Cows, car bingo and catolicism

I find it amazing how technology has reduced families to collections of people living under a single roof. Between HD TV in every room, cable boxes that stream four different shows to four different TVs, desktop computers, laptop computers, iPads, iPhones and iPods we never need to talk to each other.

Don’t get me wrong. I love technology. Carol and I hardly ever argue anymore because we’re too busy online to talk. Even when we’re driving, when Carol used to tell me everything I’m doing wrong, she now spends all her time on her iPhone talking to her Siamese Rescue
buddies. She never notices when I speed through a yellow anymore, drive too close to the curb or slow down to piss off tailgaters.

Gary and my sister Aimee have a DVD player in the back of their minivan and each of my nephews has his own Nintendo DS. You would think that would keep them from interacting with Gary and Aimee when they drive.

It doesn’t work, of course. As soon as they pop a DVD in, the kids argue about which DVD they should really be watching. Hopefully that will be solved when savvy car dealers decide to offer a separate DVD player for every kid in the back seat. Give each of the kids his own iPad too, and they should be able to make it from Dallas to Waco before the fighting starts.

Or maybe, at least, from North Dallas to the center of town.

I thought of this because I had been looking at car bingo apps for my column

Car bingo involved spotting objects on a list. If you saw one you could cross if off your bingo card. Just like bingo. You held your bingo card in your lap (think cheap piece of paper with cars, stop signs, planes, gas stations and mailboxes printed in different places on a five-by-five grid) and the cheapest possible pencil in your hand.

Only we didn’t play actually car bingo. My family played “cows” instead. Bingo was Catholic and gambling and Baptist Preacher’s Kids (BPKs) were’t allowed to associate with either. By extension, car bingo was just as shade below dancing on a very long list of sins.

In “Cows” the first passenger who spotted 25 cows won, but black cows wiped your count back to zero. You could only count the cows on your side of the car and you couldn’t make them up because you had to announce right away so mother could check (even BPKs cheat).

The other advantage of cows over car bingo was that you didn’t need bingo cards or pencils, which meant Dad wouldn’t get pissed when we lost yet another (and here his voice would lower so we couldn’t hear the adjectives) pencil under the back seat. You could start a game of cows with no preparation at all.

Of course, once Beth and I turned ten, we were on to their trick. The whole game was a ruse to shut us up. And even when we were younger, the game ended as soon as one of us decided the other was cheating or had the better side of the car and leaped across the cooler with a fistful of hair already firmly grasped.

Most games lasted fifteen minutes and ended, not with a win but with one of us (okay, me) climbing across the barrier. But even fifteen minutes rest between bouts must have seemed like heaven.

If my dad had been smart he would have let me pile all my books in the back of the car and read. But dad didn’t believe in reading on vacation. He would rhapsodize on the purism of vacationing in the car. “Just take in this vast panorama of nature,” he would say. “God’s beauty on display everywhere you look.” (He didn’t say this when we drove through cities.) “Just relax and enjoy the view.”

So we would sit back and enjoy the view, which meant that within five minutes I was climbing over the ice chest barrier to defend my honor over something Beth said under her breath, she would be punching back, I would have a fistful of hair in my hand and mother would have to start another game of cows.

It’s a shame my sister Aimee was too young to travel with us. She came along when I was in high school. And her husband Gary was an only child, so neither of them were prepared for life with two children in the back of the car. That’s why they installed a DVD player and gave my nephews Nintendo games.

I’m sure mother still tells them how much more fun it is to play cows whenever she takes long trips with them. And even though Aimee is her third child, I imagine she still hasn’t figured out that her children are no more likely to take her advice about childrearing than she was.

My version of cows for children was the quiet game. It was much more effective than cows. In the quiet game children had to stay quiet as long as possible and the first one to speak was the shameful loser. As soon as I heard a peep coming from the back of the car, I would remind Bryan and his cousins, “We’re still playing the quiet game. Do you really mean to tell me you can’t win a simple game like that?”

Of course there was a token reward for the winner and the game started over as soon as someone lost. And it usually worked for half an hour or more.

It should be no surprise to readers that when my first Catholic girlfriend (who my parents didn’t know about) took me to mass I was astounded to learn that Catholics had footrests and ash trays right there in the sanctuary. She knuckled my arm as soon as I propped my heels on that prayer pew. I figured out right away that the ash trays must serve another purpose.

Ironically, it’s okay for BPKs to play car bingo now because conservative Baptists have made up with conservative Catholics. The ice chest between them—a big box of indigestible theological cocktails that included Papal infallibility, transubstantiation, birth control, purgatory, limbo and thousands of Catholic and Protestant martyrs killed in hundreds of years of war (and gambling/Bingo)—has been set aside to protect unborn babies.

This is the modern political version of cows. Conservative Christians pretend to get along in order to play the game. The problem is, neither group has really made the effort to resolve hundreds of years of theological divide. The issues are still there.

While liberal churches (read “secular heathen churches”) tried to create true ecumenicalism, they were forced to tackle some really important questions. They are building bridges that will allow them to worship in peace even though some worship Christ, some pray to Allah, some still believe the only God is the God of Israel and some practice in the belief that the the eightfold path (and others) requires no God at all.

These are tough obstacles to overcome, but the objective has always been to overcome them. The tenuous alliance between conservative evangelicals and Catholics, however, is not forged with a desire to bring the two closer to God, but to pursue a political agenda. The upside of this alliance is that both may come to soften their stance on other issues and embrace a broader vision of God after all.

There is, however, a real possibility that when they’ve driven the last liberal from office, they will have to face the fact that they never resolved the far more important questions that divided them for all but a decade or two. And when they do, the holy catholic church of the Apostle’s Creed will become as fragmented as before.

So my advice to both conservative evangelicals and Catholics is to stop dwelling on politics and start addressing the many Christian beliefs you have in common. Try to build bridges past the issues that still divide you. I say this in the hope that once you resolve those questions among yourselves, it will become easier to accept that Jesus embraced a larger church than you previously recognized.


Bill Maher is Christian, or might as well be

The perils of religism

I love Bill Maher for two reasons. First, he understands Christianity better than most Christians. Seriously. Unlike many Christians, he seems to have read the same passages in the Bible that I remember and many Christians ignore.

But he was raised by Catholic and Jewish parents so maybe he had the support of two religious traditions to enlighten him. Being raised as a Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK), I only had one, the one that glossed over the verses he remembers and I only discovered—to my shock and horror (and maybe even a little embarrassment)—as an adult.

But I like Bill Maher even more because, in spite of his insistence that he doesn’t care for Christianity in the least, he thinks just like them. It’s amazing, really. He thinks Christians are evil, irredeemable, a threat to our Constitutional rights and the cause of most of the evils in the world.

Wait a minute, less perceptive readers may say, that’s the opposite of Christianity. Readers might believe that because they pay attention to words and overlook what are known as isomorphic (or structural) correspondences. Both Maher and Christians hold the same basic beliefs, they just attribute them to opposing causes. This create a series of parallel beliefs as illustrated by the following table:

Problem Maher Christians
Taking away our Constitutional rights Christian Right Maher Left
Determined to ruin America Christian Right Atheists and Liberals
Ignorant and narrow-minded Believers Atheists and Liberals
Represent everything bad in Society Believers and Tea Party Atheists and Secular Humanists
Want to control our children’s minds Religious Zealots Scientists, Atheists and Homosexuals
Force their values on Americans Christian Right Democrats and Permissive Liberals
The antiChrist controls the Oval Office George Bush Obama

You may find yourself skeptical, but just as the children of alcoholics can recognize addiction and addictive behavior—even when alcohol itself isn’t involved—so can BPKs recognize religion and religious behavior (even when a religion itself isn’t involved).

You see, when I was a kid, members of my family would have attributed the cause of the problems in my chart to Catholics and John F. Kennedy. We may have been raised in the Bible Belt, but if we had to choose between our sisters marrying a Black person or a Catholic, we would have disinherited our sisters.

But Catholics were worse than Black people (aka Negroes) because Negroes could be saved. Unless they were Negro Catholics.1 When I was a kid, mixed marriages didn’t involve Black people and White people (aka Negroes and people), but Baptists and Catholics.

This changed, of course, with the Great Crisis of Faith (GCOF). The GCOF occurred sometime in the 1980s, and is best summed up by a conversation between my Baptist Preacher Father, whose Christian credentials were somewhat suspect to his own Baptist Preacher Father and uncles because he was a more liberal Southern Baptist (yes, it’s possible) and not a true Bible Believing Baptist, and one of my uncles. The conversation went like this:

Uncle2: How can you have leadership meetings with Catholics? They worship the Pope and the Pope is Satan’s puppet.

Father: You know, I discovered that Catholics actually accept Christ too. They have the same Bible except for a few extra books that got thrown in by mistake.

Uncle: Exactly. That wasn’t a mistake. The Pope included those books because Satan told him to. Everything the Pope does or says is from Satan.3

Father: So anything the Pope says is inspired by Satan and we shouldn’t believe it.

Uncle: Exactly.

Father: But the Pope says abortion is evil.

At this point my mother broke in and changed the conversation, but dinner was pretty much over, and my uncle’s family left us to enjoy our after dinner liqueur, cigars and pornography.

But this pretty much summarizes the GCOF. Catholics maybe believed everything Christians (Baptists) found appalling, and they may have taken their marching orders from the Pope, but they were Pro-Life. Suddenly, the heavens opened and Catholics were Christian again.

It also illustrates what I mean when I compare religious behavior to alcoholism.

Now I’m not saying that my father wasn’t guilty of religism himself. He was, as am I, as are all BPKs and is Bill Maher whether he wants to believe it or not.

What are some of the signs of religism?

  • Insisting that you’re right, and anyone who disagrees with you is wrong.
  • Not just wrong, but wrong for America.
  • Insisting there are no conditions under which they could possibly be right.
  • Insisting there are no conditions under which they could possibly have something good to say or good to offer.
  • Mocking unbelievers (e.g., with names like “Religulous”).
  • Lumping all unbelievers into a single category.
  • The absolute total faith that you’re right and they’re dangerous.

As for me, like it or not, I’ve come to accept that it’s perfectly reasonable to believe God doesn’t exist and that God doesn’t hate you if you do. And God is much more tolerant of stupidity than I am.

In fact, the only guy I know of who never, for a moment, exhibited religism was Jesus. And we had to go build an entire religion with thousands of mutually exclusive versions around him.

Including Bill Maher’s religion that Jesus is good and all those who follow him are ignorant morons (which, by definition, would include me).

It’s all in the wiring

Modern neurobiology suggests religism (aka irreligulosity) may not be Bill’s fault. Belief is very much formed by neural connections. The more you accept one conclusion as true, the more you reinforce the neurons in your brain that shape belief.

As a consequence, the brain tends to ignore information that doesn’t reinforce that connection. Unless, of course, you consciously and deliberately make yourself consider that information as a possibility, and start to build a parallel connection.

The more you refuse to consider additional information, the more you erode the possibility of making that new connection. Soon the brain simply refuses to process that conflicting information at all.

Christians may call this faith (and Bill may call this enlightenment), but this is the opposite of faith or enlightenment. This process is literally the process of narrowing your mind.

Nothing I said is contradicted by the Bible, by the way, although I’m sure someone can spin a verse out of context to prove me wrong. Paul understood why other apostles interpreted the faith differently, and he never doubted their faith. Or his.

You don’t have to believe an idea to open your mind to it. Opening your mind to conflicting information doesn’t mean you will lose your faith. Accepting the fact that others may believe differently and still not threaten your world or conscience requires a true act of faith.

Jesus was constantly pointing out how reality contradicted religious tradition and faith. These contradictions never threatened his faith; they shaped his belief and made him stronger and wiser. If people didn’t follow him, he didn’t condemn them or berate them. He simply went on his way and let them go on theirs.

To be like Elisabeth

If I have to acknowledge a TV personality I’ve come to admire, it’s Elisabeth Hasselbeck on the View. I don’t agree with her most of the time, but more than anyone else she seems open to the possibility she could be wrong.

For many years she would come to the View armed with pages printed from the Web to prove that all things Bush and Republican were good and all things Rosie O’Donnell were bad. She would become flustered and petulant and completely defensive. When you see Kristin Wiig do Elisabeth on SNL, that’s the Elisabeth you’re seeing.

Something changed during the 2008 elections. I don’t know what happened. Maybe one of her children showed signs of early onset Democrat and she had to learn to love him anyway. Maybe she caught her husband Tim looking sideways at Maria Shriver and decided to become more rounded to win him back. Maybe the uber-liberal producers at ABC (as if) threatened her job.

But now she seems more open to a wider view of faith and politics. Ironically, now Joy Baher is looking more narrow-minded. More like Bill. The print-outs are gone, the red-faced rants are gone. And, most of all, she seems happier with herself and more confident in her beliefs.

So, Bill, I admire you and watch your show religiously. But please, be more like Jesus (and Elisabeth) and less like Sara Palin. As you have noticed with others (without, perhaps, being aware of the cause), too many neurons on one side of the brain can be unbalancing.

1Don’t judge them too harshly. Most good Christian racists didn’t really believe they were racists any more than Bill Maher believes he’s religiously irreligious. (Except maybe for that passage in the Bible that condemns Black people because they were the descendants of Noah who shamefully looked on his nakedness, which is why they will always be inferior.)

Baptists are tempted to believe that Negroes came from Africa, which makes them closer to monkeys than more advanced white people, but that would mean evolution is true, which, of course, is ridiculous and completely against the Bible.

So this leaves them to suggest that Negroes do funny things, as is proved by all those wonderful jokes they are no longer allowed to tell. But the jokes also prove they don’t really hate Black people because we laugh about them lovingly. On the other hand, there isn’t a single Catholic joke because there’s nothing funny about a false religion that put the antiChrist in the oval office.back

2Not named because he is still alive and I have to talk to him at family reunion, even though he will probably never read this blog.back
3Which, to be honest, I sometimes feel when I listen to Pope Benedict and his hints that maybe it’s time to repeal Vatican II, the way Republicans want to repeal the entire Obama administration.back

He is risen. Why bicker?

If the word on the street is true, and the rapture will occur on May 21, then today is the last Easter. Easter celebrates the anniversary of the resurrection of Christ with bunnies, easter eggs and enough sugar laden candy to send our children well on their way to early onset diabetes.

And it’s also the day of the year when I stop to wonder if he ever had second thoughts. After all, Jesus left his followers with one commandment, that we love each other as he loved us, and for the most part we’ve done a marvelous job of ignoring him or rationalizing that one commandment away.

The history of Christianity, for all of the good we’ve done (and, in truth, we’ve done a lot) seems more about “We’re right and you’re not” than loving each other. And it’s hard, I have to admit. After all, evangelicals think of Christians like me as condescending pompous stuffed shirts and we think of them as hillbilly retards. When the stereotypes are that well-defined, it’s hard to feel the love.

Here’s the thing. When I talk to Christians, truth seems to be a higher priority than love. With more fundamentalist Christians it’s truth, then obedience, then love. I became Episcopalian because they profess to be members of one catholic church (not Catholic, but catholic as in “one body united). Then the whole women in the priesthood thing pushed them to the verge of split, and the gay bishop thing sealed it.

The Catholic catholics will most likely undergo a similar split between orthodox and progressive wings and Neo-Catholics who align themselves with the religious right. It may be fifty years or more down the road, but the fissures are developing.

Baptists, who raised me, split at the drop of the hat and will most likely continue to do so until there are more denominations of Baptist than there are Amway distributors.

So here’s the thing. We have a month before the rapture and the first and possibly last official post of this blog. We can continue to harp on each other, bicker, and judge ourselves to be the only Christians who will make it while the others miss the ball. And, whether it’s May 21 or much later, Jesus can return to a trashed out planet with no one to welcome him but obsequious Christians waiting for him to declare them the official winners of truth.

And that is the doctrine of the rapture. Jesus is going to trash the planet and the sinners with it, so why keep it nice for him?

But a hundred years ago, before pre-millennialism and the doctrine of the rapture captured the evangelical consciousness, even evangelicals believed we were supposed to make bring this planet to perfection and usher in a thousand years of love.

So why not show him a circle of smiling faces with the message, “It doesn’t matter which of us got it exactly right, we all welcome you home?”