Posted by: serrels | June 10, 2010

The Atheist Blogroll

Stuck in Church has been added to The Atheist Blogroll. Which is cool, because it’ll possibly bring a few more readers across to the site.

The Atheist blogroll is a community building service provided free of charge to Atheist bloggers from around the world. If you have your own blog and would like to join, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information. It’s a pretty extensive list of interesting blogs if you feel like checking it out.

Posted by: serrels | June 9, 2010

Preaching the Gospel

Do you know how sometimes, something just feels downright weird? A bit wrong? To the extent that your stomach does somersaults just thinking about it. Like fingernails scratching down a blackboard, for example.

How about this. You’re eating dinner and your fork hits a filling – that’s just… argh! You’re chomping on chicken and you hit cartilage. You’ve got an itchy ear and you wiggle your finger that little bit too deep. You dive into a pool and water goes up your nose. You follow your retarded friend’s advice and you put your tongue on a battery.

Sweet baby jeebus all of those things feel weird. But without a single shadow of a doubt, they absolutely, positively, pale in comparison to the way I feel about Christian Rock Music.

Please note for the record that I said Christian Rock Music. I like plenty of music about God – I love Marvin Gaye’s Christian stuff on What’s Going On, I love The Impressions, Slow Train Coming is one my favourite Bob Dylan albums, loads of stuff. I’m talking squarely about your Hillsong crowd, the power ballad odes to the heavens, the ones that sound like they should be played in the end credits of a rubbish 80s Van Damme flick (ah, who am I kidding, there are no rubbish 80s Van Damme flicks).

Van Damme: he fights for love

I really just don’t get it. Christian music has such a powerful history. Gospel, for example, is pivotal. Pretty much all of modern music spawned from Gospel. Gospel birthed the blues, which birthed Jazz, Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, Funk, Disco. Then some genius started looping drum breaks and birthed Hip Hop; Disco fused with Funk and became House music, which subsequently splintered into a zillion different styles… Techno, Trance, Electronica. In effect, all modern music, to a certain extent, has traces of Christian music embedded in its DNA.

So why the sub-grunge cock rock? I just don’t get it. In every ‘hip’ church I’ve ever been to the youth revel in the fact they’re allowed to play Hillsong in Church. Having drums in church is like a revolution to these guys, and they take that momentum and use it to play… half arsed Rock music that sounds like Pearl Jam post-lobotomy?

Eddie Vedder facepalm

It’s not as if Christians have terrible taste in music. On any other day of the week you’ll find Christians listening to the exact same music as everyone else – so why do they tolerate this garbage? Is it habit? Loyalty? Works?

And why do Christians create these abominations? Go to any Church across Australia and worldwide and you’ll find a wealth of musical talent. I’m constantly amazed by the fact that almost everyone who attends any Church I’ve ever visited can play at least one instrument, and most have some sort of musical prodigy in their midst. So why aren’t these guys leading the charge – why does Christian music continue to mire itself in mediocrity?

I think it may just be the subject matter. Hillsong music, by its very nature, is evangelical, it’s used to convert hearts and minds. In that respect it’s only a couple of notches above a jingle used to sell, oh I don’t know… toothpaste? Whereas Gospel music, to an extent, was a response to slavery, Hillsong is all about eliciting belief in God and nothing more. And ask any musician, having to write a song specifically to sell some sort of product will only result in piss poor music.

I honestly don’t know what would enable me to enjoy this kind of Christian music. Maybe honesty? Hillsong’s music feels a bit off to me, it feels hollow and I can’t get anything from it. Maybe you have to believe in God, maybe I’m just missing something completely, but honestly at this stage I’d rather listen to fingernails on a chalkboard; I’d rather chew through cartilage than suffer through another Hillsong cock rock ode to the heavens.

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Posted by: serrels | June 7, 2010

Like a Prayer?

I felt like a dark cloud, but I didn’t want to rain on the parade.

She had just gotten through an operation. She’d just left the hospital with a clean bill of health, the congregation were crying ‘Amen’. They had worried about her, they had prayed for her, and now she was safe, back in Church, back amongst friends.

It was a beautiful thing.

There was applause. Broad smiles. I was smiling too, but on the outside. Inside I had a twisting in my gut I couldn’t explain. A feeling I can only describe it as a tension of conflict – the feeling of between torn between two ideas, and the guilt of understanding that what I believed wasn’t necessarily a very nice thing.

The woman was addressing the Church. She was thanking God; thanking the congregation for their prayers, paying tribute to the power of prayer. Prayer had gotten her through this difficult time, God had answered her prayers.

But just a few days before I had read a study that showed prayer actually had a negative effect on patients going into surgery; that it was more likely to do harm than good, particularly if the patient was aware people were praying for them. Of course, there have been studies that claimed the opposite, and studies that showed prayer had no effect at all, but at that moment, when everyone was in the process of having their beliefs powerfully affirmed, I was questioning myself.

I wondered if the prayer had any effect at all. I wondered if it made things worse? I wondered if there was something perverse in thanking God instead of the Doctors who had spent hours in surgery giving this woman a second chance at life.

Most of all I just felt guilty for questioning these people and their genuine happiness. For raining on the parade.

But the strange thing is, despite questioning, deep down I think I understand the power of prayer. It’s a function that transcends belief, or lack of belief. When all hope is lost, in our lowest moments of despair, it is our instinct to pray, to appeal to something unknown. Even if it makes us hypocrites, people will pray.

I know I have. And I think everyone has, at least once.

My wife is always encouraging me to pray – apparently it helps you let go of things you can’t control, it’s meditative, it stimulates a positive non-selfish part of the brain. The cynical among you will probably wonder about her motivations, but she said something interesting to me once, she said: you don’t have to believe in God to pray; you just have to believe in prayer.

And even if I don’t believe in God, maybe I could find it in myself to believe in prayer.

Posted by: serrels | June 3, 2010

The Burning Question!

I’ve just been flicking through the comments section, and I’ve noticed that there have been some really interesting debates going back and forth. The really awesome thing is that, for the most part, it’s been really civil and fun.

I’ve also found myself learning a lot from what you guys have to say, on both sides, and it got me thinking about an idea for a regular section.

So here it is: every Thursday I’m going to ask a question, something I feel a bit confused about, or don’t understand, and I want you guys to try and answer the question and explain it to me! This is totally open to both Christians, Atheists, Agnostics, whatever – I’d like to hear everyone’s input, but please keep it civil!

I’ll chuck a new one up every Thursday, and we’ll see how we go. If anyone has a cool idea for a question feel free to email me at mark_serrels@hotmail.com.

The question for this week is…

Why does God allow bad things to happen?

Let me know what you think!

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Posted by: serrels | June 1, 2010

For the Record

There I was, sitting in Church. I had already walked down the aisle, and cracked my stupid ‘pew pew’ joke (every time I go to Church I point at the seats and make the laser sound ‘pew pew pew’ and, yes, I’m aware of how rubbish that joke is). I was roughly two seconds away from cold lampin’ my bloody iPhone for its lack of crucial church 3G coverage when I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder.

It was a friendly chap by the name of Pablo Lillo. Pastor Pablo Lillo.

We had a slight history, but I was meeting him for the first time. The concept for Stuck in Church actually came from an email I’d sent to Pablo a couple of months back. I had the idea of writing about my situation, and had emailed Pablo – the Editor of The Record (a Seventh Day Adventist magazine that’s given away free at Churches Australia-wide) – pitching a regular column.

After a couple of emails back and forth, the trail had gone slightly cold so I decided to just go ahead and start my own blog on the topic and, to keep him updated, I emailed him the link.

And it turned out that he had read Stuck in Church. I was kinda surprised (a common theme as you’ll soon see). I half expected him to give me a hearty slap on the back and say ‘thank God I dodged that bullet’, but it turns out that he actually really enjoyed it. So much so that he had forwarded it to other members of his editorial team.

I sense I may be losing you guys here, so I’ll cut to the chase; the end result of said conversation is that I’ll be writing some sort of feature for ‘The Record’, probably about ‘Stuck in Church’, my situation, and my opinion of church from an Atheist/Agnostic/Whatever perspective.

But what surprised me about the whole conversation was this: when we talked about what kind of feature I could write, Pablo was pretty explicit that he didn’t want a po-faced puff piece on how awesome my Church experience was, or how lovely everyone was. On the contrary he almost demanded criticism – a fresh, honest view of Church from my non-Christian perspective.

So yes, I was surprised – but you know what? I really shouldn’t have been. Church, and my relationship with Christianity, has been consistently surprising me and defying my expectations from the very second I laid eyes on my wife.

One by one I’ve had to readjust every one my own half-baked assumptions about Christians and Christian faith. When I first rocked up to Church, I thought I could swagger in like Marlon Brando in The Wild One – hit up all those Christian squares with my craaaaazy ideas and change the world maaaaaan. I thought that Christians clung to darkness like a security blanket, stuck their fingers in their ears and yelled ‘lalalalalalalalalalaaa’ in the face of reason and logic.

Marlon Brando: pre blubber

What a total wanker I was. The first time I tried to talk science with someone, I got totally smashed. Turns out they knew more about my point of view than I did.

It’s strange. I used to think belief in God was irrational – and maybe a smarter person could mount that argument – but in my experience most Christians have come to their beliefs through a rational process. They love to have their beliefs challenged – respectfully – and the hugely positive reaction my Christian friends have had towards this blog is proof of that.

When I started Stuck in Church I expected a bit of resistance – I have so many friends in the church. Almost all of my in-laws are practicing Christians, and I wondered if this was the right thing to do. Again, I should have known better. Once again my idiotic presumptions were gazumped.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that some Christian communities aren’t poisonous, and I’m not saying Church is perfect, I’m just saying that my experience, so far, has been a good one.

One of the (slightly pompous) goals I had for writing this blog was to bridge gaps, to write about what Christians and Atheists had in common, instead of what divides us. I think I’ve done that (although sometimes I’ve done the exact opposite) but no matter what I’ve written, what I’ve said, I’ve never been judged harshly by my friends in the Church.

Surprising? Yes. But you’d think I’d be used to it by now.

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Posted by: serrels | May 30, 2010

Heaven Must be Missing a Husband

I had this weird dream once. I woke up and everyone was gone. My family, my friends, my wife – everyone I had ever known was missing, and I was left alone.

The world was quiet. But still I went about my day normally. I clambered out of bed, I had a shower, I got on the train; I went to work.

The only sound I could hear was my own footsteps. The only voice in the universe was my own. The clouds remained still and refused to move. Time had stopped dead, but I continued to exist while everyone else had left… inexplicably. I had no idea where I was and I felt forgotten and alone.

I woke up, not terrified, but empty.

West Philadelphia: born and raised

My wife is comfortable with the fact that I will never be a Christian, but once in a while it genuinely upsets her. Because if by some miracle it turns out that I’m completely wrong – that there is a God who loves us, that Jesus did die for our sins – then there is a very good chance that I won’t go to heaven. My wife and I will be separated; I’ll be damned to some form of eternal punishment, or simply rot in a grave somewhere, while she starts a new life in eternal bliss. Without me.

But the logic of Heaven and its unique barrier of entry confounds and troubles me. John 3:36 states that “He that believeth on the Son hath eternal life; but he that obeyeth not the Son shall not see life but the wrath of God abideth on him.” Simply put – if you don’t believe in Jesus you don’t get to go to heaven.

And that bothers me a bit – what kind of Godly being would be so egotistical? ‘Believe in me’, he demands, ‘love me – or I’ll stomp my feet and watch you burn’. According to John 3:36, if I don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus I’m maggot bait – at best. At worst I’ll be cast into a fiery lake of sulphur to burn for all eternity. Christianity and Jesus have given me a choice here – believe in me or die.

A bit harsh wouldn’t you say?

Possibly. But the possibility of heaven, and, ultimately, the fear of death, invigorates Christians – it spurns them towards action in their community. It brings out the best in them. It inspires them to help others, to feed and clothe the poor, to donate money and time to charity, and that truly is a beautiful thing.

But according to the bible, any positive action I take doesn’t count. If I do good all my life, if I dedicate my life to feeding the poor, defending the innocent – that is not enough, because I didn’t do it in the name of Jesus. All my “righteousnesses are like filthy rags,” claims Isaiah 64 – I am infested with sin, and therefore can only be cleansed with the blood of Christ.

According to the gospels, God doesn’t care if you are good or bad. He only cares that you believe in his earthly incarnation; that you nurse his insecurities by loving him, and that isn’t the kind of God I can ever see myself believing in, let alone worshipping.

Blaise Pascal: believed in God, just for the hell of it!

I’ve had Pascal’s Wager recited to me more times than I care to remember, but it’s meaningless to me. By choosing to not believe in God I’m denying myself a shot at eternal life, but I’m fine with that. I understand that the consequences of denying God exists may be grim, but I have to be truthful to myself above all else – I don’t want to believe in God because he promised me a chocolate biscuit if I do. That’s dishonest, and the wrong thing to do – period.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not simply being stubborn. If there’s a heaven, I want to go – but I want to go for the right reasons. I want to go so I can be with my wife, not because I’m afraid of death. I want to go because I was a good person in life, not because I sucked up to an insecure cosmic checker.

And I don’t think I’ve got a strong enough poker face to get past God!

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Posted by: serrels | May 26, 2010

The Lost Finale: Faith Over Reason

Jack: I think…
Locke: That’s where you and I don’t see eye-to-eye sometimes, Jack – because you’re a man of science.
Jack: Yeah, and what does that make you?
Locke: Me, well, I’m a man of faith. Do you really think all this is an accident – that we, a group of strangers survived, many of us with just superficial injuries? Do you think we crashed on this place by coincidence – especially this place? We were brought here for a purpose, for a reason, all of us. Each one of us was brought here for a reason.

Scintillating stuff. I just finished watching the Lost finale and, if you’re a fan, and you’re watching in Australia, there’s a very good chance you’ve just finished doing the precise same thing. You may be confused; you may still be sobbing uncontrollably. You may be slightly angry.

Me? I still don’t know how I feel about it. Part of me is satisfied, happy to have questions left unanswered, happy to have the plot be convoluted as a sacrifice to cohesive narrative.

But another side of me is a little underwhelmed; disappointed in the purgatory sub plot, disappointed in the inconsistencies – but strangely, throughout the entirety of the show right through to the conclusion, despite being an Atheist, I was never disappointed with Lost’s commitment to faith over reason.

I find myself relating to Jack, specifically with regard to his character arc throughout the six seasons.  In the beginning Jack is the hero. He takes action, action flows through him. He lives in the present. He is a man of science. Jack fixes things by following logic through to its natural conclusion. Jack is, undeniably, an Atheist.

But in Lost, on the island, logic doesn’t explain everything. Things happen that cannot be explained by reason. As Lost develops we begin to see Jack’s flaws curdle at the surface. His need to fix things gets in the way, complicates things. His stubborn path towards logic in the face of the supernatural begins to frustrate and challenge us. And before we know it he is no longer the hero. Why can’t Jack see the obvious, we ask, why does he stubbornly cling to logic in the face of the illogical?

John Locke: don't tell him what he can't do!

And this is where John Locke comes in, the man of faith. The man who rose from his wheelchair and walked; the man who talks to the island; the man who believes in destiny. At alternate times we’re encouraged to see John Locke as the hero, and at others the villain but, invariably, Locke’s faith is never questioned. Locke is a strong character when he has faith, and weak when he doubts that faith.

With faith, John Locke can rise from his wheelchair and walk. Without faith he remains a cripple. With faith he can bend the island to his will, and rescue his friends. Without faith, he comes close to destroying the island.

And all the while, as we watch Locke’s struggle with his own faith shape and distort the island itself, Jack continues to stubbornly follow the path of logic, and never wavers until he returns home.

But at home, back to the grim realities of a life without the supernatural, Jack crumbles. He struggles, turns to alcohol and drugs and, at his breaking point, screams “We have to go back!”

Jack: sporting an epic 'grief beard'

Back where? Back to the island, back to the supernatural, back towards faith in destiny – back to all the values he had previously rejected.

Then eventually, as Jack dies, sacrificing himself through faith to protect the island – to protect the supernatural and all it stands for – he finds himself admitting that John Locke was right. After death he returns to his friends from the island; they gather in a church, fulfilled, redeemed in their choice in faith over reason.

And as an Atheist, strangely, that conclusion never disappointed me, never frustrated me. Strangely, in some ways, it comforted me.

Why? Well, I think it’s because, ultimately, I’m a tragic Atheist, nostalgic for the time when faith was easy, when I could believe with the ease of a child. It’s comforting to believe in God, and it’s comforting to believe in eternal life – but for me the truth is far different. The almost unbearable price of consciousness is the bleak awareness that, some day, we all will die.

But we have to let go. And as much as Lost is about faith over reason, it’s also about letting go. There’s nothing I’d love more than to be stuck in church with Jack, Sawyer, and John Locke, heading towards the light and eternal bliss, but in my heart of hearts I know that is simply not a truth that I can subscribe to.

And I have to let go.

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Posted by: serrels | May 24, 2010

Stuck in Church Book Club – Blue Like Jazz

Before we start, I’d like everyone to imagine me sitting in this exact position. Possibly wearing these clothes. With make-up on.

Alright. Are we sitting comfortably? Awesome. Let’s begin…

Hey everyone, thanks for agreeing to take part in this, and thanks for your suggestions.

The first book for Stuck in Church book club is… Blue Like Jazz.

Thanks to Caryn who made the suggestion – it sounds like something that both Christians and Atheists can take something from. It was this quote that sealed the deal:

“My most recent faith struggle is not one of intellect. I don’t really do that anymore. Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove He doesn’t exist, and some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care.”

And, if you’re not already convinced, this is what Wikipedia, the most reliable source of information in the whole wide world, says about Blue Like Jazz:

“This semi-autobiographical work, subtitled “Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” is a collection of essays and personal reflections chronicling the author’s growing understanding of the nature of God and Jesus, and the need and responsibility for an authentic personal response to that understanding.”

And if if that hasn’t dealed the deal, wait till you hear what ‘Nigel’, some guy from Amazon.com, says about it:

“Miller loves telling us about the wisdom he’s gained from his friends, both Christians and non-Christians alike. The problem is, all of these people share the exact same liberal, bohemian world view, and seem stuck in a perpetual state of extended adolescence. In Miller’s world, Christians drink beer, smoke, swear, and attend anti-Bush political demonstrations while they ponder the meaning of existence and the nature of God’s love.”

Oh wait, this isn’t a hipster book is it?

Noooooooooo! Call it off, call it all off!

Nah, I’m only kidding – it’s totally still on. I’m a closet hipster anyway.

So let’s do this thing! You have precisely one month to locate, and subsequently read this hipster book about stuff. I will then make a post, where we can all talk about how this book “changed my life maaaaan…”.

I’m really looking forward to this – hope you guys enjoy the book!

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Posted by: serrels | May 23, 2010

The Demon Drink

When I was 20 years old I went to a birthday party. I think it was someone’s 21st. During said party I got drunk. Very drunk.

During the night, for some reason lost to the annals of time and missing brain cells, my friends started giving each other nipple cripples.

And I bloody hate nipple cripples.

Nipple cripples: why do we this to ourselves?

Of course, the situation escalated. Being utterly smashed in every sense of the word, I can’t remember the precise sequence of events, but after being slapped on the face by my own brother, and subsequently double jabbing him on the dial in retaliation, both me and my younger sibling – absolutely sloshed, practically drooling on ourselves – were (quite rightly) flung out of the pub.

My brother was launched out first, and I was roughly two seconds behind him, but the fight had just begun. He was waiting for me outside and, playing perfectly into the hands of every Scottish stereotype ever devised, launched into an audacious headbutt that nearly took me clean off my feet.

'Zidaned'... by my very own brother

But incredibly, that wasn’t the end. After getting separated by a couple of friends, I quickly broke free, and in a split second we were rolling around on the deck beating the holy crap out of each other.

In the middle of a main road.

Then somehow, for a reason unbeknownst to man or beast, the brawling stopped. My brother went stomping off home, and I staggered behind him.

And, bizarrely, we walked for 16 km like this, 100 metres apart the whole time, volleying abuse at each other for the entire two and a half hours it took us to walk home.

It was the first and only fight I’ve had as an adult and, to date, it’s probably the biggest regret of my entire life.

It’s also the main reason why I never drink alcohol.

My wife also doesn’t drink, but for completely different reasons. Mostly religious reasons.

Because practicing Seventh Day Adventist Christians, almost universally, do not drink alcohol. Technically they’re not supposed to ingest caffeine either or dance the funky monkey either, but booze is a bigger deal and by far the more serious commitment.

It’s all part of the SDA ‘health message’, which is a pivotal part of their Christianity. After Ellen G. White rolled her eyes back and started babbling about eating carrots and Cornflakes, SDAs worldwide swore off alcohol. And I, for the most part, think it’s a pretty awesome thing. In a way, it’s one of the main reasons my wife and I got together.

Thanks Ellen White, and thank you, Temporal Lobe Epilepsy!

Because me and the missus initially bonded over the fact that we were usually the only two sober people in our circle of friends at the time – the only people at the party we could talk to without getting drenched in saliva – but the harsh truth was that I, as an extremely arrogant and self centred know-it-all wank-biscuit, always thought that my (non religious) decision to not drink was the superior one.

My choice, I thought, was made as a result of logic, based directly from experience – a conscious choice reinforced by my own self-discipline and refusal to bow to societal standards (yep, I was an utter tool). My wife’s, on the other hand, was a choice borne of repression, God and, I think she’ll admit this, a fear of disappointing her family, in particular her parents. I thought her reasons  for not drinking made her choice a little redundant and meaningless.

I was of course, completely wrong. And a total tosser to boot.

My thinking’s a little different now. I like to think that I’m less of a tool than I was before. In this case at least, a lifestyle decision is a decision regardless of why you make it. And of all the Seventh Day Adventist quirks and lifestyle choices, the not-drinking one is probably the one I support most. It’s a change that didn’t require any adjustment on my part and in many ways it was actually a huge weight off my shoulders

Because in my line of work the pressure to drink is enormous; and with my friends the situation is similar. The truth is that I’ve always seen my decision not to drink as a lonely one. I often find myself in bars; disgustingly sober, surrounded by friends, wasted, repeating themselves ad infinitum, slobbering two centimetres away from my ear – and while I love my friends to death there generally is a time when I find myself far too sober for that kind of party.

And it’s for that reason that hanging out with Seventh Day Adventists can often be quite a relief for me. Even on a Saturday night, when the booze would usually be flowing, I don’t have to worry about someone asking me ‘why I don’t drink’, like I’ve just farted in their wine glass. I don’t have to tolerate someone waffling in my lughole incoherently; I can just relax.

I’m never too sober for a Seventh Day Adventist party and, regardless of the reasons for that sobriety, I think that’s ultimately a very good thing.

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Posted by: serrels | May 20, 2010

Stuck in Church Book Club

Alright. I have an idea. Just hear me out.

I want to start a Stuck in Church ‘book club’.

Yes. I’ve transformed into this woman…

"Everyone who comments wins a caaAAAAaaar!" (Just kidding)

My basic idea for this is simple – we choose a book, everyone reads it (Christians, Atheists, Agnostics, whatever) and then we discuss it in a couple of weeks time, or a months time… or however long you think it’ll take to read the book in question.

Would you guys be interested in doing something like that? Let me know below – and throw some suggestions at me as well! If I get a big enough response we can get this thing kicking!

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