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?"


Anonymous said...


I have seen some evidence of what you're talking about, and I think that a great deal of it comes from people who aren't confronted by the adversary very often...for example, it's very easy to have a vague "peace testimony" as a person who is privileged to live far from the threat of violence. It's easy to think that we humans can change the world on our own when you are used to having the power/money to get what you need/want. I have to admit that with my stable, wholesome midwestern upbringing I grew up thinking that people were pretty great. But as I came of age, came out as a gay man, struggled with mental illness, and now live in a city that a lot of folks liken to a slice of the developing world in the outlook has changed. I know there is an adversary and I have seen his work. I know what Barclay is talking about when he says that we are all fallen, depraved, dead. Maybe like Fox we have to have that moment of despairing when we realize that we need a Savior. Could be that that woman who spoke in meeting was becoming poor in spirit and closer to God.

-Tyler Hampton.

ML1959 said...

It seems to me a matter of balance. There is some truth to the idea "what you believe to be true you create". For example if you believe the world is against you will tend to look for evidence to support this belief, and will thus find and in sense create your victimhood. But one can take this too far, as Emerging Quaker well pointed out.

If you are interesting in going further in the direction EG has pointed, but from a non-theistic perspective, check out Barbara Ehrenreich's new book: "Bright-sided: How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America"

Diane said...


Thank you for that comment!

ML 1959,

Thank you for the Ehrenreich reference! I agree that a positive outlook is a good thing, but, as you and I say ... to an extent.

RantWoman said...

Friend speaks my mind!

As for powerful female figures, I was heavy into Nancy Drew, Jo from Little Women, and Madame Curie. Okay the last was kind of a maniacal Polish nationalist with weird obsessions related to her science and a husband who died tragically. At least it wasn't sugarcoated.

Hystery said...


I love this post. You speak on a topic that is very important to me and you do so with great skill. Thank you.

Diane said...


I loved Nancy Drew and I loved Jo from Little Women! I didn't know much about Madame Curie. But if you are "into" Nancy Drew, there's my blog that's kind of a mash up of jane austen, nancy drew, emily bronte, donna parker -- and it occurs to me we need to get Jo March in there somewhere.

Diane said...



Micah Bales said...

Thank you for this post. It is true to my own experience.

Micah Bales

Jeff said...

I understand what you are saying concerning “religion-lite”. This was pretty much my experience while attending a Unitarian-Universalist church. We would go through the rituals of many different religious traditions, but would never do more than that. Like the stereotype of eating Chinese food, an hour later and I was hungry for more.

I have been very happy since finding our Quaker Meeting and feel like I’ve found something where the roots run deep.

As for Pollyannas and thinking you can change the evil in the world by sending out good vibes or beating drums or whatever. I agree this is naive and doomed to failure. But even as we recognize evil and stand in opposition to it, isn’t it still important to look for that of God in our enemies? Isn’t that one of the things that can make a religious path so difficult? That we are tasked to recognize that our enemy is also our brother/sister? Not some nameless/faceless other. I may have to stand and even fight against evil, but I do so with a reluctant heart.

I was working out at the gym a few months back and overheard two young men talking. One was in the military and was hoping to be deployed soon. He was itching to see some action.

In his words, “I’ve had all this training man. I’m ready to jump out of a plane and shoot something.”

He didn’t say “someone”. He said “something”.

We can not smile away the evils of the world, but we shouldn’t risk hardening our hearts either.

Diane said...

Hi Jeff,

I agree with you that we have to love our enemies. Love, paradoxically, is probably our greatest "weapon" in combating evil, but it does demand speaking truth to power and being willing to die (but not kill) for our beliefs.

Mx. MB said...

As a person who has only been a Friend for 23 years, attended E.S.R, and all that after a military career dodging death on a regular basis and teaching folks how to do it more effectively, acting for good and standing in the face of evil seems like a no-brainer. Doing real good is hard. It is risky. Fortunately, there are doctors and hospitals to patch us up when evil seems to win. It is prophetic gift to face evil and call it for what it is, knowing that the prophet is usually forfeiting his or her own personal safety. Yet, he who embraces evil as a friend, speaks to its vulnerability and leads it down a path of rebirth and renewal, has a much higher survival rate. Even then there are no guarantees. Change is a fearful spectre to most people good and evil. Failing to change when it is needed may blur the line between them allowing evil to undercut the good. Friends are as guilty of that as anyone. What such congregations are comfortable with becomes more important than doing the graceful thing.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Very thought provoking post, and I especially appreciate the emphasis on how hard being true to faith and the faith is. But paradoxically that begins to result in something beyond our grasp or understanding. That is in a sense of God and of being led by God. In Jesus the way is hard, because it is the way of Jesus, the way of the cross.

As for Quakers, I'm learning from you on this. I've known very few. The Inner Light seems to me to need subjected to authority. But it isn't only Scripture, though Scripture must be the chief means of how this knowledge or discernment in testing the spirits, is derived, I think.

Rudy said...

Is "Anne of Green Gables" on your list? I think the traveling salesman that sells her the hair dye was evil :)
The classic "boys" books, like Treasure Island, deal with evil pretty directly.

Whenever I use the phrase "they're evil" (usually about some corporation, or politician) in his hearing, my older son will correct me: "Dad! We're Quakers! we don't call people evil!" (For some reason "evil" was popping to the top of my lexicon a lot this last year.)

So I say, yeah, you're right, everyone has the Inner Light, but still... some people do evil things. They don't listen to the Inner Light. It's harder to explain how corporations can be evil without boring him with my reading of Walter Wink so I haven't gotten into that so much with him.

We were talking the other day about how power hurts people, and how some people are rewarded by wielding power, because he read "1984" last year, and we were talking about the "Torture is Wrong" banner on our Meetinghouse and why we haven't taken it down.

For my part, I'm one of those Quakers who'd like to trim the Bible down (keep the Epistle of James too, the Gospels, and Proverbs, and Job, big chunks of the Psalms, and Acts, and Isaiah and OK, most of it). But the tribal mythology in some parts doesn't just deal with evil and warfare, it promotes evil and warfare. "God" orders warfare and genocide. Put Bob Dylan's "With God on Our Side" or Mark Twain's "The War Prayer" into my imaginary Bible instead.

Chris S. said...

I must object to the specific inclusion of sweat lodges in your title based on one random example, if for no other reason than the fantastic sweat lodges that George Price used to run at PYM and PYMYF events.

Diane said...


Thank for this: It is prophetic gift to face evil and call it for what it is, knowing that the prophet is usually forfeiting his or her own personal safety.

And this: Yet, he who embraces evil as a friend, speaks to its vulnerability and leads it down a path of rebirth and renewal, has a much higher survival rate.

Diane said...


I agree with you that the Inner Light has to be under authority, which I think sometimes gets lost in our individualistic society.

Diane said...


Anne of the Green Gables is on my list! And thanks for your comment.


Including sweat lodges wasn't random--I wanted to point to the significance of the three people recently killed in a New Age sweat lodge. The "spiritual warrior" program ripped the sweat lodge out of its context to try to give people an easy (and expensive) religion-lite experience. To me, that was a crucial metaphor for the dangers of de-contextualizing the religious experience. However, I can't speak to the sweat lodge issues you refer to as I don't know enough about what they are.

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Anonymous said...

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Diane said...

Thanks Karim

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