What Does Jesus Have to Do With Moving Violations?

The relationship between America and religion has been quite interesting to watch over the country’s relatively short history. After all, some could say the country was founded by the Pilgrims: those seeking freedom from religious intolerance. Of course, the Lenape, the Lakota and the Navajo, among many others, were here first. But that’s a different article.

Founded on the ability of its citizens to practice religion peacefully – no matter what religion that happened to be – there’s a saying we all know that’s supposed to inform government decisions: the separation of church and state. In other words, while those who lead are free to believe in whatever they’d like, they can’t use their power to force people to believe similarly.

Which brings us to an interesting case that’s sprouted up in Indiana.

Does Jesus write traffic tickets?

In August, Ellen Bogan was pulled over in Union County for an alleged traffic violation.

Everything seemed to be perfectly normal. In fact, some could argue it worked out even better than normal for Bogan, who received a warning instead of a ticket.

But just before Bogan thought the traffic stop was winding down, Indiana State Police Trooper Brian Hamilton decided to ask her a series of questions: Does she go to church? Does she believe in Jesus Christ? Does she realize Jesus died for her sins?

“It’s completely out of line and it just – it took me aback,” Bogan recently said. After those questions were asked, Hamilton allegedly took out a religious pamphlet from his cruiser before presenting it to her and letting her go on her way.

Partnering with the American Civil Liberties Union, Bogan filed a lawsuit against Hamilton in a federal court in September. It remains to be seen how that case will unfold, and in the meantime, the police department says it’s taken some sort of disciplinary measures. But that statement lacked specifics.

What’s going on here, anyway?

At the very basic level, Hamilton should be ashamed of himself for his actions after pulling Bogan over.

Even though he might have been well-intentioned, the fact is that as an officer in uniform, he is a representative of the government. More specifically: a government that prides itself on keeping church and state affairs separate from one another.

Because of what they represent, most law-abiding Americans are going to be pretty scared during even the most routine of interactions with police officers. After all, state troopers are physical manifestations of law enforcement. We are taught from an early age to respect and/or fear them, lest there be consequences.

And that respect usually entails listening to what they have to say and keeping quiet in order to not dig yourself into an even deeper hole.

Bogan did what most smart Americans would do: behaved cordially and kept quiet. But the experience to her, a non churchgoer, was so odd that she couldn’t let sleeping dogs lie. And I guess that’s understandable given today’s political climate.

But at the end of the day…

While Hamilton was clearly out of line here – after all, officers aren’t allowed to detain you for longer than they need to if you’re not going to be arrested for a crime – let’s keep in mind that his actions, no matter how you want to phrase them, aren’t grievous.

We of course can’t just hop into Hamilton’s mind and understand exactly what was going through it at a certain point, but it appears as though his offense is pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. Just consider the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, an Oklahoma City officer accused of sexually assaulting women he pulled over.

Police officers are humans, too. Even the calmest, coolest and most collected officer will from time to time remember that he or she is more than a badge and a gun. That officer will show attributes that make him or her, well, human.

So is this story so outrageous because Hamilton was trying to convert a constituent to his religion? Would it be a nonstory if he asked Bogan whether he’d buy Girl Scout cookies that his daughter was trying to sell? Or would that be going over the line, too?

I have to admit: I do expect things to be different in the private sector. I’ve been accosted about my contribution to global warming while shopping at a local business. I didn’t really expect it, but that’s Free Speech at work. Perhaps the better example would be another public servant, such as a teacher. Should teachers be able to proselytize to their captive audience? Of course not; some of the teachers I respected the most over the years were the ones who were obviously opinionated but didn’t let their feelings enter into their work “personas.”

The bottom line here is that, as a country, we are too easily offended by just about everything. There was even a considerable uproar over a recent Jeopardy! category called “What Women Want.” While the category might have been poorly conceived, particularly in today’s perpetually offended society, take a step back and realize that the family-oriented quiz show likely wasn’t trying to make some grandiose political commentary on a touchy subject.

The easier answer? The producers made a mistake.

While Hamilton was certainly in the wrong in this particular scenario, is it really that big of a deal? Did anyone else come forward to say that the trooper had done the same thing to them? Would people care if an atheist asked a religious constituent whether he or she believed in no god?

We will never live in a perfect society. But with all the other craziness going on across the globe, it might be time for America to take a deep breath and pick bigger battles.

Image Credit: Keoni Cabral (via Flickr)

Theology in Music: Opeth’s ‘Pale Communion’


It’s no secret that modern heavy metal bands tend to be a theatrical lot. But while I’m sure there are some bona-fide Satanists thrown into the mix, the majority of metal musicians who purport to be on friendly terms with the devil are putting on a show.

On one hand, that kind of artifice is lamentable considering how genuine and personal a journey music is meant to be. On the other hand, it gives these artists license to explore the darker side of theology with a lot more freedom than if they simply wrote about their lives as-is.

Anyone who’s sufficiently well-versed in the world of metal knows the name Opeth. Hailing from Sweden, Opeth have built up an incredibly varied and masterful discography over the last 20-plus years. And, yes, frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt has written his share of quasi-satanic material, though he usually gives the impression that it’s done more for storytelling purposes than for coming clean about his true nature.

But Opeth in 2014 is a different beast than they were in 1990. Their music has gradually become more experimental, and the death metal tropes that they leaned on so heavily 10 albums ago has been replaced with a much more contemplative and deliberate, not to mention less harsh, sound.

Some fans lament the change, while others have rejoiced that Opeth are not content to travel the same creative ground again and again.

But what of the band’s darker themes? It’s clear that the band has purposefully distanced themselves from the metal genre from a musical standpoint, but what about the lyrics? Pagan rituals and nods to Satanism only surfaced occasionally in Opeth’s music over their long and storied career, and when they did, it was done only in the name of telling a compelling story.

And like their music, the band’s lyrics, too, have grown up as the band has matured.

There are at least two theologically-charged songs on the band’s latest studio effort, Pale Communion. The first is the 11-minute “Moon Above, Sun Below.” Here’s a passage:

“You are sleeping unhampered by guilt/Comes the morning you shut down/The devil’s breath is a disease on your lips/Reaching out for your loss/You prey on your flock

Seeking out the weaker hearts/With eternity in your grip/And on a lifelong throne of sub-religion/They will eat from your hand/With the moon above and the sun below”

A condemnation of religious fundamentalism, maybe? A call to be suspicious of charlatans masquerading as religious soothsayers? In any event, it’s clear that this track takes a less than favorable look at religion, though one gets the sense that it’s more carefully targeted than some of the band’s previous output; Opeth is capable, in 2014, of criticizing one particularly ugly part of faith – the fact that it frequently attracts the power-hungry – and speaks to that fact alone without making broad generalizations.

Things do get a little more complicated on brilliant closer “Faith in Others” – a track that Steven Wilson (crown prince of progressive rock and close friend of Mikael Åkerfeldt) proudly named Opeth’s “finest achievement” to date.

It’d be hard to disagree. It would be enough if the song were only one of two songs in Opeth’s entire discography to feature live strings. It would be enough for it to only be a perfect album closer. And it would be enough to simply be a mesmerizingly beautiful song with challenging lyrics. Instead, the song accomplishes each of these things and more.

I can’t help but provide the lyrics in full:

“The grave of our youth is up ahead/And life has become a burden/We move in circles of suppressed despair/Waiting for the sun/And turning stones to find evidence/But it hides in the recesses of our hearts

A written decree of our loss/And we carried no faith in the cross/And the cold years are coming/For the victims of a longing

Out through the doors of starvation/And into the rains of damnation/Where the bitter winds are singing/For the victims of a longing

We carried along through squalor/With an inborn need to dominate and possess/It gives birth to an anger inside/And we can’t control this

The blood of departure in our tracks/Dripping from our emptying vessels/Your hand reached out to hold mine/But you’re grasping melting ice

Asleep in the rain/A child once again/And the ghost in my head/Has forgiven me/And lifted his curse upon me”

Talking about this song would almost seem to lessen its power, but I’m going to anyway, if only briefly. As funny as it sounds, this track comes across like an atheist’s crisis of faith. It begins with something of a scathing criticism of religious-minded people, likening them to listless, purposeless wanderers, waiting for an eternal reward to give their lives meaning.

And then, there toward the end of the song, the narrator nevertheless gives in to the “ghost in his head” – a specter of his faith, perhaps? – and finds that, despite the doubt that’s plagued him, he still believes that his lapse in faith will be forgiven: a realization that he cannot help but regard as a curse. Why a curse? Perhaps because, according to the scripture, if you choose to believe it, there’s always a way back to faith. Always forgiveness for those who ask. The narrator, however, seems to regard the process of asking as a display of weakness.

Dissecting lyrics in this way is always a tricky proposition. It’s prone to error and misinterpretation. I might be putting words in the artist’s mouth, or misinterpreting the song entirely.

That, in a nutshell, is what’s so beautiful about music. I’ve gotten from this music whatever I brought into it. I’ve transposed all of my baggage and doubt as a struggling Christian onto this very beautiful song about faith.

And that doesn’t make my interpretation less valid – just more personal.

Mr Åkerfeldt and the rest of Opeth are clearly on a journey toward self-discovery. They’ve never sounded more confident than they do on this latest album, but it’s clear that they’re still looking for something. Wondering if they’ll ever find it is part of the singular thrill of following this band.

Hello, Readers! Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself

Kim was already kind enough to welcome me formally to Our Thoughts, but I wanted to take a moment to tell you a little bit more about myself.

My name is Daniel Faris. I’m 25 years old and I live in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I graduated from the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University in 2011. I’ve been making my living as a freelance journalist and ghostwriter ever since, as well as helping out with the marketing efforts of local businesses like Kramer CAT and more nationally recognized brands such as Earbits. My work has appeared on Forbes, the London School of Economics & Political Science, and a number of pop culture blogs.

I’ve come to Our Thoughts to share my musings and experiences as a struggling Christian. I grew up attending church, but have always had difficulty applying the tenets of faith to my life in a practical, personal way. My years at college also saw me drifting further from the church and from faith in general.

I’ve flirted with atheism throughout the years. I’ve doubted and wondered whether there was any room in my life for the God my parents taught me to fear when I was a child.

And, yes, I still doubt. Regularly. But faith is nothing without doubt to compare it with, yes?

As for my intentions for the site, I plan to share, in my time here, some of the ways that my faith has, in turns, been tested and reaffirmed over the years.

I’ll also make a point of exploring faith through the lens of modern music. I listen almost exclusively to secular artists these days, and I’m continually surprised to find theological discussions in the most unlikely places.

Anyway, I suppose that’s a suitable introduction for now.  I’ll be back soon for my inaugural post: a look at a former death metal band whose discovery of the phrase “musically uninhibited” has given their music a thoughtfulness and a renewed clarity of purpose.

Stay tuned.

In the meantime, feel free to connect with me on Twitter and Google+, or stop by my music blog, New Music Friday.

Welcome Daniel Faris to Our Thoughts

It’s been a few years since we did a post like this, but we are pleased to announce our newest blogger on Our Thoughts: Daniel Faris.

Daniel Faris graduated from the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University in 2011, and has since embarked on a career as a freelance blogger and journalist. You can usually find him discussing political and social issues at Only Slightly Biased, or you can join his alter ego over at New Music Friday for an in-depth look at progressive music.

Please joining us in welcoming Daniel to the Our Thoughts team. :)

The Lord healed the people

In our Gospel Doctrine class today, we were discussing the story of Hezekiah. I won’t get into all the details of his story here, but there is one aspect I felt impressed to write about here.

When Hezekiah started his reign, he inherited a kingdom from his father and grandfather, who each had reigned in unrighteousness. They had disrespected the temple and let it get to a state disuse and misuse.

His first order of business was to gather the Levites together to sanctify the temple. Once the temple was back to working order, he invited all of Israel to come together to celebrate the Passover, something they hadn’t done for a long time.

This brings us to 2 Chr. 30:17–20: Continue reading The Lord healed the people

You’ll never view the strait and narrow path the same again

I gave the lesson in Family Home Evening tonight. I decided to use the opportunity to show our children how they had been looking at the strait and narrow path from the wrong perspective.

It’s not their fault. After all, they view it the same way as most everyone does and how it is portrayed in popular LDS art. A careful reading of the scriptures, however, shows us that the most popular conception of the strait and narrow path is an assumption we have made, which has no scriptural support.

To see the strait and narrow path from a new perspective, we must use a scripture chain.  Continue reading You’ll never view the strait and narrow path the same again

Exploring baptism in EQ

In elders quorum class today, we had a great discussion about baptism.

The instructor started off by noting that the topic of baptism seems basic and hard to delve into, but I think our discussion disproved that position.

He started off asking the class to share how their view regarding baptism now compares to our view of it when we were baptized. Several of us shared our thoughts, and it was interesting that all who did were baptized at 8 years old. Continue reading Exploring baptism in EQ