Blogging the New CD: C is for Christ’s Hard Sayings

Third in a series of blog posts about the songs on my new CD, Distorted Vision.

Some people reading this may be averse to anything that even hints at Christianity, its tenets or its practices. That’s okay. But even people who do not follow Christ can often recognize and sometimes appreciate things he said.

Consider “Turn the other cheek,” for instance. Many people might recognize that sentiment without knowing that Jesus said it, or without knowing how subversive it was at the time.* Like many of the things that Jesus taught, however, it’s easier to say than it is to put into practice. To apply it to a recent situation in science fiction and fantasy fandom, had more people been able to turn the other cheek the great Hugo Award Fracas of 2015 might have resulted in fewer hurt feelings and fewer damaged friendships.

The truth is that Jesus said some things that are difficult to understand and difficult to embody. As a result, the practice of Christianity is sometimes hard to accomplish.

Follow me, and learn to fish for human souls
Follow me, leave your family and your home
Follow me, I don’t bring peace, I bring a sword
Follow me, and let the dead bury their own

“We Want the Easy Road”

Some of those things are hard to figure out, and some are hard to do, on top of the basic problem of dealing with doubt and uncertainty day by day, and of trying to make the most of whatever measure of faith we may have. This song, then, is primarily about dealing with the difficult things that Jesus said, the things he said that fly in the face of the way we think the world works or should work, and above all else the one thing he said that can confound us whether we ignore it or we try to obey it. And that was simply, “Follow me.”

What are we to make of the things he said? At times during the song you get some of my reactions:

  • “It sounds so good, you knew it would, all the pleasant things you said”
  • “It sounds so odd, these words from God, so we ignore the hard things you said”
  • “It sounds absurd, these things we heard — all those crazy things you said”
  • “We close our ears, don’t want to hear, are we sure that’s what you said?”

And as the good things he said transition to odd things, to things that sound absurd, and to things that we may not want to hear, I conclude that quite often we want the easy road rather than the straight and narrow, the wine and the bread of communion rather than the sweat and sacrifice of service.

A loaf of bread...
“We want the easy road, the wine, the bread.” (Image: “A loaf of bread…” by James Lee, from Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Whether you are a believer or not, whether you have ever even thought much about who Jesus was or what he did, I hope you can find something to ponder in “We Want the Easy Road”. And if you like it, go ahead and share it with others who might like it, too.

___
*If you want to know more about how turning the other cheek or going the extra mile would have been subversive acts, drop me a line.

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Release Day! DISTORTED VISION is Now Available!

Almost 2 years to the day since I released Truths and Lies and Make-Believe, here comes my second musical collection, Distorted Vision.


(Album cover photography and design by Christopher Rinehart. Click to go to the Bandcamp page, to listen to or purchase the album.)

Like its predecessor, Distorted Vision is another collection of songs mostly inspired by or referencing science fiction and fantasy, as well as songs about the marvels and misfortunes of life itself. I consider it to be a second helping of “truths and lies and make-believe.”

Where T&L&MB had ten all-original tunes, this new album has eleven songs, including two which use existing tunes. I intend to write a series of posts examining each song on its own, but here’s the running order with a few basic notes:

All the above links go to Bandcamp, which is the only place the album is available at this time. At Bandcamp you can listen to the songs, purchase a download of individual songs or the whole album, and order a physical CD for me to send to you (and, yes, I ship them myself).* I will make the album available on CD Baby soon, and from there it will be available on Amazon and other outlets — and the songs themselves will be available for streaming.

If you never listened to Truths and Lies and Make-Believe,** but you’ve heard me play guitar and are a little leery of how these songs might sound, let me assure you that just like the first album I did not actually play any of the instruments on this one. My friend Mark Minervino was once again the studio musician par excellence, and also engineered and mixed the songs, and my friend Brian Ceccarelli of Talus Music mastered the CD so the sound quality would be uniform. I couldn’t have done this album, or the last one, without them!

So if this sort of thing interests you, or if you’re just curious, or even if you just want to humor me, I hope you’ll give it a listen — and that maybe you’ll find something you like enough to buy! And if you know someone else who might appreciate it, by all means send them a link to the album or to this blog post.

Thanks, I hope you like what you hear, and let me know what you think!

___
*Note that physical CDs won’t ship until close to the end of the month. Sorry!
**Really? It’s been out for 2 years, and you haven’t listened to it yet?

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The Gray Man Unplugged — ‘Help My Unbelief’

I know this video is nothing special — it’s just me and my guitar, shot with my phone, no frills, no special effects — but I think the song itself might speak to just about everybody at some point in their life. I think most of us struggle with doubt from time to time, and “Help My Unbelief” is a song about doubt and the desire to overcome it.

The studio version of the song is much better, of course. But in whatever format, this is one of the more personal songs I’ve written. I wrote it in 2012, and I actually sang it in church long before we recorded it for the CD. When I introduced it in church, I said something about “Doubting Thomas” being one of my heroes for being willing to admit his doubt, and how much I identify with the city official who said, “Lord, I believe — help my unbelief.”

If you’ve struggled with doubt, I hope this song gives you some comfort that you’re not alone. And if you know someone who is struggling, or who might want to use the song in a service, by all means feel free to share it with them.

___

And now, a word from our sponsor: “Help My Unbelief” appears on Truths and Lies and Make-Believe, a “compendium of musical selections inspired or influenced by science fiction, fantasy, life, and faith … a multitude of things.” It’s not all serious songs — I tried to balance silly and serious songs on the album — though even some of my science fiction and fantasy songs often end up being serious.

___

If the embedded video doesn’t work, here’s a direct link to the “Help My Unbelief” ‘unplugged’ Video.

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Does the Human Eye Prove that God Exists?

To answer the question right out of the gate, I’d say no, because no single phenomenon or example can “prove” that God exists.


(Someone is watching you ….)

The question comes from the headline of an article in The Telegraph — in the “film” section, no less — that discusses what a wondrous mechanism the human eye is, with its “astonishing inbuilt systems.”

Take, for example, a little trick called the vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR). In short, it’s our own personal Steadicam — an inbuilt muscular response that stabilises everything we see, by making tiny imperceptible eye movements in the opposite direction to where our head is moving. Without VOR, any attempts at walking, running — even the minuscule head tremors you make while you read these words — would make our vision blurred, scattered and impossible to comprehend.

As one who finds very jittery camera work in movies (like District 9) and some video game action (like the rolling ball in Katamari Damacy) very disorienting — to the point of physical illness — I am very grateful for the VOR!

But that’s not all:

… researchers have discovered the retina is doing a huge amount of pre-processing itself – and that as light passes through the retina’s several dense layers of neurons, a lot of detail like colour, motion, orientation and brightness are determined.

When I took a laser safety course (many years ago), we were told that the retina was put together opposite the way an optical engineer would have designed it, because the rods and cones actually point backward, into the retina itself, instead of forward toward the lens. This newly-found pre-processing function may have something to do with that, though personally I wonder if turning the sensors around would make our eyes more susceptible to damage from very intense lights.

Things like that make the question of deliberate design vs. development by natural selection interesting. As the article puts it,

Even today, Christians and creationists believe that Charles Darwin himself was troubled by its existence — seizing upon an (oft-misquoted) aside in Origin of Species, where Darwin remarked that the whole idea of something so flawless “could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.”

The full Darwin quote, with the important next sentence, is:

To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.

Thus something that seems absurd may still be possible, and even reasonable. The question is whether it matters. For instance, whether it matters to a believer that sufficiently different eyes can be understood by natural selection to lead to the human eye. Or whether it matters to an unbeliever that the believer attributes the eye’s complexity to the influence of a creative God.

The eye still exists, and some of us can praise God for it even though its existence is insufficient to prove that God exists.

And that’s okay. After all, faith is “the evidence of things not seen.”*

___
*Hebrews 11:1 (KJV)

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Why You and I May Never Agree

This has been fermenting in my mind for some time now. Some folks may think I let it go too far, and have produced figurative vinegar instead of wine. But, vinegar also has it uses.

Straw Man Walking
(Some straw men are more active than others. [Image: “Straw Man Walking” by Ken Bosma, on Flickr under Creative Commons.])

I thought I’d take a stab at why it is not just unlikely that we will ever agree on many issues, but very nearly impossible. I hope you’ll bear with me and forgive any errors I may make.

First, some symbolic language:

  • Let X be a topic upon which we differ. Either you support it and I oppose it, or vice versa.
  • Let A then be some factor related to X which one of us perceives as unfavorable. The other may perceive it as favorable, or may allow that it is not precisely favorable but is also not completely negative.

Now the fun begins.

One of us formulates an argument along the lines of, “I oppose X because of A.” Perhaps we state it just that clearly, or perhaps the unfavorable A is only implied.

The other of us formulates a counter-argument along the lines of, “I support X despite A.” (Or, if we think that A is actually favorable, we might argue, “I support X because of A.”)

(Note that this is different from arguing on one side “I support X because of A,” and on the other side “I oppose X because of B.” There, we are not arguing quite the same cases. Maybe there’s another blog post in that discussion, but I doubt it.)

This “I oppose/support X because of/despite A” type of formulation works for many different arguments, even if we choose to add conditions meant to make our positions complete or more “reasonable.” The more caveats and addenda we add, the more complicated we make our arguments. “I support X, under conditions Y and Z, because of A and B, and despite C.” We might wonder whether the additional conditions are intended to convince our opponents, or ourselves.

(Also, the respective arguments need not be stated in terms of outright support for a particular position. For instance, we could say, “I think X works well despite A,” or “I think X works poorly because of A.”)

With that as a symbolic basis, here’s the crux of why I doubt we will ever agree: Once we have established our relative positions, and do not take the time or make the effort to examine our differing assumptions and premises, neither argument is particularly convincing. As the poem goes, “ne’er the twain shall meet.”

Shall we consider a few examples?

Abortion:

  • “I object to abortion on demand despite a woman having the right to subject her body to whatever procedure she chooses, and because of the effect such a procedure would have on a potential human life growing inside her.”
  • “I support abortion on demand because a woman has the right to subject her body to whatever procedure she chooses, and despite the effect such a procedure would have on a potential human life growing inside of her.”

Gun control:

  • “I support the private ownership of firearms by United States citizens because that right is enshrined in the Second Amendment, and because citizens have the right to defend their lives and property, and despite the terrible and regrettable damage done by lawbreakers using firearms.”
  • “I oppose the private ownership of firearms by United States citizens because of the terrible and regrettable damage done by lawbreakers using firearms, and despite that right being enshrined in the Second Amendment, and despite citizens having the right to defend their lives and property.”

Socialized healthcare:

  • “I oppose socialized healthcare because of the limits it must impose on accessibility and care in order to approach financial viability, and despite the numbers of people who are unable to obtain insurance or care on the open market.”
  • “I support socialized healthcare because of the numbers of people who are unable to obtain insurance or care on the open market, and despite the limits it must impose on accessibility and care in order to approach financial viability.”

(Note that both sides in this case could use reports of people who fall through the metaphorical cracks of either socialized or open-market healthcare systems as “because of” or “despite” factors — because no system of healthcare will ever be perfect.)

The dichotomous arguments can be applied to belief systems as well: “I believe in X because of A,” or “I am skeptical about or do not believe in X despite A.” Perhaps a single example will suffice: Religion.

  • “I have faith in my chosen religion because of the positive effects I have seen in my life and the lives of others, despite the difficulty of squaring all of its tenets with the objective reality of the world around me, and despite the regrettable and sometimes reprehensible things that have been said and done by some of its adherents.”
  • “I have no faith in your (or perhaps any) religion because of the difficulty of squaring its tenets with the objective reality of the world around me, and because of the regrettable and reprehensible things that have been said and done by some of its adherents, and despite the positive effects that you and others have experienced.”

Feel free to formulate your own versions of the above, or your own sets of arguments on both sides of whatever controversies you choose: anthropogenic climate change (formerly known as global warming), the death penalty, debt financing, Keynesian economics, whatever you wish. Post them below, if you like. You may find that it can be difficult, but interesting, to formulate an opposing argument.

Here’s one sure to make people’s eyes water: Societal acceptance, if not normalization, of marriage between homosexuals.

  • “I support limiting the special status of the marriage relationship to men with women, because throughout history and across cultures, even in societies where homosexual relationships have been tolerated or even accepted, the marriage covenant has been limited to men with women; because the ‘norms’ of a society should derive from the majority of the society, and the majority of society is and is likely to remain heterosexual; because homosexual relationships are not a plausible categorical imperative for all of society; because economic and social partnership benefits can be extended to long-term homosexual relationships without conferring on them the special status of marriage; and despite the growing tolerance or even acceptance of openly homosexual behavior in society at large.”
  • “I support extending the special status of the marriage relationship to homosexual unions because of the growing tolerance and even acceptance of openly homosexual behavior in society at large, and despite any objections anyone might raise, and despite any economic or social accommodations that might be offered short of full recognition of marriages between homosexuals.”

I will forego other examples, because this post was already unwieldy enough even before that last controversy. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for your forbearance. Please permit me one last observation.

If these formulations just ended in disagreement, all would be well: you think what you think, I think what I think, and we agree to get along regardless. It gets worse if disagreement results in attempts to silence the other side. But this type of thinking becomes even more of a problem when we direct our argument away from ourselves and what we think is right and toward each other: “You should support/accept/believe in X because of A and despite B.” Left out, but at least somewhat implied, is “because I do,” which at times seems to mean “because I am an intelligent, right-thinking person and believe all intelligent, right-thinking people should support/accept/believe in the things I support/accept/believe in, and therefore if you support/accept/believe in the things I do then I will recognize you as intelligent and right-thinking, too.”

Better, in my opinion, just to disagree.

In closing, Scripture says, “Come, let us reason together.” It does not say, “Come, let us always agree.” We need to be able to handle the disagreement; not, perhaps, ever to like it, but at least to tolerate it. If you can handle the disagreement and I can handle the disagreement, maybe we can move forward together — even if we don’t necessarily want to go in the same direction.

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Why I'm Not Fighting in the 'Christmas War'

On this Christmas Eve, let me start by saying HAPPY HOLIDAYS, whether you celebrate Hannukah, or Kwanzaa, or Divali, or the passing of the solstice, or whatever winter festival fits your traditions and beliefs. Personally, I will try to make a Merry Christmas for my family and friends, but even if that is not your practice I wish you all happiness at this, the turning of the year.


(happy holidays! by mel5545, on Flickr.)

Likewise, if you are family, or friend, or casual acquaintance … if you were my teacher or my student, my boss or subordinate, my co-worker or colleague, or even my enemy or a complete stranger to me, I wish you the happiest of holidays.

  • If you hear “Happy Holidays” as a threat — as an encroachment on what you perceive to be your rights or a debasement of something you hold dear, rather than as a simple well-wishing — I would rather you wouldn’t, and while I wish you a Merry Christmas I hope you will not take offense when I wish you Happy Holidays as well.
  • If you say “Happy Holidays” as a jibe — as a quasi-political statement intended to elicit some vehement response, rather than a sincere attempt to spread good cheer — I wish you wouldn’t, but nonetheless I hope you can find something during the holidays about which you can be happy.

I will not fight in these battles any more.

We have reached a sad point in Christendom when those of us who call ourselves Christians begin demanding any sort of rights from society at large. Do we not follow the Son of Man, who said to expect tribulation more often than triumph? Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers; not the arrogant, the judgmental, the disruptive.

How did Matthew record it?

Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
— Matthew 5:11-2 (NASB)

Too often we think of the time Jesus drove the moneychangers from the Temple, and think we should act likewise; and if we have people conducting inappropriate business in our churches, then perhaps we should. But the marketplace — the mall, the shopping center, the superstore — is not the Temple. Inasmuch as we sometimes treat it as such, that is a different problem (and one that lies within us).

So, by all means and in whatever way seems appropriate to you, have a happy holiday. If you wish me well, I wish you well. If you wish me ill, I hope that we might come to some better understanding by which I might change your opinion … and meanwhile, I wish you well.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good life.

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Having Failed to Be Raptured, I Wrote This Stupid Song

Yes, that’s really the title of my latest musical nonsense … or maybe, in this case, semi-sense … to hit the web.

Filmed in the Baen Barfly suite at Dragon*Con, you can click to watch it here:

Having Failed to Be Raptured, I Wrote this Stupid Song


(“Guitar Player” by Mister Wilson. From Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

I explain the genesis of the song in the video — I wrote it a while back, but it took months to add a chorus — so I won’t repeat those details here. But here’s one verse for consideration:

It seems to me when folks like that pick up the Bible
They only read the passages they like
They pick and choose what to believe for their agendas
And if you ask me, well, I’ll tell you that ain’t right

As always, tremendous thanks to Tedd Roberts for his video magic.

And, of course, I hope you get a chuckle out of it! And if you like it, feel free to share it with someone else who might appreciate it.

Finally, if you’re so inclined, now that I have four songs available, I started my own YouTube Playlist.

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Great Quote on True Religion

Yesterday — the day after I posted about last week’s “discussion” of theology on The Ornery American — a friend from the Codex Writers Group, Kirsten Lincoln, posted an excellent quote she’d found on the Net:

“True religion invites us to become better people. False religion tells us that this has already occurred.”
— Islamic scholar Abdal-Hakim Murad

Click on through to read her entire blog entry. Go ahead. Really.

Bottom line: I wish I’d had that quote handy when I was Being Ornery. I think I could’ve been clearer that even though I feel that I’m a better person now than I used to be, I know that I am not yet truly a good person. I still have a long way to go.

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Me, Being Ornery

I usually try not to get dragged into Web-based theological discussions, because they don’t seem to accomplish much and take time away from more enjoyable (and more productive) pursuits, but this week I slipped. I found myself embroiled in a thread on The Ornery American which linked to a video of Richard Dawkins on Bill Maher’s television show. I don’t have QuickTime on my computer, so I haven’t watched the video, but someone posted an excerpt from Dawkins’ book that I found interesting.

In his book, Dawkins printed a letter sent to Albert Einstein by the president of a New Jersey-based historical society. Dawkins wrote that the letter “damningly exposes the weakness of the religious mind,” and that, “Every sentence drips with intellectual and moral cowardice.” (Note that you can find all this on the thread on The Ornery American site. But keep in mind that while this post itself is longer than usual, since I quote so much of the thread, the entire thread spans 3 web pages now.)

I quoted that intellectual cowardice bit and wrote, “I reckon I’m not intellectual enough to understand this…”, and the fun began. A couple of people tried to explain it, but frankly I didn’t find their explanations illuminating. So I wrote back,

I think for many of the faithful it’s easier to understand our own struggles with the truth as we know it — through which we continue to believe despite the doubts that may nag us — than to understand the choice to utterly reject it.

We … would do well to remember that “many are called, but few are chosen.” Flannery O’Connor* summed up why: in many cases, “it’s harder to believe than not to.”

I’m only familiar with the Flannery O’Connor quote because it became a Steve Taylor song, but oh, did I get a response:

“Many are called but few are chosen”? If that don’t sound elitist I don’t know what does. I didn’t even get a call much less chosen.

And not just “harder” to believe, but “impossible” to believe. I’ve tried, and how anybody with a brain can “believe” is beyond me. And I know a lot of people that I consider to be very intelligent that claim to believe.

(And in a subsequent post, the same person wrote,)

It’s crazy but people think better of you for having blind unquestioning belief in a being that nobody has ever seen and for which there is not one shred of evidence exists!

Here’s my reply (“KE” and “OR” are shorthand for the handles of two Ornery members):

KE wrote, “for which there is not one shred of evidence.” I disagree. But just as two eyewitnesses can see the same event and report it differently, I do not expect KE or anyone else to draw the same conclusions I have. As for “many are called, but few are chosen” being elitist, I suppose it can be seen that way … though in practice it usually works out as “many are called, but few answer the call,” which seems to be shown in KE’s own experience: he may not feel as if he was called, but from my perspective if he wasn’t called he wouldn’t have tried to believe in anything, at anytime.

OR is right that the excellent observation that “The real test of atheism is ‘do you alter the way you live your life because you think a god exists'” applies equally as a test of whether those of us who profess to be Christians are indeed living the life. For some people, this lies at the root of why they choose not to believe: because believing would require altering the way they live their lives.

This raised the ire of yet another forum member, TomD, who wrote (emphasis in original), “You think so? Can you provide me an example of such a person — someone who would believe, but who doesn’t want to change his lifestyle and thus chooses not to?”

I wrote back,

… I think one example might be the rich young ruler with whom Jesus talked (q.v. Gospel of Mark, chapter 10). He asked Jesus what he had to do, Jesus told him, and he went away sad. Jesus asked him to make a drastic change to his lifestyle, and he wasn’t prepared to do so. (This may not be the best example since he ostensibly believed, but was not willing to put his belief into action.)

Jesus said it was hard to enter the kingdom of God. In many ways I think we make it harder than it has to be.

TomD then wrote, “I should have clarified: can you provide me examples of non-allegorical people?” So I replied,

… I disagree that the rich young ruler is allegorical.

That being said, I’ll offer a more contemporary example: me. When I was young, I rejected everything about the church. I agreed completely with an older friend who, in his first year of college, was asked, “Are you saved?” and responded, “No, I’ve got better things to do with my time.” Accepting what the church taught would have required me to moderate my behavior, and that wasn’t something I was willing to do. (For reference, I took my first drink at 13 and was well into weekend binges by 16.) For me, claiming to be an atheist (which I did, to my mom) was not an intellectual exercise — I don’t have that much intellect to exercise — but outright rebellion.

I am a different person now than I was then. Not perfect, but I think quite a bit better.

TomD wrote in again (emphasis in original), “I’m curious what your response to that question would have been.” So I answered,

My answer to, “Are you saved?” was, “No.” If pressed, I usually followed up with some variant of “And I don’t want to be” or “Leave me alone.”

If you are asking whether I would have said at the time that I was rejecting salvation because I refused to moderate my behavior, I probably wouldn’t have admitted it. I don’t recall ever being asked that question. But if pressed on the point, I imagine I would’ve tried to present any number of arguments to avoid admitting any personal moral shortcomings. Like a criminal faced with the consequences of his crimes, I would have pleaded not guilty even though I was.

Later, I pleaded guilty and threw myself on the mercy of the court. And as I said: I am a different person now than I was then.

That’s where I last left things. I suppose the conversation will continue, but we’ll see.

___
* Spelling corrected in this quote.

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