Browsing "World Religions"

Lights of Resistance

Hanukkah candles lit in a diagonal row.

Photo by Amit Erez/iStockphoto.com

Hanukkah has a gloss on it, a festival of light like others this time of year. Part of that gloss has developed in proximity to the flash and dazzle of Christmas, but before that, much of Hanukkah’s attraction was the chance to delight children with candles, dreidels, chocolate, and wonderful practical gifts like socks and pencils.

But another aspect of that gloss comes from the effort to avoid examining the complex origins of the holiday. It’s what comes before the miracle of the oil in the Temple that spurs on such frantically cheerful celebration. The destruction of the Temple that made its rededication necessary followed a bitter civil war within the Jewish community. Jews who wanted to keep Jewish culture pure and separate fought against Jews who wanted to give up some of their Jewishness to join the dominant Greek culture that seemed like the flagship of progress and prosperity.

When Jerusalem was annexed by the Seleucid rulers of the eastern Greek kings, the Greeks and their Hellenized Jewish followers desecrated Jewish holy sites, killed fellow Jews, and forced others to break the laws of the Torah by eating pork or getting “uncircumcised,” a process about which I wish to know nothing at all, since circumcision itself is a removal of skin. Many Jews died rather than submit to these rituals, but many others submitted in hopes of assimilation into the wider Hellenic society where opportunity lay.

This conflict, and the uprising by the Maccabees that delivered two decisive military defeats to the forces of Antiochus and drove Greek troops from Jerusalem, are filled with questions we’re still struggling with today: “How does a community maintain its identity in relation to the broader culture? How much should outside influences be resisted, and how much embraced? How much do we depend upon God to save us and how much upon ourselves?” (1)

I see these themes playing out in a different context recently, that of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter seeks to empower black communities and individuals after 400 years of dehumanization and systemic racism. There’s an effort to lift up and honor the ways black culture is unique, and value its resilient manifestations in a society that constantly seeks to dominate it through force and privilege.

As with the Maccabees, this is a fight that springs not only out of the oppression imposed by the state, but also in opposition to the forces of assimilation, respectability, and appeasement from others in the community who see success and respect in the dominant culture as the only way to get ahead in society and avoid punishment by the state. This was cause for civil war among the Jews, and the conflicts between parts of the black community over the strategy for freedom can become nearly as heated.

These complicated issues of resistance, solidarity, and freedom have been on my mind for weeks now, during and following the occupation of the 4th Police Precinct in North Minneapolis. It followed yet another incident of state violence, the police killing of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old black man. Instead of just marching once or twice in symbolic protest, then burying the injustice with the victim, leaders from Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, Black Liberation Project, and the Minneapolis NAACP decided on a strategy of resistance to raise tensions in an effort to procure justice: a Federal investigation of the murder, the release of the names of the two officers involved, and the public release of the video surveillance tapes from a variety of angles around the crime scene.

Tents sprang up, then food service, then winter clothing giveaways. Sisters Camelot pulled their bus right into the camp and unloaded hundreds of pounds of fresh produce over the days of the occupation, most of it flowing out into the community. Some days, the lines of cars stretched for over a block, each one pulling up to donate firewood and propane to keep protesters warm day and night.

Old woman with native drum and man in shadow  by a campfire; a Black Lives Matter banner hangs in the background

Photo by Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via AP

For eighteen days, campfires burned in a line down one block of Plymouth Avenue. They were carefully tended: logs laid in careful formation, coals stoked to a new blaze, water and sand at the ready nearby, ashes diligently swept away. The miracle of this string of lights wasn’t the fuel needed to keep those fires burning; it was the community that formed to keep the whole occupation bright and steadfast. Just like Hanukkah, there were stories and games and songs and food to push back the cold darkness of racism and defeat. Hanukkah means dedication, and that’s what kept the 4th Precinct Shutdown going: dedication to the neighborhood, dedication to the people, dedication to the idea of freedom and equality.

In the wake of the city’s destruction of the camp, Minneapolis police cars are pulling people over, trailing them far beyond their jurisdiction, just for having shown up on that battleground. Police retribution is a real fear for Northside residents, and efforts to procure a promise against retaliation and continued police violence have been met with silence. This form of oppression resembles the German tactic of “collective responsibility” in the face of resistance. “This retaliation tactic held entire families and communities responsible for individual acts of armed and unarmed resistance. The fact that thousands did fight back is remarkable.” (2)

If the lights of Hanukkah are meant to give hope, so were the lights on Plymouth Avenue. And if the resistance of the Maccabees is meant to inspire us to band together in the face of oppression, so was the 4th Precinct Shutdown. And if lighting other candles from the Shamash is meant to give us courage to be the kindling light in others’ lives, Black Lives Matter calls on us all to be the beacons that shine love and light into the shadows of our society and make it better.

A diagonal row of campfires down a city street, people clustered around each.

Photo by Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune.

“Chanukah, 5692.

‘Judea dies’, thus says the banner.

‘Judea will live forever’, thus respond the lights.”

— Rachel Posner, Nazi Germany, 1933. (3)

Mar 20, 2014 - World Religions    No Comments

Quid Pro Quo

I went to college with Fred Phelps.

I went to the University of Kansas for school, and he went there with his congregation to protest the Big Gay Agenda. He held signs promising us a swift trip to Hell in front of the liberal arts building where my first out gay friend and I boywatched together on the broad, sunny plaza known as Wescoe “Beach”. He protested outside the Kansas Union where I got gouged on textbooks—believe me, I wished to protest those days too.

And to my everlasting mystery, he picketed and shouted outside every single one of my college choir concerts. Monteverdi’s Vespers. Tallis’ soaring, complex 40-part motet. Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Franz Biebl’s achingly beautiful “Ave Maria”, sung at every Christmas concert. The greatest music ever composed—most of it commissioned and performed for the greater glory of God—earned his scorn without fail. Not that he ever heard a note of it.

Obviously, this defies logic, as did his entire mission in life. Logic has little to do with fear and hate. To Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, all that mattered was the existence of LGBT people living happy, honest lives on and around the KU campus. Do liberal arts and the fine arts department have a particularly higher number of them? Who knows.

In any case, a kind tradition developed among the upper- and underclassmen at KU. The first time freshmen encountered the WBC was usually on Jayhawk Boulevard. The placards they held proudly weren’t the only statements they made; they said hateful, hurtful things to anyone who walked by. Many freshmen felt compelled to stop and try to reason with them, to ask them to reconsider their beliefs—especially if they had children with them (which they usually did). Reason turned to frustration as the students met their implacable, mile-high wall of bigotry and conviction.

Just as fury began to ignite, some upperclassman would approach and put a gentle arm around the freshman’s shoulders. “Come with me,” they’d say quietly as they guided them away. Out of earshot, the older student would say something compassionate and honest about futility and self-care, irrationality and good intentions. With a pat on the shoulder, they’d go their separate ways: one gratified at having done a good deed, the other sadder but wiser for the experience.

In a year or two, they’d be the older students, guiding another generation of freshmen away from Phelps.

I don’t hate Fred Phelps—he hated enough for a million people’s million lifetimes. I don’t believe he’s in Hell, because I don’t believe in Hell. But if God is Love in the Christian Gospel, he spent his whole life away from God, which is the very definition of Hell in many religions. And he died in a world that more lovingly and openly welcomes the whole selves of LGBT people than it did when he began his work, so he must have known that his mission was an abject failure. He was even abjured by his own flock on his deathbed, after watching many of his own children and grandchildren defect from his church (and even Christianity, in a few cases) over the years. When you pursue scorched earth policies, all you have left at the end is a whole lot of scorched earth.

I know the immeasurable psychological and spiritual harm his hate has caused people over the years, but I don’t rejoice in his death. I don’t want to dance on his grave. I think he would take it as a sign of his righteousness if hundreds of people picketed his funeral with profanity and disrespect. The silence of business-as-usual in Topeka that day would be the most effective punishment of all.

But he wished my friends and me dead at every one of my choir concerts. And I find I have the urge to sing towering works of glory and beauty where he lies dead.

Dear Santa, You Suck

I was 5 when I figured out the Easter Bunny wasn’t real. It wasn’t that I failed the suspension of disbelief–it was that I noticed the Easter Bunny had the same handwriting as my aunt that year. In my usual, filterless way, I started to announce my observation, but my mom clapped a hand over my mouth and dragged me toward the bathroom like she was making off with the Lindbergh Baby.

To her everlasting credit, she didn’t lie to me. I asked if EB was real; she said no. I remember scrunching up my face, heaving a sigh, and saying, “Santa too?” She nodded silently, then issued the death threat to end all death threats if I wrecked the “magic” for my sibs and cousin. I got it, and we left the bathroom as co-conspirators. In the years that followed, ones of poverty and divorce, I knew that magic didn’t put presents under our tree. I knew that my brother’s Cabbage Patch Kid and my sister’s Barbie Dream House didn’t come from a workshop–they came from year-long savings and a tiring wait in line at the toy store. And I liked the thought of my mom sitting down to eat some milk and cookies after we’d all gone to bed on Christmas Eve. I knew she’d earned it.

When the Darling Husband and I set out to have children of our own, we thrashed out a lot of our game plan far in advance. One of those things was Santa, and the conclusion we reached was that we would never actively lie to our kids about the fat man’s existence. But we’ve done a whole lot of evasion and omission over the years. When they ask if Santa is real, we ask them, “What do you think?” When they ask how Santa knows where to find us when we travel, we ask them, “What tools would you use to find someone?”

This year, though, I’ve really had it. There are so many things about the Santa tradition that piss me off. Let’s leave alone for the purposes of this discussion the whole creepy, stalker, NSA-level spying, remorseless housebreaking aspect. “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” should be giving kids nightmares, and making parents peruse home alarm systems instead of Brookstone catalogs.

My first objection is that Santa compliance is mandatory for American kids. Nobody knows how to leverage peer pressure like grade-schoolers, and woe betide the kid who has to explain why Santa doesn’t visit their house. Maybe it’s because their family celebrates Hanukkah or Diwali instead. But maybe it’s because they don’t have money for presents. Kids are quick to point out that how much you get from Santa is an indication of your worth and goodness. No presents means you are lacking as a person, and kids internalize that message along with the holiday mythology.

My second problem with Santa comes from his whole Modus Operandi. To get presents from Santa, you fill a letter with all the things you’re wishing for, stick it in a mailbox, and wait for your wishes to arrive. We don’t write Santa letters in our house, but the grandparents are quite the sticklers about wish lists. This process always begins with the paralysis of choice: they’ve been told all year long not to ask for things we can’t buy, but now they’re supposed to summon up all the things they’ve wished for in the last 12 months? We’ve tried to mitigate some of the stress by constructing categories, explaining that they should have things that are cheap, medium-priced, and crazy-go-nuts over-the-top. I’ve wished for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle for the last 20 Christmases; my brother politely requests the Eiffel Tower every year. Recently, we’ve moved to a “Wear/Read/Play” model, which seems to function even better.

My third complaint is that Santa requires no gratitude. Since everything the man in the suit brings is magically constructed (apparently for free) in his workshop, and you get what you deserve, why be thankful? If Santa gets all the credit, kids don’t have any reason to think about what it costs for their loved ones to make those presents appear. Why is money so tight in November and January? Why does Mom look absolutely thrashed by December 26? As much as kids understand that a poor showing from Santa means that they’ve been bad, parents understand that if they don’t give enough presents, they’re failing a part of the parental contract laid out by society.

So that’s it, fat man–I’m cutting you off. This is the last year you get all the joy and none of the blame. I’m not falling for the line that taking away Santa will “deprive my children of a sense of wonder.” You know what they can feel wonder for? Real things, like nature, the cosmos, the infinitely woven tapestry of story and life that surrounds them. Instead of watching the NORAD website for Santa’s supposed location, we’ll bundle up and look at the cold, clear night sky.

When my kids get the things they want for Yule, they’ll know it’s because their parents worked hard, and that every gift cost real money that someone had to earn. They’ll learn the joy of giving by seeing and understanding why we’re happy that they’re happy with their gifts. The holiday magic will come from family stories and traditions, from the candles and songs on the darkest night of the year, and from the Time Lord with a Christmas special that we can feel good about our kids believing in.

Mar 31, 2013 - World Religions    3 Comments

Faith and Fiction

Religion is a tricky thing. I should know–on a variety of levels, I’ve been studying the features and interactions of religion since I was a little girl. In fact, I made a profession of it, quite by accident, as I’ve recounted before.

I love the history, the stories, the mythology, and the characters that philosophies and teachings accrete, like a snowball ends up a huge, mysterious matrix by the time it finishes rolling downhill. I love to explore the cracks where logic and theology don’t quite line up, and those places where history intrudes to point out the complicated horse race most multi-religious societies are. The Buddha ends up with saints and instant salvation; Mary ends up with blue robes and lions in her portraits. What a glorious, fascinating mess!

When it comes to my history, I’m a rigorous scholar. I insist on primary sources, whenever possible in their original language–that’s why I’ve learned to read in Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Old Irish, Old French, Provencal, Middle English, and a smattering of Welsh, on top of the modern German, Italian, Spanish and French which I can manage from basic source wrangling to full fluency.

I also insist on impeccably sourcing for those valuable secondary syntheses that integrate analysis with reporting. That’s the job of the historian: to report what they find and put together the patterns. If what you find doesn’t fit the pattern, it’s not a sign to throw it out–it’s a sign that your pattern needs some work.

But, as I’ve also written before, I’m a neo-pagan: specifically, I’m a Celtic-pantheon Wiccan (all Wiccans are pagans, but not all pagans are Wiccans, not by a long shot–take Hinduism, just for contrast). I started as a self-taught Solitaire, thanks to the seminal work of Scott Cunningham, who made Wicca accessible to those without covens from which to learn. In college, I went in for formal training with a trusted teacher and work group, earning my consecration as a priestess so I’d feel worthy of requests to facilitate rituals in the future.

The trick with neo-paganism is the “neo-” part. While many early writers and teachers claimed a single, unbroken heritage with the “Old Ways,” the facts lead us to a different conclusion. Much of what Wicca’s founder Gerald Gardner (1884-1964) and Raymond Buckland (1934-), his disciple who brought Wicca to the US, was created whole-cloth based on their romanticized interpretations of ancient sources and a nature-based outlook on spirituality. All you have to do is look at a definitive archeological source, like Anne Ross’ Pagan Celtic Britain, to see how thin and open to interpretation the actual evidence is, compared with the richly embroidered tapestry of belief and ritual that early neo-pagans created.

They weren’t the only ones doing this: W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory had started the ball rolling with their Celtic Twilight movement. Later, historians like Eoin MacNeill who was as much a revolutionary as a professor in early 20th-century Ireland did valuable work bringing together the disparate primary sources from ancient and medieval Ireland, but they processed the evidence through a strongly nationalistic lens so it fit their other efforts.

The facts for neo-pagans are these: There is no way to recreate a continuous tradition from ancient days to the present. We must be content to have fashioned a new, rich tradition of our own, and acknowledge the great deal of wishful historicity we’ve given it. We must also recognize what historians of early Europe already know: that even a single mention in a single source may have to suffice for evidence in societies where what scant written archives may have existed were burned in one invasion or another (thanks a lot, Vikings), leaving spans of 50-200 years without any written documentation.

The facts of my faith, on the other hand, are these: I feel a deep, ineffable connection to ancient generations through the rituals and beliefs I hold dear. I am part of an endless continuum of women and men who have marveled at the beauty of the waxing moon, or tasted the similarity between sea water and tears, or celebrated the first point at which the days become perceptibly longer. Nature is my religion, the forests my cathedrals, the fields and shores my pilgrim paths. That biology and astronomy and physics and geology all mingle to create the singular experience of life on this planet is all the mystery and wonder my soul needs.

These truths don’t rely on primary sources for validation. I can manage to be a good historian and a good person of faith at the same time, even though they should contradict one another. I’m content living in this paradox. For what I know, I want more sources than a single reference in a Christian chronology. For what I believe, I have everything I want.

 

When Spring Isn’t Spring

The sanctuary of White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church (photo by Pete Seeger (no, I don’t know if it’s *that* Pete Seeger)).

My favorite thing about my church is the massive wall of windows in the sanctuary. They look out on the woods of oak and birch that surround one side of the building. I always make sure we’re sitting on the side that looks out that magnificent window. It’s the thing that most settles me into a sacred state of mind.

I love that my church home gives my family and me the community of faith that was the backbone and most important legacy of my upbringing in the Methodist church, while still embracing my personal faith in nature-based Wiccan pagan theo/thealogy. And the window is like the lodestone in my compass of the year, where I watch the parade of seasons caught in the same frame.

For a few weeks, I’ve been pointing out to the boys that the gusty winds were blowing off the last of Fall’s dead leaves to make room for the first Spring buds. But this week, I was so stunned by the apparent lack of progress in temperature and Spring-like disposition, I was moved to write a poem. (It may be terrible; I hardly ever share my poetry, so I don’t have a good sense of how it rates.)

Spring suffered a setback today.

Flurries fell and danced like dervishes

      in the parking lot.

Cold crept under my soles and

      froze my winter-pale toes.

 

Birch trees that, only seven days ago,

      seemed ready to move their magic

            above ground,

      now look tightly shuttered,

            their yellow-green hazy life still locked away.

 

This frigid season will visit a bit longer,

      and feels quite comfortably at home

though its hosts wish it long gone.

 

Spring,

      waiting politely in the driveway

            for its turn in the guest room,

must wait.

When I was in college, I had the great good fortune to see Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. speak on campus. He was as hilarious, irreverent, and insightful as his books. I wish I remember more of what he discussed, but just one thing has survived the years and leaks of memory.

He said we have our seasons all wrong. January and February, those are really Winter, when it’s cold as hell, he said. And May and June are really Spring, that glorious warm, flowery season. July and August are really Summer, when it’s hot as hell. And September and October are really Fall, all crisp and fruitful and wonderful.

But March and April aren’t wonderful and flowery. They’re cold and rainy and squishy and miserable, which isn’t our idea of Spring at all. But what the Earth is doing in those months is necessary for the glory of Spring and Summer to follow. He called it The Unlocking. And November and December aren’t really Winter–they’re frigid and gusty, without the beautiful white covering to hide the brown shades of dead grass and bracken. And that season, Vonnegut said, the one that protects the earth from true Winter, is called The Locking.

Perhaps the reason this explanation is the only thing that’s stuck with me from his visit is that it’s the most sensible description of the Wheel of the Year I’ve ever heard. March isn’t really Spring, and the sooner we stop expecting it to be, the happier we’ll all be. This is when the Earth unlocks itself for magic. Suddenly, the rain and sleet, the slush and melt, all seem much more tolerable.

Witchin’ in the Kitchen

I wrote this essay almost 15 years ago, deeper in the dark of winter than I am right now. But at a friend’s request, and because every word of it still rings as true today as it did when I wrote it. The only thing that’s changed in all this time is that I’m a better, more inspired cook than I was when I was just starting out. I’ve delved into ethnic cuisines, and I’ve learned to trust my senses and my reading skill when combining ingredients. That’s another kind of magic: the confidence that comes with age and practice. But that’s a different blog post.

*****

The time for ritual is at hand. I stand in the place of my power, tools of the magic I will work laid out before me– silver, wood, and steel. Fire and water are at my command, earth and air held back by my will. In this time, I will draw on the forces of creation, shaping elements. Here, I am an alchemist, a hand of the goddess herself.

For I am a kitchen witch.

I embrace this title proudly, despite lingering associations with the silly wizened dolls on brooms available at most craft fairs. As a name, it covers it all–my faith, my pleasure, the locus of my greatest power. No hallowed circle, no standing stones could imbue me with more strength or more possibilities. One friend firmly maintains that, when it comes to the Craft, if I can’t do it with Morton’s salt and a wooden spoon, it can’t be done.

While I am not so bold as to commit to such a statement myself, the power of the kitchen, and what it summons and creates, is not to be denied. Though I began down the path of Wicca in solitude, I learned the magic of cooking as all good magics are best learned : at the elbow of a wise and laughing grandmother. The rules were simple. Wash your hands. Clean as you go. Read the whole recipe before you start. Measure with care. And, most importantly, share the joy as often as possible–that’s why there are always enough beaters and spatulas and bowls for everyone. If you abide by that last rule, no spills or scorches can spell failure. Just vacuum up the oatmeal, wash the egg out of your hair, and laugh about the fun you had.

I know, it doesn’t sound much like the holy tenets of any faith, or even much of a New Age philosophy. But the results simply could not be missed. Even as a child, I recognized the phenomenal power of what we created in that tidy sanctuary of counters and appliances. We’re talking full sensory miracles here, folks. The smell hits you when you walk in the door, enveloping you in a warm blanket of knowledge that, here, you will not go hungry. Someone cares enough to spend time and energy to refresh and nourish you. That simple understanding, at the most primal level, cuts loose the weight of the world, letting your spirit rise. The sight of flushed skin and flour smudges brings light and laughter, and sneaky little dips into aromatic steam and unfinished delights allow you to keep a greedy secret that heightens anticipation. All these things seal the feeling of community as you finally join in the simple pleasure of sharing tastes, sensations, and satisfaction, even if only with one other person. No wonder “communion” takes place with food in so many religions.

But I have to be honest about something, and it’ll probably blow the lid right off any sort of “kitchen witch mystique” I may have managed to build. I am no gourmet. I’ve never taken a cooking class. Those brownies which my friends and co-workers steadfastly maintain are the best they’ve ever tasted? Betty Crocker, Fudge Supreme, $2.49 with coupon. That chili whose aroma wafts out like tickling fingers when I open the door on a cold winter night, drawing my husband in all the quicker? Packet of spices, canned beans and tomatoes. Simmer on low for 20 minutes. That’s it. And I’ve never made a secret of it.

The rave reviews continue, with every potluck dish and party treat. Is it because I always stir clockwise, letting goodwill flow into the smooth batters and sauces? Most likely not. And I’d feel terribly silly if I sprinkled water and invocations over my electric oven to ward off burnt bottoms or mushy middles. My power as a kitchen witch, so far as I can tell, comes solely the enjoyment I take in doing something simple that will produce happiness in others. As I skim my finger down the well-worn page of my favourite cookbook, I’m already thinking of the smiles and hums of pleasure that my “magic potion” will summon into existence. As I clean shortbread dough from my utensils and fingernails, I can already hear the surprised exclamations of delight ringing in the doorway as visitors first hit that gorgeous wall of aroma. And hours later, after the cupboards are closed and the counters are clean, I can still smell the lingering scent of crushed herbs and sweet essences on my fingers, and I fold them beneath my nose and breathe prayers of thanksgiving for the chance to bring joy to those I’ve fed.

So I may not always remember all the poetic invocations when I call the Watchtowers in a Circle, but I remember the favourite food for every loved one in my life, and most of the recipes. And so I might be dreadful at keeping a proper herbal grimoire stocked–my spice racks are the envy of all who survey. I consider myself well on the road to the Lord and Lady’s wisdom, because I know the seat and value of a generous, abundant power within myself, one of the greatest signposts on everyone’s spiritual journey. And when I get there, I’ll be sure to have a dish to pass.

Dec 21, 2012 - World Religions    No Comments

It’s (really not) the end of the world as we know it…

So, the world didn’t end today. Again.

We rely heavily on our family in New Zealand, since they’re the first major nation over the International Date Line (no offense intended, Tonga). They called us just after midnight their time on Y2K, and remarked upon the lack of planes falling from the sky or mayhem in the street, beyond the usual New Year’s hazards of the overcelebrated. I don’t think the Kiwis get enough credit for being the first through the breach on all these doomsdays. When you wake up tomorrow, give a little salute to your (extreme) southwest–they’d appreciate it.

I was entirely reassured already, though, because I am an historian. Specifically, I’m a historian of pre-modern history. I study populations who have predicted the end of the world almost as often as they crowned rulers. Sometimes, the doomsday date came from a monk with a little too much time and Arab math skills on his hands. Sometimes, it came from the profiteering predictions of rulers who needed the quick economic stimulus that fire sale prices on property could bring. And sometimes, just like today, it came from the crazies on the street corners. My very favorite sentence in the long and excellent book by Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, can be paraphrased as, “In 15-something-or-other, two men climbed to the roof of a London tenement and attempted to ascend to heaven.” (Alas, if they’d only thought to bring a ladder…)

Both the furor over creationism and the bizarre obsession with events like Y2K and the Mayan Apocalypse come from a fundamentally flawed view of the universe: Westerners are obsessed with linear time, seeing the history of the universe as a predefined line segment, with clear start and end points. Many folks tilt this axis upward, projecting the constant progress of humanity–they tend to see newer, bigger, better things as preferable over tradition. Others see it like an inverted V, in which some previous generation attained the height of civilization, from which we are now sliding inevitably toward a degrading loss of the standards that defined that earlier, optimal time.

But that’s not how I see time, and neither did the Mayans or any other number of pre-modern cultures who paid attention to the universe around them. The vast majority of civilizations have perceived that nature and the universe  appear to operate, at least in part, in repetitive cycles. Sometimes, it’s a closed circuit–pagans celebrate the Wheel of the Year, which marks the points in the solar year that dictate agricultural and animal patterns. Othertimes, it extends in a sort of spiral, with regular milestones but a sense of forward (or sometimes backward) progression through reincarnation. There’s a reason the Mayan calendar looks like a giant wheel–it’s not meant to end. Today represents the completion of another long cycle, an event worth marking and celebrating, but in no way a period at the end of humanity’s existence.

And tonight, my family will brave the chilly Minnesota night–already velvet-black and deep, at the end of this shortest day–to gather with others to keep watch against the dark. This vigil is millenia old, and yet the message at its heart has spread into almost every culture, the world around. The sun is down; the sun will return. Ring the bells, light the fires, sing the songs to push back the night. Resist the cold, the winter, that starves and bays at the door with warmth and good cheer. For tomorrow, and every day after for months to come, the sun will return, stronger every day.

What good can such an ancient lesson hold in a culture obsessed with the new, the update, the next edition? It teaches us that no chance ever fully passes us by. It teaches us that it’s worth our best effort, every time. It teaches us that there’s a spark of light in the heart of the deepest darkness, and perseverance and faith can sustain us as long as we know brighter days will come.

Know why I’m so sure? Because we almost lost our son this year, to despair and myopia and the feeling that his sensory torture would never get better. And tonight, he rushed into our home after school, brandishing an airplane toy for his brother and a triumphant smile. He’d saved up his good-behavior points for weeks, and spent them on a gift for his little brother. He defied the dark in his world–the darkness that some voices want us to believe drive autistics to unredeemable acts of violence–and now he takes joy in making others happy.

12/21/12 isn’t the end of the world. Neither was 12/31/99. They’re all just one more circuit around the sun, one more circuit around the calendar, one more excuse to find wonder with one another that we all get more chances. That the light comes back, no matter how dark it feels. So set the timer on the coffee pot for tomorrow morning. Morning may come late, but it’s definitely coming. Every single day. Miraculous, isn’t it?

Closing Arguments

I’ve been working on the campaign for marriage equality here in Minnesota since March, and as I’ve written before, it’s the most fulfilling political, social, and activist project I’ve ever worked on. I’m a total addict to the amazing people and experiences I encounter every single time I put in some time, and I’m going to crash hard on November 7, even if we manage to win. I’m already getting the shakes. Last night, I asked my friend and co-trainer Scott, who works in politics for his day job, for a new campaign–I’m lining up a new dealer once Minnesotans United for All Families skips town.

MN United has built a campaign unlike any other, rejecting the messages and tactics that have failed in 30 states where anti-marriage amendments have gone up for a popular vote. While talk about the rights and benefits that attach to marriage, and how the denial of those rights amounts to separate-but-equal discrimination on par with civil rights fights of the past, are important to many supporters of marriage equality, they aren’t generally persuasive for people who are on the fence about gay marriage. So we’re having personal conversations with voters, using our own life stories, to make it clear that marriage is about love and commitment, no matter the gender of the partners. These stories are powerful, and they change hearts and minds and votes.

Only four days remain until the election, so I’m going to share the core of the conversations I’ve been having with you today. If you’re in one of the four states voting on marriage equality, I hope that this strengthens your resolve if you’re a supporter, and opens your heart to the conversation if you’re still undecided.

Our first walk as Mr. and Mrs. Banks, 5 October 1996

I find this amendment personally hurtful on so many levels. I have the great good fortune to be married to the love of my life, despite the astronomical odds that we would ever find one another on opposite sides of the world. And for the last sixteen years, we’ve had each other in good times and bad. I’ve rejoiced in the affection and the support and the million inside jokes and shorthand references that weave us closer, and I’ve buckled with relief into that tightly knit fabric of partnership in the times of crisis and grief. I think marriage is the best game in town, and I devoutly wish the same celebration and endorsement for every loving, committed couple who lean into the unknown future together.

All of this hinges, though, on one critical fact: my beloved was the opposite gender. When we fell madly in love, we had many obstacles to overcome so we could be together, but the legal right for me to marry him and secure his immigration status so we could start our new life together was not one of them. We obtained a K-1 “fiance” visa that allowed him to enter the country and get on the fast track for a green card by submitting evidence of our marriage. We went through the separate interviews to assure our marriage wasn’t a scam.

But I’m bisexual. There was no guarantee that my soulmate would be a man. And if he weren’t, the last sixteen years–all the love, all the progress, all the family we’ve built–disappear. That one thought blows through my gut like an icy wind and fills me with unbearable sorrow. I cannot imagine the pain and devastation of being told I couldn’t marry and be with my beloved.

And I look at my amazing, difficult, brilliant, gorgeous, perfect sons, and I marvel even more. We didn’t have to submit any applications or pass any interviews before we decided to conceive them, and not once have we ever had to fear that they would be taken away from us. We’re far from perfect parents, but no one has ever questioned whether we’re the best people to raise them. It’s assumed that they’re safe and happy and healthy and loved, and there’s no awkwardness when I introduce their other parent at school events or church functions.

Believe me, all this “traditional”-ness is positively mortifying to a weird, eclectic nonconformist like me. Frankly, it’s embarrassing. We didn’t set out to create a “traditional” family, and we’ve done everything in our power to the least traditional traditional family around. But we are very aware of our privilege, and there’s no reason in the world it should be reserved to our narrow demographic.

Marriage is an important but limited part of how I envision family. I’m a child of divorce, and even as an eight-year-old, I knew that my mother and father weren’t working out. I knew that marriage stood in the way of being our best selves, and I told my mom often as a kid, then a teenager, then an adult, that she made the right call. That divorce didn’t dissolve the ties of family, though–I’m still close with my father’s family, and I kept my birth last name as a second middle name when my stepdad adopted us years later. But I also watched my grandparents’ marriage, which started with my grandma saying, “I’ll marry you so I can get out of the house before I kill my sister. But if it doesn’t work out, you go your way, I’ll go mine, and no hard feelings.” It lasted 62 years.

We teach our sons that families come in all shapes and sizes. Of course, we didn’t have to work too hard to teach them this: they already knew it. They have friends who have a mom and a dad like they do, and friends who only live with their mom or their dad, or travel between their parents’ houses. They know friends who live with extended family, or foster parents, or adoptive families. And they know friends with two dads or two moms. All they care about is that their friends are as loved and secure as they are.

So I’m voting no.

I’m voting no because I treasure my marriage. No other word in our language and society so completely sums up the lifelong commitment and enduring love that I share with my partner, and it hurts to imagine being told that we didn’t qualify for that word by something we couldn’t change or improve. My marriage is strong, and no married gay couple down the street, arguing about bills and chores like we do, makes that less secure.

I’m voting no because I hold my sons in hope and love. I feel that they’re better people because we’ve taught them that every person is worthy of the same dignity, no exceptions. My dream for my boys is to dance at their weddings, and the only thing I care about is that the person they marry loves them as much as I love their father. I’m going to dance, it’s going to be Bad Mom Dancing, and it’s going to live on in infamy on YouTube, to forever embarrass them, like every good mom should.

I’m voting no because my understanding of the world’s faiths teaches me that the most universal truth among humans is to treat one another the way we would want to be treated. Whether it’s the Judeo-Christian Golden Rule, or the Confucian Silver Rule, this is held as a central tenet. We rarely follow the ancient scriptures that prohibit same-sex partners on other subjects; we acknowledge that they’re historical documents, and that society’s values have evolved since they were written. I want my church to have the religious freedom to marry gay and lesbian couples as our faith embraces as equally entitled.

I’m voting no because I’m a historian. I can see that the institution of marriage predates the Bible and that it began as an economic transaction to link families and secure heredity. It was not always a sacrament, and it was not always available to every heterosexual couple. It hasn’t “always been” any particular way. Marriage for love is a damned newfangled idea, relatively speaking. If you married someone not from your hometown, you’re already breaking “traditional” convention, let alone someone of a different church, faith, ethnic group, or race.

I’m voting no because I’m a teacher and a parent, and the health, safety, and wellbeing of every child matters to me. I can’t imagine the horror of waiting to know how the state where they were born is going to vote on whether they and their families are welcome. LGBT youth are so fragile already, under siege in schools and churches and media, and it’s a sacred trust we are given to show them that they can aspire to fully participate in society and experience the range of human love. I have great confidence that other teachers will continue to teach age-appropriate lessons, and that as parents we still have the greatest power to teach our children about morality.

I’m voting no because I’m a patriot. I believe in the founding principles of our country, especially the purpose of our constitution as a document that secures personal freedoms and limits government intrusions. The constitution should never be used to carve out a segment of the population and deprive them of the same liberties as others enjoy. And we certainly shouldn’t be putting rights up for a popular vote. Ideological conservatives have made some of the most persuasive arguments along these lines.

I’m voting no because I’m an optimist, and I believe our society is moving toward a broader, more inclusive understanding of one another. The less we allow race, gender, faith, class, and sexual orientation to cloud our vision of a common humanity, the more we will recognize that we all want the same thing. We’ve got a long way to go on all of those issues, but we can (and should!) work on them simultaneously. I reject the arguments of fear, division, and misunderstanding, and I put my hope in the journey we’re on toward life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

 

Oct 31, 2012 - World Religions    1 Comment

Making Halloween Magical

I absolutely adore Halloween. I’ve been known to skip down store aisles singing “It’s the most…wonderful time…of the year!” at the first sight of skulls and crows. I collect Halloween socks and wear them all year round. I buy gothic lanterns and creepy wall hangings and ghoulish tea towels on clearance for everyday use.

Part of this is related to Halloween’s location in my favorite season, Fall. Fall is a full-sensory extravaganza for me: crunchy leaves, crisp nose-hair-tingling morning air, spices and soups, the acrid sting of a matchstrike as I begin lighting candles again after the hot, bright summer.

But Halloween holds more meaning for me than just memories of costumes and candies past. It’s also a sacred holiday for me and other pagans, marking the beginning of new turn around the wheel of the year. Because I follow the Celtic traditions of my ancestors as they intersect with modern neo-pagan practices, I call this day Samhain (pronounced SOV-han or SOW-an, NOT  SAM-HANE).

Celebrated by many ancient agrarian cultures as a cross between New Year’s and Memorial Day, Samhain acknowledges the conclusion of the harvest, the closing down of the earth in preparation for winter, and the liminality of beginnings and endings that allows us to perceive how thin the veils are that separate us from unseen worlds around us. The costumes and the lanterns play games with concepts of finding and evading spirits passing from one state of being to the next. Even trick-0r-treating, often maligned as turning kids into greedy monsters with eroding teeth and manners, reminds us of our obligations of hospitality and the sweetness of welcome on a cold night.

My own monsters, as Finn and Jake from Adventure Time!, ready to storm the neighborhood and shake it for candy.

As such, it’s a powerful time for magic in every sense of the word. The topsy-turvy nature of the night always reminds me to look to the children in my life for wisdom; they have so much to teach us about taking pleasure in the moment and finding wonder in the ordinary. And you can return the favor by taking Halloween as an excuse to open the door to simple magic so they learn the spirit behind the spirits.

If your family has experienced the death of any loved ones in the past year, Samhain allows us to commemorate their life and release them with love, rather than carry the weight of grief into the new year and prevent their spirit from crossing over peacefully. Obviously, this is a complex concept, but it can be symbolized in simple ways that teach kids that grief is natural, as is letting go. If your hands are always full of the past, there’s no room to grab the future, and a ritual of remembrance and release absolves us of the guilt that often accompanies fading memory. It’s nice to look at pictures and tell stories of the departed, then perform an act that symbolizes transition: blow out a candle, throw written messages into moving water, or break a small bowl or clay pot.

Halloween is also a good day for housecleaning magic. If a child has been having difficulty with distraction, negativity, or nightmares–or if an adult wants to banish more mature worries or problems–the energy of the new year can be a powerful “disinfectant.” Go from room to room, in counter-clockwise order from the way you would face as you walk in the front door, and pass a broom over doorways and windowsills. When you end up back at the front door, sweep all the negative energy out the door, say some creative words of banishment (e.g., “Get out of my house, you horrible no-good dreams/feelings/bills!”) , and let the kids slam the door.

Finally, it can be fun to teach kids about traditional divination magic associated with Halloween. Young boys and girls have been looking into pools of water or cutting into fruit on Halloween to tell their fortunes for centuries–that’s where bobbing for apples comes from! Spending some quiet time looking into a dish of water, mirror, or flame (safely, obviously!) often conjures hopes and fears for the future as you settle into meditation with an external focus, and talking about them works wonderful, everyday bonding magic. If you have a tarot deck, runes, or I Ching set, it can also be fun to let the child examine them and ask questions; let them offer their own interpretations and observations, and keep the atmosphere light. People are more comfortable going forward into an unknown future if they feel like they have some sort of influence over it, and even silly little scrying games can make us feel more empowered.

I hope you all have a wonderful, magical Halloween!

Jun 2, 2012 - AV Club, World Religions    5 Comments

The Reel and the Surreal: Movies About Religion

I’m a documentary whore. I absolutely adore them. Can’t get enough. The more esoteric the subject, the better. I’ve always enjoyed them, even as an admittedly weird kid, but I really fell back in love with them right after my second son, Griffin, was born. He was not what anyone would call “a sleeper,” and I found myself awake in the middle of the night more often than not. Fortunately, there always seemed to be an HBO documentary on demand, and I started actually looking forward to those sleepless nights when I didn’t have to relinquish the TV to children’s programming.

I like to keep my classroom style varied, and video is instrumental in demonstrating concepts with a single clip that it would take me an hour to explain, and even then, the students wouldn’t know what the thing I was describing actually looks like in practice. This is especially true in my religious studies classes. Being able to immerse them in the sights and sounds of holy places, and hear everyday practitioners and learned experts alike reiterate what I’m trying to teach is priceless.

I’ve assembled a list here of films that I find particularly good at demonstrating core concepts of the philosophy and practice of religion. Many, I’ve used in class; some are just personal favorites. They’re organized by topic the same way I organize my Intro to Religious Thought classes. This is just a handful of the amazing, thoughtful, incisive, unsettling, critical films being made about religion. Some of them are available on Netflix or Amazon Instant Video; many are commonly stocked in libraries. All are worth tracking down.

Sacred Time

The Last Wave, dir. Peter Weir (Criterion Studios, 1979) — And, of course, I start with a movie that’s not a documentary at all–I’m just that perverse. This is a weird, dated, surreal Australian film by the same director as Witness, Gallipoli, Dead Poets Society, and The Way Back. Richard Chamberlain (The Thorn Birds, Dr. Kildare) stars as a Sydney lawyer who takes on the case of some Aboriginal men accused of killing another one. Chamberlin starts dreaming of a huge flood, and his clients disclose tribal secrets that help him decode the dreams–he’s dreaming of the end of a cycle in Aboriginal time, when they will step into the Dreamtime, leaving the white world to be washed away. It’s a confusing, circular movie, but it’s the most effective demonstration of the Aboriginal concepts of non-linear time that exist nowhere in any society outside of Australia or Africa.

Sacred Space

Ganges, dir. Tom Hugh-Jones (BBC Warner, 2003) — A beautifully filmed look at the centrality of the Ganges River to India as a continent and Hinduism as a faith. They explore the river in its environment and its religious functions, all the way from its disputed origins high in the Himalayas, down to the rich delta at the bottom of the subcontinent.

In the Light of Reverence, dir. Christopher McLeod (Bullfrog Films, 2001) — This film is difficult to find, but so well worth it. The three chapters show the importance of the land to three different Native American groups, and how difficult it is to preserve them with their inherent worth isn’t visible or understandable to Anglo-Americans, who think there has to be a building or monument for a place to be holy. This movie will make you scream and cry, and maybe get involved in the fight to preserve these special places.

Sacred Acts

National Geographic—Inside Mecca, dir. Anisa Mehdi (National Geographic Video, 2003) — I had actually wanted to use the BBC documentary Hajj: Journey of a Lifetime, but it wasn’t available on DVD when I went to teach. Now, wonderfully, the whole thing is free on YouTube. But the National Geographic film is great, too. Only Muslims are allowed in Mecca during Hajj (the annual pilgrimage that’s part of an observant Muslims obligations, at least once in his/her life), so an entirely Muslim crew was assembled for each of these two films. They follow a variety of Muslims from all over the world through the hard physical and spiritual work of the Hajj. It’s fantastic for basic literacy about Islam, and experiencing such a moving journey.

Jesus Camp, dirs. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Loki Films, 2006) Even if you’ve grown up Christian, you may not know that places like the Bible camp in Colorado that’s depicted in this film exist, or what goes on inside them. It’s a harrowing look at the pressure put on kids as young as 5 and 6 to conform to a pretty extreme brand of Christianity. It raises some important questions about how and when to impose your own beliefs on children.

How to Cook Your Life, dir. Doris Dorrie (Lions Gate, 2008) This is a delightful movie about a Zen Buddhist monk and a chef in San Francisco. It perfectly demonstrates the idea that the most mundane, pedestrian things in our lives can become sacred acts with the right mindset. Don’t watch this if you’re hungry.

Sacred People

The Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha, dir. David Grubin (PBS Home Video, 2010) — A lovely documentary blending legend and history to tell the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the Indian prince who achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha.

10 Questions for the Dalai Lama, dir. Rick Ray (Monterey Video, 2007) — This is a very personal film, and though the narrator occasionally gets a little annoying in his self-centeredness, the Dalai Lama is so wise and happy and brilliant and wonderful that everything else fades into insignificance. He talks about the situation of his people’s exile from Tibet, the importance of science, and many of the central ideas of the Buddhist world view. I could listen to him talk forever.

The Devil’s Playground, dir. Lucy Walker (Wellspring, 2003) — This movie follows several Amish teenagers as they launch into a practice known as “Rumspringa,” when they leave the cloistered communities they grew up in and fully experience the “English” world. They swear like crazy, use drugs, go to drunken parties, drive cars, smoke, get jobs, wear jeans. It’s shocking to learn that every Amish person–people we think of as so sheltered and devout–intentionally tests the things of which the Amish life would deprive them. Even more surprising is how many of them choose at the end to leave it all behind and go back to their communities. It’s riveting.

Sacred Words

National Geographic: The Gospel of Judas (National Geographic Video, 2006) — Most people think the Bible has always looked the way it does now, but this film explodes that notion for once and for all. It tells the story of a remarkable document, which purports to be a Gospel written by the disciple Judas, whom the traditional four Gospels of the New Testament says betrayed Jesus to his death. The text is one of the gnostic gospels which interpret the lessons and life of Jesus very differently than the orthodox ones do, and it radically challenges our understanding of the Bible stories everyone hears every Easter. There’s a lot of dramatized action, which always rubs me a bit wrong, but the experts in the video and the story of the text itself more than make up for it.

Sacred Events

From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians, dir. William Cran (PBS Home Video, 2004) — This is a very long, four-part documentary, but it throws into high relief precisely what a messy, confusing, unpredictable origin Christianity had. It gives a ton of valuable information about the Mediterranean world Jesus was born into, the political and social climate that led to his death, the wildly varying (and competing) interpretations of Jesus’ message and life, and the weird horse race to become the “official” version of Christianity that the Roman Empire eventually embraced. It also features most of my favorite historians of Christianity, and it’s a good way to get to know them; many of the authors on last week’s book list are in this film. All this flies directly in the face of the tidy, sanitized, fait accompli history Biblical literalists would have you believe, but the truth is always messier and more interesting.

The Mormons: A Frontline/American Experience Special, dir. Helen Whitney (PBS Home Video, 2007) — Especially in this election year, it’s really important to know the origins and evolution of the only American-born brand of Christianity. This documentary talks to both the officials and the faithful of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints today, but also its critics. It grapples with both the problematic aspects of Mormonism–such as its attitudes and actions toward Native Americans and African Americans–and the very troubling exercise of federal power to exterminate the Mormons.  Whether you find it silly or compelling, it’s all American, and the imprint of this country’s ideals on the Mormon faith is indelible.

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