Tuesday, January 6, 2009

W@H: Idlewild, Part 1

I entered the sanctuary I heard a voice of a girl Sending out a circle of light Clear across the world I shuddered in the power Like a ceiling in a storm I've been looking for this place Since the moment I was born I flew back to New York City Singin' the big city blues With the sand of Findhorn Bay Still clingin' to my shoes I tried to restart my life But the life I knew was gone I had to let go everything But that's another song --The Waterboys, "Long Way to the Light" I've loved the Waterboys pretty much from the first time I heard them. Mike Scott has an amazing ability to draw pictures with words and sound and do so in a way that uses an reimagines classical and mythological imagery. I'm almost tempted here to say, "The Garden, the Golden-Haired Woman, and the Wilderness," and leave the explanations of Mike Scott to do all the work. Alas, I cannot. For I am not here to try to say what the Garden or the Wilderness is, but to explain what it isn't and what Eldredge thinks it is. Once again, for someone who claims to follow the work of Bly, Eldredge does an amazing job of completely missing the point. But I suppose that's what happens when you take the Garden of Eden as a literal, not allegorical place. I learned today that the Dark Ages came from the beginnings of allegorical interpretation of the Bible, but as Mike Scott says, that's another song. And I think I'm about a week away from being able to properly consider, let alone discuss, the sermon I heard today.
Eve was created within the lush beauty of Eden's garden. But Adam, if you'll remember, was created outside the Garden, in the wilderness. In the record of our beginnings, the second chapter of Genesis makes it clear: man was born in the outback, from the untamed part of creation. Only afterward is he brought to Eden. And ever since then boys have never been at home indoors, and men have had an insatiable longing to explore. --John Eldredge, Wild at Heart
This is from pages 3 and 4 of Wild at Heart. It sets up (at least) three central premises of the Eldredge formulation: 1. We're taking the Bible literally here, people. Calling Genesis "the record of our beginnings" is a neat little way of taking away allegorical interpretations. 2. Men are, and always will be, the explorers and adventurers. Adam, fundamentally, didn't want to be in the Garden of Eden. 3. Women don't like leaving home. They're creatures of the Garden who weren't made for the dangers of the Wilderness. It's a neat, fairly subtle way of supporting and stratifying gender roles. It's still deeply confusing to me, too, because I think that Eldredge genuinely wants to like and respect women, but he can't allow himself to because he's a Biblical literalist of the worst kind. You'll probably want to know what I mean by that. I was once the worst kind of Biblical literalist. I believed I had to take it all literally, so I did. In cases where the Bible said one thing and my observations said a different thing, I took the Bible's side against my own logical assessment. This requires a great deal of double-think. Enough double-think will drive someone with a strong force of personality to try to make other people support the otherworldly view. It will also drive people crazy. It's still not something I talk about so much as I talk around: I spent about six months teetering on the verge of insanity because I knew one thing to be true but believed that god had told me another thing was true. I don't blame this on religion or myself, particularly. I honestly believe that if I had grown up as, say, a liberal Presbyterian I would still be religious. The Christian environment in which I found myself, however, was toxic and filled with ideas about human nature, inter-human interaction and, frankly, god itsownself, that are insane and illogical. The thing is, it's like a disease that directly attacks the immune system. Once you're exposed to it you're permanently weakened to its influence. In order to understand it you have to understand the concept of Biblical literalism. See, the Bible says a lot of stuff and the Biblical literalist takes it all, well, literally. But the only things that need to be taken literally are the convenient things and the things that allow the Other to be excluded. "Literal," too, is an odd concept. The Biblical literalist will tend to be the one who says you have to accept Jesus Christ as your "personal lord and savior." That's not in the Bible. Quite the opposite, in fact. There are several points in the Acts of the Apostles where the head of a household accepts the message and it's followed by, "And all his household was saved that day." There's even a point, if I remember correctly, where a king accepts and the entire province is saved that very day. That's not very personal. But it makes a lot of sense if you understand that in the ancient Roman Empire the concept of "personal" wasn't so much in existence. There was family and there was tribe and the individual was tasked with holding up to ideals of the larger body. So if the head believed one thing, the rest were supposed to, as well. The literalist will also tend to be the one who believes in a singular Antichrist and the Rapture, which aren't anywhere to be found in the Bible, either. Biblical literalism is an ahistorical concept. It imagines that there is a "now" and a "then," with the "then" being the time the Bible sprang in to being, full formed, as if from the head of Zeus. It is possible, the Biblical literalist contends, to read the Bible properly (which means "at face value," or "literally," which are not at all the same thing) and be able to suss out the intended meaning of the writers and, through that, truly understand the mind of god. Again, though, this takes place where it's convenient. There is a passage in the Gospels where Jesus says that if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. For it is better, the Rabbi says, to enter Heaven as a cripple than be denied it, period. First of all, go to your local church where the Bible is preached literally and do a quick count. Tally up the number of eyepatches, seeing-eye dogs, and arms that end in hooks. You'll probably get a number that comes to roughly the same statistical level as if you did the same thing on the street outside your nearest Starbucks. If your Starbucks isn't inside the local VA Hospital, Center for the Blind, and Retirement Home for Aging Pirates, chances are you've just walked in to a church that's neglecting to take the Bible literally. Second, Jesus here exhibits a remarkable level of misunderstanding about the nature of Paradise. See, those who believe in things like the Rapture and Heaven all know that they will be raised to join Jesus in the clouds and be given their Resurrection Bodies, which will either make us all look like Vorlons or supermodels, depending on who you talk to. So you could basically do your best imitation of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and you'll still get in to Heaven with everything intact or morphed to pure energy or whatever. Either way, Jesus is wrong about the nature of the resurrection in this passage. I'm hoping that Jerry Falwell mentioned that when he got up there, because I was really looking forward to spending eternity looking like Derek Zoolander. Biblical literalists, too, are remarkably susceptible to some of the most insane extra-Biblical mumbo-jumbo. Again, the Rapture and the singular Antichrist didn't come from the Bible itself. They came from an external source that wast taken as Biblical truth because, um, it sounded good. Or something. I really don't know. I was in chuch one night. A friend's father spent about ten minutes telling me that Jesus would come back during his lifetime. The Bible, you see, had promised that once the Jewish people were put back in the Promised Land the End Times would come within a generation. So, according to this interpretation, Jesus is contractually obligated to show up by the time someone who was born the day Israel was declared a nation in 1948 dies. Of course, people now regularly live in to their seventies or eighties, so we've got time. Hell, a 112 year-old dude recently died. Of course, Genesis limited the number of years man can live to 120, so we might be waiting another sixty to hit that magic return of Christ. Then again, though, a generation is traditionally given as twenty years and at the time the Bible was written the average life expectancy was maybe thirty to forty, so by all rights the world should have ended sometime during the Carter or Reagan Administrations. Whew, this face value literalism stuff is a lot harder than it looks. Anyway, I've now taken three pages and haven't actually gotten to the point I was originally planning on making. Let's break for now. But think of Mike Scott and that sanctuary and the voice of a girl and a circle of light that goes clear across the world. I'll pick up from there while I try to explain what the Garden means and what Eldredge thinks it means and why it's important to know the difference.


Fiat Lex said...

More good stuff!

Two things I'd like to recommend to your attention:

The latest from Against Biblical Counseling is all about "Biblical" thinking run amok. Good for pained, rueful cackling.

And this book, The Ecology of Eden. It's a study of the history of man and gardens. Of man's ideas of garden vs. wilderness (which he calls the Tower and the Mountain). Also how human cultural understandings of each archetype has evolved to reflect each culture's stance in relation to nature.

Geds said...

Optical Intercourse...


PersonalFailure said...

I often wondered how intelligent people managed that kind of double-think. Apparently not all that well.

True fundamentalism is only possible, in my opinion, in stupid people. A person lacking the intellect to understand evolution or carbon dating or the speed of light is probably perfectly happy with the explanation "god is testing you" or "scientists are all atheists/commies and want to steal your faith away."

If you want to see pathetic, not that you need to, having lived it (no offense), go to the Rapture Ready message boards and watch people work out the problems of their literalism in print. They collectively need a dose of Occam's Razor. Or thorazine.

GailVortex said...

True fundamentalism is only possible, in my opinion, in stupid people.

PF, you wander in and the first thing you do is insult your host? >smirk and wink<

That's a dangerously sweeping statement to make, because I know some pretty smart people who have managed to be pretty fundamental for a pretty long time. In fact, at one point I knew fundamentalists who not only understood your examples but Taught College Courses on those topics.

I'd say your statement is only true "for certain values of stupid." Making it probably less useful and more inflammatory than you expected.

Geds said...

Fear not, that's far from the worst insult I've received on the internet...

Having spent a lot of time around fundamentalists, I can say that there are levels of nuance. It's possible to have intelligent fundamentalists. The place of difficulty is if intelligence, curiosity, and education are combined. That, I think, is the root of all of the injunctions against "worldliness."

Basically, you can be intelligent but not curious and never go beyond the answers you're fed. You can be curious but not particularly intelligent and accept the same answers. In both cases you can be woefully un- or undereducated about things like science and philosophy and simply accept crap like Ken Ham's pretend science because it sounds reasonable.

There's a category of people who I began to envy towards the end of my tenure who possessed a simple faith. They neither questioned nor felt the need to question and just accepted. I couldn't do that.

The problem is that religion gets to be abusive if it wants because it claims to hold certainty about things we can't test. So if you genuinely believe in Heaven and Hell and that there's a litmus test, you're more willing to try to believe things you know to be absurd because otherwise you'll go to Hell. Think of the classic Twilight Zone with Bill Mumy as the psychic kid who controlled everyone in his little town and they had to believe they were happy even though they were miserable. That kid is the Fundamentalist God.

This is where you end up with intelligent, curious people who believe impossible things out of fear. Those are the ones who tend to become hypercontrolling pastors or, yes, Christian educators, at places like Bob Jones or Pensacola Christian College. Basically, if you can't bring yourself to believe something but believe you have to, the next best option is to make sure everyone around you believes it so you can avoid asking the questions.

But this is the place of tension and the root of the psychic breakdown. It's also why you tend to have situations like Ted Haggard where the guy was preaching against gays, then going out and purchasing the services of male escorts and doing drugs. It leaks out somewhere and usually gets worse and worse as time goes on and the doubts don't die off.

Sniffnoy said...

Basically, you can be intelligent but not curious and never go beyond the answers you're fed.

How can an incurious person really qualify as "intelligent", though? :-/

Geds said...

It's an issue of how you define and use your curiosity. I knew a lot of wonderfully intelligent, curious people who simply would not ask certain questions. Or if they did, they'd try to answer them by exploring and re-exploring the Bible in an attempt to find an explanation.

That, too, goes back to education. If you simply don't know what evolution actually means, its much easier to dismiss it. There's also a strong tendency to say things like, "Oh, science is just another belief system." It's not, but that argument is hard to counter because both sides will tend to use similar words differently and it's not actually intended to start a conversation, anyway. What it does is say, "I look to the Bible for answers. The Muslim looks to the Qu'ran. The scientist looks to, um, science-y stuff. It's all the same thing, really."

PersonalFailure said...

I think i misstated my opinion.

I do not believe that all fundamentalists have low IQs or are incapable of thinking. I believe that fundamentalism requires, demands, what I call for the sake of brevity Teh Stupid: rigidity of thought and incuriousity to the point of rejecting outright any information contrary to a certain belief system. Carbon dating? It doesn't work. The speed of light, a measurable, demonstrable constant, proving that the universe must be more than 6,000 years old? God's just tricking you.

This is unfortunate in the extreme. To not use one's intellect to explore the universe, to seek, to know is to reject what it truly means to be human. What separates me from my dog? In terms of DNA, surprisingly little. In terms of his ability to question, to explore, to think, a great deal. (Don't get me wrong, I love my dog. He's my best friend. And I truly envy his ability to remain happy at all times.)

I find it distressing to say the least that people deliberately seek the same limitations in intellect my dog was born with. I mean, he licks walls and drinks from the toilet.

Geds said...

Well, I can't speak for GailVortex, but I didn't actually take anything as a personal insult. My response was just one of those off the cuff things that doesn't translate well on the internet.

But you do ask one of the basic questions I keep going back to. How do otherwise intelligent people believe in something that's demonstrably untrue? And, as Sniffnoy asks, can we really call that a form of intelligence?

That's kind of why I'm doing this. There's a lot of thoughtless rhetoric from the Evangelical side and a lot of attacks from unsympathetic, or at least uninformed, outsiders. Since both sides tend to use the same language but in completely different ways and there's a lot of inflammatory attacks, I think there need to be people who have been on both sides, can speak both languages, and are able and willing to offer charity.

I have no idea what it will accomplish, but hey, we've all got to have a hobby.

PersonalFailure said...

oh, geds, you hopeless romantic, you!

seriously, though. good effort. i get very caustic in my efforts to make the fundies understand that yes, i am human, no, i don't believe in god, and no, that doesn't make me a terrible person.

i cannot allow hatred toward anyone, it effects us all. i am not gay, but homophobia isn't good for me. you are a man, but misogyny is not in your best interests either.

wait a minute, that whole misogyny thing appears to be the point of the W@H posts . . . did i just have an epiphany, or did i completely miss the point?

the woeful budgie said...

I have no idea what it will accomplish, but hey, we've all got to have a hobby.

Well, if nothing else, it's sort of helped me sort through my own exodus from Christianity. I haven't really had the option of chucking it completely out the window---my husband is working toward becoming a pastor---so I've had to navigate sort of tricky waters to keep from hurting the ones I love, particularly the one I love most.
I think what you've written, along with Slacktivist (both Fred and the Slacktivites en masse) and Cynic, has served as both a deprogramming and an education of sorts, and with that I've been slowly been gaining the courage to speak up on what I actually believe, not just what I'm supposed to believe in order to fit in.
In fact, a couple months ago, I actually got up the guts to write my pastor, in response to some of the belittling things he was saying from the pulpit during the election season. I didn't change his mind---I didn't really expect to; he apparently gets his news directly from God---but for the first time I can really remember, I told the truth about myself and told it well, rather than trying to make someone else's truth fit. It felt pretty fucking cool.

So, hey... thanks.

Geds said...

wait a minute, that whole misogyny thing appears to be the point of the W@H posts . . . did i just have an epiphany, or did i completely miss the point?

Um, it has been a good chunk of the point so far, yes. I figured I'd make sure that I had the misogyny as a baseline before I went in to the deep misandry and general misanthropy of the whole venture...

I think what you've written, along with Slacktivist (both Fred and the Slacktivites en masse) and Cynic, has served as both a deprogramming and an education of sorts, and with that I've been slowly been gaining the courage to speak up on what I actually believe, not just what I'm supposed to believe in order to fit in.

That's awesome.

I've had a vision for a while of creating some sort of place where people who were abused by religion could come together and find healing. Slacktivist was a great place for me for a long time because of exactly that (I honestly wonder what Fred thinks about the bizarre little community that's developed over there. I'm guessing he's amused). I think those of us who were in those places need to hear, "It's okay, you'll get through it."

Anyway, it's gratifying to know that I've done some little bit to help.