The Error of Inerrancy

Eric Reitan isn’t inerrant, but he’s pretty darn close.

Reitan is a philosophy professor at Oklahoma State University, and the author of Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers. He blogs at The Piety That Lies Between and is also a regular contributor to the progressive website Religion Dispatches.

Via Elizaphanian’s blog, I discovered this link to the most comprehensive and excellent discussion/refutation of Biblical inerrancy that I have ever seen. The post, on Butler University religion professor Dr. James F. McGrath’s blog Exploring Our Matrix (affiliated with the Christian Century), starts with a quote from one of Reitan’s articles at Religion Dispatches:

[T]he doctrine of biblical inerrancy has the effect of inspiring its adherents to pay more attention to a text than to the neighbors they are called upon to love. Sometimes it even inspires them to plug up their ears with Bible verses, so that they can no longer hear the anguished cries of neighbors whose suffering is brought on by allegiance to the literal sense of those very texts.

Reitan is thinking of the exclusion of GLBT Christians (his cousin Jake Reitan founded Soulforce’s “Equality Ride”), but not only of that issue. His argument, along with the lengthy debate in the comments, clearly spells out why inerrantist theories that pit compassion against obedience are a dangerous heresy that should concern all Christians. What we’re really fighting for, beyond GLBT rights, is freedom from the fears that keep us from drawing near to God. Fear of error stems from fear of committing sins, as if Jesus hadn’t told us that we are worthy right now to call God “Abba”, Father.

The real action on McGrath’s blog occurs in the extensive comments below the post, where he takes on the argument that pro-gay Christians and others who reject Biblical literalism are setting ourselves up as authorities over Scripture. A sample:

James F. McGrath said…
There were Christians on both sides of the debates about slavery. Just ask the Southern Baptists. That’s the reason they exist.

I am very familiar with the Chicago Declaration on Biblical Inerrancy. I simply agree with most Evangelicals outside of the United States in not subscribing to it. I don’t find the term “inerrancy” to mean anything like what it sounds like when defined with so many qualifications.

As for these matters being settled in “the Bible”, you are missing the point that Paul’s letter to the Galatians wasn’t Scripture when the debate between Peter and Paul was taking place. And so presumably in order to get the table of contents of Scripture as inerrant as well, you need to trust the church’s authority at least that far. I suppose the question is why stop there? How do you know that God has entrusted authority to the church only so far as to get a book and then withdrawn in in favor of the book?
April 13, 2009 4:54 PM

Rhology said…
Hello Dr McGrath,

I don’t see any rebuttal so far to my contention that you have set yourself up as an authority over the Bible, and that therefore there is really no good reason for you to read or take into acct any of it at all. I do think interaction with that point would really benefit our discussion here.

Yes, there were Christians on both sides. Yet, the impetus for abolition came from…Christians, not from some other group of different conviction. I should further think that it is obvious to any reasonable mind that the reason a group comes into existence is not necessarily the same reason for which it remains in existence. I don’t think the Anglican Church existS, NOW, just so that the King of England can satisfy his hot pants, after all.

I am glad and sad to hear that you are familiar with the Chicago Statement. Given the strange comments you’ve made that display an ignorance of proper hermeneutical process, I would commend it to your reading again, so that you won’t make the same mistakes an additional time.

True, Galatians wasn’t even written when the Paul/Peter event occurred. Yet Galatians is the only way we know about the event and its outcome TODAY, and that’s what matters. No one is claiming Sola Scriptura for the time before the Scriptura existed, after all.

I don’t trust any church’s “authority” for the Canon. Let me recommend James White’s _Scripture Alone_ for a better idea of what we mean when we discuss the Canon. It’s a popular-level book, but honestly I think it would fit where you are pretty well at this point. In a nutshell, we trust GOD to make His self-revelation known, gradually to the church as a whole, not to any one council or any one body or any one bishop. It is a testament to God’s way of doing it that knowledge of the Canon gradually became known and agreed upon across a wide geographic area despite the long distances and bad communication entailed in such dispersion.

April 14, 2009 9:02 AM

James F. McGrath said…

Rhology, I don’t believe I’ve “set myself up as an authority” over the Bible. I cannot extract myself from my physical human existence, my cultural, historical, and linguistic context, my Christian faith, and everything else that makes me who I am, and read the Bible without presuppositions, assumptions or influences. And so the claim to treat the Bible as one’s authority is a potentially perilous one, since Christians who clearly have no interest in literally following Luke 14:33 regularly quote other passages to clobber others for not doing “what the Bible says”.

Of course, one can bring in other passages to nullify this one, and while a subject like homosexuality will be met with “the Bible says…” the challenge to have no possessions will be met with “you can’t take that literally, and see here there were people with possessions, and…and…” But the truth of the matter is that, when conservative Christians choose to quote the Bible about homosexuality or some other issue, but ignore its teachings about wealth and social justice, and then object that “you cannot set yourself up as an authority over the Bible”, they are deceiving themselves and often others. The conservative viewpoint uses the Bible no less selectively than any other. It just has a more extensive apparatus in place to make it possible to pretend that isn’t what is going on.

I think I’ve written enough to keep the conversation going, and so we can leave the difficulties involved in claiming that an errant church put together a collection of precisely those writings which are inerrant for another time.
April 14, 2009 9:36 AM

Rhology said…

Hello Dr McGrath,

No one is asking you to read the Bible in a way impossible for a human to do – free from presupps, etc. But one either takes the text and its meaning as authoritative and defining, one rejects it altogether, or one picks and chooses. The text manifestly means sthg, much like your comment and books and blogposts manifestly mean specific things. You are having a discussion on biblical authority etc with me right now, rather than discussing cooking stew on the surface of Mars.

You have already said explicitly that there are teachings of the Bible that you reject, and that means you think you know better (or else you’re a complete idiot, and I don’t think you’re an idiot). If you know better, then you are setting yourself up higher than the Bible. The Bible says do this or that, you say no. It’s as simple as that. I’m just wondering why you bother listening to the rest of it, or better yet, why you would cite it for any moral authority for some other question. Why not just cite yourself, since you know better?

Why follow Luke 14:33, and why cite it? Are you saying I *should* follow it? Why?

You said:
one can bring in other passages to nullify this one

This is another example of your poor understanding of biblical hermeneutics. It is the job of the exegete who takes the entirety of the Bible seriously to understand what a given psg is saying and then to understand it in light of its immediate and wider context. Seriously, this is elementary information. One does not “nullify” a text with another. One can harmonise, one can illumine, etc.
Your misunderstanding about what Luke 14:33 actually *does* mean is at the heart of your mistake here, but your wider unwillingness to take the Bible seriously is the root of the problem rather than a single symptom. Did Jesus give up EVERYthing He had? No. Did Jesus command His disciples to take with them a couple of swords just before Gethsemane? Yes. What does all this mean? Whatever it means, it doesn’t mean what you said it means. The teachings are not in conflict – they are both/and, and the false dilemma you are proposing is just that – false.

There is, however, no alternative psg on the topic of homosexuality that would serve to “nullify”, as you put it, the condemnation of homosexuality in 1 Cor 6, Romans 1, etc. Unless you have one in mind…

And it’s fine with me to leave the church/Canon discussion where it is. I appreciate the time you put into our discussion here.

April 14, 2009 10:50 AM

James F. McGrath said…

Thanks, Rhology, for your reply. The reason I don’t think it is possible to avoid “sitting in judgment on the Bible” is that the Bible is quite plainly factually inaccurate on some matters, such as whether thinking takes place in the brain or in the heart. Does that affect Paul’s overarching point when he uses such language? Not really. We can still grasp his language metaphorically, but that doesn’t change the fact that in Paul’s time it was taken literally, and he does not anywhere indicate that he meant as a metaphor what his contemporaries understood literally. The same may be said of other details in the Bible: the “firmament” that holds up the waters above, for instance.

I’ve also posted before about the need to “read the Bible ethically”, since that has come up in our conversation.

If the Bible cannot consistently be taken literally when its plain sense indicates we ought to, then we have no choice but to either reject the whole thing or to seek a core message and underlying principles that can be translated or mediated in some way into our own time, culture and worldview. But requiring that modern readers of the Bible accept an ancient worldview in its entirety in order to accept the Christian faith. Some act of translation is required, and if we cannot bypass the question of what to do with Luke’s depiction of the ascension in the context of our current astronomical knowledge (for example), then we have no choice but to make a judgment about the Bible, too. Even those who attempt to maintain some form of literalism make the same judgment – they simply choose to reject modern science because of what they understand the text to say. But that’s different from the ancient authors and readers who simply had this cosmology as an assumption, not something that involved a leap of faith.

In short, I don’t think we can accept the whole package as it comes to us, nor do I think anyone successfully does so today, even if they claim otherwise. And if we say that we can find a way of interpreting the message, interpretation involves judgment on our part – about what is central and what is simply cultural, and about how to re-express what we believe is central today….

Further down the page, I was particularly struck by this lengthy comment from Reitan himself:

For even broader context than my RD article provides, it may help to locate the quote within my ongoing work on the nature of divine revelation. Some of that work is summarized in Chapter 8 of my book, IS GOD A DELUSION? A REPLY TO RELIGION’S CULTURED DESPISERS, especially on pp. 175-177. But the full development of my ideas here has yet to be published.

The gist of it is this: a God whose essence is love would not choose, as His primary vehicle of revelation, a static text. We learn most about love through loving and being loved. And it is PERSONS whom we can love, as well as who can love us. And so it is in persons and our relationships with persons that the divine nature is made most fully manifest.

Christianity affirms this when it maintains that God’s most fundamental revelation in history was in the PERSON of Jesus. And Jesus was, if nothing else, a model of agapic love. His core message was love. And He never wrote anything. Instead, He made disciples–PERSONS–whom He sent out into the world.

In this context, a text that collects human testimony concerning divine revelation in history, especially one that reports on the life and teachings of Jesus, is going to be invaluable. But it will cease to be valuable if we come to pay more attention to this text than we do to our neighbors. Jesus Himself declared that He is present in the neighbor in need, and the community of the faithful is called “the body” of Christ, that is, the place where Christ is present, embodied, on Earth today. Not in a book. In persons.

When the biblical witness is treated as the proxy voice of persons who lived long ago, and we listen to the voices of those persons as we do the other members of the body of Christ, then the biblical witness becomes an invaluable partner in our efforts to understand what God is saying to us–that is, what God is communicating through the web of human relationships and the spirit of love that moves within that web.

But when the biblical witness is treated as inerrant in a way that no human being is inerrant, it trumps the voice of the neighbor and is used as a conversation-ender. It becomes an excuse not to listen to the lived experience of the neighbor. Or it becomes a measuring stick for deciding which neighbor should be listened to (their experience conforms with the biblical template) and which should be dismissed (because their experience does not conform).

And since compassionate listening is one of the most essential acts of neighbor love, it follows that a doctrine of biblical inerrancy is an impediment to such love.

Therefore, I conclude (contrary to what Craig argues here) that a God of love would NOT create an inerrant text.

Reitan expands on these points in an ongoing on “authority without inerrancy” on his blog: here, and here. This earlier post responds directly to the discussion on McGrath’s blog. Tolle, lege!

Happiness Is Just Another Feeling

The title of this post is one of the best pieces of advice my therapist ever gave me. How often do we compound life’s unavoidable pains by believing that this shouldn’t happen–that if we’d only managed our lives properly, we would never be depressed? Sadness is unattractive, unless you’re a teenage girl who’s read Wuthering Heights too many times, and unattractiveness makes people stop loving you, which makes you sad. So be happy! It’s your duty as an American. Thus goes the script.

My fellow Harvard Crimson alum Joshua Wolf Shenk has written a stellar cover story for the June issue of The Atlantic. “What Makes Us Happy?” profiles George Vaillant, a Harvard psychiatrist who has spent the past four decades studying the life choices and satisfaction levels of 268 men who graduated from our alma mater in the 1930s.

It would come as no surprise to the Buddha, nor to my therapist, that a person’s resilience and interpretive framework for life’s sufferings are greater predictors of happiness than whether their life is superficially free of obstacles. Is it better to be Case No. 218, wealthy, married for 60 years, but emotionally flat, or Case No. 47, who struggled with depression and alcoholism, but was a creative and energetic activist? The article suggests that a passionate life contains emotional highs and lows that the bland safety of “happiness”, as defined by external success markers, can’t capture. Shenk writes:

The undertones of psychoanalysis are tragic; Freud dismissed the very idea of “normality” as “an ideal fiction” and famously remarked that he hoped to transform “hysterical misery into common unhappiness.” The spirit of modern social science, by contrast, draws on a brash optimism that the secrets to life can be laid bare.

Vaillant, whom Shenk describes as an optimist attuned to the tragic sense, understands that we’re often ambivalent about pursuing happiness in the first place. Dissatisfaction and anxiety have survival value, up to a point:

Last October, I watched him give a lecture to Seligman’s graduate students on the power of positive emotions—awe, love, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, joy, hope, and trust (or faith). “The happiness books say, ‘Try happiness. You’ll like it a lot more than misery’—which is perfectly true,” he told them. But why, he asked, do people tell psychologists they’d cross the street to avoid someone who had given them a compliment the previous day?

In fact, Vaillant went on, positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.

To illustrate his point, he told a story about one of his “prize” Grant Study men, a doctor and well-loved husband. “On his 70th birthday,” Vaillant said, “when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, ‘Would you write a letter of appreciation?’ And back came 100 single-spaced, desperately loving letters—often with pictures attached. And she put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.” Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. “George, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” the man said, as he began to cry, “but I’ve never read it.” “It’s very hard,” Vaillant said, “for most of us to tolerate being loved.”

As a
Christian, I wonder what this insight means for evangelism. It’s easier to envision hellfire than grace. Is it really our sinfulness that makes God’s love seem intolerable, too bright, like sunlight in our eyes? Or has the church not done a good enough job of creating a community where it’s safe to let our guard down?

Religion gets little airtime in Shenk’s account of the Harvard study, perhaps reflecting the secularist biases of mid-20th-century psychology. I’m curious about the role of belief systems in supporting or hindering the mature coping strategies that Vaillant deems central to happiness, and how beliefs interact with differences in temperament to either smooth away or magnify pathologies.

For those interested in pursuing this topic further, I highly recommend Jennifer Michael Hecht’s The Happiness Myth, a provocative survey of cultural and philosophical prescriptions for a happy life, which have differed widely from one era to the next. Hecht suggests that historical perspective itself brings happiness by giving us self-awareness and the ability to try new options outside our culture’s standards of value. She argues that there are actually three kinds of happiness, with different time horizons–momentary euphoria, day-to-day contentment, and overall life satisfaction–and that we must make hard trade-offs among them.

Prop 8 Update: Stay Tuned for 2010 Pro-Equality Ballot Measure

In a disappointing but not unexpected move, the California Supreme Court today upheld the validity of Proposition 8, the California ballot measure that restricted marriage to heterosexual couples. However, the court also upheld the legality of the 18,000 same-sex marriages performed in California between May 2008, when the court granted equal marriage rights, and November 2008, when the voters took them away again by a narrow 52%-48% majority. According to the New York Times report (emphasis mine):

The opinion focused on whether the use of a voter initiative to narrow constitutional rights under Proposition 8 went too far.

Supporters of same-sex marriage, who filed several suits challenging the proposition, argued that the change to the state’s constitution was so fundamental that the initiative was not an amendment to the constitution but a “revision,” a term for measures that rework core constitutional principles.

Revisions, under California law, cannot be decided through a simple signature drive and majority vote, which is what led to Proposition 8; they can only be placed on the ballot with a two-thirds vote by the legislature.

But the justices said the proposition was an amendment, not a revision. It has historically been rare for the state’s courts to overturn initiatives on the ground that they are actually revisions, and many legal scholars deemed the challenge against Proposition 8 a long shot….

In questions that clearly anticipated the logic of today’s majority
opinion, the justices had seemed to be seeking a middle ground that
would allow the rights they had affirmed the year before to be
preserved in the form of civil unions, which would be different from
marriage in name only. Justice Kennard suggested that the substantive
rights of gays were the same after the proposition, and all that had
changed was “the label of marriage.”

That distinction was deeply
dissatisfying to Mr. Minter, representing the plaintiffs, who argued
that without the right to the word “marriage,” same-sex couples would
find “our outsider status enshrined in our Constitution.”

Justice George’s opinion dealt directly with that point, stating that
the court understood the importance of the word marriage and was not
trying to diminish it. However, he wrote, the legal right of people to
call themselves married is only one of the rights granted to same-sex
couples in the decision last May, and so “it is only the designation of
marriage — albeit significant–that has been removed by this
initiative measure.”

Karl Manheim, a professor at Loyola Law
School in Los Angeles, called the decision a “safe” position written by
justices who can be recalled by voters. The change wrought by
Proposition 8 was anything but narrow, he said, and claiming that the
word marriage was essentially symbolic was like telling black people
that sitting in the back of the bus was not important as long as the
front and back of the bus arrive at the same time.

The Courage Campaign, a California-based GLBT activist group, is gearing up to propose a 2010 ballot measure that would restore same-sex marriage. Click here to watch their new TV ad (a shorter version of the Regina Spektor “Fidelity” video that they aired earlier this year) and donate. Go here to donate to Equality California and see a video of Marriage Director Marc Solomon (formerly of MassEquality) discussing their strategy to win marriage back.

“Blogging for Truth” Week: Writing the Truths of GLBT Lives

Blogging for Truth is a project initiated by Rebecca Campbell. This week, GLBT bloggers and allies are invited to write articles sharing the truths of our lives and/or debunking hateful myths spread by anti-gay religious leaders and politicians.

As Pontius Pilate famously asked, “What is truth?” Who gets to tell it, and about whom? The debate between affirming and non-affirming Christians is fundamentally about the relationship of truth to power. For that reason, it should concern all Christians, whether or not they have a personal stake in GLBT rights.

The way I see it, one side has an egalitarian model of truth-telling, and the other, an authoritarian model. This leads to different ways of resolving the apparent conflict between anti-gay Biblical texts and the evidence of positive, loving, spiritually fruitful gay partnerships.

Some conservatives address the problem by redefining what homosexuality is. It’s an immoral choice, it’s a curable neurosis, it’s a perversion. It has to be, because the text says so.

This is the rhetorical move that frightens me. “We know you better than you know yourself: your love is only lust, your identity is confusion, and if you can’t change, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough.” Basically, the conservative church is saying to GLBT people that they can’t trust their own perceptions of reality, even concerning the contents of their own minds and the feelings in their bodies.

To me, that sounds like the first step toward mental illness, as well as an open door for all kinds of physical and emotional abuse. The virtue of humility is not the same as radical self-doubt. The former restores the individual to his or her proper place in a community of others with equally valid rights and feelings. The latter makes him or her a slave of other human beings–because, of course, he or she is not allowed to doubt their ability to perceive the truth.

Other conservatives would acknowledge that same-sex orientation may be innate and unchangeable, but they argue that the Bible calls all people so afflicted to live celibately. This position at least avoids the necessity of spreading misinformation about GLBT sexuality, but it’s still a variation of the same power grab discussed above.

Here, human authority figures are “discerning a vocation” for an entire class of people, without knowing anything about their unique gifts or what call they themselves have heard from God. Instead of undermining their confidence in their everyday sense perceptions, the church is undermining GLBT Christians’ power to communicate with God directly, without human intermediaries–the essence of Protestantism, I might add.

There is simply no support in Scripture for the notion that God created two classes of people, one able to reinterpret old traditions in response to God’s self-revelation in their lives, the other forced to defer to second-hand interpretations. On the contrary, the New Testament in particular is a record of hermeneutic revolution, as all sorts of marginalized people are suddenly speaking for God in ways that confound the religious authorities. “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings”–and eunuchs, women, Gentiles, slaves and demoniacs. St. Paul, who spent the first half of his life persecuting the church that he died for, is an unlikely role model for the “We Haven’t Changed” crowd.

If same-sex couples are not supposed to be capable of discerning that their relationships are a conduit for God’s grace, it calls into question their entire ability to perceive God’s presence or God’s will. Again, the Bible doesn’t support this radical suspicion of one’s own experience (see, e.g., Luke 1:1-4, 1 John 1:1-4). In the New Testament, personal testimony is frequently prioritized over abstract reasoning from texts and traditions. The gospel writers are, in effect, asking their fellow Jews to credit their eyewitness accounts ahead of centuries-old beliefs about monotheism and the messiah. There isn’t a sense that we must avoid error by enforcing a presumption against change. “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1); “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). Taking personal responsibility for our faith commitments in this way keeps our potential sin and error always before our eyes, which leads to day-by-day conscious dependence on God’s grace.

The validity of personal testimony has political implications. It radically equalizes everyone who claims to speak for God. Spiritual hierarchy seems disfavored in the Gospels. Thus, I would suggest, any theological position (such as the refusal to reexamine apparently anti-gay texts in light of evidence that they cause suffering to innocent people) that creates a hierarchy of access to God should be viewed with suspicion.

Because Jesus was acutely aware of the social position of everyone he addressed, so should we be. To say that truth is situational is not to say that it is relative. Rather, it is to recognize that we cannot truly pass judgment on another’s actions without considering the power relations between us. Do we really know the truth about this person, unclouded by our own fears and desires, and do we have the right to speak it–to speak about them or for them, without questioning how we got that power?

All of us “Bloggers for Truth” have stories we can tell about our own partnerships or those of our parents, teachers, pastors and friends–all GLBT people whose lives have been touched by the Spirit. But we also have to make the Scriptural case that stories are truths, on a par with or superior to the truths of abstract reasoning, at least when it comes to practical ethics. Time and time again I hear anti-gay Christians argue that we are biased by our personal desires (either lust or pride) while they are merely following “what the Bible says”. Their epistemology doesn’t allow for scrutiny of the human element in interpretation, nor of their own emotional biases, because they need the Bible to remain magically exempt from the human condition of partiality and uncertainty.

Truth-as-objectivity is a modernist position, and ironically, one that has historically been used against religious believers since the Enlightenment. Religion’s despisers have argued that the “truths” of religion are tainted by emotion, not universally accessible, not severable from the accidental personal history of the believer. This is supposedly in contrast to the self-evident truths of reason (whether scientific or philosophical), which should not vary based on the identity of the observer.

In response, postmodern Christian authors such as Lesslie Newbigin and Luigi Giussani have argued that all knowledge is situated knowledge, and that in fact it would be inappropriate to approach so personal a matter as one’s spiritual destiny as if one had no personal stake in it. We find truth not by suppressing awareness of our own position, Giussani writes in The Religious Sense, but by cultivating humble openness to whatever the quest for truth reveals, i.e. by letting reality speak to us instead of telling it what it must be: “Love the truth of an object more than your attachment to the opinions you have already formed about it.”

If there is a legitimate Christian argument against affirming same-sex relationships, it can’t be that texts trump experience, or that the impersonal is superior to the personal. Tying ourselves to the mast of that sinking modernist ship means giving up on religion’s claim to truth. Somewhere, Pilate is laughing.  

Laraine Herring on Writing Practice and Self-Knowledge

Kore Press, a highly regarded feminist literary publisher, hosts the Persephone Speaks online forum on women and literature. In April’s entry, author and educator Laraine Herring discusses writing as a spiritual practice and why we resist it:

I’ve had students complain to me that they aren’t writing enough, and when I ask them if they’re writing, they say, “Well, no…” To this I respond: writing begets writing. There is no way to write but to write. There are no tricks, though there are plenty of diversions. One of the points I make in my book The Writing Warrior is that any structure someone provides for your writing, or any structure you create yourself, is only as useful as your ability to work freely within it and to stay centered and focused. The structure or the concept doesn’t make the writing work. Your discipline, practice and flexibility make it work. When structure of any kind (relationship, job, religion, writing, city) becomes a prison, it’s time to move on.

Now, what writing practice does is illuminate. It yanks out into the open everything that the writer has been trying not to look at. And so the writer goes away. This is normal, but a book about writing, or a class about writing, can’t address the nuts and bolts without addressing the real reason writing is hard. It holds up a mirror to your own demons. It dares you to look, dares you further to write about it, then dares you even further to share it publicly. Yeah, is it too late to change majors to something safer like Pyrotechnics in the Middle East?

Writing practice brings up your limitations. This is a gift, not a problem. The more you know about what you do and why, the more room you have to make authentic decisions. Writing practice shows you your belief systems about yourself, your family, your world. It shows you where you need to be right and where you feel invisible.

Writing, for Herring (and for me), has some parallels to meditation. Both practices help us cultivate non-attachment to fixed concepts, replacing them with open-ended interest in whatever actually occupies our minds. And both are made more difficult by the common fear of discovering that our true selves are “unacceptable”.

That’s why, these days, the intentionally Christian aspect of my writing is more about process than content. The two are intertwined, of course, because until the experience of grace and forgiveness becomes more embedded in my consciousness, my novel characters won’t be able to reach that same resolution in their lives. However, I’ve tried to shelve the perpetual question “Is this preaching the gospel?” In an odd way, last year, the agenda of “the gospel” came to feel like a false artifact, a mask of God, no different from the manufactured images that are my fashion-photographer protagonist’s stock-in-trade. He and I despaired of finding The Real. But don’t worry, because we both have a short attention span for sitting on the pity pot, eventually we’ll grow bored with that and commit to some imperfect instantiation of the divine. Or as he would say, get over yourself, girl.

Donal Mahoney: “The Man Who Lives in the Gym”

The Man Who Lives in the Gym

    St. Procopius College
    after World War II

The man who lives in the gym
sleeps in a nook up the stairs
to the rear. Since Poland
he’s slept there, his tools
bright in a box locked

under his bed. At noon bells
call him down to the stones
that weave under oaks to the abbey
where he at long table takes
meals with the others
the monks have left in

for a week, or a month, or a year
or forever, whatever
the need. The others all know
that in Poland his wife
had been skewered, his children
partitioned, that he had escaped

in a freight car of hams.
So when Brother brings in, on a gun
metal tray, orange sherbet for all
in little green dishes,
they blink at his smile,
they join in his laughter.

first published in The Davidson Miscellany, Vol. 7 No. 2, 1972
Davidson, NC

William “Wild Bill” Taylor: “The Newborn Mother’s Eye”

(For Calvin Ramsey)


Tell me Colonel Sawbones,


did you ever see a new mother hold her son fresh;

from the battle of natural delivery;


where she places him to her full breast,

this emblem of love,

on her sweating chest;


you, Daddy Warbucks, so willing to

sacrifice other babies, for your lying

doctrines of truth, justice, and the


American way?


I say to you again,


did you ever see a new mother, as she watches her son

crawl for the first time?


screaming in delight as he and his new puppy

scamper close to your DMZ,


when the summertime brought the lightning

bugs for a silent communion with the eternal,


and her only child learned to eat

watermelon without swallowing the seeds,


And this mother knew,


it could not last beyond the next war cloud on the horizon;

her only son’s life was not worth the dog tags given him,


by all of us;


While tin sabers rattled,

and we invented enemies who did not look like us.


While pretty little Pentagon cheerleaders sang, “Hit em,

Hit em, Hit em harder, if artillery can’t do it, napalm


Tell me, Colonel Sawbones,


did you ever see a new mother as she watched her son came home

on silent weeping,


zipped up in a plastic body bag,

so shiny and final,

placed itself in front of her,


while she,


could not believe her eyes,


that her friends and neighbors had come like

a thief in the night


to take her only child away,

and ship him to a far off to a foreign



when they, themselves,


held barren wombs,

and pot bellied mouths,


for there is no cause so just,

no battle so, won,

no defeat, so singed,


that can replace this look,


in the newborn mother’s eye…

New York City Days

Greetings, loyal readers…I’m back from a wonderful vacation and novel-research trip to New York City, where I immersed myself in the world of fashion photography. Hidden treasure of the week: the photography section at the Strand Bookstore, which surpasses even the International Center of Photography gift shop. Speaking of ICP, their Richard Avedon retrospective was a gorgeous tour through 60 years of changes in female roles and beauty standards. Kudos also to the Conde Nast Library for the research assistance and unlimited free color photocopies. (Did we really wear such sensible clothes in the 1990s? I was surprised at how little skin was showing.) Jordan Schaps of C.O.D. Inc. (Creatives on Demand), formerly the creative director of New York Magazine, generously shared anecdotes and information to make my plot more accurate.

On Sunday I attended services at the Metropolitan Community Church, an ecumenical Christian denomination that was founded in 1968 to serve the GLBT community. Visit their In Our Own Words website to learn more about MCC worldwide. The NYC parish’s website is here. I loved this church’s mix of positive features from different traditions. The service followed a simplified version of the Episcopal liturgy, with lectionary Bible readings and communion, while the praise band played joyful, jazzed-up versions of evangelical standards, such as “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder I’ll Be There”. At communion, the prayer team laid hands on each of us and prayed for us individually. Their dynamic preacher, Rev. Pat Bumgardner, spoke about the inseparable connection between love and truth. Visit their YouTube channel for some videos of Rev. Pat and other affirming Christian speakers.

On Sunday afternoon, I attended a rally for equal marriage rights in New York State. The governor’s bill has passed the Assembly, but we’re concerned that the Senate won’t act on it before the June recess. If you’re a New York voter, call your senator today. The Empire State Pride Agenda website has information on how to get involved.

This NY Times article suggests that opposition groups have been overextended by the sudden expansion of equal marriage in Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire and Iowa. I know Schadenfreude is very un-Christian, but I think this paragraph says all you need to know about the “family values” crowd:

The state’s Roman Catholic bishops have been somewhat distracted, too, having focused their lobbying energies this session on defeating a bill that would extend the statute of limitations for victims of sexual abuse to bring civil claims, and have appeared unprepared for the battle over marriage.

Yesterday, I also had the pleasure of meeting Steve Parelli, executive director of Other Sheep, which ministers to GLBT Christians in the US, Latin America, and East Africa. Steve and I shared our experiences of how the closeted life harms the families of gays and lesbians, too. A former American Baptist pastor who was expelled from the ministry when he came out, Steve is going to be ordained at MCCNY later this month.

Blog Love for Ariana Reines: Interviews and Readings Online

Ariana Reines. What can I say? If she were a band, I’d follow her around like a Deadhead. I would name a beef-flavored ice cream after her. But that would probably freak her out, so instead, here are some links to her awesomeness online so you can see for yourself.

The poet Thomas Moore interviewed her on his blog in 2007, after her book The Cow was published by Fence Books. Moore says, “To refer to The Cow, as poetry, seems rather reductive – it feels more like a living creature. Using the cold, clinical language of the abattoir, mixed with a fragmented cut-up of various characters – Reines has sculpted a multi-faceted yet cohesive voice that forces the reader into avenues of sex, scat and violence. Words don’t do this thing justice.” Here, Reines speaks about the freedom from self-consciousness that so inspired me in her work:

I want to say something about bad writing. I’m proud of my bad writing. Everyone is so intelligent lately, and stylish. Fucking great. I am proud of Philip Guston’s bad painting, I am proud of Baudelaire’s mamma’s boy goo goo misery. Sometimes the lurid or shitty means having a heart, which’s something you have to try to have. Excellence nowadays is too general and available to be worth prizing: I am interested in people who have to find strange and horrible ways to just get from point a to point b.

This hour-long video shows Ariana reading at the Holloway Series in Poetry, UC Berkeley, in April 2008:

And this half-hour radio program was first broadcast on KCRW’s “Bookworm” program, also last April.

Time to End “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”: Lt. Dan Choi’s Story

Army Lt. Dan Choi, an Iraq War veteran and Arab linguist, is just one of the 12,500 American military personnel discharged for being honest about their sexual orientation in the 15 years since the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was signed into law by President Clinton. Choi is facing a dishonorable discharge because he came out on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show last March. Official Pentagon policy views this as the equivalent of “homosexual conduct”. That’s right, according to the DOD, telling the truth is bad for morale. I guess that explains why George Bush always looked so happy.

Here, Choi returns to Maddow’s show, along with Armed Services Committee member Rep. Joe Sestak, to urge President Obama to repeal this policy as soon as possible. Visit the Courage Campaign’s website to sign their petition to the president.