Saturday, April 30, 2011

Rattlesnake Derby, Mangum, Oklahoma

My dad and I drove over to Mangum, Oklahoma this afternoon just to see what was going on at the annual Rattlesnake Derby there. . . .

It's just not every day that you see boxes labeled, CAUTION LIVE SNAKES

My dad. Back in the day, none of us had ever been to a rattlesnake derby. So he and my mom brought us to Mangum not long after we moved to Altus forty years ago.

Looks alive, doesn't it? Actually, it's stuffed. Didn't buy it though. I figured Michele wouldn't appreciate it on the coffee table. But what a conversation piece!

Here's a live one, . . . with lots of wire between me and him.

Again, not something you see everyday.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The First 100 Pages of the First 3000 Years

A few days ago, I started reading the newish book by Oxford church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. It's a big book, over 1,000 pages long. What follows are a few of my reactions after reading the first three chapters, which take up about 100 pages.

Of course, nowadays authors are expected to come up with a title or a subtitle that intrigues and reels in the prospective buyer. The title Christianity doesn't create much of a stir. Here it's the subtitle, The First Three Thousand Years, that raises the obvious question. I thought Christianity was only two thousand years old. So what's the author up to? In the first few pages, you find out. MacCulloch believes that the Christian faith owes so much to its roots in (a) the ancient Greek tradition and (b) the history of Israel that it's no stretch to say that the Christianity sort of began about a thousand years before the time of Christ.

Those two strands of Christian pre-history take up the first two chapters of the book. Here, MacCulloch packs a lot of information into a few dozen pages. The reader can learn a good bit about how ancient Hellenism and Judaism shaped the world into which Jesus and his movement were born. At times, MacCulloch offers up some refreshing takes on well-known texts. A good example is found on page 50:

Around Abraham's rackety grandson Jacob are woven several engaging tales of outrageous cheating and deceit, and they culminate in an all-night wrestling match with a mysterious stranger who overcomes Jacob and is able to give him another new name, Israel, meaning 'He who strives with God'. Out of that fight in the darkness, with one who revealed the power of God and was God, began the generations of the Children of Israel. Few peoples united by a religion have proclaimed by their very name that they struggle against the one whom they worship. The relationship of God with Israel is intense, personal, conflicted. Those who follow Israel and the religions which spring from his wrestling match that night are being told that even through their harshest and most wretched experiences of fighting with those they love most deeply, they are being given some glimpse of how they relate to God.

Through the first two chapters of the book, MacCulloch's presentation is mostly good. But then comes Chapter 3, "A Crucified Messiah (4 BCE--100 CE)." Here the reader easily detects a zeal for debunking the Four Gospels that appears to have gone to seed.

For example, on page 79 MacCulloch says that “the Gospels agree on hardly any detail about Jesus’s infancy.” But the fact that Matthew and Luke report different traditions surrounding the birth of Jesus does not mean that they necessarily disagree. In fact, they don’t.

On page 83, we read: “The Gospels do not give a definite answer as to whether Jesus’s ministry lasted one year (John) or three years (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).” Here it’s hard to know where to begin. It is true that upon reading one of the first three Gospels one might guess that the public ministry of Jesus took up no more than one year. However, this is far from the notion that any of the evangelists state that one year was the time frame. On the other hand, the church derives its tradition that Christ’s ministry lasted three years from John’s Gospel, which mentions three Passover festivals (see 2:13, 6:4, and 11:55). Not only does MacCulloch insinuate a disagreement where there isn’t one, he also makes the confusing mistake of reversing the categories. Again, it is not the Synoptic Gospels, but rather John who establishes the three-year time frame.

Although it is not intended to contradict the Gospel accounts, one can only wonder about MacCulloch's discussion of the parable, Jesus’s favorite form of teaching. The author suggests that Jesus invented the device and adds that parables “emerge as a literary form in later Judaism only after Jesus’ death” (p. 87). He then asks, “Was this form of Jesus’s teaching so successful that it impressed and influenced even Jews who did not become his followers?” The entire section is unaware that instructing and convicting others by means of narrative metaphor finds its origin not in the teaching of Jesus, but in the Hebrew Bible, the Scriptural tradition in which Jesus stood. How did MacCulloch, the son of an Anglican priest, forget how the prophet Nathan revealed to King David the true character of his sin with Bathsheba?

There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup, and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him (2 Samuel 12:1-4).

Other examples from the Jewish Scriptures include Jotham's parable of the trees in Judges 9, the parable of the two sons told by the wise woman of Tekoa in 2 Samuel 14, and several others, like those found among the oracles of the writing prophets; for example, the story of the two eagles and a vine in Ezekiel 17.

These mistakes and misreadings in Chapter 3 do not inspire confidence in MacCulloch who otherwise seems to be a competent historian and a fine writer. So, anyone else out there who has read or who's reading MacCulloch? I'd be interested to hear your reactions. If not this book, then what are you reading these days?

Monday, April 04, 2011

Using "Fight Club" to Teach Buddhism: 2nd of 2

This is the second of two posts about teaching Buddhism using the 1999 movie Fight Club. So if you haven't read the last entry here, you might want to take a look and then come back. I recently used this material in my Introduction to World Religions course at Amarillo College, and the class session went pretty well. To repeat, this approach is based on Fight Club: An Exploration of Buddhism, by Charley Reed. The article appeared in the online Journal of Religion and Film in October 2007.

The Tri Kaya Doctrine

A major branch of world Buddhism--and certainly the one that is best known in the United States--is called Mahayana. The word means something like "the great vehicle." It's the inclusive branch of the religion. Mahayana is "great" at least because it includes many people who otherwise would not be Buddhist. Mahayana also refers to a better-than-you attitude towards Theraveda.

By contrast, Theravada Buddhism insists that to be Buddhist means to strictly follow the example set by Siddhartha Gautama, the man who came to be known as the Buddha. When you see a Buddhist monk with his head shaved and wearing what looks like a toga, think "Theraveda." When you remember that Phil Jackson, the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, is a Buddhist, think "Mahayana."

One way for Christians to conceive of the distinction between Theraveda and Mahayana is to ask the question, "In what ways must a Christian be like Christ?" Jesus was a first-century Palestinian Jew who apparently worked as a carpenter until he began a public teaching and healing ministry that lasted for three years. At the end, he was arrested and charged by the authorities who had him executed. Throughout his life, Jesus lived in and observed the customs of Judaism, including synagogue worship and participation in major festivals in Jerusalem. He spoke Aramaic and could read the Jewish Scriptures in Hebrew. Jesus was baptized, once fasted for forty days, and washed the feet of his disciples. The particulars of his life go on and on. Question: how much must a person be just like Jesus in these and other particulars in order to truly be Christian? This is the sort of question that Buddhism has asked: how much must a person be like Siddhartha in order to be Buddhist? Theravada gives the conservative answer. Mahayana gives the liberal answer. My sense is that the relationship between Theravada and Mahayana is a little bit like the one between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, sometimes debating and dismissing, but at other times complimenting and cooperating.

Within Mahayana there is a teaching called Tri Kaya, which means "three personalities." The term refers to the idea that the Buddha has three bodies: (1) the Nirmana Kaya, the "apparitional body" (2) the Sambhoga Kaya, the "state of perfect bliss" and (3) the Dharma Kaya, which is the body of "most excellent law" and, according to Reed, symbolizes "the enlightenment of Buddha nature." He also observes:

The connections between the doctrine and Fight Club are blunt: One can easily label Tyler as the Nirmana Kaya, Marla as the Sambhoga Kaya, and the narrator as the Dharma Kaya, but the actual meaning to the story of the film, once these connections are made, is what is more important.

Once a viewer looks through this lens, seeing Marla, Tyler, and the narrator as actually separate manifestations of one common thought, the movie really opens up to numerous possibilities. For one, if Tyler is the embodiment of Nirmana Kaya, then his leadership qualities in the film make a lot more sense, especially as a teacher for the narrator. In Buddhist teachings, the Nirmana Kaya is the idea of the historical Buddha, and is what is referenced when a particular person hopes to become more than just a bodhisattva, and has that internal characteristic about them. Also found in Buddhist teachings, is the idea that the Nirmana Kaya manifestation of the Buddha has compassion for all beings. In the film, Tyler too has compassion for all beings, wanting to free the "middle children of history," almost ignoring the narrator near the end of the film in order to flesh out the larger picture. The same holds true once seeing Marla as the Sambhoga Kaya. After this connection is established, one can then understand why, even though it appeared the narrator had nothing but distaste for Marla, both he and Tyler had romantic feelings for her. In Buddhist teachings, it is Sambhog Gakaya which is needed in order to achieve Nirmana Kaya, which ties directly to Marla being the catalyst for the narrator being forced to manifest Tyler.

The core "body" in Mahayana Buddhism is the Dharma Kaya, which is a constant, enlightened presence in the world which gives rise to the other manifestations of Buddha. In the movie, the narrator is the one tangible character who is sustained throughout, in almost every part of the movie from beginning to end. Dharma Kaya is also seen as the "pure" and "flawless" manifestation of the Buddha. While it may appear that the narrator is the opposite of that idea of Dharma Kaya, it is the conscience of the narrator that causes him to risk his life in order to save his city and nation from a terrorist attack, . . . and his new found self control allows Jack to provide meaning and prospective to his journey.


In addition to illustrating Tri Kaya, Fight Club can also be used to help students understand what Zen Buddhism (a branch of Mahayana) calls "The Three Characteristics of Existence." These are:

1. anicca, which means "change." Reed points out that the big change at the beginning of Fight Club involves the destruction of Jack's apartment, which explodes while he's away. Virtually nothing is left. Humans typically want for our worlds to arrive at and ideal state and then stay that way. Anicca is the word that reminds us that life never works like that.

2. dukkha, which means "suffering" or "pain." One doesn't have to watch Fight Club for very long to figure out that it's all about every kind of pain. The Buddha taught that to live is to suffer. This includes physical pain. But the concept of dukkha includes what many people regard as something worse: emotional or psychical pain. Consider that many counselees say that they'd rather be physically beaten than be verbally, emotionally abused. Jack encounters and endures big doses of all sorts of pain and suffering.

3. anatta, which refers to the concept of "no permanent self." As viewers of Fight Club eventually find out, a major theme of the film is identity. Anatta says that, in spite of my perceptions and desires, there is no permanent, immortal person, no enduring spirit. To think that a person, who once never existed and will someday be dead, has a unified, permanent existence is a little like thinking a car has such an existence. If the car is without its engine, or its tires and wheels, or without an interior, would it still be that car? What if you take the body off of the chassis? Is one or the other, or both, that car? And in that case, would the car have become two? What constitutes the car's permanent identity? At what point did it become a car? How much does it have to decay and come apart before it is no longer considered a car and ceases to exist as such? You could (and should) ask the same question about a human being who supposedly has a singular, permanent identity.