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Reading Like a Sixth Grader

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All in all, my current attitude towards reading reminds me, as I said in my last entry, of the summers before and after sixth grade, which I think is when I read more--voraciously, compulsively--than at any other time in my life. Actually I've reverted to sixth grade in several ways: just as I did during summers when I was nine or ten or eleven, I like to sleep late, put on comfy clothes, then settle down to munch cookies I've made and plow through one book after another.

As Opposed to a Pleasant One

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The first Medici pope was Giovanni de' Medici, who, as I mentioned last time, is reported to have written to his brother, "God has given us the Papacy--let us enjoy it," when in 1513 he learned he'd be able to change his name from Giovanni to Leo X. (Leo X just doesn't sound as good as Malcolm X, does it.)

But Leo had to help God a little along the way in getting Him to give him the papacy. The pope before Leo was Julius II, a particularly bellicose and belligerent man who shocked absolutely everyone by riding out before the armies of the Vatican and who, in the words of Tuchman,

is ranked among the great popes because of his temporal accomplishments, not least his fertile partnership with Michelangelo--for art, next to war, is the great immortalizer of reputations.... He achieved important results in both these endeavors, which, being visible, have received ample notice as the visibles of history usually do, while the significant aspect of his reign, its failure of concern for the religious crisis, has been overlooked as the invisibles of history usually are.

After Julius II's very martial papacy, many were glad to have a lazy hedonist on the papal throne, particularly one who might die early and so give all the other cardinals a chance to be pope before too long. According, once again, to Tuchman, Leo's

health was a major concern because, although only 37 when elected, he suffered from an unpleasant anal ulcer which gave hm trouble in processions, although it aided his election because he allowed his doctors to spread word that he would not live long--always a persuasive factor to fellow cardinals.

Now, the fact that letting everyone think you'll die soon could aid your chances of being elected pope is interesting, but what really caught my attention in that passage is the phrase "unpleasant anal ulcer." Maybe it's just my lack of experience with anal ulcers, but I have trouble imagining a pleasant anal ulcer. The "unpleasant" there seems superfluous, about like mentioning a "tall giant" or a "short dwarf."

But in 1517 the story of Leo's ass gets every weirder, and here it is:

Last weekend I watched a thoroughly inadequate documentary on The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance. A major problem was the acting, which was simultaneously too restrained and excessive, in that the actors never spoke, so they had to resort to over-emoting to convey any sort of inner state. I like cheese as a general proposition but that was just too much.

But an even bigger problem was that the whole thing was carefully sanitized to avoid offending Catholics. The discussion of Savonarola, the Dominican ascetic who persuaded people to renounce materialism and riches by casting their paintings, statues, books, jewels and fine clothes onto raging "bonfires of the vanities," makes it sound like his gripe was all about the fact that Lorenzo de' Medici paid Sandro Bottecelli to paint naked depictions of pagan goddesses instead of clothed depictions of Christian saints. In other words, there was absolutely no mention of the fact that at the time Savonarola began railing against the established church, the dude wearing the papal tiara was Alexander VI, a.k.a. Rodrigo Borgia, a licentious, scheming son of a bitch who became pope by buying the papacy outright at age 62 after fathering at least seven acknowledged illegitimate children. (I say at least seven because he acknowledged seven of them very clearly; then there was an eighth, who was legitimized first as Rodrigo's grandson and then as his son, by two successive papal bulls; one of the elders son, Cesare, whose paternity was never in doubt, was supported and protected by his father in his very successful career as a murderer and general extremely nasty bad guy.) You'd think that given that the documentary was about a family of Italian merchants who eventually became some of the most important art patrons in the history of the world before becoming very bad ecclesiastical leaders, there would be room to point out the failings of a family of Spanish scofflaws.

But no, because more important than an accurate account of much of anything is the requirement not to say anything negative about a church, which is one more reason organized religion sucks and people who follow it are so often unable and unwilling to have a clear grasp of the truth. Thus, the Borgias are not even mentioned. Nor was there any reference to mistresses kept by Medici popes (there were two popes, and god only knows how many mistresses). The famous (and perhaps apocryphal) comment by Giovanni de' Medici (a.k.a. Pope Leo X) to his brother Giuliano upon Giovanni's accession, "God has given us the Papacy--let us enjoy it," was treated as a remark that was irreverent and indecorous rather than greedy and rapacious, although Leo managed to empty the papal coffers in record time.

Buffy, Fiction and God

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Here's an entry from Stephen Frug that speaks to several of my primary interests: good writing, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, moral and artistic complexity, and religion. I recommend it with this disclaimer: it's LONG, as long or longer than some of the stuff I post. But it's really thoughtful and interesting, and worth your time.

How to Judge Religion

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I have been mulling over Matt's question about how to criticize religion and decided I was wrong to distance myself from Ms. Armstrong, especially when I remembered that she'd offered the best summary of I'd ever encountered on how to judge religion. If I'm not as close to her thinking as I might be, it's not because I think she's wrong but because I think I'm not as wise or developed as she is, and so not able to espouse her ideas with the commitment they deserve. I really think her work--especially "A History of God"--should be required reading for anyone struggling with recovery from Mormonism. As evidence, I offer this passage from a paper I delivered on her at the 2005 Sunstone symposium. The paper was entitled "Pain, Sorrow, Suffering, Failure, Despair and Occasional Moments of Transcendence: The Wisdom and Insights of Karen Armstrong." Here's something--as in a long something, as in four single-spaced pages--from the close, in case you're interested.

Note: Although Armstrong has published more than a dozen books--most of which I've read--I cited only five in this presentation. They are, in order of publication, "Through the Narrow Gate," "Beginning the World," "A History of God," "The Battle for God" and "The Spiral Staircase."

In 1981, Armstrong published Through the Narrow Gate. It didn't earn much money, but it did gain her some attention--enough that she was invited to comment on religious topics on television. Eventually she lands a job writing the text for a six-part television documentary on Saint Paul, and it is while doing research for this project that she realizes how profoundly ignorant she is about the origins of Christianity. She comes to the conclusion that it was not Jesus Christ or any of his immediate disciples who were the inventors of Christianity, but Saint Paul--hence the name of the series, The First Christian. She also realizes that she has never thought carefully about Christianity's two "sister religions," as she calls them, Judaism and Islam.

She studies the three monotheistic religions' relationships to each other when asked to write a television series on the Crusades. Calling the story of the Crusades "a hideous chronicle of human suffering, fantacism and cruelty" (258), she notes that studying them has a primary salutary, albeit painful, effect: "it broke [her] heart" (Staircase, 258). This broken heart, is, of course, a necessary spiritual development. As she notes,

All the world faiths put suffering at the top of their agenda, because it is an inescapable fact of human life, and unless you see things as they really are, you cannot live correctly. But even more important, if we deny our own pain, it is all too easy to dismiss the suffering of others. Every single one of the major traditions--Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as the monotheisms--teaches a spirituality of empathy, by means of which you relate your own suffering to that of others. (Staircase, 272)

Learning how to cultivate and practice empathy is part of what makes it possible for her to write remarkably sympathetic biographies of Muhammad and the Buddha, activities in which she "had to make a constant, imaginative attempt to enter empathically into the experience of another" (Staircase, 279). Admittedly, this is a difficult thing to do. It takes self-awareness, generosity and discipline to cultivate empathy, and even more hard work to act on it rather than resorting to anger and retaliation when someone attacks us or something we love. It is also necessary if we want to make any progress as spiritual beings, and much of religion has been designed to help us do that hard work. If religion fails in that primary task, it fails supremely and definitively. One of final insights offered in The Spiral Staircase is the absolute necessity of empathy as a criterion in judging the value of religion: Armstrong states,

More on the Religion Thing

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In recent comments, Matt has raised the issue of how to criticize religion fairly and appropriately, a question that has stymied many people far wiser than I. Spike mentions that this was a question Marx sincerely and seriously grappled with. Here's an editorial by Jonathan Freedland from the Guardian about the Pope's comments and how NOT to critcize religion. A couple of excerpts:

The Pope seems unaware that, for hundreds of millions of people, religious affiliation is not a matter of intellectual adherence to a set of abstract principles, but a question of identity. Many Muslims, like many Jews or Hindus, may not fully subscribe to the religious doctrine concerned, and yet their Muslimness, or Jewishness or Hinduness, is a central part of their make-up. Theology plays a lesser part than history, culture, folklore, tradition and kinship. In this respect, religious groups begin to look more like ethnic ones. Which means that a slur on a religion is experienced much like a racist insult. Plenty of secularists and atheists struggle to understand this - wondering why they cannot slam, say, Catholicism the way they might attack, say, socialism - but the Pope, of all people, should have no such trouble. He should realise that when he declares Christianity a superior religion, as he did some years ago, that is heard by many as a statement that Christians are superior people.

and

What makes me shudder about the Pope's Regensburg lecture is that he appears to join Osama bin Laden in this effort to cast the current conflict as a clash of civilisations. Complicatedly, and dense in footnotes, he is, at bottom, trying to establish the superiority of one faith over another. His argument is that reason is intrinsic to Christianity, yet merely a contingent part of Islam.

But what sense is there in such a contest? If the most senior figure in Christendom effectively takes Bin Laden's bait and says that, yes, this is a war of religions, ours against yours, how can this end? Such a war cannot be quieted by the usual means of diplomacy or compromise. There can be no happy medium in matters of core belief: Muslims cannot meet Christians halfway on their belief that God spoke to Muhammad, just as Christians cannot compromise on Jesus's status as the son of God.

Good times, aye?

Why I Go to Sunstone

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Today is my first day at Sunstone. Several people have asked me recently why I go to Sunstone, especially given my relationship to the church. Since I've already written something that addresses that question, I'm posting it here. This essay was published last year in Sunstone's print journal. It's kind of long, but if you're interested, here it is.

"What are you doing at Sunstone, then?"

It's a question I am asked each year. Sometimes the question is posed with genuine curiosity; sometimes it's an accusation. Why would someone who isn't a practicing or believing Mormon attend a symposium on Mormonism? It's also a question I asked at one point. Although I had read, subscribed to, published in, cited in my own scholarship and learned from the print version of SUNSTONE for years, I never attended a symposium until 2001--and the decision finally to do so wasn't easy. Early in 2001 I submitted an essay for publication; a few months later I got a message from Dan Wotherspoon, letting me know that he'd accepted the essay, and requesting that I read a version of it at the symposium. I told him I'd think about it.

"Why would I want to go to that?" I asked myself. "It's all fine and good in print, where you can read what intrigues you and ignore what doesn't, and nobody interrupts the author in the middle of a point. But this live version...I'm sure it'll just be a bunch of disgruntled inactives arguing about stuff with a bunch of bossy hard-liners"--and I'd seen and participated in enough of that already. But Dan was graciously, persistently insistent that I'd enjoy the symposium, so I queried a few friends who had attended.

"Of course you should go," they told me. "For every panel that doesn't interest you, you'll find one that does. And you'll meet so many incredibly cool people."

So I went. And Dan and my friends were right--so right, in fact, that I've been back every year since, and plan to go again. But what is it that draws me?

Old Testament Weirdness

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In the comments to yesterday's post on Brokeback Mountain, CL Hanson notes that she learned at BYU that "in [Mormon] culture woman is the disposable person." That's something learned in college myself, albeit in a bible lit class, when I read this gruesome story in Judges 19, which I'm going to tell now, and then we're going to take a break from this topic, since it doesn't seem wildly popular. [OK, I lied: there's a followup here.] Plus, I'm almost done with the paper and will have time to write about something else for a while. But here it is, without further ado, one of the grossest stories from the Old Testament:

In Judges 19, we get the story of a Levite from Mount Ephriam whose concubine leaves him in order to return to her parents' house, an activity labeled "playing the whore against him," or valuing her own desires above his. The Levite eventually goes to fetch his concubine, and on their journey home they stop in Gibeah, where the men are "Benjaminites," meaning both that they are of the tribe of Benjamin and that they have sex with other men. The Levite sets up camp in the street of a city, only to be implored by an old man not to lodge there--instead, the old man offers the couple shelter for the night.

Beginning in verse 22, we read

Now as they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, certain sons of Belial, beset the house round about, and beat at the door, and spake to the master of the house, the old man, saying, Bring forth the man that came into thine house, that we may know him. [Note: in case you don't get it, they're using "know" in the biblical sense, this being the bible and all.]

[23] And the man, the master of the house, went out unto them, Nay, my brethren, nay, I pray you, do not so wickedly; seeing that this man is come into mine house, do not this folly.

[24] Behold, here is my daughter a maiden, and his concubine; them I will bring out now, and humble ye them, and do with them what seemeth good unto you: but unto this man do not so vile a thing.

What He Said

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I haven't read The End of Faith by Sam Harris, but after reading this interview with him in Salon, I want to. He hits on some of the reasons why I find many true believers intellectually, morally and spiritually repellent, and why I refuse to let my family bear their testimonies to me. Here are two excerpts from the interview conducted by Steve Paulson:

What about the Bible? Do you see this as a recipe for religious intolerance?

Oh, I do. There's no document that I know of that is more despicable in its morality than the first few books of the Hebrew Bible. Books like Exodus and Deuteronomy and Leviticus, these are diabolical books. The killing never stops. The reasons to kill your neighbor for theological crimes are explicit and preposterous. You have to kill people for worshiping foreign gods, for working on the Sabbath, for wizardry, for adultery. You kill your children for talking back to you. It's there and it's not a matter of metaphors. It is exactly what God expects us to do to rein in the free thought of our neighbors.

Now, it just so happens, however, that most Christians think there's something in the New Testament that fully and finally repudiates all of that. And therefore, we do not have to kill homosexuals. We don't have to kill adulterers. And that's a very good thing that most Christians think it. Now, most Christians actually are not on very firm ground theologically to think that. It's not an accident that St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine thought we should kill or torture heretics. Aquinas thought we should kill them, Augustine thought we should torture them. And Augustine's argument for the use of torture actually laid the foundations for the Inquisition. So it's not an accident that we were burning heretics and witches and other people in Europe for five centuries under the aegis of Christianity. But Christianity is at a different moment in its history.

But isn't this a problem mainly when you read the Bible or the Quran literally? Doesn't the conversation change once you stop reading sacred scriptures literally? If you understand, for instance, the historical context -- when Judaism or Christianity were first emerging, they were religions competing with other religions. Doesn't that free you up to appreciate their spiritual teachings?

I'd be the first to agree that it's better not to read these books literally. The problem is, the books never tell you that you're free not to read them literally. In fact, they tell you otherwise, explicitly so. Therefore, the fundamentalist is always on firmer ground theologically and -- I would argue -- intellectually than the moderate or the progressive. When you consult the books, you do not find more reasons to be a moderate or a liberal. You find more reasons to be a fundamentalist. I agree, it is a good thing to be cherry-picking these books and ignoring the bad parts. But we should have a 21st century conversation about morality and spiritual experience and public policy that is not constrained by superstition and taboo. In order to see how preposterous our situation really is, you need only imagine what our world would be like if we had people believing in the literal existence of Zeus. I defy anyone to come forward with the evidence that puts the Biblical God or the Quranic God on fundamentally different footing than the gods of Mt. Olympus. There are historical reasons why Zeus is no longer worshiped and the God of Abraham is. But there are not sound epistemological or philosophical or empirical reasons.

My Dream Date with God

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As I posted something a few days ago about having dinner with God, I thought I'd share this strange little thing I wrote a few years ago about a date with God.

Last night as I lay in my bed tossing about in that semi-lucid semi-dreaming state induced by illness, medication and not enough sound sleep, a question and an answer occurred to me. Here they are:

Question: Describe your dream date with God.

Answer: OK.

My dream date with God would begin with a phone call--none of this voice speaking from the whirlwind business; I want an actual phone call made from a real phone number that appears on my caller ID box. I figure it will consist entirely of of 8's (infinity symbol turned side-ways) and 0's (the nothingness God created everything out of) and 1's (after all, God is the big One). God will say, "Hey, would you like to spend the weekend at the Grand Canyon?"

"Sure," I'll say, and write it down in my planner.

So that's what I'd do on my dream date with God: go to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. It has to be the North Rim; I haven't been there since 1976, the summer between seventh and eighth grade. We won't camp; we'll rent a cabin--separate rooms, of course. This isn't Leda and the Swan or Mary and the Holy Spirit or anything like that.

We'll look at the world in its magnificence and he'll try to explain the forces that molded it. He'll conjure a thunderstorm or two. He'll take apart a pine cone and tell me why it's constructed as it is.

God has nothing to do with ethics for me. Ethics exist outside of God. God is about power. I don't always understand power. This doesn't mean that I don't understand creation. I am perfectly willing to believe in a big bang that got everything going somehow. What I don't understand is how some things change and some things don't. What I don't understand is heresy today, gone tomorrow.

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