April 22, 2013
I’ve heard it said often that the problem with the doctrine of reincarnation is that it encourages people to slack off about living life fully, giving the illusion that we have unlimited time to screw around or watch television.
From a common Christian point of view, the problem is the illusion that we have unlimited time to repent our sins and reconcile with God before we’re called to judgment. That we can sin without limit or consequence because we’ll always have more time to get it right.
But I think it would mean something much, much better, if it were true in any way.
It would mean that all of the world’s greatest people, everyone we’ve loved, everyone who’s meant a great deal to us, everyone whose work has changed our lives…is still here with us.
But we can’t know who they are now. They could be anyone and they could be anywhere.
And so every single chance you have to show goodness or kindness to another person, is a chance to show it to any person who’s ever lived and died.
Far from the idea of reincarnation being an excuse not to live life to the fullest, I think it’s an invitation to live as well as we can and show as much goodness as we can to everyone around us.
April 8, 2013
I was reorganizing a props closet recently when I found this fellow.
I got all of his strings untangled to try to see how he works; he’s a marionette, but seems to be missing the wooden handhold that would allow a puppeteer to operate his legs independently from his arms and head.
He’s beautiful, and also clearly not a toy or a prop. He looks like a traditional puppet of some kind. (In most cultures other than ours, puppet theater is a serious traditional storytelling form for adults as well as children.) And here’s my real embarrassment: I wrote my final paper for graduation with honors in college on the religious frameworks underpinning various East Asian puppet theater traditions…and I had no idea what this guy is.
He looks Indian or Hindu, perhaps, and preliminary image Googling reveals a resemblance to the string puppets of a tradition called Bommalattam, but those marionettes are described as being about 3 feet tall, and this one is only just over a foot, and also more detailed and ornate. I dug out a copy of my paper to skim through, but he doesn’t fit the description of anything that I studied.
It’s past my bedtime, but I’m a little obsessed now with figuring out more about him. I’ll have to resume research in the morning, though if anyone else is geek enough to have any idea, I would be thankful to know.
April 7, 2013
Really happy to see an update from the Out of Order team this week. Seeing this film get made is a wish very dear to me. It will come as no surprise to anyone, probably, that I treasure stories of people being told that they’re not supposed to exist, and then doing it anyway.
And also because I’ve had people who are not allies to the cause of equality tell me that they’re really and truly trying to understand the position of people who consider themselves both faithful Christians, and avowedly queer. Being able to point them to this film would be a great place to start, but it has to get made first.
Earlier this year I shared the first trailer for this documentary project. I know that everything and everyone is asking for your time or money for something, and I know that queer Presbyterian aspiring clergy might seem an obscure or marginally important topic for a documentary, but the filmmakers have this to say:
This important film is about people making a stand for what they believe in. It’s not merely about Christians or gay and transgender people. It’s about wider humanity and doing what’s right, despite institutions telling you you’re wrong, broken and don’t belong.
I know that’s something that probably a majority of my followers can identify with in some way.
February 28, 2013
So there’s more than one way in which I’m sick of being told that the way I think and experience the world is a blight on humanity that needs to be wiped off the face of the earth.
Recently I had a heated Facebook discussion with a friend over this Times Room for Debate entry, which not only argues that religion is not a reliable source of morality, but also posits that atheism shouldn’t seek to replace religion, but to end it…unfortunately employing a host of unfounded generalizations and leaps of illogic.
In the interest of both critical thinking and compassion, can we look at what, practically and humanly, ending religion would mean?
Various cultures and government regimes, at various times, have tried, hard, to get rid of religion or specific religions. I do not know of an instance in which it has gone well, in which the attempt didn’t involve egregious violence and human rights abuses, or in which the culture in question was left ultimately better off. Or in which it even remotely worked.
Beyond whatever personal spiritual significance or comfort they hold to individual believers, religious thought and traditions are the cornerstones of more than a few minority cultures and communities. Who is anyone to say that these cultures have no value, to put oneself in a position of choosing which other people’s communities, community rituals, values, and devotions, should be suppressed and eliminated? If we’re talking about the distinction between religion and morality, what is the morality of depriving a minority population of its rights of self-definition and community traditions and values?
Has anyone really thought about how we would prevent people or communities from transmitting their belief systems to their children? If you knock down every church building, how are you going to keep people from teaching their children to pray alone in bed at night? How are you going to prevent me from hearing God in the wind in the trees or in the silences between raindrops? How are you going to prevent people from infusing art and literature with religious thought?
And before somebody answers that the solution to ending religious belief is just to teach people better facts, understand this: Religions are not arbitrary sets of false, irrational, or mistaken beliefs, or collections of simple superstitions of cause and effect or magical thinking or carrot/stick promises of punishment or reward for belief or behavior (though they can contain all of those things), which could simply be undone by giving people better information. (That thunder is the result of colliding warm and cool air masses and not the gods having wrestling matches, for instance. I know what causes thunder. That knowledge has never yet prevented the experience of it from being spiritual to me.) They are complex narrative frameworks of symbol, metaphor, and allegory. They are stories and vocabularies for a class of experiences that you can’t simply forbid people from having. You can’t keep someone from having an experience by denying them the language for representing or coping with it.
And so unless you’re going to all-out eliminate storytelling, you’re not going to keep people who are so inclined from finding personal significance and guidance in storytelling, or from using a certain type of story–myth, fable, fairytale, whatever you want to call it–to give shape and understandability to their experiences.
It’s not fair or intellectually honest to presuppose that those experiences are false or trivial just because you don’t share them. And frankly narcissistic to declare that, because you don’t understand or share it, that mode of perception needs to be eliminated from the realm of human experience and meaning.
There is bad religion, just as there is bad music and bad writing, but we don’t talk about doing away with those forms of thought and expression just because a lot of it is of poor quality. There is religion that advances truly terrible values; that doesn’t make religion inherently destructive or wrong any more than Twilight‘s existence makes all teen fantasy literature poorly written and abusive relationship-glorifying. It is a medium, not an end, not an ultimate good or evil in itself.
In the same way that the overwhelming (and baffling) success of Twilight tells us nothing about teen fantasy literature’s inherent quality or worth (the genre also includes the Wrinkle in Time quartet, His Dark Materials, and the Earthsea cycle), the popularity of anti-intellectual or violent fundamentalism tells us nothing about what religion inherently is or has to be. It is one manifestation.
Religion is not morality, we should do a better job of talking about what both of those things are and are not, and I fully agree that religion can’t be said to be the exclusive or superior source of morality. But that doesn’t make it either worthless, or worthy of eradication.
January 7, 2013
The Chronicles of Narnia have been some of the most formative books in my life, a situation in which I know I’m not alone. I got my set as a Christmas present from my grandparents when I was 11 or 12.
There’s a common criticism of them, however, out of many quite reasonable ones, that’s irritated me for a long time.
He may not have been the first to think it or to say it, but author Philip Pullman’s articulation of what he finds wrong with the books, encapsulated in the problem of what happened to Susan Pevensie and why, when she does not return to aid Narnia in the final book of the series, may be most responsible for a now widespread interpretation that Susan is cast out of Heaven because she grew up and embraced her sexuality. Indeed, I think I have hardly ever had a conversation about these books since college in which “The Problem of Susan” didn’t feature prominently in their criticism:
Susan isn’t allowed into the stable and the reason given is that she’s growing up. She’s become far too interested in lipstick, nylons and invitations. One character says rather primly: ‘She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up.’ This seems to me on the part of Lewis to reveal very weird unconscious feelings about sexuality. Here’s a child whose body is changing and who’s naturally responding as everyone has ever done since the history of the world to the changes that are taking place in one’s body and one’s feelings. She’s doing what everyone has to do in order to grow up.
And it is a god who hates life because he denies children life. In the final Narnia book he gives the children the end-of-term treat of being killed in a railway accident so they can go to heaven. It’s a filthy thing to do. Susan is shut out from salvation because she is doing what every other child who has ever been born has done – she is beginning to sense the developing changes in her body and its effect on the opposite sex.
It’s tempting and convenient, because it echoes charges so commonly made against Christianity as a whole–that it’s intrinsically set up to punish natural human sexuality, among other things like critical thinking and self-determination.
It’s too bad that Pullman’s interpretation is practically unsupported by the text. You’d have to take the passage in question completely out of context of the entire rest of the series for it to be even remotely plausible; indeed, even by quoting it incompletely, he leads his listeners in a nearly complete distortion of the reasoning behind Susan’s exile.
Here is the incident, from The Last Battle, which Pullman cites:
“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicles aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”
“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”
“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”
“Oh Susan!” said Jill, “she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”
“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”
Susan is not just doing what she needs to do to grow up. The reason given is not that she’s growing up; the text itself refutes this. Lady Polly, the speaker after Lucy’s now-infamous line, denies that growing up is what Susan is doing at all.
She is pretending that her previous experiences in Narnia never happened. She denies the people she knew there, who she loved and who loved her, people who died for her and what they meant to her, what she’s been through and everything she’s done up to this point. She calls all of it a childish game.
Nor is there any defiance of the will of Aslan here, who has never in this entire story forced any of these people into any task or burden or mortal danger against their own free will. Who has in fact, repeatedly, stood by and let them actively make bad choices. She doesn’t hear an order from Aslan and say “no,” “I don’t want to,” “not this time,” or “fuck you, I’m not a plaything.” She denies that she ever knew him.
Some other points of Narnian history further illuminate the absurdity of Pullman’s claims:
1. That time in Prince Caspian when Bacchus showed up for a romp…
The crowd and dance round Aslan (for it had become a dance once more) grew so thick and rapid that Lucy was confused. She never saw where certain other people came from who were soon capering about among the trees. One was a youth, dressed only in a fawn-skin, with vine-leaves wreathed in his curly hair. His face would have been almost too pretty for a boy’s, if it had not looked so extremely wild. You felt, as Edmund said when he saw him a few days later, “There’s a chap who might do anything–absolutely anything.” He seemed to have a great many names–Bromios, Bassareus, and the Ram, were three of them. There were a lot of girls with him, as wild as he….
“Is it a Romp, Aslan?” cried the youth. And apparently it was.
And it’s a delightfully saucy good time, for a god who supposedly hates life and is into damning children for sensual exploration.
2. Susan herself, in The Horse and His Boy, is described as having multiple suitors. She’s being courted for marriage by Prince Rabadash of Calormen…
“Now, Madam,” the King was saying to Queen Susan (the lady who had kissed Shasta). “What think you? We have been in this city fully three weeks. Have you yet settled in your mind whether you will marry this dark-faced lover of yours, this Prince Rabadash, or no?”
…but she’s awfully sweet on Corin, Prince of Archenland (though here she’s mistaken a runaway slave named Shasta for the prince)…
But he had no time to think of that before the most beautiful lady he had ever seen rose from her place and threw her arms around him and kissed him, saying:
“Oh Corin, Corin, how could you? And thou and I such close friends ever since thy mother died. And what should I have said to thy royal father if I came home without thee? Would have been a cause almost of war between Archenland and Narnia which are friends time out of mind. It was naught, playmate, very naught of thee to use us so.”
There is no condemnation whatsoever stated or implied for her romantic activities.
A minor character who also occurs in The Horse and His Boy, Lasaraleen is a childhood friend of Aravis, and perhaps unexpectedly, one of my favorite characters in the series. She’s a party girl, socialite, and trophy wife…and perhaps the most totally and unabashedly herself of anyone in this world. She loves luxury, being seen, and having a good time.
[Aravis] remembered now that Lasaraleen had always been like that, interested in clothes and parties and gossip. Aravis had always been more interested in bows and arrows and horses and dogs and swimming. You will guess that each thought the other silly.
We’re supposed to see Lasaraleen as doofy and shallow, but she’s also affectionate and loyal. She helps her friend escape from being caught and returned to an arranged marriage at serious risk to herself, and no further particularly harsh criticism is made of her life choices.
4. Other adults have come and returned to Narnia before.
-King Frank and Queen Helen
Former London cabbie Frank and washerwoman Nellie become Narnia’s first king and queen in The Magician’s Nephew. They are already adults when brought to Narnia (albeit accidentally in Frank’s case). Aslan treats them with trust and respect and is clearly not expecting chastity, but children and grandchildren from them.
“Rise up King and Queen of Narnia, father and mother of many kings that shall be in Narnia and the Isles and Archenland.”
-Digory Kirk and Polly Plummer
The first human children to stumble into Narnia, they return as adults (probably in their 60′s or 70′s) with the others for the Last Battle. Peter and Edmund, wearing beards at their reappearance, are also young adult men by this point. Presumably they’ve all done what they had to do to grow up, and it didn’t include betraying the memory of everyone they’ve ever loved.
Nothing in the world of this story indicates that any of the other protagonists who have grown up either in Narnia or out of it, did not go through “naturally responding as everyone has ever done since the history of the world to the changes that are taking place in one’s body and one’s feelings.” Nothing. Because, as Pullman correctly observes, these feelings and explorations are fairly universal.
The gravity of Susan’s sin is not in her embrace of superficial frippery, or in any normal adolescent desire on her part for adulthood, sexual experimentation, maturity, or self-determination. It’s her betrayal of her true self. It’s her denial of her own emotional history and experience, and what a lot of other people went through by her side.
And even for that, nobody bars the doors of the Stable to Susan as she begs to go through to eternal life. She is not in Narnia, because she, for her own reasons, chose not to get on the train whose demise brought her siblings and former mentors back to Narnia for the Last Battle. Susan may have saved her (earthly) life by not getting on that train, but at the ultimate cost of her own authenticity.
Ability to return to your true home requires acceptance of who you really are. That’s not something that Aslan, or the Emperor Over the Sea, or all the forces of Deeper Magic are capable of doing for her.
December 9, 2012
I’m very excitedly looking forward to the release of this documentary:
From the project website:
Most gay and transgender people know what it feels like to be told they are broken and to be rejected, and often this message comes from Christians. Out of Order is a feature length documentary following the journey of three queer members of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
With unprecedented access, this groundbreaking documentary joins a group of queer future ministers at a secret retreat in the South. The critical decisions they make there will forever alter the course of their lives.
July 24, 2012
1. A little over 12 years ago now, I was about to graduate from high school. And my church’s brand new pastor, Brian, thought it would be awesome if, for a spiritual rite of passage or something, me and the other graduating seniors–my childhood friends Jess and Nicole–had to plan an entire Sunday worship service and give the sermon. And I’ve never been reticent about saying “hells to the no” to things that I really, seriously don’t want to do…but I’d been in acting class that year past, and so this idea was not as petrifying to me as it might have been only a short time previously. In fact, I’d been half-wondering whether I felt a calling to the clergy myself, and so I thought this might actually be a good, challenging experiment. And so I said okay.
I wrote my sermon on how trusting in God often means being open to unexpected possibilities, including unexpected discoveries about ourselves. I remember sitting outside on the front steps of the church on a warm spring evening for a planning meeting, Brian approving of our sermon outlines and hymn selections, joking about what more humorous though inappropriate choices might have been. It wouldn’t be so bad. There was an order of worship; I knew how it went. I only had to actually speak for five to seven minutes, from prepared text; I’d done scenes longer than that. Jess and Nicky had to do it, too. If I could act, I could do this. And it would tell me something about myself.
And I did, and it was actually pretty awesome; even though I was fairly sure I wasn’t meant for the ministry, I wasn’t sure at all that I wasn’t destined for some kind of life in performance.
A few weeks ago, I was on the phone with my father when he asked whether I’d gotten Brian’s resignation letter in the mail.
WHAT?!?! I said. No, I had not. What was going on, what happened?!
But the news was good. Brian was leaving to become the executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, a national organization working to encourage better welcoming and inclusion of LGBT people in the church. And he’d been in a committed relationship with his partner, Troy, for the past nine years.
Given my own past couple of years, I know what it takes to decide that being open about who you really are, whatever the fallout may be, is just worth it. I don’t think I ever imagined that one day I’d get to be so proud of someone who I already liked and respected a lot and who had been a gentle and encouraging influence in choosing to do something immensely difficult all that time ago. I’m fairly sure I cackled for joy when I got off the phone.
2. This has already made the rounds of Facebook, and now it’s up on BoingBoing: earlier this week, my high school friend Chris returned his Eagle Scout medal in protest of the Boy Scouts of America’s recent decision to continue the organization’s ban of gay, bisexual or transgender scouts and leaders, joining a growing number of men who have done so.
I’ve always had a visceral dislike of the Boy Scouts on multiple levels, but the Eagle Scout award is the culmination of years of incredibly hard work, of which men who achieve it are rightfully proud. I didn’t realize until today that only 2.1 million scouts have earned Eagle Scout status…since 1911. So it’s, to say the least, not a trivial decision to give up the award, in order to uphold what it’s supposed to teach.
“Gay scouts and leaders have the right and obligation to be true to themselves. Homosexuality is not a moral deviance, bigotry is,” Chris wrote.
Maggie Koerth-Baker’s article and Chris Baker’s and several other men’s entire letters are here.
I think I agree with a friend who said this week that I clearly have good taste in friends. ; )
June 11, 2012
It was my first clue that atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them–and then they leap. –Yann Martel (Life of Pi)
There is a common conception of what faith is, even among the religious faithful, that has always really bothered me: That to have faith is to believe in something irrational, without evidence, just because you’ve been asked to, or taught from a young age that you should, nevermind any subsequent experience or reasoning to the contrary. That to have faith is to choose to believe against any logic or evidence, to refuse any rational questions about what you say you believe because it falls under the title of “faith,” that you reap some kind of reward or approval for the purity of thought with which you uphold a logically indefensible position.
I don’t believe that’s what faith is anymore.
Because when I saw this picture, I thought, “that’s what faith feels like,” and I knew that feeling.
It was exactly like this.
I am alone, under the open sky, on a footbridge across the ocean. I have no supplies, no shelter, no map, no help, no possible escape to one side or the other, and only the vaguest idea that the home I’ve never seen could, improbably, exist at the other end of this, if there even is an other end of this.
Faith is not irrational certainty; faith is pursuit in the face of utterly rational uncertainty when you have no remaining acceptable choices. When knowing what you now know, having seen what you’ve seen, you can’t do otherwise anymore, even in the face of overwhelmingly probable failure.
Faith is closely related to hope, but also to exile, and exhaustion, and desperation.
There is nothing behind you.
There is no way back.
There is nothing there you’d go back for even if you could. And you can’t, really.
So you go forward. Because there might be something that you barely even know how to dream of.
Faith is not deliberate ignorance or irrationality. Faith is just what you do when you can’t do anything else anymore.
Faith is when survival means giving up on everything you thought you knew.
And I think to call on faith this way is an ability that most humans possess, regardless of any belief system that we do or don’t claim.
July 23, 2011
Legal same-sex marriage begins tomorrow in New York, and I love that the Times ran this article (The Clergy Effort Behind Same-Sex Marriage in New York) spotlighting the efforts of members of the clergy on behalf of marriage equality, noting that it’s a common but erroneous belief that churches and religious people are polarized against the advancement of LGBT equality. While some of the most conspicuous campaigns against equality have been waged by churches, in fact, there are religious believers working on both sides of this issue.
What makes this surprising or counterintuitive for a lot of people is a pair of major misconceptions, perpetrated largely by the preaching of the fundamentalist religious right wing, that moderate, liberal or progressive Christianity is just a watered down version of fundamentalist Christianity with weaker versions of the same beliefs; and that in supporting LGBT equal rights, we’re just capitulating to the permissive amorality of popular culture.
What we want people to understand is that we’re actually doing this because we truly believe it is right. Not because it is easy or just happens to be popular at the moment.
We are not, as socially conservative preachers often accuse, saying we believe in equality for political expediency, to be popular, to duck uncomfortable criticism, because we’re insecure in our faith or because we don’t know all the same Bible verses from Leviticus and 1st Corinthians that they do. We support LGBT equality, including in legal marriage, as an expression of our faith, not in spite of it.
We think that the narrative arc of the Bible is one of an ever-expanding conception of grace and compassion for our fellow humans. It’s a story of each successive generation seeing a new reflection of God in the world and the people around them. We don’t think that that story ended 2000 years ago, but that we’re asked by Christ constantly to see all people anew as creations of God.
I do take issue with one characterization of the debate from the article, when it says “Yet the passage of same-sex marriage in New York last month, just two years after its defeat here, attests to the concerted, sustained efforts by liberal Christian and Jewish clergy to advocate for it in the language of faith, to counter the language of morality voiced by foes.”
Because we absolutely believe that this is an issue of morality as well. We believe it’s immoral for the government to create second-class citizens and second-class families. We believe it’s immoral to withhold civil rights based on sexuality just as it would be to deny those rights on the basis of race or religion. We think that the bigotry enshrined by the Defense of Marriage Act is immoral. We believe that to scapegoat gays for divorce, child abuse, and a host of other cultural problems is immoral. We believe it is a moral edict of our faith to stand up for the most vulnerable and marginalized people in our society.
We are not attempting to undermine morality, but to support a morality of compassion and respect for all of our citizens.
We believe, as Victor Hugo wrote, “to love another person is to see the face of God,” and that nothing can make that wrong.
March 10, 2011
Today, Republican Representative Peter King’s congressional hearings on radicalization within the American Muslim community begin. And I would say that this blatant and apparently un-self-conscious re-enactment of the McCarthy hearings, this repellent attempt by Representative King to use collective blame to make us view our Muslim fellow citizens with fear and suspicion or as somehow less than fully American, makes me ashamed to be an American, or makes me ashamed that King represents my state.
Except that everywhere, I read about people standing up to what King’s doing, speaking up in defense of the Muslim community, pointing out the hypocrisy of the very premise of the hearings, and drawing comparisons to the McCarthy hearings and Salem witch trials. And it makes me proud, and makes me wonder if we might finally actually be learning something as a country, even if our leaders aren’t yet. Which is that, while any of us are in danger of persecution or officially sanctioned injustice, all of us are.
In illustration, one of my favorite articles of the week, shared by a Facebook friend, comes from the Washington Post and chronicles the relationship of support built between the Muslim and Japanese-American communities on the west coast in the years since 9/11. (Japanese Americans: House hearings on radical Islam ‘sinister.’) The Japanese-American community remembers the internments of World War II, based on nothing more than suspicion of their ethnicity. They remember that it can happen to them, and it can happen again.
I have a theory, which is that people who instigate and support this kind of targeting and suspicion of others based on group identity, are people who are themselves pretty sure that the same tactics will never be turned back against them. People who have never been excluded or abused or marginalized based on who they are, have an easy time believing that they never will be. People who have always been able to take their place in society, or even humanity, for granted, have a hard time imagining not being able to do so.
But people who have been marginalized instinctively identify ourselves in every marginalized person, and see the danger to ourselves in injustice against anyone.
There’s a scene in one of my favorite books, which I’ve written about before, World Without End, in which a serf named Wulfric and his family have run away from the lord who controls their land, to another community where they have a chance to be independent and escape the grinding, perpetual poverty of feudal life. Sir Ralph comes to force Wulfric to return, as was legal in those days: the lord who owned your land effectively owned you. Another man tries to defend Wulfric, who says “Be quiet, Carl. I don’t want you killed for my sake.”
“It’s not for your sake,” says Carl. “If this thug is allowed to drag you off, next week someone will come for me.”
And that’s why King seeks with his hearings to get Americans to see American Muslims as not truly us, but “them,” some alien and hostile force among us. Whatever his ultimate aim is, and I don’t believe for one second that it’s really just to determine the extent of radicalization in the Muslim community, it depends on us seeing Muslims as something other than and less than ourselves.
And that’s why I say that today, I’m a Muslim too, or might as well be, because anything that can be done to anyone–like being presumed guilty of collusion with terrorists and investigated by Congress for your religious identity–can be done to all of us. Every single one. Never pretend that it can’t.
Representative Keith Ellison’s testimony at King’s hearing: