Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

My Photo
Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

An Open Query For Linguist Types

It's Halloween again, and a thought just struck me: why isn't "spooktacular" an official dictionary word? It appears in edited prose, it's certainly in widespread use, and could be clued as something like "n. a wild party with a haunted-house or horror theme, esp. one given around Halloween. Jocose." (And of course there's the even more common adjective form.) I'm not saying it's exceedingly common, but I'd at least expect to see it in an unabridged lexicon somewhere.

I guess I'm just asking because I want to know how long the damn word's been in the language. My guess is that it dates to early postwar commercial culture--1946 or so. But unless it shows up in Merriam-Webster with a date next to it, how will I ever know?


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Another Dave Quiz...With Pictures!

This one's simple. I got an extremely cut-rate bag of animal crackers from my local bodega the other day. It contained exactly six different shapes. My question: What the hell are these animals supposed to be?

Labels: , ,

More on Where Evangelicalism Might Be Going

Here's a link to a smart article by one Jeff Sharlet, responding to the New York Times "Evangelical Crackup" piece that ran this past weekend. (Looks like an interesting site, too.) Sharlet's take, to boil down considerably, is that just because evangelicals are leaving politics, or spurning the current Republican base, they're not likely to leave Republicanism, conservatism, or start voting Democratic. (It's significant that even in the NYT article, most of the GOP-fleeing interviewees talked of voting independent rather than Dem.) This squares with my own sense of things: evangelical Christianity is sturdy precisely because in many ways it's unmoving. (And, as I will mention in my book, it's essentially easy to grasp, and comes in a [for-better-or-worse] consumer product form: try this religion and your problems will be solved!)

But things ARE moving, and I think a discussion on the last few days of Talking Points Memo has it about right. They have to choose between the moralities of Giuliani or Huckabee, and they tend to be going Giuliani.

Evangelicalism tends to take its pet moral stances a few at a time, inflating almost all of them to an importance that the Bible doesn't actually back. The temperance movement, for example, practically made the Gospel synonymous with the destruction of alcohol, even though this is practically impossible to square with scripture, forcing the worshipper to draw two or three stories from the whole Bible (Noah getting drunk, a single verse in Proverbs...) against the quite clear evidence that Jesus drank quite freely (the wedding at Cana, e.g.). Evangelicals in the South were against civil rights as firmly as if the Bible encouraged slavery--which the New Testament doesn't actually encourage or discourage per se; it's just part of the background, like owning camels. (Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel, among others, use this same assumption of private property to suggest that the Bible teaches free market capitalism.)

Modern evangelicals are against a ban on alcohol and against de facto segregation nowadays because those principles became impossible to culturally defend, and they moved on to other things. (Evangelicalism is always conscious of its own cultural relevance, and chooses its fights accordingly.) When Roe vs. Wade was passed, it seems hard to believe now, but evangelical Christians mostly didn't care. It wasn't until the Moral Majority's rise in around 1980 that abortion and homosexuality touched a nerve that translated into political power, just as poverty and alcoholism had done at the turn of the century. And now, I think just possibly, things are changing again.

While I agree with Sharlet that evangelicalism isn't actually dying or vanishing, it's hard to read the New York Times "crackup" article, or the bookshelves heavy with Donald Miller, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and now Kinnaman, et al., without thinking that evangelicalism is certainly shaping itself into something slightly new. My suspicion is that, judging from the popularity of Giuliani among evangelicals who wouldn't have even touched a pro-life pro-gay candidate in the past, evangelicals are dropping sexual purity from their public-works agenda, and focusing more on xenophobia and anti-Islamism. (If Huckabee gets the nomination, I'll eat my words. There seems little risk of that.)

This is, however, a bad sign. Not that anti-sex rhetoric is great either, but I suspect a good part of Giuliani's appeal is not that he's moral, but that he's a fearless pursuer and wielder of raw power in the name of control, and the Christians who started by worshiping Jesus the peaceful servant will wind up worshiping the Old Testament God of wrath and blood vengeance that Jesus is supposed to have abolished. It's entirely possible that by the end of this next election cycle, rather than learning David Kuo's lesson about the dangers of power, and the spiritual risks of political entanglement, evangelicalsm will emerge muddier, angrier, and uglier than ever. Let's hope not; Jesus could use some representatives.

Labels: ,

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Reminder of Funny

I would be sad if the long post I just added made people forget about this Bar Napkin Cartoon post which sort of got buried under the verbiage. Don't forget to check it out. I think it's funny.

My Move, and unChristian by David Kinnaman

General News: I have just committed to a new apartment. It's not much different from my old one--it's one street-block away, so it's still in the same crappy, pre-gentrifying neighborhood I've lived in for the past year. But it has this advantage: I won't be a boarder in a rooming house, so I'll be able to store food, cook at will (much cheaper!), and have actually adequate room to store my things--as well as paying, aggregately, $20 less a month. I'll actually walk around like I own the damn place! The downsides: It's pretty ugly, and I literally do not know who my roommate might be (both current residents are moving out and I'm the first guy who showed up with money). Bonus upside: It's month to month, so I can leave if I have to. And the landlord seems like a decent guy. In the meantime, I think I'm going to buy a lot of wheeled crates and never unpack them. Seems like a wise way to live in Manhattan.

Another downside: This reduces me to almost nothing in the bank, and the deposit at my current week-to-week place was so paltry it won't actually help that much. Also, I found out that my next This American Life story has been pushed back until they can fill the hour with that theme. So I don't expect any huge influxes of money anytime soon. I'll be rebuilding my bank account from here through Christmas at least. Yuck.

How To Love God News: My friend Ryan sent me a link to this amazing New York Times article called "Evangelical Crackup," about the way rank-and-file evangelicals are apparently leaving politics in droves. (Registration required.) I'm not sure how I feel about it, though at ten pages it was definitely thorough. My own assumption is that the author is slightly overplaying the new direction of evangelicalism (it makes for a better narrative arc, after all), but he treats everyone pretty fairly--except for the last interviewee, a movement religious conservative who is all but painted with horns and fangs. My favorite quote comes just before the end where an interviewee says, "When you mix religion and politics, you get politics."

But though I think the article may be overstating things a bit, it's just as clear that some things about evangelicalism really are changing. I know this because a Barna study about evangelical Christianity showed that evangelicals have taken a sudden colossal drop in their reputation since 1996--really the first major change in overall religious attitudes since they started doing their work in the 80s. (If you don't know, George Barna is the evangelical Christian pollster, and his work is pretty reliable, though I take issue with his definition of "evangelical" in a section from my book.) The decline was so steep that one of their researchers, David Kinnaman, has written a book analyzing the data and suggesting what the church can do to improve matters. I bought it tonight, and though I can ill afford to be dropping $18 willy nilly these days, I'm glad I did.

The book is called unChristian (subtitle: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity ... And Why It Matters), and in it Mr. Kinnaman discusses the top six criticisms leveled against the church by "outsiders" (non-Christians) age 16 to 29. These six criticisms are that Christians are:

1. antihomosexual (91 % said "a lot" or "some)
2. judgmental (87%)
3. too involved with politics (85%)
4. sheltered/ out of touch with reality (72%)
5. too focused on gaining converts, and
6. hypocritical

(Those last two items are summaries Kinnaman derives from statistics and statements elsewhere; the actual fifth and sixth ranked criticisms respondents could choose from were Old-Fashioned (78%) and Insensitive to Others (70%), with Boring (68%) and Not Accepting of Other Faiths (64%) bringing up the rear, though still with a huge plurality.)

I skimmed/read it on the subway home (advantage of a long commute) and it has encouraged me, yet again, that my nascent book has a place--because although Kinnaman is in many ways the opposite of "emergent church" liberals like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, he's responding to the same problem: the fact that evangelicalism itself has a bad reputation and is starting to lose market share. (I hate to put it that way, but in the face of Kinnaman's own analyis--where he compares the "image" of Christianity to the "images" we have of Ford and Pepsi, worrying about Christianity's comparative loss of appeal to new converts--I could not do otherwise.)

And Kinnaman gets it wrong, the same way all the conservative evangelical reformers tend to get it wrong. In the section titled "Anti-Homosexual," for example, he says that Christians should change the perception "Christians show contempt for gays and lesbians" and replace it with "Christians show compassion and love for all people regardless of their lifestyle." Great idea! And just as Brian McLaren corrects the evangelical emphasis on hell by de-emphasizing it--and on homosexuality by preferring to focus on other things--Kinnaman suggests Christians deemphasize judgment and bring a message of grace. Again: sounds reasonable!

But the impossibility of the enterprise is established when the chapter self-destructs in its first two sentences:

"So David, do you still think I'm going to hell because I'm gay?"
My friend's question caught me off guard.

We know where this is going: 1. description of how much David likes his friend. 2. description of the traditional view of homosexuality (the Bible's agin' it!). 3. call for more compassion, with an example of how he, in this instance, responded with compassion rather than judgment to his friend. 4. ambivalent ending, pointing towards hope for the future...perhaps?

The problem--or at least one problem--is that the actual dynamic of God vs. homosexual still stands. In essence, the proper evangelical Christian answer to his friend's question is "No, my friend. Your sin is no different from my own tendency to be prideful and gluttonous. You're actually going to hell for so much more than just your mere homosexuality!" (Follow-up statement, "And believe me, I'm just as unworthy as you are, except that fortunately I'm going to heaven.") If that's what you're calling compassion, I invite you to reread the dictionary before you wonder why people won't come to your parties.

Kinnaman and other reform-minded evangelicals (including McLaren, though he's much closer to being helpful) will never fix evangelicalism as long as they fail to recognize that they're trying to square the circle: their judgmental, sheltered, anti-homosexuality is an inevitable result of the Biblical premises evangelicals are basically wedded to. You can't just add compassion on top and make people forget Sodom and Gomorrah. Until Kinnaman and others address the deeper issues--trying to improve their reading of the Bible's messages on sex, on hell, on homosexuality, and possibly on salvation in general--they'll be completely unable to change their old messages, no matter how much they want to polish the cover.

To put it another way: You know why outsiders think evangelicals are anti-homosexual? Because they totally are. You know why people think evangelicals are judgmental rather than loving? See the first question.

The good news is, if you look at Barna's other data (it's available on his website), you see some other changes as well: approximately 60% of evangelical Christians 16-29 aren't particularly exercised about living together before marriage. In a further left-leaning move, a similar number (I think it's around 54%) think Jesus' main message was about poverty. (Which, if you do the math--assuming that Jesus's main message was "what he's directly quoted as saying in the Gospels" and not "what Paul said in Jesus' name", turns out to be 100% true! How did we miss that?)

In other words, the younger evangelicals seem to be a little clearer about what aspects of a Bible-centered faith are central to Jesus's message, and which ones are rather more peripheral. (Even when I was an evangelical, it struck me as weird that evangelicals harped on, and loathed, homosexuality way more often than the Bible did.) And they're actually willing to change! That gives me hope. So the message of my book remains true: it's possible to rethink evangelical Christianity without completely unmooring it from the Bible (and, I should add, without turning it into the Unitarian liberal-fest that I personally prefer). But it's going to take a few harsher strokes than Kinnaman or even McLaren are currently willing to strike.

Labels: ,

Bar Napkin Cartoon 27

(Technically this is a notebook cartoon, but I don't care and neither should you.)


Thursday, October 25, 2007

It's Not Halloween, It's Just New York

Old photo from the DMV near the Manhattan Mall. The black guy in the Superman suit wearing the boots and cowboy hat didn't seem to be in any lines; he was just walking around and talking on his cell phone the whole time. Taken on June 15th, when I got my own official New York driver's license. (And if anyone knows his story, I'd love to hear it.)


Cops on Segways

Old photo from the 25th Annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade back on June 23rd.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Terribly Silly Poem...And a Follow-Up

Hannah Montana could play in Havana
And I wouldn't care one iota.
Nor would I much blink if she ate a live mink
Or she changed her last name to Dakota.

Hannah Montana could burn down Savannah
With all of her fans! That'd show 'em!
...But if Hannah Montana's last name was "Banana,"
I still might have written this poem.

[LATER: a follow-up poem:]

The fact that Miss Montana is the sole
Best-selling concert ticket in our nation
Says less about the state of rock and roll
And more about her market penetration.

Labels: , ,

Monday, October 22, 2007

Two New Excerpts Posted

I just posted two new excerpts that I wrote this weekend. They're rough, contain typos, and are inelegantly spaced. But I wanted to get them out before leaving for work, and now I have to go to work and don't have time to fix them or add handy hyperlinks. I hope to improve this at lunch. In the meantime, I welcome your comments and suggestions.

UPDATE: I fixed the spaces and added a few hyperlinks so the whole thing should be much easier to navigate now. And to work again! I swear this never ends.


How to Love God, Chapter 2 (part 2 of 2)

[Who Are Evangelicals? Cont'd.] VIEW PART ONE HERE.

The simplest definition of an evangelical most people give is “someone who takes the Bible as literally as seems humanly possible.” Of course, this doesn’t help a whole lot, since liberals also take the Bible as literally as seems possible—it’s just that most of it doesn’t seem possible to take. And the fundamentalists that evangelicals are keen to distinguish themselves from—those dress-wearing, long-sleeved, no-movie-watching, can’t-dance-or-play-Old-Maid repressives are also, to the fundamentalist way of thinking, taking the Bible as literally as humanly possible: they just crush more of their humanity than evangelicals do. Besides, even if we think we know an evangelical when we see one (short version: an evangelical is a fundamentalist who wears normal clothing and has roughly the same media diet as normal people), there’s still the question of why they read the Bible this way when other people don’t.

My own definition lists four or five characteristics, depending on how you count them. They run as follows

CHARACTERISTIC #1: A Sense That the Spiritual Life is More Important and More Involving Than Everyday People Know. [NOTE: It struck me last night that I need to expand this so that people who really don’t have the spirituality gene—certain atheists, for example—get a sense of what it feels like and why people want more of it.]

CHARACTERISTIC #2: A Belief That Human Morality or Conscience Is Basically Unreliable. Anyone concerned with being good is also, almost by definition, more acutely aware of their own moral failings. And this failure pains them more than it does most people, since clearly their own good intentions don’t seem to be helping much. Ultimately, though evangelicals may vary a little on this, and though your conscience may not fail all the time, practically speaking, the trickier the moral question, the more likely it is that your own human conscience is lying to you. This is perhaps most true in the area of sex, where it’s very easy to ascribe our desires to very base, self-serving motives.

When these two beliefs encounter the Bible—as it tends to do here in America, where the Bible is available in every hotel room and sometimes even thrust at you on streetcorners—it leads to the next three:

CHARACTERISTIC #3: The Bible Is an Essential Moral Guide. After all, if it isn’t true, and if humans are fallible, we’re lost! (And picking up a Bible and reading it literally is a lot easier to do than, say, taking a cultural leap over to Hinduism…) Individual evangelicals may vary about whether the Bible is infallible and inspired, or merely inspired, and some of them (like my brother) shrug their shoulders at entire swaths of the Old Testament and consider it irrelevant. But they all tend to believe that the Bible is an essential moral guide, and that the Bible’s take on any subject ought to supersede our own conscience.

The natural corollary to this is that, precisely because the Bible is to be approached humbly and worshipfully, anyone who reads the Bible any other way—certainly anyone who would question it or pick at it—must do so from morally suspicious motives. Because no evangelical would even see the point of this. If you’re clinging to a life raft, what good can come from poking it?

And you are on a life raft, because of…

CHARACTERISTIC #4: A Belief in Hell. The New Testament teaches that hell exists as punishment for sinners. [FOOTNOTE: Actually, hell is taught less by the Bible and more by translators, but since evangelicals don’t poke at the raft, the Bible and its translation are basically the same thing. So hell exists.] Therefore, morality is not a game, and gray areas are inherently dangerous (unless, perhaps, you know the exact dimensions of their grayness ahead of time). It should be added that many people—myself included, in a few chapters—point out that the Bible teaches many different things about the afterlife, some of which seem to point to the existence of hell, others of which don’t. But because of their high regard for scripture and low regard for their own discomfort, when evangelicals get two messages from the Bible—like “there might be hell” (Matthew) and “there might not” (Ephesians), they tend to assume the worst, so that they can keep everything. This leads to...

CHARACTERISTIC #5: Moral Reliance on the Bible—where the Bible’s word will tend to take precedence over even scientific data (like evolution or homosexuality) and certainly over the individual conscience. See Characteristic #3.

Ultimately this describes what I call the Iron Triangle: a series of three interrelated beliefs that all support each other:

A. Human conscience is unreliable;
B. Moral ambiguity is not an option; and
C. The Bible is (therefore) an essential moral guide—and it teaches A. and B.

These three beliefs lead to several other ancillary traits that also tend to characterize evangelical Christians.

TRADITIONAL MORALISM. Characteristic #1 leads evangelicals to adopt popular moralities that aren’t necessarily scripture based—not because the Bible teaches them per se, but because evangelicals aren’t eager to challenge traditional moral norms. So, for example, evangelicals rarely curse or drink or smoke, even though none of these are directly adjured by the Bible. They just seem like clean things to do. The most common expression of this is the consistent focus on “family values” (through organizations like Focus on the Family and Promise Keepers), which are supposed to be based on the Bible, even though the Bible has almost nothing to say about families in general. These values are often purported to be “what Jesus taught” even if they’re not biblical in any significant sense.

NONDENOMINATIONALISM. Also, because everyday religion is seen as less satisfying than the more morally and spiritually involved life of the evangelical, evangelical Christians tend not to identify themselves by denominational labels. Any “nondenominational” or “Bible” church—in fact, any church that refuses to identify itself, whether it’s Streams of Life or The Koinonia Fellowship—is almost certainly an evangelical one. (There are exceptions here. Any sectarian wing of any major denomination—such as the Southern Baptists or the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church—is apt to be effectively evangelical too.)

SECTARIANISM. The most unpleasant aspect of this tendency—“I’m not a Presbyterian; I’m just a Christian”—is that evangelicals, deep down, don’t even think of mainstream denominational Christians as being “real” Christians. After all, if the mainstream churches feel spiritually dead (which they do to involvement-demanding evangelicals), it’s because (they feel) the real truth of the Bible is not being taught in putatively “Christian” churches. So when a stranger says, “I’m a Christian,” a sociologist will nod and mark the appropriate box. An evangelical will nod politely and wait for further proof. The stranger is probably wrong, but probably isn’t aware of it. If only they knew! (This is also why evangelicals have what looks like a bizarre tendency to proselytize to other Christians. My own father once served as a missionary in Spain…)

POLITICAL CONSERVATISM. Their moral uncertainty also means that they tend—overwhelmingly, in fact—to vote conservatively. In fact, a conservative morality seems so obvious that there’s often surprisingly little distance perceived between the conservative views of the Bible (on sex, on women, on homosexuality) and the views of other conservatives on topics the Bible doesn’t quite address (taxation, immigration, unions, et cetera.) If you listen to certain evangelical preachers, you’d swear that Jesus died to pass tax cuts. Evangelicals are aware of this disconnect (read any issue of The Door for satire in this direction), so I’m not saying that evangelicals are foolish. I’m just saying that conservative politics is an inherent, unavoidable result of the other premises.

TALISMANIC BIBLE USE. Because they’re so reliant on the Bible, they have what may look to outsiders like a worshipful, even superstitious, attachment to it. There’s a strong tendency to decorate their homes (and sometimes their t-shirts and bumper stickers) with Bible verses, to read the Bible constantly as a religious practice—many people even have a favorite “life verse.” The most common version of this tendency is the suggestion that simply reading the Bible (“getting into the Word,” or what have you) can sometimes help to solve problems. My old friends from church used to have a joke: “The answer to every problem,” we told each other, “is ‘Read the Bible and pray.’” This was, of course, an exaggeration, but there’s a reason it sometimes felt true. If you can’t trust human wisdom, and if we need help getting over persistent, serious problems…well, maybe the Bible isn’t just a book of information; maybe it can work a little magic. It is also often taught that the word of God is spiritually powerful, and can reach people where simple argument fails…and that’s why people hold up John 3:16 signs at football games. Those people are evangelicals. No one else would see the point. (I should add that many evangelicals think the John 3:16 people are silly as well; but the tendency to do it is definitely an evangelical one, rather than a Catholic or Hindu or Methodist one. It’s just that most evangelicals don’t take their own premises that far.)

SELF-CONSCIOUS HIPNESS/CONCERN WITH CULTURAL RELEVANCE. When this biblicism is combined with their love of pop culture, you get the single most characteristic element of evangelical faith: their tendency to mix pop culture with their own religion, so that they produce, and listen to, Christian music, Christian hip-hop, Christian heavy metal; they read Christian fiction and watch Christian movies. (Note, by the way, that they don’t listen to “evangelical” music; again we see how evangelicals consistently co-opt the name “Christian” rather than behave as if they share the religion with liberals.)

MODERN CREATIVE FORMS OF WORSHIP; LACK OF TRADITION. Finally, precisely because they’re involved in pop culture, their own religious services are informed more by popular culture than by the dead wood of mere tradition. As a result, evangelical churches tend to have the best music of any churches on the market—at least if you’re a white person looking to feel comfortable—and the best preaching of any other form of Christianity, since the emphasis is on getting the message across effectively rather than performing rituals or observing traditions. It’s no surprise, then, that evangelical Christianity is the form that has given us the world’s largest megachurches and the phenomenon of pastors who are almost like rock stars. Related to this, as we shall see later, is an almost complete absence of visual art. Old cathedrals look something like museums; evangelical megachurches look more like very nice office buildings.

I’m sure I’ve skipped a few things here and there. (For example, I consciously skipped the fact that evangelicals tend to have an acutely individualistic approach to their spiritual walk because it doesn’t seem central to my argument.) But for the most part, I think this is a fair assessment of what most evangelicals believe. I know perfectly well there are exceptions—one can frequently find, in Christian colleges everywhere, evangelicals who believe in evolution. But those Christians know quite well that as far as they believe in evolution is exactly the extent to which they’re out of the mainstream. There are evangelical Democrats, but they know they’re swimming against the current. What I’ve just described in many ways is evangelical Christianity. Now it’s time to turn our attention to how these good intentions wind up creating bad relationships and turning well-intentioned people into jerks.

But first, I’d better answer some obvious objections…

[Note: the next section answers five major objections. 1.) Your whole premise of trying to analyze spirituality by external description can’t help but miss the point; 2.) Even if there are bad aspects to religion, that’s just the way it is; we should be more concerned with truth than with being pleasing to people; 3.) You really just want evangelicals to become politically correct liberals; 4.) You misunderstand the concept of grace that makes evangelicalism qualitatively different from all other religions; and 5.) you were never really a Christian anyway.]


How To Love God, Chapter 2 (part 1 of 2)


(NOTE: Chapter 1/Introduction is in three parts and begins here.)

Almost every book or article on evangelicalism starts with statistics describing who they are and how many percent they amount to. And that’s about as far as they go in their description, which leaves all sorts of questions unanswered, like, “Why are they so hostile to evolution?,” “Why do they believe in the virgin birth when the alternative seems more plausible?” and so forth. (And even here I’m being generous and presuming that the sociologists are asking the right questions in the first place. Unless you’ve been there, it’s easy to screw up. ) Then the reporters go on to talk about their tremendous growth and influence, and they interview a few converts, and what you get is the impression is that evangelical Christianity is like one option much like others on the Christian Religion Menu that these particular adherents consciously opted for—which, as I will show, is rarely the case. All I know is, when I was an evangelical, and in the years since, I’ve rarely seen a study or article that felt accurate.

It’s important to get this right because evangelicalism is the most common form of Christianity in the U.S., and often has an important impact on the practical policy issues of the day, from stem cell research to abortion to evolution to homosexuality to our treatment of Israel. In fact, I would be inclined to say that evangelicalism in many ways owns the word “Christian” in these areas—and not by accident, as we shall see. And yet evangelicalism itself is poorly understood, even by the evangelicals themselves (who are not, after all, inclined to look at their faith at a critical distance.). Because these beliefs are both common and misunderstood, they get adopted by others as well—which is why statistics don’t help that much.

For example, a 2004 Barna study says that evangelicals make up only six to seven percent of the population. This might seem right to an actual evangelical (as we’ll see, evangelicals continually see themselves as an oppressed minority), but it seems strange to outside observers like me who see the stuff everywhere. But here’s why: Barna classifies evangelicals as a subset of “born-agains.” Born-agains are people who have accepted Christ as their savior, made a personal commitment to him, and believe they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins. To become an evangelical in the Barna study, you have to also subscribe strongly to all of the following beliefs: Faith is very important to my life, I have a personal responsibility to share my faith with others, Satan exists, salvation is only possible through grace and not works, Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth, God is all-knowing and all-powerful, and the Bible is totally accurate in all its teachings.

That’s a pretty high hurdle! I know, because if I’d been asked this same survey when I was an evangelical, I wouldn’t have counted as one! I would not have believed that the Bible was “totally accurate” in all its teachings (any evangelical should be familiar with the problems that come from taking the Bible literally or without context; I would have heartily accepted “totally trustworthy when properly interpreted,” however.) And the concept of whether Satan literally existed was hardly relevant to my faith. That there were evil spiritual forces at work was clear; that there was one particular spirit named Satan was pretty irrelevant; you can read the Bible cover to cover and pretty comfortably see Satan as a metaphor for evil spiritual activity in general. I was attending three services a week at the First Evangelical Free Church in Tucson, was active in both Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ, I was manning an open-air discussion table and going out on campus to strike up random conversations with people in the hopes of converting them, and I was a religious studies major studying apologetics and intending to become an evangelical theologian—and yet, to hear George Barna tell it, I never counted.

Be that as it may, even if we take Barna’s word for this, the influence of evangelical ideas is still entrenched enough across the nation to be worth looking at. For example, this same 2004 Barna study found attitudes that have held pretty consistently since the early 1990s, and most of which have only changed very recently: 89% of Americans believe in God, and 69% believe he is a benevolent, all-powerful Creator who intervenes in human affairs. 52% of all adults believe that it is important to share their faith, and 60% believe that the Bible is “totally accurate in all its teachings.” 56% believe that Jesus never committed a sin while on earth, and 60% believe that Satan is literally real. (The only really big change is that the 89% believing in God is down to about 85%.)

I don’t have Barna’s raw data here, but I suspect that if the requirements for “evangelical” were eased to “must be born again and agree with five out of seven of the following beliefs,” we’d be back up to thirty percent in no time. One reason I suspect this: one of the Barna findings is that 28% of the respondents “strongly disagreed” with the concept of salvation by good deeds. Since salvation by good deeds is pretty much a part of every major religion, denying it would seem to suggest that these particular people have had specific counter-training—evangelical counter-training. So even if “true” evangelicals are only about six percent of the population (let’s call these folks hardline evangelicals), most of their beliefs are shared by at least thirty percent of the population. Even if you live in some Babylon like San Francisco or New York City, you probably know someone who’s an evangelical. They’re more numerous than homosexuals, and you probably know at least one of those as well. (Although I imagine if you know a lot of the one, you might not know any of the other.)

But what does “evangelical” mean—especially to evangelicals? A sociologist is hampered in this respect by seeing the world through surveys and checked-off boxes, and this is one reason that evangelicals themselves distrust the studies the moment they’re announced. The evangelical faith is overtly committed to focusing on one’s spiritual life—the real, internal conversion and commitment—and as a result, evangelicals themselves continue to point out how varied the community actually is, how difficult it is to pin any one definition down.

As an actual evangelical once myself, I know how tricky the label can be: just when you think you’re hanging out with a thoroughly orthodox evangelical, she’ll go to the kitchen for a beer or something. (There are plenty of evangelicals who drink beer, but it still raises a consistent eyebrow.) But fortunately, evangelicals themselves, for reasons I will shortly explain, need to find each other. What I remember, having lived it, is that the real difference between evangelical Christians—the people I considered “real, committed Christians”—and the nominal Christians all around us were hard to pin down: someone can say they’re really committed, but how do you really know if someone has a nominal faith or not? Since we’re not supposed to judge by works per se, I remember that every time I met someone, I would check them out against a loose series of shibboleths that suggested, not that a fellow Christian’s soul was pure (who can say that?) but that they spoke the same language and understood the Bible in the same way. The list was something like this:

· Does she talk about her “walk with the Lord”(evangelical) or her “spiritual evolution” (liberal)?

· Does he call the Bible “the word”?

· Does she have “quiet times?” Does he go to “Bible studies?” (Either one of these is a pretty good mark all by itself.)

· Does she swear, smoke, or drink? Does he think evolution might have happened? (Both of these are bad, but not necessarily damning.)

· Does he know Christian music? (This is very useful, because only sectarian Christians have any real reason to listen to Christian music as a genre.)

· Has she ever had sex outside of marriage and been unrepentant about it? (A very strong black mark as well, but not a dealbreaker, since we’re all at different points in our spiritual maturity.)

· Is he open-minded about gay marriage or stem-cell research? (Again, another bad sign; one or two more of these and you’re just a liberal in disguise.)

· Do they go to a megachurch, or a church that calls itself “non-denominational?” Those are good churches; others good ones include Baptist, conservative Lutheran (i.e., Missouri and Wisconsin Synod only), Church of Christ, and Assembly of God. Charismatics and Pentecostals—those Christians who raise their hands, speak in tongues, dance in the aisles and so forth—are often weird, but you can count on them to accept most of the evangelical basics. Bad churches: Any mainstream version of a mainstream church—Presbyterian, Lutheran, and especially Episcopalian. And don’t even talk about Unitarians or the “cults” (Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, etc.)

There are a bunch of these, and of course they vary from person to person, but the idea is to let them collect until you get a general sense of whether or not the person fits the evangelical mold. Note also that although the evangelical is dismissive of “cults” (actually sects) like Mormonism, the fact is that almost every sect of Christianity is also evangelical in most of their thinking and behavior: witnessing to others, having Bible studies, voting Republican[2] [FOOTNOTE: Black evangelicals excepted.], et cetera.
Having said that, let me explain what I mean by “evangelical,” and where I get off claiming to know it for sure.



Sunday, October 21, 2007

Three Fun Things I Learned From the Audio Commentary to "Daddy Long Legs" (1955)

Fred Astaire was a fine drummer, and he kept a set of drums in his bathtub to play on every morning.

"Dream," by Johnny Mercer, was Fred Astaire's favorite song (for some reason). He demanded it appear in the movie. I don't quite get it either, but when Astaire did a TV show shortly thereafter, "Dream" was also his theme song.

Daddy Long Legs contains the only time when Fred Astaire's singing voice was dubbed. It's in a dream sequence where he's acting like a Texas millionaire, and the voice that dubs him belongs to ...are you ready for coolness?... Thurl "Tony the Tiger" Ravenscroft.


Friday, October 19, 2007

Dave at the Dentist: A Fun Quiz

We haven't had a fun quiz in a while. But this one was inspired by a trip I took yesterday to see the dentist. (And in case anyone's curious, I'm in great shape. The guy kept saying, "Wonderful! These are beautiful! Amazing!"--I started getting embarrassed. Afterwards it struck me that "dentist" is probably a really good profession if you're a tooth fetishist.)

While I was sitting in the lobby, however, I had a host of magazines next to me, and I realized that not one of them was interesting to me. They were seven to ten deep, practically spilling over the floor, and I thought, "Wow! Look at how many things I don't care about!" I almost felt bad for all those magazine writers and editors, slaving away at a job that I was destined to never appreciate. I even wrote all the magazine titles down: Family Circle, Hollywood Life, New York Home, Traditional Home, Outdoor Life, Child, Where to Retire, Money, Country Home, Saveur, PC Magazine, Details, O (The Oprah Magazine), Islands, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Men's Vogue, Business Week, Forbes, and Family Fun.

So here's the quiz: match each of the magazines below with the article that I resisted reading. For a bonus, which article DID I finally cave in and read before the dentist called me?

1. Details
2. Family Circle
3. Family Fun
4. Forbes
5. Islands
6. Men's Vogue
7. Money
8. New York Home
9. O
10. Outdoor Life
11. Saveur
12. Traditional Home

a. "50 Names You Should Know In New York Design"
b. "Billionaire of Weed Killer"
c. "Improve Your Relationship Without Saying a Word"
d. "Is Ted Haggard Really Straight Now?"
e. "Marvelous Muffins"
f. "New England's Best Clam Shacks"
g. "Palau: Where Heaven Fell Into the Sea"
h. "Savannah Chic"
i. "Speared by a Marlin"
j. "The Ultimate Flat Screen"
k. "Wanted: Better Grades"
l. "When Target Funds Miss the Mark"

Labels: ,

Dictionary of Dreams

In dreams, you rarely get to actually read the content of books you pick up, but somehow I managed last night. I had received (in the dream) an email from some friend who said, "All yesterday I was all in a hossup about my upcoming trip."

Hossup? So--still in the dream, mind you--I looked up "hossup" in my dictionary, and it said, "interj. A term for announcing one's intention, popularized by Wild Bill Hickok. see also dibs."

I'm sorry to relate that the word does not exist in any dictionary I own. Which I guess is good, because a word like that really deserves a better definition. Also, my friend was apparently misusing the term, and I'm glad to have spared her official public embarrassment.

AFTERNOTE: I don't know why I'm bothering to mention this, but a few days ago another word popped into my head. I was shopping for bar soap, and for some reason I thought of the word PESSARY. Perhaps it had been a possible Scrabble play or something,but I honestly didn't know anything about the word except that it probably existed. (And, upon further reflection, becomes PECCARY when you change its esses to cees.)

So that one I did look up in my handy New International Third, and found that it is, and I quote, "a vaginal suppository." Eesh! But I have to add this: the etymology notes that the word comes from a term for "a stone used in backgammon." Man, I hope they're washing the pieces thoroughly.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Moving Plea

I'm of a mind to move to a new place--something suitable for an adult human being. I took this place back in January because I needed to leave my old place and it was the only thing I could afford. But now I've got a little socked away (thanks, This American Life! Thanks, Time Out New York!) and I'd like to go back to living the way oher people do--with monthly rent instead of paying by the week, and with actual coequal rommates, not as the squatter in a boarding house. I also really want a kitchen again.

The downside: I don't actually know how to move in New York. I moved here from Tallahassee by strapping everything to my car. In every move before that I lived in large but tight-knit communities (English grad students, Hallmark creative staff) who were all centrally located and could be called upon to help out. Here I'm basically on my own (my co-workers and friends are flung all across the island), and I no longer have a car. The good news is that the move should be easy and short--my current place was furnished, so I'd only be moving two bookshelves, a bunch of clothes, a computer and a TV. When I moved back in January, I literally trundled everything one load at a time on a dolly. That was a pain, but the move was only twenty Manhattan-sized blocks. The thought of moving anywhere else (there are lots of affordable places in Jackson Heights and Astoria) and taking one load at a time on the SUBWAY...well, that's just crazy. But I'm not sure driving in the city is something anyone wants to see me do. What do normal people do in this situation, and how much does it cost?

(Note: I've got about $2000 to spare, and $1000 will presumably go to the new place--$500 a month, first and last.) Whatever's left over is what I live on for the next two weeks before payday. Any ideas?


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

My Surprisingly Pleasant Little MRI

I got an MRI yesterday for the best possible reason: to rule out epilepsy that I'm 99.9% positive I don't have. (I asked for ADD meds, then discovered I'd been referred to a neurologist who doesn't hold much stock in ADD.)

As many of you know, I'm something of a hypochondriac, though I've been getting better. Hypochondria is, I understand, fairly common among people who leave fundamentalism: you spend your whole life a.) ignoring your body, and b.) telling and re-telling stories about how the entire world can be destroyed because of one relatively small mistake (Adam and Eve, Ananias and Sapphira, Uzzah and the Ark of the Covenant [I Sam 6:2-7]), and when you leave it all you start noticing that your body aches, and your instincts immediately fly to catastrophe. (My nose feels funny. Ack! Cancer!) I've discovered that I can cause full-blown numbness and tingling just by worrying about it. Perhaps I should stop watching "House, M.D."

Anyway, since the neurologist said, "Get an MRI just to rule out epilepsy," I thought, "Hey! Free MRI!" This is a good thing. Since my greatest fears have always tended to manifest themselves around hard-to-pin-down, systemic-collapse diseases like diabetes, MS and fibromyalgia, it would be nice to have an MRI in my file so doctors could look at it and say, "You're crazy. Now go have a shot. And take some baby aspirin; it prevents strokes."

I left an hour early for my appointment, and this was a good thing. As if the universe was preparing me to spend time stuck helplessly in a box, I got trapped in my building's elevator for a few minutes. Fortunately, by poking an envelope through the not-quite-closed doors and wig-wagging it, a colleague was alerted and called for help. Then the door opened, I pressed the button, and the same elevator came right back to me. I got on and it worked fine. So I was also being taught another valuable MRI lesson: blind faith in technology you don't understand.

They strapped me to a table, put my head in a little plastic lattice so it wouldn't move (they never show that on TV; I bet it limits human expression), shoved a pillow under my knees, and slid me into this very tiny tube. Fortunately, I lived once in a teeny apartment with a loft bed so badly designed that the ceiling was only a few inches from my eyes. This wasn't much different. But the weird thing was the sliding: I told the attending, "I feel like a piece of luggage," and he nodded and ignored me. MRI people, in my experience, are the toughest audience in the hospital. I'd been cracking jokes all the way from intake ("That's my insurance card; I wanted the one with the puppies, but it's not a covered expense") to where-do-I-go ("Is this how you test for disorientation?"), and the second I came to the MRI department, no one wanted to chat. I'm sure they make nice money, but I'm never marrying an MRI tech.

I was a little afraid going in, because I don't like sitting still at the best of times (ADD, remember? Or maybe it's Nervous Leg Syndrome...) But once the slide was over and the test started, it was actually suprisingly easy. If you watch medical shows, the MRI almost always announces its presence by a series of loud electric thumps. Not so here! The thumps came eventually, but most of the thirty minutes was spent listening to what sounded like an experiemental electronic music symphony: Very rhythmic, interestingly varied, and with a surprisingly tonal quality.

Back in Tallahassee, when I had a car, I discovered that if I ever felt really ready to bust (this was before I discovered the soothing power of exercise), I could just hop in my car and drive straight down I-10 for miles and miles with the radio on maximum, tuned to, um, static. It was very soothing. And so was this. I just closed my eyes and held the little emergency squeeze ball and waited till the concert was over. Not bad at all.

On the way out, I noticed that the machine was a Maestro model Symphony brand Magnetom. Was it possibly designed to make more interesting noises than the ones on , say, CSI? If so, good designing! Now if I could just get the tune out of my head...


Monday, October 15, 2007

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Stuff

While I finished the chapter I needed for the book proposal, the rest of the proposal turned out not to be in quite as good a shape as I'd remembered. So that's what I worked on this weekend. I think I'm going to need chapter 2 in the proposal, so I'll be writing that as well, so look for that to be posted in a few days or so.

In the meantime, I just wanted to share this thing: I was watching 1947's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and although I love me some old-school Hollywood black-and-white, and Gene Tierney is so beautiful she can burn through case-hardened steel, I resisted this one's charms completely. Okay ending, lovely Bernard Hermann score, but mostly, enough with the dialogue and the slowness already! (Maybe part of my problem was that the heroine has to decide between Rex Harrison and a romantic rival played by ... George Sanders! If you don't know George Sanders is a weasel, you haven't watched, like, any of his movies. Even as The Saint, he was a deceptive ass. So it was hard for me to work up much sympathy.)

But the reason I mention this is because if you happen to LIKE The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, or are merely curious (I'll tell you right now that, although there's a ghost in it, there are no Topper-like flights of special effects. One fade in 100 minutes! Treasure it), the DVD features one of the most interesting commentaries I've ever seen. I'm sure it was an accident, but there are two shared commentary tracks. The first commentary is by two guys, one of whom opens by saying, "This is my favorite movie of all time"--but the second commentary, with some woman and some guy trading off taped comments, divides its time between the woman ("Wasn't Gene Tierney lovely? And listen to that score!") and the man, who is much more sarcastic ("Rex Harrison hated this film because he felt Gene Tierney couldn't act and he wanted to work with Claudette Colbert. He was right; Gene pretty much brings only one note to the role and flattens every line. But what can you do?") Dueling commentaries! On the same track! I've never seen its like, and this is why it's worth checking out the extras even if you didn't like the film all that much.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 3 of 3

Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. And now I think we're done!

UPDATE: Chapter two has now been posted in two parts. It starts here.


This thinking of mine started many years ago as a result of the most amazing Sunday School lesson I ever had. It happened in 1991, when I was in the young adult group at the First Evangelical Free Church in Tucson, Arizona. Richard Ruiz, the only Democrat on our elder board, had been pressed into last-minute service, and he started by saying, "Today we're going to talk about Adam and Eve, and how God's law is different from man's law." Simple enough. Like most Sunday school lessons, this sounded like it didn't even need to be taught. We already knew that man's law was bad and crushing, and God's law was good and worth following. We had our Bibles open to Genesis before he had even finished his introduction.

"Now, you know the story. God creates Adam, and then tells him about the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. What does God say?"

Someone raised a hand. "Don't eat the fruit."

"Right." And then Mr. Ruiz said, "Now what does that mean?"

We were quiet. Wasn't it obvious? Richard didn't think so.

"What if he licks the fruit? Has he eaten it then? What if he bites into it, but then spits out the pieces? What if he swallows, but regurgitates it? What if he squeezes it into a glass and just drinks the juice?"

Some people laughed, and so did Richard, but he said, "It sounds silly, but I'm serious. I just want you to notice that there's an obvious point at which God's law has been broken--when Adam chews and swallows an entire fruit--but there's also a wide range of activities that God did not specifically define. There's a big gray area where God trusted Adam to act within his conscience.

"So now Eve gets created. And Adam passes on God's law. What does he tell her?"

"Don't eat the fruit," someone said.

"No! Look at the verse. It's down in chapter 3, where Eve's telling the snake the way she heard the rule: 'You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.' When Adam passed the word along, the rule changed from 'Don't eat the fruit' to 'Don't touch the fruit.' Do you see what's happened?"

"It's the same thing," someone said. "If you're eating the fruit, you're touching it."

"No. The difference is that touching is a discrete action. You can tell by looking whether or not someone is breaking the law. It's extremely easy to judge, and there's no gray area involved. Did she brush her arm against it? She touched the fruit. Did she trip and bump her head on it? She touched the fruit. When Adam passed the law on to Eve, he made his job a lot easier, by defining the sin in a way that minimized the number of interpretations he had to work through.

"But in the process, he also did something else. He told a lie and he misrepresented God. Immediately after she talks to the serpent, Eve takes the fruit to Adam. They eat, and then the scripture says, 'immediately their eyes were opened,' and the Fall occured. If touching the fruit was a sin, the Fall would have happened before she even made it back to Adam. The sin was eating the fruit, and touching it never mattered.

"And I submit to you that that is what human beings do all the time when they're given God's law. They turn around and make it harsher in order to make it easier to understand and follow. So whenever we're faced with a rule, we have to be sure to go back and ask, 'Is this what God originally intended, or has mankind been tampering with it?' Otherwise we'll wind up wasting time on issues that don't matter."

He went on to make other points, which I assume were about legalism, a popular topic in my church. When you're an evangelical, you're always kind of close to fundamentalism, so we spent a lot of time making sure we hadn't gone too far, assuring ourselves that we were right where they were wrong. Was dancing okay? Were R-rated movies? No doubt Richard was going to do the usual thing: distinguish between the real issues (love your neighbor, don't have sex, etc.) and these non-issues that mere humans construct. But I honestly don't remember anything else about that lesson. My own mind started playing with the implications of how he’d framed the argument in the first place; his rereading of Genesis. Could Richard be right? Was it possible that God is always giving his commandments with gray areas built in, and we're always trying to eliminate them?

Then I thought, "That's ridiculous! We all know that God has definite rules and he wants us to follow them. What else is religion if it's not a moral guide?"

And then I thought about Jesus, and I felt something like scales fall from my eyes. I suddenly remembered all the times that Jesus was asked a simple moral question by the Pharisees ("Who is my neighbor?" "What should we do with this adulterous woman?", "Should we pay taxes or not?") and he didn't provide the simple answer they were looking for. Instead, his responses wound up questioning the questioners and asking them to judge for themselves ("Who do you say was the neighbor?"). Wow! I thought. Suddenly I could understand why he had mercy on prostitutes and traitors, but hated the Pharisees with such great passion. After all, the Pharisees had rules for everything, from whether to heal on the sabbath, how much to tithe, which offering to deliver when. If you were a Pharisee, you could go your whole life and know exactly how to act in every situation and know God's stance on everything and...

...And then I looked around the room at my fellow evangelical Christians and almost gasped. My god, I thought. I am in the church of the Pharisees!

Suddenly it all made sense. I had always been a little bothered by the fact that my church had a tendency to deliver divine pronouncements on modern moral issues (such as genetic engineering) by appealing to verses in the Bible that were clearly not intended to answer these questions. Now I knew why: the Bible was being pressed into service to provide a solution. Everything we did needed to have an answer. But maybe that wasn't God's agenda! Maybe God was more interested in the process of facing the problem. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like God might actually be interested in challenging us with moral questions, and it seemed like my church was determined to assassinate every question before it could cause problems and doubts.

And then, the biggest shock of all: I suddenly felt alive and excited, as if my heart had been waiting for this for years. I didn’t even have words to explain it at the time. But the way I see it now, it’s because that up till then, I’d been living as if the religious life was a morality play with a tightly fixed script, and my purpose was learning how to knock the rough edges off my own performance in order to fit the perfect part. But now, it was like I had suddenly left the stage, burst out of the studio and became part of an actual, real adventure, where I was free to be myself, free to fail, and success wasn’t even guaranteed. That’s excitement! That’s adventure! And that, I propose, is what life’s supposed to be.

But the main reason most evangelicals never read things this way is twofold: first, because they take Genesis literally, as if the Adam and Eve story could have been filmed, and human life really did begin in the Tigris-Euphrates valley (where presumably an angel with a flaming sword is still hanging out). But second, it’s because most evangelicals believe in something called absolute depravity. This teaches, as I heard it, that human beings are so very corrupt that we can’t even judge right and wrong without the Bible to help us. What seems good to us might actually be evil. Without the Bible, we could go in exactly the wrong way, in complete ignorance of our own tragic trajectory! (Fortunately, of course, we have the Bible. But how piteous for all those poor regular humans who don’t!)

As I examined this new perception I’d just gained, I went over it carefully, looking for a weakness, and I realized to my shock that absolute depravity is not actually taught in the Bible. Not only that, but it should have been obvious to me and to everyone else for years! After all, if people can’t judge right and wrong, why did Jesus say, “Which of these was a good neighbor?” and assume that he’d get the right answer? What had happened, I realized, was that I had brought my own belief in absolute depravity to my reading of scripture, so that when I read in Romans, “There is none righteous; not one,” I read it as if it was saying, “…and that’s why we can’t even know right from wrong without the Bible’s help. It’s a sin-nature thing.” And that’s clearly not the sense of the passage. Where had I gotten this bad idea?

Many of the bad ideas of evangelical Christianity—like the infallibility of scripture—are ideas like this: presuppositions that rule the Christian’s thinking as if each one is a top ten teaching, but that the Bible itself, on careful examination, doesn’t actually support. Others—like hell—are a little trickier to deal with, but I think I can show that they’re also capable of being handled less destructively while still holding a respectful view of the Bible. In any event, that’s the point of the first part of this book: to glean exactly which ideas are the bad ones, where they come from, and how they can be fixed. But since many of our beliefs are formed before we even get close to a Bible in the first place, my job in the next chapter is to describe something that very few authors have attempted: what kinds of kids devout people are; where Bible-thumpers come from.

Click here to see the Next Chapter's 2-part excerpt


Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 2 of 3

I think I finished the all-important first chapter last night! Let me know what you-all think. Part 1 is here. Part 3 is coming next. UPDATE: Part 3 is here.

To state the problem in its broadest strokes, it is this: First, we assume that God is good—so good, in fact, that He is often considered the source of all morality. (Atheists are constantly being asked, “If you don’t believe in God, why behave well at all?”) It would follow from this, second, that people who are more than usually religious—more concerned about their spiritual life, more conscious of the moral implications of their actions—people who follow this God would be better people that most of us would like to emulate. Religion, in short, should be appealing; more compellingly good than any other human endeavor. What we find instead, however, is that devoutly religious people who go to church, who memorize their scriptures, who give themselves over to their faith, are, in fact, some of the most ignorant, retrograde, hateful, tribalist, arrogant pricks on the planet. In fact, if there isn’t some religious person making an ass of himself in the news right now, just wait a few days. It never fucking ends.

Of course, this isn’t true of most religious people most of the time. Let me be clear on that. But the disconnect is nevertheless quite jarring, and I’ve certainly learned to cringe when I hear “Christian” anything, even if it’s technically unfair. What accounts for this constant P.R. disaster? The conservative religious person’s response to this is usually “those people burning Harry Potter [or whatever] don’t represent the real religion”—it’s flawed old humanity peeking through the white robes, and just because some people are flawed doesn’t mean the whole program should be trashed. The liberal religious person’s approach is often to say, “There is great wisdom in all religion, but you have to cut through the unfortunate cultural or historical accretions [by which they usually mean, stop being conservative] to get to the pure diamond of soul” or what have you. In either case, religion is good, and mistakes don’t count. And of course, the “hard” atheist answer to this is that religion is, ipso facto, a terrible thing that we’re all better off without. The baby was never worth bathing anyway.

But I used to be a devout evangelical Christian, and a student of world religions, and I know how good it feels and its power to do good. I have a different idea: I think that, while all religions (at least in theory) begin with the aim of promoting great ideals, in practice some religions are worse than others—they have more bad ideas, or less compassion, or thinner wisdom. I further suspect that bad religions take perfectly good people—people who want to be good; who want to give back to humanity and make the world better—and turn them into dicks. I’ve seen it happen dozens of times. Hell, it happened to me. The flaws might not be an accident; they might be an unavoidable part of an unfortunate system.

What this means is that bad religion is a threat—often subtly—not only to the culture it’s a part of (try to get contraception and you never know if the local druggist won’t refuse your order and report you to the Kirkstadt), but it’s a threat to its own practitioners. It actually takes good people and, in large or small ways, breeds their ignorance, limits their love and curtails their dignity, and does so with every good intention in the world. Very bad religions do this all the time. Most religions do it rather less often.

But—and this is the key to my argument—religions do this more often than religious people themselves are aware of. The devout are too close to their own beliefs, they’re determined to make it work, and so they’re ill-equipped to notice when the system has slipped a cog or two. And since most atheists writing these days seem unwilling to tease out the good from the bad in religion, it is left to me, a non-religious fan of religion, an outsider to every tradition, to describe, as carefully and as fairly as I can, what should be nipped and tucked. And what should be cauterized. That is the aim of this book.

The bad news is that I have an enormous target. I think the worst collection of bad ideas in America can be found in Christianity’s most vigorous and energetic expression: evangelicalism. This is ironic, because evangelical Christianity is also, in many ways, Christianity at its most appealing, its most contemporary, its most fun. No other counterculture has created such a diverse alternative music, alternative literature, and so many creative and innovative ways to reach people. But it’s like a beautiful meal containing a mild poison: until the poison is removed, the meal will never be truly healthy for anyone, even if you’ve eaten for years and have built up a tolerance.

There’s worse news: the result of this vibrancy is that evangelical Christianity’s influence has spread immensely. (In the next chapter, I will argue that evangelical Christianity has essentially gained ownership of the generic “Christian” label.) It has popularized to the point that many of its unfortunate ideas have been adopted by the culture at large. Even unchurched people often hold ideas similar to evangelicals on topics like hell, homosexuality, the end of the world or the holiness of God. As a result, my critique does not touch evangelicals alone. Almost every major American religious tradition—including Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and old-school Catholics—hold beliefs that are consistent with what I will call the “evangelical core,” and which pose the same dangers to its adherents and those who interact with them. Many other religions—especially Islam—hold these as well. [1] [Footnote 1: If I’m going to be honest, my reading suggests that the worst religious ideas in the world are actually to be found in Islam. But since I don’t speak Arabic, so I can’t read the Qu’ran, and since Muslims are only about 4 percent of the U.S. population, evangelical Christianity is definitely Spiritual Challenge Number One in this country. So for my purposes, as an American English speaker, evangelicalism is more worth taking aim at.]

The good news is that I believe evangelicalism can be saved. I’m sympathetic with evangelicalism’s aims, I admire its ideals, and I think I can prove that most of its worst behaviors are rooted in various misreadings of the Bible. I don’t want to be a Pollyanna about this, so I’ll warn you right now that the Bible doesn’t know jack about science. But on the whole there are usually valid alternative readings for the evangelical to take that are consistent with the Bible and consistent with decency, compassion, and growth, in ways that mainstream evangelical beliefs sometimes aren’t.

But this is all theory. Let me give you a taste of what it looks like in practice. This is the story of how I first experienced this for myself.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Crossword Constructors, Update Your Databases...

Gerhard Ertl wins Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Story I Told At The Long Wharf on Saturday

I reported a few days ago about a story I told at The Long Wharf in New Haven. Here it is, slightly modified since I can't gesture or change my voice any:


There are only about ten really beautiful days a year in Kansas City, and I was in danger of missing one of them completely, because I thought I had just ruined my life. I was 28 years old, a fundamentalist Christian, a virgin, and I had just broken up with my fiancée, the only woman I’d ever loved. My life experience was so limited that I didn’t even have the vocabulary to explain why I had done it or what I wanted instead. And if my fiancée had accused me of selfishness—the sin of pride—I could not have proved her wrong.

So I had wandered outside on that spring weekend feeling doomed. I couldn’t figure out who I was, how I had become this awful person. All I was sure of was that I had just made a horrible mistake that I would pay for for the rest of my life. My whole future looked bleak, and although I was walking along a streetside brook, with sunshine and flowers and actual butterflies, I thought I might never feel a warm breeze again.

Then a van slowed down beside me. I figured they were asking for directions, so I turned to look. The passenger’s window rolled down, and a young woman in a bikini popped out, she looked at me and said, “Hey…LOVER!” And she whipped off her top, flashed me, the driver floored it, and before I knew it they were around the corner and speeding away, and I could hear them screaming with laughter. It all happened so fast that all I had the presence of mind to do was blow them a kiss. And I thought, “Gosh! What a nice world we live in!” Because, you know, this was Missouri! Stuff like that isn’t supposed to happen here! (It should—it’s the Show-Me State—but it doesn’t.)

But I knew what had really happened, because I had studied the Sociology of Religion in college, and on the first day of class we were taught, There exists in the human heart a propensity to hope. But (the book continued) the troubles and pressures of life beat us down, and we need that hope to be renewed. Normally we do this through family and friends, but every so often we get a renewal of hope that’s so sudden, so unexpected, and so overwhelming that it just seems to light us from within. And that is the beginning of religion.

Here I was, a virgin. I had never seen any live female breasts other than my girlfriend’s, and I was at the lowest moment of my entire life. And then right out of the blue, this happened. So: religion!

That moment stayed with me, and two years later, when I’d shed my faith but retained the moral timidity, I decided to go back to college. And as I was looking at my options, one of them was Florida State University in Tallahassee. Florida, I thought. Women wear bikinis there. I bet some of them drive vans. That’s where hope lives.

So I found myself at age thirty surrounded for the first time in years by hundred of eighteen-to-twenty-two-year-old women wearing beach clothing and everywhere I went I would go, Is that her? Is that her? Is that her? And one day a few weeks into the semester, I passed a bar that said WET T-SHIRT CONTEST FRIDAY NIGHT, and I thought, Probably there, right?

So I decided to go. But I was also terrified. Partly out of guilt, but mostly out of the things they teach you about sex in Sunday School. Sex is a monster. It’s ravenous. If you let it get its claws into you it’ll never be satisfied. And I could already feel this obsession rising inside my heart. I needed this way more than made sense. In fact, the Thursday before the show, I actually had trouble sleeping.

Anyway, I went, and I guess I’d been expecting something like the girl in the van times twenty, you know—one girl after another going, “Hey, LOVER! Woo-hoo!” But of course Tallahassee isn’t a large town—about 150,000—and by a few weeks into the semester you’re going to run out of volunteers. So what they did at this bar was they’d pad the rolls with actual strippers. So instead of this silly celebration of youth and life and exuberance, these girls would grind and thrust and caress guys’ heads—it was all preplanned; the exact opposite of what I wanted.

But I knew what was happening here, too, because the second lesson we learned in the Sociology of Religion was that, after that first experience, people try to recapture it. So they return to the same place, do the same rituals, sing the same songs, hoping that lightning will strike twice. But what happens more often than not is that you wind up building a scaffold around the original experience, and at the core, it’s completely empty.

But it was actually worse than just an empty church. Because the guys in the crowd were such assholes! I was raised without porn, so I find I’ve always loved real women, and real women’s bodies. It never occurred to me to sort of stand in judgment and say, “Oh, sure, you may be cute, but anything less than gorgeous is disgusting!” That made no sense to me. But these guys! Perfectly lovely women would walk onstage and the guys would yell shit like, “Stop eating the donuts! Get a boob job! You’re ugly!” I just wanted to grab these assholes by the collar and say, “What are you thinking? You should be on your knees, grateful that women do this at all! “ I wanted to yell at all of them, “This is supposed to be a house of worship! And you are turning it into a den of bullshit!” It was horrible.

After that, of course, I just felt ugly, sullied and depressed, like everything Baby Jesus thought about me was right. And as I was pouring my heart out to a bartender about this, she cocked an eyebrow at me and said, “Dave, what I think you need to do is wait till Spring Break, go to South Florida, and see the real thing.”

Spring Break. This is my first real spring break in my life. Every other spring break I’ve ever done was literally spent doing missionary work in Mexico, except for one year when I went to the beach in San Diego and handed out literature. So here we were, and I was nervous as hell. Again, not only because of my need, but because of my fear. I’m thirty now, and I can pass for 25 in the right light. But I’m not getting any younger, I’m not getting any less creepy, and if it doesn’t work this year, I don’t know what else I’m going to do.

I go down to South Florida—way south—all the way to Key West. I’m traveling with two fellow grad students, just as clueless as me. We’re literally driving around going, “Where are the girls at?” We get into Key West at 10 pm, check into our hotel, and go, “Where’s the wet –shirt contest?” Turns out there’s one a few doors down at Rum Runners. I’m in the very front, and—again—terrified. What if someone notices I’m here? What if something terrible happens inside me?

If you’ve never been to a wet T-shirt contest, here’s how it works: women come up one at a time in thin t-shirts, they get water poured on them, they dance or pose or whatever, and there’s a sort of applause meter. Popular girls get invited back for another round, the others go home. So one woman comes up, and another, and things are going pretty normally. I’m nervous, but it’s titillating, and the crowd isn’t yelling ugly things, so I’m sort of okay.

But then three women come up, arms linked, yelling “Go A D Pi! Whooo!” And they immediately started groping each other and making out, and writhing around on the floor…and I thought, “Ew. This is a little much for me.” And when it came time to clap-vote, I gave this tepid little clap-clap-clap. And then I looked around me, and everyone else was sort of going, “Ehh, not my thing.” And everyone was clapping mildly. We were four hundred drunken college students at a wet t-shirt contest, and we had aesthetic standards! It was amazing.

Then this skinny little white girl came onstage, but she refused to go on unless her girlfriend—meaning lesbian lover—came on with her. So she was joined by her girlfriend, who was this enormously overweight butch black girl. And I thought, Oh god. Here it comes. Here come the racist slurs, here come the dyke jokes, the fat comments…. But there was nothing. Nothing but cheers. And while I want to say it was because we were all so very enlightened, really, I’m convinced it was because these girls were having so much fun. They were giddy and in love and you could see it on every inch of their faces. They practically floated. And when it was over, they got more applause than the sorority girls! I was stunned. I looked around and thought, Maybe I could hang with you people.

The show went on and on until finally we were down to two girls. And at this point they were both naked—when you start with a wet t-shirt, where can you go?—and for a second, the feminist core in me felt really guilty, like this is exploitative and I shouldn’t be watching this. But I saw how much these girls were smiling and I realized, Oh, right. If you told me that if I walked onstage naked, hundreds of people would cheer, you wouldn’t even have to pay me! So I made my peace with that. The problem was that these women were essentially tied. One would step up and get huge applause, then the other one would get the same applause, and this went on for two rounds, three rounds, four rounds. And what sucked is, one of these women was going to get 200 dollars for first prize, and the other was going to get fifty. It didn’t seem fair.

No sooner had I thought this, however, than a guy from the crowd clambered onstage. He and his friends had collected sixty dollars to make up some of the difference for the second place girl. And as soon as it happened, I thought, “That’s it! I’m done!” It was like a huge hand reach down from the sky and checked off that box forever. The monster vanished completely. Because it turned out that I wasn’t looking for the girl in the van. I just needed to know that you could want sex and still be a good moral person. That you could have boobies and niceness.

It was such a great night that the next night, my roommates wanted to go back. But I said, “You know what? The Philadelphia Story’s on. I think I’ll just settle in for the evening.” So they left, and I watched The Philadelphia Story, and it was followed by Lilies of the Field, where Sidney Poitier helps out a bunch of nuns, and I watched that too. My roommates came back a few hours later, utterly silent, looking absolutely stricken. I asked them, “How was it?” and all I ever heard was one of them shook his head hollowly and said, “It wasn’t as good.”

But I knew! I knew! Because the last thing I learned from my religion class—what I’d learned from books, but now knew from experience—was that when the miracle happens you never go back. You let the butterfly land in your hand and you do not clutch. Because as it turns out, life itself is so powerful that even one great night can make up for years of repression. Thank you.

Labels: ,

Monday, October 08, 2007

A Quick Note on the Emergent Church Movement

Andrew Sullivan links to Boing Boing which links in turn to the blog Revolution in Jesusland. R. in J. concerns itself with what has also been called the "emergent church movement"--a form of evangelicalism that concentrates on being less divisive and more embracing, and on caring for the poor, the needy, and the oppressed. Many people who have written to me have asked if I am familiar with the lights of the movement (Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Donald Miller, The Mars Hill Church podcast, et al.), some of them implying that if I knew the good work that these evangelicals are doing, it might take some of the piss out of my book-in-progress.

I actually have a chapter in the book called "Why the Emergent Movement Won't Work," and while I haven't finalized it, while I was reading the comments on Boing Boing, I realized that people were busy saying the same things they always say ("You can't pigeonhole evangelicals! They're a diverse group, some of whom believe several liberal things!") and ignoring a few points that I want to make now.

The fact is, evangelicalism will always be a conservative movement for at least two reasons:

First, it's a form of Christianity that is so intense in its devotion and focus that it is always going to be essentially sectarian. Evangelicalism begins, for most people, with the conviction that conventional Christianity--as practiced by "liberal" or "mainstream" churches--is lacking in spiritual substance. Evangelicals are the real Christians in a world of compromised Christianity such as you'd find at the World Council of Churches or in your local Episcopal congregation. Evangelicals are the ones who made daily Bible reading and weekly Bible studies a central part of modern devotion (since presumably Wesley's followers have long since lost their way). In its very musical practices (soft rock instead of hymns) it functions as a kind of protest movement against mainstream Christianity.

Second, this sectarianism is fueled by devotion to the literal reading of the Bible. What distinguishes Emergent Movement types is that they emphasize different parts of the Bible than most evangelicals do (more on the poor, less on the hell), but they're still ultimately trapped by their dependence on the Bible.

If you read Brian Mclaren, for example, the most radical things he says (and the things that have gotten him in the most trouble) include, "We should stop preaching about hell" and "we should agree to complete silence on the subject of homosexuality for at least ten years." He doesn't actually dare to say, "The Bible is wrong on both topics, and taking both doctrines biblically and seriously is bad for us." Much less does he suggest we should repudiate the Bible on these points. His only solution is to stop talking about the unpleasant things the Bible teaches.

Similarly, in Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller has a really nice moment where he describes being in college and setting up a kind of reverse-confessional booth, where people would come in and sit down and the Christians sponsoring the booth would apologize for being arrogant, and pushy, and for supporting ugly things, etc. And they did this with no agenda, not "I'm sorry--and now, having said that, will you come to this Bible study?" but really just an "I'm sorry." It's a great section. But again, he never actually says, "We were factually wrong." He says, rather, that Christians didn't tell the story with enough sensitivity. Homosexuals are still evil, and everyone except us is probably going to hell still, but it was rude of us to point this out. Let's go help out at a soup kitchen!

As long as evangelicals are evangelicals (i.e., Biblical literalists with sectarian leanings), they'll be a danger to decency and human respect. And this, in short, is why the emergent movement won't work: If your beliefs are poisonous, it's more important that you change your beliefs than that you tell us you feel bad about how you expressed them.

Having said that, I am pleased to note that the Mars Hill and Rob Bell podcasts are consistently the most popular ones in the "Religion" section of iTunes, so you could definitely make a case that this form of Christianity is actually growing as quickly as its adherents claim. I still have my doubts about it being anything but kind of a fringe--any trip to a Christian bookstore will reassure you that hell and sin and Republican anti-evolutionism are all quite popular still--but if more people were like Rob Bell and Brian Mclaren, evangelicalism would, indeed, be less of a challenge in our culture than it is. But since their followers would, by definition, be carrying dangerous passive beliefs (hell, sectarianism, homophobia, etc.) along with the "good" Biblical ones they'd be acting out for a change (care for the poor and oppressed), my book actually becomes more useful, not less. Because it's all about the unintended consequences that emerge when good intentions ("I want to be morally upright!") get hooked to a bad moral compass (the literal, naively read Bible). Emergent people carry the virus even farther below the surface, and that can't be good in the long term.


We Killed in New Haven

New Haven was wonderful. I got to meet other great storytellers, got to sit next to an actual actress/storyteller I like (Joanna Gleason, from Crimes and Misdemeanors and about a hundred other things), and on top of everything else I got paid to do it. But the best thing was the crowd. I told my story of "The Most Heartwarming Wet T-Shirt Contest Ever" and it killed like nothing I've ever told before in any other crowd. I would crack a joke and a wall of laughter appeared. I pushed against it slightly with a philosophical note, and the people moved back and thought. I added a funny aside, and they laughed again, and waited for my next move forward. It was amazing. I've never felt so in control of a performance and at the same time so overwhelmed by my oneness with an audience. Another top ten life experience. (Another great thing was meeting and hanging out with my dear friend Dani, but that's a tad more personal.)

The downside: After Friday, my sleep schedule was so fucked up that I was still recovering, and staying out late with Dani and fellow storyteller Paul Bacon didn't help. The next day, after we boarded the train, I stumbled home and slept until 3 p.m., then woke with every muscle throbbing in weariness. Really, it was all I could do to prop myself up and watch "The Office" and some Netflix (Silk Stockings, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) until about 8, at which point it was tough to get anything done. So I'm definitely swearing off Paxil and its evil, sleep-wrecking ways until I get this book done. Damn.

I hope to post a version of "The Story I Told This Weekend" soon.


Saturday, October 06, 2007


I'll be in New Haven until tomorrow afternoon, so I doubt I'll do any posting in the meantime. But when I come back, I should have stories and maybe even pictures, because I'm actually bringing my REAL camera, not just my phone. Radical!


Politics: Clinton and Polarization

Andrew Sullivan quotes a reader of his who says, essentially, "Damn right Hillary Clinton is polarizing! That's what I like about her! I'm going to vote for her just to stick a thumb in the eye of all the people who hate her so much!" It's kind of ugly. But happily, the conversation gets picked up by Kevin Drum in a post that argues, interestingly, that Hilary Clinton isn't technically "polarizing." He makes, to my mind, a suprisingly good case, and I'm not even a big Hilary fan. Check it out here. I love any writer who can tease out subtler distinctions from a black-and-white position.

LATER: I've been thinking ever since: perhaps they're simply describing two different parts of the same phenomenon. It's an interesting philosophical question, in a way: if her politics aren't polarizing, but her persona is, then where does the polarization come from? Goodness knows there's no more conservative Democrat on the market. Any Republicans who burn entire mints to take her down, if they succeed, will only find themselves dragged further left by Obama or Edwards. But they'd rather maintain their hatred than adjust their strategy. Why would they do that? Can anyone calmly explain--or send a link to an explanation--of why the far right hates Hilary so very much? I hope it's something less visceral than that she's an ambitious woman who isn't obedient, which is the only thing I can think that might make someone hate Hilary while liking Condoleezza and Libby Dole.

Of course, all this speculation is presuming that anyone listens to Republicans at all. We're definitely gong to have a Democratic President next time around, because the party has still refused to break with Bush The Lead Balloon, and the only guy with traction--Rudy--is not only batshit insane, but is so arrogant he doesn't even hide his looniness. (And, of course, he'll remind many people of the most hated President in the last fifty years.) When the race is down to two, he's going to implode hugely, and send a significant portion of the religionist electorate after a third-party spoiler. Continuing to hate Hilary, it seems to me, will only make the fallout for the Republicans even worse.

EVEN LATER: Sorry, I think I've just figured it out. Perhaps she's polarizing because she's potentially successful at implementing policies (universal health care?) that certain right-wingers want completely off the table. Duh. I figured this out, by the way, by thinking about (ahem) the Harry Potter books and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. They occupy roughly the same niche--fantasy centered on children, suitable for both young and adult readers--but Pullman should be far more polarizing, because his overt worldview is that God is dead and the Church is evil. (Sorry if I gave away the ending!) He's explicitly religious and blasphemous at the same time. No Christian can read his books without having to engage with that. But no one's burning Philip Pullman, and they do burn Harry Potter, because so many fewer people read Pullman. And the people who burn Harry Potter are the absolutists of the lot: the no-perspective, unimaginative yahoos who believe that mentioning magic is the same thing as advocating for Satanism. So they're reacting futilely against the popularity of something that offends them deeply, but they don't have any logical arguments to convince people, so all they can do is resort to public violent demonstration.

I have a new theory, then: the second someone's book gets burned, it's a tacit admission that the burners are announcing they've already lost. (That was true of the Beatles, too, come to think.)

My prediction: When The Golden Compass comes out this winter and it does well (and it should, if the trailers are anything to go by), then the religious right will sit up and notice. And then they'll burn Pullman. Sigh.

Okay. Must pack!


Friday, October 05, 2007

Sheep One Gazillion and Counting

My plan for today was supposed to go something like this:

a.) go to work; bring laptop along so I can...
b.) get off work and FINALLY get a chance to finish my chapter
c.) go home and re-memorize my story for tomorrow's performance
d.) pack overnight bag. The train leaves at 1.

All of this is contingent on a normal sleep schedule, which isn't normally a big deal. One of the reasons I switched to later work hours is so I could actually go to shows, stumble home, and still wake up in time to get sweet, life-calming exercise and a slow shower. But my plan for last night, which was

a.) Go to bed at 11 and sleep till 7

turned into

a.) Take a Paxil, lie flat on the bed, and stare unblinkingly at the ceiling until sunrise.

I still haven't slept. It's been 26 hours now. I called in sick to work at hour 24 because I just know my body's going to collapse into a neurasthenic jelly any second, but even THEN, with no deadline stretching before me (that's usually relaxing, yes?), I have spent two more hours lying on the goddamn bed waiting for the Energizer Rodent of my brain to get off its fucking exercise wheel. "Enough already," I've been telling it. "You're gonna break the damn thing." If you hooked my brain to a train set, the energy on display would cut my carbon footprint in half. In fact, for all I know, the hamster shivered itself to pieces hours ago and there's just this empty wheel spinning and spinning and spinning...

So that's it. I'm officially off Paxil. I gave it a shot, doc, but I came to you for help calming down so I could do my job (editing very detailed puzzles) a bit more accurately. The last thing anyone needs is for me to come into work and editing with an empty hamster wheel. Next thing you know, I'll be cluing EVA as "Actress Gardner", I'll start spelling nickels as NICKLES, and before you can say "USA Today," I'll turn into Timothy Parker, only witout Merv Griffin's money.

Another reason I want to get back on Effexor is not only because it worked pretty well a few years ago, but because nothing gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies more than hearing people talk about their medications and symptoms. Can't that wait till I'm sixty? I'm only 39; I should be discussing mortgages and yield rates or something. So give me the meds and I promise to shut up about them. Thanks!

Actually, thinking about mortgages and yield rates gives me an idea: I want aspirin.


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Books I Done Stole: The Corioli Affair by Mary Deasy

Book: The Corioli Affair, by Mary Deasy (1954)
Stolen From: Rudy's, a nightclub in Tallahassee, Florida. Their lobby is all ornamental books.

This book began in confusion for me. The first sentences are, "That winter I lived in Corioli, in a red-brick house on Longmill Street. There was a little shop on the ground floor where Nora Casey sold notions and candy, and above it a floor that was let to a family named Maher." It's clear that our heroine is Irish, and has been traveling, and for some reason I got it into my head that this was all taking place in Italy. It wasn't until page 12 that some character tells our heroine that she'll need "to study up on our American currency." I was stunned and went back, looking for any kind of sign, and that's when I realized that this book was curiously lacking in details for much of its length. For about thirty pages or so, this could have been taking place on a distant planet, out someplace dull.

Turns out it's actually 1884. Our heroine, lovely nineteen-year-old Lacey Dereen, has moved to Louisiana, or possibly Missouri, to find a life for herself in the wake of her father's death. This much we know by page three. She meets people and gets a teaching job, and befriends a couple, the Daytons--Jed and Sallie. (Sallie has a friend named Allie, which seems wholly unnecessary.) Jed is a taciturn riverboat captain, and his wife is a spoiled, temperamenal flibbertigibbet. Nothing happens.

I really mean this. By page fifty I was starting to yell at the book: "Hey, things! Why don't you occur? Or transpire! Give eventuating a shot!" She talks about Sallie to her housekeeper/family friend Mrs. Dandy. She talks about Mrs. Dandy to Sallie. She talks about both of them to Jed, who doesn't say much. And even at school, her kids are well-behaved and no challenges seem to present themselves. "Just wait," I told myself. "Things are building to something, surely." By page 107, when I read the sentence, "This was one more time that nothing had happened. I wondered how long it could go on that way," I was nodding in sympathy with the poor author, who was cleary in the same funk I was.

But things do build to something! The problem is, they finally occur on page 150, when there's only 100 pages to go. Apparently what's happened--and really the whole thing is a hazy wash of riverboats and crinoline--is that Jed Dayton and Lacey have fallen for each other. But he's married! And his wife won't give him a divorce! And I really can't pinpoint the source of this attraction, but the writer has taken care of that. (Jed: "This is impossible. Why are these feelings so strong?" Lacey: "I don't care. I only know that I love you!" QED.) The exciting thing on page 150 is that he suddenly quits town, leaves his wife, and meets Lacey on the q.t. back at Nora's place upriver, where she's fled to avoid the rumormongers. But then it turns out...Jed's ex Sallie has been found murdered!

"Aha!" I said. "So that's why we've spent so much time talking to Mrs. Dandy's nephew, who's a famously slick trial lawyer! And that also explains the occasional mumblings of characters who disapprove of tiny things and keep saying, 'There's going to be a riot one day!'" And that's the problem, of course: As soon as the plot was set in motion, I could see exactly where it was going, and the only real question was what would be the exact shape of the wreckage at the bottom of the hill.

I slogged through anyway, and I deserve some kind of medal. Here's a sample of Jed and Lacey on page 75, right after he suddenly declares his love and kisses her.

"No," I said again. "Oh, no. We can't."
"Yes," he said. "We can't. But we do. Don't talk. Don't say anything."
"I have to say it. Now. We can't let it happen."
"It has happened. There's nothing we can do about it."
"Nothing has happened."
"Nothing except that I'm in love with you. And you with me--"

What's there to say? Innocent Jed is accused of murder. Nephew Dayton tries his magic. Jed's found guilty instead of manslaughter. A mob, furious, takes matters into their own hands--but the raid on the jail, and the lynching, go a little awry when, in the worst coincidence I've read in some time, the lynchers somehow tear the window out of the third-floor jail cell (with ropes? Is it that easy?), and then, since they can't climb up, they switch plans and enter the jail proper. And while they're hammering down the cell bars, Jed, jumps out the now-open window. He cracks a few ribs, but survives and finds Lacey...but he needs a doctor. What will they do? Why, they'll hop on a riverboat, run into a squall, so that Jed can die a riverboat captain, saving the entire ship and lasting just long enough to hiss out his last loving cliche. ("I won't leave you...Not even if I die. They can make me die, but they can't make me leave you.") Cue the ponderous minor chord. The only interesting thing about the book is that on page 214, I read a sentence I will probably never see again: "He convolved his lips at me, whispering, almost without a sound: 'Where is he?'"

The back cover is interesting, though. It's in bad shape, like the front, but you can still make out the TV-era anxiety in it, since it's an essay titled "In Defense of the Novel" by Sterling North, some literary editor of the time. He spouts more cliches: "The novel will never die...while civilization endures...The novelist furnishes us a magic carpet...we can explore Paris with Balzac, Russia with Tolstoy...or raft down the Mississippi with Mark Twain." With hoary truisms like those, I'm not sure I'd trust his actual literary editing. But after reading The Corioli Affair, I can offer this rejoinder: If we rafted down the Mississippi with Mark Twain, and the raft just sat there for a hundred pages, even 50s-era TV would start to look pretty good. If I ever go back to Tallahassee, I'm going to put this back on the shelf.