Friday, March 28, 2014

Black Coffee

Despite the sheer frequency with which I am "drinking coffee and grading papers" on Facebook, I'm not as much of a coffee snob as one might think. I do drink it black, as God intended (when asked how he liked his coffee, my grandfather would say "in a cup"), and I have a predilection for the darker roasts: I like my coffee to taste like it's been smoking Chesterfields waiting for me to get up.

But I'm not that much of a connoisseur; I grind my own but I'll buy Meijer brand beans, and sometimes I'll just pop a K-cup into the Keurig because, you know,convenience and stuff. So, sure: it's Sumatran, but it's a freaking K-cup.  That's like feeling good about yourself for drinking champagne instead of beer and then popping open a bottle of AndrĂ©.

This didn't stop me from offering to review a new roast/blend by my Facebook friend and fellow blogger Brian Gumm. I forget how it happened. I think he was razzing me about the Keurig and whatnot and the smack talk ended up with him sending me some free beans to try with the promise that I'd do a writeup. 

Apparently I need a sign that says "Will write for coffee."

Because I totally will. I'm just saying.

Anyway, Brian sent me two: one is sort of a black and tan concept blending light roasted Costa Rican beans with darker roasted Brazilian which he calls "Americano Blend," the other just a roast of some Tanzanian Peaberry. I try the Americano Blend first. Once ground, the blend is actually lighter than I expected -- almost blond -- and the aroma is rich with just a hint of spice. 

[More disclaimers: I'm just using the filter option on my Keurig, whereas a true aficionado would probably do a French press or a pour-over, and I'm using a blade grinder when everyone knows you're supposed to use a burr grinder. What a Philistine.]

The resulting brew is true to the sight and smell of the grind. The first few sips are light, even a little watery for my taste. As it cools a bit, however, richer flavor notes come out. There's the brightness and spice one normally associates with Latin American blends, along with the smoothness of a good Colombian, with just a smidge of earthiness I didn't expect. 

Overall, it's lighter than I usually like, though I would enjoy this as an after-dinner coffee, with or without dessert (something fruity -- I'd want something with more bite to go with chocolate or custard-type desserts). Those who prefer lighter roasts would probably find this one delightful.

Next is the Tanzanian. First, it seems to be aptly named. I mean, I don't know Tanzania from a hole in the ground, but I know what peas look like, and the coffee beans really are pea-sized and round. The grind is rich and earthy with some hints of dark chocolate.

So is the brew. Unlike the Americano Blend, this is my, er, cup of tea. It's not terribly smoky, but it is robust with some bite to it. Some brightness comes through, like an unexpected sheen on a otherwise matte finish. This is a roast that I would drink for breakfast, or to wash down several chocolate eclairs. Because chocolate eclairs.

Overall, this was some good coffee. The beans are fair trade and organic, which I like, and the roasts have a lot going for them. Brian is thinking about a Tanzanian/Sumatran blend. I'd love a chance to review that one.

[Sips Tanzanian]

Friday, March 21, 2014

Drive My Car (A Reluctant Lenten Reflection)

In a gesture toward what I like to call "involuntary poverty," I gave up my car for Lent -- or rather, my car gave me up. There's a joke being played on the atheist forced to observe in this way, even if there's no one there to play it.

Lent, as a season of fasting prior to Easter, has been part of liturgical life longer than Christmas has, and for some reason, even though I'm not a terribly devout observer of Lent (or terribly devout in general), I like that it exists.

Eugene Peterson, in Reversed Thunder, writes that one of the good things about church is that it goes on without us. Whether we pray or not, people are praying. Whether we're even there or not, people are gathered. Somehow this is comforting. I feel that way about Lent.

I'm not sure why this is. My friend Daniel, a Catholic convert, told me, "I think it is interesting to see the attraction Lent has for my non-religious, atheist, agnostic and even Jewish hipster friends. Of all the things within Christianity that is culturally accessible I wouldn't have chosen Lent to be it."

I wouldn't have chosen to give up my car, either, and I do hope I get it back before Easter. About a month ago (before Lent began, actually) it broke down on the way out of Ann Arbor -- I hadn't even made it out of the city -- and has been stranded there ever since awaiting an engine replacement.

I'm learning to appreciate, however, the way this forces me into a discipline I did not choose. I'm walking more places, obviously, and to be honest I'm enjoying the exercise: except for some rudimentary (and sporadic) calisthenics, I don't work out. A 20-minute walk can do wonders for the otherwise sedentary, and I've enjoyed quite a few 20-minute walks.

It also throws me upon the mercy and generosity of others. The illusion of independence is shattered and I am forced to both ask for help from others and allow them to help me without the pretense that I'm going to be able to meaningfully pay them back. There's a certain paradoxical charity in allowing others to be charitable without trying to reciprocate (cue Derridean reflections on the gift).

I see this more generally as well. I'm staying during the week with a younger couple, and I try to be the model houseguest. I'm quiet. I'm neat. I also have an almost obsessive-compulsive need to be helpful: I do the dishes, or fold the load of laundry I find in the dryer when I do mine.

I sometimes notice, however, that these efforts also have the potential to subtly rob my friends of their opportunity to offer me hospitality. I'm not saying I shouldn't do them, but it introduces an element of payback. It hints at a calculus. Sometimes I duck out of the house on foot before I can be offered a ride; there's just a whiff of passive-aggressiveness about it.

There's a lesson to be learned here, and a balance to be sought. Maybe I'll find it. Maybe, on the other side of my reluctant Lent, I'll have grown in some sort of discipline of receiving charity.

Or mabye I'll just have killer thighs. Either way.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Modern Love

Things change, sometimes rather quickly. Heraclitus and the Buddhists seem to agree that change is the only constant. That sounds about right. No less a college of poets than REO Speedwagon adjures us to roll with the changes. You got to.

I'm getting a divorce, and I've fallen in love with one of my best friends, Dawn (and by "fallen in love with" I mean "plan to marry" -- we're not messing around) and these are related in all of the ways one might imagine them to be.

This means an odd combination of things that are wonderful and free and healthy and things that are difficult and fraught and complicated. That's not what this post is about, but it's necessary information to make sense of the following.

I'm living in Ann Arbor on the weekends and teaching in Mt. Pleasant during the week. It's not ideal, of course, but it's the situation we're in and we're trying to make the best of it. Oddly enough, then, the weekends find us wondering where we might go to church.

This is odd not so much because we're doing things of which the church might not approve -- all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, right? -- but more because I'm a theologically interested atheist and she's a theologically curious agnostic. In fact, wrestling with faith has been a point of connection for us over the course of our friendship, and one of the many things over which we've bonded.

So why bother? It's a fair question. The answer might be that we're both too conditioned. It's possible. But we also both have a thing for being part of a tradition, even if it's as dissenters or heretics. It's still a way of being part of something larger than ourselves, something that precedes us and will go on after us.

It's a way of giving nod to a sense of mystery that doesn't really disappear in a cloud of atheist skepticism or agnostic ambivalence. It's not radical discipleship or robust orthodoxy, but at least we're talking about getting our asses to church.

Neither of us, however, has any kind of taste for church-shopping, and evangelical churches are out. No more "Protestant guitars." Dawn converted to Catholicism 20 years ago, and has yet to fully recover from her Assemblies of God upbringing (German District, she is fond of reminding me -- I didn't even know that was a thing). She's lapsed, somewhat, but the Mass still holds an attraction for her.

It does for me, too. I went through a Catholic phase back in the day and wrote a Mass for my master's thesis. I love Thomas Merton and Kathleen Norris (who isn't exactly Catholic, but is a Benedictine oblate, so there's that). I have a shelf full of Catholic books -- a prayer book, the Rule of Benedict, a bunch of contemplative stuff.

So we went to Mass last week. It was quite beautiful. It's been awhile for me -- I consider myself "pre-lapsed" -- and I keep forgetting that the response is "and with your spirit," not "and also with you," though I still prefer the latter. It was nice to sing hymns and damned if I didn't bust out a tenor part even though the hymns weren't printed in 4-part. Whatever.

The problem is, we'll both be divorced and thus Dawn will be barred from Communion, as am I because I'm not confirmed. I could go through RCIA but then the divorce thing would come up and maybe the atheism thing and I'm not sure which would be the bigger deal. And I can only imagine how much of a pain in the ass I'd be in one of those classes. I went to a Catholic grade school. Nuns hate me.

There's also the matter of our considerable disagreements with Catholic dogma -- women's ordination, LGBTQ inclusion, birth control, abortion, the nature of authority, the existence and/or nature of God -- you know, stuff like that.

The Episcopal church might be a better fit in those areas, and we've kicked that around, too. But again: Dawn's Catholic. She feels like a tradition already chose her, even if she also feels somewhat betrayed by it.

Plus, I was up until recently actively involved in an evangelical church that fared little better on those items, and there's a grand history of folks identifying as Catholic and having profound disagreements with the Church. There's being Catholic, and then there's being Catholic. One of the weirdly attractive things about the historical Christian traditions is that they give you something pretty solid to kick against.

So we're going back to Mass. We'll see what happens. I'll be the atheist singing tenor, holding hands with the agnostic receiving Communion.

(Today's title courtesy of David Bowie.)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

White Christmas

There's a great scene in Ken Burns's Jazz where the narrator reads a horrifically racist quote from Nick LaRocca of the Original Dixieland Jass Band and then the scene cuts to Wynton Marsalis, who just says "Well..." before a deliciously long pause. The timing is perfect, and Marsalis launches into some meaningful reflections on race in America. The "Well..." offers just a bit of humorous punctuation to ease the tension. I think of that scene sometimes.

Aisha Harris recently published a piece in Slate arguing that it's time Santa got a makeover.
Harris writes poignantly about the social dissonance of growing up African-American in a world where cultural icons like Santa are white, about the way in which a white Santa reinforces the normativity of whiteness. She suggests that we replace Santa, not with a black Santa, but with a penguin. I think, but can't prove, that she's being tongue-in-cheek here, indulging in a bit of mild Swiftian satire.

This got picked up by Fox News personality Megyn Kelly, who panned the idea in her segment The Kelly File. To be fair, Kelly and her panel praise Harris for the depth of the writing, and the way she brings the reader into her experience, but ultimately they can't abide Harris's modest proposal. Suggesting we replace Santa with a penguin is where Harris "goes off the rails," Kelly asserts, but the interesting and almost tragicomic bit is where Kelly insists -- more than once -- that "Santa just is white." Then she adds that he's white just like Jesus is white, which she says is a "verifiable fact."


Santa is white because white people have claimed domination of America since, I don't know, 1492 or thereabouts. The American Christmas holiday comes to us primarily from England (white) and Germany (also white), while Santa himself comes to us by way of the Dutch Sinterklass, who is white because Dutch people are -- you guessed it -- white. The Santa we know is white by dint of historical contingency. It's not that Santa "just is" white, as Kelly claims, but that Santa just happens to be white because the legend as we know it was made up by white people.

Santa may have ended up white, then, regardless of the source material. I had assumed that Saint Nicholas of Myra, on whose life the Santa Claus legend is loosely based, would not have exactly been white as we understand it because he was from what is now Turkey, but an astute reader (see below) suggests that given the demographics of that time and place, this ain't necessarily so, and corroborates this rejoinder with iconography. I'd still call it historical contingency, but the point is a good one.

Jesus, however, was from northern Israel, and his non-whiteness is a little more secure. It's not that Jesus is black, of course (except "ontologically black," a la James Cone, but that's different), but lets's just say he'd be a lot more likely than me to get profiled by the TSA. People who look like Jesus probably looked do not, in today's politically climate, enjoy the privilege of being considered white.

The fuss over Christmas also serves as a screen for religious and cultural skirmishes more generally. Festivus poles have gone up in several places, and in Oklahoma even Satanists and Hindus are seeking civic recognition as a quid pro quo for a monument of the Ten Commandments. This, predictably, has Christians -- or at least a certain kind of Christian -- in a tizzy over the loss of what they want to believe is a Christian America. Christian America is a cherished myth, right up there with a six-day creation and Obama's socialism.

Of particular interest is this chestnut from right-wing radio host Bryan Fischer. According to Fischer, "religion" for the Founding Fathers meant Christianity exclusively, ergo First Amendment protections apply only to Christians. It's an interesting invocation of authorial intent. Fischer supports this claim by pointing out that 99.8 percent of the population of the colonies were Christian. The the other .2 percent were Jewish (this, apparently, not being enough to warrant protection). 

He's right that the overwhelming majority were Christian of some denominational stripe or another, but there were also, however scant, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and various kinds of occultists, some of whom maintained nominal membership in Christian churches to avoid persecution. And he's completely ignoring the religio-cultural sensibilities of the Africans enslaved and the indigenous peoples displaced by all those nice Christians.

Moreover, by the same logic, 100% of the Founding Fathers were white and male, and they only extended suffrage to white males, so we should probably limit First Amendment protections to white males as well (I am assuming Fischer would find this objectionable; I could be wrong). The point is that we have, throughout history, corrected for the shortsightedness of the Founders and extended rights and privileges to people groups not on their political radar.

This raises the question of the extent to which the U.S. can be considered Christian, and what that might mean. Let me suggest three ways in which we might consider a nation Christian. One is culturally, referring to the extent to which the dominant culture is at least nominally Christian in a way that has some bearing on national life. Another is legally, meaning the extent to which Christianity is established or sanctioned as part of the legal code. A third is what I'm going to call qualitatively, by which I mean the extent to which a nation can be said to be following Jesus.

This last one is tricky: to what extent can a nation be said to follow Jesus? Jesus doesn't make this easy insofar as he doesn't seem to have been all that interested in forging a nation. A people, sure, but a transterritorial, diasporic people, not a nation with sovereignty to protect. It's an admittedly Anabaptist sensibility, but I'm skeptical that a Christian nation, as such, can even exist. 

But that's not fair. I should at least be sporting and offer some kind of criteria, so here goes: I'd take claims of Christian nationhood seriously, in this qualitative sense, if a nation can be said to love its enemies, care for the poor, and welcome the stranger. The first one is easy. The U.S. has never loved its enemies. This would simply have been impractical, and thus perhaps it is an unfair criterion, regardless of how clear Jesus might have been about the issue.

Let's back off the pacifism, then, and go with something more practical: submission to the governing authorities a la Romans 13. Interpretations vary here, too, of course, but for the sake of argument let's agree that this does not mean slavish obedience. It does seem to rule out armed insurrection, however, so even if we don't hold the Founders to Anabaptist standards of pacifism, the birth of the nation involved playing fast and loose with biblical standards.

There is a way around this: the leaders of the resistance were, in many cases, junior magistrates of a sort, beholden to the will of the people. If the people were being oppressed, then those junior magistrates had a duty of obedience to the higher political will to foment revolution. Neat as it is, this has several problems, not the least of which that it reflects a political sensibility that would not have been intelligible to Paul -- thus, by Fischer's logic, we can't count it because Paul couldn't have meant that.

Another counterargument is that desperate times call for desperate measures. The British certainly weren't following Jesus or Paul, so the logic goes, and the colonists were just making do in a situation far afield of Christian discipleship all around. The British were simply bad people, and God was clearly on the side of the Good Guys. Perhaps we could call the Lakota or the Cherokee as character witnesses.

We could hope that the U.S. fares better in aiding the poor, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Ask the sharecroppers, or the coal miners, or the railroad workers about our care for the poor -- including the working poor. Even a cursory look through labor history betrays our grim track record in this regard. 

Welcoming the stranger, though -- here we shine, right? Ellis Island? The great melting pot? The land of opportunity? "Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free." Sadly, history betrays us yet again. The U.S. has been, in general, fairly welcoming of the same -- white Europeans, but especially the Anglo-Saxon variety -- but less so of those who are different. This includes the more obvious, such as the persecution of Asian immigrants on the West Coast and the "nativist" reactions against Catholic immigrants in the 19th century, but also counterintuitive oddities like the racist treatment of the Irish (and their equally racist journey to mainstream inclusion). 

Our legislative commitment to helping the poor varies, as does immigration policy. The nation in general, however, has not been a friendly place to the poor or the stranger. To the extent that, legislatively, we are getting worse on these issues, drifting away from the teachings of Christ, those efforts are being spearheaded by people who claim to be Christian. If the U.S. is not the Christian nation it once was, blame the Christians. But to the extent that we're willing to accept my qualitative criteria -- and I realize we could debate them -- the U.S. is not and has never been a Christian nation. 

Whether or not the U.S. is legally Christian should be more straightforward: establishment was explicitly rejected. Jefferson made his own intentions clear in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, a letter which includes the famous reference to "a wall of separation between church and state." This language did not make it into the Constitution -- but neither did God. The point is that Jefferson, who gave us the language of "endowed by their Creator," invoking "Nature and Nature's God" in the Declaration of Independence, was clearly anti-establishment, a sentiment shared by enough of his confreres that it did make it into the Constitution. 

It is primarily culturally that the U.S. can be said to be Christian, and here people like Fischer have a point. We observe Christian holidays. We take oaths on Bibles. We have a National Cathedral. The American civic religion is parasitic on Christianity. We could argue that they're not the same thing (the qualitative argument) or point out that this is de facto and not de jure (the establishment argument), but it's there. What's more, a case can be made that this bleeds into the legal: these can't completely be separated. 

Here historical contingency raises its deconstructive head again. Of course colonists were predominantly Christian: they were from Europe, home to the rise (and fall) of Christendom. Only among the intelligensia was atheism even on the cognitive map. For many of the Founders (and certainly their constituents) it was literally unthinkable. Other religions were considered "heathen" and "uncivilized." 

Fischer wants to sacralize their ethnocentrism as a hermeneutical principle. That the Founders would couch their political musings in a (broadly) shared metaphysics is unremarkable. It does not follow that they were thereby inscribing that metaphysics into the social code.

What defenders of "Christian America" don't seem to realize is that irrespective of their personal pieties, which varied considerably, the Founding Fathers collectively created the most secular nation imaginable at the time, the most secular nation ever to exist up to that point. They did this despite the broadly Christian milieu in which they were operating, and they did it quite deliberately.

Nevertheless, if Fischer and his ilk are correct that America is at least culturally Christian in the way I'm describing, they're also right that our cultural Christian identity is waning, especially as the courts sort out the implications of recognizing this heritage while at the same time upholding disestablishment. 

This is not, however, just about separation of church and state. As Richard Beck argues,
What is being "lost" in our nation isn't Christianity but white hegemony. The white majority of America is declining. America is becoming more diverse and pluralistic. And retailers, well attuned to the demographic shifts in their customer base--it is their lifeblood after all--shift to reflect the times. "Happy Holidays" is what you say when a religiously and ethnically diverse population is standing in your checkout line. It's simply good business sense.
The "Christian" culture that informs the American social imagination is largely WASP culture -- if a bit softer on the 'P' these days. The lament over Christmas is, consciously or not, a lament over the loss of cultural dominance.

And that's why Jesus is white.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town

It is fashionable, this time of year, to bitch and moan that Christmas is not what it used to be, or what it is supposed to be, or has become in one way or another sullied and denigrated.

The jeremiads range from complaints that Christmas is too commercial and consumer-oriented to hand-wringing over the excision of explicitly Christian content from our public celebrations of the season.

Some even take exception to the use of "X-mas," complaining that Christ has been "X-ed out" of Christmas -- apparently unaware that the use of the Greek chi, or X, has been a shorthand for Christ in the Christian tradition since long before Macy's had a Santa Claus. One way or another, however, we are barraged with diatribes berating us for forgetting the "reason for the season."

The real reason for the season, however, is that it's so damn dark. The Christian holiday is piggybacked onto a melange of pagan celebrations, most of them having something to do with the winter solstice. Just on the
other side of this longest night the sun slowly begins to reclaim its authority over the sky and our pagan ancestors found cause to celebrate.

For some this becomes just more evidence of the "war on Christmas," and there are always those encouraging us to forgo trees, or the use of "yuletide," or Santa, because these accoutrements are tainted by their pagan lineage.

The irony here is that the birth narratives themselves suggest construction out of the raw material of pagan mythologies. That and some bad translating: in a key prophecy in Isaiah, the Greek Septuagint uses the word for "virgin" to translate a Hebrew word meaning "young woman." This is not linguistically untenable in a world where a young woman could reasonably be assumed to be virginal, but the original context probably refers to the prophet's wife, who -- without prying too much into the prophetic personal life -- was probably not a virgin.

Jesus doesn't even get born until later in the tradition. For Paul, Jesus seems to have been "declared the Son of God by the power of his resurrection" (Rom 1:4). The writer of Hebrews evinces a similar perspective. Mark's Gospel has Jesus declared the Son of God at his baptism, 'Son of God' being a royal or messianic designation.

Only Luke and Matthew give us (somewhat conflicting) birth stories. John is bullish on pre-existence and incarnation but is silent about the actual birth. John's take on "only begotten" seems far more cosmic, and much less literal, than parthogenesis.

A cruder version of divine conception lay at the heart of Rome's etiology; mythical founders Remus and Romulus were the semidivine twin sons of a woman raped by Mars. The god Mithra was born in a cave at the winter solstice, attended by shepherds (which might explain a few things) but he was actually birthed from a rock, which seems a bit mundane (pun intended). As a mythological trope, virgin birth was not unheard of, and ancient kings -- who were often also gods -- were often assigned some kind of miraculous birth appropriate to figures of great importance.

The details are contested, of course; some take all such references to be mere copycats. The early church fathers, for whom such "signs and wonders" were exceptional but not, strictly speaking, impossible, regarded the similarities as Satanic counterfeits. The more modern C.S. Lewis cleverly argued that in Jesus, God made these mythological elements come literally true so that Christians could have bragging rights. My virgin-born savior can beat up your virgin-born savior.

The common Biblical trope for special nativities is to have a child born to a barren woman, like Hannah or Rachel, or to a woman beyond childbearing years, like Sarah -- but Luke used that one with John the Baptist, so he had to dig deeper into the collective unconscious to get Jesus into the world in something beyond the usual way.

Suffice it to say that there's a strong hint of syncretism here, and those who would excise all things pagan from our midwinter celebrations might find themselves going all Thomas Jefferson on the Biblical text itself. There is no pristine, unadulterated Christmas. If anyone should be grousing about having their holiday hijacked, it's the pagans.

The consumerism angle has some teeth to it. I am not a fan of capitalism. Contrary to the famous speech by Michael Douglas's character in Wall Street, greed is not good. It does not "work." It might be harnessed for brief moments of corporate glory but it is a lousy long-term strategy and it will destroy us. The invisible hand is giving us the finger right about now. The market is not a benevolent god.

As strongly as I feel about this, as much as I believe that if a sustainable future exists, it is a post-capitalist future, this is not a problem with Christmas. Granted, there are ways in which the Christmas buying season might put a finer point on things, laying our contradictions bare (and nobody gets trampled in a Wal-Mart on, say, St. Patrick's Day), but the problems of capitalism are not limited to Christmas, nor is the commercialization of Christmas terribly new. Christmas, like truth, was never what it used to be.

So, if we filter out those elements that are not specific to Christmas, and the grumblings of those who think the entire world should validate their belief system, what are we left with?

In the midst of the darkest time of year, we string lights and decorate with shiny things. We pay attention to children. We give each other gifts. We think about the poor and the less fortunate, and while it would be better to do this all year, at least we do it. We throw more parties, and visit more relatives. We wish each other well on a regular basis.

We invoke something called "Christmas spirit" as an excuse to momentarily shed our cynicism and look beyond our selfishness. We sing songs, and show a higher tolerance for jazz than at any other time of the year. We make cookies and drink eggnog. We make snow angels and write Christmas cards. We go to church and light candles and even the most skeptical of us are tempted to strain for a glimpse of the numinous.

Christmas makes it fashionable to talk about things like peace and love without getting strange looks. Christmas gives us the gumption to share our feelings with that person we've been admiring all year, or the fortitude to extend grace to that pain-in-the-ass down the hall.

Christmas, for all of its saccharine sentimentality, for all of its sappy sitcom send-ups of A Christmas Carol, for all of its tendency to degenerate into an ideological battleground, encourages good things in us. Does it "work"? I don't know about that.

But it beats the hell out of greed.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

99 Problems

Doritos is running a "Crash the Superbowl" ad contest soliciting fan-made commercials. One entry is from Rebel Pilgrim Films, a faith-based company out of Cincinnati founded by part-time Vineyard pastor Joe Boyd.

"Rebel Pilgrim" is the way Boyd likes to think of Jesus, and the group's goal is to "tell stories that spark hope and action" according to their Facebook page, and create films that are "soft, thoughtful, and anything but evangelical," as described in a local newscast.

In their contest entry, titled "Silence is Golden," the big game is under auditory siege by the lone woman present, who is loudly and vacuously chatting on her cellphone while her hapless boyfriend gestures in resignation. She cattily asks one of the guys (the video's description identifies him as Ben) to "turn this down" because it is interrupting her phone call, which of course is interrupting the game.

The boyfriend, Chris, tosses our beleaguered protagonist a football, which miraculously turns into nacho cheesy tortilla goodness. Somehow Ben has been bestowed with the magical power of nachification.

This gives him an idea. As the Annoying Girlfriend (neither she nor their African American compatriot have names) chatters on -- "Shut up. No, you shut up. Shut. Up!" in the sing-song cadence and glottal-stop t's of a Valley Girl -- Ben touches her cellphone and it, too, becomes snack food. Ben has the Midas touch of game-day munchies.

"You freak!" says the Annoying Girlfriend, and turns to her emasculated beau for help: "Chris! Do something!" Chris try to shrink into the couch as the ever-resourceful Ben shooshes Annoying Girlfriend by putting his nacho cheesy finger to her lips, and -- cut shot to the Doritos logo and sound clip.

When we return to the scene, Annoying Girlfriend, is, predictably, nachified, the consumer culture equivalent of Lot's wife -- and thus silent. Ben is apologetic: "Sorry, dude," he says to Chris, who nonchalantly plucks off part of her chip-shaped earring, proclaiming "it's cool" as he munches away.

The blatant dudebro-ism of the commercial is low-hanging fruit. The sports-loving guys just wanna have fun, and the hectoring, chattering woman -- a well-worn TV trope -- is getting in the way. She doesn't get it. She is a threat to the patriarchal order, and a threat to masculinity itself. She is an object of both desire and fear, a bitchy vagina dentata with amazing cleavage.

Chris appears to be henpecked (there are cruder ways to put this) and the men are, of themselves, helpless to do anything. Thus they are graced with miraculous help, which comes in the form not just of silencing the Annoying Girlfriend, silencing the Other, but making her the perfect object of consumption. Literally. The objectification is complete: she's not just making them sandwiches, she is the sandwich. The patriarchal order is restored.

What is shocking is not that this exists -- sports advertising is not generally characterized by a progressive view of gender issues -- but that what appear to be otherwise well-meaning, intelligent folk could make this and apparently have no idea how egregiously sexist it is. No doubt they offer it all in good fun, ha ha, high fives all around, nothing to see here.

But the video is fraught with sexist stereotypes and tainted with a misogynistic ideology, however unintentional it might be. Evangelicalism's patriarchy is showing yet again. Rebel Pilgrim, for whatever else they might offer of artistic or intellectual merit, are in this case like the frat boys who don't understand that their blackface Halloween costumes are racist.

So, no: this is neither soft nor thoughtful. It's crass, disturbing, and stupid. Surely Jesus, that Rebel Pilgrim, deserves better.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

She's Gone

My tenth grade girlfriend is the only one who ever broke up with me. I was devastated, or at least as devastated as a kid can be at that age of invincibility. I tried various ploys to hang on but she was done. We remained friends and eventually spent part of our senior year flirting a bit but never actually got back together.

In the meantime, I had probably dozens of love interests, some of whom were more or less official girlfriends and all of whom I summarily dumped once I got bored, which was anywhere from two weeks to two months.

This is actually part of a larger pattern. My mental health profile includes a "tendency toward narcissism" -- that's what it says in my file. I meet just enough of the criteria in the DSM for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) but I'm too self-aware (which sounds like the sort of thing a narcissist would say, but bear with me) to actually be diagnosed with it.

People with full-blown NPD aren't able to see the game they're so masterfully playing. Ultimately, it makes them even better at it. I tend to play the game more consciously, though I haven't always been aware of its contours or consequences. The fact that I can be made aware of them, and am thus amenable to treatment, is I why have a "tendency toward" narcissism but not NPD. I have issues, but I'm not a psychopath.

At any rate, part of the narcissistic profile is that we have a pathologically amplified fear of loss, which we stave off by giving people bit parts in our narcissistic dramas rather than becoming truly vulnerable. And we pre-emptively write people out of that script before they get the chance to leave us. We're the classic "You can't fire me -- I quit!" types.

Thus, thanks to a combination of narcissistic manipulation and dumb luck, I've never faced significant loss. The scant few people close enough to hurt me have neither died nor denied me. That could change tomorrow -- or in the next five minutes -- but that's where I'm at right now.

As such, then, I've only seen the grief process secondhand, though I'm enough of an armchair psychologist to be fascinated by it. Someone once introduced me to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages, which I remember as DABDA: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.

The stages don't necessarily manifest in order nor are they as discretely periodic as the list makes it seem. People seem to go through mini-versions of the whole cycle within the larger arc. There's a fractal quality to it, and of course it's the structure that I would train on, me being me and all.

I bring this up because I've been pondering the extent to which my wrestling with belief and unbelief over the past dozen or so years might be characterized by some variation on the grief process. I have been mourning my loss of faith, or the loss of a particular kind of faith, all this time. I hedge here a bit because I don't want to presume that atheism is some sort of norm or baseline, and yet I can't completely avoid that, since this is my story.

To wit, I've had scads of denial. This isn't a loss of faith, I'd tell myself; it's a transition to a different kind of faith. I'm not an atheist but rather an apophatic mystic. This is not so much a crisis of belief as a journey through the Dark Night of the Soul. And so on. Sometimes the denial was more stark: I didn't believe but carried on nonetheless, like Unamuno's San Manuel Bueno.

I've certainly been angry: raging against the church, against Christian hypocrisy in its manifold forms, against God. This gets an assist from denial because of course God has to be around so I can be pissed off at him. I've been frustrated -- no, "angry" really is the right word -- at the way my life has trudged along in the outward forms of faith while inside I've harbored more than just nagging doubts. I've shaken my head, and my fist, at the irony of being so good at church work and so bad at belief.

Bargaining is the big one. I am, apparently, a first-rate bargainer. If I don't believe in God, but still follow Jesus, I can haz faith? It seems very close, and I do think there's something to it. I've latched onto Jesus's parable of two brothers, one of whom agrees to go work in the field and never shows up, and the other who putatively refuses but goes anyway. I kept trying to narrate myself as the latter.

Surely it's better for people who have trouble signing the statement of faith to continue to do the work of the Lord than it is for millions of Christians to give intellectual assent to essential doctrines but reject what St. Benedict called a "conversion of manners." Hell, even the book of James is on board with this. No wonder Luther hated it.

Still, as true as that might be it's ultimately bargaining. James brooked no such dualism, and neither did Benedict. This is not a choice between lazy belief and paradoxically pious unbelief but a call to integrated faith: belief fleshed out -- incarnated, if you will -- in a life of robust discipleship.

Trying to get by with the latter divorced from the former is, it seems, a fool's gambit. I don't think I can make it work. I wanted it to work because I wanted it to mean that belief really was there after all, just masked or hidden in some way [see: Denial].

Depression and I go way back. I'm not sure it's a stage so much as background noise, a terminate-but-stay-resident program. Nevertheless, even the most inscrutable depression has triggers, and the vicissitudes of faith have certainly been triggers for me.  I'm much healthier and happier at a secular university than I was at a Christian college.

More to the point, I have responded -- and have been responding -- to a loss of faith, a loss of God, with depression. I've shut down, closed up, retreated within myself. Some of it almost seems tied to bargaining: if I can just dig deep enough, go far enough inside, maybe there's something there I can call faith, something just enough to justify a life that might justify hanging on to the trappings of belief. It's a little like the country song: "If I could cry a little harder / And get a little less sleep at night / If I had two dozen roses would you change your mind?"

And some of it is just plain old grey, flat depression. I'm tired. Soul-tired. Bone-tired. Existentially tired. I am, if you'll pardon the salty language, all out of fucks to give. I don't hate religion. I'm not smarter than faith. I'm not better than those who are deeply invested in their religious traditions in a way that I can never be. But I'm tired of trying to figure out how to have a dog in the hunt. It's wearying. I'm done.

"Truth be told," Douglas Coupland has one of his characters say in Miss Wyoming,
the one thing in this world I want more than anything else is a great big crowbar, to jimmy myself open and take whatever creature that's sitting inside and shake it clean like a rug and then rinse it in a cold, clear lake like up in Oregon, and then I want to put it under the sun to let it heal and dry and grow and sit and come to consciousness again with a clear and quiet mind.
I'm reaching that point in the depression cycle where I look up and see the sun as if it had gone missing for weeks, and realize that I actually feel sort of okay today. That person, the one who feels okay, doesn't believe in God. That doesn't need to mean anything to anyone else, but it's huge for me. I can't tell you what your "clear and quiet mind" is supposed to look like. Mine, apparently, is an atheist. I regret nothing.

I don't want to trivialize grief by comparing the loss of a loved one to a loss of faith or the loss of a tenth grade girlfriend. But just as I reached out to try to hold onto that girlfriend when she broke things off, often in hilariously dysfunctional ways, I've tried to hold on to faith. It's time to let go.