GOOD? (A Sermon)


GOOD? (A Sermon)

When Elizabeth and the kids and I moved into our neighborhood, there was a a short, squat house nearby, surrounded by trees. The house as been empty as long as we’ve been here, so we’ve considered those trees our neighbors. Trees make the best neighbors – they aren’t loud, and more importantly, they don’t complain about us being loud. And they never borrow your weed-whacker and bring it back broken, claiming it was broken to begin with.

In this last couple weeks, someone sent a big machine with a long arm and a claw…with a mechanical thumb…to demolish that old house. The machine played with the house, like a big cat toying with a wounded animal, or like a toddler playing with a stuffed animal. This machine shuffled down this house like it was made of playing-cards, then it started crunching – steel and glass, plaster and wood, brick and concrete and when we looked the next day, there was nothing where that old house used to be, just flattened dirt strewn with straw (presumably planted with grass seed). And I thought, “this is alright. That old abandoned house wasn’t doing any good for the neighborhood, now in a few months it’ll be a grassy clearing surrounded by trees. Instead of worrying about meth-heads using the house as a drug lab, we can worry about pot-heads using this forest glade for singalongs.”

It was nice, with that old abandoned house out of the way, to imagine that the land would belong to the trees again. When the people are away, the trees will play. They’ll just play reeeeeeeeally reeeeeeeeelly slowly. “Man, I thought those people would never leave – I’m gonna grow an Afro, maybe branch out, see if I can get a little of that sunshine over there and watch my favorite soap-opera, ‘Chasing Tail,’ starring the neighborhood squirrels. We can sit up all night telling scary stories. This one’s called… ‘Leave it to Beaver…’” “Don’t tell them that, they’ll have nightmares and leak sap all over the place.” “Nah, it’ll put vines on their chest.”

Of course it wasn’t the trees that had bought the property – trees don’t sign contracts, they just stare at the paper and say “His name was…Spruce…and you cut him down in his prime…beat him to a pulp…flattened him out and stapled him.” A couple days after the house was demolished, the machine came back for the trees. It clutched them by the trunk and pulled them up, then tapped them on the ground to shake the dirt off the roots. Like the trees were cigars, it tapped them on the ground. And Elizabeth said, “If God made the trees in His image and likeness we’re in big trouble.” And I looked around nervously “This is Christian country. If they hear you say that they’re gonna cut you down and use you for firewood.”

God looking like a tree – the very idea is preposterous. The Bible proves that, not only in what it says, but also by what it is, paper, a bunch of ground-up wood. Surely if God had some special interest in trees, He wouldn’t allow such a massacre of them to produce copies of a book for us to read. And right there on the first page it clearly says: “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)

Ah, it’s so reassuring, such a relief to hear those words – to feel like God’s special love for us is tied up in God’s love for Godself. “How can I stay mad at you, when you look so much like me?” We want God to look a nice bearded old man – like Santa Claus, except wearing white and He’s eaten less Christmas cookies. We want a God who will watch us all the time, keep a careful list of all the bad stuff we do, and then throw out the list and give us the goodies anyway. And most important, Santa may be watching us all the time (a little creepy? A fat old man spying on your kids when they’re sleeping and awake?) he’s got the supernatural surveillance but he’s always somewhere else – he’s far away where he can’t interfere. He’s got the CIA spy-gear and the jackboots but he never comes kicking in your door to put a black bag over your head, he just slips in through the heating vents, plants the toys and goes back to base (I checked the toys last Christmas, by the way, they’re not manufactured in the North Pole anymore – apparently Santa Claus has moved his operation to Taiwan where the labor is cheaper, and his sleigh these days is called “Amazon Prime.” I should start calling my car that. “Amazon Prime.” I should call my wife that too. She’d love it).


We have a powerful desire to humanize God – to make Him more like Santa Claus. We try to humanize nature too – “Mother Nature.” “Mommy nature, we’re sorry,” because we know mothers can’t resist empty apologies, our moms think we’re so cute. “We won’t do it again,” we already called, our friends are on their way over so we can do it again. That’s why we don’t say “Uncle Nature,” because when we make an environmental boo-boo we don’t want to hear “You ordered your bed, now sleep in it.” We want a Mommy to accept our hollow apologies and clean up our mess for us, “Oh, bless your heart, don’t worry, we’ll sweep it under this carpet called…the ocean.”

In Christianity it’s a sin to believe in “Mother Nature.” But if you just happen to have a statue of Mary in your garden, and your roses just happen to prosper? That’s innocent, right? I mean, what could be more innocent than an unwed teenaged mother?

We want nature to love us, and nature does love us – and not just for feeding the mosquitoes and hosting her beloved flu virus (“Thanks for the ride!” “Freeloading hippie, get a job, flu virus, you bum.”) but also for just being ourselves, adorable little rug-rats, critters, animals. Nature loves us, but nature doesn’t love us best. She gives us the same rules as every other species – “I want you to have friends, but keep the party small and don’t make a mess of the place.” Because when we let our population boom out of control she’ll send us to bed without supper, and if we trash nature’s house she’ll clean it up with tidal waves.

I love nature but I don’t really like nature. Nature is mouths and thorns and mosquitoes and animal crap on the ground when you’re walking and feel the sun on your face and your heart is beating and your problems seem inconsequential and… Aw! Aw man! Who left this here? Now all my problems seem insurmountable and I’ve gotta scrape this nature off my boots.

And nature communicates with us in feelings, instincts, mostly from our bellies and our swimsuit area. She doesn’t get it that we’re the nerds of the animal high school, we want our instructions clear. How do I pass this test? Couldn’t you put it in writing? And so we cling to our religions, which give us study guides for the final exam – a syllabus. For example, the Bible is divided into two Testaments – “Testament” meaning contract. And right there at that start of the first contract, God creates the world in a certain way, and begins telling people about how they should interact with it.


According to the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, God dictated the formation of skies and land in six days. A seventeenth century bishop used Biblical chronological data to calculate that this process began on October 23rd, 4004 years before the common era. The land was flat and the sky was a hard, solid dome on top of it – if you can imagine one of those plastic bubbles that gumball machine toys come in, that’s the world that gets created in Genesis One. And the sun and moon chased each other around inside this bubble, and God made plants and animals and sea-monsters and birds and then little figurines of Godself. Once these little figurines, people, are in place, the whole structure can finally pass inspection, “Very Good,” and then God subcontracted human beings to oversee the whole business.

In the last few centuries, preachers and scientists have been playing tug-of-war over the logistics of this story, and we’ve generally come to agree that the world is more than six thousand years old, it’s round (we’ve all seen the photographs) and probably revolves around the sun. But there are other elements of this story that our culture has a harder time letting go of. The story tells us that Creation was complete when humanity appeared. It tells us that the human being is the final, the ultimate creature. The finished product. Well of course we are! History begins with us, everything before humanity was just prologue of bumbling bacteria and dimwitted dinosaurs, and history will end with us, if humanity ends there will be nothing but cockroaches picking at our trash. “Hey Keef, we’ve struck gold! A Twinkie, we’re set for life!” The world was made for humanity. Many of us here are not Biblical literalists, and yet many of us here still believe that the human race is the culmination of creation, and that when we’re finished the story is over forever.

We do love to debate about who made humanity – was humanity made by God, all at once? Or was humanity made by the world, gradually formed and refined by evolution and natural selection? Did Adam and Eve have furry tails and swing from trees? But our cultural debate about natural selection has nothing to do with monkeys. I mean, sure, it might be embarrassing to say you’re related to primates who play with their own feces, but anybody who’s ever raised a toddler can come to terms with that. The hardest thing about accepting natural selection is letting go of Supernatural selection – a promise from God that we as humans are exempt from the laws and limits that govern the survival of every other species. We are taught to believe that humanity is “too big to fail,” and that if we as a species crash, God will bail us out. And if we let go of that, our cherished cultural belief in a manifest destiny of expansion and renovation will be exposed as a reckless binge, an intoxicated rampage fueled by delusions of indestructibility.

In Genesis 1:28, God is reported to say, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over…every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Our culture is built on dominion over the earth, changing the land to suit our needs. And eliminating any creature that gets in our way. We might debate about whether or not it’s America’s God-given responsibility to police all the nations of the earth, but few of us would debate whether or not it’s humanity’s God-given responsibility to police all the species of the earth. Mark Twain observed, “We hunt the fly remorselessly; also the flea, the rat, the snake, the disease germ and a thousand other creatures which [God] pronounced good, and was satisfied with, and which we loudly praise and approve – with our mouths – and then harry and chase and malignantly destroy, by wholesale.”

As we debate the mechanics of the Genesis creation story, we can forget to look at the message of the creation story – God said each part of creation was good. Before people started messing with it. Maybe the story is telling us – before we charge in to filling, subduing and dominating, we should always take a look at creation and consider: “God said this was ‘Good’ as it is – are we really going to make it better?” Because many of our big box stores and parking lots are not an improvement (and all this bulk-buying and driving isn’t doing our figures any favors either). Civilization did not begin with some group of people ten thousand years ago saying “Hey! We’ve got a great idea! Let’s destroy the earth!” No – it began with some group of people ten thousand years ago saying “Let’s perfect the earth!” For ten thousand years, groups of people have been trying to perfect their environment, not to wreck it but to make it better. To make it easier to provide for themselves and their children.

Decades ago, I don’t know how many, someone stepped onto a plot of land in my neighborhood and said “I know what will make this perfect. We’ll clear a few of these trees, and build a small, humble house here.” And months ago, someone else stepped onto that plot of land and said, “I know what will make this perfect. We’ll knock down this old house, clear some more of these trees and…” How they intend to improve the neighborhood remains to be seen, but I’m told that they’re going to build a parking garage. That’s our modern idea of perfection – easy parking.

An eighteenth century French exile who called himself Voltaire composed a short novel called Candide, about a young man’s quest to make some sense of life. The search for meaning drags poor Candide like a rag-doll across the planet, making him witness and victim to countless atrocities born of nationalistic and religious fanaticism. By the end of the story, Candide has no illusions about countries or creeds, and when someone attempts to draw him into a philosophical discussion about life’s meaning, Candide calmly says, “We must tend the garden.”

We live in a time religious and political fanaticism, ideologies clash like clanging cymbals drowning out the noise of destruction around us as our culture attempts to perfect the world by turning it into a parking lot. And in all this noise we can easily miss that calm voice: “We must tend to the garden.” The garden needs our help, it’s true, but we must also let the garden tend to itself, because it is good. And when we acknowledge that the garden is good, we can stop trying to perfect it and let the garden tend to us.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

SUCCESS (A Sermon)

"Smile" (By Jackson)

“Smile” (By Jackson)

SUCCESS (A Sermon)

Once upon a time two monkeys were splashing in the mud, flinging their feces at each other, laughing like idiots, whatever. One of them said, “let’s go get some grubs” and the other one said “No, I’m tired of grubs, I’m tired of this whole grubby scene.” So he killed his friend and carved him into a pair of boots with straps. And he pulled on his bootstraps up up up until he was out of the primeval muck and now his great-great-great-grandnephew is a barista at Starbucks, slowly paying back his bachelor’s degree in subversive literature. The degree is not worthless, he tells himself – he has a popular blog in which he castigates the primates in Washington. The grand primates are unconcerned about his belabored writings – to them he is only a monkey flinging digital feces. Unscented.


…And once upon a time, a semi-intelligent primate was too lazy to search the internet, so I typed “success story” into my own brain and that’s what popped up. What is “success”? What does it mean to be “successful”? My two brothers, both born in New Jersey, are lawyers now – they’re successful by New Jersey standards because they both got out of New Jersey. I was born in the Bronx and married a Bronx-girl. I earn a tenth of what lawyers do, but I’m successful by Bronx standards because my wife is half Jamaican and my floor is covered with children. My Mother was born in Soviet-occupied Hungary, she’s a success because she does not currently reside in a mass grave. When I asked her opinion about monetary versus genetic success she was wisely silent, but I could see that her mind was engaged in calculating dividends of great-grandchildren.
I’m not going to go on and on about my family (I do hope to still receive Birthday gifts from someone this year), but even these few examples suggest a vast diversity of definitions for “success,” even among a small group of relatives.


As a male of the human species my mind and body were built for hunting. And even though I don’t use these tools to kill animals, I can feel the hunter-gears turning inside when I zoom in on a concrete, short-term goal, clear everything else in my mind to make a straight path, launch myself forward, accomplish the mission, and then immediately forget it and identify another short-term concrete goal. “I will find the remote control.” “I will fill in the blank.” “Twelve other monkeys and I will change this light-bulb.” For the hunter, success is a sporadic series of quickie-victories.
Women are something else. I don’t claim to understand them at all, but being a Snodgrass gives me the right to patiently explain something I know nothing about. Elizabeth has been conditioned by our culture to approach objectives in a male/hunter way, and yet when she’s given a choice she’ll enact a different strategy: she’ll survey the landscape, identify some edible or pleasant or colorful objects that might trigger interesting thoughts or seed an enjoyable conversation, gather these objects in a bag and ideas in her head. Later, while shiny objects enliven the atmosphere and edible objects add color and texture to dinner, she’ll open the jar of conversation pieces in her mind, and a colorful mix of old and new thoughts will tumble from her mouth. Though she’s been trained as a hunter, her body and mind seem to operate more naturally as a gatherer, and so her ideas of success seem to be something like “I want to feel more fulfilled, to be surrounded by objects, foods and people that will make life more stimulating.” Maybe I’m way off here, I confess that my field-study of Elizabeth is clouded by the nature of my hunter mind and body, which is always stalking her in the hope of achieving a short-term concrete goal, a moment of victory followed by a heavy forgetful sleep.
Will I ever achieve a short-term concrete goal again now that I’ve said this in public? In my defense I’ll point out that I avoided words like “clutter” and “chatter.” A gatherer wants to be surrounded by interesting things, so she can nestle in them. A hunter wants one interesting thing at a time, straight ahead, so he can throw himself at it. And I believe that it was a combination of these approaches that made the human species so successful in the wild. But then you put these two jungle animals in the modern industrial consumer world and it starts to look crazy – our nest is a jumbled mess, she’s neurotic and I’m obsessive.


Our transition from jungle animals to urban intellectuals has been accompanied by a constant renegotiation of what it means to be human and what it means to be successful. Three million years ago, intelligent primates would pick a few berries, pee on a bush and say “There, now we’re both happy.” Success for them was to briefly carry a torch in the great relay-race of life. To eat, shoot and leave, sprouting a few healthy babies and bowel movements along the way. Then ten thousand years ago came the farmer who chops down the bush because it only sprouts berries once a year, and he plants some corn. For him, “success” means being a man, he fights the earth to give him what he wants, returning only the bare minimum to keep the earth producing. Of course the Earth is always winning, so he and his first cousin spawn fourteen young farmhands to fill the Earth and subdue it.
Then there’s me – I read interesting things and say interesting things, I process information. Then I log in to the bank website and the number is bigger, then I go to the grocery store and the number gets smaller, and I cook something and eat it. I live on a high-wire, a tight-rope. I’ve been taught to fear looking down – you don’t want to be a farmer, that’s why you went to college, to learn how to get paid for processing information. And you don’t want to be a forager, that’s why your forefathers took over the world, and it wasn’t easy! But that means “success” is something more abstract, because my hands are neither trading with the earth nor fighting with it.
I suppose “success” is becoming synonymous with celebrity. The world, it turns out, can only feed a limited number of celebrity egos, but cyberspace can accommodate an infinite number of celebrities – the catch is, you’ve got to be your own publicist and your own paparazzi. When I was young there was an expression people used when you accomplished something – “don’t get a big head about it.” But in the selfie-generation your head needs to be the biggest thing in the world – “look at how big my head is compared to Mount Rushmore in the background! The obscene pride of Manifest Destiny is nothing compared to my vacation bender!” “So, um…I joined your fan-club, I get hourly updates on your newsfeed…but what is it you produce? What is it you do?” “’Produce’? Go back to the industrial age, old man.”


When I think about “Generation Why Me?” or whatever it’s called, my first impulse is to assume that for young people, “success” is an abbreviation of “sexual excess.” Like one of those Newspeak texting things, “IMHO, Success tonight, LOL.” But as a college teacher, I find that “success” has come to mean something far more alarming – for most of my students, the definition of success is “getting away with it.” These kids, no matter how many times they heard about a “good clean game” in Little League and Sunday school, a quick glance at the TV news revealed something else: the most successful people in this country got there by “getting away with it,” and stay successful by constantly testing the limits of what they can get away with. How many lies can you tell before you get caught? How many interns can you grope? How much money can you steal? (And, PS – if you become successful enough, you can attain the status of plutocratic immunity, “too big to fail,” where you get caught with your hand in the cookie-jar and still get the cookies).
We’re concerned when teenagers bully each other to suicide. I’m horrified when I hear about the date-rape epidemic on college campuses. Meanwhile as a college teacher I’ve had to become a detective to investigate an epidemic of plagiarism. But aren’t these just symptoms of the same disease? Tomorrow’s bankers and senators aren’t in college to learn how to ask deep questions – they’re in college to refine their skills of getting away with it. Because as children watching the Wall-Street bailout, they learned that “getting away with it” is the secret of success. “Do unto others as long as they can’t sue unto you.” Children hear what we say, but what forms them the most is watching what we do. “Bullying is bad, Joey. Now shut up and get me a beer, Donald Trump is on TV.”
It’s the bullies and superstars who become models for success – not the janitors, bus-drivers and teachers. Certainly not the adjunct professor, which I suspect must be Latin for “Scab,” since it basically means the expendable grunt you bring in for a quarter of what you’d have to pay a tenure-track PhD. I make less in a year than the lady who empties the trash can in my office – and I bet she gets dental insurance. Twenty years from now, professors will be huddled outside campus gates at 6am, the dean will come out with security officers in riot gear: “You – speak English? Teach metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology? Fifty bucks, you teach it today. Fifty bucks.” “Yes, I…teach that.” And some poor sap who’s been hired to teach ancient history will be lecturing “In the old days when men wore frock coats and top hats, there was a word they used – write this down, it will be on the test – ‘Re-tire-ment,’ which meant that someone got tired,” the day-laborer with a doctorate will get a tear in his eye “and then they played checkers for twenty-five years.” Retirement as we know it is a twentieth century concept, and in the twenty-first century it’ll be replaced by “Re-try-ment,” in which senior citizens will get to retry the service jobs they did as teenagers.
Someday our retirement homes will be like the Mayan pyramids, the Ziggurat of Ur, the great stone heads of Easter Island – incomprehensible ruins, cryptic reminders of a forgotten era. Children playing frisbee with a bedpan washed in acid rain will ask, “what failure caused the fall of this civilization?” And one of our primitive stone-age descendants will think a moment and say, “success. It was success that caused the fall of this civilization.” The children will be confused. But it was not failure that turned the fertile crescent into the Iraqi desert, not failure that turned Easter Island into a barren rock, not failure that turned the Mayan cities into jungle ruins. It was success. Because every year they strove to put more land under cultivation, more backs under the whip, more voices into the pledge of allegiance, and every year they succeeded, until the land was exhausted and the people were too many and it all came tumbling down. Success was their failure. Meanwhile off in the woods, small groups of migratory scavengers enacted a different story, no magnificent metropolis, no crops, no shirts, no money, no stuff but the basic stone tools of survival. Jungle savages. We’ve been taught to think of them as failure, and in monetary and material terms they are, but their failure is success. How do we measure that success? Everyone in this room is descended from primitive savages.


We may have been told that we come from failure. God’s failure to create a perfect world or humanity’s failure to be a perfect citizen. When I was young, I heard that the human story begins with failure and shame in the Garden of Eden, and that the penalty was death. And, looking around, I’ve noticed that our stone-age, bronze-age and iron-age ancestors do seem to all be dead. Except that they live on in us. Oddly we’ve been taught to think of that as a failure – if our ancestors had behaved better, God would have destroyed the world by now. We don’t have time this morning to delve into religions and various doctrines of “salvation,” we could sort of cobble together the notion that an immortal angel has been chained to an incorrigible monkey, the goal of the game is “don’t let the monkey act like a monkey,” and success is attained when the monkey dies and the angel returns to the sky (wait, that’s not in the Bible…I think that’s in “Escape from the Planet of the Apes”). From the immaculate angelic standard we’re all failures. But from primate standards we’re super-stars – to monkeys we all look like Kevin Costner and Madonna.

We are success – we are the pure and patient eggs that were in the right place at the right time, like a sweatshop seamstress who took a moment to gaze out the window and got discovered by a Hollywood big-shot. Each of us here comes from a sperm that won a dangerous race against a thousand million others, the losers all died. We’re the X-Wing Chromosome that hit the Death-Star, or some of us are the Y-Wing, I’m no biologist. We’re Top Gun, the best of the best. Not to get all queen-ey about it, but we are the champions, my friend. And when the Ben Hur of sperm kissed the Cinderella of ovum, we magically transformed our mothers into pumpkin coaches. And I would like to think many of our mothers, mine included, celebrated the success of biology, and not the failure of birth-control.

Of course the danger didn’t stop there, we are also the success of those people who kept us alive, who furrowed permanent creases in their brows and worried white streaks into their hair. And as babies we thanked them by drifting into a peaceful sleep, letting them gaze at our soft serene baby forms, and then they looked at each other and tried to sneak off into the nursery because we always slept in the middle of their bed and we said “THANK YOU!” But it came out as “Waaaaaaaaah! Were you two in the middle of something? I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate being alive! Hey – I know a great family game – you change my diaper while you feed me!”

Ten years ago I had the curious experience of doing childcare in the Milwaukee ghetto, and then working in a downtown Manhattan preschool, where parent paid 35 thousand a year to have their kids there for three hours a day. I would ask the ghetto kids, “what do you want to do when you grow up?” And they’d say “Oh, I’ll be the president of a major company with a lot of secretaries and my own airplane.” And when I asked the privileged Manhattan preschoolers they’d say “I want to drive a dump-truck!” “Sorry, Anastacio, you can grow up to be anything you want…except that.” Ten years later I wonder if there’s a trucker in Wisconsin thinking “well if I was running this company,” and a corporate president in Manhattan sighing, “Man I wish I was driving a truck.” But in all my childcare experience, there’s one thing I’ve never heard a child say (including my inner-child, who’s right now shouting at me to shut up and let you people go home). I’ve never heard a kid say “When I grow up, I’m going to be a semi-intelligent primate.”

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a semi-intelligent primate.” Wow, saying it feels good. That puts a whole different perspective on how I would tell the story of how I got from my Mommy’s tummy to here. Because when I say that, I feel like a success, like maybe I’ve accomplished that and more. No pressure, I’m not here to push you into any monkey-business, but if you say I with me, it might feel good. “When I grow up, I’m going to be a semi-intelligent primate.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Sacrifice -or- The Gods Order Hamburgers


Table Burn

Above a shop window on Elmwood Avenue hangs a large picture of Muhatma Gandhi with his version of the Seven Deadly Sins: “Wealth without work. Pleasure without conscience. Science without humanity. Knowledge without character. Politics without principle. Commerce without morality. Worship without sacrifice.” Now before we all run off to the tattoo parlor, let’s take a moment to ponder the last one, “worship without sacrifice.” It sounds a little strange – sacrifice seems kind of…un-Gandhi-ish…but perhaps in our unspoken agreement to make him an honorary Christian, we can forget that while he deeply respected Jesus, Muhatma Gandhi was happily a Hindu.

As a teacher I find that sacrifice is a real blind spot as we modern Americans, with our mix of enlightenment and entitlement, enter into a study of religion. We might even lazily use animal/human sacrifice as a line of distinction between primitive and perfected religions – the only religion that still sacrifices animals in modern America is Santeria, which many of us have never even heard of. “The gods demand sacrifice!” shouts a Mayan-inspired priest in The Road to El Dorado, and those early agricultural religions are filled with it – the Sumerians, Babylonians and Egyptians, Aztecs, Incas and Mayans, even the Greeks, Romans, Celts and Vikings. From the very dawn of agriculture and Civilization, there was a Sumerian belief that the gods needed hamburgers, and had created mortals for the sole purpose of preparing them. That may sound idiotic. But every modern religion of Salvation begins with sacrifice, and they all retain it in some revised form.

“Sacrifice” literally means to make something sacred, and “Sacred” literally means pertaining to the realm of spirits and/or gods. So sacrifice means to transfer something from the physical realm to the spiritual realm, and this is usually accomplished by destroying it or by communally consuming it. The Christian Bible is divided into two Testaments, “Testament” coming from a Greek word meaning a promise you make while holding your testicles to demonstrate your willingness to sacrifice them if your words are proven false. I’m not making this up. Greek translators used the word “Testament” as an approximation of the Hebrew word for “Covenant,” which means an agreement sealed by cutting and sharing an animal.

In the first book of the Bible, Abel sacrifices a lamb, then Cain sacrifices Abel, and Noah who saved all those endangered animals lands the ark and sacrifices a bunch of them. Abraham’s treaty with God is formalized by the cutting of several animals, and we witness countless other sacrificial contracts carved throughout the Hebrew Bible. It is not until Abraham offers a giant cheeseburger that God grants his wish of a son, and then God considers eating the son too. We might think that this was the first call for child sacrifice but the Bible does not say so, and Abraham’s unquestioning compliance implies that it was nothing out of the ordinary. The Law set forth in the Torah contains numerous classifications of sacrifice, some of which are eaten by the defendant, the priest and God, and some of which are entirely burned to be eaten by God alone. The book of Leviticus specifies that all animal sacrifice must be conducted in the Jerusalem Temple, and so after its destruction in 70 CE animal sacrifice was replaced with an equivalent monetary offering that is still practiced in Judaism. But the Pesach/Passover Seder still requires the meat of a lamb, which must be ritualistically slaughtered by a Kosher butcher.

In Christianity, the “New Covenant” is a contractual renegotiation sealed with the blood of the Christ, often symbolized as a sacrificial lamb. And he is ritually eaten in reenactments of his last supper – depending on which Christian tradition one belongs to, portions of the Christ might be eaten once a year or several times a day. Jesus himself said that anyone who wants to follow him must be willing to take up the cross and submit themselves as a sacrifice, and we can see various responses to this call in traditions of Christian martyrdom and monasticism, even in the rallying call for the Crusades. Or we might just throw two bucks into a passing plate on a Sunday morning and call it even (many Christians today believe that God is on a strict heart-healthy diet of love, songs and prayers).

A tiny minority of Muslims believe in sacrificing one’s life to harm others. This stems from a strained interpretation of certain Qur’anic passages, but the Qur’an is manifestly clear on requiring every Muslim to make the Hajj pilgrimage and slaughter an animal there to be shared among the needy in Mecca (in modern times, these animals are butchered and packed to be shipped to charities around the world). In contrast to other sacrificial traditions, the Qur’an states that God does not eat a portion of the sacrificial meat.

In an ancient Veda of Hinduism, the world was created through the sacrifice and dismemberment of the original man – a supposition the Hindus share with their estranged cousins the Babylonians and Vikings. And who can forget the image of the indigo goddess Kali in her skirt of severed arms and necklace of human skulls, arousing dead Shiva back to life by gymnastic lap-dance? She wasn’t just made up for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Hinduism still retains the tradition of leaving plates of food in front of devotional figurines called Murtis. Even Buddhism, which has no gods, demands a sacrifice – the sacrifice of the eternal Self which in Hinduism would play chutes-and-ladders in eons of reincarnations. Siddhartha became the Buddha by giving up Siddhartha.

In the religion of American Nationalism we readily call war casualties a “sacrifice” for our culture, and apply the concept of “martyrdom” to murdered reformers. In modern times, many men and women will choose to “sacrifice” their prime reproductive years on the altar of career advancement, while others will “sacrifice” their career goals to raise children. Our forms of child sacrifice (signing our sons up for junior varsity football, sending our virgin daughters to college) and animal sacrifice (the Thanksgiving turkey that dies for our founding fathers’ sins, the cattle and pigs we barbecue on Independence Day) are more abstract but still recognizable.

Some of us in modern times may think of sacrifice as primitive and wasteful, and yet we can still see it, though abstracted, in modern traditions. When I think of organized religion’s current crisis – many people feeling like religion has no real connection to their life – I have to wonder if it has something to do with modern religions’ denial of their sacrificial roots. Free-market competition between American Christian denominations seems to have turned “salvation” into some sort of door- prize freebee, and so it’s no surprise if “salvation” doesn’t seem that valuable. Maybe “worship without sacrifice” is not such a great thing after all.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized


It’s been a while since I posted something here.  A lot of this last year has been occupied with relocating from Western North Carolina to Buffalo NY, near where I grew up, and now I’ve resumed teaching college courses on comparative religion.  Having stumbled into a sort of “sabbatical” semester, I decided to fill in some blanks in my knowledge by researching/writing about Greek mythology and ancient sacrificial traditions.




“A Bacchic [Dionysian] priest called out to the people to celebrate a feast, handmaid or slave, to go on holiday, each girl, like mistress, cover her breasts with furs, twist the grape leaf and myrtle in flying hair, each carry in her hands the magic vine-grown thyrsus…Matrons, young wives with babies at their breasts, answered his call, left spindle, loom and basket – housework undone… Wherever you go, the crowd is there, the shrieks of girls, the shouts of boys, tympanum [drums] roaring and the cry of flutes.” (Ovid) Marija Gimbutas writes, “Dionysus was a bull-god, god of annual renewal, imbued with all the urgency of nature. Brimming with virility, he was the god most favoured by women.” Camille Paglia puts is more bluntly: “Dionysus is nature’s raw sex and violence. He is drugs, drink, dance – the dance of death.”

The standard account of Dionysus’ birth is a trashy episode in the Olympian soap opera: a young Theban princess named “Semele was loved by Zeus because of her beauty, but since he had his intercourse with her secretly and without speech she thought that the god despised her; consequently [on jealous Hera’s advice] she made the request of him that he come to her embraces in the same manner as in his approaches to Hera. Accordingly, Zeus visited her in a way befitting a god, accompanied by thundering and lightning, revealing himself to her as he embraced her; but Semele, who was pregnant and unable to endure the majesty of the divine presence, brought forth the babe untimely and was herself slain by the fire.” (Siculus) Zeus then salvaged the zygote from her charred remains and “hid it away deep in a strange pit of his own thigh” (whatever that means) where the fetus completed its gestation.

While most mythographers agree about Semele being Dionysus’ mother, Diodorus Siculus preserves an older tradition in which Dionysus was born of Zeus and the grain goddess Demeter. Newborn baby Dionysus, with a mischievous grin and the horns of a bull, playfully mounted his father’s throne, but Hera unleashed the brawling Titans on him. Dionysus shape-shifted into the likeness of Zeus, Kronos, a lion, a horse, a snake and finally a bull when “the sons of Gaia tore to pieces the god, who was a son of Zeus and Demeter, and boiled him, but his members were brought together again by Demeter and he experienced a new birth as if for the first time.” (Siculus) Here the dismembered and reassembled body of Dionysus parallels “the vine, which has been stripped of its fruit and pruned at the yearly seasons, is restored by the earth to the high level of fruitfulness which it had before.” (Siculus)

Like other resurrected gods, Dionysus had two festivals – one on the Winter Solstice and the other in early spring. The springtime Dionysus carnival was celebrated with “Passion Play” reenactments of his death, in which a live bull was torn to pieces and communally eaten amid a clamor of flutes and cymbals, presumably with much wine, after which celebrants would run feverishly into the woods to indulge in lewd pursuits. In Euripides’ play The Bacchae, a traumatized eyewitness describes a frenzy of “young wives and the old and girls as yet unyoked. First they let down their hair upon their shoulders and pulled up their slipping fawnskins… Some, holding in their arms a fawn or the wild cubs of a wolf, gave them white milk to suck, all the young mothers with breasts still bursting full, their babes left behind. [Then] they attacked our cattle that were grazing on fresh grass, with not an axe in hand. You might have seen one of them holding up in her two hands a milk-fed bellowing calf, while others pulled together, tearing heifers apart. Then ribs or a cloven hoof you might have seen hurled high and low – and things hanging besmeared with blood, dripping beneath the pine-boughs. Violent bulls, whose angered horns before were quick to charge, were tripped and brought down bodily to the ground, overcome by innumerable girlish hands.” (Euripides)

Camille Paglia writes, “The violent principle of Dionysian cult is sparagmos, which in Greek means ‘a rending, tearing, mangling’ and secondly ‘a convulsion, spasm.’ The body of the god, or a human or animal substitute, is torn to pieces, which are eaten or scattered like seed. Omophagy, ritual eating of raw flesh, is the assimilation and internalization of godhead… Dionysian sparagmos was an ecstasy of sexual excitation and superhuman strength. Try disjointing a grocery chicken with your bare hands! – much less a living goat or heifer. The scattering of sparagmos inseminated the earth. Hence swallowing the god’s parts was an act of physical love.” Sir James Frazer proposes that with time, as the god became more associated with a human form, the sacrifice was reinterpreted as a sacrifice to feed the god, but “in rending and devouring a live bull at his festival the worshipers of Dionysus believed themselves to be killing the god, eating his flesh, and drinking his blood.”

The second day of the frenzied festival was known as the Day of Cups. As the name suggests, this was a drinking party, but it was more than just drunken revel: the “spirits” people imbibed were believed to be the spirit of the god himself, as Euripides writes: “This god, poured out, propitiates the gods, so men get all their happiness through him…his intoxication is, like any madness, full of prophecy. For when this deity in plenitude enters the body, then his revelers rave, revealing in their words what is to come.” (Euripides) “After everyone had drunk, the wife of the magistrate was married to Dionysus in the Bukoleion or Ox-stall, attended by women who had taken vows of chastity in the service of Dionysus. Thither the image of Dionysus, possibly in bovine form, or an actor wearing horns and a hide, was brought on a boat-like structure on wheels to complete the nuptial rites.” (Marija Gimbutas)

Dionysus was the blurring of boundaries – he was at once human, animal and god, dressed in drag he was male and female, intoxicated he was asleep and awake, alive and dead, in ritual he was generative sex and destructive violence. Dionysus was sex in the mud at a rock festival, but of course without the convenience fees, VIP corrals, wristbands and cheerful reminders that smokers are not welcome to relax (how did rock concerts become so much like airports and internment camps?). Dionysus was the primeval chaos, the murky primordial stew that advanced civilizations with administrative gods had tried so hard to segregate and classify. And yet these same civilizations, including our own, always carry the myth of that golden age when gender hierarchy, interspecies conflict, divine alienation and human mortality did not yet exist. The Greeks did too, and once a year they would leave their stately colonnaded temples behind, drop acid in the woods, watch the tree-bark slither, have a deep conversation with a mossy rock and then get frisky like the woodland critters. And in this chaotic paradise, participants threw off conventions and constraints, tearing through boundaries of human/god/animal, life/death, male/female, slave/free – Dionysus was pandemonium but also paradise. “Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats, living together! Mass hysteria!”

Ironically we can see traces of Dionysus in both Christianity (consuming the body and blood of a resurrected god-man) and medieval Witchcraft (rumors of women on psychedelic drugs getting freaky with a horned, goat-footed devil-man). Dionysus was even begrudgingly inducted into the Roman Catholic roster of Saints, inspiring the popular name Dennis. This may explain why your Denny’s breakfast tasted like it was mangled by filthy intoxicated women.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Kingdom Come: Jesus and the Environment

Bathroom Sink Cross

Last week, Interfaith Action and the United Religions Initiative in Hendersonville NC presented an interfaith panel discussion about religion and environmentalism.  There was a Rabbi, a Muslim, a Wiccan Priestess, and I spoke about Christianity.  The main question was – what do our faith traditions tell us about how people are meant to live in relation to the rest of the community of life on earth?  Writing about Christianity and environmentalism proved to be too daunting and depressing, so I wrote about Jesus instead.




In Genesis 1:28, God writes humanity a blank check from the bank of creation “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Is this how Christians are meant to live in relation to the environment? What would Jesus do? As far as we know, Jesus was not fruitful, he didn’t increase a number of little Jesus Juniors, he didn’t own land, he didn’t build a plantation, and though he may have called himself a “Good Shepherd,” he doesn’t have any sheep during his ministry, so if he was a literal shepherd he must have been a bad one. More likely it was a metaphor. Jesus called farmers, fishermen and herders to quit their day-jobs and become a small tribe of nomadic foragers.

Jesus never says that God wants us to “rule the earth and subdue it” – actually he says the exact opposite: “Our father…your will be done on earth.” Instead of God telling humanity to tear the world apart and put it back together for our own comfort and convenience, Jesus taught his disciples to pray that humanity would give that dominion back. Instead of looking at nature and saying “What a mess, how can we make this better?” We’re supposed to ask “What was God’s intention here, and how can we cooperate? How can we fit in?”

Well that’s a really tough one, since Jesus our teacher hasn’t left any instructions for two thousand years. And his proteges, the disciples, could never understand him. But if we listen carefully, we find that Jesus did recommend teachers we can still listen to: “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them… Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these… And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” (Luke 12:24-31)

Jesus wasn’t telling us to rule the birds, he was telling us to learn from them. He wasn’t telling us to have lawns three quarters of an inch high in suburbia, he was telling us that we can learn from the plants. And most important, he wasn’t telling us to destroy this planet in a desperate grab for food, water and clothing – he was saying that when we look at God’s creation and agree that it’s good, and look for how humanity can fit in, we’ll have these things! And we don’t have to wait until after death – he says that when we cooperate with creation, we’ll have what we need to survive.

Of course many of us here don’t speak Raven – it’s not that hard actually, the word “caw” is like Shalom or Aloha, it means “hello, let’s eat, goodbye, whatever.” But if we really can’t learn from the birds and plants, Jesus recommended other teachers: In Mark 10:14 he says, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Children will surprise you with their clarity of vision – this is good, this is bad, this is right, this is wrong. And we spend billions of dollars and hours teaching them shades of gray, teaching them that the world is more complicated than it looks. That they need to work hard, get stuff, pay bills, drive a car. I know my children would be much happier if their teachers were deer and bears and their classroom was a forest. Well that’s what education was, until people started this mutiny for world-dominion. Maybe someday instead of giving our children sit-still pills to crush their instinct for an eight-hour school-day, maybe someday we’ll give them God’s Kingdom instead, and let them teach us that the world is simple when we cooperate – it’s impossible we try to dominate.

Nature hates a makeover – reshaping this world is like the struggle to get a squirming toddler into church-clothes on Sunday morning, and yet we feel it’s our sacred responsibility to drag this world kicking and screaming into one of our utopian fantasies. Christian doctrine says not to get involved, to be “in the world but not of the world,” whatever that means. But when a crime is committed in plain sight, there’s no such thing as an “innocent bystander.”

John 3:16, maybe the most famous passage in the New Testament – mostly because of a belief that if you write this magic spell on a sign and hold it at a sporting event, it’s guaranteed your team will crush their enemies. I’m not going to recite the whole verse, but those first six words: “For God so loved the world.” Maybe it’s time we stopped destroying God’s world, maybe it’s time we stopped hating God’s world and waiting for a divine evacuation, maybe it’s time we forgive God’s world for being so savage and primitive and childish and “earthy.” God so loved the world – it is not a sin for Christians to love it too.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Zechariah and John the Baptizer in the Bible and Qur’an

Zechariah and John in the Bible and Qur’an

All four of the Canonical Gospels contain accounts of John the Baptizer as a forerunner of Jesus. The Gospel of Luke attests that John and Jesus were cousins, and begins with a story of John’s conception: his father Zechariah was a high priest performing an incense offering in the Jerusalem Temple when an angel appeared. The messenger surprises the elderly Zechariah with the news that his aging wife Elizabeth will give birth (we are not told whether or not Zechariah has prayed for this). Zechariah is suspicious of this news, and he is struck dumb as a punishment for his disbelief: “Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” (Luke 1:20) Zechariah then cannot speak until the baby is delivered. A close reading of Zechariah’s story in the Qur’an reveals some interesting differences: he will pray for a son, and his silence will be a sign of God’s answer.


Sura 19:1 Sufficient, Guide, Blessed, Knowing, Truthful God.
19:2 A mention of the mercy of your Lord to His servant Zechariah –
19:3 When he called upon his Lord, crying in secret.
19:4 He said: “My Lord, my bones are weakened, and my head flares with gray hair, and I have never been unsuccessful in my prayer to You, my Lord.
19:5 And I fear for my kinsfolk after me, and my wife is barren, so grant me from Yourself an heir
19:6 Who will continue my work and continue the Children of Jacob. And make him, my Lord, acceptable to You.”
19:7 [An Angel called to him:] “Zechariah! We give you good news of a boy, whose name is John. We have never before made anyone his equal.”
19:8 He said: “My Lord, how shall I have a son, and my wife is barren, and I have reached extreme old age?”
19:9 He said: “So it will be. Your Lord says: ‘It is easy to Me, and indeed I created you before, when you were nothing.’”
19:10 He said: “My Lord, give me a sign.” He said: “Your sign is that you will not speak to people three nights, though you are in sound health.”
19:11 So he went forth to his people from the sanctuary and signaled to them: “Glorify God morning and evening.”
19:12 We said: “John, hold on to the Book with all your strength,” and We granted him wisdom when a child,
19:13 And kind-heartedness from Us and purity. And he was dutiful,
19:14 And kindly to his parents, and he was not insolent or disobedient.
19:15 And peace on him the day he was born and the day he died, and the day he is raised to life.


The most fascinating aspect of the Qur’anic report of John the Baptizer is that it’s not about John at all. He’s a secondary character in a story about Zechariah, whose prayer for a son is answered. The Qur’an gives no account of John’s adulthood, his baptisms or his interactions with Jesus. We are told only that he was “honorable and chaste, a prophet from among the good ones” (Sura 3:38) and that he was obedient to his father: “Surely they used to compete with one another in good deeds, and called upon Us, hoping and fearing, they were humble before Us.” (Sura 21:90) This competition in good deeds can be found in the Talmud: “What message did the Torah bring to Israel? Take upon yourselves the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, vie one with the other in the fear of God and practise loving deeds towards one another.” This vying does not mean that one will win and the other will lose, but that both will benefit from some friendly competition.


“The Book” that John is told to take hold of in Sura 19:12 could refer to the Torah, or to the ‘Mother of Books,’ God’s own book of wisdom. Zechariah, in his old age, wishes that God would replace him with another Temple priest, someone to continue the sacred traditions of Judaism. Those of us familiar with John in the Gospels know that the limb falls far from the tree, he goes shouting at people in the wasteland, far from the Temple and its sacrificial altars (he was a voice crying out, “In the wilderness [implied: not the Temple], prepare the way of the Lord.”). And without continuing the lineage of high priests, he gets incarcerated and decapitated for subversion. But in the Qur’an we are told only that John was a worthy successor to his father, and therefore an answer to Zechariah’s prayer. The announcement that “We have never before made anyone his equal” (Sura 19:7) recalls Jesus’ assessment of John, “A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet… I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:26, 28)


LUKE 3:7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”
11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”


Though the Qur’an contains no scenes of John preaching, it has numerous parallels with his sermon. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance… Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7-9) John’s teaching of the fruit-bearing tree as a symbol of generosity would later be expanded by Jesus, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit… The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:43-45) The symbol of the trees is further expanded in the Qur’an:


Sura 14:24 God sets forth a parable of a good word as a good tree, whose root is firm and whose branches are high,
14:25 Yielding its fruit in every season by the permission of its Lord. God sets forth parables for men that they may be mindful.
14:26 And the parable of an evil word is as an evil tree pulled up from the earth’s surface; it has no stability.
14:27 God confirms those who believe with the sure word in this world’s life and in the Hereafter; and God leaves the wrongdoers in error.
The good tree here is not only spared from punishment, it is also blessed with abundance “in every season” – a year-round blossoming and harvest will come from it.


“Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Luke 3:8) John warns that in God’s judgment, no one will be granted special leniency because of descent from Abraham. The Qur’an likewise affirms that no one will be granted favor or spared judgment for the sake of Abraham: “Do you see the one who turns away? …Has he not been informed of what is in the scriptures of Moses and Abraham who fulfilled their duty? No soul shall bear the burden of another: a man will have only what he has earned.” (Sura 53:33-34, 36-39) Rather, “those who are closest to Abraham are those who follow his ways.” (Sura 3:67) Abraham himself is not remembered for uncritical acceptance of received tradition – he turned away from his homeland and family practices. Abraham is best remembered for treating kings like nobodies, treating nobodies like kings, and a willingness to give up what he loved most in the world when God asked him to.


The image of God replacing the descendants of Abraham with rocks is extreme, but we can hear an echo of it in the Qur’anic warning: “You who believe, should any one of you turn back from his religion, then God will replace you with a people whom He loves and who love Him, humble toward believers, mighty against disbelievers, striving hard in God’s way and not fearing anyone’s reproach.” (Sura 5:54) But we should not consider this a rejection of the rituals and traditions of Judaism – Zechariah, being a Temple priest, is the most explicitly “Jewish” of the Qur’anic messengers, and his adherence to the Torah is rewarded with the gift of a son. In the twenty-first Surah, called “The Prophets,” a list of messengers including Abraham and David, Zechariah, John, Mary and Jesus concludes with “Surely this your community is a single community, and I am your Lord, so serve Me… Whoever does good deeds and is a believer, there is no rejection of his effort, and We keep a record of it.” (Sura 21:92, 94)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Work (A Sermon)


Graduating from college I was genuinely excited to enter the workforce. Many liberal arts students study a little of this and a little of that, feeling around to find their interests (and here I’m talking about academic classes as well as sextra-curricular activities). But I’d arrived on campus, day one, knowing exactly what I wanted to do and then put in four straight years of near-monastic devotion, long nights at the desk, working toward my dream career: to be Snodgrass, for a living – I was going to be a celebrity. A brand, a monopoly, dispensing precious nuggets from my personal stash of Snodgrass. Many would imitate, attempting to synthesize generic equivalents (“I can’t believe it’s not Snodgrass!”), but only I would control access to the real thing.

“When I grow up I’m gonna be Snodgrass.” Of course now I realize that, for a kid without rich parents and industry connections, I might as well have said “When I grow up I’m gonna be Gandalf.” Which would actually have sounded a little less ridiculous, because at least someone did get to be Gandalf for a living.

I spent my first two years out of college working at a bookstore, which, being a writer… I might as well have been a trained nutritionist pushing a snow-cone cart. Five years and seven jobs later I was cleaning public bathrooms in New York City, and felt that I was moving up – at the end of scrubbing toilets I would feel like there was less crap in the world. Dispensing spy-thrillers and sex-memoirs had made me feel like I was spreading more crap around. And my father would find me in Yonkers, in Milwaukee, in Virginia and say “Join the middle class – it is your destiny.” But I refused to have a job that came with homework, because I was still secretly spending my nights writing. Besides, entry into the middle class would have cost me my single greatest financial asset: the ability to defer my student loan payments. Academic debt is our modern form of indentured servitude, meaning you’ll be in dentures before it’s paid off.

Surveys and statistics suggest that your average Millennial will hold fifteen to twenty-five different jobs in a fifty-year period. But I don’t believe that any kid out there is really walking around saying “When I grow up I’m gonna be a projectionist, rock-wall builder, sales clerk, canvasser, do some daycare and construction work, wash windows and public bathrooms, become an adjunct professor.” If a third-grader said that on career day, they’d medicate him – until he really did think he was Gandalf.

John Steinbeck said, “the [American] poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” We’re all superstars – just some of us haven’t attained liftoff yet. The energetic young job-hopper is a frog prince, leaping from pad to pad until a kiss of success magically transforms him into a corporate king. Or they can move into their parents’ attic where alcohol and mood pills turn them into Sleeping Beauty – “Wake me up when the prince gets here and I become tabloid royalty.” “Um, sorry – the prince is raising six kids with Angelina Jolie, your love-life will be a series of seven financial dwarfs.” “Will Gandalf be leading any of these dwarfs to treasure?” “No, Gandalf is just a side-effect of the medication.”

There’s a scene in Disney’s Cinderella… I hate the Cinderella story – Sarah says “Daddy will you put on Cinderella?” “Aw, sorry I can’t find that disc right now – how about Pocahontas? Or Mulan?” I didn’t name my daughter after Sarah Connor so she could learn that singing songs through oppression and exploitation might just turn you into a millionaire. Anyway there’s a scene where the Fairy Godmother is getting Cinderella ready for the ball and she says “I know what we need…a pumpkin!” Cinderella is confused, but it eventually makes a…Disney sort of sense. Well right now we need a pumpkin in this sermon, and our pumpkin is a brief recap of the Agricultural Revolution and quick review of Max Weber’s thrilling page-turner, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It might get confusing, but then by a series of mysterious incantations I plan to transform this pumpkin into a vehicle that will transport us to… Well we’ll see when we get there, but have faith in the pumpkin.


About three million years ago there was a new kid in town with simian good looks and limitless potential. What’s got two thumbs and a sense of cause and effect? The human being. Of course we didn’t just jump into the middle class, we didn’t get jobs at all until about ten thousand years ago. You could call it a long adolescence, the human species spent about three million years wandering from site to site, trying this and that, migratory foragers saying “eh, this looks good enough. For now.” And if someone said “Son, why don’t you get a haircut? Mow the lawn? Take over the world?” He’d say, “Nyeh, sounds good pops, but I just found this bone. Gonna gnaw on it for a while. Just saw a dog doing it, he looked happy enough.”

Looking at how these primitive people acquired their food, anthropologists have designated them “Hunter/Gatherers.” This label is misleading in two significant ways: first of all it gives the impression that gaining enough calories for survival was a full-time job. But observers of primitive cultures have seen that this is not the case – acquiring daily food could be done in under an hour as long as everyone was helping. A second misconception stems from the sequence of the term “Hunter/Gatherer”: actually it was gathering that brought in the majority, 60-80% of the calories. “Bringing home the bacon” is a lot dicier in the wild than bringing home the rutabaga. It would have made far more sense to call these cultures “Gatherer/Hunters,” but most of the gathering was done by women, and most early anthropology books were written by men.

Hunting satisfies a natural male instinct to sit around together and not say anything for a long time, often followed by an opportunity to satisfy that urge to say “Did you see that? Did you see that? Did you see that?” Gathering, on the other hand, allows you to have long conversations that would scare off rabbits, but rutabaga won’t go scampering off when they hear you coming. It’s always ‘bring your baby to work day,’ also the female of the human species has a more detailed sense of color and smell (really important when you’ve got to distinguish an edible berry from poison).

When it’s time to dress the kids I’ll go stalking through a room, zoom in on something, sniff at it and my brain will say: “Shirt: clean.” And from all the way across the house I’ll hear Elizabeth saying “Don’t put her in that shirt again, it’s filthy – and she can’t wear it with those shorts anyway.” And I’ll try to reason with her: “Shirt clean,” but it’s no use, she goes into a long speech about teachers calling child protective services and I think, “Yes, our education system needs more male teachers who smoke, so they won’t notice how you dress your kids or how they smell by Wednesday.” But I don’t say that, instead I repeat the two-word mantra of every married man who wishes to have a sex-life: “You’re right.” And she is right, because for millions of years she and women like her have been honing their sense of color and smell.

After about three million years of the freewheeling gatherer-hunter lifestyle, some tribe in the Ancient Near East settled by a river and experimented with a new way of life, cultivating certain edible plants and animals, exterminating the dangerous or extraneous ones. This is called the “Agricultural Revolution,” and when learning about it we hear a lot about the tools that were developed: the hoe and plow and so forth. But the rise of Agriculture produced other inventions, far more significant: a leisure class, and a working class.

For the first time, people had to be taught that some were made to stuff themselves and others were made to suffer – literally “made to suffer,” as we can see in ancient Babylonian creation stories, where humans originate as clay drones to farm the land and feed their heavenly (and earthly) superiors. And if the little people went on strike, the gods would retaliate with a series of natural disasters, plagues, famines and wash away the leftovers with a great flood. The moral of the story, the meaning of life was “Put up, shut up, pay up.” Another invention was the full-time job, since farming was full-time work and so was bullying unambitious teenagers to do it.

Babylon eventually fell – but not because it was a failure. Babylon was toppled by its own success: too much food, producing too many people, putting a greater demand on natural resources until the land was exhausted and the culture collapsed. But that flood story survived, the Greeks used it to terrorize their peasants into “Put up, shut up, pay up.” And when Greece exhausted itself, the Romans took it, and just when it seemed the Roman Empire would fall, they switched mascots and became the Holy Roman Empire, using that same basic narrative except with Jesus Christ on a pale horse slaughtering every peasant who didn’t pay their tithes and taxes. And in case it took him a few thousand years to show up, they invented Purgatory, where deadbeats would be held hostage until their relatives scraped together enough shekels to pay the ransom. As Indulgence Salesman John Tetzel said, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”

While inquisitors extracted confessions and ministers gave long torturous sermons about the doctrine of the Trinity, the Trinitarian economy for European peasants was “Put up, shut up, pay up.” A young German monk named Martin Luther would eventually lead the protest against this extortion racket of Jesus running a debtor’s prison, and so began the Protestant Reformation. In an effort to cut the Catholic priesthood down to size, Luther coined the expression we know as “the Calling.” This was a religious belief that each and every person (not just the priesthood) was called by God to do some job on earth, and because all “Callings” were equal in God’s eyes, one should not waste energy jockeying for position in a job market.

A generation later, John Calvin took this a step further with his doctrine of predestination. His primary aim was to prove that paying priests to perform hocus pocus rituals was not going to improve one’s chance of salvation – Calvin proposed that God had already chosen the elect for heaven. And one of the signs of this selection was that the person would be spared from scarcity and anxiety on earth – so the more wealth you possessed, the more certain you were of salvation. Calvin’s thesis was purely theological, and yet he unintentionally spread a belief that wealth was an indication of holiness. Of course worldly wealth wasn’t meant to be enjoyed, it should be saved and wisely invested so that God could multiply it into greater wealth, greater security, a surer sign of salvation.

The most extreme fanatical Calvinists were chased out of Europe (just like many of us today would happily invite our fanatical fundamentalists to go colonize Mars). So they brought their gloomy fatalism, ridiculous hats and air of superiority to New England where the grim weather suited their joyless disposition. “Methinks Plymouth Rock doth sound too festive, let us seek a name both ugly to the ear and difficult for the tongue…Massachusetts.”

Now we’re getting somewhere – Calvinist Puritans arrived on the shores of the American continent, where they could apply these Protestant doctrines to everyday community life. And while the theological underpinnings faded with time, the economic byproducts remained. From Luther and Calvin’s perspective, this would be “throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater.” But the earthly afterthoughts of their theological speculations became the Protestant Work Ethic: a belief that every person is called to some career, the spiritually undeserving will be poor, God’s favorites will be rich (and vice versa: the rich are God’s favorites). Luther and Calvin would have been horrified to find that they’d accidentally spawned a Dharma system in which God’s grace was expressed in economic castes, complete with slaves imported to become the untouchables.


Though most of us in this room are not closet Presbyterians, many of us here have been shaped by the Protestant Work Ethic – choose your career and stick with it, every job is important, work hard and you’ll be fine, a penny saved is a penny earned. And we all know about the American caste system – upper class, lower class, this country even tried a hundred-year experiment with something called a “middle class” (write that down – it’ll be a vocabulary word on your grandchildrens’ history exam: “Middle class”). And then there are the bums. And everybody is where they are because that’s what they deserve – if everybody worked hard, everybody would succeed. And People Magazine would have 318 million faces on the cover each week. And we’d all ride in pumpkin coaches powered by enchanted mice.

And, though most of us in this room are not closet Presbyterians, many of us here are being led to fear the disintegration of traditional work values. But which traditions are collapsing?  Where did they come from, and how old are they, really? The Protestant Work Ethic is breaking down. We’re told to fear any deviation from the self-appointed “Greatest Generation,” the post World War 2 economy. Because they really knew the value of work – oh, except that only white men were allowed in the game, and their children wanted to flush all that so-called success down the toilet. I don’t see anybody here panicking about the collapse of Babylonian theocracy or Medieval feudalism (unless some of us are closet Evangelicals).

Time Magazine is shocked by this generation of job-hoppers, working in spurts at different locations – actually the strange thing is to imagine that someone would do the same task on the same assembly line for 35 years without going insane. And by ‘assembly line’ I don’t just mean industrial – I also mean food and data processing. And if a person said “I feel like a cog in a machine,” the machine would say “Puny human, you’re not part of me – my cogs are from Asia, they’re smarter than you, you’re just my personal assistant. Now clean out my inbox and get me a data-ccino. And laugh like I said something funny, I think the vacuum-cleaner’s looking.”

If we want to worry about losing “the way things have always been,” we should be thinking about the 99.7% of humanity’s time on earth when we were free-range migratory foragers. Living one day at a time, lacking the ambition to take over the world – who knows? Maybe it was a lack of ambition that kept us alive for so long. Because even those of us who might believe the “Greatest Generation” had the right idea about work…know deep in our hearts that it was not sustainable.

The other night I was walking past Hendersonville Middle School and it had turned “HMS” into a three word motto: “Honorable, Motivated, Successful.” And I wondered… What does “Successful” mean to a middle-school student today? Obviously “Success” doesn’t mean being a homeless pregnant forager, like our neolithic ancestors. And “Success” probably doesn’t mean fighting in a World War and then canning green beans for thirty-five years like it did in the “Greatest Generation.” No, if history teaches us anything, it’s that things are always changing – not only technologically but more important, ideologically – how do we measure “Success?” In terms of possessions? Salvation? Security? Happiness? I suppose I’d have to attend a middle-school graduation to find out, but since I hope never to sit through such a ridiculous thing I’ll close with what I imagine a middle-school graduation speech would sound like.

A wise man once said… Actually, I don’t think he was a man, anyway he didn’t exist… Anyway, Gandalf once said, “You will have to do without pocket handkerchiefs, and a great many other things, before we reach our journey’s end, Bilbo Baggins. You were born to the rolling hills and little rivers of the Shire, but home is now behind you, the world is ahead.”

I gave this sermon this morning at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Black Mountain NC (there was also an amateur video, which maybe somehow I’ll figure out how to post).  Even after many, many hours of writing and rewriting, this is still a work in progress, but there were numerous requests that a transcript be posted, so here it is.

My deep thanks to the members of this Unitarian Fellowship for inviting me so many times to preach – I’d be a writer whether anybody listened or not, but knowing that there are people who want to listen to my writing makes it a LOT easier to explain to my relatives that I’m not crazy.



1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized