Friday, October 30, 2009

New Age Girls (and Boys), Quakers and sweat lodges

I finished a book by Deborah O'Keefe called Good Girl Messages: How Young Women were Misled by their Favorite Books. In it, O'Keefe is critical of much of girls' literature produced between 1850 and 1950 because of the passivity it celebrated in girls and young women, manifested in such poses as fainting, reclining, smiling, submitting, weakening, wasting and dying.

O'Keefe goes on to maintain that very little genuine evil exists in classic girls' literature. Many books relay the message that a girl with a radiant, upbeat, smiling and helpful personality can melt crusty hearts and inspire a new level of generosity, vision and gentleness in formerly irascible authority figures. O'Keefe cites Pollyanna as one of the fictional heroines whose golden, sunbeam personality and determination to find the positive in everything changes her environment.

When I was reading this account of Pollyanna, I was nagged by a memory: at one point I happened to read an article in a New Age publication. A woman wrote about her elementary school daughter coming home from school moping every day because "her teacher didn't like her." The mother had no patience with this whining and told the daughter that if she smiled at the teacher more and was nice to her--if she practiced the good karma of positive thinking and sent that out into the world --the whole situation would change. The daughter took the advice, went out of her way to be nice to the teacher and voila, happy ending!

I have to say I was exasperated by the article. I have no doubt that a positive attitude can help us make our way through the world to some extent, but to elevate that to the status of life strategy seems to me inane at best and dangerous at worst. It's based on the assumption that we will spend our entire lives in safe, secure, middle class world where evil is kept firmly in check. It essentially assumes there is no real evil in the world, just something more akin to bad mood or a bad hair day. Nothing a smile won't dissolve!

The denial of evil is one of my chief problems with New Age philosophy, a philosophy which I think has seeped into Quakerism. I remember a woman standing up in our meeting during the height of the Darfur crisis (or at least the height of media coverage of the crisis) and stating she had not believed in the existence of evil until she started reading about the genocide, but now, even though she hated the word, she could draw no other conclusion but that there is evil in the world.

I wondered --OK, I was being judgmental-- "what universe has this woman been living in?" but then I thought, I'm glad she is seeing the light. Looking back, I realize she was courageous. I think it was hard for her to stand up and risk sounding fundamentalist or narrow minded. There was a denial of Self-- a surrender of her own will that the world be in happy harmony -- in speaking her truth. She was acknowledging that she could no longer live in that false reality. And oh, do we long for that to be the reality, that day when all tears will be wiped away!

I appreciate the Quaker emphasis on finding that of God in everyone, emphasizing grace over sin and understanding every person as having direct access to the light of the Holy Spirit. But if this slides into denying the existence of evil, then we become a society of Pollyannas, hoping to smile injustice away or to melt cruelty because of our radiant "patterns" of good living. Da Nile is a long river.

Humans repeatedly get caught up in social systems that make it easy for them to do heinous things. This does not mean that certain people are inherently evil, and others not. However, it might be a worthy goal, in the words of Dorothy Day, to build a society in which it is easier for people to be good. We can't do that by denying evil exists or by thinking we can eradicate evil with the vibes of our positive personalities.

One of the chief goals of religion is to teach people how to live in the world as it really is, not the world of distortions we create out of own desires. This is hard. It means we have to be transformed to see the distortions for what they are. It takes time, at least that's what I have found, which seems obvious, but read on ...

What most repels some Quakers I have talked to about the Bible is it's seemingly endless litany of unspeakable violence and suffering. Some Quakers want to create their own Bible out of the nice verses--the Peaceable Kingdom, the Sermon on the Mount, 1 Corinthians 13. I like these parts too. But unfortunately, the ultra violence of the Bible more accurately reflects the world we still live in. By telling us about that world and the often mistaken ways characters in that story behaved, the Bible offers us strategies to deal with reality. It doesn't tell us the false story that this world is great. Mostly, it tells us that living in this world is hard and that we have to sacrifice to build a better world, but that if we work at it we can build a community of love that is stronger than all the evil around us.

In contrast, the New Age worldview offers religion lite. You fly in for a weekend and you fly out "spiritually renewed." A New York Times story recently ran about three people dying in a sweat lodge run by a New Age guru named James Arthur Ray. Ray's retreat typifies what's wrong with this kind of so-called spirituality: middle-aged people paying more than $9,000--$9,000!!-- to fly to Arizona for a short course in becoming Spiritual Warriors that included the deadly sweat lodge only loosely based on Native American models.

A website the New York Times linked to at is eloquent in its pleas for people not to confuse New Age shams with genuine Native American religious practice: "Learning medicine ways takes decades and must be done with great caution and patience out of respect for the sacred. Any offer to teach you all you need to know in a weekend seminar or two is wishful thinking at best, fraud at worst. ..."

The Native Americans are saying just what serious spokespeople from other religious traditions say: Religion is hard! It takes time! Decades! It's messy, it's dirty, it's perilous, it changes us in ways that challenge our egos... we don't so much erase our egos as have to jump over the barrier they put up. That's why faith is so often likened to a seed or a plant (Christian tradition) that gets planted in "dirt" and takes a long time to sprout, or seen as something that has to take place with in the cycle of Nature (Native Americanism), not in a room, not in a weekend. It comes with messy traditions that we don't want to touch... but that's part of what we grapple with, the darker sides of our collective humanity ... and yet some Quakers seem to want to just build a high-walled garden and pull out all the "pretty" parts of the "spiritual life" for themselves and have a little dabble of Native Americanism, a few verses from the ever-popular poet Hafiz, some watered-down Zen Buddhism, a taste of Roman Catholic mysticism through Gerard Manley Hopkins ... how can that work?

Anyway, to what extent do you think Quakers are in Pollyanna mode when we "speak truth to power?"

Saturday, October 24, 2009

"right size it"

In yesterday's blog, I posed the question; If having fewer material goods is not "a lower standard living," how do we more accurately describe it?

An answer struck me. I remember that during the recession of the early 1990s, I was working for a computer company (ie, private industry). Many of our business associates were laying people off and shrinking their businesses. They insisted that they were not, let me repeat not, "down-sizing." They were "right sizing." I remember it being a faux pas even to say "downsizing."

Well, that was all rather ridiculous, but I think the term "right sizing" is in fact apt to describe a move to simpler existence. What do you think?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

small towns

In Another Turn of the Crank, a book of essays by Wendell Berry published in 1995, he entreats us to build small, sustainable communities that recognize the interconnectedness of all people. He also advocates seeing the earth's ecosystem--air, water, soil, plants and animals--as at one with humankind.

Berry notes the environmental extremes and disjunctions on both sides of the equation. He abhors the strip mining and other degradations to the natural habitat of his native Eastern Kentucky and other places , but at the same time, he pushes back against the desire of some environmentalists for protected land that's so pristine humans can't use it. He argues that we live in a strange tit-for-tat system in which it becomes "OK" to rape and pillage part of the environment because you have "preserved" another part. "Preservation" of part of the land isn't a magic formula that offsets destroying another part, he argues. In fact, he says, both practices tend to be inhuman(e) in the sense that humans are Xed out of the environment.

Rather than striking a balance between unused, untouched land and ruined land, he says, we would be better off to use all land--or almost all land--in respectful, sustainable and environmentally sounds ways.

As I was reading Berry, I was reminded of Wolf Guindon, a Quaker who settled with several other Quakers in Monteverde in Costa Rica in 1950 because the country had no draft. Guindon became involved in the movement during the 1970s and beyond to save the rainforest he lived in and was instrumental in helping to set up vast preserves, such as the Children's Eternal Rainforest. However, he clashed at times with environmentalists who wanted to keep the preserved rainforests entirely pure. Wolf envisioned certain areas set up as picnic grounds and for swimming, so that the local population could enjoy the beauty.

I tend to agree with Wendell and Wolf that it's better to coexist with and enjoy the nature around us than to place it off limits to human touch. It seems better to teach people how to live respectfully in an eco-system than to forbid entry.

Today I read an interview in Sun magazine with James Howard Kunstler, who made largely the same point: to survive after peak oil, which he says is now, Americans will have to live differently, in smaller walkable communities that very much resemble the small towns of yesteryear and may in fact be those towns. He sees globalization not as inevitable but as something that will end when oil prices rise high enough to make shipping goods halfway around the globe economically unfeasible. (A friend from Singapore offered an example of the absurdity of globalization. (Maybe we need friends from other places to see what we view as "normal.") He and his wife, who own a house in Maryland, went to Home Depot and bought bags of gravel to put under their deck. The gravel was imported from China. My friend couldn't get over it. 'They shipped rocks halfway around the world!' Yes, absurd, absurd and yet we all understand the economics.) After reason is restored and it once again becomes crazy to ship gravel across the earth, local farming, local communities and local industry will undergo a rebirth, sez Kunstler.

I have to say that for years I have dreamed of living in a place where you could walk everywhere you needed to go and where trains connected communities. Kunstler calls this move away from the car--and the smaller houses we will have to live in and the gardening we will have to do-- a decline in the American standard of living. But is it a decline or simply different? To me, it sounds better. I spent enough time in a minivan chauffering children to activities not to want to do that again. I love the idea of children being able to walk themselves to little league practice or dance class or me being able to walk to market. I loved my time living in a small house and preferred it to the bigger home we moved into after our family grew.

On the other hand, much as we might like the idea of small town communities, they can also be bastions of cruelty and narrow-mindedness. We associate lynchings with small towns. In 17th century England, women in small towns who complained about abuse or injustice by the men in power there were sometimes labeled witches and burned or hanged. Today, we rely on larger government entities to control the abuses of the small town dictator. However, if we are going to go back to living in small communities, rather than rely on the government (though I do believe in Aristotle's model of a stronger force protecting the everyday person from the abuses of the petty tyrant) I believe we must find ways to structure our communities with kindness, compassion, creativity and opportunity.

So two different questions: If having fewer material goods is not "a lower standard living," how do we more accurately describe it? Second, if we are going to be living in smaller communities, what are some ways to keep them from becoming abusive?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Persimmon Cake

Our persimmons are now "well-frosted"--or at least, somewhat frosted--and so I picked some. I've discovered they're best when they turn bright orange, almost the color of a cherry tomato, and are beginning to shrivel.

When I'd gathered enough, I whipped them into a pulp in the food processor and made a persimmon cake from a recipe I found on the Web.

I served it at the Quaker Writing group meeting this evening. It was the color and texture of an English plum pudding, a moist, dense cake. The "tasters" --aka the writing group--liked it. I was glad.

I was informed that you can frost persimmons by picking them and putting them in the freezer. Now why didn't I think of that? I was also told that November and December are more the months for persimmons, but we have had a cold snap recently.

In any case, the golden and orange persimmon globes are colorful and pretty in the tree. People in Barnesville with persimmon experience tell me I should try an actual persimmon pudding. Maybe I will.

This is all the more thrilling for me as I am reading a book now called Jane Austen and Food. After her father died, according to this book, Jane and her mother and her sister Cassandra lived in a "cottage" called Chawton, with a big garden surrounded by high walls. They grew pears and greengages and many other fruits (and vegetables) and made their own jams, jellies and preserves. So as I baked with persimmons, I liked thinking that Jane Austen would have done the same.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The importance of we insignificants

At Stillwater Meeting this morning, there were a flurry--if you can have a "flurry" in a Quaker meeting --of messages about the importance a small, seemingly insignificant person can have in carrying out God's will for the world. I find it interesting that so many of us were on the same thought trajectory in this meeting and cannot help but wonder--and believe--that God was speaking through his people, and that these thoughts were the the thoughts of the Holy Spirit as it filled our room with its palpable presence.

The messages went well into the afterthoughts section following meeting for worhsip, so I did not speak my thoughts, which felt as if they were a message too, and which were on the same theme. I have been reading Bob Dixon's two-volume work on sexism, classism and racism in (primarily English) children's literature, written in the 1970s. He documents outrageous examples of racism in books still in print in England at the time (I hope they are out of print by now), such as the story of the black doll who is disliked and rejected because of his black face until, at the end, as a reward for helping a sprite, his face is washed pink in the rain and then all the other toys and his owner decide they like the new, "attractive," him. In the section on sexism, Dixon discusses a recurring theme in girls' literature, which could be summed up as "punishment of the tomboy." In many books, a lively, assertive, active girl--a tomboy--disobeys adults who tell her not to do something physical and as result, has a terrible accident which lays her up for months or years in bed and/or a wheelchair, until she learns the lessons of docility and sweet acceptance of her lot. As Dixon puts it about yet another of this type of girl's book, "Yes, you guessed it. The wheelchair for her."

While it's appalling the ways in which stereotypes were (and are) taught and reinforced, I thought DIxon was partially wrong when he also blamed "religion"--in the vast majority of these cases the religion he has in mind must have been Christianity--for reinforcing sex, class and racial hierarchies. He places this blame offhandedly or incidentally--he's not really concerned at all with religion, but seems to add it as an afterthought--and he reminded me that it's true that Christianity has often been twisted to support an unjust status quo. As Dixon puts it, religion can reinforce the notion that everyone must stay in his or her supposedly God-given place, and not challenge an unfair manmade social system that assigns certain groups of people second-class status.

A cursory glance at the Bible shows that in God's kingdom of ordering and assigning of tasks there is no second-class based on race, class or sex. The Bible is replete with stories of the lowly--the second-class citizens in the eyes of the world--being selected as the chosen ones. For example, the "weaker" sex rises to the occasion in the stories of Miriam, Ruth, Deborah, Abigail, Esther, and Mary Magdalene, just to name the few that pop to mind almost instantly. Joseph is sold into slavery (definitely a step into a lower class) before he saves Egypt and then Israel from mass starvation. Jesus is explicitly the son of a nobody. Peter and Andrew are fishermen. Finally, the story Acts, of course, shows the breakdown of an ethnic stereotype that reserved the outpouring of the Holy Spirit for bona fide Jews. Every human, the early apostles discover, can be touched by God's spirit. We learn there is no male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek in the kingdom of God. Hierarchy is erased. People will, obviously, stay male or female and keep their ethnicities, but these will no longer be used to assign places higher or lower in the status hierarchy. How has this message gotten so messed up????

We can help dispel the false constructions of Christianity used to uphold privilege and oppression by building churches and meetings that continue to enact the Biblical stories of equality, simplicity, integrity and inclusion. As the many messages in Meeting for Worship expressed, we insignificant people need to keep on keeping on --like the Hobbits in the Lord of Rings (one example used in a message), the small bird threatened by a hawk (another example) even when we are discouraged and don' t want our tasks, and don't think it's possible to succeed with all the darkness in the world crushing down on us. Blogs such as the one on Quakers and social class, and books like the recent--I'm taking a stab at the title-- Fit for Friends, not for Friendship, can keep us focused on the ways classism and racism can infect our communities. We can continue to spread messages of compassion, love, joy, equality, kindness and mutual support. We can continue to assert that these are the true messages of the Bible. OK, this is terribly preachy--I cringe on rereading it and of course, these are just my thoughts, not what anyone "should" do or would even want to do, and to me they seem so obvious I wonder why I am writing this !!! but then I think of all the ways religion has been and can be distorted to beat people down--but OK. I'll stop. :)

Slightly off topic, but one question: My sense is that very little sexism infects the Society of Friends. Am I wrong about this?

Friday, October 9, 2009

George Fox: Christ, but not to rule over them

“And let the peace of God rule in your hearts.” (Col. 3:15):
The world would have a Christ, but not to rule over them; the nature of the world is above Christ in man until Christ hath subdued that nature in man.
George Fox, from "Mind The Heavenly Treasure," a collection of devotions.

"The world would have a Christ, but not to rule over them." Isn't this the heart of our troubles: that we want Jesus, "but not to rule over us?" Isn't that the issue in the Society of Friends--that many want the beautiful aesthetic of Jesus, the love, the joy, the peace, the forgiveness, but within the context of a Jesus molded to our liking, so that we can control him? Isn't that at the core of our endless debating and overthinking about the resurrection, the Virgin birth, the divinity of Christ? That we want to reduce him a to great sage, put him on the level with other great sages, on a level with us? We're drawn to him ... there's an irresistible magnetism that reaches out across the ages and pulls us in towards him ...but we resist the implications of this power.

It's very few, however, who will diss Jesus openly,who are not on some level, in awe of him. We'll attack Paul without a second thought, as we will the institution of the church, but when it comes to Jesus, we treat him gently. Even Hitler was in awe of him--or at least afraid of his followers. Instead, like us, he attacked Paul: "that Jew" as he called him, the one who turned the "Aryan warrior" Jesus into something else. Aren't we still doing that? Not attacking Paul for being Jewish, but attacking Paul or the Church for making Jesus uncomfortable to us instead of confronting the idea that Jesus himself may be uncomfortable to us?

We are, as Ben Witherington put it, a Jesus-haunted culture.

We "would have a Christ." We love the idea of Christ, and if not Jesus himself, then his surrogates--Fox, Woolman, Francis of Assisi. So many Quakers would, ironically, want to start the faith at Fox, as if Fox were not explicitly living out the words of Jesus ... or want to start with a Jesus as man, Jesus stripped of the difficulties, the miracles, the grandeur, the majesty.

We would have a Christ but not to rule over us.

What if we, wildly, radically, impossibly, behaved as if --"as if"--isn't that what faith is?-- the whole story were true and not pick out the parts that allow us superiority? Of course, people don't rise from the dead and ascend to heaven after walking for a time on the earth. Of course, virgins don't give birth. There's nothing radical or remarkable in asserting that these things can't be true. It's completely ordinary to reject them. (Paul knew this. That's why he called himself "a fool for Christ.") The extraordinary move is to recognize that the seeming impossible might be real because that is to recognize that the world and the universe as we know them might be more miraculous--and multidimensional and sacred and wild-- than they seem. Doing that involves a paradigm shift.

What if we would have a Christ to rule over us?

Then, Fox says, we would have peace in our hearts. And from that peace in our hearts would flow peace within the Society of Friends. Do you agree with this?