Category Archives: Religion and Spirituality

Our true home is the present moment


The following passage was read today at a funeral.  It resonated with me and I hope it stays with me for a long time.

From Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hahn

Our true home is the present moment.  The miracle is not to walk on water.  The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment.  Peace is all around us — in the world and in nature — and within us — in our bodies and our spirits.  Once we learn to touch this peace we will be healed and transformed.  It is not a matter of faith; it is a matter of practice.  We need only to bring our body and mind into the present moment, and we will touch what is refreshing, healing, and wondrous.

I asked the priest (who had been wondering how to take the experience of our monastery back to his home), “In your church do you have a meal?  Do you have tea and cookies (as we do)?”

“Yes”

“Please do it with mindfulness.  If you do, there will be no problem at all.  WHen mindfulness is in you, the Holy Spirit is in you, and your friends will see it, not just b what you say, but through your whole being.”

The Path

The Path

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Dual Purpose: Photo Friday & Friday Little Bliss List


In some ways, photography could be on my bliss list every week. I’ve realized recently that I am at ease, in the “flow” as psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has identified it, when I have my camera. It challenges my brain and my creativity, combines artistic and technical skills. I learn something new, see something anew, every time I pick up the camera.

I decided at the beginning of the year that I would participate in the Photo Friday challenge each week and that I would not dismiss those weekly challenges that either didn’t interest me, or that seemed too difficult. What am I going to do with that? I’ve found myself thinking several times already this year. But, since I made the commitment to myself to participate, I’ve found that I usually don’t have to think too long before I figure out something that meets the challenge.

At the same time, I’ve been participating for the last few weeks in Liv Lane’s Friday “Follow your Bliss” blog hop. While photography is a blissful pursuit for me, at first glance it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with this week’s Photo Friday Challenge, which would appear to be the opposite of bliss, to be something reflecting despair.

This week’s challenge, Inner City, was not one that seemed too difficult. Yet, it wasn’t something that I was that interested in doing. Why? Because I immediately thought of the cliché picture of urban blight: decaying, boarded buildings, broken windows, trash, poverty.

Years ago, a colleague from another city commented that there were no “bad” places in Indianapolis. I laughed. You just haven’t been in them. I replied. On another visit, with no intentions of sending him through slums, I gave him an alternate route to the airport because of road construction. On arriving in his office the next day, he called me. I believe you now. I wanted to lock my doors and get the hell out of there quickly. And I don’t think that it was really a short cut!” I didn’t find that route on the way to downtown to be that dangerous, but there were many blocks that were abandoned. That area has been revitalized in recent years, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t areas where the gritty inner city exists. It exists in every city. While I don’t want to diminish the hardships of poverty, or turn a blind eye, I just wasn’t in the mood this week to take a photograph for photography sake of what might be someone else’s bleak existence. After all, there is joy in the inner city too, sometimes in spite of hardship. Sometimes because of the joy that we have, or will, overcome such hardships.

Number 1 on my bliss list this week is remembering that this memorial is in my city, on the spot where Robert Kennedy gave a speech on the night Martin Luther King was assassinated, a speech credited with helping to prevent the riots that occurred elsewhere that night. It makes me happy that this memorial is in my city. I wish more people knew about it; I wish that fewer people would be hesitant to go because of where it is located, in the “inner” city.

Kennedy-King Memorial, Indianapolis, Indiana

 

UPDATED: Here is a link to a story about Robert Kennedy’s remarks on April 8, 1968, breaking the news of the King assassination. The link includes audio of Kennedy’s speech. The official name of the memorial is The Landmark For Peace Memorial.   Here is a link to a Wikipedia article about it.

Other things on my bliss list this week:
2. Finding the skeleton of a box turtle along the creek. It was fascinating to look at. I tried to find it again to take photos a few days later and could not locate it.

3. Realizing that the trees are starting to bud. It’s early — I think I saw some flurries earlier — but it still makes me happy.

4. Reading Jane Tomaine’s St. Benedict’s Toolbox monthly newsletter on reframing Lent with a spirit of joyfulness. Lent is one of those periods that I was taught to think of in terms of starkness, bleakness, or lamenting what miserable creatures we are. I always have problems with this. Her words reminded me not to beat myself up too much, during Lent or anytime. Thanks Jane. This message was repeated by my pastor when I went to Ash Wednesday services. I also saw a link to this website, Dark Cloth Diaries; Greg Miller takes pictures every year of people with ashes on their foreheads. Although most think that only Catholics do this, others participate in this ancient ritual as well. I think Miller captures this tradition beautifully. Scroll down on Jane’s website to the link for the feature article in this month’s newsletter to read about reframing Lent.

>Thin Places


>In Celtic tradition there is a saying that heaven and earth are three feet apart.

If the intersection is that close, why is it that we so often miss it?

The sermon at church today — the Feast of All Saints — was about thin places, Celtic Samhain or the day with daylight, and the Christian tradition of All Saints’ Day, which was surely influenced in its practice by the Celtic tradition.

Thin places are those places where earth and heaven are close, the barrier permeable.

Many years ago I was in a prayer & study group with an adult woman who had Down’s Syndrome. I remember her saying once how she had been in church and was moved by a gloriously sung anthem. I was young, not very patient, and I think it is safe to say that I was somewhat dismissive at first of her description. But then she started to talk about how she was sure that she saw ghosts or spirits flying around the choir and the alter, floating through the rafters, filling the pews, singing. She spoke about how she wondered if everyone she saw that day was alive, or if some of the physical bodies she saw were actually spirits of the dead, the saints of heaven.

I am a bit of a Doubting Thomas. This is the type of story that has me trying desperately to refrain from rolling my eyes. I don’t believe in ghosts, for chrissakes! And yet, nearly 20 years later, I still remember her story and I think that there could be something to it, even if it was only the way that she was capable of perceiving a glimpse of the eternal.

If there are thin places where there is an intersection of heaven and earth, the temporal and the eternal, perhaps we are too often not naive enough to notice. Three feet isn’t a great distance, but it might has well be an uncrossable chasm if we fail to see it.

There is a questionnaire that James Lipton uses during each episode of The Actor’s Studio, adapted from a questionnaire by Bernard Pivot. If heaven exists, what do you want God to say to you when you arrive? The first time I was asked this, I said: “Your Dad is right over there. He’s waiting for you with a whiskey sour”.

If heaven exists, I think that we can’t possibly wrap our minds around what it is like. All descriptions will fall short. If it is eternal, it is not the afterlife, but the here and now, the constant forever that we haven’t yet reached. But, I think, it is okay to think of it in terms that bring us pleasure — like meeting a loved one and sharing a good drink and a laugh. We can only be aware in this world that we might encounter a thin place, a place so near yet so far, that we can only glimpse the possibilities, and be open to what those few and far between glimpses mean.

>Quote from Lewis Thomas:


>

Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the earth, catching the breath, is that it is alive. The photographs show the dry, pounded surface of the moon in the foreground, dead as an old bone. Aloft, floating free beneath the moist, gleaming membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising earth, the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos. If you could look long enough, you would see the swirling of the great drifts of white cloud, covering and uncovering the half-hidden masses of land. If you had been looking a very long, geologic time, you would have seen the continents themselves in motion, drifting apart on their crustal plates, held aloft by the fire beneath. It has the organized, self-contained look of a live creature, full of information, marvelously skilled in handling the sun.

— Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher. 1974.

I first read Thomas in the late 70s and have read all of his books, but it has been 20 years since I last read him. If you are not familiar with Thomas, and you are interested in science writing, especially reading an excellently written literary discussion of scientific ideas, or if you are interested in observations about nature, our planet and ecology, I would recommend The Lives of a Cell. Since I no longer own this book, I think I need to put it on my wishlist so I can re-read this.

I came across this quotation in Earth Community, Earth Ethics, by Larry L. Rasmussen (1997). In a discussion with Emily earlier this week, she mentioned Rasmussen and his theological perspectives on nature and the environment and our part in it (not just an agent acting on behalf for or against nature). I immediately went to the web to find book titles by him. I’ll be posting on this book here and at the Eco Justice Challenge blog in the coming weeks. You can read Emily’s explanation of why it’s eco-justice and not environmentalism here.

>More on Thomas Paine – Paine and Religion


>No wonder Thomas Paine was controversial. And ignored by those who blindly believe that all of our “founding fathers” were supportive of a “Christian” nation.

From Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man

Throughout this work, various and numerous as the subjects are, which I have taken up and investigated, there is only a single paragraph upon religion, viz. “that every religion is good that teaches man to be good”

I have carefully avoided to enlarge upon the subject, because I am inclined to believe, that what is called the present ministry, wish to see contentions about religion kept up, to prevent the nation turning its attention to subjects of government. It is, as if they were to say, “Look that way, or any way, but this.”

But as religion is very improperly made a political machine, and the reality of it is thereby destroyed, I will conclude this work with stating in what light religion appears to me.

If we suppose a large family of children, who, on any particular day, or particular circumstance, made it a custom to present to their parents some token of their affection and gratitude, each of them would make a different offering, and most probably in a different manner. Some would pay their congratulations in themes of verse and prose, by some little devises, as their genius dedicated, or according to what they thought would please; and, perhaps, the least of all, not able to do any of those things, would ramble into the garden, or the field, and gather what it thought the prettiest flower it could find, though, perhaps, it might be but a simple weed. The parent would be more gratified by such a variety, than if the whole of them had acted on a concerted plan, and each had made exactly the same offering. This would have the cold appearance of contrivance, or the harsh one of control. But of all unwelcome things, nothing could more afflict the parent than to know, that the whole of them had afterwards gotten together by the ears, boys and girls, fighting, scratching, reviling, and abusing each other about which was the best or the worst present.

Why may we not suppose, that the great Father of all is pleased with a variety of devotion; and that the greatest offence we can act, is that by which we seek to torment and render each other miserable? For my own part, I am fully satisfied that what I am now doing, with an endeavor to conciliate mankind, to render their condition happy, to unite nations that have hitherto been enemies, and to extirpate the horrid practice of war, and break the chains of slavery and oppression is acceptable in his sight, and being the best service I can perform, I act it chearfully.

I do not believe that any two men, on what are called doctrinal points, think alike who think at all. It is only those who have not thought that appear to agree.

(Common Sense and Other Writings, p250-251)

Paine lays out a more elaborate argument against organized religion, specifically Christianity, and supportive of Deism, in The Age of Reason. I don’t agree with many of his arguments in The Age of Reason, but as an indictment of some organized religious institutions, I think this is on target. In some ways, it seems that Paine was doing 200+ yrs ago, what some vocal atheists are doing today (Dawkins, etc.). That is, attacking the organization as if it were the same as the faith. That said, he has a point about the bickering, the belief in the superiority of one faith over another, and the unwanted and ill-advised mixture of politics and organized religion. It’s as true today as it was when Paine wrote.

>Batter a paradox


>A few weeks ago, I came across a quote from John Donne, and had to look up the source. In doing so, I took the time to read through The Holy Sonnets, a collection of 17 sonnets Donne wrote in his later life, after the death of his beloved wife. Of these 17, I had previously only been familiar with two of them: Sonnet X, Death, be not proud and Sonnet XIV, Batter my heart, three-person’d God.

Holy Sonnet XIV is a poem that vexes me. And, yet, it is a poem that I love. It is fitting to have these contrary reactions to Holy Sonnet 14, given that the poem’s beauty and truthfulness lies in understanding the paradoxes in Donne’s sonnet.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The images of violence in this poem are overwhelming. The speaker asks his loving God to set aside his gentle, healing ways (“for you/As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;) replacing them with force. The speaker compares himself to a town in battle that will lose to the enemy; the speaker traitorously abandoning his threshold despite reason. (Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,/But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.) Lastly, Donne compares the speaker to an unfaithful bride, loving God, but betrothed to his enemy. (Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,) To be released from this agony, the speaker asks God to batter him, imprison him as his only salvation. And this is where the poem gets really tricky, or perhaps even icky: the speaker asks to be ravished — the Elizabethan word meaning rape — in order to be purified, to be defiled in order to be made chaste.

To my modern sensibilities, this conceit is wrong. A God of love and mercy should not be compared with acts of violence, especially rape, a violent act of power and control. To suggest it seems not just inappropriate, but sacrilegious. It is so contrary to what I hold as true, that it is jarring, shocking, even revolting.

And yet…maybe that is exactly Donne’s point. By using such brutal and shocking metaphors he makes the point that the easier way is that of the world — the earthly, and the carnal. In our imperfections we choose things of this world, rather than those of a heavenly one in the guise of freedom. I believe that the spiritual path is one to be found here, not only in some dreamy, cloud like conceit of a heavenly afterlife, but it is only found by abandoning the trappings of this world that likewise enslave us. The speaker in Donne’s poem knows which master he should serve, but begs to be bullied into servitude to the more difficult path. As Bob Dylan once penned, (in what had to be one of his worst songwriting phases), “…It may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”.

And so, I love Donne’s poem for the form, the meter, the lyrical way the words play in my head and on my ear, (go read the poem aloud, immersing yourself in its language) and even for its ultimate meaning, but the explicitly violent images distress me. My feelings a paradox, just like Donne’s poem.

I prefer the prayer/poem of Rabi’ah al-Adawiyya (an 8th century woman from Basra, Persia) which presents the same paradox. While her images are not of battery, rape and sexual torture, they are no less frightning:

Oh God, If I worship Thee for fear of Hell,
Burn me in Hell.
If I worship Thee for in hopes of Paradise,
Exclude me from it.
But, if I worship Thee for Thy own sake,
Do not keep Thy Everlasting Beauty from me.

>Breathing Space


>

My office is located in one of the most beautiful office parks (an oxymoron if ever there was one) that I’ve ever seen. Lots of green grass and trees. Two lakes at the edge; just beyond, a river. Not much traffic: the lay of the land is such that it hides the nearby expressway. Only now that the last leaves have fallen can I look out and see other buildings and an apartment complex. Nothing hints that this is located in a busy city of over a million people. It is a good thing to have beauty so readily at hand during the day. It makes it a tranquil place to pass the time, if one needs to be at work in an office building that is.

Sometimes, though, in the course of business, I need to be at my employer’s other offices. Unlike my regular work location, there aren’t any nearby trees or greenspaces to camouflage the city. Like my office, there is water nearby: the building sits adjacent to the bank of a river. And, though in a much different way, one can look out the window and see a breathtaking landscape, it isn’t the same. When I sit in the ‘guest’ office, I look at a marvel of an urban cityscape. I have always looked in awe at the skylines of the great American cities — Chicago, San Francisco, and the daddy of the them all: New York. But, I can’t look out that window, gazing across the river at what is there without seeing what isn’t there. You see, the river is the Hudson, and the office is directly across from lower Manhattan.

I’ve been to New York a few times since 9/11 and have stood in silence at the WTC site, trying to re-imagine the space as it had been. I last saw the towers about a month before the attacks, while staring out the window at Newark International, waiting to catch a plane. On 9/10, I saw a photo taken of my son a few months earlier, sitting in the same airport, the towers in the distance rising above the planes on the tarmac and the river and the other buildings. He is looking the other way, the photo’s background one that should have remained inconsequential, just a part of the steel and glass skyline, not something that was a symbol of anything, not something that would, beginning the next day, forever dominate that snapshot. They were just buildings, impersonal concrete, no thought given to the commerce that occurred there, the people who worked and would die there. It wasn’t until this fall, five years later, that I had looked at the Manhattan skyline from the New Jersey shore. My mind’s eye kept trying to fill in where the towers had stood.

Shortly after that last trip to NJ, I was browsing at the library at church. Perhaps I unconsciously thought about the scenery that I had looked at for the preceding week as I looked for something to read. Maybe that is why I picked up Rowan Williams slim volume Writing in the Dust: After 9/11.

Rowan Williams, now the Archbishop of Cantebury, was two blocks away from WTC attending a meeting when the planes hit. This book, written in the weeks immediately after the attacks, is his reflection on the meaning of that day and what he suggests should have been the appropriate response to the events of 9/11. The title, as Williams writes in the epilogue, refers not only to the dense dust he was surrounded by after the buildings collapsed, but also to the temporary nature of his reflections. “This isn’t a theology or a programme for action”, Williams writes, “but one person’s attempt to find words for the grief and shock and loss of one moment. …[I] hope only that they may help to take forward someone else’s mourning. “.

What strikes me though, having read the book twice through in one sitting, is that these words should not be temporary; or at least, they are not ready for dissolution yet. They are as relevant today, while we are embroiled in the war in Iraq with no easy or clear-cut way out of the mess we have made, as it was in the days immediately following the terrorist attacks on WTC and the Pentagon.

Williams first writes of the nightmare of being in the area of the attacks, of escaping only to feel the rumble of the second tower collapsing, and breathing in the thick debris-filled air. He writes of a void, “the emptiness and anaesthesia”, in the midst of terror and death, but how we shouldn’t be eager to fill that void too quickly, with easy answers. He writes of the perversion that would make someone do such an incomprehensible act, how it couldn’t be in the name of religion despite the terrorists’ claims. He warns of what he calls the “great lie of religion: the god who fits our agenda”. He contrasts the truly heroic actions of the responders, working for the secular goal of community health and safety, with the wrongly self-proclaimed heroism of the religious zealots who hijacked the planes. And, in his first chapter, Williams calls for a ‘breathing space’ to consider what happened and how we should respond.

It is this idea of a breathing space that Williams returns to throughout his reflection, encouraging a breathing space to understand what happened and to know an appropriate response to and punishment for such unspeakable violence. We need breathing space to know how to move forward and prevent such angry violence from happening again. We need breathing space to speak of, and maybe to redefine, our belief in God. That is what he wrote at the end of 2001; I don’t know if he was right, but I do believe that if our country had done what Williams suggested, we might not be in the current situation in Iraq.

At the time Williams was writing this, America had just begun the campaign in Afghanistan. Williams writes of the decision to go to war, questioning whether it was an act of ‘just war’:

A good deal of the moral capital accumulated during the first days and weeks has been squandered. From a situation where Muslim nations, even Iran, expressed shock and sympathy, we have come to a point where the shapelessness of the campaign leads Muslims to ask whether there is any agenda other than the humiliation of an Islamic population. We may think this an outrageously wrong perception, but it becomes — or should become — a rather urgent factor in calculating how to restore a sense of lawfulness that would sustain some coherent action to punish and to secure a future that will be more settled and just for everyone.

But terrorism is not a place, not even a person or a group of persons; it is a form of behaviour. ‘War’ against terrorism is as much a metaphor as war against drug abuse. It can only mean a sustained policy of making such behaviour less attractive or tolerable. As we’ve been reminded often, this is a long job; but there is a difference between saying this, which is unquestionably true, and suggesting that there is a case for an open-ended military campaign. (p. 37).

He continues:

We could ask whether the further destabilising of a massively resentful Muslim world and the intensifying of the problems of homelessness and hunger in an already devastated country were really unavoidable. We could refuse to be victims, striking back without imagination.
The hardest thing in the world is to know how to act so as to make the difference that can be made; to know how and why that differs from the act that only releases or expresses the basic impotence of resentment. (p46-47).

By attacking a country that was not the attacker, Williams reasons, we have only deepened the gulf of misunderstanding between the West and the Arab world:

Every transaction in the developed economies of the West can be interpreted as an act of aggression against the economic losers in the worldwide game. However much we protest that this is a caricature, this is how it is experienced. And we have to begin to understand how such a perception is part of the price we pay for the benefits of globalisation. (p. 55)

So, there is a particularly difficult challenge here, to do with making terms with our vulnerability and learning how to live with it in a way that isn’t simple denial, panic, the reinforcement of defenses.( p 57).

The most important point, though, in Williams brief book (at approx 70 pages, it’s really a long essay), is that it is important to understand the misuse of symbols. Symbols, Williams writes, can be manipulated, and abused to the point where it is the symbol one supports, rather than the reality behind it. Just as the twin towers became, for al-Qaida, a twisted symbol of Western greed and gluttony, the towers or the terrorists can be a symbol of our fear, and hatred of others we do not understand, veiled behind the symbol of an outrageous act.

‘Using other people to think with’; that is, using them as symbols for points on your map, values in your scheme of things. When you get used to imposing meanings in this way, you silence the stranger’s account of who they are; and that can mean both metaphorical and literal death. Death as the undermining of a culture, language, or faith, and, at the extreme, the death of tyranny and genocide. …The collective imagination needs the outsider to give itself definition — which commonly means that it needs somewhere to project its own fears and tensions.

Living realities are turned in to symbols, and the symbolic values are used to impression the reality. At its extreme pitch, people simple relate to the symbols. It is too hard to look past them, to look into the complex humanity of a real other. (p. 64-65).

It’s tough to think of the WTC towers as a bad symbol, but that isn’t what Williams was suggesting, and I don’t mean it either. Rather, Williams means that anything, when reduced to a symbol can be negative, representing only the distillation of our own misinformed interpretation. It’s like the flag: it can be a symbol of patriotism, of loyalty to one’s country. But, it can also represent the bullheaded idea of ‘my country as I see it, my country right or wrong, my country as my agenda’. Here is where we get caught in symbols and they begin to define us, rather than the other way around.

So, is a bad thing that I look at the skyline of Lower Manhattan and re-image the outline of the towers? No…as long as I hold that symbol as something to make me think about what happened, and not just how I might have reacted to it initially. It is the moral and spiritual thing to do; the right thing. To quote Williams again:

What use is faith to us if it is only a transcription into mythological jargon of the mechanisms of that inhuman grief that grasps its own suffering to itself as a ground of justification and encloses the suffering of others in interpretations that hold it at a safe distance?

And Christian faith? Can we think about our focal symbol, the cross of Jesus, and try to rescue it from its frequent fate as the banner of our own wounded righteousness? (p 72-73).

We are beyond taking a ‘breathing space’ now with the war. If we had in the initial days, or even sooner, the conditions in Iraq may not have deteriorated to the state they are in now. A louder voice would have been crying out sooner regarding the steps taken to put ourselves in the middle of a war in the Middle East. But are we not all to blame for not listening to those who were the loud voices, not to blame for not hearing them, for not being reflective instead of reflexive?

We need to evaluate all symbols and sloganeering that we encounter. What is really meant by a War on Terror? What is meant by an ‘axis of evil’? How can we move beyond stereotypes, to foster true understanding with others elsewhere in the world? While that might not answer the question of how we pull our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, it might help us post-deployment with finding the path forward.

>Muriel Spark: The Only Problem


>To take on the book of Job is a monumental task. To refute the book of Job — or at least to challenge some of the conventional thinking regarding the work, even suggesting that it shouldn’t be part of the Bible — is an equally daunting task. Yet, Muriel Spark, in The Only Problem does just that.

The Only Problem is a short novel (about 130 pages) about Harvey, a wealthy, self-proclaimed student (as opposed to ‘scholar’) who is writing a treatise on Job. He has abandoned his wife, Effie, about a year before the narrative begins, and can’t be persuaded by either his brother-in-law Edward or sister-in-law Ruth to provide a cash settlement in a divorce that both he & his wife want. Ruth travels to France with Effie’s illegitimate child Clara to convince Harvey to do the moral thing, but, instead, separates from Edward and becomes Harvey’s lover. Soon, all are caught up in events beyond their control when Effie joins a terrorist group that incites violence throughout the region where Harvey & Ruth are living. Harvey can’t reconcile the idea of the wife he used to love with the terrorist she has become; nor can he admit that while he doesn’t want to live with Effie, he loves her and while he doesn’t love Ruth, he wants to live with her.

Ruth flees the police surveillance and media-frenzy and returns to live with Clara’s father. Retreating from the scholarly, intellectual discussions common in her life with Harvey, Ruth adapts to the environment of her new lover, Ernie, even taking on his distinctive lower-class accent. Without Ruth or Effie, Harvey’s thoughts about Job become more obsessive, his perception of being tortured more pronounced. In the end, Ruth, about to give birth to Harvey’s child, moves back to France to raise Clara and the new child with Harvey. A year after the narrative begins, Edward comes to visit them, Harvey has finished his work on Job, a sense of harmony in the lives of all seemingly has been restored. With his writing on Job completed and his acceptance of Effie’s political actions having resulted in her death, he states he will live a 140 years with his 3 daughters — just like Job.

In the opening pages, Edward has a theory that “people have an effect on the natural greenery around them regardless of whether they lay hands on it or not; some people, he would remark, induce fertility in their environment, and some the desert, simply by psychic force” (p 323-24). Like the comforters in Job, Edward believes that one’s actions affect one’s fate. Harvey, on the other hand, struggles with the ‘only’ problem — how can a loving omnipotent God also be the author of suffering? Why would such a Creator allow his faithful followers to suffer through no fault of their own? It is only Job’s faith that redeems him, despite the beliefs of the comforters and Job’s wife, that he should turn his back on the god who has abandoned him. This is the antithesis of Edward’s view: individuals don’t make their environment. As much as we seek to control it, it is out of our control.

Harvey does not ‘suffer’ in the same way that Job suffers, but he is a ‘tortured soul’. Harvey is very wealthy, yet chooses to live with only basic comforts. While he sees injustice in the world, he doesn’t take action to prevent it. He regrets losing his wife, yet he is the one who walked away — literally, on the autobahn — from his marriage. He doesn’t want people to be around him, yet cannot live completely as a hermit. He seeks to control others — telling Edward to cut his hair; telling a maid that it is her fault that he will not bring his guest to the lunch she has prepared; wanting to be alone, but unable to tell Nathan, an unexpected guest and unknown conspirator of Effie’s, to leave. Yet, the more Harvey seeks to control, the more the situation with Effie — a situation he has no power to control at all – gets out of hand. The fallout from Effie’s terrorist activities take over his life with everything from property searches, suspicions of wiretapping, constant police surveillance, lengthy interrogations, and a treatment by the media that makes him look more villainous than his terrorist-wife.

And, yet, Harvey could have controlled some of it, or at least influenced it’s effect, if he had taken different actions. If he had simply granted his wife a divorce, the media and police attention would have been different. If he wasn’t as self-centered as he is, he might have seen the harm he caused Effie and Ruth. He would have cared less about trivial things like the length of Edward’s hair, and would have cared more about inadvertently hurting Anne-Marie’s feelings by destroying a bouquet that was meant to cheer him up. If he had talked about Effie and distanced himself from her in a press conference, he wouldn’t have been portrayed as he was because he chose to talk about his scholarly work on the book of Job instead of terrorism. As a result, he not only harms himself, but Ruth and Clara as well.

It is difficult for the reader to see Harvey as suffering like Job. He does suffer, but not nearly as much as he thinks he does. But, maybe that is the point — one’s sufferings are one’s own. They may not be mythic like Job’s, but one’s miseries are one’s own to endure. And that is where faith comes in.

Spark, a convert to Catholicism, does not hit the reader over the head with her thoughts on Job and religion. Harvey struggles to engage most people he meets in discussion about Job. Mostly, this fails. As Spark often does in her work, she includes in the narrative a clever bit, so brief it almost could be missed, that the French do not understand who Job is. “It was difficult to get across to them what the Book of Job was. Harvey’s French wasn’t at fault, it was their knowledge of the bible of which, like most good Catholics, they had scant knowledge” (p 359). Elsewhere, there is a discussion regarding the correct translation of the Bible to understand whether Job’s wife admonished him to ‘bless’ or to ‘curse’ God. What Spark subtly does by including this, is to set up the difference between faith and reason. Harvey tries to figure out the ‘only’ problem by reason. Others don’t understand because of their faith, a belief in things not seen. One can choose to believe that one’s actions predetermine or influence one’s fate. Or, one can choose to believe that, despite a loving God and one’s faith in him, bad things can happen. The solution to the ‘only’ problem may be to not use Job as a moral yardstick. Rather, be ignorant of Job (or, at least ignore him), of the ‘only’ problem. Instead,choose to do what is right and moral, and choose to be content with it. As Harvey states at the end, he will live 140 years, like Job. He stated earlier that Job probably continued to suffer. Harvey will too, despite the sense of harmony in the final chapter.

>Neo-Con Bashing, or Are We at Peril of Losing Our Democratic Soul?


>Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, Jimmy Carter, 2005.

Former President Jimmy Carter’s latest book presents the argument that the effect of the current ‘conservative’ movement in American politics undermines the values upon which America was founded and is taking the United States on a radical departure from core democratic values. Carter states up front that political values cannot be separated from one’s moral belief system. He is unapologetic about his Christian beliefs defining him; these beliefs, he explains, are the foundation of his political views. His traditional Christian view — a perspective he argues is mainstream — is very different from the minority Fundamentalist view that dangerously dominates today’s political landscape. Rather than ‘conservative’, Carter posits, it is a radical attack on the beliefs the Founding Fathers presented in the guise of traditional values and righteousness.

In a series of essays Carter addresses the often volatile and polarizing political issues of our time: abortion, equality regardless of gender, race or sexual preference, separation of Church and State, terrorism, human rights, nuclear proliferation and the environment. In each essay he presents a traditional Democratic stance and describes how his personal Christian values support that position. Intertwined with summarizations of the religious values that constitute his moral center is discussion of relevant events from Carter’s presidency and his humanitarian work at the Carter Center during his post-presidential years. After establishing his framework for each issue, he presents the actions and decisions of the Fundamentalists and Neo-Cons that are counter to this position. Rather than present the opposites as Republican or Democrat, he argues that his position is ‘traditional’ while the current Republican party has moved to a radical Fundamentalist position that is contrary to mainstream Judeo-Christian beliefs. The difference between the two positions is clear.

While Carter at times writes in detail about the issues, presenting both facts and antidotes to support his argument, the book falls short of making its point fully. Too much attention is paid to events Carter has been personally involved with and how those efforts are at odds with political decisions being made today. While the contrast is evident, Carter’s book fails to present the long view. The effect of this is that the book feels like merely an attack on the policies of the Bush administration and the efforts of the Southern Baptist Convention, rather than an argument that the underpinnings of American democracy are at stake. The reader can’t help but understand that this was Carter’s goal, but he doesn’t provide enough insight or historical perspective to convince a “non-believer” — or maybe even a centrist who doesn’t see all issues as Red State vs Blue State — of the errors of the ways of the Neo-Cons. In an effort to make the book a readable, accessible work, Carter is often too superficial and thus seems only to present the liberal Sky Is Falling line that a few misguided ideologues are the source of the imminent downfall of America.

Carter’s position is not flawed; it simply doesn’t go far enough to pinpoint how our values are ‘endangered’ and that the consequences of current political decisions are not something that might be easily reversed by the next political wind to take hold in Washington.