Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sparks, Religion, and The Meaning of Horseradish

"Sparks" deals with religion a lot - Debbie is an agnostic who has pretended to be a Christian for the sake of a crush, and winds up going on a "holy quest" for a made-up religion. Some people are surely going to say that the book is anti-religious, making fun of Christianity, or "secular." That's just the sort of thing some people would say. That certainly wasn't the intent; making fun of religious culture (abstinence rallies, Christian rock and whatnot) isn't the same thing as making fun of religion. I think that Christian youth culture probably drives as many people away as it attracts, if not more.

I made a decision early on not to talk too much about my own religious beliefs, but I thought I'd take a minute to talk about what a great holiday Passover is. It's one of those holidays that can be profound and affecting even to an atheist.

Passover (or Pesach) commemorates the Jews' escape from slavery in Egypt. The festival begins with a Seder - a ritual meal - and then Jews avoid all "leavened" food (basically anything with yeast, which is more than you'd think) for a week after. One ends up eating a lot of matzoh.

There are several purposes behind this, but two of the driving ones are: to remind one of how hard it was to be a slave (so you'll stand up against slavery for others), and a reminder of how good it is to be free. Charlie Chaplin once said that becoming accustomed to luxury would be the most tragic thing in the world. Everywhere in the seder are reminders of how bad slavery is and how good freedom is. Some types of good food are left out of the meal and bitter herb is eaten to remind one of the harshness of slavery. A few drops of wine are removed from wine glasses, because the fact that Egyptian soldiers drowned makes things less sweet, even if they were jerks. One sits on a cushion as a reminder of how good they have it now. It's a powerful, incredibly moving ceremony, and it comes with a meal and four glasses of wine. The lessons and story are relevant whether you believe God got the slaves out of Egypt, that it was all politics, or that it's all just a story.

I think it's always useful to look back and reflect that you didn't get where you are on your own. Even if you don't believe in God, your life is as good as it is because (and it could always be worse) because people have been helping you. Teachers who taught you to read, politicians who passed a piece of legislation, doctors who saved your ass. When it comes to our ancestors, we tend to want to take credit for what they did ("Mine came over on the Mayflower and fought at Bunker Hill") rather than being grateful. All of these people and a million more helped you get where you are, and every time they did, it was a type of prayer. Now it's our job to go out and do likewise.

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