Posts tagged religion

Constantine Undone

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So, I might have this part of the Christmas history wrong, but this is the version I heard:

The early Christians celebrated Jesus’s birth on January 6th. I don’t know how it ended up on that day, so that can be for a different story. In this story Constantine was Rome’s emperor and got converted to Christianity and decided that everyone else should do the same. So he took a popular “pagan” holiday for the winter solstice that was held on the 25th of December and combined it with the Christian holiday to make a big 12-day-long holiday for Christmas, hoping that everyone would start celebrating the Christian holiday instead.

I don’t really know how successful Constantine was, because he definitely got us to celebrate Christmas, but I’m not sure if it’s still a Christian holiday. How much of our Christmas tradition has anything to do with Christ? I think we’ve just created our own “pagan” holiday with its own associated religion, complete with Santa Claus as its principle god.

You might think that even as heavy of an emphasis as we put on Santa doesn’t constitute deity or religion, but consider the ideas surrounding Santa. He sees the actions of every person on Earth. He knows if you’ve been bad or good. He rewards good behavior. He knows the desires of your heart, even the unspoken ones, and has the power to fulfill those desires with little “Christmas miracles”. He not only has power to grant wishes, but also to fly, to visit the whole world in one night, and to slide down any size of chimney. He basically controls time and space. We have turned Santa Claus into a benevolent, all-knowing and all-powerful god.

Of course it’s not just Santa in the pantheon of our Christmas paganism. We’ve got other minor deities like Frosty the Snowman, Jack Frost, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, and even Baby Jesus. (Not grown-up Jesus, though. Christmas isn’t about him.) Of course you have to be careful about how much you talk about Baby Jesus during Christmas. You don’t want to offend anyone. It’s safer to stick to Santa.

Of course it’s no big secret that Christmas has been commercialized and that people get too caught up in the greed of the season. I do appreciate when people try to remind us of “the real meaning of Christmas”, but even these reminders seem to focus on good messages that can be appreciated without regards to any particular religion. Lots of talk of “peace” and “good will” while carefully not quoting the source.

I’m really just making an observation. Despite the effort to bring Christianity to the masses by creating Christmas, it still isn’t a Christian holiday.

"Most Improved" and other burning instead of beauty

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Last week I saw an advertisement for a permanent make-up company in Salt Lake, and I was going to write a post about it, but I got lazy and didn’t do it. This week I found a new catalyst in that the young women in my ward are having a presentation on make-up as part of their weekly activity night.

Before I get into the particulars of my catalysts, let me just explain why I have a problem with make-up. I know there’s a lot of potential issues with make-up or even with fashion in general, especially when you try to reconcile it with religion, but I think the thing that sets make-up apart from other fashions is how intertwined it becomes with a woman’s self-esteem. If it were treated the same way as picking a belt or a pair of shoes, then I don’t think I would care. But it’s not treated the same. It becomes such a part of a woman’s identity that she is convinced that she is not pretty without it, and she’s uncomfortable being seen in public until after she has her face painted.

Cultural traditions are complicated and I know there’s probably a lot of factors that have gone into making and keeping make-up so connected to self-esteem as it is. I don’t know what’s to blame for that, but I do see that the make-up companies realize this connection and that they prey on women because of it, taking advantage of self-esteem issues to sell their products. You could probably make an example out of any number of advertising campaigns, but one that is particularly obvious to me is Mary Kay. When they have their little make-up parties to sell the product in women’s homes, they actually vote on who is the “most improved” because of the new make-up.

I don’t really know what my ward’s agenda is with this activity for the young women or how they’re going to present it. I think it’s entirely possible that they’re going to have a very tasteful presentation and try to teach the girls to be moderate in how they wear their make-up. Even that, though, I think is potentially damaging to the young women.

I’ve seen those reality shows where they give a woman a make-over, which usually involves teaching her how to properly use her make-up. I haven’t seen a lot of these shows, but every one that I have seen tells the woman to be more moderate and more sparing in how she applies her make-up. That’s fine. The problem is that even this approach (or especially this approach?) teaches the woman that this is the way that her face is meant to be painted. The make-over teaches her what clothes are in style, and maybe what is flattering to her out of that style, but with the make-up it teaches her what matches her, as though it is something permanent that her face needs and not something that changes with the seasons and her moods like other fashions. It teaches her that this is the right look for her features and complexion. Even if the end result is that she wears less make-up than before, it still emphasizes the idea that there is a correct look for this particular woman and that it is only achievable through the application of make-up.

So regardless of the intent, I’d just be afraid that by teaching the young women to use make-up, you’re really just teaching them that they need make-up.

Maybe it’s an extension of that idea that there is a single correct look for a woman’s face and that make-up achieves it that has led our society to the idea of permanent make-up. Anything permanent and unchangeable makes me nervous and I think the fact that there are women who are willing to have their make-up permanently attached just emphasizes how much the industry has convinced them of their inadequacy without it.

There is an additional thing that bothers me about permanent make-up. I’m sure that Salt Lake has more ads for tattoo removal than for tattoo parlors, but permanent make-up has no problem fitting in with all of the other ads for permanently changing a person’s body to fit some arbitrary image of beauty. The part of this that really bothers me is that some of the same people who have religious reasons for thinking that tattoos are immoral can think that permanent make-up is just fine. You do realize that they are the same thing, right? The only difference is the shape of the tattoo that you’re getting, but it’s still a tattoo. I think the women who find themselves in favor of permanent make-up but against traditional tattoos have forgotten why they are against tattoos in the first place. It’s so easy to be swept up in a cultural stereotype, but before long we forget our values and just start thinking that the definition of our religion is the same as our niche in that culture.

I guess it makes sense that the cultural associations blur the lines between make-up and tattoos for some women. After all, it’s only because of cultural associations that permanent make-up could ever have an appeal in the first place. Women have been taught that they don’t look good without it, and that they should always wear it whenever they are visible to anyone else, so it seems like an inconsequential step to have it permanently attached. Societal pressures have already permanently inked the make-up to our identity, so why not to skin?

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Sorry about my last post. I’ve been informed that it doesn’t make any sense. I still like it, though, so I’m not changing it. Instead, I’ll just offer my apologies to anyone whose IQ was lowered because of reading it, and I’ll try to give you a serious related post to try and make up some of those lost brain cells.

I’m not very far into Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”, but I have noticed something about the way he explains some of the more controversial scientific ideas (such as the big bang). He never insults or discredits religious ideas because of scientific discovery. He is especially courteous and careful about it, trying to be clear that science does not discredit religion, but just adds new understanding.

Take the following excerpt for instance. Hawking has just explained that we can observe that the universe is expanding. From that we know that the universe was once closer together than it is now, and from that we can deduce that there was once a time when the universe was “all at exactly the same place”. Now the big bang (when the universe started expanding from being all in exactly the same place) is often treated as being at odds with the idea of divine creation, but Hawking doesn’t explain it that way at all.

One could still imagine that God created the universe at the instant of the big bang, or even afterwards in just such a way as to make it look as though there had been a big bang, but it would be meaningless to suppose that it was created before the big bang. An expanding universe does not preclude a creator, but it does place limits on when he might have carried out his job!

I’m very impressed that Hawking doesn’t try to say that the big bang discredits the creation, and even offers an explanation of how they can both be true.

One of the reasons that this is so thought-provoking to me is because I realize that the scientific community seems to be much more considerate of the religious community than we are of them. Hawking (himself an atheist) is very careful not to discredit the religious views of his readers, but it seems common to me that religious people are eager to discredit science as “just a theory” and to disbelieve the whole of scientific discovery rather than figure out how to reconcile their beliefs with the new knowledge that mankind is developing.

Nightmare Before Christmas

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Tonight I bought the movie that has become my favorite: Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. I love the music and the richness of the atmosphere, and recently I’ve come to love the theme of the movie.
The main character, Jack, is dealing with an emptiness in his life, and he goes through the same kind of search for meaning that a lot of real people deal with. During this, he stumbles upon Christmas Town, and becomes enamored with it. Jack says that he feels “the warmth that’s coming from inside”, and he has a hard time both understanding and explaining what he feels, but he at last decides that “just because [he] cannot see it doesn’t mean [he] can’t believe it.”
The beginning of the movie makes it obvious that there is a message about spirituality, mostly because the words that Jack uses to describe his experience are so typical of phrases used by people, especially Christians, of their spiritual awakenings. I was never quite sure what the story was trying to say about spirituality, however, since Jack makes such a mess of things in his excitement. I think I have it figured out now.
The message is about not taking religion to the point of fanaticism: Despite his spiritual experience, Jack is still the same person as he always was. Rather than completely changing who he is, his new spiritual side becomes a motivation for him to be better at living his normal life. I think that’s a good lesson. People don’t change their personalities when they become converted; they grow and become better, but they don’t become different people, and in the end the best application of their religion is in their daily lives, and not in fanatic replacements for their lives.

Anti-Mormon

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I used to have this idea of the typical RM guy (his name might be “Peter”), and I hated him: He thought he was so righteous, and that if you didn’t dress the same way that he did, he would think that you were a sinner or a bad influence, and he wouldn’t be your friend. All he ever talked about was his mission, and it often seemd as if he just wanted everyone to know how spiritual he was, so he had to remind them all of the time. It’s hard to be the punk kid around people like that, but I eventually realized that I was judging him just as much as he was me. It’s funny, but it’s possible that I was inventing that RM guy, because now I can’t find him.
I think most of the time people choose whether to be happy in a situation or not to be. It’s rare that a situation inherently makes you unhappy. Take Provo for instance. It’s easy to have a negative impression of Provo: that everyone is all stiff and nerdy, and that there’s nothing fun to do here and no cool people to hang out with. I don’t actually think that anymore. Provo’s pretty cool. I can do pretty much anything here that I can in the outside world if I want, and it being a college town adds up to a lot of cool people (both Jack and Peter) to hang out with that are in a similar stage of life as me (for the most part, anyway: I guess I am the oldest single guy in Provo).
I think the problem is that at some point people have decided that the Mormon culture is nerdy, and so they’ve decided not to be happy in it. No one can be happy if they’ve convinced themselves not to be.
Here’s what nerdy is: when you’re so into something that you can’t deal with people that aren’t into it as much as you are. I think that can apply to anything (computers, sports, music): I’m only a nerd if I belittle or otherwise can’t get along with other people that aren’t nerdy about the same thing as me. It is nerdy for people to not associate (well) with others that don’t share their religious (or other) views, but it’s not nerdy to live your religion. You can be happy with it, but it can’t make you happy or unhappy. That’s a decision you make about it.

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Have you ever seen Grosse Point Blank? There’s another one for your list, Loyd. You know what’s gonna suck about hell? That it’s exactly what you deserve. Like, when you get treated unfairly, you can complain about it or try to avoid it, but you can’t fight a punishment that you deserve. So what do you do? Maybe its just too late to do anything by then, and you just have to take your medicine.

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