Monday, November 23, 2009

The Shack

A convergence of coincidences led me to read this book by Wm. Paul Young (2007), which I might not otherwise have bothered with. Three people, none of whom know each other and one of whom doesn't even know me, independently recommended it.

I found myself more interested in the murder mystery and family drama than with the religous fantasy. I was disappointed we didn't get to meet the killer and see him brought to justice. However, I was intrigued by the psychological narrative of a father, estranged from his own father, grieving the murder of his six-year-old daughter finally finding some semblance of resolution by returning to the scene of the brutal crime, the shack. Sometimes, relief from pain can only be found by confronting it directly and moving through it, not by hiding, protecting, avoiding, or repressing.

I found the religious fantasy to be overly contrived. God appears as an African American woman, who is a really good cook. Jesus is accurately represented as a Jewish man, and the Holy Ghost is an Asian woman. Despite the suggestion of an interfaith or multifaith spirituality, I suspect most non-Christian readers will have trouble getting past the dramatization of traditional Christian doctrine: trinity, Jesus as divine, Christ as savior. The non-spiritual, strictly materialist reader may find the whole fantasy quite laughable.

However, the message of spiritual truth being found in relationship rather than orthodoxy, love rather than rules, and forgiveness rather than dogma is a message that transcends religous boundaries. Even the atheist can appreciate the power of the human spirit freeing itself from the toxic effects of anger, hate, fear, grief, and self-loathing to find peace by letting go of past pain and rejoining the human community.

One recurrent theme kept bothering me. "Original sin" seemed to be defined in terms of "independence" from humanity as well as God. Yet, considerable independence from established religious institutions must have been required to write a book which departs from and, indeed, challenges conventional Christianity. Without independence from human institutions, including institutionalized conceptions of the "spiritual," an encounter with authentic spirituality may not be possible. Furthermore, without some degree of independence from the "spiritual," we would not be capable of consciously experiencing it.

Americans love the redemptive narrative, and this text can be viewed as a contemporary psychological/spiritual version of the "recovery" plot, which has a long American tradition reaching back to spiritual autobiographies of the early Puritans. The traditional pattern of sin--forgiveness--salvation is recapitulated in the more contemporary pattern of dis-ease--reconciliation--restoration to health and wholeness.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Book of Darwin

In The Book of Darwin (1982) George Gaylord Simpson weaves his own summaries of and commentary on Darwin's life and work in among excerpts from Darwin's writing. There are long sections of detailed observations on everything from cowslips to worms to barnacles. While these sections constitute a fascinating demonstration of Darwin's meticulous powers of observation, data collection,description, and record-keeping, they will tend to put the average reader to sleep.

What will keep most readers awake are Darwin's personal reflections, as well as the development of his thoughts on evolution and religion.

Among these personal reflections are an account of his suffering from chronic illness, his list of pros and cons when contemplating marriage, and the suggestion that as he became more and more absorbed in his scientific pursuits, his ability to appreciate the arts deteriorated.

As he accumulated more and more evidence for the theory of evolution through natural selection, he pondered the implications for religion and concluded, "I see no good reasons why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone." He notes that "A celebrated author and divine has written to me that 'he has gradually learned to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws.'" (137)

In the famous "tangled bank" passage, Darwin referenced "the Creator" as follows: "Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, while this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved." (143) Apparently, the decline of his senstitivity to the arts did not affect his appreciation for beauty and grandeur in nature.

With respect to science, Darwin defined it as a process of "grouping facts so that general laws or conclusions may be drawn from them." (46) Later, he stated, "From my early youth I have had the strongest desire to understand or explain whatever I observed,--that is, to group all
facts under some general laws." (196) Evolution was the law that best explained his voluminous observations and data collection. It seems he was more interested in the observation and hypothesis-development part of the scientific method than in the testing and experimentation part.

In any case, one comes away from this book full of admiration for Darwin's meticulous attention to detail, his patience and endurance in pursuit of understanding, and his courage in testifying to his truth despite nay-sayers, skeptics, and critics.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Identity Politics and Poetry

Of all forms of literature poetry is probably most popularly perceived as being above politics. But consider some of the Best Loved Poems of the American People (Felleman 1936): "Paul Revere's Ride" (Longfellow), "The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in New England" (Hemans), "Concord Hymn" (Emerson), "My Madonna" (Service), "The Indian Hunter (Cook). The most lyrical of nature poems become political in the context of environmental exploitation and pollution; the sweetest love poems become political in the context of gender power imabalances, heterosexism, and homophobia.

Yet each of the above could be read in terms of universal themes: patriotism, heroism, historical memory, cultural myths, good and evil, natural beauty, human love and attraction.

But what of a self-consciously political poet, such as Audre Lorde, whose identity as African-American, female, and lesbian was a dominant theme? How can she speak with the voice of a black woman and reach the ear of a white male? Can she be valued for her lesbian eroticism and at the same time for her universality?

The Black Unicorn

The black unicorn is greedy.
The black unicorn is impatient.
'The black unicorn was mistaken for a shadow or symbol
and taken
through a cold country where mist painted mockeries
of my fury.It is not on her lap where the horn rests
but deep in her moonpit
The black unicorn is restless
the black unicorn is unrelenting
the black unicorn is not

It's clearly an expression of black female, perhaps also lesbian, identity, but surely a white male can appreciate greed, impatience, misunderstanding, mockery, anger, restlessness, determination, oppression, perhaps even gender inversion.

And how does a straight reader relate to lesbian eroticism? Gay or straight, male or female, black or white, I dare you to read her most erotic lesbian poems and not find an expression of the universal eroticism of earth and moon, flesh and fire, mountain and forest, animal heat...

On A Night of The Full Moon


Out of my flesh that hungers
and my mouth that knows
comes the shape I am seeking
for reason.The curve of your waiting body
fits my waiting hand
your breasts warm as sunlight
your lips quick as young birds
between your thighs the sweet
sharp taste of limes

Thus I hold you
frank in my heart's eye
in my skin's knowing
as my fingers conceive your warmth
I feel your stomach
move against mine

Before the moon wanes again
we shall come together.


And I would be the moon
spoken over your beckoning flesh
breaking against reservations
beaching thought
my hands at your high tide
over and under inside you
and the passing of hungers
attended forgotten

Darkly risen
the moon speaks my eyes judging your roundness