Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tebow and God

CNN recently posed a question on its daily poll: Is Tim Tebow’s success attributable to God?  That requires a long explanation and a far better answer than the two available options of yes or no.  

For those who do not know, Tebow is the quarterback of the Denver Broncos of the National Football League.  He is in his second year there after an unprecedented career at the University of Florida where he won two national championships and the Heisman Trophy as the country’s best collegiate football player.

A big, powerful man, however, he is not rated as a good professional quarterback.  He winds up to throw the ball, wasting precious seconds, and has shown limited accuracy.  His footwork is poor as well.  As a result, he didn’t play his first year.  However, this year, after the starting quarterback, Jay Cutler, faltered, fans pushed the coach to use Tebow.  He responded with six victories in his first seven games.

Many of the wins were seemingly miraculous, coming late in the game or overtime.  Things just worked out perfectly for Tebow: opponents lost their starting quarterbacks before playing the Broncos; opposing players slipped or made mistakes.  For example, in a game against the Chicago Bears, the opposing running back inexplicably failed to stay inbounds and keep the game clock running, giving Tebow the necessary extra seconds to mount a final, successful drive.

Tebow is a very religious man and credits God with his success.  That’s what prompted the CNN question.  The last time I looked, 71 percent of responders said No that God was not involved in Tebow’s success; the rest said Yes, God was helping Tebow win.

His pastor naturally went with the affirmative.  Pastor Wayne Hanson told reporters: "It's not luck. Luck isn't winning six games in a row. It's favor. God's favor.”  Another minister, Pastor Andre Butler, senior pastor of Word of Faith International Christian Center, in Southfield, Michigan, went online to agree, insisting that “God IS in the business of causing those that truly live their lives for him to have success in WHATEVER they put their hand to.” (The capitals are in the original.)

That’s ridiculous.

First, Tebow is hardly the first football player (or sports figure) to have late-game heroics.  George Blanda, for example, was a 43-year old quarterback for the Oakland Raiders in 1970 when he won five straight games in seemingly miraculous fashion: throwing touchdown passes or kicking last-second field goals.  No one suggested God was on his side.  Or when Albert Pujols, then starring for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, won back-to-back games with homeruns in the team’s last at-bat in 2011.

The list could be endless, but no one credited God, because those athletes were not as religious as Tebow.  They certainly didn’t kneel in prayer during games as Tebow does.  They may thank God for any success – Pujols always points to the sky – but they don’t believe God did the work.

Second, Tebow didn’t win all his games.  In one, the Detroit Lions smothered the Broncos 45-10.   Tebow was tackled seven times in the backfield and twice turned the ball over to the Lions.  Was God on vacation?  Did He decide that, this one afternoon, Tebow would have to succeed by himself?

Third, there are religious players on teams that the Bronco defeated.  Did God reject them for Tebow?  What did they do wrong to lose God’s blessing?

Fourth, God must be new at this game.  While Tebow had a great college career -- arguably the best by any college football player – he was not a complete success.  He won a Heisman Trophy, but was favored two other times.  Another player, Archie Griffin, won the coveted award twice without God’s apparent help.  Moreover, Tebow was a backup player when Florida won its 2006 national championship, but in his first year as a starter, the team lost four games and finished ranked 13th.

After winning the national championship in 2008, Tebow decided to return to school for his senior year rather than enter the NFL draft.  In his last collegiate season, the Gators were crushed by eventual national champion Alabama and ended up ranked fifth nationally.

While that’s an excellent record, it’s hardly perfect and shows no divine intervention.

Fifth, God may be a football fan, but that’s just a game – and it’s not the biggest game in the world.  Soccer is.  Tebow is virtually unknown outside of this country.  While Americans like to think we have God’s blessing, every other country feels the same way.  

Sixth, what happens when Tebow starts losing?  He may have led his team into the playoffs, but only after dropping the last two games of the season with pathetic performances.  Does that mean God deserted him?

Finally, contrary to the pastors, there’s not a shred of evidence that God supports those who believe in Him or does not.  True believers do not have fewer problems or have happier lives.  No research has ever come to that conclusion.  Events happen at random, hitting the faithful and the atheist without deference.
That’s that same for Tim Tebow.

God may or may not be taking an interest in the Bronco’s quarterback, but winning a few games hardly constitutes proof of anything.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Revelation

Long ago, in the very beginning, the entire universe was compressed into a small ball that could fit into a person’s palm, but no one existed to hold it.  It was heavy and dark, alone in the vastness of emptiness, in the silence of loneliness.
Then, it exploded in a fiery burst that still echoes in the far corners of the universe.  Its great eruption of life and death began the process that brought us to this day, this time.
In that explosive moment, time began.  It was not measurable, as we measure it now.  It was endless, but there was beginning.  So shall there be an end.
The bits of matter once compressed into a ball flew out in arcs.  There was nothing to stop it, except other pieces generated by that massive explosion.  The force spewed rocks across the expanse of space.  It forced tiny atoms to merge, creating gases.  It launched other particles that still rove the galaxies in search of a resting space.
Where did the ball come from?  God created it.  Where did God come from?  Man created Him in his own image.
Man came late to this explosive universe.  First came the Sun to send life-giving forces to the cooling rocks and swirls of gasses.  The Moon was plucked from its eternal journey, possibly wrenched from Earth, and made to circle this planet as a silent witness to the miracle of life.
Who did life come from?  God created it. Where did God come from?  Man created Him in his own image.
Life began slowly.  Water derived from the gasses gathered in oceans upon the earth.  In time, for all things need time, life started in the depth of water where darkness reigned.  It began only because the Sun was far enough away to heat the water a little and yet not so close as to sear the fledgling cells as they emerged.  
The creatures that arose were small and could not think.  And, yet, they lived and died in increasing abundance.  Several merged together to create larger beings. Soon, in timelessness that is still time, many creatures of all sizes filled the waters.
They were creative in their forms.  Some grew roots, some had fins, and they changed to meet the dangers of their days, finding ways to reproduce rapidly.  Their bodies decayed slowly on the ocean floor. Plants flourished.  Their breaths changed the atmosphere of the surrounding world.
The most creative beings poked their heads from the water and saw dry land.  They tested it slowly, hesitantly.  They left the water briefly, but some grew roots and stayed.  They found nourishment in the virgin soil.  They grew tall and high.  They arched toward the sky. The Sun greeted them; the Moon flew by and surveyed them.
Where did the animals and plants come from?  God created them. Where did God come from?  Man created Him in his own image.
As in the water, land creatures were creative.  They developed into huge sizes, although smaller than those in the water.  They explored the waters; some even returned to its safe embrace.  They journeyed through the air.  They burrowed below the ground, scampered through rising trees, trotted across its un-muddied surface.  They ate as they could find food.  Some needed meat; others could eat plants. All lived together without asking questions of themselves, their planet or their God.  They communicated through noises and cries, and each found a niche in which survival was possible.
Time had not vanished.  Time became change, so that sometimes plants disappeared, or animals lost their special place and could not endure, or floods, famines or cooling temperatures meant some could survive; some could not.  The most creative altered their lifestyles to meet the new demands of time.
Who decided which creatures lived or died?  God did.  Who decided if God lived or died?  Man did.
In the midst of this ever changing life, man arrived. He was born in what is now Africa.  The first human was not a human, but a kind of animal that was born creative.  It was different from its parents in ways that made it stronger and smarter.  It survived; so did its children.  It inherited skills such as grooming; climbing and thinking from its simian ancestors.  It also developed its hands better for grasping weapons.  It traded claws and talons, eagle eyes and an ability to scent the faintest odor for the skill to communicate and to think.  It had no special talents that differentiated it from other creatures.  It was not faster, bigger, stronger or more combative than its neighbors, but it was more creative.  So it survived.  
The creature that became man began to acknowledge time.  It recognized a beginning and an end.  It buried its dead with artifacts from life.  It painted walls with memories and hopes.  It created an explanation for life, a view of the world beyond death.
It created a God to oversee life and death.
Who created man?  God created man.  Who created God?  Man created Him in his own image.
In the fullness of time, modern man and woman came into being. They bore within them the smallest creature, the first creation.  And they carried within them the next creation, the one that would follow them; the one that would be more creative.
They looked up at the unknown and asked questions.  Their small portion of  earth flooded and they wanted to know why.  The sky was blue, and they wanted to know why.  Children died, and they wanted to know why. All that was good and bad surrounded them in a sea of confusion, and they wanted to know why.  The skies thundered in loud voices that spoke of unseen residents in the rolling clouds.  They gave the noises names.  They saw the miracles of birth, the wonder of death, the marvels of growth and decay.  They assigned deities to each aspect of life and identified a ruler of pantheon.
In them, they were able to find all answers.
Their answer was a pantheon of Gods.
The Gods were good to those who believed.  They came down to earth to wander among their subjects.  They answered prayers, they sustained life, they healed and they made the barren be the mothers of children.  They were seen; they saw.  They fathered their own children on the women of the earth.  They placed the stars in the heaven, named the days of the week.  They rewarded believers and lifted the lowly to the thrones of the world.
There were many Gods by many names.  They were borne, like clothes, on the backs of wanderers.  Those men who lived along the Nile willingly lent their Gods to visitors.  Those men who lived in the Middle East carried their Gods with them to foreign lands.  Names changed as languages bubbled up, so that a God from Egypt might become a God in Greece without anyone realizing the same God thrived in two places.  
In time, men grew tired of their homes and longed for the riches imagined in far off places by those who wandered.  They formed armies and appeared one day at the homes of the neighbors.  Land became a parade ground, and, soon, men were fighting and dying for dirt, as though it were really theirs.  All they possessed in the end was enough to cover their dead bodies, and even then, the land was just loaned until the lowly creatures could finish turning man into more dirt.
One people ruled the land, then another, then many others, until the land was divided into bristling, unclear borders.  A king would call on Gods to support him in a fight with another king, who also called upon the same Gods disguised by different names.
The people of each kingdom identified themselves in the search for distinction:  Egypt, Babylon, Minoa, Lebanon, Hittite, Edom, Elam, Assyria, Persia, Greece and Rome.  Some of these lands faded as time scrubbed at their memories.  Some survived the washing under different names.  Some people lost their lands completely, but retained a sense of unity through their religion or their culture.
Many wrote great books of their accomplishments.  Most were lost as time continued to smooth the features of human life.  Some were carved into stone or written on leather parchment, papyrus or vellum and survived.  A few were collected in an Assyrian library that was destroyed.  But, stone does not burn.  Some were stored in the searing heat of Egypt and endured centuries.  Others were sealed in jars, portrayed in vivid color on temple walls or on tombs of once mighty kings otherwise forgotten.
The scribes and sculptures wrote about their Gods and their wondrous deeds.  They talked of the miracles that accompanied their arrivals and departures.  Some of these Gods died and were reborn. Some shared limbs with animals.  All were very human.
And the people were happy because they saw that all the Gods were good.  
Who created the great empires, the books to record their deeds, the talents of artists who memorialized their activities in monuments and statues?  God did. Who created God?  Man did.     
In the western portion of the world, the empires finally coalesced into once called Rome.  Ruled by a single individual in a single city, it was big enough to touch many countries and powerful enough to hold them enthralled by its greatness.
People brought together in Rome’s embrace began to see how many of the Gods were the same, but with different names.  They began to worship them under combined names.  There were fewer Gods in the Pantheon that governed the world, but each was just as strong and important.  Some now spoke of morality and piety, such as Dionysus. Some demanded strong allegiance and secrecy.  When all their followers finally died, the secret of their cults died, too.  Death came to Gods and man alike.  
Some saw the sadness of the world and envisioned a path to serenity.  They said less was more, and that the reward would be the nothingness of peace eternal.   Others foresaw a heaven where true believers could rejoice because they were right, while nonbelievers would gnash their teeth in the darkness outside.
All were right.  All were wrong.  No one knew what happened after death, so they answered the question before it was asked.  There were great trials to be faced, said the Egyptians.  There was nothing but a massive field with gray shades of the dead, said the Greeks.  There was nothing at all, said the Jews. There was new life, said the Hindus and the Buddhists. There were angels and plenty, said the Persians.
Who ruled life after death? God did. Who created God? Man did.
There were gods of afterlife like Hades and Osiris. Living Men could enter and leave. Perseus did. Hercules did. Persephone stayed part of her year.
The answers made people feel good. They now know everything.
Some people did not agree with the many answers. They started with many Gods, but finally settled on One. They said He was given them as his portion, and He would be their guide forever. Jews, the remnants of the ancient country of Judea, held onto this one God despite His failures to rescue them. They lost their king and their country, but not their God. Instead, they combined many of the stories of their neighbors into a single book, and changed the stories to meet their God’s and their own needs. Weak and insignificant as a people, they envisioned their God as all powerful. Someday this god, Yahweh, would lift them above the haughty men who defeated and oppressed them. They thought of the magnificent leader who would accomplish that great feat on behalf of their God, and they knew they would be rewarded for their steadfast faith. They would conquer all.
Who would send the great leader? God would. Who sent God? Man did.
The great leader did not come. Instead, some people decided they could wait no longer. They concluded God would not send a mighty warrior to defeat the Romans. Instead, he would send a poor, unrecognized man would lead his followers to victory through piety on the only battlefield the Romans could not contest. This leader would be meaningless on Earth and great in heaven.
They accepted the glorious heaven imagined by some, and put their new leader in a throne room there. They created a pantheon of humans to serve him and decreed that all mankind would be judged for failing to recognize their great leader. Those who believed would be allowed to enjoy the good life of this envisioned heaven; those who declined would be tormented until they repented their obstinacy.
They built a hell with endless arrays of torturous instruments for nonbelievers. Death was not enough for those who denied their special vision.
They did not hesitate to borrow ideas from other beliefs. Their views spread rapidly with such vigor until almost everyone accepted this amalgamated religion. Heaven was built, hell erected; believers became saints; nonbelievers were transformed into sinners. As before, the writers described great deeds when God walked on earth. They spoke of miracles and wonders, signs and portents.
Nothing had changed, but names. In the fullness of time, names always change, but not reality.
Who created the names? God did. Who created God? Man did.
What did man want of his god? Justice for those who believed but were downtrodden; reward for those who believed but were not acknowledged; peace so that believers may enjoy their rewards; love so that believers may be acknowledged for their steadfast behavior; eternity so that believers could bask in their reward for recognizing the truth while those who scorned them could suffer for an equal amount of time.
Yet, in the beginnings, the real truths were evident. They are not justice, because time knows how to smooth away defects, not dispense virtue. They are not reward, because time eclipses all prizes and enlightens even Ozymandias. Nor are they peace, because time knows not peace or war. All are the same moments on an eternal clock. Nor are they eternity, because the greatest among us becomes nothing as time soldiers on.
If there are great truths, they are these:
Be creative. Life was born in creativity. It continues only through the creative efforts of a few. Creativity made small creatures poke their heads from warm waters and wonder about the lure of dry land. It makes an artist envision a different reality, a dreamer gaze upon the stars and see a future.

Be patient. Time moves on at a steady pace. It cares not for pleas nor prayers, gifts nor incense. There is no fate, no destiny, but for each life there is opportunity for creativity. It is that opportunity, however brief, to be more that makes life the wonder of the mind and not just a mere moment in history.

Be accepting. Of the ideas of mankind, there are some that may be right; others may be wrong. Time awards wisdom to many and accords glimpses of a larger reality to only a few. Those who determine right or wrong and so live their lives shunt aside their opportunity for creativity. Do not judge. Knowledge and understanding open creative doors. Certainty is a doorstop and a rock to pain blind feet.

Be studious. Time provides opportunity for creativity. Knowledge is owned by none and available to all. The more knowledge is accumulated, the more creativity abounds.  

Be forgiving. Time erases. Time forgets. Time has no interest in non-creative ventures nor misdirected thoughts. Instead, it moves on creative paths which spread in all directions. Some lead to new doors; other to walls. Without trying, no one would know which path to follow.

Be helpful. Creativity may come in the smallest child or the oldest adult. It may creep into a nursery or a hospital bed. It may be a part of the inner being of the meanest creature. Those who help keep the creative spark alive and give it a chance to flare. Do not smother; do not preach. Simply encourage creativity.

Be giving. Time provides more opportunities to some and few to others. There is no equality. Time knows nothing of fair play. Those that have more need to aid those with less, so that creativity may flourish even in the worst of circumstances.

Creativity conceived of the reality of time and measured it. It recognized the amazement of distance between here and anywhere. It understood the depths of despair and the heights of love. Creativity wrote the great philosophies that underpin our lives. It envisioned the future towards which we trudge.

Who gave mankind creativity? God did. Who created God? Creativity did

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Atheist Billboards Can’t Overcome Mythology

In yet another effort to convince the American public that God does not exist, American Atheists are putting up billboards again this year during the holiday season.

Good luck with that.
The billboards are arresting.  They contain images of Santa, Jesus, Poseidon and the devil next to such messages as: "37 Million Americans know MYTHS when they see them."  That’s stronger than last year’s version which included: "You Know It's A Myth. This Season, Celebrate Reason."

You’ll have to live in Ohio, New Jersey and Florida to see the new signs, but they are bound to generate some controversy all over the country.  American Atheists Communications Director Blair Scott expects that: "When you question someone's long-held beliefs and doctrine they are going to be immediately offended and be on the defensive: it's a known psychological phenomenon," he told an online publication.

The signs may spur anger, but they just won’t have any effect on belief. 

As a friend who read several of my religious history books – which explain the clearly less-than-divine origins of our beliefs and sacred artifacts -- noted, “We need our myths.”

He’s right.  We do: atheists, agnostics and believers alike.  Myths provide a framework for our lives.  They give us a reason to live, a sense of purpose to counter the wrenching realization that there is no reason for life except life itself.

That’s why myths gather around significant people.  Our heroes provide a glimpse of something better, something beyond mundane existence.

Reality never vanishes, even in the most religious mind. Mother Teresa, the Albanian nun who spent her life helping India’s poorest residents of Calcutta, made that clear.  In her writings, she expressed her doubts about God and her Catholic faith, but continued to sacrifice for others.

She was hardly alone. Catholic priests who have attended my Stetson University religious history class have admitted they did not believe in Jesus in any role, but continued in their positions in order to provide service to their parishioners.  I have had rabbis tell me the same thing.

They all realize that religion is a myth, but that myth serves as such a powerful motivating force – hopefully, for the good.  Unfortunately, religion-based wars tell us the direction isn’t always pleasant, but nothing else can produce the self-sacrificing saints like Mother Teresa who dot human history.

Besides, no one really knows whether there’s a god or not.  Religion is based on mythology.  Our images of God are equally flawed, but that doesn’t completely discount the existence of a being (or beings) that affect our lives.

Maybe we cannot communicate with that higher power, assuming it exists.  Maybe that higher power can’t communicate with us.  Maybe the higher power only cares about afterlife.  Who knows?  
Atheists suffer from the same flaw as true believers: both believe they are completely right and leave no room for alternative ideas.  Unfortunately, we don’t have enough information.  Everyone can’t be right, but they all can be wrong.

As a result, as polls continue to show, more than 90 percent of Americans believe in God.  That’s not likely to change anytime soon.

After all, mythology is mightier than the sign.  It’s mightier than most anything, including logic.

Top of Form
Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

St. Peter’s New Book

Cold and tired, beaten and disgusted, the Apostle Peter sat in a Roman prison cell with Paul some 2,000 years ago, writing the story of his life and waiting to be executed.  Two millennia later, the autobiography has been found and has just been published.

At  least, that’s the tale spun by author Bill Lazarus.

Call him the finder of lost books.  In his first novel, The Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus, he supposedly recovered the biography of the great seer, a book misplaced for 500 years.  In this novel, the subject is Peter, who is thought to have died around 64 C.E.  Lazarus said he has no more “lost” books waiting to be found.  “I only did two novels this way,” the Daytona Beach resident explained.  “Other books are more conventional.”

In reality, there really may be an autobiography of Peter floating around somewhere. 

“There actually is a Gospel of Peter,” said Lazarus, who is also a biblical historian who has written several published books on that subject, including Comparative Religion for Dummies.  “Early Church leaders weren’t fond of the book, which survives only in fragments.”

There’s no such trouble with The Last Testament of Simon Peter, which includes an historical introduction explaining how the book was “found” and footnotes in the text as if it truly was an historical document.

“Bill knows this era backwards and forward,” said critic Lester Myles of the Richmond (VA) Times.  “The reader feels transported into a totally different era.”

“The book is historically accurate,” explained Lazarus, who spent several years gathering information on the era before writing the novel.  “Unfortunately, we don’t know much about Peter.”

Although Peter is the first disciple of Jesus, New Testament includes little information about him, including his hometown, his job as a fisherman and the fact he was married.  Beyond that, Peter appears only in a series of episodes with Jesus or, before the religious council of the day to be reprimanded for his views.  In the Epistles, largely written by Paul, Peter is seen disagreeing with Paul over Jesus’ teaching. 

That disagreement serves as the crux of the novel.  Peters says he is writing his account to counter Paul.  However, by the end of the book, having endured beatings and disappointments, Peter reconciles to Paul, realizes that both of them are trying to achieve an understanding of God, but from different directions.  The novel ends with Peter’s heart-rending usage of Paul’s real name, something he had steadfastly refused to do previously.

“There have been a variety of novels with Peter as the main character,” said book reviewer Randall Lancaster of the Revere River (MA) Daily.  “This is the first one that provides an accurate historical context in a dramatic context that is both completely believable and highly entertaining.”

That’s because the text is laced with Lazarus’ usual humor, something that characterizes all of his writing.  For example, Peter meets a would-be, money-hungry mystic named Alexander who is baptizing acolytes in the Jordan River.  Peter gets in line only to be left standing, naked, because, as Alexander notes, he did not pay in advance.  Peter then spends some time in thoughtful contemplation of the deeper meaning of Alexander’s words.

In another anecdote, his bread-baking attempts leave local housewives with aching jaws and angry comments.  Peter’s grandfather’s attempts to explain the intricacies of Jewish religious rules are also achingly funny.

Amid the humor, however, there is great tragedy, including the drowning death of Peter’s older brother and the crucifixion of his father. 
“Those events are the reality of that day,” said Lazarus, who teaches courses in writing at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and in religious history in the Stetson University’s Continuing Education Department.

Surprisingly, considering Peter’s important in Christianity as the first disciple of Jesus and the man who holds the keys to heaven, Jesus actually plays a small role in the book.

“I was not trying to attack anyone’s belief and felt that any attempt to portray Jesus would offend someone,” Lazarus explained.  “The book places Peter in an historical context, creating a real person instead of a religious icon wandering around with a halo.”
That was Lazarus’ motive in writing the book.  “Biblical characters like Peter and Paul 2,000 years ago didn’t know they were supposed to be saints and were completely unaware that religious people today would hang on their every word,” he said.  “They were simply trying to live as best they could in a tumultuous era filled with war and death.”

“Only someone with the unique background in history, religion and writing could create novel like this,” Lancaster wrote.  “Peter was immortal before.  Now, he has found a voice.”

The Last Testament of Simon Peter
Halifax County
244 pages
Available on Amazon.com, www.halifaxcounty.com, Kindle and www.williamplazarus.com