I found out at a tender age that Mr. God created heaven and Earth in the beginning, and I’m very amused to read that this was probably a mistranslation. If the hereafter actually exists — which it really, really may, you know — then this little verse that kicks off the epic bestseller creatively titled The Book (Bible in Greek) may be one of the biggest SNAFUs in history. I gotta tell you, the blunders of humanity at large make me all soft and warm and bubbly, and this one has had me in stitches for a while. It’s especially funny because fans of The Book will denounce the discovery out of hand and pretend it never happened rather than embrace the more likely translation, and the cosmic goof of human existence will have provided me with yet another vaudevillian pratfall.
I am not an enemy of the church, however — regardless of what they think of me — and have constructed as a display of my good will a handy crash course of the world’s major religions for those who may be shopping for some inner mysteries, eternal life, or ultimate truths. Can we be friends again, gods? No just and sensible deity worth worshipping would refuse a hand outstretched in peace, would it? Of course not.
So come on in! Have a try at dividing by zero in the zoo of zen, or a shot at real godhood down in the annals of Hindu cosmology, or a bite at the ol’ apple of knowledge as described in The Book itself. It’s the arcane arcade, where every player gets infinitely more than three lives, so hur-ray, hur-ray, hur-ray, the show is about to begin! Welcome!
Ah, paganism. Paganism is actually the religion of non-Christians, so-called from paganus in Latin which basically means “hick” or “hayseed,” and represents all those real old pantheons found in ancient Greece, Rome, Norway, England and Ireland, though these are only examples. The earliest religions are pagan, and many pagan festivities and belief systems have survived so that we may enjoy them in their modern forms today, such as Santa Claus, Halloween, painted Easter eggs, and New Year’s Eve parties.
Since pagan religions are real, real old and real, real numerous, not much can be said about all of them as a group without treating them unfairly, but the original all-powerful awe inspirer deserves at least a paragraph of homage. Before Moses was parting seas, before Mohammed was praying in caves, and way before Joe Smith was digging golden plates out of a hill in Wayne County, New York, the supreme life of the party, Pan, was causing your daughters to bed with passers-by in the foliage amidst confusion and much merriment. Having discovered unto himself the powers of creation and destruction (pangenitor, panphage) he did the only thing an immortal can be expected to do: he went about amusing himself to assuage the boredom inherent in a flawless existence without end.
His main symbols were good music, good food, good wine, good sex, and good pranks, and rather than having arch-enemies to fight with, he merely contended that they were lies and did not exist. And what were these non-existent enemies, you might ask? Reason, logic, and death, mainly. Gee, good thing we don’t have a church of Pan, anymore. The neighbors’d call the cops on that sermon before the keg was even out.
During the reign of Pan and somewhat more Southeasterly, the East Indian people started figuring some things out about the universe. They figured out that it was unified, infinite, and duplicitous, for example. They called the illusion that humans believe to be reality “maya,” and described the true reality as a network of interlocking gemstones, each reflecting and being reflected in all of the others. This meant that everything was a god or goddess and just as holy and deserving of reverence as everything else, which made sense to them because everything was unified and connected in Universe, anyhow. They also saw a hell of a lot of death and birth in that dangerous and fertile country (hundreds are washed out to sea each year in the annual monsoon alone) so the reincarnation idea had to come pretty early, too. There wasn’t any goodness or wickedness in the Hindu belief system, because everything was holy. Even today, any god you can invent will bless your days and be worth your prayers, because everything is holy. Oh, and in case no one told you, you are Hindu, too.
“No, I’m not,” you say. “I’m Catholic.”
But the Hindu smiles patiently, chuckling, “Ah, but you are Catholic Hindu.”
“But I, I am an Episcopalian.”
“Ha ha, yes; you are Episcopalian Hindu,” he informs you again.
You see, since the Hindu pantheon includes all possible deities, they see all the other gods and beliefs as Hindu, too. The idea gets better when you know that the Rig Veda was written circa 1200 BC, a full millenium and a half before The Book got published, so much earlier that every religion in the hemisphere borrows from it and shows ancient Indian influence. We’re all a little more Hindu than we knew. Go figure. I want twelve arms.
Among the ideas that sprang from that old-tyme religion in India is Buddhism. The Buddhist mythology has to do with Siddhartha Gautama sitting beneath something called a bodhi tree and achieving enlightenment, which apparently has less to do with light and more to do with weight, though Sid wasn’t too clear about the actual nature of this achievement. He taught eight ways to reach perfection by pointing to the spokes of a wagon wheel, told everyone that they were already perfect but had forgotten, and insisted that contentment was better than happiness. He had four truths altogether, one of which was the wagon wheel stuff. When you laid them all out, they went something like this: life is pain; pain is forgetting that you’re perfect; and if you stop trying to be what you already are then everything will be fine — oh, and check out this wagon wheel. What’s that? You want a book? To heck with that! No holy texts in Buddhism.
So everything’s fine. Relax and enjoy your enlightenment.
Added bonus: do you know where the Dalai Lama said the world’s best Buddhists were? Southern California. If you figure out why, then you really may be enlightened. Good for you!
Now while the Hindu religion is getting off to a roaring start and the Buddhists are in their infancy, the Jews of the Middle East are compiling a very, very impressive mixture of history, mythology, and theosophy which most of us are somewhat familiar with, being this book with the creative title that I’ve mentioned. The most innovative bit about it is the monotheism, which means they only have one god. Why only one god, you may ask? Why only one, indeed! Well, it makes perfect sense that of a crew of gods one ought to be more badass than the others, right? And it follows also that it’d make the most sense to talk directly to the head honcho than to some lowly petty sergeants, right? And that’s how this worked out, presumably. Besides, you can always say that the little immortals are mere branches from or organs in the big-immortal-spirit-deity thing, anyhow.
The Hebrews included all sorts of things in their bestseller, The Book, too. There’s a whole bunch of mythology in there, complete with magic Gandalf staffs and seven-headed dragons, music for the groove-minded, lusty poetry (dude goes on about his wife’s tits like you wouldn’t believe), fortune cookies such as, “Better to dwell in the wilderness, than with a contentious and angry woman,” blood-spattering war stories, cute, quaint children’s fables, reams of condemnation for the enemies of swell fellas everywhere, and — everybody’s favorite — prophecies of the future! Oh, and bytheway, the Hebrew Tanakh is about ten times longer than just The Book, so if you thought I was just talking Sunday school stuff, you’ve got a lot more reading to do for homework than you bargained for.
Added bonus: kabbalah is super, hyper, mega, über interesting.
Meanwhile this guy Lao Tzu goes around saying a string of words like, “In-out, back-forth, up-down, yes-no, good-bad, hooray-hoorah. . .” and finally gets somebody’s attention. It seems he is saying something like this to a border guard on his way out of China to go off and be very mystic and wise somewhere and grow a long thin mustache, and the border guard begs him to stick around long enough to write these magic words into a book. Little bit later, bang, out pops the Tao Te Ching, Taoism is born, and Lao Tzu bails out over the mountains, never to be seen again. It’s all about “the way,” and the way is about flow, balance, change, and nature, it would seem. Taoism doesn’t get any more complex than that, and it has one of the most poetic holy texts around.
Added bonus: the Tao Te Ching is short enough to read in one sitting at Starbucks.
Meanwhile some more and a few hundred years later, Zen Buddhism sprouts out from Taoism. The god question usually gets started, “Where do we come from,” and ends with whatever X thing you’d like to suggest, but Zen Buddhists take it one step farther. They say, “OK, well what came before the first thing?” and you have to look at them all weird and say, “Well — nothing, of course. X was the first thing, remember?” at which point they say, “Well then maybe we should be trying to get closer to nothing.” Then, you say, “What?” and they say, “Exactly,” and that’s more-or-less how Zen works.
You know the sound of one hand clapping? Zen. If a tree falls in the forest alone does it still make noise? Zen. And then there’s the story of Zhaozhou, whom was asked, “Does the dog have Buddha nature?” to which he answered, “Mu,” which means no, the dog does not, and yes, the dog is zen at the same time, because mu means both ‘no’ and ‘nothing’. One guy gets enlightened when he puts his sandal on his head and walks out. Another guy says the Buddha is five pounds of flax seed.
Zen Buddhism is my unofficial favourite. It’s so awesome, I had to spell favorite with a U.
Added bonus: the symbol for zen is a big paintbrushed zero, usually in black or red. Effing cool.
So then Mr. Jesus comes around, and he’s got this strange idea that you should injudiciously love every Tom, Dick, and Harry who strolls into your yard. Previous to him, some jerkoff cruised into your part of town, you did your best to chop off his ears and nose, send him home ugly enough to keep his pals from wanting to pay a visit to you. Now things are different, though. Now, if your neighbor sets fire to your house, you’re supposed to help him fan the flames; because, you know, that’s going to teach him by example to be nice to people.
Oh. And Mr. Jesus is God, Jr.
Well lo and behold, this idea of Mr. Jesus’s really takes off after the government tortures and kills him for it, and since he is Jewish, people start getting into the Hebrew book he was brought up with. This is pretty handy because he doesn’t even have to write a book of his own (though some people do throw some of his quotes together and slap it on the end to give the whole thing a little authenticity). Then a college boy named John gets around the Mediterranean quite a bit, and it seems he knows quite a few languages, so he sells Mr. Jesus’s lemme-help-you-burn-my-house-down philosophy pretty well. And then there’s this serial killer named Saul who was fairly famous for being a fucked-up character until Mr. Jesus says he should take “Paul” as an alias, after which Saul/Paul turns out to be a very fine orator indeed, so after Mr. Jesus is slaughtered Paul gets the crew together and makes a name for Christianity. . .
And then everybody else and their mother edits and revises this stuff for two thousand years, effectively watering down and mucking up the hard work of the college boy, the serial killer, and Mr. Jesus himself. Thank god I’m my own editor.
Then comes Islam, and Islam is pretty cool, if not too different from Christianity. Like Mr. Jesus, this guy Mr. Mohammed decides that god has more to say than what is in the Tanakh and The Book, and goes into a cave for six months to think about it. Well, he comes out with god’s instructions for revising the old Hebrew religion into something called “submission,” or Islam, which his friends write into a “Koran”. As you can see from the above picture, it’s a pretty good name for it. Anyway, Mr. Moe gets a decent-sized crew together and conquers Mecca, because it had never liked him. Mecca had never liked him because it has this black rock that people have been paying money to visit because they think it fell from heaven, and Moe never liked idols, so his new instructions from god talk a lot of trash about that. It’s a little fuzzy why Mr. Moe then decides to require all Muslims to travel to Mecca in order to visit the black rock at some point in their lives, and also to point themselves toward it when they pray five times a day, but whatever, it’s his religion, not mine.
One cool trick Muslims do is Ramadan, this month when Muslims are supposed to keep from eating and drinking anything while the sun is up. I’ve done it before, and I can tell you, it changes your head around harder than an acid trip. Lasts longer, too.
Added bonus: Korans are by far the coolest-looking holy books going. If there were a holy book cocktail party and all the holy books were invited to come over for martinis, the Koran would show up in — like, I dunno — Versaci.
Just like Mr. Moe, and around the same time, some other guys start editing the Hebrew stuff. It prolly went something like this:
“OK, so we worship God.”
“. . .and God is this Jesus guy the Romans nailed up a while ago. . .”
“. . .and the chick who made God never fucked nobody to help her do it?”
“That’s the story.”
“Well — hell! What’re we doin’ praying to anybody but her? Seems like she did all the work! Besides, if she can make gods and stuff, she must could do all sorts of things!”
“Hmm. . . I reckon that’s about right.”
And that’s the story of Catholicism, except that there are some people they start calling saints who can do magic tricks, but only in one school of magic or another. For instance, St. Timothy is the patron saint of bellyaches, St. Bartholomew is the patron saint of twitching, and St. Monica is the patron saint of wife beating. No, I’m not kidding. And St. Christopher used to be the patron saint of traveling until too many hippies started carrying his emblem, prompting the Vatican to drop his ass from the liturgical calendar and the official list of saints like a bad habit. Still not kidding. Hey, that’s how they roll in Italy, man! You know who makes the rules.
Added bonus: you can do just about anything you like and be Catholic; they have this confessional deal going which is a sure fix between you and god, and they’re pretty elastic on all sorts of sins ranging from child abuse to alcoholism.
The next editor and revisionist of the Hebrew stuff is Joe Smith, usually called by his full first name to give it added clout. Joe found some golden instructions in a hill in Wayne County, New York, and these told him what to add to The Book to get the fresher, more correct perspective. There’s an American prophet involved, too, who goes by the unlikely name Moroni, and an “American Moses” named Brigham Young.
There are some interesting cultural attachments that come with Mormonism, AKA the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Moroni, his dad Mormon, Joe, and Brigham Young being the late saints they mean) such as its infamous reputation for abetting polygamy, ties with the occultist Freemasons, and the so-called “Mormon Murders”. They don’t drink coffee, and they like modern-looking castles with lots of bright light shown on them. My dad’s Mormon. He’s OK. I don’t think I’d follow anybody named Joe Smith across a wild continent, though.
Last on the list of editors of the old Hebrew stuff are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who started as an active team of Christian-pamphlet-hander-outers. They came up with their name in the 1930s and split from the other non-Catholic sects because they, the J.W.s, didn’t think they should celebrate Easter, Christmas, or birthdays. This distinction has signified the religion ever since. Why not, you’ll need to be reminded? Because these celebrations are pagan Pan parties, that’s why not! And also because J.W.s are absolutely certain that the end of the world is right around the corner — which to be honest, it always really might be — so they earnestly want God to know that they’re doing their best to not fuck up.
As the modern version of the quakers, J.W.s have the least fun of all religious people, but they win the Consistent Belief System Award among the Christians, and they get to meet lots of people. Still, I wouldn’t date one unless she let me make my own annual celebrations. I’d have one in spring called Teaser, one in winter called Mistcrass, and one in September called Me-Day on which I would celebrate everything but my birth and death with much dancing and inebriation.
Far from merely revising the battered, overused, over-interpreted Hebrew stuff yet again, L. Ron Hubbard just fuckin’ made up his own. In case you’re unaware, you’re living on a planet with millions of alien ghosts who were blown up seventy-five million years ago on this planet by an entity known as Xenu. Xenu was about to be impeached or something from the throne of the Galactic Confederacy, so he rounded up his constituency, laced them around volcanoes, dropped atomic bombs into these volcanoes and detonated them simultaneously. The ghosts cause most of your internal conflicts and are called Thetans, but you can pay money to the Church of Scientology for lessons in ridding yourself of their influence and the secrets to becoming what they call a “clear”.
The Xenu history is made available only to top Scientologists after considerable financial contributions and was kept secret until court documents containing this information made their way to the Internet. L. Ron has been quoted many times saying, “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion,” but the (very) persistent rumor is that Hubbard started the religion to win a bar bet with R. A. Heinlein. Whatever. Tell you what, though: I’ve only read the first few chapters of Dianetics, but they had more useful philosophy than you would think, considering how bat-shit crazy the culmination is. Don’t give them your money, though. Seriously. Don’t be stupid.
Added bonus: L. Ron hung out with Aleister Crowley!
Well, here we are at last, the pinnacle of world religion that is modern Christianity. In America it’s mostly unified now to the point where the Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and non-denominational Christians can’t tell one another apart anymore, nor say why they belong to one sect rather than another. They’ve got a The Book that has been through sixteen centuries of editing, revision, and translation, they’ve changed their clothes, music, and churches, and they’ve founded their first wildly successful nation through the wholesale slaughter of an indigenous people, so at long last the old Hebrew traditions are here to stay. Modern Christianity is popular, highly marketable, and comes with a built-in social life for new converts whose existing one is either an empty room or a clan of bad influences (non-believers).
This is the sort of thing I grew up knowing, just like millions and millions of other kids. I had preachers on my TV, God in my music, and bumper stickers on my car. Hey, it’s an entire world for billions of people! Don’t laugh. Some people never see pornography or read Friedrich Nietzche. Some people really do avoid R-rated movies.
The truth is, though, all the inner mysteries of Pan and Ein Sof and Mr. Jesus and Augustine et cetera are all intact and pulsating with real, honest-to-god wisdom that can whisper to you the secret of life right between the pages of their respective books, but you have to be able to ignore the slogans printed in faux eXtreme! lettering on tee-shirts, the weepy fanatic babbling, the misinformed sermons, the various anachronistic prejudices, and other such bullshit that keeps people from seeing world religions as anything but a sales pitch and a bad joke. If you can do that, then there’s a lot of really, really interesting shit out there, and I’m telling you, if you think you’ve got nothing to learn from Shiva because your man is Jesus, or nothing to take from Buddha because you voted for Mohammed, or nothing to glean from Lao Tzu because Moses really turned you on, then you’re pretty arrogant for a guy who proudly calls himself a ‘believer’. Go ahead. Step outside. The world won’t bite you any harder than you’ve already been bitten. And besides. . .
You can always bite back.