Category Archives: religion

Dear God. If in the End

Dear God. If in the End

we had no internet
no hot water in the kettle
no books riddled with notes
or bedclothes yellowed by the lamplight

If in the end you were as close to me as I am
to knowing every star,
marking each with naked eye,
reciting cinematic names and vectors

If in the end I’d hauled the wood
you burned for every prostitute
or preacher, every wandering soul
a minstrel in our bed

If in the end my body spelled
the only name that mattered,
and you wouldn’t read it, would not see
your sign in limbs and skin

If in the end our days fell impotent
and soft, no clam’ring mess
in back of us, only a sliding –
only a mouth open, a swallow

I’d curl myself around you
my chin between your shoulder blades,
a pressing: navel, buttocks
thigh to thigh and arm to arm,

a smell of static disavowal
soaking through my robe like ink
and I would say, I love you, love you
washed out, paling into pink.



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Ghost children, empathy, and easter. 3 Monday quotes.

HOORAY MONDAY QUOTESI’ve lately been reading a wide swath of whatever, and apparently refusing to share any of it because… cohesion.
So in lieu of a blog post that would make all these come elegantly together, below are the quotes I’m saving from a few works that may or may not be awesome on the whole:

From Education’s culture of overwork is turning children and teachers into ghostsby Melissa Benn for the Guardian, April 16 2014:

Educational reform now largely equals intensive schooling: early-morning catch-up classes, after-school clubs, longer terms, shorter holidays, more testing, more homework. The trouble is, the human body and human communities do not flourish through being flogged. Families don’t benefit from frenetic rushing. They simply forget who each other is, or could be, which is where the real problems begin.

From The Most Underrated Skill for Creatives? Empathy, 99U.
In which author Jake Cook dares suggest that art is actually better when you think about your audience: rather than sweeping them to one side for the sake of introspective, hermit-like creative binges.

It is much easier to push through your creative blocks when you can actually visualize why your audience needs…
It’s not about creating a portfolio piece. It’s about helping… Working this way, with real people in mind, is much better than staring at a blank canvas or whiteboard and giving it your best guess.

Alain de Botton’s The Philosopher’s Mail featured the article, Easter for Atheists” this past weekend: a quick writeup of reasons for taking interest in the holiday’s roots — even if one doesn’t believe in a God, or that Jesus was one, or that he (god or not) rose from dead:

Among the last words Jesus was meant to have said before he died was the plea: ‘Forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.’ Herein lies the fascinating suggestion that cruelty i sa symptom of a lack of love and understanding, but it is not the ultimate truth about anyone. People who enjoy bringing pain to others are themselves traumatized, rather than inhuman. They are not fully in command of themselves. The jeering man in the crowd is himself the victim of past horrors, deserving — if we can find it in our hearts to understand — pity rather than rage.

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The Myths that Sustain Oppression, Income Inequality, and Poverty

wars and povertiesOkay friends. Given recent battles over minimum wageall the news regarding the 50-year anniversary of Johnson’sWar on Poverty,” and political statements that examine  poverty and income inequality, I present to you

this eerily relevant excerpt from Paulo Freiro’s celebrated Pedagogy of the Oppressed1968:

[O]ppressors develop a series of methods precluding any presentation of the world as a problem and showing it rather as a fixed entity, as something given — something to which people, as mere spectators, must adapt.

It is necessary for the oppressors to…keep [the people] passive…by …depositing myths indispensable to the preservation of the status quo; for example, the myth that the oppressive order is a “free society”; the myth that all persons are free to work where they wish, that if they don’t like their boss they can leave him and look for another job; the myth that [the current] order respects human rights and is therefore worthy of esteem; the myth that anyone who is industrious can become an entrepreneur — worse yet, the myth that the street vendor is as much an entrepreneur as the owner of a large factory; the myth of the universal right of education, when of all the Brazilian children who enter primary schools only a tiny fraction ever reach the university; the myth of the equality of individuals, when the question: “Do you know who you’re talking to?” is still current among us; the myth of the heroism of the oppressor classes as defenders of “Western Christian civilization” against “materialist barbarism”; the myth of the charity and generosity of the elites, when what they really do as a class is to foster selective “good deeds” (subsequently elaborated into the myth of “disinterested aid,” which on the international level was severely criticized by Pope John XXIII); the myth that the dominant elites, “recognizing their duties,” promote the advancement of the people, so that the people, in a gesture of gratitude, should accept the words of the elites and be conformed to them; the myth that rebellion is a sin against God; the myth of private property as fundamental to personal human development (so long as oppressors are the only true human beings); the myth of the industriousness of the oppressors and the laziness and dishonesty of the oppressed, as well as the myth of the natural inferiority of the latter and the superiority of the former.

imageAll these myths (and others the reader could list) the internalization of which is essential to the subjugation of the oppressed, are presented to them by well-organized propaganda and slogans, via the mass “communications” media — as if such alienation constituted real communication!

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opiates, meaning, and asking the wrong questions

get you some religionSo The Atlantic posted a health column today with the following title:

Where Life Has Meaning: Poor, Religious Countries.

It’s a writeup of a recent study published in Psychological Science about the quest for meaning around the globe. The grabby tag:

“Research indicates that lack of religion is a key reason why people in wealthy countries don’t feel a sense of purpose.”

As you might guess, the article is a mild celebration of religion as a source for meaning and purpose among those who don’t have much materially. And it comes with a not-so-subtle assertion that those who wish to be psychologically healthy may need to get themselves some religion.

Freetown, Sierra Leone

Freetown, Sierra Leone

Journalist Julie Beck begins an analysis of the Psychological Science study with a nod to the cliche (yet truthy) notion that money can’t buy happiness. This is obviously the case, because the countries in which people had the most meaning (a version of happiness) were definitively not the wealthiest:

“Toward the top [for meaning] were Sierra Leone, Togo, Laos, and Senegal, all of which were in the bottom 50 countries in the world for gross domestic product per capita in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund.”

But as Beck notes, the study demonstrates that meaning requires more than just rethinking money as a source of fulfillment. Wealthier countries are also less religious than poorer countries — and according to the study, secularity sets wealthy countries back in the meaning department.

The researchers found that this factor of religiosity mediated the relationship between a country’s wealth and the perceived meaning in its citizen’s lives, meaning that it was the presence of religion that largely accounted for the gap between money and meaning. They analyzed other factors—education, fertility rates, individualism, and social support (having relatives and friends to count on in troubled times)—to see if they could explain the findings, but in the end it came down to religion.

What we wind up with here is the assertion that having a sense of meaning ultimately requires a religious frame of reference. At first glance, this looks like a win for religious evangelists: evidence of the necessity of religion. After all, “it appears,” the author writes,

“there’s something to be said for being given answers to the big questions, whether they are true perhaps less [sic] important than just having them, sparing yourself the agony of looking.”

But such a statement baldly sets up religion as an opiate (not a win for evangelists after all), while the article as a whole — particularly given its categorization under “Health” — identifies religion as our only viable source of meaning. In other words, we may be better off if we lie to ourselves. Beck tells us that the Psychological Science study actually wraps up by quoting Roy F. Baumeister’s book Meanings of Life,saying,

“creating the meaning of your own life sounds very nice as an ideal, but in reality it may be impossible.”

The takeaway? You can’t make adequate meaning on your own. You need religion. But don’t fear: the religion doesn’t have to be true! You simply need to buy in so that you never have to view your circumstances without the assistance of an inherited (or enforced) frame of (mythical) reference.

The article doesn’t claim to be offering religious or psychological advice, but it nevertheless functions as an excuse to settle — in the name of health — for what appears to be kind of working. It also reduces faith to a desperate self-protection method — a reduction which rings true to atheists, but would likely offend those who claim their faith sustains them.

what might we be missingWhere I believe Beck ultimately falls short in reporting on this study is her failure to frame the study within a global system of oppression, repression, and assertions of power. Granted, she likely didn’t set out to do so. But without critical and overarching frames of reference, studies like this help us minimize the material oppression, suffering, and/or disadvantages of those in less wealthy economies by celebrating their ability to “find meaning.” For example, the study notes that poorer countries do have much lower rates of “satisfaction” (which “has to do with ‘objective living conditions.'”) But satisfaction and meaning aren’t the same things, and at least in this study, meaning takes precedence over satisfaction. Better to be poor and have meaning than to have nice living conditions, but wind up merely “satisfied.”

Unfortunately, this conclusion is implied by those conducting the study — who may be representative of economically-privileged populations. (Is it clear that those who claim to have great meaning wouldn’t also like to have better living conditions?)

A simplistic approach to the study’s findings also encourages a creeping condescension that says, “Sure, I may have more amenities, but those people have more meaning. That’s so good for them! I’m glad they have their faith.” This removes any sense of urgency with regard to questioning the global structures and systems that reinforce privilege and disadvantage. After all, disadvantage has been so deftly handled via religion and its accompanying meaning.

Meaning and purpose are obviously common human quests, and studies of how, when, and where they are found are not only legitimate but necessary. However, when simplistically described and represented, studies like this one become a means by which the wealthy can dismiss their advantage by feigning envy of those with whom few of them would actually be willing to trade places.

Ultimately, rather than questioning the economic, political, and possibly religious reasons for a gross disparity in “living conditions” and satisfaction, this article leads readers — for a moment, anyway — to see income advantages as disadvantages. Yet even then, we aren’t encouraged to alter our privileged circumstances, or to move to a place in which we have less access to material amenities. (Not that such choices would “work.”) And we certainly aren’t urged to consider our roles in perpetuating global systems that channel wealth to places in which it already abounds. (A choice which could be truly positive.) Instead, readers are urged only to consider adding religion to the mix.

That’s all we need, after all. Some answers to the big questions.

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Silencing the News about (Over)Consumption

hooray landfillIn a January 4 SF Gate article, Carolyn Lochhead raises creepy, blasphemous questions, like:

  • Can the earth sustain the (misguided) notion that a healthy economy must grow – constantly and indefinitely?
  • Can we trade “having stuff” for a better way of life?
  • Can we share resources — cars, power tools, etc — rather than approaching everything with a mindset of ownership?

I know. Scandalous.



In America, consumption is such a marker of “health” that even some conservative Christian leaders — who still btw sermonize about camels and needles and storing up treasures in Heaven — would rather question Pope Francis’s Capitalism Cautions than risk an economic dip caused by Americans actually reining in their greed. In a culture in which buying things is patriotic, contentment will feel like treason. No wonder we can’t have a conversation that seriously addresses the impact of over-consumption.

Unfortunately, we have to deal with the consequences either way. Lochhead’s questions, above, are driven of course by the inarguable depletion of natural resources. Stanford University ecologist Gretchen Daily states unequivocally that, “We’re driving natural capital to its lowest levels ever in human history.” Lochhead mentions that this is particularly clear when one considers fisheries: “Scientists estimate that commercial fishing, if it continues at the current rate, will exhaust fisheries within the lifetime of today’s children.” Um. That’s soon, kids.


Glen Libby and his brother, Gary, prepare a batch of crabs in Port Clyde, Maine, Dec 2013. (Craig Dilger/The New York Times)

Annie Leonard, the founder of Story of Stuff — a project aimed at taming mass consumption — told Lochhead, “It’s not just a bummer for us to not get sushi.

“We are approaching the planet’s limitations. So when I see the media barrage about buying more stuff, it’s almost like a science fiction movie where […] we are undermining the very ecological systems which allow life to continue, but no one’s allowed to talk about it.”


It’s common sense: Limited resources cannot support unlimited growth. Meanwhile, our culture continues to esteem possession, seeing in it an affirmation of human value, dignity, or achievement. We often sense that ownership signifies independence, but this is a dubious connection, particularly since the motives behind compulsive consumption are hardly individual. We’re manipulated into desires (and their accompanying frameworks of value) via media, marketing, and our own envy – which is itself socially constructed. Then we quiet any suspicion of mindless apery by seeing our buying power as a marker of choice and thus dignity.

Ew.This is old news, and I don’t claim to be outside this Web of Ew. But we should at least be able to talk about it. An honest confrontation with excess won’t require us all to join communes and burn our nonessentials, but it will require that we stop pretending that “overconsumption” is impossible dialogic territory.

We can talk about this.

For example:

Christian leaders on the right should be able to acknowledge that, by encouraging capitalism, they’re ultimately encouraging ongoing consumption — which is not easily reconciled with the lasting contentment they claim to offer. Such an acknowledgment wouldn’t preclude Christians from being capitalists; only from pretending that a Christian/Capitalist identity presents zero conundrums.

Similarly, economists and politicians must be able to acknowledge that nearsighted policies can have dangerous, irreparable repercussions. Yes, the felt impacts of detrimental policies are often a long way off, while the felt impacts of “Omg! Growth!” are gratifyingly now-ish. But seriously, people who work with stats and projections shouldn’t be so threatened by the logic of finite resources.

And finally, the rest of us should be able to talk about (over-)consumption without debilitating guilt, or the fear that we’ll turn into miserable, austere crusts.

Besides, it’s not like Buying-and-Owning-Shit has a solid rep for making people notably happy. Maybe trying a different tack is less scary than just — sensible.

Louder, Please.

The thing about silence is that it’s a symptom of fear: that we won’t be able to handle the response that truth demands of us. Easier not to know. So, although experts assert that an economy can be healthy even at a “steady state,” that health should be measured by more than financial figures, or that people can successfully share their possessions, such assertions are often dismissed, mocked, or actively silenced. Meanwhile, we miss out on strategies for Better. This is what makes Lochhead’s article so significant, and why we should be writing, sharing, and searching for more like it.

The breaking of the silence around overconsumption is a call to creative intellects: to re-imagine what it means to be successful, to exercise options, and to have dignity.
More of that, please. And a little louder.

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“I’m interested in the emotions underneath these rituals, not the specifics”

Atheist-Christmas-007As a complement to my earlier post, here’s a quote from Alain de Botton’s Dec 23 article for The Guardian, in which he describes how secular thinkers might take advantage of aspects of Christmas:

“We live in a crowded but lonely world. The public spaces in which we typically encounter others – commuter trains, jostling pavements – conspire to project a demeaning picture of our identities, which undermines our capacity to hold on to the idea that every person is necessarily the centre of a complex and precious individuality. It can be hard to stay hopeful about human nature after a walk down Oxford Street. Locked away in our private cocoons, our chief way of imagining what other people are like has become the media, and as a consequence we naturally expect all strangers will be murderers, swindlers and paedophiles…

“The secular world often sees in [Christmas] rituals such as communal singing or eating a loss of diversity, quality and spontaneity. Religion seems bossy. But at its finest this ritual-based bossiness enables fragile but important aspects of life to be identified and shared.”

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“Peace on Earth”

rejection handFor the Mess, for the palpable grappling with failure, for the sting in some of the carols that are bludgeoning speakers today —
essentially, for the “rest of us” —

Jesus this song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
“Peace on Earth”
Hear it every Christmas time
But hope and history won’t rhyme
So what’s it worth?
This “Peace on Earth”

(A little U2)
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A Troxell rant about “white Christmas.” (You’re welcome.)

A Troxell rant about “white christmas.” You’re welcome.

Ted Troxell, Fox News’ (well, Megyn Kelly’s) white Jesus, and um – “Christian nations.” FTW.

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“And there’s Jesus and Mary,
the wine and the water,
til you wake up one day
and you can’t believe either
And a hymn shapes itself
in your mouth but you say
‘well it’s over now; I guess
it’s over.'”


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(Paris Shaking)

Shepherds of our silence, give yourselves to other men. You struck the rock with your staffs, and where the water flowed (if it did) we shuddered thinking it might wash over us, take something of us with it. Not just the sin or stain of having been in the presence of the human but the human in us too, the bones and sinews, muscle, blood that made us tangible in a world gone prostrate (and then lax) before your heaven.
In the streets of Paris we walked with mouths agape as if in some dream, considered all the bodies tailored, hustled, swarmed into those buildings and their mundane jobs their mundane lives, or is the bread and wine enough to make their streets a dream for them, too? But of course I’m swayed by Émile Zola’s tale, the alley of Pont Neuf, a suffocating sympathy for Mlle. Raquin.
And then there are the things we’ve put into the future: how we wait for life to start once such and such has happened, some Life/Career Exam that’s either make-believe or silent (the same things). It never speaks Arrival.
So you shepherds, here are these bodies, these brains with their vignettes motives beats and fatal blessings, nowWhether the molecular manifestations of some need, disease, abuse, or holy will, they are a middle finger to your herding, your safe-shoring. If only in their waking, eating, waiting out the end they are a panting at the back of you: a cumulative shaking.

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