Sunday, December 13, 2009


I have a story to tell.

I have many stories, and anyone close to me knows this. They also probably know all of my stories. Or so they think. They know the stories I like to tell.

But this one isn't my story. It's a story about humanity. I think the path to forgive and resolve is a very hard path, and a dangerous path. It's not pretty, and the truth is a gory thing sometimes. When you forgive once, you are probably going to have to forgive over and over, and again and again, because people aren't perfect, and will continue to stumble and hurt you, even if they don't know why they're doing so. So people don't forgive. Or, better phrased, we have to learn the skill to look beyond ourselves to have compassion on our enemies. Because to our enemies, WE are the enemy. There's two sides to every story.

I did one of the scariest things I had ever done this week, and chose to talk to two people that I could have easily avoided. From it I have learned many things: one is that the sheer force of the words that human beings say to one another is... mind-boggling. Especially when it involves people you love. Wow. It's a power that can destroy a person. I've also realized it can be used to tremendous good, if it can be used properly. I say that with writing, the pan is mightier than the sword, so one must learn to wield it. I think of my writing sometimes as a force that exists outside of myself, because I will plunge into something, with no idea what will come out, and the deeper I sink into the thoughts and ideas, the more complex, but at the same time, eloquent, even beautiful and window-shattering will the truth ring out. It's something that exists outside of myself, and whispers the ideas in my ear as I copy them down. Terrifying, and great at the same time, I think. The truth is terrifying, and gory. The truth is the pain that is felt, and the courage in confronting. The truth is what has happened out of everything, whether it's good, or terrible. The truth is the reaction.

And reconciliation is a hard path to tread. If you forgive once, you can expect to forgive a hundred times for the same thing. It's a hard and fruitless path. It means hashing to death issues that normal people never choose to even look at, or acknowledge. And it means loneliness, and not much support, especially when people don't understand why reconciliation needs to be chosen. I mean, we always say "forgive, forgive," yet it is VERY hard to forgive. And it is hard to confront someone, tell them they are doing something wrong, and then listen to their story, challenge them, and the forgive them for how they've hurt you. But if that lesson is learned, then one learns the truest essence of what it means to love someone, because it is then when we transcend beyond ourselves into the lives of others and have compassion regardless of the self. I have learned a lot, and I know not yet how to even comprehend enough to articulate the lessons I have been shown. But what I have learned, is the simple answer to the question, why take the path to reconcile and forgive and fix, if it is such a hard and fruitless path? Simply because it is RIGHT, and that reason alone is more than sufficient.

I have been brave, and it was a very kind of brave.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Doubt and faith (AKA probably my most controversial essay)

I submitted this film analysis essay to my religion and film class. It's quite controversial, and I thought I'd share it. :)

Also. I haven't fallen off any boat. Don't jump to conclusions.

Instead of an essay, I would like to share a story. This is a very old story, and like all old, good stories, it begins with “Once upon a time”: Once upon a time, there was religion. (Actually, I change my mind. For irony’s sake, let’s start with, “In the beginning?” ) In the beginning, there was religion. Religion was a sense of morality; this idea that maybe there were some things that were right, and some things that were wrong, and more than that, a motivation to do the right thing, because there was a God who wanted people to be good, and to do the right thing, and He wanted them to do this because He loved good and hated evil and thus wanted His people to be good, and promised them eternity in Heaven if they were to be good.

Unfortunately, people were confused by this simple idea of being good: instead of striving for goodness, people thought that being good consisted in a set of rules and practices that had to be adhered to, and if they weren’t then you were bad, and thus doomed to eternity of torment in Hell. These rules involved big things such as not killing each other, or committing adultery, but it also involved smaller things: examples of these things include drinking alcohol, swearing, and listening to rock n’ roll. The people who attempted to follow these rules and laid judgment upon those who didn’t became known as Pharisees, or Fundamentalists, depending on which era you lived in. The people who could tell the difference between being good and following the rules, and figured out how to be good, became known as Saints. There existed a third group that stemmed from this idea about religion. These people were different because unlike the Fundamentalist group, they were honest and vulnerable about their imperfections. This is a group of people that would say, “Yes, I have thought about having sex with that person, and I swore loudly when I stubbed my toe in the doorway. Sorry. At least I’m honest about it.”

This story is about that third group of people; the group that swore loudly when they stubbed their toe in the doorway. The funny thing about this third group is that many human beings fall into this category, or half of it. We are all sinners. We have all, to different degrees, lied, cheated, stolen, swore and listened to rock n’ roll. The main characters in this story are two people who have done all of that, and go so far as to fulfill the other half of the requirements for “third category” membership, and be open and honest about it. Their names are Bill Maher and Kevin Smith. Another thing they have in common, besides being part of the “Open and honest about our sins” club, is that they made movies about how open and honest they are about the fact that they struggle with this idea of religion, and aren’t very good at following the rules, nor are they inspired enough to become Saints. Those movies are called Religulous, and Dogma, respectively. What both of these movies show is that it is through that open and honest vulnerability that faith is found, and a potentially deeper understanding of who God is – a god of the lonely and vulnerable, not a god of the perfect and beautiful. The author must also add – as a devout Roman Catholic that lives at an Evangelical Protestant Bible College, these movies were highly enjoyed and many laughs were had from both of them.

Born to a Catholic mother and Jewish father, Bill Maher went to a Catholic church until he was about thirteen, when his family stopped attending for no apparent reason. In his film, Religulous, he interviews people from all of the main religious groups, or, more or less, shoots down their ideas, and does a good job of pointing out the ridiculousness in their beliefs in a merciless and hilarious fashion. He inserts film clips, interrupts, adds subtitles, and successfully paints his interviewees in a less than favorable fashion. In Bill’s defense, some of them did have it coming, however. In an interview with the US Senator from Arkansas, Bill states that he is troubled that people who are responsible for running the country believe in the existence of talking snakes, to which the Senator replies, “You don’t have to pass an IQ test to win the election.” This is just one example, but in most of his interviews, he points out the hypocrisy in the actions of faithful people causing them to stumble. Whether it is the pastor sporting a two-thousand dollar suit and lizard-skin shoes funded by his congregation, or the Jewish scientists who create machines that allow you to do activities on Shabbat without breaking Jewish law, the people on Bill’s hit list are most certainly people that Christians, Jews, Muslims, and the like would probably be upset to be identified with. Not all Christians are fundamentalists. Not all Muslims are violent. Not all religious people are ignorant and naïve. But Bill didn’t seem to find those people while he was on his spiritual journey of sorts.

Kevin Smith’s Dogma, as he claimed in an essay that was inserted into the special edition DVD case, was a way to reach out to people using crude humor and a lot of swear words as the medium for the gospel to be preached. Dogma is a comedy about the Catholic Church and all of its many, and sometimes confusing doctrines. Whether it’s the plenary indulgence loophole that can allow two fallen angels back into Heaven, or the bishop’s “Catholicism WOW!” campaign with their new “Buddy Christ” figure to replace the somber-looking crucifix, any Catholic can’t help but either chuckle, or become extremely offended. But amidst the crude humor, lewd jokes and religious prods, one scene came to the surface in the movie that emerged as a deeply human and surprisingly vulnerable scene that sent home the central message of the movie.

An extremely inebriated Bethany Sloane is talking to the (unbeknownst to her) fallen angel Bartleby when he asks her how she loses her faith. Her faith was lost apparently when her mother tells her in one of her darkest moments that it was all part of God’s plan. “Wasn’t my plan good enough?” She asks. In asking this question, what she fails to realize is that much of humanity is asking the same question. Bill Maher is asking that question, as is Kevin Smith, and many other people. As Bill says at the end of his movie, the only thing we can have is doubt. Doubt is humble, and it is really all that we, as small human beings can possess the authority to claim. The people that Bill interviewed did not have doubt, nor did they have faith for that matter. They knew. Bill interviewed an actor, who played Jesus at the Holy Land Experience in Florida, and he asked the faux Jesus why God didn’t just kill Satan and destroy all evil if He was so powerful and all-knowing, to which the ironically-handsome Jesus replied, “Oh he will, at the end times! [Duh, like you didn’t know that?]”

The certainty that Bill’s interviewees had about the existence of God, or even the existence of Jesus, completely eradicated the possibility for them to have any faith at all. Their happy assurance, and their confidence that what they are all doing is right and good and that they are going to go to heaven, “And ride down at the end times on a white horse!” one tourist at the Holy Land Experience said, made them look all the more foolish because they missed completely the central tenet to Christianity: faith. “Faith is the realization of things hoped for and evidence of things unseen.” No religious person knows that God exists, or that salvation is assured. Having the audacity to claim that you know all of the answers is prideful and foolish. What we have is faith, and hope that what is being promised will indeed come to pass. Faith is what is most important, not the naïve certainty that Bill’s interviewees had, but the faith that Bethany Sloane in Dogma had as she cried out her anger to God when she found out she was the remaining descendant of Christ, and didn’t feel a scrap of worthiness for what she was called to do.

At the end of his movie, Bill claimed that religion not only is wrong, but also is dangerous for all of humanity. But it is religion without faith that is dangerous. When one does not have faith and is religious, they have the conviction that the people in Religulous had. It would not be that far of a stretch to say it is that kind of close-minded conviction that fuels religious wars and persecution of other faiths. That is what is dangerous. When Bill was interviewing the Jesus persona, he asked him about other religions having stories about a savior born to a virgin, to which the Florida Jesus replied, “Well, I choose to follow the true word of God.” Completely dismissing stories from other religions that have the same authority of truth that the gospels have: nothing but faith.

Is it not a miracle unto itself that so many religions, many of which had never interacted with each other, hold true to very similar stories of a downfall of man and the hope of a savior? Is it not truly amazing that there is almost a universal story of a messiah born to a virgin that dies, is resurrected, and consequently saves humanity? This is a universal tale of a humanity that is concerned with an apparent break, a discontent and realization that things are not as they should be, and the hope that there must be something more, and something that can save us. The fact that all religions have this, and tell it in the same sort of way, is astounding, to say the least. It is bold to claim that one religion is the exclusive or right religion. Even though Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to the Father but through me.”(John 14:6) it is far-fetched to believe then that the thousands of years worth of people who had never heard the name of Christ are thus doomed to hell because they were born in a different part of the world than where Christianity spread. But the close-minded conviction that everyone who has not heard the name of Jesus are doomed, and everyone who has not accepted Jesus is doomed refuses to listen to the possibility that not only could they be just as wrong as the others they claim are wrong, but they are most definitely wrong in how they close off the possibility of God being manifest in ways other than what they may expect.

Of course this is a touchy subject, because the danger is to fall into relativism, say that everything is right, and in the same ignorance that close-minded religious people have, dismiss all religions in the idea that “being good” is enough. If both extremes are dangerous, is there a healthy place that can be found? Can there be a universal acceptance of religion without losing the salt and value of all the practices, whether it is ancient and devout Hindu rituals, Shabbat for Jews, Mass for Catholics, and recognize them all as different, distinct, and right? As Rufus, the Thirteenth Apostle of Jesus Christ, forgotten about in the Gospels because he was black said, “It doesn’t matter what faith you have, but just that you have faith.”

However, in a very affluent society such as our own, we don’t need to have faith. If we are sick, we go to the hospital instead of praying for healing, and even for those who do pray for healing, they at least have the medical system as a safeguard just in case the prayers do not work. For someone who lives in a third-world country, in a remote village in the back of a jungle far removed from the world (and yes, these places exist) if one was to fall sick, they have no choice but to pray for healing, and this is the best and only form of medicine available. For us North Americans, what this creates is a crisis of faith, because what people could have faith in has been replaced so that we do not need to have faith. It either seems to create a crisis in a lack of faith in the church and disillusionment about the state of the world, or this other extreme of Fundamentalism that seems concerned about proving all the non-believers wrong, rather than leading people to Christ, as their faith challenges them to do. An example is the interview with Ken Ham, a well known Creationist and founder of the Creation Museum, who is concerned with proving that the Book of Genesis is literally true. Perhaps Mr. Ham forgot about Galileo Galilei, who proved that the earth was not the center of the universe, causing a crisis in the church because mankind then, could not be masters of creation. Here, history is repeating itself. Consequently Galileo was forced to recant his statements, and spent his life living under house arrest until he died and was buried in a cathedral in Florence. The conviction Mr. Ham and others like him have is dangerous, and in an affluent society where people feel the need to have faith in something, the focus of concern becomes menial things like whether dinosaurs and humans co-existed, rather than God, and the realization that in the grand scope of things, being correct does not matter in the face of having faith.

So how is faith found, in an affluent society that has lost the ability to have faith? It will be here that this second group at the beginning of the story will be addressed: those who could tell the difference between being good and following the rules, and knew how to be good: Saints. Saints are very good at breaking the normal conventions and physical boundaries that exist for the rest of us. Instead of dying like other people, many Saints become incorruptible. While the majority of people are walking on the earth, some Saints are levitating . Bill Maher says that religion is dangerous for humanity, and then a Saint comes along and proves him wrong with a quiet smile and a miraculous action. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta hears a voice from God, goes to India and serves the poorest of the poor, inspiring the world with her work and starting an order of religious people dedicated to serving the lowest caste, challenging Indian society, and opening up a new era of social justice and religion’s role in it. St. Francis of Assisi, after hearing the voice of God tell him to “repair my church” leads a life of extreme and zealous poverty, living to serve those around him in a way that has never been seen before or since then.

This leads into a great deal of superstition and seemingly unbelievable events that are admittedly debatable, especially when credible sources are hard to find for these humans who have tendencies to display the miraculous. Bernadette Soubirous, a sickly and illiterate girl in France had fifteen reported visions of a “beautiful” lady in a grotto at a place called Lourdes, in 1858, attracting attention from the town, and beyond. After many interrogations and questions her story remained unaltered, and her demeanor was proven to be sane. On the lady in the vision’s instructions, she dug with her hands in the grotto and a spring came up, with water that has been reported to heal people; cures that are reported “inexplicable.” She later became a nun, and died at the age of 35 and her body became incorruptible. A basilica rests on Lourdes, and thousands of people pilgrimage to the site every year. 1858 is recent enough that there is documented evidence, and existing eyewitness accounts, making the story all the more incredible. Does this mean that she was a holy woman, or that the “beautiful lady” in the vision was none other than the Virgin Mary? Is that proof for God’s existence, and a cause for Fundamentalists to jump for joy, or was Bernadette truly insane, and the incorruptibility, healings, and water a coincidence that an entire town was all a grand trick of nature? Is this another case for faith, for all of us unholy people? Or can we hope that we all have the potential for holiness that calls us to action or mysticism or both? Here, again, we do not know, doubt continues to remain the best reaction, and faith the greatest outcome.

Two miracles need to take place that are attributed to the intercession of the one in the beatification process , and a Congregation for the Causes of Saints (headed by the bishop in the diocese of the said candidate) is responsible for the investigation. John Paul II (Who is not yet in the beatification process, nor has he been fast-tracked to canonization like Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta was) canonized 482 saints during his Papacy. That is 964 alleged miracles. In an interview Bill had with an “ex-Jew,” he claimed he had become a Christian due to a series of small miracles, which were so coincidental that Bill just dismissed them. But can 964 miracles that have been scrutinized by a committee who’s sole job is to investigate the lives of supposedly holy people, their psychological dispositions, and the alleged miracles that are attributed to them, can they just be dismissed with a well-timed joke?

We doubt, yes, and then it is through this doubt that faith can indeed be found. It is through open and honest vulnerability, not the ignorance that Fundamentalists claim, that one comes to faith that is humble, real, and potentially more open to God manifesting Himself in ways unexpected – even enough to appear as none other than Alanis Morisette to the characters in Dogma. At the end of the movie, the reluctant Bethany Sloane, who had been heartbroken that she had been unable to conceive children, thus destroying her marriage, still follows an ambiguous calling from the God she blames (even trusting a naked man who falls from the sky and two of the horniest characters Kevin Smith can conceive) and sees it through to a conclusion that brings all understanding and everything to a close that shows that God was indeed watching, present throughout it all, and did, like her mother claimed, have a plan for it that was bigger and better than she could ever fathom. Conviction is what is dangerous, it is certainty and close-mindedness that destroys worlds and causes holy wars. But it is faith that, like the Bible claims, moves mountains, and saves the world. May we, as all of humanity, have enough doubt to have a faith that is enviable by those levitating Saints.