Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The longest day of my life

Time travel sounds a lot cooler than it actually is.  About a week ago I learned this the hard way.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

A cloudy OR Tambo
So it all started with a very nervous Eugene about to leave the country for the first time in his life during a massive rainstorm that seemed to have arrived out of nowhere.  This was to become a theme in my journey, I left a cloudy, rainy South Africa, flew to a cloudy Frankfurt, took a connecting flight to a slightly less cloudy San Fransisco and from there took a small plane to a cloudy and snowy Reno.  It felt a little bit like being an Israelite during the Exodus though thankfully there was no pillar of fire at any point.

Cloudy Frankfurt
One thing this journey gave me was a renewed sense of appreciation for my homeland.  It's very easy to get negative about South Africa, especially when you live there.  However I got to see first hand that we actually have a lot to be proud about.  OR Tambo International is a beautiful airport that compares favourably to every international airport I traveled through.  In fact, I had a smoother, more professional travel experience in "3rd world" South Africa than I did in "1st world" Germany.  I flew Lufthansa both times but the flight from Johannesburg boarded on time in an organized fashion (by row number) and departed exactly when it was supposed to with zero hiccups.  I could not say the same thing about Frankfurt.  Not only did we start boarding late but when we did it was just a rush to the gate by everyone.  Then, once we all got seated we learned that 2 wheels needed replacement causing a delay.  Then while waiting for the wheels to be changed the electrical systems failed and that needed to be repaired and then the on-board computer needed reprogramming resulting in us taking off well over an hour late.  Not saying all this to dump on Lufthansa, they are a great airline, they were friendly and professional and I am certainly glad that all got taken care of before we took off!  All I'm saying here is that I learned first hand not to be so quick with the "first world/third world" labels.
A cloudy but rapidly clearing San Fransisco
Now the time difference between Germany and South Africa was not so much so it was only on the journey to San Fransisco that I learned the hard truth about time travel.  See we left Frankfurt at about 11 am, traveled for over 10 hours and arrived in San Fransisco at 1 pm - 2 hours later the same day.  Honestly I'm still having trouble wrapping my mind around that.  I lost all sense of time as a result, in fact I still have trouble figuring out when I am.  Oddly enough, the dreaded jet lag I had heard so much about seemed to not affect me at all.  I've been on a normal schedule since arriving in Reno and have had no trouble adjusting at all to living in a new time zone.  Just don't ask me to guess what time it is because my sense of temporal awareness is still shot to hell.
Reno Airport, cold and snowy on the outside...
So here is what my long journey to the US taught me.  First off, don't buy into all the stereotypes.  Things can run like Swiss clockwork in Africa while running like Zimbabwean clockwork in Germany.  Similarly, while they get a very bad rap all over the world, my experience of the American people have been overwhelmingly positive.  As for the dreaded security, my entry into the US was professional and pleasant and I did not feel violated at any point, despite all the horror stories I've heard.  Germany on the other hand was a different story.  They had all these beefy and extremely aggressive looking security personnel sporting Mohawks who looked ready to snap at the slightest provocation.  Due to a mixup regarding my boarding gate I had to go through security twice.  At the first one my bags made it through without a hitch but I got a really invasive pat down and every stud on my denim got checked.  Meanwhile at the second checkpoint I got through without a hitch but then someone decided my camera charger looked suspicious and it had to be checked for explosives.  Like I said, I learned not to believe the hype, reality tends to be a lot different.

... but bright and entertaining on the inside!! (Yes that really is the airport)
Another thing I learned is that of all the airports, San Fransisco definitely has the prettiest girls.  Admittedly at that point I had been travelling for well over 24 hours so I barely had the energy to notice or care but still, it was worth the mental note.  The most important thing I learned however was this.  When you are flying Lufthansa and the stewards come by after a meal offering you coffee, tea, Baileys or brandy - take the brandy!!  Trust me on this, that stuff is amazing!  I only wish I knew what the brand name was, I suspect it was a cherry brandy of some kind.  I may never be able to drink Klipdrift again!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

My year of 2 winters

Global warming sucks ass.  This year, it robbed me of one of my favourite things in the world - Winter.  Oh we had some cold days, even a couple of cold weeks, but all in all it just didn't feel like much of a Winter.  It also ended really abruptly, I was wearing a jacket one week and shorts the next.  Just like that, winter was over before I had the time to really savour it.

However, all was not lost since this year I'm getting a second chance.  This year, I get to have a proper Winter in the USA!  So on 22 November I got to say "Yo home, smell you later!", boarded a plane and left sunny South Africa for the snowy hills of Reno, Nevada.  So far it's been a blast and I'll try to blog my journey as best I can since I would always want to cherish the memory but I'm never going to get into scrapbooking.

So whenever I get a moment I'll take a minute and tell you all about how my life got flipped turned upside down!

Monday, November 15, 2010

How Francis Chan converted me to Paganism

Francis Chan

So the other day I watched a free online premier for a new Christian video series called BASIC.  Sadly the free, full length video is no longer available but you won't have to simply take my word regarding the content as I did find a copy of the audio here.  The first thing that struck me was how incredibly alike this video seemed to the NOOMA series by Rob Bell.  The similarities soon became even stronger and I started to suspect that the presenter of this series, Francis Chan, was a really big Rob Bell fan because he was downright channeling the man.  In all fairness, I probably can't judge since I've only seen the one video but to me it seemed that Francis here would like nothing better than to find Rob and skin him so that he may wear him and be him!

Anyway, apart from that it wasn't bad.  The theme of this particular video was "follow Jesus" and it made some very good points, for instance that we needn't debate how to follow Jesus since it should be obvious - just look at what He told you to do and then do it.  But then, about 8 minutes in, things got iffy.  The conversation turned from "how do we follow Jesus?" to "why should I follow Jesus?"  The first answer he offered basically came down to "Because it's totally a privilege that Jesus even lets you follow Him so you should, like, totally do it!".  Somehow I doubt that would convince a skeptic.  He probably guessed as much because then he sheds his Rob Bell impression completely and tells you that you need to follow Jesus because Jesus is one scary dude!

Here is why Francis says he follows Jesus, because Jesus promised to return one day and judge the earth and according to the Book of Revelation, this judgement is going to be pants pissingly terrifying (I may be paraphrasing here).  To illustrate, he quotes from Revelation 6:15-17:

"Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”

He points out that Jesus often spoke of Hell - more often that He did of Heaven - and concludes that you should follow Jesus because He is a powerful Being and you want to be on His side because you wouldn't like Jesus when He gets angry!  So really, according to this video it's a case of follow Jesus or else!

This was a moment of epiphany for me!  He was completely right, I was using all the wrong criteria in deciding what to believe and who to follow.  Obviously one should follow the one that scares you the most.  
Therefore, thanks to Francis Chan, I now follow Xipe Totec! I'm a little confused as to why I seem to be the only one though, Pastor Chan made a good argument though for some odd reason he claims that he is following Jesus because "what other choice do I have?"  Seriously?  Have you even looked at some of the other deities out there?  Did Pastor Francis even consider deities like Set or Kali?  I did and there sure are plenty of powerful beings out there you don't want to be on the wrong side of!  In the end I settled on Xipe Totec because honestly, just look at the guy!  He invented war!  Jesus wants you to give Him your heart (metaphorically) - Xipe Totec literally wants you to give him (the still beating) hearts of other humans!  Jesus wore a robe, Xipe Totec wears flayed human skin* - you tell me who you find more fearsome.  I just hope my new lord will forgive me for not offering him any freshly removed human hearts, flayed skin and human blood as sacrifice.  Sacrificial pyramids just take time to build thats all.  Perhaps I should have started with arrow sacrifice or a fire pit instead...

"Our lord the flayed one"

 I must admit though, sometimes I do lie awake at night wondering if I made the right choice.  Especially when I consider the incredibly cruel punishments Zeus enjoys dispensing.  Don't get me wrong, hellfire is very scary!  Somehow having a a giant bird eat out your liver every day for all eternity sounds worse!  I guess it's because the flames of Hell just never end, its the same thing for every second of eternity.  But when you are chained to the rock waiting for the bird to come for your freshly regenerated liver those few hours of dread filled near normalcy just sounds even more excruciating somehow...

*Funny enough, according to Wiki, it seems both could heal you if you touched it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Powerlessness of Positive Thinking

So while reading up a bit on Rev Schuller for my previous blog post I noticed a lot of online Christian sources blasting him for preaching a gospel of positive thinking.  At first I didn’t think too much of it, since that’s the kind of short hand many Christian groups sometimes use to indicate that a preacher isn’t anti-gay and pro-hellfire enough for their liking.  However when I finally got to the bottom of his Wiki page I noticed that they actually meant that quite literally – the power of positive thinking was his message.  Just look at the titles of some of the books he authored:

Way To The Good Life (1963)
Move Ahead With Possibility Thinking (1967)
Self-Love (1975)
You Can Be The Person You Want To Be (1976)
Self-Esteem: The New Reformation (1982)
Living Positively One Day At A Time (1986)
Success is never ending, failure is never final (1990)

If I threw in a couple of titles by self esteem/positive thinking gurus like Tony Robbins would you be able to tell?  (Just FYI, I didn’t.  Those are all from the good reverend).  There is nothing in there that even seems Christian for goodness sake!  The message is clear – if you want a good life you need good self esteem and a positive attitude.  Of course when you take in the reality of the Crystal Cathedral’s $43 million debt a very different message becomes apparent – positive thinking cannot save you.

Look, I won’t claim that positive thinking is completely useless since it demonstrably isn’t.  It makes sense that a positive person would be more likely to be looking for opportunities and would be more likely to actually pursue the ones they find.  In a way, positive people can create their own luck by finding and making good use of all the opportunities a pessimist might overlook or choose not to make use of.  However, that is where it ends.  No amount of positive thinking can control the universe.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what the positive thinking preachers would like you to believe.  Whether they dress it up in the Christian language of Rev Schuller or in the pseudo-scientific language of “The Secret”, in the end the message is still that you can bend the world to your will purely by thinking really positively.  The big problem with that idea is that the universe couldn’t care less what you thought.

The thing about reality is that it doesn’t require you to believe in it, doesn’t need you to approve of it and it doesn’t want you to like it.  It just is and wishing really hard will never change that.  That is why all the positive thinking in the world won’t prevent disasters (manmade and natural) from bringing destruction to your life.  Despite what you may have been told, no amount of positive thinking can cure cancer and other terminal illnesses*.  Unfair as it may seem to our tender sensibilities, a bitter and cynical person may survive the dread disease that a happy, positive person succumbs to.  It happens every day.  You can’t wish your way out of a bad situation.  Some things will always be outside your control and others are the inevitable results of the choices we make.  For instance if you eat more calories than you use you will gain weight.  Likewise, if you spend more than you earn you will go into debt, as the good folks over at the Crystal Cathedral so beautifully demonstrated.  Positive thinking cannot and does not make your debt disappear.  Happy thoughts cannot create money out of thin air.   

Seems to me that while positive thinking can do some good, it is just as likely to actually make things much, much worse.  Let’s say you start experiencing some worrisome physical symptoms.  A realistic thing to do would be to have it checked out, right?  You never know, it may be serious.  A positive thinker on the other hand may decide that going to a doctor is just too pessimistic and instead try to wish themselves better.  If something is in fact seriously wrong, who do you think has a better chance of getting treatment in time?  Now think about the positive folks over at the Crystal Cathedral.  A less positive group of people may have realized they needed to seriously re-evaluate their spending habits after the first couple of million dollars worth of debt.  Not them!  Seems they felt confident just going on with spending money they didn’t have and just believing that things would work themselves out.  After all, aren’t things supposed to all work out in the end?  Well no, no they aren’t.  Truth is, there is no realistic reason why things have to work out for the best for anyone.  Wishes are no match for reality and if you persist in a harmful pattern of behavior then all the positive thinking in the world won’t change the inevitable consequences of your actions.  Miracles don’t have to happen but reality always does.

Here we are, stuck in a big universe that seems indifferent at best to our personal happiness.  So of course we would all be drawn to the idea that we are in fact not completely out of control, that there is some magical way we can control our reality.  No such way actually exists but of course that has never stopped people from selling programs and "principles" for those desperate for some form of control.  Sadly, those are all illusions and nothing more.  There is no way to actually make yourself rich or thin or healthy or happy simply by wishing really hard or being really really positive about things.  We all have to play the cards we are dealt, that is reality.  If having a positive attitude helps you make the best of the reality you've been given then great, do not stop.  Just don't get carried away and start thinking you can alter reality through happy thoughts and wishful thinking.  Some things will forever be out of your control and anyone telling you different probably has a book they would like to sell you.

* The clinical studies done on the subject show very clearly that attitude has no influnece on survival when it comes to serious ilnesses like cancer. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there have been studies showing that pessimists cope really well with cancer.  In fact, according to at least one researcher I could find, the whole positive thinking movement can do more harm than good for cancer patients.  Jimmie Holland, MD, psychiatrist at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center coined the term "the tyranny of positive thinking" to describe the belief.
"The idea that we can control illness and death with our minds appeals to our deepest yearnings, but it just isn't so," she tells WebMD. "It is so sad that cancer patients are made to believe that if they aren't doing well it is somehow their own fault because they aren't positive enough."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Obscene Christians in a time of suffering

If you have watched any Christian television at some point in your life you may be familiar with this building:

This is the world famous "Crystal Cathedral" in Orange County, California. The prominent architect Philip Johnson designed the main sanctuary building, which was constructed using over 10,000 rectangular panes of glass and its sanctuary seats 2,736 persons.  I think it would be fair to say that you would be hard pressed to find another church like it.  It may not have as much gold and famous art but it somehow manages to outshine the most opulent Cathedrals of the Catholic Church.

Somehow it manages to look even bigger from the inside

Now my parents were kind of big fans (some members of my family still are) so I've had to sit through quite a few episodes of "The Hour of Power" which usually turned out to be far more bland than the name suggested.  Now the founding pastor of this megalithic mega church is this guy:

Rev. Robert H. Schuller 
Just to make it interesting I should point out that the good Reverend here wrote the following book (among many others):
Amazon still has a few copies! Buy now!

Chew on that fact for a moment.  Now try to comprehend the following.  The Chrystal Cathedral is in debt.  Lots of debt.  How much debt?  Well it depends on who you ask but Wiki & others tend to put it at over $40 million.  That's a 4 followed by seven zeros.  In US dollars, not Zimbabwean dollars.  I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that it would be a lot of debt for a small country, never mind a single church!  Now let's say you are the Reverend Schuller.  What do you tell your congregation?  Do you say "I'm sorry, we've clearly made some terrible mistakes and we will work hard to get out of this mess?"  Turns out that no, instead you go before your congregation and say:

"I need more help from you," Schuller said, according to the Orange County Register. "If you are a tither, become a double-tither. If you are not a tither, become a tither. This ministry has earned your trust. This ministry has earned your help."

Yep, he wants you to give a lot more money to him because "This ministry has earned your trust".  Dude!  Like WTF?!  You say the words but I don't think you understand the sentence you are using.  Ending up in tens of millions of dollars worth of debt is the opposite of earning someones trust.  When someone is in so much debt that Oprah herself could not bail them out then who in their right mind would trust them with any of their money?  Yet this guy wants people to give double and triple the amounts they usually would.  During one of the worst recessions in recent history.  Thousands are unemployed, houses are being foreclosed on faster than the banks can fill in the paperwork but apparently the trustworthy place to put the little money you have left is in a giant Xmas tree ornament/church.  What??!