Sunday, March 30, 2014

Announcing Grandmother Fish

My next creative project, coming this summer, is Grandmother Fish, a book for young children about evolution. It’s a picture book that follows the descent of humans and other vertebrates from early fish to today. It’s based on hard scientific knowledge, but it’s a child-friendly story with fun motions and sounds.

People react positively when I mention this book. They smile, their eyes light up, and often they volunteer that it sounds like a worthy project. Two fathers have even told me that they’ve had plans to write just such a book themselves. These reactions suggest to me that people want to see a book like this. That’s why I’m doing it. Granted, I live in Seattle, where people think warmly of evolution. This book might not do well in Texas.

The original idea for this book came to me 15 years ago when my daughter was young, and I worked to explain where we came from. For years, I've tinkered with the manuscript, and last year I added motions and sounds to the book. Those fun elements make the book a lot more engaging for young children.

I wanted my daughter to know how we evolved because knowing where we came from tells us something fundamental about who we are. Parents have been doing the same thing for ages. My Scandinavian ancestors taught their children that the gods had formed the first people from trees, and the ancient Hebrews said their god had created the first man from clay and the first woman from his rib. These stories have the advantage that they make sense to children. Today, any parent who believes in the Garden of Eden can find multiple books for young children that tell the story, complete with child-friendly illustrations. Parents who want to teach their children about evolution deserve books of their own.

Parents need help teaching their children about evolution because gradual change over millions of years doesn’t make much sense to the human brain. Our early human ancestors evolved brains that love stories, especially stories about people taking actions to reach their short-term goals. Mythical creation stories follow this intuitive pattern, teaching that humans and other animals were created intentionally and quickly by the gods. Evolution, however, operates without intention and on a time scale that beggars the imagination. Because evolution doesn't work like a story, traditional creation stories still appeal strongly to many people. Grandmother Fish is as simple as any creation story. The goal is to help children see for themselves how we are directly related to other animals.

Evolution is a story worth telling because it’s more than scientific fact. It’s also a profound lesson about our place in the cosmos. Traditional creation stories set humans apart from, above, and beyond the rest of the animal kingdom.  The story of evolution corrects this self-centered view. Evolution affirms our intimate connection to the world of living things, down to our flesh and blood. It’s a message that the world could use more of. As Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “Accepting our kinship with all life on Earth is not only solid science. In my view, it’s also a soaring spiritual experience.”

This summer, I’ll be launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for Grandmother Fish, and I hope you’ll back it and share the news. In the meantime, I’m finding an artist to partner with, planning the practical job of publishing a book, and lining up help from people who could help promote the project. Thanks to my decades of work in the roleplaying game field, I know plenty of professionals who can help me with art, publishing, and promotion.

If you like the sound of this project and would like to help, there are a few ways you could pitch in right now.

1. Read a draft version of the book to children and give me feedback on what works best and what doesn’t.

2. Introduce me to any scientists or organizations that might support the project.

3. Share this blog post. Talk to your friends about the book. Over the next couple months, think of people you know who might be interested in the campaign when it starts.

Thanks for your interest.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Thank you Baby Jesus for literacy

In this fictional scene, Jesus and Mary
are historical figures.
At Christmas time, if you live in the States, you’re liable to see nativity creches on display on church property and sometimes on city property. Mary, Joseph, and a motley crew surround a feeding trough, in which lies the holy infant. There’s a church near my place that brings in a live camel, which is pretty cool as religious traditions go. The Christmas creche originated with Francis of Assisi in the 1200s, when it was well understood that the child in the trough was God. Today, however, there are conflicting opinions about how one should interpret Jesus as a historical figure. If you’re not the sort who’s grateful to Jesus for your eternal salvation, let me suggest a down-to-earth reason to remember Baby Jesus this Christmas season. Thank him for universal literacy. Jesus was Jewish, and that meant he was devoted to the written word in a way that no fatherless laborer in any gentile land would have been. Through the sect that Jesus founded, he passed along the Jews’ love of literacy to Europe and beyond.

Jews of Jesus’ day were known for their holy book, which commanded the respect of the Romans. While pagan religions were largely ceremonial, Judaism featured the synagogue, where the community gathered and heard the word of the LORD read aloud. The center of the religion was not an idol but the written Torah (Law). Most Jews at the time were still illiterate, as Jesus probably would have been, but they had a remarkable devotion to scripture.

Jesus founded a Jewish sect that survived after his execution. The sect really took off once Paul, a Hellenized Jew, convinced the leaders in Jerusalem to accept non-Jews into the movement. Paul personally took the “good word” to the gentiles, spreading Jewish scripture along with faith in Christ. Soon his own letters were being copied to be read aloud in Christian assemblies across the Roman Empire. Then, one by one, anonymous Christians composed the gospels, including many noncanonical ones. Soon Christians were busy copying texts and distributing them far and wide. They copied so many texts that they established the codex as a popular new written medium. Unlike a scroll, the codex had separate pages stacked on top of each other, bound together along one edge. Yes, early Christianity gave us the book.

When Christianity turned into Rome’s official religion, it replaced religious practices that were cultic and ceremonial, with no holy books comparable to the Christians’ newly expanded Bible. This was before the Dark Ages, and Christianity lived peacefully alongside the intellectual, literate tradition of the ancient world. For example, Christians considered people in India to be saved if they adhered to the Word of God as the Buddha had preached it, presuming that the Word had inspired people all over the world.

When Rome fell and the Latin-speaking West with it, Western Christianity entered the Dark Ages. With civilization in ruin, the schools were closed, and the intellectual level of the civilization fell. Later, Christian missionaries from Ireland brought a superstitious version of Christianity to mainland Europe. That’s where you get Purgatory, which you could reportedly locate if you went into a particular cave in Ireland. The Mass, said in Latin rather than the vernacular, sounded like magical incantations. The Bible was rarely translated into the common tongue.

Despite the decline of the Church, it still supported literacy. With the fall of Rome, the Church became the only international institution in the West and the sole preserver of books and literacy. Churchmen were commonly among the first people to leave written records in a language with no previous literature. Sometimes the Christians provided a language with its first alphabet. Wherever Christians spread their faith, they spread literacy. As in the early days, churchmen hand-copied a lot of texts over the centuries. A “cleric” is a “clerk,” someone who reads, writes, and does numbers. Commoners went to the clergy for help with written documents. The Church Council of 1179 mandated free Latin instruction at cathedrals to benefit poor scholars, combining Christianity’s interest in charity and literacy. This practice soon developed into Europe’s first universities.

As civilization recovered, the Church continued to support learning. Copernicus, for example, was funded by the Church. The first book printed on a Gutenberg’s press was a Bible. Now the Bible was translated into every major European language and printed in large numbers. Martin Luther’s challenge to the Church was a written tract, one that was soon printed up and distributed. The Reformers emphasized that Christians should be able to read the Bible themselves, all the way down to the simple plowman in his field. Rather naively, Martin Luther thought that everyone would naturally interpret the Bible his way if only they had a chance, and he translated the Bible into German to give that chance to more people. The ideal medieval Christian listened to church authority. The ideal modern Christian had read the Bible for himself. Sunday school, an institution hated by children from Tom Sawyer to me, began in the 1780s as an effort to teach poor children to read. It had to be on Sunday because the kids would be working the other six days. Today we take it for granted that a public school is going to teach kids to read for free. Historically speaking, however, a culture’s ruling power structure generally usually hasn’t wanted the commoners to be able to read. Literacy might let them read laws for themselves, draw up proper legal documents, sue in court, and pass along subversive messages. Universal literacy began as a Christian project. Across the globe, missionaries opened schools and even taught girls to read. Today universal literacy is a secular ideal, but the original momentum was religious.

What was Jesus’ role in all this? Jesus didn’t do much directly to promote literacy, but he did say things that were noteworthy enough that others wrote them down. He also led a life that was so dramatic that early Christians invented a new literary form to narrate that life: the “gospel.” Somehow he expressed the humanism and piety of his Jewish tradition in such an arresting and accessible way that it appealed to Paul, a Hellenized Jew, and to the gentiles among whom Paul lived. Jesus’ predominant contribution to world literacy was that he founded a sect that would metamorphose into a world religion, and that he was Jewish. That seems to have been enough to get the ball rolling toward universal literacy. So the next time you drive past a nativity creche, thank Baby Jesus for our literate culture.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Are atheists softening?

This year's ad ends with happy holiday cheer.

It’s Christmas once again, a time of caroling, brightly wrapped gifts, holiday cheer, and anti-religious billboards from the American Atheists. True to form, they are sponsoring an animated billboard in Times Square that insults Christians and features ALL CAPS, as if yelling is the atheist idiom. But wait, it’s not that simple. The 12-second ad ends with a cheery Christmas scene and holiday wishes. The ad might lead someone to suspect that atheists are regular, reasonable people who like the holidays just like anyone else. It's a step forward from the mean-spirited billboards that AA put up two years ago. Maybe in some future Christmas they’ll set aside the negativity and insults altogether. Meanwhile on the West Coast, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has put up billboards in Sacramento featuring smiling local atheists, each with a short phrase about their beliefs or lack thereof. These images imply that atheists can be friendly and thoughtful. Could it be that atheists are learning that a little niceness can go a long way? The general public distrusts us from the start, so anything we can do to show our human side has got to pay off.

This shift in public presentation comes alongside a growing number of atheist books that have challenged the anti-religious stance of the New Atheists. Recently I’ve read three books that offer atheist perspectives on religion as an admirable human endeavor: Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists (2012), Christ Stedman’s Faitheist (2012), and Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist (2013). Without denying that religions have dark sides, these authors address their light sides. De Botton examines the valuable social organization that religion can provide and that secular groups could emulate. Stedman encourages atheists to participate in interfaith movements to help fight religious extremism. De Waal criticizes the militance of the New Atheists and asserts that religion can have emotional benefits event if its supernatural claims aren’t true or even really believed. Together, atheists like these three are offering a more broad-minded take on what atheism means. I find it a welcome change.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Spiritual identity and intellectual disability

Lissie is from my hometown, and during her 
performances she has sometimes invited 
Bob on stage to play.
When I was in my hometown for Thanksgiving, I attended a service at the liberal Lutheran church that I had attended unwillingly as a child. As the service ended and people were exiting the pews, one congregant, Bob, went up to the front of the sanctuary with his guitar. He played some simple, pleasant chords while everyone else mingled and drifted out. Bob is developmentally disabled, but he plays the guitar OK, and he and his music are welcome in my parents’ little congregation. People generally think of the church experience as being about shared beliefs, but if so then Bob raises some questions. Is Bob really a Lutheran? To be a Lutheran, you need to accept the Bible (as revised by Luther) as holy scripture and only this Bible, and you need to believe that salvation comes by grace through faith alone, not good works. Have the other congregants ascertained where Bob stands on these issues? For that matter, is Bob even a Christian in good standing? As a teenager getting confirmed in this church, I had to learn about the mystical paradox of the Trinity, how three persons are mysteriously one, and how one of these persons has two complete natures. Maybe Bob is familiar with all that doctrine and is on the Lutheran bandwagon, and maybe not. Have the folks at St. John’s Lutheran Church verified that Bob has the proper beliefs about Jesus to qualify for membership? Somehow, I doubt it. On the other hand, for the congregation to welcome Bob into their community seems like a Christian thing to do. Welcoming the misfit is a pretty fair application of the historical Jesus’ ministry. Jesus was notorious for fraternizing with the people that proper Jewish leaders set themselves above: sinners, hookers, lunatics, paupers, women, and children. Christians have historically reached out to the sick and the poor, so including the developmentally disabled fits right in.

If Bob showed up at a gathering of atheists, would he be welcome? Would people quiz him to make sure that he had the right lack of metaphysical beliefs before they let him play their guitar at the close of their sessions? The Sunday Assembly in London has made headlines as a church for atheists with plans to expand. Would Bob be welcome there? I’d like to think so. I’d also like to think he’d be welcome at my Unitarian congregation, even though it’s generally a pretty intellectual crowd, and a little formal. When I say that religion is not primarily about belief, people are incredulous, but Bob’s story tells me that it’s primarily about community. If atheist communities like the Sunday Assembly are ready to accept the Bobs of this world, then more power to them. If not, then I’m glad there are old-fashioned, backwards-thinking congregations for the Bobs of this world to find their homes in.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Christmas Unitarian-Style

Scandinavians traditionally honor 
Santa Lucia at Christma.
If you’ve ever wondered how a church congregation might handle Christmas when it’s not a Christian church, you’re in luck. The Unitarian church where I teach Sunday school is big enough to offer a variety of Christmas-themed events, and they provide a special insight into how a congregation without a creed conducts itself. Here’s a rundown, with commentary.

Festive solstice potluck: First off, if you want some holiday cheer but don’t want to honor the Christmas tradition per se, you’re covered. Local “Freethought” groups, such as Humanists of WA and Seattle Atheists, gather at the church for a solstice celebration. I’m sure the discussion includes Flying Spaghetti Monster jokes.

Family holiday service: This is my favorite, where the kids do a semi-traditional Christmas pageant, with little kids dressed as sheep, wise men, and the rest. It’s not all by the book. The number of wise men expands to keep kids from getting left out. Sometimes we Unitarians are smeared as “atheists with kids,” and this event plays to that stereotype. Where else could my atheist daughter have ever played Mary?

Family candlelight service: This one’s a little more serious, taking place in the evening, with kids doing readings. Our Seattle congregation has a large number of Nordics, so we do the Santa Lucia bit, where a teen girl with candles on her head walks through the sanctuary with attendants, all in white. There’s nothing particularly universal or unitarian about this ceremony, other than that as Unitarian Universalists we can do whatever we want, and this is one of the things that we want to do.

Candlelight Christmas Eve service: This service is the most traditional of our services, for those of us who really want to get our Christmas fix. Christmas Eve services are beautiful whether you believe in anything or not, and especially if it plays into your nostalgia.

Messiah Sing- and Play-Along: For the real music lovers, there’s an event the day after Christmas where you can sing along to Handel’s Messiah, solos and everything. If you’re handy with an instrument, bring it along and play. This one is led by our Director of Music, who is also the Artistic Director and Conductor of Seattle Pro Musica, an internationally recognized choir. It’s so popular that you have to buy tickets, and they always sell out.

Blue Christmas: This special Christmas service says something about how intentional we are about our church experience. This service is especially for people who are sad around the holidays, which is a lot of people. All the holiday cheer, Christmas carols, and kids’ events are great, but for someone who’s depressed or grieving, it can make them feel even worse. This quiet service is for them.

Ninteenth-century Unitarians, such as Charles Dickens, were central in the successful campaign to transform Christmas from an adult’s drinking party to a tender-hearted, family-oriented holiday. Our congregation continues in that tradition, honoring Christmas, but taking it on our own terms. To put it in business terms, our approach is customer-centric. There isn’t any church hierarchy telling us to do anything other than what the various people in our congregation want to do. Merry Christmas.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Onward Liberal Soldiers

Calling for a hypothetical
revolution, ignoring the real one.
In a BBC interview in October, comedian Russell Brand called for a revolution. He denigrated the everyday political process as not worth his time, to the point of not voting. The irony is that global culture has already undergone a breathtaking revolution, but no one talks about it. In the last two hundred years, we have abolished slavery, rebranded war as an evil, enacted universal suffrage, advanced women’s rights, made racism unacceptable in polite company, established better rights for the accused, provided institutional support for the poor and elderly, and more. There’s plenty of work left to be done, but the work remaining need not blind us to the phenomenal social progress we have made since 1800. Neither conservatives nor liberals like to talk about this revolution because it doesn’t fit either side’s narrative. The liberal narrative is founded on how bad things are and how desperately we need change, so liberals don’t want to talk about how much progress we have already made. Conservatives don’t want to tout our progress because it’s been liberal progress and they don’t want to remind everyone that they’ve been on the wrong side of history. 

One way to look at our progress is from the perspective of the vulnerable people that are being protected by the modern state, compared to how they were treated 200 years ago.

Women: equal rights in voting, property, work, and education; legal contraception; wife beating and marital rape outlawed.

Children: child labor laws, free education, child abuse laws.

Elderly, widows, orphans: social insurance programs.

Poor people: free education, welfare benefits, voting rights, subsidized healthcare.

Sick people: reform of nursing practice, universal health care, disability accommodations.

Prisoners: rights of the accused, rights of convicts, abolition of the death penalty almost everywhere.

Slaves: slavery abolished.

Racial minorities: voting rights, civil rights, discrimination prohibited.

Religious minorities: religious freedom, discrimination prohibited.

Soldiers, POWs: Geneva Conventions.

Workers: safety standards, fair labor laws.

Consumers: anti-trust laws, truth in advertising laws, consumer safety standards, labeling requirements.

Russell Brand wants a revolution but doesn’t vote. In the past 200 years, voting has gotten us a revolution. Whatever we are doing, we should damn well keep doing it. The status quo is progress.

As for which historical figure is most responsible for this social revolution, Friedrich Nietzsche named a candidate. He hated the spread of equal rights for all, and he laid the blame first and foremost on the historical Jesus. But that would be a topic for another post.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Jesus’ Family Values

Infant baptism reflects traditional family values
Jesus never said, “The family that prays together stays together.” Instead, he said that his disciples were to hate their families: their parents, their siblings, and their children. As BIble verses go, Luke 14:26 doesn’t get a lot of play in Sunday school. Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God, a blessed spiritual state that people could enter, but only after cutting ties to the everyday world. “Let the dead bury the dead,” said Jesus to the man with a duty to bury his father. For early Christians, joining the church generally meant renouncing one’s family. In the gentile congregations that Paul founded, a convert underwent baptism, in which they died and were reborn into a new family, the “body of Christ.” In general, once you were baptized, you were then expected not to sin for the rest of your life. Abstention from sex was the ideal, even for married Christians. Becoming a Christian in the first century was sort of like joining a monastery, a convent, or a cult today. It set you apart from your family and from your society.

As for Jesus’ own mother and brothers, he said they were not his true family. His brothers may have been upset at him for not setting up shop in Nazareth and bringing gifts their way. Once Jesus was dead, his family moved in. His brother James took over as the leader of Jesus’ sect, which centered on Jerusalem. Other relatives apparently led congregations of Jewish Christians in the surrounding area. This Jewish phase of Christianity, however, got written out of history after Paul’s gentile-friendly version of the sect became the norm.

The idea that Jesus supports conservative family values reflects Christianity’s later development into a mainstream religion. Baptism became a baby’s initiation into society, and gospel verses about forsaking your family were quietly neglected. Before Christianity turned mainstream, however, it rejected the mainstream way of life, right down to family.


Hating your family: Luke 14:26. The Jesus Seminar rates this saying as pink, or “probable.” Also referenced in Matthew and Thomas, but rated gray, or “iffy.”

Dead bury the dead: Matthew 8:22, Luke 9:59-60. Rated pink.

Jesus’ biological family is not his true family: Matthew 12:48, Thomas 99:2. Rated pink. Also referenced in Mark and Luke, but gray.

Was Jesus a bastard?