Are You Your Label?

image courtesty of awfullibrarybooks.net
image courtesy of awfullibrarybooks.net

Before, when people asked if I was a Christian, I would say “Yes” and this person would say that he was a Christian too, and we would talk happily away until I found out that he belonged to a particular sect that ours didn’t really consider as Christian. In fact, we considered his sect as a cult or group that had gone astray. I would slowly find myself trying to extricate myself from the conversation as my distaste for his group turned into a dislike for his person – for no other reason than his association with them.

When I started questioning my faith and made those questions public in my blog, some people would ask, “So are you an atheist? Are you agnostic? Are you a Buddhist?” It was complicated. So instead of saying yes or no, I would find myself explaining what I was going through at the moment.

I didn’t want to adopt any label because I knew once I did that, people would immediately see the label and judge me according to it.

But I am not just the label.

I ended up shunning labels and I refused to wear one. Are you an atheist? No. Are you a Christian? No. What are you then? I don’t know. I’m me. Listen to my story. How could I possibly put all my doubts and questions into one word? How could I compress all my experiences into three or four syllables?

I detested labels so much that I didn’t even bother finding out about what each meant. There were so many – deist, pantheist, hedonist, secularist, humanist, skeptic, nihilist, anarchist, and so on. For me, they were just useless ornaments that didn’t mean a thing. I wanted to come to the truth on my own terms and not hide behind the stock definitions of a label.

However as I got to talk to more and more people, it became quite tiresome for me to have to explain myself in such a lengthy manner. People often aren’t ready to listen to a 10-minute speech when they ask, so what do you believe?

So I began to rethink labels and to give them more careful study. I learned their basic definitions, their nuances and the philosophies behind them. And I slowly began to appreciate their value. They served as an efficient method to communicate your belief without boring everyone to death with your life story.

But my initial hesitation with labels also has value. Now, when someone tells me he’s an atheist, I don’t immediately assume certain things about him. Whereas before, the word “atheist” for me meant a creature akin to the antichrist, a character totally devoid of morals, now, the only thing I can assume is that this person holds no belief in a god, or gods. But there is really nothing more I can say beyond that.

Just as you don’t judge books by their covers, so you shouldn’t judge people by their labels. The label is just the starting point. You have to really talk to the person to understand what he or she is all about.  The label simply provides a common ground – a way to get the conversation going. And this applies to any label, not just religious ones.

So before you judge someone for being Catholic, Baptist, Muslim or INC, or black, white or brown, or businessman, employee, doctor or OFW, remember that there is a very real person behind that label – a person who could very well be just like you.

—–

This piece originally appeared in SunStar Davao (March 5, 2013) but was not published online.

Hotel California

Hotel California - Photo by RedC

I must have been around 11 or so when I heard a pastor in our church talk about the evils of rock music, especially this song called ‘Hotel California’.

“If you listen to it, it sounds very mellow and soothing to the ear, but it contains a message of pure evil,” he said. “You should avoid that song at all costs.”

And then he talked about backward-masking where if you play the music backwards, you would hear hidden messages in the songs. I heard some garbled samples of what sounded like “My sweet Satan”, “It’s fun to smoke marijuana” taken from the songs of KISS, Queen, The Beatles, and so on.

For a time, I became enamored with this and I would always be interested if this was the topic in church. I bought books on the evils of rock music and why it was from the devil. I listened to taped sermons about rock music from foreign pastors. One of them even featured a line-by-line dissection of Hotel California. For example, in the song, the narrator asks for some wine but the lady there replies “we haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.” The wine represents God (or the Holy Spirit) as it does in the Bible, and 1969 is significant because that was the year Anton Lavey supposedly founded the church of Satan (though Wikipedia tells us that it was actually founded in 1966). The Satanic Bible was written in 1969 though.

Because of this, I would shun rock music and musicians (and no, images of Ozzy Osbourne didn’t help in endearing me to this genre). During parties, even though I thought the music sounded good, I would always listen with some guilt, or would be wary and try to understand the lyrics first before I could bring myself to fully enjoy it. Love songs were ok but anything that sounded too metallic was suspect.

It was only a few years ago (when I began to get out of religion) that I learned to appreciate The Beatles and other rock and roll music. I could listen to Hotel California without getting goosebumps or wondering if demons were already seeping into my body as I soaked up the song. I also realized what a pathetic, neurotic and fearful individual religion has made me that I have become blind to the beauty right in front of me.

One thing that I have learned from this experience is to understand and appreciate things as they are — not by who or what they are associated with. Before, I saw rock music as from the devil, suddenly all rock music and musicians were now Satan’s minions, even if I hadn’t heard their songs or know who they are. Now, I make it a point not to judge until I have experienced whatever it is that requires my judgment.

What a liberating day it was for me when I learned to appreciate rock and roll. It wasn’t all noise and rebellion as I thought it was. There’s a lot of artistry and subtle emotions and passionate thoughts as well. And while rock (or Ozzy) is still not my preferred genre (I’m a jazz guy at heart), it is now a matter of taste rather than blanket condemnation.

I once heard someone comment that he was really torn when hearing “The Power of Two” from the Indigo Girls because the music was so nice but he knew that the singers were lesbians. I was like, “Oh, you poor, deprived soul. Get off your high horse and just enjoy the music”. John Lennon was perhaps right when he dreamed of a world without religion. It would probably be a better place. At least, it would be less judgmental.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s getting late and I’m going on a trip down a dark desert highway.

Theology

A theologian came to see the master.

“Why is it that you are so against theology?” he asked.

“It is not really theology that I am against, but what it has become, and how it is now being used and understood,” said the master.

“What do you mean?” said the theologian.

photo courtesy of Susan WD, Flickr
photo courtesy of Susan WD, Flickr

“Well, theology first came into being because man was interested to explore and know more about the truth. But theology today is very different. It is no longer a search for truth,” said the master.

“What is it now then?” said the theologian.

“A maintenance of a belief system,” replied the master.

A Finger Pointing to the Moon

photo courtesy of scol22, sxc.hu
photo courtesy of scol22, sxc.hu

When the sage points to the moon, the idiot looks at the finger.”

Experts come and study the nature of the finger. They form theories and doctrines around it. They organize the Church of the Finger and create rules and laws about how the finger should point, when it should point and in what angle it should point.

Amidst all this, they do not see the moon.

Scriptures and religions are all pointers. The Bible is not God, and the Koran is not God. People have built entire belief systems and organizations, have fought wars and endured torture and hardships, for the sake of furthering their beliefs.

But they have missed God.

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