Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Kit Senter Remembered: "...an atheist and proud of it..."

A friend and past member of NOSHA, Kit Senter, died on June 26 and was honored at a memorial on July 12 at a crowded First Unitarian Universalist Church where they recounted her "many contributions to humanity of this monumental lifetime of social justice, activism, caring, compassion, thoughtfulness, and generosity."

 Her friend, co-sponsor of the monthly Gillespie Community Breakfast, also a  friend of NOSHA, Brad Ott, in his testimonial for Kit said loudly and clearly "she was an atheist and proud of it." 

She will be missed.
Harry Greenberger, friend of Kit 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Thanks to Dr. Forrest Long Overdue

Earlier in June, NOSHA hosted a members-only reception to show our appreciation for the years of contributions made by former board member, Barbara Forrest, who has done an incredible job both locally in providing guidance for our organization and, especially, on a national level. We knew we couldn't miss out on thanking her publicly! Harry Greenberger, president emeritus, prepared this statement to give everyone a brief understanding of her history with NOSHA that is touching and comprehensive. We wanted to share it with everyone who wasn't able to attend that day.
++++


As I think you all know, Barbara Forrest is a professor of philosophy in the Department of History and Political Science at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond.

In the early years of NOSHA, we were introduced to Barbara by one of our first Board members, Denis Dwyer, and she accepted our invitation to come to New Orleans to address our group. I recall having lunch with Denis, Barbara, her husband, Clark, and, I think, one or both of her teenage sons, at a waterfront restaurant prior to going to our meeting at the Harrison Avenue public library. At that time, I asked whether she would consider becoming a NOSHA Director and she agreed. She has also served on the board of directors of the National Center for Science Education and the Board of Trustees of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Since that early time until her recent obligations required her to not seek re-­election to our Board, Barbara has been a faithful (you know how I use that word) member and contributor to NOSHA activities, despite the fact that her Board membership was used to discredit her as biased and unqualified to criticize religious organizations.

In 2004, Barbara, along with a co-author published through Oxford University Press her sensational book: Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, which exposed the Discovery Institute's intelligent design movement (which had replaced the unconstitutional "Creationism") and its attempts to undermine the teaching of evolutionary biology. Her celebrity status as an authority on this farce is reflected in her many guest speaker roles at Secular and other national organization meetings.

Barbara's outstanding testimony at the Kitzmiller v. Dover School District trial, where the opposing attorney described her as "little more than a conspiracy theorist and web-surfing, 'cyber-stalker' of the Discovery Institute" none-the-less resulted in the judge's decision in favor of the plaintiffs.

And then there is the Louisiana Science Education Act, supported by Louisiana Family Forum, which allows science teachers in public schools to sneak in alternative "theories" to the theory of natural evolution, a law which Barbara along with young Zack Kopplin, continues to publicly oppose, so far without legislative success.

Barbara has been recognized through a number of awards. 1998 President's Award for Excellence in Teaching, SLU; 1999 Louisiana Library Association/SIRS Alex Allain Intellectual Freedom Award; 2001-2004 Women's Hospital Distinguished Teaching Professor; Friend ofDarwin Award, National Center for Science Education; 2006 President's Award for Excellence in Research, SLU; 2006 Public Service Award, American Society for Cell Biology; and 2006 NOSHA Humanist Award.

Forrest receiving a lifetime membership to NOSHA as a small
thank you for her service to our organization.
For her unremitting integrity and courage to fight for science and truth, with the support of her husband, Clark, despite possible ostracizing in the small Northshore towns while her sons were still in high school, we at NOSHA are proud to have known Barbara and have her with us through these years!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

REVIEW: Ghost Hunting for Beginners

I've been interested for some time in the “ghost” industry in America, from books of ghost stories to New Orleans ghost tours to endless ghost hunting programs on television. One of details that make this social phenomenon so fascinating is its nearly total lack of explanatory theory. Exactly what do aficionados think a ghost really is? What evidence do they have? How do they test their hypotheses?  I've been looking for a good book that attempts to explain some of the models in a more technical sort of way, but so far, without success.

I recently checked out a copy of Rich Newman’s Ghost Hunting for Beginners.  I picked this particular book because it claimed to take a more systematic approach, recommending that “the best way to investigate the paranormal is with proven, scientific methods.” I read the whole thing, and learned sadly little.
The problem with this book, as with most materials on ghosts and ghost hunting, is “energy.” “Energy” is a perfectly legitimate word with a certain scientific cachet. But when used with frustrating vagueness, with no respect to differences between types or how they’re stored or converted or transmitted, “energy” is one of those red-flag words signaling flimflam.

***

Because of its vague usage of the term “energy,” the book doesn't even raise, let alone answer, the questions any technically minded person would naturally ask.Ghosts, the author tells us, are made up of electromagnetic energy. But if so, why are ghosts so hard for us to detect, given that we have reliable instruments capable of measuring all kinds of electromagnetic fields? We are told that ghosts sometimes set off EMF (electromagnetic field) detectors. But how does an observer distinguish between a ghostly EMF and a natural EMF or one generated by electronic equipment? Ghosts need electromagnetic energy to manifest physically. If so, why are the areas around power plants and substations not infested with ghostly phenomena? Ghosts sometimes drain batteries. But how does a ghost convert the chemical energy inside of a battery into electrical or electromagnetic energy? Ghosts sometimes leave EVP (electronic voice phenomena) on audio recorders. Well then, do they do that by creating a complex set of pressure waves in the air to be picked up by the microphone, or by generating analog electromagnetic signals that are picked up inside of the electronics of the recorder, or by generating digital electromagnetic pulses directly into the recorder’s memory?

Let me be clear: I think Ghost Hunting for Beginners is one of the better books in its genre. Many are far worse, bristling with the technical-sounding weasel-words that so often mark pseudo-scientific sloppy-headedness. They use terms like vibration, quantum, higher dimensions, anomaly, vortex, and others, with such looseness as to render them all meaningless.

Numerous other problems of a technical nature beset the book and the ghost business in general. These would be less relevant if ghost hunters and other adherents claimed that ghosts were beings of “spirit,” entirely bereft of any physicality. But this claim is rare, since ghosts that can’t interact with us are boring. If we can be aware of ghosts, than either the being of a ghost or the manifestation of a ghost must contain elements that exist in our material universe. The fact that the methods and models for understanding those material elements remain vague and under-theorized after decades of “paranormal investigation” convincingly tells us that the whole business belongs in the same category as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster.

~ Review by Jim Dugan, NOSHA Board Vice-President


Ghost Hunting for Beginners: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started, by Rich Newman. Llewellyn Publications (2011).  

Monday, May 26, 2014

Is Religion Firmly in Control of Our (Lack of) Modernity?

This essay is from NOSHA vice-president, Jim Dugan, who was inspired to write it after his visit to Baton Rouge once again to present the case for repeal of the Louisiana Education Science Act in April.. The effort was rejected again. **********

If we face the realities of history, we are forced to acknowledge that the world has always been run according to some kind of humanism. Earthly decisions have always been made by human minds. No god ever sat in assembly or parliament, no angel ever whispered into the ear of king or legislator, and no scripture has ever been more than an inspiration when taken too far out of the context of its original time and place. When we've had periods of peace and prosperity, it’s because smart people sat down to face our problems with honesty and pragmatism. When we've had eras of upheaval and decline, it’s because we've refused to face reality, or weren't smart enough, or weren't able to cooperate well enough to implement a solution.

For most modern Americans, this is simply a matter of observation. The wicked too often prosper, the righteous too often go hungry, and suffering is altogether too random, to allow a belief that any deity intervenes miraculously in earthly affairs. 

Even those who believe in one or another god must acknowledge this truth, although some will not. There are those who believe not only in a god and a soul, but also in divine intervention, in blessings and curses and miracles, in deities that take sides in our elections and wars. They believe that rules and maxims established by nomadic goat-herders or in agricultural kingdoms are sufficient guides for life in the age of the internet and global economy. But such people really are a minority. Pushing the numbers as far as demographics will allow, maybe a third of us could believe in divine miracles. That leaves at least two thirds, a super-majority, who do not. 

Why, then, is it so hard for the people of these United States to live in the 21st century instead of the 19th, or even the 16th?

We've achieved so much in the last 250 years. The Enlightenment philosophy of the 18th century initiated profound social changes. We consciously developed new systems of government designed to enable individual agency by limiting the worst abuses of power and wealth. The struggle took centuries, but we did away with the institution of slavery, recognized the unfairness of racism, stopped treating adult women like dependent minors, and accepted the simple fact that not everybody is heterosexual. Along the way we built a growing economy, a vigorous middle class, a world-class system of higher education, and an information super-highway. We the people, rather than chance or deity, deserve the credit for the positive outcomes and the blame for the negatives.

Was it just too much too fast? In the early 21st century we seem to want not just to pause and reassess, but even to step backwards.

Once the driver of our economic growth, today’s middle class is experiencing an objectively measurable reduction in upward mobility and standard of living. Economic growth now largely improves the lot only of the wealthiest few. We know that education is critical to technological development, economic growth, and higher individual incomes, but invest less in it, both privately and publically, year after year.  The U.S. lags in the accessibility of health care and the certainty of social welfare. Our prisons are filled to overflowing, mostly with individuals who present relatively little risk to civil society, while corporate gangsters, economy wreckers, and grand-scale embezzlers are mostly free to go about their predations. This seems to be one of those periods of decay in which we’re unwilling to face our problems with honesty and intelligence.  We've gotten stupid about public policy.

Firmly embedded in this backwards march, and in many ways causing it, is a nauseating thread of counter-intellectualism, a hypocritical, disingenuous, public religiosity, worse now than at any time in the last 300 years. On May 5th (2014), the U.S.Supreme Court ignored the official secularism enshrined in our constitution,ruling that prayers said at the opening of city council meetings are not really religious, and so must be endured by all, regardless of differences in religion or lack of religion. Legislators in Louisiana and other states are trying to pass laws requiring a hospital to keep a dead ordying woman on life support against her express wishes, and over the objections of her next of kin, if the woman happens to be pregnant. The accessibility of abortion is fast disappearing, even though we still don’t have free and universal access to birth control, and most states refuse to require medically complete and accurate sexual education in public schools.

We’re on a fast track to granting a right of religious conscience and exercise to for-profit corporations. School boards (and in Louisiana, the Senate Education Committee) bend and twist to find ways to get Creationism and the Bible into the classroom. Legislatures around the country are using their funding powers to coerce public universities to drop curricular materials that run counter to “traditional family values.” Office holders pontificate about family values and the sanctity of marriage, and even though they are repeatedly revealed to be philandering frauds, this hypocrisy never stops.  Simpering public piety has somehow set itself in direct opposition to intelligence, knowledge, education, and practicality.

If we’re going to be fair, we have to acknowledge that religion has always been important in America. But it was never what made us great. Our historical achievements came at times when we were willing to use our heads, sometimes co-existing with religion, sometimes bitterly opposing religious teachings, but never subordinated to religion. Our greatness is best exemplified by Thomas Jefferson, not Cotton Mather, by the separation of church and state, not the Salem witch trials.

What will America be like in 50 to 100 years?  Is our early 21st-century backwards step a temporary pause, or is it the beginning of a new kind of feudalism?





Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Where are today's John F. Kennedys?

A couple of months ago, Harry Greenberger did a reading at our regular NOSHA meeting that posed the question of where are the Kennedy-esque politicians for our era? Which is a good question, considering how many legislators across the country seem to do very little contemplation of the serious issues we face and only offer knee-jerk, simplistic viewpoints and solutions to the problems of our day.

He suggested that our federal and state governments have deteriorated since the 1960's, because we simply don't have this caliber of political leader out there who will take an important and courageous stand in the face of intolerance. Greenberger was referring to an article by Al Menendez that got him to thinking about this from The Voice of Reason: The Journal for Americans for Religious Liberty (page 3, issue #3, 2013).

He pulled several key points from this article during his reading: 
1. Kennedy emphasized the importance of separation of church and state as a key governing principle of the American ethos. In his Houston address to Protestant clergy in September 1960, he spoke these memorable words that still echo through history: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute...an America where religious intolerance will someday end...This is the kind of America I believe in and this is the kind of America for which our forefathers died."
2. The president thought public aid to church-related schools was unconstitutional, and he refused to include these schools in his federal aid to education proposals. 
3. Kennedy opposed the opening of formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican, feeling that it would not be desirable for either party and would not advance good will between religions in the U.S. 
5.  In his Houston address, he proclaimed, "Religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all." He said, "I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish...and where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials."
 These are just a few of the sentiments Greenberger shared of Kennedy's impressive grasp of church-state separation. And this is a concept we should all consider at this time during a legislative session steeped in religiously motivated bills. It is a question that needs to be explored and promoted often: where are today's John F. Kennedys? Maybe one of us will fill the void.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

HBO Doesn't Make The Case for Questioning Darwin

HBO’s recently aired documentary Questioning Darwin is 60 minutes of documentary trash. It ignores science completely, minimizes diversity within Christianity, distorts Charles Darwin’s personal struggle with faith and science, engages in agonizingly endless emotional appeals for religious faith, and perpetuates ridiculous myths about evolution and religion. The few moments of useful information scattered throughout the film fail to make up for its overwhelming volume of irrelevancy. If Questioning Darwin captures any significant aspect of the evolution-creation debate at all, it is only the perspective of the most ardently literal bible-believer, but even that perspective is described in only the most superficial terms.

One might expect that a documentary titled Questioning Darwin would at some point discuss scientific evidence for evolution. It doesn't. There is a brief note that science understands the earth to be ancient, but not a single hint as to why. There’s a passing mention of evidence of change in animal forms, but no detailed discussion. There is no mention at all of many other lines of evidence, some of them critical to an understanding of the theory. There’s not a single word about the observable sorting of fossils into layers of age-related life-forms, no reference to the complete absence of out-of-sequence fossils, nor a whisper about test-tube-verifiable genetics. In terms of comprehending the science of evolution, Questioning Darwin is a complete failure.

The film’s presentation of Christian perspectives is only slightly more competent. Many Christian individuals and not a few denominations see no conflict between science and religion generally, nor between evolution and Genesis in particular. Many Christian believers are quite willing to take parts of the Bible as allegory, metaphor, or just plain folktales. Many understand that their scripture is not a primer on science or history, and don’t try to insit otherwise. But these Christians are nearly invisible in the film, which almost exclusively presents the views of biblical literalists. The viewer is left with the impression that Christianity per se insists the earth is 6,000 years old, there was a real global flood, and there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark.

Charles Darwin himself is portrayed as engaged in a lifelong struggle with religious faith. To be clear, Darwin did grow up in the Anglican Church, accepted basic Christian doctrine in his younger years, and even contemplated becoming a clergyman at one point. But the film understates Darwin’s lifelong commitment to systematic observation of biological facts, and the application of logic to evidence. Darwin did struggle with the implications of his theory, but was more concerned about what other people would make of it, and very little about the implications for his own spiritual life. His own certainty in the reality of evolution was solid, his religious faith left in tatters by years of scientific practice. The film fails to capture what Darwin knew even at an early age: that observation and logic lead to truth, and that any hypothesis, no matter how appealing, must be abandoned when comprehensive evidence goes against it.

Much of film was entirely irrelevant to any question about Darwin or Evolution. Long sections portrayed persons in difficult, even tragic, situations, who found solace in religion, could not imagine getting through life without divine assistance, believed in miracles, or simply could not believe they (or humanity) had arisen from simpler forms of life. It seems never to occur to the filmmaker that this crude appeal to emotion has nothing to do with evidence, or even with evolution. The undeniable facts that some people long for a god, hope for a miracle, imagine God helped them through a crisis, or believe that human beings have a divine dignity, do not constitute evidence of any external truth. Even if we accept, as some people in the film do, that evolution teaches people they are animals, and so leads them to behave like animals, that is not evidence against the theory. It’s not evidence of anything, as logic does not allow us to ignore selected facts merely because they disappoint us or make us uncomfortable. About half of the film was this kind of teary-eyed question-begging, none of which did anything to illuminate questions relating to evolution, or to the relationship between science and religion.

What the film does manage to leave the viewers with is a massive myth regularly employed by creationists: the notion that science and Christianity exist in some kind of binary opposition. Had the film bothered to present actual evidence either for or against evolution or Christian doctrine, the viewer might be able to evaluate that binary, but no such evidence was provided. More realistically, this particular binary opposition is an idiotic idea. The Theory of Evolution says absolutely nothing about souls, heaven, God, Jesus, or the Bible. If there is a conflict with religion, it is only that some believers choose to interpret their particular scripture as a science textbook. The key word there is “interpret.” For although the most ardent anti-evolutionists always claim they are taking the Bible "literally," nothing could be further from the truth. There is no chapter or verse that plainly states the earth is 6,000 years old. Nowhere does it say that the six days of creation were each 24 hours long. Where is the page that says that Tyrannosaurs Rex, with sword-like teeth, were originally vegetarians? In what chapter does it actually say that the fossils we find today were laid down by Noah’s flood? Where are the verses that tell us that radiometric dating is unreliable because rates of radioactive decay have changed over time, or that the light of distant stars was created in transit? None of this can be found there. None of it is literal. All of it is an interpretation, and a very extended and convoluted interpretation at that.

Although the God-or-Darwin binary opposition is ridiculous on its face, it is an effective evangelistic tool. It really is the only tool that makes sense of the film. We may sympathize, perhaps even empathize, with the human suffering of the mother whose child is in a coma, or with the reformed prostitute or the drug addict in recovery. Obviously, that has nothing to say or to do with Darwin or Evolution. Or at least it ought not, unless we accept the God-or-Darwin opposition. If we do accept that binary, then maybe we could be moved to faith by the film’s emotional appeal, and having been moved to faith we would have to leave behind the only alternative, which is godless Darwinism. It’s black and white, either-or, one or the other. Questioning Darwin, then, was nothing more than a vehicle for the views of the least competent questioners of Darwin, those who know nothing of science, know nothing of scripture, and claim to be reading the Bible literally when they’re just making up stories.
~ By Jim Dugan


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Berry goes "Beyond The Grave", so we don't have to!

In December, fellow NOSHAins Rose and Chad, and my wife, Sharon, ventured down to the Victory Fellowship Church on Airline Highway to watch the “multi-media” production, “Beyond the Grave” (add an echo effect). The show is basically a play with some video excerpts channeled through a massive sound system, defective sound system I might add, that is designed to scare Billy Hell out of teenagers and perhaps even younger minds judging by the audience.

I know you’re probably asking yourself, “Why would you subject yourself to something like that?” Well, I've always been fascinated with people watching, examining what people do and why they do it. In fact, I studied anthropology in college and I worked at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History in my younger days. I have always been somewhat of a voyeur when it comes to the oddities of human culture and one of the most fascinating to me is the culture of evangelicals and the modern “mega-church” phenomenon.

I grew up Catholic in a small town in Western Kentucky that is overwhelmingly evangelical, mostly Southern Baptist and Pentecost. Being one of only a handful of Catholics in my school, I can remember being told I was going to hell from the first grade through my high school graduation. By sixteen, I had become agnostic and by my mid-twenties I would consider myself an atheist. But my childhood experiences always stuck with me and as a rational adult I am fascinated with the propaganda tactics used by evangelical churches to “win hearts and minds”.

The premise for “Beyond the Grave” was exactly what I expected to be….fear. The production, at its root, is a play, with multiple fourth wall breaks by a minister/narrator who comes out to espouse the morals of the previous scenes. This guy was wearing what looked like a black concert t-shirt with some kind of bloody mask on it. I have no idea what the image was but it echoed the theme of the play as blood and gore was everywhere in this show.

As a teenager I remember seeing a concert by the heavy metal group, “W.A.S.P.”, who were notorious for blood and gore stage antics but I think BTG may have one upped them in the is production.

In fact, before the show started, they threw out a bunch of these t-shirts and other schwag into the crowd while yelling, “Who likes free stuff?!? Isn’t God great?!?!” It was very reminiscent of a rock concert.  

The plot of the story is set in a local high school, “Metairie High School”, and involves the typical cast of high school characters. There are five principles (I can’t remember their names): Emotionally Disturbed guy (I will call him Dexter) who refuses to accept Jesus; Dexter’s sweet, insecure girlfriend who has allowed him to control her, even submitting to having pre-marital sex with him; Dexter’s childhood friend who is so into Jesus that he carries a Bible with him at all times and never stops hounding people about letting God into their heart; A mostly benign but self-centered girl who has the most batshit parents on the planet…she happens to be the most popular girl in Metairie High School; and finally a whacked-out, drug dealing, goofball guy who admittedly once drugged and date-raped a girl.

There is also a sixth character… I believe to be equally important…. a short, dumpy, gay boy who incessantly hits on the drug dealing, goofball guy. This character doesn't make it to the all important third act and therefore can’t be considered a principle, but his role in the production can’t be understated. In fact, the script obsessed on this character. I’ll expound on that later.

The plot is pretty self-explanatory in the production’s website synopsis….Dexter goes Columbine and the play culminates with the principals being brought before God for their final judgment.

So…I’m gonna spoil the story for you….if you want to go see the production yourself, stop reading here. But don’t…really…don’t be so masochistic that you would go watch this play…just try to finish reading this review and you will have subjected yourself to enough pain and nonsense.

I was tempted to jump straight to judgment day, but let me fill you in on some of the outrageous dialogue and character arcs just to prolong the agony.

It was really hard in the first few scenes to figure out what the hell was going on. The opening scene is of Dexter asleep in bed and his girlfriend trying to wake him up to go to class. Watching this scene unfold, I assumed they must be in college but by the second scene I realized the whole play was about high school students. I’m still not sure how two high school kids were living together but I think the playwright simply wanted to make sure the audience understood these two were sexually active, hence the bed scene.

It only got more confusing from that point. The next scene starts with Ms. Popularity’s parents about to have an early morning romp on the couch when she interrupts them on her way out the door to school. The girl announces that she’s been accepted to Tulane, her mother has no idea what Tulane is and turns the conversation to a young muscular boy that may be interested in her daughter. The mother goes all cougar on the conversation and at that moment I realized this may be the most fucked up play I've ever seen…it did not disappoint as it progressed.

I assume the “cluelessness” of the parents was meant to portray people who are so caught up in trivial things like sex and work that they ignore what’s really important in their children’s lives….a personal relationship with Jesus. Apparently a full ride to Tulane isn't that important either.

In between acts, I exchanged many looks of confusion and amusement with my fellow adventurers. We were all trying to make sense out of the plot, but the whole environment was so absurd it proved to be a mental struggle. At some point I had to remind myself that this probably wasn't going to make sense no matter how much I tried to make it do so…only then I was able to turn the logic center in my brain off and simply enjoy the absurdity. Once I passed that hurdle the real challenge became to not let myself be offended by what I was watching…I didn't succeed in that mental challenge.

As the classroom scenes began, almost immediately did the gay-bashing along with them. I take pride in the fact that I’m not easily offended, but as the play progressed I stopped counting how many times my wife and I exchanged expressions of horror as one gay zinger after another was unleashed on this dumpy kid who, as an actor, had clearly jumped the shark in his effort to seem effeminate.

It got so bad, Shakespeare would have stopped the play to note, "....methinks thou doth protest too much”.

Probably the worst line, which Rose caught and I missed because I was still reeling from the admission by the drug dealer dude that he roughed up a girl and date-raped her, went something like, “We’re not even talking about gays, drug dealers, and murderers….everyone will one day be judged by God!”

Apparently those three categories of people compromise the very worst humanity has to offer.  

Of course it was hard to tell exactly what this line was because the guy delivering it, playing the part of a gym coach, was nearly incomprehensible. He was trying to deliver Eddie Murphyesque one-liners berating the gay kid while randomly quoting passages from the “Gospel”. It was beyond painful to watch this whole scene unfold…I can’t begin to explain it. Just when you thought they would lay off the gay kid…when you were begging them to lay off the gay kid…the script went right back at him. We were forced to watch this barely literate actor (the gym coach) rattle off homophobic slurs followed by Bible verses for what seemed like, forgive me, an eternity.  

Meanwhile, the gay kid can’t stop hitting on the drug dealer kid and seems oblivious to the beat down he was getting by Eddie Murphy gym coach. Did I mention they couldn't stop harping on the gay kid? Well. Let me state it again….they couldn't stop dissing the gay kid. Most of the humor in the play was based on the “silly-willy homo”. I faintly remember the thesis they drew about the gay boy’s ultimate fate that went something like, “God loves us no matter what we do, but not everyone will be allowed to enter his kingdom.” That may not be exactly right but whatever the script said it was strategically ambiguous and they conveniently left the gay character out of the final judgment scene.  

Even more annoying than “gay boy” was the kid who carried the Bible non-stop and couldn't seem to carry on a conversation if it didn't relate to Biblical scripture. Honestly, I’m not sure how this kid was able to wipe his ass because he apparently couldn't put his Bible down long enough to do anything else.

But the key character…the pivot point in the entire play….was a goofball, date-raping, drug dealer dude. You’d think Dexter would be the thesis of the play instead it ends up being this guy. Who woulda thunk it? Actually, I did…right at the beginning of the third Act but we’re not quite there yet.

As expected, Dexter ends up going Columbine, in the middle of a prayer group, at school no less. A prayer group in a public school, mind you…don’t try to figure that one out….it’s “Metairie High School”. I’m guessing it’s a Bobby Jindal voucher school to boot.  

Anyway….Dexter ends up shooting all of his friends which culminates in a bloodbath, video montage. The funny part about this scene is that it starts with Dexter demanding that Mr. Bible, his longtime childhood friend, deny that there is a God…oh….as he points a silver-plated 9mm at Bible-boy’s head.

As I was watching this I was thinking, “Holy shit I hope that gun isn't actually loaded...” I mean, judging by the production standards I could totally see someone forgetting to unload the real 9mm they were using as a prop. Not to mention he was waving it at the audience the entire time. I kept fearing a Brandon Lee scenario.

Paranoia aside, I started chuckling thinking about the message the play was sending….Columbine and all the random acts of violence America has experienced in the past few decades were the result of godless souls trying to challenge the faithful. Never mind that the majority of violent acts in the history of mankind were committed by “the faithful” following their own delusions. I couldn't help but laugh at the notion that an atheist or agnostic would put a gun to someone’s head and demand that they deny God exists. Has that ever happened? I know the opposite has happened throughout history, but I seriously doubt an atheist would take someone’s life for refusing to deny God.

My rumination was suddenly interrupted with a cacophony of gunshots coming form the crackling speakers hanging over the stage combined with a blood-splattering video montage that would make George Romero blush. Blood…bullet holes in the head….blood…panicked Ms. Popularity hiding in the bathroom stall only to get a bullet to the chest….blood….more blood oozing…more blood pooling…..more blood spattering…Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

You get the picture.

Meanwhile, on the stage, the mega-1000 industrial smoke machine was filling up the room like doobie-smoking fans at a Snoop Dog concert. Pastor-dude in the black t-shirt emerged just as the video was ending to dramatically query the audience, “Death can come at any time, regardless of the trivialities of life that we cling to. But the real question is: are you prepared for what comes after? Are you prepared for what comes…. (echo effect)….. “Beyond the Grave!!!”

With smoke machine still kicking…the first judgment from on high we get to witness is Dexter’s girlfriend. Although she sinned greatly and even had premarital sex with Dexter (gasp) before he went militant-apeshit-atheist and shot her in the head…she did accept Jesus Christ as her savior. Yeah! The pearly gates open, everyone gives an amen and girlfriend gets to spend an eternity with God.

I thought maybe the pastors would throw more t-shirts and schwag into the audience at this point, but no such luck.

God, by the way, was this cat in the sound booth at the back of the house using the echo effect and the ultra-bass knob to deliver these wonderfully, buttery judgments with his own brand of special logic sauce. Even though girlfriend testified against herself, protesting that she wasn't good enough, God laid on the holy butter and told her she had won the cosmic lottery simply because she had asked to be “saved”.

Crowd cheered…and cheered…they were cheering, fo’ true.

Then came Mr. Bible. There wasn’t a lot of suspense in the room on this one…Mr. Bible got the whole tub of Godly butter and more. Yeah!!! It wasn’t nearly exciting as the girlfriend’s judgment but we all had to go through the motions and clap for him anyway.

At this point, the pastor breaks the fourth wall again and explains how even though these two characters’ lives were cut short, they will live in eternal bliss in God’s kingdom.

 As the pastor was explaining this I kept thinking that if I was Dexter’s girlfriend I would venture to the other side of the kingdom from Mr. Bible…I can’t imagine spending eternity with that annoying, sniveling, self-righteous, little shit. I mean why would I want to spend an eternity around people I can’t stand to spend five minutes with on this mortal coil? Maybe there’s some magic heavenly personality adjustment that takes place once you cross the pearly gates…who knows?

Finally, came the moment I’d been waiting for…it was time for the hell hounds!

The next character up was Ms. Popularity. The background music took an ominous turn as she walked out to be judged and everyone could sense this wasn't going to end well. Seriously…the music was way too much foreshadowing….it took all the suspense out of her judgment.

Ms. Popularity made her argument to God that she had lived a good life, she’d obeyed her parents, helped people, committed no crimes, etc. but deus ex machina wasn’t having any of that. He cranked up the bass and the echo effect then proceeded to bitch slap that young lady straight to the deepest recess of Hades

You see…Ms. Popularity had never “come to know God on a personal level”. She had never asked to be saved from her sins…and therefore…she lost the cosmic lottery….waaa, waaa, waahhh….

The smoke machine then went into overdrive again and these figures in black cloaks and hoods swarmed the stage to drag Ms. Popularity down…down…down….

The Grim Reaper, himself, even made an appearance to symbolically point out the direction to hell…turns out it was not directly down but stage right. I guess that was needed in case the minions forgot which way to go.

Meanwhile, the speaker system is blaring this squealing noise that sounded like two pigs fucking in an aluminum grain silo. Yes, I can make that analogy with some degree of experience, having grown up on a farm in Western Kentucky.

The cacophony was so loud it was borderline painful.

Next up was Dexter himself. I don’t have to tell you how that went down except to note that the first thing Dexter said was “God?!?! God?!?! This can’t be happening, you’re not real!” He accused God of abandoning him, but God explained that he had sent Mr. Bible to him in his time of need only to see Dexter reject him.

I wanted to make an argument on Dexter’s behalf at this point and tell God he could have sent someone a little less annoying than that sniveling, Bible-wielding moron if he really wanted to get his message through. I wanted to murder that kid the moment he walked out on stage, so I think God could have been a little more understanding with Dexter but maybe that’s just me.

Dexter, of course, goes to hell.

Fourth Wall breaks…yet again…the pastor comes out to tell us how royally screwed Dexter and Ms. Popularity are for the rest of eternity while reiterating that we, too, may end up suffering the same fate unless we come down the aisle after the play and accept Jesus as our savior.  The hook was cast, the cork was bobbing.

He then tells us there is one more soul yet to be judged, so let’s watch and see what happens.

Lo and behold, it’s drug dealer, date-raper dude…..but something’s amiss….no ominous music…no evil foreboding….could it be?!?!?

God proceeds to engage drug dealer and informs him, to the audience’s surprise (not really), that he has somehow made it into the kingdom of heaven. But drug dealer dude doesn't understand, he actually argues against his own salvation and tells God that he’s done horrible things.

In spite his best efforts to damn his now soul to hell, God tells drug dealer he’s headed to heaven simply because he asked for salvation….the audience goes absolutely apeshit.

couldn't stop wondering about the fate of the girl he date raped, but I’m sure I was the only one worried about that amid the cries of jubilation.

At that point, the lights come up and they start calling people to come down the aisle to get saved…they were reeling in the hook….Rose, Chad, wifey, and I took that as our cue to GTFO and go drink some badly needed beer. I felt very dirty…I needed a baptism of hops and grains.  

One thing Rose, Chad and I all noticed was the intense gay bashing aspect of the play. I had also noticed something else about the Pastor that Rose noticed, he was somewhat effeminate and it occurred to us that he, himself, may be a closeted homosexual. I am betting that he is the playwright and the gay bashing was mostly him yelling at his own insecurity. It was convenient that they left the homosexual character out of the judgment process, we were all curious to see what God was going to say about the gay kid since so much attention was focused on him, but the script wisely didn't go there.

In retrospect, the thing that I keep thinking about the most was what effect the production had on its target market, the younger folks sitting in the audience. I thought about how my thirteen-year-old boy would have reacted if I had taken him to see it. I think he would have looked at me about 15 minutes into it and asked me, “What the fuck did you get me in to here? These people are crazy!”

I think my nine-year-old girl, on the other hand, would have tried to follow the story the best she could and I think it would have ended up troubling her to some extent…possibly a large extent. It’s scary to be told you’re bound to burn in hell unless you conform to a certain agenda when you’re nine years old. As we were leaving I scanned the audience for that age group, wondering what was running through their impressionable young minds.

When I was a child I was exposed to much worse than this by evangelicals from my community in Western Kentucky. I remember the confusion and fear I felt all too well before I finally came to the conclusion, at sixteen, that these people were simply insecure assholes trying to make other people believe as they did in order to allay their own fear.

From a marketing standpoint, it makes perfect to sense to create propaganda pieces like this to prey on younger, developing minds. Watching it unfold as an adult sickened me, but it also helped me understand my own path in life and how I was shaped by influences like this.

While I’m happy my own children aren't being subjected to people like this, another part of me wants them to see it. I want them to understand how powerful fear-driven propaganda can be and the influence it can have over not just children, but adults as well. I think my thirteen-year-old could absolutely handle it but my nine-year-old…that’s another story.

If you want to go see it yourself, they’re running it again on February 28 at 7:30 pm. (Find other dates here.) You may see me there with my son, if I can make him sit through the whole thing. He’ll be the kid in a perpetual face palm…look out for us.   

***************   

Jason Brad Berry is an independent, investigative journalist and provides commentary via American Zombie. He lives in New Orleans.