Friday, October 30, 2009

Thoughts on Scientology

The following is a substantive repost from the popular Mockingbird Blog. This week has been a rough one for Scientologists, who suffered a bitter public renunciation from a higher-up and a bit of a meltdown by their official spokesman in front of Martin Bashir on "Nightline." Jeff Stockett offers the following reasons for the popularity of Scientology, despite what might be considered the crazy creation story. See the bottom of the post for video of the meltdown. Here are the reasons:

1) Scientology appeals to the human desire to connect. This is nothing new among religions. Human beings are intrinsically built for community and relationship, and as a species we have a general desire to gaininsight/understanding about our environment and surroundings. The teachings of Scientology provide a way for individuals to evaluate and connect with the world around them in a way that is explainable and measurable.
2) Scientology desires to help individuals confront past (and sometimes present) negative experiences and situations, which is a naturally appealing proposition. The CoS promotes the idea that through L. Ron Hubbard’s self-help counseling technique (called Dianetics or “auditing”(see below) one can come to grips with and move on from past traumas (called “engrams”). This idea of self-improvement is key, in my mind, to much of Scientology’s draw. In Scientology YOU are the one in control, and as you learn to siphon off these troublesome past experiences you become a stronger, freer, and more “Clear” being. For Scientologists, the goal is literally to create a new and better reality, which can only be achieved through the identification and elimination of these engrams. This concept, in principle, isn’t foreign among religions either, as using religion as a path to re-birth or enlightenment is an idea that has been around for centuries.
3) Scientology is naturally exclusive, in that the ability to progress within the community is attached closely to financial means. Much like a country club, not everyone has the resources to invest in Scientology, which limits high-ranking membership to the affluent and privileged. I’d venture to guess that this makes the CoS an appealing option to folks who DO have significant financial means, since they have the opportunity to join what one might consider an elite/celebrity community (it’s worth noting that L. Ron Hubbard developed an aggressive campaign specifically targeting celebrities for membership back in the 1950’s).
Essentially, the CoS has a pre-fabricated series of levels that one can reach by completing CoS courses. In this way, an individual’s progression through the ranks of the CoS is similar to how one obtains an academic degree: you pay your tuition, study the course materials, demonstrate subject mastery, and then are allowed to proceed to the next course. In that regard, the CoS appears to operate much like an educational institute, only without the ability to provide an accredited degree of any kind. This concept becomes particularly confounding when one considers that the cost of some individual courses can be in tens of thousands of dollars (coincidentally, the commercial success of the CoS led to the loss of its non-profit status in the U.S. (it was reinstated the IRS in 1993) and has prevented it from being recognized as a religious body in many other parts of the world).
4) Scientologists have a built-in means by which to gauge their progress and success within the CoS. Success is dictated by each individual, and generally is restricted only by financial means (as noted above). The existence of measurable levels of achievement is contrary to many other faiths, and serves as an additional draw as it offers prestige, status, and measurable outcomes that an individual can control.(this is a picture of the Scientology "Celebrity Center" in LA)
5) Scientology incorporates the idea that one can secure “secret knowledge” about reality by progressing through the faith (not too dissimilar from Gnosticism or Buddhism). Again, much of the “higher level” teachings are held in strict confidence until one reaches a certain level/rank within the CoS. This makes obtaining that information more desirable for individuals.
Thanks, Jeff, for the great points.
Certainly, the structure of Scientology seems antithetical to the Gospel. Jesus didn't come to change sinners into righteous people (i.e. to clear away their Thetans) but to GIVE them his righteousness. All at once, once and for all. No program, no Celebrity Centre membership fee.
Here is the video I promised you earlier:

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Thoughts on Good News

Can the news be that good if no one wants to hear it? I often find myself chuckling derisively at the preaching in churches that I see on television. "Ha!" I'll snort. "What an offensive message. No one's going to like that very much!" Then, as you might imagine, the camera pans around to reveal the masses hanging on the preacher's every word. I have no masses. Don't get me wrong, I love my congregation, and we're growing, but we didn't have to buy an arena from an NBA team, like Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church in Houston did. Why is it that preaching that some of us might consider to be bad news is so appealing to so many listeners? The answer, of course, is to be found at the core of the recent Treehouse of Horror XX.

Can you believe that this is The Simpsons' twentieth season? Astounding. In any event, each year, The Simpsons produces a Halloween episode that is required viewing, even if you're not a fan of the show itself. The Halloween special is a cultural phenomenon. This year, the episode included a vignette in which Krustyburger (the chain owned by the town's children's television star) sells what turns out to be an "infected" hamgburger. Through a production process that would have the FDA and the EPA carrying pitchforks and torches, Krustyburger puts a burger out that turns the citizens of Springfield into...of course: Zombies. Favorite line from the episode? Bartender Moe, as he's being carried off by four zombies: "If I were you, I'd wash me before I eat me."

Even after the alarm is raised people continue to eat the burgers! Finally, days after the plague starts, Bart can stand his burger-jones no longer, and risks life and limb to navigate a sea of zombies to get his hands on what appears to be the last remaining Krustyburger. He bites.

What could compel Bart to do this? To act in such a counterintuitive way? This convention is well known in slasher film: "No group of nubile teens has ever returned from that campground alive!" "Oh, I'm sure we'll be fine." Or, "This house, built on an ancient Indian burial ground has phantasmagorical blood pouring down the walls, and the realtor, a crusty old woman with one eye and a goiter, told us not to stay here." "I'm sure it's nothing to worry about." Bart's been given information that can save his life: Don't eat that burger. He does anyway. And Christians? What's with them? Why the resistance to the good news? In the end, Bart's hunger gets the best of him. His need for a burger overrides the logic of avoiding zombie-ism. For Christians, our need to contribute, our need to self-justify, and our need to be active overrides the logic of accepting what appears to be the best option: A free gift for which we much do nothing and which requires no response.

In As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson give Helen Hunt medical care she can't afford for her son. When he tells her that no thanks are required, that it's a free gift and he doesn't want to read her thank-you letter, she becomes angry. People want to contribute. People need to self-justify. People desire to be active. So when we've got Good News (no contribution necessary...justification already activity required...) no one wants to hear it.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Thoughts on Proofs for God...and Barbarella

Something that has come to my mind a lot recently, whether it's been through conversations I've had, articles I've read, or watching Richard Dawkins on The Colbert Report. People seem very interested in the idea that God may (or may not) actually exist! Scientists (like Dawkins, a biologist) and mathematicians, like John Allen Paulos (pictured right...and looking AWESOME) seem caught up in an almost-Christian evangelical fervor: the message they have come to preach is that there is no God, and they preach their gospel on the same street corners and from the same soap boxes from which we preach our Gospel.

In fairness to Paulos, I should separate his work from that of Dawkins and the like-minded Christopher Hitchens, who seem to be angered by the fact that so many people claim to believe in God. To their mind, "God" is a mass delusion perpetrated on humanity by those who would wish to subdue it. Paulos, on the other hand, has written a very light-hearted book that I actually recommend. It's called Irreligion, and refutes (to the extent that one can refute such things) the common logical arguments for the existence of God. Maybe the most common argument for the existence of God is the so-called "Argument from Complexity." It goes like this: Look at the world, how complex and beautiful it is! This cannot have been the product of random chance. Therefore, there must be a Creator who is ultimately complex, and that Creator is God." Paulos simply asks, "If the creator is so complex, must not he have had a creator? If there is a cause, that cause must have a cause."

I only bring up Paulos' book and his arguments because I have found such arguments fascinating. I have never felt that my faith was challenged by arguments against the existence of God, something I never felt I could (or had to) prove. I'm reminded of the story of Jesus' interaction with the woman at the well in John 4. After a profound interaction with Jesus, the woman goes back to her town and tells the people there, "Come see a man who told me everything I ever did." This woman felt herself so profoundly described by Jesus that she was willing to stake her life on the things that he said. I feel the same way.

Jesus (and the Biblical writers) so accurately describe and diagnose my life, down to the fact that I so often do the very thing I wish I wouldn't do, and vice versa, that I naturally put credence to their other words, including their descriptions and assertions of the existence of God. In the end, though, I'm not too naive to admit that I need God to exist. The need I feel to strive (the Army's "Be all you can be") must come from somewhere! Of course, this is not a rhetorically strong argument. It is undeniable, though, that despite the need to be all I can be, I feel that I am not. I need the God described by Jesus and the Bible, who sent an envoy to me, to be all I could have been, in my place.

Ted Turner famously called Christianity "a crutch." I think it's funny...Christianity never claimed to be anything else. That's the thing that Dawkins, Hitchens, and Paulos don't understand. They're convinced that humanity just needs to be told to throw the crutch away. "You can walk," they say. "Stop letting this 'God' nonsense hold you back!" Their vision of humankind is one of strength, self-sufficiency, and power. They don't have an answer for people's weaknesses, insufficiencies, and fear. These are the people Christianity speaks to. If Ted Turner claims that Christianity is a crutch, Christ affirmed it! It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Christianity is not for the strong and wise, but for the weak and foolish, like you and me. After all, we all have our crutches...right Ted?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Thoughts on Hot Fuzz

The movie I'm into more than any other right now, in the sense that I could basically watch it every night, is Hot Fuzz. Co-written and directed by Edgar Wright and co-written by and starring Simon Pegg (both of Shaun of the Dead fame), Hot Fuzz is an action/cop/buddy spoof that itself serves as a wonderful action/cop/buddy movie. Pegg plays Nicholas Angel, a go-getting London cop assigned to a sleepy country village because he's making all the other big-city cops look bad with his work ethic. Angel immediately starts to smell a rat around Sandford (the small town), as townsfolk die in mysterious accidents.

The film posits a world where evil lies just beneath a veneer of sweetness, politeness, and hospitality. Hot Fuzz is certainly not the first story to suggest this (The Stepford Wives, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and every Rod Serling Twilight Zone episode come to mind), but it does it in a deliciously tongue-in-cheek way. If you like action/cop/buddy movies, or like to make fun of action/cop/buddy movies, then Hot Fuzz is for you.

Angel makes an interesting comment about the Law while explaining why he became a police officer: "I had to prove to myself that the law could be proper, and righteous, and for the good of humankind." Almost a quote from the Bible! Paul (the Apostle...not anyone to do with this film) would largely agree. Of course, I imagine he'd want to clarify what Nicholas Angel meant by "for the good of humankind."

Whereas Angel seems to take the Law as a prescription for a safe and pleasant society (while defending his rounding up of VERY small time criminals, he says that "geographic location shouldn't figure into the enforcement of the law"), Paul would argue that the Law only serves to show us how short of it we're falling (e.g. the law "don't covet your neighbor's swan" doesn't actually serve to make us covet less, it only serves to show us the extent of our covetousness). So while Paul and Angel might agree that the Law is "for the good of humankind," Angel might suggest that adherence to the Law will make the world a good place for humankind to live. Paul would say that adherence to the Law is a fool's errand, and it's "goodness" comes in showing a failed humanity its need for a savior.

What say you? Do you find the most nefarious evils of the world hidden under things that look good? Or is this a movie convention, that the bad guy is always the one you least suspect? And how about the Law? Can it create the thing it requires? Or does your mom's insistence that you not take a cookie almost compel your hand toward the jar?
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