Archive for the ‘General’ Category

The 100th post

February 19, 2012

This is the first sentence of the 100th post on Mavin’s Blog. For those of you out there who have stopped by and read my poetry and other musings, thank you very much. And those of you who have taken the time to ‘like’ a post or make a comment, thank you for that as well. Actually, especially thank you for that. It lets me know that someone appreciates what’s on this blog, and it helps me to continue making more posts. Just look, here we are at 100 now!
So this is about all. I’m more or less gonna spend my 100th post saying thanks. I look forward to what will be involved with the next 100.

What if you’re wrong?

February 10, 2012

Lately, it’s been a minor preoccupation of mine to write about my apostasy from the Christian faith. Blame it on the positive feedback I’ve received on previous pieces that keeps me coming back to this topic. I’ve inadvertently uncovered a hidden sect of unbelievers in the small, northern Minnesota town where I work for the local newspaper, who prior to reading my columns that are critical of faith were under the impression that they were the only ones who felt that way about religion. So after receiving a certain number of emails and phone calls from fellow non-believers who are so thankful for my public confessions, and how what I’ve written so far has given hope for the future of reason, how could I stop? Fairly high praise for a small-town newspaper reporter, wouldn’t you say?
Yet, of course, there are the detractors. Most people aren’t exactly tickled to have their most cherished beliefs criticized anywhere, but especially not in a public forum. But this is Minnesota, baby! The general populace is far too polite to come out with the pitchforks and torches simply because the basis of their entire existence was insulted. No, they’ll stew in their own hatred, unwilling to let their neighbors witness their potential emotional instability, and eventually they’ll cap said feelings toward these ideas, forgive and forget, and move on, just in time to pull the hotdish out of the oven for dinner. Instead of the public lynching one could expect in other regions, here there’s the obligatory letter to the editor or two that file in, and most recently, a small litany of individuals who insist on praying for me (see “What I hear when told ‘I’ll pray for you’”).
Also recently was a visit from a local preacher, who one would expect is also praying for me. We met for coffee and discussed why it was I had renounced my former faith. Unsurprisingly, it eventually came up: what if you’re wrong? He was clever in the way he phrased the question, but it all comes out the same in the end. What are you going to do, an unbeliever in god, the creator of all things on heaven and earth, when you die and have to face your maker at the pearly gates?
In all honesty, I’m a little bit surprised that I haven’t been asked this question more often. It’s a common fear of the faithful, to leave the comfort of the church for whatever reason they may have and to ultimately find out when death’s winged chariot draws near their bedside that they had made the wrong choice, and that whatever benefits they received in life in no way balance to the tortures that await them as a member of the damned. I know I feared this as a Christian. And I know many of my fellow Christians from my former congregation felt the same. But it’s funny how no longer believing that hell exists can change your mind about having such fears.
The Bible, for all the clarity it generally lacks, is more or less straight-forward when it comes to who is going to hell. Blasphemers, of all stripes, are condemned, and from that point there are various denominations who widen the gulf to various degrees in regards to who else they feel are going to the lake of fire. So as one who openly renounced the savior of the world, not to mention the creator of the universe, I am therefore a more than worthy candidate for eternal suffering. Does this not worry me? Really, what if I’m wrong?
The question is most widely known as Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal was a 17th century French mathematician who, in regards to the question of the existence of god, looked at the problem not ontologically or cosmologically, but instead prudentially.
“Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is… If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.”
It’s this line of reasoning that — if it doesn’t bring people to the faith — keeps people from leaving the faith. The converse would be that you wager that God isn’t, wherein if you lose, you lose everything.
Authors and thinkers on this matter have been quite eloquent before me. So let us first consult with Bertrand Russell, who said that upon meeting god would very succinctly state, “But sir, you didn’t give us enough evidence!” Taking it a bit further, and certainly more aggressive, would be none other than Christopher Hitchens, who first off refers to the wager as “religious hucksterism of cheapest, vulgarist, nastiest kind it is possible to imagine.” At the root, it has nothing to do with piety, let alone morality, and only hopes to win favors because it can, not because it’s right or earned. Even the religious should be insulted by such suggestions that the omnipotent creator of all things could be so easily connived as to allow the individual into heaven who on his lips said he believed but in his heart felt content that his bet was simply safe.
Hitchens went on, contributing further to what Russell would say when face to face with god, with, “Look, Boss, if it’s true what they say about you, that you’re an infinitely kind and forgiving and all-fatherly person – this is certainly what your fans keep saying – do you not have a little room in your obviously very capacious heart for someone who just couldn’t bring himself to believe in you, and really, honestly, truly couldn’t, as opposed to someone who spent half their life on their knees making fawning professions of faith because Pascal told them it was a good bet? Which of us is the more moral? Which of us is the more honest? Which of us is the more courageous? Which of us has the bluest eyes and is the most sexually attractive? Which of us has the real charisma here? I’m only asking.”
As poignant of answers to Pascal as both Hitchens and Russell have offered, they still don’t address the central point of the argument, that being that, assuming god is one who is easily given in to those who simply claim faith, one can gain all with a proper wager. For this, we’ll turn to neuroscientist Sam Harris, who once noted that, given the vast number of gods that have been worshipped and religions that have been adhered to over the centuries, and the incompatible claims made by each, that we should all expect to go to hell simply by probability. Pascal’s Wager, after all, makes the assumption that Yahweh is the one and only god, and that Christianity is the one and only system of belief. What if in fact the Muslims have had it right this whole time? Or the Jews? Or the Pagans? Or maybe it’s the Catholics who’ve been on the right path, and you happen to be Baptist, or vice-versa?
If it isn’t obvious by this point that the question of ‘What if you’re wrong?’ is a ridiculous question, then by all means it’s important that you as a person must go forth and believe the next theological claim given to you, because the possibility exists that it just may be correct.
The fear of the ultimate unknowable, what happens after our bodily death, won’t go away with the presence of a logic that further illustrates that we can’t know based on the laws of probability. Regardless, I think it’s important to ask ourselves is it not possible that we are simply not satisfied with the obvious answer of what happens to us when we die, that being that we cease to exist and our bodies decay to feed the next generation of life on the planet, and that this dissatisfaction has been mistaken for being insufficient?

What I hear when told ‘I’ll pray for you’

February 6, 2012

In a semi-regular column space in the Grand Rapids Herald-Review, where I work as the Arts & Entertainment editor, I recently wrote a piece entitled “The experience of losing one’s religion.” In brief, it started by referencing a conversation I had with a fellow non-believer, and how this person wasn’t publicly out as such because of fear of repercussion from family. It was a lovely little piece in which I elucidated on all manners of details important to the up-and-coming apostate.
So anyway, I wrote it, it published, and people read it. Grand Rapids is in Minnesota – not quite the Bible belt, but it’s a small town that is plenty full of the devout. I knew what to expect. I had written pieces in the past that weren’t god-flattering. But this one was different.
On the morning of the Monday following the published column, a pastor from a local church actually came to the office to talk to me. There he was, a relatively young man who wouldn’t typically be confused with being a man of the cloth, what with his shaved bald head and leather coat, asking me if I knew Nathan Bergstedt. “Well, that’s me,” I responded. There was my column, being held in the right hand of this man of god. Not wanting to be accused of misrepresentation, he quickly drew his card for me. Sure enough, this leather-coated gentleman was a pastor, and he wanted to ask me some questions about my former faith. Well, I can certainly say that I was taken aback. Up to this point, I had never received a visitor on account of an opinion column.
I took off work for the next hour and we had coffee together. As it turns out, his primary reason for coming to see me was to ask me in person if I would come to his church the following Sunday. Flattered, I agreed to come. After all, he went through the trouble to visit me at my work; the least I could do is return the favor. After close to an hour of theological debate, he told me he would pray for me and we parted ways.
Over the next couple days, there were a few more responses. None of them were angry. But they appeared to come instead from a place that more closely resembled pity. Each instance was recognized by the ubiquitous “I’ll pray for you” statement.
I’LL pray for you. I’ll PRAY for you. I’ll pray for YOU. There’s something about this phrase that is taken as inherently polite in our society. It’s a phrase that almost immediately begs a “thank you” when told to you. How nice, this person is taking time out of their busy day to consider me and to ask god to help me. Now, if you don’t believe in god or the efficacy of prayer in general, there’s an automatic problem right up front with this saying. The second problem though, for me specifically in my situation, is that there was nothing wrong with me. I’m simply a person who doesn’t believe in god or the efficacy of prayer in general.
Here’s a picture. I’ve just been diagnosed with cancer. The doctors are doing all they can, but it doesn’t look good. Modern medicine, for all it has accomplished in others, is at best delaying my oh-too inevitable death, and some random person peeks their head into my room to say that they’ll pray for me tonight. This kind stranger is keeping me in his or her thoughts and has a deep desire that my body rid itself of the cancer that is slowly destroying it. How can one not appreciate that at some level? At this point, whether or not prayer works isn’t the matter. It’s the fact that someone who has never met me before, but who knows that all known worldly measures to cure me are not working, is hoping for a miracle so that I might be spared.
The above picture is pure fiction, but it’s a clear-cut instance where one praying for me would be more than appreciated. Coming back to reality, what does it really mean when someone says that they’ll pray for you, simply because you don’t share their beliefs? After spending just a short period of time considering this question, it strikes me more as a backhanded compliment than anything else. I mean, what if I’m happy the way I am? What if things are going well for me, and I’m mentally and emotionally satisfied with my life? Why would you hope for that to change? Sure, one can decide that the person really didn’t mean it that way, that they meant well, but that’s no excuse to be talked to in such a manner. A Christian Scientist parent who refuses to give their dying child drugs that could potentially save its life means well too, but of course this doesn’t excuse the ignorance-driven nearly-murderous inaction. So too does a phrase like “I’ll pray for you” stink of a veiled insult.
Fact of the matter is that the time of my apostasy has been the happiest and most fulfilling years of my life to date. It’s been a time of great self-discovery, as well as a time of understanding of the natural world that I had previously been less curious about. The idea of god was always just an assumed principle when it came to the world I viewed around me. I’ve heard this referred to as god-goggles before, and I’ll stick with that phrase. During the time that I consistently wore my god-goggles, an immediate solution arose for any problem that seemed at face value to be too difficult to readily answer, and that answer was typically “god did it.” And what’s more, even when I thought that the answer of “god did it” didn’t quite have the merit that it should have, that another answer seemed better, there was a fear that if I didn’t choose the “god did it” answer, that I was being sinful in thought. I was mentally bullied against my better judgment, and the feeling that I wasn’t being entirely truthful with myself never fully went away.
This feeling I had is what is typically known as one’s conscious, daemon, or inner critic. Though I didn’t have the courage to face myself on these questions and answers, my conscious knew that I wasn’t being honest, that I was merely going along with my immediate crowd for fear of being singled out as a doubting Thomas. But it’s worse than all that. This fear extended beyond what friends and family thought of me. No, there was also the fear that I would offend my creator to such an extent that I would be banished to hell for all eternity for daring to question him. This was exponentially worse than the possibility of offending friends and family. From the age which I began to understand the tenants of my former religion to any degree, it was driven home that the first thing in my life had to be my faith, and anything else in my life, including family, had to come second at best. All honor and glory to god.
But throughout this time, I kept noticing details of the world around me that didn’t line up with the teachings of the church. As an obvious example, we’ll use the existence of dinosaur fossils. Though my former church didn’t have an “official” stance on whether or not dinosaurs roamed the earth millions of years ago, it was widely understood amongst the congregation that the fossils were there to test our faith, because no such creatures were referenced in the Bible. It doesn’t need to be explained by me here that this is insanity to a wild degree. Though it wasn’t simply dinosaurs that made me question my faith, it was certainly a problem that contributed to my eventual seeking of a more honest truth about the reality in which we all live.
My desire for open inquiry, honest discussion, and general curiosity were forever at odds with my religious pretense. Like many, I became a master at compartmentalization, which put my faith in one box, and everything else in the world that I knew in another box, and never the twain shall meet. But in time, even this wasn’t satisfying. My faith was supposed to be number one in my life, and what’s more, it was supposed to be the solution to all my problems. It didn’t make sense that I should be as so incurious about it. If indeed the Bible and my Christian beliefs were the inherent truth of the world, revealed by god himself, then any propositions I were to throw at it shouldn’t be a problem.
For anyone who has ever come to this point in their life where they decided to take a critical look at what it is the Bible professes, it should be obvious enough why I came to the conclusions that I did.
It was this time that was the most difficult. Facing the facts that flew in the face of everything I had come to believe throughout my entire life, I was mentally torn on what to do, what to say, and even down to how to think. The conviction that Jesus was the savior of the world and that the universe was created by god in six days was unraveling, but I didn’t know how to deal with it. Ultimately, I spoke to someone, a relative stranger, who I figured could empathize to some degree and who had no real stake in my situation. This was a much needed pressure release, and probably saved me from doing something I would have very much regretted.
In the end, or more accurately, up to now, I’ve been much more satisfied with my life since shedding the dogma of unsubstantiated beliefs. I’ve had experiences that weren’t previously allowed to me, entertained thoughts freely that before would’ve been stifled by fear of a relentlessly power-hungry deity, and had the opportunity to view my friends and family in a light that was before not allowed to me, namely as viewing them as more important than a fear of god.
So praying that I find salvation in Jesus again? As far as anything my life experience has taught me, that life of mental servitude wherein I was driven to near madness on account of the inconsistencies that I was unable to question, let alone do anything about, is one of the worse things I could hope for myself, and yet apparently I should also consider it a good thing when someone tells me that they’ll pray for me to find my way back to this place. I politely say ‘No thank you’ to this suggestion. Less politely, I would rather use a phrase like ‘Fuck off,’ but there’s no sense in ending the conversation so abruptly. No, rather I would like to take some of these opportunities with the pious to let them know what I really think. It’s the reason why I had coffee with the pastor that day, as well as part of the reason why I took him up on his offer and attended his church service the following Sunday. After seeing the reverend pound away at the Bible before his flock, charismatically expounding the high ideals of faith in Christ, was I reconvinced? Obviously, I wasn’t in the slightest. No, instead I found it humorous at its high point, and disgusting at its low (I don’t care what anyone tells me, the story of how Abraham was about to murder his son Isaac, without question and simply because he was told to, has no redeeming value. If you think I’m wrong, consider what you would do if told to do the same to your children).
Regardless of what I think, saying “I’ll pray for you” will undoubtedly continue to be a polite phrase in our society. But with any luck, as those without faith in a creator or a redeemer become a larger segment of the population, and a more vocal one at that, perhaps the faithful will eventually feel less need to say such things after they find out that there really is little to pray for in someone like me. Unless of course they are actually wishing a winning lottery ticket upon me, but I’m not so certain they are.

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Where Have All the Artists Gone?

May 14, 2010

I read an essay the other day that posed the question “Why aren’t more poets politically involved?” So I said, “Yeah, why aren’t they?”

This reminded me of a time back in 2004 when I was still a student at the University of Minnesota and I went to a reading by Robert Bly, who shortly thereafter was named Poet Laureate of Minnesota. Bly has a long history of political engagement, most notably as a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam (to note it lightly). Between poems, he was quick to wonder out loud to the audience the same question as the essay I mentioned.

Where are the poets writing grand verse in opposition to the war? During the 1960s, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting at least one! (Paraphrased, not actually what he said.)

And you know, he was right. First of all, he was there during the ‘60s, so he certainly knew well enough what was going on. But today, there’s an awful lot of silence. There has been for most of the years the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been going on.

And of course, it’s not just poets. It’s artists of all mediums and genres. And whereas there has certainly been dissent against the war, not nearly to the scale that was seen against Vietnam.

I see this as a problem, and not just because I’m not for the wars. Have we become so complacent with the world we’ve developed around ourselves that we can’t see beyond our noses to what’s happening in our name both at home and abroad? I see this as more than just dissent. I see it as conscious involvement in something greater than one’s self. And that goes for whether you’re for or against the wars; whether or not you feel they’re just.

So my point is basically this: There seems to be fewer people nowadays who stand up and make their case for a cause they feel is worthy by using art.

I see two reasons for this.

One: Poetry and other forms of art have slowly taken a back seat to other forms of media that are far more accessible in the modern age of telecommunications.

And two: It only ‘seems’ that there’s silence.

I know for a fact there is no shortage of artists in this country who take notice of various political action by our government and compose pieces appropriate to their outrage. But unless you’re part of one of these inner art circles, you’re not very likely to hear about it (see reason ‘one’ above). But that doesn’t mean that Bly or the author of the essay I read yesterday are completely wrong with their assertions that there’s a lack of political involvement amongst artists today. For better or for worse, the art culture evolves to represent the modern culture. As it turns out, the ‘60s were a time of heavy popular political involvement, therefore it was represented in the art scene. Today, it’s less so.

But there has been a resurgence.

Over the last few national elections, there have been record numbers of people, especially youth, who are making it to the polls to cast their vote. The same modern means of telecommunication that has been squashing art forms in the national popularity contest has created a new informed population, and many don’t like what they’ve seen. If the numbers at the voting booths are any indication of political involvement, then there are plenty of people who want to stand up and make a case for their cause.

So what’s the problem? Did I just refute the original argument?

Not really. The point still stands that there’s not much political poetry out there that gets any attention out of specific circles. As a poet and writer, I’m a bit saddened by this. I have read a number of fantastic contemporary poems having to do with modern political issues (the wars, etc…), but people don’t take them as accessible, so they get drowned out in the flood of information we all get daily.

Maybe it’s for the best. Maybe not. Either way, it’s the evolution of things. Maybe I’ll just go watch a movie instead.

Apartment Items Concluded

May 12, 2010

For those of you who’ve paid attention to this blog, I’ve been posting a series of poems called “Apartment Items.” The series consisted of 50 poems and an adjoining essay about the series. I’m proud to say that tonight I posted the final poem in the series, titled Daily Poetry Calendar.

The poems truly exist as a series, feeding off of one another in order to duplicate an essence of my former living space, so individually they don’t say much. Now that they’re all together on my blog, I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed writing them.

And don’t forget to check out the essay. It’s an informative piece that gives some greater insight to the concept behind the poems.

Apologies

March 3, 2010

Sorry to those who tried to read “Journals of a Job Junky.” It had to be deleted due to its pending status with publication in the Herald Review. An oversight on my part. Look for it in the next few weeks.

Hello world!

February 19, 2010

Hello all who stumble upon this great place. They call me Mavin.

Mavin is an slightly archaic term which means expert, or connoisseur. Here, I hope to be able to share some insight I’ve collected on matters of art, politics, and social issues. It’s what entices me, so hopefully you’ll enjoy.

-M