Ain’t That Good News? (Da Vinci Code 2)

Having finished this rather dopey book, I have only one question: Why would so many people want to believe it? I admit, I’ve sometimes felt it was unfair for Jesus to be given a human body but never have a girlfriend. And millions of men probably jumped for joy when they read that we were meant to access God through sex rather than church attendance. But, because Dan Brown taps into popular anxieties about the hierarchy, authority and secrecy of the Catholic Church, it’s easy to miss how elitist and exclusionary his vision is, compared to orthodox Christianity.

“I don’t need the church to mediate my encounter with God.” Whether you’re a Protestant clinging to sola scriptura or an ordinary American individualist who resents having your spirituality crammed into pre-set rituals and doctrines, this sentiment should be very familiar. It sounds so democratic, right? But the church and the sacraments are open to all comers. What does Dan Brown put in its place? Heterosexual intercourse. Bad news if you’re gay, underage, physically incapacitated, or the pimply kid standing by the punchbowl all night at the senior prom. We want so much to believe in transcendence through pleasure, to skip the disciplines that help us endure pleasure’s fading.

Another conceit of the book is that Christ was not divine, just a human prophet who had a real wife and a royal bloodline that continues to this day. That’s an interesting story, but as irrelevant to my life as Zeus and Hera. The Bible says Christ’s bride is the Church, that is, all of us. Through him, our souls can be as intimate with God as Dan Brown’s Jesus was with Mary Magdalene. Why would anyone prefer a story about a royal family that we worship from afar? If Jesus wasn’t divine, what makes his kids better than the rest of us? (Does God drive a SmartCar with a bumper sticker saying “My son is an honor student at Galilee Elementary School”?)

Finally, I don’t get why so many people find relativism more comforting than sincere belief. Brown’s fictional hero, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (another reason I never give to the Harvard College Fund), explains thus his decision not to publicize evidence that the gospels are a fraud:

“Sophie, every faith in the world is based on fabrication. That is the definition of faith — acceptance of that which we imagine to be true, that which we cannot prove….The Bible represents a fundamental guidepost for millions of people on the planet, in much the same way the Koran, Torah, and Pali Canon offer guidance to people of other religions. If you and I could dig up documentation that contradicted the holy stories of Islamic belief, Judaic belief, Buddhist belief, pagan belief, should we do that? Should we wave a flag and tell the Buddhists that we have proof that Buddha did not come from a lotus blossom? Or that Jesus was not born of a literal virgin birth? Those who truly understand their faiths understand the stories are metaphorical.” (pp.369-70, paperback edition)

My husband’s a Buddhist, and I don’t think the lotus blossom legend plays a big role in their activities over at the sangha. On the other hand, if there were proof that no one had ever achieved enlightenment by meditating, and the stories to the contrary were a plot to get Tibetans to sit still while the Chinese took over their country, I’m sure he would want to know.

Again, what seems like liberal openness is the worst kind of elitism. The world is divided into “those people” who need their illusions, and “our kind of people” who know better. Because “we” don’t believe that religious ideas have real-world consequences, we don’t mind that billions of people are misled about the nature of ultimate reality. (This is what my minister believes, BTW, which is why I’m blogging this morning instead of going to church. “Resistance is futile!”)

Someone, please explain to me the appeal of this kind of thinking. Is it that you want the warm feeling and pageantry of church membership but can’t manage to agree with the doctrines? Are you afraid of dividing the human race between true and false believers (a line that relativism merely redraws, not eliminates)? Do you actively disagree with Christianity and want to appropriate its cultural capital for other ends? As for me, I’d rather live in a world that God loved enough to die for, instead of a world where most people have to swallow comforting lies in order to avoid eating a bullet.

Poem: Charles Atlas Shrugged

The icons on the beach, drifted over with 
      kicked sand:
that starving boy, the first
to wish evolution would give him a hand,
clap him on the back like an elder
brother, say: You won’t be bad, kid, when 
      you’re grown.
Bucks die with horns locked in the distant forest
falling tangled like trees. You’re not one of those.
Here comes the girl,
the type who’s always ready
to play Fortune in the pictures
supine in borrowed silks, her eyes asking
What have you done for me lately?
Black bikini now, teeth so white
her smile’s one continuous crescent, like the moon.

The bully barrels in, plump as a steer,
pissing on everyone’s picnic.
He’ll run to fat when he’s older,
go deeper into the forest
shattering nests with shot
and ripping the silence away like a roof,
his days on the beach forgotten.
The burning cloud of history
doesn’t show in the sky.

The end of the tale’s well-known:
in just one panel
the runt improves himself, becomes a man
with tight buttocks and a hammer fist,
the wedge of his chest blocking the sun.
His highest ambition was to hit back,
or to know he could.
And what’s wrong with that? Too many victims
tinkled out the sonatas of their homeland
on a piano of bones,
quibbled over matchstick games of cards
and honorable regulations till the total fires
swept everything flat like a smoothing hand.

Dagny Taggart’s trains
run nevertheless, though pulling boxcars
of short-weight goods and heads full of error
in the passenger cars. They deserve to die
when they smash up, says Rand, for winking at
the drunken signal-men, the corrupted routes.
Two trains can’t run on the same track.
No patronage repeals the laws of force.
Mac can’t throw
the brute off the beach till he becomes one
with the other man’s mechanism, his simple 
The morals of a mad world
are the power of goodbye.

Dagny sees this at last,
slams the door behind her
on her way to Galt’s Gulch
where copper sunlight sets on silver metal
and all the women have heroes,
where every one
smokes Marlboros and stays out of each other’s 
      personal space.
And the girl on the beach, what does she want?
It would be a mistake
to peg her as a bimbo, she could be
a communications director or a veterinarian, 
      like Barbie.
All the more reason
why she craves a man who’ll overcome her,
who doesn’t need a manager or mother
to hide in like soft sand.

The people behind them
tan themselves in his cartoon halo,
trying to forget that
soon summer will be over and the factory
has fallen down. Someone tried to run it
as if need were the measure of one’s wages,
ability the weight of one’s chains.
As if need were anything
but the stern carver’s adze
that polishes you or grinds you down.
The trains rust on the abandoned siderail.
Somebody just like you
could still write away for the booklet
that works you into strength, for two holy dollars.
The dollar-sign over Rand’s coffin
might be translated: To call virtue priceless
means no one is willing to pay for it. “That was 
      the end
of the noble plan and of the Twentieth Century.”

      from A Talent for Sadness (Turning Point Books, 2003)

Poem: Against Nirvana

Coming awake:
The quiet tongues of the orchids.
The well-meant fruit in its wicker cradle.
Think of something other
than your breast. What is yours, what is not yours.
The light without calendars:
at the window, a rainy square of day.

You were dreaming in the flooded forest,
tucked like a worm into the earth’s brown blanket.
You were dreaming the milky whisper
of your flesh, a snowbank, dissolving.

The awakened one sees no difference
between his arm and the arm of another.
No difference between himself and the wind
breathing in, breathing out.

Your arm is wired to life,
the forest twitter of blinking, peeping machines.
Where did you go when your body slept?
They could have broken you apart
and passed around the pieces like peppermint.
Who would you be then?

The same as ever:
nothing yesterday, no less today.

If craving is suffering,
as the mad cells crowding
your breast like refugees might prove,
don’t wonder where it lies,
collapsed like an orange rind, pithed like a frog.
It changes nothing to call it yours.

But what else but craving — sour, red
and rough as wine, cracking like the claws
of lobsters plundered for sweet meat —
wakes you lost in lullaby snow
to remember your body, the dumb turning
toward heat that defines your cells as living?
Cruel therapy dangles your wants before you.
Nothing but the dirty needs of morning,
the bladder, the belly,
could reassemble you from cool white sleep.

         published in Mudfish, issue 14 (2005)

That’s MISTER Jesus to You

From the Christian parody website LarkNews:


For years pastor Terry Bradley of New Life Community tried to be entirely real with everyone.
That experiment is now over.

“Authenticity is bogus,” he says. “It’s never real. Nobody knows himself well enough to be fully authentic, and trying to self-divulge all the time breeds shallow relationships because it denies the complexity and mystery of human personalities.”…

“I don’t see much benefit in everybody knowing everything about me,” says Bradley. “Jesus’ example is to be guarded and realistic about human nature….”

Read more….
Or, as contemporary philosopher Roger Scruton once said, “If sincerity means showing what you really are, it’s good to be sincere only if it’s good to show what you are.”

Whip It Good (Da Vinci Code 1)

The day after Christmas seems like a good time to defend corporal mortification. (Memo to world: stop giving me cake unless you’re going to reinforce my office chair.) Anyhow, with the shining obliviousness to social trends that has always been my hallmark, I am just now getting round to reading The Da Vinci Code, and finding it both as exciting and as annoying as I expected.

I mean, poor Silas. In case you don’t know, he’s the tormented albino monk who likes to whip himself when he’s not assassinating people. The book makes a little effort to arouse our sympathies about his abusive childhood, but the overall tone is voyeuristic and superior. Just as in Chocolat, a film that made fun of the Lenten fast, we’re supposed to apply our little pop-Freudian insight that anyone who would deny himself bodily pleasure (or worse, deliberately undergo suffering) for the sake of spiritual formation must be repressed and neurotic at best, a lustful hypocrite at worst. By implication, nothing that this character believes should be taken seriously.

I’m not a big fan of extreme ascetic practices, as they can feed un-Christian ambitions to bring about perfection by our own efforts. Meditation, therapy and a sense of humor about one’s inevitable weaknesses are a healthier path for most everyday struggles with temptation. BUT — a little respect, please, for anyone who loves righteousness so much that he’s willing to tear his own flesh to conquer the devil within.

Ask yourself: would Dan Brown mock a vegan? a bodybuilder? an anorexic? a U.S. Marine? a Buddhist monk who set himself on fire to protest the Vietnam War? Like Silas, and unlike me most of the time, these folks have made some extreme physical sacrifices, sometimes for a noble goal, other times for a questionable one (you do the match-up yourselves, kids). I’m with Simone Weil, who saw something godly in every effort to transcend one’s self through discipline, even a mundane one like doing your math homework when you hate math. Christianity needs its freaks.

The Pedestal Magazine Celebrates 6th Anniversary

The Pedestal Magazine, an appealing online journal of literature and art, celebrates its 6th anniversary this week. Highlights of the latest issue include a poem by Ed Frankel, who won our Winning Writers War Poetry Contest this year, and a review of Mitzi Szereto’s anthology Dying for It: Tales of Sex and Death, to which I contributed a story.

Jendi to Read at Housing Works Cafe in NYC, Jan. 18

I’ll be reading my poetry at Housing Works Used Books Cafe in Manhattan on Jan. 18 along with John Yau and Sara Femenella, in an event sponsored by the Saint Ann’s Review. Housing Works is located at 126 Crosby Street. The show begins at 7 PM. Find out more here.

John Yau is a leading art critic, poet, essayist, and prose writer whose books include The United States of Jasper Johns (1996), Borrowed Love Poems (2002), and Ing Grish (2006). He has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Academy of American Poets and the Guggenheim Foundation. Sara Femenella is currently an MFA candidate in Poetry at Columbia University. I’m very excited to be reading with these talented writers, and hope to see lots of poetry fans there. Spread the word!

The Gospel of Johnny

Chris Tessone at Even the Devils Believe has an excellent series of posts up about the theology of the late, great singer Johnny Cash (starts here).  Chris says:

There is no doubt that Johnny Cash believes the Law must be taken seriously. Many of his songs about prisoners and the condemned are conspicuous in the fact that their narrators or main characters take full responsibility for their crimes; some of them even die for those crimes. Sam Hall does so defiantly, while the narrator of “I Hung My Head” is stunned and terrified by the consequences of his actions, but both go to the gallows without protest all the same.

But Cash also espouses what might be called a liberal position on sin as social failure, too, without sensing any contradiction with his more “conservative” ideas about personal responsibility. In “Man in Black”, he expresses sympathy for and solidarity with “the prisoner who has long paid for his crimes, but is there because he’s a victim of the times.” The song that haunts me more than any other in his corpus is “Drive On”, which discusses the social alienation felt by Vietnam veterans returning to the United States — there’s little question that in singing this song, Cash is blaming American society for the reception those men received.

These two themes are woven throughout Cash’s performances. The interplay between these two sources of human evil permit him to feel solidarity not only with the wrongly-imprisoned, but with the voice of his famous “Folsom Prison Blues”, a convict who “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Cash reports in his autobiography that this struck him as one of the most depraved things one human being could do to another. It’s clear he holds this fictional presence responsible to the fullness of the Law and yet still regards him as a human being deserving the care and concern of other people.

As for me, if it were my last day on earth, Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” is the album I’d be playing over and over again.

Book Notes: Jonathan Edwards, America’s Evangelical

I’m currently reading Philip F. Gura’s brief, lively biography Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical, which holds special interest for me because the great 18th-century theologian and preacher spent the first two decades of his career in my adopted hometown of Northampton, Mass. The issues of church discipline and unity that Edwards confronted seem uncomfortably familiar, 250 years on.

Casual students of church history know Edwards only as the author of the infamous “spider” sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” where he thunders that God’s unmerited mercy is the only thing keeping Him from dropping your loathsome soul into the pit of hell. This leads modern readers to picture Edwards as a dour, witch-burning sort of fellow, because we’re no longer comfortable with the theology of damnation that was pretty standard in his day. According to Gura’s very sympathetic portrait of the Puritan minister, Edwards’ true passion was not fire-and-brimstone but awakening sincere “religious affections” in a church that had become hidebound and hypocritical. He preached and wrote copiously on the beauty of God’s holiness and the love and joy that arise in a heart transformed by grace.

Because he was a Calvinist, however, he insisted that spiritual transformation happened solely on God’s initiative. He fought all his life against Arminian tendencies in the New England churches, as Enlightenment philosophy and the colonists’ increasing economic security made people more inclined to trust their own efforts to attain salvation. Ironically, the spiritual revival known as the Great Awakening, which Edwards helped spark, also released a spirit of resistance to church authority that made the absolutely sovereign God of Calvinism seem less appealing.

Gura reveals the power struggles behind Edwards’ ouster from his Northampton pulpit, which is sometimes misperceived as a triumph of liberalism over repression. Two teenage sons of prominent families were getting their kicks from a forbidden textbook on female anatomy, and the congregation was not happy with Edwards’ attempts to discipline them. It’s easy to side against Edwards as Puritan censor, when the material in question seems laughably tame by our standards. When Gura points out that the boys were using the book to sexually harass young women, and that the underlying issue was the minister’s moral authority over wealthy and powerful laymen, one feels more sympathy for the beleaguered cleric. Edwards reportedly had a happy marriage (with 13 children, surely no prude), and respected his wife’s piety so much that he made her born-again experience a central feature of one of his narratives of the revival.

Despite the very different cultural context, Edwards’ story closely mirrors some important tensions that persist in the churches today. One such is the role of communion (a/k/a the Mass or the Eucharist). Is it a privilege reserved for those with certain beliefs or religious experiences, or is it more like an altar call? In the 17th century, the Puritan churches had required testimony of a born-again experience before one could be admitted as a full member with communion privileges – a status that had social and political implications as well as spiritual ones. Edwards’ grandfather and predecessor in the Northampton pulpit, Solomon Stoddard, had eliminated this requirement as not based in Scripture, arguing also that it inappropriately set men up as judges of one another’s spiritual state. Stoddard opined that the experience of taking communion might trigger a spiritual transformation in itself. Edwards continued this policy until late in his Northampton career, when he was deeply disappointed to see that many who had been caught up in the revival enthusiasms quickly backslid into immoral behavior. Requiring born-again testimony was his way of distinguishing the victims of temporary hysteria from those whose hearts had really been changed by God. Unfortunately, it also cost him his job.

Nowadays, we see the same tension between two visions of the Lord’s Supper, and by extension the church. One impulse leads us to form a community of the pure; the other stresses radical openness. So, on the one hand, you have the Catholic Church, which restricts communion not only to Christians, but to Catholics, and within that sect, to those who do not openly defy church teaching in selected areas (particularly abortion). On the other hand, you have my Episcopal parish, which extends communion to “all who are worshipping with us,” baptized or not. The looming schism in the Anglican Communion over homosexuality similarly forces us to ask how much doctrinal variation and error we can tolerate and still remain one body. (FYI, I am in favor of full acceptance of gays and lesbians; that and the 1982 Hymnal are the only things keeping me away from Mother Rome’s embrace.)

Picking heroes and villains in this debate misses the point. The church needs both impulses in order to fulfill its mission. Communion and membership rules should always be informed by Jesus’ willingness to mingle with sinners before they became cleansed. (Having briefly attended a church where you were expected to be “slain in the spirit” every week, I’m suspicious of demands for Christians to work up a particular emotion on cue.) On the other hand, if one can fully participate in church life without having made a commitment to Christ, the church edges toward irrelevance; it becomes hard to answer the aging boomer who asks “Can’t I worship God just as well looking at the sunrise from my hot tub?”  

How should that “commitment to Christ” be manifested, then? Baptism has the virtue of being an objective, bright-line rule, compared to the fuzziness and potential emotional dishonesty of experiential signs. Again, Edwards’ trajectory is instructive. His efforts on behalf of the religious revival stemmed from his perception that many people’s faith had become empty formalism. However, once the Holy Spirit is on the loose, it’s hard to put Him back in the bottle again. Edwards found himself struggling to reassert his moral authority as a clergyman after God had seemed to speak directly through low-status laypeople such as women and children. The balancing act between openness and leadership never ends.

I wasn’t expecting to find this much common ground with Edwards, since I instinctively recoil from the Calvinist doctrine of predestination (all people deserve hell but God arbitrarily saves a few). Gura’s book summarizes Edwards’ creative attempt to reconcile this doctrine with free will and moral responsibility. According to the Puritan preacher, we are all free to do whatever we want to do, and therefore morally accountable for doing it. But what we want to do is determined by the good or evil disposition that God predestined us to have. Thus Jesus, for instance, was simultaneously free to sin but incapable of sinning.

This analysis made me realize that the problem I have with Calvinism is not that it’s unfair, but that it’s unkind. The whole idea of calculating our moral deserts is sort of beside the point if you believe in salvation by grace. Let’s even assume Edwards is right that we all deserve damnation. However, if God has decided to save some people anyhow, out of the goodness of His love, why wouldn’t he choose to save everyone, if it were totally up to Him? Isn’t His love infinite?

Edwards’ psychology also makes me uneasy. At least by Gura’s description, he believed our dispositions were fixed, unless changed instantaneously by God’s
grace. This all-or-nothing mentality stands in stark contrast to contemplative traditions like Buddhism or medieval Catholicism that heavily emphasized spiritual practice; through cultivating good spiritual habits, they say, one can gradually change one’s character and reorient one’s affections. This seems healthier to me than the bipolar cycle of revivalism. Evangelical Protestantism’s move away from “slow and steady” spiritual disciplines, in favor of emotional moments of decision, may be both a symptom of its co-optation by anti-intellectual and subjectivist tendencies in American culture, and a reason why its critique of this culture is less effective than it might be.