March 30, 2004

Not Much Faith in Faith Anymore?

In anticipation of seeing the movie "Passion of the Christ", I have been reading voraciously on Christianity and ancient belief systems from a number of different sources.

These sources have included The Bible, "The 12th Planet" by Zechariah Sitchin, The Necronomicon, and most recently, The Koran. Quite a mixed bag, I know, but I'll explain my train of thought, to assure you that it has not derailed too badly.

I will be going to watch the movie "The Passion of the Christ" in the next week or so, and contemplating this particular drama has made me aware of how little I know about the Christian Bible, Jesus, etc. My society is steeped in Christian rhetoric, sayings, holidays, and values, which have been incorporated into my personality subtlely all my life. It's such an easy habit to say "Christ!" or "Oh my god!" when I'm shocked by something. But I can honestly say that I do not believe in God. I am an atheist, and somewhat of a skeptic generally where belief systems and philosophies are concerned.

I have always been inspired by the saying "Any science, if sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic." I do think that everything can, ultimately, be described in physical terms. I do not believe in mysteries, magic or miracles, angels or devils, and I admit to feeling quite impatient with those who do believe such things. Having said that I basically believe that all things can be explained by science, I do not have any presumptions to great knowledge myself. I am just admitting that I will take reports of miracles or "acts of God" with a grain of salt.

So, my interest in the story of Jesus is that of an outsider, who wants to read the stories himself. I want to evaluate the Bible's historical (?) claims of interactions with "the Lord", and learn where these stories originally came from, and if they were inspired by earlier accounts.

So far, I am only as far as "Exodus" in the Old Testament, so I have a loooong way to go. I did skip to the end of the book once, and let me tell you, if Revelations is the end, this is not a pretty picture folks. So, I went back to the beginning again, hoping that things would somehow seem less shocking if I had more information first.

The Bible has been compiled from numerous different sources over the past thousands of years. It is truly the oldest continuously-published volume around, as far as I know. Many spoken versions of the it's stories spread around for millennia before being written down, and so they were subject to all kinds of cultural and temporal adjustments and changes with each recounting. Not to mention how the Bible has been consciously re-edited over the years by various religious orders, Kings, Popes, or whomever, in order to suit their political or religious goals.

At this point in my layman's reading the Bible, I have encountered a number of inconsistencies or things that seem plain strange to me.

In a few places in Genesis, God refers to itself in the plural e.g. "Let us create him in our image". Who was God talking to? Was there more than one God?

In other places, God (referred to as "The Lord") seems to act on quite a human scale. The Lord seems to interact with Jacob and Moses personally, speaking to them face-to-face, getting impatient or angry with them, or bargaining and promising things to get what he wants. The Lord also casually kills people too, with very little explanation given (I'll cite an example from the Old Testament at a later time).

This is far from the al-knowing, al-seeing, benevolent and omnipresent entity that was described to me in my youth. Some of the other people I have mentioned this to have had the same reaction, not liking the idea that God was so vengeful and "in-yer-face". Perhaps people prefer a more benign, compasssionate, super-being. You know, silent and invisible.

The Bible is certainly prone to inconsistencies, but then it is made up of fragments of ancient tales which have undergone countless modifications in their verbal and written manifestations. But all the same, the Old Testament God seems like quite the petty meddler in human affairs, sometimes walking around like a man, confronting people face-to-face, or sometimes whooshing around above a battlefield upon a "pillar of fire and cloud". God was definitely getting involved in things first hand.

This skeptical vision of "the Almighty" as a powerful yet meddling, human-scale super-entity spurred me to re-read the book "The 12th planet" by Zecharia Sitchen. In this, the first of his "Earth Chronicles" series, Sitchin claims that the Human race was created by advanced visitors from another planet in our solar system. He quotes lots of ancient Sumerian tablets and cylinder seals to back it up.

While I take a lot of Sitchen's claims with that same grain of salt, his views do provide a refreshing alternative to accepted stories of human creation and ancient events. Most useful to me were his statements that many of the events in the Old Testament may have been inspired by even older Sumerian or Babylonian tales. Sitchin (as well as other authors I found on the web) have compared the story of Noah and the Flood to older tales of a great deluge taken from Babylonian stories.

Cultures and beliefs tend to be fluid, influenced by other cultures as they intermingle due to commerce or other are affected by other causes. New cultures take on some characteristics of previous cultures too. So, I could see how the Jewish Torah, the basis for the Old Testament, might have adapted from or used versions of older, popular morality tales or epics for it's own purposes. The Old Testament, so far as I have read it today, is horribly vague about providing reference points that I can understand, so it's difficult to know where and when events it depicts actually occurred. I need like, a Coles Notes study guide for the Old Testmane, or "Bible for Dummies" :) But anyway, Zecharia Sitchin's work does help me get a timeline and context for certain Biblical events, and see that there were earlier possible sources for them.

I have also had a second look at the Necronomicon. The Necronomicon is billed as a book of magical incantations written by a "mad Arab" in the 9th century AD. Sounds pretty ominous. I bought it in handy paperback form at Coles books, and have recently re-read it purely out of curiousity. Having said all that, I'm a nice guy, who doesn't believe in any kind of blood oaths, sacrifices, or devil worship. (Just wanted to get that out of the way.)

I found that the Neconomicon makes *so* many references to Babylon and Sumer, whose religious beliefs pre-date Christianity by thousands of years, that it is no wonder that the Christian and Roman Catholic churches would want to suppress it or label it as evil, satanic, etc. The Necronomicon looks to me like a manifestation of old Sumerian or Babylonian stories and beliefs, recast in mystical terms, kind of like how ancient astronomy and pantheistic or shamanistic belief systems have been marginalized and recast into largely mystical terms as Astrology, Wicca, etc. So, it's not scary to me, or cursed or any of that sensationalistic crap that may have been assigned to it.

Finally, the Koran is somewhat of a breath of fresh air. It repeats some of the same messages of the Bible, but it is largely in the form of prose - a poetic format, which almost makes the Bible read like a Harlequin Romance by comparison. The style of the Koran is elaborate, slightly flowery and almost abstract, and yet remains structured in it's own way. It's not unlike the Islamic ornamental designs I fell in love with in first year at Art School. The Koran will be a difficult bok to interpret and understand, which is something I think I may enjoy.

In Summary...

I don't think I'm much more definite about my beliefs than before. I still "will believe it when I see it" as far as the Christian God, miracles, Heaven, etc. are concerned, but it makes me wonder how the Christian and Catholic Church has responded to the demands of modern society.

I think I shall enjoy staying on the fence, to study some more...

March 20, 2004

Does Organized Religion Equal Organized Division?

There seem to be so many groups, parties, organizations, sects, cults and bona fide religions around. I feel like I'm in an idealogical supermarket today.

I've had occasion to wonder what my core beliefs are - what do I actually believe in? I'll come back to that in a bit...

My Family Religious Affiliations

I never had the impression that my Dad's immediate family were particularly religious. My Dad was not a church-going man, and in fact had expressed some bitterness in how a local priest (Catholic I believe) had stopped by one day to give him advice on er, intimate aspects of his relationship with his first wife. Man - I mean, Dad was bitter and angry when he told me that story.

However, my little sister and I were christened Anglican. Did that mean that Mum and Dad were attending Anglican church at some point? I will reserve judgment on that.

As a little boy, I don't remember attending church on Sundays very much, except to sing in the choir. We may have attended though, since I do recall having a fine little green Sunday suit and long pants which were probably meant mainly for Sunday church. My sister Kim and I were periodically encouraged to attend Sunday school a few years later, when we lived in Aldergrove, outside of Langley, BC. All I can clearly remember from Sunday School was some children's bible books that depicted a blonde, clean-shaven Jesus, which I felt was all wrong. Also, some kid ate a bunch of the white library paste and stuck out his tongue to prove it, which was both gross and rather funny.

Some members of my Mother's family were devoutly religious, going to church with sincerity each Sunday, and speaking resolutely of their relationship with the Lord. Sometimes, hearing this kind of talk confused me a bit or made me uncomfortable, even as a little kid. I didn't understand the significance of it all. My Mum had brief moments where she was influenced by the spiritual beliefs of her religious relatives, and I can recall Mum coming in off the front lawn, talking (or raving) about Jesus, and Dad shouting at her to keep it down.

My impression is that Mum might have believed in God, or she might have believed in her parents more. I think my Mother was easily influenced by other people in her family, so I cannot be sure of what she truly believed in.

If my Dad ever had religion in his life, he did not have it by the time I knew him. In my teens, I asked Dad about his beliefs and if he had ever read the bible. He said that once he did start reading it, but at the part in the Old Testament where everyone was over 900 years old and still having kids, he gave up in disgust. He couldn't believe that.

In Dad's immediate family, among his brothers, parents, and his Aunt Molly, there was a strong tendency to belong to benevolent orders, like the Odd Fellows or Rebeccas, or the Shriners. These were religiously-based organizations that gave people some social and financial support, and performed charitable deeds in their local communities. The Odd Fellows and Rebeccas were Christian-based fellowships, which came out of the English Guild system in the 18th century (See The Shriners are a Masonic order (similar to the Free Masons) whose origins depend upon who you ask (See My uncle was one of those fez-wearing, red-blazer-bearing Shriners, and seemed to take a lot of joy from being part of that association. I still don't know what it's really all about or where it came from though, to be honest...

What does it all mean?

So many associations. Different group with different beliefs, and sometimes they try to discredit each other. The thing is, everyone joins one of these groups for personal reasons, and at some point may feel compelled to defend it from the views or opinions of others. Some fundamentalist Christians think that Masonic groups are based in Islam, paganism or even Satan worship, for example. I'm sure there are biases in every group, and that in many cases, they distinguish themselves from "competing" groups by their differences, which they believe to be advantageous. *sigh*

So, what do I believe in?

So, I am not interested in becoming a card-carrying member of any organized religion, fellowship, brother/sisterhood or whatever. All the special clothing, memorized oaths, and special halls or churches seem too externalized - like over-worked symbolic diversions, which I think distract from core philosophy.

Even though I am a budding Buddhist, I don't have any interest in the outside manifestations of it. I don't chant, wear robes or shave my head, any more than an average Christian would dress up like a priest. I think that the most difficult thing for someone to do is to develop their own strength in a belief system based upon personal study and introspection. By this, I mean that if I cannot find the inner strength to develop and test a belief system on my own, I will be susceptible to manipulation by others if I join an organized group. I believe in being skeptical until I feel I have enough information.

This doesn't mean I don't believe in something. I have a strong belief in science as a discipline to help us understand the patterns of nature. I believe generally in psychology and philosophy as practices that have contributed to our understanding of ourselves and the world. I believe in the right to ask questions and admit that I am finite, temporary in this world, and that I do not know the answers. I do not expect a belief system to give me those answers. I would rather be given the questions, and a means through which I can come to know an answer for myself.

March 10, 2004

Dad's Old Chair...

Me and Dad, Carlton Lodge, 1986
Last night, my brother David asked me to send him Dad's last known address, as part of a security clearance procedure for a job application. Thinking about it, and writing the address in an email for Dave brought back feelings of Dad.

Grace warned me not to look into the trunk of the car this morning, but I opened it to get the squeegee to wipe the morning dew off the windsheild, and there it was: Dad's old wheelchair, all folded neatly into a compact bundle. It was the first time I had seen my Dad's old wheelchair in many years.

I was a bit shocked at how much seeing that thing had surprised me. It was like an extension of my Dad for his last few years, and had stood folded up in a room at Grace's father's house since Dad passed away in 1989. I had forgotten all about it.

As Grace drove me in to work today, all I could think about was how much I wanted to hold the handles on the back of the chair again, like back when I would push him down the hall to his dinner.


Grace's father had cleaned it and removed all the old kleenexes and little bits of junk that were still stuffed into the leather "side saddle" pouch that Dad had kept over the side. (How considerate of him...)

Now, the wheelchair is going to a friend so that her dear old Nana can use it. Someone else should get some use from it. It's a good wheelchair.

March 06, 2004

Woman removes Windows(tm). Finds herself - "The Dumbing Down of Programming"

Another nugget from the past: "The Dumbing Down of Programming", by Ellen Ullman. This article from Salon Magazine was suggested to me by my friend Ron, back in 1998 when we were both working at TVI Interactive Systems.

At the time, I may have glanced at it, but I probably didn't read it. Here it is, six years later, and I must say, I really enjoyed reading it! (I'm also thrilled that the article is still available online after so many years. The web is typically such an impermanent space, that this kind of consistency is very satisfying.)

It's a fascinating look at the evolution of personal computer technology, as seen through the eyes of a female engineer as she strips away the layers of her Windows OS, de-evolving it down to it's BASIC brain core.

This article is a nice piece of engineering philosophy - a statement about our Microsoft-dominated computing culture, and the need for personal responsibility, choice and a sense of adventure. Back when this was written, Linux wasn't nearly as established and packaged as it is today, but the message of Ms. Ullman's article is still totally relevant: Windows, and Bill's vision of "easy-to-use" computing ain't all there is folks.

I wonder how she feels about the Mac?

"Up, up and away with 4EJ"

Forrest J. Ackerman, many years ago... (Used without permission)
Back in 1997, I just got my cable Internet connection, and was happily exploring the web, when I remembered a funky magazine I used to love in my teens...

It was Famous Monsters of Filmland, or "FM" to it's fans.

This crazy, silly, fascinating mag was filled with all manner of film monsters and sci-fi creatures, all in glorious black and white!! The editor of FM was Forrest J. Ackerman, probably the biggest horror and sci-fi fan alive anywhere! He was (and still is) known variably as Forry, 4E, or just EEEE.

FM magazine was steeped in 4E's nutty, bad puns. It was rather like Mad Magazine, but with a love of monster flicks replacing Mad's sarcastic put-downs and New York-style or in-bred cultural references ("you clod!").

Even though FM was chock full of the scary monster movie images, it was still a fun, friendly read for a kid - not scary at all. Pretty campy and silly, really.

Unfortunately, FM went out of print in the early eighties. I still have one issue tucked away from my once mighty collection of two or three dozen...

So, in 1997, in a raging fit of nostalgia, I decided to see if I could locate info about this magazine on the web.

As luck (and AltaVista) would have it back then, Mr. Ackerman had published a "virtual tour" of his personal Hollywood monster museum - "The AckerMansion" - as an interactive CDROM. I was so there baby!

I also discovered his web site and decided to send my first ever fan letter via email...

My fan letter to Forrest J. Ackerman went like this:

"Greetings 4E!

I really enjoyed the "Forry's Weird Wired World Web Site", but was dissappointed that my email to you
at that site bounced (bummer)...

So, I'll try again:

Thanks most of all for editing "Famous Monsters of Filmland", a mag I lived for when I was 12-16 yrs. old.
It gave me an escape route from the real world, and a window into the world of movies, fx, and fantasy,
and a preview of future fx greats like Rick Baker - truly inspirational!
Your cornball humour and enthusiasm kept the feel from getting too serious, and gave FMOF a familiar "face" that made it fun to read.

I just ordered your virtual tour CDROM set, and am anxiously awaiting it's arrival.
Thanks for creating this software and giving me my escape route back!

Thanks and best wishes,

E. John Love
Art Director
TVI Interactive Systems Inc.
Burnaby, BC, Canada"

The next day, I received this reply, apparently from the man himself (I hope so!)

"Enjoy the CDROM! Come back and visit my virtual Ackermansion often. You will always find a home there, at the end of your escape route......
Up, up, and away, with 4EJ!!!"

Now, seven (!) years later, I rediscovered these messages, as probably the oldest emails I still have. I assume that Mr. Ackerman must be well into his eighties or even beyond by now (talk about the undead - go 4E, go 4E!!)

...and lo, his same old web site is still kicking, in all it's 1997-esque, HTML version 1 glory, rife with his same crazy puns, and with a online guestbook bursting with loving fans like me, giving our respect.

My favourite 4E pun/joke is now "Esperanto - the tongue of cunning linguists". :)

Did you know that it was he who coined the term "sci fi"?
That's pretty cool...