Archive for the 'Religion' Category

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

#25 in my 2007 book challenge was Elizabeth Gilbert’s spiritual travel memoir Eat, Pray, Love. This was my second time reading it, since it was also book #16 for me this year.

Gilbert is smart, funny, and honest. She notes that she’s good at making friends, and it’s easy to see why. After a nasty divorce, a disastrous rebound relationship, and a deep depression, Gilbert goes abroad for a year. Her first four months are spent in Rome, practicing the language and enjoying the food. Next she goes to an ashram in India to practice meditation and mindfulness. Finally, she spends the rest of the year in Bali, where she seeks to integrate divine and earthly experiences into holistic joy.

I keep remembering one of my Guru’s teachings about happiness. She says that people universally tend to think that happiness is a stroke of luck, something that will maybe descend upon you like fine weather if you’re fortunate enough. But that’s not how happiness works. Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it

This book made me hungry in my stomach for Rome. My searching soul perked up at the descriptions of the ashram in India. Though I’ve practiced yoga for seven years, I’d never before had the slightest urge to visit its country of origin. In the last 6 months, though, I’ve read this book twice, another book on India I loved, sat next to a man on an airline flight who gave me several tips about about traveling there, and have a friend there right now. I’m sensing a building Indian zeitgeist.

As before, the thing I disliked about the book was Gilbert’s use of religious terminology. She chooses to use He/Him to refer to God. She denies any belief in God’s sex, but the masculine pronoun only perpetuates the usual patriarchal stereotypes. (I’ve noted before that I think the American Heritage Dictionary has a nice note on the problems with “he”–scroll about halfway down the page to get to the AH entry.) She doesn’t wonder why Christianity is one of the few world religions that has a thunder god, but no fertility goddess. She uses the Christian designation for eras, BC/AD. These are widely known, but CE/BCE (Common Era, and Before Common Era) are more inclusive, and more correct, since the historic person Jesus didn’t get born in the year 0 anyway. She also uses the reductive and condescending term “Judeo-Christian”. This is problematic because it implies a cause/effect relationship that both oversimplifies the complex origins of Christianity, and wrongly implies that Christianity is a natural extension of Judaism.

It’s likely that I’m nitpicking because of my residual grad-school sensibilities, so these may not be things that would bother others. In spite of them, I highly recommend the book, and am eager to seek out her previous work.

Resisting Science

Thursday, June 7th, 2007

This article from The Edge (link via Arts and Letters Daily) elucidates how and why many adults choose speculative beliefs over scientific findings:

…resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are taken as reliable and trustworthy.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

#17 in my 2007 book challenge was Gilead, my second reading of Robinson’s luminous work. How can I possibly contain my admiration for this book in a brief review? I discussed it with two groups of people. Few liked it; many found it dull. Several wondered why it was good enough to win the Pulitzer. I admit that I admire it more than I enjoyed it. But the experience of it and the aftermath as I ruminate on it, are deeply pleasurable and satisfying.

It’s a letter by an elderly minister written to his young son, to be read long after his death. There is story, plot, mystery, and romance; all are part of the narrator’s ruminations on his life. This is not a fast-paced thriller. It is, though, a deep examination of human relationships, especially between parents and children. It is also a thoughtful theological examination of a microcosm of suffering and redemption, etched onto a small town.

On this reading, I found a parallel between the generations of the narrator’s family, and the ages of Christianity. His grandfather was a soldier and warrior, who had visions of God and lived by simplistic rules of right and wrong, like the God of the Old Testament. He also has only one eye, like Odin, the Norse god of thunder and war. The narrator’s father read widely, and valued peace above all. He had a contentious relationship with his father, much as Jesus did. The narrator, John Ames, is a thinker. He has books on theology and his own thoughts on those. He is an analog for the age of the Holy Spirit, in which there isn’t an immanent God. The question I still ponder is, what age of Christianity does the narrator’s son represent?

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Sunday, April 29th, 2007

#16 in my 2007 book challenge was Elizabeth Gilbert’s spiritual memoir Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert is an engaging, believable narrator, and is direct about her own foibles, an essential ingredient to a good memoir. The book is by turns funny and sad as it details her bad divorce, worse rebound relationship, and the crushing depression that spurred her to plan a year abroad, with four months apiece in Italy, India, and Indonesia. I found the segment on India the most compelling. Throughout, her transformations–emotional, physical and spiritual–are related with clear and intelligent prose.

….when you sense a faint potentiality for happiness after such dark times you must grab onto the ankles of that happiness and not let go until it drags you face-first out of the dirt–this is not selfishness, but obligation. You were given life; it is your duty (and also your entitlement as a human being) to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight. (115)

I have two small reservations about the book. One, Gilbert used male pronouns to refer to God; I would have preferred gender neutrality. Two, Gilbert relates that she was raised in a Christian church and chose to study and practice Eastern religion as an adult.

I think this is a little like growing up in one small state in the US, then saying the whole country is terrible, and moving to Japan. Christianity is not a monolith. Even the various sects are so complex that they vary by church, and by individuals within each church. There is a long and interesting history of physical practices, meditation, and even feminism, WITHIN the broad umbrella that is Christianity. One need not leave the country, or even one’s church or sect, to learn about and practice them.

I am by no means discounting the value of Gilbert’s spiritual choices. I loved reading about them, and they have given me much to think about; I highly recommend this book. But one need not go East in search of meaning and unexplored territory. As Gilbert herself notes in the book, there are many paths up the mountain.

Weekend Wellness

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

I woke Friday morning with a severe spike in my already considerable irritability. It was not long before I was angry and cursing aloud in front of the kids, which I’ve learned is a sign of rising anxiety for me. I sent off a quick email to a retreat center to see if they had any space. We have a babysitter helping us with childcare for now, so I left soon after she arrived, and went first to a yoga class, then to my regularly scheduled therapy appointment. I returned home better, though not feeling calm, and had almost forgotten about my inquiry to the retreat center. When I checked email at home, they’d replied and had a last minute cancellation at the hermitage, their private cabin for a solitary retreat. Figuring that the universe seemed to be answering my request, I said yes, then sent off a few emails and made some calls to alert friends that G. Grod would be on his own for the next 36 hours and could use some help with the boys.

My friend Becca recommended the ARC retreat center to me, and I will thank her forever for it. I’ve now gone twice, and it is a haven. The hermitage cabin has just what it needs and no more. Since I tend to anxious overdoing, I took way too much with me, but sorted things out when I got there.

Once I could think clearly, I realized what I did and didn’t need.

Did need: book, journal, fiction notebook.

Didn’t need: laptop, City Pages, two Entertainment Weekly’s, five books to review for the blog.

I also probably didn’t need any toiletries other than sunscreen, toothpaste and toothbrush. (And I would’ve liked to have fluoride-free toothpaste, since the cabin doesn’t have running water.)

The staff at ARC is wonderfully supportive, and the food they make is vegetarian, hearty, sustaining AND delicious. There was fresh bread at almost every meal, some wonderful gingered beets from a recipe in Sundays at Moosewood. I had a restorative 36 hours. During that time, I tried and succeeded at doing only one thing at a time; I didn’t multitask. I didn’t read while I ate (or in the outhouse). I also tried, and mostly succeeded, at not making a to-do list. I did one thing at a time, and allowed myself just one, “and then”. This worked surprisingly well, probably because I was in a tiny cabin in the woods by myself and chose to limit my options to: eating, sleeping, reading, journalling, novelling, and walking.

I have a huge crush on the book I took with me, that I finished this morning in between my first breakfast (yogurt with strawberry rhubarb sauce and granola, bread and butter, coffee with almond biscotti) and second breakfast (egg scramble with cheddar cheese and hummos). It’s Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

READ THIS BOOK. It’s funny, sad, honest and intelligent and it’s got some GREAT stuff on religion and spirituality. Gilbert is instantly accessible and empathetic. My only quibble (oh, I always have one, don’t I?) is Gilbert’s overuse of male pronouns for God. A little equal opportunity time for goddesses would have been lovely.

I came back this morning rested and with some little reserve that helped me to handle the boys screaming and poking and crying that has sporadically filled the day. I really needed to get away, and I’m so thankful and fortunate that I could do so. Thanks, G. Grod. Thanks, friends who helped G. Grod. Thanks again, Becca. Thanks, ARC staff. Thanks, whoever cancelled your hermitage reservation. Thanks, Liz Gilbert for writing an awesome spiritual memoir. Everybody rocks.

Ash Wednesday

Wednesday, February 21st, 2007

I was born on an Ash Wednesday, which I know because my mother tells me her father came to the hospital to see us, and he had ashes on his forehead. A few years ago, it suddenly occurred to me to wonder why Ash Wednesday was the kickoff for Lent. Lent coincided with the 40 days in the wildnerness, the palms of the future Sunday have their precedent, yet I could not recall a specific about the ashes, even though I attended church most of my life and studied religion at college and in graduate school.

Of course, as I went to research this post, I could not find links that confirm what I found before. There are several links about Catholicism, all of which say similar things–the use of ashes dates from the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, but its origins before that are murky. Ashes are a sign of repentance, humility, and mortality, all three of which figure prominently as themes of Lent. There is no specific text in the Bible that calls for ashes to be used on the eve of Lent; ashes were an adaptation to Lent as of about the 8th century CE.

The connection I recall, but cannot find, is between Ash Wednesday and the scapegoat. On Yom Kippur, two goats were set out. One was sacrificed to God, the other heard the people’s sins and was sent out into the wilderness as atonement for them. While Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness is parallel to the goat that was sent off, the ashes are perhaps a physical reminder of the goat that was sacrificed.

In any case, the connections are murky and interesting, and have no clear antecedents in either the Hebrew Bible or New Testament. The image of the ashes on the forehead is a powerful one, and one that many people seek even when they forego church at other times. But it is not clearly grounded in early Christian tradition like most assume it to be.

A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Stories by Charles Dickens

Wednesday, December 20th, 2006

#65 in my book challenge for the year was this Dickens collection of Christmas stories. I find it interesting how thoroughly the tale has pervaded our lives that it was completely familiar to me though I’d never read it before. I found it well worth reading. The main points of the story are well known, but I was glad to experience the writing and the details. And though I generally avoid them, I found the introduction by the late Frederick Busch–a writer I admire a great deal–to be insightful and helpful. Marley’s ghost starts scary, then becomes sympathetic. A scene from Christmas yet to come echoes Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth. On the surface, it’s more about the culture of the holiday than its religion. Yet there is a steady tension throughout between the joy of children and the inevitability of death that mirrors the bittersweet note in the joy of Christmas, that the death of Good Friday is not far off.

Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

#16 in my book challege for the year is Dillard’s tiny but powerful Holy the Firm. I finally read the copy I purchased so long ago that the friend who recommended it is no longer in my life. The book is more of a keeper than the friend was. More poetic than prosaic, it’s beautifully written, sometimes painfully so. A wandering, but not meandering, meditation on faith, it plumbs some of the same territory as Anne Lamott’s Travelling Mercies, though in a very different way.

There is no one but us…., a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead–as if innocence had ever been–and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been. There have been generations which remembered, and generations which forgot; there has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day. Yet some have imagined well, with honesty and art, the detail of such a life, and have described it with such grace, that we mistake vision for history, dream for description, and fancy that life has devolved. So. You learn this studying any history at all, especially the lives of artists and visionaries; you learn it from Emerson, who noticed that the meanness of our days is itself worth our thought; and you learn it, fitful in your pew, at church.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

Thursday, December 8th, 2005

Or, more pithily, Biff, by Christopher Moore, was #90 in my book challenge for the year. It intrigued me when I first read about it, but I had just begun not to write down books, but to accrue enough recommendations or sightings that I could remember them without prompting. Biff definitely got enough recommendations from the media and from trusted reader friends that it earned a place on my reading list.

Biff has been resurrected by an angel in order to write a new gospel, one that fills in the blanks left by the Big Four. As noted in the title, Biff is Christ’s, or Joshua’s, friend since childhood. They get into trouble together, they fall in love with Maggie, and they bumble through a buddy tale in which they travel far, meet the three wise men, learn kung fu, confront demons, and more. Unfortunately for Moore, we all know how the story ends, and it isn’t well. The book is at its best imagining what might have happened in the thirty years after the birth narratives and before Joshua began preaching in earnest and on the record. The book is eminently quotable, with some genuinely hysterical scenes, as when a caffeinated Joshua decides to heal everyone he can in a marketplace. Moore’s book points out some of the common misconceptions and re-imagines them–the wise men aren’t kings, Mary of Magdalen isn’t a whore. This is a fun, funny, clever book. I didn’t find it life-changing, or overly thought-provoking, though.

Religion in Battlestar Galactica

Sunday, March 27th, 2005

I don’t want to go into nerdishly obsessive detail about this, but I think there are some cool things going on in Battlestar Galactica. The original series contained references to leading the tribes out of Egypt (the pilot helmets had Egyptian imagery) to the promised land of Earth, with stately Lorne Greene as the Moses figure.

In the present series, the creators have made some interesting twists, key to which is that the human race created the Cylons as slaves, who then rebelled. The Cylons are monotheists, while the humans believe in a pantheon of gods. There are many references to how the same stories happen over and over, throughout history. Are the Cylons now the analog for the persecuted Christians who rise up against their polytheistic oppressors? If so, why are we rooting for the humans? Further, who is the savior? Even further, will s/he be a lunkhead?