Archive for the 'Religion' Category

“Devotion” by Dani Shapiro

Saturday, May 24th, 2014


I was so moved and engaged by Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, that I sought out books she referred to in it by Jane Kenyon, and her earlier memoir, Devotion, about her tangled quest for clarity in spiritual matters.

Shapiro skillfully weaves together pieces of her past and present. Her observant Orthodox Jewish father, her atheist and difficult mother, her own practice of yoga, her son’s infant near-death experience, and her own attempts to…I’m not sure what to put here. Figure it all out? Make meaning of it? Because really, her spiraling, back-and-forth, round-and-round memoir does not acknowledge the kind of meaning or comfort usually found in devotional memoirs. Her memoir is ambivalent, in the true meaning of the word, pulled in many directions.

We can’t see what’s coming. We can’t know it. All we have is our hope that all will be well, and our knowledge that it won’t always be so. We live in the space between this hope and this knowledge. (239)

I loved this book, the writing, the stories of her life, and her struggle to make meaning and acknowledgement of the ephemeral nature of any meaning that does become clear. I think I’ll be going back to all Shapiro’s books, from the beginning, and working my way back up to these. If a mark of a good book is one that makes me think, and want to learn, these two short books pack a substantial emotional and intellectual wallop. (I may come back to edit this last poorly constructed sentence. It’s not elegant and mellifluous, but it says what I mean.)

“Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse

Saturday, July 27th, 2013


1986. I’m in a class called “The Problem of God” at a Jesuit university taught by an atheist who’d been raised Catholic. One of the required books is Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, and the paper we were required to write on it was in response to the question: “Is it possible to be in the world and not of it?”

I am abashed, because it’s a cliche, to say that this book and some of the others like it jolted me out of the mostly complacent beliefs I’d been raised with in the Episcopal church. I didn’t run out and say I was a Buddhist or get a bumper sticker, but I started saying that I was raised Christian rather than that I was a Christian. Interestingly (or not) nearly 3 decades later, I’m not much more defined in my beliefs. I still wander and wonder, unsettled.

is a fairy tale, based on the life of Gotama Buddha, written by Hesse, a German Protestant. Most Buddhists agree this isn’t a good book about Buddha or Buddhism, but interesting perhaps as a German Protestant’s understanding of Buddhism. Like Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, it’s become a beloved book that perhaps belongs better in pop culture or self help than in religious studies.

Siddhartha and his friend Govinda go out from his wealthy home and become ascetics, then part ways when Govinda decides to follow Gotama Buddha and Siddhartha says he much go his own way, a response in harmony with the Buddha’s teaching that there is no one truth, no one teacher and each person’s answers lie within. Siddhartha wanders, then becomes enmeshed in life when he takes up with a courtesan (an interesting woman, yet the book is obsessed with her lips that look like a ripe fig, and isn’t she really just a variation on the Hooker with a Heart of Gold? and on the sexy older woman who teaches the young man The Ways of Love.) Siddhartha becomes nauseated and suicidal, but listens to the river and reaches a form of enlightenment not unlike the Buddha’s.

This is a lovely little story, stereotypes of women aside. It’s accessible. But I think too often it’s taken as Buddhism, rather than a little sliver of a story about Buddhism written by a white man who wasn’t a Buddhist. And the inaction that is ultimately validated seems antithetic to a world of increased justice and peace.

Some other reviews I found interesting included Keely’s on Goodreads, and one at The Open Critic.

“Buddha” by Karen Armstrong

Saturday, July 27th, 2013


I have a confession to make. Buddha was the first book by Karen Armstrong I’ve read. I minored in religion as an undergrad, and went on to get an MA in religious studies. People have been telling me to read Karen Armstrong ever since A History of God came out. Armstrong is a former Catholic nun, a self-described “freelance monotheist” and well-known as an author of books of world religions. And now, I’m feeling kind of vindicated and no longer that guilty about not reading her books. Because I was not that impressed by her Buddha. It was, to me, “unskilled” in many ways, to use a phrase she deploys in the book.

At the beginning, she sets out the challenge of how to do a biography of a person for whom there is so little historical record. The idea of taking the myths and stories and trying to tease out the commonalities into something approaching fact is an interesting one. Alas, the book was more focused on historical details of The Axial Age on one hand, and some oddly specific psychologizing of its subject, such as what he felt and why he left his wife and child. And Armstrong’s no-comment, no-sympathy treatment of the abandoned wife and child curiously dispassionate to me.

Armstrong started to lose me about page 50, though, when she referred to “yoga” in a way that didn’t make it clear that it is a complex system, not the series of exercise poses that many people know it as. She then goes on at page 56, to describe the “yoga” of the Buddha using negative, restrictive terms such as: “force, bludgeon, denial, cut, refusal, exclude, radical denial, invulnerable, control, impervious, suppress” to decribe “yoga”. Additionally, she uses only the male pronoun, unqualified, to describe any practitioner of yoga. Her source, in the notes, is simply Yoga by Eliade, and all her quotes are from the same source. This is in the paperback edition, so I can fairly criticize BOTH author and editors for such a slack-ass citation. The full citation should have included the full title:
Yoga: Immortality and Freedom by Mircea Eliade and have indicated that it was first published in 1936. Why does Armstrong use a scores-old source written by a white man when she might have used modern critical scholarship by practitioners? Yes, Eliade is one of the most famous figures in religious study. He’s best known for his writing on the sacred/profane, and origin myths. But along with Joseph Campbell, who Armstrong also references in her notes, I think of him as the type of superficial, outsider scholar that is included in most first-year college religion overviews, or on PBS specials, or in pop-culture. I wanted a better source, and to know whose translations of the ancient texts she was using, and why.

Edited to add: I also wondered at Armstrong’s uncritical take on the caste system, presented simply as “this is what it was” rather than as the colonially constructed system posited by Nicholas Dirks in his Castes of Mind.

Finally, I found Armstrong’s book dull and slow, surprising for such a short book about such a fascinating person with such a vast store of myths and legends. Frustrated and disappointed, I pulled out my freshman college copy of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha to compare and contrast, which I’ll write about in another post.

For a more compassionate take on the book that still raises concerns, see this review at Tricycle.

“Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Saturday, May 25th, 2013

I found Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali a wildly uneven book, so my reaction falls between didn’t like (or, often hated) and it was OK. For me, effective memoirs are written by people with self insight and empathy, possibly leavened with humor. She’s writing about a difficult childhood and harsh reality for women abused in the name of Islam, so I’ll give her a pass that this book is humorless. But I find her lack of self-insight, her protestations of innocence in situations of obvious culpability, and her readiness to trot out other people’s horror stories in lieu of aforesaid self insight all pretty damning. The book is often poorly written with stunningly awkward transitions. Few if any other people stand out in the book because she is The Star. I found her disingenuous when claiming non-inflammatory intent when she over and over said incredibly outrageous things. This and other instances in the book led me not to believe her as a reliable narrator. Get thee to a therapist, I hope, to work out your childhood issues, especially with your father, and your inability to own your responsibility for your words and actions.

BUT, and it’s a huge BUT, she’s absolutely right that outrages against women and in general take place in the name of Allah, that this is sometimes (often?) ignored in the name of political correctness. She focuses more on this point at the end, so the book has a stronger finish that it does a beginning or middle.I found it unfortunate that she throws pretty much all of Islam under the bus in order to make this point. She makes an important argument, but one that is easier to dismiss because of the often offensive nonsense she surrounds it with.

This is a complicated book about complicated issues. It spurs me to find out more about Islam, but not by reading more of her writing.

The Feminine Face of God?

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

At the Telegraph, an article that has many commenters’ undies in a twist, “Bettany Hughes: who knows whether God is a girl?

Bettany Hughes, an expert in ancient history, claimed that Christianity “was originally a faith where the female of the species held sway”.

To oppose the ordination of women bishops in the Church of England is to deny the central role women played in the foundations of the faith, said Hughes.

“By suppressing the true story of the connection between women and religion, we etiolate both history and the possibilities of our own world,” she wrote in Radio Times.

The Telegraph piece shoots itself in the foot by including an inflammatory bit at the end about another scholar’s thesis that Jesus was a hermaphrodite.

And while “God as girl” makes a good sound bite, I’d prefer female or woman or feminine or something less childish.

Seriously, though, the tradition of world religions had male war deities paired with female fertility and wisdom deities. Then that changed. Haven’t you ever wondered why?

(Link from The Morning News)

Free Will, Free Won’t, or Nothing’s Free?

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

From USA Today, and accessible yet provocative column, “Why You Don’t Really Have Free Will” (via The Morning News)

The debate about free will, long the purview of philosophers alone, has been given new life by scientists, especially neuroscientists studying how the brain works. And what they’re finding supports the idea that free will is a complete illusion.

Apparently I’m not really deciding whether go to the coffee shop today, or anything else. I’ll be mulling over this for a while.

“Absence of Mind” by Marilynne Robinson

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

I requested Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of Self months ago from the public library and my turn in rotation finally came up. It’s a short, small book containing essays based on a series of lectures she gave at Yale University. In them, she covers some of the same ground as she did in her previous collection of essays The Death of Adam, such as the faulty facts deployed by those who denounce religion in the face of what she calls “parascience.” I savored and was challenged by The Death of Adam, but did not have a similar experience with the four essays in Absence of Mind.

“On Human Nature” argues that “the mind as felt experience had been excluded from important fields of modern thought.” In “The Strange History of Altruism,” she questions the recent spate of articles supporting social Darwinism that humans are selfish creatures, altruistic only to those who do (or might) share genes. “The Freudian Self” details some of the reductive understanding by and about Freud of the relation between people and sexuality. And “Thinking Again” notes that those who argue against religion in the name of science talk about research as if it’s complete, finished, and finite. (See, for example the title alone of Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith.)

While her points are well taken, I enjoyed them more in The Death of Adam. Here, they were weighed down with what I think of as ivory-tower jargon, including one of my least favorite terms (I find it needlessly esoteric, and thus alienating), hermeneutics, i.e., the study of texts.

If there is an agenda behind the implicit and explicit polemic against religion, which is now treated as brave and new, now justified by Wahhabism and occasional eruptions of creationist zeal, but is fully present in the rationalism of the eighteenth century, it may well be that it creates rhetorical occasions for asserting an anthrolopology of modern humanity, a hermenuteutics of condescension.

The essays didn’t feel accessible or engaging to me, though this could certainly be due to faults in my own understanding or attention. My dislike of this book disappoints me, as I’ve appreciated and enjoyed Robinson’s novels as well as The Death of Adam. While I appreciate her arguments against facile proofs and reductive science, they are couched in such difficult, dry prose I struggled to wade through this slim volume.

“The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

I always figured, given my love for religion and literature, that I would have to read The Red Tent. I didn’t, though, because too many people I trusted told me it was a good story, but not well written. After I recently read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, a friend urged me to read this, saying there were so many similar themes and ideas that it would be worth it. And she wasn’t wrong.

The Red Tent is narrated by Dinah (DEE nah), the youngest child and only daughter of Jacob, brother of Esau, by Leah, one of his four wives. Purportedly speaking out of an oral tradition of her mothers, who told her everything, Dinah relates the history of her family from long before she was born, as well as a story from all their perspectives over time. I wondered more than once at the validity of her all-knowingness in spite of the rich oral tradition she came from; far too often she knew a lot too much.

Diamant, a journalist and scholar of Judaism, has done something here that is normally the province of sages and rabbis. She’s created a midrash, or backstory, to explain gaps in the stories of Genesis, such as why Jacob had nine children by Leah if he felt cheated in marrying her, what happened to Dinah after the tragedy described in Genesis 34, and how Joseph and his coat of many colors might fit into these histories. She richly imagines what might have been, and has crafted a popular story based on aspects of Biblical history that many aren’t familiar with, such as the polygamy and polytheism of the time, as well as the deep divisions between the sexes in societal and functional roles. Best of all, for me, was the portrayal of a women’s culture in which the feminine aspect of God had not yet been so cruelly excised from the practice of the nascent religion that Christianity would later claim as its heritage. (NB, this doesn’t necessarily work the other way. Not all practitioners of Judaism believe that Christianity was the next step in development, i.e. what Judaism would become when it “grew up.” Hence the problematic assumptions made with the widespread use of the term Judeo-Christian, used unquestioningly by Christians, and hardly ever by Jews.)

The many and detailed passages about the feminine face of God were worth the time I spent with this book. Among those named were Isis, Astarte, Asherah, the Queen of Heaven (later a name given to Mary the mother of Jesus), Taweret, Gula, Innanna and more.

What didn’t work for me, in addition to the Point of View problem I described above, is that both the writing and story were too similar to a conventional romance or bodice ripper. Numerous passages detailed a romanticized physical appearance of the characters:

Rachel’s beauty was rare and arresting. Her brown hair shaded to bronze, and her skin was golden, honeyed, perfect. In that amber setting, her eyes were surprisingly dark, not merely dark brown but black as polished obsidian or the depth of a well. Although she was small-boned and, even when she was with child, small-breasted, she had muscular hands and a husky voice that seemed to belong to a much larger woman. (8, 9)

[Leah] was not only tall but shapely and strong. She was blessed with full, high breasts and muscular calves that showed to good advantage in robes that somehow never stayed closed at the hem. She had forearms like a young man’s but her walk with that of a woman with promising hips. (12)

I turned to Judah and realized that my brother’s body had begun to take the shape of a man, his arms well muscled, his legs showing hair. He was the handsomest of all my brothers. This teeth were perfect, white and small (114)

or descriptions of their love making, which I will spare you. So, as I suspected, the book was a mixed bag. I know it’s beloved by many, so my ambivalence about it will not endear me to them, but it did illuminate aspects of the society in Handmaid’s Tale, as well as the history of the feminine aspect of god. For those at least, I’m glad I read it.

“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

This was my second read of Cormac McCarthy’s multiple award winner The Road, this month’s pick for the reading group I’ve started, of books with themes of myth and religion. Again, I found The Road a profound, moving, provocative story of the environment and human nature, told with Christian allegory. I flinched at times. At others I couldn’t stop reading until I found out what happened to the unnamed man and his son. And in the end I cried, then dried my tears and read through till the end, which some see as hopeful and others (like my husband, G. Grod) do not.

Yes, it was made into a movie, with Viggo Mortenson. It didn’t get great reviews; I don’t plan to see it. As for the book, though, there are spoilers ahead. If you haven’t yet read the book, I recommend it. Read it and come back to discuss.

A man and his young son are on the road, heading south several years after an unspecified environmental disaster:

An hour later they were on the road. He pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks. In the knapsacks were essential things. In case they had to abandon the cart and make a run for it. Clamped to the handle of the cart was a chrome motorcycle mirror that he used to watch the road behind them. He shifted the pack higher on his shoulders and looked out over the wasted country. The road was empty. Below in the little valley the still gray serpentine of a river. Motionless and precise. Along the shore a burden of dead reeds. Are you okay? he said. The boy nodded. Then they set out along the blacktop in the gun metal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire. (6)

That last phrase, “each the other’s world entire” continues to awe me with how much power five words can carry. McCarthy subtly creates the near future and its slight off-ness. He doesn’t use apostrophes for the word not: didnt, wouldnt, cant. Yet he does use it for other contractions: we’re, they’re, there’s. He’ll occasionally tweak a word, as when the man uses the binoculars to “glass” the road below, to create a feeling of difference.

The first time I read the novel, I was convinced there had been a nuclear holocaust. This time, noting the references to the distant sun, I suspect a natural disaster, something like the meteor some scientists theorize brought in the Ice Age and the end of the dinosaurs.

The man and his son stumble through a ruined landscape, scavenging for canned food and fuel from the past. This raises the question of hope versus futility. If hope, then is it a good thing, or was there a reason it was what remained in the box Pandora opened? Is hope an evil, like the rest of what escaped, or is it the antidote?

I choose to believe in hope. That’s what I read into the book, though I see how McCarthy skillfully left readers to draw their own conclusions in many instances, especially the end.

“Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson

Friday, February 11th, 2011

I will lead a discussion next week of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and just finished re-reading it. This was my third time through, and I like it better each time (2005, and in 2007).

Gilead is narrated by John Ames, a 76-year-old Congregationalist minister in small-town Iowa during the 1950’s. Ames married late in life, and has a seven-year-old son to whom he’s writing a series of letters for when he’s gone. In them, he describes his family, including his father and grandfather, both preachers, though of very different approaches. The family history is tied to the town of Gilead, and its past of racial unrest. During the writing of his letters, Ames is disturbed by the return to town of his godson and namesake, John Ames Boughton, called Jack.

He is not the eldest or the youngest or the best or the bravest, only the most beloved.

Ames experiences jealousy, anger and fear as he struggles to understand the complicated relationship between this young man (the son of Ames’ best friend) and himself. Themes of mortality, religion, prejudice, relationships and belief underpin the book, all told in Robinson’s clear, beautiful prose. Ames can be a slippery narrator, though, often writing one thing when the truth lies clearly elsewhere. In interviews about the book, Robinson has said the conflicting Biblical stories of Gilead intrigued her. The phrase “balm of Gilead” refers to something made from a native healing plant, yet a possible translation of Gilead is “rocky area.” Robinson carries this disparity through in the book, urging the reader to realize multiple, often conflicting truths.

The book barely acknowledges World War II and the Holocaust, though it’s set in 1956 America. Further, much is made of the suffering of fathers and sons, but little of daughters and their mothers. I suspect these are deliberate omissions, though, examples of the complicated nature of Gilead and John Ames.

Thoughtful and meditative, this is a book to savor, not gobble, and especially poignant in its consideration of the many complications in father/son relationships.

A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.

The Role of Religion?

Monday, January 24th, 2011

At the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The New Atheists’ Narrow Worldview” by Stephen T. Asma:

most friends and even en­e­mies of the new athe­ism have not yet no­ticed the pro­vin­cial­ism of the cur­rent de­bate. If the horse­men left their world of books, con­fer­ences, classrooms, and com­put­ers to trav­el more in the de­vel­op­ing world for a year, they would find some un­fa­mil­iar religious arenas.

Asma has thought-provoking insight into the rise of the atheist debate. He maintains that writers such as Hitchens and Dawkins argue against religion versus science, but don’t take into account much more than mainstream monotheistic religions, which aren’t even the majority. Rather than religion as a source for explaining nature and guiding moral behavior, which most agree can be done better by science, Asma writes about animism throughout the world, and ponders whether the strength of religion is consoling, rather than explaining or guiding. Interesting stuff.

The Occult in “Andromeda Klein”

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Frank Portman, author of Andromeda Klein (which I reviewed here) in an interview at Gothamist:

I just found out today that one of my school visits here (in Portland) was canceled because of parental worries about the occult elements in Andromeda Klein. It’s the first time I’ve ever been banned, and they’re worried about the occult.

I knew as I read Andromeda Klein that the centrality of the occult tradition to the book and its importance to the main character would be a problem for a lot of parents. Andromeda reads tarot cards, studies mysticism, tattoos herself with symbols, and performs rituals for privacy and other things. Andromeda’s interest and knowledge of the occult are thorough, and the depiction is presented realistically; some of the rituals produce results, and Andromeda has conversations in her head and in her dreams that are too relevant to be random. I’m not surprised this has ruffled some parental feathers. On the surface, at least, it comes across as pretty subversive.

I’d argue otherwise, though. Andromeda is an outsider–a skinny, clumsy girl with bad hair and worse hearing. It’s natural she’d gravitate to something off the beaten track, and something she could immerse herself in the study and practice of while on her own. While there are mentions of demons and Satan in the book, these are details of the historical tradition. Andromeda doesn’t worship or pursue demons or Satan. Instead, she uses the occult tradition to try to figure out and make sense of the world, especially because her outcast status means it’s senseless and cruel a lot of the time: she’s trying to come to terms with a friend’s death and an ex-boyfriend, while trying to deal with a crazy friend, a boy who admires her occult acumen, a clueless depressed dad and an intrusive insensitive mom. For Andromeda, the occult is a tradition of knowledge and ritual. She studies and practices to learn and grow. Other kids do the same with more mainstream things, like religion, sports, or academia. If Andromeda were interested in one of those, I doubt the book would set off any alarms.

I’m likely preaching to the converted and singing to the choir, here, but just in case: Andromeda’s interest in the occult might put off some readers, but I’d encourage them to actually READ the book, and consider how the occult tradition, as it’s practiced and studied by Andromeda, compares and contrasts to other traditions. Andromeda tattoos herself? I saw more than one teen swim teacher at the pool this summer sporting a Christian tattoo. Andromeda burns incense and asks questions, then “hears” advice in her head or in her dreams. Religious practitioners call this prayer and meditation. Andromeda reads a variety of books, many of which she disagrees with and all of which she tries to learn from. All traditions have some sort of sanctioned and recommended reading, as well as heretical texts that can help one “know thine enemy.”

Andromeda Klein is an interesting, thoughtful book with a wonderful, complex main character. It would be a shame if it were banned and people missed it based on prejudice. Tolerance of difference is a theme of the book, but it can also be applied TO the book.

I’ll Have a Double Shot of Irony, Thanks

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

On the bus to 5yo Drake’s swim lesson, I’m irritated by the cell-phone conversation of a person behind me. I turn around.

It’s a Buddhist monk.

What’s more ironic? That I’m irritated by a monk, or that a monk is having a cell-phone conversation on a bus?

For those in the NE ‘hood, the converted church building on the NE corner at 26th and Taylor Streets NE is now a monastery, with three Tibetan monks in residence. The house has been repainted traditional Buddhist colors of gold and red, there is a Direct TV satellite on the roof, and I’ve heard talk about an open house this Friday, 24 July 2009, at 5 p.m.

Bad-Ass Buddhism

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

From Top 10: Season Two issue 4, by Zander Cannon and Gene Ha. Top 10 is a comic book set in a world in which everyone has superpowers. The book has often been described as a mash up of NYPD Blue and superheroes.

In a scene from issue four, therapist Dr. M. Gautama to police officer Irma Wornow, aka Irma Geddon:

1. Life sucks
2. It sucks because you want everything to LAST, and it never DOES.
3. And the one thing that would make you a lot HAPPIER about this world…is if you just stopped caring.

Tough talk from a therapist, but amusing because the police therapist is a pipe-smoking buddha. He’s trying to teach Irma the first three of the Four Noble Truths, which were phrased differently when I learned them at school:

1. All of life is dukkha (which reductively translates as suffering).
2. Dukkha is caused by desire.
3. To cut the cord of dukkha, cut the cord of desire.

This scene is a perfect example of the state of the art of comics today: smart, funny, and multi-layered. Top Ten is one of my favorite comics; check it out if you haven’t yet.

Were you wondering what the fourth noble truth is?

4. Follow the Noble Eightfold Path

The Significance of Seven

Saturday, April 19th, 2008

For Battlestar Galactica geeks (redundant?), I did a little googling of the significance of the number seven, which is the number of the last unknown Cylon model. From Religious Tolerance:

The Greek Phythagoreans believed that the number seven pointed symbolically to the union of the Deity with the universe. This association was picked up by the Christian church, especially during the Middle Ages. Seven was regarded as having sacred power, as in the seven cardinal virtues, seven deadly sins, seven sacraments, seven churches mentioned in the last book in the Bible, Revelation, etc.

More, from Wikipedia and Bible Wheel.

My guess is Baltar, not Starbuck or Adama.

A Serendipitous Confluence of Ideas

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

Of late, I rarely have time to read the long articles that my favored blogs link to. Today, though, I took the time and was glad of it. Three disparate articles wove together in provocative ways.

From Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant (link from Mental Multivitamin), a critique of Sherry Shepherd’s statement that “Jesus came first” on The View:

Sherri Shepherd of The View has uttered, in all seriousness, that “Jesus came first.” Shepherd seems to believe that, in the great collective whole of human existence, there was no religion before Christianity….

when presented with the facts by her peers, Shepherd is incapable of even confessing that her co-hosts may be right.

Philip Pullman, interviewed at More Intelligent Life (link from Arts and Letters Daily), is the author of the “His Dark Materials” series, which I wrote about here, here, and here. The first book, titled The Golden Compass in the USA and Northern Lights elsewhere, has been adapted into a film. Both his film and the books are being criticized and boycotted by religious groups:

Pullman says that people who are tempted to take offence should first see the film or read the books. “They’ll find a story that attacks such things as cruelty, oppression, intolerance, unkindness, narrow-mindedness, and celebrates love, kindness, open-mindedness, tolerance, curiosity, human intelligence. It’s very hard to disagree with those. But people will”….

Pullman clearly enjoys an argument; Bernard Shaw, after all, is one of his favourite authors. He draws the line at discussing issues with fundamentalists. “You can’t communicate with people who know they’ve got all the answers.”

Also in the interview, Pullman places the focus on story, not writing:

I’m fundamentally a storyteller, not a literary person, if I can make that distinction. If I wrote a story that had enough vigour and life to pass into common currency and be recounted by people who had no idea that I was the author, nothing would give me greater pleasure.

In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech (link from Pages Turned), Doris Lessing also venerates storytelling, and its creative, shifting nature, so unlike the rigid, uninformed arguments of Shepherd and Pullman’s denouncers.

The storyteller is deep inside everyone of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is attacked by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise . . . but the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us - for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

Atheism as an Extreme

Saturday, November 3rd, 2007

My husband, G. Grod, and I recently read the Philip Pullman “His Dark Materials” trilogy. G noted, which I repeated in my review, that Pullman repeatedly used religious language and tropes, though he claimed his book was a non-religious fantasy. He and others viewed it as an atheistic answer to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

In “What the New Atheists Don’t See” at The City Journal, (link from Arts & Letters Daily) Theodore Dalrymple points out that many of the new books on atheism make a similar move. They deploy religious frames in their arguments against religion. Rather than being at the opposite end of a continuum, they are like the flip side of a coin: inextricably tied to what they seek to eschew.

Dalrymple argues quite reasonably for a middle ground that sounds more like ethics than religion, and more like agnosticism than atheism.

I am reminded of one of Michael Pollan’s insights about eating from The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Most people are wilfully ignorant of the industrial practices of meat. If people learn what meat is and how comes to out table, one reasonable but extreme response is to go vegetarian. Pollan, though, advocates a middle ground of learning and choosing sustainably raised flora and fauna.

The middle ground. How interesting that Pollan and Dalrymple must remind us of choices of balance, because the extremes have become so widely practiced.

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

#46 in my 2007 book challenge was The Amber Spyglass, the final book of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. The third book felt a bit bloated compared to the first two, and the action slowed in places. But Pullman’s skill at multiple-world building continued as a strength, and the details, of the land of the dead, especially, were very satisfying. The polar bears are back, as are the fascinating daemons, but they’re both given short shrift compared to angels and heaven. The adults switch allegiances so often I lost track–who’s good and who’s bad, now?

Pullman’s narrative became much more anti-religion, as he expounded on in an interview with Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair when TAS was published. Interestingly, though, the absence of religion created voids that Pullman filled in the narrative with very similar things. Religion was a giant mistake, and there was no creator. But Dust was sentient, and had “gifted” humanity with consciousness, so it was a common, creative, animating spirit. The character of Will symbolizes free will, yet so much of the story is driven by fate, related to Lyra by the alethiometer, the witches from prophecies, and Mary Malone by the I Ching. I think Pullman worked hard to have an atheistic fantasy, but the end result was an agnostic one, which is a much richer, more complex result, I thought.

I liked the series a lot; I didn’t love it. Lyra never felt fully realized to me, though Will did. Some aspects of Dust were overexplained, while others were given less time. For example, why did the Dust stop rushing out of the world only because of humans–why hadn’t it done that before with the mulefa? But I was engaged with it from beginning to end, I cared about the characters, though some of them didn’t ring completely true with me, and the plot drew me through. It was fun, it was mostly well-written, and it had some big ideas that are interesting to discuss. It was well worth my time, even if I didn’t connect so completely as to love it.

On Heidegger

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007

Should not such writing be subject to punishment?
–Thomas Mann, after reading Martin Heidegger

In grad school, I liked reading about Heidegger more than I liked reading Being and Time. I could tell, though, that great ideas lurked in the long, convoluted, translated-from-German sentences, which, apparently, weren’t any easier to read in German. The idea of an individual plunging into and out of the “them” of society held me in thrall. Later forgotten, that idea rose up the first time I saw The Matrix, and said, “Remember me?” I pulled down Being and Time, blew off the dust, and thumbed through for familiar sentences.

Heidegger, deservedly more than even Nietzsche, was often dismissed and derided in later academia because of his collaboration with the Nazis. This disturbing alliance also troubles Leland de la Durantaye, in an essay for Cabinet Magazine online. (link from Arts and Letters Daily) M, who blogs at Mental Multivitamin, has long favored considering work separately from its creator. Can Heidegger’s work–how can his work?–be considered apart from the political environment in which he created it? The thoughtful beauty in it, though, begs recognition on its own terms.

A (Very) Condensed Visual History of Religion

Tuesday, August 7th, 2007

Maps of War shows 5000 years of religion in 90 seconds. (Thanks to Blogenheimer for the link.)

My first reaction is that missions (religious marketing, if you will) really work. I deplore proselytizing, and I prefer attraction to promotion. Yet the spread of Christianity is a testament (sorry for the pun) to the powerful results of preaching for conversion.