Sunday, January 23, 2011

I can't think of a title to this one

How do I begin this article? I have so much to express, yet so much I don’t know if I want to put out there for public viewing.

At least this fabulous internet can make me anonymous. I have that.

In 2005, I, a male from the United States, with a mixed Hispanic and generic European ancestry, married a woman from the Philippines who was visiting the United States on a work visa. You may call her RoseMary.

I am not unique. I have met many men who were smitten by women of that tropical island archipelago. There is a small community of Filipinos here in El Paso that we are pretty close to. It includes a fair number of Anglo men who have married into the Filipino clan, of which I am one. When I visited Philippines, I saw large numbers of white men, young and old, being led around by their Filipino wives, especially in the business districts of Makati City. Oh, I need to be careful here, because I also know some black men who have also been smitten by these Filipino women, but most of the ones I saw and know are white. Some of them had children, and they had the beautiful features of their mixed races.

There are two funny things that I found in common with nearly every one of these mixed couples. The mixed couples always consist of the non-Filipino man marrying a Filipino woman. It never seems to be a Filipino man who is smitten with a white woman. Of course I am sure there are exceptions, but I have never witnessed one.

The other thing is their religion, and that is where I can count myself as the exception. Every man who I have met that has married a Filipino woman has converted to the religious faith of the Filipino woman – Roman Catholicism. I know that about 1/3 of Filipinos are Muslims, and there are also Protestants of various denominations, but the vast bulk of the women who come to the United States are devoutly, unreservedly, unwaveringly, Roman Catholic. And the men who are smitten by them convert to their Faith in order to marry into the Catholic Church, and to have children who they can swear to raise into the Catholic Church during the Baptismal rite.

I never did. I never converted from my Baptist Faith into Catholicism. Of course, I had to alter my views towards Roman Catholics. I had to come to grips with the fact that they did not revere the Bible as I did, and that they prayed to Mary, the Saints, and followed the lead of a religious hierarchical system that I found borderline-insane, but I had to at least adjust my Faith enough to convince myself that she was also a Christian who just did things a little differently.

I met her while she was attending my Baptist Church. One of her friends from work was the wife of the church pastor, and out of curiosity, she attended. The pastor was a loving and good man, who was interested in raising and developing lasting families and relationships. Although he was Bible-believing, he rarely preached on the doctrines of Christianity, i.e. sin, salvation, heaven and hell. By that time in my life, I was burned enough by that stuff that I needed a break.

When we were dating, we alternated churches. At some point, when it became obvious to me that I would eventually ask her to marry me, I became more serious in my religious devotion. I was taught, and I believed, that to be a good husband, I needed to be a good Christian, so I began to take my religious beliefs more seriously. I attended Catholic Mass with her, and at first I really did not understand the completely alien environment, but she told me that all the ceremony and ritual was just an outward sign of adoration and worship. I did my best to hide all the anti-Catholic John MacArthur sermons I had heard somewhere in the back of my mind, and just witness and absorb myself into the ceremony. The scripture readings and homilies were always short, and it was obvious that most everyone attending was oblivious to them. I always asked RoseMary if she could remember the Scripture reading after Mass. She never could. I always did.

In return, she attended various Baptist churches with me. Instead of ritual, ceremony and worship, she got some guy standing behind a lectern and gave, what amounted to, a 30-45 minute lecture on fine points of the Bible. Looking back on those days, I am shocked at her patience with the whole matter. At the time, I thought I was exposing her to ‘sound doctrine’.

They were two completely different religious environments. She never converted. Neither did I. To her credit, she never asked, nor expected me to convert. Unlike the many men who have converted to Roman Catholicism to marry a Filipino woman, I never did. She never converted either, and considers herself Catholic to this day. After a lot of difficult discussion and decisions, and despite the protests of her Catholic Family, we wed in the Baptist Church where we met – a choice neither of us regrets.

In hindsight, I believe I took my religious beliefs much more seriously than she ever did. To me, Christianity was a struggle of Faith. A life-decision. A commitment. To Rosemary, Christianity, specifically Catholicism, is an effortless matter of identity. She is Catholic in the same way she is Filipino.

How can a man convert, just to marry a woman? I swear, I just don’t get it. Unless these men also do not take religious faith as seriously as I did, and view it as Rosemary does – that is, as an identity marker - then it just completely mystifies me. How can a man become catechized, baptized, recite creeds and statements of faith, and swear to raise his future children, upon their baptism, to believe the same things – and do these things, not as a true matter of belief, but as a matter of convenience to marry? Is religious conversion that trivial to some people? I took creedal statements too seriously – I never wanted to recite things that I did not believe were true. To these men, is changing convictions about transcendent and unseen forces that govern the whole nature of reality like changing brands of laundry detergent?

I know plenty of these men. Maybe I should just ask one.

You know, I wanted to discuss something specific when I started typing this article. Instead it turned into a bit of a ramble, and I never got to the point I wanted to make. I guess I am still deciding if I want to make that point public. It is a bit of a painful and personal matter.

Maybe, instead of that, and if you will allow me Dear Reader, I can just ramble a bit, and scatter bits and pieces of this grave matter throughout? Sure. Maybe that is what I will do.

Until then, Dear Reader.

photo: Ritual dancing during first day of Simbang Gabi. St Augustine Parish Church, Cavite, Philippines.

Monday, January 17, 2011

My Martin Luther King Day annual ritual

Happy Martin Luther King Jr Day, everybody!

I have made it an annual ritual to read Martin Luther King's 'Letter from Birmingham Jail' as my MLK day celebration. It is not only to remember the courage of the man, and to be inspired by the power and force of the letter. It is also to commemorate the personal impact that the letter had on me, 5 years ago, when I read a small portion of the letter to our small-group Bible study. The reaction of my fellow Christians to that letter, and my contemplation of the rest of the letter and on the life of Martin Luther King Jr, was the initial calalyst of my doubting of the Faith, and which ultimately led to my abandonment of that Faith altogether.

I encourage everybody to read Letter from Birmingham Jail, and remember the conditions that a large percentage of our population lived under just a few decades ago, to be optimistic about the progress we have made, and vigilant about the work still to be done in the struggle for human rights.

You may find the full text of The Letter from Birmingham Jail HERE.

In the meantime, I want to re-post two blog articles that I wrote back in March 2007, in which I wrote a short book review on a biography I had read on the life of MLK, and also the impact that the Letter from Birmingham Jail had on my small-group Bible Study and on my Christian life. Here they are, back to back:

Let the Trumpet Sound
The Life of Martin Luther King Jr
. by Stephen B. Oates

This is one of the books that started my doubting slide. This is a major catalyst for my current trend away from my beliefs. I have always had questions and doubts, but this book forced me to confront those doubts head-on, to take them from under the rug, and re-evaluate my beliefs in Christianity.

Last year, I was convicted by my ignorance of the world around me. I am educated, yet I knew next to nothing about the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. So I picked up this 500 page biography of Martin Luther King, published in 1982. I was immediately struck by the very recent history of this country, the history we have all heard a little about, but I think may not have studied in much detail. Black Americans were treated like animals in the Southern US as recently as the 1960s, and this book makes that point clear. King was a brilliant young minister from Atlanta who held his first pastoral duties in Birmingham, Alabama. Holding a PhD in systematic theology, King was highly academic, and initially approached his sermons in an intellectual manner. But Birmingham was the in the heart of racism and segregation. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, Birmingham erupted into violence and protest. King really struggled to keep is church and ideology focused on Jesus, heaven, salvation of souls and the afterlife. But he was forced to concede that a church which does no good for humanity while on earth is not a church at all. He went full throttle into social activism and civil rights and never looked back. The book, and King's life and activism is too full to summarize beyond this point. Pick it up at the library, and read it for yourself.

Bottom line - this book is excellent. I recommend it to anyone who values history and our relationship with our fellow humans. If I have one criticism, it is that the book nearly deifies King, and glosses over his very real failings, such as infidelity to his wife. That is a small complaint though. Read it.

But the real question is, what is this book review doing on a site which questions the claims of Christianity? What are the spiritual applications? Like I said, this book is one of the catalysts for my move away from Christianity. I will write about that in my next article – so stay tooooned.

Let the Trumpet Sound
The Life of Martin Luther King Jr.,
by Stephen B. Oates

This is part 2 of my review of this outstanding book. If you have not yet done so, head on out to the library and check this thing out. It is on my top 10 list from last year.

Now, here is how it affected me spiritually.

Last year I was content with my Christian beliefs, and holding small group Bible studies in my home. I had (and still have) good friends who attended. We shared life experiences together, talked and prayed about showing Christian love to the world, then .. talked and prayed about it some more. I went to a Baptist church which focused its energies on strengthening families and relationships, which is great. But I was a little unsettled. It all seemed too secure and comfortable. Rallying our small group to go give aid to the elderly, or visit the retirement home (one of my favorite things to do) became a real chore. We would plan, organize and plan and plan until we had planned things to death, and never do much of anything. And I am not trashing my friends, because I was just as guilty of apathy as anyone in our group. I had the best of intentions, but in the end it cost too much time. Time is a precious resource. Giving money is relatively easy – but time is very difficult.

Reading about MLK was seriously convicting to my Christian faith on that basis. This was a man who gave up everything for what he believed, even to the point of neglecting his family (which I could never do – nor intend to do). My brand of Christianity seemed tepid and too easy. King, and many others gave their lives to make the world aware of the injustices of the world, and to protest for change. King was a huge admirer and follower of Mahatma Gandhi, who lived as Christlike a life as anyone who ever walked the face of the earth. But how is Christ working in my life to make the world better? No, I don’t mean to be another MLK, that is just silly. Just doing my share to help the desparately poor who live just across the border from me, to help the handicapped children ministry, or visit the elderly and sick? Is the Holy Spirit really empowering me or any of my other Christian friends with the Fruit of the Spirit any more than my good and respectable, but non-believing nieghbors?

In 1963, MLK was arrested (again) for peacefully protesting segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. While he was in jail, eight white pastors from around the state wrote the local newspaper, and editorialized against King’s activism. They figured he should be a good preacher, stay behind the pulpit, and keep his nose out of trouble. In response, King wrote what came to be known as Letter from Birmingham Jail on scaps of paper, and smuggled out by his lawyer bit by bit while he was in solitary confinement. This section from Letter from Birmingham Jail will stay with me always:

There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators"' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Wow. An irrelevant social club. That hurt. I read this powerful letter as though it were written directly to my Baptist Church, to my friends and to myself. It really hurt. I even brought it to my small group and read the above passage to my friends before Bible Study. I wanted to motivate them into some kind of conviction of our condition, but it was met by my Spirit Empowered friends with general apathy. So we fell into our routine, and read a couple of verses from the end of James about loving and praying for the sick among us.

After that, I could no longer go back to my old Baptist church. I viewed my brand of Christianity to be empty, nearly vacuous, and not doing myself nor anyone else much good. The Holy Spirit, I felt, was not empowering me nor anyone else to do anything. I came to realize that if I wanted to do good for my neighbors, I needed to just stop praying, reading Bible passages and being a pious piss-ant and JUST DO IT. Funny thing is, my wife agreed with me without even reading the book. Some of us have natural insights that others do not.

The faith story goes on from there, and it continues to unwind to this day. But that is how this book enters into the story. That is a strange way to begin questioning my own beliefs. But as a loving and charitable old friend of mine once said, “I would love to be a nun, if it were not for all that belief in God that comes with it”.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The 200-Word Resurrection Witness - test case #1

DaGoodS, Vinny, I and several others have been having a continuing conversation with Dr Clay Jones, Assistant Professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Back in September, Dr Jones posted, what he called, his 200-word Resurrection Witness. It is basically, what we who engage in Christian Apologetics discussions call, the ‘Die for a Lie’ argument for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The discussion began HERE and continues HERE.

I first heard the 'Die for a Lie' argument while attending Calvary Chapel in Albuquerque under pastor Skip Heitzig. I do believe it was he who conned me into believing that the argument had any merit. I am embarrassed to admit that I used the ‘Die for a Lie’ argument on my friends at work in the attempt to convince them that there was solid historical evidence to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But that was nearly 20 years ago. I have learned quite a bit since those days.

So, we have been trying to explain to Dr Jones, on his blog, why we do not believe his 200-word Resurrection Witness is a very good argument. In one comment to Dr Jones’ article, after listing a number of problems I had with the argument, I commented:

…Dr Jones, these are complicated issues, the number of sources is vast, and the objections are many, and I think legitimate. I am sorry, but I just don’t think you can win over educated skeptics in 200 words or less.

To which Dr Jones replied:
It never entered my thought process that my 200 word witness would be successful against the educated skeptic. I wrote it for the average man or woman one might encounter at an airport or a soccer game.

An astounding admission, and one that DaGoodS has also blogged about!

So, while folding laundry this evening with my unsuspecting wife RoseMary, and figuring the average woman folding laundry was close enough to an average woman in the airport or soccer game, I decided to use her as a test case. RoseMary, for a little background, is a Roman Catholic from the Philippines, and has no conception of the particular subdiscipline of Christianity called ‘apologetics’.

The conversation that ensued occurred less than an hour ago, and I want to type it down now while it is still fresh in my memory.

While folding some socks, I gave her that look, that certain look which surely warned her that I was about to start talking about religion again.

“Hey RoseMary, can I ask you something? Something that involves religion? I promise, it is not something I want to interrogate you about. I just want to read you something and get your response.”


“OK, I want to read you something from a blogsite, something called a ‘200 word Resurrection WItness’. It is an argument that will try to convince you that there is really evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. So just pretend you are hanging around at the airport or maybe a soccer game and somebody approaches you and says this to you, please tell me what your response will be.”

Then I read, quoting Dr Jones' Resurrection Witness:

In apologetics we provide argument and evidence for the truth of historic Christianity. For example, consider Jesus’ resurrection. We know that Jesus’ disciples walked with Jesus, talked with Jesus, and ate with Jesus—they knew who Jesus was. They were with Jesus when he was arrested and they then scattered. The Romans then scourged Jesus, drove spikes through His wrists and His feet to nail him to the cross, and thrust a spear in His side to make sure He was dead. Then they buried Jesus.

But three days later, Jesus’ tomb was found empty and the disciples started testifying that they again walked with Jesus, talked with Jesus, and ate with Jesus. And what’s really amazing is that many testified to his resurrection even to their own torture and death. We know extra-Biblically that Nero beheaded the Apostle Paul and we know from the Jewish historian Josephus that the Sanhedrin stoned to death Jesus’ brother James, who had become a leader of the Christian church.

So here’s my question: if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then why would the first disciples die for what they knew was a lie?

RoseMary: OK. I’m not sure how you want me to respond.

Me: Somebody is trying to convince you that Jesus rose from the dead based on reasoned argument. Basically, Jesus’ apostles spent time with Jesus while he was alive, then saw him killed, then saw him alive again, risen from the dead. How do we know? Because they were all willing to die for their witness to the resurrected Jesus. The argument says that we know the Resurrection is true because why else would the disciples die for what they knew to be a lie? How do you respond to that?

RoseMary (utterly confused): I don’t understand. Is the person who wrote this a Christian?

Me: Yes! Here is the thing, we in the United States, in the West in general, live in a post-Faith world. We want evidence for claims. I want evidence! So a whole new discipline arose in Christianity called Apologetics. The people who do this spend their time cooking up arguments, based on what they consider reasonable evidence, for the truth of Christianity. Evidence like you could present in a court case, let’s say. I confess that I was into learning this stuff a lot several years ago, because it was very interesting to me! So this professor…

RoseMary: You mean there is a college professor who does this for a living?

Me: Believe it or not, yeah. I think there are lots of them. Anyway, what this argument is doing, is trying to convince you that Jesus rose from the dead with an evidence based, reasonable argument. Why would the Apostles die as martyrs, if they knew that Jesus did not rise from the dead? There is no good answer to this, so the argument goes, so therefore, Jesus had to have risen from the dead, and Christianity is true! So what is your response to this?

RoseMary (flabbergasted): That is… just crazy. I mean, I believe because I have to believe this to be a Catholic. Where is the Faith? You don’t reason this out. You accept it as a lifestyle, as a matter of Faith. You have to have Faith.

Me: So you don’t think much of the argument?

RoseMary: When you need arguments like that, it means you doubt. You are a Doubting Thomas, and you really don’t have Faith. That’s one reason why Protestants are crazy. How can you be a Christian if you don't have Faith? Faith cannot be measured by any physical thing, you believe because you believe. Whether there is evidence or not. Whether Jesus really did rise from the dead, or did not rise from the dead, you believe it is simple as that. If you probe you are a Doubting Thomas. Why would you want proof?

After letting RoseMary read this to confirm that I got her words and thoughts down accurately, she went on to clarify. I typed these words as she spoke. This next bit from her is verbatim:

RoseMary: I was very confused about what that man was trying to get at, and what that article was all about. That is why I had to ask you a few times to explain to me. Because now I realize that an average Joe or Jane will not just grasp it that easily because we will not understand what he is trying to convey. I think I am educated and smart enough, but I did not get what he was trying to say. And honestly, I don’t care what he says. People like him don’t have to tell me to believe and what not to believe, I think I can take care of that pretty much by myself. And my Faith cannot just be explained by a Professor through his words. I understand my Faith as I see fit. And I think that many people in this world who have Faith believe in what they should believe. Does that make sense? I need Tagalog to say it right. Maybe that is why it is hard to explain. It is very hard in English. Maybe that is why I don’t get him. If an American tells me what to believe, I will not get him, because it does not reach me. Maybe for other Americans, but I don’t get it. I understand the English, I understand the words, I understand the language, but I do not understand the context. I don’t understand where the argument is coming from. The whole idea of arguing about this does not make sense to me. Why does this man spend his time making up arguments like this? Maybe he should go into making pottery. Can I watch my movie now?

So there you have it, the response of an average woman when presented with the 200-word ‘Die for a Lie’ argument. Perhaps, since RoseMary is already a believer in the resurrection, she is not quite the target audience that the argument is designed for. Also, RoseMary, being from the Philippines, may find the whole concept of apologetics difficult because of the cultural divide. But then again, I remember when I shared ‘Die for a Lie’ with my old co-workers. I got pretty much the same response from all those men and women that I witnessed to, and there was no cultural divide then. When I approached the average person with ‘Die for a Lie’, without even first enquiring as to what their current religious beliefs were, I was always met with the same utter confusion, astonishment, and bewilderment.

I learned something from RoseMary this evening. Apologetic arguments like ‘Die for a Lie’ make sense to Dr Clay Jones, Vinny, DaGoodS, and myself because we are in the game. Dr Jones defends these arguments for a living. I question and critique them, almost as a hobby – thinking about such things is fun and instructive, and I am also hopeful to learn a thing or two. But to those who accept their religious beliefs on Faith, and are not in the game, and do not understand the context or apologetic language, these apologetic arguments appear to make absolutely no sense.

Which leads me to question - is there even a point to Christian Apologetics?

I am wondering if I should present this same 200-word argument to a sample of my co-workers, and get their responses. Maybe. I can call it a social-science experiment.

Thank you again to my ever-suffering wife RoseMary for putting her up to another religious experiment. And, as always dear Reader, I would love to read your thoughts.

New Flash - As Arctic melts, U.S. ill-positioned to tap resources

Because it is all about National diplomacy and jockeying for positioin, right? It is a global competition.

Sometimes when I think humanity has progressed to the point where it will not repeat the mistakes of its past, stories like this remind me that we almost seem doomed to repeat and create our own failed destiny. Can somebody tell me why I find this story so depressing?

LINK – From the Washington Post

It is not that I think that we, the United States, can halt and reverse climate change by any of our clean energy initiatives or policies. Having been to the Philippines, and witnessed for myself just one tiny corner of Asia, I now know how clean the United States is. But staying as clean as the United States takes money. That money is going to rapid development in Asia, and in the decades to come, most carbon emissions are projected to come from that growing part of the world. China, India, Korea, Japan, and from what I witnessed, Philippines is developing at an unbelievable rate. I was shocked to discover that Makati and Quezon City has a skyline to rival that of Manhattan – and it is all new, and growing fast. And it is filthy. Breathing filters are a common accessory there, and my eyes often felt like I spent too much time in a chlorinated swimming pool.

The debate rages on. Is climate change real? Is the arctic really warming? Apparently it is, since even our military is currently trying to figure out how to use newly opened sea lanes to its advantage.

The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has identified the Arctic as an area of key strategic interest. The U.S. military anticipates the Arctic will become "ice-free" for several summer weeks by 2030, possibly as early as 2013.

But are we causing it with our carbon emissions? I think that is the real debate, and one which climate scientists appear to agree on, but which the general public is afraid to admit – even if true.

Here is my lousy opinion: It does not matter if our carbon emissions are causing climate change or not. We should be clean anyway. We should spend the money and take the time to use our resources wisely and efficiently. I believe that is our responsibility no matter if we are causing climate change or not.

I guess that is why this story bugs me so much. Instead of taking responsibility, instead of cleaning up our messes, we instead eye each other suspiciously when planning to exploit the spoils:

Like the rest of the 5.4-million-square-mile area at the top of the world, this chunk of the U.S. Arctic is melting quickly because of accelerated climate change. The prospect of newly thawed sea lanes and a freshly accessible, resource-rich seabed has nations jockeying for position. And government and military officials are concerned the United States is not moving quickly enough to protect American interests in this vulnerable and fast-changing region.

What is the problem? It appears to be the same problem as it always has been - an opportunity to be the first to gain and control a new store of natural resources.

The Arctic is believed to hold nearly a quarter of the world's untapped natural resources and a new passage could shave as much as 40 percent of the time it takes for commercial shippers to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Treaties? We don’t need no stinkin’ treaties:

The only international treaty that applies to the Arctic is the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, ratified by more than 150 nations. But although it helped draft the convention and subsequent revisions, the United States has not ratified the treaty; conservatives say it impinges on U.S. national sovereignty.

And let the land-grab begin:

Under the treaty, a nation that can prove its continental shelf extends past the current boundary of 200 miles off its coastline can be granted up to 150 additional miles of seabed.
"An extra 150 miles of shelf can be billions [or] trillions of dollars in resources," said Lt. Gen. Dana Atkins, commander of Alaskan Command, Joint Task Force Alaska, Alaskan North American Defense Region and the 11th Air Force.
Like other Arctic countries, the United States is gathering scientific evidence for its claim to an extended continental shelf in the Arctic. Russia has been preparing a territory claim that would absorb nearly half of the Arctic into its possession, according to analysis by the Congressional Research Service.

I think this is the part of the story that depresses me most:

In 2007, Russia planted a flag in the waters below the North Pole. Canada planted one nearby soon after. Denmark placed a flag on the north's contested Han Island, which Canada promptly removed and delivered back to Danish officials. Canada bought fleets of F-35 fighter jets and is building a new base along its Arctic coast. Russia is building new icebreakers and new nuclear-power stations on its north coast.

My God, we are still planting flags to claim territorial rights. When I read about the global expansion of Spain, Portugal, Holland, and England during the 15th and 16th centuries, I marvel at the hubris, the ignorance and the barbarism of the time. But seriously, have we really changed all that much as a people? I sure would like to think so, but stories like this, the fact that we still think we can just claim something by being the first to plant a flag there makes me think that maybe not all that much has changed about us.

Believe me, I hate typing that. But I as I grow older, I find myself hating the whole idea of global competition more and more.

If carbon emissions are in fact causing global climate change, we are not about to stop emitting carbon if it means economic growth and expansion. That much is clear and to be expected. That does not really bother me. What bothers me is that we see it as another opportunity to gain “billions or trillions of dollars in resources”. It almost feels like I am dying of lung cancer because of my smoking habit, yet a young candy stripper enters my hospital room, and hands me a fresh pack of the latest brand of cigarettes. I simply cannot kick the habit, and I am destined, at all costs, to keep smoking away. And I guess the fact that we almost seemed destined to such an outcome is what depresses me.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Myth of Lapu-Lapu

In Rizal Park, in downtown Manila, stands an enormous statue has been raised to honor the Philippine hero Lapu-Lapu. He, according to local history, was responsible for the death of the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. The statue, as I stood next to it, appeared to be over 40 feet tall. Lapu-Lapu, is depicted as young, extremely muscular, and with a grave, authoritative expression, as he rested on a massive broadsword, of a type that I am almost certain did not exist on the Philippine Islands before the arrival of the Spaniards. Surrounding the reflecting pool adjacent to Lapu-Lapu, were busts of dozens of other Philippine heroes from decades and centuries past.

Poor Magellan was nowhere in sight.

Not that there isn’t one. I know that Manila once had a large monument to Magellan during the American colonial period. But I never saw one while I was there.

But the monument to Lapu-Lapu? Stand in Rizal Park, and you cannot miss it. It towers over everything.

I asked RoseMary why Lapu-Lapu, known primarily as the man who killed Ferdinand Magellan, was so revered in Philippines. She said that Lapu-Lapu represents the Philippine Spirit, the spirit that keeps outside influences from imposing their will on the strong Philippine people.

As she said this, I read the placard on Lapu-Lapu’s statue. It claimed he was Muslim. I had to remember that not only is Philippines one of the most devoutly Catholic countries on the planet, about 1/3 of them are just as devoutly Muslim. They are a divided nation.

Magellan, captain of a fleet of five ships, and desperate to find a Western sea route to the Orient, sailed from the city of Seville, Spain in September, 1519. It was not until March, 1521, after having suffered storms, savages, mutiny, and starvation that they landed on what would later be christened the Philippine Islands (after King Philip II of Spain). The sea-worn expedition first saw the native people on a small island that is known today as Homonhon or Jomonjol. According to the accounts written at the time, the natives shared with the explorers what they had – coconuts, chickens, and palm wine.

From here, Magellan again sailed through the Philippine Archipelago and eventually made his way near the south end of Leyte on the island of Limasaua, where they met the local cheiftans who, at the time, were at war with each other. Magellan and his crew were desparately in need of food, but the food on Limasaua was limited, I assume because it was a time of war. Magellan, in a desperate search, set sail again, this time reaching present day Cebu in April 1521.

Cebu, at the time, appears to have been a large trading center, as junks from Siam and China were present at the time Magellan landed there. Trade appears to have been heavy, even at that time. Magellan and his crew of Spaniard mariners were initially resisted by the Cebu warriors, but Magellan eventually found himself in the court, and in the favor, of the local Cebu warlord Humabon.

Humabon, also involved in current tribal warfare, appears to have been able to see the advantage of having seemingly powerful ocean voyagers as allies. He invited Magellan to seal a compact of friendship with a ritual that was common at the time. The two chiefs would wound themselves in the chest, then suck and drink each other’s blood, as a blood contract. It is uncertain whether Magellan participated in this ritual, but this type of ritual had been observed and recorded many times by subsequent Spanish settlers.

In return, the ritually minded Humabon was much impressed with the celebration of the Catholic Mass – also a ritual of blood drinking. All records indicate that the Cebu warriors were eager to accept the Catholic faith, if only as a means of making themselves more powerful warriors against their adversaries. More than 800 Cebu warriors were baptized, including their chief Humabon. Magellan also left a small gift for Humabon, or as he was now called, Carlos, the Christian King of Cebu. I will talk more about this gift in a future article.

It appears that both sides got what they wanted out of the deal. The Spaniards under Magellan received food and provisions. The Warriors of Cebu under Humabon learned of powerful new ceremonies, and Spanish allies, both of which would help them overcome enemies.

Those enemies were the warriors from the island of Mactan. Humabon, the Christian King of Cebu, now considered Magellan and his Spanish sailors as warrior allies, and depended on them to help fight. After sailing to the island of Mactan with about 50 men, Magellan was killed, according to local legend, by Lapu-Lapu, the Mactan warrior, by a wound to the arm and spear thrusts to the chest. Apparantly, Magellan had ordered Lapu-Lapu to convert to Christianity and pay obeisance to the Christian King (Humabon), but I did not learn enough of those details while in Philippines, so I will not elaborate on any supposed attempts at forced conversion.

Here is the irony in all this. Lapu-Lapu has come to symbolize Philippine resistance against Spanish occupation. As I said earlier in this article, RoseMary says that he represents the Philippine spirit of resisting foreign influence. But this left me very puzzled. Spain occupied the Philippine Islands for centuries. Philippines adopted their religion, and the influence of the Spanish language permeates the Tagalog language. I asked RoseMary if Lapu-Lapu was raised to such mythic status after Spanish occupation ended around 1898? Where was Lapu-Lapu before that? Had Lapu-Lapu become a symbol of resistance during their war with Spain? But Lapu-Lapu, according to other local customs, has also come to symbolize resistance of the Spanish faith, that is Catholicism. Lapu-Lapu was, according to tradition, Muslim. I have to suspect that this part of the myth arose in the Muslim regions of Philippines, a faith which reached the Philippine Islands centuries before Spain brought Catholicism.

What am I saying in all this? I guess it is my clumsy way of expressing the power that Myth holds on all of us. A huge part of history is myth. Myth is made of symbols. Myth is what empowers people, emboldens them to change their own perceived history. I am slowly learning that, and slowly believing to be true, that we all work on myth. Myth is a large component of what each and every one of us forms our own reality out of.

I don’t have any way of knowing if Lapu-Lapu really resisted the Catholic religion in favor of his own fervently held Islamic religion. I don’t know if Magellan struck the first blow by burning down the houses on the island of Mactan. I don’t know if Magellan ordered a conversion of Lapu-Lapu and the Mactan people. I don’t know if Humabon and his Cebu warriors really converted to Catholicism peacefully or if they were coerced. Based on the evidence that I have seen, I suspect it really was a peaceful conversion, but in the end I really don’t know for sure. Nobody knows what Lapu-Lapu really looked like. He may have been tall and muscular, or short and skinny. He may have been young, middle aged or old. But the myth dictates that he was strong, vibrant, and stands in a pose to seemingly challenge the entire world. So the myth betrays him in the way the Philippine people need him to be portrayed.

So there he stands in Rizal Park, the Lapu-Lapu of the Philippine people, the Lapu-Lapu that you need in your life, your history, your culture. There stands Lapu-Lapu, sword drawn, guarding Rizal Park, guarding the Philippine Islands from unknown future invaders. There stands Lapu-Lapu, to give the Philippine people personal strength, pride and a glorious past.

Behold – not the Lapu-Lapu of History, but the Lapu-Lapu of Faith.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Simbang Gabi

Having never traveled to the Philippines, and knowing how shocked RoseMary’s mother was upon learning of my non-religious beliefs, I needed to confirm with RoseMary what topics for conversation were off limits. After all, in some parts of the world, if you bring up the wrong topic for discussion, or give the wrong opinion, you may get yourself shipped home in a crate. I knew Philippines, despite their recent history of Martial Law under Ferdinand Marcos, was not that repressive, yet, I did not want to inadvertently and needlessly offend anybody. When traveling overseas, one needs to be mindful of local customs, mores and taboos.

“Of course, you may talk about anything. Nobody minds. Just pay proper respect to those older than you,” RoseMary reassured me.

“Your family discusses politics openly?” I asked with embarrassing ignorance.

“Yes, my family talks local politics all the time,” said RoseMary. Then came the warning from my wife, who knows me all too well: “But NO RELIGION”.

So with that warning from my wife, I promised to be respectful to her family’s religious beliefs. Of course, I was planning on being respectful without the warning, but I figured it was just best not to question, discuss or challenge any religious belief with any person at any time. RoseMary’s mother knew I was not Catholic, and I remember telling her once a few years ago that I doubted there was a god, but that frightful memory may have been repressed in the dark and forgotten corners of her mind.

I figured I had to look at it in this way: I was an outsider visiting an alien culture. I got the impression that the Philippine culture and beliefs were considered exclusive to the Philippine people and not necessarily for anybody else. RoseMary’s mother described her religious beliefs in a peculiar way. I am used to hearing the Gospel as a Universal Truth, applicable to all, and to be ignored by nobody. Instead of that, mother prefaced her beliefs with, “It is our belief that…”, or “it is our custom to…”, and never imposed such beliefs or customs on me or anybody else. Or, as mother once told me when discussing good luck charms for the Chinese New Year, “Those beliefs only work for the Chinese”. Much like Jews who practice certain dietary customs and other religious laws, they practice their own traditions, yet don’t seem to care what anybody else does. I guess some beliefs work for some people, other beliefs work for other people. Some traditions are for us, others are for them. In a way, I found it very refreshing. It seemed a very tribal mentality, and I suppose was her way of saying, “We have our beliefs, our customs and our ways of doing things. You have yours. We invite you as a guest to experience our beliefs and customs while you are staying with us.” At least I think that is what she meant. I am not entirely sure, however, since I was warned not to discuss religion with her family. I listened to what they said, nodded my head, and kept my trouble-making trap shut.

So with that in mind, I promised RoseMary that I was not visiting Philippines to make a statement. I was there to get to know her family, her people and the culture. I decided to attend Catholic Mass every time her family went (little did I know what I was getting myself into). RoseMary told me if I felt uncomfortable I could sit outside, but I figured that would draw too much attention to myself, which I promised I would not do. I would sit in the pew with the rest of the family, and perform the various rituals of the Mass except for partaking of the elements. I told RoseMary that I could not do that without feeling hypocritical. Since everyone in the church supposedly hates hypocrites, I would not eat the bread and drink the wine, but would do most everything else. Oh, and I would not stick my finger into the Holy Water.

I quickly learned that one should never promise to attend Catholic Mass with a devoutly Catholic family during the Christmas season, without knowing how many masses are actually on the schedule of events. Philippines has a tradition called Simbang Gabi. In the Tagalog language, Simbahan is translated Church and Gabi is Evening, but Simbang Gabi has come to mean Dawn Mass. The devout attend Mass every morning for the nine days before Christmas. Mass began at 4AM, and if you know anything about traffic in Manila (another article needs to be devoted to this subject – shoving a camel through the eye of a needle is nothing compared to trying to drive down a choked Manila highway), that meant we were out of bed by 2:30 or 3:00.

The reward for faithfully completing the nine-day Simbang Gabi cycle? In the words of RoseMary’s brother, “If you make a wish, it will come true”.

RoseMary’s younger sister said something to me along similar lines. Wishes will be granted, if only you can complete all nine days of Simbang Gabi.

I love RoseMary’s family, and in a way, it is painful for me to type these things about the way that they think. I do love them. RoseMary’s brother is mature, educated, and intelligent. Yet, somehow, he is sincerely making a claim that sounds to me more like something that should come from an 8-year-old boy who is showing me a tooth that he is ready to hide under the pillow.

This left me a bit… unnerved.

This brings up another topic that I found most fascinating, and something I will be thinking about and devoting at least one blog article to: never before had I found the lines between religion, superstition and magic blurred like I found in Philippines. Metro-Manila is a developing city, young, urban, worldly, sophisticated and cosmopolitan. RoseMary told me the older people are far more superstitious and that the superstitions are far worse in the provinces. I found this to be good news, and perhaps she is right, but I made a few observations that countered that claim. I suppose she spoke general truth which contained a few exceptions.

I completed all nine days of Simbang Gabi. I also attended, if memory serves, an additional five masses besides the Simbang Gabi. My counting may be off a bit, because the Masses tended to blend together into one massive, half-coherent memory. I did as I promised. I sat with the family. I was respectful. I did not call attention to myself. I am almost certain that I paid far more attention to the readings and homilies than most of the Faithful in attendance (I know – because I kept notes). True, I left the building during one Mass so I could video-tape the crowds outside the building and the taho vendor selling his sweet breakfast treats to hungry children.

I am glad I did – it was certainly very interesting. So what were the homilies like? How was the distinction between religion, superstition and magic blurred? Stay tuned ….

Monday, January 10, 2011

My Tropical Christmas - The Big Picture

How did you spend the Christmas Holidays?

I spent mine on the other side of the planet.

Paranaque City. Metro Manila. Philippines.

I live in El Paso, Texas, USA. Everything about Manila is different. Everything. Literally EVERYTHING.

Completely different. My one month Christmas Holiday was total cultural emersion.

Did I say everything was different? Well, there is one exception. Both Manila and El Paso are predominantly of the Catholic Faith. I take that back. El Paso is Catholic. Manila is ... how do I say this diplomatically... Manila is over the top.

More on that later. But for now let me just reiterate:

Everything is different.


RoseMary and I spent the last month with her family in Metro Manila. Although we have been married over five years, this was the first time I visited her homeland. I had met her mother and siblings before, but I was able to meet her father, various aunts, uncles, cousins and old friends.

They are all lovely people, and I love each and every one of them.

I was not raised by the most festive family in the world, and this particular part of Texas is very reserved on Holidays. One of the most violent cities in the world is right across the border from El Paso, and mere minutes from my house – and I have a hunch that fact tends to keep everybody indoors at night. I am sad to say that our downtown area, which should be alive with parties on festive holidays, is not much more than a glorified flea market, and the only lights on the empty city streets come from Crazy Eddie’s 24 Hour Bail Bonds. Manila, by contrast, keeps the celebrations, traditions and festivities of Christmas alive, in their own tropical way. I could never really get used to hearing Bing Crosby singing White Christmas from a blaring church loudspeaker in the middle of the Tropics. I once asked RoseMary’s mother if she thought it felt strange with European traditions like a giant bearded man from the Arctic wearing a red overcoat and sneaking down chimneys, which, by the way, do not exist in the Tropics.

“No. It is a tradition.”

Tradition. More on that later.

Then there was the New Year. Since there are no fireworks regulations in Manila, at least none that anybody seemed to pay attention to, the whole area sounds like a war zone on New Year Eve. Of course, there are the conventional fireworks that everyone sets off in the streets, but some people simply resort to stuffing 3-inch PVC pipes with explosive material just to see who can make the most noise. Of course the next day’s news reporters are waiting at the area hospitals to be the first to report children with burned and missing hands and arms, and local traffic must dodge the newly created impact craters.

I am not used to such festivities. By and large – I loved it. Except for…. Well… more on that later.

And the food. THE FOOD. The Tropics of the Philippines meant one major thing to me – overwhelming fecundity and abundance. I never imagined the varieties of fish and fruit which exists, overflowing on nearly every storefront, every market stall, literally every street corner.

While in Philippines, I ate like royalty. Nearly everything I ate, I am certain, would be considered peasant food consisting as it did of simple rice, fish and other staple dishes. Yet, I was amazed and the ingenuity of these people, who could turn even the most mundane tropical food into a meal of savory creativity.

I will miss the morning cry of vendors, strolling the streets with buckets of fresh fish for sale. “ISDA! ISDA! ISDA!” Food – fresh, delicious, inexpensive food was everywhere.

Regarding tropical foods, RoseMary’s mother is a masterful chef, and she made sure that I ate a variety of native foods. Here is a partial list:

Saging na saba
Saging na saba
Senyorita na saging

Chorizo Bilbao
Ox tripe
Grilled tuna belly
Pork sisig
Black gulaman
Razon’s halo-halo
Chow King’s halo-halo
Keso de bola
Ginataang kubol
Pansit bihon
Halabos na hipon
Grilled tilapia
Barbecyu na baboy
Lechon sisig
Bungus relyeno
Philippine peanut brittle
Ubeng halayo
Banana fritters
Fried talapia
Lechon paksiw
Sinigang na hopon
Sinigang na baboy
Sinigang na lapu-lapu
And last but not least, food from the two most popular Philippine fastfood joints,
Yello Cab Pizza and Jollibee fried chicken and speghetti!!

Phew. I think I even remember how to cook some of this stuff. I paid particular attention to how RoseMary’s mother made the bangus relyeno, and I will try to make it on my own once I get up enough nerve.

I spent 3 ½ weeks in metro Manila, and did my best to keep my eyes and ears open, ask questions, and just observe and learn. Do you know how certain events in your life are so profound that they make you view life with a new perspective, and potentially change your life to some small extent? This trip did that to me. It may have changed my life. Time will tell.

I have many more stories to tell. Some are wonderful. Some are not. I loved many things about Philippines. Some things drove me crazy. I learned many things about the world, about people and about myself in the process. I will share some of my adventures and my lessons here in the days and weeks ahead.