Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

Tag: christianity

This morning, I talked to my brother. My brother and I have a sometimes somewhat awkward relationship; he’s a “Born Again” Christian (I suppose my mother didn’t do a good enough job the first time?), and I’m, quite obviously, not. I don’t know what I’d call myself, actually, mainly because if I could sum up my faith easily I wouldn’t be writing a book about it (but I can’t, and so I am). When my brother and I speak, we usually try to set aside topics of religion and politics so that we can, you know, smile at each other and mean it.

Over the course of catching up (Christmas might well have been the last time we spoke. If not, sometime in the early spring?), I learned that he’s shortly going to be teaching science, math, and history at a middle school or somesuch. I didn’t get all the particulars.

But I wonder: how can a born-again Christian possibly teach either history or science? I’m fairly certain my brother believes two things:

1) God created the entire universe, from scratch, in six days, and

2) He did so approximately 6,000 years ago.

Now, mind you, I have nothing against the story of Creation, and of Adam & Eve. As fables go, it ranks up there with Aesop in its simplicity, message, and ability to teach young’uns a thing or two. Personally, I tend to think that one of the things that can tell you most about about a particular culture is its Creation story. Many of the tribes originally on this continent believed that the world was born on the back of a turtle emerging from the mud. Pretty much every culture has its own.

The Christian creation story seems to be one of arrogance and domination. Man created separately from beasts and in the image of a deity, and then handed dominion over all the land (and we wonder that the environment is currently buggered). It’s very little surprise Bush considers himself a born-again Christian.

I wonder about the curriculum. Didn’t some Kansas school board vote a couple of years ago about whether to give equal representation to both the science of evolution and the story of Intelligent Design (about which there is nothing intelligent whatsoever; if God does, in fact, exist, God does so in a way that transcends such an adjective as ‘intelligent,’ anyway).

The thing is, I do think everything in schools should be given equal representation, just not in the ways most boards attempt to implement it. I think we should start teaching children about the nature of myths and stories early. Like, in kindergarten, or even preschool, and I think that, when we teach children about creation, we should tell them every story of creation we still have on record. I think children should learn that God created the world in six days and that it came into being born on the back of a turtle (to name but two creation stories), because I think in so learning, they will begin to understand the real origins and meanings of stories. I think it will make richer their relationships with each other, and throughout life.

And then, when they are ready to learn more about physics and evolution and biology and reproduction, they will understand the science of it but still appreciate more subtle meanings. The child who learns how science works in equal measure to why we tell the stories we value might just change the world.

My first memory in relation to religion is dropping a cross.

I was an altar boy at the time, all of probably ten or so. If that. I was in grade school, and I might have been in fourth grade.

Here are some pictures from way back then:

When all this becomes a book, I might just have to make these the cover.

Which just goes to show that even back then, I had awesome hair (I’ll give you a moment to finish laughing. No worries; you’re laughing with me at this point).

The top picture is, I’m pretty sure, of the very first morning I ever served mass.

That wasn’t the day I dropped the cross. Wasn’t far off, but it wasn’t that first day. But here’s the story: as an altar boy, and sometimes the only boy serving any particular mass, I led the priest up the aisle. Normally, the person up front carries the a cross, but the problem was that I was really small. Tiny, really. Which meant, instead of the cross, I usually carried a candle, simply because the candles’ holders were shorter, and I could replace them more easily.

But the day my church got a new crucifix was a big deal, and my priest wanted to use it. And I was the only altar boy serving, which meant I had to carry it . . .

It was fine while I walked up the aisle. I was fine, in fact, until it was time to replace the cross on its holder, the base of which came roughly to my chest, while the cross itself had a two or three foot handle.

You can see the sort of trouble this spells.

I tried. I swear I tried. I tried to hold the bottom to balance the top, but ultimately that heavy cruciform proved too unstable. The entire church discovered, first-hand, the utterly discordant sound of wood and metal against marble; it may well be a miracle on the levels of loaves and fishes that brand new, brass-and-wood crucifix didn’t break. One of the congregation members in the front pew stepped forward to help me, and together we got that cross back on its base.

When I walked back down that aisle, I carried the candle. It would be at least a year before I even attempted to approach that cross again.

A few years ago, I would have said a more skilled writer than myself would draw the metaphor here, but I didn’t go to school at USC to underestimate myself; there is some parallel between my journey in faith and that cross, and on several levels. I dropped the cross, but it never broke; I lapsed away from Catholicism and Christianity for many years, but ultimately I came back, in some roundabout way, to Christendom. For many years I never could carry that cross, favoring instead the candles more appropriate to my stature; there is something to be said for shining unto tomorrow rather than carrying a misunderstood symbol–in the end, I’d rather light the way than pray to an idol.

I am, personally, happier carrying the candle. I don’t pretend to believe I light any way for others; I merely intend to shine more light on mine. Which is why, of course, I take you back to my first memory. I don’t remember my first holy communion. I don’t remember the first time I stepped into a church.

But yeah, I remember when I dropped that cross. I’m sure just about everyone else who was in that church probably does, too.

I’ve mentioned religion and faith a couple of times before, albeit in extraordinarily roundabout ways; I remember the first was simply to note that I had completely missed the fact that Ash Wednesday had come and gone and Lent was nearly already over, Easter more than halfway here. This isn’t really because I’ve rediscovered Catholicism after a many-years lapse–rather, I think I often just saw people with ashes on their foreheads. This past Ash Wednesday, I don’t think I had occasion to go anywhere or see anyone, and so I didn’t notice.

I bring this up because faith was one of the things I wanted to explore in greater detail when I started this blog. I was raised Catholic, and though I’d lapsed by high school, still I went to a Jesuit college, where I studied biology. The life sciences. Physics and chemistry and genetics. While I will note that I never had a priest for a science teacher, back then, I will also note that I remember all my teachers wore their ashes proudly when Wednesday came around. I learned about phylogeny recapitulating ontogeny (or vice-versa; truthfully, I can never remember, because truthfully, I never actually understood what it meant) from a woman who took communion. When I studied theology, Robert Kennedy taught not just the Bible from Genesis to Revelations but also Hobbes, Hume, Dante, and Joyce. I actually read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for a theology class.

My senior year, I began work on a novel about time travel. I had an idea for where it would end, but for a long while, never for how it got there; when I realized that Jesus of Nazareth might have a role as a character, I fought it–I didn’t want the book noticed for its controversy rather than for its story.

One of the most formative moments of my life was when one of my characters surprised me and I realized I didn’t have any choice in the matter. Not just because it was the first time a character didn’t merely take on a life of his own so much as actually fought with me, but also because it forced me to go back there. Back to Jerusalem (however metaphorically speaking), back to Jesus and the crucifixion. In order to get it right, I did a lot of research, reading just about every Jesus-related book I could find.

During the process, I became closer to the idea of Christ and God. Not in the Biblical sense of either word, but both ideas as I perceived them, and in that distinction there is, I believe, a very crucial difference.

I’ve been reading a lot about the recent spate of anti-religious books by guys like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. A lot of books that seem to speak about the evils of organized religion but ultimately fail, I believe, to address why faith exists in the first place.

Faith, I believe, is a story. It is one we construct by living, and I think, like all stories, it has come over the years to tap into our deepest realms of psyche. I think these books fail, finally, to explore faith, focusing instead on the negation of belief, religion, and dogma, which, while arguably a worthwhile goal in the day and age of extremists of all kinds, does not actually engage the topic in the meaningful fashion it deserves.

Where they failed, however, they left room enough for someone to try, which is what I plan to do.

But I didn’t write it. Will Shetterly did, and it sums up everything I would have said better than I probably could have (and certainly: more succinctly).

Lots of religious posts today, of course. Lots of children with smiles missing teeth searching all over their yards for embryos in hardy shells (decorated rapturously and exuberantly) by, of course, a six-foot tall bunny.

So let us not forget what Easter is truly, and has always been, about:

Bunny rabbits are for shagging, and eggs are for fertility.

It is, to be pointed, simply a more explicit version of Valentine’s day, just without the saint and all the Hallmark hooey.

(what is it about us that prevents us from the simple celebration of love and sex in all their grandeur? Why must we throw commerce and religion into the mix at every available opportunity?)

And it’s one of the few years I can remember when the spring festive came so close to the actual start of spring.

I tried to post a video of my cousin playing a sexhityune; if YouTube will let me, I still may.

In the meantime, instead, some Steven Brust and Eddie Izzard.

From Brust, “My Girlfriend Is a Pagan”:

My girlfriend is a pagan, she don’t believe in Christ.
Theologically suspect, but in practice kind of nice.
She’s teaching me her favorite fertility rites.
And every time I learn one, I yell out Jesus Christ.

My girlfriend is a pagan, I truly have been blessed.
I don’t mind the pentagrams, or the lack of rest.
We’ve been doing all we can to see the crops don’t fail.
If when I die I meet with Pan, I’ll shake him by the tail.

My girlfriend is a pagan, I guess she is a witch.
She prays to her Goddess while wearing not a stitch.
She says incense and crystals give her mystic energy
And she has to use it somewhere, which works out best for me.

My girlfriend is a pagan, who could ask for more?
At the altar she’s a heathen, in the bedroom she’s just fine.
I’m happy as a pig in shit, what more can I say?
My girlfriend is a pagan and I’m learning how to pray.

And from Eddie Izzard:

Conferences today (I’m writing this from my office); USC’s Writing Program requires instructors to do one-on-one conferences with each student once per assignment, of which there are 5. I’m basically, then, the one professor my students really connect with to some real degree.

I like that. It opens it all up to remind everyone that my class isn’t about the room it’s in.

It’s hard, some days, to pinpoint what it’s really about; writing is hard to teach. I’m teaching freshman composition/rhetoric, and it’s exciting and challenging, but I also find it extraordinarily difficult to teach because it’s made me realize I haven’t a clue how I learned in the first place. I know I’m pretty good at it (some days better than others), but the how?

I was a sophomore in college when I took a seminar in theology with Robert Kennedy. We mainly watched videos during lectures, but the real meat of the class was our own thought-time; we began the course in Genesis, and each week we tackled something new (following Biblical chronology). I was, by then, already lapsed in both Christianity and Wicca, and just starting to explore Buddhism, which made Kennedy perhaps a perfect teacher at that point in my life; he’s a Jesuit priest ordained in the White Plum lineage of Zen, and he wrote a book called Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit, concerning questions of where the two intersect.

We finished the Bible two weeks into the second semester. We still had four months to go, and so we moved on: Hobbes and Dante and Joyce (oh, my!). Yeah, James Joyce in a theology class.

The real thing I learned most was how connected everything is. We’d watch a lecture, after which I’d go across to the library, max out my library card with five books, read them, and then come up with a compelling argument. He didn’t teach us how to write our papers, how to analyze the texts, how to support our own arguments.

He only listened.

That first semester I pulled a 3.5 after starting with a couple C+s.

The second, I earned a 4. It’s the single college grade of which I’m most proud, because it really did reflect how much I learned.

But how to teach that?

I’m still learning. Some days I struggle with it. I challenge my students to be bold and to really own their own ideas. Some think I’m too harsh a grader, others feel they earned what they get.

The thing is, the writing process is hard to teach. I’ve been writing for fifteen years, and I’m still learning every day. In a goal-oriented society, it’s hard to really convey the idea that some processes won’t end until you’re dead (and then, who the hell knows? There’s probably even more after that fact). Some of my students note that they still have trouble with it, and each time they do so I smile and I say: “Welcome to writing. It doesn’t get easier, but sometimes you do get better.”