Monthly Archives: November 2013

Books Culture

Nun, Other


With the smash success of the BBC’s television series Call the Midwife, it is nun season once again.   Every half century or so humankind takes a break from Getting To Work On Time and Wondering What the Neighbors Think to ponder for a bit just what it is nuns do.  While Midwife and its twentieth century brethren usually come down on the side of a more or less benevolent and whimsical conception of nun-dome, that has by no means been the case historically.  A look back at the nun literature of the last three centuries shows how, more often than not, the cloister has been seen as the breeding ground of villainy than heroism.

Skipping over the Middle Ages and its saliva-bestrewn fascination with the prostitute-turned-nun trope, the foundational work of modern Nun Fiction is, for most, Denis Diderot’s The Nun (La Religieuse), which only received its first real printing in 1796, twelve years after the author’s death.  It is a brisk novel that grew out of a practical joke that was inspired by a court case.  In 1758, Marguerite Delamarre, a nun at the Longchamp convent, sued to be allowed to leave her convent, lost, and was forced to remain there for the rest of her life.  This was not at all uncommon – the convent was where you sent daughters whose dowry you couldn’t afford to pay or, if you happened to be in Russia under the thumb of the Domostroi, where you sent wives when you got tired of them.


Diderot’s book, then, is a look at the piteous state of convent life, both for those with and without a religious vocation.  The main figure is an illegitimate daughter sent to the convent so she won’t try and claim any inheritance.  She seeks release from her compelled vows, only to find the full weight of the cloister brought to bear against her – psychological manipulation and pure physical violence are in turn heaped upon her shoulders.  Diderot unleashes his full scorn for the crimes against nature wrapped up in the three vows of the convent, and the moral destruction they necessarily breed:


“Faire voeu de pauvreté, c’est s’engager par serment à être paresseux et voleur; faire voeu de chasteté, c’est promettre à Dieu l’infraction constant de la plus sage et de la plus importante de ses lois; faire voeu d’obéissance, c’est renoncer à la prérogative inaliénable de l’homme, la liberté.  Si l’on observe ces voeux, on est criminal; si on ne les observe pas on est perjure.  La vie claustrale est d’un fanatique ou d’un hypocrite.”

(To take the vow of poverty is to promise to become a layabout and a thief; to take that of chastity is to promise to God a constant infraction of the wisest and most important of his laws; and to make the vow of obedience is to renounce the inalienable prerogative of man, Liberty.  If you observe these vows, you are a criminal, and if not, you are a perjurer.  The cloistered life always makes of you either a fanatic or a hypocrite.)


By forcing young women so resolutely against the best parts of their nature, the convent life grinds slowly away at their humanity and very concept of identity, leading at best to a numbed acceptance of your captors’ truths, and at worst to mad flights of self-destruction:


“Alors les unes courent se jeter aux genoux de leur superieure et vont y chercher de la consolation; d’autres se prosternent ou dans leur cellule ou au pied des autels et appellant le Ciel a leur secours; d’autres dechirent leurs vetements et s’arrachent leurs cheveux; d’autres cherchent un puits profound, des fenetres bien hautes, un lacet, et le trouvent quelquefois; d’autres apres s’etre tourmentees longtemps tombent dans une espece d’abrutissement et restent imbeciles; d’autres qui ont des organs faibles et delicats se consument de langueur; il y en a en qui l’organisation se derange, l’imagination se trouble et qui deviennent furieuses.  Les plus heureuses sont celles en qui les memes illusions consolantes renaissent, et les bercent presque jusqu’au tombeau; leur vie se passe dans les alternatives de l’erreur et du desespoir.”


(Some nuns throw themselves at the knees of their superior and attempt to find consolation there; others prostrate themselves in their cell or at the foot of their altars and call to Heaven for relief; some rend their clothes and tear their hair; others search out a deep well, a high window, or a rope, and sometimes find them; others, after long torment slip into a state of stupefication and remain that way; those of a weak and delicate constitution waste away in languor, while others still lose their minds to wild fancy and go stark mad.  The most fortunate are those for whom the consoling illusions of religion reassert themselves, and continue to do so unto death; their lives are thus spent in delusion and despair.)


With all its invective against the unnaturalness of religion, The Nun is very much a product of the high Enlightenment, touching on the universal dignity of man and how it is ill-served by monasticism.  Forty years would pass before the next big explosion of convent fiction, one equally critical of the life of religious seclusion, but which comes from a much darker place than the open and free humanity of Diderot’s forward-thinking mind.

The 1830s were a time of massive anti-Catholic sentiment here in the States, the heyday of the Know Nothing movement, and they saw the birth of a whole industry of anti-Papist fiction, with some of the most lurid examples being the Escaped Nun genre.  These were novels purporting to be true memoirs of nuns who escaped their convents and the life of gross sin therein.  Rebecca Reed’s Six Months in a Convent (1832) and The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (1836) both ignited massive popular indignation with their portrayals of priests forcing nuns into sexual slavery, and babies murdered to hush up scandal.  Reed died of tuberculosis shortly after her account was published, but Monk lived another thirteen years, enough time to see her book become the most-widely read in America, and then to die, abandoned and disgraced.

Americans responded how they generally do to these sorts of events.  They burned down a convent in 1834, started feeling a bit embarrassed about it, and got on with their lives.

And so the genre had seemingly played itself out until, in 1942, a German Jewish émigré by the name of Franz Werfel wrote a six hundred page fly-squisher of a novel, Das Lied von Bernadette, published in America as The Song of Bernadette.  It was as tremendously popular as it is thoroughly creepy.  Most of the book centers on Bernadette Soubirous, the poor daughter of an ex-miller, and the visions of a resplendent holy lady that she has at a local grotto.  Werfel, writing from the heart of the Second World War, fleeing the maw of the Nazi state, saw science and rationality as destructive forces threatening to tear civilization asunder, and so made of his book a sustained impassioned plea for a simple, fervent mysticism.

These were, by and large, the same concerns that motivated Heidegger earlier in his Question Concerning Technology, and would prod Horkheimer and Adorno a few years later to produce that pillar of modern anti-positivism, The Dialectic of Enlightenment.  And yes, caught up in the whirl of a world that seemed intent on self-destruction, it’s hard to blame them for grabbing onto whatever was at hand for support, whether the purity of religious experience sought by Werfel or the entirely imaginary pre-Use-Value society of Heidegger.  It was an awful time to be a European, or indeed a human, and so, if their vision stumbled here and there, if they mistook friends of humanity for its enemies and vice versa, it is understandable.

That said, Werfel’s book is pretty skeezy.  Bernadette’s vision lady is obsessed with penitence, and gets a sort of sadistic kick out of watching this poor, uncomprehending girl thrash about trying to please her:


“The lady was never uncertain of herself and knew her own value.  Therefore the appropriate posture in her presence was on one’s knees, if possible with a burning taper in one’s hand.  If ever one moved to and fro in the grotto, or, still worse, turned one’s back, an expression of nervous suffering would tarnish the radiance of her countenance.  If, on the other hand, one did a painful thing – Bernadette knew this well – such as sliding on one’s knees over the jagged rubble toward the rock, then was she transfigured with joy… if the jagged rubble made the knees bleed, then an act of penitence had been accomplished.”


Later, the Lady makes Bernadette eat grass and mud, and promises to reward her in the afterlife, but only after causing her much suffering in this existence.  Ultimately, that suffering will include governmental abuse, seclusion in a convent, and death by bone cancer.  Meanwhile, her family doesn’t know what to make of her and she, for her part, throws over their merely terrestrial love in favor of prolonged contemplation of her Lady and the Lady’s will.  It’s everything that is deeply wrong about religion, written about as if it were the cure for modernity’s ailments.


Bernadette is eventually packed off to a convent, and, every once in a while, shows a glimmering of something resembling an actual character.  In his attempt to portray her utter innocence, Werfel has drained her of anything tangible or interesting.  She’s a blank space – things happen to and around her, but that need to keep her absolutely pure also stops her from having anything like growth or insight, and so it’s up to everybody around her to have philosophical and life-changing moments in her stead, giving the whole novel a feeling of hollowness – a vast activity at the circumference masking a yawning stasis within.

The amazing thing is that Werfel, for all of his antiquarianism, doesn’t really care for convents either.  He thinks of his precious Bernadette as far too authentic and pure to be contained by something as merely human as a convent or a Church.  She is primal religiosity in its best, least reflective, sense.  Ironically, her unquestioning, visceral faith, which Werfel offers as the cure to the spread of Nazism, is precisely the sort of mindset that drove a nation into the arms of that very movement.   Read her talking about her Lady, and read an account of a Hitler Youth member talking about his Fuhrer, and you’ll find but little difference.

The 1960s, as was their wont, drove nunnery to two extremes, one of goofy amiability, and one of profound change.  For the former, look to the “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” religious affability of The Sound of Music or, if you’re in the mood to really bathe in some uncomfortable Americana, Sally Field’s short-lived sitcom, The Flying Nun, about which the less said, the better.

Moving Along…..


On the serious side, Vatican 2 was raising questions about what convent life ought to be about.  The old order was dying out, and the question of Whither Now Nuns was being grappled with by superiors and novices alike.  Karen Armstrong, who left convent life just as these ripples of change were making themselves felt, summed the spirit of the times up in the introduction to her The Spiral Staircase.


“Many of the orders had got stuck in a traditional rut.  Customs that had made perfect sense in the nineteenth century, when my own community had been founded, now seemed arbitrary and unnatural.  Practices that had no intrinsic spiritual value but were cultural relics of the Victorian age had acquired sacred significance, and change was regarded as betrayal.  The council urged the religious orders to go back to the original spirit of their founders… Nuns and monks should also let the bracing spirit of change invade their cloisters; they should throw out the rubble that had accumulated over the years and craft a new lifestyle that was in tune with the times.”


One of the places this ambivalence with regard to the future of the cloister makes itself felt is in the alternately brilliant and thumbsy pages of Iris Murdoch’s 1980 novel, Nuns and Soldiers.  There are characters of breath-taking complexity to be had here, amongst which is Anne, a former nun who left her convent after a loss of faith.  Unfortunately, most of the book’s heart is spent not on her meditations on the meaning of personal religion, but on analyses, re-analyses, and re-re-analyses of a relationship between the two vapid central characters, Tim and Gertrude, about whom it is not possible to care less.

Still, when Anne is given time to act and think outside of the literary chasm that is Tim And Gertrude, her insights are deeply compelling.  She realizes that she joined the convent primarily out of a fundamental need to reclaim innocence.  Religiosity as extreme makeover.  Sensing the futility of her hectic academic and social life, she instinctively heads it off at the pass by forcing herself into the role of perpetual penitent.  But, of course, innocence doesn’t work like that.  You can pretend for a long while (and it’s hard to look out at the religious landscape, especially here in America at the moment, and NOT interpret it as a sustained act of collective pretending aimed at achieving a desired lifestyle – just the right accessory to pull one’s whole mortal outfit together) but the immense concentration and dedication required to sustain that illusion speaks against its creation.

Murdoch’s ex-nun, then, shows us the convent teetering on the edge of irrelevance, a place where young women go to maintain a desired self-deception for as long as their consciences will allow.  That sense of life momentarily de-railed is carried over into Call the Midwife, where the older generation of nuns (and here is a spoiler alert for those of you not done with season 2 yet) has to sit by and watch as a young member of the order struggles with her faith and, in the end, decides to reach out for life and romance at last.  It’s a tale of simple human nature, honestly told without a hint of rancor, and so a world away from its literary ancestors.

Nun fiction has come to ground, then.  No longer the ecstatic stuff of priestly fantasizing or the exasperated retelling of man’s worst instincts run amok, it has settled for the simple truth of ordinary people getting a bit confused, a bit more scared, and heading desperately into the arms of a whispy phantom for protection, closing their eyes desperately against the dissipation of their guardian until one day they awake, alone, armed only with the question, “What do I do with myself now?”

Which is where all good stories begin.

Culture Language Music

Humans Are Great 1: The Violet

One of the things we in the atheist/humanist community catch a fair amount of perhaps deserved ribbing for is the fact that our frustration is so constant a presence in our lives that it prevents us from stopping and enjoying the beauty of the humanity we abstractly champion.  We are in such a hurry to be devastatingly clever that we don’t let ourselves be struck dumb on occasion by the beauty of humanity’s fancy.  To remedy that, right here, every Monday, I’ll offer up a little bit of something lovely to ponder and enjoy before you head into the grotesque realities of the work week.  It’s Humans are Great, and today we start with what happens when one of the greatest poets of all time meets two of our greatest composers:


“Faust? Yeah, I wrote that.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a creature from a different world, descended upon Germany with the goal of remaking its literature, breathing light and excitement and verse into a dreary, religion-obsessed landscape.  After the scourges of Reformation and Counter-Reformation had done their best to render Central Europe a neurotic husk of a region, morbidly given to tallying and re-tallying its sins, a shift of focus to the lyric beauty of the smallest things was in order.  Goethe provided this in so many ways, but one of his most beloved works tells the simple story of a violet standing in a field, hoping to be plucked by a passing maiden, but finding itself trodden by the same (as always, I ask your indulgence with my entirely arrhythmic translation):


Das Veilchen (1774)

Ein Veilchen auf der Wiese stand,                                                   A violet stood in a meadow,
gebückt in sich und unbekannt;                                                       Slightly stooped and unseen;
es war ein herzigs Veilchen.                                                               It was a sweet violet.
Da kam ein’ junge Schäferin                                                              Then came a young shepherdess
mit leichtem Schritt und munterm Sinn                                         With light steps and a lively spirit
daher, daher,                                                                                         thence, thence,
die Wiese her und sang.                                                                      To the meadow, while singing.

Ach! denkt das Veilchen, wär’ ich nur                                            Ah! Thought the violet, if only I were
die schönste Blume der Natur,                                                        The most lovely flower in creation,
ach, nur ein kleines Weilchen,                                                         Ah, if only for a short while,
bis mich das Liebchen abgepflückt                                                 Until that maiden picked me
und an dem Busen matt gedrückt,                                          And fastened me loosely to her breast,
ach, nur, ach nur                                                                                 Ah, if only, if only
ein Viertelstündchen lang!                                                               A few moments long.

Ach, aber ach! Das Mädchen kam                                                   And yet!  The maiden came
und nicht in acht das Veilchen nahm,                                            And didn’t notice the small violet,
ertrat das arme Veilchen.                                                                  And trod upon the poor violet.
Es sank und starb, und freut’ sich noch:                                        He sank and died, and rejoiced:
und sterb’ ich denn, so sterb’ ich doch                                            And so I die, and so I die,
durch sie, durch sie,                                                                           through her, through her,
zu ihren Füßen doch!                                                                         Beneath her very feet!

There’s a Pixar short in there somewhere, but the point is that, after two and a half centuries of drab theological pondering, the Germans were waking to simple beauty and fragility again.  And so they began setting the poem to song.


One of the great pleasures in life is listening to the same poem treated by different musical geniuses, and Das Veilchen gives us plenty to choose from.  I’m going to pick two for your Monday morning, the first is Mozart’s setting of 1776, which includes the beautiful idea of recapitulating the line “Das arme Veilchen.  Es war ein herziges Veilchen.” – a summary of everything that poor little flower was and hoped to be, swallowed up in an unmarked moment of shimmering impermanence:




And the second is by Clara Schumann (1819-1896), one of the greatest pianists of her time, and a thumping good composer as well.  Her songs are something everybody ought to treat themselves to, particularly as there are so few of them (she refused to write any more after her husband, the great Robert Schumann, died in 1856) , and all are quite heart-rending.  This is one of her later ones, hailing from 1854.  The repetitions she uses are tellingly different, and don’t include the added final line:




And there you have it.  Two bits of beauty about a poor little flower that got stepped on round about three centuries ago.  I love little things like that – they are like big comfy blankets that keep us all warm under our shared human tradition.  And I look forward to sharing more with you in the weeks and months and years to come.


Recommended Recordings:


Kathleen Battle’s recording of the Mozart (on Kathleen Battle in Concert with James Levine at the piano) is entirely wonderful.  For Schumann, a copy of Dorothea Craxton’s rendition of the complete Schumann songs came into my hands just last week, and I’m going to guardedly say, fully recognizing that in the first flush of newness I tend to exaggerate, that it’s my favorite recording of them yet.

Culture Music

Did Classical Music Die When God Did?

Among the various and manifold jackasseries nailed to the page by James R. Gaines in his Bach biography Evening in the Palace of Reason is the supremely unfair but wildly popular statement that, once God left classical music, so did its ability to say anything sublime or meaningful.  To be fair, he said it while comparing the deeply religious music of Johann Sebastian Bach to the elegant and fluffily appealing court music of Johann Joachim Quantz, but that hasn’t stopped the thought from being applied to the classical music of our own times.

The music written by modern, atheist composers, the argument runs, has an emotional spectrum running from “anxious” to “very anxious,” and that’s about it.  Love, passion, and above all, sublimity, are entirely beyond these composers’ capacity to portray with their shriveled, sarcastic hearts guiding merciless, ironic pens.

There are, let’s be clear, composers for whom this is manifestly true.  I mean, I love Iannis Xenakis, but I’m not going to say for a moment that I’ve ever felt an emotion beyond a sort of Vulcan creepy-cool mathematical appreciation when listening to his music.  There are, however, atheist composers who have delivered unto us music of breathtaking scope and depth, and it’s time to recognize that fact, starting with the big three: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), Béla Bartók (1881-1945), and Leoš Janáček (1854-1928).

“Holy shit, Rimsky-Korsakov was an atheist?!”

That was my reaction too when a copy of his memoirs first found its way onto my bookshelves bearing the categorical statement, “I took rather readily to the view that ‘there is no God and it’s all just invention.’  However, this thought troubled me little… my piety, weak even before then, had completely evaporated, and I felt no spiritual hunger.”  And yet, religious music and the expression of religious sentiment is everywhere in Rimsky-Korsakov’s music.  How did he find it in him to write this music, and write it so very well?

A clue comes in his discussion of the opera The Snow Maiden (Snegurochka).  “The melodies of ancient orthodox canticles, are they not of ancient pagan origin?  Are not many rites and dogmas of like origin?  The holidays of Easter, Trinity Sunday, etc., are not they adaptations of Christianity from the pagan sun cult?”  Rimsky-Korsakov could continue to write music on Christian themes precisely because he took a larger view of what that religion was – a variation on ancient practices that were rooted in prehistoric people’s awe of the world around them.  By returning to that source, he could capture the naturalistic essence of religious wonder without groveling before the trappings of Christian specificity.  It was religious writing more authentic than any particular religion could encompass, because at its center was not god, but humanity’s perception of continuity and change.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s love of fantasy and magic, of peasant melodies and pagan fairy tales, his intoxication with the sound of foreign lands and instruments, all combine in his operas and orchestral works to produce moments of ageless melancholy (take a listen to the death scene in The Snow Maiden or Lyubasha’s aria in act I of The Tsar’s Bride), sumptuous eroticism (take in that violin figure in Scheherezade and just try to not think about humping, I dare you), and, yes, old-fashioned haunting sublimity (his cantata Song of Oleg the Wise is crazy-good but largely unknown.)


Death Scene from The Snow Maiden


So, fine, Rimsky-Korsakov got away with some degree of multi-dimensionality because he was a primarily 19th century composer of particularly broad interests.  But Béla Bartók?  The man who wrote such aggressively uncuddly music as the fourth string quartet and the student-twisting Mikrokosmos?  It seems unlikely – the man had an awful life, full of disappointment and dislocation.  Unable to believe in a higher power, to find success in his home nation, or to resist the allure of women waaaaaay younger than him, he coasted dissatisfied through decades of illness-bestrewn life before emigrating to an indifferent America one step ahead of the Nazis.  It would have been the most forgivable thing ever if he just ground out Difficult compositions, one after the other, with a sort of “Screw all y’all” bitterness.  But he didn’t.  The amazing thing about Bartók is that, even in the depths of isolation and misery, he was able to produce music of all hues, and indeed his most varied music comes from the low ebb of his fortunes, the years 1937-1945.

Starting at the end, his third piano concerto was the last piece of music he completed before passing away in a New York City hospital bed.  The second movement of this piece is labelled Adagio Religioso, a reference to the musical idiom in which it was written, and is heart-rending throughout in a way that defies all popular conceptions about the rigorous inflexibility of Bartók’s music.  What I love most about it is the middle section, which is given over to Bartók’s representation of the songs of various birds he heard while travelling through North Carolina.  It’s an amazing moment- one of the most challenging composers of the Twentieth Century, lying on his death bed, putting this beautiful music to paper and interspersing throughout it some bits of bird song that caught his ear in days past.  That sense of vulnerable whimsy is so potent that my eyes welled up in tears the first time I heard it, and it impacts me forcefully still.


Piano Concerto No. 3, Movement 2


I sense you’re still cynical.  We’ve all watched Amadeus, we know that Writing Beautiful Things is just what composers do on their death beds.  It’s in the contract.  So, let’s go back a ways and see if we can catch Bartók being brazenly emotional any time other than when staring down the grim specter of death itself.  It turns out that, when you start seeking out examples, they pop up all over the place.  There is the madcap, almost drunken, abandon he allowed himself in the Finale of the Concerto for Orchestra, which is itself a spillover from the absurd fun he had in the third movement of his Divertimento.

Now there’s a work for you, one which starts off at a mad tear and ends in a totally soused pizzicato dance punctuated by bleary hiccups.  What makes both of these pieces of unchecked revelry all the more remarkable is that they were written in 1940 and 1939, respectively, during the first years of Bartók’s exile from his homeland.  A religious composer in those circumstances would easily have turned the Spiritual Escapism up to Eleven and offered the world yet another cantata on the subject of Jesus or Oedipus or some such thing.  Bartók chose to laugh, to have himself a lark and take us along for the ride.

Going back to before his departure to America, we have waiting for us his 6th String Quartet, the last piece he wrote in Europe.  You can choose pretty much any movement and be treated to a profound emotional experience, but the last movement is pure lyric tragedy, written just after the death of his mother, we hear in it Bartók pouring out every last ounce of his sadness and loss, and all the Ave Marias in the world can’t match the power of its raw, wounded agony.


String Quartet 6, Movement 4


If Bartók is the closely guarded theorist who only lets the full color of his fancy out to play on special occasions, Leoš Janáček is the perpetually angst-ridden teenager whose passions are his curse and our blessing (if you’ll pardon the use of the term).  Many consider him the greatest operatic composer of the Twentieth Century, and it’s hard not to at least put him in the top three.  He was a man intoxicated by love and sound.  Wherever he went, he would jot down the musicality of the everyday speech around him, its rhythm and flow, its characteristic pitches and melodic turns, compiling for himself a stockpile of thousands of utterances of everyday opera which then formed the basis for his tonal worlds, lending them a grounding in human expressivity rarely surpassed.

That alone was enough to make for some great music, but it might not have come to much had it not been for the fact that Janáček was a horn dog of the first order.  One of the great guilty pleasure reads you can avail yourself of are the letters he wrote during the last decades of his life to Kamila Stosslova, a married woman whose increasingly alarming rotundity only stoked the fires of Janáček’s passion further.  What is both wonderful and terrible about these letters is how achingly reminiscent of high school they are – the words of a smart man who wants a girl not really that into him but who thinks that by displays of Importance and Learning he’ll somehow impress her into loving him.

Or maybe that’s just what high school was like for me….

In any case, what becomes abundantly clear is how, in his late sixties, the fire of passionate love was still burning him from the inside out, pushing him to write masterpiece after masterpiece as a substitutive act for the great love he couldn’t have.  Some of his most magnificent works are stoked on the fires of this passion, representing its different shades and flavors as the relationship waxed and waned.  Katya Kabanovna is a more or less direct representation of his relations with Kamila, with Katya as the married woman seeking a passionate love to settle the deep longing she feels and which her business-traveling husband, Tichon (a substitute for her real husband, David, a generally decent bloke)  is unable to provide.


Excerpts from Katya Kabanovna


It’s Janáček’s most intimate fantasy given sonic flesh.  The exchanges between the character standing in for him (Boris) and Katya are filled with all of the unrealized desire of a man in the full grips of romantic delusion.  At the conclusion of acts II and III, Janáček lets loose the reins of his fancy as Katya and Boris fall inevitably towards each other, igniting a love so intense it can only end in tragedy.

One would think that enough of a tribute to an infatuation, but Janáček kept drawing on different aspects of Kamila’s characters for his other towering works of late life.  He grasped her playfulness and sense of ease in The Cunning Little Vixen and her capacity for cold indifference in Vec Makropulos, the story of a three hundred year old woman who has fallen into complete apathy as regards love and life.  There’s hardly a nook of the emotional spectrum that he wasn’t spurred to capture in sound by his overpowering love of the vaguely spherical Stosslova.


Is there modern music that rigidly denies itself any flavor of sentiment beyond anxiety-inducing orchestral noodling?  Of course there is, and there are things to be said for it (some of the best of which were laid out by Milton Babbitt in his now-notorious 1958 article Who Cares If You Listen? and which are really worth a visit), however to lay all of that emotive monodimensionality at the foot of the rise of godlessness in music is a bit much.  They don’t come much more godless than the three gentlemen we’ve just spent some time with, and all three of them felt equally comfortable in portraying intensely personal moments of loss as towering themes of human transcendence.  You don’t lose your capacity for awe and sublimity just because you don’t believe in superpowerful rules brokers.  It is a case of there being more in our philosophy than is contained in our notions of Heaven and Earth, if only we are willing to look, and listen.

Comics Culture

Here Be Nerds: A Modest Account of Skepticon 6

Daleks.  Picard v. Janeway.  Super Soakers.

For the twenty-five hours I was stationed at my booth, these were the deep issues I and my fellow Skepticon attendees wrestled with – no First Cause arguments, no earnest discussions about The Future of The Movement, just a steady stream of entirely lovely people and our shared geekery.

How different it would be, if the world saw atheism more often from the vantage point offered by this humble foldable chair – the group huddled excitedly over a game of Settlers of Catan in the corner, another planning their big Karaoke Night Out, and right here, at this table, two strangers bonding over a shared love of The Wild Thornberrys.

Because that’s what atheism is – getting ecstatically, unreasonably excited about the products of the human imagination, having the entire weft and warp of human fancy as your own private source of daily delight.  That world of unhindered exploration is so tangibly yours for the having once you let fall the notion of the sacred and its shadowy Iago, Shame.  The people I see have loosed the final fetter on their nerdishness, and it gives them this sort of radiance that it was my privilege to bask in for two days.

That’s not to say we stop explaining and expounding and, yes, arguing, if need be, because there are terrible things happening in the world that must be pointed out, regardless of the opprobrium inevitably attached to the pointer.  There is a hard-won heft to the notions of existence and purpose we have scratched from the often cold surface of reality, and we certainly do ourselves a disservice accounting it all as too austere or depressing for public consumption.  But, as in all things, the key is balance.

Certainly, the last thing we want is the atheist equivalent of those sheepish Mormon ads that, in attempting to suggest breadth and normalcy, come off portraying Mormons as, most likely, alien changelings.  But a few glimpses of joyous humanity, here and there, could not hurt, to which end I offer the following Skepticon sketches in miniature of the people I met and conversed with over the last few days:


Steven Olsen is a strong proponent of Cookies For Dinner.


If you give Nicole Crenshaw a chance, she WILL wear your Victorian cape, and WILL twirl in it.


Rachael Berman has a sixth sense for knowing when somebody around her is starving, and a seventh sense for conjuring ways to feed them from the ether.


Amanda Brown will craft a captioned jpeg of you while you’re not looking, just to make life that much more fun.


Lauren Lane’s family can, within about ten minutes of conversation, fix all of your life’s problems and will give you free beers while doing it.


K. Johnston is probably a ventriloquist, and more probably still is not aware of the fact.


Some small part of Ellen Lundgren is, even now, reenacting the Battle of Gettysburg.


When you’re feeling a bit down, Sara Mayhew will draw a charming picture for you that suddenly makes everything better.


JT Eberhard never forgets a kindness, and is lusciously unashamed to wear the goofiest hat in the room.



And so many more who stopped and chatted, about Dungeons and Dragons version 2.5 and open-shirted William Ryker, Agent Coulson and those plastic jars of Real Ghostbusters ectoplasm that came with a ghost inside, and whose names my Convention-addled brain forgot to write down or who never left one, each a standing example against the popular conception of an atheist as a curious sub-species of human eternally gripping a Bertrand Russell text tightly in cold, unfeeling fingers.  They are the future of humanism, and its great hope, and from where I sit, that future shimmers with promise and laughter.

Culture Music

Sing Me the Earth’s End: Two Secular Songwriters Redefine What Music Can Do

The wisdom of the crowd has it that there are some subjects utterly inconceivable as the stuff of musical treatment.  And that judgment is completely correct until the day some musical genius wakes up with a scrap of a notion that turns into a bit of a melody that vaults into a juggernaut of a song which populates our sonic landscape with new and suddenly integral ideas.  Of all the concepts that seem ill-suited for popular song treatment, none seems quite so obviously unthinkable as The End of Human Civilization.  And yet, both Shelley Segal and Tombstone da Deadman, within the space of this last slim year, have managed it, and beautifully.

Segal’s An Atheist Album (March 2013) is a seven-track marvel that hits some notes familiar in the pop landscape (the awful position of women in world religion, the grotesque effrontery of Salvation) but more often sets off all on its own into the depths of the thematic jungle.  I’m going to stick to my particular favorite song, an ode to the end of existence that makes you feel warm all over, “Apocalyptic Love Song.”    Over a simple and frail strummed guitar Segal’s voice ponders the following by way of opening:


One day the sun is going to die.

For us that means no more sunsets.

For the universe, just one less star in the sky.


I admit getting goosebumply when those lines first hit me – I paused it before letting the song move on to try and figure out what exactly this new thing was.  I’m still wondering, but I think a large part of it is this – Segal is giving us a vision of inevitability and nothingness that is tinged by a fragile human sweetness, a Muss es sein? resignation that still keeps with it a snatch of something lovely and worth the while, if only for the while.

One could write an extinction song with the aim of paralyzing the listener with awe and dread, and in some settings, like a Mahler symphony, that works beautifully.  But something different is required for our times, and Segal found it – extinction as a creature of final whimsy, deserving of a sort of half-smile when we look up from our loves of the moment:


And yes I understand that my whole life is just a blink of an eye
in the history of the earth, as with each moment that goes by
but this moment that I’m with you
It feels like time has stood still
It feels somehow like it matters
And that it always will.


Is that not one of the most beautiful thoughts set to song?  Not time has stood still, not that our time together does have eternal significance that the heavens above take note of, but that it all FEELS like it does, and that there is something somehow more precious about knowing that it’s just a feeling standing against a mammoth reality, and letting yourself be warmed by it for a bit anyway.

It’s Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” taken to the next level.  I won’t follow you into the dark, but while it’s light, I’ll be with you and you’ll be with me, and there is something to the positive nothingness of that which we must smile about and love.

Living in quite a different tonal world is the new album, Entropic Man, by Tombstone da Deadman (October 2013), the follow-up to his much-beloved Rise of the Infidel (2012).  It features two tracks that take as their subject not only the end of human existence, but the end of existence generally under the cool and indifferent watch of thermodynamics.  In the concluding tracks, “All Things Must Pass” and “Death Speaks”, Tombstone assumes the guise of Entropy and Death themselves, surveying from those perspectives the progress of the universe and man’s small lot among it all.

As entropy, he introduces himself with a power and force that suggests John Milton crossed with Carl Sagan:


I’ve seen the laws of physics sort out themselves
I’ve seen stars and planets form from out of gravity wells

even galaxies colliding with others in cataclysmic wonder
I caused destruction on levels too high to have a number

part of reality’s fabric, attached to it like a magnet
I’m not a villain there’s no reason to panic

but see I’m not a hero either, I’m both but still neither
transcending all your names Anubis to the grim reaper.


And it’s perfect – that realization that we want to personify every immaterial thing with spirit and purpose, when in fact there are just events guided by laws quite outside of heroism and moral remark.  And, like with Segal, the sheer massiveness of the universe’s indifference is the very thing that frees us as humans to enjoy life as humans do and must:


so when the day comes that I put an end to it
reflect upon your life in the last minutes that you spend with it

just think about the people that you have touch and ones that you loved so much
accomplishments and failures fun times and all the such

or not….cause you can choose to go into the darkness screaming
disturbing all your people but to me it has no meaning.


All Things Must Pass, the chorus intones, and in those moments that the song in all of its imagination-defying scope drifts past you, that fact seems genuinely okay.  From Entropy, then, we pass to Death, which begins rather chummily with, “Hello Humanity, it’s your boy Death… I think it’s time that we had a little heart to heart.”  And then it’s down the rabbit hole as Death lays the simple and unadorned facts of existence before us and wonders about how we’ve taken those basic facts and twisted them into the various ecstatic death cults that have spotted, and continue to drench, our civilization:


Why romanticize stories of species-wide genocide,

Why not just celebrate the limited time that you are alive?

See, I’ve been watching you monkeys for many years

Your history is full of deceptive thoughts and red tears,

I’ve reaped the benefits of your murderous ways,

And laughed and even enjoyed the lies about the soul

You think you have.


The whole song crackles with the exasperated laughter born of frustration that comes with perspective.  And it’s terribly sad too – it is painful to ponder how much of our time as a species we have spent denying our basic worth and denigrating the time given us in the name of What Is To Come, wasting away while anticipating a next world or an Armageddon when there are problems to be solved, people to be fed and the occasional kitten chin to be scratched.

Atheist music is a tough thing to pull off, as is any music driven by ideas possessing a certain degree of intricacy.  Like songs of social justice, there is a tremendous capacity for it all to go horribly wrong, with an end product sounding more snide and superior than earnest and heart-felt.  But we have the immense good fortune of having not one, but two (and more every day) songwriters of superb instinct showing us the way, not just to what atheist songs can do, but what depths of insight songwriting in general can achieve.

Comics Culture

Five Thor Comics My Atheist Heart Holds Dear

For nearly fifty years now, Thor has been the comic where the big issues of mankind’s relation to its deities have been thrashed out.  And in that time, amidst all of the skull-cracking and “I Say Thee NAY!”ing, the writers have managed to craft some of the medium’s most stirring representations of religion awry, and the humanity at the heart of it all.  With the release of the second Thor movie tomorrow, it seems a good time to look back at five Thor comics that challenged our notions of the greatness of the gods.


5. THOR 294 (Writer: Roy Thomas.  Art: Keith Pollard and Chic Stone)


When Roy Thomas took over Thor from Stan Lee, he brought with him a desire to do justice to the deep tradition of Norse mythology and a sensitivity to the subtlety of man’s mythological craftsmanship.  In this issue, we are treated to the secret origin of Odin, and not only that, but the story of how the gods fashioned their own identities from bits and pieces of the world they found both buried in the memories of shared experience and in the world around them.


Caught in a cycle of destruction and rebirth, the young gods must answer the question of why they are here and how they came to be, and in doing so act out the origins of our own creation myths.  In a move that has a certain whiff of Feuerbach about it, Thomas shows Odin fashioning his pantheon, and the universe about it, from those things he most admires and fears about himself and the departed universe that gave him birth, only to watch that true and personal origin get buried in the myths spun by his children.


And isn’t that always the way?  You find something astounding and great about yourself, and you feel the need for it to be more than just personal, to be a manifestation of a great and eternal truth, and so you cut it out of yourself and make a god of it.  Humans are always doing crazy stuff like that, and Thomas captures it beautifully in this issue.


But my favorite part about this comic is the Letters page, which I’m pretty sure isn’t reproduced in collections, so you’ll have to shell out the big $5 to get an original copy, but it’s worth it because Thomas devotes two whole pages to an essay about the tilting of the Earth’s axis, Ragnarok, and how all of that ties into Marvel continuity, which is the sort of thing you just don’t see anymore.  PLUS, if you’re a Wagner fan, this issue has all sorts of little call-outs to the Ring’s conception of Norse myth, and that’s always fun.


4. JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY 87 (Writer: Stan Lee, Art: Jack Kirby)


Okay, this issue has nothing whatsoever to do with Humanism, or Atheism, or Theology, or really anything, and everything to do with the Ritual of the Stan, which is something everybody ought to do at one point, regardless of what you believe about the heavens above.  The Ritual of the Stan is where you grab a bunch of Stan Lee comics and read through them until you get one which doesn’t quite hold together when read quietly to yourself.  Then, you get up, flip back to the beginning, and read it aloud, in the manner of Stan Lee, and behold as it all starts coming perfectly together!


Some comics are just meant to be read aloud.


This is a pretty good one for it (though Loki’s second appearance is a great one too, if for nothing else than the culminating moment where Thor throws a bunch of bread crumbs at a group of pigeons and thereby saves the world).  Thor spent a lot of time in the early issues fighting Commies.  Issue 84, which was his second appearance ever, was one such and here, just three issues later, they’re back!  Really, the cover says it all (again, read it quietly to yourself, and then read it as Stan Lee! and suddenly “electronically treated chains” makes total sense).


Is it one of the best issues of Thor ever written?  No, but it’s one of the best times you’ll have reading a Thor comic, and even atheists deserve a bit of fun now and again.


3. THOR 493 (Writer: Warren Ellis, Artist: Mike Deodato, Jr.)


Before writing the heaven-shaking Supergod, Ellis wrote the World Engine story arc for Thor in the middle of the comic book Dark Ages, better known as the mid-90s.  It was not an environment friendly for the crafting of complex mainstream comic book tales, but there were gems among the fist fights and flexed pecs, and World Engine was one of them.  This is the third issue in the arc, and what makes it so remarkable is how directly it engages with the various explanations that exist in the Marvel Universe for the existence of the Asgardians, even while Thor finds himself grappling with the consequences of a mortality thrust upon him by his harsh father.


We see the Asgardians as they exist in the mythology of their human observers, and at the same time as laughing creatures of a science evolved beyond any merely human understanding.  As beings who began with a purpose, perhaps, but who have squandered it and now burn themselves out in the fire of their own scorn and retribution.  It is a grim story with the only relief coming when Thor and The Enchantress, long the bitterest of enemies, set aside the immensity of their godly past and decide to be, if only for a short time, a couple of mortals with nothing to lose.


2. Thor 577 (Writer: Dan Jurgens, Artist: Scot Eaton)


This is a single issue from one of the greatest arcs in Thor history.  I’ve written about the arc as a whole elsewhere, but this issue is a pretty good stand-alone representation of everything that is challenging and exciting about the larger story.  The humans have brought Asgard crashing down to Earth, and in the rubble and disaster of the moment, Thor has declared that the Asgardians will now take charge of the planet.


In the crucial moment of decision, Jurgens is at his best, showing us how, once a binary religious mindset kicks in, it runs roughshod over the humans it is meant to help.  Lady Sif, Thor’s longtime friend and a potent warrior of Asgard, argues passionately that what the disaster betokens is that humans are now past the stage of needing gods, that their cohabitation of the planet will only bring suffering to both, but Thor, mad with frustration and egged on by Loki (of course), will have none of it, and so sets humankind in the teeth of benevolent tyranny, curing it of all its ills if only it will obey.


The whole series, from the Spiral arc through The Reigning and into this, the first issue of Gods and Men, investigates the consequences of charity unchecked by wisdom, and the compromises that power makes with itself in its perpetuation, and is, I think, not merely one of the best Thor experiences to be had in comics, but one of the greatest experiences, period.


1. Thor: God of Thunder 8 (Writer: Jason Aaron, Artist: Esad Ribic)



The Thor comic has gone through some exciting and unsteady times as of late, dying and being resurrected, and then dying AGAIN and being resurrected AGAIN, each time with a change of numbering that was entirely traumatic to all of us who love seeing those numbers in the longbox march magisterially forward.  Jason Aaron rescued the situation last year with Thor: God of Thunder, bringing the world of comics a tale of stark and uncompromising honesty that catapulted Thor back into the consciousness of a resurrection-weary reading public.


He also brought us our first true atheist anti-hero in the form of Gorr, the God Butcher, a character whose modest goal is to eliminate all gods from the universe and thereby free mortal existence from its self-abasing subservience and the destructive violence that comes with it.  You could pick anything from the first ten issues and it will be golden, but my favorite is issue 8, if for no other reason than the conversation between Gorr’s son and a young version of Thor:


Thor: You think this is a good thing, the killing of gods?


Gorr’s Son: It will be a better world without gods.  No more fear of eternal damnation or lust for eternal reward.  No more hatred between believers of rival faiths.  Without the lie of eternity to serve as our crutch, we will have no choice but to finally cherish what precious little time we have.  And to put our faith in only ourselves and one another.


It is a beautiful moment, tucked away in a little side-panel, but it says everything that needs saying about the tensions at the heart of Thor’s place in the Marvel universe, and about religion’s continued place in the hearts of a humanity that is starting to find its way back to itself again.





I am aware that Walter Simonson is not represented on the above list, and that his absence is an act of sheer madness.  He is the man who defined how Thor looks and sounds, and how his universe hangs together, and anybody looking for a good Thor story will find it written upon each page of Simonson’s time at the helm.  This list is the intersection of my personal favorite Thor stories (which include many, many Simonson issues) with my favorite humanist comics, with Stan Lee thrown in to add a bit of jolliness to the mix.  The time when I just talk for pages and pages about my fifty favorite Thor comics is still far off, we can hope.



Marvel is good about making back issues available in trade format.  The whole Warren Ellis story arc is available in Marvel Visionaries: The Mighty Thor: Mike Deodato JrJourney Into Mystery 87 and Thor 294 are both available at a great price in the Marvel Essentials series (each contains a ton of issues, though just in black and white).  And there are complete trades of Thor: Gods and Men and Thor: Godbomb, available at your friendly Local Comic Shop!  So get reading!  Verily!


Culture Language

Why Can’t the English Teach Their Deities How To Speak?

Part I: The Problem.


I’m glad you could all make it.  I, your god, have something crucially important to tell you about what is expected of you, and your purpose on this Earth.  Before I do that, though, I couldn’t help but notice you all speak the same language, and it’s making you a little complacent.

So, I’m going to go ahead and make you all speak something radically different.  Let’s call it a team building exercise.  Then, I’m going to wait a bit, let’s say two thousand years, before telling one of you half of my very important message.

Whoever that guy is, he should really get the word out somehow.  Try charades.  People love charades.

I’ve got lots of stuff to do though, so I’ll probably need another couple of thousand years before finding another one of you, preferably the one with the worst possible history of keeping reliable records, and imparting the second half of the message to him, a half which will, for the most part, contradict everything that I told the first guy.

Whoever that second guy is, if you could go ahead and lose not only whatever of my first message is still around, but write what you remember, or think you remember, or would like to have remembered, about the second half on something highly perishable, that would be great.

Questions?  No.  Fantastic.  I think this is really the best possible way to get my message out, and am thrilled to have you all on board.



Part II: Flailing at a Solution



If there is anything in the Bible which demonstrates Jehovah’s lack of omniscience, it’s his bumbling and erratic marketing campaign.  It is a strategy that begins on a misstep and concludes in farce.

To start, Jehovah, after scrambling the world’s languages at Babel, has to pick one of them for the first half of his message.  Now, if there is a language in world history that you Absolutely Do Not want to start a religion in, it would be Hebrew.  That choice alone ensures that the majority of the vowels in your message will not be written down, but will have to form part of an oral tradition for a thousand years until somebody finally gets around to some manner of codification.

For Hebrew, that definitive codification did not happen until the tenth century.  Christianity, of course, couldn’t wait that long to appropriate the Hebrew Bible, and impatiently started translating the Tanakh into the universal language of Latin about six centuries before the standard Hebrew vocalization appeared.  Lacking that standardized text, Jerome, the man who brought us the Latin version of the Bible which would stand unchallenged for the better part of twelve hundred years, had to make do with the bits and scraps of manuscript, tradition, and commentary he had at hand.

His major sources included Origen’s 3rd century CE Hexpala, which places a Hebrew manuscript alongside several different attempts at translation into Old and Modern Greek, and the Septuagint, a 2nd Century BCE translation of the Tanakh into Greek that served as the primary source for Biblical translators for millennia after Origen’s source material became scattered to the winds.  And he did his best, translating the Hebrew, with the advice of previous Greek translations, into Latin, ensuring a sort of twisted, transposed half-existence for the Hebrew text even as its manuscript copies blinked out of existence.

For centuries, then, the word of Yahweh was wrapped up in a Latin translation understood only by a swath of the population so narrow that it makes The One Percent appear positively inclusive.  If God’s message was, “Go forth, and spread the word, after translating it a couple of times, ultimately into a language that only a super-privileged portion of the population can understand!” then things were going swimmingly.

Eventually, however, people smelled a rat, and a veritable orgy of translation gushed forth in the sixteenth century on the heels of Luther’s German Bible.  Each country had its own dramatic version of the process, but few rival the convolutions the text endured during its translation into English.  Not only did English translators face all of the problems of their Continental comrades – a shriveled and incomplete manuscript base, the slow grinding away of meaning that necessarily occurs to words long in circulation, and the unavoidable misquotations and contradictions that are just part of the Bible, no matter what version you look in – but they also had to deal with fractures within the Protestant tradition that were entirely unique to England.

There’s a lot of back story here, but the basic idea is that you had the power structure put in place by the king and maintained by his successors, which was Protestant but still highly hierarchical, and you had the tradition that felt that, to eject the name of Catholicism while still keeping bishops and elaborate rites was not going nearly far enough.  And each of them created their own English Bibles, the Separatists leading the way with William Tyndale’s foundational 1525 translation of the New Testament.  For daring to put the Bible into English, and worse, for daring to use vocabulary that suggested bishopry was not in fact part of the Bible’s plan, Tyndale was put to death in 1536, before he had a chance to complete his Old Testament translation.

From there, the race was on, but let’s not lightly pass over the very critical point that Vocabulary Choice just cost a man his life.  I’m not too interested in the pathos aspect of that so much as how radically different the Bible becomes by simply choosing one probable word over another.  Use “congregation” instead of “church” and you rock the very foundations of Western religious practice.  This is why translation is such a horrid thing to rely upon – the men who translate your works, by thinking in a different language, cannot and will not understand you on the points close to their hearts or yours.  Distinctions which were critical to you will be lost to them, and distinctions that they are willing to shed blood for after millennia of shared experience won’t have even been thinkable by you from your historical position.  What Tyndale’s death ultimately shows us isn’t the sublime beauty of martyrdom or the resolute dickishness of Thomas More, but the deep futility of translation as a mechanism of transmitting a message.

The history of English Biblical translation largely bears this out.  By the 1560s, the Separatists had created their crown jewel while in exile, the Geneva Bible, which included not only large chunks of Tyndale’s anti-establishment phraseology, but also extensive commentaries and references intended to drive their point home.  To counter, the Church of England put together its own translation, the much-bemoaned Bishop’s Bible of 1568.  Translation had become a weapon of theological war, with vocabulary choice its ammunition.

The King James Bible we have today is the ultimate peace treaty in that conflict.  It was a massive undertaking which included primarily pro-bishop translators, but also many moderate Separatists as well, working together to produce something minimally offensive to all concerned.  A good idea of how synthetic their ultimate work was is given by Adam Nicolson in his quite lovely book God’s Secretaries, in which he sets off in brackets the Biblical versions that a particular wording is borrowed from:


“You are also helping [Bishop’s] together [Geneva 1557] by [Bishop’s] prayer for us [Tyndale], that [Tyndale] for the [Geneva, 1560] gift [Great Bible] bestowed upon us [Geneva 1557] by the means of many [Tyndale] persons [Great], thankes may bee given [Tyndale] by [Geneva 1557] many on our behalf [Tyndale].”


The majestic rhythms of the King James Bible, then, are a patchwork sewn from the half dozen or so major English translations that came before, always with the goal in mind of producing a sense of irresistible grandeur.  As a text, it has become so influential that it’s hard to evaluate.  Does it sound so powerful (at its best) because it is great prose, or was its style simply at the right place at the right time to impact our developing language’s notion of what greatness sounds like?

I liken it to attempting to evaluate the Beatles catalogue musically.  I can’t do it – the music is so a part of my biographical and cultural heritage, so woven into what songs ought to sound like, that I get caught in self-referential circles that end up saying little more than, “Yes, this Beatles song is musically good because it sounds like the Beatles, and they wrote good things.”  They came along when pop music was establishing its own evaluative criteria, and are inextricably woven into that criteria.  Likewise, the King James Bible, which was for centuries the only book you could find in many households, had a part in determining what counted for majesty in language in a way that we won’t escape for a good long while yet.

Even if the KJB does represent a triumph of wordsmithing, what it certainly does not represent is a vindication of God’s plan for his message.  Written in its lines are the demands of a king for compromise Of A Certain Sort, and the translators delivered that beautifully, staying on-message with what King James expected of them, and wrapping it all in the most imposing but comprehensible words available to them at the time, even when, as later translations have shown, they didn’t quite understand what they were rendering.

Since then, our manuscript base has grown (The Dead Sea Scrolls alone jumps us from the 900 CE Aleppo Codex, our best source prior to 1946, all the way back to the 1st century CE), and our knowledge of how languages work has exploded.  Unfortunately, part of that explosion is the realization that cross-cultural translation is inherently flawed and mostly doomed when it comes to really gaining insight into understanding the text as it was then understood.  But, even with that admission, we have at least learned enough to improve on some of the passages hazily grasped by the great sixteenth century translators, and have even been able to carry out analyses to allow us to unravel the multiple authors of the Tanakh, and order historically those of the New Testament in a way that sheds light on their various motivations.

Enter the farce.  Let’s face it, the translations that we’ve made since the King James, even when armed with all this new knowledge, have been, unilaterally, crap.  Those aimed at a literal translation speak to nobody, and those which attempt to render ancient Hebrew in Modern English are necessarily flat and awkward, utilizing as they do the vocabulary and associations of a largely secular and technical grammatical structure and word base to attempt to convey moments fraught with religious significance.  Here, I’ll flip open The Living Bible to a random location and write down the first thing I see:


“As Jesus was going on down the road, he saw a tax collector, Matthew, sitting at a tax collection booth.  ‘Come and be my disciple,’ Jesus said to him, and Matthew jumped up and went along with him.” (Matthew 9:9)


Quite.  And think, if that’s how tawdry and ill-fitting the text is now, after only a century of secular-technological thinking being the standard, what it will be like in four hundred years, when translators don’t even have the scintilla of everyday religiosity to fall back on that is still part of our present cultural-linguistic heritage.

Each year, we grow further and further from being able to understand the deeply held beliefs of the wandering Hebrew tribes or Jesus’s fellow political revolutionaries.  By translating those texts, we were not so much reproducing their message as restating our own, and for a while that breathed a modicum of fresh life into these crumbling and increasingly foreign texts.  But with each fresh attempt, the gap between our mindset and theirs became ever more painfully apparent.  We can see the original intent stirring in shadows, and try to jam it into the mould of our own experience, but we’ll never really know it as it was.  And that’s fine, if you think of it as just another book, but if you are a Christian, shouldn’t you expect a bit more from your all-powerful deity than two books half-heartedly delivered, followed by a shrug of the shoulders, and silence?





Eat Pray Pray: The Strange World of Christian Romance Novels

The best thing about romance novels as a genre is that they are, page for page, the most unashamedly honest books you can read.  They express the longings and frustrations of immense swaths of the population untainted by the distancing irony that black tie literature so often sheepishly passes off as refinement.  As such, there seems no more ill-conceived notion than welding together this most frank of literary forms with Christian thematic material, which is founded on the sublimation and execration of the very needs that romance novels serve.

And yet, the Christian romance novel has a pedigree stretching back half a century, encompassing everything from crass financial opportunism to sensuo-theological amalgamations of the creepiest sort.  What began as a modest form reflecting back on an idealized godly past soon fell victim to the Culture Wars and reshaped itself into a shrill platform of seething bigotry thoroughly willing to drown its hapless central characters in a wash of ill-fitting ideological posturing.

Most trace the beginning of Christian Romance to Janette Okes’ s 1979 novel Love Comes Softly.  It follows a young woman suddenly widowed in the depths of the American frontier.  Before she has time to grieve, a pioneer, also recently widowed, asks her to marry him so that she can be a mother to his young daughter.  In return, she will have a place to stay until the next coach heading East arrives.  From there, the novel falls out pretty much like a less charming version of Little House in the Big Woods, with plenty of descriptions of the practical routines of life in the wilderness, including one dismally imagined comedic set-piece involving chicken butchering about which the less said the better.  God shows up in the pioneer’s prayers from time to time, but no more often than one would expect from a person in that time and place.

The Christian elements are entirely appropriate for the setting and never over-stay their welcome in the name of authorial zeal.  It is a book from the tail end of that slim era sandwiched between Elmer Gantry and Jimmy Swaggart when religion was a purely private matter of reflection, and not the cudgel against unfamiliar lifestyles it has since become.  And, while I wouldn’t say it is a good book, I would say it is at least minimally aggravating with moments of genuine enjoyment to be had.  Unfortunately, this oasis of comparative literary restraint was not to last.  The new romance authors who emerged from the Eighties took the form and used it as their base from which to advance the cause of Christian fundamentalism, creating books of unparalleled, and consequently rather fascinating, awkwardness in the process.

Lori Wick’s Sophie’s Heart and Francine Rivers’s Redeeming Love top most people’s list of the most important contributions to the genre to come out of the nineteen nineties, and it’s easy to see why.  They are both works of an entirely different stuff than Love Comes Softly, seething and bitter books with scores to settle jammed uncomfortably into the mould of a romance novel.

For Wick, there is no violence against her characters that she won’t commit in the name of expounding her version of Christianity.  But before we get to that, I have to ask your indulgence to stop for a while to reflect on the style of the book, because I’ve never seen its equal in terms of its unfailingly miserable grasp of conversation.  Here, I’ve made a little quiz for you.  I’ll give you a piece of dialogue from the book, and you pick who is saying it:


  1. “Whether or not you think we need someone, Craig, we do.  I’m sorry it’s taken so long for me to see this.  Nevertheless, I will expect your cooperation in the matter.”
    1. A man talking to his business partner about a change in the company.
    2. A woman telling her subordinate about the need to bring in a new employee.
    3. A man talking to his children about hiring a babysitter.


  1. “Nicole’s never happy with anyone, and she’s so protective of her cousin that I wouldn’t wonder if they get married someday.”
    1. A middle-aged woman trading gossip with her neighbor.
    2. A grandfather commenting wryly about the relation between two distant family members.
    3. A sixteen year old girl from the eighties talking with her friend.


  1. “I know, but what a way to go.”
    1. An elderly veteran talking about his friend who died in a parachute incident.
    2. A middle aged Church volunteer describing a parishioner who passed during a sermon.
    3. A ten year old kid talking about her father’s wallet.


  1. “What time shall we go?”
    1. Winnie the Pooh
    2. A nineteenth century fop who stumbled his way into the novel.
    3. The friend of the girl from question 2, also a TEENAGER FROM THE EIGHTIES.


If you answered c to all of these fine samples, then you are curiously in tune with Lori Wick’s odd notion that everybody in her book ought to talk like her, regardless of their age.  The boundary between narrative voice and casual dialogue simply doesn’t exist.  Catch phrases that she uses in her descriptive paragraphs regularly make their way into character’s speech patterns without any particular concern about the bleed-over.  But the crowning achievement is the central character’s manner of speech.  Her name is Sophie and she is a professional UN translator fluent in five languages who comes to the United States from her native Czechoslovakia in search of a better life, and yet after nearly a year of being in the country, Wick still writes her English dialogue entirely in the And Now Natasha We Look for Moose and Squirrel vein, dropping all definite articles and having her struggle mightily with the most basic accusative personal pronouns.

This tone deafness to the cadences and vocabulary of everyday speech, however, is the real saving grace of the book, because without it comically tumbling about the page in the nearest literary approximation of the Keystone Cops we are ever likely to have, what remains is brutally ugly.  Wick’s adults are all bigots of the most insidious flavor.  She goes out of her way to give each of them at least one line in which they evaluate people as Christians first and humans a distant second.  Sophie, praying to God as she does every other page, says after meeting the family whose house she is to serve in, “I’m ashamed that I didn’t ask ahead of time if they believe in You, but I’m so glad it’s true.”  The implication being, what, that she’d tell this family grieving from the loss of their mother to go screw themselves if they turned out not to believe in God as she does?

But it’s okay, because everybody else is equally horrible.  The father of the family, talking about his dead wife to their daughter: “I am sorry that I didn’t handle things differently.  We should have courted longer, set up standards for our whole marriage.  I feel we floundered spiritually far too much, especially in the last few years before she died.  We really drifted from church activities, and our hunger for God seriously waned.”  Yes, that’s a father telling his daughter that he regrets the purely romantic one-on-one time he spent with her recently passed mother, because their eyes should have been on God instead of each other.  That deceased bitch.

And even Sophie’s driving instructor, after not seeing her at the early service of the Church that apparently everybody she meets in this town goes to, gets his digs in: “His [mind] was wholly taken up with Sophie.  It concerned him that she would sleep in when she should have been in Church.”  This is before their second lesson, he has known her for all of one hour, and we are all apparently entirely fine with his unilaterally determining what she should or should not do with her time.  But that’s the way of this book – you don’t build friendships with people, you build fellowships with them, with one eye always on your scorecard with God.  You don’t work on actual relationships with people of a different faith, lest they pollute you (the father flatly refused to even consider dating anybody but Bible Believers in his college days).   And they can’t be just any Christians, of course – Sophie starts off in her new town (somewhat incongruously for an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, but Wick doesn’t seem to care) hunting down a fundamentalist Church “that preached salvation by grace plus nothing.”

Having a Czech immigrant fervently hunt for an American fundamentalist style church is not the only instance of Wick using her characters in improbable ways to make a religious point.  Mini speeches about the benefit of Christian schools, embarrassing dialogues highlighting the superiority of creationist explanations for the universe’s origin, and the obligatory concern about lawless teenagers all limp into position, pushing aside the main story as they make their way to center stage, leaving an awkward sucking gap when they finally depart.  There is romance, in the sense that a man and a woman are developing a relationship throughout the course of the book, but it is a relationship everywhere twisted by the overbearing need for gross servility before an omnipresent Lord.

Francine Rivers sticks closer to the romance novel form in Redeeming Love, taking the normal tropes and driving them into a dark corner of the human soul, one so bleak and humanity-hating that only Christianity could possibly thrive there.  One of the classic storylines in romance novels is, “Girl has rotten life.  The right man comes along.  Girl has great life.”  Not particularly subtle, and it tends to fail the Bechdel Test rather superbly, but it works and people seem to enjoy it.  Rivers takes this structure as her starting point and drags it to a place only a Christian author would care to go.

Her protagonist, Sarah, starts off the unwanted offspring of an affair between her prostitute mother and a married man who can’t stand the sight of her.  After he abandons them, the mother turns to street prostitution and dies in a shack, whereupon Sarah, at the age of 8, is brought to a mysterious man called The Duke who, it is implied, abuses her sexually for the better part of a decade before she escapes out West, nearly starves, and ends up working at a brothel where a Christian farmer finally rescues her after the brothel’s hired muscle savagely beats her almost to death.

Understandably, she hates men, and despises her life, all of which make her particularly susceptible to Christianity’s influence.    The farmer who rescues her has regular conversations with God, who is apparently very interested in having hour-to-hour input on the handling of this farmer’s new bride while being totally hands off about the other horrendous stuff happening all around.  “Sure, there are Chinese immigrants being worked to death a hundred miles away, but I really need to sort out this guy’s sex life.”  It’s that “God is responsible for everything good and nothing bad” logical inconsistency so common to believers that the rest of us just have to accept as a charming foible lest it drive us utterly mad.

To continue, the farmer is a romance novel cut-out: handsome, patient, knows how to cook, and likes watching the sun rise.  He wins her over slowly, letting Christianity play the Good Cop to the world’s Bad Cop.  It is swapping one form of control for another, and perhaps a worse deal at that, trading being a prostitute in body alone for one in both mind and flesh.

Between Wick’s pervasive bigotry and Rivers’s bleak view of a life lacking God’s regular and verbal intervention, the Christian romances of the nineties show a full willingness to carry on the belligerence of the teeth-gnashing No-Longer-Silent Majority even if their heroes and heroines stumble into monotonic detestability in the process.  Even these, the purportedly best meldings of romance and fundamentalist Christianity, seldom claw their way to a genuine emotional statement without immediately dissipating its impact in a mass of preposition-crippling Christian catch phrases.

In short, it didn’t work very well artistically, and others took the note, one of the most notable being Dee Henderson, whose O’Malley Series of Christian Romance/Suspense novels launched in 1999 and have shown the world a new way of doing the genre.  I admit to only having read Danger in the Shadows, the prequel to the series, a tale of a mystery writer (yes, another mystery writer writing about mystery writers) who falls for an ex football star who… you know what, it doesn’t matter.  Because Henderson’s solution to the Wick Problem is astonishingly simple: write a secular suspense novel, then shuffle in lone and shivering references to God about, oh, every ten pages or so, and call it good.  It’s the novel equivalent of South Park’s summary of Christian music: “Just take a popular song, and replace the word Baby with Jesus.”  If you were to remove every reference to God from this book, it wouldn’t change the plot or tone of the book one jot.  What you’d have is a by-the-numbers suspense remarkable only for certain contortions performed in the name of alcohol not being present.  (One of my favorite is when the writer character has the football star over for a pasta dinner and offers him the romantic choice between Fruit Juice and Soda.  Nothing complements angel hair quite like a cool can of Mountain Dew: Code Red).

Business-wise, it’s smart.  I read the book through and found it entirely palatable, and a glance through her online reviews seems to indicate that this smattering of randomly flung God references is sufficient for her Christian base.  It will allow Henderson to survive and adapt in ways not open to Wick and Rivers, though I suspect that Wick, with a hundred MILLION books in print, isn’t too worried.

This was supposed to be a happy article.  I envisioned sitting down with a handful of Christian romance novels, and being delighted to find that, deep down, they show the same fundamental needs and desires as their secular counterparts.  The heartbreaking fact is that they do.  There is writ upon each page a longing and loneliness and need for companionship every bit as animal as in the most basic Harlequin Romance.  But between that longing and the object of its desire there is erected a tortuous maze of Holy Adjustment where every impulse is reinterpreted and each touch of friendship weighed on the scales of theological purity so that, by the time the lovers finally fall into each other’s arms, they are staring not into the living eyes of a loving human, but the remnants allowed them by a capricious god and resent-laden author.  Watching these books unfold has all the grim fascination of ritual suicide, as the authors gut themselves and their best literary instincts for the meager recompense of considering themselves, to use Wick’s juttingly misshapen but unintentionally apt phrase, “used of God.”