Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Day Billy Joel Met God in the Shower...

Billy Joel met God in the shower- I'm absolutely sure of it. So then how is it that the man who himself readily admits that the whole experience of writing the "River of Dreams" was a "spiritual" epiphany, claim, as he has in interviews, that he is definitively an atheist? This is a great question. However, before I get into all of that, I would first like to consider the substance of the following interview (of which there is a lot).

According to Mr. Joel, he wrote the song "Lullabye" and "River of Dreams" at the same time as a kind of way of satisfying his daughter's philosophical curiosity, a daughter who was naturally inclined to ask these type of questions around bedtime. Joel doesn't go into detail concerning the precise nature of these questions, but one can easily surmise that they involve death and what comes afterwards. And this makes perfect sense, especially considering the fact that sleep is a kind of human foreshadowing of that fearful event. Therefore, the song Lullabye seeks to allay, in a most poetic way, his daughter's fears and anxieties about sleep, death, etc., promising her that he will "never leave her", and assuring her, implicitly, that they will both live on together even after death.

But this is, ironically, where Joel's atheism, as well as his artistic talent, meet up in an extremely powerful way. After all, art is at its best when it maintains an element of mystery (it's good to leave a little to the imagination). Thus, paradoxically by not promising her heaven literally, he says something that one could argue is even more heavenly; "Some day we'll all be gone, but lullabies go on and on. They never die, that's how you and I will be…" Now if there is no heaven, then this statement is obviously a bunch of pious nonsense, but if there is something beyond the veil, then a lullaby is an incredibly exquisite metaphor for a father seeking to deliver his precious daughter [peacefully] into the arms of the Great Hereafter.

The song "River of Dreams", which follows Lullabye, seems to be a kind of conclusion to the former narrative. It is an attempt, if you will, to describe that boundless realm that lies beyond the sleep of death (or at least sleep in general). In the interview one gets the keen sense of just how disturbed Mr. Joel is by the manner in which these two pieces of music fell into his lap- not simply because their content was "spiritual" in nature- but because he realizes that he was little more than a stenographer in the process of creating them. In fact, he seems downright annoyed by the fact- as he explains- that he felt the need to translate them into Latin and Greek, as if this were some kind of sacred work (sarcasm emphasized); "Get the f*** out of here," he says, "Is this not the most pretentious crap you've ever heard". And yet... the music continues to woo him and draw him in, in spite of all his skeptical misgivings.

The next thing you know he finds himself writing the lyrics of what would eventually become the incredibly popular "River of Dreams", a song about someone losing their faith, and ultimately finding it again. The song itself is so self-explanatory that it feels painfully redundant to even examine what the lyrics mean. Suffice to say, the song is a metaphor for life, a description of this strange pilgrimage we are all on, with all of its unconquerable mysteries, not to mention the many questions we have about our eternal destiny; "We all end in the ocean, we all start in the streams…". But what's most fascinating to me about the lyrics is the metaphor he uses surrounding his propensity for "sleep walking." In spite of his professed atheism, Mr. Joel keeps "sleep walking" back to the land of vision and faith- that mysterious reservoir from which, throughout his career, he has managed to obtain all of his inexplicable creative energy. He then goes on to comment about how "tired" he is of this inevitable nighttime excursion; "I hope it doesn't take until the end of my life to find what it is that I'm looking for." Oh my goodness, Billy! You are answering your own question! You lay out the whole thing, then you say "I don't know about life after this, God knows I've never been a spiritual man". And then you leave us with this doozy; "Baptized by fire, I wade into the river that is running to the Promised Land." I mean really? Do you hear yourself?

"I know I'm searching for something, something so undefined, that it can only be seen, by the eyes of the blind." Actually, I think you've got the "blind" part pretty well down, a pair of eyes to see what is right in front of your face might really be what is warranted here! And by the way, the whole thing seems to be pretty well defined to me. Indeed, he kind of reminds me of me looking unsuccessfully in the refrigerator for the milk when it is all too frequently right in front of me.

And as if to conclude the interview in the most ironical fashion possible, he talks about how he really did not want to write the song at first. Why? Because essentially he knew that it would become a religious song! I am reminded of Einstein rejecting the "Big Bang" theory because he feared it's religious implications. Nevertheless, in this whole process, Mr. Joel makes one tragic error. Instead of hiding under his bed, he goes straight to the shower to get it out of his system. Note to self: if you want to get rid of God, avoid water at all costs (says the entire host of hell).

Apparently, upon reaching the shower, the music becomes totally infectious. And so standing there amidst that sacred tiled cathedral, he found himself singing some combination of Gospel, Doo-Wop, the Lion Sleeps Tonight, and sacred polyphony; "I got religion in the shower… it was a spiritual thing". In another interview, he actually says he went there to "wash it away," only to discover that it had gained further momentum (see previous paragraph for avoidance of said problem). Indeed, the state of affairs is so hilarious that it practically calls to mind some combination of the 70s film "Oh God" (yes, there was a shower scene in that one as well), and the prophet Jeremiah angrily promising to never speak of God again.

"But if I say "I will not remember him, or speak in his name anymore," his word is like a fire, shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot" (Jeremiah 20:9). The song even fades out with the words "gloria...". It's almost as if Mr. Joel is experiencing some form of spiritual Tourrette's, praising God in spite of himself. The point is anyone listening to this interview, coupled with the music, cannot help seeing what Mr. Joel himself apparently cannot (or will not). Billy Joel met God in the shower that day (as awkward as that may sound), and from the sound of it, it seems he has met Him there on any number of occasions. Yet on this particular one, it seems he not only met God there, but God answered the burning question that had haunted him for so many years (viz. why do I go walking in the land of the spirit, when I am not spiritual at all).

But all of this begs the most important question of all. If God is real, then how can a man "meet God", as Joel apparently has, and not acknowledge His existence? I think the interview, once again, lends tremendous insight into this mystery. While God is clearly "wooing" Mr. Joel (using the very thing he loves the most), he is not forcing Himself on him. And while Joel seems to suspect this, he nevertheless appears to have an aversion to the whole idea. One might even say that he finds God irresistible, but would prefer in reality not to. Yet how can this be? It's simple. Religion is a bunch of "pretentious crap" (remember "Only the Good Die Young"). Joel has spent the majority of his adult life being too cool for religion, and now he's supposed to fall prostrate before a God that propagates this nonsense? That would totally kill his cool guy persona! Equally challenging, is the inevitable lifestyle change that would have to follow. Hence, in some ways it is perfectly understandable that one might be tempted to rationalize these events, as opposed to allowing one's self to be changed by them.

In fairness to Mr. Joel, he would not be the first musician to do this. John Lennon (yes it is true), briefly flirted with conversion to Christianity, but YOKO quickly put a stop to that (much like she did with the Beatles). Apparently, she even told John Lennon that if he converted people would laugh at him. And she was probably right! Some like to complain that if God would simply make the truth more evident then people would believe more (i.e. if God would do his "job", then we might do our own). However, the truth is more complicated than that. The fact is not everyone wants to believe the truth even when it is presented to them. In the Old Testament, God on the mountain of Moriah gives us a prime example of human ambivalence to divine power. The people of Israel perceive that God is on the mountain, and they actually tell Moses that they don't want God speaking to them because they are utterly afraid of Him (Exodus 20: 18-19). That's the point, we "can't handle the Truth" all at once, so what does God do, he approaches us as gently and meekly as possible through our own personal affections and experience (as he did in the case of Joel). We are like untamed animals that get scared off by even the most gentle. Thus, if we will not even permit God to approach us through the things that we love the most, how can He even begin to approach us at all?    

And while the story need not end in this way, for the moment (at least) it appears to have the contours of a tragedy. For it is very clear from these events that God loves Billy Joel dearly. What is equally clear is that Billy Joel loves the gift of music which has been bestowed upon him by God. The missing piece appears to be Mr. Joel's willingness to acknowledge the source of that gift. However, the problem isn't that God is waiting with arms crossed for Billy Joel to thank him (as if God were that petty), but rather that God is gently trying to give Billy the answers, through his preferred medium, but Mr. Joel will not accept them. Indeed, Joel seems stuck in the river of dreams, unwilling to get into that indomitable ark of Reality, and now the flood waters seem to be rising up to his neck. Hence, there is only one question that remains: will he let the river overtake him, or will he reach out to the One who in times past has been described as a Fisher of Men? I would submit to Mr. Joel that he shouldn't be too snobbish about the hand that is extended to him, simply because, if it were left up to him, he would have chosen an entirely different one.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

50 Pun-Related Church Signs That Will Make You Cringe… And Then Groan Audibly

I feel the same about church sign as I do about bumper stickers. I hate them… or maybe I love them. It's so difficult to tell the difference sometimes. In any case, one thing is certain: I love to read these signs. And this can be a dangerous thing, for much like the adolescent inclination to text while driving, I also sometimes put more emphasis on my desire to read the sign than I do focusing on what's in front of me. I recognize that this is a problem, and I am currently addressing it.  

In all seriousness though, I think the thing that makes me love these signs so much is precisely the reason I despise them. They are often clever attempts, via the shameless use of puns, to reduce some important aspect of the faith (or the entire faith) to an aphorism. And even while they succeed on some level in transmitting their message, the faith naturally becomes much easier to dismiss. Why? Because when you attempt to draw people by making them laugh, you may just as easily provoke them to "laugh it off" instead. Below you will find fifty "cringe-worthy" examples of this kind of church sign theology, messages that while memorable, are probably the last kind of thing that would actually draw people into a deeper and more abiding relationship with Jesus Christ.        

1. I have to be honest, I'm not a huge fan of dental humor. Do you think that makes me an anti-Dentite?

2. So what you're telling me is that I don't have to pray the other six days?

3. Yes, the thought of soiled diapers, and the idea of changing them, makes me feel all mystical inside.

4. …because Facebook friendship is the perfect analogy for divine love

5. I'm still not sure how this solves the problem of the sweltering heat.

6. My "efil" is just fine, thank you! It's everything else that seems out of kilter...

7. Wasn't Yoda the first to say this?

8. So what you're telling me is that the devil is like the sun, and that the Son is like a bottle of Copper-tone?

9. Finally, a cogent defense of the "missionary position"!

10. Just give me the free trip, save the details...

11. How much does it cost for a pirate to get his ears pierced (drum roll)? A buck an ear!

12. Good, because I really don't want to have to have a "face to face" right now...

13. I know it's not really a pun… but it should be.

14. When it comes to encouraging church attendance, few tactics are more effective than those involving malodorous smells

15. How bad does your English (or your southern accent) have to be for this joke to work?

16. OK, I get the simile, but what's the point?

17. First they want me to cut off my foot, then they want me to pluck out an eye, and now they're asking me to remove a vital organ? This whole Gospel thing is getting a little too macabre for me

18. Confucius say...

19. No shizzle?

20. Woah… Did you know that if you play this message backwards it makes the devil sound generous; "The devil's treat is no trick". Goosebumps!

21. Does exposure to "souler energy" result in a phenomena called "soul glow"?

22. Actually, I kind of like this one

23. Unless this church is the Church of Satan, I find it strange that this positive injunction begins with a warning...

24. Did I miss something here? Isn't "Potter" supposed to be Harry's last name, rather than his occupation? Those darn Biblical literalists... always taking things so figuratively!

25. …because thinking of myself as paper, plastic, or some other re-usable material always reminds me of my inherent worth

26. You scream, I scream, we all scream for church???

27. Tortured church sign logic: Coke is the "real thing". Jesus Christ is like Coke (which I suppose proves that he is the real thing). Therefore, come to church so that you can worship Coke and/or Jesus Christ (whichever you prefer)… because apparently these two things are practically the same.

28. Proof of hell: Simply deny the existence of Satan like the Unitarians do, and behold the kind of humor that results.

29. OK, so I threw in a synagogue!

30. Calvin Broadus -------> Snoop Dogg ----------> Snoop Lion ---------> Snoop Evangelical? 

31. Because cheap beer and the blood of Christ really do have a lot in common??? 

32. Definitely the Latin Mass crowd

33. For those who claim that puns are the lowest form of humor, this may be the best argument...

34.  My own personal math: 1 Cross + 3 Nails - 5 for Fighting = 4 Given 

35. A popular meme, within a church sign, within an embarrassing attempt to be relevant… Erfal!       

36. Pat, I think I would like to solve this puzzle...

37. Oh no, I hope heaven is nothing like MySpace, for if it is, then there's probably no one there...

38. (how the sign should finish) …with sex, music, dancin', and all that other devilly stuff 

39. Uh, I think that's part of the problem already...

40. Does that mean then that toast is like the Anti-Bread?

41. Thus spake the rapper Chamillionaire... 

42. Did God divorce my mother?

43. So does that mean that Satan is a slide ruler?

44. Yeah, but only if I move there! Duh.

45. I'm sorry I have real trust issues with meteorologists

46. Okay kay. 

47. Stop worrying so much about my "wrinkly burdens", and get thee to a speech therapist 

48.  A sign guaranteed to bring people to church for all the right reasons...

49. A billboard absolutely reeking of desperation. So tell me, where do I sign up?

50. Wait a second Lutheran church, since when did you start promoting works' righteousness?

Bonus Sign:

51. Now that's a stinging critique. How about this one? The opportunity to have a "fourth marriage" would be largely inconceivable without the help of King Henry VIII. Thank you Episcopal Church.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Video That Makes A Convincing Case for Atheism… Or Does It?

Before anything else, let me begin by pointing out what this video does exceptionally well. First of all, it correctly points out the problem with private revelation (i.e. the idea that "God spoke to me and told me to do such and such"). It may be true or not that God spoke to you, but that surely cannot be binding for everyone (at least not in the manner that it is presented here). The second rhetorically effective tactic (other than making everyone look as stupid and irrational as possible) is the video's critique of the divisions among religious groups. The scandal of division and the reality of sectarian violence is not an atheist plot, it is rather a painful fact that must be acknowledged in its own right. What is questionable is the suggestion that all religions are equally violent. You might just as well say that every philosophy is equally violent. To the contrary, some ideas are naturally more conducive to freedom and dignity than others (whether religious or secular). In any case, what I would like to offer here is a counter-response to what I would regard as a formidable challenge, a general defense of all religious groups (at least those who clearly profess a faith in a good God), as well as a more specific attempt to argue a unified theory of Faith/Truth. After all, is that not what this atheist is trying to argue; a universal objective norm without God; a Catholic Faith without Christ.    

1. What sort of atheist are we dealing with here?

I would not regard this atheist as a nihilist (at least not on the surface), for he clearly subscribes to a kind of positivistic view of the world, a belief that the most important answers to life are to be found in mathematical computations and scientific observation. From his perspective, science and empiricism are what unifies everyone, while religion and dogma are what divides us. Science is objective and universal, while religion is subjective and local. Interestingly, this self-proclaimed humanist wants us all to believe in a truly objective and "catholic" worldview…. so long as that worldview doesn't actually happen to be Catholic. In any event, there is only one problem with this kind of secular humanism: "man cannot live by math alone"!

2. Can life be reduced to a math equation?

To say that math and/or empiricism answers every big question in life is little bit like saying that the key to happiness is a good diet. "Dad, what's the meaning of life? Why am I lonely? What is beauty and why does it make me weep sometimes? How do you determine what is right and wrong? Why does love change everything? Well son, I'm not sure about all that, but what I can tell you is this: 2+2 = 4, and don't forget, too many carbs will cause you to pack on the pounds." Thanks so much dad… said the mechanical robot boy who did not have a soul. Look, who the heck disagrees with the proposition that math works, or that science can teach you many things about life, or even that technology can bring about cultural and social progress? Unless you are a Luddite, or you despise the intellect altogether, you are not likely to disagree with such things, religious or not. Still, does anyone really believe in their heart of hearts that you can live life without addressing these larger issues? One must live in an incredibly narrow world in order to believe that a biological explanations alone can address every important issue. Ironically, an individual who argues this will often mock religious fundamentalism, even while neglecting to see that he or she pretty much does the same thing on the opposite end of the spectrum.

3. Are religious people always anti-intellectual?

Pretending that most religious folks (with a few notable exceptions) despise science and math is a little bit like going to a Catholic school and ridiculing them for only teaching theology. If this were actually the case, then why would so many parents send their kids to such an institution (including atheist parents)? So the problem here is not that most religious schools are only focused on "religion", but rather that atheists are fixated on the sciences to the exclusion of every other subject. My question is: can you really regard yourself as a true "humanist," when by your own admission you have absolutely no interest in the "humanities" (i.e. literature, art music, history, and philosophy)?!

If ever there were a false syllogism, it is the following: I believe in math and science, therefore God does not exist. Well, I've got news for you, I believe in God precisely because math and science do work. In other words, if there were not a Higher Order or a Higher Rationality, then how would we even begin to create a systematic approach to these fields? Indeed, how would we even begin to invent formulas where no "form" really existed at all? Here is my formula. Where there is science, order is implied.  

4. Does diversity of creed effectively debunk religion?

According to the creator of this video, diversity of creed is tantamount to contradiction, and therefore the fomenter of violence. If everyone would simply pursue scientific uniformity most of the world's problems would immediately go away. We have seen already (thank you) what this sort of mechanized uniformity looks like, and its got totalitarian written all over it. Did nobody read 1984, Brave New World, and/or every other science fiction novel ever written? Or look at it this way, when scientists and mathematicians get together and decide that they are the absolute arbiters of what is right and wrong, should we expect anything less than a cold Darwinian view of life? "Springtime for Hitler and Germany...". In fairness, we have also witnessed such extreme uniformity and barbarism meted out in the name of religion (most recently the group ISIS comes to mind). Nevertheless, such totalitarianism has never cared much where its power or justification came from- only that it had a mandate to accomplish its cruelty.

"In the United States you call God 'Yahweh' (we do?), in India 'Vishnu'… This is not how truth works." he cooly declares. Let's follow this logic. In the United States there is one type of meat called "sausage"- in Mexico, it's called "salchicha". "That isn't how the truth works, therefore sausages do not exist!" Yes, 99.5% of the people that have ever lived on the face of this planet have believed in some kind of Deity, and finally the secular humanist comes along and declares that he can deliver us from our ignorance. And what does this man offer us in exchange for our belief in a personal immortality??? The truly exhilarating notion that we are all little more than a bag of meat, floating through space, destined to fall back into the nothingness from whence we came? Thank you atheism! Actually, when I consider this mentality, the band Pink Floyd comes to mind; "And did they get you to trade, your heroes for ghosts; hot ashes for trees; hot air for a cool breeze… And did you exchange, a walk on part in the war, for a lead role in a cage?"

5. Is the "faith obeys borders" argument a solid one?

It is true to say, as the video clearly suggests, that a man often accepts the values with which he is presented. And your point? Sure, anybody who is raised with any values whatsoever will inevitably be raised with those values. You could say that about anything at all, math and science notwithstanding. However, if a society is to advance in any regard, someone from the outside (or inside) must propose a new and better way. Subsequently, if you critique religion with a criticism that would (and does in fact) apply to your own argument, then that qualifies as a weak argument.                   

6. Does the fact that various world religions contradict one another serve to undermine their claim to truth?

Perhaps the strongest argument he makes in this video is something that seems potentially impossible to refute… because in a sense it is impossible to refute. The argument goes something like this: Yes, there may be a few things in common among religions, but in the end they hold too many contradictory positions, and if God were real, then knowing him would/should not be so complicated. Therefore, as a consequence of this lack of clarity and simplicity, we can safely conclude that religion must be a lie.

To the contrary, the only thing this proves is that humanity has a difficult time figuring out precisely who or what God is (see Crash Test Dummies "God Shuffled His Feet"). One might attribute this failed communique to one of any number of things (sin and free will, for example). But whatever the reason for the breakdown, one thing is certain: if God is indeed the Author of all things, all sciences, all math, all knowledge, known and unknown (see quantum mechanics), would it not make sense that his full identity would elude our extremely diminutive minds? When imagining the prospect of coming face to face with the Author of Life, I can envision nothing short of a mind-blowing experience… quite literally (actually, I think of Raiders of the Lost Ark). So no, it is not perfectly obvious what God is, nor does it seem rational to think that the Maker of all things- both visible and invisible- could be summed up in a neat and tidy little formula. In fact, Jesus himself expressed it this way; "There are many things that I have to say to you, but you cannot bear them right now"(John 16:12-13). This would have to be the understatement for the ages.

7. Does the Christian Faith provide a unified theory of Truth?

Perhaps the best way to make my point is by using a metaphor that would be most agreeable to the one with whom I am disagreeing. How many fits and starts, valiant- though wildly inaccurate- efforts has the human race made (and continues to make) in the hope of figuring out precisely why the world and cosmos are the way they are? How much time is required to build a system of science which properly corresponds to the nature of reality, all while recognizing that our scientific models will never be wholly adequate? Indeed, modern scientists seem to have an incredibly short memory when it comes to this reality, for a great deal of what was presumed a verity only two hundred years ago, would be laughed at in many respects today. So yes, time is required to make this happen, not to mention common sense, a stable society, and reasonable thinking. If this is the case with something like science, how much more would it be true for a Being who is the one behind science itself (and everything else)? Therefore, it follows that in spite of man's best attempts (i.e. his best religious guesses) he could not bridge this gap on his own. Consequently, God recognized the necessity of revealing Himself and His plan to humanity. And no, you do not have to believe in God to recognize that if He does exist he would inevitably be far more complex and mind-blowing than anything he created.

Unlike what is depicted in this video, the purpose of God's revelation in Christianity is not for "private use only", it is fundamentally a public event. It is in the end meant to be the ultimate "unifying theory", a "truth without borders". Incidentally, no other religion is intrinsically evangelistic in this way (i.e. none really commands its adherents to spread the message to the ends of the earth). Furthermore, it is the only religion that is credibly founded on the notion that God Himself came in the flesh and spoke directly to mankind (as opposed to coming in the form of some some sort of disembodied voice).

This is the purpose of the Incarnation. It is not fundamentally a private experience, or simply a personal message, but rather a concrete historical event, a direct response to something very basic and universal: death and mortality. So the message itself was important, but even more important was the reality behind message: (i.e. salvation from death). The confusion within the Christian Faith is in many ways an in-house fight, consisting of differences that could be ultimately remedied. The question is would this video even exist were it not for the apathy and divisions within the Christian Faith itself (that's a question for Christians)? As primitive science is to modern science, so also is man's attempt to figure out who God is without revelation. Such a venture is impossible without God Himself personally articulating it to us. And since man did not make himself, he needs the one made him to come and tell him precisely who he is, not to mention what he was made for.

The confusion that comes from the proliferation of religions is without a doubt the Devil's best weapon, and the Gospel's greatest enemy. However, in a house of mirrors, the fact that you have trouble identifying the actual person who cast the original reflection does not therefore mean that there is no one casting it in the first place. Confusion, yes. Division, yes. But you cannot have division without the implication that there is some original Unity at the back of it all. This is the unified theory that the Catholic Church proposes to the world; this is the objective truth offered as a remedy to the universal scourge we call death; the notion that on his own, Man, much like Plato suggests in his "Cave" allegory, can only begin to guess at what all of the shadows projected against the wall of the cave might mean, or as St. Paul puts it, "For now I see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known (1 Corinthians 13:12). The truth is if Christ did not ultimately come to save humanity from sin and death, then not only is religion a hoax and a waste of time, but so is science and math, for what could be more tragic and pitiful than a man conducting a bunch of science experiments in a world that is little more than one giant mortuary.