Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Location: New England, United States

Saturday, December 23, 2006

What Jesus Means To Me

A Christmas Essay, by Anarquistador

We're all Christians in Hell. Really. If all that's required to be a Christian is to believe in God, then we're Christians. We don't need to believe; we have proof. SOMEONE damned us, after all. And I've always said, that if God is as cruel and bureaucratic as those who call themselves "Christians" say he is, then I will gladly live in Hell. A Heaven full of self-righteous sycophants who never lifted a finger to help their fellow man while on Earth is not an afterlife that appeals to me. Besides, all my friends are here.

But around Christmas time, I tend to get a little sappy and a little more pious. I was raised Catholic, and while I'm not exactly practising any longer, I can still appreciate and respect the idea of God, and I can still love what Jesus was meant to be. I say "meant to be," because I believe that Christianity in its modern incarnation is so far from what Jesus intended that I doubt He'll recognize it when He comes back.

As I sit here, a day before Christmas, with a Bible close at hand (my flesh isn't burning; must be the new translation), I ponder the Myth of Jesus, and what He was meant to be. Christ as Redeemer. I ponder the meaning of that word. "Redeemer." To restore, to recover, to renew. That's the notion of the Christ. The notion that, somewhere along the way, Humanity lost contact with God. Whether through human disobedience or not, God and Man were separated. Then came the Christ. God taking on mortal form to restore that relationship. And not simply restore it, but re-create it, in a new, better form. That was the point of contention between Jesus and the Pharisees, of course: rather than reinforce the old Covenant, Jesus talked of building a new Covenant, one based less on strict adherence to old laws and more on simple human compassion and empathy. The old Covenant had Ten Commandments; the new Covenant only had two: Love God, and Love Each Other.

I don't know why Christians today find that so hard.

The notion of the New Covenant has, I think, been lost by modern Christians. The law of the Old Testament was supposed to have been superceded by that of the New. Far too often do Christian leaders condemn difference rather than welcome it, and far too often do they use some verse from the Old Testament to back up their hatred. The pet cause of Fundamentalists in the here and now is homophobia, and they frequently quote Leviticus 20, wherein it states that men who lie together "as with a woman" are hated by God and should be killed. Of course Leviticus 20 also states that if you have sex with your wife during her period, you both have to go into exile. Don't see much of THAT happening nowadays. I can't find a passage in the New Testament where Jesus condemns homosexuality. In fact, Jesus doesn't really condemn ANYONE. He has issues with people who give lip service to the law without being committed to it, sure, but He never outright damns a single person. This is a man who, as He lay dying, forgave His executioners. Doesn't sound like the kind of person who'd condemn two people who love each other because their love is unconventional.

That was what characterized the notion of Christ as Redeemer: His enormous generosity and love. He came to restore a spiritual balance that had been lost. According to the notion of Original Sin, when Adam disobeyed God, he condemned all of humanity to Limbo: no one could get to Heaven until the balance was restored. That was Christ's job. To restore the balance to the world. To the WORLD; that's the thing no one remembers. Jesus came to redeem EVERYONE. Not just the Jews, not just the Christians. Not just the people who believed in Him. EVERYONE. Even the ones that didn't believe. In fact, ESPECIALLY the ones who didn't believe; they needed it more. And all He asked in return was that His followers live by His example. Spread the good news, be kind to your fellow man, repay insult with kindess, etc. Jesus demanded little of people while He lived, and gave of Himself whenever He could. THAT, boy and girls, is a man worth emulating.

So how did we get to where we are today? How did this wise and kind man, this Redeemer of the Covenant, become the stern exacting judge of human behavior we know Him as today? Well there are a lot of reasons, of course. Leaders who usurp religious teachings and bend them to further their own ends are nothing new, and Christianity is not immune to it. Well-meaning Church Fathers who interpreted Jesus's teachings through a glass darkly also had a hand in it (Saint Paul immediately comes to mind in this respect). And of course, good old-fashioned human stupidity is capable of amazing things when given the right framework to work within. It's a shame. Dare I say it, it's a SIN. To take the notion of the Christ and to attach strings to it is a sin. Here was a man who took the sins of world upon His shoulders, and died for them. He asked nothing in return, except that we love each other. Too many times have Christians had deep spiritual guilt heaped upon their shoulders for it. Too many times have we been told to give ourselves to Jesus, because we owe Him; He died for our sins. That message is inaccurate. Jesus died to restore the relationship between God and Man. No longer were we condemned to limbo forever; now we would be free to act how we wished, and we would be judged accordingly at the end of our lives - and for those of us who truly lived by Jesus's example, that would be nothing to fear. Jesus gave humanity its freedom; how can we be so ungrateful as to give it back to Him?

That's the danger of Fundamentalism: blind faith. The fear, the inability to make moral choices on our own, so we instead ask God to make the decision for us. How is that living by Jesus's example? How is that making use of the gift He gave us? How is living on our knees honoring Him? How is persecuting those who do not agree with us following Jesus's example? Is the commandment to "Love Each Other" only applicable to other Christians? That's not what Jesus wanted, I think. I think we can better serve by being mindful of one another, of being generous and compassionate, of turning our talents to improving the condition of this world and our our fellow man. Is that not truly Loving Each Other?

Ghandi was once quoted as saying, "If Christians truly lived by Christ's teachings, there would be no Hindus left in India." There is a sad truth in that. If Christ's message and example were truly being taught, then there would be no religious strife. Who WOULDN'T want to be part of something that taught tolerance and compassion and love? It's a grand irony, I suppose, that the very kinds of men Jesus fought again in His lifetime - corrupt religious authorities who used their positions to further their own agendas - are the same kind of men who have usurped His own teachings. It's discouraging...but Christmas is the season of hope, after all. And hope is a powerful thing. The hope that maybe someday Christians will come around, and realize how far we've all strayed, and try to come back to the path. It's a hope I have.

So, in this festive season, I say, without intent to offend and in the true spirit Christ intended, Merry Christmas to you all, and may God bless and keep you.

Monday, December 18, 2006

You've Got To Be Kidding...

You've got to be kidding me.


I mean, really. When Time Magazine names "You" as their Man of the Year, I know the world has truly gone mad.

I mean, look at this article! What kind of Populist Fantasy World does Lev Grossman live in? Does he seriously think that this was the Year of the Common Man? And that the Internet has become a tool for popular change? Wake up, Lev. He quotes YouTube and Wikipedia and the profligration of blogs as examples of how the average joe has conquered, and can now have control of his destiny. Hoo boy. I hate to burst your bubble, there, Lev, but I look at YouTube and Wikipedia and the profligration of blogs, and I come to the exact opposite conclusion.

(And yes, I am aware that I'm a Blogger. The irony of me using my blog to complain about bloggers is not lost on me. Stay with me.)

The Internet WAS a wonderful idea, once upon a time. WAS. In the early 90s, I was caught up in the idealistic view of it myself. This, thought a younger, less cynical me, was truly the greatest of Humanity's works. This was pure information, exchange of ideas in their most basic forms. Why, you could conceivably talk to ANYONE, ANYWHERE! It was going to be so cool! Suddenly the world got a lot smaller. Distance, nationality, language...none of it mattered any more. We were all going to be part of the Global Village. Man, it would have been great if it had actually happened that way.

Flash forward a decade or so. What do we have? Are people communicating? Is there a free exchange of ideas? Not really, no. You only have to read some YouTube user comments (and to his credit, Grossman makes reference of this in his article) to realize where communication has gone. The major selling point of the electronic medium is speed, after all; I can recall the early days of AOL, where you needed fast fingers to even get noticed. And of course, we often exchange accuracy for speed. The faster we type, the less coherent our words. Thus was born "leet," a culture and a language that EMBRACED grammatical error. Cuz, you know, mispelling words is so darn cool. Or perhaps I should say, "kewl." And with that was born the notion that it doesn't matter if people can actually understand what you're trying to say, so long as you respond quickly and loudly.

It takes no great deductive leap to see how that has affected modern culture as a whole. We now expect things to be delivered fast, whether it be information, or customer service, or social interaction. As a society we have no patience. We want things NOW, and if we don't get them we get genuninely nasty with each other. It's the notion of the "Cyber bubble": with the world viewable at our fingertips, we no longer have any burning need to go out and interact with it. I see evidence of it first-hand, whenever I venture out into the world. I have seen people have panic attacks on crowded subway trains. And I don't mean people who are visibly disturbed; I have seen ordinary, average-looking people who have no apparent mental problems, just suddenly spaz out when faced with a crush of human flesh. I have seen conversations degenerate into swearing matches at the drop of the hat, to no apparent cause to an outside observer. And I have never seen a single person on a cell phone actually having a PLEASANT conversation. It's like some great epidemic of social autism. Or something out of a WIlliam Gibson story. Modern society is on overload: we've got too much information to process, too much to deal with, and the more we try the less time we spend with each other. Human beings are simply losing the ability to be social animals.

So much for the grand dream of the Global Village. We don't talk to each other; we scream at one another while safely ensconced in our own private fortresses. And what could have been the greatest tool human civilization had ever produced has been reduced to a mere plaything; after all, if you're not using the Internet to communicate, you're using it to BUY STUFF. Collector's items, antiques, porn - traditionally the pursuits of the lonely nerd, have now become bustling mainstream industries. What is YouTube if not the world's biggest idiot box? What is eBay if not the world's biggest flea market? What are Bloggers, if not voices in the void, shouting our opinions - as articulate or as inarticulate and stupid as they are - to the world, never sure if anyone of consequence will ever hear us? We are ALL lonely nerds now, isolated from one another yet hopelessly reaching out, because we don't know how to be any other way.

It's a symptom of modern society - or at least, modern American society - that all great technologies are instantly neutered. A society composed of cowering geeks doesn't produce anything; they merely observe and consume. What good are heady dreams of space exploration or efficient renewable fuel sources or universal health care to such people? No, we don't want THAT. Give us cell phones with cameras inside, so we can film our friends at the food court! Give us handheld DVD players, so we can watch our favorite movies on the train and not make eye contact with anyone! Give us a place online where we can download the lost second season of The Pirates of Darkwater, cuz that show was teh roxor111! God forbid we use this vast array of telecommunications marvels for anything other than our own personal gratification.

Grossman goes on to talk about Thomas Carlyle's theory of the "Great Man" - the notion that real lasting social progress is dependent solely upon remarkable individuals rather than populist movements - and basically refutes it, saying that this new wonderful Age of the Common Man puts to bed the notion that humanity needs dynamic individuals to stir them up. Feh, says I. If anytihng, the current state of the Internet proves the Great Man Theory beyond a shadow of a doubt. Look at what becomes of a society with no heroes, no leaders, no real role models: we become decadent, indulgent, emotionally juvenile. We take this great thing, this Internet, and we use it to entertain ourselves in our spiritual ennui. So long as we're entertaining ourselves, we can pretend we're too busy to actually go out and do worthwhile things. It's like a Bread and Circuses thing, but in reverse: rather than it be a government-imposed measure of control, it's something we did to ourselves willingly - because the world is too big and scary to deal with.

So, Lev Grossman, I say to you: you missed the point entirely. I submit to you that yes, the Internet remains a free exchange of ideas and is a testament to free speech in action, but I caution to you to consider WHAT ideas, specifically, are being exchanged, and whether their exchange is really a good thing at all. I submit to you that yes, like the pioneers of the 19th century, in theory anyone can stake a cyber-claim and know a measure of true freedom, but I ask you to look closely at what these pioneers DO with their cyber-homesteads. I submit to you that yes, populist revolution is a great idea, but the cold hard reality is that intellect - real, genuine, dynamic intellect - is a rare thing in the human species. I ask you to shed your populist trappings and objectively consider the defining moments in human history, and see them for what they truly are: a strong-willed Great Man rising above the masses and guiding them to a a brighter day - for him personally, certainly, and also for humanity as a whole. Man is capable of great things, but not without guidance.

Call me Luddite, call me Fascist, call me Nihilist, call me Grumpy Old Man, if you will. I lay claim to all these titles and none of them; I consider myself a Student of Humanity first and foremost, and there are truths to be found in all these titles. The Internet is a great thing, and like all great things, can be used for good, for evil, or for stupid. It needs to be used for good, if humanity is to survive. And we need a Great Man to use it.

Man of the Year my geeky white butt.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Shameless Self-Promotion

Well, there comes a time in every creative person's life when they have to sell themselves a little. I've come to that point. I've been doing some interesting writing of late, and I want to share it with the larger world - partly just for the sake of it, and partly for the exposure. So here goes.

First of all, I wish to plug The Pit, my movie review site. There's a rather sizeable community out there in Cyberspace of intelligent, learned, and dreadfully opinionated people, who share a love of films of the obscure, cheesy, and strange varietes. I like to count myself among their number, and now, with THREE WHOLE REVIEWS up on my site, I can consider myself a full fledged movie reviewer, the likes of Deeky or Choconado or these guys. Okay, maybe I'm not in their league yet, but I hope to get there soon.

And while I'm plugging that, I also want to plug my novel, to any publishers who just happen to be reading. You can find an excerpt from my sci-fi novel, "Three Days in Shayadran," by following a link over at The Pit, or here. It's a kind of space-opera adventure very much in the vein of Firefly or Star Wars, with a rich and detailed universe full of interesting characters. It's the first in a planned series of books; I'm working on the second in the series now and I've got ideas for at least seven or eight books. And I hope to have them published someday, at least while I'm still alive to appreciate it. So if you happen to be a publisher, or if you just happen to like Sci-Fi, check out my excerpt and see if it piques your interest. I've included an e-mail link on the page, and I look forward to hearing from people. Thanks.