Strange New Thoughts

The place where I slam down gauntlets and pick up the pieces.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Wings Like Beagles (and Other Myths)

Salvation can be a dangerous thing. Secure in our knowledge of God’s love for us and His provision of eternal life, we too willingly dispense with essentials such as scientific truth. As long as it gives us spiritual warm fuzzies, it must be true. Recently I, a lifelong amateur ornithologist, have been assailed repeatedly by this little ‘treatise’ about eagles, well-circulated on the Internet:

“Eagles are the most long-lived birds in the world. By the time they reach 40 years old, their claws will start to age, losing their effectiveness and making it hard for them to catch preys (sic). The lifespan of an eagle is up to 70 years old. But in order to live this long, it must make the toughest decision at 40. At 40, its beak is too long and curvy that it reaches its chest (sic.). Its wings, full of long, thickened feathers, are too heavy for easy flying. The eagle is left with 2 choices - do nothing and await its death or go through a painful period of transformation and renewal.

“For 150 days, it first trains itself to fly beyond the high mountains, build and live in its nest and cease all flying activities. It then begins to knock its beak against granite rocks till the beak is completely removed. When a new beak is grown, the eagle will use it to remove all its old claws and await quietly for new ones to be fully grown. When the new claws are fully grown, the eagle will use them to remove all its feathers, one by one. Five months later, when its new feathers are fully grown, it will soar in the sky again with renewed strength and is able to live for the next 30 years…”

Wow. Everything the ornithologists know is wrong, wrong, wrong. After all, how could Christians be wrong about science?

Okay, see my opening paragraph for my answer. Meanwhile, I’m going to refute virtually everything in this made-up factoid just for the sake of setting the record straight. Just because we’re Christians doesn’t mean we need to be hoodwinked by every urban legend perpetrated in God’s name.

First off, eagles do in fact live a long time, but their lifespan is closer to 40 years in the wild, with some captive examples living longer. One version of this story maintains that eagles don’t even reach reproductive age until 40. Since most eagles don’t end up living this long, nesting pairs would be rare indeed. Real scientists include the Andean condor, the wandering albatross and the sulfur-crested cockatoo among the longest-lived birds (75, 80, and 80 years, respectively), but don’t confuse me with facts, okay?

As for their ‘aging claws’, this is a complete fabrication. No bird species is characterized by some physiological change in the structural integrity of its claws due to age. A parakeet’s claws will grow long if unchecked by some abrasive agent (i.e ., sandpaper on its perch), but this avian midlife crisis is nonexistent. (And ‘preys’ is the third person simple tense of the verb “to prey”, not a plural noun.) Catching ‘preys’ is akin to herding ‘sheeps’ or hunting ‘deers’.

On to the beak! “(T)oo long and curvy that it reaches its chest”, eh? Now, is it a) too long and curvy to reach the eagle’s chest, or b) so long and curvy that it actually does so? If I were fabricating such a tall tale, I’d at least try to apply some grammatical accuracy in hopes of fooling somebody. Unfortunately, we Christians don’t see atrocious grammar as a possible warning about the overall quality of the info that reaches us. Small wonder so many people outside the church take us for idiots. Meanwhile, no eagle has ever been documented as having such a ‘long, curvy beak’ (and if it had one, how did it survive long enough to grow it?) The author of this fable must have owned a parakeet, since its beak will indeed grow toward its chest unless kept in check with a cuttlebone (available at your local pet store, right next to the eagle-blend bird seed and eagle-sized cage toys.)

Now our eagle ponders a conscious choice, where all other animals are guided by God-given instinct: To be or not to be? To go on with those blunt, flabby claws and that spiral beak is obvious suicide. Not to mention those “wings, full of long, thickened feathers, are too heavy for easy flying”. Too bad eagles don’t moult like other birds! (If you’re not familiar with the terms “moult” and “moulting”, go grab a dictionary and make a shocking discovery.) I, for one, am dying to see one of those “long, thickened feathers”, hitherto undescribed by any real scientist. (Flight feathers are dead structures composed of keratin, and once they reach their full size they don’t grow any more.)

Not bizarre enough for you yet? Now our 40 year old eagle is going into ‘150 days of training‘ (tracked and observed, we are expected to believe, by some evangelical ornithologist with unlimited mobility and five months to spare) . It will learn to ‘fly beyond the high mountains’ (I guess it used to live somewhere else) and spend five months in its nest (built, if you follow the story sequentially, with those useless claws and beak, and useless feathers.) There must be a big ol’ piece of granite handy in its nest, since our soon-to-be-unfeathered friend will beat its brains out against it until its beak falls off. (Never mind that birds don’t shed their beaks , and if they lose them in an accident they generally die.) Now, having been somehow fed a bland hospital diet by someone (its mate?) long enough to grow a new one, those claws gotta go. Bite ‘em off, Sam! I occasionally bite my nails, too. These new talons will not only be good for hunting, but first we’ll test their dexterity by plucking out “all its feathers, one by one”. (Remember, eagles don’t moult like all the other birds, right?), Hey, just a few more months starving in this nest, freezing its tail off (except that its tail hasn’t grown back enough yet to be frozen off) and voilá! A renewed eagle, fit for the top of a flagpole.

Forgive my sarcasm, but I can’t stand it anymore. (I recently stopped a bible teacher in mid-lecture from sharing this with my students, much to the detriment of our relationship and to my already-strained credibility as a patient person.) Eagles were the first thing I was ever interested in as a child, and their honor deserves defense. How much more the Faith Once Given? When we allow such drivel to masquerade as spiritual nourishment, we do untold harm to our credibility and to our God-given intellect. God saw fit to use the eagle as a symbol of renewed strength in Isaiah 40; He doesn’t need us to fabricate folk ornithology to back up His word. There may be no stopping this doggerel from wafting about cyberspace like, well, as the prophet says…

“We gave birth, it seems, only to wind.” (Isaiah 26:18)

…but let us at least not teach it in Sunday school, or forward it (or its ilk) to the inboxes of unsuspecting Christians and non-Christians who need enlightenment far more than they need well-intended lies about God’s creation.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Imagine This

(This was originally written in anticipation of the 25th anniversary of the muder of John Lennon, but unpublished until now. Thanks to Blogspot for the opportunity to get it out at all.)

In 1980, I had an ongoing ambition in life - to meet John Lennon. To me, Lennon was more than a great artist or a pop star - he was a kindred spirit. An old friend I’d not yet personally met. A living, breathing validation and vindication of my avant-garde soul.

On December 8, 1980, I found myself in need of a new life’s ambition.

To this day, John Lennon’s pointless murder is for me one of the great losses of the ages. Not because it was the antithesis of everything he apparently stood for. Certainly not because it forever silenced any serious ideas of a Beatles reunion. Not even for the far more grievous and personal reason (lost on most of us) of his family, bereft of a loving, committed husband and father.

Perhaps the death of John Lennon brought home for many of us the real nature of death: Its cold finality, its unsurpassable ugliness, its glib, businesslike cancellation of God’s image in human form. Who would have thought such a lively, imperfect rogue, fresh into a new burst of creativity after five years devoted to raising a child, should be the target of a madman’s revolver?

I would gladly have taken those bullets instead. Part of the tragedy of John Lennon’s death is one he would doubtless agree with: His elevation to sainthood, his increasingly unassailable image, his name (misspelled “Jhon”) painted on the back of buses in Venezuela, his statue unveiled in Liverpool, New York, Havana. And for those who love dirt, the sleazy unauthorized biographies and remembrances, mingling Lennon’s eccentricities and foibles with lies and conjecture. One need only read his actual interviews to see neither saintly humility nor monstrous ego. He was just a Liverpudlian musician, an artsy guy, a thinker, a member of a band that, in his own words, “happened to make it very big.”

Of all Lennon’s amazing songs, “Imagine” is the one that seems to get more attention than all the others combined. A well-intentioned piece of utopian naïveté, its vision of a world devoid of possessions, religion, countries, and almost anything else that could be considered bad by anyone, “Imagine” raises good questions but misses the point. A younger Lennon, paradoxically both more and less cynical than his later persona, probably knew better. His 1965 poem “The Fat Budgie” instead suggests we “Imagine all the people/laughing till they’re sick.”

Music’s power to bypass the head and go straight to the heart often results in an uncritical acceptance of its message, be it “The world will live as one” or “You and me baby, we ain’t nothing but mammals…” Anyone who has the slightest acquaintance with history can see that the human race is, barring a miracle, blundering its way toward self-annihilation, not some vague, quasi-Marxist “brotherhood of man”. Still, I would not belittle Lennon’s contributions to pop music’s quest for enlightenment: As early as 1965 he was advocating love (via his song “The Word”, on the Beatles’
Rubber Soul LP) as more than romance, rather as the meaning of life, a musical idea that would culminate in his 1967 anthem “All You Need is Love”.

Both of these statements were overshadowed in 1966 by Lennon’s infelicitous observation to a journalist that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”, a statement that landed him in no end of hot water. In the largely ignored context of the interview from which it was taken, Lennon had kind words for Jesus but not for His disciples nor the church. The evangelical outcry that ensued forced him to issue an apology of sorts (so the final Beatles U.S. tour could go on as planned), but doubtless served to reinforce to Lennon what a “thick and ordinary” lot Christians must be. Still, Christ appeals to sinners, and after a couple of years of dabbling in eastern mysticism with the other Beatles, Lennon punctuated his 1969 appeal for world peace with the declaration, “We want Christ to win.” If Christ’s own declaration that “whoever is not against us is for us” is to be taken seriously (and in context), then it is better left for Him than for us to decide whether Lennon was “not far from the Kingdom”.

I would not paint John Lennon as a saintly pagan, worshiping the Creator as best he could according to his limited knowledge. Yoko Ono spoke of him being on a trip to Japan, stopping to worship at religious shrines she’d long ignored. On the other hand, she and John engaged in the biblical practice of tithing, giving 10% of their income to charity. And so those of us who contemplate a non-universalist eternity are left to speculate.

It’s widely bandied about in Christian circles that we will one day be astonished to find a) who’s in heaven, and b) who isn’t (provided of course we’re there to find out!) Those who will be, according to Calvinists, are the predestined; according to Armenians, those who persevere to the end; according to traditional denominations, the baptized (which would include John Lennon, Mother Teresa, yours truly, and Adolf Hitler).

God isn’t the slightest bit confused on this issue.

If I had written this twenty years ago, I’d have been lamenting Lennon’s eternal loss, his having died without having confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

I’m now far too wise to think I’m half so smart.

Yes, I believe that Jesus is the only Mediator between God and man. And if I were a Universalist, I’d never have bothered to become a missionary in South America, would I? And as a cradle Catholic who has since seriously examined Roman Catholic doctrine and apologetics, I have seen respectable, honest and biblically-based cases given both for and against the doctrine of purgatory. So where do I stand on the eternal fate of my erstwhile hero, John Lennon?

Nowhere. I can’t do that. Instead, I kneel before the Cross.

One of the most comforting passages of scripture for anybody who believes in God’s absolute goodness is found in Romans 3:6 (as well as other passsages) - "God is certainly fair! If he weren't, how could he judge the world?" Unless we are among those who think they’re nicer than God, we can lay a burden as heavy as this one at His feet, trusting that the One who created John Lennon also knows exactly how to handle this. Hell is for those who could never bow the knee to the Son of God. And Protestants don’t generally pray for the dead, but in this case I’ve asked the Father for His mercy to triumph over judgment and even justice.

In Christ my life has purpose and passion as never before, but I’m thinking of adding my old life’s ambition to my list of things to do.

A Word of Explanation

A few years ago my friend Paul Baloche encouraged me to use my writings to challenge some of the crazier ideas espoused by those for whom morality and ethics are arbitrary or relativistic. So if you don't like my little diatribes, know that a) my views and expressions are in no way Paul's fault, and b) therefore you can direct any feedback, brickbats, etc., directly to me. I can take it.

Mein Kampf, Mein Foot

A few years ago while browsing the video store I saw a title that intrigued me, as it would any WWII buff: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I rented it and watched in fascinated horror as Adolf Hitler hypnotized and enslaved a nation, made that nation a weapon of mass destruction, and finally destroyed it and took the coward’s way out through suicide. As I surveyed the ruins of Germany and the grisly legacy of the Nazi death camps, I had to ask myself, “How could so many people have been so deceived?”

As a teenager I once tried to read a few pages of Hitler’s Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), but I found it surprisingly dry and ideological for having been written by a screaming lunatic. In fact, the only words I remember having read were “The Jew is not a human being”. Hmm, Groucho Marx, Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg - not human? The apostle Paul, Moses, Jesus? Maybe he meant “not human” in the sense that Tiger Woods or Eddie Van Halen or Stephen Hawking are so good at what they do that the rest of us “mere mortals” can’t relate.

Yeah, right. Hitler standing in awestruck admiration of Einstein, forgetting for the moment the latter’s Jewishness. Sorry, just kidding. A being so consumed with hatred and bitterness as Hitler was doesn’t go around looking for the good in people. No, his meaning was all too clear for such a frivolous interpretation, and I apologize to my readers for being so silly.

Having seen the Third Reich video, I promptly went to the Internet, where I knew that, for whatever reason, Hitler’s book, boring and deadly, would be found. I downloaded a few chapters and forced myself to read them, finding much that had eluded me as a schoolboy.

Hitler could never have so captivated and controlled Germany if he’d been merely a bad person. No, he had amazing, God-given powers of communication that could have been as easily used for good as for evil; we all know which direction he chose. And he was intelligent, amazingly intelligent; I doubt whether many of us could have withstood him in a debate. (There is a pattern here; most of the Aryan supremacists I have known have been intellectual types who allowed their minds to descend into poisonous cunning.)

For those who dare to match wits with an evil genius, a few chapters of Mein Kampf will be a worthy opponent. It’s all so reasonable, so matter-of-fact, so well informed. Or so it seems. Hitler knew firsthand the downtrodden state of Europe between the wars, the depressed economy that paralleled America’s at the time. And because of the prominent Jewish role in European economy and culture, it was easy enough for Hitler to make the Jews a plausible scapegoat. He does it point by point, in black and white, without screaming or thrashing about or stomping his jackboot. (That would come later.)

History shows how Hitler’s arrogant disregard of strategic reality cost him countless victories, how his obsession with exterminating Europe’s Jews cost him incalculable resources whose proper allocation against the Allies might have given his war machine the upper hand. But if we look deeper into his appalling folly, we’ll see more than just poor military strategy, hardheaded overconfidence, and creeping insanity.

I wish to suggest that Hitler’s single biggest mistake was ideological, spiritual, even theological in nature: He didn’t know the Word of God.

Oh sure, we’re told that Jehovah’s Witnesses know the Bible better than we do. We find ourselves embroiled in arguments with marginals and fanatics who belch chapters and verses like machine gun fire. But the Word of God isn’t scripture wrenched from its context and twisted into whatever shape happens to suit the twister. “The Word of God is living and active…” (Hebrews 4:12) It’s alive. Jesus is the Word.

But Hitler didn’t even know the Bible the way many marginals do, brandishing verses calculated to prove a point that would never stand up to real scrutiny. He instead made statements about the Jews that fly in the face of Scripture. Statements that challenge the most basic morality. Statements that targeted the apple of God’s eye for systematic extermination.

To so flagrantly slam down the gauntlet at God’s feet is the most extreme folly. Especially when it affects millions upon millions of other people. You might as well try bringing down an F-14 with a flyswatter. Hitler could not possibly have made a worse mistake than to go after God’s chosen people, and his whole country paid the price of going along with his idea. To die for a noble cause is not folly; to die for the wildly mistaken notion that “We’re the Master Race” is not merely to die, it is to bring catastrophic ruin on your country and others’ countries for no good reason at all.

My experience as a missionary working in at least fifteen different countries gives me a perspective Hitler could never have had (not that he would have had the clarity to see it.) In Mein Kampf he declares the “inferiority” not only of Jews, but of Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, etc., Well, Adolf, you may be Superman, but wherever I go in the world, I find myself surrounded by my betters and superiors. I know Colombians and Nigerians and Indonesians and Mexicans and Egyptians who are smarter than I am, nicer, cooler, stronger, wiser, better educated, more talented, more fun, more technologically advanced, more creative, more generous, and better looking. (That last one wouldn’t be too hard. And I even have blond hair and blue eyes! Shouldn’t that count for something?)

By the way, if the way we look on the outside is of such importance as the Aryan supremacists say it is, then Hitler is already in trouble. (His astounding evil generally overshadows the fact that he was one of the most hilarious looking people of the last century.) Well relax, mein Führer - God doesn’t look at outside appearances, He looks at the heart!

Wait a minute. In that case, Adolf, maybe you’re better off with Him looking at your outside appearance. It’s the only smile you’re likely to get out of Him anytime in Eternity.