Welcome to the Stifyn Emrys blog. Visit this site to stay updated on the latest news and releases from author Stifyn Emrys, along with serious, silly and occasionally sarcastic observations about the world around us.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Don't Condemn Christians for Only Believing Some Portions of the Bible

I have to laugh when I see non-Christians actually criticize Christians of picking and choosing which parts of the Bible to believe.

Isn't this precisely what they should be doing? It's called critical thinking. The Bible, unlike a Shakespearean play, Plato's Republic or the Harry Potter series, is an anthology. It was written by a diverse group of individuals from a variety of backgrounds with a host of competing - and sometimes conflicting - agendas over the course of several centuries. Its source material spans millennia.

So when Christians ignore an injunction in Leviticus and demand obedience to a command of Jesus (or vice versa), they're doing exactly what they're supposed to be doing. They're making value judgments as to which  portions of this anthology apply to them and which don't; about which texts make sense and which defy logic. Sometimes, those judgments bolster their own prejudices, such as condemnations of same-sex relationships and beliefs in eternal torment. But the core problem isn't that they're making value judgments; the problem is that many of them won't admit it.

Christians who view the Bible as, literally, the word of their god, can't acknowledge this is what they're doing because it would upset their apple cart of supposed scriptural infallibility. The fact that they do so anyway isn't the problem. It means they're human. The problem isn't the critical smorgasbord approach to the scripture, it's the claim that it's somehow infallible.

Non-Christians and Christians who look at the Bible as a product of human history have no problem praising some portions of it and condemning others. The writers of Jeremiah and John wrote under completely different circumstances with entirely different aims. Or check out the writings of Paul and the Epistle of James. The two philosophies aren't just incompatible, they're diametrically opposed.

The critical mind recognizes this, and the honest mind doesn't try to reconcile it. The problem lies with the believer who tries to have it both ways. On the one hand, he admits that divine commands for wholesale genocide in the Old Testament aren't particularly moral and, but on the other, he insists that the biblical anthology is infallible.

Cognitive dissonance? You betcha. George Orwell called it doublethink: "the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them."

The way to resolve this, however, isn't to stop viewing the Bible (or any other document) critically. It's to stop insisting on applying impossibly high standards such as infallibility to it. Such standards do provide a sense of false security, which is doubtless why they're imposed, but the resulting exercise in doublethink more than offsets it with a very real sense of insecurity that leads people to rationalize inherent contradictions - and lash out at those who expose the absurdity of those rationalizations.

Read more about these problems and others in my book Requiem for a Phantom God, available in paperback, as well as on Kindle (http://amzn.to/10nx028) and Nook (http://bit.ly/XjoCWd).

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Question Regarding 'The Faith of the Seven' for George R.R. Martin

If I were to have a chance to ask George R.R. Martin a question, it would probably involve how he came up with his "Faith of the Seven," referring to the seven new gods of Westeros in "A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones."

When it comes to the three feminine gods, the author seems to have used Wicca as his template, presenting them as the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. These feminine forms are represented as life stages, but the masculine forms are presented in a different context. While the Father corresponds clearly to the Mother, the other two masculine figures are defined not by a life stage but by a skill: the Warrior and the Smith. The seventh deity, which is asexual, is the Stranger.

What I'd ask Martin is this: Was it his intent to reflect a sexist attitude in the world he created by suggesting that two of the male deities were defined by their work or skill set, while the three female deities were defined by entrenched societal roles?

It's long been my contention that there is, in fact, an archetypal threefold "god" who is the rough counterpart to the triple goddess and who, like her, can be found in numerous traditions: the youth, the father and the elder. In the ruling classes, these correspond to roughly to the prince-princess, the queen-king and the witch/wise woman-wizard/sage.

This isn't meant as a criticism of Martin. He's the author, it's his world, and he can set it up however he chooses. It's just an observation from someone who finds mythical archetypes fascinating and sees fantasy novels as one means they're often preserved in modern society.

Certainly, sexism was rampant during the medieval period that serves as a model for many fantasy tales, even if they don't take place in our historical past, and Martin's depiction of figures such as Cersei Lannister and Sansa Stark shows that women were expected to mind their place in much the same way under the social norms of the world he created. Arya Stark's independence was the exception, not the rule.

I have to wonder whether Martin was sending a nuanced message by creating goddesses who are defined by who they are and gods who are identified by what they do. Is it a subtle dig at our own society's tendency to define men according to tasks and women according to roles?

Or is that reading too much into it? One of the most important rules of literature is that the various elements of any fictional world must be consistent with the society as a whole. The sexism that seems to me inherent in the Faith of the Seven accurately reflects that of the Westeros society at large. Certainly, it need not be taken as any more than that.

But I'd still like to ask Martin the question.

Monday, April 1, 2013

IPCA issues 'anti-manifesto' on the current state of Pagan community


PALO VISTA, Calif. - The Inter-traditional Pagan Council of America (IPCA) issued a statement this morning condemning factional infighting within and among various Pagan traditions.

"The face of Paganism to non-Pagans is becoming increasingly one of discord and petty bickering over insubstantial matters," IPCA Vise President David Raith said in a statement. "We therefore thought it prudent to issue a statement on behalf of our organization, which represents thousands of Pagans practicing myriad traditions across this great country."

Raith described his group's statement as an "anti-manifesto." Instead of seeking to define Paganism, it invites individual Pagans to define their own paths according to three principles: free will, conscience and understanding. This, Raith declared, is the "three-fold law of liberty and respect" that "transcends any single path within Paganism and, indeed, is applicable beyond the Pagan milieu."

IPCA president Marta Villalobos, reached by telephone at her home in Ash Valley, Calif., confirmed the statement's authenticity and provided some background about why her group chose to issue the statement at this time.

"A number of people within the Pagan community have become so fiercely attached to labels that they have become proprietary about them," Villalobos said. "One group says, 'Only Wiccans can be Pagan.' Another says, 'Pagans must worship deities but cannot, under any circumstances, worship this or that deity.' Such trends are deeply troubling in light of well-known historical developments that proved, ultimately, very damaging to Pagan and Pagan-friendly individuals."

Villalobos pointed to the development of Christianity. As Christianity grew from a minority path to become the official religion of the Roman Empire and its political successors, she said, creeds were adopted and became increasingly complex. The more complex they became, the more they were used to isolate political enemies of the church hierarchy by labeling them as heretics and apostates. "These creeds," she said, "became an excuse to consolidate political power and marginalize anyone who did not agree with the 'established' and 'accepted' political position of the day."

IPCA officials say they are concerned modern Paganism may find itself in the early stages of this same destructive process, and seeks to educate the public about the damage it can cause.

The first principle, according to the IPCA statement, is the principle of self-identification.

"Imagine if we were to tell a gay man he couldn't call himself gay because he didn't fit into some pre-existing stereotype," Villalobos said. "Or what if we told a racially mixed individual she must identify with one race and not the other? Actually, we do this all the time. We presume to force people to fit our own stereotypes, whether or not they identify with the traditions we assign them. We are, in effect, saying, 'I know better who you are than you do.' " And that is simply wrong."

The IPCA statement came a day after the Pagan Force For Traditional Thought (PFFTT) issued put forth what it termed a "Pagan manifesto" that contained (among other things) the following creedal statements in the style of a medieval Papal bull.

  • "Any person who does not worship the gods yet calls himself 'Pagan,' let him be anathema."
  • "Any person who acknowledges any teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, Mohammad or any other figure associated or affiliated with any monotheistic faith, let him be anathema."
  • "Any person who shows reverence to deities from more than one pantheon, let him be anathema."
  • "Any person who puts nature above the gods, let him be anathema."
  • "Any person who knows not the difference between a pentacle and a pentagram, or between deosil and widdershins, let him be anathema."
  • "Any person who mixes peanut butter and milk chocolate, let him be anathema."

PFFTT also touted the success of its online virtual cage match between the goddesses Ishtar and Oestre, which pitted the followers of two long-revered goddesses against one another in a no-holds-barred "battle royal for bragging rights to March 31." A hue-and-cry was raised when Ishtar was awarded the victory based upon PFFTT officials' lingering fondness for the 1980s box office bomb named for the goddess. (They were, admittedly, huge fans of Warren Beatty.)

Although IPCA did not respond specifically to PFFTT's "manifesto," it did declare the reverence for Ishtar and Oestre to be "infinitely more important" than some "contrived and provocative feud over  proprietary rights to a holiday celebrated predominantly by Christians. And for those who don't worship either goddess, well, that's OK, too!" ...

It should be clear by now that there is no IPCA (the initials were inspired by a series of books by novelist Kiersten White), and there certainly is no PFFTT (though some folks seem intent upon living up to that acronym when it comes to anything that doesn't conform with their particular philosophy or theology). David Raith and Marta Villalobos are, likewise, fictional characters.

This is, of course, April Fool's Day. But instead of simply posting some quick, funny comment, I decided to write about something a little more meaningful. IPCA may be a fictional organization, but if it existed, I'd certainly join it. The message of self-identification is important. Of course, it doesn't apply to people who falsely self-identify for personal gain, but when people genuinely self-identify as Pagan, Christo-Pagan, Secular Pagan, atheist, gay, lesbian or whatever, their right to do so should be respected. And that's no April Fool's joke.