Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Biblical Literalism

Recently, I have been reading about different ways to view The Bible (particularly the Old Testament) and the one that confounds me the most is staunch literalism. Generally speaking, this is the idea that each and every line of scripture is the literal word of God and therefore, carries equal theological weight and authority. If the Bible says that God created the Earth in 6 days, then our world was spoken into existence during six sequential 24-hour periods. If the Bible says that it rained so much that every landmass on Earth disappeared, then that is exactly what happened.

This approach can become rather disconcerting when leafing through some of the more obscure passages of the Old Testament. Take this excerpt:

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria. - 2 Kings 2:23-25

While male-pattern baldness is no laughing matter and one could reasonably argue that a large group of able-bodied young men should have done something more productive with their time, it is difficult for me to get on board with this narrative. Even taking into account that Elisha was a prophet (and the successor to none other than Elijah himself) I am still not sure that the ridicule of children necessitated a bear attack. After all, Jesus was constantly under the threat of death and I don’t remember any instances of the forest super-friends being called up to dispense woodland justice.  

The phrasing suggests there were more present than the 42 that were mauled, so why did the rest of them get off Scott free? Were they mauled in any particular order? How exactly is such a passage supposed to shape my theology? Even my study Bible only offered half-heartened conjecture. I certainly don’t see anyone claiming this as a “life verse”.

Song of Songs is another tough book to formulate theology from: 

Your stature is like that of the palm,
    and your breasts like clusters of fruit.
I said, “I will climb the palm tree;
    I will take hold of its fruit.”
May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine,
    the fragrance of your breath like apples,
and your mouth like the best wine.  - Song of Songs 7:7-9

Here we have some erotic poetry, attributed to King Solomon, which features more thinly-veiled sexual euphemisms than a Third Eye Blind album.  It appears to be a transcript of a conversation between an enraptured Solomon and his bride whom he refers to as “my perfect one” and “unique”. 

This is indeed ironic since scripture tells us that Solomon’s entourage included over 700 wives and 300 concubines. I can just see Solomon trying to change the subject a few weeks later when this young maiden confronts him about the fact that he told concubine # 237 the exact same thing last March.

Unlike say, the Ten Commandments, I have yet to hear of anyone fighting to have, “Your breasts are like two fawns” displayed in a courtroom or inscribed upon the walls of a public school. However, if the book’s inclusion in the Old Testament is indicative of its moral authority I see no reason it shouldn’t be.

For the third example, we again find ourselves in the Book of Kings where yet another prophet enforces death by quadruped:

By the word of the Lord one of the company of the prophets said to his companion, “Strike me with your weapon,” but he refused.

So the prophet said, “Because you have not obeyed the Lord, as soon as you leave me a lion will kill you.” And after the man went away, a lion found him and killed him. - 1 Kings 20:35-37

Whereas the group of young men died for antagonizing a prophet, this unnamed traveling companion was killed because he refused to assault one. The prophet in question wished to disguise himself as a wounded casualty of war in order to confront King Ahab and needed to look the part. The Book of Kings appears to be sending mixed messages: Taunting a prophet is almost as dangerous as being reluctant to beat one. Doesn't the guy get a second chance? Doesn't the death penalty seem a little harsh for someone who needed a little coaxing to attack an innocent person?

In my opinion, a true Protestant Biblical literalist would be a rare animal indeed. Such a person would be required to keep the entire Deuteronomic Code (no bacon, insubordinate children would be stoned, and all debts must be canceled every seven years) and believe that God condones infanticide and violent abortions (Hosea 13:16). I do not believe that, therefore I tend to view the Bible as a much more complicated text that should be pondered within the context of the situation, the time period and the intended audience. While some might find this view of scripture offensive or even blasphemous, I am not sure Christians do ourselves any favors by adhering to blind literalism.     

Thursday, August 14, 2014

4 Habits to Avoid

It seems like every time I go to a news website they have a health section that contains at least one article titled “5 Things to avoid if you want to Live Longer” or “3 Habits of Healthy People” filled with absolutely nothing of academic value (much like this blog). Usually, the article will cite a needless study released by the University of Misallocated-Endowments and then end with a quote from a doctor with unverifiable credentials. I can only assume that these continue to be written because people continue to sit on their couch and read them (a behavior, I am guessing, that would not appear on the list of habits to live longer) so I have decided to contribute one of my own. It is based on a two year observational study of articles based on other studies.

4 Habits to Avoid for the sake of Longevity

Smoking Anything That Burns – Do not inhale smoke. Regardless of its color, odor, or origin; smoke will make your lungs sad. I am just as shocked as anyone that the deliberate inhalation of airborne particulates created by violent combustion would be a bad idea, but there seems to be some consensus among the medical community about this. I am going to go out on a limb and even say that Vaporizers should be avoided as well. Sure, they could be less likely to give you cancer than smoking traditional cigarettes or freebasing anthrax spores, but why spend your hard earned money to help the rest of us confirm it?  

Not Exercising Ever – It would appear that a completely sedentary lifestyle is detrimental to our long-term survival. I suppose there are very few miraculously-youthful senior citizens who answer the “How do you stay so young?” question by crediting a combination of bed-sores and diminished muscular tissue. Despite this, we all still have a love/hate relationship with physical exertion. There are people that spend 10 minutes trying to find a closer parking spot at the gym so that they don’t have to walk as far.    

Eating Bad Always – Groundbreaking as it may seem, the human body responds poorly to a diet comprised exclusively of Slim-Jims and Mountain Dew. If we are honest with ourselves, this could be gleaned through personal observation alone. Different foods make us feel differently. I certainly do not have the same feeling after consuming a Chili-Cheese Frito Pie/ Dr. Thunder combo as I would after a Caesar salad with a filtered-water chaser. That is because one meal is providing needed caloric refueling while the other is making sure my grandchildren will know me only as “grandma’s first husband that died when his arteries exploded”

Drinking Liquor Excessively – Apparently a glass of red wine with dinner is not the same as eight whiskey sours for breakfast. Study after study has needlessly confirmed that debilitating alcoholism has a negative impact on physical wellness. Again, lay observation is all that would be necessary here. Constant inebriation puts you at a higher risk for everything from liver disease to being gut-punched by a carnival worker.  

Each of these habits are capable of being deadly on their own, but can be downright suicidal when combined into a single daily routine. Imagine dropping your lit cigarette into the couch you’ve called home since Bush was in office knowing that even if your heart was able to force blood through your encrusted circulatory system to your atrophied muscles, you would be too drunk to know where to run anyway.

The other entertaining aspect of these articles is the always enlightening comment section consisting of two or three people arguing over what constitutes moderate drinking and one Internet troll making derogatory comments about specific ethnicities. Sometimes, people will actually pose medical questions in the comment section as a way to crowd-source their treatment. I know it can be expensive to see a specialist, but please do not rely on SweetLips4Billy2 to tell you if it is safe to mix your pharmaceuticals.  

Friday, August 8, 2014

Child Beauty Pageants

I was recently sent an alarming article (by one of my much appreciated “weird news” benefactors) detailing the misadventures of 4-year-old Scarlett. Scarlett is a UK resident who, along with her mother, was recently featured on a Channel 5 documentary called Blinging Up Baby which chronicled several child beauty pageant contestants. Scarlett’s mother Leann fabricated a Hooter’s waitress costume for her daughter to wear while suggestively gyrating on stage. When asked to address the imminent criticism she knew she would receive from other parents, Leann responded thusly:

"Some people may say it's controversial, especially the theme I've chosen, but at the end of the day, little girls wear swimming costumes to the beach all summer, and that's not a controlled environment. The environment my kids go in is a controlled environment and it is ticket-entry only,"

Scarlett's Performance
Certainly one would be hard-pressed to name an event with a more rigorous audience screening process than a child-beauty pageant, but I am not sure that the ability to procure a paper ticket is indicative of safety. All that really tells us is that everyone watching the event really wanted to be there and was willing to pay for the privilege of attendance. I suppose you are at least eliminating the destitute, opportunistic creepers in favor of the employed, methodical ones.

The more immediate concern is the psychological impact of a parent living vicariously through their daughter in what is increasingly becoming an over-sexualized environment. Certainly not all child-beauty pageants feature grinding kindergarteners in hot-pants, but it is somewhat upsetting that child beauty reviews is becoming one of our countries better known exports.

So concerned was France, that in 2013 their Senate voted to ban beauty pageants for contestants under 16. The bill also outlined up to 2 years imprisonment for adults attempting to enter their children in banned events; and this is all from a country that makes America’s cultural norms on sexuality and nudity seem prudish by comparison.

The program also highlighted other British families that have been supposedly influenced by what the program termed “U.S. style child beauty pageants.” My personal favorite was Sophia May, who legally named her young daughters Princess Bliss and Precious Belle. Regardless of context, I believe that naming your child “Princess Bliss” constitutes an act of cruelty and should be investigated. 
Perhaps the poor little girl can turn her unfortunate moniker in a Japanese anime series. On the other hand, Precious Belle sounds like the name of Elvis Presley’s backup plane and almost guarantees she would never been taken seriously in a corporate office.   

I suppose it is difficult for me to identify the positive aspects of child beauty pageants and perhaps those who support them can enlighten me. So often it seems that the parent continues to force participation long after the child has lost interest (if they had any to begin with). To be fair, I also realize that no one gets featured on a reality show by exhibiting common sense and restraint so I am certainly basing my opinion on these outliers (along with repeated viewings of Little Miss Sunshine). One day Princess Bliss may cite her stint in child beauty pageants as the catalyst behind her success in the field of microbiology and numerous studies will show that girls who participated in these events are happier and better adjusted than their non-pageanted peers. I suppose anything is possible…..   

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Mobile Banking

Several months ago, I decided that it was time to try my financial institution’s “mobile banking” service. It promised real-time balance updates, overdraw notices, and a rudimentary level of fraud protection all for the reasonable price of free. So, after logging in and registering my phone number, I selected the events I felt warranted a text message and slipped my newly-empowered iPhone back into my pocket.

It was several weeks before I received my first alert. It was a “balance threshold” notice informing me that my checking account had fallen below the $100 level I had specified when registering for the service. Even more unsettling, the message said that as a result of a recent transaction my available balance was now $0.00.

I immediately panicked since I had deposited my paycheck less than 24 hours prior and purchased nothing more substantial than a Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger in that same time period. Either someone had illegally gained access to my meager holdings or my wife had finally decided to clean out our joint checking account and find someone who didn’t own season 1 of Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

Rushing home, I found that both my wife and my paycheck were exactly where I expected to find them and that I did not have a zero balance. Incensed, I called my bank’s customer service line and reported the discrepancy. The employee was sympathetic to my plight and walked me through several steps to re-register my phone while make changes on the bank’s notification subsystem. I was issued an apology and the assurance that this would not occur again.

Several weeks passed until I received the exact same “poverty-notification” while shopping at Kroger. Again, there was much trepidation and hand-wringing until I was able to confirm that the notification was mistaken and I still had several hundred dollars left in the affected account. Even a free service wasn’t worth this. So, again I called my bank’s help line and was connected to a customer service specialist. I suspect our conversation will be played at the company Christmas party:

Me: “Yes, for the second time in a month I have received a notification that my checking account is empty when in fact it contains a positive balance. They have tried resetting the notification system and re-registering my phone to no avail and with all due respect I am tired of needlessly wetting myself every time this institution pages me.”
Bank – “We certainly apologize for the inconvenience (she did not specify whether she was referring to the false positive or my lack of bladder control) and I will look into this if I can place you on a brief hold.”
Me – “Sure”
Bank – “I see what has happened. It appears that a refund was issued to your account by a local merchant. Does that sound possible?”
Me – “I think my wife did take something back to the store at some point today but why would a credit trigger a zero balance alert?”
Bank – “When someone issues a refund on your debit card it triggers the alert.”
Me – “Oh. Do you have a timetable as to when this will be fixed?”
Bank – “I am sorry sir, I don’t understand.”
Me – “I am asking if you have any idea when the glitch will be fixed.”
Bank – “Sir, that is the way the system is designed.”
Incredulous pause
Me – “You are telling me that the system was specifically designed to alert a customer that money was deposited into their account by sending them a text message that they are destitute? Am I your only customer that finds this illogical?”
Bank – “Sir, would you like to file a formal complaint about this?”
Longer incredulous pause
Me – “I cannot believe I even have to say this, but yes I would like to file a formal complaint and request that I not be deliberately misinformed about my balance.”
Bank –“Very well sir, is there anything else I can assist you with today?”

Afraid that if my bank attempted to assist me any further I would begin receiving notifications that my account had been closed each time I use an ATM, I simply responded that she had done enough.
I can only hope that the same programmers that created my bank’s notification system don’t branch out into other fields. Can you imagine their product line-up?

Home Security Systems – If everything was fine, the homeowner would receive a message that read “Structure Fire Detected – Pets Unresponsive”

Package Delivery Tracking – When your Amazon box was placed safely on your porch the text message would be “Item Damaged by Urine, Thrown from Delivery Truck”

Automotive Dealership Alerts – The complimentary oil change notice would be translated to “Truck Safety Recall, Advised to Avoid Utilizing Left Turn Signal While Listening to FM Radio”

Medical Alert Services – At the conclusion of a normal blood-pressure reading the attending physician would be paged with “Patient Dead – Immediately Family Notified via Twitter”