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29 May 2018

When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer.

As Stevie Wonder put it, superstition ain’t the way.

SUPERSTITION /su.pɜr'stɪ.ʃən/ n. Belief or practice based on a false idea of cause and effect. Usually faith in magic, luck, karmic consequences, junk science, or ignorance. Sometimes irrational fear of the unknown.
2. Belief or practice held despite reasonable contrary evidence.
[Superstitious /su.pɜr'stɪ.ʃəs/ adj.]

Obviously the title comes from the Stevie Wonder song. (And if you don’t know it then you’ve been deprived. That bassline alone makes it a classic.)

Christians might claim we’re not superstitious: We trust Jesus, not circumstances! But spend any time at all among us, and you’ll find that to be utter rubbish. I would argue Christians are generally more superstitious than pagans.

Some of it comes from dark Christians who are entirely sure devils are lurking under everything they don’t like. I grew up among such Christians. Some of ’em actually tried to teach me that because the rock ’n roll backbeat runs contrary to the human heartbeat (and no it doesn’t), it makes anyone who listens to it extra receptive to demonic possession. That all sorts of things make people extra receptive to demonic possession. Your radio, your television, your computer, your phone; certain books, certain movies… I would guess the public library is just teeming with critters eager to jump us, if these folks are to be believed, and no they’re not.

Some of it comes from Christians who’ve been taught by young-earth creationists that you can’t trust science. So they don’t. But they’re willing to trust everything else, and unfortunately a lot of the alternatives are based on junk science, created by quacks and charlatans, promoted by fearmongers, spread by unproven anecdotes. They give people a false sense of “wellness” when in fact they’re not well at all. They get Christians to shun vaccines, avoid medication, fear psychiatry, reject treatments, refuse blood transfusions, and replace tried-and-proven methods with vitamins, herbs, oils, scents, homeopathy, and “eastern” (properly, pagan) medicine. You know, the stuff witch doctors tried in Jesus’s day, which ultimately left people so plagued with evil spirits, Jesus might’ve had to do more exorcisms than cures.

Some of it comes from Christians who have no idea how God talks to us. Often their churches never taught ’em, and sometimes don’t even believe God talks. So they had to figure it out on their own, and of course they’ve guessed wrong. Or they found some pagan ideas about how “the universe” speaks to us, gave ’em a try, they seemed to work, and that’s become their go-to method for “reading the signs,” interpreting the clues God supposedly leaves us in nature. Thing is, most pagan ideas are based on karma. So no surprise, a lot of the Christian practice of signs-interpretation is also based on whether we’re “worthy enough” for God to do stuff for us.

And some of it is just minor, silly things. Fr’instance my youth group once held a raffle, and just for evil fun I found us a roll of tickets whose numbers started with 666. Many of the adults in our church were pleased to buy our tickets… until they found out what their ticket number began with. Some of ’em wouldn’t even touch their tickets. It’s not like possession of a raffle ticket makes you complicit with the Beast! But still: That number is a serious boogeyman to a lot of people.

But superstition betrays two things: People don’t know or trust God as much as they claim. And people are seriously deficient in common sense. In some cases they suspend their common sense, ’cause they think they have to; they think they’re not allowed as Christians to trust science, or think it’s some sort of faith compromise.

But the reality is the Christians who tell them to do so, the people they look up to for spiritual guidance, are superstitious fools. So superstition gets spread instead of faith, even disguised as faith. And Christians get mocked for being morons.

It’s a cycle we’ve gotta break by using our brains: Demand evidence. Demand proof. Test everything. Same as we do (well, should do) with prophecy. 1Th 5.21 Don’t be gullible; be wise. Don’t be superstitious; persistently pursue truth.

When the universe becomes God’s game of Pictionary.

You might recall the ancient pagan gods didn’t talk to the pagans. Of course not; they weren’t really gods. But even so, the pagans desperately wanted to hear from their gods, in any way they could.

So the ancient Greeks and Romans invented methods to interpret nature. Some of their customs passed down to the present day, and became our superstitions. The augurs were the priests who were experts at interpreting these signs.

They’d watch birds fly, and had a whole system of things each flight pattern might mean. If the birds flew in a group, flew alone, made noises or not, flew left or right, soared or swooped, ascended or descended, what they landed on, what they pooped on. Different meanings might also depend on the species: If they were eagles, ravens, owls, woodpeckers—and one bird’s activity might outweigh another bird’s activity. All these actions were described as good or bad opens, as divine pleasure or displeasure. And that’s just birds. Don’t forget they also interpreted the weather and the stars.

When an animal was sacrificed to the gods, augurs of different religions would examine the sacrifice too. How the animal died, how the blood spattered, what the internal organs or entrails looked like. If you threw the bones, or dropped parts of the sacrifice onto a tray, how they landed might mean something too.

Today’s pagans tend to interpret tea leaves and coffee grounds. Or how the lines in your hand connect with one another. Or which tarot cards get picked in a deck. Or where the planets are located in relation to the constellations. Yep, we still have augurs. Plenty of ’em.

But trying to interpret planets, or tarot cards, or what a lucky or unlucky coincidence might “mean”: Most augurs are trying to assign a meaning to something which essentially has no meaning.

When a mirror cracks, and you can’t deduce why it cracked, it’s not automatically “a sign.” Sign of what? In our culture, a broken mirror means seven years’ bad luck. It’s certainly not bad luck for those who make mirrors and replacement glass. Far more likely it’s a sign of a poorly made mirror, or frame, or vibrations in the building, or that one of the kids broke it and didn’t tell you, or that you broke it and hadn’t noticed. What’s not likely is it means you’re about to lose a job, someone’s gonna die, one of your investments will fail, or your baseball team will lose this weekend.

Yes, ancient augurs worked out their interpretations in advance. They wrote books about what flying birds or entrail splatters meant. No god told them, “Here’s what these things mean”; they deduced these meanings on their own. Just like when astrologers deduce what it means when Mercury is in one constellation, or Jupiter in another.

The rest of us are more likely to make interpretations on the fly.

Here’s a testimony I’ve heard far too often from Christians who should know better: Someone was wondering about God’s will for their life. They happened to come across a billboard, or a voice over the radio, or a passage in the bible, or something which pointed them one direction or another in their lives. Fr’instance they might be wondering whether to buy a house. Then today’s devotional reading said something about taking hold of the things of God—so they took ahold of that house.

Or, conversely, they decided this house isn’t one of the things of God, so they didn’t buy it. Y’see the problem? The “sign” simply nudged ’em in the direction they were already going. It gave them a convenient excuse to blame God for the decision. Not themselves.

Compare augury with legitimately hearing from God. When we ask God, “What sign will you give me to prove you told me yes?” God tells us precisely what signs to look for. That’s the difference between revelation and augury: God assigns the meaning to these signs, not us. No guesswork necessary.

Further, God’s signs tend to not be commonplace. Other than rainbows being a reminder God doesn’t plan to flood the planet again, Ge 9.12-17 he tends to get weirdly precise. When an angel told shepherds, “Look for a baby in a manger,” it’s not something you’d expect to see. Who puts their baby in a manger? What’re the chances you’d see one back then?

And God’s signs have a one-time-only application. Whenever you see a baby in a manger, it doesn’t mean another Messiah’s been born. It confirms nothing. It’ll remind us Messiah was born centuries ago, but has no further message. Formalizing this sign is loony.

But superstitions are just that kind of loony. It begins with one person noticing the number 666 identifies who the Beast is. Rv 13.18 Next they assume anything with that number on it is “evil.” I’ve had friends change phone numbers or license plates simply because there was sequence of three sixes on it. It’s a common superstition among Christians, and it’s just as foolish as following omens.

As for every other event in life: Stop trying to connect dots which aren’t there. The brain is designed to find connections, but not everything has such a connection. When something falls from the sky, be it rain, hail, or drones, it’s just gravity doing its thing; it’s not necessarily a sign. We want to assign meanings to it, because humans hate the idea of a meaningless universe. But our meanings aren’t necessarily valid or true. Mirrors crack. Hurricanes wreck towns. Planes crash. Assigning an explanation other than a scientifically deduced one, unless God has informed you otherwise in advance, is guesswork. And guesswork means we invented the meaning. Not God.

“But it’s in the bible!”

Many Christians defend their superstition by pointing to the scriptures and claiming, “Well they did it.”

Yeah they did. I won’t mince words; they did. Jacob did weird things with sticks in order to get his goats to breed. Ge 30.37-43 His wives figured mandrakes might make ’em fertile. Ge 30.14-18 People wore amulets, kept household idols, feared evil spirits, feared curses, and otherwise behaved… well, as irreligious people nowadays do.

They used odd methods of deducing God’s will too. One of the most common was “casting lots”: Take two identical stones and mark one with yes and one with no. Or if the choice is between several people, take several stones and mark each with a name. Borrow someone’s bag or moneybelt, put the stones in there, shake ’em up, then take out one of the stones. There’s your answer.

Casting lots was considered a way to randomly, but fairly, choose between different people. Like when the Hebrews decided which tribe would get which territory. Nu 34.13 There’s a well-known proverb which says this about casting lots:

Proverbs 16.33 KWL
From one’s chest, one might cast out a lot.
From the LORD, every judgment is his.

Historically it’s been interpreted to mean God is ultimately in charge of everything in the universe, including how lot-casting might turn out. Me, I figure it’s more a comparison of our wisdom and God’s: We’re happy to base our decisions on dumb luck, whereas God plans out everything.

But because people assumed God has something to do with which lot gets picked, the Hebrews would use lots to deduce God’s will. Like when Samuel cast lots to demonstrate the LORD had selected Saul ben Kish to be the first king of Israel. 1Sa 10.20-21 Or when Saul cast lots to find out who in his army had broken an oath. 1Sa 14.41-42 Or when the apostles picked Judas Iscariot’s successor. Ac 1.26

The LORD’s head priest was required to wear an ephod, a sacred vest with an ornamented breastplate. Into the ephod were inserted objects called urím and thummím. We don’t know precisely what an ur/“shining thing” and thum/“flawless thing” are, but we assume they were jewels, or at least shiny rocks. It appears the priests used them as lots. People would wanna know God’s will, and ask the priest a binary question—something with a yes/no, true/false, this/that answer. After a prayer, the priest would reach into the ephod and pull out either an ur or thum. There was your answer; the assumption was the LORD determined which object would come out.

If you’re a little bothered by this idea, you’re not alone. Two centuries after the Romans destroyed the temple, the Pharisee authors of the Babylonian Talmud, in their commentary on the Mishna’s tractate Yoma, claimed the urím and thummím weren’t actually stones: When the priest was asked a question, he’d turn to face God’s presence, his shekhinah. God would then cause various letters etched into the breastplate to shine (ur), and thus provide a flawless (thum) answer.

Meh. I point out the Pharisees’ theory was pitched generations, if not centuries, after the priests stopped using urím and thummím to hear from God. I leave it to you whether God spoke to his priests by either pulling shiny rocks from a pocket, or working the ephod like a shiny Ouija board.

My own theory is the priest had the Holy Spirit, same as any prophet, and personally heard from God. Aaron and Eleazar, Israel’s first two head priests, heard God directly, same as Moses. Why would they need to deduce God’s will by casting lots?

So why were urím and thummím part of the process? Because priests wouldn’t always have a fellow prophet handy for confirmation. So whenever the priest might state, “That sounds good; the LORD would certainly say yes,” but pull thum after thum out of the ephod, regardless of his chances of pulling an ur, it’s a good bet God didn’t say yes. Whereas if kept pulling out ur after ur, the LORD was okay with it.

But again: This is my own theory. It’s based on personal experience, not the historical record; we have no historical record. I could very well be wrong.

In any event you don’t see Christians casting lots very often any more. Largely it’s considered an “Old Testament practice.” Nowadays we have the Holy Spirit, hear from God directly, and therefore don’t need to use any process which looks like divination. The few cases where we do cast lots (or draw straws, flip coins, pull a high card, play rock-paper-scissors) is when we figure it’s a decision we can make without the Holy Spirit. Or when these Christians are cessationist and don’t expect the Spirit to answer anyway.

Likewise we see the magi in the bible, deducing Messiah’s birth from the stars. Mt 2.2 As a result various Christians claim astrology must be valid, ’cause the magi found Jesus! I would argue it’s really not. God let the magi find Jesus as yet another example of how God isn’t above manipulating pagans’ illegitimate practices if he can thereby point ’em to Jesus. Today’s astrologers seldom bother to seek specific answers like the magi did; they’re more about commonsense advice, encouragement, and self-fulfilling prophecies which can be interpreted every which way. You know, just like fake prophets and frauds. The magi were willing to risk their necks for their predictions; are any of today’s astrologers so bold?

Superstition ain’t the way.

In my article on curses I pointed out Christians are curse-proof. The Holy Spirit also makes us demon-proof, provided we stick to the Spirit and resist evil. Nor do we need to deduce God’s will with signs, augury, luck, lots, or any such thing. We’ve got bible, and we can hear God’s voice. We’ve been granted certainty, not guesswork. Why revert to guesswork?

Well like I said, some of us don’t believe God talks anymore. Or we know God talks, but we really don’t like what he recently said, so we’re looking for a second opinion. And it’s pretty easy to extract those second opinions from nature. You can even make them say whatever you prefer.

Notice how that’s exactly what happens every time somebody doesn’t like what western medicine has to say, so they reject it and embrace eastern medicine. When western medicine and its doctors say, “You have a 10 percent chance,” but pagan medicine and its healers claim, “You have a 110 percent chance!” of course people follow whoever tickles their itching ears. When it doesn’t work, like businessman Steve Jobs discovered when he found out he couldn’t treat pancreatic cancer by only eating fruit, it might be too late for western medicine to properly treat you. Same as when measles destroys your child’s hearing because you were too superstitious to ever vaccinate them. When fear drives your decisions, stands to reason you’ll make very poor decisions.

Same is true of people who follow superstition instead of God. Who look for “signs” which point to his will, instead of listening to his voice, and double-checking it with prophets and the scriptures. Who don’t like what the scriptures and his voice tell them, which is why they’re searching so hard for an alternative voice—as if God even has an alternative voice.

The first step away from superstition is to reject all these irrational fears. They don’t come from God! God is love, and there’s no fear in love. 1Jn 4.18 There’s no superstition in the light. Only the dark. Come out of the dark.