Monthly Archives: October 2009

“Jesus in India” DVD Documentary

Unfortunately, the gorgeous trailer, with its lovely photography and lyrical musical score,  is the best thing about this documentary: the actual film doesn’t meet the hype.

As advertised, the Dalai Lama is “featured,” but not in any interview or direct communication with the filmmakers. Instead, a clip is shown from one of his speeches encouraging religious tolerance. And the other interviews – except for a brief clip of Gnosticism specialist Elaine Pagels (whose extended interview in the Bonus section is worth watching) – are not very informative – and they suffer from being strangely inconclusive, if not off-the-wall. The filmmakers do get lucky enough to procure an interview with “the Pope of Hinduism,” which, however, is a complete disappointment which only serves to confirm the already established rumor that “Jesus studied here.”

The trailer bills the film as Edward Martin’s religious journey from fundamentalism to a wider, more tolerant spirituality. But it only gives mere glimpsess of Martin’s ex-faith community, e.g., his fundamentalist pastor and a Bible teacher, and these folks don’t really go after him. They only say what Martin has already told us in the trailer, that since Jesus’ “gap” or “missing” years are not filled in by the Bible, according to biblically literalist principles, we don’t need to know about them – and even if we did find out that Jesus went to India, that wouldn’t change anything the New Testament says about him.

From what he actually reveals of his fundamentalist roots, we have no reason to think that Martin underwent an especially tortuous struggle, even though he says that his faith journey cost him friends from his prior spiritual community. The sense conveyed is mostly that they are sad he went his own way, and they really don’t understand him.

Concerning its central subject matter, the film tells us nothing substantially new about the Notovich document (whose author claims to have read an ancient document proving that Jesus studied in the Himalayas), or about Jesus’ purported Kashmiri tomb (other than that it has been remodeled by Muslim “militants” who supposedly moved its tenant to a basement beneath the remodeled tomb).

James Deardorff, retired professor of atmospherics from Oregon State University and UFO researcher, only gets a few seconds to describe how Jesus might have survived the crucifixion and travelled to India, but then gets swallowed up in the film’s somewhat loopy narrative.

Nor does the film cogently address the two “Jesus in India” rumors: the first, that Jesus at the age of twelve went to India to study Hinduism and Buddhism, and then returned to Judea with a mission; the second, that after surviving the crucifixion, Jesus returned to India, taught the Lost Tribes of Israel there, and died at the age of 112. Instead, the film dances around both rumors without strongly distinguishing them or analysing each for its respective historical plausibility.

Worse yet, the DVD quality  is less than desirable, especially when viewed via computer. When viewed full-screen most location footage is grainy and mottled, with distracting ghosting as occurs for instance with pictures over-sharpened in Photoshop. This problem seems less noticeable in the non-location post-or-preproduction segments. It is certainly not evident in most of the Bonus material (the filmmakers’ appearances on lecture circuits and talk shows). This leads me to believe that something must have been sub-par with the  location video equipment. (Nor is the Bonus material free of glitches. Out of the four Bonus features that I watched, three were compressed so that the image was squashed and laterally flattened.) A knowledgable friend has informed me that the film was shot on a consumer camera which accounts for its poor imaging when viewed via computer.  Apparently it looks tolerable if viewed with a TV DVD player.

All told, not a very good effort and not a very good product. If you can get it (http://www.jesus-in-india-the-movie.com/) or elsewhere (hopefully cheaply), and  it might make a trivial, “conversation piece” kind of addition to your video libary.  And there is, as I mentioned, that fairly good interview with Pagels. Otherwise, however, I really can’t recommend it.

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Halloween: the Devil’s Holiday (Not)

Many fundamentalists eschew Halloween as “the Devil’s holiday”.  In this, as with so many things, they are grievously mistaken.  The core of the issue lies in the term itself: Halloween means hallowed,  holy, or blessed, evening.  This is a Christian, not a “satanic”, designation.  It is a time-honored Christian feast, honoring the Christian dead.  Therefore the notion of the holiday as belonging to Satan is misguided from the start.  In fact, the tradition of partying, noise-making, and grotesque costuming began as popular Christian means to frighten away any demonic spirits that might be walking Christian streets.

The pre-Christian celebration is called Samhain (“Sah-wen”).  It, too, is a celebration of the holy ancestors, said to take place on the one night of the year when the “wall between the worlds” is held to be especially thin and permeable.  From this notion is probably derived the idea that the dead – ghosts – wander on that night.  The Western tradition of ghosts, goblins and spooks roaming the land is derived from the claim that the dead revisit the earthly plane on this holy night.  Again, this is not Satanism.  It was – and is, for many practicing Pagans – an expression of reverence for the dead; an acknowledgment that, Harvest Home over, the earth is turning toward winter;  and a worshipful act of praise for that Realm which is greater than the profane.

The only “satanic” elements in the holiday as celebrated in America are mostly secular accretions to the prior Christian and Pagan traditions.  Full, orange harvest moons, black cats, creepy costumes, garish greeting cards, witches, monsters, and other such holiday accoutrements celebrate the spirit,rather than the (sacred, religious), character of Halloween.  They range from the morbid and scary to the cuddly and ludicrous, but they are not the celebration of evil that fundamentalists project onto them.

Some “biblical” churches do offer a “harvest festival” on Halloween night, “as an alternative.”  No scary costumes or other symptoms of deviltry, of course, are permitted.  In this way, such congregations believe that they are fulfilling the biblical injunction that they be “a holy people, set apart”, free of secularism, Paganism, and idolatry.  Yet, one can only wonder – given the harmless fun in which most Halloween celebrations consist – just what they really fear.  After all, they are, in their own view, “Saved.”  In their rather extreme rejection of Halloween it is possible to detect a lurking fear unbecoming of people who claim to be free in Christ, as well as an anemic, half-hearted – even grudging – attitude toward Jesus’ comforting claim:  “Fear not: I have overcome the world.”

Jonathan Miller’s “Atheism” BBC Program

Physician and playwright Jonathan Miller has produced a BBC program titled Atheism: a Rough History of Disbelief. This program has the pluses and the minuses one might expect from life-long atheist Miller.

On the plus side:

Miller’s honesty in praising the beauty and the rich imaginative appeal of religious imagery; his feeling that his perspective would be the poorer without such imagery.

Miller’s detailed treatment of Thomas Paine’s story and his influence in the origins of America.

Miller’s pinpointing of the French writer Holbach as the first modern atheist, and how his “strong” atheism differed from the disbelief of Hobbes and Hume.

On the minus side:

Miller’s treatment of rationalism as an unmitigated good.  He praises Thomas Paine’s promotion that commoners take rationalism to heart and do their own thinking, rather than taking the socially correct choice of submitting to external authority.  As a rationalist, Miller is not interested in people developing their non-rational (not their irrational) functions.  From a holistic perspective, one would think that the  balanced psyche ought to investigate both rational as well as mystical alternatives – both without superstitious regard for authority’s tyranny.

Miller’s repeated citing of the cliche, “Fear is the mother of religion.”  Surely this is only a partial truth. Most religions begin in the mystical experience of their respective founders.  Jesus’ spirituality begins in his mystical oneness with his “Father in heaven” and his subsequent vision of the Kingdom of God.  The Buddha’s spirituality begins in his meditative union with the states of Bodhi and Nirvana.  In the proverbial mists of forgotten eons, the shamanic experience of soul-journeying and identification with theriomorphic spirits was the oldest form of spirituality, and “shamanic enlightenment” was the original form of that much-used and abused phrase.  If Miller wants to dismiss such experiential knowledge of God as expressions of “temporal lobe transients” or other neurological etiologies, he is welcome to do so, but first he must acknowledge the experiential elements that form the core of every religion.

Miller too easily takes the reductionist path in boiling religion down to a primal , primitive fear and ignorance of the world.  It is perhaps for this reason that Miller begins his religious critique with the all-too stereotypical example of the 9/11 attacks.  Fear based religion and its consequential hatred are disproportianately blamed for the horrors of that bright September day.

I say “disproportionately” because it can be argued with equal probity and force that “Islamic” terrorism is really inspired by Western – particularly American – imperialism in the Middle East.  Granted, radical Islam does provide a practical means of acting out the often quite just feelings of hatred toward a corrupt and corrupting nation-state whose fanatical support for Israeli terrorist policies makes it both a puzzle and a laughing stock to the more sensible nations of the world.  But in any case, Islam’s revolt against the West is as much political and cultural as it is religious.

Miller also errs in thinking that radical Islam wants to topple America, simply because it is viewed by such Islamists as a corrupt secular, “infidel” state.  Miller leaves out of the equation the fact that America’s religiosity – inasmuch as it is not radical Islam – is itself “infidel”, and therefore begs for the purifying blade of Islam’s sword.

Miller’s critique also suffers from a disporportionately negative view of religion.  In this regard, the phrase, “Who would Jesus bomb?” is much more than pithy aphorism.  It becomes a serious evaluation of the integral vision of inclusive, unconditional compassion at the core of every religion.

Miller seems unaware of the dire statistic that, in America, the greatest support for the Bush Administration’s pre-emptive attack on Iraq came from white male evangelicals, who in this particular case at least failed to live Jesus’ ethic of compassion.  He also ignores the grass-roots Christian protest movements which rallied against the war, and which now and in the past have rallied for civil rights and a host of other social justice issues.  Miller uncritically – and unfairly –  permits white male evangelicals to speak for Christianity at large.  He also ignores the fact that for its first three centuries, Christianity was resolutely pacificistic, refusing to support Imperial wars and to serve as combatants in Imperial armies.  Moreover, Miller disregards the Christian teaching of the “just war” whose essence states that it is never – never – permissible to start a war – a principle that is in complete opposition to the actions of the Bush administration.

Miller mistakenly identifies religion with the Abrahamic faiths.  He makes no mention of Buddhism, Taoism, or Hinduism.  Worse, he makes no mention of the radical mystical – and often pacifistic – movements within Western traditions, such as the Sufis in Islam; and as a corollary, he makes no mention of individual mystics such as Meister Eckhart and the pacifist icon Francis of Assisi.  It is difficult to say whether Miller is here painting with too wide or too narrow a brush.  It is as if Miller thinks that by refuting or denigrating the organized Abrahamic faiths, he has therefore done away with religion as a whole.

A similar principle applies to Miller’s treatment of God, whom he uncritially identifies with a creating sky-father.  He thinks that if the creating sky father can be done away with, God is done away with, since -obviously! – the Creator is God.

In one sense, one can hardly blame Miller for the narrowness of his God-definition.  After all, the Abrahamic – and some non-Abrahamic (though, again, Miller ignores them) faiths do posit God to be a creator who is functionally equivalent to a cosmic father.  However, Miller claims to be examining God and religion.

The narrowness of his definitions falls far short of portraying this wide, even stellar,  field.  It completely ignores definitions – even within the Abrahamic faiths – of “the God Beyond God”, the Godhead, God as Isness, Pure Being, the Ground of Being, No Thing Ness, Non-Existence, the “eye” which sees the soul, and the “eye” by which the soul is seen… etc.  Should the Abrahamic faiths one day lose their “God as Creator” definition, they would still have a myriad of other definitions left intact.  But all this escapes Miller’s parochial and rather myopic vision.

The same holds, somewhat less so, for Miller’s view of the soul.  He spends little time with this profound and centuries-old controversy, other than to say that he is a materialist, and to valorize materialist philosophers.  He does not even deign to consider the very interesting question that if matter is everything, how is it that matter, through the thinkers in many religious and philosophical systems, questions its own materiality.  Saying that “we are the brain, and sometimes the brain makes mistakes” is a trivially inappropriate reply to this really large question.

Along these lines, Miller makes huge assumptions, for instance, that belief in ghosts and the afterlife is somehow odd, strange, and/or weird.  But the briefest historical view tells us that, if anything, it is reductionistic materialism that is the odd man out, since, relatively speaking, it is the alien newcomer in the consciousness of the West.  The ghost report – as opposed to the venerable ghost story – not only continues unabated in today’s materialistic, scientifically-imbued societies.  It continues to be experienced as a deeply disturbing, uncanny intrusion from elsewhere.  It does not conform to Miller’s wish that the ghostly  merely be a result of a fear of death that therefore implicitly serves as a comforting clue that we survive bodily disentigration.  As long as the ghostly terrifies and baffles, it cannot be invoked as a  comforting palliative to universal death anxiety.

Moreover, Miller’s attitude is unscientific.  Ghost reports and the possibility of psychic survival of biological death – like most things under the sun – are potentially investigatable and discussable scientifically.  Miller seems unaware of, or at least inexcusably uninterested in, the field of parapsychology.  He does not mention it, even if only to refute it.  He also does not mention even the reductionistic research into paranormal claims, for instance, the theory that NDE’s (Near Death Experiences) might be a toxic, dying brain’s last-ditch efforts to maintain bodily and psychic integrity, or that certain ghostly manifestations might be due to little-investigated electrical events, or the nervous system’s reaction to certain plasma-type phenomena (per Deveraux and Persinger).

As with the soul, Miller treats paranormality with a suspicious lack of curiosity, although the present writer does recall another program in which Miller attempted to dismiss the OBE (Out Of Body Experience).  He said that the experience – though probably unreal – must in any case be thought of as physical, since the percipient claims to (for example) rise “above ” his/her body, therefore retaining a spatial orientation and kinetic capability.  But discounting an arbitrary a priori materialism, there is no good reason to think that the perceiving consciousness itself is a space-time object expelled from its body in the same manner, say, as a belch.  Again, these are questions that a truly rigorous skeptic would pursue much more thoroughly than does Miller.

Miller also defines faith and belief much too narrowly.  He is unaware that, prior to the Sixteenth century in the West, faith was belief, but that belief did not mean intellectual assent to a set of credal statements and ecclesiastical doctrines.  Rather, “belief” was much closer to the “beliefen” from which it was derived and which it connoted, namely, “beloved”.  To believe in God was to belove God – another nuance that escapes Miller. Moreover, Christianity delineates seven or eight differing types of faith, only one of which is the (modern) sense of faith as “belief in” – a facet of religion of which Miller seems ignorant.

Finally, Miller spends a significant amount of time discussing and interviewing people about the purportedly strange case of religionists spending an inordinate amount of time trying to eradicate a social type which they say really doesn’t exist, namely The Atheist.  But Miller completely ignores the plain fact that cavorts under his nose:  the strange case of atheists who spend an inordinate amount of time trying to eradicate a religious entity they say really doesn’t exist, namely God.

To conclude, Jonathan Miller’s atheism is too myopic to be taken seriously.  Although he rightly gains points by refuting the probity and the existence of a creating sky father, he has by no means discredited the idea of God, the mystery of the soul, or the field of religion – a field much more vast than his miniature lens can measure.

Meditation: Luke 11:33-36

No one, having lit a candle, puts it in a secret place, …but on a candlestick, so that those  who come in may see the light.

The light of the body is the eye:  therefore when your eye is single, your whole body also is full of light; but when your eye is evil, your body too is full of darkness.

Take caution therefore that the light that is in you is not darkness.

If your whole body is full of light – having no dark part – the whole shall be full of light, as when a candle’s bright shining gives you light.

This passage is intriguing in several ways.

First is the imagery of the eye as the body’s light or lamp.  In this text, the eye has two illuminating functions.  As the body’s light, the eye has its common function of providing sight; the eye acts as a “lamp” that allows us to see what we are doing in the external world.  Yet, the eye about which Jesus is speaking has a dual function.  It not only illuminates the outer world, but it also illuminates the world inside the body, the place where the soul dwells.   It is an unusual lamp. capable of projecting inward both elements of darkness as well as elements of light.

Second is the association of singleness of vision with light and therefore implicitly with goodness.  Elsewhere,  Jesus brings the ideas of singleness or completeness together in an expression of wholeness and goodness, for example his famous injuction to be “all-embracing” (“perfect”) even as God is all-embracing (Matthew 5:48; obliquely 19:21).  Jesus draws a connection between possessing singleness of vision and being full of light and its implicit goodness.

Third is the association of “evil” vision with internalized darkness.  Perhaps if singleness of vision connotes wholeness, then its opposite connotes fragmentation, evilness of vision thus representing a fractured viewpoint. Perhaps it could even be said, without damaging the analogy, that evilness of vision results from a fractured glass or a broken lens.  A broken lamp illuminates the landscape “darkly” and it projects that darkness inward.  A lack of embracing completeness estranges from the light.

Fourth is the injunction to examine what one has internalized.  Is it light or is it darkness?  This, if nothing else, seems an invitation to meditative or contemplative prayer, which Gospel portraits of Jesus’ all-night and lengthy wilderness prayer vigils, indicate his personal practice of internalized prayer and his disciples’ witnessing of – if not full participation in – such prayer.

Finally there is the social dimension of singleness of vision.  The first line of the passage talks about how once a person has lit a candle, he or she does not then proceed to hide it.   Instead, the person mounts the candle on a candlestick so that it may give light “for all those who come in.”

Here Jesus seems to be observing that, once one’s “whole” is fully illuminated, others too can see by that light.  The illuminated person then becomes a lamp for others – an idea fully congruent with Jesus’ teaching (Matthew 5:14, 16).  We are well-acquainted with the figure of Jesus as the Light of the World.  But in simple passages such as the ones under consideration, he is making the same claim for us.

Jesus Did Not Return Soon (!)

Fundamentalist Christians claim to be biblical literalists, i.e., they say that they take every word of the Bible literally as the inerrant Word of God, as dictated by God to the scripture writers.  Strictly this means that the dictation and its writing down are literal, so literalists do permit themselves to concede that some of the Bible’s texts contain poetry (for intance) in addition to literal history.  But in the main, biblical literalists tend to take scripture at face value, especially those passages that they deem prophetic.  However, as we shall see, fundamentalists’ claims to literalism fall flat when applied to their most cherished prophetic book, the final chapter of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation (The Apocalypse of John).

For decades, fundamentalists have used Revelation as an End Times chart that might inform them when the end of the world and the second coming of Christ will occur.  Many fundamentalist groups have predicted Jesus’ return based on Revelation, and they have, obviously, been as wrong as it is possible to be.  However, undaunted by past failures, many of today’s literalists continue to delve into the Apocalypse for juicy End Time morsels.  However, one tidbit all of them have overlooked is the End Times timetable of John himself.

John himself references the time for the end of this age and Jesus’ return.  John does not predict these events as unfolding in our century (a century that he probably never imagined).

Instead, John expects the End to happen in his own century.  Not just in some vague future year or decade, but in his own time: soon, in fact. And “soon,” and terms like it, are exactly the ones chosen by John.  In this, John’s own prophetic sense is unbridgeably separated from that of modern fundamentalists.  Let’s view a few examples of John’s soon expectation of Jesus’ return:

‘things which must shortly come to pass’ Revelation 1:1

‘…for the time is at hand.’  1:3

‘Look, he [Jesus] is coming with clouds; and every eye shall see him, even those who wounded him’ 1:7  (Jesus is already on his way and will come soon enough to be seen by those who killed him, who are still alive in Judea)

‘sent his angel to show his servants the things which must shortly be done’ 22:6

‘Look – I come quickly!’ 22:7a  (this is Jesus speaking; Jesus himself conceptualizes his quick return)

‘for the time is at hand‘  22:10

‘Look – I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every one according to his actions’  22:12

‘He {Jesus] who testifies to these things says, Surely I come quickly.  Amen! Even so, come, Lord Jesus.’  22:20

Clearly, from these passages, it is shockingly plain that the New Testament has a far different view of the End’s timeframe than do modern fundamentalists.  They have much to answer for.

First:  Fundamentalists must explain their basic inability to understand the word “soon.”  It is not sufficient to say – as many do – that God’s view of time is different from ours, that for instance, for God a day may be a thousand years.  But it is not “God’s time” that concerns the author of Revelation: rather, it is the time known to the “seven churches” to whom he is writing – their time, their world, their current affairs.  And that time is soon.

Second: Fundamentalists must explain Jesus’ tardiness in not having returned soon.  This they do by (erroneously) claiming that John’s “soon” is not a real soon.  This is not only intrinsically unlikely.  It violates the fundamentalists’ own cherished claim to read scripture literally.

One might guess that these two embarrassments alone would keep fundamentalists occupied in tending to their own house – either valiantly updating their theology to conform to the Bible’s actual meaning, or scurrying around performing damage control – instead of attempting to reorder secular society.  Alas, one can only hope… a forlorn hope indeed.