Tuesday, December 30, 2014

My Favorite Books from 2014

Each year I set a goal of reading at least 52 books. This past year I came close to reaching my goal finishing 46 books. (And, that’s if you don’t count all 22 volumes – more than 2,800 pages – of The Walking Dead comic book series that I binge read in October.)

In 2014 I read numerous books on the theme of racial justice. Most notable was Blood Done Sign My Name, Tim Tyson’s amazing history/memoir of a racist murder in a small North Carolina town in 1970. I also read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, an oral history of the Chicago high rise housing projects, and New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als’ extraordinary White Girls, a collection of essays exploring race, gender, and sexuality.

This past year I also continued on my quest to read every book published by McSweeney’s Press. To date I’ve read 194 of the 222 books published by McSweeney’s.

The most usual book I read this year was Paul LeGault’s The Emily Dickinson Reader. I read this alongside the complete collected poems of Emily Dickinson. What Paul LeGault did is an act of both genius and obsession. In The ED Reader he offers a one line “translation” of each of Dickinson’s 1,789 poems. These tweetable translations are often witty and sarcastic. I’m a big fan of art projects that demonstrate obsession on such a large scale.

I tend to read a lot of fiction and I’m especially a fan of short stories. My favorite novels from this past year include Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story about a technological dystopia, Courtney Moreno’s In Case of Emergency, Bill Cotter’s The Parallel Apartments. My favorite short story collections included Pastoralia by George Saunders, Further Joy by John Brandon, Jess Walter’s We Live in Water, and Painted Cities by Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski.

In non-fiction I read several books in the Voices of Witness series. These collect oral histories to illuminate human rights abuses both within and outside of the United States. I read oral history collections from survivors of Hurricane Katrina as well as from prisoners who had served time on death row but were later exonerated. Cory Doctorow’s manifesto about copyright law in the information age – Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free – was an interesting analysis of a topic I had never considered. No book I read this past year was as fascinating as A Very Bad Wizard by Tamler Sommers. This book includes a dozen interviews Sommers conducts with leading philosphers, psychologists, and biologists who think about the topic of morality.

My favorite book on the topic of religion from this past year was Rob Bell’s What We Talk About When We Talk About God. I don’t completely agree with Bell’s theology but I’m a big fan of his project of trying to write both honestly and popularly about doing Christian theology in our contemporary culture.

What does 2015 hold in the way of books? My immediate to-read list includes six volumes from the Voices of Witness series illuminating Human Rights crises in Zimbabwe, Sudan, Myanmar, Columbia, and Palestine; the complete essays of James Baldwin; the last two Marilynne Robinson novels, Home and Lila; the latest book by Barbara Ehrenreich called Living With a Wild God which deals with mystical experience; and all the short story collections by George Saunders I haven’t read yet.

Feel free to friend me on Goodreads if you want to follow what I'm reading.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

My Favorite Music of 2014

Writing about my favorite new music of 2014 immediately poses a conundrum. What am I to do when the best two albums of this year, by far, are from bands whose names are so profane that I can’t print those names on my minister blog? I asked Anne for her advice on how I should write about these records and her advice was, “You just don’t.”

My favorite album of the year is by a Canadian hardcore punk band. My second favorite album of the year is the debut album from a noise rock / punk outfit from New York. While both bands have utterly profane names, the subject matter of their songs isn’t scandalous or repulsive. They’ve just chosen to give themselves names that utterly foreclose any possibility, however unlikely, of commercial success. They’re punk, after all. These albums are both earsplittingly cacophonous, but they are also immediate and honest. And, I might tell you the names of the bands / records if you decide to ask.

Other Albums Worth Checking Out
My favorite new record of 2014 by a band with a clean name was Jack White’s Lazoretto. The best song on the album is the swaggering title track but the rest of the record is a good mix of bombastic electric guitar rock and more polite acoustic tracks.

With Shriek, Wye Oak reinvented their sound. Jenny Wasner put down the electric guitar and picked up the bass and drummer Andy Stack added in synths. Check out the song “Logic of Color.”

Also worth noting is Teeth Dreams, the new record by The Hold Steady. The record is actually pretty inconsistent and somewhat of a disappointment, but the first single off of it, a song called Spinners was one of my favorite songs of the summer.

New Bands
The AV Club is my go-to site for finding out about bands worth listening to. Their annual best music lists, as well as other features, turned me on to many of the musical groups I listen to the most, including Frightened Rabbit, Wye Oak, Japandroids, and even The Joy Formidable.

When they came out with this year’s list, I immediately checked out a few of their recommendations. Here and Nowhere Else from The Cloud Nothings has been stuck on the stereo of my car for the past week and will probably stay there for a while. With a sound and energy similar to Japandroids, songs like Now Hear In are songs you have to listen to if you’re a fan of indie rock.

The AV Club said that Angel Olsen’s indie rock record Burn Your Fire for Now Witness. I’m quickly becoming a fan of her sound. Her solo performance with NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series is worth a listen, as well as songs she performed with her backing band on KEXP.

I was also inspired to pick up Heal by Strand of Oaks based on the fact that J Mascis – my favorite guitarist of all time – contributes a blistering lead guitar riff on the song “Goshen ’97.” (J Mascis also appeared in 2014 on the song “Led by Hand,” which is an even better song.) His music is a cool mixture of folk rock and electronica. Plymouth is another song worth checking out.

Best Live Album
Lucero’s double live album, Live from Atlanta, is a great showcase for the hardest working band in America. They mix alternative country and southern rock together with Memphis soul and boogie. I’ve seen them live a bunch of times and their sound has only grown on me more now that I’m living in the south.

Best Release of Old Material
I listen to everything that Minus the Bear puts out. So I had to pick up Lost Loves which consists of songs that weren’t included on their last three studio albums. There are some gems here including songs like "Electric Rainbow" and "South Side Life."

Biggest Let Down
St. Vincent’s self-titled album was one of the most critically acclaimed records of the year. I gave it a number of listens and while I didn’t hate it, I found it a difficult record to connect with. I found it quirky for the sake of quirkiness and lacking in passion and immediacy.

Best Live Performance
With a two year old at home I don’t get out to live shows any more nearly as often as I should. But the show I enjoyed the most was my first bluegrass concert in North Carolina, hearing Mipso play at the Durham Tobacco Campus. These guys put on a great show. (And, at least one member of the band joined us at Motorco after the show for beer and late night food truck snacks.)

New Music from People I Know
Church member Danny Gotham released a 2 disc collection of music called Repast. I’m lucky and honored to get to hear him play regularly.

Church member Petey Greene spins some fantastic beats on his collaboration with Novakane on their release Soul TrainRobbers. Body moving hip hop with socially-conscientious lyrics.

I don’t usually listen to shoegaze, but when I do I listen to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, a band fronted by Reed College alumnus Kip Berman. Days of Abandon was their new record in 2014.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Emerson's Ecstasies: Taking Religious Experience Seriously

This lecture was delivered on 9/11/2014 at The Community Church of Chapel Hill, Unitarian Universalist, as the kick-off for the 2014-2015 Spiritual Education for Adults program.

The topic I’ve chosen to speak with you about tonight has to do with certain kinds of religious experiences that aren’t exactly easy to talk about. To begin, I want to tell a story. It is a story from more than a decade ago, from the Unitarian Universalist church in suburban Dallas where I did my parish ministry internship. And, it is a story that is true but also a little vague because I’ve removed a number of identifying details. That church had an ongoing group that met every Tuesday at noon for learning, conversation, and exploration. It was mostly retirees and a few others whose schedules allowed them to attend. Over lunch they’d take up different topics depending on who in the group was willing to lead.

That year I was asked to lead a series of classes over several weeks. The previous semester in divinity school, I had taken an amazing course on mysticism. The class was taught by Jeffrey Kripal a visiting professor who was quickly ascending to become a superstar professor of religious studies. He was daring, groundbreaking, and controversial. The title of the class I took with him was, “The Marriage of Heaven: Mysticism, Eroticism, and Reflexivity in World Religions.” I’ll have more to say about that later.

Anyways, what I did on those Tuesdays in Texas, inspired by the class in divinity school, was to bring in different mystical texts and invite people to read them and react to them. The class wasn’t a big success. But something memorable happened after one of the sessions. A woman approached me after one of the classes. Talking with me privately after class she related the story of her own mystical experience.

She had been attending a retreat at a conference center in a natural setting with woods and fields and streams. One afternoon she went for a walk. All of a sudden she found herself completely paralyzed. Energy, like an electrical current, coursed through her. Despite being unable to move, she was not afraid. In fact, the feeling was intensely and immensely pleasurable. This experience lasted for what seemed to her like hours, but the experience also seemed to happen outside of time.

What actually happened? It is a question that this woman didn’t feel a particular need to answer. She had had a mystical experience. But, she was also reluctant to speak openly about this experience. She did not want to be judged or ridiculed. She didn’t want others to attempt to explain away her experience or deny that it had happened to her.

No, she was not suffering from mental illness. No, she did not have a seizure disorder or a brain tumor. No, she was not taking hallucinogenic drugs. No, while out in the woods she had not accidentally ingested mushrooms or berries and she had not licked any toads. And, no, she had not fallen asleep and dreamed the whole thing.

What had actually happened? She had an experience of mystical union with a divine being. At least that is how she made sense of it. But, how does one talk about that? And, while she wasn’t particularly interested in trying to explain what had happened, she was interested in processing what this experience meant and what ongoing meaning this experience might have in her life. One doesn’t simply experience this and go along with life in the same way. So, what did it mean and what sort of change in life ought to come from such an experience?

But, it is also interesting that she did not bring up this experience in class. In fact, she had kept it a total secret. She had never told another living soul about this mystical experience until she told me. There is a risk in talking about these sorts of things and so she concealed this powerful, amazing, mysterious, mystical event. It was hidden. Closeted.

So, I pose this question to us as we embark on this church year together. What if a fellow member of this church community here at The Community Church reveals having had such an experience? What if they mention it during sharing as part of a Spiritual Exploration for Adults class? What if they mention it during a covenant group meeting? What if someone tells you about such an experience during coffee hour, or confides in you by describing such an experience? What if such an experience is related from the pulpit? Am I making anyone else here uncomfortable?

This isn’t a hypothetical question. After all, that person who came to me following that very unimpressive adult religious education experience I facilitated is one example of a person who has had a profound spiritual experience, a mystical experience that has led that person to our doorstep hoping to understand, deepen, and gain insight. And, I think it deserves to be asked whether there is space in our congregations for the mysterious, the uncanny, the weird, the occult, the paranormal, and the transrational. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that the rational and scientific mindset occupies an exalted place within Unitarian Univeralism at the present day. And, this has been true for a while.

While it is true that one of our six sources that informs our faith is “humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against the idolatries of the mind and spirit,” another one of our six sources is “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” I want to talk a bit about some times in our Unitarian Universalist tradition when there has sure been some transcending mystery and wonder.

One place, perhaps the most notable place, within the Unitarian Universalist tradition where we find a relative openness to mystical experience is in the writings of the Transcendentalists.
Towards the beginning of his essay, Nature, first published in 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson presents us with a famous image that is possible to interpret as evidence of a mystical experience.

Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God… I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.

The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm, is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.

How exactly are we to make sense of Emerson’s Transparent Eyeball experience? In his award winning biography of Emerson, Robert Richardson provides some commentary on this passage. He writes, “If this is mysticism, it is mysticism of a commonly occurring and easily accepted sort. The aim of the mystic is to attain a feeling of oneness with the divine. Experiences of the kind Emerson here describes have happened to nearly everyone who has ever sat beneath a tree on a fine clear day and looked at the world with a sense of momentary peace and a feeling, however transient, of being at one with it.”

What is your reaction to this claim? Have you ever had a transparent eye-ball experience in nature? Have you ever felt “an occult relation between man and vegetable”? Richardson’s claim about nearly everyone, is that true or not?

Elsewhere in Richardson’s biography of Emerson, he writes about Emerson traveling to a Massachusetts beach in search of these types of experiences. Let me read fairly extensively from Richardson:

Emerson was hoping for a ‘visitation of the high muse,’ for a visionary experience of life-altering intensity. He was after the sort of experience with which he could lift the reader or hearer ‘by a happy violence into a religious beatitude, or into a Socratic trance and imparadise him in ideas.” Emerson knew precisely what kind of experience he was seeking. He had had them before…

The kind of experience for which Emerson is always reaching is the ecstatic state, an experience that gives a person the feeling of being outside time. The word ecstasy means ‘a displacement,’ a standing outside oneself. Ecstasy names ‘a range of experiences characterized by being joyful, transitory, unexpected, rare, valued, and extraordinary to the point of seeming as if derived from a preternatural source. Such experiences are marked by great intensity of feeling…

Emerson was also convinced that ecstatic states were experiences everyone has… ‘Every man has had one or two moments of extraordinary experience,’ Emerson writes, ‘has met his soul, has thought of something which he never afterward forgot, and which revised all his speech, and moulded all his forms of thought.’ He was further convinced that ecstatic states were natural, not supernatural, and he took pains to demystify them. He once wrote: “I hold that ecstasy will be found mechanical, if you please to say so, or, nothing but an example on a higher field of the same gentle gravitation by which rivers run.’

I want to delve into this just a little bit. On one hand, according to Richardson and according to Emerson’s own journals and writings, Emerson repeatedly had mystical experiences where he received “a visitation from the high muse,” as he puts it. The experiences lasted about an hour until he was “let down from this height.” He speaks of these experiences as absolutely transformational and life-changing, but also insists that they are natural, mechanical, and not all that rare.

I suspect that Emerson is hiding something, concealing even as he reveals. One thing that leads me to think this is Emerson’s fascination with and admiration for the Swedish intellectual Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg was a scientist, philosopher, and theologian. He was one of the major thinkers who came into popularity in mid-nineteenth century American thought. Emerson’s writings and journals are teeming with mentions of Swedenborg. In Emerson’s essay on Representative Men, Emerson selects Swedenborg as one of his six great men, writing approvingly about him alongside Plato, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe. Not bad company.

Emanuel Swedenborg was also quite the mystic. His later years were taken up with a series of dreams and visions in which he claims to have traveled freely to Heaven and Hell and talked with angels, demons, and other spirits. Swedenborg wrote books detailing his learnings and experiences from these visions and revealing divine messages that he had been instructed to transmit. What’s more, Swedenborg also had confirmed psychic experiences, most famously in June of 1759 when he had a vision of a fire in Stockholm that came close to burning down his house. When news of the fire came to Goteborg, three hundred miles away where Swedenborg was visiting at the time of the fire, the details of the fire were the same as the description that Swedenborg had given in his psychic vision. An interesting choice for a representative man.

Around the same time that Emerson was having reoccurring mystical experiences in nature another literary light of the Transcendentalist movement was writing an interesting novel. Nathaniel Hawthorne, best known for his novel The Scarlet Letter, also composed a novel called The Blithedale Romance. This book is a fictional send-up of his Unitarian peers and satirizes their attempt to establish the Brook Farm commune. Here’s the thing about Hawthorne’s novel. A reoccurring device that moves the plot along are appearances by the veiled lady, a mysterious figure who performs as a clairvoyant or medium. What does this mean? Maybe nothing. A fictional account of a fictional person. But it seems to me that Hawthorne presents attending and taking part in such an occult gathering as the type of thing that his readers would recognize, and could imagine Unitarians as doing.

But that’s just satirical fiction. We shouldn’t take it seriously.

But Swedenborg is a representative man for reasons other than his mysticism.

And Emerson is just a poetic guy who gets carried away.

The Transcendentalists were many, many things. They were a religious reform movement, a movement of the spirit that shook the foundations of Unitarianism. They were a literary movement changing the face of American literature. They were closely tied to a social reform movement. The Transcendentalist crowd furthered the abolitionist cause, birthed the earliest feminist and women’s rights movements in America, and helped to promote a host of social reforms, from education to prisons to hospitals to care for those with disabilities or mental illness. They were an intellectual movement, helping to popularize German romantic thought in the United States. They were an interfaith movement. Emerson and others helped to bring religious texts related to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam to this side of the Atlantic for the first time. They were innovators of social experiments. From Thoreau’s time at Walden, to communal experiments at Brook Farm and Fruitlands, to innovative educational models, to rethinking sexual arrangements, the Transcendentalists were a major force in American culture. And, I would argue, that on top of all of that, they were a movement filled with mystical energy and that this wasn’t some random accident or some embarrassing side show. Rather, I think of openness to mystical, ecstatic experience as absolutely central to everything they accomplished.

In the 1990s the Unitarian Universalist Association published an adult religious education curriculum that has become the most popular and most frequently offered adult religious education program in UU churches. It is a program called Building Your Own Theology, authored by Dick Gilbert, one of the true giants in our recent movement recently.

The Gilbert version of Building Your Own Theology has a session called, “Varieties of Liberal Religious Experience – Unitarian Universalists and the Burning Bush.” The reading that is assigned for this session is fantastic. Let me describe it to you. The introduction to the reading includes a typology of religious experience that asks us to think in terms of peak experiences, plateau experiences, and valley experiences. Peak experiences would be described as “ecstatic” experiences “when we celebrate being a part of something greater than we are: the cosmos, beauty, a cause.” “Plateau experiences are not marked by the intensity of the ecstatic experience. Rather they are characterized by a kind of serendipity, an oceanic feeling a la Freud, a sense of total well-being… Then there is the valley experience, the inevitable moment of suffering, meaninglessness, or tragedy that probes our very depths as human beings. Far removed from the ecstasy of the mountaintop, or even from the heights of the plateau, valley experiences take us down to the agonies of the spirit.”

After this introduction, Gilbert provides us with 27 accounts of religious experiences and we are asked to classify them as peak, plateau, or valley. Only five or six or seven of the texts are ecstasies or peak experiences. And, of those, three of them come from the Bible. We are given the story of Moses and the Burning Bush, Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, and the Prophet Isaiah’s call from the book of Isaiah, which is rendered as metaphor rather than as mind-blowing, foundation shaking, laser light show level religious experience. I think it is telling that the only ancient texts in this collection – the only three – are for peak experiences. We have to keep those at a safe distance. We’re also provided with Albert Schweitzer’s religious experience in nature that occurs as he is trying to pass through a herd of hippopotamuses, nineteenth century Canadian psychologist Richard Bucke’s experience of cosmic consciousness, and, most interestingly, we’re provided with a passage from Joseph Priestley, the famous eighteenth century Bristish Unitarian minister, historian, and scientist, and all-around proponent of rational materialism where he admits to something of an uncanny and weird experience. Priestley writes,

There is another and slightly different kind of experience that I have had, though rarely and even then only in later life. I may have been deceiving myself, but here it is, for what it is worth. Unlike the others on these occasions I have been recalling a person or scene as clearly and as sharply as I could, and then there has been, so to speak, a little click, a slight change of focus, and for a brief moment I have felt as if the person or scene were not being remembered but were really there still existing, that nobody, nothing, had gone. I can’t make this happen; either it happens or it doesn’t, and usually it doesn’t. And, I repeat, on the very rare occasions when apparently it did happen, I could have been deceiving myself: I am now wide open to charge. Even so, if you think that what I have related is worth nothing, then I am more fortunate than you are – I live a richer life in a more rewarding universe.

I love this passage by Priestley. You can tell in the words he uses that this experience has destabilized him. And yet he is also grateful. “I am now wide open to charge… I live a richer life in a more rewarding universe.”

I do want to make one final observation about the 27 peak or plateau or valley religious experiences that we’re presented with in the Building Your Own Theology curriculum. Among the 27 texts Dick Gilbert gives us, three of them come from participants in the class from his church who write about their own experiences. Those three include two valley experiences and one plateau experience. If there is any inference we can draw from this, it may be that we are not always open to those peak, ecstatic experiences. We like them held at a safe distance. We have to maintain an air of plausible deniability.


What I’ve hoped to do in the first half of my lecture this evening is to make the claim that ecstatic mystical experience might have a place, some place, within Unitarian Universalism, or that it has had some kind of place among us, from Emerson’s nature visions to the spiritual adventurousness of the Transcendentalists, to Spiritual Education for Adult classes and just regular people who have had profound experiences but choose to be discreet and circumspect about whom they choose to share these experiences with. In the second part of my talk, I want to talk about how we might create a religious community – and a learning community – that benefits from us being able to take religious experience seriously.

But first, I want to make an assertion that you can judge the veracity of for yourself. Unitarian Universalism is a religion of converts. I am a life-long UU and that puts me in the minority. How many life-long UUs are there among us today? People tend to the leave the faith of their childhood or adolescence and eventually find their way to us. Why do people leave Christianity to come to us? Often it is the case that they leave because of a dissonance in their beliefs. They realize they don’t believe in God. Or they don’t believe in the Trinity, or in the resurrection of Jesus, or they just can’t honestly say the creed. It is a matter of intellectual honesty. Another reason a person might leave has to do with ethical considerations. The exclusivity is an ethical challenge. What the church teaches about sexuality, sexual orientation, or about other religions is deemed immoral and unethical. I can no longer support an organization that won’t allow women to be ministers or that won’t welcome a same-gender couple. But, I want to posit that a third reason someone may leave has to do with experience. Many denominations talk about having the experience of being saved, of having a personal relationship with Jesus, of feeling that God talks to you when you pray, of witnessing miracles. How lonely, how confusing, how frustrating if you grow up in such an environment and don’t experience that. To feel like there is nothing on the other end of the phone. To not have that personal testimonial of salvation. Or, to have a mystical experience that doesn’t fit the template, that shatters the mold. I just want to throw out there that experience may have just as big a role as intellectual thought and ethical reasoning.

One guy who really got this was William James. A little more than a century ago, William James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, one of the most important books of the twentieth century. James’ book was radical. The study of religion up to this point had focused on creeds, texts, belief systems, and institutions. But, James focused on personal experience. He was interested in the psychological aspects of religion, particularly mystical and pathological experiences. There is a passage in his chapter on mysticism where James quotes from an autobiography written by a British man. The British man writes of going for a walk in nature with his stick and his dog while his wife and children go to attend the Unitarian church. On his hike, he has a mystical experience. And James is really one of the first who is more interested in that experience than in what happens at the church.

The most Jamesian scholar of religion alive today, I’m relatively certain, is Jeffrey Kripal. I had the amazing privilege of taking a class on mysticism with him when he was a visiting professor at Harvard. In the late 90s he wrote his first book, Kali’s Child, about an extremely renowned Hindu mystic and guru. The book was insightful and profound and his observations upset some people and then word of what he is said to have said spread and his book was banned by the Indian government, and burned in public, and he received death threats. During that time he was at Harvard he was processing that whole experience, and writing on the topic of secrecy and concealing and revealing and he decided to out himself and write about his own experience of having had a mystical experience in India. It happens to go a lot like other mystical experiences we’ve mentioned.

For days, I had been participating in the annual Bengali celebration of the goddess Kali in the streets and temples of Calcutta (now Kolkata). One morning I woke up asleep, that is, I woke up, but my body did not. I couldn’t move. I was paralyzed, like a corpse, more or less exactly like the Hindu god Shiva as he is traditionally portrayed in Tantric art, lying prostrate beneath Kali’s feet. Then those “feet” touched me. An incredibly subtle, immensely pleasurable, and terrifyingly powerful energy entered me, possessed me, completely overwhelmed me. My vibrating body felt as if I had stuck a fork in a wall socket.… Perhaps more significantly, my brain felt as if it had suddenly hooked up to some sort of occult Internet and that billions of bits of information were being downloaded into its neural net. Or better, it felt as if my entire being was being reprogrammed or rewired…

What struck me as his student was his extremely broad ability to be interested in and compassionate about all manner of religious experiences. Kripal now serves as the head of the religion department at Rice University where his position allows him to do some really wild things. His research interests touch on Gnosticism, esotericism, and mysticism. His most recent books, Authors of the Impossible and Mutants & Mystics, take the study of mysticism to another level. In the pages, he considers such occult topics as the paranormal, psychical phenomena, poltergeists, ESP, telepathy, teleportation, and even narratives of alien abduction. He goes where no other scholar of religion dares to go.

Lest you think that I’ve completely gone off the deep end here, I might tell you this story. A few years back I decided to preach a sermon about this stuff at the church I was serving, but I was a little unsure of how to do that. So, I decided to contact Jeffrey Kripal and ask him for some advice. He replied that he gets invited all the time to guest preach at the Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston. They seem to like him. At least they keep inviting me back.

Professor Kripal was kind enough to send along the texts of four of the sermons he’s given there. Let me read to you a lengthy passage from his sermon, “Modern Magic and the Stories of Our Lives.” After telling fantastic stories about Mark Twain, Carl Jung, scientist Wolfgang Pauli, and others, Kripal concludes his remarks by saying,

I could go on for some time telling you one impossible tale after the other here. But I won’t. I would much rather end with a few reflections on what such stories signal or signify, that is, what they might mean. Briefly, I think they mean at least two things.
The first thing that I think they mean is that we are far more interesting than we give ourselves credit for, that there is more to us than meets the eye. Traditionally, this More has been called the soul or the spirit, but we might just as well call it Mind, with a capital M, or Consciousness, with a capital C.  In any case, this soul or Mind is More, much more, than we have imagined.  

The second thing that I think these stories mean is that the greater part of us is telling stories to the little part of us, sort of like in a dream. These magical moments are magical precisely to the extent that they can show us that we are living inside a story or a dream, that human life is essentially meaningful, and—and this is the really mysterious part—that we are partly the creators of the plots and directions of the stories of our lives.  I do not mean to suggest that we have complete control, or, worse yet, that we are somehow responsible for whatever happens to us. I do not believe that at all. But I do think that we are, if you will, co-creators of our lives.

My own sense, then, is that magical, psychical, or paranormal events happen around us in order to wake us up out of our slumber, to shock us into the greater truth of who we really are and what we are really capable of.  Much like the scarab beetle trying to fly through Jung’s window for his patient. What Jung called “synchronicities” or what Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer called “extraordinary knowing,” then, are essentially those not so rare moments in which we catch a glimpse of the plot or direction of the stories we are acting out in our own lives.

Maybe I am wrong about all of this. I certainly don’t claim to understand these strange stories in any adequate fashion. All I really know is that such things happen, that people are not lying about these things, that they are real in the simplest sense that they happen. What they mean is, of course, quite another matter, for what they mean depends as much on us as on the physical event itself. Next time, then, something like this happens to you, do not ignore the event. Do not let it pass without comment or interpretation. Most of all, do not approach it as a mere coincidence or an unapproachable miracle. Approach it as a tiny piece of a story in which you are the central character. Who knows what might happen?

Unitarian Universalism is an evolving faith that is heretical and even scandalous. We’ve been heretical and scandalous in our theology, challenging the Trinity and questioning the existence of hell. We’ve been heretical and scandalous in our commitment to diversity. We were the first religious movement to ordain women in the United States and the earliest movement to support equality for LGBTQ individuals and families. I hope we will also be scandalous, heretical, and open in our capacity to listen to religious experiences in all their varieties and vicissitudes. I hope our year ahead is many things and even a little weird.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Sermon: "Zombie Theology!" (Delivered 10-26-14)

Call to Worship
Why did the zombie go to the Unitarian Universalist church?


Good morning and welcome to The Community Church of Chapel Hill, Unitarian Universalist. Good morning and welcome to a most unusual worship service.

As we draw towards the end of October, as we draw closer to Halloween, as we draw closer to those holy days known as All Souls Day and All Saints Day, I thought we might get into the spirit of this season and spend our worship service talking about zombies.

And, you may turn to me and ask, “Reverend Thom, are you serious?” Of course I’m not serious. Being serious can be counterproductive sometimes when it comes to growing our souls and expanding our spirits. Of all the evolutionary gifts we’ve received, our capacity for playfulness is probably one of the most important. Playfulness is found only in mammals. It is never found in lizards or toads or turtles. Those creatures only know fear and appetite. We risk becoming monstrous ourselves when our human existence is dominated by fear and appetite, reactivity and acquisitiveness.

Look around us. Look at our culture, our world. So much fear. So much reactivity. Cable news with commercial breaks. Fear with regularly scheduled breaks for appetite.

Instead this morning we practice the antidote to such a life that cannot really be called life. We play. We become playful. We laugh and groan together. We’ll spend this morning talking about, learning about, singing about zombies. If you’re a first time visitor, I want to tell you that we don’t do this every week. But, other Sundays are pretty good too.

Let’s play together. Let’s worship together.

Opening Hymn
Zombie Hymn #1 “May Nothing Evil Cross This Door”

May nothing evil cross this door,
And may ill fortune never pry
about these windows, may the roar
and rain go by. [...]

With laughter drown the raucous shout
and though these sheltering walls are thin,
may they be strong to keep hate out
and hold love in.

from Our Zombies, Ourselves by James Parker

Look: there he is, out of focus and deep in the shot, in the fifth minute of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. He’s wandering through a cemetery, wearing a shabby blazer, with the air of a distracted groundskeeper. In the foreground are two soberly dressed young people, Barbara and Johnny. They are visiting their father’s grave. Barbara kneels and bows her head, but Johnny’s a scoffer. “Hey, c’mon, Barb—church was this morning, huh? Hey, I mean praying’s for church, huh?” Sniffs Barbara: “I haven’t seen you in church lately.” A breeze rises. Dark, frondy tree limbs wave above them like seaweed in the black-and-white afternoon, and the zombie draws near. He has begun to reel and lurch. He grabs Barbara. There’s death in his skin tone, but his face is alive with a kind of stricken fixity. He bashes Johnny against a tombstone. Barbara flees in a car, but wrecks it. And now we really see him, framed disastrously in the skewed rear windshield, advancing toward us at an off-kilter zombie trot. No mistaking the message: the world is out of whack, the car is off the road, here comes the zombie.

And he’s never stopped coming. After fertile decades bumbling in the gore/horror subbasement, he veered toward the mainstream in the early 2000s and currently enjoys a cultural profile unmatched even by his fancy-pants cousin, the vampire… [I]t’s the zombie… who’s really bringing home the bacon. He’s the one who rides the best-seller lists and consumes the pop unconscious, whose titles spatter the humor section of your local bookstore: Zombie Haiku, The Zen of Zombie, It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Zombies: A Book of Zombie Christmas Carols. People, sometimes hundreds of people, go on processional “zombie walks.” Video gamers are mowing down fresh multitudes of zombies with a fervor undimmed by habit. And AMC’s zombie series, The Walking Dead… [continues to be a] smash cable hit…

Sent freewheeling into postmodernity with nothing to say on his own behalf (because he can’t talk, because he’s a zombie), our hero would seem to be in a position of great semiotic vulnerability. And so it has proved: all manner of meanings have been and continue to be plastered onto the zombie. Much can be made of him, because he makes so little of himself. He is the consumer, the mob, the Other, the proletariat, the weight of life, the dead soul. He is too many e-mails in your inbox, a kind of cosmic spam. He is everything rejected and inexpugnable.

A decade ago, in the spring of 2004, Mel Gibson – remember him? – released his film The Passion of the Christ. The film was controversial and polarizing and a box office hit. After several weeks at number one at the box office, the movie that knocked it out of the number one spot was none other than a remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. That’s right, a violent and gory film about rising from the dead and consuming flesh was beaten out at the box office by a zombie movie.

In the past decade or so the popularity of zombies has only risen, no pun intended. Zombie movies have gone from cult-horror classics to mainstream box office hits whose casts include movie stars like Brad Pitt. The Walking Dead, now in its fifth season, is one of the highest rated shows on television with tens of millions of viewers tuning in each week. Zombie books are found in the humor section of bookstore, and beyond. The high school student who needs a bit of extra motivation with his English homework can read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies which sets Jane Austen’s classic inside a zombie apocalypse. Or, if you like serious literature, you’ll find that it is now acceptable for critically acclaimed literary talents – like McArthur Genius Award recipient Colson Whitehead – to write zombie fiction. Fitness enthusiasts can sign up for a Zombie 5K in which contestants run while weaving through and being pursued by swarms of the undead. Lest you think this is all a bunch of silliness, it was revealed last spring that the United States Department of Defense does in fact have a zombie preparedness plan, just in case.

So, zombies are a thing. This morning what I want to do is spend a little bit of time exploring why zombie culture has such a wide appeal to so many in our society. I also want to go deeper and put zombie culture in conversation with Unitarian Universalist theology and values and find out if they have anything to say to one another.

The first thing I want to say is that zombie movies in particular, and horror movies in general, contain an aesthetic dimension, but also dimensions that are psychological, emotional, moral, and political. The aesthetic dimension of horror films is problematic for many of us. How many of you would say that you are fans of horror movies? I would guess that the aesthetic dimension of horror movies – the gore, the screaming, the suspense, the sudden jolts – turns a lot of us off. Beyond the aesthetics, there is a psychological dimension that has to do with fear and disgust. Those are the emotions that horror tries to evoke. Horror movies often have a moral dimension as well. They are morality tales. Take a classic like The Fly or, say, Jurassic Park. These films ask a moral question: whether our capacity for scientific knowledge exceeds our capacity for wisdom and prudence. The films are a warning against our own hubris or greed or obsession, those qualities that can lead to something monstrous.

Zombie movies, perhaps more than any other type of horror movie, are moral critiques of the world in which we live. The first modern zombie movie was George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It came out in 1968 and captured a world that was tumultuous and uncertain. The film is a metaphor for the social unrest of the times: Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of Martin and Malcolm and Jack and Bobby, and the unraveling of the sexual, gender, racial, and economic norms of the 1950s. Night of the Living Dead was controversial for its depiction of gore, but it was also controversial because it cast a black man in a position of authority and leadership over the white actors in the film.

George Romero says of this film,
[We] were children of “The Sixties” [angry] that “Peace and Love” hadn’t changed the world. Some of our anger made its way into the film and journalists began to write about what we had done, calling it ‘essential American cinema.’ I had never thought of myself as in any way “essential”. Nor had I ever thought of myself as a filmmaker.
 It’s only in the years since Night of the Living Dead that I’ve taken myself at all seriously. The response to that film made me realize that I could inject socio-political satire into the sort of “horror” fictions that I loved since I was a boy. So, I continue to do it.  When I want to speak about what I perceive to be happening in the world… I open the door to my closet, ask the zombies to come out into the light, and I shoot a movie with those zombies.

Romero continued to inject social-political satire into his movies. In Dawn of the Dead, the survivors of the zombie apocalypse find refuge in a shopping mall. The movie is a commentary on consumerism and the camera shots of hordes of zombies trying to break into the mall look exactly like the throngs of shoppers trying to get in the door for a “Black Friday” sale. In Resident Evil it is the sinister Umbrella Corporation – part pharmaceutical company, part military contractor, part media conglomerate – that causes the zombification of the population. The enemy is unchecked corporatism. In 28 Days Later the virus that causes people to become zombies is known simply as “rage.” And, in the comedy Shaun of the Dead, the recurring gag is that it is hard to be sure who’s a zombie and who isn’t. The lurching, groaning person stumbling through the streets at night? It could be zombie or could just be someone who had too much to drink at the pub. The guy sitting on the sofa staring at the TV screen and drooling on himself while playing video games – is he a zombie or not?

Zombie movies offer moral critiques of the world in which we live – are we the victims of corporatism or consumerism? Is anger or apathy making us less than human? Zombie stories also ask us what it means to live life to its fullest.

The Walking Dead comic books are all introduced with the same teaser:
How many hours are in a day when you don’t spend half of them watching television? ... How long has it been since any of us really needed something that we wanted? The world we know is gone. The world of commerce and frivolous necessity has been replaced by a world of survival and responsibility. An epidemic of apocalyptic proportions has swept the globe, causing the dead to rise and feed on the living. It a matter of months society has crumbled, no government, no grocery stores, no mail delivery, no cable TV. In a world ruled by the dead we are forced to finally start living.

Here we find one of the most significant recurring features in zombie literature and film: the idea of living one’s own life with meaning and purpose and intention instead of mindlessly living something less than life. So we find that the characters in zombie films don’t fear dying. They fear becoming zombies. They fear that their life may be devoid of thought, devoid of choice, and spent trying to find some brains to consume. In Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One, there are a minority of zombies called stragglers who don’t become aggressive cannibals but rather return to a familiar place and spend the rest of eternity holding a pose or just repetitively doing the same thing over and over again. The protagonist in the novel, Mark, has the job of clearing out the stragglers and reports discovering a straggler in the copy room of a high rise office building, repetitively pushing the same button on the copier, over and over and over again. This is horror.

So, whether it’s the stragglers, or the zombies trying to break into the mall, or the catatonic videogame player, or just your average run of the mill zombie shuffling after some brains, there is a point being made again and again about how we actually live and how we ought to live. There is a concept in Buddhism known as the hungry ghost. The hungry ghost is the person whose life has given in completely to greed, jealousy, or envy. Their whole life is one of constant hunger, constant grasping desire. However, what the hungry ghosts crave will never be enough to satisfy them. The hungry ghost will never be full. The zombie can never have enough brains.

Have you ever felt like you are surrounded by zombies? Have you ever felt like you are surrounded by thoughtless people just going through the motions? How many of us will admit to feeling this way from time to time? I’ll admit to feeling this way. I feel this way in the fall every other year. I feel this way during election season. (There are a number of ways I could go with this…) This year is a mid-term election. We know from history, from the past four decades, that voter turnout for the mid-term elections never climbs much above 40%. Sixty percent of Americans eligible to vote won’t bother to cast a vote. Let me put this another way: we know that Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis are locked in this very close race for the US Senate. Whoever winds up winning, the results will be that almost exactly one voter out of five voted for Hagan, one voter out of five voted for Tillis, and three voters out of five didn’t bother to vote. Let me say that again: one out of five will vote for Hagan. One out of five will vote for Tillis. Three out of five won’t vote. Do you ever feel like you are surrounded by zombies?

Anti-populism is a major recurring theme within zombie entertainment and it is a theme that I think we ought to struggle with. Take, for instance, Jess Walter’s zombie short-story entitled “Don’t Eat Cat.” “Don’t Eat Cat” is about a zombie workplace retraining program offered by Starbucks. The first step is the cat test. The zombie being retrained must have the self-control to be in a room with a cat without trying to eat the cat. The second step is learning how to operate the cappuccino machine.

It doesn’t quite feel right to laugh at that, does it? I mean, we can all from time to time feel tempted to label some other group of people as a bunch of mindless zombies. That group of people – that socio-economic class, that generation, the people who vote for that political party, the people who go to that church – they’re all just a bunch of sheep, a bunch of mindless zombies.

I think the best in our Unitarian Universalist religion calls us to resist such thinking. It calls on us to humanize one another – to sympathize, to understand, to identify with one another. We call that the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Two features of zombie entertainment help us to resist such anti-populism. The first thing is that the zombies are never the bad guys. Nobody chooses to be a zombie. Zombies are never at fault. “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” The other thing we find is that in zombie movies the non-zombies are always capable of being a lot scarier than the zombies. The survivors don’t exactly behave like paragons of human virtue. Far from it. We ought to remember this whenever there is a temptation to think of others as sub-human.

What should we take away from this morning? What should we take away besides the fact that your new minister has spent a frightening amount of time watching movies about, reading about, and thinking about zombies? Here are the three takeaways:

The first thing I want you to take away is that parts of our culture that are unfamiliar to you, or even off-putting, can be more than just mindless fun. I’m not saying you should go watch a horror movie. The Walking Dead isn’t for everybody, even if it is for tens of millions of Americans each week. I don’t want anyone here who is squeamish going and getting frightened and having nightmares and blaming me. But, please don’t dismiss culture that doesn’t do it for you.

The second thing I want you to take away is to challenge your thinking about the masses. It is somewhat natural to feel, from time to time, like we’re surrounded by mindless zombies. This way of thinking is actually kind of problematic and unproductive.

And, the third thing I want you to take away is a passionate commitment and desire to live what is truly life. We’ve seen this morning that fear and hate and discrimination and consumerism and corporatism and rage can lead us to act less than fully human. Join the living. Rejoin the living. Say yes to life.

And, to inspire us to do that third thing, I’d like to invite you to join me in our closing affirmation, the words of Henry David Thoreau. Why did Thoreau go to live alone in the woods for more than two years, you ask. My theory is that it was to survive the zombie apocalypse. Or, alternatively, maybe Thoreau was a zombie. Let’s read his words together and I’ll let you decide for yourself.
Why should we live in such a hurry and waste of life?
We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.
I wish to learn what life has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived.I do not wish to live what is not life, living is so dear, nor do I wish to practice resignation, unless it is quite necessary.
I wish to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, I want to cut a broad swath, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.
If it proves to be mean, then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it is sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it. 


Night of the Living Dead (1968)
28 Days Later (2002).
Resident Evil (2002)
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Day of the Dead (2008)
28 Weeks Later (2007)
Zombieland (2009)
World War Z (2013)

Print Media
Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead, Volume 1-15 (#1-90)
Paul Legault, ed., The Emily Dickinson Reader
James Parker, “Our Zombies, Ourselves,” The Atlantic
Jess Walter, “Don’t Eat Cat” in We Live in Water
Colson Whitehead, Zone One

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

A Few Thoughts On Life In North Carolina So Far

I arrived in North Carolina almost exactly one month ago. Here are a few reflections on life so far here in Chapel Hill.

The house we bought in Chapel Hill is lovely. It was built in 1977, the year I was born, and has an open, contemporary feel. I’m having a new experience of home ownership. When I bought my condo in Kansas City in 2005 I got to work with the developer and have the condo renovated to specification, from choosing paint colors and plumbing and light fixtures to picking out cabinets and countertops. Everything was brand new or newly refinished. The home improvement plan was not to break anything and to try to go easy on the wear and tear. Our home in Chapel Hill has more, well, character. The wood floors are worn and the bathrooms could use an update. We’ll get to recreate our home over time while living here.

And, in Kansas City we had the benefit of a groundskeeping service to take care of the outside. I’ve spent more time on yard work in the past month than in the entire past decade. Our yard is gorgeous and it’s what sold me on the house. There is a postage stamp of grass in the front yard that I’ve only had to mow once so far. The area by the mailbox is sunny with a splendid butterfly bush and a tall rosemary plant accented by sprigs of mint. Most of our property is wooded. There are at least twenty five trees that are over 50 feet high. And, our yard backs up to two and a half acres of undevelopable woods. I’ve cleaned off the gutters, swept the porch, installed a bird feeder, and planted a small herb garden. I performed mercy killings of two miserable ficus trees on our deck and replaced them with gorgeous hibiscus plants. I exterminated all the mahonia growing in the yard. There are plans to put in a composting station.

I’ve industriously assembled several pieces from IKEA as well as a set of patio furniture. I haven’t yet figured out how to operate the gas fireplace.

Our wild neighbors include a family of four deer that live in the acreage behind our yard. The deer will appear standing in our front yard at random times at any hour of the night or day. Deer roam the neighborhoods of Chapel Hill like packs of wild dogs. I’m told I will consider them a nuisance once the novelty wears off. Traffic is picking up on the bird feeder on the back deck. For a few weeks the only visitors on the deck were precocious wrens pecking around in the soil of the hibiscus plants. Now we see cardinals, goldfinches, and sparrows regularly.

Our human neighbors include retirees who have welcomed us to the neighborhood with a potted plant and a big tray of ripe Georgia peaches. The Mayor lives two doors down. A few doors further down is a woman who lets her chickens out to peck around in her front yard every evening. We go in that direction when I take Lydia for walks in the evening.

We’ve begun to explore the town. We’ve visited the Durham Museum of Life & Science twice, the UNC Botanical Gardens once, and local playgrounds more times than you can count. We’ve taken furniture shopping road trips to Charlotte (IKEA) and Greensboro (Furnitureland South, which claims to be the largest furniture store in the world.) Later this week, before I start my ministry, we’ll be taking Lydia to the beach in Wilmington. I’ve checked out the music scene in Carrboro where Mates of State gave an intimate show at Cat’s Cradle with local band Bridges opening for them.

The first book I finished in North Carolina was John Brandon’s newest collection of short stories, Further Joy. Like his novels Citrus Country and Arkansas – and like the works of Karen Russell – Further Joy is part of a genre that I’ve termed “South Florida Gothic.” Now that I’m living in the South, sort of, I’ve picked up some of the classic works of southern literature to read. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is first up. We're only sort of living in the South; Chapel Hill considers itself to be “the pat of butter in a sea of grits” and prides itself on its “Keep Austin Weird” vibe.

One of the leaves I’m trying to turn over has to do with fitness. Inspired (intimidated?) by our fantastic neighbors in Kansas City, I’ve joined CrossFit of Chapel Hill. So far I’ve attended three workouts and a four-session onramp class. I hate it less than any physical fitness routine I’ve attempted over the past decade. I think it helps doing it with other people and having a coach to check in with during the workouts. The other day I wrote to a UU colleague of mine who does CrossFit and asked her if she found the culture of CrossFit weird. She asked me what I meant and I wasn’t sure. But here is what I think I may have meant: I tend to live a lot more in my mind than in my body. (I’ve read enough to reject such Cartesian dualism intellectually, but, you know, the former part of this sentence pretty much gets at what I’m talking about here.) In any event, one of the coaches, Greg, has already mentioned to me at least three times that he quit his desk job in order to do CrossFit all the time (one of the deeper circles of hell, I’m sure.) But people say things like, “We tend not to give a lot of thought to the strength of our ankles,” or, “Everything you think you know about swinging a kettle bell is wrong,” and these statements perplex me. I’m sure the coach was equally perplexed when I explained that not only did I not know what my “max weight” is for a particular exercise, but I didn’t really want to know. I’ve signed up for six months. We’ll see.

My new ministry with The Community Church of Chapel Hill Unitarian Universalist starts on August 11. Off to fill the birdfeeder, change a diaper, go to the gym, and find out if Addie Bundren’s corpse makes it to Jefferson, Mississippi. I also need to pack for the beach and buy tickets to see Spoon and St. Vincent play in Raleigh in September.