A Sign of the Times

I was saddened to hear that a used-book shop in downtown St. John’s, Newfoundland, was closing its doors after being in business since the early 1970’s.

It happened quite suddenly, although I’m sure people could see it coming.

One day the door was locked, and the handwritten sign in the window said, “We have tried to keep Afterwords going, to serve our community and to support our family. In the end we can do neither. Good-Bye.”

A short while later, the store re-opened for a few more days to liquidate stock at greatly reduced prices.   My neighbour told me about it, she and I being great book-lovers.

So I went down there, feeling a little depressed, but incapable of resisting the siren call: ”Books at reduced prices.” I had to obey the summons.

I parked on the road, and walked into the shop, greeted immediately by that lovely, musty, old-book smell. Unfortunately, another woman of around my own age had gotten there ahead of me. Not that there wasn’t room for both of us, but she was apparently oblivious to the sanctity of the occasion. She was pushy and loud–demanding of the owner that he direct her to where a certain genre of book was shelved.

He responded in much the same way I would have responded, were I in his shoes, although I cringed when he did it since he could easily have been speaking to me. He said to her, in a grumpy/exasperated way, “You obviously haven’t been in the store previously, or you would know the layout, and where everything is.”

david-benson-owner-of-afterwords

It was an honest, heartfelt remark made with some justification. Three reasons:

First, the shop WAS organized very well, with all the travel books in one section, fiction in another, self-help in another, religion in another, and so on. A quick walk around the little shop would quickly and easily tell one that.

Second, her ignorance pegged her for not being a regular customer; she had obviously only troubled herself to visit the shop on that day for bargain-hunting purposes. SHE was one of the reasons he had been forced out of business. I suspected that he loved his bookshop (who wouldn’t?) and, like people everywhere who love their jobs, it defined him, gave him focus and purpose, maybe nurtured his spirit.

Third was the way I felt about us, she and me—neither of us having done anything to support the business. I felt like a vulture picking over the bones of something that had died, while the former caregiver stood by watching as we did it.

In essence, even though he was the bookshop owner, he had been fired from the job he loved. By her. And, unfortunately, since I had forgotten all about his little shop and hadn’t been there in at least ten years…me.

She was not phased by his remark in the least (I would have walked out if he’d said that to me, licking my well-earned wounds), and persisted in wanting to know where the books were that interested her. She wanted some Newfoundland books. I thought that that might just mark her for a mainlander–that plus the total absence of a Newfoundland accent, and her general manner and demeanor. That’s not to say that Newfoundlanders can’t be pushy; but they’d be pushy, IF they were pushy, in a different way entirely. It would have been very much less offensive to the person being pushed if a Newfoundlander were doing the pushing.

I’m mainland-raised by Newfoundland parents, so I have an awareness of this cultural difference that I can’t really account for, other than instinct.

In any case, he directed her to the shelves where the Newfoundland books were kept. They happened to be right beside where I was standing–near the door, since I had just walked in.

She responded to him in the same brash tone of voice, “No, I’ve seen those.” And he told her that that’s all there was.

I went around the corner to look at the books there, and he came into that section to re-shelve some books. I wanted to speak to him, but wasn’t quite brave enough for it.

So I did the only thing I could, in sympathy, and that was to move quietly and reverently amongst the bookshelves, treating every book I touched as if it were leather bound, and trimmed with 22kt gold leaf. Didn’t matter that it was an old paperback with cracked plastic coating on its cardboard cover, I treated it like a museum piece.

She didn’t leave right away, because I saw her later at the check-out counter. She had made her purchases, and left her books on the counter while she put on her jacket. The cashier signalled for me to put my books down on the counter—and thank goodness, my arms were aching. I told her how sorry I was that the shop was closing, and she mentioned that it had been in business for over 40 years, but times were changing.

Perhaps overhearing my conversation with the cashier brought some understanding of the occasion to this woman. She grabbed her bag of books off the counter, shot a “Too bad” at the cashier, and walked out.

That ‘too bad’ might have sounded callous to some, but to me it just sounded clumsy. I began to suspect that this woman was just not empathetic, and didn’t know any better way to express sympathy, once she was aware that sympathy was called for.

I rather liked the bookshop name, “Afterwords” although, given present circumstances, it had a poignancy not intended at the time the shop first opened its doors.

“Afterwords,” the shop, might have been named with the thought in mind that its customers, in the most basic sense, would be shopping for collections of words in book form. Customers would visit the shop because they were there ‘after words.’

Whatever the original intention was in naming the shop, it seems that the name now takes on a new shade of meaning. Below is the dictionary definition:

“Afterwords: a concluding section in a book, typically by a person other than the author.”

The book shop,“Afterwords,” as it shuts its doors, itself concludes; its conclusion written by people other than authors—or bookshop owners. It was written by us–we the book-buyers and readers. It’s partly because we’re reading on Kindles, and iPads, or ordering inexpensive new books from Amazon through the internet. They deliver right to our doors, rain or snow notwithstanding, without our having to drive into a busy downtown area and find parking on the street in a spot that has a functioning parking meter so we won’t run the risk of being ticketed.

Then there are the used-book-store competitors: the Salvation Army Thrift Shop, and maybe also Value Village. These places are often more conveniently located than a downtown book shop. In the case of the Salvation Army, the books can be very inexpensive. If I just want a book, that’s usually where I go.

The larger bookshops, like Chapters, often have inexpensive books that they’re selling off.  A second-hand bookstore would have difficulty competing with them.

If I want a particular book, I go to Amazon. The chances of my combing through the offerings of a small used-book store and finding exactly the book I want are slim-to-nil. Not worth the trip to town.

And if I want a book RIGHT NOW, I find the electronic book online and download it to my Kindle or PC. It takes seconds.  Don’t even have to get out of my chair.

And then there are libraries. Books on loan for free. And now e-Libraries.  Some of them are audiobooks, which can be read to me while I do other things.

I have to say, however, that electronic books will never be better than a real, physical book. Where do you put your sticky notes in an electronic book?  (Of course, nobody desecrates a book with handwriting on the pages, do they?)  Electronic book-marking is a pitiful and useless imitation.  Also, how do you quickly flip back through the pages to re-read something, and easily return to where you left off? That’s why God made thumbs, in case you were wondering. No, I’m in control with a real book. An electronic book just leads me by the nose. Not the same.

But the Afterwords cashier was right, the times they are a-changin.’ And as sad as it is in many ways, it has to be.

The writing is not in Afterwords any longer; it’s on the wall.

 

Getting Right up Somebody’s Nose

First a word about my banner…I love that face. There’s something worldly-wise about it. Also a bit cranky, I think. He’ll be asking me, “Are you Creationist or Evolutionist”? Well, the answer is “Evolutionist.”

He might also be asking me—if he is as wise, and as cranky, as he appears—”WHY are you introducing THIS topic?”

I suppose I ought to have learned by now that it isn’t possible to talk about politics or religion without getting right up somebody’s nose. Still, this topic came to mind because of an e-mail I received today. I’ll explain later…

So…Does God Exist? (Nothing controversial about that, right?)

People say, “No, He doesn’t, because a loving God, a powerful God, would not allow all the evils of earth to occur, and to continue to occur…diseases, famines, wars, etc. These things would cease if God lived.”

People say, “No, because his proponents are often self-serving, amoral kinds of people who live sumptuous lives while picking the pockets of elderly people in poor health, living on meager pensions.”

People say, “No, because Old Testament Bible passages are often obscure and meaningless, and sometimes objectionable.”

People say, “No, because I personally have no proof.”

I’ve been keeping an open mind, because I was raised in a family that supported and attended a church.

Some people I like and admire have been atheists, and other people I do not like or respect have been church proponents or ministers. Of course, the flip side is also true, some atheists are uneducated and ignorant people while some religious people—apparently intelligent, thoughtful and insightful people–live and work in quiet faith that God exists and is a force for good in the world.

I want to believe that there is a loving, caring deity who will take our loved ones to heaven when they die. To know that such a place exists would give me comfort when I grieve for family that have passed on.

Do I believe that God does not exist because there are diseases, famines, wars, violent crime, terrorism, cruelty, corruption, and so forth? Not necessarily. What if our natural state of being inclines us to commit evil acts, and it is only through God’s intervention and guidance that people—the majority of people, I think–strive to be good, honest, and kind?

Why, if God exists, does he not enforce goodness and kindness by eliminating, counteracting or punishing all the perpetrators of evil and cruelty in the world? Well, maybe we are an experiment. Maybe God sent his son to earth (as Christians believe) to point us to the true way to live in peace, and once we were told, we were left to ourselves to make what we can of it.

If we’re failing—if we fail absolutely—we, and this planet we live on, may be destroyed. God may just wash his hands of Earth and its inhabitants and try another experiment on another planet once we’re done.

Also, there was the Noah’s ark story, and God’s promise to Noah that there would never be another flood to destroy the earth. The rainbow is the symbol of that promise. So, in other words, He would never again completely wipe out all life on the planet because we’re not living right.

Now God seen some sinnin’ and it gave Him a pain,

And He says “Stand back, I’m going to make it rain.”

He says “Hey brother Noah, I’ll tell you what to do,

Build me a floating zoo.

(lyrics from “The Unicorn” by The Irish Rovers)

Can I truly imagine that there is an omnipotent being that exists beyond time and space? I can’t even come to grips with the concept of time, nor space in its vastness, so perhaps that’s the purpose of the Holy Spirit, or its equivalent in other religions. We must experience the presence of God in our little world on this planet via this essence of God that moves among us everywhere on this earthly plane. It’s invisible, but perhaps accessible through meditation…that ‘still, small voice’ that guides us. Is that a bit fanciful? Maybe so. Maybe not.

1 Kings 19:11-13 King James Version (KJV)

11 And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:

12 And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

13 And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?

I got started on all this because I received an e-mail from our church minister who is encouraging us all to pray this week. We’re to engage in prayerful meditation in whatever way we find suitable, and contemplate a specific Bible reading during that time. He’ll be guiding us by e-mail. (I don’t think I would dare unsubscribe.)

This is a new concept for me–e-mails from our church minister. If we stay away from church for months at a time, he can still reach us, it seems. Might be the way of the future. Soon there’ll be a way to submit our tithes and offerings through Paypal. I wouldn’t mind that, actually.

The minister calling us to pray this week raises the issue of prayer in general. Throughout my life, prayer has been advertised as a means of asking God for the things that we want.

So what does it mean when one has asked for something in prayer and has not received it?

Supposedly, we were sometimes told, because that thing was not considered by God to be suitable for us—for whatever reason. It might be that it was the wrong time for us to have it, or perhaps He has something better in mind for us, or maybe our faith is being tested—can we live with disappointment and not reject God for being unobliging when we’ve been on our best behaviour and asked nicely for something?   There were many reasons to help us deal with it, and not look at God askance.

But what if the thing that is prayed for is the restored health…the life…of a loved one? How could that be denied to us if we’ve prayed fervently and sincerely for it?

I’m not sure that we should regard prayer in the same light as writing to Santa Claus to give us the things that we want. Even when it’s the health of a loved one.

Some people seem to look at prayer as the opening of negotiations with God–a promise to make some concession and in return to receive whatever thing it is they want: “Just give me this thing, Lord, and I’ll stop binge-drinking/gambling/beating my children/kicking my cat”—or whatever.

No, I do not think that God would be amenable to such an unimpressive overture in the guise of prayer. Bargaining for something using your own bad behaviour is not quite in the spirit of the thing.

And I don’t believe we can say that our seriously ill loved one survived through God’s grace and mercy. God may be gracious and merciful, but I don’t think that we can say that He granted a reprieve for OUR loved one, unless we can explain why he didn’t grant the same for someone else. We’d have to resolve in our minds why God would save THIS worthy person from illness and death, and not THAT worthy person. Can we really say that one is better than the other, or more worth saving than the other? Did our family pray harder than that family? And what about innocent children suffering serious illness and death? Why would God save one and not another? So…can we really thank Him for saving a child if that divine act was completely arbitrary?

No, giving thanks for returning one child to health makes no sense if we cannot see why another child had to die.

We’d need to be able to explain why bad things happen to good people. And while we’re at it, why good things happen to bad people. If we accept the basic premise of religion…that benefits accrue to those who live virtuous lives, it seems senseless.

And since we are created in God’s image, He should not be surprised at these questions.

Genesis 1:27 King James Version (KJV)

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

I rather like that passage from the Bible. “MAN” was created in God’s image: MALE AND FEMALE.

Male AND female were created in God’s image, unless I’m missing something. So is God a hermaphrodite? Oh…I don’t think I want to go there. Forget I said that.

Back to the discussion of bad things happening to good people…we’re told that God is mysterious and wise, and we do not possess the ability to understand.

For me, that’s a little too convenient an explanation. We’re told that we cannot understand, so we must have faith, and that our reward for faith is that we will go to heaven when we die.

And what about people throughout history, living in bad conditions under oppressive governments being told by ‘The Church’ that their fate is in the hands of God, and they will be rewarded for their sufferings in heaven?

Karl Marx writes in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.

We tend to hear Marx quoted as saying that “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” usually understood to mean that people submit quietly to societal or governmental abuses, poor living conditions, poverty, disease, whatever, when they believe that they will receive their reward in heaven. Religion then becomes the tool of a society or government for maintaining the stability of a populace under adverse conditions. It facilitates the continuation of abuses against a country’s citizenry, without incurring any risk of revolution.

That quote in isolation—and I haven’t studied Marx, so I don’t know in any great depth his thoughts on religion—tells me that he would like people to abandon religion as compensation for living under bad conditions. He evidently thinks that once that compensation is relinquished, people will—or ought to–set about righting the wrongs in their society.

That’s a good point. But he does say that religion is “the heart of a heartless world”—and that’s almost encouraging for people who wish to maintain their faith and religion. Since people today are far less likely to submit to governmental abuses without protest—religion or no religion—authoritarian uses of religion to subdue people and make them passive and accepting no longer apply.

Perhaps the best that can be done in support of religion is to promote the Bible lessons that point to ways of living that are peaceful and kind to all creatures. Whether atheist or not, people cannot object to those things. But that would mean cherry-picking from the Bible, which is touted to be the Word of God in its entirety.

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”   – Richard Dawkins

Well, there’s that, I suppose.

Is it possible that the Old Testament can simply be viewed as a flawed historical document with sections that are confusing, contradictory, or no longer relevant? Should we use only the New Testament as guidance?

I think that I will continue to observe the outward form of attending our little church when I can, out of respect for the memory of my parents at the very least, and try to come to terms with its teachings in a way that is meaningful and understandable to me. My faith will consist of believing that there is something in the Christian religion for us to use in living every day. I’m only speaking about Christianity at the moment, but I like Buddhism very much from what little I know about it, and Wicca has some appeal as well. Do those three seem contradictory? I don’t think they have to be. I think that if we study and meditate, seek openly and honestly for answers in all philosophies and religions, we will learn what we need to live a life of moral responsibility and kindness to others.

In other words, we aim for living a good life in which we love (as much as it is possible) and help one another, and foster peace and harmony in as many ways as we can. Does that mean ‘turning the other cheek’ when we are wronged by corrupt politicians or cheated by scammers, and just accept quietly and submissively whatever misfortunes come to us by way of our fellow humans?

Hmmm…don’t think so. It would be nice to float through life on a cloud of beneficent goodwill for everyone, but that does not necessarily help us—nor other people. Scammers need to be stopped from victimizing the elderly, governments need to be held accountable, injustices must be routed wherever they are found.

I’m remembering the story of Jesus physically driving the merchants and money changers out of the temple. Two of those accounts, from the book of John and of Matthew are below:

John 2:13-16 King James Version (KJV)

13 And the Jews’ passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

14 And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting:

15 And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables;

16 And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise.

And that same incident related in Matthew…

Matthew 21:12-13 King James Version (KJV)

12 And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves,

13 And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.

Jesus, in these accounts, whipped the merchants and money changers and overthrew their tables. In so doing, he took action not only against the fact that they were defiling a house of worship by their presence—turning the temple into a marketplace–but also making it a ‘den of thieves,’ no doubt by cheating people in their business transactions.

Following his example, I think we should not submissively turn the other cheek when we are being cheated. We should reserve the right to complain when we see that things–large and small–in this world are not right and ought to be changed. We should not worry that speaking up and saying things that are ‘negative’ in tone reflects badly on us. It’s the right thing to do; for our fellow humans, for all things bright and beautiful in this world, and all creatures great and small.

But we probably shouldn’t whip anyone, okay?