christianity

Requiescat In Pace, Dear Hef: Hugh Hefner, The God Factor Interview

EDITOR’S NOTE 9/27/17:

Some of you have heard me tell, in person or in an auditorium somewhere, the story of my friendship with Hugh Hefner, who went on to his eternal reward today.

My experiences with Hef back in 2004 were among the most memorable and aperture-expanding of my professional life. He is the reason I try my damnedest to leave preconceptions at the door whenever I meet someone I think I know something about, or whenever I meet anyone. Full stop.

I learned so much more about faith and God and even myself from my conversations with Hef than I did about him. He was incredibly warm and kind and generous of spirit. And he was vulnerable, wounded, and there was a certain sadness that dwelt around the edges of his enormous smile and sparkly eyes.

Ninety-one is a respectable number of years. He didn’t out-do his mother, but he got close. And I’d like to think that wherever he is right now, he knows. Now he knows. All the answers to all the questions from a mind that was endlessly curious about the world, love, and yes, God.

Now you know, Hef. Bless your huge tender heart.

What follows below is the chapter about Hef, based on those conversations back in 2004, from my first book, The God Factor.

May we all have our expectations exceeded and our preconceived notions dismantled more often than not.


Photo of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner from a Stage 67 presentation “Sex in the Sixties.” Photo: Public Domain via Wikipedia.

When I decided to make my living as a religion writer, I never expected the job to entail giving my name and credentials to a “talking rock” outside the imposing gates of California’s Playboy Mansion on my way to have a conversation with Hugh Hefner about God.

What am I getting myself into? I thought, maneuvering my rental car past the rock, which kindly opened the gates for me, and up the winding wooded driveway where cutesy painted “Playmates at Play” signs mark the way toward the infamous mock-Tudor mansion. I crane my neck, looking both ways, fully expecting to see flocks of naked, pneumatic blondes skipping across the manicured lawns.

But there are no naked girls in sight—only a handful of fully clothed male gardeners and a small flock of flamingos—and what I find inside the Playboy Mansion during the visit with the man everyone calls Hef thoroughly surprises me. Almost as much, he will tell me eventually, as I surprise him.

“I have strong feelings about the way organized religion—with the codification of all the rules related to sexuality—became law and played havoc with people’s lives. And I think that—dare I say it?—is very un-Christian,” Hef says at the beginning of our conversation. We are sitting next to each other on a comfy couch in the mansion’s library, not far from where an original Matisse, with a burn mark where a tipsy John Lennon once left a lit cigarette, hangs. Behind the couch is a life-size bust of a topless woman. (Someone later tells me it is Hef’s former girlfriend Barbi Benton—the bust, not the Matisse.) “I think that there are great unanswered questions that I don’t have the answers for, and I think it is presumptuous for some people not only to suggest that they do have the answers but to codify them and establish them as a set of rules, some of which are wonderful and some of which are hurtful, in the name of the Almighty.”

That Hef would chafe at the confines of organized religion is hardly a shock. Much of what he says initially about religion and religious people appears to be well-rehearsed material, thoughtful sound bites that he’s delivered during innumerable interviews throughout his fifty-plus-year career as publisher of Playboy magazine. “Religion was a very important part of my upbringing. I saw in it a quality, in terms of ideals and morality, that I embraced. I also saw part of it, the part related to human sexuality and other things, that I thought was hypocritical and hurtful. And I think that is the origin of who I am. The heart of who I am is a result of trying to make some sense of all of that.

“Sex is there for procreation and a good deal more,” Hef continues. “I was raised in a setting in which it was for procreation only and the rest was sin, and that included not only a whole lot of behavior but also a whole lot of people. That’s abominable.”

Hef, who is dressed in his usual uniform—red-and-black satin smoking jacket, pajamas, and slippers—is charming, disarmingly so for a man in his late seventies. He is also incredibly literate, introspective, and kind in a grandfatherly way. But there is a certain tension at the beginning of our conversation, as if he’s worried that I’m going to judge him or, worse, try to convert him, as another interviewer apparently had a few weeks before me.

“I was saved a long time ago,” Hef says, not quite sarcastically. “I think I am a spiritual person, but I don’t mean that I believe in the supernatural. I believe in the creation, and therefore I believe there has to be a creator of some kind, and that is my God. I do not believe in the biblical God, not in the sense that he doesn’t exist, just in the sense that I know rationally that man created the Bible and that we invented our perception of what we do not know.

“I would believe in a god who created this world and also some more rational insights to make it better, and would indeed give us an afterlife. An afterlife would be a really good deal. Yeah, I would vote in favor of that,” he says, chuckling. “But in the meantime, I urge one and all to live this life as if there is no reward in the afterlife and to do it in a moral way that makes it better for you and for those around you, and that leaves this world a little better place than when you found it.”

Is that how he defines morality, then? Living in a way that makes life better for those around you and trying to make the world a better place? He looks a little concerned about the question, like I’m going to stand up, point my finger at him, and yell “shame on you!” or something.

“Yes,” he says tensely.

Don’t hurt anyone. Try to do the right thing. Make the world a better place. The Hefner moral code.

Hef believes he has lived up to the code, although he’s keenly aware there are people—many of them deeply religious—who would insist he has done exactly the opposite by building an empire based on unfettered sexuality and, some say, the objectification of women. To them, the image of the man is simple: Hugh Hefner, sinner extraordinaire.

Sin is a religious term for immoral behavior, but it’s a religious term,” Hef says, adding that his definition of sin is “things that are hurtful to people.”

Has he sinned?

“Oh, sure,” Hef says, “but I haven’t pursued very much immoral behavior. I’m a pretty moral guy. Now, it’s morality as I perceive it. Morality is what is perceived as good for people. I try to do what’s right, to do what I believe to be truly humanistic and rational and loving.”

So, how did he learn his definition of morality?

“First and foremost from my parents and secondly, in a very real way, from the movies. I think the movies were my mentors, my other parents. It’s where I escaped into dreams and fantasies, and it also provided me with a set of values that were immigrant dreams—what we call the American dream, dreams of democracy. I was a big fan of Frank Capra before I knew who Frank Capra was. I was born in 1926, so I grew up with the films of the 1930s. Very romantic, during the Great Depression. And those dreams came from Jewish immigrants, by and large, and that is what we think of as the American dream. It has become a universal dream, a dream of democracy, of personal and political freedom for everybody, a right to live your life on your own terms as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.”

What films have you learned the most from spiritually? I ask, and appear to have stumped him.

“One of the difficulties in the context of what you’re asking is that spirituality has different meanings for different people and suggests for most people a supernatural phenomenon,” he says, tentatively. “And you know … most of the movies that have had the most impact on me in terms of what I would call spiritual were romantic films, but they are … you know … I don’t know if I can use the word spiritual in its proper sense—”

“Let me tell you mine,” I interrupt. “It’s Harold and Maude.”

“Oh,” Hef says, his face folding into a big grin and the tension seeming to evaporate between us. “Oh, I love Harold and Maude. Well, now you’re broadening the definition of spiritual in a really wonderful way. Harold and Maude is one of my favorite films, and Bud Cort [Harold] is a friend and [is] here for parties all the time. And of course, Ruth Gordon [Maude] is wonderful. We show classic films here every Friday night,” he says, motioning toward the screening room (complete with a full-size pipe organ) adjacent to his library. “It’s called Casablanca Night. Last Friday we ran a film written by Ruth Gordon’s husband. Born Yesterday. Judy Holliday’s first film. And that’s a very spiritual film, too.

“It’s about a woman who is a kept mistress of a corrupt guy, played by Broderick Crawford, who is trying to make a deal in Washington. And in her rather Pygmalion relationship with the teacher, William Holden, she sees the world in a whole new way and she is reborn in the real sense. It’s a very spiritual film,” he says.

Another movie he finds spiritually inspiring is the 1942 film The Male Animal, starring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland. Fonda plays the mildmannered midwestern university professor Tommy Turner, whose job is threatened after he reads a controversial essay to his class that is perceived to be pro-communist. “It has to do with conviction of belief beyond what is popular, and it had a tremendously moving impact on me,” Hef says. “When I talk about spiritual, that’s what I’m talking about.”

Me, too, I tell him.

“How nice to have someone like you dealing with the subject of religion,” he says, looking relieved. “How did you ever get this gig? I didn’t expect you.”

Despite what he calls a “typical midwestern Puritan” upbringing—and Hefner, a tenth-generation direct descendant of the Mayflower passenger William Bradford, uses the term Puritan quite specifically—the Playboy baron’s own spirituality is decidedly unconventional.

Call it The Playboy Theology. Hef doesn’t believe in a “biblical God,” but he is fairly adamant about the existence of a “Creator.” He hasn’t been to a church service that wasn’t a wedding, funeral, or baptism since he was a student at the University of Illinois in the late 1940s, but he says he worships on a regular basis while walking the grounds of his own backyard. And he follows a system of morals, but not those gleaned from the Methodism of his childhood—at least not the ones that pertain to sexuality.

Hef grew up in Chicago, the elder of two sons born to Grace and Glenn Hefner. As a child he spent little time with his father, an accountant. “It was the Depression, and he was away before I got up and often not back before I went to sleep, so we only saw him on weekends,” he says. “Our family was Prohibitionist, Puritan in a very real sense. Never smoked, swore, drank, danced—all the good stuff. Never hugged. Oh, no. There was absolutely no hugging or kissing in my family.

“There was a point in time when my mother, later in life, apologized to me for not being able to show affection. That was, of course, the way I’d been raised. I said to her, ‘Mom, you couldn’t have done it any better. And because of the things you weren’t able to do, it set me on a course that changed my life and the world.’

“When I talk about the hurt and the hypocrisy in some of our values—our sexual values—it comes from the fact that I didn’t get hugged a lot as a kid, and I understand that.” While his mother was steadfastly Puritanical, Hefner says she wasn’t particularly dogmatic. “We had to go to church every Sunday, but she let us try other churches. We went to a Congregational church for a while, which is similar to Methodist. I went a couple of times to a Christian Science church because I had a crush on a girl in high school who was a Christian Scientist. I went to Catholic church on a number of occasions with my first wife because she was Catholic.”

He married his first wife, Millie Williams, in 1949 at a parish on Chicago’s blue-collar Northwest Side. He can’t recall the name of the parish, but he does remember—vividly—his brush with Catholicism. “Millie got very upset when she went to the doctor for birth control information and the doctor turned out to be Catholic and started singing ‘Rhythm is my business.’ She was so affronted,” Hefner says. That was the end of Hef’s connection, tenuous as it was, to the Catholic Church—or to any organized religion.

The couple, who divorced after ten years of marriage, raised their children, David and Christie (who is now CEO of Playboy Enterprises), without any formal religious tradition. His younger children, teenage sons Marston and Cooper, who live with their mother, Hefner’s second wife, Kimberly Conrad, on an estate adjacent to the Playboy Mansion, are also being reared religion free, he says. (Hefner and Conrad, Playboy’s 1989 Playmate of the Year, married in 1989 and have been separated amicably since 1998.)

Back in the 1960s, when Hefner and Playboy Enterprises were involved with the civil rights movement and Playboy was in its heyday, Hef spent time with various clergymen, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, with whom he could knock around his ideas about theology and morality. In fact, Hef says, for a time Playboy magazine offered a special discount subscription rate for ministers. During this era, the Playboy founder also met the Episcopal priest and author Malcolm Boyd. The two men have remained close friends for more than forty years.

“Hef is a seeker,” says Boyd, an openly gay octogenarian who lived briefly at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago in the mid-1960s and is artist in residence at Los Angeles’s Cathedral Center of St. Paul. “He’s on an adventure in life, and it’s at a very deep level a spiritual adventure. He’s looking for meaning, for context, for answers. He tries to size people up in a kind of spiritual way.

“Hef is almost a fierce individualist, and I think a great many people have never really understood him,” Boyd says. “He doesn’t have a conformist image that people are invited to buy into. He’s himself.”

When Hef prays, which he admits is not with any regularity, he says his conversation with the Creator usually goes something like this: “Thank you, Lord.”

“I’m blessed. If life is a card game, I got the winning hand, and most people have only a small idea of how really good it is,” he says, grinning. “Usually, you know, our religious values suggest you have to pay the fiddler, that if you get a lot of good breaks, there has to be something wrong with it, and usually there is. Not to suggest that my life hasn’t been full of trials and tribulations. Of course, it has. It wouldn’t be a life without it. But I know how lucky I am.”

As we’re talking, a peacock rests on the low branch of a tree in the backyard of the Playboy Mansion, which he shares with his girlfriends Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson. All three women are in their twenties. Located in Los Angeles’s Holmby Hills, the 5.7-acre grounds of the mansion are elaborately landscaped. There are fifty coastal redwoods, a meandering pool with waterfalls, and, of course, the notorious “grotto,” a cavelike alcove off the main swimming pool that houses a series of hot tubs, all of different depths and temperatures. (Of the myriad intimate encounters that have reportedly occurred in the grotto over the years, the saying goes, “What happens in the grotto, stays in the grotto.”)

There’s also a zoo. Squirrel monkeys, parrots, toucans, and other exotic creatures live only a few dozen yards from Hef’s back door. “The animals we have here are a direct connection to my childhood and my love of animals and my belief that we should be somehow living in harmony with nature, as the animals do. The Tarzan myths fascinated me as a kid. It was man and his mate in harmony with nature, and the enemy was the white hunter—civilization.

“Some of my most spiritual moments, if I can call them that, come from walking through the forest, come from walking the backyard; feeling connected to the wonder of what this is all about,” he says, his eyes wandering out a picture window to the mansion’s rolling, bucolic grounds.

“I think it brings your emotions to the surface, to a level where you are just totally overwhelmed. Sometimes you know why and sometimes you don’t. It touches you in places that are hidden, that are from very early childhood, that are hurts, yearnings, and those are wonderful, magical, spiritual moments. And they can come sometimes from left field.” One of the regular stops on his backyard strolls is a Tabebuia, or trumpet tree, he planted near the tennis courts in honor of his mother, who died in 1997 at the age of 101. “A good walk in the woods is very revitalizing,” he says. “If you think you’ve got problems or something hurtful has happened, take a walk in the woods and think about how lucky you are just to be alive.”

So, why are we here? What’s the meaning of life, the highest moral value?

“Love,” he says, without hesitation. “Love. Why do we keep fucking it up? Love. It is the Golden Rule.”

Love is all we need?

“Well, John Lennon thought so, but we need a little reason to go along with it,” Hef says as he sees me out of the library before disappearing upstairs to his bedroom. “This has been a truly spiritual afternoon for me. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this.”

Me neither, Hef. Me neither.

 

AUGUST 2004

 

From The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People by Cathleen Falsani (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006)

The Long-Lost ’06 Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” Interview (with Audio)

Original post published in March 2011. Updated on May 26, 2016:

In the spring of 2006, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published my first book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, which was a collection of 32 “spiritual profiles” of well-known people (I won’t say “celebrities” as that label applies awkwardly to many folks in the book) who I had spent time with face-to-face talking about their spiritual lives. I then set out, as you do, promoting the book at various literary festivals and other public appearances. As part of that tour, we decided I should conduct a few of these “God Factor” interviews live before an audience. We invited Bruce Cockburn, long a favorite of mine and one of the first “celebrity” interviews I ever conducted way back when I was writing for my college newspaper. Bruce agreed to join me onstage at the Ann Arbor Book Festival in May 2006. I figured he’d fly in with his manager, do my little dog-and-pony show and fly back to Ontario. Instead, incredibly gracious and generous soul that he is, Bruce drove his van down from his home in Kingston, Ontario alone and spent a couple of days hanging out with me in the rain in Ann Arbor. Our conversation onstage was only a small part of the amazing conversations we had those few days in Michigan, but the only one for which I have an audio recording. (Our dinner at this fabulous Indian restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor — I’ve never before or since had curried okra quite as good — not far from the theater where I’d interviewed him backstage 15 years earlier, will remain one of my favorite experiences of all time.)

As for our public “interview,” it too remains one of my favorite of all time. For years I’ve meant to take a couple of hours to transcribe it and post it so all of you could read (and hear) Bruce’s thoughtful responses to my questions about his faith. I’ve sat down many times to do so, never finishing until tonite. So with my apologies for taking many  years to share it with you in its fullness, I give you the Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” interview in its entirety. 

 

Transcript of my Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” interview at the Ann Arbor Book Festival, May 13, 2006

C: Can everybody hear us ok?

I’ve done many of these interviews before but never with an audience before, and usually we’re sitting on a couch or talking across a dinner table, but I think we’re both game. And I’m gonna grill him.

B: Here I sit, ready for the skewer.

C: Ready? Ok. Here comes the first one.

How would you describe yourself spiritually?

B: As a seeker, I think. I think that’s the simplest way to put it.

I think I suppose in some way we’re all that, or those of who think we should be are. Not everybody cares enough, I guess, about spiritual matters to identify themselves that way. But I do. And that seeking has led me through a bunch of different stuff.

I started being interested in spirituality when I was in high school. I can remember – whether it was the influence of the Beat writers I was reading, it might have been that – or some other set of circumstances that conspired to kind of get me thinking that there’s more to life than just the physical and that whatever that ‘more’ was it was something we should be paying attention to.

And that was the beginning.

I flirted with Buddhism because of the influence of the Beat writers. I moved on when the 60s came along – I sort of moved on into the occult, studied the Tarot, read a lot of old musty books about the occult take on spirituality. Eventually became a Christian and tried for a minute or two to be a fundamentalist Christian because I thought they seemed to offer the clearest definition of what being a Christian was.

And then I realized that it was, that their definition left out a lot of things because really what fundamentalism seemed to be about was drawing lines around things that were uncomfortable when they didn’t have lines. And I wasn’t comfortable with that kind of comfort.

(laughter)

So it kind of went on from there. Since then I’ve fallen under the influence of Sufi writers of Hindu teachings through Yoga studies and various other things. And the search continues.

C: Were you raised with any kind of traditional religious upbringing?

B: I was raised going to Sunday school, with the obligation to wear grey flannels on Sunday mornings, which was horrible.

C: What flavor?

B: It was what is called the United Church in Canada, which is different from the one in the United States. Its’ an amalgam of Methodist and Presbyterian. Socially the United Church in Canada has a history of kind of a liberal, of social engagement. It’s one of the least attended churches in existence, although when I was a kid that wasn’t true. All of the churches had bigger attendance than they do now.

My parents are agnostics and the only reason we went to Sunday school was that, well, my great aunt would be unhappy and the neighbors would talk. This was the 50s. You don’t buck the system in the 50s. We did what we were supposed to do. And that basically was kind of clear from the beginning that that was what we were doing. Because my parents would go to church from time to time but we didn’t hear any talk of religion in the home at all.

We got a little bit in school. We had to say the Lord’s Prayer. I remember the first time I encountered that. For some reason, we moved half way through kindergarten, and in the first half of kindergarten they weren’t saying the Lord’s Prayer — I don’t really know what that was about because it was pretty normal, as I later learned. But the next kindergarten I went to, you said this prayer in the morning and I’d never heard it before.

So I’m mumbling away, ‘Our Father, which art in heaven, HELL would by thy name,’ which I thought, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ Whoah. Weird. Psychedelic, if I had known that word back then. But anyway…

C: Do you recall what your first idea of God was?

B: Oh I think, I’m not sure how much this has been colored with hindsight, but I think it was probably sort of the charismatic old man with a big beard hanging out up in the sky. I think that’s probably the image I had of God as a kid.

But I also learned to love books really young and I learned that from my father who at that time, especially – he’s not that much of a reader as he was then – but he was a big reader and introduced me to Greek mythology, for instance, really early and it captivated me completely. Which I mixed up with Greek history – ancient history – as well so that my sense of the past was tied up with gods and heroes as much as it was with battles and modes of dress and stuff like that – buildings whose traces can still be found around. But there was a period when I was really young that I wanted to be an archeologist until I found out how much kind of boring work that involved.

So, my sense of God had to have also been affected by pictures in my mind of Zeus and Thor and the other ancient gods.

C: What do you think God is now?

B: Um…I like the Kabalistic view of God as ‘the boundless,’ which is basically a way of saying, I think, that there’s no image that applies at all and there’s no limits and every image that you could possibly think of is going to have limitations. Dealing with the boundless – I can kind of relate to that.

But I don’t know. It all remains to be seen.

If you think of psychology, if you think of Jung or Freud and the Jungian archetypes that exist in our beings in that worldview, those have a divine aspect or offer a connection to the divine. And those are clearly images – the animus, the anima, the principles that we, in my dreams anyway, they show up as people – sometimes really screwball people.

I remember – and this< I’m sure it was God – but a dream I had a few years ago: I opened the door of my house, which was in the country looking over nice fields – and there’s this old man in a suit, a yellow three-piece suit with a straw fedora and a cane and walking up my driveway. And he walks right up to my front door and I open the screen door and I’m excited to see him – he’s an old black man – and I said, ‘Hi! Welcome!’ and he looked and me and went, ‘Putain!’ which, for those of you who aren’t familiar with that, it’s the French word for ‘whore.’

(laughter)

Oh, OK. Clearly this man is telling me something.

I think he was kind of telling me stop fooling around with vague concepts and an intellectual kind of involvement and get down to trying to feel that kind of visceral contact.

So that’s what I currently work on.

C: Now, you said you became a Christian at some point. Can you talk about how that happened?

B: Yeah, I married a Christian. At the time we talked about spirituality but we really didn’t get down to religion too much. But over the first couple of years we were together, we talked a lot about that stuff.

She had grown up in a very freethinking household. Her father was a scientist. They were spiritually aware people but very disinclined to kind of attach any kind of imagery to things. And by way of adolescent rebellion, she had sort of run off and become a Baptist.

(laughter)

Kids have to separate themselves from their parents in some way and that was hers.

So we got into discussions about Christianity – she had abandoned that course after realizing that the people she had been with were very narrow-minded. They were glad to sign her up but they weren’t so good at dealing with being human.

We’re not married any more and we haven’t been for a very long time, but she remains a friend and she is a very psychic person with a lot of insight and she would have experiences that she couldn’t talk about with these people because it sounded demonic to them. So she left that.

But what she persuaded in getting me to do was to look at the Bible as something other than the chronicle of horrors that I had previously seen it as. We used to look in the Bible for the juicy bits, ya know? The guy stabbing his dagger into the king’s belly until the fat closed over his fist – that was a good one. And bits of the woman who was killed because she saved her husband’s life by grabbing his antagonist’s genitals. But because she’d touched a guy’s genitals, she had to be killed.

Ya know you find this – this is what I knew about the Bible as a teenager.

But, Kitty showed me St. Paul’s – whichever one of Paul’s letters that talks about loves – and one of the great things about the letters of St. Paul is that the guy – there is such a clear sense of him as a person in those letters. I don’t think I would have liked him very much.

C: I know I wouldn’t have…

B: But I really liked what he had to say about love. About the tongues of men and angels and that whole passage is a beautiful invitation to think more about that stuff. And that’s what Kitty offered me in terms of the Bible. So between that and reading CS Lewis and Tolkein and Charles Williams – who was another one of their cronies who wrote another amazing series of novels – almost impenetrable from a writing point of view – he was a terrible writer, but he was dealing with concepts that he seemed to have a really clear picture of – the bigger cosmos that we all inhabit and the way in which we interface with that cosmos, that are described in this series of seven novels dealing with kind of with the occult. Some of the people who are coming into these novels from the occult side are evil or represent evil and some do not. And his background seemed to, in some ways, parallel my own, some of the stuff that I’d studied before I got interested in Christianity came through in these novels clearly, and that attracted me to him.

So I came under the influence of these people and eventually I realized that I was in fact a Christian in every way except getting down on my knees and saying, identifying myself with Jesus as a person. And I did that. And then I was a Christian.

C: And here you are.

B: And here I am.

C: When we talked about spirituality once before, I don’t recall whether I asked you if you’d still call yourself a Christian, and I can’t recall what you might have answered. But would you?

B: Um, I guess I’m reluctant to not call myself a Christian because it’s been such a big part of my life. But I know that there are Christians out there who would not consider me a Christian and would probably be offended at me using that word about myself.

C: You’re in good company, Bruce.

B: I think so, actually.

But, um, so… In a certain way I do think of myself as a Christian, but I’ve learned so much from so many other sources that … and now we’re reading this very interesting book by a Canadian theologian called ‘The Pagan Christ,’ in which he deals with his own shock and dismay when he realizes that basically all of the elements of the story of Jesus as handed down to us in the Bible are present 2,000 years earlier than that in the Egyptian story of Horus, who is born of a virgin, has 12 followers, is murdered by the state in a horrible fashion and rises from the dead.

You think well…does that mean Jesus was there then as Horus? Or does that mean that it’s all metaphoric? Or something between the two? I don’t know the answer. For this particular guy, Tim Harper I think his name is, he comes to the conclusion that it is metaphoric and that’s how we should approach it and as that, for him, the stories are a source of inspiration and a model for us to approach God through. But it’s not that easy for me to make that leap if I believe his take on things.

I don’t know the answer.

I went to Jerusalem a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about this last night – Jerusalem seemed to me to be sort of a maelstrom of human spiritual hunger. It’s just this vortex. It seemed to me that there will never be peace in the vicinity of Jerusalem, partly for that reason. And it seemed, when you saw the distinctions that people went to such lengths to make between themselves as Franciscans or Armenian Orthodox or Armenian Catholic or different sects of Judaism or of Islam – they’re all there and they’re all representing themselves in their various uniforms and with their various rituals and they are terribly suspicious of each other. And you think, ‘This is as good as we get? This is a close as we get?’ Everyone has their sense of it. The thing, in a way and this is off the top of my head, but the thing that that illustrates is more than anything else the subjective nature of our relationship with the Divine.

And how important it is to remember how subjective it is and not to require other people to approach the divine in the same way. And humanity being the sort of tribal creatures that we are, we want to make these divisions. There is something instinctive in us that requires us to create tribes and to have somebody to oppose us in order to make us valid, or something. And when you see that so clearly illustrated in the confined setting of the old city of Jerusalem, it’s just – I don’t know. It was interesting. I’m still thinking. I don’t know where that’s going to take me yet.

C: There’s a debate going on in the States, and I don’t know what the conversation is like in Canada, but and I think what it boils down to is in a political construct here mostly. But what I think it really boils down to is people debating over what it really means to be a Christian. And if you are a Christian what that should mean for your politics – and  I mean that in a social-justice kind of way. What do you think that means? How has that played a role in your activism?

B: Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s pretty simple – until you try to practice it.

(laughter)

B: But it remains simple as a concept even if the neighbor is kind of smelly or whatever. It remains possible. And of course it also, in order to love your neighbor as yourself you have to start out first loving yourself, which is a big difficulty for a lot of people. We do the opposite. We project our self-hatred onto the neighbor and pretend that that, because it’s outside of us, we don’t have the problem. But it’s our problem.

So how do we translate that into the political arena? Well, it gets complicated when you’re dealing with issues like immigration, which is obviously a big one right now here, and a lesser issue in Canada but we kind of argue about all the same things that you guys do a year later.

(laughter)

B: …And with much less at stake, normally. But um, hah hah, ya know if you look at it – there are people somewhere in the world who are starving or who are victims of war and they’re victims of a situation that they didn’t create themselves – you go, well, that’s simple. I need to help those people. How can I help those people? Well, there are all kinds of nonprofit organizations and all kinds of avenues for helping people when it’s that obvious and it’s important to take advantage of those things because there are people who are our more immediate neighbors at those nonprofits who devote their lives to making the lives of other people in the world a little better. And they deserve our support. Ok? So that’s a simple take on it.

But when it comes down to whom you vote for, it gets very dicey. I didn’t vote in the last federal election in Canada because I couldn’t stomach any of the candidates. They all looked like cheap liars to me and they still do. After the elections, we have a government that wants to be Bush-like but doesn’t have America to work with.

(laughter)

So we’re saved from the worst excesses by virtue of being a country that doesn’t have any real power in the world. But the tendencies are there all the same.

C: What are you doing when you feel the most centered, or spiritually alive or something like that? Or the most authentically you?

B: Hmmm.

C: It’s a pop quiz.

B: Hahahah. I don’t know if I trust feeling authentically me. Hahahah. I’m not sure what that means. There probably is a good answer to that but…

C: I can phrase it a different way: What are you doing when you feel closest to God?

B: It’s an accident and I can be doing anything.

But most often it’s in the presence of some – it can be a dream when I wake up and feel like there was something important about God in the dream, or it can be standing under a starry sky and feeling – that’s probably the most dramatic moment – or standing on a seashore at night hearing the waves, feeling the rhythm of it, feeling a part of this enormous fluid clockwork mechanism (I’m mixing metaphors horribly) but that’s how it strikes me. There’s this jigsaw thing that’s going on that’s always in motion, that’s always sparkling and once in a while I get the feeling that I’m a part of that in a conscious way. I think we’re all part of it, obviously, but most of the time I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about something that I think I’m supposed to think.

But when I forget what I’m supposed to be thinking, and it’s usually as I said in the presence of some kind of natural grandeur, I kind of whoah! Forget little me. This is the voice of the Real talking.

C: What about your music? If I don’t ask you about your music they’re going to …

B: In your book, Melissa Etheridge says she finds God in her music, which I really suspect. Nothing against Melissa – she’s very good – but if I were to say I find God in my music I would think, ‘You arrogant prick!’ right after.

(laughter)

But, um, I don’t know. Music for me is a way of sharing experience among people. I wrote one song for God, on purpose, and that was ‘Lord of the Starfields.’ I attempted to write a biblical psalm, and it’s kind of written in the style of the psalms and it’s addressed to God, in a way, and it’s … ya know, I mean, I don’t know if God’s impressed by things like that. I suspect not really.

What impresses God, if that word can even be applied, is the raw emotion, the raw feeling behind the creation of a song like that, which was there in that case. It’s not always there in the songwriting process. The songs come out better when there is something raw and visceral going on, but sometimes that’s a little harder to access. And sometimes you feel the feelings and there are no words to frame it in, so there is no song.

C: Unless it’s in “Speechless”…

D: Well, instrumental pieces offer a different kind of thing. I hadn’t even really thought of about this – I had with other people’s music. This harks back to the previous question about where God turns up and God can turn up in the incredible harmonies, the mathematical symmetry of Bach or the more kind of strenuous outside harmonies of Bartok. I mean, there is something sublime that comes through that music sometimes. And it comes through in a non-verbal way. You can listen to Bach chorales where there are lyrics, but the lyrics are not very important to me, and as a songwriter that’s a kind of sacrilegious thing to say. But when I listen to a Bach chorale I’m listening to the music and the sublimity – if that’s a word – that comes through the music, not through my understanding of the music. That’s something I should remember with my own songs.

I had never applied that notion to my own work, but we put together a compilation of instrumental pieces that came out last fall (2005) and with a few new pieces on it, and hearing a whole album of instrumental stuff put it in a very different light for me. I realized that these pieces have something to say that’s going to be very subjective. I don’t know what another person will take from hearing those pieces. Hopefully they’ll think that some of it is beautiful and be touched in some way. But I found that whatever was happening there is something very different from what those same instrumental pieces have done on the albums that they originally came out on where they function more like counter point to a bunch of words, or relief from a bunch of words, as they case may be. Cuz I do tend to be a little word-heavy in the songs.

I’m accused of that.

C: They’re always great stories.

Do you worship? And if so, how?

B: I don’t go to church. I did. In the ‘70s I did go to church pretty regularly, for the second half of the ‘70s, I guess. But then I moved from Ottawa to Toronto and I never found a church that I really felt as comfortable with and I started touring more, farther afield in the world, and ya know, I’d wind up at a Catholic church service in Italy, which is the only kind you can find there – or the only kind I could find there – and couldn’t take Communion because I’m not a Catholic and I didn’t want to compromise the priest.

I could follow the service because it was close enough to what I was familiar with – I went to an Anglican church. But anyway, I drifted away from it and I haven’t ever gone back.

But I pray from time to time. I meditate a little bit, from time to time. Which I think of as a kind of prayer, because it involves opening myself to whatever might come in. And I feel like I don’t’ think I really am able to execute this very well, but I feel like my whole life is supposed to be a prayer, that everything I do is in some way supposed to be in tune with the will of God – if the Boundless can be said to have ‘will.’

But I think it does.

C: How do you figure it out, though?

B: Well, I don’t think you figure it out. I think that trying to figure it out is what gets us into trouble all the time. But feeling it in some genuine way – and that I realize is a very loaded notion – but feeling it in some genuine way is a truer way to deal with it.

I find – something will tell me, ‘Don’t go in that store; go in that other store.’ And I’ll go in the other store and there will be someone in there that I’ll end up having an encounter with that was meaningful, whereas if I had gone in the other story it wouldn’t have been. Tiny little things like this happen all the time, if you listen. If I listen to that little voice that says, ‘Go here and not there,’ which I’m not very good at doing. But once in a while I do and it produces surprising results, frequently.

C: I have one last question I’d like to ask, and I’m sure folks here would probably like to ask you a few things themselves … I’m thinking back to something you said at the beginning when I asked you how you would describe yourself spiritually and then later you saying that you wouldn’t not call yourself a Christian but that you continue – you are a seeker and you find truth other places, at least that’s how I’m interpreting what you said. At the beginning of my book [The God Factor], it starts with a quote from my philosophy professor at Wheaton College – the only thing I remember from his 8 o’clock Introduction to Philosophy class, when he said, ‘All truth is God’s truth,’ which to me means, if it’s true – it doesn’t matter who it’s coming from – it’s really coming from God. And I was wondering if you could share with these folks a story you told me last night about Nepal and the fellow you met coming down the mountain.

B: Oh, man, yeah.

C: It’s a great story.

B: Well, I don’t know…

C: I think it’s a great story.

B: Well, I went to Nepal in 1987 on behalf of a Canadian nonprofit that does work there among other places in the Third World. I was there for five weeks traveling around and traveling almost entirely on foot, because that’s how you do it in Nepal. The last week or so we were there, on the pretext of going to the Everest region to look at Sir Edmund Hillary’s projects with the sherpa people, we went trekking, basically, in the general direction of Mt. Everest. We didn’t get there because of time considerations. But we’re going up and up and up and up these incredible mountains in this incredibly scenery in this landscape where every time you turn a corner there’s what’s called a chorten – a pile of rocks, basically, with ‘Hail to the Jewel and the lotus’ written on every rock that people have put there for centuries. They’re always at a little crossroads and the little roads or pathways are not, of course, what we think of as roads.

So we came over a mountain into a village at one point and the villagers were all away at the local market, but we could hear this bizarre music – Tibetan style music – and it was a funeral. And we kind of crashed the funeral and hung around for a while. The funeral was going on for days. This wasn’t part of the story but I’m telling it anyway: the people whose relative was being honored at the funeral had spent a year scraping up enough money to hire all of these monks and nuns to come and conduct the funeral, which was lasting three or four days of constant music and constant chanting and prayer and whatever. So this is the kind of landscape that we’re in.

We’re walking up this beautiful trail, and a party of people that became very quickly were Americans were coming down the other way. There was this old gentleman, a guy in his – older than me (I was a little younger in ’87 of course), this guy I would guess was in his maybe late 70s and he had spent his entire life in Nepal, or at least he had spent 25 or there abouts years in Nepal after he had left his job as a teacher at a seminary here, some kind of evangelical college here in the States. He boasted to me that he had taught Robert Schuller, the guy who has the Crystal Cathedral. But he was bitter. He was about to leave Nepal. He had gone on this trek up to see the Everest base camp as kind of the last thing he was doing in Nepal before leaving for good.

And he said he was so disappointed because he had spent all of this time trying to bring God to the people of Nepal. He said, ‘These people don’t want to know God.’ Well, they didn’t want to know his God. They didn’t get his God. And he didn’t get them, at all. I felt so bad for this guy. I felt sort of judgmental, I have to say, but I also felt like what a tragedy this was. This guy had been there all of these years and he hadn’t got that this whole place is steeped in Spirit and to me it was just so obvious. I don’t know what that means in the day-to-day and of course when you live in a place you become sucked in in a way that a casual observer might not be, so ya know, it’s not fair for me to judge him. But it just seemed like such a waste of that energy. Ya know?

C: Maybe it’s just not seeing God in other people?

B: Well, I think it’s the tribalism thing. I think it’s the conviction that your version of God is the only real one and  – I mean, this is what we’re taught in church – everybody that doesn’t believe the way we do is condemned to a hereafter of torment. And he’s out there trying to save these people from that hereafter of torment and they’re going, ‘Well, I don’t think so. We’ve got our way of looking at these things and maybe you should take a look at it.’

The thing, too, and it’s part of the picture when you talk about Nepal and I’m sure it’s probably true in other places, proselytizing is illegal in Nepal for anyone on behalf of any faith. But it works fine for the Buddhists and the Hindus because they’re not into proselytizing anyway. And the Christians and the Muslims have a harder time in Nepal. A Catholic priest was jailed while I was there because he was caught proselytizing. That was part of the landscape that this guy had to face, too, which, of course, I didn’t have to deal with because I wasn’t there for that.

But I think it was a clear illustration, as clear as any that I’ve come across, of the problem when we try to identify God, when God becomes some kind of extension of a human construct, which the God that we grow up with – the same God with the long hair and the beard – is probably the same God that guy believed in, that God is not trustworthy. Ya know?

C: Thank you for answering my questions, Bruce, I appreciate it. If anyone has a few questions for Bruce Cockburn or for myself, I’m sure we’d be happy to answer.

 

 

AUDIENCE 1: I do. You mentioned some classical writers who are all dead – Lewis and Tolkien – are there any contemporary writers, Christian writers in particular, that you have found useful or influential for you?

B: There’s a guy named Bob Ekblad who’s a Presbyterian minister who put out his first book recently, which is called Reading the Bible with the Damned. Which is about his experience as a kind of aid worker in Central America and in his current practice of a prison ministry in Washington State, where he’s dealing with a lot of people from Central America, too. And it’s a pretty interesting take. I think he would probably consider himself an evangelical, but he’s one of the good ones.

(laughter)

This book, The Pagan Christ, I found very interesting. It’s a disturbing book and not a terribly great piece of literature, but definitely worth reading, I think, too.

AUDIENCE 2: I wonder how you balance being, apparently, the sincere, seeking Bruce Cockburn that everybody thinks is so cool and the public Bruce Cockburn that has to schlep his way to Ann Arbor to do a gig like this.

B: I came because I wanted to. The answer to the question is I try to keep there from being too much of a gap between those two things. I actually don’t do very much that doesn’t fit with who I think I am. Over the years I’ve learned to accommodate the music business to a greater degree than I did in the beginning. But I see that in human terms. I mean, I go to a radio station and the radio guys have their jobs that they’re doing and if I relate to them as human beings, we’re not really – it stops being the business game. As long as I’m able to do that, I don’t feel like I have to do too much of the other stuff.

It gets weird – my first taste of high-level politics, when I actually started meeting heads of state in connection with issue-related stuff of one type or another, there was kind of a heady intoxication that went with that. I thought, ‘Oh, I have power!’ The lure of power was out there. I didn’t feel like I really had it but I could get it if I played my cards right. But thank God I got over that. I realized, well, what liars these guys were and that I’d never be as good a liar as they were. So not to hold myself up as any paragon of virtue, but there are people who have skills and talents and mine isn’t that one.

(laughter)

AUDIENCE 3: I wonder how you relate to reincarnation and whether that has any resonance for you.

B: ‘In my Father’s house, there are many mansions.’ Uh, it was suggested to me years and years ago that that was a reference by Jesus to reincarnation. I don’t know one way or the other, but I feel like one lifetime isn’t enough and I kind of … I guess my … I’m not sure that I hold onto this assumption the way that I would hold onto a Teddy Bear when I was a kid or something, but I kind of assume that we have more than one life. At this point in my life, I feel like death is some kind of graduation ceremony and we’re on to the next level of education after that, whatever it is. I’m not sure if we can come back in human form or whether the bundle of energy that is in us goes somewhere else, but I do feel like I have a sense that I’ve been here before and that I might be here again.

AUDIENCE 4: Cathleen I have a question for you. Would you consider yourself a seeker of the truth? You hear that term a lot. And if so, what is the truth that people are seeking?

C: Wow. I wish you’d asked Bruce that. It’s a tough one.

(Bruce laughs)

Am I a seeker of truth? I certainly hope so. I’m a Christian. I use that term begrudgingly only because I suck at it.

(laughter)

I’m trying to be a Christian, in the true sense of what that word means. And I guess… what is truth? Dang, with three minutes left in the hour. God, I guess? I think when people are seeking truth, I think the ultimate truth is God and so what they’re really looking for is God. And I suppose that leads to the question, ‘Well, what is God?’ And I don’t think I’m going to try to box that in. I don’t think you can box that in.

So, am I a seeker after truth? Am I a seeker after God? Yes. And that’s why I wrote the book [The God Factor]. And that’s why I do what I do for a living, which I enjoy a great deal. And that’s the way I try to live my life, and in my best moments, I think I’m kind of heading in that direction.

B: C.S. Lewis said that all it takes to be a Christian is a belief in the reality of Christ. So you can’t really suck at it.

C: Are you sure?

B: Well, he was sure, and I’m taking his word for it.

‘I Don’t Buy It’: The Gospel According to Frank Underwood

Originally appeared via Religion Dispatches

There are many things that Netflix’s House of Cards can do — and do well — because it is not a network television series, not the least of which is handle faith, spirituality, and religion with nuance, courage, and a certain alacrity that is virtually absent from traditional, commercial programming.

Throughout Season 3 of House of Cards, President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) continues his existential striptease unabated, revealing the depths of his moral declension and staggering spiritual torpor.

House of Cards gets away with showing and telling things about the harrowing intersection of faith and politics that it never would have had the award-winning series fallen into the hands of ABC, NBC, CBS, or even HBO. (Thanks be to God.)

Minor spoilers ahead if you haven’t watched the episode “Chapter 30″ (aka season 3, episode 4) or beyond of House of Cards.

To wit: a scene in the fourth episode of the new season that contained one of the greatest spiritual moments in “television” history followed immediately by one of the most disturbing.

In the episode, disquieted by a presidential decision he made that cost several Navy SEALs their lives, Frank seeks counsel from a military chaplain — the motorcycle-riding “Bishop Charles Eddis” played by John Doman — under cover of darkness, standing under a huge crucifix in the sanctuary of a church.

Continue reading at Religion Dispatches by clicking HERE.
And read the bonus 12 Quotes from the Underwood Bible HERE.

@PONTIFEXCELLENT: Sneaky goodness

<> on May 18, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.Papa Frank is a cheeky monkey. Apparently, he’s been sneaking out of the Vatican at night, dressed in civvies, to hang out with homeless folks.

According to the Huffington Post:

A recent interview with Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, the “Almoner of His Holiness,” raised speculation that the Pope joins him on his nightly trips into Rome to give alms to the poor, and it turns out that the rumors are probably true.

A knowledgeable source in Rome told The Huffington Post that “Swiss guards confirmed that the pope has ventured out at night, dressed as a regular priest, to meet with homeless men and women.”

Krajewski earlier said, “When I say to him ‘I’m going out into the city this evening’, there’s the constant risk that he will come with me,” and he merely smiled and ducked the question when reporters asked him point-blank whether the Pope accompanied him into the city.

When he was still Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, Papa Frank used to do the same thing, sneaking out at night “to break bread with the homeless, sitting with them on the street and eating with them to show that they were loved,” HuffPo says. So the next time you find yourself riding the bus at night in the Eternal City and the priest across the aisle looks really familiar, it may be Pontifex Rex himself (or an angel in disguise.)

Just a stranger on a bus …

Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, second from left, travels on the subway in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Via HuffingtonPost
Argentina’s Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, second from left, travels on the subway in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Via HuffingtonPost

 

@PONTIFEXCELLENT: The Graft Stops Here

<> on May 18, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.Yes he’s a sweetheart, but Papa Frank is also tough as nails.

In his homily at early morning mass in Domus Sanctae Marthae (the hostel where he lives), the pope talked about bribery — a practice that has become, in some quarters of his new country and Vatican City itself — all too common.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, Il Papa said, in part:

“Devotees of the goddess of kickbacks” bring home “dirty bread” for their children to eat….”Their children, perhaps educated in expensive colleges, perhaps raised in well-educated circles, have received filth as a meal from their father,” rendering them “starved of dignity,” he said in his homily, according to Vatican Radio.

“Perhaps it starts out with a small envelope (of cash), but it’s like a drug,” he said, and “the bribery habit becomes an addiction.”

@PONTIFEXCELLENT: Noses & Kisses

<> on May 18, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.At the end of Wednesday’s general audience in St. Peter’s Square, Papa Frank embraced a man. He took the man’s disfigured face in his hands, cradled it in his chest, kissed him, and blessed him.

I’d imagine the man is not used to being embraced like that — not by strangers, maybe not even by family and friends.

But the Pope is a lover and, as I’ve mentioned before, a hugger.

A photo of the embrace went viral (as it should have):

Pope Francis' General Audience

 

According to CNN:

The man the Pope comforted suffers from neurofibromatosis, according to the Catholic News Agency. The genetic disorder causes pain and thousands of tumors throughout the body. It leads to hearing and vision loss, heart and blood vessel complications, and severe disability from nerve compression by tumors.

Earlier today, Papa Frank tweeted the following: 11h

Saints are people who belong fully to God. They are not afraid of being mocked, misunderstood or marginalized.

I can’t help but wonder whether Papa Frank was thinking of that man when he tweeted that.

Also Wednesday at the general audience, @Pontifex congratulated a newlywed couple who are members of L’Associazione Arcobaleno Marco Iagulli-Onlus (an organization that uses clowns and humor to cheer sick children). They’re known by their red plastic noses — the international symbol for healing humor (think Patch Adams). They couple were wearing their wedding garb and their noses.

So Papa Frank put a nose on, too. (Have I said today how much I love this guy?)

Photo by Alamy Live News via the Daily Mail
Photo by Alamy Live News via the Daily Mail

@PONTIFEXCELLENT: Baby Noemi

<> on May 18, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.In the General Audience at St. Peter’s today, Papa Frank asked the 50,000 or so folks standing in the square for a solid:

Pray for a baby named Noemi.

Apparently the child, who he had met before the public audience and may even have been among those in the crowd, is gravely ill.

Papa Frank said, in part (translated from the Italian but watch the video below where you can see how expressive and funny and warm he is):

“And now, I will ask all of you for an act of charity. Don’t worry, it’s not about money,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “Even though we might not know her, she is Baptized. She is one of us, she’s a Christian. Let’s express an act of love for her. First, in silence, let’s ask the Lord to help her at this very moment. May He give her health. Let’s take a moment of silence, then let’s pray a Hail Mary.”

On My Nightstand

book pileEvery day a new book arrives in the mail from one publisher or another, or by my own choice from various booksellers (independent whenever possible).

Lately it’s been a bumper crop. Here’s what I’m reading these days:

AND HOW COULD I FORGET ( not pictured because it literally was under my pillow in bed) :

  • STITCHES: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair By Anne Lamott

PASTRIX Bonus

Image

The curse of a journalist is never having enough room for everything in one piece. It’s an art of subtraction that often is a painful but necessary practice.

So here’s something Nadia said that I wanted to share but didn’t have space for in the original column. After her reading/riffing at All Saints last week, during the Q&A someone asked her about grief.

I’m coming up on the one-year anniversary of my father’s death (I loved him more than life itself) and what Nadia said is

1) true and

2) actually helpful.

Nadia answered:

I have nothing other than grief is such a such a disfiguring process. And speed it up or deny that that’s true is to not honor it. And there is no way through but through. Sometimes all that somebody needs to is someone to go through it with them. Not to give them platitudes, not to try to speed it up. That’s it. That’s all I got. There is no magic there. It just sucks.

YES IT DOES.

A few minutes before that, while talking about something else, she also said the following, which will stay with me a long time, grief, grieving or not.

I’m almost always stricken by an experience of God. Broken into a million pieces and put back together.

Amen, sister.

GoodRead du Jour: 'Let My Tebow Go' in the NYTimes

7978832698_44cc859a03Stephen Marche has a terrific piece in this morning’s New York Times about Tim Tebow, religion, and miracles (of sport and otherwise).

I inhaled it first thing today and it’s the first sports piece I can recall having read in recent memory. And I liked it. And I learned things.

You might, too.

Marche says in part:

It has nothing to do with Tebow’s religion. The show-business aspects of Tebow’s Christianity off the field are mostly a distraction. The virginity, the anti-abortion ad, the praying, the laying on of hands, the Tebowing — a pose in which he drops to one knee in prayer, the imitation of which became a brief Internet sensation — they’re all so many stunts. What appealed to me was his absurdity.

Last year, he took a team that was 1-4 to the A.F.C. West title and its first playoff game in seven years — and now he doesn’t even play. How is that possible? What’s more, even his ardent supporters admit he’s physically incompetent at the very position he’s supposed to be playing — his throwing motion is awkward, his passes are wobbly — yet, they argue, he seems to possess some higher talent, the oft-cited but ephemeral “intangibles.”

Read Marche’s column in its entirety HERE.

'At the Sound of Mary's Greeting, Elizabeth's Child Leapt Within Her'

''At the Sound of Mary's Greeting, Elizabeth's Child Leapt Within Her'

A child at Little Church by the Sea portrayed St. Elizabeth in the Christmas pageant Sunday.

Can you see the living God in this girl’s face? I can.

Photo by Cathleen Falsani

 

Out of the Mouths of Babes

317537450_1b109dadb0
Nativity image by Midiman via Wylio: http://www.wylio.com/credits/Flickr/317537450

Trish Ryan is a writer you should know if you don’t already.

She’s the author two really fine memoirs: A Maze of Grace: A Memoir of Second Chances and He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not: A Memoir of Finding Faith, Hope, and Happily Ever After. And she blogs regularly at Trish’s Dishes.

Today on her blog, Trish tells a story that so many of us parents will resonate with about driving her daughter, whom she calls “Princess Peach,” to school this morning awash in lingering fears that have descended like a low-pressure front in wake of the Newtown tragedy.

(On my own drive to school this morning, I felt unusually anxious, but did my best to hide that fact from The Lad. As we approached the school, The Lad shouted, “A rainbow!” I looked and didn’t see it at first. “Maybe I was wrong,” he said. But as we made the turn into the school parking lot there it was: A big rainbow hovering in the sky just above his school. I decided to take it as a good sign — all shall be well — told The Lad I loved him, he said he loved me to, grabbed his backpack out of the car, and off he went. As I drove away, I caught the vice-principal’s eye and mouthed, “THANK YOU.”)

Trish writes in part:

On the way to school this morning, flustered by the new level of fear hovering in the air and trying not to show it, I was SO frustrated to find that our usual route was blocked by construction, and the next two roads turned (inexplicably, without warning) into one way streets a block and a half down.

There were repeated three point turns (and suppressed four letter words).

Princess Peach is very tuned into the emotions of the adults in her world, so she asked me, “Are you angry?” “No,” I said, trying to sound reassuring, “I’m just frustrated – all these turn arounds are making it hard to get you to school.”

“JESUS, MARY, AND JOSEPH!” She yelled. I took a deep breath, trying to say calm.

We’re working with her on the whole “Not using God’s name as a swear word” thing (and how there is some language you don’t get to make choices about until you’re a grownup.)  Then I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw that she was pointing.

I looked, and sure enough: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  A manger scene, lit from within, covered in icy rain.

Read the rest of Trish’s post HERE.

Christmas Is Happening

Check out this clever and creative interactive Advent calendar-ish thingie courtesy of a couple of artists in the UK.

Click on the image below to experience the multimedia sights and sounds of Advent.

Screen Shot 2012-12-17 at 9.23.32 AM

 

With thanks to B-Rand at Sojo.

Ethiopia: The Face of God

BAHIR DAR, Ethiopia — When I posted this photograph of a beautiful little Ethiopian girl holding a daisy a few days ago, my friend  and fellow author Christian Piatt responded on Twitter with a four-word comment:

 

“The Face of God.”

Christian’s remark stopped me in my tracks … because it’s absolutely true.

The Bible even tells us so.

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. ~ Genesis 1:27

When I look into the eyes of the hundreds of Ethiopian children I’ve met, given high (and low) fives to, fist bumped, hugged, and waived to in the last few days, my thought is always the same: Oh my God, they are so beautiful.

What I didn’t recognize Christian’s profound four words is that Oh my God, they are so beautiful is also a prayer. A “wow” prayer, to borrow an idea from Anne Lamott.

Since Christian called my attention to the face of God, I haven’t been able to look at any of the remarkable souls I’ve spent time with here in Ethiopia without thinking about God’s face.

That Divine Spark reflected in our eyes. Our faces and bodies, hearts and souls all beautifully and wondrously made in the image of the Creator.

Nowhere is the face of God more evident than in the faces of children. They haven’t learned to cover up their divine face with masks yet, like so many of us adults have. Their joy is pure and unfettered, as is their fear and pain.

Below you can see for yourself what I’m on about — the face of God in the faces of a few of the hundreds of Ethiopian children I’ve been immensely blessed to meet on my journey to their truly sacred land. (More on that last bit in a forthcoming post.)

Oh my God, they are so beautiful.

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All photos by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.

Cathleen is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl. Cathleen is traveling in Ethiopia this week as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.

Read more of Cathleen’s posts from her Ethiopian journey by clicking on the links below.

Ethiopia: Motherhood is Powerful, Precious

Ethiopia: God Is Even Bigger Than We Think

See the thing is …

Before I went on CNN live this afternoon to talk about the current debate about President Obama’s faith, one of my best friends handed me a cool bottle of water and a copy of Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, which she had marked with a post-it note on the chapter titled, “Faith.”

I had hoped (alas) that the anchor would ask good questions and that I could, at some point, make reference to the following quotes:

First of all, faith is not an emotion, not a feeling. It is not a blind subconscious urge toward something vaguely supernatural. It is not simply an elemental need in man’s spirit. It is not a feeling that God exists. It is not a conviction that one is somehow saved or ‘justified’ for not special reason except that one happens to feel that way. It is not something entirely interior and subjective, with no reference to any external motive. It is not just ‘soul force.’ It is not something that bubbles up out of the recesses of your soul and fills you with an indefinable ‘sense’ that everything is all right. It is not something so purely yours that its content is incommunicable. It is not some personal myth of your own that you cannot share with anyone else, and the objective validity of which does not matter either to your or God or anybody else.

But also it is not an opinion. It is not a conviction based on rational analysis. It is not the fruit of scientific evidence. You can only believe what you do not know. As soon as you know it, you no longer believe it, at least not in the same way as you know it.

AND

Too often our notion of faith is falsified by our emphasis on the statements about God which faith believes, and by our forgetfulness of the fact that faith is a communion with God’s own light and truth. Actually, the statements, the propositions which faith accepts on the divine authority are simply media through which one passes in order to reach the divine Truth. Faith terminates not in a statement, not in a formula of words, but in God.

Chikondwelero Pasaka!

St. Freddie of Rupert on EASTER:

The Gospels are far from clear as to what happened. It began in the dark. The stone had rolled aside. Matthew alone speaks of an earthquake. In the tomb there were two white-clad figures or possibly just one. Mary Magdalen seems to have gotten there before anybody else. There was a man whe thought at first was the gardener. Perhaps Mary the mother of James was with her and another woman named Joanna. One account says Peter came too with one of the other disciples. Elsewhere the suggestion is that ther were only the women and that the disciples, who were somewhere else, didn’t believe the women’s story when they heard it. There was the sound of people running, of voices. Matthew speaks of ‘fear and great joy.’ Confusion was everywhere. This is no agreement even as to the role of Jesus himself. Did he appear at the tomb or only later? Where? To whom did he appear? What did they say? What did he do?

It is not a major production at all, and the minor attractions we have created around it – the bunnies and baskets and bonnets, the dyed eggs – have so little to do with what it’s all about that they neither add much nor subtract much. Its’ not really even much of a story when you come right down to it, and that is of course the power of it. It doesn’t have the ring of great dram. It has the ring of truth. If the Gospel writers had wanted to tell it in a way to convince the world that Jesus indeed rose from the dead, they would presumably have done it with all the skill and fanfare they could muster. Here there is no skill, no fanfare. They seem to be telling it simply the way it was. The narrative is as fragmented, shadowy, incomplete as life itself. When it comes to just what happened, there can be no certainty. That something unimaginable happened, there can be no doubt.
The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. You can’t depict or domesticate emptiness. You can’t make it into pageants and string it with lights. It doesn’t move people to give presents to each other or sing old songs. It ebbs and flows around us, the Eastertide. Even the great choruses of Handel’s Messiah sound a little like a handful of crickets chirping under the moon.
He rose. A few saw him briefly and talked to him. If it is true, there is nothing left to say. If it is not true, there is nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, there is nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, life has never been the same again. For some, neither has death. What is left now is the emptiness. There are those who, like Magdalen, will never stop searching till they find his face.
— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABCs of Faith

Pursued by the hound of heaven:
Remembering Mark Metherell

It’s hard to believe so much time has passed.
We’re coming up on the second anniversary (April 11) of the day our sweet Mark was killed in Iraq.

On Monday evening in Laguna Niguel, Mark’s mother, Pam Metherell, gave a heart-rending, spirit-lifting talk about faith, family and Mark’s passing.

Mark would have been very proud of his mum.

He is so dearly missed by all who knew and loved him.

Up there in the heavenly realms, surfing with Jesus.

Part One:



Part Two:

Part Three:

N.T. Wright: The virtuous interview
  

Last week, I had the very great pleasure of interviewing N.T. “Tom” Wright about his new book, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters.

Below is the transcript of our conversation, unedited and in full. 
N.T. Wright
From his home in the U.K.
10 a.m. PST, Tuesday March 9, 2010
Hello, Tom Wright.
Hi, Cathleen.
I’m so sorry. This is a complicated house and one never knows where something’s going to come up.
I understand I have one of those myself. Thank you for making time for me. I think I’m catching you in the evening. I’m in Southern California and its morning here.
Where abouts in Southern California?
Laguna Beach.
Oh, very nice. It’s actually mentioned in the new book.
If it is I haven’t gotten to that part yet and you’ll have to forgive me. I’ve read enough of the book to know it’s life changing for me so far and I thank you for it.
Oh, thank you.
I’m a columnist for Religion News Service but I’m also an author myself. I write for Zondervan mostly these days.
Really? What sort of stuff do you write?
I wrote a book that came out last year called “Sin Boldly: A Field  Guide for Grace.”
Hahaha. Sounds fun.
Yes, it was. I love to write about the subject of grace and when I saw the title of your new book, I thought, Uh-oh.  What will we be talking about here? And I was really beautifully surprised and elated that it was talking about virtue and how we should actually live, but not in a legalistic, doctrinal check-list sort of a way.
The more I’ve gotten into it the more I have the sense that so many Christians bounce in between an implicit legalism and a just let-it-all-hang-out-do-your-own-thing kind of attitude. And I think we need to do it differently.
Yes, clearly we do. And from what I’ve read so far is very helpful and instructive and erudite, but very accessible and I think it’s going to be a wonderful book for a lot of people to read.
Good!
I write for RNS and some of my audience is Christian but  much of it is not. I wonder if we could start our conversation by talking about the idea of virtue and lifting it out of  a Christian context and putting it into the one that you describe in the beginning of your book.
Right. Right. Yes. Are you recording this, by the way?
Yes.
Good. Sometimes I find myself talking rather fast and if people are just scribbling notes I feel sorry for them.
Most people I think today when they hear the word ‘virtue’ assumes that it vaguely means goodness or behaving yourself for whatever. I have tried to track back from that to a much more rich and interesting meaning. Virtue comes from a Latin word which basically means ‘strength.’ And the idea in the classical tradition is that character can be built up just as muscles can be trained if you’re going to be a football player or a weightlifter or whatever. You can work on particular strengths. Let’s do the arms now, or lets do the legs or the abs or whatever it is. And you train those particular thigns so that then when you find yourself faced with a need to do a particular physical thing those muscles will respond, as we say, automatically. Only those who have done the training know that it isn’t automatic. You put in the training and so that’s why they can now do it.
The whole theory of virtue is that character is like that. Any human character. Whatever you work hard at being in your character, the decisions – the often difficult decisions about what sort of actions you will take – they actually form character in the same way, so that you have strengths built up. My favorite example being courage. Courage is not rushing off into battle having had a stiff drink and waving a sword around and yelling some great whoop! Any fool can do that.
Courage is what happens when you take a thousand small decisions to put someone else’s safety ahead of your own. Some of those decisions may be a bit difficult but you get used to doing that and then suddenly, there is a major crisis. And without thinking, you automatically put other people’s safety ahead of your own. When in fact, if you hadn’t done those other ones it would seem crazy and you would never have done it.
That’s the point of virtue. The point of virtue is that it’s about character formation. You have to do the thinking and the hard work up front so that when it really counts, when the chips are down and you don’t have time to think or to work at it, you will in fact do and be the person that you really ought to do and be.
I know it’s hard to make sweeping generalizations about humankind, globally or even as western versus eastern, north versus south, but we are at a very difficult time in our history, as you point out.  A very nervous time, with economic collapse and wars and rumors of wars and earthquakes and other natural disasters. And it seems to me that we haven’t responded particularly well. Is that because, do you think, that we have not developed the virtues that we ought to have?
I think that’s right. We lived on borrowed capital, as it were, for a long time and when society had inbuilt habits in the Western world of particular types of behavior – not that they were that inbuilt because plenty of people ignored them – but they were sort of around and it was assumed that you behaved in a certain way. People tried and often learned those characteristics without realizing they were actually doing it.
That was always rather thin because we haven’t had underlying our whole western society a sense of quite how all that stuff works or that it might be a good idea to be more aware of it, more reflective of our moral behavior. So we have used rather low-grade arguments from utilitarianism and so on, you know – well it will make people happy or it won’t harm anyone and so on – whatever it is we want to do at any one time. Without saying, wait a minute. Does this actually make us more fully human? Is this a way of developing the kinds of strengths of character that make human beings flourish which makes society flourish?
We just haven’t had that discussion. People in public discourse haven’t had that to fall back on, so it’s well, these people over here believe in a whole lot of rules. Well, good luck to them, but we don’t like rules. And those people over there believe in doing what comes naturally. Well, that sounds like fun. And then the only thing is is it going to hurt anybody?
That’s the way that we’ve done a lot of our implicit and sometimes explicit moral reasoning. And it’s starting to show.
We’ve been in big trouble. The credit crunch is due in part to that and all sorts of other things like marriage breakdown and so on are certainly also due to that.
It seems to me that virtue and the development of virtue, as you describe it, is obviously individual but it cannot be done in a vacuum. It has to be done in community.
That’s exactly right. I’m not sure how far you’ve gotten in the book but toward the end I do talk about community in the chapter called The Virtuous Circle. I make it quite clear that for any of this to work you have to go on going round the circle, which includes doing these things in community and learning together.
And so the virtuous circle that I outline – I think it’s on page 216 in the book – outlines particular practices we may do, scripture readings, stories that we live by, examples and then particularly community. I think it’s rather like saying there may be machines that enable you to practice baseball by yourself. You know, a machine that will fling a ball at you and you hit it back. But in reality if you want to learn how to play baseball you have to have at least two other people and preferably even a few more than that. Because the game only works (that way.)
The thing we need to learn is that morality is rather like that. It isn’t just an individual thing. It is about how we work together.
An example which I don’t give in the book but which struck me recently, is that I had the privilege of conducting a seminar on just war theory on board one of the largest ships in her majesty’s navy. And it struck me then that when you’ve got several hundred people on board a ship, however big the ship is, they live in a very tight world together. They have to learn to get on. And it’s why, in my experience, naval folk tend to be very good company because they’ve learned how to get on because you jolly well have to. You cannot escape. You’re there. And it seems to me that’s an object lesson. If only our societies didn’t retreat behind their computer screens and into privatized worlds and actually worked a bit harder at getting on with neighbors and people around, we would all be much the better for it.
I think that’s absolutely true. I know in my own story – and I would describe myself as an evangelical Christian of the Episcopal/Anglican leaning, although the church I attend here in Laguna isn’t Anglican, it’s Evangelical Free. I had been outside the church for about 15 years, although I was paid to go to church. That’s how I made my living. But I had grown averse to the church because of so many painful experiences with Christians just being very unkind and judgmental to one another, etc. Now being in this church, which is the last kind of church I ever thought I would be involved with, the importance of community is something I’ve learned in a powerful way and just recently. In learning these virtues and sort o being trapped on a destroyer or a submarine, depending on what metaphor you want to use. And I think that’s also something that we, not only in the church but in the western world, has lost.
Yeah, yep. I think that’s absolutely right. The Western world as a whole has become individualized and privatized. I was in New York over Christmas because I was on sabbatical at Princeton, and I saw something I hadn’t seen before. At the Rockefeller building, in the square there, there’s this huge thing with a quote from Nelson Rockefeller saying, ‘I believe in the supreme value of the individual.’ I thought, well isn’t that interesting. It’s actually carved in stone right in the middle of New York.
One wants to be charitable. One knows what he means, that if you compare a culture where everyone has the chance to get on and do stuff with a culture where everyone is forced to conform to some sort of system where there’s no individuality at all, most of us would prefer the former to the latter. However, the fact that Nelson Rockefeller could be an individual of his type probably depended on an awful lot of other people not being able to be individual. They were required for to do the kind of menial tasks at the bottom of the pile and they couldn’t escape that.
Do you feel that, in terms of fostering the idea of character and virtue, that society at large won’t get there without the leadership of the church?
Well, that’s an interesting one, isn’t it. … God is good and God’s grace does stuff sometimes despite the church and sometimes through the church. When I see, for instance, South Africa and what happened there over the last 20 or 30 years, I see on the one hand Desmond Tutu – one of the greatest Christian leaders of the 20th century. And I see on the other hand Nelson Mandela, who was not unsympathetic to the Christian method but who did not present as I am a Christian leader. He just happened to be an extraordinary human being who, in his years in prison, had learned virtue. He’d learned patience, dignity, self control, composure, and was able to come out as a man of real stature.
In my own country we look back to Winston Churchill, who described himself in relation to the church as being ‘like a flying buttress, supporting the church, but from the outside.’ And yet, happened to be the right person in the right place at the right time to do extraordinary things for our country. And I’m not saying he was a saint, because he jolly well wasn’t.
So leadership in society is a funny thing. But I would say, that actually again and again, the church has a sort of almost accidental leadership role where people emerge in communities and are in the right place, say the right thing, give comfort to the right people – whatever. And often those people are Christians who are saying their prayers, who just have an instinct, then, for where they should be and how they should work.
So I don’t want to say that this is something Christian people can do and nobody else can do, but I do want to say that when Christian people are prepared to be led and guided by God to develop character and so on, then leadership skills emerge in unlikely places and sometimes turn up trumps just when that society needs them.
Indeed. And it would seem to me that in order to foster virtue, but inside and outside the church, it must require a good deal of humility.
I think that’s right.
Humility is one of those fascinating things that in the nature of the case you probably don’t know if you’ve got it. CS Lewis says somewhere – I think in Screwtape Letters – that the danger of being proud of one’s own humility. Then you realize that’s happening and then you repent of it and then you’re proud because you are really being very humble. And he says the best thing to do there is to just laugh and go to bed. Forget it.
I think again humility is something that happens when, over a long period of time, you have made the decision to assume that the other person may well be right and that you need to pay attention to them and you can’t just blast through.
When that becomes a habit of the heart, then again you don’t notice. Some of the most genuinely humble people that I’ve known, if you said, ‘My goodness, you are very humble,’ they would look very surprised. They are precisely not thinking about it.
That is what virtue is all about. The example I give of that is the airline pilot – Sully. He didn’t have time to think. He’d done all the work over the previous 30 years. And that’s the thing about virtue, which I think society really hasn’t caught on to.
I asked my pastors here in Laguna, who are huge fans of yours, if you had to as Tom one thing what would you ask? If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to relate one of their questions: How closely does today’s gospel message in Western evangelicalism fit with Jesus’ and Paul’s gospel in the first century?,I think this sort of plays into what you’re getting at in the book with virtue and being part of the larger story and that the only example really to imitate is Jesus’s, not to be looking to each other.
So, is the question as far as the gospel message that we actually regularly preach in today’s western world, squaring with Jesus and Paul? As opposed to the gospel message you might say we ought to be preaching?
I think that’s what he means.
I think we have shrunk it very considerably. The problem is that the gospel message in the first century for Jesus and Paul is deeply rooted in the stories and traditions of Israel, so that you can’t tell the story in the New Testament of who Jesus is and what he’s doing – Jesus can’t tell the story of the kingdom of God – without talking about the ancient promises of God to his people; without plugging into the sense that God is at last doing the thing for Israel – and for the world – that he promised.
If you take that out, you have to create an alternative context, which is me and my happiness, or me and my hope of heaven, or me and my this or that or the other. Me and my relationship with God. All of which are kind of important, but they are not the importance the New Testament assigns to it.
Now I know, because I’m a preacher myself, if I go to a new church, am I going to spend time telling them about the story of Israel? That’s very difficult. You see people looking at you blankly. ‘Why is he telling us about Abraham or Isaiah or whatever? What’s that about?’ You take your life in your hands sometimes.
It’s not what people want to hear. So we have shrunk the Old Testament into being simply a few snapshots from the family album that we might glance at from time to time, rather than actually a narrative within the gospel narrative of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. As the point at which this great narrative comes to a climax.
And unless we see it like that, we won’t understand why the gospels are what they are. And if we don’t’ understand why the gospels – plural – are what they are, we’re unlikely to understand why the Gospel – singular – is what it is.
But you know, this is, as I say, difficult, because it is so counterintuitive to most preachers who are used to tuning into what do these unchurched folks want and need to hear? Can I give it to them?
I want to say that’s important as well. You want to catch people’s attention and grab it. But look what Paul did. Pretty soon Paul is telling them the backstory of all of our forefathers were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. You could feel him saying to the Corinthians, ‘I know you guys don’t know this but believe me you need to know it otherwise you won’t be getting anywhere.’
So that I really do want to say that we have been in danger in the modern world of cutting off the roots of the tree and then wondering why it’s bearing so much fruit. Now, the roots maybe be a bit dusty and dirty and live underground all the time, but if thery’re not there and if they’re not refreshed, then the tree is not going to be healthy.
And to the point that you talk about the importance of story, we don’t know our own story so we don’t know how we fit into it.
That’s exactly right. And the whole question of narrative is just so foundational. And again, we tend to treat story as, you know, the nice little stories that are sort of childish things instead of realizing that this whole world is one great darn story. And it’s God’s story with the world and we are bit-part players with that. We have to learn what our part is.
The book is powerful and I thank you for writing it. I have to move to a practical question of: So how do we get people to do this, inside and outside the church?
Well … it’s … hmmm.
There are a thousand different ways.
The church itself has a huge responsibility for this.
One of the paradoxically encouraging signs at the moment is I think that certainly in my country, and I suspect in yours, people are getting totally fed up with the rule-book mentality in society as a whole.
My government at the moment produces new legislation all the time, telling us we need to do that, we need to do this, we need to do the other. And we’ve got to tick these boxes, and we’ve got to certify that we don’t come into this category, and that we have run into trouble with the police in the last three years, and so on. We are drowning in what we call compliance legislation. You’ve got to comply with this and that, and if you say you don’t want to do that, people say that you’re being irresponsible.
People don’t realize that character is what counts, not being able to check boxes on forms.
And I think that’s a kind of a groundswell in the wider secular society as well as in the church. And we need to ride that wave and say that, yes, you are absolutely right. Creating more and more rules is never the way to live a fully human life. Now, let’s capitalize on that so that teachers and preachers and columnists and essayists and broadcasters need to be alerted to this larger discourse of virtue and character development, because for a lot of them it is a completely, utterly closed book and so they still lurch from either rules or doing what comes naturally.
That’s the quote from Laguna Beach, by the way. I don’t know where it is in the book, but my wife and I were in Laguna Beach exactly this time last year, actually. I was speaking at Fuller Seminary and we stayed at a friend’s house down by the beach. And there was a little junk shop and in the junk shop there was a sign on the wall that said something like, ‘Sometimes I live by principles and sometimes I just do what comes naturally. But that’s a principle, too.”
I thought, this is very California.
I don’t want to take up too much more of your time, but I do want to ask if you see any hopeful examples, inasmuch as we can learn from them, both inside and outside the church right now in this regard?
Well, yes. I’ve given one or two examples in the book, toward the end, of particular moments and particular people that I’ve seen. The thing that I find really encouraging is when I see a community of an ordinary parish church in a very ordinary town or village where I live, where that community doesn’t have to think, ‘Should we help these folks that the government has dumped on our doorstep?’ We have a problem with what are called asylum seekers – people who come to this country just desperate for help.
We’ve actually just had three tragically commit suicide last week, jumping out of a high rise in Glasgow because their application to stay in Britain had been turned down. And they knew that if they went back home they would likely be killed. And so they just committed suicide.
Now, our government simply hasn’t a clue how to cope with these people. I am proud of those churches where they don’t even have a debate. Nobody says what should we do about this? They just know that they’re going to be outside at four o’clock in the morning when the bus comes from London with these frightened, often terrified people who have no idea where they are and they’re just sort of dumped. These church folk will be up there, will make a cup of tea for them, find out where they’re from, introduce them to how you get a bank account, how you find a doctor, whatever. And these are just ways of life. They don’t even have to argue this.
That warms my heart because these are communities of character, which is wonderful. And the result is, of course, a tremendous influence in their local community. But also, you know, there are people – and I tell these stories in the book – people that I’ve observed doing things easily and naturally, as it appears, which other people find very difficult. And then you realize that’s because over many years this person has prayerfully, thoughtfully figured out, ‘No, I have to make the decision to do this. I have to make the decision to do that.’ Until it becomes second nature.
And it’s that idea of second nature that I really have tried to explore in this book and that I still find exciting.
It’s a brilliant notion and I think it will be quite helpful to anyone who reads it. I hope it’s read widely. Thank you very much for you time. It’s a joy speaking to you. And I’m supposed to tell you that any time you’re in Laguna Beach from the pastors at Little Church by the Sea, you have an open invitation to preach and to join us.
(laughing) Oh, thank you very much. That’s great. Give them my warm greetings.
 

GODSTUFF

THE VIRTUE OF VIRTUE: NT WRIGHT

Last winter, while on a trip to Southern California, theologian N.T. Wright spent some time strolling through Laguna Beach, the seaside village I happen to call home.
   He wandered into one of our many charming boutiques — he called it, perhaps more accurately, a “junk shop” — and saw a sign that piqued his interest theologically. It read:

   “There are times I think I’m doing things on principle,
   But mostly I just do what feels good.
   But that’s a principle, too.”

   “Doing what feels good” would be “easy to caricature … as a typically Californian attitude, but that would ignore the fact that a vast swath of contemporary Western life has operated on precisely this
`principle,’ and has strongly resisted, in the name of `freedom,’ any attempt to question or challenge it,” Wright writes in his latest book, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters.
   In his new book, Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, England, posits that the development of virtue — by the church and in broader society — could help lead the Western world out of the sea of
despondency in which it currently finds itself languishing.
   We don’t hear much about virtue these days. I’m not talking about piety, or goodness, but something more akin to moral fortitude or excellence.
   We’re so unaccustomed to talking about virtue in polite company that at first it called to my mind terms like “pious” or “judgmental.” But it’s not that. It’s a once-common, now-radical notion that might vault us to a better place in our common narrative.
   “I have the sense that so many Christians bounce in between an implicit legalism and a just let-it-all-hang-out-do-your-own-thing kind of attitude. And I think we need to do it differently,” Wright said in an interview this week from his home in England.
   “Most people, I think, today when they hear the word `virtue’ assume that it vaguely means goodness or behaving yourself for whatever. I have tried to track back from that to a much more rich and interesting meaning. Virtue comes from a Latin word (that) basically means `strength.’ And the idea in the classical tradition is that character can be built up just as muscles can be trained if you’re going to be a football player or a weightlifter.”
   Weight lifting, at first, is difficult, even painful. It doesn’t come easily, or on its own. But do it often enough and it becomes second nature.
   Early in his new book, Wright, one of the most prolific and influential theologians of the 20th century, introduces an example of virtue from “secular” society: Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III, the U.S. Airways pilot who successfully — some say “miraculously” — landed his Airbus A320 plane full of passengers in New York City’s Hudson River after the plane’s engines were knocked out by a flock of Canada geese.
   “Sully didn’t have time to think,” Wright said. “He’d done all the work over the previous 30 years. And that’s the thing about virtue, which I think society really hasn’t caught on to. … Courage is not
rushing off into battle having had a stiff drink and waving a sword around and yelling some great whoop! Any fool can do that.
   “Courage is what happens when you take a thousand small decisions to put someone else’s safety ahead of your own. Some of those decisions may be a bit difficult, but you get used to doing that and then suddenly, there is a major crisis. And without thinking, you automatically put other people’s safety ahead of your own. … That’s the point of virtue.”
   During a recent salon in his living room, one of my best friends argued, rather astutely I thought, that you can train a person to think rationally and to reason well. It’s like learning to play tennis, he said. You just have learn the skills and practice them.
   Likewise, virtue won’t develop overnight, or without practice. And it cannot be mandated.
   Virtue can, and should, be fostered by all of us and practiced again and again and again, like weight lifting, until it feels like our second nature.