Monday, November 26, 2012

Preaching Money

Preaching the goodness of money has roots deep in the Protestant tradition, roots that are well documented by Max Weber in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905, trans into English 1930). Weber is the man who coined the phrase "Protestant work ethic" and he described it as one of hard work, frugality, and responsibility. Those who work are righteous, no matter how lowly their position in life, and those few men possessed of great wealth are especially blessed by God. In Weber's day, according to the ethic, the wealthy were expected to contribute to the community according to their means. Check out Andrew Carnegie's 1889 Gospel of Wealth for a stunning example of the era's understanding of the Protestant work ethic.

Weber explained how the rise of Protestantism in Europe, Calvinism in particular, coincided with the rise of capitalism and provided it with theological support. Work, after all, turns the wheels of enterprise and in spite of its recent fall from favor, the Protestant work ethic has sustained the astronomic rise of the United States as an economic, social, and political superpower throughout the 18th and 19th and most of the 20th century. Ben Franklin's writings in the late 18th century contributed to the popularization of the work ethic among immigrants pouring into the country from all backgrounds and it has remained an important part of mainstream American culture until post-modernist times.

By the early 20th century, however, American society was well on its way to making the "great transformation" from a society with a marketplace to a marketplace society. Every institution was being sucked into the machinery of economics, subsumed within capitalist culture, and evaluated by the values of profit, efficiency, production, and the generation of wealth. Christianity was not immune from this transformation. In 1925, Bruce Barton wrote The Man Nobody Knows, re-imagining the son of God as a manly man, hard-muscled and work roughened . . .  and the best salesman of all time. After the second World War, the prosperity gospel was preached in earnest, beginning with Oral Roberts from the pulpit in 1947, moving on to A. A. Allen's Secret to Scriptural Financial Success in 1953, and then exploding through the world of televangelism.

Today, this "prosperity theology" is well integrated into most Pentecostal and Evangelical churches and is espoused by the biggest names in Christian self-help, such as Joel Osteen and Bruce Wilkinson. Somewhere along the way from work ethic to prosperity theology, however, the gospel of wealth had changed. From an ethic steeped in the bourgeois values of hard work and frugality, it had morphed into a consumerist fantasy of wealth through faith. Simply put, God loves you so he'll give you whatever you want. Just ask.

No work necessary. No thinking to bother you. No messy Christian values to trip you up with getting your camel through the eye of a needle. "Oh, Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz . . ."

God approves of money. God wants you to prosper. Believe and be financially saved. It reminds me of the new and improved, no effort, easy, convenient way to salvation now sold like a drug by the pushers of religion-lite. God approves of you no matter what an asshole you are. Believe and be saved. No contribution to the poor necessary. No follow-me-to-the-cross nonsense. You don't even have to worry about climate change or genocide anymore. Just believe.

Meanwhile, the real American gospel is one of wealth and power, beauty, celebrity, ease and comfort and speed and technology. These are the things we're told will save us. In the words of Mammon: believe and be saved!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

It's good to be ordinary

Here I am on the beach in Naples. We had a wonderful time in Florida enjoying nature in her many southern forms, from palm-lined beaches to the sea of grass. Nature appeared to be different from both our upstate NY tree-land and our KY horse farms, but the same spirit ran through her.

I drew the picture during one of those still rare but increasingly evident moments of peace, in which I knew that I was known and loved by a being greater than I. I'm grateful for this fleeting lifetime in the flesh, here on our Mother Earth. I'm grateful to be living awake and aware, to be able to see beyond the obvious, to be able to walk between the worlds.

Oh, give thanks to our Creator, for he is good! For his mercy endureth forever! (Psalm 136)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Ditch the screens

Screens! Screens! We spend our lives in front of screens, screens as large as an iMax theater screen, as tiny as an iPhone. The other day, we passed by a development of new houses near a highway. How awful, I said to Jack, that these huge, expensive houses have such tiny plots of land and are located smack up against the highway. It doesn't matter to the families, though, he said, because they live inside in front of their screens.

I was walking on the Ithaca Commons last spring, on a most glorious sunny day, watching the amazing show of humanity, feeling the warmth of the sun, and then I noticed that every other person who walked along nearby were engaged not in the reality around them, but in the tiny screens they carried in front of them, their eyes cast down, their thumbs busy.

Computer, television and movie screens mediate our experience of what is real until we become confused and think that what the screens show is more real than the material world itself. We lose sight of reality and one another. This communication we have here through a blog is better than nothing, but it does not replace your presence at my kitchen table, sipping tea, eating fragrant apple coffee cake and sharing ideas. That experience is round and rich and full. I can notice the way your face changes when you feel deeply about your topic, how you sip carefully at the hot tea. I can feel the touch of your hand on mine and know you deeply, and experience the person-to-person contact we humans desperately need.

This screen is flat. You can't reach out and touch me. You can't see how my eyes fill with tears when I think about what will happen to the children in a world of only screens.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Ain't gonna happen on my watch!

This cartoon expresses the heart of my work. I write and draw and work magic with this one goal in mind: to resist the apocalypse with everything I've got and make the world safe for our grandchildren.

I read an excellent book recently titled, The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us About America, by Mathew Gross and Mel Gilles. It discusses the myth of the apocalypse, both from a historical point of view and as it reflects America's 21st century culture. The authors write well and with humor to make their point: that we are worrying about wildly improbable apocalyptic scenarios such as the return of the angry god or a comet smashing into the earth, while we allow the human-supporting global environment to fall to bits around us. Their opening chapter about the ubiquitous nature of the myth was chilling. In the end, however, they renewed my hope that in the event of a collapse, humans will be able to pick up the pieces and start over again.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Driving south through Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida last week, I enjoyed watching the changing environment along the sides of the interstate. Tree species changed, the hills fell away to farmland, and billboards sprouted along both sides of the highway. The billboards were for motels, of course, and car dealerships and eateries, but also for lawyers and doctors and a life coach. How interesting, I thought, that professionals are now advertising like used car salesmen, one more sign of the encroachment of a crass capitalism into areas of our life that had once held a sacred boundary against it.

As we traveled southwards, we saw an increasing number of billboards advertising Jesus, more anti-abortion signs, more aggressive, spit-in-your-face political billboards and more billboards for sex services and products. What an interesting combination! Did they go together, I wondered? They must, because as the towns became more conservative religiously and politically, the advertising for pornography also increased. Dozens of colorful signs enticed truckers and drivers into “Exotic Massage Spas” and “Adult Superstores” with names like Cafe Risque and The Lion’s Den.

The so-called Christian billboards were chilling, including one with Jesus watching over scenes of destruction, starvation and war with the caption. “Don’t worry. God is still in charge." Another said simply, “You’re going to heaven or you’re going to hell,” while a third showed the crucified Christ with the caption “He loves you this much.” See my recent post about the association of love and violence for my thoughts about that one!

The political billboards were also increasingly violent—it was just a few days before the election—with threats against Obama such as “Now it’s personal . . . America is coming for you” and “The Navy Seals removed one threat to America. Now voters have to remove the other one” which also used the popular conflation of Obama with terrorism. He was called a jerk and an idiot, a socialist and a loser. Boy, oh, boy. Welcome to the American South.

The anti-abortion billboards made me want to cry. They made statements about embryos alongside images of 6 month old babies. If it really was true, as the billboards said, that the heart begins to beat at 18 days, that still wouldn’t transform an embryo into a human child. (The heart actually begins to beat during the 6th week of gestation.)
The simple-mindedness of the billboard arguments only increases their power. When a beautiful baby speaks to me from the roadside and says, “My mommy wants to murder me,” my own heart misses a beat and I want to protect that child. Uneducated or unthinking people are easily swayed by these messages, all of them, the religious, the political, and the social.

And among all these other billboards, in sad testimony to the unmet human need for physical comfort and sexual release, promises of private booths and virtual lovers called out to us all along the highway.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Write your own caption . . .

Maybe it stands alone and doesn't need a caption. What would you have the character say?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Religious Maverick

Maverick. The word defined:
  • An unbranded range animal, especially a calf that has become separated from its mother, traditionally considered the property of the first person who brands it.
  • Being independent in thought and action or exhibiting such independence.

My dad was a maverick—in this I am my father's daughter—but it didn't do his career any good. He was a federal probation officer who spoke for and published about restorative justice as an alternative to the then-current attitudes in criminology of social vengeance, punishment, and deterrence. The people in his office made fun of him and he was passed over for promotion throughout his 35 year career, ending it at the same level at which he'd entered. Finding another position would have been impossible, especially after he started teaching evening classes in comparative religion, but he accepted the label "weirdo" with a great good humor that I can't seem to find inside myself.

I've been deeply impacted by his beliefs, especially his religious beliefs. He called himself a Buddhist Unitarian Jew, and he steadfastly refused to give up on any of those, insisting that at the heart of all religions was the same impulse to love god and do good. The Jews rejected him outright for this, the Buddhists cheerfully came to our Passover Seders in their stead, and the Unitarians invited him to speak from the pulpit on Sunday mornings.

My father, the maverick, has long gone off to his safe corral in the sky. That's his picture along with a self-portrait. Like him, I feel myself to be deeply religious and like him, no one institutionalized form encompasses the spiritual reality in which I live. I am an animist, which means that I believe all material being is alive, intelligent, and infused with soul. I'm polytheistic, which means that I believe in the existence of many gods, and I worship a pantheon I call the Gods of Love. I'm also a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, seeking to live the radical love to which he called the world.

I worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit side-by-side with people who would see me as destined for hell and sip bourbon with scientific materialists who find all of my religious beliefs anathema. Like my dad, I refuse to give any of them up, but unlike my dad, I've been hiding in a closet all my life, afraid of the sting of rejection, unable to find that enormous sense of humor that can encompass even humiliation and ostracism. It's time to come out and laugh a little.

A maverick, by definition, is unbranded, but perhaps there are others like me, wandering the spiritual metropolis without a home but with a fierce faith in something greater than human. Could that be you? I'd love to hear from you!

PS: Since writing this post, I've become aware of Huston Smith, a religious scholar who has practiced a number of religions throughout his long life. He's an inveterate seeker after truth and he believes that for all its faults, religion is as valid a path to truth as science. More about Mr. Smith is easy to find with a simple google search.