Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Real Encounters With the Paranormal?

Given that Halloween is upon us, and this is the time for spooky unnatural events to occur, I thought I would share with you a few related personal stories.

I grew up hearing many bizarre stories from my mother concerning her youth. She used to tell me stories about seeing lights bouncing around in the sky and a fireball passing close overhead, so close that her father threw his hat at it. She was not afraid of these things since she had never heard anyone talking about UFOs and flying saucers from other planets, and she saw them often enough to where she just accepted them as normal.

The most intriguing and unbelievable story she told me was of the time she got up in the middle of the night to use the restroom (done outdoors in those days). When she stepped onto the front porch she noticed a multi-floored building across the road with the windows all lit up. This may not sound all that strange except for the fact that my mother lived in the country where there was no electricity, and only trees were across the road.

My mother also told me that she would occasionally hear a disembodied voice telling her something was going to happen, and it would always happen. It was like she had a personal invisible prophet speaking to her from time to time. The first time this happened she was fairly young. She heard the voice say that the barn was on fire. Then, just a minute or so later, a brother came running to the house saying that the barn was on fire. When I was in elementary school, my best friend’s mother came to our house. As my mother was talking to her, the voice told her that my friend’s mother and father were going to get a divorce. A couple of years later this came to pass.

Back in the late 1970’s, soon after my grandmother died, several of my relatives were at my grandfather’s house. An uncle was sitting in a chair directly opposite a wall where a whatnot hung. On a shelf of the whatnot was a small porcelain cup that had belonged to my grandmother. Suddenly my uncle saw the cup slide off the shelf and begin floating in the air toward him. Flabbergasted, all he could do was stare. When the cup got within a few feet of him, it quit moving towards him and the handle turned upward as if someone was holding it. Slowly it descended straight to the floor whereupon the cup appeared to have been released and then rolled over until the handle contacted the floor. He later described it to me as something straight from the TV show “Bewitched.” A second uncle, who was standing nearby but facing the opposite direction, caught a glimpse of the cup as it hit the floor. Thinking a young niece was responsible, he called out for her to stop throwing things. She was not even in the room at the time. A cousin was in the dining room at the time and reported that he also caught a glimpse, through a doorway, of the cup as it was moving though the air. When the second uncle asked the first how the cup got on the floor, the latter was speechless. After asking a few more times, he was finally able to answer that it had just floated over there. Several of the family members got together and tried to determine what had caused the cup to come off the shelf, cross the room, and settle on the floor. During the course of their investigation, they set the cup back on the shelf and pushed it off my hand. The cup sailed quickly through the air and hit the floor with such force as to break it into many pieces. A third uncle, when later told about this incident, said that he would give a hundred dollars to have seen that cup floating through the air. The uncle that saw the whole event responded that he would give a hundred dollars to not have seen it.

What do you think of these stories? Do you believe they happened just as I told them? You are probably expecting me to now tell you that I just made them up for this Halloween season. If so, then you would be wrong. I did not make these stories up. They were told to me by my relatives. And given that the relatives reporting these stories were trustworthy, I have to believe there is something to them. I just don’t know what. What was the point of the lights in the air and the building across the road my mother saw? I don’t know and neither did she. What was the point of the cup floating through the air? Some of my relatives believe that the cup was moved by my recently deceased grandmother, who owned the cup. I don’t know what to make of it. Given that, until the cup incident, my uncle was a diehard skeptic about supposed supernatural occurrences reported by others gives his story even more credence.

I have personally only had a couple of weird experiences that seemed paranormal in nature. Many years ago I went with a female coworker to a new restaurant in town for lunch. It was fixed up with a lot of decorations, TVs on the walls, and a side room with arcade games. While waiting for our food, I began watching an old B&W movie that had just started. The title of the movie was a woman’s name that I cannot remember, so let’s just say it was Amelia. Well, at the point that Amelia makes her first appearance in the movie, she is asked who she is. She responds, “Amelia.” Well, just at the time she said her name, an employee of the restaurant came over the intercom to call out the name of the customer whose order was ready to pick up. You guessed it, the name was Amelia. Kind of bizarre, don’t you think. Anyway, after my friend and I finished eating, we were just sitting there relaxing when I heard a deep male voice behind me say, “Better get back to work.” I quickly turned and looked all around, but there was no one anywhere near me. Just when I thought I might be hearing things, my coworker said, “Yeah, you’re right.” I asked her who she was talking to. She said, “Didn’t you just say we needed to get back to work?” I responded that I had not, but I had heard someone else saying it. To this day I still don’t know whose voice that was or where it came from. Upon telling my mother, she of course believed it was a supernatural warning that we really needed to get back to work.

On March 30, 1981, as I was driving home from work, I heard a report on the radio that President Ronald Reagan, Press Secretary James Brady, and others had been attacked and shot by a crazed gunman. The report went on to say that James Brady, as a result of a gunshot wound to his head, was dead. Being a man of faith at that time, I began praying that Brady would somehow not be dead. I knew this was a rather brazen prayer given that I was in fact praying for nothing less than a resurrection. Later I heard reports that Brady was in fact not dead. The earlier reports had been incorrect. Even so, the report of Brady still being alive gave me pause.

To be honest, I am skeptical of all supernatural or paranormal stories, even MINE. It seems that when such claims are put to the test scientifically, natural explanations are always forthcoming. One person who has been diligent about exposing people with supposed psychic, paranormal, or supernatural abilities is magician James Randi (aka The Amazing Randi, must see this video). For many years now he has had a challenge in which if a person can demonstrate his powers under controlled conditions he will receive a substantial cash prize. Everyone who has taken this challenge has failed. Randi documents many exposés in Flim-Flam!: Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions as well as other books.

Even so, may you have a HAPPY and SPOOKY HALLOWEEN.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

An Interview With Myself

I recently released my first novel, “Passion is a Harsh Taskmaster.” Since I am an unknown author trying to self-promote my book, I have not been inundated with requests for interviews by the established media. Therefore, I decided to interview myself. Why not? Who better to ask just the right questions? I can be just as hard or easy on myself as I choose to be. So, without further ado, here is Randy C. Finch’s interview with author Randy C. Finch.

Q: I have read your novel, “Passion is a Harsh Taskmaster,” several times now and find it a good read and thought-provoking. I know this is your first novel, but I understand that it’s not the first thing you’ve written. Is that true?
A: No comment.
Q: Huh?
A: Just joking! Yes, you understand correctly. Having been a chemical engineer for the last 33 years, I have written many technical reports. I have also written and presented many papers at conferences. Apart from my work, I have authored over 60 computer related articles for magazines and journals. For two years I wrote a regular column for a computer journal. I also had several essays published in a philosophical journal and some poetry published online and in book compilations. I have actually written some unpublished SciFi short stories as well. About 10 years ago I published a non-fiction book, “Beginnings to Endings,” which is a humorous philosophy book.
Q: So, what prompted you to write a novel?
A: I have thought about writing a novel for many years. When I was a teenager, I was an avid reader of science fiction novels. Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and others were my favorite novelists. In my post-teen years I discovered John E. Stith. The first novel I read of his was “Manhattan Transfer.” I read the first chapter in a SciFi magazine and immediately went to a local bookstore and preordered a copy. I just recently reread the novel in eBook format on my smart phone. It’s an excellent read. After Manhattan Transfer, I obtained and read every book Stith wrote. He is one of, if not my favorite, SciFi authors. His books made me want to write my own novel even more. The thing that drove me over the edge was a dream I had a little over a year ago.
Q: A dream?
A: Yes, you remember the dream we had, don’t you? In the dream a religious skeptic cheats on his Christian wife. He is really torn up about it and decides he must go to her, confess his infidelity, and beg her forgiveness.
Q: Ah yes, I remember now!
A: Of course you do. Anyway, just as the man, whose name is Tom, is about to leave for home, he is inexplicably confronted by a man from the future telling him that it will be a big mistake to reconcile with his wife. Unpleasant things will happen if he does.
Q: So how much of your novel is based on the dream you had?
A: The core of the first third or so of the book is based on my dream. I embellished it with character development and dialog, of course.
Q: What about the remaining part of the book?
A: Once I realized that my dream was a good idea for a book, I soon realized that there had to be more. There had to be some kind of twist. When you read the book, you will see that the man from the future makes additional visits and provides more warnings to Tom. Then, about halfway through the book, something very unexpected happens. Everything after that point is based on my waking thoughts rather than my dreaming thoughts.
Q: So, what happens?
A: I can’t say. That would be too much of a spoiler for those who haven’t yet read my book.
Q: So you’re just going to leave those reading this interview hanging in order to prompt them to buy and read the book?
A: Absolutely.
Q: Okey dokey, then. Let’s move on. It’s seems rather strange that your dream would be specifically about a skeptic married to a Christian. Why do you suppose your dream was so defined on this point?
A: That’s an easy one. In real life I am a religious skeptic and my wife is a Christian.
Q: Really? How in the world did you end up married?
A: Well, I was a Christian when we got married. I de-converted about five years afterwards.
Q: I guess that was a tough time for your marriage.
A: To some degree, yes. However, we soon discovered that our love for each other was stronger than our differences in beliefs. Next year we will celebrate our 30th anniversary. We love each other more today than yesterday. Say, that would make a good song.
Q: It has already been done years ago by Spiral Starecase.
A: I know. I was being facetious.
Q: I couldn’t tell without an emoticon.
A: Oh, sorry. I should have added one.
Q: Well, anyway, back to the interview. So, I guess you being married to a Christian explains why you present Christians in such a positive light in your novel. Many skeptics these days make fun of and denigrate Christians.
A: Oh, absolutely. And it’s not just my wife. I know many Christians, and the vast majority are fine, intelligent, upright people. I cringe when I hear certain unbelievers try to make Christians appear to be deluded idiots. Of course, Christians are not exempt from this behavior either. I have heard many preachers try to portray all unbelievers as being ignorant or licentious or both. And it just isn’t so. I know that I personally de-converted because I came to believe that the evidence for the truthfulness of the Bible was not as great as it should be, given the incredible claims that it makes.
Q: But what about all those very intelligent Christian apologists such as Lee Strobel and Josh McDowell that went from being a skeptic to a Christian based on the evidence?
A: That is puzzling, isn’t it? A few years back, Josh McDowell came to town and gave a talk at a church just a few miles from my house. It was quite enlightening. He said that Christian beliefs had to be based on evidence, not faith alone. Why? Because a person can choose to believe anything by faith. They can choose to be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and so on by faith. Simply having faith in some system of belief does not speak to its truthfulness. That is where evidence comes in. Evidence is what allows us to determine what is true and thus worthy of our allegiance. However, the problem is that the evidence is incomplete. Therefore, we find that some level of faith is necessary to bridge the gap between the evidence and our acceptance. It’s kind of like sitting on a jury. Evidence is presented both for and against the defendant. The jury must then decide the defendant’s guilt or innocence. When it comes to religions, the world is basically a hung jury. Some believe the evidence is sufficient; others do not. So, Josh McDowell and I agree that we should only accept a religion based on the evidence. However, he, and many others, believe the evidence is sufficient. I, and many others, believe it is not.
Q: I found it interesting how you handled the issue of an afterlife in your novel. You seem to be hopeful that even unbelievers can be a part of a wonderful afterlife rather than a hellish eternal torment that some people believe await them. Do you personally believe in an afterlife?
A: I’ll have to play the politician here and answer, “Yes and no.” What I really mean is that I simply don’t know. On the one hand I know for sure that it didn’t bother me one iota to have not existed before I was conceived, so why should it bother me to return to that same state after my death? On the other hand, it seems rather bizarre that we humans, with the capability of self-awareness, would come into existence, live for a few years, and then disappear forever.
Q: My thoughts exactly.
A: I’m not surprised. 8>)  Notice I didn’t forget the emoticon this time.
Q: Thanks for that. Now, changing the subject, I wanted to say that I really enjoyed the cultural references you sprinkle throughout your novel. A good friend of mine who has also read your book agrees with me. You mention many popular movies, TV shows, and songs. Why did you do this?
A: Because that’s how I think personally. Many times during my life I have had situations arise that remind me of a song, or a movie, or a particular episode of a TV show. Many times I will make a comical reference to it. I usually only speak the reference when other people are around and just think it when I am by myself. However, I have been known to speak aloud to myself every now and then. I hope that’s not too freakish.
Q: What? Did you say something to me? I thought you were talking to yourself.
A: Okay, wise guy. No emoticon?
Q: 8>)
A: That’s better.
Q: Speaking of popular culture, you mentioned earlier that you used to be a big fan of science fiction. Are you still?
A: Not so much. The bookstores these days have combined two categories: science fiction and fantasy. While I enjoy SciFi, I am not much of a fan of fantasy. When I visit the SciFi / Fantasy section of my local bookstore, I find that most of the books are really fantasy, not hardcore science fiction. Back when I de-converted, I found myself reading more non-fiction than fiction. I was reading a lot of philosophy books, particularly those by Ayn Rand. I also read a fair number of books criticizing Christianity and others defending it. I even wrote three essays explaining the problems I had with the Bible that caused me to reject it. However, one can only read so much of this type of literature before it begins to get repetitive. Recently I have gotten into reading thriller authors like David Baldacci and Lee Child. Interestingly, shortly before I published “Passion is a Harsh Taskmaster,” I found out that another writer friend of mine had just published his first novel. Like me, he had also written a lot of non-fiction articles and books. The big difference was he became quite well known, having written at one time for Reader’s Digest. We talked by phone and Email and he gave me some sound advice about how to approach the publication of my novel. I appreciated that.
Q: So, who was this friend and what was his novel about?
A: His name is Robert Bidinotto, and his novel is entitled, “HUNTER: A Thriller.” Don’t let the title fool you. It’s more than just a thriller, it’s also a romance novel. It’s also a good read for anyone concerned about the current state of our criminal justice system.
Q: I just found out that Mr. Bidinotto’s novel is available in print as well as an eBook. How about your novel?
A: Right now it is only available in various eBook formats at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple’s iBook store, and Smashwords. I am looking into producing a print version, also.
Q: I’m really getting tired of interviewing you, but I did want to mention one other thing about your book: sex. While I realize that the sexual content of your novel is very mild compared to today’s standards of sexuality, don’t you think it’s too provocative given that part of your target audience is the Christian community.
A: Who told you that Christians were part of my target audience?
Q: Do you really have to ask that?
A: Oh, sorry, I forgot who you were for a minute. We seem to be taking on the persona of a ventriloquist act. I just can’t decide who’s the ventriloquist and who’s the dummy.
Q: I have an answer to that, but I’m going to let it slide for the moment. So, go on, tell us about the sexual content of your novel.
A: I actually debated with myself, this time in my head and not out loud, how much sexuality to include in my book. After all, I was writing a mystery romance novel with elements of the supernatural thrown in. I felt like it had to have some level of sexual content to emphasize the romance between the main characters. The boundaries I put on the book were based on several factors. One was the Bible. There are a number of suggestive passages in the Bible such as David’s lusting after Bathsheba and Lot’s daughters getting him drunk and having sex with him. And the love letter “Song of Solomon” has some rather provocative content in it. Another factor I considered was how much more open the Christian community is about sex than it used to be.
Q: Why do you think that is?
A: I believe a lot of the openness stems from the studies showing that Christians were divorcing at the same rate as were non-Christians and that part of the problem was due to the lack of sexual fulfillment in their marriages. There are a fair number of books and marriage seminars that now address how Christians can maintain their sexuality in a monogamous relationship with their spouse. I have even heard that some rather provocative sexual questions can now be asked at Christian women’s conferences without the questioner being called down. Rather, answers are given to the questions. So, with all these things in mind, I limited the sexual content of my novel to what I believed would be acceptable to the modern day mainstream Christian.
Q: Very interesting. Thanks for taking the time for this interview. That’s all the questions I have, but I reserve the right to ask more if I think of more.
A: I’ll be nearby any time the urge to ask another question arises. 8>)
Q: Indeed you will be.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

An Interesting Year: Of Atheists and Christians

Back in the early part of 2000 AD, I picked up a copy of “Christian Research Journal V22 N03” at a newsstand. It had several very interesting articles in it. Being the vocal dissident that I am, I decided to write a letter to the journal, commenting on the most intriguing of the articles. I received responses from several of the authors, but one stood out: Rachel D. Ramer. She had penned an article entitled “Examining Translations with Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Upon receiving her response, I countered with another response. She did likewise, then me again. Ultimately, we became penpals (probably more accurately called keyboard pals since we were corresponding via Email). Over the course of about a year we exchanged many, many Emails. Our conversations were sometimes frustrating, but mostly intellectually stimulating.

In the course of our Email discussions, I mentioned a book written by nineteen-year-evangelist-turned-atheist Dan Barker entitled “Losing Faith in Faith.” Rachel mentioned a book by four-year-preacher-still-preacher Brian McLaren entitled “Finding Faith.” The opposing titles were too much for us to resist. Rachel sent me a copy of the latter for a Christmas present. I countered by sending her a copy of the former. It was interesting contrasting the two books.

After having read these two books, I exchanged a few Emails with both Dan Barker and Brian McLaren. Then I found out that the Atheist Alliance Convention of 2001 was being held in Atlanta. Lo and behold, Dan Barker was going to be present and debating Rubel Shelly, then Senior Minister of Woodmont Hills Church in Nashville, TN. I contacted Dan via Email and we arranged to have a private meeting while at the conference. I planned to discuss the similarities of our deconversions, give him a copy of my recently released book “Beginnings to Endings,” and to get Dan’s autograph in my copy of “Losing Faith in Faith.”

Then another interesting development occurred. My employer was going to send me to some training in the DC area that summer. My wife and son were going with me. We planned to spend a few extra days while there sightseeing. This presented us with two opportunities. One was to see some of my family I had not seen in years. The other was to attend Cedar Ridge Community Church. Brian McLaren was the founding pastor of that church. I sent an Email to Brian and we arranged to take him to lunch after services. As with Dan, I was planning to give him a copy of my book and have my copy of “Finding Faith” autographed.

Happily, everything went as planned. I traveled to Atlanta to attend the Atheist Alliance Convention in April 2001. There were some very interesting papers presented, but the highlight was the debate between Dan Barker and Rubel Shelly. The questions I submitted to each of them via index cards were both asked during the Q & A session. I met with Dan the next morning and had an interesting conversation. As you may know, Dan Barker and his wife are co-presidents of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. This organization has become quite controversial in the Christian community. I hear it criticized quite often on Christian radio.

In July 2001, my family and I traveled to the DC area. I had a great class, a wonderful time touring DC, a nice visit with my relatives, and an interesting time with Brian McLaren. He preached that Sunday morning on the Apostle’s Creed. After services, he rode with us to a Mexican restaurant where we bought his lunch. Unfortunately, his wife and kids were all busy with other activities that weekend and were out of town. However, we had a very good conversation with Brian at lunch. As you know, Brian has written a lot of books, some rather controversial amongst Christians.

To top off all these meetings, I eventually got to meet Rachel, my penpal, in person, also.

So, in the space of a year, I made a new friend and penpal due to my having written some comments about an article she wrote, exchanged books by an atheist and a Christian, then got to personally meet the authors of each of those books, and eventually meet in person with my penpal. It was indeed an interesting year.