Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Fluid Edge


When I was a child, my parents and teachers taught me about personal boundaries – which I still think of in terms of my “swimsuit area.” Partly because it’s on a trip to the pool that we learn about these boundaries. We change clothes in a room with naked people, probably with one of our parents (who we see naked and never forget it) and we learn not to stare and point at others in their un-tanned vulnerability. Including that one really old dude in every changing room who really wants to be seen. Ladies, I honestly don’t know if there’s any equivalent, and I don’t want to know. In modern times we see notices saying not to pretend to talk on your cell-phone while taking sneaky pictures in the locker-room (wow, I’m glad I grew up in the eighties! Terrifying). Then we’re at the pool or beach and everyone is in this strange state, between dressed and undressed. You’re sort-of in clothes as you step up, but then as you wade or lower yourself in, there’s that moment of yeep! When the water does its, I dunno, the water-version of a handshake greeting and you know the water does not respect your boundaries, the water has known your nakedness.

As children going for a swim, we were told to wait forty minutes after eating before getting in, so that lunch will stay inside our bodies. And we sometimes see clever signs saying something like “Our Ool doesn’t have any P in it.” But kids pee in the pool anyway – for children it’s a chance to experiment with prohibitions… Will something happen? Will the Olice show up? Nope. Except the person next to you might ask if the water got warmer. And… Not to get disgusting here, but when we actually think about it, we know that all the water in the pool (and the ocean) is urine, every drop has been drank and sprayed by whales and jellyfish, elephants, orangutans, cats and dogs and squirrels and people. All of the world’s water has been urine at some point, and even his imperial majesty the Pope can’t bless it away. Babies get baptized, and that water in the baptismal font has passed through bodies – maybe Jesus, maybe Muhammad, Mother Teresa, Sitting Bull, maybe Madonna. And a tyrannosaurus rex. Any drop of water, or look at a single snowflake, think about where it’s been, it’ll blow your mind. “I was the blood of Caesar, I was sweated out by Muhammad Ali, I was a tear of Harriet Tubman, and I got pissed off by Eminem.” There’s water in this room, so much of it – where has it been?

I’m not here to gross you out – all the world’s water has passed through animals, but nature also cleans the water, with evaporation into the clouds above, and also the water-treatment facilities we call “plants.” Rain comes down, then passes through roots and accumulates in berries, coconuts, tomatoes, onions, nature’s way of purifying the water. I would not drink a cup of rain-water from this area, but an apple grows in my front yard and I’ll eat it, I know nature has purified that water. Ironically, the water in our baptismal fountains has been cleaned by forbidden fruit.

Our bodies also process water – we’re like power-plants, factories, we constantly need clean water coming in and constantly have waste-water coming out. Not just from our swimsuit areas but from every inch of our bodies. Our parents and teachers taught us that our bodies are solid, our skin a boundary between what’s inside us and what’s outside. But none of us here is made out of diamond – our skin is a bag for holding water, and the bag has millions of holes in it. Water is passing through my skin, you are breathing it. Water is passing through your skin, I am breathing it. We are exchanging water right now. When you smell someone, that’s not a supernatural spirit in the air, it’s water from their body carrying flakes of skin, part of their physical body going into your nose and lungs and blood. Also I sometimes spit when I talk, so if your mouth is gaping open in shock right now you might want to move to the back row.

Our parents and teachers taught us about boundaries, but in a biological sense those boundaries don’t exist – we are all continuous, connected by water. Not just people, all organic life – plants, trees, fungi, bacteria, animals, Keith Richards, cockroaches, fish, that smelly guy you sat next to on the bus (who might have been Keith Richards, I don’t know). The Ojibwe scholar and activist Melissa Nelson wrote, we “are not separate from the environment. We are the environment! …With every bite of food we eat, every drop of water we drink, every breath of air we inhale, we are on the fluid edge of ‘inside’ and ‘outside,’ ‘me’ and the ‘environment,’ the person and the planet, and the individual and humanity.” Water respects no boundaries – especially the artificial and cultural ones we make up for ourselves. We want to close ourselves off from nature, but it’s inside us. Rivers don’t care about our imaginary borders, and even if we build a wall against Mexico, those rivers will defy us by still connecting us. We are all from and of water.


“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” an old funeral saying goes, but our lives don’t begin with dust or ashes at all. Human life begins in water – we all started out as single-cell organisms in a primordial sea, I mean all life collectively and each of us personally at conception (and the water in a pregnant mother’s womb maintains that same salinity as the oceans at the beginning of life long ago). Then we evolved into a little tadpole-looking creature, then into some sort of frog-like thing, before we started to look primate – except with gills on our ears. And then labor begins with the breaking of water. I love that expression, it sounds so sacred, so sacramental, “water breaks.” (Of course it didn’t seem very sacramental when it happened – I was half ready to say “Send the midwife home, we’re calling an exorcist!”). But the water breaks, a new life begins…and two lives end, the social lives of the parents.

And then, straight away after birth many of us were rushed off for a religious cleaning – having spent ten months in mother-water, we get sprinkled with father-and-son water. I was baptized as an infant, held by a nun who then ran off with a man because she realized she wanted to make a baby. I would like to think of that as the first time I caused a religious conversion. Then I went to seminary and realized I don’t believe in infant baptism. When Jackson was a baby, and I’ll never forget it, Elizabeth and I visited a church and this beautiful Episcopal priest, the most beautiful priest I’ve ever seen, a lady-priest, she beckoned me over to ask about something. I walked over, holding the baby and while she was talking she reached back, dipped her fingers in the baptismal font, and suddenly flicked it at him! As a new parent I instinctively shielded him from the sudden motion and then realized my shoulder was wet. She tried to baptize my son! Like a JFK grassy-knoll baptism! And accidentally baptized me a second time! So, I don’t know, maybe that cancels my infant baptism out.

Just as water knows no personal boundaries, water knows no spiritual boundaries – water is the common element binding all the world’s religions. They’re all related through water. The Christian baptism (copied from the Jewish mikveh), the ritualistic washing before prayer in Islam, the sweat-lodge of the Lakota, the Hindu wish to be sunk in the Ganges after death, the sacred wells of the Celts – they used to celebrate times of peace by breaking their weapons and throwing them in water, and they would pray for health or luck or fortune by throwing coins to water spirits. The pagan tradition continues in wishing-wells – every semester I ask my college students: “when you throw a penny in a well and make a wish – who are you talking to? Wouldn’t the Christian God be happier if you gave your offering in church?” At the wishing well you give your coin (a sacrifice) and say your prayer to ancient water-spirits. My college students don’t know that the wishing well connects them with their pagan European ancestors.

Water freely flows through all belief-systems, but belongs to none of them. In the Bible, water is there before “In the beginning” – if you read it closely, the book of Genesis does not say that God created the water, it was there before He showed up. Similarly in the Qur’an, Allah creates all things from water, but does not create it. Here in Western New York, the creation story begins with a world entirely covered with water, and a muskrat dives down to bring some dirt to the surface. The Mayan, Babylonian, Egytpian, Greek and Roman creation stories all begin in a swampy chaos, before the gods arrive and start building.


Water is creative, it can also be destructive. Glaciers of ice once tore their way through this land, it was water that carved out the Grand Canyon. It happened really slowly in human time, but in geologic time it was like a bulldozer on rocket-fuel, like Babe the blue ox hopped up on red-bull, roaring through, digging canyons and pushing up mountains. Now nature gets mad and throws water at us, flash floods that sink whole towns. Water can be hurricanes, tidal waves, someday water’s gonna eat California. We’ll have to air-lift our movie-stars to Wisconsin – I guess we’re in for a lot more Thor movies. We used to get these brochures in the mail: you can buy a big chunk of the Florida coast, cheap! And I don’t like Florida, it smells like death, but I couldn’t help looking anyway – where’s the fine print? What’s the scam? But it wasn’t in the fine print, it was in big letters across the top: “Land Liquidation Sale!” Oh! So you’re trying to sell pieces of land that will soon be under liquid.

Water can be dangerous big, and water can be dangerous small, even in little trickles. My wife’s got potted plants, they leak on the floor. She loves dogs, they leak on the floor, she sprouts babies, they leak on the floor – one of these days I’m gonna walk in, “Honey I’m home,” and fall through the floor because of all the water damage. Given enough time, a little trickle of water can split a whole mountain in half.

Water can drive you crazy – it’s been used as a torture device for centuries, dunking witches, Japanese drip torture, water-boarding. Water has suggestive power too, deep psychic powers of suggestion. Like I say “Imagine Niagara Falls, envision all that water flowing, tons and tons of water crashing down…” And now everybody feels like they have to go to the bathroom. Sorry, I’ll try to get to the ending of this soon.


We’re here today to celebrate our connection to water – what would we be without it? A little pile of dust and bone. And each of us has water sources that are sacred to us, maybe just the bathroom sink where you ritualistically begin and end your day by brushing your teeth. Maybe the shower where you go to recharge your electricity and collect your thoughts, or sing like nobody can hear you. Maybe a toilet. Maybe the kitchen fawcet where you wash dishes and mumble about the injustices in the world. Maybe a river or lake where you like to walk and talk to yourself, or with someone else. Maybe an ocean where you get a sense of perspective.

Water unifies us, we are all part of it. Water connects us with all living things, present, past, and future. The water we carry today will be the life of other creatures tomorrow.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Daniel Quinn, Teacher, Author of Ishmael, Dies at 82



Vine Deloria wrote, “When ecologists find a predictable life-span of a generation separating us from total extinction, it would seem that we have a duty to search for another interpretation of mankind’s life story.”

Daniel Quinn responded:

“What a curious thing to say.
Because we’re on the verge of extinction, we should look for another interpretation of mankind’s life story?
What difference does a story make?
It makes a difference. Because the story we have, we are enacting.
We are making it come true.
And in making it come true, we are pushing ourselves toward extinction.” (Daniel Quinn, The Book of the Damned)

What difference does a story make? In Daniel Quinn’s books, he examined the fundamental narratives of our culture – pessimistic stories about humanity being naturally destructive, damned and doomed from the start. He took what I had been taught about “human nature” and exposed it as mythology. He also warned that these myths were self-fulfilling prophecies – when we think of humanity as “fallen” or “cursed” it can give us permission to live in destructive ways. But Quinn’s writings were not hopeless. Rather, he encouraged his readers to re-examine the story our culture is telling and enacting, and consider a more positive and sustainable story we could be living in.

After several attempts to write a book in which he explained his thesis, Quinn discovered that he could teach more effectively in a style he likened to midwifery: guiding the reader through a series of questions to find these answers from inside. Thus he developed the character of Ishmael, a gorilla who could observe human cultures from an outsider’s perspective, and teach in dialogues with an average man and an average girl. Ishmael was not warm and cuddly, but possessed a super-human patience for human beings (even someone incredibly dense, like the student in the first book). The book, Ishmael, won Quinn the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award, sold millions of copies, and was eventually joined by a companion book called My Ishmael.

Later, Quinn removed the middle-gorilla and articulated his thesis more directly in The Story of B, Beyond Civilization, and The Invisibility of Success (an excellent collection of lectures that distill his core teachings). His writings were a mixture of debate, parables and sermons. He also branched out into a graphic novel The Man Who Grew Young (illustrated by Tim Eldred) and a childrens’ book, Work, Work, Work which my kids have really enjoyed. Far from being a “one hit wonder,” he really hit his stride in books after Ishmael, articulating his vision with more clarity and detail (and without the sometimes cumbersome device of the student-teacher dialogue). And his cultural observations from twenty years ago have only grown more true and urgent with the passage of time.

Yesterday I was working on an introduction to a book I’m writing, inspired by Quinn’s teachings, and I was looking for the right words to express the life-changing effect his writings have had on my way of perceiving the world, my way of hearing and telling stories. It’s difficult to articulate – anyone who’s read his books will understand how hard it is to say something that sounds more intelligent than “Ishmael changed my life.” Anyway, as I struggled for the words it occurred to me that maybe I was supposed to be writing about him in the past tense. So I looked him up on Wikipedia and saw the new date added in parenthesis after his name: Daniel Quinn (October 11, 1935 – February 17, 2018). I was surprised not to have heard of it from any of the news sources I read, or from friends or family. While our front pages are cluttered by new American embarrassments, one of the most important thinkers of our time has quietly died.

Daniel Quinn lives on in the people whose lives he touched through his writings, even if most of us can’t come up with anything better to say than “Ishmael changed my life.” He encouraged us to take that outsider perspective and re-consider our foundational cultural mythologies. By re-examining our past, he encouraged us to re-envision the future, and to use our human creativity and ingenuity (and an earnest desire to save the world) to change the story we’re telling and living.

In honor of this man and the immeasurable impact he’s had on my life and thought, I am going to do something I never do: shamelessly advertise. In a recent email, Daniel Quinn told me he was having trouble interesting a publisher in his latest book, because “90% of the millions who have read Ishmael have never opened another book I’ve written.” If you have read Ishmael and remember it as a life-changing experience, look for one of his other books (and buy it – the proceeds will benefit his family and also let publishers know there is still interest in his work). I personally recommend The Invisibility of Success and The Story of B. In this last couple years, our culture’s story and the way we live it is only becoming more hectic, desperate and terrifying. Daniel Quinn’s books can still help us to understand this story, and give us ideas about how to change it.

What difference does a story make? It can make all the difference in the world.

LINKS (To some of Quinn’s books, Website, and Obituary)

The Invisibility of Success at Amazon

The Story of B at Amazon

Quinn’s website

Obituary from Houston Chronicle


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Look Out – Here Comes the Spider-Man (A Lakota Tale of the Coming White Man)


When I was young I heard a story about a little chicken running around and telling other animals that the sky was falling. They all get scared, the fear spreads, they’re disorganized and eventually wind up accepting shelter inside the mouth of a fox. They’re eaten, or in some modern story-book versions he sneezes them out again, but either way the sky doesn’t fall and nothing really changes on the farm.

The story of Chicken Little seems very timely today. Obviously the disorganized fear and getting swallowed by a fox is a good metaphor for the 2016 presidential election. And for a lot of people on the coasts, the sky is falling in natural disasters that our government still refuses to admit are a result of pollution. And then we barely get a moment to focus on these natural-disasters in the news cycle, because of the national-disaster, which is like its own weather system – tweet drizzles, bridal-showers with Moscow, storms of bullets and the sub-zero temperature of compassionate conservatism (just those words give me a chill in my bones). And every time I read or hear the news, it’s essentially “the sky is falling, the sky is falling.” If Chicken Little was around today he’d get a Pulitzer Prize in journalism. Or at least his “tweets” would have a lot of followers.

Recently while reading Native American stories I came across a legend from the Brule Sioux tribe of the midwest that reminded me of Chicken Little. Except it was a shape-shifting trickster called Iktome, the Spider, who goes darting around, warning the various tribes about the coming of a new nation. And, not to give away the surprise, but the European arrival was an absolute disaster for the Sioux – an end-of-the-world apocalyptic nightmare that could be compared to the collapse of the sky.

But what really fascinated me about this story was the way he described the coming nation. He said, “There is a new generation coming, a new nation, a new kind of man who is going to run over everything. He is like me, Ikto [Spider], a trickster, a liar… He has knowledge in his legs, and greed.” The Native Spider describes the invader in Spider-like terms, “White Spider Man, the Daddy-Longlegs-Man, The Long-White-Bone-Man. In Native American creation stories from all over the continent, the Spider is a symbol of inginuity and technology. The Cherokee tell of a Spider-woman who was able to dart across the water and carry back the first fire by weaving a bowl of webbing. The Lakota teach that the Spider was the first to cook meat and tan buffalo hides. The Hopi say that it was a Spider-woman who made the first people, by mixing dirt and saliva and wrapping them in coccoons of web. The Spider is a problem-solver, a tool-maker and engineer, a teacher (and sometimes a prankster). But these abilities generally come from benevolent desires, from a wisdom about cooperating with the land.

So what can it mean that this new creature has “knowledge in his legs”? Maybe inginuity, technology, has become a motivating force. It’s the riddle of modern science – we get so focused on ‘can we do it? Can we make this explosion bigger? Can we make this screen smaller? Can we make this drug stronger? Can we make this machine think and act like a person?’ We get so focused on ‘can we do it?’ that we can lose sight of that more important question – ‘Should we be making bigger bombs, smaller phones, faster guns and smarter machines?’ The Western man’s ego always wants to overcome limits and boundaries – but is this always for the best? I think the chicken would say no – we keep making meatier chickens, and if Chicken Little feared the sky was falling today he wouldn’t even be able to walk.

The Spider continues with his warnings, “This new man is not wise, but he is very clever. It is a man without grandmothers or grandfathers.” This approaching creature is several times described as “new,” but lacks what is old: wisdom. Saying that he has no grandparents is a sign that, in his search for newness or renewal, he has abandoned his own history. This coming creature must be clever to survive, must be inventive, because he’ll always be throwing himself into new, unknown situations. And always with a denial of the past. In the case of the first European settlers, the grandmother-wisdom they’d abandoned and forgotten was their own tribal origins – the ancient peoples of Europe had once been socially egalitarian and environmentally sustainable before the rise of militaristic Empires and otherworldly religions.

Europeans coming to the Americas had left their elders and homelands behind, and all the wisdom of their European ancestors became worthless as they explored the new frontier. We deal with this still, as our children go exploring further and further into technological and digital and opium frontiers, and the passing of wisdom from one generation to the next is lost. How do you teach compassion to someone who’s busy on a phone catapulting birds at pigs? When I’m seventy, will I have to set up a twitter account and try to get my grandchildren to “follow” it? And how do you explain Snodgrass family history over twitter anyway? The name takes up half the message!

The Sioux Spider’s warning continues: “He is going to make a dark, black hoop around the world… I will now reveal to you his name. You shall know him as washi-manu, steal-all, or better by the name of fat-taker, wasichu, because he will take the fat of the land. He will eat up everything, at least for a time.” This clever creature has strong tools and sharp ideas, but no connection to the past or to the land. And this causes a profound emptiness inside. So he takes – he takes the land and the animals, he takes the minerals and the waters, he tries to claim it all, wrap it up in his black net bag. When the Spider describes the white man, the ‘Fat Taker,’ he doesn’t say he’s motivated by meanness or evil – he’s just hungry, empty, disconnected, lost. He takes because that’s what his tools tell him he can do. He destroys because he feels no relationship with his surroundings. In these descriptions he is barely even human, he’s more like a plague of insects. Or billionaire shareholders, or Senators or Holiday-shoppers.

Time went by and the Spider-man’s nightmarish prediction faded from memory, but then one day as two women were out gathering berries a black smog descended upon the land. “Out of this blackness they saw a strange creature emerging. He had on a strange black hat, and boots, and clothes… When he spoke, it did not sound like human speech. No-one could understand him… This strange creature, this weird man, carried in one hand a cross and in the other a fearful firestick which spat lightning and made a noise like thunder.” He offered them a bottle of whiskey, and disease passed from his skin to theirs. “Then they realized that the wasichu had arrived, that finally he was among them, and that everything would be changed.” Even when the Fat-Taker finally appears in the story, we do not learn his motivations. He has tools, the cross and the rifle, but his words cannot be understood. We can infer things about his personality – if he loves the cross and the rifle, we know who he would have voted for. But in the story his motives remain mysterious. He has whiskey and sickness, but we the listeners aren’t told if he’s aware of the damage they will do in this new world. He’s a “strange creature,” a stranger, even to himself. And in his hunger and confusion he would change the world.

When examining these Sioux fragments about the invaders being like the Spider-man, I can’t help but be reminded of America’s own cultural myth of a Spider-Man. For sixty years the Spider-Man has appeared in comic books, cartoons, movies and games (and yet he’s still a teenager – I barely survived my teens and he’s been doing it for sixty years. Amazing!). The one constant moral of the Spider-Man story comes from his connection with his Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility” – he can do things other people can’t do, but in every incarnation and every generation he must renew his resolve not to let this power corrupt him, and this is what makes him a hero. Compassion and connection with his elders keeps him from getting lost and out of control. Similarly the “White Man” in Native folklore has powers of inginuity and technology. But if he can’t learn to use this power responsibly, it can lead to destruction.

Well, the white man has come. And damage has been done and is being done. I am in some ways a beneficiary of the Fat-Taker’s confusion and greed – I live on stolen land, and I pay the US Government to protect me from the horrors it has inflicted on other peoples, and continues to inflict on other peoples today. My taxes pay the military to bully people all over the globe to send their natural resources here so I can afford a loaf of bread and a gallon of gas. And the exhaust from my car will become part of a black hoop around the world.

I am not a Native American but I know what it’s like to feel you’ve been swept up in a whirlwind of destruction, I know what it’s like to look ahead and see your culture destroyed by the white man. I’m part English, but I have no more control over the US Government than any Navajo or Iroquois. New York elects Democrat representatives, but they’re not even allowed in the Senate Chamber when decisions are made. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a colony of Texas

But I refuse to lose hope – I’m not some chicken here to say the sky is falling. The so-called “White Man” has done a lot of damage, but I can’t apologize for stuff I didn’t do, and I don’t have the political or economic power to stop it or fix it. What I can do is model the kind of “white man” I want others to see. I can take this stuff I hear about the “white man” and prove it’s not true by my own words and actions. And I can listen to what other cultures have said about him, and not get defensive and loud – but I can listen and learn and think about it – if this creature is driven by emptiness inside, what is he looking for? He doesn’t seem to find it in gold, or stocks, hair implants or real estate, people who get that stuff never seem to be satisfied by it, they just want more. More gold, more hair, more gold hair!

The old Sioux story of warnings about the White Spider-Man ends with him showing up and the destruction begins. But that doesn’t have to be the end. I think the story of the coming of Wasichu is still being written, and it’s not just up to the Sioux tribe, it’s up to all of us to change this tide. In his list of warnings, the Sioux trickster does, at one point, pause to say “Maybe a time will come when you can break his dark hoop. Maybe you can change this man and make him better, giving him earth wisdom, making him listen to what the trees and grass tell him.” We’ve tried the whole “white man shouting” thing and we know it doesn’t fix anything. What about listening? I would like to think that maybe someday the trees and the grasses, the earth and the elders can teach the Spider-Man that with great power comes great responsibility.

Quotes from Leonard Crow Dog (Brule Sioux, 1982) in Erdoes, Richard and Alfonso Ortiz, ed. American Indian Myths and Legends (Pantheon, New York 1984) p. 491-495

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Two Short Plays About Religion, Featured on Thinktwice Podcast

Matt Boyle invited me to bring two short plays in to be read and recorded for a podcast.  I immediately knew I wanted to use a short script I wrote 10 years ago, while in Seminary…

“Love Gerald” While they await the bus on the first day of fourth grade, Sherry tells Rachel about the new religious movement she has joined over the summer. (starring Maggie Boyle and my daughter Sarah)

and I wrote a new one…

“The Zeus is Hungry”.   Enraged by the abduction of her daughter, the Greek grain-goddess Demeter causes crop-failure throughout the land. The storm god Zeus shows up and commands her to reactivate food growth, so that he can be celebrated at a harvest festival. (starring Amy Feder and my brother A. Peter Snodgrass)

The plays about each about 10 minutes, followed by interviews (first with the performers, and then Matt asking me some questions about religion).

Recordings can be heard at

Thank you Matt, Richard, Maggie, Sarah, Amy and Peter.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Creation, the Western New York Version (an Iroquois Creation Story)




The Middle East must be nice this time of year. I mean, yeah, random bullets flying and nuclear tinkering and all, but I imagine the weather is really good. And when I’m out walking and it feels like the wind is going to rip my face off, maybe a desert climate with the occasional gunshot wouldn’t be that bad. As a matter of fact, in this Western New York winter I can’t even think about getting shot without thinking about how warm the bullet would be. A little ball of molten led or whatever, hot metal lodging in my skin…ah, heat… And I don’t personally want to die in a nuclear inferno, but when I’m out shoveling the sidewalk and the wind screeches in my ears, the idea of melting takes on a certain charm. Maybe this morning Middle-Eastern forecasters are saying “The weather is warm and sunny, scattered drizzles of hot bullets and a chance of atomic firestorm.” I don’t know – I can’t listen to Middle-Eastern weather-forecasts at home, because if I did I’d wake up the next morning and my wife would be gone, off to live in a dry, sunny desert wearing five layers of black. She hates the winter.

As a new year begins I can’t help thinking about the Middle East because I was raised on Middle-Eastern creation stories – in the Bible, creation begins at the meeting place of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which would be in modern-day Iraq. And the people were naked and not ashamed, which clearly means it wasn’t snowing – if I was standing naked in ten-below-zero and the only woman on earth was squinting at me, trying to figure out what a “man” was I’d be plenty embarrassed. If the Biblical creation had taken place in Western New York the whole story would have been different – the people would have been wearing coats, pulling the wings off bisons (and that, children, is how the buffalo lost its wings) and asking, “Did Hell freeze over? Does that mean the Bills have won the Superbowl?” And God would be asking “Why did I make pizza grow on trees? For goodness sake, eat this fruit before you get scurvy!”

This is only conjecture – I don’t know that that story would have been like if it had taken place here.

But there is a creation story that takes place here, the story told and retold by the original inhabitants of Western New York, the Iroquois. When we hear the Iroquois creation story, we say “A woman fell from the sky with a handful of seeds, that’s just mythology.” Right – the talking snake is biology, and God cursing all babies for a piece of fruit stolen by Eve is theology but the woman falling from the sky is mythology.

The Iroquois creation story is not about decrees and crime and punishment. It begins with cooperation – a woman is falling from the sky and birds come around to help. A turtle offers her a place to stand and a muskrat dives down to bring her some dirt. And she falls in love with this place. Which, maybe the turtle didn’t expect – according to Iroquois legend it’s still down there below us. But it’s also a reminder – we’re not just standing on lifeless dirt, we are held up by the goodness of a creature. Guests on the back of a turtle. My children would love that, they would really understand it, and it would add a touch of charming wonder to their lives. I wish I could believe that I was living on the back of a friendly turtle. But then I would have to re-think my whole attitude toward automobiles and disposable diapers – “sorry, mister Turtle, but we’ve gotta put a little more salt on your shell so my tires can get a grip” – if I was a turtle’s guest I wouldn’t want to disrespect it like that.

In honor of this hospitable creature, the Iroquois actually refer to all of North America as “Turtle Island.” Which I think sounds a little funny. But then I have to wonder – what would a United Nations meeting be like if our country was announced as “Turtle Island”? It would make us sound friendlier. Like we didn’t take ourselves so seriously. “And now, a few words from the president of Turtle Island.” I like it. And we may have to change our national name in a few years anyway, nobody wants to hear the words “America” and “United States” these days – maybe we can call ourselves “Turtle Island” again.

The woman who fell from the sky receives a warm Western New York welcome. One minute she’s falling from the sky, the next she’s surrounded by new friends and they’re helping her find a home and move in. I remember when we moved to Buffalo, people were so excited – “You want to live here? Let me help you! So you won’t leave!” And the sky-woman doesn’t just sit around, and she didn’t come empty-handed – she’s brought gifts, seeds and creativity. She decorates the new land, she brings new life. The animals welcomed a vulnerable stranger, a refugee from another world, and she turns out to be a goddess, enhancing their lives in ways they never could have imagined before.

And as her last act she creates creatures, twin sons, who will continue the work of creation. She dies in childbirth. I don’t know how my children would feel about that part of the story. I was reading a childrens’ book adaptation of the story and they took that out, instead they had her ascend to the sky from whence she came. And I thought it ruined the whole thing, not because I have anything against this goddess, but because it meant skipping over my favorite part of the story. When she’s dying and asks her newborn sons to bury her, and she tells them that corn will rise up through the ground from her body.

It’s my favorite part of the story because she chooses to stay. Here in Western New York, not to go back to the sky-world, but to continue to be a part of human life here. She doesn’t abandon her sons and wander off to paradise, she wants to keep feeding them, and all the children that will come after. She could have cursed them – one of her sons tore his way out of her body and killed her, she could have cursed all human life for all time. But she doesn’t. She forgives, and she becomes the food, the sacred bread of life. And the Iroquois would remember this story as they grew and harvested and ate their corn. The woman who was killed by her own child still wanted to feed him. That’s very powerful, and it’s very real. If one of my children killed me, I bet my dying words would be “don’t forget, there’s a can of chicken soup in the pantry, go warm it up, you look thin.”

After she dies, we see another form of creativity in the story. Male creativity. Twin sons, always competing with each other – a friendly one who makes little gentle animals, and a mean one who makes bigger, dangerous animals. That’s how guys do creativity – we can’t just sprout life out of our bodies, we need other guys to compete with. The mean twin makes winter, and the friendly twin rises to the challenge, creates spring. I sort of wish he would make spring right now – I feel like we’re stuck in a time of winter and meanness. But spring will come again, the friendly twin is always more powerful.

In the story, the mean twin one day announces that he should be ruler of all the land, and challenges his brother to a contest to see who can move a mountain. And he strains and struggles and huffs and puffs and blusters and tweets with all his might, but the mountain will not come at his command. Then he turns to his brother, the friendly twin, to see if he can do better. His brother says, “see for yourself” and when the mean twin turns around he hits his nose on the mountain, it’s come right there. Bumping his head on the mountain, it reveals his true face, twisted and distorted. And he pleads with his brother, afraid of being sent away from the beloved land, and they make a deal that he will provide humor and medicine. The one who wanted to be king instead becomes the first clown. And he keeps his word. It turns out, he’s not evil, he just needs to feel important, useful – the world needs some unpleasantness, even some meanness, but it cannot be the ruling force in a healthy world.

The friendly twin created man and woman from dust, saying “You shall enjoy yourselves upon the earth in order to multiply from generation to generation. And here are vegetables and herbs to sustain life from the fruits of the earth, which shall grow forever.” I like teaching this part to my college students, because they’re so accustomed to commandments that start with “Thou Shalt Not.” But here the creator gives three commandments: Thou shalt enjoy thyself. Thou thalt make babies. And thou shalt eat thy vegetables. I’m very good at two of these. Making babies, it turns out, is a breeze. Raising four of them is hard – maybe I was too good at following that commandment. And eating vegetables, I’m good at that too. But enjoying myself, that’s hard. My religious upbringing taught me that there’s something bad, something shameful, something wrong with being human. And even though now I get to make up my own mind about religion, I still can’t seem to escape a Middle-Eastern crime-and-punishment, shame-and-damnation view of human life. Why should Middle-Eastern stories be so pessimistic? The weather’s great! Maybe a warm dry desert climate is good for preserving ancient grudges and being a fundamentalist, because you don’t have these seasonal changes. Winter reminding us of how much we all need each other – in a blizzard, our need for warmth and relationships is more important than our alienation, our shared fragile humanity matters more than our differences.

The Native creation story from this area reminds me of what I love best about Western New York. A warm welcome for the stranger, even if the stranger is like no one you’ve ever met before. Cooperation and inginuity. Even some competition, which can be productive even if the other guy is a total jerk. …I don’t believe that as strongly as I used to, but in my milder moments I can still agree in principle. And this Native Story contains a deep love of this place, this land – I know if I died and someone offered me a choice between going off to the sky-world and staying here I’d want to stay in Western New York, and keep looking for ways to help my children.

Some of you out there might think that sounds naive – Western New York isn’t really like that. We don’t love this place, we’re stuck here, and we don’t welcome outsiders and we don’t cooperate. Well, if you think that, please, don’t say it in front of my wife because then she’ll pack up the children and move to Arizona and I’ll have to go too. And I don’t want to live in a desert. So do me a favor – if you think that Western New York is not a paradise where we welcome and cooperate, then make it a place like that. Because I want my children to love this land, and to appreciate this special place (even in winter!), as much as the Iroquois do. I was raised with a cultural belief that the holiest land in the world is off in some desert on the other side of the planet, but I have come to believe, personally, that the holy land is right here. That’s a Native American teaching I can believe in.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized



“A brief and comical glance at the roots of Greek Mythology. Psychedelic drugs, supernatural sexuality, and human sacrifice entwine in the legend of a princess, a hero and a monster on the island of Crete.”

I’m very excited to announce (finally) the completion and release of my book about the Minotaur legend.  Below are the front and back cover images, an explanation of the aims of the book, and then an excerpt examining the Greek concept of “Heroes.”  The book can be ordered directly through Createspace, or through, and if you know me personally I’ll have copies soon.


Why write a book about Theseus and the Minotaur? Not to spoil the ending, but this book is not really about Theseus and the Minotaur at all. As a student of Daniel Quinn, I study what it means to be human, and how that has changed since the transition from migratory foragers to settled farmers. I’m particularly interested in how social and gender dynamics have been shaped by this transition. And while reading Robert Graves and James Frazer I was struck by three topics: 1. Crete, an advanced ancient civilization ruled primarily by women. 2. Ancient kings who were sacrificed after a year in power. 3. Barbaric invaders who overran ancient matriarchal cultures, and the vestiges of feminine power that remained. At some point in the study I was reminded of the Minotaur story, an ideal frame for linking these three topics. Also, having just moved to Buffalo NY, I see totem bison heads everywhere, sometimes with human bodies.

And so this book will be organized in three sections, corresponding with the three central figures in the Minotaur story. The first will explore the Cretan queen-priestess and princess-apprentice, how these two characters are actually a single figure at different stages of life, and how she fits into the cultural context of ancient Crete. The second section of this book will explore the Cretan king Minos and the Minotaur (which literally means “Minos-Bull”) and how they represent a merger of Cretan island culture with the barbarian mainland culture. The third section of this book will be about Theseus as a representation of the barbaric warriors who finally destroyed Cretan culture, incorporating elements of it into what would later develop into Classical Greek culture. It is the goal of this book that when we return to the Minotaur story at the end, we’ll see it with more depth and clarity, and rather than classify it as “Fact” or “Fairy Tale,” we’ll see that it contains a certain “truth” about this historical transition.



The word “Hero” can be defined as someone willing to make personal sacrifices to protect or save others. The firefighter who charges into a burning building, risking his own life to rescue someone they’ve never met, is an example of a cultural icon we associate with the word “Hero.” The origin of this word is the name of the goddess Hera, whose veneration is much older than “Greek” culture. Hera and her priestess representative would have a son/lover/victim, a sacrificial king called a “Hero” annually sacrificed for the protection of the community. We can see an example of this tradition and its gradual mutation in the mythical relationship between Hera and her stepson Heracles.

Mythologically, Hera’s husband Zeus was the mighty king of the gods but also a real creep, better known for his philandering than his philanthropy. On one of his rampages he sired Heracles upon a Theban queen and later brought the infant to suckle from his sleeping wife Hera, who awakened and shoved the baby, causing a spurt of lactate to splash across the sky becoming “the Milky Way.” Enraged with jealousy, Hera schemed to kill Zeus’ love-child, sending serpent assassins and many of the monsters in the obstacle course known as the Twelve Labors.

The mythical biography of Heracles is a mosaic, combining stories of many kings over the course of centuries, and in the ongoing conflict with Hera we can see a gradual male rebellion against female power. As his name suggests, the earliest men called Heracles must have been kings sacrificed to the great goddess, and the myth of Heracles’ child-slaughtering “madness” must represent a transitional stage in which kings delayed their deaths by sacrificing children. Then the Heracles kings launched something of an inquisition, killing off priestesses (represented as mythical monsters) to establish a male warrior authority. The myth of Heracles born of almighty Zeus and a humble mortal mother represents the final stage, in which divine paternity is all-important while maternity is insignificant, a total reversal of the king’s original role as son/lover/victim of the goddess. So it’s true that Hera was always trying to kill Heracles, but not out of irrational jealousy – it was just part of her yearly routine, a sort of spring cleaning.

The battered victims of Heracles’ rapacious rampages appear in mythology as chaotic monsters. Now it’s true, as we’ve seen, that priestesses were really dangerous, especially to kings. But did the Greeks really believe in these supernatural demons? I don’t know. Did the ancient Israelites really believe in the literal parting of the Red Sea? I generally see Biblical “miracles” as reports of real events so good that we can only understand the feeling by imagining a divine victory over the very nature of the physical universe. I see Greek “myths” as something else, reports of real events so heinous and distasteful that we can only stomach them by imagining a divine victory over savage cannibal monsters. In the Bible, runaway slaves are so overjoyed to find freedom that they say the Red Sea parted for them. In Greek stories, barbarians who ravish and butcher a colony of nuns tell us that a hero has throttled a nine-headed serpent.

Theseus’ role-model (and according to some sources, his cousin) Heracles was also well known for going around bullying women. But when Heracles ravaged a girl or pillaged a matriarchal society, his spin-doctors usually transformed his violated victims into monsters like the Hydra, “a beast portrayed on Greek vases as a giant squid with heads at the end of each tentacle. As often as he cut off the Hydra’s heads they grew again, until he used fire to sear the stumps: in other words, Achaean attacks on the shrines, each [guarded by] nine armed orgiastic priestesses, were ineffective until the sacred groves were burned down. The Stymphalian birds, who killed “men and beasts by discharging a shower of brazen feathers and at the same time muting a poisonous excrement, which blighted the crops” were historically a college of orgiastic Arcadian priestesses. The man-eating mares of Diomedes turn out to be wild women in horse-masks charged with chasing and eating the Thracian king at the end of his reign. Cerberus, the underworld’s guard-dog may have represented priestesses of the trinity-goddess Hecate whose heads stood for youth, womanhood and old age. The serpent Ladon was guardian of Hera’s garden and priestesses.

Another Greek hero, Perseus, heroically blinded three old lady fortune-tellers (he claims they were dangerous), then decapitated the terrifying snake-haired Medusa, “whom the Argives…described as a beautiful Libyan queen decapitated by their ancestor Perseus after a battle with her armies, and who may therefore be identified with the Libyan snake-goddess Lamia.” He then used the severed head to rescue a chained princess from a seamonster, although it has been suggested that “in the original icon, the Goddess’s chains were really necklaces, bracelets and anklets, while the sea-beast was her emanation.” In other words the seamonster was the princess’ protection from domineering jerks like Perseus: the damsel wasn’t in distress until the hero showed up and debilitated her.

The tradition of using mythical monsters as symbols for vanquished female leadership goes all the way back to ancient Sumer, in the story of the young storm/warrior-god Marduk slaying and dismembering the chaotic seamonster Tiamat, who was actually his own grandmother. And as I tell my college students, when we walk into a room to find the crumpled body of a bludgeoned old granny with a large blood-spattered brute standing over her, we should think twice about accepting his testimony that she was a dangerous beast. History and mythology are written by the winners, but the barbarians of Sumer and Greece could hardly be accused of narrative chivalry.

The Minotaur may at first seem out of place among these female monsters – he is undeniably male, and the myth situates the Minotaur as Minos’ punishment and Minos’ problem. Theseus’ defeat of the monster is, by extension, a defeat of Minos, the creature is even named after Minos. But while the Minotaur is masculine, the head of the sacrificial bull with its moon-like horns, and the ovarian cavern in which he resides are clearly symbolic of feminine control over life and death. A closer look at the story actually reveals that Minos’ monster was really defeated by Ariadne, the insider who aided Theseus. “The monster faced the season of his doom: where other heroes failed, [Theseus] the son of Aegeus, led by young Ariadne, walked the maze, and, winding up the thread that guided him, raped Minos’ daughter and sailed off with her to leave her on the island shores of Dia.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses)

[Footnote citations have been removed from this excerpt]

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

“SOME GUY” – Protest and Reformation

On this 500th anniversary of the first act of the Protestant Reformation, I was invited to give a sermon about one of my favorite historical figures, Martin Luther (a runner-up for the name of my fourth child, but William Wallace won out).  This was a lot of fun to write.



In my college courses I assign students to give reports in class, generally on topics I personally find to be boring. Things that are important to be able to say were covered, but I’m not interested enough to teach it myself. And some student presentations are profound, some presentations are…a polite, constructive way to say it would be “profoundly idiotic.” And I think I heard the all-time champion this week, something so comical that, before repeating it I’m legally required to say I take no responsibility if your laughter makes the walls of this building fall down. A student assigned to explain worship habits in the Lutheran Church (boring) got up and said… “The Lutheran Church was started by a guy named Martin Luther.”

…I see we’re holding back the gales and wails of laughter here, which is very mature of you – my students managed not to giggle and as the teacher I also had to struggle to hold back the laughter I felt bursting from inside. Now I know what you’re thinking – “That’s just silly – of course Martin Luther had no intention of starting a ‘Lutheran Church’ – he just wanted to fix Roman Catholicism.” It’s true, but that’s not the real punch-line here. This nineteen-year-old actually said “A guy named Martin Luther.” Some guy, some random guy.

Martin Luther needs no introduction. But this college student felt he did, and the introduction he gave was “a guy.” Arguably the most important man in human history (and if not the most important, definitely in the top five) whose courage changed the course of human thought, identity, and understanding… But to a nineteen year old he was just a guy. …And still I see nobody’s howling with laughter, so now I’m wondering…maybe Martin Luther does need some introduction..? I do hate to explain a joke. But for Martin Luther I’ll make an exception.


Two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire had grown to incredible power as a military force, extoring the wealth of Europe by running a basic mafia protection racket: pay up ten percent or else. Or else what? Or else something bad might happen (and if a country refused to pay, something bad did happen – the Roman army showed up and totally obliterated them). But after centuries everybody got tired of it, even Rome got tired of it. Plunder, plunder, yawn and plunder… And so they decided on another way of maintaining their economic power in Europe: they ditched old Jupiter’s predatory eagle and adopted a new mascot. Ironically, the mascot they chose was a guy they had killed for telling people not to pay taxes, some guy named Jesus. The Roman Empire became known as the “Holy” Roman Empire, and instead of bullying nations with military power, they extorted individuals: pay up ten percent or else. Or else what? Or else something bad will happen…after you die.

They invented something called “Purgatory,” a debtor’s prison, a place for dead-beats who hadn’t given enough money to the Roman Church, and there they would be burned and tortured for hundreds or even thousands of years to “purge,” purify them of the sin of not paying for enough sacraments. It was like God’s own Guantanamo Bay. This new supernatural protection racket was a tremendous success – maintaining the Roman military legions had been expensive, but conjuring nightmares with legions of imaginary demons was cheap. Because it was all talk. Perhaps the greatest bluff in all history. “Purgatory” is nowhere in the Bible, but most Europeans could neither read the Bible nor undertand it when it was read to them, because it was only available in Latin. Which is strange, because the Biblical books were originally written in Hebrew and Greek. But Rome decreed it was only holy in Latin, and then made sure that nobody outside the Church could learn to read it. Because it turns out, when you actually read the Gospels, you find that the Romans, tax-collectors and Pharisees are actually the bad guys.

In the 1500’s, priest and bishops were tax collectors, mafia thugs for the Empire, charging for sacraments such as worship services, confession, baptism, communion and funerals. There had been a time when they’d had to know something about the Bible, but by the 1500’s anybody could rent a bishop’s vestments and raise as much money as they wanted, as long as the Vatican Godfather got the cost of the costume rental. They could also raise money by charging people fees to visit “relics,” meaning bones and skulls (supposedly) of dead saints – someone would find a thigh-bone in France and say “truly this was a thigh of John the Baptizer!” and never-mind that there were thirty other churches claiming to have John’s thigh-bone on display, people would show up and pay to kiss the bone and pray for healing or money or a new mule or whatever a medieval peasant might want.

And on top of all this, the Church began its greatest fund-raiser ever: selling indulgences. “indulgences” were coupons you could buy to get such-and-such amount of time deducted from your stay in purgatory (or you could buy it as a gift certificate for your dear departed aunt or some other relative). And if you spent enough, you could skip purgatory altogether and literally “buy a stairway to Heaven.” Expert salesman Johann Tetzel famously said “When a coin in the box rings, a soul from purgatory springs,” and his sales-pitch was that buying enough of these coupons could purchase salvation even for someone who violated the virgin Mary herself. The magnificent Basilica of Saint Peter in Vatican City (supposedly built on top of the skull of St. Peter) was funded by selling God’s forgiveness to illiterate peasants.

And that’s when we meet Martin Luther, a Catholic monk, professor and priest in Wittenburg Germany. Hearing of this, he felt that something had gone rotten in Rome. So he wrote an open letter to his small congregation, with ninety-five reasons that they should not be buying these tickets to paradise. “It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but… Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons [and] if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter’s church should go to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.” Martin Luther doubted that the Pope could be involved, or even possibly know about this swindle. But later in the letter he wondered, “Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money?” (Ninety-Five Theses #28, 43, 50, 82)

Luther had vented his frustration, and maybe he slept soundly that night, having got out his anger and warned the members of his small-town parish. But there were three things he did not expect. One – someone immediately tore down his letter. But they didn’t burn it, they put it in a new invention: the printing press. Hundreds of thousands of copies circulated in Europe, and it turns out a lot of people shared Luther’s anger at this scam. The second thing he probably didn’t expect was to die of old age, but the church was taking a short break from rebel-burning, and he actually survived. The third thing he probably didn’t expect was that the anger of Christian Europe would explode into wars and persecutions (mostly about economics, but also a little bit about theology), that whole nations would rebel against Rome, shattering Western Christianity into thousands of pieces, and by the nineteen sixties, a battered and weary Catholic Church would actually make the changes he’d called for.

Luther, a good Catholic monk, had set out to fix the Church, to “reform” it, and in this he ultimately did succeed. But in the process he also re-formed Western identity: national identities which emerged from under the boot of the Roman Empire (also nationalism, the individual’s sense of self in relation to a country), and personal identities – the whole concept of the individual making choices about how best to reach salvation, this was unheard of before Martin Luther inadvertently broke the monopoly of the Roman Church. Ideas of personal identity, choice, liberty, the “right” to rebel against tyranny, all of these emerged from the Protestant Reformation.

The freedoms that emerged from the Protestant Reformation are nearly impossible to measure, because we think of personal liberty as “truth” that is “self evident.” But concepts like “rights” and “liberty” and “pursuit of happiness” were totally unknown in medieval Europe. Here’s an easy example: Hearing about Martin Luther’s rebellion against Rome, King Henry VIII of England decided to rebel against Rome as well, largely because of “taxation without representation” – a lot of English money was going to the Vatican, but the king of England could not get the Pope to bend a rule about divorce. England was essentially a colony of the Roman Empire and declared its independence. Without this precident, the English colonies that we know today as America would never have even imagined the possibility of breaking away from England (and if Europe had been all Catholic during America’s Revolutionary War, France would have sided with England and not against them, and the colonies would have been crushed into eternal submission). Without Martin Luther there would be no America – we would be a colony of England, and England would be a colony of Rome. And the Pope would still be holding all our dead relatives hostage in purgatory unless we bought enough coupons to get them into paradise.

I could literally stand here all day, explaining the many ways in which “a guy named Martin Luther” changed history and all our lives. Without “a guy named Martin Luther” there would have been no Charles Darwin, no Elvis, no Camille Paglia, and definitely no Martin Luther King (maybe such a man would have lived, but he would have been named after someone else. And he wouldn’t have crusaded for freedom because nobody would have known what “freedom” is if it wasn’t for “a guy named Martin Luther.”) As a matter of fact, without Martin Luther, I would be giving this sermon in Latin, and they still wouldn’t have translated the Bible into English, so most of you would have no idea what the Bible said or what I said about it, and then I’d end by saying “don’t worry if you don’t understand, just give me five bucks and I’ll release your dearly departed grandmother from purgatory” and you’d say, “Well, I guess that’s what the Scripture readings must have been about.”


I do occasinally learn things from college students – and the student who referred to “a guy named Martin Luther” actually did teach me something, when he said that Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenburg door on October 31st, 1517. I thought – who cares what day he did it? Then I realized that right now, October of 2017, is the 500th anniversay, and I felt a profound sense of urgent responsibility to raise awareness, let the world know about this thing that happened 500 years ago. Still, a monk nailing what was essentially an angry blog-post to a church door five hundred years ago might sound like old news now. So what does this act have to do with us? What message can we take from this, in our present time of anger, division, unrest?

First of all, we can forget that Martin Luther loved the Church – he was a monk after all, he’d given up a lot to show his devotion (and he would hate this sermon because of the way I’ve been talking about the Church, but here I stand, I cannot say otherwise, God help me). And he expressed his love of the Empire, we could call it patriotism, by reminding the Empire of how far it had fallen from its professed ideals. He did this in his own town, by communicating with his own neighbors. And he didn’t burn down the local church in a fiery rage, or paint obscenities on the door, or stand there foaming at the mouth and shouting – he wrote an intelligent essay, and posted it for people to read (and, in today’s terms, we could say his post “went viral”).

He challenged the Empire, not out of hate, but out of hope that it could improve, get back to basics, repair itself. Martin Luther was one man standing up against the (debatably) “Holy” Roman Empire itself, saying it’s not right to hold dead people hostage, and definitely not to demand ransom-money for their release. He blew the whistle and he was blacklisted, excommunicated – not only fired from his job, he was forbidden to ever take communion again! In expressing his thoughts to a small community, he opened a Pandora’s box of scandal, recriminations, even wholesale warfare. But ultimately, the Empire did address his grievances. And as a side-effect, the Western world advanced from medievalism to modernity.

Of course, five hundred years later, a lot of Americans want to move back from modernity to medievalism. Bring back the old monarchy, divine right of kings, put the women and minorities back where they were in the 1300’s. Bring back the Dark Ages, ironically with the help of the internet – who could have imagined that access to unlimited information would lead to such an intellectual Dark Age? We’re less culturally literate now than we were a hundred years ago! Exhibit A: the number of Americans who don’t know who Martin Luther is. “I dunno, some guy…”

In these times we live in, we’re involved in a cultural debate: should Americans have the right to protest against injustice? Do we have a right to stand up for ourselves and others, if we feel we’re being exploited? Come to think of it, that’s the wrong question – “rights” you can take or leave. Do we have a responsibility to stand up for ourselves and others, even if it should invite a storm of anger and contention? All over the news this month, football players and Hollywood actresses are faced with these questions. In standing up for themselves they receive an incredible outpouring of support…and an incredible outpouring of hostility, even hatred.

Some people think that speaking up for change is a sign of disrespect. I would say that quietly grumbling, pushing anger down inside is a sign of disrespect, when you say “why bother speaking up? Nothing’s gonna change,” that’s a sign of disrespect – a belief that the institution can no longer be maturely reasoned with. And letting that anger build itself up until it bursts out in childish shouting and violence, that’s a sign of desrespect. But to calmly, intelligently stand up and state your case, that is a sign of respect, because it’s a sign that you believe that the institution can still think, can still reason and be reasoned with. I think that, 500 years later, there’s still a lot we can learn from Martin Luther’s example. And that our institutions should take a warning: the Roman Empire chose not to engage in a reasonable conversation about his grievances, and as a result it lost a lot of its power.

On this five hundredth anniversary of the first act of the Protestant Reformation, I think we must all remember the power of peaceful, respectful protest. An enduring legacy of “a guy named Martin Luther.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized