Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Tribute to Big Nanny

I had the honour of delivering a tribute to my grandmother at her funeral today. Here is the written text of my speech (minus ad-libs and the grown man blubbering):

If you aren't up a sports fan,  I want to apologize, but I have to talk about the Toronto Blue Jays, so I’m going to start with a baseball analogy. I hadn't really followed baseball in years, but this year was special because this is the first season in over 20 years that the Blue Jays made the playoffs. Now if you're a Toronto Maple Leafs fan like my Aunt Mary, let me explain what that means - the regular season ends, but your team has been successful enough that they get to play extra games to see who can win the championship. In life, I am going to say that Big Nanny made the playoffs. Of course, the Blue Jays had some trials in the playoff, losing the first two games in the series against Texas, but coming back - including the most amazing inning of baseball I’ve ever seen. Nanny also had her trials lately. I think the victories you win when you have to make a comeback can be even sweeter; as good as it is to win, it is even better to win well. Even for the team that wins the World Series, the season always has to come to an end, so you want to have big wins, and hang onto those memories. You can have incredible moments where you throw your bat up in the air in victory, and those are the moments that you take a picture of and savour.

I start with this because my Nan was a devoted Blue Jays fan. I like to think that Jose Bautista is her second favourite Joe. Watching the Jays play baseball is something that she loved to do, although it’s not something that I remember about her from my childhood - anyone who has been around her the last few years knows how important the Blue Jays are.

I have to wonder how she could have had time earlier in her life to watch baseball. She certainly was never one to sit around, and I would go so far as to say she would find staying put irritating. I can remember when she worked at Fawcett’s Hardware, and before that at the Post Office, and she always played bingo at the hall, bowling at the lanes, and cards at the kitchen table. Even before that, I know she had a long and varied career which included working for Canadian Blood Services, and as a switchboard operator, while doing the stuff you have to do when you are raising four children.

I am the oldest of her grandchildren, and I’m 42 - the same age that she was when I was born. That means she had a whole lifetime before I was even around to see anything. I wish I could say more about what she was like as a younger woman, but I’m relying on ideas and stories from others. I’ve been asking. John did start to tell me a story the other night that included her dancing on the kitchen table with her leg in a cast . I’m pretty sure I’m missing some important context to that story, but it confirms what I’ve always suspected. She must have always been a handful!

She was also never one to keep her feelings to herself, and around her house the way she wanted it was the way it was going to be. I’ve personally never been one to wear a hat, which mean that I’ve never suffered the indignity of having her take it off my head and smack me with it for wearing it at the kitchen table. And I’ve never been a smoker, so I didn’t have to face the glare she would give the smokers after she herself had quit smoking. But I’ve seen these things happen, and I knew better than to cross any lines that she had drawn.

I will also say she was ahead of her time - this thing called “road rage” that everyone talks about? I’m pretty sure she invented it. I think it was Mary who was telling me that once Nanny was describing how someone had cut her off, so she showed how she gave them the finger! That had to be a joke, because I’m positive she knew the correct way to express her feelings.

She did have a wicked sense of humour. However, if you thought you were being funny she wasn't necessarily amused. She didn't have a lot of time for would-be jesters, or those who didn’t know what they were talking about. If you were going to try to say something smart around her, well, you better actually be smart. And if you really were, and it wasn’t something that would cause a needless argument, she would certainly discuss it with you.

I’m sure she recognized duplicity easily because she was fairly well read. For a while, when Lori had a used book store in Sussex, Nan would help tend shop and talk to customers. She could discuss any book in the store and make recommendations, since she probably read just about anything they were looking at anyway. Customers love to hang around and chat with her, and she loved those discussions.

Even so, she never did get on the internet. That’s really OK - my brother doesn’t have facebook and we still manage to communicate. But I think she could have learned to enjoy having some much information available. Even so, I wouldn’t say she wasn’t being left behind. Like the rest of her generation, she just saw so much change that in the end it must have been hard to even keep track of what was a fad and what was a new normal. I can find it hard myself, and I’m a middle-aged guy who actually works in technology. She once asked, back when the internet was first becoming mainstream “how are we going to run an electronic super-highway, when we can't afford to keep up the roads we have now!”

But change or no change, she was not afraid of much. I don't know if any of the other grandchildren remember much about our Grampy, but I do. He took me fishing, and watched hockey with me, and let me sit on his back and ride him like a horse on the livingroom floor until he had to rest. He made pom-pom throws for the backs of chairs, and couldn’t say anyone’s names correctly unless it was simple like “Bob” or “Jim”. Couldn’t or wouldn’t - I’m not sure which. They would have been quite a couple. When Grampy passed away, Nanny found herself with no husband and her children grown up. I was nine, so my recollection may not be as accurate as those who were older, but it seems to me that rather than use that as an excuse to feel sorry for herself, she forged ahead. I'm sure she mourned, and I know that they loved each other; but she knew that she had a lot of time left. As a child I watched her pick herself up and carry on, and that was my example for how someone deals with loss - even losing the most important person in your life. And I am grateful for that lesson.

She traveled quite a bit after Grampy passed away, doing bus trips with her close group of friends, or visiting family like when Lori lived in Toronto. She did not shy from trying new things. She did whatever touristy thing someone travelling should do, visiting all the sites and piling up all kinds of experiences.

And of course there was Avon. I’m pretty sure I’ve got a few bottles of Wild Country body wash stocked up, and who among us doesn't have a bottle of skin-so-soft ready to make your bath luxurious, or take price tags off of something, or in case you need some bug repellent? She became to me the model of what an Avon lady must be. And she won president’s club so many times I couldn't count it. I know she was always proud of how well she did with Avon.

That’s explains how so much Avon product found it’s way into gifts. That, and her finds at yard sales when she saw something that she really thought one of us should have. After she negotiated a better price, of course!

In the last couple of years it became more difficult for her to do all the things she had done. This is where I think her passion for the Blue Jays became even more important for her, with 150 or so days a year when she could cheer (or yell!) at her tv. This year was more cheering :) I also know how special it was when my brother Jeremy took her to Toronto to watch a Jays game. I’m sure he will never forget what that meant to her.

There are so many highlights to talk about. I don’t think anyone would argue with me if I say that my Nanny lived a lot of life in her 84 years. And when I look around and see my mom and my aunts and uncle, all of us grandchildren, and my children and all the other great-grandchildren, I am happy that so much of who she was will live on. All of those memories that we have with her, we can share them with each other just like that photo of Jose Bautista tossing his baseball bat in the air, and how that image was shared throughout the country.

There was a moment in the hospital on Monday a week ago, when we all knew where things were going. While we were sitting with her, Nan opened her eyes and was struggling to speak. We weren’t really sure what she wanted, but we tried to help. We adjusted her blankets, and listened hard as she mouthed a few words but couldn’t quite get it out. We moved her oxygen mask away, and when we did she looked up at me and said “God, you’re handsome”. We all laughed to tears. I think it was the greatest thing I had ever heard. It’s so fitting that, gasping for breath, she wouldn’t say “I love you”, or “Don’t worry about me.” If she wasn’t struggling so much just to speak, she probably would finished the phrase “God you’re handsome...but you need a haircut.” I’ve certainly heard that from her before. And to be honest, she could have been talking to my cousin Ken sitting beside me. Or maybe she thought I was Johnny Reid - I know she thought he is handsome. Or maybe she was seeing Dr. Yummypants. It’s really hard to say, because she was not really herself after that (as far as I was able to see). But I will always remember that her last words to me were exactly what a vain man like me would want to hear. I’m sure she knew, so she made it a good one, like she always did.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Why I am thinking of Paris

Pain can create beauty

We've put a couple days between us and the terrible events in Paris now, and those past days the Facebook has been flooded with many dumbfounded reactions shared by my friends, family and myself. I am seeing patterns in these posts; the one that struck me immediately is the number of people urging to "Pray for Paris." I see this one whenever there is a tragedy that happens someplace in the world - "Pray for Boston," "Pray for Moncton," and many others complete with matching hashtags. What is interesting about applying this meme to Paris is that France is one of the least religious countries in the world. I have to wonder if these expressions of religious devotion from around the world are as comforting to the French as the speaker intends - especially given that these attacks were themselves born out of a religious dedication.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't pray - by all means, everyone should observe whatever litany their faith teaches, and they certainly offer their supplications on behalf of the people of Paris. I just wonder if it might be better to just keep that to oneself, and speak to the people of France with words that may be more meaningful to them.

But don't just take it from me - let's have someone in France weigh in:

A photo posted by Joann Sfar (@joannsfar) on

So then what can we do? When these kinds of catastrophes happen we all feel helpless; yet we want to offer something to those who are hurting. We can't all jump on the next flight to France to lend a hand, but social media has made the world so small today: we can offer hashtags and status updates, tri-colour profile pictures and memes. But what kind of content is respectful and useful?

As the initial state of shock passed, the next thing I noticed was a slew of memes and comments that are critical of immigration. This is particularly poignant here in Canada, where our last government tried to stir up this xenophobic feelings against immigrants in its attempt to gain re-election. It failed spectacularly, because for the most part Canadians are more generous and caring than our former Prime Minister's campaign wanted to give us credit for. Our new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau is going to be challenged on his decisions to accept thousands of Syrian refugees, and his shift in strategy in the battle against Daesh in Syria. Trudeau and his ministers need to make the right decisions, and he needs the support of his people in doing so.

I am no military expert, but I suspect neither is the average Facebook poster. However, I try really hard to investigate things that I see - to read different points of view, to check facts, and to seek out reliable sources of information - before I assume that I should report my ideas to the world at large. I may make mistakes, but I am really loathe to. I want my words to raise the level of the discourse, not lower it. So I find it frustrating to see so much material that comes from ideology without analysis, driven by an emotional response to things that are simply not understood.


When you are afraid, it doesn't matter to you that terrorists are not known to masquerade as refugees to get their operatives into a country for attack. It doesn't matter that the numbers clearly show that immigrants don't "take out jobs," but actually propels economic growth that creates jobs. It doesn't matter that the Syrian refugees are the people trying to get away from these evil people. And it doesn't matter that the overwhelming majority of Muslims have beliefs and values similar to our own (I won't say that I have no problems with Islam - I also won't say I have no problems with Christianity). Because you don't know those facts. Facts are not what matters in the face of emotion: all that matters is that the worst fears of your imagination are possible.

Which is really paradoxical:

Interesting interview with a former Muslim extremist. Some interesting points:- an overwhelming majority of "domestic"...
Posted by Joey Reid on Monday, November 16, 2015

And this is all exactly what the terrorists want. Just like ten months ago, when another group of extremists (also in Paris) attacked the office of Charlie Hebdo. They were able to silence their critics and when the Western media cowered in the face of some of the details and images around the story, the terrorists could be satisfied that the free speech we brag about herein the civilized world had been wounded.

Some people, and otherwise very reasonable people that I respect, acted as if Charlie Hebdo deserved the attack because they were "poking the bear". Yes, exercising their free speech. Yet on this past Friday night, Parisians were provoking the terrorists by doing what? Going to a rock concert. Eating out at a restaurant. Going to a football game. Should we gird ourselves in fear, no longer filled with a joie de vivre like those 129 who died? No! We need to live our lives to the fullest, we need to welcome those fleeing the villains; and we need to be rational - taking count to know that the odds we are next on the list are so vanishingly remote, even while we soberly admit the possiblity is real.

When we speak out from our emotions and not our reason, we do more damage on behalf of the terrorists. When we spread fear and uncertainty on subjects we don't really understand, we are making their job easier. We must be thoughtful, and diligent to learn the matters at hand.

In the end, Paris doesn't need us to pray - it needs us to think.


Friday, October 16, 2015

To my friends in Saint John/Rothesay

As a politics nerd, I have been tracking #elxn42 very closely. I follow @308dotcom to get all the latest poll results; I read all the newspapers online, both news and opinion, to see what the media has to say about this and that. To this end, a couple of things seem really clear to me at this point: 1) The Liberals with Justin Trudeau will be forming our next government, and 2) the race in Saint John-Rothesay is a dead heat between Liberal Wayne Long and Conservative Rodney Weston. I have already made up my mind where my vote is going: in fact, I already voted with my family at the advance poll. If you have been paying attention, you know that I am eager for a change in government and have voted for Wayne to bring that change.

But some of my friends may still be undecided, or maybe leaning one way of the other but not committed. That's fine, we still have a few days left, and as long as you do vote I can add you to me list of heroes. But before you do mark that "X", I would like you to consider the following:
 - Rodney Weston is touting his accomplishment in Ottawa, but has he really done anything? I mean, his party is the one in power which you would expect gives his riding some pull in the federal funding of projects. And even at that, clean water is the best he can come up with? We're not living in a third-world country, shouldn't clean, safe drinking water be presumed?
 - Saint John has a history of electing members despite the rest of the country's choice of governing party. Remember when we sent good old Elsie in there as one of only two Conservative MPs in the entire country? This speaks to the quality of candidates that we have available, and we should be proud of that. However, it's a sad reality that electing a candidate who is not a member of the ruling party reduces the say that we have in Parliament. When Trudeau is Prime Minister, a near certainty at this point, wouldn't it be more effective for our region if we had a Member of Parliament who has a more favorable position in the House?
 - When we talk about the quality of candidates in our riding, you couldn't ask for a better one than Wayne Long. Wayne is a lifelong Saint Johner, who was educated at UNBSJ and built his own succesful business in this city before bringing QMJHL hockey and the eventual Memorial Cup Champion Sea Dogs to Saint John. He is extremely well spoken, as you would know if you have seen any of the candidate debates, but very approachable. He is driven to represent our community, as you can tell given that he has canvassed tens of thousands of homes during the campaign. That is definitely an improvement over the robocalls I have received from AJ Griffin! All things being equal, I would certainly not hesitate to give Wayne my vote; but things are not equal, and a Liberal vote in Saint John is the best choice we have in this election.

I have a lot of reasons for disliking the Conservatives, aside from their foul campaign tactics, I simply don't like the way they have governed our country over the last 4 years. I guess if you're not currently eating your dinner out of a garbage can then maybe you might think that Stephen Harper's economic plan has been working; but for a lot of my friends, the decisions made by this government have resulted in them moving out west or traveling to get work, or worrying about their jobs.  This is not  a good economy, and it is the result of poor management. And worse, this short-sighted approach has resulted in a recession and lack of growth, thanks to reliance on a single industry that is struggling now that the price of crude has dropped. Research and innovation in new energy technologies and environmental protection, things that WE KNOW provide well-paying jobs have been defunded and obstructed. Around the world, industry is begging for STEM graduates, but my son who is currently studying Science does not see good employment prospects if he chooses to stay in Canada. And all this in favor of a strategy that limits growth and requires us to ship our fathers and sons across the country to make a living. It's maddening to see people choosing false promises of lower taxes over proper resource and fiscal management, thing that have historically made our country great.

But the flip side is that there is now hope. All the numbers guys - the ones who were right last time - are saying that the chance of the Conservatives forming the next government is remote. Even if they beat the odds and squeeze out a minority victory, both the Liberals and NDP parties have said they will not support a Conservative government and would work together to ensure that does not happen. Whether that's a coalition (which the NDP have said they are willing to do) or simply cooperating to ensure their House vote pass, that would mean Justin Trudeau is our next Prime Minister, and policies set in place by the Harper government that I am so at odds with would change. I am encouraged :)

But the best thing for me would be to know that my neighbors are on board and that we can share in the victory. I would like see the best things happen in Saint John, and I know that means we need as many people as possible to vote for Wayne Long. If you are on the fence, think about that. If you are planning on voting for Weston just because he's a Conservative or Griffin because she's NDP and that's your "team", I beg you to reconsider. On Monday we will have a change, let's embrace it and give our city a strong voice!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

All dogs go to heaven, or something.

We're all gonna die.

I'm not trying to alarm anyone, but that's a fact that needs no reference. The earth revolves around the sun, rivers run to the ocean, light races along at nearly three hundred million meters a second, and our time living in it all will end. You can count on it. You're alive at this moment or you would not be reading my post, but some day (and there's no getting out of it) you will pass on; as will all of my friends, as will I.

As will my dog, Monty. And that one really hurts.

My favorite human person with my favorite canine person.

Don't get me wrong, I will certainly mourn you, I promise. But I'm not expecting you to go very soon, and you'll have to forgive me if you're not at the forefront in my mind, given that I can't really be sure who is reading this. With Monty, every morning for years he's the second person I see, and every night he's the second to last. Every day I watch my beloved schnauzer, and I know that for him the end is nigh.

Monty is thirteen years old. He still wants to play with me - I know this because he always finds me and stands in front of me until he has my attention, then runs away to the only room we have with a rug (where he can get traction) and stands above his rope-bone, waiting for me to try and steal it. It's hard to imagine why anyone would want a frayed smelly old rope-bone, but I usually oblige and snatch at it, only to have him grab the other end and tug until "he wins". He still meets me at the door when I get home from work (most days), looking up for a pet and for me to let him immediately out the back door (even though he likely just came in!). He sticks his nose up to my bed and sniffs at me until I rub his head, then turns around so that I can scratch his butt while he throws his nose up in the air, making grunting noises and looking at me over his shoulder.

That's about 50 pounds of handsome, right there.
He does not behave like old dogs do, yet. But I can see it coming. I can tell by the way he needs a couple of attempts to get out of his bed, or resorts to a full-on belly flop when he tries to lay down gracefully. Or how he struggles with stairs, and often won't trouble himself to rise for every little inconsequential happening (like he used to). His hips are old, slowing him down. Soon, more of him will slow down, and parts of him will ache all the time. He will stop having fun, and will be simply tolerating his own existence.

I know this is true, but I don't like to admit it. Of course, we're going to see if we can get treatment for his hips, and maybe that will get him over this hurdle and buy us more time. But my lovely wife, ever the realist, the ultimate pragmatist, won't stop reminding me of this truth. I don't know if she talks about it so much in order to make sure we are prepared, or if it is because she wants me to be prepared.

Well, I am preparing. It kills me, but I am. It sounds odd, but I have never lost anyone in my life who is as close to me as this little canine. I have raised him since he was a few weeks old; trained an alpha male to be part of (and not the head of) a family, and watched him grow to trust and be trusted. I have literally bled (since he was so dominant as a puppy that he was vicious with anyone who dared to handle him) for him. And he has bled for me, saving me multiple times from deadly groundhogs striving to overthrow the sovereign territory of our back yard. We are the truest friends. And I have to be ready for him to go.

Here he is as a vicious, domineering puppy. It's OK to say "Awwwwww!"

Despite the title of my post, I don't believe I will see him in some sort of doggie Heaven. That's a story we often feed to children because it's too difficult for us to tell them what we know to be true. I don't need that kind of hope anyway. Like with everyone else in my life, I am honoured to have had his love for thirteen years, or fourteen or fifteen, or whatever fortune brings. Things will not be empty for me when he is gone, because I will have my memories. I will say my good bye, and he will be gone, and I will never see him again. But I will always remember, as long as my mind and body are connected. And I will not be alone, since there are other dogs, and cats, and humans that will want my love.

Don't we kinda look alike?

I could certainly feel guilty that there are people in my life that may leave me, and that I won't have said all that I need to say to them or made it clear to them how much I care about them. That's the beauty of a relationship with a dog - I will never imagine that he didn't know I loved him. Every time I trip over him while he's circling my ankles, I know he loves me back. And every day when I see him limping and tripping, I'm reminded how brief the rest of our time together might be. But people don't get under my feet, and they live far longer, and sometimes they leave without warning me that they're on their way out. There is no way to give myself to everyone the way I have given myself to Monty, so I must hope that my loved ones all understand that I do cherish them, and always will. Even when they are gone for good, I do not expect to mourn the time I can no longer have with them, or regret the time I did not have with them - I will rejoice that I knew them, and that I loved them. That is a great legacy for anyone. That is what I also hope those that I leave behind will do for me.

All this, I learned from an old dog, my hairy cousin with bad breath. I wish that all could be so lucky as to have a friend like my Monty.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

How not to pray, or: how to not pray.

As long as I can remember, prayer was a struggle for me. It was not something that I did at all before I was born again (Hallelujah!) at the age of fifteen. I have vague memories of being taught to pray "Now I lay me down to sleep..." as a young child, but I don't remember who taught me. I don't think it would have been my parents, since neither of them was religious. But that's neither here nor there, since the exercise was no more spiritual to me than reciting "Mary had a little lamb" or "Humpty Dumpty".

Is it just me, or do you find the idea of an anthropomorphic egg to be just a little creepy?

When I became a part of evangelical church culture in my mid-teens, prayer was a vital activity in order to belong. When I attended youth group, we often gathered in a circle to pray together, and as a self-styled leader among these teens, I forced myself to participate. Privately, I made myself take daily time to talk to God and read the Bible, so that I could conduct a "relationship" with God. Of course, the frequency with which I simply fell asleep during the practice of sharing my soul with God was much greater than that of the times when I felt I had made some kind of connection. There were rare times when I sat alone, in an emotional transfixion, thinking I had reached out to God; but for the most part I felt as is my thoughts were bouncing off the ceiling rather than traversing the heavens to connect to the Creator.

Because of this, my private prayer life almost completely dissipated over the years, despite my guilt over the fact. Regardless of this I grew to become a significant member of my church. I even participated in the "Ministry Team" for a period of time, a cadre of lay people whose sole purpose was to go to people who had come up to the front of the sanctuary (usually during, but not limited to, the time towards the end of the service) looking for prayer. I fit in very well - I've never been one to struggle for words, and I have a reasonably sharp intuition, so in "prayer ministry" or group prayer I don't think I ever looked out of place. I know that I prayed with people, and many time my words were comforting or encouraging to them.

And I hated every second of it.

I was happy that I could be an encouragement to my friends and fellow church-goers, don't get me wrong. I just felt like a fake, because I knew that I was not actually speaking to God in Heaven, I was saying words to the people standing around me. It was totally for them. And I think I was pretty good at it. I was asked to pray often. People seemed to be able to relate to what I had to say (to God).
1. Speak to God
2. ???
3. Prophet!

I was also the token Christian in my family, so I got to pray at all our family get-togethers. You might say that in true hipster fashion I was religious before it was cool - in the last few years many of my family members have found a devotion that I never saw before in them, but prior to that I was alone. It's important to mention that this unique role I had carved out for myself was not without its responsibilities. Every year my family has a gathering for breakfast on Boxing Day, and every year my grandmother, the matriarch of our clan, would have me pray the blessing before we would chow down on our bacon, eggs, sausage and ham. I would always oblige, swiftly thanking God for our wonderful family and asking for His blessing in our lives. Despite my hesitations, I felt good being given such a place of honour in our family.

This became an anxious ritual for me a few years back. As my beliefs were changing, I started to become more comfortable with my abstinence from prayer. After all, it was not me that hadn't held up his end of the prayer-bargain, it was God: why should I feel guilty about something I had put every reasonable effort into? As I retreated from church life I finally had no reason to ever pray publicly, aside from this once-a-year family gathering. I started modifying these speeches to become less like prayers, and more "invocations". I was not thanking God, but acknowledging the cooks. I was expressing my desire for blessing on my family, but not asking anyone in particular for it. I'm good enough with words that I don't think anybody noticed. At least, nobody ever mentioned it. But it was still spectacularly uncomfortable for me.

Maybe this would have solved my whole problem?

Finally on the morning of one of our breakfasts, when my grandmother approached me semi-privately beforehand to ask if I would pray I very politely suggested that she find someone else. This had the effect of putting a total seizure on the event while Nanny tried to figure out why I would decline, until my aunt gracefully recommended another family member. It seems that my grandmother, who was not religious in any way, was much more upset about my loss of faith than I was! I think she may have seen this as me relinquishing the post of "family chaplain." I had hoped to back out of this quietly, but her reaction to the news made it anything but inconspicuous. As it turns out, old people don't seem to appreciate change.

Now that a couple of years have passed, I have been able to remove myself from from any expectation from anyone that I need to perform prayers. Even in the social environments where someone may need to pray, I don't expect to ever be the person asked to do it. I will be honest, it's been a great relief.

I understand that I may be making a huge mistake in writing about this publicly. In admitting that I struggled to communicate with God in prayer, I may open my arguments up to dismissal from believers who wish to claim that I was not a valid believer if I did not have a "strong prayer life" (yes, Christians talk like this!). This line of reasoning is known as the "no true Scotsman" fallacy, and it's frankly bullshit. However, I'm willing entertain that risk, because I would be willing to bet that it is in fact that other way around: I'm sure that many Christians have experienced the same frustration that I did, and can identify with my struggle; that they have also faced years of silence from God punctuated by brief epiphanies. Believers are encouraged to admit that they doubt, but never to analyze that doubt for fear that it might overcome their belief. I have come through on the other side, and have have found more encouragement here than I ever did before.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Bully To You! (or "The Best Defence is a Good Offense")

I recently oversaw a lively discussion around my Facebook post on the subject of Caitlyn Jenner's public coming out and new name. Only one person rejected my suggestion that Caitlyn's decision was brave, choosing to identify her deviation from "normal", and his own self-confessed "Victorian" standards of morality as reasons why he could not applaud her choice as I had. My friends are my friends, I love them all, and I love him as well, as misguided as I believe his opinion is on this issue. I tried not to be insulting, but I cannot help being contrary. A large number of my friends jumped into the conversation to confirm my voice on this issue (which warmed my heart :), and the entire discussion completed without bloodshed or anybody calling anyone else Hitler, so I believe that overall it was a positive experience.

Annie Leibovitz, you DO know what you are doing!

However, although only one person spoke up, I am sure that several others simply chose not to express their displeasure with my point of view. How do I know? Because I'm sure that a large number of people I know are still uncomfortable with the transgender issue. Hell, I have a lot of friends who are still uncomfortable with the issue of homosexuality. In fact, some of my friends may have stopped reading when I used the word "Hell" in my previous sentence. People have a lot of different ideas about what is moral, and being challenged by ideas that you don't agree with is offensive to most of us.

So, a discussion started on my Facebook post because I offended someone. Which was honestly my intent all along.

I've discussed at length how I don't like offending people. But the truth is that sometimes in order to change minds you have to cause some offense. Or as Tyler Durden puts it, "You wanna make an omelet, you gotta break some eggs." Of course, that phrase itself is offensive if you believe Mike Vuolo, and maybe that just makes my case stronger. You can't help offending people, but you can try to intend the best things when you do.

Durden: great quote, terrible role model.

Every single day, someone, somewhere, who doesn't fit into our normal gender categories, will kill their self because they don't know how they are going to make their life work in our society. This is in spite of the widespread changes that I have seen in my lifetime in our society's attitudes towards LGBTQ persons. There is still a number among us that wants to tell these people that they are unnatural, that they are not normal, and that they should just shut up and suffer in quiet.

I won't feel bad if I say something that "offends" these people, although I wish I didn't have to do that. I believe that their attacks, as passive and even as innocent as they may seem to be, are many times worse than the discomfort I make them feel when I bring up these issues. Because the target of their words are vulnerable, people who did not choose their situation, and who are being denied the support of others in their lives where many others would not have been left stranded so. In short, to speak against LGBTQ people for their LGBTQ-ness is simply an act of bullying.

If anything makes me lose my cool, it's bullying. I am a feminist, I am an LGBTQ ally, I am sensitive to race issues, and I am a critic of religious authority; all of these mostly because in each case you have a vulnerable group (often a minority) being pushed around by a powerful majority (or dominant minority). I think it's unfair, an my sense of justice will not allow me to side knowingly against the abused. It takes me back when I see good people acting like bullies or condoning bullying, and it really upsets me when they don't seem to recognize what they are doing.

...said no victim ever.

I have several times seen the above meme on Facebook, and every time I grit my teeth and take a break from the computer. And this is frequently posted even by people whom I love, and who I know love me, and who think that the above message is true. And probably people who were never bullied themselves, because they would know how offensive it is to blame bullying on the victim for not "standing up".

Trust me on this one.

I don't like talking about this, but I will. It didn't happen a lot, but it did happen. I wasn't physically harmed, but I was afraid that I would be. And I don't think I deserved it. I mean, yeah, I was smaller than most everybody in school. Not the smallest. I was a bit weird. Not the weirdest. I guess that made me a good enough target from time to time. But I'm pretty sure that standing up on my own to my bullies would have been futile. In fact, the few times I got close to trying that technique were among the scariest for me. Oh, what I would have given to know that at least one other person would stand beside me and tell the bully to go away - just one person wearing a pink shirt so that the Bully would know that I was not a safe target! But I knew there was nobody, and I was powerless.

If only they had these when I was a kid.

But we have changed our approach, and the idea might make you uncomfortable - as if agreeing that these kids needing help from others is somehow admitting that we didn't teach them how to be strong enough - maybe the pink shirts themselves are not the best technique, but having the confidence that those around you are not going to just stand by when you are in distress is worth its weight in pink gold. In schools that implement and and revise their anti-bullying programs, basing them on psychology and science rather than emotion and knee-jerk reactions, the programs are helping. It's not preventing bullying entirely, but it is preventing it often enough that it makes me hopeful.

Look, I know if you posted this, you didn't mean to hurt me. How could you know? You honestly thought that this is a reasonable solution to bullying. I get it. But it is like people who think they are doing good by showing "tough love" to LGBTQ people, saving us from the moral downfall of civilization, or saving them from God's wrath, or whatever nonsense explanation they may have for it. People need to understand that there are a lot of vulnerable people out there, and sometimes the only thing those vulnerable people need is for others to stand with them.

When we support the bullies, we do not help ourselves. Even if the bullies claim to be silencing something that we may find offensive. When the Muslim gunmen rolled into Charlie Hebdo and killed everyone in sight, they were not the ones made vulnerable. The artists at Charlie Hebdo were attacking an idea, an idea that they believed was causing a lot of pain, and they were attacking it with pencils. The gunmen were attacking people, and they did it with bullets. I was glad to see the popularity of #jesuischarlie, and I became livid when I saw that many of those who had the ability to stand up for Charlie Hebdo (and all of us who are critics) chose not to by refusing to publish the drawings, or by equivocating on whether not not the gunmen had cause to attack.

"All is forgiven." What kind of grace must it take to draw this after a dozen of your friends have been murdered? Yet Luz will no longer draw Muhammad, because he knows he stands alone.

It made me sick to my stomach, to be honest.

A few times since, groups have taken it upon themselves to "draw Muhammad." Although I may not agree entirely with the motivation of these groups, they are doing something that needs to be done - they are standing up to the bully. And as vile as they may be, I support their resolve, and I hope that more groups continue to do this until the terrorists realize they cannot keep their critics quiet. Only then will the killings end.

There is only one way to stop a bully. It is to make them understand that when they try to bully one, they must contend with all. You may attack one newspaper for publishing a comic, but you can't attack them all. You may push around one of the kids on the school bus, but you can't push them all around.

And you may disagree with one person's lifestyle, but there will be many, even those who do not participate in that lifestyle, who are going to stand up. And sometimes when people stand up against you, you will be offended.

I sympathize, but I cannot stop making you feel uncomfortable. It's my duty.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Why I'm going to hell.

I recently bought a new-to-me motorcycle. Since Gina and I share motorcycles, we did some research and together decided on the model of motorcycle to buy. It ended up being a 2009 Honda CBR600RR.

When we were trying to figure out what to buy, Gina kept asking me if I was going to be happy with the Honda because it could be perceived as "a girl's bike." For someone who is into sport bikes, Honda would be considered the most "well behaved", as oppose to something like Yamaha's R6 which would be much more suitable for the track (and therefore much less suitable for the street). I'm not going to pretend that I never think about how manly something may make me appear to be. I am a guy, after all. But at a slight and fair-skinned 5-foot-7, I rarely get mistaken for a lumberjack or professional wrestler, so I've long gotten over worries about fitting other people's ideas of "macho" at the expense of my own comfort.

"Ooooooh, yeah!"

It calls to mind the beggar in "The Life of Brian" who had been healed of his leprosy by Jesus, resulting in the loss of his previously substantial panhandling income. Although Brian gives the (now perfectly healthy) man some money, the man objects that the amount is too little. The exasperated Brian exclaims, "There's no pleasing some people," to which the beggar smartly responds "That's just what Jesus said, sir!"

And if I was buying a motorcycle to please others, then I would be waging a futile war. I could actually buy the Yamaha, but then someone would mock the bike for having a small 600cc engine. If I bought 1000cc bike, someone would tell me it's not physically B-I-G enough, that's it's not expensive enough, or that it's not American (as if a Canadian should care!). If I got a Harley-Davidson to take care of those objectors, then it wouldn't be fast enough. It seems there is always someone willing to move the target somewhere other than where you've already fired your arrow.

Who could object to this?

But this isn't really about motorcycles. How important are they, really? How about (queue thunderclaps) your eternal soul!

Thanks, Blake! That makes me feel better.

I hope that was dramatic enough. But I need to point out that laughing at my girly motorcycle is on a bit of a different plane from telling me I'm going to Hell. When you criticize my motorcycle, it's well understood that you're expressing an opinion, and opinions differ from one bloke to the next. But when it comes to the avoidance of Hell, opinions must be irrelevant - I'm not being told what any one person thinks about me, but what God's plans are for me. Maybe I'm blowing this out of proportion, but I have to think that is a bigger deal.

Let's consider Pascal's Wager. Blaise Pascal was a brilliant philosopher, scientist and mathematician who lived and wrote in the 17th century. He was also deeply religious, and he seems to be the first who studied the problem of how man should consider the existence of God from a probability standpoint. His wager (crudely paraphrased) is this: if a man may choose to believe in God or not believe in God: When the man dies, and if God does in fact exist, the believer will be united with God while the unbeliever will burn in Hell for all of eternity. On the other hand, if there really is no God then the fate is the same for both believer and unbeliever: annihilation. By this logic, a reasonable man must believe in God, since he takes a great risk by not believing thus.

For the visual learners.

On the surface this appears to be a convincing argument. However there is one major problem: how does one settle on "belief in God" as the determining factor, and what does this mean? It is a very Christian notion that faith alone is the means of salvation, yet the Bible (and yes I mean the New Testament) contains many passages that are very clear followers must live a certain way. In the Synoptic Gospels, it seems that repentance is what Jesus had in mind for his followers. Heaven knows, I've heard enough sermons about "the root" versus "the fruit" (i.e. if someone really believes, they will repent which will result in observable Christian behaviours on their part). And then again, a large number of Christians (like Catholics) are simply honest about the fact that they believe God requires observance of additional dogmas. This additional standard varies from believer to believer (and conveniently also match their beliefs). How many Christians, when they say "believe in God," assume that includes belief that the Bible is the word of God, that Jesus rose from the dead, that believers must make a public statement of their faith, or any other number of doctrines? None of these can be assumed, since I see as many interpretations of the Bible as I believe there have been copies printed.

So within Christian circles, there's essentially always someone who would think my faith, like my motorcycle, isn't "manly" enough.

And what if the Christians aren't even the correct faith? For some reason I never hear Christians say that "1.6 billion Muslims can't be wrong." There is a whole variety of belief systems with different schemes of reward and punishment in this life and the afterlife. Why would I choose Christianity just because I was raised in a Christian part of the world? If it helps, here's a handy graphic showing all the results if you play Pascal's Wager with a number of different religions.

Kinda hard to argue against Universalism once you put it like this.

So it seems pretty obvious that I'm literally damned if I do, damned if I don't. For almost all the practical routes I could choose, an overwhelming majority of the world is convinced that I'm on a one-way ride to the pit of Hell. Of course, it's not the Christians (or the Muslims) that I am trying to impress. Maybe they would be willing to leave that between me and God, and I can try to work out my salvation with fear and trembling. That still doesn't give me any insight into what I need to do - nothing tangible that I can punch into Pascal's calculator.

So what to do then? I believe Pascal's Wager falls over on its premise in much the same way that a guy in a leather-fringed jacket can't really tell me what kind of motorcycle I should ride. Here's my wager: I will be kind to others and true to myself. If whoever is in charge is not happy with that, then I guess I can go to Hell. I'll keep my shorts packed for the occasion.

I'd like to add, if you took the time to read this you might be interested in the following documentary. I think it's on Netflix.


Friday, February 6, 2015

Diff'rent strokes

A couple of weeks ago, the worst thing that I could imagine happened. My Dad had a stroke.

Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?!

If you know my Dad, you'll understand why I have to describe this with a superlative. My Dad has never been someone to sit still and watch the world. He needs to be doing something constantly. He grew up on a farm, where work was abundant. When I was growing up, he worked shifts at the oil refinery, and on his days off he did odd carpentry and construction jobs. When his time at the refinery ended, he went into business for himself, often working sixteen-hour days, seven days a week.

I have never heard him use silly old chestnuts like "idle hands do the Devil's work." He has generally kept himself so busy with his own work that he has no time for the Devil's. Getting him to take some time off requires asking him well in advance, and then reminding him the day before. Of course, there are still no guarantees. I invited him to a golf day once, only to find out during my day-before call to him that he had lost fingers in a table saw accident earlier that day and wouldn't be able to play - since he could not grip a club! Nonetheless, mangled hand and all he returned to work the next work week, holding trim pieces in place with his foot while he hammered with his left hand.

Mike Holmes does not approve, but he admires your creativity.

For my father to be disabled by a stroke would kill him. And this is the man who, early on a Sunday morning, sat before me unable to move his right arm or speak.

As I watched him struggling to lift his right arm with his left, I couldn't help but think about my own annoyances caused by a (ridiculously minor in this context) rotator cuff injury. I have recently found myself trying to use my bad arm and freezing in place, realizing that I could not extend it any further. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. And here was my Dad, not even able to start that kind of extension. His effort to move his arm was greater than any that I had ever needed. But the movement of an arm seemed trivial, as I watched my father in his hospital bed, sitting in silent frustration. The horrible thought in my mind was that I may never have a conversation with my Dad again.

I kid with my Dad a lot because he is often, to use his own expression - "full of shit and down a quart." My Dad likes to talk, I like to listen, and I have learned through attentiveness over the years exactly how many grains of salt are required to get the most out of what he has to say. There's a certain charm to his way of speaking, and I couldn't imagine a world without hearing that. I ask him for advice frequently, often when I think I already know the best answer. I don't know what I'm going to do when he's gone someday, but it is even harder to think how he would feel being here and not being able to have his say.

"Seek advice, you do?" (Dad would probably ask why I put a picture of Kermit the Frog here...)

As always, the staff at Saint John Regional Hospital were doing a phenomenal job of taking care of him. The ER doctor took us aside - my step-mom, my wife and me - to talk to us in earnest. He explained the situation to us like this: because Dad had woken up with the presentation (i.e. symptoms) they could not be sure at what time he originally took the stroke. It could have been at 8:30 am when he woke up, and it could have been as long ago as midnight when he went to bed. There is a treatment - tPA - that they can use on stroke victims, a treatment that has the potential to to reverse the effects of the damage by immediately breaking up the clot in his brain. There are two problems with this treatment:

  1. It must be administered within 4 hours of the stroke
  2. It disables the body's ability to clot for a day or more, which makes the risk of bleeding to death very high.
Or to quote the doctor: "It can save him, but it might kill him".

Well, that was encouraging. I mean, the treatment can be very effective, if it's not lethal. And it needs to be given promptly, but we have no way of knowing if "now" is promptly enough. All the tests gave the doctors the impression that it had not been too long, but normal protocol with this uncertainty is not to administer the drug. So, having informed us, he allowed us to decide.

Our decision was instant and unanimous, knowing how Dad is: he would rather be dead than be like he was at that moment. But we realized that the right thing to do was not to make that decision: Dad was conscious, he was rational, and he was only 15 feet away from us. We had the doctor explain to Dad what we had just heard, and after an unmistakable affirmation (by an enthusiastic nod of the head) the doctor authorized the tPA treatment.

What happened next can only be described as miraculous. With the bottle connected to his IV, we sat around doing our best to just be an encouragement; but the encouragement was to come from Dad, not us. He started to say a few words. Not without a lot of difficulty, but clearly intelligible words. At the same time, I could see his right arm moving. He raised it off of the bed, and when the doctor noticed he asked him how well he could move it. Dad lifted it right up above his head. This was only a few minutes after the drug started its course from the IV into his bloodstream; just an instant after he was totally unable to move properly or speak at all, he was answering the doctor's questions.

It's hard to put into words how I felt at that moment. Minutes before I feared I would lose my father forever, or at least a significant part of him. Yet here he was, like a phoenix, coming back to life before my eyes. I may have wept a little. I doubt I was the only one.

To say the doctor was impressed with Dad's response would be an understatement. He took photos and videos of the event for posterity, and we were all crying and laughing at him, and at Dad who was trying to make tasteless jokes with the few words he could now get out, and at the whole situation. Dad was having a bit of an issue with swelling in his tongue, and so although he was speaking he was struggling with it. He was now also high on Benadryl, and laughing at himself and his own batched attempts to communicate with us. No matter. We got him back.

I've had a couple of weeks to think about the whole ordeal, and the whole event seems surreal. My Dad's birthday was the following Saturday; we had dinner with him that night at his house. Instead of retreating to his "smoking room" like we normally do, we spent almost all of our time in the living area of his house. He was puffing on an e-smoke instead, but still being his charismatic self. A lifelong pack-a-day smoker, this is a clear marker that something happened to him. But his speaking and movement look almost completely normal, even though I know he is still having some difficulty. Most people wouldn't be able to tell anything had transpired.

The notorious "Movember" photo from a couple years back. As you can see, without my Dad the world would be 50% less handsome.

But I will always remember, watching my Dad recovering from a stroke, like Lazarus walking out of the tomb. There are now things that I will never take for granted again. Our bodies are miracles, and the medicine that science has given us is like food for phenomena. Every day is a gift we must use to its fullest, because what makes life valuable is the time we have with our loved ones. Even with the best medicine and care, our bodies are subject to age and fortune and eventually will fail. But until they do, love your people with all you have.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Five Facts about the Bible (that your Pastor will never tell you)

I don't play games much anymore. There was a time, though, when I was all-in on first-person multi-player games. My buddies and I would all pack up our PCs and head to one friend's basement, set up a network and spend the day drinking beer and shooting at each other with virtual weapons. Good times!

I suspect that this guy would be just as scary with all the lights turned on.

One of the more popular of these first-person shooter games was Doom. The Doom games featured a dark environment where the player would wander around in fear of being confronted by an unseen enemy. The designers of Doom 3 used the darkness to great advantage by making it pervasive, and then allowing players a flashlight, but with a caveat: the player could not operate both the flashlight and their weapon at the same time. Later, a developer releases a "mod" called "Duct Tape" that permitted the player to attach the flashlight to their gun, thereby allowing them to see what was ahead while still being prepared to attack. I think it took some of the suspense out of the game, but it proved to be very popular for obvious reasons.

I believe that there are a lot of Christians who seem to be bound by this kind of rule when examining their faith: they are unable to use the Bible and their brains at the same time. It's not that they don't care to know what the Bible really says. And it's not that they cannot reason. It's just that when we are fed only bite-sized passages from the Bible by our churches, it is difficult to reach any depth of understanding of it. I am glad that I was able to break out of that mindset, and my wish is for others to do the same.

I'm not quite as cynical as young Bartholomew.

The Bible is a complicated ancient book , and it was the single authority in our society for over a millennium at a time when the average person had no access to actually read it. Gutenberg fixed the problem of availability with the printing press, but people then were only reading it in the context of the teachings of the church. Next came the Reformation when people recognized that the church had modified the Bible's teaching. Yet with no way to understand the original author's intent many were just reading the Bible in yet another flawed context. It wasn't until scholars of the past two or three hundred years that we have been able to analyse, re-translate, investigate and test the Bible text using the modern disciplines of science, archaeology, and textual criticism. The Bible has been opened up for us all.

I admit that not everyone can (or should) be a biblical scholar. But this doesn't mean that they can't be "handed a roll of duct tape": i.e. be informed at a broad level what we have learned about the Bible in the past few hundred years. There's no reason this information should be kept away from the average reader.

Even with new data freely available to all, scholarly knowledge of this kind still appears to be esoteric. Very old understandings of origin and meanings of the Biblical text persist in the church, and nobody seems to go out of their way to debunk misinformation. I think a few of these details would be valuable to discuss. Nothing that I am about to write is new or controversial. In fact, much of it should be obvious from reading the text itself with no assistance. Yet we continue to use an outdated understanding of the Bible, and for some reason the Church doesn't seek to correct this teaching. I could honestly write a book on this subject (and many people have), but here and now I want to simply include the five facts that I found to be transformative in my understanding of the Bible. Any Christian who is aware of these truths will necessarily have a much easier path to get to the real message of Christianity.

  1. Moses did not write the Torah.
    I remember being taught as a youth that the first five books of the Bible where written by Moses. Even at the time I thought this was odd, since the book of Deuteronomy records Moses' death, but I wasn't in a position to argue. This account of the death of Moses is only a single detail that demonstrates that Mosaic authorship of these books just doesn't make sense.
    In the 18th and 19th centuries a group of biblical scholars from Germany (see Julius Wellhausen) developed what is now known as the Documentary Hyphothesis. According to Wellhausen's hypothesis, which is almost universally accepted by scholars, these Old Testament books were derived from multiple ancient sources (at least four) and compiled by a redactor or group of redactors into the text that we have today. This hypothesis helps explain a lot of what we see in the Old Testament text.
    This guy also did not write the Bible. If he did, Moses probably would have been packing heat.

    One way we can distinguish different authors is by the age of the Hebrew language, which can vary from one passage (and sometimes within a single verse) to the next. Imagine if you were to combine a poem by Shakespeare with a Kanye West song; it should be pretty easy for a student of literature to figure out that the piece had two different authors, and just as easy to determine which text came from which author. It's more difficult to see in the Bible in English translation, but it is obvious to the scholars who study these things. We can also see multiple versions of the same story appear in the Bible with different details. There is a story of Abraham presenting his wife Sara as his sister to Pharaoh, and then another story where he presents Sara as his sister to King Abimelech (did he think his deception worked out so well the first time he would try again on a different ruler?), and we also see a story about Isaac presenting his wife as his sister to King Abimelech (is this technique hereditary? And would Abimelech fall for that trick again?). These are obviously three re-tellings of the same legend.
    Sure she is, Abe. Sure she is...
    Duplications, contradictions, and anachronisms are so abundant that I am aware of one scholar who maintains an excellent daily blog devoted to analyzing them in detail. I am even aware of a web site showing an interactive graph of them. It should seem obvious that there are not only multiple authors from multiple eras, but even authors with competing views contributing to the final text. It was certainly not a singular Moses, if he ever existed at all, who authored this text.
    A great book I have read on the subject of old testament authorship is Who Wrote the Bible by Richard Friedman. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the construction of the Old Testament. For me, understanding this helped me eliminate the uncomfortable feeling I had whenever I heard these unbelievable tales, since I understood them to be folklore, rather than holy words handed down to Moses. I am also able to laugh at the "Creationists" who want to insist that the Earth was created 6000 years ago, since they are demonstrating not only their ignorance of science, but of the Bible itself. Sweet Irony!
  2. The letters of Paul (Epistles) are the most reliable record of early Christianity.
    I do not remember ever being explicitly told in the church that Paul was the the original author of Christianity, although it's not really a secret. Paul's letters are, in roughly correct order: First Thessalonians (ca. 51 AD), Philippians (ca. 52–54 AD), Philemon (ca. 52–54 AD), First Corinthians (ca. 53–54 AD), Galatians (ca. 55 AD), Second Corinthians (ca. 55–56 AD), and Romans (ca. 55–58 AD), and they are the first texts written about Christ or Christianity. There are 6 other letters in the New Testament that are sometimes credited to Paul, but are held by scholars to be either falsely attributed or outright pseudoepigraphic (i.e. forgeries): with the 7 listed above there is no dispute (or very little dispute: we could always look to the Dutch Radicals, who make a very valid argument for the idea that none of the Pauline Epistles are authentic, and Paul may not have been a real person at all!).
    This guy doesn't get nearly enough credit. He started a way better religion than L. Ron Hubbard did. 

    One thing that is interesting to note when we understand that epistles came before the gospels, is that if Jesus died in 33 AD at the latest (as is accepted), there was nothing written about him for nearly 20 years after his death! And what Paul writes does not contain a lot of the details that Christians seem to think are important. Paul doesn't seem to know anything about the virgin birth or where Jesus was born, or any of the teachings of Jesus, or any of his miracles, or even the empty tomb. These particularities are the staples of Christian apologetics, yet the first writings about Christianity don't mention them at all. Paul doesn't even appear to know about Hell, and the idea of such a place appears to be incompatible with his theology. If you limit yourself to reading the uncontested letters, you will get a clear picture of what early Christians may have actually believed about Jesus and the faith.
    Of course, when we read the epistles today we have a natural tendency to read Paul through "gospel glasses". This ignores that Paul has never read the Gospels like we have. In Paul's case, the Gospels hadn't even been written at the time he authored his epistles.
    In spite of this, many articles that the churches considers to be central to the Christian faith (like what is found in the creeds) were either overlooked by Paul, or simply not known to people in his time. Did the leading evangelist of Christianity lack knowledge about Jesus, or did he just choose not to include the information? In my mind, these omissions in the message of Paul raise all kinds of questions about the orthodox and evangelical messages of the church that I have been told all of my life.
  3. We do not know who wrote the Gospels, but it was not by anyone who ever met Jesus.
    Christianity is supposed to be about Jesus, and the gospels are held up as the books that tell us about Him. But if you are looking for a historical account of the life of Jesus, they cannot be considered an accurate source of information at all. Yet they are all we have.
    This is, I think, the most difficult truth about the Bible for most Christians to swallow. It was easy for me to deny a literal interpretation of the Old Testament, but not so easy for the gospels. Every since I took a course in "Bible as literature" at university years ago, I had accepted that the Old Testament stories were mythology. However, the idea that the gospels where written by eye-witnesses and should therefore be understood literally was something that was persistent with me beyond those days, and is still assumed by a large majority of worshipers.
    My persistence in this point of view was in part because, as a teen, I read the apologist Josh McDowell's book "Evidence That Demands a Verdict", which asserted that a scholarly view of the Gospels showed them to be well attested to. McDowell was very convincing to an ignorant believer who was not looking for a argument, and his rhetoric caused me to put off deeper study of these matters for a lot of years because I felt it to be unnecessary. What I have learned since is that Josh McDowell is not a scholar, and that the real scholars see things very differently from the way he does.
    "Apologist" comes from the Greek word for "making up whatever half-truths are necessary to prevent your readers from reading an honest book." That's my own liberal translation, because fair is fair.

    There are a number of reasons to doubt that the gospels where written by the disciples of Jesus or other witnesses. This first is that the earliest gospel, The Gospel according to Mark, was not written until at least 70 AD - that's roughly 40 years after Jesus died. Bear in mind that an average life expectancy at the time was around 50 years of age. Not many eye witnesses would still be alive by this time. Furthermore, the gospels were all written in Greek, with numerous clues that the authors were neither Palestinian, nor writing from Palestine, or possibly had never been to Palestine. This is despite Jesus supposedly never leaving Palestine in his lifetime and only speaking Aramaic. Most importantly, none of the Gospels even claim to have been written by witnesses. Mark, Matthew and Luke are not even written from the perspective of witnesses. John flat-out talks about the source of his information in the third person, and very clearly puts his own words into the mouth of Jesus at every turn. The language and context of the books make it pretty clear that the authors or each is not party to the events described.
    Furthermore, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are both revisions of the Gospel of Mark - but why would any eye witness copy someone else's story, rather than writing his own? And why would these eye-witness accounts all disagree with each other, adding incompatible details to his own version of the story? Mark doesn't report the birth of Jesus at all, Matthew says it happens during the reign of Herod the Great, Luke says Jesus was born at the time of a census taken 10 years after Herod's death. That is just one of many peculiarities of the nativity story that cannot be harmonized. The crucifixion-resurrection accounts are even more divergent. However, just like we do when reading Paul, we have a tendency to assume that Mark knows the same things Luke does, and vice versa. Bart Ehrman calls this the construction of a "super-gospel", where we have comglomerated the events of the 4 books into a single narrative, smoothing over the inconsistencies, and forgetting that they were ever independent stories. Independent stories, that is, written by separate authors at different times containing exclusive facts and differing agendas!
    This historical ambiguity about the life of Jesus led to something called "the Jesus Seminar", and later "the Jesus Project" where biblical scholars have tried analyzing the gospels along with the known history of the time in order to attempt to build an accurate picture of the life and teachings of Jesus. Even earlier than this, David F. Strauss wrote "Das Leben Jesu" (translated "The Life of Jesus, critically examined", freely available as an ebook or audiobook) published in 1835. This is an extremely long read for a layperson, but it examines every story in the New Testament about Jesus, analyzing it to assess the historical or literary tradition that it originated in. Something a bit easier to read on the subject is Bart Ehrman's book, Jesus Interrupted. (For information specifically on the authorship of the books of the New Testament, Ehrman's Forged is very easy to digest. For the Ehrman trifecta, look into Misquoting Jesus.)
    To give a bit of context to how this has affected my understanding of the gospel stories, I think about a great scene in the movie Braveheart, where William Wallace shows up to lead the men of Scotland. They don't recognize him at first:
    William Wallace is obviously not 7 feet tall, as few men are. He also doesn't shoot fireballs out his arse, as cool as that would be to see on-screen. That doesn't prevent people in his own day from embellishing stories about him. Similarly, people in Jesus' time had all kinds of ideas about him, and after his death his legend grew like we should expect. I would suggest that if anything about him seems unbelievable, it's because you should not believe it. The source is just not persuasive enough.
  4. The core of mainstream Christian doctrine is dependent on the book of John, which is the latest and least factually accurate book among the gospels.
    The Gospel According to John is a unique book. The author was obviously aware of the other three gospels, but was interested in using the character of Jesus to tell a much different story.
    John's Gospel was not written until at least 95-100 AD when almost anyone who had been a witness to the life of Jesus would have passed away. This is not the first generation of Christianity, and there was a lot of time for the church to think about and develop their theology. This alone is a reasonable motivation for the inclusion of so much new material in John - the author was trying to fit in some theology class for his readers.
    The author of John appears to be less interested in telling a history of Jesus, since that had been completed by the other gospel writers. He is trying to interpret the life of Jesus. We see this when he eschews the historical sounding genealogies of Matthew and Luke in favor of something more mystical:

    John 1:1-5

    New International Version (NIV)

    The Word Became Flesh

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.

    This is beautiful poetry, but it really doesn't help us know anything about the earthly Jesus - only about the divine role that the author wishes to place him in.
    Many of the key doctrines of the church like the trinity are seeded in passages like this in the Gospel of John. 
    "I'm the way, the truth and the life. Now, take good notes; I'm only going to say this once! No, don't worry about that other time, when I told everybody to keep quiet about me." Jesus, probably 

    If you have read any of my writings, you know two things about me: 1) I love metaphors and poetic language, and 2) I hate it when people confuse metaphors for reality. I have said this before: the metaphor is not the thing. For example, it may be illuminating to say that we live on "Mother Earth", and using this expression can help you understand the Earth's place and tune your relationship with the Earth. But the earth is not a "mother," it is a giant lump of rock, and no amount of poetry will make it have a womb or bear children.
    Curiously enough, the author of John himself gives the reader a warning about this very thing several times: my favorite is the story of Nicodemus, who for some reason thinks that Jesus means for him to crawl back into his mother's womb after Jesus tells him he "must be born again". Jesus rightly rebukes him for being so foolish,  but let's be real - Nicodemus is a member of the Sanhedrin, the high Jewish counsel - do you honestly think he couldn't understand figurative language? This was obviously an attempt by the author of John to warn the reader to not fall into this literal way of thinking.
    Another thing that is interesting is that we have found several other gospels written in this later period that also deviate from the synoptics. However, theologically they represent the views of other groups - heretics - that did not become the mainstream, and thus were not canonized and were either ignored or refuted.
    Although I haven't read it yet, John Shelby Spong has written the book The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic that gives this gospel the respect it deserves, and is high on my "to read" list.
  5. The "Revelation" was not a prediction of future events, but in fact is a commentary on the troubling events of the day.
    This one is not so much a fact as it is a different interpretation, but bear with me. As a teen, I remember attempts by the church to have us all "scared straight" with stories about the second coming of Christ, the anti-Christ, tribulation, the mark of the beast. It didn't scare me, because I knew that I would be saved by Jesus (of course). But I assumed that un-believers would be terrified by these kinds of stories. I remember a play called "Heaven's Gates, Hell's Flames", and also the Left Behind series that stoked the fires of this fear.
    This whole mythology is for the most part based on a futuristic interpretation of the book of Revelation, which appears to describe an end time where the world is destroyed. This view is called "Dispensationalism", and it is a fact that this interpretation pretty much originated with the writings of John Nelson Darby in the 19th century. However, the book of Revelation seems to make the most sense (if any at all) when it is interpreted as events that happened in the late first century in which it was written - this alternative interpretation is called "Preterism", and was in fact the dominant understanding throughout the history of the church. It is only within the last several generations (powered by the Left Behind series) that the interpretation of Revelation as a description of a coming end-of-the-age has been popular. A good book explaining a lot of this from a Christian perspective is Raptureless by Jonathan Welton, which is available to read for free on the author's web site.
    Not even Jesus could save this turkey from the critics. Brutal!

    If one considers Jesus to be the Messiah and a prophet warning about the end of the world who was killed when the Romans were the supreme power on earth, it is only natural that one of his followers would see the events happening in Jerusalem at the time, (including the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans, which was a Joe Biden-level "Big F*%&ing Deal") and be inspired to write a fantastic apocalypse describing the end of the world. The earliest followers of Jesus all expected an end-time scenario along with his return during their lifetime (the Gospels include Jesus saying this very thing).
    But the temple was destroyed, eventually the Roman Empire itself fell, and the world continued to exist; Christ did not return, and the poetic Revelation became doomed to interpretation, and re-interpretation until the end of time (literally). I personally consider it a major embarrassment that Christians who have not even read enough of the relevant Bible passages to form an opinion on something as complicated as eschatological theology (or even know what that means) seem to fear of the silliest things (like the number 666, or do you remember the introduction of debit cards? Whoah, boy!) because of some impassioned end-time preachers.I have even heard people quote their views on end-times theology as a reason for denying human impact on the global climate. That's just ridiculous, and dangerous.
These facts have all changed the way I look at the Bible. When I did not know them, the Bible seemed to be seamless, and authoritative. As I studied it and it started to break apart, I began to look outside the book to see how others understood it. When you do this, you open yourself up to a world of new thought, although you risk disturbing your illusions. I contend that it is worth sacrificing those illusions.

I no longer fear Hell, nor an impending apocalypse. I am no longer forcing myself to re-interpret the words of Jesus to mean things that I can believe, nor do I feel shame when I cannot figure out how to do that. I no longer fear that if I am too harsh on the Bible, that God is going to remove his presence from me for blaspheming Him. These are the fruits of an informed criticism of the Bible.

"Dante, Virgil - I think these are the Gates of Hell. You guys go ahead, I'll meet up with you later..."

So why don't pastors talk about this? I don't want to leave the impression that pastors are being dishonest. I have very dear friends who are in the ministry, and some of them even read this blog. They are honest leaders who feel called by God to teach, and they want the best for their people. I think that criticism of the Bible is equated with skepticism, and is seen as a sort of "gateway drug" to total unbelief. It seems innocent enough to doubt the virgin birth, but before you know it you're building an altar to Richard Dawkins and offering you children as a sacrifice to Science. Maybe part of that's true, but I think a lot of pastors just don't want the risk of "going there" with their congregation. Maybe they don't want to go there themselves, and so they haven't consciously acknowledged these ideas.

I've explained in the past that my reason for leaving the church is the people's failure to be honest about reality. Their willful ignorance of the Bible is a big part of this. I can never leave behind the example of Jesus, as I have known him since childhood. I still find my self trying to be like Jesus: a Christian. But, knowing what I know about the Bible, I can't accept some things that I have been told about him: that his mother was a virgin, that he could walk on water, or even that he came back to life. Those things don't happen, and there are important reasons why they don't. However, they make for fascinating stories - so much so that they were repeated for generations, until someone used these same stories as a source for their books and letters, and those writings have continued to inspire us for centuries. Let us not destroy the beauty of these stories by believing that they are something which they are not.

"Hmmm, she seems innocent...

Of course, I'm not going to persuade those who take these stories literally to change their minds. I could put the verifiable bones of Jesus on display, and they would still insist God raised him from the dead. And that's not what I'm trying to do. I really only want to show that the other 5 billion or so people on Earth don't really have a good reason to believe that these stories are anything more than that. But I am fine with someone who wants to maintain their beliefs. As long as they make room for everyone else, I don't have a problem for that. Besides, I understand how long it took and how much study I needed to come to such a conclusion myself. Yet, maybe just saying it out loud will help people understand where I am coming from. And maybe we can all treat others better because of it.