Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Collective Christian Memory

Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” it is said, and a background in literature has taught me that in earlier periods writers often borrowed from one another without compunction or complaint.

But I was shaken, early in my activist writing career, to discover another writer had “borrowed” something I had written for her Methodist curriculum. She put her name as the author because she had “adapted” it. I had felt similarly offended when I noticed Cat Stephens failed to acknowledge on an album that “Morning Has Broken” is an old hymn that he “adapted.”

About the same time, someone told me that a mutual friend had used one of my stories as his sermon. She thought I’d be thrilled, but no, he hadn’t credited it to me, claiming to have “found” it, a rhetorical device to add to the piece’s mystery. What concerned me at the time was that his large high-steepled not-yet-welcoming church might have become more welcoming if they knew it had come from a gay Christian.

Reading a book decades later, I discovered a sentence I knew to be mine, and then another and another, and checked the footnotes at the end of the book to find the author finally attributed a quote from the same article to me in the chapter that followed. When I shared my dismay with another writer, I was advised not to take it too seriously, as it was probably “just poor scholarship.” I never brought it up when I later worked with the author, but ironically heard his own complaint of another writer borrowing liberally from him!

I’ve mentioned on this blog my own failure of attribution when I wrote somewhere, “We know God through our bodies or we don’t know God at all.” I had no idea the quote originated with body theologian James B. Nelson because I had not yet read any of Nelson’s work or heard him speak! When I happened on the sentence in one of his early books, I was chagrined, to say the least.

All these examples came to mind when I read two chapters on memory in Oliver Sacks’s last book, The River of Consciousness. He concludes, “Memory arises not only from experience but from the intercourse of many minds.”

He cites one of his own memoirs as an example, in which we recounts an experience at his family’s London home during World War II. After publication, a brother explained to him that he and Oliver were away at school when the event happened. Another brother had written to them about the incident, but apparently with such great emotion and detail that Oliver had incorporated it into this own memory bank.

Even more memorably, Sacks describes the “plagiarism” controversy surrounding the beloved public figure Helen Keller, just 12 years of age, when a story she wrote paralleled another written by Margaret Canby. Keller did not remember Canby’s story, but realized she was more prone to think a story hers if, in Sacks’ words, it “had been ‘read’ to her, using finger spelling onto her hand.” To Canby’s credit, she defended Keller, writing, “What a wonderfully active and retentive mind that gifted child must have!”

All of this prompts me to compare our collective Christian memory, one that began with the first encounters of Jesus all the way to us “latter day saints.” As we follow the church calendar, reliving Jesus’ life from his advent to his elevation, following him in baptism and Communion and ministry, his story becomes our own, much as Helen Keller’s tactile reception of Canby’s story.

On a television program promoting my first book, Uncommon Calling, an evangelical pastor countered my “revisionism” of the Christian story, as I read biblical stories in the light of contemporary experience. I explained that was the task of every generation, to make sense of Jesus and our faith for the present times. (Though I did not say this, even his fundamentalism was a 19th century example of this.) Revisionism, I said, was quite traditional!

No less for progressive Christians, who are making sense of Jesus and our faith in a world that has a grander and more accurate perspective of the cosmos, thanks largely to science and Christianity’s intercourse with other faith traditions.

Citing Freud, Sacks explains, “remembering…was essentially a dynamic, transforming, reorganizing process throughout the course of life.  …Memories are continually worked over and revised and…their essence, indeed, is recategorization.”

And so with collective Christian memory in the course of the church’s life. To repeat, “Memory arises not only from experience but from the intercourse of many minds.”

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Copyright © 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. I took the photo during a speaking trip to that welcoming congregation some years ago.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

"Darwin's Epiphany on the Meaning of Flowers"

Our orchids are budding and blooming
this month thanks to Wade's care.

I confess I am approaching Oliver Sacks’s posthumously published book, The River of Consciousness, as a sacred text. The richness and depth of both his writing style and his content made his articles in the newspaper favorites of mine in the years preceding his death.

The first essay, “Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers,” which I anonymously alluded to last week, has not disappointed. Darwin observed that flowers and insects co-evolved, and he once  contrasted his (in Sacks’s words) “frontal assault…on creationism” in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection to his subsequent work with flowers.

In Darwin’s words, “no one else has perceived that my chief interest in my orchid book has been that it was a ‘flank movement’ on the enemy,” the opponents of evolution. As Darwin’s botanist friend Asa Gray suggested, if his book on orchids “had appeared before the Origin, the author would have been canonized rather than anathematized by the natural theologians.”

In other words, we human beings would have felt less threatened understanding how flowers and insects evolved characteristics over eons that were mutually beneficial. The evolution of mammals like us threatened our sense of superiority, our presumption that we were made ex nihilo in the image of God, not descended from other animals.

The second but more ancient Genesis creation myth that describes Yahweh shaping the first human being from earth is closer to Darwin’s own observation in The Descent of Man, “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” Dust we art, to dust we shalt return.

Sacks writes, 
The notion of such vast eons of time—and the power of tiny, undirected changes which by their accumulation could generate new worlds, worlds of enormous richness and variety—was intoxicating. Evolutionary theory provided, for many of us, a sense of deep meaning and satisfaction that belief in a divine plan never achieved. The world that presented itself to us became a transparent surface, through which one could see the whole history of life. 
Reminds me of Paul’s metaphor of how “we see through a glass darkly.”

With Oliver Sacks, 
I rejoice in the knowledge of my biological uniqueness and my biological antiquity and my biological kinship with all other forms of life. This knowledge roots me, allows me to feel at home in the natural world, to feel that I have my own sense of biological meaning, whatever my role in the cultural, human world. 
Sacks credits this insight to “Darwin’s epiphany on the meaning of flowers” and Sacks’s own childhood experience of the natural world.

I once worked with a pastor who gave as much attention to the arrangement of flowers, cuttings, and plants on the chancel as he did to the words of sermons, the sacraments, prayers, and liturgies. When he died, I entitled his eulogy, “The Importance of Flowers.” To this day, I remember less of his theology than of his aesthetics—or truer, his aesthetic was his theology.

The impertinence of youth caused me once to chide my father for spending so much time on his garden “rather than on something that lasts.” “What lasts?” was his wise response, making no apology.

Possibly the better way to proclaim the Gospel is to “say it with flowers.”

Last Wednesday we passed the 300,000 mark in the number of visits since this blog began. Last week’s post did extraordinarily well, with 2700 visits so far. These figures do not include subscribers.

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Copyright © 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Fresh Takes on the Lord's Prayer

Early morning fog on the Ganges, January 1983.

Sitting in a literal fog out on our deck, reading of Darwin’s investigations into the propagation of flowers which attract different pollinating insects by using different colors or scents or shapes, somehow gave me fresh takes on the bits of the Lord’s Prayer, with which I concluded my morning prayer time.

The literal fog is still outside my windows, but the words I am writing now are coming out of a metaphorical fog of uncertainty and unclarity. I feel rather like Pooh trying to think really hard. Forgive me if you consider this exercise sophomoric, the blather of “a wise fool.”

“O God, mother and father of us all” (my modification of the prayer) now flashes as a primordial, unknowable kindling of life eons ago which we have colloquialized and anthropomorphized as “father” or “mother and father” to make our origin familiar and friendly and immediate.

“Who art in heaven” reinforces this unknowability both spatially and temporally. Heaven is a kind of heavy fog that neither lifts nor is penetrable, as inscrutable as a Zen koan.

“Hallowed”—but it is a sacred space, to be revered and remembered—“be thy name”—even if unnamable and unknowable.

“Thy kingdom come” has been a seeming eternity in the making, and will be a seeming eternity in the becoming, yet is instantly in our hearts as we believe it.

“Thy will be done” suggests agency and purpose, something (to me) more knowable than origins as we witness life and love, compassion and consciousness as pinnacles of experience.

“In earth / on earth” from the atom to the cosmos, from the cell to civilization, a driving and unstoppable force unites us. The Big Bang is still banging, like the reverberations of a Tibetan singing bowl.

“As it is in heaven”—not Plato’s realm of ideals, more like “harmonizing with the ultimately real” or true, the Tao (the way) as understood by Kung Tzu (Confucius), the way of life that gives “visible expression of the ultimate reality hidden in the universe.” (Merton quotes.)

“Give us this day our daily bread.” In the midst of this cosmic enterprise, we still need bread, and art, and wisdom.

“Forgive us our trespasses” when we overlook the larger picture or step on another’s property, holdings, or dignity.

“As we forgive those who trespass against us.” Help us let go of our sense of personal ownership of what we have been given, and share its grace.

“Lead us not into temptation.” Never for a second think we are not part of some cosmic dream that calls us to recognize our worth, the value of our time, and our call to add worth and act worthily.

“But deliver us from evil.” Save us from willful ignorance and from the “unquestioned self” in ourselves and in others, including our institutions.

“For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.” Not mine, but ours to share, in memory and in hope of the greater good.

Where is God? you might ask. Why, in all of this, of course!

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Copyright © 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. Photo from a religious studies tour of India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Poetry Makes Life Last Longer

"The breakers steady crash..."

The end of a year seems a good time to reflect on time: what shortens it, what stretches it. The beginning of this year I eagerly read most of Alan Burdick’s Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation (2017). Though I recommend it, I found the text sometimes contradicted the title as I trudged through scientific studies and jargon.

A similar fate awaited me as I read a book about spirituality toward the end of this year. I felt as if I needed to come up for air, and found my eyes pausing over the text and searching the ravine behind our house from the vantage point of our deck for something more, something inspiring, maybe even God.

Then I remembered J. Barrie Shepherd had sent me a copy of his latest book of poetry, entitled Bench on the Bluff, and I set aside my dutiful reading of the somewhat dry tome on the spirit and sought the poetic wisdom of a writer who had been my spiritual director as a young man, unbeknownst to him, one whose books of daily reflections helped me establish my morning prayer routine and inspired my own desire to provide such reflections for others in my books and now this blog.

The image of a “bench on the bluff,” taken from his Maine retirement village’s cliff overlooking the Atlantic, reminded me of a tranquil spot on the palisades of Santa Monica overlooking the Pacific, where, according to an inscription on a circular stone bench (as I remember it) “in the sunset of his life, John P. Jones used to come here every evening to watch the sun set over the ocean.”

At 81 years of age, that is similar to what Barrie Shepherd is doing in what he calls a “chapbook”: “a small collection of poetry…that often centers on a specific theme.” It is dedicated to his and Mhairi’s Yorkshire Terrier, Iona, and “all her canine neighbors.”

In college I had a double major: English Literature and Religious Studies. So I’ve loved poetry from the start, and used to write poetry regularly, like many a youth. But I had to read so much of it, so quickly for courses, and think too much about what made poetry work that my first love became a source of anxiety and even competition. One of my texts, Understanding Poetry (a good book despite a presumptuous title), made me sympathize with Robin Williams’ character in The Dead Poets’ Society who advised his prep school students to rip out the first chapter of a similar text.

Poetry, like art and scripture and pornography, is something you know when you see it. And poetry, when unhurried and absorbing, stretches time for me.

And so it is with Barrie’s poems, and it was all I could do to restrain my impulse to read them all in a few sittings. I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog that I can’t read anything meaningful without a pen, underlining or marking texts to return to. The problem I’ve faced reading Barrie’s book is that I’ve wanted to underline and mark everything. Writing about it as I’m doing now made me want to quote so much of it that I would be infringing on his copyright!

I will never look the same way at the slender month of February or the shimmering surface of a lap pool. I will find haikus in every aspect of my community. I will look to nature and the seasons to welcome my own life cycle. His encounter with the Perseid meteor shower took me back to my own encounter in the night skies above Santa Barbara’s Mount Calvary Retreat House. I will counter the pains of aging with laughter in the wisdom of an “even-older-than-I-am-now lady” advising “When you wake up in the morning and nothing new hurts…you know you’re dead.”

And did I just call him “Barrie”? A person I’ve encountered less than a dozen times, but whose words befriended me in his books and now, continue to “friend” me in email exchanges about my blog. Yes, I feel like we are chums, and I am sitting with him on that bench missing the latest news “in an age of the absence of angels,” but watching: 
The breakers steady crash
and crumple as they rolled ashore
reporting on the deepest state of things,
reminding me that they will still be singing here
when all my news has fled like so much sea spray
on these stark, primeval rocks.

Copies of Bench on the Bluff are available @ $10 plus $5 shipping from:

The Rev. Dr. J. Barrie Shepherd
Piper Shores Retirement Community
15 Piper Road, Apt. K325
Scarborough, ME 04074

Proceeds are donated to charity.

For my other posts that mention J. Barrie Shepherd, go to:

Here’s hoping we all have happy and new years!
Thank you for donations to this blog ministry
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Or mail to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  Photo from visit to Hawai'i, October, 1985.