Strange New Thoughts

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

Monday, February 11, 2008

Kenny G. 1, Pat Metheny 0

I just deleted an article I'd posted that tried to look (from a Christian perspective) at the jazz community's controversy over Kenny G.
A sensitive reader maintained that I was using scripture to bash Kenny. Well, I don't wholly agree (I did defend him, to a certain extent), but I was also somewhat critical of the G Man. What's more, my writing wasn't up to my personal standard (which should have been a clue to me in the first place.) So, in the interests of Christian love, I apologize to Kenny, my readers (those on both sides of the controversy), and to God, whose standard deserves preeminence.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Bodhisattva, Won't You Take Me By the Hand...

(Or, One Clue to the New Age as a Royal Scam)

In their 1973 song "Bodhisattva", Steely Dan (the jazz-tinged pop group masterminded by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen) pokes fun at "the way western people look at Eastern religion -- sort of over-simplify it. We thought it was rather amusing -- most people don't get it," says Fagen.

I certainly didn't. At that time I was twelve years old, but my whole family was already steeped in a quasi-eastern "mysticism" that encompassed reincarnation, astrology, karmic principle, spirit guides, aura readings - anything we thought might enlighten us. (Fortunately, I didn't let these wildly anti-biblical deviations interfere with my duties as an altar boy at Holy Rosary Parish.) While affluent types such as the Beatles and the Beach Boys were able to go directly to India for their "enlightenment", I had to be content with the locally available brands. But that was fine - this was "The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius", remember. While many hippie types were discovering and proclaiming Jesus, many other people, including myself, were seeking spiritual understanding anywhere but there. Jesus was fine, but orthodox Christianity was too narrow. Mustn't exclude anything. As long as we're sincere, anything goes.

Reincarnation was a hot topic. Unlike astrology, there is no strictly scientific evidence against it. And since most religions agree on some sort of afterlife, why couldn't the soul have another go? (For those whose authority is the Bible, Hebrews 9:27-28 settles this debate conclusively, but I'm not assuming that all my readers recognize that authority.) My mother, lovingly indulging my interest in birds, introduced me to reincarnation through Richard Bach's novel, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, in which anthropomorphized seagulls explore their spirituality and aerodynamic capabilities in a reincarnational/afterlife setting. Since she was my mother, I never questioned her assertions, including the one that I personally was "a very old soul" - one that had already lived many lives. She was getting this stuff from Edgar Cayce and other proto-New Age teachings, so, unlike many New Agers, I didn't have to go out and find it - she spoon-fed it to me.

Looking back, I see that the only thing I knew for certain was myself. At 12 I was already finding ways to make a mess of my life. I was scrawny, unpopular, unathletic, eccentric, and not even good at academics (I'm pretty sure I was ADD, a condition little understood back then.) The thought of having to live dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of lives after this one terrified me. Karmic principle, the Yin and Yang dualism I faced, erased all hope I had of escaping the cycle. I couldn't even bring home a good report card - how could I get free from the wheel of karma?

Still, it was trendy to believe something esoteric, especially since nobody in the Catholic Church seemed to be able to point out to us the total incompatibility between our Sunday faith and our actual practice. I managed to suppress my fears about karma and reincarnation and to enjoy this vague, pantheistic smørgasbord of spirituality that promised so much and required so little responsibility. All is one, it will all work out in the end, all roads lead to the cosmic oneness, etc. Besides, it's time to go play guitar in Folk Mass! How spiritual is that?

I'm not here to single-handedly refute the New Age. (It often even refutes itself, since it's more of a movement than a cohesive way of thinking.) But Messrs. Becker and Fagen have (perhaps unwittingly) given me some ammo, so being a huge Steely Dan fan and a self-styled Christian apologist, I'd like to draw a bead on the sacred cow of reincarnation.

Sacred cow? That's my point. To Hindus, cows are sacred precisely because they are thought to be reincarnations of people. Now, we here in the West get our basic idea or reincarnation from them, don't we? (Trust me, we do.) Okay, then where do we get off thinking we were Napoleon in another life, or Cleopatra (or at least somebody interesting) instead of a cow, a rat or a bug? If we must borrow such a concept outright from another belief system, it seems we have to sanitize it first. I never met anybody here in the West who even claims to be open to the possibility of having been an animal in a previous incarnation. And if they do, I either don't believe them, or I figure they're so far out there that their opinion isn't something I'm interested in. A truly open mind must at times embrace narrow-mindedness.

Not only do Hindus revere cattle instead of eating them, they also allow rats (to them, other incarnations of loved ones) to eat a large percentage of India's grain stores, contributing significantly to malnutrition, particularly among the lower castes. I'm not trying to say that Hinduism is the blanket cause of India's woes, but where it differs from Christianity, it contrasts sharply with a worldview that treats the poor, the outcast and the downtrodden with compassion and dignity. And rats don't count.

In case my earlier reference to Hebrews 9:27-28 didn't make you reach for your Bible, I'll just give it to you: "Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him." This passage wasn’t intended to dispel some rampant Hebrew obsession with former lives, but it would require a
quantum leap of reason to suppose that it allows George Patton to rightly think himself the reincarnation of Hannibal, or an impressionable altar boy to think he'd been a Viking in another life. Either reincarnation happens or it doesn't. They can't both be right.

It's not wishful thinking (i.e., the understandable desire to avoid "rebirth", common even among Hindus) that compels me to reject reincarnation as supernatural truth. It's sheer force of argument. Reason. Reincarnation simply doesn't hold up under scrutiny, despite circumstantial evidence to the contrary. Even the lowly beer commercial once proclaimed "you only go around once - you gotta go for all the gusto you can!" Even more ironically, Hare Krishna devotee George Harrison's Sgt. Pepper masterpiece "Within You Without You" states (against a backdrop of sitars and tabla drums) that "it's far too late/when they pass away." In fact, if you look at this neo-raga's lyrics, it states probably the most clearly Christian worldview of any Beatles song! If the Beatles must be blamed for leading western youth down a path of malignant mysticism, then this song at least should be removed from the list of perceived Fab foibles.

Meanwhile, few religions (or none) are in total conflict with Christianity, and Hinduism does in fact share much of Christianity's morality. Hinduism's karmic principal and the Judeo-Christian principal of sowing and reaping are more compatible than many Christians would care to admit (in which case we could tell a Hindu that Jesus "levels our karma"!) I don't think God's going to send anybody to hell for believing in reincarnation, but if we are in fact headed for Judgment, as described above, then we'd best try to get it right this time around, and trust God to take up the slack. And share this hope of eternal (and immediate) freedom with anyone we can.