Start Fixing Healthcare Now: Two Quick, Easy Steps

     Sometime after my employer switched to a high-deductible health insurance plan, I got an injury that required physical therapy. My doctor referred me to a local sports medicine facility for treatment.
     When I stepped up to the receptionist’s desk, I asked, “How much will these visits cost?”
     She said, “Oh, we don’t have any idea of that. We bill the insurance, and then they tell us what we can charge you, and what they’ll pay.”
     I said, “Well, what do you bill the insurance?”
     She said, “I can’t tell you that. There are so many different insurances out there, and we have different contracts with all of them, so it all depends. We have a department that handles that.”
     My employer was the largest in town. So I said, “Well, do you have any guess at all what the charges ended up being for [name of insurance company]? I have a high-deductible plan, so I need to know what I’m going to be paying.”
     She shook her head. “No idea. You’ll get the bill in 90 days.”
     At my initial visit, a physical therapist gave me a series of exercises. At all the other visits, they watched me do the exercises. That was it.
     This had been going on 2-3 times a week for several weeks, when I finally got the first explanation of benefits from my insurance company. That’s when I discovered that this place was charging me nearly $500 per session. My insurance company had a price-fixing arrangement with them, but I still had to pay about $1400 for these visits.
     And the problem wasn’t fixed.
     I cancelled all my other appointments, saw a specialist, and was referred to a different physical therapist. I asked him what he would charge. He said he’d send my insurance company a bill for $75, but that the insurance company likely would only allow him to charge me $50. After two months of visits, and a total cost of less than $300, the problem was fixed.

     My experience revealed two demons of the health-care industry: concealed prices, and secret price-fixing agreements.

Fix #1: Require clear prices.

     The first way to fix health care is to make doctors tell the truth about what they charge. We need a law that says this: “All medical practitioners and facilities shall disclose the full cost of any service, procedure, or treatment provided by them. This disclosure shall be by a public website posting of a searchable document listing each procedure’s common name and the total price for that procedure. Further, before any patient receives treatment, the medical practitioner shall disclose, before treatment begins, the full cost of that procedure or course of treatment to the patient. If the full cost is unknown, then the practitioner must estimate the number of visits and procedures required to fix the problem, disclose the full cost of each visit and each procedure, and estimate the full cost of the entire course of treatment. A medical practitioner who provides treatment without disclosing the full cost of the treatment may not charge a patient or insurance company for the cost of that treatment.”

     That means that long before you have pain in your left arm, you can compare which hospital charges less to treat an emergency room “heart attack” or a provide a “quadruple bypass surgery.” When your eye doctor says, “Well, I think it’s nothing, but let me send you to a specialist just in case,” you’ll know ahead of time that you’ll be paying $750 for your eye doctor to provide a little CYA for himself. And when your primary care doctor orders lab tests, you can decide whether to have them done at the lab that charges $20 for the test, or the lab that charges $375 for the exact same test.

     Unless, of course, your doctor has a special agreement to only deal with one particular lab, which happens to charge really high rates. Which brings us to the second fix:

Fix #2: Make regular anti-trust laws apply to medical care.

     Seems obvious. The anti-trust laws have been around since the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, and they apply to all businesses, right?


     Health care has a huge exception. That’s why hospitals get to carve up areas and agree not to compete for patients in each others’ territory. That’s why insurance companies fix costs at one level for some people and at another level for others. That’s why doctors give a high bill to middle-class, uninsured people, and a lower bill to insured people, for the same service. It’s price fixing, it’s non-competition agreements, it’s restraint of trade, it’s monopolies of specialties.

     And it’s definitely driven up costs.

     This is a super-easy fix. Just delete the exception. See a law that says this stuff is okay? Repeal it.

     Opponents will cry: “No! If you have competition, you’ll drive up costs! Insurance rates will sky-rocket!” But that’s stupid, because costs and insurance rates have already sky-rocketed without an open market (duh, what did you think would happen?). Insurance rates won’t sky-rocket, because truth pricing and free competition will drive down the costs of health care.

     Speaking of insurance…

     But that’s a blog for another day.

Creating Creepy Beneficial Destruction

Beneficial insects like wild bees and butterflies are facing collapse. But insects that kill humans (usually, by putting nasty things in our blood when they bite us) are thriving. Last year alone, almost three million people were killed when mosquitos infected them with deadly diseases. That’s basically the entire populations of Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Denver combined, all dead in one year, all from mosquitos. (This number doesn’t count the hundreds of millions of people who suffer, but survive, nor the severe health problems from mosquito-borne diseases like Zika.)

A new breakthrough in genetic engineering has promise for wiping out not just mosquitos, but other insects that reproduce in mosquito-like ways.  There’s a weird mosquito DNA sequence that gets spliced (cut) in a certain way to produce either a male or a female mosquito. This sequence is absolutely necessary to turn the mosquito into a properly functioning male or a properly functioning female (scientists aren’t sure exactly how it makes that process happen), so it always gets carried on to the next generation. There’s a DNA sequence at the beginning of the splice area, and the female sequence has a special list that the male sequence doesn’t have. In the experiment, scientists took a new sequence of DNA and loaded it in that female sequence. The new DNA derailed the process for making a female mosquito.

Male mosquitos with the special DNA looked normal. Female mosquitos with one copy of the special DNA looked normal.

But female mosquitos with two copies of the special DNA had some ill-formed male parts on their bodies (male antennae, and claspers put on upside-down). Also, they couldn’t suck blood because of a deformed proboscis, and they couldn’t lay eggs.

Mutant Female Mosquitoes
The special DNA sequence transferred as per usual rates (which is itself an achievement), and the entire population collapsed within 8-13 generations.

Now, I hate mosquitos. I slap them dead whenever one lands on me. I intentionally destroy their habitat in my backyard. I fully expect that they, and all blood-suckers like them, will not be part of a paradisaical earth (though I don’t have unassailable doctrinal support for that expectation, I’ve got some good stuff).

But there’s something about creating such a Frankenstein’s monster that I find horrifying– like the scene at the end of “The Fly” where the man-fly caught in the web begs to be killed.

Perhaps I shouldn’t anthropomorphize my deadly insects. Especially ones that, in every two years, kill enough innocent people to constitute another holocaust.
But that begs the question: where is the cut-off for when it’s okay to treat a living creature this way? I’m not talking about weighing the value of human life against other life– like I said, I smack mosquitos dead as much as I can. I wanted the doctor to kill all those millions of bacteria with splash of disinfectant before she operated on me. Humans are the best!

No, what I’m wondering about is the method. Certainly, it isn’t the mosquito’s fault that it needs to suck blood in order to get enough protein to lay its eggs. And, if a mosquito could care about such things, it would probably prefer to be disease-free rather than to infect (and diminish) its food supply. Under those circumstances, is it okay to create a creature that, to paraphrase C-3PO, seems to be made to suffer?

But then I think: if I saw a child dying from malaria, or born with microcephaly, and I learned it could have been prevented except for the fact that some person was worried that the abnormal mosquito had suffered, well, I’d be pretty steaming mad. Personally, the world-wide eradication of mosquitos and ticks is something I’d think is really, really, really good for humans and all wildlife, and I doubt I’d lose any sleep over using a method like this to make it a reality.

Does that conflict with my view that the ends doesn’t justify the means– that the means must be pure? Certainly, I wouldn’t create this weird mosquito just to see it suffer. Is it now okay to do that, because the result is to save a tremendous amount of suffering, and this is the only effective means to achieve that good result?

Going further, when I look around at the world, and see things like the tarantula hawk wasp, or even those gruesome polar bears, it gives me something to consider when I cast my thoughts up to the One who created them. The God who creates and saves is also the God who destroys and punishes. The Creator who made the lamb also made the “Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright.”

I don’t know whether that excuses us.

But I do know that when we engage in acts of creation, we are using god-like powers. What we do with them is a good indication of how we’ve weighed moral choices, and how we’d behave if we had even more power in our hands.

Watch Out– Your Mask Is Showing

One night, I got home and thought about all the outfits I’d had on that day.

There was the 3 a.m. nursing mommy t-shirt and shorts, glasses, and loose hair. A little later, the polished court suit, perfect make-up, hair slicked back tight. That afternoon, the jeans, pony-tail, Doc Martens, and sweater, as I took the older kids out in the double-stroller, with the youngest strapped on in the baby-pack. After making dinner, a quick change into a church skirt to attend a training session for Sunday School teachers. Finally, home again, and back into comfy mommy-mode.

It occurred to me that all of these outfits expressed a different part of who I am. They weren’t dressing-up to be something other than “me,” they were displaying a particular aspect of my character and responsibilities.

I’ve been used to thinking of dressing-up, or acting, or writing a character, as putting on something that isn’t really me. I’m just pretending. But it doesn’t work to just pretend. If we don’t believe it, at least a little, there’s no magic. It becomes preposterous, or humiliating, like poor little Ralphie in the bunny costume.

For example, when I first wrote the scenes with Zheng He, I had a specific outline, that generally followed what Evil Bob had thought was going to happen. Part of the control I placed on it was my awe of Zheng He– after researching his incredibly difficult and monumentally accomplished life, I was scared to write of him in a familiar way. But, he didn’t let me write it the way I’d planned.

After I wrote the scenes, I went back and wrote the entire section from his perspective, to see if I really believed it. I started to see ways that I could relate my own minor experiences to his epic ones. That’s when, for me, the magic started happening, when I could start to feel how he might have felt. Without that sympathy, it can’t feel real.

In the same way, physically putting on a costume isn’t fun if there’s nothing in it we can understand. When we put on a costume we enjoy, it works because there’s something in it that we can identify as being part of us, even if amplified out of all proportion, or freed from normal restraints. You might be setting Mr. Hyde loose for a night, but it’s the Mr. Hyde that was dwelling in you the entire time.

So, this Halloween, remember that when you’re covering yourself with all that makeup and costuming, you’re really revealing your deepest, innermost soul for all to see. 😉

Finding your happy place

Most weekends are just…
Church is great, but when you have a fairly big responsibility, they may be a day of “rest from the cares of the world,” but they’re not at all relaxing. Saturday is the time to schedule meetings and volunteering that doesn’t fit in anywhere else, or catch up on cleaning and studying and practicing and projects that didn’t get finished during the week, so you’re not starting the next week behind the 8-ball.
But this weekend was…

It started out with me reading the draft of the first few chapters of my newest book to my captive-audience family on our drive to (and from) the St. Louis Renaissance Fair, and them laughing and gasping at all the right spots.


We made it in time for the first jousting event, and our knight, who we’d cheered with all our might, won the round. We caught the end of a magic show, listened to some great live music, tried on armor and asked all the questions we wanted about it, petted the snakes and thought about petting the owls and raptors, watched a long-sword demonstration (and cheered for our champion, who lost at the last), and spent far too much money on magic wands and fair eats and some great leather (including what will be the base of my new D&D outfit, which I hope to have put together in time to wear to the church’s chili dinner/trick-or-treat event):


Then we hurried to our favorite gaming store for the pre-release event for Guilds of Ravnica. When I’d called a few days before to register, they told us to pick our guilds, so I had to hang up the phone and take the quiz on the Wizards of the Coast website. Alas, it came up Orzhov, which, as everyone knows, is a bunch of lawyers. Because it’s no fun to do your day job when you’re fantasy gaming, I took the quiz again, and changed my answers. It came up: Orzhov.

But I was saved, because, when I called back, they said this release only has 5 guilds, and Orzhov isn’t one of them. (*fist pump*) I decided to forget the quiz and just chose the guild least like me but most appealing: Dimir. At the tournament, my set didn’t seem a good draw at first, but with ten minutes left to deck build, I decided to go tri-color and get my giant red creatures in there. The combo proved a good one, as I came in 7th out of 40:


The next day, at sunset, still feeling a little worn-out from all the fun we’d had the day before (and from surviving the excitement of another short-staffed day of church) (which is actually pretty exhilarating), I went outside, and just stood as still as I could, barefoot in the cool grass that’s gone a little too long since the last mowing, as the monarchs fluttered all around me. They fly 2,000 miles to Mexico, but it’s really much farther than that in raw miles, because they only fly in long loopy circles, probably traversing each meter at least three times on the horizontal. I could even hear their wings beating when they circled around my head. After a few minutes, I went inside, grabbed my camera, and took this:

I don’t know what your great weekend is, but I hope you have them as often as is good for you.

Thor, on Being Human


Recently, I read an article saying that suicides are rising among those in mid-life. The article suggested that harsh realizations at that age (the most rambunctious time of life has ended, but not enough has been achieved) can lead to feelings of hopelessness. Edith Wharton might call it “diminished reality.” For now, let’s call it, “I’ve been fighting this long, and I didn’t win.”

Enter Thor.

In one myth in “The Prose Edda,” the mighty Thor, the troublesome Loki, and Thor’s bondservant, Thjalfi, took a journey together. One night, they came upon a huge hall. They went to sleep, but were awakened by horrible growls. Thor stood guard all night, hammer in hand, but when dawn came, he discovered the growls were merely the sounds of a giant sleeping, and the huge hall was only his glove that he’d cast aside.

Not being one to let a person that big live, Thor decided to kill him immediately. Using all his strength, Thor struck the giant in the head three times. But the giant could barely feel the blows, wondering if some leaf litter had fallen from the trees.

The giant invited the companions to his hall full of guests. While there, the giant asked Loki whether he had any skill he could show them.

Loki, being gluttonous, offered to compete in eating. A huge trough was filled with meat and put in the middle of the hall, with Loki at one end, and, on the giants’ side, a man named Logi. At the signal, they both ate as fast as they could. They met in the middle, but it wasn’t a tie– Loki ate all the meat, yes, but Logi ate all the meat, all the bones, and even consumed the wooden trough, so he won.

Then the giant asked Thjalfi what he could do. Thjalfi offered to race against anyone. The giant called a little fellow named Hugi to run against him. In three races, Hugi beat Thjalfi every time, the last time by half a lap.

Finally, the giant asked Thor what feat he’d like to demonstrate. Thor called for a drinking contest. The giant brought out his drinking horn, saying that a good drinker could drain it in one gulp. Thor put it to his lips, but when he finished his gulp, it was only slightly lower than when he started. After another gulp, the liquor was only low enough to carry the horn without spilling. After a third attempt, Thor looked inside, and saw small difference from when he started. The giant said it was obvious Thor’s strength wasn’t as great as the stories said.

Thor failed two more tests: lifting a cat off the ground (he only could get one paw up), and wrestling an old woman (she brought him to one knee, then the giant ended the contest).

The giant patronizingly congratulated the companions on their failed efforts, gave them hospitality that evening, and, in the morning, kindly set them on their journey.

Once outside his gates, the giant revealed that he’d tricked them with magic, in order to safely test their abilities. The three times Thor hit him with his hammer, Thor was really striking a mountain, and he made three huge valleys in it. Loki’s competitor was wildfire, which was why it consumed the trough. Thjalfi was racing against the speed of thought, and was miraculously quick against it. Thor’s drinking horn was filled with the ocean, and he drank so much of it, he started the tides. The cat was really the Midgard Serpent that surrounded the known world, and the entire hall was terrified when they saw it slipping under Thor’s power. The woman that Thor wrestled was old age, which no one can conquer, even though Thor withstood her so long.

Thor, angry at the trick, struck out at the giant, but he and his entire hall had disappeared, leaving only a lovely meadow.

Now, back to us.

We have challenges. A whole lot of them could be classified as minor. Say, for example, that irritating person you encounter day after day after day. They shouldn’t be any more difficult to deal with than lifting a kitten.

Some challenges are serious. We measure how tough they’ll be, then do our very best against them. But, sometimes, at the end of all our efforts, we’ve come in half a lap behind, or only drained the cup a barely noticeable amount. These kinds of challenges are enough to bring us to our knees.

When we give our best efforts, and when there’s been real change, real improvement, we shouldn’t be quick to count it a failure. The tests in our lives are real, and they prove what we’ve chosen to be. Sometimes, when we’re struggling to lift the kitten, it might just be the Midgard Serpent we’re tangling with.

Taking a religious view, God is able to reveal what we really are by using tests of the loud neighbor, or the chance to give someone else the best parking space. These “little” tests, like lifting the kitten, might conceal great matters. They might even be designed to be particularly tough for us, even though, based on outward appearances, they should be easy. And, if we only succeed at them a little bit, we shouldn’t despair.

There are a whole lot of us who are doing a whole lot better than we think we are. Keep lifting that kitten!


Yellowstone– Wild, dangerous, beautiful

After a 6 am breakfast at the Hampton in Rexburg, Idaho, we drove 90 minutes to the West Gate of Yellowstone:


Over the next 13 hours, we experienced the wonders of this famous national park. The warning roar and rumble just before boiling water sprayed from the ground was a reminder that we were literally walking on the caldera of one of the largest volcanoes in the world (See that grey blobby line on the map? That’s the outline of the caldera.):

My first sight of a bison (I grew up calling them buffalo) was magical– several calves were nestled in the tall grass near their mothers, soaking up the early morning sun that had momentarily appeared between rains. But not long after, this happened:

I saw them in an entirely new light– 2000 pounds of horned flesh that could appear in a moment and run you down. And they were RIGHT THERE!

There were many other chances for death. For example, after hiking 600 feet down the side of the canyon, we stood over the edge of a 300 foot drop at this rushing waterfall:

At the brink of the Lower Falls. Video: Lower Falls 1 and Lower Falls 2
Everywhere on the paths winding through geysers and steaming pools, the signs warned that leaving the path would allow you to step onto the seemingly solid ground, which was really merely a thin crust above a pool of deadly boiling water. Yet, we saw more than one tourist stepping off for a quick photo, and moving just a little further out towards the gorgeous boiling pool, and just a little further, and just a little more… (Eeek!) But I could see the allure, though I didn’t venture off, myself:


Each individual site was amazing, and the grand vistas were incomparable:


But some of the beauties were on a smaller scale, like this tree that’s lived in a violent, ever-changing landscape, and is now more beautiful, useful, and inviting for persevering through its rough life (few children could pass by it without climbing on its welcoming limbs as inviting as a wise grandmother’s arms):


As we left the park, I tried to imagine ways that people could make their homes here without altering its wild beauty, but I had little success. I appreciated the paved roads, the restrooms, the pathways through the dangers, and the rare place to purchase necessaries– so, in a sense, this land can hardly be called untouched. Without those things, it’d be difficult to share its beauty with those who can stand in awe of it. But I loved it for all its reckless, dangerous gorgeousness, and I hope it always retains those qualities.

Human Critical Mass

A general view is: Humanity is a zero sum game, and there are already too many of us. There is a fixed amount of resources, a population increase means less resources per person, and this scarcity leads to famine, then disease, then war; also the accelerating extinction of complex and beautiful species.

But I don’t see any place where having a certain number of people, by itself, has created an insoluble problem. What I see are lots of stewardship failures– things like wasting resources, polluting, and using power to divide and harm.

The true concept is: if we were behaving wisely, we could create everything we need to live well and improve our earth.

Here’s another general view: “I am better off if others fail.” This idea is reinforced in different ways– for example, in classes that grade on a curve (you can only get the top score if everyone else performs worse than you), in starting a small business (customers will leave if your competition does a better job than you), in patent law (you can only benefit from your work if no one else is allowed to make it), etc.

But look at, say, putting on a musical. When a cast member who couldn’t match pitch, let alone carry a tune, puts in the individual effort needed to sing with technical aplomb, the entire cast sounds better, and everyone shares in that person’s achievement.

Or look at team sports. The quarterback looks terrible if the receiver runs the wrong route, or the offensive line leaves a hole. The only way the quarterback succeeds is if everyone on the team succeeds. The better everyone else performs, the better each individual looks.

Or take crime-fighting. The public is safer when everyone does well: the dispatcher taking the 911 call, officers responding to the scene, lab technicians processing the evidence, the trial lawyer taking the case to the court, the judge running the trial and instructing the jury on the law, the jurors listening to the evidence and deciding the facts based on the law, the appellate lawyers and judges ensuring the case was decided correctly, and the prison workers helping the convicted person learn from the past and prepare for a better future upon release.

The true concept is: each individual is happier when everyone improves to the point of success.

Which brings me to critical mass. A choir of 500 excellent singers can perform music impossible for a quartet. A movie studio with a huge team of great artists can bring stories to life in ways that a small studio can’t. A large group of capable volunteers can build houses and clean up after disasters and bring relief to displaced groups in ways that a small group of volunteers can’t.

Not that individual effort, small groups, and small beginnings, aren’t valuable– I don’t mean that at all. These are beautiful and essential.

But what I do mean is that there is a level of achievement that will never be realized without vast teams of people, all working together in excellence, towards a common goal.

Now, let me ask you: Is there something we, as humanity on earth, have yet to achieve, because there simply aren’t enough of us? What if there are problems that can’t be solved yet, because we lack the numbers we need? What if there are wonderful things to be experienced, that we can never experience, because our population is too small?

It feels weird to even suggest that.
But I think it might be true.

All knowledge is one/deciphering khipu


An Inkan Khipu– Figure 1 in the article: “Toward the Decipherment of a Set of Mid-Colonial Khipus from the Santa Valley, Coastal Peru” Link to article

Interview with Manuel Medrano

Scholarly Article that Explains Deciphering Khipu

How do you step outside your own worldview? One way is to learn about others’ worldviews, and compare them with your own. I love the “a-ha” feeling that comes from encountering an idea that rings true but never occurred to me before.

The deciphering of the Inka khipu creates this kind of moment. Have you considered that information about people and families could be transmitted in a 3-dimensional binary system? In Appendix B of the book “1491,” there’s a discussion about the amount of data needed to record language. In the khipu, there are enough discrete items that could be used to hold data– binary items, like whether a knot is tied overhand or underhand, or whether a cord is woven with a “z” or “s” ply; non-binary items, like use of certain colors, groupings of colors, spaces between groupings, type of material the cord is made of– that it is statistically possible for the khipu to hold narrative language. In other words, it’s possible that khipu could be thought of as especially tactile books, ones that engage the reader’s brain on several levels.

It can take cross-subject training to discover hidden relationships. While humans love to identify separate groups in order to understand the world better, the world itself doesn’t behave like that– it’s like a sunset sky that blends from one color to the next without a specific boundary line between “red” and “orange.” The lungfish doesn’t care that its placement under cladistic or Linnean systems is hard for normal people to stomach. There is no dividing line between art, chemistry, math, physics, music, biology, sociology, and poetry, and this is a wonderful thing, because it means every person’s life is richer in every area for understanding more in any area.

It took a polymath to see a way into the meaning of the khipu. Because of what he discovered, we have new insights not just into the khipu techniques, but also into the social structure of the Inka civilization. Thank you, Manuel Medrano!

30 years + sizable research = “Immigrant Song” appreciation

Recently I’ve studied Irish history, including history of the Viking raids and settlements during the 9th – 11th centuries. Then I read some history of the Vikings. Then I watched the 2nd and 3rd volumes of the Great Courses lecture series “The Vikings.” I also read a retelling of Norse myths by Neil Gaiman.

Yes, very erudite of me. Thank you for noticing.

Well, I first heard “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin when, in high school, a friend wanted to introduce me to real rock, so he loaned me a tape of Zeppelin music he’d picked out. It was too fuzzy to understand the words, but he wrote the title on the case liner, so I knew it was about immigration, and I guessed it was probably a political protest song because it was made in the 70s so what else could it be?

I heard it again while watching “School of Rock” with Jack Black singing along, and because he made that big hammering arm motion when he sang “hammer of the gods,” I now knew one lyric. I thought it a weird line, but guessed it was poetically expressing the idea that fate is harsh to refugees.

Then, when watching the “Thor” movies, I recognized that song in the fight scenes, and thought it an odd fit– “It has that great thrumming beat, so it works, musically, but thematically, why use a song about the challenges immigrants face in coming to America? I mean, we’re dealing with Norse gods fighting monsters. Maybe Stan Lee really wanted it, like how J. J. Abrams makes them use Beastie Boys tunes in Star Trek.”

So, I was flipping through radio stations in the minivan a couple of days ago, and it came on, and I told my kids, “You have to hear this, it’s a classic.” I turned it up, listening carefully in case there were any bad words I needed to censor. I was thinking, “Hmm. Land of ice and snow, midnight sun, hammer of the gods, and did he just say, ‘Valhalla I am coming’? What the heck? Is this a song about the medieval Viking invasions?”

I got home and looked up the lyrics: “Whoa, those are really cool and powerful, and, huh, that’s terribly clever to use it with Thor, and, hey, it all makes sense, now!”

*homer face slap*

Yet another example of learning something new, and then finding that its secrets had been hidden in plain sight everywhere around you for your entire life.

Getting to know Zheng He

Last month I finished reading the entire Qu’ran (Koran). While writing the Zheng He scenes in “Stasis,” I wanted to be accurate on any references to his faith, so I read several books and articles about the Muslim faith and its history, choosing sources I thought likely to be accurate and/or sympathetic, and I attended a demonstration of a prayer service presented by members of the local Muslim church and asked them a few questions afterwards. However, I’d only read some short excerpts from the Qu’ran. In late September, I decided I should read the whole book.

Based on what I read, here are some things I think it teaches (I’m a Christian with no training in Arabic, who chose an English translation that seemed likely to be unbiased. I apologize to all Muslims for anything in here I got wrong):

1) Every woman and every man has a soul.
2) Every woman and every man will be brought home to God, who will judge each person individually based on their intentions, their faith, and their works. No one will be held guilty for anything anyone else did.
3) Heaven is a beautiful place of gardens and rivers where a person lives with their spouse and children. People who have believed in God, done good works, and followed God’s commandments go to heaven. Hell is a place of fire and torment where people drink boiling water and pus. People who have failed to do good works and haven’t truly believed in God (even if they said they did) go there.
4) God is a single individual with no wife, children, or associated gods.
5) You should only pray to God.
6) Jesus was a true messenger of God, created by God in Mary’s womb when she was a virgin, who taught truth from an extremely young age.
7) There was no atonement. God pardons sins if he chooses, and doesn’t pardon other sins if he chooses. You won’t have someone to speak on your behalf at the judgment. However, the end of Sura 20 says, in my translation, “Upon that day the intercession will not profit, save for him to whom the All-merciful gives leave, and whose speech He approves.” (As a Christian, I hope this phrase leaves a loop-hole to any practicing Muslims who want to allow Christ to intercede for them at the judgment bar. I’m certain God the Father approves Christ’s speech, and I’m certain He gives leave to Christ to claim those He’s paid for, if those people will let Him. I imagine that there are very few good Muslims who would refuse God if, at the judgment bar, God said, “You’ve done well, but you’re still guilty. Are you willing to accept Christ’s cleansing of you? Will you let Christ intercede on your behalf? If you do, you can come join me in heaven. I wish you would.”)
8) Unequal wealth is a bad thing. (There shouldn’t be an extremely rich and an extremely poor population; there should be a huge middle-class.)
9) People shouldn’t be upset when their child is a girl. That female child is a gift from God, and should cause them to rejoice.
10) Women need to cover their breasts with a veil in public. (Sorry, La Leche League.) Women shouldn’t go around in their underwear in public– women need to have a layer of clothing on top of their undergarments. (I didn’t see anything in there about women having to be entirely covered. There was one bit about wives of the prophet wearing their veils close so the prophet’s visitors wouldn’t gawk at them, but that was it.)
11) Men need to dress modestly at all times.
12) God sends to every country a messenger. A few people in that country believe the messenger, but most people hate the messenger, kick the messenger out of their communities, and try to kill the messenger.
13) You should recognize God’s power in your life by adding the phrase “if God wills” any time you say that you’re going to do something.
14) You need to surrender your will to God’s will, and believe in Him, pray to Him, and trust in Him whether things are going well or going bad in your life.
15) People who truly believe in the Torah or Bible, and truly follow the teachings of those books, are also trying to follow the messengers God sent to them. You should treat them well. However, if they’re people who stole your land and tried to kill you, you should have nothing whatsoever to do with them.
16) Lots of people make their caprice their god. This is a bad way to live.
17) People who believe in the Qu’ran should not go to war against other people who believe in the Qu’ran.
18) Women shouldn’t be cut out of the inheritance. They generally receive a lesser portion than men, but they still get a portion, their own property to control.
19) Regarding alcohol, there’s usefulness in it, and there’s evil in it, and the evil of it outweighs its usefulness. Therefore, stay away from it.
20) You write your own book, every day of your life, by your thoughts and actions. That book hangs around your neck at the judgment. If you’ve done bad stuff, your own book condemns you. Therefore, it’s impossible to do evil to someone else without doing evil to yourself.
21) You should follow the higher law. If that’s too hard for you, you should at least follow the lesser law.

So, lots of things in the Qu’ran I respect and agree with. Most of the passages that make me wince have similar passages in the Bible. I explain these passages by considering that some of them were concerning one of those brief battles where Mohammad’s people were facing the people who’d tracked them down and were trying to exterminate them. I suppose Sura 47 is like that: “When you meet the unbelievers, smite their necks, then, when you have made wide slaughter among them, tie fast the bonds; then set them free, either by grace or ransom, till the war lays down its loads.” This passage assumes that there’s an imminent battle, and at the end of that battle, you should go back to being peaceful with your neighbors. Look, for example, at Sura 60: “God forbids you not, as regards those who have not fought you in religion’s cause, nor expelled you from your habitations, that you should be kindly to them, and act justly towards them; surely God loves the just.” I picture Henry V yelling to his troops to be like the tiger and cry havoc; and when the imminent battle is over, ordering his soldiers to not abuse the populace with rough language.

Other passages that trouble me, I consider where they were– lots of idol worship, murdering children, selling women like chattel– and, taken in that time, even those rough passages in the Qu’ran are a step up from what was going on around them. (If you want to feel humble, take a look at how European medieval law treated women and foreigners up until the last hundred-fifty years or so. Imagine if our western law hadn’t been allowed to advance.) Further, I really don’t think that those passages were meant to be a ceiling on good behavior.

I thought the extra stories were interesting– Abraham and the idols, Potiphar’s wife showing off Joseph to her lady friends, etc.

The verses about God watching over those on the seas made me think of Zheng He; like in Sura 42: “And of His signs are the ships that run on the sea like landmarks; and if He wills, He stills the wind, and they remain motionless on its back. Surely in that are signs for every man enduring, thankful. Or He wrecks them for what they have earned; and He pardons much; and that those who dispute concerning Our signs may know they have no asylum.” Or in Sura 31: “Hast thou not seen how that the ships run upon the sea by the blessing of God, that He may show you some of His signs? Surely in that are signs for every man enduring, thankful. And when the waves cover them like shadows they call upon God, making their religion sincerely His; but when He has delivered them to the land, some of them are lukewarm.” I like the idea that Zheng He may have been thinking of these same passages when he was out on the ocean, hundreds of years ago…