Religion

Closed Borders

Prick us
and we bleed
like all animals.|
And prick each other
we do
with guns and bombs and
fear most of all
until we see an enemy
everywhere
who does not look like us
as though our own tribe
were not capable
of the same atrocities.
Like the snailwe pull ourselves inside
our imaginary walls
and close the doors—
or think we can.
But the guns and bombs
are just tools,
the real enemy not other people.

When we look at each other
only through borders
we can’t see
what a wide and splendid world it is.

–For Beirut and Baghdad and Gaza and Paris, Nov. 14, 2015


Unsung

9-11Moi

The City rebuilds itself on its own ashes,
like Troy on sixteen other Troys—
this burned out hulk where cop and fireman died
herding the innocents in downward flight
no different from the scorched ruins
left beneath centuries
of building and rebuilding in Anatolia.
Except
with no Homer to name their names,
assign their metaphorical attributes,
and send them in perpetuity
with their doomed engines of salvation
to the high smoking towers,
who will know them fifty, a hundred,
two thousand years hence?
Already we forget the names—if we ever knew them—
of the soldiers new fallen in Assyria’s sands
by the waters of Babylon,
the half million citizens
dead of our retribution
against a city that stole nothing
from us.

No bells toll
so read the names,
but intone them all, linking dead with dead:
Agamemnon, Father Mike, Hector;
the Myrmidons, Spartans, Amazons,
Luis Moreno, Allen Greka, Linda Jimenez (the new dead of Akkadia);
the cops, the firemen, the EMTs,
Uhuru Houston, two Angelini, Yamel Merino;
the lawyers, brokers, office workers
of Cantor Fitzgerald, a whole company erased;
Helen and Cassandra, Hecuba,
mothers, wives, and sisters
of busboys,  janitors, CEOs, salesmen; and after,
the searchers, sifters, dismantlers
still choking on the dust and ash.
Even the rescue dogs, exhausted, sad, and footsore,
finding no one alive.

All that’s missing is the gods.

9/11/12


Memorial Day and Me

RadicalMoi I have an uneasy relationship with Memorial Day and Veterans Day. On the one hand, my dad, Louis, was a WWII vet who made a career of the armed forces. He joined the Army Air Corps, was a belly gunner in a bomber for a while, and served in the Berlin Airlift. He stayed in the service until the early 60s, then worked as a civilian mechanic for the Air Force for another 20 years until he retired. He was proud of his service, but he got out purposefully when Vietnam started heating up. I think he saw the writing on the wall and had had enough of fighting, much as he enjoyed the camaraderie and fixing airplanes.

Most the of the stories he told about the war were drinking stories, how he and Herman Kareta (whose last name I'm spelling phonetically) went out on the town and barely avoided the MPs, or didn't, quite. But every now and then, he'd let something slip that showed it hadn't been one big pub crawl: he and his buddies giving their rations away to the hungry kids in Berlin; watching a fellow belly gunner's remains being hosed out of the turret after an engagement. Sometimes it was stray remarks in response to the news, like wondering how Lt. Calley could look himself in the face in the morning. And he had a clear idea of why he'd joined up to fight Nazis, even though his family was German-Hungarian, and he spoke German. Like most first generation immigrants, he was fiercely loyal to the country he'd been born in, and an assimilationist. When my mother, a Jehovah's Witness, was browbeaten by nurses or doctors about taking blood transfusions, he stood by her and supported her decision, even when it meant he might be raising a newborn by himself or lose his wife to cancer. "That's what I fought for," he said, "the right to freedom of religion." When we opened the prison at Guantanamo Bay and started stuffing it full of "enemy combatants" and then torturing them for information, he was just as sure that that wasn't what he'd fought for. The trampling of civil rights infuriated him and he was willing to go to the wall to protect them.

On the other hand, I've been a believer in non-violence all my life. The men in the religion I grew up with went to prison rather than be forced to kill other people. I admired that conviction and the willingness to pay the price for it. During Vietnam, I had cousins who  worked as hospital orderlies at the order of the courts for resisting the draft. One of the elders in my congregation had spent time in prison for refusing to support in any way the same war my dad fought in. "Thou shalt not kill" was not a negotiable order, and it never seemed like a first choice for resolving political differences to me. Violence makes people fearful, and fear makes people act without empathy or compassion. And war is a great method of social control, as Orwell makes so evident in 1984.

But as I've gotten older, my pacifist position has acquired a lot of gray areas. I'm not sure that something like non-violent resistance would have worked with  the Nazis. Non-violence is great for effecting social change, for toppling tyrannical regimes, but not so much for stopping empire-makers with serious weapons. I still think our invasions of Vietnam and Iraq were wrong. I think we were foolish to get involved in the morass that is Afghanistan, though the alternative seems to be a failed state on par with Somalia. I'm divided about our intervention in Libya. If I could believe it was purely for the sake of the civilians who are being shelled by Qadaffi, I'd feel better about it, but there's oil involved and always is in the Middle East.

I don't much like even the idea of a standing army, and certainly not of a draft on par with what Israel now has and we used to. But if you're poor, the armed forces can be a great way to learn a skill and pull yourself up out of poverty, especially in peace time. But because of that, in war time, the casualties tend to be the working poor and minorities, too. And most wars now tend to be about money, somebody else's money, usually.

But fighting, as my dad did, to stop invading aggressors in land-grabs, to fight for principles you believe in—free speech, a free press, an equal chance for everyone, the inherent values of human life—that seems worth it. Dad certainly felt it was, and I'm grateful he and others did. But I'm bitterly opposed to the current wars we're in, and I wish people would stop signing up for these conflicts. I wish the rich people and the movers and shakers would stop expecting poor people to fight for their bank accounts, and I wish even those who just wish to serve their country would wise up and realize patriotism has nothing to do with supporting a corrupt government. Because sending people off to die in Iraq and Afghanistan is no better than organized crime sending its "soldiers" to hit another mob. Lives aren't dollars for businessmen to spend in pursuit of their bottom line.

So on this Memorial Day, thanks to Dad and his contemporaries and sympathy for the people fighting yet another commercial war devoid of principles. Get out while you can.

 

 


Year Nine: The Best Thing We Can Do

9-11Moi
is go on,
perhaps not just as we were
but remembering
all the fallen
and who they loved,
not just the heroes,
because there are no heroes
without those
in need of rescue,
and all of them
are sacred:
just ordinary people
until that moment.

So much of that
is chance:
Get up ten minutes late
and the maelstrom
passes over—
as though there were blood
on your doorposts—
but wipes out your
job, your company,
your colleagues, strangers,
everyone
more punctual than you.
Where you might have stood
the air fills with the dust
of the dead and destroyed,
crystalline and ash at once,
poisoning the future.

Who you pray to
if  you pray
did not protect you.
The flames that descended
from heaven that day
were not holy, but
made by someone
who just wants to watch
the world burn.

–Sept. 11, 2010, Da Bronx

© Lee Kottner, 2010


random thoughts on the end of the decade

DreamingMoiHmm, it's been an interesting 10 years. In just about 6 months, I turn 50 and it seems to be making me a little philosophical in my old age. The last 10 years have been, in comparison to, say, my 30s, really good personally, despite some things most people would call tragedies but that I've come to see as either life stages or just ordinary events. I think I've grown and changed more in roughly the last decade than I have in the first 40, with the possible exception of childhood, when pretty much every human being grows and changes exponentially. It's not that I've gained so much more knowledge (though I hope I never stop learning new things), but that I've figured out what to do with what I already know, emotionally and otherwise.

Continue reading "random thoughts on the end of the decade" »


thankful

Going to Church Moi Long time no post here. Or anywhere, for that matter. I've been busier than a one-armed paper hanger and I'm still playing catch-up. My desk and work table—heck, my whole apartment—looks like a disaster area. I have a hundred household chores, grading to do, books to make, projects to attend to, and absolutely no energy whatsoever. It's been a kinda crazy semester. Where to start? Maybe with the new tenant.

Akisu1 After many long years without a cat, I've acquired a beastie. Or rather, the beastie has acquired me. This is Queen Mab, who was once a lost little street kitty that my friend Gretl (whose pic you can see on the wall there) picked up and took home right before I left for China. She knew just who to throw herself in front of, too. All it took was her rolling over and showing her belly for Gretl to pick her up and bring her home. When I first saw her, Mab (who Gretl called Princess Farhana, after one of her Burlesque buddies) had dark grey stockings, tail, and ears, and we thought she might be part Siamese. She talks and acts like one, but her "points" proved to be just dirt. She's a big marshmallow with green eyes and an attitude. She was lying on Gretl's bathroom floor, purring up a storm at any attention she received and turned out to be a territorial tyrant, driving Gretl's poor, sweet, dim kitties into exile in the bedroom for the duration of her stay. Once I brought her home, it took her all of 15 minutes to adjust to her new abode at my house—and make it hers. Here she is staking claim to my desk. She's playful and funny and very good natured. She likes people, which is a real switch from the last bitch-kitty I had, but she's a one-cat-per-household cat. And she talks. I kept thinking about her the whole time I was in China and fighting the idea of bringing her home. After all, having a kitty puts the kibosh on most serious travel, doesn't it? But like with the Borg, resistance is futile. Cats pick you. You don't pick them. So now my house is covered in cat hair. And white, you know, goes with nothing I own. Nothing. I don't care. She's put punctures in my leather sofa and barfed on my rug more times than I can count already, and cost me $1,000 last weekend to get her butt unplugged. I don't care. It's great to have a beastie in the house again.

I'm back teaching at CNR again, but I also, thanks to a renewed connection, picked up a couple of classes at the College of Staten Island. This is both good and bad. Good because it's a CUNY job and that pays well, plus after three semesters I get benefits. Bad because it's in Staten Island and the first seven weeks were a brutal schedule: up at 6 AM, catch the subway at 6:45 to the express bus at 7:54, reach CSI at 9 AM; office hours from 9-10 (yes, I even get paid for those!); first class from 10:10-1:10, second class from 1:30-4 (no break); run for the ferry shuttle at 4:05, grab the 4:30 ferry back to lower Manhattan and catch the #5 train to the Bronx to teach another 2.5-hour class there, and catch the bus back home, where I arrive at about 9:30. Not much time to eat, and 8.5 hours of being "on," which, believe me, is not the same as sitting in a cube for that length of time. By the time I got back, I was totally knackered. Then I had a 10 AM class at CNR both Weds. and Thursday. After next week, I'll be down to three classes total from 6. I'm still doing the AM class at CSI, but I've only got one more evening class at CNR and then just the Thursday morning classes, so it's not as bad now, but I just don't have the stamina for that anymore. Not sure I ever did.

Not surprisingly, I got sick as a dog about two weeks ago. Not the flu, thankfully, but the usual awful case of bronchitis I get when I'm run down. I'm still fighting it off, but the cough is going away and the stuff I'm hacking up is no longer a disgusting color and doesn't taste like my lungs are rotting from the inside out. Last night I got the first full, cough-free night of sleep I've had in a couple of weeks. Of course, the cat woke me up at 7:30 demanding attention, food, and entertainment. She's like that. Me, me, me.

So with six classes to teach, that's about all I've been doing. Helen was here in October, and I saw Jen briefly when she whizzed through town for the New School's science movie festival. She and I and Helen went to dinner at Spice Market, a place I've been dying to try (well worth the money) and then drinks with Gretl afterwards, so I'm working Helen into my circle of friends here too.

I've been getting some good poems out of the ferry commute, I think, and teaching, as always is something I find stimulating. The classes at CSI were tough, not because of the subject matter (basic computer skills), but the audience. Such a huge difference between the Staten Island "kids" who really are, and the ones at CNR, who, even when they're young, have really had to grow up fast and don't take anything about their education for granted, even when they don't quite know how to be students. The ones at CNR have so many obstacles to overcome and the ones at CSI seem so much more sheltered and take so much for granted that it's frustrating when they goof off and talk over me. Plus I'm competing with the internet because the classes are in the computer lab and they can't stay off fucking Facebook.

I missed Julie's non-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving, even though she rescheduled it around me, so I'm getting no Thanksgiving at all this year, which feels a little weird, and that it feels weird is weird in itself because I've never really celebrated the holiday. For a few years when I was a kid, we went down to Uncle Dave's & Aunt Eltha's for an Allam gathering, but that didn't last long because there were so many of us. In college, I rarely went home for it, usually going to the Uncle Ralph's & Aunt Lucy's for dinner. In grad school, I sometimes had dinner with friends. When I moved to New York, Jen and I started having our own un-Thanksgiving: movies and Chinese food. That lasted until she got married and moved to LA. Now I haven't done much of anything, and this year, I'm sick, so I'm sitting here whining about not celebrating a holiday I never celebrated.

It's actually a holiday I like, and never really saw the harm in. It's not religious, it's not especially patriotic, it's more about what Christmas used to be: family and gratitude. I understand that there's also the whole PC suppression of native culture thing wound up in it too that should make me vaguely guilty, but I somehow can't see it that way, either. I think the original celebration was as much about survival and the attempt at sharing the land (which sadly failed) and was turned into the national conquering myth later. We can't imagine the kind of hand-to-mouth existence new settlers had in an unfamiliar land, where a bad harvest would leave them like the Roanoke Colony. It's essentially a harvest festival, something people have celebrated since we've been planting crops. It's hard not to be thankful for a good harvest when your life depends on it, and I don't really see any reason not to express that thanks. I like it because it's not a holiday that involves presents. It's about food, family, friends, and gratitude.

But I was never allowed to say "Happy Thanksgiving" when I was a JW. That was somehow giving glory to some other god, though I never really understood why. I understood why we didn't celebrate Halloween, or Christmas or Easter, because they all had roots in pagan celebrations. But somehow being thankful for food and survival didn't seem, well, pagan. It just seemed grateful and human. I like what Michael Ruhlman wrote about it today: "Thanksgiving should be about being with people we care about, about paying attention to what we have so that we don't waste it, so that we make more of it, so that everyone has it."

So now that I no longer identify as a JW, I think it might be a holiday I invest in, like New Year's. I doubt I'll ever celebrate Christmas or Easter as they never had and and don't now have any meaning for me, and Halloween seems just like silly fun. But Thanksgiving I could get behind. Next year, maybe I'll have dinner here. I'm certainly grateful for the friends who form my family of choice, for the good food I have access to here in the city, for learning to cook, for the chance to do it for my friends and send them home with leftovers. I'm happy to share what I have and can do. I'm grateful to the small farmers who invest in old-fashioned organics and free-range food and haul it to the greenmarket every week. I'm grateful I have so many friends to share it with. I'm grateful I have a job (even if I have too many of them), so I can afford to buy good food and share what I've got with others. I'm grateful for my finicky cat, who doesn't really appreciate how spoiled she is.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.


The Lost Female Apostle

LibrariangI just finished reading a couple of books I put in the sidebar a week or so ago about the female apostle Junia. That's right, female apostle. Didn't know there was one? Neither did I. I ran across references to her while looking up something else and was intrigued. One of my biggest problems with the religion I grew up in was that we were supposedly all "ministers," meaning we all could teach outside the church, but only the men could teach inside the church. That's based on the scripture in 1 Cor. 14:34-36, which, it turns out, just may be a non-Pauline interpolation, though it appears in all the texts, though in different places, it turns out. In light of these verses, it seems obvious that there couldn't possibly be a woman apostle, so magically, there wasn't.

But let me back up a minute. The two books are Rena Pederson's The Lost Apostle: Searching for the Truth About Junia and Eldon Jay Epp's Junia: The First Woman Apostle. The first is a general reader's version of the same kind of curious search I'm engaging in. Pederson is a seasoned reporter, not a scholar, but does a good job of outlining the issues and the controversies, as well as describing how other women mentioned as deacons or servants of the church were slowly erased and pushed from view, including Junia. Epp's book is extremely scholarly, and it helps to have a background in both grammar and textual criticism. You can squeak by without knowing Latin and Greek, but that wouldn't hurt either. In 81 very closely reasoned pages, he demolishes the support for the arbitrary and sudden metamorphosis of Junia's feminine name in Romans 16:7 into the masculine and highly improbable Junias. The reasons, it turn out, are almost entirely cultural bias and late 19th and early 20th century cultural bias at that, not those pesky misogynist medieval monks, even. Epp connects the arguments about the possibly interpolated text in 1 Cor. 14:34-36, with Junia's "sex change" quite convincingly, connecting them as part of a gradual move to erase the vital parts in the early church hierarchy that women played, and thus keep them out of positions of similar service in the contemporary church, whether it was the contemporary medieval or modern church. After reading both of these books, the ordination of women seems the only logical step that could possibly be taken.

Shocking, I know. Even more shocking when I realized that the Bible I had used my whole life had been based on this biased text. Junia was a man in the Bible I had always thought of as a very good translation, one that restored the 7,000-some-odd occurrences of God's name that had been replaced with his job title.

In most ways, it is a good translation, careful yet colloquial and easy to understand, unlike the more poetic but problematic King James Version. But one of the things Epp's book did was give me a clearer understanding of just how that Bible translation was produced. I'd always known that the translators of my version had gone back to the original manuscripts and started from scratch, but I didn't understand what "going back to the original manuscripts" actually meant.

There are around 500 manuscripts and papyri (manuscripts made of papyrus reed rather than cotton rag paper or vellum, both of which are far more durable) copied by various scribes throughout history, from the first century through the Middle Ages. There are scribal quirks and variations in the texts, sometimes really significant ones, and it is ultimately impossible to state without a doubt which versions are the definitive ones. Translators and scholars have been able to make a pretty good stab at deciding which are closest, but there's no THIS IS IT! manuscript. Transcription and compilation proceeds by textual analysis, paleography, chemical studies, carbon dating, comparison with archaeological evidence, etc.

The sources used by the translation committee that produced the Bible I grew up with were themselves first collated, transcribed, and printed by other committees of scholars, following in the footsteps of previous scholars of various ability and merit. The real problem arises because languages change over time, and you're talking about 2,000 years of history here, from the time the manuscripts were first handwritten in Greek, Aramaic, Syriac and Coptic. For the first 700 years after Jesus, for instance, Greek was unaccented, which is one of the ways the gender of nouns was determined. Manuscripts were also written in all capitals ("majuscules") or all lowercase ("minuscules"), often with the words pretty jammed together, so YOURTEXTMIGHTLOOKSOMETHINGLIKETHIS, or somethinglikethis. Good luck with that. No wonder scribes often went blind. So turning these manuscripts into easily usable modern transcriptions (never mind the translation bit yet) is tricky.

Plus, unlike English, names in Greek and Latin have cases as well as gender, so their endings vary. This was one of the things I struggled with mightily when I was learning and translating Old English, which is actually way more like, say, German, than modern English. You're constantly asking yourself if something is masculine or feminine and what ending it gets. In this case, the names in Romans (duh!) were originally Latin being translated into Greek forms, and then often back to Latin (like for the Vulgate version).

This is where the problem with Junia's name arose. I won't go into the technicalities of it; you can read the books for that. But suffice to say her name was accepted as female by the earliest of the church fathers, for about the first thousand years. Then her name slowly transformed into the masculine Junias, and then back again to Junia here and there, though in the printed transcriptions used by the committee that translated the version I'm familiar with, it was arbitrarily, against any textual evidence (e.g., that the male name Junias exists nowhere else, though Junia as a woman's name appears at least 250 times) decided that Junia was a man. Why? Well, because it's obvious there couldn't be a female apostle. Just that.

Epp's argument, short as it is, seems definitive to me, not as a woman, but as someone who's done both textual criticism and translation (though not of Greek, and only a little tiny bit of Latin). It must have seemed definitive to the latest revisers of the manuscripts at fault, because they've changed it back to Junia, acknowledging her as a female apostle. The problem is that the original sex change existed in the printed transcriptions (as opposed to the original manuscripts) for the last 70 years or so, and crept into just about every Bible translated from them, including mine, just when the issue of ordaining women was becoming or about to become very hot. Considering how long people hang on to their Bibles, it's liable to remain incorrect for another 70 years, giving the erroneous impression that women were silent and powerless in the early church, when that was not the case.

What saddens me is that I would never have known any of this had I not defied conventions in my church and gone to college where I was introduced to both textual criticism and the shallow edge of Biblical scholarship. Though we were always encouraged to study our Bible deeply and there were plenty of supplementary materials put out by the church to do so, none of them mentioned the wider world of Biblical scholarship except briefly in passing, when it suited them. Certainly, little of that filtered down to the congregations. To be fair, I think most Biblical scholarship happens in fairly rarefied air in the academy; it's complex and requires years of study in dead foreign languages. But I think for years I was under the impression that our supplementary materials were "original" research. I wonder now how much of it was selectively cadged from other scholars. This isn't to say there aren't some smart and learned people in the upper echelons of my former faith. But I'm pretty sure none of them participate in the scholarly exchange of ideas and arguments, and I'm not even sure where some of them were trained, i.e., where or if they went to college or hold degrees.

Now that society is changing enough to accept women in so many other positions of power (albeit still reluctantly), it's a shame that this impression remains in the church. It has robbed itself of the unique viewpoint and skills of half the population. No wonder so many people like me are abandoning ship. Whose truth have we been fed?


Anti-intellectualism

Radicalmoi Jen's hubby Sean the Cosmologist has started an interesting discussion over on Cosmic Variance about "why so many academics are hostile to some religions rather than others." For me, this is a very interesting twist on the opposite question, why so many (particularly American) religions are hostile to learning and education. According to a recent study (PDF) by The Institute of Jewish and Community Research, "Faculty feel most unfavorably about Evangelical Christians." Big surprise. Having grown up in a religion that considered going to college about equivalent to choosing to live in a combination brothel and crack house, I find the question of why academics are more hostile to evangelicals not at all puzzling. It's a mutual hostility club caused not just by opposing world views, but opposing value systems.

Some of the things that academics value most are freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech. By contrast, evangelicals value unquestioning faith. Each intellectual challenge to that faith is seen as a test in loyalty and one's ability to bear the burden of ridicule for the sake of one's faith. The dogma of faith is unchanging—except when revealed by God—while, thanks to the spirit of inquiry, secular knowledge, with the exception of basic laws of nature, changes all the time. Even those basic laws are often refined, the way Newtonian physics was refined (or surpassed) by quantum mechanics. Evangelicals often view the effort to understand the wonders of our universe, both macro and micro, as a quest for forbidden knowledge. There are some things that we were just not meant to know, they often assert, usually in stentorian voices with much Bible thumping.

I've never understood that, though I do often despair of the way in which the knowledge we gain is used, e.g. splitting the atom. I think this is one reason science needs the counterbalance of some kind of spirituality. But not one that puts actual restrictions on what we're "supposed" to know. If you believe in some kind of creative deity, why would that deity not just freeze the brain power of its creation instead of giving it the capacity to become more intelligent, and understand more of the universe? Deities can do that, right?

No, that's because it's a test, the faithful say. But it's one the intelligent are going to fail. Intelligent people by nature can't stop questioning without real effort. And making that effort kills a part of them, their essential nature. That's some sacrifice.

What this claim of mystery means usually means, unfortunately, is that you, the little people, are not supposed to know these things. It's okay for the priesthood (literal or political) to know them, but not you. Because knowledge is power. That's one of the reasons that early education should be compulsory and advanced education should be free, for as far as you want to go. Otherwise, you are crippling your populace, and leaving them open to the manipulation of superstitious or just plain power-hungry nutcases. Jim Jones, anyone? Of course, it's far easier to control people who aren't that well-informed. Marking off certain areas as forbidden knowledge is one way to cement that control. The real problem with this, of course, is that if you don't understand your world, you can't make smart decisions about how to live your life. And if only a certain group understand the world, they get to make the decisions. As a rule, academics are in the business of spreading knowledge around to anyone who wants it. That can be a subversive activity in some cases.

It's no wonder academics are hostile right back to people who are hostile to their entire reason for being.

Like so many other prejudices, anti-intellectualism has its origin in fear, mostly of having your entire worldview dismantled, and the more petty but no less real fear of being made to look foolish. I can attest to the fact that it's a little scary to not have any sense of sureness about what the future will bring, either while you're living or dead. It was a relief to know we'd never have an all-out nuclear war because God would never let us totally destroy the earth. On the other hand, it's a little exhilarating, too, a bit like skydiving, I suspect.

But that fear is very real. My mother, not an ignorant or anti-intellectual woman by any means, found the idea of alternate dimensions really frightening. The idea that there might be someone else just like her somewhere else who had made different choices than she had was I think what she found so scary. Somehow, that would invalidate her life in her mind, though it did no such thing. The concept of alternate universes is a little more complex than that, but it does raise interesting "road not taken" possibilities. By contrast, I love the idea that our lives fork and branch at every moment, at ever choice we make, perhaps at every breath, not just for us but for every event. The number of universes is mind-boggling, but that may only attest to our lack of brain capacity to comprehend it. It's not by any means fully accepted in the physics community, but it raises some very interesting questions.

And that's what it's all about, isn't it: the questions.


Signs and Wonders

Going_to_church_moi_2A couple of years ago, I met a very pretty blonde woman from Russia in Barnes & Noble. When I first saw her, she was sitting on the floor with a very familiar little book in her hands, trying to explain it in very fractured, almost non-existent English to a young Asian-American woman. The little book was one I owned myself, and I daresay everyone in my religion owned one too. It was a teaching aid for proselytizing in foreign countries, should you happen to travel abroad, with the same text on each page, written in a vast number of different languages: just a simple introduction to the Good News. As a marketing tool, it's truly brilliant.  (Sadly, that's what I often felt I was doing when I proselytized: selling my religion.) I walked on by, leaving her to it.

A little while later, she cornered me in the music section. After several attempts, I managed to explain to her that we were sisters in the same faith. Since my Russian is non-existent and her English was about the same, I'm not that sure how successful I was, but I gave her one of my cards. I had to admire her zeal, making the effort in a country where she didn't speak the language.

A couple of days ago, she actually called me, and I couldn't understand her any better now than I could when we first met. Her English hasn't improved much and neither has my Russian, so without the benefit of seeing her, it took a couple of phone calls for her to make clear to me who she was. In her still very-broken English, she asked me if I went to church. When I blurted "Oh. No," her response was to say goodbye and hang up.

When you've been weaned on the signs and portents of prophecy, it's very hard to stop seeing them as such. Even though I see fellow co-religionists from the local congregation nearly every day on the street in my neighborhood, this phone call kinda spooked me. Not for any rational reason, but just because it came so out of the blue, and because I'd been thinking about increasing food prices, the faltering economy and the number of natural disasters in the news lately—all apocalyptic signs of the End Times (note capitals).

I remember being out proselytizing one day and having some fed-up person say, "Of course all those things will seem more numerous! There's more people now for them to happen to and more people to hear about them!" I couldn't get around that logic then, and I can't get around it now. Earth is a geologically active planet with a complex ecosystem that includes some technologically savvy but short-sighted components and weather that's barely understood and impossible to control, at this point. With six billion of us scattered fairly densely throughout nearly ever habitable (and more sparsely through the uninhabitable) land masses, we've been able to make for more observations and gather way more data than ever before. When there were only a few million of us, widely scattered in tiny populations that didn't travel, Earth must have seemed a very stable, unchanging place with a few odd occurrences with no visible causes thrown in: comets, tsunami, tornadoes, crop failures, drought, disease. And yet, we were always looking for causes, asking why.

Carl Sagan, great popularizer of science and author and host of PBS's Cosmos, named his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (see sidebar) in part after

a courageous, largely Biblically based, book by Thomas Ady, published in London in 1656, attacking the witch hunts then in progress as a scam "to delude the people" Any illness or storm, anything out of the ordinary, was popularly attributed to witchcraft. Witches must exist, Ady quoted the "witchmongers" as arguing—"else how should these things be, or come to pass?" For much of our history, we were so fearful of the outside world, with its unpredictable changers, that we gladly embraced anything that promised to soften or explain away the terror. . . . (p. 26)

It's very difficult, if not impossible to draw the line between faith and superstition. Statistics account for so much of what we see as eerie coincidence because people know so little of how statistics work, but also because that's how our minds work: they gather data and correlate, which is as useful a skill in science as it is in foment superstition. It just depends on your world-view and whether you've learned to be a critical thinker or not. Obviously, Thomas Ady had learned to be a critical thinker in a time when that was an uphill battle.

It's still an uphill battle. Superstition is so much easier, and humans are basically lazy, especially about thinking. One thing I observed in my years in the land of evangelicals is that people follow because they like to be relieved of the responsibility of thinking for themselves about the hard Big Questions. I very much admire the Buddhists for that: everybody, to reach enlightenment, must do their own thinking. You can only do so much following as a Buddhist before you realize you must make your own way through the Dark Wood.

Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.


Here we go . . .

PeacegirlThe longest journey starts with one step.

Now what?

That's the question, isn't it? Once you've stepped away from the path you've known best, how do you find a new one to follow? For me, I guess the first step is to define what didn't work. This is a fundamentally negative thing to do by its very nature, but it makes points of comparison for later use. Here's what wasn't working for me:

  1. The rigid gender roles.
  2. The condemnation of gays.
  3. The exclusivity.
  4. The conformity.
  5. The stressing of the letter of the law over its spirit.

Eeek. That makes it sound like I was in a cult, and the religion I left wasn't that. You'll notice I haven't named it and this was a purposeful decision because I still have friends (or think I do) who are still affiliated and I respect their choices, and because there are a number of things it got absolutely right. That same sticking to the letter of the law makes them pacifists who will go to jail before they go to war. That's a stance I have a great deal of respect for. They are also some of the most honest people you'll find around, and that's rare in any walk of life. In many ways, they walk the talk better than most, and they really know their textbook. Though they are not by nature scholars, and are suspicious of "worldly" knowledge (except where it supports them), everyone, young and old, men and women, make an in-depth study of the Bible all their lives. By the time I went to college, I'd already learned how to be a good student, and not just from going to public school. I'd grown up doing what was, in essence, literary criticism and explication, in the same way that Jews study the Torah.

The major problem, for me, was the lack of love, compassion, and mercy. That was one of Christ's major messages: Love your neighbor as yourself. Have mercy on other people's failings: You without sin, cast the first stone. Have compassion for one another: feeding and clothing and taking care of the least of our brothers is equivalent to taking care of Christ himself.

It was that definition of "brothers" that hung me up. In this case, it was limited to my fellow believers, which made us a very inward-looking group. Friends who weren't believers were frowned on, considered dangerously "worldly" and corrupting influences. In disasters around the world, we saw to our own first, not those who needed it most. If there was a surplus, that went to non-believers, but only then. There are no charitable works in my faith: no soup kitchens, no schools, no hospitals. The only work is teaching people to interpret the Bible the way they do. Sometimes that involves actually teaching people to read, but only with that goal in mind. That's all our missionaries do: preach.

Because of that sense of separateness and a total neutrality, there's also a sense that we're not responsible for trying to fix anything in the world. It's a futile effort and only God can fix the problems we've made for ourselves—another reason not to spend time on charitable works. That got harder and harder to swallow as I got older. It's hard to make converts of hungry, homeless, poverty-stricken people. As Gandhi said, to a hungry man, food is God.

Because I grew up in such an isolated area, the prohibition against "worldly" friend didn't really work with me. As an only child, I would have had no friends at all in school aside from the one other boy in my grade who was the same religion. His brothers and he were the only others in my school system who shared the same religion. So I learned quite early that not all "worldly" people are bad influences. My best and oldest friend, Melanie, is one of the most honest, moral, principled, truly righteous people I know. Those are the kinds of people I tend to gravitate toward, I've discovered, so my friends are, generally, good, kind, honest, compassionate people.

But let's be honest: I had some doctrinal problems too. As I grew older, it became harder and harder to believe that God would destroy everyone who wasn't a fellow believer. I mean, there's only a few million of them, and there are whole countries or regions where there are none at all (China, Kashmir, several Islamic countries). Moving to New York, traveling, and meeting people from everywhere, I found myself rethinking that idea. It grew to seem appalling. Apocalyptism is often an excuse to do nothing; God will take care of it. Many of my friends and their parents spent their lives just waiting for God to fix everything, rather than being responsible for their own lives, for their neighbors, for their world. This is odd for a religion that teaches death has no afterlife. Except it does: instead of heaven, there will be paradise and we'll be perfect. Why try to be a better person now when God will do it for you in the blink of an eye?

When the AIDS crisis started, and so many people saw it as a consequence of breaking God's laws, rather than the happenstance of epidemiology and evolution, that went a long way toward breaking the camel's back. It certainly wasn't an excuse for not having compassion for people with it, whether they were gay or straight.

And as more of my friends came out, people I had known and loved for years before I (or sometimes they) knew they were gay, the Biblical injunction against homosexuality seemed more and more a holdover from an archaic civilization. If sexual orientation is genetically based, as seems more and more likely, then it's a cruel god who ostracizes people for being made the way they are.

What hurt the most though, was the constant personal rejection. I was a smart, artistically talented kid, and that wasn't valued because I was female. There was no position to which I could aspire but wife and mother and perhaps full-time evangelist. There was no room for my talents or abilities, no use to which they could be put to serve the group. I couldn't teach in church. There is no clergy and laity division in this faith, but there is a strict division of authority; women have none, especially wives. This is one reason they have such a hard time with single women; we're under no one's authority, answerable to no "head" but Christ (all very Miltonian, I know). So as an intelligent single woman, I was considered something of a dangerous rogue. Especially since I went off to college and got an advanced degree, something that was frowned on at the time.

My artistic sensibility didn't help either. I was the first to get my ears pierced, then I did it twice! I wore bright colors, preferred pants to dresses and skirts, wrote stories and poetry, worked on my high school yearbooks. I read books for fun! A true weirdo. I wasn't demure, silent, or submissive. I wasn't planning to get married right out of high school and have a pile of kids. I wanted to learn and to work and write. Dangerous, indeed.

In a fundamentalist, conservative group, I stuck out like a tarantula on an angel food cake. I had, basically, two choices: bend myself, twist myself, break myself to fit their mold, or leave. I tried for years to conform as much as I could: go to church, preach, study. I figured if I fulfilled all the requirements, if I was passionate about what I believed, that would make up for being who I was. None of it felt authentic to me. Not because I didn't want it to. I wanted to have a relationship with God, but I wasn't sure I liked this small-minded one very much.

My mom remained very dedicated to the faith, but increasingly unhappy with its treatment of women. As I've heard a number of Mormon (not my faith) women remark, she was tired of being a second class citizen. Even at her funeral she was treated as one. And I know for a fact she wasn't the only one with that complaint. Again, it made God seem cruel to make some of us smarter than the people who were supposedly our betters, our heads and then deny us the opportunity to serve Him directly.

Too many contradictions slowly built into an edifice impossible to sustain by faith alone.

So here I am, not precisely adrift, but wandering like Dante in the dark wood, or St. John of the Cross in the dark night of the soul. Oddly, the woods and the night don't seem very dark or dangerous, but full of possibility, of chaos in its mathematical sense: complexity and beauty. Where I saw one narrow road, I now see a broad avenue joined by many narrow roads at their very end, leading not to destruction but to God, to enlightenment, to freedom from samsara, to paradise both real and metaphorical.