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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




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“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 Amazon.com, 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]

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IN (what) GOD (do) WE TRUST (?)

IN (what) GOD (do) WE TRUST (?)

Almost two hundred years after America’s revolutionary war against the British Empire, there was an independence movement by another English colony (which, ironically, had also once belonged to Indians). But as India looked at its options, with a keen eye on the success of its elder cousin America, one of the freedom-movement leaders urged caution. Muhatma Gandhi warned: “That you cannot serve God and [wealth] is an economic truth of the highest value. We have to make our choice. Western nations today are groaning under the heel of the monster-god of materialism… I have heard many of our countrymen say that we will gain American wealth but avoid its methods. I venture to suggest that such an attempt if it were made is foredoomed to failure.”

Gandhi – he’s so cute. Close your eyes, see his face – he’s adorable, like a muppet. But it turns out India didn’t just love him for his looks. He also thought things and said things and wrote things. I guess when I was young I thought he won independence by flashing that endearing smile. That’s not just because I wasn’t paying attention in school. It turns out his face is welcome in our culture but his voice is not. He was dangerous. Even in this little fragment. He starts by quoting Jesus, “you cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13). Though Gandhi was a Hindu and not a Christian, he really admired Jesus the non-violent protestor against Roman impirial domination. But Gandhi does not say that Jesus is the god of America – instead, he refers to a “monster-god of materialism.” As if we all worship some capitalist Cookie-Monster. Now I know what you’re thinking – “Whoa there, Geronimo, a Hindu accusing us of having ‘monster-gods’!? Who worships the six-armed dominatrix and the elephant-headed belly-dancer? You’re the one with blue gods that eat cookies!”

But let’s hold onto this for a moment, because I think the monster-god of materialism spawned a robber-baron-messiah and sixty million American Christians dumped old gentle Jesus to worship him (now, strictly from a business perspective, as a contractor assigned to destroy the world, Jesus has been chronically late – maybe the new Platinum Christ can get the demolition done faster. With the full thrust of his earth-shaking tweets). We’ve had our doubts about Jesus – bearded Palestinian, you say you’re from Nazareth but you were born in Bethlehem and then traveled to Egypt and back? Show me the birth certificate. What a strange thing to celebrate Christmas 2016 when the USA has just changed its motto to: “There’s no room at the inn.”

Gandhi warns that no nation can have America’s material wealth without groaning under the heel of this monster-god (and India, like many other “developing” nations, has since learned that American-style wealth for a few must come with American-style pitiless poverty for the many).

Maybe this is going too far, letting a Hindu from India describe America’s god, so let’s turn to another famous Indian…American Indian…man, that’s so confusing. One native author notes, at least Columbus wasn’t sailing around looking for Turkey. Anyway, the legendary Chief Seattle observed, “Your God loves your people and hates mine… The white man’s God cannot love his red children or he would protect them… Your God seems to us to be partial…your religion was written on tables of stone by the iron finger of an angry God.” Is the white man’s god an angry judge? I guess we can’t necessarily count on a Native American to be unbiased on the subject, so let’s just pick an American at random. And to prove how random, we’ll choose an American whose last name means “unknown.” Malcolm X. He said, “This is who she means when she says ‘In God We Trust’ – that blue-eyed god, that blonde-haired god, that pale-skinned god who blessed them to kidnap you and me and bring us here and make us slaves.”


In 1967, Robert Bellah, wrote a groundbreaking study proposing that “while some have argued that Christianity is the national faith…few have realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.”

Is Americanism a religion? I don’t know. As a Religious Studies teacher I always start and end the semester by telling my students I don’t know what “religion” is – I can’t really define it, I just know it when I smell it (and most of them smell old. Although ironically it’s the earliest religions, the primal tribal ones, that still smell fresh. Anyway…). Does Americanism have the stuff that other religions have? If you stripped out all the Christian stuff, the Christmas decorations and Easter goodies and trick-or-treat, which are all actually pagan traditions… Does Americanism have temples, myths, rituals, scriptures, hymns, holidays?

Aside from Christianity America still has plenty of holidays: Labor Day, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July. Some that center around bonding the community through animal sacrifice – the 4th of July pig and Thanksgiving Turkey who die for our sins. Once every four years we celebrate Inauguration Day – the root word “Augur” meaning to divine the future by conjuring spirits, generally by touching something that belonged to a dead person. You may have noticed – in American Civil Religion, in court-houses and presidential inaugurations, people put their hand on the Bible but that’s got nothing to do with reading it or knowing what’s inside. The Bible is strictly there as a fetish, an idol, a devotional object, touched to make a connection with the dead.

The Bible is not the sacred scripture of Americanism (some people want the Ten Commandments in courthouses, but American Law only prosecutes three of them). But we do have ancient cryptic writings, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Starr Report. We have hymns, the National Anthem, “America the Beautiful,” “Friends in Low Places.” Goodness knows Americanism has a debatable creation-story and loads of mythology – George Washington is so mythical that I don’t even know if he technically existed. Americanism has martyrs, Lincoln, King, Kennedy and scores of fallen soldiers who die for our sins (or get stuck in long lines at the Veterans’ Hospital for our sins).

American Civil Religion has Temples, the Greek Temples of Zeus-Abraham-Lincoln and Apollo-Thomas-Jefferson in the Capital, the Egyptian Obelisk Washington Monument. America has a totem animal – Benjamin Franklin suggested the generous turkey, but the idea was shot down in favor of the predatory Eagle, which was promptly hunted to near-extinction.

The great Robert Bellah did a much better job of explaining this than I just did – he had years of research, I just said a bunch of stuff that popped into my head. But his point, that Americanism is a religion on its own, distinct from Chrsitianity, with its own myths, totems and rituals, remains a fascinating avenue of thought (and yes, I admit I’ve done some drunk driving on that intellectual avenue). But if Americanism is a relgion apart from Christianity…then who is the god of American Civil Religion?


Should there be prayer in public schools? A contentious issue in America today. And yet when I hear about it, I can’t help thinking, “but there’s already prayer in schools – the pledge of allegiance, which requires American children to worship a totem.” My children break three of the Ten Commandments every morning while saying the pledge to the flag – worshiping other gods, worshiping an idol, and taking the Lord’s name in vain. If they mindlessly recite the pledge without knowing what it means? Then they’re also bearring false witness. And if they knew that I object to children saying the pledge? They’d be dishonoring their father too – half of the Ten Commandments broken before ten in the morning! What a start for the day. I’m surprrised they haven’t murdered someone by noon.

The Pledge of Allegiance was first drafted by Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy in 1892: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” It did not mention “God” but still it was controversial because it allowed girls, blacks and immigrants to say “my flag” (this was later fixed) and “liberty and justice for all” – Bellamy’s Socialism rearing its ugly head at the end, and stangely enough this still remains. Then, ironically, it was Cold-War anti-Communism that got god into the pledge. In 1954, president Eisenhower declared, “From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty…. In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.”

Eisenhower explains that the words “under god” were inserted to “strengthen…spiritual weapons” – religion was added to weaponize the pledge of allegiance (later it was Eisenhower who warned against the spiritual influence of the Military Industrial Complex…but he did not foresee the Spiritual Industrial Complex with its creeping militaristic influence). “One Nation Under God” was a weapon against the heahten Communists with their dangerous, heretical “Do Unto Others” and “Give to the Poor” mentality. The pledge still affirms with a sneaky stridency that only “One Nation” is “Under God.”

But what god is this? Perhaps the answer is on our dollar bill, right between the Egyptian Pyarmid and the Roman Eagle (notably absent is the Christian cross). The Yankee dollar used to be a check representing ownership of a certain amount of America’s hoarde of gold. But then the dollar was switched from the gold-standard to the god-standard, its value now is determined only by how much China believes that god loves America. When China believes god loves America best, the dollar is up, when China believes that god is cooling on America the dollar goes down. Not only is the dollar-value totally mythological, but we don’t even get to determine the value of the myth. Still we desperately trust god to love America best, because without that the almightly dollar would be powerless.

In what God do we trust? Who is this god who holds our nation together? At last we must turn to the scriptures, the sacred documents. The Constitution is silent about god, but the Declaration of Independence contains four fascinating references, first to “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” that support human independence. Then to the “Creator” who endows all men with certain inalienable rights. The third is a nod to “the Supreme Judge of the world,” and the last declares “a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”

We may hear the word “God” and affix all manner of colorful, kid-friendly ornamentation like “love” and “father” and “salvation” but none of these attributes are in the Declaration. In this document, god is the “Creator,” Provider, Protector and “Supreme Judge.” Bellah points out the irony that god in the Declaration is more like the legalistic Torah-God of Judaism than the loving savior-god of Christianity. This is the austere disciplinarian who endows “all men” with equality and rights, except for women, slaves, natives, etc – when the Declaration was penned, “all men” was only about one fifth of the population. This could be called the “One Fifth Compromise” – in which four fifths of Americans would not exist in the eyes of America’s god. And this has not dramatically changed.

George Michael, who passed away on Christmas day, once wrote a song called “Hand to Mouth” about Amerians driven to desperation by poverty, and one of them declares, “I believe in the gods of america. I believe in the land of the free. But no one told me that the gods believe in nothing. So with empty hands I pray. And from day to hopeless day, they still don’t see me.”

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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.

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Daniel Quinn: The Invisibility of Success (A Review)

Quinn Invisibility

I love sharing Daniel Quinn’s books with people, but sometimes “the Gorilla in the room” gets in the way – certain people just can’t get past learning from a telepathic silverback (it’s an old human prejudice, refusal to learn from animals).

Quinn’s new book, THE INVISIBILITY OF SUCCESS, a collection of lectures, is the perfect gift for that friend who’s ready for the ideas but not ready for the gorilla.  It contains Quinn’s message in easy chunks – the ISHMAEL books worked well because they flowed as dialogue, and this book also flows like speech.  Additionally it contains some illustrations (some of them humorous) to help explain Quinn’s ideas.

As with Quinn’s books ISHMAEL, MY ISHMAEL and THE STORY OF B, the basic premise is that “saving the world” is only possible when we as a culture begin to see the human race in perspective as members (not masters) of the community of life on this planet. And this means we must re-examine our foundations of thought, our philosophies and mythologies, even our religions.

One example of an idea in this book that really spun my head: At a conference about agricultural advancements called “Technologies for Peace,” Quinn delivered a lecture called “Technologies For That Other War,” writing, “For any culturally literate Wetserner, a foundation piece of wisdom found in the Bible will spring to mind on the subject of technologies for war versus technologies for peace. Here it is, from the second chapter of Isaiah: ‘…They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’”   But Quinn puts his own spin on this popular saying: it is not actually “people turning from war to peace but rather people turning from one war to another war – from inTRAspecies war to an inTER species war. From the conquest of nations to the conquest of nature.” (Invisibility of Success, page 113).

Wow – I have heard that “swords into plowshares” line all my life, more times than I can count, and it has never once occurred to me that the plowshare is a weapon too – a weapon of mass destruction at work every day in South American rainforests, and this war against the rest of nature is a lot more dangerous for us all than armies clashing on a battlefield.

For those of you who have read Quinn’s ISHMAEL books and wonder whether or not this will contain anything you haven’t seen before – yes it does.  While it suffices as a summary of Quinn’s previously printed ideas, this book puts the material into different shapes, incorporating information and parables not found in his other books, and offers further ideas for those of us dealing with that daunting question: I’ve read Ishmael – what do I DO now?

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“CHAOS” (New Book by j. Snodgrass)




I’m very excited to announce, at long last, the release of “CHAOS,” a series of sermons I’ve been giving at various Unitarian Fellowships in Western North Carolina (some of these can be seen on video in various posts on this site).  The sermons in this book revolve around the question of how the “meaning of life,” and how the search for “the meaning of life” through religious practices, changed in that turning point of history known as the Agricultural Revolution (disclaimer: this book does not contain the “meaning of life”).  As Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael, wrote after reading a “CHAOS” manuscript: “Chaos is a disturbing, disconcerting, and delicious diatribe. It will stir up the little gray cells in your head, guaranteed.”

The book is now available in print and kindle editions through amazon.com and createspace.com


WHO SAYS CHAOS? (Excerpt from “Casserole” essay in “CHAOS”)

In Bulfinch’s Mythology, we read a Greek account of the beginning: “Before earth and sea and heaven were created, all things wore one aspect, to which we give the name of Chaos…” But who is the “We” in this sentence? Who had the wisdom and perspective to look upon the web of existence nature had created and call it “Chaos?” We’ve learned a lot in the thousands of years since the Greek Empire, but I can’t think of a single scientific or intellectual advancement that has put humanity into the position to say that the primeval world didn’t work – actually, a lot of our wisdom and perspective today tell us that things were working fine and we created chaos. I hear people all the time saying “Human beings are destroying the earth,” but that’s not the problem. Human beings destroying the world is only a side-effect of human beings trying to fix the world, to perfect the earth.

When we hear these words, “Chaos” and “Order,” we’ve always got to ask “Who says ‘Chaos?’ Who says ‘Order?’” From Pharaoh’s perspective, everybody cooperating and sharing the wealth is “Chaos” and “Order” is 99% of the population slaving miserably to provide for the leisure class. Moses might have said the Empire’s domination was “Chaos” and communal support was “Order.” The Monarchy says Anarchy and Democracy are “Chaos,” the slave-trader says tribalism is “Chaos,” the dominator says equal rights will be “Chaos.” Freedom is Chaotic, oppression and slavery and genocide have historically been pretty well organized.

When I see a creature straining against its own nature, at war with its environment, at war with every other species, at war with neighbors, at war between genders, and members at war with their own bodies, I see chaos. When one gear in a machine refuses to turn, knowing that the pressure it builds will cause the whole engine to break down, I see chaos. When one dancer in a conga-line breaks the chain, refusing to be touched or keep in step, thrashing out against the other members, I see chaos (and that’s why you’ll never ever see me in a conga-line, I would literally rather die and take the whole world with me. Dancing in line is where I draw the line).

Yes, I have boundaries, I believe in boundaries. My marriage, for example, has boundaries I would protect like an animal. My children’s safety is a boundary I would defend, I don’t want them “getting mixed up in” anything dangerous. These boundaries were not created by some priestly decree – if people didn’t pair off and protect their young the human species would not have survived its first generation. But there are other boundaries we need to look at again, boundaries we did set up, between the human species and the rest of the biological community. We need to stop asking “where can we make this better? How can we make this work?” And start asking, “Where do we fit in?”

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