Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Arguing With Inspirational Quotes Written On Little Pictures #2 - Gwyneth Paltrow

Back in October 2012, I declared war.

It didn't make many headlines, if I'm honest. I'm not sure the thing I declared war on actually noticed that I'd declared war on it. And, as wars go, it's not seen a lot of action. Kind of a cold war. Except without the cold.

Writing Inspirational Quotes on Little Pictures and then disseminating them across the interwebs like some sort of Contagion has seemingly become The New Normal approach to discussion. Where once we listened to debate, now all we hear are the clattering footfalls of a stampede of editors, Running with Scissors outstretched, ready to extract, redact, reduct, and slap on pictures - and beneath that, the softer, almost inaudible shuffling gait of The Pallbearers, carrying the creaking coffin of conversation towards the Shallow Hallowed ground of ignorance.

I had High hopes that my one-man crusade against these pithy little parcels of propaganda would result in the great Shout of revolution, but alas, I am but Flesh and Bone, not an Iron Man, and my Great Expectations were met only by the deafening Hush of indifference.
Nevertheless, today is the day I Bounce back, revolution or no, to deliver a faintly stinging slap to this particular Quotey Picturey thing:


Many thanks to www.Truth-Saves.com for providing this image. They've culled the quotes from an interview that you can read here, if you are the sort of person who likes to check their sources. If you can't read the teeny text on the image, fret not, here is what it says:

Religion is the cause of all the problems in the world. I don't believe in organised religion at all. It's what separates people. One religion just represents fragments, it causes war. More people have died because of religious conflict than any other reason.

Stirring words from the Infamous Gwyneth Paltrow, a woman who, if I can say this without Malice, would appear to be a much better actress than philosopher.
In the interests of fairness, therefore, rather than simply deriding her views, I shall simultaneously attempt to pay homage to her acting career, by mentioning all 47 of her acting credits, as listed on this page of the Internet Movie Database.

I'll do it subtly, so it won't interrupt the flow of the argument. Much. We've done fourteen already, and I bet you hardly noticed, right...? And, as silent movie heart-throb Rudolph Valentino famously said, "         ".

"Not that I'm complaining, but I have no idea what I'm doing in this post."

Broadly speaking, Paltrow's argument is that religion is currently running the show, and messing it up, and the world would be fixed by putting something else in charge. Basically "Religion makes a riSky Captain and the World of Tomorrow would be better off without it."
Is she right? Let's dissect her claims one by one.

"Religion is the cause of all the problems in the world."


That's a bold assertion.
The world has a lot of problems. In the Bignell household at the moment, for example, we're currently facing the intractable issue of where to keep our wine-rack. Does it look okay on the shelf by the TV, or should it go on the floor somewhere? It's a problem. I guess if I didn't work for a church, perhaps we could afford a house with a wine cellar, but I think it would be stretching the idea somewhat to assert that religion is behind our alcohol positioning difficulties.

Religion has undeniably caused some problems. Perhaps even lots of problems. But all? Tsunamis, earthquakes, forest fires, death, flooding, cancer, falling out of Love and Other Disasters - none of these can be pinned on religion. To do so is to accredit religion with God-like power. Which is slightly ironic, really, for someone who presumably doesn't believe in a God with God-like power.

"I don't believe in organised religion at all."


Odd choice of word, there. "Believe".
I assume she simply means "approve of". Otherwise she's claiming not to believe in the thing she just claimed was responsible for a vast percentage of her experience. Which would be a little bit muddled.

Though this does illustrate something for us: that truth does not depend on belief. Something is either true or false - Gwyneth's belief in it is neither here nor there. She may not believe in organised religion, but it still exists. There is plenty of evidence for it. And if something is true, then it is true, whether you - to use the phrase coined by The Talented Mr. Ripley - "Believe it or Not!" [From Ripley's Believe it or Not? No? Come on, how else was I going to get it in?]

I know Miss P isn't seriously suggesting that organised religion doesn't exist - but this fuzzy use of language is indicative of our society's current confusion between truth and belief. Somehow we have it in our heads that belief influences truth, rather than the other way round. We decide what we want to believe, and then assume the truth will fall into line for us... it's the very opposite of science, which attempts to discern the truth, and then uses that to inform our beliefs. I could rant for some time about this, but instead I will refer the reader to a rant I prepared earlier, here.

For example, Gwyneth clearly doesn't believe the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who are real.
She's either right or wrong... which is it? BLINK AND FIND OUT, I DARE YOU...

Moving on:

"It's what separates people."


Religion does, undeniably, separate people. The Church of Scientology certainly has a lot to answer for. I've seen a marriage torn apart by Mormonism. I know of Muslims who became Christian at the appalling cost of separation from their family and friends. It happens.

A community builds itself around a set of doctrines, and if an individual dares to question, or contradict, the teaching that underpins their society, then the Sliding Doors of social acceptance will slam shut on any limb they are careless enough to leave in the opening.

We should be grieved by cases like these - but let's not pretend such separation is the exclusive prerogative of religion.

Critics were apparently divided over this dress. Does that make this dress a religion?
(Dresses also, in general, help to separate underwear from outerwear, which is
sometimes considered to be quite a good thing.)

Separation on the societal level is at work everywhere - just go to any party. As the novelist K J Parker put it: “It never ceases to amaze me how adaptable social geometry can be. Within a couple of days I went from being the centre of the circle to an indefinite point outside its circumference.”

In other words, separation. We operate in circles, vicious circles, with insides and outsides, and K J Parker's vicious circle is in operation in every sphere. Every sphere has its circles.

The point that Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle are illustrating is that separation is fundamental to the human condition. Why? It is the inevitable consequence of our innate selfishness. What do Paris Hilton, Thomas Jefferson, Rudolph Valentino, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, me, Britney Spears and Mother Theresa have in common? Selfishness. You will find it in me, in Valentino, in Jefferson, in Paris Hilton, in Mozart, in Muslims, in Christians, in Buddhists, in Gwyneth Paltrow, in Britney... We are all, to a certain extent, curled in on ourselves - inward looking - selfish.

Here's a brief aside: the theory of evolution is inexplicable without a concept of selfishness. "Survival of the fittest" depends on there being an outside and an inside - the fit and the unfit; those on the inside become fitter as those on the outside become fodder. You can't explain evolution without acknowledging separation.

Which means, I think, that an atheist blaming religion for separation is a bit like a cheese sandwich blaming cows for milk.

Evolution separated man from the animals. (Allegedly.)
Face-paint helps us find the way back.

Separation isn't just a societal problem, of course - it operates on a much more personal level too. Let me tell you an all-too-familiar story.

It begins with Two Lovers - let's call them Emma and Mortdecai - and all is fun and laughter and Glee and the singing of soppy Duets; he buys her an expensive Tod Pashmy bag, she introduces him to all her Deadly Relations, they are on top of the world and the View from the Top is all fluffy bunnies and unicorns and rainbows... and then, somehow, Cruel Doubt sets in, the Pashmy Dream crumbles, she starts throwing away his most treasured Possessions, he starts eyeing up his secretary (Sylvia) and before they can even make it to the The Anniversary Party the Good Morning has become The Good Night, the romance is dead, and she ends it all by hitting him in the face with the Iron. Man. 2 or 3 times.

What happened?
It wasn't caused by religion.
Atheists gets divorced too.

Somehow, deep down, on the inside, humans are broken creatures, irrevocably separated from each other, no matter how hard we try to cling to each other on the outside.

Any religion which is a product of these broken creatures is going to cause more breakage; but the problem was ours long before organised religion evolved its first rotas.

"I still have no idea what I'm doing in this post."

"One religion just represents fragments, it causes war."


War.
Huh.
What is it good for?
Yes, there have been wars fought on religious grounds. Not very many though. If you have a spare $285 and some free time, you could spring for this book - which, apparently, lists 1763 different wars. Of those, 123 are categorised as being religious in nature. (I've not read the book myself, I'm getting these stats from this post here: but I'd welcome correction if anyone thinks they sound a bit off.)

So, yes, occasionally - in less than 7% of cases - people went to war for religious reasons. But mostly they go to war for other things entirely. Like love. To quote the great Shakespeare: "In Love, who respects friend?" (Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act V Scene IV, oh yes.)

People go to war for love of oil, love of money, love of power, love of land... One Country Strongly desires what their neighbouring country has, crosses a line or two, revenge is declared, armies are mustered, Avengers Assembled, and, hey presto, people are dying in the mud, all without needing any help whatsoever from organised religion.

I presume Gwynth Paltrow thinks we could abolish war by abolishing religion, but it won't work unless we also abolish oil, borders, race, power, money, love...

"More people have died because of religious conflict than any other reason."


You only need to think for a microsecond to realise this isn't true. Aside from the fact that 93% of wars weren't religious conflicts, war itself has killed comparatively few people. While the two World Wars carved ghastly swathes of destruction throughout our civilisation, most people die without any help from war at all.
I beg anyone who unthinkingly agrees with Gwyneth to do just the teensiest tiniest bit of research. You could start here:

The first link is outdated, but is still a very revealing list of causes of death, arranged by mortality rate. The top cause of death, fairly unambiguously, appears to be heart disease. War is pretty far down the list. Amazingly, "intentional injuries" (war, suicide and violence) rank quite a long way below "unintentional injuries". In other words, more people die by accident than because of religious conflict. So unless Dame Gwyneth wants to blame religion for all the rotting floorboards, slippery step-ladders, badly labelled rat-poison jars and precariously balanced bath-side toasters in the world, she doesn't really have much of a case.

(Having said which, some of those accidents were indirectly caused by religion. Apparently 31 Britons have died since 1996 because they watered their Christmas trees while the tree lights were switched on. Yes, the Royal Fir Trees - or, as the Germans might say, The Royal Tenenbaums - were lethal long before Doctor Who came along.)

Everyone knows that a real killer robot tree would just spray poisonous pine needles everywhere.
We've still finding the damn things all over our flat, three months later.


Final Thoughts


Well, there you have it.

But we can't quite stop yet, because there are still a few more Paltrow acting credits to crowbar in. Eight, in fact. Don't worry, it won't take long, it's not an especially Hard Eight. Sorry, Se7en. Sorry, six. And it will give us a chance to think more deeply about what's going on here.

If we go back to the interview from which the quote-on-a-picture was scissored, we learn how Miss Paltrow thinks mankind can get off the Hook:
Everybody needs to change their consciousness and realise we are all one and let go of the ego that's involved. That's the only way to solve it.
Salvation through Higher Learning, you could call that.
Ignoring, with some difficulty, the breathtaking incongruity of a Hollywood A-Lister suggesting we need to let go of our egos, what I think this boils down to is: try harder to be nicer.

Remember we are all one, says Paltrow - me, you, Britney, Rudolph Valentino, Mother Theresa, the Jews, the Muslims... Black and white all look the same in the Moonlight and Valentino is one with the Dalai Lama.

"Ah, so that's what I'm doing in this post. Disappointing.
Also, what the hell is this thing on my head?"
Trouble is, we are not all one. Clearly. The Muslims aren't one with the Jews. Valentino isn't one with the Dalai Lama. I'm not one with Britney. Gwyneth would say that's the fault of religions splitting us apart - if there were no religions, and we all thought like her, we would all be one.

So, let's get this straight:
If we all agree with Gwyneth, and we all try harder to be nice, then the world will be fixed.

Can you see the irony?
What we're describing here is a religion. Almost all religions, in fact. All religions, as far as I can tell, but one.

Islam says "Think like us and try hard to be good."
Judaism says "Think like us and try hard to be good."
Catholicism says "Think like us and try hard to be good."
Buddhism says "Think like us and try hard to be good."
Paltrowism says "Think like us and try hard to be good."

There's a bit more to it than that, of course, but - in essence - what these religions say is that "Mankind is basically okay, and can earn redemption by doing what we say."

And what these religions do... is destroy.
Our skinny blonde philosopher is both right and wrong:
She's right that mankind has a problem.
She's wrong in saying it was caused by religion.
She's right in saying that most (not all) religions cause many (not all) problems.
She's wrong in thinking that her approach is any different.


"The first rule of Paltrowism is that you do not talk about Paltrowism.
The second rule of Paltrowism is that your head needs to be able to pick up Sky TV."

Any system of thought that says "Mankind is basically okay" is dangerous. Because it's overlooking a terrible truth:

In all of human history, there has been precisely one perfect man. One man who didn't have that whole inward-looking, selfish streak. No one likes to be shown up... so he was murdered. The only execution of a truly, fully innocent man that has ever happened. A Perfect Murder, in a sense.

And he is the central figure of the one religion that says something different. The one religion that doesn't say "Mankind is basically okay, so think like us and try hard to be good."

Christianity says "Mankind is broken, and no amount of trying to be good will ever fix it."
Christianity says "Stop trying to do things... just believe in Jesus... and you will be changed."
Christianity alone provides the answer to the things Gwyneth Paltrow - and all of us - instinctively know we need an answer to. Selfishness, war, violence, separation... and it's not do something - it's believe something.

John's Gospel describes this encounter between Jesus and the crowd:

Then they asked him, 'What must we do to do the works God requires?'
Jesus answered, 'The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.'
(John 6:28-29)
That's it - just believe. And he doesn't ask us to take it on trust - the way Gwyneth Paltrow expects us to believe her own ill-informed cockamamie theories about saving the world. By living and dying, and rising again - in front of eye-witnesses, who wrote it all down for us - he left us with Proof.

This matters, because there is one final thing we need to mention about separation.
The underlying assumption in Gwyneth's quote is that separation is a bad thing. But we rely on it. We rely on our skin separating our insides from our outsides. We rely on our roofs separating the rain from our wine racks. We rely on our police force, our courts and our prisons, separating the wicked from the vulnerable. Deep down, we long for the day when the wicked are finally, completely, permanently separated from the good.

And there will be no more implacable evil golden robots creeping up
behind unsuspecting starlets to rip their Oscars right out through their hearts.

Gwyneth is looking forward to that day. She thinks that it will come when religion - the bad - is abolished by everyone else - the good.

The Bible says it will happen when Jesus returns as judge, to separate those who believed in him from those who didn't.

Two conflicting views; they can't both be right, and all heaven and hell is at stake. Who do you trust? Miss Paltrow, or Jesus? You may choose what you want to believe, but as we said earlier, what matters is what is true. At least do some thinking. It's fairly obvious, from a momentary examination, that Gwyneth's words - which you will find gleefully parroted on any number of atheistic websites - don't stand up to the facts. Do Jesus'? And don't just find a Bible quote stuck on a picture and think "Hah, thought so, it's all nonsense." Check your sources.

Well, there we have it. The wisdom of Gwyneth Paltrow, fabulous actress and terrible philosopher. Thank you, Gwyneth. Thanks for Sharing.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Not-Yet-Completed Top Ten List of Not-Yet-Completed Top Ten Lists

Today, in celebration of our currently incomplete top ten list of the worst readings to have at a wedding, and by way of providing a short break from the heady matters we have recently been discussing, I take great pleasure in presenting to you my not-yet-completed top ten list of not-yet-completed top ten lists.

Maybe one day I'll complete some of these. Or not. Or perhaps - oh happy day - you have your own not-yet-completed list of not-yet-completed lists, and some of our not-yet-completed lists are the same, but we have different entries in those lists, and we can combine our lists and end up with a whole completed list. And then I shall have you discreetly silenced, publish it all as my own blog post, and retire as a millionaire.*

Anyway, if nothing else, this should give you a not-very-complete glimpse into the not-very-complete workings of my life.

1) The Top Ten Songs That Seem To Be Finishing And Then Do That Bam Bam Bam Bam Thing And Start All Over Again


You know the thing. It's all tailing off, winding down, the end is in sight, and then - suddenly - the drummer does that bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam thing on the toms, or the snare, or one of those other things they like to hit, and the band all dive straight back in again for a victory lap or two.

1: Michael Jackson: One Day In Your Life



2: The Carpenters: Close To You
This is the daddy of them - in fact, the song seems to have ended so conclusively that I can't actually find any copies of it on youtube that don't just finish at that point. But trust me. It's there. A whole extra bout of "Waaaaa-aaaa-aaa-aaaaaah"s. Glorious.

I'm sure there are hundreds more examples of this. If I put my iPod on random I'll probably come across three more before I finish writing this post.**


2) The Top Ten Songs With Disappointing Names In Them


Some have epic, poetic names that inspire people to write songs about them. Bonny and Clyde. Norma Jean. Valerie. Jacky.
Some get their names into a song by dint of them being nice, short, easy-to-rhyme appellations. Ron. John. Fred.
But then, just occasionally, you get a song that drops in a name which is, frankly... disappointing:

1: Carly Simon: Two Hot Girls (On A Hot Summer's Night) - A song in which the titular pair of girls are swooning over a man called... Dwight. Dwight? Dwight.
2: Abba: Our Last Summer - A song of lacerating nostalgia over a long-lost summer fling with a guy called Harry.

Many apologies to all the Harrys and Dwights out there, it's just that, somehow, your names drop into those songs like a wet balled-up nappy dropping onto linoleum.
(Perhaps it's a good thing I've not finished this list. I have few enough readers as it is.)

Carly Simon, if you are reading this, swoon away.

3) The Top Ten Songs Where Accidentally Muddling The Lyrics From Different Verses Utterly Reverses The Meaning


Have you ever leaned across to the woman you love, gazed deep into her eyes, and sang: "Why do birds fall down from the sky, every time you ride by?"
Yes? Then you have fallen victim to a song where accidentally muddling the lyrics from different verses utterly reverses the meaning.

Other times to be especially vigilant include those moments when you (and I'm talking to the guys now) and your two male house mates suddenly find yourselves looking after an abandoned baby, and you are attempting to sing her to sleep with a bit of impromptu accapella "Goodnight Sweetheart". Trust me, it's all too easy to end up singing "You know I hate you so", and "You know I love to go." I've done it.***

"Why do flies suddenly appear, every time you are near?"


(Related to this list would be the top ten list of unfortunate spoonerisms in songs. With Christmas Carol season fast approaching, I advise you all to take care with Oh Holy Night... "The stars are brightly shining" is all too easy to get wrong... As is the line "I've brought some corn for popping" in Let It Snow...)

4) The Top Ten Song Videos Featuring Idiots Playing Epic Electric Guitar Solos In The Wilderness, Far Away From Any Sound Equipment


Hey, a truly great guitarist doesn't need an amp.




5) The Top Ten Stops On The Word Stop


You'd think that every song which contained the word "stop" would stop briefly at that point, right? I mean, why wouldn't you?
But no.
Michael Jackson's "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" almost does it... but not quite.
Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye's "Stop, Look, Listen To Your Heart" really ought to do it, but doesn't.

When Motown lets you down, where do you turn?
Britney, of course.

Here's a peach of an example, complete with that sort of gramophone-winding-down noise:





And here she is again with a slightly more subtle attempt:




6) The Top Ten Musical Numbers Featuring People Dancing On Giant Things


Here's Twiggy Dancing On A Giant Record Player
Here's David Bowie Dancing On A Giant Typewriter, A Giant Television, and, um, A Giant Record Player

7) The Top Ten List Of Movies Where Someone Has To Talk Someone Else Into Returning To Somewhere That They Alone Have Escaped From Because They Alone Escaped From It And Can Therefore Act As A Guide For The People Who Now Need To Go There


I'm determined to finish this particular list. I've got a whole post planned for it. One that actually makes a point. I've even written the last paragraph.
But the classic examples of the genre are, of course:

1: Aliens - in which an evil company has to talk Sigourney Weaver into returning to an alien-infested planet that she alone has escaped from, because she alone escaped from it and can therefore act as a scientific advisor to the people who now need to go back there to rescue the colonies, and

2: The Rock - in which the FBI has to talk Sean Connery into returning to Alcatraz, because he is the only person who has ever escaped from it, and can therefore act as a guide to a crack commando team of crack commandos who will instantly get killed, thus leaving Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage the rest of the movie in which to run around having fun with terrorists and ripping off Indian Jones and the Temple Of Doom.

Only without the annoying screaming kid. And the annoying screaming woman.


Well, there you go. That was my not-yet-completed top ten list of not-yet-completed top ten lists. I realise it must seem baffling to you, dear reader, that I've not yet completed them. "What", I hear you thinking, "could be so important in his life that he has somehow failed to complete this vital research?"

I know, I know. I can only beg the universe for forgiveness.

If I was forced to give this post some sort of a point, I'd probably say this:
There are some things you can put off, and some things you can't.
If I get to the end of my life and never find another eight videos of people dancing on giant objects, I suspect no one will be particularly offended. On the other hand, we recently got fined 90 squids because I forgot to pay our council tax. Stupid me.


The thing we all need to decide is: which category does our relationship with God fit into? Is he item nine on a top ten list which can happily stay sat in our drafts folder for the whole of our lives? Or is he like the friendly tax people at Tower Hamlets who will warn you twice and then start fining you vast chunks of money?

By all means put off thinking about it until tomorrow - if you have it on good authority that there will be a tomorrow for you to put it off until. Because we also need to think about whether the universe - and our lives - would be on the list of things that appear to stop, then go bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam and start all over again... or whether we are on the list of things that. just. stop.

The Bible says this life will stop. For all of us. And then we'll face God - as a friend or as an enemy.  And that will be the point when it will become obvious, to all, whether or not our electric guitars are actually plugged into anything.

Okay, okay, you try making an evangelistic talk out of this material.

* Phase One: Publish blog post. Phase Two: ? Phase Three: PROFIT.
** I was wrong about that.
*** In a concert though, not to an actual baby. That would be weird.

Friday, 15 November 2013

The Top Ten Worst Bible Readings To Have At A Wedding - Part IV

Welcome back, Inappropriate Bible Readings / 80s Wedding fans.

For anyone new on the scene, we've been limping our way unevenly through an eclectic mix of the Bible readings that, by my reckoning, would make for the most uncomfortable moments in a wedding service. We've had awkward brother-in-law moments (getting smited for seed spillage), awkward father-in-law moments (getting burned to death for marrying his daughter to a long-haired trouble-maker), awkward sister-of-the-bride moments (unfavourable comments on the roundness, or otherwise, of her d├ęcolletage), awkward bride moments (bride likened to a prostitute - and bride literally being a prostitute), and stinging rebukes about clanging cymbals. Oh, and burning foxes. Never forget the burning foxes.

Well, now it's time for something a little less comfortable.

Like this, for instance.


Weddings can be tricky. Ours wasn't, praise God, but we've all seen the soaps. (Actually, I haven't, praise God, but I've heard about them.) There's a lot of stuff that can go wrong. Most of it is very expensive stuff, or very important stuff, or both. Lives hang in the balance. Bank balances hang in the balance. There's a whole lot of balancing going on, especially if the bride has decided to put all her bridesmaids in six inch heels. (My bride didn't, praise God.)

Anyway, assuming the happy couple successfully navigate the emotional, psychological and physical assault course of the wedding day itself and manage to retire, giggling, to the marital chamber, there remains just one, final, all-important question:

What's the likelihood of the nice old vicar who married them bursting in and stabbing them to death just as they are making things official?

Read on.

8) The classic stabbed-in-the-act passage


Meet Zimri and Kozbi, an Israelite leader and a Midianite Princess:

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 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. (Numbers 25:6-8)

Or, as the Wycliffe Bible charmingly puts it:
And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, had seen this unshamefast doing, he rose up from the midst of the multitude; and when he had taken a sword, he entered after the man of Israel into the whorehouse, and sticked through both together, that is, the man and the woman, in the places of engendering.
Now I'm no Hebrew scholar, but I suspect your place of engendering is really not somewhere you want to get sticked through. Did I call this "the classic stabbed-in-the-act passage?" I could equally have written "the classic stabbed-in-the-passage act."

"Let's just ignore the photographer while I attempt to cut off the circulation in your leg with this ornate rubber band."

Incidentally, if you are now worried that gentle old Reverend Albert might be stashing a scimitar somewhere in the vestry, relax. Carving up copulating couples is not routine for priests, even in the Old Testament. Zimri and Kozbi received this rather pointed treatment for good reason. A little context: the nation of Israel is out wandering in the wilderness, heading for the promised land, but surrounded on all sides by hostile nations.

Now pay attention, because this is bound to come up in a pub quiz one day: Meet the Moabites and Midianites, two nations who were terrified of Israel's vast numbers, so joined forces and hired a guy called Balaam to curse Israel for them. Yes, that's Balaam of talking donkey fame. Yes, his donkey talks. Only a bit though. Anyway, Balaam gave it his best shot, but somehow ended up blessing them, rather than cursing them (he should have delegated to his donkey). Nevertheless, he comes up with the perfect Plan B: sex*. As the saying goes, if you can't beat 'em, curse 'em, and if you can't curse 'em, sleep with 'em. Works every time.

So the Moabite women bat their Moabite eyelashes at the Israelite men, and things progress as you would expect. Engendering places engendering all over the place.

I've got loads of these pictures. (Pictures of kneeling men in rust coloured suits, that is.)

Well, pretty soon it's all getting a little freaky. There's no such thing as a no-strings dalliance, and before you can recite the ten commandments those mesmerising Moabite maidens have managed to embroil Israel up to their talking asses in Baal worship. Baal - specifically Baal of Peor - was the local Moabite fertility deity, and it seems that Baal worship was a fairly hands-on, clothes-off type of affair. I guess a religion that encourages rampant engendering is never going to be a particular hard sell.**

But, as you may remember from items three and four on this torpidly unfolding list, God feels very strongly about his people leaving him for other gods. In the geopolitical theocracy of Israel***, it was a crime punishable by death. Sounds harsh, but factor in the following:

God vs Baal of Peor


God:
Created the world and everything in it.
Created the nation of Israel.
Rescued them from slavery.
Sustained them in the wilderness.
Gave them laws which promoted a well ordered society, looking after the vulnerable and ensuring justice.
Is bringing them into the promised land.
Is protecting them from their enemies.
Is the source of all life, without whom nothing can live.

Baal of Peor:
Was created by the Midianites, or the Moabites, or someone somewhere.
Didn't create anything anywhere, on account of being made up.
Didn't rescue anyone from anything.
Has no power to sustain anything.
Is the centrepiece of a made-up religion which promotes anarchy, sexual chaos****, and, if I'm reading my Bible right, child sacrifice.
Is enslaving Israel as they get caught up in all the mess.
Is the God of their enemies.
Is the source of death (at least, if it actually existed, it would presumably be on the side of the people who are trying to destroy Israel.)

Add all that up, and I hope you can see why the decision to leave God for Baal is effectively a decision to leave life for death. Tantamount to suicide, if you like. The death penalty just makes it official - a tiny bit like a divorce settlement: the split has already happened; the divorce certificate just confirms it.

"Gosh, it looks almost real! Look kids!"


Anyway, God passes his death sentence against the guilty, and a whole lot of people die. And our man Zimri clearly didn't get the memo, because it's at this very moment, as Moses and a penitent Israel are weeping over this terrible episode, that he rocks up with his new Midianite wench in tow, and, in a spectacular moment of oblivious single-mindedness, trips gaily past the swinging corpses and wailing mourners into his boudoir, sticks on his favourite Barry White LP, and arranges a field trip to the Place Of Engendering with her.

As social faux pas go, it's pretty high on the list. A curt claymore to the curlies suddenly seems like a pretty reasonable response.

All seven types of bridesmaid in one amazing picture. Sultry bridesmaid? Check. Confused bridesmaid? Check. Leg-molesting bridesmaid? Check. Tongue-in-cheek bridesmaid? Check. Tongue-out-of-cheek bridesmaid? Check. etc.

So, rest assured, unless you say something very awkward in your Groom's speech, you are unlikely to merit the full Jesuit's Javelin in the Jewels job. The coitus mortemus interruptus***** is unlikely to strike. "Protection" can continue to mean latex, rather than kevlar.

Though there is a concerning corollary to our cautionary account of this concupiscent calamity.
There is a portent for the prudent in this prurient parable.
A decision lurks in our disquisition of this disquieting quietus.

Which I will get to as soon as I've finished reading this thesaurus.

Why do people do this? And why do I have these pictures?

Okay, done. Finished. Sated. Satiated. Satisfied.

Here's what the issue isn't:
Most of us are very unlikely to find ourselves in the position of Zimri or Kozbi. Publicly sleeping with our sworn enemy in the middle of a scene of intense national mourning would be a difficult trick to pull off these days. Publicly sleeping with our sworn enemy in the middle of a scene of intense national mourning when the mourning was caused by the very thing we are now doing would require an even more contrived set of circumstances. The closest thing I can imagine, for those of you old enough to remember August 1997, would be for someone to round up the paparazzi who were chasing Princess Di's car, and get intimate with them on top of Elton John's piano during her funeral. Horrible.

If this was a cautionary tale designed to put the fear of God into anyone who might, even now, be contemplating building a time machine, hopping back fifteen years and augmenting "Candle in the wind" with a tasteless tabloid tableau, I think we'd have to question the priorities of the Bible writers.

That's what the issue isn't.

But if this is a cautionary tale designed to put the fear of God into anyone who might be contemplating turning from their creator, sustainer, protector, and source of life, in favour of something - anything - else, then it packs a bit more punch.

Because it's not that Israel were sleeping around. It's not that Zimri possessed the social acuity of a dalek. It's not that God is a racist or a prude or a megalomaniac. It's that God hates it when the people he gave life to decide to ditch him in favour of something that promises death.

And that, dear reader, is still true. And if that's the crime, then we are all Zimris. We might not get a bayonet through the backside for it these days, but if we remain stubbornly separated from God, then, sooner or later... the divorce papers will come through.

Something to read: http://www.christianityexplored.org/


* Sex is not always the perfect plan B, note. It won't necessarily help if the Central Line is down, for instance, or if you've forgotten to bring the music to a church weekend away.
** That's the Church of England's next strategy all lined up.
*** I heard this phrase in a lecture once. I think it's a fancy way of saying "It doesn't apply to us now."
**** Oh, all fun and laughter at first, but sooner or later someone loses an eye.
***** My Latin is worse than my Greek.


Friday, 8 November 2013

The Top Ten Worst Bible Readings To Have At A Wedding - Part III

Greetings good friends, and welcome back to our glacially slow plod through what should really be called the Bottom Ten Bible Readings To Have At A Wedding. If you missed Parts One and Two, then you may perhaps be wondering why we need a Top Ten Worst Bible Readings To Have At A Wedding list at all, and you will almost certainly be wondering why this post is punctuated with pictures from 80s weddings. If these questions are bothering you, I invite you to scour Parts One and Two for answers. And if you find any answers, perhaps you could tell me.

For some reason, looking at this makes me think of doing the washing up.

Anyway, we're up - or down - to number seven. And that means it's time to embrace the sticky subject of...

7) The Classic Seed Spilling Passage


It was only comparatively recently that I stumbled across the delightful word "onanism". For some reason they didn't teach us that one at school. Onanism, for anyone who was similarly poorly schooled, is another word for, um, the "M" word.* And if there is one thing you don't want mentioned at a wedding, it's the "M" word. (No, not "marriage". It would be fairly difficult to avoid mentioning marriage at a wedding. The other "M" word.)

The good news, therefore, is that this passage in Genesis - from which we get the word "onanism" - actually has nothing whatsoever to do with... you know.** In fact, just how Onan ever managed to give his name to this act is a bit of a mystery. This is precisely the sort of terminological inexactitude that results when people don't pay sufficient attention to the Bible. Look:

And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother's wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother's wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also. (Genesis 38:6-10)

Clearly no "M" wording going on there.***
What is actually going on?

Well, according to Pope Pius XI, in the famous papal encyclical of 1930, Casti Connubii, this passage is a proof-text against the evils of contraception. As he says:

No reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious. Small wonder, therefore, if Holy Writ bears witness that the Divine Majesty regards with greatest detestation this horrible crime and at times has punished it with death.

Onan wastes his seed, God kills him, therefore contraception is a horrible crime. Iron-clad logic, no?



Subtle adjustments to the iron cladding.


Now, throughout the ages, many people have diligently obeyed the Pope, and their consciences, on this issue, at immense personal cost, and I would hate to trivialise their choices and sacrifices. It's a complex issue, and this Bible passage isn't the sole factor in the debate.

But...



If, as I believe, the Bible is the word of God, what does that say about how carefully we should study it? Are we happy with this interpretation? In the spirit of encouraging discernment when it comes to paying attention to the words of God, consider this: is the seed spilling the crime, or merely the means to the crime?

Onan had been given a specific job to do: provide his dead brother's wife with children. He refused to do it - simultaneously disobeying his father, dishonouring his brother, and disregarding his duty. He did it for selfish reasons, and he did it in a grubby, underhand way - which coincidentally entitled him to free sex on demand, from a grieving, childless widow. In short, he's guilty of far more than sowing his wild oats on the stony ground. To say that God put him to death simply for the act of spilling his seed is to imply that God cares more about sperm than about family loyalty, honesty, and filial obedience. Not a very high view of God's character.

Put it another way... Imagine that I knew you were allergic to peanuts, and I served you peanut butter in a deliberate attempt to kill you, and a judge rightly locked me up for doing so. "Long-winded blogger sentenced to life for serving peanut butter." scream the headlines.

Who would take those headlines and then seriously suggest that no one, anywhere, should ever serve anyone peanut butter again?

I'm not trying to pick a fight with the Pope. But if you are going to let some dude in a big hat tell you what the Bible means, then you are putting yourself at his mercy. Go get a copy and read it for yourself and make up your own mind. That applies to anything I tell you too. And I don't have a big hat.

I would love to see the Pope wearing a hat like this. After all, Little Bo Beep was a shepherd, and the Pope is supposed to be a shepherd too...



Anyway, all that's a massive aside.
The real reason you wouldn't want this at your wedding is because, even if you hire an experienced Shakespearean actor to read it for you, it's impossible to get through the first couple of lines without sounding hesitant. Try it.

Incidentally, the miserably abused Tamar does eventually get her offspring - becoming, if I've counted correctly, the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother of... Jesus Christ.




Well, that's it for this post; I'm rapidly weakening in my resolve to keep things clean. So very many risque jokes are lining up in my head and I don't know how long I can hold them in. But at least I managed to get through the whole post without saying "masturbation".****

Or without mentioning this:



See you soon for 8, 9 and 10.


*It's a family blog, okay?
**Still a family blog.
***Families.
****Oh bums.



Friday, 1 November 2013

The Top Ten Worst Bible Readings To Have At A Wedding - Part II


So. Tenterhooks.
Anyone know what a tenterhook actually is?
I do. I just looked it up. Shall I tell you? Maybe later.

Anyway, about two months ago I left the whole universe on tenterhooks with The Top Ten Worst Bible Readings To Have At A Wedding - Part I. Most of the universe was probably unaware that I'd left it on tenterhooks, but there you go, that's where it's been. For the six of you who did notice, and have been longing to read Part II, I am pleased to announce that your tenterhook tenure is now officially terminated. I hereby unhook you. So have a stretch, grab a cuppa, and join me in The Top Ten Worst Bible Readings To Have At A Wedding - Part II. Punctuated with photos of 80s weddings, because what the world needs now is 80s wedding photos, sweet 80s wedding photos.



Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Grumpy here is the only one who made it out alive; the other six are still in there somewhere...


Let's dive straight in with the old classic Boy Meets Girl, Boy Marries Girl, Boy Leaves Girl, Sets Fire To Foxes, Starts a War and Gets Girl Killed. Yes, it's a cliche, but only because it's so good.

6) The Classic Boy Meets Girl, Boy Marries Girl, Boy Leaves Girl, Sets Fire To Foxes, Starts a War and Gets Girl Killed Farce


We're in the book of Judges here - Judges 14 and 15 to be precise, and the boy in question is Samson, of Delilah fame. Yes, everyone's favourite hairy hero was wedded once, before the whole Delilah shearing incident. And, as you may have gleaned, it did not turn out especially well for his blushing bride.

The main reason you wouldn't want this passage read at your wedding, of course, is that it's quite long. I'll walk you through the highlights of the story here, but if you've got time, I'd suggest reading the original in all its glory instead.

Boy Meets Girl

Samson went down to Timnah, and at Timnah he saw one of the daughters of the Philistines. Then he came up and told his father and mother, “I saw one of the daughters of the Philistines at Timnah. Now get her for me as my wife.” (Judges 14:1-2)
Well, his parents are not best chuffed, what with the Philistines being ancient enemies of the Israelites and all, but Samson is pretty adamant, so the arrangements are made, leading to the natural next step:

Boy Kills Lion

Then Samson went down with his father and mother to Timnah, and they came to the vineyards of Timnah. And behold, a young lion came toward him roaring. Then the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him, and although he had nothing in his hand, he tore the lion in pieces as one tears a young goat. But he did not tell his father or his mother what he had done. (Judges 14:5-6)

Incidentally, Samson and I are polar opposites. It never once occurred to me to tell my parents when I fancied a girl, but I was forever bringing home bits of the lions I had killed. (Oh, animal lovers be warned - it only gets worse.)

Okay, it's not a lion, but it could still do some damage. It's only the cat's natural fear of parasols that is preventing it from taking out the old lady.

Boy Causes Untold Misery With His Smart-Alekry


Some time later our boy takes a butchers at the beast he's bested, and beholds a bunch of bees abiding in the body. Not being the squeamish sort, he scoops out the honey and has a good old munch, and, since there was no Twitter or Facebook in those days, rather than writing a pithy status update, he composes this pleasing little riddle:

“Out of the eater came something to eat.
Out of the strong came something sweet.” (Judges 14:14)

Well, a riddle like that is clearly too good to waste, so he poses it to his thirty wedding guests, with a hefty bet at stake - thirty sets of clothes. And we're not just talking Moss Bros hire rates here. Now, wedding feasts in those days used to last seven days (try suggesting that to your prospective in-laws...) and by day four what may have seemed like friendly banter has become a little more serious...

On the fourth day they said to Samson's wife, “Entice your husband to tell us what the riddle is, lest we burn you and your father's house with fire." (Judges 14:15)

Needless to say, the new Mrs Samson is not thrilled by the way things are turning out:

And Samson's wife wept over him [Samson] and said, “You only hate me; you do not love me. You have put a riddle to my people, and you have not told me what it is.” And he said to her, “Behold, I have not told my father nor my mother, and shall I tell you?” She wept before him the seven days that their feast lasted, and on the seventh day he told her, because she pressed him hard. (Judges 14:16-17)

Seven days of weeping and nagging. Sounds like a great time for all involved.

Naturally, Samson is forced to cough up on the bet, because his wife promptly tells the people the answer to the riddle. It doesn't cost him anything though, because he does it by killing thirty other Philistines and nicking their clothes. Then he skulks off back to his parents, leaving his new wife, who gets given to his best man instead. The perfect climax to the celebrations, really.

Things Escalate, More Animals Die


Well, after a while, Samson decides to go and visit his wife, taking her a goat. After all, nothing says "Sorry I nearly got you burned alive" like a goat. But he's turned away by her father, who breaks the news to him that she's now wedded to his best man. Samson is not impressed:

So Samson went and caught 300 foxes and took torches. And he turned them tail to tail and put a torch between each pair of tails. And when he had set fire to the torches, he let the foxes go into the standing grain of the Philistines and set fire to the stacked grain and the standing grain, as well as the olive orchards." (Judges 15:4-5)


Yes, Samson invented Firefox.
(Sorry.)

Anyway, surprisingly enough, this doesn't go down well with the Philistines, who decide to follow through on their original threat: they burn Samson's (ex) wife, and her father, alive.

Samson retaliates and gives them an almighty smiting, causing a major diplomatic incident between Philistine and Judah; the men of Judah consequently arrest Samson and hand him over to the Philistines, at which point he escapes, grabs a donkey's jawbone, as you do, and kills 1000 of them. And, being the jolly, literary sort that he is, he composes a little ditty to round off proceedings:

“With the jawbone of a donkey,
heaps upon heaps,
with the jawbone of a donkey
have I struck down a thousand men.” (Judges 15:16)

And everyone who was still alive lived happily ever after.
For a bit.

With this hair, I thee wed. With my hair I honour you, all that I hair I hair to you, and all that I hair hair hair hair HAIR.

Actually, this would be a great reading to have at a wedding. Think about it: whatever complications, snarls, family arguments or logistical catastrophes happen on your Big Day, if anyone besides the groom makes it out alive then you are doing better than Samson. And to any fathers-in-law who are worried about your speech: if the guests aren't piling kindling around you, then you are probably doing okay.

What Is This Actually About? Or To Be Serious For A Moment...


Just in case this post is coming across as irreverent, I'd like to pause for a second to reveal where I stand. I believe that the Bible is the word of God. But I want to show that the word of God is rich; as I said in Part One, God doesn't talk in a monotone. For some reason, as a culture, we have come to believe that the holier something is, the more dull it needs to be. The Bible can't just be read out - it must be intoned, all contours eroded into a flat, emotionless chant - preferably in a cold, echoing space by someone well advanced in years, and, for bonus points, in a translation that is almost incomprehensible by today's standards.

One of the reasons I like writing these posts is because I love being able to point out the colour in the Bible - it's full of love, pain, loss, hope, misery, failure, victory, hilarity, farce, fury, horror, sex, intrigue, incest, death, dismemberment, fire, confusion, deceit, devotion, burning foxes and poo. Especially poo. Hopefully you can see that the tale of Samson and his wife is a cracking good yarn. We're meant to be saying "He did what!?"

But it also means something. God does not speak in a monotone, but nor does he speak just to enjoy the sound of his own voice. However extraordinary or random a passage might seem, there is always a reason for it.

Unlike the bubble perm mullet.

The reason for this one is found right at the top, when Samson's parents are pondering why their son wants to marry a Philistine, of all people:

His father and mother did not know that it was from the Lord, for he was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines. At that time the Philistines ruled over Israel. (Judges 14:4)

Yup, this whole fiasco, foxes and all, was a roundabout way of gaining victory against the Philistines... Although this was really just the warm-up act: Samson ultimately defeats the Philistines by bringing their temple down on top of himself, after the even-messier incident with Delilah, in Judges 16.

Samson was, all things considered, not the sharpest piccolo in the orchestra. A hero of the faith no doubt, but he gallivants around like a puppy, throwing his affections in all the worst directions, generally behaving irresponsibly and acting like a petulant teenager. And he set foxes on fire. Who does that? But he was God's chosen man. Flashback to before he was born:

There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. And his wife was barren and had no children. And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Behold, you are barren and have not borne children, but you shall conceive and bear a son. Therefore be careful and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for behold, you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb, and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” (Judges 13:2-5)

So, a visitation from an angel, a miraculous birth, a child who is destined to save his people from their enemies, who is caught, imprisoned, tortured, and who eventual rescues his people through his death... ring any bells?

Yes, Samson is a glimpse; a deeply-flawed, fox-burning prototype of the real rescuer to come.
As I said, God does not speak in a monotone.


Right, that's enough for now.

Look out for The Top Ten Worst Bible Readings To Have At A Wedding Part III soon, when maybe we'll pick up the pace a little and actually finish the list... or not.

Oh... and a tenterhook? It's a hook for tenters.