Grin and Bear It

The dentist’s chair is about the last place I’d like to spend my Saturdays, but given my work schedule there are few alternatives. So there I was yesterday, yellow light glaring in my eyes, drill whirring ebulliently away, and finally gagging embarrassingly into the tiny sink at my right. Those back teeth come in handy for grinding, but they are poorly designed for brushing. I find the dentist’s office a good place for philosophical thought. In that chair where I’d rather not be, feeling sensations I’d rather not feel, I wonder in what sense my body is my own. Lately I’ve been contemplating this quite a bit. Consciousness seems attracted to a single body at a time, but the biological organism I call me doesn’t always have a say in where it is slated to go, or what it is free to do. Each job I have taken has come as an “only offer”—I’m not one of those over whom bidding wars are likely to erupt. That crown that popped off my tooth wasn’t really my doing, nor was the memorable root canal that led to it being there in the first place. Still, here I am.

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

Religions regularly teach that overcoming physical limitations is one of the perks of paying attention to your soul. I suspect parsing soul, consciousness, mind, and psyche is to slice this entity I call “me” a bit too thin. Whatever all or any of this is, having x-rays shot through it while the assistant hides behind the wall, it is hopefully made of sterner stuff than the teeth nature has given it. One hopes that this can’t be all to expect out of our existence. Life, if only our physical years, is too short to spend much of it in the dentist’s chair.

I’m not sure I like dentists knowing more about this body than me. Is it mine at all? I recall the exasperated call for a tongue blocker in a Wisconsin dentist office and the tooth-meister proclaimed, as if I weren’t in the room, “he has a curious tongue.” I don’t intend for my tongue to be curious, but it always seems to wonder about what finds its way into my mouth. Is it me? Is it mine? The consciousness always seems to come back to this body that does things I can’t control. These thoughts come on a sleepy Saturday morning when I should, by all rights, still be in bed. That is, if I’m indeed the one who wakes up in this body yet again today. And whichever body it may be, if it is mine, I know I brushed its teeth before going to sleep, as I have for as long as I can remember. And yet the drill whirs on.

The Ethics of Swallowing

GulpMary Roach never fails to please. I first discovered her during a jaunt to my local, lamented Borders (not a weekend passes when I don’t mourn the chain’s closing anew) on an autumn evening when Spook leaped out at me (metaphorically) from the science section. I have read layperson-digestible science since I was in junior high school, having been a charter subscriber to Discover magazine. I was, therefore, amazed when I realized an author with some scientific credibility would take on the topic of ghosts. This was followed by Stiff, Bonk, Packing for Mars, and now, Gulp. The subtitle of Gulp, Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, captures the flavor of this book about eating. While some live to eat, we all eat to live, and it makes perfect sense that religion could come to shine a little light in this facet of human existence. Actually, although Roach doesn’t emphasize it, the ethics of eating has become a major interest in embodiment theology over the past few years. Food and faith, it turns out, are closely connected.

In Gulp, the one instance where religion comes into major play regards, ironically, rectal feeding. Roach points out that the question of its effectiveness had been part of discussions of fasting in the contexts of convents. Some traditions in various religions advocate denying oneself food as an act of penance or contrition. The question of whether nourishment taken without the satisfaction of eating counted, however, is one that the church took up. Characteristically not making a definitive answer, the practice mutely continues. Roach notes that clergy have been among the avowed supporters of colonic irrigation as well, making one wonder why the upper half of the alimentary canal has typically caused religions so much trouble. Of course, Roach is not writing about religion, but about eating. But still…

Religion, broken out abstractly from everything a person does, is a modern phenomenon. In fact, it is questionable whether religion can even be considered as a phenomenon of ancient societies at all since it was so thoroughly integrated into everything a person did. When priests separated themselves from laity, at least as early as ancient Sumer, the idea that one class of people could handle the requirements of the gods while the rest of us got along with the secular business of living life took hold. But religious specialists still maintained control over morals. Food, in a world of unfair distribution, will forever be an ethical issue. Instead, most religions have brought the focus down to the individual. What you eat may very well reflect your religious beliefs. Whether we feed the world or not we have, unwisely, left to politicians. As I ponder this indigestible topic, I recommend reading Gulp for a bit of relief from the serious business of the ethics of eating.

Sunday Best

When my rural, northwestern Pennsylvania shows up in the news, I pay attention. An Associated Press story recently appeared concerning Rev. Chris Terbush of Bradford, Pennsylvania. Inspired by the success of Duck Dynasty (which seems poised to overtake even Apple as the most popular purveyor of popular culture), Rev. Terbush has encouraged his congregation to show up on Sunday mornings in camouflage, ready to go forth and claim dominion over nature once the service is over. I’ve been ambushed by enough clergy that the idea makes me a little nervous, I’ll have to admit. But then again, I know where he’s coming from. I grew up in a town that celebrated the first day of deer season as a public holiday, with schools closed and the hills alive with the sound of muskets. Not being a hunter, I just enjoyed the day off school. This upbringing, however, gave me a profound appreciation for the Jeff Daniels’ movie, Escanaba in da Moonlight. But I digress.

Religious services evolve, just like any other social phenomenon. When I was young, just as the sixties were wresting the color of life from the black-and-white fifties, going to church was a formal event that demanded your “Sunday best.” Only the worst of heathens would show up before the Almighty in anything less than a white shirt and tie, a jacket and uncomfortable shoes. You had to show the divine that you were willing to go that extra mile and implicate that you didn’t intend to have any fun when it was over because the sabbath is a solemn occasion. I remember the weird feeling of walking into church during the weekday wearing jeans for the first time. It felt as if I were dissing the rules of the club. It was an exclusive affair.

The “theology of dress” has become an area of scholarly investigation with the growth of embodiment issues. What we wear says something about our beliefs, and the fact that we wear clothes at all is sometimes even traced back to Genesis 3. The origin of “good clothes,” clearly, was a status issue. Those who could afford to keep some surplus clothes unsullied by labor wished to strut their stuff on occasion. And who better to impress than God? All of this has eroded over the years with many churches as casual as any man cave. Now you can camouflage yourself in church. There may be more going on here than meets the eye, both literally and metaphorically.

What happens in the woods stays in the woods

What happens in the woods stays in the woods

Proselytization and Cheese

One of the universals of many childhood lives is Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. If I were the financial sort, I would consider investing in it. As my daughter was moving into college, I noticed other worried-looking parents sitting by their unpacked cars, some with corporate-size boxes of Mac and Cheese shrink-wrapped and ready to tide a son or daughter through difficult times. It is a comfort food, a warm and welcoming friend. Some would say heavenly. Eventually, as adults, we learn to view processed foods with some introspection, moving toward the harsher, but healthier fresh varieties. Secretly, most of us would welcome the opportunity to eat like we did as kids when the consequences were unclear and the guilt was still a plucked apple away.

IMG_0960So at a college organizational fair, my daughter sent me a picture of savvy marketing. Christ the King Lutheran Church giving away boxes of childhood. When that warm, gooey, comforting sensation of childhood hits those whom society is suddenly telling they’re adults, they might have their thoughts turn to the Lutherans. Or the many other faith-based organizations eager to recruit among the young and newly independent. This, of course, is nothing new. Religions have long displayed their benefits to convince those with more earthy things on their minds. The evolution of religion is a fascinating study from the days of enforced loyalty despite belief up to the buyer’s market that religion represents today. How do you convince those who legitimately have a choice? What brand of religion is better than the others? Which is the tastiest variety?

The irony of appealing to the body to gain the commitment of the soul is one religions have had to adopt. There was a time when the way to heaven came through self-denial and spiritual discipline. Earning salvation was hard work. Now if we can get you into the pews on Sunday morning, preferably with your wallet, all is good. It is well with your soul, it is well. I feel for the modern, institutional religions. They were once a powerful force in society and by default people believed that they had a special line to God. Up to the 1950’s, even, this perception was especially strong. People learned, as people will, what they could get away with. Turns out, religion is optional. But eating is not. Not if you’re going to survive in this harsh world. And even if you don’t believe in heaven, we will always believe that in the kitchens of paradise they will be serving Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

Lady Madonna


Among the paintings and prints in the Edvard Munch collection on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a rendition of his famous Madonna. I first saw a reproduction of this piece in a discussion of Christian art. The question, of course, was whether it could be considered Christian art or not. Munch was not known for creating religious-themed art. Angst was his more natural home. While not the only Madonna to pose naked, Munch predated the aging pop star by a fair number of decades, and named this piece after an icon of Catholic orthodoxy. The problem is the female body. Religion in the western world has pretty much always had difficulty dealing with embodiment. My generation grew up with Charlton Heston and any number of bare-chested, sculpted idols of manhood playing such characters as Tarzan, Ben-Hur, and Moses. Moses? Yes, even Cecil B. DeMille knew the draw of having a biblical hero bathed by a bunch of young, Egyptian women. We are used to seeing Jesus nearly naked on the cross—but Mary?

The issues tied to embodiment, although they effect every person who has a body, fall more heavily upon females. While there is little agreement as to the why, the excuse is often given that “man” is in the image of God and “woman” is derivative. In actual fact it seems more likely to me that men prefer an easy excuse for bad behavior. Biology sends a pretty strong reproductive message to most males, but, in the human realm at least, the larger burden rests with the females. By blaming the victims the male hierarchy—undeniable in the case of the church, as in many religions—insists that the female body is the problem. Males perform as God intended, thank you. But the reasoning is all backward here. Munch, if he intended this to be the Madonna, is problematizing the discourse.

Art, like holy writ, is open to interpretation. Munch did not explain his enigmatic Madonna, but like Leonardo da Vinci, lets the silent woman speak for herself. Scholars have long noted the multiplicity of Marys in Jesus’ life. At some points the Gospel writers leave a little too much inference up to the reader. It is pretty clear that Jesus had no trouble with women. But he was a singular visionary in a time when cheap blame was easily found. So Edvard Munch may have been following in the footsteps of the master when he portrayed the Madonna who accuses the world of double-dealing and false standards. It is an arresting artwork, and not for prurient reasons. What is being exposed here is a soul. She may be called the blessed virgin or the mother of God, but her gender is still castigated even by those who mouth such holy epithets. We may never know who Munch intended this to be, but we know she is every woman who has been repressed by the religion of men, yearning to be free.

Sacred Sexism

holymisogyny How terrifying to observe religion from the eyes of women! In the monotheistic traditions it begins as early as Genesis 2 and continues unbroken through to the twenty-first century. While the origin of such views seems a mystery, they may be partially understood by reading April DeConick’s Holy Misogyny: Why the Sex and Gender Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter. Not that anyone fully comprehends the insidious idea that women are somehow less than men, but DeConick offers some insight into the issue. She suggests that sacred misogyny is, like much of life, an embodiment issue. The monotheistic traditions from the beginning have had trouble with women’s bodies. Men can’t control their urges and blame the victim. That is over-simplifying, I know, but the basic gist is about right. What can’t be missed from reading Holy Misogyny is that the idea has embarrassingly deep roots in religious thought.

The Bible starts out pretty fair. Except from the beginning the masculine pronoun is used for God, even though theologians from very early days declared God neither male nor female. How do you believe that an “it” really cares for you? Wants the best for you? Loves you? We are gender embodied. We want to know who it is that’s loving us. Genesis 1, on the human level, has man and woman created together on the same day, at the same time. The essence of their embodiment appears to be divine: “in the image of God created he him, male and female created he them.” “Human” is gendered humanity. But then the apple falls. We turn the page to find that the not yet monotheistic religion of the Bible is already pointing sticky fingers at Eve. I know that I can’t read Tertullian without wanting to hide my face when he castigates women as the source of evil.

Holy Misogyny is a disturbing book. It should be. What it does demonstrate, however, is that a wide variety of opinions and options existed for early Christianity when it came to the perception of women. Some of the Gnostic sects of Christianity came much closer to a kind of equality, but they lost out to an unremittingly masculine “orthodoxy.” The Bible itself, although written in a patriarchal world, is an ambiguous document. At points even Paul seems to indicate the genders are equal in God’s eyes, but then, he (or someone writing in his name) tells women to keep quiet in the church. Ask your husband at home. I’ve talked to a lot of church guys in my time, and Paul, I have to contest you here. Women who want to get proper instruction in matters of the soul—or of the body—would be better off reading DeConick than asking their husbands. We’ve got two millennia of unfortunate history to prove the point.

Anatomy of a Neurosis

I’m sitting in a building less than 10 blocks from where a shooter opened fire in New York City this morning outside the Empire State Building.  I can still hear the helicopters buzzing overhead as they’ve been doing since just after 9 a.m.  One week ago I walked with my daughter down that very block after an office outing.  This is the third public, multiple shooting since July in the United States. Twenty are dead, over sixty have physical scars, and the rest of us have psychological trauma.  Gun control?  Only a distant dream.  I have been reading quite a lot about embodiment lately.  The idea is both simple and complex at the same time: we are born with physical bodies and our minds spend our entire lives trying to make sense of them.  Guns have a way of radically interfering with the process.

Stop, children, what’s that sound?

Often I have heard the adage, “guns don’t kill people, people do.”  This may be true, but it is no more so than the fact that we are all embodied creatures and we have a right not to be shot by homicidal maniacs.  At least I think so. There are enough guns to wipe out the population of this nation, and I’m sitting at my desk in a subtle panic since nobody seems to know what happened yet. The beating of the helicopter rotors is loud, petulant, distracting.

As the morning wears on the reports begin to take some order. The shooter wasn’t acting indiscriminately. The nine of the ten (later revised to ten of the eleven) people shot were caught in the crossfire between police and the gunman. The helicopters leave. Perversely I find myself relieved. Natural disasters happen and the lives of countless thousands are taken. The difference is there no motive is involved. As much as some televangelists want to tell us that “God” is punishing mostly innocent people, the fact is tsunamis, hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, volcanoes, and tornados are completely natural events. Maybe firearmophilia is natural as well. I can hear the sirens as innocent bystanders are rushed to the hospital. My embodied psyche turns back to my computer. Work won’t wait, and no matter where we are, we are all potentially innocent bystanders in a world where trust in guns has eclipsed trust in gods.

The Naked Vicar

In a fit of nostalgia, for lack of a better excuse, I recently re-watched A Room With a View. I suspect I saw it with my wife near the time it first came out since I had trouble recalling having viewed any of it before. Until the skinny-dipping scene. Even then, it was unfamiliar until Mr. Beebe, the vicar, jumped into the pond. Now perhaps in the Victorian era same-sex cavorting was permitted for the young, far from repressed eyes, but it was the implications of seeing a priest in the nude that was particularly jarring. As Lucy Honeychurch comes primly along with her fiancé, she is scandalized to see the boy she truly loves unclothed, but the minister in similar state is a laughing matter, a novelty. In the light of the many church scandals that have become public knowledge since 1985, this particular scene has perhaps accrued additional, unintended freight.

Embodiment is a popular topic for theologies these days. I’m no theologian, but as a member of the human race I do participate in the embodiment question. Everyone from biologists to psychologists seems to be rethinking the implications of the soft machine. Some theorists are already preparing to leave behind their bodies to have their consciousness electronically preserved. Their new bodies may be robotic or simply virtual, but I suspect they will find the experience deeply disappointing. We are closer to the cockroach and the goldfish than we are to the disembodied divine. Our bodies are who we are, and embodiment analysis is the attempt to make sense of it all. At the same time, some neuroscientists are speculating that human brains work perhaps in closer concert than we generally suppose. We human beings are more like cells in a great organism that encompasses all of us. The Portuguese Man O’ War, which resembles a human brain in some respects, is a communal organism and not a single creature. The implications are worth considering.

Our rules for getting along with biological bodies include some pretty straightforward permissible behaviors. We don’t penetrate the body of another person without their express approval. They have to be competent enough to give valid approval. We don’t end the existence of another human being’s life unless they’ve been convicted of being exceptionally naughty and they live in the United States (the only “first world” country where the death penalty is still routinely carried out) or unless we are mentally unstable or emotionally overwrought and have easy access to firearms. Bodies are limited, and so are brains. Although, since I’ve upgraded my operating system I notice that my laptop has now claimed my name as its own identity—(if anything looks weird, please let me know!) In the Victorian era it was assumed that the brains of the clergy were attuned to higher things. The naked vicar accepts the good-natured laugh at his expense because he is no threat to either young ladies or young men. In the technological era we are more savvy and less carefree. And given the choice, the religious would prefer a room without a view, thank you.