Book Review: Joss Whedon and Religion: Essays on an Angry Atheist’s Explorations of the Sacred, Anthony R. Mills, ed. (2013)

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

“Oh…my…Goddess!” (In which an “angry atheist” is pleasantly surprised by a religious journey through the Whedonverse.)

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

As a Joss Whedon fan and a fellow self-described “angry atheist,” I approached Joss Whedon and Religion: Essays on an Angry Atheist’s Explorations of the Sacred with some trepidation. Specifically, I was worried that the authors who contributed to this anthology – many of them theologians – might be dismissive of or downright hostile to Whedon’s beliefs. Happily, this isn’t the case. After all, many (if not all) of them are fellow Whedon fans, even if they don’t share in his atheism. While some authors are critical of certain aspects of Whedon’s work, I suspect that this primarily comes from a place of love: it’s those you respect most who have the greatest potential to let you down.

As with any anthology, Joss Whedon and Religion is a bit of a mixed bag, with all of the pieces trending toward “adequate” to “excellent.” Some authors are heavier on the academic jargon than others; overall, I found most of the contributions to be fairly readable. (Some of the heavier stuff is tempered by more enjoyable, in-depth discussions of, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Dollhouse. Warning: you will want to revisit your favorite shows by book’s end!) Occasionally, I had to take a breather to further research a specific topic, usually religious in nature; those who have a better background in religion (specifically Judeo-Christian) will no doubt have an easier time of it.

Due to the religious iconography prominently displayed on the cover (which is consistent with the Catholic imagery common to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), I anticipated a largely Christian perspective. While I can’t comment on the authors’ personal religious convictions, I’m happy to report that they address a variety of religions and ethical systems, both mainstream and not: Wicca and witchcraft; ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses; the philosophies of Aristotle and Kant; even Ayn Rand gets a chapter (alongside Stan Lee, natch). A few essays don’t really seem to pay much mind to religion at all.

(In an especially amusing aside, Dean Kowalski gently pokes fun at K. Dale Koontz – who penned the forward – for reading too much religion into Whedon’s work, a criticism one could perhaps level at many of the contributors to this volume. See page 105.)

Of course, Christianity does receive the lion’s share of attention.

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Book Review: Teaching with Harry Potter: Essays on Classroom Wizardry from Elementary School to College, Valerie Estelle Frankel, ed. (2013)

Monday, July 29th, 2013

Something for Everyone!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the editor’s invitation.)

Since the debut of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone in 1997, the Harry Potter franchise has generated a wealth of scholarly research. “Aca-fans” – “those who participate in academic fandom” (page 1) – scrutinize, interrogate, and critique Harry Potter creations both official and unauthorized: from J.K. Rowling’s novels to the film adaptations and supporting websites, to fan-made works such as fan and slash fiction – all is fair game. Such discussions often focus on themes as diverse as literature, philosophy, psychology, history, gender studies, and the law. However, Harry Potter’s place in education is a topic that has, until now, been all but neglected – as some of the writers (most notably Elisabeth C. Gumnior, who devotes an entire chapter to the subject) in Teaching with Harry Potter: Essays on Classroom Wizardry from Elementary School to College are quick to point out.

The eighteen authors who contributed to this unique collection come from a variety of backgrounds; they are parents, teachers of middle and high school students, college professors, academics, and fans. Consequently, there’s a little something for everyone here. Common to the essays is a shared enthusiasm for Harry Potter and his ability to help educate the next generation. Composition, literature, creative writing, romance languages, medieval studies, modern history, theology, science: with a little creativity and effort, the lessons found in Harry Potter – especially useful as a “global cultural reference” (page 152) – can be integrated into almost any classroom.

1 – “From Hogwarts Academy to the Hero’s Journey,” Lana A. Whited – The author compares and contrasts her experiences teaching Harry Potter to two very different audiences: 10- to 13-year-old children enrolled in Hogwarts Academy, a week-long summer enrichment class, and college sophomore literature students. An enjoyable start to this anthology, I found myself wishing I was young enough to attend Hogwarts myself, what with its Care of Magical Creatures and Defense of the Dark Arts lessons. The course sometimes even hosts a Snape impersonator in the form of Dr. Powell, a chemistry professor who brews up marshmallows and ice cream! Meanwhile, the older students examine Harry’s growth in the context of Otto Rank’s stages of the hero’s saga and Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero’s journey. The author concludes that there are two ways of “knowing” literature – by the head and by the heart – and you can sometimes achieve the former by beginning with the latter.

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Book Review: Atheist Yoga, Anton Drake (2013)

Monday, June 10th, 2013

Atheism & Yoga

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the author’s invitation.)

I’ve suffered from back problems most of my life. When I was younger, the likely suspect was an old, cheap mattress situated on the top of a bunk bed; in my young adulthood, nights spent sleeping at the bottom of a dog pile (sometimes five deep!) did the trick. And I won’t even get into my poor posture.

I started practicing yoga a little more than a decade ago in order to help relieve back pain. Not only did it work out the kinks, relieve stress and tension, and increase my flexibility, but yoga also helped me achieve a greater inner awareness: of different muscle groups, and how to alternately flex and relax them, sometimes simultaneously. This in turn aided me in other athletic endeavors, such as kickboxing and abdominal exercises.

I’m also a life-long atheist.

In Atheist Yoga, atheist yogi Anton Drake makes a compelling argument for the compatibility of yoga and meditation with atheism and materialism. Yoga’s “fundamental emphasis on introspection and self-mastery” is actually more suited to atheism than religious belief, Drake posits, because atheists are open to disbelief, aren’t censored by internal thought filters, and thus have an easier time both “losing” themselves and turning their focus inward, on the unconscious self. Atheists are better able to open their minds because they aren’t afraid of offending a supreme being or violating an external belief system.

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You want a physicist to speak at your funeral.*

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly. Amen.

– Aaron Freeman, “You want a physicist to speak at your funeral.” (via NPR)

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"…quietly turning to rust."

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

“Dinosauria, We (blue man)”: CC image via flickr user danielofredorota.
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Father Gomez

I.

He came out at sunset on a little headland beside a shallow bay. If they had tides in this sea, the tide was high, because there was only a narrow fringe of soft white sand above the water.

And floating in the calm bay were a dozen or more. Father Gomez had to stop and think carefully. A dozen or more enormous snow-white birds, each the size of a rowboat, with long, straight wings that trailed on the water behind them: very long wings, at least two yards in length. Were they birds? They had feathers, and heads and beaks not unlike swans’, but those wings were situated one in front of the other, surely…

Suddenly they saw him. Heads turned with a snap, and at once all those wings were raised high, exactly like the sails of a yacht, and they all leaned in with the breeze, making for the shore.

Father Gomez was impressed by the beauty of those wing-sails, by how they were flexed and trimmed so perfectly, and by the speed of the birds. Then he saw that they were paddling, too: they had legs under the water, placed not fore and aft like the wings but side by side, and with the wings and the legs together, they had an extraordinary speed and grace in the water.

As the first one reached the shore, it lumbered up through the dry sand, making directly for the priest. It was hissing with malice, stabbing its head forward as it waddled heavily up the shore, and the beak snapped and clacked. There were teeth in the beak, too, like a series of sharp incurved hooks.

Father Gomez was about a hundred yards from the edge of the water, on a low grassy promontory, and he had plenty of time to put down his rucksack, take out the rifle, load, aim, and fire.

The bird’s head exploded in a mist of red and white, and the creature blundered on clumsily for several steps before sinking onto its breast. It didn’t die for a minute or more; the legs kicked, the wings rose and fell, and the great bird beat itself around and around in a bloody circle, kicking up the rough grass, until a long, bubbling expiration from its lungs ended with a coughing spray of red, and it fell still.

The other birds had stopped as soon as the first one fell, and stood watching it, and watching the man, too. There was a quick, ferocious intelligence in their eyes. They looked from him to the dead bird, from that to the rifle, from the rifle to his face.

He raised the rifle to his shoulder again and saw them react, shifting backward clumsily, crowding together. They understood.

They were fine, strong creatures, large and broad-backed, like living boats, in fact. If they knew what death was, thought Father Gomez, and if they could see the connection between death and himself, then there was the basis of a fruitful understanding between them. Once they had truly learned to fear him, they would do exactly as he said. […]

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"I got heathens aplenty right here!"* Merry CriFSMas from our crew to yours!

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

2011 FSMas Card MAIN

May your holiday be bright and shiny,
and your ‘verse, filled with shindigs and thrilling heroics.
– Kaylee and Jayne
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Happy holidays, y’all! As I said the other day, I’ve been dying to do some holiday cosplay with Kaylee and Jayne ever since we adopted them five years ago, and this year I finally got to it! I decorated the entire tree with pirates in their honor (The crew of Serenity? Space pirates! Totally relevant to Pastafarianism, since doctrine holds that the decline in pirates is correlated with global warming – and thus in order to avert the apocalypse, we have to bring back piracy. Check and mate.), which was no small feat seeing as I made most of the ornaments by hand over a two-month period. I also hired someone to custom-make Kaylee Frye and Jayne Cobb outfits way back in August. Oh, the planning that went into this holiday card!

Unfortunately, my seamstress totally flaked (Updated to add: full story here!), leaving me to cobble together costumes from off-the-rack pieces at the last minute. Instead of a green mechanic’s jumpsuit and floral blouse, Kaylee is wearing her shindig dress – that is, a Cotton Candy Dog Dress by East Side Collection. And while Jayne isn’t sporting a trademark brown Jayne Cobb ringer tee, she does look pretty badass in a green army jacket – really an Army Green Utility Jacket by Zack & Zoey.

Of course, the Jayne hat is the star of the ensemble; I actually had three custom-made for me by two different etsians: Sam’s Crochet (that would be the adorably floppy, Rasta-style hat Jayne and Peedee are wearing) and Whitaker Knits (the smaller hats with the orange tie, as seen on Ralphie and O-Ren, below). Rounding out Jayne’s look is a Browncoats logo pin I scored on Amazon. (It’s on her chest and not clearly visible in all the photos.) I also picked up some cute ID badges on eBay, but couldn’t find a place for them in the final outfits. Instead, they became ornaments for the tree.

Here’s a little character collage I put together for my family, who are not Firefly fans (THE HORRA!) and thus didn’t get the reference. Side-by-side comparison time! How do you think I did?

2011 FSMas Card - Kaylee-Jayne Comparison Collage

All’s shiny that ends shiny, I say.

Outtakes and extras after the jump!

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"Ha HA! Mine is an evil laugh!" (i.e., the shiny-yet-sacrilegious CriFSMas finery post)

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

This year I’d really hoped to do a “31 Days of CriFSMas” series. There was to be tutorials for making ornaments by hand, decorating tips, diy greeting card ideas, menu suggestions – even a list of festive viewing options. (Actually, I’ve planned on doing this for several years now, but veganmofo always leaves me exhausted and burnt out.) This year seemed an especially opportune time, seeing as I’ve been planning it since July and created many of the ornaments on the tree from scratch. But since time cannot be rewritten – that is, unless you are a Timelord or happen to know one – I’ll just have to cram it all into one ginormous megapost. Sound good?

The Pirate Tree

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What better place to start than the tree? Whereas in years past I’ve gone heavy on the pasta-themed ornaments, this year I decided to do a full-on pirate theme – with a special focus on Firefly. Space pirates are totally relevant when you’re a Pastafarian, yo! Also when you’re the guardian of two dogs who are named after characters on the show! I’ve been dying to do some holiday cosplay with Kaylee and Jayne ever since we adopted them five years ago, but this year I actually took the initiative and did it! (Hence the early planning.) I’ll post photos of the dogs later this week, but suffice to say that their costumes directly influenced the look of the tree. Since I’ve never done a pirate tree before, almost all of the ornaments and decorations are new this season.

The decorations are mix of re-purposed items (pirate toys from the Dollar Store; some cool and inexpensive pirate and nautical wood party favors from Jo-Anne Fabric; glass bottles that look as though they might hold messages from castaways, also from J-Anne Fabric; “gold” skull & crossbones metal charms found on eBay), Firefly merch (ID badges for Kaylee Frye and Jayne Cobb; a Serenity keychain), and diy ornaments made by gluing pirate stickers and photos onto bottle caps and card stock.

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It’s this last group that I wanted to make a tutorial for but really, it’s all very simple. Throughout the summer I saved up whatever bottle caps and lids I could (the flatter, the better) and when I had a pretty good collection going, I laid them all out on the floor of the barn (on top of a drop cloth, natch) and spray-painted them black. Since you’re likely to have collected lids made of variety of materials – plastic and metal, mostly – make sure you buy a spray paint that’s suitable for each.

Then hit the internets and gather up as many pirate-y pictures as you can: google Firefly/Serenity (the art produced by this fandom is both plentiful and delightful!), Pirates of the Caribbean, pirate Amy Pond, women pirates (girl power!), etc. (Though that last search term turns up some rather depressing results. To cut down on the number of sexy pirates, search for historical woman pirates. You won’t get many results, but the hits you do get will be awesome!) Next, resize ’em so that the portions of the photos that you’d like to use are similar in size to your caps and lids, then copy and paste them onto 4×6, 5×7, and/or 8×10 canvases (depending on the size, you’ll be able to fit between one and five images on each), and either print them up at home or order them online at Sam’s Club or similar.

The hardest part is cutting the images to fit snugly inside the lids. Cutting a circle freehand is pretty much impossible, as I quickly learned. Instead, try to find a circular item – a cup or bottle, for example, or even another, slightly smaller lid – and use it to trace a circle on the image. Though still difficult, the guide will help you to cut a much rounder circle. (Just go slowly!) When done, simply glue the photo into the lid. (A heavy-duty, acid-free glue stick works well for this.)

If you can find circular stickers – I happened to have some 1.5″ round skull & crossbones stickers left over from last year – these are a nice option too. While they don’t offer a whole lot of variety, they do come pre-cut. Score!

For hanging, you can either glue a jump ring (used in jewelry making and available at craft stores) to the back of the lid or, if it’s made of plastic and thick enough, drill a small hole into the “lip” of the lid. Either way, string some curling ribbon or a pipe cleaner through the ring or hole to make a loop that can then be used to hang the ornament from the tree. (Curling ribbon is much easier to work with, imho.) We stuck with black to match the tree’s color scheme (namely, black and gold).

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Marchpane

Saturday, October 1st, 2011

This passage from Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass is one of my most favorite fictional food stories, like, ever. And given that a) I’m on a huge His Dark Materials kick right now (ginormous!); and today is both b) the end of Banned Books Week (a list on which HDM is often included) and c) the first day of veganmofo, it seems a rather opportune time to share, don’t you think? (The stars, they’ve aligned!) In this chapter, scientist Mary Malone plays the figurative serpent to Lyra and Will’s Eve and Adam by telling them stories: specifically, the story of how she lost her religion. Two words: marzipan and China! I’ll never look at that sweet paste the same way again.

Got a favorite marzipan recipe? Share it in the comments! I’ll show you mine later on in the month!

null

“When did you stop being a nun?” said Lyra.

“I remember it exactly,” Mary said, “even to the time of day. Because I was good at physics, they let me keep up my university career, you see, and I finished my doctorate and I was going to teach. It wasn’t one of those orders where they shut you away from the world. In fact, we didn’t even wear the habit; we just had to dress soberly and wear a crucifix. So I was going into university to teach and do research into particle physics.

“And there was a conference on my subject and they asked me to come and read a paper. The conference was in Lisbon, and I’d never been there before; in fact, I’d never been out of England. The whole business, the plane flight, the hotel, the bright sunlight, the foreign languages all around me, the well-known people who were going to speak, and the thought of my own paper and wondering whether anyone would turn up to listen and whether I’d be too nervous to get the words out… Oh, I was keyed up with excitement, I can’t tell you.

“And I was so innocent, you have to remember that. I’d been such a good little girl, I’d gone to Mass regularly, I’d thought I had a vocation for the spiritual life. I wanted to serve God with all my heart. I wanted to take my whole life and offer it up like this,” she said, holding up her hands together, “and place it in front of Jesus to do as he liked with. And I suppose I was pleased with myself. Too much. I was holy and I was clever. Ha! That lasted until, oh, half past nine on the evening of August the tenth, seven years ago.”

Lyra sat up and hugged her knees, listening closely.

“It was the evening after I’d given my paper,” Mary went on, “and it had gone well, and there’d been some well-known people listening, and I’d dealt with the questions without making a mess of it, and altogether I was full of relief and pleasure… And pride, too, no doubt.

“Anyway, some of my colleagues were going to a restaurant a little way down the coast, and they asked if I’d like to go. Normally I’d have made some excuse, but this time I thought, Well, I’m a grown woman, I’ve presented a paper on an important subject and it was well received and I’m among good friends… And it was so warm, and the talk was about all the things I was most interested in, and we were all in high spirits, so I thought I’d loosen up a bit. I was discovering another side of myself, you know, one that liked the taste of wine and grilled sardines and the feeling of warm air on my skin and the beat of music in the background. I relished it.

“So we sat down to eat in the garden. I was at the end of a long table under a lemon tree, and there was a sort of bower next to me with passionflowers, and my neighbor was talking to the person on the other side, and… Well, sitting opposite was a man I’d seen once or twice around the conference. I didn’t know him to speak to; he was Italian, and he’d done some work that people were talking about, and I thought it would be interesting to hear about it.

“Anyway. He was only a little older than me, and he had soft black hair and beautiful olive-colored skin and dark, dark eyes. His hair kept falling across his forehead and he kept pushing it back like that, slowly…”

She showed them. Will thought she looked as if she remembered it very well.

“He wasn’t handsome,” she went on. “He wasn’t a ladies’ man or a charmer. If he had been, I’d have been shy, I wouldn’t have known how to talk to him. But he was nice and clever and funny and it was the easiest thing in the world to sit there in the lantern light under the lemon tree with the scent of the flowers and the grilled food and the wine, and talk and laugh and feel myself hoping that he thought I was pretty. Sister Mary Malone, flirting! What about my vows? What about dedicating my life to Jesus and all that?

“Well, I don’t know if it was the wine or my own silliness or the warm air or the lemon tree, or whatever…But it gradually seemed to me that I’d made myself believe something that wasn’t true. I’d made myself believe that I was fine and happy and fulfilled on my own without the love of anyone else. Being in love was like China: you knew it was there, and no doubt it was very interesting, and some people went there, but I never would. I’d spend all my life without ever going to China, but it wouldn’t matter, because there was all the rest of the world to visit.

null

“And then someone passed me a bit of some sweet stuff and I suddenly realized I had been to China. So to speak. And I’d forgotten it. It was the taste of the sweet stuff that brought it back, I think it was marzipan. Sweet almond paste,” she explained to Lyra, who was looking confused.

Lyra said, “Ah! Marchpane!” and settled back comfortably to hear what happened next.

“Anyway,” Mary went on. “I remembered the taste, and all at once I was back tasting it for the first time as a young girl.

“I was twelve years old. I was at a party at the house of one of my friends, a birthday party, and there was a disco, that’s where they play music on a kind of recording machine and people dance,” she explained, seeing Lyra’s puzzlement. “Usually girls dance together because the boys are too shy to ask them. But this boy, I didn’t know him, he asked me to dance, and so we had the first dance and then the next, and by that time we were talking… And you know what it is when you like someone, you know it at once; well, I liked him such a lot. And we kept on talking and then there was a birthday cake. And he took a bit of marzipan and he just gently put it in my mouth, I remember trying to smile, and blushing, and feeling so foolish, and I fell in love with him just for that, for the gentle way he touched my lips with the marzipan.”

As Mary said that, Lyra felt something strange happen to her body. She found a stirring at the roots of her hair: she found herself breathing faster. She had never been on a roller-coaster, or anything like one, but if she had, she would have recognized the sensations in her breast: they were exciting and frightening at the same time, and she had not the slightest idea why. The sensation continued, and deepened, and changed, as more parts of her body found themselves affected too. She felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, deep in the darkness of the building she felt other doors opening too, and lights coming on.* She sat trembling, hugging her knees, hardly daring to breathe, as Mary went on:

“And I think it was at that party, or it might have been at another one, that we kissed each other for the first time. It was in a garden, and there was the sound of music from inside, and the quiet and the cool among the trees, and I was aching, all my body was aching for him, and I could tell he felt the same, and we were both almost too shy to move. Almost. But one of us did and then without any interval between, it was like a quantum leap, suddenly, we were kissing each other, and oh, it was more than China, it was paradise.

“We saw each other about half a dozen times, no more. And then his parents moved away and I never saw him again. It was such a sweet time, so short… But there it was. I’d known it. I had been to China.”

It was the strangest thing: Lyra knew exactly what she meant, and half an hour earlier she would have had no idea at all. And inside her, that rich house with all its doors open and all its rooms lit stood waiting, quiet, expectant.

“And at half past nine in the evening at that restaurant table in Portugal,” Mary continued, “someone gave me a piece of marzipan and it all came back. And I thought: am I really going to spend the rest of my life without ever feeling that again? I thought: I want to go to China. It’s full of treasures and strangeness and mystery and joy. I thought, Will anyone be better off if I go straight back to the hotel and say my prayers and confess to the priest and promise never to fall into temptation again? Will anyone be the better for making me miserable?

“And the answer came back, no. No one will. There’s no one to fret, no one to condemn, no one to bless me for being a good girl, no one to punish me for being wicked. Heaven was empty. I didn’t know whether God had died, or whether there never had been a God at all. Either way I felt free and lonely and I didn’t know whether I was happy or unhappy, but something very strange had happened. And all that huge change came about as I had the marzipan in my mouth, before I’d even swallowed it. A taste, a memory, a landslide…

“When I did swallow it and looked at the man across the table, I could tell he knew something had happened. I couldn’t tell him there and then; it was still too strange and private almost for me. But later on we went for a walk along the beach in the dark, and the warm night breeze kept stirring my hair about, and the Atlantic was being very well-behaved, little quiet waves around our feet…

“And I took the crucifix from around my neck and I threw it in the sea. That was it. All over. Gone.

“So that was how I stopped being a nun,” she said.

– Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials (The Amber Spyglass)

* Not-so-fun fact: the sexier bits of this paragraph were cut out of the US edition. Quick, to the fainting couch!

Green Tea Cupcakes with Marzipan Flowers by hoveringdog on Flickr

Vegan MoFo 2011 logo banner

Goodbye, but not forever.

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

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But before they could begin, a voice cried out, as loudly as a whisper could cry. It was the ghost of a thin man with an angry, passionate face, and he cried:

“What will happen? When we leave the world of the dead, will we live again? Or will we vanish as our daemons did? Brothers, sisters, we shouldn’t follow this child anywhere till we know what’s going to happen to us!”

Others took up the question: “Yes, tell us where we’re going! Tell us what to expect! We won’t go unless we know what’ll happen to us!”

Lyra turned to Will in despair, but he said, “Tell them the truth. Ask the alethiometer, and tell them what it says.”

“All right,” she said.

She took out the golden instrument. The answer came at once. She put it away and stood up.

“This is what’ll happen,” she said, “and it’s true, perfectly true. When you go out of here, all the particles that make you up will loosen and float apart, just like your daemons did. If you’ve seen people dying, you know what that looks like. But your daemons en’t just nothing now; they’re part of everything. All the atoms that were them, they’ve gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They’ll never vanish. They’re just part of everything. And that’s exactly what’ll happen to you, I swear to you, I promise on my honor. You’ll drift apart, it’s true, but you’ll be out in the open, part of everything alive again.”

No one spoke. Those who had seen how daemons dissolved were remembering it, and those who hadn’t were imagining it, and no one spoke until a young woman came forward. She had died as a martyr centuries before. She looked around and said to the other ghosts:

“When we were alive, they told us that when we died we’d go to Heaven. And they said that Heaven was a place of joy and glory and we would spend eternity in the company of saints and angels praising the Almighty, in a state of bliss. That’s what they said. And that’s what led some of us to give our lives, and others to spend years in solitary prayer, while all the joy of life was going to waste around us and we never knew.

“Because the land of the dead isn’t a place of reward or a place of punishment. It’s a place of nothing. The good come here as well as the wicked, and all of us languish in this gloom forever, with no hope of freedom, or joy, or sleep, or rest, or peace.

“But now this child has come offering us a way out and I’m going to follow her. Even if it means oblivion, friends, I’ll welcome it, because it won’t be nothing. We’ll be alive again in a thousand blades of grass, and a million leaves; we’ll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze; we’ll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical world, which is our true home and always was.

“So I urge you: come with the child out to the sky!”

But her ghost was thrust aside by the ghost of a man who looked like a monk: thin and pale, with dark, zealous eyes even in his death. He crossed himself and murmured a prayer, and then he said:

“This is a bitter message, a sad and cruel joke. Can’t you see the truth? This is not a child. This is an agent of the Evil One himself! The world we lived in was a vale of corruption and tears. Nothing there could satisfy us. But the Almighty has granted us this blessed place for all eternity, this paradise, which to the fallen soul seems bleak and barren, but which the eyes of faith see as it is, overflowing with milk and honey and resounding with the sweet hymns of the angels. This is Heaven, truly! What this evil girl promises is nothing but lies. She wants to lead you to Hell! Go with her at your peril. My companions and I of the true faith will remain here in our blessed paradise, and spend eternity singing the praises of the Almighty, who has given us the judgment to tell the false from the true.”

Once again he crossed himself, and then he and his companions turned away in horror and loathing.

Lyra felt bewildered. Was she wrong? Was she making some great mistake? She looked around: gloom and desolation on every side. But she’d been wrong before about the appearance of things, trusting Mrs. Coulter because of her beautiful smile and her sweet-scented glamour. It was so easy to get things wrong; and without her daemon to guide her, maybe she was wrong about this, too.

But Will was shaking her arm. Then he put his hands to her face and held it roughly.

“You know that’s not true,” he said, “just as well as you can feel this. Take no notice! They can all see he’s lying, too. And they’re depending on us. Come on, let’s make a start.”

She nodded. She had to trust her body and the truth of what her senses told her; she knew Pan would have.

So they set off, and the numberless millions of ghosts began to follow them. Behind them, too far back for the children to see, other inhabitants of the world of the dead had heard what was happening and were coming to join the great march. Tialys and Salmakia flew back to look and were overjoyed to see their own people there, and every other kind of conscious being who had ever been punished by the Authority with exile and death. Among them were beings who didn’t look human at all, beings like the mulefa, whom Mary Malone would have recognized, and stranger ghosts as well. But Will and Lyra had no strength to look back; all they could do was move on after the harpies, and hope.

…..

Will and Lyra exchanged a look. Then he cut a window, and it was the sweetest thing they had ever seen.

The night air filled their lungs, fresh and clean and cool; their eyes took in a canopy of dazzling stars, and the shine of water somewhere below, and here and there groves of great trees, as high as castles, dotting the wide savanna.

Will enlarged the window as wide as he could, moving across the grass to left and right, making it big enough for six, seven, eight to walk through abreast, out of the land of the dead.

The first ghosts trembled with hope, and their excitement passed back like a ripple over the long line behind them, young children and aged parents alike looking up and ahead with delight and wonder as the first stars they had seen for centuries shone through into their poor starved eyes.

The first ghost to leave the world of the dead was Roger. He took a step forward, and turned to look back at Lyra, and laughed in surprise as he found himself turning into the night, the starlight, the air…and then he was gone, leaving behind such a vivid little burst of happiness that Will was reminded of the bubbles in a glass of champagne.

(More below the fold…)

the war on christmas: 2010 edition

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

The Daily Show: Monday December 6, 2010
The Gretch Who Saved the War on Christmas
The holiday season wouldn’t feel the same without people going out of their way to be offended by nothing.
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(More below the fold…)

Book Review: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens (2007)

Monday, February 18th, 2008

Don’t drink the Kool-Aid!

four out of five stars

Along with Richard Dawkins’s THE GOD DELUSION and Sam Harris’s LETTER TO A CHRISTIAN NATION, Christopher Hitchens’s GOD IS NOT GREAT is one of many high-profile “atheist manifestos” to be released in recent years. Taken as a whole, these volumes strike a lethal blow to the shackles of organized religion.

Unlike Dawkins’s THE GOD DELUSION, GOD IS NOT GREAT does not represent a comprehensive attempt to debunk any of the three major religions. Rather than assail the truth (perhaps “truthiness” would be a more appropriate term) of religion, Hitchens instead illustrates how, in point of fact, RELIGION POISONS EVERYTHING. He cites a number of historical and contemporary examples, ranging from the German Catholic Church’s unholy alliance with fascism and Nazism, to American fundamentalists’ opposition to the HPV vaccine. Sexual repression, war, political tyranny, child abuse, genocide, slavery and racism – each and every organized religion has engaged in gross human rights violations in order to exert its power and hold society captive to its own flavor of superstition. On a more basic level, religious fundamentalism discourages critical thinking, frowns upon skepticism, and crushes curiosity. (Since all religious doctrine has its share of logical fallacies and contradictions, even more liberal strains of religion dull the mind, albeit to a lesser extent than those that promote a literal reading of their holy texts.) To quote Hitchens, religion is “philosophy with the questions left out.”

Hitchens probably won’t convert any hardcore fundamentalists with this book. Even so, GOD IS NOT GREAT may nudge those sitting on the religious fence closer to the side of atheism – or at least science and inquiry. If nothing else, it serves as a wonderful counterpoint to the idea, so prevalent in America, that the “Judeo”-Christian religion(s) should wield any influence in government and politics. Aside from that whole pesky First Amendment, church/state separation thing, religion doesn’t always – or even usually – represent the morally superior side of the debate. Quite the contrary – religion has been used to justify every horror under the sun: Rwandan genocide, female genital mutilation, the spread of AIDS and polio, heck, even the wasting of natural resources (the Taliban opposes recycled paper because some of the pulp may – may! – contain pages from discarded Korans).

While the content is impeccable, I wasn’t completely satisfied with the presentation. Possibly because of the sheer scope of the subject, the text is a bit scattered. GOD IS NOT GREAT feels more like an anthology of essays instead of a cohesive text. Even so, it’s a welcome addition to the atheist discourse.

Finally, a note on the audio book, which is read by the author: All in all, I highly enjoyed the recording, but found myself having to skip back and replay some tracks. Hitchens tends to mumble a bit, though I must say that he’s much more understandable than some other reviewers have let on. (Perhaps I didn’t find Hitchens’s accent so distracting, since I listened to GOD IS NOT GREAT almost immediately after Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s INFIDEL. Born in Somali, raised in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, and currently residing in The Netherlands and the US, Hirsi Ali’s accent is thicker than Hitchens’s. It’s also more enchanting, once you acclimate to it.) Additionally, Hitchens peppers his commentary with a copious amount of quotes, and it can be hard at times to tell where Hitchens’s words end and the quotes begin (and vice versa). This could have been avoided by employing a second narrator to give voice to the quotes (as did Dawkins in the audio version of THE GOD DELUSION). The piano music is, for me, the absolute worst part of the audio recording; used to mark the end of chapters, the tracks don’t fit with the book’s tone. It’s all just too polite for Hitchens’s delightfully pugilistic polemic!

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)