Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Shepherd Poem

Amidst the steady stream of cars
In a crowded intersection,
He stood.
Proud and erect, directing the flock
By his meek presence.
They moved around him,
Shaped into a proper flow
In easy rhythm.
He gave no signals,
Made no gestures.
He smiled, he looked,
Into the eyes of each driver,
Silently directing.
The cars swirled about him;
He was not afraid.
As Jesus before him,
He loved his sheep.
He raised his sign
In silent prayer
That all might read the good news.
It read:
“Will work for food.”

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Why Celebrate Religious Holidays?

In recent years, archaeologists and historians have made mincemeat of some of the most cherished ideas in all religions.  The Exodus from Egypt, supposedly led by Moses, has been erased.  There’s simply no evidence of it, either in Egypt, the Sinai Desert or in Israel.   Muslim claims of a single, sacred Koran have been discounted with the discovery of a second version of their holy book. 

Christian history has been thoroughly undermined by extensive research that demonstrated the resurrection story was a much later addition to the original text.  Throw in the fact Jesus wasn’t born in December or under extraordinary circumstances, and there isn’t much left.  Faced with overwhelming evidence, the Roman Catholic Church has now endorsed the Big Bang theory of the world’s creation and evolution, knocking the two remaining props from under Christian belief.

I’m reminded of such realities whenever I’m annually invited to celebrate some religious holiday with friends and family.  There are plenty of them directly connected to non-historical events: Passover and Purim in Judaism; Easter and Christmas in Christianity.  I usually decline to participate, but have started to consider the value of such festivals.

For starters, religious holidays bring people together.  In our hectic-paced world, we rarely have a chance for that.  I can recall multiple family dinners with my only close relatives, an aunt and uncle, my father’s brother.  They did not get along, but, nevertheless, we invariably drove to Detroit to celebrate Passover together.  The holiday served as a viable reason to share a meal when no other reason would suffice.

Christmas has the same effect on my Christian friends.  Animosities and disagreements fade. 

Then, too, these holidays have secondary messages that outweigh any historical deficiencies.  Passover and Purim are about seeking freedom.  In Passover, enslaved Jews supposedly were led from Egypt to achieve independence in Canaan.  In Purim, based on the canonical book of Esther, Jews in ancient Persia were able to evade the Holocaust-like views of the reigning prime minister.  Although neither event happened, the concept of freedom remains viable.  In fact, Purim became increasingly important because its message buoyed Jews trapped in the European ghettoes and Russian shtetls.  The holiday became a raucous party in which a downtrodden people annually rose up against their oppressors in words, songs and comic routines rather than with weapons.

That tradition continues today.

The Christian religious holidays serve as reminders of a higher ideal – irrespective of whether there is a god or not.  They encourage all of us to think of a greater good and something beyond ourselves.  We can all use that reminder, particularly in a time of sharp divides over often-insignificant issues and the ardent demagoguery that fills our airwaves.

Finally, they are happy occasions.   There is not enough of that as bad news -- transported so swiftly around the world – increasingly becomes everyday fare.  The internet is a wonderful invention with multiple applications, but it is a better vehicle for scaring people than cheering them.  Every tidbit of potential disaster, from global warming to acid oceans, gets full play, including the foibles of our “celebrities.”

We can all use a chance to escape such realities for the innocence of a religious celebration.   Our secular holidays – President’s Day, Independence Day, Labor Day etc. – do not carry that cachet.  Only a religious holiday can do it.

Some scientists argue we are programmed to accept religious beliefs, no matter how absurd.  After all, there are still people who believe a former musician -- who changed his name to David Koresh,  took over a religious group and led them to a mass immolation--  is really God.  Researchers claim that religion enforces the socialization process that enabled humans to rise to the top of the food chain.

That’s why that, if we didn’t have religious holidays, we would have had to invent them.

Which is exactly what we did and why we should continue to celebrate them.

Bill Lazarus is been a long-time writer, educator and religious historian.  He holds an M.A. in communication from Kent State University and is a full-time instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.  His latest book, The Gospel Truth, was published in January 2011 and is available via Amazon.com, Kindle  or on his website www.williamplazarus.com. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Gospel Truth

Today, millions of people daily read the Gospels.  The four books that open the New Testament seems fixed in time and solid in their presentations.  However, in 70 AD, when Mark sat down to write the earliest Gospel, he must have tried to gather every available source of information.  What did he find?  Where did he get it from?  He had no books, no libraries, no internet, no common resources and, living in Rome, far from Jerusalem where Jesus died at least 30 years before, no direct access.

The other three Gospel writers at least had his book to rely on. However, they, too, also added details, somehow finding more sources of information to create the foundation of Christian faith.  How?  Where?  

Read The Gospel Truth.  You'll find the answers there.

Like an archaeologist digging through layers to find the past, this book takes readers on a journey through existing Jewish religious texts, pagan beliefs and ideas proposed by alternative Christian sects to seek sources for every aspect of the Gospel accounts.  This research provides the first clear picture not of Jesus but of how four authors wove diverse threads together to create the beloved Gospels.

This book should interest to anyone wanting to know more about early Christian history.  No existing book has compiled all the sources in a single volume.  It is not written for experts, but contains well-supported research that supports the author’s thesis.

To obtain a copy, go to Amazon.com, Kindle or www.williamplazarus.com.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Start a New Religion

I’ve been thinking about starting a religion.  I realize this is nothing particularly new or even exciting.  People start religions all the time.   In the last 200 or so years, new religions have been popping up regularly like acne on a teenager.
Here are just a few:  Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Baha’i’, Christian Science, Rev. Moon’s Unification Church, Scientology and many more.   We know about them because they have survived.  Many others did not.  The Shakers come to mind in that category.  My wife’s grandfather also started his own small, liberal Christian group.  It died with him.  

If I’m going to start a religion, I’d like it to endure.  To accomplish that, I have spent a lot of time studying the survivors to figure out what they had that other religions did not.  I examined not only the newer versions, but such long-lived religions as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto and more.
The first thing I noted is that they share very little in common.  Shinto, for example, is simply ancestor worship.  Buddhism has no god; Hinduism has thousands.   Judaism has no heaven or hell; Islam and Christianity happily consign each other’s followers to their own hells.  

To me, that was the easiest requirement:  I can be as inconsistent as anyone.

What did they share?

1)      Holy texts.  They all have writings of some kind that are accepted as somehow divine.  I think I write well.  I imagine I could come up with a book and claim that some great power dictated it to me. That's what Joseph Smith did, and it worked for him.

2)      Rituals.  All religions have some sort of rites that must be followed by adherents.  This helps set them apart.  Unitarians light a candle prior to a service, for example.  Catholics have sacraments.  I’m not sure what mine will be, but it won’t be onerous.  I’m not fond of ritualistic requirements.  Maybe everyone in my faith should know a secret greeting.  We still use the secret greeting of the followers of Mithra although the religion died centuries ago: a handshake.

3)      Some kind of belief.  It doesn’t have to be logical – in fact, illogical is a strong selling point with religion.  After all, how can anyone prove the existence of heaven or hell? Or that every Mormon will be king of his/her own planet.  Or that virgins await every heroic Muslim?   Or that Hindus are reborn to work off karma?  No one knows if any of that is true, which makes it perfect for religion.  I believe in taking cruises.  I think that’s something everyone can embrace.

4)      Obligations.  Every religion has something: no fish on Friday; fast on the Day of Atonement; no alcohol; walk around a sacred stone seven times; rest on the Sabbath; and so on.  I’m reminded of Woody Allen in one of his movies in which a revolutionary takes over an impoverished Hispanic nation and requires everyone to wear underwear on the outside.  I wouldn’t go that far, but I can imagine something easy to do, but distinctive.  Just as requiring all members of my faith to eat artichokes at least once a week.  I really like artichokes.

5)      Clergy.  Someone has to teach the faith and serve as a spiritual guide.  Otherwise, how would anyone get married in the faith?  In Catholicism, the priests are given special powers, but that’s not true in most other faiths.  I like awarding powers.  My clergy can fly.  No one can see that, of course.  They fly during secret, arcane ceremonies that only they can attend.

6)      Promises.  This may be the biggest thing.  Every religion promises something.  In many, a believer will live forever in unity with a deity.  The bigger, the more impossible the promise, the better.  This is one thing I know I can do, in spades.  I can promise anything to anyone.

The successful religions are all built on existing beliefs, sort of adding new scaffolding to an existing building.  Or, in religious terminology: old wine in new wineskin.  This may be the hardest.  I really don’t want to tie into messianic faiths.  I don’t accept that idea and certainly don’t want that role for myself.  Messianic figures tend to get really badly hurt.  I also don’t want to link up with deity-based faiths like Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  They only want to fight each other to “prove” their divine support.  I’m a pacifist.

There are a lot of unusual religions to join.  For example, my religion could build on the Church of Euthanasia.  Its motto, “Save the planet; kill yourself,” says it all.  But, it’s a bit drastic for my taste.   So is Raelism, founded by a man named Rael (surprise!), who insists that extraterrestrial beings created human life.  This idea is absurd enough to become really successful in the future, but I don’t like anything completely refutable by DNA and science.

The Church of Maradona, named for a famed Argentinean soccer star who apparently invested heavily in drugs and desperately needs a weight-loss program.  While hero worship is commonplace, I tend to shy away.  It can be a very tricky business.  Who wants to pray to Tiger Woods these days, for example?

Happy Science argues that in 2050 the Angel Gabriel will be reincarnated in Bangkok, Thailand and that, 50 years later, angry gods will sink the U.S.  That’s a good way for a religion to grow: predict something beyond the lifespan of most people.  And I do like Thailand.  Nevertheless, I don’t want to associate with a religion with such a dire future for my American descendants.  

The Church of All Worlds is based on a fictional religion created by a science fiction writer.  That’s similar to Scientology, but this one’s only sin is hypocrisy.  Apparently, followers are unaware that hypocrisy is a prime requisite for a successful faith.  I don’t hold out much hope this will survive.

Chen Tao started a religion based on the idea of founder Hon-ming Chen that, in 1998, God would appear on a television station.  Chen offered to be crucified when that didn’t happen.  His followers declined, but are still waiting.  Since 1998 isn’t likely to come around again, I think I’ll pass on this one.

Actually, I couldn’t find any faith my new religion could merge with that wasn’t already absurd, illogical and beyond plausible belief.  I’ll keep looking.  Maybe I should focus on creating a religion based on something no seems to have considered yet:  one that makes sense.

Bill Lazarus is a religious historian who teaches classes in the Stetson University Continuing Education Department and has written 14 books on the subject.  His books are available at Amazon.com, Kindle or at www. williamplazarus.com.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Jewish Humor

One of my college students noted approvingly that I tell jokes all the time.  He was pleased that I laugh a lot.  I didn’t tell him most of my writing is comedic, too.  I can’t help it.  It’s part of my Jewish cultural heritage. 

I saw the impact first hand while teaching a class on Jewish humor in Stetson University’s Continuing Education program.  I taught it three times. The first class was composed of almost all Jews.  They laughed from breakfast through bedtime.  The next group was about filled with Jews.  The Christian portion sat there quietly and watched me; the Jews in the group couldn’t stop laughing and telling jokes.  

The third class was all Christian.  On the first day of class, midway through my opening monologue, I endured what performers call “flop sweat.”  That happens spontaneously when no one responds. They just didn’t get the jokes.  In fact, they didn’t appreciate the humor at all.   

Pity.   Jewish humor has become an integral part of American humor, something worth recalling as we celebrate this country’s birthday.

The names of Jewish comedians who established what is now known as American humor could fill an encyclopedia:  Jack Benny, George Burns, The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, Ed Wynn, Eddie Cantor, Don Rickles, Milton Berle, Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, Jack E. Leonard, Mort Sahl, Joan Rivers, Billy Crystal, Myron Cohen, Danny Kaye, Adam Sandler, Jerry Lewis and so many more.

Probably without knowing the sources, they simply built on a centuries-old tradition born in the Bible and developed under the cruelest of circumstances.  

To the surprise of many, the Bible is replete with humor.  A sainted teenager in the Middle Ages used to berate Christians for telling jokes because, he pointed out correctly, there’s no humor in the New Testament.  He was right.  That’s not true with the Jewish sacred text.

The humor is often sardonic, even sarcastic.  In Judges, for example, Ehud rescues the Jews from a Canaanite oppressor by stabbing a heavy-set king.  The guards don’t respond despite the resulting smell, because, the text reads, they were used to the stench when the king used the toilet.  That won’t get anyone rolling in the aisle, but raises a wry smile.  So does Haman’s comeuppance versus Mordecai in the book of Esther.  There are also puns, plays on words and much more.

By itself, that did not allow Jewish humor to blossom.  Ghettoes were needed.  Isolated in a Christian world, Jews were forced to live in small communities or walled sections of towns.  There, powerless and impotent to fight back, they used the only weapon readily available – their wit.

They created the Polish joke – and entire city of Chelm populated by dimwits.  They turned the spring holiday of Purim into a time for skits and parodies, all new to the entertainment world.  They came up with the funny emcee, a role Berle perfected; the schnorrer, a man who tries to con everyone, like Phil Silvers; the schlemiel, the clumsy oaf, who invariably trips over the schmazzel.  Think the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges.  All of these concepts infused American culture in time.

Jewish humor traveled here on several currents.  One, of course, was the massive wave of Russian immigration that started around the 1880s.  Emma Lazarus’ famed poem on the Statue of Liberty – “Give me your huddles masses yearning to breathe free” – was originally written to encourage Russian Jews to leave the shtetls of Russia for the United States.  (Note:  I am not related to Emma.)  The Russian Jews brought with them their finely honed humor.  The Broadway show, Fiddler on the Roof, reflects some of those comedic ideas.  

Another avenue was theater.  Abraham Goldfarb, a Russian Jew, took advantage of a thaw in Russian anti-Semitic thinking in the mid-1800s to start a troupe of touring Jewish performers.  Jacob Adler became the most famous of the actors.  They moved eventually to England and then the United States, bringing their uncontrolled, ribald approach to the stage.  In the midst of a play, such as Shakespeare’s King Lear, the cast might break into song or perform other hijinks.  

The concept traveled well in this country.  Singer Al Jolson, for example, became famous for continuing his performance after his allotted time and even inviting the audience to join him after the show.  He would tell them, “You ain’t seen nothing yet” and ignore the pleas of other acts to stop.  He was just following the pattern set by his Russian counterparts.  The Marx Brothers adlibs did that, too.

Finally, the American theater had Jewish stock characters, the Hebe.  Jews who saw the performers decided that if anyone was going to make fun of Jews, they were.  Jewish comedians began to flock to the stage.
Over time, Jewish humor imbued American humor with a robust, nonconventional current.  Their influence was so strong that the late comedian Buddy Hackett said he had to act Jewish to become successful in Hollywood.  And Buddy Hackett was Jewish.

On this most American of holidays, the role Jewish humor has played in the United States is something worth celebrating, both for how it has added joy to our lives and for another reason that transcends comedy.  It serves as an almost daily reminder of the influence of foreign cultures and ideas on the growth and development of our country.  And that, thankfully, is no joke.

Bill Lazarus is been a long-time writer, educator and religious historian.  He started teaching when he was 13 year old and has been rarely out of a classroom since.  He hold an M.A. in communication from Kent State University and is a full-time instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.  You can write him via this website or www.williamplazarus.com