Signs of the Apocalypse: Product Placement for the Dead

This week’s Springwise business trends newsletter reports on Eternal Image, a maker of coffins and funerary urns customized with your favorite sports or product logos:

In a lively new twist on what you might call a dead industry, Eternal Image is bringing licensing to the afterlife—through branded caskets and cremation urns. Now lifelong supporters of select sports teams and other brands have the option to take their loyalty all the way to their final resting spot.

Eternal Image has licensing agreements with 30 Major League Baseball teams (urns and caskets will available late 2007), the Vatican Library, Precious Moments—and there are even special urns licensed by the American Kennel Club and Cat Fanciers Association to preserve the ashes of beloved pets. More than just a gimmick, Eternal Image products are made with high-quality rot-resistant composite materials and are designed to be tasteful representations of a person’s interests. The company continues to seek new partners and expand its offerings to appeal to a broader audience.

I wouldn’t consider an urn stoppered with a plastic baseball “tasteful,” but chacun a son gout. As for the slogan I’d like to take to the grave, I’m undecided between this and this.

“This New Armada” by Conway

My correspondent “Conway,” a prisoner at a supermax facility in central California who’s serving 25-to-life under the state’s three-strikes law for receiving stolen goods, reports in his July 13 letter that conditions have improved since his transfer to a new facility. He now has a job as education clerk, grading GED’s, and access to a typewriter and a library of donated books. (Unfortunately, I have no way for readers of this site to send him books without revealing his name and location, which he’s asked me not to do; instead, if you are so moved by this post, donate some quality reading materials to a prison in your area.) Here’s one of his latest poems, written on the back of a news story from several years ago about brutality at Corcoran prison:

This New Armada

I never understood this loss
   till cuffs were locked behind my hands;
I should’ve seen it comin along
   slidin past my hourglass’ sands.
Inside heaped stones, heavy of time
   forever life’s boulders climb
out of reach my memories leach
   reminisce the cloudless sky
clinging to my heart, like a lover apart
   caught in a hurricane’s eye…

Treading the sweating dust, with lust
   after a desert storm,
bringing the singing lightning along
   in its jagged twisted form.
On this unwholesome Armada —
   of prisons, marching across the land
waiting to crush the abandoned souls
   into miniscule grains of sand
These inescapable islands adrift
   dark sentinels of injustices thirst
a land of chain webs-n-mazes
   cunning nets, sworn to catch you first…

High walls with strung wires
   broken strings on an old guitar
reminding the unforgiven alone
   left serenading “The Morning Star”
it is bad when you run away
   “They say” that Razor wire hurts
Those ominous ropes reveal —
   past attempts, you can see
their decomposing crucified shirts…

Why Church?

I’ve always managed my personal life on the theory that a bad relationship is worse than none at all. Ever since I was a very little girl, my fantasies revolved around falling in love and getting married. (Well, that and saving the world from evil.) Because I cared so much about being in relationship, I actually didn’t date a whole lot, and never got serious with anyone till I met the man I eventually married. I just didn’t have the time to waste. At least when you’re alone, you know you still need something. Like those annoying people who leave a shopping cart in a parking spot at the supermarket, filling that void with a lesser form of intimacy blocks the space where the real thing could enter your life.

As a Christian, it’s part of the deal that I have to be in fellowship with other believers. The church is the body of Christ. The Bible is very clear on this. Like marriage, this is my ideal. But also like marriage, there are worse things than being alone. I won’t settle for the false choices that the current cultural landscape presents. In the liberal church, even suggesting that the main qualification for clergy should be love of God and a personal relationship with Jesus draws the mocking response that those who want “that sort of thing” should become “holy-roller” fundamentalists. In the conservative church, the whole purpose of being in community is obviated if the price of belonging is to remain silent when gays and non-Christians are marked for damnation.

It’s dangerous to be a solitary Christian. We may pride ourselves that we’re too orthodox to endure diversity of opinion, or too compassionate to settle on any particular religious path. Christ endured the shame of being misunderstood and rejected, so none of us should be surprised that this is sometimes the price of living together, inevitably confronting our imperfect understanding and failures of charity toward one another. But…

Is it possible or healthy for an individual believer to cultivate sacrificial, self-giving love for a church community when that community doesn’t understand itself as the body of Christ? Can I be married to someone who doesn’t think he’s married to me?

Can I focus on my personal need to be recharged by a “religious experience” of worship with zealous believers, and ignore that their interpretation of certain Bible passages drives many more suffering people away from considering a relationship with Christ?

As I pondered this blog post today, an email newsletter from Relevant Magazine appeared in my inbox, with Leslie Herron’s article “Church, or Experiencing God?”

It is interesting to note that Abraham had no church affiliation, no denomination and no spiritual designation other then “Man Who Knows God.” His children and his children’s children had no religion either. Abraham had a running conversation with God for well over 25-years, yet God never felt it necessary to tell him how to live, how to worship or how to raise his children through a set of rules. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were without a religion, yet all three had mighty encounters with God.

God told Abraham to leave his country and to follow Him (Genesis 12); Abraham obeyed and was richly blessed for the rest of his life. Isaac was so blessed that even the evil sinners in the land recognized that God was with him (Genesis 26:28). Jacob, following after his dad’s pattern, was quite the deceiver, yet God gave him many children, finances and great favor. Even Esau (Isaac’s favorite son), from whom Jacob stole the blessing and the birthright from, prospered far above those around him.

It appears that none of these three men attended a church. The scripture never mentions that they followed a pattern of what we would consider worship, tithing or sacrifice. None of these men benefited from living in a country that was Godly or from teaching tapes, great preaching or what we would consider spiritual gifts.

Yet, all of these men walked with God in the middle of a grossly sinful and violent culture. They more then survived; they were wildly successful to the point that surrounding kings took notice.

When reading the story of Abraham and his children, it almost feels as if they have no way to know God except through a real experience with Him. There is no Christian worldview for them to be intellectually swayed by; there is no excellent worship service that would draw them in emotionally; and there are definitely no cultural benefits of serving just this One God.

Their relationship with God was raw and real, open and honest. They were rugged men who heard and responded to the voice of One they came to know better and better. They did not base their knowledge of God upon what someone else told them, but rather walked according to who they knew God to be from personal experience.

Read the rest here.

Now, before you start shaking your head and muttering “subjectivism” and “individualism”, let me repeat that I’m not saying solitary spiritual experience is all-sufficient. Only that for me, right now, if I really believe in the grace that I’m trying to sell to everyone else, I have to follow the path God seems to be sending me on, even though it doesn’t fit any socially approved templates. I don’t have the security of other people telling me that they also see the six-foot pink rabbit. But I see him, and if I’m only hallucinating after all, either he forgives me or this whole topic is irrelevant.

Support Soulforce Campaign for Gay Marriage in NY State

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer has introduced a bill to extend equal marriage rights to same-gender couples. Over the next two weeks, interfaith gay activist group Soulforce will be sponsoring GLBT youth to travel to the districts of key “swing vote” state senators and assembly members to tell their personal stories. Soulforce will hold townhall meetings, attend community events and church services, and speak with state legislators and their constituents about same-gender marriage. You can volunteer to participate or support them with your donations here.

35 Books for my 35th Birthday

The list below is something of a self-portrait in books. Most of them reflect, and in many cases helped shape, my current worldview. I recommend them for their beauty and wisdom, and the originality of their vision. They’re the books I reread while hundreds of their newer siblings languish on the shelf.

Poetry and Fiction

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Elegance and coherence of Christian ideas revealed in poetry

Katie Ford, Deposition
Contemporary poet chronicles via negativa in thorny yet beautiful language

Jack Gilbert, Refusing Heaven
Poems shine with hard-won affirmation of life

Gerard Manley Hopkins, God’s Grandeur and Other Poems
Mystical joy explodes normal patterns of meter and syntax

Mark Levine, Enola Gay
20th-century poetic Apocalypse

C.S. Lewis, Perelandra trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength)
Christian science fiction; CSL shares his beatific vision

Walter Wangerin Jr., The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Sorrows
Barnyard allegory of the gospel

Walter Wangerin Jr., The Orphean Passages
Master storyteller tells tale of minister who loses his faith and is saved by community’s love

The Arts

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art and Fear
Overcoming perfectionism and self-doubt in order to find one’s artistic vocation

George Steiner, Real Presences
Literary critic argues that positing a transcendent God is the only guarantee of meaning in literature and art

Christian Living

Henry Cloud & John Townsend, Boundaries
Healthy relationships; Christian altruism without codependency; a life-saving book

Garret Keizer, Help: The Original Human Dilemma
Complex meditations on effectively giving and receiving help

Garret Keizer, The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin
Uniquely balanced and compassionate assessment of the righteousness of anger in the Christian life, as well as its obvious dangers

Francine du Plessix Gray, Simone Weil
Biography of quirky saint who transcended weakness and absurdity through radical obedience

Christian Spirituality and Theology

Robert Farrar Capon, The Mystery of Christ…and Why We Don’t Get It
Grace, grace and more grace

G.K. Chesterton, Heretics and Orthodoxy
Early 20th-c. Christian apologist refutes modern heresies in witty prose

Rodney Clapp, Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels
Best book about the Incarnation, sex, death, the Eucharist, the body of Christ in the church

Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World
Christian love versus Gnostic narcissism and self-annihilation; history of the myth of self-transcendence through Eros

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
How friendship, familial love, eros and agape are distinct yet woven together in a Christian worldview

Richard F. Lovelace, Renewal as a Way of Life: A Guidebook for Spiritual Growth
Basics of Christian belief as a foundation for church unity, spiritual revival and social transformation

N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus
Jewish historical and religious context for Jesus’ messianic claims

Pluralism and Religious Truth

Stanley Fish, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech (and It’s a Good Thing Too)
Bad-boy law professor and Milton expert debunks liberal-secularist epistemology

Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society
Critique of Enlightenment epistemology argues that we know things by personal commitment; faith should not be on the defensive vis-a-vis “objective” science

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions
Maintaining uniqueness of Christ while humbly declining to speculate on salvation of non-Christians

James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?
How postmodern philosophy is more open to religious faith than the modernist- scientific paradigm that preceded it

Other Religions

Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro, Minyan: Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity
Jewish spirituality informed by Eastern mystical practices

Diana Winston, Wide Awake: Buddhism for the New Generation
Clear, lively introduction to meditation practice, mindfulness, compassion, and other Buddhist principles

Sharon Salzberg, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience
Buddhist teacher’s accessible memoir chronicles the stages of conversion and spiritual growth

History of Ideas

Jennifer Michael Hecht, The Happiness Myth
How different cultures have balanced our needs for the three kinds of happiness: euphoria, daily contentment and a worthwhile life

Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics
Acerbic history of modern utopianism and its limitations

Robin May Schott, Cognition and Eros
Marxist-feminist philosopher critiques classical and Christian mind-body dualism and projection of negative traits onto female body

And one to grow on…Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead didn’t make the list because I disagree with more of her ideology than I did when I first read it at age 13. However, I’ll always be grateful to Rand for teaching me to think philosophically and systematically about human behavior, and for giving me the courage to trust my own vision as an artist regardless of anyone’s opinion. Those lessons have been the foundation for my entire development as a writer and a Christian…though I doubt she’d recognize me as one of her progeny. A message of humility for us writers: we can’t ever foresee all the ripples of the little pebble we drop in the pond.

Beauty in Absence

Why do encounters with beauty often make us sad? Along with euphoria, I experience pain as I become more aware that my limited senses and attention span cannot fully comprehend or exhaust the possibilities of the sublime reality before me. As Edna St. Vincent Millay exclaimed, “World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!” Yet that pain is, in its own way, sweet. Brett McCracken reflects on this fact in “The Aesthetics of Absence” from Relevant Magazine:

The climax of watching the sun set is knowing that in a scant few minutes, it will be gone, consumed in the revolving horizon. And we feel this tension of impending loss—as joy, as tragedy, but above all as beauty.

And the more I think about beauty—and art—the more I realize how central absence is. What hits us the most—what goes beyond our senses and touches our souls—is not what is present, but what is absent. For good or ill, the state of being hungry and seeing some delicious food is undoubtedly more thrilling than constantly having a full table. To want, to pine, is always more fulfilling than constant satisfaction.

The importance of absence in art can be easily seen if we look at the aesthetic manifestations of it. In music, for example, beauty comes from a withheld melody or an elusive “home” chord. If a song is full of dominant chords, we don’t have any reason to keep listening; if it is all melody, it would be boring….

But why is absence so central to art? Perhaps absence is crucial to art for the same reasons that art is crucial to human existence. Art is how we cope with time.

If you think about it, everything in our conscious lives is some sort of absence. Our memories are about the past; our worries and hopes are about the future. Our every movement, mental process, emotion, etc is a reaction against something that is now over or might be coming. The pain we feel when we step on a nail may seem instantaneous, but it is really a delayed—however minutely—reaction. Presence is instantaneous, lived for a moment and then gone. All else is absence….

We long for the experience of presence—the suspension or transcendence of time. But in this life, presence is as permanent as the wind. What we are really longing for is heaven, God, the eternal. In this spinning planet, where the sun sets, rises and then sets again, the only constants are decay, change, goodbyes and impermanence. But thanks be to God, he gave humans a mind to see beyond this depressing state. He endowed us with memory, imagination—the ability to conceive of and hope for places beyond ourselves, for presences outside the asphyxiating stranglehold of time….

Art should not shy away from those things we associate with absence—loss, sadness, depravity, uncertainty. For without absence, there would be no reason for art. Art comes from the heart, and every human heart is like that empty tomb on Easter morning: missing something.

Adnan Mahmutovic: “Integration Under the Midnight Sun” (excerpt)

The latest issue of The Rose & Thorn e-zine features this lyrical and heartbreaking story by Adnan Mahmutovic, from his collection Refugee. “Integration Under the Midnight Sun” offers a glimpse of female refugees from the Bosnian war now living in Sweden, and the varied ways they come to terms with their memories of lost loved ones.

For three years I have been embalmed, but there is faint thunder under my ribs. I wear the same outfit in which I left Bosnia: a blue oversize cardigan somebody wrapped around me that night I was shoved into a bus to Sweden, a pink shirt and a white bra with laced edges underneath, a short corduroy skirt and mismatching colourful stockings like the ones of Pippi Longstocking.

I bask in the midnight sun, which is colder than usual. The polar circle is gliding down to this village. I do not want to go to my one-roomer. I have nothing there but two half-withered plants called Adam and Eve, sheltered behind metal shutters, cut off from all the temptations of nightlight. When they are not placed next to each other, Adam and Eve produce drops of water on their thick leaves—tears of separation. But these two specimens are crying all the time, as if they have been unhappily married since naked times.

It would be nice to have a house like the one back home in Bosnia, but what good would it be if it is not crowded by my parents and seven brothers. There would be no steam from the kitchen and thick, pungent smells of exhausted bodies. I used to tell them apart by the sweat on their cheeks, by the way it mixed with the soap smell from their uncombed hair and their hand-me-down clothes. In the mornings, I would lie in my bed, pretending to be asleep till each and every one of them gave me a kiss. They would whisper, “Snow White, rise and shine.” Waking up, the splendid ceremony.

Not any more. I wake up alone and the first face I see is my own. The mirror tells me my hair is no longer jet black; there are lime white, unwieldy streaks on my head, but my skin is still white….

Read the rest here. Read a review of Mahmutovic’s book here.

Pride NYC: June 2007

I was in NYC the last weekend of June for the Pride March, which I watched from the steps of my former church. The Church of the Ascension is on Fifth Avenue toward the end of the parade route. I was very moved to see members of the parish, in T-shirts reading “Proud Episcopalian,” spend hours passing cups of water to the marchers.  Too many heads in the way for me to get a photo of them, unfortunately.

The parade seemed more family-friendly this year than the last time I attended, five or six years ago. Despite the perfect weather, few bared all. I think there were also more religious groups, especially Episcopal ones. One of the grand marshals was Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, where my parents and I used to attend High Holy Days services. If you’re ever in NYC on Shabbat, check out CBST — Rabbi Kleinbaum gives the best sermons around. (Our family is at least three stripes in the diversity flag all by ourselves.)

Dignity USA is a Catholic group that advocates equality for women and gays in the Church.

The Episcopal flag and the rainbow flags.

I forget which group this was, but I liked their color scheme. Modern life offers too few opportunities to dress like a butterfly.

St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church members with their “Come to St. Bart’s” banner.

As usual, the drag queens were the best-dressed.

This was the noblest Roman of them all.

Riverside Church, an interdenominational Christian church near Columbia University, is known for its liberal political activism. Their senior minister emeritus, the Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes Jr., is an internationally acclaimed preacher.

Well, I guess that’s it till the Halloween parade…

Know Your Audience (A Little Too Well)

From yesterday’s Boston Globe, word of an unusual book-signing planned in Waitsfield, Vermont:

At The Tempest Book Shop, the paperback books won’t be the only things without jackets Thursday.

A “clothing optional” book signing event will be held by nudity author Jim C. Cunningham, with customers invited to leave their clothes at the door.

“The reason for this is to ‘put our bodies where our mouths are,’ living what we preach,” Cunningham said. “The public are invited to express their solidarity with our message by also donning their birthday suits upon entering the book store.”

The event is scheduled for 6 p.m., which is after the shop’s usual closing time. And there are rules: Everyone who plans to strip must bring a towel, and there’s no gawking….

Cunningham’s 596-page “Nudity & Christianity” book contains no pictures. It’s packed with biblical references to nudity and other citations that support his view that nudity is natural, not erotic, and that clothing — generally — should be optional.

Well, they do say that the cure for stage fright is to imagine your audience naked.

Steve Almond on How (Not) to Write About Sex

Fiction writer Steve Almond is a master at combining eros, comedy and tragedy in such books as The Evil B.B. Chow. Venturing for the first time into this dangerous territory myself, I found his advice in this article from the Boston Phoenix newspaper quite helpful, and entertaining to boot. Along with specifics like “never compare a woman’s nipples to Frankenstein’s bolts,” he reminds writers that good erotica is about the ways in which sex reveals characters’ personality and emotions. A humanizing dose of comedy lends realism and sets your writing apart from mere porn.

Following Margaret Cho’s philosophy that the best thing to do with an embarrassing moment is to broadcast it over the mass media, I’ll share this incident from the writing life: Last weekend I finally forced myself to write the all-important first sex scene between my novel’s pair of male lovers. My longsuffering husband comes into our studio and begins asking me a home-repair question. “Not now, sweetie, I’m in the middle of a blowjob.” Adam says, “Uh, you know the guy from the roofing company is in the room, right?” 

If this were my novel and not real life, an hour later we’d have gotten the shingles replaced for free…