Just Science Fiction

Twinkle the Star in Children's Digest Magazine
Twinkle the Star in Children’s Digest Magazine

For my birthday, I got myself a toy and a book. The toy is a cylindrical-shaped speaker with an unbelievable sound for its size. It connects to my phone via Bluetooth and can be used as a speakerphone as well as to belt out my favorite tunes. Added to that, it can survive a drop into the fishpond or a pool as it is also waterproof. It is with me now as I write this on an early Thursday morning wet with rain, bridging decades as it plays the jazz masterpieces of Thelonius Monk and the guitar solos of Andy McKee.

The book I got is a collection of speeches, articles and other essays by one of my favorite fiction writers, Neil Gaiman, entitled The View From The Cheap Seats. I have only begun to read it. Gaiman’s nonfiction is as magical as his fiction. I am still at page 48 (out of 500 pages) and already I have been brought back to my childhood when I found hours and hours of pleasure reading. Fortunately, there was no shortage of reading materials at our house. We had bookshelves filled with all sorts of books.

Gaiman writes in a genre called SF & F or Science Fiction and Fantasy and also children’s books (although many adults also find much pleasure in these). I have long been a fan of science fiction and fantasy. Even today, when I wander into any bookstore, I make sure to go and check the SF & F shelves to see if anything new and interesting has come out. I also get to see many books that I have already read. Sometimes I pick those out and hold them in my hand, or I just run my fingers over the spine as they sit there, sort of like greeting old friends.

Being the youngest in the family, I was fortunate to have older sisters to read stories aloud to me when I was too young to read. We had this huge collection of booklets called Children’s Digest which was like Reader’s Digest (for those who remember this), only it was, obviously, for children. Each issue of Children’s Digest had a regular comic strip which told the adventures of Twinkle the Star. Twink had a huge star-shaped head and he had on a shirt that was black on one side and white on the other.

I don’t know how many times I bugged my sisters (each had their own turn) to read stories of Twink day after day and night after night. I think they were relieved when I finally learned how to read. I was also relieved because I could now pick out whatever issue of Children’s Digest I liked and read to my heart’s content without waiting for someone to read to me.

Our old house had a room we called the “Study Room” that was adjacent to the bedroom I shared with my dad. The two rooms were separated by a screen mesh so that anyone in the study room could take a peek in our room and vice versa. It was my dad’s habit to wake up very early in the morning (he was already up at two-thirty or three o’clock) and start working in his table at the study room, usually checking invoices from the store or writing stuff I did not understand on sheets of paper.

So I would very often wake up early as well because the lights were on. Sometimes, I found it hard to go back to sleep so I would go to the study room and sit on my dad’s rocking chair reading anything I could get my hands on in the bookshelf. There was this series of books called Bible Friends which told stories from the Bible — Noah’s Ark, Samson and Delilah, Moses and the Red Sea, the miracles of Jesus, and so on. There was also this thick volume of fairy tales where I got introduced to Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Goldilocks, and so many others.

As I got older, I learned to read longer stories that spanned an entire book. I remember seeing a cartoon version of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe on TV and it fascinated me to no end. Imagine my delight when my sister told me she had the book (and the rest of the series by C.S. Lewis). I devoured those books and read them over and over until I knew Narnia like the back of my hand.

I got introduced to more of the same genre when I read the Guardians of the Stone series by Moyra Caldecott, a magical tale which I believe was inspired by the mysterious rock formations at Stonehenge. And then there was Thongor of Lemuria by Lin Carter which featured a god-like warrior-king. The most fascinating idea I found in that world was a magical metal that fell upwards instead of down, which the people learned to shape into flying machines by using counterweights.

When I was in college, I remember my dad asking me for an accounting of my allowance. I told him I had spent some money on books. He asked what books and I rattled off the titles. He then dismissed them with a wave of his hand and said, “Bah, that’s just science fiction.”

In the book I’m currently reading, Gaiman recounts a trip to China in 2007 to attend the first-ever state-sponsored science fiction convention. He got to speak to a Chinese official and asked him why China was now holding such a convention when it has been known in the past that its leaders disapprove of science fiction. What had changed? He would like to know.

The official responded, “Oh, you know for years we’ve been making wonderful things. We make your iPods. We make phones. We make them better than anybody else, but we don’t come up with any of these ideas. You bring us things and then we make them. So we went on a tour of America talking to people at Microsoft, at Google, at Apple, and we asked them a lot of questions about themselves, just the people working there. And we discovered that they all read science fiction when they were teenagers. So we think maybe it’s a good thing.”

As I finish writing this, I am moving my feet to music coming out of a device that is invisibly connected to my phone. I can control how loud or soft I want the music to be at the touch of a button. At another touch, I can make it switch to the next song, or the one before it, or a totally random one. And if I spill my morning tea on it, it will still keep on playing as if nothing happened.

A few decades ago, this device would have been the stuff of science fiction. Today, it’s reality and it’s absolutely magical.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

To The Teacher of Aspiring Assassins

Photo Credit: Stewart Black via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Stewart Black via Compfight cc

I saw your facebook post lamenting the fact that your students have turned in essays saying “I want to be an assassin” or “I want to be a killer.” You complained that the president’s seeming endorsement of these acts makes your job harder, and that it was easier last year.

I know you feel hopeless about the fact that this president’s and this administration’s values differ wildly from your own, and I am not here to argue against those feelings. You have every right to feel that way. I would just like to offer you a fresh perspective about the job you said is now more difficult.

Were I still in the classroom today, I would be having a field day. Never have I seen people so polarized, or so engrossed in following current events. One of my major struggles in being an English teacher was finding relevant and engaging topics for students to discuss or write about. It seems so easy these days, and there is so much material you can actually use, whatever your political leanings.

You could, for example, use your students’ submissions to jump start an open discussion in class. Try to get your students to open up about why they feel that way and what motivates them to such aspirations. Allow yourself and the rest of the class to listen without judgment, and then let the others voice their opinions or ask questions.

This can easily spawn into a debate session. Take your pick of topics — Is vigilante-justice wrong? Is media biased? Was Marcos a good or bad president? Should he be buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani? Is Delima innocent or guilty? Is Duterte’s war on drugs succeeding or failing?

If you’re teaching writing and composition, there are also so many lessons to be gleaned from news articles — good headline writing (Leila’s Dillema) vs bad (Witnesses Finger Delima), how to use data to support your statements, how to write news objectively, and how to evaluate articles. There is such a wealth of examples (and non-examples) to pick from and you can use these examples to show the importance of clearly articulating one’s ideas.

With the renewed interest in Marcos, you can invite speakers into your class, both pro and anti and even those who are in between. Invite martial law victims to come and share their stories, or even those who lived through those times.

And while teachers usually lament that kids these days are glued on facebook or youtube, you can now give them a legitimate reason to spend time on these sites (since they’re going to be immersed in them anyway). Let them watch senate hearings, congress hearings, the president’s speeches, senator’s speeches, etc. You can then have them turn in reaction papers, or ask them to write news articles about what they watched — then compare what they wrote with what major news outlets came up with, and even compare those with each other. Let your students decide which article was the most objectively written, which has an obvious slant, and so on.

By now, I think you get my point. What you see as a difficulty, I see as a marvelous opportunity to reach out to students in issues they find relevant. I see a way to get them thinking about matters of governance and politics, something that students are usually apathetic about at their age.

Your role as a teacher is now more important than ever. I have read and listened to a great many inspirational speakers and a good number of them cite as their inspiration, either a parent or a teacher. Rarely do I hear them mention the president of their country as providing the spark that led them to achieve great things.

If you think the president is not setting a good example, then show to your students by your own example, how it should be done. After all, they only see the president on TV while you have close personal contact with them on a daily basis. Who do you think should have a greater influence on their lives?

 

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

Being My Own God

Photo Credit: Frankie Tseng (法蘭基) via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Frankie Tseng (法蘭基) via Compfight cc

An accusation I often hear from Christians regarding my unbelief is, “You just want to be your own God.”

For some people, this means, “You just want to commit sin. You don’t want to follow the commandments. You want to do whatever you want.”

For these people, I will just quote famous Las Vegas magician Penn Jillette, “The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine. I don’t want to do that. Right now, without any god, I don’t want to jump across this table and strangle you. I have no desire to strangle you. I have no desire to flip you over and rape you. You know what I mean?”

For others, they are probably telling me, “You want to make your own decisions. You want to be in control. You don’t want anyone running your life.”

They are correct in saying this, but I will argue that the same holds true for them as well.

Of course, they will argue that it is not. They will cite examples of people who gave up money, promising careers, stature, security and so on to go serve as missionaries in harsh and dangerous conditions. They will give less dramatic examples from their own lives when they subjugated their desires in order to “follow God’s will.”

On the surface, it will seem as though they have a point, but there is a hidden desire under all those things they mention — and that is the desire to please God. In other words, a Christian does all those things mentioned in the preceding paragraph because he WANTS to make God happy.

It is no different from a person who wants to lose weight to then give up eating chocolates, ice cream and soda. But one cannot say that this person is not doing what he wants. There is an ultimate desire that subjugates all the others. He is still doing what he wants.

The Christian who gives up “worldly pleasures,” in the same way, is also still doing what he wants. When a Christian does what he sincerely believes is the will of God (never mind if it is actually the will of God, if there is indeed such a thing), then he is making a decision and he is exercising control over his life. He is therefore not that different from me.

The bonus for him is that he can appear to be a good follower, and can even feel good because he thinks he’s getting a spiritual pat in the back. He can hear the divine whisper of, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” Now I’m not saying that this is an active thought process. I know many sincere believers do not think this way consciously, but I believe this is what is at work subconsciously. The seeming abdication of their own will and ultimate responsibility of their fates makes them feel good. It is a burden off their shoulders, and thus is something they want.

We are all our own gods, whether we realize it or not.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

The Notebook

Photo Credit: Scrively via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Scrively via Compfight cc

One of my readers, who calls himself Freethinker Rebuttal, posted this comment on my page:

Andy, you are “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. I have been responding to your posts in a particular way because I was under the impression that you had a falling out with God and were trying to wrap your head around life. As I look at your latest postings, and, please correct me if I am wrong, it seems like you are no longer searching for truth. From the outside looking in on your life as posted through your articles, it really seems like you want to have a worldview that excludes any god, and you are bent on trying to skew things in a way that is belittling those that do believe in a god, specifically the God of the Bible that you got mad at.

If you seek a worldview, and start with the notion that there is no God, or, more specifically, no God of the Bible, then there is a chance that you will not come up with the right answer.

As far as your assessment of me, I can only assume one of several things. Your earlier claims of Christianity are unlike any I have seen. My views and beliefs are nothing like that. Or, you are intentionally distorting another truth, either to rile things up or because your views or so distorted. I like to find common interests or points of view with people, but that is taking things too far. Or you are trying to make a bigger point, saying “That burden is too much to bear for a lot of people.” Which is also incorrect. That may be the reason for some people, and we will never know this side of the grave how many, but, at this point, you cannot honestly believe that about me without having a few screws loose. I believe in God, the God of the Bible, because I cannot find one honest reason not to. I believe it is completely logical and consistent. I do not claim to know and understand everything completely, but I do see it as much better than anything else. I have also grown to know God and love Him from what i have seen from the Bible and from general revelation. Your arguments against it are nothing new, have been answered appropriately, and I could never conceive of anything better.

Your postings claim you will follow God if He winds up being who you want Him to be, or irrefutably proven beyond any doubt in your mind, yet you offer no explanation of what that would be. Christianity has proven to be more logically consistent than your worldview, yet you do not yield. Do you think it is time to admit that it is a matter of the heart and not the mind?

You can conceive of an atheist believing in God, but cannot conceive of a way to share this experience that drove you away from God without giving away other people who were involved? Or, do you think that it is too painful and you do not want to open old wounds? Or that it might be properly addressed and you might see an error in your thinking and have to admit that this crusade against God was wrong?

Here is my answer:

Oh no sir, I’m sorry but your problem is that you seem to think that your worldview is right and the only truth there is, despite your disclaimer that you do not claim to know everything completely.

The way you write your entire piece gives it away. Just because the direction I’m going is opposite yours leads you to conclude that I am “no longer searching for the truth.” Why? Because it’s not your version of truth? I recognize that you and many other Christians see the Bible as the truth, but that is not so for people of other religions or of no religion.

And this sentence says it all, “If you seek a worldview, and start with the notion that there is no God, or, more specifically, no God of the Bible, then there is a chance that you will not come up with the right answer.”

Wow. So in your mind, there already IS a “right” answer and no surprise here, it’s still YOUR version of the truth that’s “right.”

It is also not true that I am bent on having a worldview that excludes any god. I specifically wrote about this in A God I Can Believe In, and even the recent An Atheist Who Believes In God was another attempt to verbalize my ideas about god.

No, sir, I think it’s time for you to re-assess why it is you are responding the way you do. I am searching for the truth as best I can, no matter where it leads. Yes, it leads me to consider strange and absurd ideas at times, but that is what searching is all about.

It is not about staying in the comfortable confines of your own beliefs, but setting fire to them and seeing what kind of stuff they are really made of.

Let me leave you with a story that may either enlighten you or befuddle you more. It does not matter to me either way:

When the master lay on his deathbed, he called his disciple to his side.

“Take this notebook,” said the master. “It contains all that I have learned in this life. But only open it when I am already gone. May it serve you well.”

When the master finally died, the disciple was sad, but also excited to see what was inside the precious notebook. He hurried to his room, locked the door, and slowly, reverently opened the notebook.

That was when he discovered that the pages were all blank.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

Before and After

Photo Credit: Peter Ras via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Peter Ras via Compfight cc

I was back in the classroom the other day.

Technically, it wasn’t a classroom but an audio-visual room, but it was a familiar place. I held quite a number of lectures there back when I was teaching English to high school students. My former-student-now-pastor-and-teacher, Mark, had invited me to speak before a joint assembly of his 4 CE (Christian Education) classes.

So, imagine me in front of a gaggle of 11th grade students in a Christian Education class. What does this scene remind you of? Hint, it’s one of the oldest stories of mankind. Yes, it was like putting the snake in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve.

That was my role there that morning (and I told them so), to be the snake; to be the one injecting doubt and to prod them to ask questions. I told them about my own life, how I journeyed from faith and devotion to doubt and skepticism. Mark had told me that their next lesson would be about the reality of Jesus and why they ought to believe that Jesus was God. So I told them why I thought the Bible wasn’t inspired, and why I thought much of the stories about Jesus were legendary developments, and why it wasn’t such a far-fetched idea as apologists make it sound.

And then it was Q & A time, which started a bit slow, but as soon as it got going, the questions started flowing — so much so that we had 4 or 5 questions after the “last” question.

One of the more interesting questions I got was what had changed from my life before when I was a Christian to now, when I was not.

So I said that as a Christian, I was serious about my faith and I always desired to know God more and I wanted to know, “What is God’s will for me?” This question would drive me crazy because I would always ask it when faced with decisions and I could never manage to get a clear answer no matter how hard I prayed, read the Bible, or asked church leaders. I would always get mixed signals.

As a logical person, I would approach a decision with analysis and logical thinking. Now, suppose the logical decision would be A and the less logical choice would be B.

So of course, the easy choice would be A but now I have to ask what God’s will is, and if you know the Bible, you’ll know that God doesn’t always give you the easy way out. So I get to thinking “Ok, is this what God really wants? Is this the devil tempting me or is this God opening the door to what I should do? Is making the logical decision a decision to trust myself or to trust God?”

On the other hand, if I looked at choice B, I would think, “Ok, is this what God is trying to make me do because he wants me trust him instead of my own thinking? Is he challenging me to have faith in him? Or is he deliberately closing the door and telling me not to go down this road?”

I would do that for almost every decision in my life and it drove me nuts.

Of course, now, there is no such agonizing. Whatever looks most reasonable and logical and promising, that’s it. And if it turns out to be a mistake, well, it’s easier to bear as well and faster to correct. There’s no one to blame but me. There’s no wondering why I misread or misinterpreted God or if I somehow lacked faith and feel guilty about it and so on and so forth.

Does that mean I’m happier now? The student who asked that question wanted to know.

Yes, of course, I am happier now.

 

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

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