“Swallow” Gets Downright Eucharistic on Logic’s Ass

Martha Rzadkowolsky-Raoli has written a fantastic review of my chapbook Swallow (Amsterdam Press, 2009) for the Ampersand Books website. She’s reverse-engineered these rather difficult and prickly poems to make clear the theology behind them. The miracle of writing: when our readers mirror back to us more than we consciously realized we had said. I wrote Swallow by mad intuition, but an astute reader finds “method in it” after all. Some highlights:

Jendi Reiter created a tidy poetry book in which swallow means everything you can expect swallow to mean. She exhausts the word; its mashed remains a mix of cow meat, desire, intestines, bird. If you read the book, and you should, you’ll experience the beating of the word. Swallow. How else to learn something new ?(about the parameters of language) — – something only poetry can do, and these poems do it….


…By suggesting disparate contexts, these aphorisms maintain a collaged-world view. I like Reiter’s objection to a poetics bound by singular points of view. I like when word-artists comply with the rules of our new universe (a mess of sources coming at you from everywhere: billboards, email, the doorman). This kind of work feels real….


…Reiter’s rhetorical tricks can remind me of the riddle-ish catechism I was taught. The relationship between premises in these poems get downright eucharistic on logic’s ass. Mysterious pronouncements sound as zany as any church stories of body-magic: The body jesus lived in, the jesus body that is the eucharist, and the jesus body that you put into your body….

Read the whole review here.

You know you want it now:

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2010

“I do not intend to be inconsolable, but I do not intend to be deceived.” –Leon Wieseltier

Biggest Accomplishments

I now own over 75 Barbies.

It’s been a good year for the writing, too — 30 poems in 30 days, and several hundred pages of my novel and spun-off short stories. Thanks to everyone who has helped me take my career to the next level in 2010:

Massachusetts Cultural Council, 2010 Fellowship in Poetry
The Iowa Review Awards, 2nd Prize for Fiction
Stories published in the Bridport Prize Anthology and The Adirondack Review

My new poetry chapbook Barbie at 50 was published by Cervena Barva Press:

Best Books Read in 2010:

*Charles W. Pratt, From the Box Marked Some Are Missing: New & Selected Poems (Hobblebush Books, 2010)

Fans of Richard Wilbur will love this beautiful and wise collection by a former English professor who farms an apple orchard in New Hampshire. Read a sample poem here.

*Wesley Stace, Misfortune

A comic melodrama in the Dickensian vein, this picturesque saga of 19th-century England concerns a foundling boy, raised as a girl by an eccentric lord, who must discover his true identity in order to save the family estate from greedy relatives.

*Wayne A. Meeks, Christ is the Question

Renowned New Testament scholar calls us to go beyond the liberals’ reductionist “historical Jesus” and the conservatives’ ahistorical literalism, to find out who Jesus is for us today. Christ’s identity, like ours, is dynamic and defined by relationship to others, not a fixed nugget of truth we must unearth from the past.

Big Gay News:

Federal trial courts rule that California’s same-sex marriage ban, Prop 8, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act are unconstitutional!

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on openly gay soldiers is repealed!

Favorite Blog Posts:

The Biblical Problem of the Prostitute
I used to believe that Christians could affirm monogamous same-sex relationships without rethinking our other theological commitments. It is possible, but now I question whether it’s such a desirable goal. That is to say, are we merely interested in bringing one more group into the circle of respectability? Or does Jesus want us to identify with others who are marginalized as our families once were, and settle for nothing less than a radical theology that includes everyone?

Campus Extracurricular Groups Claim “Religious Freedom” to Discriminate
Non-affirming conservative Christians may well be an oppressed minority on college campuses, but they are the oppressive majority in the rest of America. This is not to say that two wrongs make a right. It’s just important to remember the wider context. CLS presumably wants its members to use their legal skills to block full civil equality for GLBT people when they graduate. Their gathering is not just about personal self-expression.
(See follow-up post here, too.)

Straight Women, Gay Romance: Bridging the Gender Gap?
I feel a little sad that traditional male-female divisions persist even in queer culture. Some editors…suggest that the difference between gay male fiction and female-written M/M is that the latter is more romantic and sentimental. Men who want lasting love, who talk openly about their emotions with and for other men–are these still mainly a female fantasy, scorned by other men regardless of sexual orientation?

Marriage Equality Versus Fertility Cult
Gay couples are parents too. The only way to tell them apart is to elevate procreative ability to a spiritual ideal. Inadvertently perhaps, this attitude wounds and discourages potential adoptive parents, reinforcing our fear that infertility is a kind of failure, an exclusion from the highest level of sacred marital union.

Thursday Non-Random Songs: Offbeat Christmas Mix

Tired of endless replays of “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Frosty the Snowman”? These lesser-known gems came to my attention in a newsletter from the graphic design shop Phil’s Fonts.

Clarence Carter, “Back Door Santa”

“I ain’t like ol’ Saint Nick, he don’t come but once a year…” Yow!

The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl, “Fairytale of New York”

Wonderfully sad, gritty urban ballad. “I could have been someone…Well, so could anyone.” Plus, how many Christmas songs do you know that include the words “you scumbag”? Not many, I hope.

The Ramones, “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)”

If you find family celebrations triggering, this is the video for you. Love that 1980s hair.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Doubt Series, Part Two: Trust in (Some of) the Word(s) of the Lord

Trust. It’s an inference from the seen to the unseen, from the past to the future. Though “live in the moment” is the spiritual catchphrase of our supremely distracted society, trust tells us to do the opposite. This mood will pass, it says; this person or situation deserves to be seen in context, not judged on a surface reaction.

In order to learn from our teachers at a deeper level, we have to trust them. I first realized this when I took voice lessons in my 20s. Before then, I thought of my teachers as the people who gave me assignments, which I would figure out for myself, or decide not to complete if I didn’t consider them worthwhile. I really wanted to learn to sing, but unlike schoolwork, I didn’t even know what the necessary skills were or how to acquire them. My voice coach used a delightfully absurdist method that involved interfering with my normal control mechanisms (e.g. holding my tongue while I sang an aria as “glah glah glah”) to bring out the natural, relaxed voice. I couldn’t understand why this would work; all I could do was surrender to it, or not. Fortunately, I did. I not only learned how to sing, but how to trust.

Spiritual development happens the same way. All the human minds in the world, put together, can’t encompass the infinity of God. If we share our insights, though, we can get a bigger picture of God than if we each had to start from zero. Sometimes we can test others’ beliefs against our own experience, but (as with history, or science, or any other knowledge field) many times we also have to rely on second-hand reports.

The question is, which ones?

When I was preparing for baptism into the Episcopal Church, about 10 years ago, a conservative Catholic friend explained the magisterium to me as follows: The more we find that the Church has been reliable in areas of our direct experience, the more we realize we should trust the Church’s commands even when we don’t understand them so well. Later, Protestant friends would make a similar claim about the Bible.

For a long time, I was open to this, never to the point of believing in papal or Biblical infallibility (an incoherent concept, in my view), but generally feeling that as a Christian I ought to give tradition the benefit of the doubt. St. Paul’s words about grace in Romans 7-8 were lifesaving to me, and this encouraged me to hope that the rest of the Bible was infused with the same wisdom and power. Sure, I knew about the sexist, violent, tribalistic, unscientific, and plain weird bits of the Bible, but these were “a few bad apples”.

That was before I started hanging out with actual Christians.

My teachers in the faith were only human. They could have a gospel-inspired heart for the poor and a hardened heart toward unbelievers; a radically welcoming stance toward doubters and marginalized people and a smug liberal contempt for my “personal relationship with Jesus”.

But this complicates the issue of trust. Human psychology, like the Bible, being irreducible to a consistent philosophical system, it’s an oversimplification to say “Pastor X or Prophet Y was right about war, therefore he must be right about sexuality.”

Yes, the Bible is the place where I’ve found transformative forgiveness and comfort, and a vision of full equality for all people. It’s also the place where I’ve found condemnation of innocent people, and justification for oppressive social structures.

I’m at a point where I feel comfortable using the ethics of Jesus, as found in the gospels, to judge and prioritize all other Biblical texts. But then what remains of the Bible as a unified thing? The unraveling can be compulsive. I still read the Scripture passages each morning in the Daily Office, but with the mind of that combative high-schooler I used to be. I might like to believe the promises of vindication in the Psalms, for instance, but a little voice nags me that I have no basis for this, no reason to trust these words merely because they’ve historically been part of the same collection as other documents that I currently find convincing.

Oh, taste and see?

Charles W. Pratt: “Evening Meditation in a Cathedral Town”

Charles W. Pratt’s From the Box Marked Some Are Missing: New & Selected Poems (Hobblebush Books, 2010) is the most delightful poetry collection I’ve read this year, and I read many. The comparison that first springs to mind is Richard Wilbur, as both poets have more than ordinary gifts for writing formal verse that is light-footed, elegant, and full of surprises. Think of a Fred Astaire dance routine, or a Bach minuet: the underlying order is there, but never belabored on the surface. There’s no egotism or careerism in Pratt’s displays of skill. Not that I have anything against “confessional” poetry, but it’s also refreshing to read an author who echoes an earlier age, when poems could be reticent about personal details yet full of emotion.

From the Box… was the first volume in Hobblebush Books’ Granite State Poetry Series, which publishes authors with a connection to New Hampshire. Many of Pratt’s poems concern his work as an apple-grower, describing the farming life with humor, wistfulness, and reverence. There are also poems of family life, European travel, meditations on aging and and the mystery that lies beyond.

The poem below is reprinted by permission. This one stood out for me because of the mood, delicately balanced between modern empiricism and timeless wonder, and the intricate pattern of the rhymes. Note the deft double meaning of the closing line.


Transparent on transparency,
A lacewing on the windowpane.
Pale green traceries of vein
In the lancets of its wings sustain
A membrane too fine for the eye.
As tranquil on the mystery
Of glass as if taught by its wings
How to put faith in invisible things,
In slow sweeps back and forth it swings
Its frail antennae thoughtfully,
Like compasses that leave no mark:
Geometers imagining the arc.

In the cathedral treasury
I’ve gazed, unmoved, at the Virgin’s shift,
Draped like dead insect wings—enough,
The histories repeat, to lift
That heap of masonry so high.
Others believed in it; now I
Where the great stained windows raise
Their winged parabolas of praise
Day after day can bring to graze,
Sheepish, my agnostic eye.
Such precious straining of the light
Surprises stone and souls of stone to flight.

Small concentration of the evening air,
Lacewing, I look through you and glass to where
Beyond the fields the late sun condescends
To denseness, and its true brightness bends
And bursts to beauty where the transparent ends.

Becky Dennison Sakellariou: “Stoning the Pool”

Becky Dennison Sakellariou is a poet who divides her time between New Hampshire and the village of Euboia in Greece. Her new collection, Earth Listening (Hobblebush Books, 2010), is a lyrical tribute to both landscapes and the fruit that springs from their stony soil. Among those fruits, metaphorically speaking, are the gifts of wisdom and acceptance of the passage of time. Somehow the heart stays open to love and beauty as mortality is faced. She kindly shares this poem below.

Stoning the Pool

I left all words
on the kitchen table
when they called my name.

I love words.
Words are the way
each idea comes to my tongue.

This idea needs no savoring.
Cancer tastes of fear
and fear will not

translate into echoes,
cadences, syllables.
The nurse said

all will be well
which is what I often tell
my friends who are in despair.

Her words sat
in the outer bowl of my ear,
rolling back and forth

like marbles in a dish.
All is well was gone,
disintegrated at a word.

Who will come?
Who will call my name?

Is this the Grove of No Shadows?

What shapes sleep
beneath the silky surface
of this body of bloody water?

Who will excavate my grave
littered with olive pits,
fig seeds and shattered potsherds?

Who will stand
for the final libation?

Doubt Series, Part One: Insecurely Attached to God

In this season’s episodes of “Jendi discovers the obvious”, I want to look at some common secularist jibes at religion that I used to dismiss, but that are currently disrupting the faith I once knew:

“The Christian God is just a projection of believers’ relationship with their (real or ideal) parents.”

“I can’t believe in Christianity because Christians do bad things in the name of their faith.”

“The Bible’s moral, social, and/or scientific worldview is too primitive to be authoritative for us today.”


Today’s topic: If God is my parent, must I stay forever a child?

Tim Clinton, president of the American Association of Christian Counselors, and Joshua Straub, an adjunct professor at Liberty University (the late Jerry Falwell’s school), are the authors of God Attachment, a book that examines the psychological reasons why we do or don’t feel close to God. They summarized their research for CNN’s religion blog last month.

Attachment theory posits that the quality of our bond with our earliest caregivers influences our subsequent view of the world as a safe or unsafe place. Unreliable or abusive caregivers can foster a fearful, controlling attitude toward relationships later on. Instead of trusting that we are loved and our needs will be met by the person responsible for us, we may feel we have to compel their love through proper behavior or awaken their pity through self-harm.

Just as an insecurely attached child might believe that survival depends on manipulating their parent’s reactions, Christians with this kind of personal history might be especially drawn to legalism and superstition in their relationship with God the Father. Clinton and Straub write, “much of modern-day thinking about how to connect with God has been reduced to a theory of sin management — that what we do or don’t do in our daily lives is the gauge by which we measure why we are, or are not, close with him.” This reminded me of the unreasonable responsibility that abuse victims feel to “prevent” their abuse by predicting the will of a capricious spouse or parent.

Clinton and Straub go on to say:

If we don’t feel safe; if we are confused in our core beliefs about whether we’re worthy of love or whether others are capable of loving us or accessible when we need them, then we’ll transfer those beliefs onto God and struggle to believe he could really be there for us.

But if God serves the functions of an attachment relationship in our individual lives, it can be the difference between cognitively believing in God, as most do, and emotionally connecting, trusting, and walking with him every day, which is much less common.

If you came from a dysfunctional family and stopped reading now, you might be tempted to believe that it is impossible to have a genuine relationship with or healthy view of God. But the good news is that research supports the notion that those with insecure relationship styles can and do find a close, secure relationship with God as they turn to him and discover he is not like other attachment figures who have hurt them in life.

Perhaps it’s time to challenge our beliefs about God (if we’ve seen him as disinterested or unavailable) and re-evaluate our own identity (if we tend to see ourselves as hopeless or unlovable). Finding hope and meaning doesn’t happen overnight. There’s no magic prayer or verse that will heal the wounds we’ve experienced. We need to be honest with ourselves, grieve our losses, repent of our own wrongdoings, forgive those who have hurt us, and learn new relational skills.

Just like any other relationship, building intimacy with God requires vulnerability. Honesty. Time. Prayer. Focus. Listening. Journaling. Reading the Bible. Meditating.

Remember, the goal is to connect with God, and get to know him for who he really is. This often requires peeling off layers of false core relational beliefs.

When we understand our relationship with God in light of attachment research, we begin to realize how our unhealthy preoccupation with anxiety, fear, guilt, or self-punishment may actually be shutting out the love and healing we truly long for.

God is not like your mother, your father, your spouse, your ex, or any other human that failed, abused, or abandoned you.

In my life, the chief way that parents and mentors have messed with my attachment formation is by refusing me permission to grow up — the stage that Buddhist writer Philip Moffitt calls “initiation” in his profound essay Healing Your Mother (or Father) Wound:

It is through acts of initiation that you come to feel as though you are a valuable and welcome member of your family. As you develop, it is this function that provides the inner feeling that your life has meaning, and by the teenage years you understand that you have the right to become the full expression of your own unique life. It is also the initiation function that permits, accepts, and celebrates your leaving home to start your own life….

…When initiation occurs in a timely and clear manner, it is a beautiful process, though often painful for the parent. Most initiation takes place through symbols, rituals, and unspoken behavior. When it does not occur, there is a sense of guilt, of staying a youth, of not knowing or not feeling entitled to one’s place in life. For a mother to be effective in providing initiation, she must have somehow received or found her own. It is the most selfless of all the aspects, for she is encouraging a separation that leaves her without. This initiating power is associated with the shaman, the goddess, the magus, and the medicine woman.

In seeking initiation you may be attracted to teachers who claim superior understanding, who create an impression of having vast authority, thus signaling what is often a false claim that they can initiate. You may frantically want answers in your life, not understanding that initiatory power will come to you if you treat your questions as sacred. It is tempting to surrender your power to a teacher rather than seek a teacher who will initiate you so that you gain self-empowerment.

You may be caught in wanting to have energetic experiences on the cushion as a form of initiation. You may simply want something to happen in your life that signals your aliveness, meaning, and place. It is a call for initiation. It is much the same with teenagers who get tattoos, pierce their bodies, form cliques, posses, or gangs, and carelessly risk their lives and use drugs or fundamentalism of one sort or another to initiate themselves.

It is not realistic to expect a parent to provide all the initiation functions for a child. A parent only begins the process of initiation, which can be viewed as a series of lifelong developmental processes that are actualized through the use of rituals and sacred space by various spiritual and societal leaders.

Attachment to a parent figure is not a complete end in itself. It is also meant to give the child a safe base from which to explore the world, a goal noted by all the psychology texts I’ve read on this subject.

Unfortunately, it often seems that religious leaders want to cut off this exploration. Don’t entertain that idea. Don’t question that doctrine. Don’t allow history, science, personal experience, or your own moral intuitions to
inform and change your understanding of “what the Bible says”.

Attachment wounds happen for me in this way: Someone promises me love, community, righteousness, protection, and guidance, while instilling in me that I cannot survive without this support. I accept the support and grow strong enough to start using the gifts this mentor has given me to begin exploring on my own. At this point, the love is withdrawn and replaced by condemnation, the community is lost, and I find myself free but terrified, lonely, and angry that I was taught to be dependent in a world where there is no one to depend on.

Always before, in these situations, I would look to God, and re-learn the lesson that I’m justified by grace alone, not by pleasing human judges.

But swapping in God for my parents and teachers isn’t working anymore. I worry that looking for an attachment figure, even a perfect one like God, still keeps me in the mindset of a child who can’t survive without a caregiver. And let’s face it, eventually this will lead me back to looking for some human being to incarnate this relationship.

I’m a concrete thinker. That’s why I’m a Christian. I don’t trust abstractions that set themselves against and above experience. A spirituality of “just Jesus and me” is more likely to be a projection of my own ego, or a product of my active imagination as a writer. If I’m not seeing the face of Jesus in other people, I’m probably not seeing it at all.

So what would be a more mature way to envision my relationship with God the Father? Who does He want me to be when I grow up?

Truth is, I am mad at God for making me grow up because that’s always been the prelude to abandonment. How can I replace this learned response with a more trustworthy image of God from Scripture, tradition, and experience? Stay tuned.

What is a Covenantal Relationship?

Winning Writers subscriber Alvin T. Ethington is not only a published poet, but also the author of this eloquent argument for recognition of same-sex marriage in the Episcopal Church. (I’ll admit, he had me at “The Golden Girls”.) The article first appeared on FanStory.com, a good forum for emerging writers to receive feedback and enter members-only contests. He has kindly permitted me to reprint it below. Alvin tells me, “It proved to be very persuasive in the Diocese of Los Angeles, where same-sex blessings in many parishes now are a matter of course.”

What is a Covenantal Relationship?

by Alvin T. Ethington

On an episode of the television program “The Golden Girls,” Blanche, the woman who owns the house, discovers that she either has to make $10,000 worth of improvements or ask one of the three women who rent from her to move out. The house is not up to code for four people to occupy it. Whilst the women are in the process of discussing what to do, Dorothy comes up with the idea that Blanche can sell to her and the other women a portion of the equity in the house, thereby making the four co-owners. At first, Blanche is appalled by this idea—the house is one in which she lived with her husband, brought up her children, and spent most of her life. It is her family home. Later, when realizing she cannot ask any of her good friends to move out, she discovers her family has changed. Her husband is dead, her children are grown, and the people from whom she seeks support and with whom she lives in community are, indeed, the three other women who share the house. They are her family.

Our definition of family is changing. Adult children move back into the family home for economic reasons; sons and daughters choose to care for their elderly parents at home due to the high cost of medical care. Women have greater freedom in choosing societal roles; gay men and lesbians no longer have to keep the most important relationship of their lives secret. Children whose mother and father both work are often cared for by another relative or a friend; many families choose to adopt because of the large number of unwanted children in the world.

The nuclear family, which was engendered by the industrial revolution and which reached its apex in post-World War II white suburban America, is no longer the primary social unit it was once thought to be. For economic survival, women and men are choosing to live in groups of extended families and/or friends as they have in the past. Within these extended families and within societal communities, bonds of special relationships are being formed. Many people in these relationships of mutuality, love, and respect would like ecclesiastical recognition of what to them is of ultimate importance.

Some would argue that all this is the breakdown of Christian values in a societal context. I do not think so, for the message of Christianity is one of communal responsibility. The early Church provided for widows and orphans (Acts 6:1; cf. James 1:27). Whoever loves and serves Jesus of Nazareth by doing the will of God is his brother or his sister, a part of his family (Mark 3:35, Matthew 12:50).

Examples of covenantal relationships within the Christian community would be an older woman and man who have fallen deeply in love but whose financial situations preclude them marrying because of the concomitant loss of economic benefits that would bring, two lesbians or two gay men who have entered into a lifelong committed relationship, or adoptive parents who want to make a public pledge to bring up their children in the Church. (The Episcopal Church has started to recognize the last example in the 1979 Prayer Book rite “Thanksgiving for the Birth or the Adoption of a Child” which was previously limited to “The Thanksgiving of Women after Child-Birth.”)

Traditionally, the Church has recognized two kinds of covenantal relationships between persons — that of the promise the parents and godparents make to raise children in the faith and instruction of the Church at Baptism, and that of Holy Matrimony. These relationships are definitely sacramental. However, they have been developed and interpreted within the context of a Western society which has accepted the definition of Gratian for marriage — the union of a man and woman for procreation. Given the recognition that marriage has and can fulfill goals other than procreation and given the overpopulation of the world, it is expedient that we look to other definitions for marriage and for covenantal relationships.

The 1661/62 Anglican Prayer Book recognized that, although in its view, marriage is primarily for procreation, it is secondarily a remedy against sin, and tertiarily for mutual society, help, and comfort. Covenantal relationships which include a sexual component fulfill the goal of marriage to avoid fornication and all covenantal relationships fulfill the goal of mutual interdependence.

Is the Church in the process of affirming sexual sin in affirming covenantal relationships? These relationships only include a sexual component when the sex therein is other-concerned, respects the dignity of each person, and recognizes the partners as equals. Just as relationships of forced and non-consensual dominance and submission, of incest, and of rape break the covenant between parent and child or between wife and husband, so relationships which involve abuse of sexuality are not covenantal relationships. Covenantal relationships are inclusive of healthy sexual relationships, but not exclusive to them. Certainly the adoption of a child by a person does not include a sexual component.

Are these relationships sacramental? The Christian Church cannot agree on what exemplifies a Sacrament. If one accepts only the two Dominical Sacraments (Baptism and Holy Eucharist) as Sacraments, then these relationships are not Sacraments, but have a sacramental quality, as does marriage, for they are outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace. If one accepts the seven historical sacraments as Sacraments, then these relationships do not have the Sacramental quality of marriage, but they do have the sacramental quality in which all of life is hallowed. A sacrament takes the simple things of life—water, wine, bread—and invests them with sacred meaning in the context of a person’s and a community’s relationship with God. Covenantal relationships are sacramental in that the two partners have made a commitment to themselves, to each other, to the Christian community, and to God to honor, love, and cherish each other. Because the sacramental quality of covenantal relationships involves two persons made in the image of God and the relationship between them, covenantal relationships are of a higher sacramental order than the blessing of an object. Covenantal relationships have a sacramental quality in that God is ever present in these relationships of love and faithfulness.

The Hebrews recognized this when they reflected on their relationship with God. They imaged their relationship with God in terms of covenantal relationships they knew and imaged their unfaithfulness to God in terms of covenant breaking they knew. God was the Father and Israel was His Son (Hosea 11:1). God was the Mother and Israel Her comforted child (Isaiah 66:13). When Israel was apostate, Israel “played the harlot” (Ezekiel 16:15, 16; cf.16:28); Israel was the unfaithful wife Gomer of the prophet Hosea (Hosea 1:2-3).

Jesus, as pictured in the Gospels, portrays his relationship to different groups in covenantal imagery. In the Q source material, he compares his relationship to the Jewish community of Jerusalem to that of a mother hen to her chicks (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34). The Johannine Jesus recognizes the deep bond of friendship between Jesus and his disciples (John 15:14-15).

The love poem Song of Songs has been interpreted to be exemplary of covenantal relationships. It illustrates the love of God for Israel and the love of Christ for the Church. What Jewish and Christian communities have done with this difficult text is to take the relationship between the two lovers and invest it with sacred meaning. God is ever present in the hallowing of special relationships.

Time moves on. The Church is required to be faithful to Scripture and tradition, but it is also open to the influence of reason and to the unfolding revelation of the Holy Spirit within the Church. We must stand in constant tension with and dialogue with society and affirm all persons on their spiritual journeys. We must not be afraid to speak out against sin, but we also must not be reluctant to recognize when God is present. Every good thing comes from God (cf. James 1:17). People are aching for spiritual recognition of their special relationships in a society in which the individual reigns supreme. We, as a Church, must comfort and succor those in this transitory life who daily face adversity. Where two people truly and authentically care about each other, where two people share joy and laughter, love and tears, sorrow and suffering, solace and comfort, life and death, there, indeed, is God.

Lisa Suhair Majaj: “Practicing Loving Kindness”

This poem is reprinted by permission from Lisa Suhair Majaj’s Geographies of Light, which won the 2008 Del Sol Press Poetry Prize. These poems give a voice to the Palestinian people, bearing witness to brutal loss, as well as the joy.

The title is a phrase that’s familiar to me from Buddhist teachings. Nonviolence and compassion for enemies are central to Buddhism and Christianity. Both religions also share an emphasis on justice. Whether you call it natural law, or karma, moral and immoral actions have consequences on a cosmic scale. The psychological challenge is how to have compassion for the oppressor without whitewashing oppression. I like the way Majaj’s poem balances both of these imperatives, the naming of the world’s evils and the aspiration to look for reconciliation instead of revenge. Gentle humor is an important tool for the peacemaker.

Practicing Loving Kindness

Bless the maniac
barreling down the one-way street
the wrong way,
who shakes his fist when I honk.
May he live long enough
to take driving lessons.

Bless the postman
puffing under the no-smoking sign.
(When I complain, my mail
goes mysteriously missing
for months.) Bless all those
who debauch the air,
the mother wafting fumes
across her baby’s carriage,
the man whose glowing stub
accosts a pregnant woman’s face.
May they unlearn how to exhale.

Bless the politicians
who both give and receive
bribes and favors.
Bless the constituents
seeking personal gain,
the thieves, the liars, the sharks.
And bless the fools
who make corruption easy.
May they be spared
both wealth and penury.

Bless the soldiers guarding checkpoints
where women labor and give birth
in the dirt. Bless the settlers
swinging clubs into teenager’s faces,
the boys shooting boys with bullets
aimed to kill, the men driving bulldozers
that flatten lives to rubble.
May they wake from the dream of power,
drenched in the cold sweat
of understanding. May they learn
the body’s frailty, the immensity of the soul.

Bless the destroyers of Falluja,
the wreckers of Babylon,
the torturers of Abu Ghraib
and Guantanamo Bay.
May they understand desolation,
may they comprehend despair.

Bless the peace makers,
the teachers, the word-workers;
the wavers of flags
and the makers of fighter jets.
May they know the ends of their labor,
and the means. May they make
reparations. May they rebuild.

Bless this planet, so cudgeled,
so bounteous: the rain forests,
the tundra, the ozone layer.
May it persevere beyond
our human follies. May it bloom.

Bless cynicism. Bless hope.
Bless the fingers that type,
the computer that processes,
the printer that prints.
Bless email and snail mail.
Bless poetry books that cross oceans
in battered envelopes,
bearing small flames of words.

Why Christians Can’t Recognize Christian Art

My current favorite God-blogger, Prof. Richard Beck at Experimental Theology, blogged last month about “The Thomas Kinkade Effect“, i.e. why does so much contemporary Christian art suck?

The visual art on sale in Christian bookstores is dominated by kitsch and sentimentality. Obviously, this stuff sells well, which means a lot of folks may be suffering from theological confusion. They see the “Christian” label as serving the same purpose as the health-sensitive labels on products at Whole Foods: gluten-free, cage-free, hormone-free, etc. In other words, they’re shopping for art that is safe for Christians. No unredeemed suffering, no sexually arousing stimuli, no challenges to the ideals of home and heterosexual family.

Beck is always ready to ask the tough questions. Where other Christian culture-makers might rest their critique at the level of packaging–we need higher-quality depictions of the same thing!–he is willing to investigate whether some cherished beliefs might have negative secular consequences:

What might be artistically compromising Christian aesthetic judgments? Many think a root cause is theological. Specifically, when Christian artists depict the world they must wrestle with how they portray the brokenness they find there. In light of God’s grace should the artwork depict the way the world should be or will be at the eschaton? Or should the artist depict the brokenness, woundedness and suffering of our current existence? Take, for instance, the work of one of the most recognizable Christian artists, Thomas Kinkade. Kinkade has said that his idyllic paintings are portrayals of the world “without the Fall.” But many Christian artists wonder if this impulse is truthful to human experience and the activity of God’s grace in a broken world….

….The argument is made that good art, to be truthful, must present grace in the midst of the Fall….true beauty isn’t achieved by willfully removing the signs of death,
suffering or brokenness. True beauty aims to find God’s grace in
unlikely and painful places.

As an example, Beck reproduces one of Tim Lowly’s paintings of his severely handicapped daughter, in which suffering is juxtaposed with the compassion and hopefulness of the six women who hold up her body, like pallbearers or worshippers around the effigy of a saint.

I agree that this kind of artwork is a great improvement over sugary depictions of praying hands and country cottages. But does the implicit requirement to “find God’s grace” still keep Christian artists on too short a leash? What about art that depicts still-unconsoled suffering (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), speaking to those moments when we can’t yet see the silver lining in the mushroom cloud, and resent those “religious” friends who expect us to try? (Hello, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar…) Or art that expresses outrage at the suffering inflicted by Christians and Christianity? Is that still Christian art?

Apparently not, according to the Catholic League. And they got the Smithsonian to agree with them.

Kittredge Cherry, whose Jesus in Love blog features spiritual art with GLBT and feminist themes, has the story, which has also been covered in the mainstream media:

In an outrageous and unprecedented act of censorship, the Smithsonian Institution recently removed a video by gay artist David Wojnarowicz from exhibition after a few hours of pressure from religious and political conservatives.

Titled “A Fire in My Belly,” the video combines various images of loss, pain and death as a metaphor for the suffering caused by AIDS. The four-minute video was denounced as anti-Christian “hate speech” by the Catholic League because it includes a scene of ants crawling over Jesus on a crucifix. Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the incoming House speaker, called it a misuse of taxpayer dollars.

The video had been on display at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC since Oct. 30 as part of the LGBT-themed show “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” the first national art exhibit about sexual orientation and gender identity in American art. Smithsonian president Wayne Clough decided to pull the video on Nov. 30, claiming that he didn’t want controversy to distract people from the rest of the exhibit.

A Smithsonian spokesperson said that this was the first time that the gallery has pulled an artwork from an exhibit because of complaints from the public….

Read more and view the controversial video here. I thought it was a powerful surrealist horror film as well as a prophetic critique of religion from within.

In my opinion, Wojnarowicz was not using Christian imagery as a cheap attention-getter. The religious references, such as the eerie soundtrack of a woman intoning passages from Leviticus about unclean body fluids, are directly relevant to the artist’s point that the church has contributed to the AIDS crisis by its ostracism of gays. I took away the message that AIDS patients are modern-day lepers and that Jesus suffers along with them. If we are scandalized by Christ’s entry into the experience of uncleanness and decay, we show ourselves to be the heirs of the Pharisees.

As Kitt observes, “By putting ants on a crucifix, it fits into the respected Christian
tradition of showing Jesus’ persecution and suffering on the cross in
grisly detail. Angry critique of religious institutions is also a
time-honored Christian tradition established by Jesus himself.”

I think that even the more sophisticated venues showcasing self-described “Christian art” would shy away from Wojnarowicz’s video because their gatekeepers are still thinking that Christian equals evangelizing. There’s no place in their catalog for art that depicts Christianity as the problem, not the solution.

However, that’s the kind of art that we as Christians particularly need to see. It can show us where we have wronged someone in the name of our faith, causing them to think of horror and decay, not love and grace, when they see the symbols that we wave around so proudly.