Category Archives: Religion and Spirituality

The Golden Age

“Creating the future is a frightening enterprise, especially when we do it without any awareness of the past. I am amazed how little we actually care to examine past human experience. It’s like hunting in a wood full of bears, ignoring all the disarticulated skeletons of dead hunters, and confidently proclaiming that bears don’t really exist. They belong to the past!”—Joseph Gresham Miller

Lucas_Cranach_the_Elder_-_The_Golden_Age_-_Google_Art_ProjectDo you dream primarily of what is, what once was, what could have been, or what could be? Your answer to this question tells me almost everything I need to know about you. Political conservatives locate their Golden Age somewhere in the not-too-distant past (e.g., the 1950s), whilst religious fundamentalists locate it somewhere in the unsullied early history of their movement (e.g., the Early Church for Pentecostals, the Pious Predecessors for Salafists). Progressives and starry-eyed idealists locate it somewhere in a future purged of the sins of the present, whilst Romantics locate it in a past purged of modernity, a pastoral place that looks a whole lot like The Shire described by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings. Most environmentalists seem to locate it in some eco-friendly pre-modern past wherein we all lived in happy harmony with sweet Mother Earth. Computer geeks locate it in a shiny future replete with flying cars, robots, and killer apps, whilst defenders of the status quo, apologists of the present like Steven Pinker, insist that we’re living in a Golden Age right now. The outliers, of course, are the pessimists, like Arthur Schopenhauer and St. Augustine, who insist that life in The City of Man has always more or less sucked, and that there has never been, nor will there ever be, a Golden Age.

St. Augustine argues in The City of God that Original Sin has so corrupted human nature and the natural world—with sin, disease, and death—that the reformation of the individual and of society will always, of necessity, have to be a highly circumscribed exercise. All is not possible, insists the Bishop, because the freedom to do good is habitually hemmed in by this-worldly corruption. “The choice of the will,” avers Augustine, “is genuinely free only when it is not subservient to faults and sins.” St. Paul the Apostle likewise believes that decisive victory in the war against sin is not possible in a fallen world; the battle is, instead, fated to rage on and on, even within his body: “I know,” he once lamented, “that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:18-19). Like Paul, Augustine maintains that there are some intractable human problems which the individual and society will have to grapple with again and again, until the end of time. Perfection can be nothing more than a noble goal in The City of Man. Always before us, yet perpetually out of reach. A beacon on the horizon of a fallen world.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2017)

How Men Talk at Else’s

Else's“He died yesterday, just after noon. Right here.”

That’s what the crying woman at Sherbrooke metro station said, through the plexiglass, about her beloved coworker, the grey-haired ticket-taker who’d come in to work a half-hour early every day, for over 40 years. Just so he could write sweet little handwritten notes to all the people he’d sell tickets to during his shift.

Martin still had yesterday’s ticket in his pocket. It read: “Bonne Journée!”

“He was a good man,” she said, choking back tears.

She was still in the booth at the end of the day, looking at something on her phone, when Martin passed by on his way home from work.

DJ Manifest, his favorite busker, was launching rhymes down the tunnel. “With so much drama in the Q-B-C, it’s kinda hard bein’ anythin’ but A-D-D; but, somehow, some way, we keep comin’ up with funky ass shit like every single day.”

Martin dropped a ten-spot in his case without stopping. It was already 4:45 p.m. and he was supposed to meet DesPierres at Else’s by five. There was urgency in his old friend’s message, panic suggesting lateness wasn’t an option.

The Montreal confronting him outside the Sherbrooke metro was grey and dismal. It’s November now, he thought. The month that makes psalmists of us all. Saint-Louis Square was peaceful, eerily so, like Times Square in a disaster movie, just before the comet hits. Strangely absent, though, were the park’s perennial pigeons who’d huddle like gangs in a schoolyard, gossiping and boasting, catching up and hooking up.

Then Martin saw the peregrine falcon, perched on a low-hanging tree branch, methodically tearing a pigeon to shreds. She was plucking out its feathers the way a Westmount matron might weed her garden; clipping off its pink feet the way a prudent pruner might take shears to rosebushes. The blood, feathers, and feet were strewn all over the ground below. It was beautiful, even sublime, the way mushroom clouds are beautiful and sublime.

But then Schopenhauer killed the mood, as dour philosophers often will, questioning the ethics of his aesthetics. Here’s what the grumpy German guy said, what he whispered into Martin’s ear: There are those who say pleasure outweighs pain or, at any rate, that there’s an even balance between them in this broken, burning world of ours. But we both know that’s bullshit. And anyone who doubts it should compare the daily pleasure of the feeding falcon to the searing pain of the pigeon being eaten raw and alive.

But then he remembered his friend DesPierres, probably waiting for him, right now, at the bar. His mind strode quickly away from the park, until he could feel himself turning away — far away — from the horror.

DesPierres wasn’t there when Martin got to Else’s. But everybody else was: Avrom, King David, Benoît, Hunter, Aaron, Louis — the usual suspects. King David nodded hello before returning to his book. Benoît looked up from his laptop: “Salut, Martin.” And, as expected, Avrom made fun of Martin’s Movember stache. “More virtue-signaling, Señor Smartypants? Social justice warrior shit!”

“No, not really. I’m not even sure what the fuck this is for. Cancer of the balls or something. I’m only doing it because one of my students asked me to. He’s really into it. Youthful idealism. It’s catchy. But this is a one-off, that’s for sure. I’m not doing it next year. Never again. Strangers stare when you’re sporting a stache. Half of them think you’re an undercover cop. The rest that you’re a retired porn-star with bad credit and genital warts.”

“Why’d you go along with this politically-correct bullshit in the first place? Movember. Seriously? Seriously! You’re going soft in middle age, Señor Smartypants, just like that Jonathan Kay guy.”

“Look, Avrom, I know you’d like to believe Kay’s a traitor who sold out to the CBC-mafia for a seat at the grown-up table, but that ain’t so. I’ve been reading him for years, and his politics haven’t changed much. But yours have. Kay hasn’t drifted left; you’ve drifted right, far right, into a wacky world, a batty Breitbart world, swarmed by radicals and reactionaries who aren’t particularly conservative. Kay didn’t abandon you. You abandoned him.”

Avrom rolled his eyes: “Ever notice how drunks, druggies, and gamblers always have a friend they always compare themselves to who’s a total fuck-up? You know, the kind of guy who pukes in your flowerpot, knocks over the Christmas tree, passes out during dinner, and pisses himself on the couch. At first you can scarcely imagine why he hangs with that guy at all, right? But sooner or later, you realize that your buddy keeps him around because he makes him feel better about his own life. ‘Sure, I party pretty hard on the weekends, but that guy’s doing lines on Tuesdays, and getting wasted at work! I’ve got this shit under control. But that guy’s gotta slow down!’”

“What’s your point, Avrom?”

“You’re that guy, Señor Smartypants. You’re like a flying fish, who leaves the water from time to time (albeit briefly). You know the water’s water, and that there’s something else above. But you’re still a fucking fish.”

Benoît laughed without looking up from his laptop. “Don’t feed the troll, Martin, don’t feed the troll.”

Martin smiled and turned to King David: “What are you reading?”

“René Grousset’s Empire of the Steppes. Aaron’s been trying to get me to read it for years.”

“Any good?”

“Shows promise, I guess. Excellent actually. And funny in places, too. Get this: after his brother confronts him about his drinking problem in 1241, Ögedei Khan, the second Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, agrees to limit himself to a glass a day. But he’s careful not to specify the size of the glass, so from then on he slurps from a freakishly large, custom-made glass, that can easily hold two bottles of wine.”

They all laughed. Then Louis said: “I need a glass like that, King David. Seriously, if I’m gonna get through another Trump speech, I need a fucking glass like that.”

Hunter, who’d been flirting with the waitress since Martin arrived, returned to the table: “You don’t need a special glass, Louis. You need a special strategy. If you wanna get through a Trump speech, you gotta get your mind right. First you’ve gotta imagine that he’s got hot Dothraki backup singers who sing ‘It is known, it is known’ after everything he says. Then you’ve gotta imagine that Trump isn’t man, but a gigantic throbbing, talking penis. And when the camera pans across the crowd, imagine that you’re looking at a sea of cheering minions from Despicable Me.”

“Can I get you boys anything?” It was Chantal, the redhead waitress, so they ordered another round of drinks. When she was out of earshot, King David solemnly proclaimed “Remember, guys, blessèd are those who tip well at Else’s, for great is their reward in the heavenly kingdom of The Plateau.”

DesPierres arrived, just after six, apologizing profusely for being so late.

“It’s all good. Been chillin’ with the Else’s crew. And I’m in no rush. Wife and kids are in the States for the weekend.”

After introducing him to the guys, Martin led DesPierres to a corner table in the back where they could catch up in peace.

“My God, Martin! How long’s it been? Five years? Ten years?”

“At least ten.”

They talked about the vicissitudes of married life for the better part of an hour. Swapped parental war stories. As had always been the case, Martin’s stories were funny, but DesPierres’s stories were funnier: “So I’m the park with my blonde, blue-eyed, Aryan-looking son, and he loudly proclaims, in the middle of the playground: ‘I want the Jews! I want your Jews! Give me the Jews!’ He meant, of course, that he wanted his sippy-cup filled with apple juice. But, um, well, that wasn’t clear to the other parents. Especially the Hasidic ones. Don’t think I’ll ever forget that sea of stares. Those looks of shock and horror.”

“Can I get you guys anything?” It was Chantal again.

“Yeah, can I get a pint of rousse, a shot of Jameson, and the pulled-pork sandwich.”

“Bien sûr.”

Martin turned to DesPierres: “How about you?”

“I’ll take another McAuslan.”

“Pas de problème.”

“Look, DesPierres, I’m not complaining or anything. It’s great to see you but why’m I here? Why the emergency? Everything okay? You okay?”

DesPierres laughed that deep belly laugh that made him the life of every party when they were young. “I’m not dying of cancer, Martin. It’s nothing like that. Marilou and I are fine. Work’s fine. The kids are great. It’s nothing like that.”

He cleared his throat, sipped his beer, and took a deep breath. “Okay, here’s the deal: I think I may have serendipitously stumbled upon the solution to one of history’s greatest riddles. And yes, Martin, I know that sounds crazy. Like, Dan Brown, Da Vinci Code crazy. But hear me out, okay?”

“There are many versions of the riddle, but this is the one I heard when I was a kid: A blind war veteran goes into a seafood restaurant, orders shark, eats one bite, and kills himself. Took us hours to figure that one out, and hundreds of questions. But I’ll spare you all that, skip to the solution, and tell you what happened: Four decades ago, in the Second World War, the soldier in question — the one who just killed himself — was shot down in the Pacific Theater. The airplane crash-landed on a remote desert island. He was blinded by the explosion, but the other two survivors, friends of his, weren’t.”

“There’s plenty of fresh water on the island but hardly any food. So the three soldiers are soon on the brink of starvation. The two soldiers who weren’t blinded do the unthinkable: they begin cooking and eating the corpses of the five men in their unit who’d died in the plane crash. Out of love for their blind friend, they decide to lie to him. They tell him he’s eating shark. After all, they figure, there’s no reason for all three of us to live with this horrific knowledge. Besides, if we survive this war, he’s going to be handicapped by blindness for the rest of his life. No reason to be handicapped by nightmares too.”

“The three men are rescued a month later. But the memory of what they did to survive proves too much for the two men, who know the truth. One becomes a smelly recluse who drinks himself to death before his 30th birthday, whilst the other — who seemed fine to everyone, including his wife — blows his brains out after a New Year’s Eve party in 1950. The blind vet’s post-war life isn’t nearly so tragic. He marries his high school sweetheart, settles down in the suburbs, gets a job with the city, and fathers five children. But alas, on that fateful day, four decades after the war, our blind vet is forced to face up to the truth. And it crushes him.”

“I realize now, and only in retrospect, that the riddle’s dramatic conclusion attests to the strength of the cannibalism taboo in our culture. It’s clearly much stronger, for instance, than the incest taboo. Very few of us fantasize about eating a sibling, but—studies prove this—a fair number of us have, at some point, fantasized about sleeping with one. But whatever. The riddle’s main problem—logistically speaking—is that human flesh doesn’t taste anything like shark. It does, however, taste just like pork. Smells like it too.”

“How the fuck do you know what burning human flesh smells like, DesPierres?”

DesPierres thought long and hard.

“You remember we were stationed in Nigeria for four years, right?”

“Um, yeah. I saw something about that on Facebook. Marilou posted pictures from time to time, right?”

“Yup. I wasn’t allowed to. But she did, from time to time. Anyhow, as you can imagine, I saw some seriously fucked up shit over there. But nothing weirder than what I’m gonna tell you. An open-air cremation.”

“I don’t know why — maybe it was a bucket-list thing — but this balding white guy from Toronto in his late fifties decides he wants to bicycle from Cape Town to Casablanca, all by himself. Crazy, right? Anyhow, he’s doing it. And blogging about it. And it’s going well, remarkably well actually, all things considered.”\

“Until he gets hit by a truck on some stretch of road in Nigeria. The local authorities notified us. And notified the man’s family. Offered my condolences and asked what they wanted to do. They said they wanted me to arrange to have the body flown back to Canada. This place really was in the middle of nowhere. Took us forever to get there. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. The roads were terrible, we were robbed at machine-gun-point, the van broke down twice, and one of my bodyguards got so sick we had to send him back to Lagos in an ambulance.”

“The corpse stank bad by the time we got there, though the local authorities had done their best. It’s just that electric power is spotty everywhere, even the cities, and generators are always running out of fuel until someone steals some more. After inspecting the body for foul play, we concluded that it was indeed just an accident. The cyclist was still carrying his money, cards, and belongings. Nothing was missing. And four witnesses attested to the fact that he was at fault. Somehow he’d cycled all across Africa like it was Rosedale on Easter Sunday.

“I contacted the family. Told them that shipping the body home wasn’t going to be possible, and even if it were they’d want to keep the casket closed and the church doors open. They caught on fast and agreed cremation would be fine. Told me where to send the ashes. Of course this is Africa, right! And we were in the middle of a fucking desert. So getting enough wood for the open-air cremation took us another day and much out-of-pocket. The cremation itself took half a day. And the body smelled, well, like pork. In fact, it didn’t smell like pork; it smelled exactly like pork.”

Martin thought about the pulled pork sandwich he’d ordered and felt a wave of nausea wash over him.

“In her anthropological classic, Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas trashed our anachronistic understanding of the prohibition of pork found in the Book of Leviticus. ‘Even if some of Moses’ dietary rules were hygienically beneficial, it’s a pity to treat him as an enlightened public health administrator, rather than a spiritual leader.’ Douglas details an alternate explanation for the prohibition’s origin in Leviticus as Literature. It’s a provocative and profoundly learned argument, the product of a lifetime devoted to serious study. But it’s also rather far-fetched. Imagine what a really smart version of The Da Vinci Code might look like. Regardless, my guess is that the prohibition of pork emerged for rather pragmatic reasons along with the prohibition of ritualistic cannibalism and the ban on human sacrifice.”

“The clues have always been right there, hiding in plain sight, in an altogether familiar story: a Middle Eastern Sky God — with a jealous streak as long as the Jordan — tells an Iron Age patriarch to sacrifice his only legitimate son. Dying without a rightful heir was a terrifying possibility for a patriarch like Abraham. It meant a fate worse than death, namely, the death of his line, his name and therefore his memory. That being the case, nothing demonstrated faith and trust in your god more than the sacrifice of your firstborn son.”

“And the ‘Father of Faith’ was prepared to do it. Abraham takes his son Isaac to the top of the Mountain and ties him up. Out comes the ceremonial blade. The knife is at his son’s throat. And he’s just about to slit it open when an angel of the LORD calls out to him from heaven: ‘Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.’”

“If Hyam Maccoby is right — and I firmly believe he is — the Abraham and Isaac story is a mythological representation of a massive cultural shift: from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice. In The Sacred Executioner: Human Sacrifice and the Legacy of Guilt, Maccoby maintains that although ‘the institution of human sacrifice was widely practiced throughout the ancient world,’ it gradually gave way to animal sacrifice ‘because growing civilization and humanitarianism, combined with a higher valuation of human status and a lessened awe of animals, caused a horror of human sacrifice to develop.’”

“The instructive purpose of the Abraham and Isaac story is ‘to show that God Himself ordained that animal sacrifice should be substituted for human sacrifice. At the same time, the story contains no moral revulsion from the very idea of human sacrifice. On the contrary, it is imputed to Abraham as extraordinary merit that he was willing to sacrifice his favorite son, Isaac, at the behest of God.’”

“But alas, there were then — as there’ve always been — conservatives who cling to the old ways, resist change, and hate innovations—as well as the faddish reformers who champion them. Politically-incorrect patriarchs of this stamp would have stubbornly kept on practicing human sacrifice, albeit under cover of darkness. Probably took centuries to force these guys — and the pockets of resistance they represented — to get with the program and fall into line. My guess is that the prohibition of pork emerged during this period as part of an ongoing attempt to enforce the ban on human sacrifice.”

“When Marilou was a kid, her home state of New Jersey banned the keeping of crows as pets. They did this despite the fact that crows were not, as a species, endangered in any way. Their rationale was based on two irrefutable facts: (1) ravens make really great pets, especially if you get them when they’re young; and, (2) it’s really hard for most people to tell the difference between an immature raven and an immature crow. Ravens were (and still are) seriously endangered, and nest poaching for the pet trade was putting further pressure on their dwindling numbers. As such, New Jersey officials wanted to end the practice. But a prohibition on the keeping of ravens as pets was proving exceedingly difficult, because pet store owners who were caught red-handed could always plausibly plead ignorance: ‘I swear, officer, I thought it was a baby crow.’ So they decided to close the loophole by banning crows and ravens. I suspect that pork was banned for similar reasons.”

“So, um, what do you think, Martin?”

Martin waved until he got Chantal’s attention. She came over to their table. “So sorry the order’s taking so long. Kitchen’s short-staffed and really busy.”

“That’s fine. I’m in no rush. Just wanted to know if it was too late to change my order.”

“No, it’s not. What do you want?”

“Think I’m gonna go with the vegetarian chili.”

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

Bridging History’s Grand Canyon

“Will any one of you who has a slave plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the slave because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”—Luke 17:7-10

Social Justice Warrior

Like all great communicators, Jesus uses examples drawn from the lived experience of the people he’s talking to. If he’s talking to fishermen, he uses fishing metaphors. If he’s talking to farmers, he uses farming metaphors. If you’re a city boy like me, with little or no experience of farming and fishing, you might have trouble understanding these passages. But it’s doable. It’s much harder to make sense of passages like Luke 17, which draw upon the lived experience of people living in a slave society. Because the institution of slavery isn’t just foreign to us; it’s repellent.

The Bible is a fascinating fusion of foreign and familiar. This is what makes it at once comforting and confounding. There are times, when you’re reading The Bible, that you stumble upon a passage that’s so timeless, or topical, that you shake your head in amazement and mumble: “My God, that could’ve been written yesterday!” But there are other passages, like Luke 17, which have precisely the opposite effect, passages which force you to remember that the past really is a foreign country. Reading them is like witnessing the birth of a canyon. The earth shakes and splits and a mighty chasm opens up between you and the author. This ancient, long-dead man, who seemed, just a moment ago, so close, and but a whisper away, now stares at us from a distance; this man, suddenly small and strange, now stands on the other side of History’s Grand Canyon.

Like most of you, I imagine, I grew up in a world without servants, a world without masters and slaves, a world devoted, at least in theory, to egalitarian principles, a world that’s largely transcended the Game of Thrones world the author of Luke’s Gospel lived in. Whenever Luke starts talking about servants or slaves, I feel History’s Grand Canyon spreading out between us. To bridge the gap with understanding, and make sense of this passage, we must first translate it into terms that make sense in the twenty-first century West. To that end, I think it’s good to recast the servant and master as an employer and employee. Because we all know how tedious it can be to work with someone who needs constant praise for work they’re paid to do, but few of us realize that this problem’s origins are to be found in our self-esteem obsessed child-rearing methods.

In “The Perils of Praise,” Andrew Miller maintains that “constant praise does bad things to human beings. It’s much like any other drug that affects our dopamine levels: provided sparingly, it induces brief sensations of warmth and happiness, but provided constantly, it induces dependency. Just like the cocaine addict requires constant bumps just to get to ‘normal’, so too does the praise addict require constant reassurance just to function. If the praise ever dries up, the recipient goes into withdrawal. This is talked about most often in regards to rearing young children, but it applies just as well to older children and youths in high school and university. Deprived of praise, the addict becomes anxious and emotionally fragile. Rather than try new things or practice new skills, she prefers to retreat into fantasies of power and control. Unfortunately for them, while the school system is a great place to get constant praise from one’s superiors, outside of school it’s much harder to come by. Employees receive much less feedback from their employers in general, especially for those working entry-level jobs. Often, the only time an employee gets feedback is when she screws up; good work isn’t singled out for praise, but rather is expected and taken without comment.” Employees are paid to do their job. It’s their duty. And this is precisely why we find it more or less obnoxious when they expect extra credit for it.

In one of the funniest parts of Bring the Pain (1996), comedian Chris Rock chides: “Niggers always want some credit for some shit they supposed to do. For some shit they just supposed to do. A nigger will brag about some shit a normal man just does. A nigger will say some shit like, ‘I take care of my kids!’ You supposed to, ya dumb motherfucker!” What Jesus is saying in Luke 17 is of a similar stamp. There are times when Jesus sounds like a thoroughly Roman guy. And Luke 17 is one of them. What Jesus says about duty here was a Roman Stoic commonplace. Like Chris Rock, the Romans had very little patience for people who wanted extra brownie points and a gold star for doing stuff they were supposed to do. For instance, in The Enchiridion, the Roman Stoic Epictetus admonishes: “Look for and come to understand your connections to other people. We properly locate ourselves within the divine order by recognizing our natural relations to one another and thereby identifying our duties. Our duties naturally emerge from such fundamental relations as our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, our state or nation. Make it your regular habit to consider your roles—parent, child, neighbor, citizen, leader—and the natural duties that arise from them. Once you know who you are and to whom you are linked, you will know what to do.”

What’s the lesson of Luke 17? What’s our Christian duty? What does Jesus expect of us? Well, he expects us to care for the people around us, and to do so without the need for constant credit and praise.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Family Values vs. Christian Values

Social Justice WarriorIt’s always odd to hear a Christian fundamentalist prate on and on about Christian family values because Jesus was openly hostile to family values: “I came to set fire to the earth . . . . Do you really think I came to bring peace? I tell you, not at all, but rather division! For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three. Father will be divided against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Luke 12:49-53).

Jesus was acutely aware of how many people slip through the cracks in a society based on family values. That’s why he advocated a radically new conception of The Family based on bonds not of blood but love (agape). That’s why we refer to fellow Christians as brothers and sisters in Christ. And it’s why Jesus so often ridiculed the dollar-store morals of those who fancy themselves good people merely because they’re good to family: “If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same” (Matthew 5:46-47)?

Christianity spread like wildfire, in part, because Christian communities were remarkably good at taking care of each other. They provided for widows and orphans, sat with the sick, doted on the dying, and redistributed resources when necessary. In short, they were the very opposite of the Ayn Rand reading sociopaths who’ve captured conservatism and decided it’s time to fight for Christian Civilization. These people wouldn’t know what Christian is if it bit them in the ass on the Road to Damascus.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Reincarnation

342My main objection to the theory of reincarnation isn’t that it’s not true (after all, I love the fantasy genre precisely because it’s not true). No, my main objection to the idea of reincarnation is that it’s just not a very good story. Reincarnation is sort of like one of those shitty sci-fi flicks that’s filled with internal inconsistencies and plot-holes as big as Sin City pot-holes. For instance, why are people who believe in reincarnation always the reincarnation of something really cool, like a slain warrior or a Mayan princess or a Pharaoh or a Druid priestess or some famous criminal or a crucified rebel or Galileo or some other interesting person like that? You know what I’d love to hear, just once? I’d love to hear someone who believes in reincarnation tell me that I’m the reincarnation of a boring accountant from a small forgettable town: a little guy with ear hair who lived a quiet, unremarkable life, and died during breakfast in his 86th year, after choking on his oatmeal.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

The Crusade Against White Bread

cover (17)If anything has united health-conscious North Americans, it is the belief that white bread is inherently evil. Indeed, they have denounced refined white flour with a consistency that is matched only by the equally steadfast manner in which they have condemned refined white sugar. But this is a well-worn position that dates back to the very moment when the refinement process was patented in the mid-nineteenth century. The newfangled loaves had only just started to appear in American kitchens when health reformer Sylvester Graham set out on his quixotic crusade against white bread. His diatribes against the refinement of flour had all of the righteous indignation of an itinerant preacher’s altar call.

But Graham’s jeremiad was only heard in small circles, and even there he probably found some hard hearts. Americans liked their white bread, for the most part. They liked the look of it. They liked its ethereal fluffiness, and its delicate (some would say nonexistent) flavor. Besides, white bread stayed fresh considerably longer than its virtuous brown predecessor, because the refined flour from which it was made had been emancipated from its more earthbound, perishable parts. For Graham, the impoverished remnants of the denuded wheat berry that went into white bread represented everything that was wrong with the industrialization of the American food supply. He believed that something precious and essential was irretrievably lost during this violent process.

Graham’s sentiments have been recycled and reused by pure-food activists, almost verbatim, for over a century and a half. One Prevention writer described white bread as “pre-sliced absorbent cotton” with the nutritional value of sawdust, whilst another maintained that consuming it was a mortal sin: “Destroying God’s temple takes place when we ingest material that has been bleached, processed, and stripped of all its God-given nutrients.” Adelle Davis went so far as to claim that France was easily overwhelmed by the Nazis in 1940, in part, because of “the enfeebling French passion for white bread.” There was certainty and perhaps some comfort to be found in this stridency. Newly-minted health enthusiasts, still trying to figure out what was required of them, could be absolutely sure of at least one thing: white flour products were expressly forbidden.

Did it then follow that whole wheat bread—made of virginal, unsullied flour—was permitted? Not necessarily. Even the subject of bread could be thorny. Jerome Rodale, for one, stood squarely against the consumption of bread in any form to his dying day. “Bread,” as he so often declared, “has no place in the Prevention System. It is not the staff of life, even though it is whole wheat.” “To me,” he added, “this prescription against bread is one of the most important planks in the Prevention System, and applies to the organically-raised wheat as well as that raised with chemical fertilizers.” Unambiguously clear statements such as these left little room for amendments or innovation.

All the same, as if to keep Prevention’s six million readers on their toes, Robert Rodale successfully performed yet another doctrinal about-face in the late 1970s. On his watch, bread not only made it back on the table, it became a staple, one of the centerpieces of his new and improved, high-carbohydrate version of the Prevention System. Prevention magazine continued to sing the praises of whole-grain bread in the 1980s and for much of the 1990s. Jerome Rodale must have rolled over in his grave!

—John Faithful Hamer, In Healthy Living We Trust (2016)

Why God Won’t Go Away

“A Saul turning into Paul is neither a rarity nor a miracle. In our day, each proselytizing mass movement seems to regard the zealous adherents of its antagonist as its own potential converts. Hitler looked on the German Communists as potential National Socialists: ‘The petit bourgeois Social-Democrat and the trade-union boss will never make a National Socialist, but the Communist always will.’”—Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (1951)

Mixbook  Beautiful Possibilities A Graphic Introduction to the Examined Life by John Faithful Hamer - Google Chrome 2015-09-27 52513 PMJerry Falwell actually said something smart once. When asked what the difference was between an Evangelical and a Fundamentalist, Falwell said: “a Fundamentalist is just an Evangelical who is angry about something.” In terms of doctrine, there’s no real difference between your average Evangelical Christian and your average Fundamentalist Christian. Likewise, in substantive terms, the difference between “atheism” (i.e., “old atheism”) and “new atheism” is this: nothing. The difference is more a difference of style. New atheists (or, as they often prefer to be called, “evangelical anti-theists”) are angry about something. Old-school atheists are about as worked up about people who believe in God as they are about people who believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

In The Future of an Illusion (1927), Freud maintained that giving up on God and embracing atheism was really all about shedding youthful illusions and growing up. Though deeply insulting and profoundly condescending (to religious people like me), I must confess that Freud’s characterization of atheism used to ring true to me. It ably describes the somber atheism of Nietzsche and Marx. Atheists used to sound like grown-ups, like those party-pooper grown-ups who come downstairs at midnight, turn on the lights, and tell everyone it’s time to turn off the music, clean up, go home, and get a good night’s sleep; these days, atheists sound like shrill teenagers, like those know-it-all preachy vegan teenagers who want the whole family to switch to soy. Be that as it may, they’ve got religion all wrong, and so far as I can tell, there are three main reasons for this: (1) like fundamentalists, the new atheists take religion far too literally; (2) they think they know what religion means to Joe Average, Regular Rhonda, and Typical Tanya; (3) they fail to see that religion shapes how you think and believe far more than what you think and believe.

Teaching on religion early on in my teaching career was profoundly eye-opening for me. I expected most of my students to know little or nothing about religion, and this was, alas, largely the case. What I didn’t expect to find was that many of my most religious students were equally clueless. Religious identity was clearly important to them, often very important, and yet their knowledge of their own religion was practically non-existent. It took me a few weeks to realize, for instance, that the guy in the corner who described himself as “born again” and got all fired up about Richard Dawkins, knew practically nothing about Christianity. Likewise, it took me a month to realize that the bright young woman in the hijab, who got all fired up whenever an unkind word was said about Islam, knew practically nothing about Islam. People like this used to frustrate me. But now they fascinate me. Because the success or failure of a social movement is largely dependent upon them. There’s always a gulf, a fascinating gulf, between an idea’s intellectual appeal and its emotional appeal, between what a movement is supposedly all about—according to its highly-articulate apologists, its slick PR-people, its intellectuals—and what it actually means to Joe Average, Regular Rhonda, and Typical Tanya. An old friend of ours from Baltimore is a case in point. Let’s call her Cindy.

Cindy was brought up in a hard-core Jehovah’s Witness household. Her family was among the most pious in their religious community. People looked up to them with a mixture of fear and awe. They were the gold standard: a family that never missed a meeting at the Kingdom Hall and spent thousands of hours spreading the faith each year. Cindy fell away from the faith in her late teens and got “disfellowshiped” (systematically shunned by her entire community). When we met her she was in her mid-20s. She hadn’t spoken to anyone in her family for years. She had dreads and tattoos, and a massive hate-on for religion. She’d rejected all of her parents values and beliefs, and she never had a kind word for the Witnesses. Yet it was obvious to us, charmingly obvious, that she was still a Jehovah’s Witness in so many ways.

“One certainty,” writes Aaron Haspel, “is often exchanged for another, doubt for certainty occasionally, certainty for doubt almost never.” Cindy’s real name is scrawled in red-ink next to this aphorism in my copy of Everything (2015). She was (and probably still is) a clear example of someone who goes through life exchanging one certainty for another, someone who’s extremely evangelical about whatever she happens to be into at the moment (e.g., veganism, smoking weed, going organic, skateboarding, new atheism, chemtrails, etc.). She would preach and proselytize incessantly, just as she probably preached and proselytized incessantly with her parents when she was a kid. Everyone just had to like whatever Cindy liked. What’s more, she was highly prone to demonization: people who didn’t share her enthusiasms weren’t just boring, they were evil. Alas, she’d transcended Protestant theology, but she hadn’t transcended Protestant psychology. I’ve witnessed the same pattern countless times in myself and others, and it’s led me to suspect that religion doesn’t have much to do with believing, or ceasing to believe, in a metaphysical proposition like God. Religion shapes how you think and believe far more than what you think and believe. Getting rid of the idea of Heaven doesn’t necessarily rid us of the longing for a painless paradise. Getting rid of the idea of Redemption doesn’t necessarily rid us of the longing for an escape from History and Consequence. And getting rid of The Savior doesn’t necessarily rid us of the longing for salvation.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

When God Stopped Talking to Me

“If you talk to God, you are praying; if God talks to you, you have schizophrenia.”—Thomas Szasz, The Second Sin (1973)

imagesI used to believe in God the way you believe in the existence of your mother and the sky. Like Enoch of old, I knew God. This wasn’t faith or hope or wishful thinking; it was a real relationship. For about three years, between the ages of twelve and fifteen, prayer wasn’t a one-sided exercise for me; it was a two-way conversation. I heard the voice of God. But it didn’t last. One day, without warning, and for no apparent reason, God just stopped talking to me. Never before or since have I felt so completely and utterly lost and alone in the world. Like that madman who mourns the death of God in The Gay Science (1887), I was also profoundly disoriented: “Is there still an up and a down? Aren’t we straying as though through an infinite nothing? Isn’t empty space breathing at us? Hasn’t it got colder? Isn’t night and more night coming again and again?” It was excruciating. Easily the worst experience of my life. But I survived, I muddled through, and I found a way to live happily and well in this Groundhog Day world of ours, a world where each and every day is Holy Saturday.

I haven’t heard the voice of God once since then. Nor do I expect to. Truth be told, I’ve long suspected that this deeply religious period of my life was in fact a rather serious brush with mental illness, brought on by chronic insomnia, raging hormones, and a malfunctioning adolescent brain. And I’m glad to have dodged that bullet. But I’m equally glad to have dodged a psychiatric diagnosis. I’m thankful to my uncle Peter for sharing his faith with me when he did. Pentecostalism provided me with a narrative framework within which to make sense of what was happening to me, as well as a supportive religious community that normalized (and, indeed, often valorized) the strange experiences I was having. If it wasn’t for Peter, I’d probably be a drugged out shell of a man now: in and out of psychiatric hospitals, living at the margins of society, without family, without work, without self-respect, without dignity, without purpose.

Psychiatry’s current conception of “schizophrenia” is deeply flawed and thoroughly incomplete. Even so, it’s surely truer, far truer, than Pentecostalism’s supernatural understanding of the same set of symptoms. But this is largely irrelevant to someone who’s hearing voices from time to time. For them, the relevant questions are more likely to be: Whose treatment is more humane? Which narrative is more likely to allow me to remain part of my community? Which diagnosis is more likely to allow me to live a more or less regular, productive life? Which will permit me to remain a fully functional member of my society? These questions pretty much answer themselves, and that’s the problem. Schizophrenia is hard, no doubt about that. But what we do to schizophrenics is often much harder than schizophrenia.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

Religion Good and Bad

“Now, broadly speaking, I don’t think religions in general
are particularly good ideas.”
A friend said this, and I agree.–JGM

Modern religion is almost all ideological–a matter of ideas–which is really unfortunate, since religion is about shitty ideas. The best religions cultivate skillful means of dealing with shitty ideas. They aren’t “about” those shitty ideas. which only exist the way poop exists. We experience human emotions–love, joy, transcendence, sorrow, anger, etc.–and the waste product is some shitty idea. We eat food, and the waste product is poop. Of course the master of ceremonies and his crew need some method for dealing with shit at the banquet, but shit is definitely not “what the banquet is about”–unless and until we invent modern religion, which I would liken to a really shitty banquet, a symposium wherein we skip directly from sullen sobriety to vomit-and-piss drunkenness with no poetry or philosophy in between. We have learned over generations that religions founded on ideas are stupid (best-case scenario: we arrive, get hammered, and wake up wearing underwear on our heads) and dangerous (worst-case scenario: the underwear is all that remains of our entire wardrobe, and we are in jail with no memory of how we got there). But for some reason we keep insisting on ideology as being profoundly important (instead of profoundly stupid and dangerous)–and ignoring the reality that religion has been about so much more than stupid and dangerous ideas over the course of human history.

Maybe it is time for more of us to realize that we can make music, poetry, and philosophy (not to mention other kinds of art) without identifying any of these things as particularly important. We don’t have to crucify Peter when he writes a rap song instead of a cantata. We don’t have to burn Paul at the stake for preferring haiku to hexameter. We don’t have to worship Plato or ban him: we can laugh and get on with our lives, telling our own dumb story (or making endless commentary on his). Theology is not serious; or if it is, then it is seriously important that we avoid fooling ourselves into thinking that we must get it right. Every generation before us has gotten it wrong (sometimes stupidly and dangerously). We must not expect to be exceptions to this rule. We must not oblige ourselves to treat ideas (in general) with more respect than their record warrants. Religion is there historically not to impart factual information (about how the world really works in some concrete, predictable circumstance), but to help us deal emotionally with the reality that we are all unpredictably fragile (in ways that are concretely insoluble, no matter our ideology).

“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” is only anathema if we practice bad religion (the kind of religion that assumes “having a nice party” necessarily involves getting trashed and shitting everywhere). If we know how to eat, drink, and be merry without wreaking havoc, then that ideology is fine. There is nothing inherently good or bad in ideas themselves (the idea of a party, say): it is execution in particular circumstances that makes them whatever we experience. Rejecting one dumb idea does not protect you against another. Being really careful to avoid the tequila party at your parents’ house so that you can hit the crack van down by the river is not smart–not even when you tell yourself over and over how dumb the people chugging tequila are as you smoke crack. It doesn’t matter how dumb tequila is, fool: you are smoking crack. The point of a good party is not to find the right drug, the one anyone can ingest at any dosage without experiencing harm, and then let everyone go hog wild. There is no such drug. The point of a good party is to make whatever drug becomes available as little harmful as possible. Keep the dumb ideas dumb. Keep the dangerous ideas dangerous. Just warn people beforehand, and have safeguards in place to keep the party from becoming too ‘modern’ (i.e. wild, devoted to intoxication for intoxication’s sake). Mix your wine with water, the Greeks would say, and remember that wine exists to facilitate other things–conversation, music, poetry, philosophy–not to replace them.

Ideas are fun entertainers. Occasionally they can even be useful servants. They are terrible masters. Surrender your humanity to them at your peril (not to mention everyone around you).

November Now

242543_10151224037892683_675180789_o-001November now—a month, that makes psalmists of us all. On the Mountain, and in the Park, the evergreens are singing the 23rd with a soulful serenity—the soulful serenity of a Stoic sage: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

In Saint-Louis Square, the melancholy maples mesmerize with a wrenching rendition of the 55th—awash in a soulful sadness—the soulful sadness of a grieving Górecki: “Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me, and horror hath overwhelmed me. . . . Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest.”

In the grey skies above, geese fill the air with a masterful interpretation of the 91st: “He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust.”

But if you long to hear the 65th, or the 46th, you’ve gotta go down to The River, gotta share some secrets with The Saint. Larry roars in the springtime, it’s true, when “the river of God is full of water”—but it’s November now, and his voice is soft and sweet, no louder than a whisper: “Be still,” He says, “and know that I am God.”

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)