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Monthly Archives: January 2015

Marcus Borg and the Atheist

Marcus Borg and the Atheist

I went atheist in 2005, and in retrospect, it probably shouldn’t have taken that long. After all, I had spent an enormous number of the previous years being told half-truths and outright falsities in two different religions which effectively brainwashed me into thinking the sky god was going to smite my ass the second I had any kind of thought he considered impure. Of course, impure thoughts to my god were more like what popular culture considered impure thoughts to god: No booze, no sex, no swearing, no blasphemy – you know, all the best-known euphemisms for “no fun.” I had also learned in both direct and indirect manners that I had to look down on all the heathens and work hard to show them the great holy light.

Unfortunately for all the ministers I had during that time, I also had an inquisitive personality and had met enough different kinds of people that I learned to overlook their backgrounds. There was no way I would ever be able to do this religion thing both ways, and seeing as how the latest text message from either of my religions had arrived in the Dark Ages, it was god and religion that finally got the boot. Switching religions is a weird experience, and leaving it completely can give a longtime believer the heebie-jeebies. I developed an immediate hate for all religions at first which sent me into a good year-and-a-half-long spat with, for lack of a better term, shock. Religious belief isn’t something you can turn on and off if you were interpreting your teachings the way I was. It was a slow, gradual realization, and by the time I reached my big “Eureka!” moment, I was overcome with anger – anger at myself for being a blind dummy, anger at this god I suddenly didn’t believe in, and anger at the system that had successfully warped me into thinking “can’t sleep; god will eat me” all the damn time. I entered a period where all discussion about religion resulted in my impersonation of a Fox News pundit.

Ten years after the fact, my relationship with god is still irreparably ruined. My relationship with religion, though, began a significant upturn in the last half of 2006. I happened to be invited into a religious community with an open mind and an acceptance of anyone at face value. I gravitated toward them because I could talk or ask questions about religion and not get simple answers. Later, we held book groups, and it was in those groups that I started reading the work of Christian scholar Marcus Borg.

Most of my friends claimed Borg’s most famous books, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, as their biggest influences. Unfortunately, I still haven’t gotten around to reading either of those, so my first look at a Marcus Borg book was The Heart of Christianity. To put it bluntly, it was a whopper. There was eye-opening, revelatory material on virtually every page. Borg frequently questioned the stuff written in The Bible and invited his readers to look at the old historical context of everything written in it. It was primarily through the writing of Marcus Borg that I started to realize my beef with religion wasn’t exactly religion itself so much as it is the contemporary way of practicing it. It soon dawned on me that I’d had it all wrong – religion was never about easy answers or morally black and white viewpoints, and my big mistake all these years was in trying to interpret it that way.

I later got around to reading more of Borg’s work, like Speaking Christian and The Last Week. They kept right on crushing everything I thought I knew about religion. What I keep interpreting out of Borg’s work are messages contemporary followers of Cowboy Jesus fight like hell to deny: Religion is a dynamic entity that keeps growing and changing with the times. As religion evolves, its followers also evolve for both better and worse. So while both the fundamentalists and progressives are both willing to argue that followers in the past had it wrong, they frequently disagree on the direction in which religion was meant to evolve in. My view on Jesus himself was also radically altered; I ultimately began subscribing to a view of Jesus as a radical rebel who was executed in a gruesome way because he spent his life mouthing off to the wrong social caste. This was a form of Jesus I could actually follow and appreciate.

I started reading books written by other religious scholars as well, the most notable of which is probably Brian McClaren. They all managed to drill into my head a lot of things my younger, more fundamentalist self would have cringed at: Probably the most important thing they had to teach me was that being a good Christian meant doubling down to improve your community rather than your church. I also started to see that being Christian as applied during the Roman Era didn’t mean switching your set of religious beliefs, which meant that anyone who wanted to be Christian within the community was welcome – early Christianity, in fact, was considered just an odd little offshoot of traditional Judaism. In other words, truly old school Christians were able to be anything while still being Christians. Since Christianity was based more around the strength of a community which rejected the Roman caste system, being Christian didn’t require the acceptance of the god/man hybrid today’s Christianity revolves around. In fact, it didn’t really revolve around the acceptance of a god at all.

That makes possible what should be an impossible contradiction: My reconnection with Christianity went hand-in-hand with a fierce reinforcement of my atheism. No, I’m not going to call myself a Christian again, but the work of Marcus Borg has given me a view of religion which is a little like The Doctor’s view of humanity: Extremely frustrating because of what it gets used to justify, but I’m also in awe of its potential for good. Yeah, you might say I’m now completely lost and confused, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; after all, being lost and confused is frequently the best way to see clearly.

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The Rooters’ Rules: A Guide to Sports Loyalty

The Rooters’ Rules: A Guide to Sports Loyalty

Well, it’s that time of year again. Five months and 20 football games ago, the NFL set sail for its 2014 season. Now it’s playoff time, and the field of 32 has been narrowed down to 12 – actually, it’s eight now that Wild Card Weekend is over – and the biggest league in the United States will soon be crowning its national champion. You might be familiar with a particular NFL commercial which has been airing all season in which a typical midwestern woman explains how her family of Vikings fans gradually turned into a family with Eagles, Bengals, Cowboys, and Steelers fans, and I’m not sure I’m remembering the entire mass of adopted team loyalties there. Now, astute observers might have noticed that later versions of that commercial made a very subtle but important change to one of the lines: When explaining how one of the family members became a Steelers fan, they say he did it because he moved to Pittsburgh. The first version said he became a Steelers fan after he ate a few burgers at a local restaurant which were named after the Steelers’ quarterback. It’s a good change; the original version implied that the kid made a loyalty change because he ate a burger. I’m less finicky about attacking team loyalties than most other fans, but really, that one hinged on “Dude, why do you even bother at all?!” territory. As far as loyalty switches go, that one was inexcusable.

It did, however, make me start wondering about what rules we follow for keeping our sports loyalties, which allowed me to come up with this little guidebook about picking and holding onto your favorite sports teams.

General Guidelines for Picking a Team
First and foremost: If the area you live in has a particular loyalty to a team in the sport you follow, you must follow that team. If you live in a city that doesn’t have a team, then it’s helpful to follow whatever team the other locals are following – this is why it’s helpful to follow the Green Bay Packers in Wisconsin and the New York Yankees in New York – although it frees you up to pick any team you want. Your city isn’t directly involved with any sports rivalries the preferred team may have, after all, so you can do what you want.

If you’re in a place without a team, you’re free to try on teams like hats to see how they fit. You have to remember, though, you’re not necessarily looking for the best team. You’re looking for the one that’s the best fit. There’s a difference. Hanging on to the winning team for no reason other than an obsession with choosing the best team makes you look like a pathetic bandwagoner. If you choose one of the league’s face teams, brush up on your history because you’re going to need to defend yourself. Hell, brush up on your favorite team’s history anyway. Not only will it make you appreciate what you’ve gotten into to a fuller extent, it will help you understand the beliefs and traditions of long-term fans, and form a bond with the team.

If you live in a city without a team in the sport you follow and the league suddenly drops in with an expansion team, you have the option of either keeping your old team or adopting the expansion. You can do as you will; this is one instance where no one will bother you about a switch. You better be willing to suffer and grow if you adopt the new one, though; trying to jump back to the old one during a good stretch makes you a bandwagoner, especially if the new one is going through typical expansion pains.

When trying on teams, look for local connections. I started following an entire sport because a guy who went to my high school was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers. After he fell out of the NBA, I spent the next few years adopting new teams to see which one fit me the best, and I ran through loyalties the way a plow runs through snow. (I even started this blog during a phase of trying-on with the New York Knicks, and have run through three more teams since. Eventually, though, I made my way back to the Sixers. I’d like to see you accuse me of bandwagoning for THAT switch.) Feel free to waive a local connection if the team was ever based in your city and left, though; you wouldn’t stick with them if they walked out during your lifetime, so no one will blame you for avoiding them now.

Along those same lines: If your hometown did once field a team, but that team left before you were born, you’ve hit the statute of limitations. Don’t feel guilty about adopting them just because they walked off. Older fans may give you grief, but younger fans won’t care.

There’s no habit lower than fantanking. You spend your money to see the greatest athletes in the world play at their best, and yet you’re demanding they go against all their competitive instincts in a race to the bottom of the standings on the half-chance they’ll pick up the next great superstar in the next draft and be competitive in, oh, say, three more years? Read that out loud and see how absurd it sounds. Then try to imagine how bad it sounds to a guy who makes his living playing a professional sport. Those athletes aren’t going to be able to play forever, and asking them to play dead for multiple years while their teams maybe build a contender if everything goes right and a half-witted thought which doesn’t even guarantee success in a few years, so just stop it.

If you live in an area loyal to multiple teams, you get to pick only one of them.

You’re allowed to switch teams outright for the following reasons: 1 – The team moves; no one would blame you for adopting your old team’s archrival for that. 2 – The ownership is a complete embarrassment to the sport. We’re not talking about ordinary bad stretches here; every team goes through those. We’re talking about galactic sins which are evidence of an owner hating his fanbase. You think I never fantasized about leaving the Sabres after Terry Pegula bungled the front office? I did, but Pegula ultimately isn’t a villain. We’re talking guys like Dan Snyder, James Dolan (a major reason I finally concluded the Knicks would never be my team), Jeffery Loria, and Donald Sterling here. (Ironically, I ended up adopting the Chicago Blackhawks when they had reached this depth with their last owner.) 3 – Or you move to a new city and have reached your loyalty limit, and thus have to jettison one of your former teams if you’re hoping to fit in with your new community.

Loyalty Rules in Major Sports (MLB, NBA, NHL, and MLS)
You’re allowed to take from one to three teams, but before you go taking more than one, make sure you have some sort of connection with the host city first. A relative, a place you lived, your best friend moved there, something. If you’ve lived in more than three cities, then pick the teams from the cities that contributed the most to who you are.

If you like a team because of a particular player, then you like that player, not his team. I have no problems with switching teams to keep track of a player, but ‘fess up to it. The commercial I was talking about in my opening is a decent example of this – one family member decided she was a Cowboys fan because she met Emmitt Smith, although it goes a bit further there because she had a small bit of face time with him. I do think it’s important for players to try to make time for fans, and if a fan returns an especially pleasant encounter with an opposing player by switching teams, I can accept that. It’s not a solid excuse, but there are so many teams and players presenting themselves as above and beyond the regular folks that I can understand why it would warrant a switch.

When two of your teams play against each other, it’s okay to be neutral.

I can’t emphasize this enough: DO NOT pick a team just because it’s successful. You might be flying high on the recent successes of the New England Patriots, but Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will both retire someday, and when they do, the entire league is going to totally relish the traditional revenge beatings. The Los Angeles Lakers have turned into a freak show as of late. The Detroit Red Wings keep squeaking into the playoffs on a sixth seed, and all the big prize players want to play for their archrivals now. Every team has down periods, including the Yankees, and no one is ever going to admire you for latching on to a team from outside your area, either. So don’t expect anyone to pat you on the back for following whoever is doing well.

Loyalty Rules in Minor Sports
I emphasize keeping yourself local, but in minor sports, you have absolutely no excuse not to. If you’re following a minor league for a major sport, there’s an excellent chance of a team existing in your area. If you’re following a more unusual sport, it will probably be the local team that piqued your interest in it, so don’t turn your back on them just because the dominant team isn’t yours. Minor sports are difficult to follow in a lot of places, so you only get one team per minor league to carry.

Team existences in minor leagues can be insane. Minors think nothing of expanding when they don’t have to, winning three straight titles right off the bat, then folding two years later. Even the most diehard fans can get stuck without teams to follow for years at a time, because every league is a crazy cousin. Therefore, if you move from one area to another, it’s easiest to just switch to the team in your new home than to try to keep following the old one.

Don’t attack opposing fans. While this is always a good rule, it goes double in minor sports because if there are too many incidents, the league may not survive. The last thing they need is to lose fans because of you, so be hospitable.

Exceptions
Some sports are so odd that they require a few exceptional rules of their own.

College Sports
You can pick up as many teams as you want, as long as you were a student at those schools. If you never went to college, you get one team.

If you were a fan of a particular school but you attended college at a different school, it’s okay to keep pledging your loyalty to your old team, but you must always, Always, ALWAYS cheer for the team from your school. If your old favorite team plays against your school, yes, you have to cheer for your school. In short, your school’s team is your team, over and out, no matter how much you claim to prefer the other guys.

You don’t get to split your school loyalties based on sports. That makes you a bandwagon fan. You can only have one school to encompass all the sports, so pick the school that’s best at the sport you like the most.

European Soccer
After your team tryout phase, you get to pick one team. You’re not allowed to switch, ever. Even if your team gets relegated, they’re still your team, and you just have to wait it out until they make it back to the top level. If you made the mistake of adopting Cardiff City FC last season because their first promotion to the top level in 51 years was a nice feel-good story, too bad. You’re stuck.

NFL
Although I cited the NFL above, they’re an exception to every last one of these rules. You’re allowed to carry anywhere from one to 32 teams. The league doesn’t give a shit about its fans, so each and every fandom rule is void. Do anything you want. Someday, the way the NFL is going, it’s all going to be played on a soundstage before a live studio audience anyway, so don’t bother attaching any civic importance to it.

The 2015 Extinct List

The 2015 Extinct List

Now is the time of year when we can begin anew, and nothing needs renewal more than society itself. There are a ton of aspects of living in society that just plain suck, and I don’t just mean the usual suspects. I mean things which enable the usual suspects, or cause perfectly smart people to do stupid things, or the little things that can end up building up and building up until they break your back. Yeah, war and famine and economic inequality are all terrible things, but what I’m talking about are the little things that I’ve frequently – and inconsistently – referred to as the 17 less-deadly sins. The big problems are all necessary to wipe out, but it’s the small ones that keep getting up in our faces and driving us crazy. They’re the things we immediately think about and talk about whenever we go out for coffee with our friends, the ones that compose the bulk of our days, the ones we’re most likely to mention when we complain about our day, and, in some cases, they’re also the ones that can really cause the big ones when they’re compounded. So, without further ado, here’s the list of Things I Would Like to See go Extinct in 2015.

GIFs
What’s this, now? I don’t want to watch some video you’ve embedded in some article you wrote, but it’s apparently so important that you’re forcing me to watch an inferior, shorter version of it without any sound? That’s basically what GIFs are. They have a bad habit of taking forever to load, slowing down your computer, and, gee, you know, not having any kind of option to shut it off. They’re annoying enough when there’s just one that you have to sit and wait for your computer fight with itself to load through, but worse than that, there are also a bunch of websites – Deadspin and Buzzfeed are particularly egregious offenders, with Whatculture and Cracked being occasional havens – that pack them into their articles at every possible opportunity. There’s no such thing as a video which is good enough that you have to outright remove the option of letting the reader not watch it. So just stop before I start loading up your email with spam, okay?

SATs
I was against these things before being against them was cool. Now, to everyone who thought I was crazy for questioning their purpose, I look like a damn visionary. The SATs were Common Core before Common Core became Common Core. Is there are particular purpose they serve? Not really. Maybe they’re there as some kind of excuse for people to insist that all the education in the United States is on equal footing, but if that truly is the case, they’ve been a spectacular failure because they prove once and for all that from the inner city just don’t have the resources to keep up with better-equipped schools in middle-class suburbs. I happen to think it’s a little unfair to make everyone take the same test, especially when your future is supposedly riding on it. And really, isn’t the very idea of a future riding on this one little test a little nonsensical anyway? We have regular school, complete with final exams, to decide progress. Despite the supposed importance of them, bad SAT scores don’t hold students back in grades or prevent them from graduating, and these days, colleges are starting to ignore them altogether.

Giving Pets as Christmas Gifts
I think we might have the Disney classic Lady and the Tramp to blame for making this look cute. Wrap up a cuddly little kitty or puppy in a nice Christmas package and offer it to a loved one as a gift. And if your loved one doesn’t actually like it, they can always return it to the pound for cash or store credit, right? Yeah, see, that’s exactly the problem. Every Christmas, there are far too many reports of animal shelters taking in new animals which were given away as gifts because they were treated exactly like gifts – as disposable items. A pet isn’t something you can just buy, give away, and throw away. Pets are major commitments. They’re going to need attention whether or not the person you’re giving the pet to is bored with them or not, and negligence of pets is (rightfully) a crime. So if you decide to give away a pet as a Christmas gift, make sure the person you’re giving it to is has the right mindset to know that. Also, don’t wrap it up in a package and give it away as a surprise – come Christmas, tell your friend the gift will be a pet, then choose a particular day and time to visit the shelter to find a pet that bonds well with your friend and pick up the equipment.

The NFL
The worst of a bad bunch of professional sports leagues in the United States, I honestly don’t know how anyone can swear any kind of allegiance to an NFL team anymore. The NFL has mistaken itself for a moral authority and become hell-bent on wiping out everything remotely human that could possibly appear in a football game. I guess we could have seen it coming first with instant replay, which turned every play into a technicality of minutia. They’ve also raised ticket prices to such a level that most fans can’t afford them. Actually, between the injury scandals and recent incidents with Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, it’s hard to believe the NFL cares about people at all. They make politics of hosting the Super Bowl, and in that regard, they’re nearly as bad as FIFA or the Olympics, which is really saying something. Then there are the constant threats: Fork over ten billion dollars in tax cash for a stadium which has to replace a decrepit bowl which was around for the last 15 years, or say bye bye to the local team while they move to Los Angeles, Toronto, or London. I’ll tell you what: The NFL wants to be in Los Angeles so badly, why don’t we wipe out any pretenses and ship every team to Hollywood, where they can all play in front of a live studio audience every Sunday. Just get it out of my sight and away from my money.

The Music Media
Yes, we’re all aware of the fact that maybe three artists went platinum in sales this year, and that one of them was Taylor Swift. We all know that U2 gave away their new album for free on iTunes after receiving a big payoff from Apple. The big problem is that I have not yet received a single good explanation as to why I should care. The music media seems sympathetic to a group of high-powered executives who made life difficult for fans who wanted to get ahold of non-mainstream artists, be able to go to an occasional concert, and jacked up the prices of CDs when there was barely anything put into them. Now, with indie artists getting more attention than they were before thanks to the internet, the music media is trying to convince us that the artists with the most exposure need handouts.

Pundits
Is there any kind of pundit this planet wouldn’t be better off without? The job of a pundit isn’t to pass on new information – it’s to condense current information down into a ten-second sound bite, manipulated to be easily digested for people who don’t understand political nuance. Naturally, the job of a pundit creates an atmosphere of fear, false information, and mistrust. They call this the Information Age; it’s actually the Paranoid Age, or the Age Where You can Believe Anything You Want. I can’t help but feel like punditry is serving to dumb us all down. I’m not just talking about political pundits here; there are sports pundits – namely Skip Bayless – who try to step up as guardians and blow things up to humongous proportions, and entertainment pundits who basically do the same thing. (Really, the political pundits are the most honest about what exactly they do, and that’s pretty disturbing.)

Cheap TV Deaths
Done correctly, killing a beloved character on a popular TV show can be affecting. But it’s getting to be so common now that it’s turning into betting pool fodder. Take a pair of polar opposites that happened in the last year: The Simpsons used the death of “a beloved character” as an incentive to get people to watch. The character in question turned out to be Hyman Krustofski, Krusty the Clown’s pop. Even if you’ve spent the last decade tuning out from The Simpsons, you have to know Hyman Krustofski’s death isn’t going to alter the series. Rabbi Krustofski was introduced in a classic episode in an early season in which he was reunited with his son, and he appeared sporadically after that and was never a real factor in the show’s continuity. On the other side, there was the death of Tracy McConnell in How I Met Your Mother, which was written off as a wild fan conspiracy theory right up until it actually happened. This was a significant moment for a few reasons: First, Tracy was the show’s titular character. Her death was based on a gross miscalculation on the creators’ part; it brought out the worst aspects of the main character; and it retconned a ton of the show’s canon. Deaths on TV are a fine line to walk, but it looks like too many TV writers are just knocking characters off out of personal convenience or attempts to be bold.