Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

Tag: jesus

I first started using Kindle on my phone, a Samsung Vibrant on T-Mobile’s network, last summer while commuting into Manhattan every morning. I’d had the app on my iPhone but never used it; cellular displays just aren’t really meant for long-form reading, and I don’t really read much besides books. Usually novels, but lately more non-fiction, too. But it was much better to read my phone than to lug around a paperback everywhere I went, and I quickly discovered the convenience of using a device that built-in bookmarks every time you close a book.

Which is awesome. I love that. I never used to use bookmarks, anyway, but I always used to end up thinking I was on a page ten before the last one I’d actually read.

When Amazon announced the third generation Kindle, I knew I was going to buy it, because I knew I wanted to put Meets Girl on it. I also knew I was lusting after it.

I went sort of nuts downloading samples via Amazon (on the web. Because the device purchasing side of Kindle sucks), and was enjoying a lot of what I was reading. Neil Gaiman’s were among the first books I bought, and Amazon, knowing my predilection for Gaiman, suggested Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. So I downloaded the sample and began to read.

And the thing about the samples are: it takes about as long to read one as to commute. Long-form reading of books on a device blows. But reading samples is about the same as reading short stories, and reading samples is awesome.

I had picked up the book to browse (I think at the Strand, maybe?), but never gotten past the first couple of pages. Now, with the sample and a train ride, I had the better part of two.

And the better part of two was good. The better part of two were so convincing that I decided to make The Magicians the first novel I actually read on my Kindle.

Continue reading

Over the weekend, I caught an article at The New York concerning Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard neuroscientist who claims to have experienced nirvana when she had a stroke. She’s written a memoir called My Stroke of Insight, which was just published by Viking, about the experience.

Basically, according to the article, which means, I assume, according to Taylor, after a blood vessel in her brain burst, her left hemisphere began to fail her. Doctors who operated found a golf-ball sized clot in her head and removed it. After surgery and eight years of recovery, apparently, Taylor is basically fully recovered, continues to study neuoroanatomy at Harvard, and wrote her book.

She had been a neuroscientist prior to her stroke, her work concentrating on the different functions the left and the right brain perform. Scientists attribute logic, ego, and perception of time to the left brain (or, at least, Taylor does), with the right brain taking care of creativity and empathy. Taylor believes that cutting her off from her left brain forced her to accept the consciousness of her right brain, which created that heightened sense of empathy, cultivated a sense of blissful nirvana, and, even, allowed her to:

see that the atoms and molecules making up her body blended with the space around her; the whole world and the creatures in it were all part of the same magnificent field of shimmering energy.

Which is fascinating. I’ve always been fascinated by it, anyway. A friend of mine, Richard Cox, even wrote a novel called The God Particle, which includes a sort of shimmering energy field as a plot point (it’s a good novel, too, although I’ve always liked his first, Rift, better.

I’m a little . . . well, confused isn’t quite the word for the science mentioned in the article, but I think I understood the brain and how it worked differently. For example, I knew the left brain and the right brain generally control different functions, but I thought scientists had proven that people don’t use one or the other but rather both in tandem years ago. It reminds me of what I had thought was an old wives’ tale about how we human beings only use 10% of our brains; while it may be technically accurate at any one time, the 10% we use changes according to the activities we are performing. I’ve always though I suck at math mainly because I write so much; I can feel that doing math requires thinking differently than I’m used to.

Then again, I tend to be a mostly happy person, and I wonder if that’s because I spend more time thinking using the areas of the brain that contribute to this “nirvana” Bolte Taylor is writing about. Who says:

Today, she says, she is a new person, one who “can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere” on command and be “one with all that is.”

And she certainly looks happy.

But something else in the article caught my attention, first in the way it was treated and second in what it means for Bolte Taylor; Bolte Taylor’s brother was diagnosed with brain disorder schizophrenia (according to her page; I’ll link at the end of this post). According to the article’s second page:

Originally, Dr. Taylor became a brain scientist — she has a Ph.D. in life sciences with a specialty in neuroanatomy — because she has a mentally ill brother who suffers from delusions that he is in direct contact with Jesus. And for her old research lab at Harvard, she continues to speak on behalf of the mentally ill.

So, apparently, if a blood vessel bursts in your brain, causing a golf ball-sized clot that cuts you off from your left hemisphere, you get to experience nirvana and the unity of the universe, as well as perceive the shimmering energy field that includes all the atoms and molecules in your body, before you sell a book about the experience to Viking, go on speaking tours, and receive fan mail from all the people who believe in what you’re saying, but if you’re in direct contact with Jesus, you have delusional, brain disorder-based schizophrenia and are mentally ill.

There’s a huge disconnect there, I think.

Now provided, I don’t know about Bolte Taylor’s brother one way or the other. I don’t know what direct contact with Jesus means, nor what Jesus is telling him through said direct contact.

But I will note that, from my three years working as an editor of a clinical psychiatric nursing journal, I could swear I’ve read theories that mental illness can be genetic and run in families.

I know I’m backhandedly implying Bolte Taylor has a mental illness here, but really I’m being disengenuous, for a very specific reason: I tend to believe there might be something to her experience and her perceptions, and what bothers me is the disconnect between the way the media (and perhaps the scientific community) and certainly that article treats her experience versus her brother’s. The article is full of careful explanation and detail describing both her symptomatology and the physiological, neurological, and psychological effects thereof, but when it comes to her brother, he is “mentally ill” and “suffers from delusions.” I get that further mention of his illness or its symptoms are probably both beyond the point and scope of the article, or perhaps even that Bolte Taylor didn’t want to talk too much about it, but you’d think it would have been at least a little more sensitive.

Really, though, it reminds me of this comic by Lore Sjoberg:

(you can find others by clicking on the comic, and find more by Sjoberg here)

Here’s that link to Bolte Taylor’s book I promised. It certainly looks interesting.

What do you think? Of Bolte Taylor’s experience, the science behind it, or the article? I’m really curious to know what other people think of questions regarding science and faith. Is contact with Jesus really less believable than nirvana via a burst brain vessel?

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).