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Posts Tagged ‘Death’

My kids spent all weekend playing with a bunch of 2x8s and 4x4s that I bought to build raised garden beds; they built castles, slides, ramps, racetracks, forts, &c, and it was glorious. They got dirty, they got banged up but nothing serious, and they had a great time. And the lumber was basically inestructible anyway.

But at one point, my daughter dragged two of the boards out, made a cross out of them, laid down, and announced that she was Jesus. Then, she decided that she was not actually Jesus, but Jesus’s older sister, who does not die. Only Jesus dies.

Hazel Christ

You seriously just can’t make this stuff up.

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Dancing to death

Nobody told her to draw this. Kids can be really creepy sometimes.

De ta maison disposeras
Comme de ton bien transitoire,
Car là ou mort reposeras,
Seront les chariotz de ta gloire.

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I finished Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter quite quickly (it’s a pretty short novel, after all) and I’m still sort of mentally unpacking it. In retrospect, I don’t thin there’s as much to warrant a comparison with Agee as I had assumed. They’re both Southern novels with narratives around a dead person, but honestly that’s about it. Oh, and they both won Pulitzers. And neither of them has much in common with As I Lay Dying, either (although As I Lay Dying and A Death In The Family are interesting because of the ways they approach the death of a parent through the eyes of a child as a kind of secondary or tertiary POV). But like I said, I’m still chewing on it.

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I read Carson McCullers’s The Heart is A Lonely Hunter last month, but it’s taken me some time to sit on it and stew over it. It’s not an obvious book. I’m not going to summarize it here.

The imbalanced relationships between the main characters (Singer and Antonapoulos and each of Mick, Jake Blount, Biff Brannon and Doctor Copeland and Singer) are the heart of the narrative. The close friendship between Singer and Antonapoulos is demonstrated from page one, but are they really close friends? Is Antonapoulos even capable of the kind of relationship that Singer projects onto them (with an actual projector even!), or is Singer really just doing to Antonapoulos what the others do to Singer? Singer imagines a deep and fulfilling relationship with Antonapoulos that is in fact not really mutual at all: the handicapped Antonapoulos is as incapable of understanding what Singer says to him as the deaf Singer is incapable of truly understanding what any of the others say in turn to Singer. Nevertheless, just as all four fiercely believe and cling to the notion that they have a unique and powerful connection with Singer, Singer believes his only real friend is Antonapoulos.

Thus we are faced with the terrifying true nature of relationship and mutuality, the extent to which we are inevitably and fully alienated by our inability to really know what the Other is thinking, and we are shown the resulting despair. Nobody’s ending is happy. Everyone dies alone.

There are a lot of other things going on in the novel–definitely a lot sexuality and innocence and hate and race and class and Marxism, but all of it is primarily explored through this fundamental lens of alienation, the loneliness that results from our fundamental inability to know or be known by other human beings.

Hand in hand with this theme of loneliness and alienation is a related theme, and the two are tied together in the novel’s title. Each of McCullers’s main characters is yearning for something, and although they try to express this yearning (futilely!) through connection and relationship, relationship is the impossible means to the impossible end, not the end itself.

Mick’s quest for music, to really get music, to capture whatever-it-is that music makes her feel when she hears it, is the prime example. It’s an obsession, really: Mick hears a symphony and she is certain that somewhere in Music is that Thing that will fill the hole in herself. Blount and Doctor Copeland are both looking for it in the Marxist dialectic (although race creates an inseparable gulf between the two characters that should be able to connect), and Biff, though he doesn’t consciously know it, is looking for it in gender and sexuality, but for each of them is is an aesthetic hunger. A notion that the truly beautiful thing will fulfill them. And with each of them, what they are looking for is elusive–it’s not clear if they could theoretically find what they are looking for, but they certainly are not able to find it through their (non-)relationships with Singer. And, unable to find it, each of them flails around their respecitve existences, trying to find substitutes in sex, alcohol, hate and even death.

In the end, it’s a sad book, but it’s a beautifully sad book.

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Over on Tim’s blog, a self-described Pentecostal showed up in an old comment thread, and (as is my habit) I asked him if he handles snakes. This was his response:

Uh . . . no. No Pentecostal did that until George W. Hensley started the practice in 1912, 12 years after Pentecostalism began. He was still a rather new convert and was praying in a mountain reading a passage in Mark when he received some weird revelation. Pentecostal denominations quickly labeled serpent handling as fanaticism and it has only ever been a feature of some churches in Appalachia. It is not a characteristic of Pentecostalism, neither now or in the past.

Why do you ask?

All I know about it is what I’ve read (having never encountered a serpent handler before). They believe, according to their interpretation of Mark 16:17-18 that serpent handling and drinking poison (some serpent handlers may also consume strychnine) are commanded in Scripture.

These activities will only take place when participants perceive the direct intervention of God. In other words, they wont do it unless “the anointing” is present. Deaths are explained by these people in the following ways: 1) the anointing was not present, 2) such deaths prove to outsiders that the snakes are poisonous and have not been defanged, 3) God wills their death.

I do hope you realize that the vast majority of Pentecostals are not serpent handlers. I would point out that people who assume that will be looked on as terribly ignorant and offensive by Pentecostals.

Now, I realize that the historical and organizational relationship between Appalachian snake-handlers and mainstream American Pentecostals is not even remotely similar to the relationship between fundamentalist polygamist Mormons and the mainstream Mormon Church, but Shane’s response may as well have been cut-and-pasted and searched-and-replaced from a mainstream Mormon’s reaction to being confronted about polygamy.

The only difference is that, as a bonus, Shane’s response also just drips with prejudice and snobbery towards Appalachian people.

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Paganism is about honoring the fundamental aspects of authentic human experience. It’s about looking at the parts of existence that are terrifying and overwhelming and trying to figure out what they mean: things like birth, death, sex, war, love, art, and even the powerful, capricious, and unpredictable forces of the natural world. The gods give rise to these essential facets of human experience (and/or are themselves born from them), and to deny one or more of the gods because there is no place in your life or your worldview or your schema for the things they represent is to deny a fundamental part of who you are.

War is a part of being human. It may be ugly, brutal, and horrifying, but it is omnipresent. To be truly human is to know war. To reject Ares because you reject war is to reject a part of what it means to be you. And to reject Ares because you reject war means also rejecting warlike aspects of many of the other gods as well: Athena, Aphrodite, Zeus, Dionyus just off the top of my head.

Who would Ares be without war? A god of mental conflict? A god of physical exertion? We already have those gods. Ares is a god of a lot of things, and there are a lot of lenses through which to view Ares, but he is primarily a god of war. Trying to edit the war out of Ares is like trying to edit the sex out of Aphrodite. I don’t know what you’re left with, but it isn’t the real deal. That kind of selective approach to the gods is apparently pretty popular among neopagans, but I honestly don’t think it’s a road that is going to take you anywhere worth being.

Think about it: the soldier knows both war and peace, but the pacifist tries to know only peace. The pacifist is rejecting an entire part of human existence because it does not suit him or her. Whether that’s a thing worth doing, or a thing we should be doing, is not actually the issue. But I would maintain that trying to edit human existence to remove the bits we don’t like is just not what any kind of real paganism is about. Christianity does that, with its vision of a new heaven and a new earth. Not paganism.

I also don’t think, with regards to Ares, that it’s a question of whether violence is necessary or justified, but merely whether it is an essential facet of human existence. Violence IS. War IS. We can play at quasi-Christianity if we want and imagine a utopia where violence no longer exists, but even in Christianity that requires massive divine intervention. The overwhelming, unanimous weight of human history tells us in no uncertain terms and with no exceptions that war and violence are fundamentally a part of the human condition.

Whether or not this reality is morally acceptable is a question that is, in my opinion, not even on paganism’s radar. Violence is a part of human reality, and paganism is about how we honor and respond to human reality. The ethics of paganism ask not whether a violent society is morally acceptable, but instead ask “given that violence and war exist as a part of the human condition, how do you respond virtuously?”

Look to the epics, the philosophers, and the myths. Look to the maxims. Tell me what the answer is. The world is violent–we honor that when we honor Ares. The question is how you respond with virtue when presented with that violence, whether you’re a kid in the hall at school getting beaten up by bullies, a young man who just got his draft notice, or a parent whose family is threatened.

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Zeus is our Heavenly Father, but let’s face it: most of us have shitty relationships with our fathers, and that can carry over into our relationships with our Heavenly Father.

It’s alright though, ’cause we’ve got Ares.

Ares is the older brother who tells you all about girls and the real deal about sex, who turns you on to heavy metal and cars and gives you your first beer and your first cigarette.  But he expects you to keep your cool, to be tough, to roll with the punches and not to be a mama’s boy.

Ares is the upperclassman you respect and admire, who lets you be one of the guys, who shows you how to tie a tie and button your cuffs, who makes you feel accepted and doesn’t treat you like a dumb kid. But he expects you to do the right thing, to study hard, to treat girls well, and to show respect and earn the respect of everyone around you.

Ares is the uncle who takes you camping and shows you how to build a fire, to hunt and fish, to shoot a rifle and take care of yourself.  But he expects you to do hard things, to not complain or whine, to learn fast, to try hard and to tough it out when things get shitty.

Ares is the team captain who gives his all, who holds the team together and who understands exactly what you’re going through because he is right in the middle of it too.  But he expects you to train hard, to play hard, to keep your head in the game, to take care of your teammates, and to win.  

Ares is the squad leader who laughs with you, drinks with you, teaches you to be a warrior, and leads you into battle.  But he expects you to fight hard, to have integrity, to have courage and a good attitude, to take care of your battle buddies, and to kill every last one of the enemy motherfuckers.   He does his damnedest to make sure you make it back home, but he makes damn sure you are never forgotten when you don’t.

Just because you’re born with a penis doesn’t mean you know how to be a man. Don’t worry; Ares will show you.

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Gods damn this is such a good song.

I’ve been listening to a lot of early rock and rockabilly for the last couple of days. Learning to play the guitar has made subtle shifts in the music I am interested in. Also, I got a new haircut, grew my sideburns back out, and started using pomade. I’m not going to lie; it looks sharp. Also, my beautiful and sexy wife bought me a beautiful and sexy electric guitar this weekend: an Epiphone Les Paul Special II in classic cherry sunburst. It sounds amazing and I think I love it more than I love anything but my wife and kids (sorry brother).

My point is, I remembered this song last night and went and looked it up and gods damn this is such a good song. There is nothing about it that I do not love. There is no reason to not listen to it over and over again.

Rest in peace, Roy.

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My top five favorite books of all time, in alphabetical order by author:

1. Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes: A dark carnival comes to a fictionalized Waukegan in a timeless October, bringing nightmares. It is a story about childhood and growing up, fathers and sons, friendship, and the good and evil in every one of us.

2. William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!: Unimaginably rich and mythic, a magnum opus about the South, chronicling Thomas Sutpen’s obsessive but doomed struggle to found–“tore violently a plantation”–an aristocratic dynasty in Mississippi before, during and after the Civil War, and about the destruction brought down on his bloodline and the land they inhabit as judgment that ripples through place and generations as a result. In the end, it is relentlessly a book about the dark places we should not go but that we ultimately cannot resist.

3. C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: Lewis’s re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche is the most true book about God that I have ever read. It is the story of an ugly queen whose beautiful sister is taken from her by a god, and who unintentionally enacts her revenge on everyone around her by taking just as ruthlessly, until at last she is finally forced to come to terms with the true nature of herself and the Divine.

4. Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove: An epic, episodic novel about a pair of grizzled ex-Texas Rangers and the men and boys they lead on a cattle drive from Texas to Montana, for no reason at all, more or less, other than to be the first to be there. It is a powerful and poignant story about manhood, friendship, obligation, women, cattle and death. Uva uvam vivendo varia fit.

5. Jack Schaefer, Shane: A short but intense novel from a young boy’s perspective about a dark gunfighter who drifts into a Wyoming range war between farmers and an unscrupulous cattle baron. Shane is a cracking, fast-paced novel about courage, love, commitment, manhood and true strength.

6. T. H. White, The Once And Future King: A lush and quirky but immensely powerful retelling of the entire Arthurian legend. In a sense, there is nothing that this book is not about. If I had to give a boy only one book to live their life after, it would not be the Bible. It would be this book.

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Mormons have no shortage of sexual sins they can commit: pornography, masturbation, premarital sex, extramarital sex, unwholesome thoughts, and even depending on who you ask, possibly oral sex, anal sex, and anything else but vaginal intercourse, even between a married couple.  If you’re not married, anything sexual at all is a sin.  Making out too heavily might even be a sexual sin.  The justification for all of these proscriptions is that in the Mormon worldview, sex is a critically important gift given by Heavenly Father to serve the goals of cementing family relationships and providing bodies for Heavenly Father’s spirit children.  As it is so intimately connected with bringing about Heavenly Father’s work and glory, it is treated with the utmost seriousness, and for Mormonism that usually means “a lot of rules.”  Mormonism isn’t anti-sex the way some segments of Christianity have traditionally been, since Mormonism does not hod that the body is evil but a necessary component in Heavenly Father’s plan.  Nevertheless, sex in Mormonism is pretty tightly straitjacketed.

Part of the process of leaving Mormonism for me was figuring out what my values are, and what behaviors I think are okay and what are not, independently of Mormon teachings.  I was lucky in that I always had a strong internal sense of moral reasoning: my personal values were informed by my Mormonism, but they were never dependent upon my Mormonism.  They were sufficiently independent that, with Mormonism gone, my core values essentially remained strong and intact.

What went out the window, however, were all of the rules.  As a non-Mormon, I have absolutely no reason to follow a bunch of restrictive and often arbitrary commandments.

In terms of sex, leaving Mormonism (retaining my principles but feeling free to discard the rules) had very little immediate practical impact.  One of the values I hold most highly is marital fidelity, and I am married to a beautiful and sexy woman.  Most of Mormonism’s sexual rules either did not apply to me as a married person (like “no premarital sex”), I paid little enough attention to anyway (like old guidance from Church leadership about not having oral sex), or were redundant as rules since I was going to behave consistently with them anyway because of my own core values (“no extramarital sex”).  In practical terms, our sex life got a little bit better when we left Mormonism because we could let go of some guilt and repression that had crowded our sexual psyches on the fringes, but for the most part our sex life was already pretty good.

But what applies directly to me is not the only thing worth considering.  First, morality in general is a topic that interests me and that I have visited before on a number of occasions as a part of the process of figuring out my values, where they come from, what they mean, how they interact with each other, and so on.  So the question is theoretically interesting.  Second, on a practical level, I know a fair number of postmormons whose value systems did not survive Mormonism as intact as mine did. In general, they were better Mormons than I was, and as such they had completely internalized Mormon values as their values.  As a result, having jettisoned the Mormonism, their whole house of cards has come crumbling down, and they have been left picking up the pieces and trying to figure out what their values and morals really are, from square one.  Because I am in a position to provide guidance and help to people close to me, it is more than worth thinking the issues through so that I can provide meaningful insight.  Third, the question comes up periodically around the post-Mormon blog-o-sphere, so I feel like it’s worth addressing.  Finally, and most importantly, I have kids.  Two of them! They’re five years old and three years old right now, and they’re growing up fast.  Since leaving Mormonism, the question of what do I teach my kids has weighed heavily on me, especially regarding sex.  I know what my values are, and my position as a happily married guy means I don’t have to stretch my values very far to figure out what to do in almost any situation in which I am reasonably going to find myself.  But my kids won’t necessarily have that luxury.  For that reason alone I wanted to figure out what the deal really is about sexuality, without a handy dogma to give me simple and convenient (if often harmful and self-destructive) answers.

The realization just came to me one day–and this is going to be kind of anticlimactic now because I’ve got all this buildup for what is going to be disappointingly little payoff–that there is no reason for there to be special moral rules for sex at all.  Period.  Sexual ethics are not a special case for ethics.  The usual rules apply.  And it is that simple.

What do I mean about the usual rules?  Basic human ethics and basic human decency.  Don’t hurt people.  Don’t betray people.  Don’t demean, degrade, or belittle people.  Treat people with respect.  Love thy neighbor as thyself. Basic, more-or-less universal moral principles found in almost every religion or ethical system, when applied to sex, produce the correct results.  Cheating on my wife is not morally reprehensible because it violates the special rule of “don’t cheat on your wife” or “confine all sexual behavior to the marriage-bed,” but because it is a personal betrayal of an intimate relationship, a violation of serious promises.  It is wrong because it hurts my wife.  There doesn’t need to be a special rule, because hurting my wife is already wrong (credit is admittedly due here to C. S. Lewis who kind of talks about this a bit in Mere Christianity).  Degrading myself sexually is bad for the same reasons as degrading myself any other way.  There doesn’t need to be a special rule.

The only special consideration with sex–and it is a serious one–is that we need to be cognizant of the fact that, for whatever reason, sex is an area in which human beings are particularly vulnerable, and so it is a moral setting that invites particular care.  Sexual betrayal hurts a lot more than garden-variety betrayal.  Sexual self-degradation leaves us feeling more degraded than garden-variety self-degradation, and so on.  But the increased potential for serious injury does not mean we need a whole new set of specific rules to deal with morality in a sexual context.  It just means we need to be extra-serious about following the moral principles we already have.

So the question is not “is premarital sex acceptable?” because that would be a special rule for sex and it would be nonsense.  The question is “is it okay to hurt myself and others?”  And the answer is no.  Having sex with your girlfriend, fiancee, or even a casual encounter may be perfectly okay–wonderful and good even–assuming that you are not carelessly hurting yourself or the other person (people?).  Even extramarital sex might be just fine if the context is completely consensual (though I would advise being pretty fucking careful about it, because people could very well think they’re going to be okay with something that turns out to be an emotional disaster, and generally the potential for pain is so high and the possibility that your spouse is saying yes but meaning no is so significant that you probably just should not go there).  Since sex is not a special case, the question of moral appropriateness simply does not pertain to the sexual act itself, but to the interpersonal relationships that contextualize the act.  Its not the deed you do that is right or wrong, but the way it affects yourself and other people, and that is realistically always going to be a case-by-case determination.

That said, it would not be unreasonable for a person to set sexual boundaries that are a bit far back away from the edge of the cliff of pain, because the vulnerability and the potential for catastrophic injury is so high.  Nevertheless we need to keep in mind that the boundaries you set do not in and of themselves have moral significance.  It’s not a sin to cross the safety-zone boundaries you might have reasonably set for yourself; it’s a sin to hurt people.  You’re staying on the safe side so as not to run risks, but that’s pragmatic, not moral.

Why is sex an area where we are s vulnerable and so easily hurt?  I personally think it is because sex lies at the very core of the bundle of experiences that make us truly human.  Sex is a part of the universal human experience, and it is intimately bound up with things like birth, death, and family.  These constants transcend the particulars of society and culture and lie at the heart of who we are as human beings.  When we are close to birth, close to death, or expressing our sexuality, we are in touch with soemthing mystical and primal, and we are the closest to who we really are that we ever get.  These are intensely powerful places, and they are also places where we are intensely vulnerable.  Figuring out what these things mean and what to do about them is what religion and spirituality are really about, because these things are what we are really about.  This is the essential heart of human existence, and as such it is delicate and should be treated with the utmost care.  Even so, our basic, universal moral principles should be sufficiently applicable that there is no need for specialized rules.

The moralists among us may not like the sound of the moral rule I am proposing we fall back on when it comes to sex, which basically boils down to “hurting people is wrong,” and the flip side, “if it does not hurt people, it isn’t wrong.”  But honestly, that’s a knee-jerk reaction, because as a moral rule it is simply true.  Actions have consequences, and if we act in a way that hurts other people, we need a pretty damn good justification for it or we are in the wrong.  That necessarily means that if our actions do not have negative consequences for other people or ourselves, then our actions are morally permissible–even morally laudable.  This is not unrestrained permissiveness.  It does mean a lot of freedom and individual accountability, but that’s just a reality of being a morally mature human being.

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