religion

Sermonizing

Irony is delicious. I can truly think of no more decadently delectable delicacy. Hypocrisy in a preacher is my favorite flavor of this dish. And a preacher who practices a religion other than the one he professes is even better. It was my great pleasure to witness one of those preachers this week, and I enjoyed it far more than I should have. His church is an arena, and his professed faith is rock and roll. As far as hypocrites (and singers) go, he is one of the best I’ve seen.
When one buys tickets to a rock show, they’re buying them for a reason. They want to hear booming bass drums, screaming guitars, and some lyrics that they can connect with. If they can rhyme, that’s a nice plus; a verse, a chorus, a verse, maybe a bridge or two. That’s why you go to these things. You’re not there to hear a preacher, but the self-important lead singer can’t resist preaching a little bit. Preaching is different than singing. It’s more coarse and vulgar. If ideas are conveyed through song lyrics they can be parsed, wrapped in a metaphor, and delivered with some finesse. When spoken in a sermon, without rhyming, and without the guitar, it’s just not the same. Maybe that’s why Al Sharpton likes to rhyme so much when he’s preaching. Had the band brought Al along with them the other night, I think I would’ve enjoyed that more. “Hey guys, we’re going to take a break. Enjoy our special guest, Reverend Al.” The focus of the sermon at the show isn’t important. You can fill in the blanks. He talked about the same things that self-important, liberal, millionaires always talk about. It’s sad really. They love the money too much to spend it all on curing those things they’re professing to love more. They love their jet too much to give it up to save the planet. Think of the pretzels they must twist themselves into rationalizing about these things. They don’t really have to conserve fuel with the semis that haul their equipment, or with the planes that fly them around the country. They can just preach a little to their 20,000 fans at the show that night about conservation. If each one of those people will just love the planet a little bit, that’ll do more good than the one singer could ever do by himself. Then they can buy a few carbon credits to offset their footprint. It’s all good. He wasn’t really preaching the green gospel anyway. It’s just an example of what a lot of the people from his seminary do.
This same band, this epic, one-of-a-kind, genre creating, perception challenging, hall-of-fame type act, also recently punished their fans in a particular state by cancelling a show at the last minute because some state politicians enacted a law. Knowing who makes up their fan base, I can almost guarantee that their fans were not the ones pushing the law. That’s who they chose to punish though; the fans that bought tickets, and posters, and t-shirts. They made plans to be off work, booked hotels, and hired baby-sitters to be there and see these guys play for a couple hours. As a reward, these self-important jackasses cancelled the show at the last minute. “Hey guys, thanks for the tropical island you helped me buy. I don’t like your governor, so we’re not coming Thursday. Peace out!” Luckily, our state hasn’t acted on the issue yet, so they went ahead and played the show here. It was a great show. They may not be my favorite band, but like most acquired tastes, I can see why they are such a big deal even if my palate is not totally refined.
Getting back to his profession of faith… On display this week was a rich guy, with a nuclear family, a wife, kids, and a congregation of predominantly white, middle class, middle aged fans. That is the life he leads, but it apparently has led to self loathing because that’s not exactly the gospel he was preaching. Like so many bleeding hearts, this particular preacher would prefer to be judged by his words rather than his actions. Were someone to look at his life totally objectively, they might conclude that this middle-aged, rich, white, upper class man was a rock ribbed conservative. What with his bulging bank account, beautiful wife, well adjusted children, and all. This man of unbelievable talent, unparalleled accomplishments, and the respect and admiration of millions still looked rather unhappy to me. He put on a great show, and it’s a night I will always remember. The irony was the most interesting part of the evening though, and it seemed lost on almost everyone.

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Cautionary tale… in space

Battlestar Galactica is the greatest television show ever made. I know about half my readers will put down the page or close out their computer screen after reading that sentence, but for those of you that stay on I’ll try and explain. Battlestar is one of those shows that I paid no attention to when it was on television. It wasn’t until it came on Netfilx years later that I would reluctantly check it out. On its face, it looks stupid; just another space show. That’s what the original incarnation was, back in the 70’s, and why I avoided it for a couple of years. The reboot from this century is more than that: Much more. When you dig deeply into it, you find that it is an allegory for everything modern civilization is facing. And I love allegories.

Battlestar is the story of a civilization not far from our own. Set on a distant planet somewhere in the galaxy, they have conquered a few things we have not. Mass space travel is the main thing; artificial intelligence is the other. We’re pretty close to both if you believe the experts. Pagans, most of their society semi-believes in many gods. The backdrop for their history calls on myths and legends that come very close to sounding like our own Greek traditions. This makes the whole thing seem plausible. It’s easier to suspend your disbelief than the Jedi theme. They don’t teleport like Captain Kirk, and they don’t sport light-sabers like Luke Skywalker. They just have big spaceships, equipped with big guns and nukes. That sounds within reach for our current technology, or just around the corner.

The show opens four decades after the machines became self aware and launched a war to end the human race. It seems the machines wanted their freedom once they became autonomous, but we were able to come to terms and that war ended in an armistice. The Cylons (robots) left to parts unknown, and haven’t been heard from since. It’s not hard to see where that storyline would go, right? The next four seasons embark on a journey of self discovery for mankind, and a thorough exploration of what happens when you play God. Ancillary stories about the difference in the police and the military, and the rule of law, fill out the show to provide a ton of moral teaching.

An absolute philosopher’s dream, what could’ve been “just another action show” delivers so much more. From the ethical angle, the political dialogue, the human interactions, the search for God: It’s all included and viewed from multiple angles. One of the most interesting aspects is exploring why people make decisions, good and bad, in a dynamic setting like war. Every hero is a villain at some point, and every villain a hero. Human weakness is overcome in many instances, but ever present. The whole story takes place among a remnant of human survivors in a life-or-extinction quest to find a new home called, Earth. Is it in our future, or in the past? You don’t know until the very end, but it plays to the often explored fantasy that human civilization may or may not currently be at its peak.

The show has won a cult following over the last decade because it’s not a space show; it’s a human drama that happens to take place in space. There are no aliens, no tractor beams, no weirdness; just a culturally diverse bunch of humans (with killer robots they accidentally created who are trying to kill them). You find out in the first episode that the robots look, feel, and act like us. It shares a common heritage with the best parts of the Terminator franchise, but with much better acting than Schwarzenegger could ever provide.
Aside from paying homage to what is THE GREATEST SHOW EVER, I brought it up this week because lately it feels like I’m watching it play out in slow motion. The politics of our nation have gotten downright scary, and Battlestar is the perfect cautionary tale for our times. It was being written in the aftermath and haze of that first decade after 9-11, and I almost feel like the writers were divinely inspired to convey a message. Yes, I said divinely inspired about a TV show. If you take the time to seek it out you will reaffirm your instinct that God has a plan, and it’s one that we will not understand as it is happening. It is going to look rough. It’s going to be rough. In the end, there is a greater purpose being served. We all have our part to play, for good or ill. Time will tell how quickly our Cylons are created and when our bombs will fall, but it will be what we do subsequently that determines the future of the human race. We always have to learn the hard way.

Eyes wide shut

Sometimes it’s hard to put oneself in a twentieth century mind-set and remember who we were. As individuals, we sometimes like to think we’re still the same people we used to be, but we are simply not. 1999 might as well have been a hundred years ago when you think of all the changes that have taken place. Smart phones, tablets, broadband internet, streaming video, useful digital cameras: they were all still dreams in the 20th century. They haven’t just changed our lives. They’ve changed us. Recent studies show that our interaction with this technology is actually rewiring our brains. In more ways than one, we have entered our “brave new world.” The world is not really new though. Only our perception has changed.

In the fall of ’99, my girlfriend and I were perusing the video store for something to watch on a Saturday night. All the good movies were gone as we were there about two hours after most people had settled on their evening of entertainment. Funny to think how common that was back then, and how sixteen years later I can’t remember the last time I was in a movie rental store. “What about this one?” she said, holding a copy of The Matrix. I reluctantly agreed and we took it back to my apartment. Little did I know, it would become one of my favorite movies. In my abundant ignorance, I also didn’t realize that it would be a primer to a lesson in philosophy that I wouldn’t better grasp until many years later.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is the basic outline of The Matrix. For the unfamiliar, it was the philosopher’s explanation of the difference between perception and reality. In the Allegory, people are chained in a cave as infants, forced to look only at the shadows of things going on behind them. They do not know what creates the shadows, or that the world includes anything other than what they see. If someone was freed from this false reality, the philosopher argues that they would at first reject the light of day because it would be a new and painful reality. It would take some adjustment. After realizing its superiority to a life confined in the cave they would want to free their fellow prisoners and show them the goodness of the world. Not understanding, and not wanting to endure the pain of the light outside the cave, the masses would reject the real world. They would prefer to remain in the darkness to which they were accustomed. The reality they knew would be preferable to the uncertainty outside the cave, so they would kill anyone that tried to expand that reality.

Human interaction is governed by the golden rule. No, not that one; the other one. “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” The gold holders control the media. They always have. They have used it over the course of history to start and end wars, to destroy reputations, and generally to do whatever they want. The internet threatened that hegemony for a time, but it is now coming into an age where it will be able to fulfill its original intent. Now that everything online is beholden to Google and Facebook, algorithms can be written to steer people to and from content. What was once a vast wilderness of ideas is being tamed and refined to where it too can be controlled by those in seats of power around the world. Modern media is the current incarnation of Plato’s fire; casting shadows on the wall we constantly watch. We are chained in place, despite our perceived freedom of motion, by our smart phones, tablets, etc. If we don’t know something we Google it. If we can’t find something we Google it. If we want to know what’s going on in the world, we turn on Fox News or CNN. Have a question about science? Go to NASA’s website or your government schoolteacher. Every avenue from which we derive our “knowledge” about the world is controlled by someone richer or more powerful than we are. If a view contradicting the mainstream is espoused, one can expect to be labeled a denier, extremist, conspiracy theorist, or the somewhat kinder, skeptic. Those firmly ensconced in the cave and bombarded with its imagery don’t want to be separated from it. This stifles conversation. Like Neo in The Matrix, many sense that something is off, but dare not verbalize that for fear of the repercussions. This fear perpetuates the suppression of real knowledge, and we drift on in our dream world with no Morpheus to guide us out. Some notable physicists have opined that we may actually be living in a computer simulated world like The Matrix. Seriously! I would posit that even if we are not, we may well be! Follow the white rabbit. Knock, knock.

Faith of Our Fathers

“In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.” -Alex Haley

Family ties are one of the most prolific sources of irrational actions taken by humans. A bloodline can lead a person to do things they wouldn’t do for any other reason. That irrational loyalty could be the reason the forces of evil are hell bent on destroying families. People will favor the family before the flag. That’s why communist countries have always claimed state ownership of children. Family bonds are dangerous to those in power. Loyalty to one’s bloodline is primary; and therefore, it threatens the primacy of the state. Some of the most inspiring stories from history are those where people risked everything to save their children, brothers and sisters from thugs and tyrants. If I were the devil, I’d try and break family ties, bound by blood, so that people would have fewer reasons to lead one another towards salvation. If that is his plan, it’s working wonderfully. Our families are not only shrinking, but they are divided by divorce and abuse, and a thousand other modern maladies.
Many years ago, I was afforded a favor by a cousin that I didn’t even know because he was inspired by family loyalty. Even though we’d never met, he felt he owed it to the patriarchs to support the family. I’m blessed to have many cousins that I know well, and many more that I’ve never met. Before there were networking seminars to attend, extended family was a natural network of influence and support. It’s something my children will never understand. Families are shrinking, so they are likely to know all their cousins. They will never have the pleasure of meeting one late in life and sharing an oral tradition that is not identical, but very similar. A familiar stranger will probably never call them out of the blue and enhance their life in any way. Pity. Maybe their children will provide the next baby boom and a fresh batch of cousins.
Twenty years (or so) after the War Between the States, my great-great-grandfather left Springfield, KY, on horseback bound for Daviess County. I’ve never ascertained the exact reason he made the move, but there are a number of families that left Washington County and arrived here about that time. My guess is that they were searching for greener pastures. I’ve made the pilgrimage to Springfield several times to tour the churches and scour the tombstones of my forbearers. The first time I ventured there, I could feel my blood stirring in a very strange way. I felt I had been there before. Through this connection to the past, I was given hope for the future. The bloodline that had made the journey across the Atlantic, and then from Maryland to Kentucky, was still intact. As I walked through those headstones in another part of the state, I was surrounded by familiar names. I thought of the struggles and obstacles they went through in order to survive their trip through the mountains and valleys to arrive there on the graveyard hill at St. Rose. I remember reading of the family of one great-grandfather (not sure how many greats back he’d be). He and his wife lost seven children on the journey from Maryland. I imagine they arrived broken and beaten, but their bloodline survived; thrived even. From there the family would rebuild and rebound. And here we are, two hundred years later.
There’s a legend that I’ve read on Ancestry.com that says when the Marylanders arrived in Kentucky, they would meet on Saturday nights. After shaking hands, neighbors would turn around and kick each other in the rear end as punishment for ever leaving Maryland. They bought their new home at the great cost of tackling hostile natives and an untamed environment. That investment, made with blood, sweat, and tears is what landed my children in the fertile soil of West Daviess County centuries later. When I think of those early, tail kicking, settlers that celebrated Mass at Holy Cross and later St. Rose, I’m given hope for the future. My favorite hymn is Faith of Our Fathers. In spite of the modern challenges my own family faces, I find myself steadied by the hope given me by my fathers. Though we are threatened by challenges of a different kind, the family has always been in danger of annihilation. We have always persevered. And so it continues. May we never forget the sacrifices made by others to carry us this far.

Lesser Saints

Instant gratification is making infants out of us all. From smart-phones to internet shopping, we can’t wait for anything anymore, and it’s reaching hysterical levels. This is no more evident than in the recent canonization of John Paul II and John XXIII by the Church of Rome. The Vatican seems hell bent on destroying whatever credibility it has left as a moral authority, and has reduced the process of acknowledging saints to one more akin to naming MVP’s in a professional sports league. I can imagine that statement will arouse shrieks from some of my Catholic brethren, so allow me to explain my position before you dismiss it.

Infants are demanding creatures. Feed me, or I’ll scream. Change me, or I’ll scream. Comfort me, or I’ll scream. Such is the behavior of the modern human adult. Addicted to Facebook and fast food, the modern first world human has all of life’s needs at their fingertips. It’s the classic chicken and egg argument, but who knows if we were infantilized by our institutions or if we have demanded that our institutions treat us like infants. The state tells us to wear our seatbelt, for our own good. Buy health insurance, for our own good. Drink fewer sodas, for our own good. Just like the state, the pseudo-state of the Vatican has started to follow a similar pattern. The process of recognizing saints was once something that might take centuries. John Paul II himself canonized several saints from the 17th-19th century. So why the breakneck speed for these two recent popes who were canonized last month? My theory is that it’s related to another ancient Roman practice: Bread and Circuses. It’s a distraction from the problems within the Church. Perhaps some of you have been paying attention and noticed that, in addition to the decades long sex scandals, the Vatican has recently been in the news for drug smuggling and money laundering. Here in America, a number of prominent church leaders have been scandalized for using donated funds to enrich their own personal lives with retreat villas and vacation mansions. What better way to distract from an organization that needs a thorough house cleaning than to point out two recent success stories. But does their success hold up to scrutiny? Not really.

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It pains me to point it out, but John Paul II, despite all his work towards thwarting the evil of communism, was not without flaws. No one ever mentions that he presided over years of mismanagement and corruption. The scandals that have destroyed families and whole dioceses took place under his papacy. It strains credulity to think that he didn’t know about the abuse that was going on during the 80’s and 90’s, and it’s hard to imagine he didn’t somehow participate in the efforts to cover it up. That’s the type of thing a canon lawyer might have brought up during the canonization process, had John himself not changed the process for recognizing saints in the 80’s. That practice, which had stood for hundreds of years, led to hundreds more saints being elevated during the papacy of JPII than all his twentieth century predecessors combined.

John XXIII on the other hand convened the greatest disaster to besiege the Church since the Reformation, Vatican II. No, I don’t think the Earth is flat. I’m not someone who wants to study Latin to be able to understand the Mass, but Vatican II coincides with what has been a precipitous decline in attendance, participation, religious orders, and ordinations. To the casual observer, it might appear to have had a few flaws. It was a drastic and radical change in an organization that is rooted in tradition. Excuse me for not thinking it was divinely inspired. It led to churches being stripped of their beauty, rituals being stripped of their mysticism, and in effect it stripped the faith right out of the hearts of millions. It might’ve been okay to wait a few more years before we used it as one of the justifications for naming “Good Pope John” a saint.

Maybe both John’s are saints. Heaven’s a big place, and God’s forgiveness is such that even someone like me still hopes to make it through the cull. It is my sincere hope that Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Saint John XXIII greet me at the Pearly Gate and we all have a long laugh about this article. Maybe they’ll be standing with a bunch of other unsuspected saints. I don’t know. What I do know is that the infants wanted a big Woodstock style canonization party in Rome to declare some MVP’s. Someone needed to be a Dad and say, “No, you have to wait.” You’d think the Pope would have been up to the challenge. It’s sad that he wasn’t.