The Meming of Life: on secular parenting and other natural wonders

Coming up…

A quick rundown of the next few weeks:

The Parenting Beyond Belief WEBINAR!
Thursday Jan 26, 3-4pm EST
Want a taste of the Parenting Beyond Belief workshop but haven’t been able to catch me on the road? Join me this Thursday at 3 pm Eastern for the first in a series of one-hour Parenting Beyond Belief live webinars. The first one will touch on the seven top questions of secular parents and ends with a 30-minute live Q&A. The rest of the series will tackle one topic at a time.

To register, contact PBB Web Events Manager Noelle. Limit of 25 participants, so click quick.

A secular parenting breakfast and chat with Valley Skeptics in LA
Sunday Jan 29, 9:30am
I’ll be in LA for another meeting, but while I’m there, I’ve been invited to pop up to the Valley to have breakfast with one of the Foundation’s volunteer teams, Valley Skeptics in the Park. This one’s a private affair, but I thought I’d mention it anyway to make you all sad and hungry.

PBB in San Francisco
Saturday Feb 25, 1-4:30pm
How I love the Bay Area. Went to UC Berkeley in the 80s, destroyed my knee in the SF Marathon, got married in San Francisco…sorry, where was I. Oh, join me for a half-day workshop at Prometheus CrossFit. Register here!

Talk at University of the Pacific: “Do the Right Think”
Tuesday Feb 28, 7:00 pm
The idea that ethics can be and should be directly connected to critical thinking is weirdly controversial. I’ll put an end to the controversy once and for all in my talk at UOP’s DeRosa University Center. Come early for socializing at 6:30.

More to come…

The year of reading biblically

New Year’s resolutions are a big deal around our house. Everybody writes them down, reads them aloud on New Year’s Eve, and posts them for the Mid-February Shaming.

The night before New Year’s Eve, Becca told me that one of her resolutions is to read the Bible this year. Though now a secular humanist, she was raised Baptipiscobyterian, and like most BPBs her scriptural knowledge was pretty much limited to pre-masticated pastoral nuggets, Fortified with Vitamin J and 99.7% Atrocity Free.

Reading the actual thing on your own is a good idea — if not the whole actual thing, then a few key parts. I managed the whole thing, with difficulty, over the course of about a year and a half when I was 13 and 14. And by the time I was done accompanying John of Patmos on his chemical field trip, I had a much more solid foundation under the feet of my growing skepticism.

One of the hopes I’ve had for my kids is that they get some unmediated experience with the Bible. But I didn’t want to lead them there by the nose, and my one early attempt to do so by reading Genesis aloud to them about eight years ago (“Gather ’round, children!”) ended mercifully around Genesis 2 in a hail of rolled eyes and groans of agony. It was clearly not the way, but I’ve wondered ever since how we would get to that deeper level of literacy.

So I was (quietly) thrilled when Connor, now a high school junior, announced his own resolution to read the Bible straight through this year. After years as an apatheist, Connor has begun engaging more actively, often expressing a baffled, how-can-anyone-believe-this-stuff consternation at the religious assumptions of everyone from presidential candidates to rapture predictors to kneeling QBs. I take it as a really good sign that his response to bafflement is not just a dismissive snort but a desire to figure it out by learning more about the baffling thing.

On New Year’s Day, Erin (14) said she’d like to give it a try as well. Holy smokes.

I doubt that many people who pledge to read the Bible get past the begats, and a fraction of those ever finish the whole thing. And no wonder — for every verse that’s poetic, dramatic, or horrific, the Bible has half a dozen that are tedious lists of names or numbers, or instructions for washing pots or getting your Bronze-Age business done. So without being heavy-handed, I wanted to improve the chances that my kids would actually stick with it — if not to the last Amen, at least to the point where their religious literacy would get a serious boost.

The first question is version. King James is poetic, but the archaic translation won’t keep those pages turning. On the other end of the scale are efforts like the NRSV Children’s Bible (loaded with silly, happy cartoons) and The Message, which puts accessibility ahead of pretty much everything else.

To get a sense of this spectrum, here’s the Lord’s Prayer (Mt 6:9-13) in King James:

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

…and in The Message:

Our Father in heaven, reveal who you are. Set the world right; do what’s best— as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You’re in charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.

If you can read that without mentally inserting “dude” every few words, you’re a better person than I.

Then there’s accuracy. Some translations simply rewrite the ineffable word of God to suit their preferences. This is important to know for critical reading but not my biggest concern in this case. Such translations end up pasting over little inconsistencies and leaving enormous, rancid horrors in place.

I’m more concerned with the use of euphemisms to help readers gloss over uncomfortable moments. Take Genesis 19:4-8:

Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”

That’s the New International Version with one of the great jawdroppers of Western lit. Instead of “have sex with them,” King James says “so we may know them,” while The Message says, “Bring them out so we can have our sport with them!” Erin, who has a more than a hint of Amelia Bedelia in her, couldn’t be blamed for reading those last two as respective requests for conversation and tennis.

In the end, I gave Erin an NIV/Message Parallel Bible. Each page has the NIV running down the left column and The Message running down the right. She asked what the difference was, and I told her, suggesting she read the left column and use the right if she ever gets stuck. Comparing the two will keep her engaged and occasionally amused. I gave Connor the NIV Study Bible, the one I use most for reference. The translation is clear and readable, and every page is full of footnotes on historical context, alternate interpretations, and etymology.

I also gave them both a suggestion that I think is the real key to success: Start by reading Genesis and Matthew, just those two, then keep going if you want. Takes about five hours. And as Stephen Prothero points out, a good 80 percent of the religious references in our culture and politics can be found in those two books.

Now I plan to butt out completely.

The getting is good

“Getting” gets a raw deal at the holidays if you ask me. Everybody’s supposed to embrace the joy of giving, and woe betide the receiver who admits to liking that part too much.

I guess I’m as guilty of putting that pleasure in the penalty box as anyone, banging on as I do year after year about natural generosity: “Receiving is all too familiar to [kids],” I wrote a few years back. “They are constantly in the receiving role. We give them food, clothing, and everything else they need. But give kids a chance to step outside the receiving role and experience the satisfaction of being the generous one and they vibrate with excitement. They feel grown up. It empowers them.”

Well that’s true, and very cool. But it’s time to restore getting to its rightful place as well.

First of all, if giving is the only end of the transaction to celebrate, and receiving is this unseemly and slightly bad-smelling thing to do, then the act of giving is a bit tainted by the fact that it puts the recipient in a compromising position just so I can be all splendid and selfless. But there’s an even better reason to rehabilitate receiving. As the last of the gifts were opened in our house on Christmas morning, I sat with the same two thoughts I always have at that moment each year:

1. “Seriously, what is it with me and Little Smokies? I’m gonna be violently sick. Ooh lookie, three more.”

2. “Gaww, I just love these people.”

I love my family all year round, but I must admit there’s this extra little glow on Christmas morning as we regard each other from atop our hills of presents. And I realize every year, then forget again every year, that it has to do not just with what I gave, but what I got — and it’s not about greed.

I didn’t feel warm and fuzzy sitting there with my gifts just because I was now the owner of wooden picture frames, a laptop lap pad, a shoji floor lamp for my office, a quarter-zip sweater, and about six pounds of good coffee. I felt warm and fuzzy because of the demonstration we’d just had of our care for each other.

Owning the lap pad is a lovely thing, but I could have bought it myself. I actually had enough credit card and Internet to make it happen on my own. But this one came to me not because I pointed and clicked, but because my youngest child had seen me struggling in my recliner with three books, a laptop, and a cup of coffee, made a mental note, and excitedly gave me something that showed how much she notices and cares about me. That, more than the thing itself, is why I gave her such a tight hug after I opened it.

I also had the unfettered ability to buy my own shoji lamp. Instead, Becca had heard me cooing over the lamp at my sister-in-law’s, remembered, and got it for me. And so on with the sweater, the frames, the coffee.

I had done the same for each of them too, doing my best not just to put something in their hands, but to show that I had listened, and cared, and made an effort. And each of them had done the same for each of the others. So by the end of the morning, we were sitting not just amidst our new stuff but in a web of tangible kindnesses we had done for each other.

THAT is one of the big reasons I feel so darn lovely every Christmas morning. And yes, it’s partly because the getting is good.

(Comic panel from Beaver and Steve by Clay Yount.)

Cee Lo Green receives Facepalme d’Or

For rewriting a line of John Lennon’s Imagine in his New Year’s Eve performance in Times Square, Cee Lo Green has been awarded the first Facepalme d’Or of 2012.

While singing the traditional year-ending anthem, Green chose to replace the line “Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too” with “Nothing to kill or die for / And all religion’s true,” thereby angering Lennon fans (for messing with perfection), evangelical Christians (for implying other religions might be true), and atheists (for precisely reversing Lennon’s clear intention).

“The committee was a bit conflicted on this one,” said Facepalme committee chair Patrick Stewart. “Not about whether it deserved the award, of course. But this marks the third time an edit of this precise lyric has earned the Palme — and it’s not even the worst example, not by a long shot.”

An entering college music student in St. Paul, Minnesota earned the 1993 award during her audition (in front of the author of this blog) for singing, “Nothing to kill or die for / And more religion, too.” But neither of these comes close to the performance by a singer on Jimmy Swaggart’s televangelical program in 1985, who changed ” Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too” to “Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion, too…except your own.”

“I couldn’t believe that one Myself,” said a prominent source.