Holiday hathos from Lapham & Huffington

laphamCoverI’ve spent a few weeks now pondering what it is in the temperament of Lewis Lapham, the soon-retiring editor of Harper’s, that prompts him to devote the December issue’s cover to an essay celebrating “Jesus without the Miracles.”

In a recent feature for New York magazine, Kurt Andersen helps explain Lapham’s influence on Harper’s for much of the past 30 years:

It’s often a good magazine; it just hasn’t been a “hot” magazine for a long time. Its bigger glossy-intellectual rivals, The New Yorker and The Atlantic, have managed to achieve moments of heat during the last decade, in part by getting youngish new editors-in-chief.

And also, maybe, because they’ve seemed less single-mindedly partisan and smug. In fact, most of Harper’s is not fusty and Euro-lefty, Lapham’s “Notebook” column notwithstanding. But because his 2,500-word essays lead each issue, they tend to color one’s sense of the whole magazine. And they all amount to pretty much the same contemptuous, Olympian jeremiad: The powers-that-be are craven and monstrous, American culture is vulgar and depraved, the U.S. is like imperial Rome, our democracy is dying or dead. All of which is arguably true. But, jeez, sometime tell me something I didn’t know, show a shred of uncertainty and maybe some struggle to suss out fresh truth. “Everything I’ve written,” he says, “is a chronicle of the twilight of the American idea.” He seems so committed to the decline-and-fall critique, and so supremely uninterested in the novelties and nuances of everyday life and culture, it’s hard to take his gloom altogether seriously.

AriannaHuffington2Remember the days when people worried about Ted Turner buying out CBS News because of his excessive right-wing sympathies? Like Turner, Arianna Huffington is a celebrity whose ideological about-face is enough to induce vertigo.

In the December Vanity Fair, Suzanna Andrews helps explain Huffington’s political (and theological) identities. Andrews spends more time on Huffington’s politics than on her religious beliefs, but the details she does report are as high-energy as one of Huffington’s appearances on a talk show:

• There were, to be sure, aspects of the new HuffPost [blog] that invited ridicule: incoherent blogs from celebrities including Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfus; Deepak Chopra’s cryptic admonition that death was not to be feared, because “you are dead already”; and Huffington’s own post on the female orgasm, which she declared to be “so complex and strange it could only have come from God.” Wouldn’t it be “delicious,” she wrote, “if the female orgasm were the thing that tips the scales in favor of the Intelligent Design crowd?”

• Success at such an early age, she recalls, brought on feelings of anxiety and emptiness. “Certain there was something else,” Arianna embarked on a period of spiritual searching. She read the writings of psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and of Yogi Sri Aurobindo and various mystical philosophers. She did dream analysis, explored the New Age programs est and Lifespring, walked on hot coals with the life coach Tony Robbins, and got involved with a mystic who claimed to be channeling a 3,000-year-old man. “I began to see,” Huffington says, “how basically for people to find themselves spiritually there had to be an element of service, a dedication to something more than ourselves.” The result of this was her second book, After Reason, a densely written treatise that argued for the need to integrate spirituality into modern politics. Attacking the “bankruptcy of Western political leadership,” and describing politics as “our hypnotized acquiescence in this organized sham,” the book called for a “spiritual revolution” in Western democracies. Nothing less, she wrote, could save “individual freedom” in a culture where “the ‘pursuit of happiness’ has been reduced today to the pursuit of comfort.”

• And then there was John-Roger. The press went wild with the allegation that Arianna had been, since the late 1970s, a minister in the guru’s Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA). A New Age spiritualist whose seminars and books advance a regimen of therapy, positive thinking, and rigorous self-improvement, John-Roger was also believed by his followers to embody the “Mystical Traveler Consciousness,” which inhabits God’s chosen one on earth. It was never clear whether Arianna believed, as many of John-Roger’s adherents did, that he was the personification of God and that he could read her mind, heal her illnesses, and even endow her with the power to change the weather. Over and over, she obfuscated as the press dogged her with questions about John-Roger, whom ex-followers accused in the press of mind control, electronic eavesdropping, and sexually coercing his male acolytes. Several former adherents also said that John-Roger had almost completely controlled Arianna, financing her lavish lifestyle in New York in return for introductions to her powerful friends, guiding her through her courtship with Huffington (she allegedly called him after each date “to see what God would do next”), and instructing her to marry Huffington for his money. When asked about John-Roger, Arianna denied these allegations and claimed that he was just a friend, and that she knew very little about his teachings. “I have not spent many years in his training,” she told Vanity Fair in 1994. “Nobody’s been a guru to me.”

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“God made me funny”

1Face it — it’s very hard for someone who grew up as a Southern Baptist preacher’s son (that would be me) to feel very comfortable with the kind of language that the late Richard Pryor used on stage.

At the same time, I think I know a God-haunted individual when I see one and, as soon as I was able to dig into his work in any way, it was clear to me that Pryor was one of those individuals who was utterly clear-eyed, much of the time, about the power of his own sins and of the sins he witnessed in the hilarious and terrifying world around him.

This was a man who lived, we are told, in a state of agony, fury and pain. What was the source of all of that?

By the way, when I use the term “God-haunted,” I am referring to someone who is not a religious believer in a conventional sense of the word (as far as we know), yet cannot seem to stop airing her or his religious questions, fears, speculations and other forms of artistic commentary. Think Woody Allen or Bill Cosby. Think Clint Eastwood or Robert Duvall. Think Madonna or Sting.

Back to Pryor. If you spent any time this weekend reading all of the usual mainstream media reports on Pryor, you saw — along with the obvious salutes to his talent and stunning impact on television, film and the stand-up comedy of others — a steady stream of references to him wrestling with his angels and his demons and commentary about his unique childhood. What happens when you grow up in whorehouses run by family members, while your parents and grandparents also want to force you to go to church? You get Richard Pryor. You get a man who can argue with God about the state of his own flawed heart — his physical heart and his spiritual heart, too — and perfectly capture the sound of church deacons primping as well as ghetto studs pimping.

I was struck by this brief passage in the Los Angeles Times obituary by Lynell George, which ran under a headline that said, “Richard Pryor; a Groundbreaking, Anguished Comedian.”

In later years, Pryor’s life was a blur of bad choices and reckless acts. Scarred by drugs, violence, quadruple bypass surgery, broken marriages and estranged children, Pryor tried to take his own life. The initial reports of June 9, 1980, were that the comedian accidentally set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. Pryor finally revealed the truth in his autobiography “Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences,” co-written with Todd Gold:

“After freebasing without interruption for several days in a row, I wasn’t able to discern one from the next. … Imagining relief was nearby, I reached for the cognac bottle on the table in front of me and poured it all over me. Real natural. Methodical. … I picked up my lighter. … I was engulfed in flame. I was in a place that wasn’t heaven or earth.” …

But Pryor was best known for his searing analysis of race relations. He was honored by the Kennedy Center with the first Mark Twain Prize for American humor. … The comedian was poignant in his remarks to a Washington Post reporter shortly after winning the honor: “I’m a pioneer. That’s my contribution. I broke barriers for black comics. I was being Richard Pryor; that was me on that stage. But I was on drugs at the time.”

He told the Post: “The drugs didn’t make me funny. God made me funny. The drugs kept me up in my imagination. But I felt … pathetic afterward.”

Call this a missed opportunity. I wonder if this sensitive subject is a job for Beliefnet.com? However, I have to admit: How can anyone write about this topic without quoting many of Pryor’s most famous routines on topics such as these? And how do you do that in a public newspaper?

“God made me funny”? Is that a statement of thanksgiving or anger or both?

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From our “no comment” department

OK, you can click here. Then please click here. Thank you. I’ve said what I have to say.

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Here ye go again

1127lgWait a minute. Have the malls already been turned into little fake islands of New England? Is it already that time of year?

Methinks that this punchy little story by Richard N. Ostling of the Associated Press officially represents the starting bell for that season most beloved to merchants and lawyers — The Holidays.

Yes, the Christmas wars are getting off to a very early start.

“Wordless instrumental music”? Saints preserve us!

Communities and courts have long fielded protests against municipal creche displays and school Nativity pageants, based on strict views of church-state separation and sensitivity toward religious minorities. In recent years, however, local disputes have extended to carol singing, wordless instrumental music, Christmas trees and decorations, classroom visits by Santa Claus, distribution of Christmas-themed cards and gifts, “Merry Christmas!” greetings and designation of Christmas on official calendars.

This week, the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group based in Scottsdale, Ariz., announced that its 800 cooperating attorneys have volunteered to handle without fee complaints about “improper attempts to censor the celebration of Christmas in schools and on public property.”

Truth be told, there are valid issues at stake here. I know that. But I do wish that more churches would put more effort into actually marking Advent (or Nativity Lent, in the East) and then actually celebrating Christmas — all 12 days of it after Dec. 25 — in their own homes, in their own sanctuaries, on their own property and, in ways that are completely legal, by caroling and greeting people in the public square. Just do it.

And if you want to laugh to keep from crying, dig out a copy — used ones right here — of the classic Away with the Manger by an evangelical wise guy named Chris Fabry. My favorite moment is when the angry Christians march toward the town square, led by a U.S. Marine, who helps them belt out this military-style chant:

You can’t take our holiday!
It’s in our heart and here to stay!
Sound off!
JESUS!
Sound off!
HE’S BORN!

I think you get the idea.

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Idol word haunts copy desk

olnmI am still catching up after the Tennessee tour, so here is another quick post saved from earlier in the week.

I need to offer a mega-hat tip to Amy Wellborn on this next one, pointing to the blog of her husband, Michael Dubruiel. It seems that someone at the Herald News copy desk in suburban Chicago messed up — big time.

If you click here, you will see the story and a repaired headline that says:

A visit from Our Lady

* Virgin Mary: Local parish is host to 33-foot statue for 2 weeks

The story is a pretty plain description of strange goings-on among the exotic local Catholic natives. Nothing really spectacular.

Our Lady of the New Millennium, a 33-foot, 8,400-pound statue of the Virgin Mary[,] began a two-week stay at St. Mary Immaculate parish. … The statue, commissioned in 1984 by Carl Demma, who has since passed away, is meant to be a statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The statue was completed in 1999 and by Oct. 2003 had visited over 170 parishes.

There’s one strange phrase there: “is meant to be.” But what caught the eye of Welborn and Dubruiel was the original headline for this story, which now exists only in Catholic bloggerland. Hang on, because it was a doozy.

A visit from Our Lady

Statue of Virgin Mary: Local parish is host to 33-foot idol for 2 weeks

Dubruiel thought this failed the “objective reporting” test, for reasons that are rather obvious. But just in case readers missed it, he added:

Notice how the statue is referred to as an “idol”. If you have a second you might want to drop the suburban Chicago news an email that’ll point out that Catholics do not worship statues or idols but God alone!

Actually I am sure — as a former headline writer — that the red telephone at the copy desk rang a few times and the headline was changed rather quickly.

GetReligion readers will notice that Dubruiel assumed this was a case of media bias. In this case, I believe someone simply messed up.

That said, I can find no indication that the newspaper humbled itself and published a correction. The editors simply replaced the headline. However, that word “idol” was a real slap in the face for the traditional Catholics who would been drawn to this story. A correction would have been nice. Did I miss one somewhere?

P.S. Welborn’s blog is a great place to keep up on an interesting Holy Grail trial involving everyone’s favorite gnostic Catholic theologian — Dan “DaVinci Code” Brown. Click here for more details.

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McMansions on a hill (continued)

McMansion2GetReligion has front-page readers and then it has comments readers. Thus, I wanted to pull a comment or two out front from the McMansions ghost post, so that more people can see them.

Oh, I also need to add my confession about housing. Yes, I now live in a 1930s Craftsman-era bungalow in an older neighborhood — only one that is currently not hot enough to attract McMansions. Yet. (Click here to see what this whole trend actually looks like on the ground.)

In terms of the ghost that was haunting me, Dan Berger nails it:

Here’s a ghost: when was the last time you saw something both serious and profound written about the Seven Deadly Sins? Like Greed? … I’m reminded of the apocryphal story about a clergy conference in which one of the speakers asks, “Is it possible to own a house that is sinfully large? And how large would it have to be?” From the back, someone piped up, “Bigger than mine!”

Posted by Dan Berger at 9:01 am on October 11, 2005

Also, I invited Rod “Friend of this Blog” Dreher of The Dallas Morning News to write in about this topic, since he has dedicated an entire chapter to the topic in his upcoming book Crunchy Cons.

Dreher’s main point echoes that of Berger and can be stated in a question: Would newspapers dare to write about strongly spiritual subjects that are not obvious, on their face, in a news trend? Is it possible to write about greed, other than in the context of Enron? Lust, other than in the context of, oh, the Bill Clinton era?

In this case, the ghost is there and its name is “consumerism,” a sin that is very easy for me to spot in the mirror (I don’t know about you). Here is the body of Dreher’s letter:

1. As David Brooks has observed, many modern people make up for the spiritual emptiness in their lives by fetishizing material objects. I don’t suppose that’s really a modern thing; after all, the Israelites fetishized the Golden Calf. Its modern version, though, comes with the kind of lifestyle you see celebrated in the upscale shelter magazines. It’s easy for me to see that secular lefties fetishize the old historic houses as embodiments of a certain spiritual purity they see threatened by McMansionization, and what it represents (the “More, Faster” society of rampant consumerism).

2. On the other hand, a religious conservative like me arrives at much the same place, for different reasons. I don’t think I’m a better person for having chosen this old house of ours, but I do think, in a sacramental sense, it mediates a spiritual ideal of modesty and simple beauty, which I find much preferable to the McMansion ethos. And it’s important, I think, to conserve old places, because of the links they provide with our past.

Our neighborhood in Dallas doesn’t look like all the other neighborhoods, and the people who moved in long before us, when it was a dismal, drug-infested slum, worked real hard to reclaim the original beauty and integrity of these old houses, and restore the neighborhood to its original charm. All the things they fought for are now being challenged by Republican developers, and Texans who believe in the sacredness of Private Propitty. You can drive around my neighborhood and see obnoxious McMansions that dwarf the other older, more modest houses. What this says to me is that the person who builds and owns the McMansion says to his putative neighbors: Screw you people, I’m going to do what I want to do, and you’ve just got to live with it.

3. In this sense, perhaps, what secular lefties in that Maryland neighborhood are fighting is an individualistic ethic that asserts the right to disregard tradition and the sensibility of the community for the sake of exercising the sovereignty of the individual. As I believe a lot of what’s wrong with this country is out-of-control individualism (on the left, resulting in the extolling of sexual libertinism, and on the right resulting in the extolling of shopping), I would come together with the left-liberals in this neighborhood as a matter of principle. How we arrived at the idea that the old neighborhood ought to be defended is, to the outsider, a distinction without a difference. What matters is that we stand by tradition and community.

Posted by Rod Dreher at 2:40 pm on October 11, 2005

As you can see, there is more to this specific issue than left-right politics or even theology.

“Tradition and community”? Sounds rather religious to these Eastern Orthodox ears.

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Missing link on Berkeley’s copy desk

monkey using typewriter lg nwmOK, gang, please do not read this tiny, funny little item and get sucked into yet another whirlpool of comments on evolution. And don’t tell me that some of my typos are as bad as the basic editing mistake in this story. I already know that, two.

Just sit back, relax, chuckle and ask the following question. We know that students in Berkeley (and adults too, I hear) are a bit on the strange side and do not like to conform to other people’s definitions of right and wrong. But does this apply to grammar?

So now, care of the copy desk at The Daily Californian, we have this:

As the debate surrounding evolution and intelligent design in public schools reaches a fever pitch, UC Berkeley faculty and students is at the center of the action.

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Mansions on a hill?

ChevyChase6OK, what is the statute of limitations for an item here at GetReligion? You would think that I would know.

In this case, the late item is even stranger because I am not sure whether there even is a religion ghost in it. Stranger yet, I am not sure that there should be a religion ghost in it. It’s more like a hunch on my part.

I wanted to post about this Washington Post story last week to ask for the insights of others, but it got buried in HHGR week — which is turning into HHGR month, even as I speak. It was a very busy week. Now I am heading out of town for a complete week, so I thought I had better blog on this right now or just forget about it.

The feature in question is Stephanie McCrummen’s human-passions-meets-zoning-war drama about people tearing down nice little houses and replacing them with massive retro houses in the highly symbolic elite suburb of Chevy Chase in Montgomery County, Md. This is a life and death battle, it seems. What gets to me is the sense that there is much more at stake than mere bricks and concrete, sight lines and community spirit. It almost seems like there are people who believe in transcendent Good that is clashing with transcendent Evil.

I am not alone in thinking this. Check out this summary:

Indeed, amid all the arguments this summer, something else has lingered awkwardly in the air: the sense that the debate over mansionization has laid bare a culture clash, an impasse in taste, mores and perhaps even values.

“We believe in ‘Don’t take up any more space than you need,’” said Don MacGlashan, a moratorium supporter who has lived in the town nearly 30 years. “They obviously feel ‘The more the better.’ It’s a different sensibility, a different worldview. It’s conspicuous consumption, meaning in a sense their values are all out of proportion.”

Now Rod “A Friend of this Blog” Dreher is wading into this controversy in his upcoming book Crunchy Cons, which is about cultural conservatives who love healthy food, elite art, the environment, classic books, large families and other dangerous things. Maybe Rod will drop in to explain some of that.

But in Chevy Chase, there are no “Birkenstocked Burkeans” on the scene. The folks who act as if their values are being shredded are all on the left, at least, as far as we can tell. This suburb is about as blue as blue can get, on the red vs. blue zip code scales. And where are the churches in this debate? Most fights of this kind end up with megachurches fighting dying oldline mini-parishes.

Does anyone else sense a ghost in this story? Are the houses themselves religious objects?

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