Signs of the Apocalypse: Divorce Expo

An event held this past weekend in Austria suggests that none of life’s milestones are safe from commercial exploitation. From BBC News:

Austria is to host the world’s first “divorce fair” this month, aimed at helping couples untie the knot as painlessly as possible.

The event, taking place in Vienna, then Linz and Graz, will allow would-be divorcees to consult lawyers about their rights and seek advice.

The divorce rate in Austria hit an all time high of 50% in 2006, with 66% of marriages in Vienna ending in divorce.

The two-day fair is being held under the motto “New beginning”….

Up to 20 exhibitors have registered so far, not only lawyers and mediators, but also estate agents, life-crisis experts, private detective firms and DNA laboratories offering paternity tests.

One company will offer therapeutic package holidays for newly divorced people.

There will also be a series of lectures on subjects like how divorce affects children and coping as a single parent.

I say, why stop there? How about divorce registries at Sharper Image (for men) and Godiva (for women)? Divorcee “coming-out” parties? (Watch for a spin-off from MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16”.) Once the marketers start to see family breakup as a brand-able lifestyle niche, we’re in big trouble.

And it’s all because…

Jessica Williams: “Over Easy Eggs”

Over Easy Eggs

10/16/07; 3:46am EST

the castles in my femora
they have declared war on my circulation
red and blue flags
i have turned purple

my jaw
is falling off my head
and crushing the nerves in my neck
like a mother bird cooing to her chicklets’ bones

my blood
is turning to tea
a few of its leaves like driftwood in my heart
beating with me
as tumors
my liver won’t filter

my ears
must smell like the ocean
for my hair has turned to seaweed
humid, the brain

my nose
is in my neck, too
but it’s an infectious swamp
i want to pluck out all its black trees
and feel the satisfaction of stinging
let the mucus ski

the lines in my palms
are melting
on the carpet
and across the room

my stomach
is growing cacti
and i can feel the tumbleweeds rolling
rolling rolling
across the prairie
that is my membrane

my pelvis
has swallowed ice
it is sore from impact
from my lust for you
i lie down and feel only whale harpoons

my eyes
have forgotten my face
they feel like snorkeling goggles
they won’t be blue tomorrow
when i look at the sun

i feel small enough
to the point where i could rent the 28″ TV
and feel the leather in those cars
fall asleep to their trademark hip-hop
and drink tea with Geiko the Gecko

my wrists
are so cliché
and i’m so afraid
that if i bend them back at all, they’ll tear
ember the bus girl
still has scars “where they all intertwine”

my latissimi dorsi
has forgotten its job as a tuxedo
for my
like an outlet, i am exposed
grotesque and naked
with plaque on my bones

my arms
are tired branches from my spine
i rip them open
to find a little oozing green

my calves
are fiercely running
no no no no please please please please
but they only run in their sleep
it tingles like fireworks

my knees
fell off when i threw up
in my chair
USS kneecaps
like Dixie’s paper plates

“I love you, but this is it.
This is what I think is best now.
This time I thought.
So, I think you should give it a try.
This time, I’m going to be here.”

gave me
these shoulders
but they were frisbees all along
now they’re trying to fly away from me
but they were never really mine

reprinted by permission from Poetry SuperHighway

Jessica Williams is a 15-year-old high school student in Lake Arrowhead, CA.

Transcending Singularity

Apropos of my latest post on fear of the moment, here are two essayists — one a Chassidic scholar, the other a Christian painter — with encouraging insights into how imagination and spirituality help us not only transcend the particularity of our lives, but actually turn it into a richer experience than that of mere undifferentiated Being.

At, Yanki Tauber writes in his essay “Three Divine Echoes: Singularity, Plurality and Oneness“:

Creation, as described in the teachings of Kabbalah, is an evolution from the utterly singular to the plural and dichotomous. The entirety of existence originates as the divine yen to create — a desire as singular as its Conceiver. But latent in this desire is also another face of the divine — the infinite possibilities implicit in G-d’s unlimited potential. Thus, the singular desire for creation gives birth to our plural world, a world whose immense detail and complexity bespeak the infinite potential of its Creator.

None of this, in and of itself, is the negative phenomenon we call evil. Yet the seeds for evil are here. Plurality begets divisiveness, and divisiveness begets conflict. As long as a plural reality still echoes its singular source, divisiveness will not take root and spawn strife; but with the development of each particular entity in the diversity of creation into a self that is distinct of the cosmic whole, divisiveness/strife/evil rears its head.

How does one restore the divine unity to a fragmented world? By delving even further into its plurality.

For such is the paradox of life: the more something is broken down to its particulars, the more we uncover opportunities for unity.

Take, for example, two physical substances. Your five senses perceive them as different and unconnected; but place them under a microscope and you will discover that they are comprised of similar components — they might even share an element or two. The deeper you delve, descending to the molecular, atomic, and sub-atomic levels, the more unanimity you will find — and the more ways you will discover to harness these diverse substances toward a singular end….

Thus we introduce a new factor into the cosmic equation: harmony. We evolve from the ultimate singularity to plurality to diversity, but diversity need not disintegrate into strife. Instead, the diversity can be further dissected into the ingredients of harmony — a harmony that mirrors the singularity out of which the entire process was born.

A harmonious world, however, does more than reflect the tranquil singularity of its origins; it reaches beyond it to uncover a new, hitherto unexpressed, face of the divine reality. Life on earth is more than the endeavor to come full circle, to undo creation by restoring its primordial unity. The descent from singularity into diversity is an investment, and (like any self-respecting investor) G-d expects to realize a profit from His outlay. The profit is harmony, which is a deeper, truer expression of the divine unity than the pre-creation singularity.

If there is one phrase that encapsulates the Jewish faith, it is the Shema, the verse recited by the Jew every morning and evening of his life, and the last words to issue from his dying lips: “Hear O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is one.” But why, ask our sages, does the verse employ the Hebrew word echad (“one”) to connote G-d’s unity? The word “one” can also be used to refer to something that is one of a series (as in “one, two, three…”), or to something composed of several components (as in “one loaf of bread,” “one human being,” “one community”). G-d’s unity transcends such “oneness”, as Maimonides states in the opening chapter of his Mishneh Torah. Would not the Hebrew word yachid (“singular,” “only one”) have been more appropriate?

But singularity is a challengeable oneness, a oneness that may be obscured by the emergence of plurality. As we have seen, when G-d’s infinite potential is expressed in the countless particulars of a diverse creation, this results in a concealment of His oneness. The life-endeavor of the Jew is to effect a truer expression of G-d’s oneness — the oneness of echad. Echad is the oneness of harmony: not a oneness which negates plurality (and which plurality therefore obscures), but a oneness that employs plurality as the implement of unity.

Read the whole article here. Meanwhile, Bruce Herman’s essay “The Body, Beauty and Brokenness” explores what embodiment means to a contemporary artist reinterpreting Western art’s complex legacy: the Christian tradition of incarnate spirituality, and the misuses of the classical aesthetic tradition to devalue non-white, non-male bodies. Herman proposes that instead of escaping embodied particularity via abstraction, or reducing art to political self-assertion, we as artists can inhabit our vulnerability and physicality to find points of connection with other souls similarly in need of healing. “My thesis is that the body is the location where hope is to be uncovered—the arena of body-issues touching on the eternal, not simply a political battleground where personal rights are resolved. Moreover, I will propose that art-making is really a species of hoping—a means of apprehending hope—not simply a tool for establishing a personal memorial.” Later in the essay, Herman writes:

In Pictures of the Body [art theorist James Elkins] continues to discuss the phenomenon of what I’ll call the hungering eye. He claims that there are two fundamental modes of seeing bodies — what he calls first-seeing and second-seeing. In first-seeing we are relaxed and sated with our hunger for the vision of bodies — we engage in this mode of looking when we are with people. In human company there are plenty of images of the body in our immediate visual field. We are therefore sated visually. In second-seeing, we restlessly search the visual field for bodies — in cloud-reading or on stained walls for example, we imagine all sorts of bodily forms.

This second-sight is involuntary and natural and fulfills a deeply embedded need for orienting our own body in the world of space and time. According to Elkins we cannot not see bodies — because we are hard-wired for human presence. Presumably this is true for other sentient beings as well. Dogs look for dogs and cats for cats in the visual arena.

Elkins argues that in so-called first-seeing we experience our embodiment as a species of pain – life is pain in one very real sense. For Elkins this is a general state—not in the usual sense of acute suffering. Rather, he uses the term pain to denote a certain sense of normal discomfort, of unease in our bodies. First-seeing, though also a state of being sated with human presence, is a form of tension and stress. For the sake of clarity lets say that first-seeing involves visual contact with real bodies in real time, hence it also involves all the associations of human society— including the typical rivalry and competition that this might imply. Thus Elkins’ association of first-seeing with pain.

In second-seeing, in our picturing of bodies in clouds, in odd-stains on a wall, in our art and language — in our human constructions of bodies we attempt to satisfy an even deeper hunger than the mere desire to see bodies. We hunger for transcendence and metamorphosis, as Elkins puts it.

By making images of bodies, we are engaging in Elkins’ second-seeing. We all know that art is not life — though as Picasso once memorably quipped, “Life often imitates art.” But our first-seeing is survival seeing. It’s our basic need to be with other bodies. To be among our tribe. Art-making is a secondary way of encountering the body of another —a means of making form and forming a body with our hands and eyes. It’s a means of establishing a presence that lives beyond our own physical space. In a sense you could say that making a picture of a body is a way of being in two places at once.

Like Lucretius’ idea that membranes of a form come to us like shed snake-skins through the ether to give us a means of touching bodies that are distant from our own body, art is a means of making real presences of our thoughts, our feelings, and our faith. I’d go a step further and say that making art is the same as looking for hope. You make an image in order to see if it will stick—if it will become permanent. Our own internal sense of impermanence is ever increasing—especially as the war wears on—and I don’t mean only the current war in Iraq or the oft-cited war on terror. The most wearisome war of all is the battle with our own self-centeredness and apparent need to dominate others lest we be so dominated. This is also the war St. Paul speaks of in his letter to the Christians at Ephesus: not against flesh and blood, as the Apostle says.

And with this, I come back to the central thing I’d like to discuss in this essay. I said that making art is like looking for hope. It’s a way of floating a message-in-the-bottle out there to see if anyone is looking or listening for you. A way of being in two places at once. But why try to do this? Are we trying to make a memorial to ourselves like Pharaoh or so many other restless souls that hope to attain immortality through their art? Yes and no.

I do think that we make art in order to survive death. There’s probably no more profound motivation behind literature, philosophy, and the arts. It’s even the prime motivation behind science and medicine as well. Permanence is something we long for at the most fundamental levels. So in a very real sense, yes, I am saying that I make my paintings in order to survive my own demise. But there is a deeper and better reason, I hope, for making pictures of the body. And that reason can be sketched, I believe, in the following way.

If every picture is an image of the body, and our hungering eye seeks always and everywhere to be sated with the human touch, the human presence, then not only our eyes, but also our hearts and minds are filled with presences. Eliot, in his essay on tradition, speaks of the crucial need for artists to heed the “dead poets” as he puts it. These presences—of the dead—are no less real in the traditions of art and literature than the person next to us in a lit class or on a subway train. And the presence of the dead, of the past as a present voice, is the very essence of tradition. Tradition in this sense is understood as conversation unbroken by death or the passage of time—not as a means of stopping time or preserving some precious thing. It’s not so much preservation as a transmitting, as Hans Georg Gadamer puts it in The Relevance of the Beautiful . Every act of transmitting tradition, according to Gadamer, is simultaneously an act of translation. [3] In other words, when we stand in a tradition we are not simply trying to maintain a status quo, we’re in the business of translating what is past into what is truly present and thereby extending and elaborating that tradition. This is what Eliot refers to at the end of his essay as “what is already living” [4]—i.e., tradition is a means by which the past presses on us and forms us and lends meaning and purpose to our lives through a sense of continuity and coherence.

The tradition of the human figure in painting is no exception to Eliot’s general theory of poetic form. We need to experience our bodies as permanent —as occupying time and space beyond our immediate era—as transcending death and disease and the terrors of history, yet ironically emerging from that very history.

Related to Eliot’s concept of tradition is Elkins’ idea that in second-seeing we fill our visual field with images of the body in order to fulfill some deep seated need for continuity and transcendence. This idea affirms our need to affiliate with others, to belong—something deeply threatened by our current culture of autonomy. (Read the recent best-seller Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam to grasp the seriousness of this trend [5] .) Secondly, it acknowledges the possibility of transcendence in the midst of pain. Of course, I do not think that Elkins is a Christian or holds any particular belief in life after death, nor do I think he’d even agree with Eliot’s insistence that we gain our meaning through conforming to a specific tradition. At best Elkins would probably affirm the fact that all human culture seeks a kind of immortality through its arts.

But this amounts to an acknowledgement of weakness, of need, of dependence, of desire for a life beyond our ourselves. This is what I think Elkins affirms, and this might point us toward a better meaning of what our art making might be.

This brings me to a personal disclosure: I make art because I desire to be known in my weakness. I want to be known and understood and seen in the context of history—in that larger conversation that Eliot speaks of. And by way of confession, let me say that I admit to having felt that ugly and injurious thing called envy and vainglory at many junctures in my professional life. But by saying that I make art in order to be known, I do not automatically assume that this is always a species of vainglory or fame-seeking.

The builders of the Tower of Babel sought to “make a name” for themselves—to be known in all the earth as brilliant architects who had built a bridge between heaven and earth—to have attained immort
ality through their art.

And they said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the earth.” [6]

Much of human art and culture is just this, an attempt to secure our own names in perpetuity—to build our personal pyramid or tower. Yet the desire to be known in all my weakness and incompleteness may actually constitute the opposite of fame-idolatry—a genuine striving for transcendence—for a permanence in human touch and human presence, and thus a form of prayer and love also to God. It is also a bid for community among other broken people; a sense of belonging.

The moment of our brokenness becomes then the main meeting place not only of human touch but divine touch as well. The very thing attempted by the builders of Babel happens by grace instead of by human effort—a bridge between heaven and earth is established via the very thing we sought to avoid: our need, our weakness, and our dependence. And this what I most want to say here—that brokenness and weakness are possibly the only genuine means by which we can touch on things transcendent. In a word, humility invites the real presence of the divine.

Read the whole essay here. Herman is scheduled to speak at the Amherst Center for Christian Studies on December 7 at 7 PM on the topic “Beautiful iPeople: iPod, Pop Culture and Genuine Beauty”.

Fear of the Moment


Being present in the moment is unusually difficult for me. Ever since I was a child, I’ve had several elaborate fantasy storylines going on in my head, into which I plunge when I’m waiting for sleep, doing routine chores or even going for a walk.

Last spring, I forced myself to abandon one of these long-running daydream sagas when I realized it was draining me of interest in my real life. Inhabiting my actual existence was terrifying. I remember standing on the curb outside my house, feeling naked under the huge sky. I was a tiny point on earth that the wind could blow away.

I started writing my novel as a replacement for these abandoned scenarios in which I was the heroine of a life more exciting, empowered, or romantic than any real existence could be. Daydreams, like movies and unlike life, are all “good parts” (or at least interesting parts). All my libido was being diverted into unreal experiences.

Writing fiction would discipline me to empathize with people different from myself, and to learn about topics that I’d normally ignore as having nothing to do with me. If I was stuck with myself, at least I could try to expand that self beyond the habitual preferences and character traits that made up my self-image. How often do we say “I don’t like that kind of music” or “I wouldn’t react that way” and never ask where that “I” comes from? I don’t like heavy metal, but Prue (my female protagonist) does; listening to it as Prue, I discover other potential selves besides the one I’ve chosen to actualize.

The problem, after all, is not with my particular life, which happens to be extraordinarily fortunate. It’s more that I feel unfit to live that life. Why should I be happy and others miserable? For that matter, why should I experience the world as a 35-year-old white girl from Massachusetts by way of New York, and not as a 50-year-old black male preacher from Mississippi? The awful contingency of my specific viewpoint reminds me of my creatureliness — finitude, mortality — which is what humans since Adam and Eve have been desperate to deny.


What a comfort to find someone else who understands this. Douglas Goetsch is a poet to whom I am always happy to lose a contest. Here’s the end of the lengthy title poem from his chapbook Your Whole Life (Slipstream Press, 2007), first published in Chautauqua Literary Journal (2006):

What child doesn’t ask Why
am I me? Why aren’t I that
tall boy or that pretty girl who
stays out of trouble? Or a frog
or a Martian?
My grade school
teachers told us how lucky
we were to be born American
when most of the world wasn’t.
They showed us films about hunger,
pollution, infestation, overpopulation,
and their favorite, the woman
with no arms going about her day,
driving to the market, slipping
her foot from her shoe to pull
money from a wallet in her mouth.
I ran home and begged my mother
to stop smoking because I’d seen
her lungs in class and they looked
like Pittsburgh, on the banks
of whose rivers stood that once
proud Indian crying a salty tear.
My deeper question, which I
never asked, was how she could
go through life with breasts
stuck there on the front of her
so inconveniently. What if
she wanted to throw a ball
or swing a bat? But most females
say the same thing about the idea
of a penis in their way all the time,
so I guess I learned early on
it’s hard being anybody, young or old,
bald or black, tall kid slouching,
skinny girl thinking she’s fat.
Sometimes I’d like to be two
men and one woman and have
them hand off living my days
like tag-team wrestlers. One
of the men is married and loves
his house, the other likes his fun
but risks killing us all. The woman
wants a goddamn baby so she
wears heels and is nice to guys.
Maybe they tag each other when
they’re in a jam, or bored.
Maybe they just hand over
the car keys every eight hours, wish
the other luck as they disappear,
feeling their common heart beating
a little too fast, wondering if
it’s their life, galloping away.


This excerpt from “Stanley Avenue”, another poem in the book, describes a scenario that’s all too common for me:

But a timeless afternoon demanding nothing
disturbs the half-dressed man lying next to her

even as he strokes what he loves most—
her milk white flank curving to her hip.

He’s working on joy; it isn’t going well.
Either he doesn’t feel it, or he feels too keenly

joy’s transience, knowing the only thing
that can possibly follow good weather is bad.

It would be easier to dwell in certainty,
depart this house, go back to his own,

a shack he should start readying for winter.
It’s not really a home—leaving is more

his home. Each time he hears the horn
of the Staten Island Ferry three miles off

a voice says You missed it.


Thinking about these issues, I was comforted by Hugo’s recent post on “acting in the courage of our uncertainties,” another variation on the problem of having an infinite imagination and a finite lifespan. Commenting on a Richard J. Neuhaus article in First Things, Hugo speaks of maturity as willingness to “prune the branches of possibility”:

I’ve written before of the great mistake of “waiting to be struck by certainty”. Deciding — where to go to school, whether to make a romantic commitment, what job to take, whether to have children — is hard. But as Neuhaus reminds us, God does not make our decision for us; he gives us certainty (if it comes at all) long after we have chosen, not before. Certainty, if it comes at all, is a reward bestowed on those who had the courage to “cut off” other options, to close forever the doors to rooms they won’t be coming back to….

In 1992, I was miserable in my first marriage. The child of two divorced parents, I had sworn to the highest heavens that I would marry once and once only. I married my first wife in a high Catholic ceremony, in a church that teaches that the marriage bond is dissoluble. After not-quite two years, I was deeply and profoundly unhappy, and so was the woman to whom I was married. For months, I agonized about what to do, about whether to stay or to go. I contemplated having a series of extra-marital affairs, hoping to have fulfillment on the side while maintaining the public fiction that I could do what my parents did not, which was have a marriage that would last until death itself.

Finally, one blazing hot Sunday afternoon, driving through the Sepulveda Pass, I made my decision. I had no blinding flash of light, no “road to Damascus” moment. What I had on that day (July 19, 1992) was the sudden realization that “waiting to be struck by certainty” would mean years and years of living a wasted shell of a life. I had a sudden understanding that the God I loved would be waiting for me, to comfort me and sustain me (and my soon-to-be-ex-wife) — but He was waiting on the Other Side of the Decision. The comfort and certainty I sought would come only after I chose. It would not and could not be the catalyst for the decision itself. And so I went back home, to a dusty apartment in a dingy part of Van Nuys, and made a decision. And in time, the blessed certainty came.

Hugo’s post reminds me that God redeems our finitude, by wanting to be in relationship with us, and in the Incarnation, by taking it on Himself. If Jesus was willing to put up with the constraints of being a specific individual living one life and not another — and for someone accustomed to omnipresence, that must have been tough — who am I to complain?

Poem: “The Happiness Myth”

Do you bite the day or does the day bite you:
the sun like a gear wheel spinning with 
   hooked edges,
the sun a flaming pizza that greases your 
Tell me why you stopped drinking.
Are you in the oven or did you poke the witch
into the fire with her own iron-handled 
It’s not obvious that you should be sober.
Happiness spins like a drug lollipop,
vortex of primary paints where lick or 
   be licked
is only a simple choice for boys fighting.
The glass of euphoria fits in the palm of 
   your hand,
barely enough to drown your tongue-tip,
too much to empty.

                                 As for me,
I now wear my whalebone stays under 
   my ribs,
hoop skirts swishing in my womb like a 
   rustling hive.
Inside me is a thin person,
two policemen, a rhododendron, and a 
trying to get out. Sometimes I’m opened,
wrong-sized, put away badly folded,
tumbled on a pile of my discount fellows. 
   Sometimes I open
the door like an airplane depressurized, 
plastic meals dancing in the blue contrail.

This poem won an Honorable Mention in the 2007 Florence Poets Society contest and appears in their annual anthology, Silkworm. In writing it, I was inspired by poet and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think Is Right Is Wrong, an engaging history of cultural and philosophical prescriptions for a happy life, which have differed widely from one era to the next. Reading Hecht’s work always makes me happy.

Mark Levine Interviewed at jubilat

Mark Levine’s second poetry collection, Enola Gay, is on the short list of books that expanded my understanding of what poetry could do. His post-apocalyptic, enigmatic images make sense the way a door creaking in a horror film makes sense. You don’t have to know what’s behind there to realize it’s something scary; in fact, it’s scarier because your rational mind can’t define it. Some excerpts from poems in the book:

from Counting the Forests

…He was counting the forests. That was his plan.
He carried a sack of dried fish
prepared by his servant and cured
in sea-salt. His servant was near; he could hear
the rasp of his servant’s breath.
His servant was making the vigil in a mountain
somewhere in the ice-country; and the ice-country
   was vast
and blue and full of death-forms. So was the forest.

Here in the red forest: a forest of birds.
Birds and dark water and looming red leaves
brushed with murmuring voices.
They swept towards him, the voices, like
   tensed wings.
And he ran from them; but the red
forest was glazed and the trees were vast
with ice-forms. And at the edge of the red 
he could see into the stone forest and 
   could see

the voices rinsing over the stone floor.
He had been there already and had taken count.
And he had counted the animal forest and the
smoldering forest and the weeping forest and
   the forest
of the forgotten tropics and the God-forest.
What could he say to his accusers?

from Eclipse, Eclipse

…The law is coming, three battered islands hence;
the splash is coming, the radar is coming, the law
is coming wearing Mother’s private wig.

Comes a horseman, steady on the climb, a blade
against his thigh, a rumor on his spine.

Nearness is all. And the roots of the great tree
swayed in the heat, and the swollen seeds
struck the temple walls and left no stain.
Surely the great creeds could have warned us
to test the soil of nearby planets; our voices 
like the voices of the gods’ outcast armies.
All of us wanted to take the steep walk back
into the memorial noise; feeling sick, not feverish.

A pencil in his glove and a shovel in his soul
and big plans for a secret farm: comes a horseman.


This year, Levine is back with a new collection, The Wilds. He was recently interviewed by Srikath Reddy in the literary journal jubilat, a piece that has been reprinted online at Poetry Daily. Some notable excerpts, below (boldface emphasis mine):

ML: It always surprises me (and sometimes worries me) to realize, long after the fact, how little aware I am—or how ill-informed I am—of what my preoccupations are when I’m writing, and how very partial is my understanding and command of what I’m saying….

It troubles me a bit that, as poets, we seem to be required to pretend that everything we put in poems emerges from a very supportable rationale. Maybe we’ve been successfully cowed by those who are hostile to poetry, and have internalized their suspicion that the whole thing is a sham, an elitist attempt to confound and mock the guileless reader. And so we apologetically, or pompously, give in to this rather recent expectation that artists are supposed to talk a good game about what they do. I’ll tell you, I once spent a week interviewing the skateboarder Tony Hawk—a bit before he became a multinational industry—and here’s what I liked best about him: great skateboarder, not great interview subject. Every time he got on his board it was magic; every time he opened his mouth it was, well, pretty ordinary stuff. His intelligence was thoroughly absorbed in what he did, and to him, talking about it was not only irrelevant—it was almost a violation of the spirit of his sport. This seems appropriate.

By now, I’ve spent enough time around young people who are trying to write poems to recognize the common anxiety, even embarrassment, at simply being a poet, rather than pretending to be a poet and an eager A-student rolled up into a single reasonable package. But why, with all the hand-wringing poetry talk out there—our own, no doubt, included—are there some matters that, it seems, are very rarely aired, even in the supposedly brasstacks environment of the poetry workshop? Embarrassing questions, like: How much do you know what your poem is about when you’re writing it? Do you know who is speaking? Do you know what the situation is? Do you know what your themes are? When you get right down to it: Do you know what is happening—what is going on—in your poem when you are writing it? I don’t know about you, Chicu, but I’d often be lying if I answered most of these questions in the affirmative. I don’t even want to be able to say “yes.” If I could, I’d wonder why I was writing a poem.


SR: …[W]hat I want to focus on is what you described as “that cusp of consciousness that a child is perched on,” and how it shapes your sense of what poetry is. That cusp of consciousness seems a lot like the threshold between knowing and uncertainty that Keats described as negative capability. And I’d agree enthusiastically that this cusp or threshold is the most productive space for a poet to inhabit. But lately I’ve also been worried that uncertainty lets one off the ethical hook—it lets one, as it were, refuse to grow up.

I guess my vague feelings of guilt about not speaking up more about the political situation over recent years has something to do with this. In the lead-up to the war, for instance, I felt uncertain about whether or not there were weapons of mass destruction tucked away somewhere in Mesopotamia (among many other things), and my general reluctance to forcefully decide matters for myself mirrored, I think, a broader failure of liberals to dissent from what our nation is perpetrating abroad. That’s a detour, I know, but what I’m getting at is a sense that there is a danger to uncertainty. I’m definitely not advocating a more political poetry—Lord knows I find most overtly political verse to be fairly unliterary—but I’m wondering what you think about the ethics of uncertainty as a poet writing today.

ML: I know what you’re saying, but the thought of assuming a certain kind of ethical responsibility in poems makes me bristle a bit. Do you remember when you were younger and some snide kid told you to “grow up”? I think I can still hear that voice. I hated that kid. What he was really saying was: Don’t be yourself. Don’t have an imagination. Behave. I’m just not interested in growing up in those ways.

(On the other hand, I already find myself mourning a certain kind of bygone communal maturity—the days when people could disagree about poetics and politics in respectful and civil ways, without needing to assault each other from the safety of their dreary blogs.) I was once on a little panel about some forgettable issue or other and one of the other members was an ambitious and quite accomplished young critic, a guy then under thirty, who complained that poets in America had lost the value of being “judicious and authoritative” in poems. I was taken aback. He struck me as one of those people in college who wears a bow tie and carries a pocket watch—as someone who has gotten overinvested in a certain model of “maturity.”

There may be a lot of things wrong with poetry—now and always—but the reluctance to speak with authority doesn’t seem to me to be one of them. In my mind, one of the services poets perform, intuitively, is to hold up the authority of poetic and imaginative tradition against other claims to authority. My suspicion is that the recurrent charge that poets are not sufficiently engaged is typically a symptom of one of two things: the right-wing interest in trivializing poetry and misplaced left-wing guilt. I’m not proposing a Peter Pan model of the poet, but my guess is that “not growing up”—if it constitutes a willingness to remain, as you say, “in mysteries, doubts, and uncertainties”—is much preferable—poetically, ethically, politically—to being prematurely pickled.

SR: So it’s this cusp of uncertainty that you somehow find to be both fundamentally poetic and fundamentally ethical?

ML: That cusp—I don’t know, I think the desire to be there must in part be temperamental. I like basketball games that go into overtime; overtime drives some people crazy. I don’t really care about how books or movies end. I like the unresolved. I’ve always been drawn to the moment “before”—the moment when you have a heightened awareness that you’re in the presence of something real, something meaningful, but when the meaning hasn’t yet been captured. To me, that’s the “intensest rendezvous.” In Bob Dylan’s terms, it’s the refrain of “Ballad of a Thin Man”: “Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” That’s one reason that, for me, striving to write precise, deftly rendered imagery—material that conveys much more, through the senses, than can be expressed in other terms—is vital.

But I understand your uncertainty about uncertainty. (Your meta-uncertainty?) It’s something that the uncertain ones among us must grapple with. Doesn’t it come down to a question of the authenticity of our uncertainty? If uncertainty is a posture—something we adopt in an effort to make cool poems—it would, indeed, be frivolous. But true uncertainty is a beautiful thing. And my guess is that those (like Mister Bow Tie) who adopt the posture of certainty are far more dangerous, morally and politically—and of course artistically—than those who have fewer answers, less of an agenda to promote, and who try to use their work as a way of shedding a little light on the darkness.

My glib, reflexive take on this problem would be that of an aesthete: that the ethical task of a poet is to write as well as he can, as accurately, forthrightly, and courageously—to be as uncompromising as he can in relation to poetic truth. But that is a tall order, an ideal against which one always falls short. Also, of course, excellence is not value neutral: is the ethical task of a nuclear bomb maker to make the best bomb he can? Um, no. But in that case the problem is that the medium itself—nuclear bomb making—is morally corrupted from the start. Whereas I have cast my lot with those who believe that the poetic tradition is, at its height and in its impulse, noble, resistent, and self-scrutinizing. So, yeah, I think the world woul
d be a much better place if we all listened to each other the way poems listen to us.


ML: …Of course I’m aware that poems, like everything else made by human beings, are artificial, but I don’t believe that excludes poems from approaching authenticity, and partaking of it—as far as I’m concerned, poems routinely do that, and that’s a big reason that we read them. One thing that’s so moving about poems is that we know they are artificial, but still we invest them, and their materials, with the force of the real. We need to do this, because we need to feel the reality of our lives. When I write the word tree, I don’t just see a word or construct—I see a physical tree. And if I’m not being particularly lazy as a writer, I’m going to do more to specify the reality, the tree-ness, of that tree—not only as a way of writing a “nice” poem, but of specifying, and thereby sharing in, the reality of reality.

SR: So “no ideas but in things”?

ML: It’s easy to talk in abstract terms, which always makes me uncomfortable, because I’m drawn to the physical experience of poems, not their ideas. You asked whether, in reading poems, we can begin to distinguish between the appearance of authenticity and something that smacks of the real deal. Don’t you think we rely on being able to make that distinction, however provisionally? I have to believe it can be done. The poem makes a claim—”My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense,” for instance—and, after submerging ourselves in the poem, we can ask, “Do I feel the truth of the claim in the poem, or does it just seem like a convenient or clever thing to say? Does the poem, in its rhythms, syntax, imagery, and so forth, grapple with drowsiness, numbness, and pain, or not? Does the claim feel abstract or, as you say, ’embodied’?”

And how does one embody the experience of one’s poem? There must be as many ways as there are authentic poems (i.e., not that many). First off, I suppose, one believes in the reality of one’s own imaginative event. One orients oneself to a position inside the poem—one lives in and through the poem, rather than hovering above it, using it as a way to say something that makes one seem clever, or as a vehicle for producing nice poetic effects, which, once you’ve read enough poems, are not as rare or interesting as they might first appear. I’ve found, myself, that focusing, in particular, on imagery, has helped me to “feel” the poem by employing my (generally underused) senses, rather than trying to direct the poem with my often enfeebled brain.


ML: [On the painter Francis Bacon] … I love the way he deploys traditional values—of form, structure, line, color, modeling, and subject matter—to explore what he calls his “nervous system.” He also talks, in his interviews with David Sylvester, of using traditional techniques and materials of painting to capture, even trap, the real. Reality is the outcome of his process, not a known quantity that he enters his process wishing to depict.
That last sentence is going to be my new motto as a novelist. Read the full interview here.   

Interpreting Scripture: A Double Standard on Marriage

Christians holding the line against recognition of same-sex relationships claim that Bible verses on sexuality must be taken at face value. We’re not allowed to point out a particular interpretation’s historical track record in fostering abuse and prejudice, as evidence that it’s inconsistent with the Bible’s overall message of mercy, equality and nonviolence. Nor can we look to history and science to argue that the verse’s “plain meaning” may represent an anachronistic reading of words that meant something different in the ancient world.

Yet Christians for quite some time have taken a much more flexible, holistic, justice-based view of Bible verses on heterosexual marriage, and the sky has not fallen. Faithful GLBT Christians ask nothing more than that the church apply the same hermeneutic to them as it does to straight partnerships. There’s something askew when two straight people who want to break up their family are treated more leniently than two gay people who want to form one.

The Anglican Centrist notes that the same African Anglican bishops who’ve led the charge against GLBT inclusion have been willing to make room for local cultural differences on polygamy:

These days the leading opponents to full sacramental inclusion of non-celibate gay folks into the life of the Church are Africans. The Church of Kenya is among the most vehemently opposed Anglican provinces to any inclusion for gay folks seeking to live in committed relationships.

Among the arguments often made is that homosexual practice is prohibited by Scripture’s plain sense, and that African custom abhors the practice. Moreover, it is often argued that to make any change in the Church’s practice would open the door to all sorts of non-biblical innovations. The current Primate of the Church of Kenya, Archbishop Nzimbi, and his predecessor, Archbishop David Gitari, are quite staunch in opposing any revising of the Church’s views on same-sex relationships. So staunch, that Archbishop Nzimbi is taking steps which seem destined to lead to global realignment and schism to prevent any such revision from taking place in the U.S., Canada, Britain, South Africa, or anywhere.

Ironically, Archbishop Gitari was in the 1980’s an advocate for open-mindedness and pastoral care for those Christians seeking to live in polygamous marital unions….

To be sure, Bishop Gitari does not explicity advocate that polygamy become a normative form of marriage for the Church. Not at all. But, quite clearly, Bishop Gitari argues for a degree of carefully defined pastoral care and inclusion into the Church of those in such marriages – and also for those who become polygamists even after having become Christians. While not advocating for authorized liturgies for plural marriages, or speaking to the ordination of polygamists, Bishop Gitari does nonetheless commend case-by-case approvals by local bishops for those living in committed polygamous relationships….

Gitari has said that the Church’s stance against polygamy “reflects the fact that our thinking has been so influenced by western theologians that we still continue to beat the old missionary drums which summon us to see that our cultural heritage is incompatible with Christianity.” In light of their emergence from the imperialistic theology of the Western missionaries who no longer held sway in East Africa, Bishop Gitari wrote that the Church of the Province of Kenya “should revise its views on polygamy at the earliest moment possible.”

It is true that the normative teaching in the Anglican Communion and in the local provinces of Africa holds for one man and one woman in marriage. Yet, it is also quite apparent, that leading clergy in Africa — even the conservative former Primate of Kenya — have advocated for something like a ‘local pastoral option’ for including polygamists. Now, while this is not the same thing as consecrating a gay bishop in a committed relationship, it seems to be a similar kind of thing as allowing clergy to offer pastoral leeway in receiving and honoring gay couples in their congregations. Many reasonable folks, moreover, may be able to see what looks just a little like hypocrisy here. How is it, many might wonder, that a leading African primate could argue persuasively for a kind of pastoral inclusivity and sensitivity to polygamists but against the same for gay couples?

Extremists bent on breaking the Communion over the homosexuality question will not be able to hear any mention of Kenyan Anglicanism’s (to say nothing of wider Africa) toleration of polygamy. Oddly, the sacramental inclusion of polygamous Anglicans in Kenya is not seen as analogous to the sacramental inclusion of gay Anglicans anywhere else. Moreover, Kenyan apologists (and those for other extremist African provinces) will argue that the Church of Kenya do not ‘promote’ polygamy at all. But the point in my mentioning it is that the practice is tolerated — at least in Kenya if nowhere else — and that sacramental inclusivity and pastoral sensitivity to those practicing it have been encouraged by the former Primate of Kenya (and many others) on a variety of grounds biblical, theological, and cultural.

A second example of the double standard is suggested by David Instone-Brewer’s recent Christianity Today article What God Has Joined. This is Biblical interpretation as it should be done.

The dilemma: the “plain meaning” of Jesus’ teachings on divorce seems to prohibit all grounds but adultery. However, any common-sense, compassionate person can see that there are other grounds that are even more essential: e.g. domestic abuse, neglect, abandonment, or a spouse’s refusal to get treatment for a dangerous addiction or mental illness.

So we have a disconnect between text and our moral sense. Must we choose between them? Indeed, sometimes the church has told battered wives to suck it up, and we all know how well that’s turned out. Other Christians, rightly rejecting this injustice, have quietly ignored the text or found makeshift ways to water it down.

By contrast, Instone-Brewer trusted the Bible enough to believe that it couldn’t support an impractical and cruel teaching. He trusted his moral sense enough to admit that the obvious interpretation was indeed harmful. So he actually dug into the rabbinic literature on divorce to understand the debate that Jesus was addressing. 

One of my most dramatic findings concerns a question the Pharisees asked Jesus: “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?” (Matt. 19:3). This question reminded me that a few decades before Jesus, some rabbis (the Hillelites) had invented a new form of divorce called the “any cause” divorce. By the time of Jesus, this “any cause” divorce had become so popular that almost no one relied on the literal Old Testament grounds for divorce.

The “any cause” divorce was invented from a single word in Deuteronomy 24:1. Moses allowed divorce for “a cause of immorality,” or, more literally, “a thing of nakedness.” Most Jews recognized that this unusual phrase was talking about adultery. But the Hillelite rabbis wondered why Moses had added the word “thing” or “cause” when he only needed to use the word “immorality.” They decided this extra word implied another ground for divorce—divorce for “a cause.” They argued that anything, including a burnt meal or wrinkles not there when you married your wife, could be a cause! The text, they said, taught that divorce was allowed both for adultery and for “any cause.”

Another group of rabbis (the Shammaites) disagreed with this interpretation. They said Moses’ words were a single phrase that referred to no type of divorce “except immorality”—and therefore the new “any cause” divorces were invalid. These opposing views were well known to all first-century Jews. And the Pharisees wanted to know where Jesus stood. “Is it lawful to divorce your wife for any cause?” they asked. In other words: “Is it lawful for us to use the ‘any cause’ divorce?”

When Jesus answered with a resounding no, he wasn’t condemning “divorce for any cause,” but rather the newly invented “any cause” divorce. Jesus agreed firmly with the second group that the phrase didn’t mean divorce was allowable for “immorality” and for “any cause,” but that Deutermonomy 24:1 referred to no type of divorce “except immorality.”

This was a shocking statement for the crowd and for the disciples. It meant they couldn’t get a divorce whenever they wanted it—there had to be a lawful cause. It also meant that virtually every divorced man or women was not really divorced, because most of them had “any cause” divorces. Luke and Matthew summarized the whole debate in one sentence: Any divorced person who remarried was committing adultery (Matt. 5:32; Luke 16:18), because they were still married. The fact that they said “any divorced person” instead of “virtually all divorced people” is typical Jewish hyperbole—like Mark saying that “everyone” in Jerusalem came to be baptized by John (Mark 1:5). It may not be obvious to us, but their first readers understood clearly what they meant.

Within a few decades, however, no one understood these terms any more. Language often changes quickly (as I found out when my children first heard the Flintstones sing about “a gay old time”). The early church, and even Jewish rabbis, forgot what the “any cause” divorce was, because soon after the days of Jesus, it became the only type of divorce on offer. It was simply called divorce. This meant that when Jesus condemned “divorce for ‘any cause,’ ” later generations thought he meant “divorce for any cause.”

Now that we know what Jesus did reject, we can also see what he didn’t reject. He wasn’t rejecting the Old Testament—he was rejecting a faulty Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament. He defended the true meaning of Deuteronomy 24:1. And there is one other surprising thing he didn’t reject: Jesus didn’t reject the other ground for divorce in the Old Testament, which all Jews accepted.

Although the church forgot the other cause for divorce, every Jew in Jesus’ day knew about Exodus 21:10-11, which allowed divorce for neglect. Before rabbis introduced the “any cause” divorce, this was probably the most common type. Exodus says that everyone, even a slave wife, had three rights within marriage—the rights to food, clothing, and love. If these were neglected, the wronged spouse had the right to seek freedom from that marriage. Even women could, and did, get divorces for neglect—though the man still had to write out the divorce certificate. Rabbis said he had to do it voluntarily, so if he resisted, the courts had him beaten till he volunteered!

These three rights became the basis of Jewish marriage vows—we find them listed in marriage certificates discovered near the Dead Sea. In later Jewish and Christian marriages, the language became more formal, such as “love, honor, and keep.” These vows, together with a vow of sexual faithfulness, have always been the basis for marriage. Thus, the vows we make when we marry correspond directly to the biblical grounds for divorce.

The three provisions of food, clothing, and love were understood literally by the Jews. The wife had to cook and sew, while the husband provided food and materials, or money. They both had to provide the emotional support of marital love, though they could abstain from sex for short periods. Paul taught the same thing. He said that married couples owed each other love (1 Cor. 7:3-5) and material support (1 Cor. 7:33-34). He didn’t say that neglect of these rights was the basis of divorce because he didn’t need to—it was stated on the marriage certificate. Anyone who was neglected, in terms of emotional support or physical support, could legally claim a divorce.

Divorce for neglect included divorce for abuse, because this was extreme neglect. There was no question about that end of the spectrum of neglect, but what about the other end? What about abandonment, which was merely a kind of passive neglect? This was an uncertain matter, so Paul deals with it. He says to all believers that they may not abandon their partners, and if they have done so, they should return (1 Cor. 7:10-11). In the case of someone who is abandoned by an unbeliever—someone who won’t obey the command to return—he says that the abandoned person is “no longer bound.”

…Therefore, while divorce should never happen, God allows it (and subsequent remarriage) when your partner breaks the marriage vows.

According to Instone-Brewer’s research, it seems much more likely that Jesus was opposing the new institution of no-fault divorce (which in practice would have been invoked almost always by men to abandon their wives), and insisting that the rabbis stick to the Law’s original grounds for divorce, which protected women against financial ruin. How perverse, then, that the church subsequently twisted Jesus’ words to require women to stay in abusive marriages. Any time the suffering of a marginalized group must be denied to preserve the purity of our interpretation, a red flag should go up.

But what prompted Instone-Brewer to dig deeper into the text? The presence in his church of faithful Christian lay people and pastors, too numerous and gifted to be ignored, who were divorced and remarried. Permit me, if you will, to rewrite the first few paragraphs of his article, substituting “homosexuality” for “divorce and remarriage” (changes in boldface):

I was being interviewed for what would be my first church pastorate, and I was nervous and unsure what to expect. The twelve deacons sat in a row in front of me and took turns asking questions, which I answered as clearly as I could. All went smoothly until they posed this question: “What is your position on homosexuality? Would you marry a gay couple?”

I didn’t know if this was a trick question or an honest one. There might have been a deep-seated pastoral need behind it, or it might have been a test of my orthodoxy. Either way, I didn’t think I could summarize my view in one sentence; when I thought about it further, I couldn’t decide exactly what my view was. I gave a deliberately vague reply. “Every case should be judged on its own merits.”

It worked; I got the job. But I made a mental note to study the subject of homosexuality, and to do it quickly.

It’s a good thing I did. As it turned out, I was surrounded by people who needed answers to questions raised by homosexuality. My Baptist church was located near an Anglican congregation and two Catholic churches. Gay men and women from these congregations came asking if we would conduct their weddings, having been denied in their local churches. Then I found that some of my deacons were gay. Should I throw them out of church leadership? If I did, I would lose people I considered some of the most spiritual in the church, people with exemplary Christian homes and marriages.

Will Christianity Today ever dare to run that article? Only if gays and their straight allies remain vocal and faithful members of the church, refusing to choose between the text and their lives.

Signs of the Apocalypse: Smack That!

Love your enemies, do good to them that persecute you, turn the other cheek, yatta yatta yatta. Who cares what the Bible says? Just getting our children into a church building has the magical power to save their souls. Let’s not scare them off with all that boring content about, like, Jesus and stuff.

From Sunday’s New York Times:

First the percussive sounds of sniper fire and the thrill of the kill. Then the gospel of peace. Across the country, hundreds of ministers and pastors desperate to reach young congregants have drawn concern and criticism through their use of an unusual recruiting tool: the immersive and violent video game Halo….

Those buying it must be 17 years old, given it is rated M for mature audiences. But that has not prevented leaders at churches and youth centers across Protestant denominations, including evangelical churches that have cautioned against violent entertainment, from holding heavily attended Halo nights and stocking their centers with multiple game consoles so dozens of teenagers can flock around big-screen televisions and shoot it out….

Far from being defensive, church leaders who support Halo — despite its “thou shalt kill” credo — celebrate it as a modern and sometimes singularly effective tool. It is crucial, they say, to reach the elusive audience of boys and young men.

Witness the basement on a recent Sunday at the Colorado Community Church in the Englewood area of Denver, where Tim Foster, 12, and Chris Graham, 14, sat in front of three TVs, locked in violent virtual combat as they navigated on-screen characters through lethal gun bursts. Tim explained the game’s allure: “It’s just fun blowing people up.”

Once they come for the games, Gregg Barbour, the youth minister of the church said, they will stay for his Christian message. “We want to make it hard for teenagers to go to hell,” Mr. Barbour wrote in a letter to parents at the church.

But the question arises: What price to appear relevant? Some parents, religious ethicists and pastors say that Halo may succeed at attracting youths, but that it could have a corroding influence. In providing Halo, churches are permitting access to adult-themed material that young people cannot buy on their own.

“If you want to connect with young teenage boys and drag them into church, free alcohol and pornographic movies would do it,” said James Tonkowich, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a nonprofit group that assesses denominational policies. “My own take is you can do better than that.”

Daniel R. Heimbach, a professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, believes that churches should reject Halo, in part because it associates thrill and arousal with killing.

“To justify whatever killing is involved by saying that it’s just pixels involved is an illusion,” he said.

Focus on the Family, a large evangelical organization, said it was trying to balance the game’s violent nature with its popularity and the fact that churches are using it anyway. “Internally, we’re still trying to figure out what is our official view on it,” said Lisa Anderson, a spokeswoman for the group….

Players of Halo 3 control the fate of Master Chief, a tough marine armed to the teeth who battles opponents with missiles, lasers, guns that fire spikes, energy blasters and other fantastical weapons. They can also play in teams, something the churches say allows communication and fellowship opportunities.

Complicating the debate over the appropriateness of the game as a church recruiting tool are the plot’s apocalyptic and religious overtones. The hero’s chief antagonists belong to the Covenant, a fervent religious group that welcomes the destruction of Earth as the path to their ascension.

It’s a sad day when the secular-liberal New York Times recognizes the irony of this scenario, while Focus on the Family is still unfocused. Funny, disturbing, yes. But also revealing of serious flaws in American Christianity: First, the extent to which it’s become corrupted by the violent, consumerist, jingoistic elements of our national culture. Second, a superstitious, formalistic theory of salvation, which sees conversion and church membership as akin to sprinkling magic fairy dust (oops, make that magic hetero dust) over the “unsaved”. It seems we’re in a race to the bottom to see how little character-transformation and spiritual reflection we can demand of people yet still count them in our tally of souls-saved-per-day.

Meanwhile, for a creative interpretation of “turn the other cheek”, the good folks at Christian Domestic Discipline offer some easy steps to introducing “Loving Wife Spanking in a Christian Marriage”. (Hat tip to the commenters under Hugo’s excellent posts on BDSM, Christianity and feminism. First one here, follow-up here.)

To Whom Does the Church Belong?

In this post I simply want to raise some questions that I don’t know how to answer. As with many of my reflections on ecclesiology these days, it’s prompted by the ongoing struggle over gay rights and Biblical authority in the Anglican Communion.

The obvious answer to the title question would be “Jesus”.  To which a beleaguered rector or worshipper might respond, “Yes, but…could you be more specific?

In other words, when conflicting factions differ on many of their basic assumptions, it’s not enough to say “we’re following Jesus” or “we’re following the Bible”. Whose Jesus, which Bible?

On a more practical level, who gets to set the direction of a particular parish? The global denomination, the country’s presiding bishop, the rector, the lay members?

I’ve experienced this conflict from both sides of the fence. Last year, when the then-minister of my Episcopal church was tugging us in a Unitarian/skeptical direction, I felt personally affronted. “How dare you pull out my church from under me? I was here before you came and I’ll be here when you’re gone!” I was convinced that our disagreement went to fundamentals of the faith, and that his agenda undermined the purpose of the institution.

Meanwhile, the rector of a congregation in a neighboring town has recently taken a strong stand in favor of gay rights, for which I applaud him, but which is making some longstanding members of his parish feel the way I described above. At a discussion forum he held on this issue, I heard them express a very personal sense of loss that they no longer felt welcome in their home church.

On the gay issue, I believe that reasonable people can disagree on what the Bible requires, about a matter that is really peripheral to the core Christian doctrines. (Yes, the authority of the Bible is anything but peripheral, but support for gay rights is not a proxy for one’s reverence or lack thereof for Scripture.) Therefore, if a church feels the need to take a position on the issue, it should make room for dissenting members and acknowledge that they are also reading the Bible in good faith. Sadly, both sides often fail here, stereotyping their opponents as either “oppressors” or “heretics”.


The divinity of Christ, salvation by faith, the Resurrection, belief in miracles — these, by contrast, seemed to me like non-negotiables during my estrangement from my Episcopal church. Now, I can make a nice case for why I was “right” but that’s not what this post is about. It’s about, how can we live together, when one person’s core doctrine is another’s “things indifferent”? I suspect that for many liberal Episcopalians, the words of the Creed involve faraway matters about which no one can be certain, whereas political rights and wrongs are personal, immediate and clear as day.

For a few years, I was sold on the idea of church as family. The body of Christ, and so forth. Now I’m wondering whether it’s safe to form such a bond of intimacy and responsibility with an organization that’s defined in ideological terms. If a church’s love is conditional, it can kick you out of your “family” for believing the wrong things. But if it’s unconditional, with no boundaries and no core values, how can the church survive? Why should it?

(Keep in mind that I have never belonged to an institution that did not gravely disappoint me. Perhaps the answer is to get over myself, go to church, sing the hymn, shake hands, eat the muffins and go home.)