We Made It All Up

God exists the way the USA and France and Pakistan exist – the way the Yankees and Lakers and Manchester United exist… the way Apple and Tesla and… well, you get the point.

Nations, sports teams, corporations – any group, class, organization you can think of – all of them exist because we think they do. They aren’t out there in the cosmos waiting for us to recognize their existence. We believe them into existence.

A bunch of guys in powder wigs decide they should have a new country, and they all buy into the idea. They believe it into existence. They write a Declaration of what they have in mind and they all sign it. They follow it with a war, then they write a Constitution, elect a first President and Congress…. 

That’s how institutions come into existence. Somebody gets an idea, a bunch of other somebodies get on board with it, and then they turn their idea into an institution. They give it a legal structure, adopt mission statements and strategic plans, somebody designs a flag for it, somebody else designs and sews uniforms, street vendors start selling swag with its colors, it prints and spends money, takes out loans and buys real estate and puts up buildings, sells things and stages events.… The psychological term for all that is emergence — the invisible idea everybody believes in takes on visible structure — it emerges into existence, becomes a shared reality. You can see, hear, taste. and touch it. It’s a part of things. Before long, it’s been around forever.

All thanks to the human ability to believe in an idea until it becomes a communal reality.

Patriotism and fandom and brand loyalty and religious devotion aren’t out there existing apart from anybody’s opinion on the matter, keeping track of who believes in them and who doesn’t and making a to-be-punished list of people who don’t. They only come into being because of the belief, intention, and follow-through of their believers. Take away belief and emergence and you don’t have a country or a team or a whatever – all you’ve got is a dreamer or a bunch of dreamers making things up that never take shape, never emerge, never become reality.

All you’ve got is a great concept that never gets produced.

Your people and my people never get together.

But keep in touch. We can do lunch.

To my new atheist way of thinking, belief plus emergence is how God, the Bible, Christianity, and all the rest of the God religions came to be.

God emerged into existence.

That’s heresy of course. “Heresy” is what happens when unbelievers think. Unbelievers can’t help but be heretics. If they were believers, their brains wouldn’t process heretical thoughts. But since they’re not, heresy comes naturally – it’s the standard fare, just another day at the office. They root for the Astros instead of the Cubs. They kneel for the National Anthem. They think high school kids shouldn’t have the “freedom” to open carry at school. And on it goes. Heretics all – because they don’t believe.

Believers, on the other hand, can’t be heretics. Belief won’t let them. Belief keeps its onward Christian soldiers marching smartly off to war. There’s no breaking ranks in believing. Heresy requires thinking outside the lines of belief. Galileo had to turn himself in to Rome because there’s no way a believer could think the earth goes around the sun. The Bible has it the other way around—everybody can see that. You can’t go your own way and be a believer at the same time. No getting out of line.

God can’t be a heretic either. God knows who he is, and the idea that he could have doubts about himself is ludicrous. True, some of the stuff God says and does and believes about himself is pretty out there, but God is entitled to be as out there as He wants. He’s God, after all. We believe God into an indescribably unattainable level of existence where all normal rules of behavior are off – including when God does things that would be criminal if we were talking about you and me. God can be as cruel and brutal, contradictory and arbitrary as he wants. God’s got to be tough enough to keep order – just think what humans would do if he let them. If sometimes what he does stretches the bounds of our theology, well, so be it. Besides, it’s useful to let God get away with stuff. Like war. The things that happen in war are crimes. But since God is okay with war – the Bible says his name is “Man of War” – then we can be Men of War as well. Thus the crimes of war are legalized.

How convenient.

When God emerged, we believed him out as far awa y from us as we could– we put him in a dwelling place of his own called Heaven – somewhere way out there beyond the edges of the universe. We decree that He’s sacred and we’re profane. He’s immortal, invisible, God only wise — omnipotent, omniscient, almighty — and we’re none of the above. He’s insanely, incomprehensibly rich and powerful, and he lives forever. We have this funny saying about people being “richer than God” but of course we don’t really mean it. Rich compared to God? Not a chance. Even the nations are a drop in the bucket compared to Him.

We think of God that way because we need God to be that big, that incomprehensible, that unapproachable. We need God’s presence to be so holy and powerful and scary that we have to tie a rope around the priest’s ankle so we can drag him out if he missteps while he’s inside the Holy of Holies and God can’t help himself and just lashes out and wastes him. We need God to dwell in unapproachable light, where there is no shadow or turning, to be right and true and just beyond reproach, no matter how abusive and sadistic and criminal he is in his agitated moments. God is the master of all that is mysterious, all the things that bug us, everything we can’t and never will figure out. God is the monarch of life and death, and all things comprehensible and not. We need to give him lots of space.

So of course we’re not going to venture that we just made the whole thing up – that we made God up. Mess with a God like that? Are you kidding?

But then we stop believing and now the unthinkable becomes possible. We become instant heretics. To our unbelieving way of thinking, the whole emerged reality of God and his religions is free to come a-tumbling down. We bring it down when we stop believing. It all burns up, crashes into the sea, vaporizes. Talk about special effects.

And that horrible God? We can be rid of him, too.

Just like that.

The brains of the human species hold onto beliefs for a long time – centuries and millennia, eras and eons – transferring belief from one generation of brains to the next generation of brains, far beyond the Biblical seventh generation. Thus God lives forever and his religions endure and outlast each faithful generation.

Stop believing, and it all ends.

God ends.

Imagine that kind of world of you can. You probably can’t. You might not want to. You’d have to be a nonbeliever to do it.

“I made it all up” sends everything we’ve ever known about God and his heaven and his creation whirling around the room like a balloon off its tether. Suddenly all those people, all that worship, all those holy lands and holy places, all that cosmology… all of it scattered, broken, discarded, despised, rejected. We created it all by belief. We destroyed it all by unbelief.

These kinds of thoughts are so radical, so extreme, so distant, so… wrong, just plain wrong… that our brains don’t want to go there. But they can, and will, and do…

If we stop believing.

I know, because it happened to me. Going from being a Christian to being a heretic was a turbulent flight for a long time. But then the air got smoother. I got used to my new apostasy. Life without my prior sense of always being under the thumb, under scrutiny, always having to figure it out, reconcile all the contradictions, solve all the conundrums, all that scrambling to explain and justify God… all of it faded away. God vanished – and when He did, the tempest, tumult, and trouble that were always required of believing in God ended. My new ways of thinking weren’t nearly so turbulent. I could just… well, sort of… think.

Imagine that.

The Religion of Polarization

It’s no mystery that extreme political polarization has coincided with the rise of the Christian Right and its Christian Nationalist agenda.

The Bible offers a polarized worldview:  God’s side is good and true; the other side is evil and wrong. Biblical worldview was formulated thousands of years ago in the desert sands by a warlike and ambitious nomadic tribe and is grounded in their tribal God’s like and dislikes — who’s great in God’s kingdom and who’s not, what it takes to be commendable and what gets you in serious trouble, and on it goes, an exhaustive rule book of celestial surveillance and human compliance.

Christianity furthers Biblical polarization.

Us and Them.

Sheep and goats.

Wheat and weeds.

With us or against us.

Children of God and children of the Devil.

Sons of God and the Sons of Perdition.

Saved and unsaved.

Born again and born in sin.

Spirit and “the flesh.”.

Redeemed and enslaved.

Righteous and unrighteous.

Taken and left behind.

And on it goes for a couple thousand Biblical pages.

Worldview creates culture — culture is worldview embedded in the minutiae of daily life – all the tangible and intangible institutions, norms, expectations, assumptions we rely on to define “reality” and keep things “normal.”

For the past five decades the Christian Right has been meticulously advancing, imposing, and enforcing their Biblical worldview on USA law, economics, and social life. The Christian Right movement began largely in response to Roe v. Wade, as prominent evangelical luminaries such as Jerry Falwell and Francis Shaefer led a counter-revolution against what they perceived to be a decline in social morality. The initiative encouraged evangelical Christians to become politically active and offered popular support and funding. The initial goal was to make Biblical worldview normative. The end game was Christian Nationalism – a cultural return to the USA’s beginnings as a “Christian nation.”

The end game is now within reach. Trump holding the Bible in front of St. John’s Church was the perfect iconic moment for the Christian Nationalist agenda. Pundits miss the point when they snicker about whether Trump knows what’s in the Bible. He doesn’t need to know – all he has to do is brandish the Bible, and the gesture says everything that needs to be said:  “Bible – that’s who we are. We are here to divide and conquer. We are here to create winners and losers, us and them, sheep and goats, wheat and weeds. We do as the Bible does – we separate and polarize, we advance our worldview and agenda at the expense of yours, and we are not afraid to act like the Bible’s people of God and use force if we need to. We have God on our side, but just in case we also have guns.”

Lately, Texas and Florida have aggressively pushed the Christian Nationalist social agenda in open defiance of Constitutional rights such as voting, abortion, and gender equality. Texas has further introduced the Biblical enforcement technique of deputizing citizen vigilante enforcers. (For the Biblical version, check out the chilling story of Phineas in the list of Bible verses at the end of this article.)

The ripening of the Christian Right into Christian Nationalism and its normalization in federal and state culture has become so normal that we don’t see its polarizing assumptions. I didn’t see them when I was a Christian — I just accepted them as the truth about how life is. Christianity is based on belief, and its Biblical worldview assumptions come with the belief package. If you’re a believer, it doesn’t occur to you to step aside and think about them. You don’t ask, “Is life really this way?” “Does life really need to be this way?” You don’t question if we’re better off for being divided up into Biblical categories of who’s in and who’s out.

Biblical worldview and its package of polarizing assumptions have been operating in western culture for millennia – little wonder, then, that history keeps replaying the same old same old. More division. More us and them. More I got the truth and you don’t. More draw a line in the sand and dare you to cross it. More enemies. More war.

You’d think we’d be sick of it and ready for something new, but no — Biblical worldview evokes nostalgia and stokes rage – sad and mad that things aren’t good like they used to be. Belief in that worldview keeps us small and stupid — makes sure we never grow up, that the cultures of our societies and enterprises never get past the psychological maturity and emotional intelligence of middle school.

There’s a popular misconception that Jesus was somehow not part of the ancient Biblical worldview — with its murderous God and blood-thirsty religion — that he was born into. I used to think that way when I was a Christian. All of us did – Christians still do – there’s this perception that the Christian God had been reformed somehow, that he was kinder and gentler. But now that I’m not a Christian, I don’t see through the lens of belief anymore, and instead see Jesus not as the negation of that worldview, religion, and God, but the epitome of them.

Gentle Jesus meek and mild? No way. Jesus was a rabbi in a religion that loved to quibble endlessly about every “jot and tittle” of religious practice, reducing devotion to its minutiae. Jesus went around provoking the religious establishment, picking fights. He was defiant, feisty. He was a master of the verbal smackdown. He prodded the crowds to choose sides. He lambasted the minutiae lovers, scolded his followers, berated his own mother, flipped off his own family. The angels descending in a heavenly chorus were wrong – this guy wasn’t about peace on earth, goodwill toward man – he came with a sword – he said so himself.

He came to divide.

He came to agitate civil war and family division.

He came to taunt the Roman Empire.

He came to win in the name of God.

And the religion that others founded in his name has carried on what he started.

No I’m not a utopian. No I don’t believe in world peace. No I don’t think there’s any chance at all I’ll ever see anything but dismal divisive Biblical worldview during my lifetime. I’m not trying to promote something better – I don’t think there is such a thing. It’s just that sometimes I get in a mood where I can’t help but wonder….

What would life be like if our outlook wasn’t so unthinkingly invested in polarization?

What if conflict and competition weren’t the dominant energies running the world?

What if we were willing to do the hard work of dealing with complexity and contradictions instead of storming and rampaging?

Would life really be all that boring, would the economy really tank, would all of us suddenly lose our good character if we didn’t have to always know who’s side you’re on, who’s got more money and bombs, who owns that land and those resources that the rest of us have to pay for?

And on and on… so many obvious questions we never ask.

We don’t because it would take species-wide brain surgery to get us to the point where we think to ask them and do the hard work of finding meaningful answers. Not going to happen. Not ever. We’ll go extinct first. A liberal arts education would help, but it won’t be enough, and besides who can afford it anyway?

I used to wonder how the Christian Right could be so supportive of a President who so obviously wasn’t Christian – at least not what I used to believe was a Christian. But then I understood how the Christian Right that began when I was a Christian has now devolved into the Christian Nationalism we thought was such a good idea back then. Now that the goal of “restoring” the USA to its intended status as a Christian nation is within reach, the drive to the prize is irresistible, so that political leaders and their news media start to act just like God acted in the Bible as he carried out his nationalist agenda. Authoritarianism, nationalism, militarism, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, brutality, war, law and order, genocide… it’s all there in the Bible.

And once you get to that point, you’re “free” to create whatever Christian Nationalist “truth” you need to attain your final goal of imposing your political will on national culture. So now we’ve got truth the Biblical way – truth you believe into existence, assumed truth, unthinking truth, it’s-okay-to-believe-whatever-you-want truth. The Big Lie truth. QAnon truth. Fox News truth, Texas and Florida truth. “Freedom” truth.

It makes me sick truth.

Polarization is the rule of the day. It became normative thanks to the Christian Right and the Christian Nationalists. They didn’t make it up, they just made the Bible the new American political rulebook.

Sucks for the rest of us.

Just a few of thousands of examples:

 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Matthew 12:30 ESV

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Matthew 10:34-36 ESV

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Matthew 25:31-33 ESV

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ Matthew 7:21-24 ESV

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left… Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his anger… And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”  Matthew 25:31-46 ESV

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds[a] among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants[b] of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’” Matthew 13:24-30 ESV

You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. John 8:44 ESV

Then an Israelite man brought into the camp a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the tent of meeting. When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand 8 and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear into both of them, right through the Israelite man and into the woman’s stomach. … The Lord said to Moses, Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites. Since he was as zealous for my honor among them as I am, I did not put an end to them in my zeal. Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him.  He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.” Numbers 25: 6-13 ESV

Subjective Vision, Objective Evaluation

Go ahead – believe, dream, envision, get inspired, think big.

But then evaluate. Stop believing and take an objective look at what it’s actually going to take for your Big Idea to happen. Or if you already quit your day job, take the time for a good, hard, long, skeptical look at what’s actually happening. It might not be too late to grovel your way back.

I wish I’d done that. I never got out of the subjective phase – never achieved enough escape velocity to get free of belief. I was an elite believer – a professional’s professional. I know belief like a worthy foe — all its wily, fraudulent snares.

Beware the evaluation that never gets out of belief. Belief validates itself, admits no outside counsel. Belief doesn’t want data, doesn’t need to make a budget or do market research. Belief believes – that’s its only job, and it’s the best at it. If you want evaluation you’ll have to look elsewhere. Objective assessment –- rational thought, science — thrives on doubt. It begins with the assumption that whatever it has concluded is wrong and begs you to prove it. Not so with belief. Belief has a zero tolerance policy on doubt. To doubt is to not believe, by definition. Belief doesn’t want you to know, it wants you to… well, um, believe.

Belief has no ethics, subscribes to no code of conduct. It isn’t accountable, doesn’t answer to independent, unbiased assessment. It’s free to do what it likes.

Belief don’t need no stinking facts.

In the world of belief, there’s no such thing as “independent and unbiased.” Belief rewards its own, destroys its dissenters. The polarities of belief and knowledge repel each other — an attempted interaction between a rationalist and a believer never ends well. Belief has too much at stake – it must prevail or there’s no belief anymore – doubt will wipe it out. With belief there’s no recognizing the delegate from the opposite faction. Nobody but us, no case but ours. Fact-checkers? We’re not listening la la la la. Religious doctrine? Stay out of it, we know what’s true and you don’t. Clergy or politician misbehavior, moral lapses, illegalities? Boys will be boys — we’ll give ‘em a mulligan. Batshit conspiracy theories? Have at it – the more bizarre the better. Fake news? “Do your own research”? “Freedom”? Go for it – it’s your right.

I know these things because I’ve lived on both sides. I spent over two decades as an evangelical fundamentalist cultist Christian believer. When I first started drifting out, I became a self-helper, which turned out to be the exact same religion. Both were about belief. There was no reality other than what you believed. You took flight and never touched down. Nobody called you to account, they just cheered you on, chanted more, more, more, higher, higher, higher.

Nobody ever heard of Icarus.

Christianity claimed to be accountable to its source code the Bible, but that was a sham. I was a Protestant – the religion Martin Luther founded with his sola scriptura doctrine – everybody can and should and must read the Bible for what it says to them, and the religious authorities can keep their mitts off your personal revelation. That makes Protestantism unaccountable by definition. It’s up to you. Make it say what you want. No wonder there are so many fundie whack jobs out there.

I was one of them. I ought to know.

Fortunately, I haven’t ridden the pendulum to the other side, haven’t transferred the focus of my belief to rationalism or objectivity or any other legacy of the “Age of Enlightenment.” (Spare me! Aren’t we being a little pretentious with our title?) Rationalism’s most ardent advocates are just another kind of believer. Same with a lot of atheists, who are more obnoxiously evangelistic than we were back in the day. I’m an atheist myself, but I figured out early that I wasn’t going to make it a substitute religion.

Belief of any kind is a shut-down when it comes to evaluation. It’s incapable of objectivity. Evaluation is not its job. What’s it good for? Shooting our brains full of dopamine, which they love. Dopamine inspires us, gets us moving. Gives us dreams and visions. Makes us feel hopeful. Empowers us with a sense of meaning and purpose. Stuff like that. It’s hard to argue against a dopamine high. People love that shit. Okay, do it if you need to. Just don’t do what I did all those years – all those wasteful, addicted, self-sabotaging dopamine high years, all those years of following my believing dreams from one flameout to another.

When you ask, “How’s this going to work?” or “How’s this going?” don’t listen to belief’s opinion. If your friends share your beliefs, welcome and love them, but all of you need a shot of perspective. You won’t get it from somebody who’s super-critical and cynical either, because those are signals that you’re probably dealing with somebody who’s operating with the weakest and most deceptive form of thinking, which is belief masquerading as rationality.

No, instead, find people who don’t care — people who don’t need things to go one way or the other in order to convince themselves they are valid or alive. It’s okay if they think your ideas are cool, big, inspiring, whatever… but ultimately you don’t want them invested in whether your dreams and visions play out. Find people that if you crash and burn they might just turn and look away from the wreckage and leave you there to deal. If you’re going to listen to people, listen to people like that. They’re your friends – your real friends.

Same with facts and data and trends – they might be leaning in your direction, but they’re only numbers. Sit alone in a dark theater and repeat to yourself, “they’re only numbers, they’re only statistics” until you’re convinced, and then take another look at them. Beware your own perverse ability to make them speak your language, make them love you. If they fawn all over your idea, push them away. They’ll break your heart one day. It’s not worth the thrill in the meantime.

Detachment. That’s what you want. People who respect you (they have to respect you, or get out of there fast) but don’t need to like you or need you to like them. Inspect yourself, the people, and the data like you’re checking for tics, and if you find more than one, run screaming from the room. Scour speeches and articles and analyses for biases and assumptions and calculate how much they’re warping the results and conclusions. Calculate the naysayer’s score, then round it up – way up.

Go ahead and tell your friends and family. Be grateful for their support. They’re here for you. That counts. They’ll probably think you’re nuts – not a bad thing. They might be swayed by your belief. That’s nice. But unless they’re in it whatever it is — with you, not just for you, don’t ask for more. You’d be better off if you find out what your detractors think, and then shut them up. They won’t be convinced by your belief. They’ll want RealThink. They’ll give you a reality check. That’s what you want.

Especially don’t give any weight to idea people. Idea people go through life deflecting – a likeability habit which makes it seem like they’re engaging, but they’re not. Ideas are everywhere and always and inexhaustible – so plentiful and abundant that they’re worthless. What matters are ideas of substance and commitment — the ones where somebody backs them with action and money and whatever else they can, and only then do they say “I like your idea.”

Lastly, be cautious about the pivot. If you’re pivoting from one unsubstantiated belief to another, stop it.

Just stop it.

Now.

If you’re pivoting because you originally relied on data and research and information that maybe was good once but now things have changed and it’s a whole new world out there… then, yeah, go ahead and pivot. Just pivot into something with substance, not another inspirational belief dream wouldn’t-this-be-cool vision.

So follow your heart. Be a subjective visionary. Go for it. Make your dreams come true.

But then figure out how to deliver. Be an objective evaluator. What’s it going to take, what’s it going to cost? What’s it going to look like when you get there, and how will you know? What do you need to know that you don’t? How are you going to find out what you need to know that don’t know already – especially the stuff you don’t even know that you need to know it?

And when in doubt, sit down and wait until the dopamine high passes off. Better have the inspirational hangover first, before you embarrass and impoverish yourself again.

I ought to know. I made a life of it. Now I’m a recovered beliefaholic. I’m like a nonsmoker who used to do three packs a day – the most obnoxious kind of no-tolerance don’t-tempt-me skeptic. I’m for you, but I would spare you if I could.

But I probably can’t. You like the dope too much.

See you at our next meeting. Tuesday night. Methodist church basement.

War:  Religion’s Religion

Christianity’s religion is war.

Christianity believes in war, worships it, celebrates it, builds shrines to it, collaborates with empires to advance it.

Christianity’s roots run deep into an ancient religion that christened its God as “A Man of War.”

“The Lord is a man of war; the Lord is his name.” Exodus 15: 3 ESV

A Man of War is the perfect God if you’re a band of nomads that wants to destroy other tribes to make room for itself. Create that God and give Him a singular goal of genocide, and you’re home free. First you terrorize the people you want to destroy, then you attack and take no prisoners. Finally you install a national leader (God’s “Anointed”) who will act just like God, and enforce laws and social norms that punish any civic slacking.

“The peoples have heard; they tremble;
pangs have seized the inhabitants of Philistia.
Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed;
trembling seizes the leaders of Moab;
all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away.
Terror and dread fall upon them;
because of the greatness of your arm, they are still as a stone,”
Exodus 15:  14-16

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than yourselves, and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire.” Deuteronomy 7:1-26

“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath and terrify them in his fury.” Psalm 2:1-12

“You are my hammer and weapon of war: with you I break nations in pieces; with you I destroy kingdoms; with you I break in pieces the horse and his rider; with you I break in pieces the chariot and the charioteer; with you I break in pieces man and woman; with you I break in pieces the old man and the youth; with you I break in pieces the young man and the young woman; with you I break in pieces the shepherd and his flock; with you I break in pieces the farmer and his team; with you I break in pieces governors and commanders.” Jeremiah 51:20-26 

“Cursed is he who does the work of the Lord with slackness, and cursed is he who keeps back his sword from bloodshed.” Jeremiah 48:10

Those were Jesus’s roots. His own arrival was heralded in a way that made it look like there was going to be a 180º turnaround:

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” Luke 2:13-14 NKJV

There was no 180º turnaround. “Peace on earth goodwill to men” might be the greatest fraud ever perpetrated on the human race. Here’s what Jesus had to say after he grew up and got famous:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Matthew 10:34-37 ESV

Talk about bait and switch.

Sounds just like the USA two millennia later.

Jesus went on to lay out his plan for a glorious future.

“He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’ And he said to them, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, open to us, then he will answer you, I do not know where you come from. Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.” Luke 13:22-28 ESV

And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” Luke 13:22-28 ESV

“Weeping and gnashing of teeth.” “Bind him hand and foot.” “Cast him into outer darkness.” All because some poor dude didn’t come in black tie.

Remind me not to go to that wedding.

I didn’t think that way about the God of Ancient Israel and His “Son” Jesus when I was a Christian. Honestly, I just never saw it. I read the Bible cover to cover several times, read some passages dozens, hundreds of times… and never saw God the Sociopath that I was supposed to tiptoe around and do everything I could not to piss him off. Like any sociopath he was likeable when he was in a good mood, and I guess I just figured it was always going to be that way. There were some people who were more afraid of the weeping and gnashing and binding stuff than I was, and their appeasement came at a high price. But I never thought that way. I wholly bought into the “peace on earth goodwill to men” fraud.

Back in my willfully-blind-and-ignorant-in-the-name-of-Jesus days, I even bought into George W. Bush’s installation of a new Christian religion in the USA that was even more Biblical than any of us realized at the time. 9-11 was the trigger point, and suddenly it was the Crusades all over again. I confess, I felt warmed and filled when W promised we would take out all those infidels who hated us just because we existed. He was on a mission from God – God “told” him to “fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.” And so he did, and I was among those who cheered as our tanks rolled into Baghdad.

My delusional ignorance was helped along by the fact that I didn’t know anything about the history of Christendom (and the other Abrahamic religions). They didn’t teach us that at school – I only got the saccharine and sanitized version of mostly American history — not the dismal recitation that if you publish a book about it today, your book will have a good chance of being banned from the public library (not to mention the school’s or the university’s). It’s only because about a decade or two ago I woke up to an awareness that I had no clue about the world my kids were growing up in, and started to study and research in order to find out.

Amazing what a few years of intense study will do for you. You might even start thinking again.

Christianity isn’t the only religion whose religion is war. I wonder if there are any religions that don’t worship war. Religions tend to ally with nationalism — nation-states have all the people and money and tools of war, and religions have the power to make sure God is on our side, so it’s a good match.

Here in the USA we’re not supposed to have a state religion, but twenty years after W we do. It’s called Patriotism. The Patriotic God is basically the Christian God with special icons – mainly the U.S. flag, best displayed in the back of a pickup with other patriotic flags (Trump, the Confederate flag). Plus there are football field sized American flags, since football is the official U.S. Patriotic sport – the NFL version comes with its own month-long homage to the military-industrial complex, which the coaches honor by wearing camo.

Christmas 2021 – the first official Patriotic Christmas – gave us Christmas cards with photos of families proudly displaying Patriotism’s most bad-ass icon – the assault weapon. In time, the cards themselves will no doubt become religious icons as well – along with the slogan “Kill a Commie for Christ,” which I swear I’m not making up.

And then there are the central patriotic doctrines — such as “one nation under God” and “in God we trust,” both of which Pres. Eisenhower thought we needed to have during the Joseph McCarthy anti-Commie days. (Eisenhower also warned us about the military-industrial complex in his farewell address. Was he having second thoughts? It would make me happy to think he was.) And speaking of Presidents, USA Patriotic religion requires that every Presidential speech must end with a routine invocation of the Patriotic daily double of God and the military — “God bless our troops, and God Bless the United States of America” – a grand tradition dutifully carried out for as long as I’ve been paying attention. Oh and let’s not forget political “prayer breakfasts,” where there never seems to be any praying going on, unless you count speeches as prayers.

But now I’m just being fussy.

We even have a Patriot Pope — he who shall not be named – who held up The Book in what might be the most pathetic, brainless, insulting, and scary gesture ever made in the name of Christian Nationalism. And we have Patriotic hymns (mostly C&W), and even though we’re out of Afghanistan (after having betrayed our friends – another Christian tradition), we still have a Patriotic Holy War against that other warlike Abrahamic religion and its followers (even if they are mostly peaceful, as even W had to admit).

Finally, we have a Patriotic religious code word — “freedom” — which believers can chant as a way to instantly identify each other – kind of like how the ancient believers used their fish symbol. And once they know who’s on their side, they can form “freedom” truck convoys to screw up the supply chain more than it is already and further drive up inflationary prices while they’re at it – all so they don’t have to get a shot or wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic that so far has killed a million of their fellow citizens.

But who’s counting?

I always wonder, if they cut themselves on a rusty rim changing a tire, would they get a Tetanus booster?

And on it goes.

War is a human survival skill – driven by the same male dominance instinct that gives us rams head-butting and bulls rutting. War is instant proof that we’re still creatures, still deeply, inconsolably afraid to live, so we have to figure out ways to kill and die, and fantasize about imaginary states where we can live forever and get to do blissful things (maybe do donuts in our big-ass pickups on the tundra, without some wussy liberal whining that it’s bad for the environment).

And as for the losers who will be hanging out in the outer darkness weeping and gnashing their teeth, well, they deserve it.

We’ll never get over war. There will be wars until our species is no more – at least, as long as our species includes males, which is pretty much the same thing. We are doomed with perpetual war. Religion tries to dress up the whole depressing, toxic, criminal mess and mostly succeeds in the minds of its believing but unthinking members. And “peace on earth” still gets trotted out at Christmas, along with the Second Amendment munitions stash.

All of which gives a whole new meaning to “Peace out, dude.”

Peace out… as in extinguished.

Forever.

In the name of God.

The Underdog Religion

Christianity is the underdog religion.

Or so it wants you to think.

We love the underdog story — we know what’s coming, but we love it anyway, we can’t get enough. We love the upset, the incredible comeback when the chips are down and there’s no way but then all of a sudden the bigger, stronger, tougher, richer, better equipped opponent gets a comeuppance. History and Hollywood love this story – the Rebel Alliance, La Résistance, the Miracle on Ice, David vs. Goliath… way too many examples to list.

Madison Avenue and Wall Street love this story.

Politicians and voters and world leaders love this story.

Economists and American Dreamers love this story.

Everybody loves this story — it’s embedded in individual and collective brains and culture — a standard narrative, paradigm, metaphor, archetype.

I won’t say the Bible or Christianity invented it, but both are full of it, and their fingerprints are all over western history and culture, which can’t hurt their claim to its patent. Ancient Israel loved the story — Gideon and his 300 soldiers pared down from 32,000, David vs. Goliath, David and his ragtag band of “mighty men” …. Then Jesus came along and perfected it:  the backwater small town kid, the bastard son of an unwed mother and a blue collar dad; the kid with the unexpected religious streak who hung out with a tough crowd, always on the outs with the religious elites.

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” John 1:46 ESV

“And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?’ And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.’ And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.” Matthew 13:53-58 ESV

“And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’” Mark 2:15-17 ESV

And so it goes.

Anybody who’s ever lived in a backwater small town knows the “who do you think you are?” response Jesus got when he tried to bring his gospel to his hometown.

So he mostly stays away, gathers followers like rabbis are supposed to do, takes his teaching and miracle show on the road. But then he meets a predictable end – pisses off too many people, they make trouble with the law, and he ends up brutally executed.

But then… Resurrection! The ultimate comeback to end all ultimate comebacks!

It was “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (Max von Sydow as Jesus, John Wayne as the Centurion) – and it still is, over and over, in church and out of it – not just the Jesus story but the Rocky story and Star Wars and the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches books… and countless thousands of other variations on the same theme.

Why do we love the underdog so much? Psychologists and scientists have their theories (we can relate, they give us hope, etc.) but ultimately it’s about a reversal of power. It’s not just that the weak win out, it’s that the weak win out over the strong. The pecking order gets reversed, for all to see. That’s the part of the Jesus story the Apostle Paul particularly latched onto:

“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.” 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 ESV

Did you notice that phrase at the end – “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” All this putting the rich and famous and educated elites in their places sounds great, but let’s not get carried away. We need to remember who’s at the head of the table.

Once I was hosted at a swanky restaurant that didn’t take reservations by a businessman who ate a three martini business lunch there nearly every day. The line was out the door and down the block. We walked past everyone, he greeted the Maître d’ by name and our party went straight to a table.

Power.

Nice work if you can get it.

We want that. We want to be rich and famous not so much to be rich and famous (which would be nice) but to be powerful. Most of us spend life on the wrong end of the short straw. But not this time, not in the biggest stakes game ever played. This time we win. This time the weak and lowly and not so wise put those uppity elites in their place. When we were kids it was the adults. When we went to school it was the principal. At work it was the boss. And on and on – always somebody with more brass, more money, more creds, more… something, anything to put us down, keep us in our places, slap us with “who do you think you are?”

But not this time. This time it’s our turn. This time we rub their noses in it.

Our motives aren’t always so pure when we get to win.

We’re good sports, but not now, not this time. But we can be forgiven for that. We’ve been ashamed more times than we can count. About time they find out how it feels.

But this is God we’re talking about. Why is He so concerned about people being more powerful than Him? I mean, He’s God. He has a permanent hall pass, a permanent reservation where they don’t take reservations. Take a look at that other phrase — “to bring to nothing things that are.” God, it seems, has a vindictive streak. You think you’re so hot, just you wait – God will knock you down a few notches. Let’s take a look at the passage featured in Handel’s Messiah:

Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers take counsel together,
    against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
Let us burst their bonds apart
    and cast away their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
    the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
    and terrify them in his fury, saying,
As for me, I have set my King
    on Zion, my holy hill.”

I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
    today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
    and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
    and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
    be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
    and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
    lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
    for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Psalm 2 ESV

Read the Bible closely, and God is more like Emperor Palpatine than Jesus meek and mild, and His grip on things is more like Darth Vader keeping the Evil Empire in tow. He’s angry, derisive, vindictive, and vicious. Genocide, infanticide, rape, murder, homophobia, xenophobia… you name it, it’s on God’s rap sheet.

Christians know that – or they would if they would actually read what the Bible says about their God – but they excuse it all. They say that God is “good” and “loving” and “kind” and “merciful” — never mind that he’s got a temper – that “his wrath is quickly kindled,” that His M.O. is to “break them with a rod of iron.” Geez. Seems obvious we’re dealing with a sociopath here, but believers make excuses for God like the abused makes excuses for the abuser. He’s a nice guy when he’s off the bottle, but when he’s not… God is a nice guy when he’s not instructing His people to destroy a city and leave no survivors except the women the soldiers want to rape.

Obviously God is not exempt from “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Same for his closest associates. The story of how Solomon came to power reads just like Michael Corleone tightening his grip on the family. 1 Kings 2 ESV Thus Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, could say of Trump’s Stormy Daniels mess, “We kind of gave him—‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here.’” 

A mulligan. A do-over. The perks of power.

Can you spell “corruption”?

And it all gets sold as an underdog story.

Not in Madison Avenue’s wildest dreams.

That’s the blinding power of belief in action – belief when it has metastasized beyond fundamentalism, even beyond extremism, all the way to its most inexcusable, unspeakable, unthinking form.

I never saw any of that when I was a believer. I thought God’s power was cool. I thought I and my fellow Christians were cool. God’s throne room is the scariest place ever, and we got to go in and stand where it was safe.

No, not safe. Definitely not safe. More like a place of unimaginable shame, if we had known it for what it really is.

For more:

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants: Gladwell, Malcolm

Psychology of the Underdog | Psychology Today

Why Do We Love Underdog Stories? Psychology Weighs In | Psychology Today

The science of why we love to root for underdogs – Vox

Why do we root for the underdog? (bcm.edu)

Nobody’s Hero

Christianity is a religion of heroes and victims.

Jesus was a rabbi with a hero/ savior/ messiah complex. Heroes save the day. Saviors… well I guess they save people. Messiahs bring metaphysical bliss down to Earth. You could add redeemer to the complex list – someone who pays someone else’s debt, or pays for someone else’s freedom. According to the Christian story, Jesus was and did all of that, and one of these days He’ll culminate the messiah part by staging a glorious return to make everything all good forever. (Kind of like Trump 2024….) You and I – and every human who’s ever lived – are the victims Jesus did all that for, but in a surprising plot twist he did it by becoming a victim himself, submitting to death by torture at the behest of his own Father. (Some father….) Then, to complete the loop, once Jesus rescued, saved, and redeemed us, we’re supposed to return the favor by acting like him – which means being both heroes and victims ourselves.

That’s the Bible story. It has dominated western worldview and culture for two millennia. It’s still the majority outlook in the USA, where I live. Mental health professionals don’t think much of the hero/victim model. Instead, we’re supposed to set boundaries and know our competencies, be aware of both our own power and our own limitations, accept what we can and can’t change, etc. Plus there’s a good chance all that rescuing and saving and paying and making everything work out is a ruse – we only do it to look good. Too much of that and the next stop is narcissism, where it’s so much all about you that you’ll turn nasty to make sure it stays that way. Narcissism is when “hey, can I help you with that?” turns into “I’m the only one who can fix this.”

Can we agree we’ve had enough of that for one lifetime?

Well then, what would Jesus do? He offered lots of guidance, such as the following:

 “Greater love has no man than this, than to lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” Luke 9:23-24 ESV

Take up your cross – get crucified, lose your life in the most horrible kind of way…. That’s the gold standard for how to be both a hero and a victim at the same time. Never mind what the pop psychology mental health weenies say about it. That’s what Jesus did. Now it’s your turn.

From what I can tell, most Christians don’t bother with the gold standard. Tin will do – it’s more sensible. Bible verses like that need to be theologically sanitized – no way we’re supposed to save and rescue and redeem our way to death by torture. Thus bearing your cross turns into putting up with shit. I mean, shit happens, right? So deal with it.

Me, I went for the gold — took everything literally, like I thought we were supposed to. Well not quite literally – I had to modify the role to fit, so I fashioned a Lord of the Manor complex. I became the beneficent ruler – my own surrogate version of Jesus’s over-indulgent loving Father. Money? Time? Personal disadvantage? Letting people run all over you while turning the other cheek? No problem – nothing too shitty for my God, nothing too shitty for me. Pick up the tab. Write the check. Hold the door. Sign up for the cause. Take one for the team. Come early stay late. Clean the toilets. Give it all away. My God is rich, so I’m rich in Him. I can always come back for more. And if I lose it all, well, I’ve still gained Christ. I’m still good – if not in this life, then in the one to come. That was me – the Lord of the Manor, always pushing the limits of my divine pedigree, always looking for a way to be magnanimous and great while also being last and lowest.

These days, I’m amazed at what I used to believe.

It wasn’t easy, and because most people didn’t try it, it got me noticed and promoted in the Kingdom. I liked being Lord of the Manor. I got used to being the one to sweep in and save the day, be an inspiration to others. It was cool to be noble and self-sacrificing, upstanding and honorable. It never occurred to me that responsible stewardship might mean balancing the ledger. If I had, at some point it probably would have bothered me that my Divine Rich Dad never came through with the money to float my magnanimous habits. I guess I just figured that was okay, because my job was to get low – identify with the poor and meek and lowly – in the name of being great.

Can you spell “royally screwed up”?

A close cousin to Lord of the Manor syndrome is “servant leadership.” It was big in my Christian world, these days I’m occasionally surprised to see it make a comeback in the “secular” world– no doubt because it’s one of the many ways Capitalism and Christianity get cozy. Secular foot-washing will grow your company, fatten profits (and your paycheck), fund cool vacations, build empires, make life sweeter. Servant leadership comes right out of the Bible, straight from the Man:

“And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.’” Mark 9:35 ESV

 “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave.”  Matthew 20:26-27 ESV

Wow — “slave.” Tough word. I guess it gets a pass because it sounds like the modern workplace. There’s a branch of law called “Master and Servant” — the historical term for employment law. No kidding. Master and Servant is right out of the Bible. No surprise there, because so much of Western culture comes right out of the Bible. No wonder bosses are the way they are. No wonder a recent economic study says that the average CEO makes 351 times more than the average worker. Master and Servant indeed.

I never caught the “slave” part, never made the connection between what I was doing and what it was like to be a slave under the USA’s original legal system. Like everyone else, I was going along believing that the Civil War had actually ended slavery and that the 60’s Civil Rights Movement had fixed a few things that had slipped through the cracks. But now, after George Floyd and over 200 others have been murdered by police for having the wrong skin color, roughly half the country seems to know better, while the other half is busy banning books that suggest that maybe “liberty and justice for all” has been a long-standing sham.

“Liberty and justice for all” – when a culture is too dumb to get its own ironies, it’s in serious trouble.

When will we be delivered from the Rage Boys and their flags and battle cries of “freedom”?

And then there’s the issue of laying down your life for your friends – how to be a big time hero and victim at the same time:

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” John 15: 13-14 ESV

Oh okay, we’ve heard the lay down your life bit before, but what’s this about the way to be Jesus’s friend is to do what he commands? “You wanna be my friend, you do what I tell you.” Hmmm. Does anyone else feel like that’s a little… um, skewed?

If you’re going to have a messiah, hero, savior, and redeemer, you’re going to need a lot of victims. That would be us – again with Jesus leading the way on both counts because he wasn’t just any old victim, but an uber victim — a martyr. A martyr is a hero and victim at the same time. I once skimmed through a book with stories of Catholic saints and martyrs (the two work closely together). Mostly it was an extended contest to see who could have the most gruesome death. Fortunately, we Protestants weren’t so big on martyrs…although there was a girl in our college fellowship who was sure she was going to be one — apparently she had special revelations about the End Times that people weren’t going to like. We thought she was nuts. It never occurred to us that we might be as well.

My Lord of the Manor shtick avoided martyr envy. I did it not to be dead but to be great. That’s what the Bible said would happen. I never saw the irony, never noticed the looming narcissism. It does seem like some people actually can do good things for the rest of us without being in it for greatness. Me? Not so much – hypocritical, sympathetic but not empathetic, the emotional intelligence of the super-annoying kid who tries way too hard. I grew up in Minnesota, so maybe that’s where I got it. But I wasn’t just Minnesota Nice, I was Minnesota Christian Nice. Thinking about it now, it makes my skin crawl.

Lately I’ve been wondering what my life might have been like if I hadn’t been so hypocritically self-effacing in the name of doing what Jesus would do. I find myself thinking I should try to be less likeable, less agreeable, less “no you go first.” I don’t know if I can pull it off. I’m not sure I want to. But suppose I could — what would I be?

Maybe just show up, do my best, help out when I can… but check the pretense at the door.

Nobody’s hero.

Doesn’t sound so bad.

For more: on the complex:

The Savior Complex | Psychology Today

Narcissism and the Hero and Victim Complex | Psychology Today

Messiah Complex: What Exactly Is Savior Complex? (scienceabc.com)

Wild and Free

I live in a tiny mountain town in the middle of nowhere, not on the way to anywhere. But we do have three coffee shops.  I went to one yesterday. A guy was just leaving the order window. He had a pistol strapped to his side. First time I’ve seen that here. You read about that happening in places like Texas. But here?

My first thought was to get out of there. But I didn’t want a different coffee shop. I wanted this one. I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to shoot me, or anyone else. He was with his wife, they were meeting another couple at a table as far away as possible. Probably safe. So I stayed.

So did the gun.

I kept my eyes on it. And on his hands – whether he reached for it unconsciously, making sure it was still there, still ready.

He didn’t.

I wondered what kind of fear makes someone pack heat in broad daylight in a tiny coffee shop in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, not on the way to anywhere.

The answer is, high stress fear. Survival-level fear. Fight or flight level fear. The kind of instinctual fear that shoots adrenaline and cortisol through the system, puts everything on high alert and never shuts it off.

Hair trigger fear.

Shoot first ask questions later fear.

The gun was how he makes his declaration to the world:  “I’m free. Free means I’ve taken matters into my own hands.” The gun was his Great Wall of China, his Maginot Line, his moat full of alligators around his castle. His gun isolates him, sets him apart. He’s always one up on the rest of us. Try anything, and we’re dead. His gun makes him safe. He’ll survive. He’ll be the last man standing.

It made me wary. Where I live, you need to learn what to do if you see a wild animal on the trail – bear, mountain lion, wolf, bull elk. Stay calm, still. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t run. Make yourself as big as you can. Carry a bear bell, maybe pepper spray. And all the rest.

It’s not that wild animals don’t like you. That’s not why they attack. They do it to stay alive. You’re a threat by definition. They can’t take chances. They’re not going to play nice, make friends. You invade their space, they’ll let you know it. You don’t get the message, they’ll take you out.

You don’t win an attack like that.

It’s like when I was a kid, and my friend told me about going to the state fair in the big city and the tough guys who hung out, picking fights with the country rubes. Don’t ever look at them, he advised. He grabbed my shirt, pulled me up close. “You lookin’ at me, kid?” he snarled.

No provocation. You’re at risk just by being there.

At one point the gunman left, got something from his car, came back, passed my table in both directions. I watched his eyes, where he looked, listened to how he talked There was a self-consciousness about him – like a kid who knows he’s being watched, who’s thinking “look at me” and “don’t look at me” at the same time.

The barista closed up shop for the day, hung the “closed” sign. The guy with the gun and the rest of the people at his table got up to leave. He looked for a place to toss his cup. He went up to the window, knocked on it.

“I think they’re closed,” I said. Bad move.

The barista opened back up, took the cup.

He passed our table.

“Have a blessed day,” he said. He pronounced “blessed” with two syllables, offering a benediction that completed the equation. Not only was he armed, he was a soldier in the army of an angry God — like I’ve seen on a T-shirt in a local shop:  a cross, an assault weapon, and the words, “Come and take it.”

He was wild, he was free, and he had God on his side.

I was at risk, just by being there.

I kept still, silent.

Inside, I deflected his blessing. “No thanks,” I thought. “No blessing for me from your God.”

I kept my eyes averted, said nothing.

He went off to the rest of his wild and free day.

I went home, grateful that I know what to do when I meet a wild animal on the trail.

Start With Anxiety, End With Regret: The USA’s Chronic Systemic Stress Legion

“When Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. And crying out with a loud voice, he said, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ For he was saying to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ And Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion, for we are many.’”

Mark 5 ESV

“My name is Legion, for we are many.”

A Roman Legion was 4,500 – 6,500 soldiers. That’s a lot of demons. You and I will never see something that awful. Let’s hope, anyway.

But what if we already are?

What if something like that is already going on around and in us, that we don’t see?

There is.

Think of it as a deal you’re being offered. It begins with a foregone conclusion that you are inadequate. Failure is certain. You lose. Period. You’re born that way, but that doesn’t let you off the hook – everything is still all your fault. But never mind that, it’s all up to you to get it right. You can’t fail. Everything rides on your success. It’s all up to you. But wait, I just said there’s no way you can do it. If you try and fail, it was to be expected. But you still have to try, and you have to stay positive – you owe that to the rest of us, and we owe it to you. What’s to stay positive about? Well, um, not much. When things don’t go the way they’re supposed to (they never do) it’s all your fault.

Some deal.

Suppose you take it. Then what?

You live in a state of constant anxiety. You can never get it right. Failure vs. success is the ultimate issue in life. Nothing is more important. Your survival depends on it. So does your ability to move beyond survival – being able to thrive, not just survive. But remember, it’s all up to you. You can’t count on getting any help. So good luck out there. But there is no luck. You’re on your own. And that’s a good thing. The best thing. A thing worth everything. A thing worth dying for. The right to do it all your way, even if you can’t. To take survival into your own hands. To be able to say “I did it my way.” – even if everybody else can see the game was rigged.

It’s rigged because the deal is a fraud — all lies, all promises made and broken at random. Everything is always subject to change without notice, and every change works against you. You can and will be overruled. Bait and switch is the norm. There are no ethical codes, everything is at whim, arbitrary. Someone higher up always calls all the shots. You’ll be told what’s good and bad, right and wrong, what’s rewarding and what’s not, what to embrace or avoid… all of which is always changing, so you’ll never really know. But no problem – you’ve got your self, remember? The self that you’d rather rely upon. The self that’s responsible for everything, even if your self was born to be inadequate.

But surely there’s a reward?

Well yes, kind of, sort of – I mean, you have to take it on faith, because you’ll die before finding out for sure, and once you’re dead, you can’t tell the rest of us one way or the other. In the meantime, stay positive, keep your attitude up – that’s your duty, too. Let your guard down, you seal your own fate. Keep believing, that’s the thing. Keep on keeping on. Keep the faith, baby. You owe it to the rest of us. We’re doing our best all the time, too. We’re working hard, just like you. Hard work is the way we can all agree we’ve got good sound character, the right stuff.

How’s that feel? Well, um, it’s a lot of pressure. But you’ll do your best, mean well, want to please, even though you can’t and never will. You’re a loser from the get-go, remember? If you ever let down your self-reliant, positive attitude guard, you’ll feel guilty and ashamed, full of regret. You’ll try to make amends, make sense of confusing and contradictory instructions. Meanwhile your brain will be stuffed with all the times you screw up, embarrass yourself, fall short again and again and again. You’ll have to constantly confess your faults — all of which are held against you, whether you admit them or not. Every conversation will begin with saying you’re sorry, you don’t deserve anything but the worst. Next comes begging for mercy. Self esteem? Not a chance. You’re a worm – a conniving, weaseling worm.

No wonder you’re afraid, stressed out, overwhelmed, despairing. No wonder you’re full of regret.

Some deal.

Would you take it?

I did.

So have millions, billions of others. It’s what people do all around the world, but I don’t live all around the world, I only live in the USA, so I’ll only talk about my home country.

What are we talking about? An abusive relationship? The boss from hell? Yes, that. And much, much more. Way worse.

Welcome to the USA’s Chronic Systemic Stress Legion.

Life in the USA is characterized by systemic, chronic stress. Ubiquitous, unrelenting stress. Stress so everywhere and all the time that we don’t even know it’s there or what it’s doing to us.

We’re talking about the American Way.

The deal is the American Way.

What do we get for the deal? Here’s a short list, from the Mayo Clinic:

Anxiety
Depression
Digestive problems
Headaches
Muscle tension and pain
Heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke
Sleep problems
Weight gain
Memory and concentration impairment

Here’s a longer list, compiled from other sources:

Becoming easily agitated, frustrated, and moody
Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control
Having difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind
Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless, and depressed
Avoiding others
Low energy
Headaches
Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea
Aches, pains, and tense muscles
Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
Insomnia
Frequent colds and infections
Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet
Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
Clenched jaw and grinding teeth
Constant worrying
Racing thoughts
Forgetfulness and disorganization
Inability to focus
Poor judgment
Being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side
Changes in appetite — either not eating or eating too much
Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities
Increased use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes
Exhibiting more nervous behaviors, such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing
Mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and personality disorders
Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, and stroke
Obesity and other eating disorders
Menstrual problems
Sexual dysfunction
Gastrointestinal problems, such as GERD, gastritis, ulcerative colitis, and irritable colon

Good stress is when our “executive function” — the thinking, planning, organizing part of our brain — goes to work on a specific task and motivates and instructs us how to get it done. We feel some pressure, but we need that kind of stress. We rise to the challenge. We take it on. We make it happen.

That’s not the kind of stress we’re talking about. We’re talking about chronic, survival-level stress that’s everywhere, all the time, always in and around us, always shaping and warping and plaguing our outlook on life –- the kind of stress that pokes our lizard brain until it wakes up, snaps its chains, and lashes around, making a mess of us and everything and everybody else – stress that sounds the amygdala’s fight or flight siren and never shuts it off.

That’s systemic chronic stress.

Chronic stress becomes systemic when it’s pumped into moment-by-moment life by innumerable invisible psychic energy sources – thoughts, emotions, accusations, judgments – that function like the supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy:  it shapes, defines, organizes, sustains identity and worldview, culture and custom, behavioral norms and character-defining criteria  – how we view life and how we respond to it in all the ways that make us instantly recognizable as the people we and the society we live in think we are.

When stress is both chronic (always) and systemic (everywhere), it floods us and our lives with harm, individually and collectively.

It creates the Legion that torments us.

How did this happen?

It didn’t happen. It’s always been this way, since the beginning. It came to the New World on the first boat. We’re just seeing the latest, most fully developed version. Legions don’t stay static, they progress. Our Legion is cultural – chronic stress is the American way, how we do life, our worldview and modus operandi, how we create and evaluate the world and ourselves and our lives in it. It generates what we see and feel and taste and touch, how we think, what we value, what we believe. It tells us how we’re doing.. It’s also cellular – rooted in our brain cells and the cortisol, adrenaline, epinephrine, norepinephrine producing organs of our bodies. We’re so immersed in chronic stress, and it’s so embedded in us, that we don’t even notice.

It comes from our founding ideologies – Protestant Christianity and the Protestant Work Ethic. They’re so intertwined that “God and Country” and “One nation under God” seem like natural and obvious things to say.

Let’s take a quick tour.

Christianity.

“Peace on Earth, good will to men” might be the biggest lie ever told. Want the truth? Try this:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” Matthew 10:34-36 ESV

What does Christianity want from us?

Perfection.

“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48 ESV

That might be the scariest verse in the Bible. Perfect like God is perfect? The God of the Bible is the brutal, blood-lusting, war-mongering, hyper-nationalist, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic, totalitarian, authoritarian despot who arranged Jesus’s murder by torture and has committed himself to the final destruction of the world and the eternal tormenting of its people.

Some kind of perfection.

Be perfect, just like that.

You’ll need that sword.

Only trouble is, you’re a sinner. You screwed up before you were born. Ever since you’ve been making things worse.

As it is written, ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’” Romans 3:10-12,Psalm 14:1-3,Psalm 53:1-3 ESV

You want to get a deep look into Biblical stress, check out Psalm 22 ESV. Christians think it refers to Jesus. Talk about somebody who got a raw deal. Here’s a taste:

“I am a worm and not a man” Psalm 22:6 ESV

Yeah, that about sums it up. If it was written about Jesus (centuries ahead of time), then this is God’s beloved Son we’re talking about, remember? The one whose loving Father arranged for him to be tortured to death – which is another thing that’s all our fault. He’s the one who told us that we can believe anything we want into existence.

 “All things are possible for one who believes.” Mark 9:23 ESV

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” Mark 11:23 ESV

“All things.” Nothing left out. Carte Blanche . Believe what you want, don’t doubt, and it’s yours. You can move mountainsNothing will be impossible for you.

So let me get this straight – the beloved Son who was really a worm and no man said the rest of us can make mountains move by faith, as long as we never have any doubt about it, but then God arranged to have him killed.

Right. I think I got it.

So I’m supposed to never doubt I can throw a mountain into the sea.

I don’t even need to be a sinner for that to be a set up to failure.

Let’s look at another set up to failure.

Capitalism

No, not all capitalism. The kind of capitalism that pulled us out of the Depression, set up a massive social safety net of health care and retirement benefits and worker protections, won a war, rebuilt the USA and world economies, floated all boats, built the middle class, made Horatio Alger upward mobility a reality, sponsored the Civil Rights Movement and a Great Society, and even made a Republican President propose a universal basic income… that kind of capitalism worked just fine.

Today, capitalism like that would be called “Socialism” – the ultimate insult to anything that would look like government for the “general Welfare,” like it says in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. But never mind, government like that is bad now. Today, government’s job is to sponsor capitalism for capitalists (only). We’ve got that thanks to the “free market”  version of capitalism  — another contender for the Biggest Lie Ever. Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics said it was science and they had proved it. It wasn’t, and they hadn’t. What they did was to come up with clever equations that they proved mathematically, and never mind real life. The equations were so smart that smart people won Nobel Prizes for them, so they had to be good.

Then along came Reaganomics and the Gipper’s “trickle-down” economists. Make the rich richer, and it will be good for everyone – another contender for biggest lie ever that explains why we now have economic inequality as bad as what brought on the Great Depression in the first place. We’re repeating history, just like we’re supposed to, and this time the version of capitalism that bailed us out back then is available because it’s not capitalism anymore, it’s socialism. (Shudder when you say that.)

All of that was supercharged in the Bill Clinton/Tony Blair era of we don’t need no stinking social safety net and besides if we privatize everything it will all work.

Then we “won” the Cold War, which proved that Communism was a bad idea (it was) and meant that everything that wasn’t free market trickle down bless the rich economics was socialism (it isn’t). Which trashed the old style capitalism and gave us today’s interplanetary version.

So now we’ve got half the country who thinks “Freedom” means “I by God get to do anything I want and the gummit better keep its hands off my guns and its needles out of my arms, and if I still think Trump won, then he did.”

Well at least they’re right about one thing.

The American Can-do Spirit

America used to be the land of can-do. We got behind stuff –went to the moon, did the impossible (just like Jesus said). But then can-do metastasized. Christian faith moving mountains became think and grow rich, which became the power of positive thinking, which became self-help, which became believe whatever the hell you want, it’s all fake news anyway. Meanwhile capitalism metastasized into entrepreneurs and corporations making gazillions of dollars, paying no taxes, and duking it out to be the first to colonize Mars.

So now we’re got a bunch of believe-whatever-you-want, gun-toting warmongers bringing the Kingdom of God to the USA, and it sure as hell ain’t socialism. And now “work” – i.e., holding a job at low pay and no benefits or promises – is considered a certificate of good character, and if employers can’t get away with it anymore, not after COVID gave their work peons a new outlook, it means that “nobody wants to work anymore.”

Meanwhile, politicians on both sides of the aisle still believe in bootstrap social mobility. Anybody else remember this?

“It’s a simple fact:  The more education you’ve got,
 the more likely you are to have a good job
 and work your way into the middle class.”

Pres. Obama, 2013 State of the Union Address

Good job?! Middle class?! Not anymore, not in 2021.

And education? Say no more.

But the Democrats still believe it.

The Republicans used to believe it, too. Now they just believe in Donald Trump (that was their 2020 “platform,” remember?).

As for Donald Trump, there’s no evidence he believes in anything other than he was born to be king, and the best way to fulfill his destiny is to rally Christian “dominion theology” fundamentalists and keep his “base” enraged and free enough to bring down American democracy – the final blow to which is officially scheduled for the 2022 elections. That’s when it ends. After that, it’s just a matter of time before King Donald takes his throne.

I wish I was making that up.

The Legion Howling in the Tombs

That’s life in the USA in 2021.

We’re talking about the world’s biggest religion, its dominant economic system, and its most powerful country. Christianity. Capitalism. The USA.

Stress. Anxiety. Fear. Uncertainty. Insecurity. Frustration. Unworthiness. Regret. And all the rest of the list.

That’s how we live in the USA. We’re a nation of cortisol, adrenal, epinephrine, norepinephrine junkies. We have to be, to survive. Nobody’s got our back – except for the people taking aim at the targets we’ve got painted there.

But how about the people who are supposed to protect us?

Don’t trust the protectors, all I’m sayin’.

How’s that working for you?

Oh, you know – opioid addiction, obesity, the other stuff on the list. Just normal — our steady self-destructive diet, the polluted air we breathe, the rocks we cut ourselves with.

But we deserve it, remember?

It Takes a Different Person…

… to be a Christian.

… to be a Christian and then an atheist.

Not different like, “Um… that’s different.” Not a different kind of person — a different person, period – a person who’s been transformed into somebody else.

That was message losers like me got when we became Christians. It came in stentorian tones, right out of the Bible:

“Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”

Romans 12:2 ESV

Transformation is the ultimate makeover — a change to our form – how we’re shaped, constituted, put together. Transformation alters self and life by rewiring our brain and all the biological functions that feed it. It starts in our “mind” – sense of identity, worldview, perspective, biases — what we see and don’t see, the way we habitually experience the world — and extends from there to the entire ecosystem that is who we are and how we live, inside and out. On the inside, transformation is biological, neurological, physiological, chemical, hormonal. On the outside, transformation is sociological, communal, societal, institutional.

Formation is growing up and growing into. Transformation is growing out of and into something else. Transformation gets started lots of ways — trauma, financial and job stress, health issues, moves, big decisions, surprises — but belief might be the most powerful.

Belief is transformational by definition. Belief conforms us to its realities — we don’t just believe this or that, we become people who believe this or that. Once we become those people, we carry on life accordingly, alongside other like-minded believers. Belief shapes our minds individually and collectively, which shapes our behavior so that we think, do, see, say, and are the right stuff. Belief results in a constant, moment by moment steeping, soaking, marinating, saturating of the brain and the rest of our neuro-biological architecture with all the requisite doctrines and dictates, rites and rituals needed to generate conforming actions, experiences, thoughts, impressions, responses, and sensibilities, which in turn generate conforming identity and behaviors.

While that’s happening on the inside, everything on the outside goes with it. Life reshapes itself –environment, community, culture, customs – around what we believe, informing what we see, hear, and feel, what we’re surrounded with and immersed in, what we think about, our assumptions and expectations, how we respond emotionally, how we dress and decorate ourselves and our environments, who we hang out with and who we avoid, where we live and don’t live, what we own and don’t own, what we eat and don’t eat, what we wear and won’t be caught dead wearing, what we do for work and fun and… the whole package.

We learn to believe by growing into it physically –belief takes up residence in our cellular structure. The more we practice what we believe, the more our biological selves conform our experience of “reality” to what we believe. Since that belief-based “reality” authenticates what we believe, we believe it more fervently. And around we go in a self-reinforcing loop, becoming stronger and more rooted in our belief, inside and out.

Belief fully formed sinks its roots into the deepest, oldest, most evolutionary and instinctive parts of our brains, where it becomes a survival skill. At this point, our lives depend on what we believe. When our beliefs are threatened, we are at risk.

We believe, we live. We don’t believe, we die.

That’s why we hold our beliefs so fervently, defend them so ferociously — doubling, tripling, quadrupling down on belief keeps us safe. Belief does all that for our own good.

Belief makes sure we are assimilated.

Belief makes sure we stay assimilated.

And yes, resistance is futile.

We transform only when we have to. Transformation is about adapting and reacting, but our brains trend to status quo and predictability. Their default setting is entropy, the current trajectory. Left unchecked, transformation is ongoing, in constant movement. Our brains won’t allow it. So we hunker down, settle in, dig in, calcify, resist, isolate, polarize, fortify.

It takes psychic dynamite to dislodge our beliefs.

I had to become a new person to be a Christian. When I drifted away, I had to become a new person to not believe anymore. It’s not that the Christian person I used to be somehow came up with a different opinion about God. Instead, I became a different person –zapped, scrambled, rearranged, shifted – and God became irrelevant. To my former self, “atheist” was never an option. I didn’t choose it, I became it. I became a different person in a new place, with no way to get back. That different person was an atheist — a nonbeliever, one of the godless, the faithless, the backslidden. I didn’t decide my way into that much change. I had to be transformed to get there.

Transformation is change too big to be measured, described, or understood, — change that rampages, doesn’t respect, isn’t abashed. It had no problem propelling me to where I could never have possibly gone.

“Transformation” sounds so spiritual. We have this idea that it’s going to be cool – we’ll be more aware, enlightened. So we take vacations and patronize spas, head to a monastery for a week of silence. Churches sponsor retreats, corporations lay out five-star spreads for off-site strategic planning. It works: put yourself in a new setting, you think new thoughts, feel new feelings. What used to be unthinkable and impossible becomes your new to-do list. The new normal is imminent, yours for the taking — transformation on demand.

Then comes re-entry. Go away and get inspired, then try to take it back to the shop and everybody wants to know what you’ve been smoking. The old normal can’t tolerate it.

You forgot something. You can’t just paste all that newness on your old self, your old life. Do that, everything rips apart. You need to become new. The reason you’re not already doing the new thing is because you’re not a person or organization that does the new thing. If you were, you’d already be doing it. Duh. You want to do the new thing, you need to be transformed. You need to be made new so that you can do and be new. Trying to mix old and new just isn’t going to work. That’s in the Bible too:

“No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

Matthew 9: 16-17 ESV

Books about new wine and new wineskins were making the rounds in my early Christian days. They were books you could use at retreats – fodder for earnest conversations and strategizing — new spurred on by resounding sermon moments about how very Gospely everything was going to be.

Every now and then somebody would find out about St. John of the Cross and his “dark night of the soul,” and quote it in a sermon. You didn’t have to know who he was or actually read anything he wrote — the poetic phrase stood on its own. Apparently transformation could be a major downer. Well, maybe that worked for a 16th Century mystic, but the rest of us had jobs.

On the way out of Christianity I crashed for awhile in the self-help world and thought it would be cool to be one of those speaker, writer, consultant dudes. I got as far as writing some blog posts and making a few trips to do workshops. I got great reviews – earnest, beautiful “this seminar changed my life” reviews. But then I started to think I was actually ruining people’s lives, which is pretty much what had happened to mine. Transformation is messy, mean, uncaring. I didn’t wish it on anybody, so I started telling attendees that they would suffer if they tried to make big changes – they would find themselves in the throes of transformation. I warned them not to use the material because I knew it would work, and when it did they would regret it. I got the impression people thought I was doing a reverse psychology number on them. After awhile I quit doing the workshops. It was unethical to give people a great retreat experience and send them home knowing they would get clobbered and give up.

Who would submit themselves to the kind of transformation that would turn a commando Christian (me) into an atheist?

In a word, nobody. Not even me.

But then I did.

I’m not bragging. You can’t brag about an accident.

We all know we don’t change unless and until we have to. Which means the usual transformation catalyst is…

Trauma.

Me too.

We’ve all seen the major stressors lists. Mine were career, money, health. For starters. When trauma gets rolling, it likes company.

Trauma brings grief. Grief rewires our brains – it puts the stress response (flight or fight) in charge, furloughs the part that makes us feel we’re in control. Memory and strong emotions hog the stage, decision-making and planning move out. Fear about how we’re going to live without what’s been lost goes on permanent reruns we can’t shut off. We get disoriented, lose track of time and place. We go wandering, literally and figuratively. Our whacked out symptoms take up residence.

Trauma and grief stay until the dark night is over. Change catalysts like religious retreats and self-help seminars have the same effect — they suspend our status quo ties to “normal,” heighten emotions, promote reality-bending experiences, warp our risk tolerance, enhance receptivity to new versions of reality. But then the weekend is over and we go back home, where the symptoms quickly fade. We resent it, but it’s better than the alternative, which is trauma and grief staying with it until the job is done.

Trauma and grief is a potent cocktail of transformation. Drink it, and there’s going to be trouble. You’re going to suffer.

You might even lose your faith.

You might join the ranks of the nonbelievers and wonder what wormhole you went through to get there.

That’s what happened to me.

You might be next.

“The Person of Jesus” Fallacy

“I don’t like religion but I like the person of Jesus.”

The religion they don’t like is Christianity – Jesus’ religion. They think it would be better if the church wasn’t involved. Separating an institution from its namesake isn’t easy under any circumstance, but it’s harder here because Jesus and the church are both ancient, and ancient doesn’t time-travel.

We hold a myth that it does, but ancient ideas and stories about ancient people preserved in ancient books can’t make the trip to today. We think if we could snatch those guys (ancient pronouns are definitely male) out of yesterday and plunk them into today, they would be just like us, dealing with the same kinds of issues, having the same kinds of thoughts. Not a chance. We are not like them and they weren’t like us. Our consciousness, experience, and reality are different from theirs. Bring them here or send us there and neither of us would have a clue.

Why? Because everything we feel, think, and do is in context – life happens right here, right now. It all happens in our brains and bodies – neurologically, biologically. We can’t escape being organisms. And we can’t escape the moment. That’s not a cool guru thing to say, it’s the way human life works. Contrary to the popular myth, we’re not eternal souls living on a higher plane while our bodies slog through the muck. We’re all here, like it or not.

Seek and Ye Shall Find

We don’t think reality works that way. We think it’s “out there,” waiting for us to find it. And if it’s Christian reality we’re after, Jesus promised that if we seek it we’ll find it. The only hitch is, the way we find it is by believing it. Christianity doesn’t function without belief. It starts with “whoever believes in him [Jesus] shall have eternal life” and goes from there.

Believing it is finding it. We find it by believing it. It’s not hard to spot the loop.

And if it’s the real Jesus we’re trying to find, there’s still the God-human problem. Theologians can talk all day about how Jesus was both “fully human and fully God,” but there’s no way the rest of us have any idea what that’s supposed to mean, so we stick with what we’ve been taught to believe. We major on the God part — we sanctify Jesus, bathe him in holy light, cast everything he said and did in marble, interpret and rationalize it in hindsight. We figure Jesus as God was always in the know so he knew all along what was happening and how it would be viewed by people like us two millennia later. He set everything up so church doctrine would make sense.

Plus our own memory banks are full of our personal history of faith and anything we might have learned about what’s happened with Christianity while it’s been around. There’s a lot of church and religion in those memories – stuff the person of Jesus” devotees want to trade for a fresh look. To do that, they’re going to have to be really good at “beginner’s mind” – using awareness to seek and destroy biases and assumptions.

Call me Ishmael

I didn’t think about the “person of Jesus” when I was a Christian, I mean, Jesus was special because I was a Christian. Sometimes people talked about loving Jesus. I never felt that way, so I worried that my faith was defective. Guilt was pretty much the extent of my “person of Jesus” experience.

Now that I’m not a Christian, I don’t like the guy.

It’s still shocks me when I write things like that. I never would have, back in the day, But I believed then. I don’t anymore.

Still, some people I’m close to buy the “person of Jesus” thing.

So call me Ishmael — I signed on to give it a try.

“Rabbi”

Jesus was a rabbi. He did what rabbis did:  travelled around teaching his take on things, attracted followers who supported him, and argued with other rabbis. (Rabbi arguing is so essential that the nation of Israel pays them to do it.)

Jesus was a rabbi prodigy – he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah by ditching his parents so he could debate other rabbis om Jerusalem’s temple. That’s like skipping law school for a chat at the Supreme Court. When they found him, in true adolescent fashion he made it their problem that they didn’t know he’d be there.

Then the Biblical record skips ahead twenty years – a gap that generates a lot of sappy artwork of him being a carpenter and “My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter” bumper stickers. What was he doing? The same thing he was doing before his temple debut:  studying, learning, perfecting his case, preparing himself to be a rabbi for the ages. When the photo op was over, he closed up shop and hit the road.

He was good at it – had personal charisma and a message to match. Recruiting was a snap, and before long he had a retinue and a schedule like a megachurch pastor:  he drew huge crowds to public events, taught an inner circle more intensely, and confided intimately with only a handful.

Jesus’ rabbi battles were epic. We like the way he put the smackdown on the competition. My overall impression is that he wasn’t the nicest guy in the world. Seems like he was often rebuking and scolding– like snarling at a man for not having enough faith while he healed his child. Maybe he was like one of those professors everybody warns is “really hard but you’ll learn a lot.” Sometimes I took the class, sometimes I didn’t – either way, I usually didn’t like “the person.”

Populism

Jesus was great in a crowd. He delivered sound bytes you could take home, share with the neighbors — consider the lilies of the field, the very hairs on your heads are numbered, no sparrow falls from the sky without God noticing…. He told great stories – always with a moral, but complex enough that his inner circle sometimes needed a private explanation. People wondered, “Where did he get all this?” “He doesn’t teach like the other rabbis,” they said.

There’s a poly-sci term for it:  populism. Populism reverses the pecking order — the elites will be last and the losers first. The new blessed — the poor, meek, abused, despised, outcast, sick, blind, lame, hopeless, powerless – will inherit the earth and see God. God already has their mansions in Heaven under construction.

Not only that, but they get free healthcare.

Healing

Jesus healed people at his rallies, sometimes stayed up all night doing it.

The Christianity I was part of believed healing should be a normal part of what Christians do. Not all Christianity thinks so. Plus, we all know the debates about did he really, about what qualifies as a “miracle,” and what’s this about casting out demons? In our day, the “placebo effect” has been scientifically documented, plus there have been and still are lots of people who heal without surgery or pharma. Debate all you like, but it’s undeniable that Jesus’s ability to make people feel better super-charged his popularity.

Messianic Populism

Healing people was a big deal. Only the A-list prophets had done it, which meant Jesus might be one of them. There hadn’t been one of those in a few hundred years. More than that, healing was more than a prophet marker, it was Messianic – part of what would happen when God made good on Israel’s long-promised restoration and golden era.

Start talking Messiah, and the populist buzz goes off the charts.

Jesus’ message was clearly Messianic, and he clearly believed he was the Messiah. That’s what went down in a very rabbi-like exchange with John the Baptist (though a couple of John’s followers). The rabbi exchange works like this:  one rabbi quotes scripture, the other responds in kind; and in so doing, they clarify a point between themselves. They’re speaking in code, but they get what each other is after.

“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

Matthew 11: 2-5 ESV

“Are you the one who is to come?” [Are you the Messiah?]

“Go tell John what you see happening around here.” [Yes I am.]

The scripture in question was this:

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
“    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”

Isaiah 35: 5-6 ESV

Jesus made the same point on other occasions, like one Sabbath when he did something else rabbis did – went to the synagogue and read the scriptures, as “was his custom.” Only this time he went off script:  “The prophet Isaiah was talking about me.

“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

“And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:16-21 ESV

Fast forward to today. We know that Jesus’ Messianic populism didn’t go permanent. Instead – according to the church – it morphed into something transnational and invisible that you get in on not by being born in ancient Israel, but by believing that Jesus was a sort of metaphysical Messiah for everybody. A few hundred years later under Emperor Constantine, the invisible Messianic kingdom morphed again into the official Christian institution and infrastructure “the person of Jesus” devotees want to scuttle.

Jesus’ populism was a fail, but that’s okay. We got something better instead. That’s the party line.

Populism Redux

I was a Jesus Freak in the 60’s and 70’s. We were totally into the populist Jesus– the bearded long-hair barefoot bead-wearing anti-war hippie radical Che Guevara look-alike who called out The Establishment and stuck it to the Man.

Today we’ve got the Revenge of the Establishment — the Christian Right’s Jesus who advances Christian Nationalist racist alt-right anti-democracy militarist fascist authoritarianism end stage capitalism.

I don’t know about you, but after the last few years I’ve had quite enough populism for one lifetime.

“We are the 99%” is why populism fails. Occupy camps out in Manhattan, the mob storms the Bastille (or the Capitol) but once the mess is cleaned up the 1% is back in charge while the newly disappointed and disillusioned 99% are back home wondering, “What was that about?”

So far, Jesus” sharp tongue and populism aren’t wining “person of Jesus” points. But how about this:

Jesus Reinvented God

If the Messiah was on the scene, the God of Israel’s history had to be recast.

Israel’s God was a “man of war. Exodus 15:3 He was both a war criminal and guilty of crimes against humanity – a misogynist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic narcissist who must be worshiped and resented it when he wasn’t, a nationalist, fascist authoritarian who openly ordered genocide and gave his conquering soldiers the right to rape and pillage.

You dealt with that God by being afraid – fearing him was “the beginning of wisdom.” Proverbs 9:10 No wonder the rabbinical sects Jesus verbally sparred with – the Pharisees and Sadducees –were obsessed with getting everything just right, down to the last “jot and tittle.” Do something wrong and everybody suffered.

Of course, ancient Israel didn’t think of their God that way. People still don’t today. When they think of God, they think of a Nice Guy in the Sky – like the God Jesus introduced as our “Father” — a too-kind, too-generous, too-indulgent, too-loving remake of the old Monster God.

The Monster God destroyed men, women (except the sex slaves), and children and burned their cities down to make room for his chosen people, whom he also turned on if they got it wrong. That wouldn’t do if there was going to be a Messianic golden era. So Jesus brought a new God, and a new religion with it.

Jesus Reinvented Religion

Jesus’ new religion was based on belief. Belief was the ultimate populist Messianic kingdom strategy. Anyone could believe, even the losers — no temple, no priest, no animals sacrifice required.

Jesus’ new religion was today’s self-help gospel. When Jesus gets on the topic of belief, he’s the original motivational speaker.

“All things are possible for one who believes.” Mark 9:23 ESV

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” Mark 11:23 ESV

That’s the power of positive thinking and law of attraction, from the pages and podiums of the $20 billion self-help industry. (Christians have adopted self-help as their own – Google “Christian self help” and you’ll see what I mean.) Believe what you want, don’t doubt, and it’s yours. You can move mountainsNothing will be impossible for you.

It seems Jesus was an original thinker on this point – if it’s in the ancient Bible, I can’t find it.

If the Monster God was out and the Nice Guy in the Sky was in, then Israel’s historical religion had to change.  No more annual calendar of animal blood sacrifices. And no more temple.

A little research reveals that there was a rabbinical apocalyptic school of thought in Jesus’ time, and some scholars think Jesus was in the club. Maybe, maybe not, but Jesus clearly had an apocalyptic view of his religion’s future, which meant the temple’s days were numbered – a development he talked about with inner circle about when the troupe made their last trip to Jerusalem.

“Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’

“As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’”

Matthew 24: 1-4 ESV

The temple was the nation. Take it away, and everything else went with it — worldview, cultural identity, historical understanding, vision for the future… all the nation’s institutions and icons trashed. The Messiah had been promised for millennia, but theoretical good news is one thing, the reality of dealing with it is quite another.

The “Lamb of God” heads off a national security risk

Jesus’ country was a theocracy. Messianic populism was a national security risk. Stir things up too much, and the Roman hammer would fall. The other rabbis could see it coming. They had a country to protect. They were human too — the lash of Jesus’ tongue hurt. And clearly he was wrong and they were right. No wonder they led the chant “We have no king but Caesar” while demanding Jesus’s conviction and murder.

And the amazing thing was, Jesus didn’t resist them. And when the Roman authorities wanted to let him go, he refused.

It looks like this came out of nowhere, but it was there all along, ever since John the Baptist made a pronouncement for the ages:

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

John 1:29 ESV

At the height of his popularity, Jesus volunteered to be the human sacrifice that would appease Israel’s Monster God once and for all. No more imminent kingdom – instead, the settling of an old score. It looks like a sudden change of heart, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.

“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Matthew 16:21-23 ESV

So much for the merry populist ride and the loving new Heavenly Father. In order for the old God and the old religion to be over with, there would need to be one last bloody sacrifice – the “Lamb of God.” That would be Jesus’s final act.

Trouble is, you destroy the Messiah, you destroy the Messianic golden age. Two thousand years of church doctrine says don’t worry about that, because this was the surprise happy ending– the impossibly good news no one saw coming. I’m no longer in the thrall of church doctrine, so I see it differently.

At the height of Jesus’ populist ministry, his family staged an intervention – tried to bring him home. They thought he was beside himself, wasn’t thinking straight, needed some time to cool off. He blew them off, and shortly after started predicting his death. It’s like something snapped in him. Right about then was the transfiguration –Moses and Elijah on the mountain — the lawgiver and prophet — and afterward the populism ran off the rails. Instead of breaking with the Monster God, Jesus announced that he would appease him with his own death. Bringing the Messianic kingdom would be his followers’ job, and in the time he had left he focused on preparing them for the job.

This is where I give up on “the person of Jesus” – when his healing, populist gospel turns into an ancient religious death wish.

But then it gets worse.

The Last Judgment

When Jesus broke faith with his Messianic populist movement, he became fully complicit in ancient Israel’s religion and angry God.

Like any sociopath, the Monster God could be kind — the official line was that his “lovingkindness indeed never ceases” Lamentations 3:22-23 Trouble was, his lovingkindness was conditional, on loan. His people could never please him, so they were always building debt they could never repay. Christian theology says that applies to the rest of us too, and that Jesus – “fully God” – knew that, so he picked up the tab for everybody.

But the final reckoning inexplicably stayed on the agenda. Once the world burns in apocalyptic flames, we’re all summoned to the Last Judgment, and if we don’t believe the right stuff, we’re screwed in the worst possible way.

These days, every time I write the stuff the church I was part of used to believe, I’m shocked and stunned all over again. Really — people who seem normal, like I used to think I was — believe all this gory, horrible stuff. No wonder Christians parade Jesus’s death by torture symbol like it’s the best thing ever. It’s a crucifix, for crying out loud! –one of the most horrifyingly cruel, depraved, savage, barbaric, sadistic, blood-lusty instruments of torture the very worst of human depravity has ever devised, and there’s a man on it, beaten and whipped bloody, writhing in pain.

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

And the son submitted to it because he loved us and wanted to please his father.

Behold the Lamb of God.

That’s the religion Jesus couldn’t break from – which two thousand years later was the same religion I joined when I became a Christian – and which is still the same religion I’m no longer part of. Christianity gives lip service to the Father, but it worships the Monster.

Jesus Christ Superstar

By the time I got this far in my search for “the person of Jesus” I realized what I’d found was my own Christian life. Twenty years after my Jesus Freak populism days, the Kingdom finally came. It was full-on Jesus populism. We went after the losers, stayed up all night healing them and finding them under bridges. We built churches in their abandoned store fronts, washed their cars, did their Spring cleaning, hauled away their trash. We fed them and moved them into homes.

Then the worst thing happened. The Evangelicals who’d been on our case extended the olive branch, and our leaders took it. We used to have the Father, now we had half the Father and half the Monster. Occupy was over. The elites were back in charge. The old order was restored.

That’s what I found looking for “the person of Jesus.”

Writing this now, I think of Judas singing in Jesus Christ Superstar — “Every time I look at you I don’t understand/Why you let the things you did get so out of hand.” Yeah, that pretty well sums it up.

When I first heard it, I thought it was clever, but trite. Not anymore. Jesus had it going, he let it get away. Sad. Frustrating. I wish his family’s intervention had worked. It didn’t, and for reasons we’ll never know, Jesus took a course that a couple thousand years later has brought us the Christian Right and the Kingdom of Texas, the Proud Boys with their giant crosses that look like they’re going to use them on somebody, and all the rest. We get modern barbarity to match ancient barbarity, justified by the barbaric God of a barbaric ancient religion, its devotees hawking doctrinal statements of faith barely indistinguishable from their most wildly fantastical conspiracy theories.

The individual and collective brains of the human race have been groomed with this disgusting source of endless misery for six thousand years since the Bible first declared ‘In the beginning, God….”

How about if we start over with, “In the new beginning, no God’?

Not even “the person of Jesus.”

Today billions of people around the world still sanctify the church’s ideology and idolatry no matter how weird and brutal it is. “The person of Jesus” offers no escape, only more of the same.

Can we please move on?