Thursday, December 30, 2010

Good Reads/Random Cool Sites (12/30/2010)

Japanese universities draw foreign students with manga.

Why do American journalists side with the government against people who want to reveal government secrets?

An apology to Ted Haggard.

Galtian supermen? No, WATBs.

New in right-wing lunacy: Obama wants to give America back to the Indians.

Cancer rates in ancient times.

Why you should self-publish your book.

Neanderthals cooked and ate vegetables.

Think you had a lot of snow? You didn't.

A list for mature humans.

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Schizophrenia and apologetics

I read this post by Koda on religion and mental illness, and it reminded me of something I read a while back.

It was a fascinating personal account of schizophrenic thinking (h/t: Mind Hacks). It immediately reminded me of my post about "Star Wars apologetics."

The author of the account, Erin Stefanidis, at the time a graduate student in neuroscience, believed that tiny rats were inside her brain eating her neurons, which were regenerating so fast that she suffered no severe physical impairments.
"As a neuroscientist, how can you believe all this?" the doctors queried.

"Because it is all of the Deep Meaning."

"But it doesn't make sense. It's irrational. You surely know that."

"Because," I replied deliberately, as if talking to a child. "The Deep Meaning transcends scientific logic." How else could it be true? I did know all the logical limitations of my ideas, but I was also receiving such intense messages that the rats and my regenerating brain were also true. So I rationally concluded that the one superseded the other. Still, I could use some of my scientific understanding to deal with that which the Deep Meaning imposed on me.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Book review: "Just Kids"

Just Kids, Patti Smith ****

Just Kids is a beautiful book about youthful optimism, the love of art, and the enduring love between two artists.

I've loved Patti Smith since the first time I heard her version of "Gloria." I can't really describe how shocking it was to hear her recite the words, "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine." I couldn't really wrap my 14-year-old brain around it.
Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine
Meltin' in a pot of thieves
Wild card up my sleeve
Thick heart of stone
My sins my own
They belong to me, me
Are people even allowed to do that? Can you just say that? Does saying that make it so? Doesn't that mean she'll go to hell or something? Doesn't she know that? But then she goes on, and she does know it, but she doesn't care!
People say "beware!"
But I don't care
The words are just
Rules and regulations to me, me
I couldn't understand it. I couldn't really understand the whole song. But I felt... something. An independence... a wildness... a freedom. I felt -- and yes, I know how ridiculous and cliched this is going to sound -- but I felt rock 'n' roll.

And ever since then, when I say song is a great rock song (not just a great song, with a beautiful melody, or a compelling rhythm, or moving lyrics, but a great rock song), I mean that it's a song that makes me feel the same way.

Despite my love for her music, though, I knew next to nothing about Patti Smith's life. So that's why I grabbed her memoir Just Kids as soon as I heard of it.

I was surprised to learn that the book is mostly about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. (If you're not familiar with Mapplethorpe, he was a photographer who became most famous, or notorious, for his pictures of gay BDSM. His work was a focus of the "culture wars" in the late '80s and early '90s. He died of AIDS in 1989.)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas, observers of the holiday! Merry Saturday, everyone else!

Here's a Christmasy song I like called "Jesus Christ" by Big Star. (It gets much better after the intro, so bear with it for a few seconds.)



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Friday, December 24, 2010

Good Reads/Random Cool Sites (12/24/2010)

American Psychosis: What happens to a society that cannot distinguish between reality and illusion?

UN reconsiders: executing people for being gay is bad after all.

What WikiLeaks revealed during 2010.

"If you think that Assange is guilty of a crime then Bob Woodward (and countless other investigative reporters) are guilty too."

Powerful TED Talk on vulnerability.

Another type/species/subspecies of humans (besides modern humans and Neanderthals) lived about 40,000 - 50,00 years ago, has descendants in Melanesia.

Scroll down to December 22 for an amusing story about Harlan Ellison.

The 12 Days of Smithmas (Ouch!)

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The Adventures of Leonard McCoy, Space Doctor (#45)


"Well, Bones? Is she or isn't she?"

Click on the "Space Doctor" tag for more adventures!

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Repost: My most embarrassing Christmas moment

(From 2006)

My most embarrassing Christmas moment...

...happened a few hours ago while I was driving to the gym. There was nothing good on the radio, so I ended up on one of the all-Christmas-music-all-the-time-stations. The second song that came on was "O Holy Night." Now, this song is one that, for reasons I've never really analyzed, I find deeply moving. When performed right, it often brings tears to my eyes. By "performed right," I mean it has to be sung big—"Faaaaaaaaall on your kneees" and "No-eeeeeeeeel"—but simply, without really changing the traditional arrangement. The performer mustn't try to gild the lily. Just sing it.

(I heard the most awful arrangement ever at church once. Apparently the piano player thought the song wasn't "poignant" enough, so she used an arrangement that featured, among other atrocities, three single, slowly-spaced high notes at the end of each verse. "Tink. Tink. Tink." I wanted to take an ax to her piano.) It shouldn't really be that hard to get the song right, but even Pavarotti (teh best singer evar!!!111) couldn't do it. His accent is too distracting: "O holy-a night-a, the stars-a were-a brightly-a shining-a." Blech.

Anyway, I was on my way to the gym, and "O Holy Night" came on. A female singer, and she really nailed it. Once again, the song brought tears to my eyes. So I thought, "Wow, that was really good. I wonder who that was." Well, the DJ came on, and he said who: Celine Dion. That's right. I was moved to tears by a Celine Dion song. Fortunately, I was alone in the car, so no one knows my shame.

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Well, that was kind of odd...

I have another blog, a "this day in history" parody which pretty much nobody reads. I recently referenced an actor in one of my posts, and he actually stopped by and commented on the post.

Which was kind of odd, but kind of cool too. Nowhere near as cool as getting a tweet from Jane Wiedlin, of course, but still pretty cool.

I really like the way the internet has sort of democratized celebrity. In a way, we're all just people on the internet now.

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Musical interlude: Bruce Springsteen, "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town"

He's comin' tonight yo.



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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why I like to say "Happy Holidays"


If someone says "Merry Christmas" to me, of course I'll say it back, but "Happy Holidays" is my default greeting. Why? There are two main reasons.

1) There are at least five late-December/early-January holidays: winter equinox (the original "reason for the season"), Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and New Year's Day. (And there more in other countries, e.g., Boxing Day in several British Commonwealth countries, the Emperor's Birthday in Japan, etc., plus religious celebrations such as the Hindu festival Pancha Ganapati). Even if we only count American legal holidays, there are two, Christmas and New Year's.

So when I wish someone "Happy Holidays," I'm expressing my hope that they will have an enjoyable holiday season, no matter which of those holidays they celebrate or observe.

Because 2) I try not to be the kind of person who would insist on using greetings specific to holidays I celebrate without knowing or caring if the people I'm greeting do so too. And I try not to be the kind of self-centered, self-important douchebag who not only would do that, but would also insist that everyone else use my greeting too.

I would have thought that trying to be kind and considerate of other people's feelings, trying to include people, and trying to treat them the way they'd want to be treated would be sort of the default position. I'd have thought that that would just be the obvious way for people to treat each other. I'd even have thought that that would be especially true for Christians, whose god taught that they should do to others what they'd prefer to have done to themselves. I'd never have thought that there was actually something wrong with trying to be nice by saying "Happy Holidays."

But I guess that was naive of me. I suppose it must be Asperger's syndrome that causes me to make mistakes like trying to be kind to others during the holiday season.

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Musical interlude: NewSong, "Christmas Shoes"



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Friday, December 17, 2010

The Adventures of Leonard McCoy, Space Doctor (#44)

 
"This one is definitely not human, Jim"

Follow the adventures of Leonard McCoy, Space Doctor, as he explores the far reaches of space (and my house... and my backyard... and my kids' toy boxes) with his friends Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Only at ToTryANewSword.com.

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Musical interlude: The Three Tenors, "Jingle Bells"

One hopes they were in on the joke, but one suspects they may not have been...



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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Good Reads/Random Cool Sites (12/16/2010)

Leaker Bradley Manning is being held in cruel and inhumane conditions, and he hasn't even been convicted of a crime. Could it be an attempt to coerce testimony against Julian Assange?

Is Strangelovian a word? Just because secret information has been published on the internet and in newspapers all over the world, that doesn't mean it isn't still secret, says the Air Force.

Dallin H. Oaks rockin' the '70s.

A couple of fascinating personal reminiscences about writing LDS church manuals.

This: "...what is annoying is not simply Romney’s lack of principle. Many and possibly most politicians are not that deeply committed to principles, and that’s to be expected, but Romney attaches a degree of smugness and sanctimony to the exercise that is genuinely obnoxious."

You know what bugs me? What bugs me is when some guy buys simple technology, makes no effort at all to do any basic research on how to use it, and then writes a clueless article blaming his failure to master it on the technology instead of on his own ineptitude. Fortunately, in this case the technology is an iMac, so he's getting his ass handed to him in the comments. And rightly so. (And I say that even though I'm a contented Windows user. Well, except when I have to use Movie Maker instead of iMovie. But other than that I'm content.)

The McGurk Effect.

I was going to say that you couldn't pay me enough to work at a place with a dress code like UBS's, but actually you could. But you'd have to pay me an awful lot.

Facebook friend connection map.

Flying squid! Run for your lives!

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Musical interlude: Ini Kamoze, "All I Really Want for Christmas"



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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Musical interlude: Frank Sinatra, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"



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The Adventures of Leonard McCoy, Space Doctor (#43)


"Myrrh, Captain: an aromatic resinous exudation from certain plants of the genus Myrrhis, especially the small spiny tree Myrrhis odorata. It was used for incense and perfume."

Follow the adventures of Leonard McCoy, Space Doctor, as he explores the far reaches of space (and my house... and my backyard... and my kids' toy boxes) with his friends Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Only at ToTryANewSword.com.

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Monday, December 13, 2010

Good Reads/Random Cool Sites (12/13/2010)

Are suicide bombers suicidal?

The sense of cleanliness.

American Mormon missionaries to be kicked out of Switzerland by 2012. (Swiss and EU mishies will still be OK.)

A new mom dies on Facebook.

The TSA's porno-cancer scanners don't even work all that well (PDF file).

Paypal closes account for Wikileaks donation.

Trolling for Dummies.

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Musical interlude: The Granville Williams Orchestra, "Santa Claus is Ska-ing to Town"



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The ugliest song I've ever heard

This is "Pietà, Signore," sung by Luciano Pavarotti. Give a listen:



Right about now you're probably thinking, "'Ugly,' kuri? WTF?" Well, yes, the music is beautiful. Pavarotti's voice is beautiful. The emotion, the desperate yearning and even fear, is beautifully expressed.

But what is it that is yearned for? What is it that is feared? Well, "Pietà, Signore" means "Have mercy, Lord." These are the lyrics, translated into English:
Have mercy, Lord,
on me in my remorse!
Lord, have mercy
if my prayer rises to you:
do not chastise me
in your severity.
Less harshly,
always mercifully,
look down
on me, on me.

Never let me
be condemned to hell
in the eternal fire
by your severity.
Almighty God, never let me
be condemned
to the eternal fire
by your severity.

Have mercy, Lord,
Lord, have mercy
on me in my remorse!
If my prayer rises to you
look down
on me, Lord.

Have mercy, Lord,
on me in my remorse!
Lord, have mercy
if my prayer rises to you:
do not chastise me
in your severity.
Less harshly,
always mercifully,
look down
on me, on me.

Never let me
be condemned to hell
in the eternal fire
by your severity.
Almighty God, never let me
be condemned
to the eternal fire
by your severity, by your severity.

I'm different from a lot of my other ex-Mo friends in that I have few negative feelings about my time in the church. On the whole I consider it to have been a positive experience. It was something I needed at the time. (Parts of it were, anyway.)

But this song -- this song brings back memories.

Memories of remorse. Of pain. Of fear. Remorse for "sins" that hurt no one. The pain of failing to live up to the arbitrary and demanding standards of my god. Fear that I would fail to reach the greatest rewards of an afterlife.

When I think back on all the time I wasted groveling before an imaginary god, it makes me angry. Not at god; he (almost certainly) doesn't exist. Not at the church or its people; they don't know any better. At myself.

I'm angry at myself for believing it. For needing to believe it.

But along with my anger, I feel a gladness. I'm glad that I saw the light. I'm glad that I no longer believe it. I'm glad that I no longer need to believe it. I'm free. Free at last. I'm the slave of no god. And it feels great.

So here's another song. Not as pretty as the first one, but it's beautiful to me.



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Monday, December 06, 2010

Good Reads/Random Cool Sites (12/6/2010)

Why don't low-income whites love the Democrats?

How did a celebration of cartoons and animation get turned into a meaningless gesture against child abuse?

Terry Pratchett on dementia: "It occurred to me that at one point it was like I had two diseases – one was Alzheimer's and the other was knowing I had Alzheimer's."

The story of Hanukkah in PowerPoint (PDF).

Panda breeding breakthrough.

What happened to you, John McCain? You used to be cool.

A lovely post by Leah on feeling like an ugly duckling.

Unbelievable: there are still Mormon bishops telling people that they'd be better off dead than acting on their homosexual feelings.

"A huge looping prominence on the Sun!"

This is not a joke:
Walmart will join the Department of Homeland Security in a program called "If You See Something, Say Something" which encourages the American public to take an active role in ensuring the safety and security of the nation, DHS said Monday.

Participating stores, eventually including 588 from 27 states, will play a short video message at select checkout locations to remind shoppers to contact local law enforcement to report suspicious activity, said a DHS statement.
Hmm. I wonder if this counts as "suspicious activity"?

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30 days, 30 dinners, day 28: Omelet, zucchini, and ravioli

Red and green bell pepper omelet, zucchini, and ravioli



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Musical interlude: Nat King Cole, "The Christmas Song"



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Sunday, December 05, 2010

30 days, 30 dinners, day 27: Korokke and clam chowder

Korokke (potato coquettes) and clam chowder


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Musical interlude: John & Yoko, "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)"

John & Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir, "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)"

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Understanding biblical parables: The Good Samaritan

Today we will examine the Parable of the Good Samaritan

The parable

Jesus sez:

"A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey,* took him to an inn and took care of him.** The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'" (Luke 10:30-35 NIV)

The cultural context

The parable is notable for its realism. Priests back then were similar to modern-day priests. Thus, a priest who saw a naked man laying next to the road would have taken a good look at him and then thought, "Nope, too old for me," and continued on his way.

Levites were traveling blue jeans salesmen. A Levite would have realized that although a naked man lying by the side of the road would need pants, he wouldn't have any money to pay for them. A Levite would therefore have passed on his way without trying to make a sale.

Samaritans were notorious pranksters. A Samaritan who saw a naked man lying next to a road would have thought, "I bet I can have a lot of fun with this," and stopped. He would have done something just like taking the injured man to an inn and leaving him there with only two silver coins.

But the joke was on the innkeeper! Because the Samaritan would never come back. And he had poured oil and wine on the injured man's wounds, ensuring that a massive infection would soon break out and the innkeeper would be stuck with a doctor bill for a couple hundred silver coins for the amputations and so on that would necessarily follow. If the prank went really well, he might even get stuck with funeral expenses. Ha-ha-ha! Those Samaritans were such jokers!

The meaning of the parable

The meaning of the parable is that if something bad happens to us, we should always remember that it could be worse. If we get robbed, for example, we're still better off than if we had gotten robbed and then pranked by a Samaritan.

----------
*This is not a euphemism.
**Neither is this.

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Friday, December 03, 2010

Good Reads/Random Cool Sites (12/3/2010)

Too big to succeed: debunking the myth that bigger banks are more efficient.

"I remain convinced that one of the main causes of the systemic breakdown in our human organizing functions is the dumbing down of the media. When you listen to old broadcasts of journalists and politicians, they did not sound this stupid, not even the stupid ones."

I guess it must be nice to live in a fantasy world. Right, libertarians?

The unsuccessful self-treatment of a case of writer's block: I would totally steal this for a blog post, except that would be stealing.

Celestron’s Capture the Universe 2010 Astrophoto winners.

Narcissists to be ignored by DSM-5.

TED talks: Why not eat insects?

Are you a nerd or a geek?

Joseph Smith joins Jesus and Mo.

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30 days, 30 dinners, day 25: Hayashi rice

Hayashi rice (beef hash on rice)



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On hagiography

hagiography (ˌhæɡɪˈɒɡrəfɪ)
— n, pl -phies
1. the writing of the lives of the saints
2. biography of the saints
3. any biography that idealizes or idolizes its subject
Joseph Smith as he really looked and as portrayed by Mormon artist Del Parson

Hagiography is one of the things that used to bother me even when I was at my most believing as a Mormon. I guess there's a philosophy behind Mormon hagiography. Boyd K. Packer (who else) touched on it in his now-notorious speech, "The mantle is far, far greater than the intellect":
Some time ago a historian gave a lecture to an audience of college students on one of the past Presidents of the Church. It seemed to be his purpose to show that that President was a man subject to the foibles of men. He introduced many so-called facts that put that President in a very unfavorable light, particularly when they were taken out of the context of the historical period in which he lived.

Someone who was not theretofore acquainted with this historical figure (particularly someone not mature) must have come away very negatively affected. Those who were unsteady in their convictions surely must have had their faith weakened or destroyed.
The idea is that if people -- weak people -- learn inconvenient truths about Mormon history, it will Destroy Their Faith (even though the church, of course, is True). The solution, therefore, is to not tell people about these truths.

The specific motivation for Mormon-style hagiography seems to be something like this (from the same speech):
What that historian did with the reputation of the President of the Church was not worth doing. He seemed determined to convince everyone that the prophet was a man. We knew that already. All of the prophets and all of the Apostles have been men. It would have been much more worthwhile for him to have convinced us that the man was a prophet, a fact quite as true as the fact that he was a man.

He has taken something away from the memory of a prophet. He has destroyed faith.

...he devised a way of collecting mistakes and weaknesses and limitations to compare with his own. In that sense he has attempted to bring a historical figure down to his level and in that way feel close to him and perhaps justify his own weaknesses.
There are two reasons I strongly disagree with that. First, any Mormon has been told hundreds of times that the man is a prophet. What they haven't been told is that prophets are just like us; that they're human beings, with everything that means, both good and bad.

Instead, they get hagiography. Prophets always do the right thing, even when they're children. They never make mistakes without immediately understanding and correcting them. They always succeed. They always know what to do. No problem is ever too big for them. They always overcome everything. Because that's what all Mormons are supposed to do.

I remember once I was talking to a missionary, and he was telling me about some problem he had (I don't remember what it was, but just some minor thing, not a big rule-breaking deal or anything).

I said, "Yeah, I always struggled with that too."

[Expectant pause] "So, how did you overcome it?"

[Longer, puzzled pause] "I didn't; I just always struggled with it."

As a friend of mine later put it, I'd run afoul of an "expected narrative." Stories of Mormon struggles are supposed to go like this: I had this problem; I prayed/read the scriptures/talked to a church leader/etc.; my problem was solved; my faith was strengthened. Even the personal stories Mormons tell about themselves are expected to be hagiographic.

But my own stories never seemed to go that way. My stories always seemed to boil down to: I made a mistake; I learned something very important from it; my faith was strengthened. The destination was the same, but the journey was very different.

I could never relate to the hagiographic stories I was told about prophets in church. They just seemed like plaster saints to me, not real people. Of course they could overcome their problems. They always did everything right. What does that have to do with me?

I mean, I could relate to Peter in the New Testament, the way he was always rushing around impetuously and talking and acting before he thinks. Not that I'm impetuous at all, but I could relate to him because he was a human being who made mistakes.

And Jonah in the Old Testament. God tells him to preach in Nineveh, and he runs away. That's totally the kind of thing I might have done. (And totally not the kind of thing any latter-day prophet would have dreamed of doing, or so we're told.) God has to make a giant fucking fish swallow the guy for three days before he'll agree to come back and preach. Then after he preaches, all the people repent and God doesn't destroy the city after all.

And Jonah is pissed. He's like, "See, I knew you weren't going to destroy the city anyway. So why'd we have to go through all that shit with the tempest and the fish-swallowing and the coming back here to preach?" Then he goes and sits under a shady tree and God kills the tree so there's no more shade and then Jonah is all like, "Dude, just kill me now. I've had enough of your bullshit." (Then God finally explains everything. He always gets the last word. The End.)

See, now that's the kind of prophet I can relate to and learn something from. I bet a lot of other people could too. It's not a matter of "justifying weaknesses." It's a matter of identification. If Jonah could be a prophet despite his weaknesses, well, maybe there's still some hope for me. Not to become a prophet, of course, but to get to know God and live a better life.

And that doesn't take anything away from Jonah, it adds to him. It adds humanity. It adds the idea that being a prophet was something he (with God's help) achieved, not something that just happened to him because God made him special (so what else could he have been?).

But if Packer had written the story, it would probably be something like, "God told Jonah to preach in Nineveh. He felt a little nervous, but of course he did what God commanded. (He was a prophet!) The people repented and God blessed everyone. The End." That would be so much better, you see, because everyone could have faith in a prophet like that. He was more than just a man, he was a prophet!

I mentioned that there are two reasons I disagree with Packer. Here's the second: information wants to be free. It's always been hard to keep things secret from people, and it's just going to keep on getting harder. The church's choices aren't between people finding out inconvenient information and not finding it out. The church's choices are between people finding out inconvenient information from sources that care about the church's perspective and try to put the information into that context or from sources that don't care about those things.

And it seems to be the people who've been indoctrinated with hagiography, the ones who've been taught that prophets are always exemplary in every way, that have the most problems handling it when they glimpse some of the gloriously messy humanity that's always a part of real history. The church's hagiographic approach isn't protecting those people; it's setting them up to lose their faith some day.

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Musical interlude: Rosemary Clooney, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"



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