Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Last Sunday I went to two churches and the differences between them became stunningly clear.

The first was an old-fashioned downtown church with a congregation that had been raised on post-war community feeling and 60s radicalism. We sang with gusto from a hymnal while the organ drowned everyone out, and we took communion together, and we listened to a teaching about the blind beggar whom Jesus had healed on the Jericho Road. After the service, we met in groups. My group had a lively conversation from which I took away a renewed confidence in my personal experience of the divine.

During the service and after, several people shared with me about how they served the community. One young woman had organized a letter writing campaign asking senators to support legislation that brings food to the hungry. (Would I please write a letter?) An older woman gave me papers to read about the needs of the mentally ill who, she said, were cast aside by our health care system. (Could I come to a meeting?) In this church, the homeless are housed and the hungry are fed. I left feeling connected, uplifted.

But, I also love to worship with my hands raised, so afterwards I moved on to a megachurch where I had heard that the music was grand. Before I got to the doors someone approached me and gave me a church tee-shirt and a DVD. Then, I walked through glass doors into a sparkling lobby filled with young people and young families, with a cafe in one corner dealing lattes and pastries and a shop in another corner selling books and CDs, and a comfortable lounge with a crackling fireplace. TV screens set here and there showed a variety of church-related video. Down the hall, a multilevel children's area was bursting with eye-candy, like a kids' science museum. Everything was new and classy, but the auditorium (I don't think they dared to call it a sanctuary) beat all that.

The stage was set for Broadway, and when the band came onstage, lights flashed and smoke machines poured out pretend smoke, and giant screens brought us close up to the drummer and the bass was so intense, I thought my heart would give out.

There's more, but I'll skip it. What hit me hard was when four people got up on stage and said they were going to share how they served the community. I was all set to hear more about caring for the needy and poor. One of them said he worked in the church nursery during services. Another directed traffic in the enormous parking lot. The third was involved in the church's theater group and the last one managed music production on Sunday mornings. They served, not Jesus, not the community, but the church.

The people on stage said that Jesus had led them to this service, that this was what Jesus wanted them to do: work for the church. Their church's stated mission is to make converts. The people who go there serve the church. I should have known better, but I'd almost been suckered in by the glitter and I left feeling tainted and sad.

It had been dark in that auditorium. We couldn't see one another once the stage was lit.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Art, Truth and David Sedaris

Charlie tells me that the more my art tells the truth, the more powerful it will be, no matter what my level of skill.

Telling the truth means to me being honest about the reality I experience and the visions I have—but the more truth I tell, the more vulnerable I become.

What if my philosophy doesn't conform to media established norms? Then, do I hide my truth behind glib facebook posts? What if my economic truth is considered pathological or politically incorrect on both sides of the debate? What if my religious truth would get me fired from my job or get my kids taken away? But as an artist, I have to speak truth, because truth feeds my art.

Then there's the most terrifying kind of truth to reveal: the personal realities, the truth of my friendships and kinships and who I really am inside. This turns the world of privacy inside out and leaves me vulnerable, not only to the world's condemnation, but to hurting the people whose reality intersects with mine. I will have outted them with my honesty, revealing the soft insides of themselves that they would choose to keep away from the public eye. And yet, this personal truth is what fires my art and raises it above the level of whatever money or celebrity it may generate.

I think of David Sedaris here and his book Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, from which I know more than I feel comfortable knowing about his siblings. Did they choose, I wonder, whether or not he would reveal them to me in their spiritual nakedness? If I was in Mr. Sedaris's family, I'd change my name and move to a small town west of the Rockies, just to resist this invasion of my private self. It may be the reader's discomfort with this intrusion on the secrets of the unwilling that makes his stories so compelling in the first place, but I don't like it. Even though I keep reading them, I feel like a voyeur or a thief.

Then again, what's so different about his dragging the Sedaris family skeletons across the New York Times bestseller lists and my dragging out that old story about my divorce?

Then again, I don't think it would be worth the pain I might cause—you'll notice that I didn't actually drag out that old story about my divorce here, although I was tempted to—but short of hurting someone else, what am I willing to risk for the sake of my art? I don't want to lay my foibles and eccentricities at the feet of the google mobs and potential bosses. Hell, no! But that's what I'm called to do with my art. Very slowly, I start to sign my work with my own name.

This compulsion to speak the truth in public comes over us artists because we know that truth is what empowers art. I suspect it is as old as the first artist who ever scratched the picture of a deer upon a rock. Charlie says:
Truth opens the spirit eyes of your art so that it looks back at the viewer and the viewer is changed.

And job hunt be damned . . .

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Party's Over

Sophie told me that she wasn't sure at first what attitude the announcer had. Was he sarcastic? Serious? In this cartoon, I was imagining what a real radio announcer would think of a news item like that in 1952. The '50s mainstream called religious fundamentalists "bible thumpers" and pictured them as ignorant, southern trailer trash listening to radio evangelists who preached with a hate-filled oratory. Not a nice assessment, of course, but far from the political power they've become in the 21st century.

Apocalypse at that time was associated with nuclear annihilation and was much feared. Now, a majority of Americans anticipate some kind of world-destroying scenario, with polls showing up to 50% of us expecting an imminent apocalypse.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Nectar From the Holy Fruit

Nectar from the Holy Fruit which grows on a tree in the smack damn center of the Garden of Eden is available to you now at your corner liquor store. Yes, I'm talking about bourbon.

Although I loved whiskies of various kinds before we moved here to Bluegrass Country, in the past couple of months I've come to enjoy bourbon in particular. A single malt scotch used to be my best bottle, say an Ardberg or Lugavulen, but now my best is a single barrel from Wild Turkey, a liquor that is to my senses like an afternoon in August when distant thunder rolls across the hills.

This place in which I live is bourbon's birthplace and its only true home, the meadows and streams of the Kentucky River ecosystem, where winters are just cold enough to draw the liquor back into the barrel after a long, delirious Kentucky summer.

My father comes to visit me more often in Lexington. His name was Fred Greenwald. He sang me to sleep with Kentucky lullabies, and in my imagination this state was the land of milk and honeysuckle vines. Fred loved the Kentucky of his dreams and he shared those dreams with me, and now here I am in the old home of lullabies, horses, and bourbon.

If you'd like to share in my love affair with this native American whiskey, you need to shun any blended whiskies and avoid the bottom shelf of bourbons. You can make a Manhattan with one of them, I suppose, but why bother? Learn about the difference between single barrel and small batch, either of which is a sure bet, and start to taste.

Take it neat, or on the rocks, or with just a splash of good water. This one has the sweetness of corn. That one the kick of rye. In the best of them, you can taste the soul of the oak wood that makes the barrel and you share in the numinous kindness of those trees. You can taste the magic of a water that seeped its patient way through limestone cracks for one hundred thousand years.

Bourbon is the drink of sexy winter evenings and long summer nights. It wears a tie, but loosens the knot as the hour goes by. Taste it and you long to hear a saxophone, or maybe you hear a saxophone that other people, the people drinking vodka or rum, could never hear.

Listen, I've got a few good bottles here I'd love to share. Stop by anytime and we'll sit on the back porch in the slanted Indian Summer light, and drink to the bluegrass and horses of Kentucky.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Surprised Tea Party Voter

It seems to me that health care is a particularly Christian value, and any Christian worth his salt and light should be fighting for it.

Didn't Jesus heal the sick, and didn't he send his disciples to go out to all the towns around and heal poor people in his name?

Sometimes—often—I'm ashamed to be known as a follower of Christ, Jesus because of the hypocrisy of the churches, a hypocrisy so obvious that it would be laughable except that its adherents do great harm.

I have three adult children, and only one of them has health insurance, something that's part of a university student program. My husband and I are currently uninsured. We've worked all our lives serving the community, raising our children to be good citizens, and still in our fifties we find ourselves uninsured.

We are not filthy beggars on the street, but what if we were? Is any one of us less worthy in the eyes of our Creator? I pray for the day when everyone in this country, and all around the world, will be healed for free in the name of a generous god.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Love and Cruelty

Hey, it doesn't make sense to me, either, but it makes sense to a shocking number of bible worshipers.

Here's the story: God loves everyone so much, that just after he created us he led us into temptation, like some divine practical joker, and we fell for it and ate an apple from the wrong tree. For this, he condemned us to a lifetime of torment on earth followed by eternal torment in the afterlife. Four or five thousand years later, he decided to give us a break, so he sent his only son, so that his son might be hounded and abused and tortured instead of us, at least, instead of some of us—but only those of us who believe that our Creator demands blood sacrifice for the eating of an apple.

There are many sad things about this story. One is that since bible worshipers have assumed a monopoly on religion in our country, people think they have to choose between the god of this story or no god at all. For most thoughtful, contemporary people the only choice they can make with integrity is no god at all. Who wants a nasty, torturing god? But, what a shame that with so many wonderful gods of love, people are being forced into atheism by this false choice.

The thing that concerns me most about this story, however, is the association of love and cruelty. The god who created us on purpose and saw that we were good is also the god who would make life on earth a vale of tears, filled with agony and suffering, demanding violence, setting nation against nation, and condemning us for the very things that make us human. It's a mind fuck, my friends.

When you love someone, you seek their pleasure and happiness. You do not hurt them. When you care, you are kind. You are filled with compassion. You seek to serve. But the bible is permeated with the contradiction of a god who both loves and hurts, and so is our culture.

Bible Christians proclaim the love of god for all of us, and say that they practice the love of Jesus Christ, a love so radical that it seeks even the welfare of one's enemies and oppressors. Yet in practice they show only disdain, not only to their enemies, but to anyone or any group that doesn't meet their standards of thought or behavior. They would withhold health care from the sick, food from the poor, and care from the fatherless children and do these things in the name of love. Theirs is a god who would send his only son to die in wretched agony and still would not be satisfied.

I see this contradiction expressed, in particular, in the association of sex and violence, not merely in the media concurrence of sexual with violent imagery, but in the rise of sharing sexual love in our own bedrooms by inflicting pain. The book Fifty Shades of Grey is, of course, the latest expression of this perversion, and it's made plenty of money for the author. There are now sequels, magazines, and related merchandise dedicated to the fantasy of repeated sexual assault in an intimate setting, which illustrates how deeply the association of love and violence has been integrated into our culture.

Underneath culture is religion, and a religion that associates love with cruelty, and whose god claims to be loving while inflicting pain, lies deep beneath our 21st century American culture.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Very Good News

Who is like you?

Mi chamochah ba'elim Adonai? 
Who is like you among the gods, Oh, Lord?

These words echo in my mind from my earliest years. One of the few pieces of the liturgy still sung in Hebrew in even the most Reform of Jewish temples, Mi Chamochah is from the "Song at the Sea," raised by the ancient Hebrews as they stood on the far shore of the Red Sea after the flight from Egypt. (Exodus 15:1-18). Now no longer slaves, but free people, the Hebrews sang glory to their god, for, "He is my strength and my song and he has become my salvation; this is my god, and I will glorify him!"

My god, not the god. Who is like him among the gods!

Oh, Lord! Among the gods. Plural gods.

In those days, even the Hebrews knew that there existed more than one god, and although they cherished their god and had been chosen by him, and prayed that one day every knee would bow to him, and said they would have no other gods before him and that he would be their only one, and although they claimed that he was the Great One, the One who had created the heavens and the earth, they were well aware that there existed other gods. After all, they were surrounded by other gods and many people living all around them in the ancient world were polytheists, worshiping more than one god. The understanding that there exist many gods but that only one is worthy of worship makes the ancient Hebrews "monolatrists" rather than monotheists.
  • A monolatrist believes in the existence of many gods, but chooses one as the only worthy god.
  • A monotheist is someone who believes that there exists only one god, the Great One-and-Only Everything "G"od. The capital "G" sets their god apart from other gods, which by definition cannot really exist.
  • A henotheist believes in the existence of many gods, and worships one god, which he or she chooses as worthy from among equally valid gods.
  • A polytheist believes in the existence of many gods and worships many gods at one time. *
As Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other book religions evolved over time, they became highly monotheistic, claiming that their particular god was the only real one, that all other gods were fictions or superstitions. Since there could only be one, and theirs was the one, it was inevitable that conflict should arise between the various monotheistic religions. Meanwhile, we have social anthropologists and monotheistic apologists claiming that monotheism is the most highly evolved form of religion, the most authoritative, even the most scientific, and this claim has become generally accepted as true.

When I look around me today, however, I see many gods and goddesses, just as my ancestors did on the shores of the Red Sea. There's Islam's Allah and the Jews' Adonai, the Hindu pantheon, the gods of the Eastern religions and the African religions, the resurrected gods of the neo-Pagans, and enough varieties of Jesus Christ to spin your head around, to say nothing of the Creator "G"od of the Christians and the Virgin Mary, who is "venerated" instead of worshiped, but who sure looks like a goddess to me.

Lots of gods. And why shouldn't there be? The universe is defined by diversity. Seven billion people, 9 sextillion stars, and 7,500,000,000,000,000,000 grains of sand in the world (according to the University of Hawaii) . . . and only one god? I'm not even convinced that there's only one universe, or only one dimensional reality, and neither are the scientists. Only one god? Bunk and hokum! Thousands of gods that we humans seem to know. The question that concerns me is not "which god is the real one," since they all apparently exist, but "which god do you follow and where is he leading you?"

* These definitions are simplified, but they will help us to have a conversation about polytheism and monotheism. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Greetings from Kentucky

Hello from Lexington, KY,
That's right, we've moved south, and we find the human people here to be warm and friendly, but oh how we miss the tree people! We have two big oaks in the back yard, and live on a street with mature trees of various kinds, willows, larch, even a maple tree or two or three, but the woods that surrounded us in upstate New York are missing, and they are missed indeed.

Every once in a while, someone will write me a note through this blog, to tell me that he or she appreciates my words. I'm grateful for those who write to tell me that I am not alone, but many of my readers feel lonely themselves, young people who feel uncertain or scared by their animist experiences, folks of all ages who have been shamed or ostracized for their beliefs.

Now that the word religion has become synonymous with determined ignorance and the word spirituality is often used to denote a vague and happy new age selfishness, what word can we use to describe ourselves? Even the liberal churches tend to a Cartesian dualism between matter and spirit, while the unity or interfusion of matter and spirit is the defining belief of animism.

There's no pigeonhole into which we fit, but we can find one another online, and that gives comfort to many of us who are otherwise isolated. Please keep writing! I'm so happy to hear from you!
Puny Human