April Fool and the Easter Scandal

Noel Paul Stookey was the “Paul” of the legendary folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary. They were my musical heroes – I learned to play guitar listening to their vinyl – over and over, groove by groove, wearing out the record, wearing out the needle. After their 1960’s success, Paul went off on his own for awhile to become a Christian. I was doing the same thing at the same time, so he became my Christian musical hero. He did a song called “April Fool.”

“April Fool
You wear your heart on your sleeve
And though they laugh when they leave
You call it Love and I believe (you)
April Fool
Why must you always play the clown?
You have the edge you laid it down
You give it up without a sound…

“Oh April Fool
How can they say ‘love is cruel’?
They catch the ring but drop the jewel.
Like a teardrop in a pool…

“April Fool
As the heart shows through the eyes
Before you were born you were recognized
And unto the losers comes their Prize.

“Oh April Fool
Even as the hands were washed, you knew
We’d free the thief instead of you
April Fool
You said the Father was in You
You said we know not what we do
Forgive us…April Fool.”

It’s an Easter Song, and the “April Fool” is Jesus. It’s also an artistic and accurate restatement of the foundation another Paul – the Apostle – laid for the Christian religion.

Christian belief requires a commitment to foolishness.

You can’t get to God by being worldly wise, Paul wrote in a letter to the fledgling church in Corinth. Instead, you need to get foolish about it.

 “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’

“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 

“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”[1]

When I was a new believer, people said you had to check your mind at the door to be a Christian. We protested, but I see now that they understood something essential – I mean, it’s in the Bible, after all – that we Christians didn’t get:  Christina faith only makes sense once you crosse the foolishness threshold.

Paul’s “foolishness of God” vs. “wisdom of the world” creates an airtight apologetic for Christian belief, in which Christian faith is a closed system of circular, self-reinforcing logic. You can’t get started on the Christian faith unless you leave your old thinking behind. Then, once you cross the foolishness threshold, you need to stay there, otherwise you’ll start to think the old way, which will lead you to doubt. If it looks like you checked your mind at the door, it’s because you did.

The Crux

At the crux (word chosen advisedly) of Christian foolishness is Christianity’s iconic symbol, the crucifix. To your old, “worldly” way of thinking, the cross is abhorrent, disgusting, revolting… one of the most truly horrible, indescribable awful instruments of torture the most despicably horrible and awful worst of human nature has ever designed. Further, the crucifix features a human being with a crown of thorns jammed on his head, being tortured to death on a cross after having been beaten bloody and flogged to tatters. And there’s more:  that human being tortured to death is the “Son of God,” which means that the “Father” in Stookey’s song is the Son of God’s dad.

Just stop there for a minute.

If my dad or your dad did that, they’d put him away for good.

But on the other side of the foolishness threshold, it’s okay for God the Father murder God the Son because they worked it out ahead of time. The whole thing was a reenactment of a scene from thousands of years earlier that involved the patriarchal ancestor of the ancient blood-sacrifice religion that Jesus grew up in. (The ancestor’s name was Abraham, and he is the “father” of the three “Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.) All those thousands of years ago, Abraham actually almost did it, he almost murdered his own son (Isaac) out of obedience to that angry blood-lusty God (nobody called God a “Father” back then), but God let him off by providing a lamb stuck in a nearby bush for Abraham to slaughter instead. Therefore, at the crucifixion, Jesus was playing the role of the “lamb of God” — the human sacrifice that finally set the whole Abraham-Isaac thing to right.

“Unto the losers comes their prize.”

Trouble is, God’s gift of salvation through the lamb of God came as a big surprise to us – an April Fool. Sin made us a bunch of “losers” who didn’t recognize our “prize” for what it was. As a result, we protested our innocence, which made us as bad as Pontius Pilate, ceremoniously washing his hands, trying to claim he wasn’t responsible for the crucifixion that the mob demanded. (“Even as the hands were washed, you knew/We’d free the thief instead of you.”)

That seems to be the problem with sin:  our perspective is so warped by it that we don’t even know it’s a problem. Countless theologians have spent countless centuries filling countless volumes in countless libraries trying to explain what sin is and why we’re guilty of it, but the bottom line for most of us is that we never have quite understood what we did that was so awful – kind of like the time I was playing in the backyard and my mom came roaring out and smacked my behind because my sister told her I broke a vase inside the house.

“Forgive us…April Fool”

But, understand sin or not, we’re guilty of it, which means we (not God) are responsible for Jesus dying. Even though we weren’t there, we’re what the law calls “vicariously liable” –guilty by proxy. None of us knew that we were guilty or what we were guilty of, which makes it hard to follow the proper procedure of asking forgiveness, but God had that covered, too:  Jesus asked his murdering father to forgave us since he knew we didn’t know what we were doing. (“You said we know not what we do.”) God, on the other hand, knew exactly what He was doing, but since God was… well, God… He got off, too.

Got all that?

I did, when I was Christian, I had it down cold, all the details, the permutations, the rationalizations. I bought it all. I owned it, it owned me. Now I look at it and I wonder, Do any of us actually pay the slightest bit of attention to the things we believe? By now, you know the answer:  we do, but what we see when we pay attention depends on which side of the foolishness threshold we’re on.

I’m obviously writing from my current outlook on the pre-crossing side of the foolishness threshold. From here, the “foolishness of God” is foolish indeed — as mind-numbingly convoluted and fantastical as any of the nutcase conspiracy theories currently making the rounds.  The crucifixion was “the wisdom of God” when I was a Christian, now it’s a “stumbling block.” The Greek word used in the Bible text that’s translated “stumbling block”  is “skandalon” – scandal. The cross is scandalous to my worldly outlook —  a thing monumentally ugly and awful — all that blood, all that death, all that vicious punishment for a mystery infraction.

But the scandal doesn’t stop there. There’s one last piece.

Love is Cruel

The culmination of the Easter story is that the whole horrible thing is actually the greatest form of love. “For God so loved the world,” says John 3:16, “that He gave his only son, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.”

So, let me see if I’ve got this straight… God’s love is a bloody, horrifying human sacrifice to keep Him from wiping out the human race.

Seriously.

The only way you can believe something so totally outrageous if you’ve crossed the foolishness threshold., You have to check your mind at the door.

“How can they say ‘love is cruel’?” Well, Paul, because if that is love, then love is as cruel as it gets.

Foolishness for the Foolish

Paul the Apostle adds one last piece to his apologetic:  the foolishness of God is especially designed for foolish of the world – the people he calls the “low and despised in the world.” Paul the folksinger calls them “losers.”

“ For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,  so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,  so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

No liberal elite in God’s Kingdom. It’s time for the “low and despised” and the “losers” to have their moment.

When I was a Christian, we used to brag about being “fools for Christ.” We were proud of it; we rallied around our outcast status. There’s something strangely prideful and empowering about identifying with a crowd that struts its outcast stuff. I know what that feels like — I lived it for 25 years. Which is why – I hate to admit it — I know what it felt like for the “Proud Boys” and alt-right “Deplorables” who stormed the Capitol with prayers, crosses, and shouts of Jesus. Their over-the-foolish threshold minds really truly believed that they were, in that moment, the foolish wisdom of God in action, God’s fools ready to tear down the reign of the worldly-wise elites and bring God’s Kingdom to the USA and from here to the rest of the world.

It was their highest moment, the best day of their lives.

Seriously..

The Legacy of Foolishness

Belief on the other side of the foolishness threshold is why an estimated 2.5 Billion people – roughly one-third of the Earth’s population – will parade the crucifix once again this Easter, and recite once again the mind-numbing assertion that this is what God’s love looks like. Some of them will be “powerful” and “of noble birth”  – elites saved in spite of themselves. Others will be the “low and despised” and the “losers” for whom God’s foolish wisdom was intended. And all of them will perpetuate millennia of war and brutality in the name of the Abrahamic God.

In the year 1651, Thomas Hobbes described the human condition in his work Leviathan. His description is still shockingly applicable today:

“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Hobbes’ solution is that we need human government and societal institutions to keep us from regressing into our nasty human instincts. Great idea, but when those institutions are backed up by Western civilization, which in turn is backed up by Biblical worldview and its institutionalized brutality sanctioned by a blood-lusty authoritarian ruler (God, represented by his “Anointed One” here on Earth), with a mob of thugs at his disposal who truly, honestly believe they’re in their finest moment, what are we going to get? We’re going to get the 21st Century, when life is still “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” It’s still that way because human beings and their institutions are still that way. Our Western Biblical worldview reigns on the other side of the foolishness threshold, and as long as it does, we will keep fooling ourselves into our own entrapment, and every Easter we will continue to celebrate what we’re doing.

“You call it Love and I believe (you)…”

“April Fool.”


[1] Bible passages in this article are from 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 ESV.)

Beliefism [Part 3]: Evangelists on the Rebound/ Belief is Biological

Evangelists on the Rebound

Life without God offered plenty of substitutes:  self-help and its academic sibling positive psychology, “New Thought” churches that tried to make a science out of religion; Age of Enlightenment intellectuals, rationalists, humanists, skeptics who were determined to purge our thinking of nonsense, materialists who think “the meat thinks,” and an assortment of New Agers, vortex-finders, shamans, psychics, dietary supplement pushers, energy healers, kinesthesiologists, life coaches, “alternative healers,” magical thinkers, and miscellaneous gurus. They were a free-for-all of mixed motives and monetization strategies — confident, happy, friendly, an doften rich , And unlike me — the Christian evangelist failure — they  had no problem evangelizing like crazy. Part of that was a sign of the times — evangelizing was trendy back then, corporations were in the first wave of creating job descriptions like “brand evangelist,” which meant a salesperson on a higher plane –credentialed, trustworthy, cool.

Plus there was all this God-talk. In my Christian days we were careful about too much God-talk, lest we scare off the lost/unchurched. These Christianity substitutes didn’t have that problem. They were religions claiming they weren’t religions because they didn’t use religious vocabulary  — xcept for the ubiquitous “God,” which eventually morphed into “the Universe.” Free of old religion language meant they were free to carry on like that good ol’ time religion – for example the atheist group that met on Sunday mornings for music, teaching, and fellowship. Seriously.

One of the more fascinating new religions was atheism. I was just starting to suspect I’d become one of them when I discovered the “new atheists” and their “four horsemen” (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett). I thought this will be great, these new atheists will help me with my new atheism. I sampled a couple of Sam Harris’s books, and they were ferociously evangelistic. They and the other atheists, humanists, rationalists, and skeptics I came across always seemed to be looking for a fight  – they were out to convert you. (One exception:  Christopher Hitchens and his book Mortality. I read it twice, and we’ll talk more aboutthat topic another time.)

I suppose it was like being on the rebound – having just left one broken faith relationship, it was tempting to bounce into another, but for me the temptation wasn’t hard to resist. I wasn’t ready, all that similarity made me wary. So I kept my foot on the brake, watched, studied, took notes. After a few years, I started to see that the issue wasn’t God vs. non-God, religion vs. non-religion, it was believing in the first place. Like Christianity, these new religious substitutes all started with things you couldn’t know, you could only believe (or not). The whole structure grew from there.

I was seeing Beliefism in action. As I said last time,

Beliefism is about the dynamics of belief –what happens to us individually and when we believe things in groups.

Belief always works the same way, regardless of the thing believed.

Beliefism 101:  Belief is Biological

If there’s anything we need to understand about belief, it’s that belief is all in your head. The phrase usually comes with an eye roll:  you’re out of touch, delusional. Strip out the accusation and the more precise version is, “At this moment, your brain is creating different beliefs about reality than what my brain and the other brains in our cultural context are creating.” Belief is both individual and communal, and it happens in our heads.

Belief is biological. We believe with our brains.. Our brains are cells, tissues, differentiated regions, pathways, circuits, hormones…. That’s where beliefs, ideas, dreams, visions, things we imagine, causes we support, ideals we embrace come from. They’re all biology in action.

We weren’t taught that; we don’t think that way. Instead, we think beliefs come from an alternate reality – Someplace Other that’s not made of the same cosmic stuff we are. Beliefs aren’t grungy like the here and now, they’re elegant and aloof, enduringly above the rabble. They have classy names like Mystery, Eternity, Heaven, Somewhere Else, Up There, The Other Side of the Veil. Beliefs give us Spirit and Past Lives and The Universe, the Eternal Soul, God and gods, Angels and Archangels. (Devil and Demons, too, which you’d think we could do without, but not so fast – the bad guys have their own useful purpose.)

If we’re going to have there and here, them and us, we need passageways and communication links. Trips back and forth (round trip for supernatural beings, one-way for humans) are invested with special solemnity, fear and reverence, and communications come with special zest and fervency – they’re not just more spam, they’re revelation, awakening, inspiration, conversion, flashes of brilliance and insight, dramatic impact. We’re taking Moses and the Ten Commandments, the voice from Heaven, the disembodied fingers writing “mene, mene, tekel, parsin” on the wall.

All those connections engage and empower us, connect us to Truth and Higher Power. They line us up with all the meaning and purpose that all the supernatural beings and ancestors and wise ones who live in that invisible realm of spirit, soul, truth, celestial glory and power are a position to offer us – all of them “up there” who “look down on us” and care enough to magically set things in motion to teach us a lesson or even give us a hand now and then. We want all that, and we’ll go to great lengths to get ourselves properly aligned to keep the channels open.

All for the sake of something that happens in our brains. All that transcendent, invisible, spiritual, mysterious realm that accompanies us through life exists in the spongy stuff inside our heads. Belief in God is generated by the same biology that distinguishes a tree from a toadstool.

Belief is biological.

Got that?

We need to get that.

We almost never do.

There’s a piece of lab equipment they call “the God helmet.” The lab tech puts it on you and zaps a certain area in your brain (the same area that’s responsible for epileptic seizures), and you have a religious experience. They tested it on a group of nuns. Their response was, “Isn’t it wonderful that God put a receptor in our brains so we can communicate with him!” Science can create religious experience, but nobody – scientist or not – can prove or disprove God or anything else that exists in the realm of belief. You can only believe it or not, and when you do, you bring it into existence. You become the belief’s God, it’s creator and lord. So, brain-zapping lab tech or not, if you want to believe it’s God making your religious ecstasy happen, you’re going to believe ii.

Most people like it that way. Too much “it’s all in your head” makes us feel small. We’d rather follow the grand tradition of dressing up the Other and what it has to say with poetry, and writing it in a book:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah 55:  8-9

And then, having said that, we fill up the book with God’s thoughts, having just said we’re not capable of knowing them.

Anybody else see a problem with that?

How can we do that? Easy:  God and God’s thoughts both exist in our brains. They sit in there not far from each other, with highspeed wiring linking them together. Belief makes the trip from “I can’t do this” to “I can do this” in a nanosecond.

Belief becomes Beliefism when it grows up. We’ll talk more about it next time.

Beliefism [Part 2]: Evangelicals and Evangelizing

Believers had a double duty:  to be evangelical (believe the right stuff) and to evangelize (tell everybody about it – also known as “witnessing”). The first part came naturally — I was a good student,. The second part, not so much. Of all the things I ever did as a Christian, witnessing was hands-down the most awkward and humiliating. I was a total witnessing failure from the get-go. That was a problem because if you were in love with Jesus you’d want to tell everybody, wouldn’t you? (Well, um, no, not really. I mean, my wife and I, we just sort of… dated. Which means I spent a lot of years wondering if I really loved Jesus after all.)

Witnessing

Early on, I met some Baptists for whom witnessing was their highest and best good. That’s how they fulfilled the “Great Commission” — where it says in the Bible we’re supposed to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. I was still wondering if it was okay to smoke marijuana now that I was born again when they pushed a stack of “Four Spiritual Laws” tracts into my hand and said, “There’s a Billy Graham movie in town next week. You can be a counselor.” (Apparently if you’re a newbie it strengthens your faith if you start witnessing right away.)

My job as a counselor was to execute the basic Billy Graham evangelistic closing strategy. The movie would end with an “altar call” – an invitation to “go forward” and “give your life to Christ.” A few of the counselors would go forward right away (one at a time, so it didn’t look preplanned), so it looked like they were answering the call, and then crowd psychology would kick in and make it easier for other people to join them. Then the counselors would work the crowd and share the Four Spiritual Laws with the sinners so they would “come to Jesus.”

One night the only person who went forward was one of the counselors. He stood there alone for a long, awkward time before the lights finally went up. I thought about joining him like I was supposed to, but I went with some of my “unbeliever” friends and… well, I just didn’t feel like it. I have a vague memory of going forward and “sharing the gospel” only once, talking to a guy while his girlfriend looked on, and never closing the deal. Like I said — a total witnessing failure.

The Surprise Exit Strategy

As it turned out, being a witnessing failure turned out to be my exit strategy.

Evangelizing wasn’t optional — everybody needed to pitch in to help save the lost because for one thing the Second Coming wouldn’t happen until we finished the job, and besides you were a total loser if you didn’t. Nobody wanted to talk about it, but a lot of us were witnessing failures, so we looked for approaches that didn’t involve cold calling or the Four Spiritual Laws.

The last nondenominational denomination I belonged to was founded by a former L.A. music producer named John Wimber who looked just like Jerry Garcia. He got “saved hard” and figured out how to start a church for ex-Jesus Freaks who’d tried to grow up and get real jobs but missed that 1960’s vibe. He called it Vineyard Christian Fellowship, which became “the Vineyard” (which was confusing, because there was a wine shop by that name) and it went viral (before “viral” existed) in the 80’s. It started as a “church renewal,” but that didn’t last long – people got tired of trying to renew a church that already had to live through the 70’s and really wasn’t in the mood for more of that, so Wimber and the Vineyard settled on“church planting” as its Great Commission fulfillment strategy.

Church planting meant putting together a good soft-rock band, funny sermons, recovery groups, food banks, “newly single” Bible studies, and generally being hip and young and trendy and cool enough to draw a crowd to your converted freshly painted former warehouse with an awesome sound system. Plus, we weren’t trying to save the lost, we were trying to make it cool for the “unchurched” – a more clinical, managerial term – to come to church. Same dif but hey, words matter.

“Church planter” was the highest level of cred in the Vineyard, so of course I had to be one. I bailed on my career, sold our house, loaded the family into the minivan, and followed the moving van 1500 miles to plant a new church for the unchurched. My wife starting crying before we left the Denver city limits, and kept it up all across Kansas. If ever there was a sign from God for how my church planting mission was going to go, that was it.

Turned out I was a victim of my own success:  I was good enough at drawing an unchurched crowd that I got blacklisted for “sheep stealing.” The problem was that they weren’t all unchurched — some of them came over from the sponsoring church, and the pastor was pissed that I was “sheep stealing.” Never mind that Wimber’s official church planting policy was don’t worry about that, they don’t belong to anybody, they’re all God’s sheep. (Christians like to talk about how people are like sheep. It’s a Bible thing – the book was written when counting sheep was like counting money.) Official church planting policy or not, sheep stealing still got me kicked out, and that’s what got things rolling on eventually getting me all the way out.

Once I was out, the good news was, I didn’t need to evangelize anymore. The bad news was, my life was ruined. But the truth was, I was the one who had ruined it by believing what I believed. I’d been playing by the believer rules, but they’re set up so the house always wins — you’ll never get it right and when you don’t it’s always all your fault. (Duh – that’s what “sin” is all about, right? Note to self:  maybe you’re free to believe what you like, but there are consequences if you act on what you believe – as some of the mob that stormed the Capitol found out when they went home and got a knock on the door and it wasn’t Jesus standing on the other side.)

Faith on the Rebound

Between life with God and life without God, I ran across lots of church substitutes:  self-help, positive psychology, “New Thought” churches, intellectuals. rationalists, humanists, skeptics, and materialists; and an assortment of New Agers, vortex-finders, shamans, psychics, dietary supplement pushers, energy healers, kinesthesiologists, life coaches, “alternative” healers, and miscellaneous gurus. They were a free-for-all of mixed motives and monetization strategies, and they all evangelized like crazy – plus there was more God-talk than in my Christian days. (We were always careful about too much God-talk, lest it scare the lost and unchurched away.)

The most obnoxious evangelists were the “four horsemen” of the “new atheists” – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. I thought this will be great, they’ll help me with my new atheism,, but I only made it partway through a couple of their books. (One exception:  Christopher Hitchens’ book Mortality, which I read all the way through twice. We’ll talk more about its theme later on in this series.) The same was true of the other atheist offerings I came across –associations, conventions, websites, books, webinars, video series, TV specials, interviews. It was always the same menu:  arguments for and against God and why life without God was better. Like you could argue God and a better life in or out of existence.

From what I could tell, the whole mixed up crowd of Christianity substitutes was a lot of people on the rebound — rushing from one broken faith relationship to another. They were religions claiming they weren’t religions because they had a different vocabulary – like one atheist group I came across that met on Sunday mornings for music, teaching, fellowship…. Seriously.

The issue wasn’t God, it was the believing part.

In time, it became clear that the issue wasn’t God vs. non-God, it was believing in the first place. Belief always works the same way, regardless of the thing believed. Years of wandering through the land of religion substitutes and studying how they worked revealed they all shared the same dynamics, which I’ve come to call beliefism.

Beliefism is about the dynamics of belief –what happens to us individually and when we believe things in groups.

More next time.

Beliefism [Part 1]: The Accidental Atheist

Seeing the Light

I didn’t mean to become an atheist. It just sort of happened until one day I checked the “none” box and made it official. No ceremony, just a realization. “Atheist” wasn’t an option for “religious preference” – “none” is less dramatic than “do you consider yourself to be one of the faithless, the godless, the terminally backslidden?” Well yes, as a matter of fact  I do, but that doesn’t mean I dash from cover to cover to evade the Heavenly Zot Finger. In fact, being an atheist isn’t at all like I once thought it would be.

Then and Now

I went to church when I was a kid because everybody went to church when I was a kid. After a year of Hippie wannabe partying my first year of college, I became a Jesus Freak, then a Pentecostal, a charismatic, an evangelical before there was such a thing, a fundamentalist although nobody would admit that’s what we were, plus I booked time in “nondenominational” churches and “parachurches,” and along the way hung out with Baptists, Catholics, Episcopals, and Lutherans. A journeyman Christian, we’ll call it.

The Redemption Story

All those versions of Christianity pretty much believed the same things, plus each had its own points of doctrinal purity that justified producing under its own label. Mostly, we preferred just “Christian” –our way of signaling don’t worry, we’re not sectarian here, we’re in the sweet spot, right down the middle, no other adjectives needed. The basic story was pretty much the same everywhere.

  • The human race enjoyed a utopian past when life was good.
  • But then we blew it. We “fell.”
  • In our defense, we had help – the Devil made us do it. But still it’s all our fault we’re so screwed up.
  • Before we get blasted by the heavenly zot finger for being terminally incompetent at life, we get a knock on the door of our “heart” (not the one that pumps blood, but the one that chokes you up when you get emotional). If we answer the knock, Jesus is standing there with an invitation back to the Garden. We’d love to go, but we can’t get there, not in our current condition.
  • So we’re going to need help. We need God to forgive us for falling, and we need a Savior to handle the necessary arrangements. That’s Jesus, too.
  • Once Jesus gets things fixed up with God, all is forgiven and we get citizenship in God’s Kingdom. People today who’ve never had a king in charge before think having a king is just the greatest thing.
  • Plus, everybody in the Kingdom is related, so we’ve got all this new family we never knew we had, with God himself presiding fatherly-like at the head of the table. There are definitely benefits to showing up for family gatherings and remembering birthdays.
  • Having a king means we’re subjects and servants – which people today who’ve never had a king also think is just the best thing – which includes being conscripted into the King’s army, which means we’re always marching off to war with the cross of Jesus going on before. Since our new King is more powerful than any human pretenders, that means we get to totally waste everybody who’s not part of us, because if you’re not with us you’re against us, and if you’re against us you lose. We have God on our side, after all.
  • So we go along through life and if things go as promised (they never seem to) life is better than it would have been if we’d never answered the knock (which by now seems a long time ago), except that part of the deal is that we need to suffer and be persecuted and if we’re lucky we might even get martyred. (You don’t get free grace for nothing.)
  • What keeps us going through all those trials and tribulations is that one great day (which is always going to happen any minute now and never does, but we need to live on the alert in case it does) we’ll have it really good forever and ever amen.
  • If you die before that day comes and you believe all the right things, you get the pre-opening move-in special to Heaven, unless you’re a Catholic, in which case you might need to wait in a giant waiting room for awhile.
  • Meanwhile the heavenly zot finger has been charging up all this time for one good last blast. Some branches of the family think we’ll get a free pass out before that happens and everybody else will be Left Behind where they’ll get a taste of what hell is like before they get there for good. Other branches aren’t really sure the world is going to blow up quite that way, even though we could do the job ourselves with nukes or climate change.
  • One way or another, when you get to your own end, it could be anything from “no worries, it’s all good” to “this is really going to hurt.”

Okay, so maybe that was a little snarky.

But it is a fair summary of what I heard and learned and personally believed for over two irretrievable decades of my life. Snarky gets old fast, and I don’t want to make it a habit, but it has its place. The pen is not always mightier than the sword, but irony and sarcasm can put things into useful relief. I go back to snarky now and then, like I did above, when I want to remember what it felt like to look around and wonder, did I really believe that? Looking at it now, it seems so complicated. convoluted, contradictory. Snarky is the voice of anger, and we need anger to tackle big challenges — like refashioning an outlook on life .that’s different from what you’ve been believing and practicing for a long time.

Snarky gains traction by fueling inner outrage. For me, that involved being willing to admit that I had some not so nice and friendly feelings about where I’d come from.

  • Regret and resentment about what my God days cost me.
  • Disgust about what the Bible actually says, and dismay that I never noticed.
  • A revulsion reflex that kicks in whenever I see Christian symbols or see Christians doing Christian things or speaking or writing Christianese. (My wife is a Jesus fan. She says I’ve developed an anaphylactic reaction.)

Regret, resentment, disgust, and revulsion keep me alert to the reality that there are consequences to what I believe. Feelings like that weren’t welcome during my Christian years. You weren’t supposed to feel that way – you needed to forgive and be forgiven, put it behind you, be grateful that you were reconciled to an angry God who had every right to punish you for that original Adam and Eve transgression.

Emerging from the Christian faith is hard.

But it’s harder to resist the dawn.

Impossible, really.

“It suddenly dawned on me,” we say. Dawn has its sudden moment when the sun finally crests the horizon, but it’s been coming long before — gradually, inexorably. From the first hints of light, it’s going to happen, and no holding it back.

“I saw the light!” Christians sing, describing lightbulb flash conversion– like the Apostle Paul getting blasted off his horse with a heavenly light and a voice from heaven. People who had “testimonies” like that had special status in the Christian groups I was part of – you were cooler if you got “saved hard,” as one Christian leader liked to say. So you would make the fish a little bigger and little harder to catch every time you told your own fish story. I did that — most of us did — like my AA friend who said his group liked to tell “I got so drunk one time that…” stories.

By contrast, getting unsaved wasn’t like that. No light bulbs, no heavenly light, no getting saved hard.

Just the dawn.

Blueprint for Fascism – Part 2

In this series, we’re looking at fascism’s Biblical roots. Last time, Part 1 distinguished worldview from ideology and began a list of fascism’s defining features. Let’s continue with the list.

Us vs. Them — Racism

Fascism thrives on identifying Us vs. Them. They look, talk, and act differently, follow different customs, traditions, and holidays, listen to different music and express themselves in different art forms. They are usually foreigners, immigrants, women, the LGBTQ[1] crowd, artists, intellectuals, and anybody else who’s not with you and is therefore against you. People of a different race are particularly easy to pick out of the not welcome crowd.

“American fascism… is a clear derivative of centuries of supremacy, slavery, and segregation. That old America never went anywhere, it seems — it was just hibernating. And now it’s back with a vengeance, seeking to reinstate something very much like the America it used to be. So where Islamic fascism is theofascism, American fascism is something subtly different: I’d call it proto-fascism.

“That means something like: ‘fascism before fascism’ or ‘the original fascism.’ I say that because the Nazis in fact both admired and studied America’s supremacist institutions — from Jim Crow to slavery to the elimination of personhood — and modeled their own new society after America’s lost one. So if America is reverting back to an older form of social organization, where whites lived above everyone else, where once they literally owned everyone else — who were the first fascists of all, the Nazis…or the Founding Fathers?

“I know that Americans won’t like to hear that. So go ahead and pick holes in it if you can. I have thought about it intently, and I have to concede, as much as I admire America, this logic appears to be immovable to me. Hence, I think what’s emerging in America is proto-fascism — the original variant, when settlers arrived on the shores of a Promised Land — and decided that it belonged only to them as masters and lords, hence everyone else already there was a subhuman, hence they needed slaves to till their fields.” [2]

Economics

Fascism thrives on economic inequality.

“America became the first rich country to collapse to the new wave of fascism. Why? Because it was the most capitalist country in the world. Capitalism implodes into fascism — inevitably. Why? Because capitalism concentrates capital among those who already own it, which starves labour of gains. That causes the middle class to crater, and inequality to spike. In their desperation and fear, the imploded middle begins to punch down, taking from the even more powerless what was promised to them — security, riches, stability, belonging, status. That sequence describes America perfectly, in hard empirical terms: the rich became ultra rich, but because they took more than 100% of the economy’s gains for decades, the middle class imploded. That fresh poverty produced a turn to a demagogue, who blamed everyone weaker for it — immigrants, refugees, foreigners, etcetera. The Trump voter isn’t the poor black — he’s the declining white.

“So the second half of America’s grim, weird collapse I’d describe as implosive fascism. Implosion of the middle, driven by economic stagnation, is a necessary feature of every fascist collapse — but it’s especially true in America.”[3]

Somebody’s got to pay for it, and rich supporters get richer through fascist cronyism. Meanwhile, the economically disadvantaged flock to fascism and support government policies that widen the inequality gap at their own expense. They do so for a lot of bizarre reasons,[4] but from a religious point of view, lifestyles of the rich and famous is their heavenly destiny — Heaven is where they’ve got a mansion waiting.[5]

Fascism’s Dismal Checklist

If we assemble the above together with the identifiers we saw in Part 1, we have guidelines for recognizing fascism.

Fascists prescribe simple fixes for complex problems.

  • It’s not an ideology, it’s a method, a system for thinking and doing.
  • Fascism feeds on grievances, identifies the enemies responsible, and sets the populace against them.
  • They take on the role of national saviors.
  • They expand their self-concept to the size of the state itself.
  • They subvert, discredit and eliminate societal and governmental institutions that defy or impair them.
  • They ascend to power through the ballot box and then undermine democracy from within.
  • They systematically eliminate opposition one small step at a time.
  • They attack the judiciary and the media.
  • They tell lies as the new truth, repeating them incessantly until they become the new truth, the new reality.
  • They denigrate science and academia.
  • They threaten political competitors and dissenters.
  • They foment bigotry and racism;
  • ,,,male dominance and misogyny;
  • …persecution of the LGBTQ community;
  • …stonewalls against immigrants and foreigners;
  • They praise autocrats and encourage worldwide drift to authoritarianism.
  • Fascism ascends in times of accelerated social and cultural upheaval.
  • …in the aftermath of demoralization and defeat;
  • …after great recessions and other forms of drastic economic displacement;
  • …during times of extreme economic inequality;
  • …in the waning stages of an economic miracle,
  • …when new artistic and creative forms are displacing the old standbys;
  • …when scientific developments offer shocking new perspective on the fabric of life and reality;
  • …when democratic institutions are unstable and the notion of “freedom” takes on new meaning;
  • …when there is widespread disorder;
  • …when a visceral, nostalgic appeal to tradition emerges.
  • Fascism promotes the heavy hand of authoritarianism, and a return to law and order.
  • Fascists promote extreme militaristic nationalism.
  • They use military marches and staged spectacles and rallies to stir up support.
  • They lionize the military and police.
  • They bully, abuse, threaten, intimidate, promote hostility, and encourage their followers to do likewise.
  • They belittle traditional heroes and societal role models of leadership.
  • They glamorize national history in ways that support their cause, and ignore national embarrassments, failures, weaknesses.
  • They adopt religious narratives and forge religious allegiances.
  • They equate national identity with divine purpose and chosen status.
  • They express contempt for electoral democracy and political and cultural liberalism.
  • They endorse a natural social hierarchy that prizes social and economic elites.
  • They purport to support the vanishing and lost middle class, but only to the extent the middle class is willing to subordinate self-interest to the good of the nation.

But of course fascism doesn’t run off a checklist. (“Let’s see, how are we doing on bigotry today?”) The list entries are embedded in fascist culture. They are socially normative. They serve as measures of allegiance and duty. They create a narrative of how life works, is and ought to be, and maintain practices that support individual and collective compliance with that narrative.

Fascism’s Religious Narrative

Fascism’s narrative is as follows:

  • A utopian past when life was better and people were better off;
  • A fall from grace – a turning away instigated by the evil Them;
  • An awakened nostalgic and righteous yearning to restore lost utopia;
  • The need for a beneficent intervention – salvation – to get back to the good life;
  • The arrival on the scene of a savior, whose charisma commands a following;
  • The emergence of the congregation of the faithful – a chosen population of aggrieved victims transformed into the superior Us;
  • War and final judgment meted out on Them.[6]
  • The Golden Age of the victorious.

The Biblical narrative is everywhere in Western culture – from Hollywood to Silicon Valley to Yankee Stadium to the Capitol Building. And it explains fascism’s religious ties and obsession with holy war.

“Old fascism didn’t abhor ‘religion’ as much as we imagine. It was a deeply mystical exercise, steeped in its own mythology of sacred blood and divine…. A homeland of the pure, strong, and faithful. Cleansed of the weak and impure — who are dirty, filthy subhumans.

“A militant message broadcast by armies of demagogues…. Jihadis who took up the call. And destabilized society after society. By bombing and shooting up places where civilized and decent values were being enacted: hospitals, schools, festivals. Minorities targeted, jailed, imprisoned, hunted, eliminated. New institutions built — justice systems, law enforcement agencies, whole new kinds of morality police. Society finally reshaped in the image of the perfect and the pure and the strong.”

“Islamic fascism we might say is something like theo-fascism. It is explicitly ‘religious’ — and faith trumps nationhood. It isn’t mere ‘nationalism’ — its goal is something like a new caliphate, in the extreme, or at least a federation of united Islamic states, proudly clean and faithful.[7]

Mussolini – Fascism Christened

Mussolini gave “fascism” its name, which he took from an ancient Roman symbol.

“Fascism [is a] political ideology and mass movement that dominated many parts of central, southern, and eastern Europe between 1919 and 1945 and that also had adherents in western Europe, the United States, South Africa, Japan, Latin America, and the Middle East.

“Europe’s first fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, took the name of his party from the Latin word fasces, which referred to a bundle of elm or birch rods (usually containing an ax) used as a symbol of penal authority in ancient Rome.

“Although fascist parties and movements differed significantly from one another, they had many characteristics in common, including extreme militaristic nationalism, contempt for electoral democracy and political and cultural liberalism, a belief in natural social hierarchy and the rule of elites, and the desire to create a Volksgemeinschaft (German: ‘people’s community’), in which individual interests would be subordinated to the good of the nation.”[8]

Mussolini’s “Clerical Fascism” and Trump’s Christian Right Fascism

Fascism seizes power by degrading legitimate government and spurring the electorate to rally in patriotic mob scenes, celebrating their own political disempowerment. And then get God on your side. Mussolini rose to power 100 years ago on the strength of “clerical fascism.”[9] “Clerical” referred to Roman Catholic clergy whose interests were propounded by the Italian People’s Party[10], which later split over whether the church should overtly support fascism. Fascist Italy recognized Catholicism as its state religion. Mussolini’s defining rally was his March on Rome.[11] A hundred years after Mussolini, Donald Trump, the Republican Party, and the Christian Right have followed the same historical blueprint.

Violence and “the Unthinkable”

What happens when fascism makes its move? As we saw last time, worldview resides with the most basic human impulses – where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[12] Fascism therefore asserts itself with crassness and brutality.

“What tends to happen is violence. Of a spectacular kind. War, atrocity, barbarity. Genocide. The unthinkable…. [T]here is only room for one master race, one Promised Land, one fatherland, one people who are the strongest and purest.”[13]

Violence? Check. Think of the Proud Boys. Think of Trump’s SS troops attaching citizens on city streets.

The unthinkable? Check. Thinks of Trump and the Republicans blatant all-out assault on the defining right of democracy – the citizens’ right to vote — everything from calling votes (only those against Trump) fraudulent to appeals for suspending the Constitution and imposing martial law.

And it all begins with a Biblical worldview.

The Fascist Bible

When I say “Bible,” I mean the Christian Bible. The first part is the “Old Testament” — God’s original deal with ancient Israel. The second part is the “New Testament” — God’s new deal that includes the “Gentiles” – the non-Jews. The second part is Jesus and post-Jesus, but since he was a Jew and it was mostly written by Jews, there’s a lot of carryover. Muslims and Jews buy into the parts of the Old Testament that include Abraham, so they and Christianity are called the “Abrahamic” religions. Therefore “Abrahamic worldview” could be substituted for “Biblical worldview.” It’s the same God in all three.

Extreme Nationalism

Extreme nationalism lies at the heart of fascism. It is also the essence of Abrahamic religion. God choses a nation to be His. That nation becomes Us, which makeseverybodyelse Them. God provides detailed laws through his representatives — prophets, priests, and kings — for how We are supposed to behave.[14] Conformity is the lowest compliance standard; loyalty and zealotry are preferred. Nonconformity, disloyalty, disrespect, doubt, dissent are crushed. One of the worst things God’s favored nationcan do is act like Them – take up foreign customs, marry internationally, etc. The Old Testament is therefore several hundred pages of rewind and repeat re:  how it goes for both Us and Them, and often it’s hard to tell who’s got the worst deal.

The Totalitarian God

Abrahamic religion imposes a hierarchical structure with God at the top. God enjoys absolute sovereignty and is not accountable to anyone for anything. God’s word is Truth, His will supreme, His power absolute. Totalitarianism is authority without accountability, therefore God is a totalitarian ruler.[15] Plus, because God is… well, God… He is in charge of not just his own nation, but all nations. All national sovereignty derives from Him. On this point, the New Testament section of the Christian Bible restates and summarizes Old Testament political worldview:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.  Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” Romans 13:1-5[16]

National sovereignty that derives from God is similarly unaccountable. Accordingly, “the divine right of kings” protected English monarchs with its declaration that “the king can do no wrong,” and the concept was imported into the Colonies as “sovereign immunity,” which protects federal and state officials.[17] The divine right of kings and sovereign immunity, like God’s rule, are therefore ultimately totalitarian. Which means that a fascist in power is God’s man and can do no wrong unless God intervenes.

Biblically-based national sovereignty answers the question I began Part 1 of this series with:  how is it that the Christian Right can support Trump? The answer is that Trump is God’s man in the same way that Mussolini was God’s man. They are because the Bible says they are. They carry on the succession of divinely-appointed national leaders all the way back to the Old Testament kings.

Farfetched? Fantastical? We need only listen to the rationale given by one of Trump’s Men –former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in his defense of the Trump Administration’s family separation policy, to learn that the Christian Right doesn’t find this farfetched or fantastical in the slightest. Instead, it is a validation of legitimacy.

“If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. If you smuggle an illegal alien across the border, then we’ll prosecute you,,,, If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent, fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing and that protects the weak, it protects the lawful. Our policies that can result in short-term separation of families are not unusual or unjustified.”[18]

Sessions invoked the Bible to substantiate the United States’ God-derived national sovereignty. The authority of God and the Bible is totalitarian, beyond accountability. Since the United States derives its national sovereignty from God and the Bible, it enjoys the same totalitarian authority, above any law other than its own. Its laws are good and moral by definition, and its government and government officials are free from fault because its laws say they are.

  • “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul.”
  • “God has ordained the government for his purposes.”
  • “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves.”
  • “Consistent, fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing and that protects the weak, it protects the lawful.”
  • “It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”

Sessions’ case justifies national xenophobic indifference to the plight of the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse. the homeless, and tempest-tossed.[19] Instead, the United States government is free to terrorize them at the border. The same concept applies to America’s national history of legal slavery and normative racism, as well as its institutionalized homophobia and misogyny.

Next Time

In sum, the Bible narrative – the story of God’s relationship with his people — illustrates the dynamics of fascist government. And the Bible’s God is a prototype of a fascist leader.

We’ll look further into these things next time.


[1] For an updated treatment of the acronym, see LGBTQIAPK: Let’s Unpack the Acronym, Harlot (Mar. 19, 2018),

[2] Hague, Umair, The (New) Fascism of the 21st Century, Medium (Aug. 7, 2019)..

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thomas, K R, Why DO the poor keep voting for the rich? Medium (Dec. 26, 2019)

[5] “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” John 14:2 NKJV

[6] Wikipedia – Fascism

[7] Hague, Umair, op cit.

[8] Fascism | Definition, Meaning, Characteristics, Examples, & History | Britannica

[9] Clerical fascism – Wikipedia

[10] Italian People’s Party (1919) – Wikipedia

[11] March on Rome | Definition, Events, & Facts | Britannica. March on Rome – Wikipedia

[12] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)

[13] Hague, Umair, op cit.

[14] See the “blessings and curses” of Deuteronomy 26-28.

[15] For a breakdown on how the CIA categorizes dictatorial forms of government, see Totalitarianism, Authoritarianism, and Fascism — What Is the Difference? ThoughtCo. (June 5, 2020).

[16] See also Daniel 2:20-21, Daniel 4:17, Jeremiah 27:5, Proverbs 21:1.

[17] Wikipedia – Sovereign Immunity. See also Wikipedia – Sovereign Immunity in the United States. McCann, Miles, State Sovereign Immunity,” National Association of Attorneys General, NAGTRI Journal Volume 2, Number 4. Although the article is technically about state – vs. federal — sovereign immunity, the quoted text applies to both.  See also the following quote from this monograph from the law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, a New York based firm with a reputation for its commitment to diversity”  “At its core, the doctrine of sovereign immunity stands for the proposition that the government cannot be sued without its consent – that is, ‘the King can do no wrong.’ Sovereign immunity is simple in concept but nuanced in application.”. Pugh, George W., “Historical Approach to the Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity,” Louisiana Law Review Volume 13, Number 3 (March 1953).. Citations omitted.

[18] YouTube. See Wikipedia — Trump administration family separation policy.

[19] The Story Behind the Poem on the Statue of Liberty, The Atlantic (Jan. 15, 2018)

Father Abraham Had Three Sons

Father Abraham had many sons,
Many sons had Father Abraham,
I am one of them, and so are you,
So let’s all praise the Lord.

We need to move past the Sunday School doggerel. They teach children that stuff – bouncy tune, fun motions. I don’t remember learning it — obviously I did, because I remembered it enough to Google it. Click on the image and listen. I lasted one verse, then reality set in:  Father Abraham’s children are killing each other; they’re killing us; they could kill the whole planet. Father Abraham’s children are on the world’s longest running international crime spree – committed in his name, on his behalf — that old story, those old promises.

The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing; I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Genesis 12:  1-3

And there was more:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless.  Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

Abram fell facedown, and God said to him,  “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 

I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

Genesis 17: 1-8

That was a long, long time ago. And now a world Father Abraham could not possibly have foreseen is living with his progeny and promises. “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you”? No. Not that. It never has been that. It is not that now. It never will be.

.  .  .

Father Abraham has three sons, actually. They are, in the order they were born, Israel, Christianity, and Islam. Like father, like son:  each son is a Patriarch presiding over his own transnational clan.

The Abraham family chronicles begin in the most ancient part of the Bible. Each clan has its own Bible with portions added later, but all include the part where the story of Abraham’s family and legacy began, so the three are called the “Abrahamic” religions. Each of Abraham’s sons believes the ancient promises are his alone, and will one day be fulfilled on his behalf. It’s a vain hope and a senseless and stupid goal:  none of them will ever prevail, and here are billions of Abraham descendants in the world, far too many for every non-believer to ever be extinguished. But the sibling rivalry never lets up, never goes away, never leaves the rest of us alone.

Their battle lines of the family feud were originally drawn around “the whole land of Canaan”– a small patch of land outsized in ruin. But Canaan was only the staging point. From there, the family’s war has spread around the world. The three sons’ jealousy, treachery, and ambition – Abraham’s legacy – are everywhere. There are other family histories in the world just as enduring and rotten — in the East, North, and South – but the Abraham family conflict has drawn them in, too.

.  .  .

I can’t imagine, Father Abraham. I really can’t. I can’t get inside your head, what it was like when…

God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Genesis 22:2

Who was more deranged in that moment, you or your God? And what was it like to be your only son, whom you loved? Did you really? Love him I mean. Did he suspect that you were preparing yourself to slash and burn him?

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son,  I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies,  and through your offspring  all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Genesis 22:16-18

A story like that cannot have a happy ending. How could it ever go well for that boy ever again – that boy bound and waiting for the father’s knife to fall? I don’t want that story to have ever been written. I don’t want stories like that to be told. You were a beast in that moment, Father Abraham, and your God was a beast maker. But I don’t think you ever came to realize that, otherwise the story would have been told differently – maybe about how you were so deluded you almost went through with it.

But your sons, they revel in it. It inflames their allegiance to you — no, not to you, but to the idea of you and the idea of those promises. And especially to the idea of themselves as those who are the only ones who have the right to inherit what was promised. They have usurped you, usurped the promises, appropriated them, made them their own and only their own. It is through them that all nations shall be blessed, and they will destroy each other until that day comes, and then they will keep the blessing for themselves. Only the one who destroys his brothers will be forever blessed, and the others will be the eternally damned. But you’re dead, Father Abraham – you don’t know they believe that, have done that, are doing that. You can’t stop them even if you would, and the way that story went, and the way your sons all love it, I’m not sure you would.

.  .  .

“I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.” Israel is the smallest, Christianity is the largest, Islam is almost as big as Christianity. Together the three of them make up about 3 billion people on a planet approaching 8 billion. Like the stars and sand…. yes. That promise has been fulfilled.

“All nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” No. That promise was a lie, or has become one, by neglect or inte4nt. All nations on earth have been terrorized because of you, Father Abraham. Your obedience was wasted. Your progeny has defiled the promise. There has been no blessing.

You couldn’t have known. Nobody could have. You were a patriarch, now we have your sons as patriarchs – autocrats as sovereign and unaccountable as you and your God. You fathered the Abrahamic nation; now we have extreme nationalists – each one of them divinely sanctioned by their own Godto destroy the infidels of the other nations who stand in the way of their promised destiny.

Your nation had its own God, now each of your sons has its own God, given to them to fulfill their destiny. They are not patient for the day; they rage against it. If each could just be rid of the others, be the last one standing, the favorite son and his clan left finally and forever alone in the divine favor of their own God, themselves and their God triumphant, the other sons and their Gods banished…. It never ends. It goes on, like the teaching of doggerel. It has never ended in all these thousands of years. The world lives on in thrall to their unfulfilled destiny – the promise of blessing not kept, the promise that never will be kept.

.  .  .

What was it like, Father Abraham? How did the Lord say to you, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you”? How did God say, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love… and sacrifice him there as a burnt offering”? How did the angel of the Lord call to you from heaven a second time and tell you not to do it?

That was long ago. Too long ago for anyone to ever know. Too long for the answers to matter.

.  .  .

Abraham lived a hundred and seventy-five years. Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people.

Genesis 25: 7-8

What might the world have been if it had been left at that – you died, were mourned and buried, the end?

It’s a stupid question to ask – as pointless as this one:  What might the world be now if we could leave it at that?

What if this time you were gathered to your people… and left there?

Christmas — No Christ, New Merry

I take long “walks” in my wheelchair most days – long as in 5, 6, 8. 10 miles. Yes, in a wheelchair. True story.

People seem happy to see me – inspired maybe, surprised mostly. They say hello, good morning, nod, wave, sometimes comment, offer encouragement. Guy in a wheelchair, out here doing this? Show some love! Way to go, guy! I don’t mind. I smile, greet them back. People out here, enjoying this wonderful trail through the woods along the river? Way to go, people!

A few times lately it’s been “Merry Christmas!” I’m always surprised. “Oh yeah. Christmas. Merry. Right.” Seems the Merry doesn’t still go ‘round so much for me nowadays – hasn’t for several years, actually. For me, that’s not just 2020, when the Merry didn’t go ‘round for hardly anybody except the extremely annoying, apparently excused from reality few. I’ll leave them unnamed.

Christmas for me used to be… well, Christmas. I was self-righteous about keeping the commercialism out of it and Christ in it – also seriously deluded. Back then the kids were growing up and I had a career that paid (remember those?), so I loved to pull off commercial extravaganzas. Like the year the entire American Girl Dolls assemblage – clothes, furniture, stuff, stuff, and more stuff — flooded out from under the tree and across the living room, and no one had seen it coming.

I loved the art of Christmas – especially the places that had the quality gifts and the best gift wrappers – the way they filled their beautiful shopping bags – the big ones, with the handles – with works of art in ribbons and bows. Plus the lights – nothing visible from space, just enough cheer – and the Solstice bonfires and all the greenery and goodies and the you name it. If you’ve done it yourself, you know.

And yes, we kept Christ in those Christmases. Christ was still the reason for the season – observed in everything from schmaltzy bedtime stories and movies to the annual stately Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from Cambridge and the packed candlelight Christmas Eve service in a church thick with incense. But then the light started dimming, eventually faded and died –the way potted plants die – not tragic so much as well, that’s over. Things end, we move on.

A couple days ago, I was trying to remember when exactly the Christmas Merry started to quit going ‘round. It think it was somewhere around the time we painted the basement and bought some mountain lodge furniture and a cool rug and put up surround sound and a wall TV and it was going to be a place for friends to hang out. Nice idea but a couple poetry slams and that was about it. But the first year we had it, I thought wow, I can watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, so I camped out in one of those comfy leather mountain lodge chairs and watched it, and there was plenty of Merry the whole Christmas season that year. But then a year later it was a little less oh wow, and by the third year it was, hey wait, this is just a big commercial launch – one long extended infomercial in praise of buy, buy, buy. Creeping cynicism. Peter Pan finally starting to grow up.

That would have been… what?… 2009 or so? Right after the crash of 2007-2008, which I had observed by making possibly the most badly-timed, badly-conceived, and badly-executed Go-For-It, Live Your Dreams! launch in the history of life. (But I’m giving myself way too much credit – lots of people have of course done seriously dumb things in the name of living the dream. No way I cornered that market.) My big leap into dreamland bombed, of course. I deserved it. But the good news is, it changed everything forever. Mostly it changed me, But until we all had enough space to be philosophical or resigned about it, the family became post-Crash Okies, rambling toward being poor with all our belongings piled in the back, toward me being disabled with a crappy neurodegenerative… thing… and all of us trying to figure out what happened back there. It was somewhere around then that the Merry quit going ‘round. And it was also about then Christ either fell out of the back of the truck or we didn’t wait for him at a rest stop, and either way it took a long time to notice.

It’s hard to explain how it took 20 years to go from being a Christian – not just a “nominal” one (as we used to say, arrogant as hell) but a true believer hallelujah! – to an Atheist. Or to explain how one day I just sort of noticed that’s what happened and I was just kind of well okay then, would you look at that, I guess that’s what happened, and I guess I’m good with it. The Merry was gone, and so was Christ, and then came a few years when everything church went from normal to cringeworthy to annoying to revolting. I can’t explain it, but I’d see billboards and marquees and hear conversations, and I would shudder. Not quite gag, but my whole self would cringe and tense up and shudder. Writing that, I can just hear what the faith I left would have to say about it.

Fast forward to this year, to Christmas 2020, which you would have thought would have been the most run-screaming-from-the-room Christmas ever. But then – way more surprising than hearing “Merry Christmas!” from random strangers on the bike path – it wasn’t. Christmas 2020 was the year the Merry came back. Who could have seen that coming? Not me. But it did — Christmas without the baby Jesus in a manger – God the Father’s great idea for how to introduce his son to the world by putting an infant in a cattle feed trough, so we could all celebrate the maudlin reality of our crappy lives and prepare ourselves for what signing up for that whole story was going to be like. Also no shepherds or wise men from afar, being uncanny and insightful, and especially no angels trumpeting (have you noticed how hard it is these days to use the world “t-r-u-m-p” or any word that has “t-r-u-m-p” in it?) one of the biggest lies ever told (the Bible has a lot of those in it):

“Peace on Earth, Good will to Man!”

Seriously. We still get that every year.

And since you can’t go anymore in a pandemic, almost none of that endless and endlessly wretched Christmas music everywhere you go, except for where you can’t avoid going, like the grocery store, but especially not like Starbucks, which starts its Christmas soundtrack of dismal creativity on exactly November 1st so I have to boycott it for two months every year (not like that’s so hard to do). I could rant on, but I’ll struggle to overcome.

And I thought I was over the post-Christian shudder reflex. Maybe not.

Anyway, Christmas without any of that.

This year there was just some cheese and fruit on Christmas Eve, and fresh donuts Christmas morning, simple gifts opened and shared digitally on both occasions to account for different time zones here and on the other side of the globe. And then on Christmas Eve there was Klaus, which I read in my Medium feed on Christmas morning we shouldn’t have watched because it’s racist because there’s a hangman’s noose in it. (I’m sorry, I get it, but nooses weren’t always an icon for racism. Humans have been doing horrible things like hanging each other for a long time – a lot of them in the name of Christ.)

And somehow, after choking back the tears and loving the movie and then heading for bed without visions of sugar plums exactly, more like a sense of maybe pretty lights once a year in during the dark days around the Winter Solstice might not be such a bad idea… and then waking up on Christmas morning and finding that the Merry had come back.

I never saw it coming. Any more than I saw the big Follow Your Dreams crash coming. Any more than I saw 20 years of losing my faith coming.

Today is “Boxing Day” – and if you’re non-British like me the first time you heard about it you were like, what?! — so “Merry Christmas” is over, and I’m grateful that there’s a new Merry on the scene:  Merry without the shudder. Maybe Merry like that will be okay next year – which is surely another year in another time in another life. If another Christmas manages to arrive, which these days I’d rate about 50-50.

Merry like that.

The Religion of the Damned

You are damned. That’s the first premise.

You can be un-damned. That’s the second.

But it’s going to cost you. Third.

What it’s going it cost you is you have to live like you’re still damned.

Got that?

I’ll get to it in a minute, But first…

Welcome to the Black Parade – the congregation of “the broken, the beaten, and the damned.”[1]

How does New Jersey produce so many great bands? My Chemical Romance rode the seam between Gen X and the Millennials. Their Black Parade album and tour spanned 2006-2007. It was genius – it finally gave the Goths a place to belong. A friend of mine went to a concert. She was like, “All I could think was, where are their parents? Did they totally give up?”

It’s good to belong. Things are better when you belong. People rally, help each other out. Better to be a damned Goth and belong than to be a damned Goth and not.

“Now, come one, come all to this tragic affair
Wipe off that makeup, what’s in is despair
So throw on the black dress, mix in with the lot
You might wake up and notice you’re someone you’re not

“If you look in the mirror and don’t like what you see
You can find out first hand what it’s like to be me.”

Genius Lyrics — “The End” My Chemical Romance.

Brilliant. Tour the world, and all the kids in black sing every word with you. Which is saying a lot, because there are a lot of words, staccato fast.

Now back to the Religion of the Damned. That’s where I started, following the “Jesus Rock” signs around campus to a guy named Larry Norman doing a solo show[2]. He had blond hair down to his waist, and sang songs with lyrics like,

“Sipping whiskey from a paper cup
You drown your sorrows till you can’t stand up
Take a look at what you’ve done to yourself
Why don’t you put the bottle back on the shelf
Yellow fingers from your cigarettes
Your hands are shaking while your body sweats

“Why don’t you look into Jesus?
He’s got the answer

“Gonorrhea on Valentines Day
And you’re still looking for the perfect lay
You think rock and roll will set you free
You’ll be deaf before your thirty three
Shooting junk till your half insane
Broken needle in your purple vein

“Why don’t you look into Jesus?
He got the answer.”

Larry Norman – Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus? – [Janis Joplin Version] – 1972 – YouTube

Cool. Our version of The Black Parade. Religion for the damned.

Life was not going well. I wasted my way through freshman year, dropped out, played in the worst rock band to ever hit Denver’s church-basement-roller-rink-office-Christmas-party circuit…  Low-budget rock star debauchery wasn’t cutting it. I needed to not keep screwing up my life. I needed to get undamned.

I met my bandmates in a church basement, and in one of those you’re-making-that-up-right? moments, found myself teaching 7th grade Sunday school about Paul and Moses. I wanted to be like them. I gave our drummer some of my gear to sell and send my me the money (he didn’t), loaded up the rest and drove back to small town Minnesota. Some fellow sojourners pulled up next to me on the freeway and passed over a joint. We connected. We belonged. I didn’t think I wanted to belong anymore, so I pitched it once they were past.

Things weren’t going so well for my parents about then either, but they had found Jesus. I hung out with them and their new Jesus friends. They were Pentecostals – they got filled with Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues. Before long we became Charismatics instead – same deal, same people, but Pentecostals and Charismatics were downtown vs. uptown. Pentecostals lived in trailers. Charismatics went to college. Pentecostals had revival meetings. Charismatics had conferences in the Twin Cities. Technically everybody was equally damned, but most Charismatics were damned more respectably than in a Larry Norman kind of way.

College had Jesus Freaks by then. I went back and joined them  — 100 Christian students at war with everybody else. One day a religion prof brought up this Bible verse:

“Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”

Psalm 137:9

That’s in the Bible, he said, what did we think? I still remember what I thought – basically, I didn’t. The verse just wouldn’t compute – it had to be there for a reason, it couldn’t possibly say what it said, the professor was just making trouble. That’s the way it was on campus – we were persecuted – proof that we were righteous. A few weeks later I wrote a paper that said Nietzsche got syphilis, went crazy, and died because he said God was dead. The Prof was disgusted. It went on like that for three more years. – no more partying, but totally blowing a shot at what a first class college experience might have been – although to be fair, it wasn’t all the Christans’ fault — I think I was just too downtown to handle it..

Christians at war with “the world” followed me into my career. I was smart and worked hard, people hired me, liked me, but I could never quite join in. I was too busy with “come apart from them and be separate.” (2 Corinthians 6:16-18) My disgusted religious prof morphed into perplexed bosses and colleagues. I was white collar and credentialed but my place was not with the damned so much as the trying-to-get-undamned, and sooner or later I’d quit and go off on my next living by faith adventure until I ran out of money and came back for another entry in my patchwork quilt resume.

Rewind, repeat.

Thus my career degenerated into a trail of regrets and disappointments – all for the sake of a religion where you start out damned but then you get saved, but you’re still damned, only sort of conditionally saved until a big finale coming one day soon that will set everything to right and then you get to be undamned forever while everyone else gets damned for good, but if you die before that happens you get to take a shortcut to being undamned, and some people think even if you’re alive when the End Times really get rolling you’ll get a free pass out so that you get to go to Heaven early while everyone else has to live through hell on earth until the final Hell with a capital H finally opens up and gorges on everybody except maybe a few who figured out how to get undamned before everybody else gets damned for good.

Got all that?

That’s the “good news.”

In the meantime you find out that your highest and best calling is to be damned if you do and damned if you don’t. And the crazy thing is, the Bible comes right out and tells you that’s the way it’s going to be if you sign up. Here’s how it describes the highest and best of what it means to be a God Follower:

 “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised,”[7]

Hebrews 11: 35-39.

It’s like the religion prof’s Bible verse. The Bible can’t really say that, there must be something else going on. The best you can do is suffer, and not get what you were promised?

Well now, isn’t that a hell of a deal!

We could have seen it coming if we’d thought for more than a nanosecond about our religion’s symbol:  the most horrible, cruel, depraved, savage, barbaric, sadistic, blood-lusty instrument of torture the very worst of human depravity has ever devised. You see it everywhere – molded in gold and silver and bejeweled. Earrings. Necklaces. Bumper stickers. All over the place. Often a human is included — twisting and writhing as he’s being tortured to death.

Oh, and a father did that to his child. Because he so loved the world.

Which means we’re supposed to feel good about the torture symbol. take comfort in it, welcome it, worship it, revere it as the best thing that ever happened, make art out of it, make elaborate paintings of it on the ceilings and in stained glass windows of massive centuries-old buildings all over Europe that were constructed in its shape and filled with statutes and sculptures of it. There have been countless millions (billions?) of those death by torture symbols made and displayed all around the world for a couple thousand years now, evidence of an international colonization of a death by torture cult, one that reveres the bloody sacrifice of animals and humans, has done so since antiquity and still does today -– billions of people for millennia treating that death by torture symbol as holy, something that can be desecrated — as if it’s not desecrated enough already, not already beyond despicable, not already horrible beyond any vestige of human decency.

That’s the Religion of the Damned. That’s the one I joined. That’s the one I’m no longer part of. (You might have guessed.)

Can we talk?

All this being damned and suffering and death by torture is not just a religion, it’s a worldview. A way of looking at life that’s been dominant in western culture for thousands of years. You’re lost, and it’s your fault. You were born that way, and then you proved how screwed up you were by screwing up some more.  You missed the mark from the get-go. No wonder you look in the mirror and don’t like what you see.

And on it goes. I’m so sick of it, I can’t write about it anymore.

What if we’re not that? What if we’re not a bunch of born losers, what if we’re just humans… just kind of… well, living…?

Is there any way that could be good enough?

The final Black Parade concert pronounced that it was over. (Click the photo to watch the show.) Let’s hope not. What needs to be over is the Religion of the Damned. What needs to be over is the dogma that we’re not okay, we never were okay, we never will be okay, that the only way to be okay is be the wretched and poor, beaten and damned, sat upon, spat upon, ratted on[8]… in the name of God. There’s enough Hell already, enough torture. We don’t need any more.

All those Goths, everybody who looks like their parents gave up on them, they’re all better off than that guy whose father tortured him to death. How about we all join the Black Parade, learn the lyrics, sing them together, look out for each other?

How about we all belong?


[1] YouTube — My Chemical Romance – The Black Parade Is Dead! (Full Concert Film)

[2] Larry Norman – Wikipedia

[8] Simon and Garfunkel, Blessed.

Narratives of Self, Purpose, and Meaning [Part 2]: The Supernatural

It’s Youth Group night at church; I’m a high school senior and have been tapped to give the sermon. I start with, “Religions are the vehicles through which human beings try to make sense of life.” Honest, that’s what I said. I remember writing it, I remember standing at the pulpit saying it. At home afterward my dad and my sister’s seminarian boyfriend (his name was Luther – honest) were snacking on roast preacher. “Where did you get that?” Luther asked, ‘Religions are the vehicles through which human beings try to make sense of life’ – where did you get that?” He was impressed. I don’t know, it was just an idea, it seemed obvious — religion is one of the things humans do.

Making Sense of Things

As we saw last time, religion is a “teleological”[1] strategy – it’s one of the ways we invest things, events people, ourselves, our lives, and life in general with purpose and meaning. For many people, religion and the supernatural are the go-to standard for teleological thinking.

“Academic research shows that religious and supernatural thinking leads people to believe that almost no big life events are accidental or random. As the authors of some recent cognitive-science studies at Yale put it, ‘Individuals’ explicit religious and paranormal beliefs’ are the best predictors of their ‘perception of purpose in life events”—their tendency ‘to view the world in terms of agency, purpose, and design.’”[2]

The prefix “super” in “supernatural” means above, beyond, over, apart from. When we say supernatural, we mean there’s something or Someone out there that’s not limited to the natural world and flesh and blood, that has it all figured out, sees what we don’t see, knows that we don’t know, explains what we can’t explain, is better at life than we are. The supernatural is personified or objectified in what we call God, who has a better take than we’ll ever have: as author Madeleine L’Engle wrote: “I have a point of view. You have a point of view. God has view.”

Religion tries to teach us God’s view but generally accepts there are limits. Besides, if we could share God’s view, we wouldn’t need God anymore, we’d be God. Short of that, we can only believe God has view, and that it’s better, more complete, more perfect than our point of view. Which means that, compared to God, we and our existence are lesser, partial, flawed, while God represents the perfected version of us – what we would be if we could be God. And somehow, knowing that’s a comforting thought — I know it was for me when I first began to believe in God (a couple years after I gave that sermon), because at least God was better than the alternative, which was me having lost my bearings and making a mess of life.

“From a scientific point of view, we were not created or designed but instead are the product of evolution. The natural events that shaped our world and our own existence were not purposeful. In other words, life is objectively meaningless. From this perspective, the only way to find meaning is to create your own, because the universe has no meaning or purpose. The universe just is. Though there are certainly a small percentage of people who appear to accept this notion, much of the world’s population rejects it. For most humans, the idea that life is inherently meaningless simply will not do.”[3]

Believe First, Then Rationalize

Enter the supernatural. Now I felt better. And once I was in, I backfilled the case for believing. Over the next few years I built my case, devouring Christian apologetics and other books that were making the rounds of my collegiate fellowship. That ancillary material became part of my new religious narrative, supporting the primary doctrinal narrative.

These days, neuro-psychological research indicates that we believe first, then rationalize. Rationalizing is not the same as acting rationally. Belief in the supernatural is a story – the story we tell about ourselves and our life that gives us identity and our life purpose and meaning. To the believer, it’s nonfiction – the way things really are, who they really are. If we’re not of similar persuasion, we may think it’s fiction – a fish story, or case of “teleological error”[4]. – but neither of us can prove the other wrong. Belief is ultimately indefensible and unassailable – it’s a “first thought” from which a host of others originate. Still, we like to think our beliefs are rational, chosen in the exercise of our own free will.

Free Will (or not)

Take away free will, and you take away a key sense of personal power. Free will gives us something we can do in the face of the apparent nonsense of life: we can stem the onslaught of meaninglessness by choosing to believe – in this case, in the supernatural. We still don’t understand, we still screw up, but at least we can rely on the supernatural to understand and model what we would be like if we weren’t so… mortal.

These days, neuro-psychology also challenges our usual assumptions about the self and free will, holding that our free will isn’t as free and intentional and rational as we’d like to think. Maybe so, but at least one leading brain scientist thinks that sometimes it might be better just to fool ourselves into believing we can choose what to believe – at least we’ll feel better.

“Psychologist Dan McAdams proposes that when it comes to making sense of our lives, we create narratives or personal myths to explain where we have come from, what we do, and where we are going… These accounts are myths because they are not grounded in reality but rather follow a well-worn narrative path of a protagonist character (our self) and what the world throws at them.

“This core self, wandering down the path of development, enduring things that life throws at us is, however, the illusion. Like every other aspect of human development, the emergence of the self is epigenetic — an interaction of the genes in the environment. The self emerges out of that journey through the epigenetic landscape, combining the legacy of our genetic inheritance with the influence of the early environment to produce profound and lasting effect on how we develop socially. … These thoughts and behavior may seemingly originate from within us, but they emerge largely in a social context. IN a sense, who we are comes down to those around us. We may be born with different biological properties and dispositions, but even those emerge in the context of others and in some cases can be triggered or turned off by environmental factors.

“We may feel that we are the self treading down the path of life and making our own decisions at the various junctions and forks but that would also assume that we are free to make our choices. However, the freedom to make choices is another aspect of the illusion.

“Most of us believe that, unless we are under duress or suffering from some form of mental disorder, we all have the capacity to freely make decisions and choices. This is the common belief that our decisions are not preordained and that we can choose between alternatives. This is what most people mean by having free will — the belief that human behavior is an expression of personal choice and is not determined by physical forces, fate, or God. In other words, there is a self in control.

“However, neuroscience tells us that we are mistaken and that free will is also part of the self illusion… We think we have freedom but, in fact, we do not.

“For example, I believe that the sentence that I just typed was my choice. I thought about what I wanted to say and how to say it. Not only did I have the experience of my intention to begin this line of discussion at this point but I had the experience of agency, of actually wanting it. I knew I was the one doing it. I felt the authorship of my actions.

“It seems absurd to question my free will here but, as much as I hate to admit it, these experiences are not what they seem. This is because any choices that a person makes must be the culmination of the interaction of a multitude of hidden factors ranging from genetic inheritance, life experiences, current circumstances, and planned goals. Some of these influences must also come from external sources, but they all play out as patterns of neuronal activity in the brain. This is the matrix of distributed networks of nerve cells firing across my neuronal architecture.

“My biases, my memories, my perceptions, and my thoughts are the interacting patterns of excitation and inhibition in my brain, and when the checks and balances are finally done, the resulting sums of all of these complex interactions are the decisions and the choices that I make. We are not aware of these influences because they are unconscious and so we feel that the discussion has been arrived at independently — a problem that was recognized by the philosopher Spinoza when he wrote, “Men are mistaken in thinking themselves free; their opinion is made up of conscious of their own actions, and ignorance of the causes by which they are determined.”

“Even if the self and our ability to exercise free will is an illusion, not all is lost. In fact, beliefs seem to produce consequences for our behavior.

“Beliefs about self-control, from wherever they may derive, are powerful motivators of human behavior.

“When we believe that we are the masters of our own destiny, we behave differently than those who deny the existence of free will and believe everything is determined.

“Maybe that’s why belief in free will predicts not only better job performance but also expected career success. Workers who believe in free will outperform their colleagues ,and this is recognized and rewarded by their superiors. So, when we believe in free will, we enjoy life more.

“The moral of the tale is that, even if free will doesn’t exist, then maybe it is best to ignore what the neuroscientists or philosophers say. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.”[5]

It seems we often greet paradigm-shifting scientific findings with a shrug. Maybe somebody in a lab coat figured something out, but there’s no apparent impact on us. Maybe somebody says free will is nothing more than the confluence of multiple neural pathways — okay fine, but we’ll take own misguided, self-deceptive sense of agency any day. It’s how we’re used to feeling, and there’s no apparent downside to contradicting a bunch of intellectual hooey. In fact, the downside is all on the side of science, which wants us to think there’s no point in anything.

Plus, if we believe in the supernatural, we enjoy the safety of numbers– especially if we live in the USA, where a 2019 Gallup Poll found that 64% – 87% of us believe in God, depending on how the question was asked. (By contrast, also in 2019, the Pew Research Center found that only 4% of Americans said they were atheists.[6])

For me personally, when I first learned about neuroscience’s case against free will, it didn’t feel devastating or hopeless, didn’t throw me into a pit of despair, didn’t make me want to wallow. It was weird, but no more. I was skeptical, and still assume there’s more to be discovered before we get the whole picture, but in time, I came to like the changes in outlook the absence of God and belief in God offered. Life and my place in it were cleaner and simpler somehow – if for no other reason that I no longer needed to expend the energy belief in the supernatural used to require.

The Religious Brain

Also back when I first got religion, I experienced something else current neuroscience tells us: that religion shapes the brain as the brain shapes religion. Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and neurology professor at Northwestern University, says that religions and their community behavioral codes helped to make the brain what it is today, and vice versa:

“Neurotheology is important in part because early religious practices helped develop our brains to begin with. ‘Religion has played an incredibly important role in human evolution. It’s funny, people want to separate the two but in fact they’re intertwined,’ [Dr. Grafman] says.

“Of course, it’s a two-way relationship between the brain and religion. Our brains had to develop the capacity to establish social communities and behaviors, which are the basis of religious societies. But religious practice in turn developed the brain, says Grafman. ‘As these societies became more co-operative, our brains evolved in response to that. Our brain led to behavior and then the behavior fed back to our brain to help sculpt it,’ he adds.”[7]

The mutual reinforcement loop still operates, so that the brain steeped in religion gets better at religion, finds way to reinforce and substantiate its beliefs. As a result, the religious narrative becomes more and more true the more you practice it –experience increasingly conforms to religious dictates on both an individual and community level. Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, a pioneer of “neurotheology,” observes that the religious brain promotes social cohesiveness and conformity to social moral norms.

“‘There’s the argument that religion has benefited human beings by helping to create cohesive societies and morals and help us to determine our behavior and interact with the world more effectively,’” says Newberg. ‘The ability to think about this from a neuroscience perspective is part of that discussion.’”[8]

As a result, when you stop practicing your religious narrative, as I did, your brain circuits are no longer engaged in actively supporting it, and are now available to process alternatives. As you detach from religious immersion, your prior conviction about its truth – i.e., its ability to explain reality, which was increasingly conforming to it — fades away. At that stage, the brain’s formerly religious wiring is equally adept at promoting other individual and communal beliefs and behaviors, as well as other narratives. Andew Newberg’s website provides a sample of research findings from his book[9] indicating that the formerly religious brain is equally adept at generating rule-breaking behavior:

“The prefrontal cortex is traditionally thought to be involved in executive control, or willful behavior, as well as decision-making. So, the researchers hypothesize, it would make sense that a practice that centers on relinquishing control would result in decreased activity in this brain area.

“A recent study that Medical News Today reported on found that religion activates the same reward-processing brain circuits as sex, drugs, and other addictive activities.

“Researchers led by Dr. Jeff Anderson, Ph.D. — from the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City — examined the brains of 19 young Mormons using a functional MRI scanner.

“When asked whether, and to what degree, the participants were “feeling the spirit,” those who reported the most intense spiritual feelings displayed increased activity in the bilateral nucleus accumbens, as well as the frontal attentional and ventromedial prefrontal cortical loci.

“These pleasure and reward-processing brain areas are also active when we engage in sexual activities, listen to music, gamble, and take drugs. The participants also reported feelings of peace and physical warmth.

“’When our study participants were instructed to think about a savior, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded,’ says first study author Michael Ferguson.

“These findings echo those of older studies, which found that engaging in spiritual practices raises levels of serotonin, which is the “happiness” neurotransmitter, and endorphins.

“The latter are euphoria-inducing molecules whose name comes from the phrase ‘endogenous morphine.’

“Such neurophysiological effects of religion seem to give the dictum ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ a new level of meaning.”[10]

These findings explain a range of religious behaviors: charitable good deeds, the use of music in worship, and beneficial “fellowship” dynamics at one end of the spectrum; and clergy sexual crimes, cult abuses, and terrorism on the other end. Plus, the entire spectrum is supported not only by religious neural network, but by the brain’s addictive feel-good hormones — right alongside sex, drugs, and rock n roll.

Lost in the Story

Religious narratives draw upon ancient storytelling for their source material, making liberal use of metaphors and allegories in scripture and wisdom literature to create parables, koans, riddles, myths, fables, cautionary tales, and poetry. Religious storytelling illuminates the human condition, illustrates what happens when Earthy existence is aligned or at odds with Heavenly purpose.[11]

Normally, metaphors and allegories are representational: they describe one thing in terms of another – i.e., in the case of religion, worldly, fleshly experience in light of divine, spiritual truth. Sometimes, though, religious practice recasts human experience into literal, explicit religious storytelling, in which the devotee is “in but not of the world”[12] to an extreme. As a result, the zealot dwells in religious metaphor, views themselves and others as religious characters, and interprets circumstances in terms of religious drama. At this extreme, reality becomes a pious fantasyland, in which religious imagery supplants worldly experience. Religious storytelling no longer illustrates and represents, it becomes perceived reality, as the believer remains in a closed, self-reinforcing system. The condition is euphoric, supported by feel-good brain hormones – as close to what it feels like to have God’s view as we’ll ever get.

I know this experience well — I did this a lot in my religious days, and not just with religion, but also with film, theater, books, and other stories – just as I had as a child. I have a lively imagination and have “the ability to become easily engrossed, such as in movies, novels or daydreams” [13] – traits that make it easy for me to generate religious experience and make me a good subject for hypnosis..

The best example of this kind of religious storytelling excess that I can think of are the lyrics of a hymn I remember singing in the church where I grew up:

I love to tell the story
Of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory,
Of Jesus and His love.
I love to tell the story,
Because I know ’tis true;
It satisfies my longings
As nothing else can do.

 I love to tell the story,
’Twill be my theme in glory
To tell the old, old story
of Jesus and His love.

I love to tell the story;
More wonderful it seems
Than all the golden fancies
Of all my golden dreams,
I love to tell the story,
It did so much for me;
And that is just the reason
I tell it now to thee.

I love to tell the story;
Tis pleasant to repeat
What seems each time I tell it,
More wonderfully sweet.
I love to tell the story;
For some have never heard
The message of salvation
From God’s own holy Word.

I love to tell the story;
For those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting
To hear it like the rest.
And when, in scenes of glory,
I sing the new, new song,
’Twill be the old, old story,
That I have loved so long.

I used to wonder why religious experiences were so easy for me, compared to other people, until I became aware of the neurological underpinnings of this cognitive disposition. Discovering it, and learning to keep it from running away with me, turned about to be a key development in my drift away from religion, and from narrative in general.

More on narratives next time.

[1] Wikipedia.

[2] Andersen, Kurt, How America Lost Its Mind – The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history, The Atlantic (Dec. 28, 2017). See also Routledge, Supernatural, op. cit.

[3] Routledge, Clay, Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World  (July 2, 2018)

[4] See this blog’s Narratives-Of-Self-Purpose-And-Meaning-Part-1-Fish-Stories.

[5] The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood (2012)

[6] /The Pew Research Center report is intriguingly nuanced, and worth a look if you like this sort of thing.

[7]The Neuroscience Argument That Religion Shaped The Very Structure Of Our Brains,” Quartz (December 3, 2016)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Newberg, Andrew, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist (2009)

[10] “What Religion Does To Your Brain,”,: Medical News Today (July 20, 2018)

[11] For more on metaphor, see the classic and definitive text Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

[12] See, for example, this online Bible study on the phrase.

[13] See The Five Traits Of A Good Hypnotic Subject, Your Visual Mind. See also Wikipedia re: “Hypnotic Susceptibility.”

Narratives of Self, Purpose, and Meaning [Part 1]: Fish Stories

A friend of mine is a Christian, business leader, author, and fisherman. He tells fish stories in each of those roles. At least it feels that way to me, so I take his stories “with a grain of salt.” A Roman luminary named Pliny the Elder[1] used that phrase in a poison antidote in 77 A.D., and he meant it literally. Today, it describes how we respond when it feels like someone’s story – like the fish –  just keeps getting bigger.

I don’t care about my friend’s fish, I care about him. When he tells a fish story, he’s sharing his personal narrative. “This is who I am,” he’s saying, “And this is how I believe life works.”

“Each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’, wrote the British neurologist Oliver Sacks, ‘this narrative is us’. Likewise the American cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner: ‘Self is a perpetually rewritten story.’ And: ‘In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives.’ Or a fellow American psychologist, Dan P McAdams: ‘We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell.’ And here’s the American moral philosopher J David Velleman: ‘We invent ourselves… but we really are the characters we invent.’ And, for good measure, another American philosopher, Daniel Dennett: ‘we are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour… and we always put the best “faces” on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self.’”[2]

“Each of us conducts our lives according to a set of assumptions about how things work: how our society functions, its relationship with the natural world, what’s valuable, and what’s possible. This is our worldview, which often remains unquestioned and unstated but is deeply felt and underlies many of the choices we make in our lives.”[3]

The Self

This kind of narrative assumes the self is an entity all its own, with a purpose also all its own, and that if you get both in hand, you’ll know the meaning of life – at least your own. Current neuro-psychology doesn’t see things that way.

“The idea of there being a single ‘self’, hidden in a place that only maturity and adulthood can illuminate and which, like archaeologists, we might dig and dust away the detritus to find, is to believe that there is some inner essence locked within us – and that unearthing it could be a key to working out how to live the rest of our lives. This comforting notion of coming of age, of unlocking a true ‘self’ endures, even though it is out of step with current thinking in psychology, which denies a singular identity.”[4]

“From a scientific point of view, we were not created or designed but instead are the product of evolution. The natural events that shaped our world and our own existence were not purposeful. In other words, life is objectively meaningless.”[5]

For most people, that scientific outlook is too harsh:

“From this perspective, the only way to find meaning is to create your own, because the universe has no meaning or purpose. The universe just is. Though there are certainly a small percentage of people who appear to accept this notion, much of the world’s population rejects it. For most humans, the idea that life is inherently meaningless simply will not do.”[6]

Self-Actualization

Cultivating a sense of identity, purpose, and meaning sounds good, but who’s got time? Maslow’s iconic “Hierarchy of Needs” pyramid recognizes that adult life puts the basics first.

“Abraham Maslow was the 20th-century American psychologist best-known for explaining motivation through his hierarchy of needs, which he represented in a pyramid. At the base, our physiological needs include food, water, warmth and rest. Moving up the ladder, Maslow mentions safety, love, and self-esteem and accomplishment. But after all those have been satisfied, the motivating factor at the top of the pyramid involves striving to achieve our full potential and satisfy creative goals. As one of the founders of humanistic psychology, Maslow proposed that the path to self-transcendence and, ultimately, greater compassion for all of humanity requires the ‘self-actualisation’ at the top of his pyramid – fulfilling your true potential, and becoming your authentic self.”[7]

Columbia psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman thinks we ought to get self-actualization off the back burner, for the sake of ourselves and our world.

“‘We live in times of increasing divides, selfish concerns, and individualistic pursuits of power,’ Kaufman wrote recently in a blog in Scientific American introducing his new research. He hopes that rediscovering the principles of self-actualisation might be just the tonic that the modern world is crying out for.”[8]

Kaufman’s research suggests that making room for self-awareness and growth helps to develop character traits that the world could use more of:

“Participants’ total scores… correlated with their scores on the main five personality traits (that is, with higher extraversion, agreeableness, emotional stability, openness and conscientiousness) and with the metatrait of ‘stability’, indicative of an ability to avoid impulses in the pursuit of one’s goals.

“Next, Kaufman turned to modern theories of wellbeing, such as self-determination theory, to see if people’s scores on his self-actualisation scale correlated with these contemporary measures. Sure enough, he found that people with more characteristics of self-actualisation also tended to score higher on curiosity, life-satisfaction, self-acceptance, personal growth and autonomy, among other factors.

“A criticism often levelled at Maslow’s notion of self-actualisation is that its pursuit encourages an egocentric focus on one’s own goals and needs. However, Maslow always contended that it is only through becoming our true, authentic selves that we can transcend the self and look outward with compassion to the rest of humanity. Kaufman explored this too, and found that higher scorers on his self-actualisation scale tended also to score higher on feelings of oneness with the world, but not on decreased self-salience, a sense of independence and bias toward information relevant to oneself. (These are the two main factors in a modern measure of self-transcendence developed by the psychologist David Yaden at the University of Pennsylvania.)

“The new test is sure to reinvigorate Maslow’s ideas, but if this is to help heal our divided world, then the characteristics required for self-actualisation, rather than being a permanent feature of our personalities, must be something we can develop deliberately. I put this point to Kaufman and he is optimistic. ‘I think there is significant room to develop these characteristics [by changing your habits],’ he told me. ‘A good way to start with that,’ he added, ‘is by first identifying where you stand on those characteristics and assessing your weakest links. Capitalise on your highest characteristics but also don’t forget to intentionally be mindful about what might be blocking your self-actualisation … Identify your patterns and make a concerted effort to change. I do think it’s possible with conscientiousness and willpower.’”[9]

But What if There’s No Self to Actualize?

If there’s no unified self, then there’s no beneficiary for all that “concerted effort to change” and “conscientiousness and willpower.”

“The idea of there being a single ‘self’, hidden in a place that only maturity and adulthood can illuminate and which, like archaeologists, we might dig and dust away the detritus to find, is to believe that there is some inner essence locked within us – and that unearthing it could be a key to working out how to live the rest of our lives. This comforting notion of coming of age, of unlocking a true ‘self’ endures, even though it is out of step with current thinking in psychology, which denies a singular identity.[10]

Again, it’s hard for most of us to live with that much existential angst[11]. We prefer instead to think there’s a unique self (soul) packed inside each of us, and to invest it with significance.

“From a scientific point of view, we were not created or designed but instead are the product of evolution. The natural events that shaped our world and our own existence were not purposeful. In other words, life is objectively meaningless. From this perspective, the only way to find meaning is to create your own, because the universe has no meaning or purpose. The universe just is. Though there are certainly a small percentage of people who appear to accept this notion, much of the world’s population rejects it. For most humans, the idea that life is inherently meaningless simply will not do.

“Instead, people latch onto what I call teleological thinking. Teleological thinking is when people perceive phenomena in terms of purpose. When applied to natural phenomena, this type of thinking is generally considered to be flawed because it imposes design where there is no evidence for it. To impose purpose and design where there is none is what researchers refer to as a teleological error.”[12]

Teleological thinking finds design and purpose in the material world[13] to counter the feeling that we’re at the mercy of random pointlessness. We prefer our reality to be by design, so that we have a chance to align ourselves with it – a form of personal empowerment psychologists call “agency.”

“Each of us has a story we tell about our own life, a way of structuring the past and fitting events into a coherent narrative. Real life is chaotic; life narratives give it meaning and structure.”[14]

The Coming of Age Narrative

Further, we look to a specific cultural rite of passage – when we “come of age” in late adolescence — as the time when we first discover and take responsibility for our unique self and its identity and purpose. From there, we carry that sense of who we are and where we fit into responsible adult life.

“The protagonist has the double task of self-integration and integration into society… Take, for instance, the fact that the culminating fight scene in most superhero stories occurs only after the hero has learned his social lesson – what love is, how to work together, or who he’s ‘meant to be’. Romantic stories climax with the ultimate, run-to-the-airport revelation. The family-versus-work story has the protagonist making a final decision to be with his loved ones, but only after almost losing everything. Besides, for their dramatic benefit, the pointedness and singular rush of these scenes stems from the characters’ desire to finally gain control of their self: to ‘grow up’ with one action or ultimate understanding.[15]

The Redemption Narrative

The coming of age story is a variant of the “redemption” narrative, in which we learn that suffering is purposeful: it shapes and transforms us, so we can take our place in society.

“For the past 15 years, Daniel McAdams, professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Illinois, has explored this story and its five life stages: (1) an early life sense of being somehow different or special, along with (2) a strong feeling of moral steadfastness and determination, ultimately (3) tested by terrible ordeals that are (4) redeemed by a transformation into positive experiences and (5) zeal to improve society.

“This sequence doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual events of the storyteller’s life, of course. It’s about how people interpret what happened – their spin, what they emphasise in the telling and what they discard.” [16]

Redemption narratives make us good citizens, and never mind if there’s some ego involved:

“In his most recent study, the outcome of years of intensive interviews with 157 adults, McAdams has found that those who adopt [redemption narratives] tend to be generative – that is, to be a certain kind of big-hearted, responsible, constructive adult.

“Generative people are deeply concerned about the future; they’re serious mentors, teachers and parents; they might be involved in public service. They think about their legacy, and want to fix the world’s problems.

“But generative people aren’t necessarily mild-mannered do-gooders. Believing that you have a mandate to fix social problems – and that you have the moral authority and the ability to do so – also requires a sense of self-importance, even a touch of arrogance.”[17]

The American Way

Coming of age and redemption stories have been culturally and neurologically sustained in Western and Middle Eastern civilizations since the Abrahamic scriptures wrote about the Garden of Eden 5500 years ago. Americans, as heirs of this ideological legacy, have perfected it.

“For Americans, the redemption narrative is one of the most common and compelling life stories. In the arc of this life story, adversity is not meaningless suffering to be avoided or endured; it is transformative, a necessary step along the road to personal growth and fulfilment.[18]

“The coming-of-age tale has become an peculiarly American phenomenon, since self-understanding in the United States is largely predicated on a self-making mythos. Where, in Britain, one might be asked about one’s parents, one’s schooling or one’s background, Americans seem less interested in a person’s past and more interested in his or her future. More cynical observers have claimed, perhaps rightly, that this is because Americans don’t have a clear history and culture; but the coming-of-age tale has also become important in the US because of a constant – maybe optimistic, maybe pig-headed – insistence that one can always remake oneself. The past is nothing; the future is “everything.

“This idea of inherent, Adam-and-Eve innocence, and the particularly American interest in it, is perhaps tantamount to a renunciation of history. Such denialism infuses both American stories and narratives of national identity, said Ihab Hassan, the late Arab-American literary theorist. In any case, the American tale of growing up concerns itself with creating a singular, enterprising self out of supposed nothingness: an embrace of the future and its supposedly infinite possibilities.”[19]

American capitalism relies on the redemption narrative as its signature story genre.

“From a more sociological perspective, the American self-creation myth is, inherently, a capitalist one. The French philosopher Michel Foucault theorised that meditating and journaling could help to bring a person inside herself by allowing her, at least temporarily, to escape the world and her relationship to it. But the sociologist Paul du Gay, writing on this subject in 1996, argued that few people treat the self as Foucault proposed. Most people, he said, craft outward-looking ‘enterprising selves’ by which they set out to acquire cultural capital in order to move upwards in the world, gain access to certain social circles, certain jobs, and so on. We decorate ourselves and cultivate interests that reflect our social aspirations. In this way, the self becomes the ultimate capitalist machine, a Pierre Bourdieu-esque nightmare that willingly exploits itself.

“Even the idea that there is a discreet transition from youth into adulthood, either via a life-altering ‘feeling’ or via the culmination of skill acquisition, means that selfhood is a task to be accomplished in the service of social gain, and in which notions of productivity and work can be applied to one’s identity. Many students, for instance, are encouraged to take ‘gap years’ to figure out ‘who they are’ and ‘what they want to do’. (‘Do’, of course, being a not-so-subtle synonym for ‘work’.) Maturation is necessarily related to finances, and the expectation of most young people is that they will become ‘independent’ by entering the workforce. In this way, the emphasis on coming of age reifies the moral importance of work.” [20]

As usual, Silicon Valley is ahead of the game, having already harnessed the power of the redemption story as its own cultural norm:

“In Silicon Valley these days, you haven’t really succeeded until you’ve failed, or at least come very close. Failing – or nearly failing – has become a badge of pride. It’s also a story to be told, a yarn to be unspooled.

“The stories tend to unfold the same way, with the same turning points and the same language: first, a brilliant idea and a plan to conquer the world. Next, hardships that test the mettle of the entrepreneur. Finally, the downfall – usually, because the money runs out. But following that is a coda or epilogue that restores optimism. In this denouement, the founder says that great things have or will come of the tribulations: deeper understanding, new resolve, a better grip on what matters.

“Unconsciously, entrepreneurs have adopted one of the most powerful stories in our culture: the life narrative of adversity and redemption.”[21]

Writing Your Own Story

There’s nothing like a good story to make you rethink your life. A bookseller friend’s slogan for his shop is “Life is a story. Tell a good one.”

“The careers of many great novelists and filmmakers are built on the assumption, conscious or not, that stories can motivate us to re-evaluate the world and our place in it.

“New research is lending texture and credence to what generations of storytellers have known in their bones – that books, poems, movies, and real-life stories can affect the way we think and even, by extension, the way we act.

“Across time and across cultures, stories have proved their worth not just as works of art or entertaining asides, but as agents of personal transformation.”[22]

As a result, some people think we ought to take Michel Foucault’s advice and meditate (practice “mindfulness”) and journal our way to a better self-understanding. As for journaling:

“In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity. Writing in the 1950s, the psychologist Erik Erikson put it this way:

“To be adult means among other things to see one’s own life in continuous perspective, both in retrospect and in prospect … to selectively reconstruct his past in such a way that, step for step, it seems to have planned him, or better, he seems to have planned it.

“Intriguingly, there’s some evidence that prompting people to reflect on and tell their life stories – a process called ‘life review therapy’ – could be psychologically beneficial.”[23]

Consistent with Scott Barry Kaufman’s comments from earlier, the more you can put a coming of age or redemption story spin on your own narrative, the more likely journaling will improve your outlook.

“A relevant factor in this regard is the tone, complexity and mood of the stories that people tell themselves. For instance, it’s been shown that people who tell more positive stories, including referring to more instances of personal redemption, tend to enjoy higher self-esteem and greater ‘self-concept clarity’ (the confidence and lucidity in how you see yourself). Perhaps engaging in writing or talking about one’s past will have immediate benefits only for people whose stories are more positive.

“It remains unclear exactly why the life-chapter task had the self-esteem benefits that it did. It’s possible that the task led participants to consider how they had changed in positive ways. They might also have benefited from expressing and confronting their emotional reactions to these periods of their lives – this would certainly be consistent with the well-documented benefits of expressive writing and ‘affect labelling’ (the calming effect of putting our emotions into words).

“The researchers said: ‘Our findings suggest that the experience of systematically reviewing one’s life and identifying, describing and conceptually linking life chapters may serve to enhance the self, even in the absence of increased self-concept clarity and meaning.’”[24]

An American Life

My friend the storyteller is an exemplar of all the above. He’s an American, a Christian, and a capitalist. And when he starts his day by journaling, he believes he’s writing what he’s hearing from God. I was most of that, too for the couple decades he and I shared narratives and teleological outlook. I’ve since moved on:  at this writing, we’ve had no contact for over three years. I wondered if I could still call him a friend — whether that term still applies  after your stories diverge as entirely as ours . Yes you can and yes it does, I decided, although I honestly can’t say why.

Religion: Teleological Thinking Perfected

Personal narratives – especially actually writing your own story – aren’t for everyone. They require quiet, solitude, and reflection, plus doing that feels egotistical if you’re not used to it. Religion offers a more common teleological alternative, with its beliefs, rituals, and practices designed to put you in touch with an external, transcendent source of your identity, purpose, and meaning. “Don’t look inward, look up,” is its message.

We’ll look at that next time.

[1] . Wikipedia. Pliny the Elder was a naturalist, military leader, friend of the Emperor, and a victim of the Vesuvius eruption.

[2] I Am Not a Story: Some find it comforting to think of life as a story. Others find that absurd. So are you a Narrative or a non-Narrative? Aeon (Sept. 3, 2015)

[3] Lent, Jeremy, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning (2017)

[4] The Coming-Of-Age Con: How can you go about finding ‘who you really are’ if the whole idea of the one true self is a big fabrication? Aeon (Sept. 8, 2017)

[5] Routledge, Clay, Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World  (2018)

[6] Ibid.

[7] Do You Have A Self-Actualised Personality? Maslow Revisited. Aeon (Mar. 5, 2019)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The Coming-Of-Age Con op. cit.

[11] Urban Dictionary: existential angst..

[12] Routledge, Clay, Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World  (July 2, 2018)

[13] Wikipedia.

[14] Silicon Phoenix: A Gifted Child, An Adventure, A Dark Time, And Then … A Pivot? How Silicon Valley Rewrote America’s Redemption Narrative, Aeon Magazine (May 2, 2016)

[15] The Coming-Of-Age Con, op cit.

[16] Silicon Phoenix, op. cit.

[17] Silicon Phoenix, op. cit.

[18] Silicon Phoenix, op. cit.

[19] The Coming-Of-Age Con op. cit.

[20] Silicon Phoenix, op cit.

[21] Silicon Phoenix, op cit.

[22] The Power of Story, op. cit.

[23] To Boost Your Self-Esteem, Write About Chapters of Your Life. Aeon (Apr. 5, 2019)

[24] Ibid.