A Worthy Adversary

I read this article on the closing of Dr. George Tiller’s clinic yesterday and I can’t get it out of my head. It’s the final two paragraphs that I can’t stop thinking about:

As he explained himself, Mr. Gietzen did something unexpected. He spoke admiringly of the man he reflexively referred to as “Abortionist Tiller.” He said he was “very smart” and a “great businessman.” He said that if he had been in town he would have attended Dr. Tiller’s funeral to pay his respects.

“A worthy adversary,” he said. “He was right back at us.”

Mark Gietzen is the chairman of the Kansas Coalition for Life. He made it his organization’s particular goal to shut down Dr. Tiller’s clinic. Speaking of his own work and that of other anti-choice activists, Gietzen said, ““We wanted it to get to the point where it was no longer feasible to stay open.”

Here’s my problem: If you think that abortion is murder, and if your objective is to eradicate it, shouldn’t you want an opponent to simply surrender?

Gietzen’s appreciation for his “worthy adversary”—not to mention his devotion to elaborate stagecraft and publicity—suggests that he is more invested in waging his battle than winning it. This, to me, unconscionable. I don’t have reason to suspect the sincerity of Gietzen’s opposition to abortion, but his comments make it seem very much as if his activism is not just about saving the “unborn”, but also about power and control.

Even a cursory look at the anti-choice movement shows that many—if not most—of its leaders are men, and that there is significant overlap between anti-choice groups and Christian churches that espouse a theological basis for the subordination of women. I will not be the first to argue that this is no coincidence.

July 27, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Another feminist rabbi: Danya Ruttenberg gets religion

Surprised by GodWhen she was a teenager, Danya Ruttenberg was an atheist who enjoyed going to punk shows and reading existentialist philosophy. Now, she’s a rabbi who compares her relationship with God to “an intimate marriage”. Her new memoir, Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion, tells the story of this transformation. In this interview, she talks about her commitment to service and explains the difference between fundamentalism and thoughtful faith.

So, how does it feel to believe in God?

Danya Ruttenberg: How does it feel? Glorious. Safe. Not always comfortable, though. There are a lot of things that I might want, a lot of ways that I might want to take the easy route but, according to my understanding of the Divine and my relationship to God, those things might not be what I need, or what God needs of me. I’m forced to grow and push myself out of the simple answers to learn how to do better, to be better. The move from atheism to faith feels like the move from a place that was frightening and in which I was utterly alone to one in which I am interconnected and embraced on this level that’s impossible to articulate (what with the Divine being beyond words and all). Despite the horrible ways that we humans may abuse and misuse our free will, it now seems clear to me that beyond that, there’s a profound holiness (a Someone or Something—pick your metaphor) waiting patiently for us to tune in and get on the sweet, sweet channel that will help us learn how to shift from people who want to be gratified into people who want to serve.

Your undergraduate degree is in religious studies, so you actually knew a lot about religion before you began to practice a religion. Have you found your academic background to be a help or a hindrance to your faith?

DR: For me personally, I find it to be a help. Blind, uncritical adherence was never my bag of chips—and frankly, I think that’s true of quite a lot of people, many more than non-religious folks often assume. Fundamentalist thinking makes up a very, very small percentage of religious thinking; Jewish textual history is nothing if not 2000 years of critical thinking, of looking for problems and inconsistencies in our texts!

In my case, I came into Jewish practice having already heard that—for example—most contemporary scholars posit at least four distinct authors (or schools of authorship) to the Torah. That doesn’t mean that I don’t regard the Torah as a holy text, or understand God’s Revelation on Sinai (as described in Exodus 19 and 20) as true on some level. One may be describing a historical reality, and the other a deeper, metaphoric or spiritual reality. Paul Ricoeur talks about a “second naiveté”, the ability to see sacred text’s holiness shining through even after learning the historical bits. There’s historical truth, which I don’t discount at all, and there is, co-existing with it, a deeper truth about what it is to be a person and what it is to live your life in alignment with the sacred.

As a religious person, whether or not Abraham the patriarch was a historical figure is irrelevant to me—I’m more interested in what I have to learn from the stories that the Torah tells about him. And yet, finding out that, say, many Psalms borrow their structure from Canaanite poetry (and learning what that structure is and in what ways the Psalms are similar to and different from the Canaanite versions…, etc.)—well, that’s just cool, and that deepens my understanding of and appreciation them. Of course there was inter-cultural mingling, of course nothing happens in a vacuum! That doesn’t mean the result isn’t valuable.

It should be noted that in my rabbinic program—as with seminaries of Christian friends—they teach scholarly history as part of the deal. Scholarship and faith are far from mutually exclusive, and if you’re going to care about these texts and live your life by them, why wouldn’t you want to know what contemporary researchers are learning about them? Faith isn’t something so brittle that it breaks every time a new archaeological discovery is made that might challenge a religious reading of a text—if it can’t handle those small challenges, it certainly can’t stand up to the serious questions that every theology engages.

While I was reading your memoir, I found myself wanting to know more about the process of ordination. But, when I got to the end, I understood your reluctance to make that experience the climax of your narrative. In your memoir, you suggest that “going pro” isn’t the only legitimate response to a spiritual awakening. Did you feel a special responsibility to make your story accessible to people of faith who might not become clergy?

DR: Absolutely. There are plenty of wonderful spiritual memoirs out there about entering the monastery, becoming clergy, and so forth. Until I applied to rabbinical school, though, (which I did around the point that the story told in Surprised By God was ending, i.e., where the reader sees me last in the narrative) I was a lay Jew trying to figure out how to integrate religious practice into the rest of my life. This is a book about the ways that taking on a spiritual practice changes us all. My quoting of other thinkers and bringing in examples of similar issues in other faiths was my way of making it abundantly clear that this is a process with which everyone struggles, and though my time in rabbinical school was amazing—really transformative—that’s a much less universal experience, and I didn’t want readers to get off of the universal tip, to stop implicitly reading this book as about being about them as well.

The role of women in religion is a contentious issue in a number of faith traditions. I know that not all Jewish communities embrace the idea of women rabbis, but have you found that most of the people you’ve encountered have been supportive? How many women rabbis are there?

DR: I’m not sure how many women rabbis there are total in the world, but we’ve been ordained in America in a mainstream way (there have been a few incredible renegades here and there throughout history) since 1972, and since 1985 in my denomination. So there are quite a few already out there, and many more each year! Most people are totally supportive; it’s not a shocking or unusual thing in the circles in which I travel. (Actually, it’s a very mundane thing in my own circles—“oh, look, another feminist rabbi, how boring.”) There are still folks who don’t embrace the idea, but overwhelmingly, the mark has already been made on American Jewish life. We’re here, and these days there are more and more out queer rabbis, trans rabbis, rabbis of various racial and cultural backgrounds, and so forth. The stereotype of the old white guy with the long beard doesn’t really mesh with the reality today. (Of course, I know some brilliant bearded, older, male rabbis—they just don’t have the monopoly on rabbinic representation anymore!)

Has becoming a rabbi changed your life? Has it changed your faith or your practice?

DR: Yes.

Oh, you wanted a longer answer? OK: The process of becoming clergy has deepened my faith and given it a heft that I couldn’t have imagined before. It’s taught me lessons in humility and in understanding myself as an instrument of service to others. It’s altered my relationship with God, transforming it from something kind of like a passionate lovesickness and more like an intimate marriage. My practice has changed and shifted and grown as I have, sometimes causing me to be stricter than I thought I would be in my practice, sometimes more lenient than I thought I would ever be. I’ve also learned a bit about the symbolic role that the rabbi plays to so many people, and how powerful that is, and how important it is to handle that perception with care. It’s a lot, but it’s amazing. I feel humbled and grateful every day.

August 15, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

“Is There a Post-Abortion Syndrome?”

Nothing is easier to love than an unborn child.

An unborn child never cries all night. She never spits all over your shirt. An unborn child doesn’t bite the other kids at preschool. He doesn’t hurl food from his highchair to the floor. An unborn child doesn’t sneak out of the house at 3 A.M. An unborn child doesn’t get drunk and smash up the car. An unborn child never aggravates, upsets, or disappoints.

When I had a miscarriage, I lost an unborn child. Since having had a baby, I’ve thought a lot about the difference between the unborn and the born. One thing I can say for sure is that the born are a lot more work and a lot more mess. They make physical and emotional demands that the unborn do not. They’re not harder to love than the unborn, but it’s a different kind of love. My love for Frances is love for a real and willful individual, a human being who is changing and growing everyday and over whom I have little real control. The unborn child I lost was real, too, but what I mourned was a dream—my hopes for what she might become. The fact that those hopes will never be realized gives them a paradoxical power: They are impossible to fulfill, but also impossible to destroy. The unborn child is pure potential, and when she is lost, she attains a state of permanent perfection.

Emily Bazelon touches on this dynamic in “Is There a Post-Abortion Syndrome ?”, her cover story for yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, as she describes a ceremony conducted at the end of a 10-week program for women—in this case, prisoners—who have had abortions:

Inside the Tom Baker Chapel of Hope at the jail, Harper and Kimbrough arranged long pieces of gauzy white cloth over the altar and onto the floor, so that the material lined a short aisle. Into the cloth they tucked white teddy bears with red hearts around their necks that read “Happy Mother’s Day” and “No. 1 Mommy.” Kimbrough sprinkled silk rose petals over the altar and floor. On a side table, Arias placed baskets of cloth “heritage dolls.” Their heads and hands were tied with thin ribbons. Their faces were blank. Heitzeberg erected a curved metal frame over the altar and draped it with more white cloth. Kimbrough climbed on a chair to hang a string of Christmas lights over the top. Arias surveyed the altar. “It looks like a bassinet,” she said approvingly….

Heritage Doll

Arias wove a sermon from Biblical stories: Jesus meeting the woman at the well in Samaria, Hannah praying to God to give her a child, Eve celebrating the birth of her sons. It was time, Arias told the inmates, to release their babies to the Lord. Kimbrough and Harper passed around the baskets of heritage dolls, telling the women to take one for each baby they’d aborted or miscarried. The women rocked the blank-faced dolls, many holding three or four. Their faces dampened with tears….

She instructed the women to stand up, speak in memory of their lost babies and take their heritage dolls to the altar. The women stood one by one. They clutched their dolls and said they were sorry. They imagined a baby with his father’s dimple or curly hair or green eyes. One woman mentioned a child who had been born and taken into state custody, and the woman who kissed the pictures of her daughters sent them her love. For the most part, though, the messy mothering of living children — and the reality of their lives outside the prison — did not intrude on the ceremony. The women focused on mourning the elusive, innocent loss represented by the dolls. They gave them fairy-tale names: Sarah Jewell, Angel Pillow, Xavier Dante. At a side table, Kimbrough and Harper wrote the names on certificates for children “expected to be born.” The documents promised, “By virtue of being conceived, the spirit of this child lives eternally with Jesus and in the heart and the mind of the mother, now and forevermore.”

I can’t think of a better symbol, a better embodiment, of the unborn child than this heritage doll. It’s a blank canvas onto which one can project a fantasy child, a perfect child. To the extent that it suggests anything, it suggests an angel. The extent to which this meshes with Rhonda Arias’s description of aborted babies hugging their mommies in heaven suggests that the resemblance is intentional.

Should the anti-choice movement decide to start using heritage dolls instead of blown-up photos of aborted fetuses, it’s going to be bad news for reproductive rights. Those photos are arresting, yes, but they are also gross, and I really do believe that some of the bad feeling they engender bounces back on the people who display them. I do volunteer work at the Planned Parenthood in my town, and we’ve had our share of protestors. I’ve had occasion to talk to a few people who are disturbed and offended by the fetus photos—not because they’re staunch defenders of a woman’s right to choose, but because they don’t think they should be subjected to horrifying images while they’re driving to work or to Wal-Mart. I’m guessing that if you show these same people the haunting absence of the heritage doll, they’re going to see their own baby or grandbaby or lost baby. If you show them a thousand heritage dolls, they’re going to see a holocaust.

Similarly, when the anti-choice movement depicts a woman who has had an abortion as a monster and a murderer, the hyperbole and lack of compassion demonstrated by such an image reflects poorly on the movement that creates it. Bazelon hints at a future in which the anti-choice movement will instead represent the woman who’s had an abortion as a grieving mother duped into killing her little angel. As Bazelon writes at the conclusion of her article, this is a very powerful trope:

At the prison the day before, I watched the inmates drink in Arias’s preaching…. Abortion-rights leaders would accuse her of manipulation, of instilling guilt in women to serve the anti-abortion movement’s political ends. But Rhonda Arias ministers from the heart; the lack of scientific support for her ideas merely underscores that she is a true believer.

Her ardor and influence is better explained, perhaps, by the theory of social contagion, which psychologists use to explain phenomena like the Salem witch trials or the wave of unfounded reports of repressed memories of sexual abuse. Reva Siegel of Yale compares South Dakota’s use of criminal law to enforce a vision of pregnant women as weak and confused to the 19th-century diagnosis of female hysteria. These ideas can make and change laws. The claim that women lacked reliable judgment was used to deny women the vote and the right to own property. Repressed-memory stories led states to extend their statutes of limitations. Women who devote themselves to abortion recovery make up for the wrong they feel they’ve done by trying to stop other women from doing it too — by preventing them from having the same choices.

And then there is the relief in seizing on a single clear explanation for a host of unwanted and overwhelming feelings, a cause for everything gone wrong. When Arias surveyed 104 of the prisoners she had counseled in 2004, two-thirds reported depression related to abortion, 32 percent reported suicide attempts related to abortion and 84 percent linked substance abuse to their abortions. They had a new key for unlocking themselves. And a way to make things right. “You have well-meaning therapists or political crusaders, paired with women who are troubled and experiencing a variety of vague symptoms,” Brenda Major, the U.C. Santa Barbara psychology professor, explained to me. “The therapists and crusaders offer a diagnosis that gives meaning to the symptoms, and that gives the women a way to repent. You can’t repent depressive symptoms. But you can repent an action.” You can repent an abortion. You can reach for a narrative of sin and atonement, of perfect imagined babies waiting in heaven.

This is a powerful narrative, then, not just for women who have had abortions, but also for the rest of us—for everyone who gets to cast a vote for or against a ballot initiative outlawing abortion, for or against an anti-choice candidate. It’s an emotional appeal with an easy-to-follow plot that absolves us from making difficult decisions about abortion, and from dealing with the complex socioeconomic realities that make abortion such a huge issue in our country.

As Bazelon points out, just about half the pregnancies in America are unplanned. One would think that honest education and access to birth control would be the first steps in any attempt—private or public—to address the demand for abortions in this country. One would, of course, be wrong. Rhonda Arias, the preacher and activist that Bazelon profiles, discovered during the course of Bazelon’s research that her 17-year-old daughter was pregnant (the father was a boy she met at church). This woman who had 4 abortions herself, and who has devoted her life to stopping other women from having abortions, explained that she talked to her daughters about chastity before marriage, but she didn’t talk to them about contraception. “‘Abstinence works better than birth control, really,’ she said. ‘It’s just that people don’t do it.’” This is one point on which Arias and I agree, even if we draw different conclusions from it. She doesn’t believe in birth control. I believe that making honest family planning and safe, effective contraception available to everyone is the best way to reduce the number of abortions performed in this country.

I don’t believe in “post-abortion syndrome,” but that doesn’t mean that I believe abortion is easy. Any woman who has ever had a child—or lost a child she desperately wanted to have—can tell you that it’s disingenuous to call a fetus “a blob of tissue,” and it’s equally misleading to refuse to acknowledge the fact that—for some women, at least—an abortion is more traumatic than, say, a bikini wax. Whether or not the anti-choice movement decides to shift its focus from the aborted fetus to the woman who aborts it, I think that pro-choice advocates need to make room for more open, more honest conversation about abortion. I know that a lot of activists are afraid that such a conversation would be a gift to anti-choice forces. I’m familiar with the slippery slope argument. But I would counter that, for most Americans, abortion is already a slippery issue. Polls affirm again and again that we don’t really want it to happen, but we do want it to be legal. I don’t see a position that reflects that ambivalence as a weak position. I think it’s an honest one, and I think anything less is a tragic disservice to the very women we hope to protect.


January 22, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

McKellan went on to say he found the Bible “somewhat preachy” and called the ending “a bit of a downer.”

I just became aware of Us Weekly’s blog today (how is that possible?) and I’m luving it!. My absolute favorite headline is “Ian McKellen Unable to Suspend Disbelief While Reading the Bible”. The story itself is a treat—when asked by Matt Lauer if The Da Vinci Code should have had a disclaimer at the beginning announcing that it’s fiction, Sir Ian replied that the Bible should have a disclaimer at the beginning announcing that it’s fiction—but the comment thread is utterly priceless. Tweet from North Carolina writes:

Well US be sure to let Mckellen atheist-self he has losta legion of fans b/c whether you are born-again or not you should still believe in GOD!!!
What is he talkin bout “walk on water” Jesus is GOD”S SON DUH!!! I don’t understand him but if you don’t want to lose 99.999% of your readership please don’t feature this man any more on website or in mag I don’t wanna read about non-believers EVEN Scientologists believe in a higher being, this man is clearly an atheist.

I had no idea that militantly fundamentalist Christians are so uniformly interested in the Denise Richardson-Richie Sambora-Heather Locklear love triangle that they make up 99.999% of Us Weekly’s readership. I would talk to Christians a lot more if I knew we could be talking about Lindsay, Paris, Nicole, Jessica, Britney, and Katie instead of, you know, abortion and gay marriage and abstinence-only sex education and stuff.

May 19, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

“Christ Among the Partisans”

As an undergraduate, I was drawn to Christianity because it’s so scary and weird and unfamiliar—unfamiliar to me, anyway. Sure, I had grown up with friends who went to church and a Baptist great grandmother, and I had the bare-bones version of the Jesus story residents of Western culture just kind of absorb, but I had never read the Gospels, and I had no idea of just how nutty they are.

Thanks to The Da Vinci Code, everybody’s all excited about non-canonical texts with their images of Mary Magdalene triumphant and the heroic Judas, but the stories that made it into the New Testament are just as strange and unnerving—if you actually read them, rather than simply listen to the heavily homogenized, white-bread holiday versions. This is why I have always been baffled by the What Would Jesus Do? movement: Jesus was not a nice kid, a clean-cut young man who did his homework, said “No” to drugs, and went to True Love Waits meetings. He sure as hell wasn’t interested in the “traditionalfamily. He was a rabble-rouser and a troublemaker and a generally freaky guy.

Jesus is not, Garry Wills argues in an op-ed piece from yesterday’s New York Times, the kind of guy you want to take out on the campaign trail. Not only does he make Howard Dean look like the very picture of calm, reasoned governance, but to add him to your ticket is to reject or ignore his mission and his words:

There is no such thing as a “Christian politics.” If it is a politics, it cannot be Christian. Jesus told Pilate: “My reign is not of this present order. If my reign were of this present order, my supporters would have fought against my being turned over to the Jews. But my reign is not here” (John 18:36). Jesus brought no political message or program.
This is a truth that needs emphasis at a time when some Democrats, fearing that the Republicans have advanced over them by the use of religion, want to respond with a claim that Jesus is really on their side. He is not. He avoided those who would trap him into taking sides for or against the Roman occupation of Judea. He paid his taxes to the occupying power but said only, “Let Caesar have what belongs to him, and God have what belongs to him” (Matthew 22:21). He was the original proponent of a separation of church and state.
Those who want the state to engage in public worship, or even to have prayer in schools, are defying his injunction: “When you pray, be not like the pretenders, who prefer to pray in the synagogues and in the public square, in the sight of others. In truth I tell you, that is all the profit they will have. But you, when you pray, go into your inner chamber and, locking the door, pray there in hiding to your Father, and your Father who sees you in hiding will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6). He shocked people by his repeated violation of the external holiness code of his time, emphasizing that his religion was an internal matter of the heart.

Lord knows, I would like to see Democrats win some damn elections, and it drives me insane that Republicans have been able to own the concept of “values.” And, like a lot of Democrats, I would like to see my party get over its fear of religion. I agree with Wills, though, that drafting Jesus is not a winning strategy. It’s not just that I don’t believe that Democrats can sell such a move—although I don’t—it’s also that I think Jesus has no place in politics. Jesus deserves better than that.

April 10, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

“As if it would make a difference”: Philip Pullman on Stories

If The Once and Future King didn’t have overwhelming sentimental appeal for me, His Dark Materials would most likely be my favorite story. I love those books because they are so rich and weighty, and because they communicate a real love of the world—of nature in the grandest sense and of mortal, sublunary existence. I also love them because they are so obviously true. Philip Pullman knows how to tell a story, and he knows that fantasy can be real in ways that other ways of telling cannot.

In Laura Miller’s lovely New Yorker profile of the author, Pullman explicates his belief in fiction. He also engages in a little moral philosophy. It turns out that Pullman—an atheist, and famously so—is opposed to what we might call hegemonic readings; that is, readings that claim to be free of interpretation, without error, and beyond dissent. While I may not share his complete disdain for the Narnia books (I do think he’s right on when it comes to Tolkien, though) or his all-encompassing antipathy towards monotheism, I’m with him on that count.

Good postmodernist that I am, I don’t believe that “literal” readings are possible—to read, to understand, to explain is to interpret. Reading is an inherently subjective process. That doesn’t mean, however, that reading is meaningless. I believe that narrative and metaphor are powerful paths to truth—maybe even Truth. I spent my college years reading the New Testament as literature, and I ended up writing my senior thesis on the Gospel of Mark, a story which I believe demands personal engagement and provokes each reader towards a unique awareness. It is an engine for understanding. There is no authoritative reading; its truth is available to anyone who can read it.

Speaking not just of his own stories but of stories in general, Pullman is beautifully expressive. In an address he delivered earlier this year, he contrasts the “School of Morals”—the school of right living, which is articulated through novels and plays and all manner of good narrative—with theocracy:

In his speech, Pullman contended that the literary School of Morals is inherently ambiguous, dynamic, and democratic: a “conversation.” Opposed to this ideal is “theocracy,” which he defined as encompassing everything from Khomeini’s Iran to explicitly atheistic states such as Stalin’s Soviet Union. He listed some characteristics of such states—among them, “a scripture whose word is inerrant,” a priesthood whose authority “tends to concentrate in the hands of elderly men,” and “a secret police force with the powers of an Inquisition.” Theocracies, he said, demonstrate “the tendency of human beings to gather power to themselves in the name of something that may not be questioned.”
This impulse toward theocracy, he announced at the end of his speech, “will defeat the School of Morals in the end.” He sounded oddly cheerful making this prediction; in his books, Pullman enjoys striking a tone of melancholy resolve. He continued, “But that doesn’t mean we should give up and surrender…. I think we should act as if. I think we should read books, and tell children stories, and take them to the theatre, and learn poems, and play music, as if it would make a difference….

Those, I think, are words to live by.

December 29, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

A Theocracy of the Mind

I had to take an oral exam for my Spanish class recently. One of the questions—designed to test my knowledge of the superlative—was “¿Cuál es la mejor revista de los Estados Unidos?” My answer was, “El New Yorker.”

I really do think it’s the best magazine in America—better than The Atlantic, better even than Us Weekly. Margaret Talbot’s piece on Kitzmiller v. Dover in the December 5 issue was just the kind of writing I have learned to expect from this fine periodical. For one thing, it was gorgeously written. Talbot is a great storyteller with a good eye for compelling characters. More importantly, though, she makes it very clear that the movement to teach intelligent design alongside or instead of evolution in schools is about more than teaching “both sides of the issue.”

One thing Talbot points out in her article is that, regardless of what some proponents of intelligent design might actually believe—and regardless of what they want the rest of us to believe they believe—intelligent design and creationism were fundamentally interchangeable for leading members of the Dover school board. Their objections to Darwin were religious, rather than scientific, and they regarded intelligent design as a way to get God—their own particular Christian God—into public schools. Talbot describes the situation in Talbot, and the birth of intelligent design, in this Q&A.

This underscores the basic problem with teaching intelligent design in science classes: Intelligent design is not science. This is not my judgment; this is a simple fact. Science is a naturalistic system, one fueled by observation and experimentation and guided by empirical reasoning. Intelligent design isn’t science because there’s no way to test its hypotheses. As Talbot reports, the defenders of intelligent design admit as much.

To teach intelligent design in a biology classroom requires a paradigm shift; basically, it requires the substitution of a system of belief for a system of knowledge. Many of the supporters of intelligent design know this, and they approve. Talbot’s story includes an anecdote about a Dover civics teacher who wrote to the school board asking, facetiously, if they had any advice for someone preparing to teach students about the Supreme Court. The head of the school board replied that they were planning to update the social studies curriculum next.

Obviously, the fight for intelligent design is about more than evolution. It’s about more than biology or the sciences in general. The New York Times recently ran a couple of articles about Christian high schools and their struggles to get their courses recognized by state universities. Basically, the universities are arguing that Christ-centered pedagogy might be good catechism, but it’s seldom good American history or English lit. One of these articles includes excerpts from some disputed textbooks, and it’s not too hard to see that the universities have a point. Consider, for example, this excerpt from Elements of Literature for Christian Schools, published by Bob Jones University:

Dickinson's year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary further shaped her "religious" views. During her stay at the school, she learned of Christ but wrote of her inability to make a decision for Him. She could not settle "the one thing needful." A thorough study of Dickinson's works indicates that she never did make that needful decision. Several of her poems show a presumptuous attitude concerning her eternal destiny and a veiled disrespect for authority in general. Throughout her life she viewed salvation as a gamble, not a certainty. Although she did view the Bible as a source of poetic inspiration, she never accepted it as an inerrant guide to life.

This critique of Emily Dickinson looks a lot like the critique of Mark Twain included in the same text, and they both resemble criticism of Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives found in United States History for Christian Schools, also from Bob Jones University.

The educational worldview presented by these textbooks is one in which God is the right answer—the only right answer—to every possible question. There is nothing here to foster real critical thinking or problem-solving. There’s no room for creativity or indepent ideas. Faith, in the form of received wisdom, takes the place of actual thought. It’s chilling to imagine public schools in which this might be the educational norm, and it’s heartening to know that all the Dover school board members who voted for the anti-evolution speech were voted out of office in the last election.

December 8, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

“Is Narnia a place of Christian faith or a place to get away from it?”

The Lion, the Witch and the WardrobeI loved the Chronicles of Narnia when I was a kid. If memory serves, the last time I read my family’s copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the book had to be held together with a rubber band because pages were falling out.

Christianity did not factor much in my upbringing. I had nothing in particular against Jesus or God, but what little I knew about Christian belief and practice just seemed kind of creepy and weird. That the only obviously religious person in my family, my great-grandmother, was a maudlin alcoholic with a pronounced mean streak and a naïve, desperate faith only reinforced my childhood views. I mention all this by way of pointing out that, when my parents recommended the Narnia books, they recommended them as fantasy, not as Christian allegory.

By the time I understood that some folks read C.S. Lewis’s fiction as Bible stories my childhood fear of religion had turned into curiosity: I was a religion major concentrating in New Testament studies. I knew a great deal about Christianity at this point, enough to know, for instance, that Aslan makes for a truly crappy Christ figure. Jesus was the suffering servant, the sacrificial lamb. He was not lord of the jungle. I was also struck by how very odd it is to include fauns and Silenus and such in a Christian fable. And I recalled how very much I didn’t enjoy The Last Battle when I was a kid; its apocalyptic existentialism and eternal ending really freaked me out, just like imagining nuclear war or trying to envision heaven freaked me out. This is to say that, from my perspective, the Lewis’s novels were least successful when they were most Christian.

I’ve been thinking about all of this as I’ve watched the progress of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe: The Movie, which is, it seems, an effort on the part of Disney to make up for all the dollars they lost when they passed on The Lord of the Rings, and to tap into the “Christian” audience—that is, all the people who paid to see The Passion of the Christ and who have made the Left Behind books bestsellers. And Walden Media—Disney’s partner in the project—is an explicitly evangelical entertainment company.

Given that the Christian apologists seem to have won Narnia for now, Adam Gopnik’s recent New Yorker piece on Lewis is a provocative reassessment of the situation. It’s also a lovely piece of criticism, and it introduced me to Lewis’s apparently quite brilliant scholarly work on the interplay of religion and imagination in art. Really, it’s one of the best things I’ve read in awhile.

November 22, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Archival Interview: Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker

In my last posting, I linked to a handy religious-inclination quiz, and a few of my friends used it to discover their own scientifically-determined spiritual home. Apparently, my friends are mostly pagan.

Anyhow, my friend Kate was surprised to see that Christianity came in dead last for her. This was surprising, I think, because she—like me—spent her undergraduate years studying Christianity and admires many facets of this religion. She concluded that “when you pick and choose the parts of Christianity that you believe, you can't really expect someone else to see you as a Christian.” Kate raises an interesting theological point: Who gets to decide what it means to be a Christian?

Proverbs of AshesThis reminded me of an interview I did several years ago with a Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker—feminists, theologians, and practicing Christians. They had just written a book, Proverbs of Ashes, in which they assert that the traditional emphasis on Christ’s death creates a culture of violence. They suggest that, instead, Christians focus on Jesus’s message—a call for love and compassion—rather than his grisly sacrifice. It’s a provocative argument, and one that I find very attractive.

Of course, I realize that my views on Christian doctrine and practice probably don’t count for much, seeing as how I’m an agnosto-pagan with a fondness for Buddhism.

April 8, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Which Religion Is the Right One for You? (New Version)

Last week, I was both crazy busy—two exams and a paper due—and a tad under the weather. I think we can all agree that such a combination of phenomena is, in a word, bullshit. I did, however, find the time to do a little soul-searching, by which I mean that I took an online quiz entitled “Which religion is the right one for you? (new version)”.

I was not at all shocked to learn that I am agnostic, nor was I previously unaware of the appeal of Buddhism and Paganism. I was, however, a tad surprised to see Judaism at the bottom of the percentile pack, as I think it’s a wonderful religion—so bookish! I was even more disconcerted to see that I am theoretically as inclined towards Satanism as I am towards the Hebrew faith, as I generally generally regard Satanists as idiots (except for Jayne Mansfield, who was hot), while I’m just wild about Jews.

Anyhoo, you can see my results below and take the quiz yourself at QuizFarm.com.


April 4, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack