the circular runner

Posts Tagged ‘God’

the Batman shootings: evil, revenge, and me

In life, observations, teaching & education on July 20, 2012 at 2:08 pm

I don’t usually post on Fridays, but I just saw some footage from the Colorado shooting, and I wanted to write something. I needed to.

I will admit that about the same time James Holmes decided to enter a theater in Colorado guns a’blazing, I was watching a Korean revenge film about  sociopath and about a cop who decides to break all the rules in order to seek revenge.  Usually, revenge movies are a guilty pleasure for me, and Asian revenge movies are so over the top that I wouldn’t ever say I am moved by them intellectually.  But this Korean movie, called, I Saw the Devil, was different.  It was over the top and sometimes, the characterization of the sociopath was akin to those old silent movies when the villain wears black and twists his mustache, but the thing that kind of made me stick with the movie was that it focused less on the criminal than it did on the police officer.  If I had to summarize the movie, I’d say it was a look at the fact that there is no solution for evil, or if you prefer, against a person completely devoid of morality.

Ironically, this movie reminded me of The Dark Knight, which also dealt with the same notion.  Heath Ledger as the Joker, you say what you will about his acting, but that character is truly horrifying–not because of what he does, but because he feels nothing about what he does.  You can imagine that the Joker would give as much thought to breathing as he would to brutally killing a person except that brutally killing someone probably gave him some pleasure–but then again, maybe not.

There’s a scene in The Dark Knight when the Joker talks to Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and lays out his thoughts on violence.  Watch this scene and tell me if this isn’t scary.

It’s scary because there is no ideology, no firm ground to share. There is only randomness, violence. It makes me shiver, and yet as a movie-goer, I’m drawn to it because there is something awesome about it–awesome in the Biblical sense of the word.  Awesome in the sense of being awestruck with horror because there is nothing one can do to fix this kind of person.  Revenge is not a prudent motivating force, but part of the reason we like revenge movies is that they restore order to the world–at least they attempt to.  They give us a sense of justice.  But the randomness of the Joker, the randomness of this shooter in Colorado, is just that, randomness.  And revenge does not bring about justice.  The immoral person does not feel, cannot feel, guilt, which is kind of the point of seeking out justice, isn’t it?  That’s the lesson of The Dark Knight and I Saw the Devil.

And yet, the answer is not apathy.

Earlier this week, right outside the projects in which I teach my GED classes, there was a drive-by shooting.

this does not look like the site of evil, does it?

No one was hit, though there were dozens of children at the playground across the street and young couples with their dogs were there, too.  The shooters, no doubt, are not evil, even if what they were doing could be called that.  They were not being random.  They were going after a kid for some reason no one knows exactly.  The only reason I bring this event up, apart from the fact that I have not really talked to anyone about it, is that the responses of my young students was almost all the same: indifference. The shooting, the bullets and all the harm those bullets can do, has been internalized by the young people I work with, and they don’t see much point in getting upset by it.  I don’t think my kids are evil for their apathy.  But I do think it shows that they have been harmed by the evil I’m describing.  They do not feel.  They don’t imagine that there are places where random violence is not a daily thing to witness.  Or maybe they do, but they don’t see themselves living in those places.

And maybe they have no reason to. I’m not sure I believe in the devil, at least not as certain religious people like to describe him, but if he did exist, last night, a little bit of hell was visited upon the town of Aurora, Colorado and those people in that theater saw a glimpse of the devil for themselves.


writing as a spiritual exercise

In humor, life, observations, writing on June 27, 2012 at 6:20 am

I can’t say I’m religious, though I hate saying that I’m spiritual because, A. that sounds lame and B. a lot of lame people say that and C. I like to think of myself as not being lame.

But here’s the thing: I write, and I think that writing, which I love and sometimes don’t, has something to do with what most people would call spiritual.

Years ago, many many years ago, I was a violinist.  Because I’m biologically unable to do things just for fun, I was a serious violinist.  VERY SERIOUS!!  TOO SERIOUS!!!!  Which meant I sucked.  True, that through shear force of will and discipline, I became good enough to gig for a couple a years in LA.  (I played pick-up orchestra gigs, weddings, and more Bar Mitzvahs than any other gentile I know, but I wasn’t really cut out to be a musician.  I loved the the craft; I loved locking myself in a room and sawing away, but I couldn’t translate that work onto the stage.  Still, all that practicing did leave a real effect on me.  I learned what it was like to be silent, truly so, and to be comfortable with that silence.

I might have taken that impulse a little too far.  I know I stopped being friends with most people from high school because as I got serious about being a violinist, I came to believe that I had been a fraud to them.  In the solitude of my practice room, I realized I wasn’t the clown I pretended to be.  I was quiet and shy.

OK, so what the hell does this have to do with writing and spirituality?

Fifteen years after quitting the violin, I find that I get the same joy from being alone with my thoughts when writing that I once did from my time practicing.  But the difference is that as a writer, I work alone in order to connect with others.  As anyone who writes knows, this back-and-forth between the deeply private time doing the writing and the hunger for connection with others is not easy.  Especially when writing fiction, I often struggle to get in the mindset needed to write.  Sometimes, it’s almost painful to start writing because of the hunger I feel for connecting with others.  But without the alone time, that time when I have to focus on the matter at hand,  the feelings of my characters, the craft of putting words to the page, I cannot feed the hunger I feel for connection.

Sometimes, most times, I fear this struggle.  I fear the hard work it entails, I’ll be honest.  But at a deeper sense, I also fear the silence that writing requires.  Or maybe it’s better to say, that I am in awe of the power of that silence, the way I have felt looking at a storm blow in or at a huge wave crashing against rocks.  That silence is powerful, humbling, and it’s vast, and even though I fear it, I want to be in touch with it.

Is that silence God?  I don’t know.  But I can say that the words I am using to describe my sense of it are pretty similar to the words that people from another time would have used for the divine.

That is a discipline, no one will argue.  But

praying for prayer?

In humor, life, observations, writers & books, writing on June 19, 2012 at 6:43 am

I have a few obsessions–at least I do when blogging.  My career as a witer (or lack thereof), my sense of speeding through life and the counter-need to slow down, and…goddamn it…I don’t have any other obsessions.  Jesus, I can’t even come up with three.  Three is so writerly, and I can’t come up with a third…

I’m not very obsessive, I’ll admit it.  I’d probably be better off in my career if I were.  (OK, I hit on obsession #1–check.) 

And as for obsession #2, I’ve been thinking about God today.  Well, I started thinking about God because I was listening to this somewhat ancient podcast of Fresh Air.  It was about a scholar spending time with some evangelicals who believe they have personal relationships with God.  By relationships, I’m mean hanging out with the Almighty, having a cup of coffee, taking things out.

At one level, I get a little weirded out by the sound of these people. But there is another part of me that doesn’t really think there’s anything weird at all about believing that God is all around you.  I studied Religion, not theology (there’s a difference) in college and went on to grad school, as well.  There are very few Religious Studies majors in the world who choose that major strictly out of some intellectual need.  We all have issues with God or religion or both, or at least a fascination.  I would fit in the latter.

I’m a believing Agnostic or an Agnostic believer.  I tried to explain my beliefs once already on this blog, if interested, please see this.   If you are still here, I commend you: good choice.  Let’s live in the present.

So, as I was saying, today, I was listening to Terry Gross and this scholar talk about people who have relationships with the divine, and I started thinking about my own relationship to God.  I realized right off that I don’t really like that term, relationship.  I’m old school, I guess.  I like imagining that there’s something mysterious and wondrous about this entity we call God/Yahweh/Allah etc.  It’s not something I want to imagine having a relationship with the way I have a relationship with some dude at work.  That’s how the people being discussed today see God–He’s like their buddy.  Where’s the majesty in that?

And this leads me to my point: why don’t I pray anymore?  I used to pray every night–mainly petitions.  There was a point that it was almost like a superstition, maybe even a superstitious obsession, which I could add to my poor list of obsessions if only I were still obsessed with prayer the way I used to be. Back then, I needed to pray for everyone near and dear to me or I feared  something would happen to them. I guess that’s the downside to not seeing God as buddy.  Buddies don’t smite your second cousins in Uruguay if you fail to ask for his protection. There’s something childlike in believing that God would smite your family if you piss him off, but even so, I wonder if it’s not a bad sign that I don’t make the time to talk with God at night as I used to.

It’s not guilt, mind you.  I think it does have something to do with being too much in the world.  Look, there’s a reason why as a writer of fiction, I gravitate to the surreal/magical.  I think there’s truth in that stuff.  I don’t know if I can get myself to capture some of that magic, but I think that’s my goal as a writer, and maybe, just maybe, it’s my goal as a person, a spiritual person, too.  I once told a friend of mine in grad school just about the time I decided that I wanted to write and not be a scholar of religion, that I saw writing as a spiritual exercise.  She thought I was daft at the time.  But I do.  I have to explain how next time.

For now, I’m curious.  do any of you see God/the Force/some spiritual force in your writing? Do you speak with the Almighty even writing the most Earthbound family drama?

what we talk about when we talk about God…

In life, observations, Uncategorized, writing on January 29, 2012 at 3:15 pm

lilywhiteamongthorns , a blogger who read my recent post about the God-haters on Facebook posted this comment:

I have a question. I would like for you to answer it, but I will understand if you don’t. What is your defiinition of a believer? Because you say you are one, yet you say,

“I just don’t get the idea that I have to believe that a man died on the cross for my sins, and even if I do believe it, I really don’t get why I have to think that the next guy is damned because he doesn’t. That just sounds tribal to me and against any notion of the infinite nature of divinity.”

So my bottom line question is, what DO you believe in?

It’s a good question, and I am going to try to be as direct (read short) and honest (read I’m digging deep) as possible. But to do so, I think I better clear up a couple things first.  1. I think I should remind people that my previous post about the Facebook Atheists, for lack of a better word, was pointed at the facile way they dismiss belief, and the quote above refers to a smaller point I was making that these Atheists are not the only ones guilty of condescension.  There are a lot of conservative religious people out there who can be just as dismissive of positions that aren’t their own. For the sake of this post, let me also say that when I refer to “conservative” religious folk, I am referring to Christians not because they are the only ones, but because I know that tradition best. I am sure that there are conservatives of the kind I am referring to in all traditions.

The other point has to do with the words, “believer”and “belief”. In the other post, I was using a very broad definition for the first word–something like, anyone who believes in some thing, some force in the world that is greater than any one of us and that is greater than the physical world. Yes, it’s vague, but I was using the term in opposition to people who don’t believe in any such force, or God, or whichever word you think appropriate for divinity.

As to the word, “belief” and how I use it, (OK, wake up,lilywhiteamongthorns, because this is what you were looking for) let me say that I think of belief in terms of hope. There are a lot of Christians (they are probably not the only ones) who use the word belief when they really mean knowledge. For my taste, they are just a little too confident in their proclamations. When it comes to God-talk, I think vague is the best any of us can do. So if you ask me what I believe when it comes to God and to an afterlife, to the metaphysical, to the spiritual, my general answer is, I hope for a lot, but I know nothing.

Now,if that sounds like I’m being safe and non-committal, let me be more specific. Let me put to you a scenario that sounds like a joke, but isn’t. I think this story will get at what I hope for when it comes to God.  So, imagine a bunch of mystics from all the religious traditions of the world coming together in a room to discuss the idea of God. You pick the panel.  Can you imagine it? A Sikh Guru, John of the Cross and his grimace, some Buddhist sage–it’s like a collection of religious superheroes from all the ages. At first, all of them argue with each other. The Buddhist says there is no God, the Christian claims that God can be known in three aspects: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The Jewish mystic thinks all of that is mishegaas. The Hindu looks on amused and imagines that all Gods are just some version of Vishnu. But as they keep talking, as they keep trying to boil down what they are after, all these individuals find that their language is the problem, their words are the obstacles to their coming together. In other words, their ultimate concern, in order for it to be ultimate, is actually the same thing.

NOW, I AM NOT SAYING THAT ALL RELIGIONS ARE THE SAME. Religions are made out of culture and they speak to the concerns of the culture they come out of. They are for this world, at least that is what I believe, by which I mean, that is what I hope. So, to loop back to the question above, the blogger points to my reference to Jesus. As a Christian, I should say that I believe in the resurrection–by which I should be saying I KNOW Jesus rose on the third day. I cannot say that, but I can say that I hope he did. I hope for this not because I think that that event washes away my sins if I accept it, but because it is an act of God piercing through the cold rationality of this world, a type of proof that there is something greater out there that awaits us. I hope for this with all my heart, but I also hope that God spoke to Mohammed and told him to recite, and that the Buddha was able to grasp Nirvana through contemplation one day long ago, etc. I believe/hope in things unseen, but I know nothing. Is God some old guy with a beard sitting on a throne surrounded by angels? Maybe, but maybe he is not a He. Maybe God is some force in the world that acts in the world, or maybe He/She/It is none of these things.

This hopeful doubt is the only way I can imagine a God that exists without also thinking that my Jain friend, or my Buddhist friend, or even my Facebook, condescending Atheist friend is going to suffer hellfire because they don’t share my beliefs. Again, I might be wrong. Maybe God is a his-way-or-the-highway kind of God, but I hope that is not so. I hope so more than I can express here. But who the hell knows? (pun intended.) I know I don’t. That much I know. And I’m wiling to bet that no one else does either.

why are all my Facebook friends hating on the Almighty?

In humor, life, observations, Uncategorized on January 28, 2012 at 5:01 pm

Listen, I’m not religious. I’m going to say that right now. My mom was pretty Catholic until she wasn’t. Some priest hit on her when I was a kid, and she’s also got a feminist streak in her and she doesn’t understand the Church’s views on women, so she kind of fell out. Anyway, after she stopped making us go to Mass, I felt no great need to kneel and stand and kneel and pray on Sundays, so that was that for me with the Church until it wasn’t.

In my 20s, kind out of nowhere, I felt a need to reconnect to something spiritual. I went to church for a year on my own every Sunday until I approached a friar who worked at the church I was going to. Brother Hyacinth was in charge of adult spiritual education, or some such thing, and he was awesome. He was a Guinness-loving Irishman who loved his church but who was also open and curious about views that weren’t his own. He was the right person to bring me into the fold, and I spent a year getting myself ready for confirmation. I took the name, Augustine, which, I found out, was not quite right for me. (Augustine, I was to learn, was the guy who, among a few others, really pushes the notion of original sin, i.e., the idea that we are screwed because of Adam and because we have bodies that are corruptible. Of course, before he came to that position, Augustine slept around and had a bunch of kids out of wedlock. Then he found religion, guilt and sanctimoniousness. I’ll let you decide if there’s a connection there.)

Where was I? Oh, yes, I was telling you about how I got confirmed and how I was going to church until the day of my confirmation. Two years in the making and I remember telling my sponsor (yes, Catholics and Alcoholics share the same vocab) that my confirmation was my first real step to ex-communication. A priest heard me say this, but that’s how I felt that day and I didn’t care. I just don’t get the idea that I have to believe that a man died on the cross for my sins, and even if I do believe it, I really don’t get why I have to think that the next guy is damned because he doesn’t.  That just sounds tribal to me and against any notion of the infinite nature of divinity.

I say this as a believer, which means I’m in the middle of most religious arguments. When I hear the religious conservative from any tradition–zealotry knows no cultural boundaries–I go bat-shit crazy. And yet, I go just as crazy when I hear the facile piling-on that my timeline on Facebook fills up with on any given day.

(YES, after 4oo+ words, I am getting to my point. But hey, this is still shorter than most sermons, and you don’t have to kneel, so there’s that.)

I’m not blind to the fact that religious movements are full-up with dumb-dumbs. I also know that historically, there have been a lot of dumb-dumbs in charge of said religious movements. Dumb-dumbs, by their very nature, come up with ideas that are truly dumb, sometimes these ideas are also profoundly and even spiritually dumb. Sure, I get it. But if you keep in mind that there are dumb-dumbs everywhere, then I don’t get why people get so up in arms about some preacher who turns out to be gay or a priest who has a kid. I mean, I get why people get angry at the person, but what I don’t get is how you go from condemning the act of an individual to condemning the notion of religion. I guess I should take my own advice and not freak out, “not trip” about the dumb-dumbs who go off on believers on my Facebook page. They have a right to say what they want. But when I read the snide remarks about how ridiculous and naive it is to believe in something (I’ll call it God because that’s the word that culturally makes sense to me, but you can call it whatever you like), I want to call bullshit. In fact, I’d say that the secular-rationalist is a bigger manufactuer of BS than his religious counterpart because by definition, the rationalist should be reasonable and not dogmatic. I’m not saying that my Facebook friends are wrong in their beliefs; I am saying that they should probably avoid making generalizations they can’t support with fact.

Is there a God? Hell if I know. But Hell if my hating friends on Facebook know.

Is it me, or is it Texas?

In observations on July 15, 2010 at 10:14 pm

The Bad Vibes of Texas

I just got back from my whirlwind tour of the Southwest. With my wife at my side, we went all over the region, saw beautiful country, had a lot of great food (think beef) and we even stayed with great people for a few of the days we were gone. The amazing family we stayed with was even more amazing considering they live in Texas–Dallas, Texas to be exact.

I cannot speak to the kind of city Dallas is. Mainly, we stayed in and ate with our hosts. This is odd for me. Usually, if you land me in a city of any size, I’m chomping at the bit to go look around and explore, but not so with Dallas. As a whole, the state of Texas scares me. I’ve never felt this way before on a road trip. Maybe I’m getting older and turning into one of those scared elderly types who doesn’t like to leave home for fear that something terrible could happen. I have noticed more reticence creeping in. On this trip, there was a small town where I avoided a gas station bathroom because a strange looking man was walking toward us from the highway. I tightened my bladder and got in the car and headed for a better lit place to do my business. I’d like to think that this, in part, comes out of concern for my wife. It is one thing to travel by myself and pee where I like but quite another to pee with a loved one waiting for you. OK, maybe that’s it. Or, maybe I am starting to get too careful. BUT, when it comes to Texas, I think something else is also at play.

I already mentioned the porn stores in between the highway churches (see earlier post–really good, hint, hint). On our way out of the state, we also passed small towns with huge banners that announced a love for country and God. I have no problem with either, but there’s just something off-putting to me about announcements like that. It makes for a patriotism and a religiosity that is too uniform and too restrictive. More to the point, such public announcements give license to hatred and discrimination. If there’s a group of people you don’t like, you can take your dislike and change it into that group’s lack of patriotism or their lack of godliness, which sounds a lot better than saying that you just don’t like them.

All of this brings me to the Westboro Baptist Church (I will not link, but if you like, Google them.
The good folks at Westboro are famous for hate. No, that’s not quite right. They are known for hating different groups and communities and then saying that God hates those communities, too. I have to say that that kind of theology is very convenient. Somehow, every community that irks the Westboro Baptists (gays, Catholics, the US government–just to name a few) also seems to irk the great creator. I know that some in the organization (it’s not really a church) will say that they hate because God hates, which still seems pretty convenient to me because that means they have some kind of hate hotline to God. Maybe it’s a phone or maybe God Tweets them–hate can be done in under 114 characters, btw.

While in Dallas, I went to a protest set up by the Westboro Baptists. Don’t worry if you missed it because they have a site that lists all of their activities, and there seems to be at least one every week. The protest I went to was in front of a church that is open to the LGBT community and that happens to be smack-dab in the middle of the gay neighborhood in Dallas. It was a lively affair, but mainly that was because twice as many anti-protesters showed up to picket the Westboro Baptists’ picket line. There were many signs and some were funny–most were, actually. But I can’t help but feel horrified by what I saw. These Westboro haters might be in the minority, but they represent a kind of hatred that is dangerous and that shouldn’t be ignored. They believe what they believe with such conviction that they are willing to stand out in the rain on an awful, humid Dallas afternoon and be laughed at. That kind of conviction is attractive to many, and I think that’s part of the reason the organization seems to do so much protesting. They are hoping to get the message out: they believe what they believe and they do so without the burden of doubt. (I don’t want to be too partisan here, but does this lack of doubt remind you of a recent president who resides in the state?)

Obviously, this kind of group could and does exist anywhere. Texas is not alone. In fact, to be fair, the Westboro people are based out of Kansas. I know this, but still there’s something about a state in which for the week I was there, I saw only one out-of-state license. Maybe it’s anecdotal. Maybe there’s tons of visitors and maybe the Westboro people are alone out there in the Lone Star State, but I’m from California and I live in San Francisco, so I am going to be ignorant in my own Lefty-Liberal way and say without doubt that Texas gives off some bad vibes, dude.

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