches of this brutal god, following instead the Prince of Peace who made love his creed (Matthew22: 37-39), and the hallmark of his followers (John 13:34-35). But who is the god behind Good Friday? Is it not the same god whose thirst for blood can only be slacked by the murder of his Son? Isn’t this what Jesus’ death ransoms us from: a god who demands blood, whether it is the blood of Jesus or of all humanity? Isn’t Jesus’ death supposed to ransom us from eternal damnation? And even if it does, the god who creates such insanity remains unchallenged. While the Easter resurrection may prove the truth of the Son, it does nothing to change the nature of the Father who sent him. Indeed, the very notion that failure to accept Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior results in eternal damnation makes plan to anyone with the eyes to see and the ears to hear that the god of the Passover is unrepentant and unchanged, and that his followers, by whatever name, are still trapped in a system of unsurpassed brutality.

Why? Because the gods we worship have nothing to do with God, and everything to do with us. We create god in our image. The god we create is the god we desire and the god who sanctions our desires. And what we desire above all else is to impose our will on the world that we might grasp what we want when we want it. We create a murderous god along with a way to shield ourselves from being murdered even as we stand idle while the murder of “the other” is done in our name and by our hands washed clean by our god who revels in it.

I am ashamed of the silence of Moses in the face of Egyptian horror. I am ashamed of the willingness of Jesus to be the Lamb of God, to die for us rather than challenge the cult of death his Father relishes.

What we need today is not another Moses leading his people to freedom over the corpses of their neighbors. What we need is not another Jesus who submits his will to god’s will and takes his place upon the cross (Matthew 26:39). What we need is the Abraham who dared to confront God’s madness and injustice, insisting that the Judge of all the world act justly (Genesis 18:25). What we need is the indignation of those Hebrew prophets whose God has no need of blood and death, and desires only justice, compassion, and humility (Micah 6:8). But we will not get what we need; we will only get what we are. And what we are is a species enslaved to enslaving others whether in this world or the next.

My prayer for this Passover Week and Easter Sunday is not one of praise and thanksgiving, worshipping the god of my own insanity. My prayer is this: “May steadfast love and faithfulness meet, may righteousness and peace kiss” (Psalm 85:10), and may humanity be free of our self-reflective gods that we might at last hear the call to justice and compassion for all life that is the hallmark of the true God.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Shamans Wanted

There is no conflict between religion and science. Science has won. Today’s theologians are taught to think like scientists, to assume that reason and logic are the tools of their trade, when in fact their real tools are imagination and storytelling. Do you think the parables of Jesus rise and fall on the facts of science? Of course not. The parables are true as works of the imagination seeking insight into the spiritual and ethical dimensions of our lives. But today’s clergy and seminarians are tone deaf when it comes to imagination and storytelling. They have no feel for mystery. What we need are some good old-fashioned shamans!

When I attend worship services in churches and synagogues around the country I find (with some amazing exceptions) that they all seem to belong to the same religious denomination: the Church of the Living Dead. The music is bland, the lyrics are vapid, the liturgy is trite, and the sermons are predictable (unless of course I am speaking). Nobody complains because the complainers have stopped coming years ago. The people who come expect to be bored and are rarely disappointed. It isn’t that the clergy are bad, in fact most are doing the very best they can. It is just that the definition of “very best” elevates conventional prattle to the highest rung of excellence.

Clergy should be shamans. Clergy should make magic. Clergy should graduate from seminary with a tool-kit filled with chants, contemplative practices, stories, and a guidebook for creating sacred space that is fluid, dynamic, creative, and surprising. Clergy should be masters of surprise. Why did God cover Sinai in clouds, thunder, and lightening? Because an eighty year–old man coming down the mountain with a couple of dinky stones tablets is boring, but an eighty year–old man coming down the mountain with a couple of dinky stones tablets backed by a fearsome sound and light show is awesome! Can you imagine anyone, after hearing Jesus tell his parable of the Good Samaritan, lean over to a neighbor and say, “I knew it! I knew that Samaritan guy was the hero. Man these parables are so predictable.”

In the Hebrew Bible God says, “I will be what I will be” (Exodus 3:14). In other words, “You can’t guess what I will be, because I am all about surprise.” Yet we translate the implicitly creative and surprising I will be what I will be into the oh so static and predictable I am that I am, and then train clergy to be just as static and predictable.

If I were to create a seminary I would have students spend the first three years in serious academic study of the history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and psychology of religion, comparative religion, comparative religious literature, and the most cutting edge ideas pulsing in physics, biology, and astronomy. Then I would focus the next two years on learning how to paint or sculpt, write poetry and short story, play an instrument, create sacred space, and invent transformative moments of life-cycle magic. I would require improv training and send students to clown school. I would train them in stage magic, and shamanic trances. And all the while help them deepen their contemplative lives through chant, meditation, dance, etc.

What about pastoral care? I'd teach them to refer to professionals. What about education? I'd teach them to hire good educators. What about running the business of religion? I'd teach them to hire good administrators. What about leadership? People don’t need leaders when it comes to religion, they need role models.

My school would graduate holy rascals and holy fools. We would graduate clergy who scandalize their communities not by violating ethical standards but by actually living them. The complacent church and synagogue goer would quit in disgust, and the places would be packed to the rafters with people hungry for God.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Interfaith Dialogue is Boring

Most interfaith gatherings are tame, trite, and tedious. Everyone pretends to get along, and few, if any, are willing to talk about the differences that render religions unique unto themselves and incompatible with one another. So it was refreshing to read in the November issue of Christianity Today an essay by Rev. Stan Guthrie entitled “All Monotheisms Are Not Alike.”

His concern is with Christianity and Islam, “the two great missionary faiths,” and he worries that in their efforts to get along their theological differences become blurred, and they even go so far as to say they both worship the same god. How horrible! How absurd!

To protect Christians from the delusion of believing such a thing (and the damnation that accompanies such belief), Rev. Guthrie says Christians should enter into dialogue with other faiths “with the Apostles’ Creed in hand.” He’s right. What’s the point of talking if we all claim to be saying the same thing? What makes religion interesting are the differences among them, not their similarities.

Here are some of the differences Rev. Guthrie highlights based on the Creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. Guthrie says that while Muslims and Christians both believe in a creator god, only Christians call God “father.” Of course Jews also call God “father,” so this difference is only between Christians and Muslims.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. … Both Muslims and Jews find the idea that God has kids with human women anathema; and while Jews accept the death of Jesus (along with thousands of his Jewish cousins) under Pontius Pilate, Muslims do not, believing that God would not cause such suffering to one of his prophets. Since there is no Christianity without this idea, this is a real sticking point.

On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will judge the living and the dead. Neither Jews nor Muslims accept the resurrection of Jesus or the substitution of Jesus for God on Judgment Day. So again we have real grounds for disagreement.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Again neither Jews nor Muslims see the Holy Spirit, in which both believe, as being a separate entity, part of trinity of gods: Father, Son, and Spirit. Jews and Muslims are strict monotheists: one God and one God only. And while both Jews and Muslims believe in forgiveness, resurrection, and eternal life, neither believes these have anything to do with Jesus and the acceptance of his death as redemptive.

Rev. Guthrie concludes his essay with, “Let the dialogue continue, but with the Apostles’ Creed in hand.”

I agree. Let Christians be Christians. Let them come to the table and say unabashedly there is no salvation outside the church, and that the other presenters are going to burn in hell for all eternity. And let Muslims be Muslims. Let them say that the Koran is the final and only unadulterated revelation from God. And let the Jews be Jews. Let them say that God gave only one revelation, and He gave it us, and us alone—the Chosen.

If Jewish, Christian, and Muslim clergy were honest during interfaith dialogues, the dialogues would last about ten minutes, and then we could spend the rest of the time arguing over which unproven and unprovable position is right. This would be interesting, at least for a while, but a short while at most. It wouldn’t take the audience long to realize that the panelists are arguing over self-serving propositions at best, and that this so-called dialogue is nothing more than the religious equivalent of a Coke versus Pepsi taste test. And not even that—at least at a taste test you get free Coke and Pepsi. What do you get at an interfaith dialogue?

So is interfaith dialogue a waste of time? Not at all. It keeps clergy occupied and off the streets where they are apt to do real damage.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Toxic Assets

Eight-grader Jonathan Locke is a serial farter. A resident of Florida, Mr. Locke entertains his classmates on his school bus with stomach churning displays of flatulence. I know you are as shocked and as outraged by this as I am. A child his age devoted to farting as a means of causing others of his ilk to laugh is almost beyond belief. Where are his parents?

Thank God Jonathan’s school bus driver reported Mr. Locke to the authorities. Florida it seems has a Fart Police (FLFP), and they brought this wild ass of a child to his school principal who suspended the boy for three days. The sentence, I suspect, was tied to the amount of time it would take to Febreze the bus to less than toxic levels.

If you are laughing at this, please stop. Farting is serious business. According to the bus driver, young Jonathan’s gas attacks were so foul as to prevent the driver from breathing. A bus driver who stops breathing stops driving, and that endangers all our children. And, in case you have forgotten, our children are our future.

When asked by journalists to comment on his son’s behavior, Jonathan’s father said attempts to prevent farting by eighth graders are futile. Futile? Futile! No wonder Jonathan farts for fun! His dad thinks farting is uncontrollable.

Now, I admit I should have actually checked to see if the following statement is true, but I take it for granted that we can trust me on this: Florida has the most farts per capita (or buttita) of all states in the entire United States. This is not due to young farters, however, but to old farts. Having lived in Miami for twenty years and having spent serious time among the elderly in nursing homes and early-bird diners I can attest that farting increases with age. My grandmother would walk and fart with such rhythmic regularity that it seemed that her farts were actually propelling her forward. But such behavior starts in old age (or in some cases, OK my case, in one’s fifties) and certainly not in one’s formative years. Young Jonathan’s farting is a case of psychological dysfunction not biological inevitability.

Farting eighth-grade boys is unnatural and yet another example of the liberal insanity that has taken hold of this country since the inauguration of our Socialist President, Barack Obama. Farting can be controlled, and controlling eighth-grade farting should be no more difficult to controlling tenth-grade sex.

Some of you liberals are probably thinking we need to expand our sex-ed courses to include anal retention exercises. But that will only encourage farting. I suspect those radicals in South Florida who advocate teaching newborns how to use a condom are already dreaming of workshops for kids called the “Art of the Fart” or “fART,” or some such thing, but they are wrong. We would be far better off removing all references to gas, anal and otherwise, from all our textbooks and classrooms. Abstinence, not safe-farting, is the only real option.

My own suggestion is to start a movement and take over the local school boards and set some solid anti-farting codes in place. With this is mind I plan to create The Inappropriate Gas in eiGHth-graders Today Association (TIGHT ASS) and push to establish Fart-free zones on school buses, and in and around school buildings.

Of course Jonathan Locke denies the whole thing, claiming that a boy sitting in front of him on the bus produced the fart, but this is to be expected. Serial farters are not to be believed. As the old saying goes, “He who got suspended for three days for farting on a bus dealt it.”