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Archive for April, 2011

Allison Moorer, “A Soft Place To Fall.”

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By Drew at Toothpaste for Dinner.

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Kate Douglas has written an article for the New Scientist on what the “ideal religion” would look like:

What form would the ideal religion take? Some might argue that instead of redesigning religion, we should get rid of it. But it is good for some things: religious people are happier and healthier, and religion offers community. Besides, secularism has passed its zenith, according to Jon Lanman, who studies atheism at the University of Oxford. In a globalised world, he says, migrations and economic instability breed fear, and when people’s values feel under threat, religion thrives.

Jacobs lists off four categories or basic functions of religion (sacred party, therapy, mystical quest, and school) and describes how most of the existing world religions do one of these very well and ignore or fail to excel at the others. Jacobs’s ideal religion would excel at all four:

While each appeals to a different sort of person, they all tap into basic human needs and desires, so a new world religion would have a harmonious blend of them all: the euphoria and sensual trappings of a sacred party, the sympathy and soothing balms of therapy, the mysteries and revelations of an eternal journey and the nurturing, didactic atmosphere of a school.

Numerous festivals, holidays and rituals would keep followers hooked. “Rites of terror” such as body mutilation are out – although they bind people together very intensely, they are not usually compatible with world religions (New Scientist, 19 December 2009, p 62). Still, highly rousing, traumatic rituals might still feature as initiation ceremonies, because people tend to be more committed to a religion and tolerant of its failings after paying a high price for entry.

The everyday rituals will focus on rhythmic dancing and chanting to stimulate the release of endorphins, which Robin Dunbar, also at Oxford, says are key to social cohesion. To keep people coming back, he also prescribes “some myths that break the laws of physics, but not too much”, and no extreme mysticism, as it tends to lead to schisms.

With many gods and great tolerance of idiosyncratic local practices, the new religion will be highly adaptable to the needs of different congregations without losing its unifying identity. The religion will also emphasise worldly affairs – it would promote the use of contraceptives and small families and be big on environmental issues, philanthropy, pacifism and cooperation.

I’m not sure about downplaying the value of mysticism or the necessity of pacifism, but the interesting thing (as pointed out by Sannion over at the House of Vines) is that Jacobs has basically described ancient Greco-Roman pagan religion.

As Apuleius Platonicus pointed out, Jacobs’s description is lacking in a few other areas as well. Such an ideal religion ought to honor human sexuality and celebrate reason and learning.

But these are honestly quibbles that could be worked out in the long run, or better yet, there would just be room within this kind of big-tent religion for different viewpoints. Most importantly, however, as pointed out by paosirdjhutmosu is that this kind of article and this kind of thinking undermines the notion of religions progress that people like Rodney Stark sell so hard, and that so many people seem to accept as a given, the idea that the course of human religious history has somehow been a linear progression from a darker mirror to a clearer one, and that therefore modern religions are necessarily better than older ones. Like all notions of progress, this is an extremely suspect assumption, with very little to back it up other than plain-old-fashioned massive bias in favor of the current status quo. Now must be better because it’s now. That’s nonsense. Social and cultural change happen for a host of reasons, and there’s nothing in the process that makes sure that the end-product is more functional or healthier for human beings.

I don’t think articles like this are going to turn people towards the old gods in massive numbers or anything, but I like that we see this kind of thinking more and more.

I also definitely want to point out that while this “ideal religion” describes ancient Greco-Roman polytheism fairly well, it wound not specifically have to be Greco-Roman polytheism. I for one would gladly welcome an open, mystical, transcendental, green Christianity with room to give proper honor to saints, angels, ancestors and local kindred spirits of the earth.

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Hansen’s moody historical novel chronicles the events leading up to the murder of Jesse James at the hands of his friend, Robert Ford, and then continues to follow the events of Ford’s life until his own murder years later.

That said, the book is not primarily a story. First and foremost, it is a dual character sketch of James and Ford. Hansen works hard to get into each of the title characters’ heads, and the results are powerful and stunning. James and Ford are starkly different–it is significant that in a scene where Ford names off all of the ways that he and James are alike, nearly every fact he mentions is superficial and ultimately laughably meaningless.

The book’s sole necessary evil is in the second chapter, where the narrative breaks and goes into a historical account of the life of Jesse James up to the book’s present. It’s good–for straight history it stays quick and pithy–but it is a bit of a jarring break from the semipoetic narrative of the preceding and subsequent chapters. The high point, however, of the history, is the focus on James’s relationship with his wife, Zee. It is sweet, romantic, dysfunctional, and heartbreaking. Jesse James was clearly madly in love with his wife, but he was also madly in love with himself, and as a result his wife spends her life in his shadow, and so after his death, is left with almost nothing.

The most striking thing about the book is how Hansen zooms in to sensory details–he draws attention to a gouge left by Robert Ford’s pistol on a chair, for example, so vividly that it is almost as if like Hansen is draping and weaving the narrative around these particular pointed, concrete details.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is not encessarily a quick read, but the book is not overly long either, and it has a way of drawing you in and keeping you there. It’s a poetic, psychological historical character sketch about two fascinating outlaws, and I recommend it.

8.5/10

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Before you dismiss this post as just being about music and not spirituality (again), hang with me for a few minutes, because I’ll get there. “Pancho and Lefty” is a song written by Townes Van Zandt, one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, and like Jim Morrison, one of the tradition of young musicians who bit into something too intense somehow, too young, something too big for them to handle, and it raged through them, used them up, and left them dead too soon. If you haven’t listened to Townes Van Zandt much, shame on you.

This song is the kind of song that worms its way into your head and just gets more interesting the more you think about it. The lyrics have a gloss of conventionality, but it’s a trick–Van Zandt wrote a song that comes across as simple but is anything but. Once you get past the impression of the words, you see that the songwriting is far more complex and poetic. This is not a generic ballad. This is something interesting:

Living on the road my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
Your breath’s as hard as kerosene
You weren’t your mama’s only boy
But her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams

Pancho was a bandit, boys
His horse was fast as polished steel
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Pancho met his match you know
On the deserts down in Mexico
Nobody heard his dying words
That’s the way it goes

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him hang around
Out of kindness I suppose

Lefty he can’t sing the blues
All night long like he used to
The dust that Pancho bit down south
Ended up in Lefty’s mouth
The day they laid poor Pancho low
Lefty split for Ohio
Where he got the bread to go
There ain’t nobody knows

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose

The poets tell how Pancho fell
Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel
The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold
So the story ends we’re told
Pancho needs your prayers it’s true,
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
Now he’s growing old

A few gray federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him go so wrong
Out of kindness I suppose

Most interpretations of this song that I have encountered seem to assume that it is about two different people: Pancho, the Mexican bandit who is betrayed and killed by one of his own men, Jesse James-style, out in the desert, and Lefty, the one who killed him, who fled Mexico and settled down to an ordinary life in Cleveland, Ohio.

But I think they’re wrong. That’s much too easy, and it’s also not clear from the lyrics. Nobody heard his dying words. His death was told of by the poets, not the witnesses. Pancho “died” out in the desert, after a hard outlaw’s life, and then, from nowhere, this Lefty flees to Ohio. What’s Lefty fleeing from? Where did Lefty come into the picture? Was anyone chasing Lefty? Was anyone after him to get revenge? Does Lefty live his life nervously like the Ford brothers, reviled for killing a popular outlaw? The song says nothing about that.

That’s because Lefty is Pancho. Pancho let the poets tell of his death because it was the only way out. And he moved to Cleveland and lived under an assumed name and spent the rest of his life living in a cheap hotel with his demons and his regrets, wondering who he is and what could have been. And if anyone could have tracked him down, nobody tried too hard. They let him go because it was enough.

So what’s spiritual about this? Why does this matter? The thing is, this story is mythology. It’s not non-fiction, but there’s a bite and a life to it that crackles with something more than just a made-up story. It might not have actually happened, but it’s certainly true.

Wrapped up in this mythic ballad is some powerful stuff about strength, manhood, what it means to be human and alive, and living life close to the quick. More importantly, it’s about the hard choices that lead a man to give all of that up, and what’s left when he does, for better or for worse. There’s an authenticity to Pancho and Lefty that radiates significance because at the end of the day it cuts into the heart of the big things, the raw, the stuff that makes us remember we’re alive. And I say this over and over again, but that’s what spirituality is really about: making sense of mortality.

And then there’s this, from an interview with Van Zandt: “I realize that I wrote it, but it’s hard to take credit for the writing, because it came from out of the blue. It came through me and it’s a real nice song, and I think I’ve finally found out what it’s about.” This song came to him from out of the blue. He put it to paper but he didn’t make it up. Don’t believe in the Mousai? This stuff comes from somewhere. Someone out there is trying to tell us something important and they are using people like Townes Van Zandt to do it.

Chew on that while you listen to a live version the song:

And then there’s the popular version by Willie Nelson and Merle haggard. Listen to it, too:

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