Alpha Dogs Don’t Have To Be A-holes

Scott Rudin

Larger-than-life show biz alpha dog SCOTT RUDIN announced publicly today that he’s “stepping back”, having suddenly realized apparently that decades of acting like the biggest asshole in every room he was in has a downside. In my 35+ years in the show biz trenches, I’ve worked with and for many creative people equal in stature to Rudin — both as producers and as creatives. While writing and producing “Tales From The Crypt” for HBO and Fox, two of my executive producer bosses were action movie producer JOEL SILVER and genius director ROBERT ZEMECKIS. Both Joel and Bob are alpha dogs but very different kinds of alpha dog. Night and day. Joel was very much an alpha dog from the same part of the kennel as as Rudin — these guys are screamers. They’ve gotten it into their heads that they can say whatever they want to whomever they want without fear of consequence. They don’t need to show another human being an ounce of respect — but every other human better look at them with not just respect but fealty. That’s the alpha dog as asshole — the kind of alpha dog we expect. But Bob Z’s alpha-ness was just as apparent — even more apparent in many ways — because, when working with Bob, one felt his “alpha-ness” without Bob ever seeming to project it. Bob Z’s alpha dog is what actual leadership looks like.

My partner at the time Gil Adler and I took over “Tales” at the end of its second season on HBO. The third season, it was understood, was going to be the show’s last; everyone from HBO to the executive producers believed the show had run its course. Gil and I didn’t agree. I especially didn’t. I was a fan of the whole EC Comics world — Mad Magazine’s predecessor — since I was a kid. One of my biggest thrills ever was getting to meet EC’s & Mad’s publisher and organizing spirit William F. Gaines on set of Lethal Weapon II. After our first season running Tales not only turned the series around but gave it a future — HBO ordered two more seasons — our executive producer Joel had invited Bill Gaines out to LA to talk about a whole larger arrangement between the Crypt Partners and EC — and Joel graciously invited Gil and I to meet Bill in Joel’s trailer on the LWII set while he and Bill had lunch. This is the thing about Joel — he could absolutely be as mean and heartless as any ratty alpha. He also had grace and generosity within him. I personally experienced it. Joel may not be facile with these things — but has at least some semblance of these elements in his emotional makeup.

That’s what makes his acting like the other alpha so head-scratching. In the long run, being a screamer has not benefitted my old boss. Pissing people off and alienating them eventually makes your world teeny-tiny. Joel’s world got so small, he was forced to cohabitate with some very unsavory types — like Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman.

Joel Silver (on the left) w Ari Emmanuel

Alpha dogs in the Joel vein create a culture around them that mirrors their exact alphaness. Alphas like Joel find that appealing — and, so, endure the pettiness, abuse and tyranny because, in their minds, some day THEY will rule over a fiefdom just like this — in just this way.

On the other extreme was my executive producer Bob Z — the antithesis to the asshole alpha. I’ll get to Bob momentarily. In the middle was my EP Richard Donner, his company and its exec assigned to Tales SCOTT NIMERFRO. Scott was both a cynical studio creature and a true artist. I had the pleasure of working with both up close. A mid-westerner with a deliciously twisted, Coen-Brothers type sense of humor (they, too are mid-westerners), Scott loved, celebrated, mocked and used as inspiration that oddly mid-western way of seeing things. He loved bowling culture. Same goes for Bingo game culture. Scott hosted Friday evening “get togethers” back in the day where a bunch of us would suddenly “descend” like elite locusts on a bingo parlor out in the San Fernando Valley. It was incredible fun — if mildly disruptive for a night to the regulars. I wrote a bunch with Scott — loved every second of it — and I miss the guy; Scott died in 2016 from angiosarcoma, a rare kind of cancer.

Bob Zemeckis is every bit the alpha Joel and Scott Rudin are. Bob owns every room he walks into. Except Bob isn’t trying to do that. He’s just walking into the room. His alpha is confident in its own alpha-ness. It has no need to denigrate others to feel alpha. Bob’s a collaborative alpha whose own success rests on his ability to marshal others’ work and passion toward something he’d like to do. The trick is to make others take ownership in what you are doing. It’s Me vs We. Bad alphas turn everyone around them into variations of them all focused on “me”. Good alphas make everyone part of their “we”.

Bob Zemeckis

It was a pleasure working for and collaborating with Bob in part because of the kind of alpha he is but also because Bob loves to challenge those who work with him. Bob’s always looking for ways to tell stories filmicly in ways that haven’t been done yet because they haven’t been imagined. Remember “Forrest Gump”? Intermingling film characters from two different places has been going on from film’s beginning as an art form. The trick is integrating them seamlessly so you can’t see how they’ve been integrated. Woody Allen (whose films sadly are now dead to me) did it in “Zelig” in 1983; his Zelig character seems to interact with historical figures in newsreel photos. There’s a bit of interaction but it’s all physical. There’s no dialogue.

Zemeckis goes much further in integrating Forrest’s world and our world. In 1988, Bob integrated a fully-functional animated world into ours in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. I’m proud to say that Bob fine-tuned the integration he had in mind on “Forrest Gump” when he prepped for “You, Murderer”, the last episode of Crypt he directed. I won Bob’s trust toward the end of my first season on Crypt — the one that was supposed to be the show’s last. AS Crypt’s final episode (that wasn’t in the end), the Crypt Partners (Joel, Bob, Dick Donner and director Walter Hill) and HBO had agreed to splash out on something epic. Bob wanted to pay homage to one of his favorite movies ever, Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths Of Glory”, a World War One story starring Kirk Douglass.

Bob wanted to shoot a World War One story also starring Kirk Douglass. The trick: getting Kirk Douglass to do this episode of Tales From The Crypt. There’s a lot to balance here: Kirk Douglass was at the tail end of an illustrious film career. He was a true Hollywood God. Bob was A Hollywood God with the whole Back To The Future franchise to his credit. Crypt was a show that had made a big splash with big names (Arnold Schwarzeneggar had directed an episode, his first time behind the camera) but those days seemed well behind the show — which HBO was ending anyway. Like all our episodes, “Yellow” was based at least loosely on a comic from the EC canon. The story in “Yellow” was based entirely on the comic book’s story: a WWI general is forced to court martial and condemn to death his cowardly son whose cowardice killed a good soldier. The problem: the teleplay that had been written by the normally reliable Thomas Brothers was one-dimensional. It couldn’t update its way of thinking from the 1950’s source which made the script feel, well, dated. The trick with a franchise like Crypt is to keep all the good, nostalgia-inducing qualities while mitigating the bad. Bob knew he could never get Kirk Douglass with the script we had. He turned to me to fix it — as I started on Crypt as the story editor.

Most TV shows have a staff of writers. Up until the very last season (the one we shot in London) where we finally had ONE writer on staff (Scott Nimerfro), Crypt had never had any writers on staff. There was no writing staff except for me (though his name is on many scripts, my friend Gil did not actually write anything; do not get me started on how dumb I was out of friendship and loyalty). I wrote a bunch of my own scripts for the show and rewrote everyone else’s until it was camera ready. Except for Nimerfro’s. After the first time I tried to re-write Scott (he disabused me of that quickly) — and I understood that Scot got the show in the exact same way I did — I’d simply ask him how many episodes he wanted to write at the beginning of the season. He’d write them and essentially produce them. Scott’s episodes are easily some of the series very, very best.

My revision to the script got us Kirk Douglass. It got me a fan in Bob Z. So — when, many seasons later, Crypt contemplated ending its run again, they turned to Bob Z to direct the finale. Side note: news of our demise had, yet again, been premature. Crypt ran for one more season which we shot in London. Bob had chosen a comic story as source material: “You, Murderer” — a very noir murder tale told entirely from a subjective point of view — all the characters treat the reader as a character in the piece. As with every episode, the source comic was good for a title (mandatory), maybe the story idea in broad terms. Most likely the twist ending. Crypt stories are all little morality tales where, most of the time, the bad guy gets his comeuppance in the most graphic, horrifying, literal way possible. The guy who kills everyone else to be “head of the company”, say, will end up with his head on a spike outside the company’s HQ. Frequently however, aside from the title, the comic was utterly useless (with even the title feeling dated). All we could really take was the anarchic, laugh in your face, EC Comic sensibility. So — when Bob set up a lunch to discuss his final episode, I honestly had zero idea where he might take the comic.

I drove up to Bob’s Montecito estate (this was in 1995). We had lunch. We pushed the dishes aside and Bob looked across the table at me with a smile.

Now, here’s where working with Bob Z gets good. It’s the moment where he poses an impossible question but asks “How’re we gonna do this?” In every piece Bob ever makes, there’s at least one moment that — unbeknownst to the audience — is filmicly impossible. The shot or shots either cannot happen or cannot happen in any produce-able way — at least, that’s what we think watching the scene: how the hell did they do that? Every creative partner in the process was asked the same question at whatever point they entered the creative process — seeing what Bob wanted us to achieve, “how were we going to achieve this thing?”

That — right there — is Bob’s alpha dog genius. It’s where we can see that his focus is “we” and not even remotely “me”. An example — in “Castaway”, Tom Hanks’ Chuck Noland has been stranded on the deserted island he’s on for a while before finally climbing the island’s central hill in order to survey both the island and the reefs that surround the island. As Chuck climbs the hill, the camera “perches” just behind, following. It uses the side of Chuck’s face, his neck and his shoulders as a kind of framing device. The camera keeps Chuck in the shot the whole time. At last, Chuck reaches the summit — a very, VERY narrow piece of real estate hardly big enough for Chuck to stand on as he slowly (his face, neck and shoulders still very much in the shot) turns, surveying the island, its reef and his chances of getting past the reef to rescue.

Here’s the problem: that’s a great shot but who shot it? This was well before the all digital Red Camera was invented. Bob was shooting film, not video. 35 mm film cameras, by comparison, were behemoths There’s nowhere for the crew to be and without the crew, Bob can’t get this amazing shot. So, to put it simply, where’s the damned crew? Where did Bob hide the crew that got this amazing shot? Nowhere as far as we can “see” — which makes the shot impossible. Which means, at some point as he first described to his collaborators the very cool, never-been-seen-before shot in his head, Bob asked them all “Guys, how’re we gonna do this?” Now, Bob wasn’t asking the question like a tourist to the set. He’d already thought long and hard about it.

Bob had some answers of his own. But, Bob also knew his might not be the best answer. The best answer might be someone else’s but Bob knew how to get other people to not just give him their ideas but insist he have them because whatever Bob was doing was what they were now doing too.

“All I really know,” said Bob, as we contemplated the comic’s title, “You, Murderer”, “Is I want to do a completely subjective single-camera camera point of view.” That’s already a challenge if the goal is stay inside that single-camera point of view. That means we won’t shoot the show how we normally would — master shot plus coverage for emphasis as needed. In a single camera point of view, there IS NO coverage. There are no other camera angles to consider, only the one. That meant there’d be nothing to cut away to. If the episode felt draggy, there would literally be no way to fix it via editing. What we saw would be what we had.

Bob added the first complication. The guy whose point of view we’d see the whole episode from? He’s a dead guy! And part of our story will be how he got to “be” a dead guy. Cool concept but how does one tell such a story? Never mind that — here’s one more creative complication: the dead guy? Bob wanted Humphrey Bogart to play him. To make that work, Bob had identified about a dozen places in the script where the “dead guy” passes a reflective surface — and sees himself — and then says something out loud. Bob was already well down the road to doing “Forrest Gump”. To Bob — who was using the Crypt episode to experiment — these little set pieces were the whole point of the exercise.

On the first day of prep — with the whole crew at his disposal (a thing that never happened because no director ever got the crew when they were prepping because the crew was too busy shooting the last episode), Bob invited the entire crew onto our “four wall set”. Most sets are three walls — with the fourth missing because that’s where the camera and crew are theoretically. But, because Bob wanted to have a subjective camera, the camera had to be able to look anywhere at any time — as if it was a corpse being dragged around, trying to figure out how to intercede on its own behalf. Walking from place to place, kneeling occasionally, Bob described how he saw the scene — and its one shot — unfolding. From one side of the set to the other and then back again. It seemed utterly impossible.

Of course it did! Bob chuckled delightedly as he looked out at our crew, ready to get to work. “Guys,” he said, “How’re we gonna do this? How’re we gonna get this shot?” The gantlet was thrown. It was up to us as a unit to rise to the challenge. Getting people to rise to a challenge instead of having a challenge imposed upon them is far healthier and far more productive for all concerned.

The truth is, guys like Joel Silver and Scott Rudin are physically incapable of treating others with the respect due them. Is it nature or nurture that makes them this way? I’m much more inclined to say “nature”.

Never Mind Walking A Mile In Someone Else’s Shoes, Try Seeing The World Through Their Eyes

The reason organizations like the ASPCA use pleading, wide-eyed dogs in their fundraising appeals is because they work. Maybe those people who fear photography captures something of their souls are on to something. Even a photo of a pleading animal’s eyes touches us deeply (as compared to the actual animal itself, pleading directly to it with its eyes). Something of us flows from our orbs. Look deeply enough into them and you’ll even see past any attempts to deceive about who or what we really “are” to “us” — the real, honest-to-goodness US.

An honest-to-goodness “us” really exists inside each of us. It’s that entity behind our eyes that we spy in the bathroom mirror whenever we take a moment to acknowledge that it’s there. That is what we all do when we gaze past our reflection and into our reflection’s eyes — we acknowledge the stone cold fact that there really is a presence inside our heads that knows us even better than we know ourselves. Its voice sounds like ours. Its habits and peccadilloes — ours. In every way imaginable, it’s us! And yet, as we gaze at it — as we converse with it even — we can’t get past the weird sensation that as much as we know that “it’s us”, it’s also a weird sort of “separate us”.

It is bloody hard being a sentient creature, isn’t it? Thinking is exhausting. Even more so when your brain sees everything as a problem to be solved. More so still when the problem to be solved is “why me?”

We know what we know about us. We know where our bodies are buried — somewhere between us and the person staring back at us in the mirror. Not only does that person staring back “know what we know” about us, that person knows what we know about the world beyond the mirror.

Add a layer of complication: we honestly have no idea how it works — how the electrical activity flashing through our grey matter — does its “perception thing” and creates the thoughts we’re having about ourselves (or about anything else). We know we have feelings. We know that chemicals in our brains cause our feelings (or the feeling that we’re having a feeing) to ebb and flow. We don’t know where our feelings “live” when we’re not feeling them. I don’t know why I feel the way I do and I don’t know why you feel the way you do. While I can empathize with how things feel to your body, I can never know how they feel. I can only know how things feel to my body.

Same goes for pain. We all experience it differently. It is pure arrogance on my part to assume how pain effects me is prototypical, as if my tolerance were some sort of standard that should apply to everyone else; it absolutely isn’t.

One of the things I find interesting about cannabis is the pure subjectivity of the experience. My experience will differ from yours because our brain chemistries are different. It’s only by comparing notes with each other about that experience that we can adjudge 1) how cannabis works on our minds to begin with and 2) how any particular strain, with its own terpene profile and THC/CBD matrix works on our minds. If my experience with the classic sativa Durban Poison is similar enough to yours (a solid, warm, consistent beam of delicious mental focus), then we can agree that smoking Durban Poison will probably produce that particular effect inside a smoker’s head.

For a decade and a half, I struggled with a deepening depression related to an event in my past that I’d suppressed — I was sexually molested twice when I was 14 by the religious director at the synagogue where my family belonged. For the 45 years that I kept that secret from myself (meaning — I knew this thing had happened to me but I refused to acknowledge that it had happened to me), I looked out at the world with this little detail as part of how I saw the world. Having a terrible secret puts you on an island inhabited by just you and your molester. If no one else knows this terrible secret about you, then obviously, they don’t know YOU. How could they? They only “think” they know who you are.

Having survived a suicidal depression, I know for a fact that I saw the world differently than anyone else around me. I understood (well, on some deep, abstract-thinking level) why silly, seemly insignificant things set me off into a volcanic, self-directed rage. My wife and kids would look at me during those moments as if I was a Martian who did things for no understandable reason. Ah, if only they could have understood me the way I understood me — and saw the world through my eyes.

It wasn’t possible for my wife and kids to see my pain my way in part because even I didn’t see the pain correctly. Once I did, I was able to articulate my pain. That helped. A lot.

Now, I have a certain advantage here because I could articulate my pain once I understood it — and that helped me recover from it. Being able to express my pain, what was behind it — liberated me because I no longer had to bear its burden alone. When anyone gets to express their pain, it’s liberating. Sometimes people have to be coaxed though. That’s when they look out at the world in silent desperation. Maybe they’ve surrendered already and given up hope than anyone else will see their pain. Maybe they feel unworthy. They’re not. Maybe they fear being judged.

I have no idea what it “feels like” to be LGBTQ. No one gets a choice about what kind of brain chemistry they’ll have. We don’t stand there as sperm and egg fuse and our two sets of DNA begin to dance with each other. We don’t get to sort among our dominant or recessive genes or snag a predecessor’s skill set. What comes to us comes to us. It makes us who and what we are before we even “are”. And our genome isn’t “perfect”. It’s malleable and fluid and error prone. And that’s just the parts we’ve figured out. There’s plenty we haven’t yet. I know people who were born with external male characteristics but the overwhelming feeling that they were female. That’s not them being “dramatic” of course; it’s how they actually feel inside their heads — because their biochemistry is at war with itself.

I wonder: do judgy Christians judge a lupus sufferer whose immune system is at war with them the way they judge a person whose sexual identity is at war with their biochemistry? Christians are a particularly judge-y lot. That’s ironic considering as the religion’s founder was all about “judge not lest ye be judged”.

Why does sexual repression slow dance with religious fervor? Why do deities inspire all sorts of sexual peccadilloes? Why can’t people who insist their deity connects them to other people, appreciate the people that deity supposedly connects them to?

Sigh… I guess if I could see the world through their eyes? I’d know…

Why Do I Call This Blog What I Call It? Because Bullsh*t Nearly Killed Me, That’s Why!

Devout atheist that I am, I consider myself “born again’. I have seen with my own eyes the havoc bullshit can cause in both my daily life and over the whole length of it. I bear witness to bullshit’s remarkable power to convince us that it is truth and truth is bullshit. Actually, bullshit’s much more clever than that. Bullshit convinces us that our feelings are more valid than facts. That empirical truth does not exist outside our own heads, making it as fluid as our thoughts. If we think something’s so, it is so, no receipts required. . Bullshit tells us that Life is how it is and people are how they are and there’s nothing we can do to change it — that the cynicism tugging at us is correct. Paired with an angry, confused, judgmental deity, that cynicism can turn deadly. Happiness, we become convinced (by bullshit) is a matter of how we navigate our way around our bullshit and everyone else’s. In bullshit’s defense, bullshit has that half-right. The trick to living life with even a modicum of success or happiness is to focus on your own bullshit FIRST before worrying about anyone else’s. If your experience is anything like mine, dealing with your own bullshit will be a full-time job; you will literally NEVER have time to even think of anyone else’s.

My own personal bullshit had me convinced I could disappear from Life without causing my family excessive harm — that money would eventually assuage the “bad feelings”. Talk about bullshit. But, bullshit won the argument. Three days before Christmas 2016, I came within literal inches of killing myself. A decade-long depression got triggered by Trump’s seizing the presidency (he did not “win” it legitimately) into full-on self-destruction. The thing about depression is, it robs you of perspective. The deeper the depression, the less perspective you have; I had come to believe that the world was the narrow, future-less tunnel I saw it as. It wasn’t, of course. It never was. And, as my personal darkness drove me toward increasingly irrational action, I did it having denied for 45 years that at age fourteen, I was sexually molested twice by the religious director at the synagogue where my family belonged.

I had gotten it into my head that me getting sexually molested was MY FAULT. It wasn’t, of course. That was bullshit!

Long story short, being molested put me on an island because only my molester and I knew that secret about us. Anyone else? Nope! That meant (in the irrational reasoning of my young mind) that if you didn’t know this about me, you didn’t know “me”. Since I wasn’t sharing my secret (and my molester definitely wasn’t), no one was ever going to really know me. No one. And, as you sit there, on that island, you slowly begin to blame yourself for being there. And every terrible thing that happens to you? Well, hell — that’s YOUR fault, stupid! I can only speak for and from my own experience. Once you’ve opened the door to self-loathing, it’s a hard, HARD door to shut. What makes it so hard? It’s bullshit that’s fighting you every time you try to close it.

When I first realized how close I had come to hurting myself because bullshit told me to, I literally laughed out loud. “Ya dumb sonofabitch,” I said to myself, “You came within inches of bullshitting yourself to death!” Could anything possibly be stupider?

Yeah — bullshit can kill. It kills. I still think a lot about Anthony Bourdain. The guy was at the top of his game but his darkness got him anyway. Anthony Bourdain’s bullshit won out over Anthony Bourdain. That’s no knock on Anthony Bourdain. That, in essence, is a respectful tribute to the strength of Mr. Bourdain’s bullshit — it convinced him he didn’t need to be here anymore while literally everyone else on the planet saw it differently.

We just lived through four years where bullshit ran amok. Hell, bullshit convinced us that a president who bullshitted us every damned day was “how it was”. Talk about bullshit!

I knew my darkness had me in its thrall but I feared medication. My dad was a surgeon; I grew up in the medical culture; I don’t see doctors demagogically. My dad saw what he did as equal parts science and guess work. He saw the insurance companies as greedy gate keepers with hospitals as their equally greedy collaborators. The Hypocritic Oath doesn’t mention profit incentive anywhere. While I had a GP I liked and trusted, I knew however that they had little to no background in mood stabilizers and how to prescribe them correctly. Probably the only mood stabilizer they even knew about was the one a pharmaceutical rep left behind on her last customer service visit to the office. “Hey,” the Pharmaceutical Rep said as she set the samples down on the counter, “If you have any patients complaining of depression, try these!”

The problem with this class of drug is it takes time to reveal whether or not it’s working. Since everyone’s brain chemistry is different, it’s hard to accurately predict what any one mood stabilizer will do to or for any one person contemplating it. Normally, it takes six to eight weeks to get an inkling of whether it’s working or not. It’s entirely possible that the mood stabilizer could take a bad situation and make it worse. As Screenwriting God William Goldman said of the film business, “No one knows anything”. FFS, we do not even know how we’re all doing this — writing blogs, reading blogs, having conversations — having thoughts themselves. We don’t know where our memories come from — yeah, sure — we know what part of the brain they seem to emanate from. But we don’t know how they convert from lived experience to remembered experience.

And we have to consider THAT in the context of teenage boys who seem to walk around with zero remembered experience. But, I digress…

After seeing quite clearly that in a moment of sheer irrationality I now had it in me to commit to that irrationality completely, I drove straight to my GP’s office and told them what had just happened. I immediately got great service. Just like that, I was sitting with not just my GP but the head honcho doctor too! I told them everything. Told them my fear of medication — and why I felt as I did. But, I also told them of the research I’d been doing on my own. I’d looked into every mood stabilizer there was, looking for the one that might hold my depression at bay while leaving my hypomanic side mostly alone. I’m bipolar, ya see. I worried that if the mood stabilizer I chose dealt with the depression but made writing impossible, I’d be right back in the darkness’ thrall. I’d read anecdotal evidence (the only evidence there is) suggesting lamotrigine could be my answer.

Immediately, my GP and his boss whipped out their smart phones and looked up lamotrigine. Yes, they agreed, that could definitely work for me; they agreed to write the prescription. I took it, picked up the meds from my local pharmacy, went home and told my family what I was going to do. Swallowing that first .25 milligram little white pill, I expected a long period of wondering to begin. Instead, I got lucky. Within thirty-six hours, I leveled. I felt it. I experienced my first evidence not only that the lamotrigine would definitely work for me but HOW it would work.

My anger back then was volcanic. Once triggered, it was usually a matter of seconds before the rage in my gut exploded out my mouth in a profanity-laced screed. Anything could set me off: a stupid political argument I heard on the radio, other drivers, me if I dropped something (and bigger still if it broke). I don’t remember specifically what sparked the rage in my gut, only that it sparked — and, once sparked, it flowed back on itself like a blocked toilet. I felt the rage rising in me like it always did, picking up speed as it blew past my stomach, racing upward toward my mouth. And just as I fully expected that metastasizing anger to metamorphose into a lava spew — “Paf!” — the rage dissipated like a soap bubble popping.

I knew I had just felt the rage — felt its hold on me — and just like that — I knew I had felt the rage in the abstract but I did not feel it in any practical way that I could point at. It really was kind of like the anger “never was”.

Realizing that my darkness could no longer dominate me liberated me. In time — a few months — it even gave me the confidence (that’s the biggest, best benefit of perspective — it builds your confidence) to go at it head on. Now, able to confront my demon without that demon destroying me, I confessed my own truth to myself. Yeah, the night I spent weeping quietly on the bathroom floor (because I didn’t want to wake my wife and have to explain) was long, lonely and hard. But it destroyed the bullshit chains forever.

That’s the night I was “born again” — as a person. That was the day I started living my life unencumbered by the giant piece of bullshit that, unbeknownst to me, had dominated my life.

And it felt AWESOME!

Seeing everything in context also was awesome. “Hey,” I said to myself, suddenly feeling good about things, “bullshit nearly killed you. Are there any other ways bullshit’s making your life harder than it should be?”

I bet you can guess the answer to that question. Bullshit, it turned out, was dominating virtually every aspect of my life. For starters, I hadn’t slept well in years. Financial difficulties and sleep aren’t pals. I had been using (abusing really) OTC products like Simply Sleep. They’re anti-histamines. They don’t so much produce “sleep” as “unconsciousness for a while”. You wake up in the morning — if you sleep — feeling groggy and unprepared for the day. I wanted no part of anything stronger. I was terrified of what my brain would do with Ambien in it. Bullshit had convinced me that this problem was forever. It wasn’t. I live in California. I got myself a medical marijuana prescription and from the first day I started using cannabis as a sleep aid, I’ve slept wonderfully.

With bullshit negating my sleep, I’d start each day by putting on my bullshit colored lenses while breathing deeply from bullshit scented air. Lie in for another ten minutes, I’d bullshit myself, it won’t matter (bullshit — it did!). Never mind missing this deadline — they’ll be cool with it (they weren’t!). Ignore the warning signs that your marriage is struggling; those problems can wait till later (no, they can’t). Everything bad happening to me is my fault. No, it isn’t — but, then, it isn’t everyone else’s fault either. The world is more complicated than that: take off the bullshit-colored lenses and SEE IT.

That’s why I started this blog. I’m learning as I go and sharing my notes. Is living bullshit free for everyone? I have no idea — that’s someone else’s bullshit to worry about. That’s not to say that if another person’s bullshit gets them in trouble that I have zero obligation to them. That’s bullshit too. If I have to put my own bullshit aside to help them because of their bullshit — that’s what I must do. In the aftermath, I can only hope that, with this newfound perspective, that person, too, will have discovered bullshit’s hold on them and, like me, will want to break that hold.

We live in a new cycle where the Biggest Story There Is (after the worldwide Covid pandemic) is “The Big Lie”. To call it what it really is, it’s bullshit. One of our two political parties (and its mob boss leader) is trying to shove bullshit down our collective throats.

I guess if I wanted to be a hundred percent accurate I’d call this blog “Learning How To Live Bullshit Free” since that’s what I’m really doing everyday — and writing about it here. I gotta keep reminding myself: the second I get it into my head that I “know” how to live bullshit free? The bullshit will be winning again.

Your Average Atheist Is Likely A Better “Follower Of Jesus” Than Your Average Christian

Seriously, how hard is it to “Do unto others”? Impossibly hard, to judge by most Christians who, somehow, have reimagined “Do unto others” as “Do what we say”. More accurately, it was all those churches those Christians belonged to their whole lives that bamboozled them into thinking that the institution and Jesus were one and the same. That is exactly why most Christians are so bad at following Jesus; in fact, they’ve NEVER followed him. They were never taught to follow him. Instead, the institutional churches that hung out their cross-shaped Jesus Shingle like he was Jesus McSaviour taught a doctrine that Jesus never imagined — because he didn’t! Jesus did not invent Christianity; Paul did. Want proof? Crack a New Testament and look who actually wrote the bulk of it. That’s “literally wrote”. We can PROVE Paul existed because we have HIS WORDS that HE PERSONALLY put to paper — the letters and epistles he sent to the far flung communities across Asia Minor that, he, personally, was nurturing with his letters.

By contrast, we can’t prove that Jesus existed except by inference. Paul’s inference mostly. But, also, the existence inferred by the existence of various gospels. Keep in mind, the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) were not the only gospels written about Jesus. Many more were written that didn’t “make the cut”. Jesus didn’t edit those voices from the mix, deliberately excluding them. But, the early Church DID. This is a very important detail that few people with a religious bent seem to grasp. Their religious doctrines did not just fall from the sky as they are. They were imagined and (eventually) written down over time and, at some point, SOMEONE edited them and someone else decided which of these texts were “good” and which weren’t. Who got to decide WHICH visions and versions of Jesus represented “the truth” and which represented “nonsense”? Who got to decide, for instance, that the Gnostics needed to be shut up? Surely THAT wasn’t Jesus’s doing…

Jesus was born, lived his whole life and died a Jew. Even as he expired — whoever he actually was — if you could have stuck a mic in his face to catch his last breath, he would have told you he was Jewish. Never in his life did Jesus ever meet a Christian. He never preached to one, never taught one, never washed one’s feet. In fact, everything Jesus thought and taught was implicitly Jewish — especially “DO UNTO OTHERS”. One of the core concepts inside every Jew’s head is “Tikkun Olam“. While this can be (and has been) interpreted a gazillion different ways — because that’s how religious doctrine works (versus, say, scientific doctrine) — the overwhelming majority of Jews understand it to mean that each and every one of us — regardless of how deep our religious faith is — is obligated to make the world a better place for having been in it. It’s cultural, see? One doesn’t need the fire-breathing, deeply neurotic Yahweh of the OT looking over one’s shoulder to compel one to be a good person. Just being a person, in essence, should compel one to behave that way because one has to live with others! It’s just basic, social animal common sense.

The simplicity of Tikkun Olam is that it’s born of observations about life and living it socially. There’s nothing inherently supernatural about it. The phrase first appears as mip’nei tikkun ha-olam, “for the sake of repairing the world”, in the Mishnah — the “Oral Torah” of traditions that was eventually memorialized starting in the third century BCE. The assembled Mishnah became all the practical legal measures taken to ameliorate social conditions. To make the world better in the here and now — never mind any after life. The minds who put the Mishnah together were problem solving. They weren’t designing dogma.

That’s where Paul comes in. When Saul of Tarsus had his revelation about Jesus on the road to Damascus and became “Paul The Apostle”, he was working — always — with what was inside his own head (divine inspiration notwithstanding). We don’t have to accept Paul’s word as factual — that Jesus actually appeared to him — because it happened inside Paul’s head — where all ideas originate. Whatever inspired Paul, it inspired something remarkable, all credit to it (whatever it was) but mostly to Paul who ended up doing all the heavy lifting. Paul never met Jesus in the flesh. That’s a stone cold fact that even the loopiest evangelist has to agree with. The reason Paul took his version of Jesus out to the Gentiles is precisely BECAUSE Paul never met Jesus. The Jesus in Paul’s head was not the Jesus people who knew Jesus KNEW. Paul’s Jesus said things and did things Real Jesus didn’t (according to the people who’d know).

Filled with messianic passion, but, now liberated from having to be faithful either to the original Jewish mythology or anything to do with Real Jesus, Paul took the evolving idea in his head out to a Gentile world that only knew polytheism. The Jews’ idea that their one god Yahweh superseded all previous gods was radical to begin with in that it even imagined all gods as one; it was even more radical because that god felt such a personal connection to human beings — who, the radical notion of this one god went, cared for them because he’d “created” them personally. What captivated Paul, remember, wasn’t exactly anything Jesus taught; it was the fact that Jesus — in Paul’s mind — had risen from the grave. Never mind “do unto others”, Paul saw the power of “beat death!” If Jesus could do it, Paul reasoned, then belief in Jesus could get the same results for everyone else.

The whole crux of Christian dogma is to get believers over the “beat death” hump. That’s a big lift, overcoming death, and it required a lot of “thinking” to justify it. There are no data points anywhere, but there is a lot of “thinking”. And rule-making to justify and validate that “thinking”. Suddenly unverifiable thoughts about Jesus become church rules dictating how to think about him. In 345 AD, the Church Fathers met at Nicene and wrote down a Creed spelling out exactly what “God” was. Funny thing? Jesus (remember him?) never advocated for such a thing. If Jesus HAD risen from the dead and walked in on that meeting at Nicene? He’d have looked around at a roomful of strangers talking crap that meant nothing to him.

“Why not just ‘do unto others’?” Jesus would have wondered — isn’t that simpler? Isn’t that really the point?

No, Paul would have explained to Jesus (annoyed by him already), it’s NOT the point. Now, please — go back to being dead because THAT’S the only value you have to me — as a malleable corpse.

The reason Christianity is losing its institutional grip on more and more Christians is because institutional Christianity’s promises never EVER live up to their hype. Until the day comes when they can PROVE they’ve found a way for its believers to actually “beat death”, they’ll always be selling a phony product via phony means. Meanwhile, Jesus’s message — “Do unto others” — feels fresher and more vital than ever. More necessary than ever too.

Good thing there are plenty of atheists around — unencumbered by history and dogma — to maybe teach all those poor, angry Christians how to do it.

I Grew Up In The Shadow Of The Holocaust And I Feel That Shadow Growing

One of the first big lessons that stuck in my head as a child — the biggest up to that point being toilet training — was that I was hated because of what I was — a Jew. That’s a strange thing to teach a little kid without an enemy in the world. But, when I was growing up, in the early 1960’s (I was born in 1959), not twenty years since the camps had been liberated, the full weight of what had been done to us (not just by Germany but also by anti-Semites all over Europe) was only just beginning to dawn and make itself felt. In Baltimore — where my surgeon dad was did his residency and began his practice, and where I grew up — Jews began emigrating toward the suburbs, most settling in and around an enclave northwest of Baltimore called Pikesville. Before long, clever Anti-Semites turned that into “kikesville”). My affluent, comfortable, semi-assimilated upper middle class Jewish community could live with name-calling.

Pikesville was so predominantly Jewish — ditto its public schools — that even the handful of non-Jewish kids took all the Jewish holidays off because they knew the schools would be virtually empty. We had a really great tennis team but a really terrible football team that, wouldn’t ya know it, all the other teams loved to beat the crap out of.

American culture was still celebrating having won WWII. There were prime time TV shows about it like “Combat” and “Hogan’s Heroes”.

My culture also celebrated. It felt good not being extinct. And some of us wondered aloud: if not for Hitler’s homicidal madness, would the state of Israel have existed?

You might think growing up in a place so culturally Jewish would shield one from the Holocaust’s awfulness. You might think such an awful memory — so close in our rear view mirror — would have horrified my community into a stone cold refusal to discuss it. We went completely in the other direction. I wouldn’t say we “embraced” the Holocaust so much as we “owned it”. The end of WWII — the end of the Holocaust — didn’t end anti-Semitism the same way the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t actually end slavery.

As my community tends to do, we turned what happened to us into a teachable moment. There were some essential lessons still to be learned. There’s a famous photo of a group of Jews being rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto by the occupying Nazis –

From the first time I saw the photo, I became that boy in the lower right. I bet a lot of Jews my age did.  We saw and felt that boy’s terror, his helplessness.  His confusion: how can they be doing this to you just because you were born Jewish?  You’ve done nothing wrong to anyone on the planet – yet the planet wants you dead. 

“Never Again” became as integral a part of my “religious education” as chanting the ‘Shema’.  The past hurt.  That was not going to be our future. 

In our guts, my community has always known this was lurking somewhere in the American Character. Turns out, the Nazis were admirers of how racists in America codified and amplified their racism. The Nazi’s method of industrialized murder found significant inspiration in America’s brand of Christo-fascism: slavery

You can’t cram peoples’ heads with tons of bullshit and not expect the bullshit to screw them up. Bullshit always screws people up – cos it’s bullshit. When you cram nonsensical, logic-free, hateful mythology into peoples’ heads while telling them it’s truth, it screws them up. It’s worse when the logic-free, hateful mythology also runs counter to your religion’s core message (and its core messenger).

It sucks being despised because of a total fiction. It sucks worse being murdered because of it. But that’s what’s coming to America: death & destruction because bullshit.

In fact, “death & destruction because bullshit” is the Republican Party’s entire strategy going forwards.

The Dangerous Arrogance Of Monotheism

Had God really created humans – and not the other way around – he surely would have done a better job.  It takes a human being to invent a creator so neurotic he can’t content himself with HAVING created everything, he needs one of his creations – us – to praise him relentlessly for having done it – and then for  every other little thing he does – like a three year old who needs the endless stroking just to master toilet training.  To be fair then, it’s not God’s fault he is the way he is – petulant, jealous, irrational, inconsistent and homicidal.   It’s ours since we’re the ones who invented Yahweh.

That’s the Biblical “God’s” name: “Yahweh.  It’s not “God” – god is Yahweh’s job description as in, “Say, what does that Yahweh guy do for a living anyway?  Surely he doesn’t really think he’s a god!”   Ah, but Yahweh does think he’s a god – and we’re the ones who put that notion into his head. 

The writer Karen Armstrong spent seven years as a Roman Catholic nun before leaving her order and becoming one of the foremost writers on religion in the world.  She now teaches at the Leo Baeck College For The Study of Judaism and The Training Of Rabbis and is an honorary member of the Association of Muslim Social Sciences.  Her religion bona fides are rock solid.  In A History Of God, Armstrong writes about her experience as an eight year old trying to wrap her mind around the whole idea of “God”. 

“Hell,” she writes, was something she “could grasp imaginatively.”  God, on the other hand, was “a somewhat shadowy figure, defined in intellectual abstractions.”  At eight, she had to memorize the catechism question “What is God?” with the answer first drawn up in the Nicene Creed in 345 AD: “God is the Supreme Spirit, who alone exists of Himself and is infinite in all perfections.”  As the adult Armstrong puts it, that definition left her cold then and leaves her even colder now: “It has always seemed a singularly arid, pompous and arrogant definition.”

Arrogance and monotheism.  They go hand in hand like Adam and Eve. 

Human beings have probably been creating gods as long as they’ve been aware enough to think; the gods filled in the gaps in their limited knowledge base.  The gods’ existence explained why the world “was” to begin with and why it worked the way it did.  Armstrong points out that when “people began to devise their myths and worship their gods, they were not seeking a literal explanation for natural phenomena.  The symbolic stories, cave paintings and carvings were an attempt to express their wonder and to link this pervasive mystery with their own lives…”.

The polytheistic pantheon didn’t present a gulf between human beings and the gods.  In fact, in most polytheistic visions of the world, “…men, women and the gods themselves all shared the same nature and derived from the same divine substance.  The pagan vision was holistic. The gods were not shut off from the human race… divinity was not essentially different from humanity.  There was thus no need for a special revelation of the gods or for a divine law to descend to earth from on high.”

We like to think of monotheism as an evolutionary improvement upon polytheism – as if, by finally boiling the divine pantheon down to just one god, humans made some great intellectual leap forward.  That’s such a monotheistic way to think.

My Hebrew School teacher Henry Hyman taught us that the Biblical texts are works of culture and religion; they are in no way historical texts though they do reflect history.  A lot of Jews – if you ask them “who wrote the Pentateuch?” will answer “Why, Moses did!”  No, Moses did not write the Old Testament.  He didn’t write anything as far as we know because, as far as we know, he never wrote anything down.  If you don’t write things down, it’s hard to make a case for you being a writer.

Here’s a rough timeline for how we got from polytheism to monotheism and then formal, written-down monotheism:

1850 BCE: a person we now refer to as “Abraham” leaves Ur (in what is now Iraq) and settles to the west in Canaan.  The story passed down that he did it because Yahweh told him to. Per Armstrong: “We have no contemporary record of Abraham, but scholars think that he may have been one of the wandering chieftains who had led their people from Mesopotamia toward the Mediterranean.” 

1200 BCE: the wave of Hebrews who’d emigrated to Egypt during a severe famine in Canaan return from Egypt contending they’d been enslaved while there.  They claim to have been liberated by a deity called Yahweh, the god of their leader Moses. Note: By now, these stories have existed in oral form only (as far as we know) for hundreds of years with zero reliable continuity from teller to teller (never mind generation to generation, decade to decade or century to century).

700 BCE: Over a thousand years of history FINALLY gets written down.  Contemporary thinking remains in general agreement about WHO finally committed a millennium of folk traditions to scroll and ink: Biblical author “J” gets down to work in the southern Kingdom of Judah) while “E” starts writing in the northern Kingdom of Israel.  Right off the bat, there are significant differences in how each writer conceived of and wrote about Yahweh. “J” referred to the character as “Yahweh” while “E” used the title ‘Elohim’ as the deity’s name.  One stays “familiar”, polytheist style, while the other uses not Yahweh’s name but a high honorific. Two different people give us two different Yahwehs — right in the cult of Yahweh’s founding documents. Oy.

400 BCE: The accumulated religious texts, collected over the course of three hundred years, are collated into the final text of what we now call “The Pentateuch” — The Five Books Of Moses. The Old Testament.

When “P”, the next recognized authorial voice arrives at about this time, he makes some important distinctions and “clarifications”.  P is likely responsible for “In the beginning” as we now know it.  This version of Yahweh has big plans for human beings – and for Abraham in particular.  P is busily shaping the narrative to suit an evolving concept.

Armstrong asks: “Did Abraham worship the same God as Moses or did he know him by a different name?”  Hell – was Abraham even really a monotheist never mind the first monotheist? “Israelite religion was pragmatic and les concerned with the kind of speculative detail that would worry us” says Armstrong, “Yet we should not assume that either Abraham or Moses believed in their God as we do today.”  It’s probably more likely that the early Jewish patriarchs were pagans who shared many of the religious beliefs of their neighbors in Canaan.  Armstrong points to the strong likelihood that Abraham’s Yahweh was El, the High God of Canaan, dressed up a little and repurposed.  Among the clues: Yahweh introduces himself to Abraham as “El Shaddai” – El of the Mountain – and his name is preserved in such Hebrew names as “Isra-EL” and “Ishma-EL”. 

But, even the way the characters relate to Yahweh is telling.  “Abraham and Jacob both put their faith in El because he worked for them: they did not sit down and prove that he existed; El was not a philosophical abstraction… pragmatism would always be a factor in the history of God.  People would continue to adopt a particular conception of the divine because it worked for them, not because it was scientifically or philosophically sound.”

Armstrong nails it right there – people accept the divine because “it works for them” and not because it actually “works” as an explanation.

Ask any two theists (for example, Biblical authors “J” and “E”) to describe their vision of Yahweh and the odds are pretty much certain you’ll get two different visions.  Theists will quickly point out either that no one can really “know” God or that God appears in very individual ways to individual people.  It must be good to have one’s cake and get to eat it too.  That “having it both ways” is easy when you never have to show your work. Or actually pin down your “God” character to consistent specifics. 

But, having it both ways is how theists roll.  They can and do revise Yahweh on the fly.  They can hang any attribute they want on Yahweh without fear of contradiction.  Yahweh is whatever his individual believers believe he is. Who are we to contradict them?

And, if Yahweh chooses to speak through them (and not, say, YOU), that’s simply because Yahweh works in mysterious ways. 

Ironically, the first Christians were thought of as atheists by the Romans because they were so vocal in their rejection of the Romans’ pantheon of gods in favor of Yahweh, a god the Romans didn’t believe in.  The Romans put up with the Jews – who more passively believed in their monotheistic deity.  Paul’s mission to spread the religion he was inventing with each Epistle – sharing the good news that Jesus rose from the dead – was harder for the Romans to ignore. 

Paul’s genius was to supercharge Jewish monotheism.  Not only did this deity personally make human beings from a mix of the divine & actual dirt – using himself as the design prototype – this deity was involved in his human creations on a quotidian basis.  In fact, Paul’s version of Yahweh was so involved, he was offering up a way for every human being to beat the thing that scared them most of all: dying.  How’s that for a deity!  And all anyone had to do was believe in the version of Jesus that he, Paul, was creating for the Gentiles (the Jews in Palestine, including Jesus’ family, having rejected it as nonsense). 

That is why Paul went to the Gentiles to invent Christianity – his tweaked version of Jewish mythology (tweaked so that Jesus would fit right into the mythology) didn’t conform to the Jews’ version — which they told him, pointedly.  So, off Paul went to make up his own. Out in the Gentile world, Paul’s inventions played far, far better. There was no one to say “Hey, wait a minute! Jesus never said that!

Now, let’s track monotheism’s progress from this point forward.  The Jews – their temple now destroyed for good – pretty much do nothing with Yahweh other than pray to him as his official “chosen people”.  A lot of good that does the Jews.  Mighty as Yahweh is — parting oceans is no small feat — he can’t seem to get a simple temple to himself rebuilt. And being Yahweh’s “Chosen People” turns out to be not just a headache but a full bore migraine. Though they “invented” the idea of monotheism, all the other monotheists declare open war on the Jews.  Go figure.

By the time Paul and the early church fathers get done with Yahweh, he’s a different deity altogether.  He’s become completely bi-polar.  One moment, he’s the angry, Canaanite El of old, the next he’s knocking up a virgin (like a horny Greek Satyr) so that his sprog can die for humanity’s sins.  Jesus – the guy preaching “Do unto others” and “Suffer the little children” and “The meek shall inherit the earth” – has zero place in Paul’s creation aside from being a kind of Jesus McChristian mascot.  Come for the “Do Unto Others” but stay for the “Beat Death”.   

The Lord Our God, father of Jesus has plans but people will have to believe if those plans are ever going to get realized.  Though Jesus specifically advocated against his followers joining a religious institution (he taught “speak directly to God”), Paul had no such compunction about churches because his success depended on having them, Jesus be damned! 

There’s that monotheistic arrogance for you! 

Already, “Do unto others” has become “Do what Paul says” and once Paul’s ideas become the church’s, it’s full on “Do what we say”.   Paul never, EVER speaks for Jesus.  The Yahweh he’s speaking for is entirely of his own making, too.  That — Paul’s vision — is the church that arises from this construction. Soon enough, a formalized, “catholic” church emerges. The Catholic Church early on put its stamp on “what God is” when they collectively created The Mycene Creed in 325. When Catholics recite their catechism, they’re uttering some version of this creed.  The church is telling each and every believer what ITS version of God is, never mind their “personal perceptions”.

Though Jesus would have you speak to God directly, “his church” says, “no, ask us first”.  But then, Jesus didn’t seem to suffer from the arrogance of monotheism.  He may be the one “Christian” ever who didn’t.

Feelings v Facts

News flash: feelings and facts are NOT the same thing. The earth is round (roundISH actually). That’s a fact. It just “is”. That I however insist, all evidence to the contrary, the earth is flat — that’s a feeling. Same goes for the sun rising in the east. I may, for some reason, get it in my head that I hate the sun rising in the east. That changes nothing: the sun will rise in the east regardless of whether I keep hating it for doing that or even if I adapt — and come to love the fact. My feelings and the facts are entirely unrelated to each other. Like most sensible people, I despise daylight savings time but, it remains a fact that, twice a year, we subject ourselves to a kind of jet lag when we move all our clocks forward and backwards for reasons we cannot tell you. It’s a fact that we adjust all our clocks. WHY we do that, ISN’T based on a fact, it’s based on a feeling someone once had — that someone else related to. The next thing you know, someone’s feeling becomes a “fact” in the sense that they went and forced everyone else to experience specifically what they were feeling.

Religion relies almost entirely on feelings, facts being inconvenient if not entirely detrimental. The scientific method is a way of thinking that tries to remove all feelings from the process. It wants only facts — both facts that are obvious and facts that must be inferred. Circumstantial evidence may be inferred evidence but it’s still evidence.

Another important facet of the scientific method is its refusal to ever grant anyone “final prophet” status. Islam’s neat trick was to proclaim Muhammed not just a prophet, but the last prophet — the final and ultimate word on what God wants. So what if it contradicts everything that went before it, it’s true now because the Koran says so. Only an infidel would question it. From a marketing point of view, it’s brilliant! You can’t contradict a teaching if it’s God’s final word on the subject. If Muhammed said or taught it, it simply “is”.

No scientist — Einstein, Dawkins and Hawking included — would ever declare themselves the final word on anything. That would contradict the scientific method itself. One is always obligated to show one’s work and accept it if someone can definitely prove us wrong. We are obligated to use new information and incorporate it into the larger narrative — to try our hardest to discern facts from feelings so as to get the truest picture of what is. How that true picture makes us feel — that’s something else entirely.

Christianity wants us to accept that knowledge isn’t something a human being can acquire, it must be “revealed” to us. The command is clear: stop thinking because thinking will get you nothing; everything you need to know will be GIVEN to you on a silver platter and all you have to do is insist as a matter of faith that it’s true. Show one’s work? No. “Trust me” is the final answer.

White supremacy isn’t based on any facts despite how strongly white people feel about their “supremacy” over everyone else. By the same token, a person who insists that God speaks to them and through them isn’t any closer to universal truth about anything. Unless they’ve got texts and emails between them and God, we’re going to assume all that happened in the believer’s mind. The reason no actual texts or emails passed back and forth is because they weren’t needed. The person speaking for God was the same person receiving God’s word. If you honestly think you’re special enough for the creator of everything in existence to use YOU as their mouthpiece, that’s not because you’re actually that special, it’s because YOU think YOU’RE “God”.

That’s the feeling most theists struggle with. On the one hand, they tell themselves that a great and powerful force wants them to do its bidding. On the other hand, there’s them — staring at themselves in a bathroom mirror — God looking into his own eyes and wondering why he keeps drinking so much when he always hates waking up like this.

Horror Movies & Christianity: A Match Made In…

To be honest, I’m not sure there’d even BE horror movies without Christianity. I used to do a show for HBO called Tales From The Crypt. Among my executive producers — my bosses — were some of the biggest filmmakers working: Joel Silver (the Lethal Weapon movies, the Die Hard movies among other Big Budget Thrillers), Bob Zemeckis (the Back To The Future movies, Forrest Gump, Castaway), Walter Hill (48 Hrs, The Warriors, Southern Comfort) and Richard Donner. Donner directed the first big Superman remake the 1978 version with Christopher Reeve. He also directed The Goonies, Scrooged, the Lethal Weapon movies, Assassins and 1976’s The Omen. For the record, while doing Crypt, I also got to work with William Friedkin, director of that other testament to the horror-worthiness of Christianity, The Exorcist. I’ll get to that momentarily. The very cool thing about working with the people I got to work with is that I got to pick their brains. Donner is a big, animal-loving puppy dog of a guy, a stoner from way back. In talking about The Omen — and why it succeeded the way that it did — he was pretty clear. After experiencing the movie, plenty of people went home, opened their Bibles (probably for the first time ever) and found — right their IN THEIR OWN HOMES — the very words that had just damned the characters in the movie that scared the crap out of them. The movie’s mythology was their religion’s mythology. That fact itself touched something down deep in them. It made the horror more personal.

Alas, I did not get the chance with Billie Friedken to talk specifically about “The Exorcist” but working with him was both challenging and rewarding. Billie directed a terrific episode called “On A Dead Man’s Chest” — about a mysterious tattoo artist whose tattoos literally come to life. We put the episode in the world of garage rock bands and hard luck music clubs. The rapper Heavy D played the tattoo artist (a small part actually). Gregg Allman and Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones also played small parts, giving us rock ‘n roll “authenticity”. Billie didn’t want big names for the rest of the cast. He wanted good actors who could play because they were rock musicians too. We cast Yul Vasquez and Paul Hipp. Tia Carrerra was the female lead and the wonderful Sherrie Rose was a groupie.

When my partner at the time — Gil Adler — and I told executive producer Joel Silver (the most actively engaged of the Crypt Partners in our quotidian lives) that we wanted to hire Billie to direct an episode of Crypt (Billie was experiencing a down period at the time), Joel — a firecracker of a human, apt to go off at any moment — warned us that Billie was a firecracker of a human, apt to go off at any moment. Gil and I — having learned how to handle a firecracker of a human as this was now our second season doing the show — told Joel we’d take our chances. For the most part, working with Billie was great. He saw Crypt as a way to get back to his bare bones, documentary-making roots. He didn’t want the band we were forming from our actors to sound in any way “produced”. If it sounded unpolished — good! If the sound quality was less than optimal — also good!

Our natural inclination was to pre-record our band’s music then play the tracks back during production with the actors pretending to play and sing. Billie wanted no part of that. We had our first creative fight. I argued for the better sound quality. Billie argued that he didn’t care about that. He wanted authenticity. Billie was, shall we say, persuasive. Quickly, too. About thirty seconds in, I surrendered. Billie didn’t care. He continued his argument — with increasing intensity and volume for another two minutes.

Finally, I managed to outshout him: “Jesus, Billie, you won the argument ten minutes ago! Stop already!”

Billie stopped. And smiled. He’d been having a blast watching me, waiting for me to finally do what I did.

But, back to Christianity and horror. If you Google “Christianity” and “Horror Movies”, the question that pops up is “Should Christians watch horror movies?” as if their tender sensibilities needed protecting (while, apparently, no one else seems to have this “tenderness” problem with their sensibilities). That framing fails to take into account how important Christian mythology is to having horror movies in the first place. Christianity did two things that Judaism didn’t as it emerged like the alien from John Hurt’s chest in the first Alien movie —

— For starters, Christianity promised that, if you believed in it, you could defeat death just like Jesus. In inventing Christianity, the Apostle Paul (Jesus had zero to do with it) focused not so much on Jesus’s “do unto others” teaching and more on the idea (not the fact since it did not happen) of Jesus rising from the dead. Consider the Big Names in the Jewish story — Abraham and Moses. When they die in the text, they die. There’s no coming back. No rising from the dead is even contemplated. On the other hand, with Christianity, zombie-fication of its hero was there at the start. The sales pitch was “Jesus is a good zombie!” Believe in him the way we tell you to and you, too, can be a good zombie just like Jesus. Judging by Paul’s results, he read the room brilliantly. People loved the idea of beating death. They still do. The second clever innovation: Satan. Hell — the way Christians think of it — really doesn’t exist in the Jewish mind. A guy who lives there like he owns the place — that doesn’t exist in the Jewish mind at all.

The closest thing Jews have to “hell” is “Sheol”, a bleak, shadowy place — “The Pit” or “The Land of Forgetfulness” — but wholly without any concept of “judgment or reward and punishment attached to it”. Aside from movies about overbearing Jewish mothers (Portnoy’s Complaint comes to mind though more because of the book than the movie), the only Jewish-inspired movie monster is the Golem. Even with plenty of “help”, the Golem ain’t much of a monster — movie or otherwise. It’s an empty vessel. Fill it with evil, it becomes evil. Fill it with good, it becomes good. As monsters go, Golem’s a total shnorrer compared to Satan.

I’m not sure human beings ever created a better character than Satan. When it comes to evil — and horror — Satan is one stop shopping. He’s also part of Christianity’s first innovation — defeating death. If that’s the carrot, Satan is the stick. If you don’t defeat death via Jesus, Satan awaits you, so, you might as well throw in your lot with Jesus. Where did this need for punishment come from? Suffering for one’s sins is not in any way organically Jewish. Guilt is — but that’s not born of paranoia. Jews are supposed to feel “guilty” for not living up to their obligation to make the world a better place for having been in it. Jews, if they’re being “proper Jews”, should feel every last bit of the world’s injustice deep down in their “souls” which should be the trigger mechanism for them doing something to change that injustice.

Movies have been especially good at pilfering bits and pieces from polytheism to create monsters. The problem almost always comes down to complexity. Make the villain too complex and the audience loses interest. That’s why Christianity’s “Satan v God” dynamic has been so successful for so long. God is good and Satan is bad. Who can’t get that?

The Catholic Church invented a whole hierarchy of good in response to the evils they perceived as threatening them. Paul invented the idea of the “Christian Soldier”. “Armored with faith”, these “heroes” set out to defeat a monster — the infidel. Hovering above and around it all, the specter of death.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula goes right at that Christian fear of death and turns it on its head. Dracula already lives forever! The thing that will stop that from happening (aside from garlic and sunshine): a cross! Christianity will stop a creature who, like Jesus, has found a way to defeat death. Oh, the irony — it burns!

My late friend Scott Nimerfro worked on Tales with me. Scott was much more an aficionado of horror movies than I am. Frankly, though I made a good living in horror, it’s not the genre I look to when it’s quittin’ time. Scott came from Minnesota. His family was kind of religious; if I remember correctly, Scott’s mom was born again. While Scott and I never talked about our religious feelings when we wrote together (we wrote several episodes of The Outer Limits together plus numerous pilots — some that we even sold — and a couple of screenplays), Scott always brought an insider’s sense of what scared Christians and what didn’t. Scott died in 2016 after a year-long battle with angiosarcoma. He would have laughed at the idea of Christianity and horror movies being a match made in either heaven or hell.

Can’t ya see it up there on the screen? Christianity and horror movies are a match made in Hollywood. But all the prerequisites for a bang-up relationship were there at the start. Throw in a talking snake and call “Action!”

Noah And His “Kangaroo Problem”

According to a Gallup poll from July 2019, 40% of Americans STILL believe in creationism. A lot of “those people” are the same troglodytes standing between America and its continuing as a democratic republic. A person who genuinely believes in the Genesis creation myth — who genuinely believes that a sky deity created a “Garden of Eden” for the benefit of two human creatures, Adam and Eve, only to have Eve ruin it all by eating a piece of fruit she wasn’t supposed to — is likely to believe literally anything. Clearly, they have no capacity to judge reality. They probably worry that Voldemort is lying in wait for them, too. But then, the Harry Potter stories have as much in common with reality as anything in the Bible does.

Water must have scared the guys who wrote the Bible more than any other natural force. Never mind “dust to dust” or “ashes to ashes”. The guys whose work product evolved into what we now call “Genesis”, imagined a proto-world, pre-creation, as being entirely liquid: “…darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”. Then, later on, when God gets good and pissed off at his favoritest creation, he uses water to wipe everyone (and everything) except Noah and his clan from the planet’s “face”. Water brought forth life; it could also bring forth death. Ironically, the book’s author(s) may have gotten it right. Life As We Know It on earth probably did begin in the water. But, there were things about the water they didn’t know as they sat down to write: where it “ended”, for instance. Columbus headed east at the behest of Spain in search of where the water “ended”. Columbus hoped to prove that the water ended in India — because the earth is round and eventually all that water had to lead back to a place they KNEW existed — albeit far away.

Now, here’s the thing: the authors of Genesis knew that India existed. Their tribe had trade with Persia and India (they were part of Persian’s “Royal Road” which operated roughly between 500 and 330 BCE) . They might have been aware that China existed (remnants of Chinese silk dating from 1070 BCE have been found in Egypt). They definitely knew that Africa existed. These three continental land masses are call connected, ya see. One could walk from present day Beijing to present day Paris and then to present day Cape Town, South Africa. One could NOT walk however to Chicago. Or to the Sydney Opera House. One could not walk to present day Brazil or take in the Andes.

More recent thinking puts the writing of Genesis (including its version of a flood story) at about the time of the Babylonian exile — around 600 BC. By comparison, the scribes who created the Sumerian flood story in the Gilgamesh Epic began their work around 2100 BC. This text was likely familiar to Genesis’s authors. What was entirely UNfamiliar to them was, say a kangaroo or a koala — animals that existed only on the continent of Australia. If you had shown a picture of a kangaroo to the guys who wrote Genesis, they would have not known what to make of it. It didn’t look like any animal they’d ever seen before. And, when they sat down to write their flood story, when they imagined their character Noah leading two of all the world’s animals into the boat he’d built, two of the animals Noah absolutely did not picture (because the guy writing him couldn’t to begin with) were kangaroos.

For the very same reason, Jesus could not possibly have gone to North America because no one he knew had the least idea such a thing even existed. More to the point, the Apostle Paul did not know North America existed while he was creating almost the entire Jesus mythology. Paul invented Christianity, not Jesus. Jesus had the same knowledge of Christianity (zero) that Paul had of North America. Look, creative people can and do make up some remarkable crap. That goes for people on a spiritual journey too. Goes for them especially.

There’s nothing wrong with the Noah story. It’s charming in its way. There is EVERYTHING wrong with thinking the Noah story is in any way true. It’s a story FFS!. What about fish? What about dolphins? What about creatures that aren’t necessarily animals — like algae. What about viruses and bacteria? It’s genuinely horrifying to know that there are people walking around the planet today who honestly think this could have actually happened..

It’s wrong to think that Jesus actually showed up one day here in North America. When the basis for your belief system is over-loaded with sweet stories you think are true, that’s not a reflection on the stories, that’s all on you. People who insist that their angry, neurotic god Yahweh created everything end up with a throttled, limited view of the world.

But then, look at Yahweh — he’s a being powerful enough to create everything. Yet he obsesses endlessly on humans and all their shortcoming. If humans suck as creatures, that isn’t on them, it’s on Yahweh, their creator. And Yahweh, don’t forget, got completely outflanked in his own creation by both a talking snake and the woman he crafted from Adam’s rib. Yahweh, really, can’t do anything right.

Maybe Noah’s problem isn’t so much that he couldn’t imagine a kangaroo as that Yahweh probably couldn’t.

Beware The “Franken-Christian”

In my time, I’ve written a few horror movies. The whole point of a horror movie, of course, is the monster. Good monsters endure, bad ones get forgotten instantly. I’ve written for a few “good” monsters — Freddy Krueger, for instance (I co-wrote a bunch of episodes of the “Freddy’s Nightmares” syndicated TV series back in the early 1990’s). Freddy, of course, is a great monster. Great mythology. Great character nuances (which, in a monster, are pure gold). I co-wrote “Children Of The Corn II: Deadly Harvest”. That was a crap monster, that one. Vague and mealy-mouthed (corn-meal of course). I also had a hand in the very good monster in “Tales From The Crypt Presents Demon Knight”, the first Tales feature film. Billy Zane gets full credit for turning what was, on the page, a pedestrian monster into what was, on the screen, a very good monster: fun, funny yet nasty & believably vicious. Then there was Lilith — the monster of “Tales From The Crypt Presents Bordello Of Blood” — a good idea for a good monster that got turned into a pedestrian idea for a monster because if you cast a movie for all the wrong reasons, you’ll screw up your movie. I worked with the “Walking Dead” team (briefly) when they tried to turn their show into an interactive arena event so I speak fluent “zombie”. While working on Tales From The Crypt, one of my bosses was Richard Donner, the director of horror classic “The Omen” whose wisdom about good monsters I drank like the finest, Jim Jones-iest kool aid. Yeah… I know a thing or two about monsters. And We The People have one right in our faces: The Franken-Christian!

How else to explain the mind-bending trip from “Do unto others” to this — the above picture. Or this —

What’s a non-Christian to make of American Christianity when it paints itself the way it paints itself? There’s no Jesus in any of this whatsoever. And yet, THIS monster has what it claims is Jesus’s face. Reminds me of a really good “Tales” episode directed by a talented guy named Bill Malone and starring a really terrific actress named Sherrie Rose: “Only Skin Deep”. A confident alpha male picks up a mysterious, masked woman named Molly at a costume party. Goes back to her place (in a funky warehouse space) where they have great sex — except she never takes off her weird mask. As the confident alpha male will learn, that “mask” is the face of Molly’s last lover — and she’ll be wearing HIS face when she goes out to party next time.

Molly was a very, very good monster.

Maybe the problem with too many American Christians is that they don’t celebrate Jesus’s life nearly as much as they celebrate his death. They’re less interested in “doing unto others” than they are in the ooga-booga and magical thinking that the Apostle Paul created out of whole cloth as he took his version of Jesus — and Jesus’s teaching — out to the Gentile world. The Jews rejected Paul’s version of Jesus because many of them, unlike Paul, had actually MET Jesus and heard him teach. Also — the Jews knew their mythology and knew that what Paul was trying to do with it simply didn’t conform to their understanding of it. Paul had little use for a living Jesus. He would have had no use for a Jesus who lived to a ripe old age and died in his bed, surrounded by loved ones. Paul needed a Jesus who was dead but (most importantly) who ROSE from the dead. Paul needed a Jesus who beat death as the basis for the church he imagined. It’s a genius invention — but that is what is: an invention. Jesus has nothing to do with it.

Ah, but “Franken-Jesus” does. Put together from disconnected parts, the Franken-Jesus preaches “do unto others” while practicing no such thing.

His followers, by design, are all Franken-Christians. They worship the falsest of idols.

And thus, the horror movie of American life fades in…