Archive for category Religion

Missing in Action (from e-Readers)

As I finished up my most recent post, I knew a reader or two was likely to tell me of restaurants in SF that I had not known about. Sure enough, a friend suggested The Vlad Taltos series from Steven Brust. Naturally, I wanted to check it out. My normal modus operandi these days in such a situation is to download it immediately. Unfortunately, I found the first novel in the series, Jhereg, was not available in digital form, although later novels in the series are.

I punched buy with one-click! on Amazon to obtain Jhereg in pb, and then wondered, what else isn’t available digitally? My first thought was to  look for great, but obscure works, items that survive on my shelf through years of culling. I was a little surprised by what was there, and what was not.

The most glaring omission were the novels of Patricia Anthony. The only novels of hers available in electronic format were Brother Termite, and Flanders. Missing was my absolute fab fave, God’s Fires, as well as everything else. (If you think you might like a novel about the Inquisition with a science-fictional twist, this one should appeal to you.)

We lost Patricia Anthony a couple months ago, and as it happens, every one of her eight books was published in the nineties. Eating Memories, and Flanders, her last books, both came out in 1998. It pains me to think that because her body of work is “old,” having missed the ebook revolution, and because she is now gone, all her fine work could be forgotten. I consider Patricia Anthony to be a significant SF and mainstream author, and I urge anyone who missed her in the 90’s to look her up. Start with the ebook if you like, then, if necessary, go for the real books.

A book I did not expect to find, and yet was disappointed not to find, was Paul Park’s The Gospel of Corax. I have heard that novel was a disaster commercially, and had a negative impact on his career.

I was sorry to hear that. I loved it. Give me a thoughtful, out-there, possibly controversial version of a religion or a religious figure, and I am really, really happy. What others consider blasphemous, I consider speculative and thought-provoking. I have never believed the The Great Spirit is particularly annoyed or injured by any sincere inquiry. The Gospel of Corax is one of my favorites of these, and I also enjoyed The Three Marys, by the same author.

Beyond those two examples, I’m sure there are dozens, if not hundreds, of books missing from digital stores. Many will become available, in good time, but some may not. I suppose the same goes for music, film, and TV. This distresses me. I’m not usually the quickest to adapt to new technology, but digital culture and entertainment are different. I have become entirely accustomed to having everything that has ever been played, written, or filmed available instantly. I am willing to pay for it; I don’t expect it to be free, but I want it RIGHT NOW.

And, although Jhereg wasn’t available RIGHT NOW, it arrived within forty-eight hours.

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Can’t Take Depressing Anymore

A few weeks ago, I posted on Blueprints of the Afterlife, not once, but twice. In the second of the two posts, I suggested Cat’s Cradle as the best book of this type I’d read. It was a book I dearly loved, but then, I was in love with anything Kurt Vonnegut did. I thought he might be the reincarnation of Mark Twain, whom I also was in love with.

I have now reread Cat’s Cradle. Oh my goodness, my reaction to it now is so different than it was several decades ago. I find I can’t take it anymore.

I did not get, in my early twenties, how truly angry the book was. That Vonnegut does not appear to be joking. That the characters are despicable or stupid. That all the “harmless lies” of Bokononism amount to an odorous pile of foul cynicism. That the flat tone of the affectless narrator would someday sound in my mind’s ear like fingernails on a blackboard. I thought it was all just brash and funny, that Vonnegut was only being smart and subversive.

I don’t mind the dark, but I can’t take the hopelessness, cluelessness, and uselessness of the characters, Bokonon included. We are, in this book, frogmarched to our collective doom.

What makes the book effective is that the stupid, shortsighted, bigoted, willfully ignorant characters do have real-life counterparts. (Perhaps I shouldn’t have begun rereading this in an election season. Yes, that’s you I’m looking at, Donald Trump.) What drew me in, what made me fall in love, was Bokononism. It is a made-up religion, established for political reasons. The principals involved began by pretending to be enemies, but went on to become enmeshed in their adversarial roles.

The outlawed religion of Bokononism is false and made-up. Nonetheless, everyone believes in it. So what is not true has become, from the characters’ perspectives, true. Bokononism won’t save anyone though, and it’s all a lie anyway.

But I loved that stuff when I was twenty-something, partially by denying what the book was saying, and thinking yes, yes, but Bokononism really is true!

And here’s the thing: it is. We all know a dupress or two. We all can identify members of our karass. None of us have the least bit of trouble identifying a granfalloon. Every bit of that is true. So how can’t all of it be true? We’re better and smarter than the Hoenikkers and the other characters, so surely we can avoid killing ourselves with ice-nine, can’t we?

Not in the universe of Cat’s Cradle. We aren’t good enough, or smart enough, to pull that off. Frank Hoenikker, too willfully stupid to realize he is destroying the world, unleashes ice-nine into dying “Papa’s” body, from whence it will go and infect the entire world. But had Frank not done this, his brother, or sister, or the U.S. government, or the Soviets would most certainly have done so.

In other words, we’re doomed.

The book is brilliant. It is a masterpiece. I’m afraid don’t like it anymore.

I can’t take the futility.

Oddly, the fictional work I found myself flashing upon while rereading Cat’s Cradle was the musical, The Book of Mormon, another work that speaks of the importance of belief. The big difference is that the beliefs of our equally clueless and naive Mormon missionaries in the play allow them to win over evil–regardless of the truth or untruth of their theology–and to actually do some good, to save a few people.

I have come to a time in life when I prefer the somewhat twisted hope of The Book of Mormon musical to the cool, black despair of Cat’s Cradle.

And I’ll claim that as my spiritual journey.

See the cat? See the cradle?


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Did the Catholics Ruin Christmas?

It’s official. The Crystal Cathedral of Garden Grove, California, home of “The Glory of Christmas,”  has been sold to the Catholic Archdiocese of Orange County, after several years of drama involving an aging founder and pastor, church and family infighting, and financial insolvency.

According to the Crystal Cathedral’s website,, the Rev. Robert Schuller and his wife Arvulla began the church in 1955 at the Orange Drive-in Theatre, where he would preach from atop the snack bar, and she would play electric organ. This was the beginning of their vision, their dream. The church’s catchphrase was, “Come As You Are in the Family Car.” The first permanent home for the church, built in 1968, was a building that you could walk into, but which also had a wall that could roll up to reveal the parking lot, where, yes, you could still “come as you are, etc.”

By 1970, Schuller was a TV preacher, on Hour of Power, and by the mid-seventies, work began on what is now known as the Crystal Cathedral. The word from the church website is that Schuller missed the open sky of his drive-in movie theater church, and so he told the architect to “…make it all glass.” The Hour of Power broadcasts continued, and for many years, the Crystal Cathedral produced a lavish Christmas pageant entitled “The Glory of Christmas,” which included actors (angels) on wires flying high above the congregation, and live camels, cattle, and other manger-ish animals. This pageant was heavily advertised on local TV, and ran for almost thirty years. I believe its last performance was in 2009.

2005 photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I have never set foot in the Chrystal Cathedral, I am not in sympathy with it as a religion, and have distaste for its social positions, but its passing as an institution moves me nonetheless. It was so SoCal, what with the drive-in origins, the feel good positivity, the never-ending happy ending shared from its pulpit, and its utterly corny excess. For all its trappings, I sensed sincerity. What is it with places like this, and why do so many people care? Why am I interested? What would Jesus think?

Travel with me now back to 1997. I was on vacation in England. One Friday night, I found myself in a pub in Brighton, in a gathering of editors and writers from the science fiction magazine Interzone. I spent time talking with editorial staff member Paul Brazier, who told me he was going to guest-edit the upcoming Christmas issue. He suffered, I think, a mini-moment of social awkwardness for not having invited me to submit (the deadline at that point was only about a week away), but I said, oh don’t worry, because “… I don’t do holiday stories.”

The moment I say I don’t do something, I start thinking of ways I might actually do it. It just happens. That’s why I don’t make claims of not doing stuff very often. It’s a reckless thing to do.

On the way back to my hotel that night, I ignored my chatty-cathy taxi driver and wondered what my story of Christmas would be, were I the sort of person who did that sort of thing. It occurred to me that Jesus, if He were to return to our time, would have more than a few problems with how modern-day humans celebrate His birth. So there was a title: “When Jesus Ruined Christmas.”

But how would He ruin it? What actions would He take? I took Him on a mental tour of shopping malls and dysfunctional family gatherings, but nothing seemed to click. Then, just at the end of my taxi ride in Brighton, my mental tour took Him to the Crystal Cathedral, and to a performance of “The Glory of Christmas.

I named my fictional house of worship the Emerald Cathedral, in part as a Wizard of Oz reference, but also because the all-glass architecture gives the interior the look of a greenhouse in photos and on television. I named my pastor Rev. Howard Givens. As for Jesus, He did not appear as he does on Sunday school illustrations, but was bodily reincarnated in the body of an unemployed alcoholic man by the name of Jesus Olivo.

Jesus/Jesus goes to the Emerald Cathedral, applies to work on their Christmas pageant, and is cast in the role of Joseph. From that vantage point, He wreaks havoc on the grandiosity of the church, and of the pageant, fulfilling a mission He  is committed to, but does not understand. Some of the time, He seems to think what happens is merely a personal test of faith for Reverend Givens, and the rest of the time, He thinks maybe God is just messing with His head, making Him do all this weird stuff.

In the case of the Crystal Cathedral, no supernatural act of God brought it down, only the very normal and mundane acts of human beings. The size of the organization. The advancing age and deteriorating health of Schuller. The mismanagement of money; perhaps, the greed for money and power as well. Being unable to pay debts. The camels can’t keep coming unless the camel-wrangler has been paid for the previous year.

Nonetheless, the fate of the Crystal Cathedral and the fate of my fictional Emerald Cathedral are similar. I am not happy about that; in fact, a small part of me wishes those corny Christmas shows were still going on, even if I’m not interested in going myself. I’m left with a mix of feelings, touched by events that have nothing to do with me.

The mere thought of attending a mega-church makes my blood curdle. I do not care at all for the social conservatism large churches in our area tend to preach. There is a certain smugness about these institutions, a smugness purchased with donations of the faithful. It is simply not necessary to have an all-glass church, flying angels, and real camels to celebrate Christmas or any other holiday. It is perhaps not even desirable. On the other hand, I have affection for anyone with a dream who makes that dream real, and Rev. Schuller did that, with a vision of a church that everyone could come to, that they didn’t even have to get dressed up for. I never sensed smugness in him.

“When Jesus Ruined Christmas” was eventually published in the August 1999 issue of Tales of the Unanticipated, (issue #20), which can still be found at This is a very fine semiprozine, one that’s been around since the mid-eighties. If you want to compare the fate of the Crystal Cathedral with that of the Emerald Cathedral, check it out.

The Catholics did not ruin Christmas by purchasing the Crystal Cathedral. In fact, they kind of started Christmas by superimposing it upon pagan solstice celebrations. Jesus did not ruin Christmas; it happened after He’d left the scene. “The Glory of Christmas” didn’t ruin Christmas; it scarcely made it gaudier. Christmas, in the end, is whatever you care to make of it; nothing more, nothing less.

On Christmas Eve, I plan to do as I usually do–spend half an hour or so watching the delayed broadcast of services at the Vatican. (Talk about your gaudy pageants.) Then I’ll go to sleep, and wait for Santa to arrive.

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