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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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March 2017


There’s an old joke about a space-alien who beamed down into a seedy motel and demanded that a couple there show him how Earthlings reproduce. The couple protested at first, but finally agreed to do what they were there to do anyway, and when they were done the woman said “and that’s how we make babies.” The alien looked puzzled: “So? Where is it?” “Oh, now it takes another nine months to gestate.” “Nine months?” the alien asked, “So why was he in such a hurry?”

We’re hearing a lot right now about the dangers of “Aliens” in America, but North America has already seen plenty of “Alien Invasions.” But before we get to space-creatures and refugees, it makes a certain sense to begin with an immigrant who’s done so well here that most of us think of it as a native and couldn’t image America without it. I’m not saying “it” because I consider immigrants inhuman, but because the immigrant I’m talking about is the apple. Our modern apple was originally a native of Kazakhstan, an on-again-off-again section of Russia, and from there it spread by traders on the old Silk Road through Asia and Europe, where it swapped pollen with some native trees, sowing its wild…apples… The Chinese learned to select desirable traits by grafting trees together, and traded this knowledge to the Romans, who cultivated twenty-three types of apple on plantations throughout Europe.

The apple got a bad reputation because of the whole “Garden of Eden” thing, but actually the Bible never names the forbidden fruit. It does clearly say that Adam and Eve were standing under a fig-tree when the crime went down, and it’s only Christian logic that deduced the anonymous fruit under the fig-tree must have been an apple (the misunderstanding comes from Latin, “Malus,” apple, resembling “Malum,” bad, giving us the phrase “bad apple”). Which doesn’t mean apples didn’t have certain pagan associations – in English legend, King Arthur’s magic sword Excalibur comes from Avalon, literally “the island of apple trees.”

The English brought their grafted apple trees to America, but ran into a problem – the immigrant trees, like the immigrant settlers, did not do well on this new soil. The apple-tree, like the English colonist, would have to adapt to this new world, go a little bit wild and native, becoming something distinctly American. We’ve all heard the story of Johnny Appleseed, wandering around planting apple nurseries (from seeds – it sounds like a great coincidence, but actually “Appleseed” was not his last name). But we can forget that when you eat an apple, you can’t grow that same tree from one of the seeds inside – actually the five seeds in an apple will grow five different trees, and the odds of any of them producing fruit like the apple you ate are astronomically small. There’s an expression, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” but actually, every seed in every apple will grow a different tree, diversity is the apple’s reproductive strategy. So why was Johnny Appleseed canoeing around young America planting random trees totally unlikely to produce edible fruit? Because early Americans didn’t eat apples – they drank them, in the form of alcoholic cider and applejack whiskey (remember, the only way to keep apple-juice from turning to alcohol is refrigeration, which was still a hundred years away). Michael Pollan writes that we’ve mythologized Johnny Appleseed as an American Saint Francis, but really he was closer to the Greek god of wine, Dionysus.

Although the apple is immigrant, there is also something distinctly American about it: European and Asian trees could not grow here, offspring of lofty aristocrat breeds withered and disappeared, but random nameless seeds could mingle in these American soils and climates, persevering, experimenting, and one day, maybe a generation or two down the line – Jackpot! Spawning a tree of apples that could be picked and eaten – some of these random-chance winners are the celebrities of the fruit world: MacIntosh, Jonathan, Golden Delicious, and they’ve since been grafted and cloned all over the country (and in some cases, clones have been exported to grow in Europe and Asia as well). This humble immigrant, working hard, adapting, succeeding and spawning massive franchises is so American that we use the apple as a standard of patriotic comparison, saying something is “American as Apple Pie.”

But now I should really shut up about the apple being an immigrant – I’m afraid Donald Christ is going to uproot the trees, deport the orchards back to Kazakhstan, where they’ll immediately be executed for acting too Westernized. “You were once proud bitter Russian, now you are sweet, round American.” “No please – I’m still red! Don’t shoot!”


Can you imagine if aliens came to Earth now and said “Take me to your leader”? “No, your English is not so good – what you meant to say was ‘Me take your leader.’ Go on – take him. Please!” How embarrassing for our species. If they came I’d be tempted to say “Um, I’m a chimpanzee, I voted for Bobo. Not my president.” (It’s all you hear today when you walk past the zoo, all those animals in their different languages chirping and roaring “Not My President” over and over). Full of immigrants, the zoo, all the super-stars, the Lions, Elephants, Zebras, Hippos, Apes, all African and mostly Muslim. They come to America as refugees and immediately find themselves in concentration camps. “Um hey – I was a certified nurse in my herd of Zebras, do my credits transfer here? You don’t speak zebra? Alright um, could you send someone who does? I’ll just be waiting…in this cage.”

I never have been much interested in space-aliens. I believe that other forms of life exist on other planets because there’s an infinity-to-one chance they do, and a one-to-infinity chance they don’t. But our whole idea of aliens coming down and inspiring the Egyptians, Mayans and Babylonians sounds to me like a flimsy excuse to blame someone else for the great fascist Empires in history. But I still enjoy alien movies – when I was a child I loved Star Wars. Then it was time to grow up and admit that Star Trek is cooler.

Our cultural entertainment representations of alien life teach us interesting things about ourselves. We generally expect aliens to be basically human in shape because it’s cheaper for special-effects, and we can’t imagine that anything else could represent a fully-formed intelligent being – we even use the word “spaceman,” as if any extraterrestrial life must still be essentially human (the most common exception is when we see aliens in insect-form, representing the next in line to inherit the earth – exo-skeletal telepathic insectoid aliens are the most frightening to us). But even in insect form, your average space-alien stands upright, between five and seven feet tall. If there is life on other planets, who’s to say it’s not microscopic to us? Or that we and the Earth wouldn’t be microscopic to it? And why would it come looking for us? We imagine aliens on a cultural and technological trajectory parallel to ours, maybe ahead or behind us but on the same basic path – why? And if there is life on a billion other planets, was it also created by our American God and did white Jesus die for its sins?

Were ancient Egypt, Babylon and Mexico visited by high-tech aliens? I don’t know or care. But I do know the American continent was visited by high-tech alien zombies called Columbus and Cortez and John Winthrop and William Bradford. They arrived from a dying Old World in fantastical ships with futuristic weapons and microscopic alien germs that decimated the Native population. A swarm of zombie-Christians, controlled by insectoid queens like Isabella and Elizabeth, “You will be assimilated, resistance is futile.” I read recently that Native Americans suffer from “post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder.” It’s what comes from being corralled in third-world nations called Reservations. Naturally it’s our nightmare that the same thing will happen to us, whether from the Middle East or from Mars.

In 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both sons of Jewish immigrants, created a fictional immigrant icon. They gave him a name hearkening back to Nietzsche‘s ideal man, the worldly hero who would rescue humanity from otherworldly Christianity and its lust for destruction. This concept and character had the German name of Ubermensch, loosely translated into English as Superman. A refugee whose parents sent him in a tiny ship from a dying planet (recalling the old Hebrew story of Moses in the basket). And arriving on Earth he performed two incredible feats: one, he saved the world a zillion times as a flamboyant flying superhero. But his other spectacular act was even more impressive: he put on a shirt and tie, got a job and paid his taxes as the bland, forgettable American citizen Clark Kent, the perfect legal alien.

This was the great immigrant story – he didn’t come to change America into his homeland, even though he had great powers and some people wanted him to be a god, he did not use his abilities to undermine or destroy or replace truth, justice and the American way. He became an icon of truth, justice and the American way. Yes, he also became a sort of fashion-icon, and sometimes children will tie a bed-sheet around their necks and jump off the furniture (dangerous!). But even after eighty years of Superman you don’t see that many people on the sidewalk wearing their underwear outside of their pants. Superman is so American that we can forget he’s a space-alien – and a secretly Jewish alien! He remains a testament to the Jewish immigrant’s dream: to not get harassed and killed, and if that works out, get a steady job and help people when you can.

Superman is a fictional character (although most of us know more about Superman than we do about the person living next door, even if we’ve never opened a comic book). There are countless other immigrants and refugees who have lived a similar story, including the alien in my life, my Mom. With her parents, she crawled under a barbed-wire fence to escape from Soviet Hungary in 1956, at the age of eleven, and passed through Ellis Island into America. She quickly learned the English language, went to school and college and seminary, married a soldier and then a minister (and later, a former Intelligence Agent). She spent most of her career as a social-worker, assisting displaced home-makers to enter the workforce, and her four adult children are two lawyers (one of them a veteran), a minister, and a college teacher. Now she is a grandmother – I married the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant, my sister married a man from India, and our combined five children are strong and adorable as only mixed-race kids can be.

My mother is not a terrorist (except insofar as all mothers are terrorists to their young). And neither she nor any of her offspring has ever spent one day on welfare – we have not been a burden on the system or the taxpayer. We work hard like immigrants do. And we pay taxes so that obese diabetic inbred hicks can sit around cashing welfare checks, watching reality TV, swilling Mountain Dew, talking trash about mongrel races, and voting for fascists. And when I hear about refugees from Syria, Somalia and Mexico, I think, that’s my mother, she wants to work hard and raise children in America, tomorrow’s doctors, lawyers, ministers, teachers, soldiers and social-workers. And to be the parents of a new crop of beautiful mixed-race babies.


Fascist captain of automotive industry Henry Ford wanted America to be a melting pot – being a steel-man he imagined a forge in which metals melt, “impurities” burn away and steel is homogenized. But America is more like a stew of international spices, a genetic jambalaya. And we humans aren’t the only ones doing it. We don’t necessarily think of trees as sexual beings but they are, and apple-trees are particularly sleazy and promiscuous, you could even say…seedy (terrible role-models for our children, terrible). A commune of apple-trees, which, by the way, is a nudist colony for half of each year, they’re not just standing around with their balls and blossoms hanging out, they’re actually having apple-sex. What we politely call an “orchard” is really an orgy. At the risk of saying something crude, and really it’s not inappropriate because it’s a biological fact: an apple is a tree’s testicle. You wish you hadn’t heard it, but you know it’s true.

Prohibition laws targeted apple orchards, wild ghettos of sexual abandon, known to produce sour spitters good for nothing but the distillery. Orchards were targeted for their use in producing alcohol, but the result was also the neutering of the American apple. In the last hundred years, American apple-growers have forbidden promiscuity and (gasp) mixed marriage of the natural apple, insisting instead on cloning a few sweet breeds, the famous MacIntosh, Delicious, Granny Smith, etc. This is why you can buy the same six apples anywhere in America, but it’s very hard to find any of the untold thousands of other varieties. Most of today’s American apple-trees are direct clones cut from six or seven original trees (which were, themselves, once mutants).

Unfortunately our squeamish insistence that all American apples be good Christians, virgin-born and consubstantial (yes it’s a word – look it up) has created some unforeseen side-effects. Today, America’s apples are as inbred as Trump voters (a majority of American apples actually voted Republican. Because they don’t know that they’re children of immigrants. And now he’s gutting the EPA, which is the only medicare trees get, they’re starting to use words like “im-peared,” and “im-peach” – that’s apple humor, nobody thinks it’s funny but they don’t give a fig). Genocidal purges of apple diversity and massive cloning of a few types are causing the American apple-tree to become more vulnerable to evolving fungus and bacteria, insects and viruses – modern American apples require more pesticide than any other commercially grown food. An apple a day used to keep the doctor away…now it will give you cancer.

The fate of the apple is uncertain. Our experiment in weeding out apple diversity to promote genetic uniformity bears an eery similarity to Ireland’s reliance on a single breed of potato in the early 1800s. If we refuse to allow the apple to enact its own survival strategy of reproductive freedom, we may well see an apple-famine in our lifetime. And if we deny the mixing, merging, melding of human immigrants that has made America successful, we will summon a genetic and intellectual and cultural famine – inbred Americans are far more susceptible to parasites called “Republicans,” and highly contagious viruses like ignorance and bigotry.

What makes America strong and healthy is the same thing that brings strength and health in the plant world: diversity. We nevr were meant to be a stagnant indoor pool, but a flowing river fed by many streams. If America ever was great, it was because of reckless and exuberant experimentation. And that is the only way we can “make America great again.” Some of us might want to support diversity because it’s philosophically “right” or because it’s “nice” or “friendly” – that’s fine, I’m proud of that, but I’m just too selfish to do it. I support diversity for selfish reasons – because it’s viable, because it’s healthy, because it works. I support diversity because it’s good for my children, I want them to benefit from the best of every culture, every genetic strength and immunity, every flavor of food and art and literature and philosophy. Diversity isn’t just “nice” and “good,” it’s also an essential part of our survival, like putting different colors on your dinner-plate. If history and biology teach us anything, we thrive from diversity and wither without it. Also – eat an apple every now and then.


Michael Pollan – The Botany of Desire

And a bunch of other stuff.

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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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