Monday, May 31, 2010

memorial day, 2010

Although I think it's legitimate to mourn the mis-uses of violence that have been perpetrated over the years by our extremely ginormous military, today is a good day to remember that America is in many ways much, much less war-like than many powerful nations of the past and present.

It is also good to pause and remember that this is a broken world, and that there are moments when we can be grateful for those who have fought to protect innocents in danger. I, for one, am grateful to live in a society where I can rely on a police force that is only mildly corrupt and can be mostly counted on in a crisis to protect my family from those who would do violence against it. There are places in the world (like the favelas of Brasil, for instance) where the innocent must fear violence from the police themselves. While it is very difficult even in retrospect to know whether governments have taken up the sword for justice or against it, the people on the ground who end up using that sword are often men and women of great courage, who willingly accept that they may in fact die by it.

My great-grandfather and both my grandparents on my mother's side fought in WWI and WWII, respectively. Although America's motivation for entry into those wars is perhaps suspect, them there Nazis had to be stopped. So here is me, thanking those who for a variety of reasons entered into an ugly thing and stopped a greater ugliness from spreading, often at the cost of their own lives.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

more slacking

Many are the times I have advocated the reading of the SLACKTIVIST on here, and while he doesn't really need my recommendation (he recently stated that his blog had passed six million totally unique visitors - pause for fit of jealous rage), I thought I would once again give him the big hoo-rah! by recommending strongly that you go read THIS POST.

Now, one of the annoying things that this slacktivist fellow does (his name is Fred) is make me uncomfortable. I don't always like or agree with where his crazy, hippie, pinko-commie ideas take him, and I don't like what I sometimes feel is his constantly annoyed tone.

Stillandbuthowever, THIS POST to which I have just referred and which you are about to go read has a really interesting perspective on how a thoughtful person might read the Bible, and a really, really, really interesting perspective on very specific ways in which a thoughtful person might go about investing his or her money.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

a slightly more erudite explanation of why christians (in a very narrow sense) are sucky artists

The following is stolen directly from the blog of a Dr. Richard Beck, professor of Psychology at Abilene Christian University. In the purloined essay, Dr. Beck is discussing James Davison Hunter's book "To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World."


The beauteous thing for me about thieving on the internet is that I don't have to read books with long titles (score!). The bonus for you is that you get me selecting manageable chunks from long blog posts about long books with long titles (double score!).  


I like that, and I like the way this essay helps to explain why books like the "Left Behind" series and movies like "Fireproof" are so popular in the evangelical subculture despite being so, er, "not-good," and why in the absence of cultural clout, Christians have taken to betraying the ideals of Jesus (I would argue) and grubbing for political power. Enjoy.


---


"The point is, cultural change occurs via the work of cultural elites. A slowly rising flood of books, editorials, movies, and cable interviews that slowly change how we see the world. The settled consensus begins to be challenged intellectually and artistically and, eventually, the culture changes. Think about cultural changes in America. Abolitionism during the Civil War. The Civil Rights movement. The 60s. Thinks about how elites drove all those changes. The culture changed because sermons changed. Newspaper editorials changed. Books got published. Entertainers challenged the status quo.

And all this creates a bit of a problem for Christians, particularly evangelicals, who have (not illegitimate) problems with the existence of elites in their midst. And yet, this frustration simply recognizes the truth of the matter: There are so 
few of them and, yet, they have the cultural power to define reality.

In the face of this reality Christians have done something very curious. Rather than intentionally trying to produce cultured elites--as the Jewish and gay communities have produced--Christians have largely 
abandoned the institutions of cultural power (think about New York and Hollywood) to create their own subculture. Their own music, movies, books, and TV shows. And as Hunter notes, the output of this cultural production has been absolutely astounding. Because, like we said, there are a lot of Christians out there! Think of a book like The Shack. A publishing phenomenon. And yet, a Christian sensation like this leaves hardly a cultural ripple, being mainly consumed by the Christian subculture. Plus, a great deal of the Christian cultural output is kitsch. Christian writing, music and art is generally perceived to be of low quality. And if you've been in a Christian bookstore recently (I was yesterday) you understand this assessment.

In short, Christians do have a vibrant culture. It's just what Hunter calls a "weak culture." Christian cultural production is 
strongest where the leverage for cultural change is weakest. Hunter on this conclusion:

In terms of the cultural economy, however, Christians in America today have institutional strength and vitality exactly in the lower and peripheral areas of cultural production. Against the prevailing view, the main reason why Christian believers today (from various communities) have not had the influence in the culture to which they have aspired is not that they don't believe enough, or try hard enough, or care enough, or think Christianly enough, or have the right worldview, but rather because they have been absent from the areas in which the greatest influence in the culture is exerted. The culture-producing institutions of historical Christianity are largely marginalized in the economy of culture formation in North America. Its cultural capital is greatest where leverage in the larger culture is weakest.
Oddly, rather than working to enter the arenas of cultural power many, mostly evangelical, Christians actively foster and take pride in an anti-intellectualism. Rather than creating a richer Christian culture, the goal is to battle "the elites." Given this strategy, how could you possibly hope to win the culture war? If you foster anti-intellectualism and take pride in kitsch then how are you going to win this battle to "name reality"?


Well, you basically give up on trying to change culture and attempt to grab the only other power available to you: The government. Because while you don't have cultural capital (those damned elites have that!) you do have thenumbers and you can turn churches into voting collations.


And so Christianity goes political."




---


As a final note, I would add that despite what "Christians" have given their detractors reason to believe, Christianity is not inherently antithetical to good art (witness my own painting - hah, hah). It is just that they have consistently chosen agenda-based art-making, which by its very nature despises the excellence that is inherent in the process required to become an intellectual and a cultural elite. 


Some might argue that this doesn't matter - that "Christians" should be allowed to fill their own little cesspool of bad art. But as Madeleine L'Engle said in "Walking on Water", "bad art is bad theology." If you make the pursuit of excellence secondary to the acceptance of a pre-determined "right" answer, you will end up betraying the truth, and Christ will come to be associated in the broader cultural context with bombastic, sucky, deceptive art. Excellence and Truth must be pursued with simultaneous passion - anything less is a betrayal of both. That is why, if someone asks me if I am a Christian artist, I pause and mutter something about the weather. And if they keep bugging me, I tell them I am a part of the "community of the broken."

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Shop Like Jesus

My smarmy and endlessly off-color treeplanting friend Jon used to gleefully say that Jesus was "the great shit disturber." I call it "gleefully" because, like me, Jon was raised in a highly conservative Christian missionary environment where putting the words "shit" and "Jesus" in the same sentence was anathema -- a gold-plated, first-class, one-way ticket to the darkest, most burningest regions of Hell. Having become disillusioned by this environment at an early age, Jon took great pleasure in disturbing my more delicate sensibilities at every available opportunity.

In the estimation of my childhood community, just quoting Jon probably has me licked by flames, but the truth is, I don't really care. First, because while I question the wisdom of savaging a cultural convention just to shock and annoy those of a more "delicate" moral constitution, the prohibition against the word "shit" is most definitely a cultural convention -- one which, while I adhere to it somewhat religiously (and hypocritically), I have heard violated of late by countless conservative Christians. Either the culture has changed, or these folks have gotten tired of the hypocrisy of acting all uppity about the word while playing fast-and-loose with its more socially acceptable cousins (crap, poop, turd).

My second reason for ignoring convention and risking the scorn of people I love is that if we can overlook his "earthy" terminology, the fact is that Jon is right. I've spent a fair bit of time reading about Jesus, and the fellow seemed to always have been jumping from one set of toes to the next -- almost like he thought it was just as important to disturb the comfortable as it was to comfort the disturbed.

One of the main ways Jesus did this toe-stepping was by talking about money, because the way a person uses money is usually a pretty good indicator of what they value in life. If you've spent too much time around average North Americans who claim to follow Jesus Christ you might find this hard to believe, but Jesus himself actually talked more about money than he did about sex. A lot more. So I think that in the spirit of Jesus I would like to try to disturb you by talking about how you're spending your money, and by questioning whether that lines up all that well with What Jesus Would Buy.

Chances are good that if you're reading this, you are fairly comfortable when it comes to money. Wealth is a relative term and relative to the population of the world, you are really, really rich. You've got a computer, leisure time, and a good education - hence, rich.

So, my rich friends, let's start big by asking if Jesus would buy a rocket ship to fly to the moon. On that one,  I'm going to have to say a pretty firm, "no." First of all, because if Jesus wanted to go to the moon, he would just say, "KACHOW!" and beam himself over. But secondly, Jesus would not buy a rocket ship to fly to the moon because Jesus strikes me as both extremely intelligent and loving, and when it came time to lay the fifty billion dollars down on the table, Jesus would think about the fifty million starving children in the world and he just wouldn't do it. I am sure Jesus would be a huge fan of the curiosity and wonder inherent in the modern scientific mindset, but I'm also pretty sure he'd say, "let's take care of the kids first."

What about on a smaller scale... would Jesus buy a McMansion? I'm talking about those monstrous suburban houses with the postage stamp lawns, which are usually occupied by only two or three people. Would he buy one of those? Well, I'd have to say... maybe. Jesus would be living in this culture, and if he had a house he would undoubtedly be using it to host a constant stream of guests, so he would need a lot of room for all the the feasting and partying he'd be doing - not to mention at least one room dedicated exclusively to his unparalleled wine collection. Still, given that the modern McMansion is usually built with zero environmental consciousness (most of them will end up in landfills in sixty years) and that most of the people who own them never let homeless people stay in the spare rooms, I am guessing that if Jesus were a real estate adviser, he would probably counsel against it.

It is probably useful to pause here a moment and mention that I am fairly confident that Jesus would not be particularly swayed by our modern forms of advertising. He would probably laugh at all the commercials promising great sex, family satisfaction, happiness and so on. Or maybe he would cry... yeah, I have a feeling Jesus would cry a lot if he were watching the televisions of America. This is, I think, because he would have a flawless understanding of the distinction between "I need" and "I want," and he would clearly see the ways in which our confusion of the two leads us into slavery to our destructive economic machine.

If you want to shop like Jesus, then, I suggest you pause a moment and think about what you really need. An ipod? New Clothes? Huffy's Sweet New White Heat Bicycle (dang, I wanted one of those!)? Don't be ridiculous. What you need is enough food, water and shelter to stay alive, and enough good work and community to stay sane and healthy. That's it, and it is the reason why, when Jesus was telling people how they ought to talk to God, he didn't say to ask for a Hummer with laser beams, or a good grade on that test they didn't study for, or a perfect spouse, or a gift card for the Olive Garden, or excellent traffic conditions all the way to Poughkeepsie. Nope, he just said to ask for Daily Bread -- premium organic raspberry jam not included.

This is not to say that Jesus was all that into scarcity and asceticism. He wore a nice robe that some ladies gave him, enjoyed a good party, and thoroughly chewed out his friends for picking on a woman who "wasted" some expensive perfume by using it to wash his feet. Nonetheless, there is a big difference between the little extravagances that Jesus enjoyed and the endless procession of extravagances that we demand in our fated attempts to find satisfaction in stuff. You may have noticed, my fellow richies, that these attempts don't exactly work.

I would like to suggest that you try something a little different. I would like to suggest that you begin to grow in your awareness that every time you open your wallet, you are making a moral decision. Will you shop like Jesus, or will you allow the market forces of your economy and the constant pressure of the marketers to convince you that in all their unnecessary products you will find meaning, joy and, ultimately, life?

When you purchase food, will you buy the quickest, cheapest thing that takes the least amount of work and, because of its high sugar, caloric, and sodium content sends little eddies of endorphins rushing through your brain tissue? Or will you, rather, buy with a conscience - purchasing lovingly-grown food in a less processed state - food that requires more work to prepare but is infinitely more nourishing to the body with which you live?

What about entertainment? Will you seek with your purchases to get more and more intensely pleasurable entertainment experiences, or will you see the fated folly of this fool's errand and instead learn to take pleasure in more simple things, like the joy of working and playing alongside the people whom you love?

Will you constantly buy new clothes before the old ones are worn out in an effort to stay on top of the pure fabrication that is "style," or will you learn that you are lovely and loveable regardless of what you are wearing (or not wearing, tee-hee).

I could endlessly parse this out into smaller and smaller financial decisions, but I have discovered that it is just this parsing that was turning me into a slave of the very thing I was trying to escape; because it is just as possible to become enslaved by money by obsessing about trying not to spend it frivolously. It is, once again, a question of motivation - a question of love. I am not here to proscribe some sort of system for figuring out the difference between a financial decision made in love and one made in a fool's attempt to find meaning in stuff - that just isn't possible.

What I am hoping to suggest is that in our culture the balance is far more likely to swing towards the latter, and that any attempt to actually follow Jesus would require a constant, concerted effort in the opposite direction. Perhaps you don't care about all that "following Jesus" stuff. My intention in this particular essay is not to convince you that Jesus is the cat's meow and it's pajamas (as well as the bees' knees), or even to see if I can type the word "shit" five times and get away with it. Rather, I am writing in the hope that if more of us would get disturbed enough to begin to use our wallets to vote for love, then perhaps there would be more love -- and a little less hunger, thirst and pain.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

good

If you've never heard of it, please go check out http://www.good.is/

Not only is it a crazy-cool publication, but they also just published this article by a guy with my exact same name! And whilst you're there, make yourself a GOOD account and tell this marvelously-named fellow what you think of him.

Monday, May 24, 2010

weeding

Have you ever smoked marijuana? Did you inhale?

There was a time when I would have gotten giggly just asking you that. But time and experience have jaded and faded my naive innocence to the point where I can unflinchingly ask how much weed you've been toking and where you get your supply. It's a weedy, weedy world. Back in college, however, when I was a fresh-off-the-boat missionary kid, this was all very new to me: the idea that I could actually know folks who would openly admit to (gasp) using illegal drugs. Legal and culturally condoned drugs like sugar, or caffeine, or shopping or dopamine or video games - that I could understand, but POT? This was something infinitely more mystical and fascinating.

One day, for the purpose of education, I started on my dorm white-board a list of marijuana-related words: "splif, doobie, joint, mary jane, ganja, hash, grass, roach, stoned, wasted, trashed, high, et cetera, et cetera." From time to time, dorm-mates or passers-by would add to the list until, about a week later, we had covered every inch of that board in a mish-mash of maui-wowie. Then one morning... GONE: wiped clean by my brother's bug-eyed roommate who insisted, loudly, that we were encouraging evil and had to be stopped.

This was the same guy who came into the dorm lounge furious one day because he had overheard the chapel band practicing. "You can't practice worship!" he ranted. "It's supposed to be spontaneous and from the heart! This is immoral and has to be stopped... I'm gonna file a complaint!"

Now, I can sort of see the point old bug-eyes was trying to make. I, too, dislike the tin-can, entertainment-aspect of most contemporary, protestant church music. I won't re-hash here why I have this opinion, but I will say that this protruding-peeper dormmate with his little one-man protests annoyed me more than crappy music ever could have, because he was trying to legislate morality and that, mes amigos, is a real problem.

I've been working through an online Harvard University course called "Justice", which among other things explores the foundations of the American judicial system. Although this course has refreshed my memory and taught me some new things, I still don't have more than a rudimentary understanding of how the law works. Still, as a justice-minded individual (it's one of the most pervasive themes of my faith tradition), it is something I have thought and argued about a fair  bit. It just keeps popping up.

When I start writing about marijuana, for example, I am reminded of a conversation I had back in my college days with my friend Aren Roukema about the process of de-criminalization that was going on in our province (British Columbia) at the time. Neither of us smoked the stuff, so it was more of an intellectual exercise than anything else, but I was trying to convince Aren that this de-criminalization would lead to madness and mayhem and the deaths of countless helpless children. I had started to feed him the line that marijuana was just BAD and ought to be illegal when he stopped me, compellingly, with this point: you cannot legislate morality.

And I repeat: you cannot legislate morality.

The purpose of law is not to make good citizens. The purpose of law is to take the principle that "your right to swing your fist ends where my face begins" and enforce it. This is called the harm principle and was developed by people like John Stuart Mill and John Locke. It assumes that at times people will be bad citizens and will unjustly hurt others, and therefore seeks to protect the afflicted. It takes the extra step, however, of asserting that the government has no right to do anything beyond that. This is a good thing, I think, because it keeps the psychos in power from going out on a whim and making illegal any old behaviors that they happen not to like.

I knew this at the time of my argument with Aren, but I still found the idea of a split between law and morality odd. I had always thought of the law as this big THING - a massive, blockish machine that, while incomprehensible and sometimes manipulated unjustly by evil forces, was still a generally reliable indicator of what I should and should not do. I quickly realized, however, that it made sense that the relationship between law and morality - beyond that first moral principle of protecting innocent faces from unjust fists - was mostly incidental. Hmmm, I thought... and then I thought some more.

Morality is a strange force, with fairly universal moral principles being applied in a dizzyingly broad variety of ways by different cultures. It is possible, I believe, to attempt with a certain degree of success to judge the objective moral value of an action. But even if you were supremely wise and able to always distinguish the difference between what is universally true and what is merely cultural, the fact remains that it is a question, primarily, of the heart (or character, or whatever). Heart-education is not, I believe the province of the government, but rather of the family and community. Family and community may have degraded in our culture to the point where it would seem easier to hand this task over to the government (as many try to do) but this is one case where easier is definitely not better.

While you might, I think, make a fairly convincing argument that smoking a lot of pot hurts people (it certainly doesn't help the GPAs of those of my students who regularly light up), in order to argue for continued legislation against it you would have to prove conclusively that it hurts people other than those who smoke it. And let me remind you that it is not enough to show that it hurts other people in a broader, "culture is diminished by pot-smokers' increased stupidity" sense, or even to say that driving under the influence of pot is dangerous. Television has been proven to kill brain cells, and idiots are always getting drunk and hopping behind the wheels of cars - but we certainly don't take that to mean we should outlaw watching "The Office" with a good glass of wine.

Neither do we make it illegal to be a glutton, a gossip, a lust-monkey, a meany-pants, or a smoker of cigarettes (although the harm principle has been more widely applied, of late, to restrict the marketing and use of cigarettes). Furthermore, although the country where I happen to live is (I've been told) a nation founded on Christian principles you may, in fact, quite legally break all but the sixth, eighth, and ninth of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20: 1-17), which are, theoretically, the foundation of the entire Judeo-Christian ethical system.

This is not to say that you should do any of those legal but arguably immoral things. In fact, let me suggest that I think it is much better if you don't. It has been my experience that all these things will lead to a diminishment of life, robbing you of joy and love and your community of the benefit of what you could be as your most healthy, creative self. In fact, I will go even further and say that although you are welcome to work to change a law, unless you have a compelling moral reason to break them you should always obey all the laws of your country to the best of your ability - no matter how stupid or ill-conceived they may be. As Mahatma Gandhi said, this will give you the moral right to disobey laws that are immoral, because you will have proven that you are not merely breaking laws out of selfish disrespect for the community in which you have chosen to live.

I want to get all worked up about this - to yell and shake my fist and erase the whiteboard of your mind so that I can cover it with more uplifting things - but then I remember: "let him who has never exceeded the posted legal speed limit cast the first stone," and I think again, briefly, of shutting up.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

joy unspeakable

There are two reasons, I guess, why I keep secrets from you. The first is to protect people who did not necessarily ask to share their lives with a writer who uses his personal experiences as cannon fodder for the page. This means, also, that I cannot use my writing to fight lopsided battles and pay people back for the injustices I perceive them to have done me. As my friend Austin the Actor says, this is why we write films - so we can enact our revenge and feel that somewhere, out there, in the darkness of an unnamed theater, the villains of our lives are seeing, understanding, and feeling the cold weight of justice (eg: the opening credits for "500 days of summer").

The second reason to keep secrets is that some of life's experiences are too intimate, or precious, or sacred to defile by baring them indiscriminately to the world. As William Wordsworth famously said, "we murder to dissect." Sometimes life hands us delicate little moments that for this reason we wrestle with sharing - wanting to preserve their lives but bursting with anticipation for the joyous climax of the telling.

So I wrestle, now, with sharing about the significant event which capped off this day for me, moving me to tears. I wrestle, and lose, and begin:

I suppose to understand today, you'd have to go back to last weekend, when I had a conversation that convinced me, once and for all, that my marriage is irrevocably over. If you know me well or have followed my story, you may well be thinking "no duh, Josh... there's a light bulb that has been burning for quite a while now." But hope springs eternal in the heart of man, and it sometimes takes a stick of dynamite to do a job that, were it not for the boundless optimism of hope, could be accomplished with a well-placed poke-in-the-eye.

So anyways, the dynamite went off last weekend and after the dust settled I was left with a deeper sadness than I had ever felt before, made all the more remarkable by the unexplainable joy that seemed to spark at odd moments within it - because even down in the darkest valley, the light of life is still indescribably beautiful. Today was a day that seemed to be very much on the dim side. All day, I felt a disembodied heaviness - the sort of sensation that is hard to describe and very inadvisable on a motorcycle - so I ended up feeling on the ride home from work a sense of impending doom at the thought that I might at any moment float away from my body; leaving it to crash, un-aided, into a roadside tree.

I pulled with some relief onto the gravel driveway of home and stopped at the mailbox to grab my mail. Letter from the bank, letter from the bank, letter from... some unknown person with nearly-illegible handwriting in Montana. Hmmm. Don't know anyone in Montana, I thought, as I tucked it into my jacket and rode down the drive and up the dirt rut that leads to the shed where I live. Then, as I pulled under the porch awning and extracted the letter, I remembered the note I had sent a couple weeks ago to what I had hoped was the home of David James Duncan.

Mr. Duncan is the apparently somewhat reclusive author of a number of beautiful, beautiful books - two of which that I have read recently with laughter, joy and tears. The difficulty of this past year has left me nearly overwhelmed with gratitude, at times, for the moments of joy that I have been able to experience, so I decided to use a bizarrely serendipitous gift to take a stab at expressing that gratitude to Mr. Duncan. See, a few months back I bought a book on Amazon, and the woman who sold it to me was so sure I'd be thrilled with the purchase that she included a stamp, an envelope, and a blank "Thank You" card. Weird, right? I set it aside for when some un-defined, perfect moment would present itself.

After trying unsuccessfully for a while to find Mr. Duncan's address on the internet (which I took to mean that he didn't want it found), I decided to be weaselly and use my serendipitous card to fire off a missive to a place that I thought might work. I figured that it would be nothing risked, nothing lost, so I wrote him a carefully crafted "Thank You," popped it in the mailbox with a prayer, and promptly forgot about it.

Until today, when I opened the Montana letter and found a beautiful, perfect message from a stranger whose books had filled me with love. I had hardly begun to read when I started to cry. He thanked me for the letter and commiserated on the thoughts I had shared on his book. He expressed his sorrow over the loss of my wife, and his appreciation for the way my grief had opened doors within me to love. He said some other things, too, but having begun to write this I feel that I have already wounded a precious, perfect thing. So I will stop, and head off alone to cry out in gratitude once more for the joy that lives within all pain. I will say to you what he said to me, that "I'll meet you at The Truth."

I love you. Today, and every day... even when I forget.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

your grace, II

I saw it, you know...
that tear you almost didn't show -
that tear you somehow dried, from the inside
as you stood there
being brave.

But though I believe you might just be a saint --
that you are right in your restraint to know
you cannot be the one to take the place of God
and wipe the tears from my face --
as I watched you in that place, I have to say,
I wanted to be the one to reach a hand and wipe it all away.

And I may just be a fool, to write those words,
but sometimes
I don't care.
Sometimes, I think it's there that I'm most free -
when I can be a mirrored fool and see on another's face
the tears I will not bear to fall from mine.

And so I pray:

Ineffable FatherGod, who art in heaven and in tears,
hallowed be thy sorrow-spoken name.
On this day, I thank thee all the same for thy Grace,
which I imagine dripping down another person's face,
teaching me to cry my own tears, for me,
teaching me to BE.

Friday, May 14, 2010

judgement

I would probably argue long and hard to convince you that bidets are better than toilet paper, but I still do not want to use one. Aside from not really knowing how to aim the thing, there is the fact that for thirty-plus years now, I have been taking care of "business" with perforated scraps of dry paper. It is a cultural preference not easily set aside, and although during my tree-planting years I was forced by necessity to learn the joys of hydrated "business"-cleaning with dew-wet fireweed plants, when it comes to the bum I still feel weird about water.

This weirdness is weird, because most all the other cleaning I do in my life involves some form of liquid. If, for example, my son were to leave a little pile of his "leftovers" in the middle of the living room floor, I hardly think I would be satisfied with a few perfunctory wipes with a paper towel. It just doesn't work like that. So why have I allowed my culture to convince me that I still do not want to use a bidet? Is there some sort of conspiracy by an American Compendium of Toilet-Paper Corporations? Does the lumber industry have its lumbering fingers in my bathroom business?

I am not sure, exactly. I have tried to fight my culture, but it hasn't worked. One of my more Euro-enlightened friends once told me that he dry-cleans for the first swath and then whets down the last bit of paper for that fresh feel, with perhaps one final drying swipe. I tried that, but eventually laziness and the weight of culture was just too much. I have learned that while the now near-universal value placed on cleanliness is very much a part of my culture, I am still part of a culture that did not consult the truth when deciding how to clean its many, many bums.

And yes, since you asked I am suggesting that the immensely varied ways we as humans apply universally agreed-upon moral principles are weirdly determined by cultural forces that none of us really understands. Why would I use such an admittedly gross example as the bidet to make a point about cultural determinism? Well, for the simple reason that when we forget where most of our habits and customs come from, things get poopy. Bidets are never the end of it, and the results are often (especially in my own "christian" subculture) laughable. The weird examples are practically endless - I know, because I've been writing about them for years and they never seem to run out. I have written about polygamy, potty words, arranged marriage, and cetera and cetera, on into the infinitum. It just. doesn't. stop.

Considering my position on bidets, it may seem odd when I say that I actually believe strongly in the existence of objective Truth, and even that we can know it. I may qualify that statement by adding that I think we'll never really know that we know it, but I still think there are things that are true and things that are not. I am quick to say that bidets are better than rolls of paper, modesty is superior to immodesty, and that it is far better to respect the things and people of this world than to profane them. I think abortion is a tragedy, people shouldn't smoke weed, divorce for the reasons that mine seems to be happening is wrong, and apples are, in fact, vastly inferior to oranges.

To claim that I view the world otherwise is to disingenuously defeat my own arguments. Where I really run into trouble, however, is when I begin to believe that I, with my puny little hormone-addled, culturally-defined ways of thinking, can absolutely Know what the truth is about anything, once and for absa-friggin-certain. If I think that, then I close my mind to the possibility that I am wrong and severely limit my capacity for love. Perhaps I am even wrong about bidets. Perhaps there are angelic spirits in the water that are seriously offended by the bum-cleaning use they are so disgustingly put to -- spirits that will one day rise up and drown us all in the brownish soup of our perpetual disrespect. I may know some things to be true, but I don't absolutely know that I know them.

I am by no means breaking new ground by arguing for the importance of epistemological humility (which means, basically, that I think I should not be an arrogant jerk about things I can't know for certain). With the exception of a few real whackos, most people aren't really dumb enough to attempt to don the mantle of godhood when it comes to their epistemology. And yet we are, all of us, immensely human. We want things to make sense and we want to be the ones making sense of them; so even as we nod our heads and give obeisance (whether we know it or not) to the accomplishments of  sages who have taught us to doubt our own omniscience,  yet still we think to ourselves, "ah yes, but this or that thing I really, truly do know." In so doing, we abandon our faith and move headlong towards a position that always ends up doing violence to beauty.

It is not particularly surprising that we would try, in this manner, to catch Truth and wrestle it into our grubby little pockets. To live as a human is to name, and to name is to try to tame the wild unknowable mystery of life - to cage the wonder in an attempt to keep the fear at bay.  It is impossible to do otherwise.

Let me say that again: it is impossible to do otherwise. We are human, and it is our eternal joy and frustration to attempt to tell stories that will enable us to understand the unfathomable mysteries in which we live. Everyone does it... absolutely everyone. Even that super-edgy hipster you know who blends up grass and organic crickets with ice and soy milk and then pretends it's tasty - even that guy is still just making stuff up, attempting to define for himself a world in which he writes the rules. But it is very likely that unbeknownst to him, he too plays out a script written for him by a culture in which it is possible for impossibly privileged twenty-something Caucasian males to sit in yoga positions on hand-woven, free-trade bamboo rugs, sipping high-end organic tea as on their two-thousand-dollar Macbook Pros they hammer out blog posts about the necessity of identifying with the poor.

Believe it or not, even this little essay falls into the same ludicrous trap. By claiming to have insight into the inevitable inability of people to really know anything, I too am creating a ridiculous pretension and falling into the selfsame trap. What am I to do?

Well, since I asked, here's what I think; I think I should not be writing posts like this. I think that instead I should be out there making stuff that does not pretend to know, but rather proposes to love the world and all that is in it, all the time. That's right, I think I should be making love. To you, and you, and you and also you -- absolutely all the time. If I sit on the grass, I should make a song and in the melody make love. If I sit at this desk, I should make a story and twist into the passages a little love, or make a painting and stroke into it with my brush a little more love still. If I am with you, I should talk to you and listen to you and even touch you with love. I should do all this love-making because love never, ever wants control over anything. It just wants to be open to it, to embrace it, and to sink into it with joy. I want that. I am done with the folly of control.

So I should stop trying to figure out how things work. I should shut down my mind and my fingers and my mouth and I should learn, at last, to be still. From that stillness, I should begin to tell, very slowly, stories that do not trap wonder, but encourage it. I should live poetically, without pretense. I should, in short, be honest.

But I won't.

I won't because I am human. As much as I want to roll around making metaphorical and literal love to you (and you, and you, and YOU, oh unfathomable Source) every second of every day, sometimes all I can bring myself to create is little arrangements of words. Sometimes, all I can do is lie. This is me. This is who I am, and how on Friday nights and sometimes into Saturday mornings I manage to quell for a while the voices that tell me that I am an idiot, and that all my faith and hope and love are the baubles of a fool. In this act, in this small protest I raise against the dying of the light, it could be that I do make a little love.

But I am not ready to be judged on that. Not yet.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

moms

I just looked at a book on Amazon called, "Fifty Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do," which was written by a guy who runs "tinkering schools" where kids get to play with power tools and make stuff - real stuff that works. I had watched a video clip of the guy and it intrigued me, so I looked up his book. Here's the funny thing, though: as I perused the table of contents to see what sort of dangerous things I ought to be letting my son do, I found to my surprise that I had done almost every single one of those things in my childhood - and more. I mean, lick a battery? Throw a spear? Stand on the roof? Please... BOooooRING! How about eat a monkey, construct a crossbow, and run pell-mell down the branches of a tree to jump, screaming, into snake-and-spider-infested patches of floating water plants?

I always thought my mom was a bit of a panic-storm, but I'm learning that most mothers don't let their four-year-olds have their own machetes, their five-year-olds wander around in the jungle without adult supervision, or their six-year-olds operate a band-saw.

Thanks, Mom. Happy Mother's Day.

Friday, May 7, 2010

On the Evils of "Patriotism"

My friend Paul is an extremely straight shooter, so it's no wonder that the oldest of his many children would have told me, at the sagacious age of five, one of the wisest bits of wiseness that I ever did hear.

Paul, my brother and I were in the basement of his house in Hamilton, Ontario, discussing what was to be a fun-filled work week planting fourteen thousand trees on the estate of one David Wildenstein, heir to the mighty Wildenstein Art Empire. None of us was particularly experienced at managing ourselves in the company of people who could easily afford to have us killed and made into compost for their very sizable orchards, so a certain amount of pre-ponderation seemed a good idea.

"You know what, Paul," I said, thinking to wax eloquent on the subject of bottomless pits of money, "the most important thing in this situation is to remember that, deep down, he's a guy like us. You see..."

I meant to go on, but was interrupted by Marcus-the-five-year-old, who firmly said, "No, no, no. That's not the most important thing, is it daddy?"

"No it isn't," Paul answered with a knowing smile, "Marcus, why don't you tell Uncle Josh what the most important thing is?"

"It's love, Uncle Josh. The most important thing is love."

For a brief second I wasn't really sure how to feel about being absolutely schooled by a five year old who obviously spent waaaay too little time watching television, but after that second I broke into a big old smile, followed by a guffaw. Because there you had it - that was just about all you needed, right there. Well that, a good sharp hatchet, and some people to practice on (With the Love, that is... I'd prefer you practice with the hatchet on a rotting stump. Just remember: eyes on the target and when you release, your index finger should be pointing straight at old stumpy).

The Marcus story came to mind this week, right after I'd antagonized some of my students by informing them that I thought "patriotism" and "nationalism" were evil, un-Christian concepts. I was skating on a thin layer of grits when I said that because - as one of my students was quick to inform me - that's the sort of thing that can get you hurt down here in the South. I had to ask myself, would Marcus have approved? Is it all right to annoy people just to make a point?

I'm going to have to say... I think so. One of the definitions that the interwebs gives for patriotism is "devotion to the welfare of one's country," and our good buddy Webster tells us that nationalism is, "advocacy of the utmost political advancement of one's nation or people." Those descriptions are, perhaps, a bit too ambiguous, so when faced with the possibility of an angry mob of southern boys who wanted to know just what, exactly, I meant, I told them that patriotism and nationalism were just tools used by the powerful to manipulate the average person into doing things that they would otherwise have had the good sense not to do. Because, you see, at this point I was most definitely trying to annoy them. 


"Oh, come on," One of them shot back, "that's like saying that commitment to your friends is unchristian." 


I just grinned. 


First of all, because I knew better than to argue with these young men when there were stars and stripes coming out their ears, and second because, yes, commitment to your friends is unchristian... if by "commitment to your friends" you mean that you stand aggressively for whatever you think your friends are standing for, regardless of whether or not they are remembering Marcus's "most important thing." 


Christ was a disturber of poop. He bore no allegiance to king or country or even democratically-crafted Constitution (blasphemy!). Instead, he advocated an entirely different kingdom in which last are made first and strength is found not in might of arms, but in humility, service, and self-sacrifice. This is the sort of kingdom that belongs to the losers, the weak, the children, the poor, the marginalized and the disaffected. If you want to be a part of this kingdom, Jesus very clearly said, you have to give up power and wealth and spend your life giving food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, and companionship to the lonely and beaten-down. But absolutely most importantly of all, you need to give love to everyone, even and especially your enemies and the people who aren't fortunate enough to live in what is, of course, the bestest country ever (obviously... right?). 


This, of course, looks nothing like the supposed Jesus-followers cruising in their luxury vehicles around the streets of America today, demanding the political overthrow of those who disagree with them and above all else the re-creation of an economic system that will allow them to forget that they were ever threatened by this pesky, inconvenient recession. Self-sacrifice? Hah! Self-sacrifice is for wimps and commies, they say, and it's MY COUNTRY, RIGHT OR WRONG. So Jesus said to treat foreigners with compassion? Well, screw that... those Mexicans aren't foreigners, they're criminals. So Jesus said that if we ignored the hungry we were ignoring him? Well, screw that, too. Back in Jesus' day they didn't have television and the internet, and there's no way he was talking to us in a time when we can very easily see the sunken cheeks and worm-bloated stomachs of the millions and millions of under-nourished people worldwide. It's just not practical.


After all, when Jesus said to love my neighbor, surely he had to mean the people who live in the little ticky-tacky houses next to mine... I mean, that's what a neighbor is by definition, right? So looking out for my fellow middle-and-upper-middle class Americans, well that's practically Christian, isn't it? And if that's the case, then dedication to the political interests of those most powerful of Americans on a larger scale, well... I can't think of anything that would make Jesus more happy. And making Jesus happy has got to be what we're here for - our most important thing. Nice. Well, I'm glad we got that sorted. Hey, you wanna go to Panera? They've got wi-fi and I've been dying to show you all the cool stuff I can do with my new i-pad. 


Okay. Breathe, Josh, breathe. Count to ten.


I know, I know. I do tend to get a little heated up and to go over the top of a mountain that some people will say I've fabricated out of a molehill. While nationalism is, I think, always evil, "patriotism" can also be defined as love of the place where you happen to live, or love of the good things about the culture where you happen to live. Love is the most important thing, after all, so loving the land that sustains you (without trashing it) and the culture that grounds you (without idolizing it) can only be a good thing. 


But this is not what most people mean when they talk about patriotism. While most people do have nuanced and often deeply compassionate positions on a variety of issues within their culture, when it comes to the word "patriotism," it seems that these nuances go flying out the window. Slow, wise deliberation becomes tantamount to treason as pride and power become the throbbing mantra drowning out the still, small voice of Jesus. 


Over the past month, I have been reading and commenting on the Book of Matthew to my first period art class, and what has struck me again and again as I have tried wrestle honestly with who that Jesus guy it describes seems to have actually been is that he tended to talk about two different types of things.


First of all there were the Weird Things - mysterious and wondrous stuff like Grace and Truth and Justice and Mercy. Jesus tended to speak about these things cryptically, and he used a lot of stories and sometimes even jokes in order to explore them in a way that allowed his listeners to enter into the questions and emerge with even greater wonder than before. Almost without fail, these are the things upon which the contemporary "christian" church seems to focus the majority of its energy, exerting monumental efforts to take them and strip-mine them of their wonder, so that they can trash-compact parodies of them into tiny-little boxes that can be easily stacked into something called "doctrinal statements."


The second type of things that Jesus talked about were the Straightforward Things the likes of which I mentioned earlier, stuff like "not judging other people" and "taking care of the poor." It is these things, conversely, that the contemporary "christian" church goes to phenomenal lengths to avoid talking about. It skips over them, lies about them, and re-invents them... but most of all it just ignores them. This is, I think, because if we were to take Jesus at all seriously, we would have to begin to be very, very ashamed of ourselves. 


So let me pause and say that I am, indeed, very, very ashamed of myself. And let me pause a little longer and say that I am also okay with that, because I don't try to fit concepts like Grace and Truth and Justice and Mercy into tiny little boxes and you know what... they blow my freakin' mind! I may be a selfish, proud, idiotic nincompoop, but in the elegant, gorgeous mystery of Christ I find the freedom to look past that and see the absolutely breathtakingly beautiful person I am as well. 


It is this mystery that makes me think that perhaps I don't have to listen to the throbbing of the war drums. Perhaps I don't have to believe that the only way to get anything done is to rally, screaming, under a flag as I demand the best for me and mine, others be durned. Maybe, just maybe, Marcus is right.

Monday, May 3, 2010

I'm thirty... can I be a man now?

Usually when I mention my friend Austin the Actor on here, it is either to disagree with something he has said, or to make fun of him. That's a good thing, I think, because if there is one thing Austin needs in his life it's a barrier against the tidal wave of self esteem that I have come to believe he might not, after all, be faking. Nonetheless, despite the usual "friend-service" he provides of calling me an idiot when I'm being an idiot and punching me in the stomach when I do inadvisable things because of my current (emotionally vulnerable) state, he does also help me out from time to time with a word of wisdom. Like, for example, what he said to me yesterday at lunch.

In the late morning I had met up with Austin at his church, Renovatus. As usual when we get together, I was early and he was late, so I spent my wait time reviewing the eligible-looking young ladies who were arriving for the purpose of identifying potential candidates for the position of future-wife for my tardy friend, who was one of the primary motivating factors behind my previous post on arranged marriage. For a lot of the same reasons as me, he's into the idea right now.

When Austin finally showed up and we'd settled into a couple of seats towards the back of the old movie theater in which Renovatus meets, I told him what I'd been up to and he asked me if I'd had any luck. "Well," I muttered, pointing to a beautiful brunette sitting across the aisle and a row ahead of us, "there's that nice-looking single mom over there."

"How do you know she's a single mom?" Austin asked.

"Well, I saw her drop off a kid at the nursery, and she's not wearing a wedding ring."

"Hmm," he said, probably mulling over his stance on single moms. A little while later, he elbowed me and said, "Either singlemom is looking for someone, or she is seriously checking you out."

I looked. She was very, very seriously checking me out. Repeatedly.

"You know what happens next, right?" Austin asked, grinning wickedly.

"No."

"Next, the pastor tells everybody to stand up and spread the love around."

He was right, too, and as the beautiful singlemom made an expectant half-step towards me, Austin pushed me out of the row, towards the back of the theater, and around the back row of seats to the other side, because I don't need that kind of trouble and it's Austin's job, after all, to protect me in my current (emotionally vulnerable) state.

Later at lunch, we were re-hashing the moment and I was saying how weird her being attracted to me was because Austin, after all, is the one who is the tall and broad-shouldered hunk of man-meat-woman-bait.

"I've never really thought of myself as being physically attractive to women," I said to Austin, "and that hasn't really happened to me before - I mean, where a beautiful woman who didn't know me at all made it blatantly obvious that she'd like to. Maybe it has something to do with confidence... I've gotten a lot more confident in the past year as I've shucked off a lot of my fears, and people are attracted to confidence. I mean, I had a girlfriend in college and I got married, so I know that those two women, at least, were attracted to me at the outset. Usually, however, when someone acted as though they were interested, I just ignored it or didn't believe it was real until it became way too obvious to interpret in any other way. And then I just thought..."

I paused, and Austin finished my sentence,

"...that there was something wrong with them."

"Yeah, whatever," I said, and continued babbling, ignoring his comment, until a few seconds later it hit me... he was right. "What did you say?" I asked.

"I said that you wondered what was wrong with them."

BAM. The skies opened and a shaft of light hit the oily sheen on the garlic knot I was about to stuff into my mouth. It was just so true. No matter how well I knew that men and women are freakin' designed to be drawn to each other like moths to - well, to other moths - I always kind of doubted if this principle applied to me and the women I found attractive. Because just look at me, right? Sure, I had the symmetrical features that our culture calls "boyish good looks," but what was more important was that I was this skinny, decidedly unmanly chap with knees that knocked and a weird torso-to-legs ratio that made it look like I shrunk about six inches every time I sat down (Seriously, ask me to sit down for you sometime - it will blow your mind. I'm way taller than you, we sit down, and boo-yah-ka-shah, we're the same height!). Plus, I was always such a baby face. There was no way anyone could think of me as a man at all... let alone an attractive one... Right?!? I certainly didn't.

Austin's comment made me realize how weirdly out-of-touch with reality I had been, because it illuminated for me the great lengths I'd gone to to ignore the perfect Aristotelian Logic of the situation:

Premise One, Peoples are at odd intervals attracted to other Peoples.
Premise Two, I am a People, and am at odd intervals attracted to other Peoples.
Ergo, we come to the Conclusion that it stands to reason that other Peoples are also sometimes attracted to me.

But long before I took Philosophy 101 at University, I had come to the very fear-driven conclusion that this wasn't possible. So when people - and not just women, but men as well - acted as though I was an interesting person they might want to get to know, I usually just concluded that there was something wrong with them. Or that they were faking it, out of pity. Or that I had performed some trick (like painting really well or something) that had momentarily caught their fancy.

I then proceeded, on a subconscious level, to try to root out what it was that was wrong with them. I suppose I did this because I wanted to discover that it wasn't a character flaw that made them interested in me. The problem with the whole thing, however, was that when you go looking for flaws in people, you're going to find them. Human beings are absolutely amazing, but they are also profoundly problematic.

In the big, weird, mysterious mess that is human motivation, my desperation to get people to love me drove me to consistently undermine pretty much every relationship I ever had - friend or lover or whatever. People don't particularly like it when you constantly hone in on their mistakes and weaknesses.

I guess you could say that I'm done with this.

I have begun to learn to face my own problems. In open admission of failure (Hey! Lookey here at me! I screwed up my life!) I have found freedom and grace. I have learned to laugh at my foibles and even, in some small ways, to begin to love them as a part of the glorious mish-mash of attributes that is me. This, in turn, has freed me to love the foibles in others, and to overlook these flaws as I begin to be overwhelmed by the fact that people are all absolutely, mind-blowingly amazing. Without the constant, paralyzing fear that if others really knew me, they wouldn't love me, I have begun to learn that I can open myself, honestly, to love them. Instead of being a Grand Inquisitor, rooting out whatever flaws I suspect must have led them to love me, I can appreciate their love - and their lovableness as well. I can begin, in short, to live.

I have not been fixed. I still have regular weak moments where I think, "hmm... random beautiful person I don't know wants to talk to me. I should talk to them - just a tiny bit - to dig out a little more proof that I'm lovable." But these are not the moments that I dwell in, because they are not necessary. I already have wonderful people in my life whom I love - with whom I have shared beautiful letters, laughter, tears and fleeting glimpses of wonder.

Although I still feel sometimes that I am waiting, now, to sink into a dismal sea, far more often I live with joy in my moments, believing that whether I see it or not, the sun shines brightly above the damp, gray fog. It may be that in this "living in my moments," I am finding what it means to be a man.