Archive for December, 2010

A Mad, Merry Dash to Christmas or a Frenzied, Fervid Rush to the Cash Register?

Like many of you, I am discouraged by the “commercial sprawl” that has ads for Christmas indulgences seeping into mid-October. Being a rebel at heart, I stubbed my toe more than once between October 21 and November 26th, racing for the remote to mute the yuletide-themed commercials insinuating themselves into my consciousness well before their time.

I’ll grant that winter weather is definitely with us. The second Saturday of this month arrived at 19° degrees (a virtual 5° with the 25-30 mile an hour winds) with a snowfall rate of 1-2” per hour that delivered an 18” accumulation by Sunday morning. But still, the premature storm of holiday spending whipped up by Madison Avenue has some strange effects, such as the neighbor’s plopping a Santa hat on his porch step jack-o-lantern and our local Garage Logician wishing everyone a Happy Hanaramakwansmas.

“You can slow down and find some peace,” I chant repetitively as I inhale (1-2-3-4), hold (1-2-3-4-5-6-7), and exhale (1-2-3-4) and start pulling gear out of the closet for my midday walk. Peering out the picture window onto the weird white winter wonderlandscape, my pup and I “wonder” whether we really want to leave the warmth of our cozy Kirknest to venture out into it.

“Even ye of the asbestos bladder cannot hold it for the next four months,” I remind my furry walking companion. So into cold-weather garb I stuff myself, giving new meaning to the phrase “the layered look.” Once wrapped in a quilted parka with my baseball cap on (for sun shielding), the hood from my sweater in use (for neck warmth), and my Dollar Store space alien sunglasses in place (for UV protection), I get a glimpse of the Unabomber staring back at me from our entryway mirror. I scare myself at this point, and I haven’t even encountered any neighborhood children yet.

 As I goose-step my way over snow-crusted walking paths, I mull over the holiday that has just whizzed past with so little fanfare, and decide to take back the holidays by revisiting Thanksgiving, making today’s subtitle Turkey Day Travails and Triumphs. With my helpful, downloaded “Countdown to Thanksgiving” checklist in hand, and after more years of cooking than I care to specify here, I thought I would have this feast down pat. Not so, perhaps because I will insist on trying out new recipes when I have twelve dinner guests sitting at my table. But there were some royal successes, too, so I will share both with you for your “helpful-and/or-amusing hints” file.

Not-So-Hot Ideas:

Basting a turkey with soy sauce, bourbon, and honey. This sounded to me like a luscious amalgam of several suggested approaches to getting that golden-glazed result we all strive for. Not so, as the soy sauce causes the skin to brown way too fast and you end up with turkey jerky instead of drumsticks and skin so dark it all has to be stripped and discarded – in spite of the foil tent. It also took me (and I am not taking literary license here) eight consecutive days of soaking and scraping and soaking and scouring to get the baked-on, caramelized honey off the bottom of my roasting pan.

My rescue plan was to reheat any slightly dry turkey meat in a hot bath of chicken broth, which does wonders to revive and moisten. I was ready to try this remedy on myself by the end of the day on 11/25. (more…)

December 21, 2010 at 3:54 am 2 comments

When Evil Masquerades as Religion

Ingram Publishing

In 2002 a professor of comparative religion at Wake Forest University published a book purporting to identify the red flag signals that a given religion is in danger of exploding into violent fanaticism. According to the favorable critique I read, the author bases his conclusions on some bold claims about religion in general. Since I knew I couldn’t choke down the book itself, and reticence not being one of my virtues, I felt strongly moved to respond to the review. More accurately, I was agitated into a state in which I had better respond or I just might blow out some essential anatomical gasket – a scene I didn’t want my loved ones to have to witness. My counterpoint follows. Please feel free to join in on the discussion.

Not having read the book in question, I’ll refrain from a blanket assertion that the author fails utterly to demonstrate that the conditions he notes lead religious followers down the path to sheer evil, but my gut and my brain are screaming in unison that the cited excerpts ring false as a tin bell. 

More wars have been waged, more people killed, and more evil perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history,” claims author Charles Kimball in his book When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs. My first quarrel with this centerpiece statement is in its description of all religions as “institutional forces.” In defining religion as any institutionalization of theological (or pseudo-theological) beliefs, the author equips himself with a very broad brush indeed. 

In fact the very term “religion” is problematic, with its multiple applications in the modern world. At the end of the year 2000 there were an estimated 88,320 denominations within the Christian faith alone. Do we really want to describe the motivating force behind Mother Teresa’s life’s work with the same term that we use to analyze the murderous deeds of Hezbollah or the hostile philosophy of the Wahhabis? More significantly, does true religion become evil or do corrupt individuals – lusting for power and control – abandon faith and commit themselves to a set of contrived precepts which reinforce that drive? 

“Religion,” according to Webster’s, is “a belief in a divine power to be worshiped as a creator.” As an abstract concept, it doesn’t possess the animus to embody evil until mankind imbues that creator with a dark nature. Further, the term “divinity” is defined as “supreme goodness.” Belief in goodness cannot jibe with fomenting hatred, unless believers start making things up and pervert the concept to justify violence as a means to their self-serving ends. In the spotlight cast by 9/11, even intellectuals such as law professor David Forte contend, “What drives bin Laden is not a religious faith of any traditional kind; it is, rather, the all-too-familiar phenomenon of murderous revolutionary ideology politicizing religion for its own purposes.” 

The “More wars…” statement may provide a vent for anger in a world gone mad that has finally reached our doorstep, but it is not founded on facts. A careful look at history reveals political and nationalist ideologies as the primary forces behind most attempts by one group to dominate, subdue, or defend against another. In his article It’s Not About Religion, Vincent Carroll cites the instances of brutal ethnic rivalries in modern Africa and conflicts in Sudan as examples of explosive violence unrelated to religious animosities. While the Sudanese clashes may have been fueled in part by religious differences – a far different thing from being ignited by those differences – it is very difficult to imagine that the traditionally militant groups involved would have been immersed in blissful coexistence had they shared a common theology.

British sociologist David Martin also observes that the degree of conflict among Turks, Iraqis, and Kurds remains fairly constant regardless of which mix of Moslem sects are involved. They can and do, in his words, slaughter one another “with an enthusiasm entirely unaltered by the presence or absence of religious differences.” 

Even a cursory review of history yields a long list of notorious wars in which religion wasn’t even a peripheral factor: World Wars I and II; Korea; Vietnam; the Russian Revolution; the French Revolution; the American Revolution; the Civil War. And, to quote Dave Shiflett, author of Christianity on Trial, it is irrefutable that religious zealots have not in fact been the biggest butchers in history: “The body count of corpses from the two great secular barbarisms of the 20th century, Communism and Nazism – both of which were hostile to the religions in their midst – runs to well over 100 million.” Stalin was, indeed, no man of faith.

Yet because it sounds so reasonable in a climate of despair over suicide bombers primed to do the unthinkable at the command of their messianic leaders, and because a person can’t specifically condemn such insanity without being accused of racial profiling or – horror of horrors! – cultural insensitivity, it is facile to express frustration in vague generalities. Safer, too. 

But editor and columnist Carroll further counters that while the “religious fanatics are the worst fanatics” concept has become conventional wisdom and religious enthusiasm probably does cause wars, it also prevents quite a number of them. In reality, it is religious conviction that has done much to impose humane rules of conduct on war and to insist upon immunity for noncombatants and many prominent opponents of war, persecution, oppression, and slavery in the history of the West have been driven by religious conviction.

Considering even the most infamous examples of so-called “holy” bloodletting, no reasonable person can deny the huge role that secular motives played in those, from the drive for imperial conquest which impelled Oliver Cromwell to suppress the Irish to the desire to weaken political opposition to Catholic Monarchs during the Spanish Inquisition to contemporary massacres resulting from a mix of ethnic and territorial rivalry.

As for author Kimball’s condemnation of those who think they have a “monopoly on truth,” and the inherent risk of that presumption feeding the weaknesses that lead to wickedness, well c’mon now. The word “faith” is defined as unquestioning belief, we don’t place belief in that which we perceive to be false. This may be one person’s “lack of flexibility” but it is another person’s set of convictions. 

You cannot, then, have faith in some changing set of world views; that just becomes a personal philosophy. And while Kimball insists that truth must be flexible, I say the notion of flexible truth contradicts itself. A mutable truth is no truth at all – which requires of the conscientious believer a scrupulous, ongoing, studious approach to understanding the foundations of his or her faith. 

And to address some of the group traits outlined by Mr. Kimball as veritable petri dishes in which evil can germinate… (more…)

December 9, 2010 at 6:11 pm Leave a comment

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