Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Part 2. Continued from previous post.............

Not too many years later, when I was in my mid-twenties, I was in the process of leaving Evangelicalism behind, but I still had a number of close friends who were Evangelical, and I was still involved in a Bible study group that, while it didn’t have any stated criteria for membership, was mostly full of Evangelical Christians. I got into a discussion one night with a highly intelligent man about why I was leaving Evangelicalism behind. I think one of the most common mistakes made by the general public about fundamentalism is that there are no intelligent people who are fundamentalists; if you’re intelligent, you would see through the illogic of fundamentalism in a heart beat. But this is absolutely not true. Just as one example, this Bible study was made up of graduate students at a prominent university—there were half a dozen medical students, also students from the law school, school of public health, and the English dept (me). In fact, Evangelicals take particular pleasure in a very scholarly, erudite approach to the study of the Bible, including references to “the Greek” (i.e., the original version of the New Testament) and inductive studies of whatever text is being studied-- that might involve grammar, history, references to various other biblical texts, etc.

So, back to the story. So this friend and I were discussing the reasons why I no longer considered myself an Evangelical Christian. I’m always hesitant to discuss this, because having been an Evangelical myself, I know firsthand that they’ll never be persuaded. For me to explain why I no longer believed in inerrancy (the belief that the bible is literally, word-for-word true) was never going to convince him, because once I state that I don’t believe in inerrancy, any subsequent words that come out of my mouth will be seen as the words of someone who is wrong. I know this because I’ve done it myself, though thankfully it’s been a long, long time.

But I had been friends with this guy and his wife for several years (still am, as a matter of fact) and I didn’t want to blow him off. So I tentatively trotted out my reasons, which were less a matter of reasoned logic than a slowly gathering swell of experience that finally was too much for me to ignore. When I was done, he was silent for a second or two, and then he said, “But for me to agree with you would be to go against everything I was brought up to believe. It would be against my parents, my grandparents, everything I value. I can’t believe that.”

I was so surprised by his response that (obviously) I still remember it twenty years later. He didn’t give me any of the standard Evangelical arguments for inerrancy, which is what I was expecting and what I would have done myself five years before. He said that Christianity, the way it existed in his head and the way he was raised to believe, was more important to him than making sense of his/my direct experience of life. i.e., even if my reasoning was persuasive to him, he wasn’t going to give up his beliefs, because they were important to him for other reasons—heritage, tradition, habit, comfort.

It is common for non-believers to sneer at this sort of reasoning. “Religion is the opiate of the masses” and all that. But I can’t do that. I can understand why people sneer. Christianity has been used to support so many bad ideas in the cultural history of Western Civilization that we tend to look down our noses at people who cling to it out of cultural loyalty. But I can't participate, because I've been on the other side, too. We would never sneer at (say) an Eastern Indian who devoutly practices Hinduism, even though they know there aren't dozens of gods out there. Or a cultural Jew who observes Purim even though she hasn’t said more than half a dozen prayers in her entire life. And there are a whole lot of us out here for whom our cultural heritage is conservative Christianity. We can’t betray it without betraying a piece of ourselves, and I guess it just depends on the person how willing you are to do this. And even if you are willing to do it, it lives on inside you. I walk into a conservative church and I feel at home-- with the language, the music, the mood, the atmosphere-- even though the things that are said and done may make me furious, and even though I no longer consider myself one of them. It's a strange thing.

I think there is still more to come but once again I am out of time.

Aunt BeaN

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

I've been reading lots of opinions lately online (things are still slow at work). It strikes me that so much of the huffing and puffing that goes on about religion these days comes because we are arguing about apples and oranges: religion (any religion) as perceived by the people who don't believe it, and that same religion the way it exists in an individual believer's head. I suppose there is also a third thing (plums?): a specific religion as it is formally codified by the institutional version of it. Do you see what I'm getting at? (Grammatically correct: Do you see the thing at which I am getting? LOL, sometimes I just crack myself up).

I'm thinking this up as I type, so bear with me here.

When I was a junior in college, I took a course on feminist literary criticism. At that point I was still a dedicated evangelical Christian, and I was also a feminist. But because of the way I interpreted my religion, I didn't see any conflict. In my head, there was no problem. That will seem impossible to some, and obvious to others. Anyway. I wrote a paper about some 19th century novel (I can't even remember which one at the moment) in which I argued that God was not male, but existed outside human categories of gender. It seemed absurd to me then (as it does now) to think of God as an infinite, omniscient being but with a penis and Y-chromosomes. I backed up my argument with quotations from the Bible in which God is referred to as female or at least as having female attributes (there aren't many, but there are enough to make a valid argument). I then concluded that any misogyny exhibited by people in a Christian society at any particular point in history (including the novel I was discussing) wasn't based on the reality of who “God” is (which none of us can fully comprehend), but on the cultural practices and expectations of the times. That was just the start of the paper, but the rest of it is irrelevant (and I can't remember it, anyway).

You probably won't be surprised to hear that this went over like a ton of lead bricks with my professor. He didn't even bother to argue with me, he simply said something to the effect of "This is hardly an accurate representation of Christianity" etc etc. and gave me the lowest grade I ever received on a paper. Of course, in an academic setting, he was right and it was a great lesson for me about what one can and cannot argue in an academic paper. To an academic, Christianity IS the historical and institutional entity that must own all of the actions it has produced over the past two millennia. And although any academic would acknowledge that Christian beliefs have changed over time, my individual interpretation of Christianity is meaningless as an academic argument-- though it might provide an interesting paragraph or two. But it points out the distinction I'm trying to make here: there is a (sometimes vast) difference between the formal existence of a body of Christian theology and history, and the way that all gets interpreted by a particular individual (in this case, me). Not to mention that, although I don't know for sure, I suspect I was also dealing with the professor's opinion of what Christians believe, which is that Christians are patriarchal and misogynist.

to be continued.... I got half of the next story written and had to stop, so I'll just save it for the next post.


Sunday, January 28, 2007

I haven't talked to any English majors who have graduated in the past ten years, so I don't know if things are still the same. But back in the dark ages when I was an English major, the works that most of us loved the very best were the Victorian novels. A few might profess that it was really Romantic poetry that they loved, or post-modernist fiction, but secretly, we all adored Jane Eyre. taking a class in the Victorian novel was like getting a three-month free pass to a candy shop: the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Wilkie Collins. Even Jane Austen-- she's a little early to consider Victorian, but every class on the Victorian novel starts with Jane Austen, so we'll throw her in, too. I still look back on the days when I was first reading Bleak House, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Barchester Towers and the rest, and sigh with envy of that younger self.

So when a novel comes out that makes you feel like you are back in college reading Wuthering Heights for the first time, it is a treat indeed. And that is exactly how The Thirteenth Tale (by Diane Setterfield) made me feel. At first, anyway. It was as if someone had taken all the best plot devices out of all those classics (false identities and plot twists from Dickens; madness, obsessive love, and the narrative frame of Wuthering Heights; too much to mention from Jane Eyre, and so on) put them in a jar, shook them up, and pulled them back out again to insert in a contemporary novel. The effect is mesmerizing. I could go on and on but I'll spare you. For about the first 200 pages, I thought it was the best book I'd read in the last five years. I was immersed, driving my family crazy.

But unfortunately it sort of falls apart toward the end. It must be enormously hard to end a novel well, because it often seems that a novel that could be great either has a bad ending, or just fizzles out at the end. Memoirs of a Geisha, for example, or Smilla's Sense of Snow. This one is in the same vein. It's not that the ending is awful, it just disappoints. As if you had the bases loaded and the score tied at the bottom of the ninth, and what you want as a reader is the grand slam-- but instead you get a base on balls, and the runner on third walks in to win the game. It's OK, and it's still the best book I've read in a long time, but it's pretty disappointing. She sets herself up to make some pretty sharp observations on the nature of human evil, but then she ducks out and leaves it undone. Almost as if she didn't realize exactly what she had done in the first two-thirds of the book.

But it's still highly recommended. It's a great read and will keep you absorbed for a couple of days. The gist of it is: the most popular novelist in Britain, about whom nothing is known outside of her published works, decides on her death bed that she wants to tell her own story. So she invites a bookish, introverted young woman, practically unpublished, to her home to write it down. The story turns out to be a thriller on its own-- and you have the double narrative frame-- the story you read is being controlled both by the dying author who is speaking it, and the young woman who is writing it down. (and of course both of those are the creation of the writer.) It's a fabulous setup.

OK, that's all for now. It's so rich with detail I may end up having to go back and read it again. Maybe I'd find the ending less disappointing the 2nd time through.

Aunt BeaN

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Reading Report

I'm still trying to get through Wise Blood, believe it or not (by Flannery O'Conner, part of my current reading project). It isn't even very long, more of a novella than a novel. More on that another time.

My book group read the Devil in the White City by Erik Larson this month. We were all fascinated by it, and also repelled. It's a nonfiction account of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 told in alternating chapters with the story of a serial killer who took advantage of the World's Fair to kill (probably) dozens of people. It was interesting to see who skimmed the serial killer chapters to get to the next installment of the building of the fair (like me) and who skimmed the building chapters to get to the next installment of the serial killer. That's what I love about book clubs-- it gets me to read books that I would never pick up otherwise but that later I am glad to have read.

So in the midst of the "freaks" in Wise Blood and the serial killings in White City, I needed a break. For some reason I picked up the original Mary Poppins. I really enjoyed it, unlike some other childhood classics that I've re-read, I thought it stood up very well to the passage of time. So I tried reading it to my son, who did not feel the same. We made it through the first three chapters before he (very politely) asked if we could please read something else.

This past weekend I read The Shadow Thieves by Anne Ursu, a young adult novel about two children who have to travel to the Underworld to save the lives of their friends who have fallen ill. She has a very interesting writing style that reminds me a little bit of some of the things I've written, so of course I thought it was very cool. But the mannered, distanced narrative style got really old when she was in the midst of the exciting parts-- which is a good thing for me to know. I skimmed quite a bit starting about halfway through. BUt still it held my attention better than anything else I've read in the past month or so, I whizzed through it in a couple of nights.

It brought up something I've noticed off and on for a couple of years now, which is the proliferation of books and movies that are either told from the point of view of someone that is dead, or that are about the afterlife or what happens to people after they die. American Beauty (the movie), The Lovely Bones and Saving Fish from Drowning (adult books), Garth Nix's young adult novels (and this one, of course) come to mind, and I bet there are others. It's an odd thing, isn't it?

That's all for right now.
Aunty BeaN

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Random acts of kindness

After my previous rant, I figured I'd better post this. Tonight as I was driving home from a friend's house a bit after nine, I discovered a good reason to live in a small town. This isn't a particularly nasty night by Montana standards, but it is cold, and snowing a bit, and the roads are slick and icy. So I'm sitting at a light about four cars back from the front, when it becomes obvious that the pickup at the front of the line isn't going to be able to move. A couple of guys got out and came around the back to get ready to push the next time the light turned green. And I'm not kidding you, in about 30 seconds, everybody in the line had piled out of their cars and gone up to help push this guy across the street-- even a guy that was coming the opposite direction pulled over and got out to help. You probably don't see that every day in a big city.

It was nice. Nice is good. Do a nice thing today.

Aunt BeaN

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

I stumbled across the Arts and Letters Daily site at some point and it is another goldmine of interesting stuff. You could spend weeks following all the links. But the reason I'm thinking about it today is because of a link to a really interesting article here. It's really long (you'll be able to tell it was a slow day at work today), but has lots to think about. He's talking about literary theory, which is a pretty dry subject for the most part, but the arguments he makes for changing the current literary climate are so similar to my feeling about my search for a spiritual path that I was fascinated. I almost e-mailed him to tell him how much I appreciated his thoughts. It's pretty strident at the start and at the end, and he has maybe a little too much fun with phrases from an article that the author (Prof Menand) probably never intended as a statement of belief. But still it made my day.

I'm too bleary to say any more than that, it's after midnight. I thought I killed my computer this past weekend trying to re-live my geek days and upgrade the RAM myself. All is well (after a weekend of total panic followed by a very humbling ten-minute stop at the local tech support place) but I've spent the last two hours backing up all the files that I thought were gone forever. So now I can sleep peacefully.

Aunty BeaN