Monday, April 10, 2006

Reading Stuff

C.S. Lewis, of whom I’m a fan, did not feel that atheism (in my case, better labeled agnosticism) and Christianity were compatible.  In Mere Christianity, he asserts that “Either [Jesus] was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. […] But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to.”  While my respect for Lewis and his oeuvre are here recorded, I do not agree with his assertion.  Let me explain why.

The Sermon on the Mount, as presented in Matthew, is, to me, as Carl Sagan once wrote in Contact, “one of the greatest ethical speeches ever written.”  It defines the holiest of human philosophies—that we should love others not because they deserve it, but rather because loving those nominally undeserving is what separates any real concept of love from mere reciprocity: “If you love those who love you,” says Jesus, “what merit is there in that?  Do not tax collectors do as much?”  And it is important that we distinguish love from reciprocity: if we feel that love is paying for what you get, than love is as mundane as buying lunch and as altruistic as revenge.  No, love, according to Matthew’s rendition of this sermon, is transcending the facile human idea of just deserts; it is about loving all equally with the impartiality of a sun shining on all people alike, withholding from neither the good nor the bad.

Now, to return to Lewis’ assertion, one need not believe in the divinity of Jesus the Nazarene to hold with what I’ve just articulated: one need only look at the particular words of the sermon and not any extracurricular mythologizing that any of the disciples add to the rest of the narrative of his life.  Lewis holds that Jesus asserted his divinity, and that the words of the evangelists must be fully accepted or wholly rejected.  I don’t buy that dualism for an instant.  Accepting that Jesus is divine is, after all, not accepting the words of Jesus, who never by anyone’s contention wrote anything, but the words of his followers that wrote about him.  And frankly, the words of the sermon, whoever wrote them, are astounding.  Whether we take them to be verbatim recitation of Jesus of is largely irrelevant to their value, just as taking the words of Homer or Hesiod or Plato or Lao Tsu or the Buddha to be the words of one man is unnecessary in appreciating their majesty.  If, as some suggest, the plays of Shakespeare were written by Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford, it would not make for less great plays.  To phrase the matter differently: should we sacrifice the luster of a gem to ascertain the biography of its maker?  I can, and do, think that the walking-on-water, rising-from-the-dead stuff is almost certainly a bunch of bunk, and yet can read Matthew and see the profound wisdom in the teachings of Jesus.  Contrary to what Lewis believed, I only have to view the latter as deity or loon as much as I believe Matthew an accurate historian, which is to say not very much.  And whether or not I view Matthew as accurate biographer, as distinct from historian, I can (and will) still cherry-pick the brilliant piece of rhetoric that  is his record of the Sermon on the Mount, without having to buy and consume (or reject) his larger narrative as a whole.

Ultimately, it is not so intellectually problematic as is argued to believe in the divine inspiration of a text (concluding that there is universal utility in its message) without believing in the Divine Inspiration (incontrovertible literal truth) of a text: the Bhagavad-Gita is my favorite book, yet I do not believe it to be a terribly accurate report of any ancient world battle, any more than I see Homer’s siege of Troy as an accurate representation of an ancient world battle, nor the Odyssey as an accurate portrayal of a man’s journey home.  Myth exists and is (justly) revered for its intellectual and spiritual benefits, but certainly not for its historical accuracy.  Jesus can be, and in fact is, profoundly inspiring.  That I must choose to accept that a man blighted fig trees and raised the dead, or instead that he was a lunatic with a God complex, is a ridiculous choice that I reject out of hand (sorry, C.S.).  One can find inspiration aplenty in myth, without having to subscribe to its literal authenticity.  I would argue that literal subscription is precise evidence that one has missed the inspiration.  One can see wisdom in fable, and understand that to be the principal value of fable, without having to sign on to orthodoxies about apostasy.  Atheists and agnostics can love the great spiritual books of the world by believing in their philosophical, enduring, human truths without believing in them literally.  Even scriptural literalists, on some level, know this: because what Swift or Dickens or Joyce or Faulkner wrote is not true in an actual sense does not mean that it lacks truth in a more permanent sense; truth often comes packaged in tales, as Jesus himself seemed to know through his frequent use of parables; and it is folly to assert that fact and truth are always the same—the myth of every age and place has demonstrated the contrary.  It is odd that a man like Lewis who wrote his own epic fable about Christianity (y’all know the one I mean) would assume so fervently that men 2,000 years earlier had not done the same, for similar reasons.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Stirring Tales of Withdrawal

I felt, folks, that as a beneficent fiat to the public, it was just about time somebody put out a good, reliable guide to dealing with alcohol withdrawal after a solid six months straight of binge drinking, just in case anyone was sorely in need. Further, as a gesture of my renowned magnanimity, I have decided that the person delivering these words of wisdom ought to be none other than your own humble narrator. Ready?

User’s Guide to Seven-Day Self-Detoxification.

1) Learn to enjoy sleep deprivation. You won’t be seeing Mr. Sandman for several days, and if you try, he’ll just send you semi-somnolescent nightmares that will make you sorry you did. (Eaten alive by wild dogs, stuff like that.) Unless you have a valium prescription, which you’d have combined with alcohol by now if you had, you should just accept this and try to cope productively. Lying in bed feverish, sweating and frustrated is really no way to spend the night. Take the odd hour nap when you must throughout the day, but for chrissake do something productive during the forlorn, restless hours of darkness. One of the few things worse than not sleeping is lying in bed bored and pissed off because you can’t sleep. Give up. Your body will sleep sober when it’s ready, in 72-96 hours minimum. The good news is, there’s absolutely not a goddamn thing else to do at four a.m. on a Wednesday morning. Everyone sober is asleep and everyone drunk will annoy the piss out of your surly, fiending self the moment you hear their slurry, jocund voices. Try ironing, or reading, and those other things that people who don’t spend their lives rotting their livers on low-rent draft beer in a shithole dive bar with Brad Paisley on the jukebox.
2) Take diarrhea, stomach cramps, headaches, shaking and irritability as a badge of honor. You were obviously on a prodigious and ultimately successful bender for it to proceed for so long. Accept your suffering with the knowledge that you must have felt awfully nice for an awfully long time to feel this bad now. Besides, what’s the sense in whining? It’s about as appealing to others as those freaks missing jaws from decades of chew making documentary videos to inspire fear and pity in grammar school children. You did the crime, now do the time. No one wants to hear you complain. Deep down, you don’t even want to hear it yourself. Like anyone on death row, you have a pretty good inclination why you’re where you are right now.
3) Don’t answer the phone or the door. You will power stands at this point like a Japanese pagoda before a hurricane. The merest suggestion from another person that you go out drinking will have you in their living room before they can close the flip phone. Possibly before they even finish the invitation. After about five days, when the (at least presently) silky voices of PBR and Smirnoff begin to subside, you may exchange pleasantries with elderly family members and MySpace friends on the other side of the country. Until then, bolt the door and drink plenty of water.
4) Under no circumstances consider smoking marijuana to alleviate your suffering. Withdrawal brings a Keouac-y, Hemmingwayish sense of sleazy literary merit. Pot just makes you high and annoying. Additionally, if there’s anything sorrier than a person groveling with booze-lust, it’s a stoned person with flecks of Little Debbie about the maw, trying to avoid looking like they’re groveling with booze-lust.
5) Drink lots of caffeine. That way you can claim that your hands won’t stay steady because of the caffeine, which is true. There is no need to mention that they would not have done so in any case. As a corollary, do not consume chamomile, melatonin, kava-kava, valerian, or any other herbal crackpottery aimed at inducing calm or sleep. It won’t work and then you’ll be back at the angry-at-the-pillow stage of things. See (1).
6) Realize that you have a problem. Your problem is that you live in a world so pathetically backward that: A) You are forced to assiduously consume alcohol to supplement its inherent inadequacies; B) Science is so miserably primitive that it cannot synthesize a non-addictive variant of ethanol; and C) There is a host of preachy moralists out there that have to sit in church basements chain smoking and eating Dunkin’ Donut holes thinking that they know something that you don’t. Find them, when you are allowed out, and kill them.