Natural Disasters And Acts Of God

God isn’t in the weather—in the wind and in the rain—
It’s a natural disaster, never God, which caused such pain
Oh, but God can be detected (so they patiently explain)
In the actions of the people on the ground

God would never cause a hurricane; the gospels make it clear
Though the “acts of God” are numerous in any given year
Cos the deeper truth is different from the way it might appear
Only good is where the Christian God is found

The destruction is incredible, but look—when you inspect,
There’s a lack of God’s Own Fingerprints; no clues you might detect
Not premeditated murder, just condemnable neglect
As the storm blew through the city’s frail façade

But the neighbors helping neighbors, that’s where God’s great power is
That’s the evidence of kindness; there’s the answer to the quiz;
All the work that’s done by people, all their credit’s clearly His
Thus, a hurricane is evidence of God

The New York Times presents a debate on “Natural Disasters or Acts of God?”, and once again it is hard to pin down what exactly God is and does. Some of the responses explore the term “acts of God” as if an actual “God” did not exist at all (really!), and note the use of the term in legal or psychological strategies (finding legal responsibility for loss, or asserting control in an uncontrollable world); others note the growing responsibility of human action, and suggest that recognizing our role instead of sloughing our blame off on God might be a more productive course. At least two of the responses do take the notion of a God seriously, and both (predictably) serve up a heap of special pleading. “What Revelation Reveals About Disasters” reminds us that the book that allows people to make specific predictions about what God hates, and what hour He’s going to call a stop to the whole shebang, is actually subject to quite a bit of interpretation:

Even among believers who take an apocalyptic worldview, the connection between God and disasters is complex and controversial.

But of course, my favorite asks us to “See God in the Response, Not the Disaster” (It is, of course, the muse for today’s verse):

The response of their fellow Filipinos (and the international community) has been heartening. They have helped in any way they can – raising funds for the victims, donating relief goods, offering counseling services to the survivors, transporting supplies to relief centers, etc. It is precisely in these acts of kindness where God is active in the lives of these people. God is made present by and in people who act compassionately toward the victims.

To believe that God is the cause of this catastrophe runs contrary to the God revealed by Jesus in the gospels. Creation continues to evolve, and as Saint Paul put it, the whole of creation is groaning in labor pains for the redemption of God. That there are natural calamities like Haiyan is part of the imperfect world we all live in. There is no need for a supernatural explanation for a naturally occurring event. To attribute these events to the will of God is to hold on to a tyrannical image of God – an image that Jesus challenged when he proclaimed the gospel to the marginalized of his society. It is about time that this image of God be laid to rest, so that we let the spirit of God bring new life to lives destroyed by Haiyan.

Wrath? That was the Old Testament God; he’s evolved since then. You could actually talk to Him back then, and see His power in palpable ways. Nowadays, we have to do all the work ourselves, then give Him credit.

Pretty soon there will be nothing for God to do at all.

Just In Time For The Super Bowl

Just in time for the Super Bowl, the Public Religion Research Institute has released an opinion survey on… well, it’s not really about the role of religion in sports, or about the religiosity of sports fans, or about how important religion and sports are to people, or much of anything organized (although in part it is about each of those things). Some of the questions seem to hold together, but others give the feel of “hey, let’s ask this, too!” The complete list of questions, with broad percentage answers, is here.

The headline-grabber report is from question 8 of the survey–actually, from 2 out of 3 of question 8′s three questions (which were presented in randomized order). “Nearly 3-in-10 Americans Say God Plays a Role in Outcomes of Sports Events” blares the headline, which was apparently more interesting than the associated finding that “majorities of all religious groups disagree that God plays a role in determining which team wins a sporting event…”. Far more (indeed, an overall majority) report agreement with the statement “God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success.”

Those two questions were 2/3 of question 8. The other third gets shuffled to the very end of the press release, and is not included in the bar chart with the other two. It innocently asks whether you agree that “Public high schools should be allowed to sponsor prayer before football games”. Why it was lumped in with the other parts of question 8 is not explained. It’s a bit odd, especially considering that there are other questions not included in the randomized portion, asking about the athletes’ displays of faith during sporting events (imo, a much better match for the high school prayer question, even though their displays are personal and the prayer would be a state-sponsored declaration). (I suspect you know where I stand on that last one…)

One strange thing in the press release:

More than 6-in-10 (62 percent) Americans say they consider themselves a fan of a particular sports team. However, among these self-identified sports fans, less than 1-in-5 report that being a fan of their favorite team is the most important thing (1 percent) or a very important thing (14 percent) in their lives. Roughly 4-in-10 (42 percent) say that being a fan of is somewhat important, while more than 4-in-10 (43 percent) say it is not too important or not at all important.
By contrast, 58 percent of Americans say that religion is the most or a very important thing in their lives, nearly one-quarter (23 percent) say it is somewhat important, and only 18 percent say it is not too important or not at all important.

You methodology wonks who actually read the survey will immediately note… the survey did not ask about the importance of religion in their lives. I have no idea where they got that information–whether it was from this survey but unreported, whether it was from a different sample, whether it was from a survey with a vastly different methodology… we are not told. Hell, we aren’t even told that they didn’t ask.

The survey is relatively benign–the questions themselves are not terribly leading, compared with some of the political push-polling I’ve responded to. But that does not mean there are no problems with methodology. For instance, some 47% of respondents report that on any given Sunday, they will be at church (either church and no football, or both church and football). This is higher than the roughly 40% that polls usually find… and that 40% is more than double the numbers that actually are at church on a given Sunday. When it comes to telling pollsters you are a good Christian, it doesn’t hurt to bear false witness just a bit.

So, anyway, maybe the numbers about whether people feel god makes a difference in the game are good numbers, but if so, they are keeping very bad company.

They called up my number; I answered the phone
They wanted my data; I threw them a bone
“Do athletes and teams win their games on their own,
Or is God on the side of the winners?”
The answer I gave must have seemed well-rehearsed;
Cos you see, I’m a fan, but my team is the worst,
So my view of the bastards who end up in first
Is, they must have been Satan’s own sinners!

The Ravens are Lucifer’s darling delight
And the Niners are willing to put up a fight
So they’re making a deal with the devil tonight
And Jehovah has gone into hiding!
So, you see that your question’s a little bit odd
The game doesn’t show us who’s favored of God–
When the team sells their souls for the sake of their squad
Then it’s Satan who does the deciding!

Superstition And Ignorance Driving Vultures Extinct In SA

Superstitions develop in all kinds of cultures
And ignorance, too, inextricably linked
The latest rendition is bad for the vultures
Where betting on football could make them extinct

South Africa, hosting the World Cup this season
Has vultures of various beautiful kinds
“The wisest of animals”–this is the reason
Some ignorant gamblers have plain lost their minds

For the sake of advantage, the vultures are hunted–
In gambling, you need any edge you can get–
Their brains, dried and powdered, are all that is wanted;
They’re snorted, for luck, before placing a bet

With so many people so desperate for money
And looking for help, to see which teams to choose
It’s tragic as hell–if it weren’t, it’d be funny
In a hunt for good fortune, the vultures will lose

South Africa’s vultures are magnificent birds. There are some eight different species (I think I saw six while I was there), which coexist in complementary roles–our guides used the vultures to locate carcasses (as did other scavengers, of course), where we might get a glimpse of something spectacular (here we see cheetahs, but from quite a distance–they were driven off by hyenas later).

The BBC reports that the World Cup and its associated betting may actually drive vulture species extinct in South Africa (video at link, and well worth watching). Superstition holds that these wise birds have the power to predict the future… and so of course they are killed, and their brains extracted, dried, and powdered for use in prognostication. One wonders if the users have thought through the implications of using the brains of a bird that did not see its own demise coming at their hands… perhaps that is why it isn’t working.

All photos by Cuttlefish.

Lindsey Vonn Puts Faith In Cheeses, Wins Gold

Lindsey Vonn was badly bruised;
Her shin was black and blue.
But these are the Olympic Games–
Whatever would she do?
Some athletes rub on emu fat;
For some, placenta pleases–
But Lindsey Vonn’s a different sort:
She put her faith in cheeses.

She could not race until she healed;
Her hopes would all be lost,
And so went where cheese is priced
To calculate the cost.
She found some at the marketplace
And bought a couple tins,
To make a Topfen poultice
For forgiveness for her shins.

By all accounts, her injury
Was really rather vicious–
But thanks to cheeses, once again
Her legs are just delicious.
Apparently, for Austrians,
This cure is very old–
My guess is we’ll see more like this,
Since Lindsey got her Gold!

****

My guess is, if you follow the Olympic Games at all, you already know about Lindsey Vonn’s injury. It was her great good fortune that the weather caused a series of delays, giving her shin time to heal, at least a bit. During that time, she used some laser therapy, massage, painkillers, and now we hear, a poultice made of cheese.

After injuring her shin in Austria during training, American downhill skier Lindsey Vonn did what Austrian skiers do: She wrapped topfen cheese curd around her swollen right leg in hopes of reducing the swelling.

Whether or not the cheese helped her recover enough to win an Olympic gold medal Wednesday, the Austrian curd remains obscure.

Many gourmet cheesemongers aren’t familiar with the semisoft cream cheese-like fromage, and sports medicine experts certainly aren’t rushing out to prescribe it to injured patients.

Top athletes are often superstitious (having had a lot of success, they have had a lot of opportunity to falsely correlate that success with a lucky object, routine, or ritual); it is no surprise that, having had plenty of opportunity to recover from injury, athletes are prone to some pretty strange cures as well:

When orthopedic surgeon Dr. John Benjamin heard that Vonn had spread cheese on her hurt shin, he said he chuckled. “It’s a curious use for a dairy product, and I have not heard reports of great success,” he says.

Other curious treatments for sports injuries have ranged from rubbing placenta juice into a bad hamstring as Serbian soccer player Danko Lazovic reportedly did, according to the AP, and using the fat of an emu as a rub for pain and swelling.

You may also remember, if you followed this in the news, that Ms. Vonn initially suspected that her leg might be broken, but refused X-rays to confirm her suspicion. She was “putting her fingers in her ears” and refusing to consider the possibility that she would spend the Olympic Games with her leg in a cast, because of a broken shin.

Maybe it was denial and fear, but my hope is that her refusal to X-ray, her refusal to have her leg in plaster, came from her innate determination, her perseverance, her guts, her metaphorical cojones. I picture her telling her doctor “let he who is without stones cast the first shin. I’m putting my faith in cheeses.”

Now, That’s A Lot Of Bull!

“Indian brokers at the Bombay Stock Exchange are calling on the authorities to bring in religious experts to change the direction of a bronze bull statue.

They say the posterior of the bull, placed at the footsteps of the exchange building, points towards the traders which makes it inauspicious.” Source.

Our observations of the world
We may distill and write as “laws”
These shape our understanding, thus
We see effects, and look for cause.

The tools of science guide our search:
We vary, systematically,
Alleged cause–does output change?
Or simply sit there statically?

We put our theories to the test
And really try to prove them wrong.
(Unless we do, how can we know
An explanation’s weak or strong?)

The power of coincidence
To make us see what isn’t real
Is just one thing we’re up against,
As stories in the news reveal:

On January 12th this year,
A statue of a bull was placed
Outside the Bombay Stock Exchange–
The steps, behind; the street, it faced.

The sculpture is a work of art
Expressing movement, form, and mass,
But brokers in the building want
To relocate the statue’s ass.

The bull’s hind end is magic, see,
And has the strange ability
To influence the world, and cause
The market’s volatility!

That’s right–it’s not the sub-prime stuff,
It’s not the housing market bubble,
But a bronze bull’s butt in Old Bombay
That must have caused the market’s trouble.

Don’t fret about your stocks and bonds
Investments now are clearly sound;
Just get the Mumbai analysts
To turn their magic bull around.

And once you do, please be assured,
The market will again be steady,
And we can deal with other things–
There’s far, far too much bull already.

Pareidolia

“Pastor Renee Brewster and her husband Bishop Winston Brewster are a very spiritual couple. But the site of their savior in a potato has reinvigorated their faith and their desire to help others.” (MyFox Orlando)

I did not make up that quote.

I mean, you have to be spiritual to see Jesus in a potato. Or tortilla. Or frying pan. Or oyster. (Or another oyster.) Or pirogi. Or grease stain. Or water stain. Or dog’s butt.

I mean, what other reason could there be, but spirituality?

(With deep and sincere apologies to Ira and George Gershwin…)

You say “potato”, and I say “Jesus”
You say “hey, wait—Oh, just look at the pieces!”
Right there in the bowl, he’s so wonderfully holy
Let’s call the guys at Fox!
You say “sandwich”, and I say “Mary”
You think it’s grand, which I think is just scary
But you need no urgin’ to see you a virgin
Let’s call the guys at Fox!

And Oh!—if we call the guys at Fox
We’ll make the news.
And Oh!—If we’re on the news,
There’s no way we can lose

So if you say “tortilla”, and I say “Jesus”
I promise I’ll see a real face in the cheeses
How lucky would we be, to be on the TV
Let’s call the guys at Fox–
Let’s call the guys at Fox!

Keep an open mind!

I wonder sometimes, why it is that the people who tell me to “keep an open mind” have theirs utterly closed to the possibility that they might be wrong. An open mind, of course, is willing to follow the available evidence, even if it disagrees with one’s assumptions. An open mind is not one that keeps an issue open after every bit of information says “case closed.” But of course, as I have heard it most frequently, “keep an open mind” is used as a synonym for “agree with me!”

An open window can be a good thing, but a window which cannot be closed is just a hole in your wall. There are times when it is ok to shut the window. You can always open it up again if the evidence says you should.

Anyway, today’s verse:

They told me “keep an open mind,
And you will see—the world’s designed,
And everything that’s in it.
The folks who say mutation’s random?
Open-minded folks can’t stand ‘em
Even for a minute!
You see the touch of God each day
In every strand of DNA
Unless your mind is closed;
When looking at genetic blueprints
Clearly, there are You-Know-Who-prints
For those so predisposed.”

I told them “really, no offense…
I’ll need to see some evidence.”

They told me “keep an open mind,
And never heed the double blind
Experiments of science;
The open-minded person knows
You cannot trust what science shows—
The truth is in defiance!
It’s science that is always changing;
Scientists keep rearranging—
How could it be true?
So put your trust in common thought,
Which needs no facts at all—well, not
In my considered view.”

I told them “that’s a lame pretense…
I’m waiting for your evidence.”

They told me “keep an open mind
While we stick pins in your behind
To fix your aching head;
We’ve got to re-align your back—
Don’t be alarmed to hear a crack
Or have some herbs instead!
Now take a draught of this solution,
Infinite in its dilution,
(That’s what makes it strong!)
So many cures that fit your Karma,
Hard to see just how Big Pharma
Always gets it wrong.”

I told them “you may not commence
Until you show me evidence!”

They told me “keep an open mind—
Our brainwaves, if they’re all combined,
Can lead to lasting peace;
And simply wishing hard enough
Brings health and love and other stuff,
They’ve known since Ancient Greece!
The figure of the Oracle
Was not just allegorical—
It works! Just take a look!
The truth is, if you wish and pray,
It might just happen, come some day—
And Oprah likes the book!”

I told them “here are my two cents—
Please wish and pray for evidence.”

They told me “keep an open mind;
Though in this lifetime you’re confined
Within your mortal part,
In death you find a pure release
And living on in love and peace,
The you inside your heart,
You’ll leave behind this thin façade
To gaze upon the face of God
If, meekly, you submit;
Each death, each illness is God’s will
You can’t reach Heaven’s gate until
The mortal world you quit.”

I told them “such a moral sense!
If only you had evidence!”

She told me “keep an open mind,
And while our bodies are entwined
Our energies commingle.
Don’t roll your eyes, I do implore;
I speak, of course, in metaphor–
And by the way, I’m single.”
From one to ten? She’s my eleven;
Better than some made-up heaven,
Wondrously mundane!
And best of all, I think you’ll find,
Much better than an “open mind”
She keeps a working brain.

New and Improved Ancient Technology!

Respectful Insolence reports on an ancient, historic health product–basically, two cylinders, one of copper, one of zinc, that you hold (one in each hand). Yup.

I have improved on the idea.

This ancient pharmacology has long since proved its worth;
It’s the finest panacea in the history of earth.
Two simple metal cylinders can cure all of your ills—
So much better than injections; much more natural than pills!

But I’ve found a better system—I’ve improved upon their wand;
I’ve discovered new technology that lets me go beyond!
It’s a cure for diabetes; it’s a cure for aching feet
It’s a cure for halitosis, and that burning in your seat
It alleviates the symptoms of the flu and common cold
If you follow the instructions, it’s a cure for growing old!
It will tighten up your fanny, smooth the wrinkles on your skin,
And you’ll instantly feel better from the moment you begin!
What’s the closely-guarded secret? Well, you know I cannot say,
But you’re only growing older every moment you delay
There’s no need to spend your life in needless misery, alone,
When a cure is just a call away—so just pick up the phone!

You are now the happy owner of a marvelous device
Read and follow all instructions—you don’t want to do this twice.
The rods the ancient Pharaohs used (of copper and of zinc)
Were truly beneficial, but they also made us think:
If we mix the two together, will the alloy work as well?
We didn’t know, but clearly, an experiment would tell.
Through the miracle of science, our experiment confirms
That the wand that you have purchased will eliminate your germs;
If you use it as directed, we can gladly guarantee
(Or return for price of purchase, less a small restocking fee)
That wherever, on the road of life, your circumstances find you,
Our wand will let you always know, your worries are behind you.
Instructions: take the wand, all seven inches, gleaming brass,
And gently, but completely, shove the whole thing up your ass.