Constellations and consternations

OrionDating back 6000 years to some of the earliest records of human civilization, cultures around the world gave name to constellations of stars in the sky. Many of these are still used by modern cultures to describe star patterns.

At one point these star patterns were considered truly divine representations of gods, goddesses or creatures that figured in the all-important mythology of people seeking cultural narrative.

Of all the constellations there is probably none more potentially significant, universal or transferable than that of Orion. The pattern of stars in the constellation Orion can be seen around the world. With its “belt” of stars across the center of the constellation, and arms and legs extended, Orion lends itself to all manner of interpretation.

For example, In ancient Egypt this constellation was known as Osiris, a character who upon being killed by an evil brother rose again to live immortal among the stars. That story hews closely to the character of Jesus Christ, who the Bible says was betrayed by one of his brother disciples only to rise again and live on it heaven.

Universal convergence

Sidney_Hall_-_Urania's_Mirror_-_Orion_(best_currently_available_version_-_2014)It is an interesting thing to consider that so many heritages seem to converge in symbolic ways. Yet there is also supposedly an advanced worldview that dismisses the constellations as having any real divine significance. Modern culture has largely dismissed the heritage of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Asian or Scandinavian gods as “pagan” religions.

At least part of the reason we no longer abide by constellations as gods is that we recognize that constellations are not at all what they seem to the human eye. They do not exist on some flat or equal plane in space. They certainly don’t hang or conveniently travel across the so-called “dome” of heaven.

Bigger pictures

Space is an eternal, infinite place. The stars we see above our heads are literally billions of miles apart. They only appear to be fixed in space and time because our comprehension from this pinprick of a planet makes it hard if not  impossible to perceive constellations as anything other than an absolute truth. Of course many people like the predictability and familiarity of the Big Dipper hanging in the night sky. It is recognizable, constant and real.

Yet the Big Dipper is not a “thing”. It is nothing but our imaginations at work trying to find symbolism and constancy in the universe. Those stars in the Big Dipper are so far apart no human being could traverse them in a million lifetimes.

Human awareness

Orion_constelation_PP3_map_PLFor a long time in history the stars in the Big Dipper and Orion and Cygnus and hundreds of other constellations played an important role in human understanding of the universe. At the time when constellations such as Orion were recorded by early humans on rock face carvings 36 to 38,000 years ago, science was obviously not yet evolved enough to determine the real position of earth in time and space.

So we went with what we knew, and it served the human race well to establish guidelines for behavior based on ethical and moral parables in which the gods depicted in constellations sometimes played a part. They were there for everyone to see, after all. There was no escaping the gaze and wonder of gods staring down at us from above.

A single star

Eventually that notion of god above congealed into a singular deity called God or Yahweh or Jehovah. Even that singular god shares divinity with other religions such as the Muslim faith, whose early heroes include some of the same characters as the Bible. These were scriptural constellations of a sort. They share the same patterns and in some cases, the same values or attributes.

For some people, those scriptural constellations are quite literal in their conception and their place in history. For those believers, faith is fixed in the sky or the mind much like a constellation. It gives them assurance that their faith is anchored in the foundations of the universe. Their god still hangs above and their Bible or Koran is the constellation of wisdom. It shall not be moved. For those believers, accepting anything other than a literal interpretation of truth causes much consternation.

What good are they? 

It requires so much thinking to conceive the stars outside their constellations. They seem so unanchored and random in that mode. What good are stars to us if they just hang out there in the universe and do not reflect the patterns we impose on them to make ourselves feel relevant and fixed in the center of the universe?

There are people whose conception of the Bible is so literal they cannot accept what science has to say about the universe in contrast to what their religion tells them is true. They would rather believe in the fixed constellation of truth handed them by literalism than to contend with the messy, miraculous truth of life in a universe evolved from chaos and subject to laws of gravity, time and evolution that transcend the narrow worldview of constellations and consternations.

Fears and grace

Because what it all comes down to is the fear that God will not love us if we open our minds to the truth. But the gods of constellations seem to have departed once the real kingdom of God here on earth was revealed. The greatest constellation of all is love. It is what drives us to appreciate the grace of our existence in such a universe. We don’t need a pattern of stars in the sky or an outmoded take on the bible that contradicts itself in its supposed literalism and inerrancy.

You can feel free to live, to move around and find truth in the organic symbolism of scripture and not get tied into a harmful mythology that says outmoded laws and wrathful gods rule our world. We’re supposed to be brighter than that. Even Orion can tell you that.

Thinking back on Santa Claus


On the day after Christmas it is not uncommon for many of us to raise our heads and wonder, “What the Hell Just Happened?”

And, who the Hell is Santa Claus, really? 

That’s the question we never asked as kids. We did not care. Santa brought gifts. That’s all we wanted from the dude. 

Other figures

Of course, the same thing goes for many great religious figures, as well. The Catholic Pope, for example, has proven to be an enigmatic symbol for the faith over the ages. Some popes are conservative. Not many are considered liberal. Yet the very ideas upon which Christianity is founded are liberal in foundation, if not practice. It can be hard to tell who to believe, and what, once religion becomes dogma. 

Questioning beliefs

Recently The Catholic Church has enjoyed a higher and possibly more positive profile thanks to the fresh outlook of Pope Francis, champion of the poor and provocative advocate for the disadvantaged in general.

But the Vatican has some catching up to do, and plenty of company in the indulgence of overreaching with its religious authority. Of course populist religion can be just as overbearing and at times ridiculous in its efforts to create and control the doctrinal status quo.

Beating up on Harry Potter

You may recall that when the Harry Potter book series by J.K. Rowling became popular, some Christians took offense at the notion of children reading about wizardry and witchcraft. While librarians and educators across the country celebrated the fact that so many children had returned to reading through interest generated by the Harry Potter books, a few vocal Christians called for a ban on Harry Potter material because the books contained “magic, sorcery” and other material deemed to be “anti-Christian.”

What the anti- Potter clan fails to mention is that the Harry Potter books contain no more magic, wizardry and witchcraft than a similar series of books by C.S. Lewis, the Christian apologetic writer who authored the Chronicles of Narnia The Narnia books depict a world where witches rule, animals talk and a giant lion repeatedly rescues a band of children who achieve the status of royalty––a most undemocratic result. The seven books in the series combine to form an engaging fantasy that can be read as simple adventure stories or analyzed for spiritual symbolism in the characters. But there is no escaping the fact that sorcery and magic play a major part in the plotline where talking animals, transfigurations, dragons and Deep Magic figure prominently.

Belief bait

Author C.S. Lewis wrote the Chronicles of Narnia in a literary form that conveyed Christian values in a fantastical manner, the better to interest children. Christian apologists might argue that even though sorcery exists in the Chronicles of Narnia stories they should be given a pass because the plotline hews closely to the Passion Story of Jesus Christ. The main character in the Chronicles of Narnia is a lion named Aslan who sacrifices himself to save the world.

 Hobbits and Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, was a collegiate classmate of C. S. Lewis, who used similar standards in writing the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien’s work which features magical elves, wizards and mythical creatures throughout. There is no question sorcery plays a major role in the plot line of Rings Trilogy, yet when movies based on the Tolkien works hit theaters, Christian scholars scrambled to highlight the spiritual message, not the sorcery it took to achieve victory in the end. It seems that when secular literature plays on fantasy, magic and sorcery, it is some kind of sin. But when books with apparently Christian underpinnings do the same, they get a pass. This double standard ranks as hypocrisy.

 Moral messages

The message that good conquers evil in the Harry Potter series matches that of the Narnia and Rings series. And since everyone in the Harry Potter series is doing magic, it cancels out the supposedly mythical advantage of being able to wave a wand to save the day. The issue of consequence may be that Harry Potter gets as much help solving problems from his associates as he does from some metaphysical force that can be equated to God. Perhaps it is the practical, humanist message of personal autonomy and self-actualization that is most offensive to Christian apologists.

Education matters 

There is a practical and valuable solution to these literary conundrums, and that is education. Any person who is taught the basic laws of science and physics knows that the type of magic in metaphysical trickery has been long proven to be impossible. This fact alone proves the Harry Potter books are based on fantasy. Yet the books honor a healthy and vital aspect of childhood: imagination.

Of course the religious apologist who believes strongly in miracles cannot logically explain why magic should be impossible for Harry Potter yet possible in the Bible.  This is where the worldviews of literary metaphor and biblical literalism collide. The advocates for biblical literalism would just as soon murder the apparently faithless fantasies of Harry Potter than be forced to prove the validity of their own set of miracles to the culture at large. In this way the evil riddle of literalism muddles the otherwise separate worlds of fact and fantasy, undermining the natural order of rational determinism founded on common sense, discernment and logic.

And who abided by that last bit of common sense? Why, none other than Jesus Christ himself, whose parables contained organic imagery that served to illustrate spiritual truths. 

Metaphor rules

As for the lyricism of Christmas itself, there is little harm in indulging a child’s fantasy, to a point. The legend of Santa Claus used to enliven the Christmas season is a case in point. Santa Claus is nothing more an overgrown magic elf with the power to fly, squeeze down chimneys and conjure Christmas presents at will. Talk about your potentially dangerous fantasies! Yet children sooner or later figure out that Santa Clause is not real, a rite of passage for many. The innocent game of charming children with the surprise of gifts that arrived in the night is a cherished tradition for many families.

But if you really analyze the Santa Claus myth, it is as goofy, fantastical and full of magic as Harry Potter. Yet the same people who willingly accept magic as harmless fantasy in association with their religious holiday somehow refuse to accept the role fantasy plays in literature and deem the Harry Potter series evil.

The propensity to project evil on the world is a hallmark of biblical and religious literalism. The most common targets happen to be competing story traditions. Meanwhile the implausible exaggerations of biblical storytelling are excused from critical scrutiny under protection of their exonerated status as “scripture.” Biblical literalism can be a pretty prejudicial worldview. Worse yet, it pretty much confuses the issue of truth no matter how you look at it. 


Portions of this blog post are excerpted from The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age by Christopher Cudworth