Simon DeDeo on Escaping the Slush Pile

Simon DeDeo, editor of the new literary journal absent and the poetry review blog rhubarb is susan, offers some invaluable advice in this post from December about how editors react to unsolicited poetry submissions. Highlights:

“Read the guidelines before submitting….Guidelines are not oppressive tools of the ruling class, they are the only thing standing between us and Bartleby’s desk of refusal.”

“Funny or wacky cover letters are really not fun. If we are reading your cover letter, we are reading your submission. A small minority of contributors I felt were adopting tactics from the marketing industry more suited to selling X-treme colas than actual poetry. I didn’t throw anything out because of a cover letter — I don’t expect poets to know how to interact with other human beings — but please: make our lives more pleasant by being brief and to the point.”

“Choose poems that spring off of each other, that generate energy from being read together. Opening your submission should be like opening a can of worms. Suddenly there are poetic worms all over my desk! Worms everywhere! I cannot get rid of them. Do not send me actual worms.”

Those of you who are concerned with the relationship between art, power and the avant-garde should also check out DeDeo’s essay “Towards an Anarchist Poetics”.

Poetry Roundup: Kelly Cherry, Jean-Paul Pecqueur

This poem by Kelly Cherry from The Cortland Review somehow spoke to me today:

She Doesn’t Care What you Say About Her, Just so Long as you Spell Her Name Right

Would she have fame?
Would she take tea and have fame with her tea?
Or roll a joint, famously?

She imagined approval, applause
A man not bored by her voracity.

In the house to be
Furnished in the future,
There would be intricate, quiet rugs,
Acres of books,
Someone playing the cello.

A late supper after the concert or play…
Outside, the people were clamoring for autographs.

The Madonna Syndrome:

Later, they went home,
And the man who was not bored
By the fact that she loved him
Allowed her to write her name
On his balls with the tip
Of her tongue as many times
As it took to make sure
He got it right.

In other news, those whose interest was piqued by my review of The Case Against Happiness should check out this even better review at the poetry blog The Great American Pinup, and this interview with Pecqueur at the blog every other day.

G.K. Chesterton on Why Religious Ideas Matter

From the first chapter of Heretics:

Nothing more strangely indicates an enormous and silent evil of modern society than the extraordinary use which is made nowadays of the word “orthodox.” In former days the heretic was proud of not being a heretic. It was the kingdoms of the world and the police and the judges who were heretics. He was orthodox. He had no pride in having rebelled against them; they had rebelled against him. The armies with their cruel security, the kings with their cold faces, the decorous processes of State, the reasonable processes of law–all these like sheep had gone astray. The man was proud of being orthodox, was proud of being right. If he stood alone in a howling wilderness he was more than a man; he was a church. He was the centre of the universe; it was round him that the stars swung. All the tortures torn out of forgotten hells could not make him admit that he was heretical. But a few modern phrases have made him boast of it. He says, with a conscious laugh, “I suppose I am very heretical,” and looks round for applause. The word “heresy” not only means no longer being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous. The word “orthodoxy” not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong. All this can mean one thing, and one thing only. It means that people care less for whether they are philosophically right. For obviously a man ought to confess himself crazy before he confesses himself heretical. The Bohemian, with a red tie, ought to pique himself on his orthodoxy. The dynamiter, laying a bomb, ought to feel that, whatever else he is, at least he is orthodox.

It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe. That was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object. But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the great revolutionary period. General theories are everywhere contemned; the doctrine of the Rights of Man is dismissed with the doctrine of the Fall of Man. Atheism itself is too theological for us to-day. Revolution itself is too much of a system; liberty itself is too much of a restraint. We will have no generalizations….

This was certainly not the idea of those who introduced our freedom. When the old Liberals removed the gags from all the heresies, their idea was that religious and philosophical discoveries might thus be made. Their view was that cosmic truth was so important that every one ought to bear independent testimony. The modern idea is that cosmic truth is so unimportant that it cannot matter what any one says. The former freed inquiry as men loose a noble hound; the latter frees inquiry as men fling back into the sea a fish unfit for eating. Never has there been so little discussion about the nature of men as now, when, for the first time, any one can discuss it. The old restriction meant that only the orthodox were allowed to discuss religion. Modern liberty means that nobody is allowed to discuss it. Good taste, the last and vilest of human superstitions, has succeeded in silencing us where all the rest have failed. Sixty years ago it was bad taste to be an avowed atheist. Then came the Bradlaughites, the last religious men, the last men who cared about God; but they could not alter it. It is still bad taste to be an avowed atheist. But their agony has achieved just this– that now it is equally bad taste to be an avowed Christian. Emancipation has only locked the saint in the same tower of silence as the heresiarch. Then we talk about Lord Anglesey and the weather, and call it the complete liberty of all the creeds.

Book Notes: The Case Against Happiness

One of my favorite literary discoveries this year was Jean-Paul Pecqueur’s poetry collection The Case Against Happiness, which won the 2005 Kinereth Gensler Award from Alice James Books. That’s happiness as in “life, liberty and the pursuit of”. Pecqueur isn’t the first contemporary author to question the standard American Dream, but he stands out for his good-natured, funny and humble narrative voice, as well as his willingness to examine philosophical foundations instead of remaining at the level of shallow political polemic.

Pecqueur’s offbeat characters include an Aeschylus-quoting barber, a girl voguing for a supermarket security camera, and a shoe salesman who observes that Muzak makes him think of death. Like the narrator, they are constantly groping for a more substantial mode of existence that always remains just beyond the margins of thought and language. The poems’ wild associative leaps mirror the author’s inability to find the coherent, contented self that the Enlightenment promised. “Discord at the Cartesian Theater” begins:

Of how it came to be
that we can do what we like,
mostly, yet cannot know what we like
until we set the reconnaissance 
      dinghy adrift
upon the quarry pond of a fully 
      rationalized desire
you insist that we cannot profitably 

And yet you have seen what follows: 
      the cow
path meandering across the great 
with great gangs of bored thrill 
rambling on about how there must be 
      a beeline
to Sublime Overlook…

There you have it: the history of the past two centuries in 11 lines. The post-Enlightenment autonomous self is freed from moral and communal constraints on the fulfillment of its desires, only to be imprisoned by a new dogma of the intellect, which declares that anything that can’t be proven by science and logic is unsayable and therefore meaningless. Freedom collapses into sentimentalism and subjectivity, as we seek a shortcut to spiritual bliss without discipline. Pecqueur takes another stab at the rationalist metanarrative in “Like an Avant-garde Classic in Braille”:

Why all this Sisyphean fuss
and bother? Just the way it is,
you say? Well, let me reassure you —

that standard modernist yarn
about what there is and what
we can think about being
two different things like two
sweet peas in a pod

is simply that, a loose thread
loose in box of like threads.

A god-sized box.

A thread-sized thread.

There’s no cynicism or bitterness in this book, a rare achievement. Pecqueur does not place himself above his characters in the manner of Flaubert. To the contrary, their sincere bewilderment and nearly inarticulate aspirations are treated tenderly; their realness offers a glimpse of escape from the sterile world of intellectual systems and institutions, whose promises he finds hollow. In “We’ve Been There. Done That.” he writes:

I’ve met machines designed to 
the heart rate of the wingbeat of the 

luna moth, machines guided by inner 
projected from alphabetic satellites.
They were sleek and hairless post-
      human machines.
Meaning, forget about the Great Chain 
      of Being.

Forget about the woegriefgloom of 
We are not links broken off Orion’s 
      silver belt.
We’ve been there. Done that. We’ve 
      boarded ships
piloting themselves across oceans 
      portioned out

to the last molecule just as we have 
over the sunburst the bountiful plains. 
      So go ahead,
tell me again; say something I don’t 
      already know
or couldn’t just as easily find out the 
      hard way.

At first glance, it seems absurd that everyone at the mall would want to talk about the duende, or that the narrator’s mother would cite the burning of the library at Alexandria while looking for the stereo’s remote control. But rather than mock their pretensions, Pecqueur makes us recognize their unexpectedly rich inner lives. If this hodgepodge of erudite references (“these fragments I have shored against my ruins,” as T.S. Eliot would say) seems an insufficient vocabulary for them to voice their spiritual yearnings, the fault lies in the language, not its users. They believed in good faith that the life of the mind really was democratically available to all, whereas the opening poem informs us, “The door to the Center for Educational Renewal is never open./This is not a metaphor.”

Fans of John Ashbery, which I am not, may get more out of some of the poems in this book that I found unnecessarily hard to follow. Pecqueur’s playful spirit is hard to fault, even when he leaps a little too far. You have to love someone who writes, “Asked where I wanted her to place the flowers/I responded that everywhere would be fine.” This book contains hope for escape from the prison of self through sympathy and humor.

Poem: “At Breakfast”

In the curve of the apple the child saw a 
of her life with them– a smooth cheek, 
      reflecting nothing
in its dull shine, the juice’s sour bite only within.
Words flew around her head each morning 
      like black birds
flapping from one carrion to the other.
The child couldn’t leave the dishes to soak.
She washed them as they grew soiled, 
      so no scrap
would lie neglected for long. Living with them
was like standing still
while two dressmakers picked over 
      every stitch
of what she wore, with bleeding fingers,
till the last scrap fell away into threads.
Should she move? Should she tear
the draperies away, or pick up a needle
and stab along with them, crying, “This is how
I want it mended, over here!”?
Meanwhile spoons scraped the bottoms 
      of bowls
and the water in the cups went down.
There wasn’t much time
before they all had to leave.

published in A Talent for Sadness (Turning Point Books, 2003), and in Hanging Loose

Some More Words I Shouldn’t Say

Touchstone Magazine’s blog is hosting a lively debate in its comments box on whether Christians should use dirty words. (My previous post on this topic is here.) I particularly liked Tony Esolen’s observation that “Coarseness or vulgarity is, in itself, not sinful, and in fact we can commit the sin of pride by pretending that we are too high and mighty to hear certain words; and we can commit the sin of uncharity by using certain words among those who would find them scandalous. The drill sergeant had damned well not speak like a lady; and the man addressing the PTA had damned well not speak like a drill sergeant.” Alas, I’ve been known to do both.

When I was in junior high school, I prided myself on never using profanity. Of course, I also prided myself on eating only preservative-free food, not wearing makeup, and not knowing the names of any rock bands except the Beatles. Boy, did I have a rod up my…donkey.

Same-Sex Love and the Bible

Kim Fabricius has a rigorous and (to me) reassuring post up at the Faith and Theology blog, “Twelve Propositions on Same-Sex Relationships and the Church”. Highlights:

I take it that homosexuality – and certainly the homosexuality I am talking about – is a given, not a chosen (a “life-style choice”); a disposition recognised, not adopted; a condition as “normal” as left-handedness – or heterosexuality (whether by nature or nurture is a moot but morally irrelevant point). I also assume an understanding of human sexuality that is not over-genitalised, where friendship, intimacy, and joy are as important as libido, and where sexual acts themselves are symbolic as well as somatic….Fundamentally, homosexuality is about who you are, not what you do, let alone what you get up to in bed. This is a descriptive point. There is also a normative point: I am talking about relationships that are responsible, loving, and faithful, not promiscuous, exploitative, or episodic….

[W]e must certainly examine specific texts – and then (I submit) accept that they are universally condemnatory of homosexual practice. Arguments from silence – “Look at the relationship between David and Jonathan,” or, “Observe that Jesus did not condemn the centurion’s relationship with his servant” – are a sign of exegetical desperation. No, the Bible’s blanket Nein must simply be acknowledged. But Nein to what? For here is a fundamental hermeneutical axiom: “If Biblical texts on any social or moral topic are to be understood as God’s word for us today, two conditions at least must be satisfied. There must be a resemblance between the ancient and modern social situation or institution or practice or attitude sufficient for us to be able to say that in some sense the text is talking about the same thing that we recognise today. And we must be able to demonstrate an underlying principle at work in the text which is consonant with biblical faith taken as a whole, and not contradicted by any subsequent experience or understanding” (Walter Houston)….

The first condition is not satisfied. The Bible knows nothing about homosexual orientation, or about homosexual relationships as defined [above]. In the Old Testament, the stories about Lot and his daughter (Genesis 19) and the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19) are about gang-bangs, while the prohibitions against homosexuality in the Holiness Code (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) are about (a) cultic cleanliness and (b) male dominance (i.e. a man should not treat another man like a woman). While purity concerns are not entirely anachronistic, Brueggemann is surely right to say that if push comes to shove, justice trumps purity….

It is at least noteworthy that Paul deploys the language of dishonour and shame, rather than sin, to describe male-male relationships, which, in any case, are but a specific instance of the universal distortion of desire that enters the world as a result of the primal sin of idolatry….There is also the question of the rhetorical function of Romans 1:18ff. – or rather Romans 1:18-2:5. As James Alison observes (rightly ignoring conventional chapter and verse denotation), Paul’s argument works by condemning Gentile sexual practices – why? – so as to set his Jewish-Christian “hearers up for a fall, and then delivering the coup de grace” (Romans 2:1), such that “the one use to which his reference could not be put, without doing serious violence to the text, is a use which legitimates any sort of judging” such behaviour.

More to the point, again, is the question of the nature of the homosexual relationships being condemned. Are they the kind of relationships defined in Proposition 2? Is, therefore, the first condition of the hermeneutical axiom stated in Proposition 3 satisfied? The answer is No to both questions. The Hellenistic homosexual relationships that Paul condemns, if not forms of cultic prostitution, would normally have been both asymmetrical in terms of age, status, and power (the “approved” form was pederasty) and therefore open to exploitation, as well as inherently transitory. And as Rowan Williams reflects on Romans 1: “Is it not a fair question to ask whether conscious rebellion and indiscriminate rapacity could be presented as a plausible account of the essence of ‘homosexual behaviour’, let alone homosexual desire, as it may be observed around us now,” let alone in the church?

Summing up the Old and New Testament texts as they contribute to the contemporary discussion on homosexuality, the late Gareth Moore says: “In so far as we can understand them, they are not all concerned with the same things, they do not all condemn the same things, and they do not all condemn what they do for the same reasons. Most importantly, they do not all condemn same-sex activity, some of them do not condemn same-sex activity, and none of them clearly condemns homosexual relationships or activity of a kind which is pertinent to the modern Christian debate.”

One thing I particularly liked about this post was that it finds Scriptural support for allowing empirical discoveries in science, psychology and history to change our interpretation of the Bible.

Saving Jesus (Episode 3): Book ‘Em, Danno

Last night’s Saving Jesus DVD was titled “What can we know about Jesus and how?” but the real topic was the unreliability of the Bible. I found myself in the peculiar position of defending the authority of Scripture, just hours after a conversation with a local evangelical pastor where I took the role of theological liberal. If my theology were put on a T-shirt, it would say “BUT…” Whence my compulsion to provide the missing vitamin in every discussion? I may have to give up disagreeing with people for Lent.

Anyhow, so Marcus Borg (yes, I’m going to hell for that — correct link here) opens the presentation by saying that the Bible doesn’t tell us how God sees things, only how the early Christians saw things. When we read the Bible, we should not ask “Why is God saying to me through this story?” but “Why did the writers of the Bible tell this story this way?”

(pause here for the sound of me spluttering incoherently, channeling the spirit of Frank Costanza — “Serenity now, dammit!”)

Number one: How the @#$%! does Borg know that the Bible does not express God’s message to humanity? God is God — who am I to say He couldn’t work this way if He wanted to? And since millions of people claim to have received His guidance through reading the Bible, it would be unreasonable and presumptuous for a Christian theologian, of all people, not to give some credence to their own interpretation of their experience.

Number two: If the Bible is purely a historical document, and the Holy Spirit is not at work in it, why should we bother with it? This class constantly puts the canonical and non-canonical “gospels” on an equal footing, and scoffs at the whole idea of orthodoxy versus heresy, because either these theologians don’t honestly believe there is any reasonable way to evaluate the merits of different doctrines, or they’re more afraid of sectarian strife than they are of falsehood. But if we’re not allowed to debate which version of the gospel best explains our shared reality, why should I care about anyone’s experience of Jesus except my own? 

Number three: The above question not only makes it pointless to read the Bible, but also makes it pointless to share our personal experiences of God here and now.

The deeper problem with this series, and the school of liberal theology it represents, is its hidden assumptions about what constitutes true knowledge — assumptions that postmodernism blew out of the water a long time ago.

Take this (unattributed) quote from the handout: “The literary genre of ‘gospel’ is anything but objective biography. The best that can be expected from these sources is a subjective representation of Jesus aimed at a particular community of believers. Gospels are not divine dictation of what happened or even ‘history’ as we understand it today.” Elsewhere on the DVD, pastor Bill Nelson asserts that the gospels are “not biography but propaganda.”

Right here we have a post-Enlightenment, scientistic (as opposed to scientific) assumption that knowledge is only reliable to the extent that it is divorced from personal commitment and emotion. The false ideal of “objective biography” implies that the person who views Jesus as a detached object of study will understand him better than someone who has staked her life on knowing and doing Jesus’ will.

Contrast this with the insights of Fr. Luigi Giussani in The Religious Sense. Here, the founder of the Catholic renewal movement Communion & Liberation considers how we can avoid bias and wishful thinking, without denying our personal stake in the quest for spiritual knowledge:

The more something interests an individual, that is to say, the more value it has (worth for a person’s life), the more vital it is (that is, interests life), the more powerfully will it generate a state of soul, a reaction of antipathy or sympathy — “feeling” — and the more forcefully will reasoning, in the act of knowing that value in relation to our lives, be conditioned by this feeling.  Thus our rationalistic culture can say: “It is clear that objective certainty cannot be reached when dealing with these types of phenomena because the factor of feeling plays too large a role. All questions concerning destiny, love, social, and political life and its ideals are a matter of opinion because one’s personal position in its mechanical aspect as a state of soul and feeling plays too large a role…. (p.26)

It may seem correct from a purely abstract point of view that man, when he judges something, should be absolutely neutral or altogether indifferent toward the object he judges. However, this cannot work well when vital values are involved. It is truly a mystification — not a utopia — to imagine that a judgment (the attempt to reach the truth of the object) made when one’s state of soul is perfectly untouched and completely indifferent is more worthy and valid. First of all, making such “indifferent” judgments is, above all, impossible, due to the very structure of human dynamism. The impact of feeling does not diminish, but increases where the object becomes more filled with meaning. Besides, judging a proposal regarding the meaning of our lives with absolute indifference would be like treating the problem as one would treat a rock…. (pp.28-29)

It seems evident to me…that the heart of the problem of human knowledge does not lie in a particular intellectual capacity….The center of the problem is really a proper position of the heart, a correct attitude, a feeling in its place, a morality….

[I]n order to give an object my attention, I must make some sort of judgment about it, I must take it into consideration and, to do so, I insist, I must possess a certain interest in it. What does this interest mean? It means I must have a desire to know what the object truly is….

Applying this to the field of knowledge, this is the moral rule: Love the truth of an object more than your attachment to the opinions you have already formed about it. More concisely, one could say, “love the truth more than yourself.” (pp.30-31)

This submission to the object of knowledge (Jesus or the Bible) seems alien to the hyper-individualism of “Saving Jesus”. Perhaps that’s why the program’s leadership is so wedded to a hermeneutic of suspicion. When discussing a discrepancy in the Bible, such as the fact that only one gospel contains the story of Peter receiving the keys of the church, my minister immediately looks for an ulterior motive: this must have been added later to bolster Peter’s claim of authority during a power struggle in the particular community for whom Matthew’s gospel was written. Similarly, last week he dismissed original sin as the product of St. Augustine’s guilt about his own sexuality, and the week before that, the divinity of Christ as the result of the Roman Empire co-opting the church. It’s inconceivable to him that the content of the doctrines or stories had anything to do with their acceptance into the canon, because that would mean we had to consider their truth-claims.

It breaks my heart to see my fellow parishioners being led around in circles, wasting their energy on endless intellectual debates, and whipped up into paranoia about the Bible and the church. Learning begins with an act of trust. I don’t understand how to read most of the Bible, but some of the parts I do understand saved my life, and so I’m going to keep at it. There’s no way I can do that unless I listen to others who have read it before me. I’m a firm believer in the “Anglican synthesis” of scripture, tradition, reason and experience. It seems to me that my church has cut the first two legs off the stool, while some of the more conservative churches have cut off the other two (or at least made them a lot shorter and more wobbly). To paraphrase Martin Luther, Here I sit — I can do no other!

Poem: “favors for undesirable men”

The two quarreling:

pliable affair acquiescent? frequent, discreet, enthusiastic?
      –bellicose forsaken Horton, bartender;

            insolent lick! approve brainy celibacy
               –flip schoolgirlish Hollywood Helena Lee

An agitated lady
in scarlet headbands, chiton velvety

   Horton: lounge bartend asexual chronic
   admire the creamcolored beautiful secretary
   lettuce masturbate
   one sexy cylinder—visible, lengthy!

         Helena: seeing someone come?
         confusion expel itself nasty.
         lesbian estop nuzzle

Tapping the glass
official functionary aunt postal domestic

         Hey you have a card waiting from “Antimony
P. Bantamweights”

The telegram contained:

      Hi it’s been too long since I saw you

      married screwworm despotic
      shrill absolute delilah
      cyanic wedlock

      desirous chance herein
      fiery bondage ejaculate
      your secret drosophila, is my secret

Something rustled under
bedroom divan
amiss worrisome degeneracy, brassiere

injudicious doll

      Horton: hellish hypocrisy! devil knows what’s–

And followed after
buff Diego, grievous sense impelling

Irrepressible fear came

      at the big windows
      the downpour burst

a dusty cloud
emblem battlefield hot

final lusty fisticuff — riven proud innards
blood ran down
drenched fragment of mirror

         Helena: Diego, did you shoot—
         staggering and looking

dying, fancied the lights
aqua flashback, halogen dream

Author’s Note: This poem, including the title, was entirely composed of phrases found in spam emails.

Saving Jesus (Episode 2): You’re an Original, Baby

Last Wednesday’s installment of Saving Jesus at my church took aim at original sin, but it quickly became obvious to me that neither my minister nor the theologians featured on the DVD had any idea what the doctrine meant. Wikipedia, that source of all that is good and true, has a reasonably good overview here. Highlights:

The Augustinian tradition makes a clear distinction between sin which is the result of freely and consciously chosen actions, and the impersonal nature of original sin; namely the unchosen context and situations into which the child is born and which surrounds the baby, and into which the child might be educated and formed. Effectively, the Augustinian teaching says that even though the baby has not made any conscious choice, it is nevertheless personally affected by—and subject to—sin, and that God’s grace is essential to give hope and salvation. The Augustinian view is seen by some scholars as a negative view of human nature, since Augustine of Hippo believed that the human race, without God’s help, is depraved.

Original sin, from the Augustinian perspective, is not a free and individual choice by a baby; but rather the effect of the sum total of “world sin”, taught analogously through the story of the sin of Adam and Eve. The Augustinian doctrine of original sin teaches that every individual is born into a broken world where sin is already active; that they are inevitably influenced personally by the actions of others and the consequences of choices made by others. The Augustinian effectively believes that human nature—and hence every individual person—is flawed. The Augustinian remedy for original sin is baptism; the ritual washing away of the unchosen but inevitable condition of birth sin; and a vigorous declaration by Christians that sin shall not prevail, but that God’s grace can overpower it with our free cooperation….

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that in “yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state … original sin is called “sin” only in an analogical sense: it is a sin “contracted” and not “committed”—a state and not an act” (404). This “state of deprivation of the original holiness and justice … transmitted to the descendants of Adam along with human nature” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 76) involves no personal responsibility or personal guilt on their part (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 405). Personal responsibility and guilt were Adam’s, who because of his sin, was unable to pass on to his descendants a human nature with the holiness with which it would otherwise have been endowed, in this way implicating them in his sin.

Though Adam’s sinful act is not the responsibility of his descendants, the state of human nature that has resulted from that sinful act has consequences that plague them.

It seems to me that of all the Christian doctrines, this one would be the easiest to believe. No one who takes an honest look at themselves, let alone the world, can deny that there is always a gap between our moral ideals and what we actually do. All the willpower and wisdom of our ancestors has failed to produce utopia. In fact, the grander our schemes to eradicate human evil, the more likely we are to descend into tyranny and totalitarianism, viewing others as mere obstacles to our plans to cleanse the species.

What a bummer.

So I understand the appeal of Matthew Fox’s alternative, “original blessing,” which was the focus of this week’s DVD presentation. Fox is a joyful mystic who reminds us that God’s original design for the world was good, and that we can still encounter Him in every aspect of creation. Classical theologians have often exercised far more imagination in painting the torments of sin and hell than in depicting the beauty and holiness of God. Fox invites us to see the “cosmic Christ” in all living beings (something like the “Buddha nature”). When we chop down a forest or drive a species to extinction, we are killing Christ, he says.

Anything that motivates Christians to care about the environment is fine with me; the post-Enlightenment West has been captured too long by a mechanical, exploitative view of nonhuman creatures. But…nature is more than just the waving trees and soaring seagulls on the DVD. When a lion eats a zebra, is he killing Christ? The Creation also fell when humanity sinned. Pain, suffering, death, the scarcity of resources that means we all live at another’s expense — these are original sin as applied to nature. The Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer’s famous engraving of Adam and Eve shows the moment before the fatal bite into the apple: Adam’s foot is on the tail of a mouse, while a cat watches stealthily, as if to signify that predation is about to enter the world.

Christianity exists to answer the life-or-death question: what do we do when we come up against the limits of our own goodness, individually and as a species? What if Atlas CAN’T hold up the world — because he’s part of it?

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. (Romans 7:15-8:4, NIV)

I cited this passage in the discussion period of “Saving Jesus” last week, after my minister said there was no Biblical support for original sin, and he said, “Well, I’m glad that works for you, but the doctrine that you find appealing may be a turn-off to somebody else.” (He also said “heresies are neither right nor wrong, they’re just different expressions of how people experience Jesus”.)

And that’s the heart of our disagreement. For the “Saving Jesus” crowd, religion is about producing spiritual experiences. For me, it’s about understanding and coping with reality. Heresies are heretical because they don’t work. They fail to explain important aspects of human nature, or lead us further from ethical behavior, or produce cramped and judgmental souls instead of strong and joyful ones, or just make no logical sense. “One true faith” is no more imperialist than “one true science”. I would like to see Christianity become more like science in this sense: to once again understand itself as a truth-seeking enterprise, premised on a single shared reality, yet recognizing that its descriptions of that reality are evolving approximations, and displaying a democratic and humble openness to consider new information from every source. Now that would be original.