Archives For Interfaith Issues

Beware of Zoolatry

January 8, 2013 — 17 Comments

royal catWhen my wife and I dated, I praised her beautiful cat when I visited her home. The cat maintained that imperial posture and attitude that is common in virtually all felines. And that came as no surprise, since she was an Egyptian Mau, one of the most ancient of breeds. She passed on long decades ago, but her haughty, regal bearing is etched in my memory.

I thought of her today when I read the following in the December issue of First Things, in the executive editor’s column.

Wandering around the American Kennel Club’s big “Meet the Breeds” event with my two youngest children recently, I saw a big banner in the cat section proclaiming that a particular breed had been considered a god by an ancient civilization. Of course, our understanding of the genuine religious impulses of ancient religions has increased, but still, one of the gifts the Jewish people have brought the world is that no one who knows about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the least bit tempted to worship cats.

I mean, would you want to worship a murderous narcissistic psychopath? This is not an image of God to make anyone happy. If you’re going to worship an animal, why not the Border Collie, frantically eager to please, or the loving, soulful-eyed Lab? Or the alert and protective German Shepherd? Or the indomitable Saint Bernard? Or the classic loyal and even-tempered mutt?

I don’t intend to offend any cat lovers by repeating this observation—my son has an affectionate tabby he rescued as a kitten while a senior in high school, that’s welcome in our home anytime. Still, as an unrepentant dog person, and “papa” to a rescued border collie, the words above brought a smile to me.

C.S. Lewis painted a graphic image of one animal-headed deity. It was Tash, the god of the Calormenes. In The Last Battle, we see that in Narnia, the reality behind the lifeless image can be most terribly revealed.

In the shadow of the trees on the far side of the clearing something was moving. It was gliding very slowly Northward. At a first glance you might have mistaken it for smoke, for it was grey and you could see things through it. But the deathly smell was not the smell of smoke. Also, this thing kept its shape instead of billowing and curling as smoke would have done. It was roughly the shape of a man but it had the head of a bird; some bird of prey with a cruel, curved beak. It had four arms which it held high above its head, stretching them out Northward as if it wanted to snatch all Narnia in its grip; and its fingers—all twenty of them—were curved like its beak and had long, pointed, bird-like claws instead of nails. It floated on the grass instead of walking, and the grass seemed to wither beneath it. . . .

The others watched it for perhaps a minute, until it streamed away into the thicker trees on their right and disappeared. Then the sun came out again, and the birds once more began to sing. Everyone started breathing properly again and moved. They had all been still as statues while it was in sight. “What was it?” said Eustace in a whisper. “I have seen it once before,” said Tirian. “But that time it was carved in stone and overlaid with gold and had solid diamonds for eyes. It was when I was no older than thou, and had gone as a guest to The Tisroc’s court in Tashbaan. He took me into the great temple of Tash. There I saw it, carved above the altar.”

“Then that—that thing—was Tash?” said Eustace.

In our world, idolatry has certainly evolved since it’s pantheistic and zoolatrous beginnings. Today we are tempted by material indulgences and corruptions aplenty. While few of us impute divinity to animals or objects of stone or wood, we don’t have to look far to find something we deem worthy of adoration.

Our favorite idol is neither beast nor mammon. It is ourselves. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain:

This act of self-will on the part of the creature, which constitutes an utter falseness to its true creaturely position, is the only sin that can be conceived as the Fall. For the difficulty about the first sin is that it must be very heinous, or its consequences would not be so terrible, and yet it must be something which a being free from the temptations of fallen man could conceivably have committed. The turning from God to self fulfils both conditions. It is a sin possible even to Paradisal man, because the mere existence of a self—the mere fact that we call it “me”—includes, from the first, the danger of self-idolatry. Since I am I, I must make an act of self-surrender, however small or however easy, in living to God rather than to myself. This is, if you like, the “weak spot” in the very nature of creation, the risk which God apparently thinks worth taking.

Now, this is a sin to which I frequently find myself succumbing. I far too often think first about my own desires and appetites . . . only later (if ever) becoming concerned with the needs of my neighbor.

No, it’s neither cat nor dog that needs to be evicted from the throne in my soul reserved for my Creator—it’s me.

Creation Story Similarities

September 20, 2012 — 4 Comments

I love being welcomed into other cultures by individuals who are proud of their heritage and eager to share it. Yesterday I attended a gathering of pastors at a church in Neah Bay, Washington, which lies in the far northwest corner of the “Lower Forty-Eight” United States.

Neah Bay is the largest community on the Makah Indian Reservation. A visit to the outstanding Makah Museum taught me many things. The unfortunate burial of the Makah village of Ozette preserved numerous artifacts that teach us about “pre-contact” Native American tribal life. A 1750 mudslide covered ten long houses and that tragedy has been redeemed in a small way by providing the modern Makah nation with a wealth of knowledge about its ancestors.

As a dog lover, I was fascinated by the fact that the Makah bred a special type of dog that was sheered for its “wool.” This, of course, was due to the absence of sheep, goats, llamas and the like. These particular canines were kept on an island to prevent their interbreeding with camp dogs. Unfortunately, their breed is no longer known, although I am curious as to whether it could be established from studying remains, assuming the tribe still knows which island was used as their refuge.

The news that intrigued me most was that, in Makah mythology, at the time of their creation, all of the animals could speak. Now, it will not surprise any readers to know this reminded me of another creation tale. My thoughts immediately leapt to the story of Narnia’s creation, which C.S. Lewis describes in The Magician’s Nephew.

[Aslan] was going to and fro among the animals. And every now and then he would go up to two of them (always two at a time) and touch their noses with his. He would touch two beavers among all the beavers, two leopards among all the leopards, one stag and one deer among all the deer, and leave the rest. . . . the creatures whom he had touched came and stood in a wide circle around him. . . . The Lion, whose eyes never blinked, stared at the animals as hard as if he was going to burn them up with his mere stare. And gradually a change came over them. The smaller ones—the rabbits, moles, and such-like—grew a good deal larger. The very big ones—you noticed it most with the elephants—grew a little smaller. Many animals sat up on their hind legs. Most put their heads on one side as if they were trying very hard to understand.

The Lion opened his mouth, but no sound came from it; he was breathing out, a long, warm breath; it seemed to sway all the beasts as the wind sways a line of trees. Far overhead from beyond the veil of blue sky which hid them the stars sang again; a pure, cold, difficult music. Then there came a swift flash like fire (but it burnt nobody) either from the sky or from the Lion itself, and every drop of blood tingled in the children’s bodies, and the deepest, wildest voice they had ever heard was saying: “Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.”

In the Makah creation story, the two brothers of the sun and moon changed preexisting material into the people and creatures we know today. Here is the brief account of their labors. It is interesting to note that both accounts impute personhood to the trees, as well as the animals.

When the world was very young, there were no people on the earth. There were no birds or animals, either. There was nothing but grass and sand and creatures that were neither animals nor people but had some of the traits of people and some of the traits of animals.

Then the two brothers of the Sun and the Moon came to the earth. Their names were Ho-ho-e-ap-bess, which means “the Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things.” They came to make the earth ready for a new race of people, the Indians. The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things called all the creatures to them. Some they changed to animals and birds. Some they changed to trees and smaller plants.

Among them was a bad thief. He was always stealing food from creatures who were fishermen and hunters. The Two-Men-Who- Changed-Things transformed him into Seal. They shortened his arms and tied his legs so that only his feet could move. Then they threw Seal into the Ocean and said to him, “Now you will have to catch your own fish if you are to have anything to eat.”

One of the creatures was a great fisherman. He was always on the rocks or was wading with his long fishing spear. He kept it ready to thrust into some fish. He always wore a little cape, round and white over his shoulders. The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things transformed him into Great Blue Heron. The cape became the white feathers around the neck of Great Blue Heron. The long fishing spear became his sharp pointed bill.

Another creature was both a fisherman and a thief. He had stolen a necklace of shells. The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things transformed him into Kingfisher. The necklace of shells was turned into a ring of feathers around Kingfisher’s neck. He is still a fisherman. He watches the water, and when he sees a fish, he dives headfirst with a splash into the water.

Two creatures had huge appetites. They devoured everything they could find. The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things transformed one of them into Raven. They transformed his wife into Crow. Both Raven and Crow were given strong beaks so that they could tear their food. Raven croaks “Cr-r-ruck!” and Crow answers with a loud “Cah! Cah!”

The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things called Bluejay’s son to them and asked, “Which do you wish to be—a bird or a fish?”

“I don’t want to be either,” he answered.

“Then we will transform you into Mink. You will live on land. You will eat the fish you can catch from the water or can pick up on the shore.”

Then the Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things remembered that the new people would need wood for many things.

They called one of the creatures to them and said “The Indians will want tough wood to make bows with. They will want tough wood to make wedges with, so that they can split logs. You are tough and strong. We will change you into the yew tree.”

They called some little creatures to them. “The new people will need many slender, straight shoots for arrows. You will be the arrowwood. You will be white with many blossoms in early summer.”

They called a big, fat creature to them. “The Indians will need big trunks with soft wood so that they can make canoes. You will be the cedar trees. The Indians will make many things from your bark and from your roots.”

The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things knew that the Indians would need wood for fuel. So they called an old creature to them. “You are old, and your heart is dry. You will make good kindling, for your grease has turned hard and will make pitch. You will be the spruce tree. When you grow old, you will always make dry wood that will be good for fires.”

To another creature they said, “You shall be the hemlock. Your bark will be good for tanning hides. Your branches will be used in the sweat lodges.”

A creature with a cross temper they changed into a crab apple tree, saying, “You shall always bear sour fruit.”

Another creature they changed into the wild cherry tree, so that the new people would have fruit and could use the cherry bark for medicine.

A thin, tough creature they changed into the alder tree, so that the new people would have hard wood for their canoe paddles.

Thus the Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things got the world ready for the new people who were to come. They made the world as it was when the Indians lived in it.

Many people who don’t write live a bit in awe of those who do. Even in this POD age, an almost mystical aura surrounds those who “successfully” write. This is especially true for those who are published, but not restricted to them.

Over the years, many friends and family members have asked why I “like to write.” Some years ago, the vague responses I once offered assumed clarity. It was, in a sense, due to a personal epiphany. I now answer such queries with the words, “it’s not that I enjoy writing itself . . . but I find the satisfaction of having written to be deeply rewarding.” (Well, that’s not a verbatim quote of how I respond, but you get the idea.)

One of my driving desires when I retired from the Air Force was to spend more time pursuing my lifelong avocation. Toward that end, I’ve devoted a serious amount of time to publishing a free online journal about the military chaplaincy. It is semi-annual, and even at that, it’s currently behind its publication schedule. (Mea culpa.)

I’m happy to share that the latest issue of the journal is now ready for free download. You can find it here. In fact, all four issues of the journal are available for download in PDF.

Curtana features new articles, editorials, poetry and reviews. In addition, since a major purpose of the journal is to gather chaplaincy history from disparate sources, we also compile biographical notes and other material.

As Curtana’s editor, I’m proud of the international scope of the journal. We’ve received contributions from Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Great Britain, Haiti, Ireland, and even the United States. Most articles have been written by chaplains, but that’s not a requirement. Skim the contents of the issues and you’ll note the breadth and depth that characterize Curtana.

C.S. Lewis recognized the value of thoughtful literary works. Good literature might be fiction or nonfiction, but it bears the mark of genuine reflection.

Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.

I hope that in some small way Curtana: Sword of Mercy helps irrigate the arid minds of modern men and women. Please share news of its existence with your acquaintances who may be interested in ministry within the armed forces.

No Child Unwanted

October 24, 2011 — Leave a comment

Certificates Bearing Their New NamesIt’s difficult for people who are products of Western civilization to comprehend the different view of the value of life held by many in our world.

An article today described a terrible practice in India, home to more than 1.2 billion human beings. Like many less developed nations, male children are often preferred to female offspring. Sons are viewed as a blessing and daughters (primarily due to dowries, in the case of India) are less welcome.

And because of that sad fact, it has become common for some families to name their innocent daughters Nakusha, which sounds rather pleasant, but means “unwanted.” It would be difficult to imagine an uglier name.

Recently a movement has arisen to rename girls cursed by their parents with this crippling birthright. Yesterday, in fact, just such a renaming ceremony was conducted in Satara District. The girls were allowed to choose their own name to replace the vile one that had shadowed their lives up to this point.

While there are millions of Christians in India, they have hardly made an impact on the Hindu worldview that dominates the land. It is inconceivable that in a Christian land (i.e. one rooted in the biblical documents and principles like most nations in the West), that children would be named “Unwanted.”

On the contrary, children are esteemed in the Christian context. Listen to these gracious words of Jesus the Christ:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Let us say a prayer for each little girl and boy—in every land around the globe—who finds themselves unwanted by their family. And let’s support worthwhile agencies that work to rescue them.

Because every child is precious to God.

Addendum:

…and every child is precious to all of those who already know God as their Father, as well.

Biblical Illiteracy

October 17, 2011 — Leave a comment

A person does not have to be religious to recognize the importance of the Ten Commandments on western civilization, literature and life. Even when one disregards their intrinsic merit, their literary significance remains. That said, it is important that those who consider themselves well educated should be acquainted with the message of this foundational document.

The statistics reveal a rather surprising picture. It turns out sixty percent of Americans cannot identify even half of the commandments. What I find stunning about that is the fact that since they are mostly prohibitions of destructive behavior, even the illiterate should be able to guess half of them. “Okay . . . we shouldn’t commit murder . . . steal from others . . . or lie about and slander others.” Pretty common sense, and we’re already over halfway there.

“Let’s see . . . the commandments are about God, so there’s probably one that says ‘worship the real God.’” Simple logic, and we’ve nearly arrived. Four out of the five and it wasn’t all that challenging. But how do we arrive at a fifth commandment? Here are two possible paths:

“Oh, doesn’t ‘religion’ believe that it’s sinful to cheat on your spouse . . . that’s probably on the list.”

or

“What’s that weird word the Bible uses about wanting stuff that belongs to others . . . oh yeah, ‘coverting’ or something like that . . . we’re not supposed to desire the possessions of others.”

Since our world has programmed us all with insatiable materialistic desires, it’s probably unlikely that someone would “guess” that coveting our neighbor’s property is wrong, so let’s substitute a more likely alternative.

“Christians get so worked up about swearing, especially when people curse using ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ . . . so there’s probably something about that in the Ten Commandments.”

Congratulations, we’ve reached our goal of five.

As for the enumeration of the commandments—which varies among Jewish, Roman Catholic and Protestant communions—that’s a subject for another day.

Addendum:

Don’t forget the observance of this commandment which would transform our world: “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”

Follow Jesus, Die

October 12, 2011 — Leave a comment
The two go hand in hand.Yesterday Iran surrendered to international outcry and decided to retry one of their citizens condemned to death for the “crime” of being a Christian. Actually, the alleged crime is “converting” to Christianity—and Iran is not the only Muslim nation to make this a capital offense.
 
Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was arrested two years ago, and has refused to deny his Savior, even when threatened with torture and death. Christians (and other non-Muslims) are by legal definition second- or third-class citizens in all countries governed by Shariah law.
This expressly religious legal system proves each day its incompatibility with democracy. Two days ago more than a score of Coptic Christians were murdered in Egypt, where they have virtually no legal recourse or protection. It is no wonder that countless Christians and enlightened Muslims have fled from the persecution imposed by these religious regimes.

In such nations Christians died yesterday, today and they will die again tomorrow—simply because they follow Jesus. And, after international attention has died away, there is no guaranteed Nadarkhani will ever be allowed to rejoin his family. His life may still be forfeited for his faith.

Please pray for the believers who live under constant threat of the sword.

Addendum:

It truly is a tragic matter, requiring our prayers. But let us not forget the words of the Church father Tertullian, another African saint. As he wrote: Sanguis martyrum semen christianorum. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”