I’ve been trying to decide how I feel about the idea of a shrine to the man Max Beerbohm once jokingly referred to as “the Divinity.”
As I mused on this, it occurred to me that if Wilde is “the divinity” then the story I tell in Oscar’s Ghost is The Acts of the Apostles.
A martyr needs a resurrection, and in our story this was provided by Robert Ross acting, like St. Paul, as the most devoted evangelist of the good news of the meaning of the man’s life, his early death, and his rebirth as an artistic, literary and cultural symbol.
As with the Biblical apostles, Oscar’s apostles were divided on the meaning of the events they had experienced. Paul’s letters chronicle his split with “the elders” on the issue. By the time Acts was written, a more cohesive narrative was starting to emerge– but then again maybe it wasn’t as Luke said he was only writing to set the record straight. In Acts, Paul and the Elders seem much more on the same page.
Incidentally, this is what Paul and the Elders agree as the most important commands to the gentile converts to their young religion:
“Abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from what has been strangled and from blood.”
This is important, as it is repeated quite a bit in Acts.
But I digress…
Wilde’s literary executor, Robert Ross, was responsible for many of the aspects of modern mythology of Wilde. In this he performed a delicate balancing act. He edited Wilde’s works to make them more cohesive, at times cutting passages that could be interpreted as homoerotic. He wrote critically about Wilde in the voice of the respectable “us” not the marginalized “them” to persuade polite society that Wilde was not dangerous to read. At the same time, he tacitly encouraged some of the underground uses of Oscar Wilde as a symbol within the homosexual community. He nudged biographers to see Wilde’s story as a classic tragedy, an operatic fall with a tragic end.
His efforts to tell the story and to resurrect Wilde were colored by his own misgivings about his part in the affair, as were Lord Alfred Douglas’s attempts to put an end to a narrative that held him entirely responsible.
I found in the course of my research that in the early years after Wilde’s death it was common for people to blame his downfall on “the quality of his admirers”– in the plural– who encouraged his follies. Robert Ross was largely responsible for shifting the focus from “admirers” to one “admirer”– Douglas.
Over the years people have looked at the bitter rivalry between Ross and Douglas in their middle years and assumed that only romantic jealousy could fuel a conflict so heated. I see something else at work.
New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman wrote of the apostles:
The much beloved teacher of the disciples— the one for whom they had given up everything and to whom they had devoted their lives— was suddenly and brutally taken away from them, publicly humiliated, tortured, and crucified. According to our early records, the disciples had plenty of reasons for feeling guilt and shame over how they had failed Jesus both during his life and at his greatest time of need. Soon thereafter— and for some time to come?— some of them believed they had encountered him after his death. They were deeply comforted by his presence and felt his forgiveness. They had not expected to have these experiences, which had come upon them suddenly and with a vividness that made them believe that their beloved teacher was still alive.
Ross and Douglas shared the same deep wound. Could they have done more (or less)and saved their friend from his fate? Had they, paraphrasing Oscar, killed the thing they loved? The skirmishes can seem petty to outsiders, but to them these were not minor points. They were the kinds of regrets that keep people up at night. Each man had to reassure himself, as much as he wanted to tell the world, that it was not his fault. Given who they were, and the circumstances they were in, they had done the best they could.
For some reason, I don’t know why, I am on the e-mail list for the National Organization for Marriage, the organization that opposes same-sex marriage. I know I did not sign up, and I can only assume someone else signed me up to influence my opinion?
In any case, today I decided to click through and take a look at a petition they are circulating asking their members to contact Jeff Sessions and encourage him “to protect the religious liberty rights of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints on marriage, life, gender and similar issues.”
Now, the phrase “religious liberty rights” on its face would seem to mean the right of people to practice their religion without the government taking sides. So you can worship God as a literal judge who sits in the heavens, while I am free to “affirm and promote the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part.” You can practice religion by wearing a specific costume and doing a particular dance, and I can practice by reciting tales of my ancestors or praying five times a day.
But what this petition is requesting is not liberty in this sense, rather it is asking for the government to take sides and protect a specific set of religious beliefs and practices– they don’t want to protect everyone’s liberty, just the liberty “of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints…” (If you would like to read my views on this notion of “tradition,” incidentally, do a search on that word, and you’ll find a number of old posts.)
This wording aside, an argument could be made that those who created the petition are not asking for their religion to be given preference over others. Fundamentalist Christians who take the Bible literally are a minority religion, after all, in spite of their loud voices. Christians in general make up almost 80% of our population, but most are not Fundamentalists. As I have mentioned here before, a poll done by a Christian organization showed that only 30% of self-identified Christians approach the Bible as the literal and inerrant word of God. So the case can be made that a religious minority is asking to be excused from certain aspects of civil society, as a pacifist Quaker might ask to be excused from participating in war. They will not impose their faith on others if we agree not to impose our values on them.
This point of view, however, is undercut by some of the comments posted on the petition’s page. The very first commenter expresses his or her concern that “My fear is that an Executive Order would also likely have to provide ‘religious protections’ to other religious groups…” This person was especially worried about the “Big Love” scenario, in which fundamentalist Mormons and Muslims would push for plural marriage. (Plural marriage is, as it happens, quite well represented in the Bible.)
The result of the nightmare scenario of giving other religious groups the same freedom to opt out of mainstream law and practice is clear to the poster. Plural marriage would be accepted and “the Muslims will be breeding like rats on the public dole until they gain enough numbers to subvert the US into an Islamic Republic under Shariah!” (They’re going to have to get busy, as Muslims currently make up .8 percent of the U.S. population.)
This should make it clear enough that the petition is not really about “liberty.” A second poster agreed that what we really need to do is to “start asserting our right to keep all people who do not want to assimilate to our way of life out of this country.”
Using the language of individualism and choice, these posters are asking to have their traditions, and only their traditions, enforced. They don’t want to just be left alone to practice their minority religion in peace, they want those of us who are not practitioners to assimilate or get out. They are asking for the right to define the “real America” as people like them.
I was watching The Nightly Show this morning, (I time shift) and Larry Wilmore had a segment on conservative it-girl Kim Davis. For those without cable news Davis is the Democratic county clerk in Kentucky (yes, she is a Democrat) who went to jail rather than issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
There was something so surreal and vaguely disturbing in her victory lap along side presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee. When I saw the crowd waving crosses I had a similar feeling to Wilmore who called it “a little bit lynchy.” But then there was the Rocky vs. Mr. T music. (Eye of the Tiger had been a staple at my junior high school dances.) Was Davis a champion? Did she win something? What was her victory? Her court issued licenses without her and she was released on the condition that she not interfere with the process. That hardly seems like an Olympic level accomplishment. Well, she did get attention and we do admire people who manage to do that.
I found myself googling Survivor “Eye of the Tiger” and Kim Davis figuring that the band probably had something to say about its use as a “don’t marry the gays” anthem. I found the answer on a site called Consequence of Sound. And no, Survivor wasn’t thrilled with the unauthorized use of their song. But it was a snarky little aside that caught my attention.
“Eye of the Tiger” blasted from the speakers while Davis, her (fourth) husband, her lawyer, and Huckabee took the stage.
So I want use this moment to point out, once again, one of my pet peeve Biblical arguments against homosexuality. When it comes to Biblical arguments against same sex romantic or sexual relations there are only a handful of passages and there are various, more or less technical reasons why a lot of them are problematic. I won’t go into that except to say that a lot of Christians who want to make a Biblical argument against homosexuality try to steer away from the two least ambiguous condemnations of sexual activity between those of the same sex. They are both in Leviticus and both refer specifically to men (so maybe lesbians are OK after all). “Man shall not lie with man” says one verse. The other says that the penalty is death by stoning. Modern people are squeemish about the death by stoning part and try to draw attention elsewhere. There is also the whole problem inherent to Leviticus– even the most ardent fundamentalists do not follow a lot of it and do not consider this contradictory with Christianity. In this very blog some time back I quoted from a fundamentalist blog that made the argument that there was nothing wrong with tattoos even though Leviticus condemns it. “If someone chose to consider a tattoo sinful, then they would have to toss all their cotton/polyester clothing too!”
But if you don’t want to give burnt offerings of animals as dictated in Leviticus, and you’re fine with eating lobster, then you open yourself up to the logical conclusion that maybe the men lying with men thing falls into that same category.
This, of course, leads to a strong desire for Jesus to have repeated the commandment. Jesus offered very few commandments, and when he was asked direct questions about law he tended to take a “context matters” approach. You weren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath, for example, unless someone needed a healing, and then the goodness of the action overrode the law. He was much more of a parable guy than a law giving guy.
Just the same, the desire to have Jesus re-enforce the parts of Leviticus some of us like is so strong that people get creative as when they cite Matthew 19.5 on billboards in opposition to same sex marriage.
In Matthew 19 Jesus is asked whether couples should be allowed to divorce. In his reply he mentions “man” and “woman” coming together in marriage. To read it as an anti-gay passage you have to ignore the actual subject of the text, which is not ambiguous. Jesus is asked if a man should be able to divorce (it is entirely the man’s prerogative, of course). He says, no. “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.”
So the question is should divorce be legal and the answer is only in the case of adultery (on behalf of the wife). Any other reason is illegitimate. Not only that, but anyone who marries a divorced person is committing adultery.
So let’s review, Kim Davis, who was married four times and divorced three does not want to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples because:
“To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience,” Davis said in a statement published on the website of her lawyers, the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel. “It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision. For me it is a decision of obedience. I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s word.”
Now, as a matter of journalistic fairness, I will note here that Davis only became a Christian four years ago. So her serial adultery (as Matthew 19 labels it) was in her pre-Christian past.
But here’s the thing, how many marriage licenses has Kim Davis issued in the past four years to divorced people? I did a quick search to try to figure out how many marriage licenses the Rowan County Clerk’s office issues in a year, and I couldn’t immediately find it.
The number of licenses Davis may have unwittingly (and probably without any twinges of conscience) issued to divorced people is not even the real issue.
Suppose Davis, or someone like her, who divorced in the past and now has been born again, wants to make a fresh start in Christian marriage. Does it matter that she is now Christian and has asked for forgiveness of her sins past, or should it be up to the clerk to decide whether her conversion is sincere? If the person issuing the license agrees that Davis has given up her sinful ways, can the clerk still refuse to give her a license because doing so would mean that she would marry after having been divorced– which would make her an adulterer? Would Davis be thankful that the clerk took that position to save her soul and relieved her of the responsibility of her own religious choices? I suggest she would not.
The First Amendment is to protect individuals from government interference in their religious practices, observance and belief. It is not to protect the government from individuals religious choices. In this instance, Kim Davis, as the county clerk is cast in the role of the government. She represents the government agency. She cannot, as a representative of the government, tell people that they are sinners. That’s how the First Amendment works.
News from my home state of Michigan. Dearborn Heights has a new billboard. God wants the people of my state to know that he is totally cool with the LGBT population. It is a nice change of pace from his Georgia billboard campaign citing select passages of Leviticus.
The best part of the “God Loves Gays” message is that it appears on the same revolving electronic billboard put up by an anti-LGBT organization.
This billboard cites Matthew 19.5 in support of its position. This is one of my particular pet peeve Biblical arguments. In Matthew 19.5 Jesus is asked whether couples should be allowed to divorce. In order to read Jesus’s answer as a heterosexual commandment a reader needs to entirely ignore the context and focus only on the fact that he mentions “man” and “woman” coming together in marriage. I might have more sympathy for this interpretation if those who make the argument were a fraction as assertive in their insistence that divorce is a sin, which is, after all, the actual subject of the passage. The billboard doesn’t ask people to “restrain the judges” from issuing divorces or allowing second marriages.
So I decided to try a writing exercise from a book called The 3 A.M. Epiphany by Brian Kiteley. Kiteley suggests taking a sentence from a writer whose work you admire and to write a short bit of fiction using only the words in that sentence. (You can repeat them, but not add to them.) For practical reasons, Kiteley suggests you select a long sentence with a lot of words in it.
I’ve been quite interested in Oscar Wilde’s The Decay of Lying. His defense of the art of lying seemed a propos as I am flogging a novel right now in which one of the main characters decides to play the role of a rock star on line and starts to think of lying as a creative act– a kind of art.
I chose this wordy phrase for my writing exercise:
“Bored by the tedious and improving conversation of those who have neither the wit to exaggerate nor the genius to romance, tired of the intelligent person whose reminiscences are always based upon memory, whose statements are invariably limited by probability, and who is at any time liable to be corroborated by the merest Philistine who happens to be present, Society sooner or later must return to its lost leader, the cultured and fascinating liar.”
I thought the lost leader, the romance and reminiscences and tedious genius might yield something interesting. Alas, they did not:
A bored, tired romance
limited by probability
based on reminiscences
neither improving nor fascinating
return to the present
improving happens sooner or later
So I gave up on that. One word in the sentence did manage to capture my imagination, though. The word “Philistine.” I was certain the Philistines were being slandered and that they could not have been the base oafs their name would now suggest. Was this an ethnic slur from Biblical times that had survived to this day?
I looked up the Philistines on that great repository of knowledge, Wikipedia. They were known, in Biblical times, as threatening invaders. Their name translates into something like “of another tribe.” This makes sense. Historically, nearly every tribe called themselves by a name that meant something like “the people.” When they came into contact with another tribe, they invariably dubbed those guys something like “the others,” “the invaders,” “the foreigners,” or “those idiots over there.”
I read once that the Russian word for Germans essentially calls them stupid people who can’t speak Russian and the German word for Russians calls them stupid people who can’t speak German.
Anyway, the historical Philistines apparently had a nice, well-organized town and they were major traders in olive oil. The Wikipedia entry did not explain how their name had come to mean what it does to us today.
I found the answer to that on a blog called Yuletide, in a post that seems to be well-researched. (it is certainly persuasive enough for my current purposes, which is musing about something for no particular reason.) According to Yuletide, the idea that Philistines were backward does not go back to Biblical times but to a university in Germany. In the year 1693 a student and a non-student got into a fight and the student ended up dead.
A minister delivered a funeral oration which included a verse that mentioned the Philistines. The sermon must have been memorable because the students started to refer to it and eventually to use “Philistine” as an insider reference to non-students.
So “Philistine” meaning an uncultured boor was not racist. It was classist.
In 1797 “Goethe and Schiller, Enlightenment men who valued aesthetics, use the word ‘philistine’ (in the modern sense) for the first time in print. They use the term to derisively describe their critics, ‘old fashioned rationalists…who had no feeling for contemporary poetry,’ a definitively modern usage.”
This made its way to England via writings about German authors. It started to gain currency in the 1860s. Matthew Arnold may have popularized it.
What I found interesting in this, beyond my general interest in etymology (that’s the word one, right? entomology is bugs? I get them confused) is to think how modern an expression this must have been when Wilde wrote his essay. I tend to think of Wilde’s language as quite proper and a bit old fashioned, but he was a thoroughly modern guy.
While we were on tour, a woman we know from our travels gave my Russian partner a gift, a copy of The Book of Mormon in the Russian language. He was confused by it. “I have my religion. I am Orthodox,” he said. He had not encountered evangelists before. Although Russia has large populations of different religions: Jewish, Muslim, Russian Orthodox, the religions are considered to be a part of cultural identity, not a lifestyle choice. So there are not a lot of people going around asking anyone to change.
I told him that when someone evangelizes to me, I try to take it this way: She has discovered something meaningful to her and she wants to share it with you. Accept it in that spirit.
Being a Unitarian Universalist born and bred, I fall into a category that Christians are especially prone to want to save. If you are not from one of the non-Christian biggies: Judiasm, Hinduism, Islam, you must not have a religion at all, and somehow you failed to get the memo on the whole Christianity thing.
Of course, UUs do have a religion, community and traditions of our own that we do not feel any particular need to be “saved” from. It’s an understandable mistake though. UUs often describe themselves as agnostic, a word that means “not knowing.”
I am firmly of the belief that 90% of the time when people call themselves “agnostic” it does not mean that they do not know what they believe, it means that they believe something that is not so easily summarized and they don’t want to get into a heavy conversation about it right now.
(As in, “Tell me what you mean by the word ‘God’ and I’ll tell you if I believe in that or not” or “Why are you assuming that belief or non-belief in God is the central spiritual question?”)
I grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood before moving to a smallish Ohio town with a mostly Evangelical population. I had many friends who felt they had a duty to save me. Surrounded by Christians, it was the only time in my life when I have felt so harshly judged. One of the stand-out moments was when a neighbor told a friend of mine that she would never have me babysit for her children because I was not Christian, as if “not Christian” were some kind of contagious disease.One evening, she must have been desperate because she called and asked if I would watch the kids. She instructed me that when I put them to bed I should say a prayer with them and sing “Jesus loves me.” I had no problem with that. When I told my friend, who also sat for them, about it later she said, “They never have me do that.”
Another stand-out moment was when I mentioned to a friend’s mother that I did not like hot dogs and she gave me a 10 minute lecture about how when the Rapture came I would have to eat whatever there was, so I had better get used to it. Then she put a plate of hot dogs down in front of me.
For many years after this experience, any time I saw a picture of Jesus, a cross or a Bible verse on someone’s wall, it seemed to scream at me: “You are an outsider. You are not one of us. You are not welcome. We know you are dangerous and immoral. We think we’re better than you.”
I was hardly devil spawn, just a shy, bookish kid.
It is a shame that I developed this aversion. For the past few years I have become fascinated with the New Testament. It took many years before I could stop feeling a bit threatened by the Christian text and fully claim that interest as my own.
It’s a strange thing being damned to someone else’s Hell.
As I recently explained to a Baptist friend of mine, Universalists (that’s the second U in UU) believe in universal salvation. That’s where the word comes from. It’s a contradiction for a Universalist to be afraid of Hell.
My friend was shocked by this because she’d been fairly certain that both of the Us in UU stood for “Believe whatever you want.”
In any case, when someone condemns you to a Hell you don’t believe in, it tells you much more about the person doing the damning than it does about the future of your immortal soul. If a Christian friend admits that she thinks I will go to Hell after I die, it is not a big problem because that’s not a reality for me. But it does hurt my feelings that she would be fine with the idea that I would spend all of eternity enduring the most foul and painful torture she could imagine for the sin of failing to hold the same opinion she does.
(There was an odd moment in Inside Man on CNN the other night in which Morgan Spurlock quizzed a mega-church pastor on the idea that non-Christians were damned. Spurlock asked the pastor whether Gandhi was in Heaven or Hell. This is a non-sequitur when speaking about a Hindu whose cosmology is based on and endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth.)
Not being Christian, a friend once assured me, “doesn’t make you a bad person.”
Why on Earth would I think it did? If I thought what I believed made me a bad person I would believe something else.
(I was reading the first Epistle of Peter the other day and it struck me that Peter’s community was responding to just such a situation. The Gentiles mistrusted these strange Jesus worshippers. “How do we know you’re moral if you don’t worship our gods or join in our rituals?” Peter’s response was that they had to be the most moral, upstanding people around so no one could have any doubt. It is a position modern Christians rarely find themselves in any more.)
This was the confusing message I got from a lot of my Christian friends growing up, “I think you’re a good person. I love you. And you’re going to burn in Hell.”
Although I love the Bible and think it’s important for a lot of reasons, I do not take it as literal, infallible or as a divine instruction manual for life. I don’t think it works all that well when you try to read it as a rule book. What is the moral of the story of Lot and his wife supposed to be? There are a lot of people who consider themselves to be Christians who agree with this notion.
A Christian friend who does not recently asked me “How can you know right from wrong if you don’t follow the Bible?”
I knew better than to go into the rather long history of people using the Bible itself as justification for all manner of foul deeds. I didn’t even want to get into the “how to interpret the book” discussion. Instead I asked this: “Are you saying that if it weren’t for the ten commandments, you would not know not to kill people?”
I was a bit shocked when she said, “Yes.”
I said something like, “Really? Huh.” What I was thinking was, “I hope you never convert, then.”
I can’t agree that Christians have cornered the market on wisdom and morality and that only their book contains the true rules for life.
I do not think all religions are essentially one in different forms, but I do believe that they point to universals. Can you imagine a religion that made a virtue of non-compassion over compassion or a lack of love over love?
Here’s the thing, in my experience the big moral problem is not actually that people don’t know right from wrong. The problem is that they do know and they fail to do it anyway.
About a month ago I wrote about a strange story that appears in the New Testament books of Mark and Luke. The story of Jesus casting a large number of demons out of a man who calls himself “Legion” and into a herd of pigs. The miracle gets less focus than walking on water or turning water into wine. Most of us moderns don’t believe in demonic possession. In any case, Jesus was known as a healer an exorcist and he did something to relieve the suffering of people who the community considered to be possessed. In my article, I spelled out some of the things I wondered about this episode.
What are demons? What did the authors of the Bible believe about demons? Why were there so many demon possessed people? What happens to the demons when they are cast out?…The other interesting thing is that pigs are “unclean” animals, so the nearby pigs must have belonged to gentiles. Did he cast the demons out of the Jews and into Roman pigs and was there some subtext to that? Luke’s account of the demon pig incident describes the man with the demons in a way that makes it clear he was what we would today call mentally ill… Is insanity shaped by culture just as sanity is? Do people go mad in ways that are shaped by the cultures in which they live?
I first started thinking about these questions a couple of years ago. I have sought out books on the cultural aspects and context of mental illness such as Constructing the Self, Constructing America by Philip Cushman. Cushman is a historian and psychologist and he explores the history of modern psychotherapy from a cultural perspective. He argues that each era develops a different conception of “what it means to be human.”
“Vast historical changes in the last 500 years in the West have slowly created a world in which the individual is commonly understood to be a container of a ‘mind’ and more recently a ‘self’ that needs to be ‘therapied,’ rather than, say, a carrier of a divine soul that needs to be saved, or simply an element of the communal unit that must cooperate for the common good…As a matter of fact, nothing has cured the human race, and nothing is about to. Mental ills don’t work that way; they are not universal, they are local. Every era has a particular configuration of self, illness, healer, technology; they are a kind of cultural package. They are interrelated, intertwined, interpenetrating. So when we study a particular illness, we are also studying the conditions that shape and define that illness, and the sociopolitical impact of those who are responsible for healing it..”
I just finished reading Learning from the Voices in My Head by Eleanor Longden. This is her TED Talk:
Longden, who is now a psychiatrist, hears voices and was diagnosed as schizophrenic in her youth. She challenges many of the assumptions the mental health profession and society in general make about mental illness. Her book gave me a bit more insight into the whole demons into pigs incident.
We live in an individualistic culture. We believe in an independent bounded, self and we believe we have a great deal of control over our destinies. We think of ourselves more as consumers with choice than as citizens with responsibilities. On the whole we look to science, technology and experts to solve our problems.
In some cultures, past and present, what we see as mental disorders are interpreted as gifts of communication with the spirit world. (I recommend The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman for a harrowing account of what happened when two healing cultures collided when a Hmong refugee family and U.S. medical professionals failed to communicate their underlying assumptions about the meaning and treatment of seizures. )
Longden also advocates treating the voices people hear in their heads as messengers. “The psychiatrist Marius Romme, co-founder of the International Hearing Voices Movement, describes voices as ‘messengers’ that communicate compelling information about previous threats and conflicts that the person has faced. The British mental health journalist Adam James likewise characterizes them as ‘mirrors of the [hearer’s] social world.’”
In more collective cultures visions, voices, spells were thought to be messages to everyone. In an individualistic society they are messages but personal to the individual. In an individualistic culture we value independence– insist upon it. We use words like “self-reliance” to highlight the virtue of being independent. Its opposite, relying on others, is laziness and sloth.
In Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes the authors say that individualist cultures tend to be right/wrong cultures where collective cultures are more honor/shame cultures. That is to say that Western people tend to think of moral behavior as based on an internal sense of right and wrong whereas more collective cultures are motivated to stay in others’ good graces, to retain honor and to avoid shame.
I am not entirely sure this is true. People who face a job loss, lose their homes or find themselves in financial difficulty do not have a sense that it is morally wrong for them to be poor. They feel ashamed. A couple of days ago I wrote about the tone of some of the comments on blogs related to people’s financial struggles. The tone of the comments is shaming. Here is an example from Vitae. The article by Stacey Patton, described the way certain members of the public reacted to an article about a PhD who was making so little that she had to supplement her income with food stamps.
Said one reader: “This woman should consider a full-time job instead of relying on handouts. Despite her degree, it appears she lacks any common sense or personal accountability. Quit leaching off the tax-payers.”
Another: “Anyone pursuing a Ph.D. in history as of 2002 should have known better than to expect a tenure-track job. If you are pursuing a Ph.D. in a humanities field right now, it’s your responsibility to know the risks.”
As the discussion moved beyond The Chronicle, the invective intensified. On his radio show, Neal Boortz, a right-wing political commentator, took some shots. “The money this lady is using to buy food came either from you, through taxes you paid, or your children,” Boortz said. “That money was taken from you by force. It was seized. Stolen.”…
“They denigrated my choice to get a Ph.D.,” she says. “They denigrated my field of study. They harped on the fact that I’m a single mom even though my child was born in marriage. They commented on the fact that I was buying sugary cereal for my kid. Those were personal attacks that said everything about me is wrong. Those pissed me off and made me cry.”
I think we still have an honor/shame culture. It is just that our honor/shame axis has entirely shifted. Honor/shame in ancient cultures operated like this:
It is honorable to perform your role in society.
It is shameful to put your self-interest above your duty.
In our culture it goes like this:
It is honorable to be independent.
It is shameful to be dependent.
Although she did not use these words, writer and social commentator Sarah Kendzior noted in her article “The American Dream: Survival is not an Aspiration” that young people chose their career paths based on an honor/shame dynamic. Kids out of school are facing a difficult market place with options that offer little pay or security.
Young Americans seeking full-time employment tend to find their options limited to two paths: one of low-status, low-paying temp jobs emblematic of poverty; another of high-status, low-paying temp jobs emblematic of wealth. America is not only a nation of temporary employees – the Walmart worker on a fixed-day contract, the immigrant struggling for a day’s pay in a makeshift “temp town” – but of temporary jobs: intern , adjunct , fellow.
Like their counterparts in the service industry, these short-term prestige positions frequently offer no benefits, no health care, and in the case of the intern, no salary. They require that you have the money to move to switch jobs year after year – impossible for many, but easy for those with cash to spare. In the end, college graduates who trained for white-collar professions often cannot afford to take them, and end up, instead, working at a place like McDonald’s.
In her book, Longden advocates for a less medicalized approach to hearing voices and other forms of mental illness.
“…if we are told that Jane hears voices that are linked to distressing life events or difficult emotions,” Longden wrote, “we are more likely to empathize with her than if we are told she hears voices because of her schizophrenia. We ascribe her humanity, and we are less inclined to see her as fundamentally different from us. Furthermore, we may feel empowered to try to support her ourselves; we don’t view her distress as something ineffable that only a trained professional can attend…”
The idea that the community has a role to play, and that we do no need to consult experts to deal with people with mental distress is an uphill climb for a number of reasons. Longden outlines many in her book. Here is one more: The shame of “dependence.”
Many articles note that when people have financial difficulties, they often isolate themselves socially. (If you do not encounter other people you do not have to worry about shame.) Social isolation plays a major factor in depression. It becomes a vicious cycle. This may be why depression is the most common mental health problem in the United States and demon possession, well, I couldn’t find any reliable stats on that.
Asking your friends to help you when you can’t help yourself is dependence. Whereas consulting, and paying for, an expert to provide a service is a consumer choice. Seeking professional help instead of leaning on friends and family preserves the honor of independence. The result is a lot of prescriptions for zoloft.
Just to be clear, I have nothing against the mental health profession or anti-depressants. What I am interested in is what kind of cultural assumptions we make about mental illness and mental health. I realized, reading Longden’s book, how reliance on experts can be a way to limit our own sphere of responsibility. Instead of having the community at large care for its members (extended family, tribes), we shrink the sphere of responsibility to immediate family and our families are not very big. That is a lot of responsibility for one or two people. When you’re dealing with someone in serious distress, professionals have to bridge the gap.
Longden argues that we, as a society, need to address the underlying social causes of distress instead of just treating individual’s symptoms.
We need to accept collective responsibility for the suffering and injustice we inflict on one another, and rebranding and camouflaging the effects of trauma, loss, and stress as mental disease directs attention and resources away from creating a safer, fairer, and more just society — a society in which more individuals are able to flourish and thrive, in which the most vulnerable are protected, in which perpetrators are held fully accountable for the impact of their actions, where survivors are not pathologized, and where those who have been shattered by devastating events are greeted with compassion, empathy, respect, and hope for their healing.
So here is where I get to the pigs.
I asked whether there might be relevance in the Biblical story to the fact that the unclean spirits are driven into unclean animals. Being unclean in Jewish culture, the pigs have to belong to the Gentiles. They’re Roman’s pigs. They belong to the occupiers. A farm full of pigs back then had great economic value. They are livestock– they are also wealth. Mark says the herd is about 2,000 in number. It had to be valuable. They are not wild pigs. Both accounts say that there were people tending the pigs. (Workers, not owners, I presume, because they don’t say, “Hey! What did you do to my pigs!” I would love to have been a fly on the wall for the conversation they had with their boss later. If the workers tending to the pigs were Jewish he might have spared the laborers from a life of being considered unclean as well.)
All of the Jews were marginalized in the system the Romans brought with them. The mad man was an outcast among outcasts. He was shunned by polite society and considered unclean. Luke describes him as naked and in chains and when Jesus approaches he is afraid he is going to torture him.
Jesus is not afraid of Legion’s voices. He speaks to them and listens to what they have to say. Then Jesus, who insists that his followers have the power to heal as he does, removes Legion’s suffering by turning those demons back on the society that “owns” them, that is responsible for them.
I’m still not sure what to make of the demons begging to be put into the pigs but maybe that will become clear to me some day.
I’ve been trying to come to terms with a strain of mean-spiritedness that I always find in the comments section in articles that deal with the struggles of the working poor.
“You make all kinds of excuses for your meaningless life, don’t you?” This is a comment I read yesterday on a story about a single mother with a PhD who couldn’t find a tenured position that would pay her enough to have food security. The comment was aimed not at the subject of the article, but at someone who dared to express sympathy for her.
“It didn’t seem so long ago that most people would think twice about denigrating fellow citizens who were having a hard time. These days, it appears to have been sanctioned as a new national bloodsport, regularly slipping under the PC-radar as little else manages to,” writes Barbara Ellen in The Guardian. “…Is this our new default setting – that the needy are greedy?”
I was reading today that 48 million Americans rely on the supplemental nutrition program (food stamps) and I thought about the tale of the Prodigal Son and our famine blindness. (Most Americans who hear the story of the Prodigal Son, when asked about it later, do not remember that there was a famine in it.) I realized that our famine blindness extends to our own time and our own neighbors. A famine is a food shortage that affects the entire community. Of course, famines never impact the entire culture equally. The poor have always suffered the most. If 48 million of our fellow citizens are food insecure we have a kind of famine in our midsts.
We manage to remain unaware of this by defining “we” as the kind of people who do not have survival fears. As I mentioned in my last two posts, our social commentators (writers) are made up mostly of those who are of a social class that can afford to take on a job where they are not sure they will be paid regularly. Our government representatives are of a wealthier class still. The 113th Congress has become wealthier than the last, with incoming freshmen bringing in a median net worth of $1,066,515 each — about $1 million more than that of the average American. The narrative we hear about America is told from the perspective of this group. “We” are the ones who pay taxes. “They” are the ones who need help. Those 48 million Americans are not “us.”
“Four out of five U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives,” writes The Associated Press.
How can four out of five U.S. adults not be us?
As I have mentioned here before, “the poor” are not a distinct social class, although the number of “poor” remains relatively constant, it is not the same individuals who make up that demographic every time it is measured. Poverty is something that happens to people for a period of time. Almost any of us (probably not Bill Gates) could be one of “the poor” given the right set of circumstances– a job loss, a large medical bill and so on.
Throughout history, our culture has been created by members of the elite. In the 18th and 19th Century it was the aristocracy. Now it is the “job creators.” It strikes me, as I think about famine blindness and the tale of the Prodigal Son that one of the unique things about the New Testament is that it tells the story of the poor and powerless and it continues to have an impact on people’s consciousness. That the voice of a poor Jewish teacher has managed to survive through the centuries is a bit of a miracle in itself.
I learned this from Timothy Beal’s “The Rise and Fall of the Bible”:
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, more than 80 percent of born-again or evangelical Christians believe that “God helps those who help themselves” is a Bible verse.
“When the world itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies.”-Don Quixote, Man of La Mancha by Dale Wasserman.
A couple of years ago, after writing a novel from the perspective of a Christian minister, I decided that I wanted to become more familiar with the New Testament of the Bible. I wanted to read it through word for word, in the order that scholars believe it was written, and to form my own opinions of what I read. I tried, as much as I could, to put my preconceived notions aside. A number of things surprised me and caught my attention.
One was just how often Jesus goes around casting out demons. In the post-Enlightenment age, we tend to focus on his miraculous physical healings, but not so much on his demon casting. Generally speaking, modern people don’t believe in demons. In the Bible, there are demons everywhere. They were part of ancient society’s everyday understanding of how the world operated.
In one particular episode, Jesus speaks to a group of demons that are in possession of a man. (The man has a sense of humor about his condition. When Jesus asks his name he says it is Legion. “For we are many.”) The demons listen to Jesus and speak to him. It seems as though they recognize him as another supernatural being. (Although Jesus insists later that his disciples have all the same powers to do what he does if they would have faith.) The demons beg Jesus if he is going to cast them out to please cast them into a group of nearby pigs. He does, and the pigs run into the sea and drown.
This brought up a number of questions for me. What are demons? What did the authors of the Bible believe about demons? Why were there so many demon possessed people? What happens to the demons when they are cast out? Do they go to possess someone else? Do they die? Are they exiled? When Jesus sends them into the pigs, was it a trick? Did he agree out of compassion for the demons and their presence just drove the pigs mad? Or did he intend for them to drown? If he had to trick them, this would imply that he had to negotiate with them and that they have powers that he might not be able to counteract. Or did the pigs run into the sea for comic effect in an era when most people didn’t read and stories were passed along through memorable performance? The other interesting thing is that pigs are “unclean” animals, so the nearby pigs must have belonged to gentiles. Did he cast the demons out of the Jews and into Roman pigs and was there some subtext to that?
Luke’s account of the demon pig incident describes the man with the demons in a way that makes it clear he was what we would today call mentally ill. His description seems to be of a schizophrenic, which made me wonder if all of the people “plagued by unclean spirits” were suffering from mental illness. Could there have been so many schizophrenics? Is insanity shaped by culture just as sanity is? Do people go mad in ways that are shaped by the cultures in which they live?
Steve J. Ayan and Iris Tatjana Calliess, in a Scientific American article “Abnormal as Norm,” use the example of men in Malaysia who believe they have a condition called “koro” to illustrate how different cultures treat varied behaviors as normal. Men who think they have koro are afraid their genitals will retract into their bodies. So to prevent it, they hang weights on their penises.
“The fear, and the uncomfortable antidote, is not common, yet it is accepted in this long-standing culture,” they wrote, “But in a Western country, an adult male who acted on such a belief would certainly be labeled as emotionally disturbed.”
If pumping iron with your privates is normal in another part of the world, then maybe what we consider normal behavior is just as insane or conversely, what we call madness may be entirely normal. I have started reading a book called Constructing the Self, Constructing America by Philip Cushman. Cushman is a historian and psychologist and he explores the history of modern psychotherapy from a cultural perspective. He argues that each era develops a different conception of “what it means to be human.”
“…all of these selves have had important political and economic functions within their eras and that each profession responsible for healing the self has put forth the claim that the self of its era is the only proper self, that its technologies are the one true healing…I want to convince readers that there are good and bad things about any sociohistorical era. I want readers to agree that there is no single, transcendent truth that can be used by humans to heal in any perfect, universal, apolitical way.”
These are not easy questions for anyone to answer. They are the big questions of how to be human in the world. When should your beautiful, mad, messy personality be given expression and when should it be constrained? When should you resist conformity and when is resistance unhealthy? It takes a lifetime to work these things out. Anyone who says he has the answer is not telling the truth.