Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Varieties of Irreligious Experience

One litmus test of a great writer is whether or not he or she can entice you into reading work on a topic you have no interest in. Take Ernest Hemingway on fishing. At fifteen I had no more interest in fly-fishing than I did in space travel, but his descriptions of Nick Adams catching grasshoppers held me spellbound. Jane Smiley and Maxine Kumin on their horse obsession. John McPhee on long distance truckers.

Anne Lamott, Andre Dubus, and Jane Kenyon on their religious faith. This was a stretch for me. I was not only disinterested but hostile.

My relationship to organized religion is not a warm one. I am Jewish, and grew up in a predominately Jewish neighborhood. Most of the community was wealthy, using religion as indicator of status: who belonged to which synagogue, who had given the most to various Jewish charities, thus getting their names printed at the top of long donor lists. It was snobby, exclusive, rude. The rich Jews looked down on the poor ones. Eyebrows were raised at families who did not attend synagogue or keep kosher. None of this had anything to do with genuine generousity or doing good in the world.

Not, of course, that any of this happened to me or my family.

There was a smaller community of Hasids, a sect of Orthodox Jews who had too many children and walked to Shul on Saturdays, black-clad father in front, overburdened wife one step behind, flocks of children following in a ragged line. They held themselves apart from the of the community, viewing the rest of us sinners with contempt.

When I was eleven, I told my mother I planned to marry a non-Jew. I'm telling you now, I said with pre-adolescent contempt, so you can get used to the idea.

My mother, to her credit, never cared whether I married a Jewish man or not, which is a good thing. Hockeyman comes from a Canadian family whose roots are firmly sunk in Irish Catholicism.

When I was seventeen we moved to Southern California, where I enrolled in college and began studying American Sign Language Interpretation. Because interpreting is by definition a helping profession, it attracted a lot of women. It also attracted a large number of born-again Christians. Some of these people were fine. Others represented everything awful about extreme faith: they were strident, doctrinaire, constantly trying to convert others. A colleague, assigned to interpret a science class, arrived early and left religious tracts on each chair.

This was well before our current Administration, which has pushed aside separation of Church and State for such a narrowly-intepreted view of religious correctness that other Christians are indignant. For example, Anne Lamott, who has written two books about religion, Traveling Mercies: Some thoughts on Faith, and Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.

It's hard to dislike a person who writes things like "Everyone I know had been devastated by Bush's presidency," (4) then spends the better part of a book purporting to be musings on faith talking about how much she despises Bush and his policies. Her relationship to faith is passionate yet bemused; she understands the Godless among us shake our heads at her beliefs. And she is self-aware enough to mock herself. On attempting forgiveness:

"I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would want Jesus to drink gin straight out of the cat dish." (131)

In Plan B, she's still trying to forgive--her mother, George Bush, Rumsfeld--but she isn't getting far. This is a relief for those of us who really wonder about those sweetly smiling wingnuts standing outside City Hall holding signs reading "God Hates Fags."

Lamott's real gift is showing us her struggle, her imperfections, her often ragged relationship to her God. When a friend's daughter is diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis, she looks up and asks "What on earth are you thinking?" (150). She's also one of the funniest writers around, in a David Sedaris laugh-out-loud way. When asked to join a prayer vigil outside Berkeley's left-wing radio station, she demurs. "I am just not a pray- at -KPFA kind of girl" (207). On her mother:

"She was a mix of wrathful Old Testament opinion, terrified politeness and befuddled English arrogance...And God, she was annoying. I mean this objectively. " (231)

I can understand that a lot better than blandishments about God's Will or the hidden gifts of suffering. I can even work my brain around to understanding Lamott's point of view, even if I find it impossible to share. The skies above, when not clouded by pollutants, are indeed lovely, but I cannot see a God, or any kind of Prime Mover, up there either benignly watching, or, even better, somehow orchestrating this whole mess. As I get older and so many things seem to be worsening, I often wish I could.

Next time...Jane Kenyon.

Quotes from:

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, New York: Anchor Books, 2000. pp131, 150.

Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005. pp 4, 207, 231.

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