Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

Over much of Europe 1816 was known as “The Year Without Summer.” Thanks to the ash cloud that hung over the continent due to the eruption of Mount Tambora the year before, the weather was far too cold and dreary for anyone to justify using the season’s traditional designation. At the villa of Lord Byron on Lake Geneva, Switzerland; Mary Wollenstone Goodwin,  Percy Bysshe Shelley, Clair Clairmont, John William Polidor and their esteemed host were spending just such an inclement evening reading German ghost stories and discussing all manner of subjects from vegetarianism to the possibility of re-animating the dead. The story goes that at one point in the evening Lord Byron suggested that each of them should write their own supernatural tale.

Such a challenge would not have phased the likes of Shelley and Polidor who, like Byron, were already established writers, but for the 18-year-old Mary Goodwin I’m sure it was a bit more daunting. She set down to write a short story in which she considered how frightful it would be for “any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”[1]  Shelley, her lover whom she would marry later that year, encouraged her to expand the tale into a full novel. She finished it in November of 1817, and on January 1st, 1818 the world was introduced to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

And in that same story, according to many, the 19-year-old daughter of a political philosopher and his feminist wife also gave birth to the genre of Science Fiction.

By the time I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in my early twenties science fiction was already established as my genre of choice. With my parents encouragement I grew up reading Jules Vern, Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, E.E.’Doc’ Smith and a dozen others. In 1969 I sat glued to my TV set watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon and thought to myself, “Wow, it’s all coming true.”

Frankenstein was large in my mind as well, but only the Frankenstein of the movies. Boris Karloff brought the monster to life for me; terrifying and terrified, he met a fiery end at the hands of frightened villagers.  The monster was reincarnated as the companion of Dracula, the Werewolf, and many others including Abbott and Costello. So it was a great surprise to me when I read the novel that started it all because, as I was soon to discover happened all too often, Hollywood didn’t appear to have read the same book as I did.  In Mary’s story there is no Igor, no villagers with pitch forks, no apparatus to capture the power of lightning, and while Castle Frankenstein in Germany may have played a role in inspiring the name of Mary’s protagonist, the castle itself appears nowhere in the story.

Mary’s story is, in fact, an epistolary novel, told in the form of a series of letters between one Captain Robert Walton and his sister Margaret. He recounts the series of events that lead to his exploration of the Arctic in an effort to reach the North Pole. Before he achieves his goal however, his crew spot a giant form, human in appearance but impossibly large, travelling across the pack ice on a dog sled. A day later they rescue Victor Frankenstein, nearly dead from exposure, whose own dog sled has succumbed to the treacherous terrain leaving him pursuing the creature paddling an ice raft. Walton then recounts to his sister the incredible tale that Frankenstein relates during his convalescence on board ship. The story of one man’s attempt to create life from non-life, and the terrible consequences of his success.

And therein lies the core of Mary’s tale. The story was originally published under the title Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It is an apt sub-title. The Prometheus myth comes in two flavours; in Latin Prometheus is the one who creates mankind out of clay and water, while in Greek he is the Titan (half god/half human) who steals fire from the mountain of the gods and gives it to mankind so that they might become greater than what they are. In both versions Prometheus is punished for what he has done.

So it is with Victor. He starts out, innocently enough, as a man bent on learning all that he can about death in order to defeat it. Driven by his grief at the loss of his mother he studies every aspect of the body’s decay and, by applying what he has learned in the field of chemistry and other sciences, discovers a method for animating unliving flesh. As the crowning touch to his research he sets out to make himself a man, which he does, assembling the creature from various sources including both “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house.” The creature is made larger than a normal human because of, as Victor puts it, “the difficulty in replicating the minute parts of the human body.” All of this work is done not in some remote castle in the dark woods of Transylvania, but in his assigned lab at the university in Ingolstadt.

But then something happens the reader does not expect (I told you I wouldn’t avoid spoilers). When he finally does succeed in imparting life to his creation (exactly how Frankenstein does not reveal to Walton), there is no moment of joy, no victorious cry of  “It’s alive!” at the top of his lungs. Instead there is only fear and revulsion at the sight of the hideous monster that now stands and breathes before him. He flees, leaving the creature alone in his room as he runs out into the street, overwhelmed by the horror of what he has done.

Here then is where Victor departs not just from the room, but from his role as creator. Unlike the God he aspires to equal, Victor takes no responsibility for his creation. He does not build a garden for the naked creature to live in nor embrace his creation as a loving father would. He doesn’t even hang around long enough to give him a name! Instead, like Adam in the garden after the tree incident he seeks to hide himself from his sin.

Victor goes home because the guilt he feels at his actions causes him to succumb to a substantial illness. Meanwhile the creature flees the city as well and living in the woods, subsists on berries and other vegetation (Mary was a vegetarian), and observing mankind from a distance he eventually decides to seek out his creator. When he does, we are surprised to learn that the creature has mastered not only the ability to speak but to read, and makes quite an eloquent argument to his creator of his need for acceptance, family, and for love.

Victor at first is moved by the creature’s intelligence, deep pain of loneliness but still refuses to take responsibility for the life he has created, refusing to fulfill the creature’s desire for a mate, an Eve to his Adam if you will. Because of Victor’s continued rejection the creature seeks revenge and begins a killing spree that leaves Frankenstein without friends or family denying his creator any hope of experiencing the love he refuses to bestow upon the life he brought into the world.

Exactly how the story ends I will leave for you to discover should you decide to read it.

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I can hear some of you saying, “Okay Dennis, but what about the spiritual side? What about the questions you asked in the previous post?”

Well, it appears that rather than being anti-God, amoral, or mired in the triumph of science over faith, science fiction has its genesis in the story of a man who infringed on God’s domain and suffered for doing so. For all his vaunted declarations of the supremacy of knowledge and the wonders of chemistry, Victor Frankenstein could not meet the responsibility of creating life. He himself recognized his creature as an abomination and realized the only thing he could do to make things right was destroy it, pursuing it to the ends of the earth, literally, in an effort to correct his mistake.

Shelley’s story reminds me of the Tower of Babel. In Genesis 11 we are told that God separated the people by language because they had gotten too arrogant in their faith in their own abilities. He feared for what they might try to do next; and this just for building a skyscraper!  In Frankenstein Shelley fears that mankind’s pursuit of knowledge is headed in a far more dangerous direction and through her tale seeks to issue a warning.

The Frankenstein Argument is still a valid one today; and one that I subscribe to,  both as a Christian and as a fan of technology. Humanity has not yet succeeded in animating unliving flesh in the manner of young Victor, but through the use of various biotechnologies we are trying to improve on God’s design. The motivation is the same as Victor’s, end human suffering and make us more resilient to disease and injury, but the consequences of success could be equally tragic.

There are plenty of other themes that could be discussed in relation to this story. Loneliness and the need for companionship is a big one. Dysfunctional families, deadbeat dads, judging people by their appearances; it’s a lengthy list and if you’d like to explore some of these issues, as they relate to Frankenstein, I’d be happy to do so in the comments.

But for now, I would have to say – yes gentle reader, Mary Shelley has contributed to my world view. But contrary to the contentions of the critics, she has actually reenforced my Biblical perspective.  Shelley lived a hundred years before Joyce Kilmer, but it would seem she agreed that “only God can make a tree” or a man.

Till next Time…  Shalom.

• Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can be read online at Project Gutenberg.

• For a movie version that holds to the original story (for the most part) see this excellent production by director Kenneth Branagh

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[1] Quoted from Mary Shelley’s introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.

It never ceases to amaze me that in times of amazing human suffering somebody says something that can be so utterly stupid.

Such was the response of White House spokesman Robert Gibbs to the declaration by ‘700 Club ‘ and ‘CBN’ founder Pat Robertson that the earthquake in Haiti was another in a long line of natural disasters brought on by a “pact with the devil” Haitians made some two centuries ago.  The White House Press Secretary is absolutely right, but what bothers me is how often that something “so utterly stupid” is said by a minister of God.

There’s no denying that many times in the Old Testament God used a variety of ‘natural disasters’ to chastise one nation or another; so it is certainly understandable that many would question if God is still working that way today.  What I question however; is anyone’s ability to accurately discern which events are God in action and which are the natural consequence of a world that no longer works according to the original design? And even if you have reason to believe that a given event may, in fact, be the consequences of spiritual decisions made centuries ago, how can you possibly think saying so at a time when emotions are obviously running high can be of any help, either to the victims or to the cause of Christ?

It is just this kind of spiritual thoughtlessness that casts Christians and the gospel in a light not as a message of love and redemption, but rather one of judgment and condemnation. Daily Show host Jon Stewart actually hit the nail on the head during last night’s program. After reading a number of quotes from the Bible that spoke of the love and comfort of God, eg. “Turn to me and I will comfort you” Stewart looks straight into the camera and says to Robertson,

Out of all the things that you could draw on from your religion to bring comfort to a devastated people and region, you decided to go with, ‘Tough kitties, devil folk!’

Now I’m sure that this was not the spirit in which Robertson made the statements he made; the problem is that’s how it almost always comes across.  And while Robertson seems to have a substantial track record in this regard, he is not alone. All too often we as Christians think we have to expound on everything the scriptures have to say on any given situation we encounter, and more often than not all that’s needed is a simple, “Don’t be afraid. God Loves You!”

Throughout all of Scripture, God’s messengers most frequently begin their message to the people with these simple words, “Do not be afraid!” Do not be afraid, God will deliver you.  Do not be afraid, God will bless you.  Even while telling his disciples of the terrible things that were to come (including earthquakes) Jesus told them not to be afraid.

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”  – John 16:33 NIV

Now I know some of you are wondering, “Okay, but Haiti gets hit a lot. What if Robertson is right?” Well I’m wondering, does it really matter? Does why the earthquake hit let us off the hook for being compassionate? Are we called to help and encourage only those whose ancestors had their act together? I don’t think so.

I do think the Bible calls us to be the presence of Christ in this world.  And I do think that means to feed the hungry, heal the sick and mend the brokenhearted regardless of how they got into their situation. And I also think that if the children of God can’t do this without saying things that make them sound spiritually knowledgeable, but end up doing more harm than good, then maybe God’s children should be seen and not heard!

This may sound a little strange to some of you, but I am truly saddened by the passing of David Carradine.  No, I’m not morning the lost of a great action figure like some, nor did I think of him as a role model the way he is being portrayed by others.  And yet, truth be told, without him my life might have taken a very different turn.

I was 18 when Kung Fu came to television. Carradine’s charater Kwai Chang Caine fasinated me. The juxtaposition of passive demeaner and explosions of violence was something I had never considered.

At the time I was part of a Christian High school group; I didn’t really believe, I was just madly in lust with one of the female members of the group.  Kwai Chang Caine however, caused me to seriously examine the question of spirituality.  I sought out instruction in Eastern philosophy and eventually wound up learning from a Buddist instructor at the same time that I was attending a Baptist congregation.  He often commented on the teachings of Jesus and thought that the Jewish rabbi must have been exposed to Buddist teachings at some point.

His take on Jesus’ teaching was, however, somewhat different from what I was learning in the Baptist church. When I would tell him what my pastor had told me a passage meant he would often respond with, “Really? But that’s not what He said.” It was this exposure to non-Christian examination of scripture that caused me to take a serious personal look at the Bible rather than just accepting what I was told it meant.

Eventually both the girl and the Buddist moved out of my life – but Jesus remained. And so did a desire to fully understand the context of what Jesus was saying.  All of which has, of course, contributed to who I am today.

Even though he played a relatively small role in my spiritual development, I followed Carradines career with more than a passing intertest. It is said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” and Kwai Chang Caine was the motivation for that first step. And so I find myself feeling a small measure of indebtedness to the character and the  actor.

When I learned of his death however, it was not any of the King Fu scenes that came to mind.  (No I don’t buy the suicide angle, neither do I think the asian Mafia had him killed.) No, my favorite Carradine moment will always be the Superman speech from Kill Bill 2. It’s a great commentary on the nature of masks and identity.  I think it stuck in my mind because of the fact that Superman is one of the most widely distributed archetypes of Christ, which puts an interesting slant on the commentary.

(For the more sensitive among you – brief bad language advisory.)

Well, I’ll admit the London Times isn’t real high on my list of must read newspapers so it took a while for this to come to my attention. 

Bernard d’Espagnat, an 87 year old quantum physicist with a fair bit of international cred, has been awarded the Templeton Prize, a £1 million prize ($ 1,790,400 CDN) that honours scientists who contribute to religious thought.  Dr d’Espagnat, professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Paris-Sud university, believes that science cannot fully explain “the nature of being.”

As stated in the article:  Dr d’Espagnat said in prepared remarks that, since science cannot reveal anything certain about the nature of being, it cannot tell us with certainty what it is not. “Mystery is not something negative that has to be eliminated,” he said. “On the contrary, it is one of the constitutive elements of being.”

I’d keep going but Ruth Gledhill (Times religion correspondent) has covered the topic quite nicely, so if you’re interested you can read the entire article at the following link…

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article5918050.ece

Until next time…  keep thinking those deep thoughts.

I’ll tell you up front, this is the same post as I placed on my Java and Jesus blog two days ago. I Just felt I needed to post it here as well. The subject seems appropriate for this venue. For me it’s a pretty black and white issue….
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I had fully intended to write the next episode of ‘Exploring the Kingdom Gospel” this week, but then something unexpected happened. Late Wednesday night a man walked out of a local bar, got into his truck and drove off. Because he was drunk, instead of taking the on-ramp to Hwy 6 south, he took the off ramp and wound up driving south in the North-bound lanes. A few minutes later he drove head on into a car, killing the driver. That driver was a wonderful young woman named Anna Graham.

I first met Anna about a year ago. Her uncle asked me to work on a production of “Death of a Salesman” that he was directing for Guelph Little Theatre. It was one of the best experiences of my life, and Anna was no small part of it. Anna, along with Anthony “Pooch” Brown, was designing the lighting for the production. You didn’t have to watch her work for long to know that this woman not only knew what she was doing, she enjoyed it immensely and had a real gift for creativity. You also didn’t have to watch for long to see just how proud her uncle, my friend Lloyd, was of her.

And now she’s gone!

As you scan the status lines of her friends on Facebook you can see the range of emotions. One person “is sad“, another “is numb“, one more is “trying to come to terms.” The most vocal of the lot is “Really mad….and hurt…and not understanding why this life has to be so f**kin unfair!!!” (the asterisks are mine). I know how he feels. I felt the same way when James died a year ago (I wrote about it here.). But somehow, I don’t feel the same pain about Anna, not the same way.

I know part of the reason is the simple fact Anna and I weren’t as close as James and I were. It’s no reflection on Anna; we worked together on ‘Salesman’ and then went our separate ways, her to her circle and me to mine. Most of the pain I feel is for her uncle Lloyd. Him I do consider a friend, and as both actor/director and human being, have a great deal of respect and admiration for the man. I can only imagine what he is going through. He’s never far from my thoughts.

But the biggest difference in this case is there was some good to be found in Jame’s death. He had been sick for a long time. In many ways his passing was a relief. His suffering is over and the spiritual part of me can at least begin to wrap my head around the idea that God decided it was for the best.

But in Anna’s case this logic does not apply. The hard cold fact is Anna died because someone couldn’t find anything better to do with a Wednesday night than get drunk watching naked women dance on stage. And even that might not matter except he then compounded things by making the selfish decision to drive himself home, and no one, not the bartender, not the servers, not his friends, nor the big burly guy at the door took the necessary steps to stop him. Anna is gone because human beings made selfish and wrong choices! Plain and simple!

Do I sound like I’m ranting? Of course I am. I’m angry! Because the simple fact is THIS IS WHY WE NEED GOD!!

Every day on the news and in other media I hear people trying to tell me how outmoded a concept God is. How human beings don’t need some invisible being in the sky, they are quite capable of conducting their own affairs. Morality is a flexible concept and changes from day to day, what’s good for you is bad for me, etc. etc. etc. Religion is no longer required because we can run our own affairs quite nicely thank you.

But the fact is, human beings, generally speaking, as a species, are no where near smart enough, wise enough, deep enough or insightful enough to be their own moral compass. When push comes to shove each of us, left to our own devices, will make a decision based not on the common good, or the welfare of others, but on our selfish wants and desires. The only hope for us is to have a moral guide that comes from outside of ourselves. A culture of accountability which holds us personally responsible for our actions on a level above and beyond the human trappings of law and order. This is the role religion fulfills.

And before you get started on the evils of organized religion, let me say it’s not the institution of religion I’m talking about. Rather it is the ground level, day-to-day belief that God is watching, and that someday we will have to face Him one-on-one and He will say, “Explain it to me again why you were a complete and total moron” – or words to that effect. For thousands of years the love for and fear of God has kept human beings from acting out of selfish motives and inspired us to think twice before we act, even if the only reason is the slim possibility that if we don’t behave we might find ourselves spending eternity roasting on a spit over a lava-fed barbecue. Though personally I have always suspected the lake of fire in Revelation is a metaphor for something far worse.

I know – I’m preaching. I’m taking advantage of Anna’s death to get on my soapbox and call down fire and brimstone. Well, I make no apologies for it. I’m not trying to be comforting, I’m trying to stop this kind of thing from happening the only way I know how.

I know full well that if it were not for the work of God in my life, I could well be that same moron getting drunk watching naked women dance. Or possibly something much worse. This is why Jesus came to earth as a child and sacrificed himself as a man – to save us from ourselves. To give us an option other than hopelessly trying to be our own moral compass. He is God’s response to our insistance on doing things our own way.

The hard cold fact is that this world is the way it is because human beings, collectively and individually, have said “Sorry God, we don’t need you any more. We are totally capable of making our own decisions. We are the captains of our own fates. Thanks for all your help in the past – we’ll take it from here.” And like it or not – this fractured, faulty, unfair world we live in is the result. I don’t like it either, but that’s the way it is.

The good news is this; when we said that, God responded by saying, “Fine. Have it your way. But when it all falls apart, when the unfairness of it all gets to you and you just can’t take it any more – please, please, PLEASE! Come crying back to Me and I promise – I WILL HELP YOU GET THROUGH IT!”

Good-bye Anna.

Shalom everyone.